Latest News

One Up, One Down -- X-37B Lands at Vandenberg

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jun-2012 (Updated: 16-Jun-2012 12:14 PM)

While most of the space world's attention was focused on China and its successful launch of the Shenzhou-9 mission early this morning (Eastern Daylight Time), another interesting event was taking place at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   The Air Force's X-37B automated space plane returned home after 469 days in orbit.

The reusable space vehicle landed at 5:48 am Pacfic Daylight Time (8:48 am EDT).  It was launched on March 5, 2011 atop an Atlas V rocket. 

The X-37B's mission is highly classified.  What it's been doing for the past 15 months is not known publicly.   A press release from Vandenberg today says only that it "performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies."  

At least two X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs) have been built.  The first, OTV-1, flew a successful 224-day mission in 2010.   The vehicle that landed today is OTV-2.   The Air Force announced today that OTV-1 will be launched again "sometime in Fall 2012."

Photo of X-37B OTV-1.  Photo Credit:  Boeing (via

The vehicle resembles a small space shuttle and the program was actually inherited by the Department of Defense from NASA.   It originally was designed by NASA as a test vehicle as part of its Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program.   OSP was going to be a crew return vehicle ("lifeboat") for the International Space Station, and eventually a two-way transportation system.   NASA cancelled the program in 2004, however, after President George W. Bush announced plans to focus NASA's human spaceflight program on a return to the Moon instead of extended operations of the ISS.   The X-37B does not carry people.


China Space Station Crew Successful Launch at 6:37 am ET Today - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jun-2012 (Updated: 16-Jun-2012 06:56 AM)

UPDATE:  The launch went off without a hitch at 6:37 am EDT. Shenzhou-9 is now in orbit.  The crew is scheduled to dock with Tiangong-1 on Monday.

ORIGINAL STORY: Countdown continues for launch of Shenzhou-9 at 6:37 am Eastern Daylight time (10:37 GMT, 18:37 Beijing time) this morning, June 16, 2012.   This is the first Chinese crew to go to a space station and the first to include a woman astronaut, Liu Yang. Live launch coverage is on China's English-language website CCTV.    Or follow us on Twitter: @SpcPlcyOnline.

The crew's mission is to rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-1 space station, which was launched in September 2011.  The mission is scheduled to last 10-12 days.

This is China's fourth crewed spaceflight.  Five other Shenzhou missions (Shenzhou 1-4, Shenzhou-8) were automated tests.

Background Information on China's Human Spaceflight Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2012 (Updated: 11-Jun-2013 09:01 AM)

China's human spaceflight program, Project 921, officially began in 1992.   The scheduled launch tomorrow of Shenzhou-9 is the ninth flight in the series, but only the fourth to carry a crew.

Shenzhou 1-4 were automated tests of the spacecraft; Shenzhou-8 was an automated test of rendezvous and docking procedures with the Tiangong-1 space station, which also was unoccupied.  The following table provides information on the three crewed missions flown to date and tomorrow's mission.


 Mission  Launch Date  Crew Comments
 Shenzhou-5  Oct. 15, 2003 Yang Liwei First Chinese human spaceflight mission;
21 hours, 23 min
 Shenzhou-6  Oct. 12, 2005 Fei Junlong
Nie Haisheng
First Chinese 2-person crew;
5 day mission
 Shenzhou-7  Sept. 25, 2008 Zhai Zhigang
Liu Boming
Jing Haipeng

First Chinese 3-person crew;
First Chinese spacewalk (by Zhai for 22 min, Liu
also did stand-up EVA in airlock for about 2 min)
3 day mission;
small (40 kg) subsatellite ejected


 July 16, 2012

Jing Haipeng
Liu Wang
Liu Yang

Scheduled: 10 day mission;
manual docking with Tiangong-1 space station;
Liu Yang first Chinese woman astronaut


The Tiangong-1 space station was launched in September 2011.


NASA Downplays Threat of Asteroid 2011 AG5 Impact in 2040

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2012 (Updated: 15-Jun-2012 04:30 PM)

NASA released a workshop report today that downplays the risk to Earth of Asteroid 2011 AG5, saying that it "will fly safely past and not impact Earth in 2040."   Asteroid 2011 AG5 is one of a subset of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs).

The agency acknowledges, however, that more observations are needed in the years ahead to be doubly sure that analysis is correct.  A key event will occur -- or not -- in February 2023 when the asteroid is 1.1 million miles from Earth.   If it passes through a very small "keyhole" in space at that time, Earth's gravity could be just enough to modify its trajectory such that an impact with Earth might be possible on February 5, 2040. 

The keyhole is 227 miles wide.   Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA's Near Earth Object (NEO) observation program, said: "Given our current understanding of this asteroid's orbit, there is only a very remote chance of this keyhole passage even occurring."

Today's press release provides a link to a JPL website where four related documents are posted, including a "consensus summary" of the May 29, 2012 workshop.   The links to the four documents are a little hard to find so are provided here:

The one page consensus summary of the workshop does not list the participants.  Shown as bullet-points, it states that there is only a 0.2 percent chance of the asteroid passing through the keyhole in 2023, and also only a 0.2 percent change of it impacting Earth in 2040.

The 140-meter diameter asteroid was discovered in January 2011 and is currently located in the daytime sky and cannot be observed with Earth-based telescopes.  Observations can be made in the fall of 2013 and again in 2015-2020.  Data from those observations will allow scientists to better predict its path.

Should the unlikely occur and it turns out the asteroid is on a collision course with Earth after all, the workshop concluded that "numerous viable deflection mission options are available."   For example, "an impactor spacecraft could be an effective means."  If that approach is chosen, "[i]t is desirable to also have a rendezvous spacecraft on station at the asteroid at least a few months" in advance and it could be "equipped with a gravity tractor" as a backup.

China Announces Launch Time, Crew, for Tomorrow's Space Station Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2012 (Updated: 15-Jun-2012 09:11 AM)

China today announced the liftoff time for the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft launch tomorrow, June 16, 2012.  Shenzhou-9 will carry the first Chinese space station crew to the Tiangong-1 space station, already in orbit. The crew includes the first Chinese woman astronaut.

The launch will take place at 18:37 Beijing time, which is 10:37 GMT or 6:37 am Eastern Daylight Time.  The crew is Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and Liu Yang.   Liu Yang is the first Chinese woman to be launched into space.

The crew was introduced to the public at a Chinese press conference.  The video is on CCTV.  It is in Chinese with simultaneous translation into English. 

Jing is the commander of the mission.   He flew on the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2007.  Liu Wang, 42, will be in charge of the manual docking.  Liu Yang, born in 1978, will be in charge of medical experiments.

Preparations on Track for Launch of First Chinese Space Station Crew, Manual Docking Planned

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jun-2012 (Updated: 14-Jun-2012 10:11 AM)

China's preparations for the launch of its first space station crew -- including its first woman astronaut -- remain on track for Saturday, weather permitting.   China's Xinhua news service reveals that the crew will perform a manual rather than automated docking with the Tiangong-1 space station.

China's CCTV news (in English) reports today that the Long March IIF rocket is being fueled at the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert.  Water and food have been loaded into the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft for the three-person crew.  CCTV confirms again today that the crew will include China's first woman astronaut.  

China has not announced the launch time for Shenzhou-9, but independent analysts calculate it at 10:39 or 10:41 GMT (6:39 am or 6:41 am Eastern Daylight Time).  Dragon-in-space, a website that focuses on China's space program but states that it is not affiliated with any government agency or private organization, said that the crew most likely will be Jing Hai-peng, Liu Wang and Liu Yang, and the backup crew is Nie Hai-sheng, Chen Quan, and Wang Ya-ping.  Previously it had reported that the Nie crew was primary, but said on June 12 that the Jing crew is primary.  The Chinese government has said repeatedly that the final crew will not be selected until Friday.  This photograph from the Dragon-in-Space website reportedly shows both crews, but does not identify the individuals. 

Photo credit:  Dragon-in-Space (

CCTV and other Chinese media sources note that this is the first of their human spaceflight launches to take place in the summer.  CCTV reports that the heat at the launch site adds to the problem of "controlling the termperatures of the spaceship and the escape tower."  Xinhua (in English) reports that the propellant must be cooled to 15 degrees Celsius to prevent it from vaporizing in the high heat.   Other seasons of the year pose their own problems.   Xinhua reveals that for the December 30, 2002 launch of the Shenzhou-4 spacecraft -- a test flight that did not carry a crew -- cotton quilts were used to keep the rocket warm as temperatures fell to minus 29 degrees Celsius.  

Sandstorms are another problem and Xinhua says "strong wind and sand" blew through the launch site on Wednesday, but the forecast for Friday and Saturday is for "relatively stable" weather.

The sound of the wind complicated a live video report by CCTV reporter Wang Yizhi today who is at Jiuquan.  She said that the wind cannot be more than 15 meters per second at the time of launch and it was "well above" that during her report  She also disputed other media reports that the final crew had been selected and emphasized that the decision would be made on Friday.

If weather delays Saturday's launch, Bob Christy at calculates alternative launch dates as June 18, 20, 22 or 24.

Xinhua says that the Chinese crew will peform a manual rather than automated docking with the Tiangong-1 space station.   Automated tests were conducted last year using the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, but they apparently plan to use a manual docking this time.

Tiangong-1, China's first space station, was launch in September 2011.   Shenzhou-8 rendezvoused and docked with it twice in November.   Neither spacecraft had a crew.


NuSTAR X-Ray Telescope Launched -- Update 3

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jun-2012 (Updated: 13-Jun-2012 12:11 PM)

UPDATE 3:  Launch went as planned.

UPDATE 2:  Everything is proceeding nominally.  Launch still scheduled for 12:00 noon EDT.  Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline.

UPDATE:   Live audio and video launch coverage is now available at as the aircraft is about to take off from Kwajalein.

ORIGINAL STORY: NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) is currently scheduled for launch at 12:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today.  The launch was delayed for about 30 minutes because of a receiver issue that was quickly resolved.

A launch blog is available at the NuStar website.  Various people/organizations are tweeting it, including @nasakennedy, @nasajpl, and @NASANuSTAR.   NuSTAR will be launched by a Pegasus rocket that is dropped from an L-1011 aircraft.  The aircraft is scheduled to depart Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean at 11:00 am EDT and will drop the Pegasus about an hour later.  Weather is not expected to be a factor today. 

NuSTAR is an x-ray telescope that will study celestial phenomena, including x-ray sources at the event horizons of black holes.   One cannot see into a black hole, but the material being sucked into the black hole can be observed as it gets very close to that threshold.  

Fiona Harrison of CalTech is the principal investigator for the mission.   She explained at a press conference on Tuesday that NuSTAR can observe black holes at x-ray energies higher than those studied by NASA's Chandra x-ray observatory, for example.  NuSTAR will be able to study "regions that are hotter, where particles are accelerated close to the speed of light."

Harrison said that the lifecycle cost of the NuSTAR mission is $165-170 million including the spacecraft, launch, and two years of science operations.  She talked about the advantage of using the Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Pegasus launch system, which is dropped from an aircraft that can depart from many locations around the world.   NuSTAR is headed for an equatorial orbit.  By using the Pegasus system, NuSTAR could depart from Kwajalein Atoll and be fairly close to the equator at the launch point.  Kwajalein is a U.S. missile test site in the Marshall Islands and is just 8 degrees north of the equator.   The L-1011 will fly 117 miles south before releasing the Pegasus rocket at an altitude of 39,000 feet.

China Confirms June 16 for First Space Station Crew Launch, Including First Woman Astronaut

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jun-2012 (Updated: 12-Jun-2012 01:04 PM)

China's CCTV television (in English) confirmed today that China's first space station crew will be launched on June 16, 2012 and will include China's first woman astronaut.  

Previously China said only that the launch would take place in mid-June, but June 16 had been identified as a likely date by independent analysts, with launch around 10:30 am GMT (6:30 am EDT).

The announcement came after a successful four-and-a-half hour dress rehearsal of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and Long March IIF rocket at the Jiuquan launch site.  One brief CCTV video report shows three space-suited astronauts boarding the spacecraft while the announcer states that the crew includes a female. 

A longer second CCTV video report features a woman reporter who summarizes the test and the upcoming mission.  She adds that the crew will spend 10-12 days in space and the female astronaut will perform scientific experiments while the men "perform the flying as well as conducting the ... rendezvous and docking part" of the mission.

The final crew will not be chosen until Friday, the reporter said, but a woman will be included.  The astronauts who participated in today's test are "promising candidates" and will remain in quarantine for the remaining days before launch, she said. 

Chinese astronauts are usually referred to as taikonauts in the West, but the CCTV report refers to them as "astronauts."

China's Tiangong-1 space station was launched last fall.  The automated Shenzhou-8 spacecraft conducted rendezvous and docking operations with it in November.

SASC Report Lifts Veil on Commercial Satellite Imagery Rift

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jun-2012 (Updated: 12-Jun-2012 05:00 PM)

Insight into the battle over whether the government should continue to support two commercial companies to provide electro-optical satellite imagery emerged with the release of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) report on DOD's FY2013 authorization bill.  GeoEye and DigitalGlobe sell imagery to the government under the EnhancedView contract administered by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).  The government contracts are a significant part of their businesses.  Substantial cutbacks in government purchases could mean that only one company would survive.

Rumors have been rampant for months that the government plans to scale back its commercial satellite imagery purchases because of reduced requirements and a decision to rely more on the government's own satellites.   The spy satellites built and operated by the government's National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) produce images with better resolution, but are highly classified and thus difficult to share with allies, for example.  The satellites also are costly.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. government demands for imagery burgeoned to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Decisions were made to contract for imagery from commercial companies to supplement NRO's products.  While not as good as NRO imagery, commercial imagery is good enough for many purposes.

The EnhancedView contract NGA awarded to GeoEye and DigitalGlobe in 2010 is a follow-on to previous contracts called ClearView and NextView.  The EnhancedView contract is valued at $7.3 billion combined for the two companies if all options are exercised.  The 10-year contract is structured as a one-year contract with nine one-year options.

NGA's budget is classified, so how much it is requesting for commercial imagery for FY2013 is unavailable, although the EnhancedView contract called for payments of $250 million per year for the first four years to the two companies.  SASC wants to add $125 million to whatever amount NGA requested to ensure that the government continues to support both companies.  Section 930 of SASC's version of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also requires two studies -- one by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and another by the Congressional Budget Office -- on the need for and cost effectiveness of commercial imagery. 

A lengthy section in SASC's report (S. Rept. 112-173) explains the committee's action, shedding light on how the debate has evolved.   Pieces of the story have been reported in a few media sources, notably an April 19, 2012 New York Times article, but this is the most detailed account to appear publicly in an official government document.

The debate intermixes three questions:  how much electro-optical satellite imagery does the U.S. government need;  what is the most cost-effective means for filling those requirements -  with the government's own systems, by purchasing commercial imagery, or both; and what obligation does the government have to ensure the business success of the companies.

GeoEye and DigitalGlobe sell imagery with 0.5 meter resolution, though many say the images are better than that and the companies degrade the data for sale on the open market to abide by government policy requirements on what can be disseminated.   NGA's purchases underpin the business models of the two companies, although they do have other customers such as Google.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drove the govenrment's need for more satellite imagery that could be easily shared with others.  With those conflicts ended or ending, the question arises as to how much imagery the government now needs and how best to obtain it. 

The SASC report traces the history of defense and Intelligence Community (IC) decision-making on the need for commercial imagery.  It points to a rift between the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who oversees the 17 organizations, including NRO, that comprise the IC.

The report states that the DNI rejected a Joint Staff proposal that commercial satellites be the primary means for collecting electro-optical imagery.  The DNI instead wanted to rely on NRO to enhance existing government systems and build new ones.  That dispute reached the White House, but at the last minute the DNI and the Secretary of Defense agreed to do both -- buy commercial imagery and new government satellites.  With that settled, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe "proceeded towards adding the equivalent of two more satellites that would be available to meet government needs," SASC says. 

The DNI, however, apparently did not want to stick with that agreement and the dispute escalated to Congress.  SASC relates that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted a study concluding "enhanced commercial satellites could meet or exceed the overwhelming majority of electro-optical imaging requirements at less cost and risk" and would "provide greater resilience and survivability, and a broader, competitive industrial base."  DNI countered with its own study asserting that more, smaller commercial satellites would not be less expensive than NRO's satellites.   SASC says that it responded in the classified annex to last year's report on the FY2012 NDAA by directing DOD -- specifically the Joint Staff and DOD's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office -- to conduct another analysis, but "DOD declined" to do so.

Instead, late last year at least one part of DOD, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, and the DNI reached agreement to reduce funding for commercial imagery.  SASC complains the decision was not based on new analysis, but was simply included in the FY2013 budget request.   SASC emphasizes that the decision "would result in the elimination" of one of the two commercial companies competing for government contracts, thereby imperiling that company's business.    The government's "wild swing in demand has exposed two healthy companies to financial risk," SASC charges.

For now, SASC wants to maintain the status quo while two new studies are completed.   In addition to adding the $125 million for FY2013, SASC directs the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  to do a comprehensive analysis of DOD's imagery requirements and the role of commercial imagery in meeting them and report to Congress by April 1, 2013.  It also directs the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to report by September 15, 2013 on whether the proposed action is consistent with Presidential policy, Federal Acquisition Regulations, and law. 

Uncertainty about the government's intentions already has impacted the companies.   GeoEye made an unsolicited offer to buy DigitalGlobe last month, which was summarily rejected by DigitalGlobe.  Both reported they have been assured of their promised EnhancedView funding for FY2012.   The question is what will happen in FY2013 and beyond.

SASC's counterpart, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), also noted the debate over commercial imagery in its report on the FY2013 NDAA (H.R. 4310, H. Rept. 112-479).  HASC, however, only included report language directing the Secretary of Defense to report to Congress by December 1, 2012 on the validated requirements for imagery and how DOD plans to meet them.  Unlike bill language, report language is not legally binding (though agencies are well advised to follow it).  SASC's report requirements are in the bill itself.

Authorization bills like the NDAA set policy and recommend funding levels.   Only appropriations bills actually provide money, however.   The House Appropriations Committee did not mention commercial imagery in its report (H.R. 5856, H. Rept. 112-493) on the FY2013 defense appropriations bill.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on the bill yet.   Its defense subcommittee will hold a hearing tomorrow morning with Secretary of Defense Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey.  It would be unusual for a detailed issue like this to arise at such a hearing, however.

China Readies to Launch Space Station Crew-update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jun-2012 (Updated: 10-Jun-2012 05:43 PM)

UPDATE:  Dragon-in-Space, a website devoted to China's space program that it says is not affiliated with any government agencies or private organizations, reports that the Shenzhou 9 launch will take place at 10:41 GMT on June 16 and it will carry a female taikonaut. Wang Ya-ping. Bob Christy has updated his website to also indicate that June 16 is the first likely launch date, with 10:39 GMT as the launch time.  Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) is four hours behind GMT, so that would make it 6:41 am or 6:39 am EDT.  These are not official Chinese government launch dates or times, however.

ORIGINAL STORY: China still has not put an official date on it, but Xinhua reported yesterday that the first Chinese space station crew will be launched in "mid-June" as the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its rocket were moved to the launch pad.

China launched its first space station, Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace), last September.  An automated spacecraft, Shenzhou 8, tested rendezvous and docking operations with it twice in November.   China said at the time it planned to launch two more missions to Tiangong-1 and at least one would involve a crew and that crew likely would include China's first female taikonaut.

China indicated months ago that the launch would be this summer, but has not been specific about the date.  Bob Christy, an amatuer space observer in the United Kingdom, initially calculated June 17 as a likely launch date based on Tiangong-1's orbital maneuvers.  He has refined his analysis and now assesses that the launch could take place on alternate days beginning June 14.  His website,, lists the likely launch times on June 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, and 24.

The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its Long March 2F rocket were moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center yesterday according to Xinhua.  China still did not commit to launching a woman on the mission, insisting that the decision on crew members will not be made until closer to launch.

One of the three crew members apparently will not enter the space station, but remain in Shenzhou 9.   Xinhua quoted a spokesman as having said in February that "[o]ne of the three Shenzhou-9 crew members will not board the Tiangong-1 space module lab, but will remain inside the spacecraft as a precautionary measure in case of an emergency."

Tiangong-1 is quite modest (8.5 metric tons) compared to the International Space Station (about 400 metric tons), but nevertheless occupying a space station will be a significant achievement for China if all goes well.   As first space stations go, Tiangong-1 is just less than half the mass of the world's first space station, the Soviet Union's Salyut 1.  Launched in 1971, it had a mass of about 18.6 metric tons.  The first U.S. space station, Skylab, launched in 1973, had a mass of about 77 metric tons.

Events of Interest


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: