Eye on the cosmos

Tuesday's announcement that Hopkins astronomer Adam G. Riess will share this year's Nobel Prize in physics acknowledges his huge contribution to scientific knowledge. From the study of giant exploding stars millions of light-years from Earth, Mr. Riess and his colleagues, Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University in Australia, deduced the astonishing hypothesis that our universe is being violently blown apart by an immensely powerful, previously unsuspected force. This force, so-called dark energy, apparently makes up 70 percent of everything in the cosmos, yet its origins remain shrouded in mystery.

Mr. Riess' revelation is a world-changing result comparable to Galileo's discovery, in 1610, of the moons of Jupiter, which disproved the theory that Earth lay at the center of the heavens, or Edwin Hubble's 1929 discovery that the universe is expanding. In both cases, powerful new instruments — for Galileo, a primitive hand-made telescope; for Hubble, the giant, 200-inch Mount Palomar reflecting telescope — made possible the development of theories that radically changed our previous conceptions of physical reality while opening entirely new fields for scientific experimentation and research.

Mr. Riess, an M.I.T.-educated astrophysicist who works at the Space Telescope Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, likewise used the most advanced telescope of his time to make the observations his theory is based on — the Hubble Space Telescope, named after Edwin Hubble, which from its orbit hundreds of miles above the distorting effect of Earth's atmosphere can peer deeper into space than any ground-based instrument. Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has allowed scientists to learn more about the cosmos in a generation than was learned over the previous century.

The prize Mr. Riess was awarded is the strongest argument for why Congress should not cut off funding for the Hubble telescope's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for launch in 2018. The Webb Space Telescope would be 10 times more powerful than the Hubble and capable of looking back in time to the very edge of the universe, where the oldest stars and galaxies are clustered, in far greater detail than any instrument now available. Its loss would jeopardize all the advances made since Hubble was launched as well as America's position of leadership in astronomy and space exploration.

This year, a House subcommittee threatened to zero out funding for the Webb telescope because of cost overruns and delayed launch schedules. The project's budget, originally estimated at $1.6 billion when it was first proposed in the 1990s, has ballooned to $8.7 billion today, and about $3.5 billion of that has already been spent. To cut the program now would be to lose that investment entirely while doing virtually nothing to help resolve the nation's fiscal problems.

The Republican chairman of the subcommittee considering the matter, Virginia Rep. Frank R. Wolf, insists he doesn't want to kill the program but only wants to force NASA to be more transparent about its cost. That's understandable, but it should also be recalled that even the phenomenally successful Hubble instrument exceeded its initial cost estimates and later was found to have optical defects that required an expensive shuttle mission to repair — and it still produced outstanding results.

Yet with a looming fight in Congress over deficits, there's a real danger that the Webb Space Telescope could fall victim to the kind of budget and tax-cutting frenzy that a generation ago resulted in the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider, which would have been the largest atom-smasher in the world. The failure to build that machine effectively ceded American leadership in the field of particle physics to European laboratories.

We should not repeat that mistake, which in retrospect now appears short-sighted and counterproductive. Granted, Maryland has a greater stake than Virginia does in the Webb telescope, which will support hundreds of jobs at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and at Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel. But the Webb telescope's immense importance for advancing scientific knowledge and research far outweighs its economic impact on the region. It is the kind of project that will more than repay the money invested in it in the form of new discoveries and an increase in scientific knowledge whose benefits we may not be able to foresee but which, experience suggests, are well worth the investment.