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UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of August 16-20, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: We've added the NASA commercial crew event on Thursday.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. Things are pretty slow as everyone enjoys the last weeks of summer vacation. We don't have anything on the calendar for the subsequent two weeks, so unless we learn of something new, the next edition of this list will appear for the week beginning Sept. 6.

For more details on these events, see our calendar on the left menu or click the links below.

Monday-Thursday, August 16-19

Tuesday, August 17 and Friday, August 20

Thursday, August 19

Understanding Dark Energy, Finding Earth-like Planets Top Priorities Says NRC's Astro2010 Study

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)
The National Research Council (NRC) released its most recent Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics today. Formally entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, but dubbed "Astro2010," the report lays out the scientific and mission priorities for ground- and space-based astronomy for the next 10 years. It is the sixth NRC Decadal Survey in this field; the first was issued in 1964. Decadal Surveys are so-named because they are conducted about every 10 years - a decade - and look forward to the next decade of research. (For more on the NRC and Decadal Surveys, visit the National Research Council page on our left menu at

The Astro2010 study committee divided its recommendations into three categories of missions: large, mid-sized, and small. For space-based missions, the committee identified a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as the top priority for large missions. A collaboration between NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE), it would answer questions about dark energy, determine the likelihood of other Earth-like planets, and conduct other research about the galaxy. The top priority for the ground-based astronomy program is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which also would study dark energy, as well as dark matter, time-variable phenomena, supernovas, Kuiper-belt and near-Earth objects. That project would be a collaboration between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and DOE.

The study committee was chaired by Prof. Roger Blandford of Stanford University. It created a set of science panels to identify key science questions and then a set of program panels to recommend ground- and space-based missions to answer them. The three key scientific objectives they identified were deepening our understanding of how the first stars, galaxies and black holes formed; locating the closest habitable Earth-like planets; and using astronomical measurements to "unravel the mysteries of gravity and probe fundamental physics," according to an NRC press release.

For space missions, the committee also emphasized the importance of Explorer-class missions; the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) to search for gravity waves from the Big Bang; and the International X-Ray Observatory. They are the second, third and fourth priorities, respectively, for large space-based missions.

The top priority for mid-sized space missions is a New Worlds Technology Development mission to provide the scientific basis for a future mission to study nearby Earth-like planets.

Understanding dark energy - "dark" because scientists do not understand what it is - has become a compelling field of scientific research. In the mid-1990s, scientists discovered that the universe is expanding more rapidly than theorized and they don't know why. They invented the term "dark energy" to refer to the unknown energy force that is causing the accelerated expansion rate. Data from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) led scientists to conclude that the universe is composed about 4.6% of atoms, 72% of dark energy, and 23% of "dark matter" - another unknown phenomenon. That means that they understand only 4.6% of the universe and the rest is unknown dark energy and dark matter.

NASA and DOE had been planning a Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) that was controversial because the agencies had different approaches to studying it and funding was limited. NASA grouped it into a class of missions called "Beyond Einstein" to understand the fundamental physics of the universe. A 2007 NRC report picked JDEM as the top priority of the five Beyond Einstein missions. The Astro2010 report preserves dark energy as a top priority. The report says that WFIRST is based on a JDEM proposal ("JDEM Omega") developed in collaboration between NASA and DOE. and will also search for exoplanets, including Earth-like planets, and perform other research in infrared wavelengths.

NASA is currently building an infrared telescope called the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as a follow-on to research conducted with the Hubble Space Telescope, though Hubble primarily looks at the universe in visible wavelengths rather than infrared. At $5 billion, JWST is over budget and behind schedule. Its current launch date is 2014, but that may slip because of recent cost increases. The new WFIRST telescope also would be infrared, but is a wide-field instrument rather than a targeted telescope like JWST. "The small field of view of JWST would render it incapable of carrying out the prime WFIRST program of dark energy and exoplanet studies, even if it were used exclusively for this task," according to the Astro2010 report.

This is the first NRC Decadal Survey required to obtain independent estimates of the cost and technical readiness of its proposed missions. Previous Decadal Surveys were criticized because their cost estimates often turned out to be unrealistically low. The NRC does not have the capability to do cost estimating and had relied on the teams proposing a mission to provide cost estimates. For NASA-related missions, "independent" cost analysis was often performed by NASA centers and did not sufficiently take into account so-called "unknown unknowns" that often add to a project's cost. In addition, missions recommended in Decadal Surveys often changed substantially as they went through the development process and while they retained the same name, the scope and complexity often increased, further adding to the costs.

Section 1104 of the 2008 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct Decadal Surveys and as part of those efforts for the NRC to obtain independent estimates of life cycle costs and technical readiness whenever possible. For Astro2010, the NRC created a Cost, Risk and Technical Evaluation (CATE) process that involved hiring a contractor, the Aerospace Corporation. The report emphasizes that the contractor operated independently of the committee "so that their final analysis was free from undue influence by either the committee itself or by interests outside the [decadal] survey.....[W]hile the committee worked closely with the contractor ... the final result has been accepted and certified as independent work performed by the contractor alone. Equally important to the independence of the contractor is the committee's responsibility for reviewing the contractor's work and exercising its judgment in accepting the contractor's results."

WFIRST has an estimated cost of $1.6 billion between 2012 and 2021, with launch expected in 2020 if the project begins in FY2013. There is a possibility that the United States will cooperate with the European Space Agency (ESA) on this mission. ESA is planning its own dark energy mission, Euclid. LSST, which would be located in Chile, is estimated at $465 million for 2012-2021 with annual operating costs of $42 million, of which the Federal share is $28 million. Costs are in FY2010 dollars.

NASA, NSF, and DOE funded the study, which was conducted under the auspices of the NRC's Board on Physics and Astronomy and Space Studies Board.

Station Spacewalk Successful, But Probably Two More Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Two spacewalking astronauts successfully disconnected and removed a failed ammonia coolant pump today on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS). Another spacewalk, no earlier than Monday, is needed to install the replacement pump and a fourth outing may be needed to clean up the worksite according to NASA.

Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson spent 7 hours and 26 minutes on the spacewalk according to, after a record breaking 8 hours 3 minutes on Wednesday. ISS managers are anxious to get the new pump working and the ISS back to normal operations. NASA emphasized that no science samples were lost because of the problems with the ISS cooling system, but some science samples had to moved from a freezer in Japan's Kibo module to an operating freezer elsewhere.

Senate to Reconvene Briefly Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

It's anything but a usual summer break for Congress. First the House returned for one day of legislative activity on Tuesday, and now the Senate will return briefly on Thursday.

The Senate will recovene to pass an emergency supplemental appropriations bill for border security (H.R. 6080) that was passed by the House when it was in session on Tuesday. The bill is expected to pass the Senate by unanimous consent and is the only legislative business for the day although the Senate is also expected to pass a resolution of condolence on the death of former Senator Ted Stevens. Thus, all Senators do not need to be present and only two are expected to attend -- Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Ben Cardin of Maryland -- according to The Hill newspaper.

Those Who Survived, Those Who Did Not

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, his son, and two others survived the crash of a privately owned airplane in Alaska, but former Senator Ted Stevens and four others did not. Mr. O'Keefe reportedly was "badly injured."

The New York Times has identified those who were aboard the aircraft. The survivors are Mr. O'Keefe, 54, and his teenage son, Kevin; Jim Morhard of Alexandria, VA; and William "Willy" Phillips, 13. The deceased are former Senator Stevens, 86; William "Bill" Phillips Sr.; Dana Tindall, 48, and Corey Tindall, 16, of Anchorage; and the pilot, Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, of Eagle River, Alaska.

The group was headed to a lodge near Lake Aleknegik for a fishing expedition. The plane, a DeHavilland DHC-3T, and the lodge are owned by GCI, the Alaskan telecommunications provider, according to news reports. The cause of the crash is under investigation, but the Times cites an Alaskan bush pilot who says the GCI pilot apparently was lost in cloud cover and was trying to increase his altitude when the crash occurred.

Senator Stevens survived an earlier airplane crash in 1978 that claimed the life of his first wife, Ann. In that case, he was one of two survivors of seven aboard an aircraft that crashed at the Anchorage airport according to news reports.

Second Spacewalk to Fix ISS Coolant Pump Underway

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

International Space Station (SS) astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson are currently outside the ISS in a second attempt to replace an ISS coolant pump that failed. Their first attempt on Saturday ran into a roadblock when a quick disconnect fitting did not work properly, but NASA reports on its ISS website that they have successfully closed that fitting today. They now are disconnecting electrical wires and unbolting the failed pump. Follow the action live on NASA TV.

UPDATE: Sean O'Keefe, Ted Stevens, Reported to Be On Downed Plane in Alaska

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UOPDATE: The New York Times reports that Mr. OKeefe and his son survived, and Mr. O'Keefe was one of three persons airlifted to a hospital in Anchorage.

UPDATE: The Associated Press cites Shannon O'Keefe as confirming that her brother and his son were on the plane but "their status was not immediately known."

UPDATE: NASAWatch now identifies the son as Kevin rather than Jonathan.

UPDATE: Keith Cowing at NASAWatch reports that Mr. O'Keefe and his son Jonathan both survived but are "rather banged up/"

UPDATE: AP now is also reporting that Senator Stevens died, but similarly had no word on Mr. O'Keefe.

UPDATE: Anchorage Alaska's CBS affiliate KTVA reports that it has confirmed that Senator Stevens was killed. No word on Mr. O'Keefe.

UPDATE: No news yet on who survived, but here are links to statements from the NTSB, Louisiana State University (where Mr. OKeefe was chancellor), and EADS North America (where he is CEO).

UPDATE: At the NASA NEO workshop, a NASA spokesman just announced that one of Sean O'Keefe's sons also was on the plane. Still no word on who survived.

UPDATE: The Associated Press is citing a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman as saying that there were nine people on the plane and there are five fatalities and four survivors. The condition of Mr. O'Keefe and Sen. Stevens has not been reported yet.

The New York Times is reporting that former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and former Senator Ted Stevens are believed to be among the eight passengers on a plane that crashed in southwest Alaska last night. The condition of the passengers is unknown, but the newspaper cites an Alaska National Guard spokesman as saying there may be fatalities. It also states that EADS North America, Mr. O'Keefe's current employer, confirmed that he was on the plane.

This article will be updated as more information is obtained.

O'Keefe and Son Survive Plane Crash, Ted Stevens Does Not: New York Times

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and his son both survived the airplane crash in Alaska, according to the New York Times. Former Senator Ted Stevens did not. News reports say that of the nine passengers on the private plane, four survived and five did not. Mr. O'Keefe reportedly is one of three survivors airlifted to an Anchorage hospital.

Washington Post: None of the Human Space Flight Plans Is Affordable

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

In an editorial yesterday, the Washington Post said that "U.S. space policy is on a collision course with itself."

The part of U.S. space policy the Post is talking about is the human space flight program. It compares the Obama plan with those put forth in the House and Senate NASA authorization bills and concludes that --

"All three plans for space have in common an unwillingness either to abandon the dream of human spaceflight or to confront the budget reality. But with the funding for NASA set around $19 billion and not likely to change, bold plans for humans in space are simply not feasible. Something must give. If the administration and Congress truly want human spaceflight, they need to fund it adequately....."

UPDATED: Events of Interest: Week of August 9-13, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The NRC briefing on Astro2010 has been added for Friday.

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

Monday-Thursday, August 9-12

Tuesday, August 10

  • The House will return from its August recess for one day of legislative business. The major piece of legislation is unrelated to the space program (it is aid to states to avoid teacher layoffs and Medicaid funding), but it is always possible that other legislation may be brought up.

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 10-11

Thursday, August 12

Friday, August 13

  • National Research Council public briefing on release of the Astro2010 Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, NRC Keck Center, 500 Fifth St., N.W., Washington, D.C., 11:00 am EDT

Events of Interest

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


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