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UPDATE, July 30, 3:50 pm EDT: This afternoon the Senate passed the House's short-term (three-month) extension of the highway bill, that has no Export-Import Bank reauthorization, sending it to the President for signature. The Senate also passed its own long-term highway bill, that includes the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization adopted by amendment earlier this week; it will be waiting for House action when the House returns in September.
ORIGINAL POST, July 30, 8:19 am EDT: The House began its summer recess last night without passing legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, leaving it in limbo at least until September. Instead it passed a short-term extension to the highway bill without an Ex-Im Bank provision and sent it to the Senate before turning out the lights. The House will meet in pro forma sessions, but no legislative business is scheduled until September 8.
The Bank's charter, originally enacted in 1934, must be periodically renewed. It expired on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed. The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies. Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard. Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.
The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example. The Aerospace Industries Associate and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.
Reauthorization of the Bank is the source of bitter contention in the Senate, but earlier this week that chamber did agree to a multi-year extension of the bank as an amendment to a must-pass highway bill. There is no substantive connection between the highway bill and the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, but attaching one to the other was part of a strategy to get both passed before the summer recess began. Senate supporters of the Ex-Im Bank hoped that enough House members would be willing to accept reauthorization of the Bank in order to keep money flowing from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation projects. The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires tomorrow (July 31).
The House Republican leadership rejected that strategy, however, and instead passed a separate short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund authorization (until October 29) without any reference to the Ex-Im Bank. That bill is now pending before the Senate, which is likely to pass it since they do not want highway funding to end and the House has gone home for five weeks so nothing else can pass both chambers until September.
During an appearance at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.. yesterday, Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said that the Boeing is "actively" considering moving some of its operations overseas so it can take advantage of other countries' equivalents of the Ex-Im Bank. Explaining that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors, McNerney said If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im."
He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business." Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions: "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies," adding that "70 percent of the value added of our airplanes are made up by small companies ... who would never have a chance to export without us." The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.
Eight of the 10 recommendations adopted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday about the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash were directed at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). An FAA spokesman said today the FAA will respond within the next three months. The other two were for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and its President, Eric Stallmer, said CSF would carry them out promptly.
FAA spokesman Hank Price told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the FAA “takes all NTSB recommendations seriously and we will review and respond to them within 90 days as required.”
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fatal SS2 accident on October 31, 2014 was that the spaceplane’s builder, Scaled Composites, did not take into account the possibility that a single human error could cause a catastrophic accident and mitigate against it. That failure "set the stage" for co-pilot Michael Alsbury to unlock a feathering system meant to slow the craft during descent at the wrong time. The spaceplane was torn apart by aerodynamic forces. Alsbury died. Pilot Peter Siebold was injured, but survived.
Scaled is owned by Northrop Grumman. Scaled President Kevin Mickey said in a statement after the NTSB ruling that safety “has always been a critical component” of its culture, its pilots are “experienced and well trained,” and “we have already made changes in the wake of the accident to further enhance safety.”
Alsbury and Siebold both worked for Scaled and Scaled designed, built and operated the SS2 spaceplane that was destroyed in the accident. It was under contract to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (VG), which plans to build as many as five of them to take people on suborbital trips to space. VG is itself now building the second spaceplane. In a “party submission” to the NTSB, VG listed remedial steps it has taken. They include adding an automatic mechanical inhibit to prevent a pilot from incorrectly unlocking or locking the feathering system during safety-critical phases of flight. VG has total responsibility for the second spaceplane, but Mickey said Scaled and VG continue to have a relationship and an agreement for parts and services.
As for AST, the NTSB questioned several aspects of its regulatory actions in granting an experimental license to Scaled and overseeing compliance. By law, AST has a dual role in regulating and facilitating commercial space launch services and reentries. Its regulatory authority is to protect the public, property and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.
When Congress created AST in the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, the intent was for a light regulatory hand that would not stifle a nascent industry by creating unnecessary, burdensome regulations. The Act has been amended and updated several times over the intervening decades. That objective has remained the same.
In this case, however, the NTSB found AST’s evaluation of Scaled’s application for an experimental permit was “deficient.” The NTSB focused on waivers AST granted in 2013 and 2014, that were not requested by Scaled, after it determined that the hazard analysis Scaled submitted did not meet the software and human error requirements of AST’s regulations. NTSB said AST issued the waivers after concluding public health and safety would not be jeopardized and that Scaled had necessary mitigations in place, but did so “without understanding whether the mitigations would adequately protect against a single human error with catastrophic consequences [or] ... were sufficient to ensure public safety.” In addition, “Scaled did not request the waiver, participate in the waiver evaluation process, or have an opportunity to comment on the waiver before it was issued (except to identify proprietary information that should not be disclosed).”
NTSB also reported that some of AST’s technical staff complained that “their questions that did not directly relate to public safety were filtered by FAA/AST management to reduce the burden on Scaled.” AST’s responsibility is public safety, but the NTSB found that the “dividing line” between questions related to public safety and those to meet mission objectives is “not always apparent.”
Among the eight NTSB recommendations to the FAA is for AST to develop clearer policies, practices and procedures that allow direct communications between its staff and applicants; clearer guidance on evaluating permits, waivers and licenses; and better define the line between information needed to ensure public safety and that needed for mission success.
The NTSB also made two recommendations to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry association working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality. Those recommendations are to help industry ensure better emergency response procedures and to work with the FAA to develop and issue human factors guidance that commercial space operators can use throughout design and operation of a crewed vehicle. In a statement, CSF President Eric Stallmer pledged support to carry out those recommendations promptly.
AST is a relatively small office within the FAA, and while there is no hint in the NTSB report that budget or staffing shortages were a factor, the FAA has been trying to increase AST’s level of resources. The FY2016 budget request for AST is $18.114 million, a $1.5 million increase over its FY2015 level. Congress has not been enthusiastic about granting all of that increase, however.
AST is funded as part of the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill. The House approved only a $250,000 increase and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended an $820,000 increase.
Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace chairs the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that provides independent advice to AST. Gold said in an interview that perhaps one silver lining is that the SS2 accident and investigation may stimulate a discussion about the appropriate level of resources that AST requires.
In addition to its regular duties, AST has been involved in investigations of three accidents in the past 8 months: Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares failure on October 28, 2014 (Orb-3); the SS2 accident three days later; and the SpaceX Falcon 9 failure (CRS-7) on June 28, 2015. All were licensed by AST. While AST does not take the lead in the investigations, its staff participates. As Gold said, launching into space is hard and accidents are going to happen – “AST needs more resources to deal with these issues.”
CSF’s Stallmer also vowed to continue working with Congress to ensure that AST has the resources it needs “to fully address the safety findings and recommendations in the [NTSB] report.”
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA, stepped down from that position today after being indicted by the Justice Department for misuse of funds. Fattah denied the charges.
In a statement, Fattah criticized an "eight year effort by some at the Department of Justice to link my public service career to some form of wrongdoing. With today's charges, this misguided campaign has now moved from speculation to specific allegations....I have never participated in any illegal activity or misappropriation of taxpayer dollars as an elected official."
The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee funds not only NASA and NOAA, but the Department of Justice.
Fattah said he was stepping aside as ranking member of the subcommittee in accordance with House rules and precedent, but will "proudly" continue to serve his constituents.
The Justice Department said he and four associates were charged in a 29-count indictment "involving bribery, concealment of unlawful campaign contributions and theft of charitable and federal funds to advance their own personal interests."
Fattah has been a reliable space program supporter during his tenure as ranking member of the CJS subcommittee. The House already has passed its version of the FY2016 CJS appropriations bill, but Fattah ordinarily would have been a key member of conference negotiations with the Senate on a final version of the bill.
Multiple media outlets report that he will be replaced by the next highest ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district is near NASA's Ames Research Center. Honda himself is currently under scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee for an alleged violation of ethics rules regarding coordination between his official staff and his campaign staff.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted today to adopt its final report on the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident that killed one of the spaceplane's two pilots. The Board agreed to 17 findings and 10 recommendations, along with a statement of probable cause that focused on the failure of Scaled Composites to "consider and protect against" the possibility that a single human error could doom the vehicle and its crew.
SS2 broke apart during a flight test over the Mojave Desert killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after being thrown clear of the spaceplane unconscious. He regained consciousness during the fall to Earth and was able to detach himself from his seat and his parachute opened automatically.
It was immediately evident from telemetry and cockpit video that Alsbury had prematurely moved one of two levers that activate a feathering system intended to slow the spaceplane during descent, creating aerodynamic instability that tore the plane apart. Why he did so and why the feathering system deployed even though the second lever was not activated were among the subjects of the investigation.
The findings and recommendations span a wide range of concerns about government and private sector actions, many of which were leveled at the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), but the statement of probable cause is aimed at Scaled, which built SS2 and was in charge of the test flight.
The NTSB staff's version said the probable cause was that Alsbury prematurely unlocked the feathering system as the result of time pressure and vibration and loads he had not experienced recently. It added as a contributing factor Scaled's failure to consider the possibility that a single human error could cause the feathering system to deploy at the wrong time and to adequately warn pilots of that risk.
NTSB chairman Christopher Hart proposed a revised version that swapped those sentences, placing Scaled's failure first and identifying Alsbury's actions as a consequent result. During a brief recess, the staff and Board members wrote a third version that was thereupon adopted:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was Scaled Composites' failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight break up of the vehicle.
Hart was acting NTSB chairman at the time of the accident and was on-site at Mojave Air and Space Port during the initial stages of the investigation and provided the press briefings.
One focus of the investigation was the training the pilots received including human factors and the information formally conveyed to them by Scaled about the dangers of premature deployment of the feathering system. The NTSB found that the copilot (Alsbury) was experiencing high workload as a result of recalling tasks from memory while performing under time pressure and with vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which increased the possibility for errors. NTSB found that Scaled "did not ensure that pilots correctly understood the risks of unlocking the feather early" and missed opportunities to mitigate against the consequences of human error in its design.
The NTSB also found that AST's evaluations of Scaled were "deficient" because they did not recognize that Scaled had not identified the potential human-error hazards. The NTSB also found that a lack of direct communications between the AST and Scaled technical staffs, pressure to approve experimental applications within 120 days, and other factors interfered with AST's evaluation process. Questions also arose about why AST granted a waiver to Scaled in July 2013, which the company did not request, regarding required hazard analysis that did not meet requirements for human and software errors.
The NTSB has posted a synopsis of its findings and recommendations.
UPDATE, July 28, 2015, 8:10 am EDT: The Aerospace Industries Association issued a press release praising the Senate action and urging the House to follow suit.
ORIGINAL POST, July 27, 2015, 11:28 pm EDT: The Senate tonight adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank as part of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill. House Republican leaders stated earlier today, however, that they will not bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.
The amendment, offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on behalf of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), has been the source of bitter contention with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives who consider the bank to be "corporate welfare." The bank assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products, and advocates insist that without it American exports will suffer and jobs will be lost. The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.
The bank's authority to operate ended on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed. The bank can continue current operations, but cannot take on new projects until and unless it is reauthorized.
The Kirk amendment would extend its authorization for four years. Yesterday the Senate voted 67-26 to allow the amendment to be offered. Tonight the vote was 64-29 to adopt it. The Senate has yet to vote on the underlying bill. Even assuming that it passes, its fate is far from certain.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed today that the House will not take up the Senate bill. The House and Senate disagree not only on the Ex-Im Bank issue, but on the underlying highway bill that allows disbursement of funds from the Highway Trust Fund for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires on Friday, July 31. The House is scheduled to begin its August recess on Friday, so some type of agreement will have to be made - perhaps a short term extension. The House already passed a 5 month extension of the highway bill -- without an Ex-Im Bank provision -- and McCarthy wants the Senate to pass that bill, not the version now before the Senate.
What happens next is anyone's guess.
The Senate took a small, but important, step towards potentially reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during a rare Sunday session today. The action does not reauthorize the bank, but sets up a vote on an amendment to do just that later in the week, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Monday).
The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products such as communications satellites. The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among those trying to convince Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank. Its authority to operate expired on June 30 when previous efforts at reauthorization failed. The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.
The issue is divisive within both the Republican and Democratic parties. Advocates argue that without the bank, exports of American goods will suffer and jobs will be lost. Opponents insist that it is corporate welfare. Boeing and General Electric are frequent targets of those critics because they reportedly received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, but advocates, including President Obama, counter that smaller companies also benefit, including those that are suppliers to the big companies.
To expedite action, the Senate voted today to allow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to offer an amendment to an unrelated highway bill later this week. The highway bill is "must pass" legislation because without it funds from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be disbursed to pay for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. That bill also is controversial. It is far from certain that even if the Senate does pass the highway bill, with the Ex-Im bank reauthorization included, that the House will agree with either of those actions. The House is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess on Friday, with last votes expected no later than 3:00 pm ET on Thursday.
That gives the Senate only a few days to pass its bill and try to reach a compromise with the House in order to send legislation to the President' before the Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a strident opponent of the bank and on Friday publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying to him and other Senate Republicans about the issue in a blistering statement on the Senate floor (which is available on YouTube). Such intra-party disputes are not typically aired in front of the C-SPAN cameras.
The procedural vote today to allow Kirk to offer the amendment was 67-26 (60 votes were needed). Cruz and 25 other Republicans voted against it.
That does not signal what the fate of the amendment itself will be when it is finally debated, however. Some of those who voted to allow the amendment to be offered may nonetheless oppose the amendment itself. At the moment, the Kirk amendment is on the schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 27), along with several other amendments.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a useful report explaining the Ex-Im Bank controversy.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will meet in public session on Tuesday, July 28, to deliberate and vote on its report on the probable cause of the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash. The meeting begins at 9:30 am ET and will be webcast on the NTSB website.
The NTSB ordinarily has five members, but there is one vacancy at the moment. The Tuesday meeting is an opportunity for all four members to hear from the NTSB staff at the same time about their findings, conclusions and recommendations. The Board members have had access to factual reports and draft staff reports already, but this is the formal unveiling and opportunity for debate. The Board will vote to adopt or modify the staff's draft. The Board can make changes to the recommendations, although an NTSB spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline. com on Friday that typically they add or suggest rewordings to staff-developed recommendations rather than making wholesale changes.
The NTSB does not hold public meetings for all of its hundreds of investigations every year, but only for those of significant public interest. NTSB chairman Christopher Hart, who was acting chairman at the time of the SS2 crash, pointed out that this is the first spaceflight accident it has investigated. He was on-site at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA, where the crash occurred for the initial phase of the investigation and provided the public briefings.
The factual documents produced by the staff will be made public on Tuesday at 9:00 am ET, half an hour before the meeting. They will be posted on the NTSB website. Parties to NTSB investigations have access to NTSB's factual documents during the investigation, but are not allowed to speak about them until the NTSB adopts its report. The parties may submit their own documents responding to the NTSB's findings both before and after the NTSB adopts the final report that are also made part of the public record, but the parties do not address the Board at the public meeting. In this case, the parties include the FAA, Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic.
This is the final action by the Board, although it is possible for a party to file a petition for reconsideration if new, relevant information becomes available that has the potential to change the probable cause.
The technical cause of the crash was evident almost immediately. SS2 co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash, prematurely moved one of two levers that activate a feathering system intended to slow the spaceplane during descent. Why he did so and why the feathering system deployed even though the second lever was not activated are among the subjects of the investigation.
SS2 was built by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which plans to send tourists on suborbital space flights using these spaceplanes. The company planned to build five of them. The one destroyed on October 31 was the first and only operational spaceplane. A second spaceplane was already under construction and that is continuing although the date for a test flight is uncertain. Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides said in January that the company will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight." The company is also developing a version of its system, LauncherOne, that will be used to launch small satellites instead of people.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 26-31, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in session this week.
During the Week
The House is scheduled to begin its annual August recess on Friday (no votes are scheduled after Thursday at 3:00 pm ET), so this is the last week for Congress to deal with any "must pass" legislation for programs expiring at the end of July. To that end, the Senate is beginning its week today, Sunday, in a continuing attempt to pass a bill to reauthorize expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation programs that otherwise will expire on July 31. While the highway bill per se is not a space-related issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has agreed to allow an amendment to be offered to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Last month, Congress failed to reauthorize the bank and its charter expired. The bank is still operating, but cannot take on new projects. The bank offers loan guarantees for customers wanting to buy products -- like communications satellites -- from U.S. manufacturers and the Aerospace Industries Association and Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters. Critics claim it is corporate welfare. The issue splits both parties and has the Senate in turmoil. Even if a bill does pass the Senate, there is no guarantee the House will go along. The Senate is scheduled to be in session during the first week of August, but if the House recesses as planned, it would not be able to pass a compromise until it returns in September, so the Senate would have to agree to something the House already passed, perhaps a short-term extension for the highway funds and/or the Ex-Im Bank. What will happen is very much up in the air.
With such disarray, the likelihood of other legislation passing is diminished, but it is always possible that relatively non-controversial bills could get through. One possibility is the Senate Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, which was formally reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (S. Rept. 114-88). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is the main sponsor of the bill, however, and his verbal attack on McConnell on the Senate floor on Friday because of the Ex-Im bank issue (available on YouTube) might weigh against it getting a spot on the calendar, which McConnell controls. It really is anyone's guess, though.
This is "NAC week" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Many of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees will meet early in the week, with the full NAC meeting Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning. The committee and Council meetings are available by WebEx and telephone for anyone who wants to listen in. Bear in mind that times listed on the agendas are in local time at the meeting venue -- Pacific Daylight Time in this case.
On Tuesday, trying to tune into those meetings will compete with three interesting events in Washington, DC: the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB's) public meeting to finalize its report on the October 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash beginning at 9:30 am ET; a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing at 10:00 am ET on planetary exploration -- including testimony from the Principal Investigators for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres (Alan Stern and Christopher Russell, respectively); and a NOAA briefing at 1:00 pm ET on 10 Years Since Hurricane Katrina featuring NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and the heads of NOAA's four line offices, including Steve Volz, who is in charge of NOAA's satellite programs. All three events are available by webcast or WebEx.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28
Monday-Wednesday, July 27-29
Monday-Friday, July 27-31
Tuesday, July 28
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 28-29
Wednesday-Friday, July 29-31
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft not only took fascinating photos of Pluto as it approached and flew past the dwarf planet 10 days ago, but continued snapping pictures as it raced away on the other side. Today NASA released a photo showing Pluto's silhouette as the spacecraft looked back towards the Sun.
The artistically stunning image is full of scientific data. As Michael Summers, a co-investigator on the mission from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA pointed out at a briefing this afternoon, it is the first image of Pluto's atmosphere and shows a "haze" that reaches out 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the surface -- much higher than anticipated. The photo was taken when New Horizons was 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto around midnight July 15 Eastern Daylight Time and delivered to Earth yesterday. North is at the top of the frame.
That Pluto has an atmosphere is no surprise -- scientists have studied it for years, measuring its density using stellar occultation. Early results from the New Horizons data, however, indicate that in the past two years, the atmosphere has lost half its mass, Summers said. The rapidity of the loss is unexpected, but not that the atmosphere would dissipate. As Principal Investigator Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) reminded the audience today, concern that the atmosphere would collapse -- "freeze out" -- as Pluto's 248-year orbit takes it further from Sun was one factor in NASA's approval of the mission in the early 2000s. (The New York Times published an account of the hurdles the New Horizons mission had to overcome to win support after an earlier version was cancelled in 2000 because the cost rose too high.)
Jim Green, NASA's planetary science division director, explained that only 5 percent of the data captured by New Horizons during its close approach to Pluto and its five moons has been returned to Earth so far. At a maximum data rate of 4 kilobits/second, it will take 16 months for all of it to be collected. A number of new images were released today, but no more will come until mid-September. For the next several weeks, the focus will be on sending back data taken by other instruments on the spacecraft.
Among the other images made public today is a higher resolution photo of Pluto's surface, shown in false color to highlight differences in surface characteristics. The image was taken when New Horizons was 280,000 miles (450,00 kilometers) from the planet. The resolution is 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers).
At today's briefing, though, Cathy Olkin from SwRI and William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis offered theories to explain the data returned so far. Some of the surface is geologically young, due perhaps to flows of nitrogen-, methane-, and carbon monoxide-ice moving around on the surface as water glaciers do on Earth, from ice upwelling from beneath the surface, or ice falling from the atmosphere as it freezes. Some scientists are postulating that Pluto has an internal heat source and there may even be a liquid ocean under the icy crust as has been observed on other solar system bodies. McKinnon advanced that theory today, but stressed that there is no evidence of such an ocean so far.
Pluto's five moons also are being avidly studied using the New Horizons data, especially Charon, the largest. Stern, in fact, refers to Pluto and Charon as a "double planet" system because the center of mass around which they orbit each other (the "barycenter") is in space, between the two objects, not within Pluto. (The barycenter of the Earth-Moon system is about 1,000 miles or 1,600 kilometers below the Earth's surface.)
Stern enthused that "we've never been to a double planet system before" and it is a "scientific wonderland." Data from that wonderland will be making its way to scientists over the next year and a half, and analysis will continue long after that. As Stern himself cautioned in the days before the spacecraft reached Pluto, "science on the fly is often wrong."
New Horizons was built and is operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, MD under contract to NASA.
The spacecraft is currently 7.6 million miles (12.2 million kilometers) beyond Pluto heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt that surrounds our solar system. Stern estimated earlier that the spacecraft will operate for another 20 years until its radioactive power source runs out. It is possible that it can be targeted to visit another object in the Kuiper Belt during that time. Pluto is in the Kuiper Belt, along with another dwarf planet, Eris.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is in charge of designating solar system bodies as planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, or other types of objects based on characteristics defined by consensus by the astronomical community. In addition to Pluto and Eris, Makemake, Haumea and Ceres are categorized as dwarf planets today. Another NASA mission, Dawn, is currently orbiting Ceres, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
While not the same type of space policy pronouncements made by other presidential contenders, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) expounded on his views of the fictional Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard in an interview with the New York Times published on Thursday.
As a Senator, Cruz has made clear that he believes NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science and that he is an advocate for commercial space. He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which sets policy and authorizes funding for NASA.
Turns out he is also a Star Trek fan with strong views on whether Kirk or Picard is the better character.
In an interview with Ana Marie Cox, Cruz called Kirk "working class" and a "passionate fighter for justice" as compared to Picard, an "aristocrat" and "cerebral philosopher." He prefers Kirk, adding that he thinks Kirk would be a Republican and Picard a Democrat.
The rather odd exchange did not add much to the knowledge base of what Cruz would do with the space program if he becomes President, but it was fun.
Two other presidential candidates, Jeb Bush (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) have expressed their enthusiastic support for NASA. Bush was governor of Florida, home of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, for eight years. Clinton wanted to be an astronaut when she was 14.
Events of Interest