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Antares Return to Flight Will Be October 13 if Matthew Doesn't Interfere - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Oct-2016 (Updated: 14-Oct-2016 01:43 PM)

UPDATE, October 14, 2016:   The launch is currently scheduled for October 16 at 8:03 pm ET.  It was delayed from October 13 to October 14 due to a "minor vehicle processing issue...together with time spent on contingency planning for Hurricane Matthew" which could have come up the East Coast (but did not).  It was delayed again from October 14 to October 16 because of concerns about Hurricane Nicole's impact on Bermuda where a critical tracking station is located.   There was little damage, however, and NASA/Wallops PAO Keith Koehler reports today that, as of now, the launch remains on track for October 16.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 4, 2016: Orbital ATK and NASA have agreed on October 13 as the launch date for the next Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  That date is contingent on the company completing pre-launch integration and testing activities and on the path of Hurricane Matthew.

A launch date range of October 9-13 was previously announced.  The launch time on October 13 is 9:13 pm ET.

This will be Orbital ATK's first flight of the re-engined version of Antares, using two Russian RD-181 engines instead of Russian NK-33/AJ26 engines.   The company is retrofitting its Antares rockets with the newer engines because of an October 28, 2014 launch failure that was blamed on the older engine.  It destroyed the rocket and the Cygnus cargo spacecraft that was filled with cargo headed to the ISS.  That was the third operational ISS cargo mission for Orbital Sciences Corporation and was designated Orb-3.

Orbital Sciences later merged with ATK to become Orbital ATK.   While waiting for the new Antares to be ready, Orbital ATK launched two ISS cargo missions using United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket .  They were designated OA-4 and OA-6.

The upcoming flight, OA-5, was supposed to launch in between those two, hence the disrupted numbering system.

Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.   That is on the Atlantic Coast of the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (DELMARVA) peninsula.   Hurricane Matthew, which is expected to inflict severe damage on Haiti today, is a variable that could change the launch date.  Forecasters are not able to pinpoint Matthew's course after Haiti, although Florida has declared a state of emergency already just in case it heads in that direction.  If it comes up the East Coast, it could affect coastal Virginia and delay pre-launch preparations.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the original Antares used a single NK-33/AJ26 engine.  It used two.

Gravitational Waves Get New Focus From NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Oct-2016 (Updated: 04-Oct-2016 07:57 AM)

NASA has decided to resume technology development for a space-based facility to detect gravitational waves in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA).  ESA is planning to launch such a mission in the 2030s.  Funding constraints led NASA to curtail planning for a Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) earlier this decade and its role in ESA's mission was expected to be minor, but dramatic advances in the field have altered the landscape.  A recent report from the National Academies recommended that NASA reconsider its role and the agency has done just that.

Paul Hertz, Director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate, told a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittee yesterday that the agency has agreed to increase its participation in ESA's L3 gravitational wave mission to 20 percent, the maximum ESA will allow.  The L3 mission is expected to be launched in 2033 or 2034.  Over that period of time, Hertz said, NASA will spend approximately $300-350 million.

The first direct detection of gravitational waves was made in February 2016 using the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) ground-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).  LIGO consists of two instruments, in Louisiana and Washington, that listen for the extremely faint sounds from "ripples in spacetime" from the collisions of massive objects like black holes.  They were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, but are so difficult to find that it has taken until now for scientists to obtain unambiguous evidence.  The discovery by Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss made them contenders for the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics, although they did not win this year.

As a ground-based instrument, though, LIGO cannot look in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. To search in the millihertz band, a space-based facility is required.

LISA was one element of a NASA strategy released in 2003 to study the structure and evolution of the universe called "Beyond Einstein."   A 2008 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that the technology was not ready to pursue such a mission at that time.  ESA agreed to build a technology demonstrator, LISA Pathfinder, with the idea that LISA would follow in due course as an equal NASA-ESA partnership.

ESA's LISA Pathfinder was launched in December 2015 and is operating well.  In the meantime, however, budget constraints in NASA's Astrophysics Division, due in part to overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope, caused the agency to terminate its gravitational wave technology development effort.   ESA continued its plans, however, and in 2013 officially made gravitational waves the focus of its next large science mission, L3.  A March 2016 ESA report outlines the concept for an L3 mission in which NASA would play only a minor role. It does not have all the capabilities that were envisioned for LISA.  (The ESA program is sometimes referred to as eLISA where "e" is for evolved.)

NASA science priorities are guided by Decadal Surveys conducted by the National Academies in each of NASA's science disciplines.  The most recent Decadal Survey for astrophysics, New Worlds New Horizons (NWNH), was completed in 2010.   It ranked LISA as the third priority primarily because of the technology development required, but said the issue should be reconsidered once the LISA Pathfinder results were known. 

By law, NASA is required to contract with the Academies for a "mid-term assessment" for each of the Decadal Surveys half-way through the relevant decade to ascertain NASA's progress in meeting that Decadal Survey's recommendations.  The mid-term assessment of NWNH was completed in August.   Chaired by MIT's Jackie Hewitt, one of the study's recommendations was that NASA reconsider its participation in ESA's L3 mission based on the LIGO discovery and the success of LISA Pathfinder.

A space-based observatory can "explore the source-rich millihertz band that is inaccessible from the ground," Hewitt's report stated.  NASA should reinstate support for gravitational wave research so the U.S. science community can "be a strong technical and scientific partner" in ESA's program and "NASA and ESA together should rethink their strategy" for LISA.

NASA has quickly followed that recommendation.  Hertz told the NAC Astrophysics Subcommittee yesterday that he informed ESA last month at the 11th LISA symposium in Switzerland that NASA is willing to participate at the 20 percent level.  For its part, ESA has accelerated its planning efforts, with the call for mission concepts now set for this month instead of next year, Hertz added.

The Astrophysics Subcommittee will hear about options NASA is considering for its role in L3 as its meeting continues today.

The agency is establishing an L3 Study Team to prepare a report to be considered by the next astrophysics Decadal Survey in 2020.  It will still have to compete with other astrophysics priorities at that time.

Update:  The original version of this article, written before the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics winners were announced, mentioned that the three scientists who discovered gravitational waves might win this year's prize.  Subsequently, three British-born scientists, who work at U.S. universities, were awarded the prize instead for revealing "the secrets of exotic matter."

What's Happening in Space Policy October 3-7, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Oct-2016 (Updated: 02-Oct-2016 03:06 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 3-7, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.

During the Week

Happy World Space Week!   In 1999, the United Nations declared October 4-10 as World Space Week to commemorate the beginning of the Space Age -- October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik -- and the entry into force of the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty (October 10, 1967).  Space agencies and other organizations around the world hold events to celebrate the occasion.  A list is on the World Space Week website.

Among the various specific space policy events coming up this week, we know of only one that has officially declared itself a World Space Week event, however.  That is the International Space University-DC (ISU-DC) U.S. alumni chapter, which is holding its next Space Cafe on Wednesday, October 5, at the The Brixton in Washington, DC.  The speaker is Dennis Stone, who is the World Space Week Association President and Project Executive of NASA's Commercial Space Capabilities Office at Johnson Space Center.

There are many other events that could be, though, including one on Tuesday, the 59th anniversary of Sputnik, that might create quite a bang.  Blue Origin will conduct a test of its in-flight escape system for the New Shepard reusable rocket, activating it 45 seconds after launch.  Blue Origin President Jeff Bezos said the rocket, which has flown four times already, was not designed to withstand the forces it will experience and is not expected to survive the test (though there is a small chance it might).  Assuming it does not, he said the impact with the desert floor of the still almost fully fueled rocket "will be most impressive."  The test will be webcast beginning at 10:50 am ET.

Rice University's Baker Institute will hold a panel discussion entitled "Lost in Space 2016" tomorrow night (Monday) with a panel of space policy analysts and practitioners.  It is a reprise of a panel four years ago at the time of the last presidential election.   The panel will be webcast (5:30-7:30 Central/6:30-8:30 pm Eastern) and includes Mark Albrecht, Leroy Chaio, Joan Johnson-Freese, Neal Lane, Michael Lembeck, Eugene Levy, and John Logsdon, with George Abbey as moderator.  An impressive line-up.

Speaking of the election, Tuesday night (almost certainly NOT in commemoration of Sputnik's 59th anniversary) is the one and only Vice Presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence.   Fireworks are not expected, but it should be interesting nonetheless.  It is from 9:00-10:30 pm ET and will be nationally telecast (check local listings).

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 3

  • Lost in Space 2016 panel, Rice University's Baker Institute, Houston, TX, 5:30-7:30 pm Central/6:30-8:30 pm Eastern, webcast

Monday-Tuesday, October 3-4

Tuesday, October 4

Tuesday-Wednesday, October 4-5

Tuesday, October 4 - Monday, October 10

Wednesday, October 5

Wednesday-Thursday, October 5-6

Wednesday-Friday, October 5-7

Thursday, October 6

  • MEPAG, virtual, 8:30 am - 12:30 pm Pacific/11:30 am - 3:30 pm Eastern (Adobe Connect)
  • NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, 10:15-11:30 am Central/11:15 am-12:30 pm Eastern), audio available

Blue Origin to Test In-Flight Escape System Next Week - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2016 (Updated: 03-Oct-2016 04:28 PM)

Update, October 3, 2016:  The test has been postponed by one day, to October 5, due to bad weather.

Original story, September 30, 2016: Blue Origin President Jeff Bezos announced yesterday that the company will conduct an in-flight test of its escape system for the New Shepard rocket.  The test will take place on October 4, which happens to be the 59th anniversary of the Space Age -- the date when the Soviet Union orbited the world's first satellite, Sputnik.  Blue Origin will provide a live webcast of the test.

New Shepard is a reusable, suborbital rocket designed to take passengers on short trips to space.  It is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, who made a 15 minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961 (three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, completing one orbit of the Earth).  There is no legal definition of where air ends and space begins, but today 100 kilometers is an internationally recognized boundary and that is what companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic use as their benchmark.

The in-flight escape system would be used if an emergency occurred during launch and the crew capsule had to be separated from the rocket to return the passengers safely to Earth. In the test, the escape system will be triggered approximately 45 seconds after launch at an altitude of 16,000 feet.  If all goes as planned, the capsule will separate and land using its parachutes.

The rocket that will be used for this test has flown four times already.   Bezos is not optimistic that it will survive this fifth flight since it was not designed to withstand the aerodynamic forces it will experience. He said there is a chance it might, but if not, "its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive."

Launch of New Shepard rocket on its fourth flight, June 19, 2016.  This same rocket will be used for the October 4 test.  Photo credit: Blue Origin

The webcast on the Blue Origin website will begin at 10:50 am ET.  The time for the test itself was not specified.

Elon Musk may be focused on sending 1 million people to Mars, but Bezos wants "millions of people living and working in space" generally.   Two weeks ago he announced plans for his orbital rocket, New Glenn, named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth (on February 20, 1962).   He expects the first New Glenn launch by the end of the decade.  It will use BE-4 rocket engines that he is developing.  They use a novel propellant -- Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and liquified natural gas (methane) instead of the traditional LOX/kerosene.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is considering use of the BE-4 for its new Vulcan rocket, as well.

After New Glenn will come New Armstrong, named after Neil Armstrong, the first human to step foot on the Moon (on July 20, 1969).  Bezos said only that it is "up next on our drawing board ... but that's a story for the future."

For now, he is focused on suborbital flights and the October 4 test is another step in that direction.

Congress Votes to Keep Government Open Through December 9

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2016 (Updated: 28-Sep-2016 10:32 PM)

The Senate and House both passed a FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) today that will keep the government operating through December 9, 2016.  Without it, government agencies would have had to shut down at midnight Friday, September 30, the end of fiscal year 2016.  The President is expected to sign the bill.

Government departments and agencies like NASA, NOAA and DOD are funded through a set of 12 appropriations bills that provide money one fiscal year at a time.  A U.S. fiscal year is October 1 - September 30.   If the bills are not passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, their operations must cease other than exceptions for life and safety, for example.

When the 12 regular appropriations bills are not passed in time, Congress typically passes a CR that funds the departments and agencies at their previous year's levels for a set period.   In this case, that is through December 9.  By then, Congress must either pass another CR or, hopefully, the full year appropriations bills.  This CR actually includes the full-year FY2017 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) appropriations bill, leaving 11 of the 12 regular bills to be passed later.

The CR also includes funding to combat the Zika virus domestically and internationally, to respond to flooding in Louisiana and other states, and several other specialized needs. 

Details of the legislation, H.R. 5325 as amended, are posted on the Senate Appropriations Committee's website.  (Note that previous action on H.R. 5325 is not relevant.  That bill, which began as the FY2017 Legislative Branch appropriations bill, simply is being used as the legislative vehicle for the CR.  The original text was deleted and this new text was substituted.) 

The bill's full title is "Continuing Appropriations and Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017, and Zika Response and Preparedness Act."

The President's FY2017 requested funding levels for NASA and NOAA are not so different from their current funding levels that a short-term CR like this one is not expected to make much difference on a day-to-day basis.

Memorial Service for Dick Malow on October 3 in Washington, DC

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2016 (Updated: 29-Sep-2016 01:36 PM)

A memorial service will be held on October 3, 2016 at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC for Dick Malow, a legendary House Appropriations Committee staff member who had considerable influence on NASA's programs in the 1980s and 1990s.  He later joined the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and was a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Human Exploration and Operations Committee at the time of his death.

Richard N. Malow, 77, was born in Detroit, MI and moved to the Washington area in 1964 to work as a research assistant at the Library of Congress, but he earned his status as one of the most influential congressional staff members in civilian space policy as clerk of the House Appropriations Veterans Affairs-Housing and Urban Development-Independent Agencies (VA-HUD) subcommittee.  NASA was funded under that subcommittee at the time.  The clerk of an appropriations subcommittee is the top staff position. 

Dick Malow in 1992.  Photo credit:  Space News (used with permission)

Malow was in that position during tumultuous years at NASA as the agency responded to President Ronald Reagan's 1984 directive to build a space station within a decade, recovered from the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy, launched the then-defective Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, and dealt with the constrained budgets of the time. His influence was felt in virtually all of NASA's programs, human and robotic, but particularly the space station program which underwent many changes as costs grew.  (NASA spent approximately $11 billion on the Space Station Freedom program in its first 9 years without building any flight hardware; the program was completely restructured in 1993 and became known simply as the International Space Station).   Malow fiercely protected the space station's science capabilities as NASA repeatedly downsized the program.  As Andrew Lawler wrote in the November 2-8, 1992 edition of Space News,  "When the first components of NASA's international space station are orbited, they could easily bear the inscription 'Designed by Richard Malow.'"

Malow left the congressional staff in 1994 to join AURA, which operates ground- and space-based telescopes including several in Chile and Hubble (through the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD).  He was AURA's Head of Mission in Chile for many years.

He died on June 2 after a lengthy illness and was buried in Michigan.

The memorial service will be held in the Member's Room on the first floor of the Jefferson Building (the main building) of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill at 2:00 pm ET.

Editor's Note:  I worked closely with Dick when he was on the committee staff and I was at the Congressional Research Service.   He truly was one of a kind.  His passing is a great loss for the space policy community.


Musk Shares Technical Details of His Dream for Mars Colonization

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Sep-2016 (Updated: 28-Sep-2016 12:42 AM)

Elon Musk has made no secret of his passion to make humanity a multiplanetary species by creating a self-sustaining society on Mars as a backup plan in case Earth is destroyed in a cataclysmic event.  Today he provided some of the technical details of the Earth-Mars transportation system he wants to build, which will open opportunities for entrepreneurs and others to decide what happens on Mars.  He will build the space equivalent of the Union Pacific railroad, but leave it to others to fill in the details of how a society will begin and grow there.

Musk, CEO and founder of SpaceX, spoke at a special session of the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2016) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico.  These annual IAC meetings bring together space engineers, scientists, lawyers, and policy makers and his much-anticipated talk was aimed at that audience.  An archived webcast of the presentation and slides are posted on the SpaceX website along with an animated video demonstrating how the system would work.

He identified four key technical requirements to make the effort affordable:  full reusability of the rockets, tankers, and spacecraft; refueling in orbit; propellant production on Mars; and using the right propellant (methane, since the constituents are readily available on Mars). His rockets could be used 1,000 times, the tankers 100 times, and the spacecraft 12 times.  Each spacecraft could accommodate 100 passengers at first, growing to 200. 

He explained in detail some of the engineering decisions made so far for the rocket, the Mars Transporter or Interplanetary Transport System.  They include the use of carbon-fiber for the primary structure; the specific impulse of the Raptor rocket engines (382 seconds), one of which was just tested yesterday; and the number of engines (42 on the first stage plus 9 on the second stage).  The rocket will have 3.6 times the lift-off thrust of the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo lunar missions (which was 7.5 million pounds).

He asserted that using traditional methods like those used in the Apollo program it would cost $10 billion per person to go to Mars and he will reduce that to a price of $200,000 per person initially, dropping to half that over time. His spacecraft would transport 100-200 people at a time, with the Mars population growing to 1 million residents over 40-100 years. 

He did not explain the provenance of his $10 billion per person cost other than saying it assumed an Apollo-like program.  While a number of concepts for sending people to Mars have been put forward recently, including NASA's, pricetags have not been revealed and none envision sending as many as 100 people at a time. Since he expressed a cost per person, the number of people traveling can make a significant difference.

Although he showed a timeline for accomplishing the first phase of the goal, he called it "intentionally fuzzy."  If everything went very well, the first humans could head to Mars in 10 years, he asserted, though at a later press conference he called that an "optimistic schedule" and an "aspiration."  He estimated that it would take an investment of $10 billion to develop the rocket before it would generate cash flow, a challenging amount of money to raise in such a short time.   During his speech he said that it would take a "huge pubic private partnership" (PPP) to achieve this goal.  In PPPs, the government and the private sector share the costs, implying that he expected the government -- probably NASA -- to participate.  In the subsequent press conference, however, he insisted that he was not counting on any NASA money.

At one point he made light of the challenge of finding the money.  The first item on his funding slide is "steal underpants" (a reference to South Park).  The others include the two lines of business SpaceX currently is engaged in -- launching satellites and sending cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station -- plus Kickstarter and "profit."

He spent considerable time on the technical aspects of the plan, but the fundamental point is that he believes humanity should have at least one other home to guard against potential extinction if Earth is beset by a cataclysmic event such as an asteroid strike.   He has concluded that Mars is the place to establish that backup civilization.  Not everyone will want to go to Mars, he acknowledges, but that is fine since the goal is not to move everyone to Mars, only to create a second home.

Once the rockets, spacecraft, tankers and propellant plants on Mars are in place, and fuel depots are positioned on one of the Martian moons or in the asteroid belt, the entire solar system would be opened for exploration, he enthused, showing slides of his rockets on Jupiter's moon Europa, Saturn's moon Enceladus, and flying over Saturn's rings.

When asked if he planned to make the trip, Musk demurred.  Noting how risky it will be in the beginning, he said that he would not want to go until he had a firm succession plan in place for SpaceX because he did not want it bought by investors whose only goal was profit, not colonization of Mars.  He later added that he also wants to live to see his children grow up.   He even joked that "if you are prepared to die you're a candidate for going."

Apart from the grandiose plans he espoused for sending people to Mars, he also wants to send robotic spacecraft at every planetary alignment opportunity.  Mars and Earth are correctly aligned every 26 months.   He is already working on the first of these missions, Red Dragon, for launch in 2018.  It will send one of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft to Mars and test entry-descent-and-landing (EDL) for a propulsive landing on the surface,  SpaceX has a Space Act Agreement with NASA where the agency will provide tracking and communication support in return for obtaining EDL data.   Musk said that SpaceX will provide reliable services to send cargo to Mars every 26 months enabling customers to send 2-3 tons of cargo there.

It was a visionary speech that appealed to many in the crowd, but despite Musk's evident passion, many question the realism of his plans.  Even Musk said that his immediate goal is to create the dream of Mars in people's mind, to "make it seem possible in our lifetimes."

At the moment, however, SpaceX is attempting to get its only existing rocket, Falcon 9, back in service.   It is still trying to determine why a Falcon 9 burst into flames on the launch pad during a routine pre-launch test on September 1 destroying the rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite that was aboard.   SpaceX said last Friday that they know what happened -- a large breach in a helium tank in the second stage liquid oxygen tank-- but not why.  Musk was asked today whether he should be at IAC2016 talking about Mars instead of focusing on getting Falcon 9 back to flight.  He replied that fixing Falcon 9 is his absolute top priority and his team is working on it, but a small amount of effort is being spent on these longer term plans.   Musk had announced months ago that he would lay out his Mars transportation plans at IAC2016.

Thomas Zurbuchen Appointed As New Head of Science at NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Sep-2016 (Updated: 27-Sep-2016 05:54 PM)

NASA announced today that the new Associate Administrator (AA) for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is Thomas Zurbuchen, professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  A physicist who specializes in solar and space physics (heliophysics), he also is the founding director of the university's Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering.  The appointment is effective on October 3, 2016.

Zurbuchen replaces John Grunsfeld, who retired from NASA in April.   Geoffrey Yoder has been serving as acting AA in the interim.  Yoder indicated today that he will retire from NASA at the end of the year.

Thomas Zurbuchen.  Photo credit:  University of Michigan website.

SMD oversees NASA's programs in astrophysics, planetary science, earth science, and heliophysics, which are funded at about $5 billion per year in total.  Zurbuchen has never worked for NASA, but was involved in two NASA programs -- the MESSENGER spacecraft that studied Mercury (the closest planet to the Sun) and the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) that is at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point and provides data on solar eruptions that feed into forecasts of space weather.  He also participated in the European Space Agency's Ulysses project that sent a spacecraft to orbit the Sun.  (Ulysses originated as a joint NASA-ESA project where both agencies were to send spacecraft to orbit the Sun, but development of NASA's spacecraft was terminated by President Ronald Reagan.  NASA continued to participate in ESA's mission thereafter in a different role.)

Zurbuchen earned his Ph.D. and master's degree in physics from the University of Bern in Switzerland.  He received the Swiss National Science Foundation's Young Researcher Award in 1996-1997, the U.S. National Science and Technology Council Presidential Early Career for Scientists and Engineers Award in 2004, and a NASA Group Achievement Award for the Ulysses program in 2006.

He has served on several committees of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and chaired the recent study committee that produced the report "Advancing Science with Cubesats: Thinking Inside the Box."


More Clues, But Still No Certainty, About Europa Plumes

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Sep-2016 (Updated: 27-Sep-2016 07:30 AM)

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have collected and analyzed data that offer more evidence -- but not certainty -- that plumes of water vapor are escaping from the ocean that lies beneath miles of ice on Jupiter's moon Europa.   Such plumes are known to exist on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus and scientists see parallels at Europa, but the data remain inconclusive.  At the direction of Congress, notably Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), NASA is developing a spacecraft to visit Europa in the 2020s.  Since life as we know it requires water, and there is water on Europa, Culberson and others believe life will be found there.

The observations that were the subject of NASA's teleconference today were made in 2014.  It has taken that long for the data to be crunched, which required significant software development, and verified and a paper written for publication.

William Sparks, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, discussed the findings of his team, which will be published later this week in the Astrophysical Journal.  He was very cautious, however, noting repeatedly that the observations were made "at the limits" of what can be done with Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) instrument in the far ultraviolet (UV) band of the electromagnetic spectrum. 

The findings are based on imaging observations of what may be water vapor erupting into space through cracks in Europa's icy crust.  If true, a spacecraft orbiting Europa might be able to dip down and fly through the plumes to study the constituents of that ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.

This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes, photographed by NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity allowed for the features -- rising over 100 miles (160 kilometers) above Europa’s icy surface -- to be discerned. The water is believed to come from a subsurface ocean on Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. The image of Europa, superimposed on the Hubble data, is assembled from data from the Galileo and Voyager missions.Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

This is not the first time that scientists have observed what may be plumes on Europa.  In 2013, a team led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX announced they thought they had detected water vapor plumes using the same instrument, STIS, but a different method, spectroscopy.

The plumes are erratic, however, and because both the Roth and Sparks observations were made at the limits of Hubble's capabilities, skepticism remains. NASA's press release about today's teleconference said the topic was "evidence of surprising activity on Europa."  As the teleconference progressed and the scientists continued to emphasize that the findings are not definitive, the question arose as to what was "surprising."  One of the participants, Britney Schmidt of Georgia Tech, an expert on the Enceladus plumes who compared them to what was observed about Europa, replied: "I am not surprised, but I am excited, and skeptical."

Sparks himself explained that it is not possible to say with certainty whether what was observed was plumes or an effect of the Hubble instrument itself. While the results are "statistically significant" and he did not know of any natural phenomenon other than plumes to explain the data, he could not rule out that they do not completely understand how the STIS instrument on Hubble works in this type of observation campaign.  Repeated observations using STIS would help determine the characteristics of the instrument and make his team feel more confident, he added.

Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, offered that what is exciting about the Sparks observations is that they complement those made by the Roth team.  Roth used spectroscopy, Sparks used imaging -- different approaches that produced independent evidence of the plumes. 

Culberson, who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, is the most enthusiastic politician in favor of sending a spacecraft to investigate Europa.  He has added money to NASA's budget for the past several years to pay for such a mission even though it was not in NASA's budget plan.   He has specified not only that NASA send a spacecraft to orbit Europa, but to land there.   In this year's report on the FY2017 CJS appropriations bill, he did agree that the two spacecraft could be launched separately, in 2022 and 2024 respectively, and he wants NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) to be used to launch both of them.

In a statement today, he again stressed that he wants an orbiter and a lander.  "These giant water plumes will make it possible to sample Europa's ocean from the surface lander which will touch down in about 10 years."

Hubble's STIS instrument was repaired on the last Hubble servicing mission in 2009.  John Grunsfeld, a NASA astronaut who later became NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, was one of the space shuttle crew members who fixed the instrument.  He left NASA earlier this year.

NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz and Wiseman both extolled the capabilities of Hubble as a result of that servicing mission as evidenced by these findings,  Culberson agreed, saying that Grunsfeld's "repair work has helped strengthen support" for the Europa mission.

Europa project scientist Curt Neibur, who also participated in the teleconference, stressed that the Europa mission is not being designed to detect life, but to determine habitability -- is the environment conducive to the development of life.  He said there is a vigorous and ongoing debate in the science community as to what instruments would be needed to detect life itself elsewhere in the solar system.

Hertz noted that Hubble recently was approved for another two years of operations as part of NASA's Senior Review process, adding that he expects it to continue operating as long as it has scientific value, which hopefully will be after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is operating so the two telescopes can provide complementary observations.  JWST is designed to study the solar system and universe in the infrared (IR) band, rather than these UV observations using STIS.   It is scheduled for launch in 2018 and Wiseman said it also will be used to look for Europa plumes, allowing observations of transitions of water molecules in the IR band that are not visible in the UV band.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 26-30, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Sep-2016 (Updated: 26-Sep-2016 09:33 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 26-30, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's quite a week coming up!  

For the country: the first of the three presidential debates is tomorrow (Monday) and Congress hopefully will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating after Friday when fiscal year 2016 ends. The House and Senate are still working on the details of their separate versions of the CR, but they have five days left. Typically they leave appropriations deals to the last minute with the expectation that a hard deadline makes people more willing to compromise.  The alternative is a government shutdown, which is not an appealing prospect in an election year.  Word is the CR will keep the government open through December 9, by which time Congress must pass either another CR or, better yet, the actual FY2017 appropriations measures.  Typically Congress combines all 12 regular appropriations bills into a single "omnibus" measure, but House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly would prefer several smaller "minibuses" dealing with two or three of them at a time.  The exception may be the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill, which the House wants to include in the CR this week.  We'll see if the Senate is willing to go along with that. 

For the space policy community: the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico.  IAC is the BIG international conference that combines annual meetings of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and the International Institute of Space Law (IISL).   IAC will webcast all the plenary sessions.  The one that has generated the most buzz is on Tuesday when Elon Musk will lay out his plans for making humanity a multiplanet species.  It's at 1:30 pm local time in Guadalajara, which is on Central Daylight Time.  So that's 2:30 pm Eastern.

Two congressional hearings of note are also scheduled for this week, both on Tuesday (most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website).  In the morning, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Space Subcommittee asks "Are We Losing the Space Race to China?" and four witnesses will give their answers:  Dennis Shea, chairman of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission; Mark Stokes from the Project 2049 Institute; Dean Cheng from the Heritage Foundation; and Jim Lewis from CSIS.  

That afternoon, the House Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces Subcommittee will hear from three eminent experts on the topic of "National Security Space: 21st Century Challenges, 20th Century Organization."  The witnesses are John Hamre, former Deputy Secretary of Defense; Adm. James Ellis, Jr. (Ret.), former commander of U.S. Strategic Command; and Marty Faga, former Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and former President and CEO of the MITRE Corporation.  The great advantage of being "former," of course, is that one can speak freely.  Should be especially interesting.  

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

Monday, September 26

Monday-Friday, September 26-30

Tuesday, September 27

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 27-28

Wednesday-Friday, September 28-30

Thursday, September 29

Thursday-Friday, September 29-30


Correction:  An earlier edition of this article listed the Beckman Center in Irvine, CA as the location of the National Academies Workshop Planning Committee meeting on September 27-28.  It will be held in Washington, DC, not at Beckman.  The workshop itself, scheduled for December 5-6, will be held at Beckman.

Events of Interest


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