Latest News

UARS Reentry Expected Next Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) will reenter on September 24 plus or minus one day according to the agency.

NASA announced last week that UARS is on its way back to Earth and pieces are expected to survive reentry. It posts updates on its website with current information as the orbit decays. The exact moment when it reenters is dependent on factors such as solar activity so is very difficult to predict with certainty until close to the event. When it reenters determines where the pieces land and hence that also cannot be known with certainty until close to the end. The Earth is 70 percent covered with water, reducing but not eliminating the chances of the debris harming anyone or anything on the planet.

The NASA UARS website will be updated more frequently as reentry nears. NASA is using the hashtag #UARS on its Twitter feed to provide updates as well.

Russia OK's Soyuz and Proton Rockets for Return to Flight

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Russia is quickly recovering from the double rocket failures experienced in August.

Itar-Tass reports today that the Proton rocket will return to service on September 22. Its payload is identified only as a "defence satellite." On August 18, a Proton rocket with a Briz upper stage malfunctioned stranding the Express-AM4 communications satellite in the wrong orbit. An investigating commission determined that it was caused by human error in programming the upper stage.

A few days later, on August 24, the third stage of a Soyuz U rocket failed dooming the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft it was carrying. The spacecraft was taking cargo to the International Space Station. A different, but similar, version of the Soyuz rocket is now scheduled to launch a navigation satellite on October 1. That launch originally had been scheduled for late August, but was postponed pending the review of the August 24 failure.

The Russians determined that a clogged fuel line was responsible for the Progress M-12M failure and that it was "accidental." The next launch to ISS is now scheduled for October 30. It will be another Progress spacecraft. The first flight of a Soyuz (yet another variant) with a crew is scheduled for November 12.

UPDATE 3: Senate Approps Committee Marks Up NASA, NOAA FY2012 Approps Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE 3: The full committee approved the bill (along with three others they had under consideration today). As far as we can tell no amendments were adopted. Details have not yet been released.

UPDATE 2: Additional details of the subcommittee action were added in update 1. This update adds Info from a Mikulski press release and the audio of the markup. FULL COMMITTEE MARKUP IS AT 2:00 TODAY (THURSDAY).

The Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee marked up its version of the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA and NOAA today. The full committee will mark it up tomorrow at 2:00.

A summary of the subcommittee's action is posted on the committee's website.

The Senate subcommittee recommended $17.9 billion for NASA, $509 million less than what the agency received in FY2011, but $1.1 billion more than what the House Appropriations Committee recommended ($16.8 billion). The committee's statement says that it provides enough funds to launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) chairs the subcommittee. A press release from her offices clarifies that the amount included in the subcommittee's recommendation for JWST in FY2012 is $530 million out of a total of $5.1 billion for the NASA's science programs. NASA's request for JWST was $374 million and for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) was $5 billion. The House Appropriations Committee recommended terminating the JWST program and provided no funds for FY2012. It recommended $4.5 billion for SMD overall.

For NOAA, the Senate subcommittee recommended $5 billion, $434 million more than FY2011, including $920 million for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). That is similar to what the House Appropriations Committee approved for JPSS ($901 million), and still less than the request of $1.07 billion.

The audio of the subcommittee markup is available on the committee's website. Senator Mikulski states during the markup that they have included "stringent bill language limiting the development costs" of JWST.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), ranking member of the subcommittee, did not specify in her remarks the dollar amounts in the bill for the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle other than saying they are at the authorized levels in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. She added that the bill also funds the "commercial vehicle that will be the interim" capability to get to the International Space Station.

The bill will be marked up at full committee level on Thursday, September 15, at 2:00 pm EDT.

Soyuz Rocket Launches From Kourou Affected by Progress Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Flights of Russia's Soyuz rocket from France's launch site in Kourou, French Guinea are being affected, but not delayed, by the failure of a similar rocket launching the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft last month.

Russia's news agency, Itar-Tass, reports that two Soyuz rockets that are being readied for launch at Kourou will have their third stages replaced. The action will not delay the launches, however, according to the report. They are scheduled for October 20 and in December of this year.

Russia and Europe reached agreement to launch the Soyuz rocket from Kourou in 2004. The idea is for Soyuz to fill the niche of a medium-class launcher in Europe's suite of launch vehicles, joining the large Ariane 5 and small Vega launchers. Because the launch site is to close to equator (7 degrees north latitude) compared with Russia's southernmost launch facility at Baikonur (50.7 degrees north), the rocket can take much more payload to orbit. The payload capability from Kourou is 3 metric tons compared to 1.7 metric tons from Baikonur. Initially, Soyuz flights from Baikonur were expected as early as 2006, but there has been none as yet.

A Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonur that was intended to place a Progress cargo spacecraft on a trajectory to replenish the International Space Station failed on August 24. An investigating commission determined a clogged fuel line was the cause. Flights of the Soyuz with Progress spacecraft are expected to resume from Baikonur next month, and a simlliar rocket carrying three ISS crewmembers in November.

SLS Decision Being Announced Right Now

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

About an hour ago NASA sent out an announcement that the decision on the Space Launch System (SLS) would be revealed at 10:00 this morning. A press briefing has just begun at the Senate. Watch at NASA TV.

Here is the text of NASA's press release:

David S. Weaver
Headquarters, Washington Sept. 14, 2011

Michael Braukus/J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington

RELEASE: 11-301

New Heavy-lift Rocket Will Take Humans Far Beyond Earth

WASHINGTON -- NASA has selected the design of a new Space Launch System that will take the agency's astronauts farther into space than ever before, create high-quality jobs here at home, and provide the cornerstone for America's future human space exploration efforts.

This new heavy-lift rocket-in combination with a crew capsule already under development, increased support for the commercialization of astronaut travel to low Earth orbit, an extension of activities on the International Space Station until at least 2020, and a fresh focus on new technologies-is key to implementing the plan laid out by President Obama and Congress in the bipartisan 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which the president signed last year. The booster will be America's most powerful since the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon and will launch humans to places no one has gone before.

"This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars."

This launch vehicle decision is the culmination of a months-long, comprehensive review of potential designs to ensure the nation gets a rocket that is not only powerful but also evolvable so it can be adapted to different missions as opportunities arise and new technologies are developed.

"Having settled on a new and powerful heavy-lift launch architecture, NASA can now move ahead with building that rocket and the next-generation vehicles and technologies needed for an ambitious program of crewed missions in deep space," said John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology. "I'm excited about NASA's new path forward and about its promise for continuing American leadership in human space exploration."

The SLS will carry human crews beyond low Earth orbit in a capsule named the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel system, where RS-25D/E engines will provide the core propulsion and the J2X engine is planned for use in the upper stage. There will be a competition to develop the boosters based on performance requirements.

The decision to go with the same fuel system for the core and the upper stage was based on a NASA analysis demonstrating that use of common components can reduce costs and increase flexibility. The heavy-lift rocket's early flights will be capable of lifting 70-100 metric tons before evolving to a lift capacity of 130 metric tons.

The early developmental flights may take advantage of existing solid boosters and other existing hardware. These flights will enable NASA to reduce developmental risk, drive innovation within the agency and private industry, and accomplish early exploration objectives.

"NASA has been making steady progress toward realizing the president's goal of deep space exploration, while doing so in a more affordable way," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. "We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year."

NASA elected to initiate a competition for the booster stage based on performance parameters rather than on the type of propellant because of the need for flexibility. The specific acquisition strategy for procuring the core stage, booster stage, and upper stage is being developed and will be announced at a later time.

Senate Appropriators to Markup NASA, NOAA Approps This Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

The Senate Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2012 appropriations bill that includes NASA and NOAA this week.

Subcommittee markup was announced yesterday. It will be held tomorrow at 2:30 pm in 192 Dirksen Senate Office Building. The committee has more recently announced that full committee markup will be held the next day, Thursday, September 15, at 2:00 pm in 216 Hart Senate Office Building. It is one of three appropriations bills on the committee's agenda for that afternoon.

New NASA Crew Transportation System to Cost $18 Billion Through 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) headlined a hastily arranged press event in the Senate this morning announcing the long awaited decision on the design of the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other Members of Congress were also there and NASA will hold a more detailed media teleconference at noon today with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier. The Senate Appropriations Committee is marking up the bil that includes NASA beginning this afternoon, making the SLS announcement particularly timely.

At the Senate event, Senator Nelson stated that the cost of the SLS will be $10 billion through 2017. The main purpose of the SLS is to launch astronauts to destinations beyond low Earth orbit in a spacecraft called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Nelson said the MPCV cost through 2017 would be $6 billion, and the cost of associated ground facilities is $2 billion in that time frame, a total of $18 billion. That is essentially $3 billion per year for the next five years.

The press conference did not gloss over the fact that the White House and Congress have been at loggerheads over the program. Congress directed NASA to build the SLS and MPCV in the 2010 NASA authorization act as a compromise with the Obama Administration, but Hutchison and Nelson have accused the Obama Administration of deliberately undermining the law.

Hutchison referenced that in her remarks this morning. She said that the Wall Street Journal article last week asserting that the White House was in a state of "sticker shock" over the cost of the program was the tipping point, and that she, Nelson and others met with Administration officials including the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Jacob Lew, yesterday to iron things out.

Hutchison is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that authorizes NASA activities and is also the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that appropriates NASA's funding, so is an especially powerful influence on NASA in the Senate.

She and other congressional speakers this morning focused on the future and how delighted they are that everyone is now working together. Retaining the skilled aerospace workforce that might otherwise be decimated with the termination of the space shuttle program and ensuring U.S. preeminence in space exploration were recurring themes at the press conference.

Two House members, both Democrats, spoke at the Senate event: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee, and Rep. Chaka Fattah, ranking member of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA.

Their Republican counterparts, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of HSS&T, and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, chose instead to issue their own press release (which also included Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the HSS&T subcommittee that oversees NASA). They expressed satisfaction that the decision finally had been made, but used the opportunity to sharply criticize the Obama Administration. While Hutchison remarked on the unplesantness of watching sausage being made, her focus was on the fact that everyone was now in agreement. The three House Republicans instead complained stridently about the Administration's "obstructionism," which they assert has cost "thousands of American jobs." The HSS&T committee will hold a hearing on the future of the human spaceflight program on September 22.

NASA Media Teleconference on SLS at Noon Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The basics of the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) were just announced on Capitol Hill, but NASA will hold a media teleconference at noon with more details. It will be streamed at

FCC and NTIA Want More LightSquared Tests, Congressional Hearings Continue

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

As the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) prepares to hold a hearing this week on "Sustaining GPS for National Security," the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) are both calling for more testing to assess the extent to which LightSquared's planned mobile broadband communications system will interfere with GPS receivers.

It is the third hearing on the LightSquared issue in the past three months. The House Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) Committee held a hearing last week and the House Transportation and Infrastructure (HT&I) Committee held one in June.

The HASC hearing, scheduled for Thursday at 11:30 am, is the first to hear from the FCC and NTIA. The FCC regulates use of the airwaves for the private sector, while NTIA (part of the Department of Commerce) does the same for government users. It is FCC's January 2011 decision to grant LightSquared a provisional license to operate its hybrid satellite-terrestrial network that is creating the controversy. Detractors argue that LightSquared's system will harmfully interfere with GPS receivers throughout the government and consumer sectors.

At the HSS&T hearing last week, LightSquared's Jeffrey Carlisle argued that his company had worked with the FCC, NTIA and the GPS industry over many years to resolve potential interference problems. The spectrum assigned to LightSquared by the FCC is adjacent to spectrum used for GPS receivers. LightSquared asserts that the recent controversy stems from new issues raised by the GPS industry just one year ago after the company had spent billions of dollars on the system. LightSquared launched its SkyTerra satellite last year and is preparing to build 40,000 terrestrial cellular towers. The system will provide mobile broadband services using terrestrial signals, satellite signals, or a combination of the two.

The June hearing by the HT&I committee portrayed LightSquard in a largely negative light. Members appeared to be clearly in the corner of the GPS industry and civil government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in wanting to prevent LightSquared from receiving final permission from the FCC to initiate the terrestrial component of the system. The HSS&T hearing was focused on civil government GPS users for scientific purposes such as weather satellites at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and responding to natural hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The tone was somewhat different, and committee Democrats issued a press release afterwards calling for finding a way for LightSquared and GPS to coexist.

The FCC's provisional license in January required LightSquared to set up a technical working group with the GPS industry to test the amount of interference that would result if its system became operational. The tests showed significant interference the top 10 megahertz (MHz) of the 20 MHz of spectrum assigned for the system, but less in the bottom 10 MHz. LightSquared subsequently offered to initially deploy its system only in the bottom 10 MHz of the band. The company submitted a new proposal to the FCC last week which Mr. Carlisle appended to his testimony to HSS&T. In response, Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT), told HSS&T that the revised proposal requires further study.

The FCC and NTIA agree and also are calling for additional testing. Representatives of both agencies are scheduled to testify at the HASC hearing on Thursday. Also testifying will be the commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, DOD's chief information officer (who testified at the HT&I hearing), and Mr. Russo (who testified at the HSS&T hearing).

Russia to Resume Crew and Cargo Missions to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Sep-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, has announced a schedule for resuming cargo and crew flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

According to the Russian press service RIA Novosti, the next Progress cargo spacecraft will launch on October 30, followed by a Soyuz crew mission on November 12, then another Soyuz crew mission on December 20, and another Progress on January 26, 2012.

The Russians determined that the Progress M-12M failure was "accidental" and caused by a clogged fuel line. The investigating commission recommended additional control procedures.

If the announced launch dates are met, the ISS would not have to operate temporarily in an unoccupied mode. Three of the six ISS crew will return to Earth tomorrow (CDT, Thursday, EDT and at the landing site in Kazakhstan). The other three are scheduled to return on November 16. A Soyuz crew launch on November 12 would mean docking on November 14 and two days to hand over operations from one crew to the next. The date for the November 16 landing is determined by the lifetime of the Soyuz spacecraft that will take them home. It is already docked to the ISS and has an on-orbit lifetime of about 200 days, so the crew must return at that time. NASA and Roscosmos had considered the possibility of destaffing the ISS if the Soyuz rocket, which lofts both the Progress cargo spacecraft and the Soyuz crew spacecraft, could not be recertified quickly.

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