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Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chair of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, insists that NASA did not comply with the law when it participated in a State Department-led bilateral meeting with China in September 2015. He previously said he would "vigorously enforce" that law.
SpacePolicyOnline.com asked Culberson late yesterday afternoon if he wanted to respond to the release of two letters to him from NASA prior to the meeting with China that provides information and certifications required by the law. SpacePolicyOnline.com obtained the letters through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the agency and published them last evening. Culberson was not able to respond by press time yesterday, but did so this morning.
Via email, Culberson said:
“We have had a strict prohibition in the CJS bill for several years to prevent NASA from cooperating or sharing information with the People’s Liberation Army controlled Chinese space program. The notice NASA sent the committee was vague and did not disclose the details of the discussions held in Beijing on September 28, 2015.”
As reported yesterday, the law dates back to when Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) chaired the subcommittee and instituted prohibitions on NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is also funded in the CJS bill, on any type of activity related to bilateral civil space cooperation with China. Culberson succeeded Wolf as subcommittee chairman and shares his views on this topic. He led the effort to include Sec. 532 in the NASA's FY2015 appropriations law.
The law states that NASA may not spend any funds to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act." Those limitations do not apply if "no later than 30 days prior to the activity in question," NASA certifies that the activity poses no risk of the transfer of "technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications" and does not "involve knowing interactions with officials who have been determined by the United States to have direct involvement with violations of human rights." Any such certification "shall include a description of the purpose of the activity, its agenda, its major participants, and its location and timing."
The first of the two NASA letters provided to SpacePolicyOnline.com under the FOIA request was signed by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on July 31, 2015, well within the 30 day notification period in law. It made the requisite certifications, but provided little detail. The second letter, from NASA CFO David Radzanowski to Culberson, was signed on September 16. It provided more details and repeated the certifications, but missed the 30-day advance notice deadline for the September 28 meeting in Beijing and also revealed that NASA held a bilateral meeting with the Chinese in Washington on September 23. To comply with the law, the notifications to Congress presumably should have been submitted 30 days before September 23, not the 28th.
Culberson told SpacePolicyOnline.com in October that he would "vigorously enforce" the law's provisions. Whether anything will be included in the final FY2016 appropriations bill now in its final stages of negotiations remains to be seen. Earlier today Congress passed a 5-day extension for government funding. December 16 is the new deadline for agreement on a full year appropriations bill that consolidates funding for all discretionary government activities, including NASA.
In response to a SpacePolicyOnline.com FOIA request, NASA today provided two letters that it sent to Rep. John Culberson prior to a September 28, 2015 bilateral meeting with China to discuss civil space cooperation. Culberson said in October that the information he received did not have sufficient depth and scope to comply with a law limiting NASA's bilateral interactions with China.
Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who once chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, included language in NASA's appropriations bills sharply limiting NASA's involvement with China. They also limit White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) interaction with China on space cooperation. OSTP is also funded in the CJS bill.
Wolf was succeeded by Culberson as chair of the subcommittee. He holds similar views regarding space cooperation with China and has included the same language in recent appropriations legislation.
Section 532 of the FY2015 appropriations law (P.L. 113-235) states that NASA may not spend any funds to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act." Those limitations do not apply if "no later than 30 days prior to the activity in question," NASA certifies that the activity poses no risk of the transfer of "technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications" and does not "involve knowing interactions with officials who have been determined by the United States to have direct involvement with violations of human rights." Any such certification "shall include a description of the purpose of the activity, its agenda, its major participants, and its location and timing."
The State Department announced in June that it was initiating a "U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue" and the first meeting would be in September 2015. The meeting took place on September 28 in Beijing.
Culberson told SpacePolicyOnline.com in October that NASA did not provide his committee with sufficient "details on the depth and scope" of the meeting and he would "vigorously enforce" the law.
NASA initially declined to provide copies of any communications it had with Culberson about the meeting. SpacePolicyOnline.com filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the agency for "all correspondence between NASA and the House Appropriations Committee in August or September 2015 in which NASA makes the certifications required by law regarding bilateral interactions with China with respect to space cooperation in conjunction with the meeting held in China on that topic in late September 2015."
Today NASA provided SpacePolicyOnline.com with two such letters. The first was sent by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on July 31 notifying Culberson that NASA would participate in the State Department-led meeting and making the required certifications. The second was signed by NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski on September 16 restating the certifications and providing an agenda for the meeting in Beijing on September 28, as well as an earlier meeting at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on September 23. The Radzanowski letter references a July 22 letter from Bolden to Culberson, but NASA did not provide that in response to SpacePolicyOnline.com's FOIA request. It predated the July 31 letter that NASA did provide. (Our original request for all correspondence between NASA and the committee in August or September 2015 related to the meeting with China was rejected because it was not specific enough, so we resubmitted it asking for letters where the required certifications were made.)
The Bolden letter was well within the 30-day time limit specified in the law and provided the requisite certifications, but little detail. The Radzanowski letter provided an agenda, list of Chinese participants, location and timing, but was not sent within that time limit.
Rep. Culberson had not responded by press time to a SpacePolicyOnline.com request for any additional comment he might want to make about the information he believes was missing from NASA's communications prior to the meeting.
UPDATE, December 11, 2015: Soyuz TMA-17M landed successfully, although weather conditions at the landing site were very poor and confirmation of landing did not occur until many minutes after the scheduled landing time of 8:12 am EST. Recovery forces are using an expedited procedure to get the crew out of the capsule and onto helicopters.
ORIGINAL STORY, December 10, 2015: Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members are preparing to return to Earth early tomorrow (Friday) morning Eastern Standard Time (EST). NASA's Kjell Lindgren, JAXA's Kimiya Yui and Roscosmos's Oleg Kononenko are scheduled to land in Kazakhstan at 8:12 am EST.
The three men launched to the ISS aboard Soyuz TMA-17M on July 22, 2015, giving them almost 5 months on orbit.
Three more crew members will be launched next Tuesday to replace them on Soyuz TMA-19M. That crew includes the first British astronaut sponsored by the British government, Tim Peake.
He is not the first Briton in space, however. Helen Sharman achieved that distinction in 1991 when she flew to Russia's Mir space station as a "tourist." Other people who were born in Britain, but became U.S. citizens before joining the NASA astronaut corps, also have flown. The British government's decision to support a British astronaut as part of the European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut corps is generally seen as an indication that the British government has a more positive view of human exploration than in the past (where space applications has been the predominant theme).
SpaceX announced today that it will conduct a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will be used to launch 11 ORBCOMM OG2 satellites on December 16. If all goes well, the launch will take place "about three days later" or December 19. This will be the first flight of Falcon 9 since its June 28, 2015 launch failure.
Falcon 9 is the only SpaceX rocket currently available and is used for launches of a variety of commercial and government spacecraft, including cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. It was one of those missions, SpaceX CRS-7, or SpX-7, that failed in June. It was launching a Dragon capsule loaded with supplies for the ISS crew.
SpaceX had successfully launched six such operational missions to the ISS previously, including two in 2015, as part of NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. Under the contract, SpaceX and its competitor, Orbital ATK, each are to launch 20 tons of supplies to ISS by the end of 2016. Both companies also received additional launch contracts for 2017 and are vying for more business under NASA's CRS2 contract solicitation. NASA has delayed announcement of the CRS2 contract winners several times already; the current plan is to award those contracts on January 30, 2016.
Orbital ATK also suffered a failure under the CRS contract and just returned its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to flight this weekend, but using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket instead of its own Antares. It is still getting Antares ready to fly again using different engines. The first flight is currently expected in May 2016.
SpaceX is taking a cautious approach in Falcon 9's return to flight. Initially the plan was to launch an SES communications satellite to geostationary orbit on the return-to-flight mission, but that would require a second firing of the Falcon 9's second (or upper) stage. It was the second stage that failed in June. SpaceX decided to launch the ORBCOMM satellites first because they need to go only into low Earth orbit and a second firing is not necessary.
The exact order of SpaceX's next three launches remains a bit unclear. ORBCOMM will be first, but whether SES or the next NASA mission, SpX-8, will be second has not been formally announced. SES's satellite, SES-9, arrived at Cape Canaveral today to be ready for a mid-January launch. NASA ISS Program Director, Kirk Shireman, said last week that January 8 is the earliest that SpX-8 will fly, but that is not a firm date.
ORBCOMM's press release conveyed that its launch date is dependent on the outcome of the December 16 static fire test: "Once the static fire is completed to verify the readiness of the Falcon 9 rocket, ORBCOMM's second OG2 Mission is targeted to launch about three days later between 8:00 PM and 9:00 pm ET." This is second and final launch of ORBCOMM's second generation satellite constellation, OG2, for machine-to-machine communications that allow companies to remotely track, monitor and control fixed and mobile assets from trucks to oil platforms to ships.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted the news:
SpaceX also is trying to land the Falcon 9's first stage back on Earth. To date, attempted "landings" have been just above the ocean or on autonomous drone ships (which many people refer to as a barge, but barges do not have motors and these do), but the goal is to land them back at Cape Canaveral and SpaceX may attempt that with at least one of these missions if it can get the needed approvals.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) today introduced a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating for 5 more days past the Friday deadline when the current CR expires. The hope is that work can be completed on a bill that will fund it for the rest of FY2016 by early next week.
FY2016 began on October 1 and Congress should have passed 12 regular appropriations bills by then to pay for defense and non-defense discretionary federal government activities including DOD, NASA and NOAA. None of those bills cleared Congress and a CR was enacted instead to keep agencies operating at FY2015 levels until agreement could be reached. That CR expires on Friday, December 11.
A budget deal reached at the end of October between the White House and Congress cleared the way for agreement on spending levels, but policy provisions -- "riders" -- continue to hold up final action. It is expected that all 12 bills will be combined into a single consolidated or "omnibus" appropriations bill that provides funding through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2016.
The decision to introduce another short-term CR can be viewed as good news in the sense that it indicates all sides may be close to an agreement if given just a few more days, though critics would argue that sufficient time has passed that they should have been able to get the job done by Friday.
The bill, H.J. Res. 75, would fund government operations at their current level though Wednesday, December 16. Rogers said in a statement that it is his "hope and expectation that a final, full-year bill will be enacted before this new deadline."
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) used Canada's robotic Canadarm2 to capture Orbital ATK's Cygnus capsule at 6:19 am Eastern Standard Time this morning. It will be installed onto the Unity module of the ISS later today.
This is Orbital ATK's fourth operational cargo resupply mission to the ISS -- Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-4 or OA-4. The first two were successful, while the third was lost in the October 2014 Antares launch failure.
This module was launched on Sunday from Cape Canaveral, FL using a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket as Orbital ATK continues to get Antares ready to fly again.
Cygnus is delivering more than 7,000 pounds (3,500 kilograms) of supplies, scientific experiments and equipment to the ISS crew. It is being dubbed Santa's sleigh since it also includes some holiday gifts for the crew, although three of the six will return to Earth on Friday so will be home in time to celebrate with their families. A new three-person crew will be launched next week, restoring the ISS to its usual crew complement of six.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today expressed his support for extending operations of the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024. President Obama just signed legislation codifying his pronouncement last year that the United States intends to operate ISS until then, four years longer than previously announced.
The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency (ESA). Russia and Canada have formally agreed with the U.S. plan, while Japan and ESA have not officially done so.
The Japan Times reported today that Abe stated at a ministerial meeting that Japan supports extending ISS to 2024. It is not clear whether he was formally committing Japan to that time schedule or commenting within the context of Japan's internal deliberations on the future of the facility. No official statement from the Prime Minister's office has been released as of press time.
The newspaper reported that Japan has spent $7.3 billion on ISS to date. Japan built the Kibo (Hope) scientific research module that is part of the U.S. segment of ISS along with ESA's Columbus and the U.S. Destiny science modules (Russia has its own science modules on the Russian segment). The total cost to the United States of building the ISS (not operating it after construction ended in 2011) is estimated to be $60-100 billion depending on factors such as how costs for space shuttle launches are defined (average cost, full cost, or marginal cost) and whether costs are counted beginning when the program began in 1984 or when it was revised to bring in Russian cooperation in 1993. Russia, Canada and ESA have spent their own funds on developing their portion of the ISS. With the exception of Russia, there is no exchange of funds between the United States and the other ISS partners.
Japan also builds and launches Kounotori HTV cargo spacecraft to resupply the ISS about once a year. The most recent, HTV5, was launched in August and deorbited in September. It is the largest of the cargo vehicles currently supporting ISS, capable of delivering about 5.5 metric tons (MT) of supplies, experiments, and equipment. That compares, for example, to the 3.5 MT aboard the upgraded U.S. Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft due to reach ISS tomorrow morning.
Several Japanese astronauts have worked aboard the ISS, including Kimiya Yui who is now on ISS and scheduled to return to Earth on Friday.
President Obama announced in January 2014 that the United States wanted to extend ISS operations to 2024. Congress passed H.R. 2262 last month officially committing the United States to operating ISS "at least" until that time. The President signed that bill into law on November 25.
At first, Russia praised the launch of a Soyuz 2.1v rocket from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Saturday, only the second for this version of Soyuz. It soon became apparent, however, that one of the two payloads, Kanopus-ST, did not separate from the Volga upper stage. The two are expected to reenter imminently.
Twitter is ablaze with postings from experts who analyze the Russian space program and the orbital parameters of space objects based on information from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC). An early announcement in the Russian media that all went according to plan and JSPoC element sets (ELSETS) showing the expected number of objects (three) led to some misunderstanding about what transpired. The addition of a fourth object this evening (Eastern Standard Time) is adding to the confusion.
Space analyst Bob Christy of zarya.info (@zarya_info) told SpacePolicyOnline.com by email the problem was "a separation issue between Volga and the payload. The mechanism failed either totally or in part." The payload that will soon reenter Earth's atmosphere and burn up, Kanopus-ST (or Canopus-ST), or Kosmos 2511, is a "small military satellite with optical and microwave sensors to monitor naval activity on and below the ocean" according to Christy's website. A second payload, Kosmos 2512, did achieve its intended orbit. It is a small military radar calibration satellite per Christy.
RussianSpaceWeb's Anatoly Zak (@russianspaceweb) reports that one of the four latches that connect the payload to the upper stage did not open. He describes the long history of the development of Kanopus-ST, which has a UHF radiometer and a camera for optical imaging of land and ocean surfaces.
As discussed via Twitter by orbit analysts T.S. Kelso (@TSKelso), Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) of Jonathan's Space Report, and Brian Weeden (@brianweeden) of the Secure World Foundation, the fourth object now reported by JSPoC could indicate either the spacecraft finally did separate from the upper stage or is a piece of related debris. All of it will reenter soon.
Perhaps more important to Russia than the loss of the satellite, however, is its ongoing difficulties in conducting rocket launches. Its once sterling reputation has been tarnished over the past five years with repeated failures of several different types of rockets. Another version of Soyuz, the Soyuz 2.1a, which failed to place the Progress M-27M spacecraft loaded with cargo for the International Space Station into the correct orbit in April, is one example, but there are many others. The failures have led to wholesale changes in Russia's space organizational structure, but it seems they have not solved all the problems yet.
Other versions of Soyuz, however, like the Soyuz-U used for sending crews to the International Space Station, are highly reliable.
The Soyuz 2.1v made its first flight in 2013. In one piece of good news for the Russians, the first stage, which performed successfully, is powered by an NK-33 rocket engine. Orbital Sciences Corporation used NK-33s (refurbished in the United States by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26) for the original version of its Antares rocket, but an October 2014 launch failure traced to that engine led the U.S. company to switch to a different Russian engine (RD-181) for future Antares flights.
Zak tweeted soon after the Soyuz 2.1v launch that it "rehabilitated" the NK-33's reputation.
NASA officials told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) that early plans for testing the Orion spacecraft and astronaut crews in cis-lunar space include a "shakedown" cruise where a crew would remain in lunar orbit for a year before an attempt is made to send people all the way to Mars. NAC expressed concern that NASA is not ready to convince a new presidential administration that it is ready to send people to Mars in the 2030s as NASA currently proclaims.
During its December 1-3, 2015 meeting at NASA's Johnson Space Center, NAC members received briefings from NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Bill Gerstenmaier and International Space Station (ISS) Program Director Sam Scimemi about preliminary plans for NASA's human spaceflight program especially in the 2020s. Those include NASA's plans for transitioning off of the ISS in low Earth orbit (LEO) and Exploration Mission (EM) flights of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft beyond LEO. The first SLS/Orion mission, EM-1, is expected in 2018, but will not carry a crew. NASA recently officially stated that the first flight with a crew, EM-2, will come in 2023, although it says it is still working to an internal deadline of 2021, the prior estimate.
Gerstenmaier and his team created a concept for a three-phase program for the future of human spaceflight: "Earth Dependent" -- the current situation with ISS, which relies on frequent resupply missions from Earth; "Proving Ground" -- where crews gain experience in cutting ties with Earth in cis-lunar space (the area between the Earth and the Moon, including lunar orbit), close enough that they can get home in a few days rather than months, but not just a few hours as they can from ISS; and "Earth Independent" -- where crews can survive for longer periods of time without continuous resupply from Earth or real-time communications, such as when they are sent to Mars.
NAC has pressed NASA officials at its quarterly meetings on NASA's exact plans for achieving the goal of sending people to Mars in the 2030s as directed by President Obama. Much of that debate has centered on the difference between a "plan" and a "strategy," with some NAC members insisting that a strategy with at least some deadlines and objectives is needed to build public support. Gerstenmaier has assiduously declined to get into specifics, arguing that maximum flexibility is needed so the effort can respond to changing political and financial support as the years go by. He calls it the Evolvable Mars Campaign.
Technology development is fundamental to any effort to send people to Mars and one focus of the NAC meeting was whether NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has the right program with the necessary level of funding to ensure success. Congress routinely cuts the President's budget request for STMD, forcing it to pick and choose which technologies to develop.
After reviewing a technology risk/challenges matrix for sending people to Mars developed by STMD and comparing it to likely STMD funding, Bill Ballhaus, chair of NAC's Technology, Innovation and Engineering (TI&E) committee, reported that his committee does not think NASA is ready to make any commitments about when humans will reach Mars. Ballhaus is a former NASA center director, Lockheed Martin executive, and President of the Aerospace Corporation. He said it "probably doesn't make a lot of sense" to talk about going to Mars now from a technology standpoint. Instead, he thinks NASA should focus on the Proving Ground missions to generate "urgency" for investing in the technologies needed to get people to Mars.
NAC member Tom Young, also a former NASA center director and Lockheed Martin executive, expressed concern that focusing only on cis-lunar missions in the Proving Ground, rather than the longer term goal of Mars, would be a "death knell." Ballhaus replied that his committee's conclusion was "not the outcome we wanted." It wanted a plan from NASA/STMD that would "generate urgency for investing in technology programs," but that is not what it found. "This is where we are. We might as well face up to it," Ballhaus said.
During the three-day discussion, Young also expressed concern that NASA cannot afford to support the International Space Station (ISS) and a human exploration program beyond LEO simultaneously.
Gerstenmaier emphatically disagreed, asserting he can accomplish EM-2, -3 and -4 while still operating ISS under currently planned NASA budget levels. "I can do up to EM-4 at today's budget levels," he admonished the council.
To make the transition from Proving Ground to Earth Independent, Scimemi outlined NASA's current thoughts about the cadence of EM missions in the 2020s that would lead up to a year-long "shakedown" cruise in cis-lunar space before anyone embarks on a lengthy trip to Mars and back. Using today's chemical propulsion, it takes at least 6 months to reach Mars, another 6 months to return, and a set period of time, which varies, at Mars while the Earth and Mars become properly aligned for the return trip.
The shakedown cruise nominally would take place around 2029, Scimemi said. Such long duration missions will require a habitation module in addition to the Orion spacecraft and Scimemi revealed that NASA is doing trade studies on whether it is better to launch a single "monolithic" module intact or launch several smaller pieces that would be assembled in orbit. SLS could launch a 40-50 metric ton (MT) monolithic module on a single launch, or smaller 10 MT pieces when it is being used to launch other payloads, he explained.
Scimemi's overall presentation was focused on what comes next after the ISS in LEO. President Obama just signed a law that commits the United States to operating ISS until 2024 (Russia and Canada have agreed to this new schedule; Japan and Europe have not yet), but what happens after that is an open question. Some ISS advocates argue for operating at least until 2028, the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first modules, but few expect the facility to last beyond that. Scimemi called 2028 the "engineering date" for the end of ISS, but left no room for doubt that ultimately there will be an end. "Station will have an end date. Parts will come down in the South Pacific," he acknowledged. The key is for NASA and its partners to make "intelligent decisions" about how the transition to the future takes place.
What's next, then? Gerstenmaier underscored that NASA is "moving out" of LEO and it is up to the private sector to fund, launch, and operate future LEO infrastructure. He has been saying in many venues over the past year or more that he does not expect any expensive ISS-like facility, but single purpose stations, like a Dragon or Cygnus capsule or a Bigelow expandable module, to meet needs defined by non-NASA users. He noted at the NAC meeting that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is reaching out to the Department of Commerce to figure out how to incentivize the private sector in this area: "This agency [NASA] is not about economic development. They are."
NAC member and former astronaut Ken Bowersox argued that NASA will continue to need access to LEO if for no other reason than to allow astronauts some experience before they sign on to longer duration missions. Several NAC members were skeptical about the commercial potential, too. They agreed NASA should encourage the private sector, but not rely on it to build future LEO facilities.
All in all, NAC members seemed uneasy about NASA's strategy for getting people to Mars and how it is communicating with the public and political stakeholders. The latter is particularly important, as Young pointed out, with an election less than a year away. "I think we are ill prepared for the debate the next administration will want," he warned. "We are on a path that maximizes the probability of losing. If someone asked me what's the plan to get to Mars, I'd say there isn't one." He pointed out that one of the major factors that doomed the Constellation program begun under the George W. Bush Administration was that it did not win support by the new Obama Administration in its first budget request, initiating the Augustine Committee review instead.
NAC Chairman Steve Squyres agreed that Young "hit on a critical point" and a technology investment plan, including the shakedown cruise by 2029, is needed before a new administration writes its first budget.
In the end, NAC agreed on one recommendation and one finding, subject to further editing by Squyres and NAC staff, as follows:
On Thursday, PlanetIQ announced that it signed a contract with India's Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), to launch the company's first two microsatellites in late 2016. At the same time, the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) is set to discuss Antrix's plans to compete for U.S. satellite launches.
PlanetIQ is planning a constellation of 18 satellites by 2020 to provide radio occulation (RO) data to feed into numerical weather models on a commercial basis. This method uses signals from Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) like the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) to make measurements of temperature and water vapor in the lower parts of the atmosphere. Added to data from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better forecasts are enabled. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is partnered with the U.S. Air Force and Taiwan on COSMIC (Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate), a set of six microsatellites launched in 2006, and is planning COSMIC-2, to obtain such data today. PlanetIQ says its sensor, Pyxis-RO, "quadruples the data collection capability of existing sensors" because it can track signals from all four GNSS systems in the world -- GPS, Russia's GLONASS, Europe's Galileo, and China's Beidou.
The first two PlanetIQ microsatellites, which weigh only 10 kilograms each, will fly on an ISRO PSLV rocket in late 2016, the company said in a press release. It added that 10 more will be launched in 2017, but did not specify what rocket will be used. Those 12 microsatellites will create an initial constellation, with six more microsatellites to follow. Terms of the Antrix contract, such as price, were not disclosed.
COMSTAC will discuss Antrix's plans to move into the U.S. market during a telecon onThursday. COMSTAC chairman Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace told SpacePolicyOnline.com today via email that the issue came before COMSTAC in response to a request from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) at COMSTAC's October 2015 meeting. USTR wants feedback from the committee on expansion of domestic access to Indian launch vehicles. COMSTAC's consideration is not specifically related to PlanetIQ or any other company's arrangement, Gold added.
The minutes of the October 2015 COMSTAC meeting say that USTR's Samuel duPont made a presentation to COMSTAC's International Space Policy Working Group on Antrix's plans. "There is concern around whether Antrix will have an unfair advantage over domestic private sector competition, since it is an Indian governmental entity," as reported in the minutes.
That COMSTAC working group will meet for the first half of Thursday's telecon, followed by a meeting of the full COMSTAC, to potentially develop findings and/or recommendations. They also will discuss whether FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation should engage with the European Space Agency (ESA) about potential commercial involvement in ESA's lunar village concept.
Events of Interest