The US Congress just passed NASA’s budget, allotting the space agency US$19.5 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, which will provide the funds needed to develop a clear strategy for human exploration to Mars, the Moon, and beyond.
While this is great news in many ways, the bad news is that the one thing Congress wants to cut happens to be incredibly cool: a project called the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would involve moving a chunk of asteroid into orbit around the Moon, to provide a testing ground for astronauts to land on in preparation for Mars.
"The technological and scientific goals of the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission may not be commensurate with the cost," the newly approved bill reads.
"Alternative missions may provide a more cost-effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars."
In case you missed it, the Asteroid Redirect Mission was first proposed in 2015, when NASA announced that they were working on a plan to capture a multi-tonne chunk of asteroid and put it in orbit around the Moon.
This would allow astronauts to test Mars-bound technologies and strategies there in the 2020s.
"The Asteroid Redirect Mission will provide an initial demonstration of several spaceflight capabilities we will need to send astronauts deeper into space, and eventually, to Mars," said NASA associate administrator, Robert Lightfoot, of the mission last year.
"The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight."
NASA hoped to have a candidate asteroid chosen some time before 2019, though the recent budget allocation might halt the program completely.
The new bill is now asking NASA to re-evaluate other missions to see if they can perform the same tests without the costly asteroid capture.
According to Rebecca Boyle from New Scientist, NASA’s limited funds are primarily due to them developing the expensive Space Launch System (SLS), which includes building a new rocket as well as the Orion spacecraft - two things that definitely don’t come cheap.
The new budget also provides the needed funds for NASA to develop what they need to eventually get humanity to Mars and beyond, which, according to Congress, should be NASA’s prime goal.
"[The goal is] the peaceful settlement of a location in space or on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st century, and to achieve human exploration of Mars," the new bill reads.
Besides trying to focus in on NASA’s future goals, the bill also provides funding for NASA to continue their commercial contracts with SpaceX and other private companies that shuttle astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
But at this stage, there's no official update on whether this will fall under NASA’s budget, or if it will even pass Congress.
So, in the end, NASA’s new budget covers many cool things that will surely push space exploration into the future, but it also sacrifices one of the coolest projects they had in the works, which makes us just a little bit sad.