Latest News

Looking for Something to Read This Weekend?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Feb-2012 (Updated: 09-Feb-2012 10:41 AM)

It'll be a cold weekend -- in Washington, at least.   If you plan to curl up in front of the fireplace and read a good book, forget the novels!  Here are two reports and a book we recently posted to our "Top Picks" and "Other Reports of Interest" lists (on our left menu).

Reports: Planetary Science to Take Hit in New Budget

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Feb-2012 (Updated: 09-Feb-2012 10:22 AM)

Rumors ahead of the release of the FY2013 budget request paint a gloomy picture for NASA's planetary science program.   The Washington Post reports today that the budget request will drop from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion for FY2013 with additional cuts in later years.

NASA planetary science division director Jim Green has hinted as recent meetings of the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) planetary science subcommittee that such cuts were more than likely.  Without getting into specifics -- which is officially prohibited prior to the President releasing the budget request -- Green alerted the planetary science community that it had to make its case as to why planetary science is important to the nation.

The story in the Washington Post this morning suggests that the community got the message.  It quotes Jim Bell, a member of that subcommittee and President of The Planetary Society, calling the proposed cuts "devastating " to U.S. robotic Mars exploration plans.  Scott Hubbard, a member of the parent NAC Science Committee and who was NASA's first Mars program director and later Director of NASA's Ames Research Center, went further:  "It's a scientific tragedy and a national embarrassment." 

Such cuts would impact not only the U.S. program, but Europe's.   In 2009, NASA and the European Space Agency signed what was thought to be a revolutionary international cooperation agreement where the two agencies essentially merged their Mars exploration programs.   Instead of cooperating on a mission-by-mission basis, now the programs themselves would be merged to get the most payoff from investments on both sides of the Atlantic.   

Early indications last fall that the budget outlook was dimming led NASA to pull back from committing to the next two merged missions -- in 2016 and 2018 -- that themselves were just the first in a string of missions with the ultimate goal of returning samples from Mars.   ESA's science director Alvaro Gimenez told the BBC earlier this week that it had been told NASA participation in the missions had become "very unlikely."   ESA is also talking to Russia about cooperating on those missions.  Russia's Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, was lost last fall because of computer design and programming errors. 

The Washington Post quotes Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, as condemning the proposed cut and asserting it will not be approved by Congress.    Those comments, however, illustrate the painful choices that will have to be made not only in FY2013 but for the rest of the decade to reduce the deficit, especially if the reduction must be accomplished only through spending cuts, as the Republicans insist, and not with revenue increases.    At the moment, influential Senators and the Obama Administration apparently have agreed that the top science priority for NASA is completing the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), not planetary exploration.   The planetary program is just one of five divisions within NASA's Science Mission Directorate.  JWST was separated from the rest of NASA's astrophysics division last year to improve management of the program, so planetary science must compete for resources with JWST, the rest of astrophysics, heliophysics, and earth science.   The planetary program itself must choose priorities among Mars and the rest of the solar system.  

Choosing science priorities is only the first step.   Prioritizing NASA's science programs versus human exploration and aeronautics is another level of decision-making, then NASA versus other agencies in the same appropriations bill (including the Department of Commerce and its weather satellite activities, the Department of Justice, and the National Science Foundation), and then all of those against the rest of domestic discretionary spending.

The FY2013 budget request will be released on Monday.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will participate in a press conference at NASA Headquarters at 2:00 pm that day, which will be webcast on NASA TV.



LightSquared Gets Pounded Again at Another Congressional Hearing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2012 (Updated: 08-Feb-2012 11:48 PM)

Potential interference between LightSquared's satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband system and GPS was the subject of yet another congressional hearing today.  Numerous hearings were held last year in a variety of House committees, each warning of calamitous consequences if LightSquared is allowed to implement its system.   Today's hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) committee was no different.

The hearing comes less than two weeks after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued its most recent directive about LIghtSquared.  Noting that the FY2012 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act  (part of the FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act) prohibits the FCC from allowing LightSquared to proceed until "concerns of potential widespread harmful interference" are resolved, the FCC declined to grant a request from LightSquared to make a declaratory ruling that GPS devices are not protected against harmful interference as long as LightSquared abides by the FCC's technical parameters. 

The company launched a high powered satellite, SkyTerra, in 2010 to use in a mobile broadband system, but requested permission from the FCC to augment the satellite capacity with a network of 40,000 terrestrial cell towers -- an Ancillary Technical Component (ATC) in FCC terminology.  In January 2011, the FCC gave LightSquared provisional permission to proceed with the ATC, but the provision was that it had to form a technical committee to perform tests to determine the extent to which interference with GPS would occur.  The radio frequency bands assigned to LightSquared are adjacent to some of the GPS bands.

The 2011 FCC decision prompted an outcry from GPS user communities.  Tests conducted by the FCC-required technical committee demonstrated that interference would indeed be a problem.  LightSquared modified its plans and also complained that it has complied with all of the FCC's technical requirements.  It asserts that the interference is the fault of GPS receiver manufacturers who did not properly design the receivers.

Another round of tests was ordered last fall, but the results were similar.  On January 13, 2012, the government's National Space-Based PNT (Positioning, Navigation and Timing) Advisory Board, which is playing a leading role in opposing LightSquared's plans, sent a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) stating its "unanimous conclusion ... that both LightSquared's original and modified plans ... would cause harmful interference to many GPS receivers."   NTIA, part of the Department of Commerce, oversees government use of radio frequencies, while the FCC governs their use by the private sector.

LightSquared complained that the tests were "rigged."  It called on NTIA and the FCC to conduct another round of tests and for "fair and transparent oversight of the testing process...."

Aviation interests have been particularly vocal in opposing LightSquared because GPS is widely used in the aviation industry.  At today's hearing before the aviation subcommittee of the House T&I committee, Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari said no further testing was warranted at this time.   He added that the most recent tests were independently reviewed by Idaho National Lab and MIT Lincoln Lab.   Expanding broadband access to more Americans is a major goal of the Obama Administration, he said, but LightSquared is incompatible with "FAA requirements for low-altitude operations" near LightSquared transmitters.  Noting that the FAA had already spent over $2 million in testing and analyzing LightSquared's proposal, he argued that further government investment "cannot be justified at this time."

Other witnesses at the hearing represented the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a U.N. specialized agency that sets global standards and regulations for aviation safety; the Air Transport Association; the Air Line Pilots Association; the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association; Garmin AT, Inc.; and George Washington University. 


AIA: U.S. Lost Thousands of Jobs, Billions of Dollars Because of Export Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Feb-2012 (Updated: 07-Feb-2012 11:00 PM)

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) released a new report and several fact sheets today about the negative impact of U.S. export controls on that industry.  AIA concludes that changes made in 1999 that put all satellites and their components on the U.S. Munitions List cost the satellite manufacturing industry $20.8 billion between 1999 and 2009, which translates into 27,893 jobs lost annually during that time period.

AIA released its most recent report on the impact of export controls on the aerospace industry and the satellite industry-specific fact sheets in conjunction with a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on export reform.  AIA's President, Marion Blakey, testified along with Patricia Cooper, President of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA).

As they have for many years, the two associations recounted the loss of global market share for U.S. companies since the late 1990s when Congress dictated that all satellites and their components be treated as munitions under U.S. export laws.  Congress acted in the wake of an investigation that concluded U.S. satellite manfacturing companies aided the development of China's launch vehicles, close cousins of missiles with their obvious national security implications.  At the time, U.S.-made satellites could be exported to China for launch.  After several Chinese launch vehicle failures where U.S.-built satellites were lost, satellite manufacturers Loral and Hughes (now Boeing) aided China in its accident investigations, but did not adhere to the export control restrictions in place at the time.

The so-called Cox Committee, chaired by then-Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA) investigated the Loral-Hughes incident.  Its findings led to language in the FY1999 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 105-261) placing satellites and their components on the U.S. Munitions List of items whose exports are controlled by the State Department.

For most of the 1990s, commercial communications satellites were under the jurisdiction of the dual-use Commerce Control List administered by the Department of Commerce.  The Cox committee and the new law changed that.   No U.S. satellites, or satellites containing U.S. components, can be exported to China now under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).  European satellite manufacturers have used the opportunity to build "ITAR-free" satellites that can be exported to China for launch, an advantage for satellite owners who thus can take advantage of China's relatively low launch prices.

Ordinarily the Executive Branch determines what items are on each list, and SIA's Patricia Cooper testified today that her organization wants that responsibility returned to the Executive Branch. "Satellites are the only category of products mandated by Congress for blanket treatment as munitions....SIA asks that Congress remove this blanket requirement and restore Executive Branch authority over regulation of satellite export controls," she said.

 At the same time, she insisted that the satellite industry is not seeking any changes in how exports to China are handled:  "Further, SIA and its members do not seek any legislative erosion of safeguards already in place that have effectively prohibited satellite technology exports to China."

New Study Contradicts Controversial Arsenic Finding

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 05-Feb-2012 (Updated: 05-Feb-2012 04:01 PM)

Last week, one of the main critics of a NASA-funded study that claimed the discovery of a life-form that could thrive on arsenic, announced results that contradict the original conclusions, dealing the latest blow to the controversial finding.

In December 2010, a team led by NASA astrobiology research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced that a microbe dubbed GFAJ-1 could thrive in the presence of arsenic, incorporating the toxic substance in its DNA in the place of phosphorous, one of the six elements of life. The results were made public in a NASA press conference that drew attention to the finding’s implications on the agency’s quest for life in other parts of the universe.

Yet many scientists were not convinced. Ensuing debate prompted sharp criticisms, several of which were published in Science as technical comments along with the print version of the article on June 3, 2011. Many of the comments centered on a concern that phosphorous contamination could account for the bacteria’s growth – not the level of arsenic.

This is what Rosemary Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, set out to investigate.

In a posting last week on, an electronic preprint archive, Redfield announced her results after looking at the two main arguments of the paper: that the bacterium had managed to grow in low phosphorous and high arsenic conditions, and that arsenic had been incorporated into the organism’s DNA.  Consistent with criticisms faulting contamination in the original study, Redfield found that the bacterium’s growth could be accounted for as a result of trace levels of phosphorous. Measuring samples with and without added arsenic, but with the same level of phosphorous, Redfield found growth rates equivalent to those described in the original study.

A collaboration with Leonid Kruglyak from Princeton University allowed Redfield to analyze the bacterium’s DNA in high-arsenic conditions. "The results showed that there is no detectable arsenic in the DNA," she told CBS News.  Although this suggests that more sensitive measurements could potentially detect the presence of arsenic, Redfield’s first result counters the original study’s main claim: that the bacterium could grow on arsenic alone.

In a ScienceInsider article covering the story, Redfield says: "We can do fancier analyses that push the limits of detection down, but I think the burden of proof is back on the authors. They are going to have to provide some better data than they did in their paper," she said.

ScienceInsider reported that Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues declined to comment on the new study until it is published. They added, however, that they only suggested arsenic was in the DNA and that the key point of the paper was that the microbe was able to use the toxin to grow. The article quotes John Tainer, a biochemist who recently joined Wolfe-Simon’s team, in saying: "What this is about is refuting an extreme interpretation of the paper." This is a shift in the team’s original position, as discussed in the 2010 press conference, that when measuring the arsenic concentration in the organism, they found it to be behaving as phosphorous would: as the backbone of the DNA.

Redfield has submitted her findings to Science for publication.

Events of Interest: Week of February 6-11, 2012-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Feb-2012 (Updated: 06-Feb-2012 10:47 AM)

UPDATE:  NASA's Commercial Crew Forum on Tuesday has been added.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week.   The House and Senate both will be in session this week.

During the Week

These events may be of special interest.  The Senate is expected to pass the conference report on the FAA reauthorization bill (H.R. 658) on Monday.   The impact on the aerospace industry, especially the satellite industry, of current export laws will be highlighted at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday.   Issues about GPS will get another airing on Wednesday before the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.   The WRC-12 conference in Geneva continues.

Tuesday, February 7

Tuesday-Thursday, February 7-9

Wednesday, February 8

  • House Transportation & Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Hearing on GPS, 2167 Rayburn, 11:00 am ET

Thursday, February 9

Friday-Saturday, February 10-11


FAA Reauthorization Nears Passage--UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Feb-2012 (Updated: 06-Feb-2012 11:47 PM)

UPDATE:  The Senate passed the bill on Monday as expected.

ORIGINAL STORY:  The House passed a compromise version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill (H.R. 658) on Friday and the Senate plans to vote on it Monday.  A four-year extension of current regulations concerning private human spaceflight is included.

Disputes primarily over labor issues have derailed the bill many times since September 2007 when the last authorization expired.  Congress passed 23 temporary extensions in the meantime and finally appears to have decided that enough is enough and will pass a compromise that will reauthorize the agency through September 2015. 

Among FAA's many responsibilities is facilitating and regulating commercial space launches through the Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  The office was created by the 1984 Commercial Space Transportation Act, which has been amended several times, most recently in 2004 when Congress put in place temporary rules regarding commercial human space transportation.  At the time, commercial suborbital flights with companies like Virgin Galactic were expected to begin soon.   Congress chose a light regulatory touch to stimulate the commercial potential of this sector, setting requirements for crews, but essentially letting passengers -- "space flight participants" -- decide for themselves if they want to climb aboard after being informed of the risks.  The law said that after eight years of experience with commercial human spaceflight, the FAA could consider stronger regulations if needed.

Eight years have passed, however, and the first commercial human spaceflight has yet to occur.   Some in the industry sought to change the law so that the current approach would be extended until eight years after the first commercial human spaceflight, but Sec. 827 of this bill extends it only until October 1, 2015. 

Iran Reports Launching Satellite

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Feb-2012 (Updated: 04-Feb-2012 08:29 AM)

Iran reported yesterday that it launched its Navid satellite into orbit.  

The U.S. Strategic Command's SpaceTrack website does not list the satellite yet, but Iran's FARS news agency stated that the satellite was launched on "10-Day Dawn celebrations, marking the 33rd anniversary of the victory of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979."  The satellite reportedly weighs 50 kilograms.  According to FARS, it is a "telecom, measurement and scientific satellite whose records could be used in a wide range of fields."   Another Iranian news agency, IRNA, said that it was for "meteorology, management of natural disasters and measuring the temperature and humidity of the air."

The full name of the satellite is Navid-e Elm-o SAna'at' -- Promise of Science and Industry.

Iran has launched two other satellites:  Omid in 2009 and Rasad in 2011. 

NRC Says Yes to NASA Participation in ESA's Euclid Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Feb-2012 (Updated: 03-Feb-2012 03:50 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) issued its report today on whether NASA should make a modest hardware contribution to Europe's Euclid dark energy mission valued at about $20 million in exchange for one seat on Euclid's 12-person science committee and early access to Euclid data.  The NRC endorsed NASA's plan.

The report was requested by NASA and executed by the NRC on an expedited basis because the European Space Agency (ESA) needs an agreement to be signed through the U.S. State Department by the end of April if the United States wants to participate.  Consequently the committee was able to meet only once.   At that meeting, several committee members expressed concern about whether even a small contribution to Euclid would negatively affect plans for a U.S. dark energy mission.   The most recent NRC decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics identified the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as its highest priority large space mission, which has dark energy research as one of its three objectives.

Plans for building WFIRST are being delayed because of cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).   The earliest WFIRST launch date now is about 2022 while Euclid is planned for launch in 2019.   By providing the hardware for the Euclid mission, U.S. scientists will get early access to Euclid's data and one of 12 seats on the Euclid science team.  The agreement does not involve any exchange of funds between the United States and Europe.  NASA will pay for the hardware development and provide the hardware to ESA.  Exactly what hardware NASA will provide still must be negotiated, but ESA is particularly interested in U.S. near-infrared detectors.

The committee was careful to state that the contribution to Euclid "should be made in the context of a strong U.S. commitment to ... WFIRST...."  and its "intent has been clear that this report does not alter ... plans for implementation of the [decadal] survey's priorities."

The NRC committee that produced the 2010 decadal survey, New Worlds New Horizons, and recommended development of WFIRST was aware of ESA's plans for Euclid, but ESA had not yet selected Euclid for development.  That occurred last fall.    By then, the depth of the cost overrun on JWST had crystallized and, coupled with the outlook for sharply constrained budgets for many years, NASA began looking for other ways to pursue dark energy research.   Dark energy is thought to comprise more than 70 percent of the universe.  It is called "dark" because scientists do not know what it is.   They know the universe is expanding at a rate faster than earlier theorized and coined the term dark energy to refer to the force or phenomenon that is fueling that expansion.

NASA earlier proposed a greater U.S. contribution to Euclid, but the U.S. astrophysics community was not supportive for fear it would drain resources from WFIRST or other U.S. space science priorities.   The $20 million proposal that NASA offered this time apparently was the right order of magnitude to win that support.  An internal NASA advisory subcommittee earlier had approved the idea as well.  The $20 million represents about 10 percent of the cost of Euclid's instruments and is usually referred to as NASA having a "10 percent role in Euclid," but it is not 10 percent of the cost of the project overall.

Suffredini: Space Station Launch Delays Will Have Little Impact on Overall Operations-Correction

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2012 (Updated: 03-Feb-2012 08:52 AM)

Correction:  An earlier verison of this posting misspelled Mr. Suffredini's name as Sufferdini.

NASA International Space Station (ISS) program manager Mike Suffredini said today that although the launch of the next crew to the ISS will be delayed and other aspects of the schedule juggled, overall there will be virtually no impact on ISS operations.

The next crew was supposed to be launched to ISS on March 30.   Last week, however, their Soyuz descent capsule was badly damaged in a testing accident.  Russia has decided to use an entirely different Soyuz module rather than trying to replace just the descent part of it and is pulling up the next Soyuz that already is in manufacturing.   That will delay the launch until May 15.

Consequently, the ISS partners are making modest changes to the crew rotation schedule that will also impact when the next automated Russian cargo spacecraft, Progress, is launched.   ISS crews rotate on a roughly six month schedule, with three astronauts ferried to and from ISS on a single Soyuz spacecraft.  With a regular crew complement of six, that means four Soyuz spacecraft are docking with and undocking from the ISS every year.  Added to that are the automated cargo spacecraft -- Russia's Progress, which are launched between four and six times a year, plus Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV, each about once a year.   Thus, ISS is a traffic hub, with complicating factors such as sun angles dictating when certain launch and docking operations occur.

Suffredini played down the idea that the changes due to the Soyuz testing failure problem would have any long term impact on ISS operations and the scientific research the crews are conducting.   What affects scientific research is the number of crew aboard.   A hiccup last year because of a Russian launch failure (of a Progress cargo spacecraft in August) meant only three instead of six crew members were aboard for longer than expected, reducing scientific output.   Now that the six-person complement has been restored, astronauts are working hard to make up the difference so the goal of an average of 35 hours per week over the course of an "expedition" is maintained.   Right now, the astronauts are spending more than that on science to make up for the lost time last fall.

He also expressed confidence in the part of the Russian space program that produces the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and their launch vehicles.   In response to a question from a reporter about other failures, such as the Phobos-Grunt Mars mission, Sufferdini said that was outside his area of expertise.   He stressed that he is confident of the Russian company, Energia, that manufactures the spacecraft for the ISS program and of its ability to investigate and remedy failures when they occur.

On a separate but related issue, he also talked about the upcoming launch of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft to ISS.   The next test launch of Dragon and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle recently slipped from February 7 to March 20.  It will demonstrate the ability of Dragon to berth with ISS.   Dragon is designed to be used as a cargo spacecraft for ISS and NASA has Space Act Agreements with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to help them develop "commercial cargo" systems.  They were supposed to be operational by this year, as NASA's contract with Russia to take cargo to the ISS runs out.  (Its contract to take crews to and from ISS is separate.)

Suffredini expressed no surprise that the SpaceX test launch slipped to March 20 and said that his personal belief is that it will slip to the first week in April while stressing that was not a firm statement, just his expectation based on years of experience.    Delaying until early April is not a problem in his view.    The key is to avoid a conflict with the next Progress launch and docking in mid-April.  He said that all the ISS partners, not only Russia, must agree to the SpaceX test berthing and they had just had a meeting in which they all said they were "comfortable" with the plan.

He added that because of the Russian cargo spacecraft failure last fall,  Russia owes NASA a certain amount of cargo capacity to the ISS.  If the U.S. commercial cargo efforts of SpaceX and Orbital are delayed, that should buy NASA some time into the early part of 2013.


Events of Interest


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: