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Summary of Hearings on Earth Observations and Space Policy


  • May 9, 2013: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Subcommittee on Research Joint Hearing on Exoplanet Discoveries: Have We Found Other Earths?
  • March 20, 2013: House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Space Oversight Hearing on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Subcommittee on Research Joint Hearing on Exoplanet Discoveries: Have We Found Other Earths?
May 9, 2013

Laurance Doyle
Principal Investigator, Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute
John Grunsfeld
Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, NASA
James Ulvestad
Director, Division of Astronomical Sciences, National Science Foundation

Committee Members Present

Steven Palazzo (R-MS), Space Subcommittee Chairman
Donna Edwards (D-MD), Space Subcommittee Ranking Member
Larry Bucshon (R-IN), Research Subcommittee Chairman
Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Research Subcommittee Ranking Member
Lamar Smith (R-TX), Full Committee Chairman
Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Frederica Wilson (D-FL)
Marc Veasey (D-TX)
Ami Bera (D-CA)

On May 9, 2013, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittees on Space and Research held a joint hearing to receive testimony on exoplanet research conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Currently, 900 exoplanets, including three super-Earth sized planets located in the habitable zone, have been discovered. More than 2,700 planetary candidates exist as well. With planets around practically every star, research is now moving from simply identifying planets toward characterizing their properties, atmospheres, and formation, and searching for biomarkers. The fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget request for exoplanet research is $55 million.

Future projects that will contribute to exoplanet research include the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled to launch in 2018; the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will help scientists decide locations to target with JWST scheduled to launch in 2017; the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) at the Gemini Observatory, which will examine up to 600 nearby stars; the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST); and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

Due to time constraints, opening statements were submitted for the written record and the hearing proceeded directly to witness testimonies.

In their written testimonies, Full Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS), Research Subcommittee Chairman Larry Bucshon (R-IN), and Research Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) emphasized the important collaboration between NASA and NSF in collecting and disseminating data pertaining to exoplanet research. In particular, Smith highlighted how “cooperation between NASA’s space-based telescopes, like the Kepler mission, and ground-based telescopes funded in part by the [NSF] has enabled astronomers to expand their star gazing capabilities.”

Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) also praised the interagency collaboration in her written testimony, but raised concerns over “NSF’s ability to support a growing number of grant requests focused on exoplanet research…[with] relatively flat funding and the need to maintain currently operating facilities.”

Testimony from the witnesses focused on the history of exoplanet research, current methods of detection, and projections for future research. Laurence Doyle, Principal Investigator at the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute, and John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, praised NASA’s Kepler mission for helping to advance exoplanet research. Grunsfeld stated that of the more than 900 exoplanets currently discovered, more than 122 owe their discovery to the Kepler mission. Grunsfeld attributed these discoveries to NASA’s collaboration with NSF, and the use of both space- and ground-based instruments. Doyle further emphasized the importance of the Kepler mission, saying that he considered Kepler-62f, a super-Earth-size planet discovered by the Kepler mission about 1,200 light-years away, to be the most Earth-like planet discovered so far. With continued research, Doyle stated that he believes scientists are “very likely [to] find a true Earth-sized planet within its star’s habitable zone” in the “next few years.”

James Ulvestad, Director of the Division of Astronomical Sciences at NSF, testified in his written remarks that the Arecibo Observatory, an NSF-funded project, discovered the first exoplanet in 1992. Ulvestad explained that NSF currently funds “40 active awards,” including many early career awards, in exoplanet research. He discussed the NSF’s role in providing ground-based instruments and the importance of international partnerships.

Palazzo opened the question and answer period inquiring as to how the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle, will assist in the detection of exoplanets in the future. Grunsfeld explained that the SLS allows NASA to lift heavier objects and transport them farther than current capabilities allow. This would make it possible for NASA to “scale up” their equipment and create an instrument or telescope “big enough to detect life” on a distant planet.

Edwards asked how budget cuts from sequestration would impact exoplanet research, and in-orbit upgrades to the JWST if cuts remain in place in fiscal year (FY) 2014. Grunsfeld replied that new projects in development will face the risk of greater impacts, such as launch delays, rather than observatories already in orbit, and that the JWST is “not serviceable” like Hubble because it must be located one million miles away in order to keep the infrared imaging technology cool. Ulvestad added that NSF’s individual grants may suffer and, if U.S. researchers cannot get access to the exoplanet research tools, the new research will be led by international partners instead.

Given the focus on finding water- or carbon-based life forms as signs of life in the Universe, Larry Bucshon (R-IN) asked if scientists have considered “other definitions of life” as well. Grunsfeld responded that the Mars Curiosity Rover is looking for “signs of previous carbon,” but with its array of instruments could also notice other signs of life. Doyle noted that some scientists are focusing on a definition of life that is simply “anything that can store information,” and that silicon-based life forms are not “out of the realm of consideration.”

Lipinski asked if there are ways to improve the collaboration between NSF and NASA. Grunsfeld and Ulvestad stated that NSF and NASA already collaborate well. They emphasized the importance of communication in making their collaboration effective and preventing them from implementing duplicative programs. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) opened a discussion regarding international collaboration on detecting exoplanets. Grunsfeld stated that “almost everything we do has large international collaboration” with “probably 90 percent” of the science missions involving international partners. Doyle stated that the Kepler mission has a “huge number of countries” involved with the research. Ulvestad noted that while there is significant collaboration, there is also competition and he hopes to see U.S. scientists leading the field of exoplanet research.

Bucshon asked for information on what to tell constituents when asked why funding for research, such as that into exoplanets, is “important to the American people.” Grunsfeld responded that “investment in basic research is an investment in the future.” He noted that research is “critical” for the nation’s “economic prosperity,” and has led to a plethora of “spinoff” technologies that benefit society every day. Investing in exoplanet, and similar, research inspires “kids looking up in the night sky” to pursue futures in STEM fields.

Opening statements, testimonies, and an archived webcast of the hearing can be found on the Committee’s web site.



House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Space Oversight Hearing on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
March 20, 2013

The Honorable Charles Bolden
Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Committee Members Present:
Frank Wolf (R-VA), Chairman
Chaka Fattah (D-PA), Ranking Member
John Culberson (R-TX)
Adam Schiff (D-CA)
Jo Bonner (R-AL)
José Serrano (D-NY)

On March 20, 2013, the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Space held a hearing to receive testimony on the operations of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) stated in his opening statement that, given the current lack of a budget, the hearing would focus mainly on discussing general goals for NASA rather than specific funding levels. He focused on discussing security issues facing NASA given the recent attempted theft of NASA technology by a Chinese national formerly working as a contractor. He noted that China is an “active, aggressive espionage threat,” attempting to steal space and flight technology; therefore, it is “critically important for us to have confidence in NASA’s ability to protect sensitive technologies and information from exploitation by entities that are looking to gain an advantage over the United States economically or militarily.” Wolf stated that while previously “this subcommittee has worked very hard…to protect the research and development programs from the full impact of recent budget reductions…[it] cannot continue to do” so without assurance from NASA “that those investments will be adequately protected from entities and countries that have been designated as potential threats.”

Chaka Fattah (D-PA), subcommittee ranking member, referred to the 2012 landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars as an “event galvanizing the nation” to recognize the degree of NASA’s success, and a “message to the nation that NASA really was at the forefront.” He outlined some of the major developments currently taking place at NASA, from Curiosity to the James Webb Space Telescope to the Space X program. He noted that he too was concerned regarding NASA’s ability to protect “our national security and intellectual property.”
In his testimony, Charles Bolden, administrator of NASA, opened by discussing “NASA’s continuing progress in implementing the bi-partisan program” created by the “President and Congress…[to] ensure the United States continues to lead the world in space exploration, technology, innovation, and scientific discovery.” He listed some current objectives that NASA is working toward including sending “humans to an asteroid by 2025 and on to Mars in the 2030’s,” constructing the Space Launch System and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle with the first manned missions in 2021, continuing the work on the International Space Station (ISS), expanding Mars research programs, launching the James Webb telescope in 2018, and developing new technologies. He stated that “NASA’s on track to send our astronauts to space from American shores, using American companies by 2017” and remains the “world’s premier space science organization.”

In his written testimony, Bolden expanded on the status of NASA’s earth science research. He mentioned the current 17 earth science missions orbiting Earth and the addition of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, “which is currently undergoing on-orbit checkout.” He stated, “NASA is working to complete and launch three new Earth science missions in FY 2014, with a fourth scheduled for launch in Fall 2014:” the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE III), and the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission.

In astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope, “the most powerful telescope in history,” is set to launch in 2018 and “will allow us to observe objects even fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope can see.” The Stratospheric Observatory and Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne observatory continues making “science observations…that are unobtainable from telescopes on the ground.”

In the heliophysics program, the Van Allen Probes launched last year, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) launches this year, and the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is projected to launch in 2015. He noted that “NASA continues to formulate the Solar Probe Plus (SPP) mission and develop its contribution to the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter mission.”

Bolden also addressed the security concerns raised by Wolf and Fattah outlining the steps taken regarding the recent breach at Langley Research Center involving a Chinese national contractor who is no longer working for the organization. He provided seven steps that he is taking to improve NASA security.

During the question and answer section, Fattah asked Bolden to discuss the relationship between NASA and CASIS in supporting and constructing the “nation’s newest federal [national] laboratory,” the International Space Station. Bolden responded that “CASIS is a private entity” with the responsibility of “recruiting and managing experiments and researchers in the U.S. segment” of the ISS. The goal of working with CASIS is to “bring credibility to the work...being done on station.” He stated that this relationship has led to the decision to “put up some earth science instruments on station” and a solar science mission. He noted that “I was led to believe that the station was not a good platform for earth science, that was not true.”

Fattah also inquired about the relationship between NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Bolden stated that “the big thing is collaboration between agencies.” He noted that NASA has a number of facilities that are sponsored or funded by NSF. He outlined how the NASA/NSF collaboration assists with the new “observatory in Chile [that] will give us another instrument…for identification and tracking” of asteroids, as well as flights “towards both poles to do ice research.”

John Culberson (R-TX) asked for an outline of the trajectory for the heavy lift and Orion vehicles as well as the planetary science program and Mars and Europa projects. Bolden stated that Orion would “fly its first flight a little more than a year from now” in fall 2014 and the heavy lift would be available in 2017. The first combined unmanned launch is planned for 2017 with the first manned launch in 2021.

Bolden described the science program as “aggressive and ambitious and highly successful.” Some developments he listed included next year’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, the 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission which will “core meters into the martian surface,” and the 2020 launch of a “Curiosity-like” Mars rover. He mentioned U.S. involvement with the 2016 and 2018 European Space Agency’s ExoMars missions, but noted that a lack of funding prevented more significant participation in the project.

Culberson inquired specifically into Bolden’s commitment to missions to Europa. Bolden responded that the Mars mission and a sample return from Mars are the first priority for NASA as per the National Research Council’s (NRC) decadal survey directive. He noted that if Congress and the Administration are unable to agree on funding that “will not preclude that lander from being able to be the beginning of a sample return mission,” they will likely “forget” about Mars and head on to Europa. He stated that given the current funding levels, NASA will continue to invest in Europa mission development at lower levels but cannot afford to fully develop both Mars and Europa missions.

Culberson asked Bolden to comment on the Senate appropriation and continuing resolution funding for fiscal year 2013, particularly with regard to the heavy lift rocket and planetary research programs. Bolden discussed the “opportunity to put the triangle back together” meaning to create the space program outlined in the 1970s that never came to fruition. The triangle he described is based on the establishment of the ISS, construction of a heavy lift launch vehicle and multipurpose crew vehicle, and development of commercial crew and cargo capabilities. As far as funding, Bolden stated, “I’m always happy to get whatever the Congress appropriates me,” but while the amount “is close to what we asked for” there are “shortcomings” that are “exacerbated by sequestration” and could be harmful to the program later. He advocated for “flexibility within the top line” of the budget to move money where it is needed so as to keep the programs running sequentially. He stated he doesn’t need “a lot of extra money in the heavy lift” vehicle but does need money for the commercial crew work so as to not pay Russia for crew capabilities beyond 2016.

Fattah prompted Bolden to discuss the work NASA does in terms of education. Bolden responded that he will follow President Obama’s interest in that increasing “the number of engineers in STEM fields that come out of this country.” He noted that the U.S. is no longer able to bring in scientist and engineers from outside the U.S. to train and work in the states but instead needs to train American engineers in order to compete with other countries. He indicated that NASA focuses on STEM education in K-12 and on encouraging involvement in STEM fields in underserved communities.

Opening statements, witness testimonies, and an archived webcast of the hearing can be found on the Committee’s web site.


Sources: Hearing Testimonies

Contributed by Wilson Bonner, AGI Geoscience Policy; Kimberley Corwin, 2013 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on May 17, 2013

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