December 11, 2016

Congress Delays Action on NASA's 2017 Budget with Continuing Resolution (Source: Planetary Society)
In the final days of the 114th Congress, lawmakers are preparing to formally delay the approval of the U.S. government’s budget until spring of next year. This legislation, known as a “continuing resolution” extends current funding levels for all government programs until April 28th, 2017. The government has already been operating under a short-term CR since October 1st (the start of the fiscal year) which is set to expire on Friday.

While a CR sounds like minimal disruption, it actually presents major headaches for NASA and the implementation of its major programs. On paper, a CR extends fiscal year 2016 funding levels. These are pretty good for most of NASA. But in practice, throughout the duration of the CR, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget will limit expenditures for government programs to match the lowest-possible budget level proposed by the Senate, House, and the White House for FY 2017. (12/9)

SpaceX Still Hasn’t Quite Figured Out What Caused its Falcon 9 to Explode (Source: Quartz)
SpaceX has said its investigation focused on a specific system in the rocket, one that uses extremely cold helium to maintain pressure in tanks containing the liquid oxygen as it is combusted, with high-grade kerosene, to propel the rocket. The tanks suffered “a large breach” that became a massive fire as the rocket was being fueled for a test-firing days before launch.

Chilling the liquid oxygen to extremely low temperatures—below 200° C—allows SpaceX to cram more of it into the rocket, extending its range and power so that it can be reused. But the process also caused delays, as engineers worked to develop reliable fueling practices to get the cold liquid oxygen into the vehicle before it warmed. Many theories for the problem revolve around their composite over-wrapped pressure vessel (COPV) helium tanks. Submerged in cryogenic liquids, it’s possible that the composite fiber shell can develop tiny cracks, become brittle, ignite under light pressure, or even combust.

SpaceX has been torture-testing their helium COPVs to determine what went wrong. In October, the company wrote on its website that “through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions,” suggesting that they had a lead on what to do to avoid repeating the incident. Eloon Musk suggested the problem related to the liquid oxygen becoming so cold that it actually became solid. (12/10)

Swedes Should Be On Mars by the 2030s (Source: The Local)
Sweden should invest more in space exploration and set the target of having Swedes on Mars by the 2030s, the Nordic nation's Liberal party has insisted. And according to the only Swede ever to travel to space, it’s a realistic goal. Astronaut Christer Fuglesang thinks it is a political and economic question rather than a technical one, and that the country is not investing enough despite its talent in the field. Sweden is currently one of the 22 nations involved in the European Space Agency (ESA), but sending another Swede into space would likely require broader international cooperation, the astronaut said. (12/9)

J.J. Abrams, HBO Developing Space Exploration Drama (Source: Entertainment Weekly)
The empire of J.J. Abrams is on the verge of expanding. After finding success with Westworld, HBO is once again collaborating with the Star Wars: The Force Awakens director and his company, Bad Robot Productions, EW has confirmed. The network and Abrams are developing Glare, a drama series documenting the colonization of another planet. (12/9)

2017: The Year of Galileo (Source: GPS World)
Mid-November will see the very first Galileo launch using an Ariane 5 launcher from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, in place of the Soyuz that has served the constellation up until now. Four instead of two Galileo satellites will be launched at a time: The number of satellites girding the globe will rise at a single stroke from 14 to 18. Meanwhile, the European Union is set to declare Galileo operational for initial services at the end of this year, bringing the system to the point where it can finally start serving users. (12/9)

Why NASA Is So Optimistic About Finding Life on Mars (Source: Inverse)
For nearly 200 years, scientists have seriously pondered the possibility of life on Mars. It’s been a rollercoaster of dreaming: for a long time, the more we studied Mars, the more it looked the like the Red Planet was a cold, dry hellhole, lacking any of the essentials we consider a requirement for even the most primitive life. Nowadays, scientists realize “organics are all over Mars.” And where there are organics, there’s the potential for those compounds to come together and lead to the genesis of living organisms.

Does that mean there’s life on Mars? Not necessarily. But organic molecules and compounds are the constituents that lead to life. Organics on Earth were by no means a guarantor that life would evolve, but it was certainly essential to the evolution of organic life.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will be the key to understand the extent to which life may have or perhaps does exist on the Red Planet. The new rover will be fitted with an large suite of different instruments that can do a better job assessing the composition and concentrations of Martian organics and how they might relate to life on Mars. Just a little over four years to wait before two centuries’ worth of speculation can finally be confirmed or debunked. (12/9)

Former NASA Scientist Alleges Discrimination at Johnson Space Center (Source: Houston Chronicle)
A former lead scientist for a project at the Johnson Space Center sued NASA in federal court this week, saying the space agency discriminated against him based on race and national origin and created a hostile work environment. The civil rights lawsuit also names the head of NASA and the Universities Space Research Association as defendants.

Among other allegations, Lealem Mulugeta, 38, a native of Ethiopia who lives in Houston, claims he faced pay disparities, was forced to work in a space that amounted to a janitorial closet, and was referred to as a "slave" by a supervisor. Mulugeta worked from 2009 to 2015 for the Digital Astronaut Program, including a job overseeing the digital astronaut team that creates exercise programs for astronauts.

He is seeking lost wages due to wrongful termination and pay disparity and compensation for emotional suffering and mental anguish, as well as attorneys fees and damages. He received clearance to sue the agency from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The lawsuit said some co-workers assumed Mulugeta was Muslim - which he is not - and said that contributed to supervisors' bias against him. (12/9)

Will Langley's Earth Science Suffer Under Trump? (Source: Daily Press)
For decades, one of NASA's core missions as a space agency has been studying not just alien planets, but our own. Scientists and engineers at NASA Langley Research Center have been part of that effort for years, working to develop and refine instruments that monitor Earth from afar. A big picture of the planet is essential to understanding its complex systems, how they're changing, how they affect terrestrial life and how terrestrials affect the planet in return.

Now scientists fear that a Trump administration could doom NASA's leading role in Earth science. Truymp advisers have suggested that Earth-centric work is better handled by other agencies" such as NOAA and the National Science Foundation. But NOAA and NSF have budgets several times smaller than NASA. NOAA relies on NASA's suite of Earth-observing satellites for its weather forecasting and monitoring, and also needs NASA's expertise to build and launch its own satellites. (12/10)

Space Florida Officials See Key Lunar/Mars Role for Cape by 2030 (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
A new space race is shaping up, and it could mean another lunar landing for the U.S. space program by the year 2030. If it happens, local space officials say they hope to make Central Florida the origin point for those missions. "It doesn't detract from efforts to reach Mars, but the moon is a more logical next step," said Dale Ketcham, Chief of Strategic Alliances for Space Florida. "And it's more easily afforded."

In time, Ketcham says there should be regular flights between Florida, the moon and Mars. "Mars is a long-term aspirational destination," he said. Ketcham said it's a matter of economic strength that Florida positions itself now to thrive later. "We need to plan now to be the earth's port of entry for economic activity in space," Ketcham said. "The Port of London was for the British Empire. New York was there for the new world. That place can be Florida for space — and it's our job to make it so." (12/10)

In Symbolic Move, Senate Passes NASA Authorization Bill (Source: Space News)
The U.S. Senate passed a NASA authorization bill late Dec. 9 that, while it will not become law this year, could serve as a template for a similar bill in the next Congress. The Senate passed by unanimous consent an amended version of S. 3346, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, as it wrapped up its work for the year. The bill is an amended version of one passed by the Senate Commerce Committee in September after discussions with House members.

The bill authorized $19.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017 and included a wide range of policy provisions. That included developing a transition plan for future operations of the International Space Station, creation of a “strategic framework” for human space exploration leading to Mars missions, and a report about the effectiveness of NASA’s planned Asteroid Redirect Mission.

However, since the House passed its final bills of the 114th Congress on Dec. 8, the legislation will not be taken up there. Proponents of the bill still saw its passage as a victory, setting the stage for consideration of a similar bill when the 115th Congress convenes in January. (12/10)

How NASA is Rehearsing for a Mission to Mars (Source: Washington Post)
The Martian landscape is otherworldly. The ground is twisted into ropelike coils, rippling waves and jagged spikes; sulfurous gases billow from vents in the ground, bits of volcanic glass glitter in faint sunlight that filters through the undulating fog. Two astronauts clamber across the tortured terrain, encumbered by the heavy scientific instruments they carry on their backs and in their hands. They are looking for rocks that could tell us whether life ever existed on Mars.

This landscape, of course, is not actually Mars, and the people exploring it aren't really astronauts. But the expedition to the Mauna Ulu volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii is a dry run for the distant day when NASA intends to send a real crewed mission to the Red Planet. (12/10)

How Three Black Women Helped Send John Glenn Into Orbit (Source: Guardian)
When John Glenn was waiting to be fired into orbit aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, there was one person he trusted with the complex trajectory calculations required to bring him down safely from his orbital spaceflight: Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician who worked in Nasa’s segregated west area computers division.

“Get the girl, check the numbers,” Glenn said before boarding the rocket. “If she says they’re good, I’m good to go.” Johnson was one of three female African-American mathematicians known as the “computers in skirts” who worked on the Redstone, Mercury and Apollo space programmes for Nasa. Now, thanks to an award-tipped movie, Hidden Figures, Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are about to become more widely celebrated. (12/10)

Soviet Space Workhorse Soyuz is Still Going Strong – 50 Years On (Source: Guardian)
The capsule claimed the life of the first astronaut to fly in it and was later involved in one of the worst accidents in spaceflight history. Yet Soyuz – which was first blasted into space 50 years ago – has since become the most successful craft to carry humans into Earth orbit. It is the workhorse spaceship on which manned missions beyond the atmosphere are now completely reliant.

Soyuz took the first earthlings – a cage of tortoises – to the moon in 1968, carried Britain’s only two astronauts, Helen Sharman and Tim Peake, into space, has been used for well over 100 manned space missions and has since become the only craft capable of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. The spaceship has earned itself a remarkable reputation and has seen off far more complex, expensive craft such as the space shuttle, which was retired by NASA five years ago.

But the future of Soyuz is in question today. Some experts believe that the craft will soon be replaced by cheaper spaceships now being developed in the US by Elon Musk and other entrepreneurs. Others expect that Soyuz will still be flying for years to come. “Soyuz is certainly not done yet,” said former NASA engineer David Baker. (12/10)

Hawking Working with NASA on Speedy Nano-Starship (Source: Independent)
NASA researchers have joined forces with Stephen Hawking to build a nano-starship that can travel one-fifth the speed of light. If successful, the ship, called “StarChip” could reach Earth’s closest star system, Alpha Centauri, in 20 years. Stephen Hawking announced the Breakthrough Starshot project in April, for which he is joined by a team at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology. But whether the craft could survive a two decade-long trip remained in question.

First, adjust the route of the flight to avoid those high-radiation areas. But that could add years to the voyage and would not necessarily protect the ship from degradation. Second, they proposed the ship could be built with protective shielding on the electronics. But adding shielding to the ship would add to the size and weight and thus slow down the remarkable speed of the craft. Third, NASA researchers proposed a silicon chip that would automatically repair itself. (12/10)

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