Today’s Tidbits: April 30, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: April 30, 2018

Here are’s tidbits for April 30, 2018:  Pence visits JPL, and more about that SpaceX-NOAA remote sensing license kerfuffle.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Pence Visits JPL

Vice President Mike Pence visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) over the weekend.  JPL is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.  It is not a government facility like NASA’s nine field centers, but is often counted as the 10th.  It builds many of NASA’s robotic planetary exploration missions, including the Mars InSight lander that is scheduled for launch on Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

Pence, who chairs the White House National Space Council, has also visited Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Kennedy Space Center.

During the visit to JPL, Pence, his wife, and daughter Charlotte stopped by Mission Control, the “Mars Yard” where Mars rovers are put through their paces (the Pences took a turn at trying to maneuver one as shown in the photo in the tweet), and the Spacecraft Assembly Facility where Mars 2020 mission hardware is being assembled.

The Pences were joined by JPL Director Michael Watkins, Deputy Director Larry James, Mars Exploration Program Director Fuk Li, Caltech President Thomas Rosenblum, National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace, and Jim Ellis, Chair of the Space Council’s Users Advisory Group.

SpaceX and the NOAA Remote Sensing License Kerfuffle

At a seminar hosted by the Hudson Institute today, a Department of Commerce official seemed to confirm that it was the images sent back to Earth from Elon Musk’s Tesla after the Falcon Heavy launch that spurred the requirement for SpaceX to get licenses to transmit images from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage once it reaches orbit.

SpaceX routinely transmits video from the first and second stages as they ascend into orbit and through payload separation.  To just about everyone’s surprise, however, during the March 30 Iridium Next launch, SpaceX announced that it had to terminate the broadcast earlier than usual.

Earl Comstock. Department of Commerce, speaking at the Hudson Institute, April 30, 2018.

Transmitting images of Earth from space requires a license from NOAA pursuant to the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Act.  A NOAA official, Tahara Dawkins, later explained that SpaceX should not have been publicly transmitting imagery of the Earth from orbit (during ascent is OK).   She also had indicated that it was the images of Earth taken by cameras on Musk’s Tesla, placed into a heliocentric orbit by the February 6 Falcon Heavy launch, that brought the matter to NOAA’s attention.

SpaceX thereafter applied for a license just four days before the Iridium Next launch.  There was not enough time to complete all the reviews, so a license was granted but with a restriction that the transmission be terminated before orbit was achieved.

Today, Earl Comstock, Director of the Department of Commerce’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, also cited the Falcon Heavy launch as the watershed event and praised NOAA’s ability to turn a license around in just four days once SpaceX applied for it.  He cited it as an example of what can be done when an activity has high level attention, as space does these days in the Department because Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is “incredibly enthusiastic” about its growing commercial space responsibilities.  He added that the Department is working on a longer term solution and it is clear that the law was intended for cameras that can see Earth “very well,” not just to see if there has been successful separation of the rocket’s stages and deployment of the satellite.

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