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NASA 'On The Cusp' Of Discovering If Life Exists Beyond Earth, Says Top Scientist

There's indication of an inside ocean on Pluto. One of Jupiter's moons has a huge ocean under its crust that could comprise more than twice as much water as Planet Earth. There are no less than half a dozen of these ocean worlds in our own solar system alone -- and we all know where there's water, there may be ultimate answers about the potential for life across the cosmos. That's exactly what a board of planetary researchers told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Tuesday, and left everyone's minds blown. Dr. John Grunsfeld, a physicist and former astronaut who now also leads NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said "Are we alone? Many, many people on planet Earth want to know. We are on the cusp of being able to answer that question … because of the investments we're making in space technology."
Credit: Getty Image

Grunsfeld united with four other panelists in commending politicians to keep up federal aid for space exploration. They all described thrilling new progresses, but one didn't need much explanation: As we all know earlier this month, the NASA space probe New Horizons accomplished its extraordinary flyby of Pluto. NASA has got only a minute amount of data back thus far -- it's going to take at least 16 months to get it all, as it journeys across 3 billion miles of space, but there have already been astonishing findings. Dr. Alan Stern, the chief investigator for the New Horizons mission, said "We found evidence of nitrogen glaciers … A mountain range as tall as the Rockies. With only 5 percent of the data on the ground, we all feel like we need to fasten our seatbelts for the remaining 95 percent. This is quite a ride, scientifically."

Many Researchers condemned the House committee in May for polling to reduce NASA's financial plan for Earth Sciences missions by $300 million. The White House has already threatened to reject the GOP bill for cuts to those missions and NASA's commercial crew program, amid several other items. Republicans appear to have a soft spot for space exploration, however. Their bill would increase spending for planetary science, regardless of the other cuts.

NASA has two main, decade long missions in the works that involve Congress to deliver stable funding for space exploration. One would send a new Mars rover in 2020, loaded with tools to hunt for signs of prehistoric Martian life and to gather rock samples to send back to Earth. The other would launch a spacecraft to Jupiter in the 2020s to circle the planet for almost three years, providing prospects for close flybys of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons that researchers consider has the potential to host life in its ocean. Like the Mars mission, the bigger aim of the Europa mission is to conclude if it's habitable for human life.

In that vein, Dr. Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology reasoned that the next great space hunt is accessing water. Braun said “Now is the time to organize and initiate a series of robotic missions focused on the fundamental questions of evolution, habitability and life across our solar system’s ocean worlds. Going all the way to Europa without touching its surface is like driving across the country to Disneyland and then staying in the parking lot."


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