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ESA Approves Ariane 6, Vega-C

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Dec-2014 (Updated: 03-Dec-2014 03:56 PM)

The Council of Ministers of the European Space Agency (ESA) approved development of a new Ariane 6 rocket yesterday.  As ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain stressed, Ariane 6 is not just a new rocket, but a new governance model where industry accepts more of the risk.  The ministers will have an opportunity at their next meeting in 2016 to relook at the program and decide if any changes are needed.

ESA is an international organization with 20 member countries (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) and one cooperating country (Canada).

The Council of Ministers, comprised of the top officials responsible for their country’s participation in ESA, meets every two or three years to determine what programs to pursue and how much money each member will contribute.  ESA has “mandatory” programs to which all members must contribute (e.g. space science), while other programs are “optional” and countries participate only if they wish to (e.g. space transportation and the International Space Station).

Under its optional programs, ESA pays for the development of launch vehicles, while the French-based company Arianespace provides launch services using them.   Arianespace’s current launch fleet consists of Ariane 5 for large payloads, the Russian-built Soyuz for medium payloads, and the European Vega for small payloads.

Ariane 5 is very reliable, but Europe has been debating for years what changes are needed to ensure Ariane and other European rockets can meet future market demands, especially lower prices spurred by competition from SpaceX.

Germany preferred an evolution of Ariane 5 (Ariane 5 ME) while France advocated a new Ariane 6 “family” of launchers with two versions:  one for large payloads and one for medium payloads.  Just prior to the ministerial meeting, Germany agreed to support the Ariane 6 proposal.  Meanwhile, the ministers also agreed to develop an upgraded version of Vega.  Ariane 6 and the new Vega-C will share the same first stage and thus all of Europe’s launch vehicles will “have the same DNA,” Dordain explained at a press conference after the meeting.   That should reduce costs through simplified manufacturing and launch operations.

A key aspect of the Ariane 6 decision is that industry will take on some of the financial risk instead of it resting with the governments.   Earlier this year, the two primary companies that manufacture Ariane, Airbus and Safran, announced they would form a joint venture, Airbus Safran Launchers, to participate in Ariane 6.

The resolution adopted by the ESA Ministers states that ‘the Joint Venture will bear all commercial market risks during exploitation without support from Member States” while ESA provides a guaranteed “institutional” market of five launches per year.  Those launches would be for ESA itself, its member governments, the European Union (EU), and Europe’s meteorological agency, EUMETSAT.   The joint venture will be responsible for finding any additional customers.   It will also have the design authority for Ariane 6, rather than ESA.

In a press release today, Airbus and Safran said they welcomed ESA’s approval of Ariane 6, but added that their decision to create the Joint Venture  (JV) “naturally assumes an in-principle agreement for the transfer to the JV of shares in Arianespace held by” the French space agency, CNES.  A decision on that issue has not yet been made. CNES owns 34.68 percent of Arianespace.  The remainder is owned in varying amounts by 20 European entities, including Safran and Airbus (Astrium is part of Airbus). 

Dordain said he foresees no difficulty in delivering five institutional launches per year. The EU, for example, is launching a navigation satellite system, Galileo, similar to the U.S GPS system, that requires 24 operational satellites (plus in-orbit spares), which should guarantee a continuing demand for launch services.

Dordain said that at yesterday's meeting ministers committed €4 billion for the development of Ariane 6 and Vega-C, which is enough to pay for their development through first launch (Vega-C in 2018, Ariane 6 in 2020).  He added, however, that they will have an opportunity to relook at the program at the next ministerial council in 2016:  “Participating states … will decide to continue Ariane 6 on the same track or to change it once again, but we have commitments to take Ariane 6 to its maiden flight. …. We will be able to sign contracts until the end of the development phase.”

At today's exchange rate, 1 Euro is $1.23, so the  €4 billion commitment for Ariane 6 and Vega-C is approximately $5 billion.

Japan Launches Hayabusa2 Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Dec-2014 (Updated: 02-Dec-2014 11:44 PM)

Japan launched its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, at 11:22 pm EST tonight (December 2), which was 1:22 pm December 3 local time in Japan.  The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket lifted off on time under cloudy skies after two weather-related delays.  

Spacecraft separation is expected in about an hour and a half.  The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will provide live coverage beginning at 12:55 am EST (2:55 pm Japan Standard Time).

Once on its way, Hayabusa2 will spend 6 years enroute to its destination, asteroid 1999 JU3, and then spend 18 months orbiting the asteroid before sending a sample back to Earth at the end of 2020.

This is Japan's second asteroid sample return mission.   Its first mission, Hayabusa, brought back grains of asteroid Itokawa in 2010.

Orion EFT-1 Go for Launch on Thursday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Dec-2014 (Updated: 03-Dec-2014 12:03 AM)

The Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) launch was given the green light today for launch at 7:05 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Thursday, December 4, 2014.  The weather forecast is 60 percent favorable for launch that day.  December 5 and 6 are backup launch days.

The approximately 4.5 hour flight's main purpose is to test the spacecraft's heat shield.  This Orion test spacecraft -- which has no one aboard -- is the first vehicle ultimately intended to carry humans further from Earth than the International Space Station (ISS) since the Apollo program, which ended in the 1970s.  EFT-1's highest point (apogee) of 3,600 miles is 15 times higher than the ISS orbit.

The first flight of an Orion carrying a crew is not expected until at least 2021.   In 2017 or 2018, another unoccupied vehicle will be flown on the first test of the Space Launch System (SLS), a new "heavy lift" rocket under development by NASA.  SLS and Orion are designed to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) -- to orbit the Moon and someday to orbit Mars.   NASA has been holding a number of media events highlighting that Orion is part of a "journey to Mars," even though that destination is decades in the future.

Orion is built by Lockheed Martin and NASA stresses that this is a commercial launch -- not a NASA launch.  NASA is buying data from Lockheed Martin about the spacecraft's performance.  Lockheed Martin procured the launch on a Delta IV rocket from the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  Lockheed Martin and Boeing co-own ULA.

Launch is from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the launch window is 2 hours and 40 minutes long.   After two orbits of the Earth, the EFT-1 mission will splash down in the Pacific, where the spacecraft will be recovered and returned to NASA for use in a later test flight.  


What's Happening in Space Policy December 1-5, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Nov-2014 (Updated: 01-Dec-2014 02:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events coming up in the next week, December 1-5, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

First, it is important to note that two meetings we mentioned in our last edition have been postponed:  the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Science Committee and the NAC Human Exploration and Operations Committee.  Both were supposed to take place this week, leading up to the meeting of the full NAC next week, but that also has been postponed.  NASA said in its Federal Register notice that senior agency officials were tied up with other activities, including the Orion Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) launch on December 4.  (Two other NAC committee meetings this week--Aeronautics, and Technology, Innovation and Engineering--are still on track as far as we know.)

The Orion EFT-1 launch certainly will be one of the highlights this week.  It is scheduled for Thursday, December 4, at 7:05 am EST from Cape Canaveral.  NASA is pulling out all the stops in terms of media activities and even has Sesame Street characters involved. Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover and Slimey are sharing what item they would pack to go to Mars, describing what the journey to Mars would be like as a crew member, and using their ABCs to better understand the Orion spacecraft.  Elmo will be present at the launch, NASA says. The EFT-1 mission lasts only about 4.5 hours from liftoff to splashdown in the Pacific. The launch window is 2 hours 40 minutes long, dictated by the need to have daylight to observe various events during the launch and for recovery operations in the ocean.  December 5 and 6 are backup dates if needed.

Before that, however, another significant launch is expected -- Japan's Hayabusa2 is currently scheduled for launch on Tuesday, December 2, at 11:22 pm EST (Wednesday, December 3, 1:22 pm local time in Japan).  The launch has been postponed twice in recent days due to weather, and could slip again, but whenever it occurs, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to provide live video coverage.  This is Japan's second asteroid sample return mission and will reach its target, asteroid 1999JU3, in mid-2018, returning the sample at the end of 2020.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will hold a critical "ministerial meeting" on Tuesday in Luxembourg.  The meeting brings together the ministers of each of ESA's 20 member countries who oversee their country's participation in ESA.  Ministerial meetings typically are held every three years, but this one is taking place just two years after the last one.  The ministers will make formal decisions on three resolutions regarding:

  • access to space (the future of Ariane and Vega);
  • space exploration strategy for ESA's "three destinations (low-Earth orbit (LEO), Moon and Mars" including funding ESA's ISS exploitation activities for the next three years (through 2017); and
  • evolution of ESA itself.

A press conference is expected after the meeting concludes about 18:30 Central European Time (CET), which would be about 12:30 pm EST.  It will be streamed live on ESA's website.  (Note:  an earlier version of this article incorrectly showed the end time as 16:30, rather than 18:30 CET, which also changes the time in EST to 12:30 pm)

Those are just a few of the many activities on tap this week.  Here is what we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Monday, December 1

Tuesday, December 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 2-3

Wednesday, December 3

Thursday, December 4

Friday, December 5

Correction:  An earlier version of this article stated that the ESA ministerial meeting would decide whether to continue participating in ISS through 2020.  The situation with regard to ISS is complicated.  At the December 2 meeting, the ministers will be deciding on funding ESA's ISS exploitation activities through 2017.  They decided -- in principle -- to support ISS through 2020 at their last meeting (in 2012), but did not commit to the associated funding and therefore it was not a definitive commitment.

Philae's On a Comet, Hayabusa2 is Off To an Asteroid -- What's the Difference?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Nov-2014 (Updated: 30-Nov-2014 01:00 PM)

Robotic space science missions to comets and asteroids are in the news right now because of Europe's Rosetta/Philae mission to Comet 67P and Japan's imminent launch of Hayabusa2 to an asteroid.   Many may wonder what the difference is between comets and asteroids and what other spacecraft have investigated them.

Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today explains that the biggest difference is their composition: "While asteroids consist of metals and rocky material, comets are made up of ice, dust, rocky materials and organic compounds.  When comets get closer to the Sun, they lose material with each orbit because some of their ice melts and vaporizes.  Asteroids typically remain solid, even when near the Sun."  Another difference is the population, she adds, with millions of asteroids, but only about 4,000 comets, having been discovered so far.  There may be many more of each, but that is the count to date.

Several robotic space missions have been sent to study both asteroids and comets already.  Rosetta and its Philae lander are particularly newsworthy because they are the first to orbit and land on a comet and will accompany the comet as it travels in toward the Sun, observing how it reacts and its tail forms.   Hayabusa2 is of particular interest because it is Japan's second mission to return a sample of an asteroid after its first mission, Hayabusa, overcame long odds to successfully return a small amount of material from a different type of asteroid in 2010.

There have been a number of other robotic missions whose primary purpose was studying asteroids and comets, though, and more are planned. 

  • NASA's Interplanetary Comet Explorer (ICE) was the first spacecraft to fly past a comet, Giacobini-Zinner, in 1985.
  • The Soviet Union's Vega-1 and Vega-2 flew past Halley's Comet in 1986.
  • Europe's Giotto flew past Halley's Comet in 1986 (the closest flyby of a comet at that time).
  • Japan's Sakigake and Suisei flew past Halley's Comet in 1986.
  • Europe's Giotto continued its journey after the Halley's Comet encounter and flew past comet Grigg-Skjellerup in 1992.
  • NASA was first to orbit (beginning in 2000) and land (2001) on an asteroid, Eros, with the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission (the landing was not originally part of the mission plan, but improvised at the end).
  • NASA's Deep Space 1 made a successful flyby of Comet Borrelly in 2001.
  • NASA's Stardust flew through the tail of Comet Wild-2 in 2004 and a canister returned a sample of the comet tail's material to Earth in 2006.
  • NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft flew past Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, sending an impactor to collide with the comet and studying the after-effects.
  • Japan's Hayabusa orbited and landed on asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned a sample to Earth in 2010.
  • NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft, after its successful impact experiment with Comet Tempel 1, was renamed EPOXI and redirected to fly past Comet Hartely 2, which it did in 2010.
  • NASA's Stardust spacecraft, after obtaining the sample from Comet Wild-2 and sending it back to Earth, was renamed Stardust-NEXT and redirected to flyby Comet Tempel 1 in 2011 to provide further observations of that comet after the Deep Impact experiment.
  • NASA's DAWN spacecraft orbited an asteroid, Vesta, from 2011-2012.
  • China's Chang'e-2 flew past asteroid Toutatis in 2012 (after completing its primary mission of orbiting Earth's Moon).
  • Europe's Rosetta became the first spacecraft to orbit and land (with the Philae lander) on a comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, in 2014.
  • Japan's Hayabusa2 is currently scheduled for launch on December 2, 2014 EST, to orbit and return a sample of asteroid 1999JU3.
  • NASA is developing an asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, for launch to the asteroid Bennu in 2016.

For completeness:

  • NASA's DAWN spacecraft is on course to rendezvous with and orbit Ceres in 2015, but Ceres is currently categorized as a dwarf planet, not an asteroid, so is not included in the list.
  • Other robotic space missions, including NASA's Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons, have flown past asteroids, but it was not their primary mission, so they are not included in the list.
  • NASA is planning to send a robotic probe to nudge an asteroid from its native orbit into a new orbit around the Moon so astronauts can be sent to study it.  This Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is very controversial and whether or not it comes to fruition is an open question, but in any case it is primarily a human spaceflight endeavor, so is not included in the above list of robotic missions.

Editor's note:  the list was complied by searching a number of Internet sites.  Any errors or omissions are entirely our responsibility.

Update:  The launch of Hayabusa2 has slipped from November 30 to December 2 EST (December 1 to December 3 Japan Standard Time).  The list was updated accordingly.

Japan Readies Hayabusa2 Asteroid Sample Return Mission for Launch - RESCHEDULED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Nov-2014 (Updated: 30-Nov-2014 08:43 AM)

UPDATE: The launch has been postponed a second time because of weather.  The new launch date is December 3, 1:22:04 pm JST (December 2, 11:22:04 pm EST).  This article is updated accordingly.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is getting ready to launch its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, on December 2, 2014 Eastern Standard Time (EST), following a second weather delay.   Launch time is 11:22 pm EST, which is 1:22 pm December 3 Japan Standard Time (JST).  JAXA plans to provide live coverage of the launch on its website.

The original launch date was November 30 JST (November 29 EST).  That slipped to December 1 JST (November 30 EST) due to weather, and now has been rescheduled again due to weather.  JAXA currently plans to launch it on December 3 JST (December 2 EST).

Hayabusa2 is the successor to Hayabusa (also called MUSES-C), which successfully returned a small amount of material from the asteroid Itokawa in 2010.  Hayabusa overcame a number of technical challenges, including the loss of all four of its ion engines.  Japanese engineers were able to interconnect working components of different engines to create one that worked.   The landing of its sample return canister in Australia on June 14, 2010 Eastern Daylight Time generated considerable excitement around the world.   At that time it was unclear as to whether the sample mechanism had actually captured any material from Itokawa, but after they opened the canister, scientists determined it contained about 1,500 grains, which have been the subject of scientific analysis since that time.

Japan quickly decided to mount a second mission, Hayabusa2, with a number of improvements, including to the ion engines and the sample collection mechanism.   If launch takes place as scheduled, it will reach its target, asteroid 1999JU3, in mid-2018, remain there for 18 months orbiting the asteroid at a distance of about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles), and return to Earth at the end of 2020.

Artist's concept of Hayabusa2 spacecraft above an asteroid.  Image credit:  JAXA website.

Among the science instruments on the 600 kilogram (1,322 pound) spacecraft is a small impactor made of pure copper (to distinguish it from other materials on the asteroid).  Called Liner, it will be dropped to the surface at a velocity of 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) per second to create an artificial crater by colliding with the asteroid.  That will expose fresh material below the asteroid's surface to be collected by the sample return mechanism.   Hayabusa2 will also study the asteroid using a near infrared spectrometer (NIRS3) and a thermal infrared imager (TIR), deploy three small rovers (MINERVA) that can move several times by hopping, and a small lander (MASCOT) that can move once by hopping.   MASCOT was built by the German space agency, DLR, and the French space agency, CNES, who also teamed on the Philae lander that just landed on Comet 67P on November 12.  MASCOT has four observation devices (MicrOmega, MAG, CAM and MARA). 

Asteroids are categorized into several different types.  Two of the most prevalent are C (carbonaceous) and S (stony).  Asteroid 1999JU3 is a C-type, while Hayabusa's target, Itokawa, was an S-type.  Thus, Hayabusa2 is not only bringing back additional asteroid samples, but from a different type of asteroid, broadening scientific knowledge about these objects left over from the formation of the solar system.

Launch will be on a Mithsibishi Heavy Industries (MHI) H-IIA rocket from Japan's Tanagashima Space Center.  JAXA indicated it would provide live coverage of the launch and of spacecraft separation, but the times for that coverage are not posted on JAXA's website yet.

(For those who are curious, we have published an article providing  a brief explanation of the difference between a comet and an asteroid and a list of other robotic comet and asteroid missions flown in the past or planned for the future.)

Philae May Have Hit a Crater Rim

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Nov-2014 (Updated: 28-Nov-2014 07:22 PM)

Scientists are still trying to determine what happened to the Philae lander after it initially touched down on Comet 67P on November 12.   New findings suggest that it may have hit the rim of a crater with one of its landing legs and tumbled before landing again, making one more bounce, and reaching its final resting spot.

Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) traveled for 10 years attached to the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft.  The pair arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August.  Philae separated from Rosetta on November 12 and spent 7 hours floating down to the comet's surface.  The plan was that harpoons would fire once its landing legs touched the surface to hold the lander in place since comets have almost no gravity.  They did not fire, however, and the lander bounced, flying off into the air for almost two hours before a second bounce and final landing.

Data from the Rosetta Landing Magnetometer and Plasma Monitor (ROMAP), one of 10 instruments on Philae, are being analyzed and used to reconstruct what happened to the lander after the first touchdown, which occurred at 15:34:04 GMT.  After about 40 minutes, at 16:20 GMT, ROMAP data suggest that one leg of the lander hit something, possibly the rim of a crater.  "It was not a touchdown like the first one" according to Hans-Ulrich Auster from the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany, ROMAP's co-principal investigator, who was quoted in an ESA press release today.

Philae had been spinning at about one rotation every 13 seconds before that event.  "After that the lander was tumbling," Auster continued.  "We did not see a simple rotation around the lander's z-axis anymore, it was a much more complex motion...."   At 17:25:26 GMT, it touched down on the surface with all three legs for a second time, and at 17:31:17 GMT landed for a third and final time.

ESA and the Rosetta/Philae team still do not know where Philae finally came to rest.   Rosetta will continue to orbit Comet 67P as it travels in toward the Sun and cameras aboard Rosetta are looking for Philae, though it is very small (about one meter -- three feet -- on each side) and is next to or under a cliff or other surface feature that prevents sunlight from reaching its solar panels to recharge the batteries.  ESA still hopes that as the comet gets closer to the Sun, the lighting conditions may improve for Philae and it could resume its scientific tasks.

ISS Crew Complement is Now Four Men, Two Women From Three Countries

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2014 (Updated: 23-Nov-2014 10:34 PM)

Three new crew members arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this evening Eastern Standard Time (EST), returning the ISS to its full crew complement of six people.  With the arrival of Soyuz TMA-15M, there are four men and two women aboard, representing Russia, the United States and Italy, a member of the European Space Agency (ESA).

NASA astronaut Terry Virts, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov were launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:01 pm EST today and docked with the ISS just under 6 hours later at 9:49 pm EST, using the expedited trajectory that has become common in recent years (previously it took two days to reach the ISS).

Hatch opening is expected in about 1.5 hours.  The three will join NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Elena Serova and Alexander Samokutyaev who arrived at the ISS in September. 

The ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries represented by ESA.  Since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011, Russian Soyuz spacecraft are the only means of crew transportation to and from the ISS.   The United States is developing new crew transportation systems under "commercial crew" public-private partnerships between NASA and two private companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to restore an American ability to launch people into space by the end of 2017.

Space Weather Difficult to Explain, But Accurate Forecasting is Critical

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2014 (Updated: 23-Nov-2014 06:35 PM)

Space weather happens every day not just when auroras light up the sky, but intense solar flares can disrupt our technological societies making forecasts of space weather just as critical as terrestrial weather.  That was the message at a seminar on Thursday (November 20) on Capitol Hill that explained why space weather is important and why satellites are needed to enable forecasters to warn of impending events.  A new satellite, DSCOVR, is about to join the effort.

Representatives of NASA, NOAA, the Air Force, the State Department and a regional electricity transmission organization laid out the science behind space weather, forecasting efforts by NOAA and the Air Force, practical effects on the electrical power grid, and international efforts to better understand and mitigate it.  The panel was sponsored by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and American Astronautical Society (AAS).

Laura Delgado López, SWF project manager and AAS Board member, summed up space weather as “complex, international, and routine.”  It is indeed complex and several panelists pointed out that the topic simply is not conducive to “sound bite” explanations.

Lika Guhathakurta, Living with a Star and STEREO program scientist in NASA's heliophysics division, stressed that space weather happens not just when the Sun is most active at solar maximum “but all the time.”   It is severe space weather events that attract media attention, however, and explaining the nuances between events that pose differing levels of potential damage can be a challenge.

Thomas Berger, Director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), pointed out that extreme space weather events are rare, but can have a considerable impact on technology.   An array of space- and ground-based sensors is used to collect data that allows SWPC to make operational forecasts and issue watches, warnings or alerts to stakeholders that could be negatively affected.  Satellites in earth orbit are particularly vulnerable to space weather impacts, but Berger identified other customers for SWPC’s forecasts as ranging from banking to shipping to oil drilling to utilities to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and many more.

Though they are not the only satellites used for operational space weather forecasting, spacecraft at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point are critical for providing early warning of the intensity and polarity of particles emitted by eruptions on the Sun.   NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) currently have spacecraft positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 point that are used by SWPC.  They were designed for research, not operations, however, and are quite old.   In two months, the Air Force will launch the NASA-NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR, once known as Triana) to satisfy the highest priority space weather operational requirements.

The electric utility sector is one of those customers.  Frank Koza, Executive Director of Infrastructure Planning Support at PJM Interconnection, explained the challenges of managing the electric power grid during severe solar weather events.  The Sun’s charged particles can cause geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) that knock out transformers, for example.  While his company has generators that can go from zero to full load in 10 minutes to add capacity and blunt the impact, adequate warning is needed.  SWPC issues warnings 1-3 days in advance based on solar activity, but critical data from the L1 satellites on intensity and polarity provide only about 20-40 minutes of warning, he said.  PJM is a wholesale electricity provider, managing the high-voltage electricity grid in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia and selling that electricity to local power companies.

Space weather forecasting begins with observations, continues with modeling, and ends with watches, warnings, or alerts, Berger explained.  In that regard, it is similar to terrestrial weather forecasting.  SPWC is, in fact, part of the National Weather Service (NWS) and has its own system of designations from minor to extreme events for radio blackouts, solar radiation storms, or geomagnetic storms.

Asked what Congress can do to help in understanding, forecasting and coping with space weather, Chris Cannizzaro from the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology and Col. Robert Swanson from the Air Force’s Directorate of Weather both mentioned the need for budget certainty.   Swanson said it is critical to know how much money his office will have for training and other activities in order to spend it wisely.  Cannizzaro said budget uncertainty complicates efforts to enter into partnerships with other countries.  The United States is active in international forums like the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS), for example, to coordinate efforts to predict and mitigate space weather.

Swanson pointed out the capability to respond to space weather events is evolving and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has created an interagency space weather operations and mitigation task force to address the issue.

OSTP’s July 2014 National Plan for Civil Earth Observations directs NOAA, in consultation with NASA, to provide observations using its geostationary weather satellites (GOES) and DSCOVR to enable the forecasting of space weather and to study options and explore working with international and interagency partners to provide such data beyond the design lifetime of DSCOVR.

DSCOVR is scheduled for launch in January 2015 and will join NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA’s Solar Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft at Sun-Earth L1, which is 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) from Earth.  SOHO has been operating since 1996 and ACE since 1997.

NASA has 17 other heliophysics spacecraft, Guhathakurta said.  Of them, she identified STEREO, SDO, and the Van Allen Probes as contributing to operational space weather forecasting.   STEREO is a pair of satellites, one ahead of Earth in its orbit and the other behind it.  The Van Allen probes are another pair in nearly identical elliptical Earth orbits.  The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is an inclined geosynchronous Earth orbit.

Like space weather, heliophysics is difficult to explain.  Guhathakurta referred to it as a “concocted” word that represents an environmental science that has an “applied branch” – space weather, and a “pure branch” – studying fundamental physical processes.  The phrase “solar and space physics” was commonly used before heliophysics became the term of art and is still used today in some quarters.

DSCOVR is intended to support operational space weather forecasting rather than research, which is NASA’s focus.  Scientists hope to launch future research spacecraft in accordance with the priorities set out in the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.

PowerPoint presentations from Thursday’s seminar are posted on SWF’s website.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 24-December 5, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2014 (Updated: 23-Nov-2014 01:45 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the next TWO weeks, November 24-December 5, 2014.   Congress is in recess this coming week for the Thanksgiving holiday and will return on December 1.

During the Weeks

The United States celebrates Thanksgiving this week (on Thursday), so after the launch and docking of three International Space Station ISS) crew members today (Sunday), there is nothing on the docket until the first week of December in terms of space policy. 

However, on November 29 (November 30 in Japan), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch its second asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa2, which should be of great interest.  JAXA will provide live TV coverage of the launch and spacecraft separation.

The first week of December is chock full of events.  To pick just two to highlight, ESA's ministerial meeting on December 2 will decide the future of European launch systems and participation in the ISS program through 2020, and NASA's December 4 launch of a test version of the Orion spacecraft  (EFT-1) on a 4.5 hour flight is a step forward for the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  Not everyone may agree on the next destination for the U.S. human spaceflight program -- President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission still has not captured much enthusiasm -- but Orion is likely to be the NASA spacecraft to take astronauts wherever it is they will go beyond low Earth orbit.

Under the current schedule, Congress will meet during the first two weeks of December and then bring the 113th Congress to a close, with the 114th Congress convening on January 3, 2015.   What's going to happen in those two weeks is, as always, completely unclear, and the two weeks could stretch through the holidays and even into the first two days of January if need be (which happened in 2012-2013 with the "fiscal cliff" showdown for those who remember).

The FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding the government expires at midnight on December 11.  Under the best of circumstances (in terms of fiscal solvency and the ability of agencies to know how much money they have for FY2015), Congress will pass an omnibus appropriations bill before then combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the end of FY2015 (September 30, 2015).   Republican angst over President Obama's immigration executive order (EO) is a complication, however.  Some Republicans insist that Congress not appropriate funds that could be used to implement the EO, but the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers (R-KY), publicly explained that the immigration office that will implement the EO is funded by fees, not appropriations, so it is "impossible" (in his words) to do that.  Republicans could devise a surgical approach to defunding some part of the government to demonstrate their displeasure or hold up the entire bill or something in between.  The key is that not only must a bill get enough votes to pass Congress -- the Senate remains in Democratic hands until January --  but the President must be willing to sign it, which would seem unlikely if it defunds something he deems of critical importance. 

It's anybody's guess as to what will happen.  Our best guess, for what it's worth, is that Congress will pass a short term CR to carry the government through to mid- or late-January when the Republicans will be in control of both chambers rather than risk a government shutdown over the holidays because either Congress can't pass a bill or it passes a bill the President won't sign.   But we will keep our fingers crossed that an omnibus bill funding the government through September 30, 2015 is still a possibility.

Meanwhile, here is a list of all the events we know about for the next two weeks as of Sunday morning, November 23.

Sunday, November 23 (November 24 local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan)

Saturday, November 29 (November 30 local time at the launch site in Japan)

Monday, December 1

Monday-Wednesday, December 1-3

Tuesday, December 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 2-3

Thursday, December 4

Friday, December 5


Events of Interest  

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


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