In early March, NASA submitted its 2015 budget request that is sure to face quite a bit of scrutiny from Congress and the public alike. The budget proposal comes in at 1% less than 2014’s proposal of $17.5 billion dollars, a record for the program to date. With an additional $900 million coming via the White House’s newly launched Opportunity, Growth & Security Initiative, the total request reaches $18.4 billion dollars.
NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden explained the $900 million funding in a recent press release, “NASA will receive nearly $900 million in additional funding in FY15 to focus on specific priorities. This “invest in America” initiative recognizes that the type of innovation and technology development we do helps create opportunity, grow our economy and secure our future.”
As Bolden further clarified, “This budget ensures that the United States will remain the world’s leader in space exploration and scientific discovery for years to come.” This budget will allow for the biggest programs to essentially remain in the same working order as the previous year while NASA can focus on the future, something that has been emphasized for years.
While the proposal has many interesting details to explore, there are quite a few points that stand out above all else. Conversely, there are other key points from previous proposals that will not see much progress barring help for partners in the projects. A main point that was not clarified is the potentially $2 billion dollar asteroid redirection mission that would take a small asteroid off its course, bringing it to lunar space where it could be explored further by 2025.
While other key factors of the mission were clarified, this omission probably won’t ease the concerns on Capitol Hill. Beyond this mission NASA provided clarity to many other facets of their program that will be involved in their new proposal. Here are five key areas highlighted by NASA.
Space Launch System (SLS)
First, $2.8 billion of the proposal will go towards the heavy-lift rocket and its deep-space crew capsule, Orion. This year’s proposal comes in at about $300 million less than the previous year’s dedication to the system. Both of these features are scheduled to make their debut in 2017 via an unmanned test flight run. This voyage would reach lunar space.
If all goes to plan, a crewed exploration would begin in 2021. What will be interesting to see regarding both the SLS and Orion is their involvement in the asteroid redirection mission. With the SLS being considered the perfect vehicle to conduct the mission, this could be the groundwork to warming the frigid response the mission has received so far.
SOFIA May Be No More
One potential cut to NASA’s ongoing plans would be its airborne infrared telescope. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope faces a doomed fate unless the partner in the project, the German Aerospace Center, can provide more funding.
The downside to SOFIA being cut is the loss of a key deep space exploration tool. Scientists recently had been observing supernova flight paths that had destroyed the Messier 82 galaxy. Unfortunately, this sort of observation appears to not be worth the price tag when other aspects to the future seem more imperative.
Mars Roving To Continue
NASA’s Planetary Science studies would receive close to $1.3 billion in funding, about $65 million less than the previous year. What is exciting about the funding will be the ability to continue funding for a new sample-caching rover that will allow samples from Mars to be brought back and studied. This would be an advancement from the Curiosity rover that is currently in use on Mars. The new rover would be based off the Curiosity design, with a scheduled launch in 2020. This new exploration would begin searching for signs of past life and habitability, which may come in handy if we continue depleting our own natural resources.
Another exciting feature would be the rover’s ability to dig up rock samples and store them for future retrieval. The task of bringing the samples back to Earth would require the use of another spacecraft. While it is not perfect, progress is being made toward understanding the Red Planet.
One major debate to watch as this develops is the new rover’s limited scientific instruments, a necessity due to its need for sample-caching. Co-founder of The Mars Society, Robert Zurbin, said, “I think if we’re going to have a Curiosity duplicate rover in 2020, it should be loaded with instruments to do in situ science.”
Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope
Considered by some to be a top priority for astronomy in the next decade, the survey telescope would be included in the $607 million dollar appropriation to the Astrophysics division of NASA.
About $14 million would go towards preliminary work on the WFIRST as it sets its objectives towards finding dark energy and getting statistics on exoplanets. The project has seen a few changes since it was first studied in 2011. The current design of the telescope, WFIRST-AFTA (Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets) would use one of the two second-hand telescopes donated by the National Reconnaissance Office, the only known use of the telescopes to date. These telescopes are significantly larger than the first design- the same size as the Hubble Telescope, offering a significantly broader view.
With an estimated launch date in the middle of the next decade, the proposal will keep the project in line. If the launch were to take place by in 2024, findings could be accumulated by 2030.
Mission To Europa
One of the most compelling aspects of the 2015 proposal is sending a submarine to the bottom of the ocean on Jupiter’s massive frozen moon, Europa. In the 2015 proposal, the mission would receive $15 million to conduct the early work on the mission that is described by some as the “Holy Grail” for planetary science.
What lies beneath Europa’s frozen waters has been intriguing scientists ever since those oceans were first discovered. This mission is the main project for the future of NASA. While it will be a while before the mission even has an estimated launch date, it is exciting to see exploration expanding further and further into the solar system.