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President Obama announced today a plan to reorganize part of the U.S. government that could have a significant impact on the U.S. civil weather satellite program.
The focal point of the plan, which requires congressional approval, is to merge five business- and trade-related agencies with some elements of the Department of Commerce. The Commerce Department itself would be abolished. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages the nation's civil weather satellites, is currently part of the Commerce Department, but under the Obama plan would be transferred to the Department of the Interior.
In his remarks today, the President blamed President Richard Nixon for putting NOAA in the Commerce Department in the first place.
"My favorite example -- which I mentioned in last year’s State of the Union address -- as it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. (Laughter.) If you’re wondering what the genesis of this was, apparently, it had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior Secretary for criticizing him about the Vietnam War. And so he decided not to put NOAA in what would have been a more sensible place."
Although the details of President Obama's proposal are not yet posted on the White House website, Politico, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and The Hill newspaper all state that the plan includes moving NOAA to Interior. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Deputy Director for Management Jeff Zients, who oversaw development of the reorganization plan, also stated that NOAA would move to Interior during a meeting with the press at the White House this morning.
Reaction to the President's overall proposal so far has been mixed. As for the idea of transferring NOAA to Interior, the NRDC said it was "extremely troubled" because it could "erode the capabilities and mute the voice of the government’s primary agency for protecting our oceans and the ecosystems and economies that depend on them." In addition to its satellite activities through the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), NOAA's major components are the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Ocean Service, the National Weather Service, the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, and the Office of Program Planning and Integration.
Predicting when Earth-orbiting objects will reenter the atmosphere is a tricky business, but at the moment, January 14-16 Eastern Standard Time (EST) is likely to be the window when Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft will meet its end.
Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) was intended to return to Earth a sample of the Martian moon Phobos as well as drop off a small Chinese satellite to orbit Mars. It successfully reached Earth orbit on November 8, 2011 EST, but its upper stage never fired to send it on its way to Mars. The reason for the failure remains a mystery.
The European Space Agency (ESA) assisted Russia in trying to contact the probe and succeeded initially. After two communications sessions, however, the probe went silent and has not been heard from again.
As evidenced by two high-profile satellite reentries last fall -- NASA's UARS satellite and ESA's ROSAT -- reentering satellites are exposed to unpredictable natural forces such as sunspot activity that make forecasting when and where they will fall an extremely inexact science. On the Space-Track.org website, the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JPSpOC) shows "15Jan12 0239Z-16Jan12 0739Z" as the predicted reentry time. Z is for "Zulu" or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Thus, the prediction would be in the 29 hour window between 9:39 pm January 14 and 2:39 am January 16 EST.
Russian news source RIA Novosti is reporting that January 15 (Moscow Time) plus or minus four days is the likely reentry window. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency says January 14-16, with January 15 at 13:18 Moscow Time (5:18 am EST) as the "focal point" of the window.
The spacecraft is in an orbit inclined 51.4 degrees to the equator, meaning that its orbit traces a path between 51.4 degrees north and 51.4 degrees south latitude. Debris could fall anywhere in that range, which is most of the populated areas of the world. However, since approximately 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water, the danger to inhabited areas is limited, but not inconsequential.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the last -- or perhaps "most recent" -- human visit to the Moon and it is starting off with controversy over whether the astronauts who participated in the Apollo program have the right to sell mementoes of those missions. At the same time, some historians are trying to preserve the artifacts that remain on the lunar surface as companies and other countries make plans to send robots or people there.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a former NASA astronaut -- though from the space shuttle era, not the earlier Apollo missions -- met with four Apollo astronauts yesterday to discuss the rules that guide whether their personal mementoes are their property or the government's. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, Apolllo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickert, met with Bolden along with representatives of other astronauts and NASA personnel. Bolden said in a press statement that the meeting was to talk about "how to resolve the misunderstandings and ownership questions regarding flight mementoes and other artifacts." Bolden called the men "American heroes, fellow astronauts and personal friends who have acted in good faith" and promised to work on resolving "the right policy and legal paths forward..."
NASA has not taken kindly to the actions of some Apollo astronauts who have sold or attempted to sell mementoes in their possession. Quite recently, Lovell reportedly sold a checklist from his ill-fated Apollo 13 mission at auction for $400,000, setting off the latest wave of concern. Bolden said that he believes there have been "fundamental misunderstandings and unclear policies" and the agency will "explore all policy, legislative and other legal means" to clarify ownership and "ensure that appropriate artifacts are preserved and available for display to the American people."
While those discussions proceed, others are focused on preserving artifacts left behind on the Moon. Resurgent interest in the Moon not only for scientific studies or human exploration, but also potential commercial activities, could mean that sites and items of historical interest could be damaged or destroyed. Should the Apollo 11 landing site and the bottom half of its lunar lander, which remains on the Moon, not to mention the American flag implanted by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, be preserved for history or are future robotic or human explorers free to tread upon or take whatever they find?
Writing in the The Space Review in November 2011, Matthew Kleiman, who chairs the space law committee of the American Bar Association Section of Science &Technology Law, concluded that the only guarantee for "comprehensive protection" would be an international agreement. He added, however, that "international space law and traditional property and tort law" offer "limited mechanisms."
NASA issued a set of recommendations last year, posted on the CollectSpace website, about what exactly should be preserved on the lunar surface. Entitled "NASA's Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts," the document was issued on July 20, 2011, the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing -- the first time humans walked on the Moon. Google Lunar X-Prize, which is sponsoring a competition where a team can win a bonus if its robotic spacecraft makes a "precision landing near an Apollo site or other lunar sites of interest," applauded release of the document in an October 13, 2011 statement.
The New York Times took note of the debate over preserving lunar artifacts on the Moon yesterday, but did not mention the corollary debate over what the Apollo astronauts can do with their own mementoes.
Russian space agency (Roscosmos) director Vladimir Popovkin suggested in a wide-ranging interview with a Russian newspaper today that small, single-purpose space stations with visiting crews may be preferable to the multi-purpose, permanently occupied International Space Station (ISS). He also said that the Phobos-Grunt failure remains unexplained and hinted that foreign sabotage might have been responsible.
The interview was conducted by Izvestiya and published in Russian. Google Translate was used to translate the text into English for this article.
While acknowledging that the ISS partners are currently planning to operate ISS until at least 2020 and assessing the possibility of operating it until 2028, Popovkin said that “Permanent human presence in space is not always justified.” His remarks suggest that shorter duration “visiting” missions focused on a specific set of objectives would be preferable.
In response to the interviewer calling the venerable Soyuz (Union) spacecraft “outdated, uncomfortable,” Popovkin defended it because of its reliability. Soyuz is used to take crews to and from the ISS. The question arose in the context of asking Popovkin about plans to develop a new spacecraft that could accommodate six people instead of three, a concept that has been under discussion in Russia for many years. Popovkin said that the new spacecraft could be available in the 2018-2020 time frame, adding that it requires a different launch vehicle. The current Soyuz spacecraft is launched by a Soyuz FG rocket. Popovkin mentioned two existing launch vehicles, Soyuz-2 (a different version of the Soyuz rocket) and Zenit as possibilities, but also brought up the Angara booster, another concept that has been discussed for many years.
In addition to a new crew spacecraft and rocket, Russia has been debating whether to create a new launch site in the eastern part of the country to substitute for some or all of the operations now conducted at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. When Baikonur was built, Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia has had to lease Baikonur from Kazakhstan, now an independent country, for about $115 million per year. Creating a new launch site on Russian soil to replace Baikonur is seen as advantageous from a geopolitical and financial standpoint, but funds have been scarce. The new site, called Vostochny (formerly Svobodny), is a former ICBM base, but would require substantial investment to transition into a space launch site. Popovkin said in the Izvestiya interview it would cost about 173 billion rubles (approximately $5.5 billion) through 2015. Popovkin pointed out that Russia has been contemplating building a launch complex (named “Baiterek”) for Angara at Baikonur at a cost of $1.6 billion and that money has not yet been forthcoming.
Popovkin went on to address questions about a possible reorganization of the Russian space industry in the wake of an unusual number of launch failures in 2011, but said that more details would be available in the future. Among the ideas being considered are horizontal rather than vertical integration of the industry, and moving some companies to the jurisdiction of the Federal Property Agency instead of Roscosmos. Popovkin listed a number of other steps being taken in response to the failures. One is creation of a “departmental quality control system” through which a Roscosmos representative can “monitor the manufacturing process of rocket and space technology.” That person would not replace current inspectors, but could “intervene in any production process.” Popovkin added that he approved the selection of a group of experts under the auspices of TSNIIMASH who are empowered to visit production facilities and ask questions on any issue.
One of the 2011 failures was the launch of the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) mission that was intended to return to Earth a sample of the Martian moon Phobos. Lofted into Earth orbit successfully, for unknown reasons its upper stage did not fire to send the probe to Mars. Popovkin referred to funding problems, saying the spacecraft was “designed and created [with] a limited amount of funds” that added risk to the mission. Delaying the launch to remedy problems, however, would have affected Russia’s European and Chinese partners in the project and increased costs. If Phobos-Grunt could not be launched in 2011, he said, it would never have been launched with the resulting loss of the 5 billion rubles (approximately $157 million) that had been invested.
He added that they still do not know why the upper stage failed to fire. He noted that “frequent failures” of spacecraft occur when they are out of range of Russian tracking stations and stated that “I do not want to accuse anyone, but today there is a very powerful impact on the spacecraft, possible applications that cannot be ruled out.” Russian space expert Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com interpreted that statement as Popovkin suggesting that a foreign power sabotaged the mission. In November, a retired Russian lieutenant general, Nikolai Rodionov, asserted that an American radar in Alaska might have disabled the spacecraft, an accusation that U.S. space expert James Oberg labeled “moronic” since the ground track of Phobos-Grunt did not pass over the radar site. In Popovkin’s case, he went on to talk about a Russian data relay satellite that was recently launched, the first of three that will expand Russia’s tracking capabilities, so he may have been making the case for improved Russian space tracking capabilities rather than supporting Rodionov, but his meaning is open to interpretation.
Phobos-Grunt is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere sometime this week.
Popovkin is due to submit a report to Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin later this month on the problems in the Russian space program and industry.
The National Research Council (NRC) is about to begin five new space-related studies. Two are for NASA, two for the Department of Defense (DOD), and one for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The provisional memberships of three of the five study committees are open for comment at the website of the National Academies, of which the NRC is part.
The five studies are:
Euclid is the European Space Agency's (ESA's) dark energy mission. An earlier NRC study, the decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics -- New Worlds, New Horizons -- recommended that NASA build a spacecraft to investigate dark energy (labeled "dark" because scientists do not understand what it is) as well as search for exoplanets and conduct surveys of the universe in the infrared region of the spectrum. That spacecraft, the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), will be delayed, however, because of NASA's constrained budget and the decision that completing the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope is an agency priority. ESA is moving ahead with its plan for its Euclid dark energy mission and U.S. scientists would like to be part of it. The NRC study will "determine whether a proposed NASA plan for a U.S. hardware contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA) Euclid mission in exchange for U.S. membership on the Euclid Science Team and science data access is a viable part of an overall strategy to pursue the science goals (dark energy measurements, exoplanet detection, and infrared survey science) of the New Worlds, New Horizons report's top-ranked, large-scale, space-based priority: the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope(WFIRST)." The study will be conducted under the auspices of the Space Studies Board (SSB) and the Board on Physics and Astronomy (BPA). The provisional membership list is available here.
DOD has requested the NRC to review and assess an Air Force concept for a reusable launch vehicle. The NRC study will "review and assess the SMC/AFRL concept for a Reusable Booster System (RBS) for the U.S. Air Force. Among the items the committee will consider in carrying out this review are: the criteria and assumptions used in the formulation of current RBS plans; the methodologies used in the current cost estimates for RBS; the modeling methodology used to frame the business case for an RBS capability including: the data used in the analysis, the models’ robustness if new data become available, and the impact of unclassified government data that was previously unavailable and which will be supplied by the USAF; the technical maturity of key elements critical to RBS implementation and the ability of current technology development plans to meet technical readiness milestones." The study will be conducted under the auspices of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and the Air Force Studies Board (AFSB). The provisional membership list is available here.
DOD also asked the NRC to "assess the astrodynamic standards established by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) and their effectiveness in meeting mission performance needs, as well as possible alternatives. The Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) uses astrodynamic algorithms to perform satellite orbit determination and prediction in order to maintain a catalog of over 20,000 objects, ranging from active satellites to tiny pieces of orbital debris. AFSPC established this set of astrodynamic algorithms as standards to be used in operational space surveillance mission systems. These standards were implemented to achieve interoperability between the JSpOC and the mission systems and to ensure mission performance." The study will be conducted under the aupices of the AFSB, ASEB, and Board on Mathematical Sciences and Their Applications. The provisional membership of this committee has not yet been posted on the NRC website.
At the request of NASA, the Board on Health Sciences Policy, part of the Institute of Medicine (another component of the National Academies), will conduct a study that will review "the scientific merit assessment processes used to evaluate NASA Human Research Program's directed research tasks. The study will include a public workshop focused on identifying and exploring best practices in similar peer-reviewed applied research programs in other federal government agencies. The study will also evaluate the scientific rigor of the NASA processes and the effectiveness of those processes in producing protocols that address programmatic research gaps." The provisional membership list is available here.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has asked the NRC to "assess the needs and opportunities to develop a space-based operational land imaging capability. In particular, the committee will examine the elements of a sustained space-based Land Imaging Program with a focus on the Department of Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey role in such a program." USGS operates the Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 spacecraft that were built by NASA and will operate the next in the series -- the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM, also called Landsat 8). The Obama Administration proposed in the FY2012 budget request that USGS take over responsibility for the entire Landsat program, including defining the requirements and paying for the spacecraft to be built and launched, roles that NASA currently plays. Congress did not agree with that plan, however, and the question remains as to how the Landsat program will continue after Landsat 8 is launched. Scientists are anxious to obtain long term data sets of comparable information and want the Landsat series to continue. The first Landsat was launched in 1972; the two currently in orbit are well past their design lifetimes and each has partially failed. This study will be conducted under the auspices of the SSB. The provisional membership of this study committee has not yet been posted on the NRC's website.
The NRC is required to post the provisional memberships of its study committees for a 20-day public comment period prior to when a study begins in accordance with section 15 of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Membership on NRC study committees remains provisional until the NRC determines that individuals do not have improper biases or conflicts of interest with regard to the topic of the study.
UPDATE: A replay of the press conference is now available in either French or English on ESA's website.
ORIGINAL STORY: European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain will hold a press conference in Paris, France at 9:30 am EST (3:30 pm CET) today.
The event is billed as "the traditional start-of-the-year gathering" where Dordain will review ESA's accomplishments last year and provide a look ahead to what is planned for the coming year. The press conference can be viewed at ESA's website.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are meeting in non-legislative pro forma sessions every three days (this tactic has been used in the past to prevent Presidents from making "recess appointments" while Congress is in recess, but President Obama has decided to challenge that interpretation of what constitutes a recess and made several recess appointments nonetheless). The House returns for legislative business on January 17; the Senate on January 23.
Sunday-Thursday, January 8-12
Monday, January 9
Monday-Thursday, January 9-12
Wednesday, January 11
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said today that while cuts are made to the defense budget, investments in several areas will be protected, including space capabilities.
President Obama, Panetta, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey released the new Defense Strategic Guidance at a press conference today. Panetta stressed that a new strategy was needed even if the budget situation did not demand it because of changing geopolitical circumstances. However, the need to reduce defense spending is an important factor in designing the new strategy, he continued.
Although there will be cuts in many areas, Panetta made it clear that some parts of the defense budget -- including space activities -- will be protected and even augmented: "Lastly, as we reduce the overall defense budget, we will protect and in some cases increase our investments in special operations forces, in new technologies like ISR and unmanned systems, in space, and in particular in cyberspace capabilities, and also our capacity to quickly mobilize if necessary."
Specifics on what programs will be cut or increased were not announced today. That information apparently must wait until the President's FY2013 budget request is submitted to Congress, which is expected on the first Monday in February.
President Barrack Obama will join Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta this morning in announcing a new defense strategy that responds to the need to reduce defense budgets.
A news conference at the Pentagon is scheduled for 10:50 am EST this morning. Joining the President and Panetta will be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. The press conference will be carried live on DOD's website and presumably on major media outlets.
Today's announcement of the results of the Defense Strategic Review is expected to provide a broad overview, not specifics. The latter reportedly will come when the FY2013 budget request is released next month.
Russia's Space and Air Defense Troops are expecting the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) spacecraft to reenter Earth's atmosphere around January 15.
Spokesman Alexei Zolotukhin told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency that the date could change, but January 15 is the current estimate. Some fragments are expected to survive reentry and hit the Earth. The exact location of reentry is dependent on many factors and cannot be predicted in advance with any precision.
Russian specialists still have not determined why the spacecraft failed to leave Earth orbit. It was intended to travel to Mars and one of its moons, Phobos, and return a sample of Phobos to Earth. A Chinese Mars orbiter also was supposed to be deployed. Russian attempts, aided by the European Space Agency, to get the spacecraft to respond to signals initially succeeded, but subsequently failed. An interdepartmental commission is scheduled to report its preliminary findings later this month.
Events of Interest