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Once again, congressional appropriators have turned down the Administration's request for funding within the Department of Energy (DOE) bill to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) needed for NASA's space probes.
In a report filed on Friday (H. Rept. 112-118 to accompany H. R. 2354), the House Appropriations Committee said that it remained concerned that the Administration wants DOE to pay for half the costs when it is NASA that benefits from the Pu-238.
"The Committee remains concerned that the Administration continues to request equal funding from NASA and the Department of Energy for a project that primarily benefits NASA. The Committee provides no funds for this project, and encourages the Administration to devise a plan for this project that more closely aligns the costs paid by federal agencies with the benefits they receive."
This is the third time congressional appropriators have said no to providing DOE funds. in the FY2010 budget request, the Administration wanted DOE to fund all of the costs because historically DOE has built all of NASA's radioisotope power supplies (RPS's). DOE is the only U.S. entity permitted by law to make or store nuclear materials. NASA uses RPS's to provide warmth and electricity for spacecraft that travel too far from the Sun to use solar energy or spend long periods in darkness on lunar or planetary surfaces.
The United States ceased production of Pu-238 years ago and NASA has been using Pu-238 purchased from Russia. Those supplies also are running dry, hence the need to restart production domestically. The National Research Council issued a report in 2009 calling the situation urgent.
In FY2010, Congress said no to DOE paying the full costs ($30 million). In the FY2011 budget request, the Administration proposed that NASA and DOE split the costs. Congress turned that down, too. The Administration requested the same thing for FY2012 and it does not look as though they have yet persuaded appropriators that DOE should pay half.
The Secure World Foundation and Canada's Project Ploughshares released the latest edition of their Space Security Index this week. The report assesses trends in eight indicators of space security. The 2011 report is the eighth in the series.
The first trend pointed out in the report is that the amount of debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) continued to increase during the past year (2010). Debris from China's 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test against one of its own satellites has surpassed 3,000 objects according to the report. Some of the increase can be attributed to discovery of additional debris from the test itself, but some is also caused by debris impacting other debris and creating more of it. Even though there is more awareness of the problem, "space debris continues to pose an increasing threat to operational satellites and the long-term sustainability of space activities," says the report.
The report also notes that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is adding to its capabilities to track and catalog such objects in Earth orbit through space situational awareness (SSA) activities such as plans to build a new Space Fence of ground-based radars. Information in the report is current through the end of 2010. More recently, the House Appropriations Committee recommended significant cuts to the proposed Space Fence and other DOD SSA plans in the defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219).
During a panel discussion at the Canadian Embassy on Wednesday where the report was formally released, Andrew D'Uva, President of Providence Access Company, provided an update on the Space Data Association (SDA). One of the issues facing satellite operators is to know not only where satellites are, but where they are going. Operators often deliberately move their satellites from one orbital location to another, and occasionally lose control of a satellite entirely and it drifts through space affected by forces such as the solar wind.
For the first many decades of the Space Age, there were few satellites compared to the vastness of space in Earth orbit. Satellite owners did not worry about bumping into other satellites. But with the growth in operational and defunct satellites, not to mention space debris, collision avoidance based on luck alone no longer can be taken for granted. The 2009 collision of a commercial Iridium satellite with a defunct Russian satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) drove home that point.
The U.S. Air Force provides a public catalog of thousands of space objects (http://www.space-track.org/), but it does not include classified satellites and the data it does make public are not always precise. Created by three of the major satellite operators - Intelsat, Inmarsat, and SES - SDA uses data provided by its members to more accurately track their satellites and coordinate actions. Likening the movement of satellites in orbit to traffic on a highway, D'Uva said that "SDA is putting turn signals on satellites." He said enlightened self-interest motivated creation of SDA, not criticism that DOD does a poor job with its publicly available database. However, he noted that in a recent episode where Intelsat operators lost control of a satellite (Galaxy 15) and it drifted across a wide expanse of geostationary orbit (GEO), the data about the satellite's location in the publicly available DOD database were incorrect 15 percent of the time. "We can't rely on the TLEs," he said, referring to the DOD database of "two line element" sets. SDA provides collision avoidance monitoring for 222 commercial satellites from 15 satellite operators in GEO, plus 112 satellites from seven operators in LEO. He estimated that is about 60 percent of commercial GEO satellites and a smaller percentage of commercial LEO satellites.
The Space Security Index tracks trends in eight indicators of space security grouped into three categories: the condition of the space environment (such as space debris); the type of actors in space and how space is used; and the status of space-related technology as it pertains to protecting or interfering with space systems, or harming Earth from space. In previous editions, a ninth indicator was included - space-based strike weapons (SBSW). The authors of the report concluded this year, however, that there is "an absence of reliably documented SBSW" and they would reinstate it if and when there is "clear evidence...that such weapons are being developed or deployed."
The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have written to NASA warning that they will issue a subpoena for NASA documents if the agency does not supply them by 6:00 pm on Monday, June 27.
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) sent the letter on Wednesday. Referring to a previous letter they sent on May 18, the bipartisan committee leadership complained that NASA "has repeatedly refused to provide documents the Senate Commerce Committee needs to conduct appropriate oversight of your agency." Saying that NASA had provided only a "partial response" to the May 18 letter, the Senators went on to say that "you have thwarted our oversight activities by witholding key documents" including "at least 19 separate drafts of a report it is required to submit to Congress under Section 309" of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
The letter highlights the continuing tension between the White House and Congress over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program that has been the subject of numerous hearings since last year. Section 309 of the Act requires NASA to submit a report on how it will fulfill the Act's requirements to build a new Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to enable human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The report was required to be submitted by January 2011, but only an interim report was provided.
Congress is growing increasingly impatient with Administration delays in submitting the final report. NASA announced in May that the Orion capsule started under President George W. Bush's Constellation program would be used for the MPCV, and reportedly is close to announcing its plans for the SLS. The most recent rumor is that the announcement will be made before the final space shuttle launch currently scheduled for July 8.
SpacePolicyOnline.com correspondent Laura Delgado will be interviewed on David Livingston's The Space Show this Sunday, June 26. Listen at 3:00-4:30 pm EDT (12:00-1:30 pm Pacific time) as they discuss the wisdom of continuing to try to sell space exploration to the public by using the analogy of westward expansion in the United States -- the frontier metaphor. The show is streamed live at http://www.thespaceshow.com and listeners may call in or email questions.
Ms. Delgado recently wrote about her views on the relevance of the frontier metaphor to the 21st Century space program for our website and for Space News. She believes the paradigms of the past may not make sense today. Join in the debate on Sunday!
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee today announced that it will hold a hearing about NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) in two weeks.
The hearing is scheduled for July 12 at 10:00 am EDT in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is listed as the only witness. Congress has been anxiously awaiting NASA's plan for building the SLS. It directed NASA to build this heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. NASA was supposed to submit a report about its reference design for the system in January 2011. A report was submitted, but it was only an interim version.
Earlier this week, the bi-partisan leadership of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee threatened to subpoena NASA documents about SLS and other matters that it requested in May if NASA does not provide them by next Monday.
The Flight Readiness Review (FRR) for the final space shuttle launch, STS-135 (Atlantis), will take place on June 28. NASA will hold a press conference when it is finished to announce the launch date officially. Currently it is targeted for July 8 at 11:26 am EDT.
The press conference will be aired on NASA Television when the FRR concludes. Follow NASA's Twitter feed or check back here for updates during the day.
The four person STS-135 crew is composed of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. Four is the minimum number of crew needed to fly the shuttle and NASA is keeping the crew number at the minimum in case anything goes awry and they have to use the International Space Station (ISS) as a safe haven. There will be fewer mouths to feed and fewer people to return to Earth on extra Soyuz spacecraft with only four shuttle crew members instead of the usual complement of six or seven.
Meanwhile, astronaut Mark Kelly announced today that he will retire from NASA. Kelly just returned from commanding STS-134 (Endeavour). His wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), was recently released from TIRR-Memorial Hermann rehabilitation hospital in Houston. She is living at Kelly's home near Johnson Space Center, TX, but this past weekend was able to return to her district in Tucson, AZ for a visit. Her recovery from being shot in the head during an assassination attempt on January 8 continues to amaze and delight her friends, family, fans, and constituents. Kelly and Giffords reportedly have begun work on a joint memoir.
Kelly's retirement is effective October 1. With no more space shuttle launches, and any new U.S. crew space transportation system -- commercial or government -- not due for many years, the astronaut ranks are expected to continue to shrink. U.S. astronauts will still go to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but the six crew positions on the ISS are filled not only by Americans, but Russians, Europeans, Japanese and Canadians. The opportunities for spaceflight will be very limited for an indefinite number of years.
The Senate Armed Services Committee completed work on the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act today. The biggest cut to space programs is to the Navy's Mobile User Objective System, but only because of a launch delay that means the launch vehicle does not have to be procured now.
From the committee's press release, here are the space-related actions:
Requires the Secretary of Defense to review and assess the ability of national security Global Positioning Systems (GPS) receivers to receive GPS signals without interruption or interference, over the next 2 years.
Authorizes the Secretary of the Air Force to purchase as a block, two Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellites using a fixed price contract and with incremental funding.
Includes a provision that would authorize the Air Force to enter into cooperative agreements or contracts with commercial space providers to improve the manner in which the space launch ranges are managed, including the ability to share costs.
Deletes $205.0 million from the Navy Mobile User Objective System satellite program for the purchase of the space launch vehicle for the 4th satellite as a result of the delay in the launch of the 4th satellite. The budget request was $282.2 million.
Reduces GPS IIF space segment by $40.0 million as a result of the Air Force decision to restructure the program by buying two satellites per year vice 3.
Added $15.0 million for Space-based Infrared satellite (SBIRS) ground stations and sensor exploitation.
Added $20.0 million for SBIRS to integrate the nuclear detonation sensors on the SBIRS satellites 5 and 6, consistent with existing statutory requirement to maintain the nuclear detonation detection capability in space.
Directed the Defense Information Systems Agency to look at a number of options, in addition to buying or leasing a single commercial satellite, when deciding to acquire commercial satellite communications capacity.
Added $6.0 million for space situational awareness (SSA) to analyze additional space sensors for use in the SSA system.
The waiting will soon be over according to NASASpaceflight.com. NASA will at last announce its plans for the Space Launch System (SLS) before the final shuttle launch, now scheduled for July 8.
Congress has been increasingly impatient waiting for NASA to make a decision on the SLS, which it directed the agency to build in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. According to the NASASpaceflight.com website, NASA Administrator Bolden has signed off on a vehicle design. Quoting from a memo, the website describes a vehicle that will have an 8.4 meter core and upper stage, RS-25 engine for the core stage, J-2X engines on the upper stage, and 4 or 5 segment solid rocket boosters for initial flights.
The upshot of the Secure World Foundation's (SWF's) panel discussion yesterday on the status of the Obama National Space Policy (NSP) one year after its release was that the policy itself is just words on paper. What counts is implementation, and in many respects it is too early to judge how well that is going.
Peter Marquez, who spearheaded development of the NSP when he was on the staff of the White House's National Security Council (NSC), compared space policy to light - it is both a point and a wave. The NSP document is a point, he said, while implementation is a wave - a continuous process where various aspects are reinterpreted and reargued despite the intense labor that was devoted to choosing each word so carefully that no doubt was left as to its intent. Or so the authors thought.
Overall, though, he gave good marks on the progress of implementing many of the NSP's provisions. He praised the cadre of government specialists who are diligently working on follow up activities, including his successor at the NSC, Chirag Parikh. Parikh not only is leading implementation of the NSP, but is working with Damon Wells at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on updating the more focused space transportation policy according to Marquez.
He was critical of implementation in some areas, however, especially space situational awareness (SSA). He accused the Department of Defense (DOD) of hypocrisy because while it says that SSA is a top priority, the funding is not there. "An unfunded requirement isn't a requirement," he chided.
Andrew Palowitch, Director of the Air Force/National Reconnaissance Office Space Protection Program, was less enthusiastic, arguing that nothing that has happened in the past year or anything that will happen in the next year is due to the NSP. Pointing out that space activities take years to plan, he believes it will be 18-24 months before the NSP will have much effect. He also stressed that policy is much more than a single document emanating from the White House. It is a combination of White House policy documents, presidential pronouncements, legislation (including funding), and international agreements such as treaties that are adopted by the United States. Inaction is also a part of policy, he added.
Marquez disagreed that "nothing" has changed. He asserted that while programs may not have changed yet, as a political and international initative, the policy has changed the situation dramatically. Referring to the completed document, he called it a "decent" policy and its implementation is moving in the right direction. "See where we are in two, three, four years, we'll invite ourselves back," he cheerfully suggested.
SWF's Ben Baseley-Walker also disagreed with Palowitch. Internationally, what is important is the message not the details in his view. "This has changed where the U.S. stands in the world," he said, adding that the first page of the NSP "is the most important." He believes the NSP laid the foundation "for effective U.S. leadership." He particularly praised the efforts of DOD's Greg Schulte and the State Department's Frank Rose who have taken the NSP around the world to explain and engage in dialog about it with other nations.
A recurring discussion point was the plan by a company called Lightsquared to build a hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile broadband communications system that some experts contend will harmfully interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) signals. Marquez said that the issue is consuming a lot of time at the White House and DOD and that if Lightsquared is allowed to proceed it "doesn't matter what the rest of the [national space] policy says." The NSP reaffirms the U.S. commitment to GPS services and international cooperation and interference mitigation for space-based positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) systems like GPS.
He and Palowitch decried the waning technical expertise in the government, particularly at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which, they feel, should have been able to determine whether or not interference will be a problem. Instead, it gave the company a provisional license in January, directing the company to work with the GPS industry to do testing to determine the interference potential. The company is not allowed to initiate commercial operations of its terrestrial network until the GPS issues are resolved. The company was supposed to report back to the FCC earlier this week, but requested and was granted a two week extension. Its report now is due July 1. Separately, the government's National Space-Based PNT Systems Engineering Forum (NPEF) conducted its own review and reportedly concluded that the FCC should rescind the license. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on this issue on June 23. Marquez is a member of NPEF's parent National Space-Based PNT Executive Committee.
Another controversial topic raised at the SWF forum was whether the United States should sign the Code of Conduct developed by the European Union (EU). Palowitch criticized it because it is the "EU" code of conduct and it should be a document that is developed by all the space-faring countries. He thinks that what is needed is "collective assurance," a code of conduct for the international community. Baseley-Walker replied that actually it is the European proposal for an international code of conduct, but he stopped short of recommending that the United States sign onto it now. Emerging space countries want "equity" in whatever document is crafted, he said. Marquez argued that signing the document would not put the United States in a leadership position and worried about the "law of unintended consequences."
In the end, is having a national space policy written down on paper important? Marquez said that from an academic standpoint, the answer is no - only the actions count. Palowitch, who downplayed the impact of the policy so far, conceded that "international engagement has been energized." Baseley-Walker went further, saying that the policy "changed the tone internationally" and "getting out early and loudly was great" from an international perspective.
The following events may be of interest in the coming week. Check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below for more information. Times and dates for congressional activities are subject to change; check the relevant committee's website for up to date information. All times are EDT unless otherwise noted.
During the Week
The House and Senate are both in session this week. Meanwhile, the Paris Air Show takes place at Le Bourget, France.
Monday-Wednesday, June 20-22
Tuesday, June 21
- Space Weather Enterprise Forum, National Press Club, Washington, DC, 7:30 am - 5:00 pm
- NASA teleconference on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter results and future, 2:00 pm, virtual (listen at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio)
- International Space University lecture featuring former NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Jay Honeycutt, Westin Grand Hotel, Washington, DC, 5:30 pm
Tuesday-Friday, June 21-24
Wednesday, June 22
- Women in Aerospace Top Issues In Space Law panel, Honeywell offices at 101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 8:30 - 10:00 am
- House SS&T Committee hearing on NOAA"s Proposal Climate Service, 2318 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 10:00 am
- Secure World Foundation/Project Poughshares release of 2011 Space Security Index, Canadian Embassy, Washington, DC, 10:00 am
- Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing with public witnesses, 192 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, 10:30 am
- NASA Advisory Council Planetary Science Subcommittee, virtual (telephone and WebEx), 11:30 am - 4:00 pm
Thursday, June 23
Events of Interest
- ASTM Intl Mtg on Commercial Spaceflight Standards, October 24, 2016, RTCA Inc., 1150 18th St., NW, Washington, DC, 1:00 pm ET
- Aerospace Security Project- US Military and Cmrcl Spce Industry (CSIS), October 24, 2016, CSIS, 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 2:00-3:30 pm ET (webcast)
- Reinventing Space 2016 (BIS), October 24-27, 2016, Royal Society, London, England
- AAS Von Braun Symposium, October 25-27, 2016, Univ of Alabama-Huntsville, Huntsville, AL (general sessions will be webcast)
- NASA Adv Council (NAC) Heliophysics Sbcmte, October 25, 2016, virtual, 10:00 am - 4:00 pm ET (WebEx/telecon)
- FAA-AST Industry Day on Civil Space Traffic Mgmt System, October 25, 2016, NTSB Conference Center, L'Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC, 9:00 am - 12:00 pm ET
- FAA COMSTAC, October 25-26, 2016, NTSB Conference Center, L'Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC, Oct 25, 1:00-5:30 pm ET, Oct 26, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm ET (Oct 26 will be webcast)
- Hazards of Space Weather on Human and Robotic Space Exploration (NASA/NASM), October 25, 2016, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, 1:00 pm ET (webcast)
- American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR), October 26-29, 2016, Cleveland, OH (many sessions will be webcast)
- NASA Adv Council (NAC) Science Cmte, October 26-27, 2016, virtual (WebEx/telecon)
- NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Adv Cmte (AAAC), October 27-28, 2016, NSF, Arlington, VA
Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »
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