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A Russian spacecraft carrying a menagerie of animals that have been in orbit for a month is scheduled to land tonight, Saturday, May 18, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).
The Bion-1M capsule was launched on April 19, the first of a new generation of Bion spacecraft. NASA and Russia's space agency collaborated on many of the earlier Bion flights, which ended in 1996 after U.S. animal rights groups protested the use of monkeys for such experiments. One of the two monkeys on the 1996 flight died after it returned to Earth.
This flight carries no monkeys, but mice, gerbils, geckos, snails, and containers with various microorganisms and plants. The flight has been dubbed an "orbital Noah's Ark" or a "space zoo" because of the variety of animals aboard. NASA is a partner in the fight, providing Animal Enclosure Units and participating in rodent research.
Landing is expected at 10:12 pm EDT (which will be May 19, 7:12 am Moscow Time, or May 19, 03:12 GMT) 82 kilometers north of Orenburg according to Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com and Bob Christy at zarya.info. Both have posted the ground track for the reentry.
NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has lost a second reaction wheel, but top officials with the project stressed today that they are not calling it quits yet.
The hastily called teleconference with reporters this afternoon suggested a dire situation, but Kepler principal investigator Bill Borucki and Deputy Project Manager Charlie Sobeck, both with NASA's Ames Research Center, insisted that while the news was not so good, it did not mean the Kepler mission is over.
They stressed two points. First, although Kepler cannot produce the type of scientific data on planets around other stars -- exoplanets -- for which it has become famous with only two of its four reaction wheels functioning, they have not given up on ultimately getting one of the two malfunctioning wheels to operate once again. Reaction wheel 2 was turned off last year when it showed signs of failure; reaction wheel 4 failed yesterday. Second, even if Kepler no longer can produce new exoplanet data, two years of archived data await investigation so new discoveries are likely anyway.
Borucki said repeatedly that Kepler was designed to operate for four years, and it has operated for four years. It has done what it was designed to do -- search for Earth-size planets around other stars within the star's habitable zone (and thus candidates for harboring life) and determine whether such planets are frequent or rare. Kepler uses the transit method to detect planets by searching for a dimming of a star as the planet passes in front of it. Borucki said that few astronomers believed it was possible to detect exoplanets in this manner and he had to submit his idea for funding again and again and again. Ultimately he succeeded. When asked what he is feeling today, with two malfunctioning reaction wheels that could mean the end of new data acquisition, he said he was "elated with how much we've accomplished." While it would be "frosting on the cake" if it lasted another four years, "we have an excellent cake" already, he exclaimed.
Sobeck said that Kepler has cost about $600 million to date, and the current spend rate is $20 million per year. Kepler has completed its primary mission and now is an extended mission phase for an additional two years. NASA holds "senior reviews" every two years where experts decide which missions to continue funding, since there is a finite amount of money for mission operations. NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz said at today's teleconference that the next senior review for Kepler is in 2014 where a decision will be made as to whether the spacecraft continues to return scientific data that warrants continued funding. The agency will be conducting studies over the next several months to determine what science can be obtained from Kepler if the two reaction wheels remain out of commission as well as alternative methods for pointing the telescope with the extreme precision required to obtain the exoplanet data. The spacecraft has thrusters, but all of that fuel would be quickly consumed if it was used to maintain pointing accuracy instead of using the reaction wheels.
Hertz stressed that this is NASA's "first, not our last, exoplanet mission." Next is the recently-approved Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), scheduled for launch in 2017, which will search for the exoplanets that are closest to our solar system. Then the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in late 2018, will study the atmospheres of selected exoplanets to determine if life might exist there. Both will build on the data from Kepler.
Sobeck conceded that the Kepler team is "saddened" by the news that a second reaction wheel failed, imperiling the telescope's mission, but the mood of the teleconference was upbeat. He said Kepler is "not down and out," though they do not know yet what its performance level will be in the future. Borucki agreed: "I wouldn't be a pessimist here. I wouldn't write it off at this point."
If the spacecraft's precision pointing capability cannot be regained, they stressed repeatedly that there are two years worth of data yet to be mined and more exoplanets to be discovered.
If you believe China's account, it launched a geophysical sounding rocket yesterday. If you believe Bill Gertz, it was an antisatellite (ASAT) test.
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported that it launched a sounding rocket at 9:00 pm (Beijing Time) Monday with a scientific payload to study energetic particles and magnetic fields. The launch was from the Xichang space launch site near Chengdu.
Bill Gertz, senior editor at the Washington Free Beacon and a columnist for the Washington Times, however, reports that it was an ASAT test disguised as a space exploration rocket. He describes it as "the first test of a new ground-launched anti-satellite missile" whose existence, he says, was first reported by the Free Beacon in October.
Some U.S. experts on China's space program expected an ASAT test in January that did not materialize. Greg Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that the United States should try to convince China not to conduct the test. China's successful 2007 ASAT test against one of its own weather satellites created over 3,000 pieces of space debris that earned it international condemnation. That launch also was from Xichang, but used a different rocket.
Gertz quoted a Pentagon spokesperson as saying only that they do not comment on intelligence matters. Reporters did not ask questions about it at the daily State Department briefings yesterday or today.
The Pentagon released its most recent congressionally-required annual assessment of military and security developments involving China last week -- often called the "China military power" report. The topic of ASATs was not raised during a press conference with David Helvey, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, and the report itself says little new about China's space or counter-space activities.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has become quite the media star during his tour of duty aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which comes to a close tonight. He and two crew mates are scheduled to land at 10:31 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). He made some nifty videos up there -- here are two of our favorites, plus one other all-time-great.
Hadfield, who was the first Canadian ISS Commander, brought his guitar with him and recorded his version of David Bowie's Space Oddiity ("Major Tom"). Watch at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=KaOC9danxNo#
He also did a number of videos to show what life is like on the ISS. Our favorite shows what happens when you wring a wet washcloth in microgravity. Might surprise you! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMtXfwk7PXg
And in case anyone missed it, NASA astronaut and ISS Commander Suni Williams gave a terrific tour of the ISS on her final day in space last year. The ISS really isn't very big in terms of living space -- the comparison to being the size of a football field includes the solar arrays. The interior is the size of a 5-bedroom house, but on her tour, it looks a lot roomier. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doN4t5NKW-k
Meanwhile, NASA TV will cover the undocking and landing of Hadfield, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn tonight in their Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft. Undocking is at 7:08 pm EDT; landing at 10:31 pm EDT.
Jeff Bingham, a key staffer in congressional decisions about the future of NASA's program for the past eight years, has announced that he is leaving the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Bingham will continue to work with the committee over the next several weeks transitioning his responsibilities to a new team led by Bailey Edwards. He plans to remain deeply involved in space issues, but his specific plans were not announced.
Bingham was chief of staff to then-Senator Jake Garn (R-UT) from 1974-1990. Garn, a former Navy pilot, served as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee that funded NASA (at that time the VA-HUD subcommittee) and became the first politician to fly on a space shuttle mission (STS-51D in 1985).
Bingham left the Senate in 1990, and after three years at SAIC, moved to NASA where, among other assignments, he began writing a history of the space station program from a political perspective. In 2005, he returned to the Senate and became a staffer for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), a very influential Senator who helped craft recent NASA authorization acts, including the 2010 NASA authorization act that created a compromise between Congress and the Obama Administration on the future of the human spaceflight program (i.e., proceeding with the Obama Administration's proposal for commercial crew while also directing NASA to build its own new large space launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, and the Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit).
Hutchison retired from the Senate at the end of the 112th Congress and Bingham has now decided to follow suit, though he stresses that he is not retiring from being an advocate for the space program. For those of us still anxious to read his history of the space station program, we can only hope he now will have time to finish it.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Perhaps the most intriguing event this week is Thursday's House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Oversight Subcommittee hearing on "Espionage Threats at Federal Laboratories: Balancing Scientific Cooperation While Protecting Critical Information." No NASA witnesses are on the list, but it would be surprising if the agency is not a subject of discussion.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) made headlines earlier this year with allegations that a Chinese national, Bo Jiang, was stealing secrets from NASA's Langely Research Center. Jiang was arrested, but later exonerated of a felony charge of lying to federal investigators. Wolf has raised concerns for some time about alleged improprieties regarding ITAR-controlled information at NASA's Ames Research Center. Wolf chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and works closely with House SS&T Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) on this issue. They jointly sent a letter to the FBI and to the Department of Justice Inspector General about their concerns about NASA-Ames this spring (links to the letters are on Rep. Wolf's website). Witnesses on Thursday are Chuck Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering (and President Emeritus of MIT); Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (and former Asian Studies Center director at the Heritage Foundation); Michelle Van Cleave, Senior Research Fellow at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute (she was the National Counterintelligence Executive in the George W. Bush Administration and once was a staffer on the House SS&T Committee); and David Major of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies (a retired FBI agent, his company trains people in counterintelligence and related topics). Should be interesting!
Monday, May 13
Tuesday, May 14
Tuesday-Wednesday, May 14-15
Thursday, May 16
Two International Space Station (ISS) crew members successfully replaced a coolant pump in the ISS electrical system today, but there was no sign of the leak that led to this unprecedented ISS spacewalk.
Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy completed their tasks about an hour ahead of schedule today, finishing the spacewalk in 5.5 hours. One objective of the spacewalk, successfully executed, was replacing an ammonia pump used to cool a solar array channel that provides electricity for the ISS. There are eight channels, one for each solar array. ISS crew members noticed "snowflakes" emanating from one of them on Thursday, signalling an ammonia leak. That channel had shown signs of leaks in the past, origin unknown, but this time the amount was much greater.
NASA decided to conduct an emergency spacewalk not because the leak posed a threat to the space station or the astronauts, but because they hoped to spot the source of the leak while ammonia was still being released. That part of the assignment was unrealized. When Marshburn and Cassidy arrived at the site, there was no sign of an ammonia leak. They replaced the pump because it was one obvious source of the problem, and when the new pump was activated, no leak was observed. That might be a cause for celebration, but NASA officials stressed at a post-spacewalk news conference that it will be many weeks before they feel they are certain the new pump resolves the issue.
"We are happy. We are very happy," said ISS Deputy Program Manager Joel Montalbano about the overall success of the spacewalk. This is the first time in the "increment" ISS missions that a spacewalk has been planned and executed in such a short period of time. The desire to view the leak as it was occurring, and the experience of Marshburn and Cassidy -- who conducted two spacewalks together on a 2009 space shuttle mission, including working in this area of the ISS -- drove the decision to move quickly. Marshburn will be returning to Earth on Monday after almost 5 months on the space station, so today was a unique opportunity.
In a spacewalk characterized as unprecedented for the International Space Station (ISS), two U.S. astronauts will venture outside their home in space Saturday morning to see if they can find and fix a vexing ammonia leak in the ISS electrical power system.
Tom Marshburn has been preparing for his return to Earth on Monday after nearly 5 months in space. NASA officials stressed today that there is no change to the plan for Marshburn and two other ISS crewmembers to come home on Monday, but first he gets another chance to do a spacewalk.
Marshburn and Chris Cassidy, who is part of a different set of ISS crewmembers that is remaining onboard the station, have already done two spacewalks together (on STS-127 in 2009) and worked in the area where they need to go tomorrow. Their experience helped NASA officials decide that it was OK to go ahead with this spacewalk with less than 48 hours notice. NASA chief flight director Norm Knight said that performing a spacewalk with so little advance planning is "precedent setting" for ISS missions (called "increments"), though perhaps not for space shuttle flights.
ISS crewmembers observed "snowflakes" coming off one of the ISS solar array trusses yesterday that was quickly determined to be an ammonia leak in one of the eight power channels that provide electricity. There is one power channel for each solar array. Ammonia is used as a coolant.
This leak is in the vicinity of a previous leak that NASA was never able to identify so it is not known if something happened to increase that leak or if this is something unrelated. ISS program manager Mike Suffredini stressed the difficulty of finding leaks, which may come from very tiny holes, perhaps caused by a Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) hit. Or the leak may be from a seal in the pump. They simply don't know. Marshburn and Cassidy will do a visual inspection and replace the pump.
The decision to do a spacewalk quickly was driven largely by the desire to observe the leak when a lot of ammonia is being released precisely so that the source can be identified. The ammonia in the system is expected to be depleted in a day or so.
The opportunity to discover the source of the leak coupled with the experience of these two ISS crew members were major factors in the decision to go ahead with the spacewalk tomorrow, Suffredini said. It is not a matter of an emergency situation aboard the station. The crew is in no danger from the leak and the ISS can operate with minimal impact using the other seven channels. If the astronauts cannot identify the source of the leak and replacing the pump does not remedy the situation, the ISS can continue operating almost normally at least in the short term. For the long term, operating with only seven instead of eight electrical channels could reduce the amount of research that can be conducted. This is "not critical from a safety standpoint," Suffredini said, but "if we have to live with this channel down for a long period of time" it will have an impact on research. The main purpose of the ISS is to serve as a scientific research laboratory for experiments that need to be conducted in microgravity.
Marshburn and Cassidy are scheduled to open the hatch to exit the ISS at 8:15 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tomorrow morning (7:15 am Central Daylight Time). During the 6 hour 15 minute spacewalk, they will inspect the area of the leak and replace the pump. They then will inspect each other's spacesuits for signs of ammonia contamination since NASA knows there is a lot of leaked ammonia in the area. A 30-45 minute "bake out" period will ensue as a precaution to allow any unnoticed ammonia to evaporate. They will then reenter the airlock and pressurize it to 5 pounds per square inch (psi) where another test will be conducted to ensure they are not bringing any ammonia into the station before full repressurization.
Marshburn, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield remain on schedule to return to Earth on Monday, May 13, in their Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft. Undocking is scheduled for 7:08 pm EDT, with landing at 10:31 pm EDT (8:31 am May 14 local time at the landing site in Kazakhstan). They were launched on December 19, 2012.
NASA TV will cover tomorrow's spacewalk beginning at 7:00 am EDT (6:00 am CDT). It also will cover the landing on Monday, as detailed in NASA's press release.
NASA will hold a press briefing at 4:00 pm ET (3:00 pm CT) today about the ammonia leak on the International Space Station (ISS).
The briefing will be broadcast on NASA TV. ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini and NASA Chief Flight Director Norm Knight will discuss plans for assessing and fixing the leak, which ISS crew members noticed yesterday. A final decision on whether to conduct a spacewalk on Saturday is expected later today.
NASA reports that astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) noticed a significant exterior ammonia leak beginning about 11:30 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today. The agency stresses that the astronauts are in no danger.
The crew noticed small white flakes floating away from a portion of one of the solar arrays where part of the cooling system is located. Ammonia is used as a coolant for the power channels that provide electricity generated by the solar arrays. Crew observations and images obtained from exterior cameras operated by ground controllers confirmed that it is in the same area where a leak was investigated during a November 2012 spacewalk.
NASA said it is making plans to reroute other power channels to ensure full operation of the space station. The leak rate is so high that a complete shutdown of that cooling loop might be required in the next 48 hours.
Events of Interest