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International Efforts Advance For Asteroid Mitigation

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

An international group of experts on the threat posed by Near Earth Objects (NEOs) met in Pasadena, CA last week to advance work on creating a Mission Planning and Operations Group (MPOG) to enable space agencies to respond if a NEO is on a collision course with Earth.

The Secure World Foundation and the Association of Space Explorers organized the meeting in conjunction with the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). It is part of a series of meetings to create an international framework for dealing with the threat to Earth from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEOs.

The August 25-26 meeting was attended by members of COPUOS's Action Team (AT) 14 and representatives of NASA and three non-U.S. agencies: Germany's DLR, Canada's CSA, and France's CNRS.

The series of meetings is aimed at producing by February 2013 a set of recommendations on which COPUOS can act. Secure World Foundation Executive Director Ray Williamson said that the most recent workshop "made substantial progress" toward an interagency plan and an international governance model to deal with the NEO threat.

China's Tiangong-1 Launch Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

China's Xinhua news agency is reporting that the launch of the Tiangong-1 docking target will be delayed until the cause of a launch failure is determined.

Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace") is a module to which the unoccupied Shenzhou 8 is intended to dock as part of China's effort to develop a small space station. The launch was expected as early as this month, though the Chinese have not officially announced a specific launch date. They consistently have said only that it would be launched in the second half of this year.

Tiangong-1 is to be launched on a Long March II-F rocket, but a cousin, the Long March II-C, recently failed to place the SJ-11-04 satellite into orbit. Initially the Chinese said that since they were different launch vehicles, the failure would not affect Tiangong-1. They apparently have reconsidered. Xinhua quotes an unnamed spokesperson as saying "it is not clear yet" whether the malfunction of the Long March II-C could be linked to the II-F.

Coincidentally, the Chinese launch failure occurred on August 18, the same day that a Russian Proton rocket failed to successfully place a communications satellite into the proper orbit. The Russians traced that problem to a programming error and already have lifted the ban on Proton launches. Russia continues to investigate the launch failure of a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress cargo spacecraft that was to take supplies to the International Space Station. Itar-Tass stated on Monday that the problem was related to a gas generator on the Soyuz launch vehicle's third stage.

Roscosmos Deputy Suggests Restructuring

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

Russia continues to investigate the cause of the launch failure of a Progress cargo spacecraft last week, but it was just the most recent of several launch failures that is causing at least one Russian government official to reconsider how the Russian space program is organized.

Vitaliy Davydov, deputy director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, is suggesting that "it would be beneficial to return the federal space program and the Glonass program to the framework of the state defense order," according to the Russian news service Ria Novosti.

Glomass is Russia's navigation satellite system, similar to the GPS system in the United States. A Glonass launch last December on a Proton rocket was expected to make the system fully operational, but the launch failed. It was followed by a failure of a different launch vehicle, Rokot, that was intended to place a geodetic satellite, GEO-IK-2, into orbit. Subsequently, the head of Roscosmos, Anatoly Perminov, was forced to resign. Another Proton failure on August 18 stranded the Express AM-4 satellite in the wrong orbit, and then a week later came the Progress M-12M launch failure on August 24. Roscosmos and NASA are still determining the impacts to International Space Station (ISS) operations in the wake of the Progress failure.

Davydov also suggested that the ISS may not be permanently occupied in the future, but staffed only periodically as the Soviet Union used to operate its Salyut space stations and the Mir space station during its early years. The French news agency AFP quotes Davydov as saying that "Perhaps in the future we will not need a constant manned presence in the lower Earth orbit."

The comments of one Russian space official do not necessarily mean that the Russian government is seriously considering such steps, but they do underscore the significance of the Progress launch failure and the weakened position of the United States in the ISS partnership now that it is completely dependent on Russia to take crews to and from ISS. The termination of the space shuttle program with nothing to replace it means U.S. astronauts can only travel to the ISS when Russia is willing to take them and at whatever price it sets. A new U.S. crew space transportation system is not expected to be ready until at least 2015 under the most optimistic scenario.

NRC: Space Debris Has Reached Tipping Point, NASA Strategic Plan Needed

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

A new report from the National Research Council (NRC) asserts that using "reasonable assumptions," the orbital debris environment has reached a "tipping point" where debris will "continually collide with itself" creating more debris. The report calls on NASA to develop a strategic plan for its programs that address the problem.

The NRC report, "Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs," was written in response to a request from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) via NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. A workshop was held as part of the NRC study committee's deliberations and a report of that workshop was published separately.

The NRC stresses in the new report that its study committee was not asked to comment on "the degree of the threat posed by meteoroids and debris, nor was the committee asked to determine which technology or path is best suited for the remove of debris from orbit." Instead, "this study is more a review of NASA's meteoroid and orbital debris programs than an attempt to solve the threat posed by meteoroids and orbital debris."

With its task so delineated, the NRC praised many aspects on NASA's ongoing programs in what the agency calls micrometeoroid and orbital debris (MMOD). It notes that NASA does not have a single MMOD program, but "numerous program elements spread across NASA mission centers," and recommends that NASA review the management structure of these activities to "achieve better coordination, provide improved central decision making, and establish a framework for setting priorities." Its overarching recommendation is that NASA "develop a formal strategic plan that provides the basis for prioritizing the allocation of funds and effort over various MMOD program needs."

The NRC also found that removal of space debris would cross "crucial national and international legal thresholds" and therefore NASA's MMOD programs should engage NASA's General Counsel's Office and the State Department "regarding the legal requirements and diplomatic aspects of active debris removal."

UPDATE 3: Obama to Address Congress on Jobs and Economy

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

UPDATE 3: But the speech will be at 7:00 pm EDT instead of 8:00 pm so it will be over before the NFL pre-game coverage begins. Hardly ideal, since it will be only 4:00 pm on the West Coast when people are still at work, but this is, after all, the art of compromise.

UPDATE 2: Boehner wins. Obama will address Congress on Thursday, September 8.

House Speaker John Boehner has declined the President's request to address a joint session of Congress on September 7, suggesting the next night as an alternative according to The Hill newspaper, which points out that September 8 is the opening night of the NFL season.

President Obama has sent a letter to Congress asking for permission to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, September 7, to talk about jobs and the economy.

The address would begin at 8:00 pm EDT, exactly the same time as one of the Republican presidential debates. The New York Times commented that while it was expected that Obama would make a speech next week, "it is remarkable that he would choose to do so in such an elevated setting, and at the same time that Republican candidates for president will be laying out their own vision for how to get the country out of the economic doldrums." It adds that September 7 is actually the third date for this debate, having first been scheduled for May 2, then changed to Sept. 14, and then to Sept. 7.

NASA Media Telecon on Opportunity Mars Rover

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA has scheduled a media teleconference for tomorrow, September 1, to provide an update on the Mars rover Opportunity.

Opportunity recently reached the edge of the Endeavour crater on Mars. The briefing is at 12:30 pm PDT (3:30 pm EDT) and will be streamed at

The teleconference participants are:

-- Dave Lavery, program executive, Mars Exploration Rovers, NASA Headquarters, Washington
-- Steve Squyres, principal investigator, Mars Exploration Rovers, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
-- Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator, Mars Exploration Rovers, Washington University in St. Louis.
-- John Callas, project manager, Mars Exploration Rovers, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.

HSS&T Reschedules LightSquared Hearing for Next Week

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

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee has rescheduled its hearing on LightSquared for next Thursday, September 8.

The hearing had been scheduled for August 3, but the House went into recess (or, officially, pro forma session) earlier than expected once the debt limit/deficit reduction deal was reached. The new time and date are September 8 at 2:00 pm EDT. The witness list is the same:

  • Mr. Anthony Russo, Director, The National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing
  • Ms. Mary Glackin, Deputy Under Secretary, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Mr. Badri Younes, Deputy Associate Administrator, Space Communications and Navigation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Mr. Peter Appel, Administrator, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Department of Transportation
  • Dr. David Applegate, Associate Director, Natural Hazards, U.S. Geological Survey
  • Dr. Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University

UPDATE: Griffin Blasts Obama on Human Spaceflight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Here is a link to a YouTube video of Griffin's remarks in Huntsville. Thanks to the reader who sent it in.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has put down in writing what he was reported as saying during a panel session in Huntsville last week.

In an op-ed for today's Space News, Griffin blasts the Obama Administration's handling of the U.S. human spaceflight program. He accuses President Obama of having no interest in human spaceflight until during his campaign for President he "realized that he had to win Florida" and "changed his tune." Thus it should be no surprise, Griffin argues, that, once elected, Obama cancelled the Constellation program and has repeatedly ignored laws passed by Congress to build a new Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) instead.

Griffin initiated the Constellation program during his tenure as NASA Administrator under President George W. Bush to implement Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. Its goal was to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars. President Obama proposed cancelling Constellation in February 2010. Following months of intense debate, Congress agreed, but only after Obama agreed to replace it with the SLS/MPCV program.

Griffin attacks virtually every aspect of Obama Administration's management of the human spaceflight program, especially what he calls a "smear campaign" against SLS. Charging that the Administration "is focused on killing human spaceflight by the death of a thousand cuts," he nevertheless hails "some true heroes at NASA who are clearly focused on affordability and sustainability" and "should be commended for their innovation and their approach, which is closer to what Congress approved and the president signed into law."

Griffin was quoted by the Huntsville Times last week as making similar comments during a panel discussion moderated by Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle. Griffin is currently Eminent Scholar and Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Alabama, Huntsville.

In his op-ed, Griffin icily rejects a claim published in the Orlando Sentinel that the SLS would cost $38 billion. Although the headline of that Orlando Sentinel article did assert that $38 billion "could be" the cost for the "new moon rocket," the text of the story was about SLS and MPCV combined. Regardless, Griffin claims that such data would be available only to NASA's leadership and releasing it was an example of "the tiresome Washington game of leaking a highly biased story in order to set the terms for an upcoming debate." He ends his commentary by saying "Let the games begin."

The Senate has subpoenaed NASA documents relating to the SLS program because NASA has not provided them voluntarily. The House Appropriations Committee marked up the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA in July and increased the amount of funds that would be available for SLS and MPCV compared to what the President requested. It cut the amount for the commercial crew program that the Obama Administration champions. The full House has not acted on the bill yet, nor has the Senate.

Suffredini Says ISS Could Be Destaffed In November

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The International Space Station (ISS) management team is preparing contingency plans in the wake of the failure of Russia's Progress M-12M spacecraft to reach orbit last week. Under one set of assumptions, it might be necessary to operate the ISS without a crew beginning in November.

The Progress M12-M cargo-carrying spacecraft was aboard a Soyuz rocket that is very similar to the type used to launch Russia's crew-carrying Soyuz spacecraft. Thus, the Soyuz rocket failure affects launches of both crews on Soyuz spacecraft and cargo on Progress spacecraft.

NASA's ISS program manager, Mike Suffredini, said at a press conference today that the return of three of the current ISS crew members probably will be delayed for a week, to mid-September, because the launch of the next Soyuz spacecraft with their replacements is delayed indefinitely. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported that Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, said it would be September 16. The next Soyuz crew launch had been scheduled for September 21 CDT (September 22 at the launch site).

Russia continues to investigate what caused the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket to fail during ascent. Progress M-12M (called "Progress 44" by NASA because it is the 44th to go to the ISS), filled with cargo for the ISS, crashed into a remote area of Siberia. Russia continues to search for remains of the spacecraft, but bad weather and difficult terrain have slowed those efforts. Russia announced today that they would increase the number of aircraft involved in the search, but they expect that the spacecraft broke into many pieces.

Until more is known about the failure, the Russians cannot set a date for launching the next ISS crew. However, Itar-Tass said that preparations are continuing for the possible launch of the next Progress spacecraft - Progress M-13M - in October.

With the termination of the U.S. space shuttle, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft is the only way to get crews to and from the ISS. Suffredini stressed that the six crew members aboard the ISS are in no danger. The Soyuz spacecraft that are needed to bring them back to Earth are already attached to the ISS, and the ISS was thoroughly stocked with supplies by the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, last month.

However, the Soyuz spacecraft that are attached to the ISS have a limited on-orbit lifetime, approximately 200-210 days. For safety reasons, there can only be as many crew aboard ISS as can be returned to Earth in an emergency. Each Soyuz spacecraft has three seats, and with two docked at the ISS, that allows six crew members to be aboard.

With the roughly 6-month orbital lifetime of a Soyuz spacecraft, crews therefore rotate on a 6-month schedule, and the lifetimes of the two Soyuz that are attached are ending.

Other considerations are ensuring that landings can take place in daylight, which is dictated by orbital dynamics, and to not plan landings during the winter when weather conditions in the landing area are problematical at best. With all of those considerations, the ISS management team is currently planning to return three of the crew in mid-September and the other three in mid-November.

Thus, how many crew - if any - will be aboard the ISS after that is dependent on when Russia can certify that the Soyuz rocket is ready to launch a crew. Suffredini said that if the Soyuz is not flying by mid-November, the ISS would have to be destaffed. NASA has continually warned about problems that could develop if the ISS is left in an unoccupied condition for a lengthy period. Suffredini reiterated that today.

These contingency plans could also impact the scheduled test flight of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. NASA and SpaceX are considering combining SpaceX's next two test flights such that the next Falcon 9/Dragon mission would involve berthing Dragon to the ISS. However, a crew needs to be aboard ISS to conduct the berthing operation using the Remote Manipulator System. Without a crew, that operation could not take place. November 30 is the currently planned date for the SpaceX launch.

The key is what went wrong with the Soyuz rocket last week. Until Russia makes that determination and fixes it, the fate of ISS operations will be in limbo.

Itar-Tass: Launch Failure Due to Gas Generator

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Aug-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Russia's Itar-Tass news service is reporting that the cause of the Progress spacecraft launch failure last week has been identified.

The news service quotes Alexei Kuznetsov from Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, as saying "Members of the emergency commission have determined the cause of the failure of the Soyuz carrier rocket's third stage engine. It is a malfunction in the engine's gas generator."

The Progress cargo spacecraft was launched on a Soyuz U rocket last Wednesday, but did not achieve orbit and fell into the Altai region of Siberia. Russia is still searching for the wreckage in difficult terrain and bad weather. NASA and Roscosmos are working on contingency plans for operations of the International Space Station (ISS) in light of the launch failure, which could affect launches not only of cargo, but crews, to the ISS.

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