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The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold two hearings next week on the FY2015 budget requests for science agencies generally and, separately, for NASA, kicking off the FY2015 budget season for civil space.
The first hearing is on Wednesday, March 26, and features Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren, who is also Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as the only witness. His annual testimony to the committee typically covers all science activities at civilian government agencies, including NASA and NOAA, at a fairly top level. That hearing, before the full committee, is at 10:00 am ET.
The second hearing is on Thursday, March 27, at 9:00 am ET (an earlier hour than usual) and will specifically focus on NASA's budget request. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is the only witness. The hearing is before the Space Subcommittee.
Both hearings are in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building and should be webcast on the committee's website.
Hearings already have begun on the FY2015 budget requests related to national security space activities, but these are the first for this year on the civilian side.
Scientists using a telescope in Antarctica equipped with sensors developed by NASA announced on Monday that they discovered evidence of gravitational waves produced by the Big Bang that many believe created our universe.
Understanding the origin and evolution of the universe is a scientific quest dating back centuries. Today, most scientists believe an event called the Big Bang started it all, though what created the Big Bang is unknown and only theories exist about what happened in the first moments afterwards.
Based on observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the universe is calculated to be 13.8 billion years old and NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have peered back through about 13.3 billion of those years. NASA’s COBE and WMAP satellites as well as the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Planck mission have studied light – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – that originated from an even younger universe and began to stream through space 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
What happened before that remains a mystery. One theory is that in the fractions of a second after the Big Bang, a period of “inflation” took place where theoretical particles called “inflatons” pushed space-time apart. Eventually stars, galaxies, planets and the other objects and phenomena observable today formed. Some scientists theorize that the inflatons continued to form new universes in a process dubbed “eternal inflation” with “infinite pocket universes” creating a multiverse. Andrei Linde of Stanford was quoted by New Scientist as saying that “[i]f inflation is there, the multiverse is there.”
The findings from the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica announced this week by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) relate to an infinitesimal period of time – a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second – after the Big Bang. Inflation theory posits that the events occurring at that time created gravitational waves that can still be detected today. The observations with BICEP2 support that theory.
BICEP2 found a characteristic swirly pattern in the polarization of the light left over from the Big Bang (the CMB) that could only be caused by gravitational waves. Waves of light are polarized when they tend to wiggle in one particular direction. Gravitational waves – ripples in space-time caused by the motion of massive objects like those being flung outward during the violent expansion of inflation – would polarize light as they swept through the universe. The Harvard-Smithsonian CfA announcement said the BICEP2 data “represent the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time.”
BICEP2 is a radio telescope funded by NSF, which also runs the South Pole Station where BICEP2 is located. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed the superconductor-based BICEP2 detectors. Jamie Bock, who has joint appointments with JPL and Caltech, is co-director of the project and said that it already was known that the Big Bang produced density waves, but these observations are the first to show that gravitational waves were also produced.
The BICEP2 findings support inflation theory, but remain to be corroborated by subsequent studies, a sine qua non of the scientific process. Nonetheless, the astrophysics community is energized.
In the meantime, assuming the result holds, the implications are tantalizing: it solidifies the theory of inflation and greatly narrows the pool of inflation models that can be correct. Furthermore, it again proves Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.
BICEP2 is not the only telescope searching for signs of inflation. Among the others is NSF’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), a large ground-based experiment designed to detect gravitational waves directly. Work is now being done to upgrade the detectors in the facility and “Advanced LIGO” should begin operations this year. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) is a potential NASA-ESA mission that would seek to detect gravitational waves directly using three separated spacecraft. It received a relatively low priority (priority 3) in the National Research Council’s most recent Decadal Survey for astrophysics because the technology is not mature. ESA plans to launch a technology demonstration for such a mission, LISA Pathfinder, next year.
BICEP2 is an international collaboration involving 11 institutions: Caltech, JPL, UC San Diego, Harvard, NIST Boulder, Stanford, University of British Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Minnesota, University of Toronto and University of Wales Cardiff. BICEP stands for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation. This was the second phase of the BICEP experiment, hence the designation BICEP2.
A National Research Council (NRC) report released today lauds the additional science that could be obtained using hardware transferred to NASA from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for the next large space telescope, but worries about the cost and potential impact on the balance of programs within NASA’s astrophysics portfolio, especially if a coronagraph is added.
NASA asked the NRC to look at the pros and cons of using the NRO hardware, which NASA refers to as AFTA (Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets) to meet the science objectives envisioned for the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST). WFIRST has a three-fold purpose: study dark energy, search for exoplanets, and survey the universe in the infrared wavelengths.
The NRC recommended WFIRST as the top priority for the next large space telescope after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in its most recent Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH). Cost growth and schedule delays in the JWST program – now scheduled for launch in 2018 – meant that substantive work on WFIRST will not begin for several years longer than envisioned when the NWNH Decadal Survey was published in 2011.
The version of WFIRST recommended in the NWNH Decadal Survey would use a 1.3 meter mirror. In the meantime, however, NRO, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, decided it no longer needed two space-qualified 2.4 meter mirrors and transferred them to NASA. The agency is considering how best to make use of them. Some scientists also now want to add another instrument– a coronagraph - to whatever new large space telescope is built.
According to today’s report, NASA told this NRC committee, chaired by CalTech’s Fiona Harrison, that implementing WFIRST with a 1.3 meter mirror is no longer under consideration.
The Harrison committee was tasked not with comparing that version with a new design utilizing NRO’s hardware, referred to as WFIRST/AFTA, but with evaluating how WFIRST/AFTA responds to the scientific objectives expressed in the NWNH Decadal Survey. The committee also was asked whether a coronagraph would advance technology development and scientific goals expressed in the Decadal Survey.
The Harrison committee concluded that WFIRST/AFTA would “significantly enhance the scientific power of the mission, particularly for cosmology and general survey science,” and benefit the search for exoplanets. However, it also found that using the AFTA hardware could add to the program’s cost: “The use of inherited hardware designed for another purpose results in design complexity, low thermal and mass margins, and limited descope options that add to the mission risk. These factors will make managing cost growth challenging.”
As for adding a coronagraph, the Harrison committee was less than enthusiastic because its design is “immature” and could further add to the technical risk and potential cost. The committee stressed that it was “the moderate cost, low technical risk and mature design” of the original WFIRST concept that led the Decadal Survey committee to make it the top priority. Therefore, “inclusion of the coronagraph compromises this rationale.”
A prominent theme in today’s report is a reminder that the fundamental tenet of the NWNH Decadal Survey is to maintain balance in NASA’s astrophysics portfolio among large programs like WFIRST, smaller programs in the Explorer series, and the associated Research and Analysis (R&A) program “If implementing WFIRST/AFTA compromises the program balance then it is inconsistent with the rationale that led to the high priority ranking,” the Harrison committee warned.
NASA needs to “mature the coronagraph design and develop a credible cost, schedule, performance, and observing program” before the impact of adding such an instrument to WFIRST can be determined, the Harrison committee determined. Once that is done, NASA should convene additional independent reviews of the coronagraph and of whatever mission design NASA ultimately proposes as a new start “to ensure that the proposed mission cost and technical risk are consistent with available resources and do not significantly compromise the astrophysics balance” recommended by the Decadal Survey.
Congress appropriated $668 million for NASA's astrophysics program for FY2014 (which is separate from the funding for JWST), an increase of $46 million above the $622 million requested. It then directed NASA to use $56 million of its FY2014 astrophysics funding to proceed with design studies, technical risk reduction and mission formulation to meet the exoplanet and dark energy objectives of WFIRST. NASA's FY2014 operating plan, which provides details of how it plans to spend its FY2014 appropriations, has not been made public, so details on how it will spend that $56 million are not available yet.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in recess (except for pro forma sessions).
During the Week
As another (sigh) snowstorm begins in the DC area, it's just as well that this is quiet week for space policy events in Washington. Attention will be focused on the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference taking place at The Woodlands, TX outside Houston instead. Jim Green and Jonathan Rall from NASA Headquarters will brief the crowd on the state of planetary science at NASA tomorrow (Monday) at 5:30 pm Central/6:30 pm Eastern. That event will be webcast.
Also of interest is Rep. Donna Edwards's (D-MD) talk to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable on Tuesday at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, MD. Hopefully the streets will be cleared of the snow by then since we don't think that one is webcast.
Here are the events we know of as of Sunday evening.
Monday-Friday, March 17-21
Tuesday, March 18
Thursday, March 20
According to NASA, its new strategic plan, released last week, provides the agency with a “clear, unified, and long-term direction” for all its activities. NASA’s previous strategic plan was criticized in a 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report requested by Congress that found a lack of “national consensus” on the agency’s strategic goals and objectives.
Government agencies are required to prepare strategic plans every four years in the year after a presidential election by the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sets detailed requirements for the plans. NASA was given an extra year to produce its last version as the Obama Administration debated the agency’s future, so it was released in 2011 rather than 2010.
The document states NASA’s vision and mission and explains the agency’s core values, goals and priorities.
In this new version, NASA’s Vision is articulated as:
“We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.”
NASA’s Mission is:
“Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.”
A comparison of the 2014 and 2011 strategic plans reveals few dramatic changes. Safety, integrity, teamwork and excellence remain the agency’s core values. The plan also reiterates sending humans to Mars as the agency’s long-term goal. The addition of the words “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement is a significant change, however, and appears to respond to criticism of the 2011 version by the NRC committee.
The 2014 plan identifies NASA’s proposed asteroid initiative, which includes the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) to redirect an asteroid into the Earth-Moon system for human exploration, as a step towards a human exploration of Mars.
Lack of widespread national and international support for an asteroid mission as the next step in human spaceflight, first proposed by President Obama in April 2010, was one of the findings of the 2012 NRC study that was written in response to concerns of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). He chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and included language in NASA’s FY2012 funding bill requesting a study of NASA’s strategic direction with a specific look at NASA’s Strategic Plan.
The resulting NRC report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, concluded that “there is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA.” The committee recommended that the Administration take the lead in forging a new consensus, establishing a new strategic plan to achieve it, and taking steps to address a crippling mismatch between the agency’s budget and its portfolio of programs, facilities and staff.
The NRC committee found the vision and mission statements in the 2011 strategic plan were too generic and did not convey how NASA uniquely contributes to national goals, adding to the “confusion about NASA’s overall strategic direction.” In particular, it criticized the omission of the words “space” and aeronautics” from those statements since they delineate NASA’s responsibilities.
The new strategic plan responds to that critique by adding “space” and “aeronautics” to the mission statement. Previously it read “Drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth.” The new vision statement does not include those words, but is more succinct than the 2011 version, which was phrased “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown, so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”
The new strategic plan does highlight changes in the strategy development process. It emphasizes consultation with both internal and external stakeholders, “including Congress,” and describes actions the NASA Administrator has taken “to formulate a robust Agency strategy for implementation of the external guidance.”
In a letter introducing the 2014 strategic plan, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden states that “NASA’s vision of the future is clear.” Nevertheless, as recent congressional hearings have demonstrated, there is a persistent lack of consensus over next steps for NASA’s human spaceflight program and the state of affairs with respect to the agency’s future direction for human spaceflight, at least, is largely unchanged.
Note: SpacePolicyOnline.com Editor Marcia Smith was a member of the NRC Strategic Directions committee.
China's Yutu lunar rover awakened from its third period of dormancy on Friday, but its mechanical problems remain unresolved. It was designed to survive for three of these lunar day/night cycles so in many respects can be considered a success, even if not a full success.
China's official Xinhua news agency published a charming article about the rover yesterday, quoting from many messages on China's version of Twitter (Sina Weibo) that humanize the robot. Chinese space officials say they do not know who operates the "Lunar Rover Yutu" account, but the author tweets as though it is Yutu's own voice. Xinhua reported that a message was posted on the day Yutu woke up, March 14, which is Pi Day (named after the mathematical constant pi, which begins 3.14) -- humorously asking "Any carrot pi for me?" The carrot reference is because Yutu is named after a pet rabbit that accompanies China's mythological goddess of the Moon, Chang'e.
Yutu was designed to operate during the 14 days of lunar sunlight and be dormant (sleep) for the 14 days of bitterly cold lunar night.
The article had little hard news in it, though, and adds to the confusion about what exactly is wrong with Yutu. It is a rover that carries scientific equipment intended to test different sites on the lunar surface as it treks across the Moon. Just before it entered this third period of dormancy, Chinese officials revealed the nature of the rover's previously reported mechanical failure was a malfunctioning control circuit in its driving unit. That meant the rover cannot rove. Its instruments apparently are functioning normally, however.
This most recent Xinhua article, though, says that "the ailing rover will continue to work, roaming on the moon while commanded by the mission control center." That implies that it is, in fact, still able to move.
In a presentation in Washington, DC to the National Research Council's Space Studies Board on March 3, Wu Ji of the Chinese Academy of Science's National Space Science Center said Yutu is "useless" without the ability to move since its purpose is to test lunar regolith in different locations.
Meanwhile, the Chinese media have not said very much about the Chang'e-3 lander that delivered Yutu to the surface and has its own scientific instruments. It is a stationary lander that was designed to work for one year. Chang'e-3 and Yutu landed on the Moon on December 14, 2013 Eastern Standard Time. They are China's first spacecraft designed to make a survivable landing on the Moon. Future lunar probes are planned, including a sample return mission (Chang'e 5) in 2017.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a House appropriations subcommittee today that the situation in Ukraine will lead to a review of the U.S. use of Russian rocket engines. The Atlas V, used for many national security space launches, uses Russian RD-180 engines.
During a hearing before the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee today, Hagel was asked by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), whether the Ukrainian situation demonstrates that it is time for "joint Air Force, NASA funding to develop additional capabilities for making powerful rocket engines here in the U.S."?
Hagel replied "You're obviously referring to the relationship we have with the Russians on the rocket motors and, well, I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue. I don't think there's any question about that."
Aderholt represents Alabama's 4th district, close to Huntsville and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which specializes in the development of rockets and rocket engines. It also is close to Decatur, home to United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) manufacturing facilities for the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. ULA provides launch services to the U.S. government primarily for national security space satellites using those two rockets, which collectively are called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). Issues surrounding competition for U.S. government launch services using EELVs versus "new entrants" like SpaceX are a hot topic today.
Elon Musk, founder and Chief Engineer of SpaceX, made the case at a congressional hearing last week for phasing out the Atlas V because of its dependence on Russian engines and using his "made in America" Falcon rockets instead. At the same hearing, ULA's Michael Gass stressed that ULA has a two-year supply of the RD-180 engines and is confident it could produce more on its own if the supply from Russia was disrupted.
Until today, U.S. officials have downplayed the effects on U.S. space relationships of the geopolitical situation in Ukraine. Hagel's statement is the first public sign that it is causing second thoughts about U.S. reliance on Russian space hardware. Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket also relies on Russian and Ukrainian hardware and, of course, the United States is completely dependent on Russia for taking crews to and from the International Space Station since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.
SpaceX has decided to postpone its planned Sunday launch of a cargo mission to the International Space Station until at least March 30, with April 2 as a backup date.
This is SpaceX's third operational ISS cargo mission, SpaceX CRS-3, and was scheduled for launch at 4:41 am EDT on Sunday morning. In addition to delivering cargo to the space station, it will test the "landing legs" on the SpaceX first stage.
A statement on SpaceX's website reads as follows:
"To ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance and allow additional time to resolve remaining open items, SpaceX is now targeting March 30th for the CRS-3 launch, with April 2nd as a back-up. These represent the earliest available launch opportunities given existing schedules, and are currently pending approval with the Range.
"Both Falcon 9 and Dragon are in good health; given the critical payloads on board and significant upgrades to Dragon, the additional time will ensure SpaceX does everything possible on the ground to prepare for a successful launch."
France Cordova, who once served as NASA's chief scientist, was confirmed by the Senate yesterday as the new director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The Senate is slowly working its way through many nominations made last year by President Obama. Cordova was nominated on July 31, 2013. The NSF Director position is a 6-year term.
An astrophysicist, Cordova was NASA Chief Scientist from 1993-1996.
France Cordova. Photo credit: NSF website.
Since then, she has been President of Purdue University (2007-2012), Chancellor of UC-Riverside and Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy (2002-2007), and Vice Chancellor for Research and Professor of Physics at UC-Santa Barbara (1996-2002). Prior to NASA, she was Head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University and worked previously at Los Alamos National Lab. She has been a member of the National Science Board, which governs NSF, since 2008. Her B.A. in English is from Stanford and her Ph.D. in physics is from CalTech.
NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green told a NASA advisory subcommittee today that funding for operations of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is not assured for the rest of FY2014.
LRO is part of NASA’s Lunar Quest program and Congress provided no funds for it in FY2014. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) also is part of Lunar Quest, but remaining funds in FY2014 are sufficient for that mission, which has a short lifetime.
LRO, however, can continue operating in lunar orbit for some time yet. Launched in 2009, it is providing detailed images of the lunar surface. Green hopes to get permission to shift funds within his budget through NASA’s FY2014 operating plan to maintain LRO operations. Operating plans detail how NASA plans to spend the money Congress appropriated. Historically, Congress acquiesces to comparatively minor changes such as this, although last year Congress and the Administration waged a multi-month battle over how to spend FY2013 funds. That funding was significantly impacted by the sequester and two congressionally-imposed rescissions and disagreement arose about priorities.
NASA’s FY2014 operating plan was due to be submitted to Congress within 45 days of enactment of the FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act on January 17. Green told the NASA Advisory Council’s Planetary Science Subcommittee today that it had not yet been submitted to the best of his knowledge.
He said he did not believe it was Congress’s intent to cancel LRO and is optimistic that funds will be found. In addition, however, LRO also must successfully emerge from NASA’s “Senior Review” process where scientists who want to extend a spacecraft’s mission after its primary mission is completed must go through a peer review process to evaluate the mission’s scientific merit to determine if it warrants the additional costs to continue operations. LRO is one of seven missions that will be considered by the 2014 planetary science Senior Review in an era of tight funding, but Green sounded optimistic. If LRO is recommended for continuation by the Senior Review and money is found, it will be shifted into NASA’s Discovery line of planetary missions since the Lunar Quest line no longer exists.
NASA’s FY2015 budget request for planetary science is $1.280 billion, less than the $1.345 billion appropriated for FY2014.
Another mission slated for consideration by the Senior Review is Cassini. Orbiting Saturn since 2004, Cassini continues to send back valuable information not only about Saturn itself, but its moons, including Titan. Cassini’s mission definitely will end in 2017 because it will run out of fuel and NASA wants to intentionally deorbit it into Saturn’s atmosphere so it does not contaminate other nearby bodies like Titan. But that is three years from now and Cassini scientists want to extend operations until then.
Wording in a document released by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) explaining NASA’s FY2015 budget request implied that a decision to curtail operations of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint aircraft-based astronomy project by NASA and its German counterpart, DLR, was made in order to ensure funding for Cassini operations. Green insisted that was a matter of poor writing, however, not fact. SOFIA is part of NASA’s astrophysics program and ordinarily each NASA science discipline – astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics and earth science – must solve budgetary problems within their own budgets rather than taking money from others.
Green passionately explained today that there was no “horse-trading” between NASA’s astrophysics and planetary science offices as some suggest: “Don’t buy into that.” Budget pressures are everywhere, he insisted, and each of NASA’s science disciplines still must find its own solutions. Every planetary science program subject to the 2014 Senior Review must make its best case and NASA will match that peer-reviewed priority ranking to budgetary resources, Green said, adding that Cassini advocates should take nothing for granted – “there is no substitute for an excellent proposal.”
In addition to LRO and Cassini, the other five missions that will be considered by the Senior Review for extended operations are associated with Mars exploration: the Mars rover Opportunity; the Mars rover Curiosity; the Mars orbiter Odyssey; another Mars orbiter MRO; and a NASA instrument (Aspera-3) on Europe’s Mars Express (MEX), another Mars orbiter.
Green discussed many other aspects of NASA’s FY2015 budget request, including the $15 million designated for studies of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. He excitedly noted that this was the first time that the Obama Administration is requesting funds for Europa studies, but repeated what other NASA officials have said – they want to determine if major scientific objectives could be met with a mission costing NASA no more than $1 billion. (Congress added money for Europa in FY2013 and FY2014, but the Administration did not request any.) The original cost estimate for a Europa mission was $4.7 billion. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory devised a different type of mission dubbed Europa Clipper that had much less scientific capability, but could still provide important scientific data, for about $2 billion. Cutting that cost in half will be a challenge. International partnerships are one possibility, but Green said that based on past experience it would not be a 50-50 split so the $1 billion that NASA could provide would still represent the preponderance of the cost.
The $15 million for Europa in the FY2015 budget request is only for that one year. No funding is requested for future years, so it is not a "new start" indicating that the Obama Administration is committed to executing such a mission within a definitive time frame.
Events of Interest