September 29, 2010

Atmosphere Checked, One Mars Year Before a Landing (Source: JPL)
What will the Martian atmosphere be like when the next Mars rover descends through it for landing in August of 2012? An instrument studying the Martian atmosphere from orbit has begun a four-week campaign to characterize daily atmosphere changes, one Mars year before the arrival of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. A Mars year equals 687 Earth days.

The planet's thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide is highly repeatable from year to year at the same time of day and seasonal date during northern spring and summer on Mars. The Mars Climate Sounder instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter maps the distribution of temperature, dust, and water ice in the atmosphere. Temperature variations with height indicate how fast air density changes and thus the rates at which the incoming spacecraft slows down and heats up during its descent. (9/29)

LaTourette, Kucinich Come Out Against Senate Bill (Source: Crains Cleveland Business)
Some prominent voices in Northeast Ohio have come out against the Senate version of the NASA budget bill, saying it will hurt NASA Glenn Research Center. U.S. Reps. Steve LaTourette and Dennis Kucinich are circulating a letter that asks other Ohio members of the House of Representatives to oppose the Senate version of the bill, and Greater Cleveland Partnership president Joseph Roman also has sent a letter opposing the Senate version of the bill to Congress. (9/29)

Repairing Science Gear Takes Big Fraction of Space Station Research Time (Source: Space News)
Astronauts at the international space station spend nearly one-quarter of the time they allot to conducting experiments to repairing or performing routine maintenance on the payload canisters that house the scientific gear, European and Japanese space station officials said. Data is still preliminary, but indications are that between 20 and 25 percent of the time astronauts devote to scientific experiments is spent performing preventive or corrective maintenance on the payload racks.

More than a year after the orbital complex reached its full permanent-crew complement of six astronauts, officials said they have noticed the sharp increase in astronaut time given over to conducting the experiments that are one of the station’s principal reasons for being. (9/29)

Researchers Find First Potentially Habitable Exoplanet (Source: NASA)
A team of planet hunters from the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of a planet with three times the mass of Earth orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star's "habitable zone."

This discovery was the result of more than a decade of observations using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, one of the world's largest optical telescopes. The research, sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation, placed the planet in an area where liquid water could exist on the planet's surface. If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one. (9/29)

NASA Extends Space Shuttle Main Engine Contract (Source: NASA)
NASA has signed a $60.3 million contract modification to space shuttle main engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne Inc. of Canoga Park, Calif., to provide continued space shuttle main engine prelaunch, launch and landing support from Oct. 1, 2010, through March 31, 2011. This action is based on an extension to the current Space Shuttle Program flight manifest launch schedule, which shifted the last two scheduled launch dates into fiscal year 2011. This modification brings the total potential value of the contract to $2.25 billion. (9/29)

What Aliens Would See When Spying On Our Solar System (Source:
Alien astronomers searching for planets in our solar system would at least be able to see Neptune inside the dusty disk that surrounds our planetary neighborhood, a new study suggests. The method used in the study could be a new tool for astronomers on Earth seeking out strange new worlds, since the dust rings around other stars could be used to find their outer planets, too. Our solar system has one of these dust clouds out beyond the orbit of Neptune, researchers said. (9/29)

NASA and Optimus Prime Collaborate to Educate Youth (Source: NASA)
NASA has developed a contest to raise students' awareness of technology transfer efforts and how NASA technologies contribute to our everyday lives. NASA is collaborating with Hasbro using the correlation between the popular TRANSFORMERS brand, featuring its leader Optimus Prime, and spinoffs from NASA technologies created for aeronautics and space missions that are used here on Earth. (9/29)

Analysis of Hayabusa Samples Will Wait Until 2011 (Source:
Scientists won't know whether Japan's Hayabusa probe actually returned asteroid dust until at least February or March, when researchers finish extracting microscopic particles from the craft's return capsule and complete an exhaustive analysis to verify their origin.

In a presentation at the 61st International Astronautical Congress here, Hayabusa's project manager said he is optimistic the hard-luck $200 million mission returned at least some traces of asteroid material from the surface of Itokawa, the potato-shaped rubble pile object the probe visited in late 2005. The trick is distinguishing the precious samples from contamination from Earth. (9/29)

Friedman: Too Much Pork, Not Enough Exploration (Source: Planetary Society)
The NASA Authorization bills barely mention exploration. They contain heavy prescriptions for how to build things, pointing to specific contractors. Having politicians design our rockets, propulsion systems, crew vehicles and payloads is a prescription for spending lots of money and accomplishing little. When President Kennedy told NASA to get to the Moon, Congress didn’t prescribe the payload capacity of Saturn or its choice of fuel. Nor did they prescribe Earth orbit rendezvous or Moon orbit rendezvous. They left those designs to engineers and scientists. The same needs to happen now. That’s why I personally oppose both Authorization bills. I am putting my hopes in the Appropriations Committees.

Editor's Note: This has been a situation where very smart people disagree and there is more than one right answer. The passionate partisans on both sides have dug in their heels and no real compromise was forthcoming. In this case, the arguments had to be made to Congress so they could make the final call, micro-managing a solution that otherwise would not have been reached. (9/29)

Bolden Likes Senate Bill (Source: Space Politics)
NASA released a statement from administrator Charles Bolden expressing his support for S. 3729. Bolden said he was “hopeful” that the bill “will receive strong support in the House and be sent onto the President for his signature.” He adds at the end of the statement: “There is still a lot of work ahead, especially as the 2011 appropriations process moves forward, but the continuing support for NASA ensures America’s space program will remain at the forefront of pioneering new frontiers in science, technology, and exploration.” (9/29)

UN Denies Naming 'Point of Contact' for Aliens (Source: Space Daily)
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs on Tuesday dismissed as "nonsense" a newspaper report which said it had appointed a new ambassador as a point of contact for extra-terrestrials. The report said the UN was to appoint Malaysian astrophysicist, Mazlan Othman, to be the first contact for any aliens.

Othman heads UNOOSA, a little-known department of the UN based in Vienna with a staff of 27. Under a mandate defined by the UN General Assembly, UNOOSA's task is to promote international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space and strengthen the use of space science and technology applications. "There are no plans to change the current mandate," the statement said. (9/29)

Supreme Court to Take 19-Year-Old Stealth-Fighter Case (Source: AIA)
The Supreme Court has agreed to take the case of a 19-year-old legal dispute over the Pentagon's 1991 termination of the A-12 Avenger stealth-fighter aircraft program. In the case, the government canceled the contract on the grounds that Boeing and General Dynamics were not living up to their obligations, and it is requiring that they return $1.35 billion in payments, plus interest that has accrued over two decades. A victory in the case for Boeing and General Dynamics could affect the government's ability to use the state secrets privilege, which Boeing and General Dynamics say unfairly prevented them from defending themselves in the case. (9/29)

Pentagon Vows to "Do No Harm" to Solid Rocket Industry (Source: AIA)
The Pentagon has adopted a motto of "First, do no harm to industry" as it moves into the purchase of rocket motors during the next decade. According to Brett Lambert, the Pentagon's director of industrial policy, the Pentagon will be committed to doing what needs to be done to maintain skilled engineers to develop the next generation of solid rockets and avoid any actions that will cause the industry to shrink to the point of being unable to reconstitute. (9/29)

Russia to Launch Commercial Space Station by 2016 (Source: AP)
A private Russian space firm and a state-controlled spacecraft manufacturer are planning to build and operate the world's first commercial space station and expect it to be launched by 2016. Sergey Kostenko, chief executive of the Moscow-based Orbital Technologies, said the station will cater to space tourists and researchers. The station will initially be equipped to host seven people but will be capable of significant expansion.

The Russian state space agency, which stands to benefit from the proposed station by leasing launching pads for service modules, says it could be used as a safety back-up for the International Space Station in emergencies. (9/29)

Editorial: Congress's Budget Battle Leaves NASA Without a Clear Mission (Source: Washington Post)
America's spaceflight program is about to enter a vacuum: a vacuum of vision. Even with expected passage of a resolution to provide NASA with its annual operating budget, it appears increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to provide a guiding mission for NASA before it adjourns.

The flawed Senate bill only proves that the biggest challenges now facing NASA are on the ground. Members of Congress, hoping to protect jobs in their districts, have fought against the shutdown of the Constellation manned spaceflight program, which a blue-ribbon commission on the future of human spaceflight found to be doomed by excessive ambition and insufficient funds.

There is little logic to support an ambitious -- and ambitiously underfunded -- plan for NASA that continues its heavy-lift rocket programs, allocates a limited amount of funding for commercial spaceflight and keeps NASA's eyes lifted to the dream of manned flight beyond low-Earth orbit. A better compromise would allow NASA to invest in research and aeronautics and to salvage technology, expertise and resources from the Constellation program, and use them to develop capacity for a time when America is in a better position to aim upward. (9/29)

Two Embry-Riddle Alumni to Launch on Discovery’s Final Mission (Source: ERAU)
Space shuttle Discovery’s final launch will be a landmark event for Embry-Riddle – the first time that two of its alumni will serve together in space. U.S. Air Force Col. B. Alvin Drew Jr. and Nicole P. Stott are assigned as mission specialists on the STS-133 flight to the International Space Station (ISS), the second space flight for both of them. Discovery’s launch is currently scheduled for 4:40 p.m. EDT on Nov. 1, 2010, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (9/29)

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