Today’s Tidbits: October 5, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: October 5, 2018

Here are’s tidbits for October 5, 2018:  FAA reauthorization bill signed into law; NASA/NOAA GOES-17 investigation board; update on Chinese space stations.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

FAA Reauthorization Bill Signed Into Law

President Trump signed the new 5-year FAA Reauthorization bill into law today. Among other things, H.R. 302 as amended authorizes funding for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) and directs the FAA to take a number of actions with regard to commercial space launch activities.  That includes creating an Office of Spaceports within FAA/AST to develop spaceport policy, support related licensing activities, and promote spaceports with the Department of Transportation (of which FAA is part).

Kelvin Coleman, Acting Associate Administrator, FAA/AST. Credit: FAA

The new law also sets up a structure within FAA to better coordinate between FAA/AST and the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) on integrating space launch and reentries into use of the National Airspace System (NAS).  FAA/ATO oversees the NAS, a task growing ever more complicated with the growing number of space launches and reentries and novel users like drones.

The funding is generous, but it is important to remember this is an authorization bill, which recommends funding. Only appropriations bills actually provide money. Appropriations committees are not supposed to appropriate more than what is authorized, but may approve less.

We published an article on September 24 summarizing what is in the bill for FAA/AST, including the funding recommendations, which are repeated below.  The bill passed the House on September 26, the Senate on October 3, and the President signed it today, October 5.   FAA’s FY2019 appropriations will not be finalized until after the mid-term elections.

  • FY2018: $22,587,000 [the same amount as appropriated; FY2018 ended September 30, 2018]
  • FY2019 $33,038,000 [more than the House or Senate appropriations committees approved in their FY2019 bills]
  • FY2020: $43,500,000
  • FY2021: $54,970,000
  • FY2022: $64,449,000
  • FY2023: $75,938,000

NASA/NOAA GOES-17 Investigation Board

Illustration of a GOES-R weather satellite showing the placement of its main instruments. Credit: NOAA

NASA and NOAA have appointed a mishap investigation board to try and discover the root cause of a failure on GOES-17’s premier instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI).

GOES-17 is the second of four next-generation weather satellites being procured as a block-buy referred as the “GOES-R” series.  NASA acts as the procurement agent for NOAA.  During development and launch, each satellite is designated with a letter: R, S, T and U.  They are changed to numbers once they are in orbit.  GOES-R itself was launched in November 2016 and is now GOES-16.

GOES-S, now GOES-17, was launched on March 1, 2018. The problem with its ABI, which is built by Harris Corporation, was discovered during testing after it was in orbit. Basically the infrared detectors cannot be maintained at the proper temperature under certain seasonal and orbital conditions, with a loss of about three percent of its availability over the course of a year.  (See our earlier article for more information.)

One of the mysteries is that three other satellites have the identical instrument and they are fine:  GOES-16 and two Japanese weather satellites, Himawari-8 and Himawari-9.  GOES-T and GOES-U are planned for launch in 2020 and 2024, respectively. Their ABIs are already built, so determining what went wrong with this one is critical so the others hopefully can be fixed before they are launched.

NASA and NOAA announced on October 2 that they are convening a five-person board, all from NASA, to determine the root cause.  No timeline was given for when they are expected to issue a report. [].  Meanwhile, GOES-17 is functioning OK most of the time, so they plan to proceed with making it part of the operational constellation of weather satellites later this year.

Update on Chinese Space Stations

China got a lot of unwanted attention earlier this year on the uncontrolled reentry of its first space station, Tiangong-1.  It fell into the ocean without hitting anything as far as we know, but China is already making clear that it does not want to do that again.  Its second space station, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016 and will reenter “after July 2019” according to China’s Xinhua news service.  Xinhua quoted officials as saying Tiangong-2 has “several safety control modes to deal with emergencies and ensure it can safely leave orbit” next summer. []

Tiangong-1 and -2 are quite small as space stations go (8.6 Metric Tons).  By comparison, the world’s first space station, the USSR’s Salyut 1, was 18.6 MT; the first U.S. space station, Skylab, was 77 MT; and the International Space Station is about 400 MT.  But an 8.6 MT object could still do a fair amount of damage if it landed in an occupied area.

China is planning to launch a much larger space station in coming years.  The 60-MT China Space Station (CSS) will be composed of three modules, each launched by China’s Long March 5 rocket.  The Long March 5 has only launched twice and the second time was a failure, however, so the schedule for the CSS is unclear.  The original plan was to have it operational in 2022.

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

Andrew Jones of reported today on a presentation at this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany, by China’s Yang Hong that the CSS may get bigger.  Yang indicated that if all goes well with the first three modules, plans are to add another three, increasing the mass to 160-180 MT.   Young’s article included photos of some of the slides Yang used. [].

China’s space station plans are a factor in U.S. space policy. The Trump Administration wants to end direct U.S. government funding for the ISS in 2025 to reallocate some of that money to human lunar exploration. NASA is hoping U.S. commercial companies will build their own facilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) and NASA can purchase services from them.  That is not a sure bet, though, and the prospect of China having the only space station in LEO is giving some people pause. Among them are influential Senators like Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) who are adamant that the United States not “cede” LEO to China.  They and others want ISS to operate at least until 2030.

China, meanwhile, is trying to attract scientists to conduct experiments on the CSS and is working with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs to get the word out.

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