MOL

Washington

Nasa’s latest budget is set to include a greater emphasis on the search for life and also fund a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2022.

In a draft bill, the agency has been told to start a new Ocean Worlds Exploration Programme that would hunt for life in the outer solar system. But the budget proposals also include cuts for the Earth Science and private spaceflight programmes, drawing criticism from both Nasa and the White House.

The bill, which can be viewed online, was drawn up by the US House Appropriations Committee and will be considered today. If passed, it will give the agency $18.529 billion (£11.94 billion) of funding up to September 2016 - an increase of $519 million from last year. Excitingly, there is a large emphasis on searching for life both in our own solar system and beyond, with multiple missions planned. Planetary Science funding was slashed in 2013 following various cuts but has now returned to those levels with $1.6 billion (£1 billion).

‘This is a marvellous day for planetary science and the search for life,’ said science reporter Eric Berger from the Houston Chronicle. The bill proposes $140 million (£90 million) for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa - $110 million (£71 million) above what was requested. It directs Nasa to achieve a launch ‘no later than 2022’ on its upcoming Space Launch System rocket.

A further $86 million (£55 million) is intended for the Ocean Worlds Exploration Program, with a goal to ‘discover [existing] life’ on one of the solar system’s outer moons. These include Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, in addition to Europa, which are thought to have vast reservoirs of water - and possibly life - under their surface. The House does not only call for finding life in the solar system, though. The upcoming Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) has been assigned $36 million (£23 million) of funding to directly image exoplanets beyond the solar system.

The budget says that Nasa should ‘eventually identify exoplanet candidates that could harbour life.’ With regards to exploration, the Space Launch System gets $1.356 billion (£873.8 million) - almost $500 million (£322 million) more than requested - but the House calls on Nasa to lay out proper plans for the rocket in the 2020s, with its goals at the moment remaining quite vague.

Funding to restart production of Plutonium-238 is also included, which is a necessary source of fuel to explore the outer solar system. All of this comes at a cost, though. The budget proposes cutting $269 million (£173 million) from the amount requested for the Earth Science programme. This would scrap a proposed satellite known as the Thermal-Infrared Free Flyer, intended to perform observations of Earth. Where the other cuts would come from is not clear. Previously, US Senator Ted Cruz said that Nasa should focus more on space exploration, and not on studying our planet.

‘I would suggest that almost any American would agree that the core function of Nasa is to explore space,’ he said in March. But responding to the latest draft budget, Nasa chief Charles Bolden said that ‘the House proposal would seriously reduce our Earth science program and threaten to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate.’ He added this would affect ‘our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.’