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Space traffic management idling in first gear – SpaceNews

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Debate over which agency should manage civil STM stymies progress

FOR THE HEAD OF NASA, IT WAS ONE CLOSE APPROACH TOO MANY.

On Sept. 22, International Space Station controllers acted quickly to adjust the orbit of the station when U.S. Space Command informed them that an unidentified piece of debris would come within 1.4 kilometers of the station later that day. A Progress cargo spacecraft docked to the station fired its thrusters, nudging the station enough to ensure the object — later found to be debris from an H-2A rocket upper stage that broke apart last year — passed without incident.

“The space station has maneuvered three times in 2020 to avoid debris. In the last two weeks, there have been three high concern potential conjunctions. Debris is getting worse!” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted shortly after the debris passed. “Time for Congress to provide the Commerce Department with the $15 mil requested by the President for the Office of Space Commerce.”

Bridenstine was referring to the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, which requested $15 million for the Office of Space Commerce, far more than the $2.3 million it received in 2020. Most of that money would go to carrying out the responsibilities for taking over civil space traffic management (STM) assigned to the Commerce Department by Space Policy Directive 3 in June 2018, work today that is carried out by the Defense Department despite widespread agreement it should be handed over to another agency.

Disagreement about which agency should take over civil STM, though, has stymied progress. The administration sought $10 million for the Office of Space Commerce in 2020, again primarily for STM work. Congressional appropriators, though, rejected that proposal. Instead, they added half a million dollars to the office’s 2019 budget of $1.8 million, and directed the office to use it on a study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on which agency was best to handle STM.

ADDRESSING A LOOMING CHALLENGE

To perform the report, NAPA convened a panel of experts chaired by Michael Dominguez, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force. That panel included Sean O’Keefe, best known in the space community as a former NASA administrator but who also previously worked at the Pentagon and Office of Management and Budget.

“It became very apparent, from the earliest meetings and discussions that we had, that this is a looming challenge that is becoming more and more difficult, almost exponentially,” O’Keefe said of the committee’s study of space traffic management during a SpaceNews webinar Oct. 13. “You then begin to inventory up the range of federal agencies that are participating at present for their own interests, and for the individual public services they provide.”

Office of Space Commerce Director Kevin O’Connell, top left, and former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, bottom, discuss space traffic management Oct. 13 with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust, upper right. Credit: SpaceNews webinar screenshot

For this study, that meant the Defense Department and the Office of Space Commerce as well as NASA and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, an agency that previously sought to take over civil STM before the administration decided to assign it to Commerce. The panel’s research included interviews with more than 100 people in government and industry, incorporating their comments into a detailed scoring system that assessed each agency’s technical, organizational and related capabilities.

“The report goes through a pretty explicit valuation, classification, determination of where those capabilities reside,” O’Keefe said, “and then thinks through what is the best entity to actually reach the broadest range of all the stakeholders, and be the primary coordination official.”

That effort ultimately boiled down to a single number: a combined score assessing the overall ability of each agency to take the lead on civil STM, on a scale of zero (“significant limitations”) to three (“very few or minor limitations”). The Office of Space Commerce came out on top with a score of 2.9, followed by NASA at 2.55, FAA at 2.25 and the Defense Department at 1.7.

The DoD’s low score surprised many, since it’s handling the civil STM job now by default. O’Keefe said the score reflected the fact that the Pentagon has its hands full with other work, including keeping its own satellites safe. “That’s a real operational challenge in and of itself. That’s consuming all their focus,” he said.

He added that the Pentagon isn’t equipped to deal with the wide range of commercial and international stakeholders for any civil STM effort. “That falls to the bottom of the list at the Defense Department,” he said.

The FAA had a similar issue, he said, given its focus on overseeing commercial launches. “FAA certainly has a very well-established set of capabilities” for handling launches, he said. “But as soon as you reach altitude and are in orbit, it’s a whole different condition.”

NASA, which has never advocated for taking over civil STM, scored surprisingly well, which O’Keefe credited to an “extended range of capabilities” both technically and through partnerships with other organization and countries. However, those capabilities are just a means to a bigger goal than STM. “Their objective is exploration,” he said.

The Office of Space Commerce came out on top, the report concluded, because it could focus on the civil STM mission while tapping capabilities elsewhere in the Commerce Department, as well as with others both inside and outside the federal government.

“The Commerce Department demonstrated that incredible expanse of reach to be able to touch each of those stakeholders on a regular basis,” he said, “as well as understand what those federal capabilities could be, and know exactly where those capacities reside, and to help put some coordination together to collaborate on that information and make it readily available to the emerging commercial industry.”

GOVERNMENT AND INDUSTRY SUPPORT

Needless to say, the Commerce Department was happy that the report endorsed the decision in Space Policy Directive 3 to give it responsibility for civil STM. “I am pleased to see that following an intensive survey of key government and industry stakeholders, NAPA’s findings independently validate that the Department of Commerce is the best civil agency,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a statement Aug. 20, the day NAPA released the report.

Others, both inside and outside government, back the report’s conclusion. Besides NASA Administrator Bridenstine’s endorsement, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel discussed the report and its recommendations at its most recent meeting Oct. 1.

“It is well overdue that the U.S. exert some effective international leadership in the safety of space operations, and begin doing so by designating a lead agency to provide timely and actionable safety data to all space operators,” Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut and retired Air Force general who serves on the panel, said at that meeting.

“I cannot emphasize the importance of this issue enough,” added Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel, “and we really need some action taken now.”

Industry also supports giving the Office of Space Commerce that responsibility, although in some cases it’s less of an endorsement of the office’s capabilities and more of a desire for Congress and the White House to settle on an agency once and for all.

“Quite honestly, as an owner-operator, we’re ambivalent, as long as it’s being done,” said Walt Everetts, vice president of space operations and engineering at Iridium, during a panel discussion at the AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum shortly after the release of the NAPA report. The Office of Space Commerce, he said, “is a fine choice, but I think we’ve probably debated it too long.”

“WE’RE KIND OF IN LIMBO RIGHT NOW”

That debate continues, though, because Congress hasn’t decided on funding for the Office of Space Commerce. A House version of a fiscal year 2021 spending bill passed in July rejected the office’s request for $15 million, with appropriators stating that they were awaiting the NAPA report. The Senate has yet to release its version of that spending bill, and neither House nor Senate appropriators have publicly commented on the NAPA report.

“We’ve been meeting routinely now with congressional staff and some congressional members to explain why this is so important,” said Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, during the SpaceNews webinar with O’Keefe. “We’re making the case as strongly as we can, not just from the office but from the secretary as well.”

O’Keefe, who earlier in his career served on the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that the NAPA panel met with House and Senate staffers as part of the study. They told the panel their priority was finding the agency best able to integrate capabilities from across the government, which O’Keefe believes the Office of Space Commerce is best suited to do.

He also emphasized that the decision in Space Policy Directive 3 to give the office the civil STM mission indicated there had already been coordination among the agencies. “The strongest signal that was sent by that, all by itself, is that an effort had been engaged as part of the interagency process,” he said of the language in the directive. “That spoke volumes.”

O’Connell said the Office of Space Commerce is ready to move forward if it does get the $15 million from Congress. “Next year will be largely what I’ll call a ‘building block’ year,” he said. Besides hiring a “modest amount” of new staff, there will be a particular emphasis on building up the system the office calls the “open architecture data repository,” which will combine the space situational awareness data from the Defense Department with data from commercial and international partners, from which both the office and others can use to identify potential conjunctions.

By the end of 2021, he said, “we will have an initial architecture that is up and running.” That will mirror what the Defense Department provides now, in terms of data and conjunction notices, “but we’ll have an open place where we can start to experiment.”

That experimentation includes how to incorporate other data sources into that repository. “How do we bring that data into one place? How do we do it securely? How do we analyze it so that we’re providing a coherent picture of the space environment that’s trusted?” O’Connell said. The office will hold an industry day in late November to allow companies to pitch their ideas for providing data and improved conjunction notices.

“We have to make progress on many different fronts,” he concluded. “With an appropriate level of funding, we will be able to bring the data together to start to improve this, I think, very quickly.”

The catch, of course, is “with an appropriate level of funding,” an issue that remains uncertain. The Office of Space Commerce and others continue to advocate for that funding, including Bridenstine, who discussed it when asked about orbital debris at a Sept. 30 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on NASA’s programs.

“The Department of Commerce should be picking up this mission,” he said, “but they don’t have the authorities provided by Congress at this point, nor do they have the appropriations provided by Congress. So, we’re kind of in limbo right now.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 19, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.


By Debra Werner

Satellite operators are receiving warnings that their spacecraft are within 1 kilometer of another satellite or piece of tracked debris approximately twice as often as they did three years ago.

That was one of the key takeaways from data compiled for SpaceNews by Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI), the Exton, Pennsylvania firm that hosts the Space Data Center, a platform that ingests information from Space Data Association satellite operators and compares it with commercial radar and telescope observations to assess conjunction risks and warn satellite operators.

AGI also hosts Satellite Orbital Conjunction Reports Assessing Threatening Encounters in Space (SOCRATES), a service that has identified potential collision risks since 2004.

In low Earth orbit, satellite operators typically evaluate the need for a collision avoidance maneuver when one of their satellites is expected to come within 1 kilometer of another object. Space Data Center and SOCRATES data indicate that in 2017, LEO spacecraft likely came within 1 kilometer of other objects an average of 2,000 times per month. Now, it’s closer to 4,000 monthly conjunctions.

Those are averages. For some satellite operators, conjunction alerts may be increasing even faster. “As steep as this curve is, there are operators that are seeing even higher conjunction rates than this curve depicts,” said Daniel Oltrogge, director of the AGI Center for Space Standards and Innovation.

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Eight-mile wall of prehistoric paintings of animals and humans is discovered in Amazon rainforest – Daily Mail

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‘The Sistine Chapel of the ancients’: Eight-mile wall of prehistoric paintings of animals and humans is discovered in heart of the Amazon rainforest

  • Eight-mile wall of prehistoric rock art in Colombia featuring animals and humans created 12,500 years ago 
  • Includes depictions of extinct animals from the ice age such as the mastodon and palaeolama – camel relative 
  • Unclear which Amazonian tribe created artwork but natives thought to have been there for 17,000 years

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An eight-mile wall of prehistoric rock art featuring animals and humans has been discovered in the Amazonian rainforest after it was created up to 12,500 years ago. 

The historical artwork, which is now being called the ‘Sistine Chapel of the ancients’, was uncovered on cliff faces last year in the Chiribiquete National Park, Columbia, by a British-Columbian team of archaeologists funded by the European Research Council.

The date of the paintings has been based on the portrayal of extinct animals from the ice age such as the mastodon – a prehistoric relative of the elephant which hasn’t been seen in South America for at least 12,000 years. 

There are also depictions of palaeolama – an extinct member of the camel family, as well as giant sloths and ice age horses. 

Human handprints can also be seen. In the Amazon most native tribes are believed to be descendants of the first Siberian wave of migrants who are thought to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge up to 17,000 years ago.  

The eight-mile wall of prehistoric rock art featuring animals and human and created up to 12,500 years ago has been discovered by a team of team of archaeologists 

During the ice age this land bridge stayed relatively untouched because snowfall was very light. It stretched for hundreds of kilometres into the continents on either side so provided a way for people to cross into different areas. 

Although it is unclear exactly which tribe created the paintings, there are two main indigenous tribes of the Amazon which are believed to have been around for thousands of years – the Yanomami and the Kayapo.

The first report of the Yanomami, who live between the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, was in 1759 when a Spanish explorer found a chief of another tribe who mentioned them. 

The team uncovered the historical artwork, which is now being called the 'Sistine Chapel of the ancients', on cliff faces last year in the Chiribiquete National Park, Columbia

The team uncovered the historical artwork, which is now being called the ‘Sistine Chapel of the ancients’, on cliff faces last year in the Chiribiquete National Park, Columbia

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Among the paintings are  discovery hat were created up to 12,500 years ago, are ones depicting the now now-extinct mastodon that once inhabited North and Central America and , the palaeolama- an extinct camelid.

Much less is known about the origin of the Kayapo tribe, which is estimated to have a population of roughly 8,600. 

Amazon natives didn’t keep written records until relatively recently and the humid climate and acidic soil have destroyed almost all traces of their material culture, including bones.

Until the discovery of these paintings, anything known about the region’s history before 1500 has been inferred from scant archaeological evidence such as ceramics and arrow heads.

It is believed that these ancient images, which give a glimpse into a now lost civilisation, were created by some of the first ever humans to reach the Amazon. 

The fascinating discovery, which happened last year but was kept secret, will now feature in a Channel 4 series Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon, in December.

The site is deep in the heart of Colombia in the Serrania de la Lindosa area. It is so remote that after the British-Colombian research team drove for two hours, they were forced to trek on foot for another four. 

The site is deep in the heart of Colombia in the Serrania de la Lindosa area. It is so remote that after the British-Colombian research team drove for two hours, they were forced to trek on foot for another four

The site is deep in the heart of Colombia in the Serrania de la Lindosa area. It is so remote that after the British-Colombian research team drove for two hours, they were forced to trek on foot for another four

Led by a professor of archaeology at Exeter University, Jose Iriarte, the research team was funded by the European Research Council.   

Mr Iriarte told The Observer: ‘When you’re there, your emotions flow … We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings. It’s going to take generations to record them … Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.

‘We started seeing animals that are now extinct. The pictures are so natural and so well made that we have few doubts that you’re looking at a horse, for example. The ice-age horse had a wild, heavy face. It’s so detailed, we can even see the horse hair. It’s fascinating.’ 

The documentary’s presenter, Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer, shared her excitement at seeing the images being brought back to life.

She told The Observer: ‘The new site is so new, they haven’t even given it a name yet.’   

Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer, shared her excitement at seeing the images being resurrected

Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer, shared her excitement at seeing the images being resurrected

During their trek, the explorers were faced with some of the area’s most dangerous predators. 

At one point the team even came face to face with the deadliest viper in the Americas – the bushmaster. 

The only option for the team was to walk past the snake, knowing that if they were attacked there was a vanishingly small chance they would make it to hospital in time. 

The territory where the paintings have been discovered was only recently unsealed after being completely off limits due to Colombia’s raging civil war that lasted for 50 years. 

And managing to enter the area still takes careful negotiation. 

Some of the paintings are extremely high up on relatively sheer rock face, which at-first baffled the research team. 

However, professor Iriarte believes that depictions of wooden towers among the paintings serve to explain how the indigenous people managed to get to such extreme heights.  

It is unclear whether the paintings had a sacred purpose but Iriarte noticed that many large animals are surrounded by humans with their arms raised – seemingly in a pose of worship.    

Presenter Al-Shamahi added that some people don’t realise that the Amazon hasn’t always been a rainforest and was in fact much more ‘savannah-like’ thousands of years ago. 

She said that it is fascinating to see these ancient depictions of what the land would have looked like so many years ago. 

Iriarte is convinced there are many more paintings to be found in the region and his team will be visiting again as soon as the coronavirus pandemic allows.  

Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon starts at 6.30pm on Channel 4 on December 5. The rock art discovery is in episode 2, on December 12.  

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Earth is 2,000 light years closer to the Milky Way's supermassive black hole than previously thought – CBS News

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A new map of the Milky Way created by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan shows Earth is spiraling faster and is 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy than was previously thought. 

In 1985, the International Astronomical Union announced that Earth was 27,700 light years away from the black hole, named Sagittarius A*. But a 15-year analysis through Japanese radio astronomy project VERA found that the Earth is actually only 25,800 light years away. They also found that Earth is moving 7 km/s faster than they previously believed.

Sagittarius A* and black holes of the like are dubbed “supermassive” for a reason — they are billions of times more massive than the sun. 

But the NAOJ said there is no need to worry, as the latest data does not indicate the planet is “plunging towards the black hole.” It just means there is now a “better model of the Milky Way galaxy.” 

Position and velocity map of the Milky Way Galaxy. Arrows show position and velocity data for the 224 objects used to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines show the positions of the Galaxy’s spiral arms. The colors indicate groups of objects belonging the same arm. The background is a simulation image. 

NAOJ


Using the VERA Astrometry Catalog, scientists created a position and velocity map that lays out the center of the Milky Way galaxy and the objects that reside within. The first VERA Astrometry Catalog was published this year and includes data for 99 objects. 

Positioning indicates that Earth orbits the Galactic Center, where the black hole is located, at 227 km/s. Astronomers originally thought the orbit was at a speed of 220 km/s.

“Because Earth is located inside the Milky Way Galaxy, we can’t step back and see what the Galaxy looks like from the outside,” NAOJ said in a press statement. “Astrometry, accurate measurement of the positions and motions of objects, is a vital tool to understand the overall structure of the Galaxy and our place in it.”

VERA, Very Long Baseline Interferometry Exploration of Radio Astrometry, was created in 2000 and uses interferometry to aggregate data from radio telescopes located throughout Japan. Through the project, scientists can create the same resolution as a 2,300 km diameter telescope, which “is sharp enough in theory to resolve a United States penny placed on the surface of the moon,” NAOJ said. 

NAOJ scientists are hoping to gather data on even more objects, with a focus on those that are close to Sagittarius A*. 

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Watch a Lunar Eclipse, or at Least Try To – The New York Times

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This evening as you sneak some late-night Thanksgiving leftovers, take a moment to marvel at the full moon. Do you notice anything different? It’s subtle, but on early Monday (Sunday night if you’re on the west coast), the full moon should appear a bit darker than usual. That’s because you’re witnessing a penumbral lunar eclipse, a celestial occurrence in which the moon dips behind Earth’s faint, outer shadow, or penumbra.

Penumbral eclipses are slight, verging on imperceptible in some cases, says Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “It’s not something that’s going to slap you in the face.”

So Sunday night’s eclipse will not be as dramatic as a total lunar eclipse, in which the moon plunges into Earth’s dark inner shadow, called the umbra, turning its surface blood red. Nor is it as striking as a partial lunar eclipse, in which the moon slides behind part of the umbral shadow and looks as if some space monster took a gigantic cookie bite out of it.

And it is not as awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse, in which the new moon glides in front of the sun, leaving a wispy, white halo shining in the daytime sky.

But the penumbral eclipse could still be worth your time as a chance to test how attuned you are with the night sky, Dr. Faherty said. For our ancestors who lived without city lights or streetlamps, the moon provided the majority of useful light at night. If it dimmed ever so slightly, people noticed.

But that perceptiveness has been lost in part as our dependence on the moon’s glow has waned. Dr. Faherty suggests using the penumbral eclipse to test your senses.

“Take the lunar challenge,” Dr. Faherty said. “Really look at it. Bask in the moonlight and see how it feels. Can you perceive the difference?”

The penumbral eclipse will be visible across North and South America, parts of eastern Asia, and Australia and the Pacific, according to Space.com. It will begin around 2:32 a.m. Eastern time.

The best time to take the lunar challenge will be at “greatest eclipse,” or 4:43 a.m. Eastern time, when 83 percent of the full moon is within the Earth’s penumbral shadow, according to NASA.

But if you’re still not sold on watching the penumbral eclipse, then perhaps you can take away this nifty fact from its appearance: It is the harbinger of the next total solar eclipse. Lunar eclipses and solar eclipses are celestial peas in a pod. Once one appears, the other will follow two weeks later. And on Dec. 14, there will be a total solar eclipse whisking over parts of Chile and Argentina.

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