US space agency Nasa has received a large increase to its budget following approval by Congress.
As well as having its originally requested budget of around $18.5bn fully approved, Congress granted Nasa an additional $756m in extra funding. This amounts to an increase in funding of $1.27bn when compared to the previous year.
This funding, passed as part of a massive omnibus budget bill, reverses a trend stretching back several decades of declining Nasa funding as a percentage of the US federal budget.
The main winners from the approved funding are the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
CCDev for the first time ever received the full $1.2bn requested by Nasa, which will avoid feared program delays.
With this money it is likely that the first commercial crew flights to the ISS will begin in 2017 by SpaceX’s Dragon V2 and Boeing’s Starliner.
This program was seen as critical towards ending the US reliance on Russian spacecraft for getting its astronauts into orbit.
As well, the SLS received a total of $2bn in funding, significantly more than the $1.36bn requested.
This heavy lift rocket will be the largest Nasa has built since the Saturn V, and is capable of sending crews to the Moon, asteroids and even Mars. To do this, the SLS makes use of the newly-developed Orion capsule also fully funded in the new budget.
One other major funding increase was to Nasa’s Earth Sciences division, which received $149m more than last year. This division uses atmospheric and weather satellites to monitor for signs of climate change, and thus was seen as a priority area by President Obama.
Europa landing mandated by law
A smaller, but also very interesting quirk of the new funding bill is that it effectively forces Nasa to send a lander to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Originally Nasa had requested around $30 million for the development of a ‘Europa Clipper’ mission which would conduct multiple flybys of the moon, however in the new budget was awarded $175m, but with a catch – the mission must include a lander.
“This mission shall include an orbiter with a lander that will include competitively selected instruments and that funds shall be used to finalize the mission design concept,” the budget legislation stipulates.
Europa is seen a prime candidate for microbial life outside of Earth, and as such, a lander will provide significant new opportunities for exploration.