Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New Horizons Back on Track for Pluto Flyby

WASHINGTON — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has exited a protective safe mode that project officials said July 6 was triggered when the spacecraft’s primary computer became overloaded.
New Horizons, which entered safe mode July 4, briefly cutting off communications with the Earth, will resume normal science observations on July 7, and the project’s leadership said they remain confident the spacecraft will operate normally through its July 14 flyby of Pluto.
“The spacecraft is in excellent health and is back in operation,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, during a conference call with reporters July 6.
The problem took place, said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, because the spacecraft’s primary computer was doing too much at one time. Ground controllers were transmitting a set of commands to the spacecraft, called a “command load,” that it will carry out during the flyby. At the same time, the computer was compressing data stored from previous observations that controllers did not plan to immediately transmit back to Earth, freeing up memory to store new data.
“So we were doing multiple things on the processor on the spacecraft at the same time,” he said. The combination of compressing data and storing the command load was too much for the computer. “The computer was trying to do these two things at the same time, and the two were more than the processor could handle at one time.”
The spacecraft, Fountain said, worked exactly as planned, switching to its backup computer and going into safe mode. The backup computer started transmitting on schedule, allowing engineers on the ground to quickly diagnose the problem. “We realized what was happening,” he said, “and we put a plan in place to recover.”
The spacecraft exited safe mode on July 5, but the project team decided to hold off on resuming science observations until July 7, when the spacecraft will begin carrying out the uploaded series of commands for Pluto flyby. That sequence of commands runs through July 16, two days after the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto.
“That was a command decision which I made, and which the team was in complete agreement with, at the beginning of the recovery operation,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, on the decision to wait until July 7 to resume collecting science data. “It’s much more important to focus on getting ready for the flyby than to collect science eight or nine million miles from the target.”
That decision means losing about 30 observations planned between the time of the computer malfunction July 4 and when the spacecraft starts executing the new sequence of commands July 7. That includes 16 images by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager camera and four color images by another camera known as Ralph.
Those lost observations, Stern said, account for about six percent of the overall observations New Horizons planned to take between July 4 and 16. However, he added that since the observations were taken while the spacecraft was still millions of kilometers away, they were less significant scientifically.
“Our assessment is that the weighted loss is far less than one percent,” he said. “We can say there is zero impact to the ‘Group One,’ or highest priority science.” Stern characterized the overall science lost because of the computer problem as a “speed bump in terms of the total return that we expect from this flyby.”
Fountain said the specific problem that caused this safe mode won’t happen again: there are no plans to simultaneously upload commands and compress data through the July 14 flyby. “I’m quite confident that this kind of event will not happen,” he said.
The spacecraft will also execute the series of commands for the flyby in what Fountain called “encounter mode,” so that any problems like the one July 4 will not cause a safe mode. Instead, the computer will request help from ground controllers while continuing to carry out commands. Controllers can also send what he called a “slam” command to the spacecraft, forcing the computer to return to the series of commands in its memory for the flyby.
Stern said the spacecraft’s encounter mode has been tested several times earlier in the mission in preparation for the flyby, including a full nine-day rehearsal in 2013. “I’m not worried at all about going into encounter mode tomorrow,” he said.

Mars Rover Curiosity Dealing with Wheel Damage

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity faces ongoing wheel wear and tear as it continues its trek across the rock-strewn red planet.

The car-size Curiosity rover has been on duty since landing on Mars in August 2012. Curiosity has six aluminum wheels, each with its own individual motor. The rover has a top speed on flat, hard ground of a little over 4 centimeters per second.

But dealing with the rocky Martian landscape has become somewhat of an unanticipated wheel of misfortune for the Curiosity crew. Back here on Earth, mission engineers are watching the wheels turn, keeping an eye on the dings and cracks that have begun to appear.



Grousing About Grousers

“The bottom line is that we are monitoring the wheels all the time,” said Jim Erickson, Curiosity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Each of Curiosity’s wheels is about 50 centimeters in diameter and 40 centimeters wide. The wheels have so-called grousers that form something akin to a tread pattern. The skin of a rover wheel is just 0.75 millimeters thick, with the protruding grousers providing structural strength.

Erickson said that, to date, no grouser has been broken — and that’s a good thing. “You can break one. It looks bad, but not horrible. We aren’t there yet,” he said.

Special wheel tests have been performed at JPL. Even with two-thirds of the inner part of the wheel gone, driving on that outer one-third of the wheel appears doable, Erickson said.

Uncertain Wheel Life

Curiosity’s two front wheels began accumulating damage early in the mission.That wear and tear continues, and now the rover’s two middle wheels are showing major damage, Erickson said.

But “the rear wheels are still almost pristine,” he said.

To help cope with the wheel situation, Curiosity engineers are looking at software changes on the vehicle, “to try and make things a little bit better,” Erickson said. “They’ve had some good tests, but it’s not ready for prime time yet.”

The software could provide situational awareness to the wheels, Erickson said, matching wheel drive with electrical current, depending on what terrain the rover faces.

There remain uncertainties about how much overall wheel life is left on Curiosity, Erickson said. One helpful remedy is to carefully guide the robot through less-damaging terrain, he said.

Right Balance

Team members spend significant amounts of time planning out Curiosity’s routes, particularly making use of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its high-resolution imaging science experiment (HiRISE) camera system.

Finding the right balance between wheel protection and data collection is also on the mind of Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, also of JPL.

“Curiosity’s engineering and science teams have spent over a year understanding how the rover’s design and driving algorithms — and Mars’ terrain — led to more wheel damage than was expected,” Vasavada said. “We’ve also developed a wheel test bed to better predict how the wheels will degrade over time, under certain conditions.”

In addition, Vasavada said that Curiosity teams have mapped out a network of routes up Mount Sharp — the 5.5 kilometer mountain whose foothills the rover is exploring — that vary in their scientific value and also in risk to the robot’s wheels.

“This allows the project as a whole to find the right balance between our scientific progress and factors like wheel wear, slopes and navigability,” Vasavada said. “It all looks quite optimistic and manageable at this point.”

Erickson agrees.

From all of the simulation testing, “the wheel assessment is that we haven’t used up 50 percent of the wheels as yet … and we’ve been driving for three years. I guess I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” Erickson said. “I am more resigned to the fact that we have a consumable.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

PlanetiQ Selects Blue Canyon Technologies For Smallsat Constellation





WASHINGTON — PlanetiQ announced June 24 that it has selected a Colorado company to build its planned constellation of small satellites to provide weather data, with the first satellites to be launched in late 2016.

Bethesda, Maryland-based PlanetiQ said Blue Canyon Technologies of Boulder, Colorado, will build a set of 12 satellites, each carrying a Global Positioning System radio occultation payload. The companies did not disclose the value of the contract.

The satellites, PlanetiQ President and Chief Executive Anne Hale Miglarese said in an interview, will be six-unit cubesats with on-board propulsion, each weighing less than 20 kilograms. The satellites will operate in orbits of 750 to 800 kilometers at an inclination of 72 degrees.

The current spacecraft design is considerably smaller than the company’s original concepts, which weighed in at more than 120 kilograms. “We’ve been through many iterations on this spacecraft,” Miglarese said. “We are very confident that we have the right spacecraft.”

The decrease in size does not affect the quality of the data collected, she said. The company has been separately developing its GPS radio occultation sensor, called Pyxis, that measures signals from GPS and other navigation satellites as those signals pass through the atmosphere. Those measurements provide soundings of the atmosphere that can be fed into weather forecasting models.

One tradeoff that PlanetiQ did have to make by moving to the smaller satellite is the elimination of a real-time data relay system in at least the first six satellites. “That was very power hungry, and made us heavy,” she said. Instead, the satellites will use a network of ground stations, which should delay the receipt of data by no more than 90 minutes.

Miglarese said PlanetiQ selected Blue Canyon Technologies based on its experience with a number of U.S. government programs. The company is primarily known for providing components for small satellites, but also develops cubesat-class spacecraft. In April, it won a contract to build the Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) small satellite for the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re excited to have Blue Canyon Technologies as a partner,” Miglarese said. She added that PlanetiQ will co-locate its engineering staff at Blue Canyon’s Colorado facilities during spacecraft development, while maintaining a headquarters office in Maryland.

PlanetiQ plans to launch its first two satellites in the fall of 2016, with the remaining ten to launch in the first half of 2017. Those satellites will be launched as secondary payloads, which the company is in the process of negotiating, she said.

PlanetiQ is one of several companies and government agencies planning satellite constellations to provide GPS radio occultation data. Two other companies, GeoOptics and Spire, are actively developing satellite systems, with Spire planning to launch 20 cubesats by the end of the year for a system that will eventually comprise 125 satellites. The United States and Taiwan are also working on the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) 2 system of 12 satellites planned for launch in 2016 and 2018.

Miglarese said PlanetiQ’s sensor has the same heritage as the one planned for COSMIC-2. However, that sensor will be able to detect signals from all four current or planned global navigation satellite systems — GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and Beidou — allowing it to detect twice the number of occultations per day as COSMIC-2. The PlanetiQ sensors should also have better performance than commercial competitors, she added.

The company’s business case is focused in part on selling data to commercial weather forecasting firms. “There are seven to eight companies internationally that do numerical weather prediction” and could make use of GPS radio occultation data to refine their models, she said.

Miglarese said the company also plans to sell data to governments, and is closely following the development of commercial weather data policies at agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We look to serve the U.S. government where we can,” she said.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

House, Senate Bills Deny Funds for Landsat Backup Capability

WASHINGTON — NASA should focus on building the next full-scale Earth-observing satellite in its long-running Landsat series and forget about a proposed interim capability to ensure continuous coverage in the infrared bands, House and Senate lawmakers said in separate 2016 spending bills drafted in June. To different degrees, the House and Senate Appropriations committees backed NASA’s plan to build Landsat 9, which would be a rough copy of the visible- and infrared-imaging Landsat 8 craft that launched in 2013. But both committees were in lockstep in directing the agency to scrap plans for a $180 million infrared-only backup satellite called the Thermal Infrared Free Flyer (TIR-FF) that would launch in 2019. The White House is seeking a combined $80 million next year for Landsat 9 and TIR-FF. A House spending bill passed June 3 would provide only about $33 million, specifically for Landsat 9, while a bill approved June 11 by the Senate Appropriations Committee provides $100 million with instructions to accelerate that satellite, now scheduled to launch in 2023.


 Landsat satellites collect medium-resolution Earth images as part of an unbroken record that dates back 43 years. Under the current program model, NASA builds and launches the satellites while the U.S. Geological Survey is responsible for operations and data distribution. In April, Michael Freilich, NASA’s Earth science director, told SpaceNews the agency conceived the TIR-FF mission because Landsat 8’s thermal-infrared instrument, a late addition to the program, is not performing to specifications and was in any case designed to work only for three years. Although Landsat 7 has a thermal imaging capability, that satellite is 16 years old and is likely to be shut down in 2019, he said. Landsat 8 was originally designed as a bare-bones Landsat 7 replacement that lacked a thermal-infrared imaging capability. But Congress, under pressure from western U.S. states to continue making thermal-infrared measurements for water resource management, directed NASA to add that capability to the satellite at a relatively late stage of the program. Freilich said NASA, in order to keep the satellite on schedule, did not build the usual longevity into the sensor. In addition to providing a backup thermal-infrared imaging capability, TIR-FF, in combination with the European Sentinel 2A Earth observing satellite slated to launch June 23, would effectively replace the full capability of Landsat 8 should it fail prematurely. But the Senate Appropriations Committee, which like its House counterpart is abiding strictly by spending caps set in the Budget Control Act of 2011, said the best risk insurance is Landsat 9. Accordingly, the Senate lawmakers provided no funding for TIR-FF and directed the agency instead to accelerate the Landsat 9’s launch by three years, to 2020. The House bill similarly denied funding for the free flyer and requested a report from NASA on the cost and milestones toward launching Landsat 7 “no later than 2023.” It is not clear whether the House and Senate will have a chance to reconcile their proposed 2016 budget bills. The Senate’s Democratic minority is threatening to block consideration of spending bills on the floor of that chamber. Samuel Goward, a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and former principal investigator on Landsat 7, questioned why NASA is pursuing TIR-FF in the first place when it faces the larger problem of having only one fully capable Landsat satellite on orbit. A single Landsat satellite provides repeat coverage on 16-day cycles, but NASA has long been able to maintain at least two on orbit, and users have grown accustomed to the resulting eight-day repeat cycle. “If you’re going to do a free flyer with the Thermal Infrared Sensor onboard, why not put an optical component on the same system?” Goward said in a June 17 interview. “That’s a pretty low-cost solution, or it should be.” But Goward acknowledged that if Congress is unwilling to fund TIR-FF on budget grounds, it is unlikely to support building another full-scale Landsat satellite to accompany Landsat 9 on orbit. NASA spokesman Steve Cole did not immediately reply to a request for comment June 17. NASA stood up a Landsat 9 program office in April at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which will build the spacecraft’s thermal-infrared camera, as it did for Landsat 8. Other procurement decisions are pending. NASA hopes to finalize an acquisition strategy by Sept. 30, Freilich said. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, built Landsat 8’s main visible-spectrum camera, the Operational Land Imager, while Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, provided the spacecraft bus. 

Airbus Faces Costly Delays on European Data Relay System


LE BOURGET, France — A European government-industry partnership using space-based lasers to speed data between Earth observation satellites and the ground using geostationary satellites as relay towers is facing potentially costly delays for industrial contractor Airbus Defence and Space. Already slowed by differences between the two government sponsors — the European Space Agency and the European Commission — the European Data Relay System (EDRS) is now stalled by what may be a months-long delay in the launch of its first geostationary payload. Airbus, which said it has invested more than 130 million euros (148 million) in securing two EDRS geostationary payloads and their launch, is basing its initial EDRS service on laser communications terminals on two geostationary satellites. 
The first, called EDRS-A, is a hosted payload aboard Paris-based Eutelsat’s Eutelsat 9B satellite. It is this satellite that will debut EDRS commercial service and the start of funding from the European Commission, EDRS’s anchor customer. The commission owns the European Space Agency-developed Sentinel Earth observation satellites, two sets of which carry laser terminals to relay their data to the geostationary platforms. Sentinel 1A is already in orbit, and Sentinel 2A is scheduled for launch on June 23. Identical copies of both satellites are under construction, and all will carry laser terminals to deliver data at speeds of up to 1.8 gigabits per second to the geostationary satellites. Airbus had hoped that 2015 would be the breakout year for EDRS, with the start of commercial services that would coax potential future customers into service commitments. That now looks less likely. Eutelsat 9B is one of several commercial satellites awaiting a return to flight of Russia’s Proton rocket following the vehicle’s failure in May. Eutelsat has said it expects the Russian government commission investigating the May failure to deliver its initial report in early July. Industry officials have said that could mean a resumption of Proton flights in September, but even this remains uncertain. The current Proton manifest has commercial launches for mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat of London as the first customer, with Turksat of Turkey as the second and Eutelsat in third position. Whether any Russian government missions will be inserted between these commercial flights is not clear. Each month that passes is a month without EDRS revenue for Airbus. “It’s very unfortunate for us; no service means no pay,” said Evert Dudok, Airbus’s Communications, Intelligence and Security division, which manages EDRS. “This is what public-private partnerships are about — without a satellite up there, there is no payment and we think it’s likely the delay will last until the end of the year. We are hoping for the end of the year.” The second geostationary-orbiting satellite to carry an EDRS laser terminal is called EDRS-C. Avanti Communications of London is placing its own telecommunications payload on the satellite following an agreement with ESA and calls the satellite Hylas 3. Various delays have forced that satellite’s launch, originally set for 2015, into mid-2017. Addressing an EDRS panel here during the Paris Air Show, Dudok said the EDRS-C/Hylas 3 satellite remains on its revised schedule of a mid-2017 launch aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket. Airbus’s goal in the EDRS program is to create what it calls a global SpaceDataHighway, which for unbroken coverage would need at least one more geostationary satellite in orbit, over the Asia-Pacific. The company has been marketing SpaceDataHighway services to the U.S. government, selling the jamproof virtues of optical communications over radio frequencies, and the multi-gigabit-per-second throughput as higher-bandwidth alternative for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In presentations to prospective military customers, Airbus has said it ultimately plans four geostationary nodes. EDRS-A on Eutelsat 9B will operate from 9 degrees east. EDRS-C/Hylas-3 will operate from 31 degrees east. Airbus has said a hosted payload on telecommunications satellite for launch around 2020 could be placed at 130 degrees east, with a fourth node later positioned at 130 degrees west. To jump-start use of laser links by the U.S. military, Airbus entered into a partnership with General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems of Poway, California, the manufacturer of the Predator line of UAVs. Stefan Klein, head of General Atomics Specialtechnik Dresden GmbH, said General Atomics has designed its own airborne laser communications systems, for which a preliminary design review is expected this year. A first round of ground demonstrations should occur within two years, he said, with an airborne demonstration in 2018 or 2019. That could lead to production-line introduction starting at the end of the decade, he said. That schedule is at least two years behind what Airbus had planned. 

UrtheCast Plans Constellation of Optical And Radar Satellites


WASHINGTON — UrtheCast, which operates Earth observation cameras on the International Space Station, announced plans June 19 to develop a constellation of optical and radar imaging satellites by the end of the decade. The Generation 3 system will consist of at least 16 satellites in two orbital planes. The satellites will operate in pairs, one carrying a high-resolution camera and the other an L- and X-band synthetic aperture radar. The company said the satellites will be placed in orbit on multiple launches in 2019 and 2020. UrtheCast is working with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) to develop the Generation 3 system. SSTL will design and build the satellite buses and the optical camera payload. SSTL will also build the radar payloads, based on a design provided by UrtheCast. Another partner, ElecnorDeimos Space of Spain, will be responsible for the radar payload integration, ground stations, and other activities. 

The company did not disclose the cost of the Generation 3 system, but said it had a number of memoranda of understanding with customers and partners, including one with a confidential customer who pledged $195 million to fund system development. UrtheCast currently operates medium- and high-resolution cameras mounted on the Russian segment of the ISS. The company released the first video from the high-resolution camera June 17, and said that it would enter commercial service by late July. The company is also developing another high-resolution camera and radar imaging system to be installed on the station’s U.S. segment. - See more at: http://spacenews.com/urthecast-plans-constellation-of-optical-and-radar-satellites/#sthash.vnQxD5Cy.dpuf

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Commercial Crew Budget Debate Centers On Program Schedule



WASHINGTON — Despite warnings from NASA that any cuts to commercial crew funding would delay the program, Senate appropriators slashed nearly $350 million from the agency’s request because they believed the program was already suffering delays. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved June 11 a 2016 spending bill for NASA and other agencies that provides $900 million for NASA’s commercial crew program. That amount is $344 million below the administration’s original request and $100 million less than what the House approved June 3. In a report accompanying the bill, appropriators argued that the current round of commercial crew contracts was already suffering delays. “To date, milestones intended to show progress in the development of the ISS Crew capability have already begun to be delayed,” the report states. “More technically challenging milestone completion dates are about to be reached or may be potentially postponed further.”

NASA awarded Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to Boeing and SpaceX last September. The contracts feature a series of milestones, with payments attached to each, similar to earlier commercial crew awards carried out under Space Act Agreements. Redacted versions of the contracts released by NASA in March listed 23 milestones in Boeing’s award and 18 in SpaceX’s, each with a planned completion date. A schedule of milestones published by NASA in an April presentation to the NASA Advisory Council showed that some of the milestone dates have shifted for both companies. A readiness review for tests of a structural test article in Boeing’s contract, originally planned for April, was scheduled for August in the presentation slides, while some other milestones shifted by one to two months. The updated schedule for SpaceX features longer delays in its milestones. A “delta” critical design review, scheduled for June in the contract, is planned for December in the updated schedule. Similarly, an uncrewed flight test of the Dragon spacecraft moved from March to November of 2016. However, both NASA and industry officials said the moving milestones did not represent program delays, but rather updates to take into account developments after the companies submitted their CCtCap proposals in early 2014. The updated schedule still calls for both companies to have their vehicles certified by September 2017. NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said June 18 that the agency considers those schedule adjustments “changes, not delays,” citing testimony by NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, William Gerstenmaier, before the House Science Committee in February. “It is likely that there will be a relatively large number of changes because the original contract milestones were established over a year ago when the companies submitted their CCtCap proposals,” Gerstenmaier said in his prepared remarks. “These changes will not be indicative of poor contractor performance, but rather the significant maturity and advancement that has occurred on the partner designs since the proposals were submitted.” Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Kaplan said June 17 she was unaware of any significant delays in its CCtCap contract. The company had made some minor adjustments to the milestones in its original contract, she said, including splitting a safety review originally planned as a single milestone into three parts. Boeing also moved a pad abort test from before an uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 spacecraft to after it. Those arguments, however, did not sway Senate appropriators. A committee aide confirmed that the cut in commercial crew funding in the Senate bill was linked to the delayed milestones, coupled with the belief that schedules would slip further once companies got past initial review milestones and into hardware development. An additional factor in the committee’s decision is NASA’s intent to procure Soyuz seats for flights to the International Space Station in 2018, a year after the commercial crew vehicles are scheduled to enter service. Those plans, the appropriations report stated, indicate that NASA “does not have confidence that even with significant financial and technical support, the availability of a reliable domestic ISS crew capability by 2017 is guaranteed.” The committee aide suggested NASA could solve its commercial crew funding shortfall by diverting funding from Soyuz seats. Unlike the administration’s request and the House bill, which fund commercial crew out of NASA’s exploration account, the Senate bill moves the program to space operations, which also pays for Soyuz and commercial cargo flights. All sides acknowledged the debate about the 2016 budget is far from over. The full Senate has yet to take up the spending bill, and if it passes, it will have to be reconciled with the House version. “It’s too early to tell what the end of the budget process will look like at this point,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and an advocate for full funding of the commercial crew program, said June 18. “CSF and our members will continue to work with the Congress to find a way to responsibly fund commercial crew.” 

Air Force Confirms ULA Position on Atlas 5 Production Rights


WASHINGTON – The U.S. Defense Department has told a consortium of three companies, including propulsion provider Aerojet Rocketdyne, that the government does not own the design or production rights to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, a ruling that would appear to thwart an early effort to add another competitor to the launch business. In May, the consortium asked the Secretary of Defense about the possibility of obtaining production rights to the rocket, a military workhorse that ULA plans to replace by the end of the decade. In theory, the consortium would use the Aerojet-designed AR1 engine to replace the controversial Russian-made RD-180 engine used on the Atlas 5 today. Advertisementgoogletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('div-gpt-ad-1433272633157-1'); }) But the Defense Department said it did not own the design or production rights for the rocket, nor did it own the intellectual property rights, according to a June 19 statement from Capt. Annmarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman. Lockheed Martin and ULA say they own different elements of the Atlas 5 design. According to Annicelli, ULA also owns the Atlas 5 production facility in Decatur, Alabama, and the launch pads and towers at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. ULA officials had previously said the company has “no intention of selling or transferring” Atlas 5 production rights. Besides Aerojet Rocketdyne, the consortium that inquired about Atlas 5 production rights includes Dynetics, of Huntsville, Alabama, and Shafer Corp. of Arlington, Virginia, which is led by former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lockheed Martin Ships Missile Warning Payload


WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California, shipped a missile warning sensor May 14 for integration aboard a classified satellite that will operate in highly elliptical orbit, U.S. Air Force officials said in a June 16 press release. The infrared sensor, the last of four elliptical-orbit sensors under contract as part of the Space Based Infrared System, will be capable of monitoring missile launches in the northern hemisphere. Three similar sensors have been launched so far. The third sensor, known as HEO-3, launched in 2014 and successfully completed its on-orbit checkout in May, according to a May 15 Air Force press release. 

“HEO-4 will complete the replenishment of our polar missile warning capability, ensuring continuity of this critical operational capability,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in the June 16 release. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the SBIRS program. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Azusa, California, serves as the payload manufacturer and integrator. The nominal SBIRS constellation consists of two HEO sensors and four dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Two of the geosynchronous satellites have launched to date and Lockheed Martin is under contract for an additional four. The SBIRS program is projected to cost about $19 billion, which is almost four times higher than initial estimates.

UrtheCast Releases High-Definition Video From Space Station Camera

NEW YORK — UrtheCast, the Canadian company that operates commercial cameras on the International Space Station, released June 17 the first high-definition video taken by one of its cameras there. The videos, taken of several cities, including Boston, London, and Barcelona, Spain, are intended to demonstrate that the company’s high-resolution camera has overcome technical problems and is ready to enter commercial service. “We’ve been doing a lot of work to make the pointing platform more stable. It was one of the early issues we had,” said George Tyc, chief technology officer of Vancouver-based UrtheCast, in a media briefing here June 16. That work included software updates to the pointing platform itself as well as to the image processing pipeline on the ground.


The camera, called Iris, was one of two installed on the Russian segment of the ISS by cosmonauts in January 2014. A medium-resolution camera, which provides images at five meters per pixel, entered commercial service last year, but problems with the pointing platform for Iris delayed its commissioning. The pointing platform is required for Iris so it can aim at a specific target as the ISS passes overhead. Tyc said the camera can focus on a specific location for about a minute, depending on the path of the station relative to that point on the ground.

While Iris can take still images at a resolution of one meter per pixel, the company is emphasizing the camera’s ability to take video. That video, UrtheCast Chief Executive Scott Larson said, could be used in a variety of applications, from monitoring traffic flows to activity at ports. “This video is entirely unique,” he said. UrtheCast is not the first, however, to offer video from space. Skybox Imaging demonstrated in late 2013 the ability to provide high-resolution video from its SkySat-1 satellite. NASA’s High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) camera, also mounted on the ISS, streams high-definition video. NASA coincidentally announced June 16 that HDEV video is now available in Ultra HD, or 4K, format. Tyc said that Iris is more capable than Skybox’s camera, with a larger field of view and the ability to provide color video. “Nobody has video of this color, this resolution, this size,” he said. UrtheCast, company officials added, also has an agreement with NASA to host HDEV video on the company’s servers to augment data from its own cameras. Larson said the camera should reach initial operating capability by late July, at which point the company will start selling images and video from it. UrtheCast is selling imagery directly to customers, as well as working with a network of 16 to 18 distributors around the world who resell UrtheCast imagery. Initial interest in the company’s imagery has been promising, Larson said. “It’s a spectrum of people we would have never imagined,” he said, ranging from agriculture and natural resources applications to entertainment and media. The company is also providing a platform to allow customers to access the imagery through standard programming interfaces and combine it with other data sets. The commissioning of the high-resolution camera comes at a critical time for the company. UrtheCast reported net income of $250,000 in the first quarter of 2015, but that included a $2.25 million payment from a business interruption insurance policy triggered by delays in the commissioning of the camera. Those insurance payments ended in May, according to the company’s financial statements. Larson said UrtheCast was ramping up its sales efforts as the high-resolution camera goes online. That effort, he said, should not result in significant additional costs to the company. “It is kind of a fixed-cost business. You have to have all of the people, the systems, and the infrastructure to get to where we are right now, and then you turn on revenue,” he said. UrtheCast is also working on two next-generation systems, an L- and X-band synthetic aperture radar and a camera with a resolution of 0.5 meters, to be installed in a few years on the U.S. segment of the ISS. Tyc said UrtheCast is developing the radar in-house, leveraging expertise from past work on the Radarsat series of spacecraft developed by Canada’s MDA Corp. The company plans to announce the prime contractor for the camera in the near future. Larson acknowledged that UrtheCast was in a crowded field, with several other companies, including Skybox, Planet Labs, and BlackSky Global, planning to develop constellations of commercial remote sensing satellites. “There are three or four companies that are doing all they can to change the cost of the space asset, and UrtheCast is one of them,” he said. “We think there’s room for lots of people,” he added. “The reality is that it’s hard to get imagery from space. There’s much more demand than there is supply.”


ESA, Intelsat Co-invest in Newtec Technology for Epic

LE BOURGET, France — The European Space Agency on June 16 contracted with satellite fleet operator Intelsat to co-invest in a European satellite ground technology provider to build hardware for Intelsat’s upcoming high-throughput Epic satellites. The three-year contract for what ESA calls its Indigo project is the latest in a series of partnerships with industry and breaks new ground for ESA in at least two ways: It is the first with a non-European satellite operator, and the first that focuses exclusively on ground station technology with no new satellite development as part of the package. Under the agreement, ESA and Intelsat will each commit 12.7 million euros ($14.5 million) to enable satellite ground hardware provider Newtec of Belgium to upgrade its existing Dialog product to facilitate high-throughput connections to customers using Intelsat’s Epic satellites, which are scheduled to enter service starting in 2016.

Newtec Chief Executive Serge van Herck, ESA Telecommunications and Integrated Applications Director Magali Vaissiere and Intelsat Chief Executive Stephen Spengler after Indigo contract signing. Credit: ESA Intelsat’s legal headquarters are in tax-friendly Luxembourg, but the company is for most other intents and purposes a U.S. entity now located in McLean, Virginia. Magali Vaissiere, head of ESA’s telecommunications and integrated applications directorate, said the agency considered Intelsat non-European and that its Luxembourg connection had nothing to do with the Indigo contract. Intelsat Chief Executive Stephen Spengler said his company has worked with Newtec many times in the past, but that the Indigo work represented at technological leap that neither Intelsat nor Newtec was comfortable taking on its own. Spengler said the Indigo-financed Newtec equipment includes hardware such as hubs and modems as well as software, and would be delivered in time for customers to adopt for the Epic program, whose first series of satellites will use Ku-band and multiple spot beams to reuse frequency and deliver sharply higher throughput than is possible with Intelsat’s wide-beam Ku-band satellites. “We are asking our Epic economic partners to embrace this technology,” Spengler said. “It has been designed to optimize Epic.” Newtec Chief Executive Serge Van Herck said there is no explicit exclusivity tied to the Indigo program. He said the contract with Intelsat does not spell out a specific quantity of Newtec Dialog equipment. That would be determined once the development is completed, he added. Vaissiere said Indigo has been financed mainly by the Belgian and British governments, who made their commitments last December at a meeting of ESA governments in Luxembourg. British industry is likely to be involved in Indigo’s second phase, she said. - 

Smallsat Propulsion Company Wins Defense Department Contract


Accion Systems plans to scale up its ion electrospray thrusters into larger systems, like the gridded panels shown here, that can be used on larger satellites. Credit: Accion Systems Inc. 

WASHINGTON — A company developing electric propulsion systems suitable for cubesats and other small satellites announced June 17 it has won a $3 million contract from the U.S. Defense Department to advance its technology. Accion Systems of Cambridge, Massachusetts, said it received a Rapid Innovation Fund contract valued at $3 million. The fund, established by the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, is designed to mature technologies, particularly those developed by small businesses, which could be used on future military programs. Accion Systems has been developing a technology known as ion electrospray propulsion that was spun off from research performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is a form of electric propulsion that requires less mass, thrust, and volume than conventional ion engines. The company has already developed one such thruster, called MAX-1, that can fit within a cubesat.

Natalya Brikner, chief executive of Accion Systems, said the Rapid Innovation Fund contract will allow the company to work on next-generation electric propulsion systems that can be scaled up for larger satellites. “Our team is excited to take our technology to the next level of performance and capability,” she said in a June 17 statement. She added that the company’s technology was included on an undisclosed flight demonstration mission launched last month. “The propulsion system is still waiting its turn in the mission’s order of operations before it will be turned on and evaluated,” she said. Brikner did not disclose the mission, but among the secondary payloads on the Atlas 5 rocket that launched the X-37B spaceplane May 20 were twin cubesats developed by the Aerospace Corp. called AeroCube-8. The satellites will be testing several technologies, including an ion electrospray propulsion system, according to a summary distributed by the National Reconnaissance Office, which sponsored the mission. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A European Space Surveillance Network Inches Forward



LE BOURGET, France — Europe’s fitful attempt to create an independent space surveillance network took a step forward June 16 when five nations formed a consortium to coordinate their existing optical and radar tracking telescopes in a five-year effort funded by the 28-nation European Union. In an agreement signed at the Paris Air Show here, the five nations — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain — will make available their existing assets on behalf of the EU’s Space Surveillance and Tracking Framework. The European Union has budgeted 70 million euros ($80 million) between 2015 and 2020 for its space surveillance effort, which is distinct from a similar program under way at the European Space Agency.

The ESA program is notably lacking in a space-tracking capability beyond assessing the threat from near-Earth objects. Its other focus is space weather. Space surveillance and tracking was left out of the ESA mission because those European governments with existing space-surveillance assets had hesitated to contribute resources to a program that might have military implications. The European Union program, initially approved in 2014, clearly states its dual civil-military ambition to reduce Europe’s dependence on the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. Russia has a similar program that is generally considered less sophisticated than the U.S. version, and China has space-tracking assets as well. “Beside the information provided by the U.S., such a service will give more autonomy to Europe in this crucial field,” the five consortium members said in a joint statement. The five nations’ approvals came in the form of signatures by the heads of these nations’ space agencies. All operate telescopes that can be used to track at least some orbital objects, in both low-Earth and geostationary orbits. The French capacity includes civil telescopes but, more importantly the Graves bi-static radar located in southern France, which is owned and operated by the French Defense Ministry. CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall. Credit: CNES/S. Charrier The French space agency, CNES, is rare among European space agencies in having a formal military tie, with the Defense Ministry providing part of CNES’s annual budget. CNES’s dual nature permitted CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall to sign the consortium agreement on behalf of the French military. The consortium, in keeping with an EU recommendation, will create a Security Committee to determine who will have access to space surveillance data in conjunction with the EU Satellite Center in Torrejon, Spain, which takes on space-based surveillance jobs for EU member governments. The next step will be to determine how the EU’s 70 million euros will be divided among the five partner nations. French air force Gen. Henry de Roquefeuil, who is military counselor to the CNES president, said that while 70 million euros over six years is a pittance compared with what would be needed to establish a full-fledged European counterpart to the U.S. capacity, it is still enough money to make a difference in the maintenance and upgrade of the five nations’ existing assets. France’s Graves facility is overdue for an upgrade, which has been delayed because of the French Defense Ministry’s already overstretched budget. The European Union created the Space Surveillance and Tracking Service after concluding that such a capacity is necessary to monitor and protect the EU’s two space infrastaructure programs -— the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation and the Copernicus network of Sentinel environment-monitoring satellites. The five nations will need to act quickly now to create the necessary conditions for EU financing, including a common view of which nation will receive what financing, in order not to lose the 2015 slice of the EU budget.


Senate Bill Partially Funds Next-Gen JPSS Satellites



WASHINGTON — Just over a week after the House stiffed the program entirely, Senate appropriators proposed providing less than half the funding requested in 2016 for the next generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites. The Senate Appropriations Committee on June 11 approved a $5.4 billion budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including $135 million for the final three satellites in the weather agency’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) line: JPSS-3, JPSS-4, and a small polar-orbiter to back up the larger spacecraft. The White House’s 2016 budget request, released in February, sought $380 million for these spacecraft in 2016 as part of a new program called Polar Follow-on. This is NOAA’s plan for maintaining global weather coverage through 2038.



Both the House and Senate bills would provide the roughly $810 million NOAA requested for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, which are designed to maintain coverage through 2025. JPSS-2 (concept art pictured here) is the last satellite in the JPSS that is fully funded in both the House and Senate versions of the 2016 NOAA spending bill. Credit: Orbital ATK. Where the House’s proposed 2016 NOAA budget amounts to a thumbs down for the administration’s plan for future JPSS satellites, the Senate’s proposal is at least a firm maybe. In a report accompanying the bill, Senate appropriators said continuing polar-orbit coverage is “essential” and directed NOAA to get an independent cost estimate for the Polar Follow-on program. The report would be due six months after the bill becomes law — which may never happen, as Senate Democrats have signaled they may block consideration of spending bills on the floor. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, tried during the bill’s markup to bring Polar Follow-on funding in line with NOAAs’s request, but her amendment was voted down. Congressional Republicans have refused to increase spending above the caps established in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The White House has not yet weighed in on the Senate bill, but threatened to veto the House version June 1. NOAA’s current polar orbiter, Suomi-NPP, launched on a five-year mission in 2011. JPSS-1, essentially a clone of Suomi-NPP, is set to take over as the go-to civilian polar satellite in 2017.  Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, built Suomi-NPP and is building JPSS-1. NASA, which manages procurement of NOAA’s weather satellites, in April awarded Orbital ATK, Dulles, Virginia, a contract worth up to $470 million to build JPSS-2, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4. Ball immediately protested NASA’s decision, prompting NASA to stop work on JPSS-2, the only firm order on the contract. Ball’s protest challenges NASA’s decision to award the contract based on what the company contends is an unrealistic price tag, especially for the second and third satellites. The Government Accountability Office has until July 16 to rule on the protest. The Senate bill also follows the House’s lead in fully funding NOAA’s other marquee satellite program, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series. Four GOES-R satellites being built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver will continue coverage of U.S. coastlines from geostationary orbit through 2036. The first is scheduled to launch by March 31. The $10 million provided in the Senate bill would fund only the first batch of six satellites set to launch to a 24-degree low Earth orbit next year. “[N]o funding is provided for the procurement of a second set of radio occultation sensors that NOAA proposes to launch into polar orbit in 2019,” the report accompanying the bill said. Peggy Hodge, a spokeswoman for the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, did not immediately reply to a request for comment June 15. Finally, the Senate bill denies NOAA’s $2.5 million request to study the Space Weather Follow-on, a planned successor to the Deep Space Climate Observatory that launched in February. Space weather refers to charged particles that erupt from the surface of the sun and can short out circuits in satellites, or even on Earth’s surface.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A New Class of Protected Satellite Communications

A new category of space-based protected tactical communications passed an important test in April. Intelsat General participated in tests led by the U.S. Air Force that validated the protected tactical waveform (PTW) modem performance over the upcoming high-throughput satellite (HTS) Intelsat EpicNG platform. PTW will provide cost effective, protected communications over both government and commercial satellites in multiple frequency bands – C-, Ku-, Ka- and X-band. Combined with new HTS advances expected in the first quarter of 2016, PTW will deliver broader protection, more resiliency, more throughput and more efficient utilization of satellite bandwidth. IGC is working directly with several modem manufacturers to identify and test a variety of new modems under development in the industry. IGC’s employs a multi-layered approach to provide more secure satellite communications, with both space and terrestrial elements. PTW is an important component of this multi-layer security approach and will offer customers the best and most resilient SATCOM available from the commercial industry. Eventually PTW is expected to complement complex military protection capabilities already on orbit at a fraction of the cost. Some of the space-based protection features of PTW over the EpicNG platform include built in interference mitigation capabilities and smaller spot beams. IGC also plans to utilize PTW over steerable Ku spot beams as another commercial protected capability. Security measures employed by IGC in the terrestrial segment include end-to-end protection, from physical security at teleports to a hardened network infrastructure with systems that are compliant with DoD Directive 8500 and NIST cybersecurity recommendations and audited by third party evaluators for compliance.


In March 2014, IGC engineers teamed with L-3 Communications Systems West (L-3 CSW) and successfully tested L-3 CSW’s new modem, which was designed around the U.S. Air Force’s PTW specification. The test, which was conducted using an Intelsat satellite emulator and on orbit satellite, measured the modem and PTW performance against various interference and jamming tactics and waveforms. The success of this test led directly to the more advanced demonstration last month. Space is an increasingly competitive theater of operations. The development of a more secure and efficient waveform has important ramifications for both commercial and military users. Combined with performance and efficiency gains of upcoming HTS systems, this new category of protected satellite communications will be a game changer in the space market. Security in Space: Intelsat Information Assurance Download the White Paper Information Assurance Program  Intelsat’s Information Security function centralizes global responsibility for Information Assurance while basing its control framework on ISO 27001 and DoDI 8500.2 MAC Level I. Information Security works proactively to maintain the availability, security and confidentiality of Intelsat data and applications throughout its service and enterprise networks. Information Security Framework  Intelsat’s Information Security framework addresses continuously evolving threats and risks using a lifecycle approach that consists of the following phases: • Set security goals • Identify assets, applications, networks and services • Assess risks (consequences, vulnerabilities and threats) • Prioritize • Implement protective programs • Measure effectiveness 

Monday, June 8, 2015

NASA 'Flying Saucer' Launches to Test Mars Landing Tech

A "flying saucer" that NASA hopes will help astronauts land safely on Mars someday has taken to the skies again.

 The space agency's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) test vehicle — which features the biggest supersonic parachute ever deployed — launched today (June 8) from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai at 1:45 p.m. EDT (1745 GMT; 7:45 a.m. local time in Hawaii).

 The balloon-aided liftoff kicked off the second test flight of the LDSD system, which is designed to get superheavy payloads down softly on the surface of Mars. [Test Flight Photos for NASA's 'Flying Saucer']

 Such a capability "is really critical for not only future enhanced robotic missions, but [also] human exploration of Mars," Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said during a prelaunch news conference on June 1.


New landing tech needed

 The 1-ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest object NASA has ever put down on the Red Planet. Curiosity landed in August 2012, pretty much maxing out the capabilities of its rocket-powered "sky crane" and 50-foot-wide (15 meters) parachute.

 "Right now, we are kind of at the technological limit of what we can land on Mars in terms of size and weight," Jurczyk said.

 "So this new technology is required to land 5 metric tons for human missions, maybe 30 [metric tons] and beyond," he added, referring to the LDSD system.

 That system consists of a saucerlike "supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator" (SIAD) and a 100-foot-wide (30 m) supersonic parachute — the biggest such chute ever flown. The SIAD is designed to fit around the rim of an atmospheric entry vehicle, slowing it down by increasing its surface area and thus its drag. NASA engineers are developing two SIAD versions; one is 20 feet (6 m) wide when inflated, and the other measures 26 feet (8 m) across.


The LDSD team has devised a high-altitude test for this gear, taking advantage of the fact that the thin air far above Earth's surface is a good analogue of the Martian atmosphere.

 A 400-foot-wide (121 m) balloon lofts the LDSD test vehicle up to an altitude of about 23 miles (37 kilometers) from the Pacific Missile Range Facility. The 7,000-lb. (3,175 kilograms) craft is dropped; it then fires up its onboard rocket engine, which blasts the vehicle to supersonic speeds and a height of 34 miles (55 km) or so.

 Then, the SIAD inflates. This maneuver slows the LDSD craft down from about three times the speed of sound (Mach 3) to Mach 2.35 — slow enough, theoretically, for the huge parachute to deploy safely and guide the vehicle down to a soft splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.


Flight test No. 2

 The LDSD system's first such flight test was on June 28, 2014. Everything went well that day, until it was time for parachute deployment; the supersonic chute was quickly destroyed, torn apart by the fast-rushing air.

 Nevertheless, LDSD team members declared the trial a success, saying they had learned a great deal that would help them improve the landing technology. Indeed, this second test flight features a new and improved supersonic chute, said LDSD project manager Mark Adler, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

 "Now, we've developed a much more robust, stronger parachute they're going to be able to test this time," Adler said during the prelaunch news conference. This second test centers primarily on the new chute, since the SIAD and other aspects of the test vehicle worked well the first time around, he added.

 The results of today's test won't be known for a while after liftoff. For example, it will likely take more than 2 hours for the balloon to reach 23 miles in altitude, NASA officials said.

 Regardless of the results, today's LDSD trial should prove valuable, Jurczyk said.

 "I'm confident, again, we will learn a great deal from the test and gain a lot of knowledge that will shape future tests and future systems to land larger payloads on the surface of Mars," he said. "NASA could be ready for using this technology in future landed Mars missions as early as the 2020s, and it could be especially beneficial for missions like Mars sample-return and for human-exploration precursor missions."

 The cost of the LDSD program is about $230 million, Adler said. A third test flight, also planned to launch from Kauai, is tentatively scheduled for next year.

 Today's test flight was originally scheduled for June 2, but strong winds and rough seas that could have hampered recovery of the LDSD vehicle delayed the liftoff by nearly a week.



Saturday, June 6, 2015

Meet Adeline, Airbus’ Answer To SpaceX Reusability

Airbus says Adeline — short for Advanced Expendable Launcher with Innovative engine Economy — imposes a smaller performance penalty on its rocket than is the case for SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 first stage, all the while reusing 80 percent of the stage’s economic value — the engine, avionics and propulsion bay. Credit: Airbus video grab

LES MUREAUX, France – Airbus Defence and Space on June 5 unveiled the product of what it said was a five-year effort to design a reusable Ariane rocket first-stage engine and avionics package, a project company official said was stimulated by SpaceX’s work on reusable rockets. Airbus officials said they believe they have resolved some of the issues inherent in Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s reusability effort, notably the exposure of the first stage engine to high-speed stresses as it descends through the atmosphere to its landing zone. Airbus’s Adeline — short for Advanced Expendable Launcher with Innovative engine Economy — also imposes a much smaller performance penalty on its rocket than is the case for SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 first stage, all the while reusing 80 percent of the stage’s economic value — the engine, avionics and propulsion bay.  Addressing a press briefing at the Airbus facility here, company officials said they had worked for five years, outside the Airbus campus, in secrecy to secure the patents needed for Adeline. Part of the work was done with sister company Airbus Military Aircraft, whose work on unmanned aircraft and other atmospheric vehicles was used in Adeline’s iterations. Airbus has openly said in recent months that it is seeking inspiration from Silicon Valley, with company Chief Executive Tom Enders leading the management team for a tour of the region earlier this year. More recently, Airbus created a $150 million venture capital fund, based in Silicon Valley, to develop a range of technologies. Adeline draws on the same inspiration. Benoit Isaac, Adeline project manager, said the small project team has been working out of a garage developing scale models of the Adeline vehicle — with two winglets and two rotary motors to guide the engine composite back to Earth for a horizontal landing on an airstrip — with a start-up mentality. 

One company official said Enders had recently complained that SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, was generating favorable coverage worldwide for the Falcon 9 reusability work, whereas Airbus appeared to be standing still. “This is our way of showing that it’s not just America that knows how to innovate,” Isaac said. “We can innovate here in Europe as well and we want our 140,000 colleagues in the rest of Airbus to know about it.” Francois Auque, head of Airbus Defense and Space’s Space Systems division, cautioned that the company’s sole priority now was building the new-generation Ariane 6 rocket, an expendable vehicle scheduled to make its first launch in 2020. “Ariane 6 is our absolute top priority,” Auque said. “Adeline comes afterwards.” Ariane 6, financed by European Space Agency governments, is a direct European response to the SpaceX commercial challenge on launch pricing. The French space agency, CNES, has been looking at rocket reusability for many years, for the same reason as SpaceX: its promise of further cutting launch costs by recovering, refurbishing and reusing, multiple times, the high-cost elements of a rocket stage. Like SpaceX, Airbus concluded that a recoverable upper stage posed too many challenges given the distance the stage would have to travel to get back to the launch base. The focus then was on the first stage. SpaceX has begun efforts to return the entire first stage to an offshore barge, and ultimately to a point on land near the launch base. 




Friday, June 5, 2015

Does Gravity Alone Rule the Cosmos? | Space News


For nearly three years we have reported on countless discoveries that challenge the foundations of modern cosmology and astrophysics. Today we routinely hear of celestial objects ranging in scale from stars, galaxies and quasar groups that should not exist if the standard astrophysical models are correct. However, it seems that these discoveries, no matter how baffling or unexpected, rarely seem to force any real reassessment of the foundations of popular theory. And all of these theories arose from a basic underlying principle of an electrically sterile and disconnected Universe.

Today we examine the theoretical core of modern astrophysics and cosmology. Our guest is physicist Eugene Bagashov, whose research is in theoretical physics, and who currently works at the Joint Institute for Power and Nuclear Research – Sosny. Eugene is scheduled to speak at the forthcoming conference, EU 2015, Paths of Discovery, taking place June 25th to 29th in Phoenix, AZ. Today, Eugene offers a brief introduction and preview of his talk, where he will explain that the observed movements in the Universe cannot be created with the gravitational force alone.

Monday, June 1, 2015

How Earth's Magnetic Field Shielded Us from 2014 Solar Storm


A giant eruption from the sun that scientists thought would hit Earth in 2014 missed because the sun's magnetic field channeled it away from the planet in an unexpected way, researchers say.

 This finding could lead to better modeling and forecasting of disruptive solar storms in the future, the scientists added.

 Solar eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections, are the hurricanes of space weather. These explosions can drive on the order of a billion tons of super-hot matter out from the sun.

When coronal mass ejections hit Earth, they can trigger major disturbances known as geomagnetic storms, which can in turn wreak massive havoc. For example, in 1989, a coronal mass ejection blacked out the entire Canadian province of Quebec within seconds, damaging transformers as far away as New Jersey, and nearly shutting down U.S. power grids from the mid-Atlantic through the Pacific Northwest.

 To forecast the hazards that coronal mass ejections might pose to assets both on the ground and in space, researchers need to know where they are headed. However, much remains unknown about what guides their direction, and therefore whether they might hit Earth.

 For instance, on Jan. 7, 2014, astronomers spotted a very fast coronal mass ejection headed toward Earth, one traveling more than 5.3 million mph (8.6 million km/h). Scientists expected it would trigger a strong geomagnetic storm, one that could spark radio navigation problems and set off alarms in power systems. However, the worst of the eruption missed Earth, and no geomagnetic storm followed.

 To learn more about why this coronal mass ejection missed Earth, scientists collected data from 7 different space missions that saw the explosion. They modeled the evolution of the eruption from the sun, up to Earth, and as far as Mars, where it was detected by the Curiosity rover.

 Instead of hitting Earth, the coronal mass ejection was slanted toward a zone below and behind Earth. The researchers suggest it got channeled this way by powerful magnetic fields originating from a region nearby on the sun.

"Very fast and possibly havoc-creating coronal mass ejections can erupt in a very different direction than indicated by the position of their source region on the sun,"study lead author Christian Möstl, a heliophysicist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Graz, told Space.com.

 Potential applications of this research include better real-time predictions of space weather. "Forecasters should always look at the magnetic fields of the solar corona surrounding a big eruption to see how likely such a strongly channeled eruption is," Möstl said.

 One problem with space weather forecasts is that even if scientists can figure out whether a coronal mass ejection is headed toward Earth, they cannot tell how powerful it is until it hits the planet.

 "This is like not knowing the magnitude of a hurricane just before it hits the shore," Möstl said. "This is a situation that clearly must be improved."

 The scientists detailed their findings online Tuesday (May 26) in the journal Nature Communications.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

NASA Developing Plans for Human Missions to Cislunar Space in 2020s


WASHINGTON — While NASA does not yet have specific plans for human missions beyond 2021, the agency is in the early stages of developing a sequence of missions in cislunar space in the 2020s to prepare for later missions to Mars. Those plans, which could involve both international and commercial partners, would test out habitation modules and other technologies on missions around the moon ranging from several weeks to a year. “The concepts that we’re working on today call for us to begin in the early ’20s with a set of missions involving Orion to get some early experience in cislunar space, leading to a series of longer missions,” said Skip Hatfield, manager of the Development Projects Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, during a session of the Humans to Mars Summit here May 6. Advertisementgoogletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('div-gpt-ad-1418322387828-0'); }) Although NASA has notional plans for a series of Orion missions launched by the Space Launch System in the 2020s, the last firm mission on the agency’s books is Exploration Mission (EM) 2, the first crewed SLS/Orion flight, scheduled for 2021. One of those future missions would likely send astronauts to an asteroid placed in lunar orbit as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, but the date of that mission depends on when — or if — that asteroid arrives in cislunar space. NASA has instead discussed human missions to cislunar space as part of the “Proving Ground” phase of its overall human Mars exploration strategy, called “Journey to Mars.” That phase, between the current “Earth Reliant” and long-term “Earth Independent” phases, is intended to test out technologies and gain experience before sending humans to Mars. A key purpose of those missions, Hatfield said, would be to test habitat modules and related systems that could be used for Mars expeditions. “The next big thing we need to do if we’re going to go long distances is the habitation system,” he said. “There are a lot of things that go into this next step.” Studies have looked at two different approaches for developing these habitation modules. One concept involves developing a series of smaller modules that could be launched with Orion spacecraft using the upgraded Block 1B version of the SLS. Those launches, starting as soon as EM-3, the second crewed SLS/Orion mission, could accommodate modules weighing up to 10 to 12 metric tons, said Matthew Duggan, space systems manager at Boeing.


The advantage of this approach, he said, is it allows habitat modules to be launched for “free” — that is, without the need of a dedicated launch. “With every Orion mission, you’re adding something useful and you’re aggregating this larger and larger vehicle in cislunar space,” he said. The disadvantage, said David Smitherman, technical manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, is that it is less efficient. He proposed using one or two large modules flown on dedicated SLS launches, which he argued can save mass and provide more volume than a collection of small modules. “The mass actually comes down a little bit as you go from a three-module set to a two-module set to a single module, even though you’re increasing volume all along the way,” he said, citing research to be published later this year. NASA is augmenting its internal planning with a series of study contracts awarded earlier this year under a program called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP. Seven of the twelve NextSTEP studies cover either habitation modules or their key subsystems. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is using its NextSTEP award to study habitat technologies leveraging the company’s proposed Jupiter system for transporting cargo to the International Space Station, as well as the capabilities offered by Orion. “Orion is a highly capable spacecraft designed to keep crews alive in this environment for a long period of time,” said Lockheed Martin space architect Josh Hopkins. “That means you can keep the outpost for the first several flights to be relatively small and inexpensive.” What happens once the NextSTEP studies are completed next year is not yet clear, Hatfield said, and will depend in part on the results of the studies. “That’s something we have to work out,” he said, adding that part of his current work includes drafting an acquisition strategy that could incorporate international or public-private partnerships for some elements. Although the technical and programmatic structure of those cislunar missions remains to be developed, there is widespread agreement that such missions are needed before human missions to Mars. “We cannot take that giant leap to a thousand-day Mars mission straight from the ISS,” Hopkins said. “We need something that is on the edge of deep space.” 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Russian Statement on Proton Failure Leaves Questions


PARIS — The May 29 statement by Roscosmos on the May 16 Proton rocket failure confirmed initial suspicions of a third-stage engine issue but otherwise left many questions unanswered about the failure’s origin. Here is the full-text version of the best translation we have found: The Roscosmos Agency Commission investigating the failed launch of the Proton-M with the Centenario spacecraft May 16, 2015 from Baikonur Cosmodrome announced the outcomes of its work. Advertisementgoogletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('div-gpt-ad-1418322387828-0'); }) The commission members (representatives of the customer, Roscosmos and the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, heads of industry R&D institutes and production facilities) performed an analysis of the Proton-M and its components manufacturing process, the process of acceptance, transportation, testing and processing, as well as telemetry and ranging information. Conclusion: Abnormal termination of the Proton-M flight was caused by the Stage 3 Steering Engine failure due to increased vibration loads occurring as a result of the imbalance of the turbo pump unit rotor caused by the degradation of its material properties at high temperatures, and improper balancing. By the order of Roscosmos head Igor Komarov, Khrunichev Space Center and its subsidiaries are developing an action plan to address the causes of the accident, which includes: Changing materials used for the turbo pump rotor shaft manufacturing; Revision of the turbo pump rotor balancing techniques; Upgrade of the steering engine turbo pump mount to the main engine frame, and others. The Commission also identified a number of deficiencies in the enterprises’ Quality Management System. An action plan to address these will be developed within a month. The date of the Proton-M next launch will be announced by Roscosmos in June 2015. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

NASA Selects 9 Instruments for Europa Mission



WASHINGTON — NASA announced the selection of nine instruments it plans to fly on a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa May 26, but agency officials were vague about whether the instruments, or the overall mission, could meet an aggressive schedule sought by some in Congress. NASA said the nine instrument concepts, selected from 33 proposals submitted by scientists last year, will be flown together on a spacecraft with the goal of determining whether Europa can support life, although not necessarily if the icy moon hosts life today. “All of these instruments are designed to increase our rather limited knowledge of Europa,” said Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters, during a briefing about the instrument selection. “They’re doing that by helping us probe the big question, which is, ‘Is Europa habitable?’” Advertisementgoogletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('div-gpt-ad-1418322387828-0'); }) The nine instruments include cameras to provide high resolution images of the moon’s surface, magnetometers to measure the depth and salinity of the moon’s subsurface ocean, a radar to probe Europa’s icy crust, and spectrometers to determine the composition of the surface as well as material ejected by plumes. John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani In addition to the nine instruments chosen for the mission, NASA selected a tenth instrument, a mass spectrometer, for additional technology development. This instrument will not be flown on the mission but will instead be developed for potential use on other spacecraft. Niebur said NASA anticipates spending about $10 million on the instruments in the next year, and $110 million over the next three years. “That will get us to a key decision point where we decide if we’re going to continue on with the instruments,” he said, as well as calculate a full cost estimate for the instrument suite. The mission the instruments would fly on is still in its earliest phases of development. “Now that we’ve made the selection of the instruments, we’re going to begin their accommodations on the mission concept,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science division. That mission will likely be based on a concept that has been under study at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory known as Europa Clipper. In that mission, the spacecraft would go into orbit around Jupiter and make dozens of flybys of Europa, a less expensive approach than going directly into orbit around the moon. Green said the Europa mission should enter its formulation phase by Oct. 1, the start of the U.S. government’s 2016 fiscal year. Although work on the mission is just beginning, NASA said they selected the instruments now because they typically have long development schedules. “We wanted to get a head start on the instruments as they’re often the long poles in the development of something as complex as a mission to Europa,” John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science, said at the briefing. NASA’s announcement comes as the agency is facing new pressure from Congress to accelerate the mission’s schedule. While NASA sought $30 million for the mission in its fiscal year 2016 budget request in February, a spending bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee May 20 provides $140 million for the mission, and also requires the mission to launch no later than 2022, using the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani NASA officials hedged when asked if the instruments, or the mission itself, could meet that schedule. “They could be ready in the early 2020s,” Niebur said of the selected instruments, “but that’s also dependent upon how much money is in the budget for us to give them for that work.” “We expect it to be launched in the 2020s,” Green said of the mission. “Whether it’s mid, or a little early or a little later, needs to be worked out based on a much firmer cost estimate and a profile that would support it.” Niebur emphasized that the goal of the mission, whenever it is launched, is to determine whether Europa could support life, not to detect life itself. “We don’t have a ‘life detector,’” he said. “We currently don’t even have consensus among the scientific community as to what we would measure that tell everybody with confidence that this thing you’re looking at is alive.” Green, though, said he knew what he would do if the mission somehow detected life on Europa. “I would immediately retire,” he said.