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ULA Traces Atlas V Anomaly to Malfunctioning RD-180 Valve

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Apr-2016 (Updated: 29-Apr-2016 06:25 PM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that the anomaly on its Atlas V rocket during the launch of Orbital ATK's OA-6 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was due to a malfunctioning valve.  The Atlas V first stage under performed, but the Centaur upper stage was able to compensate and OA-6 reached the ISS successfully.

During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage shut down six seconds early.  The Centaur upper stage rescued the mission by firing 60 seconds longer than planned, placing Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft into its proper orbit nonetheless.  Cygnus reached the ISS on schedule.

ULA quickly determined the problem was in the RD-180 engine's fuel system and decided to postpone the next scheduled Atlas V launch until it understood and remedied the problem.  The Navy's fifth Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite was scheduled for launch on May 5.  That date slipped to May 12 and then indefinitely.

Today, ULA issued a statement that the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve assembly had caused a reduction in fuel flow during launch and all RD-180 engines are now being inspected.   It did not announce a new launch date for MUOS-5, saying only that the launch will be in "early summer."   The company asserted that all its Atlas V launches planned for 2016 "are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year."   That includes NASA's robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September.

Russia's RD-180 engines are currently the topic of considerable controversy.  Following Russia's actions in Ukraine, Congress and the Administration became determined to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites.   Efforts are underway to develop a U.S.-built engine to replace it, but there are disputes about the timing of transitioning from the RD-180 powered Atlas V rockets to something new.

The full text of the emailed ULA statement is as follows:

Centennial, Colo., (April 29, 2016) -- ULA successfully delivered the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft to its precise orbit as planned on March 22. During the launch, the system experienced a premature first stage shutdown. Atlas is a robust system. The Centaur upper stage compensated for the first stage anomaly, delivering Cygnus to a precise orbit, well within the required accuracy. The ULA engineering team has reviewed the data and has determined an anomaly with the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly caused a reduction in fuel flow during the boost phase of the flight. In addition to analysis and testing, all RD-180 engines are being inspected.

Last Friday, in preparation for the MUOS-5 launch, the Atlas V completed the Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) operation, erecting the Atlas V into the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. LVOS will allow configuration of the vehicle to support RD-180 engine inspections and confirm all engine components are ready for launch. The Atlas V MUOS-5 launch is targeted for early summer; a new launch date has not been secured on the Eastern Range. The impact to the remainder of the Atlas V manifest is in review with new launch dates being coordinated with our customers. All missions manifested for 2016 are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year, including OSIRIS-REx, which will remain in early September to support its critical science window.

 

HASC Sides With Air Force, ULA on RD-180 Rocket Engines

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Apr-2016 (Updated: 28-Apr-2016 10:57 PM)

In the wee hours overnight, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved an amendment regarding the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rocket.  The Atlas V launches many national security satellites.  Its Russian engines have been a source of contention since Russia annexed Crimea two years ago. The amendment favors ULA and the Air Force versus ULA's competitor, SpaceX.  The committee also adopted an amendment allowing government funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, not just a new engine.

HASC marked up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) beginning at 10:00 am ET on April 27 and ending more than 16 hours later at 2:34 am ET today (April 28).  The very last topic considered just prior to a series of postponed roll call votes was the RD-180 controversy.  HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said it was because negotiations had been underway throughout that time to determine if a compromise could be reached.  Apparently it could not.

The fundamental debate has not changed over the past two years.  There is broad agreement in Congress, the Administration, and industry that the United States should not be dependent on Russian RD-180 rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites and that a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 should be built.  The debate is over the timing of the transition from RD-180 powered Atlas  V rockets to a rocket using a U.S.-built engine.

ULA has been a monopoly provider of national security launches using its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since its creation in 2006.  ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing (Delta IV) and Lockheed Martin (Atlas V).  In 2015, SpaceX was certified to launch national security satellites in competition with ULA.  Yesterday it was formally awarded its first contract for launch of an Air Force GPS satellite.   SpaceX's $82.7 million price reportedly was 40 percent less than what ULA has been charging for GPS launches.

ULA did not bid against SpaceX for that launch, publicly arguing that, among other things, it was precluded from doing so because of the restrictions on how many RD-180 engines it could obtain. (Statements made later by a ULA official called that account into question, however, spurring a DOD Inspector General investigation into whether there were contracting improprieties. The investigation is ongoing.)

ULA officials have also indicated that it is difficult for them to compete against SpaceX on price.  The company is working to reduce costs by building a new rocket, Vulcan, which will use an American-built engine from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.  The question is when Vulcan will be available.  Congress set 2019 as the date by which a new engine must be ready, and there is agreement that is achievable, but the Air Force and ULA argue that it will take 2-3 more years before a launch vehicle using the new engine is certified to launch expensive national security satellites.  They want to buy up to 18 more RD-180 engines to ensure the Atlas V is available until Vulcan is certified.  Previous NDAAs limited that number to nine, however.

U.S. space transportation policy requires that two separate launch vehicle families be available to launch national security satellites in case there is an accident that grounds one of them.  SpaceX advocates argue that its Falcon 9 is one and ULA's Delta IV is the other, and both will be available in 2019 and beyond, so Atlas V is not needed to fulfill the policy.  Others worry that if SpaceX's rocket fails, all national security satellites would have to be launched on the very expensive Delta IV.  Air Force Secretary James estimates the potential pricetag as $1.5 - $5 billion.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), is the most prominent voice in holding the line at only nine more engines.  That position has the support of some HASC members, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who district is near SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.

Air Force and ULA supporters, including HASC's Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), insist that 18 more are required. His district is close to ULA's headquarters in Centennial, CO. Coffman's amendment to raise the number from nine to 18 was adopted by HASC by voice vote.

Hunter intended to offer an amendment to keep the number at nine, but said that it had been ruled out of order.  He insisted that there was no need to commit to 18 now and "line Putin's pockets," referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  "We can get away with with nine or 10 now," he argued, and return to the issue in future years rather than giving Russia "$540 million in direct payments to Russian military modernization." Coffman insisted that the figure of 18 came from the Air Force so that is the requirement.

A long debate ensued about whether the amendment was for 18 or "up to" 18 engines.  A verbal understanding seemed to be reached that "up to 18" was intended, although the amendment says "a total of eighteen." Thornberry pointed out that this is an authorization bill and how many are purchased ultimately is determined by appropriations.  (In fact, the RD-180 issue splits Senate authorizers and appropriators.)

The origin of the 18 number is complicated.  Until last summer, the Air Force and ULA said 14 more RD-180s were needed based on a "block buy" contract that was awarded by the Air Force to ULA in 2013.  The block buy was for 36 launches, 29 of which were Atlas Vs powered by Russia's RD-180s.  At the time of Russia's incursion into Ukraine in 2014, 15 were purchased, leaving 14, of which 5 were under contract.  That left nine.  Congress agreed ULA could continue to procure those.  Last summer, however, William LaPlante, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), wrote a letter to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) asserting that  "up to 18" were needed.  Air Force officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, now use 18, or  "about 18," as the requirement. LaPlante's letter did not explain how the number was derived, saying only it is "a reasonable starting point to mitigate risk associated with assured access to space and to enable competition."  (ULA manufactures its rockets in Shelby's home state of Alabama.  Shelby, a top member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and McCain are battling each other over this issue.)

Another layer of the debate is whether research and development (R&D) funding provided by the government to build a U.S.alternative to the RD-180 can be spent only on a new engine or also on a new launch vehicle to go with it.  HASC has insisted that the money be spent only for a new engine -- that a new launch vehicle is not required.  Others insist that an engine is only part of a launch vehicle and the rest must also be built. 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on the committee (whose district is near Blue Origin's rocket engine manufacturing facility in Kent, WA), offered an amendment that allows not more than 25 percent of the R&D funding to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor, or related infrastructure.  The amendment allocates $100 million and specifies where the money comes from, which does not appear to be all from R&D accounts.  In response to questions from committee members, Smith explained there is $294 million in the bill for development of the engine and there was money in prior years for the same purpose, but it was only allowed to be used only for the engine.  Not all of the prior year money was spent.  "This amendment does not add any money to anything.  It takes out of that $294 million some money to also help those same companies that are developing the engine develop a launch vehicle to go with it."  The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

The debate was fractious, especially considering the hour (approximately 2:00 am ET) and the length of time the committee had been debating the bill (since 10:00 am ET the previous day).

Vostochny -- Second Time's a Charm, But Putin Critical of Rocket Industry

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 11:55 PM)

The first launch from Russia's new Vostochny (Eastern) launch site was successful today, 24 hours after a first attempt was scrubbed just 90 seconds before launch.  Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the launch, staying an extra day for the second try.   During the wait, he criticized "negligent attitudes" in the Russian rocket industry.

Launch of the Soyuz 2-1a rocket was on time at 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (April 28, 5:01 am Moscow Time) and placed three satellites into their initial orbit nine minutes later.  The three satellites are:

  • Lomonosov, or Mikhailo Lomonosov, named after an 18th Century Russian scientist and writer, (625 kilograms), to study high energy cosmic rays, gamma ray bursts, and Earth's magnetosphere;
  • Aist-2D (500 kilograms), built by the Progress space rocket center for spacecraft operation and attitude control and studying the effects of the space environment on the spacecraft; and
  • SamSat-218 (1.4 kilograms), a nanosatellite built by Samara State Aerospace University students for testing algorithms to control such spacecraft.

Russia is building Vostochny to replace or at least reduce its utilization of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan.   Russia has had to lease Baikonur for $115 million per year from the Kazakh government since Kazakhstan gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The construction of Vostochny has been plagued with delays and charges of corruption.  Putin referred to them today during a meeting of the state commission that oversaw the launch.  While insisting that the spaceport was built within standards, there were "certain problems" resulting in six criminal cases and two individuals in jail and another two under house arrest.  "If their guilt is proven, they will have to change their warm beds at home to plank-beds in prison."

He said that Russia is the leader in terms of number of launches, "but it is bad that we're confronted with a larger number of setbacks and the reaction to these setbacks must be timely."  He complained about negligent attitudes in the industry and questioned why there was a technical glitch that recently delayed the launch of Europe's Sentinel satellite on a Soyuz rocket from Kourou.  (The launch was delayed three times, twice for weather and once for technical reasons).

Overall, however, he was pleased that Russia did not abandon the industry as some proposed in the 1990s:  "Thank god we came to our senses, changed our minds in time."

SpaceX Aims to Land Robotic Dragon Spacecraft on Mars In 2018

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 10:35 PM)

SpaceX announced today that it plans to send a robotic version of its Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.  Launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the "Red Dragon" would land on Mars using its own Super Draco rocket engines.  It is a SpaceX mission, but the company has an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA for technical assistance.

Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and lead designer, has made no secret that his overall space goal is sending thousands of people to Mars as a "backup plan" in case a catastrophe destroys Earth or makes it uninhabitable.  He plans to lay out details of his plan at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico at the end of September.

Earlier this week, SpaceX and NASA signed an amendment to an existing unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) setting forth terms for cooperation in the undertaking. NASA's role is only to provide technical support and information, including: deep space communications and telemetry; deep space navigation and trajectory design; entry, descent and landing (EDL) system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic/aerothermal database development; general interplanetary mission and hardware consultation and advice; and planetary protection consultation and advice. The agreement was signed by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell and NASA's Director for Commercial Spaceflight Development Philip McAlister.

In a blog post today, NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman said that among the many activities NASA has underway with American businesses, "we're particularly excited about" this SpaceX project.  "In exchange for Martian entry, descent and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm's plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars."

Musk is well known for announcing bold goals and this certainly fits that bill.  The plan is to launch this mission "as soon as 2018," just two years from now, even though the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket has yet to take place. The Dragon spacecraft has flown to the International Space Station several times, but each time it returns to Earth, it splashes down in the ocean under parachutes.  Using Dragon's own Super Draco engines to land on terra firma is a goal that has not been demonstrated so far, even though that is how the company plans to land on Mars, as shown in this SpaceX illustration. 


SpaceX illustration of Red Dragon landing on Mars.

A hover test of the Super Draco engines has been conducted, however, and they were used in a pad abort test last year.

The Falcon Heavy launch date has slipped several years already and commentators today were skeptical that a 2018 launch to Mars is realistic.  Landing on Mars is a challenge under any circumstances, as NASA's "Seven Minutes of Terror" for the landing of the Curiosity rover in 2012 demonstrated.  Still, Musk's recent success -- after several tries -- in landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship at sea raised his credibility in achieving what he sets out to do.

If successful, this would be the first private sector mission to Mars.  The only attempts to flyby, orbit or land spacecraft on Mars so far have been undertaken by governments and it is a record of mixed success.

SpaceX announced the plans in a series of tweets today.

 

Senate Committee Approves Modified Space Weather Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 06:27 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today favorably reported a modified version of the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, S. 2817.   A revised version of the bill was presented to the committee along with two amendments.

The original bill was introduced last week and quickly scheduled for markup at today's Executive Session. The bipartisan legislation was crafted by Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), all of whom are members of the committee and its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  Peters is the top Democrat on the subcommittee.

The modified version of the bill and amendments by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) were adopted without discussion. 

Most of the changes in the revised bill are of a clarifying or perfecting nature.  Perhaps the most significant is explicitly adding the FAA to the list of agencies in the National Space Weather Program (previously it said only FAA's parent, the Department of Transportation). The revised bill also adds a section directing the FAA Administrator to assess the safety implications and vulnerability of the national airspace system to space weather events, assess methods to mitigate them, assess options for incorporating space weather into pilot training, and develop methods to increase the interaction between the aviation community and the space weather community.

Two Pro-NASA House Members Lose Primaries

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 08:11 AM)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) lost Democratic primary contests yesterday.  Both have been strong NASA supporters holding top Democratic positions on key subcommittees.

Edwards lost to Rep. Chris Van Hollen in a bid to replace Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who is retiring at the end of the year.  In Maryland, politicians can run in only one race, so Edwards and Van Hollen both were precluded from running for their current House seats once they decided to enter the Senate contest.   Edwards once worked for Lockheed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  She is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee where she is an enthusiastic NASA supporter, especially of its plans to send humans to Mars.  She makes no secret of her desire to be one of those to make the trip.

Van Hollen's views on the space program -- civil, military or commercial -- are not well known.  Like Edwards, he represents a district close to Washington, DC, but has been in the House much longer (since 2002) and rose through the Democratic ranks into the House leadership.  He will face Republican Kathy Szeliga in November.   In his victory speech, Van Hollen praised Milkulski and her focus on not only big national issues, but "you never forget the people back home."   That attitude has benefitted NASA, NOAA and associated businesses throughout Mikulski's political career, so if Van Hollen emulates it, that could be good news for those interest groups if he wins.  Maryland is a strongly Democratic state so Van Hollen is thought to have the edge, but whether voters choose him or Szeliga, the Senate system is built largely on seniority and any freshman has modest influence compared to a veteran legislator like Mikulski.  She is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA (and chaired them when Democrats controlled the Senate).

Fattah was the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee, but had to step down from that position last year when he was indicted on federal corruption charges.  He maintains his innocence and is still a member of the House, but gave up his CJS leadership position (now held by Rep. Mike Honda, D-CA).  Although Fattah's Philadelphia district has little connection to the space program, he was a strong supporter of NASA on the CJS subcommittee.  His loss to Dwight Evans was attributed largely to his indictment, along with four others, in connection to his failed 2007 campaign for Mayor of Philadelphia.

NASA has many supporters on Capitol Hill and the loss of three (Mikulski, Edwards and Fattah) hardly spells doom, but it does add a layer of uncertainty to how the agency will fare in future deliberations over government spending priorities.

Russia Delays First Vostochny Launch - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 06:45 AM)

An automatic system shut down Russia's first launch from the new Vostochny launch site in Siberia last night 90 seconds before the scheduled liftoff of a Soyuz 2.1a rocket.  Russia's space corporation Roscosmos hopes to try again today -- 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (which is April 28, 5:01 am Moscow Time).

Russia's official news agency, TASS, quoted an unnamed space industry official as saying that the automatic system "identified a glitch in one of the instruments of the control system responsible for starting and stopping the engines, for the separation of rocket stages, and for the direction of flight."

The launch had been scheduled for April 26, 2016 at 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (April 27, 5:01 am Moscow Time).

Roscosmos officials stressed that the problem is with the rocket, not the spaceport's infrastructure. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin was at Vostochny for the launch and will remain there today with the expectation that it is a 24-hour delay only.  He will use the time to discuss plans for the second and third phases of development of the new spaceport and construction of the town of Tsiolkovsky.

Note:  This article was updated throughout at 6:30 am EDT April 27.

 

Russia's New Vostochny Launch Site Ready for Action

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 11:18 PM)

Russia plans its first launch from the new Vostochny (Eastern) launch site on Tuesday evening Eastern Daylight Time (Wednesday morning, Moscow Time) according to Russia's Tass news agency.  A Soyuz 2.1a rocket will place three small satellites into orbit if all goes according to plan.

Russia's interest in building a new launch site in Siberia to replace or at least reduce its use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union when Kazakhstan gained its independence.  Russia now leases Baikonur from the Kazakh government for $115 million per year with resulting financial and national security ramifications.  Russia has another launch site, Plesetsk, near the Arctic Circle, for launches to high inclination orbits, but Baikonur is used for everything else, including the human spaceflight program.  In terms of utilization, Plesetsk is comparable to Vandenberg Air Force Base and Baikonur to Cape Canaveral and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Initially, Russia planned to build a new launch site at Svobodny (51.4°N, 128.1°E), a former intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) base.  A few space launches did take place from there between 1997 and 2006 using Start-1 rockets (converted SS-25 mobile missiles), but it was closed in early 2007.  Instead, a decision was made later that year to build a new state-of-the-art launch site at Vostochny (51.8°N, 128.3°E), not far away, that would accommodate launches of Russia's new Angara launch vehicles in addition to existing rockets like Soyuz.  Construction started four years later, but was plagued with delays and charges of corruption.   The two Angara tests that have taken place so far were launched from Plesetsk.  Anatoly Zak's RussianSpaceWeb.com provides a comprehensive history of Vostochny and Svobodny

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's aerospace sector, has taken a strong interest in ensuring that Vostochny is completed and regularly tweets (@DRogozin in English; @Rogozin in Russian) about his visits there.  Yesterday he tweeted a photo of the Soyuz rocket on the pad preparing for this week's launch.

Russia's Tass news agency reported on April 19 that although the Soyuz rocket would be ready for launch as early as April 20, Rogozin had said the state commission set April 27 at 5:01 Moscow Time as the launch time.  (Other press reports also cite a potential earlier launch date, but Rogozin presumably is in the best position to know.)  Tass went on to say that Vostochny is "destined to become the first national facility for civilian space launches, ensuring Russia's full-scale access to outer space and reducing the dependence of the Russian space industry on the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan." 

Tass identifies the three satellites aboard the Soyuz rocket as Aist-2D, Mikhailo Lomonosov, and SamSat-218.  SpaceFlightNow.com describes them as follows:  Aist-2D is a 1,170 pound satellite with a hyperspectral imaging camera, innovative P-band radar, and other instruments to study the environment around the spacecraft; SamSat-218 is a student-built (Samara State Aerospace University) satellite about the size of a shoebox with a mission that is both educational and a technology demonstration; and Mikhailo Lomonosov is a 1,000 pound satellite named after an 18th century Russian scientist and writer and namesake of Lomonosov Moscow State University that will study high energy cosmic rays, gamma ray bursts, and Earth's magnetosphere.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy April 25-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2016 (Updated: 24-Apr-2016 10:36 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

After many years of delays, Russia says that it is finally ready to conduct the first launch from its new Siberian launch site, Vostochny.  The launch is April 27 at 5:01 am Moscow Time, which is April 26 (Tuesday) 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  (We should note that some press reports cite a potentially earlier launch date, but Russia's official news agency, TASS, reported on April 19 that the launch is set for April 27 at 5:01 Moscow Time, so that is what we use here.)  Russia's Roscosmos space agency/state corporation sometimes webcasts launches.  If we hear of any other live webcasts, we'll add them to our calendar entry.  Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com has comprehensive information about Russia's decision to build a new launch site within Russia's borders to handle many of the launches that now take place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became an independent country and Russia must lease the facility from the Kazakh government with financial and national security ramifications.  (Russia also has a launch site near the Arctic Circle at Plesetsk for high inclination launches.)

Here in Washington, Congress will be very busy Wednesday morning marking up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (House Armed Services Committee) and the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (Senate Commerce Committee), as well as holding a hearing on DOD's FY2017 budget request (Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee). 

The Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will hold their spring meetings this week.  ASEB meets Monday and Tuesday; SSB Tuesday through Thursday.  The meeting on Tuesday is a joint meeting of both boards.  Unfortunately, we're told there will be no webcast of either Board's meetings, which is a shame because the agendas are chock full of really interesting topics and speakers.  Among them is a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon on the "Future of Low Earth Orbit - Moving Toward a Commercial Market."

Speaking of commercial space, the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meets this week.  Its various working groups meet on Wednesday and the full committee on Thursday.   The agenda was not posted as of this morning, but COMSTAC meetings are always very interesting.

The President of the French space agency, Jean-Yves Le Gall, will speak to the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) on Friday at the University Club.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for additions to our Events of Interest list for events that are announced later.

Monday-Tuesday, April 25-26

Tuesday

Tuesday-Thursday, April 26-28

  • Space Studies Board (National Academy of Sciences), Keck Center, 500 5th Street, NW, Washington, DC (April 26 is joint with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board)

Wednesday, April 27

Wednesday-Thursday, April 27-28

  •  COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington DC

Thursday-Friday, April 28-29

Friday, April 29

NOAA Gets Space Weather Boost from Senate Appropriators

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Apr-2016 (Updated: 23-Apr-2016 03:00 PM)

Two days after three Senators introduced a bill to spur space weather research and forecasting, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a boost for NOAA's space weather satellite program and endorsed its plans to build two new satellites over the next several years. The action came as part of the committee's markup of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (S. 2837).

NOAA is responsible for building and operating satellites that monitor Earth's weather and space weather.  Space weather is caused by particles ejected from the Sun that hit Earth's atmosphere and can damage satellites and terrestrial infrastructure such as the electric grid.  NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point to give advance warning of solar eruptions, but two of the three are quite old.  NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) was launched in 1997 and ESA's Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) in 1995.  A newer satellite, the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), was launched last year, but only SOHO has a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that allow NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO to issue forecasts and alerts.

Concern about the potential impacts of space weather has been growing since they were highlighted in a 2008 National Research Council report.  In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.  

Congress seems to be getting the message.  Last year NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for a follow-on to DSCOVR and Congress cut that in half, appropriating just $1.2 million.  By contrast, this year the request is also $2.5 million, but Senate appropriators tripled it to $7.5 million. 

Perhaps more significantly, the committee endorsed NOAA's plan to increase funding sharply in the coming years to pay for two space weather satellites, two launch vehicles, and two sets of sensors (solar wind instruments and compact coronagraphs). The goal is to have one satellite ready to replace DSCOVR at the end of its projected mission life in FY2022.  In its FY2017 budget request, NOAA presented a projected funding profile to accomplish that plan: FY2018, $53.7 million; FY2019, $186.1 million; FY2020, $154.5 million; and FY2021, $81.5 million.  In its report on the CJS bill, the committee directs NOAA "to maintain the multi-year funding profile and schedule" and use the additional money provided for FY2017 "to accelerate the development of advanced technologies and an architecture study for a series of space weather follow-on flight missions" to implement OSTP's strategy and action plan.

The appropriations action came two days after Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced an authorization bill, S. 2817, to clarify space weather responsibilities and promote research.  That bill, which focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding, is scheduled for mark up by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (April 27).

Overall, NOAA's satellite programs fared well in the Senate appropriations bill.  See SpacePolicyOnline.com's NOAA budget fact sheet for more details. NOAA's major weather satellite programs -- JPSS, GOES-R, and Polar Follow On (PFO) -- were fully funded.

Not everything was approved, though.  Like last year, the committee rejected NOAA's $10 million request to build the Earth Observation Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW).  NOAA describes it as a risk reduction mission to ensure that it can obtain critical microwave sounding observations in case of a launch or instrument failure on JPSS-1.

The committee also rejected an $8.1 million request to build a new set of COSMIC radio occultation (RO) satellites, although it approved $8.1 million for the associated ground system.  The committee encouraged NOAA to use its commercial weather data pilot program to obtain the needed RO data, although it cut NOAA's $5 million request for the pilot program to $3 million (the same as FY2016).  It also denied a $4.4 million request for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite.  The committee said it supports Jason-3, but now that the satellite is in orbit, funding requests for data analysis and processing should be in a different part of NOAA's budget (the Operations, Research and Facilities account).

The top Democrat on the Senate committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), said last week that she expects the CJS bill to reach the Senate floor in 2-3 weeks.  The Senate has not passed any of the 12 regular appropriations bills in several years, but currently is debating the Energy-Water appropriations bill, so perhaps this year will be different.  The House Appropriations Committee, however, has not yet marked up its CJS bill and CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) indicated last week that he is not optimistic that Congress will complete action on appropriations bills by October 1 when FY2017 begins.  He expects agencies will be funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the first part of FY2017.

Events of Interest


 

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