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James Webb Space Telescope managers weigh whether to release its data right away


The brand-new James Webb Space Telescope is still working magnificently, giving us new views of the universe as it orbits the sun. Meanwhile back on Earth, the managers of this $10 billion instrument are thinking about how to get the most bang for the taxpayer's buck. They're contemplating a big change in how the telescope's observations get shared, and that has some astronomers worried. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: For hundreds of years, astronomers who peered through telescopes on the ground made records of what they saw and kept them.

ERIC SMITH: Originally, it was just hand drawings, and then it became glass plates, and then it was film, in some cases, and eventually it was magnetic tapes. And the model was - whoever went to the observatory took those data home with them. And they - you know, they just put them in their office, or they put them in some university vault.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Eric Smith is at NASA's Science Mission Directorate. He says, these days, space telescopes beam back data electronically, making it easy to store and share with lots of people. Any scientist whose idea it is to point the James Webb Space Telescope at a particular celestial object does get exclusive access to those observations but only for a year.

SMITH: And then after that, it becomes public information because the public paid for it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Increasingly, though, the federal government is pushing for more public access to taxpayer-funded research. Smith says NASA has just put out a new policy.

SMITH: It says that all new missions should plan for zero exclusive use time from the start.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it says existing missions should work towards that, if possible. Alessandra Aloisi is head of the Science Mission Office at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the James Webb Space Telescope. She says it's currently surveying the astronomy community about whether to make its observations public immediately. This is controversial.

ALESSANDRA ALOISI: There are very strong feelings in both ways.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says if the data is public right away, some worry it could lead to a mad rush to analyze it first, producing sloppy science. On the other hand...

ALOISI: Everybody who has a scientific idea could use those data. So what's going to happen - it's going to accelerate discoveries.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says that's important for a telescope with a limited lifespan. The James Webb Space Telescope isn't expected to last as long as Hubble. It's so far away it can't be repaired. Still, the people who dole out precious telescope time have worked hard to make that process as fair as possible. And when it comes to fairness, people disagree on what this change might mean. Eilat Glikman is an astronomer at Middlebury College. She says making a proposal for one of these space telescopes is a lot of work. She remembers the first one she did for Hubble.

EILAT GLIKMAN: I must have spent about two weeks on it full-time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her teaching load means she has limited time to analyze the data she gets. And already, other teams can be ready to pounce the moment it becomes public. She worries if it's all available to everyone immediately...

GLIKMAN: People who have time, people who have resources will be able to jump in and kind of - I don't know - deflate the hard worker who earned that observation.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But some say it could level the playing field because astronomers who weren't able to get a proposal through the highly competitive selection process could use other people's data to work on their own different ideas. Jackie Faherty is an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History.

JACKIE FAHERTY: I am very conflicted about this topic 'cause I don't think it's black-and-white.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She loves the way open access can increase people's ability to participate in science, but when she's worked on telescope data that were going to be made available very quickly, she didn't like the rapid pace.

FAHERTY: It puts a strange amount of pressure and a mental gymnastics that you have to go through in doing your scientific work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because of the fear that a competitor might beat you to it. She says if things move towards sharing telescope data immediately, maybe people should be able to request a period of exclusive access, like if they're new to the field and will need more time or if they have other life circumstances that would make it hard to act fast. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.