What's happening in our universe? In the 400 years since we first started using telescopes, we've been trying to answer this question. The past two decades alone have been dizzying: Planets found outside the solar system, a universe accelerating in its expansion, and hints of the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that make up most of the universe, to name a handful of historic discoveries.
But to see further, we often need to spend big.
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There's been much coverage of the more than $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, to probe planetary atmospheres and to look back at the universe's beginnings. What will come next? Looking a bit ahead, the astronomy organization AURA suggests a "High Definition Space Telescope" to launch in 2035, an observatory double Webb's size. But how this would be paid for comes under scrutiny in a new report.
Harvard astrophysicist Martin Elvis' new paper in Space Policy to try to solve what he calls the astronomy "funding wall." Our hunger for greater telescopes in X-ray emissions alone, he argues, has made the cost of this mission type increase 20 times in the past generation. (Yes, that's after adjusting for inflation.) Moreover, space missions often go over their budget before launch.
"At some point the costs are more than a government can abide," he wrote. "Particle physics hit its funding wall in the U.S. when the Superconducting Super-Collider, already far along in construction in Texas, went over budget one too many times and was cancelled. Is astronomy next?"