Posted at 04:07 PM ET, 09/16/2011

New planet; deep space exploration: is NASA bouncing back?

An artist's impression of the newly-discovered planet Kepler 16b orbiting its twin suns, much like the planet Tatooine in the movie “Star Wars”. (Courtesy of Science AAAS)
Two months ago, it seemed as if the whole world was composing a dirge for NASA. With the space shuttle program ending after 30 years, the media wondered if the agency would ever be able to find its footing. Then, the shuttle backup plan — catching a ride on Russian flights — was delayed, and the possibility of shuttering the International Space Station rose for the first time since 2000.

This week, though, a series of news-catching announcements seems to suggest the agency is doing just fine, with or without its shuttle program.

Space fans were introduced to two planet discoveries and a giant shuttle planned for deep space exploration.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden participates in a news conference to introduce the design of the new Space Launch System. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Monday, NASA announced a “Super Earth,” a planet that could possibly have water and may be habitable.

On Wednesday, the agency announced plans for a massive rocket capable of lifting 70 to 100 metric tons that will explore the deep reaches of space.

On Thursday, an even more exciting announcement for Sci-Fi fans: plucked from the “Star Wars” script, astronomers discovered a planet with two suns, much like the famous “Star Wars” home of Luke Skywalker, Tatooine.

(Brian Vastag got this memorable quote from one of the planet’s discovery team members, astronomer Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Washington: “It’d be a weird cocktail hour. The sun would go down, and you’d have a drink, and then, a few hours later, the other sun would go down while you have another drink.”)

The Post’s Vastag said that while the planet discoveries are definitely exciting, the shuttle plans were still uncertain, as Congress has yet to fund it.

Despite some Senate backing for the plan, the House has yet to support it. The estimated five-year price tag for the project is $18 billion. The House has been the most adamant about cutting NASA’s budget. The House proposal for the 2012 fiscal year is $2 billion less than for 2011. Seeking House approval for an $18 billion project may be a tough sell.

Even if it doesn’t become a reality, NASA still proved this week it has the power to inspire great dreams.

By  |  04:07 PM ET, 09/16/2011

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