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NASA Comet Missions Pulling Double Duty; EPOXI Encounter on Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft will have a second chance at fame this Thursday, November 4. Rechristened EPOXI, it will give scientists a close-up view of the nucleus of comet Hartley 2. The closest approach will occur at 9:50 am EDT (13:50 UT, 6:50 am PDT). It is the first of two comet encounters by NASA spacecraft in the next three months, both by spacecraft pulling extra duty after completing their original missions.

As Deep Impact, the spacecraft now known as EPOXI successfully encountered - literally - comet Tempel 1 in 2005. One part of the spacecraft separated from the flyby spacecraft and impacted the comet - or to be precise, it was placed in front of the comet so the comet would run into it. Instruments on the flyby spacecraft studied the material ejected into space, imaged the comet's surface and relayed images transmitted by the impactor. The flyby spacecraft remained in good condition after the encounter and was given new life as EPOXI.

EPOXI is only one of NASA's comet explorers. On September 10, 2010, NASA celebrated 25 years of comet research with a symposium at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Scientists talked about EPOXI and two other NASA interplanetary missions that received multiple assignments associated with comet research: ISEE-3 and Stardust.

The sheer number of comets in our solar system may come as a bit of a surprise. Dr. Anita Cochran of the McDonald Observatory revealed not only that there are 1014 (10,000,000,000,000) comets today, but that in the last several years NASA's STEREO and Europe's SOHO spacecraft have observed about 1,000 of them making a final death plunge into the Sun. With that many meeting their doom in a short span of time, one can imagine how many existed when the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Dr. Cochran estimates that only about 10 percent of comets remain today.

Dr. James Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division, entertained the gathering with stories of the "bad rap" comets once had as "harbingers of gloom and doom." Today they are the subject of intense scientific interest because they hold clues to what happened early in the formation of the solar system. "Yes, they are leftovers," said Dr. Cochran, "but they are fundamental leftovers" that can answer the question of "where did we come from."

Halley's Comet holds special fascination with a cycle that brings it close to Earth every 76 years, appearing the year that legendary author Mark Twain was born and again the year that he died. In 1986, the last time it was in our neighborhood, Europe, Russia, and Japan sent probes to study it. Europe's Giotto mission sent back fascinating images of its nucleus as it made the closest approach of all the spacecraft. (ESA's Rosetta mission is currently on its way to a long-term rendezvous with another comet and will emplace a lander on its surface.)

NASA could not afford a Halley's Comet mission. However, Dr. Robert Farquhar, an orbital dynamics wizard, calculated a way to redirect a NASA spacecraft already in space - the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) - to intercept a different comet, Giacobini-Zinner. Dr. Farquhar humorously recounted for the audience the challenges he faced in convincing NASA to reposition ISEE-3, which was part of a three-spacecraft ensemble studying solar-terrestrial physics. Ultimately he succeeded and ISEE-3, renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), flew past comet Giacobini-Zinner on September 11, 1985, months prior to the Halley's Comet encounters by the other spacecraft. Thus, NASA went into the record books for sending the first spacecraft to a comet.

That was just the first NASA interplanetary spacecraft to get double duty. Deep Impact/EPOXI was the second, and it was a merger of two ideas on how to continue using the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft. As outlined by Dr. Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, EPOXI is the merger of his idea to send it to a second comet - the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI) proposal, and NASA's Drake Deming's proposal to use it to search for extrasolar planets - the Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh) concept. The two ideas and their acronyms were combined into the cleverly designated EPOXI. The extrasolar planet detection phase of EPOXI's mission has been completed.

A third opportunity to reuse a spacecraft already in space came with Stardust, which in January 2006 brought back to Earth a sample of material from the tail of comet Wild 2. The sample canister was recovered on Earth, while the mother spacecraft remained in space and given a new job. Now named Stardust-NExT, it will revisit Tempel 1 - the comet that collided with Deep Impact - to allow scientists to try and locate the crater caused by the collision and study other geological features. Cornell University's Dr. Joseph Veverka explained that Tempel 1 is a planetary geologist's dream, with "tremendous geological diversity on its surface." Deep Impact saw only about one-third of the comet's surface, and "we want to have a better look at the layered terrains," he said. Stardust-NExT will reach Tempel 1 on Valentine's Day (February 14) 2011.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the EPOXI closest approach to Hartley 2 on Thursday morning. Information on how to view events live are available on NASA's website.

NASA Analyzes Voltage Irregularities on Discovery

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA space shuttle engineers are analyzing voltage irregularities encountered with the Discovery orbiter during launch preparations. The launch is currently scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday, at 3:52 pm EDT. Mission managers will meet at 5:00 pm EDT today to discuss the issue.

According to NASA's space shuttle website:

"During space shuttle main engine checkouts, the backup controller for engine 3 did not turn on as expected. There appeared to be an issue with one of three power phases, which was narrowed down to either a cockpit circuit breaker or switch that provides power. The circuit breaker and switch were turned off and on, restoring power.

"Engineers continue to analyze data that showed voltage irregularities and will meet this afternoon to review their data. The Mission Management Team now will convene at 5 p.m. EDT to assess the issue."

NASA Administrator Bolden's Statement on ISS 10th Anniversary

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement today commemorating 10 years of permanent occupancy of the International Space Station. He said, in part: "As we enter the station's second decade, our path forward will take us deeper into space and expand humanity's potential farther. The lessons we learn on the station will carry us to Mars and beyond. I want to give a heartfelt thank you to the six crew members on orbit and all the teams over the years that have helped us get to this milestone day."

Learn about Aerospace Medicine Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt, Assistant Professor in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at George Washington University (GWU), will deliver a lecture on "Introduction to Aerospace Medicine" on Wednesday, November 3, 2010, in room 117 Ross Hall on the GWU campus. The lecture is sponsored by the George Washington Space Society and more information is available at its website.

Discovery Launch Waiting for Clearance on Voltage Issues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

In a press conference late this afternoon, NASA shuttle mission managers said that a final decision on when to launch space shuttle Discovery will not be made until engineers have thoroughly investigated the reasons for voltage irregularities that developed during launch preparations. Two instances of a backup main engine controller malfunctioning were observed today. NASA thinks it understands the problem, but wants to take an extra day to make sure. Launch has been delayed until at least Thursday, though the weather forecast is not favorable that day.

STS-133 Pre-Launch Mission Management Team chair Mike Moses said that if the controller failed at main engine start, the shuttle would have lifted off OK, but NASA nevertheless wants to make certain that it understands what happened. For example, he wants to know that both malfunctions were caused by a corroded circuit breaker as they currently believe.

The launch window ends on November 7 (because of sun angles at the International Space Station) and reopens on December 1.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of November 1-5, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The GWU lecture on aerospace medicine on Wednesday has been added.

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

Tuesday, November 2

  • NASA press conference on 10 years of permanent occupancy of the International Space Station. Watch NASA TV beginning at 9:30 am EDT.

Wednesday, November 3

  • Last launch of space shuttle Discovery currently scheduled for 3:52 pm EDT. If there are additional schedule delays, we will post them as soon as we know.

Friday, November 5

Space Policy Experts Point to Continuing Uncertainty for Civil Space As a Challenge

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 31-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Just four days before an election that may directly impact the recently agreed upon plans for NASA and the human spaceflight program, the George Washington University held an event discussing implementation challenges of the 2010 National Space Policy (NSP). Stakeholders from industry, academia, government, and the military included the outcome of the election as one of several elements increasing the sense of lingering uncertainty, a challenge in implementing the guidelines laid out in the NSP.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, which co-organized the event, described the NSP's section on space exploration as problematic. He said it reads like President Obama's April 15, 2010 speech in Florida where he fleshed out his proposals for NASA that were revealed in the FY2011 budget request, and reflects that integration is still "a work in progress." Issues of implementation, said Pace, would come up at the interfaces between policy, programs, and budget: "problems happen at the seams," he added.

Where the policy is clear, as in the direction it lays out for the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), implementation has already begun. Mary Kicza, Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services at NOAA, lauded the policy for providing more clarity and direction to the agency. Already, NOAA has been engaging countries, like Japan, China, India, Canada, and others, in data sharing and other initiatives.

Participants also mentioned elements like the push for increased international cooperation as a positive and implementable aspect of the policy. Not only an opportunity for government agencies, international engagement may also provide a boost to U.S. industry, suggested Marion Blakey, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. "International business opportunities may be our industry's best and only opportunity for growth," she said, and mentioned India and South Korea as two potential markets. Opening up the U.S. industry further to the international market would require changes in export control rules, also an important priority for the Administration. Participants discussed recent developments in the move to reform export controls with optimism. Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation, said that in this area "implementation is happening very rapidly." Blakey added that the elections next Tuesday add an element of change, but that maintaining good discussion and engagement with newcomers and those already in Congress should be enough to keep momentum going for reform. It will take advocacy, she said, but there is a real opportunity for change.

Where the policy is less clear, on the other hand, implementation issues abound. Victoria Samson, of the Secure World Foundation, for example, praised the policy for its initiatives towards securing the sustainability of space, but pointed to several lingering questions. The possibility of space arms control measures is back in the policy, which states that they would be considered if they prove to be equitable and verifiable - elements she pointed out have yet to be defined.

Some aspects of the NSP are the cause of considerable disagreements. With regard to the new direction to NASA about the commercialization of crew transport to low Earth orbit, a fundamental aspect of the policy, participants repeatedly brought up differences of opinion on what constitutes "commercial." Pulham, for example, believes that something that is government funded is not commercial and will not be until a "Rockets-R-US" for the commercial launch industry exists. He offered that "things that are too hard, too risky" ought to be governmental, but provided no specific examples.

The human spaceflight (HSF) aspect of the policy, which has been a focal point of the heated debates this summer, remains unclear despite the approval of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act this month. John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of the George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, said that in contrast to other aspects of the policy, there is "no agreed-upon policy to implement" the HSF portion of the NSP. He described the environment of the discussions today as "the most confused situation" since December 1960, when President Eisenhower announced the country would no longer have a HSF program - an announcement that was reversed the next year in President John F. Kennedy's famous speech that initiated the Apollo lunar program. Logsdon described the 2010 authorization act as an "uneasy compromise" and said that in the next 6 months there would be either "more clarity or more compromise and uncertainty."

Keys for success are program stability and funding security. Robert Dickman, Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, referred to a common idiom, saying that "policy with resources is vision, but policy without resources is fiction." With the potential that the Republicans may take over Congress on Tuesday, some fear that the resources to implement these programs may not materialize. Charles Baker of the Office of Space Commerce at the Department of Commerce said that "the unknown" of agency budgets was tied to future economic performance. If the economy performs well, he added, there would be fewer ventures dependent on government money.

Until that day comes, clarity, direction and stability are essential for the implementation of the NSP. "What's the endgame?" asked Dickman early in the discussion. Several participants agreed that without a long-term strategy in space, lack of clarity could stall or doom many initiatives, hurting the U.S. space program in the long run. Phil McAlister, Special Assistant for Program Analysis at NASA Headquarters, agreed that "we'd be moving farther faster if there was a little more strategy."

An interesting discussion at the end centered on the idea that a priority-setting process akin to the National Research Council's science Decadal Surveys could bring such needed direction to the HSF program.'s Marcia Smith, former Director of the NRC's Space Studies Board that produces many of the Decadal Surveys, was in the audience. She offered reasons why a Decadal-like NRC study might not be successful in setting an agenda for HSF that would be any less subject to the political winds than the many studies already published. She said that it was "an interesting idea," but "not a panacea." She questioned whether the hard-to-define HSF community would fall in line behind the recommendations of such a study as do the well-defined academic research communities affected by the current Decadal Surveys. She also pointed out that the NRC issued a report about the rationale and goals of the HSF program last year, but it received little notice because the Augustine Committee review was ongoing at the time.

The day's discussion, reflecting a wide variety of views on this very issue, suggests that consensus on the future of HSF indeed will be difficult to find. Nevertheless, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act includes a provision requiring NASA to request such a study from the NRC in FY2012. Time will tell how successful it is in setting 10-year HSF priorities that stand the test of time.

Job Opening at State Department for Space and Advanced Technologies Expert

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

The State Department has a posting open for a GS-14 to work in the Office of Space and Advanced Technology in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. The individual will serve as "an authority in analyzing the foreign policy implications of, and recommending policies concerning, space and advanced technologies." Applications can be submitted through November 5. See the posting for more details.

Shuttle Slips Another Day, to Wednesday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Space shuttle Discovery's launch has slipped another day and now is scheduled for Wednesday, November 3 at 3:52 pm EDT.

According to NASA's shuttle website, NASA Test Director Jeff Spaulding said that the launch team is confident that repairs to Discovery's Orbital Maneuvering System will allow a launch at that time. The weather forecast is 70% go for launch that day. The launch window remains open until November 7.

Shuttle Launch Slips One Day

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The last launch of space shuttle Discovery has slipped one day to November 2 at 4:17 pm EDT. According to NASA's shuttle website:

"Managers are meeting to discuss the plan to repair helium and nitrogen leaks in the pressurization portion of space shuttle Discovery's right-hand Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod. The leaks must be fixed before launch and the decision was made to delay picking up the launch countdown by at least a day."

Events of Interest

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


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