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ESA: Philae Landed THREE Times, not Two, But is OK

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Nov-2014 (Updated: 13-Nov-2014 09:59 AM)

The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Philae lander bounced twice -- landing three times -- when it reached the surface of Comet 67P yesterday, but is working fine and returning images and other scientific data.   Philae separated from its Rosetta mother spacecraft yesterday and reached the comet's surface at 10:34 am EST (November 12), the first spacecraft to land on a comet.

Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) communicates with Earth through Rosetta, which is orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Radio communications with Philae initially were intermittent yesterday and then ended as Rosetta moved below the horizon.   Scientists waited many hours until Rosetta was once again in position to serve as a relay.  Right on schedule, communications were reestablished at 06:01 UTC (01:01 am EST) today.  That communications session lasted until 09:58 UTC.

ESA released photographs of the surface of the comet from the ÇIVA (pronounced SHE-va) instrument on Philae.  ÇIVA is a set of six identical micro-cameras that can take panoramic pictures of the surface.  One of the six images (below) shows Philae's foot on the surface of the comet.

Comet 67P imaged by Philae lander (lander's foot clearly visible).
Released by ESA November 13, 2014  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Phiae/ÇIVA 

Comets have almost no gravity, so Philae was equipped with harpoons that were supposed to fire down into the surface of the comet to hold the lander in place.  The harpoons did not fire, however, so Philae bounced.  Yesterday, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec said "maybe today we didn't just land once, we even landed twice."

Now they know there were two bounces, with three landings.  

As Ulamec explained today, the first contact with the surface was at 15:34 UTC (10:34 am EST) precisely where Philae was intended to land.  However, it bounced off the surface and remained aloft for almost two hours.  Ulamec said they think it bounced about 1 kilometer high and moved 1 kilometer in distance, touching down a second time at 17:25 UTC (12:25 EST).  It then bounced again and was aloft for 7 minutes, landing for the third time at 17:32 UTC (12:32 EST).   They do not know exactly where the lander is now.    ESA is using the OSIRIS camera on Rosetta to search the surface for Philae.   The cameras on Philae shows that it is very close to a cliff, which may complicate finding it.  

The lander is in good shape.  The only wrinkle concerns how long it can function.   Philae has primary and secondary batteries.  It is operating off of the primary battery now, but it will soon run out of power unless it and the secondary battery can be recharged from its solar cells.    Because it landed near a cliff, however, the solar cells are receiving much less sunlight than expected -- only 1.5 hours of 6-7 hours -- during this first period of time.   The Philae team is looking at options, such as trying to reposition it so the solar cells get more sunlight, but is moving cautiously lest the lander's position be further disturbed.  

Philae  is designed to be able to survive long periods in hibernation and the lighting conditions will change as the comet moves through the solar system.  Ulamec said it is possible that even if the lander loses power, it could reawaken months from now if more sunlight is available, but he was not willing to even guess at the possibility that would happen.  Rosetta will continue to orbit the comet until August-September 2016 when it will run out of fuel.

 

SS2 Pilot Siebold Unaware Critical Lever Moved Prematurely

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 08:57 PM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an update on its investigation into the October 31 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident that claimed the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold.   Siebold's injuries prevented the NTSB from interviewing him until last Friday and the update includes a brief summary of what he told them.

SS2 was a spaceplane developed by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise to take anyone who could afford the $250,000 ticket price on a suborbital trip to space.  The October 31 mission was a test flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port, CA, in preparation for commercial operations that were to begin early in 2015.  The two pilots were Scaled employees.

The spaceplane is carried aloft by a large aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the spaceplane at about 45,000 feet altitude.  The spaceplane then fires a rocket engine to ascend to at least 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (but not legally defined) boundary between air and space, and after about six minutes in weightlessness, returns to land on Earth.

The NTSB previously determined based on video from the SS2 cockpit and other data that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent.  The lever should have been moved only when the spaceplane reached Mach 1.4, but Alsbury moved it from locked to unlocked at Mach 1.02 during ascent.  A second step, where the pilot would move another lever, ostensibly was required to actually activate the feathering system.  That second step never took place, but the feathering system deployed itself, changing the position of tail booms on the vehicle.  NTSB investigators stress that they have reached no conclusions about the accident and only are stating facts, but there is widespread supposition that with the feathering system activated at the wrong time, aerodynamic forces tore the spaceplane apart. 

The two men fell from a very high altitude (which has not been revealed, but SS2 was released at about 45,000 feet and fired its rocket engine for about 11 seconds, so they were quite high).  They were wearing parachutes, but no pressure suits.   The vehicle did not have ejection seats.  Alsbury was found dead in his seat on the ground.

Siebold survived, which many consider a miracle.  According to today's NTSB update, Siebold told them he was "extracted from the vehicle as the result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically."   He told the NTSB that he was not aware that the feathering system had been unlocked by Alsbury.

The NTSB said it has completed its on-site investigation work at Mojave. The SS2 wreckage has been recovered and is in secure storage.  Analysis of the data will continue at the NTSB's Washington, DC laboratory.   NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said earlier that the complete investigation could take 12 months.  

House and Senate Return to Work Today To Finish 113th Congress, Prepare for Next Year

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 05:22 PM)

The House and Senate return to work today to finish out the 113th Congress and get ready for the 114th, which begins in January.   The congressional landscape will change significantly then, with Republicans taking control of the Senate in addition to the House.  Generally, space activities have bi-partisan support in both chambers.  Where that has broken down in the past is over budgets and that could be a defining issue in the 114th Congress.

But first, over the next several weeks Congress needs to complete work on FY2015 appropriations.  There remains a question as to whether the appropriations will cover the rest of the fiscal year – through September 30, 2015 – or only a few months, but something must be done by December 11 to keep the government open.  On that day, the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.

The prevailing wisdom is that Congress will pass an omnibus FY2015 appropriations bill combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the rest of FY2015.  Some Tea Party Republicans, however, want a short term bill to carry the government only through the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans are in control of both chambers.

The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills, and although the Senate has not passed any, the Senate Appropriations Committee completed work on eight. The two that fund most space activities are Defense (national security space programs) and Commerce-Justice-Science (NASA and NOAA).  A third, Transportation-HUD, funds activities at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The House has passed and the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved all three of those bills increasing the likelihood that final action on them can be completed by year’s end if prevailing wisdom holds true.

Congress also has not yet completed action on new authorization bills for NASA or DOD. Like appropriations, the House has passed bills for both, but the Senate has not passed either.   Congress has an unblemished record for more than 50 years of passing annual DOD authorization bills, formally called a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Pundits are predicting that one will pass this year, too, probably by using the House-passed bill as the basis for a behind-the-scenes compromise and sending it to the Senate floor for a vote, skipping the step of passing a Senate version first.

As for NASA, it is always possible that similar negotiations could also result in a bill clearing Congress this year, but the NASA bill is not considered as crucial as the NDAA. With little time on the legislative calendar, the imminent change in party control, and the departure of key Senate Democratic staffer Ann Zulkosky, getting the NASA bill done could be problematical.

The Senate also is expected to try and approve at least some of President Obama’s nominations, particularly those for judicial positions.  Whether Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator can get through in such a short time will depend on many factors, such as whether she has a Senate champion willing to push for it or if any opposition has developed.   Expectations were that it would not be considered until next year and that is probably a good bet.

What will happen in the 114th Congress is anyone’s guess.  There’s a presidential election coming up in 2016 and each party will use the next two years to convince the electorate to choose a President from their side of the aisle (President Obama cannot run for another term, so there will be no incumbent).  Not to mention that all of the House and one-third of the Senate will once again be up for election.  How all of that plays out in congressional politics is to be determined.  There is much talk at the moment of the two parties working together because the electorate is weary of Washington gridlock, but such talk is typical right after an election.   Rarely does it actually lead to compromise.  With some Republicans vowing to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and fight the President on issues from immigration to the Keystone Pipeline, it is difficult to be optimistic.

All the committee and subcommittee chairmanships will change in the Senate, since the Republicans are taking control.  Even though Republicans retained control in the House, 11 committee chairmanships are up for grabs because of term limits or retirements.  There is a lot of speculation about who will be in charge of what, which is important, but in terms of the fate of government-funded space programs, a more important factor is whether deficit cutting returns as the dominant issue in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for the past six years over how to reduce the deficit.  The Republicans want only funding cuts, while Democrats want a combination of funding cuts and tax increases.   The result of the deadlock over this issue was sequestration – across-the-board funding cuts for federal agencies that are part of the “discretionary spending” portion of the budget that Congress directly allocates (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Medicare and Social Security).

Both parties oppose sequestration, but could not reach a compromise on any other solution.   In December 2013, a temporary truce was negotiated by the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), where sequestration limits were lifted, but only for FY2014 and FY2015.  Consequently, budget fights were not as intense for FY2015 and NASA, for example, would get a significant boost if it gets what is allocated in its House-passed and Senate Appropriations Committee-approved appropriations bill.

That could be a short-term win, though. Unless Congress changes the law, sequestration is back for FY2016 and beyond. Republicans do not like sequestration any more than Democrats, and now that they will control both chambers, they could try to repeal sequestration and replace it with cuts to mandatory spending.  They can only go so far, though, without alienating their own voters or prompting a presidential veto.  Discretionary programs like NASA and NOAA could once again be in the budget bulls eye and while DOD as a whole may fare better, it is far from clear if that would extend to its space programs.

A lot of what happens in the 114th Congress may depend on whether "establishment" Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), can work with their Tea Party colleagues or if there will be intra-party fights.  Also, in the Senate, the Democrats could adopt the tactics McConnell has used so effectively as Minority Leader in preventing action on most legislation.   The Senate will have 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, essentially a 53 - 46 split (one race, Louisiana, is still undetermined). That is basically the inverse of the situation today.  Just as Senate Republicans stymied action under Democratic control, so could Democrats do the same now that they will be in the minority.

Philae's Ulamec: Maybe We Didn't Land Just Once, But Twice

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 03:44 PM)

Emphasizing that it is only speculation for now, the program manager for ESA's Philae lander said today that the spacecraft may have bounced and landed not once, but twice on Comet 67P.  Stephan Ulamec and his team are still analyzing the data to determine exactly what happened, but the key message is that Philae did succeed in landing on the comet and returned scientific data and much more is expected.

Philae separated from its Rosetta mother spacecraft early this morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko just after 10:30 am EST.  Rosetta and Philae arrived in Comet 67P's vicinity in August after a 10-year journey and scientists have been studying the comet's surface in detail to determine the best landing spot to be used today. 

ESA has released many images of the comet taken by Rosetta as it orbits the comet, but scientists are anxious to see the view from the comet's surface taken with Philae's instruments. Today, ESA did not release any photographs of the comet taken by Philae after it landed, but did provide a photo from Philae when it was just 3 kilometers above the surface.   From that photograph, they determined that Philae was right on target to land in the center of the pre-determined landing ellipse. 

Image of Comet 67P from ROLIS camera on Philae lander approximately 3 kilometers above the surface. November 12, 2014. 
Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

ESA also released an image of Rosetta taken by Philae after the two spacecraft separated, and a photo of Philae, taken by Rosetta, as it descended to the comet's surface.

Comets have almost no gravity, so Philae is equipped with harpoons to fire into the surface to hold it in place.  Minutes after it landed, Ulamec excitedly announced that Philae was on the comet and its harpoons had fired, but ESA soon tweeted a correction --  the harpoons had NOT fired.  It soon became clear that they were not entirely clear about Philae's status other than that it was, indeed, on the comet's surface.

At a later press briefing, Ulamec explained that not only is it "complicated" to land on a comet, but to understand what happened after landing. He and his team knew Philae had landed and received expected housekeeping and science data from many of the 10 instruments on the probe.  However, there were fluctuations in the radio link -- it would cut out, but come back on immediately -- and the solar generator.  They still do not know exactly what happened, but one possibility is that the lander bounced after its initial landing and then landed a second time. 

"Maybe today we didn't just land once, we even landed twice," Ulamec said excitedly, while emphasizing that it only speculation at this point to explain what they observed.

ESA has temporarily lost contact with Philae entirely now, but that was expected.  Philae communicates with Earth via Rosetta, so the link is lost when Rosetta moves below the horizon.  Paolo Ferri, head of Mission Operations for ESA, said they lost the link earlier than planned, but he said he is not concerned because the topography of the comet is not well known and a hill, for example, simply could be in the way.   Ulamec and Ferri conveyed confidence that communications will be restored tomorrow after Rosetta makes an already planned maneuver.

ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain accentuated the positive -- Philae landed, at the right place, and it has a radio link and electrical power so it can perform its tasks.  Beyond that, he pleaded for everyone to give the scientists time to analyze their data.

The next media briefing is scheduled for 14:00 Central European Time (CET) tomorrow, November 13 (13:00 UTC, 8:00 am EST).

 

 

ESA Lands a Spacecraft on a Comet for the First Time - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 11:58 AM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) landed a spacecraft on a comet today, the first time such a feat has been achieved.  The Philae lander was separated from its Rosetta mothership early this morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and landed just after 10:30 am EST.   Scientists and people around the world waited anxiously for the 28 minutes 20 seconds it takes for a signal to travel the 510 million kilometers from the comet to Earth to learn that the landing was successful.  

Confirmation of the landing was expected at 11:02:20 am EST and shortly after that cheering broke out at the operations center in Europe.  That was followed by several minutes of serious-looking faces as they studied the data coming back, creating some worry.  The word "bounce" was heard.  But soon thereafter, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec from German's space agency DLR announced the good news that Philae was safe and sound on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  "Philae is talking to us, the harpoons have fired, we are sitting on the surface.  We are on the comet."

Comets have almost no gravity, so Philae was design to attach itself to the surface with harpoons and screws.   Although Ulamec initially said that harpoons had fired, ESA tweeted within an hour that, in fact, they did not. 

ESA Operations ‏@esaoperations 

More analysis of @Philae2014 telemetry indicates harpoons did not fire as 1st thought. Lander in gr8 shape. Team looking at refire options

 

The first images from Philae of the comet's surface are expected to reach Earth and be released by ESA in about two hours (around 1:00 pm EST).  

Already, ESA provided two intriguing images, however.   The first is a photograph of the Rosetta mothership taken by Philae 50 seconds after the two separated.   The second is a photograph of Philae taken by Rosetta as Philae descended to the comet's surface. 

 

The body and one solar panel of ESA's Rosetta spacecraft can be seen in the upper part of this photo, taken
by the Philae lander 50 seconds after the two spacecraft separated.  The bright light  is the Sun.  November 12, 2014.
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Image of ESA's Philae lander as it descends to land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken by the OSIRIS
camera on the Rosetta spacecraft.  Philae's three landing legs are clearly visible.  November 12, 2014
Credit:
ESA/Rosetta/MPS

ESA named the landing site on Comet 67P "Agilkia." 

ESA says Rosetta and Philae "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our solar system -- comets" and hence the names are connected to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. 

  • Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of Egyptian civilization.
  • Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river where an obelisk was found with the final clues to enable the decryption.
  • Philae was flooded when the Aswan dams were built in the 20th century and a complex of Ancient Egyptian buildings, including the Temple of Isis, were moved to another island, Agilkia,   ESA held a contest to name Philae's landing site on 67P and of 8,000 entries, more than 150 suggested Agilkia and that was the winner.

The comet is named after the two Kiev, Ukraine astronomers who discovered it in 1969, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, while conducting comet observations at the Alma-Ata Astrophysical Institute in Kazakhstan.

Rosetta is an ESA mission, but NASA provided three of its instruments.

Note:  This article was updated at 11:55 am EST November 12 after ESA announced that the harpoons had not, in fact, fired.

ESA's Philae "Go" for Landing Tomorrow on Comet 67P

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Nov-2014 (Updated: 11-Nov-2014 03:41 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) made the first "go" of four planned "go/no-go" decisions this afternoon commanding its Rosetta spacecraft to get ready to separate the Philae lander for its trip down to the surface of Comet 67P.  Landing on the comet is expected tomorrow morning (November 12) Eastern Standard Time (EST).  It takes 28 minutes 20 seconds for a signal to get from Rosetta to Earth during which time scientists and people around the world will be waiting with baited breath for confirmation that the landing was successful.   ESA expects the confirmation signal about 11:02 am EST plus or minus 40 minutes.

Rosetta, with Philae aboard, arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or 67P for short) in August after a 10 year journey.   It has been orbiting the comet over the past several months getting steadily closer to the surface to shorten the descent for Philae.   If successful, this will be the first time a spacecraft has landed on a comet nucleus.

Comet 67P and Rosetta/Philae are currently about 510 million kilometers from Earth, though the spacecraft took a circuitous route to get there, travelling more than 6.5 billion kilometers to date.

ESA is providing extensive live coverage of the go/no-go decisions and other events leading up to the landing.  A list of the critical moments is posted on its website. 

NASA will cover the landing on NASA TV tomorrow from 9:00-11:30 am EST.  NASA contributed three of the instruments on Rosetta -- ALICE, MIRO and IES -- and part of the electronics for a fourth, ROSINA.

Comet 67P is approximately 4 kilometers in diameter, though it has an irregular shape -- often described as looking like a duck, though that takes some imagination.   ESA narrowed down potential landing sites to one, which it named Agilkia.  

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 1,000 kilometers,
August 1, 2014. Photo credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team. 
ESA notes that the dark spot is an image artifact.

Philae has 10 instruments that will analyze the composition and structure of the comet's surface and subsurface.  A drill will allow samples to be obtained down to 23 centimeters below the surface.  The samples will be analyzed by a spectrometer to determine the chemical composition.   Other instruments will measure near-surface strength, density, texture, porosity, ice phases and thermal properties.  Gravity on the comet is almost non-existent so Philae will "touch down at no more than a walking pace" and use a harpoon to anchor itself to the comet, according to an ESA fact sheet.

ESA says Rosetta and Philae "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our solar system -- comets" and hence the names are connected to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. 

  • Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of Egyptian civilization.
  • Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river where an obelisk was found with the final clues to enable the decryption.
  • Philae was flooded when the Aswan dams were built in the 20th century and a complex of Ancient Egyptian buildings, including the Temple of Isis, were moved to another island, Agilkia,   ESA held a contest to name Philae's landing site on 67P and of 8,000 entries, more than 150 suggested Agilkia and that was the winner.

The comet is named after the two Kiev, Ukraine astronomers who discovered it in 1969, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, while conducting comet observations at the Alma-Ata Astrophysical Institute in Kazakhstan.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 9-15, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2014 (Updated: 09-Nov-2014 07:39 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of November 9-15, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns to work on Wednesday, November 12.

During the Week

From a policy perspective, certainly the biggest event this week is the return of Congress after a long break leading up to last week's mid-term elections.  As everyone knows, Republicans won control of the Senate and House Republicans added many seats to their side of the aisle.   Some races remain undetermined so there is not yet a final count of how many R's and D's there will be in the 114th Congress that convenes in January, but in the Senate there will be at least 52 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents (both currently caucus with Democrats and one has said he will continue to do so in the next Congress).  The Senate race in Alaska has not been called yet, and there will be a run-off for the Louisiana Senate seat next month.  In the House, there will be at least 244 Republicans and 184 Democrats.  The other races have not been called yet.  As many observers are pointing out, it has been 80 years since the Democrats have had so few seats in the House.  We'll have more on how the changes in Congress could impact space programs in an article later this week.

That's next year, though.  On Wednesday, it is the 113th Congress that reconvenes and it still has work to do.   The one must-pass piece of legislation is the FY2015 appropriations.  The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 11, so Congress has until then to pass another CR or the 12 regular appropriations bills probably packaged together into a single omnibus bill or series of "mini-buses."  It is possible that some Republicans may try to delay passage of final appropriations bills until next year when they are in control of both chambers and therefore will agree only to a short-term CR to carry the government over into the New Year, but the betting at the moment seems to be that the matter will be settled by the end of this year.  That could change, of course. 

There also are big events in space activities coming up.  Tonight (Sunday) three International Space Station (ISS) crew members return to Earth in their Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft:  NASA's Reid Wiseman, Europe's Alexander Gerst and Russia's Max Suraev.  NASA TV will cover undocking (7:30 pm EST) and landing in Kazakhstan (10:58 pm EST).  

Then on Wednesday, November 12, ESA's Philae lander will land on Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko, the first spacecraft to achieve such a feat.  ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, with Philae aboard, arrived at the comet in August after a 10 year journey.  Lots of media events in Europe are scheduled for the days before, of, and after the landing.  Confirmation that Philae successfully landed is expected about 11:00 am EST on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover that part of the mission from 9:00 - 11:30 am EST.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Sunday, November 9

Tuesday, November 11

Wednesday, November 12

Friday, November 14

Saturday, November 15

 

Orion's December Test Flight "Truly a Commercial Endeavor"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Nov-2014 (Updated: 07-Nov-2014 07:57 AM)

A test flight of the Orion spacecraft under development to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit is on track for launch on December 4.  The Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) is “truly a commercial endeavor” a NASA official pointed out at a briefing today (November 6) that also included representatives of Lockheed Martin and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The test version of the spacecraft will make two orbits of the Earth primarily to test heat shield technologies, though a number of other in-flight and recovery operations will be tested as well.

NASA’s Orion program manager, Mark Geyer, said the test will cost $370 million for the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket and hardware (such as the Service Module) that will not be used again.  The cost does not include the Orion capsule since it will be reused.  When asked what the cost would be if the capsule was included, Geyer replied that NASA is still formulating the total cost of the Orion program and even when it is released (after the Key Decision Point-C or KDP-C review), the cost of this one capsule will not separately identified.  This capsule is part of the design, development, test and engineering (DDT&E) effort to get Orion to the first crewed flight, Geyer explained, and a “fraction of the total” cost to get to that point.

Launch is scheduled for 7:05 am ET on December 4 from Launch Complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL (adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center).   It will land about 4.5 hours later in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.  The launch window is 2 hours and 40 minutes, driven by the need for good lighting conditions during liftoff to obtain imagery of a number of separation events during ascent as well as at the end of the mission for recovery operations in the Pacific.  December 5 and 6 are backup days.

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill stressed that EFT-1 is “truly a commercial endeavor.”  NASA contracted with Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin for the resulting data only.  Lockheed Martin is in charge of the mission, which is licensed by the FAA.  ULA has the launch license, and Lockheed Martin has the reentry license.

When asked who has the go/no-go responsibilities, since it is a commercial, not NASA, mission, NASA’s Geyer laid out the structure.   For the launch, ULA makes the go/no-go decision.  Once Orion is in orbit, NASA’s Orion flight director Mike Sarafin is in charge. There are flight rules and procedures and if something goes outside those rules, the issue would be taken to the Mission Management Team (MMT).  The MMT is chaired by Lockheed Martin Mission Director Brian Austin, but NASA is a member of the MMT and discussions would be held, a consensus reached, and the decision forwarded to Sarafin for implementation.

In its two orbits of the Earth, the Orion test capsule will reach an apogee of 3,600 miles, 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS), and reenter Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour.  No humans have ventured beyond the ISS orbit since the final Apollo mission to the Moon in 1972.   When asked how Orion compares with Apollo in terms of heat shield requirements, Geyer said the biggest difference is that Orion is much larger than Apollo – built for four people instead of three.  The Orion heat shield is 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter compared to 3.7 meters (12.1 feet) for Apollo, he explained, adding that Orion’s heat shield also is made of different materials since some of the Apollo materials were carcinogenic.

This Orion test capsule is not outfitted to carry people.  The next Orion flight (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1), on the first Space Launch System (SLS) test in 2017, also will not carry a crew.  The first crewed Orion is scheduled for 2021 on EM-2.  Hill said NASA hopes to fly one Orion per year after EM-2 if budgets permit with the goal of sequentially buying down risk to enable human trips to Mars.  One of those flights will be the Asteroid Redirect Mission, though he was not specific about which one.   Orion can support four people for 21 days.  For longer flights, a habitation module will be needed and a funding wedge needs to be created to develop that hardware, Hill said.

A major theme echoed by the speakers on today’s panel was that spaceflight is “hard” as last week’s Antares and SpaceShipTwo accidents demonstrated.   Hill stressed, however, that there is no commonality between any of the systems involved in those accidents and the EFT-1 mission.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article said that Orion's apogee would be 3,600 kilometers, but it is 3,600 miles.

Orbital To Accelerate Antares Upgrade, Use Other Rockets to Meet NASA Commitments - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Nov-2014 (Updated: 05-Nov-2014 10:03 AM)

Update:  This article is updated throughout following Orbital's investors teleconference this morning.

Orbital Sciences Corporation announced this morning (November 5) its plan for meeting its contractual commitments to NASA for delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in the wake of the Antares failure last week.  It will accelerate upgrading the Antares rocket to use a different engine and launch "one or two" cargo missions using other unspecified launch vehicles.  Using the new rockets, the Cygnus cargo spacecraft will be able to carry more each time and Orbital can meet its commitment with four rather than five more launches.

Orbital made the announcement in a press release and an investors teleconference with its Chairman, President and CEO David Thompson.  He said that there will be no cost increase to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, modest or no near-term delays to the delivery of ISS cargo, and no expected material financial impacts to Orbital in 2015, although the magnitude and timing of quarterly changes depends on the specifics of the plan it chooses, or in 2016 and beyond.

Thompson said initial indications are that a turbopump-related failure in one of the two AJ26 main engines is the likely cause of the October 28 Antares failure that destroyed a Cygnus loaded with 5,050 pounds of supplies for the ISS.  Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract from NASA to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS through 2016.  Eight operational cargo launches were planned to meet that commitment.  The October 28 mission was the third in the series, Orb-3, so five more were expected.  The launches are from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA.

Suspicion immediately centered on the AJ26 main engines not only because the failure happened so soon (about 15 seconds) after the rocket left the launch pad, but because they are refurbished Russian engines built four decades ago.  Although they had successfully completed intensive testing prior to being certified for launch, in an investors call last week Thompson referred to ongoing technical and supply problems.  Today he said use of the AJ26 "likely" would be discontinued "unless and until" they can be shown to be reliable.

Orbital had been planning to switch to a different engine, but has not announced what the replacement will be.  Thompson again declined to identify the engine this morning.  When asked what criteria he was looking for in a new engine compared to the AJ26, he said reliability, followed by a balance of increased performance and reasonable cost.  The upgraded Antares was to be introduced in 2017, but that timeline will be accelerated to 2016.

To fulfill the rest of Orbital's commitment to launch a total of 20 tons to the ISS by the end of 2016, Thompson said the company will conduct "one or two" Cygnus launches using launch vehicles from other providers in 2015 and perhaps early 2016, and then the upgraded Antares for the remaining launches in 2016.  The amount of mass Cygnus can launch was, in part, dictated by the capability of the Antares rocket.  Using the third-party rockets, the upgraded Antares and an "enhanced Cygnus" that already was planned to replace the original version, future Cygnus spacecraft will be able to carry more mass each time, about 3,300 kilograms instead of 2,600-2,700 kilograms, he said.  Thus the cargo requirements can be met with just four instead of five more launches.

He did not name what other launch vehicles the company is considering while waiting for the upgraded Antares to debut.  He said only that they were talking to two U.S. and one European launch service providers.   When asked specifically if he was considering launching Cygnus in the lower position on a European Ariane rocket, which can carry two payloads at a time, Thompson said no because the other payload most likely would be destined for a different orbit.  In the dual-payload configuration, Ariane typically takes communications satellites to geostationary orbit above the equator.  Cygnus would be headed to the ISS at 51.6 degrees inclination.

Thompson indicated that the cost savings of launching only four times instead of five would partially offset losses that the company might incur because of the failure that are not covered by insurance.  Thompson said "in key respects this plan follows the same upgrade path we were previously pursuing" and now "we will be able to make faster progress due to our ability to redirect both manpower and hardware from the original Antares configuration" to this one.

The company said today that repairs to the launch pad at Wallops will be undertaken quickly and launch operations with the upgraded Antares will resume in 2016.

A recording of the investors teleconference is posted on Orbital's website.

 

 

Republicans Seize Control of Senate, Add to House Majority

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Nov-2014 (Updated: 05-Nov-2014 06:51 AM)

The results of some congressional races are still not final, but as of 6:00 am ET November 5, it is clear that Republicans will control the Senate in the 114th Congress and added to their majority in the House.

With Senate races in three states (Alaska, Louisiana, and Virginia) still not over, Republicans have at least 52 seats in the Senate, one more than needed to control the chamber.  Democrats have 43 and there are 2 Independents.  In the House, Republicans will have at least 242 seats, a gain of 13, and there will be at least 174 Democrats.  Results from the remaining districts are pending.

For space policy and programs, the biggest impact likely will be in funding.  Republicans have been pressing for cutbacks in government spending to reduce the deficit, while Democrats have argued for a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.   Republicans oppose tax increases. 

Congress returns to work next Tuesday (November 12).  Little legislation is likely to be passed in the lame duck session knowing that party control of the Senate will change in January.  

The one must-pass piece of legislation is FY2015 appropriations.  FY2015 began on October 1 and the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution that expires on December 11. 

Whether a bill will pass to cover the rest of FY2015 (through September 30, 2015) or only for a few weeks or months to provide funding through the beginning of the next Congress when Republicans will have more power to shape its contents is an open question.  NASA was poised to receive a significant increase over the President's request for FY2015 in bills that passed the House and cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on a bipartisan basis, so it is possible that the increase will survive, but if reducing the deficit becomes the driving force, it could be endangered.   NOAA's satellite programs similarly fared reasonably well in FY2015 budget action so far.  A major issue in the DOD space policy and budget realm is whether to add money to begin development of a U.S. rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180, used for the Atlas V, which is a very complex issue and it is difficult to assess how much that will be affected by the Republican gains.

 

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