Today’s Tidbits: July 25, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: July 25, 2018

Here are’s tidbits for July 25, 2018:  House committee begins JWST hearings; evidence of subsurface lake on Mars; Parker Solar Probe launch delay.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

House Committee Begins JWST Hearings

Artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

The House Science, Space, and Technology committee held Part 1 of a two-part hearing on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program breach today.  The witnesses were Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, and Tom Young, chair of the Independent Review Board (IRB) that recently reviewed what went wrong to cause a 10 percent cost growth and 29 month schedule delay and, just as importantly, what it will take to ensure the program succeeds in the end.

“Mission success” was the catch phrase at today’s hearing.  Following the IRB review, NASA notified Congress that JWST will breach its $8 billion cost cap.  Pursuant to requirements set forth in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, Congress now must reauthorize the program, which prompted this set of hearings.

It was clear that this committee, at least, is eager to do so.  The hearing was a veritable love fest for NASA and JWST.  The main questions centered on what needs to be done to ensure the telescope works once it’s launched and what the impact of the increased cost will be on other NASA science programs.

We will have a full report on the committee’s hearings after Part 2 is held tomorrow.  That hearing features Wes Bush, chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman, JWST’s prime contractor.  Young will return to the witness table to answer any questions that arise with regard to the IRB’s conclusions about what went wrong at the company and what it needs to do now.

Evidence of Subsurface Lake on Mars

Scientists studying data from a radar aboard the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Mars Express spacecraft believe they have found signatures of water under the planet’s south pole.  Media reports clamored about finding liquid water, even a lake, although ESA’s press release is more circumspect.  It quotes Roberto Orosei, Principal Investigator for the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding, MARSIS, as saying the “subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments.”  Elsewhere the press release refers to it as a “pond.”

This image shows an example radar profile for one of the 29 orbits over the 200 x 200 kilometer study region in the south polar region of Mars. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/Univ. Rome; R. Orosei et al 2018

The press release [] conveys the difficulty the scientists had in making their discovery referring to their “persistence” in developing “new techniques in order to collect as much high-resolution data as possible.”  The data showed that Mars’ south polar region is made of layers of ice and dust down to 1,500 kilometers (km) in the 200 km-wide area that the scientists studied.  They observed a “particularly bright radar reflection underneath the layered deposits” that they concluded was an “interface between the ice and a stable body of liquid water, which could be laden with salty, saturated sediments.”  Life as we know it requires liquid water, hence the interest in finding it elsewhere in the solar system.

Orosei and his co-authors published their findings in the journal Science.

Another Launch Delay for Parker Solar Probe

Artist’s illustration of the Parker Solar Probe. Credit: NASA

Today NASA announced another short delay for the launch of the Parker Solar Probe.  The new launch date is August 11 at 3:48 am ET.

Originally scheduled for July 31, it slipped to August 4, then August 6, and now to August 11 for technical reasons.  In this case, a small strip of foam was discovered inside the Delta IV rocket’s fairing after the spacecraft was encapsulated there.  More time is needed for additional inspections. The launch window is open until August 19.

The probe will travel closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft, flying directly through its corona.  For that reason, NASA bills the mission as “touching the Sun.”   To get into the proper orbit, the spacecraft will get seven “gravity assists” from Venus over 7 years by flying around that planet and using its gravity to change the spacecraft’s trajectory.   Studying the corona will provide data on the origin and evolution of the solar wind and thereby enable better forecasts of space weather, which can affect life and technology on Earth.

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