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The State Department today accused China of conducting another antisatellite (ASAT) test on Wednesday. China said that it had conducted a missile intercept test. The distinction between the two operations can be difficult to draw and there continues to be dispute in western circles as to how many ASAT tests China has already conducted.
Everyone agrees that in 2007 China destroyed one of its own satellites with an ASAT weapon. The test was condemned internationally because of the vast debris cloud it created in low Earth orbit -- about 3,000 pieces (the exact number changes as some pieces reenter and new pieces are created by collisions within the debris cloud) -- that threatens all satellites operating in that realm.
There also is agreement that China conducted tests in 2010 and 2013, but whether they were missile intercept or ASAT tests is a matter of debate in western circles. While some western analysts consider them ASAT tests, the U.S. government has not officially characterized them that way.
Therefore, this is only the second time the United States government has directly accused China of conducting an ASAT test and it called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions ... that threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend."
The full statement from the State Department issued today (July 25, 2014 EDT) reads as follows:
"The United States has concluded that on July 23, the People’s Republic of China conducted a non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites. A previous destructive test of this system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an on-going danger to the space systems of all nations, including China. We call on China to refrain from destabilizing actions – such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems – that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend. The United States continuously looks to ensure its space systems are safe and resilient against emerging space threats."
In answer to an emailed query from SpacePolicyOnline.com, Grant Schneider of the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control and Verification and Compliance, replied "We have high confidence in our assessment. We refer to you to Chinese authorities for further information on this anti-satellite test."
China's Xinhua news agency on Thursday said only that it had conducted a successful land-based missile intercept test on July 23 that "achieved its preset goal."
In an emailed exchange this afternoon, Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, noted that China's announcement called it a successful missile intercept test while the State Department referred to it as a "non-destructive test." Weeden observed that China did not mention a designated target for Wednesday's test, unlike the 2010 and 2013 tests where it said the target was launched on a ballistic missile. "There was no mention of that this time," he said, and "My guess is that this test didn't have a designated target."
The United States and the Soviet Union developed ASAT systems early in the Space Age. The fate of the Soviet system is unclear, but it has not been tested since 1982. The United States ended its dedicated ASAT programs by the 1990s. In 2008, however, the United States destroyed one of its own spy satellites (USA-193) using a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser because, it asserted, the satellite was out of control and carried hazardous fuel that posed significant risk to populated areas if it made an uncontrolled reentry. The operation demonstrated an inherent U.S. capability to conduct such operations even though there is no official ASAT program.
Members of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) via live downlink with the committee today (July 24) reflected on this week’s 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 human moon landing and the importance of continuing the nation’s leadership in space.
Committee members asked NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman about, among other topics, the challenges of space debris, the space station’s contributions to society, and the possibility of encountering life on other planets one day (to which Swanson answered “it will happen”).
The ISS is routinely occupied by a six-person crew and is a testbed for future human deep space missions, such as to Mars. Three Russians and one European currently live and work with Swanson and Wiseman on the laboratory flying 250 miles or so above Earth.
“Space inspires future generations to dream big and work hard,” committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) added that she welcomed President Obama’s proposal to extend ISS to at least 2024 and hopes there will be a committee hearing to comprehensively examine the space station’s contributions to human space exploration and basic and applied research.
Following the roughly 20-minute call with the ISS astronauts, the committee offered a showcase of hardware and technologies being tested on the ISS, as well as a panel discussion explaining the ISS research from representatives of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) and NASA.
A webcast of the discussion with the ISS astronauts, including opening statements by Smith and Johnson, is on the committee’s website.
House Speaker John Boehner said today that a House vote on a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the first part of FY2015 would wait until September rather than trying to do it before the House leaves for its August recess.
The House leaves at the end of next week and will return on September 8 and meet for only 10 days that month. The current fiscal year ends on September 30.
Speaking at his weekly briefing with reporters today, Boehner said the CR likely would be voted on in September and last until early December, after the mid-term elections.
CRs usually hold agencies to their previous year's spending levels. NASA received $17.646 million for FY2014. President Obama's FY2015 request was $186 million less than that, but the House-passed and Senate-committee-approved Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills would provide a substantial increase over that request -- a total of about $17.9 billion.
Optimism that the Senate might pass the CJS and two other appropriations bills, combined together into a "minibus" bill, faded last month because of partisan politics dealing with the amendment process. The Senate has not passed any FY2015 appropriations bills yet. The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills including CJS (which funds NASA and NOAA), Defense, and Transportation-HUD (which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation).
Just as the decision to rely on the RD-180 engine was driven by “geopolitical interests,” rather than “space community necessity,” the answer of whether to continue to use the Russian engine or build a U.S. alternative will not be “in the space community’s hands,” says a member of Air Force’s RD-180 Alternative Study.
At an event yesterday hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group and a member of the independent advisory panel that examined alternatives to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, summarized the findings and recommendations of the Air Force-convened panel. Chaired by Major General Howard J. ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, USAF (ret.), the expert panel was asked to submit its report in just 30 days – rather than the original 60 days – because of congressional interest in the study, Hartman explained. While the final report is classified, SpacePolicyOnline.com posted a set of unclassified briefing charts and summarized highlights from them in May.
The panel concluded that the loss of the Russian RD-180s, on which the United States depends to power the Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that are the workhorses of national security space launches, would be “significant.” Although the United States has enough RD-180s for two years’ worth of launches, the current launch manifest would need to be prioritized, costing billions of dollars in delays and in retrofitting existing payloads to launch on other rockets.
In a scenario where the RD-180s disappeared, the United States would lose its ability to use the Atlas V. While the second EELV –Delta IV – is technically capable of launching the satellites now manifested on Atlas V, some question whether the production rate could be accelerated sufficiently to compensate. Therefore, the national security sector would need to rely on new entrants, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have expressed an interest in providing national security space launches.
However, doing so would mean incurring a “great level of risk,” said Hartman. On the one hand it is a question of how soon new entrants would be ready to launch rockets equivalent in capability to Atlas V. The Mitchell panel found that even if new entrants were certified and ready to compete for national security launches in 2015, the first launch would not be before 2017. On the other hand, Hartman said these companies are not advertising that they would meet the full spectrum of national security launches. He added that SpaceX and Blue Origin are “not motivated by national security launches” but see these as a “stepping stone” to other activities.
The second speaker, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, expanded on the policy questions, opportunities and risks of what he said was a “looming crisis.” He argued that the reasons to reconsider U.S. launch options go beyond the current geopolitical situation and include longer-term issues. These include the increasing cost of the EELV program, which includes “imposed costs” that come with the U.S. government’s “way of doing business,” and the interest created by new entrants. In his remarks, Pace highlighted the need to reexamine the benefit of imposing extensive rules and restrictions on industry partners – some that have no value-added – and can sometimes hamper innovation.
To a question about the potential role of foreign partners in this effort, Hartman said that new partnerships would be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He noted that while the Russian engine was the main issue of interest, there is ongoing foreign participation in other components of the EELV program.
Pace said that he sees more opportunities for foreign partners in civil space exploration, including launch infrastructure. For national security launches he thinks it will be commercial rather than international partners.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised NASA's technical progress in building the Space Launch System (SLS) in a report released today, but warned that the agency does not have enough funding to complete the rocket in time for its promised first flight in 2017.
GAO pointed out that most NASA programs are required to have a funding and schedule profile that affords at least a 70 percent chance of success -- a "joint confidence level" or JCL -- and SLS does not have that. The program may be $400 million short of what it needs in order to be ready for the first test launch in 2017 at a 70 percent confidence level, GAO concluded using analysis by the SLS program itself.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conceded in a Senate hearing earlier this year that NASA is not using the 70 percent confidence level for SLS. In a colloquy with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), SLS's strongest supporter in the Senate (it is being built in Alabama), Bolden said: "You can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL and I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for that, that would be unrealistic." He told Shelby he had enough money to be ready to launch in 2017, but also hedged by saying "in fiscal year 2018." Only the first three months of FY2018 are in calendar year 2017 (October-December). Bolden said that he is comfortable with not meeting a 70 percent JCL because SLS relies on mature technology.
SLS is being developed pursuant to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on the one hand, and the Obama Administration on the other. SLS and its Orion spacecraft are intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). The 2017 version of SLS will be able to place 70 metric tons into LEO. Two enhanced versions are planned for the future capable of 105 tons and 130 tons. In some respects SLS/Orion replaces the Bush-era Constellation program; in others it is much the same -- developing a big rocket and a spacecraft to take people to Mars someday.
NASA plans to spend $12 billion on SLS and associated ground systems through the 2017 launch, GAO said, and "potentially billions more" for the future variants.
The first test flight is supposed to take place in 2017. The next flight would not be until 2021. That would be the first to carry a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft. Noting that NASA has not developed plans for SLS beyond that flight, GAO concluded that presents opportunities "to improve long term affordability through competition" to build other elements of the system, such as an improved upper stage.
In today's report, GAO recommends that NASA "develop an executable business case for SLS that matches resources to requirements, and provide to the Congress an assessment of the SLS elements that could be competitively procured for future SLS variants before finalizing acquisition plans for those variants." It adds that "NASA concurred" with the recommendations.
Rumors are circulating that Congress may try to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded after September 30 before they leave for their August recess. Nothing has been decided yet, however.
The House is moving through the 12 regular FY2015 appropriations bills at a fairly fast clip, but none of them has passed the Senate. Hopes that three of the bills could be bundled together as a "minibus" and passed by the Senate died last month over a disagreement about the rules for considering amendments during floor debate. The three bills include two that fund space activities: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), of which NASA and NOAA are part, and Transportation-HUD bill, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The third bill is the Agriculture appropriations.
Congress will be in session this week and next. Then it will recess for the month of August. When they return, the House is scheduled to be in session for only 10 days in September and the first two days of October before recessing to campaign for the November elections. The Senate website does not show how many days it plans to be in session once it returns.
FY2014 ends on September 30. If funding bills -- individually or as a CR -- are not passed by then, the government would have to shut down the unfunded activities. Last year, most of the government was shut down for 16 days. Ninety-eight percent of NASA workers were furloughed.
The shutdown, led by Tea Party Republicans, was over Obamacare and government-wide funding levels. At the time, many Washington pundits argued that the Tea Party lost a lot of support because of the shutdown, but a year later that is not so clear. The Hill reports today that passing a CR before the August recess "could be a way to squelch any talk of a shutdown before it begins."
President Obama met with the two surviving Apollo 11 astronauts and the widow of the third today in the Oval Office. In a statement, he praised NASA for building on their legacy and preparing for the next "giant leap in human exploration."
As part of the celebration of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11's trip to the Moon, Obama met with Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Mike Collins, and Carol Armstrong, widow of Commander Neil Armstrong. The meeting was memorialized in a photo posted on NASA's website (without a photo credit).
President Obama meets with Apollo 11's Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin (facing the camera) and NASA Administrator
Obama's brief statement contained no new policy guidance. He hit upon the familiar civil space themes of his administration -- NASA's role in inspiring others, including himself, to "dream bigger and reach higher," and NASA's new partnerships with the commercial sector. NASA is building on the legacy of Apollo 11 and its crew by preparing for the next steps in exploration "including the first visits of men and women to deep space, to an asteroid, and someday to the surface of Mars," he said, all in partnership with the commercial sector.
Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969. Armstrong and Adrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon on July 20. They returned home, splashing down in the Pacific, on July 24.
As America celebrates the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing of astronauts on the Moon, China is providing an update on its robotic Yutu rover that arrived on the lunar surface last December. Yutu suffered a malfunction that prevents it from moving across the lunar surface, but it is still transmitting back to Earth. Its designers now speculate that it was damaged by collisions with rocks. Meanwhile, the Chang'e-5 robotic lunar sample return mission apparently has been delayed until 2020.
The 140-kilogram, six-wheeled Yutu rover is part of the Chang'e-3 mission, which landed on December 14, 2013. Chang'e-3 is a stationary lander that delivered Yutu to the lunar surface. The two are named after Chang'e, China's mythological goddess of the Moon, and her pet rabbit, Yutu (Jade Rabbit).
Yutu rolled off Chang'e-3 on December 15, 2013 and began its trek across the lunar surface. The Moon has a 28-day cycle during which 14 days are in sunlight ("day") and 14 days are darkness ("night"). Yutu's primary power source is its solar panels and therefore was designed to operate during the "day" and hibernate at "night," refolding its instruments and other key equipment into an internal compartment where a small radioisotope heating unit provides enough warmth to protect them from the bitter cold (minus 180 degrees Celsius) of the lunar night. The plan was for Yutu to survive three day-night cycles, roving across the lunar surface during the day to collect geological and resource information from a variety of sites.
The process worked the first time, but then "a mechanical malfunction" occurred and the rover could no longer move. Official Chinese sources provided little information about the cause, but acknowledged in March that the equipment failed to return to its folded, protected state as the second night period commenced.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reports today (July 21), however, that Yutu's deputy chief designer, Zhang Yuhua, said that rover may have been damaged by colliding with rocks. She said the terrain at the landing site was quite different than expected -- "almost like a gravel field."
Yutu remains motionless just 20 meters from its landing point. It is still transmitting back to Earth, however, after seven lunar cycles, four more than planned, On that level, at least, the mission is a success even though it cannot rove. Previously, Chinese sources said that roving was a critical aspect of the scientific mission because Yutu was intended to investigate different sites on the Moon. Today, however, Yutu's chief designer, Wu Weiren, is quoted by Xinhua as saying that "fortunately, the rover has completed its designated scientific and engineering tasks."
Chang'e-3 is part of China's second phase of robotic lunar exploration. The first phase involved the launch of two lunar orbiters Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2, in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Phase 2 is Chang'e-3 and its twin, Chang'e-4, both lander/rovers. At last report, Chang'e-4 was intended to be launched in 2015, although that schedule could change if the design needs modification.
The third phase is a robotic lunar sample return mission with Chang'e-5. Chinese officials said as recently as March that Chang'e-5 would be launched in 2017, but today's Xinhua states that it will launch "around 2020."
Chang'e-5 will use China's new Long March 5 rocket, a "heavy lift" launch vehicle still in development that will be roughly equivalent to the U.S. Delta IV Heavy. China is building a new launch site for the Long March 5, Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, on Hainan Island. Whether the delay in launching Chang'e-5 is due to the spacecraft, launch vehicle or launch site is unclear. The U.S. Department of Defense's most recent annual report on China's military and security developments says that the first Long March 5 launch has been delayed to 2015 (from 2014) because of manufacturing difficulties.
This week's list of upcoming space policy events starts with tonight -- Sunday, July 20, the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. At 10:39 pm EDT, NASA TV will replay footage of the historic moment of hatch opening and other events. More commemorative Apollo 11 45th anniversary events are planned throughout the week, as listed below.
During the Week
Apollo 11 45th anniversary: Commemorative events continue tomorrow (Monday) when the Operations and Checkout building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be renamed in honor of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away in 2012. His Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, will participate in the ceremony, along with Armstrong's backup for the mission, Jim Lovell. The event begins at 10:15 am EDT. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana -- both former astronauts -- also will be there, along with a live video hookup with the two NASA astronauts who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS) right now, Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman.
On Thursday, July 24, the anniversary of Apollo 11's return from the Moon, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will have a live video hookup with Swanson and Wiseman at 11:00 am EDT followed by an event that showcases ISS research and features a panel discussion with three leaders in the ISS research field (12:00-2:00 pm EDT). Then, at 3:00 pm PACIFIC time (6:00 pm Eastern), NASA will hold a panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego. That features Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Jim Green, the head of NASA's planetary science division, JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi, best known as the "Mohawk guy" from the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and astronaut Mike Fincke. A media availability with the panel members follows the discussion.
Other Events: On Wednesday, the Marshall Institute will hold a panel discussion on the national security launch industrial base. Josh Hartman, who was one of the members of the "Mitchell panel" that recently reviewed options for dealing with the possibility that the supply of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket could be disrupted, will talk about "issues and opportunities," along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. That's from 9:00-10:30 am EDT at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC.
NASA's Ames Research Center in California is the venue for the "Exploration Science Forum" from July 21-23, and NewSpace 2014, the annual conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, begins on July 24 in San Jose, CA.
Lots of other events are on tap, as listed below based on what we know as of Sunday afternoon, July 20.
Sunday, July 20
Monday, July 21
Monday-Wednesday, July 21-23
Tuesday, July 22
Wednesday, July 23
Wednesday-Thursday, July 23-24
Thursday, July 24
Thursday-Saturday, July 24-26
The National Research Council (NRC) released a report today that makes no bones about its skepticism regarding the utility of 3-D printing in space at the present time, saying claims in the popular press are “exaggerated” and it is no “magic solution.”
Formally called “additive manufacturing,” this technology allows three-dimensional (3-D) parts to be built directly from computer files. It has been in use terrestrially since the 1980s and is becoming more wide-spread. Using it in space presents unique challenges, however. The vacuum, lack of gravity and intense thermal fluctuations are obstacles that must be overcome; they are important not only in completing the manufacturing process, but in the integrity of the final product, according to the NRC.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert D. Latiff (Ret.), who chaired the NRC committee, and his colleagues found that while 3-D printing “is a fairly mature technology for components that can be manufactured on the ground, its application in space is not feasible today, except for very limited and experimental purposes.”
“Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” Latiff said in a press release. Even in the longer term, it will be “one more tool in the toolbox” and “not a magic solution.”
That is not to say that the committee rejected the idea of in-space 3-D printing entirely. Indeed, the report begins by saying it has “the potential to positively affect human spaceflight operations by enabling the in-orbit manufacturing of replacement parts and tools,” thereby reducing logistics requirements for the International Space Station (ISS) and human trips beyond low Earth orbit. However, the “specific benefits and potential scope … remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term.”
As for the longer term, “[w]hat can be accomplished in the far future depends on many factors, including decisions made today by NASA and the Air Force.” The study was sponsored by those two entities and offering them advice is the focus of the NRC report.
Many of the recommendations involve the two working together in this field. Indeed, the report’s first recommendation is that NASA and the Air Force jointly “research, identify, develop and gain consensus on standard qualification and certification methodologies for different applications,” and bring in other government agencies and industry as well. The committee also recommends a joint cost-benefit analysis of 3-D printing for building smaller, more reliable satellite systems or their key components.
Among the committee’s recommendations for NASA alone is that the agency sponsor a workshop to bring together experts in the field and improve communications internally and externally since input from multiple disciplines is required. It should also create an agency-wide technology roadmap and quickly identify experiments that it can develop and test aboard the ISS while that facility is still available. Under current plans, ISS will operate until 2024, just 10 more years.
The Air Force should also develop a roadmap, conduct a systems-analytic study of the operational utility of spacecraft and their components produced with 3-D printing, and “make every effort” to cooperate with NASA on technology development. That includes conducting its own research on the ISS, jointly sharing the costs and the results with NASA.
Both agencies should consider increased investments in education and training of materials scientists with this expertise and spacecraft designers and engineers with deep knowledge of the use and development of 3-D printing, the committee recommended.
Latiff is a materials scientist himself and spent part of his military career at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Later he was vice president, chief engineer, and technology officer for SAIC’s space and geospatial intelligence unit. He is a former chair of the NRC’s National Materials and Manufacturing Board (of which he is still a member) and of the NRC’s Air Force Studies Board. A full roster of committee members is provided in the report, which can be downloaded for free from the website of the National Academies Press.
Events of Interest