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The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Perhaps the most intriguing event this week is Thursday's House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Oversight Subcommittee hearing on "Espionage Threats at Federal Laboratories: Balancing Scientific Cooperation While Protecting Critical Information." No NASA witnesses are on the list, but it would be surprising if the agency is not a subject of discussion.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) made headlines earlier this year with allegations that a Chinese national, Bo Jiang, was stealing secrets from NASA's Langely Research Center. Jiang was arrested, but later exonerated of a felony charge of lying to federal investigators. Wolf has raised concerns for some time about alleged improprieties regarding ITAR-controlled information at NASA's Ames Research Center. Wolf chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and works closely with House SS&T Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) on this issue. They jointly sent a letter to the FBI and to the Department of Justice Inspector General about their concerns about NASA-Ames this spring (links to the letters are on Rep. Wolf's website). Witnesses on Thursday are Chuck Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering (and President Emeritus of MIT); Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (and former Asian Studies Center director at the Heritage Foundation); Michelle Van Cleave, Senior Research Fellow at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute (she was the National Counterintelligence Executive in the George W. Bush Administration and once was a staffer on the House SS&T Committee); and David Major of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies (a retired FBI agent, his company trains people in counterintelligence and related topics). Should be interesting!
Monday, May 13
Tuesday, May 14
Tuesday-Wednesday, May 14-15
Thursday, May 16
Two International Space Station (ISS) crew members successfully replaced a coolant pump in the ISS electrical system today, but there was no sign of the leak that led to this unprecedented ISS spacewalk.
Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy completed their tasks about an hour ahead of schedule today, finishing the spacewalk in 5.5 hours. One objective of the spacewalk, successfully executed, was replacing an ammonia pump used to cool a solar array channel that provides electricity for the ISS. There are eight channels, one for each solar array. ISS crew members noticed "snowflakes" emanating from one of them on Thursday, signalling an ammonia leak. That channel had shown signs of leaks in the past, origin unknown, but this time the amount was much greater.
NASA decided to conduct an emergency spacewalk not because the leak posed a threat to the space station or the astronauts, but because they hoped to spot the source of the leak while ammonia was still being released. That part of the assignment was unrealized. When Marshburn and Cassidy arrived at the site, there was no sign of an ammonia leak. They replaced the pump because it was one obvious source of the problem, and when the new pump was activated, no leak was observed. That might be a cause for celebration, but NASA officials stressed at a post-spacewalk news conference that it will be many weeks before they feel they are certain the new pump resolves the issue.
"We are happy. We are very happy," said ISS Deputy Program Manager Joel Montalbano about the overall success of the spacewalk. This is the first time in the "increment" ISS missions that a spacewalk has been planned and executed in such a short period of time. The desire to view the leak as it was occurring, and the experience of Marshburn and Cassidy -- who conducted two spacewalks together on a 2009 space shuttle mission, including working in this area of the ISS -- drove the decision to move quickly. Marshburn will be returning to Earth on Monday after almost 5 months on the space station, so today was a unique opportunity.
In a spacewalk characterized as unprecedented for the International Space Station (ISS), two U.S. astronauts will venture outside their home in space Saturday morning to see if they can find and fix a vexing ammonia leak in the ISS electrical power system.
Tom Marshburn has been preparing for his return to Earth on Monday after nearly 5 months in space. NASA officials stressed today that there is no change to the plan for Marshburn and two other ISS crewmembers to come home on Monday, but first he gets another chance to do a spacewalk.
Marshburn and Chris Cassidy, who is part of a different set of ISS crewmembers that is remaining onboard the station, have already done two spacewalks together (on STS-127 in 2009) and worked in the area where they need to go tomorrow. Their experience helped NASA officials decide that it was OK to go ahead with this spacewalk with less than 48 hours notice. NASA chief flight director Norm Knight said that performing a spacewalk with so little advance planning is "precedent setting" for ISS missions (called "increments"), though perhaps not for space shuttle flights.
ISS crewmembers observed "snowflakes" coming off one of the ISS solar array trusses yesterday that was quickly determined to be an ammonia leak in one of the eight power channels that provide electricity. There is one power channel for each solar array. Ammonia is used as a coolant.
This leak is in the vicinity of a previous leak that NASA was never able to identify so it is not known if something happened to increase that leak or if this is something unrelated. ISS program manager Mike Suffredini stressed the difficulty of finding leaks, which may come from very tiny holes, perhaps caused by a Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) hit. Or the leak may be from a seal in the pump. They simply don't know. Marshburn and Cassidy will do a visual inspection and replace the pump.
The decision to do a spacewalk quickly was driven largely by the desire to observe the leak when a lot of ammonia is being released precisely so that the source can be identified. The ammonia in the system is expected to be depleted in a day or so.
The opportunity to discover the source of the leak coupled with the experience of these two ISS crew members were major factors in the decision to go ahead with the spacewalk tomorrow, Suffredini said. It is not a matter of an emergency situation aboard the station. The crew is in no danger from the leak and the ISS can operate with minimal impact using the other seven channels. If the astronauts cannot identify the source of the leak and replacing the pump does not remedy the situation, the ISS can continue operating almost normally at least in the short term. For the long term, operating with only seven instead of eight electrical channels could reduce the amount of research that can be conducted. This is "not critical from a safety standpoint," Suffredini said, but "if we have to live with this channel down for a long period of time" it will have an impact on research. The main purpose of the ISS is to serve as a scientific research laboratory for experiments that need to be conducted in microgravity.
Marshburn and Cassidy are scheduled to open the hatch to exit the ISS at 8:15 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tomorrow morning (7:15 am Central Daylight Time). During the 6 hour 15 minute spacewalk, they will inspect the area of the leak and replace the pump. They then will inspect each other's spacesuits for signs of ammonia contamination since NASA knows there is a lot of leaked ammonia in the area. A 30-45 minute "bake out" period will ensue as a precaution to allow any unnoticed ammonia to evaporate. They will then reenter the airlock and pressurize it to 5 pounds per square inch (psi) where another test will be conducted to ensure they are not bringing any ammonia into the station before full repressurization.
Marshburn, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield remain on schedule to return to Earth on Monday, May 13, in their Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft. Undocking is scheduled for 7:08 pm EDT, with landing at 10:31 pm EDT (8:31 am May 14 local time at the landing site in Kazakhstan). They were launched on December 19, 2012.
NASA TV will cover tomorrow's spacewalk beginning at 7:00 am EDT (6:00 am CDT). It also will cover the landing on Monday, as detailed in NASA's press release.
NASA will hold a press briefing at 4:00 pm ET (3:00 pm CT) today about the ammonia leak on the International Space Station (ISS).
The briefing will be broadcast on NASA TV. ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini and NASA Chief Flight Director Norm Knight will discuss plans for assessing and fixing the leak, which ISS crew members noticed yesterday. A final decision on whether to conduct a spacewalk on Saturday is expected later today.
NASA reports that astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) noticed a significant exterior ammonia leak beginning about 11:30 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today. The agency stresses that the astronauts are in no danger.
The crew noticed small white flakes floating away from a portion of one of the solar arrays where part of the cooling system is located. Ammonia is used as a coolant for the power channels that provide electricity generated by the solar arrays. Crew observations and images obtained from exterior cameras operated by ground controllers confirmed that it is in the same area where a leak was investigated during a November 2012 spacewalk.
NASA said it is making plans to reroute other power channels to ensure full operation of the space station. The leak rate is so high that a complete shutdown of that cooling loop might be required in the next 48 hours.
In a relatively short, but wide-ranging hearing this morning, two House subcommittees learned not only about the ongoing search for other planets around other stars -- exoplanets -- but about current thinking on how "life" is defined.
NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) both fund research into exoplanets. NASA's Kepler Space Telescope is spurring headlines today with its findings about hundreds of such planets, but it was an NSF-funded effort in the 1990s that is credited with finding the first certifiable exoplanet. NASA's John Grunsfeld and NSF's Jim Ulvestad assured members of the Space Subcommittee and Research Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that the two agencies work closely with each other, with the Department of Energy, which also funds astrophysics research, as well as with international partners in exoplanet studies.
The search for "other Earths" is part of the search for other life, perhaps intelligent life. Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute, which focuses on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), explained the factors in the Drake Equation, of which the number of planets capable of supporting life is third (after the number of stars that might have planets in their habitable zone, and the fraction of those stars that actually have planets).
A key question, however, was asked by Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), chairman of the Research Subcommittee. Noting that NASA's Mars Curiosity mission is looking for water and carbon-based life, he said "that's our definition of life...are there other people who have other definitions of life that we also might be exploring for?"
Doyle's answer was that some astrobiologists "are looking at the definition of life as anything that can store information." He added that "silicon-based information storage and crystals and so on has not been out of the realm of consideration."
The National Research Council (NRC) published a study in 2007, often referred to as the "weird life" study, that hypothesizes on life forms that might be based on elements other than carbon. Bucshon was satisfied with Doyle's necessarily brief explanation today, however.
The only mildly controversial issues that arose were the potential use of the Space Launch System (SLS) for launching future space telescopes that could be used for exoplanet research, and whether the Obama Administration's proposed reorganization of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs might negatively impact dissemination of exoplanet findings from NASA missions.
Space subcommittee chairman Steven Palazzo's (R-MS) first question clearly was intended to get Grunsfeld to say that SLS would be very useful for launching much larger space telescopes that might be able to detect oxygen, for example, in an exoplanet's atmosphere, which could signal the existence of life there. Grunsfeld complied. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a strong supporter of commercial space activities, was the last questioner of the hearing and had the opposite intent. He wanted Grunsfeld to acknowledge that SLS was not necessary for future telescopes that are being planned and existing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) could be used instead. Grunsfeld agreed. Rohrabacher semi-seriously asked if Grunsfeld would be willing to pay for the development of SLS out of his budget and Grunsfeld, obviously, said no. (Rohrabacher also joked that "we've been engaged in a search for intelligent life for a long time -- over in the Senate, however.")
As for the proposed changes to STEM programs, where NASA's Science Mission Directorate funding for Education and Public Outreach (EPO) efforts associated with its various projects would be transferred to other agencies, Grunsfeld said only that the details of that plan are still being developed.
Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), currently scheduled for launch in 2018, for exoplanet research was discussed several times. In response to a question about whether the lifespan of JWST could be extended beyond its 5-year design life, Grunsfeld said it cannot be repaired or upgraded like the Hubble Space Telescope since it will be located a million miles from Earth, but that the determining factor in the telescope's lifetime is fuel. "We hope, and actually engineering says, we should get 11 years of life ... in an actual operational mode we will use."
Orbital Sciences Corporation announced today that it is targeting the August/September time frame for its next test flight of the Antares rocket as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The test flight will take a Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
That is a slip of about a month from the previously announced late June/early July schedule to allow the company time to replace one of the rocket's AJ-26 engines. Then it must wait its turn to visit the ISS. A Japanese HTV flight is already scheduled for August and if it goes as planned, Antares/Cygnus will have to wait until September. If HTV is delayed, however, Orbital said it would be ready in August. Like Cygnus, HTV is an automated cargo spacecraft.
Orbital said detailed analysis of data from the first Antares test flight on April 21 confirmed that "the inaugural ... flight really was as good as it looked." However, the company is exchanging one of the AJ26 engines on the next Antares rocket's first stage for one that "is already tested in order to further inspect and confirm a seal is functioning properly."
UPDATE: Adds another hearing on the FY2014 Air Force budget request; this one by Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on Wednesday.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Sending people to Mars is one theme of the upcoming week. A three-day "summit" sponsored by ExploreMars and George Washington University's (GWU) Space Policy Institute will be held at GWU's Lisner Auditorum on Monday-Wednesday. This is also the week that Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin releases his new book, Mission to Mars, written with veteran space journalist Leonard David. There are events throughout the week related to release of the book. In Washington, there are events on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the National Geographic, and on Friday at the National Press Club.
The search for other Earths -- exoplanets -- will be the topic of a hearing by two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday. On a more prosaic level, two hearings on the Air Force's FY2014 budget request will be held on Tuesday and Thursday.
Monday-Wednesday, May 6-8
Tuesday, May 7
Tuesday-Wednesday, May 7-8
Wednesday, May 8
Wednesday and Thursday, May 8 and May 9
Thursday, May 9
Friday, May 10
Two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing next week to learn about exoplanet discoveries, with witnesses from NASA, NSF, and the SETI Institute.
The Subcommittee on Space and the Subcommittee on Research have scheduled the following witnesses to speak about "Exoplanet Discoveries: Have We Found Other Earths?":
NASA and NSF share responsibility for most government-funded astronomy and astrophysics research, with NASA primarily responsible for space-based systems and NSF primarily responsible for ground-based systems. Although NASA is closely identified with the findings from its Kepler Space Telescope, researchers may be funded by either agency. Last month, for example, an NSF-funded University of Washington associate professor, Eric Agol, discovered a small "super Earth" using data from Kepler. The Department of Energy (DOE) also supports high energy astrophysics research. The Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) provides advice to all three agencies and created an Exoplanet Task Force in 2005.
The SETI Institute focuses on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and its Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe is part of that effort. Doyle, an expert on the formation and detection of exoplanets, is a Participating Scientist on NASA's Kepler science team. His webpage includes an interview about his current research using Kepler.
The hearing is on Thursday, May 9, at 10:00 am ET in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.
NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, signed an extension of the contract under which Russia transports crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The extension provides for launches through 2016 and return and rescue services through 2017.
The $424 million contract provides for transporting six astronauts, who could be American, European, Japanese or Canadian. The Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs ISS operations requires the United States to provide transportation for astronauts from all of those countries. When the IGA was signed in 1998, the U.S. space shuttle was intended to be available throughout the space station's operational lifetime and those astronauts were to travel back and forth on the shuttle. The United States decided to terminate the space shuttle, but remains obligated for providing those services for its non-Russian partners.
Since the end of the shuttle program, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is the only way to get to and from the ISS. It also serves as the "lifeboat" for the ISS, providing escape in case of an emergency. There is always one or two Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station depending on how many crew members are aboard so each person has a seat.
in a blog post, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden used the occasion to stress the need for Congress to approve the $821 million requested in FY2014 for the commercial crew program to ensure that no further contract extensions are needed. NASA is determined to have U.S. astronauts launched from U.S. soil on U.S.-built systems as soon possible, hopefully by 2017. Congress has provided roughly half the money NASA has requested in prior years for the commercial crew program, however, giving priority instead to the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft that Congress directed NASA to build in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
SLS/Orion is intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), where ISS is located. By law, however, it must also serve as a backup to commercial crew in case the commercial systems do not materialize. NASA officials have said that SLS/Orion, once operational, could indeed transport astronauts to the ISS, but it would not be cost effective. SLS is scheduled to have its first test flight in 2017, and the first flight with a crew-capable Orion is expected in 2021. The ISS partners have agreed to operate ISS until 2020, so that would be after the end of the space station's operational period. NASA is talking about continuing to operate ISS until 2028, but no agreement has been reached domestically or internationally.
The $424 million contract extension to transport six astronauts means each "seat" costs approximately $71 million. This is higher than the $63 million figure often quoted for today's cost, but the NASA press release says it includes additional launch site support that was previously included in a different contract, so may not be an apples-to-apples comparison.
Events of Interest