Saturday, August 1, 2015

NASA 'On The Cusp' Of Discovering If Life Exists Beyond Earth, Says Top Scientist

NASA 'On The Cusp' Of Discovering If Life Exists Beyond Earth, Says Top Scientist

WASHINGTON -- There's evidence of an interior ocean on Pluto. One of Jupiter's moons has a global ocean beneath its crust that could contain more than twice as much water as Earth. There are at least half a dozen of these ocean worlds in our solar system alone -- and where there's water, there may be answers about the potential for life across the universe.

That's what a panel of planetary scientists told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Tuesday, and left everyone's minds blown.

"Are we alone? Many, many people on planet Earth want to know," said Dr. John Grunsfeld, a physicist and former astronaut who now leads NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "We are on the cusp of being able to answer that question … because of the investments we're making in space technology."

Grunsfeld joined four other panelists in urging lawmakers to keep up federal funding for space exploration. They all described exciting new developments, but one didn't need much explaining: Earlier this month, the NASA space probe New Horizons completed its historic flyby of Pluto. NASA has received only a tiny amount of data back so far -- it's going to take 16 months to get it all, as it travels across 3 billion miles of space -- but there have already been surprising discoveries.
"We found evidence of nitrogen glaciers … A mountain range as tall as the Rockies," said Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. "With only 5 percent of the data on the ground, we all feel like we need to fasten our seatbelts for the remaining 95 percent. This is quite a ride, scientifically."

Scientists criticized the House committee in May for voting to slash NASA's budget for Earth Sciences missions by $300 million. The White House has already threatened to veto the GOP bill for cuts to those missions and NASA's commercial crew program, among other items.

Republicans seem to have a soft spot for space exploration, though. Their bill would boost spending for planetary science, despite the other cuts.

"It is crucial that NASA continue to explore our solar system," Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in Tuesday's hearing. "Planetary science teaches us about how our solar system works and provides clues about how it was formed."

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), also on the committee, said it's probably best if lawmakers aren't "meddling in the scientific work" of NASA to decide what projects are and aren't worth funding.
"I would like us, as members of Congress, to step aside and make sure we provide you the resources you need, and expect that we may not know the value of that for 50 years in the running," said Edwards. "I am indeed okay with that."

NASA has two major, decadelong projects in the works that require Congress to provide steady funding for space exploration. One would launch a new Mars rover in 2020, loaded with instruments to search for signs of ancient Martian life and to collect rock samples to send back to Earth. The other would send a spacecraft to Jupiter in the 2020s to orbit the planet for three years, providing opportunities for close flybys of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons that scientists believe has the potential to host life in its ocean. Like the Mars mission, the broader goal of the Europa mission is to determine if it's habitable for human life.

In that vein, Dr. Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology argued that the next great space quest is accessing water. He noted that NASA has no plans to access water on its Mars or Jupiter missions, which he said is a mistake.

"Now is the time to organize and initiate a series of robotic missions focused on the fundamental questions of evolution, habitability and life across our solar system’s ocean worlds," said Braun.
"Going all the way to Europa without touching its surface is like driving across the country to Disneyland and then staying in the parking lot."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the House committee voted to slash $300 million from NASA's overall budget. It voted to cut that amount specifically from NASA's Earth Sciences missions.