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NASA to Hold Public Forum with Update on Asteroid Initiative Next Month

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Feb-2014 (Updated: 21-Feb-2014 08:08 AM)

NASA will hold a public forum in Washington, DC next month to provide an update on its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   Due to space limitations, only 150 people will be able to attend the meeting in person, although it will also be webcast.

The forum will be held on March 26, 2014 from 12:30-4:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) in the James E. Webb auditorium at NASA Headquarters.  Instructions on viewing the webcast will be posted at in due course according to the announcement published in today's Federal Register.

Topics on the agenda include:

  • Update on ARM studies
  • Technology needs for ARM
  • Mission capabilities extension to commercial application and human-class Mars missions
  • Broad Agency Announcement for alternate capture systems concepts, rendezvous sensor systems, secondary payloads, and commercial and international partnership opportunities
  • Asteroid Grand Challenge engagement opportunities

Online registration is required and opens on Monday, February 24, at





Google Lunar X Prize Picks Teams from US, Japan, Germany and India for Prize Purse

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Feb-2014 (Updated: 19-Feb-2014 04:53 PM)

Google Lunar X PRIZE (GLXP) selected five teams as finalists for Milestone Prizes worth a total of $6 million today in the effort's quest to incentivize privately funded teams to send a robotic rover to the surface of the Moon by the end of 2015.  The winner of the overall competition will receive a grand prize of $20 million.

The Milestone Prizes are an optional part of the competition and provide funding to competitors to demonstrate hardware and software that will overcome technical risks associated with their missions.  If a winner of a Milestone Prize wins the overall competition, the money is subtracted from the $20 million.  The same is true for a second place finish, which wins $5 million.   Teams that do not win first or second place keep the money.

The goal of the competition is to land a rover on the Moon that then travels at least 500 meters and transmits high definition video and imagery to Earth.  The deadline for achieving the goal is December 31, 2015.  Bonus Prizes totaling $4 million can be won if the rover survives the lunar night, travels more than 5 kilometers, detects water, or makes a precision landing near an Apollo lunar landing site or other place of interest. 

Eighteen teams remain in the race, which began in 2007.

The five teams announced today were selected by an independent panel of nine judges who made awards in three categories: Landing System Milestone Prize ($1 million per team), Mobility System Milestone Prize ($500,000 per team), and Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize ($250,000 per team).

The five teams and the categor(ies) in which they won are:

  • Astrobotic (U.S.) -- all three categories, for a potential total of $1.75 million
  • Moon Express (U.S.) -- all three categories, for a potential total of $1.75 million
  • Team Indus (India) -- Landing System and Imaging Subsystem, for a potential total of $1.25 million
  • Hakuto (Japan) -- Mobility System, for a potential total of $500,000
  • Part-Time-Scientists (Germany) - Mobility System and Imaging Subsystem, for a potential total of $750,000

The teams were required to submit details on the technical risks they face and how they plan to solve them.  To win the prizes announced today, they must accomplish those plans in accordance with milestones provided in their submissions.  Teams are expected to meet all the milestones by September 30, 2014.

Governments are not allowed to participate directly in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, nor are nationals and residents of certain countries restricted by U.S. export laws or sanctions (including Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria).

As the name implies, the Prize is sponsored by Google and administered through the X PRIZE Foundation.


Space Policy Events for February 17-21, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Feb-2014 (Updated: 16-Feb-2014 06:29 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.   The House and Senate are in recess this week:  Monday is a federal holiday -- Presidents' Day -- commemorating the birthdays of Presidents Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22).

During the Week

It's a quiet week from a space policy perspective, but the departure of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus spacecraft from the International Space Station (ISS) early Tuesday morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and the launch of an Air Force GPS satellite from Cape Canaveral on Thursday should be of interest more generally.  Cygnus will be unberthed on Tuesday, ending the Orb-1 mission, Orbital's first operational Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA.   The spacecraft is being loaded with trash and will burn up on reentry Wednesday.  The launch of the 5th GPS Block IIF satellite (GPSIIF5) aboard an Atlas V is scheduled for Thursday at 8:40 pm EST with a 19 minute launch window.  Weather is 80% go at the moment.

While not directly space-related, CSIS is having a meeting on Tuesday morning about National Security and Economic Issues in Spectrum Allocation that also could prove interesting.   Government (DOD, FCC, NTIA) and industry (AT&T, T-Mobile) will discuss the thorny issues of how to allocate spectrum to satisfy the insatiable demand for this limited natural resource.

Here's a list of the events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, February 18

Wednesday, February 19

Thursday, February 20

Public Lecture on Exoplanets and Alien Life Highlights SSB's Space Science Week

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Feb-2014 (Updated: 15-Feb-2014 01:05 PM)

The National Research Council's Space Studies Board (SSB) will hold a second annual Space Science Week from March 3-5.   This time the highlight of the space science confab will be a public lecture by renowned planetary scientist and physicist Sara Seager from MIT on Tuesday night, March 4, in the auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences building.

SSB's Space Science Week brings together its four current standing committees to meet in parallel and plenary sessions:  Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space, Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Committee on Solar and Space Physics.   Many of the committee sessions also are open to the public, but the Seager session is meant for the general public as well as specialists.  As the SSB says, the lecture "is accessible to explorers of all ages."  It begins at 6:30 pm EST.

The National Academy of Sciences building is located at 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W. in Washington, DC.   It also is the venue for the committee meetings.  A draft schedule and online registration (highly recommended) instructions are on the SSB's website.

The Canadian-born Seager received a BSc in math and physics from the University of Toronto and a PhD in physics from Harvard.  She then joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton where the late astrophysicist John Bahcall encouraged her interest in exoplanets -- planets around other stars -- a mostly theoretical field of study at the time.  She is now a professor of planetary science and physics at MIT focusing on theoretical models of the atmospheres and interiors of exoplanets.  The title of her March 4 lecture is "Exoplanets and the Real Search for Alien Life."

 MIT professor of planetary science and physics Sara Seager.  Photo credit:  Space Studies Board website.

Thornburgh Report Notes "Tension" Between International Cooperation and Security at NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Feb-2014 (Updated: 13-Feb-2014 09:48 PM)

The executive summary of a report chaired by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh on security issues at NASA acknowledges the "tension" between NASA's charter to encourage international cooperation and its requirement to safeguard sensitive and proprietary information.  The report was requested by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who urged NASA to release the complete report.

Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and has expressed deep concern over the past several years about NASA allowing access to its facilities to foreign nationals, especially those from China.   Last year he urged NASA to commission an independent study from an organization like the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) chaired by someone like Thornburgh to look at NASA's Foreign National Access Management (FNAM) policies.   NASA complied, using NAPA and Thornburgh to review its FNAM program.  The report was recently provided to Wolf, but with restricted access.

In a statement yesterday, Wolf called on NASA to release the entire report with any necessary redactions to protect national security.  His office released his response to the study via email with several attachments including the executive summary of the Thornburgh report and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden's February 7, 2014 letter to Thornburgh responding to the study.  NAPA does not appear to have posted the executive summary on its website yet.

The executive summary notes that "Foreign national participation in NASA programs and projects is an inherent and essential element in NASA operations. ... There is a fundamental tension between NASA's charter to work cooperatively and share information with other nations while simultaneously safeguarding its sensitive and proprietary information and assets from those same nations."  The executive summary goes on to lament budget and personnel cuts that have "made management of NASA's security programs difficult" while adding that "strong leadership, which [the panel] believes NASA has, can accomplish much of what is recommended within existing resource limitations."

The executive summary says that the report makes 27 recommendations grouped into six topics:

  • Managing Foreign National Access Management as a program
  • Reducing the flexibility given to centers to interpret FNAM requirements
  • Determining critical assets and building mechanisms to protect them
  • Correcting longstanding information technology security issues
  • Changing several aspects of NASA culture
  • Communicating the importance of these changes clearly, firmly and consistently

The recommendations themselves are not included in the executive summary.

Bolden's response says that he directed "appropriate NASA offices to examine each recommendation and, where appropriate, to incorporate the panel's recommendation into our processes or identify any barriers to implementation..."   He then lays out where he agrees or not with the panel.  He agrees with the need for a more integrated FNAM program, the need to improve information technology security, and the need for a more systemic and standardized approach to NASA's export control processes.  He also agreed to elevate awareness of NASA's counterintelligence program, but disagreed with the panel's implementation recommendation regarding the reporting structure for Special Agents vis a vis Center Directors.  "NASA believes the underlying factors for the panel's recommendation can be achieved with an increased focus on the relationship between counterintelligence personnel and their respective Center leadership teams, without eliminating the benefits of the current management approach."

Bolden also responded to the panel's finding that NASA "may have a tendency not to be a 'learning culture' by arguing that "NASA's culture combines the richness of diversity and appropriately healthy competition among our Centers, while fostering an overall NASA team environment." 

Rep. Wolf "Taken Aback" by Security Challenges at NASA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Feb-2014 (Updated: 13-Feb-2014 06:02 PM)

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) says that he was "taken aback" at security challenges identified at NASA by an independent report commissioned by NASA at Wolf's request.  The report was led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh under the auspices of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).

Eleven months ago, Wolf blasted NASA for what he termed a "management culture that turns a blind eye, or in some cases may outright encourage, violations of security regulations."   He laid out seven steps he wanted NASA to follow to rectify the situation and recommended that NASA ask an independent entity like NAPA to conduct a study chaired by someone like Thornburgh.   Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.    The agency followed that direction.

Wolf's statement yesterday was in response to the resulting report, which has not been made public.  He said: "Frankly, I was taken aback at the breadth and depth of security challenges identified across NASA and I am deeply disappointed the agency has restricted access to the report.  The report should be made public as soon as possible, with any necessary redactions in the interest of national security, because it confirms not only the serious security challenges that need to be addressed, but a persistent organizational culture that fails to hold center leadership, employees and contractors accountable for security violations.  This must change."

Wolf has expressed deep concern over the past several years about NASA's Langley Research Center and Ames Research Center, in particular, with regard to allowing foreign nationals -- especially Chinese -- to have access to their facilities.

U.S., France Herald Space Cooperation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Feb-2014 (Updated: 13-Feb-2014 05:45 PM)

In conjunction with French President Francois Hollande's visit to Washington, the White House issued two facts sheets heralding U.S.-French cooperation on a range of security and science and technology issues, including space.

The fact sheet on U.S-France Security Cooperation summarized cooperation in operations and planning, exercise and training programs, exchange personnel, space, cybersecurity, acquisition, nuclear security, and countering nuclear terrorism.  It points to an agreement between the French Ministry of Defense and U.S. Strategic Command on space situational awareness signed on January 21 as an example of how the two countries are working together to enhance spaceflight safety and reduce the risk of collisions.  It also notes that the two countries are working on "bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space."

In the civil space arena, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency CNES, signed an agreement on Monday (February 10) regarding cooperation on NASA's 2016 Mars mission, InSight.   CNES is providing (along with several other European countries) the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument for that mission.    A separate White House fact sheet on U.S-French Cooperation on Science and Technology notes that agreement as well as another agreement still being negotiated on solar activity and space weather.  Cooperative earth science missions also warranted a mention.

Le Gall was on the guest list for the White House state dinner on Tuesday night, though Bolden was not.   Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, was invited, however, which may have provided an opportunity for interesting discussions about "traditional space" versus "NewSpace", since Le Gall previously was President of Arianespace, Europe's launch services provider.

China's Xinhua Finally Confirms Yutu is Awake

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Feb-2014 (Updated: 12-Feb-2014 11:44 PM)

China's official news agency, Xinhua, finally confirmed that the Yutu lunar rover has awakened from its 14-day long dormancy, though the health of the rover remains a little unclear.

China revealed on January 25 that Yutu suffered a "mechanical abnormality" as it entered the lunar night.   China itself provided few details about the problem, but western sources speculated that the rover's mast (with its camera and antenna) and one of the two solar panels had not stowed themselves properly to protect the interior of the rover during the cold of the lunar night.

Sunlight returned to Yutu's landing site over the weekend and planetary scientists were eagerly awaiting word on whether Yutu survived.  Conflicting stories were posted on various websites today, but the first hard news came late this afternoon Eastern Standard Time (EST) via tweets from @UHF_Satcom that signals were detected from the rover. 

Xinhua finally confirmed that Yutu is alive, quoting Pei Zhaoyu of the lunar probe program as saying "Yutu has come back to life."   The Xinhua article goes on, however, to paint a picture of uncertainty about the rover's future. Quoting Pei again, it reports "The rover stands a chance of being saved now that it is still alive."  That suggests there is also a chance that it might not be able to be saved.

The rover was designed to survive three day/night cycles (each day and each night is 14 Earth days long); this was the second.  Little has been said about the stationary Chang'e-3 lander that delivered Yutu to the lunar surface and has its own scientific instruments.  Chang'e-3 and Yutu landed on December 14, 2013.  They are China's first spacecraft to make a survivable landing on the Moon.  Chang'e is the name of China's mythological goddess of the Moon.  Yutu is her companion Jade Rabbit.

China's Yutu rover on the lunar surface as seen from a camera on the Chang'e-3 lander.  Photo credit:  tweet from @XHNews, December 22, 2013.

China's Yutu Lunar Rover OK Per Western Source

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Feb-2014 (Updated: 12-Feb-2014 11:45 PM)

England's @UHF_Satcom tweeted this afternoon that it has picked up signals from China's Yutu rover.   The health of the rover has been in question since January 25.  While not an official Chinese source of information, it does seem to represent good news.

One tweet reported: "Chang'e 3 YUTU lander is alive!  Xband signals detected from moon and also EME reflection of Chinese TTC uplink on 7.2GHZ - pics to follow!  -- UHF Satcom (@uhf_satcom) February 12, 2014."

Another added:  "And, the signal we've all been waiting for, direct downlink from the Yutu rover! a pretty good signal!  -- UHF Satcom (@uhf_satcom) February 12 2014."

A third went further:  " Doppler corrected signal from Yutu rover, pretty strong signals, in fact almost the best I have seen! I need a QSL!"

For more information, check @UHF_Satcom's Twitter feed and the website.

The English language versions of China's official Xinhua website, China Daily, and CCTV have not reported on Yutu yet.

Editor's note:  We tried embedding the tweets in this story, and to click on the links provided in them, without success.  A browser other than IE11 may be needed to successfully use those links.

Waiting for Word on Yutu's Fate - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Feb-2014 (Updated: 12-Feb-2014 09:56 AM)

UPDATE, February 12, 9:30 am ET:   China's official news agency, Xinhua, still has not posted any news about Yutu on its English language website (   However, @jeff_foust and @cosmic_penguin separately tweeted links this morning to two articles that tell conflicting stories about Yutu's health.  The first, from, states in English that Yutu "could not be restored to full function" and "has been unable to function" since January 25.  The other, from, is in Chinese.  A Google translation is far from smooth, but holds out hope.  Here's an extract:  "Chang E III core staff just ... told reporters: 'Little Rabbit situation is getting better, a little longer wake signs, ...' Bunny, come on!"  @cosmic_penguin, who is based in Hong Kong (and presumably doesn't need Google to translate the text), tweeted that the article says Yutu is "showing 'signs of activity'" with the last three words in quotes as though they are from the article, but Google translate didn't use them.

ORIGINAL STORY, February 10, 9:50 pm ET:  China has made no announcement about the fate of its Yutu lunar rover.  A malfunction occurred as the rover entered the 14-day lunar "night" on January 25.  Sunlight has returned to Yutu's location, but the Chinese media have not said one way or the other if the rover woke up.

China's Chang'e-3 lander and its Yutu rover arrived at the Moon on December 14, 2013 Eastern Standard Time (EST).  Chang'e is the name of China's mythological goddess of the Moon and Yutu is her companion Jade Rabbit.

The rover was designed to operate through three day/night periods, but as it entered the second lunar night on January 25, Chinese media reported that a mechanical malfunction took place jeopardizing the rover's future operations.  Western press reports said the problem likely was with the sequence for stowing the rover's mast (with its antenna and camera) and solar panels for the cold lunar nights.  By folding down the mast into the interior and using one of the two solar panels as a cover, the interior of the rover would be protected from the cold (the second solar panel remains in position to catch the rising Sun).   Without the protection, the rover would essentially freeze to death.

The Planetary Society's blog is one forum for discussion about the rover's fate.   A message posted there yesterday cites an article from China's Weibo news service as saying that sunrise arrived at Yutu's site (Rainbow Bay), but offered only hope that Yutu would resume operations.   A Google translation of the Weibo text is as follows:  "Rainbow Moon Bay yesterday ushered in Sunrise, after today (February 10) 15:00 we will hopefully get back to the news rabbit, rabbit numbers confirm, whether safe or unable to move."   Converting the time zones, 15:00 February 10 was 2:00 am EST today.

It simply may be too early for Chinese engineers to know if the rover is still operational.  Chang'e-3 and Yutu are China's first spacecraft to make a survivable landing on the Moon, so even if Yutu does not operate for the expected period of time, the achievement remains a feather in China's cap.

China's Yutu lunar rover on the surface of the Moon as seen from a camera on the Chang'e-3 lander.  Photo Credit:  tweet from @XHNews December 22, 2013.


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