Even with tight budgets, space exploration still inspires

In this photo provided by the European Space Agency, ESA, Monday Jan. 20, 2014 technicians celebrate after receiving the Rosetta wake up signal in the control room of ESA in Darmstadt, Germany. Waking up after almost three years of hibernation, a comet-chasing spacecraft sent its first signal back to Earth in January. (AP Photo/ESA, Juergen Mai, File)

For those not driven inside by the August heat, there was a lot going on in the sky this month.

A "supermoon" on Aug. 10 combined with torrential rains to wreak tidal havoc on anyone unfortunate enough to have to drive through the Charleston peninsula, but it offered a spectacular show for plenty of people outside of the Lowcountry. The annual Perseid meteor shower peaked days later.

But the real drama this month wasn't visible to the naked eye, or even a good pair of binoculars.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft became the first man-made object to orbit a comet in preparation for an eventual landing. Meanwhile, NASA's New Horizons probe snapped record-breaking close photos of Pluto and its largest moon, Chiron, while en route to study the dwarf planet next summer.

And India is attempting to join NASA, the ESA and the former Soviet Union in Red Planet exploration. The nation's space program announced that its Mangalyaan spacecraft is on schedule for a September arrival in Mars orbit. NASA has its own spacecraft expected to begin orbiting Mars this fall.

Meanwhile, new evidence announced by researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggests the Milky Way may weigh much less than the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, which is similar in shape and size. They hypothesize that the difference could be due to invisible dark matter that may make up much of interstellar space.

Each glimpse into the universe seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Some decried the end of the space shuttle program in 2011 and periodic cuts in NASA's funding, which has dramatically decreased as a percentage of the federal budget since its high in 1966, as detrimental to the scientific community and national security. But even on tight budgets, the U.S. and its partners in space exploration continue to make important and thrilling discoveries.

Commercial space flight may also soon become a reality thanks to private entrepreneurs.

The debate will continue over the wisdom of using public resources to study distant worlds, particularly when much of our own planet, including roughly 95 percent of the ocean floor, remains unexplored. But as long as supermoons rise and meteor showers light up the night sky, mankind will dream about what lies beyond our home planet.

The government's role in fulfilling those dreams deserves a healthy debate, but it is unquestionably in the best interest of an ever-curious humanity to continue exploring the universe.