Space Shuttle Could Resume Flying in May

NASA is aiming for May 2006 for the space shuttle’s next launch, although the timing still depends on how quickly the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans can return to normal operations following Hurricane Katrina.

Wayne Hale, NASA’s space shuttle program manager, said Oct. 14 that about 500 Lockheed Martin employees — about a quarter of the normal work force — are back on the job at Michoud, where the orbiters’ external tanks are built. Although the facility survived hurricanes Katrina and Rita with relatively minor damage, the surrounding area was devastated . Hale said Michoud expects to be operating at full strength by Dec. 1, assuming rebuilding efforts remain on track.

NASA says it is making progress understanding and addressing the problems that caused Space Shuttle Discovery’s external tank to shed insulating foam during its July 26 return-to-flight launch. PRIVATE puncspace:p The largest piece of foam, weighing less than half a kilogram, missed Discovery but severely hindered NASA’s efforts to resume normal flight operations two and a half years after a chunk of foam breached Space Shuttle Columbia’s wing during launch, leading to that vehicle’s destruction upon re-entry two weeks later.

Richard Gilbrech, who is leading NASA’s foam investigation, said Michoud workers may have inadvertently crushed foam along a protuberance air load (PAL) ramp — which shields exterior tank cables and pressurized lines during launch — while making tank modifications recommended in the wake of the Columbia accident . A spray-application technique for the foam, now discontinued, and thermal stresses along the border of the PAL foam , also may have contributed to debris shedding on Discovery , Gilbrech said.

Although more tests are planned , Hale said shuttle workers likely will replace or modify insulation on the troublesome sections of the tank.

Stressing that NASA had not set a launch date for the next mission, Hale said the shuttle program is nonetheless aiming for a window that opens May 3 and closes May 23. The next available window after than runs from July 1 through July 20.

Old Tradition at Kourou Revived with a Splash

A tradition once thought relegated to the space industry’s adventuresome past was revived with gusto late Oct. 13 when French military officials decided that everyone involved in the launch of the Syracuse 3 telecommunications satellite would be thrown, fully clothed, into the swimming pool during a post-launch dinner.

The sight of satellite manufacturing officials and arms-procurement agency managers — even a rear admiral — being carried from their dinner tables and tossed into the water regardless of what they thought of the idea was one of the more memorable events of the evening following the successful launch of the French military telecommunications satellite and PanAmSat’s Galaxy 15 cable-television broadcast spacecraft.

As the intentions of a group of uniformed French military officials became clear, prospective targets hurriedly shed glasses and wallets before being carted off and hurled into the water. Only the lucky ones were able to remove their shoes in time.

Alcatel Alenia Space President Pascale Sourisse, whose straight-laced manner is one of her signature traits, had dismissed the idea that she might be one of the victims, saying Alcatel Alenia — which built the Syracuse 3A satellite — was here on behalf of its customer, the French arms procurement agency (DGA). Judging from the way she was dressed, Sourisse did not appear to think the pool-toss frenzy would reach all the way to her.

But it did. Francois Fayard, head of the DGA’s space division —- dripping wet in his uniform — apparently made Sourisse an offer she could not refuse. Soon enough she was in the drink alongside her customer, Fayard.

One official said the move was the kind of customer-relations initiative that cannot be purchased. The DGA contract with Alcatel Alenia for the construction and launch of up to three Syracuse 3 satellites — the third has yet to be ordered — is valued at up to 1.4 billion euros ($1.7 billion).

Alcatel is also a principal subcontractor to Thales Group of France for the Syracuse 3 ground network, which includes some 600 communications terminals for the French army and navy.

The pool-tossing of customers of the Arianespace commercial launch consortium was a respected ritual following successful launches at Europe’s Guiana Space Center here in the 1980s and early 1990s. But it all but disappeared as the launches became more business-like affairs.

Upper-Stage Concern Delays Some ILS Launches

International Launch Services (ILS) has informed customers awaiting launch on the company’s Proton-M rocket that they face delays following a discovery of a suspected anomaly in the vehicle’s Breeze-M upper stage.

Proton prime contractor Khrunichev of Moscow detected a possible malfunction of the Breeze-M motor during testing and stopped the assembly line to investigate the cause. Remedial action has since been taken, and the motor is back in production, according to ILS.

The delays will add further congestion to an already-crowded 2006 launch calendar at the three major commercial launch-service companies — Arianespace, Sea Launch and ILS.

In one example, SES Global of Luxembourg, which missed an earlier Proton-M launch opportunity, since has been searching for alternatives for its Astra 1KR telecommunications satellite. Sources said the satellite, under construction at Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems, could end up on ILS’s Atlas 5 rocket.

Eutelsat of Paris said its Hot Bird 8 satellite, scheduled for a March launch on a Proton-M, will be delay ed because of the component issue.

Study Says U.S. Air Force Moved Too Fast on T-Sat

The U.S. Air Force pressed ahead with its Transformational Satellite Communications (T-Sat) program before crucial system technologies were ready, according to a briefing to Congress prepared by the Government Accountability Office.

At the same time, the briefing says the technologies now appear mature enough for the program to proceed. “No fundamental discoveries or breakthroughs required for T-Sat, but the level of difficulty in integrating these technologies is an unknown,” one slide of the Sept. 7 briefing says.

As a result, T-Sat cost and schedule projections are not reliable, briefing charts say.

The briefing charts also indicate that a $400 million cut to T-Sat’s proposed $836 million budget for 2006 will result in “significant program inefficiencies and cost growth” and delay the delivery of system capabilities by 14 months to two years. Both the House and Senate versions of the 2006 defense appropriations bill recommended just such a reduction to the T-Sat budget.

Inflatable Re-entry Shield Lost in Demonstration

A Euro-Russian system to demonstrate a Russian-designed inflatable atmospheric re-entry shield was lost Oct. 6 following launch aboard a Volna vehicle operated from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea.

The 140-kilogram Inflatable Re-entry and Descent Technology (IRDT) device was successfully released from the Volna rocket and flew its intended 30-minute suborbital flight toward the Kamchatka Peninsula. But radio contact was lost on descent and the IRDT beacon did not activate on landing.

The European Space Agency and EADS Space Transportation co-funded IRDT’s development with Russia’s NPO Lavochkin, which developed the inflatable system to replace heavy heat shields and parachutes currently used for atmospheric re-entry.

Mathias Spude, a spokesman for EADS Space Transportation, said the brief telemetry received from the IRDT during the flight was insufficient to judge whether the shield protected its electronics payload.

The IRDT was first tested in February 2000 on an orbital re-entry flight following launch aboard Russia’s Soyuz-Fregat rocket operated from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Results were mixed: The shield was torn on re-entry, but the sensor package worked as designed.

Lockheed and Raytheon Settle Lawsuit Over DCGS

Any Lockheed Martin personnel now wo rking with Raytheon on a military-intelligence data-sharing system will not be allowed to participate in the competition for a follow-on contract should the companies opt to pursue that work separately, a Raytheon official said.

Lockheed Martin made the concession to settle a lawsuit filed by Raytheon, the prime contractor on the current phase of the U.S. Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) program, dubbed DCGS 10.2. The DCGS is intended to give leaders across the U.S. military services and defense intelligence agencies access to the latest relevant tactical information for a given area. Lockheed Martin is Raytheon’s subcontractor on the DCGS 10.2 effort.

NASA Contract To Preserve Hypersonic Research Options

Signaling its intent to resume hypersonic-vehicle propulsion work in the near future, NASA awarded a contract worth up to $15 million to ATK subsidiary GASL Inc. to preserve the option of using the company’s research facilities .

Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based GASL, acquired in 2003 by ATK Alliant Techsystems, built the scramjet engines that powered NASA’s X-43A experimental hypersonic aircraft that set a speed record during its third and final flight in late 2004. NASA last year canceled the follow-on X-43C program as part of a broader reduction in aeronautics research. However, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said he intends for the U.S. space agency to remain involved in hypersonic technology development and would try to find more money for the program.

NASA spokeswoman Elvia Thompson said the contract awarded to GASL does not commit NASA to doing any hypersonics research, but keeps the agency’s options open. “If we go ahead with this kind of research then we would have this facility available,” she said.

Team To Study Satellites For Solar Storm Warning

A team led by Space Services Inc. of Houston will study the technical aspects and commercial potential of a satellite system providing solar-storm warning and communications links to Antarctica under a $300,000 contract with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the company announced Oct. 11.

During the five-month assessment, the team will look at mission architectures and at the feasibility of providing the services to government agencies on a commercial basis, said Charles M. Chafer, chief executive officer of Space Services. Architecture options include a single satellite parked at the L-1 libration point, where the gravity forces of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, and a constellation of three satellites using solar-sail technology to hold their positions relative to the Earth, he said.

NOAA is interested in better detection of solar storms because of the disruptions they can cause to sensitive electronic systems and telecommunications networks on Earth. The agency includes sensors for detecting solar storms on some of its weather satellites.

NOAA’s partner in the effort is the National Science Foundation, which operates research facilities in Antarctica and would like to have better communications links to the remote region. Geostationary-orbiting communications satellites typically do not cover the Earth’s polar regions.

Space Services’ partners on the NOAA contract include: Ecliptic Enterprises Corp. of Pasadena, Calif.; Legacy Equity Group LLC of Houston; L’Garde Inc. of Tustin, Calif.; Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems of Aurora, Colo.; Southwest Research Institute of Boulder, Colo., and San Antonio; and Spacequest Ltd. of Fairfax, Va.

Device Lets Individuals Task UAVs, Receive Data

Northrop Grumman Corp. recently demonstrated a system that enables troops in urban areas to task low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and receive data from those platforms via handheld computers, according to a company news release dated Oct. 11.

The heterogeneous urban reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition team, or Hurt, system enables troops to view digital imagery on handheld computers and request more-detailed pictures of particular areas by moving a cursor on the screen, according to the news release.

The Hurt system prioritizes requests and directs the nearest UAV in the area to take a closer look.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman tested the system during a Sept. 22 exercise at George Air Force Base in California. While the system controlled small UAVs during the demonstration — two Raven and one Pointer fixed-wing aircraft and one RMAX helicopter — it could be used with larger platforms like the Global Hawk, according to the news release.

Tinsley Laboratories Takes Delivery of First Webb Space Telescope Mirror Segment

The first production-model mirror segment for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been delivered to Tinsley Laboratories in Richmond, Calif., for grinding, polishing and associated tests, a process expected to take about two and a half years, telescope prime contractor Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., announced Oct. 6.

Tinsley will perform high-precision grinding and polishing on the Webb telescope mirror segments. After initial polishing, the production-model segment will be sent to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for performance testing in a cryogenic chamber that simulates temperatures found in space. It then will be sent back to Tinsley for further refinement.

Tinsley, Northrop Grumman, Ball Aerospace, Brush Wellman Inc. and Axsys Technologies comprise part of the large mirror-manufacturing team for the Webb project, which is run by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The mirror segment is the first engineering unit to go through manufacturing, and will help engineers fine-tune techniques and equipment needed to build the telescope’s 18 primary mirror segments, two secondary mirrors and a tertiary mirror. The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, is scheduled to launch no earlier than 2013 and will allow astronomers to study the earliest galaxies in the infrared range.

Mexico Appoints Mediator in Satmex Bankruptcy Dispute

Mexico’s Communications Ministry has appointed a partner in law firm White & Case’s Mexico City office to mediate the restructuring, under Mexican bankruptcy law, of satellite-fleet operator Satmex, White & Case announced.

Thomas S. Heather, a former chairman of the Mexican Mediation Institute, will attempt to accommodate the apparently conflicting claims of Satmex’s U.S. creditors and the Mexican government. The government wants to link the restructuring to a resolution of a debt owed the government by Satmex’s parent company. Satmex’s creditors have argued that a debt not incurred by Satmex should not be a roadblock to the satellite operator’s financial restructuring.

Satmex officials hope their Mexican bankruptcy proceedings progress quickly enough to permit the launch of the company’s Satmex 6 telecommunications satellite in 2006. The satellite was completed in 2003 and has since been in storage. Recently it was returned to manufacturer Space Systems/Loral in California for refurbishment in preparation for a launch aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.

Satmex’s creditors tried and failed to get the bankruptcy handled in a New York court. But a New York bankruptcy judge nonetheless ordered Satmex to make regular reports to the New York jurisdiction as the company’s restructuring progresses under Mexican law. The first report is due to the New York court Oct. 31.

“Both the creditors and Satmex’s shareholders have been frustrated by the lack of progress in the restructuring talks, which is why the Ministry made the bold move of appointing an experienced insolvency lawyer with significant cross-border experience to jump-start the negotiations,” White & Case said in an Oct. 6 statement.

NASA Finds Abundance of Organic Chemicals in Space

NASA announced Oct. 11 that a team of exobiology researchers has discovered that organic chemicals that play a key role in biochemistry are quite common in space.

Scientists using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope previously had found organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons throughout the galaxy, but they were given little attention because they were not considered important to biochemistry. However, new research shows these molecules also contain nitrogen, making them polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles, which are present in many organic compounds on Earth including DNA.

“Our work shows a class of compounds that is critical to biochemistry is prevalent throughout the universe,” NASA astronomer Douglas Hudgins said in a prepared statement. Hudgins works at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and is the principal author of the study, which appears in the Oct. 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal.

NASA Awards Contracts to Study Futuristic Missions

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) has selected five teams for awards worth up to $400,000 to continue developing ideas that could greatly contribute to future space exploration missions, the agency announced Oct. 12.

This year’s selected concepts include a space telescope that can observe weather patterns on distant Earth-like planets; miniature robots, or microbots, for planetary surface and subsurface exploration; laser trapped mirrors, where two laser beams form a thin layer of particles to serve as a mirror ; an infrared observatory near a lunar pole; and a project to alter the biochemical structure of plants for Mars habitation.

Created in 1998, the NIAC solicits innovative ideas from outside NASA that push the limits of science and technology and are not expected to be realized for a decade or more. Phase 1 awards are worth about $75,000 over a six-month period. Phase 2 studies, like this year’s five proposals that run from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31, 2007, last up to two years.

Northrop T o Develop KEI Software in Huntsville, Ala.

Northrop Grumman Corp. announced its intent Oct. 11 to conduct software development and integration work for the Pentagon’s Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) missile defense program at its facilities in Huntsville, Ala.

The KEI is a high-speed interceptor intended to knock down ballistic missiles in their boost or ascent phase. The Missile Defense Agency is considering the possibility of adapting the KEI to intercept missiles in their midcourse phase of flight as well.

The company chose Huntsville because it has other KEI work under way in the area, which also hosts several Missile Defense Agency offices , according to Craig Staresinich, vice president and KEI program manager for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Fair Lakes, Va.

“This decision will ultimately help foster cooperation, enhance efficiency and reduce integration expenses as the KEI element begins to interface with the agency’s larger system to become an integral part of our nation’s layered capability,” Staresinich said in an Oct. 11 company news release.

The software work will be performed in a laboratory at Northrop Grumman’s new Cummings Research Park complex, which is currently under construction, according to Marynoele Benson, a spokeswoman for Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. The laboratory will include 70 engineers, including new hires and transfers from other areas of the company, according to the news release.

Stanford Car Wins 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge

The 2005 Grand Challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) proved the ability of autonomous ground vehicles to travel long distances over harsh terrain as five of the 23 entrants completed the 210-kilometer course in the Mojave Desert Oct. 8-9.

Stanford University’s vehicle, dubbed Stanley, came in first, completing the course in under seven hours to win the $2 million grand prize. Two vehicles built and operated by teams from Carnegie-Mellon University were the next to finish, with Sandstorm and H1ghlander both finishing within seven-and-a-half hours. Coming in just after H1ghlander was Gray Team’s Kat-5, completing the course in just over seven-and-a-half hours. Oshkosh Truck’s TerraMax vehicle also completed the course, but it did exceed the 10-hour time limit set for the race.

DARPA’s Grand Challenge is held annually to help foster the development of autonomous vehicle technology that can be used on the battlefield.

OfficeMax To Reproduce NASA Materials at Discount

Office supplies distributor OfficeMax announced Oct. 6 it is joining up with NASA to offer discounted rates on printouts of instructional materials from the space agency’s Web site for educators who want to use those files in the classroom.

OfficeMax is offering savings up to 50 percent for educators who want the store to download and print large instructional files from NASA’s Web site . A teacher or member of the general public can now click on an OfficeMax icon on the Web site to have the documents printed and collated at a nearby OfficeMax location for delivery or pickup.

The educational resources on NASA’s Web site aim to spark student interests in space, science and technology. The instructional materials are available at

NASA Confirms Existence of Toxic Oceans on Early Earth

NASA-funded exobiology researchers have confirmed that Earth’s oceans were once laden with sulfides that hindered the development of advanced, oxygen-breathing life forms such as fish and mammals, the agency announced Oct. 6.

Scientists from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of Cambridge, Mass., analyzed fossilized remains of photosynthetic pigments preserved in rocks from the McArthur Basin in northern Australia that were nearly 1.6 billion years old. They found evidence of photosynthetic bacteria that require both sulfides and sunlight to live. Researchers reported finding low amounts of algae and oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, which likely were scarce due to the presence of sulfides.

“This work suggests Earth’s oceans may have been hostile to animal and plant life until relatively recently,” Carl Pilcher, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology, said in a prepared statement. “If so, this would have profound implications for the evolution of modern life.”

The scientists estimated that for up to seven-eighths of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, there was not enough oxygen in the oceans to support oxygen-breathing marine life.

DirecTV Takes Control of Spaceway F1 Satellite

Boeing announced Oct. 10 it has completed the on-orbit delivery of the Spaceway F1 satellite to DirecTV of El Segundo, Calif., which will use the Ka-band spacecraft to broadcast local high-definition television channels in some of the United States’ largest markets.

Spaceway F1, a Boeing 702-model geostationary satellite designed and manufactured at Boeing’s Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, was launched in late April aboard a Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket. It is part of DirecTV’s next generation of direct-to-home broadcast satellites. The satellite will serve a total of 36 million homes in such large U.S. markets as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York and Washington, according to DirecTV.

Spaceway F1’s sister satellite, Spaceway F2, is slated for launch later this year, with another two DirecTV spacecraft scheduled to go up in the next two years. All four satellites will allow DirecTV to broadcast up to 1,500 local high-definition television channels and 150 national high-definition channels to most U.S. households by 2007.

Space Shuttle Endeavour Powers Up Successfully

NASA announced Oct. 6 that after 900,000 hours of work and 124 modifications, Space Shuttle Endeavour was successfully powered up for the first time in two years at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the entire refit took place.

NASA engineers and technicians have been working on Endeavour so it meets return-to-flight safety specifications , a process which included bonding over 1,000 thermal protection tiles to the shuttle and inspecting more than 240 kilometers of wiring. Two of the biggest upgrades were the addition of a multifunctional electronic display system, which will improve interaction between the crew and orbiter, and an advanced GPS system that will enhance the vehicle’s ability to land on runways other than at military bases.

NASA said another 39 modifications are still under way , and that Endeavour will spend the next 10 months to a year undergoing tests for a launch that could take place late next year.

“Having three operational vehicles in the fleet affords the shuttle program great schedule flexibility, as we move toward flying safely and completing the international space station,” Wayne Hale, NASA’s space shuttle program manager, said in a prepared statement.

NASA Motorized Sailplane Finds Thermal Updrafts

A NASA engineering team recently completed tests of a motorized model sailplane that harnesses rising air flows called thermal lifts to extend its flight time and conserve fuel, the space agency announced Oct. 6.

NASA aerospace engineer Michael Allen and his team conducted the tests of the nearly 7-kilogram model sailplane at the agency’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California, with the plane autonomously catching thermal lifts that extended flight times up to 60 minutes. Featuring a 4-meter wingspan, the motorized model reached an altitude of 840 meters in one test, finishing with an average altitude of about 170 meters in 23 updrafts accounting all test flights.

“The flights demonstrated a small unmanned vehicle can mimic birds and exploit the free energy that exists in the atmosphere,” Allen said in a prepared statement.

Allen’s team flew the craft 17 times from July to mid-September. The plane was modified at Dryden to incorporate a small electrical motor and an autopilot program for detecting thermal lifts.

Zero-G Aircraft To Operate From Kennedy Space Center

Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G) will operate its microgravity simulator aircraft from NASA’s space shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida under a pilot program designed to make the facility more accessible to non-NASA users, the space agency announced Oct. 7.

Zero-G’s modified 727-200 aircraft, G-Force One, is scheduled to take off and land on the shuttle runway Nov. 5-6 in a series of flights that will enable teachers to perform microgravity experiments, NASA said. G-Force One flies a series of parabolic arcs that provide periods of temporary weightlessness. Zero-G of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., markets the flights commercially.

This is the first of a series of demonstration projects that will use the 4,600-meter runway to showcase the facility for non-NASA use.

Boeing, Ford, Northwestern Launch Technology Alliance

Chicago-based Boeing Co. announced Oct. 6 it is forming an alliance with Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich., and Northwestern University to conduct nanotechnology research projects that are of mutual interest.

The agreement was announced at the dedication ceremony of Ford’s Engineering Design Center on Northwestern’s Evanston, Ill., campus. While most of the research will focus on nanotechnology, the alliance also will devote research to such topics as specialty metals, thermal materials, coatings and sensors. The agreement is expected to be finalized later in October .

Boeing and Ford will provide three years of funding for the program under the arrangement. Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science will administer the alliance and provide office space for the industrial alliance coordinator — a full-time Ford employee.

Boeing and Ford earlier this year renewed a nearly 10-year-old commitment to exchange technology and resources to accelerate the development of mutually beneficial technologies.

Loral-Built Satellites Will Feature Harris Reflectors

Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., announced Oct. 10 it will design and build mesh reflectors for three commercial satellites that Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., is building for mobile communications services.

The reflectors will be used aboard ICO Satellite Management’s mobile communications satellite, TerreStar Network’s TerreStar-1 mobile communications satellite and XM Satellite Radio’s XM-5 broadcast satellite.

The reflectors have gold mesh surfaces that are stowed like a closed umbrella during the satellite’s launch. Once the satellite reaches its orbital destination , managers on the ground signal the reflector to open.

Comments: Warren Ferster,