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Surprising Science

Is the James Webb Telescope Bankrupting NASA?

The space telescope has worsened NASA's relationships with Congress, who felt duped by the exploding cost of the project. Still, the telescope may prove an amazing technical achievement.

What’s the Latest Development?

The space telescope which could peek into the origins of the universe continues to be built, despite having caused a major rift with Congress last year when some of its members tried to cut the telescope’s funding. Estimated to cost $500 million, the price now stands at $8.8 billion. But there have been groundbreaking technical achievements along the way: the telescope’s mirrors are six times larger than Hubble’s, so they must be folded up for the launch; a tennis-court sized shade will extend in space to keep the sensors cool enough to detect faint light.

What’s the Big Idea?

If successful, the James Webb Telescope would demonstrate America’s technical superiority in space. The telescope’s main purposes will be to examine the chemical makeup of exoplanets’ atmospheres (water would be an interesting find) and to detect the universe’s first rays of light, which by now have shifted to the infrared spectrum and exist at the limits of the known universe. The danger of the project is that its costs may encourage Congress to give NASA funding for a flagship project once a decade, rather than once every few years.

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