NASA 'on the Cusp' of Being Able to Answer if We're Alone in the Universe

Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons Mission, said the probe already has revealed evidence of nitrogen glaciers on Pluto and a mountain range “as tall as the Rockies.” Caverns deeper than the Grand Canyon have been found. There is evidence of geologic activity and “other wonders,” like an atmospheric haze.

New Horizons has established that Pluto – which surrendered its status as a planet in 2005 and was given the designation of dwarf planet – is actually larger than projected -- about 1,473 miles in diameter, compared to Earth’s diameter of about 7,900 miles. The craft collected data regarding mountain altitudes and surface temperatures – minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA discovered a difference in the composition of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Scientists believe the dwarf planet consists of methane gas, nitrogen ice and carbon monoxide ice. Charon, meanwhile, is determined to be made up of water and ammonia.

“With only 5 percent of the data on the ground, we all feel like we need to fasten our seatbelts for the remaining 95 percent,” he said. “This is quite a ride, scientifically."

It will be another 16 months before all of the data collected by the probe is transmitted to Earth.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee chairman, acknowledged that the “exploration of our universe captures Americans’ interests, inspires us to pursue extraordinary goals, and keeps us on the forefront of scientific achievement.” The photos and data sent back to Earth from the far reaches of the solar system “continue to capture the imagination of people around the world.”

Smith went on to criticize the Obama administration, asserting that proposed cuts to planetary science and exploration at NASA “have made it clear these endeavors are not its priority.”

The administration’s Fiscal Year 2016 request cut funding for planetary science by $77 million from Fiscal Year 2015 levels. Smith said his panel is seeking to restore the lost funds.

“Funding levels requested by the Obama administration would slow the rate at which we can develop, build and launch new missions like New Horizons,” he said. “This Committee’s bill, and the funding levels approved in the House, would allow NASA to keep planetary missions like New Horizons on track.”