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NASA planning to purchase Earth science data from commercial smallsat systems

Space News - December 15, 2017 - 4:51pm

NEW ORLEANS — NASA expects to purchase Earth science data from constellations of commercial satellites early next year to see how useful they are in meeting the agency’s research needs.

NASA issued a request for information (RFI) Dec. 5 seeking details from companies that have such constellations and are interested in selling data to the agency. The deadline for responses is Dec. 22.

“What we are recognizing is that many of you in the private sector have fielded constellations of small satellites for your own business reasons,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, in a Dec. 12 town hall discussion about the data purchase effort at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union here.

Those systems, he said, may also be collecting data of interest to NASA. “The question that we’re asking in NASA is what value do the data products that come from your small satellite constellations have to the government to advance our research, science and applications interests.”

In the RFI, NASA asks companies to submit information on their current satellite constellations and the data that is available from them. It defines constellations as systems of at least three satellites in non-geostationary orbits that provide large-scale coverage of the Earth.

Freilich said that NASA will review the RFI responses and then establish blanket purchase agreements with multiple companies to acquire some data in order to examine their suitability. Those agreements could be in place by the first quarter of 2018.

“We would like to work with you to purchase those data products in a pilot to then evaluate their worth in advancing our NASA programs,” he said. “This is an attempt to develop a relationship, with money coming from us to you and data coming from you to us, to allow us to figure out whether what you are producing is useful for our science or not.”

NASA issued a similar RFI in 2016 regarding Earth science data from commercial smallsat constellations, proposing to spend $25 million on such data. Freilich said after the town hall that delays in a final fiscal year 2017 budget kept them from going forward with a data purchase pilot earlier, and that the agency decided to perform a second RFI to get updated information from companies.

Even though NASA has been operating under a continuing resolution since the 2018 fiscal year started Oct. 1, and will likely continue to do so until at least January, Freilich said that NASA would be able to go forward with the planned purchases. “There’s no opposition to us spending continuing resolution money at levels that have been proposed in the past to identify, purchase and evaluate the data sets,” he said.

That evaluation, he said, would be done by members of the research community to see how useful they are, although the exact process for carrying that out is still being determined.

Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of NASA’s Earth science division, said the pilot program will last about one year. “Once we decide the data is good, and we want to more, we’ll figure out the best contractual mechanism to acquire that data,” she said. NASA may do additional RFIs in the future, she said, to get data on new capabilities from existing or emerging companies.

NASA is not the first government agency to pursue data purchases from commercial small satellite systems. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency awarded a contract to Planet in 2016 valued at $20 million for access to images its satellite constellation produces. Planet won a second contract with NGA, worth $14 million, in July.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued commercial weather data pilot program contracts in 2016 to GeoOptics and Spire for GPS radio occultation data. Those contracts ran through the end of April, but only Spire was able to provide data to NOAA.

A report on that initial round of the commercial weather data pilot is being completed, NOAA’s Karen St. Germain said at the town hall meeting, with plans to carry out a second round of the pilot program in 2018. The second round will again be devoted to GPS radio occultation data, but with more rigorous requirements.


Germany picks Ariane 5 for Heinrich Hertz launch

Space News - December 15, 2017 - 4:03pm

WASHINGTON — German satellite builder OHB Systems has secured a slot for the experimental Heinrich Hertz communications satellite on what could be one of the last Ariane 5 missions before Ariane 6 is expected to take over.

The launch, arranged on behalf of the German space agency DLR, is slated for late 2021 or early 2022 — a  transitional period during which Arianespace plans to launch a mix of Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 rockets while the newer vehicle gains acceptance. The first flight of the Ariane 6 is scheduled for July 2020 — a date ArianeGroup in September said remains firm.

ArianeGroup and the European Space Agency are expecting Ariane 6 to cost about half as much as Ariane 5 in order to better compete on price against SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and other emerging launch systems.

While Ariane 6 does have a first customer already — ESA has signed up for two Galileo launches — satellite operators can be slow to trust new launchers. Some may be reluctant to leave Ariane 5, which finishes 2017 with a track record of 82 consecutive successful launches.

With a mass of 3,450 kilograms, Heinrich Hertz will likely launch in the lower berth of Ariane 5, leaving the upper position available for a heavier satellite. OHB is responsible for manufacturing, launch and the associated ground infrastructure for the DLR satellite.

Heinrich Hertz is largely an experimental mission, carrying some 20 new technologies from German companies and academic institutions. The satellite also carries a Ku- and Ka-band military communications payload for Germany’s Federal Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr.

In July, DLR selected OHB for a 310.5 million euro ($362.2 million) contract to build the satellite on an ESA-supported SmallGEO platform. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is paying for the Heinrich Hertz mission.  

OHB’s first SmallGEO satellite, Hispasat 36-W-1, launched in January. Hispasat-36W-1, previously known as Hispasat-AG1, took seven years to complete; a build-time OHB says it will strive to bring down to three.

SmallGEO is the tip of the spear for OHB as it seeks a foothold in the geostationary telecommunications market. In a Dec. 14 statement, OHB praised the Heinrich Hertz program as “a further step in Germany’s return to full system capabilities in telecommunications satellites in accordance with the German space strategy adopted in 2010.”


NASA Sends New Research to Space Station Aboard SpaceX Resupply Mission

NASA Breaking News - December 15, 2017 - 11:42am
An experiment in space manufacturing and an enhanced study of solar energy are among the research currently heading to the International Space Station following Friday’s launch of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft at 10:36 a.m. EST.

UK hopes new $132 million satellite testing plant will assuage Brexit concerns for space industry

Space News - December 15, 2017 - 11:38am

HARWELL, United Kingdom — A 99 million pound ($132 million) satellite test facility to be built at the U.K.’s Harwell Campus should bring more business to the space hub here and ensure Britain’s satellite manufacturers can carry on without disruption post-Brexit, according to Chris Mutlow, director of RAL Space, the space division of the U.K. state-run Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

The RAL Space-operated National Satellite Test Facility, once it opens three years from now, will be able to test satellites as large as 7 metric tons, and aims to attract commercial clients, Mutlow said. The facility will provide a package of services including vibration and acoustic testing, electromagnetic compatibility and center of gravity testing, pyroshock simulations and an antenna test range.

“Currently, people have to move their equipment to mainland Europe because they couldn’t get all the tests done here,” Mutlow told SpaceNews. “This meant that the U.K. was not an attractive place to be establishing businesses. If a large company wanted to establish here, they would have to build their own factory and their own test facilities, which is a very big capital investment.”

RAL Space currently runs a smaller test facility in Harwell that can accommodate satellites as large as 3.5 metric tons. The facility mostly supports governmental and academia-led projects, said Mutlow. In August, RAL Space installed a second thermal vacuum chamber measuring 5 meters in diameter and 6 meters long. The new facility will have a vacuum chamber 8 meters in diameter and 12 meters long, according to Sean Stewart, RAL Space program manager. RAL also operates several smaller thermal vacuum chambers at its Harwell facilities.

The new facility, to be opened in late 2020 according to the current plan, will compete with the other three large-scale satellite test facilities in Europe: ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands; the Intespace Test Center in Toulouse, owned jointly by Airbus and Thales Alenia Space; and the IABG test center in Munich, Germany.

According to Mutlow, the workload experienced in Europe’s existing facilities is already high and new capacity is needed to accommodate the expected growth of the sector. A U.K. Space Agency space facilities review led the government to identify the need for more domestic test facilities, and in particular, a “one stop shop” for assembly, integration and testing helping manufacturers to avoid the expense and risk of having to move a spacecraft around during this process.

With the pending 2019 withdrawal of the U.K. from the European Union, U.K.-based satellite manufacturers might face further complications when moving their spacecraft abroad. Although the negotiations between the U.K. and the EU produced first results last week when the two parties agreed on several points — including ensuring some rights of EU citizens living the U.K. and U.K. citizens in the EU — it is still unclear what the trade arrangements will be once the U.K. departs from the European bloc.

“We have no idea what the regulatory environment will be for moving a governmental satellite in and out of Europe,” said Mutlow. “That’s not to say that we won’t be able to, but nobody knows what’s going on for the moment.”

The funding for the facility, announced in July, comes from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which aims to boost tech industries that promise future growth and improve cooperation between businesses and academia. The U.K. has an ambitious plan to control 10 percent of the global space economy by 2030. In 2015, the U.K. space sector made up about 6.5 percent of the global space business, according to the U.K. Space Agency’s Size and Health Report of the U.K. Space Industry, published in December 2016.

According to Stewart, construction of the new facility is expected to commence in October 2018 with operations set to begin in late 2020.

“We want to attract clients from anywhere in the world,” said Stewart. “We don’t have a launch capability yet, but the government is already working on this so at some stage in the near future, hopefully, we would be able to test and integrate satellites and hopefully launch them from somewhere in the U.K..”

In February this year, the U.K. Space Agency invited consortia of prospective spaceport operators and launch vehicle providers to bid for funding to help them commence satellite launch services in the U.K. by 2020. According to Ross James, deputy CEO and director of commercial space at the U.K. Space Agency, the agency is currently finalizing the evaluation of the bidders and will announce successful candidates early next year.


SpaceX launches Dragon on reused Falcon 9

Space News - December 15, 2017 - 11:37am

Updated at 1 p.m. Eastern with comments from the post-launch press conference.

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station Dec. 15 on the first use of a previously-flown first stage for a NASA mission.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:36 a.m. Eastern. It placed the Dragon spacecraft, flying on a mission designated SpX-13, into orbit 10 minutes after liftoff. The Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station early Dec. 17.

The launch was the first Dragon mission to use a previously-flown first stage, in this case one that first flew on a previous Dragon launch in June. As with that earlier launch, the first stage made a successful landing at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral.

The launch was the fourth SpaceX mission to use a previously-flown first stage. The previous three flights were all for commercial customers, two launches for satellite operator SES and one for BulgariaSat. Iridium will also fly a reused booster on its next Falcon 9 launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites, scheduled for Dec. 22.

At a pre-launch press conference Dec. 11, Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager at NASA, said the agency concluded after months of reviews with SpaceX that the risk of using a previously-flown booster was similar to using a new one.

“We’re very comfortable that the risk posture on this vehicle is not significantly greater than a new booster,” he said at the pre-launch briefing. “The net result is about equivalent risk.”

The Falcon 9 first stage lands at Cape Canaveral after launch. Credit: Craig Vander Galien

At a post-launch press conference at the Kennedy Space Center, Ven Feng, manager of NASA’s transportation integration office for the ISS program, said that use of previously-flown first stages on future Dragon missions would be done on a case-by-case basis. “We’re considering that for the future as well, but no decisions have been made yet,” he said.

The Dragon, which itself is a reused spacecraft that first flew on a 2015 mission, is carrying 2,205 kilograms of cargo to the station, including supplies for the station’s crew and experiments. The payloads range from an experiment by the company Made In Space to test the production of high-quality optical fibers in weightlessness to a NASA sensor that will be mounted on the station’s exterior to measure minute variations in solar irradiance.

The launch marked the return to service of SLC-40, which suffered extensive damage in a September 2016 pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its satellite payload during preparations for a static fire test. SpaceX spent about $50 million to rebuild and improve the pad.

“We really looked at this as an opportunity to not only rebuild the pad, but to make it better,” said John Muratore, director of SLC-40 at SpaceX, in a call with reporters Dec. 8. Those improvements, he said, will allow for faster turnarounds between flights, key as SpaceX seeks to further increase its launch activity in 2018 and beyond.

Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said at the post-launch briefing that Muratore confirmed to her that the pad “looked great” after the launch. “All the additional work they put into this pad kept it strong, which means we’ll be able to have much faster turnarounds in the future,” she said.

The launch was the 17th for SpaceX in 2017, far and away the most it has done in a single year. The Dec. 22 Iridium launch is the company’s last scheduled mission for the year.


Thales Alenia working with three companies on Deep Space Gateway concepts

Space News - December 15, 2017 - 6:33am

WASHINGTON — Thales Alenia Space is partnering with three U.S. companies that are working on NASA studies of concepts for the proposed Deep Space Gateway, leveraging its expertise in space station and cargo module development.

Thales announced Dec. 14 that Boeing was the latest company it was working with as part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) 2 effort. Thales has previously also been working with Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK. Thales did not disclose the value of the individual contracts with the three companies.

For all three companies, Thales is providing expertise in areas such as structures, environmental controls and thermal controls, said Walter Cugno, vice president of Thales Alenia Space’s exploration and sciences domain, in a call with reporters. The company’s contributions are currently limited to studies, he said, and does not include hardware at this time.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK are three of the six companies that received NextSTEP-2 awards from NASA in 2016. The other awardees are Bigelow Aerospace, NanoRacks and Sierra Nevada Corporation. The awards are structured as public private partnerships, with companies contributing their own funds in addition to NASA funding, which has a combined value of $65 million.

Most of the companies with NextSTEP-2 awards are working on concepts for habitation modules that could be used on missions beyond Earth orbit, such as the agency’s proposed Deep Space Gateway in cislunar space. The awards cover technology development as well as construction of groundbased prototypes.

The NanoRacks award, part of a consortium that includes Space Systems Loral and United Launch Alliance, was focused on a short-term study examining the feasibility of converting an Atlas 5 upper stage into a habitation module that could be attached to the International Space Station or commercial station. The company said that study, recently completed, confirmed that approach was viable.

Thales Alenia Space is taking different approaches with the three NextSTEP-2 companies it is working with. The work with Orbital ATK, Cugno said, is focused on adapting the Cygnus spacecraft for deep space applications. Thales Alenia provides the pressurized cargo module for Cygnus cargo missions to the space station.

The work with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, he said, is based on those companies’ own, separate concepts for habitation modules. “We use our knowledge on thermal, mechanical and environmental designs and system architecture, but implementing that in slightly different applications,” he said.

That work, he added, is informed by the experience Thales has from developing modules for the ISS. “We try to fit that into a very different environment,” he said. The work is expected to take place through 2018 and into 2019.


Ominous signs for defense, aerospace industries as Congress scrambles to fund government

Space News - December 14, 2017 - 5:48pm

WASHINGTON — A protracted battle over federal spending priorities shows no sign of resolution.

Unstable budget cycles have become the norm in a deeply divided Washington, although so far the impact on the economy has not been noticeable. The unpredictability of funding, however, is taking a toll on industries that heavily depend on government work.

The leader of the influential trade association that represents the U.S. aerospace and defense industry said these sectors are showing cracks and weakness after years of fiscal volatility.

During the recent defense drawdown the number of vendors doing business with the Department of Defense declined by 17,000 or almost 20 percent, said David Melcher, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.

“Clearly, the decade-long defense drawdown has resulted in lost suppliers, changes in competition and market structure, and further industrial base turmoil,” Melcher said Thursday at the association’s annual media lunch event.

With the stocks of top defense contractors trading at all-time highs, it may be hard to square this with the idea that the industry is fraying, but Melcher insisted the situation is dire.

He cited new data from the Center of Strategic and International Studies. At the start of the defense drawdown in 2011 and 2012, average annual Defense Department contract obligations dropped by 5 percent compared to 2009 and 2010. When the Budget Control Act went into effect in fiscal year 2013, Pentagon contract obligation plummeted by 15 percent from 2012. And average annual defense contracts fell 23 percent between 2013 and 2015.

President Trump in July issued an executive order to begin a study of the impact of funding cuts on the defense industry. “We hope the assessment, and its ensuing policy recommendations will provide a strong roadmap for strengthening industrial base health,” said Melcher.

Until budgets recover, the industry could continue to shrink. “I suspect there will be more consolidation,” Melcher told reporters. “Less, if defense budgets rise, and more if defense budgets remain stagnant,” he added. “Bad things begin to happen when supply chains weaken. We have to watch that.” And Melcher predicts more defense companies will merge with commercial businesses. “It’s an inexorable march toward more integration of classic defense companies and commercial.”

Despite the president’s campaign promise to dramatically increase military spending, the budget is poised to stay flat. “I’m very concerned about how our nation has come to accept several anchors that are dragging our industry down,” Melcher said. “This industry’s capacity to rapidly respond to urgent national needs is imperiled by many factors. These include unnecessary and costly burdens and the cumulative impacts of years of budget austerity.”

Trump this week signed a 2018 defense authorization bill that calls for a $700 billion military budget. But the 2011 budget law caps 2018 defense spending at $549 billion.

Republicans are willing to increase defense but not other government agencies, making it tough if not impossible to reach a compromise with Democrats. And now comes the prospect of a big tax cut that could deepen the federal deficit and further starve the government of resources.

Melcher said AIA supports the GOP tax reforms but recognized that, in order to fix defense, all the “legs of the stool” need to be taken into account.

“We are not going to solve the deficit issue, nor will AIA,” he said. “But we believe we have gone for too long on an austerity program relative to the defense budget.”

Deficits are a “legitimate concern,” he said. “But I do believe that there is a way to think through this problem, if the government has the moral courage to address how the whole of government is funded, and where the revenues come from. And there has to be a better way than how we’re doing it now, which tends to be band-aids patched here and there.”

Agencies like the State Department, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration perform important national security functions as well, he noted. “The government needs to be funded in a reliable way in more than just the Department of Defense.”

Melcher complimented the administration’s space policy. “By directing that NASA once again return to the Moon, as part of its long-term space exploration program, the president has given the space agency the clear focus it needs.”

This project will require bigger budgets for NASA, however. “And we hope this initiative is adequately resourced.”

Melcher said he is encouraged by “strong policies across the board for civil, commercial and national security space activities to help ensure continued U.S preeminence in space.”

But he criticized the administration and Congress for not supporting the Export-Import Bank, which “drags our industry down.”

American civil aviation and space systems manufacturers face fierce international competition, Melcher said. “It is hard to believe that the U.S. still doesn’t have a fully functioning Export-Import Bank.” Today, it lacks a full complement of directors and can’t approve export deals over $10 million.

In the five years from 2011 to 2015 when Ex-Im was fully operating, it supported on average $9.5 billion in export sales a year. Now that figure is down to $57 million. “Think of all the jobs that are being lost at exporting aerospace companies because of the new status quo.”

This hurts the commercial space sector badly, said Melcher. “A company that produces space payloads needs outlets to the international market when the domestic demand is not enough to keep your scientists, engineers and production lines,” he said. “It’s a killer for commercial space enterprises that would sell with the backing of the Ex-Im bank and now can’t do that.”

For now, Congress is focused on passing tax cuts and averting a government shutdown when temporary funding runs out Dec. 22. The House Appropriations Committee introduced a continuing resolution Wednesday that lifts spending caps for defense but kicks the rest of the non-defense budgets to mid-January. This proposal “will die or be significantly altered in the Senate,” predicts industry analyst Byron Callan, of Capital Alpha Partners.

Lawmakers have until midnight Dec. 22 to reach agreement on how to fund the entire government to avoid a shutdown.


ESA tasks Airbus with streamlining  Copernicus data access

Space News - December 14, 2017 - 4:42pm

LONDON — Airbus has signed a contract with the European Space Agency to develop a Copernicus Data and Information Access Services, or DIAS, platform that will make data from the Earth-monitoring constellation more accessible to users from about mid-2018.

According to Airbus spokesman Jeremy Close, the contract is worth more the 10 million euros.

Airbus will be one of four DIAS providers, with each provider developing a separate platform using different software but the same data, according to Close.

Airbus cooperates on the development with its subcontractors including network operator Orange, professional services and business consulting corporation Capgemini, CLS and Vito.

The contract covers a four-year period with early operations expected to start in mid-2018.

The European Commission, which is responsible for Copernicus, tasked ESA with overseeing the development of DIAS in May this year to avoid the need to store and manage the data using its own computer systems.

Six Sentinel satellites that make up the Copernicus Earth observation constellation are already in orbit with further missions planned. According to an Airbus press release, the constellation generates as much data in one year as ESA’s previous Earth observation mission Envisat, which ended in 2012, would produce in half a century.

The goal of the DIAS platforms will be to provide a “one-stop shop on the cloud” for easy access to all Sentinel, as well as third party, data and processing tools and resources. The European Commission hopes the platform will encourage scientists, the general public and especially entrepreneurs to use the data to develop Earth observation data-based products and services.

“DIAS will simplify the data access for European citizens and will boost the creation of new business models based on Earth Observation,” said Mathilde Royer-Germain, head of Earth observation, navigation and science at Airbus.

Royer-Germain signed the contract today in Brussels together with Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director for Earth observation.


Congress rejects graduate student tax

Planetary Resources - December 14, 2017 - 4:22pm
The Planetary Society was proud to join dozens of other scientific organizations in standing against this unnecessary and detrimental tax increase on the future scientific workforce of the United States.

NASA has discovered our solar system’s twin with 8 planets

New Scientist:Space - December 14, 2017 - 2:07pm
The Kepler telescope has revealed a new planet in a system like ours. It shares a star with 7 other planets, tying our record for most worlds in a solar system

Artificial Intelligence, NASA Data Used to Discover Eighth Planet Circling Distant Star

NASA Breaking News - December 14, 2017 - 1:00pm
Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

SpaceIL making final fundraising push for lunar lander mission

Space News - December 14, 2017 - 11:57am

WASHINGTON — SpaceIL, the Israeli team in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, says it needs to raise $7.5 million in less than a week in order to complete its lander and retain its launch contract.

The nonprofit organization says it has identified $22.5 million of the $30 million of total funding it needs to raise to complete and launch its lunar lander in the form of matching funds, but those funds are contingent on raising $7.5 million by Dec. 20, the end of the Hanukkah holiday.

“We’ve made good progress, but we have some miles to go,” said Eran Privman, chief executive of SpaceIL, of the ongoing fundraising in a Dec. 14 interview. “We need $7.5 million. It’s really critical.”

Privman said SpaceIL is working on lining up a small number of large donors to raise that $7.5 million, versus crowdfunding many smaller donations. “We’ve done crowd fundraising in the past, and you can get a hundred thousand dollars to maybe half a million dollars, but no more, and we need much higher amounts,” he said.

SpaceIL is looking to find “major donors” as well as support from the Israeli government. The rules of the competition allow government funding of up to 10 percent of the overall cost of the mission. SpaceIL estimates its mission will cost $85 million, and this fundraising effort will be the last required.

Privman said it might be possible to extend the fundraising deadline slightly, but likely not beyond the end of the year. “There is always room for negotiation,” he said. “We don’t see an option to go beyond the end of the year.”

Work on the spacecraft is at a “very advanced stage,” he said. The remaining components of the spacecraft will be assembled by January, to be followed by testing.

SpaceIL has a contract with Spaceflight Industries to launch the lander as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 mission whose primary payload is a commercial communications satellite. That satellite, which he declined to identify, will be deployed in a supersynchronous transfer orbit, whose apogee is above the altitude of geostationary orbit. The lander will then use its propulsion system to fly to the moon and land there.

With spacecraft testing currently planned to take “some months,” Privman acknowledged that it will be difficult to meet the Google Lunar X Prize deadline of completing its mission — which involves not just landing on the moon but also traveling at least 500 meters across its surface and returning video and other data — by the end of March 2018.

“It is extremely challenging to make the end of March,” he said. “We could take the spacecraft we just finished assembling, put it on the launcher, and launch by the end of March, but it wouldn’t be professional.” He said a better launch date, allowing time for spacecraft testing, would be the middle of 2018.

Given that none of the other teams that are finalists in the competition appear likely to be ready by the current deadline, Privman said he hoped the X Prize Foundation and the prize sponsor, Google, will agree to a short-term extension.

“An extension of something like three to six months would be very helpful,” he said. “We hope the management of the competition will be reasonable enough to understand that there are teams who are already close to launch.”

If the deadline is not extended, Privman said SpaceIL will probably continue the mission at its own pace rather than try to rush its development. SpaceIL is seeking to create an “Apollo effect” for science and technology education in Israel through the inspirational value of being just the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon. That makes winning the $20 million grand prize somewhat secondary to successfully completing the mission.

“At the end of the day, our main target is not only the competition, but putting a spacecraft on the moon,” he said. “If we feel we are not mature enough to meet the deadline, we would be in favor of doing a proper mission rather than stick to the date of the competition.”


Planet X: We are closing in on the solar system’s new occupant

New Scientist:Space - December 14, 2017 - 7:00am
Evidence for a new body perhaps the size of Neptune way out in the shadows is building – but if there is a ninth planet, it’s unlike any we have seen

Dawn to fly closer to Ceres than ever in mission’s final phase

Space News - December 14, 2017 - 6:00am

NEW ORLEANS — NASA’s Dawn mission to the main asteroid belt, granted a second extended mission earlier this year, will end later next year after a final set of close-up observations of the dwarf planet Ceres.

NASA approved a second extended mission for Dawn Oct. 19, electing to keep the spacecraft in orbit around Ceres versus proposals to send the spacecraft out of orbit to flyby another asteroid. Dawn, in this new extended mission, will shift into an elliptical orbit in 2018 to provide much closer views of the surface than possible earlier in the mission.

“We’re going to be using an elliptical orbit to dive closer to the surface than we have before, down to 30 kilometers altitude,” said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator for Dawn during an Dec. 12 briefing about the mission at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union here. That altitude is significantly lower than what NASA stated when the agency announced the new extended mission.

Those close approaches will provide higher resolution and more accurate measurements of the chemistry of Ceres’ surface, as well as “unprecedented” high-resolution images of selected features. “We’re aiming to test our ideas about the origin and evolution of Ceres,” she said.

That orbit, while stable, will limit the lifetime of the spacecraft. With the failure of three of its four reaction wheels, the spacecraft must use thrusters to maintain attitude control, consuming its limited supplies of hydrazine. That usage increases the closer Dawn is to Ceres.

One the spacecraft uses up that hydrazine, its mission will end since it will no longer be able to maintain attitude control. Exactly how long that will take is not yet known, she said, because of uncertainties in just how much usable hydrazine remains on the spacecraft and how to use it.

“We’re still working through finalizing the plan,” she said. Right now, she said the current approach called for moving into the low elliptical orbit in the spring of 2018. “We would be able to operate there on the order of three or four months.”

Raymond and others involved in the mission hope that the data collected in final extended mission will help them better understand a phenomenon known as “cryovolcanism,” with ice from beneath the planet’s surface erupting, leaving behind bright patches of sodium carbonate.

At the briefing, scientists said that they had detected more than 300 bright spots, associated with cryovolcanism relatively recently in the dwarf planet’s history. That surprised scientists, who originally thought that Ceres and other large bodies in the asteroid belt, like the asteroid Vesta that Dawn visited earlier in its mission, were relatively unchanged since early in the solar system’s history.

“Before Dawn launched, we viewed Vesta and Ceres as time capsules or fossils, frozen in time from the beginning of the solar system,” Raymond said. “What we did not expect was to see these abundant bright deposits splayed across the surface.”

“Ceres isn’t a dead body,” said Caltech scientist Nathan Stein at the briefing. “The surface is still dynamic.”


NASA Astronaut Bresnik and Crewmates Return to Earth From Space Station

NASA Breaking News - December 14, 2017 - 4:45am
Three crew members who have been living and working aboard the International Space Station returned to Earth on Thursday, landing in Kazakhstan after opening a new chapter in the scientific capability of humanity’s premier microgravity laboratory.

Lockheed selects NEC artificial intelligence software to study space data

Space News - December 13, 2017 - 8:59pm

WASHINGTON — The United States’ largest military contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. announced Wednesday it will start using artificial intelligence software from NEC to analyze data collected by sensors in space.

Intelligent machines are taking the technology world by storm, and have started to move to outer space. One of the most advantageous uses of smart software is to analyze data, and increasingly governments and industries see AI as the answer to the big-data deluge, much of it coming from space.

“AI can revolutionize how we use information from space, both in orbit and on deep space missions, including crewed missions to Mars and beyond,” said Carl Marchetto, vice president of new ventures at Lockheed Martin Space, based in Denver, Colorado. NEC Corporation is a global information technology firm headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.

“Lockheed Martin and NEC are experts in space and systems, and that’s the right blend to explore how AI can improve space products for astronauts and people on the ground,” Marchetto said.

The NEC software is called “system invariant analysis technology.” Its engine takes data collected from sensors to learn the behavior of systems — computer networks, power plants, factories and buildings, for example. The systems are taught to automatically detect inconsistencies and recommend fixes.

Space scientists and researchers see artificial intelligence as a key that could unlock the unlimited potential of the universe. NASA is using Google artificial intelligence and machine-learning software to analyze data from its Kepler planet-hunter space telescope. Scientists are hopeful that this technology will help to identify life-supporting planets outside the solar system.

Lockheed envisions many uses for artificial intelligence in space, such as being able to quickly detect shifts in satellite performance and changes in the environment, and for predicting the potential influence of space weather on electronics.

Tomoyasu Nishimura, senior vice president of NEC Corporation, said in a news release that AI software will help increase “safety, security and operational efficiency” in space and other industries.

The agreement with Lockheed furthers NEC’s efforts to increase its presence in the United States and have its technology integrated in U.S. government projects. NEC recently announced the expansion of its offices in Washington, D.C. It is now a prime contractor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s biometric exit pilot program that uses the company’s facial recognition rapid matching technology.

Masahiro (Mark) Ikeno, president and CEO of NEC Corporation of America, said the company was pleased to “contribute to the reliability, safety and security of Lockheed Martin’s developments in the space field.”

U.S. defense companies like Lockheed are turning to commercial vendors for artificial intelligence products as private investments continue to pour into the sector.

The nation’s large tech companies last year spent $40 billion on AI research and development, and another $10 billion came from venture capitalists and small startups, said Raj Shah, director of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. DIUX is the Pentagon’s outreach office in Silicon Valley that scouts the market for technologies that the military needs, AI being one of them.

By comparison, the U.S. Defense Department spent less than $100 million last year on artificial intelligence research.

Defense contractors and the Pentagon stand to gain huge advantages from AI technology, according to a recent report by the big data analytics firm Govini. “AI has proven in several situations to match and even outperform the very best human cognition,” said the report.

A key subset of AI known as “computer vision” is being applied in many missions that are critical to the military such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Govini noted that Leidos uses AI software in the Army Geospatial Center’s high-resolution 3-D geospatial information program, and Raytheon applies computer vision technology in multi-spectral targeting systems used by the U.S. military.

To extract the maximum benefit from AI, the report said, the government should step up investments in big data and cloud computing. Big data is central to “teaching” learning machines. And the flow of data is accelerating fasts. According to Govini, the world is expected to produce 44 zettabytes by 2020 A (a zettabyte is one sextillion bytes) and 163 zettabytes of data by 2025. Just 4.4 zettabytes were produced in 2013. Video and images makes up a large portion of the digital data.


NASA Television Updates Broadcast Schedule for Cargo Resupply Mission

NASA Breaking News - December 13, 2017 - 4:01pm
NASA commercial cargo provider SpaceX now is targeting no earlier than 10:36 a.m. EST Friday, Dec. 15, for its 13th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station.

Senate committee advances NOAA administrator nomination on party-line vote

Space News - December 13, 2017 - 1:53pm

NEW ORLEANS — The Senate Commerce Committee advanced the nomination of Barry Myers to be the next administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the full Senate despite concerns by the committee’s Democrats about potential conflicts of interest.

The committee voted 14–13 to favorably report the nomination of Myers to lead NOAA during a brief markup session Dec. 13. The vote fell on party lines, with all the committee’s Republicans voting for Myers and all its Democratic members voting against him.

In his opening statement, the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) raised questions about conflicts of interest Myers has from being chief executive of AccuWeather, a family-owned weather forecasting company, that Nelson argued were not resolved at Myers’ Nov. 29 confirmation hearing.

“While he is clearly knowledgeable about our national weather program, I remain concerned about conflicts of interest due to his family connections with AccuWeather,” Nelson said. “We need a NOAA administrator who will safeguard the critical missions of this important agency without any conflicts of interest.”

“I am not convinced that Mr. Myers is that man, and I will be voting against his nomination, but with the hope that Mr. Myers will prove me wrong if he is confirmed,” Nelson said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who chaired that confirmation hearing, argued that Myers had resolved any conflict-of-interest issues. “Mr. Myers directly addressed it in his opening statement,” he said, adding that Myers also discussed conflicts of interest in later questions. “He was unequivocal on this issue.”

Nelson acknowledged that Myers’ nomination would advance to the full Senate, where he will likely to be eventually confirmed. “If Mr. Myers is confirmed — and I can count votes — this senator will do everything in the world, as will all of these senators,” he said, pointing to the other Democrats on the committee, “to make him successful.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the committee, urged the full Senate to confirm Myers quickly. “I’m hopeful that his nomination can be considered as soon as possible,” he said in his opening remarks.

Thune, in those remarks, subtly criticized the full Senate for not acting on other nominees his committee has approved. Those include NASA administrator nominee Jim Bridenstine, whose nomination was approved by the committee more than a month ago but remains in limbo.

“I had hoped the full Senate would have been able to confirm a few more of these well-qualified individuals by now,” Thune said.


Brief note from #AGU17: Juno observes volcanism on Io

Planetary Resources - December 13, 2017 - 12:07pm
At the American Geophysical Union meeting, members of the Juno team showed observations of active volcanism on Jupiter's moon Io.

Mars overdue a planet-wide dust storm that could harm the rovers

New Scientist:Space - December 13, 2017 - 10:40am
Mars could have a mega dust storm in 2018. Now we know how the Red Planet's massive storms can cascade into a catastrophe for rovers or future settlers


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