After holding their breath for five years, scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore exhaled yesterday as NASA signed a $162.2 million contract putting the institute in charge of the orbiting observatory that will replace the Hubble Space Telescope sometime after 2010.
"I think this ensures the success of the institute for the next 10 years at least, and we hope it means a continued scientific presence in Baltimore well into the middle of the next decade," said institute Director Steven V.W. Beckwith.
The contract means that Baltimore will continue as a center of some of the world's most important work in astronomy and cosmology.
And it will protect hundreds of well-paid jobs in science and engineering even after the Hubble Space Telescope is gradually retired and shut down by 2010.
"This is really a great thing for Baltimore," Beckwith said. "It preserves the fundamental character of the institute and ensures that this wonderful group of scientists and engineers we brought together will now be going on to support the next big thing."
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called it "a great win" for the institute.
NASA's selection of the institute to manage the James Webb Space Telescope Science and Operations Center was announced in June 1998.
But design changes and negotiations delayed the deal until yesterday, when it was finally inked at NASA headquarters in Washington.
Over the course of the eight-year contract, institute scientists and engineers will advise the contractors during all phases of the telescope's construction and begin planning its scientific observations. Beckwith said the institute will then compete for the contract to operate the new observatory.
Beckwith said the institute employs about 500 people. But that number is expected to fall as Hubble's work winds down in the coming years, then rise again as the new telescope nears completion and launch.
Many employees working with Hubble will have opportunities to move to jobs with the new telescope, advising its developers and planning its scientific operations.
The design and development of the new telescope are being managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, through its primary contractor, Northrop-Grumman Space Technologies in Linthicum.
Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has routinely made space science history and sent back thousands of astonishing photographs. In a series of repairs and upgrades, astronauts have kept it operating and installed new instruments that vastly increased its power.
One more servicing mission is planned next year.
The $1.6 billion James Webb Space Telescope is planned for launch in August 2011. Unlike Hubble, which is orbiting just a few hundred miles above Earth, the Webb telescope will be flown to a spot four times as distant as the moon -- beyond the reach of space-walking mechanics.
It will carry a 6-meter mirror, 2 1/2 times the diameter of Hubble's, so big it will have to be wafer thin and unfolded in orbit. Webb's infrared detectors will be so sensitive the spacecraft must be shaded from the sun by a giant sunscreen.
Where Hubble studied the heavens in ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared wavelengths, the Webb telescope will be an infrared instrument with a different mission.
"It will be looking for the first stars and galaxies at the beginning of time," said Beckwith. The light from these distant objects has traveled toward Earth for so long that it has been stretched into the longer infrared wavelengths by the expansion of the universe.
Webb will also examine the way planetary systems form around distant stars, peer into the center of galaxies inhabited by giant black holes, and be ready for the unexpected.
"Any telescope that increases our power to observe the universe by a factor between 100 and 1,000 inevitably gives rise to new discoveries," Beckwith said.