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Answering the question "how did we get here?" is one of the key goals in NASA's Astrophysics Division, and is the prime objective of its Cosmic Origins (COR) Program. The subject of Origins is a very broad one. Some of the questions and topic areas are:
No one space or airborne observatory can provide all the answers. The COR Program includes telescopes—both present and future—that together operate across a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, from the far-ultraviolet through the far-infrared and sub-millimeter. Currently operating facilities in COR are Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Spitzer Space Telescope (SST), and the Herschel Space Observatory. Future facilities and efforts within or with COR related science include the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), currently in implementation and the #1 recommendation of the 2001 Decadal Survey; advanced future instruments for SOFIA; and studies of a UV-optical successor to HST. Advances in key technologies will enable the building of powerful future facilities.
An exciting aspect of the Program is that the telescopes of the future are significantly more capable than those that have flown before. HST, currently in orbit and at the peak of its scientific powers, has observed galaxies as long ago as only 500–600 million years after the Big Bang. Yet it will take JWST—with a larger mirror and a longer reach into the infrared—to see all the way back to when the first star systems formed, perhaps only 200 million years after the birth of the universe. In science, the past and present inform the dreams and efforts of the future, and that is certainly true in NASA's Cosmic Origins Program.