Astronomers are up in arms over proposed congressional budget cuts that would cancel an ambitious but over-budget space observatory that has been pegged as the successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA proposed a 2012 spending bill last week that would terminate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as part of wider-reaching cutbacks that would reset the agency's budget at pre-2008 levels.

"JWST will lay the foundation on which a better understanding of the early universe will be built," Debra Elmegreen, president of the American Astronomical Society, said in a statement. "It has the potential to transform astronomy even more than the Hubble Space Telescope did, and it will serve thousands of astronomers in the decades ahead. We cannot abandon it now." [Spectacular Hubble Telescope Photos]

The $6.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope, named after a former administrator of NASA, is an infrared observatory designed to peer farther back into the universe's history than ever before. The next-generation telescope is a follow-up to the 20-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, with JWST exploring deep-space phenomena from distant galaxies to nearby planets and stars.

Proposed budget cuts

Under the proposal announced on July 6, NASA would receive $16.8 billion in funding, which is $1.6 billion less than last year and $1.9 billion below President Barack Obama's 2012 request for the agency.

The draft legislation pulls the plug on funding for the JWST, a project the subcommittee described as being plagued by cost overruns and poor management.

Construction of the telescope has faced hurdles, including budgetary woes and delays to its targeted launch date. A panel investigation in November 2010 found that the project had overrun its cost by $1.5 billion, and blamed the troubles largely on mismanagement. Most recently, a revamped budget and technology plan estimated that JWST could launch by 2018.

"We still have a long way to go with budget deliberations for Fiscal Year 2012," NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said in a statement from the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "NASA's budget submission already reflects tough decisions required in these difficult fiscal times and it still supports every element of the president's vision and the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010. We look forward to working with both houses of Congress to ensure we have a robust space exploration program and narrow America’s human space flight gap."

In the wake of the proposed cancellation, NASA's deputy administrator spoke about the value that the Webb telescope would have to NASA and the scientific community, and the agency's commitment to see the project launched within this decade.

"This is a perfect example of NASA revealing the unknown and reaching for new heights," Lori Garver told reporters at a July 7 news briefing from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "It was a scratch program; we developed technologies. We will be prepared to lay out a budget that will allow us to launch the Webb telescope yet in this decade, within the next budget cycle."

Fighting for the James Webb Space Telescope

The idea of canceling the JWST project has been met with strong criticism from lawmakers and scientists, who consider the decision shortsighted. [Infographic: Space Telescopes of the Future]

"The Webb telescope will lead to the kind of innovation and discovery that have made America great," Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said in a statement. "It will inspire America's next generation of scientists and innovators that will have the new ideas that lead to the new jobs in our new economy. The administration must step in and fight for the James Webb Telescope."

In the statement released by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), members of the organization said that the JWST is critical to helping astronomers better understand the earliest formation of stars and planets, and the telescope's operation will shed light on complex mysteries of the universe.

"As was true with the Hubble Space Telescope, recognized as a tremendous success by the public, scientists and policymakers, building the most advanced telescopes comes with the risk of unexpected costs and delays," AAS committee members said in a statement.

Canceling the JWST would not only affect program members at various NASA centers, it would likely also deal a blow to Northrop Grumman, the company contracted by NASA to build the telescope. Yet even with the future of the observatory hanging by a thread, the company said the outcome remains to be seen.

"The budget process in Congress is a complex and dynamic one," said Northrop Grumman spokesman Lon Rains. "We do not speculate on or try to predict the outcome of the process or what impact it may have on Northrop Grumman; however, we continue to closely monitor the budget process as it progresses. More than 75 percent of the hardware for the James Webb Telescope is built, undergoing testing or completed. We are working closely with NASA to deliver the Webb telescope as the agency directs."

This article was reprinted with permission from SPACE.com.

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