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Any way you slice it, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one of the boldest, highest-stakes gambles in the space agency’s storied history. Just building and testing the observatory has proved to be a dauntingly complex technological enterprise, pushing the observatory’s astronomical price tag to nearly $9 billion and requiring participation from the European and Canadian space agencies. JWST is both a barrier-breaking and budget-busting undertaking.

Conceived in the late 1980s as a way to peer back over 13.5 billion years of cosmic history to see the faint infrared light from the universe’s very first stars and galaxies, JWST today is being tasked with an ever-growing menu of other scientific duties. Scientists now see its stargazing power, which by some metrics is 100 times greater than that of the famed Hubble Space Telescope, as a promissory note: The future of practically every branch of astronomy will be unquestionably brightened by JWST’s successful launch and operation. But due to its steadily escalating cost and continually delayed send-off (which recently slipped from 2018 to 2019), this telescopic time machine is now under increasingly intense congressional scrutiny.

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Category: Science