Today’s Tidbits: June 12, 2019

Today’s Tidbits: June 12, 2019

Here are’s tidbits for June 12, 2019: Scolese and Raymond nominations; international payloads for the China Space Station; rift among planetary scientists over lunar science.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Scolese, Raymond Nominations Move Forward

Today the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved the nominations of Chris Scolese to be the next director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and Gen. John “Jay” Raymond to continue as commander of Air Force Space Command as well as become commander of the new U.S. Space Command.

Gen. Jay Raymond testifying to SASC, June 4, 2019.

Scolese’s nomination was already approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee, but SASC also had a chance to weigh in.  The NRO is part of the Intelligence Community (IC), which is overseen by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, but builds and operates national security satellites in coordination with DOD.  Hence his nomination was subject to a joint referral to both committees.

Chris Scolese testifying to SASC, June 4, 2019.

He and Raymond breezed through their nomination hearing before SASC on June 4.  Now they must be confirmed by the full Senate.  That could happen quickly, or not.  Any Senator can put a hold on any nomination for any reason and many times the reason is a policy issue unrelated to the nominee.

Scolese is currently Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

International Payloads for China’s Space Station Selected

The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) announced the winners of an international competition to conduct experiments aboard the China Space Station (CSS).  CSS is a three-module space station China plans to  complete by 2022.  None of the modules has been launched yet.

Illustration of China Space Station (CSS) from China’s CSS handbook, available from the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.

The opportunity, announced in May 2018, was open to all U.N. members, with a focus on developing countries. A total of 42 applications from organizations in 27 countries were submitted. Today CMSA and OOSA announced six winning projects and another three that were conditionally selected.  Research areas include space medicine, space life science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion, astronomy, and space technologies. Seventeen countries are represented among the winners:  Belgium, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Norway, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Switzerland.

OOSA administers the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which began its full committee annual meeting today in Vienna, Austria.  The announcement was made at a side-event to the COPUOUS meeting.

Planetary Scientists Disagree on Setting Lunar Science Priority

A disagreement between two groups of planetary scientists on the priority that should be ascribed to lunar science surfaced today.  It pits the American Astronomical Society and its Division on Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS) against NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG).

AAS issued a statement on May 23 listing three concerns about the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to accelerate returning astronauts to the lunar surface by four years, from 2028 to 2024.  AAS asserted that “there is not a community-wide consensus on where the Administration’s proposed lunar science program would rank” in terms of priority compared to other planetary science objectives. []

Artist’s illustration of astronauts working on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

The “community” refers to the planetary science community — the individuals engaged in this type of research. Historically, Decadal Surveys conducted through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine every 10 years (a decade) lay out consensus-based priorities for each of NASA’s science disciplines.  AAS’s point is that the proposed lunar science objectives for Artemis were not considered in the last planetary science Decadal Survey.  It was issued in 2011. A new one will soon begin.  AAS thinks NASA’s lunar science objectives should be reviewed by that upcoming Decadal to determine where lunar science ranks compared to exploration of the planets, asteroids, and other small bodies in the solar system.

LEAG sent an open letter [] to the community today, however, challenging AAS’s assertion that no community-based consensus exists.  LEAG  said that as a NASA-chartered group, it “maintains the community-driven goals document for lunar science and exploration.”  A LEAG “special action team” provided guidance to NASA on lunar science priorities in 2016 [] and the Decadal Survey was only one of several inputs.  Other studies were also consulted, including a 2007 National Academies report on the Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon.   LEAG’s bottom line is AAS/DPS’s assertion that “there is no community consensus driving [NASA’s] priorities is incorrect.”

NASA relies on a network of groups to get advice and guidance for its science programs.  Typically the National Academies provide strategic advice while internal NASA groups provide tactical advice and analysis.  The internal groups for this discipline include the Planetary Science Advisory Committee (which used to be part of the NASA Advisory Council, but now is separate) and five “analysis groups” for the Moon (LEAG), Mars (MEPAG), Venus (VEXAG), Outer Planets (OPAG), and small bodies (SBAG).

LEAG expressed its support for the Decadal Survey and AAS/DPS commended NASA for finding “synergies” between those science priorities and its new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.  But who represents the “community” appears to be in question.

NASA is trying to build support for Artemis and wants harmony between its science and human exploration programs.  Having different segments of the planetary science community sniping at each other is not helpful.  However, LEAG’s chair is a NASA employee and LEAG is a NASA group, so it would seem in this case NASA decided it was better to dispute the AAS letter publicly than keep the argument in-house.

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