Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Soyuz TMA-18 is Rolled Out to the Launch Pad

The Soyuz TMA-18 spacecraft is rolled out by train to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, March 31, 2010. The launch of the Soyuz spacecraft with Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov, Soyuz commander and Expedition 23 flight engineer, and Mikhail Kornienko, flight engineer; along with NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, flight engineer, is scheduled for 10:04 a.m., April 2, 2010 (Kazakhstan time)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Saturn's small inner moon Mimas

The highest-resolution-yet temperature map and images of Saturn's icy moon Mimas obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft reveal surprising patterns on the surface of the small moon, including unexpected hot regions that resemble "Pac-Man" eating a dot, and striking bands of light and dark in crater walls.

"Other moons usually grab the spotlight, but it turns out Mimas is more bizarre than we thought it was," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It has certainly given us some new puzzles."

Cassini collected the data on Feb. 13, during its closest flyby of the moon, which is marked by an enormous scar called Herschel Crater and resembles the Death Star from "Star Wars."

Scientists working with the composite infrared spectrometer, which mapped Mimas' temperatures, expected smoothly varying temperatures peaking in the early afternoon near the equator. Instead, the warmest region was in the morning, along one edge of the moon's disk, making a sharply defined Pac-Man shape, with temperatures around 92 Kelvin (minus 294 degrees Fahrenheit). The rest of the moon was much colder, around 77 Kelvin (minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit). A smaller warm spot - the dot in Pac-Man's mouth - showed up around Herschel, with a temperature around 84 Kelvin (minus 310 degrees Fahrenheit).

The warm spot around Herschel makes sense because tall crater walls (about 5 kilometers, or 3 miles, high) can trap heat inside the crater. But scientists were completely baffled by the sharp, V-shaped pattern.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Shuttle Detector at Heart of Volcano Alert System

As Tim Griffin and his team were working on better ways to detect hazardous gases on the shuttle launch pad, they found out they also could build something to find hazardous gases venting from a volcano.

That means they may be only a short time away from building an early warning system for volcano eruptions -- a system that could give those near an active cone days or more to evacuate to safety.
Tim Griffin works with the mobile leak detector in the back seat of a Costa Rican airplane before a sampling fllight. The shuttle leak detection system used at the launch pads is the size of three refrigerators, but Griffin's team reduced it in size and added automation so it could be mobile.Photo courtesy of Tim Griffin.

Friday, March 19, 2010

NASA’s International Space Station Program Wins Aviation Week Laureate Award

The International Space Station Program has received the 2010 Aviation Week Space Laureate Award. This year’s winners were recognized for extraordinary accomplishments in the aerospace and defense industries.

In announcing the Space Laureate award, Aviation Week noted that the space station, currently orbiting 220 miles above the Earth with a multicultural crew of three on board, is “essentially complete after 25 years of political upheavals, redesigns, technical problems and the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

“In 2009, the final major pressurized modules were attached to the orbiting laboratory, and its life support and other systems upgraded to support a full-time crew as large as six,” the announcement continued. “The five partner agencies are working to win funding to operate the station until 2020, and engineers already are recertifying its structure until 2028. It has become the model for international cooperation on future human exploration deeper into the Solar System.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jupiter's Storms: Temperatures and Cloud Colors

New thermal images from powerful ground-based telescopes show swirls of warmer air and cooler regions never seen before within Jupiter's Great Red Spot. The images enable scientists to make the first detailed weather map of the inside of the giant storm system.

One observation illustrated by this image is the correspondence between a warm core within an otherwise cold storm system and the reddest color of the Great Red Spot.

The image on the left was obtained by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile on May 18, 2008. It was taken in the infrared wavelength range of 10.8 microns, which is sensitive to Jupiter's atmospheric temperatures in the 300 to 600 millibar pressure range.

That pressure range is close to the altitude of the white, red and brown aerosols seen in the visible-light image on the right, which was obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope on May 15, 2008. These images show the interaction of three of Jupiter's largest storms -- the Great Red Spot and two smaller storms nicknamed Oval BA and Little Red Spot.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Solar 'Conveyor Belt' Predicts Increased Sunspot Activity

Solar physicist David Hathaway of NASA's Marshall Space flight Center in Huntsville, AL and graduate student Lisa Rightmire of the University of Memphis, TN have been monitoring the sun using the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). They observe a massive circulating current of fire (hot plasma) within the sun operating at a faster pace as reported in the March 12th issue of Science.

The current of fire is a conveyor belt-like system called the Meridional Flow which rises to the surface at the sun's equator and spreads out toward the poles where it sinks back into the sun. "Normally it reaches peak speeds of about 20 mph," says Hathaway. "However, in 2004 the speed increased to nearly 30 mph and has remained that fast since."

The faster pace is a revelation because it occurred during the deepest solar minimum in almost 100 years and indications that the next solar cycle will be a weak one. This contradicts some theories that say a fast pace results in increased sunspot production. But it agrees with others that say a fast pace results in decreased sunspot production.

The faster rate of currents on the sun and the expected weaker solar cycle have affects for those of us here on Earth. One affect is the temperature increase of the Earth could slow down, there would be fewer auroras, and to the extent that we depend on satellites, GPS, and cell phones there should be less disruption in service.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Robotics and Departure Preparations for Crew

Expedition 22 Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi works at a robotic workstation in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.

The Expedition 22 crew members aboard the International Space Station were busy Thursday with robotics activities and preparations for upcoming spacecraft departures.

Flight Engineers Soichi Noguchi and T.J. Creamer performed a series of checkouts and calibrations on the Kibo laboratory’s newest robotic arm, known as the small fine arm. Once its deployment is complete, the small fine arm will be used on the end of the laboratory’s larger main arm to move small science experiments and pieces of hardware on the Kibo Exposed Facility.

Creamer also had time to work with the 3D Space experiment, which involves distance, writing and illusion exercises designed to test the hypothesis that altered visual perception affects motor control.

Flight Engineer Oleg Kotov packed and transferred unneeded items into ISS Progress 35, which is scheduled to be undocked for a destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere next month. He also had time to conduct a variety of scheduled maintenance activities in the Russian segment of the station.

Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev packed items and made preparations for their departure from the station next week. They are scheduled to undock in the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft at 4:03 a.m. EDT March 18, with a landing about 3.5 hours later.

Kotov, Creamer and Noguchi will remain on the station to become the Expedition 23 crew, with Kotov taking over as station commander. New crew members Alexander Skvortsov, Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Mikhail Kornienko will launch aboard the Soyuz TMA-18 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 2.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Herschel Finds Possible Life-Enabling Molecules in Space

Data, called a spectrum, showing water and organics in the Orion nebula. The data were taken by the heterodyne instrument for the far infrared, or HIFI, onboard the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency-led mission with important participation from NASA.

The Herschel Space Observatory has revealed the chemical fingerprints of potentially life-enabling organic molecules in the Orion nebula, a nearby stellar nursery in our Milky Way galaxy. Herschel is led by the European Space Agency with important participation from NASA.

The new data, obtained with the telescope's heterodyne instrument for the far infrared -- one of Herschel's three innovative instruments -- demonstrates the gold mine of information that Herschel will provide on how organic molecules form in space.

The Orion nebula is known to be one of the most prolific chemical factories in space, although the full extent of its chemistry and the pathways for molecule formation are not well understood. By sifting through the pattern of spikes in the new data, called a spectrum, astronomers have identified a few common molecules that are precursors to life-enabling molecules, including water, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, methanol, dimethyl ether, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur oxide and sulfur dioxide.

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by a consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Mission Preparations in Full Swing

Mon, 08 Mar 2010 07:30:59 PM GMT+0530

Preparations for STS-131, the next mission to the International Space Station, continue today at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida as technicians working on space shuttle Discovery at Launch Pad 39A calibrate the inertial measurement unit and test the camera located on the external fuel tank.

At NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Mission Specialists Rick Mastracchio and Clayton Anderson are rehearsing procedures for their first spacewalk of the mission in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. The lab, which resembles a huge swimming pool, simulates as closely as possible on Earth the conditions the astronauts encounter working in the weightlessness of space.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

NASA’s International Space Station Program Wins Collier Trophy

The International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-130 crew member on space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.

The International Space Station Program has won the 2009 Collier Trophy, which is considered the top award in aviation. The National Aeronautic Association bestows the award annually to recognize the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America. “We are honored to receive this prestigious award,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “We're proud of our past achievements to build and operate the space station, and we're excited about the future- there's a new era ahead of potential groundbreaking scientific research aboard the station."

The International Space Station is a joint project of five space agencies and 15 countries that is nearing completion and will mark the 10th anniversary of a continuous human presence in orbit later this year. The largest and most complicated spacecraft ever built, the space station is an international, technological and political achievement that represents the latest step in humankind’s quest to explore and live in space.

Designated as a national laboratory by Congress in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, the space station provides a research platform that takes advantage of the microgravity conditions 220 miles above the Earth’s surface across a wide variety of fields, including human life sciences, biological science, human physiology, physical and materials science, and Earth and space science.
Upon completion of assembly later this year, the station’s crew and its U.S., European, Japanese and Russian laboratory facilities will expand the pace of space-based research to unprecedented levels.

Nearly 150 experiments are currently under way on the station, and more than 400 experiments have been conducted since research began nine years ago. These experiments already are leading to advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells and the development of more capable engines and materials for use on Earth and in space.