Arguably the biggest question in science today is whether or not we are alone in the universe. Is there life beyond Earth? Whether it is in our solar system or around another star, the prospects of extraterrestrial life are very exciting.
There are several candidates for locations where we believe extraterrestrial life could inhabit. In our solar system several of the moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn have subsurface oceans that could be suitable for life. Mars may harbor extremophile life below its surface or perhaps fossils of ancient bacteria in its dried up riverbeds. And now, thanks to New Horizons, we now believe there may be a subsurface ocean on Pluto. Beyond Earth there are estimated to be billions of planets that ice could potentially host life, not to mention the exomoons around larger uninhabitable planets. There are billions of places life could originate in our universe.
Answering this question is of the highest importance. It would completely change our perception of life and its origins. It could help us understand where and how life originated on Earth. It would tell us whether the laws of biology are constant or if they vary depending on where it originated. Are other life forms based on carbon or another element? Do extraterrestrials use DNA to store genetic information like we do? Are there other intelligent being like us? These are just a few of the questions that could be answered so it is clear it is of utmost importance to investigate them.
NASA scientists say we are on the cusp of answering this question, and this is with just half a penny for every dollar spent on the US budget. In May, the House committee voted to slash $300 million dollars from the NASA Earth Sciences missions that study severe weather events.
In terms of space exploration, there may be cuts in the way of $100 million dollars, which would delay many of NASA’s long-term projects. It would also be detrimental to the competitiveness of NASA compared to the space programs of other countries.
NASA has two long-term missions. One is putting another rover on Mars by 2020 that has tools that could search for life and send Mars rocks back to Earth. Another is the Europa Clipper, which would study Europa, in greater detail and could fly through plumes of water present on its surface to search for microbes. The $100 million dollar cut could seriously affect the progress of these missions.
NASA is one of the world’s leaders in space technology and innovation but with a shrinking budget it will become increasingly difficult to continue developing these groundbreaking technologies. To me, the fact that a mission to find life beyond Earth may be delayed due to underfunding is sad.
As Bill Nye says, funding these missions would simply cost each American just another cup of coffee.