New NASA Budget Would Cut Manned Asteroid Mission But Fund Journey To Alpha Centauri

The proposal would scrap the Asteroid Redirect Mission. NASA

Spare a thought for some of the scientists at NASA. Every year, it seems like the goalposts are being moved. And with a new President set to be elected later this year, there will surely be yet another shake-up for the agency soon.

That’s certainly the case with the latest proposed budget for NASA. This one was put forward by the House of Representatives’ subcommittee called Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS). It is not a final budget, but instead a suggestion – alongside the Senate’s – on how NASA’s funding for next year should be allocated, based on the President’s original budget request. The next step will be for the House and Senate to mash their two budgets together into a final NASA 2017 budget, which will happen later this year.

For a full explanation of how NASA’s budget works, check out these two excellent videos here (part 1) and here (part 2) from The Planetary Society.

So, what does this budget mean for NASA? Well, it would increase the total funding for the agency to $19.5 billion, which is $500 million more than the President requested. But the complexities of these budgets mean there are a number of cuts and proposals not originally put forward by NASA.

Perhaps most of interest is that the House would cut funding for NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which was already rumored to be in a bit of trouble. This mission is seen by NASA as a crucial step towards going to Mars. It would involve picking up a boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and placing it in lunar orbit. Astronauts would then travel to the chunk of asteroid on Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, collect samples and return them to Earth.

Instead, the CJS recommends that NASA focuses on a return to the Moon, as part of its pathway to Mars. “The long-term costs of launching a robotic craft to the asteroid, followed by a crewed mission, are unknown and will divert scarce resources away from developing technology and equipment necessary for missions to Mars,” the draft report states. This would be a somewhat drastic shift for the roadmap to Mars.

The CJS wants NASA to return to the Moon. NASA

Elsewhere, as Ars Technica reports, the budget includes funding for several fringe technologies. These include a small unmanned flying Mars probe, essentially a mini helicopter, which would accompany a future rover. The small probe would be able to scout large distances on the Red Planet’s surface.

There’s also a proposal to fund a mission to the nearest star system to our Sun, Alpha Centauri. You may remember last month that Stephen Hawking and co announced their own proposal for such a mission, called Breakthrough Starshot, which would use laser propulsion to traverse the 4 light-years to Alpha Centauri in 20 years. The House bill suggests that NASA should investigate this and other technologies, including antimatter drives and fusion engines, to reach the same goal. The proposed date for the mission would be 2069, the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11.

The budget would also allocate $260 million of funding to a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which may include a lander. There would also be funding for a starshade, a technology that could help us directly study exoplanets by blocking out the light of their parent star. The other notable parts of the budget include an increase in funding for planetary science, but a decrease for Earth science.

As mentioned, this is not NASA’s final budget. But it gives an indication of what the agency may be asked to work on in 2017. We’ll have to wait and see what makes the final revision later this year.

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