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Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Bill Makes a Comeback

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jan-2017 (Updated: 15-Jan-2017 03:48 PM)

The House passed a new iteration of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act on January 9.  H.R. 353 is the latest version of legislation that passed the Senate in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but did not clear the House.  The bill's focus is not on satellites, but several provisions would affect NOAA's satellite activities.

The legislation dates back to 2013 and went through many changes before passing the Senate on December 1, 2016 as H.R. 1561.  That was thought to be a compromise between the House and Senate, combining elements of the version of H.R. 1561 that passed the House on May 19, 2015; S. 1331, the Seasonal Weather Forecasting Act, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on May 20, 2015; S. 1573, Weather Alerts for a Ready Nation Act, reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on October 19, 2015; and H.R. 34, the Tsunami Warning, Education and Research Act, which passed the House on January 7, 2015 and the Senate (amended) on October 6, 2015.  (Note that H.R. 34 became the legislative vehicle for the 21st Century Cures Act, which recently became law, but does not contain any of the tsunami language.)

Although Senate passage seemed to bode well for the legislation, it turned out that not everyone agreed with the compromise.  House Republicans from Georgia objected to a water resources provision that earlier had been added by Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) even though Georgia's two Senators had agreed to the bill by unanimous consent.  The Washington Post reported that House leadership removed the language and tried to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but the Senate indicated it would not accept the bill if amended in that manner. The controversial language calls for a study of water resources of the Chattahoochee River, a major water source for Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Thus, the bill died at the end of the 114th Congress.  It now has been reintroduced as H.R. 353, without the water resources provision.  The question remains as to whether the Senate will agree to this version.   (The new bill also omits the tsunami provisions, which were reintroduced separately as H.R. 312.)

Satellite-related provisions of H.R. 353 require NOAA to do the following:

  • develop and maintain a prioritized list of observation data requirements necessary to ensure weather forecasting capabilities to protect life and property to the maximum extent practicable and utilize Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSEs), Observing System Experiments, Analyses of Alternatives and other assessment tools to continually evaluate observing systems, data and information needed to meet those requirements and identify potential gaps and options to address gaps;
  • undertake OSSEs to quantitatively assess the relative value and benefits of observing capabilities and systems and determine the potential impact of proposed space-based, suborbital, and in situ observing systems on analyses and forecasts;
  • conduct OSSEs prior to the acquisition of government-owned or -leased operational observing systems, including polar orbiting and geostationary satellites with a lifecycle cost of more than $500 million and prior to the purchase of any major new commercially provided data with a lifecycle cost of more than $500 million;
  • complete an OSSE to assess the value of data from Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Radio Occultation (RO) within 30 days of enactment of this law;
  • complete an OSSE to assess the value of data from a geostationary hyperspectral sounder global constellation within 120 days of enactment;
  • after completing the OSSEs, make public an assessment of private and public weather data sourcing options, including their availability, affordabilty, and cost-effectiveness;
  • complete and operationalize the COSMIC-1 and COSMIC-2 satellite constellations (joint programs with Taiwan for obtaining GNSS-RO measurements)
  • enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences or another appropriate organization before September 30, 2018 to study future satellite needs;
  • submit a strategy to enable the procurement of quality commercial weather data within 180 days of enactment;
  • publish data and metadata standards and specifications for space-based commercial weather data within 30 days of enactment and enter into at least one pilot contract  within 90 days of enactment, and within 3 years of the contract date, submit a report to Congress on the results;
  • publish data and metadata standards and specifications for geostationary hyperspectral data as soon and possible;
  • if the results of the commercial weather data pilots are successful, obtain commercial weather data from private sector providers where appropriate, cost-effective and feasible, and as early as possible in the acquisition process for future government meteorological satellites, consider whether commercial capabilities could meet those needs; and
  • continue to meet international meteorological agreements, including practices set forth through World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40

The bill authorizes $6 million per year for FY2017-2020 for the commercial weather data pilot program. 

The FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $3 million for NOAA to initiate a commercial weather data pilot program and it is progressing already, with two contracts awarded in September 2016.  NOAA requested $5 million for FY2017; Congress has not completed action on FY2017 appropriations bills. 

H.R. 353 is an authorization bill that officially authorizes the activity and recommends future year funding.   (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See our "What's a Markup?" Fact Sheet.)

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), vice chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, and has 5 Republican and 1 Democratic co-sponsors. Among the co-sponsors are Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who has chaired the House SS&T's Environment Subcommittee for several years, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), who has been the top Democrat on that subcommittee. Both spoke in favor of the bill during debate on the House floor, as did House SS&T chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) submitted a statement.  The bill passed the House by voice vote.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 16-20, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jan-2017 (Updated: 15-Jan-2017 12:05 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 16-20, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.   The Senate will be in session most of the week; the House will be in session only on Friday.

During the Week

The workweek begins on Monday with a federal holiday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) and ends on Friday with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States.  Friday is not a federal holiday, but government offices and many businesses in the Washington, DC area will be closed.  Word of warning if you're coming to DC for any reason this week: the security folks are going to start closing roads on WEDNESDAY in preparation for Friday's inaugural activities.  Federal workers in DC are being encouraged by the Office of Personnel Management to telework Wednesday and Thursday because it's going to be very difficult to get around town those days, never mind Friday or Saturday (when protests will continue, including the Women's March on Washington). 

Trump will be sworn in at noon on Friday (January 20) and at that point President Obama's political appointees lose their jobs unless they've been specifically asked to stay on.  At NASA, Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Dava Newman are leaving, and Robert Lightfoot, the top NASA civil servant, will become Acting Administrator.   (Lightfoot will be speaking at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable in Greenbelt, MD on Tuesday.)   Another Obama political appointee, Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski, has been ask to stay for a while, however.  We're trying to get information from NOAA on who will be in charge there at 12:01 pm ET. 

No announcements have been made by the Trump transition team as to who they plan to put in place permanently at NASA or NOAA, although there are widespread rumors that Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a top candidate for NASA Administrator.  He has been very active legislatively in DOD, NOAA, and FAA space issues (he chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee), but not much with NASA.  He is an advocate of creating a legal and regulatory environment that facilitates the emergence of new commercial space activities, expanding the role of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation to include non-military space situational awareness and authorizing in-space activities (not just launch and reentry), and promoting public private partnerships.  He spearheaded the creation of the commercial weather data pilot programs at NOAA and DOD, but stresses they are in addition to, not instead of, the government's own weather satellites.  His is not the only name circulating as potential Administrator, and he also has been mentioned as a candidate for Secretary of the Air Force, however, so this is not a sure bet.  Stay tuned.

At DOD, Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Ash Carter and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James (and presumably the other service secretaries) are leaving.  Trump has announced plans to nominate Gen. James Mattis (USMC, Ret.), 66, as SecDef and the Senate Armed Services Committee has already held his nomination hearing.  Space activities did not come up during the open hearing.  The committee gave him a set of written questions in advance and four were about space, but were not very newsworthy (they are posted on the committee's website).  The Senate and House passed legislation last week allowing him to serve as SecDef even though he retired only 3 years ago and the law requires a 7-year separation.  President Obama is expected to sign the bill, clearing the way for Mattis to be confirmed as soon as Trump takes office.  Literally.  Confirmation votes are expected in the Senate Friday afternoon. 

The Senate will continue confirmation hearings this week.  Among them are the hearing for Wilbur Ross Jr. to be Secretary of Commerce.  The 79-year old billionaire is an investor, company turn-around specialist, and former banker.  What views he may hold on NOAA or its satellite activities are unknown.  Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee held the nomination hearing for Elaine Chao, 63, to be Secretary of Transportation and it was clear she was not yet up to speed on that department's space-related responsibilities.   Which is hardly surprising in either case.  Both Commerce and Transportation have very broad portfolios. Space is a minor part of what they do.

By the end of the week, Mattis, Ross and Chao are likely to be confirmed by the Senate for their new positions. Though some of Trump's nominee-designates are controversial, these three do not seem to be among them.  Chao has experience in leading federal agencies already, having served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush.  Mattis has a long and distinguished military career and was most recently Commander of U.S. Central Command, so clearly has strong leadership skills, but has not run a federal agency.  Rumors are that Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is being asked to stay for a few months to ease the transition.  Ross has led businesses, but has no prior government experience (which is not uncommon for Cabinet-level positions).  It is interesting to note that outgoing Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker recommended in her "exit memo" that the Commerce Department be "streamlined" into a "Department of Business" as President Obama proposed in 2012, with NOAA and other parts of Commerce transferred elsewhere (NOAA would have gone to the Department of the Interior).  With his business focus, one wonders if Ross might advocate for the same thing.

Frank Kendall, the outgoing Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, will give his final speech in that position on Tuesday at CSIS where he will talk about (and sign) his new book "Getting Defense Acquisition Right."  Will be interesting to hear what he says about acquisition of space systems, which is expected to be a major topic in Congress this year.  The event will be webcast.

On Wednesday, NASA and NOAA will release the latest annual data on global temperatures and discuss the most important climate trends of 2016.  That will be done via a media teleconference call.  Anyone may listen and see the associated graphics on the NASA Live website (formerly NASA News Audio).

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner will hold his annual press breakfast at ESA HQ in Paris on Wednesday morning.  It's a bit early in the United States (3:00-5:00 am Eastern), but ESA often posts the webcast for later viewing on its website.

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

Monday, January 16

  • U.S. Federal Holiday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)

Tuesday, January 17

Wednesday, January 18

Wednesday-Friday, January 18-20

Friday, January 20

Satellite Export Controls Get Another Update, JWST No Longer Under ITAR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2017 (Updated: 11-Jan-2017 11:38 PM)

The Departments of Commerce and State announced more changes to the regulations that govern satellite exports yesterday. The new rules affect a range of activities from commercial remote sensing satellites to human spacecraft to the James Webb Space Telescope and become effective on January 15, 2017.

After more than a decade of battling stringent export controls that many in the satellite industry claimed hampered U.S. efforts to compete on the global stage, a substantial victory was won in 2014 when many commercial satellite items were moved from the State Department's U.S. Munitions List (USML) and its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to the Department of Commerce's Commerce Control List (CCL) of dual-use technologies governed by the Export Administration Regulations (EAR).

Still, there were remaining matters to be settled, several of which were addressed in yesterday's announcement.  A summary published by NOAA's Office of Space Commerce includes the following:

  • increases the aperture thresholds for control of remote sensing satellites and components;
  • eliminates controls based on whether a spacecraft supports human habitation, but such spacecraft may be controlled by other criteria;
  • redefines several controls based on technical capabilities rather than end use of the spacecraft;
  • removes and replaces confusing criteria concerning integrated propulsion and attitude control;
  • adds thresholds for controls on electric propulsion systems; and
  • clarifies various ambiguities.

A quick glance at the new rules as published in the Federal Register (the Office of Space Commerce website has links) provides additional details:

  • The aperture limits for commercial electro-optical remote sensing satellites will be raised from 0.35m to 0.50m, which is still short of the 1.1m requested by some of the commenters; and
  • ITAR controls on electric propulsion systems are for those that provide greater than 300 milli-Newtons of thrust and a specific impulse greater than 1,500 sec, or operate at an input power of more than 15kW.

Another interesting decision is that NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is being moved to the CCL.  "A determination was made ... that this specific telescope ... did not warrant being subject to the ITAR."   The change includes parts, components, accessories and attachments that are specially designed for use in or for JWST.   JWST is NASA's next major space telescope.  In many ways it is a follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope and is scheduled for launch on a European Ariane rocket in 2018.

Progress MS-04 Failure Probably Due to Foreign Particles in Oxidizer Pump

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2017 (Updated: 11-Jan-2017 10:15 PM)

The Russian commission investigating the December 1, 2016 failure of the Progress MS-04 cargo spacecraft launch has concluded that foreign particles in the third stage engine's oxidizer pump may have been the cause.  Defective workmanship is suspected.  The next Progress launch is currently scheduled for February 21, 2017.

Progress MS-04 was the fourth of the newest generation of Russian cargo spacecraft used to resupply space stations.  The first Progress was launched in 1978 to support the Soviet Union's Salyut 6 space station.  Dozens have been launched since then to support Salyut 6, Salyut 7, Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).  The vehicle's design has evolved over the decades and given updated designations: Progress, Progress-M, Progress M_M, and now Progress MS.  The first of the MS series was launched on December 21, 2015.

Filled with 2.6 tons of food, water, supplies, and fuel, Progress MS-04 was launched on December 1, 2016, but something went awry 382 seconds after liftoff during the firing of the third stage.  A usually reliable Soyuz-U rocket launched the spacecraft and initial indications were that the third stage and the spacecraft separately prematurely. Debris from both fell in Russia's Tuva Republic, although most reportedly burned up in the atmosphere.

Today's statement from Russia's space state corporation Roscosmos and an associated story in TASS said the third stage's oxidizer pump caught fire resulting in its destruction and release of fragments that ripped the engine open. The oxidizer pump "may have caught fire for various reasons, such as the likely presence of foreign particles or violation of the engine 11D55's assembly procedures.....Defective workmanship manifested itself in flight..."

A plan will be presented soon on "priority measures" to be taken in the space industry to ensure that the next launch, Progress MS-05, is successful, TASS said. 

On January 1, TASS reported that three Progress spacecraft would be launched to the ISS in 2017 on the following dates:  February 2, June 14 and October 12.  Today it reported that the February 2 date has slipped to February 21.

Russia launches several variants of the Soyuz rocket.  This launch involved the Soyuz-U, while other Progress spacecraft have been launched on the newer Soyuz 2-1a, including the failed Progress M-27M launch in April 2015.  It is not clear which of those two will be used for Progress MS-05.

Soyuz is also the name of the spacecraft that takes crews to and from the International Space Station. Those Soyuz spacecraft are launched on the Soyuz-FG version of the rocket.   It is expected that Russia will wait for a successful Progress MS-05 launch before attempting to launch another crew.  In its January 1 story, TASS said that Soyuz spacecraft would be launched on March 27, May 29, September 12 and October 26.  Whether those dates hold remains to be seen.

Russia is the only country capable of launching crews to the ISS today.  The United States has not been able to launch people into space since it terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.

By contrast, Russia is only one of the ISS partners capable of sending cargo to the ISS.  The United States and Japan both launch cargo spacecraft. NASA relies on two companies, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, to deliver cargo on their Cygnus and Dragon spacecraft, respectively.  The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launches its HTV (Kounotori) cargo spacecraft to ISS.  HTV6 is currently berthed there.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 8-14, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jan-2017 (Updated: 09-Jan-2017 09:52 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 8-14, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

The BIG space event this week will be the return to flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.   Recently postponed from tomorrow (Monday) to Saturday, it will place 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites into orbit.  The FAA approved the launch license on Friday, but Monday's launch slipped to Saturday because of inclement weather forecast at the launch site -- Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   SpaceX is recovering from a September 1, 2016 incident that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the AMOS-6 communications satellite during preparations for a static fire test two days before the scheduled launch. The static fire test for this launch was successfully accomplished on Thursday.

Here in Washington, the Senate will begin confirmation hearings for individuals President-elect Trump plans to nominate for Cabinet-level positions once he is President (on January 20).  Three have space responsibilities:  Secretary of Defense nominee-designate Gen. James Mattis (Ret.), Secretary of Commerce nominee-designate Wilbur J. Ross, Jr., and Secretary of Transportation nominee-designate Elaine Chao.  NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce.  The FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation are part of the Department of Transportation (DOT).   Senate Democrats are objecting to some of the hearings because the non-partisan Office of Government Ethics has not had time to vet all of the nominees-designate for conflicts of interest yet.  Accusations are flying back and forth between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, all of which may be fascinating politically, but not really relevant to the space program, so we will leave it at that.  The Chao hearing is on Wednesday; the Mattis and Ross hearings are on Thursday.

Elsewhere in the country, AIAA will hold its annual SciTech forum, including the Aerospace Sciences meeting, in Grapevine, TX.  The AIAA website does not indicate which, if any, sessions will be livestreamed, but AIAA does webcast plenary and other special sessions at some of its conferences.  If we learn about a link to watch, we will add it to our calendar entry for this event.  There certainly are a lot of very interesting sessions on the agenda. UPDATE:  AIAA is livestreaming here.

The Earth Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Science Committee will meet at Kennedy Space Center, FL on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Many earth scientists are nervous about the future of NASA's earth science program in a Trump Administration.  That's because former Congressman Bob Walker, who was a space adviser to Trump during the campaign and continues to play an advisory role on the transition team, believes NASA's "earth-centric" programs should be transferred to other government agencies so NASA can focus on exploration. It is a view shared by key congressional Republicans who oversee NASA.  With Republicans in charge of the House, Senate and White House, and the retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski who effectively defended NASA's program, the likelihood has increased.  It would be surprising if the NAC subcommittee has any better inkling of what the incoming Trump Administration plans to do, but anyone can listen in to the meeting to find out.  NASA Earth Science Division Director Mike Freilich is on the agenda Tuesday morning.  (Note that the remote participation option is audio only.)

NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) also meets this week. That one is in Arizona from Wednesday-Friday.  Presumably they will be cheering NASA's announcement last week of the selection of two asteroid missions (Psyche and Lucy) as the next two Discovery missions, while ruing the non-selection of a third -- NEOCam (though it will get another year of funding).  They also may discuss last week's release of the White House's National NEO Preparedness Strategy.  The White House said a companion "action plan" would soon follow.  Perhaps there will be some news on that.  The meeting will be available remotely through Adobe Connect.  Note that all times on the agenda are in Mountain Standard Time. NASA Planetary Division Director Jim Green will speak on Wednesday at 9:10 am Mountain Time (11:10 am Eastern).  Michele Gates and Dan Mazanek will provide an update on the Asteroid Redirect Mission at 4:10 pm MT (6:10 pm Eastern) on Wednesday.

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

Sunday-Thursday, January 8-12

Monday-Friday, January 9-13

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 10-11

Wednesday, January 11

Wednesday-Friday, January 11-13

Thursday, January 12

Friday, January 13

Saturday, January 14

White House Releases National NEO Preparedness Strategy

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jan-2017 (Updated: 03-Jan-2017 03:07 PM)

The Obama White House today released a National Near Earth Object Preparedness Strategy to improve the country's preparedness to deal with the potential hazards of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets. The report says a companion action plan is forthcoming.

The report was prepared by an interagency working group under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which is part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).   It was co-chaired by OSTP's Fred Kennedy and NASA's Lindley Johnson.  Johnson is NASA's Planetary Defense Officer and in charge of NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).  

The Detecting and Mitigating the Impacts of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN) working group included representatives of the White House (OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget); Director of National Intelligence (DNI); NASA; National Science Foundation (NSF); Department of State; DOD (including DARPA and Air Force Strategic Command); Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of the Department of Homeland Security); National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore Lab (both part of the Department of Energy); U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, part of the Department of Interior); Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, part of Department of Transportation); and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), both part of the Department of Commerce.

The meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 offered a stark reminder of what can happen when an asteroid reaches Earth (asteroids are rocks in space; when they enter and descend through Earth's atmosphere they are meteors; surviving pieces are meteorites).  History is filled with much more dramatic examples, such as the asteroid impact that many believe led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago or the more recent (1908) Tunguska event.  

In the 1990s, Congress directed NASA to locate and track the largest (1 kilometer or more in diameter), and therefore most potentially hazardous, NEOs.  Subsequent congressional direction lowered the threshold to 140 meters or larger.  NASA's NEO program got a boost after Chelyabinsk and President Obama's decision to send humans to an asteroid as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. 

NASA's creation of PDCO and designation of Johnson as Planetary Defense Officer, plus ongoing discussions at the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), are more signals of the increasing seriousness with which NEO impacts are being considered even though they are "low probability, high-consequence" hazards.

The DAMIEN strategy outlines objectives for enhancing U.S. preparedness in hazard and threat assessment, decision-making, and response.  It defines seven strategic goals for federal research, development, deployment, operations, coordination and engagement.  

One of the most critical factors is how long Earthlings would have to prepare for a potential impact -- a day, a year, a decade, many decades?  The options for response depend on that timing.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the first of the seven goals is to enhance detection, tracking and characterization capabilities.  The second is to develop methods to deflect or disrupt a NEO's path. The others are improving modeling, predictions and information integration; developing emergency procedures; establishing impact response and recovery procedures; leveraging and supporting international cooperation; and establishing coordination and communications protocols and thresholds for taking action.

The report promises a forthcoming action plan to implement the strategy and achieve those goals, followed by three-year updates.  It adds, however, that full implementation requires a global network of governments, U.S. government agencies, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including academia, the media, non-profits and industry.  "These partnerships between the United States and the international community, industry and academia will form the backbone of preparations for any threat of a NEO impact event."

What's Happening in Space Policy January 1-6, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jan-2017 (Updated: 01-Jan-2017 01:33 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 1-6, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2017 and, on Tuesday, to the 115th Congress.  Under the Constitution, a new session of Congress begins on January 3 of each year.  The second session of the 114th Congress officially will end and the first session of the 115th Congress will begin at 12:00 pm ET that day.

The House will meet at 11:00 am on Tuesday for legislative business to end the 114th Congress (to adjourn "sine die" -- without a day for that Congress to reconvene) and then will meet at noon to convene the 115th Congress.  They will begin with a recorded quorum call followed by the election of the Speaker of the House (Rep. Paul Ryan is expected to win that vote) and swearing in of the other members.  The House will be composed of 241 Republicans (a net loss of six seats) and 194 Democrats (a net gain of six seats).  Several pieces of legislation are scheduled for floor action this coming week, but none related to the space program judging by their titles. They can't be officially introduced and assigned bill numbers until the 115th Congress convenes, but the House Majority Leader's website lists their titles. 

The Senate will meet on Tuesday in pro forma session at 11:55 am ET to close the 114th Congress.  The Senate website doesn't say so, but presumably it also will convene for the 115th Congress at noon and swear in its members.  The Senate will be composed of 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 2 Independents (Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who remained an Independent throughout his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Angus King of Maine). That is a net loss of two seats for Republicans and a net gain of two seats for Democrats. The two Independents caucus with the Democrats so it is essentially a 52-48 split.

The only hearing on either side of the Hill that we've seen posted is on foreign cyber threats to the United States.  That's before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Not really space-related, but certainly of broad interest.  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre III, and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command/Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Services Adm. Michael Rogers are the witnesses.

On Friday, the House and Senate will meet in joint session at 1:00 pm ET to count the Electoral College votes officially, bringing the 2016 presidential election to an end.  On December 19, the electors cast their votes.  Donald Trump received 306, Hillary Clinton 232, making Trump the winner.  Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.9 million, but in the U.S. system, it is the Electoral College vote that determines the outcome.  Trump will be sworn in at noon ET on January 20.  Barack Obama remains President until then.

Outside the Beltway, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) will hold its winter meeting in Grapevine, TX.   This is where the world's astronomers and astrophysicists get together and discuss recent discoveries and future plans.  Always fascinating, but usually one has to be there to learn about it in real time. The sessions and press conferences are not publicly webcast.  Only a few are webcast for the media (a special password is required; instructions for obtaining it are on the conference's website).  However, some archived webcasts are made available later.

NASA will hold a press conference at Johnson Space Center on Wednesday to discuss two upcoming spacewalks -- the first is on Friday -- to upgrade the International Space Station's electrical power system.  NASA TV will cover the press conference and the spacewalk.

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

Tuesday, January 3

  • 115th Congress convenes

Tuesday-Saturday, January 3-7

Wednesday, January 4

Friday, January 6

New Chinese 5-Year Space Plan Offers Few Surprises

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Dec-2016 (Updated: 28-Dec-2016 02:18 AM)

China released its latest 5-year plan for space activities today.  While it states that China will "unremittingly" pursue the "dream" of building itself into a space power, the plan itself offers only modest goals for that period, most of which have been discussed openly for some time. They include a multi-modular space station in the early 2020s, continued robotic exploration of the Moon, and a robotic Mars orbiter/lander/rover in 2020. Bolder goals apparently are in the works in the longer term, however.   A Chinese space official said at an associated press conference that a new super-heavy lift rocket is planned for around 2030.

This is the fourth in a series of 5-year plans -- called "white papers" -- that summarize prior achievements and lay out the path forward.  The earlier versions were released in 2000, 2006 and 2011.  The 2011 plan also was modest, but mentioned preliminary studies of human lunar landings.  Today's document is silent on that topic, saying only that China wants to "lay a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space."  For the near-term, space stations in earth orbit are the focus.  The white paper notes China's well-known plan to launch a robotic cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, to its Tiangong-2 space station in 2017.  Tiangong-2 was launched in September 2016 and was occupied by a two-man crew for 30 days in October-November, the longest Chinese human spaceflight to date.  It is currently unoccupied and no one will be aboard when Tianzhou-1 docks and conducts a refueling test.  The launch is scheduled for April.

Tiangong-2 is small, just 8.6 metric tons, but China has said for years that it will orbit a three-module 60-ton space station by 2022 or 2023.  The new white paper provides no clarification on the timing, saying only that "We aim to complete the main research and development work on the space station modules, and start assembly and operation of the space station" within the 5-year period.

Robotic exploration of the Moon remains a prominent theme.  China has a three-prong strategy to send spacecraft successively to orbit, land, and return a sample from the Moon.  It accomplished the first two of those goals already with its Chang'e-1, -2 and -3 spacecraft.  Chang'e-3 was a lander that deployed the Yutu rover in 2013.  Although the rover suffered a mechanical failure and did not achieve all of its objectives, it and the lander transmitted data back to Earth long after their design lifetimes, as recently as this year.

The lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, is scheduled for launch in 2017 as restated today.  The white paper also confirms that Chang'e-4, originally designed as a backup for Chang'e-3, instead will break new ground by landing on the far side of the Moon, the first spacecraft designed to make a soft landing there.  The far side of the Moon always faces away from Earth, so a communications satellite will be needed to relay signals back to ground stations. Today's white paper confirms that Chang'e-4 will be launched in 2018 and the relay satellite will be positioned at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point.

The white paper reasserts China's plan to launch a robotic orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.  China's only prior attempt at Mars exploration was a small orbiter included in Russia's unsuccessful Phobos-Grunt mission.  It also says that studies and technological research will be conducted for a Mars sample return mission, asteroid exploration, and exploration of the Jupiter system, as well as research into the origin and evolution of the solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life.  No time frame is provided for launching spacecraft to achieve any of those objectives.

The white paper lists many earth-orbiting space science and space applications projects that are planned, as well as development of new launch vehicles.  China has introduced four new launch vehicles in the past 15 months, three of which use environmentally-friendly (liquid oxygen/kerosene) fuel:  Long March 5, Long March 6 and Long March 7.  A solid-fueled Long March 11 also had its first flight.  Long March 6 and 11 are for very small satellites, Long March 7 is for medium-sized satellites, and Long March 5 is China's largest rocket to date.  Capable of placing 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), it is slightly smaller than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy (28.4 metric tons to LEO).  

China has said in the past that it is studying a much larger rocket, Long March 9, capable of placing 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit, similar to the U.S. Space Launch System now in development.  The white paper makes no promises about when such a rocket will be ready, noting the significant research and development that is first required: "Endeavors will be made to research key technologies and further study the plans for developing heavy-lift launch vehicles. Breakthroughs are expected in key technologies ... for high thrust liquid oxygen and kerosene engines, and oxygen and hydrogen engines of such launch vehicles.  Thereafter the heavy-lift launch vehicle project will be activated." 

At a press conference, however, Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, was more explicit, saying that a maiden launch is expected around 2030.  He noted the need "to make progress in the heavy-lift carrier rocket's engine first, to create conditions for the whole project."  (A brief clip from the press conference, with English subtitles, is posted on YouTube.)

The white paper provides China's overall space vision:  "To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly."  It repeatedly asserts that China is committed to peaceful exploration and utilization of space and is opposed to "weaponization of or an arms race in outer space."  Perhaps not surprisingly, no mention is made of China's antisatellite (ASAT) activities, such as the 2007 test against one of its own satellites that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in the heavily-used LEO region.  Instead, the report notes that China has improved monitoring, mitigation of, early warning and protection against space debris.

Innovation, independence and self-reliance are other themes stressed in the report. 

China's space program is under the jurisdiction of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).  While in the United States it is common to distinguish among civil, commercial and national security space activities (although there clearly is overlap), such distinctions are not readily drawn in the Chinese program.  The white paper focuses on programs that generally would be considered civil space activities here, with national security explicitly mentioned only in broad terms.  The document's sections explaining the space program's purposes and vision, for example, state that the space program will "meet the demands of economic, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress" and "to effectively and reliably guarantee national security...." 

While it stresses the need for China to achieve its space goals independently, the white paper also highlights China's interest in international cooperation:  "China will promote the lofty cause of peace and development together with other countries."   In the past 5 years, China has signed 43 cooperative agreements or memoranda of understanding with 29 countries, it states, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.  The cooperation with the United States is through the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue and concerns space debris, space weather and response to global climate change.


JWST Vibration Test Results in "Anomalous Readings"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Dec-2016 (Updated: 21-Dec-2016 11:36 PM)

Vibration tests of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) resulted in "anomalous readings" according to NASA.  The $8 billion telescope is undergoing a series of tests in preparation for its 2018 launch.

JWST is often described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope although it will study the universe in a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum (infrared) and will not be serviced by space shuttle astronauts.  The space shuttle servicing missions brought a lot of attention to Hubble and enabled the telescope and its instruments to be repaired and upgraded five times over its 26 year (so far) lifetime.

The space shuttle program was terminated in 2011 and, in any case, JWST will not be in Earth orbit.  Instead it will be located 1.5 million kilometers away at the Sun-Earth L-2 Lagrange point.  It has a 5-year design lifetime, although many expect it will operate for at least twice that long.  Scientifically, JWST will take the next step beyond Hubble to study objects even deeper into the universe.  The light from such objects is "redshifted" into the infrared band, whereas Hubble's instruments observe primarily in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths.

The JWST program experienced considerable cost overruns and schedule delays, but since a program management revamping in 2011, has been holding to its revised cost and schedule estimates.   Congress capped the development cost at $8 billion, with another $700 million for operations.The European Space Agency (ESA) is providing the October 2018 launch on an Ariane rocket at no cost to NASA as a partner in the program.

The revised schedule includes several months of margin in case unexpected problems, such as this one, are encountered.

NASA states that during a December 3 vibration test, "accelerometers attached to the telescope detected anomalous readings during a particular test.  Further tests to identify the source of the anomaly are underway."   No damage to the telescope has been found so far.

More details will be provided when they are available.

State Department Legal Advisor: The Outer Space Treaty -- 50 Years On

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2016 (Updated: 14-Dec-2016 11:23 PM)

The foundational document that sets international law for conducting space activities -- the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) -- is about to turn 50.  State Department Legal Advisor Brian Egan discussed the relevance of the Treaty today and its future at the 11th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law last week.  The annual symposium is held under the aegis of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL).

Officially named the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the OST was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 19, 1966, opened for signature on January 27, 1967 and entered into force on October 10, 1967.

Article VI, which requires that governments authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, like companies, puts it at the center of today's debate over commercial space activities.  Specifically the question is how to ensure that proposed U.S. entrepreneurial ventures like private space stations, satellite servicing, habitats on the Moon, and asteroid mining comply with those obligations.   Experts at the December 7 Galloway space law symposium debated many of those issues.  Egan focused his comments on the relevance of the OST today and the outlook for the next 50 years.  

He noted that the Commercial Space Launch and Competitiveness Act (CSLCA, also called the Space Resource Exploitation and Utilization Act) enacted last year generated confusion internationally.  Some countries concluded that the United States was abrogating its obligations under the OST by granting property rights to space resources obtained by U.S. companies.  "In fact it is just the opposite," he stressed, because CSLCA clearly states that such rights must be consistent with U.S. international obligations and are subject to authorization and continuing supervision by the U.S. government as required by Article VI.

Egan noted that Article IX is also important in the context of innovative commercial space activities.  It requires that signatories to the Treaty avoid "harmful contamination" of the Moon and other celestial bodies and adopt "appropriate measures for that purpose."  The U.S. government recently approved an application by Moon Express to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon after it voluntarily agreed to comply with international planetary protection guidelines established by the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).  He stressed that the approval was specific to this one short-duration mission and the State Department's ability to authorize more extensive missions in the future requires "a more robust authorization framework ... to enable conditional approval where necessary."

Importantly, as the next 50 years of the OST unfold, the approach to avoiding harmful contamination of celestial bodies may evolve, Egan said.  The "open-textured" nature of the OST "accommodates such developments" by avoiding precise definitions of terms like harmful contamination that may change over time.

"Eilene Galloway was prescient about this need for flexibility in anticipation of the unforeseen -- and unforeseeable -- developments.  In a paper she delivered in the Hague in 1958, she cautioned that unless we study legal problems 'in conjunction with the developing facts of science and technology ... our interplanetary thinking will be earthbound by tradition and precedent at a time when creative predictions should enable us to keep international law in pace with scientific achievement.'"

Egan concluded that the Treaty "does not attempt to answer every legal question directly, or speak to any activity specifically" but is a "framework" to address "new capabilities and activities ... and the legal questions such activities inevitably generate.  If the preparations for future space activities underway in the United States and other nations are any indication, the Treaty will serve this function well into its second half century and beyond."

Dennis Burnett, IISL Treasurer and the lead organizer of the Galloway Symposium, pointed out that this was the first official statement on the OST by a State Department Legal Advisor in more than 30 years.