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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