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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 RussianSpaceWeb.com 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.

RussianSpaceWeb.com 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 RussianSpaceWeb.com 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 

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).

UPDATE: There They Go -- Soyuz TMA-02M Undocks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:20 PM)

The Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft has successfully undocked from the International Space Station.

Landing will take place at 9:25 pm EST, or 8:25 am tomorrow (November 22) local time at the landing site near Arkalyk, Kazakhstan.  That is 33 minutes before sunrise there and NASA TV says the temperature will be in the single digits Fahrenheit.  Brrrrrr.

Supercommittee Throws in the Towel

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:19 PM)

The congressional "supercommittee" tasked with reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years made it official this afternoon - they failed.

In a joint statement, the co-chairs of the supercommittee said:  "After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee's deadline."  Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) are the co-chairs.

The deadline set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 is November 23, but the supercommittee was supposed to make its recommendations available to the public -- and their fellow members of Congress -- two days in advance, which is today.

What happens next is murky.  Under the Act, the supercommittee's failure triggers automatic spending cuts totalling $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013.  Half are supposed to come from "defense" discretionary funding and the other half from non-defense discretionary funding and Medicare reforms.  The Medicare reforms are limited to 2 percent.  Social Security and Medicaid are exempt.   The definition of "defense" -- whether that means the Department of Defense (DOD) or a broader category of spending that might include the Department of Homeland Security, for example -- is open to debate.

It is not only the amount of the cuts, but the fact that they would be applied across-the-board without factoring in the merits of particular programs or activities that is troublesome.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been warningsince he took office this summer about the cataclysmic impact of across-the-board cuts of that size and nature on the military.

Panetta's allies in Congress agree.   Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is planning to introduce legislation to undo the cuts -- officially called "sequestration."    In a statement, he asserted:  "I will be introducing legislation in the coming days to prevent cuts that will do catastrophic damage to our men and women in uniform and our national security. Our military has already contributed nearly half a trillion to deficit reduction. Those who have given us so much, have nothing more to give. Secretary Panetta has said he doesn't want to be the Secretary who hollows out defense. Likewise, I will not be the armed services chairman who presides over crippling our military. I will not let these sequestration cuts stand."

While many are focused on the half of the cuts that would come from "defense" -- whatever it means -- the cuts to the rest of government spending could be equally catastrophic.   Of the $1.2 trillion in savings, $216 billion would be saved by not having to pay interest on that much debt.  According to a Congressional Research Service report, the bottom line is that the annual amount that must be cut from discretionary spending is $109.3 billion, of which half -- $54.7 billion -- would come from non-defense discretionary spending like NASA and NOAA.

What that level of cuts would mean to NASA's human spaceflight, science and aeronautics programs, and NOAA's satellite programs is worrying.   Prioritization within the Administration and Congress will be key, and space advocates undoubtedly hope that programs that promote high-tech jobs and U.S. preeminence in science and technology will be at the top of the list, but in today's climate, determining who wins and who loses is an unenviable task.

ISS Crew Waiting for Undocking and Return Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:17 PM)

The hatches closed between the International Space Station (ISS) and Soyuz TMA-02M at 2:41 pm EST today, and three ISS crew members now are awaiting undocking at 6:00 pm EST and landing in Kazakhstan at 9:25 pm EST tonight.

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa have been aboard the ISS since June 9.  They have spent the last several days handing over operations to the Soyuz TMA-22 crew that docked with the ISS early Wednesday morning EST.  Those three crew members -- Dan Burbank, Anatoly Ivinishin, and Anton Shkaplerov -- will be joined by three more astronauts just before Christmas, once again returning the ISS crew to full strength. Ordinarily, six crew are aboard the ISS at one time, but the crew rotation schedule was disrupted by a Russian launch failure in August.

NASA TV is providing live coverage of the undocking and landing.

Is it the End for the Supercommittee?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:14 PM)

They still have three days left -- and rabbits have been pulled out of hats in less time than that -- but members of the congressional supercommittee sounded pessimistic today.

A number of news roundups of the Sunday talk shows paint a discouraging picture of the supercommittee's deliberations as the November 23 deadline looms.   The 12 Members of Congress -- six Democrats and six Republicans, six from the House and six from the Senate -- are tasked by the Budget Control Act of 2011 to find a way to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.   The sides split on party lines on the question of using tax increases as part of the formula to whittle down the deficit -- the Democrats want them, the Republicans insist no.

The blame game was underway today on the talk shows, which either means that it's all over but the shouting, or this is a last ditch negotiating tactic.  The answer will be known soon.

If they do not reach agreement, or if they do but the rest of Congress and the President do not agree, an automatic cut of $1.2 trillion in spending will be triggered unless Congress changes the law -- with the President's agreement.   President Obama has indicated that he does not want to change the law, but advocates of defense spending are making it known that they will not stand by and watch it be cut by up to $600 billion, especially since the cuts are taken across-the-board without regard to the merit of particular programs or activities.   "Defense" is supposed to shoulder half the cuts, but there is debate as to whether that means just the Department of Defense, or other agencies involved in national security, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

NASA Delays Mars Probe Launch By One Day

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:11 PM)
NASA has delayed the launch of its next Mars probe by one day, to Saturday, November 26.


The delay is needed to replace a flight termination system battery according to NASA's website.  The probe, called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or "Curiosity," now will be launched at 10:02 EST on November 26.   The launch window that day is open for 1 hour and 43 minutes.  Overall, the launch window to Mars is open until December 18.

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