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The Air Force's X-37B spaceplane returned from its seven month journey in orbit today, landing autonomously at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA early this morning. An Air Force press release said only that it "conducted on-orbit experiments for 220 days during its maiden voyage."
Launched on April 22, the mission was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning. The X-37 began as a NASA program to build a spaceplane to service the International Space Station (ISS). NASA cancelled it once President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration was announced and it was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and then to the Air Force where it received a new, classified mission as X-37B.
The Air Force said today that the program will now move into a "refurbishment" phase and the next X-37B mission will be launched next spring.
NASAWatch has a link to some post-landing photos posted on OnOrbit.com.
Space shuttle Discovery's final launch will not take place until at least February 3, 2011, NASA announced today. Engineers still need more time to assess cracks in two stringers on the External Tank that were discovered after the STS-133 launch was delayed a month ago because of a different problem. That problem -- a gas leak -- was fixed fairly easily, but the cracks are proving tougher.
If the STS-133 launch gets the final go ahead for February 3, the scheduled time is 1:34 am EST. That would in turn slip the next launch, STS-134, to April 1.
STS-134 is the last scheduled mission for Endeavour and for the space shuttle program as a whole, but the 2010 NASA Authorization Act calls for one more launch, STS-135, as long as it is safe. STS-135 is also referred to as the "Launch-on-Need" mission. At a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, a NASA official and the President's Science Adviser assured the subcommittee that they intend to fly STS-135 as long as it is safe and Congress does not make drastic cuts to the agency's FY2011 budget request on which congressional action is pending.
A static fire test of SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle was scrubbed today; another attempt may be tried tomorrow. Spaceflightnow.com has a detailed chronology of today's attempt.
President Obama's deficit commission voted 11-7 in favor of the panel's recommendations according to The Hill newspaper, but the vote was a failure under the commission's bylaws. For the report to be forwarded to Congress for action, 14 of the 18 commissioners needed to vote in favor of the report. Commission co-chairman Erkine Bowles remains optimistic that major portions of it will factor into congressional debate over the FY2012 budget, however, according to the National Journal (subscription required).
The publication quotes Bowles as saying that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) "said that 85 percent of what we proposed is going to be in his budget; it doesn't get any better than that." Ryan is expected to chair the House Budget Committee next year and is a member of the commission, but did not support the report.
The commission's recommendations were released on Wednesday. They do not directly affect NASA or NOAA space programs, but could have a profound indirect effect since the commission calls for significant cuts to discretionary spending. NASA and NOAA both are encompassed in that part of the federal budget.
Yesterday's hearing before the Senate Commerce subcommittee chaired by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) left no doubt that Senators on both sides of the aisle remain deeply skeptical of the Administration's intent to implement the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
Congress passed and the President signed the Act into law several weeks ago, but Congress has yet to appropriate funds for FY2011 to carry it out. Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Beth Robinson repeatedly assured the Senators that the Administration likes the Act and intends to carry it out as long as Congress gives them the resources to do so.
The government is currently operating on a Continuing Resolution (CR) at last year's funding levels. For NASA, that is $18.7 billion, not much less than the $19 billion requested for the agency in FY2011. Senator Nelson hinted that the agency might end up flat funded for FY2011, but got agreement from Holdren and Robinson that $18.7 billion is enough to implement the Act. For their part, the Administration witnesses cautioned that if the funding is dramatically lower, they do not know how the agency will cope. Some Republicans are arguing for all agencies to be cut back to their FY2008 funding levels. For NASA, that would be $17.4 billion. Robinson pointed out that since the first quarter of FY2011 already has passed with the agency spending at the $18.7 billion level, if the agency had to absorb a cut of that magnitude, it would be a "drastic situation."
Among the questions raised at the hearing was whether NASA would indeed launch the extra shuttle flight authorized in the Act - the so-called "Launch on Need" mission or STS-135. Robinson insisted that NASA wants to fly the mission, but must wait to see how the appropriations process turns out before making a final commitment. Holdren agreed that the mission would be flown unless NASA's funding level is distinctly lower than the request.
Senators pressed Robinson to explain the status of implementing the programs in the Act. The situation is complicated because the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits NASA from cancelling the Constellation program or initiating a replacement program until Congress passes another appropriations act allowing them to do so. Robinson replied that NASA therefore is getting rulings from its General Counsel's office and advice from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on how to proceed on specific elements of the program. General Counsel rulings have been issued to allow three programs to proceed (commercial crew, space technology, and setting up an organization to manage research on the International Space Station), but not yet for moving forward immediately with a new NASA-developed heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) and a NASA-developed crew exploration vehicle. Senators Nelson and Vitter (R-LA) wondered why the rulings are for programs the President had requested, not for the HLLV and crew vehicle programs that were directed by Congress. She explained that the decisions were driven by which programs needed clarification first.
Relieving NASA of the restrictions in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act would make NASA's implementation of the authorization act easier. Senator Vitter asked Holdren and Robinson whether the Administration has conveyed to congressional appropriators that it wants the restrictions lifted as a priority matter and said he would view that as a test of the President's commitment to implement the authorization act.
Holdren and Robinson's repeated assurances throughout the hearing that the Administration would indeed implement the authorization act did not seem to quell the Senators' discomfort. Nelson said that when the House was considering the authorization act some people in the Administration - but not at the highest levels, he said - were working against it. He was not specific about who they were.
The recently released independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program by a team headed by John Casani also was discussed. Senator Nelson asked Holdren, Robinson, and GAO's Cristina Chaplain, another witness, about their reactions to the report, which revealed that JWST will cost $6.5 billion instead of $5 billion and slip another year to 2015. Each expressed deep dismay about the discovery of these problems, especially so late in the program. Holdren said he was "very disappointed," while Robinson said that "we were heartened" to see that the program is meeting its technical milestones, but that it was "somewhat shocking" that the program had not followed normal NASA budgeting and planning procedures. Chaplain added that GAO was "very disappointed" and she would have to "rebaseline my thinking" about the improvements GAO thought NASA had been making in program management.
Robinson told the subcommittee that the Casani report was not the final word on JWST. She said that review group looked at the quickest route to complete the telescope, but it was not clear the agency could find the required funds to do that in the near term. A "bottoms up analysis" is underway to get a more detailed cost estimate, she said, and NASA would provide more details in the FY2012 budget request.
At a press conference today, NASA astrobiology research fellow Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced the discovery of an organism unlike any other on Earth: "a microbe that can substitute arsenic for phosphorus." The finding questions the assumption of life's basic components and opens the door for new hypotheses of what life may look like not only on Earth, but on other planets.
Wolfe-Simon, who led the research team, described herself as "always interested in exceptions to the rule," an outlook that prompted her to find out if there was a living organism that could substitute one of the building blocks of life - phosphorous - with a toxic, yet chemically similar element, arsenic. This question led the team to the harsh conditions of Mono Lake in Northern California, which, despite having high levels of arsenic and three times the salt of seawater, is teeming with life. There they found a microbe, dubbed GFAJ-1. The team took samples of mud at the lake, and, back in the laboratory, created almost identical conditions - except for the elimination of phosphorous and the introduction of high doses of arsenic. The result was extraordinary: "not only did [the microbe] cope," said Wolfe-Simon, "but it grew and it thrived; and that was amazing." When the researchers measured the arsenic concentration in the organism, they found it was behaving like phosphorous would within the cell - as the backbone of the DNA.
Putting the role of phosphorous in context, Arizona State University Professor James Elser, explained that life, as is traditionally conceived, relies on phosphorous. Its scarcity on Earth and the concern that it may be running out has prompted many to look for solutions. The research discussed today, of what he described as a "clever organism" capable of evolving to do without the crucial element, may yield new ideas. Elser suggested that practical applications may be explored, like waste water treatment, and bio-energy that does not require phosphorous-based fertilizer. But first in line is the reconsideration of the basic assumption, which Elser has used repeatedly in his teaching, that life needs phosphorous to survive. "I have to thank you and blame you [Felisa] for making our lives more difficult," he joked.
While still considering the research significant, Steven Benner, Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, was wary of jumping to conclusions. Benner described himself as the chemist brought in to dampen the excitement as he explained why chemists would see this as an "exceptional result" requiring "exceptional evidence." While questions remain to prove this "exceptional claim," he said that the organism would be there for further testing. Benner pointed to a 2007 National Academy of Science's report, The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems -- the "weird life" report -- to suggest that the conditions that make arsenic too unstable on Earth may be useful in radically different environments, like the cold environment of Titan.
In this respect, the discovery will impact NASA's search for life, particularly with respect to defining "habitability" outside of Earth, explained Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We still don't know what might make a habitable environment," she explained. This research suggests that where arsenic may have been thought of as life-prohibiting and toxic, it may be found to be, if not essential for habitability, at least tolerable for some organisms. Conrad said the impact the discovery would have on NASA programs would be to challenge scientists to "think more broadly about environments one might characterize as habitable."
According to Wolfe-Simon, the implications are broad. She said that the discovery was "not about arsenic or Mono Lake but thinking about life in a planetary context" and its potential for questioning what was previously thought was possible for life. This microbe shows a "different way to do business" and "it has solved the challenge of being a life in a very different way than we knew of." The questions arising out of this discovery will open the door for new areas of research and "it will take an army of scientists" to explore, she said.
According to a questioner, the news that NASA would make a significant announcement related to the search for life was met with some disappointment from members of the public when the researchers did not pull an "ET out of a hat." Mary Voytek, Director of the Astrobiology Program at NASA Headquarters, said that she was sorry about this disappointment but explained that, "from our perspective, this is a phenomenal finding." She added that it "will fundamentally change how we define life [and] what we look for in life."
According to the NASA press release, the research team was made up of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona State University in Tempe, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Duquesne University, and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. The findings will be published in today's edition of Science Express (subscription required).
The House passed a new short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) today to keep the government operating through December 18. The current CR expires on Friday. The legislation (H. J. Res. 101) is short, simply changing the expiration date of the current CR. Its future in the Senate is unclear, however.
All 42 Republican Senators have vowed to filibuster any legislation until the government is funded and the Bush-era tax cuts are extended for everyone. The latter is a major source of contention with the President, who wants to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, but not the wealthy.
Another wrinkle may be Senator David Vitter's (R-LA) comment today at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that he wants language in the next CR relieving NASA of a prohibition in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act against terminating the Constellation program or initiating a replacement. The current language is complicating NASA's ability to implement the 2010 NASA Authorization Act signed into law in October.
Senator Vitter wanted to know if the Administrationn has conveyed to congressional appropriators that getting the prohibition lifted is a high priority for the President. He added that he would view it as a test of the President's commitment to implementing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Insisting on adding such language could complicate passage of the new CR, however.
The hearing revealed that key Senators on both sides of the aisle remain skeptical about the Obama Administration's commitment to following the Act. Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson repeatedly assured the Senators that they are very happy with the law and intend to follow it as long as Congress provides them with a FY2011 budget that is close to the President's request of $19 billion. If Congress were to roll the agency back to its FY2008 funding level of $17.4 billion, however, it is not clear how NASA would cope. Some Republicans are calling for all federal agencies to be cut back to their FY2008 levels in order to reduce the deficit.
President Obama's deficit commission released its final report today. Entitled "The Moment of Truth," one change from the draft released several weeks ago is that it does not call for cancelling funding for NASA's commercial crew program. In fact, NASA is not specifically mentioned at all, though the commission does recommend significant cuts to discretionary spending of which NASA is a part.
Co-chaired by former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the 18-member bipartisan commission is tasked with making recommendations to bring the budget into "primary balance" by 2015 and to "meaningfully improve the long-run fiscal outlook." For discretionary spending, it offers "over $50 billion in immediate cuts to lead by example," and providea "$200 billion in illustrative 2015 savings."
"Every aspect of the discretionary budget must be scrutinized, no agency can be off limits, and no program that spends too much or achieves too little can be spared," it says. The commission also recommends creation of a "Cut-and-Invest" committee that each year would identify 2 percent of the discretionary budget that should be cut and where half of those savings should be reinvested. Expanding research and development in "energy and other critical areas" is cited as an example of potential investments.
The commission did not vote on the report today. Under its bylaws, at least 14 of the commissioners must vote in favor of the report for it to be forwarded to Congress for consideration. A vote is currently scheduled for Friday.
A reciprocal visit from Chinese space officials to NASA is not yet being planned according to an interview Aviation Week & Space Technology's Frank Mooring conducted with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on November 23. Bolden visited China last month.
Morring quotes Bolden as saying: "There is not a delegation coming next month as far as I know.... A reciprocal visit is something we continue to work with the interagency organizations ... trying to figure out the timing on that.... I wouldn't even say there is a reciprocal visit planned. I think everyone would like to see one, but everybody's still in conversations."
Ideas put forward for cooperation by Russian space agency head Anatoly Perminov in November similarly are "going nowhere fast," according to the magazine.
Regarding the $1.5 billion cost growth on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) recently revealed by an independent panel, Bolden is quoted by Aviation Week as saying that the panel's study was "only 'back of the envelope'" and the issue is now being studied more thoroughly by a new management team. The goal is to enable the agency to "present a creditable story to the science community as well as all of our stakeholders" next year. As reported earlier by SpacePolicyOnline.com, the NAC astrophysics subcommittee will get an update on JWST on December 22 and a town hall meeting is scheduled for January 10, 2011 at the AAS annual meeting in Seattle.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the focus of a December 22 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's astrophysics subcommittee. An independent review recently concluded that JWST will cost an additional $1.4 billion, raising its pricetag to $6.5 billion and slipping its launch date another year, to 2015.
The impact of that cost increase on other astrophysics programs is a matter of considerable concern to the space astrophysics community. In today's constrained federal budget environment, it is not likely that the agency will be given additional funds to make up the difference, meaning that other astrophysics programs probably will be delayed or not started.
The National Research Council (NRC) recently laid out plans for the next 10 years of ground- and space-based astrophysics research in the New Worlds New Horizons Decadal Survey. Whether those recommendations are affordable under these circumstances and, if not, what the road ahead portends will be a major topic of discussion not only at this subcommittee meeting, but at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle. A special "town hall" meeting on JWST is scheduled for the evening of January 10.
Events of Interest
- NASA Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, March 30, 2015, virtual, 1:00-4:00 pm ET
- Space Policy & History Forum, Featuring Teasel Muir-Harmony, March 30, 2015, National Air & Space Museum, 600 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC, 4:00-5:00 pm ET
- NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Planetary Science Subcommittee, March 30-31, 2015, NASA HQ, Washington, DC
- NAC Heliophysics Subcommittee, March 30-31, 2015, NASA HQ, Washington, DC
- NRC Space Studies Board's Space Science Week, March 31-April 2, 2015, National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC (some sessions are closed, incl all day April 2)
- FAA Commercial Space Transportation Adv Cmte (COMSTAC), April 1, 2015, NTSB Conferrnce Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm ET
- NRC SSB Space Science Week Public Lecture on "Our Place in the Universe," April 1, 2015, National Academy of Sciences Building, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC
- Planetary Society Press Conf on Humans Orbiting Mars, April 2, 2015, GWU Elliott School of Intl Affairs, Washington, DC, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm ET
- NAC Ad Hoc Task Force on STEM Education, April 3, 2015, NASA HQ, Washington, DC, 9:00 am - 3:00 pm ET
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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