Space & Planetary Science: May 2011 Archives

Keith's 19 May note: Industry sources report that Northrop Grumman will begin to layoff personnel working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) next month for budgetary and scheduling reasons. JWST was originally supposed to have been launched in 2007. This launch date has officially slipped to no earlier than 2017-2018. According to sources, NASA Associate Administrator Chris Scolese told a group of aerospace executives this week that running JWST at a rate of $375 million a year would result in a launch date of 2022-2024.

The cost of JWST has grown from an initial $1 billion estimate to $2 billion - then to $4 billion - and is now estimated to be $7 billion. In other words the cost increase sucks $6 billion out of NASA's budget - money that would have otherwise gone to other space science projects.

If this continues, universities are going to see funds for non-JWST projects dry up. Contractors who might have had a chance to bid on other projects will now be forced to change their line of business to pursue other types of projects. The result of all of this will be loss of expertise in the work force in academia, the private sector - and at NASA.

NASA PAO has responded to NASA Watch stating: "The statement attributed to Chris Scolese is inaccurate. NASA is currently working with contractors and international partners to assess the budget and schedule and develop a sustainable path forward for the JWST program that is based on a realistic cost and schedule assessment. NASA is completing the assessments and developing a new baseline. NASA will complete its new baseline cost and schedule assessment for JWST in the summer of 2011. This information will be used in formulation of the FY 2013 budget request. A decision on JWST's launch date is contingent upon the outcome of these activities."

Keith's 19 May 4:30 pm update: Note that NASA does not dispute the fact that Scolese mentioned that the annual $375 million spending rate would result in a slip to 2022-2024 - rather, that they are studying things ... stay tuned.

Keith's 19 May 7:15 pm update: According to Northrop Grumman's spokesman Lon Rains "We are not planning a Webb layoff in June".

NASA Watch stands by its sources.

Keith's 31 May note: According to a WARN Act filing, Northrop Grumman has notified the State of California that as many as 870 jobs could be eliminated in the next few months. This does not mean that all 870 jobs will be eliminated however. Some are in divisions that would have no possible involvement with JWST. Others might have JWST connections. When I asked Northrop Grumman's spokesman Lon Rains to characterize these layoffs, asking if there could be some JWST employees in the mix, he said "possibly". He then went on to say that these layoffs were being made across the company and that they had to do with internal corporate reorganization - and that no JWST jobs were being lost due to any direction from NASA. NASA Watch sources report that employees working on JWST at Northrop Grumman are indeed being laid off - however the total number is not known.

SMD Budget Update

Update from NASA SMD Planetary Science Division

"As you know NASA received a passed budget on April 14th. However, after passage we first received only a 30-day allotment. Funds for all of FY11 arrived late in the second week of May. Starting on Monday May 23rd access to these new funds for our Program Officers who run the ROSES programs began. Even by the end of the week on May 27th, some of the Program Officers did not have access to all their funds. Jon Rall and all the R&A Program Officers are working as fast as they can to complete the panel reviews, evaluations, selections and awards. This includes going back to many of those that received 'selectable' letters this year for funding."

Challenge.gov: Mapping Dark Matter

"The aim is to measure the shapes of galaxies to reconstruct the gravitational lensing signal in the presence ofnoise and a known Point Spread Function. The signal is a very small change in the galaxies'ellipticity, an exactly circular galaxy image would be changed into anellipse; however real galaxies are not circular. The challenge is to measure the ellipticity of 100,000 simulated galaxies."

Aussie student finds universe's 'missing mass', AFP

"A 22-year-old Australian university student has solved a problem which has puzzled astrophysicists for decades, discovering part of the so-called "missing mass" of the universe during her summer break. Undergraduate Amelia Fraser-McKelvie made the breakthrough during a holiday internship with a team at Monash University's School of Physics, locating the mystery material within vast structures called "filaments of galaxies".

VLT Finds a Brilliant But Solitary Superstar

"An extraordinarily bright isolated star has been found in a nearby galaxy -- the star is three million times brighter than the Sun. All previous similar "superstars" were found in star clusters, but this brilliant beacon shines in solitary splendor. The origin of this star is mysterious: did it form in isolation or was it ejected from a cluster? Either option challenges astronomers' understanding of star formation."

NASA To Launch New Science Mission To Asteroid In 2016

"NASA will launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 and use a robotic arm to pluck samples that could better explain our solar system's formation and how life began. The mission, called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth."

Press Conference

"NASA will host a media teleconference at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, May 25, to discuss the selection of a future science mission that will usher in a new era in planetary exploration. Jim Green, director for NASA's Planetary Science Division Mission in Washington, and other officials will take reporters' questions during the teleconference. For live streaming audio of the teleconference, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio A news release about the new mission will be available at 4 p.m. at: http://www.nasa.gov"

Farewell Spirit

NASA Concludes Attempts To Contact Mars Rover Spirit

"NASA is ending attempts to regain contact with the long-lived Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, which last communicated on March 22, 2010. A transmission that will end on Wednesday, May 25, will be the last in a series of attempts. Extensive communications activities during the past 10 months also have explored the possibility that Spirit might reawaken as the solar energy available to it increased after a stressful Martian winter without much sunlight. With inadequate energy to run its survival heaters, the rover likely experienced colder internal temperatures last year than in any of its prior six years on Mars. Many critical components and connections would have been susceptible to damage from the cold."

NASA to abandon trapped rover Spirit, AP

"The space agency tried every trick to listen for Spirit to no avail. Project manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the last commands will be sent up Wednesday. Though orbiting spacecraft will continue to listen through the end of May, chances are slim that Spirit willrespond. "Spirit went into a deep sleep," said Callas, who said the plucky rover will be remembered for demystifying Mars to themasses."

Keith's 5:45 pm EDT note: Funny how JPL PAO makes its people available to respond on the record to one reporter - but does not bother to offer the same access to other folks in the media ... then again ...

Keith's 5:55 pm EDT update: I just got a media advisory from JPL PAO with just 5 minutes advanced notice for a 6 p, EDT telecon. When I called the number to get the media telecon number to actually listen in - it did not get answered. I'll try again. Why not just put this on NASA news audio? Or better yet: plan ahead so that people can have reasonable advanced notice.

Keith's 6:01 pm EDT update: Finally got through - to save other media folks the effort its 877-546-1568 password is "spirit".

Keith's 6:22 pm EDT update: John Callas could not explain why he chose to make an announcement via AP without consulting NASA HQ or using traditional media release procedures. JPL PAO tried to play down their screw up - and why they had no materials online with regard to this decision. When asked why there was not an official announcement - as is almost always the case at NASA - no one would give a crisp answer. Dave Lavery was then asked if this is the official announcement and he said "Yes". Callas tried to excuse all of this by saying that "everyone knew this was coming". But earlier he said that the original plan was to try and contact Spirit once a week and that they realized recently that probability of success was practically zero - and would use precious assets. So they decided to put that process to a halt ahead of schedule.

Einstein Was Right

NASA's Gravity Probe B Confirms Two Einstein Space-Time Theories

"NASA's Gravity Probe B (GP-B) mission has confirmed two key predictions derived from Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which the spacecraft was designed to test. The experiment, launched in 2004, used four ultra-precise gyroscopes to measure the hypothesized geodetic effect, the warping of space and time around a gravitational body, and frame-dragging, the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it rotates."


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