Today’s Tidbits: June 3, 2019 – UPDATED

Today’s Tidbits: June 3, 2019 – UPDATED

Here are’s tidbits for June 3, 2019: HASC subcommittee draft silent on Space Force; NRO awards three commercial imagery study contracts; WFIRST still on track for mid-2020s launch. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

HASC Subcommittee Draft Silent on Space Force

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is beginning to mark up its version of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week.  Today, five of the six HASC subcommittees released the drafts of their sections of the bill, which they will mark up tomorrow and Wednesday. Full committee markup is next week.  [The subcommittee approved the bill on a party line vote on June 4.]

Most DOD space activities are handled by the Strategic Forces subcommittee and anticipation was high that its draft report would reveal HASC’s views on the Pentagon’s proposal to establish a U.S. Space Force.  It was this subcommittee that originated the idea of a Space Corps in the FY2018 NDAA. A lot has happened since then, but the proposal submitted by the Pentagon in March has a lot of similarities to it.

The draft subcommittee report does not mention the topic, however.  That suggests it will be dealt with at full committee markup or possibly in a separate bill. [UPDATE, June 4:  Strategic Forces subcommittee chair Cooper said today that the issue was “kicked to full committee” because of its broad jurisdictional considerations.]   It is noteworthy, however, that the top Republicans on the subcommittee, Mike Turner (R-OH), and full committee, Mac Thornberry (R-TX), issued a joint press release reproaching the subcommittee draft as “partisan and irresponsible”and “a significant departure” from the committee’s “tradition of bipartisanship.”  The criticism appeared to be directed at a completely different issue (low yield nuclear warheads), but the markups apparently will be contentious.

The subcommittee draft does not provide funding details either, but it does have direction to DOD about several specific space programs or activities.  There are too many to list here, but a subcommittee press release highlights the following:

  • Requires the Space Development Agency (SDA) to establish a program to prototype a specific Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver that would incorporate both allied and non-allied, trusted and open GNSS signals to increase the resilience and capability of military positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT).
  • Requires SDA to procure commercial Space Situational Awareness (SSA) services.
  • Extends annual determination on plan on full integration and exploitation of overhead persistent infrared capability.
  • Requires reports on efficient acquisition of COMSATCOM and improving resilience of space architectures.

NRO Awards Three Commercial Imagery Study Contracts

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) announced today that it has selected three companies for commercial imagery study contracts. The contracts will allow NRO to assess the performance capabilities of these domestic satellite imagery companies and “validate their ability to satisfy U.S. government requirements into the 2023 timeframe.” []

The companies are:

  • BlackSky Global
  • Maxar Technologies (which bought DigitalGlobe)
  • Planet

The national security community has been a significant user of commercial imagery since the early 2000s.  Commercial imagery is not as precise as the “exquisite” images from satellites designed and operated by NRO, but can be shared more easily since they are not classified.  The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) used to manage these commercial imagery contracts, but the task was reassigned to NRO in 2017, which took over the current EnhancedView contract in 2018.

NRO made the announcement at the annual GEOINT conference taking place in San Antonio this week. The amount of the awards was not mentioned.  Maxar/DigitalGlobe is the survivor of the original three commercial imagery companies and is the EnhancedView contractor, but the market has changed dramatically in the past few years with new entrants.  NRO has more choices for the next contracting round, which it said will commence in late 2020.

WFIRST Still On Track for Mid-2020s Launch

NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz gave an update on NASA’s astrophysics portfolio today at a meeting of the NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC).  Among the programs he discussed was the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).  The follow-on to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which itself is the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, WFIRST was the top priority for a large space mission from the Astro2010 Decadal Survey. Its initiation was delayed because of cost overruns on JWST.  It finally got underway, but now the Trump Administration to trying to terminate it.

Congress does not agree. For the current fiscal year (FY2019), Congress provided $312 million to keep going, with the goal of launching in 2025.  The Administration has again proposed terminating it in FY2020, but the House Appropriations Committee has already said no, adding $510.7 million for WFIRST in its markup of the FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on its version of the bill yet, but was a strong supporter of WFIRST last year.

Hertz said that $510.7 million is what’s needed to keep the telescope on track for launch in 2025 or 2026.  The first of five individual Preliminary Design Reviews (PDRs) for instruments and the spacecraft was successfully completed last week.  All five will be done in the next several months, followed by a mission PDR in the early fall.  If Congress does, in fact, fund it for FY2020, the confirmation review will be in early 2020.

JWST is also proceeding along for launch in 2021.  The much-delayed program burst its budget cap last year and the launch was delayed from October 2018 to March 2021 because of integration problems at the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.  The development cost grew by 10 percent from $8 billion to $8.803 billion, and the life-cycle cost from $8.835 billion to $9.663 billion.  Hertz said today the overrun was covered by taking money from the Astrophysics Probes program.

Slide presented by NASA’s Paul Hertz at the June 3, 2019 meeting of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC).

Hertz was asked if the Astro2020 Decadal Survey, which begins work next month, will be given any additional guidance now that NASA is so strongly focused on the Artemis program to get humans back on the surface of the Moon by 2024.  He replied no, that NASA has been focused on that goal for several years. All that has changed is the timing.  He noted that the Statement of Task for Astro2020 already directs the survey committee to consider capabilities that could be made available for astrophysics on the Moon through the human spaceflight program.  He reiterated that NASA’s goal for the Decadal Survey is that it be ambitious — Carpe Posterum (Seize the Future).

Slide presented by NASA’s Paul Hertz at the June 3, 2019 meeting of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC).

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