NASA: Give us JUST 0.5% of the federal budget and we'll take you to MARS and EUROPA

And maybe a 'roid snatch too

Europa Clipper

President Obama has proposed raising the NASA budget to $18.5bn in 2016 - and the space agency says it would use the funds to plan missions to the water-moon Europa and to capture asteroids and bring them back to Earth's orbit for study.

The budget proposal would raise NASA's funding by $519m. NASA's administrator Charles Bolden told staff that the money would be used for some exciting new missions, but that some of NASA's more successful projects may be killed due to lack of cash.

"Your work is part of a vital strategy to equip our nation with the new advanced manufacturing and space technologies for the future and inspire a new generation of explorers to make the next giant leaps in human experience," he said in an address to NASA staff on Monday. "NASA is firmly on a Journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation."

Around $3bn of the budget is assigned for infrastructure costs, including maintaining NASA's ground stations and workshops across the US. Another $2.4bn will go on the Space Launch System (SLS) – the most powerful rocket ever created – and the Orion crew capsule it will carry, hopefully to Mars if current plans work out.

But NASA also wants to plan more exploratory missions. Bolden said last week that the agency will be pretty much done with Earth orbit missions once the ISS shuts down in ten years and it wants to look further afield.

Under the 2016 budget NASA has asked for $30m to get the initial work done for a mission to one of the solar system's most intriguing features: Europa, the moon of Jupiter that's one of the few worlds we are sure is home to liquid water. The agency plans to get a probe in orbit around the satellite and could conceivably land on its surface and burrow down into its oceans.

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The core of the Jovian moon is heated by the immense tidal pressures generated by Jupiter and underneath its icy crust are deep oceans, which are believed to contain ten times the water that exists on Earth.

The current NASA plan calls for an orbiter to spend three years circling Europa, mapping its surface and using radar to peer under its icy surface at the waters below. It's thought that, if the ice isn't too deep, the moon could act as a refueling station for spacecraft if the water can be cracked into hydrogen and oxygen.

Some at NASA are pushing for a more ambitious plans, however. This would involve putting a lander on the surface and drilling down into the ice, either mechanically, or by using heat to melt itself down through the surface and then releasing a submarine to explore the water below.

NASA is also asking for funds for its asteroid capture mission. This would find a nearby hunk of space rock, enclose it, and then use rockets to bring it into orbit around either the Moon or Earth so that scientists can take it apart.

Such data could be vital if we're going to learn how to prevent such debris from hitting Earth, but would also be of interest to firms looking to mine the plentiful minerals available in the solar system and use them for orbital manufacturing, or bring them back to Earth for sale.

There are some things that may be cut if the budget proposal goes through, however. NASA isn't asking for any money to keep the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mapping out the surface of the Moon, and it could be that the Opportunity rover gets the chop, as well.

Opportunity has now spent over ten years trundling across the surface of Mars, which is spectacular stuff for a mission that was only forecast to last three months. But the plucky little rover is suffering memory problems and it might be time for its retirement.

The rover's fate isn't sealed, however. NASA didn't ask for or receive funding for Opportunity in 2015 but scrimped and saved enough to maintain operations, with staff putting in volunteer hours to keep the project going.

It remains to be seen how much of the proposed funding actually goes through. Republican senator Ted Cruz has been appointed as the congressional manager of NASA and he's said he wants to cut costs where possible. It may be that more NASA programs face the axe as the horse-trading over cash begins. ®


The size of the total US government budget depends on how you measure it, but a figure of $3.8 trillion for the federal budget isn't unreasonable. NASA would thus get around half of one per cent of US gov spending if the President's proposal were to be agreed. -Ed

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