Wednesday, October 10, 2012

This dazzling image shows the globular cluster Messier 69, or M 69 for short, as viewed through the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Globular clusters are dense collections of old stars. In this picture, foreground stars look big and golden when set against the backdrop of the thousands of white, silvery stars that make up M 69.

Another aspect of M 69 lends itself to the bejeweled metaphor: As globular clusters go, M 69 is one of the most metal-rich on record. In astronomy, the term "metal" has a specialized meaning: it refers to any element heavier than the two most common elements in our Universe, hydrogen and helium. The nuclear fusion that powers stars created all of the metallic elements in nature, from the calcium in our bones to the carbon in diamonds. Successive generations of stars have built up the metallic abundances we see today.

Because the stars in globular clusters are ancient, their metallic abundances are much lower than more recently formed stars, such as the Sun. Studying the makeup of stars in globular clusters like M 69 has helped astronomers trace back the evolution of the cosmos.

M 69 is located 29 700 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius (the Archer). The famed French comet hunter Charles Messier added M 69 to his catalogue in 1780. It is also known as NGC 6637.

The image is a combination of exposures taken in visible and near-infrared light by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, and covers a field of view of approximately 3.4 by 3.4 arcminutes.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Blanketing NASA's Webb Telescope's Science Instrument Electronics

These engineers from Genesis Engineering Solutions are doing what’s called "blanket closeout" and it took two days to complete.

The gold louvers are composite mirrors, made of gold-coated carbon fiber, designed to remove the heat from inside the IEC to deep space. 

The IEC holds computing hardware for each of the science instruments. This special part of the telescope allows the computer hardware to operate at room temperature on the cold side of the telescope by directing heat away so that the telescope can deliver infrared imagery.

"As heat radiates off the panel that they are attached to, the mirrors focus it in a particular direction (namely, away from the telescope)," says Lutter. 

After the engineers completed blanketing, the IEC was then placed in the thermal chamber to be tested against the chill of a space-simulated environment. This process is called the thermal vacuum and balance test. During this test, temperatures drop to about 90 degrees Kelvin (-297.67 degrees Fahrenheit or -183.15 degrees Celsius). 

"This is important because we need to know how effective the IEC is at keeping heat away from the cold side of Webb," says Lutter. "If even a little heat escapes the IEC in the direction of the telescope, the telescope's sensitivity could be ruined."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hubble Catches Glowing Gas and Dark Dust in a Side-On Spiral

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced a sharp image of NGC 4634, a spiral galaxy seen exactly side-on. Its disk is slightly warped by ongoing interactions with a nearby galaxy, and it is crisscrossed by clearly defined dust lanes and bright nebulae.

NGC 4634, which lies around 70 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Coma Berenices, is one of a pair of interacting galaxies. Its neighbor, NGC 4633, lies just outside the upper right corner of the frame, and is visible in wide-field views of the galaxy. While it may be out of sight, it is not out of mind: its subtle effects on NGC 4634 are easy to see to a well-trained eye.

Gravitational interactions pull the neat spiral forms of galaxies out of shape as they get closer to each other, and the disruption to gas clouds triggers vigorous episodes of star formation. While this galaxy’s spiral pattern is not directly visible thanks to our side-on perspective, its disk is slightly warped, and there is clear evidence of star formation.

Along the full length of the galaxy, and scattered around parts of its halo, are bright pink nebulae. Similar to the Orion Nebula in the Milky Way, these are clouds of gas that are gradually coalescing into stars. The powerful radiation from the stars excites the gas and makes it light up, much like a fluorescent sign. The large number of these star formation regions is a telltale sign of gravitational interaction.

Read more

Monday, September 10, 2012

NASA Mars Rover Curiosity Begins Arm-Work Phase

Before completing its final flight on the back of a 747 on September 20 the Space Shuttle Endeavour will visit the Bay Area, flying low over NASA Ames Research Center and possibly other area landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge. Endeavour will begin its multi-day cross-country journey by taking off near dawn on September 17 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The final stop of Endeavour’s tour will be Los Angeles International Airport, 12 miles way from its new museum home at the California Science Center.

Although the exact timing and path of the ferry flight will depend on weather conditions and operational constraints, the piggybacked duo are scheduled to conduct low-level flyovers of several locations along the planned flight path. These include the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base, in and around the Florida spaceport; NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans; Houston, Clear Lake and Galveston, near NASA's Johnson Space Center; White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, N.M.; NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, and various landmarks in multiple California cities. Social media users are encouraged by NASA to share their Endeavour sightings using the hashtags #spottheshuttle and #OV105, Endeavour’s orbiter vehicle designation.

After arriving at LAX, the shuttle will be removed from its 747 carrier aircraft and spend a few weeks in a United Airlines hanger being prepared for transportation and display. Endeavour then will travel through Inglewood and Los Angeles city streets on a 12-mile journey from the airport to the science center, arriving in the evening on Oct. 13. Beginning Oct. 30, the shuttle will be on display in the California Science Center's Samuel Oschin Space Shuttle Endeavour Display Pavilion.

Monday, September 03, 2012

NASA's IceBridge Seeking New View of Changing Sea Ice

This year scientists working on NASA's Operation IceBridge, a multi-year airborne science mission to study changing ice conditions at both poles, debuted a new data product with the potential to improve Arctic sea ice forecasts.

Using new data processing techniques, IceBridge scientists were able to release an experimental quick look product before the end of the 2012 Arctic campaign. The main challenge faced when producing data for seasonal forecasts is the time needed to crunch the numbers, something that has in the past taken IceBridge scientists more than six months to do after the data was collected in the spring. This is too late to use for Arctic sea ice forecasts of the annual seasonal minimum, which takes place in September.

The new product could potentially be used in seasonal sea ice forecasts in the future. "The community is excited about it," said IceBridge science team co-lead Jackie Richter-Menge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research Laboratory, Hanover, N.H. "We're hoping to build on this season's momentum and interest."

Scientists have been keeping an eye on Arctic sea ice in recent years because it is changing and they want to understand what those changes might mean. Arctic sea ice grows and recedes in a seasonal pattern, with a maximum coverage in March and a minimum in September. These high and low points vary from year to year, but there is a clear trend toward smaller minimums that mean more open water in the Arctic each summer and fall. This decrease in ice is already affecting ocean and terrestrial life in the Arctic, accelerating warming in the region and leading to economic and social changes.

"Sea ice is a sensitive indicator of a changing climate," said NASA researcher Nathan Kurtz at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. It can also act as a feedback to warming in the Arctic. Because ice is much lighter in color than ocean water it has a higher albedo, meaning it reflects more sunlight than water. "A loss of sea ice can cause the Earth as a whole to warm," Kurtz said. The loss of sea ice has also been linked to shifts in weather patterns and distribution of nutrients in the ocean.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Inside NASA’s Curiosity: It’s an Apple Airport Extreme… with wheels

Late last night, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity successfully navigated its way through Seven Minutes of Terror and touched down on the surface of the Red Planet, heralding a new age of extraterrestrial exploration that will eventually result in the human colonization of Mars.

At the heart of Curiosity there is, of course, a computer. In this case the Mars rover is powered by a RAD750, a single-board computer (motherboard, RAM, ROM, and CPU) produced by BAE. The RAD750 has been on the market for more than 10 years, and it’s currently one of the most popular on-board computers for spacecraft. In Curiosity’s case, the CPU is a PowerPC 750 (PowerPC G3 in Mac nomenclature) clocked at around 200MHz — which might seem slow, but it’s still hundreds of times faster than, say, the Apollo Guidance Computer used in the first Moon landings. Also on the motherboard are 256MB of DRAM, and 2GB of flash storage — which will be used to store video and scientific data before transmission to Earth.

BAE RAD750 single-board, radiation-hardened computerThe RAD750 can withstand temperatures of between -55 and 70C, and radiation levels up to 1000 gray. Safely ensconced within Curiosity, the temperature and radiation should remain below these levels — but for the sake of redundancy, there’s a second RAD750 that automatically takes over if the first one fails.

On the software side of things, NASA again stuck to tried-and-tested solutions, opting for the 27-year-old VxWorks operating system. VxWorks, developed by Wind River Systems (which was acquired by Intel), is a real-time operating system used in a huge number of embedded systems. The previous Mars rovers (Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft all use VxWorks. VxWorks also powers BMW iDrive, the Apache Longbow helicopter, and the Apple Airport Extreme and Linksys WRT54G routers (really).

I said that VxWorks is 27 years old, but that’s a bit unfair: The initial release was in 1985 (around the same time as MS-DOS 3.0), but it has been in constant development since then, reaching v6.9 last year. Why does Curiosity use VxWorks? It’s reliable, has a mature development toolchain, and presumably its low-level scheduling and interrupt systems are ideal for handling real-time tasks like EDL (entry, descent, and landing; aka, seven minutes of terror).

Friday, July 27, 2012

NASA's Space Launch System Passes Major Agency Review, Moves to Preliminary Design

The rocket that will launch humans farther into space than ever before passed a major NASA review Wednesday. The Space Launch System (SLS) Program completed a combined System Requirements Review and System Definition Review, which set requirements of the overall launch vehicle system. SLS now moves ahead to its preliminary design phase.

The SLS will launch NASA's Orion spacecraft and other payloads, and provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

These NASA reviews set technical, performance, cost and schedule requirements to provide on-time development of the heavy-lift rocket. As part of the process, an independent review board comprised of technical experts from across NASA evaluated SLS Program documents describing vehicle specifications, budget and schedule. The board confirmed SLS is ready to move from concept development to preliminary design.

"This new heavy-lift launch vehicle will make it possible for explorers to reach beyond our current limits, to nearby asteroids, Mars and its moons, and to destinations even farther across our solar system," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The in-depth assessment confirmed the basic vehicle concepts of the SLS, allowing the team to move forward and start more detailed engineering design."

The reviews also confirmed the SLS system architecture and integration with the Orion spacecraft, managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, which manage the operations and launch facilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"This is a pivotal moment for this program and for NASA," said SLS Program Manager Todd May. "This has been a whirlwind experience from a design standpoint. Reaching this key development point in such a short period of time, while following the strict protocol and design standards set by NASA for human spaceflight is a testament to the team's commitment to delivering the nation's next heavy-lift launch vehicle."

SLS reached this major milestone less than 10 months after the program's inception. The combination of the two assessments represents a fundamentally different way of conducting NASA program reviews. The SLS team is streamlining processes to provide the nation with a safe, affordable and sustainable heavy-lift launch vehicle capability. The next major program milestone is preliminary design review, targeted for late next year.

The first test flight of NASA's Space Launch System, which will feature a configuration for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity, is scheduled for 2017. As SLS evolves, a three-stage launch vehicle configuration will provide a lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions beyond low Earth orbit and support deep space exploration.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the SLS program. Across the country NASA and its industry partners continue to make progress on SLS hardware that will be integrated into the final design. The RS-25 core stage and J-2X upper-stage rocket engine in development by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., for the future two-stage SLS, will be tested at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The prime contractor for the five-segment solid rocket boosters, ATK of Brigham City, Utah, has begun processing its first SLS boosters in preparation for an initial qualification test next year, ahead of their use for the first two exploration missions. The Boeing Co. in Huntsville is designing the SLS core stage, to be built at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and tested at Stennis before being shipped to Kennedy. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Nasa hires SpaceX for science satellite launch

Nasa hired Space Exploration Technologies to launch an ocean monitoring satellite Nasa officials say.This is a key win for the start-up rocket company that also wants to break into the US military’s launch business.

The $82 million contract covers launch, payload processing and other services for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ocean-measuring Jason-3 satellite, which is slated to fly in December 2014.Launch would take place from SpaceX’s new complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Nasa, which handles procurements for NOAA, also awarded three launch contracts, worth $412 million for Delta 2 rockets built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

One of the satellites earmarked for a Delta 2 flight is the replacement for a carbon dioxide tracking satellite lost in February 2009 after a failed launch on an Orbital Sciences Corp Taurus rocket.The launches, slated for July 2014, October 2014 and November 2016, also will take place at Vandenberg.

SpaceX, which is owned and operated by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, already holds Nasa contracts worth $1,6 billion to fly cargo to the International Space Station, a $100 billion laboratory that orbits about 240 miles (386 kilometres) above Earth.

The company in May successfully flew a demonstration mission to the station, a key milestone in its efforts to win US military launch contracts as well.

ULA currently has a monopoly on US military launch business. But in an attempt to certify more launchers, the Air Force is expected to award a non-ULA launch services contract this year for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a former Nasa Earth-monitoring satellite being repurposed by NOAA into a solar observatory. A request for bids under the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program (OSP-3) was released May 11.

The criteria for new launchers was jointly developed by the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and Nasa.The new Nasa contract is the first evidence that Falcon 9 meets the new launcher criteria.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

NASA's Mars rover may be in for blind landing

NASA's new Mars rover is heading for a risky do-or-die touchdown next month to assess conditions for life on the planet, but the U.S. space agency may not know for hours whether it arrived safely, managers said on Monday.

That's because the satellite that NASA was counting on for real-time coverage of the Mars Science Laboratory's descent into Gale Crater, located near the planet's equator, was sidelined last month by a maneuvering system glitch.

Managers were able to recover the satellite, but it is now in a different orbit than intended, which may make it unable to view and record the rover's seven-minute descent and landing.

Two other spacecraft orbiting Mars will be monitoring the probe's arrival, but one records data for later playback and the other won't be aligned to see the last minute of flight, NASA's Mars exploration program chief Doug McCuistion told reporters.

"We're assessing what the issues are," McCuistion said. "There's no impact to landing itself. It's simply how that data gets returned to us and how timely that data is."

Mars Science Lab, nicknamed Curiosity, is scheduled to land at 1:31 a.m. EDT (0531 GMT) on August 6 inside an 96-mile (155-km) wide impact basin that may be one of the final resting places for Mars' lost surface water.

The planet, which is about 1.5 times as far away from the sun as Earth, is a cold, dry and acidic desert today. But that was not always the case.

Previous orbiters, landers and rovers have turned up solid evidence of water, including geologic features such as channels, as well as chemical fingerprints of clays and minerals that on Earth form when rock interacts with water.Gale Crater is one of the lowest places on Mars.

"It's like a little bowl, capturing any water that may have been present there," said project scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology. "Water flows downhill, and if you don't know anything else in advance, that's where you want to go to find evidence of water."

Curiosity is after more than water, however. To support Earth-like life, an environment needs water, an energy source, like the sun or chemical energy, and carbon.

The goal of the mission, designed to last two years, is to assess whether Gale Crater had all the ingredients at the right time and in the right places for microbial life to arise and be preserved.

The basin sports a 3-mile (5-km) high mound of what appears to be layers of sediment, which at one time might have completely filled the crater.

"One of the main reasons why we're going to Mars is to figure out whether life ever started there," said NASA's lead Mars scientist Michael Meyer.

"If in the second place in our solar system that we think life has a possibility and actually did start there, my conclusion would be that life is easy, it's a natural process and the universe is just littered with places that have life," Meyer said.

Weighing in at about a ton, Curiosity is too big for the landing bags and thruster rockets that were designed to let previous probes to Mars touch down gently down on its surface.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mars Panorama - Next Best Thing to Being There

PASADENA, Calif. -- From fresh rover tracks to an impact crater blasted billions of years ago, a newly completed view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows the ruddy terrain around the outcrop where the long-lived explorer spent its most recent Martian winter.

This scene recorded from the mast-mounted color camera includes the rover's own solar arrays and deck in the foreground, providing a sense of sitting on top of the rover and taking in the view. Its release this week coincides with two milestones: Opportunity completing its 3,000th Martian day on July 2, and NASA continuing past 15 years of robotic presence at Mars. Mars Pathfinder landed July 4, 1997. NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter reached the planet while Pathfinder was still active, and Global Surveyor overlapped the active missions of the Mars Odyssey orbiter and Opportunity, both still in service.

The new panorama is online at It is presented in false color to emphasize differences between materials in the scene. It was assembled from 817 component images taken between Dec. 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012, while Opportunity was stationed on an outcrop informally named "Greeley Haven," on a segment of the rim of ancient Endeavour Crater.

"The view provides rich geologic context for the detailed chemical and mineral work that the team did at Greeley Haven over the rover's fifth Martian winter, as well as a spectacularly detailed view of the largest impact crater that we've driven to yet with either rover over the course of the mission," said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Tempe, Pancam lead scientist.

Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, landed on Mars in January 2004 for missions originally planned to last for three months. NASA's next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity, is on course for landing on Mars next month.

Opportunity's science team chose to call the winter campaign site Greeley Haven in tribute to Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), a team member who taught generations of planetary science students at Arizona State University.

"Ron Greeley was a valued colleague and friend, and this scene, with its beautiful wind-blown drifts and dunes, captures much of what Ron loved about Mars," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Sun unleashes huge solar flare at the end of 11-year cycle

Our Sun may add to the fireworks as our American friends celebrate their  Independence Day

On Monday, July 2, a regiona of our Sun known as active region 1515 unleashed a solar flare aimed squarely at the Earth. This group sunspots – from which solar flares originate — has been crackling with radio and X-ray energy for days and Monday’s flare was an M5.6-class flare, just a notch down from the strongest possible.

While this isn’t all that surprising, it will have some very noticeable effects here on Earth. Our sun goes through 11-year cycles and will near the peak of cycle 24 next year. As we get closer to that peak, flares are going to get more intense. This most-recent flare was only the latest in a string, including an X-class flare which dealt our Earth’s magnetic field a glancing blow on March 7.

Our history is riddled with the effects of solar flares. Solar flares carry intense amounts of energy that can actually add electricity to our phone lines, fiber optic cables and satellites that we use for all of our modern activities. The now-famous Bastille Day event on July 14, 2000, and the X45-class Halloween flare of 2003 caused communications disruptions worldwide around the peak of the last solar cycle. Back in 1989, a flare caused 6 million people in Quebec to lose power when it overloaded transformers.

Historically, one of the largest events was the Carrington Super flare of 1859, which caused the Northern Lights to be seen as far south as Puerto Rico and disrupted telegraph lines around the world. In fact, operators on the east coast of the United States found there was enough current on the line to send telegraph messages even with their batteries disconnected.

But with an aging power infrastructure and a growing reliance on communications technology, there is now some concern as to what a powerful flare would do today. In space, solar activity can damage satellites and endanger astronauts. Passengers flying along polar routes may even experience a substantially higher dose of radiation, forcing some flights to re-route.

That’s why a fleet of international spacecraft are now monitoring the Sun as never before in human history. These include the European Space Agency’s Solar Heliospheric Observatory, the Proba-2  microsattelite, Japan’s Hinode, and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

NASA’s Twin STEREO spacecraft also monitor the Sun from different vantage points along Earth’s orbit, giving us a full 360 degree view of the solar surface.

This solar cycle may prove to be lackluster by historic standards. Between 2008 and 2010, scientists recorded the lowest ebb of solar activity in the past century and there is some conjecture that Cycle 25 may be especially weak, following the theories of NASA solar physicist David Hathaway who supposed that the churning behaviour in the Sun’s interior is actually slowing down and the entire solar cycle may be disrupted as soon as 2022.

When this has happened in the past, cosmic ray levels have also gone  up when we’re at a solar minimum. The solar wind ebbs and more particles from beyond our solar system are able to reach the Earth. One famous, and hotly debated, extended solar lull was known as the Maunder Minimum, which stretched from 1645 to 1715. During this period, the Thames River froze, virtually no sunspots were recorded by the observers of the day and crops failed due to short growing seasons.

Unfortunately, a weak solar cycle and cooling via global dimming (albedo or reflectivity due to increased cloud cover) may be masking the effects of global warming, adding fuel to the political debate.

Whatever the case, our sun is worth keeping an eye on. If skies are clear, observers across North America above latitude 40 degree north may be in for a summer showing of the aurora borealis. This is one of nature’s finest spectacles, and requires no equipment—just a set of eyes– to watch.

Friday, June 29, 2012

First Space-Bound Orion on Its Way to Kennedy

A major milestone has been achieved for NASA’s Orion program with the first Orion destined for space being shipped to the Kennedy Space Center. Construction on the spacecraft was finished at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana this week, and final outfitting and heat shield installation will take place at KSC.

This spacecraft will fly on Exploration Flight Test-1, an unmanned test that is scheduled two years from now. The EFT-1 flight will take Orion to an altitude of more than 3,600 miles, more than 15 times farther away from Earth than the International Space Station. Orion will return home at a speed of 25,000 miles per hour, almost 5,000 miles per hour faster than any human spacecraft. It will mimic the return conditions that astronauts experience as they come home from voyages beyond low Earth orbit. As Orion reenters the atmosphere, it will endure temperatures up to 4,000 degrees F., higher than any human spacecraft since astronauts returned from the moon.

This first Orion will fly atop a Delta IV Heavy, a rocket operated by United Launch Alliance. While this launch vehicle will provide sufficient lift for the EFT-1 flight plan, NASA’s SLS rocket will be needed for the vast distances of future exploration missions.

Following EFT-1, the first integrated flight test will launch an uncrewed Orion on the SLS in 2017. That test will put the entire integrated exploration system through its paces. The Orion spacecraft will have the capability to carry astronauts to the moon, asteroids, Mars and other deep space destinations. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

NASA Space Launch System Core Stage Moves From Concept to Design

The nation's space exploration program is taking a critical step forward with a successful major technical review of the core stage of the Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket that will take astronauts farther into space than ever before.

The core stage is the heart of the heavy-lift launch vehicle. It will stand more than 200 feet (61 meters) tall with a diameter of 27.5 feet (8.4 meters).

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., hosted a comprehensive review. Engineers from NASA and The Boeing Co. of Huntsville presented a full set of system requirements, design concepts and production approaches to technical reviewers and the independent review board.

"This meeting validates our design requirements for the core stage of the nation's heavy-lift rocket and is the first major checkpoint for our team," said Tony Lavoie, manager of the SLS Stages Element at Marshall. "Getting to this point took a lot of hard work, and I'm proud of the collaboration between NASA and our partners at Boeing. Now that we have completed this review, we go from requirements to real blueprints. We are right on track to deliver the core stage for the SLS program."

The core stage will store liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to feed the rocket's four RS-25 engines, all of which will be former space shuttle main engines for the first few flights. The SLS Program has an inventory of 16 RS-25 flight engines that successfully operated for the life of the Space Shuttle Program. Like the space shuttle, SLS also will be powered initially by two solid rocket boosters on the sides of the launch vehicle.

The SLS will launch NASA's Orion spacecraft and other payloads, and provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Designed to be safe, affordable and flexible for crew and cargo missions, the SLS will continue America's journey of discovery and exploration to destinations including nearby asteroids, Lagrange points, the moon and ultimately, Mars.

"This is a very exciting time for the country and NASA as important achievements are made on the most advanced hardware ever designed for human space flight," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The SLS will power a new generation of exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit and the moon, pushing the frontiers of discovery forward. The innovations being made now, and the hardware being delivered and tested, are all testaments to the ability of the U.S. aerospace workforce to make the dream of deeper solar system exploration by humans a reality in our lifetimes."

The first test flight of NASA's Space Launch System, which will feature a configuration for a 77-ton (70-metric-ton) lift capacity, is scheduled for 2017. As SLS evolves, a two-stage launch vehicle configuration will provide a lift capability of 143 tons (130 metric tons) to enable missions beyond low Earth orbit and support deep space exploration.

Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage, including its avionics. The core stage will be built at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans using state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment. Marshall manages the SLS Program for the agency.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NASA's Ocean Salinity Pathfinder Celebrates its First Year in Orbit

It's been a busy first year in space for Aquarius, NASA's pioneering instrument to measure ocean surface salinity from orbit.

Designed to advance our understanding of what changes in the saltiness of the ocean's top layer say about the water cycle and variations in climate, Aquarius took only two and a half months after its launch to start measuring global salinity patterns. Since then, it has also observed regional features such as the freshwater plume gushing from the Amazon River and localized changes in ocean saltiness following a tropical storm.

"It was a very remarkable achievement, that within such a short period of time after turning the instrument on we were producing very good-looking data," said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef, of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. "It was beyond our expectations."

Lagerloef said that objectives for Aquarius' second year in orbit include correcting a few remaining calibration errors and validating the Aquarius dataset with thousands of direct in-water measurements of salinity.

The Aquarius/Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D mission is an international collaboration of NASA and Argentina's space agency. The satellite also carries instruments from partner institutions in Canada, Italy and France.

A Delta II rocket carrying the international observatory launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on June 10, 2011. Less than an hour later, the satellite separated from the rocket, started its deployment and established communications with ground stations.

"The first time the thing chirped, we got the data and posted it on the Web. It was just basic telemetry at that point, but it showed that all the systems we had put in place to share the data worked," said Gene Feldman, Aquarius project manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "We didn't get to pop champagne – we didn't have the time!"

Aquarius is the first NASA instrument specifically designed to study superficial ocean salinity from space, and it does it at a rate of about 300,000 measurements per month. It uses three passive microwave sensors, called radiometers, to record the thermal signal from the oceans' top 0.4 inches (10.1 millimeters). This signal varies depending on the concentration of salt and the temperature of the waters.

"An overarching question in climate research is to understand how changes in the Earth's water cycle – meaning rainfall and evaporation, river discharges and so forth – ocean circulation, and climate link together," Lagerloef said. Most global precipitation and evaporation events take place over the ocean and are very difficult to measure. But rainfall freshens the oceans' surface waters, and Aquarius can detect these changes in saltiness. "Salinity is the variable we can use to measure that coupling effect. It's a critical factor and it will eventually be used to improve climate forecast models."

Aquarius became operational on Aug. 25, 2011. The project's scientists soon created a map of global ocean saltiness using the first two and a half weeks of measurements, which had been compared against reference salinity data. The map showed variations in salinity patterns in much greater detail than Aquarius researchers had expected to see so early in the mission. Another welcome surprise was the observation of the effects on the ocean of Tropical Storm Lee (Sept. 2-3, 2011). Heavy rains produced a low-salinity feature that lasted more than a month in the Gulf of Mexico between the Mississippi River delta and the Florida panhandle.

Read more

Monday, June 04, 2012

Unmanned Aircraft Soars Above Hurricanes for 2012 NASA Mission

NASA will launch severe storm sentinels, an unmanned aircraft, over stormy skies in the beginning of this summer. It will enable forecasters and researchers to collect information on intensity changes and hurricane formation.

Many NASA centers have collaborated with federal and university partners for Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) airborne mission that will enable detecting intensity change and hurricane formation within the Atlantic Ocean basin.

NASA's unmanned sentinels will autonomously take wings. The NASA Global Hawk is ideal for hurricane investigations as it can over-fly hurricanes at altitudes over 60,000 ft with flight durations of up to 28 h. Global Hawks were deployed for the Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) environmental science mission and agency's 2010 Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) hurricane mission.

Two Global Hawk aircraft and six different instruments will be used by HS3 during this summer that are being launched at a base of operations at Virginia-based Wallops Flight Facility.

HS3 will carry out the controversial role of the dry, hot, and dusty Saharan Air Layer in tropical storm formation and intensification. According to earlier studies, Saharan Air Layer can activate or hamper intensification. HS3 will observe whether deep convection within the storms’ inner-core region is a response to storms finding favorable sources of energy or a major driver of intensity change.

The HS3 mission will operate from June 1 to November 30, part of the Atlantic hurricane seasons. The 2012 mission will be performed from late August through early October.

Global Hawk aircraft will include instruments that observe the storms’ environment are the Cloud Physics Lidar (CPL), scanning High-resolution Interferometer Sounder (S-HIS), and the Advanced Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS) (dropsondes). The Tropospheric Wind Lidar Technology Experiment (TWiLiTE) Doppler wind lidar is expected to soar during the 2013 mission.

The set of instruments that will fly on the Global Hawk focusing on the inner region of the storms include the Hurricane Imaging Radiometer (HIRAD) multi-frequency interferometric radiometer, the High-Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit Sounding Radiometer (HAMSR) microwave sounder, and the High-Altitude Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler (HIWRAP) conically scanning Doppler radar.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cassini Captures a Rarely-Seen Moon

While many of us here on Earth were waiting for the Moon to take a bite out of the Sun this past Sunday, Cassini was doing some moon watching of its own, 828.5 million miles away!

The image above is a color-composite raw image of Methone (pronounced meh-tho-nee), a tiny, egg-shaped moon only 2 miles (3 km) across. Discovered by Cassini in 2004, Methone’s orbit lies between Mimas and Enceladus, at a distance of 120,546 miles (194,000 km) from Saturn — that’s about half the distance between Earth and the Moon.

At an altitude of 1,200 miles (1900 km) this was Cassini’s closest pass ever of Methone, a rare visit that occurred after the spacecraft departed the much larger Tethys.

Along with sister moons Pallene and Anthe, Methone is part of a group called the Alkyonides, named after daughters of the god Alkyoneus in Greek mythology. The three moons may be leftovers from a larger swarm of bodies that entered into orbit around Saturn — or they may be pieces that broke off from either Mimas or Enceladus.

Earlier on Sunday, May 20, Cassini paid a relatively close visit to Tethys (pronounced tee-this), a 662-mile (1065-km) -wide moon made almost entirely of ice. One of the most extensively cratered worlds in the Solar System, Tethys’ surface is dominated by craters of all sizes — from the tiniest to the giant 250-mile (400-km) -wide Odysseus crater — as well as gouged by the enormous Ithaca Chasma, a series of deep valleys running nearly form pole to pole.

Cassini passed within 34,000 miles (54,000 km) of Tethys on May 20, before heading to Methone and then moving on to its new path toward Titan, a trajectory that will eventually take it up out of Saturn’s equatorial plane into a more inclined orbit in order to better image details of the rings and  Saturn’s poles.

Friday, May 18, 2012

NASA mission to go on with private funding

For nine years the Galaxy Evolution Explorer surveyed the sky with ultraviolet eyes in a NASA mission to catalog hundreds of millions of galaxies spanning 10 billion years of cosmic time.

The spacecraft was placed in standby mode Feb. 7 while NASA and Caltech worked out a Space Act Agreement, signed May 14, to allow the university to resume spacecraft operations and data management for the mission, the agency reported.

"NASA sees this as an opportunity to allow the public to continue reaping the benefits from this space asset that NASA developed using federal funding," said Paul Hertz, director of the agency's astrophysics division at NASA headquarters in Washington.

"This is an excellent example of a public/private partnership that will help further astronomy in the United States."Under the agreement, NASA maintains ownership and liability for the spacecraft until Caltech completes science activities, at which time it will decommission the spacecraft for NASA.The mission's batteries and solar panels have an expected lifetime of 12 years or more, NASA said.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mojave Desert Tests Prepare for NASA Mars Roving

Team members of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission took a test rover to Dumont Dunes in California's Mojave Desert this week to improve knowledge of the best way to operate a similar rover, Curiosity, currently flying to Mars for an August landing.

The test rover that they put through paces on various sandy slopes has a full-scale version of Curiosity's mobility system, but it is otherwise stripped down so that it weighs about the same on Earth as Curiosity will weigh in the lesser gravity of Mars.

Information collected in these tests on windward and downwind portions of dunes will be used by the rover team in making decisions about driving Curiosity on dunes near a mountain in the center of Gale Crater.

First, however, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, launched Nov. 26, 2011, must put Curiosity safely onto the ground. Safe landing on Mars is never assured, and this mission will use innovative methods to land the heaviest vehicle in the smallest target area ever attempted on Mars. Advances in landing heavier payloads more precisely are steps toward eventual human missions to Mars.

Curiosity is on track for landing the evening of Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (early on Aug. 6, Universal Time and EDT) to begin a two-year prime mission. Researchers plan to use Curiosity to study layers in Gale Crater's central mound, Mount Sharp. The mission will investigate whether the area has ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

NASA finds mysterious “hidden” planet

NASA’s Kepler mission continues to discover new, mysterious planets in the depths of space, with the space telescope identifying an “unseen” Super-Earth thanks to its blocking of a distant star. Kepler identifies possible planets from their repeat movement in front of stars, tracking the periodic dimming of the star itself rather than attempting to spot the much darker planet. Parent star KOI-872 (Kepler Object of Interest no.872) had shown a surprising erraticism in its dimming, MSNBC reports, with the actual movement varying by up to a few hours.

Kepler had originally indicated a single planet in orbit around KOI-872, with a transition period of once every 34 days. ”The planet should show transits equally spaced, which is not the case,” astronomer David Nesvorny of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. said of the research. “Sometimes the transit is two hours late, sometimes two hours early.”

Computer modeling suggested the time difference could, in fact, be because of a second planet in orbit, much closer to the sun than the first. In fact, astronomers believe there’s a 99-percent chance of a second, Saturn-sized object orbiting the sun every 57 days; “this is the first occasion where there is great confidence that the [computer modeling] method works” Nesvorny says.

The scientists have now moved on to identifying so-called exomoons, which orbit planets just as our own moon orbits the Earth.

Monday, May 07, 2012

100 Days and Counting to NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Landing

At 10:31 p.m. PDT today, April 27, (1:31 p.m. EDT), NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, carrying the one-ton Curiosity rover, will be within 100 days from its appointment with the Martian surface. At that moment, the mission has about 119 million miles (191 million kilometers) to go and is closing at a speed of 13,000 mph (21,000 kilometers per hour).

"Every day is one day closer to the most challenging part of this mission," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Landing an SUV-sized vehicle next to the side of a mountain 85 million miles from home is always stimulating. Our engineering and science teams continue their preparations for that big day and the surface operations to follow."

On Sunday, April 22, a week-long operational readiness test concluded at JPL. The test simulated aspects of the mission's early surface operations. Mission planners and engineers sent some of the same commands they will send to the real Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars to a test rover used at JPL.

"Our test rover has a central computer identical to Curiosity's currently on its way to Mars," said Eric Aguilar, the mission's engineering test lead at JPL. "We ran all our commands through it and watched to make sure it drove, took pictures and collected samples as expected by the mission planners. It was a great test and gave us a lot of confidence moving forward."

The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, launched Nov. 26, 2011, will deliver Curiosity to the surface of Mars on the evening of Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (early on Aug. 6, Universal Time and EDT) to begin a two-year prime mission. Curiosity's landing site is near the base of a mountain inside Gale Crater, near the Martian equator. Researchers plan to use Curiosity to study layers in the mountain that hold evidence about wet environments of early Mars. 

Thursday, May 03, 2012

NASA's Chandra Sees Remarkable Outburst From Old Black Hole

An extraordinary outburst produced by a black hole in a nearby galaxy has provided direct evidence for a population of old, volatile stellar black holes. The discovery, made by astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, provides new insight into the nature of a mysterious class of black holes that can produce as much energy in X-rays as a million suns radiate at all wavelengths.

Researchers used Chandra to discover a new ultraluminous X-ray source, or ULX. These objects give off more X-rays than most binary systems, in which a companion star orbits the remains of a collapsed star. These collapsed stars form either a dense core called a neutron star or a black hole.

The extra X-ray emission suggests ULXs contain black holes that might be much more massive than the ones found elsewhere in our galaxy.

The companion stars to ULXs, when identified, are usually young, massive stars, implying their black holes are also young. The latest research, however, provides direct evidence that ULXs can contain much older black holes and some sources may have been misidentified as young ones.

The intriguing new ULX is located in M83, a spiral galaxy about 15 million light years from Earth, discovered in 2010 with Chandra. Astronomers compared this data with Chandra images from 2000 and 2001, which showed the source had increased in X-ray brightness by at least 3,000 times and has since become the brightest X-ray source in M83.

The sudden brightening of the M83 ULX is one of the largest changes in X-rays ever seen for this type of object, which do not usually show dormant periods. No sign of the ULX was found in historical X-ray images made with Einstein Observatory in 1980, ROSAT in 1994, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton in 2003 and 2008, or NASA's Swift observatory in 2005.

"The flaring up of this ULX took us by surprise and was a sure sign we had discovered something new about the way black holes grow," said Roberto Soria of Curtin University in Australia, who led the new study. The dramatic jump in X-ray brightness, according to the researchers, likely occurred because of a sudden increase in the amount of material falling into the black hole.

In 2011, Soria and his colleagues used optical images from the Gemini Observatory and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to discover a bright blue source at the position of the X-ray source. The object had not been previously observed in a Magellan Telescope image taken in April 2009 or a Hubble image obtained in August 2009.

The lack of a blue source in the earlier images indicates the black hole's companion star is fainter, redder and has a much lower mass than most of the companions that previously have been directly linked to ULXs. The bright, blue optical emission seen in 2011 must have been caused by a dramatic accumulation of more material from the companion star.

"If the ULX only had been observed during its peak of X-ray emission in 2010, the system easily could have been mistaken for a black hole with a massive, much younger stellar companion, about 10 to 20 million years old," said co-author William Blair of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The companion to the black hole in M83 is likely a red giant star at least 500 million years old, with a mass less than four times the sun's. Theoretical models for the evolution of stars suggest the black hole should be almost as old as its companion.

Another ULX containing a volatile, old black hole recently was discovered in the Andromeda galaxy by Amanpreet Kaur, from Clemson University, and colleagues and published in the February 2012 issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dragon Expected to Set Historic Course

In response to SpaceX's announcement that it has delayed launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft from April 30 to May 7, NASA issued the following statement from Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier:

"We appreciate that SpaceX is taking the necessary time to help ensure the success of this historic flight. We will continue to work with SpaceX in preparing for the May 7 launch to the International Space Station."

As scheduled, the mission will be the first to see a privately built and funded spacecraft rendezvous with the station. If successful, the mission is expected to pave the way toward regular operational commercial cargo missions.

"It's almost like the lead-up to Apollo, in my mind," said Mike Horkachuck, NASA's project executive for SpaceX. "You had Mercury then you had Gemini and eventually you had Apollo. This would be similar in the sense that, we're not going to the moon or anything as spectacular as that, but we are in the beginnings of commercializing space. This may be the Mercury equivalent to eventually flying crew and then eventually leading to, in the long run, passenger travel in space."

California-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, is preparing to launch an ambitious mission to dock its Dragon spacecraft to the space station and return it to Earth. The spacecraft will not have a crew, but will carry about 1,200 pounds of cargo that the astronauts and cosmonauts living on the station will be able to use. The capsule will go into space atop a Falcon 9 rocket also built by SpaceX.

Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX and the company's chief designer, said his team is not taking the mission's objectives for granted, particularly since both the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket are relatively new to spaceflight.

"We have launched the rocket twice and the spacecraft once so they are pretty new, and the proximity operations will be our first test in space," Musk said following the Flight Readiness Review. "I think it’s important to appreciate that this is fairly tricky and it is important to remember that we are hitting a target within a few inches while it moves over 17,000 mph."

Because the mission is a test flight, the cargo is not material deemed critical to the crew, Horkachuck said. Launch is targeted for May 7 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, within sight of the launch pads the space shuttles used to carry the station's components into orbit. There also are several tests and reviews coming up later this month similar to those performed ahead of space shuttle missions.

If this mission is successful, the Dragon is expected to become operational and launch regular supply runs to the station. Unlike any other cargo carrier, the Dragon can bring things back to Earth, too, a boon for scientists whose research is taking place on the orbiting laboratory.

SpaceX already has two successful Falcon 9 launches to its credit, along with a history making demonstration of the Dragon capsule that in December 2010, became the first privately built and operated spacecraft to be launched to and recovered from Earth orbit.

"I think the (first demonstration) mission was more of a question mark in my mind," Horkachuck said, "because no capsule that these guys had built before had gone into space, done the basic maneuvering to show you have attitude control as well as re-entering, so knowing the vehicle came through re-entry relatively unscathed and all the parachute systems worked perfectly, that was a real big deal."

Because of that mission's achievements, NASA and SpaceX agreed to combine the planned second and third demonstration flights into one. Assuming the Dragon spacecraft passes about a few days' worth of equipment checks and demonstration in orbit, it will be allowed to approach the station close enough for astronauts to grab the Dragon with the station's large robotic arm. The arm will berth the capsule to the station and astronauts will unload the spacecraft and put about 1,400 pounds of material inside the Dragon for return to Earth.

Monday, April 23, 2012

NASA Spacecraft Reveals Recent Geological Activity on the Moon

New images from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft show the moon's crust is being stretched, forming minute valleys in a few small areas on the lunar surface. Scientists propose this geologic activity occurred less than 50 million years ago, which is considered recent compared to the moon's age of more than 4.5 billion years.

A team of researchers analyzing high-resolution images obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) show small, narrow trenches typically much longer than they are wide. This indicates the lunar crust is being pulled apart at these locations. These linear valleys, known as graben, form when the moon's crust stretches, breaks and drops down along two bounding faults. A handful of these graben systems have been found across the lunar surface.

"We think the moon is in a general state of global contraction because of cooling of a still hot interior," said Thomas Watters of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and lead author of a paper on this research appearing in the March issue of the journal Nature Geoscience. "The graben tell us forces acting to shrink the moon were overcome in places by forces acting to pull it apart. This means the contractional forces shrinking the moon cannot be large, or the small graben might never form."

The weak contraction suggests that the moon, unlike the terrestrial planets, did not completely melt in the very early stages of its evolution. Rather, observations support an alternative view that only the moon's exterior initially melted forming an ocean of molten rock.

In August 2010, the team used LROC images to identify physical signs of contraction on the lunar surface, in the form of lobe-shaped cliffs known as lobate scarps. The scarps are evidence the moon shrank globally in the geologically recent past and might still be shrinking today. The team saw these scarps widely distributed across the moon and concluded it was shrinking as the interior slowly cooled.

Based on the size of the scarps, it is estimated that the distance between the moon's center and its surface shrank by approximately 300 feet. The graben were an unexpected discovery and the images provide contradictory evidence that the regions of the lunar crust are also being pulled apart.

"This pulling apart tells us the moon is still active," said Richard Vondrak, LRO Project Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "LRO gives us a detailed look at that process."

As the LRO mission progresses and coverage increases, scientists will have a better picture of how common these young graben are and what other types of tectonic features are nearby. The graben systems the team finds may help scientists refine the state of stress in the lunar crust.

"It was a big surprise when I spotted graben in the far side highlands," said co-author Mark Robinson of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, principal investigator of LROC. "I immediately targeted the area for high-resolution stereo images so we could create a three-dimensional view of the graben.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cassini Successfully Flies over Enceladus

These raw, unprocessed images of Saturn's moons Enceladus and Tethys were taken on April 14, 2012, by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini flew by Enceladus at an altitude of about 46 miles (74 kilometers). This flyby was designed primarily for the ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyze, or "taste," the composition of the moon's south polar plume as the spacecraft flew through it. Cassini's path took it along the length of Baghdad Sulcus, one of Enceladus' "tiger stripe" fractures from which jets of water ice, water vapor and organic compounds spray into space. At this time, Baghdad Sulcus is in darkness, but that was not an obstacle for another instrument, the composite infrared spectrometer, which can see features by their surface temperatures and which also took measurements during this flyby.

As soon as daylight passed into the spacecraft's remote sensing instruments' line of sight, Cassini's cameras acquired images of the surface. The wide-angle-camera image included in the new batch, taken from around the time of closest approach, has some smearing from the movement of the spacecraft during the exposure, but still shows the surface in vivid detail.

Cassini's cameras also imaged Enceladus' south polar plume at a high phase angle as the satellite appeared as a thin crescent and the plume was backlit.

After the Enceladus encounter, Cassini passed the moon Tethys with a closest approach distance of about 5,700 miles (9,100 kilometers). This was Cassini's best imaging encounter with Tethys since a targeted encounter in September 2005. The 2005 encounter, with a closest approach distance of about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers), provided the images of Tethys with the best resolution and captured views of the side of Tethys that faces Saturn in its orbit. This new encounter examined the opposite side of Tethys, providing some of the highest-resolution images of the side that faces away from Saturn. Cassini acquired a 22-frame mosaic of this side, which features the large impact basin named Odysseus. Scientists will use these new data in conjunction with images from previous encounters to create digital elevation maps of the moon's surface.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations team is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. JPL is a division of Caltech. 

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Hubble Sees Messier 70: Tight and Bright

In this image, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured the brilliance of the compact center of Messier 70, a globular cluster. Quarters are always tight in globular clusters, where the mutual hold of gravity binds together hundreds of thousands of stars in a small region of space. Having this many shining stars piled on top of one another from our perspective makes globular clusters a popular target for amateur skywatchers and scientists alike.

Messier 70 offers a special case because it has undergone what is known as a core collapse. In these clusters, even more stars squeeze into the object's core than on average, such that the brightness of the cluster increases steadily towards its center.

The legions of stars in a globular cluster orbit about a shared center of gravity. Some stars maintain relatively circular orbits, while others loop out into the cluster's fringes. As the stars interact with each other over time, lighter stars tend to pick up speed and migrate out toward the cluster's edges, while the heavier stars slow and congregate in orbits toward the center. This huddling effect produces the denser, brighter centers characteristic of core-collapsed clusters. About a fifth of the more than 150 globular clusters in the Milky Way have undergone a core collapse.

Although many globular clusters call the galaxy's edges home, Messier 70 orbits close to the Milky Way's center, around 30 000 light-years away from the Solar System. It is remarkable that Messier 70 has held together so well, given the strong gravitational pull of the Milky Way's hub.

Messier 70 is only about 68 light-years in diameter and can be seen, albeit very faintly, with binoculars in dark skies in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer). French astronomer Charles Messier documented the object in 1780 as the seventieth entry in his famous astronomical catalogue.

This picture was obtained with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The field of view is around 3.3 by 3.3 arcminutes. 

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

NASA probe to hunt galactic hearts of darkness

Black holes, neutron stars and supernova remnants won't be able to hide in the fog of space for much longer.

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission — which is due to launch this spring, though the agency has yet to pin down a date — will pierce the dust and gas shrouding sources of high-energy X-rays, revealing many secrets they have long managed to conceal, scientists say.

Although telescopes such as NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have probed the skies with X-rays before, these other instruments have focused on lower-energy bands.

"NuSTAR is going to be the first focusing high-energy X-ray telescope," said mission principal investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology.

Extreme events
The NuSTAR mission's increased sensitivity will allow it to probe the hearts of other galaxies for some of their most violent and mysterious objects, such as black holes.

Black holes form when a dying star collapses in on itself. As the stellar remnant becomes smaller and more dense, its gravitational pull becomes so strong that not even light can escape.

But as dust and gas fall inward, friction and other forces heat the material to millions of degrees. The resulting X-rays, detectable to NuSTAR, should allow astronomers to calculate how fast black holes are spinning, and understand more about how they formed, researchers say.

Some material also shoots away from black holes in jets approaching the speed of light. The accelerated particles can vary in brightness over the course of time, and NuSTAR will be able to study how they change.

While NuSTAR will study some black holes in distant galaxies, it will also make observations closer to home.

"There is a black hole that's 4 million times the mass of the sun at the heart of the Milky Way," Harrison told "It doesn't emit a lot of radiation, for reasons that are somewhat mysterious."

Occasionally, black holes "burp" or "hiccup," giving off a burst of radiation for unknown reasons. Observing the black hole in the high-energy X-ray spectrum should provide more clues about how this local black hole works, researchers say.

Friday, March 30, 2012

NASA sees no problem recovering Apollo engines

Billionaire Jeff Bezos, the founder of, says he has discovered massive Saturn 5 rocket engines on the Atlantic Ocean floor east of Florida, capturing the attention of NASA and space enthusiasts.

Using sonar, a team funded by the business magnate located the F-1 rocket engines from the Apollo 11 moon landing mission lying 14,000 feet under the sea, according to Bezos. He said they plan to raise at least one of the engines from the ocean floor.

"We don't know yet what condition these engines might be in - they hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years," Bezos wrote in an update on the website of Bezos Expeditions, his investment firm. "On the other hand, they're made of tough stuff, so we'll see."

The Saturn 5 rocket's first stage powered the 363-foot-tall launch vehicle to an altitude of nearly 40 miles and a velocity of about 6,000 mph. The first stage featured a cluster of five F-1 rocket engines built by Rocketdyne, then a unit of North American Aviation.

The F-1 is the most powerful liquid-fueled engine ever built in the United States. It generated 1.5 million pounds of thrust, weighed 10 tons and stood 19 feet tall, according to NASA.

The five F-1 engines on the Saturn 5's first stage collectively produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust and burned for nearly 3 minutes. The first stage was supposed to fall back into the Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Fla.Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Four days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon.

"Though they've been on the ocean floor for a long time, the engines remain the property of NASA," Bezos wrote. "If we are able to recover one of these F-1 engines that started mankind on its first journey to another heavenly body, I imagine that NASA would decide to make it available to the Smithsonian for all to see."

NASA spokesperson Bob Jacobs said the agency foresees no problems with Bezos's plan. Bezos sent NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden an email detailing his work."The administrator received an email from Mr. Bezos briefly outlining his efforts," Jacobs said. "We are preparing a response and we see no obstacles that would interfere with any recovery attempt."

If his team raises more than one engine, Bezos wrote, he wishes to display one of the engines at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.The F-1 engines remain the property of NASA.

Bezos established a start-up space company in 2000. Named Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash., based firm has won seed money from NASA to develop an orbital crew vehicle, and it has tested reusable suborbital rocket technology at a launch facility in West Texas.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NASA Flight Tests New ADS-B Device on Ikhana UAS

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center flew its Ikhana MQ-9 unmanned aircraft with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, device, for the first time on March 15.

It was the first time an unmanned aircraft as large as Ikhana – with a 66-foot wingspan, a takeoff weight of more than 10,000 pounds, and a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet -- has flown while equipped with ADS-B. ADS-B is an aircraft tracking technology that all planes operating in certain U.S. airspace must adopt by January 2020 to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

It also was the first flight of hardware for the NASA Aeronautics research project known as UAS in the NAS, which is short for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System.The equipment performed well during a flight lasting nearly three hours in restricted air space over Dryden's Western Aeronautical Test Range, which is part of Edwards Air Force Base and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center.

Being equipped with ADS-B enables NASA's Ikhana to provide much more detailed position, velocity, and altitude information about itself to air traffic controllers, airborne pilots of other ADS-B equipped aircraft flying in its vicinity, and to its pilots on the ground. Currently, only air traffic controllers can see all the aircraft in any given section of the sky.

The ADS-B checkout flight aboard Ikhana kicked off a series in which researchers will collect ADS-B data while performing representative air traffic control-directed maneuvers.

As part of a collaborative effort, FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., recorded ADS-B data from the flight and will help analyze the performance of the system installed in the aircraft. Researchers also evaluated new ADS-B laptop software for displaying surrounding air traffic information to the UAS pilots on the ground.

"ADS-B is a cornerstone capability required in the NextGen, and understanding its performance and suitability for integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system is critical to the overall goals of the project," said Sam Kim, deputy manager of integrated test and evaluation for NASA's UAS in the NAS Project.

Developing technologies that will enable unmanned aircraft to fly safely among other planes in the nation's skies is the job of Kim's team.

ADS-B is a key component of the largest transformation of air traffic control ever attempted in the United States. Known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, it is a multi-billion-dollar technology modernization effort that will make air travel safer, more flexible and more efficient. As the system gets better, its capacity will grow and the demand for different types of air transportation – even unmanned aircraft – will increase.

Current tracking devices aboard aircraft are called transponders, but the ADS-B isn't just a new-fangled transponder. It provides much more detailed and accurate information to air traffic controllers, and will enable navigation by satellite in addition to the current system of ground radars.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Beaming Success for Station Fans

Did you ever use a flashlight to send a Morse code message to your neighbor at night as a kid? People like to say hello using lights and it's no different for space aficionados who want to twinkle a greeting from the Earth to the International Space Station during a sighting as it passes overhead -- except that it is a whole lot more complicated.

Although the space station has been in orbit for more than a decade, the first successful flashing of a beam of light to the laboratory happened only recently. On March 3, 2012, the San Antonio Astronomical Association met to attempt to shine a signal to the station. Aboard the orbiting lab, astronaut Don Pettit was watching and waiting.

"It sounds deceptively easy," said Pettit in a related blog entry. "But like so many other tasks, it becomes much more involved in the execution than in the planning."

The ground group used a one-watt blue laser and a white spotlight to track the station as it flew overhead. Pettit worked via e-mail with the association members to run complicated engineering calculations to ensure they were accurately tracking the station. Considerations included the diameter of the light beam, the intensity of the laser, and the fact that the station is a moving target, as Pettit pointed out in another blog post on the difficulty of Earth photography from space.

"From my orbital perspective, I am sitting still and Earth is moving," said Pettit. "I sit above the grandest of all globes spinning below my feet, and watch the world speed by at an amazing eight kilometers per second [approximately 17,880 miles per hour]."

Pettit had additional complications to address to capture an image of the beam of light from the Texas fans of the space station. Even with a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second, the camera he used on station was not fast enough to photograph the Earth below, which also is moving. To compensate for this, Pettit used precise manual tracking -- a technique of moving the camera along the same path as the object being photographed -- a skill perfected on orbit while working on Crew Earth Observations research.

While photographing the Earth may provide an entertaining pastime for the crew, there also are important research goals and benefits for those of us on the ground. It can take up to a month, according to Pettit, for astronauts to become proficient at taking this kind of planned image. The crew's photographic efforts can provide orbital perspectives of natural disasters and man-made alterations of the planet, which aid in relief and environmental efforts.

Preparing to capture the laser flash provided practice for Pettit in planning and tracking a specific Earth target. With the station circling the Earth every 90 minutes, you might think there is ample opportunity, but the circumstances of the pass had to align. Pettit and the team in San Antonio had to choose their timing carefully, selecting a "dark pass" when the station could see the ground, but those on the ground could not see the station.

"Ironically, when earthlings can see us, we cannot see them," said Pettit. "The glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors that return our own ghostly reflection. This often plays out when friends want to flash space station from the ground as it travels overhead."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Search for dangerous asteroids gets NASA funding boost

A NASA-sponsored program that scans the cosmos for potentially dangerous asteroids is being upgraded to improve its ability to hunt for space rocks that might collide with Earth.

NASA is doling out a new $4.1 million grant for the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), which is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The funds will be used to upgrade and operate the program's telescopes through 2015. The project monitors the skies for new comets and asteroids, including potentially dangerous near-Earth objects (NEOs) — hazardous space rocks that threaten to cross the Earth's path someday.

"NASA has recognized that over the last seven years, our program has constantly strived to improve its performance, and has collaborated with others to find new ways to exploit the nearly 1,000 images we take every night with our two telescopes in the mountains north of Tucson," Edward Beshore, principal investigator of the Catalina Sky Survey, said in a statement. "I think NASA recognizes the CSS as a valuable service to, well, humanity."

In 2011, the survey uncovered 586 near-Earth asteroids, which was 65 percent of the total NEO discoveries for the year. The CSS team was also the first to observe an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, which enabled researchers to track the path of the space rock and eventually locate meteorites that reached the ground in Northern Sudan.

The new grant money will be used to expand the power of the project's largest telescope, develop more sensitive software, and conduct searches on more nights every month, CSS officials said in a statement.

The Catalina Sky Survey utilizes two wide-field survey telescopes and a dedicated follow-up telescope located in the Catalina mountains north of Tucson. To detect NEOs, the team uses the two telescopes to take four images of selected portions of the sky roughly 10 minutes apart from one another.

Special software is then used to comb through the data to look for faint objects that appear to be moving across the sky in a straight line. Filters are applied to remove known asteroids and false detections. The results are then presented to an observer for verification. If an asteroid is suspected to qualify as an NEO, it is reported to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. for follow-up studies and analysis.

Part of the new funds from NASA will be used to upgrade the camera on the 1.5-meter telescope on the summit of Mt. Lemmon, enabling the observatory to cover more of the sky.

"When we began observing in 2000, our image sensor was 16 megapixels, which was large by any standard," CSS co-investigator Steve Larson said in a statement. "Today, commonly available consumer digital cameras have surpassed that size, and we were reaching the limit of productivity with our current camera design."

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