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Nearby Star Has 7 Earth-Sized Worlds

By Keith Cowing on February 21, 2017 9:43 AM.

NASA to Host News Conference on Discovery Beyond Our Solar System

"NASA will hold a news conference at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday, Feb. 22, to present new findings on planets that orbit stars other than our sun, known as exoplanets. The event will air live on NASA Television and the agency's website. Details of these findings are embargoed by the journal Nature until 1 p.m."

Keith's update: I have now learned that tomorrow's NASA news announcement is not about Alpha Centauri as I had been guessing (darn) but it is is something even more cool - or "warm" to be precise. Instead, the NASA announcement on Wednesday will be about a nearby star that has at least 7 Earth-sized planets.

The individuals attending this press event at NASA have been looking for planets circling other stars. Last year one of the participants, Michael Gillon, was lead author on a paper "Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star" in Nature detailing how his team had confirmed 3 small terrestrial (Earth-sized) planets circulating a cool dwarf star 2MASS J23062928-0502285 (now known as TRAPPIST-1), a M8V class star which is only 39.5 light years away.

It will be announced tomorrow by NASA that Gillon et al have confirmed 4 more Earth-sized planets circling TRAPPIST-1. It is possible that most of the planets confirmed thus circling far TRAPPIST-1 could be in the star's habitable zone. The inner 6 planets are probably rocky in composition and may be just the right temperature for liquid water to exist (between 0 - 100 degrees C) - if they have any water, that is. The outermost 7th planet still needs some more observations to nail down its orbit and composition.

Astronomers are clearly excited about these planets (see below). The article will appear in Nature magazine, as noted by NASA in its media advisory.

But - and this is important for all you UK tabloid writers - NO ONE HAS DISCOVERED LIFE ON ANOTHER PLANET. Got that?

Important note: No one sent us anything in advance about the details of this specific announcement or paper under embargo - or any other pre-announcement arrangement. No scientific paper - nothing. We honor embargoes - when we are under them. I saw what NASA had posted yesterday to tease people (including participant names and a topic) and went to work - hence my earlier Alpha Centauri sleuthing which strongly overlapped with TRAPPIST-1 discoveries. I eventually figured it out and sourced it - all by myself - using openly available preprints, observation proposals and results, email, and phone calls folks. I am leaving my earlier Alpha Centauri speculation up for all to see (below).

Continue reading: Nearby Star Has 7 Earth-Sized Worlds.

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TrumpSpace Update

By Keith Cowing on February 20, 2017 4:11 PM.

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Fact Checking ULA's Tweets

By Keith Cowing on February 20, 2017 12:44 PM.

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Another Perfect Launch/Landing For SpaceX

By Keith Cowing on February 19, 2017 9:55 AM.

SpaceX launched the CRS-10 mission on time this morning at 9:39 am ET from historic LC39A. The Dragon is in orbit and heading toward the ISS while the Falcon 9's first stage made yet another pinpoint anding back at its landing site in Florida.

http://images.spaceref.com/news/2017/C5CSwj6WAAExvO2.jpg
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SpaceX Launch Scrubbed For Today

By Keith Cowing on February 18, 2017 11:17 AM.

This morning's attempted launch of Falcon 9 was halted moments before launch. According to a statement from SpaceX "Standing down to take a closer look at an engine actuator on the second stage. 9:38am ET tomorrow is our next earliest launch opportunity."

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GAO Reports Significant Delays in Commercial Crew Launch Dates (Update)

By Keith Cowing on February 17, 2017 5:53 PM.

Shotwell to GAO: "The [heck] we won't fly before 2019", SpacePolicyOnline

"SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell reacted to GAO's report yesterday that commercial crew flights may slip from 2018 to 2019 by expressing utmost confidence in her company's schedule. At a Kennedy Space Center (KSC) press conference today in advance of SpaceX's commercial cargo launch tomorrow, she said the company's response to GAO is "The [heck] we won't fly before 2019."

NASA Commercial Crew Program: Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events

"Both of the Commercial Crew Program's contractors have made progress developing their crew transportation systems, but both also have aggressive development schedules that are increasingly under pressure. The two contractors - Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, Corp. (SpaceX) - are developing transportation systems that must meet the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) standards for human spaceflight - a process called certification. Both Boeing and SpaceX have determined that they will not be able to meet their original 2017 certification dates and both expect certification to be delayed until 2018. The schedule pressures are amplified by NASA's need to provide a viable crew transportation option to the International Space Station (ISS) before its current contract with Russia's space agency runs out in 2019. If NASA needs to purchase additional seats from Russia, the contracting process typically takes 3 years. Without a viable contingency option for ensuring uninterrupted access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, NASA risks not being able to maximize the return on its multibillion dollar investment in the space station."

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Alternative Facts at NASA: Juno's Engine Problems Allow Bonus Science

By Keith Cowing on February 17, 2017 11:28 AM.

Juno Mission to Remain in Current Orbit at Jupiter

"The orbital period does not affect the quality of the science collected by Juno on each flyby, since the altitude over Jupiter will be the same at the time of closest approach. In fact, the longer orbit provides new opportunities that allow further exploration of the far reaches of space dominated by Jupiter's magnetic field, increasing the value of Juno's research. ... The original Juno flight plan envisioned the spacecraft looping around Jupiter twice in 53-day orbits, then reducing its orbital period to 14 days for the remainder of the mission. However, two helium check valves that are part of the plumbing for the spacecraft's main engine did not operate as expected when the propulsion system was pressurized in October. Telemetry from the spacecraft indicated that it took several minutes for the valves to open, while it took only a few seconds during past main engine firings. ... Juno's larger 53-day orbit allows for "bonus science" that wasn't part of the original mission design."

Keith's note: So NASA's Juno spacecraft has engine problems that prevent it from accomplishing its planned i.e. optimal science mission. But that's OK since NASA says that none of the science is affected by the engine problems. Indeed, they say that the science is better - and they get "Bonus science" too! Bonus science is good, yes? But wait: if Juno's science is not affected by engine failures - indeed its now better without the engine firings - then why did they plan the engine firings and orbit changes in the first place?

And all of these extra longer orbits will require 3-4 years to complete to get all that bonus science goodness. Oh yes: the spacecraft was not designed to operate that long - and it is going to cost another $100 million or so to operate the spacecraft during this time - not something NASA has in its budget. When you read these feel good releases that try and make technical failures look like good news just remember that NASA = Never A Straight Answer

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Possible NASA Administrator Bridenstine Wants To Fight North Korea

By Keith Cowing on February 17, 2017 9:43 AM.

Exclusive - Rep. Bridenstine: Shoot the Next One Down, Mr. President, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, Breitbart

"President Trump should order the Secretary of Defense to position American assets and shoot down Kim Jong Un's next missile launch. Intercepting a North Korean missile would signal to Pyongyang that America has the capability and the willingness to defend our allies and the homeland. In the parlance of military strategy, the missile defense option enhances deterrence-by-denial. North Korea is more likely to be deterred from developing missiles if robust, layered missile defenses deny them any strategic benefit from striking first. The only two alternatives are preemptive offensive action and, of course, more strongly worded UN Security Council resolutions and toothless sanctions."

Keith's note: If a North Korean rocket threatens U.S. assets - or even seems to be doing so - we should defend ourselves. No argument there. Bridenstine has a military background and it is natural that he'd have concerns about issues such as this - and speak out about them. When I have heard him speak about space he does well when it comes to military, communications, and commercial space. But when it comes to NASA science - nothing but crickets. If Bridenstine is the nominee to become NASA administrator he clearly needs a Deputy and a strong AA and Center Director contingent to make up for his clear lack of science management experience.

The fact that this "exclusive" op ed by Bridenstine appears on Breitbart News, the controversial former employer of Trump's avatar Steve Bannon should not be lost on people. This sort of op ed placement does not happen by accident these days. There is clearly an idealogical mind meld going on here - as well as the beginnings of a possible Alternate NASA PR machine - one independent of NASA PAO - in the making.

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Is Trump Going To A Rocket Launch?

By Keith Cowing on February 16, 2017 1:00 PM.

Reader note from Kevin "I noticed a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over Melbourne that looks identical to the TFR's over Palm Beach International the last two weekends for Trump's stays at Mar-a-Lago. The Melbourne TFR matches the SpaceX launch window suggesting POTUS will be viewing the launch. I wonder if POTUS will then announce a new space policy to return to the moon from Pad 39a, but this time with commercial rockets. See https://skyvector.com/ for details on the TFR's"

Keith's note: When I asked NASA PAO they said that Trump is not attending a launch but that he will be "close".

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Saving Government Climate Data: NASAWatch on PBS NewsHour

By Keith Cowing on February 16, 2017 12:18 PM.

How scientists are scrambling to safeguard vital environmental data, Miles O'Brien, PBS NewsHour

"MILES O'BRIEN: Keith Cowing is a former NASA biologist who founded the watchdog Web site NASA Watch 20 years ago. He's the proto-rogue, and now he says everybody seems to be joining in.

KEITH COWING: Nobody has said, shut that database down, take that off your Web site. But what's going to happen when you have got this giant, bubbling, simmering social media crowd, and they go from being worried about things that might happen to things that are happening? There's a colossal hair trigger waiting out there."

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Today's NASA Hearing Dwells On The Past - Not The Future

By Keith Cowing on February 16, 2017 10:00 AM.

Full House Science Committee Hearing - NASA: Past, Present, and Future

Scheduled witnsses:
- [opening statement] Hon. Harrison Schmitt Apollo 17 Astronaut; Former United States Senator
- [opening statement] Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford Gemini VI, Gemini IX, Apollo 10, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project Astronaut; Chairman, NASA International Space Station Advisory Committee
- [opening statement] Dr. Ellen Stofan Former Chief Scientist, NASA
- [opening statement] Mr. Tom Young Past Director, Goddard Spaceflight Center; Past President/COO, Martin Marietta; Past Chairman, SAIC
- [opening statement] Chairman Smith
- [opening statement] Chairman Babin
- [opening statement] Ranking Member Johnson
- [opening statement] Ranking Member Bera

Watch live

Keith's note: Consider the ages of the witnesses for this hearing: Jack Schmitt, 81; Tom Stafford, 86; Tom Young, 80; and Ellen Stofan, 55. That's three male octogenarian NASA employees who have been retired for decades and one female who actually still worked for NASA until a few weeks ago. I have the utmost respect for Schmitt, Stafford and Young and their legendary accomplishments. But why does this particular congressional committee constantly look back at what was done half a century ago and yet spend so little time listening to people who still work at NASA? And what about the generation that will actually accomplish the things that NASA will be doing in the decades ahead? Is no one interested in what they think?

This hearing is titled "NASA: Past, Present, and Future". Based on the witnesses it should have been titled "NASA: Past, Past, Past, and Present. No Future".

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Reinventing Government Yet Again

By Keith Cowing on February 15, 2017 9:19 PM.

White House prepping government reorg executive order, Federal News Radio

"The White House is preparing a new executive order to require agencies to plan and suggest ways to reorganize the government. Federal News Radio has learned that a draft order is circulating in the government and could be issued this week after the expected Senate confirmation of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The draft order includes a series of requirements for agencies to quickly turn around plans to improve how the department meets its mission. The draft also details a list of elements the agencies need to include in those plans ranging from a list of programs that are duplicative to whether state and local governments or the private sector could do the work better to the costs of ending or merging the capabilities. The draft order also calls on agencies to determine if back-office functions are duplicative with other services within another agency, bureau or program and if so, could they be consolidated."

Zero Base Review Team Report, 19 May 1995 (earlier NASA RIF Watch post)

"An internal NASA review team has produced proposals to enable the agency to meet the tough funding targets set by the Administration in the 1996 budget, Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said today. The proposals include sweeping management and organizational changes to cut spending an additional $5 billion by the end of the decade. "I'm pleased with what I've seen so far," Goldin said. "We've found ways to streamline operations, reduce overlap, and significantly cut costs without cutting our world-class space and aeronautics programs. We have much hard work before us, but I believe a stronger and more efficient NASA will emerge."

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Lightfoot Tries a SLS Hail Mary Pass

By Keith Cowing on February 15, 2017 6:24 PM.

Acting NASA Administrator Lightfoot Memo: Agency Update - Feb. 15, 2017

"Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation's world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.

There has been a lot of speculation in the public discourse about NASA being pulled in two directions - what has come before and what we want to do now. At NASA, this is an "and" proposition, not an "or." To get where we want to go, we need to work with the companies represented at the SLS and ORION suppliers conference AND those industry partners that work with us in other areas across the country - all of whom have the long-term view on this work. We must work with everyone to secure our leadership in space - and we will."

Keith's note: Lots of implications from this sudden announcement - these come to mind.

1. Show me the money. NASA has been slipping SLS launches to right faster than the calendar itself moves. In so doing it is gobbling up financial resources that were already inadequate. To make this crew on EM-1 fantasy happen would require a pile of money that the SLS itself would have problems launching.

2. ASAP and other advisory panels are already on record questioning whether SLS's Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) can/should be human-rated since it is only going to be used once. Add in chronic SLS software verification problems at MSFC and there are already serious doubts that the very first SLS rocket will be launched on time without humans on board. Add in the complexity of humans and a system that is already struggling is going to become more bogged down. And there is no way that the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) would be ready to support EM-1.

3. Lightfoot is being rather dismissive - and misleading - when he tries to gloss over the very real divisions within the Trump Administration with regard to NASA's direction. They are very real. One faction led by Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker is pushing strongly for a commercial-centric expansion of commerce from LEO to cis-lunar space, the lunar surface, and beyond. The other faction - headquartered in Alabama - is surgically welded to he SLS/Orion, big government spending status quo. Right now, where you stand depends on where you sit - and what you stand to gain - or lose.

4. Expected NASA Administrator nominee Bridenstine, a staunch commercial space advocate, has seen his nomination stalled by a variety of things - most notably a White House staffer who used to work for Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL). Its the Alabama cabal - the pro SLS/Orion team at work trying to gum up the works. The longer Brindenstine's nomination is delayed, the stronger the hold Robert Lightfoot, a card carrying member of the Alabama SLS/Orion cabal, has on staying in the top job - or possibly as Deputy as a consolation to the Alabama cabal. Trump Administration Beach Head members are already being pulled into one camp or the other - and the leaks of internal differences on policy are making their way to the media.

5. Last week the Commercial Spaceflight Federation's chair unexpectedly announced that the CSF was suddenly dropping its long-standing objections to the government-built SLS, a direct inhibitor of / competitor to the commercial sector heavy lift market. Many members are upset at this sudden reversal and expect that these words of support will soon evaporate in the reality of hearings and budget stances. Moving humans onto the first SLS launch is a direct threat to commercial crew providers. By flying humans sooner this takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of commercial crew program. Given the less than enthusiastic support commercial crew had had, this could make it even harder to gain the funding needed to make commercial crew work the way that it is planned to work.

6. Whenever a NASA program - especially a big one like SLS and Orion - gets in trouble someone comes up with a Hail Mary pass to make it harder to kill. When I was at Space Station Freedom and Congress had its carving knives out we came up with something I heard called "Flag on orbit" - a node with a PV array and an antenna. The thought being that once hardware was actually in orbit it would be harder for Congress to kill the program. Look at the FGB/Node configuration that did nothing for several years and you will see how this thinking continued.

7. If flying a crew on the first mission of SLS was a wise, prudent, strategically important thing to do then the program would have baselined it in the first place. I am not certain if I have ever seen a plan for SLS (Or Ares V) where this was planned. To move this rather important milestone up now in the midst of dueling and ever-shifting policy directions - for no clearly articulated reason other than politics - starts to smell like launch fever to me - the worst kind of launch fever.

8. Cuts to discretionary spending for agencies such as NASA seem to be forthcoming. If NASA budgets will be operating under a CR to be followed by flat levels and possible cuts, the money to pay to speed up human missions on SLS will need to come from somewhere within NASA's budget. Toss in the rhetoric about moving NASA earth science research elsewhere and/or decreasing funding for it and you have the makings of a perfect budget storm - one where the entire space community will be pitted against itself. Alas, this intentional chaos would be in synch with the new Administration's mode of operations.

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More Choir Practice Amongst The Usual Suspects

By Keith Cowing on February 15, 2017 9:40 AM.

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Satellite Servicing Heats up with Orbital ATK Suing DARPA

By Marc Boucher on February 14, 2017 3:07 PM.

Orbital ATK Sues DARPA Over MDA's SSL GEO Satellite Servicing Contract, SpaceQ

"The days of on-orbit servicing, or satellite servicing, living in obscurity are over. On February 7, Orbital ATK, Inc. and their subsidiary Space Logistics LLC, filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Virginia to stop the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from awarding Space Systems Loral (SSL), a subsidiary of Canada's MDA, a contract to to develop satellite servicing of spacecraft in geostationary orbit (GEO) for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program."

Related

- DARPA Selects SSL as Commercial Partner for Revolutionary Goal of Servicing Satellites in GEO

- NASA Awards Contract for Refueling Mission Spacecraft

- Orbital ATK sues Pentagon over plans to award a space robots contract to a Canadian-owned firm, Washington Post

"Orbital argues that the federal program, called the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, would unfairly compete with its own privately funded effort, a system called the Mission Extension Vehicle 1, backed by at least $200 million from investors. The company has set up at a production facility in Northern Virginia, with a launch planned for next year."

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NASA Space Station On-Orbit Status 16 February 2017 - Dragon Capture Test and Robonaut Maintenance

NASA Space Station On-Orbit Status 16 February 2017 - Dragon Capture Test and Robonaut Maintenance Video in Story

Three Expedition 50 crew members practiced today the robotic capture of the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship when it arrives at the International Space Station two days after its launch. A humanoid robot, better known as Robonaut, had its power supply checked out during a full day of troubleshooting.

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