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November 22, 2011

Congress Spares Hubble Space Telescope Successor

The planned successor to the U.S. space agency’s (NASA’s) popular Hubble Space Telescope has narrowly escaped cancellation. Congress last week spared the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project with a $530 million share of the 2012 federal budget, after some lawmakers proposed cutting its funding earlier this year.

The JWST is slated to take over Hubble’s landmark mission of tracking the 13.7 billion year history of the universe - from the earliest galaxies to the formation of our own Milky Way Galaxy and the evolution of our solar system. Hubble has been scanning the cosmos since its launch in 1990.  

Dubbed as “Hubble 2” in some U.S. media, the Webb infrared-optimized telescope is one of NASA’s top priorities for the future. But skyrocketing costs and other problems have threatened the project and delayed its launch date, which now is planned for 2018.

Although Congress worked out a deal that lets NASA keep the Webb telescope, the funding comes with some tight conditions, including regular reviews to make sure the project does not exceed its total $8 billion price tag.  Even the telescope’s most staunch supporter, Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, has warned that lawmakers will not accept any further extra costs.

Overall, Congress slashed NASA’s budget by about $650 million for 2012, but gave the JWST project $375 million more than the space agency had expected.  While the extra funding is good news for the Webb space telescope, it means NASA will have to make cuts to other programs to pay for it.   

NASA’s 2012 total budget of $17.8 billion is $924 million short of the Obama administration’s proposed funding.

NASA says the Webb Space Telescope is designed to search the cosmos primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range.

The JWST is an international collaboration among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.   

The telescope is named for pioneering NASA administrator, the late James Webb, who directed the Apollo space program.  The Apollo missions are the only space voyages in human history to successfully land men on the Moon’s surface and return them safely to Earth.  Webb died in 1992.