WASHINGTON — Even in these tough economic times, investing in planetary science is more important than ever, three science advocates told members of Congress today (Sept. 9).

Bill Nye, former host of the television show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" and current executive director of the Planetary Society; Jim Green, director of NASA' s Planetary Science Division; and Mars scientist Steve Squyres addressed representatives during a luncheon here sponsored by the Planetary Society.

Nye also delivered a petition to Congress supporting funding for planetary science that was signed by more than 20,000 people.

"Budgets are being cut. You have to make hard choices," Nye told SPACE.com. "But we just want to emphasize the great value of planetary science. We've made discoveries that change the world, change our view of what I like to call our place in space." [Photo Tour of Our Solar System]

To emphasize the "return on investment" science brings, Green highlighted some recent achievements of NASA's planetary science program. These include the comet flybys of the agency's Stardust NEXT and Epoxi missions in February 2011 and November 2010, respectively, as well as putting the Messenger probe into orbit around the planet Mercury in March 2011 and launching the Juno probe to Jupiter in August of this year.

"There's just been a whole series of mission events that are stacking up over this last year that have just been phenomenal," Green said. "Each and every one of these things are rewriting the textbooks."

On the horizon

Green also pointed to upcoming events worth looking forward to, such as the planned Saturday (Sept. 10) launch of the twin Grail satellites to orbit the moon, and the liftoff in November of NASA's next Mars rover, the SUV-size Curiosity.

And more missions, yet to be decided on, are on the horizon. Squyres, a Cornell scientist who serves as principal investigator of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity currently on the Red Planet, recently chaired the National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey. [Mars Photos by Spirit and Opportunity]

The decadal survey prioritized the science community's goals for planetary science over the next 10 years, highlighting particular missions that deserve NASA's investment. One of the foremost of these is a series of missions to Mars to collect rock samples and return them to Earth.