October 15, 2011

"Doomsday" Comet to Swing by Earth on Sunday (Source: CBS)
The moment long feared by conspiracy theorists is nearly upon us: The "doomsday comet" Elenin will make its closest approach to Earth Sunday (Oct. 16). Or what's left of it will, anyway. Comet Elenin started breaking up in August after being blasted by a huge solar storm, and a close pass by the sun on Sept. 10 apparently finished it off, astronomers say. So what will cruise within 22 million miles (35.4 million kilometers) of our planet Sunday is likely to be a stream of debris rather than a completely intact comet.

And the leftovers of Elenin won't return for 12,000 years, astronomers say. "Folks are having trouble finding it, so I think it's probably dead and gone," said astronomer Don Yeomans of the Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That means it probably won't present much of a skywatching show Sunday, scientists have said. (10/15)

House Republicans Recommend Earth Science Cuts to Supercommittee (Source: Space Policy Online)
Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent in their recommendations on how to cut the budget deficit to the congressional "supercommittee" today. For NASA, the committee recommended $177 million in cuts to NASA's earth science program, including cancellation of OCO-2. They also endorsed Appropriations Committee decisions to cut to space technology and commercial crew, and increases for the Space Launch System and Orion.

Committee Democrats, meanwhile, said that it was their understanding from Chairman Hall that the committee would not be providing recommendations to the supercommittee. They suggested the supercommittee should support federal science and technology and STEM education, and consider "serious revenue enhancements" as well as spending cuts. The supercommittee, formally called the Joint Select Committee on Defiict Reduction, is due to make its recommendations to the House and Senate by November 23. (10/14)

UCF Hopes Project Gets Off Ground with NASA (Source: Florida Today)
A University of Central Florida physicist and his team of space weather researchers are hoping to win a major NASA prize — a chance to launch their experiment into space. Richard Eastes, a UCF professor, said his team wants to attach a specialized camera, called an imaging spectograph, to a commercial satellite to help predict space weather. The data gathered could be used to prevent weather-related blackouts for cell phones and GPS units. It also might prove useful in drawing up commercial flight plans.

Eastes’ team and four other finalists each received a $250,000 grant to develop a concept study as they work toward the $55 million award through NASA’s Explorer Mission of Opportunity program. The winning team will need to have its project launch ready by 2016. “We are the only one in the running trying to launch a science mission on a commercial flight — which NASA has not done before,” said Andry Krywonos.

If Eastes’ team wins, it will be the first time UCF leads a NASA science mission, according to UCF. Eastes splits his work hours between the UCF Orlando campus and UCF’s Florida Space Flight Institute at Kennedy Space Center. (10/15)

While the U.S. Stalls, Europe Moves On to Mars (Source: Planetary Society)
The European Space Agency (ESA) seems to have gotten tired of waiting for NASA to commit to its share of the joint 2016/2018 Mars missions that were planned to lay the groundwork for an eventual delivery of samples of Mars to Earth. NASA has told ESA that its budget will not allow it to commit to launching the 2016 mission, and the hoped-for 2018 launch of the ExoMars rover on an Atlas 5 is not confirmed. If Russia accepts ESA's partnership offer, the rover will launch on a Proton.

Over the past few days, Planetary Society Members bombarded the White House with messages urging that the U.S. commit to its partnership with ESA. We know that their message was heard in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and in the halls of NASA (an unofficial source reports NASA was "agog" at our Members' response.) ut the Office of Management and Budget, which seems to be the source of the roadblock, did not respond to the outpouring of support for Mars exploration. (10/15)

NASA Crew Will Train for Asteroid in the Sea (Source: Houston Chronicle)
Sixty feet beneath the waves off the Florida Keys, NASA will, beginning Monday, take some of its first tentative steps toward sending humans to an asteroid. NASA needs to develop new tools and methods if it is to successfully land astronauts on a large hunk of rock with virtually no gravity. To that end, a crew of three "aquanauts" and a scientist will begin a 13-day mission Monday on the sea floor near Key Largo, to begin developing the equipment and operations that would be used for an asteroid mission.

The crew will spend nearly two weeks living inside the school bus-size Aquarius lab in the Conch Reef of the Florida Keys and working outside. Using submersibles and other tools, Walker and the other aquanauts - as astronauts are called who visit the underwater facility - will try to determine the best way to stabilize themselves on or adjacent to an asteroid's surface. (10/15)

New Mexico Governor to Visit Spaceport America (Source: Alamagordo Daily News)
Gov. Susana Martinez is planning next week to visit a commercial spaceport under construction in southern New Mexico. The governor's office said Martinez will join British billionaire Sir Richard Branson to mark the start of his company, Virgin Galactic, being at Spaceport America. Martinez is to hand over keys to the company's facilities at the spaceport—what's being billed as a "Keys to a New Dawn" event. (10/15)

OSTP Director Under Fire for China Talks (Source: Space News)
A U.S. lawmaker has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to take action against the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), John Holdren, for engaging Chinese officials in discussions about scientific and technical cooperation in violation of a recently enacted law barring such bilateral exchanges.

“As attorney general, it is your responsibility to ensure that the nation’s laws are upheld,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) wrote in an Oct. 13 letter. He requested that the Justice Department hold the OSTP director “to full account” for violating a provision Wolf added to a spending bill enacted in April barring OSTP and NASA from engaging with China. (10/15)

Wall Street Analysts Warn of Export-credit Financing Bubble (Source: Space News)
The growing popularity of export-credit agency financing for satellite projects has some on Wall Street worried that a kind of bubble has developed that could pop if one of the funded projects cannot meet its loan commitments. Addressing the Satcon conference, the financial analysts stopped short of pointing to any specific satellite project as being a likely Chapter 11 bankruptcy candidate.

But they made clear that with so many satellite systems, mainly for telecommunications, now receiving export-credit assistance, the chances are rising for a loan default that could cause a general pullback by the agencies. “Some of the [export-credit agency-backed] projects could not have been done in the private sector because they don’t, in fact, make sense,” Fred Turpin said. “At some point, the music stops. And when it does, you don’t want to be the guy next in line for a loan, you want to be the last guy who got a loan.” (10/15)

Senate Plans "Cluster" of Appropriations Bills (Source: Space Policy Online)
The Senate will try to pass a "cluster" of three appropriations bills, including those that fund NASA, NOAA, and the FAA's space office, in an attempt to catch up with the FY2012 appropriations process. If this approach succeeds, they could cluster other bills together.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed to start with the Agriculture-FDA bill. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) and Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) bills would be "grafted" onto it. CJS funds NASA and NOAA, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. T-HUD funds the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

To date, the Senate has passed only one of the 12 regular appropriations bills (Military Construction/Veterans Administration). The House has passed six (Agriculture, Defense, Energy & Water, Homeland Security, Legislative Branch,and Milcon/VA). FY 2012 began on October 1. The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will expire on November 18. (10/12)

Editorial: Weather Satellite Delay Unwise Way to Cut Budget (Source: Huntsville Times)
In just less than two weeks, NASA will launch a satellite that will help the government continue making long-range forecasts for severe weather, a capability many of us wouldn't have given much thought to just six months ago. The new satellite, known as the NPP system, will replace one that gave forecasters and the rest of us a five-day heads-up before unusually powerful and long-track tornadoes tore up the northern half of Alabama on April 27.

Although the new satellite would provide coverage until sometime in 2017, federal budget cuts could delay the NPP's successor, the Joint Polar Satellite System, by nine months to 21 months. That must not be allowed to happen. This is one reason why: Even with several days' warning, 248 people in Alabama were killed in storms April 27. Many more might have died had the National Weather Service been unable to issue warnings several days before what would become the state's worst tornado disaster. (10/15)

NASA Chief Says Webb Telescope Plan in Place (Source: AP)
NASA's administrator says the over budget and behind schedule James Webb space telescope now has a plan in place for launch in 2018. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke Friday in Baltimore, where a full-size replica of the space telescope went on display in the Inner Harbor. Bolden said the space agency did what he called a re-plan after he was put in charge two years ago.

That plan has been reviewed and the Senate has proposed funding the agency thinks will take the Webb into orbit in 2018. A House subcommittee voted earlier this year to end funding for the telescope. The telescope was originally scheduled to launch in 2007 and cost $3.5 billion, but the budget has since grown to $8.7 billion. (10/15)

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