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UN Condemns North Korea's Satellite Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2016 (Updated: 08-Feb-2016 08:16 AM)

The United Nations Security Council "strongly condemned" North Korea's satellite launch, which it views as a ballistic missile test that violates two existing UN resolutions.  It vowed to expeditiously adopt a new resolution that responds both to the satellite launch and North Korea's recent nuclear test.

The satellite launch took place Saturday evening, February 6, Eastern Standard Time, which was Sunday, February 7, at 00:30 GMT or 9:00 am local time in North Korea (officially the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea or DPRK).  The Kwongmyongsong-4 remote sensing satellite was placed into a polar orbit from North Korea's Sohae launch site.

Venezuela currently holds the presidency of the Security Council.  Venezuela's U.N. permanent representative Rafael Dario Ramierz Carreño said that during an emergency meeting yesterday (Sunday), Security Council members "underscored that this launch, as well as any other DPRK launch that uses ballistic missile technology, even if characterized as a satellite launch or space launch vehicle, contributes to the DPRK's development of nuclear weapon delivery systems and is a serious violation of Security Council resolutions."

The Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 in 2006 and Resolution 1874 in 2009 to try to deter North Korea's development of ballistic missile technology.  The United States also signed an agreement with North Korea on February 29, 2012 agreeing to provide food assistance in return for North Korea participating in negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and meeting its international obligations, including refraining from conducting launches that use ballistic missile technology.   North Korea attempted to launch a satellite six weeks later, but it failed, the third failure in three attempts.   Its first successful launch took place later that year on December 12, 2012.

This launch appears to be a success as well. 

Ramirez said the Security Council would "develop significant measures" in a new resolution in response to this launch and North Korea's January 6, 2016 nuclear test, which took place "in grave violation of the DPRK's international obligations."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the satellite launch shortly after it took place both through Twitter and a State Department press statement.  The February 6 EST press statement called the launch a "flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolutions."   "We reaffirm our ironclad commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan" and will "work with our partners and the UN Security Council on significant measures to hold the D.P.R.K. to account," Kerry said.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 7-12, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Feb-2016 (Updated: 07-Feb-2016 10:30 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 7-12, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

North Korea's satellite launch last evening (February 6) Eastern Standard Time (today, February 7, local time in North Korea) certainly will be the international space-related story of the week.  The United Nations Security Council will meet in emergency session today to discuss whether additional sanctions should be levied.  The launch violates two U.N. Security Council resolutions --  Resolution 1718 adopted in 2006 and Resolution 1874 adopted in 2009 -- designed to discourage North Korea from developing ballistic missiles.

Meanwhile back in D.C., President Obama will submit the final budget request of his Administration to Congress on Tuesday.   The document will be released by the Government Publishing Office (GPO) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at 11:00 am EST and should be posted on their websites at that time.   DOD, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA are all holding budget briefings during the day.  NASA is using the entire day to showcase its activities at all of its centers around the country.  Called "State of NASA'" day, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will deliver a State of NASA speech at 1:30 pm EST that will be carried on NASA TV (it is separate from the NASA budget briefing at 5:00 pm EST with NASA Chief Financial Officer Dave Radzanowski).

The release of the budget kicks off congressional hearings on the President's request.  From a space policy perspective, first up is the Air Force.  SecAF Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III will appear before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday as well, but it is not budget related.  Instead, it will discuss "Understanding and Deterring Russia."  There is no way to know in advance whether any of the government or commercial space arrangements we have with Russia or DOD's space protection efforts will come up (the witnesses are not from the space community), but it is quite possible.  A growing number of U.S. officials cite Russia as the current biggest threat to the United States and its allies both on Earth and in space.

It is shaping up to be an intense week, so it's good that on Thursday evening there's something a little more fun to do (other than watching the next Democratic presidential primary debate).  NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green will speak at an AIAA-Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) event at the British Embassy in Washington on the science fiction and science fact in the movie The Martian.

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

Tuesday, February 9

Wednesday, February 10

Wednesday-Thursday, February 10-11

Thursday, February 11

North Korea Launches Satellite

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Feb-2016 (Updated: 06-Feb-2016 11:50 PM)

North Korea launched a satellite this evening (February 6) Eastern Standard Time (EST).   It had notified the United Nations of its upcoming launch.

The launch, aboard an Unha-3 rocket, took place at 00:30 GMT February 7 (09:00 local time at North Korea's Sohae Space Center), within the date range specified by North Korea in its most recent notification to the United Nations.   North Korea says the satellite, Kwongmyongsong-4, is for remote sensing of the Earth.

The North Korean Central News Agency reported that the satellite was in a 494.4 x 500 kilometer polar orbit inclined at 97.4 degrees.

U.S. Strategic Command stated that the launch was at 6:29 pm Central Standard Time and "at no time was the missile a threat to North America."

North Korean satellite launches are widely viewed as ballistic missile tests and such launches violate two U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to dissuade them.  Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted (@JohnKerry) than the United States condemns the launch.

The last North Korean satellite launch was in 2012.

Nield, Bridenstine Make Case for Expanding FAA/AST's Authorities

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Feb-2016 (Updated: 03-Feb-2016 07:10 AM)

The head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and a key Member of Congress are making the case for expanding AST's regulatory responsibilities to include much more than commercial launches and reentries. Both spoke at the first day of AST's annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, which continues today (Wednesday).  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is webcasting the event.

Over the past year, interest has grown in both the government and commercial space sectors over what agency should have the responsibility for ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that requires governments to "authorize and continually supervise" the activities of their non-government entities, such as companies.  U.S. companies have been operating in space since the 1960s, primarily commercial communications and remote sensing satellites, but the potential expansion of commercial activities to other realms, such as asteroid mining or habitats on the lunar surface, is raising the visibility of the issue of who in the U.S. government is responsible for that task.

The recently enacted Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to recommend approaches for oversight of commercial activities in space.  The law was enacted on November 25, 2015 and the report is due 120 days thereafter.

FAA Associate Administrator for AST George Nield wants his office to be given that responsibility.  He said that his office could issue a "mission license" for in-space operations not already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or NOAA.   FCC licenses the use of the radio spectrum by commercial companies.  NOAA licenses commercial remote sensing satellites.

Another growing issue is who should be responsible for determining if satellites are going to collide with each other or with space debris and warn affected parties.  This is often referred to as Space Traffic Management.  Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) performs the calculations -- "conjunction analyses" -- and alerts appropriate parties, but some argue that JSPoC should focus on DOD's requirement to protect U.S. national security satellites, not those of the civil or commercial sectors.

Nield said the FAA should take on that responsibility as well;  "We think it makes sense for the FAA to take on this role, and we believe that there is consensus in the interagency community that we are the right ones to do it, but we need to make the decision soon and get on with it."  He also advocated for the FAA to process safety-related space situational awareness data and release it "to any entity, consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations."  The FAA and DOD are in agreement that this is feasible, he added, though his office needs additional resources to do it.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, agrees.   Speaking at the conference yesterday, he stressed that DOD must focus on the threats posed to national security satellites rather than spending its time determining whether the International Space Station (ISS) is "going to hit a screw."   DOD must be relieved of the "burden" of performing conjunction analyses for the civil and commercial sectors, he said, and the FAA is the proper agency to take on that task.   He added that DOD does not want to relinquish JSPoC, but instead to use it for what it is intended -- national security.  He also agreed that FAA/AST needs more money if it takes on additional tasks.   He noted that he tried to add $1 million for FAA/AST in the House-passed version of the FY2016 Transportation-HUD appropriations act, but only $250,000 was approved.

Bridenstine also raised the issue of who should be responsible for ensuring compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, calling it a "challenge we have to own up to and ultimately solve.  It won't be easy and won't happen overnight."  He stopped short of recommending FAA/AST as the answer, but said government regulation of commercial space activities overall must be consistent and simplified.

The conference continues today, with Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House SS&T Space Subcommittee, scheduled to speak at 8:30 am ET, followed by NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation indicated that it will webcast today's sessions as well.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 1-5, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jan-2016 (Updated: 02-Feb-2016 09:31 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of February 1-5, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

A conference on commercial space transportation and a House hearing on NASA's human exploration proposals are just two highlights of the coming week.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's (AST's) 19th annual conference is in Washington, DC on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Neither the conference's website nor the agenda indicate that any of the sessions will be webcast, which is a shame because they look really interesting.   If we learn that remote access will, in fact, be available, we'll add that information to the entry in our Events of Interest list. [UPDATE:  FAA/AST confirms that there will NOT be a webcast.  UPDATE 2 -- AS WE JUST LEARNED NOW THAT WE'RE HERE AT THE CONFERENCE, THE COMMERCIAL SPACEFLIGHT FEDERATION IS WEBCASTING THE EVENT.] There are keynotes and panels featuring top leaders from the Administration (e.g. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), Congress (Rep. Brian Babin, R-TX, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-TX, and a panel of congressional staff), and industry (Sierra Nevada Corporate VP for Space Systems Mark Sirangelo and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell).   For those who are advocating for an expansion of AST's jurisdiction beyond launch and reentry of satellites, one of the panels will discuss European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner's Lunar Village (or Moon Village) concept.   AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) recently recommended that AST "engage directly" with ESA to foster the participation of U.S.-based commercial entities in planning and creation of such a village.  Woerner spoke to COMSTAC during a telecon meeting last month and will participate in this conference via livestream.

Wednesday's hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee also should be interesting.   The topic is NASA's human exploration proposals, but in this case there are no NASA witnesses.  Instead, three "outside" witnesses will present their views.   Aerospace industry icon Tom Young is one of them.  He has testified many times, perhaps most memorably answering "never" to a question about when humans would get to Mars under NASA's current budget. He is a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which has been deliberating for at least two years over NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and NASA's planning for sending humans to Mars.  Young will be speaking only for himself, but NAC has not been enthusiastic about ARM for many reasons, one of which is skepticism that it will cost only $1.25 billion as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden insists.  NAC members also criticize NASA's Evolvable Mars Campaign because it lacks specifics.  The other two witnesses are Paul Spudis, a fervent advocate of returning humans to the lunar surface before going to Mars, and John Sommerer, who chaired the Technical Panel of the 2014 "Pathways" report from the National Academies that also endorsed returning astronauts to the lunar surface and raised questions about the value of ARM to the long term goal of human Mars exploration.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.  Check back throughout the week to see any new meetings we learn about and post to our Events of Interest list.

Monday-Tuesday, February 1-2

Tuesday, February 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, February 2-3

Wednesday, February 3

McCain, McCarthy Try to Repeal RD-180 Provision in FY2016 Appropriations Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jan-2016 (Updated: 28-Jan-2016 12:15 AM)

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are introducing legislation to repeal a provision in the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that undermines a section of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that limits the number of Russian RD-180 engines that can be obtained by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Atlas V rockets.  The appropriations law, enacted after the NDAA, essentially allows an unlimited number to be procured.   McCain announced his new legislation in conjunction with a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on the topic today.

Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula two years ago, McCain has led efforts to end U.S. reliance on Russian RD-180 engines used in rockets that launch national security satellites.   He argues that Russia's actions in Ukraine and elsewhere are inimicable to U.S. interests and the money ULA pays for the engines goes to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."  As chairman of SASC, he included language in the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs that limits the number of RD-180s ULA may obtain and directs DOD to fund the development of a U.S. alternative.  McCain also is a champion of SpaceX and its drive to compete with ULA for Air Force contracts to launch national security satellites.  The Air Force certified SpaceX's Falcon 9 to launch its satellites last year. 

Little new was added to the debate at this morning's hearing.  Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Under Secretary of  Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall repeated their oft-stated position that they agree on the need to end reliance on Russian engines and to build a new U.S. engine by McCain's target date of 2019.  They argue, however, that an engine is only part of a  launch system and it will take at least two more years, to 2021, to integrate a new engine into a new launch vehicle, test it and certify it to launch national security satellites.  McCain and other members of the committee insisted that the transition to a new rocket with an American engine must happen sooner.

The distinction between an engine and a complete launch system was reiterated by James and Kendall throughout the hearing.  They are seeking relief from language in the FY2016 NDAA (Sec 606) that restricts them to spending funds on developing new rocket engines only and not entire new launch vehicles. James and Kendall said if they can only use the money for a new engine to replace the RD-180, just one company will benefit, ULA, which would get a new engine for its Atlas V.    If instead they could use the money to invest in a public private partnership to develop a new, modern launch system to replace the Atlas V, greater benefits would accrue.  

According to James, Congress has authorized and appropriated over $400 million for a new engine:  $41 million that was reprogrammed in FY2014, $220 million in FY2015, and $227 million in FY2016.  Of that, $176 million has been obligated to date, she added.

One point on which McCain and the witnesses agreed was unhappiness that ULA chose not to bid on the first launch where SpaceX could compete.   Competition for that launch, of a GPS 3 navigation satellite, opened last fall, but ULA asserted that it could not enter a bid because of the limitation on how many RD-180 engines it may obtain under the FY2015 NDAA in effect at that time and for other reasons.

McCain repeatedly expressed exasperation at ULA's decision not to bid.  James said the Air Force was "surprised and disappointed" and Kendall said "we are all upset."  James said she has asked her legal team to review the Air Force contract with ULA to see what can be done possibly "including early termination" of the EELV Launch Capability (ELC) contract that pays for infrastructure and other ULA costs. That funding is separate from the money paid for individual launches.

McCain repeatedly referred to the ELC funding -- approximately $800 million per year -- as money the government pays ULA "to do nothing" or "to just stay in business."  Kendall explained that the ELC contract was designed to cover fixed and variable costs associated with launch infrastructure and meant to ensure stability in a sole source environment.  ULA has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was formed in 2006 as a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  While Kendall defended the ELC as a good business deal under those circumstances and "not a subsidy," he agreed it is the only DOD contract of its kind, is being phased out, and a model that will not be used in the future.  What DOD wants to do now is to provide "at least two launch service providers" with some of the capital to develop, test and certify new launch systems through public private partnerships.  A draft request for proposals (RFP) will be released this spring, he said, and a final RFP by the end of the year with awards expected in FY2017.

One new piece of information that surfaced today was the cost of an RD-180 engine.  Kendall pegged it at $30 million.  The fundamental dispute is whether ULA should be able to obtain nine more, or 14 more, RD-180 engines than the five they already have under contract as part of a 2013 block buy awarded by the Air Force.  That is a difference of five engines, or $150 million, money McCain argues would go to Putin and associates including three he said have been sanctioned by the United States - Igor Komarov, Sergey Chemezov and Dmitry Rogozin.   Rogozin is the Russian Deputy Prime Minister who oversees the aerospace sector.  Komarov is the head of Roscosmos, which recently transitioned from a government space agency into a state corporation.  McCain identified them as members of the Board ot RD-AMROSS, the intermediary between the Russian company that manufactures RD-180s. Energomash, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which imports them for use in the Atlas V.

The Air Force and ULA want 14 more; McCain wants to limit it to nine.   The FY2016 NDAA states that only nine may be obtained, but Senate appropriators, led by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) included a provision in the DOD portion of the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that removes that limit. ULA builds its rockets in Alabama; Boeing is headquartered in Illinois.  McCain verbally attacked both Senators during a floor speech after the appropriations bill language became public. 

Just before this morning's hearing, McCain revealed that he and House Majority Leader McCarthy will introduce legislation imminently to repeal the provision in the appropriations law.  In a statement, McCain said the provision was "airdopped" into the appropriations bill "in secret, with no debate" after the nine-engine limitation in the NDAA was "debated for months and passed by the Senate not once, but twice."  

What's Happening in Space Policy January 25-29, 2016 - UPDATE 4

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jan-2016 (Updated: 25-Jan-2016 11:40 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 25-29, 2016.  The House and Senate are scheduled to be in session, but with the blizzard that's coming, all events in the DC area should be considered tentative. [UPDATE JANUARY 24: The House has decided not to meet this week because of the aftereffects of the blizzard.  So far, the Senate's schedule is unchanged.  The immediate Washington DC area got between 17 and 30 inches of snow and roads remain impassable in many places.  Also, Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Monday.  UPDATE JANUARY 25:  The January 26 SASC defense acquisition hearing has been postponed.  Federal Government offices in the DC area will be closed on Tuesday, too.]

During the Week

The first flakes of the Blizzard of 2016, also known as Snowmageddon II, Snowzilla, or Jonas (that's what The Weather Channel calls it), are falling.   The forecast is so grim that we worry whether the electricity will be on this weekend, so decided to post this today (Friday).   The Washington DC area does not do well with snow and even if it did, this storm is expected to break records in snowfall totals (18-30 inches is forecast for right here) and winds (30-40 miles per hour in this area, higher elsewhere), so any city would have a problem keeping up with it.   If you have plans to travel to the DC area, or the mid-Atlantic generally, check to be sure your meeting or whatever is still taking place before you start your trip. [UPDATED JANUARY 25:  The House will not meet this week.  The SASC hearing on defense acquisition on Tuesday has been postponed (not the RD-180 hearing on Wednesday, at least not yet).  Federal government offices in the DC area are closed Monday and Tuesday.]

Among the highlights of events that are SCHEDULED as of this moment is NASA's annual remembrance of the astronauts who lost their lives in the 1967 Apollo fire and 1986 space shuttle Challenger and 2003 Columbia tragedies.   This year is the 30th anniversary of the January 28, 1986 Challenger accident that killed NASA astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair; Hughes Aircraft payload specialist Greg Jarvis; and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other NASA officials will take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on January 28 (Thursday), followed by activities at other NASA centers throughout the day.  NASA TV will televise a wreath-laying ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Center at 10:00 am ET.

On a completely different note, the debate over United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines and efforts to build a U.S. alternative to them resumes on Wednesday with a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).  SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is livid that Senate appropriators pulled the rug out from under his feet, essentially allowing the use of an indeterminate number of RD-180s instead of capping the number at nine as required by the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reportedly at the urging of the Air Force and ULA.   Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and DOD Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall will be at the witness table to explain their position.  The argument is not over the need to end reliance on Russian engines for national security launches or to build a U.S. alternative, but the timing.  ULA and the Air Force do not think a new U.S.-built engine will be ready for service by 2019; McCain thinks that is a reasonable goal.  McCain also is an advocate for SpaceX and other "new entrants" who could compete against ULA and bring launch costs down.  

Note that there is a more general hearing on defense acquisition the day before.  [UPDATE:  THIS HEARING HAS BEEN POSTPONED] At that one, the service chiefs will testify about the role they play in the acquisition process.  Impossible to know if anything will come up about space, but it wouldn't be surprising.  SASC's House counterpart, HASC, held its own defense acquisition hearing on January 7.  HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) used it as a opportunity to slam DOD on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).  DOD bought 20 DMSP weather satellites almost two decades ago.  The first 19 have been launched, but the fate of the last one, DMSP-20, is in limbo.  In 2014, DOD said it no longer was needed, but changed its mind last year.  Congress reacted skeptically and required DOD to certify whether it is needed or not.  Meanwhile, millions of dollars have been spent keeping it in storage.   Rogers used $518 million as the total amount of money spent on that one satellite and said a lot of aggravation could have been saved if 18 years ago the Air Force and Congress "put a half billion dollars in a parking lot in a pile and just burned it."  He said now the satellite will be trashed and "I presume ... be made into razor blades."  We'll see if the SASC hearing has any of its own fireworks.

Those and other events that are scheduled for next week are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for additional events that we learn about and add to our Events of Interest list.   And to all of our readers in the mid-Atlantic area about to endure this storm, pay heed to the experts on how to stay safe.

Tuesday, January 26

Wednesday, January 27

Wednesday-Friday, January 27-29

Thursday, January 28

Thursday-Friday, January 28-29

Friday, January 29

Climate Versus Weather -- Record Global Temps and a Blizzard Warning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Jan-2016 (Updated: 21-Jan-2016 06:13 PM)

The distinction between climate and weather is on stark display right now as NASA and NOAA scientists announce that Earth experienced the warmest year on record in 2015 while at the same time the mid-Atlantic region is bracing for a blizzard.

Weather is local, climate is global.  Weather is short-term, climate is long-term.   A single local weather event, like a blizzard in Washington, DC, is not an indicator of what is happening to the planet on a global scale.

NASA and NOAA announced yesterday that 2015 was Earth's warmest year since record keeping began in 1880.  NASA reported that the average surface temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, "a change largely driven by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere."

Climate change is hotly debated in political circles, primarily over whether it is human activity or natural causes at work.  Exactly one year ago, the Senate voted 98-1 in favor of a statement that "climate change is real and not a hoax."  The one vote against was cast by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).   However, the Senate then rejected by a vote of 50-49 a statement that "climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change."  The key point of dispute was the word "significantly."

NASA and NOAA get caught up in that debate because they collect and analyze climate data from instruments in space, in the air, on the land and sea.  Republicans in the House and Senate criticize NASA's investment in earth science research ($1.9 billion in FY2016) arguing that such research should be done by other government agencies, like NOAA, while NASA focuses on space exploration.  However, some then criticize NOAA when it seeks funding for climate sensors to fly on its satellites because they want NOAA to focus on weather, not climate.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a strong supporter of NASA's earth science activities, many of which are led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD.  She also supports NOAA, which has its campus in Silver Spring, MD and its satellite operations center in Suitland, MD, though cost growth on NOAA's satellites has resulted in some sharp rebukes by the Senator.  She is a key figure in maintaining funding for NASA's earth science program, in particular, and her pending retirement at the end of this year could complicate the agency's efforts to sustain those activities.

The announcement yesterday was made by Gavin Schmidt, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), and Thomas Karl, Director of NOAA's Centers for Environmental Information.  GISS is located in New York City, but is managed by GSFC. Karl's center is in Asheville, NC.   They said 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have been since 2001.  The other was in 1998.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, both former astronauts, said in a joint statement that the "direction of the long-term trend is as clear as a rocket headed for space:  it is going up."  Praising the collaboration between their two agencies, Bolden and Sullivan called the announcement "a key data point that should make policy makers stand up and take notice -- now is the time to act on climate."

NASA and NOAA work extensively with other countries as well in collecting and sharing environmental data.  At a meeting of the steering committee for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine yesterday, Steve Volz. head of NOAA's satellite office, presented a slide showing all the countries involved in space-based earth observation (including space weather) that share data with each other.

Credit:  U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Meanwhile, as for the blizzard, the Washington DC area is bracing for a historic storm.  One airline (American) has already cancelled flights for Friday afternoon and Saturday.  The Washington area's public transit system will shut down at 5:00 pm ET Friday for Metrobus and 11:00 pm ET for Metrorail and not reopen until "at least" Monday.   If you are planning to come to DC this weekend or early next week, be sure to check that you can get in and out and your meeting or other event is still taking place.  The blizzard warning lasts through Sunday at 6:00 am ET and if the snow accumulates as much as forecast -- 18 to 24 inches -- it is very likely everything will be closed on Monday, too (and perhaps after that). 

China Plans New Space Station, Two New Rockets in 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jan-2016 (Updated: 20-Jan-2016 07:41 PM)

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) reports that China will launch a new space station and conduct test flights of two new rockets in 2016.

In a statement, CASC asserted that "more than 20 launches" are planned this year.  Among them are test launches of the new Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets. Both will launch from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. 

Long March 5 is designed to lift 25 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), making it China's largest rocket.  The most capable U.S. rocket operational today is the Delta IV, which can place 22 tons into LEO.  Long March 7 is a smaller vehicle that will be used to launch cargo missions to Chinese space stations, for example. 

Launch of a new space station, Tiangong-2, also is on tap this year according to CASC, along with a crewed Shenzhou 11 mission.  That would mark just the sixth time China has launched astronauts ("taikonauts") since the first in 2003.   Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and visited by one robotic spacecraft, Shenzhou-8, and two three-person crews: Shenzhou-9 in 2012 and Shenzhou-10 in 2013.  Tiangong-1 was quite small (8.6 metric tons), but China has plans for a 60-ton space station in the early 2020s.   The International Space Station, by comparison, is about 400 metric tons.

Long March 5 and Long March 7 are manufactured and tested in Tianjin, China.  A chemical explosion in that city in August 2015 killed more than 100 people, but news reports did not indicate how close the Long March production facilities were to the blast site.

China tested two other new rockets last year:  Long March 6 and Long March 11.  Long March 6 is a liquid fueled rocket, while Long March 11 is solid fueled.  Both are relatively small rockets that placed microsatellites into orbit. 

The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center has been in development for many years and will become China's fourth space launch site.  The other three are Jiuquan in the Gobi desert, China's first launch site, which is used for the human spaceflight program and high inclination launches; Xichang, in southwestern China, for launches to geostationary orbit; and Taiyuan, south of Beijing, for launches to polar orbits.

Chinese space officials said last year than Tiangong-2 would be launched in 2016 using a Long March 5 and be serviced by a Tianzhou-1 cargo ship launched on a Long March 7.   CASC's statement appears to confirm those plans.

CASC also noted that two Beidou navigation satellites and the Gaofen-3 high resolution earth observation satellite will be launched in 2016. 

Correction:  An earlier version of this article used CAST as the acronym for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.  The correct acronym is CASC.

Editor's Note:  A number of sources report on the launch capability of the world's rockets and not all agree.  For consistency, uses the figures in the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation's "Year in Review" reports.  Our statement in this article that the most capable U.S. rocket is the Delta IV at 22 tons to LEO is based on the FAA's 2014 report.  However, the United Launch Alliance, which builds and launches Delta IV, says on its website that the Delta IV can place 28 tons into LEO. The higher figure reflects introduction of an uprated RS68A engine, whose first launch was in 2012.


NASA Investigating Another Water Intrusion into Spacesuit During EVA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jan-2016 (Updated: 17-Jan-2016 06:39 PM)

NASA is investigating how water got into astronaut Tim Kopra's spacesuit during a spacewalk on Friday.  The spacewalk was terminated early after Kopra reported that a small bubble of water was floating in his helmet and an absorbent pad behind his head was wet.

The incident is reminiscent of a more serious water incursion when European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano was performing a spacewalk in July 2013.  NASA at first assumed the water Parmitano reported in his helmet came from his drink bag, but the quantity continued to increase and eventually covered his ears, eyes and mouth as he worked his way back to the safety of the airlock.  He remained calm throughout the ordeal, but wrote about it afterward saying that he felt "like a goldfish in a fishbowl."

NASA later determined that the water was from the spacesuit's cooling system that regulates the astronaut's temperature when on a spacewalk -- or extravehicular activity (EVA).  The temperature changes dramatically as the International Space Station (ISS) circles the Earth every 90 minutes, moving from blistering sunlight to frigid cold.  NASA determined that a clogged filter in a fan separator unit allowed the cooling water to make its way into the spacesuit itself -- something thought to be impossible until then.  A Mishap Investigation Board identified five organizational root causes, apart from technical problems, that contributed to that life threatening incident.

As a contingency, the astronauts now place a Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) -- similar to a diaper -- in the back of their helmets to absorb any water that might get in.  They also have a type of snorkel that would allow them to breathe even if water covered their nose and mouth.   Without gravity, water attaches itself through surface tension and there is no way to get rid of it without wiping it off, which is impossible to do when inside a spacesuit.

Parmitano's spacewalk partner that day was NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, who is now head of the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center.   On Friday, Cassidy quickly directed that the spacewalk be terminated after Kopra reported on the size of the bubble and the fact that the water was cold.  That indicated the water was not from the drink bag, but the cooling system in the backpack.

Cassidy said the size of the bubble (a half-inch wide and 2-3 inches long) and the fact that the HAP was "squishy" were troubling, but "for me the big hook" was the temperature of the water: "as soon as you can tell it is cold water .... that's coming from a source in your backpack and that's a significant concern for us." 

The two astronauts directly made their way back to the airlock.   NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who was inside the ISS during the EVA, helped Kopra get out of his spacesuit and tried to capture any loose water bubbles and put the HAP into a bag for later analysis to help engineers determine the leak rate.  Cassidy said there should be no water in the HAP at all unless an astronaut is perspiring profusely.

Kopra and ESA astronaut Tim Peake were performing the spacewalk to replace a failure voltage regulator -- a Sequential Shunt Unit or SSU -- and that was accomplished successfully.  They were beginning to do some additional tasks when the spacewalk was terminated.   The total duration was 4 hours 43 minutes.

CBS News space correspondent BIll Harwood tweeted that the suit Kopra was wearing on Friday is the same one that Parmitano wore in July 2013, but that the fan separator unit thought to be at fault was replaced and the spacesuit cleaned and inspected.  It was used without incident on a spacewalk in December.

NASA made no official announcement about the problem, but said in its space station blog that "[t]eams will continue to look over data collected during the spacewalk and discuss forward plans in the days to come." A link to an audio recording of Cassidy's comments are in that blog post.