By Amrita Khalid - 05/09/13 09:12 PM EDT
NASA announced in April that its Kepler mission had discovered three new exoplanets the size of Earth with conditions that could maintain some form of life. The exoplanets are in a “Goldilocks’ zone,” or at such a distance from a star’s orbit that their surface temperature isn’t too hot or too cold for water to remain in liquid form.
Since its inception in 2009, the NASA mission has discovered more than fifty exoplanets in the habitable zone. At the end of next year, NASA will run out of its funding for the Kepler mission and is requesting permission to extend the project.
“This is an exciting time for exoplanet exploration, and the next few years will permit major leaps forward in our understanding of how many there are, how they are formed, and whether they might have conditions that are hospitable to life as we know it,” said Dr. John Grunsfeld, a NASA scientist, in his testimony at the joint-hearing held between the House space and research subcommittees.
In the last four years, the Keppler mission has founded 122 definite exoplanets, and identified 2,700 planet candidates.
Lawmakers were curious over how the uncertain fiscal environment would affect the fate of such high-investment, long-term projects.
“A number of the things that each of you has laid out requires an allocation of resources over a period of time,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).
While NASA’s fiscal 2013 budget allocates $41 million dollars for exoplanet research, the agency is asking for another $14 million in the next fiscal year in order to extend the Kepler mission and keep using the Keck observatory in Hawaii.
NASA has also requested funding to launch the James Webb Space telescope in 2018, and a Mars lander in 2020. The agency’s most costly line item is $105 million to conduct a mission to find, capture and re-direct an asteroid in orbit around the Moon.
Grunsfeld said the constrained budget environment has forced NASA to make some tough choices.
“We’re going to have to look at turning off an observatory, or cutting back further on new missions. And we would have to quit investment on studies and future development,” said Grunsfeld. He noted that collaborating with other countries in Europe and in Japan helped NASA build a telescope in Chile.
Fears that nations will go on to fund advanced space projects that NASA can’t afford has raised the stakes for the agency, scientists said.
“Some of the best exoplanet science might be done by our international partners, and not U.S. investigators — so that’s a concern for us,” said Dr. James Ulvestead of the National Science Foundation.
The budget priorities of NASA have recently come under fire from members of the House Space subcommittee who are concerned that the new missions aren’t needed.
Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) said in a statement last month that while he wanted the nation to have a “robust space program,” he thought that NASA had neglected congressional spending priorities in its 2014 spending request.
“I am concerned however that NASA has neglected congressional funding priorities and been distracted by new and questionable missions that detract from our ultimate deep space exploration goals. These distractions also take up precious lines in the budget at a time when NASA can least afford it,” Palazzo said.