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Weather permitting -- and there's a really good chance it will not be -- the first Operationally Responsive Space satellite, ORS-1, will be launched at sunset today. The launch from Wallops Island, Virginia should be visible along portions of the Mid-Atlantic East Coast.
Launch of the Minotaur 1 rocket with the ORS-1 satellite is scheduled for 8:28 pm EDT. The Air Force satellite will launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) at the southern portion of the DELMARVA (Delware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula. A NASA map showing areas where the launch should be visible is available on WFF's website. The website states that as of yesterday evening there was a 70 percent chance that weather will prevent the launch. Launch opportunities extend through July 10.
ORS-1 is a small reconnaissance satellite that is part of an effort to build and launch comparatively simple satellites more quickly than traditional satellites in response to urgent needs of field commanders. The goal for ORS-1 was to launch within 24 months of getting approval to build it. It fell short of that time frame. It is the first operational satellite of its type; two precursors (TacSat-2 and TacSat-3) were previously launched.
The controversial proposal by LightSquared to operate a satellite-terrestrial wireless mobile broadband communications system that might interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers encountered rough sledding in Congress on two fronts last week.
Two subcommittees of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (HT&I) committee held a hearing on June 23 where LightSquared opponents offered dramatic testimony about what would happen to GPS users if the terrestrial segment of the system is allowed to operate. The next day, the House Appropriations Committee acted to prevent the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from allowing the company to proceed until the GPS interference issues are resolved.
The FCC granted a provisional license to LightSquared on January 26. It required the company to work with the GPS community to determine the extent of interference and report back by June 15. The FCC granted the company's recent request for a two-week extension; the report is now due on Friday, July 1. The license prohibits the company from commercial operations of its terrestrial network until the interference issues are settled.
At the hearing, aviation interests in particular lambasted the FCC for granting a provisional license at all. RTCA, Inc., which functions as a federal advisory committee to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), did a study that determined that LightSquared's plans to use three spectrum deployment phases would be "incompatible with the current aviation use of GPS," although use of a single lower channel could be acceptable.
The government's National Space-Based PNT Systems Engineering Forum (NPEF) issued a separate report in mid-June recommending that the FCC rescind the license.
At the hearing, a LightSquared Vice President, Jeffrey Carlisle, defended his company's plan. He assured lawmakers that the company "has no intention of conducting its operations in a way that interferes with government or commercial aviation or maritime operations in the United States..." The system involves the use of a geostationary satellite - SkyTerra, launched last fall - and 40,000 terrestrial cellular base stations. Users can use the satellite, the base stations, or both, depending on their needs. SkyTerra Communications, Inc. was purchased by Harbinger Capital Partners, a hedge fund and major investor in Lightsquared, earlier in 2010. LightSquared's supporters praise the company's promise as a mobile wireless broadband provider.
The House Appropriations Committee, however, was not persuaded. The day after the hearing, it adopted an amendment to the FY2012 Financial Services Appropriations bill that would prohibit the FCC from spending funds to remove the conditions it placed on the license or to otherwise permit LightSquared to proceed until the FCC has resolved the GPS interference issues. The Financial Services appropriations bill includes the FCC. The amendment was offered by Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) and Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and adopted by voice vote.
At a Secure World Foundation meeting on June 16, Peter Marquez, who oversaw development of President Obama's National Space Policy when he was on the staff of the National Security Council, and Andrew Palowitch from the Air Force/National Reconnaissance Office Space Protection Office, expressed exasperation at the FCC for granting the license as well. Marquez, who now works for Orbital Sciences Corp. and is a member of the NPEF's parent advisory committee, said the issue is consuming an inordinate amount of time at the White House and elsewhere in the Obama Administration. The National Space Policy reaffirms the U.S. Government's commitment to GPS services and interference mitigation for GPS and similar systems.
NASA has officially set the launch date for the final space shuttle mission for July 8. The post-FRR press conference is scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm EDT. Watch on NASA TV.
NASA will hold a press conference today after the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the STS-135 (Atlantis) mission concludes. NASA currently says that it will occur no earlier than 3:30 pm EDT. Check back here for updates.
UPDATE 2: Administrator Bolden's talk to the National Press Club on Friday was added. We also had added information about a Thursday meeting on space acquisition, but registration is full.; NO MORE RSVP'S PLEASE.
The following events may be of interest today and in the coming week. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The House is in recess this week; the Senate is in session.
Sunday, June 26
Monday, June 27
Tuesday, June 28
Thursday, June 30
- THIS EVENT IS FULL; NO MORE RSVP'S PLEASE. CS3/Space Foundation meeting on Space Acquisition: Cost Control Through Competition or Economies of Scale, Capitol Visitor Center, room SVC 210-12, 12:00 - 3:00 pm EDT. THIS EVENT IS FULL; NO MORE RSVP'S PLEASE.
Friday, July 1
Once again, congressional appropriators have turned down the Administration's request for funding within the Department of Energy (DOE) bill to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) needed for NASA's space probes.
In a report filed on Friday (H. Rept. 112-118 to accompany H. R. 2354), the House Appropriations Committee said that it remained concerned that the Administration wants DOE to pay for half the costs when it is NASA that benefits from the Pu-238.
"The Committee remains concerned that the Administration continues to request equal funding from NASA and the Department of Energy for a project that primarily benefits NASA. The Committee provides no funds for this project, and encourages the Administration to devise a plan for this project that more closely aligns the costs paid by federal agencies with the benefits they receive."
This is the third time congressional appropriators have said no to providing DOE funds. in the FY2010 budget request, the Administration wanted DOE to fund all of the costs because historically DOE has built all of NASA's radioisotope power supplies (RPS's). DOE is the only U.S. entity permitted by law to make or store nuclear materials. NASA uses RPS's to provide warmth and electricity for spacecraft that travel too far from the Sun to use solar energy or spend long periods in darkness on lunar or planetary surfaces.
The United States ceased production of Pu-238 years ago and NASA has been using Pu-238 purchased from Russia. Those supplies also are running dry, hence the need to restart production domestically. The National Research Council issued a report in 2009 calling the situation urgent.
In FY2010, Congress said no to DOE paying the full costs ($30 million). In the FY2011 budget request, the Administration proposed that NASA and DOE split the costs. Congress turned that down, too. The Administration requested the same thing for FY2012 and it does not look as though they have yet persuaded appropriators that DOE should pay half.
The Secure World Foundation and Canada's Project Ploughshares released the latest edition of their Space Security Index this week. The report assesses trends in eight indicators of space security. The 2011 report is the eighth in the series.
The first trend pointed out in the report is that the amount of debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) continued to increase during the past year (2010). Debris from China's 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test against one of its own satellites has surpassed 3,000 objects according to the report. Some of the increase can be attributed to discovery of additional debris from the test itself, but some is also caused by debris impacting other debris and creating more of it. Even though there is more awareness of the problem, "space debris continues to pose an increasing threat to operational satellites and the long-term sustainability of space activities," says the report.
The report also notes that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is adding to its capabilities to track and catalog such objects in Earth orbit through space situational awareness (SSA) activities such as plans to build a new Space Fence of ground-based radars. Information in the report is current through the end of 2010. More recently, the House Appropriations Committee recommended significant cuts to the proposed Space Fence and other DOD SSA plans in the defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219).
During a panel discussion at the Canadian Embassy on Wednesday where the report was formally released, Andrew D'Uva, President of Providence Access Company, provided an update on the Space Data Association (SDA). One of the issues facing satellite operators is to know not only where satellites are, but where they are going. Operators often deliberately move their satellites from one orbital location to another, and occasionally lose control of a satellite entirely and it drifts through space affected by forces such as the solar wind.
For the first many decades of the Space Age, there were few satellites compared to the vastness of space in Earth orbit. Satellite owners did not worry about bumping into other satellites. But with the growth in operational and defunct satellites, not to mention space debris, collision avoidance based on luck alone no longer can be taken for granted. The 2009 collision of a commercial Iridium satellite with a defunct Russian satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) drove home that point.
The U.S. Air Force provides a public catalog of thousands of space objects (http://www.space-track.org/), but it does not include classified satellites and the data it does make public are not always precise. Created by three of the major satellite operators - Intelsat, Inmarsat, and SES - SDA uses data provided by its members to more accurately track their satellites and coordinate actions. Likening the movement of satellites in orbit to traffic on a highway, D'Uva said that "SDA is putting turn signals on satellites." He said enlightened self-interest motivated creation of SDA, not criticism that DOD does a poor job with its publicly available database. However, he noted that in a recent episode where Intelsat operators lost control of a satellite (Galaxy 15) and it drifted across a wide expanse of geostationary orbit (GEO), the data about the satellite's location in the publicly available DOD database were incorrect 15 percent of the time. "We can't rely on the TLEs," he said, referring to the DOD database of "two line element" sets. SDA provides collision avoidance monitoring for 222 commercial satellites from 15 satellite operators in GEO, plus 112 satellites from seven operators in LEO. He estimated that is about 60 percent of commercial GEO satellites and a smaller percentage of commercial LEO satellites.
The Space Security Index tracks trends in eight indicators of space security grouped into three categories: the condition of the space environment (such as space debris); the type of actors in space and how space is used; and the status of space-related technology as it pertains to protecting or interfering with space systems, or harming Earth from space. In previous editions, a ninth indicator was included - space-based strike weapons (SBSW). The authors of the report concluded this year, however, that there is "an absence of reliably documented SBSW" and they would reinstate it if and when there is "clear evidence...that such weapons are being developed or deployed."
The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have written to NASA warning that they will issue a subpoena for NASA documents if the agency does not supply them by 6:00 pm on Monday, June 27.
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) sent the letter on Wednesday. Referring to a previous letter they sent on May 18, the bipartisan committee leadership complained that NASA "has repeatedly refused to provide documents the Senate Commerce Committee needs to conduct appropriate oversight of your agency." Saying that NASA had provided only a "partial response" to the May 18 letter, the Senators went on to say that "you have thwarted our oversight activities by witholding key documents" including "at least 19 separate drafts of a report it is required to submit to Congress under Section 309" of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
The letter highlights the continuing tension between the White House and Congress over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program that has been the subject of numerous hearings since last year. Section 309 of the Act requires NASA to submit a report on how it will fulfill the Act's requirements to build a new Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to enable human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The report was required to be submitted by January 2011, but only an interim report was provided.
Congress is growing increasingly impatient with Administration delays in submitting the final report. NASA announced in May that the Orion capsule started under President George W. Bush's Constellation program would be used for the MPCV, and reportedly is close to announcing its plans for the SLS. The most recent rumor is that the announcement will be made before the final space shuttle launch currently scheduled for July 8.
SpacePolicyOnline.com correspondent Laura Delgado will be interviewed on David Livingston's The Space Show this Sunday, June 26. Listen at 3:00-4:30 pm EDT (12:00-1:30 pm Pacific time) as they discuss the wisdom of continuing to try to sell space exploration to the public by using the analogy of westward expansion in the United States -- the frontier metaphor. The show is streamed live at http://www.thespaceshow.com and listeners may call in or email questions.
Ms. Delgado recently wrote about her views on the relevance of the frontier metaphor to the 21st Century space program for our website and for Space News. She believes the paradigms of the past may not make sense today. Join in the debate on Sunday!
Events of Interest
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