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China Readies Long March 5 for First Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Oct-2016 (Updated: 29-Oct-2016 01:11 PM)

China's new Long March 5 rocket was transported to its launch pad yesterday in preparation for its inaugural launch according to China's official Xinhua news agency.  Xinhua did not specify the launch date, saying only it would be in "early November."

Long March 5 will be the largest of China's rockets, slightly smaller in capability than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy.  It will be able to place 25 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit (LEO) compared to Delta IV's 28.4 MT.

This is the fourth new Chinese rocket to make its debut in the past 13 months and the second to utilize China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

China tested two very small new rockets last fall, the liquid-fueled Long March 6 and solid-fueled Long March 11. The first launch from Wenchang was of the new medium-class Long March 7 in June. 

Long March 5, 6 and 7 are all part of China's plan to replace its older launch vehicles (Long March 2, 3 and 4) with those that use more environmentally-friendly propellants -- liquid oxygen (LOX)/kerosene instead of hydrazine.

Among the payloads China has announced for Long March 5 are space station modules that will be docked together in orbit to form a 60 MT space station around 2022.  China currently has two astronauts aboard its small (8.6 MT) Tiangong-2 space station, but they will remain there for only 30 days.  China has sent mixed signals as to whether a second crew will occupy Tiangong-2, but it is not intended for long-term occupancy.  

While the 60 MT space station planned for 2022 is still small compared to the 400 MT International Space Station (ISS), under current plans, the ISS partners (the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries) will discontinue ISS operations in 2024.  That could mean China's will become the only earth orbiting space station, although some or all of the ISS partners could decide to continue ISS operations thereafter.  NASA also is requesting input from the U.S. private sector to determine if a commercial space station is feasible as an ISS follow-on.

China also plans to use Long March 5 for robotic space exploration missions. They include a sample return mission to the Moon (Chang'e 5) next year and an orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.  China launched a lunar sample return test spacecraft in 2014 that demonstrated returning a capsule to Earth from lunar distance, and a lander/rover (Chang'e-3/Yutu) to the Moon's surface in 2013.  The 2020 Mars mission will be China's first to that planet on its own, although a Chinese orbiter was aboard Russia's failed Phobos-Grunt mission in 2012.

Long March 5 will open many new opportunities for China's space program in earth orbit and beyond.  It is roughly double the capability of its largest existing rockets, the Long March 3B (12 MT to LEO) and Long March 7 (13.5 MT to LEO).

SpaceX Narrows Investigation, But Still no Root Cause

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Oct-2016 (Updated: 28-Oct-2016 10:45 PM)

SpaceX said today that it continues to narrow the investigation into what caused the on-pad fire that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 satellite on September 1.  The root cause still has not been determined, although the company hopes it can resume launches before the end of this year.

The Falcon 9 rocket was engulfed in flames and exploded during a standard pre-launch test two days before the scheduled launch of the Israeli-built Amos-6 communications satellite, which also was destroyed. The launch pad, Launch Complex 40 (LC-40), at the Air Force's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), was damaged. SpaceX leases the pad from the Air Force.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk calls it the "most difficult and complex failure we have seen."  Earlier, the company said it was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank in the rocket's second stage.  A video of the incident shows the fire beginning near that location.  Today's statement explains that engineers have narrowed the cause to one of three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside that LOX tank.  They have been able to recreate a COPV failure "entirely through helium loading conditions" that are "mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded."

They are now focusing on finding the exact root cause and "developing improved helium loading conditions," implying that they consider this a procedural rather than hardware-related issue.

The statement asserts that they are still working towards a resumption of Falcon 9 launches "before the end of the year" from launch pads at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  It does not mention the status of LC-40. 

SpaceX has several launch site options.  In addition to LC-40, it leases Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) from NASA at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), adjacent to CCAFS, and Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), CA from the Air Force (it has two pads, 4E and 4W).   VAFB is used for launches into polar orbits that circle the Earth's poles, as opposed to lower inclination orbits that benefit from launching in an easterly direction from Florida. 

The announcement said both of those launch sites "remain on track to be operational in this timeframe."  SpaceX has already launched Falcon 9s from SLC-4E at VAFB.  Its first launch from KSC's LC-39A was expected this year, but of a different version of Falcon, the first flight of Falcon Heavy.  It is not clear now when that rocket will make its debut.

SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, Texas, although it has said little about that the status of that site in recent months.

ESA Gets Better View of Schiaparelli Impact Site, But Mysteries Remain

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2016 (Updated: 27-Oct-2016 07:08 PM)

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has provided a higher resolution image of the site where the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Schiaparelli lander impacted the Martian surface, but some of the features in the image remain unexplained.  Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program and was designed to demonstrate technologies needed for the next phase of the program -- a Russian lander and ESA rover to be launched in 2020.  Understanding exactly what happened is crucial for the 2020 mission.

Schiaparelli was launched together with ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) in March. The two made the trip to Mars together, separating on October 16, three days before arrival at Mars. TGO successfully entered orbit, but contact was lost with Schiaparelli during its descent. 

It was located two days later using the low resolution CTX camera on MRO.  The image indicated that the lander crashed into the surface at a high velocity after separating from its parachute and heat shield.   ESA has been awaiting a second pass over the site by MRO to obtain an image with its high resolution camera, HiRISE.

That image was taken on October 25 and released to the public today. It shows three impact areas, highlighted in the image below, within 1.5 kilometers of each other.

High resolution image of Mars surface where ESA's Schiaparelli lander impacted, taken by HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, October 25, 2016.  Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.  Inserts are 6-fold enlargements, brightness was adjusted separately for each inset to better show details.

As shown in the image, the parachute and the rear section of the heat shield (also called the back shell, to which the parachute was attached) landed adjacent to each other (bottom left). The front section of the heat shield separated from the rest of the spacecraft as planned and landed further away (top right).  A shallow crater, perhaps half a meter deep, in between is where the lander reached the surface and, presumably, exploded.  Data that ESA received from Schiaparelli before it went silent indicate that the parachute and back shell released prematurely and nine thrusters that should have slowed the spacecraft fired for only a few seconds, so the fuel tank would have been relatively full.  ESA estimates that the spacecraft was in free-fall for the final 2-4 kilometers of its journey and impacted the surface at a velocity of as much as 300 kilometers/hour.

ESA said today that the "asymmetric surrounding dark markings" near the crater "are more difficult to interpret."  Also, the "long dark arc" to the upper right of the crater "is currently unexplained."  Both could be related to the impact and presumed explosion, ESA added, but more analysis is needed.

Schiaparelli and TGO are the first two of four spacecraft that comprise ESA's ExoMars program, which it is conducting cooperatively with Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation.  Initially ExoMars was an ESA-NASA program, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion and ESA turned to Russia instead.  

The other two spacecraft -- a Russian lander and an ESA rover -- are scheduled for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). Schiaparelli was designed to test entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the lander/rover mission.  Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on Mars. Seven of eight attempts since 1976 have succeeded:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity.  Only the 1999 Mars Polar Lander failed.  One of the four landers sent to Mars by the Soviet Union in the 1970s sent back data after landing, but for less than 20 seconds so is not considered a success.  The United Kingdom sent the Beagle 2 lander to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express in 2003, but it landed in a semi-deployed manner and was unable to communicate.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner stresses that TGO is fully successful and will conduct its planned science program to study trace gases in the Martian atmosphere that may reveal whether life ever existed there, and serve as a communications relay for the 2020 lander/rover.  He also considers Schiaparelli a success in the sense that entry into the atmosphere and deployment of the parachute worked as planned and they will gain data from the investigation that will be important to the success of the 2020 mission.

Clinton Wants Balanced NASA Program With Climate Change Research and Exploration Partnerships

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Oct-2016 (Updated: 25-Oct-2016 11:42 PM)

Jim Kohlenberger, who served in both the Obama and Bill Clinton administrations, published an op-ed in Space News today laying out Hillary Clinton's civil space agenda.  Clinton wants a balanced NASA program with a focus on climate change research as well as a "robust" exploration program, all in partnership with the international and commercial communities.

Kohlenberger was chief of staff for the Obama White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from 2009-2011.  During Bill Clinton's presidency, he was Senior Domestic Policy Advisor to Vice President Al Gore.   Currently he is President of JK Strategies, a public policy consulting practice, and Executive Director of the Center for Copyright Information. 

This is the third op-ed in the trade publication providing information on the candidates' views on space.  The first two, published last week (on civil space issues) and yesterday (on national security space) were from two representatives of the Trump campaign, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro.  Trump himself also spoke about NASA briefly today.

Kohlenberger's op-ed, like those from the Trump campaign, is very broad and offers few specifics, but provides an overview of Clinton's views on civil space issues.  She will "advance American ideals" through a balanced program of science, technology and exploration and promote strong coordination across the federal government as well as "cooperation with industry and collaboration with the international community."  That includes efforts to "deepen support for strong public-private partnerships."

While he does not say that Clinton would reestablish a White House National Space Council, as Walker and Navarro said Trump would do, he states that she "will elevate executive branch coordination of federal space agency initiatives."  He does not specify the mechanism for accomplishing that goal.

The need for NASA and NOAA to engage in climate change research is specifically called out.  Kohlenberger criticizes Trump's opinion that climate change is "a hoax," stating that it is not just "shortsighted," but endangers space exploration since launch sites in Florida and Virginia are vulnerable to rising sea levels.  Clinton "knows that climate change is an urgent threat" and NASA and NOAA programs to study it are "invaluable."

As for exploration, Clinton is committed to a program that includes the International Space Station (ISS), commercial space leadership, bold missions into deep space, and the commercial crew program. 

"Secretary Clinton knows that, just like taking on challenges here on Earth, the strongest way to explore and utilize space is by doing so together" with international and commercial partners. 

At a top level, except for climate change research, the Trump and Clinton positions seem fairly similar.  Both endorse public private partnerships, the need for better coordination within the federal government, and a strong human exploration program beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  However, they both also lack specifics about whether they support the ongoing beyond LEO programs: the Space Launch System, Orion, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Trump: "I Will Free NASA" From Being Just a LEO Space Logistics Agency

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Oct-2016 (Updated: 25-Oct-2016 07:51 PM)

Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump vowed today to "free NASA" from serving "primarily" as a logistics agency for low Earth orbit operations.   He also supported more public private partnerships and asserted that if he wins "America and Florida will lead the way into the stars."

Trump spoke at the Orlando Sanford International Airport today.  Originally, he planned to visit Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Space Coast, but those plans changed over the weekend.  Florida Today reported that the Trump campaign concluded there was no suitable indoor venue near KSC and outdoor locations posed security risks, but Trump did, indeed, speak outdoors at the Sanford rally.  He mentioned that it was to have taken place inside an airplane hangar, but it was too small for the crowd.

The space program came up at the end of an almost hour-long speech (available on YouTube).  The following is's transcript:

"My plan also includes major investments in space exploration, also right here [in Florida].  You know what we call this place.

"Over the last 8 years, the Obama-Clinton administration has undermined our space program tremendously. That will change. So many good things come out of it, including great jobs. That will change very quickly under a Trump administration and it'll change before it’s too late.

"Did you ever see what’s going on with space, with Russia and different places?  And us?  We’re, like, we’re like watching.   Isn’t that nice? So much is learned from that, too.

"A cornerstone of my policy is we will substantially expand public private partnerships to maximize the amount of investment and funding that is available for space exploration and development.  This means launching and operating major space assets, right here, that employ thousands and spur innovation and fuel economic growth.

"I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low earth orbit activity.  Big deal.

"Instead we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.  With a victory in November, everything will change.  Just think about what we can accomplish in 100 days."

His characterization of NASA as an agency whose primary mission is providing logistics to low Earth orbit (LEO) is surprising even assuming that his remarks were centered on the human spaceflight program and not NASA's many robotic spacecraft in Earth orbit and elsewhere in the solar system.   The only logistics flights to LEO associated with NASA are the commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS).   Upcoming commercial crew flights would also fit under that categorization, but it ignores the the ISS itself and the round-the-clock, round-the-year crew presence that enables scientific experiments important to future human exploration.

His embrace of public-private partnerships, rather than being at odds with the Obama Administration, is an extension of President Obama's policy, which itself built on the George W. Bush Administration's commercial cargo initiative.

Still, these are the most extensive remarks from the candidate himself.  Two campaign advisers, Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, published on op-ed in Space News last week laying out the broad strokes of a Trump civil space policy.  They followed-up this week with a second op-ed addressing national security space, asserting that Trump would follow a "peace through strength" strategy.  That includes a recognition that "many of our military needs can be met with commercially available launch, communications and observation capabilities," an approach that will reduce costs and access new advances more quickly, they stated.  "No space goals will be more important to Donald Trump than defense of our nation and that a freedom-loving people will lead the way to the heavens above."

Walker is Executive Chairman of the Wexler|Walker lobbying firm and a former member of Congress from Pennsylvania who served as chairman of what is now the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House.  He was part of Gingrich's inner circle.  Both are avid space supporters and advisers to Trump.   Navarro is a Harvard-educated economist and business professor at the University of California-Irvine.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 24-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2016 (Updated: 23-Oct-2016 05:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 24-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.

During the Week

Commercial space policy is at the top of the list this week. The FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and its working groups meet on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday.  Those will be preceded by two associated meetings of interest -- one tomorrow (Monday) afternoon to discuss voluntary industry standards and another Tuesday morning on a Civil Space Traffic Management system. 

Tomorrow's meeting is of ASTM International, a standards setting body, that will discuss whether it should create a new technical committee to develop voluntary consensus standards for commercial spaceflight.  Last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) called for the development of such standards and COMSTAC has had a working group on the topic for some time.  Tuesday morning, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), in conjunction with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the Satellite Industry Association, will hold an "industry day" (actually half a day) to discuss a Civil Space Traffic Management System.  The meeting is open to the public and has an interesting agenda that includes Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy.   Space Traffic Management (STM) is a step beyond Space Situational Awareness (SSA).  While definitions vary, generally speaking SSA is knowing where everything is in orbit and where it's going, thereby enabling "conjunction analyses" to warn satellite operators if a collision is likely.  STM - with an emphasis on "management" --  would empower some entity to require those operators to take action to avoid a collision.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine has proposed that FAA/AST be assigned that role.  CSLCA called for a study by an independent organization on alternative frameworks for STM.  To date, FAA/AST has focused on the SSA portion.  FAA/AST is part of the Department of Transportation, which sent a report to Congress last month concluding it is feasible for them to take over DOD's role of providing SSA data to commercial and foreign entities (CFEs).  All of this likely will be discussed on Tuesday.

Separately, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is beginning a new Aerospace Security Project and its first meeting (tomorrow afternoon) is also looking at commercial space.  Loverro will be at that one, too, along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and representatives of DigitalGlobe, Planet, and Boeing.  That discussion will focus on how the military can better leverage commercial space capabilities.

Elsewhere in the country, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its annual Von Braun Symposium in Huntsville, AL.  This year's theme is "Exploring the Universe and Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space."   Among the sessions is one on Wednesday morning  where Scott Pace (GWU) and Ann Zulkosky (Lockheed Martin) will discuss "After the Election -- What's Next for Space?"  The symposium will be webcast.  Note that all times on the agenda are Central Daylight Time.

There are quite a few space science meetings, too.  The NASA Advisory Council's Heliophysics Subcommittee meets via telecon on Tuesday from 10:00 am - 4:00 pm ET.  Heliophysics is the study of the Sun and its influence on Earth -- space weather -- and NASA and the National Air and Space Museum will have a panel discussion on the impact of space weather on human and robotic exploration missions at the same time (1:00-2:30 pm ET).  The full NAC Science Committee meets Wednesday and Thursday (also via telecon).  The NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) meets at NSF in Arlington, VA on Thursday and Friday. 

The American Society for Gravitational and Space Research meets in Cleveland from Tuesday-Saturday.  It will hold a pre-conference workshop Tuesday morning entitled "Nanoracks and Blue Origin."   Some of the conference sessions will be webcast, including a luncheon talk on Wednesday by former Senate staffer Jeff Bingham on evolving U.S. civil space policy and the role of the International Space Station.  NASA's Julie Robinson and Brian Motil have a session right after that on "15 Years of Microgravity Science on the ISS" that also will be webcast.  Lots of interesting sessions throughout the week.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, October 24

Monday-Thursday, October 24-27

Tuesday, October 25

Tuesday-Thursday, October 25-27

Wednesday, October 26

  • FAA COMSTAC (full committee), NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm ET (webcast)

Wednesday-Thursday, October 26-27

Wednesday-Saturday, October 26-29

Thursday-Friday, October 27-28

Found: One European Mars Lander, No Longer Intact

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2016 (Updated: 27-Oct-2016 07:03 PM)

Imagery from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has located the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Schiaparelli lander.  ESA lost contact with the lander two days ago mid-way through its descent to the planet's surface.  The image suggests that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of 2-4 kilometers, probably because the thrusters cut off early.  It "may have" exploded on contact with the surface since the fuel tanks would have been full, but ESA cautions that these are only preliminary interpretations.

The image was taken by the low-resolution CTX camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been orbiting Mars since 2006.  MRO will make another pass over the site next week and use its high-resolution HiRISE camera to image the area again. [UPDATE: ESA released the image on October 27.]

Today's image has a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface compared to an image taken in May.  ESA concluded that one feature is Schiaparelli's 12-meter diameter parachute and the other is from the lander's impact with the surface.

Top:  mosaic of images of Schiaparelli landing area from MRO and NASA's Mars Odyssey.
Bottom: MRO imagery of surface of Mars showing before (left) and after (right) images of location where ESA's Schiaparelli lander impacted.
Caption credit:  condensed from Emily Lakdawalla's Planetary Society blog.

An ESA press release stated: "Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. ... It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.  These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis."

The "fuzzy dark patch" where it impacted the surface is about 1 kilometer away from the parachute. The impact area is 5.4 kilometers west of its intended landing point and within the planned landing ellipse.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society calculated that Schiaparelli impacted 54 kilometers away from NASA's Opportunity rover's current location on the edge of Endeavour crater.

Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program, a cooperative program with Russia.   There are four spacecraft in the program:  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander, launched together earlier this year, and a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020 (delayed from 2018).

Schiaparelli's purpose was to test entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the 2020 mission.  At a press conference yesterday, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said he was happy with the mission even if Schiaparelli did not make a survivable landing since its purpose was to test these technologies.   It did enter the Mars atmosphere correctly, descend, jettison its heat shield and deploy its parachute. Something happened right at the time the parachute should have jettisoned.  What happened remains a mystery, but ExoMars Project Manger Don McCoy expressed confidence yesterday that after fully analyzing data transmitted from Schiaparelli to TGO during the descent "we will have no doubt" about what transpired. The imagery from MRO will certainly help in the quest for answers.

Woerner is also enthusiastic about the mission because TGO is in its proper orbit, able to serve as a communications link with the 2020 lander/rover as well as to conduct its scientific mission to study trace gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere that could provide information on whether life ever existed there.   He is optimistic that the ministers of ESA's member states will similarly see the mission as a success since more money is needed to complete the 2020 portion of the mission, on the order of 300 million Euros.

The United States is the only country to unequivocally make successful landings on Mars.   The Soviet Union sent four landers to Mars in the 1970s (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7).  Only Mars 3 transmitted a signal back to Earth after landing and it lasted less than 20 seconds.  Britain's Beagle 2 traveled to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express orbiter in 2003.  Contact was lost before it entered the Martian atmosphere.  MRO also located that spacecraft on the surface just last year.  It was only partially deployed and unable to communicate back to Earth.

NASA has sent eight landers to Mars, seven successfully:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity.  One, Mars Polar Lander, failed, probably because of a similar problem as Schiaparelli -- early termination of the retrorockets.


ESA's Woerner: "I'm Happy" with ExoMars Even Though Fate of Lander Still Unknown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2016 (Updated: 20-Oct-2016 06:39 AM)

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner painted a highly positive picture of ESA's ExoMars 2016 mission this morning even though the agency still does not know the fate of one of the two spacecraft -- the Schiaparelli lander.  Stressing that Schiaparelli was a test, Woerner focused on the successful insertion into orbit of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that not only will study the Martian atmosphere, but serve as a communications relay for a planned rover ESA will launch in 2020. 

ExoMars is a cooperative program between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos.  NASA originally planned to partner with ESA, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion, so ESA turned to Russia instead.  A total of four spacecraft -- two launched in 2016 and two in 2020 (delayed from 2018) -- comprise the program.

TGO and Schiaparelli are ExoMars 2016.  They were launched in March 2016 and traveled together to Mars. They separated on October 16, three days before Mars arrival, for the final legs of their journeys. They reached Mars yesterday.  TGO went into orbit as planned, but contact with Schiaparelli was lost before it reached the surface.

Artist's illustration of the separation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from the Schiaparelli lander.  Image credit: ESA

TGO has two functions: to study traces gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere, that could provide clues as to whether life ever existed there, and to serve as a communications relay for a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020.  The lander and rover are ExoMars 2020.

Woerner and other ESA officials speaking at a press conference at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstat, Germany this morning stressed that TGO is the "cornerstone" of both ExoMars 2016 and ExoMars 2020 and it is fine.  Schiaparelli was a test of entry, descent and landing technologies that will be needed for ExoMars 2020 and although its ultimate fate is not yet determined, it did successfully enter the Martian atmosphere and proceed through initial phases of descent, providing important data.

From Woerner's point of view, the overall mission is TGO plus the landing test and he is satisfied:  "I'm happy.... It's a big success."   

Andrea Accomazzo, head of ESA's Solar and Planetary Missions Division, explained that they are still analyzing the large amount of engineering data Schiaparelli transmitted to TGO during its descent.  What they know now is that Schiaparelli, also referred to as EDM -- entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module -- entered the Martian atmosphere, the heatshield worked "perfectly," and the parachutes deployed successfully following a pre-programmed set of commands. 

However, just before the parachutes were to be ejected, about 50 seconds before it would have reached the surface, the spacecraft "did not behave exactly as expected," he said.  At least some of Schiaparelli's retrorockets fired, but for only 3-4 seconds and the lander's ground radar was activated.  What happened next is undetermined, although he is confident that eventually "we will have no doubt" about what occurred.

Schiaparelli is somewhere on the surface of Mars now, whether or not it is operating.   ExoMars Program Manager Don McCoy said that its batteries should last between four and 10-12 Martian days (sols).  Although TGO could receive data from Schiaparelli during its descent, now that it is in orbit, it is not in a position to hear the lander.  Instead, an older ESA orbiter, Mars Express, and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will listen for signals that Schiaparelli is programmed to transmit at specific times.

As noted, ExoMars 2016 is only the first part of the ExoMars program.  The second part is the Russian lander/European rover still under development.  Woerner said that a review of the 2020 mission is scheduled for next week and acknowledged that ESA already was planning to ask its member states for more money to finish it, on the order of 300 million Euros.  He is optimistic that they will view ExoMars 2016 as a success just as he does and provide the necessary resources to complete the program.

Tense Times for ESA ExoMars and NASA Juno Teams

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 19-Oct-2016 10:59 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) was hoping to announce its first successful landing on Mars today, but the fate of its Schiaparelli lander is unknown at this time.  Meanwhile NASA's Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in July, has an engine problem and, separately, went into safe mode last night. Both teams remain optimistic, but it will a tense wait until they have answers to the fate of these two spacecraft.

On the good news front, Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars 2016 program and traveled to Mars with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).  TGO successfully went into orbit around Mars today.

Schiaparelli is a small demonstration spacecraft to test entry, descent and landing technologies for a Russian lander and ESA rover currently planned for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). ESA sometimes refers to Schiaparelli as EDM -- entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module.

Artist's illustration of Schiaparelli landing on Mars.  Image credit:  ESA

Schiaparelli and TGO separated from each other three days ago to finish their journeys on their own with Schiaparelli headed for the surface and TGO to orbit. 

TGO joins five other spacecraft currently operating in Mars orbit today:  ESA's Mars Express, India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), and three from NASA -- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Odyssey, and MAVEN.  NASA also has two rovers operating on the surface of Mars -- Opportunity and Curiosity.  NASA is the only space agency to land spacecraft on Mars that can be counted as unequivocal successes (Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity).  The Soviet Union sent four landers (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7), but only Mars 3 sent back a signal after landing and it lasted for less than 20 seconds.  Britain's Beagle 2 lander was sent to Mars along with Mars Express in 2003, but it was never heard from after separation.  It was recently located on the surface in imagery from MRO showing that it landed in a partially deployed configuration that prevented communication.

During its descent, Schiaparelli was sending data to Mars Express and emitting a beacon that allowed its progress to be tracked by a telescope on Earth, India's Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope.  ESA knows it successfully entered the Martian atmosphere and deployed its parachutes.  Next, the "backshell" heat shield was to release, followed by retrorocket braking, and a final fall from a height of 2 meters (6 feet) protected by a crushable structure.  At some point in that sequence, the signal was lost.

If it reached the surface and is still functioning, its batteries will allow it to transmit signals for 3-7 days.  Mars Express, MRO and MAVEN will be listening.

ESA will hold a pre-scheduled news conference tomorrow, October 20, to discuss Schiaparelli and TGO from 4:00-5:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), which is 10:00-11:00 am local time at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. 

The mixed news from ESA -- good for TGO, uncertain for Schiaparelli -- was quickly followed by worrisome news about a completely different deep space probe, NASA's Juno.  NASA launched Juno in 2011 and the solar powered spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. 

Artist's illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft and its science instruments.  Image credit: NASA/JPL.

The initial orbit is highly elliptical, with a period of 53.5 days. The plan was to circularize it into a 14-day orbit as close as 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) above Jupiter's cloud tops for science observations.

An engine burn to change the orbit was planned for today (October 19), but an anomaly was detected in a pair of helium check valves in the engine.  Juno project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Rick Nybakken, said the valves should have opened in a few seconds, but took several minutes instead for unexplained reasons.  After consulting with spacecraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin, NASA decided to postpone the engine firing until the next opportunity on December 19.

The spacecraft already was on a path to come close to Jupiter's cloud-tops, although most of the science instruments were to be off during that pass.  Instead, the decision was made to turn all of them on to gather whatever data was possible.

However, Juno Principal Investigator Scott Bolton said a media briefing today that as Juno neared that close approach (perijove) last night, the spacecraft went into safe mode.

Spacecraft are designed to go into safe mode when an anomaly occurs and the goal is to protect the spacecraft systems and instruments while awaiting instructions from Earth.  In safe mode, all non-essential systems, including science instruments, are turned off.  Therefore no science data was acquired.

It is not all that uncommon for spacecraft to go into safe mode.  Often the problem is diagnosed by ground controllers who then upload new instructions and the mission continues.  One cannot be assured of that outcome, however.

As it is, Juno remains in orbit.  Assuming whatever caused safe mode to engage can be resolved, Bolton said today that scientists can obtain the science data they need even if the engine burn cannot be made and the orbital period is not reduced to 14 days.  It simply will take longer.

The twin anomalies underscore the increasingly trite, but nevertheless true, expression that "space is hard."

Trump Would Reinstate White House Space Council - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 22-Oct-2016 12:31 PM)

UPDATED October 22, 2016 to reflect the fact that Trump no longer plans to visit Kennedy Space Center next week, as reported by Florida Today.

In an op-ed published in Space News on October 19, two advisers to Donald Trump's presidential campaign laid out the broad strokes of what a Trump space policy would look like.  Trump himself reportedly had planned to visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida next week as the campaign enters its final phase.  Florida is one of the battleground states that each candidate especially wants to win.  Florida Today reported on October 22, however, that those plans have changed.

The op-ed was penned by former Congressman Bob Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro.   Walker was a Pennsylvania Congressman for 20 years and is now Executive Chairman of one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, Wexler|Walker.  Earlier he was advising Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign on space issues, writing an essay in response to questions posed by Aerospace America.

While in Congress, Walker served as chairman of what is now the House Science, Space and Technology Committee when Republicans took over the House in 1995 and was one of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's inner circle.  Both men are ardent space program supporters.  Gingrich also is associated with the Trump campaign.

An op-ed in a trade publication is not the same as a statement from the candidate himself.  Florida Today had reported that Trump was planning to visit KSC on October 24 and participate in an industry roundtable.  However, it updated its report on October 22 saying that he would not visit the Space Coast after all because there was no suitable indoor venue and outdoor venues "present security concerns." The event would have been reminiscent of Gingrich's own presidential campaign in 2012 when he held an industry roundtable and made a major speech in Cocoa, FL (near KSC) laying out plans for a Moon base.

A key element espoused by Walker and Navarro in the Space News op-ed is reinstating the White House National Space Council, chaired by the Vice President.

The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act created NASA to conduct U.S. civil space activities and assigned military space efforts to DOD.  It established a White House National Aeronautics and Space Council to coordinate those activities.  Originally the President was to chair the council, but that was quickly changed to the Vice President and it operated through the first Nixon term.  Nixon abolished the Council in 1973, however, and a variety of other mechanisms were used thereafter to coordinate government space activities and provide advice to the President. 

Following the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy, Congress became so dissatisfied with how the White House was making space policy decisions, however, especially the length of time and lack of transparency, that it recreated a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the 1989 NASA Authorization Act.  President George H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order shortly after taking office formally establishing it as part of his Executive Office of the President.  Chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, it had an often fractious relationship with NASA.  Mark Albrecht, who served as Executive Director for most of the Bush Administration, wrote a book with an insider's view of what transpired during those years.

Subsequent Presidents have chosen not to staff or fund the Council, although it still exists in law. Currently, national security space policy resides within the White House National Security Council and civil space policy is overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the White House Office of Management and Budget playing a major role as well.

Opinions in the space policy community about the value of such a Council run the gamut.  Opponents argue it is just one more White House entity that can say "no" to any idea, but without the clout to say "yes" and make something happen.  Supporters insist that a top-level mechanism is needed not only to effectively coordinate government civil and national security space programs, but to bring in the commercial sector and develop a holistic approach to space.

Walker and Navarro clearly share the latter opinion.  They say the Council would "end the lack of proper coordination" and "assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests."

The op-ed offers few specifics, other than to praise private sector launch vehicle development efforts and question the need for the government to duplicate such capabilities.  Overall it is a rallying cry for the need to have a strong space program based on classic arguments that it will spur invention, innovation, and economic growth and appeal to aspirational and inspirational needs:  "Americans seem to know intuitively that the destiny of a free people lies in the stars.  Donald Trump fully agrees."

Neither Trump nor his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton have space policies posted on their campaign websites.  Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms mention space activities, but only briefly.  Trump has made a number of statements in response to questions about the space program during the campaign, but they often are vague and sometimes conflict.  Clinton also has responded to questions about space, but she is invariably enthusiastic and often tells the story of how she wanted to be an astronaut herself, but at the time, females were not allowed in the astronaut corps.

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