Friday, July 30, 2010

GRAIL Spacecraft Takes Shape

Engineers have conducted a fuel tank check of one of NASA's GRAIL mission spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2011. Confirming the size and fit of manufactured components is one of the steps required prior to welding the spacecraft's fuel tanks into the propulsion system's feed lines.

The image was taken on June 29, 2010, during the propulsion subsystem assembly and integration effort in the Space Support Building clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver.

The GRAIL mission will fly twin spacecraft in tandem orbits around the moon for several months to measure its gravity field in unprecedented detail. The mission will also answer longstanding questions about Earth's moon, and provide scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Enormous Star blazes speedy and enraged in snap

An exceptional model of enormous stars that survive fast and die young has been photographed by a European observatory in Chile.The blazing hot star is called WR 22 and is detaching its atmosphere many millions of times sooner than our own sun in external blasts that unleash powerful radiation releases.

t has about 70 times the mass of the sun, and its brightness permits Earth spectators to spot its intensity with the unaided eye from over 5,000 light-years away. A light-year is about 6 trillion miles, the distance light travels in a year.

WR 22 sits in a southern arrangement of stars, the Carina Constellation, which symbolizes the keel of Jason's ship Argo in Greek mythology. It is one of many incredibly bright stars in the Carina Nebula a giant province of star structure in the southern Milky Way galaxy.

The astronomical sighting came from European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory. Its colorful image imitates the interactions between the extreme ultraviolet radiation coming from hot massive stars such as WR 22 and vast gas clouds composed mostly of hydrogen.

The upper-left image also contains the star Eta Carinae, just 7,500 light-years away and more than 100 times the mass of our sun. Astronomers expect such gigantic stars to lose their entire hydrogen envelopes before they go out with a supernova bang.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cosmonauts Complete First Expedition 24 Spacewalk

Flight Engineers Fyodor Yurchikhin and Mikhail Kornienko concluded a six-hour, 42-minute spacewalk Tuesday at 6:53 a.m. EDT. The cosmonauts began their spacewalk when they opened the hatches of the Pirs docking compartment at 12:11 a.m.

This was the 147th spacewalk overall in support of
International Space Station assembly and maintenance. The cosmonauts wore their Russian Orlan spacesuits to outfit the new Rassvet module for a Kurs automated rendezvous system capability for future dockings of Russian vehicles arriving at the station to link up to Rassvet. They also routed and mated Command and Data Handling cables on the Zvezda and Zarya modules.

A video camera was removed and replaced on the aft end of Zvezda then successfully tested. The old camera was safely jettisoned away from the station. The new camera will be used to provide television views of the final approach and docking of future European Automated Transfer Vehicles carrying cargo to the complex.

This was Kornienko’s first spacewalk and Yurchikhin’s fourth. Yurchikhin’s first three spacewalks occurred when he was commander of Expedition 15 in 2007.

The second spacewalk of Expedition 24 is planned for August 5 by Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson in U.S. spacesuits out of the Quest airlock. They will install a power cable to the Unity module in preparation for the installation of the Permanent Multipurpose Module during the STS-133 mission in November.

A Portable Data Grapple Caldwell Dyson will be making the first spacewalk of her career. Wheelock will be conducting his fourth. His first three spacewalks occurred as a mission specialist during STS-120 in late 2007.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Curiosity Rover Grows by Leaps and Bounds

Talk about a growth spurt. In one week, Curiosity grew by approximately 1 meter spacecraft technicians and engineers attached the rover's neck and head called the Remote Sensing Mast to its body. At around 2 meters tall, the next rover to Mars now stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Mounted on Curiosity's mast are two navigation cameras , two mast cameras , and the laser-carrying chemistry camera .

While it now has a good head on its shoulders, Curiosity's "eyes" , have been blindfolded in a protective silvery material. The Mastcam, containing two digital cameras, will soon be unveiled, so engineers can test its picture-taking abilities.

Up next today , the towering rover will take its first baby steps: a slow roll on the floor of the clean room where it's being built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Watch Curiosity's progress live from the clean room on Ustream until 3:30 p.m. PDT tod

Friday, July 23, 2010

NASA Moves Forward on Commercial Partnership for Rocket Engine Testing

Engineers at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center recently installed an Aerojet AJ26 rocket engine for qualification testing as part of a partnership that highlights the space agency's commitment to work with commercial companies to provide space transportation.

Stennis has partnered with Orbital Sciences Corporation to test the AJ26 engines that will power the first stage of the company's Taurus II space launch vehicle. Orbital is working in partnership with NASA under the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services research and development project. The company is under contract with NASA through the Commercial Resupply Services program to provide eight cargo missions to the International Space Station through 2015.

Stennis operators have been modifying their E-1 test facility since April 2009 to test the AJ26 engines for Orbital. Work has included construction of a 27-foot-deep flame deflector trench.
The latest step in the project involved delivery and installation of an AJ26 engine for testing. In upcoming days, operators will perform a series of "chilldown" test, which involves running sub cooled rocket propellants through the engine, just as will occur during an actual "hotfire" ignition test.

The chilldown tests are used to verify proper temperature conditioning of the engine systems and elapse time required to properly chill the engine, and to measure the quantity of liquid oxygen required to perform the operation.

Once the installed engine passes the chilldown and other qualification tests, it will be removed from the Stennis E-1 test facility. The first actual flight engine then will be delivered and installed for hotfire testing.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Spitzer Space Telescope

Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered carbon molecules, known as "buckyballs," in space for the first time. Buckyballs are soccer ball shaped molecules that were first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago.

They are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere. Buckyballs were thought to float around in space, but had escaped detection until now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cassini Sees Moon Building Giant Snowballs in Saturn Ring

While orbiting Saturn for the last six years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has kept a close eye on the collisions and disturbances in the gas giant's rings. They provide the only nearby natural laboratory for scientists to see the processes that must have occurred in our early solar system, as planets and moons coalesced out of disks of debris.

New images from Cassini show icy particles in Saturn's F ring clumping into giant snowballs as the moon Prometheus makes multiple swings by the ring. The gravitational pull of the moon sloshes ring material around, creating wake channels that trigger the formation of objects as large as 20 kilometers in diameter.

"Scientists have never seen objects actually form before," said Carl Murray, a Cassini imaging team member based at Queen Mary, University of London. "We now have direct evidence of that process and the rowdy dance between the moons and bits of space debris."

Murray discussed the findings today at the Committee on Space Research meeting in Bremen, Germany, and they are published online by the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters on July 14, 2010. A new animation based on imaging data shows how one of the moons interacts with the F ring and creates dense, sticky areas of ring material.

Saturn's thin, kinky F ring was discovered by NASA's Pioneer 11 spacecraft in 1979. Prometheus and Pandora, the small "shepherding" moons on either side of the F ring, were discovered a year later by NASA's Voyager 1. In the years since, the F ring has rarely looked the same twice, and scientists have been watching the impish behavior of the two shepherding moons for clues.

The newly found F ring objects appear dense enough to have what scientists call "self-gravity." That means they can attract more particles to themselves and snowball in size as ring particles bounce around in Prometheus's wake, Murray said. The objects could be about as dense as Prometheus, though only about one-fourteenth as dense as Earth.

The new findings could also help explain the origin of a mysterious object about 5 to 10 kilometers in diameter that Cassini scientists spotted in 2004 and have provisionally dubbed S/2004 S 6. This object occasionally bumps into the F ring and produces jets of debris.

"The new analysis fills in some blanks in our solar system's history, giving us clues about how it transformed from floating bits of dust to dense bodies," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The F ring peels back some of the mystery and continues to surprise us."

Monday, July 19, 2010

NASA Goddard Felt July 16 Quake

A small earthquake, centered in Germantown, Md. occurred at 5:04 a.m. EDT today, July 16, and its vibrations were felt from West Virginia to Bridgeport, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center located in Greenbelt lies about 25 miles east-southeast of today's small earthquake and reported no damages. In fact, there were no reports of damage throughout Maryland.

The earthquake registered 3.6 on the Richter scale, according to the U.S. Geological Survey , the agency that monitors quakes around the U.S. USGS reported that the quake occurred today, Friday, July 16, 2010 at 5:04:47 a.m. EDT. The quake originated 5 kilometers deep and it was centered at 39.167°North, 77.252°West, in Germantown, Md. That latitude and longitude positions the quake's epicenter just west of Interstate 270 and south of Maryland state route 119.

Although earthquakes are monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA conducts research in various earthquake projects. That research is done in earthquake country, however, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles. NASA measures, computes, and models crustal deformation using GPS and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar from its airborne unmanned aerial vehicle SAR platform and international satellites.

"Crustal deformation occurs both as a result of earthquakes and quietly," said Andrea Donnellan, a geophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. and a research professor at the University of Southern California and NASA's Applied Sciences Program Area Co-Lead for Natural Disasters.

NASA funds several projects that integrate the GPS and InSAR data into models that provide insight into fault activity and earthquake potential, and Donnellan is the Principal Investigator of NASA's QuakeSim project, as well as supercomputing, earthquake modeling, and UAVSAR projects.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the quake was too small for NASA to detect. The last earthquake in the region occurred in May of 2008 and was even smaller, registering a magnitude of 2.0 on the Richter Scale.

Friday, July 16, 2010

MESSENGER Spacecraft Reveals New Information About Mercury

The first spacecraft designed by NASA to orbit Mercury is giving scientists a new perspective on the planet's atmosphere and evolution.

Launched in August 2004, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging spacecraft, known as MESSENGER, conducted a third and final flyby of Mercury in September 2009. The probe completed a critical maneuver using the planet's gravity to remain on course to enter into orbit around Mercury next year.

Data from the final flyby has revealed the first observations of ion emissions in Mercury's exosphere, or thin atmosphere; new information about the planet's magnetic substorms; and evidence of younger volcanic activity than previously recorded. The results are reported in three papers published online in the July 15 edition of Science Express.

The distribution of individual chemical elements that the spacecraft saw in Mercury’s exosphere varied around the planet. Detailed altitude profiles of those elements in the exosphere over the north and south poles of the planet were also measured for the first time.

"These profiles showed considerable variability among the sodium, calcium, and magnesium distributions, indicating that several processes are at work and that a given process may affect each element quite differently," said Ron Vervack, lead author of one of the papers and the spacecraft's participating scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory , in Laurel, Md.

In addition to flying by Mercury, the spacecraft flew past Earth in August 2005 and Venus in October 2006 and June 2007. Approximately 98 percent of Mercury's surface has been imaged by NASA spacecraft. After this spacecraft goes into orbit around Mercury for a yearlong study of the planet, it will observe the polar regions, which are the only unobserved areas of the planet.

The spacecraft was designed and built by APL. The mission is managed and operated by APL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Moon's Largest Impact Basin

The South Pole-Aitken basin is the largest and oldest recognized impact basin on the Moon. It's diameter is roughly 2,500 km or 1,550 miles. The Moon's circumference is just under 11,000 km, meaning the basin stretches across nearly a quarter of the Moon. In the LROC WAC mosaic below, which is centered on the middle of the basin, you can see SPA as an area of relatively low reflectance extending from the crater Aitken in the north and all the way down to the South Pole. Topographic data from LOLA can also help to give a sense of the enormous effect the SPA impact had on the Moon - the basin is more than 8 km deep.

A tratigraphic relationships show that SPA is the oldest impact basin on the Moon, but scientists are intensely interested in just how old it is. Lunar samples suggest that most of the major basins on the Moon formed around 3.9 billion years ago in a period called the late heavy bombardment. By this time most of the large debris within the solar system should have already accreted to form the planets, so such a large number of big impacts occurring at nearly the same time may have been due to unusual gravitational dynamics in the early Solar System.

The Constellation region of interest, highlighted in the NAC detail above and outlined in the WAC mosaic was selected , because it is in a deep portion of the basin, where a large volume of melt would be expected. Some of this melt would remain as a significant component of the soil, and an analysis of a carefully selected suite of samples from this region would reveal the age of the oldest lunar impact basin.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Apollo-Soyuz: An Orbital Partnership Begins

Most of us take it for granted today that American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts live and work together in Earth orbit. They've been doing it for years, first in the Shuttle-Mir program, and now on the International Space Station.

But before the two Cold War-rivals first met in orbit in 1975, such a partnership seemed unlikely. Since Sputnik bleeped into orbit in 1957, the superpowers were driven by the Space Race, with the U.S. and then-Soviet Union driven more by competition than cooperation. When President Kennedy called for a manned moon landing in 1961, he spoke of "battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny" and referred to the "head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines."

Watch the Apollo-Soyuz docking and crew handshake:But by the mid-70s things had changed. The U.S. had "won" the race to the Moon, with six Apollo landings between 1969 and 1972. Both nations had launched space stations, the Russian Salyut and American Skylab. With the Space Shuttle still a few years off and the diplomatic chill thawing, the time was right for a joint mission.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project would send NASA astronauts Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand in an Apollo Command and Service Module to meet Russian cosmonauts Aleksey Leonov and Valeriy Kubasov in a Soyuz capsule. A jointly designed, U.S.-built docking module fulfilled the main technical goal of the mission, demonstrating that two dissimilar craft could dock in orbit.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Webb Telescope's Mass Simulator

There are a lot of things that happen "behind the scenes" when a space telescope is being built and all of the components are being tested. In this recent photo, two technicians from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. were working with a "Mass Simulator" for the James Webb Space Telescope.

A mass simulator is used to replicate the weight and shape of an instrument and is attached to a main component of a space telescope or satellite to test the satellite's durability and sturdiness. The mass simulator is like a "dead weight" that contains no electronics or optics that the engineering test units contain. For each instrument that will fly on the James Webb Space Telescope, there are both mass simulators and engineering test units created.

Engineering Test Units are working models of the instruments that are used for testing and validation in laboratory tests, to ensure that they work properly.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the next-generation premier space observatory, exploring deep space phenomena from distant galaxies to nearby planets and stars. The Webb Telescope will give scientists clues about the formation of the universe and the evolution of our own solar system, from the first light after the Big Bang to the formation of star systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth.

The Webb Telescope project is managed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Heavy Metal Rock Takes Center Stage

PASADENA, Calif. On its way to a 2014 rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, with NASA instruments aboard, will fly past asteroid Lutetia this Saturday, July 10.

The instruments aboard Rosetta will record the first close-up image of a metal asteroid. They will also make measurements to help scientists derive the mass of the object, understand the properties of the asteroid's surface crust, record the solar wind in the vicinity and look for evidence of an atmosphere. The spacecraft will pass the asteroid at a minimum distance of 3,160 kilometers at a velocity of 15 kilometers second.

"Little is known about asteroid Lutetia other than it is about 100 kilometers wide," said Claudia Alexander, project scientist for the U.S. role in the Rosetta mission, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Allowing Rosetta's suite of science instruments to focus on this target of opportunity should greatly expand our knowledge of this huge space rock, while at the same time giving the mission's science instruments a real out-of-this-world workout."

Previous images of Lutetia were taken by ground-based telescopes and show only hints of the asteroid’s shape. Lutetia will be the second asteroid to receive the full attention of Rosetta and its instruments. The spacecraft previously flew within 800 kilometers asteroid Steins in September of 2008. The Lutetia flyby is the final scientific milestone for Rosetta before controllers put the spacecraft into hibernation early in 2011, only to wake up in early 2014 for approach to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

NASA has contributed an ultraviolet instrument ; a plasma instrument ; a microwave instrument and portions of the electronics package for the double focusing mass spectrometer of the Rosetta orbiter sensor for ion and neutral analysis among other contributions to this international mission. NASA's Deep Space Network, managed by JPL, will be providing support for tracking and science operations.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Curiosity wheels

The Curiosity rover team just installed six shiny aluminum wheels on the rover, giving the rover its “legs.” Unlike previous missions that used air bags for landing on the Martian surface, Curiosity is touching down wheels first!

The rover, which is about the size of an SUV, has wheels that are 50 centimeters in diameter, making them bigger than a car tire. Each wheel has its own motor, giving the rover independent six-wheel drive that’s better than an average car with two-wheel drive. But engineers didn’t stop there; the rover can swerve and turn in place a full 360 degrees.

The suspension system is based on the “rocker-bogie” system, which was used on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and the earlier Pathfinder missions. This system allows the rover to roll over large rocks and dips without tipping over. The rover can also climb steep hills, up to 45 degrees.

With the wheels in place,Curiosity is one step closer to rolling on Mars.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Spitzer Space Telescope

A dragon-shaped cloud of dust seems to fly with the stars in a new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope . In visible light the creature disappears into the clouds perhaps it's "frolicking in the autumn mist" like Puff, the Magic Dragon, from the famous Peter, Paul and Mary song.

The infrared image has revealed that this creature, a dark cloud called M17 SWex, is forming stars at a furious rate but has not yet spawned the most massive type of stars, known as O stars.The stars and gas in this region are now passing though the Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way, touching off a galactic "domino effect." It takes an infrared view to catch the light from these shrouded regions and reveal the earliest stages of star formation.

The bottom image is a three-color composite that shows infrared observations from two Spitzer instruments. Blue represents 3.6-micron light and green shows light of 8 microns, both captured by Spitzer's infrared array camera. Red is 24-micron light detected by Spitzer's multiband imaging photometer. The bottom visible light image is a composite of visible-light data from the Digitized Sky Survey from the UK Schmidt telescope. The image combines two observations that represent the blue and red light from the region.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Cassini to Dive Low through Titan Atmosphere

As American schoolchildren head out to pools for a summer splash, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will be taking its own deep plunge through the Titan atmosphere this week.

The altitude for the upcoming Titan flyby, whose closest approach occurs in the evening of July 6, Pacific and Eastern time be about 125 kilometers higher than the super-low flyby of June 21. The altitude of this flyby 1,005 kilometers is still considered a low dip into Titan's atmosphere. Cassini will not go lower again until May 2012.

During closest approach, Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer will be sniffing out the chemical composition of Titan's atmosphere to refine estimates of the densities of nitrogen and methane there. The radar instrument will be mapping an area south of the dark region known as Senkyo and the Belet sand seas. It is an area that had not been well studied by radar until this flyby.

Because the geometry of this flyby is similar to the previous one, the magnetometer and other instruments measuring the magnetic bubble around Saturn will be conducting similar experiments. Though the magnetometer will be too high to detect any whisper of an internal magnetic field from Titan which was the focus of the search on the last flyby scientists will be looking into the interaction of Titan's atmosphere with the magnetic bubble around Saturn