Bridenstine still “in the mix” to be the next NASA administrator

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), after testifying before the House Armed Services Committee during posture hearings at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C., Feb. 26, 2014. U.S. DoD/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton

Rep. Jim Bridenstine says he’s still “in the mix” to be the next NASA administrator.

The Oklahoma Republican told a Tulsa TV station that he was recently interviewed again by the White House for the job, but doesn’t know when the administration will make a decision on the position.

“I don’t know what the end result is, but I keep interviewing, which is an indicator that maybe I’m still in the mix for it,” he said. [KOTV Tulsa]

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An Atlas 5 is set to roll out to the pad today for a Tuesday launch of a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Managers gave their approval Sunday to proceed with preparations for the launch of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft Tuesday at 11:11 a.m. Eastern on a mission designated OA-7. The Orbital ATK cargo spacecraft, is carrying more than 3,400 kilograms of supplies, experiments and other hardware for the ISS. [Florida Today]

President Trump has nominated two former congressman to fill vacancies on the board of the Ex-Im Bank. The White House announced late Friday that the president nominated former Reps. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) and Spencer T. Bachus III (R-Ala.) to fill two of the three vacancies on the board, with Garrett serving as president. Garrett, while in Congress, was a staunch opponent of the bank, dubbing its lending practices “crony capitalism,” while Bachus was a supporter of the bank. Ex-Im currently lacks a quorum on its five-member board, which prevents it from approving large deals, such as financing for commercial satellites and launches. [SpaceNews]

A letter signed by 20 members of Congress asks the Pentagon not to change its current plans to support development of new launch systems. The letter, sent to Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week, called on him to maintain the current program that is supporting development of complete launch systems, rather than focus on components such as engines. The bipartisan letter’s signatories include Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. The letter comes after some leading members of the committee suggested that the Air Force should have a say in what engine United Launch Alliance chooses for its Vulcan vehicle, views that they have since backed away from. [SpaceNews]

A leading Air Force official says the service needs more people working in space intelligence roles. At a breakfast Friday, Lt. Gen. David Buck, commander of the 14th Air Force and leader of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space under U.S. Strategic Command, says space units in the Air Force have far fewer intelligence specialists than those under the Air Combat Command. Buck said discussions are already underway within the Air Force about getting more intelligence personnel into space units. [SpaceNews]

The general in command of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station says he’s been asked to stay on the job an extra year. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith was expected to complete a two-year tour of duty this summer as commander of the 45th Space Wing. However, he said he’s been asked by Gen. Jay Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command, to remain as commander for an additional year. Monteith said he will use the additional time to continue initiatives to streamline operations, including the ability to support two launches within one day. [Florida Today]

Raytheon says its ground control system for GPS is back on track after serious cost and schedule problems. A company executive in charge of the OCX program said the program has hit every milestone since implementing a series of “corrective actions” after those problems, which attracted attention, and criticism, from both Air Force leadership and members of Congress. The Defense Department declared a Nunn-McCurdy breach for OCX last June, putting it at risk of cancellation, but approved plans in October to correct its problems. [SpaceNews]

United Launch Alliance is planning to lay off 48 workers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, report released by a state agency last week said the layoffs would take effect June 1. The layoffs are part of a broader effort by ULA to reduce jobs, primarily through voluntary departures. [Lompoc (Calif.) Record]

Britain’s role in several major space projects will be part of the negotiations about the country’s departure from the European Union. Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the senior space official for the European Commission, said earlier this month that the commission will seek to keep the majority of the work on the Galileo and Copernicus satellite programs within member nations, which could affect British companies currently involved in those programs. The U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U., known as Brexit, does not affect its work on European Space Agency programs, as Britain remains a member of ESA. [Spaceflight Now]

Trump nominates two former congressmen to Ex-Im Bank board

U.S. Export-Import Bank. Credit: House Minority Whip

WASHINGTON — The White House announced April 14 that President Donald Trump had nominated to the board of the Export-Import Bank two former members of Congress, one of them a staunch critic of the bank’s lending practices.

The nominees, if confirmed by the Senate, would restore a quorum to the board and allow it to resume approving deals valued at more than $10 million, including those for commercial satellites and launches.

In a statement issued late April 14, the White House announced that President Trump was nominating Scott Garrett, a former Republican congressman from New Jersey, to be president of the bank for a four-year term lasting until January 2021. He also nominated Spencer T. Bachus III, a former Republican congressman from Alabama, to fill another vacancy on the board until January 2019.

Garrett, who served six terms in the House of Representatives before losing reelection in 2016, was known as a critic of the bank while in Congress, dubbing its practices “crony capitalism.” “The proposal before us is the resurrection of a bank that embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system,” he said in a speech on the House floor in October 2015, opposing a bill to reauthorize the bank after its authorization lapsed that July.

Bachus, by contrast, was a supporter of Ex-Im during his 11 terms in the House, including two years as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, where he shepherded the passage of an earlier reauthorization bill in 2012. He retired from the House after the 2014 elections.

While the Ex-Im Bank was reauthorized in late 2015, a lack of a quorum on the board prevents the bank from approving deals valued at more than $10 million. Currently three of the board’s five seats are vacant. It’s not known when, or if, the president plans to nominate an individual to fill the third vacancy.

The nominations reflect a change in positions by the president regarding the Ex-Im Bank. During the campaign, Trump suggested the bank was no longer necessary. In February, President Trump made no mention of bank during a speech at a Boeing aircraft factory in South Carolina, despite suggestions he would discuss the bank’s future there. A day later, the New York Times reported that the bank was one of nine agencies being considered for closure by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

However, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal April 12, Trump said he now supported the bank and would seek to fill vacancies on the board. He noted that the bank helped small businesses as well as large ones, and that companies in other countries are aided by similar export credit agencies.

The Aerospace Industries Association, which has supported Ex-Im for its role in financing both aircraft and space deals, welcomed the nominations. It said in an April 15 statement that, because of the lapsed authorization and the lack of a quorum needed for larger deals, financing for satellite and launch deals dropped from nearly $1 billion in 2014 to $4 million in 2015.

“Ex-Im Bank support is critical for U.S. exporters in the aerospace and defense industry – both large companies and their small and medium suppliers,” the organization said in its statement. “With a level playing field, we can compete and win based on the quality of our products and services rather than financing.”

Commercial satellite manufacturers also reiterated their support for the bank in recent weeks. “It’s still critically needed,” Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, said of Ex-Im at the Satellite 2017 conference in March. “We’ve lost several competitions and haven’t been a part of competitions because of the inability of customers to get Ex-Im. Customers that we have signed up recently have said we’ve found a way, but we still need Ex-Im.”

The nominations announced April 14 require Senate confirmation. The vacancies on the current board exist in part because the Senate failed to take up nominations made by the Obama administration in its last two years in office.

Crew replace pane on ISS Cupola window

The crew on the International Space Station (ISS) have successfully replaced a window pane on the Cupola module. The operation was conducted without any risk to the crew, thanks to the innovative design on the module’s windows, which involves four panes allowing for internal replacement while risking no pressure loss for the Station.

Window Replacement:

After arriving at the ISS with Node 3, during Endeavour’s STS-130 mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) built Cupola has provided Station crews with a stunning view of the planet, often shared with the public via downlinked photography and thanks to the increasing use of social media by the astronauts.

The module also hosts a Robotic Work Station (RWS), allowing crewmembers to actually see Visiting Vehicles (VVs) – such as SpaceX’s Dragon and Japan’s HTV – arrive for berthing, complimenting the camera views of their displays, allowing for increased situational awareness when operating the Station’s robotic assets.

The Cupola’s seven windows were exposed to space for the first time during STS-130’s EVA-3, following the removal of the module’s MLI blanket insulation by spacewalkers Bob Behnken and Nick Patrick.

After the spacewalkers removed the launch locks on the windows, the ISS crew cycled the window shields/shutters one at a time, providing them with the first view of the Earth from their new observation deck.

All of the windows weren’t open at the same time, with the task simply used to check the shutters opened without a problem. A few hours later, all of the windows were opened together, an event that is now commonplace on the ISS.

Although the windows on the Cupola have suffered from their fair share of impacts from MicroMeteoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD) strikes, none of the small impacts have caused any serious damage to the module.

2014-09-05 12_56_15-L2 Level ISS On-Orbit Status Report Notes (August 2014)The windows are made up of four panes – an inner scratch pane to protect the pressure pane from accidental damage, two pressure panes 25mm thick to maintain cabin pressure, and finally an outer debris pane.

In the event of the damage being more serious, on-orbit replacement of an entire window is a design feature.

Such a replacement would require an EVA to fit an external pressure cover to allow for the changeout, with a pressure cover requiring a flight up to the ISS on one of the cargo resupply vehicles.

Several scratch panes are stored on the ISS in the event one requires replacement, which was request by the crew that resulted in the pane being replaced.

“Cupola Window 7 Scratch Pane Replacement: The crew replaced the scratch pane on Cupola window 7, the nadir facing window,” noted L2 ISS Status Information.

“The crew has been requesting scratch pane replacements as many window scratch panes have shown accumulated damage of the years.”

Window 7 is the large round window that astronauts tend to use when taking photography of the planet below.

The brand new scratch pane will likely improve – if that’s even possible – the quality of the photographs from the orbital outpost.

Onboard, the crew is preparing for a busy period of Visiting Vehicle activity, with the OA-7 Cygnus set for launch on April 18 on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral. The crew will be using the RWS in the Cupola for berthing operations with the cargo craft.

Two days later, the next Soyuz mission will launch on a fast track rendezvous to the Station. Soyuz MS-04 is set to launch NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikhin from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is one less passenger than usual.

The pick up the imbalance in the crew rotation quota, Peggy Whitson recently agreed to extend her tour on the Station by three months.

(Images: NASA, ESA and L2).

(To join L2, click here:

Buck calls for more space intelligence positions

Lt. Gen. David Buck, commander, 14th Air Force and Joint Functional Component Command for Space, answers questions from reporters in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 6, 2017 at the 33rd Space Symposium. Credit: Dave Grim/U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON – The Air Force needs more people for space intelligence, at the very least similar to levels it has in other domains, Lt. Gen. David Buck said.

“Our space intel capability has atrophied, so we need to hit the gym and develop some muscle mass,” Buck said at a breakfast Friday hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Buck has two positions: commander of the 14th Air Force under Air Force Space Command and leader of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space under U.S. Strategic Command. That puts Buck in position of not only organizing, training, and equipping space forces, but also being a main point-person for the space part of any military operations.

However, Buck said that to do his job well, he needs more people focused on analyzing and developing intelligence about what’s going on in orbit.

“To put it in context, Air Combat Command [responsible for carrying out airstrikes against ISIS and other targets] has roughly 5,000 intelligence professionals focused on the air campaign. Yet Air Force Space Command only has about 550 intelligence professionals focused on space,” Buck said.

“A typical flying wing has over 30 intel specialists with at least two per squadron,” the general continued. “My wings in 14th Air Force barely have 10, with only a sprinkling at the squadron level.”

Buck said that “getting there will take some time,” as the Air Force first has to find the people, create the right positions for them, and grow their expertise.

The good news, Buck said, is that the conversation is already underway, and Lt. Gen. VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, is currently assessing the best way to get more intel personnel into space career fields.

“To me, intelligence drives operations, and we have to get ahead of adversary actions,” Buck said. “Just like every other domain I need domain awareness: knowledge of who, what, where, when, and why.”

Space is integrated into every military operation, including the recent bombing campaigns in Syria and Afghanistan, Buck said.

Although the general said he could not talk in specifics about the operations, he said that typically the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) will receive requests for space support from combatant commanders.

“Typically we will get those space support requests and say ‘how can we best support this campaign?’” Buck said. “Typically in a campaign like this, notionally, it would involve optimizing the precision, navigation, and timing constellation – GPS – and also making sure that our satellite communications systems are queued and ready to support.”

Buck also said that the military needs to reevaluate the how it organizes space warfighting, and that it needs to get more authority into the hands of the people actually carrying out the mission.

“We’re discovering through test and experimentation that the speed of fight in, through, and from space requires delegation of authorities to enable flexibility on the operational commander’s timing and tempo,” he said. “At times it seems easier to get approval to drop a kinetic weapon on a target than it is to take pictures in space. I’m overstating it some, but you get the point.”

Greater intelligence and organization will aid the military in any future conflicts where fighting spills over into orbit, Buck said.

“We don’t want to talk about war in terms of a land war or a maritime war or an air war, so let’s stop talking about space in terms of a space war,” he said. “In the military, we conduct campaigns. Many of these campaigns are domain centric, but they’re all related to the same objective, and that’s all war. An adversary’s first move in conflict may be in space, cyber, or deep undersea – domains that challenge our abilities to attribute hostile actions.”

House members ask Pentagon to stay the course on launch vehicle development

ULA Vulcan

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of 20 House members has asked the Defense Department not to alter the U.S. Air Force’s plans to fund development of new launch systems.

In the letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, dated April 10, the members said the Air Force should continue efforts to develop “complete, robust launch systems” rather than focus on specific components, such as an engine to replace the Russian-built RD-180. That approach, they argued, is the best way to end reliance on the RD-180 while providing assured access to space at reduced cost.

“Investing in the entire launch system through government and industry cost-share partnerships — rather than a specific component — is the fastest, safest, and most affordable way for the taxpayer to achieve these objectives,” they wrote. “Restricting funding only for a domestic engine will result in higher costs for the taxpayer and risks delays in ending use of the RD-180 engine.”

The Air Force made several Rocket Propulsion System awards in early 2016 to support development of both engines and full-scale vehicles, with the winning companies contributing one third of the cost of each award. In March, the Air Force issued a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the next phase of the program, called the Launch Service Agreement, with the full RFP expected this summer.

Under that program, the Air Force is expected to make up to three awards in early 2018 to fund continued development of those vehicles, including certification test flights. Among the companies expected to compete for those awards are Orbital ATK, which is developing a vehicle through its Next Generation Launch program; SpaceX, which received funding to support work on its Raptor methane engine last year; and United Launch Alliance, for its Vulcan vehicle.

Aerojet Rocketdyne also received a Rocket Propulsion System award from the Air Force last year to support work on the company’s AR1 engine, which the company is billing as a replacement for the RD-180 used on ULA’s Atlas 5. ULA has yet to make a formal decision on the engine that will power the first stage of Vulcan, but has indicated as recently as April 5 that Blue Origin’s BE-4 remains the frontrunner over the AR1.

The members who signed the letter include Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. Twelve Republicans signed the letter, led by Rep. Will Hurd of Texas. Five of the members who signed the letter are from Colorado, where ULA is headquartered, while four are from Washington state, where Blue Origin is based. Three members are from Texas, where both Blue Origin and SpaceX have test facilities.

Absent from the list of members who signed the bill are Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairmen of the full House Armed Services Committee and its Strategic Forces Subcommittee, respectively. In February, the two sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow and James MacStravic, performing the duties of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, calling on the government to have “full access to, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making about any engine down-select for Vulcan (assuming they will be requesting government funding).”

In the letter, they argued that since ULA is accepting government funding to support the development of Vulcan, the government should also have insight into that process, “especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power.” That was a reference to Blue Origin’s BE-4, which will be the largest rocket engine developed to date using methane as a fuel, rather than the kerosene used by the RD-180 and AR1 engines.

Thornberry has since backtracked on the comments in that letter, telling reporters last month it was not his intent to micromanage subcontracting decisions.

Rogers, in a recent SpaceNews interview, said he was not satisfied with the pace of development of an RD-180 replacement, but also praised the capabilities of commercial launch companies. “My subcommittee, our full committee, this Congress, is committed to not stop until we have an American-made engine that can get our national security space assets launched,” he said.

Trump administration’s NASA transition team shows interest in lunar resources

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during the Apollo 17 mission. Credit: NASA

The Trump administration’s NASA transition team showed an interest in lunar resources.

Documents exchanged between NASA and the Trump transition’s agency review team, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act inquiry, showed that the transition team was interested in NASA’s plans to survey the moon for resources, and about its technology transfer and commercialization activities.

The White House declined to comment on any interest the administration has in mining the moon. [Motherboard]

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NASA’s inspector general believes it’s likely there will be additional delays in the first two SLS/Orion missions. In a report released Thursday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded that a number of technical issues, and a lack of schedule reserve, will result in delays for the first SLS/Orion mission, EM-1 in November 2018, as well as EM-2 planned for August 2021. That assessment doesn’t factor in potential additional delays from tornado damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility or the possibility of putting a crew on EM-1, which would push back that mission to at least mid-2019. The report also recommended NASA do more to detail its long-term exploration plans and how they can fit into its projected budgets. [SpaceNews]

Scientists have detected more evidence that two moons in the outer solar system could be habitable. At a NASA press conference Thursday, scientist said they detected hydrogen in plumes emanating from Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn thought to have a subsurface ocean. That hydrogen, scientists said, could provide a chemical energy source for any life there. A separate study found new evidence that Jupiter’s moon Europa also has plumes. Hubble observations detected signs of plumes, which may only be intermittent. [Science]

Those discoveries bolster the case for sending new missions to those “ocean worlds.” NASA is currently developing the Europa Clipper mission for launch as soon as 2022. That spacecraft will be equipped with instruments to better determine the habitability of Europa, including studying the composition of its plumes. There are no missions on the books for Enceladus or other moons of Saturn, but Enceladus is one possible destination for the ongoing competition for the next New Frontiers medium-class planetary science mission. NASA, at the direction of Congress, is developing a roadmap to guide an “Ocean Worlds Exploration Program” to determine if such worlds could host life. [SpaceNews]

An astronaut getting three extra months on the International Space Station is happy to have her mission extended. NASA announced last week that Peggy Whitson will remain on the ISS until September, rather than returning in June as originally planned. She said she’s not bored working on the station, but does lament the limited food choices available on the station. Whitson, who will break the record for most cumulative time spent in space by a NASA astronaut later this month, added she wouldn’t mind going to space again after this mission. [AP]

The Orion spacecraft that made a brief 2014 test flight is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center. The capsule, which flew on the five-hour Exploration Flight Test 1 mission in December 2014, is in the “NASA Now” exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The EFT-1 capsule was expected to fly again on a test of the Orion abort system, but prime contractor Lockheed Martin now plans to use a boilerplate capsule instead. The capsule’s base is surrounded by a curtain to hide its missing heat shield, which was removed for analysis. [collectSPACE]

Legendary Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz praised SpaceX for taking risks. Kranz, speaking on a panel after a screening of the new documentary Mission Control, supported SpaceX’s use of a previously flown booster to successfully launch an SES satellite last month. “Space involves risk, and I think that’s the one thing about Elon Musk and all the various space entrepreneurs: they’re willing to risk their future in order to accomplish the objective that they have decided on,” he said. [Ars Technica]

A federal court has cleared the way for a lawsuit against a NASA agent in involved in a moon rock sting. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Thursday that Joann Davis has the right to sue on the basis that her constitutional rights against unlawful detention had been violated by Norman Conley, a special agent and criminal investigator for NASA’s Office of Inspector General. Conley detained Davis, 75 at the time, in 2011 for two hours as part of a sting operation after she tried to sell an artifact from her late husband that she believed contained an Apollo 11 moon rock. Conley had argued that, as a federal agent, he was immune from liability. The ruling allows Davis’ suit to proceed. [Los Angeles Times]

Raytheon says GPS control system OCX on track to hit revised milestones

Raytheon's work on a new ground control system for GPS 3 satellites has been delayed by several years and faces additional scrutiny from the Pentagon. | Credit: Raytheon

COLORADO SPRINGS – Raytheon’s long-embattled ground control system for GPS is back on track following a government contract breach last year that prompted the U.S. Air Force to work with the company to revise the program’s budget and schedule, the program manager said.

“What we’ve seen through the execution of the program in the 2016 time frame up to now, through the first quarter of 2017, is that the milestones we established at the beginning of 2016, we hit every milestone,” said Bill Sullivan, Raytheon’s OCX vice president and program manager.

The company worked to implement “a series of corrective actions” throughout 2015 and 2016 to get the long-delayed program on a firm timeframe for completion.

“Those corrective actions included a lot of different things like making sure your system engineering is completely defined before you write code, adding automation into your system to facilitate going faster in your coding and your testing,” Sullivan said. “From our perspective, the corrective actions that have been put in place are working.”

Raytheon completed a re-baselining on OCX in March in cooperation with the Air Force, setting up a new timeline for completion. Current delivery for the full system is planned for December 2020.

A subset of OCX, the Launch and Checkout System for GPS satellites, is currently undergoing testing at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. Raytheon expects to complete testing and deliver the system by late September or early October.

The Next Generation Operational Control Segment, better known by the acronym OCX, was envisioned as an advanced ground control system for GPS, eventually replacing control systems for the entire constellation including the newest GPS 3 satellites.

However, long delays and major cost overruns have prompted harsh words from Congress and Air Force leaders who are unhappy the OCX problems are pushing back full deployment of GPS 3 capabilities. In 2015, Gen. John Hyten, then-leader of Air Force Space Command, called OCX “a disaster” and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) listed it as one of America’s most wasteful programs.

On June 30, 2016, the Defense Department declared a Nunn-McCurdy breach for the program, a serious contracting violating that indicates costs have grown more than 25 percent over projections. Nunn-McCurdy breaches expose contracts to possible cancellation.

On Oct. 12, however, Frank Kendall, who at the time was the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, approved plans for Raytheon to continue OCX work, saying that after reviewing the program he was satisfied it was back on track.

Sullivan declined to discuss the current financial state of the contract. A March 2016 Defense Department report estimates that the total OCX effort will cost about $4.2 billion.

Several new efforts have sped development of the program, including the use of cloud-computing for testing non-classified parts of the system. As a result, Raytheon did not need to acquire and maintain large dedicated data servers, Sullivan said.

Raytheon also implemented an increasingly common practice in computer programming known as “development operations,” which focuses on adding more automation into coding and testing, and breaks coding down into units rather than focusing on the need to finish the complete system all at once, Sullivan said.

While some sections of code previously took two weeks to complete, now that time is down to just three hours, he said.

The idea to implement ‘dev ops’ came from Air Force Digital Services, an office the service set up to focus on cyber and digital issues.

Sullivan said coding on OCX is about 80-percent complete.

“Ocean Worlds” discoveries build case for new missions

Cassini Enceladus

WASHINGTON — Discoveries involving two “ocean world” moons in the outer solar system announced April 13 are likely to bolster the case for planned and proposed spacecraft missions to those worlds.

At a press conference, NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft, orbiting Saturn, had detected hydrogen gas in previously-discovered plumes emanating from the surface of the icy moon Enceladus. Scientists suspect that the moon has an ocean of liquid water beneath the surface that provides the source material for the plumes.

The hydrogen, scientists said at a briefing, is likely produced by hydrothermal activity, and could serve as an energy source for any life there. “Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, team lead for Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer, in a statement about the discovery.

In a separate finding presented at the same briefing, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope detected new evidence of plumes emanating from Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter also thought to have a subsurface ocean. Such plumes had been seen in past Hubble observations of the moon, but limited data, in part because the plumes appear to be intermittent, had left some scientists skeptical about whether they exist.

The new observations give scientists greater, but not complete, confidence Europa has plumes. William Sparks, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute, said at the briefing the detection was made at the “four sigma” level of confidence, which made it unlikely, but not impossible, that the detections were simply random noise or instrumental effects.

“That’s not quite as strong evidence as you’d really like,” he acknowledged. “I wouldn’t say it’s completely unequivocal the way it is with Enceladus. We’re still at the limits of what Hubble can do. But we’re growing in confidence.”

Follow-up observations will require new missions. NASA is already developing a mission to Europa, called Europa Clipper, that will go into orbit around Jupiter and make dozens of close flybys of the moon to better determine how habitable it is.

Among the suite of instruments on Europa Clipper is an ultraviolet spectrometer. “This imager is going to be the plume finder,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division.

He added that, hopefully, the spacecraft will be able to fly through a plume, much as Cassini did at Enceladus. “Now we’ll have the right set of observations to make,” he said. That includes an advanced mass spectrometer that will be able to measure the composition of the plume.

Europa Clipper is being developed for launch as soon as 2022, and could arrive at Jupiter in late 2024, depending on the choice of launch vehicle. However, scientists acknowledge that it’s unlikely that the spacecraft will alone be able to determine if there is life in Europa’s oceans. A follow-on lander mission is in the early stages of development, although the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint, released March 16, included no funding for a lander despite supporting Europa Clipper and other planetary programs in that budget proposal.

The prospects for missions to Enceladus are less clear. Cassini is nearing the end of its mission, as NASA plans a final series of close-in investigations of Saturn and its rings prior to flying the spacecraft into Saturn itself in mid-September. With Cassini running low on fuel for its thrusters, that maneuver is intended to prevent the spacecraft from possibly crashing into, and contaminating, the potentially habitable moons of Enceladus and Titan.

Cassini also lacks the instrumentation to better understand if Enceladus is inhabited. “Cassini can look for habitability, but we don’t have the instruments to look for life,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, at the briefing. “We’ve come as far as we can go, so it remains for a future mission to detect life at Enceladus.”

NASA currently has no mission to Enceladus, or Saturn in general, on the books. However, so-called “ocean worlds,” which include Enceladus and Titan, are one of the proposed destinations for the next mission in the New Frontiers program of medium-class planetary missions. NASA issued an announcement of opportunity for that next mission late last year, with proposals due to NASA April 28. The agency expects to select several proposals in November for additional study, with a final selection in mid-2019.

Congress, in its fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill, directed NASA to develop an “Ocean Worlds Exploration Program” to search for life on such worlds using a mix of small and large missions. That language was included by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and a strong advocate for missions to Europa in particular.

A formal program is still being established within the agency, officials said at the briefing. Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters, said a “roadmap” document outlining studies of ocean worlds is in the final stages of development by an advisory group. “They’re about to deliver that to us any day now,” she said. That document, she said, will set science priorities and technology requirements for any future missions.

Some scientists have questioned whether Enceladus, with its constant plumes containing chemical energy that could support life, may be a better initial target than Europa. Voytek noted that the presence of hydrogen in the plume indicates that it is not being consumed by any life that might exist in the oceans in Enceladus. “It means that there might not be life there at all, and if there is life, it’s not very active,” she said.

She speculated that could be linked to the age of Enceladus, which may be much younger Saturn itself. Europa, by contrast, was formed at the same time as Jupiter, more than four billion years ago. “That’s a lot more time for life to have emerged and start taking advantage of these energy sources,” she said. “So my money, for the moment, is still on Europa.”

NASA inspector general foresees additional SLS/Orion delays

NASA artist's concept of SLS.

WASHINGTON — A report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) April 13 concluded that the first two missions of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft will likely slip from their currently scheduled dates.

The report on NASA’s human exploration programs, the outcome of a nine-month audit by OIG, also recommended that NASA provide more details about its long-term plans to send humans to Mars, citing constrained budgets and the need to develop a number of key technologies to enable such missions.

NASA’s current schedule calls for the launch of the first SLS/Orion mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), no later than November 2018 without a crew. That would be followed by EM-2, the first SLS/Orion mission to carry astronauts, as soon as August 2021.

The OIG report, though, was skeptical NASA could maintain that schedule. “NASA’s first exploration missions – EM-1 and EM-2 – face multiple technical challenges that will likely delay their launch,” the report stated.

The report outlines a number of technical challenges that SLS, Orion and associated ground systems are facing that makes it unlikely NASA can maintain its current schedule for those missions. Work on SLS, it said, has consumed nearly all of the 11 months of schedule reserve it originally had. “With only 30 days of schedule reserves available, the SLS Program may be hard pressed to meet a November 2018 launch date,” OIG concluded.

Orion also faces issues. “NASA considers Orion to be one of the biggest challenges to meeting the EM-1 flight date of no later than November 2018,” the report stated. Delays in the development of the Orion service module, provided by the European Space Agency are the leading factor in the overall Orion delay, as well as technical risks involved with changes in the design of Orion’s heat shield.

In addition to SLS and Orion issues, the OIG report stated that work on ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center has only one month of schedule reserve remaining. Development of software needed for SLS, Orion and ground systems have also suffered delays that could delay the first SLS/Orion launch. “We are concerned NASA will not be able to resolve all necessary [exploration systems] software validation and verification efforts in time to meet a November 2018 launch date for EM-1,” OIG said in the report.

Recent events could exacerbate those delays. The report briefly mentions damage from a Feb. 7 tornado that hit the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It estimated repairs to Michoud buildings could result in a two-month delay in work on the SLS, whose core stage is built there.

NASA officials have provided similar estimates on the potential delays caused by the tornado. “The tornado probably cost us two to three months,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, in a March 29 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee. “We’re still evaluating that and seeing what the options are.”

Another wild card that could delay EM-1 is a decision to put a crew on that first flight. NASA is currently examining such a move, which would delay the mission regardless of other technical issues. The target date for a crewed EM-1 mission is mid-2019, according to ground rules for that study cited in the OIG report.

The report said that, as of early April, the study about putting a crew on EM-1 was still in progress. “To achieve a crewed EM-1 flight, in our judgment NASA must address not only the additional risks associated with human travel but also a host of existing risks to planned missions,” OIG said in the report, citing work needed on Orion’s life support systems and a decision to either human-rate the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage that will be used on EM-1 or accelerate work on the Exploration Upper Stage.

Beyond EM-1 and EM-2, OIG called on the agency to provide more details on future missions and technology requirements needed to enable the long-term goal of human missions to the surface of Mars. Only recently has NASA started to flesh out a manifest of future SLS/Orion missions, primarily for flights through the 2020s to develop a cislunar “gateway” station in preparations for Mars missions.

“While we agree that finalizing requirements for the Journey to Mars through 2046 is impractical at this point in time, we believe that adding more detail to the plan would help NASA focus funding priorities for the systems the Agency will need to develop to accomplish its goals,” the report stated.

That planning is needed soon because of concerns of a potential shortfall in funding. A comparison of projected budgets for NASA’s exploration programs, assuming they grow at only the rate of inflation, compared to the cost estimate from a Jet Propulsion Laboratory study of one proposed Mars mission architecture, found a gap of $18 billion from 2018 through 2026.

Another factor in that planning is a potential extension of the International Space Station beyond 2024, which could cost NASA $3 to 4 billion a year that would otherwise go to exploration programs.

“Whether to extend the ISS beyond 2024 is a critical decision for NASA and its Journey to Mars, particularly because of the funding shortfalls projected during the 2020s and the need for development of key systems during that time period,” the report argued.

DARPA and Space Systems Loral move ahead with satellite servicing program

SSL satellite servicing concept

WASHINGTON — Space Systems Loral announced April 12 that it has completed an agreement with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for a satellite servicing program that triggered a lawsuit from another company.

The announcement of the agreement for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program came a day after DARPA filed a motion in federal court to dismiss a February lawsuit filed by Orbital ATK about the award to SSL.

The agreement confirms the scope of work of the RSGS program, where SSL will provide a satellite bus and DARPA the servicing payload. That spacecraft will then be launched to demonstrate a range of servicing technologies, including inspection, refueling and repair of satellites. After those tests, SSL will be able to use the spacecraft for commercial and government customers.

Even before signing the agreement, SSL was starting work on the RSGS program. “We’re already underway with our work,” Steve Oldham, senior vice president of strategic business development of SSL, said in a recent interview. “We set up a team once we were informed by DARPA that we were selected.”

Oldham said it would take about three and a half years to develop the RSGS satellite, with a launch in 2021. “It’s full steam ahead as far as we’re concerned,” he said.

DARPA and SSL moved ahead with the project despite a lawsuit filed by Orbital ATK against DARPA Feb. 7, a day after DARPA inadvertently, and briefly, posted the award to SSL.

In the suit, Orbital ATK alleged that the RSGS contract would “waste hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to develop robotic satellite servicing technology” already being developed in the private sector, running afoul of national space policy. Orbital ATK, which bid on the RSGS program, is developing its own satellite servicing system called the Mission Extension Vehicle.

Orbital ATK also argued that the contract funded a foreign company, as SSL is owned by MacDonald , Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., a Canadian company.

In an April 11 motion filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Assistant United States Attorney Antonia Konkoly, representing DARPA in the suit, requested that the court dismiss the case for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction and a lack of claims.

In the motion, Konkoly argued that the provisions of the national space policy are not enforceable in the courts. “However, as the [national space policy] derives from neither a statutory mandate nor a congressional delegation of lawmaking authority to the executive, this directive is simply a ‘managerial tool’ for the executive branch, and does not create a legal framework enforceable by the judiciary,” the filing states.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for May 5 in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

The motion does not address Orbital ATK’s concerns about SSL’s ownership, but Oldham said in an earlier interview that all the work on the RSGS program will be done at SSL’s facilities in California. “The activity, we’ve committed to DARPA, will be part of a U.S.-owned company,” he said.

MDA announced in 2016 the formation of a U.S. operating company, SSL MDA Holdings, to allow it to pursue U.S. government work. That holding company will eventually also include DigitalGlobe, the commercial remote sensing company MDA announced Feb. 24 is was acquiring.

SSL separately announced April 12 three new members of the executive team for its SSL Government Systems business unit, intended to win business with the U.S. government. Richard White, hired by SSL in October 2016 as senior vice president of government systems, was named president of SSL Government Systems. The company also hired Robert Zitz as senior vice president and chief strategy officer and Tim Gillespie as vice president of business development for national programs.

Orbital ATK’s lawsuit against DARPA is separate from one SSL filed against Orbital ATK March 23. In that suit, SSL alleges Orbital ATK damaged the company when one of its employees accessed proprietary information on a NASA server regarding a satellite servicing technology project SSL had with the agency.

Orbital ATK, while acknowledging that the data breach took place, said it followed best practices to address the problem and would “vigorously” defend the suit. Court records show no action on the case since SSL filed the lawsuit.