Good News for Planetary Science and JPL

In September 2003, the NASA mission Galileo plunged into Jupiter’s atmosphere after spending a decade orbiting the gas giant collecting data. With little fuel left, mission control sent the spacecraft on an intentional collision course with Jupiter to eliminate any possibility of the satellite contaminating one of its icy moons – Europa.

While Galileo’s mission could not continue, its research and findings endured, the most exciting of which was strong evidence that Europa might have an ocean on its surface beneath a frozen crust – water which could mean the possibility of life.

Aside from the images taken by the NASA probe New Horizons in 2007 en route to Pluto, the exploration of Europa has largely been on hold. That could change very soon with new funding in Congress. This year, the House Appropriations Committee allocated $118 million in federal funding for a flagship mission to Europa in the near future. Through this appropriation, Congress specifically directed NASA to begin planning a mission to Jupiter’s moon.

The good news for Europa enthusiasts is reflective of the broader positive funding stream for NASA and planetary science.

The House bill increased the Agency’s funding by over $500 million. That overall budget increase includes $448 million for the exploration of Mars – with $250 million going towards the Mars 2020 mission. Congress also appropriated $13.7 million for continued operations of the Opportunity Rover and $19 million for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.  These projects – like the Europa Mission – are ones designed and operated by the brilliant minds at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The budget for NASA is not set in stone and we will still need to negotiate with the Senate. In particular, I hope we can improve funding for earth science where the investment in the House bill is not as strong as it should be. Ideally, we will preserve our gains in planetary science while increasing support for earth science when we go to conference.

With this strong support comes a hopeful message that our government has an optimistic view of our capabilities, of what we can do, and of how far we can look into the future. That support is evident in its willingness to keep pushing exploration and innovation forward – especially toward Europa.

In May, NASA announced its first step in the investigation into whether this icy moon could sustain conditions suitable for life – requesting new proposals for instruments to be carried aboard the mission to study Europa’s surface.  NASA officially selected nine science instruments out of thirty-three proposals for a mission to Europa, one of which was selected from Pasadena’s own JPL.

When the mission is launched in the 2020s, the Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) will serve as a probe into Europa’s surface, mapping and identifying materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

This increase in funding for planetary science is no accident. Working with my colleague Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), we have worked for years to build support for both NASA and planetary science programs in Congress – no easy task given Congress’s propensity for cutting spending. This year I was happy to see that same support from my colleagues as well, which secured robust funding for our space exploration programs.

I will continue to push for adequate funding for these programs in the years to come. We must ensure that spacecraft still producing good science are not shut down prematurely, and that other programs have the long-term funding necessary to plan for future missions.

Space exploration inspires us and pushes us to the limits of our capabilities. It also raises the most profound questions about the universe and our place in it. Get ready for a new adventure called Europa.