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UPDATE, 2:20 pm ET: Weather has improved to 55 percent favorable. NASA-Wallops has a Ustream video up now. NASA TV will begin coverage at 4:00 pm ET.
ORIGINAL STORY: The countdown to today's first test launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket is underway, but the weather forecast remains iffy.
The launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA, is scheduled for 5:00 pm ET today. The launch window is open through 8:00 pm. Low clouds are still forecast, however, so whether the launch must be delayed or not is an open question.
It is difficult to follow the action other than through social media. Orbital is tweeting occasionally @orbitalsciences and NASA is tweeting occasionally @NASASocial. Perhaps they will pick up the pace and be more informative as the day progresses.
Briefing charts about the launch are available on Orbital's website as well as a series of illustrations of where people on the East Coast from New York City to Richmond, VA should look to see it (weather permitting).
Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket is ready for its first test launch tomorrow, but the weather forecast is only 45 percent favorable.
Low clouds and possible showers could force a postponement. Additional launch opportunities are available April 18-21, but decisions on when to reschedule would be dependent on a number of factors. At a press conference today, Mike Pinkston, Orbital's Antares program manager, said he anticipated a "dynamic decision process" if they need to reschedule. He expects that they would "almost definitely" try again on April 18, but whether they would slip from the 18th to the 19th is less certain. Not only is the forecast for April 19 especially poor, but the launch crew needs sufficient time to rest.
Assuming a successful test launch, the next flight would be a demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in about three months. That would carry the Cygnus cargo spacecraft; the launch tomorrow will carry only a 3,800 kilogram mass simulator. Antares and Cygnus were developed through NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program where the agency provided some of the funding for Orbital to develop the system on a commercial basis.
NASA already signed a $1.9 billion contract with Orbital for eight operational launches. Frank Culbertson, Orbital's Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Programs Group, said they expect to launch the operational missions every 3-6 months after the test program is completed. Under the contract, NASA and Orbital will jointly agree on when the eight missions take place, but he expects they will be completed around 2016.
Culbertson stressed that this is a test launch. Designated the A-One mission, the objectives are to successfully achieve launch and ascent events and collect launch vehicle and payload data. The target orbit is 250 kilometers by 303 kilometers inclined at 51.64 degrees. The 3-hour launch window opens at 5:00 pm ET tomorrow.
Speaking to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable today, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that she will support President Obama's new asteroid retrieval initiative, but expressed concern about the request for the Orion spacecraft and planetary exploration.
Applauding the FY2014 request of $17.7 billion for NASA overall, which she said was a "$200 million increase over last year ...we're going to keep that," she went on to note the President's proposal to capture an asteroid and said "we support him on that." She quickly added, however, that she is concerned about the proposed cut to Orion and stressed the reality that, with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) as vice chairman of the full committee, it was not politically possible to cut that program. Throughout her talk she praised Shelby for working with her in a bipartisan manner to get the final FY2013 Continuing Resolution (CR) passed and their effective working relationship over many years.
She is pleased that the request for earth science is an increase of $80 million, but complained about what she characterized as a reduction for planetary exploration and said "we have to look at that." According to her calculations, "planetary science" was reduced $283 million in the FY2014 request and "I know that went into Mars robotics." The robotics Mars program is part of planetary exploration, so her meaning was not clear.
Semi-seriously, she said she always asks three questions about budget requests: "what do we need to do for the nation, what do we need to do for Maryland, and ... what did you say we were going to do for Maryland?"
Mikulski restated her opposition to the sequester, which remains in place through FY2021 based on the Budget Control Act of 2011. The final FY2013 CR that she sheparded included the sequester, however -- a 5 percent cut to NASA that cost the agency over $1 billion, though NASA seems to be ignoring it in discussions of its FY2014 request. NASA has not released figures showing what the agency actually got in FY2013, the current fiscal year, making Mikulski's comparisons of what the agency got last year versus its request for FY2014 all the more obscure. The upshot is that she is concerned about the amount of funding requested for planetary science and is warning NASA not to cut the Orion program.
Mikulski ascended to chairmanship of the full Senate Appropriations Committee in December following the death of Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI). In addition to chairing the full committee, she continues to chair the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds not only NASA, but NOAA. Today she stressed the need to find a replacement for Jane Lubchenco as head of NOAA. Lubchenco left in February. Mikulski also emphasized that the National Weather Service (part of NOAA) "must be the best in the world" and create a computer model that will make Europe's look "wimpy." It was the European weather model that correctly forecast Hurricane Sandy making a right turn into New Jersey and New York.
Orbital Sciences Corporation still hopes to conduct its first test launch of the new Antares rocket on Wednesday despite an anomaly during a wet dress rehearsal yesterday.
Orbital said in a press statement that yesterday's test was halted at about T-16 minutes. The company determined "a secondary pyro valve aboard one of the two first-stage engines" malfunctioned and it plans to replace the valve within 24 hours to keep the April 17 launch date.
Antares and its Cygnus spacecraft are competitors to SpaceX for cargo flights to the International Space Station through NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. This test launch will not carry a Cygnus, which has yet to fly in space. Instead it will carry a mass simulator. Unlike SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, Cygnus is not designed to return to Earth. Orbital is not competing in the effort to develop a system to transport people to and from space. Cygnus is a one-way cargo spacecraft only, like Europe's ATV, Japan's HTV, and Russia's Progress.
Antares will be launched from Wallops Island, VA. The launch window on April 17 is 5:00-8:00 pm ET. If the launch is delayed, additional opportunities are available April 18-21.
The following events may be of interest in the coming week. The House and Senate both are in session.
During the Week
The big event this week is the scheduled first launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket from Wallops Island, VA. Orbital is the competitor to SpaceX for commercial cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS). It was chosen for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program a year and a half after SpaceX (replacing RocketPlane-Kistler, which failed to meet its milestones) so is just now getting to the flight test stage. NASA continues to hope that Orbital's services will begin this year. It has signed a contract for eight Orbital launches in addition to the 12 with SpaceX.
The launch of Antares, with a mass simulator of Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft, is scheduled for Wednesday between 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm ET. Launch delays, especially with new rockets, are not uncommon. Additional launch opportunities exist through April 21. Orbital is launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Faclity on the coast of Virginia near the southern tip of the Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, about 3-4 hours driving time east of Washington, D.C. If the weather conditions are just right, and especially if the launch takes place in the latter part of the launch window when the skies are darker, it may be visible from the DC area.
Sunday, April 14
Monday-Friday, April 15-19
Monday-Tuesday, April 15-16
Tuesday, April 16
Tuesday-Wednesday, April 16-17
Wednesday, April 17
Thursday, April 18
Thursday-Friday, April 18-19
Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank told congressional appropriators on Thursday that the lifecycle cost of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is now $11.3 billion instead of the $12.9 billion the Department told Congress last year. That's a remarkable change and in the opposite direction of most space program estimates, begging the question of how they did it.
Blank testified to the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the morning, and its House counterpart, chaired by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), in the afternoon.
At the time of its FY2013 budget request in February 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the Department of Commerce (DOC), said the life-cycle cost through 2028 was $12.9 billion, up from $11.9 billion the previous year because it added four more years of operations. The increase was sharply criticized by Mikulski, who continues to chair the subcommittee in this Congress and also has ascended to chair the full appropriations committee.
Exasperated by cost growth in NOAA satellite programs, Mikulski recommended last year that the programs be transferred to NASA. She said at Thursday's hearing on the FY2014 budget request for DOC, however, that she has backed off that stance because Blank convinced her that recent management changes would fix the problems. Still, Mikulski said, NOAA's satellite programs are "on probation" in terms of which agency manages them, especially since Blank will not be there to ensure the management changes are implemented. Blank is leaving the Obama Administration at the end of May.
In the final Continuing Resolution for FY2013, enacted last month, appropriators made clear that $11.9 billion was the maximum amount they would approve for JPSS. Blank's new estimate of $11.3 billion fits within that envelope, but opens the question of how the program was able to drop the cost so quickly. She said she is confident the program can be executed for that cost as long as it receives the requested funding. For FY2014, NOAA is requesting $824 million.
DOC's budget documentation does not provide explicit details on how the cost reduction was achieved, but one change is apparent and another can be surmised. First, NOAA transferred responsibility for three climate sensors to NASA. Second, it created a new budget line item for a free-flyer that had been included in the JPSS estimate and presumably no longer is included the estimate.
JPSS is NOAA's part of the restructured National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program. Last year, the $12.9 billion estimate included four satellites. Two are mid-sized satellites with several sensors each, but they are not large enough to accommodate all the sensors envisioned for NOAA's part of NPOESS. Therefore NOAA decided it needed another two small "free flyers" for the remaining sensors. The four spacecraft, including launch and operation, were in the $12.9 lifecycle cost estimate along with NOAA's roughly $4 billion sunk costs in NPOESS.
Now NASA will be responsible for funding three climate sensors. NASA and NOAA share responsibility for climate measurements and monitoring, but NOAA's primary mission in this area is weather forecasting as the congressional appropriators reminded NOAA in the final FY2013 CR. Transferring the sensors to NASA allows NOAA to focus on weather and reduces its financial load, but that burden is simply shifted to NASA.
Mike Freilich, Director of NASA's Earth Science Division, told the NASA Advisory Council's Earth Science Subcommittee on Thursday that the FY2014 budget request for his office includes a one-time $40 million increase to pay for them. They are the Clouds and Earth Radiant Energy System (CERES), the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite-Limb (OMPS-Limb) and the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS). NASA discusses them in the "Decadal Survey Missions" section of its Earth Science budget request, but a breakout of how much of that budget line item is for the climate sensors is not provided. The climate sensors are one of three new responsibilities assigned to NASA and Freilich expressed concern about the long term impact of adding so much content to his program if adequate resources are not provided over the long term. The FY2014 budget request calls for NASA to also pay more for refurbishing the Deep Space Climate Observatory space weather satellite and take the lead in designing and developing a follow-on to Landsat 8, which at one time was envisioned for the U.S. Geological Survey, which operates the Landsat satellites).
As for the two free-flyers NOAA was planning, its budget now provides only for one and it now has its own budget line, called Polar Free Flyer, separate from JPSS and ostensibly no longer included in the JPSS life cycle cost estimate.
Blank told Wolf's subcommittee that $11.3 billion is the "revised and final" estimate in her verbal testimony (at minute 01:15:30), but her written statement says "We are currently in the process of completing an Independent Cost Estimate (ICE) for JPSS with options to reduce scope, risk, and lifecycle cost."
Putin Pledges Space Program Support on Cosmonautics Day, Cosmonauts May Make Ocean Landings in Future
As the world celebrates Cosmonautics Day -- or Yuri's Night -- in honor of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin making the first human trip into space 52 years ago today, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged support for Russia's space program. The amount of money he is willing to commit to space activities between now and 2020 is less than what was announced a few months ago, however.
In December, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Russia would spend 2.1 trillion rubles (about $70 billion) on the space program between 2013 and 2020. Today, Putin said it would be 1.6 trillion rubles (about $51.5 billion) during that same time period. No explanation for the reduction was provided.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency cited Putin as calling out in particular continued work on a new launch site in far eastern Siberia, called Vostochny. Russia has been talking about building a launch site there for many years with the goal of moving launches that now take place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan within Russia's own borders. Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, but gained its independence with the breakup of the USSR in 1991. Russia leases Baikonur from Kazakhstan for $115 million a year. The estimated cost of building Vostochny is $20 billion according to Russia Today, which adds that Putin proposed that the town being built to support Vostochny be named Tsiolkovsky after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of the Soviet/Russian space program.
Putin said today that the first launches from Vostochny will take place in 2015 and it will be fully commissioned by 2020 and thereafter be used to launch space station missions as well as robotic lunar and planetary exploration spacecraft. National Public Radio (NPR) reports that Putin also said that once crews are launched from Vostochny, they will "probably" land in the ocean rather than enduring the bumpy landings on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Russian space crews have always landed on land instead of water, so that would be a significant change. It would be another step towards removing Russia's dependence on Kazakhstan, but Putin also said that Russia would not entirely abandon Baikonur, which is also used for military and commercial launches.
NPR and Russia Today both report that Putin complained that human spaceflight consumes a large share -- 58 percent -- of the space budget, limiting what is available for other activities. He said Russia must "keep the leader's experience of the manned flights and catch up in other space exploration programs."
Russia Today also reports that Putin authorized the government to consider making Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, into a Ministry. Putin, Medveyev and other top Russian officials have been debating what changes are needed to fix the space program in the wake of an unusual number of launch failures since December 2010.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced today that analysis of imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) may have revealed the Soviet Mars 3 spacecraft that landed on Mars in 1971. For unknown reasons, contact with the lander was lost seconds after it touched down.
The Soviet Union was jinxed in its robotic Mars exploration program with no complete mission successes to claim. Some of its probes were partial successes, however, and Mars 3 is in that category. Mars 2 and Mars 3 were orbiter/lander combinations launched in 1971. Both orbiters returned data. The Mars 2 lander crashed. The Mars 3 lander successfully reached the surface and returned data for a few seconds before contact was lost.
Russian individuals with an interest in NASA's current Mars program as well as earlier efforts by the Soviet Union and Russia to study the Red Planet took it upon themselves -- with the help of crowdsourcing -- to scrutinize imagery from the High REsolution Imaging Spectrometer Science Experiment (HiRISE) on MRO looking for the Mars 3 lander. They knew the predicted coordinates of where it landed.
MRO has been in orbit around Mars since March 2006. The original images they looked at were taken in 2007 and objects resembling the parachute, heat shield, descent module, and lander eventually were identified. They requested that MRO take another image of the area, which was accomplished on March 13, 2013. That image is in color and provides different illumination angles and supports, in particular, what they believe is discovery of the parachute.
HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said "this set of features and their layout ... provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out."
On a day already chock full of space news -- release of the FY2014 budget request and a hearing on the threat to Earth posed by asteroids -- Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) decided to reintroduce his RE-asserting American Leadership in Space Act, or REAL Space Act.
The bill was introduced in the last Congress. No action was taken, but that clearly did not dissuade Posey and eight other Republican and Democratic House members from trying again this year. Co-sponsors include Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. The legislation would direct NASA to develop a plan for returning to the Moon and establishing a human presence there.
Posey argues that a "moon presence offers us the ability to develop and test technologies to cope with the realities of operating on an extraterrestrial surface."
As reported by Jeff Foust at SpacePolitics.com last week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden continues to stress that NASA has no plans to return humans to the Moon. Foust quotes Bolden as saying "I don't know how to say it any more plainly...NASA does not have a human lunar mission in its portfolio and we are not planning for one" and if the next administration tries to change course again "in the lifetime of everyone sitting in this room, we are probably never again going to see Americans on the Moon, or Mars, near an asteroid, or anywhere. We cannot continue to change the course of human exploration."
President Obama sent his FY2014 budget request to Congress today, nine-and-a-half weeks late. The $1.058 trillion request includes $17.7 billion for NASA. Highlights will be discussed during a NASA media telecon at 3:00 pm ET this afternoon. An earlier media briefing, at 1:30 pm ET, will discuss the overall budget request for federal research and development, including NASA, NOAA, NIH and NSF.
The President continues to oppose sequestration and his FY2014 budget does not take it into account. Consequently, NASA's FY2014 budget request is about the same as its FY2013 request following the flat-line spending plan it assumed last year.
NASA's documentation accompanying the FY2014 request does not allow comparisons to what Congress appropriated for FY2013 -- the current fiscal year -- because the request was formulated prior to Congress completing action on the FY2013 budget. The numbers in the tables accompanying NASA's request are based on the first Continuing Resolution (CR) that passed Congress last September, not the second CR that became law in March and ultimately set government spending levels for this year. That law cut NASA's FY2013 funding from the $17.771 billion requested to something in the neighborhood of $16.6 billion. NASA has not publicly stated even the total that it received for FY2013. That and details of how it will be spent at the account and program, project and activity (PPA) level apparently will not be revealed until NASA submits a congressionally-required operating plan to Congress on May 10.
Leaving aside questions about current year spending, the FY2014 request includes three major changes.
The Asteroid Retrieval Initiative is likely to be the focus of attention, although NASA officials stress that the agency must first complete a feasibility study before offering details. A Mission Concept Review is expected to be completed this summer. The concept was outlined in a 2012 Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) report that estimated the total cost of such a mission at $2.6 billion. NASA officials caution against using that as a cost estimate for what the agency might do, arguing the cost might be lower because much of the work is already underway for other purposes. The total request for this initiative in FY2014 is $105 million, but NASA categorizes only $78 million of that as "mission" funding.
The overall President's budget request for the U.S. Government for FY2014 was officially released at 12:30 pm ET today.
Details of NASA's FY2014 budget request will be posted on the agency's website at 1:00 pm ET.
NASA Administrator Bolden will be one of the participants in a press conference at 1:30 pm ET. The press conference is led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and will be webcast by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on its website. The other participants are the heads of NOAA, NIH and NSF, all of whom will join the President's Science Adviser and Director of OSTP John Holdren.
A House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on the threat to Earth posed by asteroids and meteors whose orbits bring them close to Earth, called Near Earth Objects (NEOs), is scheduled to begin at 2:00 pm. One of the witnesses, Don Yeomans, is from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but it is not clear how much information he will provide about the Asteroid Retrieval Initiative in NASA's budget request. He is the manager of NASA's ongoing effort to track and catalogue NEOs. The hearing will be webcast on the committee's website.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will hold a media teleconference on the FY2014 budget request at 3:00 pm. It will be broadcast on the agency's news audio website.
Events of Interest