Nasa will face further budget cuts but will be able to fund commercial crew transportation capabilities and a robotic mission to Europa

Further cuts for American space budget

Obama’s 2014 budget request for Nasa reveals further cuts but counts in a robotic mission to Jupiter and further investment in commercial projects developing capabilities to ferry astronauts to space.

As Nasa revealed on Tuesday, the US President Barrack Obama will ask the Congress to give the American space agency $17.5bn (£10bn) for the fiscal year starting on 1 October 2014.

That marks a 1 per cent decrease from Nasa's 2014 budget. However, the agency could also have access to an additional $900m from Obama's proposed Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative, a $56bn fund for special projects that is separate from the regular budget.

If approved, the agency would have $1.1bn next year to help at least two companies develop commercial space taxis to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Currently, Nasa is working with Boeing, SpaceX and the Sierra Nevada Corporation to develop the future American space taxi. During this summer, the agency plans to select two projects for the final round of development to be able to fly astronauts to the ISS on a domestically-built vehicle by the end of 2017.

The so-called Commercial Crew Program is receiving $696 million for the 2014 fiscal year ending September 30. The proposed funding increase would add as much as $400 million to the program for fiscal year 2015.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, Nasa has been purchasing seats on Russia’s Soyuz space capsules to bring American astronauts to the orbital outpost, paying $65m for an astronaut.

Despite the growing tension between Russia and the US over the situation in Ukraine, there has been no information so far suggesting the cooperation in space could be in jeopardy.

"We are continuing to monitor the situation," said Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden. "Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians."

The new budget proposal also includes Nasa’s $3.1bn contribution to the space station’s operations and provides $2.8bn to continue development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion capsule for future human missions to the Moon, asteroids and Mars.

The first unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule is scheduled for 18 September.

Science missions would share nearly $5bn in 2015, including $15m to begin planning of a mid-2020s mission to Europa, an ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter.

Scientists have strong evidence that the moon has a vast ocean beneath its frozen surface and could therefore provide conditions for the existence of some microbial life-forms. 

"It's one of those places where life might occur, in the past or now, and so we're really excited about going there," said Nasa's Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson.

The proposed budget keeps the Hubble Space Telescope successor programme - an infrared observatory known as the James Webb Space Telescope - on track for launch in 2018. It also lets Nasa begin planning for a new telescope to probe the mysterious force known as "dark energy" that is driving the universe apart at faster and faster rates.

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