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Student Essay Competition Reminder: Win Over $700!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The journal Space Policy would like to remind graduate students in space policy and law school students that the deadline for the 2010 Maxim Tarasenko Essay Competition is December 31, 2010. The competition is sponsored by the journal and the Secure World Foundation, with a prize of 500 ($788 at today's exchange rate), a one-year subscription to the journal, and publication of the winning essay in the journal.

Essays are due to Frances Brown, editor of Space Policy, by December 31, 2010. Complete rules are available in the announcement. The contest honors Maxim Tarasenko, a highly respected Russian space policy analyst and member of Space Policy's Editorial Board who tragically died in 1999.

NASA Clears Shuttle for Launch on Election Eve

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

As if next week isn't exciting enough with the mid-term elections on Tuesday, NASA has approved the launch of space shuttle Discovery at 4:40 pm EDT the day before. Discovery will make its last scheduled flight as STS-133 with a crew of six commanded by Steve Lindsay.

Only one more space shutle flight is scheduled after this one, currently expected in February 2011. The 2010 NASA authorization act allows one additional shuttle flight to be flown if NASA determines that it is safe. The act authorizes the launch and recommends funding for it, but whether the funding actually will be provided through the appropriations process remains up in the air.

The election may have some bearing on that. If the Republicans gain control of the House and/or Senate, deficit reduction is their major theme and funding for domestic discretionary agencies like NASA will be that much more difficult to obtain. Still, NASA's activities enjoy wide bipartisan support, so the funding could be provided. Some NASA supporters fear, however, that NASA will be directed to fly the mission and have to redirect funds from its other activities.

NAC Planetary Defense Task Force Makes Five Recommendations to NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

The NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Task Force on Planetary Defense made five recommendations to NASA in its report to NAC, which accepted the report on October 6. The Task Force was co-chaired by two former astronauts, Tom Jones and Rusty Schweickart. In this context, planetary defense means defending Earth from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets -- headed our way.

The recommendations are:

  • Organize for Effective Action on Planetary Defense
  • Acquire Essential Search, Track and Warning Capabilities
  • Investigate the Nature of the Impact Threat
  • Prepare to Respond to Impact Threats
  • Lead U.S. Planetary Defense Efforts in National and International Forums

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently sent letters to Congress in response to a provision in the 2008 NASA Authorization Act on agency roles and responsibilities in dealing with the NEO threat. It gave NASA a lead role in many aspects of NEO detection and cataloging, but deferred decisions on who is in charge of mitigating the threat. It did identify NASA as the lead agency to perform analysis and simulation to inform future decisions on mitigation options.

Bolden Statement on China Trip

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a press release today summarizing his October 16-21 trip to China.

Saying that NASA met its objectives for the visit, but stressing that it "did not include consideration of any specific proposals for cooperation," Mr. Bolden said they reached a "common understanding of the importance of transparency, reciprocity, and mutual benefit as the underlying principles of any future interaction between our two nations in the area of human spaceflight."

The trip was controversial with some member of Congress, including Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the ranking member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. He insisted in a letter to Mr. Bolden before the trip on assurances that no specific cooperative human space flight programs would be discussed.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of October 25-30, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: NASA's media teleconference on Tuesday for the EPOXI mission has been added.

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

Monday-Wednesday, October 25-27

Tuesday, October 26

Wednesday, October 27

Friday, October 29

Friday-Sunday, October 29-31

White House Specifies Agency Responsibilities for NEO Threats

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) sent letters to Congress on October 15 spelling out agency responsibilities in the event a Near Earth Object (NEO) is on a collision course with Earth. NEOs are asteroids or comets on trajectories that come close to Earth.

The letters are in response to a provision in the 2008 NASA Authorization Act. The bottom line is that NASA would notify the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) "in the unlikely event of an impending NEO threat." FEMA would use its existing communications mechanisms to warn state and local officials. The Department of State would notify other countries as needed. NASA would be responsible for notifying FEMA after coordinating with other organizations "within the NEO detection community." The notification would go to FEMA's Operations Center, as well as DOD's Joint Space Operations Center, the State Department, appropriate White House offices, and "other relevant Federal officials and organizations."

But the letters do not solve the larger question of what agency would be in charge of "mitigating" the threat -- deflecting or destroying the NEO. OSTP says only that the government's "assessment of potential mitigation/deflection options is at an early stage of development and not yet ready for implementation...." A recent National Research Council (NRC) report, which also was requested by Congress, provides "helpful insights" into mitigation options, says OSTP, but more analysis and simulation is needed. NASA is designated by OSTP as the lead agency to conduct that work in coordination with DOD, FEMA and other appropriate agencies.

Those agencies are also directed to "conduct outreach with relevant private sector stakeholders and organizations" as well as other countries and multilateral forums.

OSTP Director John Holdren, who signed the letters, made the concluding point that the approach was subject to further review as more information becomes available that "could lead to different philosophies on agency roles and responsibilities in this arena as we continue to consider the most effective way to address these potential threats. It also would be constructive to explore what resources may be needed to support these assessment activities going forward.""

A Popcorn-Bred Perspective of Space Commercialization

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM) correspondent Laura M. Delgado has a really interesting piece about space commercialization on Space News' guest blog. "A Pop-corn Bred Perspective on Space Commercialization" talks about the "gap" not between the end of the space shuttle and whatever succeeds it, but the gap between the space policy community and the public on the role of the private sector in the future of the space program because their exposure to the topic is through science fiction movies. Take a look!

LCROSS Finds More Water Than Expected on Moon

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

NASA's Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission confirmed that there is water at the south pole of the Moon -- more than expected -- according to a NASA press conference yesterday. The results are published in the journal Science today.

The Centaur upper stage of the rocket that launched LCROSS and its companion spacecraft, the Lunar Reconnnaissance Orbiter, was targeted to impact a crater on the south pole of the Moon last year. LCROSS was able to observe the impact for a few minutes before it, too, impacted the Moon. Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, characterized the material that the Centaur impacted as "fluffy snow-covered dirt." He said the Moon's south pole has some of the coldest temperatures in the solar system and can "preserve water ice in a vacuum for billions of years."

Wargo reported that they definitely saw water ice in the ejecta plume created by the Centaur impact, and it was 50 percent more than their initial estimates.

Presentation materials from the briefing are available on the LCROSS website, and an audio recording is available for the next 14 days by calling 1-888-566-0674. The New York Times has a nice summary.

NASA To Celebrate 10 Years of Permanent Occupancy of ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA will celebrate the 10th anniversary of astronauts living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) next week. The anniversary itself is not until November 2, but on October 27 NASA will hold panel discussions at three NASA Centers -- Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center -- as well as at NASA Headquarters. The participants and schedule were announced in a press release today.

The Search for Life Elsewhere Begins with Defining Life

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 19-Oct-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

To search for life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe beyond, one must first define "life." That was the message of a day-long celebration of 50 years of NASA research in exobiology and astrobiology on Thursday.

Molecular biologist Steve Benner explained to the audience that one can develop a "laundry list" of criteria that must be met for something to be described as life, but any such list necessarily rests on the biases of the person creating it -- a carbon-based life form that needs water to survive. What about life forms that might be based on other elements, like silicon? Benner was a member of a National Research Council study committee that published a report entitled Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, dubbed the "Weird Life" report, which ruminated scientifically on other types of life forms that might exist.

Such questions are not only for Star Trek fans, but for researchers who are actively engaged in searching for life on other planets and their moons in our solar system and beyond. In this case "life" is just that, life, not necessarily intelligent life, which is the focus of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a more controversial undertaking. As recounted by former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin in a rare talk about the space program since he left NASA in 2001, NASA has not directly supported SETI since 1993 when the Senate led the effort to cancel NASA's involvement in the program. Since then, SETI has relied on private sponsorship.

NASA, however, is fully engaged in the search for life in earlier stages. Since the life forms we know do require water for survival, "follow the water" became the theme for NASA's planetary exploration program while Goldin was Administrator. Although Benner and others want a more expansive view of what life might be, the reality is that one can only search for what one knows.

James Lovelock of Oxford University, founder of the Gaia hypothesis, reminisced about joining NASA in the early 1960s and being given the task of designing a method to determine if there is life on Mars in four days, which he did -- by studying the atmosphere. A decade later he published a book outlining a hypothesis he called Gaia, after the Greek goddess of Earth, that argues that life on Earth is part of a self-regulating system - essentially the planet and all the life on it function as a single organism. The somewhat controversial idea is that life on Earth developed and continues to exist not just because of luck, but because the physical, chemical and biological systems of Earth work together to regulate the planet to maintain that life. Some scientists refer to a "Goldilocks" zone around a star where temperatures are not too hot, not too cold, but just right for life to develop. Lovelock calls that "ridiculous," insisting that Earth is not within what scientists would consider the Goldilocks zone for our Sun, yet it is teeming with life because of the interaction of the atmosphere and everything else on the planet.

Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts, one of the primary proponents of the Gaia hypothesis -- or theory, depending on one's viewpoint -- blamed neo-Darwinists for attacking it and explained that it takes time for people to accept a new way of thinking. Quoting Emily Dickinson, she told the audience that "The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind."

The seminar was information- and intellectually-rich. Topics included historical accounts of NASA's Viking program, the first designed specifically to find life on Mars, and of the ups and downs of astrobiology at NASA, which dipped when people misinterpreted Viking's findings as proof that there was no life anywhere on Mars, but resurged after the 1996 "Martian meteorite" discovery.

Cultural perspectives on the implications of finding life elsewhere -- or not finding it, which would be equally significant -- were discussed in a panel that included journalist Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post. He is writing a book on astrobiology and said that in his travels around the world doing research for it he found that people everywhere were fascinated by the search for life. A story he wrote for the Post on the discovery of a planet in the habitable zone of another star was the most read and emailed story on the Post's website for several days and shared on Facebook more than 7,500 times. Other members of that panel emphasized the need to consider religion and science together when communicating with the public since astrobiology is based on the theory of evolution. Connie Bertka of the Carnegie Institution pointed out that 42% of the U.S. population does not accept evolution and that number has been unchanged for 50 years.

But the question that kept returning throughout the day is "What is life?" Nobelist Baruch Bloomberg, who was the first director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, argued that it is not that we are searching for life, we are testing the hypothesis that there is life elsewhere and searching for the data to prove the hypothesis. "How do you know if something's alive," he mused. "We have characteristics and if enough of them are satisfied then people say 'that's life.' It is hard to know how much data you need, but when it happens, you know it."

Events of Interest

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


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