Latest News

NASA Seeks Small Lunar Lander Payload Ideas, Moon Express Will Help with Funding

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Nov-2016 (Updated: 01-Nov-2016 06:30 PM)

NASA issued a Request for Information (RFI) today soliciting concepts for small payloads to fly on commercial robotic missions that will land on the lunar surface in the 2017-2020 time frame.  One of the companies offering transportation for such payloads, Moon Express, in turn said it would provide $500,000 for each of three payloads selected by NASA that would fly on its first three missions, a total of $1.5 million.

The announcements were made in conjunction with the first day of the annual Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) meeting, which provides input to NASA.  The meeting is being held at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) headquarters in Columbia, MD today through November 3. 

The NASA RFI was issued by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate  (HEOMD), not the Science Mission Directorate that traditionally supports robotic exploration of the solar system. This is not the first time that NASA's human exploration office has funded robotic lunar missions, but comes at a time when NASA is not planning to send humans to the surface of the Moon only to orbits around it (cislunar space).  President Obama cancelled U.S. plans to return humans to the lunar surface in 2010 when he terminated the Constellation program.  NASA human spaceflight officials have indicated in recent years, however, that they agree there is value in learning how to live and work on the lunar surface and utilize lunar resources as part of the longer term goal of sending humans to Mars. They hope international and/or commercial partners will undertake that part of the journey.

International and commercial partners are indeed discussing it.  The European Space Agency (ESA) is advocating for a "lunar village" or "moon village."  ESA Director General Jan Woerner and his colleagues, including Bernard Foing who spoke at the LEAG meeting this morning, stress that they do not mean a collection of houses and businesses like a village on Earth, but a group of countries and other entities working together on the lunar surface to answer scientific questions and solve problems to enable future human exploration of the solar system. 

At the same time, the private sector is taking steps towards commercial missions to the Moon.  Moon Express is the furthest along of the teams competing in the $40 million Google Lunar X-Prize to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, and send images and data back to Earth.  Sixteen teams remain in the competition, but three are widely considered the primary contenders: two U.S. companies, Moon Express and Astrobotic, plus Israel's SpaceIL.  Moon Express is the only one with a verified launch contract and permission from the U.S. government to conduct the mission.  Both U.S. companies stress that winning the X-prize is only one motivation and they have business plans for activities separate from that competition.  Other companies also have lunar plans, some of which will be discussed at tomorrow's LEAG meeting.

As noted, although NASA itself is not planning to send humans to the surface of the Moon, working with LEAG it identified Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for lunar human exploration in three areas: understanding the lunar resource potential, understanding the lunar environment and its affect on human life, and understanding how to work and live on the lunar surface.  The RFI released today is aimed at addressing those and other NASA strategic objectives "as cost-effectively as possible" by procuring "payloads and related commercial payload delivery services to the Moon."  The RFI does not guarantee that any payloads will be chosen -- everything is subject to the availability of funds -- but solicits ideas from U.S. industry, universities, non-profit organizations, NASA centers including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other U.S. government agencies.  Responses are due by December 9, 2016.

For its part, Moon Express issued a press release promising up to $500,000 for each of three NASA-selected payloads that would fly on its first three "commercial lunar missions of opportunity" beginning next year.   Moon Express calls it the Lunar Scout program.   Moon Express founder and CEO Bob Richards said the company's "goal is to collapse the cost of access to the Moon and to enable a new era of lunar exploration and development for students, scientists, and commercial interests."   Moon Express is already a partner in NASA's Lunar CATALYST program designed to spur development of commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the Moon.  Richards said Lunar Scout is intended to be a pathfinder for new public private partnerships beyond Lunar CATALYST.

Moon Express is building small lunar landers that will be launched by Rocket Lab USA's Electron rockets from New Zealand.  It has a contract for three Electron launches beginning in 2017.  Electron has not yet achieved its first launch although construction of the launch site on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula was completed in September 2016.  The deadline for launching a mission to win the Google Lunar X-Prize is the end of 2017.


What's Happening in Space Policy October 31-November 5, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Oct-2016 (Updated: 31-Oct-2016 05:31 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 31-November 5, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess until November 14.

During the Week

As usual, there is a full plate of interesting space policy events coming up this week.  

To highlight just two, NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) will meet in Columbia, MD at the headquarters of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA).  It will spend part of the first day (Tuesday) discussing ESA Director General Jan Woerner's concept for a Moon Village (or Lunar Village).  Wednesday features an evening reception where Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) will provide an update on his American Space Renaissance Act and policies needed to ensure free enterprise can occur on the Moon and in cislunar space.  Bridenstine is a leading voice in Congress for determining what is needed to enable the United States government to fulfill its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty in a manner that facilitates new types of private sector activities in Earth orbit and beyond.   We've inquired as to whether any of the meeting will be webcast and will add that information to our calendar entry if/when we get an answer. [UPDATE:  It will be available by WebEx.  See our calendar entry for details.]

On Friday and Saturday, the New Worlds Institute will hold the New Worlds 2016 Conference and Space Settlement Symposium at the Renaissance Austin Hotel at the Arboretum in North Austin, TX.  It features a star-studded line-up of speakers separately making "the case for" the Moon, for Mars, and for free-space, plus sessions on space elevators, space solar power, protecting the planets, who owns space, and a broad range of other topics.  Co-chaired by Mary Lynne Dittmar (Coalition for Deep Space Exploration), Pete Worden (Breakthrough Prize) and Phil Metzger (founder of Kennedy Space Center Swamp Works), speakers include Bob Richards (Moon Express), Bob Zubrin (Mars Society), Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA), Margaret Race (SETI Institute), John Lewis (University of Arizona), and Rick Tumlinson (New Worlds Institute).  The website does not indicate whether any of it will be webcast.  We've inquired and will post the information on our calendar if/when we find out. [UPDATE: we've been informed that it will NOT be webcast, although a few videos may be posted later.]

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, October 31

Monday-Tuesday, October 31 - November 1

Tuesday, November 1

  • NASA Innovation Mission Day, NASA HQ and all NASA centers, various times and locations [keynote address by Deputy Administrator Dava Newman at 12:00 pm ET will be broadcast on NASA TV)

Tuesday-Thursday, November 1-3

Wednesday, November 2

Wednesday-Thursday, November 2-3

Wednesday-Friday, November 2-4

Thursday-Saturday, November 3-5

  • SpaceVision 2016 (annual SEDS conference), Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN

Friday-Saturday, November 4-5

China Readies Long March 5 for First Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Oct-2016 (Updated: 29-Oct-2016 01:11 PM)

China's new Long March 5 rocket was transported to its launch pad yesterday in preparation for its inaugural launch according to China's official Xinhua news agency.  Xinhua did not specify the launch date, saying only it would be in "early November."

Long March 5 will be the largest of China's rockets, slightly smaller in capability than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy.  It will be able to place 25 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit (LEO) compared to Delta IV's 28.4 MT.

This is the fourth new Chinese rocket to make its debut in the past 13 months and the second to utilize China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

China tested two very small new rockets last fall, the liquid-fueled Long March 6 and solid-fueled Long March 11. The first launch from Wenchang was of the new medium-class Long March 7 in June. 

Long March 5, 6 and 7 are all part of China's plan to replace its older launch vehicles (Long March 2, 3 and 4) with those that use more environmentally-friendly propellants -- liquid oxygen (LOX)/kerosene instead of hydrazine.

Among the payloads China has announced for Long March 5 are space station modules that will be docked together in orbit to form a 60 MT space station around 2022.  China currently has two astronauts aboard its small (8.6 MT) Tiangong-2 space station, but they will remain there for only 30 days.  China has sent mixed signals as to whether a second crew will occupy Tiangong-2, but it is not intended for long-term occupancy.  

While the 60 MT space station planned for 2022 is still small compared to the 400 MT International Space Station (ISS), under current plans, the ISS partners (the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries) will discontinue ISS operations in 2024.  That could mean China's will become the only earth orbiting space station, although some or all of the ISS partners could decide to continue ISS operations thereafter.  NASA also is requesting input from the U.S. private sector to determine if a commercial space station is feasible as an ISS follow-on.

China also plans to use Long March 5 for robotic space exploration missions. They include a sample return mission to the Moon (Chang'e 5) next year and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.  China launched a lunar sample return test spacecraft in 2014 that demonstrated returning a capsule to Earth from lunar distance, and a lander/rover (Chang'e-3/Yutu) to the Moon's surface in 2013.  The 2020 Mars mission will be China's first to that planet on its own, although a Chinese orbiter was aboard Russia's failed Phobos-Grunt mission in 2012.

Long March 5 will open many new opportunities for China's space program in earth orbit and beyond.  It is roughly double the capability of its largest existing rockets, the Long March 3B (12 MT to LEO) and Long March 7 (13.5 MT to LEO).

SpaceX Narrows Investigation, But Still no Root Cause

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Oct-2016 (Updated: 28-Oct-2016 10:45 PM)

SpaceX said today that it continues to narrow the investigation into what caused the on-pad fire that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 satellite on September 1.  The root cause still has not been determined, although the company hopes it can resume launches before the end of this year.

The Falcon 9 rocket was engulfed in flames and exploded during a standard pre-launch test two days before the scheduled launch of the Israeli-built Amos-6 communications satellite, which also was destroyed. The launch pad, Launch Complex 40 (LC-40), at the Air Force's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), was damaged. SpaceX leases the pad from the Air Force.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk calls it the "most difficult and complex failure we have seen."  Earlier, the company said it was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank in the rocket's second stage.  A video of the incident shows the fire beginning near that location.  Today's statement explains that engineers have narrowed the cause to one of three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside that LOX tank.  They have been able to recreate a COPV failure "entirely through helium loading conditions" that are "mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded."

They are now focusing on finding the exact root cause and "developing improved helium loading conditions," implying that they consider this a procedural rather than hardware-related issue.

The statement asserts that they are still working towards a resumption of Falcon 9 launches "before the end of the year" from launch pads at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  It does not mention the status of LC-40. 

SpaceX has several launch site options.  In addition to LC-40, it leases Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) from NASA at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), adjacent to CCAFS, and Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), CA from the Air Force (it has two pads, 4E and 4W).   VAFB is used for launches into polar orbits that circle the Earth's poles, as opposed to lower inclination orbits that benefit from launching in an easterly direction from Florida. 

The announcement said both of those launch sites "remain on track to be operational in this timeframe."  SpaceX has already launched Falcon 9s from SLC-4E at VAFB.  Its first launch from KSC's LC-39A was expected this year, but of a different version of Falcon, the first flight of Falcon Heavy.  It is not clear now when that rocket will make its debut.

SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, Texas, although it has said little about that the status of that site in recent months.

ESA Gets Better View of Schiaparelli Impact Site, But Mysteries Remain

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2016 (Updated: 27-Oct-2016 07:08 PM)

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has provided a higher resolution image of the site where the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Schiaparelli lander impacted the Martian surface, but some of the features in the image remain unexplained.  Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program and was designed to demonstrate technologies needed for the next phase of the program -- a Russian lander and ESA rover to be launched in 2020.  Understanding exactly what happened is crucial for the 2020 mission.

Schiaparelli was launched together with ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) in March. The two made the trip to Mars together, separating on October 16, three days before arrival at Mars. TGO successfully entered orbit, but contact was lost with Schiaparelli during its descent. 

It was located two days later using the low resolution CTX camera on MRO.  The image indicated that the lander crashed into the surface at a high velocity after separating from its parachute and heat shield.   ESA has been awaiting a second pass over the site by MRO to obtain an image with its high resolution camera, HiRISE.

That image was taken on October 25 and released to the public today. It shows three impact areas, highlighted in the image below, within 1.5 kilometers of each other.

High resolution image of Mars surface where ESA's Schiaparelli lander impacted, taken by HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, October 25, 2016.  Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.  Inserts are 6-fold enlargements, brightness was adjusted separately for each inset to better show details.

As shown in the image, the parachute and the rear section of the heat shield (also called the back shell, to which the parachute was attached) landed adjacent to each other (bottom left). The front section of the heat shield separated from the rest of the spacecraft as planned and landed further away (top right).  A shallow crater, perhaps half a meter deep, in between is where the lander reached the surface and, presumably, exploded.  Data that ESA received from Schiaparelli before it went silent indicate that the parachute and back shell released prematurely and nine thrusters that should have slowed the spacecraft fired for only a few seconds, so the fuel tank would have been relatively full.  ESA estimates that the spacecraft was in free-fall for the final 2-4 kilometers of its journey and impacted the surface at a velocity of as much as 300 kilometers/hour.

ESA said today that the "asymmetric surrounding dark markings" near the crater "are more difficult to interpret."  Also, the "long dark arc" to the upper right of the crater "is currently unexplained."  Both could be related to the impact and presumed explosion, ESA added, but more analysis is needed.

Schiaparelli and TGO are the first two of four spacecraft that comprise ESA's ExoMars program, which it is conducting cooperatively with Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation.  Initially ExoMars was an ESA-NASA program, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion and ESA turned to Russia instead.  

The other two spacecraft -- a Russian lander and an ESA rover -- are scheduled for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). Schiaparelli was designed to test entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the lander/rover mission.  Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on Mars. Seven of eight attempts since 1976 have succeeded:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity.  Only the 1999 Mars Polar Lander failed.  One of the four landers sent to Mars by the Soviet Union in the 1970s sent back data after landing, but for less than 20 seconds so is not considered a success.  The United Kingdom sent the Beagle 2 lander to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express in 2003, but it landed in a semi-deployed manner and was unable to communicate.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner stresses that TGO is fully successful and will conduct its planned science program to study trace gases in the Martian atmosphere that may reveal whether life ever existed there, and serve as a communications relay for the 2020 lander/rover.  He also considers Schiaparelli a success in the sense that entry into the atmosphere and deployment of the parachute worked as planned and they will gain data from the investigation that will be important to the success of the 2020 mission.

Clinton Wants Balanced NASA Program With Climate Change Research and Exploration Partnerships

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Oct-2016 (Updated: 25-Oct-2016 11:42 PM)

Jim Kohlenberger, who served in both the Obama and Bill Clinton administrations, published an op-ed in Space News today laying out Hillary Clinton's civil space agenda.  Clinton wants a balanced NASA program with a focus on climate change research as well as a "robust" exploration program, all in partnership with the international and commercial communities.

Kohlenberger was chief of staff for the Obama White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from 2009-2011.  During Bill Clinton's presidency, he was Senior Domestic Policy Advisor to Vice President Al Gore.   Currently he is President of JK Strategies, a public policy consulting practice, and Executive Director of the Center for Copyright Information. 

This is the third op-ed in the trade publication providing information on the candidates' views on space.  The first two, published last week (on civil space issues) and yesterday (on national security space) were from two representatives of the Trump campaign, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro.  Trump himself also spoke about NASA briefly today.

Kohlenberger's op-ed, like those from the Trump campaign, is very broad and offers few specifics, but provides an overview of Clinton's views on civil space issues.  She will "advance American ideals" through a balanced program of science, technology and exploration and promote strong coordination across the federal government as well as "cooperation with industry and collaboration with the international community."  That includes efforts to "deepen support for strong public-private partnerships."

While he does not say that Clinton would reestablish a White House National Space Council, as Walker and Navarro said Trump would do, he states that she "will elevate executive branch coordination of federal space agency initiatives."  He does not specify the mechanism for accomplishing that goal.

The need for NASA and NOAA to engage in climate change research is specifically called out.  Kohlenberger criticizes Trump's opinion that climate change is "a hoax," stating that it is not just "shortsighted," but endangers space exploration since launch sites in Florida and Virginia are vulnerable to rising sea levels.  Clinton "knows that climate change is an urgent threat" and NASA and NOAA programs to study it are "invaluable."

As for exploration, Clinton is committed to a program that includes the International Space Station (ISS), commercial space leadership, bold missions into deep space, and the commercial crew program. 

"Secretary Clinton knows that, just like taking on challenges here on Earth, the strongest way to explore and utilize space is by doing so together" with international and commercial partners. 

At a top level, except for climate change research, the Trump and Clinton positions seem fairly similar.  Both endorse public private partnerships, the need for better coordination within the federal government, and a strong human exploration program beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  However, they both also lack specifics about whether they support the ongoing beyond LEO programs: the Space Launch System, Orion, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Trump: "I Will Free NASA" From Being Just a LEO Space Logistics Agency

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Oct-2016 (Updated: 25-Oct-2016 07:51 PM)

Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump vowed today to "free NASA" from serving "primarily" as a logistics agency for low Earth orbit operations.   He also supported more public private partnerships and asserted that if he wins "America and Florida will lead the way into the stars."

Trump spoke at the Orlando Sanford International Airport today.  Originally, he planned to visit Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Space Coast, but those plans changed over the weekend.  Florida Today reported that the Trump campaign concluded there was no suitable indoor venue near KSC and outdoor locations posed security risks, but Trump did, indeed, speak outdoors at the Sanford rally.  He mentioned that it was to have taken place inside an airplane hangar, but it was too small for the crowd.

The space program came up at the end of an almost hour-long speech (available on YouTube).  The following is's transcript:

"My plan also includes major investments in space exploration, also right here [in Florida].  You know what we call this place.

"Over the last 8 years, the Obama-Clinton administration has undermined our space program tremendously. That will change. So many good things come out of it, including great jobs. That will change very quickly under a Trump administration and it'll change before it’s too late.

"Did you ever see what’s going on with space, with Russia and different places?  And us?  We’re, like, we’re like watching.   Isn’t that nice? So much is learned from that, too.

"A cornerstone of my policy is we will substantially expand public private partnerships to maximize the amount of investment and funding that is available for space exploration and development.  This means launching and operating major space assets, right here, that employ thousands and spur innovation and fuel economic growth.

"I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low earth orbit activity.  Big deal.

"Instead we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.  With a victory in November, everything will change.  Just think about what we can accomplish in 100 days."

His characterization of NASA as an agency whose primary mission is providing logistics to low Earth orbit (LEO) is surprising even assuming that his remarks were centered on the human spaceflight program and not NASA's many robotic spacecraft in Earth orbit and elsewhere in the solar system.   The only logistics flights to LEO associated with NASA are the commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS).   Upcoming commercial crew flights would also fit under that categorization, but it ignores the the ISS itself and the round-the-clock, round-the-year crew presence that enables scientific experiments important to future human exploration.

His embrace of public-private partnerships, rather than being at odds with the Obama Administration, is an extension of President Obama's policy, which itself built on the George W. Bush Administration's commercial cargo initiative.

Still, these are the most extensive remarks from the candidate himself.  Two campaign advisers, Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, published on op-ed in Space News last week laying out the broad strokes of a Trump civil space policy.  They followed-up this week with a second op-ed addressing national security space, asserting that Trump would follow a "peace through strength" strategy.  That includes a recognition that "many of our military needs can be met with commercially available launch, communications and observation capabilities," an approach that will reduce costs and access new advances more quickly, they stated.  "No space goals will be more important to Donald Trump than defense of our nation and that a freedom-loving people will lead the way to the heavens above."

Walker is Executive Chairman of the Wexler|Walker lobbying firm and a former member of Congress from Pennsylvania who served as chairman of what is now the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House.  He was part of Gingrich's inner circle.  Both are avid space supporters and advisers to Trump.   Navarro is a Harvard-educated economist and business professor at the University of California-Irvine.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 24-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2016 (Updated: 23-Oct-2016 05:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 24-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.

During the Week

Commercial space policy is at the top of the list this week. The FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and its working groups meet on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday.  Those will be preceded by two associated meetings of interest -- one tomorrow (Monday) afternoon to discuss voluntary industry standards and another Tuesday morning on a Civil Space Traffic Management system. 

Tomorrow's meeting is of ASTM International, a standards setting body, that will discuss whether it should create a new technical committee to develop voluntary consensus standards for commercial spaceflight.  Last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) called for the development of such standards and COMSTAC has had a working group on the topic for some time.  Tuesday morning, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), in conjunction with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the Satellite Industry Association, will hold an "industry day" (actually half a day) to discuss a Civil Space Traffic Management System.  The meeting is open to the public and has an interesting agenda that includes Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy.   Space Traffic Management (STM) is a step beyond Space Situational Awareness (SSA).  While definitions vary, generally speaking SSA is knowing where everything is in orbit and where it's going, thereby enabling "conjunction analyses" to warn satellite operators if a collision is likely.  STM - with an emphasis on "management" --  would empower some entity to require those operators to take action to avoid a collision.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine has proposed that FAA/AST be assigned that role.  CSLCA called for a study by an independent organization on alternative frameworks for STM.  To date, FAA/AST has focused on the SSA portion.  FAA/AST is part of the Department of Transportation, which sent a report to Congress last month concluding it is feasible for them to take over DOD's role of providing SSA data to commercial and foreign entities (CFEs).  All of this likely will be discussed on Tuesday.

Separately, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is beginning a new Aerospace Security Project and its first meeting (tomorrow afternoon) is also looking at commercial space.  Loverro will be at that one, too, along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and representatives of DigitalGlobe, Planet, and Boeing.  That discussion will focus on how the military can better leverage commercial space capabilities.

Elsewhere in the country, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its annual Von Braun Symposium in Huntsville, AL.  This year's theme is "Exploring the Universe and Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space."   Among the sessions is one on Wednesday morning  where Scott Pace (GWU) and Ann Zulkosky (Lockheed Martin) will discuss "After the Election -- What's Next for Space?"  The symposium will be webcast.  Note that all times on the agenda are Central Daylight Time.

There are quite a few space science meetings, too.  The NASA Advisory Council's Heliophysics Subcommittee meets via telecon on Tuesday from 10:00 am - 4:00 pm ET.  Heliophysics is the study of the Sun and its influence on Earth -- space weather -- and NASA and the National Air and Space Museum will have a panel discussion on the impact of space weather on human and robotic exploration missions at the same time (1:00-2:30 pm ET).  The full NAC Science Committee meets Wednesday and Thursday (also via telecon).  The NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) meets at NSF in Arlington, VA on Thursday and Friday. 

The American Society for Gravitational and Space Research meets in Cleveland from Tuesday-Saturday.  It will hold a pre-conference workshop Tuesday morning entitled "Nanoracks and Blue Origin."   Some of the conference sessions will be webcast, including a luncheon talk on Wednesday by former Senate staffer Jeff Bingham on evolving U.S. civil space policy and the role of the International Space Station.  NASA's Julie Robinson and Brian Motil have a session right after that on "15 Years of Microgravity Science on the ISS" that also will be webcast.  Lots of interesting sessions throughout the week.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, October 24

Monday-Thursday, October 24-27

Tuesday, October 25

Tuesday-Thursday, October 25-27

Wednesday, October 26

  • FAA COMSTAC (full committee), NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm ET (webcast)

Wednesday-Thursday, October 26-27

Wednesday-Saturday, October 26-29

Thursday-Friday, October 27-28

Found: One European Mars Lander, No Longer Intact

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2016 (Updated: 27-Oct-2016 07:03 PM)

Imagery from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has located the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Schiaparelli lander.  ESA lost contact with the lander two days ago mid-way through its descent to the planet's surface.  The image suggests that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of 2-4 kilometers, probably because the thrusters cut off early.  It "may have" exploded on contact with the surface since the fuel tanks would have been full, but ESA cautions that these are only preliminary interpretations.

The image was taken by the low-resolution CTX camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been orbiting Mars since 2006.  MRO will make another pass over the site next week and use its high-resolution HiRISE camera to image the area again. [UPDATE: ESA released the image on October 27.]

Today's image has a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface compared to an image taken in May.  ESA concluded that one feature is Schiaparelli's 12-meter diameter parachute and the other is from the lander's impact with the surface.

Top:  mosaic of images of Schiaparelli landing area from MRO and NASA's Mars Odyssey.
Bottom: MRO imagery of surface of Mars showing before (left) and after (right) images of location where ESA's Schiaparelli lander impacted.
Caption credit:  condensed from Emily Lakdawalla's Planetary Society blog.

An ESA press release stated: "Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. ... It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.  These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis."

The "fuzzy dark patch" where it impacted the surface is about 1 kilometer away from the parachute. The impact area is 5.4 kilometers west of its intended landing point and within the planned landing ellipse.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society calculated that Schiaparelli impacted 54 kilometers away from NASA's Opportunity rover's current location on the edge of Endeavour crater.

Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program, a cooperative program with Russia.   There are four spacecraft in the program:  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander, launched together earlier this year, and a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020 (delayed from 2018).

Schiaparelli's purpose was to test entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the 2020 mission.  At a press conference yesterday, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said he was happy with the mission even if Schiaparelli did not make a survivable landing since its purpose was to test these technologies.   It did enter the Mars atmosphere correctly, descend, jettison its heat shield and deploy its parachute. Something happened right at the time the parachute should have jettisoned.  What happened remains a mystery, but ExoMars Project Manger Don McCoy expressed confidence yesterday that after fully analyzing data transmitted from Schiaparelli to TGO during the descent "we will have no doubt" about what transpired. The imagery from MRO will certainly help in the quest for answers.

Woerner is also enthusiastic about the mission because TGO is in its proper orbit, able to serve as a communications link with the 2020 lander/rover as well as to conduct its scientific mission to study trace gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere that could provide information on whether life ever existed there.   He is optimistic that the ministers of ESA's member states will similarly see the mission as a success since more money is needed to complete the 2020 portion of the mission, on the order of 300 million Euros.

The United States is the only country to unequivocally make successful landings on Mars.   The Soviet Union sent four landers to Mars in the 1970s (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7).  Only Mars 3 transmitted a signal back to Earth after landing and it lasted less than 20 seconds.  Britain's Beagle 2 traveled to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express orbiter in 2003.  Contact was lost before it entered the Martian atmosphere.  MRO also located that spacecraft on the surface just last year.  It was only partially deployed and unable to communicate back to Earth.

NASA has sent eight landers to Mars, seven successfully:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity.  One, Mars Polar Lander, failed, probably because of a similar problem as Schiaparelli -- early termination of the retrorockets.


ESA's Woerner: "I'm Happy" with ExoMars Even Though Fate of Lander Still Unknown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2016 (Updated: 20-Oct-2016 06:39 AM)

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner painted a highly positive picture of ESA's ExoMars 2016 mission this morning even though the agency still does not know the fate of one of the two spacecraft -- the Schiaparelli lander.  Stressing that Schiaparelli was a test, Woerner focused on the successful insertion into orbit of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that not only will study the Martian atmosphere, but serve as a communications relay for a planned rover ESA will launch in 2020. 

ExoMars is a cooperative program between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos.  NASA originally planned to partner with ESA, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion, so ESA turned to Russia instead.  A total of four spacecraft -- two launched in 2016 and two in 2020 (delayed from 2018) -- comprise the program.

TGO and Schiaparelli are ExoMars 2016.  They were launched in March 2016 and traveled together to Mars. They separated on October 16, three days before Mars arrival, for the final legs of their journeys. They reached Mars yesterday.  TGO went into orbit as planned, but contact with Schiaparelli was lost before it reached the surface.

Artist's illustration of the separation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from the Schiaparelli lander.  Image credit: ESA

TGO has two functions: to study traces gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere, that could provide clues as to whether life ever existed there, and to serve as a communications relay for a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020.  The lander and rover are ExoMars 2020.

Woerner and other ESA officials speaking at a press conference at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstat, Germany this morning stressed that TGO is the "cornerstone" of both ExoMars 2016 and ExoMars 2020 and it is fine.  Schiaparelli was a test of entry, descent and landing technologies that will be needed for ExoMars 2020 and although its ultimate fate is not yet determined, it did successfully enter the Martian atmosphere and proceed through initial phases of descent, providing important data.

From Woerner's point of view, the overall mission is TGO plus the landing test and he is satisfied:  "I'm happy.... It's a big success."   

Andrea Accomazzo, head of ESA's Solar and Planetary Missions Division, explained that they are still analyzing the large amount of engineering data Schiaparelli transmitted to TGO during its descent.  What they know now is that Schiaparelli, also referred to as EDM -- entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module -- entered the Martian atmosphere, the heatshield worked "perfectly," and the parachutes deployed successfully following a pre-programmed set of commands. 

However, just before the parachutes were to be ejected, about 50 seconds before it would have reached the surface, the spacecraft "did not behave exactly as expected," he said.  At least some of Schiaparelli's retrorockets fired, but for only 3-4 seconds and the lander's ground radar was activated.  What happened next is undetermined, although he is confident that eventually "we will have no doubt" about what occurred.

Schiaparelli is somewhere on the surface of Mars now, whether or not it is operating.   ExoMars Program Manager Don McCoy said that its batteries should last between four and 10-12 Martian days (sols).  Although TGO could receive data from Schiaparelli during its descent, now that it is in orbit, it is not in a position to hear the lander.  Instead, an older ESA orbiter, Mars Express, and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will listen for signals that Schiaparelli is programmed to transmit at specific times.

As noted, ExoMars 2016 is only the first part of the ExoMars program.  The second part is the Russian lander/European rover still under development.  Woerner said that a review of the 2020 mission is scheduled for next week and acknowledged that ESA already was planning to ask its member states for more money to finish it, on the order of 300 million Euros.  He is optimistic that they will view ExoMars 2016 as a success just as he does and provide the necessary resources to complete the program.

Events of Interest


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: