Today’s Tidbits: January 25, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: January 25, 2018

Here are our tidbits for January 25, 2018:  Ariane 5 gives everyone a scare; House appropriators re-introduce defense spending bill.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Ariane 5 Gives Everyone a Scare

For a few hours tonight, it appeared that a routine Ariane 5 rocket launch had failed.  The very reliable Arianespace rocket lifted off from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana on time at 5:20 pm ET.  Its task was to deliver two commercial communications satellite into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO):  SES-14 for Luxembourg’s SES S.A., and Al Yah 3 for the UAE’s YahSat.  In a first, NASA has an earth science instrument, the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD), integrated into SES-14 as a hosted payload.

Liftoff was spectacular and as the rocket disappeared into the night sky, Arianespace’s live coverage shifted to graphic representations of what was taking place accompanied by commentary.

That indicated everything was fine, but suddenly the commentary stopped and soon Arianespace President Stéphane Israël appeared on camera to announce that an “anomaly” had occurred.  Telemetry from the rocket was lost seconds after ignition of the upper stage, he said, and SES and Al Yah 3 ground controllers were not receiving telemetry from their satellites either.  Spaceflightnow (@SpaceflightNow) tweeted the video clip (click the link in the text of the tweet):

Three hours later, however, Arianespace posted a statement on its website (and tweeted) that contact finally had been made with both satellites.  They were in orbit after all.  (The time of 7:20 pm is local time at the launch site.)

The statement does not assert that they are in their correct orbits.  More information hopefully will be released soon.  Both Orbital ATK-built satellites have on-board propulsion systems to get from the intermediate GTO orbit to their final geostationary orbit (GEO) over the equator. If they are not in their proper GTO orbits, they still may be able to reach GEO and operate as planned.

Ariane 5 has an excellent reputation. The last failure was in December 2002.  All 82 launches since then have succeeded.  But any anomaly raises concerns.  Commercial communications satellites like SES-14 and Al Yah 3 are usually insured and relatively easy to replace, but Ariane also launches government satellites, many of which are quite expensive and virtually irreplaceable.  For example, NASA will use Ariane 5 to launch the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) next year.  It is part of a cooperative agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) where NASA gets the launch for free and ESA shares use of the telescope.

Interestingly, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, asked the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate about that agreement last month.  During a December 6 hearing on NASA’s next space telescopes, Babin asked Thomas Zurbuchen why JWST was being launched on Ariane instead of a “reliable U.S. launch vehicle.” Zurbuchen replied that it was a combination of cost and international collaboration.  He promised to provide more details for the record.  It would not be surprising for the subcommittee to ask even more questions now.

Check back here for further information as it is made available.

House Appropriators Reintroduce FY2018 DOD Bill

In the ongoing effort to complete action on FY2018 appropriations, the House Appropriations Committee reintroduced a bill to fund the Department of Defense (DOD) today.  A very similar bill passed the House twice last year: as a stand-alone bill (H.R. 3219) on July 27 and as part of the Make America Secure Again bill (H.R. 3354) that bundled it with three other appropriations measures.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The new bill is H.R. 4877.  The committee said it is “virtually the same” as the two earlier bills.  It provides $659.2 billion for DOD:  $584 billion for its base budget plus $75.1 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO, the war in Afghanistan, for example).  Coupled with $4.7 billion in emergency funds appropriated in November, the committee said the grand total for DOD in FY2018 would be $664 billion, which is “fully consistent with the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act.”

Committee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said “It is past time that this essential, must-pass Department of Defense funding bill is enacted into law.  Congress must act responsibly and quickly to get these dollars out the door and where they are needed as soon as possible.”

The House is in recess right now.  It will return to work next week.  The schedule for consideration of this bill has not been announced, but it is quite possible that action will occur next week.

The government has been operating under a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) since FY2018 began on October 1, 2017.  The current CR expires on February 8.  DOD officials from Secretary of Defense James Mattis on down have stridently warned Congress about the deleterious effects on military readiness when they operate under CRs with no certainty about future spending levels.

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