Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

Civil News

More Clues, But Still No Certainty, About Europa Plumes

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Sep-2016 (Updated: 27-Sep-2016 07:30 AM)

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have collected and analyzed data that offer more evidence -- but not certainty -- that plumes of water vapor are escaping from the ocean that lies beneath miles of ice on Jupiter's moon Europa.   Such plumes are known to exist on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus and scientists see parallels at Europa, but the data remain inconclusive.  At the direction of Congress, notably Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), NASA is developing a spacecraft to visit Europa in the 2020s.  Since life as we know it requires water, and there is water on Europa, Culberson and others believe life will be found there.

The observations that were the subject of NASA's teleconference today were made in 2014.  It has taken that long for the data to be crunched, which required significant software development, and verified and a paper written for publication.

William Sparks, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, discussed the findings of his team, which will be published later this week in the Astrophysical Journal.  He was very cautious, however, noting repeatedly that the observations were made "at the limits" of what can be done with Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) instrument in the far ultraviolet (UV) band of the electromagnetic spectrum. 

The findings are based on imaging observations of what may be water vapor erupting into space through cracks in Europa's icy crust.  If true, a spacecraft orbiting Europa might be able to dip down and fly through the plumes to study the constituents of that ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.

This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes, photographed by NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity allowed for the features -- rising over 100 miles (160 kilometers) above Europa’s icy surface -- to be discerned. The water is believed to come from a subsurface ocean on Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. The image of Europa, superimposed on the Hubble data, is assembled from data from the Galileo and Voyager missions.Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

This is not the first time that scientists have observed what may be plumes on Europa.  In 2013, a team led by Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX announced they thought they had detected water vapor plumes using the same instrument, STIS, but a different method, spectroscopy.

The plumes are erratic, however, and because both the Roth and Sparks observations were made at the limits of Hubble's capabilities, skepticism remains. NASA's press release about today's teleconference said the topic was "evidence of surprising activity on Europa."  As the teleconference progressed and the scientists continued to emphasize that the findings are not definitive, the question arose as to what was "surprising."  One of the participants, Britney Schmidt of Georgia Tech, an expert on the Enceladus plumes who compared them to what was observed about Europa, replied: "I am not surprised, but I am excited, and skeptical."

Sparks himself explained that it is not possible to say with certainty whether what was observed was plumes or an effect of the Hubble instrument itself. While the results are "statistically significant" and he did not know of any natural phenomenon other than plumes to explain the data, he could not rule out that they do not completely understand how the STIS instrument on Hubble works in this type of observation campaign.  Repeated observations using STIS would help determine the characteristics of the instrument and make his team feel more confident, he added.

Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, offered that what is exciting about the Sparks observations is that they complement those made by the Roth team.  Roth used spectroscopy, Sparks used imaging -- different approaches that produced independent evidence of the plumes. 

Culberson, who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, is the most enthusiastic politician in favor of sending a spacecraft to investigate Europa.  He has added money to NASA's budget for the past several years to pay for such a mission even though it was not in NASA's budget plan.   He has specified not only that NASA send a spacecraft to orbit Europa, but to land there.   In this year's report on the FY2017 CJS appropriations bill, he did agree that the two spacecraft could be launched separately, in 2022 and 2024 respectively, and he wants NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) to be used to launch both of them.

In a statement today, he again stressed that he wants an orbiter and a lander.  "These giant water plumes will make it possible to sample Europa's ocean from the surface lander which will touch down in about 10 years."

Hubble's STIS instrument was repaired on the last Hubble servicing mission in 2009.  John Grunsfeld, a NASA astronaut who later became NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, was one of the space shuttle crew members who fixed the instrument.  He left NASA earlier this year.

NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz and Wiseman both extolled the capabilities of Hubble as a result of that servicing mission as evidenced by these findings,  Culberson agreed, saying that Grunsfeld's "repair work has helped strengthen support" for the Europa mission.

Europa project scientist Curt Neibur, who also participated in the teleconference, stressed that the Europa mission is not being designed to detect life, but to determine habitability -- is the environment conducive to the development of life.  He said there is a vigorous and ongoing debate in the science community as to what instruments would be needed to detect life itself elsewhere in the solar system.

Hertz noted that Hubble recently was approved for another two years of operations as part of NASA's Senior Review process, adding that he expects it to continue operating as long as it has scientific value, which hopefully will be after the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is operating so the two telescopes can provide complementary observations.  JWST is designed to study the solar system and universe in the infrared (IR) band, rather than these UV observations using STIS.   It is scheduled for launch in 2018 and Wiseman said it also will be used to look for Europa plumes, allowing observations of transitions of water molecules in the IR band that are not visible in the UV band.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 26-30, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Sep-2016 (Updated: 26-Sep-2016 09:33 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 26-30, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's quite a week coming up!  

For the country: the first of the three presidential debates is tomorrow (Monday) and Congress hopefully will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating after Friday when fiscal year 2016 ends. The House and Senate are still working on the details of their separate versions of the CR, but they have five days left. Typically they leave appropriations deals to the last minute with the expectation that a hard deadline makes people more willing to compromise.  The alternative is a government shutdown, which is not an appealing prospect in an election year.  Word is the CR will keep the government open through December 9, by which time Congress must pass either another CR or, better yet, the actual FY2017 appropriations measures.  Typically Congress combines all 12 regular appropriations bills into a single "omnibus" measure, but House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly would prefer several smaller "minibuses" dealing with two or three of them at a time.  The exception may be the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill, which the House wants to include in the CR this week.  We'll see if the Senate is willing to go along with that. 

For the space policy community: the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico.  IAC is the BIG international conference that combines annual meetings of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and the International Institute of Space Law (IISL).   IAC will webcast all the plenary sessions.  The one that has generated the most buzz is on Tuesday when Elon Musk will lay out his plans for making humanity a multiplanet species.  It's at 1:30 pm local time in Guadalajara, which is on Central Daylight Time.  So that's 2:30 pm Eastern.

Two congressional hearings of note are also scheduled for this week, both on Tuesday (most congressional hearings are webcast on the respective committee's website).  In the morning, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Space Subcommittee asks "Are We Losing the Space Race to China?" and four witnesses will give their answers:  Dennis Shea, chairman of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission; Mark Stokes from the Project 2049 Institute; Dean Cheng from the Heritage Foundation; and Jim Lewis from CSIS.  

That afternoon, the House Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces Subcommittee will hear from three eminent experts on the topic of "National Security Space: 21st Century Challenges, 20th Century Organization."  The witnesses are John Hamre, former Deputy Secretary of Defense; Adm. James Ellis, Jr. (Ret.), former commander of U.S. Strategic Command; and Marty Faga, former Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and former President and CEO of the MITRE Corporation.  The great advantage of being "former," of course, is that one can speak freely.  Should be especially interesting.  

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

Monday, September 26

Monday-Friday, September 26-30

Tuesday, September 27

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 27-28

Wednesday-Friday, September 28-30

Thursday, September 29

Thursday-Friday, September 29-30


Correction:  An earlier edition of this article listed the Beckman Center in Irvine, CA as the location of the National Academies Workshop Planning Committee meeting on September 27-28.  It will be held in Washington, DC, not at Beckman.  The workshop itself, scheduled for December 5-6, will be held at Beckman.

SpaceX Knows What Happened on September 1, But Not Why

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Sep-2016 (Updated: 24-Sep-2016 10:04 PM)

SpaceX is still studying 3,000 channels of engineering data to determine the root cause of the September 1 on-pad fire that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite.  A preliminary review has determined it was a breach of a second stage helium system, but why it happened still is unknown.  The company nevertheless said it anticipates returning to flight as early as November.

The "anomaly" took place during a routine pre-launch test two days prior to when the launch was scheduled. 

In a statement on its website, the company says a "large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place. All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated."  

The only Falcon 9 launch failure to date, on June 28, 2015, was also caused by a problem in the second stage.  In that case, SpaceX was launching its seventh Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission, CRS-7, for NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Dragon spacecraft.   Dragon and the cargo were destroyed.

Although that failure and the September 1 anomaly involved the second stage, SpaceX says that "we have exonerated any connection with last year's CRS-7 mishap."

The Amos-6 satellite that was lost is a commercial satellite owned by Israel's Spacecom, so this was a commercial launch for a commercial customer.  The FAA regulates commercial space launches like this one and under its rules the launch service provider, not the government, is in charge of the investigation.  However, the launch service provider, SpaceX in this case, may invite whoever it wants to participate in the investigation.

SpaceX said the Accident Investigation Team includes SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts.  NASA and the Air Force are SpaceX customers, and Space X leases launch pads from both agencies.

This anomaly took place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's (CCAFS) Launch Complex 40 (LC-40).  SpaceX says that "substantial areas of the pad systems were affected," but others were not, including the Falcon Support Building and a new liquid oxygen tank farm.

CCAFS is adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and SpaceX also leases NASA/KSC's Launch Complex-39A for launches of both Falcon 9 and the larger Falcon Heavy.  SpaceX had planned the first test flight of Falcon Heavy from LC-39A this year.   The statement did not indicate whether plans to resume flights in November assumed use of LC-40 or LC-39A.

SpaceX also leases an Air Force pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA for launches to polar orbits and is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.


Senate Commerce and House SS&T Committees Approve Space Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2016 (Updated: 21-Sep-2016 10:22 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee each held markups today of  space-related legislation. The Senate committee approved the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act and the INSPIRE Women Act.  The House committee approved the TREAT Astronauts Act.  Congress is only scheduled to be in session for a few more weeks in 2016, but if all parties are sufficiently motivated to reach compromise, there is more than enough time to get the bills to the President's desk before the end of the 114th Congress.

Senate 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346

Several amendments were adopted to the version of the Senate NASA authorization bill that was introduced last week, S. 3346.  The bill has many wide-ranging provisions, but the main thrust is to provide stability to NASA's human spaceflight program as a presidential transition nears.

The goal is to avoid the type of disruption that happened when President Obama took office and cancelled the George W. Bush-administration's Constellation program.  The goal of that program was to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars.  After bitter negotiations, Congress passed and the President signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that set NASA on its current course of developing the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s and land sometime thereafter.  The current effort rejects the Bush Administration's directive to return humans to the lunar surface (though NASA officials make clear they hope international and/or commercial partners might do so) and instead directs NASA to engage in the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to Mars.

The bill officially establishes in law that human exploration of Mars, including potential human habitation on the surface of Mars, is a NASA objective.  It lauds the progress made by the SLS and Orion programs and requires NASA to submit a critical decision plan and strategic framework laying out the details of how it will achieve the goal of landing humans on Mars.  The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry advocacy group, praised the bill, especially provisions expressing the sense of Congress that the first uncrewed SLS/Orion mission -- Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) -- should take place in 2018 and the first crew mission, EM-2, in 2021.

The bill is decidedly less enthusiastic about ARM.  ARM has two components -- the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) that will send a robotic probe to pluck a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and move it to lunar orbit, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) where astronauts will visit the boulder and collect samples to return to Earth. The bill questions the value of ARRM compared to its costs and requires NASA to submit a report on alternatives for demonstrating the technologies needed for the Mars goal.  However, it does not require that the program be terminated.

The bill authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA for FY2017.  It does not address funding beyond that one year, which begins October 1.  The total is the same as approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which has not been considered by the House yet.  It is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved.  The money is allocated to NASA's budget accounts in line with the Senate Appropriations CJS bill except that the extra $202 million is added to the Exploration account, which pays for SLS and Orion.

During the markup today, Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) noted that the bill authorizes less for science and education than they received in FY2016.  Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida), the top Democrat on the committee and one of the bill's sponsors, replied that the House Appropriations Committee's CJS bill provides more for science and suggested Markey convey his concerns to his former House colleagues apparently in the hope that the appropriations bill would be more generous.   Authorization bills do not provide money at all, they just recommend funding levels.  Only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies like NASA.

The Planetary Society issued a statement praising the bill, especially the requirements for more details on the plans for getting humans to Mars, but it also "urged" NASA's authorizing committees to work closely with appropriators "to ensure that funding for NASA's leading science programs is sufficient to fully carry out the priorities" determined through the National Academies Decadal Survey process.

The bill is bipartisan.  It was introduced by three Republicans and three Democrats and most of the amendments also had bipartisan sponsorship.  The amendments mostly make refinements to existing language, but Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) sponsored one that adds a new section directing NASA essentially to embrace satellite servicing for science and human exploration missions. 

The Gardner amendment requires the NASA Administrator to identify "orbital assets" in both of those mission directorates that could "benefit from satellite-servicing related technologies" and "evaluate opportunities for the private sector to perform such services or advance technical capabilities by leveraging the technologies and techniques developed by NASA programs and other industry programs."

NASA is pursuing the RESTORE-L program, which is focused on demonstrating satellite servicing of a government satellite -- Landsat 7 -- in low Earth orbit (LEO).  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own program for servicing satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) -- Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS).   Meanwhile, two companies are pursuing their own satellite servicing systems -- Orbital ATK and SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral).  In an emailed statement to, Mike Gold, SSL Vice President for Washington Operations, thanked the committee for including the provision.  He called satellite servicing "a critical capability not only for NASA but for commercial activities and national security interests," adding that "leveraging the commercial satellite servicing capabilities that will result" from programs like RESTORE-L and RSGS "represents a commonsense approach to maintain America's space leadership" and create jobs.

One portion of the bill, entitled the "Scott Kelly Human Spaceflight and Exploration Act," includes a section on "Medical Monitoring and Research Relating to Human Space Flight."  It authorizes NASA to provide medical monitoring, diagnosis and treatment of current U.S. government astronauts and former U.S. government astronauts and payload specialists for psychological and medical conditions associated with their spaceflights. The House committee held a hearing on this topic in June and marked up a bill specifically on this issue today, which is discussed below.

House/Senate INSPIRE Women Act, H.R 4755

The Senate committee also approved the Inspiring Next Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755, without amendment.  The bill already has passed the House.  It requires the NASA Administrator to take steps to encourage women to study STEM education fields.   No money is authorized.

House TREAT Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076

The House committee approved the To Research, Evaluate, Assess and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076, which was introduced yesterday.  The committee held a hearing in June on the topic of lifetime medical care for astronauts.  Not all former astronauts are guaranteed medical care after they leave government service and NASA also wants to be able to monitor astronauts over their lifetimes to determine any long term psychological and medical effects of spaceflight. 

Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) explained that the bill covers any gaps for former astronauts who are not covered by either the military's TRICARE program or the civilian Federal Employees Claims Act.   Space Subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), who represents the district that includes NASA's Johnson Space Center where many former astronauts live, called it a "common sense, fiscally responsible" bill to ensure former astronauts receive support for medical issues associated with their spaceflights.

This House bill and the provision in the Senate NASA authorization bill are tightly written as to who is covered, though the definitions are somewhat different.  Also, the Senate language is a "sense of Congress" provision that NASA "may" provide such medical services, while the House bill is directive, stating that the Administrator "shall" do it and goes into much more detail.

Aerojet Rocketdyne Makes Case for AR1

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2016 (Updated: 21-Sep-2016 07:43 AM)

Aerojet Rocketdyne's Jim Simpson made the case for the new AR1 rocket engine yesterday explaining that its conservative design and low cost will meet mission assurance and affordability objectives desired by potential customers,   It is on schedule to be ready for certification by 2019 at a cost of $824 million -- $536 million from the government plus $288 million from the company and its industry partners.

Simpson, Aerojet Rocketdyne's Senior Vice President for Strategy and Business Development, spoke to a media roundtable yesterday that was held in conjunction with the Air Force Association's Air, Space, Cyber Conference.  Joining him was Steve Cook, Vice President for Corporate Development at Dynetics, a partner in the AR1 program.

The impetus for developing the AR1 is eliminating U.S. dependence on Russia's RD-180 engines that power the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.  Atlas V is the workhorse for launching national security satellites and is also used for NASA and commercial spacecraft.

ULA agrees on the need to replace the RD-180, although there has been a long debate in Congress over the timing for doing so.  Originally Congress mandated that a new U.S.-built engine be ready by 2019 and prohibited ULA from acquiring RD-180s for use beyond that time. Agreement was recently reached, however, allowing the company to purchase RD-180s through 2022.

Nevertheless, 2019 remains the goal for developing a new engine to allow time for it to be tested and certified as part of a launch system that would be ready by the time RD-180-powered Atlas Vs are no longer available.

ULA plans to replace the Atlas V system with an entirely new rocket, Vulcan, by then.  It announced a partnership two years ago with Blue Origin to use its BE- 4 engine, which is now in development and also intended to be ready by 2019.  BE-4 uses an innovative propellant -- liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquefied natural gas (methane) – instead of LOX/kerosene.

Aerojet Rocketdyne came forward with the AR1 as an alternative to BE-4.  ULA currently plans to choose between BE-4 and AR1 next spring.

Simpson acknowledged that BE-4 is the baseline engine for Vulcan, but he and Cook highlighted what they see as AR1’s advantages starting with the fact that it uses traditional LOX/kerosene and staged combustion and therefore has less risk than BE-4.  They pointed to the engine’s conservative design and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s long track record in rocket engine design, development and production as offering the mission assurance vital to national security satellites in particular.  Simpson added that Atlas Vs fitted with AR1s can use existing Atlas V launch pads, reducing costs as well.

Creating a low cost engine is part of the company’s plan, with a goal of $20-25 million for a pair of AR1s.   The use of additive manufacturing (3D printing) is one route to lower cost.  A 40,000-pound-thrust 3-D printed pre-burner was tested this week, Simpson said, and other components are under consideration, though specifics were not offered.  He said the new incremental-build approach to development will further lower costs.  Each element is built and tested and the system evolves gradually, instead of the test-fail-fix approach where full scale engines are built for testing.

If ULA retires Atlas V as planned and chooses BE-4 for Vulcan, AR1 still could be used for other customers, Cook stressed.  Among them is NASA, which is currently working on the first two versions of the Space Launch System (SLS) that will be able to launch 70 metric tons (MT) and 105 MT respectively.  A 130-MT version is planned for some time in the 2020s and AR1 could be used for that configuration, replacing the solid rocket strap-ons in the current design.

Cook managed the Ares rocket program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center before joining Dynetics in 2009.  Ares was part of the Constellation program, which was cancelled the next year and subsequently replaced by SLS.

Cook explained that NASA and the Air Force each put $21 million into the development of advanced liquid boosters beginning in 2012 and although the effort – Advanced Booster Engineering Demonstration and/or Risk Reduction (ABEDRR) -- was not directly related to AR1, it contributed to risk reduction for liquid propellant engines broadly.

Simpson said the Air Force has committed to spending $115 million for the first phase of AR1 development and a total of $536 million overall.   Aerojet Rocketdyne and its partners have already committed $77 million to date with a total of $288 million assuming the project goes forward.   He added that if the funding profile changes, so could the cost and schedule.

Russia Sets New Launch Date for Soyuz MS-02, Will Reduce Russian Crews to Two

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2016 (Updated: 20-Sep-2016 07:03 AM)

Russia's TASS news service reports today that the new launch date for Soyuz MS-02 is November 1.  The launch had been scheduled for this Friday, September 23, but was postponed for technical reasons.  Separately, Russia has decided to reduce the number of cosmonauts it has aboard the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two in order to reduce resupply requirements.

Soyuz MS-02 is the second launch of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft.  It replaces the Soyuz TMA-M series.  The first Soyuz MS launch similarly was postponed for several days -- from June 24 to July 7.  In that case, the problem reportedly was with a new docking system in this variant of the spacecraft.

Anatoly Zak at reports that the Soyuz TM-02 launch delay is due to a short circuit in the spacecraft and engineers are trying to determine the exact location -- in the descent module or the instrument module.  Depending on the location of the problem, it could take weeks or months to remedy, or the Russians could substitute the Soyuz spacecraft intended for the next launch, Zak writes.

Today's TASS announcement did not provide any details.   It quotes an unnamed NASA official at Russia's mission control center as saying that a formal decision was made yesterday that the launch would take place on November 1.  (It is odd that Russia's official news service could not get a Russian official to make a statement.)

Whenever it launches, it will take NASA's Shane Kimbrough and two Roscosmos cosmonauts - Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko -- to the ISS.  They will join three crew members already aboard -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.

The ISS typically has six crew members:  three from Russia, at least one American, and the other two from the United States or other partners (Japan, Canada, and Europe).  They rotate on 4-6 month schedules, traveling to and from ISS on Soyuz spacecraft, which can accommodate three people at a time.

Roscosmos decided earlier this month, however, that beginning with the launch of Soyuz MS-04 in March 2017 (a launch date that probably now will slip), only two Russians will be aboard until Russia launches its long-awaited science module, the Multirole Laboratory Module (MLM).   It is currently scheduled for launch in December 2017, but the launch date has been delayed a number of times.  Meanwhile, the Russian crew complement will be resized to reduce resupply requirements, allowing Russia to launch only three Progress cargo ships instead of four.

Senate Committee to Markup NASA Authorization, INSPIRE Women Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2016 (Updated: 18-Sep-2016 10:19 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will markup a new NASA authorization bill on Wednesday that focuses on the desire to avoid disruption to NASA's human spaceflight program during the upcoming presidential transition.  It is one of several bills the committee will deal with that day, including the INSPIRE Women Act that passed the House earlier this year.  It is designed to encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346, is co-sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats:  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan), the chair and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness; Florida's two Senators, Bill Nelson (D), who is the ranking member of the full committee, and Marco Rubio (R); Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi); and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico).   Udall and Rubio both are subcommittee members; Wicker is on the full committee.

The 73-page bill incorporates changes to a draft that was circulated earlier, but the main themes remain the same.  Among the provisions are the following (quotes are from the committee's press release or the bill itself):

  • affirms support for continuity across presidential administrations in space science and exploration, noting progress on development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs for deep space human exploration, on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and on commercial crew systems;
  • affirms that "NASA is and should remain a multi-mission agency with a balanced and robust set of core missions in science, space technology, aeronautics, human space flight and exploration, and education";
  • supports utilization of the International Space Station through at least 2024 and requires an evaluation of the feasibility of operations through at least 2028, while also requiring a report from NASA on how to transform low Earth orbit from a "model reliant on government support to one reflecting a more commercially viable future";
  • adds human exploration of Mars as an explicit goal and objective for NASA and requires NASA to submit a "strategic framework and critical decision plan" on how to achieve it;
  • directs NASA to continue the SLS and Orion programs with the first uncrewed mission in 2018 and the first mission with a crew "by 2021";
  • requires a report from NASA evaluating alternatives to the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission for demonstrating technologies and capabilities needed for human trips to Mars;
  • asserts that it is U.S. policy to develop technologies to support NASA's core missions, including propulsion technologies to reduce the human travel time to Mars;
  • expresses support for several space science missions, including JWST, its successor the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), the Mars 2020 rover, and a mission to Europa (the bill is silent on Earth science);
  • allows NASA to provide medical monitoring, diagnosis and treatment for current U.S. government astronauts and former astronauts and payload specialists for "psychological and medical conditions deemed by NASA to be associated with human spaceflight"; and
  • directs NASA to take steps to improve oversight of information technology and cybersecurity.

The bill authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA in FY2017, the same amount approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  That bill has not been considered by the House yet.   The amount is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved.  The authorization bill allocates the difference to NASA's exploration account (which funds SLS and Orion).   Otherwise, the authorized amounts are the same as in the Senate Appropriations committee-approved bill.  The Senate bill was brought to the floor for debate in June, but was derailed by the gun control debate.

Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels; they do not actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bills provide money to agencies like NASA.

The House passed a NASA authorization bill in 2015 (H.R. 810) that can serve as a basis for compromise if both chambers want to pass a bill this year, even though time is short.  Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has called on the Senate to pass a bill several times, most recently last week.

The other space-related bill scheduled for markup on Wednesday is the Inspiring Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755.  The House passed the bill in March.  The bill was sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia). There were no hearings or markups of the bill; it was introduced and went directly to the floor.  No funding is included in the bill.  It simply directs NASA to take steps to encourage women to study STEM fields and submit a plan on how NASA can facilitate and support current and retired astronauts, scientists, engineers and innovators to engage with K-12 female STEM students.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 19-25, 2016 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2016 (Updated: 19-Sep-2016 08:26 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 19-25, 2016 (through next Sunday) and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

On Friday, Resources for the Future (RFF) will hold a memorial service for Molly Macauley at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., from 3:30-5:30 pm ET.  All of Molly's friends and colleagues are welcome to attend, but RFF would appreciate an RSVP so they know how many people to expect.   Please RSVP to   Molly, a renowned space economist and integral part of the space policy community for three decades, spent almost all of her career at RFF before her tragic death on July 8.

It will be a busy week before that.

The Senate plans to bring a Continuing Resolution (CR) to the floor tomorrow (Monday) for a cloture vote.  If it gets 60 votes, the Senate can proceed to debate, and, hopefully, pass it.  Word is that it will keep the government funded through December 9. The bill reportedly has controversial policy provisions ("poison pills") that could delay its approval, but rumors are that once it passes, the Senate will adjourn until after the elections instead of remaining in session through the end of the month.  That would put the House in the position of either agreeing to the Senate bill or allowing the government to shut down on October 1, which would not play well in the upcoming elections.  A budget deal was crafted last fall by then-House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Obama that set the spending limit for FY2017.  The draft CR reportedly sticks to that agreement, but very conservative House Republicans disapproved of the deal and are not happy at the prospect of passing a CR that adheres to it (because it spends too much on non-defense programs), so there is indeed a chance that a government shutdown could occur. We think it is only a very small chance in an election year, but as we've said many times, trying to predict what Congress will do is risky.

The Air Force Association is holding its Air, Space, Cyber conference at National Harbor, MD (outside Washington, DC) Monday-Wednesday. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James kicks it off tomorrow morning. There is no indication on the conference's website as to which sessions might be livestreamed, but James tweeted an invitation yesterday for everyone to listen to her talk, so presumably hers will be, at least.  Hopefully AFA will make iivestreaming information available soon. [UPDATE: the link to watch James, from 10:20-11:15 am ET, is  Two other sessions Monday afternoon also will be livestreamed as noted at that site.  The list of livestreamed sessions for the rest of the conference are not posted yet.]

While that's underway, on Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a nomination hearing for Gen. John Hyten to become Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.  He currently is Commander of Air Force Space Command.  He seems to be well liked and respected on the Hill, so apart from the usual Senate challenges on getting any nomination approved (usually for reasons completely unrelated to the nominee), it should go smoothly.

On the civil space side, it's Mars, Mars, Mars this week.  Explore Mars holds a seminar on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning on "Humans to Mars: Why, How, and When."  On Wednesday afternoon, Lou Friedman, former executive director of the Planetary Society, will discuss his new book "Human Spaceflight From Mars to the Stars" at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. From Thursday-Sunday, the Mars Society holds its annual conference at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. 

The Senate Commerce Committee will markup its "NASA Transition Authorization Act" on Wednesday that, among other things, seeks to protect NASA's human spaceflight program -- which is aimed at sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- from any major changes as the result of the upcoming presidential transition. Congress directed NASA to build a new, big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a crew spacecraft to go with it (Orion) in the last NASA authorization act that became law (in 2010).  It has diligently ensured that the Obama Administration (through NASA) implements those programs, often providing more funding than the President requested.  They want to make sure a new President doesn't disrupt that effort the way President Obama did when he came into office and cancelled President Bush's Constellation program. The NASA authorization bill is one of several bills the committee will markup that day, including the STEM education-related INSPIRE Women bill that the House passed earlier this year.

SLS is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and its Director, Todd May, will address the Space Transportation Association on Capitol Hill on Thursday.  Also speaking to STA on Thursday is the President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Naoki Okumura.

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

Monday-Wednesday, September 19-21

Tuesday, September 20

Tuesday-Friday, September 20-23

Wednesday, September 21

Wednesday-Thursday, September 21-22

  • Dent:Space, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA

Wednesday-Friday, September 21-23

Thursday, September 22

Thursday-Saturday, September 22-24

Thursday-Sunday, September 22-25

Friday, September 23

  • RFF Memorial Service for Molly Macauley, Metropolitan Club, Washington, DC, 3:30-5:30 pm ET (please RSVP to RFF at

Russia Postpones Soyuz MS-02 Launch Due to Technical Reasons

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2016 (Updated: 17-Sep-2016 10:12 AM)

Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation announced today that the launch of Soyuz MS-02, scheduled for Friday, has been postponed for technical reasons.  A new launch date will be announced later. This is the second flight of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft.  The first also was postponed close to launch.

Roscosmos posted the news on its website, saying (using Google translate):  "Roscosmos decided to postpone the planned September 23, 2016 launch of the spacecraft 'Soyuz MS-02' for technical reasons after routine tests at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  The launch date of the spacecraft will be announced later."

Soyuz MS-02 will take three crew members to the International Space Station (ISS):  NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov.  When they do launch, they will join three ISS crew already aboard:  NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.

This is second flight of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft -- Soyuz MS -- which replaced the Soyuz TMA-M series.  The first Soyuz was launched in 1967 and it has gone through several modifications over the decades, each with its own designation.  The MS version has improved solar arrays, a new digital computer, and a new docking system among other upgrades.

The first Soyuz MS launch, Soyuz MS-01, also was delayed.  The reasons were never officially speciified, but indications were that it was an issue with the docking system. Originally scheduled for June 24, it launched on July 7 instead.  Because this is a new version of Soyuz, the decision was made to take the longer 2-day trajectory to ISS to check out the spacecraft instead of the abbreviated 6-hour route used in recent years.  Soyuz MS-02 also will take the 2-day path.

Soyuz spacecraft have been the only means for taking crews to and from ISS since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.  NASA is engaged in public private partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing to build new "commercial crew" vehicles -- Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively -- that NASA hopes will begin routine flights in 2018 (test flights may occur next year).  Until then, Soyuz is the only one.  Soyuz is launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Spire, GeoOptics Win First NOAA Commercial Weather Data Contracts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2016 (Updated: 16-Sep-2016 07:09 AM)

NOAA made its first two awards today under the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program created by Congress last year.  The winners are Spire Global and GeoOptics, both of which will provide radio occultation data to NOAA for evaluation to determine whether commercial data can be incorporated into NOAA’s numerical weather models.

Congress provided $3 million to NOAA in the FY2016 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations act (Division B of the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act) for the pilot program.  It required NOAA to enter into at least one pilot project through an open competitive process to purchase, evaluate and calibrate commercial weather data and to submit a report on how it would implement the project.  NOAA publicly released that report in April.

The idea originated in the House-passed Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).  Bridenstine chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and also serves on the House Armed Services Committee.  He led efforts to include a provision in the pending FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act for DOD to create a similar program.

Under the contracts, the two companies will provide GNSS radio occultation data to NOAA by April 30, 2017 to demonstrate data quality and potential value to NOAA’s weather forecasts and warnings.  NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) will assess the data through the end of FY2017 and issue a report in early FY2018.  The contract award amounts were $370,000 for Spire and $695,000 for GeoOptics.

GNSS refers to Global Navigation Satellite Systems, of which the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) is probably the best known and most widely used.

NOAA already uses GPS radio occultation (GPO-RO) data in its forecasts.  The data are acquired by the six-satellite COSMIC constellation, a joint program with Taiwan.  NOAA is requesting funds for a COSMIC-2 follow-on.

RO data are acquired by very small satellites (microsatellites or nanosatellites) that use signals from GPS or other GNSS systems to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere.  When combined with data from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.

Thousands of RO measurements per day are useful and COSMIC provides 2,000-3,000.   COSMIC-2 will provide about 10,000, but commercial sources can increase the total to 50,000-100,000, the upper limit in terms of when costs would outweigh benefits according to NESDIS Assistant Administrator Steve Volz.

NOAA called the contract awards a “win-win” because both NOAA and the companies will “gain a trial run of the NOAA evaluation process, a necessary first step to considering sustained operational use of new commercial weather data.”

The cautious phrasing underscores that this is a pilot program only.  NOAA officials express concern about whether the commercial data are accurate, reliable and verifiable.  The pilot project will allow NOAA to assess those characteristics.   NOAA also worries about whether the commercial data can be made available globally in conformance with its obligations to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) since companies typically restrict sharing of their data.  That issue is still being debated.

Bridenstine and House SS&T Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) praised the awards in a joint statement today.  Smith said he hoped these were just the first of many such contracts and thanked the two companies for their “leadership, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit.”  Bridenstine noted that the awards show “there is great potential for the government to leverage this new industry.”

GeoOptics CEO Conrad Lautenbacher, a former NOAA Administrator, said his company looks forward to demonstrating that commercial data “can enable the unmatched efficiencies of the private sector to help NOAA accomplish its vital mission to protect and inform the public.”