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California Space Authority Ceases Operations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The California Space Authority ceased operations yesterday according to the Santa Maria Times. CSA was headquarted in Santa Maria, CA, which is near Vandenberg Air Force Base. According to its website, CSA's purpose was to "retain, grow and create California space enterprise."

Recently CSA was focussing on building a $220 million California Space Center for educational and tourism purposes. The most recent plan was to build it in nearby Lompoc, CA, and the mayor of Lompoc told the newspaper that he plans to continue that effort without the CSA.

Financial troubles apparently were the root cause of the decision to dissolve the CSA. Many staff had been laid off already, and the Executive Director, former congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, and Deputy Director Janice Dunn, had voluntarily cut their salaries in half, according to the Times.

Update on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

Although she was able to travel to Florida for husband Mark Kelly's space shuttle launch in May, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) is not yet ready to return to the grueling job of representing Arizona's 8th district according to her chief of staff.

Pia Carusone gave an interview to the Arizona Republic in which she frankly discussed the Congresswoman's recovery from a gunshot wound to the head during an assassination attempt on January 8. Carusone pointed out that the best way for doctors to know the extent of the physical damage to her brain is by using an MRI, but that option is not available to Rep. Giffords because metal bullet fragments remain in her brain.

Rep. Giffords can communicate, but not always with words. "She is borrowing upon other ways of communicating. Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express," Carusone is quoted as saying.

As for Giffords's future, Carusone said that the only legal timetable for making a decision about whether she will run for her congressional seat again is May 12, 2012 when petitions for re-election are due. "We're about halfway through the process that is the most important for recovery," Carusone said, the first 12-14 months after a brain injury. Doctors remain optimistic that Giffords will make a "tremendously good recovery," but exactly what her condition will be is unknown. "All that we can hope for is that she won't plateau today and that she'll keep going...," Carusone told the newspaper.

Chinese Probe Departs Lunar Orbit for "Outer Space"; No Plans for Human Trips to Moon For Now

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Chinese news sources reported yesterday that China's Chang'e 2 probe has left lunar orbit and is headed for "outer space about 1.5 million km from the earth." One of the reports added that China has "no plan or timetable for a manned moon landing for now."

Chang'e 2 arrived at the Moon last fall and has been mapping the lunar surface. China's official Xinhua news agency reported that the probe completed its main tasks by April 1 and then conducted two additional lunar tasks: taking photos of the Moon's north and south poles, and descending to within 15 kilometers (km) of the surface to obtain high resolution images of the Bay of Rainbows "the proposed landing ground for future lunar missions." China is planning to send a robotic lander/rover to the Moon as well as a sample return mission. The most recent dates mentioned for those missions are 2013 and 2017, respectively.

Once those tasks were successfully completed, Chinese scientists decided that Chang'e 2 could be used for "additional exploratory tasks." Xinhua said the probe is headed to a distance of 1.5 million kilometers and China Daily added that the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point is the destination. The China Daily report quoted a Chinese scientist as saying it is a point in space where several U.S. and European satellites are located, but most of those satellites are at the L1 Lagrange point. Europe does have two spacecraft (Herschel and Planck) at L2, and NASA's much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope will be placed there.

Chang'e is the name of a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the Moon.

China's plans for sending astronauts -- or "taikonauts" -- to the Moon remain unclear. Many statements have been made in Chinese news sources over the years by various Chinese officials or academics that they are or are not planning human lunar missions. This Xinhua story says they have no such plans for now, but as with all such statements in the press, it is difficult to discern government policy. One way to gauge their plans is to look at what they actually are doing and there is no evidence that they are in any rush to send people beyond low Earth orbit. China's slow but steady human spaceflight program appears focused on steadily increasing experience in low Earth orbit and creating a small space station there.

Voyager Data Suggest New Paradigm of Solar System's Edge

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

Thirty three years ago, when the twin Voyager spacecraft departed Earth and headed out into the solar system, it would have been difficult to imagine they would still be sending data back to Earth today, much less continuing to revolutionize scientific thinking.

Designed to explore the outer planets, the spacecraft have long since left them in the dust and transformed themselves into the vanguard of discovery in the field of heliophysics - the study of our Sun and its influence on Earth and the rest of the solar system.

As shown in illustrations available on NASA's website, the Sun spews out particles that soar through the solar system - the solar wind. The Sun has a magnetic field, like Earth, and its magnetic lines form the solar wind into an elongated shape, the edge of which is called the heliopause - the end of the Sun's influence. The region just inside that boundary is the heliosheath. That's where the Voyagers are now.

What is it like, out there in the heliosheath? Until now, scientists thought it was a calm environment with all the magnetic lines connecting back to the Sun. Particles from outside the solar system - Galactic Cosmic Rays - would enter the solar system and follow the magnetic lines to the Sun, passing by Earth on the way. The Earth's magnetic field largely deflects these cosmic rays, protecting both those of us on the surface and astronauts orbiting Earth from their deleterious radiation. Astronauts only need to worry about cosmic radiation when they leave Earth orbit and go to the Moon or elsewhere. Engineers do not know yet how to protect humans from cosmic rays. This has been one of the stumbling blocks in plans to return to the Moon for extended periods or travel further to asteroids or Mars.

Data from Voyager 1 and 2 paint a different picture of how cosmic rays enter the solar system, however. This new knowledge may or may not impact how human spacecraft are eventually designed, but scientists at a NASA media teleconference today were clearly excited about the new paradigm the data suggest. While couching the findings as a "possible" explanation of the data the spacecraft are reporting, Boston University's Merav Opher said she was "pretty confident" of her team's analysis.

The two spacecraft are racing out of the solar system in different directions. Voyager 1 first flew past Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 also passed by Neptune and Uranus. The two spacecraft are now 60 degrees apart in latitude, with Voyager 1 in the solar system's northern hemisphere and Voyager 2 in the southern hemisphere . The University of Maryland's James Drake said that it was the difference in the readings sent back by the two spacecraft that forced them to reexamine the theory that the heliosheath was homogenous and quiet. Instead, Voyager 2, in particular, sent data showing that it was entering and leaving areas of relative quiet and relative turbulence in terms of how many energetic particles it was encountering.

Describing the region as roiling around "like the most bubbly part of your Jacuzzi," Opher, Drake and renowned heliophysicist Gene Parker explained that it now seems that the edge of the solar system is a "sea of magnetic bubbles" that are unconnected to the Sun. Rather than calm, it is turbulent. Cosmic rays entering the solar system get trapped in the bubbles until they eventually find a magnetic line that is connected to the Sun, allowing them to continue their journey inward.

Parker, who developed the theory of the solar wind in 1958, emphasized that the finding would not make any difference with regard to human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. To him, the most important point is that the data call into question what the density of cosmic rays is beyond the heliopause. It could be much greater than theorized since fewer of the cosmic rays may be able to break through the heliopause, which in a sense is the solar system's line of defense. The turbulence of magnetic bubbles may throw some of them back into interstellar space.

The "warranty" on the Voyager spacecraft "has long since expired," joked NASA's program scientist Arik Posner, but he sees no reason they should not continue sending back data for at least five more years. The spacecraft use nuclear radioisotope thermal generators (RTGs) to provide power for spacecraft systems and instruments. The power level today is akin to a small light bulb, and NASA's 70-meter Deep Space Network antennas are needed to receive the signals. Voyager 1 is 17.5 million kilometers from Earth, and Voyager 2 is 14.2 million kilometers away. It takes 32 hours and 26 hours for signals from Voyager 1 and 2 respectively to reach Earth.

NASA has another spacecraft, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), in Earth orbit that is studying the particles that get this far. Voyager 1 and 2 are the only spacecraft returning data directly from that region of space.

UPDATE: Aquarius/SAC-D Launched

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

UPDATE: Aquarius/SAC-D was successfully launched this morning (Friday, June 10, 2011).

ORIGINAL STORY: Launch of the Aquarius/SAC-D earth science mission has been postponed from tomorrow to Friday.

NASA said that the postponement was due to the need "to complete additional review of an inconsistency found in the Delta II launch vehicle flight profile" for flying through upper level wind conditions expected tomorrow. Waiting until Friday gives the launch a "100 percent of favorable weather conditions for the launch."

NASA's earth science program has suffered through two losses recently. The OCO satellite in 2009 and the GLORY satellite earlier this year ended up in the Pacific Ocean instead of orbit because of launch vehicle failures. The Taurus XL was the problem in those two launches. Aquarius/SAC-D will launch on the tried and true Delta II rocket, the workhorse of the space program with an enviable track record.

Aquarius is a NASA instrument on Argentina's SAC-D spacecraft. It will study ocean surface salinity. Canada, France and Italy also are contributing instruments to the mission.

Nifty Images of the Space Shuttle Docked to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have released a series of images of the space shuttle docked to the International Space Station (ISS) taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli as he departed on a Soyuz spacecraft on May 23. They are available on the NASA website, while ESA posted them via Flickr.

NASA IG: MSL May Not Be Ready by November, Power Supply Problems Will Reduce Mission Capabilities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Inspector General (IG), Paul Martin, issued a report today raising concerns about whether the already delayed Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will be ready for its currently scheduled launch this fall. The two year delay from 2009, its original launch date, increased development costs by 86 percent and lifecycle costs by 56 percent, the report says. If there is another two-year slip, it will cost "at least" $570 million more. Furthermore, unexpected degradation of its nuclear power source has led NASA to reduce mission performance capabilities, the IG report reveals.

The report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) is the result of an IG audit of the MSL program following the decision to delay the 2009 launch to 2011 because of technical problems with the spacecraft. The mission is to land a rover, named "Curiosity," on Mars. It is now scheduled for launch in November 2011. Because of planetary alignment constraints, if it is not ready to launch then, it will have to wait two years for another opportunity.

The OIG gave NASA credit for resolving the "majority" of technical issues that led to the launch delay, but warned that "three significant technical issues remain unresolved." The report also reveals that the nuclear device that will provide electrical power for spacecraft systems and instruments -- the "Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator" (MMRTG) -- is experiencing unexpected degradation.

The three outstanding technical issues from 2009 are contamination of rock and soil samples collected by the Sample Acquisition/Sample Processing and Handling subsystem, and development of flight software and fault protection systems.

As for the MMRTG, the reports states that there have been "unexpected temporary reductions in the system's power output" during tests to simulate conditions the spacecraft will experience when it arrives at Mars. The MMRTG was provided to NASA by the Department of Energy, which told the NASA OIG that the degradation would not cause a "catastrophic failure." The OIG report goes on to say that "However, as a cautionary measure, MSL Project managers have reduced the mission's performance capabilities to processing 28 rather than 74 soil and rock samples and to traversing 4.5 kilometers rather than 20 kilometers."

The report notes that since the decision to delay the 2009 launch, the project has received three budget increases, "most recently an infusion of $71 million in December 2010." The OIG audit concludes, however, that more money may yet be needed to meet the November 2011 launch date, but worse, if the mission slips again, to 2013, the increased cost would be at least $570 million.

The IG recommends that NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) reassess whether the project has enough money to meet the current launch date and the project manager should allocate additional resources to fix the outstanding technical issues. It then comments that SMD "concurred with our recommendations" and is closely monitoring the project and is confident that sufficient funds are available from within SMD resources. The IG thus considers the matter "resolved."

Soyuz TMA-02M Up and Away!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Soyuz TMA-02M launched on schedule at 4:15 pm EDT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it was 2:15 am June 8. Aboard are three crew members headed to the International Space Station (ISS). Docking is scheduled for Thursday.

The international crew comprises Russian Sergey Volkov, American Michael Fossum, and Japanese Satoshi Furukawa. They will join three others already aboard ISS: Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev and American Ron Garan. Those three have been aboard since April 6.

New ISS Crew Members Set to Launch Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) are getting ready to launch this afternoon at 4:15 pm EDT (June 8, 2:15 am local time in Kazakhstan).

The international crew comprises Russian Sergey Volkov, American Michael Fossum, and Japanese Satoshi Furukawa. They will dock with the ISS on Thursday and join three others already aboard ISS: Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev and American Ron Garan.

Magnetic Bubbles At the Edge of the Solar System: News Conference on Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Jun-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will hold a media teleconference on Thursday to discuss a new finding from the venerable Voyager spacecraft that continue to return data from the outer reaches of our solar system.

According to NASA, a new computer model shows "the edge of our solar system is not smooth, but filled with a turbulent sea of magnetic bubbles."

The teleconference is at 1:00 pm EDT on Thursday, June 9, and features five scientists including Voyager project scientist and former JPL director Ed Stone. Listen at

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977 to return data about the outer planets as they flew past. Both sent data about Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager 2 also flew past Uranus and Neptune. Both spacecraft then headed out of the solar system on different paths. Since 1998, Voyager 1 has been the most distant emissary from planet Earth, passing an earlier probe, Pioneer 10.

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