Latest News

Fourth Moon Discovered in the Pluto System

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The hue and cry over demoting Pluto from the status of a planet to a "dwarf planet" has not subsided, but today NASA announced that "the Pluto system" is growing. Based on observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, a fourth moon has been discovered.

Pluto's first moon, Charon, was identified in 1978 by the U.S. Naval Observatory. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers now have found three more: Nix and Hydra in 2005, and this new one that is temporarily designated P4.

P4 is very small, with a diameter of just 8-21 miles. Charon is 648 miles is diameter, while Nix and Hydra are in the range of 20-70 miles.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will reach the Pluto system in 2015 to provide more detailed data about the dwarf planet and its moons. NASA quoted New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern as calling the new finding "a fantastic discovery."

The International Astronomical Union created the term "dwarf planet" in 2006 and moved Pluto and the asteroids Eris and Ceres into that class of objects.

AAS Warns Against Cuts to S&T Investments, Especially Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:12 PM)

The American Astronautical Society (AAS) released a statement today warning that cutbacks in science and technology (S&T) investments, including the space program, could undermine U.S. economic growth and jobs.

"The nation's economic future depends on U.S. leadership in high-tech investments," said Jim Kirkpatrick, AAS Executive Director.

The Society pointed to space program cuts that have been approved by the House Appropriations Committee and in some cases by the full House. They include cuts at the Department of Defense, NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, and the U.S. Geological Survey in the Department of the Interior.

The AAS complimented the House Appropriations Committee on the pace at which it is moving through the FY2012 appropriations bills, and acknowledged that the deficit must be reduced. "But we must not jeopardize our future by dramatic cuts to the central core of our nation's economic development -- investments in science and technology, particularly those associated wtih the space program," it said.

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am the Vice President-Public Policy of AAS and was part of the team that developed this policy statement.

NASA Repurposes Two Spacecraft for Lunar Research

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA is getting extra bang for its buck these days by relocating existing spacecraft and using them for additional research above and beyond their primary missions.

ARTEMIS has joined the ranks of Stardust-NExT and EPOXI as recent examples of "repurposed" spacecraft. Launched in 2007, the two ARTEMIS probes are now in orbit around the Moon after completing their research to study the Sun's interaction with Earth's magnetic field.

The two were originally part of a set of five spacecraft in the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) program. The other three THEMIS spacecraft are continuing their solar-terrestrial physics studies.

These two -- renamed Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynaimcs of the Moon's Interaction with the Sun (ARTEMIS) -- were moved from their previous locations at Lagrange points to lunar orbit through a complex set of orbital maneuvers. The first reached lunar orbit on June 27 and the second on July 17. Their orbits will take them within 60 miles of the lunar surface where they will collect data about the Moon's core, surface composition, and magnetic properties. The probes are expected to return data from their new locations for seven to 10 years.

UPDATE: Final Shuttle Mission Readies to Undock from ISS

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

UPDATE: NASA has refined the landing time to 5:56 am EDT on Thursday, which is reflected below.

STS-135 (Atlantis), the final space shuttle mission, closed the hatches with the International Space Station (ISS) today as it readies to return home.

The hatches were closed at 10:28 am EDT. The shuttle crew went to sleep at 1:59 pm EDT this afternoon to get ready for an early morning undocking tomorrow, Tuesday, July 19, at 2:28 am EDT.

Landing is currently scheduled for 5:56 am EDT at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday.

Rep. Lamar Smith Calls for Better Space Program

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jul-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:16 PM)

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), vice-chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, is calling for a "better space program."

In an op-ed in today's Space News, Rep. Smith says that "America deserves to be inspired by the heavens again." As others in Congress have done, he criticized the Obama Administration for not complying with the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

NASA Transitions To Commercial Space

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

Wheel stop for STS-135 (Atlantis) on Thursday will mark the end of the space shuttle program and NASA and its Kennedy Space Center (KSC) are accelerating their transition to the new era of commercial space.

The day before the launch of STS-135, KSC signed a Space Act agreement with Sierra Nevada, which is developing the Dream Chaser spaceplane. The agreement will allow KSC to work with Sierra Nevada to define and execute launch preparations and post-landing activities for Dream Chaser.

Today, three days prior to STS-135's landing, an unfunded Space Act agreement was signed between NASA and the United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that builds and launches the Delta IV and Atlas V families of launch vehicles. The agreement will pave the way for consideration of using the Atlas V as a launch vehicle for future crew spacecraft. Right now, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. are developing new launch vehicles (Falcon 9 and Taurus II) to launch cargo and crews to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the commercial crew program. Some argue that the Atlas V and Delta IV, which already exist and are used to launch spacecraft for critical national security space missions, could be upgraded for human spaceflight, too.

Mars Rover Landing Site to be Announced Friday

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

NASA is gearing up to launch its next Mars rover -- the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or "Curiosity." An open question is where on Mars it should land.

That question will be answered on Friday, July 22 in a press conference at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). The museum has a life-size model of Curiosity on display.

The press conference will be held at 10:00 am EDT and will be shown on NASA TV (

Events of Interest: Week of July 18-22, 2011

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

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. The House and Senate are in session this week. The House had planned to be in recess, but decided to remain in session because of the debt limit/deficit reduction talks.

Monday, July 18

Tuesday, July 19

Tuesday-Thursday, July 19-21

Thursday, July 21

  • Scheduled landing of the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, at Kennedy Space Center, FL, 5:56 am EDT

House Appropriators Chastise, Cut OSTP Because of China Dealings

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

Among the agencies whose budgets would be cut by the House Appropriations Committee in the FY2012 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill is the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The cut of more than 50 percent of its budget request is the result of congressional unhappiness with OSTP's continued efforts to engage with China despite language in the final FY2011 Continuing Resolution that it refrain from doing so.

The committee's report on the FY2012 CJS bill says the following:

"The Committee recommends $3,000,000 for the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is $3,647,000 below fiscal year 2011 and $3,650,000 below the request.

"Coordination with China.-OSTP has chosen to disregard a strong and unambiguous legislative prohibition on bilateral engagement with China or Chinese-owned companies that was included in the Department of Defense and Full Year Continuing Resolution Act, 2011 (Public Law 112-10). OSTP and the White House raised no concerns about this language while it was under consideration. Only after the Committee asked OSTP about its compliance with the provision did OSTP claim that the language infringed on Constitutional prerogatives and acknowledge an intention to proceed with prohibited activities. Even then key information about a scheduled bilateral event was omitted. OSTP's behavior demonstrates a lack of respect for the policy and oversight roles of the Congress."

The report goes on to say that the remaining OSTP funding is to be prioritized to coordinate and improve government programs for STEM education.

The Associated Press ran a story about it yesterday.

Sen. Hutchison: Obama Administration Footdragging Puts Jobs and Industries at Risk

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

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) continues to assail the Obama Administration for "foot-dragging" on its legislated requirement to build a new space launch vehicle.

In her weekly column on her website, Sen. Hutchison again blamed the Obama Administration for failing to implement the 2010 NASA Authorization Act of which she was a primarily author: "Despite overwhelming Congressional support when this legislation was approved, the Obama Administration unfortunately is dragging its feet in implementing the new law. This foot-dragging is more than just failing to carry out the law, as the Constitution requires. The Administration's delays put current and future American jobs and industries at risk, and hand over to competing nations a golden opportunity to take the global lead in technology."

After listing some of benefits of past investments in space activities broadly, not just NASA, she states: "The contributions our space program has made to science, our national security, and our economy illustrate why we can't abdicate our leadership role in the world."

Events of Interest


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