Today’s Tidbits: February 3, 2020

Today’s Tidbits: February 3, 2020

Here are’s tidbits for February 3, 2020:  international ocean science satellite honors Mike Freilich, National Academies releases heliophysics mid-term review, NASA adds SPIDER to Restore-L.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

International Ocean Science Satellite Named in Honor of Mike Freilich

The European Space Agency (ESA), the European Commission (EC), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUTMETSAT), NASA, and NOAA have joined together to honor Mike Freilich by naming the next ocean science satellite in his honor.

The Sentinel 6A satellite, part of the EU’s Copernicus program, is now Sentinel 6 Michael Freilich.  It is only the second time that a spacecraft has been named after a living person.  (The other is the Parker Solar Probe, named for renowned solar physicist Gene Parker.)

Freilich spent most of his career at JPL and Oregon State University as an ocean scientist, but took on the job of Director of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in 2006.  He retired from NASA a year ago, but is now fighting cancer.

Freilich”s work not only as a scientist but as someone skilled at building coalitions among agencies and international partners as well as conveying the critical importance and relevance to everyday life of studying the Earth from space was lauded at a NASA ceremony on January 28.  A video played there tells the story of his positive impact on national and international Earth science research.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says that as soon as he learned about Freilich’s diagnosis, he knew NASA had to do something to honor him.  SMD head Thomas Zurbuchen explained how excited he was when he received a letter from ESA and the EC suggesting that the satellite be named after him.

Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will be equipped with a satellite altimeter to observe changes in sea surface levels along with surface wind speeds, sea state and geostrophic ocean currents.  Scheduled for launch in November 2020 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, it is the first of a pair of satellites to continue observations begun as the Topex-Poseidon/Jason series that involve NASA, the French space agency CNES, NOAA and EUMETSAT.  The second satellite, Sentinel-6B, will be launched in 2025.  Together the satellites are sometimes referred to as Jason-CS for Jason-Continuity of Service. Sentinel is part of the European Union’s Copernicus Earth observation program.

NASA and the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine also held a day-long symposium on January 21 to honor Freilich and his scientific career.  The webcast is posted on the SSB website.  At the end, Freilich gives a rousing speech about the importance of international and interagency collaboration in continuing this research.

National Academies Release Heliophysics Mid-Term Review

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released its mid-term review of the Solar and Space Physics Decadal Survey today.

Decadal Surveys identify the key scientific questions for the next 10 years (a decade) of research and recommend missions to answer them for each of NASA’s science disciplines.  Other agencies are often involved as well.  In this case, the National Science Foundation (NSF) co-sponsored the Survey since understanding the Sun and its interactions with Earth requires both ground-and space-based observations.

The Survey was released to the public in 2012, but the finished, edited publication came out in 2013, so is often referred to as a 2013 report.

Screengrab from webinar releasing National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report Progress Towards Implementation of the 2013 Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics, February 3. 2020.

Half-way through each decade covered by a Decadal Survey, NASA contracts with the Academies for a mid-term assessment to determine how well NASA is responding to the recommendations as required by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act.  The co-chairs of this mid-term review,  Robyn Millan (Dartmouth) and Tom Woods (Univefsity of Colorado), explained the key findings and recommendation of the review at a webinar today.

Overall, their committee gave NASA high marks for following the Survey’s recommendations as best it could considering the changing landscape of this part of NASA’s science program, heliophysics.  First, its budget did not grow as much as anticipated: although it is 14 percent higher than five years ago, that is less than the rate of inflation.  Second, there were frequent changes in the leadership of the heliophysics division, with six different directors or acting directors from 2011 until September 2018 when Nicky Fox became Director.  Other changes include the growing interest in space weather research at the national level as exemplified by the National Space Weather Action Plan issued by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the small satellite revolution that is providing new ways to design and build satellites.

NASA Adds SPIDER to Restore-L

Illustration of the Restore-L satellite (in gold) attached to Landsat 7. Credit: NASA

NASA has been working for many years on a satellite servicing demonstration mission dubbed Restore-L.  The primary goal is to rendezvous with, grasp, refuel, and relocate the Earth remote sensing Landsat-7 satellite that has been in low Earth orbit since 1999.  It is only partially functional now and likely will no longer be operating by the time RESTORE-L gets there, but in a sense that makes it a perfect target for a demonstration refueling mission.  Restore-L was originally supposed to launch in 2020, but the current plan is 2023.

Illustration of the communications antenna that will be assembled by SPIDER. Credit: Maxar Technologies.

NASA awarded Space Systems Loral, now Maxar Technologies, a $127 million fixed price contract to build the spacecraft in 2016. On Friday it more than doubled that, increasing the contract by $142 million for Maxar to add an attached payload called SPIDER (Space Infrastructure Dexterous Robot).

SPIDER will add a third robotic arm to the spacecraft.  This one is 5-meters (16 feet) long and will be used to assemble seven elements to form a 3-meter (9 foot) Ka-band communications antenna.  It will also manufacture a 10-meter (32 foot) lightweight composite beam using technology developed by Tethers Unlimited.

The Trump Administration has been trying to restructure the Restore-L program so it is only a technology development mission, not a demonstration, but to no avail.  The project has a lot of support in Congress.  In addition to Maxar (headquartered in Westminster, CO) and Tethers Unlimited in Bothell, Washington, the SPIDER team includes West Virginia Robotic Technology Center in Morgantown, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.  SPIDER and Restore-L are administered by Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, AL) through its Technology Demonstration Missions program.

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