June 14, 2010

Sun's Strange Behavior Baffles Astronomers (Source: Florida Today)
The sun's temper ebbs and flows on what scientists had thought was a pretty predictable cycle, but lately our closest star has been acting up. Typically, a few stormy years would knock out a satellite or two and maybe trip a power grid on Earth. Then a few years of quiet, and then back to the bad behavior. But an extremely long stretch of low activity in recent years has scientists baffled and scrambling for better forecasting models. An expected minimum of solar activity, between 2008 and 2009, was unusually deep. And while the sun would normally ramp up activity by now, heading into its next cycle, the sun may be on the verge of a weak solar cycle instead. "We're witnessing something unlike anything we've seen in 100 years," said a NASA official. (6/14)

Virginia Space Flight Camp Offered at Two Locations (Source: Daily Times)
The Virginia Space Flight Academy announces day camp sessions in both Eastern Shore counties. The Virginia Space Flight Academy is pleased two present two day camp sessions of Space Flight Adventure Camp, July 5-9. One previously announced session will be held at Arcadia Middle School in Accomack County, and the other will be held at Cape Charles Christian School in Cape Charles. These sessions offer local students between the ages of 11 and 15 the same unique opportunities that attract campers from across the U.S., at less than half the price of residence camp tuition. (6/14)

NASA Presentation Explores Shuttle-Derived Options (Source: NASA Watch)
A June 11 internal NASA presentation posted online by NASA Watch describes the alternatives now under review by NASA for a Shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch vehicle, and for an extension of the Space Shuttle program. The presentation appears to favor a side-mount vehicle design, suggesting that this approach, combined with a Shuttle extension, could eliminate the gap. Click here to download the presentation. (6/14)

No NASA Employees Will Lose Jobs in Constellation Cuts, NASA Confirms (Source: Huntsville Times)
NASA Headquarters in Washington confirmed today that no government employees here will lose their jobs in current cuts being made in the Constellation rocket program. Marshall Space Flight Center Director Robert Lightfoot called an "all-hands" meeting Friday to open lines of communication after NASA announced that 2,500 to 5,000 contractor jobs nationwide are at risk due to immediate cuts in Constellation spending. Boeing has already announced 100 layoffs here.

Neither Lightfoot nor others at Marshall would discuss the "all hands" meeting today, but briefing documents obtained by The Huntsville Times show a three-part response by the center. Center leaders promised to share "what we know as soon as we can," to offer ongoing support to contractors through the external career transition Website, and to "actively engage with the community to seek assistance and opportunities for employees. Managers reminded workers the "employee assistance program is available to everyone." Resume writing, networking and other skills are available Tuesdays and Thursdays. (6/14)

Space Policy Fight May Have No Winners (Source: Aviation Week)
There’s no joy in the U.S. space industry this summer, as the Obama administration and Congress skirmish over the proposal to kill NASA’s Constellation Program and follow the space shuttle with a fleet of commercial “space taxis” to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Constellation contractors are losing a bitter game of legal hardball over congressional appropriations requirements that stipulate no Fiscal 2010 funds be spent to kill the program. But the so-called “merchant seven”—-companies that have funding to pursue the commercial route—are nervous about the near-term prospects for their funding as well.

After conceding that the $2.5 billion in the Fiscal 2011 budget request for its own Constellation termination costs is “oversubscribed,” NASA bigwigs have been warning contractors that they, too, “must abide by provisions of their contracts with respect to termination costs,” in the words of Charles Bolden. But the merchant seven-—Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, which hold milestone-driven multi-billion-dollar contracts to deliver cargo to the ISS, and the five companies awarded stimulus-package funding to develop commercial crew transport technology-—also are feeling the crunch. Their funds depend to one degree or another on passage of a Fiscal 2011 NASA budget at least somewhat like the one President Barack Obama requested, and so far it looks like the best they will get is a continuing-funding resolution this fall. Beyond that, the view is even murkier. (6/14)

Whose Head(s) Will Roll Over Naro Fiasco? (Source: Korea Times)
It would be extremely unfair to call the Korea Space Launch Vehicle I (KSLV-I) a $400 million firecracker. Rockets are in a rare business where success rates in the middling double digits are acceptable, and the majority of previous launch failures involved the rocket blowing up some way or another. So while the KSLV-I explosion last week, which represented the country’s second major space setback in less than a year, was certainly a letdown, it shouldn’t be thought of as more than a speed-bump in the national efforts to carve a niche in the aerospace industry.

However, the ineptitude and ill-grace displayed during the bungled build-up to Thursday’s launch obviously qualify as legitimate reasons for concern. It’s debatable whether the current leadership of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), as well as the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, can guide the country’s space aspirations forward, and there seems to be many reasons to worry that they might derail it instead. (6/14)

KARI: No Need to Play Blame Game, Third Launch Will Take Place (Source: Arirang)
While there has been speculation as to whether Korea will even get a third chance to launch its two-stage satellite carrier Naro the Korea Aerospace Research Institute says such rumors are unwarranted. According to the state-run aerospace institute it does not matter who is responsible for the failure of the second launch attempt of Naro the third launch will take place irrespective of liability. KARI added that there is no need to play the blame game as the 2002 contract between Korea and Russia clearly states that if the launch fails even once out of the two times Korea has the right to request a third launch from Russia. The institute also explained the only instance when the responsible party must be identified is when the rocket fails to place the satellite into the target orbit. (6/14)

Bill Would Direct NASA to Begin Work on Heavy-lift Rocket Next Year (Source: Space News)
New authorizing legislation taking shape in the U.S. Senate would require NASA to begin development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle in 2011 that takes advantage of the U.S. space agency’s investment in the retiring space shuttle and follow-on Ares 1 rocket. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science and space, said his bill, which would set funding limits and dictate policy guidance for the agency in the budget year that begins Oct. 1, would address the future of space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and urge NASA to work with other nations to define near-term missions to deep space destinations. (6/14)

NASA Demonstrates Tsunami Prediction System (Source: NASA)
A NASA-led research team has successfully demonstrated for the first time elements of a prototype tsunami prediction system that quickly and accurately assesses large earthquakes and estimates the size of resulting tsunamis. After the magnitude 8.8 Chilean earthquake on Feb. 27, a NASA team used real-time data from the agency's Global Differential GPS (GDGPS) network to successfully predict the size of the resulting tsunami. The network, managed by JPL, combines global and regional real-time data from hundreds of GPS sites and estimates their positions every second. It can detect ground motions as small as a few centimeters. (6/14)

NASA Appoints Constellation Program Managers (Source: NASA)
Lawrence D. Thomas has been appointed manager of NASA's Constellation Program, which manages the effort to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit and develop the next generation launch vehicle and spacecraft. Charles M. Stegemoeller has been appointed as deputy program manager. He and Thomas will be based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. (6/14)

Research Suggests Lunar Water Content Underestimated (Source: NASA)
NASA-funded scientists estimate from recent research that the volume of water molecules locked inside minerals in the moon's interior could exceed the amount of water in the Great Lakes here on Earth. Scientists at the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, along with other scientists across the nation, determined that the water was likely present very early in the moon's formation history as hot magma started to cool and crystallize. This finding means water is native to the moon. (6/14)

A New Hydrocarbon Engine for America? (Source: Space Review)
One element of the NASA budget proposal is funding for the development of a new hydrocarbon rocket engine that could be used on a future heavy-lift launch vehicle. Anthony Young examines what lessons that new effort could learn from the development of the F-1 a half-century ago. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1646/1 to view the article. (6/14)

The Need to Elevate the Debate (Source: Space Review)
The debate about the White House's plans to cancel Constellation and make other changes to the nation's human spaceflight program have generated a lot of debate in Capitol Hill since their introduction, but little substance. Jeff Foust says its time to move past the rhetoric into a more substantive debate about NASA's future direction. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1645/1 to view the article. (6/14)

The True Benefit of Human Mars Exploration (Source: Space Review)
Advocates of human exploration of Mars are often challenged to defend their support by those who argue there are so many other terrestrial problems that should be solved first. Frank Stratford argues that human Mars exploration can, in fact, demonstrate how we can solve problems closer to home. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1644/1 to view the article. (6/14)

Nelson to NASA: "Walk Before You Run" on Commercial Crew (Source: Florida Today)
Sen. Bill Nelson said today he would support a transition to commercial launches of NASA astronauts while continuing development of government vehicles that could serve as backups. "I am proposing that we take a 'walk before you run' approach to commercial crew services," Nelson wrote in a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. In the two-page letter, Nelson, D-Fla., who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA policy, outlined his priorities for what he said would be a bi-partisan NASA authorization act for 2011. Mikulski's appropriations committee would set funding levels for the agency. Nelson said his proposals would broadly support President Obama's plans for NASA, which would cancel the Constellation program that is developing the Ares I rocket and Orion spacecraft for moon missions.

But Nelson suggests what appears to be an attempt at compromise with Constellation supporters who have attacked Obama's proposals as ceding leadership in human spaceflight. Nelson wants to begin by next year the development of a heavy-lift rocket for exploration that could also provide backup access to the space station. The administration has said it would settle on a heavy-lift design no later than 2015, while beginning research and development of first-stage and in-space propulsion technologies with $559 million next year. (6/14)

Space Junk Tracker to Orbit Earth (Source: Discovery)
A new spacecraft soon will be joining the armada of probes, rocket bodies and other objects circling Earth. Rather than passing on communications signals, tracking hurricanes or staring at stars, however, this satellite will serve as an orbital eye for tracking space debris. The Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) is an Air Force effort to get better information about the 20,000 or so objects whizzing around the planet. Initially planned as a technology pathfinder, the project will be an operational system. The launch of the first satellite is planned for July. (6/14)

Scientists Hope Dust Unlocks Solar Secrets (Source: ABC)
It will be at least two months before scientists know whether a space capsule retrieved from South Australia's outback contains asteroid dust. The Japanese space mission started in 2003, with the capsule landing in the desert near Woomera on Sunday night. Two helicopters retrieved the capsule and its heat shield on Monday. Japanese scientists hope it contains asteroid samples that will give them more insight into the solar system. They say it takes only a speck to open up a whole new world. It is hoped the asteroid samples could also help reduce the threat of future asteroid collisions. Lindsay Campbell from the Woomera Test Range says it all went according to plan. (6/14)

Efforts to Protect Satellites From Solar Flares Heat Up (Source: AIA)
Amid forecasts of heightened storm activity on the sun in the next few years, governments and companies are scurrying to come up with better technology to predict the solar storms and protect satellites and other space equipment from being damaged. Just a minor flare in 1989 knocked out electricity to millions of Canadians, and the House last week approved a measure to spend $100 million to protect the power grid from a solar storm. (6/14)

FAA Feels Growing Pressure to Approve More Drones (Source: AIA)
Police, scientists, oil companies and others are clamoring for the right to use drone aircraft in civilian airspace, but the FAA has resisted approval because of concerns over midair collisions. "We are having constant conversations and discussions, particularly with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, to figure out how we can do this safely with all these different sizes of vehicles," says the FAA's head of air traffic operations. While the agency struggles to promulgate widely applicable rules, requests are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and that pace has been picking up, said Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association and a former FAA administrator. (6/14)

Mars Was Once Covered by a Vast Ocean... Could Have Supported Extra-Terrestrial Life (Source: Daily Mail)
A vast ocean once covered a third of the surface of Mars, scientists revealed last night. Far from being a dusty red desert, our neighboring planet was once wet and rainy - raising the prospect that it was home to extra-terrestrial life. The ocean stretched across 36 percent of the red planet around 3.5 billion years ago and contained 30 million cubic miles of water. The discovery is based on a detailed study of the dried-up river deltas and thousands of river valleys that scatter the Martian surface.

Scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder are unsure why the water vanished, but many suspect traces of the ocean remain in ice buried beneath the surface. The Martian sea - which has not been named - contained around a tenth of all the water found in Earth's oceans, he said. Mars is slightly more than half the size of Earth. Long lived oceans may have teemed with microbes at a time when the life is thought to have also been starting on Earth. (6/14)

SpaceX and Taiwan Space Agency Sign Launch Contract (Source: SpaceX)
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Taiwan's National Space Organization (NSPO) have signed contract for the launch of NSPO’s Earth Observation Satellite, Formosat-5. Formosat-5 will be used to continue the image data service for civilian users and may also carry instruments to conduct space research and scientific experiments. NSPO is involved in Taiwan's development of space exploration, satellite construction and development as well as related research, technologies and infrastructure, including the FORMOSAT series of Earth observation satellites. With Formosat-5, NSPO aims to build up capabilities for independent development of spacecraft and payload instruments.

"With over 40 flights now on manifest, SpaceX is positioned to deliver launch services across the increasingly varied needs of our commercial and government customers,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX. “We are pleased to be the launch services provider of choice for the FORMOSAT-5 mission and look forward to supporting NSPO on this launch." Formosat-5 is slated to launch as early as December 2013 from SpaceX’s launch site on Omelek Island at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) in the Central Pacific, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Editor's Note: Although the news announcement was not specific, looks like this will be a Falcon-1 mission. (6/14)

NASA Seeks Centennial Challenge Partners (Source: NASA)
NASA is seeking private and corporate sponsors for the Centennial Challenges, a program of incentive prizes designed for the "citizen inventor" that generates creative solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. NASA is looking for companies, organizations or individuals interested in sponsoring the non-profit allied organizations that manage the prize competitions. Click here for information. (6/14)

Job Fairs, Workshop Planned for Space Shuttle Workers (Source: Florida Today)
Two upcoming job fairs and a workshop aim to assist aerospace professionals whose jobs could end with the shuttle program, and those already out of work. On Thursday, Brevard Workforce and Monster.com will present a "Launch Your Job Search" workshop and networking event offering tips on job searches, resume writing and interviewing. On June 24 and 25, Brevard Workforce and Kennedy Space Center are presenting job fair that are expected to include more than 40 businesses and government agencies interested in hiring. (6/14)

The Looming Space Junk Crisis: It’s Time to Take Out the Trash (Source: WIRED)
On clear winter nights, when the trees are bare, Donald Kessler likes to set up a small telescope on the back deck of his house in Asheville, North Carolina, and zoom in on the stars shining over the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not the most advanced home observatory, but the retired NASA scientist treasures his Celestron telescope, which was made in 1978. That also happens to be the year Kessler published the paper that made his reputation in aerospace circles. Assigned to the Environmental Effects Project Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the astrophysicist had gotten interested in the junk that humans were abandoning in the wild black yonder—everything from nuts and tools to defunct satellites and rocket stages the size of school buses.

In that seminal paper, “Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt,” Kessler painted a nightmare scenario: Spent satellites and other space trash would accumulate until crashes became inevitable. Colliding objects would shatter into countless equally dangerous fragments, setting off a chain reaction of additional crashes. “The result would be an exponential increase in the number of objects with time,” he wrote, “creating a belt of debris around the Earth.” (6/14)

Dark Energy and Dark Matter Might Not Exist, Scientists Allege (Source: Space.com)
Dark matter and dark energy are two of the most mind-boggling ingredients in the universe. Ever since these concepts were first proposed, some astronomers have worked feverishly to figure out what each thing is, while other astronomers have tried to prove they don't exist, in hopes of restoring the universe to the more understandable place many would like it to be. A new look at the data from one of the telescopes used to establish the existence of this strange stuff is causing some scientists to question whether they really exist at all. Yet other experts are holding firm to the idea that, whether we like it or not, the "dark side" of the universe is here to stay.

Astronomers can't observe dark matter directly, but they think it's there because of the gravitational pull it seems to exert on everything else. Without dark matter, the thinking goes, galaxies would fly apart. As if that weren't weird enough, scientists think another 74 percent of the mass-energy budget could be made of some strange quantity called dark energy. This force is thought to be responsible for the accelerating pace of the expansion of the universe. (For those keeping track, that would leave only a measly 4 percent of the universe composed of normal matter.) (6/14)

Cramer: Constellation Funding Up To NASA Backers To Win Over Congress (Source: Huntsville Times)
President Obama has recommended the cancellation of the Constellation program and in its place has suggested that we should rely on private, commercial space companies to develop rockets and space transportation systems to get us to low earth orbit. Canceling Constellation means the cancellation of the programs that were to replace the shuttle and take us back to the moon and beyond. These rocket programs, managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center, employ 2,200 people in the Tennessee Valley.

The president's proposal includes a very different vision for NASA's future and begs the question: Will we continue to have a government-led space program? Will Marshall's workforce have the rug pulled out from under them? Once again we wait... The president proposes and Congress reacts. The good news is that there is still a lot of Congressional and public support for NASA's historic role in running human space exploration programs. We as a community have a lot at stake in the outcome of the debate. A clear resolution won't be known until the House and Senate react through the appropriations process this summer, into the fall and maybe after November.

Editor's Note: Here's another misleading characterization of the new space exploration policy from the crew in Alabama. The Commercial Crew program is not intended as a replacement for a NASA-led exploration program, and Constellation's cancellation is not the end of the effort to replace the Shuttle with a heavy-lift exploration vehicle. Exploration beyond LEO is at the heart of the new policy, only the destinations and vehicle architecture will change. Rep. Cramer and others know this, but the facts are not helpful to their Huntsville-centric effort to save Constellation. (6/14)

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