Goodbye SOFIA, Hello Europa!

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Happy (?) budget day! NASA is running a teleconference on how they plan on spending $17.6 billion in 2015. Discussion is lively on #NASABudget, and you can submit comments to the press conference using #AskNASA.

It's old news that the NASA budget is tiny compared to annual pizza consumption (nearly $36.8 billion in 2012), or that most people think that the NASA budget is way bigger than it is. The only real news is what's getting funded, and what's getting cut.

It looks like our little rovers that could are safe for this year (but really, can you imagine Curiosity tweeting out, "I'm not dead yet! Congress is just too cheap to listen to my cries of discovery so I'm being abandoned to slowly freeze to death"?), but SOFIA has been cut.


SOFIA flying about the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Image credit NASA.

If you haven't heard of SOFIA, that isn't surprising. The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy never got much press (despite the hilarious "Scopes on a plane" nickname), but she's still pretty awesome. Since first light in 2010, she's been flying above the clouds to collect sub-millimetre imagery. Since she can fly anywhere in the world, and swap out instruments between flights, the ability to adapt SOFIA for different missions has been phenomenal. Flying in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, SOFIA captured a star being occluded by Pluto, letting us peek into the distant iceball's atmosphere to find out its structure. Goodbye, SOFIA: you were a lovely, under-appreciated astronomical workhorse.


To balance out that loss, for the first time in way too long, the planetary science budget is going up! This includes some money set aside to start dreaming of Europa. More on that later.

It looks like we're also going to finally take the whole Asteroids are nature's way of asking 'How's that space program coming along? thing seriously and actually starting to fund research into interceptor missions. As a disaster-obsessed scifi-scientist, this makes me very, very happy. On February 15, 2013, that Russian meteor exploded 30km up with a blast that "only" shattered windows, injuring approximately 1500 people; if it had exploded lower, February 15th would be a remembrance day for a city lost. It's about time we started getting serious about our inevitable impending doom.


Continuing the asteroid-theme, NASA is going to investigate two plans to progress the idea of space-mining, either sending a robot to dig a chunk of an asteroid out and return the sample to lunar orbit, or capturing the whole asteroid and dragging it back to lunar orbit. For a bit more commercialization of spaceflight, the program to develop commercial alternatives to service space missions is getting a heavy boost (40% over previous budgets).

Need more policy to wonk out over? WSJ is running a stream on discussing the NASA spending blueprint.