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For nearly 20 years, NASA has been planning and constructing a telescope unlike any ever built before: the James Webb Space Telescope. It will change the way scientists see the most distant galaxies and intensify the hunt for extraterrestrial life; it will answer outstanding questions about the birth and death of stars and planets. It is the future of astronomy—but it’s causing trouble. JWST’s high price and decade of delays could stymie the development of future telescopes, impacting the course of astronomy for the next 30 years.

The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is holding a series of hearings leading up to another NASA authorisation bill, which helps set goals and authorises funding for the agency.

On Wednesday, scientists from US universities, the Smithsonian Institution, and NASA answered senators’ questions about why Congress should fund the hunt for extraterrestrial life.