Today’s CSExtra, Thursday, June 11, 2015

June 11th, 2015

Today’s CSExtra offers the latest reporting and commentary on space related activities from across the globe.  The U.S. Senate Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee responsible for NASA spending trims the agency’s 2016 Commercial Crew Program request, possibly locking in Russia’s role as the sole provider of astronaut transportation to the International Space Station into 2018 or beyond. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden objects to a possible commercial crew budget cut. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft advances on giant asteroid Ceres, while scientists remain puzzled by bright spots. NASA’s New Horizons mission flyby of distant Pluto on July 14 will mark a major milestone in the exploration of the solar system. Astronomers’ treasured supernova 1987A fades to their chagrin. Saturn’s big rings continue to surprise. Tiny Mercury’s cliffs defy explanation. NASA’s Terry Virts, Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti and Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov departed the International Space Station early Thursday for a landing in Kazakhstan expected at 9:43 a.m., EDT. The Planetary Society’s LightSail-A mission experiment paves the way to a more challenging 2016 test flight. An op-ed urges an end to U.S. purchases of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for national security launches.

NASA’s 2016 Budget

Further delays likely in U.S. launches to space station

USAToday (6/10):  U.S. astronauts may still be launching to the International Space Station aboard Russian rockets two years from now if a 2016 NASA spending measure adopted by a key U.S. Senate appropriations panel, the Commerce Justice and Science Subcommittee, advances. The panel on Wednesday approved $900 million for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, $350 million less than sought by the White House. NASA is seeking the $1.24 billion next year to foster competing commercial crew transportation services for space station crews by the end of 2017.

Bolden Blasts Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Cut to Commercial Crew (6/10): NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warned Wednesday that anything less than the $1.24 billion NASA is seeking in 2016 for its Commercial Crew Program could mean U.S. astronauts are relying on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to and from the International Space Station for years to come. A U.S. Senate appropriations panel on Wednesday offered just $900 million. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a strong proponent of NASA’s programs, warned that NASA’s goal of inaugurating commercially launched crew transport missions to the station by late 2017 could face a two year setback.

Unmanned Deep Space Exploration

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Ceres: Dwarf Planet’s White Spots Shine in New Pic

NBC News (6/10): Astronomers are focused like never before on bright white spots that adorn the giant asteroid Ceres’ cratered terrain. However, a closer look has yet to furnish an explanation for the distinctive landmarks that some experts speculate could be ice deposits. The latest images were snapped by NASA’s Dawn mission from a 2,700 mile high orbit.

Our exploration of the solar system is just getting started

New Scientist (6/11): The July 14 flyby of distant Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will mark the end of an era that began with the first robotic missions to the planets of the inner solar system in the 1960s. Long missions to destinations in the outer solar system — all but Pluto — began in the 1970s. “Now, new and more capable spacecraft are being developed and launched by an increasing number of nations to explore further,” according to the report. “The Grand Tour may be nearly over, but many more voyages of discovery are just beginning and these will be by true explorers, not just whistle-stop tourists.” New Horizons was launched in 2006.

Supernova prized by astronomers begins to fade from view

New Scientist (6/10):  The stellar explosion SN 1987A is beginning to fade. It was treasured by astronomers because of its relative close proximity to Earth and the opportunity to observe the processes surrounding a star’s demise in detail.

Saturn’s Newly Discovered Ring Dwarfs the Gas Giant (6.10): Distant Saturn’s outermost ring features great expanse, according to new research. The “Phoebe ring” is believed to contain dust and ice particles ejected from Saturn’s outer moon of the same name.  Discovered in 2009, the ring has been studied by multiple NASA spacecraft.

Mystery on Mercury: Strange Pattern of Huge Cliffs Defy Explanation (6/10): Scientist claim they are puzzled by cliffs and ridges on the surface of the tiny planet Mercury. The imagery came from NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury which concluded earlier this year.

Low Earth Orbit

Space station astronauts pack up for return to Earth

CBS News (6/11): NASA’s Terry Virts, the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti and Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov were due back on Earth early Thursday after more than 199 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station. Their Soyuz capsule was to touch down in Kazakhstan with assistance from parachutes at 9:43 a.m., EDT. The homecoming, initially set for May 13, was delayed after Russia’s Progress 59 resupply mission launch failed on April 28.

NASA’s Virts hands over command of ISS to Russia’s Padalka

Reuters via New York Times (6/10):  Command of the International Space Station transitioned from NASA’s Terry Virts to Russia’s Gennady Padalka as Virts, the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti and Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov departed the six person orbiting science laboratory for Earth early Thursday. Padalka is a veteran commander and remains aboard the station with NASA’s Scott Kelly and fellow cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko.

LightSail hailed as precursor for low-cost planetary missions (6/10): The Planetary Society, a California based non-profit, explained Wednesday how its May 20 launched LightSail-A experiment could establish a new propulsion strategy for interplanetary missions. The LightSail-A CubeSat spacecraft overcame a series of software, communications and power setbacks to deploy an experimental 344 square foot solar sail early this week. The crowd funded project anticipates a second mission launch in 2016 that will enable a demonstration of the sail’s ability to maneuver in Earth orbit using the energy from sunlight.

Commercial to Orbit

Get Putin Out of Our Rockets | Commentary

Roll Call (6/10):  The U.S. has erred in its continued push to import Russian RD-180 rocket engines as a propulsion source for national security missions, writes J. Michael Barrett, former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council, in an op-ed. Washington and Moscow squared off diplomatically after Russia made an unwelcome advance into Ukraine. The advance led to economic sanctions from the U.S., with some exceptions.