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UPDATE 2, January 26, 2014, 2:55 pm EST: CCTV has a story today about Netizens extending "blessings" to Yutu and many of them "fear for the troubled rover's destiny." That is far short of any official indication of whether Yutu's problems can be solved, but does continue to suggest that the problem is serious. This article is updated with a bit more from that CCTV story and a link to it.
UPDATE, January 25, 2014, 10:20 pm EST: China's English language TV station, CCTV, ran a story this evening suggesting Yutu may be in serious trouble. This article is updated accordingly.
China's official Xinhua news agency reported on January 25 Eastern Standard Time (EST) that the Yutu lunar rover experienced a "mechanical control abnormality" just before it entered its second hibernation period for the lunar night.
Yutu ("Jade Rabbit") is part of China's Chang'e-3 mission. Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon and Yutu is her companion pet rabbit.
Chang'e-3 and Yutu landed on the Moon on December 14, 2013 EST. It is China's first probe to soft land on the Moon. Yutu separated from Chang'e-3 the next day and began its trek across the lunar surface. Yutu is equipped with solar arrays for power, so must hibernate during the 14-day lunar "nights" when there is no sunlight.
Xinhua reported late in the evening of January 24 EST that Yutu experienced an abnormality. A story published January 25 EST added that it is a "mechanical control abnormality" due to the "complicated lunar surface environment" and "scientists are organizing repairs." "The abnormality emerged before the rover entered its second dormancy at dawn on Saturday as the lunar night fell," Xinhua reported, quoting China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND).
Official Chinese sources have not stated what the problem is, but a participant in a conversation on The Planetary Society's "Unmanned Spaceflight.com" site said on January 25 that the problem "is with the solar arrays failing to tuck back into the rover body for thermal protection during the lunar night." The source of that information is not cited, but the participant is identified as Cosmic Penguin, who is located in Hong Kong according to information on that site.
Also on January 25 EST, China's official English-language TV station, CCTV, ran a story suggesting that the problem may be quite serious. Citing Yutu's official Chinese Twitter account, CCTV ran the following quote: "It's been a pleasure for me to come to the moon and share my experiences with everyone. Very soon the temperature on the moon will drop below minus 180 degrees Centigrade. I'm not sure if things can be fixed in time. So I'd like to wish all of you a happy Spring Festival in advance!"
Twitter accounts for robotic spacecraft have become common in recent years since Veronica McGregor at the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) began the practice with the Mars Phoenix lander. Humans associated with a space mission post messages on Twitter using the first person as though the spacecraft itself is talking. Whoever is posting messages on Yutu's Twitter account presumably is officially connected with the mission.
On January 26, CCTV ran a follow-up story about how "tens of thousands of Chinese Netizens" are posting messages on China's Twitter service extending "blessings" to Yutu. Some are messages of encouragement that Yutu get better, others console the robotic rover that it did its best. CCTV says that many of those posting messages "fear for the troubled rover's destiny." That is far from an official statement about the likelihood that Yutu's problems can be solved, but absent official information, the fact that the government's English-language TV broadcaster is highlighting these posts adds to the sense that the problem is serious. The closest CCTV comes to quoting anyone in an official capacity is a statement attributed to Yang Yuguang, "a researcher" from China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp. who says "There is no smooth way ahead. Whether or not we can overcome this difficult situation, it's a big lesson for our lunar exploration research."
The stationary Chang'e-3 lander is equipped with an optical telescope and extreme ultraviolet camera. The Yutu rover has a radar, panoramic camera, particle X-ray instrument and infrared sensor. Emily Lakdawalla, who blogs for The Planetary Society, posted on January 21 that the panoramic camera no longer is functional.
China's Yutu rover on the Moon. Source, tweet from Xinhua News @XHNews December 22, 2013.
Two House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittees will hold a joint hearing next week on China's counterspace program.
The HASC subcommittees on Strategic Forces and on Seapower and Projection Forces will hold a hearing on "The People's Republic of China's Counterspace Program and the Implications for U.S. National Security." It is on January 28 at 3:30 pm ET in 2118 Rayburn House Office Building. Witnesses are:
The chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), co-authored a letter with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) last month to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking a series of questions about China's space program and whether the United States was losing its space leadership. Clapper was asked to respond to five questions, two of which were directly about China's counterspace program. The five questions are:
No time frame was stipulated for when Clapper must respond to the questions. The Rogers-Wolf letter said only that the answers would "inform fiscal year 2015 legislation our two subcommittees may consider." Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee and is the primary author of language prohibiting NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from engaging in bilateral interactions with China regarding civil space cooperation unless certain conditions are met.
President Obama will submit his FY2015 budget request to Congress on March 4 -- a month late -- according to news reports.
By law, the President is supposed to submit each year's budget request on the first Monday of February. Delays in reaching agreement on budget bills in recent years have meant consequent delays in submitting requests for the next year and FY2015 will be no exception.
The Hill and Politico are citing White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) spokesman Steve Posner as saying today that March 4 is the date for the FY2015 budget submission to Congress. Last year, the budget was not sent to Capitol Hill until April 10, so, comparatively speaking, this is an improvement.
The Bipartisan Budget Act agreed to in December set spending caps for both FY2014 and FY2015, which may make the FY2015 appropriations process easier than it has been in recent years. The cap for FY2015 is $1.014 trillion for discretionary (defense and non-defense) spending, compared to $1.012 trillion for FY2014.
A SpacePolicyOnline.com Editorial
NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) waded into the issue of whether the International Space Station (ISS) should be extended beyond its current 2020 deadline in its annual report issued last week. Its questions were based on a benefit-cost rationale of whether the activities conducted aboard ISS are worth the risk to the lives of the crews that inhabit the station. More fundamentally, however, it did not ask about the structural health of the multi-module facility for years longer than planned.
NASA announced on January 8 that it wants to extend the lifetime of the ISS to 2024, four years more than the current plan, and it has long suggested extending it to 2028 – 30 years beyond when the first modules were launched.
The ASAP report reflects work conducted in 2013 before the announcement was made, but the panel noted that NASA was considering an extension and cautioned that such a decision needed to assess the benefits against the costs and safety risks.
“As NASA assesses ISS life extension, it should also review the objectives for continued ISS use and clearly articulate them to ensure that the costs and safety risks are balanced. Given that human space flight is inherently risky, that risk always needs to be weighed against the value to be gained by the endeavor.”
Absent from the report is any mention of concern about the structural integrity of the facility as it endures the harsh space environment. The oldest of the ISS modules – Zarya and Unity – are already 15 years old.
In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress approved extending the ISS to 2020, five years longer than the then-expected end date of 2015. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed NASA’s processes for determining the space station’s structural health, among other topics, in a December 2011 report and found that the agency was “using reasonable analytical tools.” That report looked only at the extension of ISS to 2020, however, not for a longer period of time as now planned.
The ASAP did express concerns about safety risks with the commercial crew program, especially whether NASA still considers crew safety to be a key determinant in developing new crew spaceflight systems. That part of its report received substantial attention. An op-ed by former astronaut Vance Brand in this week’s Space News drove home that point.
Similar questions might be asked about the ISS extension. The announcement of the four-year extension, however, prompted concerns centered primarily on whether it was affordable, not whether the facility is technically viable. Perhaps a more important question is whether enough is known about how the structure of the ISS modules and other equipment – American, Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian – can hold up under another four years or more of radiation, micrometeorite hits, and other environmental factors.
Like the Hubble Space Telescope, one advantage of the ISS is that it can be repaired. NASA and its partners have a strategy for assessing when parts must be replaced and equipped ISS with an array of spare parts while the space shuttle was still flying. Still, few spacecraft have orbited the Earth for 20 years or more in operational status and no others have needed to sustain human life. Russia's Mir space station is the closest analog. Its core module survived 15 years in space (1986-2001) before the entire facility was deorbited into the Pacific Ocean.
Officials from NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, convey a “can-do” attitude that extending ISS is not a problem. An independent assessment – independent of NASA, Boeing (the ISS prime contractor), and Roscosmos – could go a long way in allaying concerns that that estimation is being made by organizations that want the answer to be yes so fervently that they may unintentionally overlook less optimistic indicators.
ASAP will hold its first meeting of 2014 tomorrow at Johnson Space Center. Perhaps that is a place to start, although it could easily be argued that a group even more distant from NASA, akin to an accident investigation board, would be more likely to detect not only technical but cultural factors that might be leading to a premature determination that the ISS can last until 2024 or even longer -- “no problem.”
Marcia Smith, Editor
Laurie Leshin, who left NASA in 2011 for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), has been selected as the new President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA. She will be WPI's 16th president and the first woman to hold that position in the university's 150 year history.
Leshin was Director of the Center for Meteorite Studies and the Dee and John Whiteman Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at Arizona State University before joining NASA. She was a member of the Aldridge Commission established by President George W. Bush after his announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004. The Commission, chaired by former Secretary of the Air Force Edward "Pete" Aldridge, issued the report "A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover."
Laurie Leshin. Photo credit: WPI website
WPI made the announcement today. Leshin reports for duty on July 1, the beginning of the university's academic year, which in this case is also its sesquicentennial (150th) year.
The following space policy events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
This week is a welcome break from the hustle and bustle that greeted the New Year.
After an exceptionally busy start to the second session of the 113th Congress, the House and Senate are in recess (Monday is a federal holiday -- Martin Luther King day), having passed the appropriations bill that funds the government for rest of the fiscal year. The frenetic pace in Congress was matched by major American Astronomical Society (AAS) and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) conferences just outside Washington at National Harbor, MD during the past two weeks, plus the State Department-led International Space Exploration Forum and the International Academy of Astronautics' (IAA's) Space Exploration Conference and Heads of Agencies meetings. Not to mention several significant launches. It's been quite a busy couple of weeks!
This week signals a return to a more normal pace. Here are the meetings we know about as of Sunday afternoon.
Wednesday, January 22
Wednesday-Thursday, January 22-23
Thursday, January 23
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) will hold two meetings in 2014 as part of the first CAS-NAS Forum for New Leaders in Space Science. The first will be in Beijing from May 8-9 and the second from November 3-4 in the Los Angeles area.
The forum "is designed to provide opportunities for a highly select group of young space scientists from China and the United States to discuss their research activities in an intimate and collegial environment," according to an announcement on the Space Studies Board (SSB) website. The SSB is part of the National Research Council, which along with the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine comprise The National Academies. SSB's counterpart for the forum is the National Space Science Center (NSSC) of the CAS.
Participants in the two meetings will be selected from applicants who had to meet a number of criteria, including being no more than 40 years old on December 31, 2014. The application period is closed. Selections will be made by the end of February.
Language in the newly enacted FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act (colloquially referred to "the omnibus") continues prohibitions on NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with regard to discussing or engaging in bilateral space cooperation with China unless certain criteria are met. Those restrictions do not affect other government or non-government organizations, however. (NAS is a non-government entity.)
The three-fold purpose of the CAS-NAS forum, according to the SSB's website, is --
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is another government office that did well in the FY2014 omnibus appropriations bill, which was signed into law yesterday. Not only was its indemnification authority extended, but it got its full budget request.
President Obama signed the bill, officially entitled the "Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014" but colloquially known as "the omnibus," into law yesterday, January 17, 2014. It funds the government through September 30, the end of FY2014.
NASA and NOAA did relatively well overall, and so did AST. The bill extends the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial launch services companies against certain amounts of liability from third-party claims (basically claims by members of the general public) in the case of a launch accident for three more years - until December 2016. The House wanted only a one year extension, but the Senate passed a bill extending it for three years and the compromise adopted the Senate position.
Industry prefers that the provision be made permanent, but since 1988 when it first established the authority, Congress has preserved its prerogative to review periodically whether the indemnification authority still is needed. The original justification for the government agreeing to pay a portion of third-party claims in the event of a commercial launch accident was that the industry was new and it would be prohibitively expensive to purchase insurance. Twenty five years later, that argument is less compelling. Industry asserts that the government should continue to indemnify commercial launch companies because other countries do and it puts U.S. companies on a level playing field.
In addition to getting that authority extended for three years instead of one (or none), AST received its full budget request of $16,011,000.
AST sponsors an annual Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC. This year the conference is scheduled for February 5-6 at the National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, N.W.
AST regulates and facilitates the U.S. commercial launch services industry.
NOAA weather satellites, in addition to providing weather data, carry transponders as part of the international Cospas-Sarsat search and rescue system to locate people in distress. In 2013, 253 people throughout the United States and in surrounding waters were rescued.
NOAA reports that 139 people were rescued from marine emergencies, 34 from aviation incidents, and 80 from land-based events.
Cospas-Sarsat started as a joint effort among the Soviet Union, United States, France and Canada in the 1980s, using transponders on polar-orbiting spacecraft (U.S. weather satellites and Soviet navigation satellites). Today, it involves 41 countries and two independent organizations. Since 1982, more than 35,000 people worldwide have been rescued using the system, of which 7.252 were in the United States.
Aircraft, marine vessels and individuals can be equipped with devices that broadcast an emergency signal when activated manually or, in some cases, automatically. The signal is detected by polar orbiting satellites equipped with Cospas-Sarsat transponders that alert control centers in various countries. NOAA operates the control center for the United States in Suitland, MD.
Cospas is the Russian acronym for Space System for Search of Vessels in Distress. Sarsat is the English acronym for Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking. More information is on NOAA's Cospas-Sarsat website.
The second session of the 103rd Congress settled three space-related issues in its first 10 days. The one with the most impact is passage of the Omnibus Appropriations bill funding space programs for the rest of FY2014. It also extended third party liability indemnification for commercial space launch companies and renamed the Dryden Flight Research Center after Neil Armstrong.
As we reported earlier, Congress has a plate full of space policy issues this year. Resolving one major and two more narrowly-focused issues in 10 days isn't bad. Here's the list:
Of course, that still leaves plenty of items on the space policy "to do" list and now that the FY2014 appropriations are completed, it's time to start work on FY2015. The President is supposed to submit his budget request on the first Monday of February each year, but rumors are it will be delayed because Congress did not reach agreement on the Bipartisan Budget Act -- which sets limits on total government spending for FY2014 and FY2015 -- until late December.
The second session officially began on January 6, 2014.
Events of Interest