Space & Planetary Science: November 2008 Archives

Editor's note: The following public exchange of letters regarding Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) cost overruns has been underway between former SMD Alan Stern and NASA HQ's proxy, Jim Garvin from NASA GSFC for several weeks. Once again, Garvin attempts to play the standard NASA game of moving the goal posts with what amounts to selective semantic mathematics so as to try and decrease the true scope of MSL's cost overrun. Stern, in response, uses Garvin's own numbers and simple math to show that no matter how you try and cook the books, MSL's cost has risen far more than NASA wants to admit.

To be certain, the MSL cost increase itself is troubling. Even more troubling, however, is the broader issue of NASA's continued, coordinated attempt to misrepresent facts so as to hide the truth of how it calculates how much things actually cost - and what the costs actually are. Small wonder no one can ever complete a credible audit of the agency's books. There is simply no way that this agency can expect - or be allowed - to continue to operate in such an irresponsible fashion.

Letters below:

Struggling to Respond

Editor's note: According to NASA sources, NASA Headquarters has been struggling to figure out how to respond to former SMD AA Alan Stern's 24 November op ed "NASA's Black Hole Budgets" which appeared on the New York Times editorial page. Indeed, the latest iteration of HQ's rebuttal is draft #5 (or #6). There has also been a difference of opinion as to whose name to put on the rebuttal when NASA does finally decide how it wants to respond.

Alan Stern on NASA's Cost Increase Problems, earlier post
Lack of Discipline = Slaughter of the Innocents, earlier post

Editor's note: It appears that NASA is considering slipping MSL's launch to 2010. This will add hundreds of millions of dollars to its final cost without increasing its science value. Monday's New York Times OpEd by former SMD AA Stern pointed out how damaging these out of control mission costs have become - especially when they occur on large missions with hefty political backing. Yet someone still has to pay these costs. Usually, this burden falls upon payloads with less political backing. Science is not necessarily a driver in these decisions. Indeed, often times, whim and political expediency often replaces reason and strategy when the axe falls.

Absent any agency-wide strategic plan or contingencies to deal with such things on an agency-wide basis (given that Ares and Orion have already sucked all of the air out of the room), SMD is left to solve its problems within its retinue of missions. If in fact SMD opts to delay MSL for 2 years it may take much more than 2 years of other mission's funding to pay for the additional costs. Indeed, it is going lead to a proverbial slaughter of the innocents as far as Mars and other planetary missions go. Eventually, however, you run out of innocents to slaughter.

Without clear, fair, consistently applied policies in place to prevent cost overruns - and deal with them when they still manage to occur - no one will be able to figure out which missions get to walk the plank and which ones must be delayed. As a result, NASA will wander from one budget to next spending more time on cleaning up overruns than starting (and completing) new missions.

How will we return to the moon with humans if we can't keep one Mars rover in check? Oh wait, the Exploration crowd already has this cost and schedule problem as well - in spades. Hey gang: its the 21st Century - and yet NASA doesn't seem to be getting any smarter in the cost department. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the trend.

NASA's Black Hole Budgets, OpEd, Alan Stern, NY Times
Shooting The Messenger at NASA, earlier post
MSL Commentary in Science Magazine, earlier post
What the MSL Bailout Looks Like, earlier post
NASA SMD's Cost Overrun Coverup (updated with Telecon notes), earlier post
MSL Heads Toward The Chopping block, earlier post

NASA scales back flagship Mars mission, AP

"Opponents felt the $2 million piece was wasteful, saying any gathered samples will likely degrade over time. They also argued there was no guarantee a future spacecraft would fly to the Mars Science Lab's landing site to collect the basket. Former NASA space sciences chief Alan Stern, who backed the idea, was baffled by the decision. "The Mars program is slowly committing suicide in front of our very eyes," said Stern, who resigned earlier this year. "The only concrete step toward a sample return has been tossed after it has already been built. How does that save money?" Scientists opted to use the space formerly occupied by the storage box for a cleaning station for the spacecraft's instruments."

NASA MEPAG: Analysis of arguments for and against removing the sample cache hardware from MSL

"A wide range of positive and negative reasons for retaining the cache were expressed, reflecting many different prisms of experience. The discussion was unfettered and two diverging lines of thought emerged. 1) Any cache on Mars will be a positive step towards sample return and the cache box should be retained unless it is demonstrated that the MSL objectives will be compromised; and 2) The value of this cache is likely to be low enough that it does not justify the possibility that MSL capabilities or operations will be compromised by its installation, and it should be removed."

Dawn Glides Into New Year

"JPL's Dawn spacecraft shut down its ion propulsion system today as scheduled. The spacecraft is now gliding toward a Mars flyby in February of next year."

Editor's note: "JPL's Dawn spacecraft"? The last time I checked NASA (taxpayers) paid for it.

Glaciers on Mars

NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Spacecraft Detects Buried Glaciers on Mars

"NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed vast Martian glaciers of water ice under protective blankets of rocky debris at much lower latitudes than any ice previously identified on the Red Planet. Scientists analyzed data from the spacecraft's ground-penetrating radar and report in the Nov. 21 issue of the journal Science that buried glaciers extend for dozens of miles from the edges of mountains or cliffs."

Radar Sounding Evidence for Buried Glaciers in the Southern Mid-Latitudes of Mars, Science

Space science missions possible through Constellation

"A new report from the National Research Council, LAUNCHING SCIENCE: SCIENCE OPPORTUNITIES PROVIDED BY NASA'S CONSTELLATION PROGRAM, reviews science missions that would be uniquely suited to the new Constellation system of spacecraft being developed by NASA for human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The report evaluates 17 science mission concepts based on their potential to significantly advance a scientific field and therefore benefit from inclusion in the Constellation program. The report also provides preliminary cost estimates for each proposed mission and recommends which to pursue."

Artist's note: "Wehave created a new color Phoenixmosaic showing the Holy Cow ice blocks blasted free.

Picture Credit:Marco Di Lorenzo,KennethKremer NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute/Spaceflight.

We just published this in Oct 2008issue of Spaceflight magazine as part of a 10 page Phoenix feature article."

Click on image to enlarge.

Editor's Update: Much to my annoyance, the supplier of this image neglected to tell me that this is a false color image - not a color image taken by the Phoenix itself.

"@LunarOrbiter says: @MarsPhoenix we're back from the dead ... perhaps you can do the same thing next Martian Spring ..."

@MarsPhoenix [We can't quit you, either! The team saw and loved this today -- very, uh, creative: Enjoy. More news soon]

NASA Successfully Tests First Deep Space Internet

"NASA has successfully tested the first deep space communications network modeled on the Internet. Working as part of a NASA-wide team, engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., used software called Disruption-Tolerant Networking, or DTN, to transmit dozens of space images to and from a NASA science spacecraft located about 20 million miles from Earth. "This is the first step in creating a totally new space communications capability, an interplanetary Internet," said Adrian Hooke, team lead and manager of space-networking architecture, technology and standards at NASA Headquarters in Washington."

Search for life on Mars is frozen, Colin Pillinger, Telegraph

"Some time earlier this month, Nasa's Phoenix Lander slipped into a cold-induced coma in the Arctic wastes of the Red Planet. With the onset of winter, the Sun dropped low in the sky, and the temperature fell to -1,300C at night."

Editor's original note 17 Nov 10:30 pm EST: Hmmm ... that's certainly news: Mars is colder than Absolute Zero at Night. Who knew? Also, as one reader notes, Colin seems to think that there are forms of life that live at 1,200C. Now THAT would be news.

Reader note 18 Nov 12:22 pm EST: "The -1,300 C error has just been fixed but the extremophiles are still thriving at 1200 C near undersea vents. Under more pressure than a journalist with a deadline."

Hydrothermal vent, WIkipedia

"The water emerges from a hydrothermal vent at temperatures ranging up to 400C, compared to a typical 2C for the surrounding deep ocean water. The high pressure at these depths significantly expands the thermal range at which water remains liquid, and so the water doesn't boil. Water at a depth of 3,000 m and a temperature of 407C becomes supercritical.[4] However the increase in salinity pushes the water closer to its critical point."

Restored: First Image of the Earth from the Moon, APOD

"Explanation: Pictured above is the first image ever taken of the Earth from the Moon. The image was taken in 1966 by Lunar Orbiter 1 and heralded by then-journalists as the Image of the Century. It was taken about two years before the Apollo 8 crew snapped its more famous color cousin. Recently, modern technology has allowed the recovery of higher resolution images from old data sources such as Lunar Orbiter tapes than ever before. Specifically, the above image recovery was part of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project. Images like that above carry more than aesthetic value -- comparison to recent high definition images of the Moon enables investigations into how the Moon has been changing."

More information at

NASA Scales Up 1966's Moon Image to Amazing Ultra-High Resolution, Gizmodo

"When NASA released this image from their Lunar Orbiter 1 back in 1966, the first photograph ever of the Earth rising above the Moon's surface, it was low resolution but they still amazed the world. This week, they have surprised every space aficionado re-releasing the same image in ultra-high definition. The cool part now is that NASA hasn't used any upscaling or magical infinite zoom-in filter from CSI. Instead, they have created a new technology that uses refurbished analog machines and a new digital process that fully extracts the information stored in the program's old magnetic tapes, something that was impossible to do in the 60s. Click on the image to watch it in its 3673 x 1740 pixel glory."

LunarOrbiter Twitter is now online.

Repaired data drives restoring the Moon, Collectspace

"Still, it took some experimentation to understand how the data was organized and what was on the tape. "It was not unlike the scene from the movie 'Contact' where they think they have a video signal but they are not sure and they sort of monkey with the gear and they plug things in and they say, 'Hey look! That's a video signal'. As they play with it further they suddenly say, 'Oh look, maybe we rotate it that way, flip the contrast,' and they eventually find out they've got a video signal and they're sitting there and playing with it and 'Look, more data!' and that's how it happened," described Cowing."

Odyssey Moon Collaborates with NASA Funded Team Recovering Never Seen Before Detailed Images of the Moon

"In support of the project Odyssey Moon supported the salary of an intern who provided direct support to the project's refurbishment of the original data tape drives. Odyssey Moon has also provided funding to the team to allow specific areas of the publicly released imagery to be enhanced for use in mission planning."

This video shows a Lunar Orbiter image framelet being retrieved from an original data tape using a restored FR-900 tape drive. Watch the monitor between the two tape drives as portions of the image (negative image) roll across the screen. This activity is part of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) underway at NASA ARC.

Video below.

NASA Restores Historic Lunar Orbiter Image

"NASA released a newly restored 42-year-old image of Earth on Thursday. The Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft took the iconic photograph of Earth rising above the lunar surface in 1966. Using refurbished machinery and modern digital technology, NASA produced the image at a much higher resolution than was possible when it was originally taken. The data may help the next generation of explorers as NASA prepares to return to the moon. In the late 1960s, NASA sent five Lunar Orbiter missions to photograph the surface of the moon and gain a better understanding of the lunar environment in advance of the Apollo program. Data were recorded on large magnetic tapes and transferred to photographic film for scientific analysis. When these images were first retrieved from lunar orbit, only a portion of their true resolution was available because of the limited technology available."

More images and background information are online at

NASA swoons over rescued moons; decades-old lunar photos no longer lost in space, AP

"These photos will have some use, said Wingo's partner, Keith Cowing, head of Spaceref Interactive, which runs space-themed Web sites. When NASA launches its next high-tech lunar probe in the spring, the space agency can compare detailed high-resolution images from 1966 to 2009 and see what changes occurred in 43 years, he said. "What this gives you is literally before and after photos," Cowing said. "This is like a time machine."

NASA unveils lunar image recovery project, CNet

"This project is an opportunity to revel in what was done in the past," said Pete Worden, director of Ames Research Center, "and get excited about what we're doing in the future."

Rescued Moon Photos Restored to Unprecedented Detail, Universe Today

"Earlier this week we had a story about old data from the Apollo missions that could potentially be lost if an "antique" computer from the 1960's can't be renovated. But now comes good news about more old data which has actually been restored and enhanced to an exceedingly high quality."

New pictures of the moon discovered (video), KGO

"It's maybe the last place you might expect to resurrect history. There is an abandoned McDonalds near Moffett Field, with plenty of floor space for 1,894 video tapes. "We liken it to archeology. Techno-archeology," said Dennis Wingo, an imaging expert."

Update: Video - Equipment used to restore images.

Historic Moon Image Restored

NASA Unveils 42-Year-old Historic Lunar Image

"NASA will hold a media briefing at 3 p.m. PST on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008, to unveil a newly restored historic image from the early days of lunar exploration and discuss the innovative processing technique used to retrieve the image. The briefing will take place in the Ames Research Center auditorium, Bldg. N-201. NASA officials will be available to discuss the recovery process and the scientific value of the iconic images to the next generation of explorers as NASA plans to return to the moon. A tour of the restoration facility will be offered following the briefing."

Farewell Phoenix

NASA Mars Phoenix Lander Finishes Successful Work on Red Planet

"NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has ceased communications after operating for more than five months. As anticipated, seasonal decline in sunshine at the robot's arctic landing site is not providing enough sunlight for the solar arrays to collect the power necessary to charge batteries that operate the lander's instruments. Mission engineers last received a signal from the lander on Nov. 2. Phoenix, in addition to shorter daylight, has encountered a dustier sky, more clouds and colder temperatures as the northern Mars summer approaches autumn."

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander Guest Blogging on Giz, Gizmodo

"We'd like to introduce our newest guest bloggerthe Phoenix Mars Lander. With a successful mission starting to wind down as a cold winter rapidly descends upon its landing site in the Martian arctic, we're pretty happy that Phoenix, (already a prolific Twitterer) has agreed to look back with us on its amazing life over the course of its final days on Mars.

Here Phoenix starts with the very beginning of the story. We're pretty sure a spacecraft has never guest-edited a blog before. Enjoy."

MSL Commentary in Science Magazine

"Finally, there was no mention that a NASA independent review team found numerous development issues that called MSL's 2009 launch date into serious doubt almost a year ago. Nor did it describe that scenarios for dealing with MSL without causing such deep budgetary damage elsewhere were proposed by SMD but rejected at higher levels in early 2008. That, and the concurrent, forced disbanding of the MSL independent review team, precipitated my resignation as SMD Associate Administrator."

Editor's note: NASA Watch has learned that the individual personally responsible for the disbanding of the MSL independent "Cost To Go" review team early this year was none other than NASA Associate Administrator Chris Scolese. He did not like the findings they were bringing forth. It seems that in his NASA, when you don't like bad cost news you either move the goal posts until you get the news you want - or you get rid of the messengers - or both. NASA Watch has also learned that several publications are preparing stories based on additional information provided by individuals in NASA, JPL, and the space science community. With the coming of the new Administration, perhaps Mr. Scolese and others with this old attitude should be "looking in their rear view mirrors".

Change is coming.

Editor's update: Still no response from NASA. However, some of the comments are interesting - even if many people prefer to remain anonymous.

NASA Mars Opportunity Rover: Shake, Rattle, and Ready to Roll

"Opportunity got some good vibrations going this week while trying to remove dust from the mirror of the miniature thermal emission spectrometer, an instrument that measures temperatures and detects minerals from a distance. Using low-level motor commands on the rover's 1,680th sol, or Martian day of exploration (Oct. 14, 2008), Opportunity created a short vibration to shake the instrument's external scan mirror. Opportunity also got into position for the final imaging campaign at "Victoria Crater," driving onto a promontory known as "Cape Agulhas." From here, the rover acquired images of rocks exposed in a promontory known as "Cape Victory."

Larger image



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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from November 2008.

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