Congress has passed a new NASA bill, which authorizes $19.5 billion of spending in the fiscal year 2017. It includes things like manned missions to Mars and a Europa mission.
According to SpaceNews, this is the first time in nearly six and a half years that Congress has passed a NASA authorization bill. It was approved in the House of Representatives on March 7, with the same bill passing the Senate by unanimous consent on February 17. Now, it only needs to be signed into law by President Trump.
Some of the highlights from the bill include support for NASA’s journey to Mars. It states that the agency should work towards the “long-term goal of human missions near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s”. This refers to the idea that early missions to Mars could involve landing on its moon Phobos, before eventually heading to its surface.
As part of this journey to Mars, NASA had planned to move an asteroid into lunar orbit and have astronauts visit it on the upcoming Orion spacecraft as soon as 2020, called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). But this mission already looks in jeopardy due to cost overruns and delays, and Congress said “the technological and scientific goals… have not been demonstrated”.
They suggest looking at alternative missions instead and to possibly use lessons learned from ARM to help on the mission to Mars. The NASA Administrator, whoever that may be when Trump makes his pick (at the moment Robert Lightfoot is acting Administrator), is also asked to submit an assessment of whether launching a manned mission to Mars in 2033 is “in the strategic interests of the US”.
Elsewhere, the bill says that robotic exploration to Europa “should be supported”. NASA is already working on such a mission, called the Europa Multiple Flyby Mission, which would fly past the moon dozens of times in the 2020s to work out if it's habitable. There are also tentative plans to place a lander on Europa, although this is not mentioned specifically in the bill.
Congress also directs NASA to continue funding key projects like Orion, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the Commercial Crew Program (which funds SpaceX, Boeing, and other companies).
One notable absence from the bill is any mention of Earth science (present in previous authorization bills), which Trump infamously said he wanted to strip from NASA. This doesn’t mean it’s being scrapped, merely that Congress wanted the bill to pass, and there was mixed support for including it. Whether this will mean it’s more likely the bill will be signed into law by Trump or not remains to be seen.