International Space News
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has decided to significantly restructure the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which provides independent external advice to the agency. Three of the NAC's eight committees will be eliminated, including the Education and Public Outreach Committee, and the activities of a fourth -- the Commercial Space Committee -- will be merged with another.
NASA just renewed the NAC charter in October, making only minor changes to the number of times a year it meets (three instead of four) and reducing its level of funding. That renewal kept the same committees NAC has had since Bolden became Administrator: Aeronautics; Audit, Finance, and Analysis; Commercial Space; Education and Public Outreach; Human Exploration and Operations; Information Technology Infrastructure; Science; and Technology and Innovation.
A blog post by NAC Chairman Steve Squyres posted on NASA's website reveals a decision to eliminate three committees: Audit, Finance, and Analysis; Education and Public Outreach; and IT Infrastructure. Squyres distinguishes between the elimination of those three committees and the fate of the Commercial Space Committee, which he describes as being "merged" with the Human Exploration and Operations Committee.
The new committee lineup will be:
NAC will also set up two task forces -- one on STEM Education and another Big Data. They will have "a focused task and limited duration."
NAC reports to the NASA Administrator and every iteration of the NAC structure and membership reflects each Administrator's personal preferences on how he obtains advice. During Bolden's tenure, the membership of NAC has been the NAC chairman plus the chairs of the eight NAC committees he created. (The chairs of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board are ex officio members of NAC as well.)
Now, with only five committees, several 'at-large' members will be added. They are to provide "strategic insight and expert advice across the work of the entire Agency" according to Squyres.
Squyres says the decision was made after "a recent internal review" by Bolden. "The restructuring process ... will begin immediately and will be fully realized over the next several months. As Chairman of NAC, I'm looking forward to putting this new structure in place."
NAC's next meeting is at Kennedy Space Center, FL on December 11-12. A detailed agenda has not yet been posted, but an overall agenda posted in the Federal Register shows that it will discuss topics in each of the areas of the original eight committees except for commercial space.
This article has been corrected since its original publication. See note at end.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House is in session. The Senate is in recess, scheduled to return next week.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday), the House is scheduled to vote on the bill (H.R. 3547) to extend third party liability indemnification for one year. It is the first of three bills to be considered under suspension of the rules. The House meets at 2:00 pm ET, but votes are postponed until 6:00 pm.
Also tomorrow, SpaceX may try again to launch the SES-8 communications satellite. Three attempts on Monday, November 25, and two on Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) didn't succeed for various reasons. The company has not officially announced a new launch date and time, saying only that Monday is the earliest it will go. The launch window is open from 5:41 - 7:07 pm ET if they are, indeed, ready to try again. A lot is riding on the success of this launch.
Also during the week, hopefully members of the budget conference committee will be trying to find a solution to the nation's deficit situation so the FY2014 budget, at least, can be finalized even if they cannot reach agreement on a long term solution. Whatever hope there was -- and it wasn't much -- is fading, however, as the committee's December 13 deadline nears. December 13 is also the last day the House is scheduled to be in session for this year. Since the Senate does not return until December 9, there is little time for anything to happen. The current Continuing Resolution expires on January 15, 2014, the day that another round of sequester cuts takes effect if Congress does not act to stop it. The story hasn't changed -- no one likes the sequester, but no agreement appears achievable on an alternative because Democrats want to reduce the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases while Republicans want only spending cuts.
Many House committees are holding hearings on Obamacare this week, but the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will have one on a more uplifting subject -- astrobiology -- on Wednesday.
Those and other events we know of as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, December 2
Tuesday, December 3
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 3-4
Wednesday, December 4
Wednesday-Thursday, December 4-5
Thursday, December 5
Friday, December 6
CORRECTION: In an earlier version, we mistakenly listed the WSBR luncheon with Stephane Israel for December 4. Instead it was December 3. Our apologies.
China successfully launched the Chang'e-3 lunar probe today, December 1, on time at 12:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (December 2, 1:30 am in Beijing). The probe is China's first that is designed to make a survivable landing on the Moon and will deploy a 6-wheeled rover named Yutu.
Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon, who travels with her pet rabbit, Yutu, hence the name of the rover.
The European Space Agency is helping China track the probe and says that arrival in lunar orbit is expected on December 6 and landing on December 14.
This is China's third lunar probe. Chang'e-1 in 2007 orbited the Moon and was commanded to impact the Moon after its mission was completed. Chang'e-2, launched in 2010, orbited the Moon and then was redirected to encounter the asteroid Toutatis. It continues its journey in space and is currently 60 million kilometers from Earth.
Many countries have launched probes to flyby, impact, orbit or land on the Moon: the United States, Russia/Soviet Union, Japan, and India, as well as the European Space Agency. The Soviet Union landed two robotic rovers and three robotic sample return missions.
The United States is the only country to land not ony robotic spacecraft on the Moon, but people. Six two-man Apollo crews landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. The last three Apollo crews (Apollo 15, 16, and 17) brought rovers -- "moon buggies" -- with them that they used to traverse greater distances that could be covered on foot.
China plans to launch its first lunar rover early tomorrow afternoon (Sunday) Eastern Standard Time (Monday, December 2, Beijing time). Chang'e-3 is the country's third lunar probe, but the first designed to make a survivable landing on the surface and it will deliver a 6-wheeled rover.
Launch on a Long March-3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center is scheduled for 12:30 pm EST (1730 GMT, or 1:30 am Monday in Beijing). Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon. The rover is named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, after Chang'e's pet white rabbit. China says there are two narrow launch windows each day for three consecutive days.
The lander is equipped with cameras and a near-ultraviolet telescope. The rover has a radar attached to its bottom that will "explore 100 to 200 meters beneath the moon's surface" according to China's press service Xinhua.
As its designation implies, this is China's third robotic lunar mission. Chang'e-1 was launched in October 2007 and orbited the Moon until March 2009 when it was commanded to crash into the surface. Chang'e-2, launched in October 2010, also orbited the Moon, taking 1.5 meter resolution images of Sinus Iridum, the site where Chang'e-3 will land. When Chang'e-2's primary mission was completed, the spacecraft was redirected to fly to the asteroid Toutatis where it collected 10-meter imagery. That spacecraft is currently 60 million kilometers (km) from Earth and China expects to stay in contact with it until it reaches 300 million km.
The plan is for Chang'e-3 to land on the lunar surface at Sinus Iridum in mid-December. It is powered by a plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal generator (RTG). NASA has used RTGs for decades for spacecraft that journey too far from the Sun or spend long periods of "night" on the Moon or planetary surfaces to use solar power. This is the first time China is using one, however.
The European Space Agency (ESA) will help China track Chang'e-3 and reports that the spacecraft will reach lunar orbit on December 6 and land on December 14.
Since the beginning of the Space Age in the late 1950s, many, many robotic spacecraft have been sent to fly by, impact, orbit or land on the Moon by a number of countries. Only the United States, however, has landed people there.
The Soviet Union was the first country to send a probe to the Moon successfully, in 1959. That began an intense robotic lunar program that lasted until 1976 and included three sample return missions (Luna 16, 20 and 24) and two rovers (Lunokhod 1 and 2). Lunokhod 2, launched in 1973, still holds the record for the longest distance traveled by a robotic rover on the Moon or Mars. Measurements using recent high resolution images taken by the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) of Lunokhod-2's tracks show that it traveled 42 km (26 miles). NASA's Opportunity rover on Mars is getting close -- it has traveled about 38 km (24 miles). The distance China expectes Yutu to traverse has not been made public.
The United States also successfully launched many robotic spacecraft to the Moon in the 1960s, including several landers in the Surveyor series, but they paled in comparison to the six landings of astronauts -- Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 between 1969 and 1972. The last three crews (Apollo 15, 16, and 17) had rovers -- "moon buggies" -- to take them further from their landing sites than possible on foot. In total, the Apollo crews returned over 380 kilograms of lunar material to Earth for study (by comparison, the three robotic Soviet sample return missions brought back a total of 330 grams).
The Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976, the final sample return mission, was the last spacecraft to make a survivable lunar landing. From that point until the mid-1990s, there was little interest in the Moon Then, beginning with Clementine in 1994, the United States resumed robotic lunar exploration using orbiters. Two are operating there today: LRO, launched in 2009, and the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), launched in September and quite recently placed into its operational lunar orbit.
Others that have launched lunar orbiters are the European Space Agency (SMART-1,2004), Japan (Kaguya, 2007), and India (Chandrayaan-1, 2008). None of those is operating any longer. Nor are the U.S. Lunar Prospector or GRAIL missions, which were commanded to impact the lunar surface at the end of their missions (as did SMART-1, the LCROSS probe launched with LRO, and an impact probe launched with Chandrayaan-1).
China's plans to send a series of robotic probes to the Moon are not new. Almost a decade ago it announced a three-step plan for a spacecraft to orbit the Moon in 2007, a rover in 2010, and a sample return mission around 2020. It achieved the first goal with Chang'e-1, but, based on that schedule, is three years late with its rover.
India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully fired its engine for 23 minutes today, November 30 Eastern Standard Time (EST; December 1 Indian Standard Time), to begin its 10 month trek to Mars.
MOM, or Mangalyaan-1 as it is sometimes called, has been circling Earth since launch on November 5. A series of engine burns gradually raised the orbit until it was in the proper position for trans-Mars injection (TMI) -- the engine burn conducted today.
Arrival at Mars is scheduled for September 2014. MOM will enter an elliptical, rather than circular, orbit around Mars that is 350 x 80,000 kilometers. MOM carries five scientific instruments, including one that will search for methane in the atmosphere, but is primarily a technology test to demonstrate that India can build and launch a spacecraft that attains Martian orbit. If successful, it will be the first Asian country to do so. Japan's attempt to place a spacecraft (Nozomi) in orbit around Mars failed. China had a small orbiter (Yinghuo-1) on Russia's doomed Phobos-Grunt mission.
Europe, Russia/Soviet Union and the United States have successfully placed spacecraft in Martian orbit. The U.S. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey spacecraft, and Europe's Mars Express, are currently operating there, and NASA's MAVEN is on the way (it will arrive at Mars about the same time as MOM). Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on the surface. Two are currently operating: Opportunity and Curiosity. Several other U.S. and Russian/Soviet Mars probes, and one other European Mars spacecraft, failed.
Wary planetary scientists joke about the Galactic Ghoul, a monster inhabiting space that eats Mars-bound spacecraft. Time will tell if MOM avoids it.
The Obama White House released today the long awaited update of the National Space Transportation Policy.
The President produced a National Space Policy in 2010, just 17 months after taking office, but updates of other national space policies promulgated by previous administrations have languished. Rumors were rampant just about one year ago that this policy was about to be released. The reasons for the delay until now are unclear and may be as simple as a lack of priority and/or interest at the White House.
In any case, the updated policy is now out, along with a fact sheet, on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's website. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden called it a "bold vision for space" on his blog.
At a panel discussion yesterday, representatives from four major space agencies highlighted the many benefits of international space cooperation, even while noting that working with foreign partners is neither easy nor does it lead to cost savings.
The event was organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) and featured representatives of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). All are partners in the International Space Station (along with Russia). ISS was cited as the most successful example of international cooperation to date.
Space cooperation, however, dates back much further. Kent Bress, director of the Aeronautics and Cross-Agency Support Division of the NASA Office of International and Interagency Relations (OIIR), traced NASA’s efforts back to the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created the agency. International collaboration is “written in our legal DNA,” he said. Today, over 50 years later, NASA has more than 600 active international agreements.
NASA has been pursuing space cooperation “essentially the same way” for all those decades, explained Bress. The fundamental guidelines, which include no exchange of funds or technology transfer among the partners, have remained virtually unchanged. “We are not in the business of teaching our partners how to operate in space,” said Bress about the “meet at the interface” principle NASA uses.
One of NASA’s longest-standing partners is Europe. Micheline Tabache, head of the Washington office of the 20-member ESA, said that the United States is ESA’s “main partner and has been since day one.” ESA does not pursue cooperation for its own sake, explained Tabache. According to her presentation “ESA seeks cooperation to pursue its programs, not for the sake of a general policy objective.” Concrete benefits to international partnerships include securing participation in large programs and the exchange of data and information. For example, since ESA does not have a human spaceflight program, its cooperation with NASA has allowed them to launch astronauts into space. “Cooperation does not make things cheaper, I’m afraid, but it does make things happen,” Tabache added. She also quoted ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain as saying that “It’s not easy to cooperate, but it’s more difficult to succeed alone.”
Bill Mackey, counselor of US-Canada space affairs at the Canadian Space Agency, also highlighted mutual benefit as a fundamental component of successful partnerships. “We can’t do it all alone,” he said. Canada has benefited from five decades of “mutually-beneficial” cooperation with NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “By international cooperation we enrich the team,” he said.
This has also been Japan’s experience. According to Masahiko Sato, director of the Washington office of JAXA, “it is not an overstatement that Japanese space activities have evolved mainly through US-Japanese space cooperation.” That cooperation dates back to 1969 when both countries signed a space cooperation agreement, and has continued through the decades with cooperation on the space shuttle, ISS and many space and Earth science programs, as well as aeronautics. Sato noted that since the 1990s, JAXA has expanded its cooperative activities and currently has 201 agreements in effect with 44 nations.
With respect to the future of human spaceflight, several panelists referred to the roadmap recently released by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG). That report suggests that there is disagreement between the United States, which plans to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step beyond low Earth orbit, and the other ISECG members who want to focus on the Moon. Tabache urged that people not get “stuck on the destination.” What is important, she said, is that everyone agrees that it will be an international endeavor: “We’re going somewhere [and] we’re going together.” Navigating international partnerships is “not going to be easy, but it’s going to happen,” she said. Bress commented that it is “not about destination, but a common point of reference.” Mackey noted that Canada currently chairs ISECG, but the Canadian government is reviewing its space policy so CSA is in a “wait and see” mode.
As for the key factors needed for successful international cooperation, Bress cited the ability to communicate effectively across cultures. ESA’s Tabache agreed, but added “trust is vital.” Sato emphasized that a “strong commitment is important,” while Mackey stressed that one lesson that has been learned is that international space partnerships “don’t save money, but they work.”
UPDATE 3, 8:23 pm ET: Launch went off as (re)scheduled at 8:15 pm ET.
UPDATE 2, 7:19 pm ET: They've picked up the count. Launch will be about 8:15 pm ET.
UPDATE, 7:05 pm ET: The launch has been delayed while they work an issue with one of the tracking stations in North Carolina. The station is part of the range safety system, so must be working for the launch to take place. The problem reportedly has been resolved and verification testing is underway. The launch window is open until 9:15 pm tonight. Weather is 100 percent favorable for launch. Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline to keep up to date.
Orbital Sciences Corporation is getting ready to launch the Air Force's ORS-3 mission at 7:30 pm ET from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, which should be viewable along the East Coast. NASA just tweeted a totally awesome photo of the rocket on the pad at sunset.
Now THAT's a photo-op!
Photo credit: NASA
The Minotaur I rocket will loft 29 satellites into orbit at once. The launch window is open from 7:30 - 9:15 pm ET. Maps showing where to look to see the launch are on Orbital's website. Weather permitting, it could be visible from northern Florida to southern Canada, and as far west as Indiana.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report yesterday with a list of 103 ways to reduce the deficit over the next decade. Among them is terminating the human spaceflight program.
CBO is part of Congress and primarily supports the House and Senate Budget Committees and "scores" legislation to inform Congress of the economic implications of passing any bill headed to the floor for debate. It also provides analysis on a broad range of topics, offering options, but not policy recommendations.
This report, Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014-2023, comes at a time when the House and Senate Budget Committees are meeting in conference to try to resolve the impasse over how to reduce the deficit. As part of the deal last month to reopen the government and pass a Continuing Resolution to fund the government through January 15, 2014, the conference committee is supposed to complete its work by December 13.
CBO lists 103 options, of which 28 would affect "discretionary spending," the category in which NASA funding resides. Of those 28, nine relate to defense programs, five to transportation, and the remainder to a wide variety of programs, one of which is "eliminate human space exploration programs." CBO calculates the nation would save $73 billion between 2015 and 2023 by terminating "NASA's human space exploration programs and space operations programs, except for those necessary to meet space communications needs (such as communications with the Hubble Space Telescope)."
The report offers brief (1-2 page) explanations of the pros and cons of adopting any of the 103 options. For human space exploration, CBO's analysis identifies the primary "pro" as advances in electronics and information technology "have generally reduced the need for humans to fly into space" -- basically that robotic spacecraft are sufficient. The primary "cons" are that terminating human spaceflight in low Earth orbit would "end the technical progress necessary to prepare for human missions to Mars" and "there may be some scientific advantage" to humans performing research aboard the International Space Station. The report does not mention the international implications of terminating the human space exploration program.
How much influence the report will have on the budget conference committee's deliberations is open for debate. The fate of the conference committee itself is up in the air. Though it has a December 13 deadline, it seems that little progress is being made.
With the MAVEN mission safely on its way to Mars, attention can now turn to another interesting launch coming up tomorrow. This one will give people along the East Coast another chance to see an orbital launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia and this one will put 29 satellites into orbit at once.
The primary purpose is to launch an Air Force Space Test Program satellite (STPSat3) as part of the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program. STPSat3 is a technology demonstration mission. The ORS program is intended to demonstrate the ability to build and launch satellites to meet specific needs in less time than traditional satellites. This is third in the series and the overall mission is designated ORS-3.
Weather permitting, the launch at 7:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) should be visible along a wide swath of the East Coast from northern Florida to southern Canada and as far west as Indiana. Orbital Sciences Corporation has posted several maps on its website showing the areas where it will be visible if the weather cooperates.
Source: Orbital Sciences Corporation website
Orbital provides the Minotaur rockets, which use refurbished Minuteman II motors for the first and second stages. Several versions of Minotaur are available. The one being launched tomorrow is a Minotaur I, which has two additional commercially-provided motors. Minotaur I is a relatively small space launch vehicle that can put just 580 kilograms (about 1,300 pounds) into low Earth orbit, but in an era of tiny "cubesats," it can launch quite a few at a time. Tomorrow's launch will take 28 cubesats into space along with STPSat3. A standard cubesat is 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters (designated as 1U for 1 unit), and several can be grouped together to provide more volume. 1U, 2U and 3U cubesats are common.
Bob Christy at zarya.info has a list of them. Some are military, some are from NASA, some are from universities (many built through NASA's ELaNa program), and one is from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, reportedly the first cubesat built by high school students. Orbital partnered with the high school to build the satellite and describes it as a phonetic voice synthesizer that can convert text to voice and transmit the voice back to Earth over amateur radio frequencies.
The launch window is open from 7:30 - 9:15 pm EST (though some of the NASA webpages say 9:30 instead of 9:15). Wallops will provide launch coverage beginning at 6:30 pm EST via Ustream. Launch opportunities are available through November 26 if needed.