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What's the fairest way to share cosmic views from Hubble and James Webb telescopes?

This image of the Southern Ring Nebula was one of the first James Webb Space Telescope images released to the public last year.
This image of the Southern Ring Nebula was one of the first James Webb Space Telescope images released to the public last year.

The managers of the James Webb Space Telescope are considering a big change in how its observations get shared, one that could have a major impact on the science that gets done — and on who gets to do it.

As it stands now, if an astronomer makes a proposal for where to point this $10 billion space telescope, and the proposal gets accepted, that scientist usually has a year of exclusive access to the resulting observations.

Now, though, with the federal government pushing for more taxpayer-funded research to be made public instantly, telescope managers are pondering whether all of the data collected by JWST should be available to everyone right away.

They're considering a similar change for the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Currently, scientists who get a chance to use that instrument generally enjoy six months of exclusive access to their observations.

Proponents of open access say that sharing all of these space telescopes' findings immediately could accelerate new discoveries and maximize the return from these powerful scientific assets.

Critics, however, worry that this could exacerbate existing inequities in who gets to do astronomical research, and perhaps even result in shoddier science as scientists race to be first to find hidden gems in the data.

"It's very controversial," says Alessandra Aloisi, head of the science mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, home of science and mission operations for Hubble and JWST. It's currently taking the temperature of astronomers on this issue, with a survey that closes on February 15.

There's strong feelings on both sides, says Aloisi, and that's driven by the fact that astronomy is a competitive field.

"It's very hard to be successful," she says. "And everything that goes against that is seen badly by the community."

Centuries of tradition

Astronomers have turned their telescopes to the skies for hundreds of years. Traditionally, they decided how and when to share their records of what they'd seen.

"The data really were more or less owned by the person who came up with the idea to take the observations in the first place," says Eric Smith, associate director for research at the astrophysics division of NASA's science mission directorate in Washington, DC.

An astronomer who used a ground telescope physically possessed their records.

"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," explains Smith. "Whoever went to the observatory took those data home with them — and they just put them in their office or they put them in some university vault."

The advent of the space age meant that telescopes would beam data back to Earth electronically. That meant it could potentially be made widely available, all at once.

And because these were expensive, taxpayer-funded telescopes, says Smith, "we weren't going to go with the old model where you got to keep your data in your office forever."

But tradition wasn't completely abandoned. The practice that started with Hubble was that astronomers who won time on the telescope were given funding plus a certain period of exclusive access to their observations.

"And then after that, it becomes public information because the public paid for it," says Smith.

This approach reflected a belief that a scientist deserved to have some time and financial support to develop the original idea which led to the observations in the first place.

After all, having that idea and convincing an expert committee to devote precious telescope time to it is no mean feat.

"It's a huge undertaking. It's a lot of work," Eilat Glikman, an astronomer at Middlebury College in Vermont, who estimates that she must have spent two weeks, full-time, writing her first successful proposal to use Hubble.

The majority of proposals have to be rejected, because demand for these instruments exceeds the available time.

But if everything a telescope saw was immediately put into a public repository, says Aloisi, "everybody who has a scientific idea could use those data."

And those scientific investigations may have nothing to do with the scientist's original proposal, she notes. "So you multiply the number of discoveries, and you increase the discovery returns of these big missions."

Back in 2017, she says, Hubble's period of exclusive access got cut from a year to just six months.

"The community fought very hard not to do that, I remember. It was very controversial back then," says Aloisi. "And now, it's the norm. People are not even questioning it anymore."

And there's an even stronger case to reduce the exclusive access periods for JWST, which is so far away from Earth that it couldn't possibly be repaired, like Hubble was. That means it's not expected to last as long, and quickly giving astronomers access to everything that the telescope has seen could help maximize its potential.

Whether or not to move to immediate open access for these telescopes will be discussed among the astronomy community, and with NASA's international partners, says Aloisi.

"You want my honest opinion? We will go in that direction," she says. "We just need to bring everybody with us. I think it's the right thing to do for science."

Fear of getting scooped

But Glikman says astronomers don't all have the same amount of time or resources to devote to analyzing telescope data; for example, her teaching load at her college limits how much time she can devote to research.

Even now, a scientist who has gotten data back from a space telescope knows that other astronomers are waiting to pounce on it, the moment it becomes public.

Glikman recalls working on one discovery in her data with a colleague. They had not yet published a scientific paper on their findings. But after the data became public, another group went through it and found the same thing. They contacted her colleague, asking to collaborate, which was awkward.

"It was a moment of tension there," says Glikman. "Not to be like, 'This is mine,' but I've put so much effort into this, and I'm working on it...let me finish."

If the exclusive access periods go away, she worries that researchers with fewer advantages will regularly be scooped by competitors.

"People who have time, people who have resources will be able to jump in and, I don't know, deflate the hard worker who earned that observation," says Glikman.

Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, says that concerns like these are what leave her feeling conflicted.

"I am 100% for equitable science and for making a telescope that is a public-facing telescope accessible to anyone and everyone as soon as the data is taken," she says, noting that some space telescopes designed to survey large swaths of the sky already do that.

But she felt the tensions that come with an open-access policy while working with some of the very early-release data gathered by JWST, which was designed to be made public very quickly, to show off what this brand-new instrument could do.

"I do not love the pressure that comes with a zero proprietary period," says Faherty, describing it as a kind of "mental gymnastics" that comes from "constantly kind of processing whether or not somebody else is working on that data set."

She observed that this was particularly difficult for early-career scientists, who weren't as experienced in doing the analyses and who, professionally, had a lot more riding on the work.

Judging exceptions

Any move to open access for these space telescopes' data should come with the ability to request an exception, one that would give the scientist making a proposal a short period of exclusive access, says Faherty.

But the question is, what would warrant such an exception?

Aloisi said one possibility would be if the proposed research would be part of the work of a graduate student who, because of inexperience, needed more time to get up to speed. Another possibility might be a researcher whose teaching load made it impossible to do independent research except in the summer.

"Those are all very valid reasons," says Aloisi.

The astronomy community has time to figure this out. Last month, scientists submitted proposals for JWST's next cycle of observations, and the announcement of the winners will come in May. Whatever observing proposals get accepted will come with the existing one-year exclusive-access period.

That means even though decisions about open-access and these space telescopes might be made over the next six months, says Aloisi, "it will take a year or so, or maybe longer, to percolate that through the system."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.