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NASA Chooses Instruments to Determine if Europa Is Habitable -- And What is That Brown Gunk?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2015 (Updated: 26-May-2015 11:55 PM)

NASA announced the winners of the science instrument selection process for its mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa today.  NASA officials said the mission “must” determine if Europa is habitable.  Part of that is discovering the nature of the “brown gunk” on Europa’s surface.

Europa project scientist Curt Niebur said they have theories about the brown gunk, but will not know for certain until the Europa mission can provide more information.   It is thought to be residue from the liquid ocean scientists are convinced lies beneath Europa’s icy crust.  The material is thought to make its way to the surface via fractures in the ice just as lava makes its way to the surface of Earth.  If so, studying the gunk will reveal the composition of the ocean.

Observations using the Hubble Space Telescope also recently revealed plumes of material being ejected from Europa.  Little is known of these unpredictable plumes, but some of the instruments announced today will focus on characterizing them and determining their constituents, which will provide more data about what is under the crust.

One message today is that the instruments on this mission, which will make 45 flybys of Europa over a 2.5 year period, will be able to reveal Europa’s secrets without touching down on the surface.   Niebur described two of the instruments – a magnetometer and a series of three Faraday cups – as taking an MRI of Europa’s interior structure.  Using them, scientists will be able to determine the depth and saltiness of Europa’s ocean without “dipping our instruments into the ocean just as a doctor can see what’s going on inside your body using an MRI.”

The number and size of instruments that can be accommodated were determined by their total mass and power requirements.   Out of 33 proposals, nine instruments were chosen. They and their principal investigators are:

  • Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding.  Dr. Joseph Westlake, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL)
  • Interior Characterization of Europa Using Magnetometry.  Dr. Carol Raymond, Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)
  • Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa. Dr. Diana Blaney, JPL
  • Europa Imaging System.  Dr. Elizabeth Turtle, APL
  • Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding:  Ocean to Near-Surface.  Dr. Donald Blankenship, University of Texas, Austin
  • Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System.  Dr. Philip Christensen, Arizona State University, Tempe
  • Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration/Europa.  Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio
  • Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa.  Dr. Kurt Rutherford, SwRI
  • Surface Dust Mass Analyzer.  Dr. Sascha Kempf, University of Colorado, Boulder.

An additional instrument was selected for technology development:  the Space Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface, led by Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Europa stirs fascination because of the possibility that conditions to support life might exist there.  NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green explained that Europa’s salty ocean is thought to have more than twice as much water as Earth’s oceans and “it could be a very habitable place if life indeed started on that body many billions of years ago.”  Niebur stressed, however, that the instruments cannot detect life itself.  They can find "indications" of life, but "we don't have a life detector."  In fact, he added, there is not even scientific consensus on what to measure in order to detect life with confidence.

When asked what would happen next if the Europa mission did prove there is life, Green joked “I would immediately retire.”   He went on to say that if there is life is on Europa, then it must be “everywhere” in our galaxy and the universe.  It would be an “enormous step forward” in understanding our place in the universe.

A mission to Europa was the second priority for a flagship planetary science mission in the most recent National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey on planetary science.   Returning samples from the surface of Mars got top billing, in part because of the high cost of a Europa mission, then estimated at more than $4 billion.   The report recommended that Europa advocates downsize the mission to make it more affordable, yielding the “Europa Clipper” concept now being used as the baseline design.  Green declined to name a firm cost estimate today, offering only that it is about $2 billion (not including launch), but NASA is not able to commit to a price-tag as this early stage.

Niebur said that NASA plans to spend $110 million over three years to advance the nine instruments selected today at which time they will reassess whether these instruments can be ready in time for launch.

Niebur was asked about any commonality between these instrument selections and what will be carried on the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE).  He replied that the two missions are complementary, but have different objectives.  JUICE will study Jupiter's moons Ganymede and Callista, and make only two flybys of Europa.  NASA’s mission focuses only on Europa and will make 45 flybys.

Green dodged a question about when the mission will be launched.  The answer involves politics as much as science and engineering.  NASA and Congress both use the NRC Decadal Surveys as their “bibles” on what science missions have the top priority.  Consequently, NASA is focusing on Mars and Europa was not in its budget plans.   Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, is an ardent Europa supporter, however, and has led efforts to add money to NASA’s budget to get the mission initiated and launched sooner rather than later.  Congress added $75 million in FY2013 (none was requested), $80 million in FY2014 (none was requested) and $85 million in FY2015 ($15 million was requested, yielding a total of $100 million).  The House Appropriations Committee’s recently approved FY2016 NASA budget recommendation is to add $110 million in FY2016 to the $30 million requested (for a total of $140 million) with a directive to launch the mission in 2022 using the Space Launch System (SLS).  NASA insists it does not have the funding in its “outyear” projections to meet that schedule. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden typically says the mission will launch in the mid-2020s.

House appropriators also designated $25 million of the $625 million allocated for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (a reduction from the $725 million requested) to be spent on icy satellites surface technology and test beds. Green said today that NASA is performing "elementary" studies of landed missions, but NASA first wants the global view of Europa that this flyby mission will provide.  NASA's Galileo mission sent back "tantalizing" glimpses of Europa's surface, but not in the detail needed to execute a landing.

From a space policy standpoint, the Europa mission could go down in history as the first NASA space science flagship mission funded primarily by annual congressional direction rather than based on administration requests and long term planning.   NASA officials repeatedly say they cannot plan a program based on a hope that each year Congress will add funding for it, but at the moment they are in that position.

If Europa is to be funded by Congress adding money each year, and it is a zero-sum game where NASA’s total budget does not rise to accommodate the unrequested funding, the question is what other NASA activities will be cut to afford it.  In the FY2016 House Appropriations bill, NASA’s earth science program bears the brunt of cuts to afford Europa and other congressional priorities.  Whether the Senate will follow suit is a significant question.  Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the top Democrat on the full Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the subcommittee that funds NASA, is an avid earth science supporter.   She may be less willing to cut earth science to pay for a Europa mission.  Whether the two chambers can reach agreement to increase the total amount of money available to NASA instead – eliminating the zero-sum aspects of the equation – involves complicated high stakes budget politics that will play out over the next several months.

Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2015 (Updated: 26-May-2015 07:19 PM)

The Air Force certified SpaceX to launch national security satellites today.   The long-anticipated certification makes the company eligible to compete against the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has held a virtual monopoly on launching the nation's most critical military and intelligence satellites since 2006.

SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk thanked the Air Force for its confidence in the company, while Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called it a "very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense."

Although SpaceX already was awarded two Air Force contracts, for the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) earlier this year and an upcoming launch of  a Space Test Program satellite, those were not part of the coveted "EELV-class" launches performed by ULA.   ULA builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).   Atlas V and Delta IV were sold separately by their respective manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, until 2006 when a dwindling market threatened both.  ULA was the solution.  Jointly owned by the two companies and with a guaranteed level of financial support from the government, it has an impeccable record of launches. 

The launches are quite expensive, however, and with the emergence of SpaceX, questions began to arise as to whether competition might drive the prices down.  Russia's invasion of Crimea last year added another twist.  Russian RD-180 engines power the Atlas V and many in Congress argued that the launch of U.S. national security satellites should not be dependent on a foreign country, especially Russia.   The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the Air Force to stop using RD-180s by 2019 (although waivers are allowed under certain circumstance).   Debate continues to swirl around that requirement, but a transformation in the launch services industry has begun. 

The announcement today does not guarantee a sea-change in the launch services market, but opens that opportunity for SpaceX and potentially other launch service providers.  Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space said the certification process "provides a path" for them to "demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system" that provides the mission assurance necessary for national security payloads.

The Air Force repeatedly stated last year that SpaceX's certification would be complete by December 2014.  For reasons that remain unclear, it took another 5 months, but is finally done.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 25-June 5, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2015 (Updated: 24-May-2015 06:20 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the new TWO weeks, May 25-June 5, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in recess this week for the Memorial Day holiday.  The Senate returns on Sunday, May 31; the House on Monday, June 1.

During the Weeks

At last, a relatively quiet week after all the recent busy-ness.  Monday (May 25) is the observance of Memorial Day and federal government offices are closed.  Congress is in recess for the week despite a fractious Senate session that lasted until the wee hours on Saturday over a non-space related topic -- extension of government surveillance authorities under the Patriot Act -- that came to no resolution.  Those authorities expire at midnight May 31, so the Senate will return for a rare Sunday session on May 31 to try and find a way forward.  The House returns on Monday, June 1. The Senate already has declined to take up a House-passed measure addressing the topic so it looks like the authorities will indeed expire.  It's a matter of what bill (if any) the Senate can pass, what the House is willing to accept as a compromise, and how long the process takes.

But that debate is outside the scope of this space policy website.  Suffice it to say that the congressional schedule for when they return is difficult to predict.

NASA has two interesting events this week, though.  First is the announcement of the science instruments for the Europa mission.  NASA had not planned to execute a Europa mission just now, but Congress feels otherwise.  It added money for it the past two years (and appears likely to do so again this year), which led the White House to give NASA permission to include mission formulation in the FY2016 budget request. NASA is moving forward with choosing the science payload.   It will be announced on Tuesday (May 26) at 2:00 pm ET.   The next day, NASA TV will air coverage of the ISS crew moving a module (using Canadarm2) from one docking port to another as the ISS is reconfigured to enable the commercial crew vehicles to dock there beginning in 2017.

The schedule for the first week of June is still filling up, but the list below shows what we know about today (Sunday, May 25).

Tuesday, May 26

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 26-27

Wednesday, May 27

Monday, June 1

Tuesday, June 2

Thursday, June 4

House Passes Commercial Space Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-May-2015 (Updated: 21-May-2015 08:07 PM)

The House passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262, today after a two-hour debate.  An amendment by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to replace the language in H.R. 2262 with that in a related Senate bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday, S. 1297, was rejected.

The floor debate on the SPACE Act, which is sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), reflected the same deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats that were evident in the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee markup last week.  House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) are original co-sponsors of the legislation.

The committee marked up H.R 2262 and three other commercial space bills that were rolled together into the version of H.R. 2262 that was debated on the floor and passed today.  The other three were H.R. 1508 (property rights to materials mined on asteroids), H.R. 2261 (commercial remote sensing), and H.R. 2263 (renaming and expanding the duties of the Office of Space Commercialization in the Department of Commerce). 

As introduced, H.R. 2262 was a broadly-based update of the Commercial Space Launch Act and had only Republican sponsors.  It was approved by the committee on a party-line vote.  H.R. 1508, which was sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat (who does not serve on this committee), also passed on a party-line vote.  The other two bills were less controversial and were approved by voice vote.

Democratic complaints about the bills in general are both procedural and substantive.  House SS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Edwards complained in committee and on the floor today that insufficient hearings were held on these topics and no subcommittee markups were held that might have informed the debate and led to better bills.  On the substantive side, they believe that the legislation gives industry everything it wants with scant attention, for example, to the safety of individuals who might fly on commercial human space vehicles.   They also object to the property rights provision for companies that want to mine asteroids, arguing that more consideration is needed of the implications for U.S. responsibilities under the Outer Space Treaty.

While Republicans proudly displayed letters from several commercial space companies and organizations that support the bill, Johnson did not find that surprising, protesting during the markup that the bill "came straight from industry."

Johnson and Edwards appealed to that industry to support the Edwards substitute amendment.  They argued that while the Senate bill is not perfect, it is sufficient and since it has bipartisan support, that is the bill the Senate will pass and the chance that the two chambers would iron out their differences in a conference committee are slim. Consequently, no bill would become law.  Johnson said in an op-ed in Space News yesterday that "I hope the members of the commercial space industry will recognize the golden, but fleeting, opportunity they have been given" and support the Edwards amendment.   Edwards echoed that today, saying her amendment offered "a golden opportunity to move past partisan posturing" and actually get a bill passed and signed into law.

During the debate, Jim Muncy (@JamesMuncy), a lobbyist for the commercial space industry, tweeted in response to @SpcPlcyOnline tweets summarizing Edwards' arguments, that "Rep Edwards is unfortunately mistaken.  Industry appreciates the Senate's work on S1297 and the House's work on HR2262" and "Industry prefers for the process to continue, presumably to a conference."

The Edwards amendment was defeated 173-236 on largely party lines.  For Democrats, 170 voted in favor of the amendment and three against.  For Republicans, three voted in favor and 233 against.

Six other relatively minor amendments were adopted during floor debate by voice vote.  The texts of all the amendments that were "made in order" for the floor debate are on the House Rules Committee's website.

The bill, as amended, passed the House with more Democratic support.  The vote was 284-133, with 48 Democrats voting in favor and 130 Democrats against, and 236 Republicans voting in favor and three against.

House SS&T Democrats issued a press release after the vote asserting that the bill takes an "unbalanced approach" and is "heavily skewed towards industry's desires." 

House SS&T Republicans issued a press release praising passage of the bill and the bipartisan support in the final vote.  Committee chairman Smith said the bill "will encourage the private sector to launch rockets, take risks, and shoot for the heavens."

The Senate bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee covers some of the same topics as the House bill, but especially with the infusion of the other three House bills into H.R. 2262, the two pieces of legislation are quite different.  One major difference is the length of the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight during which the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations.  The current prohibition ends on September 30, 2015.  The Senate bill extends it to 2020.  The House bill extends it to 2025.  Advocates of the more lengthy extension (some of whom want the prohibition to be permanent) argue that new regulations could stifle this new industry and experience is needed to inform any new regulations.  Those who want a shorter extension insist that the FAA must be able to step in to ensure safety as the industry evolves.

Commercial Space Legislation Clears Senate Committee, Set for Vote in House Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-May-2015 (Updated: 21-May-2015 06:53 PM)

Bipartisan legislation affecting commercial space activities cleared the Senate Commerce Committee this morning.  The House is scheduled to debate its own commercial space bill on the floor tomorrow, May 21, but although it addresses many of the same topics, it is quite different from the Senate bill and does not have bipartisan support.  [Click here to learn what the House did.]

The Senate bill, S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, is sponsored by Republican Senators Ted Cruz (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), and Cory Gardner (CO), and Democratic Senators Bill Nelson (FL) and Gary Peters (MI).   It was adopted by voice vote, along with a Wicker (R-MS) amendment that adds another topic -- as assessment of existing private and government infrastructure -- to be included in a report required in Section 6.  The bill covers a broad range of issues affecting commercial space launch activities and commits the United States to utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) at least through 2024 as proposed by the Obama Administration last year.

The House bill, H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, rolls together four bills approved by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee last week.  H.R. 2262 as introduced covered some, but not all, of the issues in S. 1297, but with different recommendations.  With the addition of the three other bills -- H.R. 1508 (regarding asteroid mining), H.R. 2261 (commercial remote sensing) and H.R. 2263 (changing the name and duties of the Office of Space Commercialization in the Department of Commerce) -- the House and Senate bills are more different still.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the House SS&T's Space Subcommittee, prefers S. 1297.  She plans to offer S. 1297 as an "amendment in the nature of a substitute" to H.R. 2262 when it is debated on the floor of the House tomorrow.  The House Rules Committee approved her amendment and six others as part of the rule governing floor debate tomorrow.  That permits it to be brought up if she wishes to do so.  (The rule and the list of amendments that were "made in order" are on the Rules Committee's website.)

The Obama Administration issued a Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 2262 yesterday and said that although it does not object to its passage, it has "serious concerns" with some of its provisions.

One of the differences is the length of time that the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight.  Current law, originally passed in 2004, creates a "learning period" where future regulations that advocates fear could stymie the development of this new industry are prohibited while the industry gains experience to inform whatever regulations might be needed.  Alternatively, voluntary industry standards could be developed to obviate the need for government regulations.  The learning period expires on September 20, 2015.   The Senate bill would extend it until 2020.  The House bill would extend it to 2025.  The Administration wants it to be less than the 10-year extension in the House bill, but does not specify the length of time.

Another difference is language in the House bill to grant property rights to U.S. companies that mine resources on asteroids.   The Senate bill does not address this topic.  The Administration says that it supports efforts to facilitate innovative new space activities by U.S. companies, and recognizes the bill's sponsors tried to ensure the bill is consistent with U.S. international obligations, but is concerned whether U.S. companies could move forward with such plans "absent additional authority to ensure continuing supervision of these initiatives by the U.S. Government as required by the Outer Space Treaty."

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the national appropriation of the Moon or other celestial bodies.  It also requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the space activities of their non-governmental entities.  Supporters of the asteroid language in H.R. 2262 (originally in H.R. 1508) argue that the companies would not be claiming ownership of any celestial body, only of the resources extracted from them.

The Administration said that it looks forward to working with Congress as the legislation works it way through the legislative process.

House Appropriators Set to Cut NASA Earth Science, NOAA Weather Sat Follow On - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-May-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 02:52 PM)

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 2:45 pm ET:  The committee approved the bill today on a voice vote without adopting any amendments related to NASA or to NOAA satellite activities.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 20, 2015, 4:30 am ET.  The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill today.  In the process, it plans to cut NASA's earth science program by 13 percent and zero NOAA's proposal for the next set of its polar weather satellites.  The future of NOAA weather satellites is of great interest to Congress.  Also today, the Senate Commerce Committee will mark up a bill that could significantly change how NOAA acquires future satellites.  The House passed a related bill yesterday.  In addition, a House subcommittee will hold a hearing today on commercial weather data.

For NASA, the draft House FY2016 CJS appropriations bill recommends the same total as requested by President Obama -- $18.529 billion -- but it is apportioned quite differently among NASA's activities.  Funding increases above the request for planetary science, astrophysics, aeronautics, exploration and education are paid for primarily by earth science, space technology, and NASA's internal operations such as safety, security and mission assurance.   A SpacePolicyOnline.com fact sheet provides more information.

The cut to earth science compared to the request is one of the more dramatic changes.  The committee recommends $1.689 billion, $258 million (about 13 percent) less than the $1.947 billion request.  It is $83 million less than the current funding level of $1.772 billion, and much of the requested increase for FY2016 is due to the Obama Administration's decision to transfer some of NOAA's satellite activities to NASA and Congress's earlier decision not to allow the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to assume responsibility for future Landsat satellites, leaving that in NASA's job jar as well.  (USGS only operates the Landsat satellites after they are in orbit.  NASA pays for development and launch.)

The recommended funding in the appropriations bill is actually better than what was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee in its 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill last month, which recommended as much as a 38 percent reduction compared to the request under its "constrained" funding scenario.  Coupled with statements by the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that authorizes NASA activities, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), at a March hearing, earth science advocates have known they have their work cut out for them in convincing a Republican-led Congress to fully fund those activities.  

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has been strongly defending the earth science program and explaining the relevance of that data to U.S. taxpayers and the global community at large (including victims of the earthquakes in Nepal) in congressional testimony and speeches.  Somewhat surprisingly, though, in a blog post about the CJS bill yesterday, Bolden waits until the sixth paragraph (of eight) to make the arguments in favor of earth science.  Most of the post is about cuts to Space Technology (a $100 million reduction from the $725 million request) and commercial crew (a $244 million reduction from the $1.244 billion request) that he sees as imperiling the Journey to Mars, even though the committee proposes a substantial increase ($1.850 billion compared to the $1.357 billion request) for development of the Space Launch System (SLS) also needed to send humans to Mars.

Similarly, a letter from White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shaun Donovan to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and ranking member Nita Lowey (D-NY) about the CJS bill references the cuts to earth science as only one of many concerns about the bill (on page 3 of the 4-page letter).

The appropriations committee also plans to eliminate NOAA's proposed Polar Follow On (PFO) program for the next set of polar-orbiting weather satellites.  The committee fully funds the request for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), as well as the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series, but does not even mention the $380 million request for PFO.   It is absent from the text of the report and the table summarizing funding for that part of NOAA.  A SpacePolicyOnline.com fact sheet provides more information on NOAA's FY2016 budget request and PFO, through which NOAA would acquire the next two JPSS satellites (JPSS-3 and -4).

Donovan's letter calls that cut "shortsighted" and warns that it "heightens the risk" of a gap in weather satellite coverage in the future and "will ultimately cost taxpayers more."

Congress has an intense interest in the future of NOAA's weather satellite programs and both the House and Senate committees that oversee those programs are pushing NOAA to use more data from commercial satellites.   Yesterday the House passed the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) by voice vote that includes a pilot program to encourage companies to launch instruments into space that can provide data for weather forecast numerical models.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) said during committee markup of the bill that he hopes to change the "business model" for acquiring new weather satellites.  Instead of "huge, monolithic" satellites like JPSS and GOES-R, he wants many, smaller satellites provided by commercial companies.  He believes that will create a more resilient system.  The bill has strong bipartisan support.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is scheduled to markup a related bill today (at exactly the same time as the House Appropriations CJS markup).  S. 1331, which also has bipartisan support, sets stiff requirements for NOAA's procurement of future satellites.

Also today, the House, Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing on commercial weather data, with witnesses including Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, Bill Gail of the Global Weather Corporation, Tom Bogdan of UCAR, Nicole Robinson of the Hosted Payload Alliance, and Scott Sternberg of Vaisala, Inc.

The hearing is at 10:00 am ET in 2318 Rayburn.  The House Appropriations Committee markup of the CJS bill is at 10:30 am ET in 2359 Rayburn.  The Senate Commerce Committee markup is at 10:30 am ET in 253 Russell.  Most committee hearings and markups are webcast on the respective committee's website.

X-37B Ready For Its Fourth Flight - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-May-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 11:23 AM)

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 11:15 am ET:   The X-37B and its accompanying payloads lifted off on time at 11:05 am ET.

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 4:45 am ET:   ULA has announced refined launch times.  There are two windows today:  11:05-11:15 am ET and 12:42-12:52 pm ET.  ULA will webcast the launch.  Coverage begins at 10:45 am ET.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 19, 2015: The Air Force is getting ready to launch the reusable X-37B spaceplane into orbit tomorrow, May 20.  There are at least two X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs) and it is not clear which is being launched, part of the mystery surrounding these ultra-classified space missions.

The Boeing-built X-37B looks like a small space shuttle orbiter and, indeed, has its origins at NASA.  Originally designed as an Orbital Space Plane to bring crews home from the International Space Station (ISS) in an emergency, NASA cancelled the program in 2004 after President George W. Bush reoriented the human spaceflight program towards returning astronauts to the Moon rather than ISS utilization.  The program then was transferred to DOD.  It does not carry a crew.


 
Photo of X-37B.  Photo credit Boeing (via Spaceflightnow.com)

DOD will not say specifically what the X-37B does while it is in orbit.  Generally, it is described as a vehicle to test technologies.  Each of the three missions to date also seem focused on determining how long it can function on orbit, which each mission's duration exceeding the previous record.   The first X-37B mission, OTV-1, was a 224-day flight in 2010.  The second, OTV-2, was a 469-day flight from March 2011 to June 2012.  The third flight, using the same vehicle from OTV-1, made a 675-day mission from December 2012 to October 2014.  The Air Force has not announced which vehicle will be used for this mission.

Launch of AFSPC5, as the mission is known, aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL, is scheduled for May 20 between 11:05 am - 2:45 pm ET.  The weather forecast is 60 percent favorable.

How long the X-37B will remain in orbit is not publicly known, but apparently it will be at least 200 days.  NASA is conducting materials science tests on the mission and announced that its Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) will expose almost 100 materials samples to space condition for "more than 200 days."

The Air Force also has revealed that it will be testing a modified Hall thruster for the Air Force Research Laboratory.  Hall thrusters are a type of electric propulsion used on many satellites for in-orbit operations.  This test is related to improvements the Air Force wants for its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellites.

This flight is getting more pre-launch publicity than usual because it is carrying several unclassified payloads.  In addition to METIS and the Hall thruster test, a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) "Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite" (ULTRASat) pallet of 10 CubeSats from five organizations will ride-share on the launch.  Nine of the CubeSats are sponsored by NRO and one by NASA.  The CubeSats are housed in eight Poly-Pico Orbital Deployers (P-PODS).

The NRO-sponsored CubeSats include three from the U.S. Naval Academy, three from California Polytechnic Institute (which built the structure for the P-PODs), two from the Aerospace Corporation, and one from the Near Space Launch and Air Force Research Laboratory.  The NASA-sponsored CubeSat is for The Planetary Society (TPS) to test its LightSail concept for solar sailing.  There will be no sailing on this mission -- that's expected next year.  Right now, TPS is just testing the sail deployment sequence.

Typically the Air Force says nothing about X-37B missions after launch until shortly before landing. The three previous missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  This one could land there or at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) adjacent to CCAFS.  In 2014, NASA and the Air Force signed an agreement for the Air Force to use two of KSC's Orbiter Processing Facilities, once used for the space shuttle, and said that tests were conducted to demonstrate it could land at KSC's shuttle landing facility. 

Bolden: "If We Don't Pull Together, We're Not Going to Mars"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-May-2015 (Updated: 18-May-2015 07:23 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made an impassioned plea today for Congress and the White House to work together or the goal of sending humans to Mars will never be realized.

Bolden's remarks to the Space Transportation Association (STA) were loosely focused on the status of congressional deliberations over NASA's FY2016 budget request, but he spent most of his time talking about the future of human exploration and the goal of sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  President Obama proclaimed that goal in an April 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center and Congress agreed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, but the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue continue to argue over NASA priorities and what level of specificity the agency should have at this stage on the steps to getting there.

The 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House in February (H.R. 810) requires NASA to submit a "Human Exploration Roadmap" to Congress within 180 days of the bill becoming law.  It includes an extensive list of what the roadmap must contain and requires it be updated every 2 years.

A variety of terms are used to describe the plan or pathway to get to Mars, including roadmap, strategy, architecture, and design reference mission or architecture.  Each has its own nuanced definition.  Today Bolden used the word "architecture" and flatly refused to provide one, insisting it would be "irresponsible" because it is too early to "commit to a specific architecture."  He believes we are not ready to go Mars now.   Experience needs to be gained by operating in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and technologies will advance in the meantime. 

The most recent NASA design reference architecture (DRA) was issued in 2009. Currently NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate has PowerPoint presentations on its "Evolvable Mars Campaign" and soon will issue a document entitled "Pioneering Space" to explain the outlines of what it expects to do in the next several decades.  It uses "Journey to Mars" as an overarching slogan.  They are not specific enough to qualify as an "architecture" or "roadmap," however.

What is most needed is for Congress and the White House to work together, Bolden stressed.  Half way through his talk and again at the end he implored: "If we don't pull together, we're not going to Mars."

On other topics, Bolden --

  • said the "biggest area of heartburn" between the Obama Administration and Congress right now regarding NASA's FY2016 budget request is earth science funding.  Several times he expounded on the achievements of NASA's earth science program -- mentioning the U.S.-Japan Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) and the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) missions in particular.  He commented that NASA does not make earth science policy and tries to stay out of its politics, the agency just wants to provide the best science in the world: "Decimating earth science and saying we're going to go to Mars is not the right way to do it."  (The House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved, on a party-line vote, a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill that has deep cuts to NASA's earth science program on the basis that NASA's unique mission is space exploration, not studying Earth.)
  • defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the decision for the United States not to return humans to the lunar surface.  Humans on the lunar surface makes sense for activities like in-situ resource utilization, but he wants the United States to "empower" international and commercial partners to take on that task.  NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) can take "all kinds of stuff" to lunar orbit, but the partners need to develop the lander:  "The United States can't do everything."
  • expressed confidence in the Russians and his "friend" Roscosmos head Igor Komarov despite recent failures.  His only concern is if these failures signify a breakdown in quality control.  NASA's ISS program manager Mike Suffredini is taking part in Russia's investigation of the Progress M-27M failure, so he feels confident that NASA will have the information it needs.
  • stressed the need for continued operations of the International Space Station (ISS) through at least 2024, but also for the commercial sector to determine what comes next for low Earth orbit infrastructure because ISS has a finite lifetime and "NASA is getting out" of that business.
  • urged Congress again to fully fund the $1.24 billion request for commercial crew (the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee approved $1 billion instead).
  • responded to a question about whether a robotic Mars sample return mission is required before sending humans to Mars (to provide better knowledge of the properties of the Martian surface) with a firm no.  He says that he knows many scientists disagree with that point of view, but he is adamant that step is not necessary, just as obtaining a sample of the lunar surface was not required before the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Moon.

Newman Begins Tenure as NASA Deputy Administrator

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-May-2015 (Updated: 18-May-2015 05:45 PM)

Dava Newman was sworn in as Deputy Administrator of NASA on Friday and began work at the agency today.

Newman was confirmed by the Senate on April 27, about six months after President Obama initially nominated her for the position.   She succeeds Lori Garver who left the agency in September 2013.


NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in photo released by NASA
on May 18, 2015, Newman's first day on the job.  Photo credit: NASA

Newman obtained her Ph.D. from MIT in aerospace biomedical engineering in 1982 and has been a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering sciences there since that time.  She also has served as director of MIT's technology and public policy program.  She is perhaps best known for her designs of spacesuits for use on the surface of Mars.

Russia Update: Progress M-27M Unresolved, ISS Reboost Works, Inmarsat5F3 Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-May-2015 (Updated: 18-May-2015 10:05 PM)

Russia finally got some good news last night (EDT) when a second try at reboosting the International Space Station (ISS) succeeded.  At the same time, however, the ripple effects of the May 16 Proton launch failure became evident as Inmarsat grimly announced a consequent delay in the launch of its I-5 F3 satellite, the next commercial Proton launch on the schedule.  Meanwhile, Russian experts are still stymied in understanding what went wrong with the Progress M-27M launch on April 28, but have ruled out the Soyuz rocket's third stage engines as the culprit.

The reboost maneuver carried out by Progress M-26M last night (early this morning Moscow Time), which is docked to the ISS, raised the orbit by 2.8 kilometers (km) to 405 km.  Orbit reboosts are routinely carried out by Progress spacecraft and the failure on May 16 Moscow Time (May 15 EDT) was a surprise.   In that case, Progress was to fire its eight engines for about 15 minutes.   This time, however, only four of the engines were used and they fired for 23 minutes to accomplish the same gain in altitude.  No explanation was given for the earlier failure.  (Note:  NASA reports on its space station blog that the burn was for 32 minutes and 3 seconds, not 23 minutes as TASS stated.  NASA also says that the first attempt was aborted one second into the burn automatically by the Progress spacecraft and Russian controllers identified a problem with one of the engines, which was disabled for the second attempt.)

The ISS is now in position for three of its crew to return to Earth on June 11.  NASA's Terry Virts, the European Space Agency's Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos' Oleg Shkaplerov were supposed to return in their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft on May 13, but it was delayed because of the April 28 Progress M-27M failure.

Russia's official news agency Tass reports today that experts still are mystified by the cause of that launch failure of the Soyuz-2.1a rocket.   Although it was quickly determined that whatever went wrong happened about the time of spacecraft separation from the rocket's third stage, and they know that the third stage's fuel tank depressurized, they do not know why.   Russian specialists have now ruled out any problem with the rocket's third stage engines and are looking at high flight loads or a manufacturing defect in the fuel tank.  The third stage and the spacecraft entered orbit, but Progress M-27M was out of control and reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 8 Moscow Time (May 7 EDT). 

Russia launches four or five Progress cargo ships to the ISS each year.  In addition to delaying the return of the Soyuz TMA-15M crew and launch of their replacements, Russia will move up the launch of the next Progress spacecraft, M-28M, to early July (from August 6).  At least one more Progress launch is expected this year, along with three more U.S. SpaceX Dragon flights (one is attached to ISS now), a Japanese HTV mission, and an Orbital ATK Cygnus launch.  All are robotic cargo spacecraft that take food, fuel and/or other supplies to the six-person ISS crew.  (NASA designates the Progress flights in terms of their support of ISS, so Progress M-26M is Progress 58 because it was the 58th Progress sent to ISS. Progress M-27M is Progress 59 and Progress M-28M will be Progress 60 in NASA parlance.  Dozens of Progress missions supported Soviet/Russian space stations Salyut 6, Salyut 7, and Mir prior to the ISS.)

The latest blow to Russia's space program was the failure of a Proton-M rocket on May 16 carrying Mexico's MexSat-1 satellite (also known as Centenario).   The Proton-M's third stage failed 497 seconds into the flight; it, the Briz-M upper stage, and the spacecraft all fell to Earth over the Baikal region of Russia.   Mexican telecommunications authorities were philosophical about the loss, which was fully insured, but the failure also affects other commercial customers for the Proton rocket, which is marketed by International Launch Services (ILS), a U.S. company.  

The next customer in line is Inmarsat, a global mobile telecommunications provider.   In a statement today explaining that the launch of Inmarsat-5 F3 (I-5 F3) will be delayed indefinitely, Inmarsat President Rupert Pearce sounded highly displeased.  "This is the third time our Global Xpress programme has suffered launch delays because of Proton launch failures," Pearce noted sternly, adding that the company is "reassured" that its I-5 F4 satellite is under construction by Boeing with a "potential SpaceX launch in the second half of 2016, providing us with significant mission assurance in the case of any protracted delays in Proton's return to flight or a failed launch of I-5 F3." 

The April 28 Soyuz-2.1a and May 16 Proton-M failures are the latest in a string of Russian launch vehicle failures since December 2010 that have undermined the once-stellar reputation of Russian launch vehicle reliability.  The Russian State Commission established to investigate the Proton-M failure is headed the Igor Komarov, the new head of Russia's Roscosmos space agency.  He is the fourth man to hold that position since 2009 when NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden took office.  The others were relieved of duties because of prior launch failures and a continuing inability to fix whatever underlying problems exist in the Russian aerospace sector.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was put in charge of the aerospace sector in 2011 after the string of failures began.  At a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev today, Rogozin noted that the May 16 failure was very similar to one exactly a year earlier that doomed Russia's Express AM-4R satellite.  "In a word, failure of the very same engine system -- the rocket's third stage manufactured at the Voronezh design bureau," he said. "We are dealing with some design feature or violation of manufacturing rules... Apparently far more scrupulous and thorough work will be needed."  He added that transitioning to the new Angara family of rockets and ending use of Proton needs to be expedited.  Russia successfully tested its Angara 5 rocket in December.

Editor's Note: This article was updated on May 18, 2015 at 10:00 pm ET with the additional information from NASA's space station blog about the reboost.

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