NASA Seeking Amino Acids on Nearby Asteroid; Findings May Help to Understand How Elementary Life Develops

Depiction of the Osiris-Rex module
Thursday, September 8th, NASA launched their Osiris-Rex spacecraft on a one billion dollar, 4.4 billion mile voyage to Bennu, a nearby asteroid discovered in 1999. NASA hopes that the 7-year journey will not only further their understanding of the planet-forming process, but also provide context for the evolution of life on Earth.

Bennu's organic compounds could explain how life on Earth evolved
By studying the organic compounds that have been identified on Bennu, NASA seeks to better understand how organic structures evolve and complicate in a "lifeless" environment. Their findings will help to elucidate the way that organic compounds might have evolved on Earth in the early stages of the development of life. Osiris-Rex is equipped to gather Bennu's carbon-rich resources and return with several pounds of amino acids, to be thoroughly analyzed in 2023.

NASA building on the findings of European Space Agency's Rosetta Spacecraft
Marooned Philae probe finally discovered after two years
The departure of Osiris-Rex comes a short two years after the landing of European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. When Rosetta reached comet 67P/C-G in late 2014, it brought the world unprecedented findings of ice and organic compounds. However, the mission came to an untimely end when the lander module Philae went into hibernation after unanticipated difficulties landing. The module bounced off the surface of the comet and tumbled into a crevice, preventing the solar panels from maintaining electrical power.

Osiris-Rex is expected to build on the discoveries of Philae, investigating the exciting possibilities of advanced organic compounds in deep space. However, Osiris-Rex is unique in that it will actually return to Earth with the desired organic compounds. While certainly a more ambitious prospect, this will afford NASA the opportunity to test the compounds far more extensively, yielding more varied and useful results.

Future missions could face jeopardy due to dwindling budget
Today is truly the age of space exploration, with unique findings being made annually. However, this renaissance may be endangered due to shifts in NASA's budget. According to President Obama's 2016 budget request, NASA's exploration systems would receive $3.3 billion in the proposal, down nearly $700 million from the anticipated budget. Mary Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, has gone on to say "this proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA's exploration missions." If such a trend continues, the future could very well see the termination of such ambitious and ground-breaking projects such as Osiris-Rex. What do you think? Does NASA deserve a larger budget?

NASA has long been a mainstay for politicians, who take advantage of its popularity with the public in order to garner support. However, the promised budget increases are always modest, and can rarely keep pace with the growing federal budget. In fact, NASA's budget with respect to the federal budget has seen a steady decline for over a decade. Many experts such as Dittmar fear that events like the recent launch of Osiris-Rex might go from being a scientific headline to a rare indulgence of innovation. As NASA's annual budget is finalized, it will be interesting to see where the budget finally lands. Perhaps there is more riding on Osiris-Rex than just a few precious pounds of organic compounds.

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