Latest News

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of November 28-December 2, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:33 PM)

UPDATE:  CSIS's event on Friday re the defense industrial base has been added.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week.  Check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below for more information.   The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

The Senate is scheduled to resume consideration of the Department of Defense (DOD) Authorization bill, S. 1867, on Monday.  

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will send its "passbacks" to the various federal departments and agencies on Monday.  Each year, usually in September, agencies tell OMB what they want their budgets to be for subsequent years. OMB considers these proposals and then "passes them back" (hence, a "passback") with whatever modifications OMB deems necessary.  The agencies can negotiate with OMB or even take an issue to the President if they are sufficiently determined.  The end result is the President's budget request to Congress that is submitted on the first Monday in February of each year.  The budget request now being developed is for FY2013.  Passbacks used to be sent to agencies on Thanksgiving eve -- never a pleasant holiday experience.  According to the Washington Post, current OMB Director Jack Lew decided to wait until the Monday after Thanksgiving so government officials could enjoy time with their families.

Monday-Tuesday, November 28-29

Thursday, December 1

Friday, December 2

  • CSIS seminar on Deficits, Defense and the Industrial Base -- What's Next, 1800 K Street, N.W., B1 Conference Center, Washington, DC, 10:00-11:30 am EST
  • Panel on U.S. Space Exploration in the Next 50 Years, part of DuPont Summit on Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy: Pressing Issues, Little Time, Carnegie Institution of Science, 1530 P Street, N.W., Washington, DC  (the summit has many panels throughout the day; this one is from 10:15 am - 12:45 pm EST)

Phobos-Grunt Not Communicating; Russian President Seeks Punishment of Responsible Parties

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Nov-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 11:29 AM) reports that the European Space Agency's (ESA's) most recent efforts (November 25 Eastern Standard Time, November 26 in Australia) to communicate with Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft were not successful.  ESA's space operations website has not yet been updated with those results. 

Using its ground station in Perth, Australia, ESA was able to communicate with the spacecraft twice earlier in the week, but that success has not been repeated.  Phobos-Grunt was launched on a Zenit rocket plus a Fregat upper stage on November 8.  The Zenit appears to have worked perfectly, but the Fregat did not fire to place the spacecraft onto its Mars trajectory and the spacecraft remains stranded in Earth orbit.  The cause is not known.

Reuters quotes Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as saying that he believes those responsible for recent space program failures, like Phobos-Grunt, should be punished.  The Reuters quote is as follows: 

"'Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty, Medvedev told reporters in televised comments.

"'I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment,' he said."

ESA needs to use its Perth ground station for its own spacecraft for the next couple of days as it works through a backlog of tasks that were set aside.  It then plans to resume attempts to contact Phobos-Grunt.  ESA and Russia have cooperated together on Mars missions for many years.  Russia launched ESA's Mars Express probe, which successfully entered orbit around Mars in 2003.

Editor's note:  Thanks to Jeff Foust for bringing the Reuters article to our attention via Twitter.

SSB Chair: National Academies Must Adjust to Communications Revolution

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Nov-2011 (Updated: 17-Jan-2012 08:47 AM)

Space Studies Board (SSB) Chair Charles Kennel believes the National Academies -- the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council (NRC, of which SSB is part) -- need to "adjust to the revolution in communications and the new media."   His comments were part of a workshop held by the SSB in November 2010; a summary of the workshop has just been published.  (Editor's note:  in the interest of full disclosure, I was the rapporteur for the workshop and have been eagerly awaiting publication of the report for quite some time as it worked its way through the lengthy, but thorough, NRC review, editing and printing process.)

The workshop, Sharing the Adventure with the Public:  The Value and Excitement of "Grand Questions" of Space Science and Exploration," was held by the SSB to encourage interaction between the space science and engineering communities and professional communicators about how to better engage with the public about NASA activities.

In a keynote address, Miles O'Brien, formerly with CNN and now with PBS' NewsHour, noted that few major media outlets have science correspondents today and social media tools like Twitter offer new ways for the public to learn about NASA and the space program.  He congratulated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for pioneering the use of Twitter to portray planetary science missions in the first person as was first done by Veronica McGregor for the Mars Phoenix mission.   While some of the scientists at the workshop already were avid social media users, others were reluctant.    Christie Nicholson of Scientific American later implored everyone to at least try Twitter and Facebook to see if they could help in communicating with the public rather than rejecting them out of hand.

The remainder of the two-and-a-half day workshop consisted of six sessions in which scientists presented papers on five "Grand Questions" identified by the workshop organizers and interacted on panels with professional communicators about how to better engage with the public about NASA's efforts to answer them.   The tables were turned for the final two sessions, where the professional communicators presented papers and then interacted on panels with scientists. NRC workshops like this are not allowed to present findings or recommendations.  Instead, the report simply describes what transpired, including the individual viewpoints of participants, which varied widely.

Kennel cited the Climategate controversy as "a dramatic lesson" of where scientists did a poor job of communicating with the public.  He said that the climate science community thought it had "discovered the key for communicating with decision-makers" through the "elaborate peer review process" of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Instead, after hackers released email exchanges among climate scientists questioning each other and a lapse in fact checking regarding snow melt in the Himalayas, there was "a profound loss of confidence in the whole process."   That showed "how fragile the trust had been," said Kennel, and the "weaknesses in what the scientists thought was a perfectly wonderful way to communicate."

The idea for the workshop predated Climategate, and climate was only one topic discussed.  The five "Grand Questions" were:  

  • Understanding the universe-how did it begin and how it is evolving?
  • Are we alone?
  • Understanding the solar system-how did it begin and how is it evolving?
  • The Earth:  Will it remain a hospitable home for humanity in the future?
  • What could the future hold for humans in space?

Joan Johnson-Freese, a political scientist and professor at the Naval War College, and an SSB member, asked a key question -- what are scientists really seeking to do in sharing the adventure with the public?   Linda Billings, a research professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University who works with NASA's astrobiology program stressed that there "is no monolithic public."   She disagreed with those who believe that better communications might translate into more public support for NASA.  "Public information, public education, public interest, public engagement, public understanding, and public support are all different social processes and phenomena, and one does not necessarily lead to another," she said.  Billings advocates including the public in decision-making about NASA including "community consultations, citizen advisory boards, and policy dialogues," while acknowledging that it would be "complicated and time-consuming" and require "power sharing."

As for the human exploration program at NASA, Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post said he could not imagine a worse scenario than what has transpired over the past 10 years, starting with the Columbia tragedy.  He said that President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, though endorsed by Congress, was not adequately funded, which implies the government was not serious about it.  When the Obama Administration determined there was not enough money it "understandably decided to blow up the whole process," he said.   SSB member Joan Vernikos added that actions speak louder than words and if they are disparate the result is "disastrous," which was her assessment of the situation.  Some participants were excited about the prospect of commercial crew and believe that it will help engage the public's interest; others bemoaned the confusion and discord that followed the Obama Administration's abrupt cancellation of the Constellation program.

As many of the scientists criticized themselves and their colleagues for poor communications with the public -- not only about Climategate, but in other areas, such as why Pluto no longer is a planet -- some of the non-scientists gave them a break.   Johnson-Freese said the scientists "have been way, way too hard on themselves....I think you've been doing a heck of a job, but we can always get better."

In his remarks at the end of the workshop, Kennel said that over the last 20 years there has been a revolution in communications, which he believes "has the potential, combined with science, ... to produce a second Enlightenment" in this century.  Hence his clarion call to the National Academies to embrace new communications technologies and "adjust to the revolution in communications and the new media" or risk the fate of institutions that "did not react to this revolution and have failed...."

UPDATE 2: Mars Probe "Curiosity" On Its Way to Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:28 PM)

UPDATE 2:  Step two -- done:  The Centaur upper stage successfully completed its two firings and separated from the spacecraft.  Mars Curiosity is now on its way to Mars with arrival in August 2012. The "Sky Crane" landing is the next big excitement.  

UPDATE:  On-time launch of the Atlas V-Centaur with Mars Curiosity.  The first step of this long journey is a success.

ORIGINAL STORY:  NASA plans to launch its Mars probe Curiosity in less than an hour, at 10:02 am EST.  Launch preparations are AOK for now.

The launch window this morning is open for 1 hour and 43 minutes.   Clouds come and go over the launch site at Cape Canaveral, FL, but forecasters expect the weather to be within specs at 10:02 for launch of the Atlas V-Centaur.

Follow us on Twitter for frequent updates: @SpcPlcyOnline

No Thanksgiving Miracle for Phobos-Grunt

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Nov-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 11:27 AM)

As many of us enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, the European Space Agency (ESA) continued its attempts to communicate with Russia's Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) spacecraft.   Today ESA reported that they were not successful.

Hopes were raised earlier in the week when ESA's ground station in Perth, Australia, was able to receive telemetry from the spacecraft for the first time since its launch on November 8.   In a statement today, however, ESA reported that "Despite listening intently during four" passes, no signals were received.

On the bright side, ESA said that the spacecraft's orbit "has become more stable."   If that means its orientation also is now stable, ESA would know the precise location of its antennas potentially making future attempts more successful.

ESA has been assisting Russian space experts in attempts to determine what went wrong with the Russian spacecraft after it reached Earth orbit.  The engines that should have fired to send it on its way to Mars did not function.   Efforts to communicate with it through ESA's station in Perth are thought to have been successful in part because the spacecraft is in sunlight when it passes over Perth, rather than in darkness when it travels above Russia's ground station at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazkahstan.   The spacecraft's solar arrays did deploy after launch, so when they are fully charged during the sunlit portion of its orbit, Phobos-Grunt would have maximum power to operate its onboard equipement.

Phobos-Grunt was intended to return a sample of soil from Mars's moon, Phobos.   It also carries a Chinese spacecraft that was to orbit Mars and an experiment from The Planetary Society.

NASA's Ambitious Mars Probe "Curiosity" Set for Liftoff Saturday Morning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Nov-2011 (Updated: 13-Apr-2012 11:49 PM)

NASA is hoping for better luck than Russia tomorrow when it launches the next U.S. Mars probe -- Curiosity.  But for this mission, launch may be the easy part.

While Russia continues to try and ascertain what went wrong with its Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, NASA plans to launch the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, Saturday at 10:02 am EST.   The launch window that day is open for 1 hour and 43 minutes.   Overall, the launch window for this mission remains open through December 18.   It will be launched on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, FL.

Curiosity is a rover, but much larger than its immediate predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, and is dedicated to studying the "habitability" of Mars -- could the Martian environment, now or in the past, support life.   Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, were designed to investigate Mars's geology.   Spirit ended its mission last year; Opportunity continues to operate.  Both were designed to work for only 90 days.   Curiosity is designed for a one-year mission lifetime -- that's one Martian year (687 Earth days).  

From a series of Mariner probes in the 1960s and early 1970s, to Viking 1 and 2 (the first Mars landers) that landed in 1976, to Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix, and Spirit and Opportunity, data from NASA Mars orbiters and landers literally have rewritten the textbooks about the Red Planet.   Scientists hope Curiosity will follow suit.

The United States has had its share of failed Mars missions, too, however -- Mariner 3, Mariner 8, Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander.   Russia has had only one partial success (Phobos 2) in the more than a dozen missions it has launched to Mars since the 1960s.  If Phobos-Grunt fails, it will also count as a failure for China, whose first Mars probe (an orbiter, Yinghuo-1) is aboard.

Europe also has sent a spacecraft to Mars.  Launched on a Russian launch vehicle in 2003, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Mars Express is a success; it has been orbiting Mars since 2004.   However, a small lander from the United Kingdom that it carried, Beagle 2, was lost.   Japan attempted to send a probe, Nozomi, to Mars, but it failed.

The significant number of Mars mission failures has given rise to the legend of a "Galactic Ghoul" that devours spacecraft headed there.

Assuming Curiosity survives launch and the Galactic Ghoul, it still faces a big challenge in landing on Mars.   It is too massive to use previous landing methods such as airbags, so NASA devised an innovative "sky crane," which is better viewed than described in words.  The launch of Curiosity was delayed by two years while engineers worked to remedy unexpected problems and conduct additional tests.    If the launch goes tomorrow, Curiosity will arrive at Mars in August 2012 and the nail-biting will begin in earnest.

UPDATE: Phobos-Grunt Phones Home -- What's Next for the Stranded Spacecraft?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 11:25 AM)

UPDATE:   ESA reports today (Thursday, Nov. 24) that it was successful in communicating with Phobos-Grunt on the first of five passes late yesterday (EST), but was not successful during the subsequent four passes.  It had not expected communications during the second pass, but apparently had expected to hear from the stranded spacecraft on the later attempts.   ESA said that the later attempts used a different antenna on the spacecraft and Russian experts are troubleshooting the situation to ascertain whether that antenna is the problem.  The ESA statement said another five opportunities are available during the night of November 24-25, but it did not indicate which time zone that refers to (GMT, Central European Standard Time, Moscow Time, or the time in Perth, Australia where ESA's tracking station is located.)

ORIGINAL STORY:  It is far too early to pop champagne corks, but the establishment of initial communications with the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft certainly is good news that raises the question of what's next for the stranded spacecraft.

Russia's RIA Novosti confirmed reports on Twitter by and others that the European Space Agency (ESA) was able to obtain telemetry from the spacecraft today (Eastern Standard Time).   An ESA ground station in Perth, Australia, picked up a carrier signal from the spacecraft yesterday.  Today's brief communications section obtained telemetry that is being analyzed by Russian experts at NPO Lavochkin, which manufactured the spacecraft.

Phobos-Grunt  (Phobos-soil) was stranded in a very low Earth orbit after its Fregat upper stage failed to place it on a trajectory to Mars following an otherwise successful launch on November 8.  A signal was received that the solar panels deployed, but the spacecraft went silent thereafter.   Attempts to raise the spacecraft were futile until ESA received the carrier signal yesterday.  In its low orbit, communicating with it is possible only for brief periods (6-10 minutes) each time it passes over specially equipped ground stations.  The ESA ground station in Perth was modifiedto raise the chances of establishing communication. quotes a Russian space news website, Novosti Kosmonavtiki, as stating that the telemetry indicated the power supply and communications equipment were normal; more details await analysis by Lavochkin.

If Russian experts are able to determine what went wrong with the Fregat upper stage and remedy the problem, the question is what to do with the spacecraft.  It was designed to obtain a sample of Mars's moon Phobos and return it to Earth.   Officials report that the window for a two-way trip to Mars closed on Monday, but a one-way trip to Mars could still be possible.  Phobos-Grunt carries a small Chinese Mars orbiter that could be deployed even if the primary mission had to be abandoned.  The one-way launch window to Mars remains open for several more weeks.   NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is scheduled for launch on Saturday, for example; its launch window is open until mid-December.  Earth and Mars are properly aligned in their orbits every 26 months for trips between the two planets.

Suggestions have been made that the spacecraft could be used for lunar research instead.   RIA Novosti quotes the deputy head of Russia's Institute for Space Research as suggesting that Phobos-Grunt could be sent to an asteroid rather than the Moon, since Phobos is similar to an asteroid and the scientific equipment would be better suited for such a mission.

All of that assumes that the spacecraft can be "reanimated" in RIA Novosti's terminology.  Whether or not that is in the cards will not be known until Lavochkin analyzes the telemetry, but at the very least engineers may be able to determine what went wrong.  Russia's attempts to send its own probes to Mars have been plagued with failure since the 1960s although it successfully launched ESA's Mars Express in 2003.

UPDATE 2: Good News for Phobos-Grunt

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 05:45 PM)

UPDATE 2:  Anatoly Zak at quotes Russian space news source Novosti Kosmonavtiki as saying that ESA received telemetry from Phobos-Grunt on the spacecraft's most recent pass over ESA's ground station in Australia and it has been sent to Phobos-Grunt spacecraft manufacturer NPO Lavochkin for analysis.  The pass was from 20:21-20:28 GMT (3:21-3:28 pm EST).  Next pass is 21:53-22:03 GMT (4:53-5:03 pm EST.)


UPDATE:  ESA has provided some of the detail on how they succeeded in contacting Phobos-Grunt and when the next opportunity is expected.

ORIGINAL STORY:  The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that it established contact with Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft that has been stranded in Earth orbit since launch on November 8.

The ESA announcement is as follows:

23 November 2011

On Tuesday, 22 November at 20:25 UT, ESA's tracking station at Perth, Australia, established contact with Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. The contact with the Mars mission was lost shortly after launch on 8 November. ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communication with the spacecraft. More news will follow later.

Phobos-Grunt is designed to collect a sample of Mars's moon Phobos and return it to Earth.  According to various officials, the launch window for the spacecraft to make that two-way trip closed on Monday, but a one-way trip would still be possible.  The spacecraft also carries a small Chinese spacecraft intended to orbit Mars and an experiment from The Planetary Society.

More news as it becomes available.

The Day After -- What's Next For NASA After the Supercommittee Failure?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:24 PM)

As politicians from both parties blame each other for the collapse of the supercommittee deliberations yesterday, most people are wondering what comes next.

No easy answers are apparent.

By law - the Budget Control Act of 2011 to be specific - the failure of the supercommittee triggers automatic across-the-board spending cuts beginning in 2013, half from "defense" and half from "non-defense" discretionary spending.  The non-defense spending reduction includes up to a 2 percent cut in Medicare payments to providers; Social Security and Medicaid are exempt from cuts.  The remainder of the amount to be cut from non-defense spending would come from agencies like NASA, EPA, the Departments of Interior, Labor, Commerce (including NOAA), Education and so forth.

Of the $1.2 trillion sought, $216 billion is estimated to come from interest savings (since the debt will be lower, the government can pay less interest on that debt).  That leaves about $1 trillion to come from spending cuts: $500 billion from defense and $500 billion from non-defense.  The cuts are spread over 10 years (FY2013-2021).

What "defense" means in this context is being debated.  Some argue the Budget Control Act makes clear it means only the Pentagon, but others insist that other national security spending is included.  However it is defined, considerable attention is being focused on undoing those automatic cuts.  So far no one appears to be objecting to the automatic cuts to non-defense spending.

It is impossible to determine at this stage what such cuts would mean to particular agencies or programs, but New Scientist, citing an expert from AAAS, estimates it at about 8 percent.  The cut would be applied "across-the-board," meaning that each activity would be cut by the same amount.  This "meat-axe" approach, compared to a "scalpel" where cuts could be made based on merit or other determinants, is part of what has everyone up in arms.   This draconian penalty for supercommittee failure was deliberately included in the Act as an incentive for them to reach agreement.   It obviously did not work.   President Obama has stated that he will veto any attempt to change the automatic cuts.

The automatic cuts will not take place until January 2013, presumably after Congress has acted on the President's FY2013 budget request that will be submitted in February 2012.  The cuts are for FY2013 through FY2021 and complicated formulas are applied that make the entire situation quite confusing.

Kicking the deficit reduction can down the road into the maelstrom of an election year, as congressional Democrats and Republicans now have done, is an interesting choice.  Politicians have spent the last day not only pointing fingers, but offering their assessments of which party is now in a better bargaining position.

Gauging the potential impact on federally funded science and technology programs in general, or the space program in particular, is a fool's errand at this point other than recognizing the obvious - budgets will be even more constrained.   How the Administration crafts the FY2013 budget request and how Congress acts on it will be critical since the cuts will apply to the amounts in the FY2013 appropriations bills.  Determining priorities clearly will be a key factor.

In an exchange during a Senate hearing last week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) revealed that at a September meeting between Senators Hutchison and Bill Nelson (D-FL), Bolden, and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew, agreement was reached that NASA's top three priorities are the Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, enhancements to the International Space Station including commercial crew, and the James Webb Space Telescope.  In an across-the board cut situation, each of those would be cut by the same amount, along with each other NASA activity.  Whether the Administration and Congress craft the budget to protect those priorities at the expense of other NASA activities may become apparent in February when the budget is submitted to Congress.

Although NASA is one of the lucky agencies whose FY2012 budgets has been enacted, the long-term stability of that budget is just as ambiguous as ever.  The only certainty seems to be that NASA's budget woes are far from over.

UPDATE: ISS Crew is Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:21 PM)

UPDATE:  Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members returned to terra firma in Kazakhstan at 9:26 pm EST (8:26 am local time November 22 in Kazakhstan).

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa were launched on June 7 and docked with the ISS on June 9.

Wind chill at the landing site is minus 20 Fahrenheit for this pre-dawn landing (local time in Kazakhstan).

Events of Interest

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

Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: