The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey – 2012 to 2021

by Dave Fischer

The National Research Council has released Its sixth decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics. The plan focuses on three science objectives:

  • The exploration of the origins of the universe
  • The search for habitable planets outside our solar system
  • The use of astronomical observations to investigate fundamental physics.

The report addresses large, medium, and small activities in these fields. It surveys the existing facilities and the new facilities that would be needed, both ground based and space based. It looks at the known science objectives and where new discoveries might be made. And it looks at the promise of the proposals and the risks associated with each.

The large scale space-based projects are:

  • 1. Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST)
  • 2. Explorer Program Augmentation
  • 3. Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)
  • 4. International X-ray Observatory (IXO)

WFIRST, the near infrared wide-field telescope, is intended to explore Dark Energy and Exoplanet statistics as well as support guest survey investigations.

The Explorer Program is ongoing and funds rapid, targeted projects that deliver a high science return. Past projects include WMAP, Swift, GALEX and WISE.

LISA will exploit the new field of astronomy using long wavelength gravitational radiation measured by three spacecraft 5 million kilometers apart.

IXO is a large area, high spectral resolution x-ray observatory to explore hottest regions in the universe, including clusters of galaxies, the intergalactic medium, and black hole accretion disks.

The medium scale space-based projects are:

  • 1. New Worlds Technology Development Program
  • 2. Inflation Technology Development Program

The New Worlds technology development program is a research program to obtain preliminary observations in order to study nearby habitable planets. Included is technology development in order to make an informed decision in the second half of this decade on a flagship mission.

The Inflation Technology development program will use ground based microwave background telescopes to examine “B-mode polarization.” This is a sensitive signature of processes thought to have occurred during the earliest moments of the universe. If a signal is seen, then a space-based mission with at least ten times greater sensitivity is warranted and associated technology development would be needed.

There are four large scale ground-based projects recommended, and prioritized as follows:

  • 1. Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
  • 2. Mid-Scale Innovations Program
  • 3. Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT)
  • 4. Atmospheric Cerenkov Telescope Array (ACTA)

The LSST project would address research such as dark energy using gravitational lensing, dark matter, Near-Earth Kuiper-belt objects, the Solar neighborhood, and transient phenomena such as gamma-ray bursts, variable stars, and supernova.

The mid-scale program would fund annual proposals to compete for funding, of which around 7 proposals would be chosen during the decade.

The Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope project suggests that NSF chose one of the two current 30 meter telescope projects (The Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile or the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii) and invest in a quarter share in order to provide access for the entire US community.

The report proposes that the team responsible for the proposed US Advanced Gamma-ray Imaging System (AGIS) collaborate as a minor partner with the European Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA).

There is one medium scale ground-based program that was recommended by the NRC Decadal Survey:

  • 1. Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT)

This 25 meter wide-field sub-millimeter telescope would work in conjunction with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

The small scale investment recommendations are:

  • Target work-force development (TSIP, Sub-orbital, AAG, ATP)
  • Address changing role of computation and theory (TCN)
  • Support current/upcoming facilities (Gemini, Lab Astro, TCN)
  • Develop technology for the future (NSF ATI, NASA Tech. Dev.)

Other documentation:

NASA press release

Preliminary Report

NRC committee reports.

Town Hall Slides (pdf).

NSS Calls on Its Members and All Friends of Space to Phone Their Representatives Today!

NSS has emphatically requested that the House of Representatives adopt the Senate version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

The vote on this issue is now imminent!  

Please read the full NSS Press Release

You need to call your Congressman today if possible and let them know how you stand on this issue and what you would like them to do.

The exact schedule for the vote is not yet known.  We will post updates to the blog and the website as soon as further information is available.

Remember that telephone calls are usually taken by a staff member, not the member of Congress.  Ask to speak with the aide who handles the issue about which you wish to comment.  After identifying yourself, tell the aide you would like to leave a brief message, such as: “Please tell Representative (Name) that I support adopting the Senate version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and request that he/she do so as well.”  You will also want to state reasons for your support of the bill. 

You can email them a copy of the NSS Press Release    You may also request a written response to your telephone call.  You can follow up on any pending legislation at

Why Not Space Solar Power?

Mon, 13 September, 2010

By Don Flournoy

The 2010 U.S. National Space Policy, which supports a robust and competitive commercial space sector, is good news for those of us working to design and launch the new types of satellites that will collect solar energy in space and deliver it to Earth as a nonpolluting source of electrical power.

Among the goals of President Barack Obama’s National Space Policy is expansion of international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities to “broaden and extend the benefits of space” and “further the peaceful use of space.”

As members of the National Space Society, the Society of Satellite Professionals International and the Space Energy Group, we believe space, as a shared resource, can best be explored and developed by a partnership of nations and businesses working together.

Since acquiring clean and abundant energy is a common requirement for economic growth and an eventual necessity for the health of all societies, harvesting space solar power is a logical human endeavor when the high frontier is precisely where energy is most plentiful. But achieving success doing large-scale commercial innovation in outer space requires long-range planning, pooling of financial resources, sharing of knowledge and expertise, and the careful framing of a way forward that will earn and sustain the public trust.

In naming the CEOs who will serve on his new advisory board on trade issues, Obama noted in July that the U.S. is on track to double exports in the next five years, and he pointed to some of the ways the American economy is being repositioned to better compete abroad. When adding that announcement to the outcomes of the June summit of the Group of 20 major industrial countries in Canada and recent federal policy statements intimating that (certain) export controls will be relaxed and cooperation in space will be encouraged, it would appear that the U.S. could be entering a new era of openness for international business.

To this end, we would like to see some greater leadership and support given to space solar power development by NASA and the U.S. departments of Energy and Commerce. A helpful first step would be a U.S.-led space solar power feasibility study to which all interested nations are invited to contribute.

In the context of the U.S. National Space Policy, such a feasibility study could lead the way in assessing and promoting “appropriate cost and risk sharing among participating nations in international partnerships.” It would demonstrate U.S. “tangible leadership in space,” leveraging the capabilities of allies while assuring continuing adherence to the U.N. Treaty on Exploration and Use of Outer Space — now signed by 125 states, including China and India — that dictates “nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction” shall not be placed in outer space.

At the International Space Development Conference held in Chicago in May, multiple nations participated in a National Space Society-initiated Solar Power Symposium to examine in depth opportunities and challenges for energy generation in near space. Former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, scientist, aeronautical engineer and proponent of space solar power, addressing the symposium via videoconference, spoke to the need for international cooperation in space. He proposed a multilateral global initiative that could map out for us what needs to be done to bring space solar power to operational reality.

From our perspective, space solar power is a meaningful science, engineering and commercial challenge that deserves our attention and investment. In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, we think it is time for the U.S. to put space solar power on our national energy agenda. At the same time, we must seek opportunities to learn from and participate with Canada, China, India, Japan, the European Union and others taking their first tentative steps to bring space solar energy to Earth.

In a June Times of India commentary on strategic international diplomacy, U.S. Sen. John Kerry expressed support for a partnership with India that would include “the quest for new technologies and fresh ideas for economically viable ways to speed the shift to renewable energy sources.”

We believe that within the mainstream of global science, engineering and environmental management there are game-changing ideas and technologies that await testing. It is time to see some space solar power demonstration projects. Of all the possible alternative energy sources on the near horizon, we believe space solar power is our best chance for addressing the worldwide challenges of climate change, renewable energy and continued economic growth.

Don Flournoy is a professor and editor of the Online Journal of Space Communication ( at Ohio University. This article also reflects the opinions of Robert Bell of the Society of Satellite Professionals International, Mark Hopkins of the National Space Society, Stephan Tennsel of Space Energy AG, and Feng Hsu of the Space Energy Group.

National Space Society Endorses ISDA and CFR on Ground-Breaking Policy Work on Space-Based Solar Power

(Washington, DC September 13, 2010) — The National Space Society (NSS) endorses India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) publication of “Skies No Limit: Space-Based Solar Power as the Next Major Step in the Indo-US Strategic Partnership.”

The 160 page paper was sponsored by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and represents 16 months of in-country research by a member of the National Space Society, Peter Garretson, to examine the possibilities of Indo-US cooperation in space and renewable energy.

The paper examines the relevance of Space-Based Solar Power, a highly scalable, revolutionary, renewable energy technology in the context of the Indo-US strategic partnership. After providing an overview of the concept and its significance to the compelling problems of sustainable growth, economic development, energy security and climate change, it evaluates the utility of the concept in the context of respective Indian and US political context and long-term energy-climate trajectories. The paper examines multiple models of potential cooperation, and ultimately concludes that a bilateral initiative to develop Space-Based Solar Power is highly consistent with the objectives of the Indo-US strategic partnership, and ultimately recommends an actionable three-tiered program to realize its potential.

Gary Barnhard, Executive Director of the National Space Society, said, “This is a serious effort to articulate an agenda for Indo-US strategic partnership in space cooperation, clean energy, and climate change. This is a truly ambitious proposal that could top the Indo-US ‘123’ civil nuclear deal in scope and significance. It’s timing right before President Obama’s visit could not be better, and we hope those developing his agenda are paying attention. Our hat is off to IDSA and CFR for sponsoring such visionary work in the policy realm that is likely to advance the interests of the United States, India, and the world. We are taking its recommendations very seriously in formulating our own initiative. Stay tuned.”

See also Peter Garretson’s Op Ed piece in the Sakal Times: “Power: The Final Frontier” (2.2 MB PDF file).

The National Space Society Calls for House to Adopt the Senate Version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010

The National Space Society (NSS) is today reaffirming its longstanding and unwavering commitment to further space exploration and development, by calling on the Executive and Legislative branches to incorporate their various proposals into a Unified Space Policy so that the United States can once again begin to move beyond low Earth orbit. Congress and the Administration need to work together to determine the best path forward relative to our space program, including how best to leverage the necessary partnership between the public and private sectors relative to launch capabilities and how best to maintain a skilled work force.

The NSS emphatically requests that the House of Representatives adopt the Senate version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

NSS believes that the Senates bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 represents the most promising of the options that have been proposed to date. The Senate bill provides a framework for compromise, which will be required in order to obtain the widespread political support necessary to pass and fund a set of programs that together will enable the United States to once again move beyond low Earth orbit. Significantly, the Senate bill seeks to make use of the work force and infrastructure made available by the imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle by speeding the development of a new Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV), which the bill specifies should be in service by 2016. The Senate bill tasks NASA with developing and building an evolvable system which can incorporate emerging technological advances, and also demands that NASA and Congress work together to accomplish this task within a specific, affordable, and sustainable budget.

In addition, the bill also preserves the primary initiatives included in the Administration’s budget proposal, such as support for using commercial providers to transport cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station, funding for technology development programs, and a firm commitment to science. Indeed, the Senate bill specifically authorizes development of in-space capabilities such as refueling and storage technology, orbital transfer systems, innovative in-space propulsion technology, communications, and data management. Although the amounts allocated in the Senate bill for commercial crew and technology development are less than the amounts proposed by the Administration, they still represent a significant increase in funding for and commitment to both commercial space and technology development.

As Congress and the Administration continue to work together, we urge that the following concepts be included in the new plan:

Heavy Lift Vehicle: As set forth in the Senate bill, the selection and development of a new Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) must begin in the very near term. NSS maintains that development should commence no later than the 2011 date set forth in the Senate bill. The missions that the new HLV will be slated to accomplish must be identified and sufficient funding must be provided to achieve those missions. The design of the vehicle should be mission-enabling, while at the same time being focused on efficiency, affordability, and sustainability.

Commercial: The new commercial launch industry must be supported. Successful development of such an industry can not only dramatically reduce the cost of launch but can also enable NASA to focus its resources beyond low Earth orbit. In addition to creating a new major industry for the 21st century, embracing commercial options can help to create a new fiscal culture at NASA.

Technology Review: NSS supports the focus on research and development of new enabling technologies, such as advanced propulsion. However, to keep such technology development programs focused, NSS calls on NASA to define and prioritize the most promising technology concepts to advance human space exploration.

Timelines and Destinations: NSS believes that the Congress and the Administration need to establish firm timelines and destinations. NSS believes that we should set a goal to send humans to at least one intermediate destination beyond low Earth orbit, such as an asteroid, within the next ten years and to land humans on Mars by no later than 2030. By doing this, we will gain valuable knowledge and keep the country, and our skilled workforce, fully engaged in the program. If it is to succeed, this new path will require a sustained, generational commitment to NASA’s long-term mission. It will also require incentives for private sector and international participation. NSS acknowledges the financial constraints under which the U.S. government will be operating in the next few years. Tax dollars should be spent wisely, which is why we are making these requests. The National Space Society looks forward to working with Congress, NASA, and the Administration to guarantee that the United States remains a leader in space exploration.

NSS Board Members Speak Their Minds

Several NSS Board members were “caught” on camera at the recent International Space Development Conference, speaking about how they got interested in NSS, the importance of space, and related topics. These short videos have been added to the Board biography pages on the NSS website. Board members featured are current Directors Anita GaleMark Hopkins, Kirby Ikin, Jeffrey Liss, Joe Redfield, Stan Rosen, and Jay Wittner; Governors Lon Levin and Frederick I. Orway III; and former Director Richard Godwin.

JWST – The James Webb Space Telescope

by Dave Fischer

James Webb Space Telescope
James Webb Space Telescope – Deployed
Credit: NASA Video

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is an infrared observatory, and a partial successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. JWST does not view visible light because light from the earliest universe has shifted toward the infrared (red shift).

Infrared sensitivity is required in order to see further back in time toward the beginning of the universe than either Hubble or ground based observatories.The James Webb Space Telescope is a joint venture between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). In all, fifteen countries are making contributions to JWST.

The are four main components to the scientific mission:

  • Search for the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang
  • Study galaxies and their formation and evolution
  • Understand the formation of stars and planetary systems
  • Study the origins of life on planetary systems

JWST is scheduled for launch in 2014 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. It will take up residence at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 2 (SEL-2). SEL-2 is 1,500,000 km beyond the Earth from the Sun (the Earth-Moon L2 is only 61,500 km beyond the Moon). The location was chosen in order to be able to shield the telescope from the infrared radiation of the Sun and the Earth.

Currently, SEL-2 is occupied by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which was launched 30 June 2001, and the Herschel and Planck observatories, which were launched together on an Ariane 5 on 14 May 2009.

The image at left is a cutaway diagram the the Ariane 5 rocket, illustrating how the JWST will fold up inside the payload fairing. With the large screen behind it, the JWST will be about 21 m in width. It will stand about three stories high. The main telescope mirror, which measures 6.5 m in diameter, is too large to launch in one piece. Instead, it consists of 17 individual mirror segments mounted on a frame which will be folded inside the fairing of the Ariane 5 at launch.

Once it arrives at SEL-2, it will unfold, as this animation shows.

There are four instruments in the Integrated Science Instrument Module designed to conduct the investigations on board the James Webb Space Telescope:

Cutaway: JWST inside Ariane 5
Image Credit: European Space Agency

Four Instruments
Image Credit: NASA

  • Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI – provided by the European Consortium with the European Space Agency (ESA), and by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
  • Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam – provided by the University of Arizona
  • Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec – provided by ESA, with components provided by NASA/GSFC.
  • Fine Guidance Sensor, or FGS – provided by the Canadian Space Agency. The FGS contains a dedicated Guider and a Tunable Filter Camera.

The image below shows the locations of the four instruments in the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM). Below, the image shows the location of the instrument package within the JWST.

Image Credit: NASA

The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is an imager/spectrograph that covers the wavelength range of 5 to 27 micrometers. The camera provides wide-field broadband imagery, and the spectrograph module provides medium-resolution spectroscopy over a smaller field of view compared to the imager. The nominal operating temperature for the MIRI is 7K. Additional information can be found at the MIRI website, Space Telescope Science Institute.

The Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) is an imager with a large field of view and high angular resolution. The NIRCam covers a wavelength range of 0.6 to 5 micrometers. More on NIRCam.

The Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) measures the simultaneous spectra of more than 100 objects in a 9-square-arcminute field of view. This instrument provides medium-resolution spectroscopy over a wavelength range of 1 to 5 micrometers and lower-resolution spectroscopy from 0.6 to 5 micrometers. See the Space Telescope Science Institute information on NIRSpec.

The Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) sensor is used for both “guide star” acquisition and fine pointing. See information from the Space Telescope Science Institute about NIRSpec.

See also:

The Wikipedia article on JWST.
NASA home page for JWST.
ESA home page for JWST.
CSA home page for JWST.
Make your own Paper Model of the JWST.
YouTube and JWST.

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.

Desert RATS

by Dave Fischer

If you want humanity to explore the Solar System, you have to test the systems you plan to use for moving around and living. And where is there a readily available harsh environment for such testing? Arizona. In the Summer it is hot and dry. In the Winter it is cold and dry (or wet, depending on the state of the Arctic storm systems).

Currently underway (31 August through 15 September) is the 13th iteration of the Desert RATS program. You can follow their exploits on the RATS’ Blog.

RATS site in Northern Arizona
Image Credit: NASA

NASA Athlete Vehicle
(All-Terrain Hex-Legged
Extra-Terrestrial Explorer)
Image Credit: NASA

Space Exploration Vehicle
Image Credit: NASA / Regan Geeseman

NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) program is designed to gather engineers, astronauts and scientists and test technology. This year, the major objectives include:

  • Space Exploration Vehicles (pdf) – a pair of rovers that astronauts will live in for 7 days at a time
  • Habitat Demonstration Unit (interactive pdf)/Pressurized Excursion Module – a simulated habitat where the rovers can dock to allow the crew room to perform experiments or deal with medical issues
  • Tri-ATHLETEs, or –Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer – two heavy-lift rover platforms that allow the habitat, or other large items, to go where the action is
  • Portable communications terminals
  • Centaur 2 – a possible four-wheeled transportation method for NASA Robonaut 2
  • Portable Utility Pallets, or PUPs for short – mobile charging stations for equipment
  • A suite of new geology sample collection tools, including a self-contained GeoLab glove box (pdf) for conducting in-field analysis of various collected rock samples.

During this mission, there will be four crew members living in the two rovers. Their traverse routes will include driving up and down steep slopes and over rough terrain at various speeds. The crew will also demonstrate docking and undocking with the PUPs and the habitat. Other objectives for the rovers include demonstrating the differences in productivity for crew members and their ground support that come with different communication methods, and evaluating different operational concepts for the trips the rovers make.

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.


by Dave Fischer

Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program

NASA has awarded $475,000 as part of its program to development recoverable launch vehicles to be used for small payloads going to “near-space,” the region of Earth’s atmosphere between 65,000 and 350,000 feet. The awards were made under the CRuSR program (Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program). NASA’s press release states:

The CRuSR program fosters the development of commercial reusable transportation to near space. The overall goal of the program is regular, frequent and predictable access to near-space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads.

The awards were made to Armadillo Aerospace, home to the Super-Mod vehicle, and Masten Space Systems, home to the Xaero vehicle.

Armadillo will fly three missions from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Two are schedule for an altitude of nine miles each, and the third is scheduled for 25 miles (132,000 feet – 40,200 meters).

Masten will fly four missions this winter from the Mojave Spaceport in California. Two of the flights are slated for three miles and two are slated for 18 miles (95,000 feet – 29,000 meters).

Image Credit: Armadillo Aerospace
Image Credit: Masten Space Systems

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.