NASA Announces Next Generation of Space Exploration

NASA scientist Peter Peterson prepares a solar electric propulsion system for testing in a vacuum that simulates conditions in space. The propulsion system, three times more powerful than existing ones, has been identified as a critical part of NASA’s future deep space exploration plans. (Bridget Caswell /NASA)

(CN) – NASA officials said Monday the agency will leap into a new era of deep space exploration through missions to place humans on the moon again, launch commercial space ventures and deepen the study of life-sustaining conditions on Mars.

But the execution of NASA’s ambitious proposals – which include bringing Martian soil samples to Earth and converting lunar water ice to fuel and oxygen by the end of the next decade – depends on whether lawmakers can pass a national budget.  

The $4.7 trillion budget proposed by President Donald Trump this week proposes cuts to social service spending and adds work requirements for aid recipients – conditions that are likely to spark drawn out partisan debate – but still carves out $21 billion for NASA.

Three generations of Mars rover robots designed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California are displayed on a gravel field meant to simulate rocky and sandy conditions on the Martian surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Monday in a speech to Kennedy Space Center employees that the president’s budget proposal is “one of the strongest on record” for the space agency.

The proposal includes $10.7 billion to fund deep space exploration initiatives and technology that Bridenstine said would be used to send humans to the moon and eventually launch a round-trip mission to Mars.

“We will go to the moon in the next decade in a way we have never gone before,” Bridenstine said in his speech. “This time, when we go to the moon, we will stay. And then we will use what we learn on the moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars. ”

NASA said the budget proposals would fund plans to build Space Launch System, a massive aircraft that can carry humans and commercial cargo to the moon by the late 2020s, as well as the multi-nation-backed Gateway project, a moon-orbiting research station that could serve as a launching pad for deep space missions.

The Space Launch System rocket, scheduled for a test launch in 2020, would be taller than the Statue of Liberty, Bridenstine said, adding that although it would not be reusable, it would still carry massive, valuable payloads to the moon and low-Earth orbit.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on Monday, scientists displayed satellite and imaging technology used to locate hundreds of millions of tons of water ice on the moon which can be broken down into oxygen to breathe and hydrogen for fuel.

Ashwin Vasavada, a scientist working on the Mars 2020 Rover project, displayed the gravel field nestled in Pasadena, California where a twin model of the Curiosity rover carries out test missions before they are executed on Mars.

The twin rover’s massive metal alloy wheels trudge across different variations of soil and rock surfaces that are similar to what the Curiosity encounters on Mars.

Along with capturing stunning images of the Martian surface, Curiosity is searching for complex microbes and evidence that life-sustaining conditions once existed. It hasn’t found any yet.

“Mars had a very benign environment for life about 3.5 billion years ago,” Vasavada said. “[Curiosity] is still going and figuring out how long those conditions lasted.”

The 1-ton, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, now the only functioning NASA machine on Mars, is exploring the interior of the Gale Crater on the red planet.

Missions to land robotic rovers on Jupiter’s moon Europa, where a frozen surface has attracted the attention of water-seeking scientists, are also included in Monday’s proposal.

NASA’s proposal shared on Monday reflects the vision for the agency laid out in a directive, Space Policy Directive 1, signed by Trump in December 2017 which calls for increased commercialization of space operations.

Bridenstine said in his speech that commercial collaborations – such as scientific research aboard the International Space Station and payload deliveries to the outpost by reusable rockets built by California-based SpaceX – will only increase if the budget is approved by Congress.

“We need to drive down costs and we need to make space travel more accessible to more people, which includes commercial activities,” Bridenstine said. “We need to develop a very robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit.”

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