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Radzanowski Confirmed as NASA CFO

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2014 (Updated: 11-Sep-2014 05:48 PM)

David P. Radzanowski was confirmed by the Senate as NASA's Chief Financial Office (CFO) today (September 11).  He succeeds Elizabeth "Beth" Robinson.

The confirmation was 10 months in coming, not bad in the current political climate.  President Obama originally submitted the nomination on November 21, 2013.  Nominations expire at the end of each year and the President resubmitted it in January.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Commerce Committee's Science and Space Subcommittee, made a brief statement on the floor this afternoon thanking the Senate for its approval. He used the occasion to highlight progress on the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft and work aboard the International Space Station, as well as mentioning "all kinds of science" underway at the agency.

Radzanowski, often called "Radz," has been serving as Chief of Staff to NASA Administrator Bolden.  Prior to that, he was Deputy Associate Administrator for Program Integration for the Space Operations Mission Directorate.

Prior to joining NASA in 2006, Radzanowski was Branch Chief for Science and Space at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  Before that, he was a space policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the non-partisan research and analysis arm of the U.S. Congress.  He holds a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.S. from Carnegie Mellon University.

Gabrynowicz Warns ASTEROIDS Act Needs More Work

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2014 (Updated: 11-Sep-2014 07:11 AM)

Space law expert Joanne Gabrynowicz warned a House subcommittee yesterday (September 10) that a proposed bill to grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids could face legal and political challenges if passed in its current form.

Gabrynowicz, a Director of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and Professor Emerita of the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, testified to the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The title of the hearing suggested that the main topic would be issues posed by the ASTEROIDS Act (H.R. 5063) introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).  The other four witnesses were space scientists, however, and the hearing was more about the status of NASA’s planetary science program than legal issues of property rights in space.

ASTEROIDS Act

Key points stressed by Gabrynowicz were that --

  • the potential legal impact of the ASTEROIDS Act on treaties is likely to be modest, but the potential political impact is likely to be sizeable;
  • there is no legal clarity on some of the issues addressed in the bill;
  • the bill uses terms of art – e.g. “harmful interference” and “first in time” -- in a novel context and require further elaboration;
  • resource extraction in space is a “volatile and contentious issue at the international level” -- it will take years to reach agreement and political groundwork is needed;
  • in the United States, the issues cut across a number of agencies and a coordinated interagency mechanism is needed to facilitate policy development; and
  • the bill does not appear to be written to advance a new industry – asteroid mining – as a whole, but instead is aimed at the interests of particular companies.

Posey countered that if the United States does not act quickly, other countries, such as Russia and China, will take the lead and may not give the issues “thoughtful consideration.”

In response to questions from Rep. Kilmer, two of the planetary scientists on the witness panel – Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University and President of The Planetary Society and Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of the Planetary Science Institute – conveyed their views that asteroid mining is not likely for many years (Bell said decades) and its cost-effectiveness still must be determined.

Posey took issue with the time scale, saying at least one company is ready to do it now.  He cited a letter from Planetary Resources, Inc. that was entered into the record of the hearing, but is not yet posted on the committee’s website or the company’s.

Bell and Sykes said that water is the most likely substance to be mined since it is needed to support human space exploration.  The two disagreed on the ease of reaching asteroids of interest in the mining context, with Sykes enthusiastically explaining the abundance of asteroids and their closeness to Earth, but Bell cautioning that those with water might be further away, perhaps in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  Sykes stressed the need for a survey to locate and characterize more asteroids.  (Congress has played a critical role in directing NASA to conduct surveys to find asteroids and comets – collectively called Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) – that could threaten Earth.  NASA is currently under congressional direction to detect, track, catalogue and characterize 90 percent of NEOs equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter by 2020.  NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group recently issued a finding that the agency has no plan to achieve that goal and a space-based NEO survey telescope is needed.)

NASA’s Planetary Science Program

Much of the hearing focused on the state of NASA’s planetary science program.  The discussion covered familiar ground, with NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green and other witnesses reviewing NASA’s ongoing and planned missions followed by complaints from non-NASA witnesses and subcommittee members about recent cutbacks in the planetary science budget and some Republican subcommittee members adding their objections over how much NASA spends on earth science instead.

Philip Christensen, Regents Professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and co-chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, stressed three themes: 

  • excellent opportunities for continuing robotic solar system exploration exist and are laid out in the NRC’s most recent Decadal Survey for planetary science;
  • significant reductions in funding for planetary science compared to the previous decade have significantly slowed the pace of new missions; and
  • a lack of year-to-year stability makes long range planning difficult.  

Bell pointed out that while the planetary science program seems healthy today, that is only because of investments made in the last decade and the pace will not be maintained at today’s funding level.

Since FY2013, NASA has been requesting about $1.3 billion per year for planetary science compared to $1.5 billion in the past.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represents the district that includes Marshall Space Flight Center where the Space Launch System (SLS) is being built, asked Green about the potential of using SLS for robotic planetary science missions.  SLS’s primary purpose is for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, but SLS advocates are seeking other uses for the Saturn V-class rocket.   Congress has been adding money to NASA’s budget to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and using SLS for that mission is an oft discussed possibility.  Green replied that SLS could provide a “great capability” for missions to the outer planets and “could fit well” with the Europa mission.  He explained that SLS could reduce trip times to the outer planets by half.

Rohrabacher, a critic of SLS, countered that he did not find that a compelling justification for SLS considering its cost of about $1 billion per year while planetary science funding is being cut.

The availability of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) needed to power spacecraft that cannot rely on solar power because they travel too far from the Sun or land on planetary bodies with day/night cycles was another topic discussed.  Green assured the subcommittee that NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) are working well together on reestablishing Pu-238 production and there is a sufficient supply for the next mission that will require it – the Mars 2020 mission.  It is not so much an issue of Pu-238 itself, he said, but the ability to produce the pellets that are needed.

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)

Subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) stressed at the outset of the hearing that planetary science efforts to find and characterize asteroids should not be confused with the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  He does not support the latter.

The White House announced the ARM program last year.  The concept is to send a robotic probe to an asteroid and use it to change the asteroid’s orbit, redirect it into lunar orbit where it would be visited by astronauts who would return a sample to Earth.  ARM has gained little support in Congress or the space community.  Asteroids are “small bodies” in planetary science parlance, and NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) recently issued a finding that ARM’s “benefits for advancing the knowledge of asteroids and furthering planetary defense strategies are limited and not compelling.”

Sykes called ARM a “poorly conceived and designed” mission that does not advance human exploration, science, planetary defense, or In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) of asteroids.  He said NASA’s $1.25 billion cost estimate for ARM “strains credulity” considering that the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission, which will be launched in 2016 to return a small sample of an asteroid to Earth, cost $1.05 billion itself.   Rohrabacher thanked Sykes for his frank assessment.

(ARM is a much more complicated mission that involves not only sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, but developing the technologies to move the asteroid into a different orbit and then sending astronauts to obtain a sample.  NASA does use $1.25 billion as its current, informal cost estimate for ARM, but it does not include costs for activities NASA was pursuing anyway, such as the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft needed for the astronaut portion of the mission, or launch costs for the robotic portion of the mission.   A formal cost estimate will not be made until the program is further along.)

Vote on CR Delayed Due To Syria Issues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Sep-2014 (Updated: 10-Sep-2014 05:26 PM)

The House leadership has decided to postpone a vote on the FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) while deciding how to handle a White House request to add authorization for the President to provide arms to Syrian rebels. 

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) introduced the CR yesterday and a vote was planned for tomorrow.   However, President Obama now wants Congress to include language authorizing his plan to arm Syrian rebels as part of a strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The President will speak to the nation tonight at 9:00 pm about that strategy.

Officially, appropriations bills are only supposed to provide funding, not authorizations.  Some members of the House reportedly are objecting to including the Syria authority on that basis, but others point out the CR already contains two authorization measures (reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and an Internet tax matter) so adding another should not be a problem.   It is theoretically possible to pass the Syria authorization as a separate bill, but with Congress anxious to complete legislative business in the next two weeks, and the CR the only "must pass" bill on its docket, the White House and its congressional supporters want everything included in one bill to ensure swift action.

House Republican leaders reportedly will wait until after tonight's speech to decide how to proceed.  If the House does not include the language in its version of the CR, the Senate could add it and send the bill back to the House, but with every exchange, the possibility grows of other issues arising and setting back agreement.  As noted yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz wants to add language to block executive action on immigration, so the fate of the CR remains up in the air.  

Congress must pass an appropriations bill to fund all or part of FY2015 by midnight on September 30 or there will be another government shutdown like last year.  As introduced, the CR would fund the government at its current level through December 11, 2014.

Bill Introduced in House to Fund Government Past Mid-Term Elections

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2014 (Updated: 09-Sep-2014 10:47 PM)

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a stop-gap Continuing Resolution (CR) today (September 9) to fund the government through December 11, 2014.  The bill could be voted on in the House as early as Thursday.

The CR (H. J. Res. 124) generally continues funding for the government at current levels and does not include "highly controversial provisions" according to the committee's press release.  Rogers called it a "temporary, imperfect measure" and said what is really needed is passage of the 12 regular appropriations bills.  The House has passed seven of them, but none has passed the Senate. 

The bill keeps total government spending at its current level of $1.012 trillion, but some changes are made within that total to fund new activities.  Most are related to national security, veterans affairs, customs and immigration, and responding to the Ebola crisis.  The amounts appropriated in the FY2014 appropriations bills (including for NASA, NOAA and DOD) are reduced by 0.0554 percent presumably to pay for those new activities. 

Two space-related provisions would allow funding flexibility for weather satellite programs and extension of the authorization for the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank through June 30, 2015.  Despite the press release's assertion that the CR does not contain highly controversial provisions, reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank is a topic of strong debate.  The bank helps finance U.S. exports of manufactured goods and services.   From a space policy standpoint, organizations like the Aerospace Industries Association argue that Ex-Im bank financing is critical to support exports of satellites, for example, and reauthorization is needed.  Opponents argue that it distorts the free market by the government picking winners and losers.  The bank's current authorization expires on September 30.

The House and Senate are both hoping to complete must-pass legislative business by the end of next week or shortly thereafter so members can return to the campaign trail.  That does not necessarily mean smooth sailing for the CR.  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), for one, has said that he wants to include language to block President Obama from taking action on immigration using executive action.  Cruz is widely criticized or praised, depending on one's point of view, for last year's 16-day government shutdown. Whether he would attempt that again in an election year is an open question.  He has been quoted in recent days as saying he does not want another shutdown, but that was before his comments today that "we should use any and all means necessary to prevent the president from illegally granting amnesty."

What's Happening in Space Policy September 8-12, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Sep-2014 (Updated: 07-Sep-2014 12:17 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events on tap for the week of September 8-12, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns to work on Monday.

During the Week

Congress returns from its summer break this week.   Between now and the end of the fiscal year (FY) on September 30, the House is scheduled to be in session for eight days and the Senate for ten.   That is certainly enough time for them to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating when FY2015 begins on October 1 if agreement can be reached.   Republican leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill insist that they do not want another government shutdown like last year, so that bodes well, but one never knows until a bill is passed and signed into law.   House Speaker Boehner has said he plans to pass a bill to fund the government through early December -- past the November election.  "Possible" consideration of a CR is on the House schedule this week.

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SST) Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday on the ASTEROIDS Act introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).  The bill would grant property rights to materials mined from asteroids by U.S. companies (though not property rights to the asteroid itself).   Four scientists and one expert on space law will testify.  The issue of property rights in space has been debated vigorously for decades on a theoretical basis, with opinions strongly held on what is or is not allowed under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States and 101 other countries are party.  The legislation and this hearing provide an opportunity to address the issue from a more focused perspective.

The first meeting of the National Research Council's new Space Technology Industry, Government, University Roundtable (STIGUR) is on Thursday.  Note that it is at the NAS building on Constitution Avenue, not the Keck Center on 5th Street.   Chaired by Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Ray Johnson, STIGUR is a forum for dialogue about NASA's space technology efforts.

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

Monday, September 8

Monday-Friday, September 8-12

  • Euroconsult World Satellite Business Week, Westin Hotel, Paris, FR
    • Summit on Satellite Financing, September 8-10
    • Symposium on Market Forecasts, September 11 
    • Summit on Earth Observation Business, September 11-12

Tuesday, September 9

Tuesday-Friday, September 9-12

Wednesday, September 10

Thursday, September 11

Friday, September 12

 

WIA Honors Carolyn Huntoon, Five Other "Exceptional Women"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2014 (Updated: 04-Sep-2014 06:46 PM)

Women in Aerospace (WIA) announced the winners of its six annual awards that honor achievements by women in the aerospace field today (September 4).  Among the winners is Carolyn Huntoon, a trailblazer for women at NASA and the first woman to serve as Director of the Johnson Space Center (1994-1996).

Huntoon is being awarded WIA's Lifetime Achievement Award for her "sustained and exemplary leadership at NASA, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Energy, her exceptional scientific contributions towards understanding the effects of spaceflight on the human body, and her dedication and mentorship of astronauts and aerospace professionals."  Huntoon has a Ph.D. in physiology from Baylor College of Medicine and was deeply involved in studying how humans react to weightlessness from the earliest days of human spaceflight, including cooperation with her Soviet space medicine counterparts beginning in the early 1970s.  She is quoted frequently in Lynn Sherr's biography of Sally Ride as an influential voice in the selection of the first group of astronauts that included women (Ride and five others) and mentor to them afterwards.

The other five WIA award winners are:

  • Lynn Cominsky, Sonoma St. University, Rohnert Park, CA:  Aerospace Awareness Award
  • Allison Barto, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp,. Boulder, CO:  Outstanding Achievement Award
  • Alexandra Kindrat, Lester B. Pearson School Board, St. Thomas High School, Montreal, Canada:  Aerospace Educator Award
  • Samantha Pappas, Naval Air Systems Command 5.1, Patuxent River, MD:  Initiative, Inspiration, Impact Award
  • Leanne Caret, Boeing Defense, Space and Security, St. Louis, MO:  Leadership Award

Also, the WIA Foundation awarded three scholarships to --

  • Emily Zimovan, a junior in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Purdue University
  • Jessica Felde, a junior in aerospace and mechanical engineering at West Virginia University, and
  • Lauren Trollinger, a junior in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland

WIA's annual awards dinner is on October 29, 2014 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Arlington, VA.   Contact WIA for more information.

 

 

House Subcommittee to Hold Hearing on ASTEROIDS Act on September 10

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Sep-2014 (Updated: 08-Sep-2014 11:17 PM)

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing next week on the ASTEROIDS Act, which was introduced in July by Rep. Bill Posey (R- FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA).

The goal of the legislation is to establish and protect property rights for commercial exploration and exploitation of asteroids.   Two U.S. companies promoting such activities are Planetary Resources, headquartered in Kilmer's Redmond, WA district, and Deep Space Industries of Houston, TX.   Posey's district includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Five witnesses have been announced for the hearing, four of whom are scientists and one is a space lawyer.  The scientists are:

  • Jim Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Science Division;
  • Phil Christensen, an Arizona State University (ASU) professor who co-chairs the National Research Council's (NRC's) Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS) and was a member of the NRC's Decadal Survey for planetary science;
  • Jim Bell, another ASU Professor who is President of the grass-roots space advocacy group The Planetary Society; and
  • Mark Sykes, CEO and Director of the Tucson, AZ-based non-profit solar system exploration research and advocacy group Planetary Science Institute. 

The fifth witness is Joanne Gabrynowicz, an internationally recognized space lawyer who for many years before her retirement headed the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi and was editor of the Journal of Space Law.  She is currently a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Protection Subcommittee that advises the agency on matters concerning the prevention of forward or back contamination of solar system bodies.

The concept of mining asteroids involves many scientific, technical and economic considerations, but property rights is a particularly thorny issue.  Under the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, there is no national sovereignty in space so no country can "own" an asteroid.  Pursuant to the treaty, governments are responsible for the actions of their non-governmental entities, such as a company, sparking debate over whether a company can own an asteroid or any part of it.  Without ownership rights to minerals mined from asteroids, it is unlikely that companies would pursue asteroid mining even if such an activity could prove to be otherwise feasible.  

The ASTEROIDS Act would apply only to U.S. companies and seeks to ensure that materials mined from an asteroid by a U.S. company are the property of that company.  It would not confer ownership of the asteroid itself.

The hearing is at 10:00 am ET on September 10, 2014 in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building.

Update:  The words "research and" were added to the description of the Planetary Science Institute to better convey its mission.

NASA Tentatively Approves Extended Operations for Seven Planetary Missions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Sep-2014 (Updated: 03-Sep-2014 03:21 PM)

NASA's Planetary Science Division (PSD) has largely adopted the recommendations of its Senior Review panel to continue operations of seven existing planetary science spacecraft, but the approval is tentative until budgets are better understood.   One surprise was the panel's sharp criticism of the proposal made by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team, whose Curiosity rover is the newest and probably best known of the seven missions.  The panel said it was left with the impression the MSL team believes it is "too big to fail" and submitted a proposal that "lacked scientific focus and detail."

NASA's Science Mission Directorate, which includes PSD, routinely conducts Senior Reviews of its ongoing missions to determine if continued operations are warranted or if the money could be better spent on new projects.  Each project team typically submits a proposal for the next two years of operations, explaining what research would be conducted, how much it would cost, and the anticipated scientific return.  Seven missions were up for review this year:

  • Cassini -- a U.S. spacercaft orbiting Saturn since 2004
  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) -- a U.S. spacecraft orbiting the Moon since 2009
  • Mars Exploration Rover (MER) -- the U.S. Opportunity rover that has been traversing the Martian surface since 2004 (its sister, Spirit, is no longer functioning)
  • Mars Express (MEX) -- a European spacecraft that includes U.S. instruments, orbiting Mars since 2003
  • Mars Odyssey -- a U.S. spacecraft orbiting Mars since 2001
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) - a U.S. spacecraft orbiting Mars since 2006
  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) -- better known as Curiosity, the name of the U.S. rover that landed in 2012

Cassini is an exception in this round of deliberations.  That spacecraft will reach the end of its life in 2017, three years from now, so its proposal was for all three years rather than two.  (In 2017, when Cassini's fuel is just about depleted, NASA will command Cassini to enter Saturn's atmosphere where it will be destroyed rather than posing an environmental hazard to Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus, which are possible candidates for life.)

The Senior Review panel found that extended operations of all seven missions are a good value for NASA and American taxpayers because they "are essentially new missions without the development and launch costs."  It rated Cassini the highest of the seven.   It recommended continued operations of the other six, too, but with modifications to the proposals made for LRO, MEX and MSL/Curiosity.

For LRO, the panel concluded that three instruments were at the end of their useful scientific life, but PSD agreed to terminate only one of them (Mini-RF) because the other two are still useful to other parts of NASA.   For MEX, the panel recommended and PSD agreed to terminate almost all activities of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) image calibration and validation team and to add funding for joint ionospheric studies between MEX and NASA's new MAVEN mission that will reach Mars next month.

The panel was critical of some of the other proposals, but none more so than the one for extended operations of MSL/Curiosity.  Noting that the Project Scientist was available only via phone for the panel's review and not available at all to answer follow-up questions, "This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice."  Overall it found the MSL proposal "lacked scientific focus and detail" and was particularly unimpressed with the proposal for the number of planned drilling operations:  "only eight (8) samples will be taken in two years ... This means that during the prime and [Extended Mission 1] missions a total of 13 analyses will be made by a highly capable rover.  The panel viewed this as a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission."

Consequently, the panel recommended that the rover travel a shorter distance than the 8 kilometers proposed and focus on studies at three rather than four sites so the three could be better characterized.  Overall, it "strongly" urged NASA Headquarters to "get the Curiosity team focused on maximizing high-quality science that justifies the capabilities of and capital investment in Curiosity."

In a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Science Subcommittee (NAC-PSS) this morning, PSD Program Executive Bill Knopf said that PSD approved a two-year extension of the MSL/Curiosity mission, but asked that the project team "develop a new task plan."

Knopf stressed that PSD's approval for all the extended missions is "tentative" while NASA awaits final determination of its FY2015 budget and formulation of its FY2016 budget request.  In a later briefing today to a joint meeting of NAC-PSS and the National Research Council's Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science (CAPS), PSD Director Jim Green went further, emphasizing that the Senior Review's recommendations are "only one element" in the decision process. Programmatic and budgetary considerations, as well as congressional direction must all be taken into account, he said.

Send Your Ideas on Space Exploration for NASA's OSIRIS-REx Time Capsule

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Sep-2014 (Updated: 02-Sep-2014 09:38 PM)

NASA is asking the worldwide public to submit messages and images for possible inclusion in a time capsule that will launch on its robotic OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission in 2016. 

This is the agency's second outreach effort associated with the asteroid sample return mission, whose full name is Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer.  The spacecraft will rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu and return a sample of it to Earth.  The first outreach activity, announced in January, asked the public to submit names to be etched on a microchip aboard the spacecraft. This new effort invites anyone to submit short messages or images from which the agency will choose 50 of each to be included in the time capsule.

OSIRIS-REx will return a sample of asteroid Bennu to Earth in 2023.   The time capsule will return to Earth with the sample, opened, and the messages and images will then be posted online.   Topics should be about solar system exploration in 2014 and predictions for space exploration in 2023.

Details on how to submit a message or image is on a special website established for that purpose.

Roscosmos: Space Geckos Are Dead - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2014 (Updated: 01-Sep-2014 04:49 PM)

UPDATE, September 1, 2014, 4:45 pm EDT:   This story has been updated with additional information since its original publication at 11:57 am EDT.

Russia's Foton-M4 spacecraft returned to Earth today (September 1), earlier than originally planned.   It carried a number of experiments, including biological subjects among which were five geckos.  Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, announced today that all five geckos died.

The cause and time of death will be determined by experts, although a Roscosmos official told the Itar-Tass news agency later in the day that they died at least a week before landing and the bodies were partially mummified.  The official added that hypothermia was one possibility, but not the only one.  Geckos are reptiles, which are cold-blooded.

The spacecraft also carried fruit flies (drosophila), an oft-used subject for biological experiments in space because they reproduce quickly, and Roscosmos said they "successfully developed and bred."

Foton-M4 (or Photon-M4) was launched on July 19, 2014 and was intended to remain in orbit for two months.  It was placed into an incorrect orbit by its Soyuz-2-1a rocket, however.  Intended to go into a 575 kilometer circular orbit, it was left in an elliptical 258 by 571 kilometer orbit.  In addition, shortly  after reaching orbit, the spacecraft stopped receiving commands, although it was transmitting.  Two-way communications were later restored.

News of the malfunctions coupled with the nature of its passengers resulted in numerous headlines around the world about the fate of the geckos that were reportedly engaged in mating experiments, a fact that seemed to amuse many editors.  In total, 22 experiments were aboard to study the physics of weightlessness, manufacturing processes of semiconductor materials, biomedical products, and well as biological and biotechnological research.

Last week, Roscosmos announced without explanation that the spacecraft would return today (September 1) instead of completing its full two-month mission.  It landed in the Orenburg region at 13:18 Moscow time (5:10 am Eastern Daylight Time).  Roscosmos announced the fate of the geckos soon thereafter.

Events of Interest    

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