March 18, 2016

ULA Executive Resigns After Engine Competition Comments (Source: Space News)
A senior United Launch Alliance executive has resigned after making controversial comments. ULA said late Wednesday that Brett Tobey had stepped down as vice president of engineering, a day after audio leaked of a seminar he gave at the University of Colorado. Tobey, in that speech, acknowledged that SpaceX was less expensive than ULA, but that SpaceX was losing money on every launch and that its efforts to recover its first stage for potential reuse were "dumb."

He also compared ULA's dealings with two companies for rocket engines to having two fiancées, with Blue Origin the "super-rich girl" and Aerojet Rocketdyne the "poor girl." ULA CEO Tory Bruno disavowed the comments Wednesday prior to Tobey's resignation, calling them "ill-advised statements [that] do not reflect ULA's views or our relationship with our valuable suppliers." (3/17)

McCain Wants Pentagon to Probe ULA Exec's Remarks (Source: Reuters)
U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain on Thursday urged Defense Secretary Ash Carter to investigate what he called troubling remarks by a former senior United Launch Alliance executive about his company's dealings with the Pentagon. Brett Tobey resigned Wednesday as vice president of engineering for ULA.

In his remarks, Tobey contradicted ULA's reason for skipping a competition to launch GPS satellites and said DOD "bent over backwards to lean the field" to ULA's advantage in that competition with new market entrant SpaceX. He also said the Pentagon was trying to figure out "how do we silence McCain," who has urged the government to penalize ULA for failing to bid in the competition despite receiving $800 million in support funding for launch services every year.

ULA last year said it had skipped the GPS-3 launch competition because it lacked the required accounting systems and did not have enough Russian-built RD-180 engines to power its Atlas 5 rockets due to a ban imposed by Congress. Tobey said ULA did not want to get into a "price shootout" with SpaceX since its launches cost $125 million, or close to $200 million including the separate launch support contract, compared to around $60 million for SpaceX. (3/17)

U.S. Looks to Allies to Fund Additional MUOS Satellite (Source: Space News)
U.S. allies could fund the development of a sixth MUOS satellite. The allies, led by Canada, would pay for the sixth Mobile User Objective System satellite and gain access to the entire constellation, a model similar to that used on the WGS system. Canada is particularly interested because MUOS can maintain telephone links with aircraft flying over the North Pole. The cost of the additional satellite was not disclosed, but the five-satellite MUOS system, paid for by the U.S. Navy, cost $7.7 billion. (3/17)

USAF Weather Satellite Likely a Total Loss (Source: Space News)
The Air Force does not expect a malfunctioning weather satellite to return to operation. Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, said this week that it's unlikely the DMSP F-19 satellite can be restored after it stopped responding to commands last month. The satellite was launched in 2014 with a five-year design life. The problems with DMSP F-19 have led the Air Force to slow plans to dispose of DMSP F-20, a similar satellite on the ground that Congress did not fund the launch of last year. (3/16)

Georgia Spaceport Bill Dies in Senate (Source: Brunswick News)
Legislation that would support development of a Georgia spaceport is unlikely to pass this year. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jason Spencer, said that while the Georgia House passed the bill overwhelmingly, it got bogged down in the state Senate when members raised questions in a hearing about the FAA licensing process and county zoning issues, and sought to send the bill to a study committee.

Spencer alleged that that line of questioning was on topics not germane to the bill and was part of a strategy by an unnamed lobbyist to block it. The legislation would have created liability protections for spaceflight operators in Georgia similar to those in other states, a provision seen as critical for plans to develop a spaceport on the state's Atlantic coast. (3/17)

Modifications Begin on Virgin Galactic's 747 Air Launcher (Source: Waco Tribune-Herald)
A Boeing 747 that will be used as an air launch platform will be modified by L-3 Systems in Waco, Texas. The aircraft, owned by Virgin Galactic, arrived in Waco to begin that work, which will focus on strengthening the plane's left wing where the launch vehicle will be mounted. Virgin Galactic acquired the 747, formerly flown by Virgin Atlantic, as the new aircraft that will be used by its LauncherOne smallsat launch system. L-3's previous work in aircraft modification includes work on a 747 used by NASA's SOFIA airborne observatory. (3/17)

Is Iran Planning Another Space Launch? (Source:
Images from a commercial camera on the International Space Station provide new evidence Iran is planning a satellite launch. The images, taken by a UrtheCast camera mounted on the station's Russian segment, show launch preparations underway at an Iranian site earlier this month. Previous reports have suggested Iran will attempt the launch of a small launch vehicle in the near future, although a launch window early this month came and went without a launch. (3/17)

USAF Space Chief Testifies on Virginia Spaceport's Importance (Source: Rep. Randy Forbes)
Congressman J. Randy Forbes, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, used a recent hearing to ask the head of Air Force Space Command about the value of Wallops Island, Virginia as a launch site for military missions.

When asked if Wallops Island would be of increased utility as military satellites grow smaller, General John Hyten, Commander of the Air Force Space Command, testified that “As we move into a different structure where we have smaller satellites… and maybe “cubesats” as well someday to do certain missions, we will need to take advantage of it [Wallops].” 

General Hyten also testified that Wallops “also builds resiliency into our launch infrastructure.  We have vulnerabilities when everybody knows that the only place we launch our rockets from are at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. It’s better to have more places to launch from.” Click here. (3/16)

NOAA Administrator Skeptical About Commercial Weather Data (Source: Space News)
Despite the enthusiasm for commercial satellite weather systems expressed by a key member of Congress, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said March 16 she has yet to see proof that such systems can provide data that will be useful for weather forecasting.

At a hearing of the environment subcommittee of the House Science Committee on NOAA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said it was still too soon to determine if commercial sources of weather data, most notably GPS radio occultation systems, could augment or replace existing data sources. (3/17)
Dueling Climate Cycles May Increase Sea Level Swings (Source: Space Daily)
The tropical Pacific Ocean isn't flat like a pond. Instead, it regularly has a high side and a low side. Natural cycles such as El Nino and La Nina events cause this sea level seesaw to tip back and forth, with the ocean near Asia on one end and the ocean near the Americas on the other. But over the last 30 years, the seesaw's wobbles have been more extreme, causing variations in sea levels up to three times higher than those observed in the previous 30 years. Why might this be?

A new NASA/university study has found the differing alignments of two separate climate cycles could be causing these intensifying swings, which occur on top of a global rise in sea level due to melting ice sheets and warming oceans. The findings may help improve forecasts of sea level variations, allowing vulnerable coastal communities to prepare for their increased risk of flooding, erosion and other damage due to higher sea levels. (3/17)

Ceres' Mysterious Bright Spots Change Unexpectedly (Source: Discovery)
When NASA’s Dawn mission witnessed Ceres’ weird bright spots up-close for the first time, planetary scientists were baffled. What material could produce such a bright feature on an otherwise grey surface? Now, a year since the probe arrived in orbit around the dwarf planet, scientists may be closing in on an answer.

However, it’s not Dawn that has found the latest clue as to what these bright patches could be; it was a powerful observatory on Earth that noticed very slight changes as Ceres’ surface is gently heated by the sun. The bright feature is actually a cluster of bright spots with diffuse, almost powder-like material surrounding the brightest patches.

The leading theory, so far, is that it’s an icy material such as water ice, but some kind of mineral deposit is also a possibility. Now, with the help of the HARPS spectrograph attached to the ESO 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla, Chile, it seems the ice theory has just become a whole lot stronger. Click here. (3/17)

NASA’s Starting a Fire in Space (Source: Smithsonian)
It’s the nightmare of any astronaut—a fire that could whip through a spacecraft, destroying both the ability to survive and the valuable science on board. But what would a space fire really look like? NASA isn’t really sure, so it’s doing the logical thing and setting multiple fires in space to find out.

In a new mission called the Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or Saffire, NASA plans to light up three crafts in space. Three separate Saffire missions begin this month, and they promise a fascinatingly fiery experience. Click here. (3/16) 

Russia Slashes Space Funding by 30 Percent as Crisis Weighs (Source: Reuters)
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev agreed to slash funding for Russia's space program by 30 percent on Thursday, an effort to reign in state spending in the face of a deepening economic crisis. Approving a plan submitted by Russian space agency Roscosmos in January, Medvedev ordered Russia's space program budget for 2016-2025 to be cut from 2 trillion rubles ($29.24 billion) to 1.4 trillion rubles.

"It is a large program, but we need such big programs, even in circumstances when all is not well with the economy," Medvedev said. Space exploration is a subject of national pride in Russia, rooted in the Cold War "space race" with the United States, and has been touted by President Vladimir Putin as a symbol of his country's resurgent global standing. (3/17)

AsiaSat Says Pricing Pressure Now Coming From All Fronts (Source: Space News)
Satellite fleet operator AsiaSat on March 16 reported lower revenue for 2015 and told investors to expect more heavy weather this year as the regional bandwidth-capacity glut continues to force down transponder prices. Hong Kong-based AsiaSat Chairman Ju Wei Min, in a statement to shareholders, said the company was being squeezed from just about every angle.

Global satellite operators faced with stagnant top lines are hunting new business in Asia, Ju said. Regional fleet operators, hoping to maintain market share as they wait for better days, are dropping transponder prices. (3/17)

Hawaii's Robot-Built Landing Pad Could Pave the Way for Construction on Mars (Source:
A robot has built a prototype launch-and-landing pad in Hawaii, potentially helping pave the way for automated construction projects on the moon and Mars.

The robotic rover, named Helelani, assembled the pad on Hawaii's Big Island late last year, putting together 100 pavers made of locally available material in an effort to prove out technology that could do similar work in space. Click here. (3/17)

Pluto is Defying All Expectations (Source: LA Times)
Ask Alan Stern to name the most surprising result from NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and he'll tell you to rephrase the question. "A better question would be what isn't puzzling or mysterious, because that's a much shorter list," said the mission's principal investigator. "Almost everything we see on Pluto and in its atmosphere is puzzling."

So far, the spacecraft has beamed just 40% of the data it collected back to Earth, but scientists say it's enough to know that the Pluto system has defied most of their expectations. "There really wasn't much that turned out the way we thought it would," said Randy Gladstone of the Southwest Research Institute. One of the biggest surprises for scientists was the astonishing diversity of landscapes on the dwarf planet's surface. Click here. (3/17)

What Would it Take to Put an Astronaut on Mars? (Source: BBC)
In 2010 President Obama tasked the US space Agency NASA with the goal of putting an astronaut in Martian orbit, and later on to the planet itself. But the challenges - technical, political and financial - are enormous. A recent report from the US Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel raised safety concerns about the proposed transportation spacecraft and criticized NASA for a lack of detail in its overall Mars plans.

Four experts - including two senior figures from NASA - talk to the BBC Inquiry program about what it would take to put a man on Mars. Click here. (3/17)

How This Star’s ‘Weather’ Could Help Us Find Alien Life (Source: Washington Post)
The weather on Kappa Ceti, a star located just 30 light years away, is pretty intense: The young star has strong magnetic fields bursting through its surface, sending plasma shooting into space as stellar wind. Scientists are interested in Kappa Ceti because, in addition to being quite close (cosmically speaking), it's also very similar to our own sun — but younger. In fact, it's right about the age our sun likely was when life first started to emerge on Earth.

Researchers report new findings on the star's behavior — and what that blustery weather might be able to tell us about the evolution of life on Earth and beyond. "To be habitable, a planet needs warmth, water, and it needs to be sheltered from a young, violent Sun." The researchers figure that Kappa Ceti, being quite sun-like, could provide a good approximation for the kind of violence our own planet had to endure just as life began. (3/17)

Central Florida Firm Lands NASA Contract to Develop Stronger Mirrors (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
An Oviedo plastics manufacturer will see what it takes to build two-foot-wide mirrors using materials not previously been used for that purpose, thanks to a NASA grant it received this week. Semplastics, which has done most of its work in semiconductors, received one of four grants given to Florida companies through the space agency's Small Business Innovation Research program.

Financial terms of the Phase II grant, a follow up to a previous grant to research the issue, must still be negotiated. Semplastics is developing ceramic material that can make mirrors lighter. The Phase I process proved that a 10-inch mirror surface can be created. The concept will now be applied to a two-foot-wide surface. (3/17)

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