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CCtCAP Commercial Crew Announcement Expected Soon

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Aug-2014 (Updated: 18-Aug-2014 04:37 PM)

NASA declined today (August 18) to confirm rumors that it will announce the winner(s) of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract by the end of the month, but anticipation is mounting.  Whenever it happens, it will be a major step forward for the commercial crew program and achieving the oft-stated goal of restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil.

A NASA spokesman replied to an email query this morning by saying only that NASA still expects to make an announcement in the late-August, early-September time frame, as it has been saying for months.

NASA officials are not allowed to discuss the selection process before announcing the award(s), even to say who submitted bids.   Expectations are that at least the three companies being funded under the current phase of the program – Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) – did so.

Those three are SpaceX with its Dragon V2 spacecraft, Boeing with the CST-100, and Sierra Nevada with Dream Chaser.  Dragon V2 would be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.   Boeing and Sierra Nevada have been planning to use Atlas V rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

One goal of the commercial crew program is to end America’s dependence on Russia for crew access to the International Space Station (ISS) and all of the spacecraft are American-built.  The Falcon 9 rocket is American-built. The Atlas V rocket, however, while manufactured in Alabama, is powered by Russian RD-180 engines, so whether it is  “American” is a matter of opinion.  In addition, the future availability of RD-180s -- and therefore of the Atlas V --  is now in question.  The Obama Administration announced in January that it plans to keep the ISS operating until at least 2024 so whatever commercial crew services the companies plan to offer would need to extend to that time period.  Department of Defense (DOD) officials acknowledged at a Senate hearing last month that it is time to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 because of the changed U.S.-Russia geopolitical environment.  The Air Force hopes the RD-180 engines currently on order will be delivered, enabling routine Atlas V launches for several years, but that would not last through 2024.  Boeing and Sierra Nevada thus would need an alternative.  One possibility is ULA's Delta IV, which uses Aerojet Rocketdyne’s American-built RS-68 engine.  The Delta IV is more expensive than Atlas V, though, which could change the cost assumptions of those bids.

How many companies will win is largely dependent on how much money NASA has to pay them.  Although they are termed “commercial” efforts, in fact they rely on the government to pay a share of the development costs and to be a market for the services.  For the current CCiCAP phase, NASA funded “2 ½” companies – two companies (SpaceX and Boeing) at the full amount they requested and one (Sierra Nevada) at half the amount.

NASA insists that it wants to be able to select at least two companies to continue into this final CCtCAP phase so that in the future it will have two competitors providing services to keep prices down.  Congress has never provided NASA with the full amount of funding requested for the program, however.   Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate repeatedly make clear that their priority is for NASA itself to build the big, new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), not the commercial crew program to take them only to LEO and the ISS.

Some influential members of Congress appear to be warming up to commercial crew, perhaps because of the success of the commercial cargo program and the desire to end reliance on Russia.  Through the Bush Administration’s commercial cargo initiative, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation developed new rockets (Falcon 9 and Antares) and spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus) to take cargo to the ISS.  NASA now purchases commercial cargo services from those two companies.

The Obama Administration decided to use the same approach, essentially a public-private partnership, to develop systems to take crews to and from the ISS after adopting the Bush Administration’s plan to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed.  The last space shuttle flight – and the last time America could launch humans into space – was in 2011.  NASA has been purchasing crew transportation services from Russia since then at a cost of about $450 million a year.

Based on the FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed the House and the version agreed to by the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress plans to provide more for commercial crew than in the past, even if not the full request of $848 million.  The House approved $785 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to $805 million.  Whether either amount is enough for NASA to make more than one CCtCAP award is a question that will be answered only when the announcement is made.

Not everyone in Congress has bought into commercial crew, however.   Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) is a determined advocate of SLS, which is being built in his state of Alabama, and a commercial crew skeptic.  The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its CJS subcommittee, he included language in the committee-approved version of NASA’s FY2015 appropriations bill that would require CCtCAP winners to abide by accounting requirements associated with cost-plus rather than fixed-price contracts.  Opponents call it a “poison pill” because complying could cost a small company like SpaceX a lot of money because it does not have a cadre of personnel in place to handle the paperwork, unlike big companies like Boeing.  Boeing and SpaceX are considered the two top contenders based on the CCiCAP awards.

That appropriations bill has not passed the Senate, but was briefly debated on the Senate floor in June.  At the time, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy opposing the Shelby provision because the requirements are “unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition” and could increase cost and delay schedule.

Selecting the winner(s) of the CCtCAP awards before that appropriations bill or a Continuing Resolution that might include similar language passes Congress could be one motivation for NASA making its decision sooner rather than later.

The CCtCAP award(s) will bring the United States one step closer to once again launching people into space.   When the Obama Administration initially proposed the commercial crew program in the FY2011 budget request, it anticipated systems would be ready by 2015, resulting in a four-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the availability of a replacement.   That date has slipped to 2017, however, because it did not get the requisite funding.  Some of the companies have indicated they could be ready sooner if more money was available, but NASA is planning on 2017.  Until then, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way for ISS crew members to travel back and forth. 

What's Happening in Space Policy August 18-29, 2014 - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Aug-2014 (Updated: 17-Aug-2014 11:30 PM)

UPDATE:  We've added the Ancient Earth, Ancient Aliens event on August 20, which we just found out about..

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the next TWO weeks, August 18-29, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns on September 8.

During the Weeks

At last, things have quieted down for these last two weeks of August.   Perhaps what is most interesting is what's NOT on the calendar -- two U.S. spacewalks from the ISS that were supposed to take place in addition to the Russian spacewalk tomorrow.   NASA is still recovering from the alarming failure last summer when water filled Luca Parmitano's spacesuit helmet while he was out on a spacewalk.  NASA determined that a blocked filter caused the problem and replaced the filters on the spacesuits and added other safety features, but still has not approved routine U.S. spacewalks.  Only contingency spacewalks required to address specific issues are allowed.  Two were scheduled for August 21 and August 29, but NASA postponed them because of concerns about the spacesuit batteries.  The next SpaceX cargo resupply flight on September 19 will deliver replacements and the spacewalks will be rescheduled.  NASA officials reportedly met last week to review whether to resume routine spacewalks, but the agency has not issued any press statements to that effect yet.

The Russians have their own spacesuits, Orlan, and are not affected by the concerns about the U.S. suits.   Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov will perform a 6.5 hour spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA) -- to retrieve two experiments on the exterior of the ISS and install two new ones, and deploy a nanosatellite.  NASA TV coverage begins at 9:30 am ET.

That and other events during the next two weeks that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Monday, August 18

Tuesday, August 19

Wednesday, August 20

Monday-Wednesday, August 25-27

Bruno Replaces Gass as President of ULA Effective Immediately

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Aug-2014 (Updated: 12-Aug-2014 09:43 PM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today (August 12) that Lockheed Martin's Tory Bruno is replacing Michael Gass as its President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), effective immediately.  Gass has been President and CEO since ULA was created in 2006.  ULA said the two men would work "collaboratively to ensure a smooth transition."

ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Delta and Atlas rockets.  Gass has an extensive career in the launch vehicle business, but that business is changing with the entrance of SpaceX's Falcon 9 into the marketplace and deteriorating geopolitical relationships between the United States and Russia that pose challenges for ULA's acquisition of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines that power the Atlas V.  The announcement said that he is retiring.

Bruno comes to his new job from serving as vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems.  Both men won praise from Lockheed Martin and Boeing executives in today's press release.  Lockheed Martin's Rick Ambrose pointed out that "Mike's track record speaks for itself: 86 successful launches in a row."  As for Bruno, Ambrose called him "an ideal leader to take the reins of ULA" who will "apply his proven track record of driving customer focus, innovation and affordability to shape ULA's future."  Boeing's Craig Cooning expressed gratitude for Gass's leadership and said Bruno is "well-qualified to ensure ULA keeps pace with changing customer needs and launch industry dynamics."

ULA recently initiated a marketing campaign focusing on ULA's reliability and experience in launching satellites, especially for national security purposes.  It is getting ready to launch a commercial satellite, Worldview-3, tomorrow and conducted two successful launches -- AFSPC-4 and a GPS navigation satellite -- in one week in late July-early August. 

But SpaceX is nipping at its heels, accusing the Air Force of illegally awarding a sole-source contract to ULA last year.  The case is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.  Pressure is building to allow "new entrants" like SpaceX to compete for government launches to reduce launch costs.

Editor's note:  The ULA press release states that Bruno was most recently "vice president and general manager" of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems.  However, his LinkedIn profile states that he is President of that part of the company. 

JPL's Steltzner Awarded Inaugural Brill Lectureship

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Aug-2014 (Updated: 12-Aug-2014 12:08 PM)

Adam Steltzner of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been selected as the inaugural recipient of the Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship in Aerospace Engineering by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and National Academy of Engineering (NAE).  The lecture will be presented on September 30, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Steltzner headed the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover.  While perhaps not as well known publicly as Bobak Ferdowsi (the "Mohawk Guy"), Steltzner is credited with his effectiveness as the team leader for development of the Sky Crane system that successfully lowered Curiosity to the Martian surface and his communications skills since then in exciting the public about space exploration.

Adam Steltzner (photo posted on his Facebook page captioned "At the MSL launch, Cape Canaveral, FL
November 2011)

The Brill Lectureship was created by AIAA and NAE to honor Yvonne Brill, an esteemed aerospace engineer, AIAA Honorary Fellow and NAE member who passed away last year.   The biannual award recognizes achievements in research or engineering issues for space travel and exploration, aerospace education of students and the public, and other aerospace issues such as ensuring a diverse and robust engineering community.  Brill was the recipient of many awards during her lifetime, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which was presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Yvonne Brill receives 2010 National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama at the
White House, October 21, 2011.  White House photo.

Steltzner will present his public lecture on September 30, 2014 at a symposium at the National Academy of Sciences building at 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the annual NAE meeting.

Space Data Association and USSTRATCOM Reach Data Sharing Agreement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Aug-2014 (Updated: 11-Aug-2014 11:25 PM)

The Space Data Association (SDA) has reached a data sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to enhance space situational awareness.  SDA's members include several of the world's major commercial satellite operators who share certain data with each other to avoid in-orbit collisions.  USSTRATCOM is the first non-satellite operator to sign an agreement with the group.

SDA was founded by three of the largest commercial communications satellite operators -- Intelsat, Inmarsat and SES -- after the 2009 collision between an operating Iridium communications satellite (Iridium 33) and a defunct Russian military communications satellite (Cosmos 2251).  The collision added to the population of space debris in low Earth orbit, which had increased significantly two years earlier following a Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) test that created about 3,000 pieces of debris. 

The Chinese ASAT test and the Iridium-Cosmos collision raised the profile of the problems posed by space debris and the need for countries and companies to work together to ensure that Earth orbit will remain usable in the future.  Space Situational Awareness (SSA) refers to the goal of knowing where everything is in Earth orbit and where it's going. (Some definitions add the goal of knowing what each satellite is doing).  It is one element of President Obama's 2010 National Space Policy. 

SDA created a mechanism for its members to share data on the locations of their satellites and any plans to reposition them that avoids revealing sensitive information yet contributes to SSA and the broader goal of "space sustainability."   For several years it has been seeking agreement with the Department of Defense to access data from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC), which tracks objects in Earth orbit for the U.S. government, predicts when they will decay from orbit, and conducts "conjunction analyses" to determine if a collision is likely.  JSPoC is part of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space) under USSTRATCOM.  It is currently tracking more than 17,000 objects in Earth orbit of which approximately 4,000 are functioning payloads or satellites, 2,000 are rocket bodies, and 11,000 are debris/inactive satellites according to its website.  

In addition to concern about physical collisions between space objects, there is growing concern about electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radiofrequency interference (RFI), particularly intentional jamming of satellite frequencies by countries that object to certain programming or otherwise choose to interfere with the transmissions.

SDA called the agreement a "critical milestone" that allows the two organizations to formally collaborate on SSA issues including EMI and RFI.  The agreement creates "a framework to exchange data," SDA President Ron Busch said in an August 8 press release, and is an acknowledgment by USSTRATCOM that "collaboration can enhance" SSA.

The Secure World Foundation (SWF) is a champion of SSA and space sustainability.  Brian Weeden, SWF's technical advisor and a former Air Force officer who worked at JSPoC, said via email that "This agreement could be a major step forward, but as always the devil is in the details and right now we don't have many details."  

SDA announced the agreement in a press release; USSTRATCOM does not appear to have made a public announcement.



What's Happening in Space Policy August 11-15, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Aug-2014 (Updated: 10-Aug-2014 05:19 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for August 11-15, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress will return on September 8.

During the Week

Lots going on this week, even though it's August and everyone should be on vacation or getting the kids ready to go back to school (smile)!  Tough to say what's of greatest interest.  The Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) workshop is definitely on the list.   (Siding Spring is the name of the observatory in Australia where the comet was discovered.)Thanks to the organizers for arranging for it to be livestreamed so anyone can tune in.  The comet will fly within 130,000 kilometers of the Martian surface on October 19 and spacecraft in orbit around or on the surface of Mars should be able to get a close look and  the workshop is to discuss those opportunities. Not TOO close of course!  There's a bit of concern that systems on orbiting spacecraft could potentially be damaged by the comet's dust.  NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are in orbit already along with ESA's Mars Express.  NASA's newest Mars probe, MAVEN, will arrive just before the comet, as will India's Mars Orbiting Mission (MOM).  NASA already has been adjusting the orbits of its spacecraft so they will be on the opposite side of Mars during the 20 minute period when the dust is expected to be most intense. 

Michael Lopez-Alegria's talk at the ISU-DC Space Café on Tuesday evening also should be good.   A former astronaut, he has been President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for the past two years and is about to move on to new horizons.  His insights comparing the commercial and government space sectors and dealing with the White House and Congress should be thought provoking.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, August 11

Monday-Tuesday, August 11-12

Monday-Thursday, August 11-14

Tuesday, August 12

Wednesday-Thursday, August 13-14

NASA Postpones Two Spacewalks Due to Spacesuit Battery Problem

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2014 (Updated: 10-Aug-2014 12:17 AM)

NASA is postponing two U.S. spacewalks planned for August 21 and August 29 because of concerns about fuses in the batteries used in the U.S. spacesuits.  A Russian spacewalk remains on track for August 18.

New Long Life Batteries for the U.S. spacesuits are to be delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) on the next SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission -- SpaceX CRS-4 -- in September.  NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman said in an interview broadcast on NASA TV that although he is "a little sad" the spacewalks were postponed, it is OK because "when I go out the door I want [the spacesuit] to be in a good clean configuration."   Wiseman also will replace a fan pump separator in one of the U.S. spacesuits next week.  A malfunctioning fan pump separator caused a dramatic end to a July 16, 2013 spacewalk when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano's helmet filled with water.

Wiseman and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson were scheduled to conduct the August 21 spacewalk.  Their tasks are to replace a failed Sequential Shunt in order to recover full power-generating capacity on the ISS and to reposition TV external camera equipment.   Wiseman and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst were on tap for the August 29 spacewalk to transfer a failed pump module from a temporary to a permanent stowage location and to install a "Mobile Transporter Relay Assembly that will add capability to the 'keep alive' power to the Mobile Servicing System when the Mobile Transporter is moving between worksites."   NASA said that postponing the spacewalks will not affect day-to-day ISS operations.

Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev will proceed with their own spacewalk, using Russia's Orlan spacesuits, on August 18.  They will deploy a nanosatellite, install two experiment packages and retrieve two others.  NASA TV will provide coverage of that spacewalk beginning at 10:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

ISEE-3 Returns "Home" on Sunday With New Life as Citizen Science Project

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Aug-2014 (Updated: 10-Aug-2014 01:42 PM)

NASA’s International Sun/Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) will return to the Earth’s vicinity tomorrow (Sunday, August 10), after more than 30 years of zipping through space.  The ISEE-3 Reboot Project and its partner Google launched a new website yesterday to explain the mission and its future as a “citizen science” project. They and NASA will hold a Google+ Hangout on Sunday to discuss ISEE-3’s new lease on life.

ISEE-3 will loop around the Moon at 2:16 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on Sunday before continuing its orbit around the Sun.  The Google+ hangout featuring NASA, Google and ISEE-3 Reboot Project representatives begins at 1:30 pm EDT.

As graphically illustrated on the new website, ISEE-3 has followed a complicated orbital trajectory since its launch in 1978.   Originally part of a trio of spacecraft (ISEE-1, -2, and -3) designed to study interactions between Earth and the solar wind, ISEE-3 was initially placed into a position between the Earth and the Sun to alert its two earth-orbiting companions that a solar event occurred.   ISEE-3’s location was the L-1 Sun-Earth Lagrange point where the gravitational forces of the Earth and Sun are in balance.  It was the first spacecraft to be placed into that Sun-Earth L1 location, which since has been used for many spacecraft that study solar-terrestrial interactions.

The first reinvention of ISEE-3’s mission occurred in the early 1980s when a small group of scientists and engineers decided that it should be redirected from Sun-Earth L1 to intercept Comet Giacobini-Zinner.  At the time, the United States had decided it could not afford to build a spacecraft to visit legendary Halley’s Comet as it approached the Sun in 1986 although the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan all were sending probes.

The group, including Bob Farquhar who has written a book that includes the history of the fractious decision-making process involved, did not want the United States to be left out of those early days of comet research and identified Giacobini-Zinner as a target that ISEE-3 could reach before the other probes reached Halley’s Comet.  Indeed, in September 1985, ISEE-3, redesignated the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), flew through the tail of Giacobini-Zinner, winning the title of the first spacecraft to encounter a comet.

Since then, the spacecraft has been travelling through space on its predetermined orbit that, thanks to the laws of physics, brings it back to Earth’s vicinity on August 10, 2014.  Working with Farquhar and others, Keith Cowing of NASAWatch and Dennis Wingo of Skycorp created the ISEE-3 Reboot Project as a “citizen science” effort, raising about $160,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign to build the equipment needed to communicate with the aged spacecraft.  The goal was to reestablish communications and, if all went well, redirect the spacecraft onto a trajectory to begin a new scientific mission.

The group successfully reestablished communications with ISEE-3 and obtained NASA permission to command the spacecraft, but its propulsion system is not functioning.  Physics will keep the spacecraft on its current trajectory and it will return to Earth’s vicinity again in about 15 years.

Meanwhile, though, with communications restored, it can send back data from whatever scientific instruments are still functioning.  Receivers on Earth will be able to pick up the data for about the next year before ISEE-3 once again moves out of range.  The ISEE-3 Reboot Project team’s goal now, in partnership with Google, is to make the data accessible to anyone interested in analyzing it, continuing ISEE-3’s new life as a citizen science project.

Russian Sanctions Against US and EU Steer Clear of Space Cooperation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Aug-2014 (Updated: 07-Aug-2014 09:44 PM)

Russia's decision to retaliate against the United States, the European Union (EU) and other countries that have imposed sanctions because of Russia's activities in Ukraine does not, at this time, seem to have any impact on existing space cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this week that he would impose his own sanctions in a tit-for-tat response.  Details were released today (August 7) and all are in the agricultural sector.   For one year, Russia will prohibit imports of beef, pork, poultry, meat, fish, cheese, milk, vegetables and fruit from the United States, EU, Canada, Australia and Norway.  Alcohol imports from the United States and the EU are not affected.  Russia plans to increase imports from other countries to compensate.  Russia reportedly is considering additional sanctions, such as banning American and European airline flights to pass through Russian airspace as well as sanctions in the automobile, shipbuilding and aircraft production industries, but there is no indication at this time that space cooperation is jeopardized.

The deterioration of relationships this year between the United States and Russia since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula has raised concern in the space policy community because of U.S. reliance on Russia for crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian RD-180 engines for the U.S. Atlas V launch vehicle.  The United States has issued sanctions against Russia several times, but they do not appear to be having any negative impact on space cooperation.

Putin stridently complained against the sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries and warned they can "boomerang."  In announcing his retaliatory sanctions, he said "Naturally, this has to be done very accurately so as to support domestic producers and not harm consumers."   If his desire to support domestic producers applies broadly and not only to the agricultural sector, that could suggest that he will try to avoid harming companies like Energomash, which produces the RD-180 engines, or the enterprises that build and launch Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS.  NASA pays Russia roughly $450 million a year for U.S. and other non-Russian crew members to fly to and from the ISS.  The two countries jointly operate the ISS. 

NASA insists that nothing has changed in ISS operations because of the geopolitical strains, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which builds and launch the Atlas V, and its Air Force customer also say that it is "business as usual" with the Russians.  How much ULA pays for the RD-180s is not public and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) requested that information from the Department of Defense in June.  Presumably, however, it is revenue Russia would not want to forego.

Rosetta and Comet 67P Finally Meet Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Aug-2014 (Updated: 06-Aug-2014 06:12 AM)

Update, August 6, 2014:  "We're at the comet!"  The final 6-miinute burn to put Rosetta into its rendezvous position next to 67P occurred nominally today.  ESOC received the confirmatory signal at about 11:30 CEST (09:30 GMT, 5:30 am EDT).  The one-way signal travel time from Rosetta to Earth is 22 minutes 29 seconds at this moment.

August 5, 2014:  After a 10-year journey, Europe's Rosetta spacecraft will finally arrive at its destination tomorrow, August 6, 2014.   Awaiting it is Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a roughly 4-kilometer diameter comet nucleus, sometimes described as resembling a duck, though that does require a bit of imagination.  The European Space Agency (ESA) will have a day-long series of press conferences that will be livestreamed to herald Rosetta's arrival and the beginning of its primary science mission.

Rosetta is not the first spacecraft to visit a comet, but it will be the first to orbit one and accompany it as it travels in towards the Sun and is transformed by the Sun's heat.   It also will be the first to send a lander, named Philae, to the surface of the comet's nucleus. The landing is scheduled for November after Rosetta's instruments are used to select potential landing sites.  The lander will be released from Rosetta when it is only about 1 kilometer above the surface.

The comet is named after the two Kiev, Ukraine astronomers, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, who discovered it in 1969 while conducting comet observations at the Alma-Ata Astrophysical Institute in Kazakhstan.  The spacecraft is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of ancient Egyptian civilization.  Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river on which an obelisk was found that had the final clues that enabled the decryption.  ESA says its Rosetta and Philae spacecraft "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our Solar System - comets."

The spacecraft will study Comet 67P over the course of a year as it swings around the Sun, mapping the comet's surface and studying how it changes as the ice in the nucleus melts, creating the familiar comet tail.  Instruments on Rosetta will study the dust and gas particles in the tail and their interaction with the solar wind.  The comet and Rosetta are currently about 540 million kilometers from the Sun or 404 kilometers from Earth.  ESA has a useful "Where is Rosetta" interactive graphic that shows the relative distances of Rosetta from the Earth and Sun at all dates throughout its journey.  The two-way signal travel time right now is about 45 minutes.

Though Comet 67P is "only" 404 million kilometers from Earth at the moment, it took Rosetta a journey of 6 billion kilometers to get there, swinging by Earth three times and Mars once to receive gravity boosts.  Launched on March 2, 2004, the spacecraft survived a record 957 days (about 31 months) in hibernation from June 2011 to January 2014 as it traveled so far from the Sun that its solar panels could not fully power the spacecraft.

Rosetta's arrival at the comet is expected at about 11:45 Central European Summer Time (CEST) tomorrow (09:45 GMT or 05:45 Eastern Daylight Time), but it has already sent back many photos of its destination.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 1,000 kilometers,
August 1, 2014. Photo credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team.  ESA notes that the dark spot is an image artifact.

Rosetta is controlled from the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, which is where ESA will hold a series of press conferences throughout tomorrow.  ESOC's press center opens at 09:30 CEST and livestreamed events begin at 10:00 CEST (08:30 GMT, 04:00 EDT) with a welcome by Thomas Reiter, Head of ESOC and ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Mission Operations, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, and other dignitaries.  Coverage of Rosetta's arrival at 67P begins at 11:25 CEST (09:25 GMT, 05:25 EDT).  A draft program of those and other press events is posted on ESA's website.   The events will be livestreamed at and