A joint hearing last month by two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee - the Subcommittee on Space and Subcommittee on Research - provided ample evidence of enthusiastic bipartisan support for NASA and NSF programs to discover new planets orbiting stars other than our Sun.
"Imagine how the discovery of life outside our solar system would alter our priorities for space exploration and how we view our place in the universe" declared Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) in his opening remarks. Smith praised the cooperation between the National Science Foundation's ground-based telescopes and NASA's space-based telescopes in the search for exoplanets, noting the construction that will begin next year on the foundation's Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile. Smith discussed how the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to better to characterize exoplanets, concluding "This is an exciting time in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics."
The current NASA budget provides approximately $41 million for exoplanet research, which would increase to $55 million in the FY 2014 administration request. The agency supports exoplanet research through the Kepler Space Telescope, the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Telescope, and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. In addition to the 2018 launch of the Webb Space Telescope, NASA will be constructing the Explorer Mission Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and possibly the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. NSF support is provided through the Division of Astronomical Sciences, providing about $10 million annually for exoplanet research. A committee document explains that "requests for exoplanet research grants are the fastest growing component of proposals submitted to the Division;" it now supports 40 grants in the field.
Three witnesses testified at this one-hour hearing: NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld; NSF Division Director of Astronomical Sciences James Ulvestad; and Laurance Doyle, Principal Investigator, the SETI Institute. Each testified about the "major leaps" that will occur in coming years in discovering and understanding exoplanets and the possibility of these planets supporting life as we know it.
Ulvestad described the foundation's early support of this research and the 1992 discovery of the first exoplanet made at its Arecibo Observatory, the capabilities of its new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array and a new imager on its Gemini Observatory. Grunsfeld testified about current discoveries, saying "if that trend holds for other classes of stars, it would mean that there are approximately 50 billion potentially habitable rocky planets spread throughout our own galaxy." Grunsfeld concluded "With the progress we have already made, I am confident that it is not a question of whether or not we will find an Earth-like exoplanet, but when."
Doyle spoke about the next generation of telescopes that will be capable of detecting biomarkers, and speaking of the Kepler Mission said that it would answer "this age-old question: 'In the universe, is there another place like home?' I think we are on the verge of answering, "Yes!'"
Members' questions reflected their enthusiasm for the field. Their questions were on topics such as the need for another telescope after the Webb, funding of future missions, explaining the value of the program to taxpayers, facility and program coordination between NSF and NASA, and collaboration with international partners. Members appeared quite satisfied with the responses from the witnesses, with enthusiasm about the future of the program tempered on both sides of the witness table centering on the effect that future budget restrictions might have on the field.
Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics