Latest News

UPDATE: Aquarius/SAC-D Launched

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Aquarius/SAC-D was successfully launched this morning (Friday, June 10, 2011).

ORIGINAL STORY: Launch of the Aquarius/SAC-D earth science mission has been postponed from tomorrow to Friday.

NASA said that the postponement was due to the need "to complete additional review of an inconsistency found in the Delta II launch vehicle flight profile" for flying through upper level wind conditions expected tomorrow. Waiting until Friday gives the launch a "100 percent of favorable weather conditions for the launch."

NASA's earth science program has suffered through two losses recently. The OCO satellite in 2009 and the GLORY satellite earlier this year ended up in the Pacific Ocean instead of orbit because of launch vehicle failures. The Taurus XL was the problem in those two launches. Aquarius/SAC-D will launch on the tried and true Delta II rocket, the workhorse of the space program with an enviable track record.

Aquarius is a NASA instrument on Argentina's SAC-D spacecraft. It will study ocean surface salinity. Canada, France and Italy also are contributing instruments to the mission.

Nifty Images of the Space Shuttle Docked to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have released a series of images of the space shuttle docked to the International Space Station (ISS) taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli as he departed on a Soyuz spacecraft on May 23. They are available on the NASA website, while ESA posted them via Flickr.

NASA IG: MSL May Not Be Ready by November, Power Supply Problems Will Reduce Mission Capabilities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Inspector General (IG), Paul Martin, issued a report today raising concerns about whether the already delayed Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will be ready for its currently scheduled launch this fall. The two year delay from 2009, its original launch date, increased development costs by 86 percent and lifecycle costs by 56 percent, the report says. If there is another two-year slip, it will cost "at least" $570 million more. Furthermore, unexpected degradation of its nuclear power source has led NASA to reduce mission performance capabilities, the IG report reveals.

The report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is the result of an IG audit of the MSL program following the decision to delay the 2009 launch to 2011 because of technical problems with the spacecraft. The mission is to land a rover, named "Curiosity," on Mars. It is now scheduled for launch in November 2011. Because of planetary alignment constraints, if it is not ready to launch then, it will have to wait two years for another opportunity.

The OIG gave NASA credit for resolving the "majority" of technical issues that led to the launch delay, but warned that "three significant technical issues remain unresolved." The report also reveals that the nuclear device that will provide electrical power for spacecraft systems and instruments -- the "Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator" (MMRTG) -- is experiencing unexpected degradation.

The three outstanding technical issues from 2009 are contamination of rock and soil samples collected by the Sample Acquisition/Sample Processing and Handling subsystem, and development of flight software and fault protection systems.

As for the MMRTG, the reports states that there have been "unexpected temporary reductions in the system's power output" during tests to simulate conditions the spacecraft will experience when it arrives at Mars. The MMRTG was provided to NASA by the Department of Energy, which told the NASA OIG that the degradation would not cause a "catastrophic failure." The OIG report goes on to say that "However, as a cautionary measure, MSL Project managers have reduced the mission's performance capabilities to processing 28 rather than 74 soil and rock samples and to traversing 4.5 kilometers rather than 20 kilometers."

The report notes that since the decision to delay the 2009 launch, the project has received three budget increases, "most recently an infusion of $71 million in December 2010." The OIG audit concludes, however, that more money may yet be needed to meet the November 2011 launch date, but worse, if the mission slips again, to 2013, the increased cost would be at least $570 million.

The IG recommends that NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) reassess whether the project has enough money to meet the current launch date and the project manager should allocate additional resources to fix the outstanding technical issues. It then comments that SMD "concurred with our recommendations" and is closely monitoring the project and is confident that sufficient funds are available from within SMD resources. The IG thus considers the matter "resolved."

Soyuz TMA-02M Up and Away!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Soyuz TMA-02M launched on schedule at 4:15 pm EDT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it was 2:15 am June 8. Aboard are three crew members headed to the International Space Station (ISS). Docking is scheduled for Thursday.

The international crew comprises Russian Sergey Volkov, American Michael Fossum, and Japanese Satoshi Furukawa. They will join three others already aboard ISS: Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev and American Ron Garan. Those three have been aboard since April 6.

New ISS Crew Members Set to Launch Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) are getting ready to launch this afternoon at 4:15 pm EDT (June 8, 2:15 am local time in Kazakhstan).

The international crew comprises Russian Sergey Volkov, American Michael Fossum, and Japanese Satoshi Furukawa. They will dock with the ISS on Thursday and join three others already aboard ISS: Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev and American Ron Garan.

Magnetic Bubbles At the Edge of the Solar System: News Conference on Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will hold a media teleconference on Thursday to discuss a new finding from the venerable Voyager spacecraft that continue to return data from the outer reaches of our solar system.

According to NASA, a new computer model shows "the edge of our solar system is not smooth, but filled with a turbulent sea of magnetic bubbles."

The teleconference is at 1:00 pm EDT on Thursday, June 9, and features five scientists including Voyager project scientist and former JPL director Ed Stone. Listen at

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977 to return data about the outer planets as they flew past. Both sent data about Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager 2 also flew past Uranus and Neptune. Both spacecraft then headed out of the solar system on different paths. Since 1998, Voyager 1 has been the most distant emissary from planet Earth, passing an earlier probe, Pioneer 10.

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
  • 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

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.

Events of Interestl

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: