NASA's planetary science division gets budget boost

NASA's planetary science division — responsible for sending the rover Curiosity to Mars — will get an unexpected budget hike of $123 million for the rest of 2013. These additional funds will be used to continue planetary exploration, officials said.

As part of a temporary spending bill signed by President Obama on Tuesday, Congress approved a budget of roughly $1.41 billion for the planetary science division, compared to about $1.19 billion in Obama's requested budget.

"That means Congress values [the] planetary [division] at a higher level than the current administration, and they want us to do something," said Jim Green, division director.

After accounting for cuts required by the mandatory federal spending cut known as the "sequester" and a budget give-back passed by Congress in January, the division will ultimately receive $1.315 billion for 2013.

Green said the extra funding will go toward existing studies of a possible mission to Jupiter's ice-covered moon Europa, thought to be a possible candidate for simple life forms, as well as continuing the agency's Mars mission.

NASA's planetary science division operated under a $1.5 billion budget in 2012, so Obama's proposed budget, released last year, meant a cut of approximately $300 million.

The division is especially important to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory because it encompasses locally developed missions such as the Curiosity rover project.

Making sure JPL doesn't lose the talent behind the Curiosity mission is one reason to make sure the planetary science budget is maintained, according to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a long-time proponent of planetary exploration.

"I'm concerned that the administration may try to backload the funding for the 2014 mission, which will hamper our efforts to keep the talent we need at JPL and other places," he said.

JPL spokesman Alan Buis said he could not comment on how the new budget might impact the facility.

Obama's proposed budget for 2014 will be released on Wednesday, and Schiff said that if it once again cuts planetary exploration funds, he and fellow members of Congress are ready to push back.

"We'd rather work with NASA and [the Office of Management and Budget] than have to fight them again, but we're determined to keep planetary science strong," Schiff said.


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