This Week in Space:


April 7


1968: The Soviet Union launches the Luna 14 on a modified SS-6 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The orbiter conducted gravitational studies of the Moon and of the interaction between the Earth and the Moon.


1990: China launches its
first commercial communications satellite, AsiaSat 1,
on a Long March 3 rocket from Xichang.
Originally a U.S. bird that had been returned to Earth after failing to reach its proper orbit,
the Asia Satellite Telecommunications Co. (AsiaSat) bought the refurbished satellite.


2001: Russia’s Ekran-M direct broadcast satellite launches on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch was the maiden flight for the new version of the Proton rocket, capable of carrying 6,200 kilograms
to geostationary orbit.


April 8


1964: NASA’s Gemini 1 launches on a Titan 2 rocket from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The unmanned test launch was the first mission for the second-generation U.S. manned spacecraft.


April 11


1970: NASA’s Apollo 13 launches on a Saturn 5 rocket from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The explosion of an oxygen tank on April 13 forces the crew to abandon the planned Moon landing and return to Earth.


April, 12


1981: In the inaugural flight of NASA’s space shuttle, Columbia launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen returned from the successful test flight April 14.


April 13


1959: The Discoverer 2 satellite, a joint Advanced Research Projects Agency and U.S. Air Force program, launches on a Thor-Agena A rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
A capsule from the satellite containing scientific data was ejected April 14 as planned, but the capsule landed off-course and was not recovered. Discoverer 2 was the first vehicle known to enter polar orbit and the first attempt to recover an object from orbit.


1960: The U.S. Navy Transit 1-B satellite is launched by a Thor-Able-Star rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The satellite’s experimental navigational system demonstrated the feasibility of using satellites as navigation aids, and
Transit 1-B performed the first engine restart in space.



Giove-A Demo Mission Extended by One Year


Europe’s Giove-A experimental navigation satellite, which was launched in December 2005 to secure radio frequencies for the future Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation, will be operated for at least a year beyond its scheduled retirement, Giove-A prime contractor Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) announced.


The 660-kilogram Giove-A has
completed the task of securing frequency reservations needed by
regulators at the International Telecommunication Union. The satellite was scheduled to be taken out of service in late March.


But the European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to continue operations of Giove-A, in part because a second test satellite, Giove-B, built by a consortium of Europe’s largest space-hardware manufacturers, still has not been launched.


Giove-B currently is scheduled for launch aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket
April 27.


SSTL, in a March 31 statement, said Giove-A
signals have been available for 99.8 percent of the time over the past 12 months, with the satellite’s
atomic clock operating continuously since June 2007.


SSTL is under contract to build long-lead items for a Giove-A2 satellite, but European governments have not yet decided whether to complete the work given other Galileo test spacecraft being built by the Giove-B consortium



Scientists Demonstrate Planet-Finding Method


An international team of astronomers using a system of ground-based robotic cameras has found
planets orbiting
stars other than
the sun in a discovery the scientists say will revolutionize understanding of how planets form, according to an April 1 press release from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


The collaborative project
is called
for Super Wide Area Search for Planets. This technique of locating the planets gives more information about the formation and evolution of the planets than the more traditional method
, whereby astronomers infer a planet’s presence by the wobble its gravitational pull produces on the
host star.


In the SuperWASP effort, astronomers look for
transits –
moments when a
passes in front of the star –
like an eclipse, as viewed from the Earth. The SuperWASP cameras work as robots, surveying a large area of the sky at once and providing astronomers with data from millions of stars each night, according to the press release. Astronomers then look for transits, a technique that also allows scientists to determine the size and mass of each planet.

In the last six months, the SuperWASP team has used two batteries of cameras, one in Spain’s Canary Islands and one in South Africa, to discover the 10 new
extra solar


GAO Cites Cost Growth on EELV, Satellite Programs


The estimated average cost of launching satellites aboard Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets grew by more than 150 percent between October 1998 and August 2007, from $91 million to $234 million, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report.

The rockets, developed under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, now are used to launch the vast majority of U.S. government satellites. The EELV program was among 72 evaluated by the congressional watchdog agency in a report, released in March, entitled “Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapons Programs.” It is the latest version of an audit that
now is performed annually.

The GAO found that the Defense Department’s overall planned investment in weapons systems jumped from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.6 trillion in 2007 and that there has been no improvement in terms of keeping programs on cost and schedule. Virtually all of the programs, many of them space- or missile defense-related, were ushered through development using less-than-optimum acquisition standards and practices, the survey found. “GAO found that 63 percent of the programs had changed requirements once system development began, and also experienced significant program cost increases,” the report said.


The total estimated cost of the EELV program has nearly doubled, from $16.5 billion to $32 billion, the GAO said. Meanwhile, according to the report, the estimated number of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 vehicles to be procured has dropped from 181 to 138, which helps explain the higher unit-cost increase.


The Air Force did not comment on the GAO’s findings regarding the EELV program, the report said.


Other Defense Department space programs also experienced significant cost growth during the last decade, the GAO found. For example, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a new generation of civil-military weather satellites, saw its cost rise from $6.3 billion as of August 2002 to $10.7 billion as of August 2007, even as the number of satellites to be procured declined from six to four as part of a program restructuring. The cost per satellite of the effort, previously $1 billion, grew to $2.77 billion during that period, the report said.


The estimated cost per Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite grew from $1.2 billion in October 2001 to $2.2 billion as of December 2006, while the number to be procured dropped from five to three, the report found. The Air Force now plans to procure four of these highly secure satellites.


There was least one exception to the cost growth trend on space programs: the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System. According to the GAO report, the projected cost of the six-satellite system, which will provide communications to mobile forces and to ships at sea, declined by 6 percent from September 2004 to August 2007, from $6.4 billion to $6 billion.


Raytheon Division Gets Johnson Training Work


Raytheon Technical Services Co. will work with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston under a $455,000 contract to implement a new training model for space station
flight controllers and instructors, according to an April 2 Raytheon press release.

The Reston, Va.-based company
already provides training support to the Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and Space Vehicle Mockup Facility.


The contract, which runs through December 2008, adds front-end training design to Raytheon Technical Services’ work with NASA. The initiative is aimed at shortening the training process by combining similar certification
processes for flight instructors and flight controllers.


“We will reduce the cost and time it takes to train flight controllers and instructors at the same time we improve the quality and efficiency of training,”
Blaine Salvador, vice president of
solutions for the company’s Integrated Support Solutions business, said in a prepared statement


Raytheon Technical Services provides technology work for defense, federal and commercial customers worldwide. The company specializes in mission support, including installation, integration, maintenance, training and logistics support of air traffic control systems, counterproliferation and counterterrorism, homeland security solutions, base and range operations and customized engineering and manufacturing.


NASA Picks Studies for Lunar Recon Orbiter


NASA has selected 24 proposals from scientists to analyze data
collected by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter when it is launched later this year, according to a March 31 NASA press release.
NASA selected the winners from 55 submissions, following a peer review panel and an evaluation by scientists from NASA’s Planetary Science Division Research and Analysis Program. Scientists will be fully or partially funded depending on their research work and scope of activities.


The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter represents NASA’s first step in its plans to return humans to the Moon
by 2020. The orbiter will conduct a one-year primary mission exploring the
Moon, taking measurements to identify future robotic and human landing sites. In addition, it will study lunar resources and how the Moon’s
environment will affect humans.


For a complete list of the selected scientists and their investigations, visit:



Com Dev Picked To Build EO Satellite Equipment


Com Dev International Ltd. of Canada will provide transmitter modules and a receiver to an unidentified Asian customer for one of four instruments scheduled to fly on an Earth observation (EO) satellite under a preliminary contract Com Dev announced April 4.


Com Dev said it had received an authorization to proceed, or ATP, from the customer to design and build an engineering model of the hardware it expects to provide for the mission. A full contract for the flight model of the same hardware is expected to follow after the 18-month engineering-model work is completed.


The ATP is valued at more than 11.3 million Canadian dollars ($11.2 million), and Com Dev said the final contract will be for approximately the same amount.


Com Dev Chief Executive John Keating said the contract is the first time the company is providing a transmitter in addition to a receiver system. The company also will integrate one of the satellite’s instruments.


While Com Dev did not name the customer, the Japanese space agency, JAXA, is developing a cloud-profiling radar as one of four experiments on the EarthCARE satellite being built with the European Space Agency and scheduled for launch in 2013.


Griffin Tells Senate Panel U.S. Losing Technical Edge


NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told members of a Senate panel April 3 that the United States is facing a “silent Sputnik” that threatens the nation’s pre-eminence in the world.


Griffin said he is worried the United States is ceding its advantages in the absence of a clear wake-up call of the sort that the Soviet Union delivered in October 1957 when it launched the world’s first artificial satellite. NASA was created 50 years ago as part of the United States’ strategic response to its archrival’s technological shot across the bow.


“I am concerned that our nation is now facing ‘a silent Sputnik,’ a moment where many other countries are racing for a new high ground of innovation while our own advantages – technological, economic and intellectual – are showing signs of wear,” Griffin told the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee April 3. “While I believe that America’s greatest days lie always ahead of us, this optimism is misplaced unless we recognize such problems, confront them and strive with concerted energy to fix them.”


The phrase “silent Sputnik” is not Griffin’s. It was first coined by former Harvard Business School instructor John Kao, author of the 2007 book, “Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get it Back.”

Dispensing with the usual detailed defense of his agency’s budget request, Griffin instead devoted his opening statement to delivering a sermon of sorts about the importance of great nations investing in such great endeavors as space exploration.


“We face many challenges at NASA, but I believe the greatest of these is the need to maintain a determined, unified sense of purpose as we pursue the tasks before us,” he said. “Our achievements, the things that we do that awe the world, do not come cheaply, quickly or easily. Space exploration is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those who are easily distracted and it is not for those who require instant gratification.”



SAIC To Provide Engineering Services for JTRS Radios

Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of McLean, Va., has been awarded a one-year contract from the U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego to provide engineering support services for the military’s next-generation software-defined radios, according to an April 3 SAIC press release.


The Defense Department’s Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) encompasses a series of interoperable, open-architecture radios that will be capable
of wirelessly transmitting voice and data. The contract has options that could bring it to a maximum value of $42 million for five years. The work will be performed in San Diego, Alexandria, Va., Fort Monmouth, N.J., and Aberdeen, Md.


Lockheed Martin Finishes Final GPS 2R-M Satellite


Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., has completed its final GPS 2R-M satellite for the U.S. Air Force and soon will ship it to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in preparation for its June launch, according to an April 3 Lockheed Martin press release.


Lockheed Martin has
built a total of 21 GPS 2R satellites, including eight of the modernized GPS 2R-M satellites. This final satellite was finished one month ahead of schedule, Lockheed said. It features a new civil signal, known as L5, which is part of the design for the next series of GPS 2F satellites built by Boeing Co. that will begin launching in 2009.


Lockheed Martin and Boeing both are bidding on the contract to build the next-generation GPS 3 spacecraft that is expected to be awarded this month.


Cambodia Gets Its First Home Satellite TV Service


DTV Network Limited of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and National Television of Kampuchea have launched Cambodia’s first nationwide satellite television service, called Techo-DTV, according to an April 3 DTV Network press release.


National Television of Kampuchea is the government agency responsible for overseeing the television content distributed in Cambodia.


The service will provide local Khmer channels and some foreign channels for free, while allowing users to purchase pay-per-view content. The digital picture and sound the service provides is similar to that of a DVD, DTV said. The initial price of $75 includes a 60-centimeter
Ku-band satellite dish, mounting hardware, a set-top box and a remote control.


Cambodian DTV Network Limited was established
Feb. 4 as a subsidiary company of Shin Satellite Plc of Thailand, an Asian commercial satellite operator and the operator of the IPSTAR satellite broadband system, which is providing the service.


DataPath Gets $6.6 Million U.S. Army Upgrade Contract


The U.S. Army awarded DataPath Inc. of Du
luth, Ga., a $6.6 million task order to continue providing repairs and upgrades to DataPath Satellite Transportable Terminals and Unit Hub Satcom Trucks, according to a March 24 DataPath
press release.


These terminals and hub trucks are used with the Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical and Joint Network Node programs. This delivery is part of a previously announced four-year contract with a value that could run as high as $270 million. Work under this order will upgrade the terminals to be compatible with the U.S. Air Force’s new Wideband Global Satcom communications system.


There are more than 800 DataPath mobile satellite terminals in use today, the company said.



Loral Misses Filing Deadline, Gets Warning from Nasdaq


Loral Space and Communications Inc. announced April 4 that it no longer satisfies the Nasdaq stock exchange’s
filing requirements because of an ongoing delay in filing the company’s 10-K form with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the year ended Dec. 31, 2007. As a result the company potentially faces delisting from the exchange.


Loral said in an April 4 press release it will request a hearing before the Nasdaq Listing Qualifications Panel
. By Nasdaq rule, the hearing will be scheduled to occur within 45 days of the
request date. Loral said in the release it expects to file its 2007 Form 10-K in sufficient time to avoid delisting.


Loral announced April 1 it was not able to file its 2007 Form 10-K by the April 1, 2008, extended SEC deadline because of income tax accounting complexities arising from its acquisition of a majority economic stake in satellite operator Telesat



ESA Finishes Testing Vega 2nd-Stage Engine


The second and final test-firing of the Zefiro 23 second-stage engine of Europe’s new Vega small-satellite launch vehicle was successfully conducted March 27, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced March 31.


The Vega
development program now needs two successful firings of the vehicle’s
Zefiro 9 upper stage before
an inaugural flight can take place,
ESA and European industry officials said. This flight likely will not occur before early 2009, they said.


The March 27 test occurred at the Salto Di Quirra Inter-force Test Range in Sardinia, Italy. The burn lasted for 75 seconds and early results “show the test to be a success,” ESA said.


The first of two firings of the Zefiro 9 upper-stage engine
currently is scheduled for June, with a second to occur late this year. The motor failed during a March 200
7 test, forcing a redesign of its nozzle.


The Italian-led Vega development program is intended
to produce a rocket capable of placing 1,500-kilogram satellites – mainly government Earth observation and science payloads – into a 700-kilometer polar orbit.


Obering: Budgets Impose Limits on GMD Testing


The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) this year will conduct the two most advanced tests to date of its primary midcourse ballistic missile shield
, but the system is unlikely to ever be tested against a salvo of five or six incoming ICBMs, the agency’s top official said March 31.


U.S. Air Force
Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, the MDA’s director, speaking to reporters at the U.S. Missile Defense Conference in Washington, said the agency will conduct the next test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system this summer, with one more test to be completed by the end of the year. Each test will employ targets that use decoys and countermeasures that U.S. adversaries might employ to try to defeat the system. The GMD system is now seven for 11 in intercept tests, MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said.


Missile defense critics commonly argue that the operationally deployed GMD system has never been tested against multiple incoming targets, which an adversary
likely would use. Obering said testing against a half-dozen incoming targets would be cost-prohibitive. The agency
eventually will conduct a test in which two incoming ICBMs are
engaged simultaneously, as the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system did last year, he said.



French Subs To Utilize Astrium Space System


Astrium Space Transportation will adapt a closed-loop air-regeneration system developed for the international space station for use in French submarines under
a contract announced April 2 with the French naval contractor DCNS.


Under the contract, whose value was not announced, Astrium Space Transportation will provide an air-purification system to six future French Barracuda-class nuclear attack submarines. The first sub will be operational in 2017.


“This is the first time that Astrium has adapted its manned space flight technology for French submarines,” Astrium Space Transportation President Alain Charmeau said in an April 2 statement.


Astrium said its system
was selected because it is small and energy efficient. The company said future applications could include certain land vehicles and aircraft. Astrium Space Transportation’s Friedrichshafen, Germany, division is the company’s center for energy and life-support technologies. Astrium is prime contractor for Europe’s Columbus laboratory module, now attached to the international space station.


Globecomm Systems Nabs U.S. Government Contracts


Globecomm Systems Inc. announced March 31 that an unidentified U.S. government customer
had awarded the satellite communications company multiple contracts valued at $16.9 million in total.

Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Globecomm
will provide
several tactical portable satellite terminals that operate in the C- and Ku-bands as well as its
AxxSys Orion monitoring and control software
as part of the first contract, valued at $13.7 million. The second contract, valued at $3.2 million, is for Ku- and X-band Auto Explorer terminals.


“Globecomm’s [research and development] investment in X-band products is starting to generate new business, providing another variant to the Auto-Explorer product line,” Mike Plourde, the company’s vice president of government programs, said in a press release. “We intend to continue this investment in research and development as the government begins to move toward the growing use X- and Ka-band frequencies.”


Spacenet to Upgrade Hotel VSAT Network


Spacenet Inc. will equip 2,500 U.S. and Canadian hotels with an upgraded satellite data network aimed at improving check-in and check-out efficiency, according to a March 27 press release from Spacenet.

Under a contract with InterContinental Hotels Group, Spacenet will upgrade lodging facilities with its SkyEdge very small aperture terminal, or VSAT, platform for faster speeds and improved network availability.


McLean, Va.-based Spacenet
also is providing managed network services that will provide a single point of contact to the management of InterContinental Hotels Group’s network services.


The contract continues an established relationship between Spacenet and the hotel group.


“Over the years, Spacenet’s services have helped us achieve our goals, providing a reliable and scaleable network for our hotel applications,” said Gustaaf Schrils, vice president of technology and services for InterContinental Hotels.

NASA, Oklahoma State To Push High School Science


NASA and Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, will team up on a program designed to encourage high school students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


Under a one-year, $2.6 million education grant, Oklahoma State University will implement NASA’s Interdisciplinary National Science Program Incorporating Research Experience, also known as INSPIRE, at NASA centers
. The grant could be renewable for four more years, a
March 28 NASA press release said.


The program is part of NASA’s education strategy to attract and retain students in scientific and technical disciplines.
Students selected for INSPIRE will have the opportunity to participate in unique summer experiences at NASA facilities, will be provided access to a variety of online resources and engage in videoconferences with NASA scientists and engineers.


Oklahoma State University will provide administrative services for student recruitment, online resources, project logistics and program evaluation. The work will be performed at NASA’s 10 facilities across the country, and Kennedy Space Center in Florida will manage the program.



Celestis Offering to Deliver Ashes to Moon


Houston-based Celestis
Inc., which has made a business of launching
cremated human remains into orbit, has announced plans to carry people’s ashes to the surface of the
Moon starting as soon as 2009.


A small encapsulated portion – 1 gram – of one person’s
cremated remains
can be sent to the
Moon for $9,995. The price includes invitations to
loved ones to watch
the launch, a DVD of the launch, a memorial plaque and the scattering of the deceased’s remaining ashes at sea near the launch site.


For $29,985, Celestis will launch 14 grams total of the cremated remains of two people together.


These prices do not include cremation, which can generally cost about $2,000, said Doug Sholette, funeral director of the Frary Funeral Home in Ogdensburg, N.Y. For comparison, coffin burials
usually cost at least $5,000, he


A person’s cremated remains usually weigh 1.5 to 2.5 kilograms,
Sholette said.


When Celestis sends a person’s ashes to the
Moon, they will stay within a capsule
on the lunar surface


“We are pleased to schedule these Luna Service missions, to extend our leadership in the commercial space industry, and – most importantly – to serve our global community of families and loved ones wishing to honor the life of a special person,” said Charles M. Chafer, Celestis founder and president.


To provide the new service, Celestis has joined forces with
Odyssey Moon Ltd.
and Astrobotic Technology
Inc., which will do the actual transporting of the remains to the


In 1998, a Celestis capsule carrying cremated remains of
astronomer and planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker
was attached to NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft and launched on a one-year mission orbiting the


the completion of the
mission, the spacecraft was intentionally crashed into the
Moon’s south pole, making Shoemaker the first human to be laid to rest on another celestial body. NASA called the memorial “a special honor for a special human being.”


Since 1997, Celestis has lofted to orbit
the remains of people from
14 nations, including
Gene Roddenberry, creator of the “Star Trek” television series, Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and “
Star Trek”
actor James Doohan


The next Celestis mission, set for June 2008, will send the remains of 205 participants to Earth orbit aboard a Falcon 1 rocket.



Gilat Sat Networks Acquired for $475 Mil


Satellite ground-terminal builder Gilat Satellite Networks of Israel is being purchased by U.S. and Israeli private-equity investors for $475 million in cash in a transaction expected to close in September, Petah Tikva, Israel-based Gilat announced March 31.


Once completed, the purchase will automatically lead to the withdrawal of Gilat stock from the U.S. Nasdaq and Tel Aviv stock exchanges.


As expected, the purchasing group includes Mivtach Shamir Holdings of Tel Aviv, a longtime Gilat shareholder. The other purchasers include The Gores Group of Los Angeles, DGB Investments Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and shareholders of the LR Group Ltd.


Gilat reported $282.6 million in revenue
in 2007, a 14 percent increase over 2006, and expects revenue
to increase by at least 10 percent in 2008.


Ron Sherwood, chief financial officer of The Gores Group, said the new investors “will be working closely with the Gilat team to help drive strategic growth, including in the government defense sector in the United States and international markets.”


Gilat said the purchase price, equivalent to $11.40 per share, represents a 38 percent premium over where shares were trading before the April 2007 announcement that Mivtach Shamir Holdings was offering to buy the company.


Gilat Chief Executive Amiram Levinberg, said in a March 31 statement that the company has evaluated the offer for the past 11 months and concluded that it represents the best interest of shareholders.


University Retains Data Archiving


NASA has awarded a five-year contract potentially worth
$39 million
to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, to continue managing and operating an archiving center for data collected by Earth observing
satellites, including those equipped with synthetic aperture radar sensors, according to a March 28 NASA press release.


The Earth Observing System Data and Information System Synthetic Aperture Radar Distributed Active Archive Center collects, processes, archives, distributes and supports science data from satellites.


The Fairbanks facility, which will work with NASA under a no-fee, cost contract, has logged more than a decade of experience in remote sensing.



4 Firms To Support USAF Rocket Program


Four companies have been selected by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, to support a sounding rocket program under an indefinite-delivery,
indefinite-quantity contract worth as much as $250 million over seven years, according to a March 18 Defense Department press release.


The selected companies are Orbital Sciences Corp. Launch Systems Group of Chandler, Ariz.; Space Vector Corp. of Chatsworth, Calif.; L-3 Communications Corp. Coleman Aerospace division of Orlando, Fla.; and ATK Launch Systems Group of Brigham City, Utah. The companies
will provide engineering and technical services for the Air Force’s Sounding Rocket Program-3, which provides target, test-bed and special-purpose rockets to the Defense Department and NASA.


Black Hole’s Weight Approaches Minimum


Two NASA scientists studying data from the agency’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer
spacecraft have identified what they believe is the lightest known black hole. With a mass about 3.8 times greater than the sun and a diameter of only about 25 kilometers
, the black hole is
very close to the minimum size predicted for black holes that originate from dying stars.


“This black hole is really pushing the limits. For many years astronomers have wanted to know the smallest possible size of a black hole, and this little guy is a big step toward answering that question,” lead author Nikolai Shaposhnikov of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a press release dated April 1


The tiny black hole resides in a Milky Way Galaxy binary system known as XTE J1650-500, named for its sky coordinates in the southern constellation Ara.


The system was first observed by the Rossi telescope
in 2001. Astronomers realized soon after J1650’s discovery that it harbors a normal star and a relatively lightweight black hole. But the black hole’s mass had never been measured to high precision.


To see images, visit



NASA Launches Arctic Measurement Campaign


NASA began an extensive field campaign in April
aircraft and satellite data to investigate the chemistry of the Arctic’s lower atmosphere, according to an April 1 NASA press release.
The mission is intended
to help scientists identify how air pollution contributes to climate changes in the Arctic.


The recent decline of sea ice is one indication the Arctic is undergoing significant environmental changes related to climate warming.


NASA and its partners plan to investigate the atmosphere’s role in this climate-sensitive region with the Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites (ARCTAS) field campaign.


“It’s important that we go to the Arctic to understand the atmospheric contribution to warming in a place that’s rapidly changing,” said Jim Crawford, manager of the Tropospheric Chemistry Program at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We are in a position to provide the most complete characterization to date for a region that is seldom observed but critical to understanding climate change.”


The campaign began April 1 in Fairbanks, Alaska. NASA DC-8, P-3 and B-200 aircraft will serve as airborne laboratories for three weeks in April, carrying instruments to measure pollutants including gases and aerosols and solar radiation. Of particular interest is the so-called Arctic haze that typically forms during the spring. The return of sunlight to the region fuels chemical reactions of pollutants that have accumulated over the winter after traveling long distances from lower latitudes.


“The Arctic is a poster child of global change and we don’t understand the processes that are driving that rapid change,” said Daniel Jacob, an ARCTAS project scientist at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. “We need to understand it better and that’s why we’re going.”


ARCTAS is NASA’s contribution to an international series of Arctic field experiments that is part of the International Polar Year. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and
Department of Energy also are sponsoring research flights from Fairbanks
in collaboration with NASA.


aircraft observations also will help researchers interpret data from NASA satellites passing
over the Arctic, such as Aura, Terra
and Calipso
. Interpreting satellite data can be difficult in the Arctic because of extensive cloud cover, bright reflective surfaces from snow and ice, and cold surface temperatures. For example, it is
difficult for researchers to look at satellite data and distinguish between light reflected by clouds and light reflected from white ice cover.


A second phase of the ARCTAS campaign is scheduled to take place this summer from Cold Lake in Alberta, Canada, where flights will focus on measurements of emissions from forest fires. Researchers want to know how the impact of naturally occurring fires in the region compares to the pollution associated with human activity at lower latitudes.



Astronomers Discover Youngest Planet Yet


A team of astronomers has identified the youngest forming planet yet discovered by using computer simulations and radio observatories in the United Kingdom and United States, according to a March 28 press release from the Royal Astronomical Society in the United Kingdom.
Using the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes near Socorro, N.M., with the addition of an extra telescope 50 kilometers
the team studied the disk of gas and rocky particles around the star HL Tau. This star is thought to be less than 100,000 years old –
by comparison, the
sun is 4.6 billion
years old –
and lies in the direction of the constellation of Taurus at a distance of 520 light years.

The disk
is unusually massive and bright, which makes it an excellent place to search for signs of forming planets.


The team studied the system using radio emission at a wavelength of 1.3 centimeters
, specifically chosen to search for the emission from super-large rocky particles about the size of pebbles. The presence of these pebbles is a clue that rocky material is beginning to clump together to form planets.


In the United Kingdom, scientists used the MERLIN (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network) array of radio telescopes centered on Jodrell Bank in Cheshire
to study the same system at longer wavelengths. This allowed the astronomers to confirm that the disk is composed of
rocks rather than
hot gases.
In addition to detecting pebble-sized particles
in the disk around HL Tau, an extra bright “
” was seen in the image, which confirms
tentative findings reported a few years ago at around the same position.
The new image shows the same system in greater detail.


The images provide the first picture of a protoplanet still embedded in its birth material, said the press release issued by the Royal Astronomical Society in the United Kingdom.

Boeing, OPI Sign Mentor-Protege Pact


Boeing Co.
of Chicago
and Orion Propulsion Inc. (OPI) have signed a U.S. government-sponsored mentor-
agreement to work together on NASA’s Ares 1
rocket, which will transport astronauts into space after the space shuttle retires.


The one-year agreement was signed March 31 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.,
and marks the first mentor-protege agreement in 2008 in support of a major NASA contract, according to
a March 31
press release from Boeing.


The mentor-protege
program pairs large companies with eligible small businesses in an effort to enhance the latter group’s
capabilities and enable them to compete successfully for larger, more complex prime-contract and subcontract awards. Boeing subcontracted more than $5 billion of work to small and diverse businesses in 2007, the press release said.

OPI is a small, woman-owned aerospace company located near Marshall Space Flight Center
. It provides propulsion engineering, test, verification, qualification and production expertise to NASA as well as to several civil, defense and commercial customers
. OPI currently supports Boeing on Ares 1
reaction control system development.

Boeing is under contract to NASA to produce the Ares 1
upper stage and
avionics. It will build the upper stage at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in late 2009.


“Boeing will help Orion with much of their internal training to deal with propulsion system processes and items needed in producing the RCS for Ares I,”
Ray Robin, a supplier management official in Boeing’s Exploration Launch Systems group, said in a prepared statement
. “We will also share some of our best
lean manufacturing practices with them to ensure they have efficient production processes.”


also will provide support with business development, human resources and supply chain management.


“This agreement will help us become a more cost-effective and viable subcontractor to NASA, Boeing and other customers. We look forward to making the most of this historic opportunity to contribute to our nation’s new launch vehicle,”
OPI Chief Executive Officer Tim Pickens said in a prepared statement