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Events of Interest: Week of June 6-10, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. This week it is the House that is in recess and the Senate that is in session.

Monday-Wednesday, June 6-8

Monday-Friday, June 6-10

Tuesday, June 7

  • Univ. of Mississippi's Future of Commercial Space Law and Regulation, Jones Day 7th Floor Conference Center, 51 Louisiana Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 8:30 am - 6:00 pm EDT
  • NASA media briefing on Aquarius/SAC-D mission, 4:00 pm EDT (1:00 pm local time) at Vandenberg AFB, CA (watch at www.nasa.gov/ntv)
  • Launch of Soyuz TMA-02M to the International Space Station, 4:15 pm EDT (June 8, 2:15 am local time) at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan (watch at www.nasa.gov/ntv)

Tuesday-Wedhesday, June 7-8

Wednesday, June 8

  • NASA media event on science and education projects associated with the SOFIA airborne telescope, 12:30 pm EDT (9:30 am local time) at Edwards AFB, CA

Congress Not Convinced JPSS Need Is Urgent

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Yesterday's Women in Aerospace conference, Aerospace 2011: The Road Ahead,offered interesting perspectives on why Congress was not willing to increase NOAA's FY2011 budget to pay for the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). By the end of the day, it was clear that NOAA and the Obama White House have a lot of work to do if they want a different result for FY2012.

The need for weather satellites seems obvious. The value of increasingly reliable weather forecasting has been recounted many times not only in terms of lives saved, but in broader economic terms. Kathy Sullivan, a former astronaut who was recently confirmed as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction for NOAA, reviewed some of that data in a luncheon speech to the conference. NOAA, Europe and the Department of Defense have complementary polar orbiting weather satellites in different orbital planes. Data from all of them are combined to provide the increasingly reliable forecasts available today. On average, Sullivan said, weather forecasts would be 50 percent less accurate without the NOAA satellite data.

NOAA's satellites are getting older every day and there are no others awaiting launch. When the existing satellites die, there will be no more data. If JPSS is not funded quickly, NOAA asserts there very likely will be a gap of as many as 18 months in weather satellite data in the 2015-2016 time frame. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has issued that warning to Congress in several recent hearings.

Why then would Congress not fund JPSS? Sullivan and colleague Mary Kicza portrayed the problem as a primarily structural issue in how Congress handles funding for these satellites. NOAA is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill and Congress must set priorities between weather satellites and the varied other programs under that jurisdiction, including NASA and community police services, for example. Kicza, head of NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), which manages NOAA's satellite programs, spoke on a panel later in the day. She also noted that appropriators feel they have to focus on today's problems, not something that will happen in 2015-2016.

The message from both NOAA representatives was that JPSS is a simply a victim of bad timing. In February 2011, the White House decided to dissolve the tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program due to repeated cost increases and schedule delays. NPOESS was to merge the historically separate military and civil weather satellite systems. Instead, the White House decided to revert to separate systems and directed NOAA to build JPSS while DOD builds its own system to meet its requirements.

The White House requested $1.1 billion in NOAA's FY2011 budget for JPSS, but when the dust finally settled on FY2011 appropriations two months ago, Congress maintained NOAA's polar weather satellite program at its previous level of $382 million.

Tara Rothschild, a staff member of the subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee, agreed that priority setting ultimately is the issue, but provided deeper insight into Congress's mindset. While asserting that Congress does recognize the need for weather satellites, she revealed that some Members of Congress do not believe NOAA's contention that there will be a weather satellite data gap. Even NOAA couches its warnings by saying a gap is "very likely" or "almost certain" since the projection is based on statistics on how long these satellites operate, but many satellites work years beyond their design lifetime. Even if there is a gap, Rothschild continued, it will not be until 2015-2016 and on Capitol Hill everyone is focused on today: "it's about right now," she stressed.

Rothschild's message was that the Administration needs to help Congress determine priorities. When Congress asks executive branch agencies what is most important, she said, they usually reply that all of their programs are important. "When everything is important, nothing is important," she remarked, "We can't fund it all."

The possibility of commercial providers stepping into the weather satellite business was broached as an option. Some instruments could fly as hosted payloads on unrelated satellites, for example, or weather satellites could follow the lead of the commercial remote sensing industry with guaranteed government data buys as the cornerstone of their business.

The 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act (P.L. 102-555) prohibits the commercialization of government weather satellites. It does not appear to preclude the government from buying commercial weather satellite data, however.

Meanwhile, NOAA is requesting $1.1 billion for JPSS in FY2012, the same increase Congress just rejected for FY2011. Rothschild said that she had not seen any indication yet from House appropriators as to what they plan to do with the request. With Republicans demanding deep budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, it is clear that NOAA and the White House have their work cut out for them in convincing Congress that JPSS is a priority worthy of such an increase.

NASA IG Praises NASA on NPP -- Delays and Overruns Outside NASA's Control

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The NASA Inspector General (IG) issued a report praising NASA's management of the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) mission, while assigning blame to the two other NPOESS agencies for the cost growth and schedule delays associated with the satellite's launch.

NPP was designed as a technical risk reduction mission for the DOD-NOAA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). With the dissolution of the NPOESS program by the Obama Administration last year, NPP has become the bridge between today's civil weather satellites and the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) NOAA is pursuing in lieu of NPOESS. DOD will build its own system, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), returning to the separate systems the civil and military sectors have utilized historically.

The NASA IG report concluded that NASA did a good job of managing the NPP program, but that NOAA and DOD did not deliver their instruments on time, leading to schedule delays and cost overruns. Since the agreement among the three agencies had a no-exchange-of-funds basis, NASA had to absorb the related cost increases to NPP.

The IG's recommendation was that NASA "carefully consider" the ramifications of no-exchange-of-funds agreements. According to the report, NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate concurred, and thus the recommendation is resolved.

NPP is scheduled for launch later this year, but the IG report hints that additionaly delays may occur. The original launch date for NPP was 2006.

Endeavour on Track for 2:35 am EDT Landing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Weather is "go" for space shuttle Endeavour's final landing overnight at 2:35 am EDT.

Landing is scheduled for Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL. This will be the final landing for Endeavour, its 25th. If anything changes, a second attempt at KSC could be made at 4:11 am EST. Additional opportunities are available on Thursday at KSC and at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.

Endeavour is Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space Shuttle Endeavour landed on time at 2:35 am EDT this morning at Kennedy Space Center, FL. This night landing is the end of Endeavour's final space mission.

Endeavour's Final Landing Early Tomorrow Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to make its 25th and final landing at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the wee hours of tomorrow morning. The first landing attempt is at 2:35 am EDT and the second at 4:11 am EDT.

If the shuttle cannot land for any reason, additional opportunities are available on Thursday at KSC and at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.

Assuming it lands on its first attempt, Endeavour will have accumulated 299 days in space throughout its service life and travelled 122.8 million miles.

Events of Interest: Week of May 30-June 3, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. Congressional activities are subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

During the Week

The House is in session beginning on Tuesday. The Senate is in "pro forma" session to prevent the President from making recess appointments, which is to say that it is in recess for all practical purposes.

Monday, May 30

  • Happy Memorial Day!

Monday-Wednesday, May 30-June 1

Wednesday, June 1

Wednesday-Friday, June 1-3

Wednesday - June 10

Friday, June 3

  • Women in Aerospace, Aerospace 2011-The Road Ahead, Key Bridge Marriott, Arlington, VA, 8:00 am - 6:00 pm EDT
  • Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee field hearing on U.S. Strategic Command, Bellvue Public Schools/Offutt Air Force Base Welcome Center, 1660 Highway 370, Bellvue, NB, 11:30 am local time (per National Journal's Daybook; not yet posted on the committee's website)

Endeavour Undocks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station on schedule, and now begins its final journey home. Landing is scheduled for June 1.

Endeavour to Depart ISS Shortly

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to undock from the International Space Station at 11:55 pm EDT, less than an hour from now. Landing is expected on Wednesday, June 1.

Dispute Continues Over NASA's Arsenic Life Discovery

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 30-May-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Heated debate over "arsenic life" that began five months ago (see our story) continues this week with the formal publication of the team's findings in the journal Science (subscription required). The debate began after a team of scientists announced discovery of a life-form that seemed to dispute one of the fundamental truths of life -- a microbe that could thrive on arsenic.

Last December, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team published results of an experiment involving a microbe found in Mono Lake in Northern California. When placed into conditions lacking phosphorous - one of the building blocks of life - and rich in arsenic, the organism, dubbed GFAJ-1, was able to replace the necessary element with the chemically similar, yet ordinarily toxic, one and live, they claimed. NASA hinted at the finding in a press release preceding the press conference that announced a finding that would have implications for astrobiology -- the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Although the discovery is here on Earth, the implications of the finding question the most basic assumptions of life and offers new considerations for NASA's astrobiology program.

Even when the announcement was made, other scientists were wary of giving too much weight to this one experiment. Steven Benner, Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, who participated in NASA's December press conference, warned that chemists would need "exceptional evidence" to support the findings and described it as an "exceptional claim."

The sentiment proved to be true not only for chemists, but for other scientists who were "sharply critical of the paper" as reported in Science's blog, ScienceInsider, on Friday. Technical comments on the Wolfe-Simon team's conclusions quoted by ScienceInsider show concerns over the possibility of phosphorous contamination when the arsenic-rich environment was created in the laboratory. Benner, a molecular biochemist, authored one of the Technical Comments and questioned the basic hypothesis of the research on the basis of the instability of the arsenic compound. "Their hypothesis...would, if true, set aside nearly a century of chemical data concerning arsenate and phosphate molecules," he wrote.

The team's initial reticence in December to respond to comments and its desire to have "that discourse in the scientific community" prompted many of the Technical Comments. ScienceInsider also summarizes the team's response to the criticisms. The team stands by its initial results and points to its acknowledgement in the original paper that while trace amounts of phosphorous were detected in the experiment, these would not account for the bacterial growth measured.

The debate suggests that NASA astrobiologists, while keeping close watch of the research that comes out in the next couple of years over this issue, should perhaps not rush to hone in on arsenic-rich environments on other planets in the quest for life. Here on Earth at least, the question remains open.

Events of Interest

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