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Three new crew members arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this evening Eastern Standard Time (EST), returning the ISS to its full crew complement of six people. With the arrival of Soyuz TMA-15M, there are four men and two women aboard, representing Russia, the United States and Italy, a member of the European Space Agency (ESA).
NASA astronaut Terry Virts, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov were launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:01 pm EST today and docked with the ISS just under 6 hours later at 9:49 pm EST, using the expedited trajectory that has become common in recent years (previously it took two days to reach the ISS).
Hatch opening is expected in about 1.5 hours. The three will join NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Elena Serova and Alexander Samokutyaev who arrived at the ISS in September.
The ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries represented by ESA. Since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011, Russian Soyuz spacecraft are the only means of crew transportation to and from the ISS. The United States is developing new crew transportation systems under "commercial crew" public-private partnerships between NASA and two private companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to restore an American ability to launch people into space by the end of 2017.
Space weather happens every day not just when auroras light up the sky, but intense solar flares can disrupt our technological societies making forecasts of space weather just as critical as terrestrial weather. That was the message at a seminar on Thursday (November 20) on Capitol Hill that explained why space weather is important and why satellites are needed to enable forecasters to warn of impending events. A new satellite, DSCOVR, is about to join the effort.
Representatives of NASA, NOAA, the Air Force, the State Department and a regional electricity transmission organization laid out the science behind space weather, forecasting efforts by NOAA and the Air Force, practical effects on the electrical power grid, and international efforts to better understand and mitigate it. The panel was sponsored by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and American Astronautical Society (AAS).
Laura Delgado López, SWF project manager and AAS Board member, summed up space weather as “complex, international, and routine.” It is indeed complex and several panelists pointed out that the topic simply is not conducive to “sound bite” explanations.
Lika Guhathakurta, Living with a Star and STEREO program scientist in NASA's heliophysics division, stressed that space weather happens not just when the Sun is most active at solar maximum “but all the time.” It is severe space weather events that attract media attention, however, and explaining the nuances between events that pose differing levels of potential damage can be a challenge.
Thomas Berger, Director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), pointed out that extreme space weather events are rare, but can have a considerable impact on technology. An array of space- and ground-based sensors is used to collect data that allows SWPC to make operational forecasts and issue watches, warnings or alerts to stakeholders that could be negatively affected. Satellites in earth orbit are particularly vulnerable to space weather impacts, but Berger identified other customers for SWPC’s forecasts as ranging from banking to shipping to oil drilling to utilities to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and many more.
Though they are not the only satellites used for operational space weather forecasting, spacecraft at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point are critical for providing early warning of the intensity and polarity of particles emitted by eruptions on the Sun. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) currently have spacecraft positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 point that are used by SWPC. They were designed for research, not operations, however, and are quite old. In two months, the Air Force will launch the NASA-NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR, once known as Triana) to satisfy the highest priority space weather operational requirements.
The electric utility sector is one of those customers. Frank Koza, Executive Director of Infrastructure Planning Support at PJM Interconnection, explained the challenges of managing the electric power grid during severe solar weather events. The Sun’s charged particles can cause geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) that knock out transformers, for example. While his company has generators that can go from zero to full load in 10 minutes to add capacity and blunt the impact, adequate warning is needed. SWPC issues warnings 1-3 days in advance based on solar activity, but critical data from the L1 satellites on intensity and polarity provide only about 20-40 minutes of warning, he said. PJM is a wholesale electricity provider, managing the high-voltage electricity grid in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia and selling that electricity to local power companies.
Space weather forecasting begins with observations, continues with modeling, and ends with watches, warnings, or alerts, Berger explained. In that regard, it is similar to terrestrial weather forecasting. SPWC is, in fact, part of the National Weather Service (NWS) and has its own system of designations from minor to extreme events for radio blackouts, solar radiation storms, or geomagnetic storms.
Asked what Congress can do to help in understanding, forecasting and coping with space weather, Chris Cannizzaro from the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology and Col. Robert Swanson from the Air Force’s Directorate of Weather both mentioned the need for budget certainty. Swanson said it is critical to know how much money his office will have for training and other activities in order to spend it wisely. Cannizzaro said budget uncertainty complicates efforts to enter into partnerships with other countries. The United States is active in international forums like the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS), for example, to coordinate efforts to predict and mitigate space weather.
Swanson pointed out the capability to respond to space weather events is evolving and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has created an interagency space weather operations and mitigation task force to address the issue.
OSTP’s July 2014 National Plan for Civil Earth Observations directs NOAA, in consultation with NASA, to provide observations using its geostationary weather satellites (GOES) and DSCOVR to enable the forecasting of space weather and to study options and explore working with international and interagency partners to provide such data beyond the design lifetime of DSCOVR.
DSCOVR is scheduled for launch in January 2015 and will join NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA’s Solar Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft at Sun-Earth L1, which is 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) from Earth. SOHO has been operating since 1996 and ACE since 1997.
NASA has 17 other heliophysics spacecraft, Guhathakurta said. Of them, she identified STEREO, SDO, and the Van Allen Probes as contributing to operational space weather forecasting. STEREO is a pair of satellites, one ahead of Earth in its orbit and the other behind it. The Van Allen probes are another pair in nearly identical elliptical Earth orbits. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is an inclined geosynchronous Earth orbit.
Like space weather, heliophysics is difficult to explain. Guhathakurta referred to it as a “concocted” word that represents an environmental science that has an “applied branch” – space weather, and a “pure branch” – studying fundamental physical processes. The phrase “solar and space physics” was commonly used before heliophysics became the term of art and is still used today in some quarters.
DSCOVR is intended to support operational space weather forecasting rather than research, which is NASA’s focus. Scientists hope to launch future research spacecraft in accordance with the priorities set out in the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.
PowerPoint presentations from Thursday’s seminar are posted on SWF’s website.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the next TWO weeks, November 24-December 5, 2014. Congress is in recess this coming week for the Thanksgiving holiday and will return on December 1.
During the Weeks
The United States celebrates Thanksgiving this week (on Thursday), so after the launch and docking of three International Space Station ISS) crew members today (Sunday), there is nothing on the docket until the first week of December in terms of space policy.
However, on November 29 (November 30 in Japan), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, which should be of great interest. JAXA will provide live TV coverage of the launch and spacecraft separation.
The first week of December is chock full of events. To pick just two to highlight, ESA's ministerial meeting on December 2 will decide the future of European launch systems and participation in the ISS program through 2020, and NASA's December 4 launch of a test version of the Orion spacecraft (EFT-1) on a 4.5 hour flight is a step forward for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program. Not everyone may agree on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission still has not captured much enthusiasm -- but Orion is likely to be the NASA spacecraft to take astronauts wherever it is they will go beyond low Earth orbit.
Under the current schedule, Congress will meet during the first two weeks of December and then bring the 113th Congress to a close, with the 114th Congress convening on January 3, 2015. What's going to happen in those two weeks is, as always, completely unclear, and the two weeks could stretch through the holidays and even into the first two days of January if need be (which happened in 2012-2013 with the "fiscal cliff" showdown for those who remember).
The FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding the government expires at midnight on December 11. Under the best of circumstances (in terms of fiscal solvency and the ability of agencies to know how much money they have for FY2015), Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before then combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015). Republican angst over President Obama's immigration executive order (EO) is a complication, however. Some Republicans insist that Congress not appropriate funds that could be used to implement the EO, but the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-KY), publicly explained that the immigration office that will implement the EO is funded by fees, not appropriations, so it is "impossible" (in his words) to do that. Republicans could devise a surgical approach to defunding some part of the government to demonstrate their displeasure or hold up the entire bill or something in between. The key is that not only must a bill get enough votes to pass Congress -- the Senate remains in Democratic hands until January -- but the President must be willing to sign it, which would seem unlikely if it defunds something he deems of critical importance.
It's anybody's guess as to what will happen. Our best guess, for what it's worth, is that Congress will pass a short term CR to carry the government through to mid- or late-January when the Republicans will be in control of both chambers rather than risk a government shutdown over the holidays because either Congress can't pass a bill or it passes a bill the President won't sign. But we will keep our fingers crossed that an omnibus bill funding the government through September 30, 2015 is still a possibility.
Meanwhile, here is a list of all the events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning, November 23.
Sunday, November 23 (November 24 local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan)
Saturday, November 29 (November 30 local time at the launch site in Japan)
Monday, December 1
Monday-Wednesday, December 1-3
Tuesday, December 2
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 2-3
Thursday, December 4
Friday, December 5
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:
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."
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:
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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:
Events of Interest