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Senate Hearing on NASA Authorization Act Postponed to December 1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM)

The Senate Commerce Committee's hearing on implementation of the NASA authorization act has been postponed to December 1 according to the committee's website.

It's Snowing in Space!

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

It's snowing at Comet Hartley 2! NASA's EPOXI spacecraft flew by the comet on November 4 and discovered that the comet is ejecting what is essentially snowballs into space.

Fluffy particles of water ice ranging in size from golf balls to basketballs are being released through the ends of the comet via carbon dioxide jets said EPOXI scientists at a NASA press conference today. Stereo images from the spacecraft show that the snowballs are behind and in front of the comet's nucleus "making it look like a scene in one of those crystal snow globes," said Brown University's Pete Schultz. At least nine of the snowballs hit the spacecraft, but did not damage it.

The rocky ends of the comet where the snowballs are escaping is quite different from the mid-section, which is smooth and releases water through a different process. There water ice turns into water vapor, which is similar to what was observed at Comet Tempel 1 when it was visited by this same spacecraft in 2005. At that time it was named Deep Impact. EPOXI principal investigator Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland said they looked for ice particles at Tempel 1, but did not find any.

NASA and space agencies in other countries have been sending spacecraft to study comets for 25 years. Scientists believe they hold clues to understanding the formation of the solar system.

NASA's next spacecraft encounter with a comet is only three months away. On February 14, 2011, Stardust-NExT will reach Temple 1 to study the comet five years after Deep Impact was there. It will try to image the crater created by Deep Impact and study other features both to compare with the images taken by Deep Impact and look at other areas not yet observed. Like Deep Impact, which was given a second assignment after successfully completing its primary mission, Stardust-NExT is an extended mission for the Stardust spacecraft.

Discovery Will Launch No Earlier Than December 3

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

Engineers need more time to analyze and repair space shuttle Discovery and the launch date for the orbiter's last mission will be no earlier than December 3, 2010 NASA decided today.

A news conference that was scheduled for November 22 has been cancelled.

Program managers will meet on November 29 to assess the progress of the repairs. If December 3 is the chosen launch date, it will be a night launch at 2:52 am EST.

Baby Black Hole Discovered?

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 17-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory announced that they may have detected the youngest black hole in the vicinity of Earth. Though there are other theories to explain what they are observing, the top choice is that a black hole is forming from the remnants of supernova (SN) 1979C, which was discovered by an amateur astronomer and confirmed by other astronomers in 1979. If correct, the black hole would be only 30 years old based on when observations began.

Supernova 1979C, located 50 million light years away in the M100 galaxy - nearby in astronomical terms - was caused by the collapse of a star 20 times the mass of our Sun. X-ray data from Chandra and other space observatories, including Germany's ROSAT, have revealed "steady, bright" x-ray emissions since 1995. This high luminosity may be the sign of material being sucked into the black hole.

"If our interpretation is correct, this is the nearest example where the birth of a black hole has been observed," said Daniel Patnaude of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at a NASA press conference yesterday. Avi Loeb, also from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center explained that about 20% of all core collapsed supernovae are thought to end up as black holes.

Astronomers hope continued observations will help confirm their black hole theory, but another possibility is that they are seeing the formation of a "neutron star with a powerful wind of high energy particles...a 'pulsar wind nebula'" according to NASA's press release.

In any case, further study will help scientists understand how massive stars explode, identify the threshold that determines when a supernova forms a black hole or a neutron star, as well as better estimate the number of black holes in the universe. The discovery may also add validity to using the x-ray spectrum as an indirect tool to identify black holes, said Kimberly Weaver of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She added that this would be the first time "we know the exact birth date of a black hole" and that now investigators can "watch how it evolves and changes." This is a "detective story" put together by astronomers around the world and "we have almost solved the puzzle," she said.

The results of the current observations will appear in a paper in the New Astronomy journal.

NASA IG Identifies Top Management Challenges, Compliments Agency on Audit Improvement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA's Inspector General (IG), Paul Martin, has issued his office's annual listing of the top management and performance challenges facing the agency. He also released this year's independent financial audit of the agency. The latter is an improvement over the previous seven years of audits.

According to Martin's Office of Inspector General (OIG), the key challenges are:

  • Future of U.S. Spaceflight
  • Acquisition and Project Management
  • Infrastructure and Facilities Management
  • Human Capital
  • Information Technology Security
  • Financial Management

In the last area, the report notes that for seven years NASA received "disclaimed" audits. The primary reason was that independent auditors could not obtain sufficient usable information from the agency to determine whether NASA was in compliance with relevant government financial standards or not.

At a House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing last year shortly after Mr. Martin became IG and Elizabeth (Beth) Robinson took the reins as NASA's Chief Financial Officer, optimism was expressed that the agency would not get another disclaimed audit. In this report, Martin states that the auditors, Ernst & Young, gave the agency a "qualified" opinion this year. Though not as good as an unqualified opinion, he indicates it is a step in the right direction:

"Over the past several years, NASA financial managers - working with the OIG and the independent accounting firm - have continued to make steady progress resolving previously identified weaknesses and their efforts resulted in the auditors' qualified opinion. While the ultimate goal for the Agency is an unqualified opinion, the FY 2010 results are a significant accomplishment and position NASA well for the future."

Mr. Martin's office posted the Ernst & Young audit today. As in other government agencies, the IG's office is responsible for contracting with an independent auditor each year to determine if an agency is complying with financial accountability standards set by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The one aspect of NASA's financial management that continues to require improvement is accounting for property, plant and equipment (PP&E) and operating materials and supplies (OM&S) according to the Ernst & Young report.

More Cracks in Discovery's External Tank Found

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

Space shuttle Discovery's final launch was postponed on November 5 because of a gas leak, but since then engineers have found four cracks in the External Tank's foam. The fourth was discovered this weekend.

Spaceflightnow.com reports that engineers have replaced a misaligned fitting that caused the gas leak, but are still assessing the cracks:

"Engineers first spotted a large crack in the foam insulation near the top of the intertank section. When the foam in the area was cut away for repairs, engineers found two 9-inch cracks in the flat attachment plates on either side of an underlying stringer known as S-7-2. NASA managers then decided to cut away additional foam and a third crack was found Friday on the stringer to the immediate left of the one that was initially discovered.

"Over the weekend, a fourth crack was found in the left-side stringer, known as S-6-2, sources said. No cracks were found in stringers on the right side."

The website adds that cracks are not unusual, but these are the "first to be found at the launch pad, where access is more difficult."

NASA says that senior managers will meet on November 22 to review launch preparations. The earliest the shuttle can launch is November 30 because of sun angles at the International Space Station, with which it will dock. A launch date has not officially been set.

Japan's Hayabusa Did Return Particles from Asteroid Itokawa

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Scientists have been examining particles in Japan's Hayabusa asteroid sample return capsule to determine if the probe successfully brought back anything from the asteroid it visited, Itokawa. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced today that "about 1,500 grains were identified as rocky particles, and most were determined to be of extraterrestrial origin, and definitely from Asteroid Itokawa."

The Hayabusa capsule was recovered in Australia in June, but the mission had encountered many challenges. While JAXA was lauded for the technical feat of getting the capsule back to Earth, it was not clear if it actually had any of Itokawa's material inside. The mechanism that was intended to grab the sample apparently failed, but scientists were hopeful that at least some dust had made its way into the return canister. It seems that those hopes have been realized.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of November 15-19, 2010

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The Senate Commerce hearing has been postponed to December 1.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. Check our calendar on the right menu for more details or click the links below. Times and dates for congressional hearings and markups are subject to change; check with the relevant committee for up to date information.

Tuesday-Wednesday, November 16-17

Wednesday, November 17

Wednesday-Thursday, November 17-18

  • NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Earth Science Subcommittee meeting, NASA Headquarters, Washington DC
    • Nov. 17, 9:00 am - 5:00 pm, room 3H46
    • Nov. 18, 9:00 am - 3:00 pm, room 6H46

Wednesday-Friday, November 17-19

Thursday, November 18

Friday, November 19

  • Laura M. Delgado interviewed on The Space Show, 9:30 am PST (12:30 pm EST), on the Web

Leadership Change in the House S&T Committee Could Make NASA a Priority

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 12-Nov-2010 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:14 PM)

Joanne Padr n Carney, Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS's) Center for Science, Technology and Congress, said today that the results of the mid-term Congressional elections would bring a number of new faces to the House Science and Technology Committee. Congressman Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), have reportedly expressed interest in assuming the leadership spots in the Committee, a change that Padr n Carney said could mean NASA will become a "high priority" for Congress in the next session.

Her comments were made during a AAAS webinar Election 2010: What Do the U.S. Mid-term Elections Mean for Science?, which covered issues such as R&D funding, energy, and biomedical policy and research. Padr n Carney identified several issues impacting the legislative process, including increased oversight, which Representative Hall has said would be one of his priorities. This could have a direct impact on the future of NASA human spaceflight, she suggested.

On a related issue, Padr n Carney said that "the scientific community [will] lose a number of champions," including Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) and Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN). Gordon currently chairs the House S&T Committee and Baird chairs its Energy and Environment subcommittee. Both are retiring this year. Representative David Foster (D-IL), a physics PhD, is another loss. He lost his seat in the Illinois race.

With deficit reduction an important priority for the next Congress, budget cuts will probably begin next year, pointed out Patrick Clemins, Director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program. With funding questions still undecided, debate over the recently enacted 2010 NASA Authorization Act will continue "despite its passage," said Padr n Carney in response to a SpacePolicyOnline.com question. "We don't know yet whether there will be funding for another [Shuttle] flight," she added.

At the end of the day, while NASA may well be the focus of renewed debate in Congress, its status will still depend on how much money it receives to carry out its programs - whatever those may be. An archived version of the webinar will be available on the AAAS Member Central website (membership required).

The Space Show to Interview SpacePolicyOnline.com's Laura Delgado

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

The Space Show, hosted by Dr. David Livingston, will interview SpacePolicyOnline.com correspondent Laura Delgado on November 19, 2010 at 9:30 am PST (12:30 pm EST). The hour and a half show will focus on Ms. Delgado's recent paper for AIAA's Space2010 conference and an associated Space News blog on differing perceptions of space commercialization.

Her analysis points to a "gap" between the space policy community's generally accepted notion of a bright space future that combines government and commercial efforts (though not all agree on timing) and a very different perception the public may hold based on the depiction of corporations in science fiction movies.

As she says in her Space News blog post: "In several science fiction movies our commercialized future in space signals a point of self-destruction, with individual freedom, the role and influence of governments, and the values of life we hold dear as its casualties. In these movies space commercialization is part of the problem, not a solution."

Listen live to the show on the web and call in or email questions. The Space Show's website provides access to archived versions of all of its shows, too.

Events of Interest

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


 

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