Mikulski Asks GAO To Review Openness on Science Issues

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Feb. 17 to review the policies and practices at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal science agencies that are supposed to ensure openness in scientific communications.

“Government scientists must be able to research and report their findings to the public without fear of censorship or intimidation,” Mikulski wrote in a Feb. 17 letter to the GAO.

Mikulski’s request follows accusations that scientists at NASA, NOAA and other agencies have been prevented from freely communicating politically sensitive scientific findings. NASA was rocked in late January by charges that political appointees in the agency’s Office of Public Affairs tried to stifle NASA’s top climatologist known for speaking out on the causes and consequences of global warming.

In response to the charges, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin issued a statement affirming the importance of scientific openness and established a cross-agency team of senior political and career employees Feb. 15 to review and clarify the agency’s public affairs policies and practices.

JROC Approves Air Force’s New Plan for Space Radar

The Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Board (JROC) approved the U.S. Air Force’s plan to begin the Space Radar program with satellites that are less capable than those that will follow at a later date, according to a Defense Department document obtained by Space News.

The document, which is dated Feb. 15 and signed by Navy Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, who as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serves as the top JROC official, was sent to Kenneth Krieg, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics; Ronald Sega, undersecretary of the Air Force; and Gen. John Corley, vice chief of staff of the Air Force.

French Authorities Order Eutelsat To Pay Back Taxes

Satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris is fighting an order by French tax authorities to pay 69.9 million euros ($83.3 million) in back taxes, including interest. The dispute involves a capital loss Eutelsat took on its 27.7-percent ownership stake in Spanish satellite operator Hispasat S.A.

In a Feb. 17 financial statement, Eutelsat said it is “contesting the grounds for these tax reassessments and, in light of information in the company’s possession, has not recognized a corresponding provision for risk.”

In December 2003, Eutelsat transferred its Hispasat stake to a little-known German subsidiary, Eutelsat Services & Beteiligungen GmbH. As part of the transaction, Eutelsat recognized a capital loss of 140.4 million euros and a corresponding tax savings of $34.8 million euros. The company said the tax savings “reflected corporate valuation methods habitually employed.”

Sea Launch Places EchoStar 10 in Orbit

A Sea Launch Zenit-3SL rocket successfully placed the EchoStar 10 direct-broadcast television satellite into geostationary transfer orbit Feb. 15. The launch was conducted from Sea Launch’s ocean-going platform in the Pacific Ocean, and it marked the first time the Boeing-affiliated Sea Launch has orbited a Lockheed Martin satellite.

The 4,333-kilogram EchoStar 10, a Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems A2100-AX model, is expected to be tested for about a month in geostationary orbit at 138.5 degrees west longitude before moving into its final operating position at 110 degrees west longitude. The satellite carries a Ku-band payload with 10 uplink and 49 downlink spot beams.

Rohan Zaveri, vice president for satellite programs at Littleton, Colo.-based EchoStar Communications Corp., said the company expects the satellite to begin commercial service in April.

A tracking station in Australia received the satellite’s first signal in orbit and confirmed it was operating as planned, according to Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch. The company said the launch-injection parameters, a measure of how accurately the Sea Launch performed, were among the best in the company’s history.

The perigee target was 1,685 kilometers, give or take 200 meters; Sea Launch left the satellite at 1,685 kilometers. The apogee target was 35,726 kilometers, give or take 80 kilometers; the actual drop-off point was 35,737 kilometers. Inclination target and performance was 0.0 degrees, according to Sea Launch.

The launch had been planned for Feb. 8, but then was delayed as Sea Launch confronted unspecified ground support system anomalies. Officials from EchoStar said launch preparations had been slowed by ocean currents, which made it difficult for the Sea Launch Odyssey platform to hold its position.

Sea Launch President Jim Maser said after the launch that the company plans five more missions this year.

Integral Records Record 1Q Revenue and Profit

The legal troubles of its chief executive officer (CEO) aside, Lanham, Md.-based Integral Systems Inc. achieved record revenue and profit in the first quarter of their fiscal year, company officials told financial analysts Feb. 13.

Integral CEO Steven Chamberlain was indicted by a Howard County, Md., grand jury on two felonies, sexual abuse of a minor and a third degree sex offense, according to a Feb. 9 filing by Integral Systems with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Two misdemeanor charges against Chamberlain were dropped and Chamberlain “maintains his innocence and has stated that he will vigorously fight the charges,” the filling said.

During the conference call, Chamberlain commented briefly on his situation.

“What I will say is we have a very strong management team in place, and we have a succession plan, should anything unfortunate happen to me, so I don’t think you have to worry too much about the management of the company going forward,” he said.

The quarter ending Dec. 31, 2005, brought in $29.3 million in revenue for Integral Systems, up from $21.9 million for the same quarter the year before. Net income for Integral was $3.1 million, compared to $1.2 million for the same time period in the previous year.

“These are all historical highs for the company,” Chief Financial Officer Elaine Parfitt said during the call.

The quarter also marked the resolution of a dispute between Integral Systems and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over its work on the Data Collection System Automated Processing System 2. The dispute was settled for just under $600,000, Chamberlain said during the call.

USAF Tests Minuteman 3 Modifications for Accuracy

The U.S. Air Force launched a Minuteman 3 rocket Feb. 16 in a successful test of modifications intended to improve the ICBM’s accuracy.

The rocket was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and traveled more than 7,000 kilometers before striking its target at Kwajelin Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, according to an Air Force news release.

Pentagon Cancels Funds For Deep Space Imager

The U.S. Defense Department has terminated an effort to develop satellites that would keep tabs on satellites and other objects in geosynchronous orbit, according to a senior Pentagon official. The military chose to cancel the Orbital Deep Space Imager out of concern that the program would not fit into its budget, the official said.

The five-year spending plan included with the Air Force’s 2006 budget request showed the service at that time planning to seek $58.4 million for the program in its 2007 budget request. Overall, the Air Force had been planning to spend a total of $1.1 billion on the program through 2011. Instead, no money was requested for the program in 2007.

Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. were competing for the prime contract to build the Orbital Deep Space Imager satellites, according to an industry source.

Satellites Show Greenland’s Ice Loss Doubled in a Decade

With the help of radar imagery collected by Canadian and European satellites, NASA-funded scientists have concluded that the lost of ice from Greenland doubled between 1996 and 2005, as generally warmer temperatures caused its glaciers to flow into the ocean faster than expected.

The study was conducted by researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the University of Kansas Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets in Lawrence, and is based in part on observations made by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Envisat Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar, ESA’s Earth Remote Sensing Satellites 1 and 2, and the Canadian Space Agency’s Radarsat-1. The results of the study were published Feb. 17 in the journal Science.

Astronomy Group Helps NASA Track Saturn Storm

NASA has enlisted amateur astronomers to help observe a powerful storm on Saturn whose location makes it difficult for the agency’s Cassini spacecraft to study closely, NASA announced Feb. 13.

Cassini currently is passing slowly over the night side of Saturn, so its optical sensors cannot clearly make out cloud features that are indicative of storm activity. But the probe’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument is picking up radio signals that scientists believe are generated by the storm’s lightning flashes.

According to this data, the lightening flashes are occurring more frequently and are five times stronger than those observed during last year’s “Dragon” storm, previously the most intense ever observed on Saturn. The current storm is about the size of the continental United States.

Cassini has been able to snap some photos of the storm on the planet’s night side with the help of sunlight reflecting off Saturn’s rings. But the agency also has called on the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers for help, and members have reported seeing new white patches of clouds where the storm should be — like cumulus clouds on top of thunderstorms on Earth. The group’s members, consisting of both amateur and professional astronomers, used ground-based telescopes to make their observations.

The storm is located in Saturn’s so-c alled Storm Alley at about 30 to 35 degrees south latitude. The storm appears and disappears in much the same way as a tornado does on Earth, but scientists are unsure why this occurs.

Telescope Filter Problems Hamper Venus Observations

Scientists attempting to use the Dunn Solar Telescope in Sunspot, N.M., to observe weather patterns on Venus are stuck in limbo as engineers work to fix a filter on the infrared camera that is leaking thermal radiation, according to a Feb. 13 news release from the National Science Foundation’s National Solar Observatory, which manages Dunn.

“Basically, we have excess heat shining on the detectors. We have exhausted all possibilities for working around this after a valiant effort by the Dunn Solar Telescope staff,” Nancy Chanover, the Venus study’s principal investigator from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, said in the release.

Chanover and her team were hoping to use the Dunn Solar Telescope to peer through the thick layer of clouds that surround Venus and observe weather patterns on the surface.

While these clouds mask the surface from most telescopes, the Dunn telescope was recently equipped with high-order optics to produce sharper images of objects in space when the Sun is above the horizon.

Daytime observations of the planet are limited since the Sun usually blinds telescopes.

It is unclear when the filter problem will be fixed and when the team will attempt another observation.

Microcosm Developing Miniature Star Tracker

Aerospace engineering firm Microcosm Inc. of El Segundo, Calif., will develop a star tracker weighing less than 100 grams for attitude control on small satellites under a contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Microcosm announced Feb. 13.

Star trackers provide spacecraft attitude control but typically are not used on small satellites due to their high cost and weight, according to the release. The MicroMak star camera will provide three fields of view using reflective optics that can be used on smaller spacecraft, Microcosm said.

“MicroMak represents a major reduction in both the cost and weight of star cameras. It is one of a series of components intended to miniaturize both sensors and actuators for spacecraft,” James Wertz, president of Microcosm, said in the release.

The award is a Phase 2 Small Business Innovate Research contract worth approximately $746,000, Judy Masukawa, a spokeswoman for Microcosm, said in an e-mail. The performance period begun in November and lasts until August 2007, she said.

Disk of Stellar Material Spinning in Two Directions

The inner and outer parts of a disk of material circling a still-forming star are rotating in opposite directions, a pattern that likely will evolve into a solar system where planets orbit the central star in different directions, according to a Feb. 13 NASA news release.

“This is the first time anyone has seen anything like this, and it means that the process of forming planets from such disks is more complex than we previously expected,” Anthony Remijan, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said in the release. Remijan and colleague Jan Hollis at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., used the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array to make the discovery.

Scientists believe stars form when giant clouds of gas and dust collapse. When that happens , a flattened disk of material develops around the protostar. Typically, the material in the disk rotates in one direction, as do the planets that eventually form .

Remijan and Hollis believe this developing star system might have formed from the material of two clouds that were swirling in opposite directions.

EchoStar Corp. Launches Interactive CNN Channel

EchoStar Communications Corp. of Littleton, Colo., and CNN of Atlanta have launched an interactive news service through EchoStar’s DISH Network satellite television platform , the companies announced in a joint release Feb. 13.

Called CNN Enhanced TV, the service will allow DISH subscribers to receive content from both CNN and CNN.com on one channel, the companies said.

CNN Enhanced TV, developed by OpenTV Inc. of San Francisco, also allows subscribers to view graphically rich stories and headlines, vote in polls and review on-air schedules through a single user interface, all while viewing CNN television.

Space Foundation Endorses Company’s Sunglass Lenses

Eagle Eyes Optics of Van Nuys, Calif., has received the Certified Space Technology seal from the Space Foundation for the company’s TriLenium Gold sunglass lenses, which are based on technology originally developed by NASA to protect astronauts’ eyes, the Space Foundation announced Feb. 10.

NASA scientists developed a lens technology that synthetically replicated the natural protective filters in the eyes of eagles and hawks, both of which are known for their visual acuity.

The sunglasses improve vision and protect the eyes from harmful ultraviolet radiation by blocking damaging light rays such as blue and violet while enhancing harmless wavelength colors like red, orange, yellow and green, the Space Foundation said.

Ancient Impact Behind Lunar Surface Feature

Planetary scientists at the Ohio State University in Columbus have found that ancient lunar impacts might have helped form the surface feature commonly known as the man in the Moon, the university announced Feb. 9.

The feature is a collection of dark plains on the Moon’s Earth-facing side where magma from its mantle once flowed out and flooded lunar craters. The Moon has long since cooled but the feature remains a testament to this earlier time, the university said in a press release .

Ohio State researchers believe an asteroid or other large object hit the far side of the Moon and sent a shock wave through its core to the Earth-facing side, causing the crust to recoil and form the features seen today. Scientists had wondered if these features were created by Earth’s gravity tugging on the Moon in its early existence, but the Ohio State study seems to indicate they are instead remnants from ancient impacts.

The scientists came to these conclusions after using the Pentagon’s Clementine and NASA’s Lunar Prospector satellites to measure gravity fluctuations in the Moon and map its interior. The findings were reported in the journal Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors.

While impacts may have freed magma from the Moon’s interior, Earth’s gravity still played a role: it kept the magma on the lunar surface, where it was able to cool and form these features, according to the release.

Astronomy Group Creates Teaching Excellence Award

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) will begin offering an annual prize this year known as the Emmons Award for distinguished contributions to the teaching of introductory astronomy in North America, the nonprofit group announced Feb. 10.

The award is named for the late Richard Emmons, an astronomer who was dedicated to education, and is made possible by a gift from his daughter, Jeanne Bishop, the ASP said.

The prize is specifically aimed at college professors who teach some of the 250,000 non-science majors who take basic astronomy courses each year. The winner of the award will receive a $500 check and be honored at the ASP’s annual meeting.

This year’s deadline for nominations is June 1. To view rules and obtain a nomination form, visit www.astrosociety.org/membership/awards/emmons.html.

Three JAXA Astronauts Finish Basic Training

Three astronauts from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) were certified Feb. 10 as NASA mission specialists after going through basic training at the U.S. agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for a year and eight months, NASA announced Feb. 14.

The three astronauts, Satoshi Furukawa, Akihiko Hoshide and Naoko Yamazaki, arrived at Johnson in June 2004 and are stationed there to help with the assembly and start up of the Japan Experiment Module for the international space station.

Mission specialists are astronauts who can operate space shuttle systems and robotic arms as well as perform extravehicular activities.

EADS Astrium, Thales Picked To Build 4 Elints

The French arms-procurement agency, DGA, confirmed Feb. 8 that it has awarded a contract to EADS Astrium and Thales to design and build four electronics-intelligence demonstrator satellites to listen in on certain radar signals from low Earth orbit. The program is called Elint.

Under the contract, valued at 170 million euros ($202 million), EADS Astrium and Thales will build the four Elint demonstrator spacecraft in time for a launch in early 2010. Once launched, the satellites are expected to be used to test radar listening techniques for three years.

DGA will be responsible for the mission’s overall design, the satellite payloads and user ground network. The French space agency, CNES, which is co-financing the work with DGA, will be responsible for the satellites’ integration and launch, and system engineering.

The French Ministry of Defense hopes that it will be able to secure European partners to “establish and keep up to date a global mapping and identification of radar sources, improving on existing systems,” DGA said in a statement announcing the contract.

Eumetsat Strategy Director To Lead British Space Centre

David Williams, director of strategy and international relations at Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization, has been named director-general of the British National Space Centre (BNSC) effective May 1, British Science and Innovation Minister Lord Sainsbury announced.

“He brings us extensive experience of how space is used internationally for down-to-earth benefit,” Sainsbury said in announcing Williams’ appointment.

Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat announced it would immediately begin the search for a replacement for Williams, who has been in his current post since 1996. His BNSC appointment is for a four-year term.

Williams was selected after what BNSC said was an unprecedented, open search for a replacement for its retiring Director-General Colin Hicks. BNSC referred to the process as an “open international competition” and did not list British citizenship as a requirement for the job.

BNSC is run as a partnership of 11 government research organizations that contribute varying amounts to the BNSC budget. The partnership is overseen by the U.K. Space Board, which coordinates BNSC activities and is currently chaired by Keith Mason, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council .

EchoStar President and COO Michael Neuman Resigns

EchoStar Communications Corp.’s president and chief operating officer (COO), Michael Neuman, has resigned , according to a Feb. 13 company filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission .

Neuman’s resignation from the satellite TV provider became effective Feb. 13, according to the filing. He is being replaced by Carl E. Vogel, vice chairman of Englewood, Colo.-based EchoStar, and by Michael Dugan, the company’s chief technical officer and former chief operating officer.

The filing did not specify which official would fill which vacated position, nor did it disclose the reason for Neuman’s departure. Mark Cicero, a spokeswoman for EchoStar, said the company had no comment beyond its filing.

According to EchoStar’s Web site , Neuman became chief operating officer in June 2005 after serving for three years as president of Bell Mobility, a subsidiary of Bell Canada Enterprises. He also founded Bell ExpressVu, a satellite television company, in the mid-1990s, the Web site said.

Danish Firm Awarded Parts, Software Deal for Galileo

Terma Space, a division of Terma A/S of Lystrup, Denmark, will supply satellite power conditioning and distribution units, pre-launch satellite-checkout software and mission-control software for Europe’s first four Galileo satellite navigation satellites under three separate contracts, Terma announced.

Under the contracts, whose combined value is slightly more than 8 million euros ($9.5 million), Terma’s divisions in Herlev and Lystrup will deliver the four power-supply units in late 2007 to Alcatel Alenia Space of Cannes, France, which is subsystem prime contractor. The company said the contracts place Terma in good position to win similar work for the remaining 26 Galileo satellites, and that this additional work could be valued at up to 40 million euros.

Carsten Jorgensen, Terma Space’s senior vice president, said the contracts represent “an international breakthrough for the Danish space industry. We have secured this contract though a focused development of competencies and know-how over a period of more than 10 years… [through] fruitful cooperat ion with the Danish Research Center.”

Alcatel Alenia To Build Cosmo-Skymed Hardware

Alcatel Alenia Space will build the ground equipment that will make it possible for the French Defense Ministry to use Italy’s Cosmo-SkyMed high-resolution radar Earth observation satellites as part of the French-Italian cooperation in optical and radar observation for civil and military users, Alcatel Alenia announced.

Under the contract signed with the Italian Space Agency (ASI), which is valued at 32 million euros ($38.1 million), Alcatel Alenia Space will build and install Cosmo-SkyMed ground control and image reception systems at the French Defense Ministry’s center in Creil, outside Paris.

Alcatel Alenia Space is building three Cosmo-SkyMed satellites under a contract signed in December 2004 with ASI and valued at 775 million euros. A fourth satellite is expected to be added. The first satellite is scheduled for launch in late 2006.

Italy is scheduled to provide four Cosmo-SkyMed satellites to operate with France’s two Pleiades high-resolution optical observation spacecraft as part of the bilateral Orfeo system for military and civil Earth observation.

NASA Picks Firms for Thruster Design Effort

NASA has selected Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., and Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., to separately design, develop, test and evaluate prototypes of an oxygen-methane bipropellant reaction-control engine, the space agency announced Feb. 13.

Aerojet’s contract is valued at $6.3 million, while Northrop Grumman’s is worth $7.8 million, NASA said. If all options are exercised, the contracts have a total duration of 19 months. Each has a base period of six months, with options for extensions lasting six, three and four months, according to Jim Free, liquid-oxygen/methane propulsion project manager at NASA.

Free said this propulsion technology is targeted for possible use aboard elements of the agency’s future Crew Exploration Vehicle, specifically the Lunar Surface Access Module and the Earth Departure Stage. NASA has dropped the requirement to use liquid-oxygen-methane engines on these systems but remains interested in the technology.

Sat TV Continues To Steal Market Share from Cable

U.S. satellite television continued to take market share from cable in 2005, according to an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC report on competition among multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs), published Feb. 13, found that satellite television subscribers accounted for 27.7 percent of all homes receiving MVPD programming in 2005, a more than 10-percent increase from 2004, when direct-broadcast television had a 25.1-percent market share.

Cable broadcasters’ share of the MVPD market dropped to 69.4 percent, from 71.6 percent a year earlier, the FCC said.

The remaining 2.9 percent was divided among other delivery methods, including DSL connections that offer video, broadband data and telephone connections. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, in a statement accompanying the report, said the commission would encourage the market entry of DSL and other wireline video competitors who compete with cable providers.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said satellite direct-broadcast television has increased its market share from 18 percent to 27 percent since 2001, while cable penetration has dropped to 69 percent from 77 percent in the same period. The FCC report found that cable companies have responded to the satellite challenge by broadening their services rather than by cutting rates.

Commissioner Michael J. Copps said cable subscription rates in 2005 rose much faster than inflation, and that consumers were reacting negatively to the price hikes. Copps also said the FCC should have an audit conducted of its data to ensure its accuracy.

The FCC concluded that of the 109.6 million U.S. homes with television sets in 2005, 94.2 percent subscribe to one or more MVPD provider.