Latest News

Totally Awesome Lunar Images

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

NASA released images today of several of the Apollo lunar landing sites taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). They are totally awesome! Check 'em out.

GRAIL Set to Go, But Weather a Problem

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

NASA's next robotic lunar exploration mission, GRAIL, is ready for launch on Thursday, but weather may delay the launch.

The twin GRAIL spacecraft will orbit the Moon, making a detailed map of the lunar gravity field that in turn will tell scientists about the composition of the Moon's interior. A science briefing on the mission will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, September 7 at 10:00 am EDT at Kennedy Space Center, FL. It will be aired on NASA TV.

The Delta II launch is scheduled for September 8 at 8:37 am EDT, with a second opportunity at 9:16 am EDT. At the moment, the forecast is only 40 percent favorable for a launch that day due to thunderstorms nearby. They can try again on Friday and Saturday before needing to take a break for crew rest time. Launch opportunities extend through October 19.

This is the last scheduled launch of a Delta II from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Braun Returning to Georgia Tech

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

NASA's Chief Technologist, Robert (Bobby) Braun, is returning to Georgia Tech next month.

In a September 1 letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Braun noted that his tenure at NASA on an Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreement was coming to an end and he would return to Georgia Tech in October because while he found it "professionally fulfilling, my service has been exceedingly difficult for me and my family."

Braun praised the people inside and external to NASA that helped him form the Office of Chief Technologist, and expressed optimism about the future despite the tumultuos times. Saying that he believes the changes at NASA have just begun, he added that "While such change is difficult, I believe that the more desperately an organization tries to hold on to today, the more likely it is that this same organization will not have a tomorrow. Please remember that the future starts today."

Still No Progress M-12M Debris Found, Was Insured

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

Russia has had to again suspend its so-far fruitless hunt for debris from the failed launch of Progress M-12M because of bad weather. On the good news front, however, Itar-Tass reports that the mission was insured.

The robotic Progress spacecraft was lost 325 seconds after launch due to a third stage malfunction. One theory is that the spacecraft and the third stage disingegrated in the atmosphere, which is why fragments have not been found. Nevertheless, a search is being conducted in the Altai region of Siberia amid rugged and remote terrain. Russia's news agency Itar-Tass said today that Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, flew over the area in a helicopter for a total of seven hours on Saturday and Sunday, but the search could not resume this morning because of bad weather. Itar-Tass also revealed that the spacecraft was insured for "three billion roubles (US$103 mlliion)."

Russian engineers determined last week that a gas generator on the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket failed, causing the mishap. Although the loss of the cargo that was aboard poses little problem for the International Space Station (ISS) crew, the failure is impacting ISS operations. The Soyuz U is very similar to the Soyuz FG rocket used to launch crews. Consequently, a launch of the next three ISS crew members, scheduled for this month, has been indefinitely postponed. NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, said last week that there is a possibility that the ISS may have to be destaffed in November if the Soyuz rocket has not been fixed and recertified for launching people.

Progress is a robotic version of the Soyuz spacecraft that is used for crews. The first series of these spacecraft, then simply called Progress, was first launched beginning in 1976 to the Soviet Salyut 6 space station. A new version, Progress M, was introduced for the Soviet Mir space station in 1986, and was later revamaped again and called Progress M1. The first Progress M1 to launch to the ISS was Progress M1-3 in 2000. The spacecraft was recently upgraded again and now carries a Progress M-(number of mission)M nomenclature. The first of this series was launched in 2008. This was the 12th launch of the current version, hence the designation Progress M-12M. NASA refers to it as Progress 44 because it is the 44th Progress spacecraft to resupply the ISS.

This was the first launch failure in the long history of the Progress program, although there was a renowned docking failure between a Progress and the Mir space station in June 1997. In that case, crew error caused the Progress to impact one of the space station's modules, Spektr. Spektr depressurized, creating an emergency situation. The crew (Russian cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliev and Alexandr Lazutkin and NASA astronaut Michael Foale) was able to close off the Spektr module and continue operations. Mir operated for four more years until it was intentionally deorbited in 2001, although Spektr was uninhabitable for the rest of that time.

UPDATE 2: Events of Interest: Week of September 5-9, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATES: Two NASA media events on Friday were added, but one has now been cancelled, so hence another update.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more information, see our calendar on the right menu or click the links below. The House and Senate both return from their August break this week (President Obama is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, September 8, at 7:00 pm EDT). Times and dates for congressional activities are always subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information.

Tuesday, September 6

Thursday, September 8

Thursday-Friday, September 8-9

Friday, September 9

NRC Praises NASA Tech Roadmaps, but Says More Commercial Focus Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The National Research Council's (NRC's) interim report reviewing the 14 technology roadmaps created by NASA's Office of Chief Technologist (OCT) is generally supportive. The NRC study committee reviewing the roadmaps suggested substantial changes to only one of the 14 roadmaps. However, it also found that more focus on the needs of the commercial sector is warranted.

NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun developed the roadmaps for technology developments ranging from launch and in-space propulsion to entry, descent and landing systems. He then asked the NRC's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board to review them. The NRC issued an interim report last week.

The NRC agreed with most of NASA's "technology area breakdown structures" (TABS) for each of the 14 areas. The exception was the area of Robotics, TeleRobotics and Autonomous Systems. The NRC found that a complete rewrite of that TABS is needed. The NRC also found that the roadmaps need to be updated in light of two recent NRC Decadal Surveys released since the roadmaps were developed. Those Decadal Surveys are on life and microgravity sciences in space and planetary science.

In light of the Obama Administration's focus on commercial space activities, perhaps the most interesting observation in the report is that "the content of the draft roadmaps could be improved by giving more consideration to the needs of the commercial sector." Specifically, the NRC committee said that NASA's contribution to encouraging and facilitating a commercial space sector, as mandated in the 2010 National Space Policy, would be "enhanced" by a program that identifies how the commercial sector would benefit from advanced technologies, appropriately develops pre-competitive technology for the commercial space sector, and transfers advanced technologies to U.S. industry.

The NRC's final report is expected in early 2012.

UPDATE 2: Blue Origin Suffers Setback

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

UPDATE 2: Andy Pasztor at the WSJ has published an updated story of interest.

UPDATE: Now that the word is out, Blue Origin has updated its scant website with the following information: "Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet. A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job. We're already working on our next development vehicle."


The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Blue Origin suffered a "major failure" during a recent test flight.

Blue Origin is backed by Jeff Bezos, founder of It won awards from NASA in both rounds of the agency's CCDev competitions. The Blue Origin website provides little information about the company or what it is doing, but NASA's CCDev announcement said it had awarded the company "up to $3.7 million for risk-mitigation activities related to its pusher Launch Escape System" and "to produce a composite crew module pressure vessel for structural testing." NASA notes that Blue Origin is developing a vertical take off and landing craft, New Shepard, "inspired" the DC-X concept of the 1990s.

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.

Events of Interest


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