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Senate Committee to Hold Hearing Next Week on Human Spaceflight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

A Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee will hold a hearing next week to get an update on NASA's human spaceflight program.

The hearing by the Science and Space subcommittee is scheduled for November 17 at 10:00 am in 253 Russell Senate Office Building. The witnesses are not yet listed on the committee's website. The title of the hearing is "NASA's Human Space Exploration: Direction, Strategy, and Progress."

A NASA astronaut is scheduled to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow (November 13 EST, November 14 local time at the launch site) along with two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on a Soyuz rocket. The launch was delayed by several weeks while Russia investigated the cause of an August 24 Soyuz launch failure that doomed a Progress cargo spacecraft headed to the iSS. Russia has conducted three launches of various versions of the Soyuz rocket since then to demonstrate its flight readiness.

The August launch failure and its consequences on ISS crew rotations drove home the point that with the space shuttle program terminated, Soyuz is the only way to get crews back and forth to ISS. Even if the space shuttle was still flying, the Soyuz is needed as a "lifeboat" for the ISS to bring crews home in an emergency. If the shuttle was still available, crews could remain on the ISS only while the shuttle was docked there, limiting missions to about two weeks. U.S. dependence on Russia for the ISS program likely will be discussed at the November 17 hearing.

The hearing comes immediately after a three-day NASA "community workshop" on human spaceflight in San Diego, CA where it plans to introduce the Global Exploration Roadmap developed through the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG). The agency says that it is "seeking industry and academic feedback to shape strategy, assist with investment priorities and refine international exploration scenarios for human exploration and operations through the 2020's." Although NASA says the workshop is part of an effort "to engage the broader space community," it apparently does not count reporters as part of that community. Reporters are asked not to attend the workshop, but to watch the webcast and submit questions by email.

No News is ... No News: Phobos-Grunt Remains Silent as NASA Prepares to Launch Curiosity

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The old saying that no news is good news certainly does not apply in the case of Russia's Phobos-Grunt Mars mission. Russian experts still have not been able to communicate with the spacecraft, stranded in Earth orbit since Tuesday. Meanwhile, NASA is preparing to launch its next Mars probe, Curiosity, on the day after Thanksgiving.

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, is as silent about the situation as the spacecraft itself. Though the Russian language version of its website continues to be updated regarding other Russian space missions, nothing has been posted about Phobos-Grunt. Tomorrow's scheduled launch of Soyuz TMA-22 to the International Space Station dominates the Roscosmos site. The link to the Phobos-Grunt mission clearly is to material posted prior to the launch. (A note on the English language version of the site has stated for some time that it will not be updated until November 30 for unexplained reasons.)

Russia's main news agency, Itar-Tass, carried a story yesterday, but it was a summnary of what other Russian media sources were reporting, not its own story.

Today, Ria Novosti reports that continued attempts to communicate with the spacecraft failed again overnight and this morning. That report cites an unnamed source as saying that November 21 is the cutoff date for efforts to resolve whatever problem has beset Phobos-Grunt and send it on its way to Mars. Emily Lakdawalla, blogging for The Planetary Society, which has an experiment on the spacecraft, explains that November 21 is when the launch window to Mars closes. Earth and Mars are correctly aligned to enable launches only every 26 months. Although Russian experts estimate that Phobos-Grunt will reenter Earth's atmosphere around December 3 if contact cannot be restored, there is less time available in order to send it on its journey.

Meanwhile, NASA is getting ready to launch its next Mars spacecraft on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving. Like Phobos-Grunt, the NASA spacecraft, named Curiosity or the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is a technically risky mission with rich scientific potential. Russia's history of Mars probes has been jinxed since it began in the 1960s, and although NASA has suffered several high profile failures (Mariner 8, Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander), it also has stunning successes, including the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The new spacecraft, Curiosity, will use a new, challenging landing method -- a "sky crane" -- that will undoubtedly have scientists and engineers on the edge of their seats next year when the spacecraft reaches its destination.

For the next week or so, however, attention will continue to focus on Russia's Mars mission, Phobos-Grunt, and whether miracles can still happen.

Next ISS Crew Ready for Launch on Sunday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Two Russians and an American are getting ready to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) Sunday night Eastern Standard Time (Monday morning at the launch site). At the same time, the current three ISS crew members will be coming home soon.

Anatoly Ivanishin, Anton Shkaplerov and Dan Burbank are scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft at 11:14 pm EST (11:14 am Monday at Baikonur). The three will join a Russian, an American and a Japanese who have been aboard the ISS for nearly six months. Both the spacecraft and the rocket used to launch it are named Soyuz.

The launch of Soyuz TMA-22 was delayed for several weeks while Russia investigated the cause of an August 24 launch failure of a Soyuz rocket that doomed the Progress M-12M (or Progress 44 in NASA's numbering system) cargo spacecraft intended to take supplies to the ISS. Consequently, the ISS has had only three crewmembers instead of six aboard for a longer than usual time.

Russia launched three Soyuz rockets in October demonstrating that the basic vehicle appears fit for duty. One of those sent another Progress cargo craft to the ISS. There are several versions of the Soyuz rocket, and the one that will be used for Soyuz TMA-22 tomorrow is somewhat different from those that flew in October, but Russian and American space program managers clearly are convinced that the rocket is flight ready. The August 24 launch failure was traced to a clogged fuel line.

Each Soyuz spacecraft can accommodate three people. ISS crews rotate three-at-a-time on roughly six month schedules that coincide with the on-orbit lifetime of the Soyuz spacecraft that take them back and forth and serve as "lifeboats" in case there is an emergency. A Soyuz spacecraft can remain in orbit for about 200-210 days, meaning that the three crew members who are already aboard ISS must return very soon as their Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft reaches that limit. Those three -- Mike Fossum, Satoshi Furakawa, and Sergei Volkov -- will return on November 21.

The new crew will dock with ISS on at 12:33 am EST on Wednesday, November 16, providing only a few days to hand over operations from one crew to another.

ISS will then be back to a three-person crew until normal operations are expected to resume with the launch of another three-person crew (one Russian, one American and one European) on December 21. The number of crew aboard the ISS directly affects how much time is available for conducting scientific experiments in the three international laboratories -- the U.S. Destiny module, Europe's Columbus module, and Japan's Kibo module -- that comprise part of the orbiting facility. Scientific research in the microgravity environment of space was one of the primary rationales for building the space station.

Tomorrow's launch begins a week of human spaceflight related events. On Monday-Wednesday, NASA is hosting a "community workshop" on long term plans for human spaceflight where it will introduce the results of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG). On Thursday, a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee will hold a hearing on NASA's human space exploration program.

UPDATE: Hopes Dim for Russian Mars Probe, Concerns Rise About Reentry

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: Russia's Ria Novosti reports today that attempts to contact Phobos-Grunt overnight were unsuccessful. It quotes an unnamed Russian space industry source as saying that December 3 is the most likely date for the spacecraft to reenter if efforts to revive it are unsuccessful.

Russian engineers have not given up on contacting the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Soil) spacecraft that remains stranded in Earth orbit, but hopes for a happy outcome are dimming. Meanwhile, concerns are growing about the hazard posed by the spacecraft's reentry because it is loaded with toxic fuel intended to take it to Mars.

The website of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, is eerily silent about the situation, focusing instead on the upcoming Sunday launch of a crew to the International Space Station. Itar-Tass, Russia's major wire service, also has no new stories about the spacecraft. As pointed out by Emily Lakdawalla on her blog at The Planetary Society (which has an experiment aboard Phobs-Grunt), all that is available are unofficial postings at various websites and tweets on Twitter that paint a grim picture. Anatoly Zak's site appears to be a good source of information, but also is unofficial.

According to Zak, a number of attempts have been made to contact the spacecraft, but all were unsuccessful. One problem is that the spacecraft's low gain antenna is blocked by an external tank of a propulsion unit and the high gain antenna remains folded. Further attempts reportedly are planned.

If worse comes to worse and contact cannot be restored, the spacecraft will make an uncontrolled reentry through Earth's atmosphere. Two recent uncontrolled reentries of defunct satellites -- NASA's UARS and Germany's ROSAT -- were uneventful, and since the Earth is 70 percent covered by water, the chances of space debris harming humans is relatively small. It is not zero, however, and a special concern exists with Phobos-Grunt.

The spacecraft is fully loaded with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel to take it to Mars and return a sample of Mars's moon Phobos. In 2008, the United States destroyed one of its own reconnaissance satellites, USA-193, that failed early in its mission and carried a full load of hydrazine fuel. The Department of Defense (DOD) argued that the frozen hydrazine posed a grave danger if debris landed in an inhabited area. DOD does not officially have an antisatellite (ASAT) program today, but was able to use a missile fired from an Aegis cruiser to hit the satellite and break it into smaller pieces that individually reentered within several days, minimizing the risk of damage to people or property. The "shootdown" occured about a year after China's first successful ASAT test against one of its own satellites that created 3,000 pieces of debris that still plague low Earth orbit (LEO) operations. Some say the U.S. decision to destroy USA-193 was as much about demonstrating that the United States was not without its own capabilities to destroy LEO satellites, and without creating long lasting debris, as it was about preventing potential damage from the hydrazine.

Whatever the case may have been with USA-193, the question now is whether Russia might decide to attempt to destroy Phobos-Grunt in a similar manner and whether it might ask for U.S. assistance. For the time being, however, Russia continues its efforts to contact the spacecraft and send it on its way to Mars.

NASA Briefing on Mars Curiosity Mission Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will hold a media briefing on Thursday, November 10, about the upcoming launch of its next Mars mission, Curiosity.

The briefing is at 1:00 pm EST and will be broadcast on NASA TV. Participants are:

-- Doug McCuistion, director, Mars Program, NASA Headquarters
-- Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
-- Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager, JPL

Curiosity's launch is scheduled for November 25 at 10:25 am EST. The launch window is open until December 18.

Women and Mars Conference Webcast Link

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

The Women and Mars conference sponsored by Explore Mars, Inc. today and tomorrow (Wednesday and Thursday) will be webcast at this link:

The keynote speaker this morning at 9:10 am EST is NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. Three panels follow on why so many women are involved in Mars exploration, how to advance STEM education for young women interested in Mars, and a largely industry panel on "Getting to Mars." The day's activities end with an afternoon keynote at 4:00 pm featuring Penny Boston, Director, Cave and Karst Studies Program at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute. Two more panels -- on policy and on Mars science -- are on the agenda for tomorrow morning.

For the complete program, visit the conference website.

Russia's Mars Jinx Still Prevails?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The news earlier today was promising, but at the moment, it looks as though Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission is in trouble.

The spacecraft launched successfully on schedule today at 3:16 pm EST. However, tweets from numerous sources indicate that the two planned engine firings needed to place the sample return mission on its course to Mars and its moon Phobos did not take place as planned. We are monitoring reports and will keep you up to date.

Russia Still Hoping for Phobos-Grunt Miracle

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Russia's Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) sample return mission remains stranded in Earth orbit while Russian experts wait for the spacecraft's orbit to pass over ground stations capable of sending and receiving all the necessary data to troubleshoot the upper stage problems.

The spacecraft lifted off on time aboard a Zenit 2 launch vehicle yesterday afternoon Eastern Standard Time (EST), but the specially designed Fregat upper stage failed to place it into its Mars transfer orbit. Two firings were planned. Both were out of range of Russian tracking stations. As time passed, it became apparent that the spacecraft was not where it was supposed to be.

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, finally issued a press release confirming that the firings did not take place. An early report from Russia's RIA Novosti quoting Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin said that only three days of battery power were available, limiting the amount of time engineers had to troubleshoot and potentially resolve the problems. The Roscosmos press release issued later, however, said that about two weeks are available. It also said that the first opportunity they will have to obtain telemetry from the spacecraft is 23:00 Moscow Time (14:00 EST, or 2:00 pm).

Anatoly Zak at cites another Russian website ( as saying that a new attempt to place the spacecraft into the Mars transfer orbit will take place on November 10 between 03:00 and 05:00 Moscow Time (today, November 9, 6:00 - 8:00 pm EST). That was not included in the Roscosmos press release or in a recent RIA Novosti report, however.

Russia has been jinxed with its Mars missions throughout the history of its space program. Scientists around the world were hoping that Phobos-Grunt would break the pattern. The mission's purpose is to return a sample of Mars's moon Phobos, and to deploy a Chinese Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1. It also is carrying an experiment from The Planetary Society.

UPDATE 3: Russia Launches Probe to Mars's Moon Phobos

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 3: Anatoly Zak at tweets that second stage shutdown was successful. tweets that it "should now be in orbit" with two more burns to put it on course for Mars.

UPDATE 2: Liftoff!

UPDATE: is providing live streaming webcast of the launch.

ORIGINAL STORY: Russia is set to launch its first robotic Mars probe in 15 years this afternoon.

The Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) mission is scheduled to lift off from the Baikomur Cosmodrome at 00:16 Moscow Time November 9 (3:16 pm EST today, November 8) according to Roscosmos's (the Russian space agency's) website.

The last Russian attempt to launch a probe to Mars was in 1996. The spacecraft, Mars-96, failed to leave Earth orbit due to a fourth stage failure, adding to the long list of Russian Mars probe failures since the 1960s. Russia has never had a completely successful Mars mission, although the Phobos 2 probe in 1989 returned imagery while orbiting Mars. It failed, however, in its primary mission to study Mars's moon, Phobos.

The spacecraft being launched today is designed to return a sample of Phobos to Earth. A Chinese Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1, will also be deployed. They will be launched on a Zenit rocket.

House Committee to Look at Future of Planetary Exploration

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing about the future of the planetary exploration program next week.

Witnesses are Jim Green, director of the planetary sciences division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and Steve Squyres, chair of the National Research Council's recent decadal survey on planetary science.

Budget constraints at NASA are heightening concerns about what the future holds for the U.S. planetary science program. With the launch of NASA's next Mars probe, Curiosity, just weeks away, what will come next is an open question. Grand plans of merging the U.S. and European robotic Mars exploration programs are endangered by NASA's inability to commit funds to planned missions in 2016 and 2018. U.S. plans for large "flagship" missions to destinations like Jupiter's moon Europa are in abeyance until the budget situation stabilizes. In recent meetings of NASA's planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), Green has been alerting planetary scientists to the need to explain the return on investment in planetary exploration. Squyres, best known as the father of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, was just named as the new chair of NAC.

Still, in response to a recent op-ed in the Washington Times lamenting the state of the planetary science program, Green said that the U.S. program is still the best in the world.

The hearing is at 10:00 am EST on November 15 in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.

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