September 20, 2011

NASA's $500 Million Launch Platform: Commercial Crew or Heavy Lift? (Source:
A brand-new launch platform built for NASA moon rockets may instead help send people to asteroids or Mars — or a private company could use it to loft astronauts to low-Earth orbit. NASA completed the platform (which sits atop a KSC "crawler" for transport from the VAB to the launch pad) in 2010 to prepare for the now-canceled Ares 1 rocket. However, the platform should still get significant use, NASA officials said.

NASA is looking at adapting the platform for its new heavy-lift rocket, but Alliant Techsystems (ATK) wants to use the structure for its Liberty rocket, a contender to ferry NASA astronauts to the Space Station. Nothing is set in stone yet. And other parties have expressed interest in using the platform as well. The alternative is to develop a new platform or to modify one of three available Space Shuttle Mobile Launch Platforms (MLP).

Editor's Note: This is a big deal for ATK. The Ares-1 platform is almost tailor-made for Liberty, while also being most capable for supporting NASA's heavy-lift rocket. If ATK isn't given access to it for Liberty, they would have to invest tens of millions to modify an MLP or build a new totally platform. Likewise for NASA; they paid for the Ares-1 platform and would like to avoid the expense of a new one. Meanwhile, the platform could also be used by SpaceX if they end up expanding Falcon crew-carrying operations to LC-39. (9/20)

General: GPS, LightSquared ‘Can’t Coexist’ (Source: DOD Buzz)
The boss of Air Force Space Command, Gen. William Shelton, does not want to get any more mixed up in the political imbroglio between the FCC, Republicans, Democrats and the broadband startup LightSquared. His job, he told reporters Tuesday, is to protect the Global Positioning System, and to that end, he reaffirmed at the Air Force Association’s trade show that GPS and LightSquared’s proposed network “cannot coexist.” Simple as that. (9/20)

The X-37’s Uncertain Fate (Source: DOD Buzz)
Everything we do in the space world is basically essential, Gen. Shelton said. From missile launch monitoring to GPS to cyber-warfare, you really can’t cut very much without endangering or eliminating some of the planks upon which high-tech life today is built, he said. A few things, though, might be open to discussion at budget crunch time, Shelton acknowledged. Maybe SpaceCom could broaden its use of equipment that piggy-backs on third-party commercial satellites.

And maybe SpaceCom could get better at cyber-warfare acquisitions; it needs to get faster and more efficient to keep up with the rapidly changing cyber game out there. And maybe SpaceCom doesn’t need its much-discussed, little-known space jet, the X-37B. Nobody knows exactly what the X-37 is for — though there are lots of good guesses — though Shelton said Tuesday that it’s a “niche capability,” and that at some point the Air Force might need to have a capital-D Discussion about its future. (9/20)

China's Second Moon Orbiter Sends Data From 1.7 Million Kilometers Away (Source: Xinhua)
China's second moon orbiter Chang'e-2 has been orbiting the second Lagrange Point (L2) in a stable manner and has sent back the first batch of data from outer space about 1.7 million km away from Earth. The orbiter is scheduled to travel around the L2 orbit till the end of 2012, according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. (9/20)

SETI Projects Weather Recession (Source: Sky & Telescope)
SETI@home is one of the world's most venerable "citizen science" projects. Founded in 1999, it uses the downtime on a global armada of people's computers to sift through vast amounts of cosmic radio hiss gathered by Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, looking for weak signals that might have been broadcast by extraterrestrial civilizations. But few organizations have escaped the Great Recession unscathed. Has SETI@home been any different?

In short, no. Much of the project's funding comes from corporate and individual donations, and over the past few years both sources have dried up. Although SETI@home has lost some of its funding, the organization is used to surviving with little funds. "Money has always been tight for SETI," says Dan Wertheimer, the project's chief scientist. "This is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor, and therefore does not attract donations easily." (9/20)

Symposium on Deep-Space Travel Coming to Orlando (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), along with NASA’s Ames Research Center, will host the 100-Year Starship Public Symposium at the Hilton Orlando on Sept. 30 through Oct. According to a release, the purpose of the event is to “foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider ‘why not’ and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.”

This is no “Star Trek” convention — see this talk by three Princeton scientists entitled “Modular Aneutronic Fusion Engine for an Alpha Centauri Mission” as one example of the kind of topics that will be discussed. Instead, it’s intended to be a discussion of “the many complex issues we need to overcome to achieve interstellar flight in the next century – issues ranging from technology and propulsion to the legal and ethical issues involved.” (9/20)

Florida Raises Concern Over Wallops Expansion (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
In a move to protect their turf, Florida space leaders are sending letters in opposition to a proposed expansion at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, warning a move to expand the launch range there could be “duplicative” of work done at Kennedy Space Center. The concern is not without merit. Wallops Flight Facility has a godmother in U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski. If Wallops were to expand its launch capabilities, she likely could steer even more dollars there.

It’s a situation feared by Florida policymakers, as Kennedy Space Center already is struggling to develop an identity now the space shuttle era has ended. State leaders want Florida to remain the prime provider of orbital flights for NASA for astronauts to the International Space Station. Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, suggested the work could be “duplicative” and raised the possibility of holding a public meeting down in Florida.

“The most pressing issue for the Florida workforce is the sense of betrayal that their tax dollars might be used in establishing a competing orbital human spaceflight launch capability in another state when they have so well and ably done the job here in Florida,” wrote Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast. (9/20)

New Packaging for Old U.S. Rocket (Source: Voice of Russia)
The new NASA heavy-lift rocket project has nothing revolutionary and reminds of the saying that all new are the well-forgotten old, says Russian expert in space exploration, Victor Minenko. “There is nothing extraordinary in the NASA project. Judging by figures, this is a modernized old liquid fuel rocket technology. The Soviet Union used hydrogen and oxygen fuel in its “Energia” rocket to launch the “Buran” shuttle,” says Victor Minenko.

However, at present, Russian scientists and engineers are engaged in solving other problems. There is a need to solve the problem of assembling space complexes in orbit. To this end, cheaper rockets that can carry 30-40 tons are needed but not the heavy rockets to fly to Mars. In fact, the use of hydrogen sharply increases the size of the rocket owing to low specific gravity of fuel, says Victor Minenko. (9/20)

Embry-Riddle Team Set for NASA Centennial Challenge for Green Flight (Source: Daytona Beach News Journal)
Flying over Daytona Beach, Mikhael Ponso said he felt like he was gliding as he switched Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's hybrid plane from gas to electric power. After almost two years of design, manufacturing and testing by about 200 students, the Eco Eagle is making history as a first of its kind gas/electric/battery hybrid, Embry-Riddle and NASA officials said. Two students and test pilot Ponso, an Embry-Riddle graduate, are currently hauling the plane by road to a national competition in Santa Rosa, Calif., hoping to win the top prize of $1.3 million to help the school's research needs.

Embry-Riddle is one of five finalists competing in the challenge and the only university, according to Sam Ortega, program manager for NASA's Centennial Challenges. Some of the other four include private individuals who own businesses selling aircrafts, he said. Originally 13 teams entered, Ortega said, and for the past two years had been working to develop an aircraft, but for some it proved more difficult to get funding or the technology wasn't mature enough so now five will compete. A total of eight Embry-Riddle students, three professors and Ponso will be going to the competition. (9/20)

NASA to Abandon Goal of Funding Multiple Commercial Crew Systems (Source: Parabolic Arc)
Congressional stinginess with NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) budget is forcing the space agency to abandon a key goal of the effort: to obtain multiple, redundant access to low Earth orbit with price competition between providers. According to the CCDev draft request for proposal released yesterday, NASA will ultimately select only one system to fund to completion:

"The acquisition will be conducted as a two-phased procurement using a competitive down-selection technique between phases. In this technique, two or more contractors will be selected for Phase 1. It is expected that the single contractor for Phase 2 will be chosen from among these contractors after a competitive down-selection."

The space agency is currently funding four companies to build spacecraft: Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX. The first three companies plan to use United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to launch their spacecraft into orbit. SpaceX would use its own Falcon 9 booster. The key issue appears to be funding: while the Obama Administration has proposed spending $850 million on CCDev in FY 2012, the Senate would provide $500 million while the House has proposed $312 million. (9/20)

In Neck and Neck Competition, Team Voyager Wins the Caltech Space Challenge (Source: Caltech)
Last week, two teams of students from around the world rose to the Caltech Space Challenge, delivering plans for deep-space missions that could carry humans to an asteroid and back. The competing mission descriptions, from Team Explorer and Team Voyager, were so evenly matched that the jurors had to use three different judging methods to finally settle on a winner. In the end, the victory and shiny new iPads went to Team Voyager.

Each team, made up of 16 undergrad and grad students, presented an overview of its mission Friday, September 16, as a culmination of just five days spent working on the challenge. As previously reported, the teams were tasked with designing the best mission to an asteroid or comet in Earth's neighborhood—a so-called Near-Earth Object (NEO)—that would return a sample of rock or ice. (9/20)

Countdown to Europe’s First Soyuz Launch Underway (Source: ESA)
The clock is ticking for the first Soyuz flight from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. The rocket, which will carry the first two satellites of Europe’s Galileo navigation system into orbit, is being prepared for launch on 20 October. Final assembly began on 12 September of the three-stage Soyuz ST-B, consisting of four first-stage boosters clustered around the core second stage, topped off by the third stage. (9/20)

ILS Expects 10-11 Launches for Year Despite Proton Problem (Source: Space News)
The company that sells Russian Proton heavy-lift rockets on the commercial market expects to be able to conduct three or four more commercial missions before the end of 2011 despite the year’s slow start from late-arriving satellites, and a mid-August failure of the rocket it uses.

In addition to these launches, the Proton vehicle is expected to be used for four more Russian government missions in 2011, bringing Proton’s flight rate for the year to 10 or 11 launches. Before the August failure, in which a $300 million Russian government telecommunications satellite was placed into a useless orbit, Proton had been scheduled to make 12 flights this year. (9/20)

Navy Satellite Readied for Sep. 27 Launch From Alaska Spaceport (Source: NRL)
The Naval Research Laboratory's Tactical Satellite IV (TacSat-4) has been encapsulated inside the fairing of an Orbital Sciences Corporation Minotaur-IV+ launch vehicle in preparation for a Sep. 27 launch from the Alaska Aerospace Corporation's Kodiak Launch Complex.

TacSat-4 is a Navy-led joint mission which provides 10 Ultra High Frequency (UHF) channels and allows troops using existing radios to communicate on-the-move (COTM) from obscured regions without the need for dangerous antenna positioning and pointing. (9/20)

Astrotech Releases Net Loss Results (Source: Astrotech)
Astrotech announced financial results for its fourth quarter and fiscal year ended June 30, 2011. The Company posted a fourth quarter FY-2011 net loss of $1.8 million on revenue of $4.5 million compared with a fourth quarter FY-2010 net loss of $1.6 million on revenue of $5.5 million. Astrotech's net loss for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011 was $5.0 million on revenue of $20.1 million compared to net income of $0.3 million on revenue of $28.0 million for the prior fiscal year.

"We have endured a slower launch schedule than in recent years," said CEO Thomas B. Pickens III. "We continue to identify ways to control costs and I am pleased that we were able to reduce SG&A by $3.8 million for fiscal year 2011. While we experience business cyclicality, Astrotech is committed to finding additional sources of revenue, such as the recent contract for ground support equipment...[In FY-2012] gross margin will be squeezed by a mix shift from the payload processing business to the design and fabrication of the ground support equipment." (9/20)

FEMA Ready to Respond to UARS Plunge to Earth (Source:
FEMA is laying the groundwork for a fast response in case NASA's 6 1/2-ton UARS spacecraft falls over American soil. FEMA's "consequence planning" stems from lessons learned after the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster over Texas, an incident that provided that agency with critical insight towards planning, preparing and responding. FEMA also revved up a satellite re-entry action plan in early 2008. The worry then focused on the out-of-control spy satellite USA-193. (9/20)

Back to Constellation? (Source: SPACErePORT)
With a heavy-lift "SLS" rocket similar to the Ares-5, a proposed commercial crew launcher similar to the Ares-1, and a deep-space capsule similar to Orion, some might ask if NASA's future exploration architecture is virtually the same as was envisioned under Constellation. They would have a point, but there are some key differences. As I've said before, Constellation was not a bad architecture, if only the Ares-1 were replaced with a commercial launch system for crew transportation.

Constellation faltered under the weight of Ares-1, a sole-source rocket that consumed billions of dollars while pushing the schedule for beyond-LEO exploration further and further to the right. Unlike Ares-1, ATK's Liberty rocket is competing against other systems, with ATK picking up more of the development tab while they find ways to cut costs (something they had no incentive for under Ares-1). (9/20)

White House Pushed Testing for LightSquared (Source: Daily Beast)
Philip Falcone, the billionaire political donor whose hedge fund owns a majority financial stake in the satellite-wireless company LightSquared, says he told anyone in the federal government willing to listen that testing his company’s signal for GPS interference on commercial and military equipment “should not take that long.” The White House subsequently asked government witnesses at a recent Congressional Hearing to say they hoped LightSquared interference testing could be completed within 90 days.

Two of the witnesses (Gen. William Shelton and Anthony Russo) disagreed and declined the White House request (Russo thought the testing would take at least six months). House Republicans now want to know whether LightSquared has received special treatment because of contributions in the last few years to the Democratic party. The White House has said the process for vetting Shelton’s testimony was routine. And Falcone and LightSquared have denied getting any special treatment. (9/20)

Labor Strike Postpones Ariane 5 Launch (Source: Space News)
The scheduled Sept. 20 launch of a European Ariane 5 rocket carrying commercial satellites for U.S. and Middle Eastern customers was canceled early in the day following a labor strike among employees of the company responsible for tracking the rocket’s launch by radar. The workers in question are members of the Union des Travailleurs Guyanais (UTG) and employees of Telespazio France at Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

Officials familiar with the issue said UTG and Telespazio have been negotiating the conditions of a transfer of some union employees to another company following Telespazio’s loss of a contract at the launch base. Negotiations had begun over whether the employees would be granted the same contracts with their new employer. With negotiations apparently not advancing, UTG decided on a work stoppage as a means of putting pressure on Telespazio and the other organizations involved in the spaceport’s operations, notably the French space agency, CNES. (9/20)

NASA Releases Draft Commercial Cargo RFP, Modifies CCDev2 Awards (Source: Space Policy Online)
NASA has released a draft request for proposals (RFP) for commercial crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). The draft RFP "outlines a contract that will be awarded to multiple companies that provide a complete end-to-end design, including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations and recovery," according to the space agency. Called the Integrated Design Contract (IDC), it has a value of up to $1.61 billion for the period July 2012 to April 2014. (9/19)

Fifth Gas Giant Planet May Have Been Ejected From Ancient Solar System (Source: Huffington Post)
Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Those are the gas giants, the four heavyweights of the solar system. But was there once a fifth? Maybe so, says a new study by the Southwest Research Institute used computer simulations to explore what the solar system may have looked like some four billion years ago. Early on, the giant planets migrated, tugged on each other and generally shook things up before settling into their current orbits. So the simulation tested different initial arrangements of planets to see which would evolve into the solar system we know so well.

With just four giant planets at the outset, the solar system hardly ever wound up looking like ours. But with a fifth planet, the simulations produced familiar solar systems 10 times more often. So what happened to the extra planet? It would have run afoul of Jupiter and been chucked into interstellar space. Astronomers have recently discovered that the galaxy is filled with such orphaned planets. Billions of them. (9/20)

Texas Reps (Culberson, Green, Green & Olson) Issue Statement on SLS, Orion (Source: Houston Chronicle)
"While we are pleased with the decisions regarding SLS and Orion, we will continue to push the Obama administration and NASA to maintain their commitment to go beyond low Earth orbit. Decisions must be made without delay and they absolutely must continue to use the talent, resources and facilities that we have in Houston instead of reinventing the wheel in some other area." (9/20)

Company Shows Off New California Digs for Building Spaceships (Source: Bakersfield Californian)
Every eye in the building was focused, transfixed, as the huge doors slid open, sending sunlight streaming into the spotlessly new 1.5-acre hangar. Someone cued the dramatic theme music from "2001: A Space Odyssey." And through the open doorway the real stars of the show -- WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo -- glided into the room to cheers and applause.

If everything goes as planned, the mothership and the spaceship, and others like them, will ultimately carry hundreds, maybe thousands, of space tourists. The grand opening ceremony put on by The Spaceship Company, an aerospace production joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Mojave-based Scaled Composites, was the first chance for invited guests to see the $8 million Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar -- or FAITH -- built at Mojave Air and Space Port in eastern Kern County. (9/20)

JSC Turns 50 Under Cloudy Sky (Source: Houston Chronicle)
Amid uncertainty about its future and that of human spaceflight in general, Johnson Space Center celebrated its 50th anniversary Monday. With NASA moving beyond the Houston-based space shuttle program earlier this year, the sprawling Clear Lake center will see its budget cut by about 25 percent, to $4.5 billion next year.

"That's a very significant cut, and it's painful," said Mike Coats, director of Johnson Space Center. As a result of the cuts the Houston space center will shed several thousand jobs. The golden anniversary comes as NASA announced last week plans to develop and build a heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft to allow humans to fly beyond low-Earth orbit. Test flights could begin as early as 2018. (9/20)

Origin of Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid is Still a Mystery (Source:
The source of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago remains a mystery, a new study finds. Some researchers had thought the deadly asteroid was a piece of a larger space rock called Baptistina. Baptistina broke apart after a massive in-space collision about 160 million years ago, the theory went, spawning a swarm of mountain-size chunks of rock. One of those eventually slammed into Earth, killing off the dinosaurs and many other species.

Scientists are confident that a 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer asteroid) is indeed what wiped out the dinosaurs. But new observations from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope suggest the space rock didn't come from Baptistina. The timing just isn't right, according to the new study. (9/20)

China to Launch Unmanned Space Module Between Sep. 27-30 (Source:: Xinhua)
China will launch its unmanned space module, Tiangong-1, sometime from Sep. 27 to 30, a spokesperson said. The space module and its carrier rocket, Long-March II-F, have been moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Every main system is standing by and the final preparations are running smoothly, he said. (9/20)

China to Build and Launch Satellite for Belarus (Source: Itar-Tass)
China will build a communication satellite for Belarus and bring it into orbit. The contract was signed in Minsk on Sunday during the visit of the Chinese delegation led by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. “The contract with Belarus marks China’s expansion of satellite in-orbit delivery service to the European market,” said Yin Liming, president of China Great Wall Industry Corp.

This is China’s only corporation that is authorized to launch commercial satellites for foreign customers. Aside from contract with Belarus China has another six contracts. However, Belarus is China’s first client on the European market. The communications satellite will use the Dongfanghong-4 satellite platform and has a designed lifespan of 15 years. (9/20)

Pope Benedict and the Astronauts (Source: Vatican Radio)
Pope Benedict XVI on Monday received in audience a group of astronauts amongst whom there were two upon whom he had bestowed an historic blessing during the first-ever papal call to space in May this year. The two astronauts of Italian nationality, Roberto Vittori and Paolo Nespoli, were accompanied by members of their crews on the International Space Station and by other members of Italian and European Space Agencies.

The Pope had linked up with 12 astronauts aboard Endeavor and the International Space Station for an 18-minute conversation on May 21, 2011. During that link, Pope Benedict offered his support of the space exploration program and extended his blessing to the astronauts, a mix of Americans, Russians and Italians. (9/20)

Astronomers Break Ranks Over Space Telescope Costs (Source: New Scientist)
The beleaguered James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) got a reprieve last week when a Senate subcommittee offered to guarantee the money needed to finish the observatory in time to launch in 2018. But the astronomy community as a whole isn't sure this is good news. Some now fear that the behemoth telescope, which is 7 years late and vastly over budget, will end up devouring money allocated to other planetary science and solar physics projects. (9/20)

Blurred Vision Plagues Astronauts Who Spend Months in Space (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
If NASA ever wants to send astronauts to Mars, it first must solve a problem that has nothing to do with rockets or radiation exposure. A newly discovered eye condition -- found to erode the vision of some astronauts who've spent months aboard the International Space Station -- has doctors worried that future explorers could go blind by the end of long missions, such as a multi-year trip to Mars.

While blindness is the worst-case scenario, the threat of blurred vision is enough that NASA has asked scores of researchers to study the issue and has put special eyeglasses on the space station to help those affected see what they're doing. According to one NASA survey of about 300 astronauts, nearly 30 percent of those who have flown on space shuttle missions – which usually lasted two weeks -- and 60 percent who've completed six-month shifts aboard the station reported a gradual blurring of eyesight. (9/20)

The Challenge Is On: Robot Prize Competition Registration Opens (Source: NASA)
NASA and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass., are seeking teams to compete in a robot technology demonstration competition with a potential $1.5 million prize. During the Sample Return Robot Challenge, teams will compete to demonstrate a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from a wide and varied terrain without human control. The objective of the competition is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies. (9/20)

Bitterman Joins United Launch Alliance as Vice President of Washington Operations (Source: ULA)
United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that Mark Bitterman has joined the company as the Vice President of Washington D.C. Operations. Prior to joining ULA, Bitterman had a distinguished career with Orbital Sciences Corp. where he served as Senior Vice President, Government and External Relations for 19 years. During this time he was responsible for strategy development and liaison with federal, state and local governments. (9/20)

QinetiQ and NASA ADvance Space Travel with Osmosis Experiments (Source: QinetiQ)
QinetiQ conducted a first-of-its-kind experiment aboard STS-135 in July, testing the novel application in space of a technology modeled on a biological process used by cells on Earth to recover water from their environment. Already engineered for use in applications ranging from desalination plants to treating non-potable water for backpackers, forward osmosis is the natural diffusion of water through a semi-permeable membrane.

The membrane permits small polar molecules like water to pass through while blocking most other molecules like salts, sugars, starches, or proteins, and stopping all microorganisms like protozoan parasites, bacteria, and viruses. In testing on the shuttle, the experiment demonstrated the process to be nearly as effective in microgravity as in normal gravity. Scientists from QinetiQ and NASA worked with the creators of the X-Pack™, a commercially available product, to develop the Forward Osmosis Bag (FOB), a passive, personal, portable water purification device. (9/20)

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