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What's Happening in Space Policy October 9-14, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Oct-2016 (Updated: 09-Oct-2016 03:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 9-14, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.

During the Week

The week starts tonight (Sunday) with the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R).  Don't expect the space program to come up at all, but these debates are important elements of the presidential election, the foundation of our democracy.   Everyone should be paying attention!  This one is a town-hall format at Washington University in St. Louis from 9:00-10:30 pm ET (nationally televised, check local listings).

Tomorrow, October 10, is a Federal holiday (Columbus Day), so government workers, at least, will have a day off to recuperate. This is a holiday that many businesses do NOT observe, however, choosing instead to close on the day after Thanksgiving.  So whether you get to sleep in tomorrow or not depends on where you work.

For the space program, this week's big event is the launch of Orbital ATK's re-engined Antares rocket on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  Launch schedules are always subject to change, but at the moment it is planned for 9:13 pm ET on Thursday night (two pre-launch briefings will take place the day before).  Antares launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.  It is a night launch.  Weather permitting, it should be viewable for a good-sized segment of the East Coast.  This is the first Antares flight since an October 28, 2014 failure that destroyed that rocket and a Cygnus spacecraft loaded with cargo for ISS.  This mission is designated OA-5, for Orbital ATK-5, although it is the sixth operational flight in this series.  Orbital ATK names its cargo spacecraft after deceased astronauts.  This one is named after Alan Poindexter who died in 2012 from injuries sustained in an accident.  He flew on two space shuttle missions (STS-122 as pilot, STS-131 as commander) that delivered modules to the ISS as part of its construction.

Also on Thursday night, Women in Aerospace (WIA) will hold its annual awards dinner in Arlington, VA.   Six distinguished women will receive awards -- including a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award for Molly Macauley -- and Patti Grace Smith, who passed away earlier this year, will also be recognized.

The annual International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS 2016) will be held in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Wednesday and Thursday, with pre- and post-events the prior and following days.  The website does not indicate if any of the symposium will be webcast.   If we find out that it will be, we'll post the link in our calendar item about this event.   Looks really interesting, so hopefully it will be livestrearmed.

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

Sunday, October 9

Monday, October 10

  • U.S. Federal Holiday (Columbus Day), government offices will be closed

Tuesday, October 11

Wednesday, October 12



Thursday, October 13

Friday, October 14

Russia, China Ready to Launch New Space Station Crews

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Oct-2016 (Updated: 23-Oct-2016 10:32 AM)

Russia has scheduled the Soyuz MS-02 launch for October 19.  Delayed from September 23 for technical reasons, it will take one American and two Russians to the International Space Station (ISS).  Meanwhile, China is getting ready to launch a two-man crew to its new Tiangong-2 space station sometime this month.

Soyuz MS-02 is the second flight of a new version of the Soyuz spacecraft, which made its first flight in 1967.  The spacecraft has been upgraded several times over the decades.  The MS version replaces TMA-M and has improved solar arrays, a new digital computer, and a new docking system, among other upgrades.  The first spacecraft, Soyuz MS-01, was launched in July and is currently docked to the ISS. That launch also was delayed -- from June 24 to July 7 -- for technical reasons reportedly related to the new docking system.

Russia's official news agency TASS announced the new Soyuz MS-02 launch date today adding that the delay was due to a "squeezed cable" in the spacecraft.

It will take NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhilov to ISS.  They will be welcomed by the three crew members currently aboard -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Ohishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin -- when they arrive two days later.   Russia is using the longer 2-day trajectory to get to ISS instead of the short 6-hour journey in order to check out the new spacecraft's systems.

ISS has been permanently occupied since November 2000 by crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month tours of duty.  The approximately 400 metric ton (MT) multi-modular station is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada.   The United States has not been able to launch crews to the ISS since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.   NASA hopes that two new U.S. "commercial crew" systems will be operational by 2018 so it is no longer reliant on Russia for crew transportation.

Russia has extensive experience with space stations, launching six successful Salyut space stations between 1971 and 1982 and the multi-modular Mir space station that operated from 1986-2001.  ISS is the second space station for the United States.  The first was Skylab in 1973-1974 (not to be confused with Spacelab, a science laboratory that flew in the cargo bay of the space shuttle).

China launched its first space station, Tiangong-1, in 2011.  It was visited by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013.  Last month it launched Tiangong-2 and said that a two-man crew would be launched in mid-late October on the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft.  The launch date has not been officially announced, but Andrew Jones (@AJ-FI), a journalist in Finland who writes for and closely follows the Chinese space program, tweeted that he expects the launch on October 17 and docking on October 19.

The Tiangong space stations are quite small (8.6 MT) in comparison to the first Russian (Salyut 1, 18.6 MT) and U.S. (Skylab, 77 MT) space stations, not to mention ISS.  Nonetheless, it is a step on China's path to a larger 60 MT space station planned for the early 2020s and sending people to the Moon in the 2030s.

China has a very modestly paced human spaceflight program.   It launched four uncrewed test flights of the Shenzhou spacecraft from 1999-2002.  China's first "taikonaut," Yang Liwei, flew in 2003 oh Shenzhou-5.  Shenzhou-6 in 2005 grew the crew size to two followed by Shenzhou-7 in 2008 with a three-man crew, included the first Chinese spacewalk.  Shenzhou-8 was an uncrewed test flight to the Tiangong-1 space station.  Shenzhou-9 and -10 were missions to that space station, each composed of two men and one woman.

The names of the Shenzhou-11 crew have not been announced, but their gender has -- male.  Both planned flights to Tiangong-2 will take two-man crews for 30 days each.

A list of all Chinese human spaceflight-related launches is available in a fact sheet.

David Webb: In Memoriam

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Oct-2016 (Updated: 05-Oct-2016 10:20 PM)

David Webb, who was instrumental in the formation of International Space University and of the Space Studies Program at the University of North Dakota (UND), passed away on October 1 at the age of 87.  Webb also was a member of the 1985-1986 U.S. National Commission on Space (NCOS).

Webb was a mentor to many in the space policy community, including the Aerospace Corporation's Senior Policy Analyst Jim Vedda and Naval War College National Security Affairs Professor Joan Johnson-Freese.

Vedda credited Webb with shaping his career.  "As I told him many times, he was the most influential person in my life aside from my parents," Vedda said via email.  "He took me to my first international space conference (Unispace 82), convinced me to go to grad school (in John Logsdon's program at GWU), and offered me a teaching job when he formed the Department of Space Studies at UND." 

Freese said via email that "David was a visionary with a kind soul and the heart of a lion.  He inspired students, who he loved to work with, and was a voice of reason and responsibility to his peers."

David Webb at the UNISPACE'82 conference in Vienna. Austria, 1982.  Photo credit:  Jim Vedda

His commitment to education is exemplified by his creation of the Space Studies Program at UND and serving as founding chairman of International Space University.  He also taught space policy courses at the University of Central Florida and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Webb was one of 15 members appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the congressionally-chartered National Commission on Space (NCOS).   NCOS was a one-year commission created by Congress in the 1985 NASA Authorization Act to lay out a long term U.S. civil space program building on the space shuttle and space station programs underway at that time.  Chaired by former NASA Administrator Tom Paine, the Commission's report, Pioneering the Space Frontier, was published by Bantam Books in 1986.

Webb received his Ph.D. in International and Development Education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971.   His B.A. in Political Science and M.A. in International Relations were from McGill University in Montreal (1959 and 1961 respectively). 

Among the many testaments to his professional contributions to the space program are Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Space Society and the International Space University, both in 2010, and the first Arthur C. Clarke award from Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) in 1983.  He was a member of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS).

A memorial service is planned in the Florida Space Coast area in the spring. Details are pending.

Editor's Note:  I was Executive Director of NCOS and very much enjoyed working with David during that year and in other circumstances.  He was, indeed, a kind and generous person whose commitment to and enthusiasm for a robust space program never faltered.

Blue Origin's New Shepard Rocket Blows Away Crew Capsule, Both Survive

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Oct-2016 (Updated: 06-Oct-2016 05:06 PM)

Blue Origin successfully tested its in-flight escape system today deliberatley separating the crew capsule from the New Shepard rocket while it was accelerating into space.  Company founder Jeff Bezos kept expectations low that the rocket would survive the event, but survive it did, continuing on its way to space as though nothing had happened and returning to land about two miles from its launch site.  This was the fifth -- and last -- flight this specific reusable rocket whose next destination is a museum.

New Shepard is designed to take passengers on suborbital trips to space and return them to Earth.  Both the rocket and the crew capsule are reusable.  Blue Origin, in keeping with its slogan, Gradatim Ferociter (step-by-step, ferociously), is conducting tests to show that the rocket and capsule can safely return passengers to Earth under several different failure scenarios.

In today's test, launch of the New Shepard rocket was delayed by three unplanned holds.  Two were very brief, but one lasted about 15 minutes.  The company did not fully explain why, but at approximately 11:30 am ET (10:30 am local time at the Blue Origin test range in west Texas), the rocket lifted off.  As planned, about 45 seconds later at an altitude of 16,000 feet where the rocket encounters maximum dynamic pressure (MaxQ), Blue Origin triggered the escape sequence.  A solid rocket motor at the base of the crew capsule fired and pushed the capsule away from the rocket.

The bright light near the top is the solid rocket motor firing to separate the crew capsule (above) from the rocket (below).  Photo credit: Blue Origin

The firing of the solid rocket motor imparted 700,000 pounds of force onto the rocket.  It was not designed to withstand such forces, so Bezos and his team expected the rocket to fail at that point and crash onto the desert floor, making an "impressive" impact.

The rocket was tougher than that, though.  It continued on its way to space as it did in previous launches.  For its part, the crew capsule experienced a survivable, but exhilarating flight profile after separation, soon stabilizing and deploying its drogue parachutes.

On left, crew capsule under drogue parachutes returning to Earth.  On right, New Shepard rocket continuing on its path to space.  Screenshot from Blue Origin webcast.

Referred to as a "full envelope escape system," it is designed to ensure that people will be able to survive no matter what may happen during launch. 

Once passenger flights begin, it will be a short ride -- 11 minutes total, of which four are in zero gravity (g).  During descent, they will experience a peak of 5 gs of force.  The capsule descends in free flight, then deploys drogue parachutes, then main parachutes, slowing it to three miles per hour when thrusters fire for the final soft landing (similar to how Russian Soyuz spacecraft land).

New Shepard is a suborbital rocket named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space on a suborbital flight in 1961.  Next, Blue Origin plans to launch a rocket before the end of this decade that is capable of achieving orbit.  It is named New Glenn in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth (in 1962).  It will be followed by New Armstrong, after Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon (1969).  Bezos asserts that his long term vision is for "millions of people living and working in space."

A video of the test is posted on YouTube.  To see only the launch, separation, and capsule and rocket landings, scroll forward to 1:06.  

New Shepard is powered by Blue Origin's own BE-3 liquid oxygen (LOX)/liquid hydrogen engines.  It also is developing the BE-4 engine that will use a novel LOX/liquefied natural gas (methane) mixture.  New Glenn will use BE-4 engines.  The United Launch Alliance is also considering BE-4 engines for its new Vulcan rocket.

Blue Origin's main competitor for suborbital tourist flights is Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which uses a completely different type of system.  Today, they offered their congratulations, tweeting (@virgingalactic) "Kudos from our whole team."  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group to which Blue Origin belongs, also offered congratulations.

Correction:  An earlier version identified Jeff Bezos as the President of Blue Origin.  He is the founder; Rob Meyerson is the President.

Revolutionary GOES-R Weather Satellite Ready for Launch, Apogee Motor No Concern-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Oct-2016 (Updated: 05-Oct-2016 10:21 PM)

UPDATE, October 5, 2016:  Updated with comments from NOAA about the potential impact of Hurricane Matthew on the GOES-R satellite, which is in Florida where hurricane warnings are in effect.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 4, 2016: The first of NOAA's new geostationary weather satellite series, GOES-R, is ready for launch on November 4 the agency announced today.  GOES-R is used as shorthand for what is actually a set of four virtually identical satellites to be launched over the next several years.  They will receive number designations once in orbit; this will be GOES-16. The satellite incorporates an apogee kick motor to propel it from a transfer orbit to its final destination above the equator.  Two such motors failed recently, but NOAA is not concerned.  It has a backup system should the motor not perform as planned.  Of more immediate concern may be the safety of the satellite from Hurricane Matthew, which is bearing down on Florida where GOES-R is awaiting launch.

Steve Volz, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellites and Information Services (NESDIS) lauded the satellite's capabilities at a press conference today, saying they are a "quantum leap" beyond the GOES satellites currently on orbit -- GOES-13, -14 and -15.   He likened it to the difference between black and white television of yesteryear and ultra high definition television of today.

NOAA maintains two operational geostationary weather satellites plus a spare in addition to its polar-orbiting fleet.  One geostationary satellite covers the eastern part of the United States and surrounding waters (GOES-East) while another covers the western region (GOES-West).  The spare is situated between them, ready to take over if one fails.  Currently GOES-13 is GOES-East and GOES-15 is GOES-West.  GOES-14 is the spare.

GOES-R will be launched on November 4 at 5:40 pm ET from Cape Canaveral, FL on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  The launch window is two hours.  If the apogee kick motor operates as expected it will take two weeks for the satellite to raise its orbit to its geostationary destination, followed by a 12-month checkout period.   NOAA will determine after checkout whether it will be placed in the East or West position. The satellite has sufficient fuel to last for 20 years, but nominally will be used operationally for 10 years and as a spare for 5 years.

The apogee kick motor, used to circularize the satellite's orbit at the proper altitude, is similar to those used on the Navy's Mobile User Objective System-5 (MUOS-5) satellite, the Intelsat 33e communications satellite, and the Air Force's Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Satellite-3 (SBIRS GEO-3).  One of these motors failed on MUOS-5, which was launched on June 24.  The malfunction stranded the satellite in a useless orbit.   Another motor failed on Intelsat 33e, launched on August 24, but that satellite is capable of using another on-board propulsion system (for stationkeeping) to raise the orbit; it is expected to reach its correct position in December.  Last month, the Air Force decided to delay the launch of SBIRS GEO-3 to ensure its apogee motor is functional.

NOAA's GOES-R program manager Greg Mandt said that NOAA is not concerned about the GOES-R apogee motor.  First, he credited NASA, which serves as NOAA's procurement agent for satellites, with having the foresight to ensure there are no single point failures.  If the apogee motor fails, the satellite can use its stationkeeping engines to reach the correct orbit.  Instead of two weeks, it would take four weeks to raise the orbit.  Expending the fuel required to do that would shorten the satellite's lifetime from 20 years to 18 years, still more than enough to cover its mission.  He added that NASA and NOAA also do not see the same problems with this motor that occurred with the others.

GOES-R has six instruments.  Mandt explained that the spacecraft's primary instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), will have three times the spectral resolution of its predecessors and will be able to scan from the North to South poles 5 times faster.  It will be able to zoom in on a specific storm and look at it every 30 seconds -- a temporal resolution that will "revolutionize forecasting."  

Japan's Himawari 8, already in orbit, has an ABI, enabling NOAA to test out new algorithms before GOES-R is launched, he added.

GOES-R also has a lightning mapper that will allow tracking cloud-to-cloud lightning in addition to cloud-to-ground, and lightning over oceans.  Another instrument will be able to spot not only when fog is forming, but when it is decaying, which will improve airport operations, for example. Space weather instruments also are aboard to study activity on the Sun that can affect the Earth.

Louis Uccellini, Director of NOAA's National Weather Service, enthused that the GOES-R will provide "new and improved forecasts and warnings from the Sun to the sea to help save lives and property."

Representing the private weather industry, Mary Glackin, Senior Vice President for Public-Private Partnerships at the Weather Company, commended the government's support for systems like GOES-R and open data policies that allow data to be "capitalized to the fullest."  She said the private weather industry is ready to use the GOES-R data thanks to efforts by NOAA over many years. 

With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on Haiti and possibly on course towards the East Coast of the United States, questions arose as to whether more lives and property will be saved when GOES-R's improved instruments are operating.  Uccelliini stressed that the effort to save lives is based on a partnership with people on the ground who need to make decisions to evacuate and effectively convey that urgency.  There is a "human factor embedded in all of that," he emphasized.

Ironically, this new weather satellite is now at risk because of the weather.  As of October 5, Hurricane Matthew is on track to hit Florida's Space Coast with some fury.  The GOES-R spacecraft is at Lockheed Martin's Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, near Cape Canaveral and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  NOAA's John Leslie said in an emailed statement that "the team preparing NOAA's GOES-R spacecraft for launch has taken appropriate safety measures to secure the satellite at its present location....GOES-R is contained in a building that can withstand strong (category 4) hurricane conditions. After the effects of Hurricane Matthew subside, NOAA and NASA will carefully assess the spacecraft and provide an update on its status."

Assuming GOES-R safely reaches orbit, it and the other three in the series (GOES-S, -T, and -U) will provide continuous observations through 2036.  The program, including a completely new ground system, is being built at a cost $10.9 billion. 

The program has not been trouble free as evidenced by multiple reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and an Independent Review Team (IRT) led by retired industry executive Tom Young that was highly critical of the management of both GOES-R and its polar-orbiting counterpart the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).   As recently as this August, Senator John Thune, Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which oversees NOAA, sent a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan asking 11 detailed questions about both GOES and JPSS, both of which have experienced schedule delays and cost overruns.  A major congressional concern has been whether gaps in satellite coverage might develop if older satellites stop functioning before new ones are launched.

That is not a concern in this case, at least, since there are three functioning GOES satellites already and only two are needed for an operational constellation.   GOES-R will become the fourth satellite, but the first with these improved capabilities.

Lockheed Martin builds the satellites and some of the instruments.  Harris Corporation built the ABI as well as the GOES-R ground segment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gravitational Waves Get New Focus From NASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Oct-2016 (Updated: 28-Nov-2016 10:51 PM)

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

During the Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3

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

Monday-Tuesday, October 3-4

Tuesday, October 4

Tuesday-Wednesday, October 4-5

Tuesday, October 4 - Monday, October 10

Wednesday, October 5

Wednesday-Thursday, October 5-6

Wednesday-Friday, October 5-7

Thursday, October 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress Votes to Keep Government Open Through December 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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