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Get Your Cube Quest Challenge Entries Ready!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Nov-2014 (Updated: 22-Nov-2014 08:46 AM)

Registration for NASA's Cube Quest (CQ) Challenge opens on December 2, 2014.  Prizes are offered for putting a cubesat into stable lunar orbit or for communicating the most amount of data in certain time frames or for the longest period of time or from the greatest distance in cis-lunar or trans-lunar space.

The CQ Challenge is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program and has a total prize purse of $5 million.

Prizes will be awarded for:

  • putting a cubesat into a stable lunar orbit
  • communicating the largest amount of data from the lunar distance in
    • a 30 minute time frame and
    • in a 28 day time frame
  • communicating the largest amount of data from 4 million kilometers from Earth
    • in a 30 minute time frame and
    • in a 28 day time frame
  • for being the last cubesat communicating and
  • for communicating from the furthest distance from Earth

The opening of registration for this challenge is announced in the November 24, 2014 Federal Register (distributed electronically on November 22), which directs interested individuals to a website that, as of the time of publication of this article (8:30 am November 22), is not working [http://www.nasa.gov/cubequest].  Presumably it will be working by the time registration opens on December 2.  Until then, the main website for the Centennial Challenges program may be helpful, though this particular competition does not seem to be posted there yet, either.

The competition ends one year after the "NASA-provided launch opportunity is launched for the challenge."

Culberson Named New House Appropriations CJS Chair

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2014 (Updated: 20-Nov-2014 05:28 PM)

The House Appropriations Committee announced today that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) will succeed Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) as chair of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee in the 114th Congress.  Wolf is retiring.

Culberson said in a press statement that it is a "real privilege" to succeed Wolf and it will be "a source of great joy for me to help lift up NASA and the NSF to ensure that America will always lead the world in space exploration and scientific discoveries."

Culberson's district includes Houston, home to NASA's Johnson Space Center.  He is a member of the CJS subcommittee now and an ardent advocate for robotic planetary exploration, particularly a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa.  Culberson and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA, whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Lab) are the key proponents for adding money for a Europa mission to NASA's budget even though the agency did not have plans to pursue such a mission at the current time.

The most recent National Research Council (NRC) planetary science Decadal Survey identified Europa as the second priority for a flagship-class mission (behind returning a sample of Mars to Earth), but Congress added $75 million in FY2013 (about $69 million after required reductions due to across-the-board cuts that year) and $80 million in FY2014 for NASA to conduct studies and begin preliminary work on a Europa mission.  In response, the Obama Administration requested $15 million for Europa in its FY2015 budget request, but it was a one-time request (there is nothing in the projected budget for the next four years).  Congress is still working on the FY2015 appropriations bills, but the House added $85 million in the version of the CJS bill it passed in May.  The Senate Appropriations Committee did not add money for the mission, but expressed support and directed NASA to design it to be launched on the Space Launch System.  At the time of the Decadal Survey, the mission was estimated to cost $4.7 billion.  JPL subsequently developed a downscaled concept -- Europa Clipper -- with an approximately $2 billion pricetag.

Note:  This article was updated on November 20 at 5:20 pm ET with the quote from Culberson reacting to being named chairman.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).  Photo Credit:  Rep. Culberson's website.

Speculation that Culberson would succeed Wolf has been rampant for the past year.  In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger in December 2013, Culberson laid out his views on NASA:

  • Regarding NASA's proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission:  "It's not gonna happen."
  • On whether NASA instead should focus on returning humans to Moon:  "Yes.  Absolutely." 
  • On whether he agrees with Wolf on not allowing U.S.-China space cooperation:  "Yes."
  • On planetary science and a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa:  "...I'm particularly energized about the planetary science program... I'm certain that there's life elsewhere in the universe. And I'm also certain that the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa."

Wolf remains chair of the subcommittee until the end of the 113th Congress.  Culberson will take over in the 114th Congress, which convenes on January 3, 2015.

The CJS subcommittee funds NASA, NSF, the Department of Commerce (including NOAA), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the Department of Justice, and a number of smaller "related agencies."

ATK Continues To Support Merger with Orbital Sciences

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Nov-2014 (Updated: 19-Nov-2014 05:51 PM)

In an investors call this afternoon, ATK confirmed that its Board of Directors continues to support its merger with Orbital Sciences Corporation despite the October 28 Antares launch failure.  The shareholder vote has been postponed to January 27, 2015, but the ATK Board recommends that the merger go forward.

ATK has concluded that risks associated with Orbital's recovery plan are "manageable," and successful execution is "likely." 

"ATK Board of Directors continues to support the merits of the transaction and recommends shareholders vote to approve issuance of ATK shares to Orbital shareholders in connection with the merger," the company said in its presentation.

The two companies announced a "merger of equals" in April, but the explosion of Orbital's Antares rocket on October 28 at Wallops Island, VA is a complicating event. Antares was launching a Cygnus spacecraft filled with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Orbital's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. 

Just one week after the accident, Orbital revealed its recovery plan to fulfill that contract, which requires Orbital to launch 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016.  To do that, Orbital will consolidate the remaining tonnage of cargo into four rather than five more launches, made possible by already planned upgrades to Cygnus and Antares.  The upgraded Cygnus was already scheduled to be introduced on the next launch, and Orbital will accelerate bringing a new version of Antares on line with a different rocket engine.  Until that new rocket is ready, expected in 2016, Orbital will use other companies' rockets to launch Cygnus.  Those details are still pending.

What new engine will be used for Antares is a matter of considerable speculation.  Neither Orbital nor ATK has said what it is.  Antares has been using AJ26 engines, which are Russian NK-33 engines built more than 40 years ago, purchased and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.   During an investors call on November 5, Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson referred to ongoing technical and supply problems with the AJ26. 

Though there was no hard news today during the ATK investors call about what new engine has been selected, the presentation did note Orbital's plan to "accelerate the introduction of a new Antares propulsion system upgrade in 2016" before summarizing its assessment of Orbital's plan as being reasonable.  The company did add, however, that it would continue to "work closely with Orbital to monitor progress on the recovery and go-forward plan."

Looking For a Job In Space Policy? NASA's Got an Opening - But Hurry!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2014 (Updated: 17-Nov-2014 10:19 PM)

NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has an opening for a public policy expert to join its policy team.  Applications are due by November 24, 2014.

The posting is on the USA Jobs website and is for a GS12/13 "program planning specialist," but the position description is primarily about policy.  

DO NOT CONTACT SPACEPOLICYONLINE.COM ABOUT THIS OPENING.  NASA asked us to help spread the word -- that's our only involvement.  We don't know any more about the job than what's in the posting.   Apply through the USA JOBS website.

Here is the three paragraph section that describes the duties. 

As a Program Planning Specialist, responsibilities are broad and include: strong emphases on the management of Science Mission Directorate (SMD) relations and communications with external groups; serving as policy expert to develop and maintain relationships with various stakeholders in the government, private industry, and universities to further the agency's research or technology development efforts; and serving as the organizational spokesperson at public meetings, formal and informal, on extremely technical and complex program activities.

Provides policy advice and guidance on broad projects and science programs. Position requires extensive interpretation of space policy documents such as executive, legislative or judicial papers or draft legislation, and advising management on revisions to existing agency policies and programs to meet requirements. Conducts a wide variety of comprehensive space policy studies and detailed analysis of complex functions, processes and space policy issues related to science program planning in order to advise on organizational or process changes. Produces complex space policy analyses and written reports; including draft policies, briefing papers, draft congressional testimony, draft correspondence, congressional reports, staff briefings, and responses to Legislative and Executive Branch review actions used by key Agency Officials in planning domestic and international earth and space science research.

Develops or fosters cross-agency activities or organization of special committees. The individual selected would join a small space policy team focused on providing policy support to over 90 space missions that span Astrophysics, Earth Science, Heliophysics, Planetary Science, and various reimbursable projects for other agencies. The space policy team manages SMD's relations with external groups, including Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, educational entities, international and interagency partners, and external advisory committees and boards. In partnership with other SMD Divisions, the policy team also supports the SMD Associate Administrator by providing integrated policy guidance, strategy, and focused advocacy for NASA's science program.

Images Show Philae's First Bounce, Ulamec Optimistic Will Hear from It Again

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2014 (Updated: 17-Nov-2014 10:47 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) today released new images taken by its Rosetta spacecraft of the Philae lander as it made a first landing on Comet 67P and then bounced on November 12.  Also today, the German Aerospace Center, DLR, issued a concise summary of very preliminary science results from Philae.  The fate of the lander, which bounced twice and landed three times, sparked interest around the world last week as its battery died and contact was lost.  Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec is optimistic, however, that communications will be restored next year.

Philae is funded by a consortium led by DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt) and was controlled and monitored by DLR's Lander Control Center in Cologne, Germany.  The lander is part of ESA's Rosetta mission.  Rosetta and Philae spent 10 years reaching Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, arriving in August 2014.  The two spacecraft separated on November 12.  Philae made its first landing on the comet about 7 hours later.  Harpoons that were intended to hold Philae in place on the surface did not fire, however, and the lander bounced twice. 

ESA still does not know where its final landing took place.  Rosetta serves as a communications link between Philae and Earth in addition to conducting its own science investigations as it orbits the comet.  It continues to look and listen for Philae.  Rosetta will stay with the comet as it journeys into toward the Sun, studying it as the ices melt and create the classic comet's tail.   It is the first spacecraft to orbit a comet and Philae is the first spacecraft to land on a comet. 

Today ESA released a mosaic of images taken by the Osiris camera on Rosetta that shows Philae as it descended to the surface (minutes 15:14 to 15:23), touched down (minute 15:43), only to fly off again into space (minute 15:43 on far right).  It landed again about 2 hours later, bounced again, and landed a third time about 7 minutes after that.  Since the final landing site is not known, there are no images yet of those events.

Images of Philae as it landed on Comet 67P and bounced the first time.  November 12, 2014.  Times (hour:minute) are in GMT.
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The hope is that with these images ESA and DLR at least know the direction in which the lander headed and perhaps they will be able to locate it using Rosetta's instruments.  All they know now is that Philae is surrounded by rocks that block sunlight from reaching Philae's solar panels so its batteries can be recharged.  After 57 hours of work, its primary battery was depleted and the lander entered hibernation.   Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla was at ESA's European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany as Philae gamely executed its commands despite dwindling energy -- including an improvised lift-and-turn motion that rotated the lander's body 35 degrees in the hope of getting more sunlight on the solar panels -- and provides a compelling account of those last minutes.

Last minutes for now, that is.  Ulamec is optimistic that as the comet continues its journey in toward the Sun, lighting conditions will improve, the batteries will recharge, and Philae will be able to communicate again next year.  A DLR press release today says he "believes it is probable that in the spring of 2015" Philae will be heard from again.

Meanwhile, scientists are beginning to analyze data from the 57 hours of work Philae has already completed.   Data was received from all 10 of the instruments on the lander.  One instrument -- Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Sub-Surface Science (MUPUS) -- hammered a probe into the surface, but it turned out to be a much harder surface than expected.  "Although the power of the hammer was gradually increased, we were not able to go deep into the surface," said Tilman Spohn from DLR's Institute of Planetary Research.  The comet "proved a tough nut to crack."  Another instrument, SESAME (Surface Electrical, Seismic and Acoustic Monitoring Experiment) similarly found the comet was "not nearly as soft and fluffy as it was believed to be." Brief initial results from all 10 instruments are provided in the DLR press release.   More are expected at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) next month in San Francisco.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 17-21, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2014 (Updated: 16-Nov-2014 02:43 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events in the coming week, November 17-21, 2014, and any insights we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Congress is in session this week, but anything they are working on regarding space policy and funding is taking place behind the scenes.  One set of negotiations is over a compromise version of a FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to combine all 12 regular appropriations bill into one and fund the government through the rest of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).   Word has it the bill will be publicly released the week of December 8, just in time to get it passed - hopefully - by midnight December 11 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires. 

It's not a sure bet, though. House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) warned this past week that if President Obama issues an Executive Order on immigration (i.e., takes action without waiting for Congress to act) before a deal is done on appropriations, there will be an "explosion."   He's worried appropriations will get caught in the crossfire.  If a new appropriations bill is not enacted by December 11, the government will shut down like it did in October 2013.  Some Tea Party Republicans consider government shutdowns a useful tactic and might try to cause another one in reaction to any Presidential action on immigration.  Even absent that, some have been arguing in favor of passing just another CR to fund the government for the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans will control both the House and Senate and have more power to decide funding matters.  (We talked about the road ahead for appropriations in an earlier article.)

Negotiations also are underway on a FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  It is the only annual authorization bill that Congress routinely passes, even if that happens at the very last minute.  The House passed its version in May, and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version in June, but it has not gone to the Senate floor for debate yet.  They will probably skip that step and just bring the compromise to the floor.  Congress hasn't missed passing an NDAA for more than 50 years no matter how high the political tensions.  Senate John McCain (R-AZ), who likely will chair SASC in the next Congress, included a provision in the SASC-version of the bill prohibiting DOD from contracting with space launch services providers that use Russian suppliers -- aimed at the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V.   ULA President Tory Bruno said last week that congressional staffers now understand the "very harmful" unintended consequences of that language and are revising it as part of the NDAA negotiations.

Like appropriations, the NDAA probably won't become public for a while yet.   Congress will be in recess next week for Thanksgiving, then return for two more weeks to finish what they can for the 113th Congress.  

Off the Hill, three NASA Advisory Council committees or subcommittees will meet this week in person or virtually (Planetary Protection on Monday and Tuesday, Institutional on Wednesday and Thursday, and Planetary Science on Friday).   The NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee meets at NSF on Monday and Tuesday.   Alan Ladwig and Courtney Stadd's ISU-DC Space Café discussion is on Tuesday evening (rescheduled from last Tuesday, which was Veterans Day and HBO's Concert for Valor essentially took over DC).   And the Secure World Foundation and American Astronautical Society will host a briefing on space weather on the Senate side of the Capitol Visitor Center at lunchtime on Thursday.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday-Tuesday, November 17-18

Tuesday, November 18

Tuesday-Thursday, November 18-20

Tuesday-Friday, November 18-21

Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20

Thursday, November 20

Friday, November 21

NASA IG Adds Voice to Chorus that NASA Lacks Adequate Funding

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Nov-2014 (Updated: 15-Nov-2014 10:17 PM)

Echoing what reports from expert groups have been saying for many years, NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) yesterday warned that the biggest challenge facing NASA is getting the budgets needed to accomplish the programs and tasks the agency has been assigned. 

The report goes into detail about seven "top management and performance challenges," but the overall theme is the sustainability of NASA's programs amid budget uncertainty.

"NASA's ability to sustain its ambitious exploration, science, and aeronautics programs will be driven in large measure by whether the Agency is able to adequately fund such high profile initiatives as its commercial cargo and crew programs, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule, James Webb Space Telescope, Mars 2020 Rover, and the personnel and infrastructure associated with these and other missions."

Noting that NASA began FY2015 without a full-year appropriation (NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution through at least December 11), the OIG report also pointed out that projections for NASA's future funding are flat.  "Accordingly, we believe the principal challenge facing NASA leaders in FY2015 will be to effectively manage the Agency's varied programs in an uncertain budget environment."

Having said that, the report identified seven "top challenges," a number of which have been the subject of earlier OIG studies:

  • Managing NASA's Human Space Exploration Programs: the International Space Station, Commercial Crew Transportation, and the Space Launch System
  • Managing NASA's Science Portfolio
  • Ensuring the Continued Efficacy of the Space Communications Networks
  • Overhauling NASA's Information Technology Governance
  • Ensuring the Security of NASA's Information Technology Systems
  • Managing NASA's Infrastructure and Facilities
  • Ensuring the Integrity of the Contracting and Grants Processes and Proper Use of Space Act Agreements

The 41-page report goes into some detail under each of those topics based primarily on previous OIG audits.

Some of the key takeaways include the following:

  • NASA expects to continue spending $3-4 billion per year on the International Space Station, but the OIG judges that estimate to be based on "overly optimistic assumptions and the cost to NASA likely will be higher."
  • Regarding SLS and Orion, "NASA's challenge ... continues to be managing the concurrent development of a launch system and crew vehicle and modifying the necessary ground systems while also meeting the Administrator's mandate that exploration systems be affordable, sustainable, and realistic."
  • Regarding IT, in response to previous OIG recommendations NASA is "eliminating unused and duplicative web applications and moving Agency websites to a public cloud-computing environment" to "counter the threat of cyber attacks." but the OIG has "found deficiencies in the design and implementation of NASA's program that leaves the Agency's publicly accessible web applications at risk of compromise."  The OIG report also notes that it has conducted more than 110 investigations of IT breaches at NASA and helped get hackers from a wide range of countries convicted and getting over $22 million in restitution.
  • Regarding infrastructure, "The OIG has conducted 12 audits over the past 5 years examining various aspects of NASA's efforts to manage its aging infrastructure. ... NASA has yet to address our recommendations."

Philae Works Hard To The End -- And it May Not Be The End - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2014 (Updated: 15-Nov-2014 05:38 PM)

UPDATED throughout on November 15, 2014 (originally published November 14)

Despite the odds, the European Space Agency (ESA) was able to restore contact with its Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P Friday evening (November 14, Eastern Standard Time).  Not only were they able to retrieve data obtained previously, but new commands were sent, new data acquired, and they succeeded in rotating the lander so more sunlight will fall on one of the solar panels.  That gives hope that contact could be restored again as the comet moves closer to the Sun.

Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) spent 10 years travelling to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko aboard its Rosetta mothership.  The two spacecraft separated on November 12 and Philae landed on the surface of the comet, the first time such a feat has been achieved.  But two systems that were intended to ensure that the lander stayed put in the very low gravity environment did not work and Philae bounced twice, landing three times.   Unfortunately, the final landing spot is surrounded by rocks, preventing sunlight from recharging the lander's batteries.

Philae has two batteries and one of them was sufficiently charged to complete the probe's primary scientific goals, but the hope was that it, plus a secondary battery, could be recharged to allow an extended mission lasting months rather than days.   Earlier on Friday, prospects seemed grim that even one more communications session could take place.

Philae landed for the first time at 10:34 am EST on November 12.  It bounced and remained aloft for almost two hours, bounced again and then landed 7 minutes later.  From then until approximately 7:30 pm EST Friday, its 10 scientific instruments collected a great amount of data, including drilling into the comet.  Scientists are still analyzing the data collected during the 57 hours it operated.

But with battery levels falling precipitously, at 7:28 pm EST, ESA's operations center tweeted (@esaoperations) that the lander had switched to standby mode due to low power: "All instruments off.  Comm link still active."  A few minutes later "Lander now sending only housekeeping data at very low rate.  All instruments off.  Comm link alive." Soon thereafter: "our lander's asleep.  Good night."  ESA reports that the last contact was at 00:36 GMT November 15 (7:36 pm EST November 14).

Project manager Stephan Ulamec said "we are happy.  We can even watch it falling asleep, which is a little bit sad but it can give us data that we want to have," according to a tweet from The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) who has been reporting from the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Germany throughout the lander's mission.

Scientists are ecstatic at all the data the lander was able to acquire in that short time, and from Rosetta, which continues to orbit the comet and will collect and send back data until it runs out of fuel in 2016.   Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor said yesterday that some results will be presented at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) next month.

Cameras on Rosetta continue to try to locate Philae.   ESA does not know where it is.  The first touchdown was exactly where it was supposed to land, but where the bounces took it is unknown.  (ESA released a set of images from Rosetta's NavCam taken of the original landing spot over a period of 3 minutes and 34 seconds as Philae approached the surface and then after it bounced, apparently leaving a dark spot of disturbed dust behind.)

Rosetta serves as a relay between Philae and Earth, so communications are only possible when Rosetta is in the correct position to serve that function.  A communications opportunity opened at 10:00 UTC (5:00 am EST) on November 15, but Philae did not respond.   Rosetta is now being moved into a different orbit around the comet to continue its own science program, but will continue listening -- and looking -- for Philae.

Comet 67P is on its way in towards the Sun and Rosetta will be able to study it as it becomes active with its ices melting from the Sun's heat creating the familiar comet's tail.  

Scientists have some hope that they may hear again from Philae if the solar panel becomes more illuminated as the comet travels inward.  During the session last night, commands were sent such that Philae lifted its body 4 centimeters and turned 35 degrees in the hope its solar panels would get more sunlight to recharge the batteries.   Between now and whenever that happens, Philae will hibernate. 

Whatever happens in the future, ESA has achieved several firsts that will go into the space exploration record books, including the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, the first spacecraft to land on a comet, and the first spacecraft to drill into the surface of a comet.

Is Philae's Time Coming to an End? - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2014 (Updated: 14-Nov-2014 05:36 PM)

UPDATE, November 14, 5:33 pm EST: The European Space Operations Center (ESOC) just tweeted (@esaoperations) that it has reacquired Philae.  The first contact was brief, but the signal was then reacquired and communications now are "stable" and "telemetry and science data are flowing."  We'll post another update later this evening.

The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Philae lander is on the surface of Comet 67P and its science instruments are working, but its ability to function and communicate with Earth could be quickly coming to an end -- perhaps today.   Philae landed in a place surrounded by rocks that are blocking sunlight from reaching its solar panels to recharge the batteries.  ESA scientists hope they can reestablish communications at least one more time, but will not know until about 6:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (23:00 GMT, midnight CET) today.

Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) has been traveling in space for 10 years aboard its mothership Rosetta.  They reached Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is currently about 510 million kilometers (315 million miles) from Earth, in August.  The two separated on Wednesday (November 12) and Philae landed on the comet while Rosetta remains in orbit. 

Both spacecraft are equipped with many scientific instruments and Rosetta also serves as a communications relay between Philae and Earth.   Whenever Rosetta moves below the horizon at the comet, communications between Philae and its Earth-based operators cease.  Thus there are only certain windows of opportunity when Earth and Philae can talk to each other and instructions uploaded or data downloaded.

The next communications pass will be at about 9:00 pm UTC tonight, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec said during a Google Hangout update this morning.  Times are approximate and he added that the passes have been occurring about one hour later than expected.  Adding in the 28 minutes 20 seconds needed for a signal to travel from the comet to Earth, it will be "about midnight" when they know if contact was restored.  (At that point, he apparently was referring to midnight local time in Germany, which is Central European Time.  UTC is one hour earlier; EST is 6 hours earlier, making it about 6:00 pm EST.)

Comets have almost no gravity so Philae was equipped with harpoons that were supposed to fire into the comet's surface to hold it in place.  Philae also has a small engine that was supposed to provide a downward force as it reached the surface.  Finally, the three landing legs had ice screws to help hold it in place.   Operators knew the engine was not working even before Philae separated from Rosetta, but decided to proceed anyway confident of the other systems.  Unfortunately, the harpoons did not fire when Philae first touched down on the comet at 10:34 am EST on November 12.   It bounced about a kilometer (about half a mile) high and floated above the comet for almost two hours before landing for a second time, bouncing again, and then landing for a third and final time about seven minutes later.

Where it landed still is not known.  Cameras aboard Rosetta are searching for it, but so far without success.  Philae is quite small -- about one meter (three feet) on each side --  and it landed somewhere amidst rocks.  Not only do the rocks complicate finding it from orbit, but they are preventing sunlight from recharging Philae's batteries. 

Valentina Lommatsch from the German space agency's (DLR's) lander control center clarified that all three of Philae's legs are touching the surface despite earlier reports that one was sticking up in the air. The problem is that we are "really unlucky" to be "in a corner surrounded by rocks."

Philae's primary battery had 64 hours of life when it landed, enough to complete its primary scientific mission.  The hope was for an extended mission of many months, however, allowing many more investigations using Philae's 10 scientific instruments, but those chances are looking slim.

Ulamec said that even regaining contact with the spacecraft tonight "is not secure, maybe the battery will be empty before we get contact again."   Of the three solar panels on Philae, one is getting a low level of illumination for about 1 hour 20 minutes each "day" and the others about 20 minutes each, versus the 6-7 hours planned. 

Last night when they uploaded commands to Philae, they calculated that it had about 100 watt-hours left and 80 were needed to execute those instructions (to activate scientific experiments), Lommatsch explained.  Unfortunately one of the last commands, which would have put it into low power mode to extend the battery life, did not reach the lander and "it will be really, really close" as to whether communications can be restored, she cautioned.  Later she said the lander needs 5.1 watts to boot.  Before a battery can be recharged, its temperature must be raised to 0 degrees Celsius and that requires 50-60 watt hours per day.  Then there still must be enough daylight left to actually recharge it.  "Looks a bit bad, but we can always hope," Lommatsch said.

ESA experts are assessing what they might be able to do with Philae if communications are restored to increase the chances of recharging, perhaps by moving the lander -- either rotating it using its flywheel, or trying to get it to essentially hop out of its current location to a better spot.  If nothing else, there is a chance -- although it sounded rather small -- that communications could be reestablished as the comet moves closer to the Sun and illumination increases. 

Ulamec was asked why ESA did not use a nuclear power source for the lander.  Some spacecraft, like NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, use Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs) to power the spacecraft and its instruments.  RTGs use heat produced by the decay of plutonium-238.  Ulamec replied that launching nuclear power sources carries safety and political implications and, in any case, Europe does not have that technology.

Despite everything, the Philae scientists, engineers and operators appear delighted with what they have been able to accomplish already, even if there is no more.  Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor said that a great deal of science data has been obtained from Philae and Rosetta and will be presented at the upcoming fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU 2014) next month in San Francisco, CA.

Flight director Andrea Accomazzo urged everyone to focus on what has been done, not what could have been done.  "This is already fantastic," he enthused, while adding that he really wants to know exactly where Philae is and to hear from it tonight.

ULA's Tory Bruno Vows To Transform Company

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 14-Nov-2014 (Updated: 14-Nov-2014 03:28 PM)

Alluding to what he described as a moment of exciting change for the commercial launch industry, the newly appointed head of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) discussed how his company, the primary U.S. national security launch provider, will adapt to remain on top.

At an event Thursday hosted by the Atlantic Council, Salvatore “Tory” T. Bruno, ULA president and CEO, described his sense of “irrational optimism” at the future of the commercial launch industry. Widespread accessibility will be the key feature of a new environment, he explained, one where government and new commercial customers will need access to space to accomplish “missions we couldn’t conceive of in the past.”

ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture established in 2006 with a record of 89 successful launches, is banking on experience to remain ahead in an industry facing new competition and possible constraints from foreign policy pressures.  Last April, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) filed a complaint against the U.S. Air Force for awarding an $11 billion block buy contract to ULA for five years’ worth of launches on its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). ULA has stated this block buy saved the government $4 billion, cutting launch prices in half. SpaceX has argued it can offer the same service for much less and is vying to compete for national space security launch contracts.

Although not referring to SpaceX directly, Bruno cited ULA’s “perfect record of mission success,” and “great heritage” as the benefit of doing business with the company.  But the country is demanding new things, he said, and “I am going to transform this company.” Bruno vowed to “cash in” the company’s decades of experience, reorganize to make it more agile, and establish new business models to adapt to the new environment. These changes will lead to improvements in how ULA interacts with its customers, both governmental and commercial, shorter launch cycles, and launch costs cut in half again.

Among the changes already under way, in September ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin for the development of an alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 engine which ULA uses on its Atlas V vehicle.  In light of deteriorating diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia, for the past several months policymakers and industry leaders have been debating alternatives to reduce U.S. reliance on Russia for putting critical national security assets in orbit.

ULA intends to phase out the RD-180 over time and transition to an “American solution” to launching satellites using Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.  Bruno said that transition is coming “very soon,” but ULA will continue buying RD-180s under its existing contract with RD-AMROSS and is accelerating their delivery.  ULA wants to have eight rather than five delivered next year, he acknowledged.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), expected to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the next Congress, included language in the Senate version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 2410, sec. 1623) prohibiting DOD from contracting for space launch services from companies using Russian suppliers.  Asked about his reaction to the language, Bruno replied that, as originally drafted, the language would have been “very harmful” to ULA in ways “the drafters did not intend” and is being revised as part of negotiations over the final version of the bill.

When asked by a reporter for Russia’s news agency, Itar-TASS, why the RD-180s were being phased out and deliveries accelerated, Bruno made no reference to the tense geopolitical circumstances, however.   Instead, he framed it strictly as a business decision.  Praising the RD-180 as a “great” engine that is very reliable with “terrific performance,” he nonetheless said it was time to move past the technologies of the 1970s and 1980s and build a lighter engine with improved thrust.  As for moving up the delivery timetable, he said that was in response to anticipated market demand for more Atlas V launches.

The Atlantic Council has posted the webcast of the event on its website.

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