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UPDATE, June 19, 2016: The test was successfully conducted.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 17, 2016: Blue Origin will conduct another test launch of its reusable New Shepard rocket on Sunday, June 19, 2016. The often secretive company, owned and headed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, not only announced this test in advance, but will livestream it on the Internet.
The test was originally scheduled for today (June 17), but was delayed because of a technical issue. It is now scheduled for 10:15 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on Sunday; the webcast will be available on Blue Origin's website beginning at 9:45 am EDT.
New Shepard is designed to take passengers on suborbital spaceflights and not only return them to Earth, but the rocket as well. The passengers will ride inside a capsule that is ejected from the rocket during its descent and lands using parachutes. The purpose of this test is to determine if the capsule could land successfully if one of its three parachute strings fails. No one will be aboard this flight.
Bezos emphasized in a tweet that this one-chute-out test is a demonstration flight and "anything can happen."
This is the fourth flight of the same New Shepard rocket. Blue Origin's test launch facilities are in West Texas.
UPDATE June 18, 2016, 5:25 am EDT: Soyuz TMA-19M and her three-man crew landed successfully at 5:15 am EDT in Kazakhstan (3:15 pm local time at the landing site) after 186 days in space.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 17, 2016, 9:24 pm EDT: Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members will return to Earth overnight aboard their Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft, landing in the early hours of Saturday morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT)
NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake (from Britain). and Roscosmos cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko will undock from the ISS at 1:52 am EDT and land in Kazakhstan at 5:15 am EDT according to NASA. NASA TV will cover those events beginning at 1:30 am EDT and 4:00 am EDT respectively.
The three men launched to ISS on December 15, 2015 and docked later that day.
The return to flight of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket will be sometime in August rather than July 6. The company is still analyzing data from its May 31 hot fire test and the timing of the launch also depends on other activities on the International Space Station (ISS).
The July 6 date has always been tentative, but in an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com today, Orbital ATK confirmed the slip to August.
"We are continuing to prepare for the upcoming launch of the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-5 cargo logistics mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Our Antares team recently completed a successful stage test and is wrapping up the test data analysis.
"Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe. A final decision on the mission schedule, which takes into account the space station traffic schedule and cargo requirements, will be made in conjunction with NASA in the next several weeks. Also, our Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-6 mission successfully undocked from the space station and hosted the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire). The team is now performing the final OA-6 mission milestones."
The delay was first reported by Space News.
Orbital ATK uses Antares to launch Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS. An October 2014 attempt failed 15 seconds after launch because of a problem with its AJ26 engine, a version of a Russian NK-33 engine built in the 1970s and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The company decided to replace the AJ26/NK-33 engines with new Russian RD-181s. Two RD-181s are needed for each launch instead of one AJ26/NK-33.
A hot fire test of the re-engined Antares with two RD-181s took place on May 31 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA, the launch site for Antares.
While awaiting the Antares return to flight, Orbital ATK has launched two Cygnus cargo craft to ISS using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. Those were the Orbital ATK (OA)-4 and OA-6 missions. OA-6 just departed from the ISS and will reenter Earth's atmosphere on July 22. The Antares return-to-flight mission is OA-5. The sequence is out of order because OA-5 was intended to take place between OA-4 and OA-6, but Antares was delayed and the decision was made to keep the mission designations with their launch vehicles (OA-4 and -6 on ULA's Atlas V; OA-5 on Orbital ATK's Antares).
The House passed the FY2017 Defense Appropriations Bill ( H.R. 5293) today by a vote of 282-138. No space-related amendments were adopted so those provisions remain as they were in the House Appropriations Committee's version of the bill. The Obama Administration threatened to veto the bill as reported from committee in part because it cuts funding for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.
The House bill addresses several national security space issues -- from SBIRS to AEHF to weather satellites -- but steers clear of the fractious RD-180 rocket engine controversy in terms of how long they may be used and how many may be purchased (a battle which may finally be over). However, it does require that in future competitions, the award is to be made to the provider that offers the best value -- not necessarily the best price -- to the government. The United Launch Alliance (ULA) argues that it cannot compete with SpaceX on price, but its 100 percent mission success rate is a valuable factor that should count in its bids. (Mission success means that the satellite was placed into the intended orbit, even if problems may have occurred during the launch.)
A separate controversy has arisen this year, however, over how many EELVs the Air Force may buy in FY2017. The request was for $1.501 billion to buy five EELVs, but the House committee decided two were "early to need."
The report accompanying the House bill did not offer a further explanation, but the Senate Appropriations Committee also denied funds for two of the EELVs and made clear why -- exasperation over delays in the new Operational Control Segment (OCX) needed for the newest version of GPS satellites, GPS III. The Senate committee also recommended dramatic changes in the OCX program, but in terms of launches, it concluded there is no point in launching GPS III satellites if the ground system is not ready. The two launches for which funding was denied are for GPS III satellites.
In its report (S. Rept. 114-263), the Senate Appropriations Committee disagreed with the Air Force's plan to launch six GPS III satellites before 2019 because of the OCX delays. OCX is "needed to launch, checkout, and ultimately integrate and operate the GPS III satellites with the legacy GPS architecture" and "will not be ready for many years. ... The committee sees no justification for launching so many satellites without a system in place to operate them."
As for OCX itself, the Senate committee recommended termination of OCX Blocks 1-2 (a reduction of $259.8 million) and add $30 million for "operational M-code risk mitigation for OCS," a net reduction of $229.8 million. OCS is the Operational Control System, the existing ground system for GPS satellites.
The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978 and the system was declared operational in 1993. GPS signals are ubiquitous around the globe for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). A constellation of 24 GPS satellites is needed for global three-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) coverage and the satellites have been upgraded several times over the years, moving through block changes with various designations. The Air Force currently has 31 operational satellites that use several versions of the GPS II series. The newest version is GPS IIF and the last of those satellites was launched in February. GPS III satellites were supposed to begin launching in 2014, but the date has slipped repeatedly. The first currently is scheduled for May 2017. Lockheed Martin is building the first eight GPS III satellites and that effort also has been beset by delays.
Because of the delays in OCX, the Air Force is working on an interim solution so that the various GPS II satellites and the new GPS III version can work as an integrated system. The Senate committee concluded, however, that the interim solution will not enable all of the capabilities of all the versions, especially the Military code (M-code), "a key warfighting need." It said the OCX program "remains in jeopardy," with a current cost estimate of $2.3 billion, 160 percent above its original estimate of $886 million. Although DOD put forward a plan with another 2-year delay, "the contractor and the Air Force believed that a more than 4-year additional delay was likely necessary."
Consequently, the Senate committee wants the Air Force and the contractor, Raytheon, to ensure the interim solution -- enhancing OCS -- works and added $30 million to enable M-Code broadcast capabilities. It wants OCX Block 0 completed, but called for terminating funding for OCX Blocks 1 and 2.
The House bill fully funds OCX and no comment about it was made in the committee's report. The schedule for Senate consideration of its version of the defense appropriations bill has not been announced.
The Obama Administration's Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House bill said it would eliminate three, not two, EELV launch service procurements as the committee intended, and introduce cost and schedule risk for national security satellites.
Witnesses Argue Government Has Ethical Obligation for Lifetime Astronaut Medical Care--And Needs Data, Too
Three current and former astronauts, NASA's Chief Medical Officer and a medical ethicist told a congressional committee today that the U.S. Government has an ethical obligation to provide lifetime medical care to people who fly into space as part of a NASA program. In addition, the data NASA could obtain by following individuals after they leave the astronaut corps would be invaluable in determining how to protect the health of current and future astronauts.
Three men who have made multiple journeys into space provided the astronaut viewpoint: Chris Cassidy, current head of the NASA astronaut office at Johnson Space Center (JSC); Michael Lopez-Alegria, who until recently held the U.S. record for the longest continuous spaceflight (215 days) and still holds the record for the most spacewalks (10), currently President of the U.S. chapter of the Association of Space Explorers; and Scott Kelly, who just broke Lopez-Alegria's continuous spaceflight record by remaining in space for 340 days. Lopez-Alegria and Kelly are both retired from NASA now. All three are current or retired military officers as well.
Military personnel have lifetime medical coverage under the TRICARE program through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and civilian government retirees may have coverage through the Department of Labor's Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA). NASA also has a voluntary Lifetime Surveillance of Astronaut Health (LSAH) program for former astronauts.
Collectively they do not cover all former astronauts (such as those who leave NASA's astronaut corps before retirement or payload specialists who were never government employees) nor do they systematically collect data about former astronauts as they access medical care. The LSAH program is voluntary and only about 60 percent of former astronauts take advantage of it. It provides health status evaluations and former astronauts must travel to JSC to take part. If a medical condition is uncovered, NASA currently is authorized just to encourage the former astronaut to follow up with his or her personal health care provider, not to provide diagnosis or treatment.
The hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on June 15 focused on two questions the situation presents: what obligation does the federal government have to individuals who fly into space on behalf of the government and society at large, and what data are not being collected that could inform the government as it designs spacecraft and missions to take astronauts further into space for longer periods of time.
The three astronauts, NASA Chief Medical Officer Richard Williams, and Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy Jeffrey Kahn, were in agreement that the government has an ethical obligation to provide lifetime medical care for astronauts who fly as part of a government program and that NASA also needs the long term data on the health effects of spaceflight to inform current and future programs.
Kahn chaired a 2014 Institute of Medicine (IOM) study on Ethics Principles and Guidelines for Health Standards for Long Duration and Exploration Spaceflights. His committee identified six principles, two of which he said were relevant to this discussion: fairness and fidelity (or reciprocity). Fairness "requires that equals be treated equally" -- that there needs to be a risk-benefit balance between those who take the risks of spaceflight (astronauts) and those who benefit (society). Fidelity "recognizes that individual sacrifices made for the benefit of society may give rise to societal duties in return" -- those who consent to take long term health risks for society's benefit (astronauts) are entitled to "society's commitment to minimize any harms that emerge, whenever they emerge."
Other government and non-government employees similarly engage in activities that risk their health -- the military and the nuclear industry among many others -- but Kahn said his committee tried to find occupational parallels and concluded that astronauts are in a "unique category."
Williams discussed legislation that has been drafted to provide NASA with the authority to perform not only the evaluations currently conducted through the LSAH program, but also diagnosis and treatment for former astronauts. There are 280 living former astronauts, Williams said, and the cost of monitoring and diagnosis would be about $800,000 a year. Costs for treatment are difficult to estimate, but he anticipates there would be on average only one or two cases of significant illness every 1-2 years that would be expensive (on the order of $500,000) to treat.
Lopez-Alegria, who made four spaceflights, the longest of which was 215 days, and Kelly, who made a 159-day spaceflight in addition to his record-setting 340-day mission, both discussed some of the health effects they have experienced. Lopez-Alegria said he suffers from changes in his eyesight -- Microgravity Ocular Syndrome -- a recently discovered medical condition for astronauts who make long-duration spaceflights that is not yet understood. He said about 60 percent of long duration flyers are afflicted with this condition. His written statement provides a brief, but comprehensive summary of health effects experienced by astronauts more broadly and asserts that statistically, astronauts who fly to and from the International Space Station (ISS) on Soyuz spacecraft and remain for 6 months "have a threat of mortality comparable to those of U.S. infantry combatants on D-Day and New York City firefighters on 9/11."
Kelly said that he was "pleasantly surprised" that initial data on his bone and muscle mass show little difference between his two missions, but other data, including that from the "Twins Study" with his twin brother Mark Kelly, will not be available for some time. He stressed that although his bone and muscle mass might not have changed much based on flight duration, he felt quite different returning from the 340-day mission. One difference was his skin was extremely sensitive after almost a year without coming into contact with clothing or anything else. After returning to Earth he developed a hive-like rash on "every surface of my skin that came into contact with ordinary surfaces on Earth ... like sitting or lying in bed." He also experienced flu-like symptoms and swollen legs. Although NASA focuses attention on the high risk launch and reentry phases of spaceflight, Kelly stressed, "much less attention is given to other risks astronauts face which are much more insidious, but potentially just as fatal." He cited exposure to high levels of radiation and carbon dioxide as well as the microgravity environment that causes loss of bone and muscle, vision impairment and effects on the immune system.
Lopez-Alegria polled the U.S. members of the Association of Space Explorers -- members must have made at least one orbit of the Earth -- and reported there was "unanimity" that NASA needs to be able to provide advanced monitoring, diagnosis and treatment for former astronauts. His focus, however, is on the need to gather data to inform future policies and procedures for managing health risk in space. It is "unforgivable" to not obtain these data from the only population -- current and former astronauts -- that can provide it.
Williams summarized what is in the proposed legislation, but the text was not released. He said it would give NASA the authority to provide lifetime medical monitoring and diagnosis for former astronauts for medical conditions that NASA determines are associated with human spaceflight. It would apply to all former NASA astronauts regardless if they later fly into space with private companies, for example.
The draft legislation would not, however, apply to "space tourists" who make the journey into space of their own accord and not as part of a NASA program. Lopez-Alegria, who previously served as President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group that advocates for private human spaceflight, said he supports the "democratization" of space where many more people will have an opportunity to make spaceflights. Getting health data from them on a voluntary basis would be beneficial, but he does not believe the government has an ethical responsibility to them as it does for those taking part in spaceflights paid for by tax dollars on behalf of the country.
Although the draft legislation applies only to medical conditions "deemed by NASA to be associated with human spaceflight," Kahn said his committee considered the question of "causality" and determined it was "impossible to answer" and "not compelling" in determining whether lifetime medical care is provided. That is especially true since new information is obtained all the time and it may take years before the relationship between spaceflight and a particular medical condition is understood.
Kahn's 2014 IOM study is only the most recent on this topic. The first, Safe Passage, was issued in 2001 and led to language in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act that directed NASA to consider a lifetime health care program for astronauts. The House-passed 2015 NASA Authorization Act (H.R. 810) would require NASA to respond to the 2014 IOM recommendations. That bill has not been taken up in the Senate, however. The draft legislation discussed today could be included in a revised version of that bill. Despite the short legislative schedule remaining for the year, there continue to be rumors that an attempt will be made to get a NASA authorization act passed before Congress adjourns.
UPDATE, June 16, 2016: Sen. Murphy ended the filibuster at 2:11 am ET this morning after receiving assurances that votes would be allowed on his gun control amendments.
ORIGINAL STORY, June 15, 2016: Several Senate Democrats began a filibuster against the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill this morning, blocking action. The Department of Justice is one of the agencies funded by the bill (which also includes NASA and NOAA) and the filibuster is fueled by Democratic gun control demands most recently in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, FL this past weekend.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) started the filibuster and has since been joined by other Democrats who have been seeking more effective gun control measures especially since the Sandy Hook, CT massacre four years ago that killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults.
Murphy vowed to remain in control of the floor "until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together" on how to prevent terrorist suspects (in the Orlando case) from buying guns.
The Obama Administration issued a veto threat against the bill yesterday, in part because of the money provided for the Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) programs in excess of what the Administration requested. The request was $1.130 billion for Orion and $1.310 billion for SLS. The bill provides $1.300 billion for Orion and $2.150 billion for SLS, an increase of $170 million and $840 million respectively, a total of $1.010 billion above the President's request.
In its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) declared that the Administration is "deeply concerned that the bill adds more than $1 billion" above the request "while underfunding other key NASA programs--an approach that would result in an unbalanced exploration program that is unable to achieve shared exploration goals."
It called on Congress to fully fund Exploration R&D, Space Technology, Aeronautics, Science, and Space Operations. (See our NASA budget fact sheet for a comparison of the President's request and the Senate Appropriations Committee's recommendations and the complicated issue of what the President's request really is.)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) brokered an agreement among Senators who have been at sharp odds over how to transition U.S. rocket launches away from reliance on Russian RD-180 engines to a new American-made engine. The Nelson amendment passed the Senate this morning by voice vote as part of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA itself then passed the Senate by a vote of 85-13.
In brief, the compromise sets December 31, 2022 as the end date for awarding contracts to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Atlas V launches of national security satellites that would use RD-180 engines. It also limits to 18 the number of RD-180s that can be used between the date that the FY2017 NDAA is signed into law (enacted) and that end date.
Sen. Nelson's office provided SpacePolicyOnline.com with a copy of the amendment as passed.
The amendment that passed originated as one written by Nelson and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), that was then modified by one from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and has been the strongest voice for limiting the number of RD-180s to half that approved by this compromise and for a 2019 cut-off date.
The issue has pitted McCain and SASC against Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, creating a schism between the Senate committees that authorize DOD activities (SASC) and pay for them (Appropriations).
Durbin praised Nelson for being the "bridge over troubled waters" who was able to find a compromise between the starkly different positions.
The Nelson amendment also settles a related issue. The version of the FY2017 NDAA that emerged from SASC (S. 2943, S. Rept. 114- 255) would have prevented the Air Force from awarding launch contracts to bidders that use rocket engines from Russia, basically making ULA's Atlas V ineligible for future contracts. The defense appropriations bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee (S. 3000, S. Rept. 114-263) conversely said that awards could be made to any certified provider regardless of the rocket engine's country of origin. The compromise states that contracts may be awarded to any certified launch service provider, but Russian engines may be used only for launches in the phase 1(a) and phase 2 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) procurements. Phase 2 runs through 2022. (The Government Accountability Office has a useful report that explains the EELV procurement strategy and its different phases.)
The amendment does not specify RD-180s, but instead bounds the use of Russian rocket engines generally for national security launches. ULA is currently the only company that offers national security launch services using rockets powered by Russian engines, but the language would apply to any company offering such services. Orbital ATK, for example, uses Russian RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which launches cargo spacecraft for NASA to the International Space Station. If it were to bid for EELV launches, it presumably would be subject to these limits.
Also, although the cut-off date of December 31, 2022 is for awarding contracts, the limit on the number of engines -- 18 -- refers to how many may be "used" between the date the law is enacted and that date.
The House passed its version of the NDAA last month. It permits 18 engines and allows any certified provider to win launch contracts. The two chambers must reach agreement on the NDAA overall, but while there are still some differences on this issue, it appears to be close to resolution.
Note: This article has been updated and clarified to say that December 31, 2022 is the date through which contracts may be awarded regardless of the rocket engine's country of origin, rather than the date by which they must be used.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 13-18, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The Senate will resume consideration of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Monday, with the hope that it can be completed quickly. The Senate agreed to close debate on the bill on Friday and complete all debate by 11:00 am ET on Tuesday. It then will vote on germane amendments and passage of the bill. Debate over a Nelson-Gardner amendment regarding Russian RD-180 engines took up a good part of Friday, but no vote was taken. They want to set December 31, 2022 as the end date for using RD-180s, whereas Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain insists on 2019, which was set in law by a previous NDAA. The Nelson-Gardner amendment also does not mention how many engines may be procured, while McCain insists on only nine more. The RD-180 debate has been covered extensively by SpacePolicyOnline.com already and will not be repeated here.
Senate leadership wants to finish NDAA and move on to the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which funds NASA and NOAA among other agencies.
The House plans to take up the FY2017 Defense Appropriations bill this week. The House Rules Committee will meet on Tuesday to decide which amendments may be offered. Assuming they agree, the bill will move to floor debate promptly. The House has passed two of the 12 regular appropriations bills so far (Military Construction-VA and Legislative Branch), while a third (Energy-Water) was defeated. The Senate has passed three (Energy-Water, and a single bill that combined MilCon-VA and Transportation-HUD).
The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday afternoon on "Human Spaceflight Ethics and Obligations: Options for Monitoring, Diagnosing and Treating Former Astronauts." This issue of lifetime health care for astronauts has been percolating for years. It concerns what ethical obligations the government has to provide medical care to astronauts once they leave the corps as well as the useful medical information NASA could gain from following them as the years pass. The issue was raised as long ago as 2001 in the Safe Passage report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM, now the National Academy of Medicine). A 2014 IOM report raised the same issues as did an October 2015 report from the NASA Inspector General. The 2005 NASA authorization act directed NASA to consider the need for establishing a lifetime health care program for NASA astronauts. NASA determined that it needs specific legislative authority to do so and has proposed legislation since then, but it has not been enacted. The House-passed 2015 NASA authorization act (H.R. 810) directs NASA to respond to the IOM recommendations, but the Senate has not acted on that bill. Wednesday's hearing will bring attention to the issue (and there are those who believe that a NASA authorization bill could still get passed by the end of the year). Scott Kelly, who just returned from a U.S. record-setting 340-day stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Michael Lopez-Alegria, who previously held the record for the longest continuous U.S. human spaceflight and is now President of the Association of Space Explorers, and Chris Cassidy, head of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center, are among the witnesses. The list also includes Secretary of Labor Tom Perez; the chairman of the 2014 IOM study, Jeffrey Kahn; and NASA Chief Medical Officer Richard Williams. The House SS&T committee typically webcasts its hearings.
On a totally different subject, Joan Johnson-Freese and Theresa Hitchens will discuss a paper they recently co-authored for the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council on Toward a New National Security Space Strategy on Friday. Johnson-Freese is a professor at the Naval War College and author of several books on national security space and China's space program. Hitchens is currently a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland after serving as head of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). Mike Gruss from Space News will also participate in the discussion. (We've inquired as to whether it will be webcast. If we find out, we'll post the information on our Events of Interest list.)
It will be busy up in space this week, too. On Tuesday, Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft will depart from the ISS. Five hours later, a fire will erupt inside the spacecraft as part of an experiment called SAFFIRE to observe how fires evolve in microgravity. The robotic spacecraft is not designed to survive reentry, so it is a good candidate for such research. Miles O'Brien had an excellent segment about the experiment on the PBS NewsHour last week.
Then on Saturday, three crew members (NASA's Tim Kopra, ESA's Tim Peake, and Roscosmos' Yuri Malenchenko) will return home. NASA TV provides live coverage as usual. Landing is at 5:12 am Eastern Daylight Time.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week to see what's been added to our Events of Interest list.
Sunday-Friday, June 12-17
Monday, June 13
Tuesday, June 14
Wednesday, June 15
Thursday, June 16
Friday, June 17
Saturday, June 18
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA officials highlighted their decades of cooperation in space science and opportunities for the future at a day-long symposium on Friday. The long-planned meeting sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science also provided an opportunity for the head of Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), part of JAXA, to explain the recent failure of the Astro-H (Hitomi) x-ray astronomy satellite, a joint JAXA-NASA mission.
ISAS Director General Saku Tsuneta said the Hitomi failure was the result of two different design problems and one improper operational procedure all related to the attitude control/safe-hold system. He said the failure was "embarrassing, but a fact" and his priorities now are to fix the problems, recover Hitomi science, and maintain partnerships with NASA and other space agencies. In response to a question, he stressed that although an individual made a mistake, that person should not be blamed because the system should not have been designed such that a single human error could have catastrophic consequences. [UPDATE: On June 15, JAXA announced that Tsuneta, JAXA President Naoki Okumura, and JAXA Senior Vice President Mamoru Endo each "decided to take a 10% pay cut to their monthly salary for four months" because of the Hitomi failure.]
An English-language powerpoint summary of the failure investigation report is available on JAXA's website.
Hitomi failed before the operational science period began, but Tsuneta said some data were obtained on the Perseus cluster during initial operations and the cryogenic soft x-ray spectrometer (SXS) worked perfectly. SXS was developed jointly by ISAS and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).
Tsuneta and Geoff Yoder, acting Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said they had just held preliminary discussions on options for getting the science data that Hitomi was intended to collect, but it is too early for decisions to be made. Tsuneta was remorseful about Hitomi's loss. "JAXA led Hitomi on behalf of the global science community. That is why this particular disaster is a severe blow to astrophysics. ... JAXA has to start something to recover the science of SXS, but this is the result of very deep cooperation between NASA and JAXA. One nation cannot do [it alone]. So I hope JAXA and NASA can work together to make it happen."
NASA/GSFC's Richard Kelley, the U.S. principal investigator for SXS, discussed the Perseus cluster observations later in the day and noted that if a decision is made to perform a recovery mission, there is spare hardware for key components of SXS.
Both agencies have a full plate of space science missions already on their dockets, so adding a new mission to replace Hitomi would be difficult to achieve. The next planned x-ray astronomy satellite is the European Space Agency's (ESA's) ATHENA, scheduled for launch in 2028.
NASA's Chandra "great observatory" is the flagship spacecraft available today for x-ray astronomy. X-rays do not penetrate Earth's atmosphere, so this field of research requires space-based instruments. Chandra, once known as the Advanced X-Ray Astronomy Facility (AXAF), was launched in 1999 and was just approved for another two-years of operation. It is operated for NASA by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. (The AXAF program actually was split in two because of cost growth. Chandra was the half that was built. SXS was intended to do the science envisioned for the other half.)
JAXA and NASA cooperate on a wide range of space science missions, including heliophysics and planetary exploration (in addition to earth science and human spaceflight). One current highlight is cooperation on robotic asteroid sample return missions. JAXA returned a small sample from the asteroid Itokawa in 2010 and launched a follow-on mission, Hayabusa2, in 2014. NASA will launch its OSIRIS-REx mission this September.
Dante Lauretta (University of Arizona), principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, and Tomoki Nakamura (Tohoku University) and Hitoshi Kuninaka (ISAS), representing Hayabusa2, explained that the two missions are very risky and serve as each others backup. The two teams have agreed to share whatever samples are returned, so if one does not succeed, both teams will still have samples to analyze. Hayabusa2 will arrive at the asteroid Ryugu in June/July 2018 and return its sample to Earth in 2020. OSIRIS-Rex will arrive at the asteroid Bennu in August 2018 and return its sample to Earth in 2023. Lauretta joked that it was like jumping off a cliff and JAXA gets to go first.
A new mission JAXA is considering would send a probe to return a sample from the Martian moon Phobos. The Martian Moons eXplorer (MMX) mission is one of two "top priorities" for future JAXA science missions, Tsuneta said. (The other is the SPICA space infrared telescope). The concept is for a spacecraft to be sent to study Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars, to solve the mystery of how they were formed. One theory is they were ejected when a large object collided with Mars during the formation of the solar system. The other is that they were formed independently and captured by Mars' gravity.
Speaking later in the day, Cornell space scientist Steve Squyres, the "father" of NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, was very enthusiastic about MMX not only because of the chance to solve the question of the moons' origin, but also because Phobos probably is "littered" with material from the surface of Mars itself. When solar system objects collide with Mars, material is ejected into space and Phobos flies through the debris field, with some of the material collecting on its surface. The material deposited on Phobos would be from places all over the Martian surface rather than just one site. Getting a sample would be a "science bonanza," he said.
Squyres chaired the most recent National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Decadal Survey for planetary science. During a panel discussion, he stressed that Decadal Surveys provide advice to U.S. agencies, but they incorporate ideas from the international community, welcoming input through white papers and other mechanisms. When asked if ISAS uses a process similar to Decadal Surveys to prioritize its science missions, Masaki Fujimoto. Director of Solar System Science at ISAS, said the Japanese space science community is so small that such a process would be overkill. He said the challenge for ISAS is encouraging scientists to share their ideas, which some are reluctant to do lest another scientist steals it.
NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green discussed the different models that NASA has used over its history for international cooperation on space science missions. He believes cooperation works best where there is one lead agency and other agencies are junior partners, rather than a 50-50 split. He noted that cubesats are "the rage" today and could open additional opportunities for cooperation. Fujimoto agreed and postulated that Japan might deploy a cubesat from a future NASA mission to Jupiter or Saturn.
There was broad agreement on the value of international cooperation and the need to start discussions early. Lauretta pointed out that one key is the "personal relationships" that scientists in the international community have developed and the importance of getting younger scientists involved. Kuninaka echoed the sentiment, saying "mutual trust" is needed, something "our generation" has, but young people still need to establish for the future.
Antonio (Tony) Busalacchi, Jr., the incoming President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), called for a Decadal Survey to set a strategy for the U.S. weather forecasting enterprise similar to those conducted for earth science and space sciences. Busalacchi was one of the witnesses at a congressional hearing on the private sector's role in weather forecasting that also included Alexander (Sandy) MacDonald, President of Spire Global, one of the companies interested in selling satellite data to NOAA.
The hearing before Rep. Jim Bridenstine's (R-OK) Subcommittee on Environment of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee was generally friendly, although some Republican members asked questions that tried to shift the focus to climate change or suggested that NOAA was not as open to partnering with the private sector as it should be. Busalacchi, MacDonald and the other three witnesses -- Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather; Jim Block, Chief Meteorological Officer of Schneider Electric; and Neil Jacobs, Chief Scientist of Panasonic Weather Solutions -- were very positive about their relationships with NOAA, however.
Bridenstine is a leader in efforts to encourage NOAA to incorporate private sector weather data into its numerical weather forecasts and inserted a provision in NOAA's FY2016 appropriations law creating a commercial weather data pilot program to assess such data to determine if it can be used. NOAA submitted an implementation plan to Congress this spring explaining that it plans to competitively procure GPS Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) data as the test case. Spire Global is one of the companies that wants to compete.
GPS-RO satellites use signals from GPS satellites to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere. When combined with measurements from polar orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled. NOAA currently obtains such data from the COSMIC satellite constellation, a joint project with Taiwan, and is requesting funds for more in the COSMIC-2 program. As many as 50,000-100,000 measurements each day would be useful, whereas even with COSMIC-2, NOAA will be obtaining only about 10,000, so there is significant opportunity for commercial sources to provide the rest.
Bridenstine stresses frequently, including at yesterday's hearing, that he does not foresee replacing the government's weather satellite capabilities with those of the private sector, but instead enhancing them through government-private sector partnerships with a goal of making the entire U.S. weather enterprise less reliant on large, vulnerable satellites.
The private sector has significant capabilities not just in using NOAA-provided data to make forecasts, but also obtaining their own data through aircraft observations, for example, and creating their own weather models. Busalacchi described the U.S. weather enterprise as a three-legged stool -- government, private sector, academic/research -- that work together to yield "the world's most comprehensive and successful array of weather services in support of the public and private good." All three "must continue to evolve [and] the dimunition of any single leg will compromise the entire enterprise, and will negatively impact its diverse beneficiaries."
The potential of partnerships between the government and the private sector was explored in a 2003 report from the National Research Council (NRC), Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services. Busalacchi praised the report, but pointed out that those types of NRC reports rarely get follow-up, they are one-time efforts. By contrast, Decadal Surveys are performed every 10 years -- a decade -- and Congress now requires a mid-term assessment half-way through the relevant decade,
Until recently, Busalacchi was co-chair of the on-going Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space. He stepped aside when he accepted the presidency of UCAR, a position he will take up in August. He is currently Director of the Earth Systems Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland.
He argues that an "active and ongoing strategic planning process" is needed for the U.S. weather enterprise, the established Decadal Survey process should be utilized, and Congress should request one.
Note: The National Research Council (NRC) is the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) that conducts studies such as those mentioned above. The NRC was created in1916 and its reports were referred to as NRC reports, but last year NASEM rebranded itself and no longer uses the NRC label. Since the full name of the organization is far from mellifluous, most now refer to them simply as "Academy" studies. The one referenced herein was written in 2003, however, so we refer to it as an NRC study.
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