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Kepler Scientists Find Plethora of Candidate Planets, Some in Habitable Zones

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Data from NASA's Kepler space telescope show that there are more than 1,200 planet "candidates" in a section of our galaxy framed by the constellation Cygnus and some are in the "habitable zones" of their stars.

Kepler scientists announced the results at a press conference this afternoon, explaining that it takes considerable analysis before a candidate planet is confirmed as an actual planet. To do that, additional observations and analysis are needed, but Debra Fischer, a Yale astronomer participating in the press conference, estimated that only about 20 percent will turn out to be false positives.

Explaining that Kepler is in search of the "holy grail" - an Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of a star that is like our Sun, Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters, cautioned that he did not expect that result to come so early in Kepler's observations. The space telescope has been operating for about one and a half years. A planet the size of Earth around a star like our Sun that has temperature conditions suitable for life as we know it would mean that it, too, would orbit once a year. Thus, it would take two years for scientists to notice it crossing (transiting) the face of the star, and a third year for them to really take notice of it. More time therefore is needed.

In the meantime, however, Kepler is finding hundreds of candidates to be confirmed as planets around other stars, called exoplanets. The telescope is looking at 155,000 stars in the constellation Cygnus. To date, 1,235 exoplanet candidates have been discovered, of which 68 are Earth-sized, 288 are "super-Earths," 662 are the size of Neptune, 165 are the size of Jupiter, and 19 are even larger than that. Of the 1,235 candidate exoplanets, scientists identified 54 that are not too close and not too far from their star to be in the habitable zone where liquid water might exist. Five of the 54 are close to the size of Earth; the rest are larger.

The scientists were particularly excited at the number of stars with multiple planets forming solar systems not unlike our own. One of these, designated Kepler-11, has six planets. Those planets have been confirmed. Five of them are clustered together as close to the star as Mercury is to our Sun. The sixth planet is within the distance of Venus from our Sun. Most of the planets and planet candidates identified so far are close to their stars because they are the easiest to observe since they transit the star often and thus can be discerned. The Kepler-11 solar system is 2,000 light years from Earth, meaning that the light from the star took 2,000 years to get here.

Jack Lissauer, Kepler co-investigator and planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said they were very surprised to find so many planets so close to their star and so large. All six in the Kepler-11 system are larger than Earth. He said that the finding would "force us to go back and look at the formation models of planets." The planets are low density, "fluffy like marshmallows, but not all gas, maybe marshmallow with a little hard candy at the core," he said.

William Borucki, Kepler Science Principal Investigator at NASA/Ames, emphasized that Kepler is able to look at only about one-four hundredth of the total sky. "Imagine if we could see all of it," he exclaimed. As for when we would know if there is life on any of these planets, Borucki indicated it will be many years. Comparing the process to building a cathedral, he said this step is just laying the foundation and it will take "patience and lots of money" to answer that question. Discovering if any of them have atmospheres is a critical step yet to come, he said.

Even without that, however, Yale's Fischer asserted that Kepler "has blown the lid off of everything we thought we knew about exoplanets."

NYT: Commercial Crew Taking Flight With Help from NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Kenneth Chang at the New York Times has an article today about commercial crew that focuses on Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser effort. It also mentions what Boeing, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are doing, but the article is mostly about the origin of the Dream Chaser design and Michael Sirangelo's optimism about what it will take to finish development -- "less than $1 billion" that would lead to an orbital test flight in three years. Sirangelo is chairman of Sierra Nevada.

One interesting quote in the article is attributed to an unspecified Senate staffer who says "They're not getting $6 billion over six years for commercial crew. That's never going to happen." The staffer reportedly estimates that they will get half that much. President Obama proposed $6 billion over five years in his FY2011 budget request. The 2010 NASA authorization act covers three of those years, FY2011-2013, and authorizes a total of approximately $1.3 billion. How much the President will request for FY2012 and FY2013 and how much Congress will appropriate for any of those years remains to be seen.

Marshall Institute to Hold Meeting on EU Code of Conduct This Friday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The Marshall Institute will hold a meeting on "Codes of Conduct in Space: Considering the Impact of the EU Code of Conduct on U.S. Security in Space" this Friday, February 4, at the Capitol Hill Club from 9:00-10:30 am EST.

Linking to a January 27 Washington Times story that cited three congressional staff who said they were told last week that the United States "is looking to sign on" to the European Union's (EU's) Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, the Institute's announcement says the meeting will "assess the strengths and limitations" of the EU document.

Speakers are Peter Marquez, former Director of Space Policy at the White House National Security Council and a Marshall Institute Fellow, Paula DeSutter, former Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation, and Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. RSVP to info@marshall.org.

The Capitol Hill Club is located at 300 First Street, S.E. Washington, DC.

Eight Years After Columbia, Nation Still Lacks Consensus on the Vision for Human Spaceflight: A SpacePolicyOnline.com Commentary

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

Commentary

Today is the eighth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in the skies over Texas.

Columbia disintegrated during reentry because of a hole in its wing that allowed superheated gases to enter and deform it. The resulting aerodynamic forces caused the orbiter to break apart, killing its seven crew members: Rick Husband (NASA), William McCool (NASA), Michael Anderson (NASA), David Brown (NASA), Kalpana Chawla (NASA), Laurel Clark (NASA), and Ilan Ramon (Israeli Air Force). The hole was formed by a piece of foam that came off the External Tank during launch and hit the leading edge of the wing.

Almost overshadowed by the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident last Friday, this tragedy imparted just as much heartache and had an even more profound impact on the U.S. human spaceflight program.

The accident investigation exposed the particular risks associated with a side-mounted system, which makes the orbiter vulnerable to chunks of foam liberated from the External Tank during launch. It also revealed NASA's incomplete understanding of that foam and why it comes off, and its failure to adequately study the phenomenon despite years of knowledge of foam-shedding. Technical, organizational and cultural failures were all cited by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), as they were in the investigations of the two preceding U.S. human spaceflight tragedies that were commemorated last week: Apollo 204 (January 27) and Challenger (January 28).

The Columbia accident hastened the end of the space shuttle program; the goal became to use the shuttle only to the extent necessary to complete construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The implications of that decision for operation of the ISS -- which was designed to rely on the significant cargo carrying capability of the shuttle for logistics throughout its lifetime, never mind crew rotation -- were secondary to the desire to terminate the program. For some it was because of the belief that the system's design is inherently too risky, while others long considered the shuttle a disappointment that never achieved its promise of low-cost access to space and a drain on NASA's budget.

Despite the human tragedy and the technical and organizational weaknesses it exposed at NASA, the Columbia tragedy actually spurred the nation toward even loftier human spaceflight goals. Eleven and a half months later, on January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush directed NASA to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars in his Vision for Space Exploration speech.

Today, the program spawned by that speech, Constellation, is on its way to being terminated and the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program is considerably in doubt. Government efforts to build a successor to the shuttle over the past three decades -- the National Aerospace Plane, X-33/Venturestar, the Space Launch Initiative, the Orbital Space Plane -- all failed. The 2010 NASA authorization act directs NASA to try again. The agency is to build a new space transportation system and crew vehicle while at the same time funding the commercial sector to do the same thing. The policy is in place, but the funding is not and with the country's economic situation in turmoil, human spaceflight advocates worry that NASA will continue to be expected to do too much with too little and fail to reach the goal line yet again.

In testimony to Congress in 2003, CAIB chairman Adm. Harold Gehman (Ret.) called on the country to "establish the Nation's vision for human space flight and determine how willing we are to resource that vision." Eight years later, little progress has been made on that score.

The Bush Vision is history. Instead, President Obama wanted to do one thing, but Congress wanted to do another, so they split the difference and told NASA to do both, but with no additional funds. Agreement could not be reached on the next destination for human spaceflight so they passed the buck to the National Research Council to do a study about it. NASA is directed to contract for the study in FY2012, not now, and since a typical NRC study takes 18 months, under the best of circumstances it would come out in calendar year 2014, halfway through the next presidential term.

Meanwhile, NASA is directed to immediately begin the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle and multipurpose crew capsule even though the destination for that system will not be decided until at least 2014. Yes, it will be a "backup" for commercial crew efforts to build a system for low Earth orbit, but its ultimate requirements are TBD.

The loss of the Columbia crew led to an earlier-than-planned exit for the space shuttle, but the vision that CAIB identified as a necessary replacement faded. The future is as uncertain now as it was eight years ago today, hardly a fitting tribute to those seven brave souls.

Marcia Smith

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of January 31-February 4, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The Marshall Institute's meeting on Friday has been added.

The following events may of interest in the coming week. For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The Senate is in session this week; the House is not.


Monday-Wednesday, January 31-February 2

Tuesday-Thursday, February 1-3

Wednesday, February 2

Friday, February 4

  • Marshall Institute meeting on EU Code of Conduct and Implications for U.S. Security in Space, 9:00-10:30 am EST, Capitol Hill Club, Wahsingotn DC
  • NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, 11:30 am - 1:30 pm EST, NASA Headquarters Room 9H40.

Leonard David Honored with National Space Club Press Award

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Veteran space journalist Leonard David has been selected as the recipient of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award. Mr. David's 45 years of reporting on civil, commercial and national security space activities has "informed and inspired professionals and enthusiasts alike" according to the citation. "His skill at translating complex ideas for a general audience has expanded our understanding and appreciation of space activity's critical role in daily life and its potential to transform the future," the Space Club said.

Mr. David's byline has appeared in virtually all of the key space policy-related publications over the years. Currently he writes for Space.com, Space News, and AIAA's Aerospace America, as well as serving as a research associate for the Secure World Foundation.

The award will be presented at the National Space Club's annual Goddard Dinner on April 1 at the Washington Hilton hotel.

Editor's Note: Leonard is a friend of long standing and we applaud with a standing ovation the Space Club's recognition of his superb reporting. Congratulations!

USA Today Weighs in on the Aftermath of Challenger

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

As the 25th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy approaches, USA Today's Traci Watson writes that 25 years after President Ronald Reagan promised that "the legacy of the accident would not be curtailed ambition for the space program," that in fact "Some experts contend that the loss of Challenger gave America's space program a significant push towards its twilight status today."

Sen. Nelson, Remembering Sacrifices, Tells NASA to Follow the Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

In an op-ed in today's Orlando Sentinel, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) discourses on the triumphs of exploration even though they entail sacrifices, such as the loss of the Challenger crew 25 years ago today.

He then wonders what the Challenger crew would say to policy-makers today who are "grappling with NASA's budget and saying they can't build a new rocket to replace the shuttle on time." He repeats his admonition, made several times in recent months, that "NASA must stop making excuses and follow this law," referring to the 2010 NASA authorization act of which he was one of the principle architects.

Remembering the crews of Apollo 204 and Columbia as well, he asserts that with all their sacrifices in mind "we must push forward and keep America at the forefront of space exploration."

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Senator Nelson flew on the space shuttle mission on the flight immediately preceding the Challenger tragedy, STS 61-C. Current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was commander of the STS 61-C crew. NASA recently sent Congress an interim report saying that of all the rocket and crew capsule designs they have looked at, none can be built on the time schedule and within the budget constraints of the law. Bolden later emphasized in an interview with Space News that it was an interim report and said NASA is a "can do" agency and he believes they can do it within those constraints..

Colorado Senators Ask Obama To Keep NASA a Priority

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, wrote a letter to President Obama yesterday calling for him to "keep NASA a priority" despite the difficult budgetary situation.

The letter basically asks the President to include funds in his FY2012 budget request to implement the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The Senators specifically mention their support for the Orion spacecraft and commercial crew and cargo, but interestingly omit the new Space Launch System (heavy lift launch vehicle) that is also required under the law.

Acknowledging that NASA funding "impacts thousands of Colorado jobs," they say the Act "codifies a plan ... that will help keep America at the forefront of space exploration." Despite the "austere budgetary times," they ask him to "keep NASA a priority so we do not cede our leadership position in space."

Challenger Commemoration Available on NASA TV and the Web This Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jan-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The commemoration of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy at Kennedy Space Center will be aired on NASA TV and streamed at Spaceflightnow.com this morning beginning at 9:00 am EST. The Challenger accident occurred 25 years ago today.

Events of Interest   

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


 

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