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White House budget would fund NASA's Europa, Mars missions

Europa mission gets funding for 2nd year in a row in White House budget, but congressman says it's not enough

The White House budget request for 2016 has proposed to give NASA $18.5 billion, including funding for the Mars 2020 rover and a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

But while the overall budget is nearly half a billion dollars more than the 2015 budget that Congress adopted, it misses a few key marks, said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

“I think the administration’s moving in the right direction, but still has a long way to go,” Schiff said.

The White House proposal would set aside $1.361 billion for planetary science, which is about $76 million less than Congress allotted the division in 2015.

“It’s a better budget in many respects than what the administration has proposed in the past, although it’s still not at the level that the Congress approved even last year,” Schiff said.

A long-proposed mission to Europa had received $100 million from Congress for 2015. Europa is one of the few icy water-worlds in the solar system (including Saturn’s moon Enceladus and the dwarf planet Ceres) that could be hiding a potential life-friendly environment beneath its frozen surface. But in the 2016 budget request, the White House allotted only $30 million. That’s twice the administration’s 2015 request of $15 million, but it pales in comparison with what Congress ultimately authorized.

“I think we're going to do better than that to keep that mission proceeding forward. That's one of the very exciting new missions for NASA and JPL,” Schiff said. The White House number, he said, “doesn’t reflect the seriousness with which Congress is really devoted to this mission.”

The White House plan also keeps the Mars 2020 rover on track by hiking its funding up to $228 million – more than twice the $100 million Congress gave the mission for 2015. Schiff called it “a high point in the administration’s proposal.”

But the administration has zeroed out future funding for the plucky Mars rover Opportunity, which has been roaming the Red Planet for more than a decade and is still delivering fresh scientific discoveries that complement the findings from the bigger, more high-tech Curiosity. Opportunity requires relatively little funding to keep operating, compared with newer missions; it received $14 million in 2014.

“I think that's a real shame, and I find it a bit inexplicable,” Schiff said. Opportunity, he added, “is still producing good science, and we ought to keep it going.”

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