Saturday, December 31, 2011

NASA Conducts Orion Parachute Testing for Orbital Test Flight

NASA successfully conducted a drop test of the Orion crew vehicle's parachutes high above the Arizona desert Tuesday, Dec. 20, in preparation for its orbital flight test in 2014. Orion will carry astronauts deeper into space than ever before, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and ensure a safe re-entry and landing.

A C-130 plane dropped the Orion test article from an altitude of 25,000 feet above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Grounds. Orion's drogue chutes were deployed between 15,000 and 20,000 feet, followed by the pilot parachutes, which then deployed two main landing parachutes. This particular drop test examined how Orion would land under two possible failure scenarios.

Orion's parachutes are designed to open in stages, which is called reefing, to manage the stresses on the parachutes after they are deployed. The reefing stages allow the parachutes to sequentially open, first at 54 percent of the parachutes' full diameter, and then at 73 percent. This test examined how the parachutes would perform if the second part of the sequence was skipped.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

NASA gives update on mission to moon

NASA announced Monday that it is entering a new stage of a mission intended to place a pair of probes around Earth’s nearest neighbor and only satellite.

NASA officials said Monday mission controllers are preparing for the twin spaceships, named Grail-A and Grail-B, to enter the moon’s orbit on New Year’s Eve. The pair of probes are tasked with measuring the uneven gravity field of the moon and determine what lies beneath — straight down to the core.

NASA’s twin lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) probes were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on September 10, 2011. GRAIL-A is scheduled to arrive in lunar orbit beginning on Saturday, December 31, and GRAIL-B on Sunday, January 1. On New Year’s Eve, the pair of probes will fire their engine to slow down so that it could be captured into orbit. This move will be repeated by the other the following day.

Once in orbit, the pair will spend two months following each other around the moon. Scientists back on Earth will measure the varying distance between the pair of spaceships to calculate the lunar gravity field.

Speaking Monday, the team expressed confidence that the mission will continue to perform flawlessly, adding that they expect to gather an unprecedented amount of data from the mission.

“Both spacecraft have performed essentially flawlessly since launch, but one can never take anything for granted in this business,” said mission chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Engineers said the chances of the probes overshooting are slim since their trajectories have been precise. Getting struck by a cosmic ray may prevent the completion of the engine burn and they won’t get boosted into the right orbit.

The straight-line distance from Earth to the moon is about 250,000 miles. It took NASA’s Apollo moon crews about three days to cover that distance. Each of the GRAIL twins is taking about 30 times that long and covering more than 2.5 million miles to get there. This low-energy, high-cruise time trajectory is beneficial for mission planners and controllers, as it allows more time for spacecraft checkout. NASA said the path would allow the program to save money and increase the chances of a successful mission.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NASA to announce latest alien planets discovery on Tuesday

NASA says it will hold a press conference on Tuesday to announce the latest discoveries of its Kepler spacecraft, an observatory launched into orbit in March 2009. The announcement will be based exclusively on the discoveries of the Kepler mission.
The announcement follows discovery earlier this month of the first potentially habitable alien planet located about 600 light-years from Earth. According to Digital Journal, NASA scientists say the planet orbits its star in the habitable zone where conditions are right for liquid water to exist on the planet and therefore, possibly life. The discovery of the planet Kepler-22b was announced on December 5.
IB Times reports that at the press conference on Tuesday, NASA will give official details about the newly discovered planet Kepler-22b. NASA will also be giving details about other newly discovered planets in habitable zones.
William Borucki, principal investigator with the Kepler mission, said they have found about 50 possible planets in the habitable zone since the 2009 Kepler launch. The Kepler mission has found about 2,326 bodies that are potentially planets in the first 16 months of operation and 28 of them have been confirmed as planets.
The total number of planets confirmed so far by Kepler mission and other planet search missions is more the 700.
NASA reports that Tuesday's press conference will begin at 1 p.m. EST. There will be a webcast of the press conference on NASA's website. Speakers will include: Nick Gautier, Kepler project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; Francois Fressin, the lead scientist on the new discovery, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.; David Charbonneau, professor of astronomy at Harvard University; Linda Elkins-Tanton, director of the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

NASA,Industry Leaders Discuss New Booster Development for Space Launch System

On Dec. 15, more than 120 aerospace industry leaders from more than 70 companies attended the Space Launch System's Advanced Booster Industry Day held at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The event focused on a NASA Research Announcement for the Space Launch System's (SLS) advanced booster.

Marshall is leading the design and development of the SLS on behalf of the agency. The new heavy-lift launch vehicle will expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.

For explorations beyond the first two test flights, the SLS vehicle will require an advanced booster with a significant increase in thrust over existing U.S. liquid or solid boosters.

"As we are forging ahead with Space Launch System development, we are pleased to have such a strong response from industry and look forward to their ideas and hardware demonstrations for advance boosters concepts," said Todd May, SLS program manager. "Together, our expertise will enable an entirely new U.S. booster capability -- the largest and highest performing booster system ever produced -- to begin the journey to deep space safely and affordably."

Through this research announcement, NASA is seeking proposals for engineering demonstrations and/or risk reduction strategies for advanced booster concepts. The aim is to reducing risks while enhancing affordability, improving reliability and meeting our performance goals during an initial 30-month phase prior to the full and open Design Development Test and Evaluation (DDTE) competition. The total award value for the research announcement is $200 million with multiple awards anticipated.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

NASA ISS On-Orbit Status 11 December 2011

All ISS systems continue to function nominally, except those noted previously or below. Sunday - Crew off day. Ahead: Week 4 of Increment 30 (three-person crew).

After wakeup, FE-1 Shkaplerov performed the routine inspection of the SM (Service Module) PSS Caution & Warning panel as part of regular Daily Morning Inspection.

CDR Burbank completed the visual T+2 Days (44 +/- 4h) microbial (bacterial & fungal) analysis of PWD (Potable Water Dispenser) water samples collected by him on 12/9, using the WMK MCD (Water Microbiology Kit / Microbial Capture Devices) for microbial traces, and the CDB (Coliform Detection Bag) for inflight coliform indications (Magenta for Positive, Yellow for Negative).

FE-2 Ivanishin conducted the routine daily servicing of the SOZh system (Environment Control & Life Support System, ECLSS) in the SM. This included the weekly collection of the toilet flush (SP) counter and water supply (SVO) readings for calldown to TsUP-Moscow, as well as the weekly checkup on the Russian POTOK-150MK (150 micron) air filter unit of the SM's & FGB's SOGS air revitalization subsystem, gathering weekly data on total operating time & "On" durations for calldown. [SOZh servicing includes checking the ASU toilet facilities, replacement of the KTO & KBO solid waste containers and replacement of EDV-SV waste water and EDV-U urine containers].

At ~7:15am EST, Anton Shkaplerov & Anatoly Ivanishin engaged in a PAO phone interview via S-band with Ekaterina Beloglazova, Editor of Rossiyskiy Kosmos (Russian Space) Magazine and an old friend of ISS cosmonauts. ["Hello, Anton and Anatoly, first of all, could you share with us your first impressions of the Soyuz flight and station docking?- What kind of welcome did you get from the crew? Did they wine and dine you and let you go to sleep? How did your first day go?- What or who did you dream about on your first night at the new place?- Tell us how you were feeling initially and now. How does it feel to be at zero gravity?- I'm sure you've looked up all modules. Tell us about them and about the station in general, what does it look like in reality?- You had a very short handover but you've learned certain things on the ground. Was it easy and practical? What was Sergei Volkov able to accomplish in the way of introducing you to the ISS?- Did you hit the ground running or you needed some time for adaptation? What experiments do you like the most and what have you been able to do over (almost) a month?- What does the Earth look like from orbit, do you recognize some places now, and what impressed you the most?-Tell us about your next month's activities.- Thank you and see you soon! Ekaterina."]

At ~3:40pm, Dan Burbank is scheduled for his weekly PFC (Private Family Conference), via S-band/audio and Ku-band/MS-NetMeeting application (which displays the uplinked ground video on an SSC laptop).

At ~4:15pm, Dan also has a CDE (Crew Discretionary Event) on his schedule.

The crew worked out with their regular 2-hr physical exercise protocol on the CEVIS cycle ergometer with vibration isolation (CDR), TVIS treadmill with vibration isolation & stabilization (FE-1, FE-2), ARED advanced resistive exerciser (CDR), and VELO ergometer bike with load trainer (FE-1, FE-2).

Tasks listed for Shkaplerov & Ivanishin on the Russian discretionary "time permitting" job for today were -
* A ~30-min. run of the GFI-8 "Uragan" (hurricane) earth-imaging program with the NIKON D3X digital camera with Sigma AF 300-800mm telelens, aiming for Hudson Volcano, Chile, the glaciers of Patagonia and Volcano Cordon-Kaul,
* A 10-min. photography session for the DZZ-13 "Seiner" ocean observation program, obtaining HDV (Z1) camcorder footage of color bloom patterns in the waters of the South-Eastern Pacific, then copying the images to the RSK-1 laptop,
* A video recording of New Year Greetings to be used in a joint project of Roskosmos TV Studio with Carousel TV Channel for children ages 8 to 12 years, the "It's Time to go to space!" program, which has a segment where Russian cosmonauts are discussing their work &, answer viewers' questions (currently they are working on a New Year episode). The footage was then to be downlinked to TsUP-Moscow.
* Taking documentary photographs through SM windows of the removable cassettes S #9-S and SKK #2-DC1, installed on the cylindrical portion of the SM propulsion compartment between planes I and IV, and on the DC1 Docking Compartment, and
* Another ~30-min. session for Russia's EKON Environmental Safety Agency, making observations and taking KPT-3 aerial photography of environmental conditions on Earth using the NIKON D3X camera with the RSK-1 laptop.

WRM Update: A new WRM (Water Recovery Management) "cue card" was uplinked to the crew for their reference, updated with their latest CWC (Contingency Water Container) water audit. [The new card (29-0008B) lists 32 CWCs (490.7 L total) for the five types of water identified on board: 1. Silver technical water (6 CWCs with 199.5 L, for Elektron electrolysis, all containing Wautersia bacteria; 2. Condensate water (3 CWCs with 19.1 L), 7 empty bags; 3. Iodinated water (11 CWCs with 186.4 L; also 3 expired bags with 59.1 L); 4. Waste water (1 bag with 6.4 L EMU waste water); and 5. Special fluid (1 CWC with 20.2 L, hose/pump flush). Other CWCs are stowed behind racks and are currently not being tracked due to unchanging contents. Wautersia bacteria are typical water-borne microorganisms that have been seen previously in ISS water sources. These isolates pose no threat to human health.]

GHF Checkout: On 12/1, JAXA ground controllers continued the extensive checkout of the GHF (Gradient Heating Furnace) payload on the Kobairo Rack in the Kibo JPM (JEM Pressurized Module) which began on 12/1 and is continuing for about 14 days.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

FOUND! Another earth and sun

A ‘habitable’ earth-like planet, which is orbiting around a sun-like star 600 light years away, has been discovered in our galaxy for the first time, researchers say. A team of researchers from NASA’s Kepler Mission has discovered what could be a large, rocky planet with a surface temperature of
about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, comparable to a comfortable spring day on Earth.

The discovery team, led by William Borucki of the NASA Ames Research Center, used photometric data from the NASA Kepler space telescope, which monitors the brightness of 155,000 stars.

Earth-size planets whose orbital planes are aligned such that they periodically pass in front of their stars result in tiny dimmings of their host star’s light dimmings that can only be measured by a highly specialized space telescope like Kepler.

The host star lies about 600 light-years away from us toward the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus.

The star, a G5 star, has a mass and a radius only slightly smaller than that of our Sun, a G2 star. As a result, the host star is about 25 percent less luminous than the Sun.

The planet orbits the G5 star with an orbital period of 290 days, compared to 365 days for the Earth, at a distance about 15 percent closer to its star than the Earth from the Sun. This results in the planet’s balmy temperature. It orbits in the middle of the star’s habitable zone, where liquid water is expected to be able to exist on the surface of the planet.

Liquid water is necessary for life as we know it, and this new planet might well be not only habitable, perhaps even inhabited.

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Monday, December 05, 2011

What's Next For NASA?

NASA is designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars. We will build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions.

NASA is also moving forward with the development of the Space Launch System -- an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle that will provide an entirely new national capability for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. The SLS rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include shuttle engines for the core stage and the J-2X engine for the upper stage.

We are developing the technologies we will need for human exploration of the solar system, including solar electric propulsion, refueling depots in orbit, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems.

International Space Station
The International Space Station is the centerpiece of our human spaceflight activities in low Earth orbit. The ISS is fully staffed with a crew of six, and American astronauts will continue to live and work there in space 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Part of the U.S. portion of the station has been designated as a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for scientific research.

The ISS is a test bed for exploration technologies such as autonomous refueling of spacecraft, advanced life support systems and human/robotic interfaces. Commercial companies are well on their way to providing cargo and crew flights to the ISS, allowing NASA to focus its attention on the next steps into our solar system.

NASA is researching ways to design and build aircraft that are safer, more fuel-efficient, quieter, and environmentally responsible. We are also working to create traffic management systems that are safer, more efficient and more flexible. We are developing technologies that improve routing during flights and enable aircraft to climb to and descend from their cruising altitude without interruption.

We believe it is possible to build an aircraft that uses less fuel, gives off fewer emissions, and is quieter, and we are working on the technologies to create that aircraft. NASA is also part of the government team that is working to develop the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, to be in place by the year 2025. We will continue to validate new, complex aircraft and air traffic control systems to ensure that they meet extremely high safety levels.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

NASA's Hubble Confirms That Galaxies Are the Ultimate Recyclers

New observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope are expanding astronomers' understanding of the ways in which galaxies continuously recycle immense volumes of hydrogen gas and heavy elements. This process allows galaxies to build successive generations of stars stretching over billions of years.

This ongoing recycling keeps some galaxies from emptying their "fuel tanks" and stretches their star-forming epoch to over 10 billion years.

This conclusion is based on a series of Hubble Space Telescope observations that flexed the special capabilities of its Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) to detect gas in the halo of our Milky Way and more than 40 other galaxies. Data from large ground-based telescopes in Hawaii, Arizona and Chile also contributed to the studies by measuring the properties of the galaxies.

Astronomers believe that the color and shape of a galaxy is largely controlled by gas flowing through an extended halo around it. The three studies investigated different aspects of the gas-recycling phenomenon.

The results are being published in three papers in the November 18 issue of Science magazine. The leaders of the three studies are Nicolas Lehner of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.; Jason Tumlinson of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.; and Todd Tripp of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The COS observations of distant stars demonstrate that a large mass of clouds is falling through the giant halo of our Milky Way, fueling its ongoing star formation. These clouds of hot hydrogen reside within 20,000 light-years of the Milky Way disk and contain enough material to make 100 million suns. Some of this gas is recycled material that is continually being replenished by star formation and the explosive energy of novae and supernovae, which kicks chemically enriched gas back into the halo.

The COS observations also show halos of hot gas surrounding vigorous star-forming galaxies. These halos, rich in heavy elements, extend as much as 450,000 light-years beyond the visible portions of their galactic disks. The amount of heavy-element mass discovered far outside a galaxy came as a surprise. COS measured 10 million solar masses of oxygen in a galaxy's halo, which corresponds to about one billion solar masses of gas -- as much as in the entire space between stars in a galaxy’s disk.

Researchers also found that this gas is nearly absent from galaxies that have stopped forming stars. In these galaxies, the “recycling” process ignites a rapid firestorm of star birth which can blow away the remaining fuel, essentially turning off further star-birth activity.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NASA's Nanosail-D 'Sails' Home -- Mission Complete

After spending more than 240 days "sailing" around the Earth, NASA's NanoSail-D -- a nanosatellite that deployed NASA's first-ever solar sail in low-Earth orbit -- has successfully completed its Earth orbiting mission.

Launched to space Nov. 19, 2010 as a payload on NASA's FASTSAT, a small satellite, NanoSail-D's sail deployed on Jan. 20.

The flight phase of the mission successfully demonstrated a deorbit capability that could potentially be used to bring down decommissioned satellites and space debris by re-entering and totally burning up in the Earth's atmosphere. The team continues to analyze the orbital data to determine how future satellites can use this new technology.

A main objective of the NanoSail-D mission was to demonstrate and test the deorbiting capabilities of a large low mass high surface area sail.

"The NanoSail-D mission produced a wealth of data that will be useful in understanding how these types of passive deorbit devices react to the upper atmosphere," said Joe Casas, FASTSAT project scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"The data collected from the mission is being evaluated, said Casas, in conjunction with data from FASTSAT science experiments intended to study and better understand the drag influences of Earth's upper atmosphere on satellite orbital re-entry."

The FASTSAT science experiments are led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and sponsored by the Department of Defense Space Experiments Review Board which is supported by the Department of Defense Space Test Program.

Initial assessment indicates NanoSail-D exhibited the predicted cyclical deorbit rate behavior that was only previously theorized by researchers.

"The final rate of descent depended on the nature of solar activity, the density of the atmosphere surrounding NanoSail-D and the angle of the sail to the orbital track," said Dean Alhorn, principal investigator for NanoSail-D at Marshall Space Flight Center. "It is astounding to see how the satellite reacted to the sun's solar pressure. The recent solar flares increased the drag and brought the nanosatellite back home quickly."

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Monday, November 28, 2011

NASA's NPP Satellite Acquires First VIIRS Image

GREENBELT, Md. -- The Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) onboard NASA's newest Earth-observing satellite, NPP, acquired its first measurements on Nov. 21, 2011. This high-resolution image is of a broad swath of Eastern North America from Canada’s Hudson Bay past Florida to the northern coast of Venezuela. The VIIRS data were processed at the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility (NSOF) in Suitland, Md.

VIIRS is one of five instruments onboard the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite that launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Oct. 28. Since then, NPP reached its final orbit at an altitude of 512 miles (824 kilometers), powered on all instruments and is traveling around the Earth at 16,640 miles an hour (eight kilometers per second).

"This image is a next step forward in the success of VIIRS and the NPP mission," said James Gleason, NPP project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

VIIRS will collect radiometric imagery in visible and infrared wavelengths of the Earth's land, atmosphere, and oceans. By far the largest instrument onboard NPP, VIIRS weighs about 556 pounds (252 kilograms). Its data, collected from 22 channels across the electromagnetic spectrum, will be used to observe the Earth's surface including fires, ice, ocean color, vegetation, clouds, and land and sea surface temperatures.

"VIIRS heralds a brightening future for continuing these essential measurements of our environment and climate," said Diane Wickland, NPP program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington. She adds that all of NPP's five instruments will be up and running by mid-December and NPP will begin 2012 by sending down complete data.

"NPP is right on track to ring in the New Year," said Ken Schwer, NPP project manager at NASA Goddard. "Along with VIIRS, NPP carries four more instruments that monitor the environment on Earth and the planet's climate, providing crucial information on long-term patterns to assess climate change and data used by meteorologists to improve short-term weather forecasting."

NPP serves as a bridge mission from NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS) of satellites to the next-generation Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) program that will also collect weather and climate data. NASA Goddard manages the NPP mission for the Earth Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

NASA's Hubble Finds Stellar Life and Death in a Globular Cluster

A new NASA Hubble Space Telescope image shows globular cluster NGC 1846, a spherical collection of hundreds of thousands of stars in the outer halo of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring dwarf galaxy of the Milky Way that can be seen from the southern hemisphere.

Aging bright stars in the cluster glow in intense shades of red and blue. The majority of middle-aged stars, several billions of years old, are whitish in color. A myriad of far distant background galaxies of varying shapes and structure are scattered around the image.

The most intriguing object, however, doesn’t seem to belong in the cluster. It is a faint green bubble near the bottom center of the image. This so-called ‘planetary nebula’ is the aftermath of the death of a star. The burned-out central star can be seen inside the bubble. It is uncertain whether the planetary nebula is a member of NGC 1846, or simply lies along the line of sight to the cluster. Measurements of the motion of the cluster stars and the planetary nebula’s central star suggest it might be a cluster member.

This Hubble image was taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys in January of 2006. The cluster was observed in filters that isolate blue, green, and infrared starlight. As a member of the Large Magellanic Cloud, NGC 1846 is located roughly 160,000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Doradus.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

NASA Prepares for Mars Rover Launch: Here's How You Can Watch

On Friday, November 25 at 10:25 am EST (7:25 am Pacific), the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission will rocket into the sky on a 191-foot-tall Atlas V rocket and begin its mission to Mars. While the MSL rover, Curiosity, is currently sitting on top of the Atlas V rocket, NASA is making its final preparations for the first launch opportunity, and tweeters are preparing for a two-day launch tweetup.

The MSL is an extremely important Mars mission that will perform the first-ever precision landing--using a guided entry system--on Mars; analyze the soil for organic compounds; investigate the composition of the Martian surface; and determine the Martian atmospheric cycling and processes, as well as a number of other atmospheric conditions that could help determine the past and future habitability of Mars.

That last one is important--we may finally have the answer to whether life has ever existed on Mars.

According to NASA, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity; it will also carry instruments that weigh 15 times as much as the previous Mars rover payloads, and according to the New York Times, the total cost of MSL is about $2.3 billion.

Currently, NASA is preparing for launching the mission on November 25th--the first launch opportunity. If weather or other conditions prevent launch then there will be other launch windows through the 18th of December of this year. The rover will land on Mars in August of 2012 and the mission will last for 686 Earth days.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

NASA Orbiter Catches Mars Sand Dunes in Motion

PASADENA, Calif. -- Images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show sand dunes and ripples moving across the surface of Mars at dozens of locations and shifting up to several yards. These observations reveal the planet's sandy surface is more dynamic than previously thought.

"Mars either has more gusts of wind than we knew about before, or the winds are capable of transporting more sand," said Nathan Bridges, planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and lead author of a paper on the finding published online in the journal Geology. "We used to think of the sand on Mars as relatively immobile, so these new observations are changing our whole perspective."

While red dust is known to swirl all around Mars in storms and dust devils, the planet's dark sand grains are larger and harder to move. Less than a decade ago, scientists thought the dunes and ripples on Mars either did not budge or moved too slowly for detection.

MRO was launched in 2005. Initial images from the spacecraft's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera documented only a few cases of shifting sand dunes and ripples, collectively called bedforms. Now, after years of monitoring the Martian surface, the spacecraft has documented movements of a few yards (or meters) per year in dozens of locations across the planet.

The air on Mars is thin, so stronger gusts of wind are needed to push a grain of sand. Wind-tunnel experiments have shown that a patch of sand would take winds of about 80 mph (nearly 130 kilometers per hour) to move on Mars compared with only 10 mph (about 16 kilometers per hour) on Earth. Measurements from the meteorology experiments on NASA's Viking landers in the 1970s and early 1980s, in addition to climate models, showed such winds should be rare on Mars.

The first hints that Martian dunes move came from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, which operated from 1997 to 2006. But the spacecraft's cameras lacked the resolution to definitively detect the changes. NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers also detected hints of shifting sand when they touched down on the Red Planet's surface in 2004. The mission team was surprised to see grains of sand dotting the rovers' solar panels. They also witnessed the rovers' track marks filling in with sand.

"Sand moves by hopping from place to place," said Matthew Golombek, a co-author of the new paper and a member of the Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter teams at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Before the rovers landed on Mars, we had no clear evidence of sand moving."

Not all of the sand on Mars is blowing in the wind. The study also identifies several areas where the bedforms did not move.

"The sand dunes where we didn't see movement today could have larger grains, or perhaps their surface layers are cemented together," said Bridges, who also is a member of the HiRISE team. "These studies show the benefit of long-term monitoring at high resolution."
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Google, NASA work together on space exploration

Who knew the basic design of a moon rover could be found at your local pet shop?

Team Frednet, one of 26 contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize, has built a round, translucent robotic vehicle that resembles nothing so much as a hamster ball. If the rolling globe can navigate 500 meters of the moon's surface and send back high-definition video along the way, the team has a shot at the $20 million grand prize.

Of course, to do that the Santa Cruz-based group will need to pull off the first privately-funded mission to the moon. It's no small undertaking - and that's the point. The X Prize Foundation was established to inspire the sort of "radical breakthroughs" that can spawn new industries.

Google, NASA and contest participants all say that commercial expeditions to the moon represent the first necessary step toward unleashing the potential of a "space economy." Once businesses can regularly and economically reach into deep space, it opens virtually endless possibilities for tourism, resource extraction and even space habitation.

'Something new'
"We can't keep resting on what we've done," said Fred Bourgeois of Santa Cruz, founder of Frednet. "We need to build something new."

The contest was announced four years ago and the final deadline is in 2015. If four years seems like a long time, you clearly don't have to raise tens of millions of dollars and build a spacecraft.

Bourgeois does. He's organizing a worldwide team of volunteers (about 700 from 63 countries at last count) that is tackling a bevy of tasks like software development, communications system design and, of course, debugging the hamster ball.

The "Picorover" works on the same principle as the pet shop product, only it's robotic and features a few studs and spikes for traction. The team believes it will be the ideal craft for navigating the moon's irregular terrain without getting stuck.

Among other things, it's hard for a ball to tip over. It's also completely enclosed, offering an ingenious way to keep out the lunar dust that can derail other rovers.

At this point, Frednet has completed most of the designs for the mission. NASA signaled that the plans have at least a decent chance of succeeding by awarding the group a contract to bring back data that could be worth more than $10 million. It was one of only six groups to cinch such a deal.

Now Frednet just needs some money to start building things. Bourgeois estimates the whole undertaking will top $30 million, but fundraising has been difficult during the economic downturn.

The funny thing is, technology is not the real challenge in getting to the moon. Recall that Neil Armstrong reached the lunar surface in 1969 equipped with less computing power than a smart phone.

Instead, the challenge for a privately funded mission to the moon is private funding. It's difficult for the typical Fortune 500 company or venture capitalist to justify such an enormous expense with so little immediate payoff.

Public, private sectors
In that sense, the X Prize serves as a bridge between public and private sectors. It's harnessing the twin powers of incentives and competition to push innovations in the face of market failures and declining government spending on scientific research.

Even the top prize won't cover all the expenses, and only one team gets that. But the awards at least defray costs and spark imaginations.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

NASA's New Upper Stage Engine Passes Major Test

NASA conducted a successful 500-second test firing of the J-2X rocket engine on Wednesday, Nov. 9, marking another important step in development of an upper stage for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS).

SLS will carry the Orion spacecraft, its crew, cargo, equipment and science experiments to destinations in deep space. SLS will be safe, affordable and sustainable to continue America's journey of discovery from the unique vantage point of space.

"The J-2X engine is critical to the development of the Space Launch System," Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said after the test at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. "Today's test means NASA is moving closer to developing the rocket it needs if humans are to explore beyond low-Earth orbit."

Data from the test will be analyzed as operators prepare for additional engine firings. The J-2X and the RS-25D/E engines for the SLS core stage will be tested for flight certification at Stennis. Both engines use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. The core stage engines were developed originally for the space shuttle.

"The J-2X engine team and the SLS program as a whole are extremely happy that we accomplished a good, safe and successful test today," said Mike Kynard, Space Launch System Engines Element Manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "This engine test firing gives us critical data to move forward in the engine's development."

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Killer flares won't destroy Earth, says NASA

NASA's explained - with some weariness, one imagines - that next year really isn't going to see the release of any massive solar flares which could destroy the Earth.

For a start, it points out, the solar maximum doesn't actually coincide with any Mayan end-of-world predictions, but will arrive late in 2013 or early 2014.

And in any case, everybody over the age of 11 has already experienced one solar maximum and lived to tell the tale.

"Most importantly, however, there simply isn't enough energy in the sun to send a killer fireball 93 million miles to destroy Earth," says NASA.

That's the good news - but the bad news is that solar flares could cause some pretty considerable damage. While the heat of a solar flare can't make it all the way to our globe, electromagnetic radiation and energetic particles certainly can.

This can temporarily alter the upper atmosphere creating disruptions with signal transmission from, say, a GPS satellite, which could cause it to be off by many yards.

Even more disruptively, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can propel bursts of particles and electromagnetic fluctuations right into the Earth's atmosphere. These can induce electric fluctuations at ground level that could blow out transformers in power grids, and can also collide with satellite electronics systems and cause disruptions.

"In an increasingly technological world, where almost everyone relies on cell phones and GPS controls not just your in-car map system, but also airplane navigation and the extremely accurate clocks that govern financial transactions, space weather is a serious matter," says NASA.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

NASA's Hubble Observes Young Dwarf Galaxies Bursting With Stars

Using its near-infrared vision to peer 9 billion years back in time, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered an extraordinary population of young dwarf galaxies brimming with star formation. While dwarf galaxies are the most common type of galaxy in the universe, the rapid star-birth observed in these newly found examples may force astronomers to reassess their understanding of the ways in which galaxies form.

The galaxies are a hundred times less massive, on average, than the Milky Way, yet churn out stars at such a furious pace that their stellar content would double in just 10 million years. By comparison, the Milky Way would take a thousand times longer to double its star population.

The universe is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old, and these newly discovered galaxies are extreme even for the young universe -- when most galaxies were forming stars at higher rates than they are today. Astronomers using Hubble's instruments could spot the galaxies because the radiation from young, hot stars has caused the oxygen in the gas surrounding them to light up like a bright neon sign.

"The galaxies have been there all along, but up until recently astronomers have been able only to survey tiny patches of sky at the sensitivities necessary to detect them," said Arjen van der Wel of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, lead author of a paper on the results being published online on Nov. 14 in The Astrophysical Journal. "We weren't looking specifically for these galaxies, but they stood out because of their unusual colors."

The observations were part of the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (CANDELS), an ambitious three-year study to analyze the most distant galaxies in the universe. CANDELS is the first census of dwarf galaxies at such an early epoch.

"In addition to the images, Hubble has captured spectra that show us the oxygen in a handful of galaxies and confirmed their extreme star-forming nature," said co-author Amber Straughn at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Spectra are like fingerprints. They tell us the galaxies' chemical composition."

The resulting observations are somewhat at odds with recent detailed studies of the dwarf galaxies that are orbiting as satellites of the Milky Way.

"Those studies suggest that star formation was a relatively slow process, stretching out over billions of years," explained Harry Ferguson of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., co-leader of the CANDELS survey. "The CANDELS finding that there were galaxies of roughly the same size forming stars at very rapid rates at early times is forcing us to re-examine what we thought we knew about dwarf galaxy evolution."

The CANDELS team uncovered the 69 young dwarf galaxies in near-infrared images taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

NASA Captures New Images of Large Asteroid Passing Earth

Pasadena, CA – NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, CA has captured new radar images of Asteroid 2005 YU55 passing close to Earth.

The asteroid safely will safely fly past our planet slightly closer than the moon’s orbit on November 8th. The last time a space rock this large came as close to Earth was in 1976, although astronomers did not know about the flyby at the time. The next known approach of an asteroid this size will be in 2028.

The image was taken on November 7th at 11:45am PST (2:45pm EST/1945 UTC), when the asteroid was approximately 860,000 miles (1.38 million kilometers) away from Earth. Tracking of the aircraft carrier-sized asteroid began at Goldstone at 9:30am PDT on November 4th with the 230-foot-wide (70-meter) antenna and lasted about two hours, with an additional four hours of tracking planned each day from November 6th – 10th.

Radar observations from the Arecibo Planetary Radar Facility in Puerto Rico will begin November 8th, the same day the asteroid will make its closest approach to Earth at 3:28pm PST (6:28pm EST/1128 UTC).

The trajectory of asteroid 2005 YU55 is well understood. At the point of closest approach, it will be no closer than 201,700 miles (324,600 kilometers) as measured from the center of Earth, or about 0.85 times the distance from the moon to Earth. The gravitational influence of the asteroid will have no detectable effect on Earth, including tides and tectonic plates. Although the asteroid is in an orbit that regularly brings it to the vicinity of Earth, Venus and Mars, the 2011 encounter with Earth is the closest it has come for at least the last 200 years.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

NASA's Giant Rocket to Use Existing Launch Platform, Shuttle Crawlers

NASA intends to upgrade one of its Apollo-era treaded crawlers and an inactive mobile platform built for the canceled Ares launcher program to support the agency's colossal super-rocket, officially called the Space Launch System, in time for a test flight in 2017.

The modifications are part of up to $2 billion of work to prepare the Kennedy Space Center for the new heavy-lift rocket, which will initially be powered off the launch pad by three space shuttle main engines and two five-segment solid rocket boosters also derived from the shuttle program.

Although questions about its cost still linger, NASA plans to spend $10 billion to design and develop the Space Launch System for its first unmanned flight in 2017. Assuming the launcher is fully funded and remains near cost projections, it will be able to lift 70 metric tons, or about 154,000 pounds, into low Earth orbit on its first mission.

The $500 million launch platform built for the Ares 1 rocket is being tapped for the much more powerful Space Launch System. Declared structurally complete in January 2010, the mobile launch pad will have to be altered to support the heavier weight and additional thrust of the heavy-lifter, according to NASA officials.

One of NASA's crawler-transporters will be made ready to haul the massive rocket and mobile platform between the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building and launch pad 39B.

Larry Schultz, the mobile launcher project manager, said the biggest changes will be on the platform's base, where engineers will increase the size of a 22-square-foot exhaust duct and strengthen the surrounding structure. The SLS will weigh more than twice as much as the planned Ares 1 rocket.

The Ares 1 rocket would have featured a single solid-fueled first stage, while the Space Launch System will include two large strap-on boosters and a powerful core.

The thrust cutout will be expanded to a rectangle stretching 60 feet by 30 feet, according to Shultz. The modifications will be complete by 2016.

The 390-foot-tall Ares mobile launcher was being eyed as the launch platform for the commercially-developed Liberty rocket proposed by ATK, the contractor for the Ares 1's first stage and the space shuttle and SLS solid rocket boosters. Resembling the Ares 1, the Liberty rocket would combine a five-segment solid motor first stage with a second stage from EADS Astrium based on the core of the European Ariane 5 launcher.

According to Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, the Ares platform will be solely used by the Space Launch System. Cabana said the space shuttle's mobile launch platforms, which date back to the 1960s, could be available to commercial users interested in launching from KSC.

Unlike the shuttle platforms, the Ares/SLS mobile launcher features a 345-foot-tall tower on top of a 45-foot-tall base. The tower would provide access to various levels of the rocket during assembly and launch operations.

Pepper Phillips, program manager for 21st century ground systems at KSC, said engineers will "up-rate" the capacity of one of the two crawlers at the spaceport.

"For the time being, we are 'up-rating' the load capacity of one of the crawlers so that it can handle the heavier loads associated with the SLS," Phillips said. "We will perform some minor life extension mods to the second to keep it in service."

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Monday, October 31, 2011

NASA forces Apollo astronaut to give back space camera

Former astronaut Edgar Mitchell has reluctantly given back the space camera he brought home from his 1971 Apollo 14 moon mission, rather than face a federal lawsuit over its ownership.

The 81-year-old argued the data acquisition camera was a gift from NASA, and earlier this year - four decades after taking it to space - he tried to auction it through the British firm Bonhams.

NASA says the camera is U.S. government property and sued Mr Mitchell to get it back after learning in March the device was up for sale.

In papers filed Thursday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami stated Mr Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, will 'relinquish all claims of ownership, legal title, or dominion' of the 16mm motion picture camera.

Mr Mitchell agreed to allow Bonhams' New York auction house, where the camera was consigned for sale last June, to release the artifact to the government. Bonhams had estimated the camera's value at $60,000 to $80,000.

Once returned to NASA, the space agency will pass it on to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington for display within 60 days.

Both sides will pay their own legal expenses. A judge was expected to sign off on the settlement in the coming days.

Mitchell’s attorney Armen R. Vartian said his client decided the settlement was the best way to resolve a conflict with NASA.

'I think both sides saw the lawsuit as something that should not continue,' he added.

Mr Mitchell is one of 12 humans to have walked on the moon. He later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The data acquisition cameras (DAC), measuring six inches, by four inches by two inches, were taken into space to record engineering data and lunar surface imagery.

This particular camera was one of two that went to the moon's surface on the Apollo 14 mission, which Mr Mitchell piloted. It shot the final five minutes of the lunar module, named Antares, landing on the moon.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Delta II Poised to Launch NPP

A technological trailblazer is poised to lift off from a California launch pad to take a place in space to show us what is happening on Earth. Known as the NPP, for National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, the two-ton spacecraft is destined for an orbit 512 miles above the planet where it will be able to see every part of the Earth.

Because it is going into a polar orbit crossing both the north and south poles while the world spins beneath it, the NPP mission will launch from NASA's Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

NPP has two goals, according to James Gleason, NPP project scientist.

"One is to get the data for the weather forecasts, environmental observations and take a whole suite of observations that continue our satellite data records which span from measuring aerosols, you know, dust particles in the atmosphere, how have they changed over the past decade?," Gleason said. "Is the ground greener or browner over time? Has the sea surface temperature changed? Has the ozone changed? These are all data sets that we have that we have multi-decades sets of data sets and we just want to keep adding to that so we can answer the question, is the climate changing?"

Members of NASA's Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center, have been working at Vandenberg to get the spacecraft ready to launch on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

"We began build-up of the vehicle in July of this year, erecting first stage, the nine solid rocket motors, the second stage, putting the payload fairing into the mobile service tower," NASA Launch Director Tim Dunn said.

Once in orbit, the NPP spacecraft is to scan the world with five instruments that track their development through the sensors used on previous Earth-observation missions.

"NPP is a continuation of the earth orbiting satellite systems," Gleason said. "For weather forecasting and for climate predictions, you need to have continuous observations. So what NPP does is continue the data record started by the NASA EOS satellites and improves on the instruments that are used for numerical weather forecasting from the current series of NOAA satellites."

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Storm forces NASA to call off underwater simulation

NASA evacuated astronauts and scientists participating in an underwater space simulation in the Florida Keys over concerns about Hurricane Rina, officials said on Wednesday.

Six astronauts and scientists participating in the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, program left the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory after five days.

The start of the 15th NEEMO mission had been delayed by another storm in the area.

NASA said it will not reschedule the simulation, which was slated to last 13 days off the coast of Key Largo. The goals of the mission were to practice operations and test tools being developed for a future planned human mission to an asteroid.

Rina, a surprising late addition to the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season, was headed toward Mexico's Yucatan peninsula but losing strength on Wednesday.

Computer models forecast Rina, the sixth hurricane of the Atlantic season, will weaken into a tropical storm and move over western Cuba, potentially bringing strong winds and heavy rains to southern Florida and the Keys.

Participants in the NEEMO mission included NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, Japan's Takuya Onishi and Canada's David Saint-Jacques and scientists Steven Squyres with Cornell University and James Talacek and Nate Bender with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

The NEEMO crew conducted six underwater spacewalks and one day of scientific research. They also used a deep-water submersible to simulate robotic exploration of an asteroid.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

NASA postpones climate satellite launch to Oct 28

WASHINGTON — NASA on Wednesday set October 28 for its planned launch of a satellite to help weather forecasters predict extreme storms and offer scientists a better view of climate change.

The 1.5 billion dollar National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) is the first to measure both short and long term changes in weather and climate, the US space agency said.

The launch, initially set for October 27, "has been retargeted for Oct 28," NASA said in a message on the micro-blogging site Twitter.

The satellite will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California between 5:48 am Eastern time (0948 GMT) and 5:57 am (0957 GMT).

The SUV-sized satellite will carry five instruments to study temperature and water in the atmosphere, how clouds and aerosols affect temperature, and how plants on land and in the ocean respond to environmental changes.

"This is really the first mission that is designed to provide observations for both weather forecasters and climate researchers," Jim Gleason, NPP project scientist, told reporters earlier this month.

"NPP's observations will help scientists better predict the future environment and these prediction are incredibly valuable for economic, security and humanitarian reasons."

The satellite is one of 14 Earth observation missions currently being managed by NASA. Project managers said they hope it will operate for about five years.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NASA Continues Critical Survey of Antarctica's Changing Ice

WASHINGTON -- Scientists with NASA's Operation IceBridge airborne research campaign began the mission's third year of surveys this week over the changing ice of Antarctica.

Researchers are flying a suite of scientific instruments on two planes from a base of operations in Punta Arenas, Chile: a DC-8 operated by NASA and a Gulfstream V (G-V) operated by the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The G-V will fly through early November. The DC-8, which completed its first science flight Oct. 12, will fly through mid-November.

Ninety-eight percent of Antarctica is covered in ice. Scientists are concerned about how quickly key features are thinning, such as Pine Island Glacier, which rests on bedrock below sea level. Better understanding this type of change is crucial to projecting impacts like sea-level rise.

"With a third year of data-gathering underway, we are starting to build our own record of change," said Michael Studinger, IceBridge project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "With IceBridge, our aim is to understand what the world's major ice sheets could contribute to sea-level rise. To understand that you have to record how ice sheets and glaciers are changing over time."

IceBridge science flights put a variety of remote-sensing instruments above Antarctica's land and sea ice, and in some regions, above the ocean floor. The G-V carries one instrument: a laser-ranging topography mapper. The DC-8 carries seven instruments, including a laser altimeter to continue the crucial ice sheet elevation record begun by the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) mission, which ended in 2009. The flying laboratory also will carry radars that can distinguish how much snow sits on top of sea ice and map the terrain of bedrock below thick ice cover.

While scientists in recent years have produced newer, more detailed data about the ice sheet's surface, the topography of the rocky surface beneath the ice sheet remains unknown in many places. Without knowing the topography of the bedrock, it is impossible to know exactly how much ice sits on top of Antarctica.

A gravimeter aboard the DC-8 will detect subtle differences in gravity to map the ocean floor beneath floating ice shelves. Data on bathymetry, or ocean depth, and ocean circulation from previous IceBridge campaigns are helping explain why some glaciers are changing so quickly.

Flights take off from Punta Arenas and cross the Southern Ocean to reach destinations including West Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula and coastal areas. Each lasts 10 to 11 hours.

Monday, October 17, 2011

NASA Books A Virgin Flight On Virgin Galactic

The space shuttle program is retired, and so NASA has engaged the services of Sir Richard Branson's private venture, Virgin Galactic, to service rides to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic announced that the agreement includes NASA to charter a full flight from the company, and it includes options for two additional flights. If all the options are used the value of the contract is $4.5 million, providing opportunities for engineers, technologists and scientific researchers to conduct experiments in suborbital space.

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, says each mission allows for up to 1,300 pounds of scientific experiments. The research flights mark an important milestone for Virgin Galactic, and has collected more than $58 million in deposits from 455 future tourist astronauts — providing access to space to researchers is viewed by Virgin Galactic as a significant business opportunity.

"Each mission allows for up to 1,300 pounds of scientific experiments, which could enable up to 600 experimental payloads per flight," the company said in a release. "Providing access to space to researchers and their experiments is viewed by Virgin Galactic as both a future mission segment and a significant business opportunity." Based on the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo is 60 feet long and can carry six passengers and two pilots.

Based on the Ansari X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo is 60 feet long and can carry six passengers and two pilots, and launches from a mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, at around 50,000 feet.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

NASA's Dawn Science Team Presents Early Science Results

Scientists with NASA's Dawn mission are sharing with other scientists and the public their early information about the southern hemisphere of the giant asteroid Vesta. The findings were presented today at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis, Minn. 

Dawn, which has been orbiting Vesta since mid-July, has found that the asteroid's southern hemisphere boasts one of the largest mountains in the solar system. Other findings show that Vesta's surface, viewed by Dawn at different wavelengths, has striking diversity in its composition, particularly around craters. Science findings also include an in-depth analysis of a set of equatorial troughs on Vesta and a closer look at the object's intriguing craters. The surface appears to be much rougher than most asteroids in the main asteroid belt. In addition, preliminary dates from a method that uses the number of craters indicate that areas in the southern hemisphere are as young as 1 billion to 2 billion years old, much younger than areas in the north.

Scientists do not yet understand how all the features on Vesta's surface formed, but they did announce today, after analysis of northern and southern troughs, that results are consistent with models of fracture formation due to giant impact.

Since July, the Dawn spacecraft has been spiraling closer and closer to Vesta, moving in to get better and better views of the surface. In early August, the spacecraft reached an orbital altitude of 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) and mapped most of the sunlit surface, during survey orbit, with its framing camera and visible and infrared mapping spectrometer.

That phase was completed in late August, and the spacecraft began moving in to what is known as High Altitude Mapping Orbit at about 420 miles (680 kilometers) above Vesta, which it reached on Sept. 29.

An archive of the live news conference is available for viewing at: .

The Dawn scientists also shared their findings at the recent European Planetary Science Congress and the Division of Planetary Sciences Joint Meeting 2011 in Nantes, France.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

NASA to Launch New Satellite to Track Earth's Weather, Climate

A new NASA satellite that will be the first geared at observing key aspects of both Earth's climate and its weather is slated for launch on Oct. 27, the space agency announced today. The National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) is the first mission designed to collect critical data to improve weather forecasts in the short-term and increase our understanding of long-term climate change.

NPP's five science instruments, including four new state-of-the-art sensors, will provide scientists with data to extend more than 30 key data records that have been kept for decades by a cadre of Earth-observing satellites. These records, which range from the ozone layer and land cover to atmospheric temperatures and ice cover, are critical for understanding and predicting changes in global climate.

"NPP's observations of a wide range of interconnected Earth properties and processes will give us the big picture of how our planet changes," said Jim Gleason, NPP project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"That will help us improve our computer models that predict future environmental conditions," Gleason added. "Better predictions will let us make better decisions, whether it is as simple as taking an umbrella to work today or as complex as responding to a changing climate."

Meteorologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will incorporate NPP data into their weather prediction models to produce forecasts and warnings that will help emergency responders anticipate, monitor and react to many types of natural disasters.

"The timing of the NPP launch could hardly be more appropriate," said Louis W. Uccellini, director of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction in Camp Springs, Md. "With the many billion dollar weather disasters in 2011, NPP data is critical for accurate weather forecasts into the future."

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Another satellite set to crash back to Earth

Well, you may have been lucky last time, but there's another satellite heading back to Earth, and this time it's much more likely that it'll land on your head.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) plunged safely into the south Pacific Ocean, six years after completing its mission.

And, now, a German research satellite called ROSAT is set to make a similar return to Earth in the next two or three weeks. It's an X-ray telescope weighing nearly three tons, that's been orbiting since 1990.

However, communication was lost in 1999, and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) has lost control. There were suggestions at the time that the satellite's failure was triggered by a hacking attack from Russia.

ROSAT's now orbiting at around 270km above the Earth, descending slowly.

It's unlikely to burn up entirely on re-entry, because of the large amount of ceramics and glass used in construction - and this could mean that many pieces of debris would be razor-sharp.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Smallest Full Moon of 2011 Occurs Tuesday

In my more than 40 years as an amateur astronomer, I've given countless numbers of people views of a variety of celestial objects through telescopes. And most people usually will tell me that the first object in the sky that attracted their attention as youngsters was the ever-changing moon.

Many may recall the attention given to our nearest neighbor in space in March when that months' full moon very nearly coincided with the lunar perigee — the point in the moon's orbit in which it is nearest to Earth. At a distance of 221,565 miles (356,575 kilometers), some media outlets even christened it the "Supermoon" of 2011 because of its unusual closeness.

But on Tuesday night (Oct. 11) we will have the astronomical opposite of a supermoon. At 10:06 p.m. EDT (0206 GMT), the moon will officially turn full, but it will be the smallest full moon of 2011.

The sky map of the smallest full moon of the year shows where it will appear on Tuesday night when it reaches its full phase.

Less than 10 hours after the October full moon peaks, at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on Wednesday, the moon will arrive at the apogee of its orbit (the farthest point from Earth each month), which in October is a distance of 252,546 miles (406,434 km). That's only 154 miles (248 km) shy of the moon's absolute farthest point from Earth it can reach.

A puny full moon
Looking at the moon during Tuesday night, perhaps you will be struck by the noticeably small size of the moon's disk, even when it's near the horizon (which is supposed to make it appear larger as a result of the familiar "moon illusion" effect).

Last March, when the full moon was at perigee, some reported it as looking absolutely enormous as it emerged from above the eastern horizon. Not so on Tuesday, however, because the moon will very close to apogee, making this the smallest full moon of 2011.

By coincidence, October's full moon comes just days after the second annual International Observe the Moon Night on Oct. 8, in which skywatchers participated in hundreds of lunar observing events at skywatching parties around the world.

In fact, it will appear 12.3 percent smaller than the so-called supermoon of March 2011.

And because it is near its maximum distance from the Earth when full, the moon will also be traveling relatively slowly in its orbit. So both effects will combine to make its motion against the background stars especially small from night to night.

As a result, to the casual skywatcher it will seem that the moon is full for not just one night, but for three nights in a row: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The defect of illumination on the moon's disk — or put another way, the dark sliver near the edge — will be very slight on Monday and Wednesday night.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

New Solar Orbiter Mission in Development by NASA

According to a recent press release from the space agency, NASA, in a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA), are planning to develop new instruments which will be used on a new mission to study our Sun. Launch is currently scheduled for 2017.

Known as the Solar Orbiter mission, the new spacecraft focus its instruments on the sun from a distance comparable to the orbit of the planet Mercury. At this unprecedented close proximity to the Sun of only about 21 million miles, the Solar Orbiter will be able to much more accurately analyze the sun and help to forecast space weather and solar flares.

With humanity’s ever increasing reliance on electricity and electronics for navigation and communication, solar flares and other disturbances from the sun are a much larger concern than in the past. The orbiter will give scientists an earlier warning of impending solar storm, and give planners on the ground more time to prepare.

“Solar Orbiter is an exciting mission that will improve our understanding of the sun and its environment,” said Barbara Giles, director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division in Washington. “This collaboration will create a new chapter in heliophysics research and continue a strong partnership with the international science community to complement future robotic and human exploration activities.”

The two $80 million instruments currently at the focus of the development are:

- The Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI), which will provide revolutionary measurements to pinpoint coronal mass ejections or CMEs. CMEs are space weather events with violent solar eruptions that travel from 60 miles per second to more than 2,000 miles per second with masses greater than a few billion tons. Russell Howard from the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington is principal investigator.

- The Heavy Ion Sensor (HIS)

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

ESA To Collaborate with NASA on Solar Science Mission

On October 4, 2011, the European Space Agency announced it's two next science missions, including Solar Orbiter, a spacecraft geared to study the powerful influence of the sun. Solar Orbiter will be an ESA-led mission, with strong NASA contributions managed from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Solar Orbiter will venture closer to the Sun than any previous mission. The spacecraft will also carry advanced instrumentation that will help untangle how activity on the sun sends out radiation, particles and magnetic fields that can affect Earth's magnetic environment, causing aurora, or potentially damaging satellites, interfering with GPS communications or even Earth's electrical power grids.

"Solar Orbiter will use multiple gravity assists from Venus to tilt its orbit until it can see the poles of the Sun, and that's never been done before," said Chris St. Cyr, NASA's project scientist for Solar Orbiter at Goddard. "A full view of the solar poles will help us understand how the sun's magnetic poles reverse direction every 11 years, causing giant eruptions and flares, called space weather, that can affect the rest of the solar system."

Being so close to the sun also means that the Solar Orbiter will stay over a given area of the solar surface for a longer time, allowing the instruments to track the evolution of sunspots, active regions, coronal holes and other solar activity far longer than has been done before.

Solar Orbiter is also designed to make major breakthroughs in our understanding of how the sun generates and propels the flow of particles in which the planets are bathed, known as the solar wind. Solar activity and solar eruptions create strong perturbations in this wind, triggering spectacular auroral displays on Earth and other planets. Solar Orbiter will be close enough to the sun to both observe the details of how the solar wind is accelerated off the sun and to sample the wind shortly after it leaves the surface.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Best Evidence Yet That Comets Delivered Water for Earth’s Oceans

The idea isn’t new that Earth’s oceans originated from comets bombarding our planet back in its early days. But astronomers have now found the best evidence yet for this scenario. The Herschel infrared space observatory detected that comet Hartley 2, which originates from the distant Kuiper Belt, contains water with the same chemical signature as Earth’s oceans.

“Our results with Herschel suggest that comets could have played a major role in bringing vast amounts of water to an early Earth,” said Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and co-author of a new paper in the journal Nature, published online on Oct. 5. “This finding substantially expands the reservoir of Earth ocean-like water in the solar system to now include icy bodies originating in the Kuiper Belt.”

Previous looks at various other comets showed water content different from Earth’s oceans, with deuterium levels around twice that of Earth’s oceans, but those comets came from the Oort Cloud. Scientists theorized that if comets of this kind had collided with Earth, they could not have contributed more than a few percent of Earth’s water.

But Herschel’s observations of Hartley 2 are the first in-depth look at water in a comet from the Kuiper Belt — home of icy, rocky bodies that includes dwarf planets and innumerable comets — and it showed a surprising difference.

Using HIFI, a highly sensitive infrared spectrometer, Herschel peered into the comet’s coma, or thin, gaseous atmosphere, and found that Hartley 2 possessed half as much “heavy water” as other comets analyzed to date. In heavy water, one of the two normal hydrogen atoms has been replaced by the heavy hydrogen isotope known as deuterium. The ratio between heavy water and light, or regular, water in Hartley 2 is the same as the water on Earth’s surface.

“Comet Hartley’s deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio is almost exactly the same as the water in Earth’s oceans,” says Paul Hartogh, Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, who led the international team of astronomers in this study.

The amount of heavy water in a comet is related to the environment where the comet formed, and by comparing the deuterium to hydrogen ratio found in the water in Earth’s oceans with that in extraterrestrial objects, astronomers were hoping to identify the origin of our water.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Giant Asteroid Vesta Has Mountain Taller Than Anything on Earth

A NASA spacecraft orbiting the asteroid Vesta is revealing new details about the huge space rock's surface, including a massive mountain that rises taller than Mt. Everest on Earth.

NASA's Dawn probe has been circling Vesta since mid-July, when it arrived in the asteroid belt that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. So far, Dawn has beamed back surprising views of Vesta that revealed an enormous mountain in the asteroid's southern hemisphere and show that its crater surface is incredibly diverse place.

"We are learning many amazing things about Vesta, which we call the smallest terrestrial planet," Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, said in a statement. "Like Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury, Vesta has ancient basaltic lava flows on the surface and a large iron core … The south polar mountain is larger than the big island of Hawaii, the largest mountain on Earth, as measured from the ocean floor. It is almost as high as the highest mountain in the solar system, the shield volcano Olympus Mons on Mars."

Vesta's giant southern mountain is nearly as tall as Olympus Mons, the largest mountain (and volcano) in the solar system, which soars about 15 miles (24 kilometers) above the surface. On Earth, the largest terrestrial volcano is Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which rises up 6 miles (9 km) high, including the portion of the volcano that extends underwater to the sea floor. Mount Everest, the tallest mountain above sea level on Earth, is a paltry 5.5 miles (8.85 km) tall.

Dawn also revealed that Vesta's surface appears to be much rougher than most asteroids in the main asteroid belt, which is a vast region full of space rocks between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Additionally, preliminary estimates of crater age dates on Vesta suggest that regions in the southern hemisphere are far younger than in the north — with some areas in the southern hemisphere only about 1 to 2 billion years old.

The findings were presented today at the 2011 European Planetary Science Congress and the Division for Planetary Sciences Joint Meeting in Nantes, France.

Diamond stud

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Private Space Race On to Launch US Astronauts for NASA

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Private space companies will launch American astronauts into orbit years before NASA is ready to do so on its own again, but the race to be the first commercial space taxi service is still far from won.

NASA's next crew-carrying rocket, the heavy-lift Space Launch System, will blast off on its first test flight in 2017 at the earliest, agency officials have said. But a handful of private companies say they're on schedule to begin lofting astronauts by 2015 — or perhaps even earlier.

"We believe we'll be ready in three years," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (also known as SpaceX).

Encouraging private spaceflight
NASA is happy about the progress SpaceX and other companies seem to be making. The agency is not in competition with these firms, after all; rather, NASA is encouraging them to develop their capabilities, via its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

In the last several years, the agency has given money to a handful of firms — including SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin — in two rounds of funding. The goal is to help establish American means of human transportation to space again, an ability the nation has lacked since the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in July.

Currently, the United States is completely dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

"Obviously, our focus is to close the gap," said Ed Mango, NASA's CCDev program manager. "We want an American-led system in order to get us back into low-Earth orbit, just like we've had for the last 30 years."

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) isn't the answer for low-Earth orbit. The heavy-lift SLS is designed to launch the agency's crew-carrying Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle toward deep space destinations such as asteroids and Mars.

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