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Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 23-27, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
This is one of those weeks when so much is going on that it's difficult to choose just a couple of events to highlight. Please peruse the list below to find your own favorites.
There are seven congressional hearings of interest to the space policy community, though one suspects two are of particular note to readers of this website: Tuesday's Senate hearing on the U.S. human spaceflight program and commercial space competitiveness (with three former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin), and Friday's House hearing on NASA's commercial crew program.
But the others should be of interest, too: Wednesday's House hearing with the NASA Inspector General (and his counterparts at the Departments of Commerce and Justice) and hearings on the FY2016 budget requests for the Department of Transportation (including the Office of Commercial Space Transportation), Air Force (where many national security space programs reside), and the Department of Commerce (home of NOAA). Many congressional hearings are webcast (though usually not the ones held in the U.S. Capitol), so you can enjoy them live or later in archived webcasts. We'll provide summaries of as many of them as we can.
Tuesday, February 24
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 24-25
Wednesday, February 25
Thursday, February 26
Friday, February 27
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will hold his first space-related hearing next week as chairman of the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Among the six witnesses is Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin along with another Apollo veteran, Walt Cunningham, and space shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino.
The hearing is entitled "U.S. Human Exploration Goals and Commercial Space Competitiveness." In addition to the panel of former astronauts, a second panel includes representatives of industry and academia: John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager, Boeing Space Exploration; Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute at George Washington University; and Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger last month that Cruz posted on his office website, he said that he is "an enthusiastic advocate of competition and allowing the private sector to innovate." He also signaled support for Orion and the Space Launch System and said he wants to refocus NASA on its "core priority of exploring space."
Cruz is an ardent advocate of cutting federal spending and is widely credited (or blamed) for the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 and delaying Senate adjournment in December 2014 due to his strong views on budgetary and other issues. What that will mean for NASA is anyone's guess this early in deliberations.
Democrats recently announced that Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) will be the ranking member of this subcommittee. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress when the Senate was under Democratic control, is now the ranking member of the full committee. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) chairs the full committee.
This is the committee that will consider the President's nomination of MIT Professor Dava Newman to be NASA Deputy Administrator. No date has been announced for a confirmation hearing. Under usual procedures, it is also the committee that would consider a new NASA authorization bill, although the House has already passed such a bill and it could go directly to the Senate floor for debate if desired. The Senate never took up the House-passed NASA authorization bill last year. This year's House bill is virtually identical to last year's although it contains funding recommendations based on FY2015 rather than FY2014 appropriations levels. It does not make recommendations for future year funding.
The hearing is on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 2:00 pm ET in 253 Russell Senate Office Building.
OrbitalATK President and CEO David Thompson said today that the company plans the first flight of its upgraded Antares rocket on March 1, 2016 from Wallops Flight Facility, VA. An Antares exploded at liftoff in October 2014 destroying a Cygnus capsule loaded with supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). The upgraded Antares will use a different rocket engine.
Thompson and two other top officials of the new company held an investors teleconference this morning. The merger of Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems (ATK) closed on February 9. Thompson and CFO Garrett Pierce are from the Orbital side of the merger; COO Blake Larson is from ATK.
Data presented by the trio this morning show that 56 percent of the company's revenue is from national security programs, 26 percent from commercial programs, and 18 percent from NASA and other civil government programs. NASA programs were numbers two and three of the five top revenue producers last year: NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to take cargo to the ISS (approximately $300 million) and the propulsion system for the Space Launch System (about $250 million). In first place was small caliber ammunition for the Army ($430 million). Fourth was medium and large caliber ammunition for the Army ($225 million) and fifth place was a tie between missile defense interceptors and tactical missiles, both at $150 million.
Public attention is focused on the merged company's recovery from the Antares failure. Thompson was confident that OrbitalATK will be able to fulfill its contract with NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by the end of 2016. Between now and the first launch of the upgraded Antares, OrbitalATK will launch one of its Cygnus spacecraft on a competitor's rocket -- United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5. Thompson said that launch will be ready for flight in early October, but NASA may want to wait until later that month or November, depending on other ISS activities. That will be followed by the March 1 launch of the upgraded Antares and two more later in the year. The Cygnus itself is an upgraded model as well that can carry more cargo than the earlier version, allowing OrbitalATK to meet the tonnage requirements with only four more launches instead of five.
Thompson said that NASA is not asking the company to fly a demonstration launch of the upgraded rocket -- the March 1 launch will have a full cargo load. However, in January the company will conduct a test firing of the first stage on the launch pad at Wallops.
The first stage is built in Ukraine by Yuzhmash and Thompson was asked if he had any concerns considering the situation there. Thompson replied that he needs five more Antares first stages over the next two-and-a-half years and three are complete and the other two are "almost" complete. "We're watching closely with nearly full time presence" at Yuzhmash and "we do have a fallback plan if things really deteriorate there." No details were provided during the teleconference and the company has not yet responded to a query from SpacePolicyOnline.com about what that plan is.
The engines used for the original version of Antares were old Russian NK-33 engines manufactured more than four decades ago and refurbished here by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ26. Thompson said shortly after the October 28 launch failure that early indications were that the engines were the cause of the failure 15 seconds after launch.
The replacement engines also are Russian, but newer RD-181s built by NPO Energomash, a subsidiary of Energia. In a January 16, 2015 press release, Energia's President Vladimir Solntsev said the two companies had been working on the contract for three years. According to that press release, the contract value is $1 billion for 60 engines (plus engineering services), but apparently that is a firm contract for 20 engines plus two options for 20 more engines each. The first two engines are due to be delivered in June 2015. The RD-181 was "developed specifically" for Antares, according to the Energia press release, based on the RD-191 engine built for Russia's new Angara rocket family. Orbital/OrbitalATK itself has released very little information about the contract.
NASA decided to postpone by one day each the first two of a set of three spacewalks from the International Space Station (ISS) planned over the next week and a half. The first was scheduled for tomorrow, February 20, but will wait until February 21. The second will slip from February 24 to February 25. The third remains on track for March 1.
NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts will use the spacewalks to begin the process of outfitting ISS docking ports so they can accommodate new commercial crew vehicles when they start ferrying astronauts to the ISS in 2017. All three involve running cables and moving equipment on the exterior of the space station.
Experts are still troubleshooting an issue with the fan pump separators on the astronauts' spacesuits, however. NASA's ISS Operations and Integration Manager Kenny Todd revealed the problem at a press briefing yesterday. He said a decision on the schedule for the spacewalks would be made today after a special ISS Mission Management Team (IMMT) meeting. That meeting at Johnson Space Center (JSC) concluded about 2:30 pm Central Time (3:30 pm Eastern) with the decision to wait one more day for the first two.
NASA would like to get all three spacewalks completed before Wilmore returns to Earth on March 12. The third of the three is still scheduled for March 1. All three spacewalks will begin at about 7:10 am Eastern Time, with NASA TV coverage beginning at 6:00 am ET.
Todd explained that corrosion was discovered in the fan pump separators probably due to water intrusion. The corrosion creates mechanical binding on the bearings, preventing the fans from spinning up. The problem was discovered on orbit first on one suit and then on another. Those fan pump separators were replaced and returned to Earth on the recent SpaceX cargo mission to the ISS (SpX-5) giving engineers an opportunity to study them more closely.
He stressed that this is not the same problem that led to the "water in the helmet" episode in 2013. That was caused by a filter being clogged by particles in the water that allowed the water to enter European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet. "That is not an issue here," he emphasized. "Fan pump separators can fail for a variety of reasons" and crews "train for that," he said. Nevertheless, NASA wants to be as certain as possible that there will be no problems at all during the spacewalks. Todd said the decision on when to conduct the spacewalks will be "data driven" and they will take place only when "we have high confidence" the suits will work properly.
Joan Johnson-Freese explained to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission today why former Rep. Frank Wolf was wrong to effectively ban all U.S.-China bilateral space cooperation. Wolf retired at the end of the last Congress, but his successor as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA holds similar views.
Johnson-Freese is a professor at the Naval War College and author of "The Chinese Space Program: A Mystery Within a Maze" and "Heavenly Ambitions: America's Quest to Dominate Space." She was one of the witnesses at today's hearing on China's space and counterspace programs.
Wolf included language in several Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills that prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from engaging in any bilateral activities with China on civil space cooperation unless specifically authorized by Congress or unless NASA or OSTP certifies to Congress 14 days in advance that the activity would not result in the transfer of any technology, data, or other information with national security or economic implications. His indefatigable opposition to cooperating with China was based largely on its human rights abuses and efforts to obtain U.S. technology. He was one of the strongest, but certainly not only, congressional critic of China, always stressing that he loved the Chinese people, but not the Chinese government.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is Wolf's successor as chairman of the CJS subcommittee. In December 2013 when rumors swirled that he would replace Wolf, he was interviewed by a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and when asked whether he agreed with Wolf about China replied: "Yes. We need to keep them out of our space program, and we need to keep NASA out of China. They are not our friends."
It remains to be seen whether he will include the same language in this year's CJS bill, but Johnson-Freese spelled out why she thinks it is the wrong approach.
She provides a comprehensive rebuttal to Wolf's reasoning, but in essence her contention is that "the United States must use all tools of national power" to achieve its space-related goals as stated in U.S. National Space Policy, National Security Strategy, and National Security Space Strategy. Wolf's restrictions on space cooperation simply constrain U.S. options, she argues: "Limiting U.S. options has never been in U.S. national interest and isn't on this issue either." She disagrees with Wolf's assumption that the United States has nothing to gain from working with China: "On the contrary, the United States could learn about how they work -- their decision-making processes, institutional policies and standard operating procedures. This is valuable information in accurately deciphering the intended use of dual-use space technology, long a weakness and so a vulnerability in U.S. analysis."
For some issues, there really is no choice, she continues. China must be involved in international efforts towards Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) and space sustainability, especially with regard to space debris, a topic given urgency by China's 2007 antisatellite (ASAT) test that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in low Earth orbit. She notes that since that test and the resulting international condemnation, "China has done nothing further in space that can be considered irresponsible or outside the norms set the United States."
Not that China has refrained from tests related to negating other countries' satellites, however. She and other witnesses detailed China's recent activities in that regard. Kevin Pollpeter of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation joined her at the witness table. They reported on "missile defense tests" in 2010, 2013 and 2014 that are widely considered in the West to be de facto ASAT tests, along with a 2013 "high altitude science mission" and co-orbital satellite tests in 2010 and 2013, as potentially related to ASAT development. These tests were non-destructive, however, and did not generate space debris.
Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Missouri), who co-chaired today's hearing, said that the Commission will publish a report by Pollpeter's institute on China's counterspace activities "in the coming days." The Commission was created by Congress in 2000 and submits an annual report on national security implications of the U.S.-China trade and economic relationship.
UPDATE, February 18: Friday's WSBR luncheon has been postponed.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 16-20, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess this week in observance of Presidents' Day (which commemorates Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12 and George Washington's on February 22).
During the Week
Members of Congress will be working in their State or District offices this week instead of Washington, D.C., hearing directly from their constituents about whatever is on their minds.
Lots of non-congressional events are on tap, though, including what could be a very interesting investors conference call with the leadership of the brand new OrbitalATK on Thursday. This is the first such call for the merged company, which melds Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant TechSystems' (ATK's) aerospace business (it spun off its sporting division as part of the merger). Only financial folks get to ask questions, but anyone can listen and the company is actually making this available via webcast. Orbital's David Thompson is President and CEO of the merged company, and Garrett Pierce is CFO, the same positions they held at Orbital. Blake Larson, who headed ATK's Aerospace Group, is COO of the merged company.
The Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Chris Scolese, will speak to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) on Tuesday.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Editor's Note: Some of you may have heard about the Pioneering Space National Summit scheduled for Thursday and Friday. That event is by invitation only, so we do not list it. On a personal note, I wish them luck. I've been involved in too many of these exercises over the decades and declined their kind invitation to participate in yet another one. Perhaps this will be the one that makes a difference, but I admit to being skeptical.
Tuesday, February 17
Wednesday, February 18
Thursday, February 19
Thursday-Friday, February 19-20
Friday, February 20
The head of NOAA’s satellite division downplayed the chances of a gap in coverage by polar orbiting weather satellites at a House committee hearing on Thursday. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has been warning of potential gaps, asked that they put it in writing. Meanwhile, committee members made clear they want a different paradigm for the future with a greater focus on buying commercial weather data.
Potential Weather Satellite Coverage Gaps
For the past several years of hard fought budget battles, NOAA itself was the one raising red flags about the possibility that older weather satellites would wear out before new ones are launched, routinely issuing dire warnings to Congress about what would happen if there was a gap in coverage. The strategy worked and Congress began providing all the funding NOAA requested. Now the crisis seems to have passed from NOAA’s perspective, but GAO remains skeptical based on the information NOAA has made public to date.
At Thursday’s hearing before two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on mitigating potential gaps in weather satellite coverage, the new head of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), Steve Volz, had quite a different message. Volz recently succeeded Mary Kicza as head of NESDIS after a long career primarily at NASA.
NOAA operates two weather satellite systems: one in polar orbit and the other in geostationary orbit. Concerns about gaps in coverage currently center on the polar orbiting system although NOAA's management of both systems has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years.
The overall concern is that the Suomi-NPP satellite launched in 2011 will cease functioning before the first of the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites is launched and operational (which requires a multi-month checkout period). The issue is two-fold: how long S-NPP will last and when JPSS-1 will launch.
S-NPP was designed and developed by NASA as a test satellite (part of the since-cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System – NPOESS), not an operational satellite. Although public sources cite a 5-year design lifetime, NASA initially forecast a 3-5 year lifetime, as GAO’s David Powner reminded the subcommittees at the hearing. In addition there are concerns that shortcuts were taken with some of the instruments (notably VIIRS) and that the spacecraft was not designed with the same resiliency against space debris as the JPSS satellites.
S-NPP will reach its 5-year design lifetime in October 2016, but Volz expressed confidence that it will continue functioning “past 2020.” He also is optimistic that JPSS-1 will stick to its current schedule for launch in March 2017. GAO’s Powner, who has tracked NOAA's weather satellite programs for many years, was not convinced. Regarding S-NPP, Powner said “there was a NASA assessment that it would last 3-5 years, there is supposed to be a gap assessment from 2014 that hasn’t been released yet, the budget still says one year, so if it’s 2020 let’s put it in writing.” Volz indicated later in the hearing that he would do so. As for JPSS-1, Powner pointed to recent delays in several of the JPSS-1 instruments, especially the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) “which keeps slipping,” as a threat against the March 2017 launch schedule.
The topic of the hearing was how to mitigate against potential gaps whatever their cause, and while Volz was optimistic about S-NPP’s lifetime and JPSS-1’s schedule, he pointed out there are many failure scenarios and the key is to be ready for any of them. “It’s not that we’re trying to project the failure of any individual asset, but if an asset fails at a particular time, what is the impact on the overall constellation. … One thing can take out a satellite, or a … launch failure can take out a satellite, what is our response to that and how do we mitigate the impact… It doesn’t mean we expect it, but we have to prepare for it.”
As for mitigation strategies, dozens have been identified and GAO wants to see them prioritized: “NOAA officials stated that further prioritization among mitigation activities was not warranted because the activities were fully funded and were not dependent on the completion of other activities. We disagree. … [U]nless NOAA assesses the activities that have the most promise and accelerates those activities, it may not be sufficiently prepared to mitigate near-term data gaps.”
The JPSS program experienced cost growth in the 2011-2013 time frame causing congressional consternation. NOAA reduced the cost by removing some program elements and modifying the operational time frame, reducing the program cost from $12.9 billion to $11.3 billion. That estimate covers how much NOAA spent on the NPOESS program before it was cancelled and the cost of building and operating the first two JPSS satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. (NOAA plans to build at least two more JPSS satellites, but they have a separate program name – Polar Follow On – and budget line.) JPSS-2 is scheduled for launch in 2021 with an operational lifetime through 2028, but in the $11.3 billion cost estimate, operations are included only through 2025. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) asked if that was a “gimmick to hide the true cost of the program.” Volz, who has been at NOAA for only three months, said he would look into it.
While a potential gap in polar orbit weather data was the main focus of the hearing, concerns about the GOES geostationary system also were noted by Powner and Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee. The first of NOAA’s new GOES-R satellite series is scheduled for launch in March 2016, followed by a six-month checkout period that will make it operational around September 2016. NOAA’s policy is to have two operational and one backup GOES satellite in orbit at any given time, but it plans to retire one of its older operational satellites (GOES-13) in April and use the backup satellite (GOES-14) instead. Those will be the only two GOES satellites operational until GOES-R is launched and checked out “which means 17 months without a spare,” Loudermilk said. GAO’s Powner stressed the importance of maintaining the March 2016 launch date for GOES-R and of NOAA having a mitigation plan at hand.
A New Paradigm for the Future: Commercial Data Buys
Several members advocated incorporating purchases of commercial weather data into the next generation weather satellite architecture. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), chairman of the Environment Subcommittee, said the government must “look outside the box” and cited several companies – PlanetIQ, Spire, GeoOptics, Tempus Global Data and HySpecIQ – planning to deliver GPS radio occultation or hyperspectral atmospheric data that could augment weather forecasts.
Volz spoke positively about using commercial data as long as NOAA is confident it is accurate, reliable, and can be validated. It already purchases some commercial data, including lightning data and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite data. He noted that NASA works in concert with other countries in developing global numerical weather prediction models and the data must be readily transferable to and usable by all those countries. He said NOAA plans a workshop at the end of April with interested companies to discuss steps toward creating an effective working relationship.
Bridenstine asked if any of the $380 million requested in NOAA’s FY2016 budget for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 (the Polar Follow On program) could go to a pilot program for buying commercial data instead of buying a new satellite. (NOAA is requesting $370 million for the Polar Follow On - PFO. It also is requesting $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave miniature microwave sounder that is sometimes added to the PFO request, yielding $380 million.) He supports JPSS and GOES, but wants to “move to a day where we have a different kind of space-based architecture that is resilient, that is disaggregated….where we [take] advantage of commercial technologies” and get NOAA focused on doing “what the private sector cannot do.”
Volz said that what is needed is “backbone government supplied solutions complemented by other alternative approaches” and as those capabilities get stronger, they are “likely to become more prevalent.” However, he added, thought must be given to the risks if the commercial approach does not succeed. He also noted that “80 plus percent” of the $380 million is going directly to the private sector companies building the spacecraft and instruments.
The hearing was held before the Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Oversight of the House SS&T committee. A webcast of the hearing and written statements by the witnesses and chairs and ranking members of the subcommittees are available on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.
The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft successfully lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:03 pm ET this evening. Once known as Triana, the spacecraft will provide data for space weather forecasting as well as earth observations after it reaches its final destination, the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, in approximately 110 days.
The launch was delayed several times due to weather and technical issues, but today was picture perfect with the weather cooperating fully -- for launch. Unfortunately, however, it was a different story for SpaceX's attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship 400 miles out at sea. There, a "megastorm" was underway with 30 foot swells that convinced SpaceX to recall the drone ship and support ships. The first stage was already set to fire two reentry burns for the landing and those went ahead as planned. SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk tweeted thereafter that the "Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10m of target & nicely vertical! High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather."
Landing the first stage on the drone ship was a secondary objective. Getting DSCOVR on its way was the primary objective and it was a complete success. DSCOVR is a joint NOAA-NASA-Air Force program with a long history dating back to the 1990s when it was initiated by then Vice President Al Gore. Gore was at the launch today and said DSCOVR will "give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet and, in so doing, remind us of the duty to protect our only home."
It was that environmental message that inspired Gore in the first place. His idea was to place a camera at the Sun-Earth L1 (SEL-1) Lagrange point to send back constant images of the sunlit side of the Earth to remind the people of the world of our planet's fragility. Other instruments were later added to make the mission more scientifically useful.
SEL-1 is located between the Earth and the Sun, about 1.5 million miles from Earth. It is already the location of spacecraft needed to observe the Sun and detect and measure particles ejected by the Sun than can have negative consequences for everything from Earth-orbiting satellites to the terrestrial power grid. Those events are referred to as "space weather" and NOAA forecasts space weather just as it does terrestrial weather.
The spacecraft conceptualized by Gore was named Triana after a sailor, Rodrigo de Triana, on one of Columbus's ships who first spotted North America. The spacecraft was built and ready for launch by the end of Clinton-Gore Administration, but then fell victim to politics. Derisively called "Goresat," it was put into storage in 2001 when George W. Bush became President following the bitter 2000 Gore-Bush presidential election.
Originally, Triana was an earth observing spacecraft with Gore's camera -- Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) -- and a radiometer to measure Earth's albedo as the primary instruments. Two space weather instruments were also included as secondary payloads. At the time, space weather observations were provided by NASA's relatively new Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). As the years passed, however, it became apparent that a replacement for ACE would be needed. In 2008, NOAA successfully argued for Triana to be brought out of storage, refurbished and launched with a role reversal where space weather would be the primary mission and earth observations secondary.
Agreement was reached where NOAA would pay NASA tor refurbishing the spacecraft and the two space weather instruments (NASA is NOAA's spacecraft acquisition agent), NASA would pay to refurbish the two earth observation instruments, and the Air Force, which also needs space weather forecasts, would pay for the launch. NOAA renamed it DSCOVR.
Today witnessed the fruit of all those labors, though it will take 110 days for DSCOVR to reach SEL-1, and 40 days of checkout are needed before operational space weather data become available. NOAA operates the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO and the data will be posted on the SWPC website. NASA will be in charge of the earth observing instruments, including EPIC. Images from EPIC will be posted on a NASA website with a one-day delay.
NOAA's FY2016 budget request includes $2.5 million to begin planning for a follow-on to DSCOVR. NASA and NOAA's responsibilities for earth observing and space weather are undergoing changes. The Obama Administration is proposing that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, while NOAA is responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather.
Forecasting space weather is an operational task, but research is still needed to understand the Sun's processes and their effects on Earth, a discipline called solar-terrestrial physics, solar and space physics, or heliophysics. NASA retains responsibility for that research and is getting ready to launch the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission to further that research with a set of four earth-orbiting satellites. Launch is currently scheduled for March 12.
DSCOVR represents three "firsts": it is NOAA's first operational space weather satellite and its first deep space satellite, and this was SpaceX's first deep space launch. It will join NASA's ACE research satellite, still working after more than 17 years on the job and long past its design lifetime, and a European spacecraft, the Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), which carries a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun. The particles then fly past ACE, and soon DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allows SWPC to make its forecasts.
Just one day after it was officially introduced, and with no committee action, the House today passed the 2015 NASA Authorization Act, H.R. 810.
The bill is virtually identical to the 2014 NASA Authorization Act passed by the House last year by a vote of 401-2. There was no recorded vote today; it passed by voice vote. The bill was brought up under a procedure called "suspension of the rules" where two-thirds of the House must vote in favor. If only a voice vote is required, it is two-thirds of however many members are present at the time.
Republicans and Democrats each had 20 minutes to speak on the bill and all who did praised the bipartisanship that allowed the bill to be brought to a vote so quickly. The sponsors avoided tricky budget issues by authorizing funds only for the fiscal year that is already underway (FY2015) at the same levels that already were appropriated.
Common themes were that NASA needs "constancy of purpose" and the bill provides that and will keep the United States as the world's leader in space exploration.
The next step for this bill is passage by the Senate, which has not announced its plans. The Senate never took up the bill that passed the House last year (H.R. 4412).
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the ranking member of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T), stressed that once this bill is enacted, work will begin on a multi-year authorization bill.
The bipartisan leadership of the House SS&T Committee and its Space Subcommittee announced agreement on the bill on Friday. They skipped over holding hearings and markups, presumably since the bill is so similar to last year's version. The committee's summary of the bill described these key features:
UPDATE, February 11, 2015: DSCOVR was successfully launched at 6:03 pm ET. The Falcon 9 first stage landing on the drone ship was not attempted due to high seas, but the stage did go through its reentry burns and splashed down in the ocean.
UPDATE, February 10, 2015: SpaceX was one for three today. Dragon successfully splashed down as planned at 7:44 pm ET, but the Falcon 9 launch of DSCOVR was postponed because of strong upper level winds, which meant the landing test of the F9 first stage also was postponed. They will try again tomorrow (Feb 11).
ORIGINAL STORY, February 9, 2015: If all goes according to plan, tomorrow (February 10) SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a space weather satellite headed to the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point, the company's first deep space mission, accompanied by a second attempted landing of the Falcon 9's first stage on a drone ship. Then, coincidentally, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft should land in the Pacific Ocean after detaching from the International Space Station (ISS). All in the course of an hour and a half.
Dragon arrived at the ISS on January 12, 2015 as SpaceX's fifth operational Commercial Resupply Services mission (SpX-5) for NASA. The spacecraft is scheduled to be released from the ISS at about 2:09 pm ET on Tuesday (NASA TV will provide live coverage beginning at 1:45 pm ET) and land in the Pacific Ocean around 7:44 pm ET (no live coverage is planned).
Meanwhile. at 6:05 pm ET, SpaceX should be launching the NOAA/NASA/Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) from Cape Canaveral, FL on a Falcon 9 rocket. Space X will conduct a second test of landing the Falcon 9 first stage on an "autonomous spaceport drone ship" positioned approximately 400 miles out at sea. Its first attempt to land a first stage last month -- on the flight that sent SpX-5 to ISS -- was "close, but no cigar," as SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk phrased it at the time.
The problem last time was insufficient hydraulic fluid for the fins on the rocket stage that provide aerodynamic stability. SpaceX has increased the amount of hydraulic fluid this time, but this rocket is flying a different profile and company representatives still give it only a 50-50 chance of success. Last time, there were three post-launch engine firings to position the rocket stage for reentry and landing. This time there will be only two and the rocket will be reentering at a higher speed and pressure. Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) that it has "2X force and 4X heat" compared to the last attempt. The tests are part of Musk's attempt to develop a reusable rocket stage.
The drone ship, sometimes referred to as a barge although Musk points out that barges do not have their own thrusters and this does, will be positioned further out in the ocean than last time because of the different trajectory and associated higher safety risks. Musk named the ship "Just Read the Instructions,"a sci-fi reference.
The DSCOVR launch and Falcon 9 landing attempt depend on many factors, of course, beginning with the weather. The launch was aborted on Sunday because of a problem with a radar operated by the Air Force Eastern Test Range needed for tracking the rocket, and although there was a launch opportunity today, the weather forecast was only 40 percent favorable so they decided not to try. The forecast for tomorrow is 70 percent favorable. On Sunday there also was an issue with a transmitter on the Falcon 9 first stage, though it was the radar malfunction that aborted the launch attempt. If something goes awry and the launch does not take place tomorrow, a backup date is Wednesday, February 11, at 6:03 pm ET. After that, it would have to wait until February 20.
Weather in the Pacific theoretically could also delay Dragon's landing, though at the moment all appears on track for the 7:44 pm ET (4:44 pm PT) splashdown. Dragon is bringing back 3,700 pounds of cargo from the ISS, including the results of scientific experiments.
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