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Strong Tether Challenge Announced for August 12

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA has announced a "strong tether challenge" to be held on August 12, 2011 in Redmond, Washington, as part of its Centennial Challenges competition.

According to the Federal Register notice, the challenge has a $2 million purse and incremental prizes will be offered for entries that meet requirements for strength and mass based on the length of the sample. It will be held as part of the Space Elevator Conference.

Details of the competition are avialable on the Spaceward Foundation's website, which states that the challenge was first offered in 2005 and asks "will this be the year of the CNT tether?," a reference to the carbon nanotube (CNT) material from which they hope someday to build a 60,000 mile long tether to function as a space elevator.

Dawn Spacecraft to Enter Vesta's Orbit Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is closing in on its quarry, the asteroid Vesta.

Vesta is one of the largest asteroids in the belt of rocky debris between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn was launched four years ago and has been studying the asteroid during its approach to allow engineers to fine tune the spacecraft's trajectory. As NASA said today, Dawn will "ease up" on Vesta and allow the asteroid's minuscule gravity field to capture the spacecraft into orbit.

That moment is expected late tomorrow night Pacific time, or early Saturday morning on the East Coast. The exact time is 10:00 pm PDT (1:00 am Saturday, EDT) although it will not be until an hour and a half later that NASA will be able to confirm capture during a scheduled communications opportunity. The spacecraft/asteroid duo will be 117 million miles from Earth at that time. By comparison, the Moon is 240,000 miles from Earth on average.

Dawn will stick with Vesta for a year and then move on to Ceres, which once was designated as an asteroid itself, but now is classified as a dwarf planet along with Pluto and Eris. Scientists want to learn more about asteroids because they provide clues about the earliest days of solar system formation and to know as much as possible about any that head on a collision course with Earth.

President Obama wants NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden linked the Dawn mission with that goal at a congressional hearing on Tuesday, although Dawn was planned long before the President's April 2010 announcement. NASA has selected another asteroid mission, OSIRIS-ReX, for launch in 2016. That mission will return a sample from an asteroid designated 1999 RQ36.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Dawn mission for NASA, while the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is in charge of the mission science. Germany and Italy are part of the mission team, and Orbital Sciences Corp. built the spacecraft.

UPDATE 2: House Appropriators Complete CJS Markup

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 2: The committee did adopt an amendment requiring NASA to report to Congress on the disposition of the space shuttle orbiters, but there is no financial impact. It also adopted an amendment that cuts $48 million from unspecified portions of the $50 billion bill to provide additional funds to NOAA. Whether that will impact NASA or not remains to be seen.

UPDATE: The committee completed mark up of the bill. We listened to a good part of the markup and none of the amendments that would have affected NASA was adopted, but we will check back with the committee to be sure we didn't miss any. Several amendments took aim at NASA's "Cross Agency Support" account that, with it's non-descriptive name and more than $3 billion, proved to be an "inviting target" in the words of CJS chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). Members who wanted more money for other NASA activities or even non-NASA activities proposed taking it from there, but Rep. Wolf defended the money in that account, which he said included cybersecurity funds to protect NASA from computer attacks by China.

ORIGINAL STORY: The full House Appropriations Committee has begun its mark up of the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which includes NOAA and NASA.

The mark up can be watched live on the commitee's website.

Plutonium-238 Restart Amendment Fails Recorded Vote

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Rep. Adam Schiff's (D-CA) amendment to add back the money in the Department of Energy (DOE) appropriations bill to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) for NASA's planetary exploration probes failed yesterday.

The amendment had been debated on Monday (p. H4847 of the July 11 Congressional Record) and, according to the Record, passed by voice vote. However, Rep. Schiff demanded a recorded vote, which was taken yesterday. It failed 167-257.

NASA Selects Non-Profit ISS Research Management Organization

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA announced today its selection of a non-profit organization to manage research aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) will "ensure the station's unique capabilities are available to the broadest possible cross-section of U.S. scientific, technological and industrial communities" according to NASA.

CASIS will be located near Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bolden Asks for Patience on SLS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Selecting the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) will be the most important decision of his tenure, one that cannot be rushed, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told Congress today.

Testifying to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Mr. Bolden asked for continuing patience on the part of the committee and Congress as independent costs analyses are performed on the design he selected last month.

Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), an ardent supporter of NASA and human spaceflight, already had told Mr. Bolden that "we have run out of patience." He and ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) shifted the blame from Bolden to others in the Obama Administration who they feel are responsible for the delay.

"It's my understanding that you have had a plan ready to announce for some time, but you haven't been able to get the final okay to make it public," Johnson said.

Bolden replied that they were wrong, that he is, in fact, the "right person to blame." Saying he is the "leader of America's space program," he defended the Obama Administration's decision to take NASA out of the business of launching people to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS). That should be the role of the private sector, he insisted. "I hope I am not the only optimist in the room. I have faith in American industry. I know we can do this."

Committee members complained that the 2010 NASA Authorization Act specifically directed NASA to tell Congress by January 2011 what the design would be for the new Space Launch System (SLS). Only a preliminary report was provided in January, and six months later, there is no new information. The SLS is a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) that is intended to be capable of taking astronauts beyond LEO to destinations such as an asteroid.

Bolden acknowledged that NASA is late in providing the information. Recently he had said the design would be released in the summer, but today he told the committee that it might be even later than that. He has asked Booz Allen to do an independent cost estimate to make certain that the design he chose is affordable and sustainable. He noted that the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which provides NASA's funding, last week recommended a deep cut to NASA's FY2012 budget. If that is what Congress approves, he will have to go back and look at affordability again, he said.

President Obama announced last year that his goal is sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and specifically not back to the Moon as planned by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Congress did not agree, however. In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress specifically included the Moon as one of the potential destinations for future human spaceflight. Today, Bolden agreed. In response to a question he said that "there will probably be reasons to go back to the lunar surface for a ... short period of time" to test systems before committing human to long trip to the Mars. The first destination, however, remains an asteroid as directed by the President.

Shuttle Astronauts Get Extra Day to Work

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The STS-135 mission has been extended for one day, with landing now scheduled for July 21.

NASA had hoped from the beginning that launch and docking would be nominal and the mission could be lengthened by a day. This will allow the astronauts extra time to stow material on the shuttle to return to Earth. Some of the items are malfunctioning pieces of equipment that NASA would like to get back on Earth to determine what caused the failure.

Today, two of the International Space Station (ISS) astronauts, Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, will conduct a spacewalk to move a failed ammonia pump from its stowed location on the outside the ISS into the space shuttle's cargo bay for return for Earth, for example.

JPSS Would Be Cut Again in CJS Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NOAA's budget request for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) would be cut again this year if the House CJS appropriations subcommittee recommendations stand.

The subcommittee made its recommendations last week. The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up the CJS bill tomorrow. The committee's press release last week sounded like good news for JPSS, saying "an increase of $430 million is included for the Joint Polar Satellite System weather satellite program to ensure the continuation of important weather data collection."

Unfortunately for NOAA, as explained in the draft committee report on the bill that was released today, that is an increase over the amount that it received for the current fiscal year, FY2011, not over the request for FY2012. The subcommittee approved $901 million for JPSS in FY2012, $168 million less than the $1.07 billion request.

JPSS is NOAA's portion of the restructured National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). As NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko has pointed out in several congressional hearings, Congress's decision to not fund JPSS at the requested level for FY2011 could mean an 18-month data gap later this decade as NOAA's older satellites cease functioning and there are no new ones to replace them. A reduction in FY2012 presumably could lengthen that gap.

House Interior Dept Appropriators like Landsat, But Not at the Expense of Other USGS Priorities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is proposing to take over the Landsat program from NASA in the FY2012 budget request, but House appropriators are not happy with how the Obama Administration wants to do it.

The House Appropriations Committee's press release last week reporting on the recommendations of its Interior and Environment Subcommittee stated starkly: "The bill also does not provide funding for the President's costly and flawed proposal to transfer the 'LandSat' satellite imaging program from NASA to the USGS."

The draft report to accompany the bill is available on the committee's website and the language there is somewhat softer. "The Committee supports the continuation of the LandSat program beyond LandSat 8 and urges the Administration to submit a fiscal year 2013 budget proposal that does not offset increases for LandSat with decreases elsewhere in the Survey's budget," it says.

NASA is currently building the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), which USGS calls Landsat 8. USGS currently operates the two functional satellites in this series, Landsat 5 and Landsat 7, and will operate Landsat 8 once it is launched at the end of next year. It has plans for at least two more follow-on satellites, Landsat 9 and 10, and wants to assume responsibility for the program overall. It would set the requirements for the new satellites and operate them, using NASA as its acquistion agent just as NOAA does now for weather satellites, reimbursing NASA for its costs.

The Administration proposed creating a new account in the USGS budget called National Land Imaging, funded at $99.8 million in FY2012. The subcommittee denied that request and retained funding for Landsat in the "Surveys, Investigations, and Research" account. According to the subcommittee's report, $51.8 million is provided.

The full committee is marking up the bill today.

House Could Vote on Restoring Pu-238 Funds Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

About 3:00 this afternoon, the House resumed debate on the FY2012 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill (H.R. 2354). One amendment that may come up today would restore funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), which NASA needs for some of its planetary exploration spacecraft.

Bill Adkins, a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies (CS3), tweeted earlier today that a vote is expected on an amendment by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) to restore the $15 million cut by the House Appropriations Committee for Pu-238 production. The committee feels that NASA should pay all the costs associated with that activity instead of splitting the costs between the two agencies as the Obama Administration proposes.

Schiff represents Pasadena, CA, home of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that builds many of NASA's planetary exploration spacecraft. A shortage of Pu-238 for NASA's probes that travel too far from the Sun or remain on lunar or planetary surfaces for too long to rely on solar energy has been imminent for some time. A 2009 National Research Council report called for immediate action, but Congress has denied the Administration's request for DOE funding for the past two years. It appears ready to do so again.

DOE is the only government agency allowed to possess nuclear material and has built all of NASA's nuclear power sources in the past.

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