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UPDATE 2: Events of Interest: Week of September 26-October 1, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATES: NASA's press conferences about asteroids and, separately, about Mercury, both on Thursday, have been added.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. For more details, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.

During the Week

Congress has once again put itself in the position of "brinksmanship" where the House and Senate are at odds and keeping the government running hangs in the balance. As many of you will recall from this spring when Congress dealt with a succession of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) because the 12 regular appropriations bills had not passed, in April they finally passed a CR that funded the government for the remainder of FY2011. FY2011 ends on Friday (September 30). Although Republicans criticized Democrats (who then controlled the House) last year for not passing any of the bills, they now are in the same position. None of the appropriations bills that would fund the government for FY2012 has passed. Thus, another CR is needed or a government shutdown will occur on October 1. On top of that, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) disaster relief account is expected to run out of money on Tuesday to deal with all the natural catastrophes that have hit the United States this year, so Congress must appropriate more money into that account or federally-funded disaster relief efforts will end.

Details on how Congress got itself into this situation are explained in a previous article. Basically, the Senate passed a bill to provide $6.9 billion to FEMA. The House passed a bill to give FEMA only about half that much ($3.5 billion) and required "offsets" -- cuts to balance the expenditures -- which historically is not required for disaster relief funds. It wrapped that action into the CR to keep the government operating. The Senate objected and tabled the House bill both because of the offsets and the fact that the House provided only half the FEMA funds.

Both the House and Senate were scheduled to be in recess this week as some members observe Rosh Hashanah, but now both are scheduled to be in session on Monday at least. What other matters might be considered as negotiations over the CR proceed has not been announced.

Tuesday-Thursday, September 27-29

Thursday, September 29

Thursday-Saturday, September 29-October 1

Friday-Sunday, September 30-October 2

Sea Launch Back in Business

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Sea Launch AG successfully launched Eutelsat's Atlantic Bird 7 yesterday, the first launch for the company since it emerged from bankruptcy last year.

Sea Launch AG uses the Zenit 3SL launch vehicle, the first two stage of which are Ukrainian. The third stage is Russian. Zenit-3SL is launched from a converted mobile oil rig that moves from its home port in Long Beach, CA to the equatorial regions of the Pacific Ocean for launch.

The original company, Sea Launch, was owned 40 percent by Boeing, with Russia, Ukraine and Norway (which converted the oil rig) owning the remainder. It filed for bankruptcy in 2009. It completed its Chapter 11 reorganization process in October 2010, emerging as a Russian corporation, Energia Overseas Ltd. with headquarters in Switzerland. Energia Logistics Inc., a U.S. corporation, manages rocket assembly and satellite integration operations at the existing home port in Long Beach, according to a company press release.

UPDATE 3: UARS Risk to Public Safety "Remote": NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 3: At about 1:55 am NASA tweeted: "We're still waiting for #UARS Done! confirmation. If debris fell on land (and that's still a BIG if), Canada is most likely area." Presumably that means they are confirming it has reentered, but don't know where (not sure what the "we're still waiting" phrase means).

UPDATE 2: 1:00 AM EDT Sept 24 -- The status of UARS is unclear. NASA did not update its website between 10:30 pm and 12:55 am, and the 12:55 am update still reported orbital elements as of 10:30 pm. NASA tweeted about 12:40 am saying that it was possible that UARS has reentered, but they were awaiting confirmation from Strategic Command and that notation was finally added to the website at 12:55 am. Lots of rumors on Twitter, but no "news." We will report here when an official announcement has been made.

UPDATE: 11:00 PM EDT Sept. 23 -- NASA's latest update predicts UARS will reenter between 11:45 pm tonight and 12:45 am Saturday morning EDT. The satellite will be passing over Canada, Africa, and vast ocean regions, it says, and the risk to public safety is "very remote." Get updates on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline

NASA's 7:00 pm EDT update says that the risk to public safety from the reentry of its Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is "remote."

The agency predicts that it will reenter between 11:00 pm tonight and 3:00 am Saturday morning EDT. The satellite will be passing over Canada, Africa and Australia during that time period, as well as "vast areas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans." The Earth is 70 percent covered by water.

UARS Resting Place Unknown, But No One Got Hurt

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA does not know -- and may never know -- exactly where debris from the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) landed.

That was the message from NASA's orbital debris expert, Nicholas Johnson, during a media teleconference this afternoon.

NASA has posted a map of the ground track for UARS's final orbit. The vast majority of its final journey was over the ocean. NASA and Department of Defense specialists at the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) estimate that the satellite reentered at 04:16 GMT (12:16 am EDT), although that is not known for certain. If that is correct, UARS would have been in the part of the ground track off the west coast of North America going up and over parts of Canada. Johnson said that if the satellite had survived that part of the trip, observers in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canada would have seen it, and there were no sightings. The nominal reentry point is shown on the map as a circle with a dot in the middle over the Pacific Ocean.

Essentially, if there was no one to see it, and it was out of range of the sensors that were tracking it, there is no way to know where the pieces fell. Johnson said that NASA is open to hearing from people -- perhaps passengers on airlines flying over the Pacific at that time -- who may have seen something, but otherwise, it will remain a mystery.

Johnson stressed that satellite or orbital debris reentries occur every day, and there are significantly sized pieces that come down each week. Something the size of UARS comes down about once a year. Unless there is some reason to do so, analysts do not bother to go back and try to determine the exact reentry times or places. In fact, he said, the usual procedure is for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to look for the object on three passes and if it is not located, they assume that it reentered.

NASA has not received any reports of injuries or debris being found. Johnson said that NASA routinely is contacted by individuals who believe they have found a piece of space debris and NASA checks out every one. Few actually are reentered space objects, he added, but if someone believes they have found a piece of UARS debris, they are welcome to contact the space agency (though NASA warns that the object should not be touched since it may be sharp). When asked if NASA wants the pieces returned, Johnson said that under existing agreements the pieces must be returned to NASA if requested, but NASA must pay the transportation costs and often does not request their return.

Twelve countries work together through the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordinating Committee (IADC) to track and monitor reentries of space objects. Ten of the 12 participated in tracking the UARS reentry, Johnson said. Each has its own method of calculating expected reentry times, and over a decade of working together, they have found that one way is not clearly bettter than the others. All of the participants calculated about the same reentry time of 04:16 GMT, giving more credence to that as the most likely time.

An audiocast of the media briefing is available for one week by calling toll free in the United States: 866-516-0666.

UARS Down, but Location Unknown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) reentered overnight Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, but NASA is not yet certain precisely when or where.

At 3:47 am, NASA posted the following statement on its UARS website:

"NASA's decommissioned Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite fell back to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23 and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California said the satellite penetrated the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. The precise re-entry time and location are not yet known with certainty."

Editor's Note: The Twitter-sphere was active with many people following the blow-by-blow action, or lack thereof, as events unfolded through the wee hours EDT. Congrats to those who stayed up till the 3:47 announcement; this reporter called it a "day" at 2:30 am. NASA has done a poor job of keeping the public informed IMHO.

JPSS Problems Far From Over

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 24-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

A year and a half after the Obama Administration's disbandment of the tri-agency NPOESS weather satellite program into separate civil and military systems, the problems of future U.S. polar orbiting weather satellites are far from over. A political majority in the House that is skeptical of climate change and likely funding constraints have been added to the mix of issues that remain as NOAA (with NASA as its acquisition agent) and DOD go their own ways.

At yesterday's joint hearing of the Oversight and Investigations (O&I) and Energy and Environment (E&E) Subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the few members in attendance seemed to agree on one thing: NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program must succeed. O&I Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) called for full funding of the program after saying that "every American is impacted by this program, whether they know it or not."

E&E Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) and O&I Ranking Member Brad Miller (D-NC) agreed that "this is a project that needs to succeed." The two disagreed, however, on the most critical issues facing JPSS. Although JPSS and its DOD cousin, the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), may be on surer footing than when the agencies were jointly trying to build NPOESS, funding shortfalls and a lack of defined baseline programs continue to be problems. (The Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted to kill the DWSS program and directed DOD to start all over again in defining its requirements.)

Miller identified the most critical issue for JPSS as the likely gap in coverage during the 2016-2017 time frame brought on by the "remarkably shortsighted" decision of congressional appropriators to not fully fund the program in FY2011. The "appropriations shortfall has ensured that a gap will happen," he said. NOAA officials have warned Congress repeatedly that because it has only approximately half of the funding it needed in FY2011, there is a high probability of a gap in coverage when its existing satellites stop working before the first JPSS is launched.

Chairman Harris, however, was more concerned about the rising cost of the program in light of current budgetary constraints: "The most critical issue facing our nation today is out-of-control spending by the federal government." He likened the JPSS satellites to new cars and asked Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Deputy Administrator of NOAA, whether leaving out the "bells and whistles" -- in his analogy, the long range climate sensors - would bring the program back to cost and schedule. When Dr. Sullivan responded that the climate sensors had indeed already been removed in a previous reworking of JPSS, Harris said enthusiastically: "Good for you!"

Chairman Harris later questioned Dr. Sullivan about contingency plans in the event of a coverage gap and chastised her for the "glaring omission" in her testimony of not describing NOAA's efforts to discuss options for obtaining weather data from private sector companies. Dr. Sullivan responded that NOAA has released several requests for information (RFI) to private companies on this issue, and has ongoing efforts to obtain data from other countries as part of its contingency efforts.

Measures to secure continuity of coverage in the event of a gap must be seriously explored, warned O&I Chairman Broun. He said he "very firmly" believes with "high certainty" that Congress will fund the government through Continuing Resolutions instead of regular appropriations bills for the remainder of the Congress. This, he said, would be a "huge" problem for the already schedule- and budget-constrained program.

A hearing summary will be available soon. A webcast of the hearing and press releases from the Republicans and Democrats on the committee are available on their respective sites.

FAA's Space Office Held to Current Funding Level by Senate Committee

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation did not fare much better in the Senate Appropriations Committee than it did in the House committee earlier this month.

The House Appropriations Committee cut the office's FY2012 request of $26.6 million in half, providing only $13 million in its version of the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) bill. In its markup of the bill last week (S. 1596, S. Rept. 112-83), the Senate Appropriations Committee provided $15 million, the same level the office received for FY2011.

George Nield, director of the office, defended the substantial increase requested for FY2012 at a May hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology committee, which authorizes its activities.

Such steep increases in these budget constrained times, no matter what they are for, attract special notice in Congress. As evidenced in this case, they are difficult to justify successfully.

UPDATE: House Passes New CR, But Senate Kills It

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The Senate has tabled (killed) the House-passed resolution. Next steps are unclear.

ORIGINAL STORY: The House passed a new version of a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating after October 1 late on Thursday, but it added another "offset" to the bill, which is likely to antagonize Senate Democrats.

The first version failed in the House when almost all Democrats and 48 Republicans voted against it. The Republican defections were viewed as an affront to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Democrats opposed it because it provides about half the emergency funds ($3.5 billion) for disaster relief than the Senate already has approved ($6.9 billion), and because Republicans included a spending cut ($1.5 billion) to offset some of those costs. Traditionally, disaster relief funds are emergency spending that do not require immediate offsets.

Some House Republicans voted against it because the emergency funds were not completely offset -- they wanted deeper spending cuts.

The House Republican leadership decided to try and get more Republican votes -- they have the majority in the House -- rather than trying to compromise with the Democrats. Hence, the new bill includes an additional offset of $100 million taken from a loan guarantee program to pay for a solar energy project that has gone bankrupt and become controversial (Solyndra). It worked. Enough Republicans changed their votes from nay to aye that it passed 219-203 on largely party lines according to Politico.

Democrats in the Senate had been able to win sufficient Republican support for their version of an emergency spending bill with no offset because of the large number of states with Republican Senators who have suffered from the year's repeated natural disasters. Time will tell if they continue to support the higher level of emergency spending with no offset in light of the action by their House counterparts.

The House and Senate had planned to wrap up business today and head home for a week-long recess as some members observe Rosh Hashanah. Whether they will remain in session this weekend or return next week to work out their differences remains to be seen, but FY2012 begins a week from Saturday (October 1). None of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government has been enacted, so the government will close down if a CR does not clear Congress by then.

UARS Decay Rate Slows; U.S. May Be at Risk After All

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA has pushed back by a few hours the time when its Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is expected to reenter, which changes the locations where the debris may fall.

Yesterday, NASA forecast that the satellite would reenter this afternoon or early evening. Its track would not take it over North America at that time so the United States was not at risk.

Since then, the satellite changed its orientation or configuration, slowing the decay rate slightly and pushing reentry later into the evening or early Saturday according to NASA's latest update, posted as of 10:30 am EDT today. NASA now reports that it cannot rule out the possibility that debris might land in the United States:

"Solar activity is no longer the major factor in the satellite's rate of descent. The satellite's orientation or configuration apparently has changed, and that is now slowing its descent. There is a low probability any debris that survives re-entry will land in the United States, but the possibility cannot be discounted because of this changing rate of descent. It is still too early to predict the time and location of re-entry with any certainty, but predictions will become more refined in the next 12 to 18 hours."

The chances of any debris causing "a" human casulaty anywhere on Earth is one in 3,200 according to NASA, but calculations by The Weather Channel clarify that the chances that any particular individual -- you --will be hit is more like one in 20 million. The Earth is 70 percent covered by water, so there is a good chance it will not hit land at all.

HSS&T Committee Hears Testimony About Human Spaceflight Future

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee heard from Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, and GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber today about the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) emphasized that "America needs leadership with a compelling vision, and the strength of commitment" or young engineers will look elsewhere for their careers.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking Democrat on the committee, stressed that the space program is not only about building space hardware, but "about inspiring people" and "providing a peaceful and positive demonstration to nations around the world of American technological preeminence."

Video of the hearing and the prepared statements of the witnesses are available on the committee's website.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »

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