Latest News

Russia Launches New Angara 5 Rocket

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Dec-2014 (Updated: 23-Dec-2014 07:04 PM)

Russia successfully conducted the first test launch of its new Angara 5 launch vehicle today (December 23, 2014), just six months after a suborbital test flight of a smaller version of the rocket, Angara 1.2.

Russian officials said at the time of the Angara 1.2 launch that the Angara 5 would liftoff in December, but there had been so many delays in the program that it seemed optimistic.  Russian news reports throughout the summer and fall continued to say that it would launch around Christmastime, however, and recently named December 23 as the date.  

Live coverage of the launch from Russia's Plesetsk launch site was not provided, but replays are now posted on YouTube. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the rocket as serving both economic and defense needs saying it can be used for "the system of early warning of missile attacks, reconnaissance, navigation, communication and re-transmission of signals for defense purposes."  Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin praised it as tribute to the country's fortitude:  "It is great joy for all of us.  In this difficult time it will be our best response to sanctions and to unprecedented external financial, economic and political pressure on our country."

Angara is family of launch vehicles that can lift payloads of varying sizes to different orbits.  Russian sources list different capabilities, but Russia's space agency Roscosmos today reported that the range is from 3.8 to 35 tons (presumably to low Earth orbit--LEO).  The capability to geostationary orbit (GEO) is often listed as 3.4 tons.

The launch at 08:57 Moscow Time (00:57 Eastern Standard Time) today placed a 2-ton dummy satellite into GEO using a Briz-M upper stage (the payload reportedly was intended to remain attached to the upper stage all the way to GEO).

One goal of the Angara program is to replace rockets that were developed decades ago, like Proton and Soyuz, with a modern, environmentally friendly model.  Angara uses kerosene and liquid oxygen.  It will also be launched from Plesetsk and a new launch site still under construction in Siberia called Vostochny.  That would free Russia from its dependence on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which it leases from Kazakhstan, for many types of launches.

DSCOVR Ready at Last for January 2015 Launch - UPDATE

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 18-Dec-2014 (Updated: 29-Dec-2014 02:54 PM)

UPDATE, December 29, 2014:  NOAA announced today that the launch has been postponed to no earlier than January 29, 2015.

ORIGINAL STORY, December 18, 2014:  At a press conference this morning, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA celebrated the upcoming launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).  A spacecraft built in the 1990s and then put into storage for almost a decade, DSCOVR was reinvented to meet both space weather and earth science observational needs.

Originally called Triana, DSCOVR is slated for a January 23, 2015 launch on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  NOAA’s Doug Whiteley, deputy director at the Office of Systems Development at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said today that NOAA is in close contact with the Air Force and has not been told that the January 23 launch will be impacted by today’s postponement of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch to the International Space Station.  Whiteley added that NOAA would be monitoring the situation and “will see how it plays out in coming weeks.”

Whiteley said DSCOVR has had “quite a journey” already.  It was conceived by then-Vice President Al Gore in the mid-1990s, but was later beset by political opposition because of Gore’s involvement and sat in storage during the George W. Bush Administration.  It was resurrected by the Obama Administration.

Today, DSCOVR is a tri-agency partnership among NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force (USAF).  NOAA is in charge of the program and paid for refurbishing the spacecraft and its space weather instruments. The work was performed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA paid for refurbishing two earth science instruments it originally built.  USAF is providing the launch service with SpaceX.  NOAA will operate DSCOVR.

Whiteley said the total cost of DSCOVR from all the partners over all the years -- including  storage, refurbishment, and launch – is $340 million.

After launch, DSCOVR will undergo testing during the 110 days it takes to reach its destination – the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about one million miles from Earth.  DSCOVR is the nation’s first operational space weather satellite and will continue observations currently taken by NASA’s scientific research satellite Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997.  Despite “performing admirably,” as Whiteley said today, ACE is considerably past its design lifetime and officials are anxious to get DSCOVR in place to ensure continuity of observations before ACE fails. Once DSCOVR is operational, ACE will likely be relegated to a “back up status.”

NOAA officials stressed the importance of maintaining monitoring and forecasting capabilities for space weather, which Whiteley said threatens “every major infrastructure system.”  Douglas Biesecker, DSCOVR program scientist at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), described the “wide-ranging impacts” of space weather to national infrastructure including aviation and the national power grid.  A recent seminar by the Secure World Foundation and the American Astronautical Society spelled out why monitoring space weather is critical.

SWPC is the official source for space weather watches, warnings and alerts and provides free information services and products to over 40,000 customers. DSCOVR will allow SWPC to issue an hour’s warning before solar storms reach Earth. Data from the system, along with a new forecast model, will also allow SWPC to forecast regional geomagnetic storms for the first time.

Biesecker emphasized that space weather “happens all the time.” In fact, Biesecker talked about a small solar storm on its way to Earth today. While the power industry – a major customer of SWPC information products – will “fairly likely” need to respond to this event, the risk of impact is low. Because SWPC customers are able to receive warnings and take action to minimize disruptions, “impacts are never really felt,” said Biesecker. Without the warnings, however, users would notice as systems begin to fail.

While DSCOVR’s primary goal is its space weather mission, it also carries two earth science instruments. Originally built for the Triana mission, the instruments will take “innovative measurements from a novel perspective,” said Richard Eckman, DSCOVR program scientist at NASA. NASA scientists will combine DSCOVR measurements, including those of ozone, cloud height, and aerosol distribution, with observations from earth science satellites in low earth orbit. The hope is the combination of data will lead to improved earth science products, such as more accurate measurements of Earth’s global daytime radiation budget.

The big issue right now is when DSCOVR will launch. The Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission for NASA that was scheduled for tomorrow now will take place no earlier than January 6.  Whether that means a similar slip to the DSCOVR launch date is something NOAA is watching closely.  DSCOVR has an “instantaneous” launch window – whatever day and time the launch is set, it either goes or it does not, there is no “window.”  If a problem develops close to launch, DSCOVR can be on the launch pad for up to three days at a time, but then would have to go through a “recycle” that could take several days.

The key is that DSCOVR is closer to launch than it has been in over a decade.

DLR's W├Ârner to Take Helm at ESA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Dec-2014 (Updated: 18-Dec-2014 05:20 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) formally announced today that Prof. Dr.-Ing. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, currently the head of Germany's space agency DLR, will become the new Director General (DG) of ESA next summer, succeeding Jean-Jacques Dordain.

A civil engineer, Wörner (whose name is often transliterated into English as Woerner), has led DLR since March 2007 as Chairman of its Executive Board.  Before joining DLR, he was President of the Technische Universität Darmstadt, where he previosuly was Dean of the Civil Engineering Faculty.  Prior positions included work for the civil engineering consultants König and Heunisch and, while a student, two years in Japan investigating earthquake safety.


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Chairman of the Executive Board, DLR
Photo Credit: 
DLR website

Dordain will remain at the helm until June 30, 2015 and Wörner will begin his new duties as DG on July 1.  The ESA DG term is four years, but Dordain was reappointed twice and has been DG since July 2003.  He joined ESA in 1986 and held a number of high level positions in the agency before his appointment as DG.

ESA and Europe's space program overall have undergone profound changes during Dordain's tenure.  The membership grew as countries that were previously part of the Soviet bloc joined, and the European Union (EU) took on a larger role in European space policy.  The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon formally gave the EU a space policy role and it funds two of Europe's more prominent space applications programs -- the Galileo navigation satellite system and the Copernicus earth observation program (formerly GMES -- Global Monitoring for Environment and Security).  ESA is deeply involved in those programs from a technical standpoint, but the EU owns them.  ESA and the EU have different but overlapping memberships (18 of ESA's 20 members are in the EU -- Norway and Switzerland are not; while 10 of the EU's 28 members are not in ESA) and different rules and procedures.  They work together based on a 2004 Framework Agreement.

Wörner will be taking over an agency with stable funding of about 3 billion Euros a year, but as with most space agencies, aspirations often exceed available resources and he will have his work cut out for him navigating the ESA-EU relationship and convincing member states to fund ESA's many mandatory and optional programs.

ESA is governed by a Council of Ministers which meets every two or three years to make policy and budget decisions.  It just met on December 2 and approved building a new Ariane 6 family of launch vehicles instead of upgrading the existing Ariane 5 into an evolved Ariane 5 ME.   Germany reportedly preferred Ariane 5ME, but acquiesced to the French position supporting Ariane 6 shortly before the meeting.  In announcing that the ministers had approved Ariane 6, Dordain said the issue would be revisited at the next ministerial meeting in 2016, but the decision would allow contracts to be signed for the development phase.  ESA also is trying to obtain funds from its members to support the council's 2012 agreement to support the International Space Station (ISS) through at least 2020.  At the December 2 meeting, Dordain was able to announce funding commitments only through 2017.  (NASA is hoping ESA and its other ISS partners (Russia, Japan and Canada) will agree to support ISS through 2024, but that topic was not on the council's agenda at this meeting.)   Launch vehicles and ISS are part of ESA's optional programs where member countries can choose to participate or not and Wörner will need to continue convincing participating members that they are getting sufficient return on their investment in ISS.  Germany is viewed as the strongest supporter of ISS within ESA.

Wörner is well known in Washington space policy circles not only for his effective representation of Germany's space interests, but charmingly quirky sense of humor and entertaining stories.


SpaceX CRS-5 Delayed to No Earlier Than January 6 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Dec-2014 (Updated: 18-Dec-2014 10:27 AM)

UPDATE, December 18, 10:25 am EST:  A link to the statement NASA finally put out is added, along with information on the status of the pre-launch briefings.

SpaceX confirmed to SpacePolicyOnline this morning that its fifth operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will be postponed from tomorrow (December 19) to no earlier than January 6, 2015.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said via email that the delay is due to an "abundance of caution" following a static fire test yesterday that did not achieve all of its objectives.  "While the recent static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration.  The data suggests that we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch."

The next launch opportunity is not until January 6 because of the time it will take to conduct the second test, limited launch opportunities during the holiday period, and a beta angle cutout period when the Sun's angle to the ISS prevents certain on-orbit activities like berthing Dragon, he added.  The beta angle cutout period is December 28-January 7.

If the launch takes place on January 6, Dragon would arrive at the ISS on January 8, after the cutout period ends.  January 7 is a backup launch date.

The likelihood of a delay was first reported by Chris Bergin of yesterday via Twitter, but not confirmed by SpaceX (or NASA) until this morning.

SpaceX has a full launch manifest, including the January 23 launch of the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) on January 23.  What impact the SpX-5 slip may have on other launches is unclear at the moment.   NOAA will hold a media teleconference this morning at 11:00 am EST where more information about the DSCOVR launch may be made available.

NASA finally issued a statement at about 10:15 am EST confirming the postponement and clarifying that three pre-launch briefings scheduled for today will be rescheduled for January 5.  If the launch takes place on January 6, the launch time is 6:18 am Eastern Standard Time (EST).

Delay for SpaceX CRS-5?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2014 (Updated: 18-Dec-2014 12:03 AM)

Several sources on Twitter report that Friday's scheduled launch of the fifth SpaceX operational cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will be delayed.  The mission is designated CRS-5 or SpX-5.  No official confirmation of the delay had been issued as of 11:45 pm EST today (December 17).

SpaceX, NASA and the Air Force 45th Space Wing, which controls the Cape Canaveral launch site that is part of the Eastern Test Range, have not updated information on their websites as the time this article is being published.   According to those sources, the launch is still scheduled for 1:22 pm EST on December 19.

However,'s Chris Bergin tweeted (@NASASpaceflight) early today that the static test fire of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket did not go as planned and later posted a story that the launch "likely" will slip to January.   Florida Today's James Dean (@flatoday_jdean) also tweeted that "sounds like Friday is out" and "launch readiness TBC tomorrow."   SpaceCoastLaunch (@SCLaunch321), whose identity is not provided on Twitter, tweeted that "range has confirmed that the CRS-5 mission has slipped to 6 JAN 2015,"  The "range" is personnel at the Eastern Test Range.

We will update this article as soon as official information is available from SpaceX, NASA, or the Air Force.  SpaceX and NASA have not yet replied to emailed queries from

NASA has three pre-launch press conferences scheduled for tomorrow beginning with a status report at 12:00 pm EST.

The primary purpose of this launch is to deliver cargo to the ISS, but SpaceX also plans to test landing the rocket's first stage on a barge.  SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk wants to develop reusable first stages and conducted tests on two previous NASA cargo launches to determine that the first stage could be returned vertically to the ocean -- which he calls a soft water landing.  Once those first stages reached the water they tipped over, of course.   This will be the first attempt to land on a barge where the rocket should remain vertical.  

SpaceX calls the barge an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" that is 300-by-100 feet with "wings that extend its width to 170 feet."  It is targeting a landing accuracy of 10 meters (approximately 30 feet) and the rocket stage has a legspan of 70 feet.  The company rates the probability of success at "50 percent at best."  All of the activities associated with attempting to land the first stage takes place after the Dragon spacecraft has separated from the stage and is on its way to ISS, so should not affect mission success for NASA.

Orbital Sciences to Use Russian RD-181 for Antares

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2014 (Updated: 17-Dec-2014 10:54 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation confirmed via Twitter a story published by Aviation Week & Space Technology that it has chosen a different Russian engine, RD-181, for its Antares rocket.  The last Antares launch, powered by Russian NK-33 engines (refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26), exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28.

Orbital confirmed after the launch failure that it would use a different engine for future Antares rockets, but as recently as last week, Orbital Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson declined to publicly identify the engine despite rumors that it would be Russian.

Aviation Week's Frank Morring posted a story yesterday quoting Orbital's vice president for space launch strategic development Mark Pieczynski as saying the RD-181, built by Energomash, "is about as close as you could possibly get to replacing the current twin AJ-26 engines in Antares, so it minimizes the redesign of the core."  The first set of RD-181s is expected in the summer of 2015, Morring reported, with a second set arriving in the fall.

Orbital has announced plans for recovering from the October 28 launch failure, which destroyed the Cygnus spacecraft that was carrying cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Orbital's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  The contract requires Orbital to deliver 20 tons of cargo to ISS by the end of 2016.  To fulfill the contract, Orbital will use another company's rocket for at least one launch of Cygnus while getting the reconfigured Antares ready for launch in 2016.  That other company is the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  Orbital is buying one ULA Atlas V launch, with an option for one more.

In tweets yesterday and today, Orbital (@OrbitalSciences) said that the RD-181 is the "only propulsion system that enables us to complete cargo commitments to @NASA under #CRS contract by end of 2016."  It also disputed reports on some media outlets that the value of its order for the engines is $1 billion.  "Total possible value (including options) of #RD181 order significantly below the $1 billion being reported by some media outlets."

One of those media outlets is Russia's Sputnik News, formerly RIA Novosti.  It reported today that the order is for 60 RD-181 engines, citing another Russian newspaper, Izvestiya.  According to that account, an official from Russia's space agency Roscosmos said there is a firm contract for 20 engines with a commitment to deliver a total of 60.  A subsequent story from Sputnik News quotes Orbital's Barron Beneski as saying the $1 billion figure is incorrect and "The full value if all the options were exercised would be significantly less." 

Congress recently passed legislation prohibiting the purchase of a different Russian engine, the RD-180, for use in ULA's Atlas V rocket.  Atlas V is used for many U.S. national security spacecraft and U.S. dependence on Russia for those engines became a significant issue after Russia's actions in Ukraine.  The final version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prohibits the Secretary of Defense from awarding or renewing a contract to procure rocket engines designed or manufactured in Russia for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  Atlas V and Delta IV are the two EELVs, so the language does not affect Antares. 

Morring quotes Orbital's Ron Grabe, executive vice president and general manager of the company's Launch Systems Group, as saying the company "coordinated with all relevant congressional staffs" and notes that the ISS program itself is dependent on cooperation with Russia.  ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries.  NASA has been dependent on Russia to launch crews to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.

NASA Delays Decision on Asteroid Redirect Mission Options

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2014 (Updated: 18-Dec-2014 05:25 PM)

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot revealed during a media teleconference this afternoon that he is delaying a decision between two options for implementing the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The decision was expected today, but now will wait until sometime in January.

NASA has been working on the ARM concept since the White House announced it in 2013 as part of the FY2014 budget request.  The idea is that NASA will send a robotic spacecraft to a small asteroid and redirect it from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon where astronauts can visit it.  The White House decided that such a mission would satisfy President Obama’s 2010 directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid as the next U.S. human spaceflight destination.

A variant of that concept emerged where instead of moving all of a small asteroid, the robotic spacecraft would pluck a boulder from a larger asteroid and move the boulder to lunar orbit.   The original idea is called Option A and the variant is Option B.  NASA has had teams working on identifying the technical challenges associated with the two options with the goal of choosing between them prior to a Mission Concept Review (MCR) that is scheduled for late February 2015They want the MCR to focus on a single option.

Lightfoot was briefed by the teams yesterday and a decision was expected today on which of the two would proceed to the MCR.  He said, however, that he needs clarification of some of the issues and two or three more weeks to decide.

Option B would cost about $100 million more than Option A, he said, and the question is what the agency would get for that extra money.  The utility of the technologies needed for ARM to meet future goals like sending people to Mars is called “extensibility.”   Option B is more technically challenging, Lightfoot said, but “it also demonstrates more of the technologies, so the extensibility piece is there. We’re going to have to test these [technologies] eventually. …. It’s an interesting trade for us to make.”

Lightfoot reiterated that NASA believes it can accomplish the ARM mission for about $1.25 billion.  That figure does not include the cost of launching the robotic spacecraft.  NASA is choosing between the Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy and Space Launch System (SLS) for that launch.  The cost also does not include the human component – launching a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft on an SLS.

NASA’s current plan is to launch the crew portion of the mission in 2024, but Lightfoot said that date could change in the MCR.  An independent cost estimate also is expected to be presented then.

The announcement that no decision was being made today came as a surprise.  NASA issued a press release about 10:00 am EST this morning that the media telecom would be held at 4:00 pm, with Lightfoot, ARM program director Michele Gates, and Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations program executive Lindley Johnson.  Only Lightfoot was present, however, and it was just to announce the delay.

NASA requested $160 million for ARM in FY2015 spread through three of its four Mission Directorates – Science Mission Directorate (SMD), Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).  It is not a specific line item in the budget.   Congress approved a substantial budget increase for NASA overall, but was not specific about ARM.  Lightfoot said today that NASA received “all we need” for ARM this year.

The FY2015 funding request included $93 million for technology development and Lightfoot said there is enough commonality between the two options that the money can be used efficiently no matter which option is ultimately selected.

ARM has garnered little enthusiasm outside of the White House and NASA, but Congress has not prohibited the agency from proceeding.  The House Appropriations Committee said in its report on the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H. Rept. 113-448) that it had concerns about "ARM's costs and feasibility as well as its strategic relevance and potential to generate external support from the public and international collaborators."  It directed that NASA "may only expend funds on those portions of the ARM mission that are also applicable to other current NASA programs, clearly extensible to other potential future exploration missions .... or have broad applicability to other future non-exploration activities, such as in-space robotic servicing."  The report on the final appropriations bill (the "cromnibus") is silent about ARM, but the language from the House report stands.  It is not clear how much, if any, of the work NASA is currently doing on ARM would be considered inapplicable to other current or potential NASA missions. 

Lightfoot also was expected to announce today which Mission Directorate will take responsibility for executing the mission.  He is the highest ranking civil servant at NASA and nominally third in the chain of command behind the Administrator and Deputy Administrator, but the latter position has been vacant since last year so in reality he is second. He has been personally overseeing the mission as a whole since it was announced, but ordinarily it would be assigned to a Mission Directorate.

SMD made clear from the beginning that it is not a science mission, but its activities to discover and track asteroids are an important component of the mission.  STMD is in charge of developing the needed technologies, notably high power solar electric propulsion (SEP), and most of the ARM money in NASA’s FY2015 budget goes to STMD.  HEOMD clearly is involved since ARM requires astronauts to visit the asteroid and ARM is supposed to be part of the overall goal of sending people to Mars.  Gates, the ARM program director, served in HEOMD before taking on this assignment, which is described as a “cross-Directorate, cross-Center” effort.

Methane Mystery at Mars

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2014 (Updated: 16-Dec-2014 03:37 PM)

The NASA Mars Curiosity science team revealed today that the rover's instruments detected an unexplained spike in atmospheric methane concentrations about this time last year.  One source -- but not the only source -- of methane is biological activity.

The amount and source of methane on Mars is of great interest to scientists not only because it is a possible signature of life, but because of conflicting readings over the years.  For example, in September 2013, a year after Curiosity landed, NASA announced that the rover had not detected significant amounts of methane, a surprise because during the previous decade, Earth-based telescopes and instruments on spacecraft orbiting Mars had detected the gas. 

Today's announcement at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco is that in late 2013 and early 2014, the rover detected a 10-fold spike in methane concentrations in the atmosphere near the rover.  Four measurements during that period averaged 7 parts per billion (ppb), compared to readings before and after, which were one-tenth of that.

The presence of methane is not a sure sign of either past or present life, but opens that possibility.  Sushiel Atreya of the University of Michigan and a member of the Curiosity science team said today that "this temporary increase in methane - sharply up and then back down - tells us there must be some relatively localized source. ... There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock."

NASA's carefully worded press release also said that Curiosity detected organic chemicals in powder drilled from a rock, "the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials on Mars."  However, the statement goes on to say these "Martian organics could either have formed on Mars or been delivered to Mars by meteorites" and organic molecules "are chemical building blocks of life, although they can exist without the presence of life."

Curiosity's mission is not to determine if there is life on Mars, but whether or not the planet could have supported life -- its "habitability."  Determining if life exists elsewhere than on Earth is one of NASA's major science objectives.  Mars has fascinated people as a possible site for extraterrestrial life at least since 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported that he had observed "canali" on the surface and some interpreted that as meaning canals created by intelligent beings rather than naturally occurring channels.  The belief that intelligent beings once lived on Mars persists to this day despite the extensive research conducted there by spacecraft orbiting the planet and roving on its surface. 

Separate from the debate over intelligent life, some scientists think microbial life may once have existed there, or perhaps still does today in subsurface permafrost, for example.  Today's announcement makes no definitive determination about that question, but adds to the mystery of the source of the methane on the planet.

Detecting methane in the Martian atmosphere is one of the objectives of India's Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM), which reached the planet in September.  Europe's Mars Express orbiter also can detect methane and, in fact, it was observations from that spacecraft a decade ago that raised expectations that methane was much more abundant than Curiosity initially measured.

GAO Warns JWST Cryocooler Poses Risk of Schedule Slip

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Dec-2014 (Updated: 15-Dec-2014 05:22 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its third annual congressionally-required assessment of the status of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) today warning that the project's schedule is at risk particularly because of challenges developing its cyrocooler.

GAO acknowledged that JWST program officials report that the space telescope's overall schedule reserve is above its plans and standards, but pointed out that with four years until launch, NASA is only now beginning to integrate and test two of the five elements and major subsystems and this is the time period where problems are likely to be found.  Therefore "maintaining as much schedule reserve as possible ... is critical."

JWST also has "limited short-term cost reserves" to deal with potential schedule slips, GAO found.  Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (NGAS) is the prime contractor for JWST, and GAO criticized the cost risk analyses used by NASA and NGAS because "they do not account for many new risks identified since 2011."  GAO stressed that cost risk analyses must be continually updated to ensure reliability and that is part of adhering to cost estimating best practices. 

It recommended in the report that NASA follow best practices in cost estimating.  NASA "partially concurred" with the recommendation. NASA's comments are published as an appendix to the report and say basically that it agrees it should follow best practices and is already doing so. 

JWST is described as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope although it operates in different wavelengths (infrared rather than visible) and will be positioned at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point (rather than in earth orbit).   It has a sunshade to protect it from the Sun and is passively cooled by exposure to space environment.  However, one of its instruments, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), requires additional cooling, which will be provided by a first-of-its-kind cryogenic system -- a cryocooler. 

GAO warned that the JWST project "continues to face major technical challenges building the cryocooler that have significantly delayed delivery of key components, have made it the driver of the project's overall schedule or the project's critical path, and required the use of a disproportionate amount of project cost reserves."  Since the program was replanned in 2011, the cryocooler has experienced 150 percent cost growth and "is contributing to the project's limited cost reserve status" for FY2015.

Past cost overruns and schedule delays in the JWST program have caused concern at NASA and in Congress.  JWST is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and has strong support from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who currently chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.   Even her support was tested in 2010 with the announcement of additional cost growth, leading to a study headed by JPL's John Casani that concluded the problems were primarily managerial, not technical.  Consequently, NASA restructured how the program is managed and developed a new life-cycle cost estimate.  The Casani report estimated that the cost would grow from $5.1 billion to $6.5 billion and the launch date would slip from 2014 to 2015, but after further analysis, NASA concluded the development cost would be $8 billion, with launch in 2018. 

Congress capped JWST development at $8 billion.  Another $800 million is needed for operations, yielding a lifecycle cost estimate of $8.8 billion.  That is based on launch in 2018.  JWST is being launched on an Ariane rocket as part of an international cooperative agreement with ESA (meaning NASA does not pay for the launch).

JWST is one of NASA's top three priorities according to an agreement reached between the White House and Congress in 2011. The other two are the International Space Station and commercial crew, and the Space Launch System and Orion.


DalBello Leaving OSTP for Virgin Galactic

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Dec-2014 (Updated: 15-Dec-2014 05:37 PM)

Virgin Galactic announced today that Richard DalBello will join the company as Vice President of Business Development and Government Relations.  DalBello is currently assistant director for aeronautics and space at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

This is DalBello's second stint at OSTP, having served there during the Clinton Administration.  He moved to the private sector thereafter and just prior to rejoining OSTP last year, he was Vice President for Government Affairs at Intelsat General.     

Richard DalBello

In the Virgin Galactic press release, DalBello says that he is "excited to be joining one of the true leaders of the commercial space era."

Virgin Galactic is currently recovering from the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash on October 31, 2014.  The air-launched spacecraft was destroyed and one of the two pilots died.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating the accident. 

SS2 is intended to take people on suborbital flights, but the company also is building a two-stage launch vehicle, LauncherOne, for placing small satellites in orbit.   DalBello will be in charge of business development for LauncherOne and for managing Virgin Galactic's interactions with the government.

DalBello's career includes a mix of government and private sector positions.   In addition to his four years at OSTP during the Clinton Administration, previous government jobs include working at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, for NASA as director of commercial communications where he was responsible for private sector experiments on the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS), and for the Department of Commerce as Director of the Office of Space Commercialization.  He also worked on the staff of the 1985-1986 National Commission on Space.    In the private sector, he was Vice President of Government Affairs for Intelsat General, president of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, president of the Satellite Industry Association, general counsel of Spotcast Communications Inc., and Vice President for Government Affairs, North America for ICO Global Communications.


Events of Interest

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


Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: