Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NASA raids other budgets to fund Mars effort

WASHINGTON — NASA is starting the planning process for its scaled-back robotic Mars exploration program immediately and will use 2012 funds previously slotted for work on outer planets missions to shore up the effort.

NASA will spend about $30 million in 2012 on its retooled Mars exploration program, a cross-agency effort known in budget documents as Mars Next Generation.

In total, NASA plans to spend about $700 million on the mission. It is tentatively penciled in for launch in either 2018 or 2020. Mars Next Generation was conceived to fill the void NASA's planetary science program created after big cuts in the White House's 2013 budget request forced NASA's exit from the joint ExoMars sample cache-and-return campaign with the European Space Agency and Russia. Those missions remain slated for 2016 and 2018.

"NASA is committed to develop an integrated strategy to ensure that the next steps for the robotic Mars exploration program will support science, as well as longer-term human exploration and technology goals," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Bolden's letter accompanied NASA's 2012 operating plan, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

Of the $30 million NASA is spending on Mars Next Generation planning this year, $20 million will come from money the agency expects to have left after paying to close out its ExoMars work and fund ongoing missions. The other $10 million is being taken from the Planetary Science Division's outer planets program, which is being downsized as NASA tables plans for a large-scale mission to a planetary destination beyond Mars.

Another $24 million was diverted from outer planets for "foundational technology work on critical sensor development in support of the revised future Mars mission as well as other future planetary missions, as recommended by the recent decadal survey," according to the operating plan.

NASA has to date spent about $45 million on four instruments for the 2016 ExoMars mission. That work will cease once all the instruments reach preliminary design review, Jim Green, NASA's planetary science director, said. Closeout costs for the 2016 instrument programs will not be known until later, Bolden said in his letter to lawmakers.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space

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

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

"We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space," said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "We are particularly excited because they have unique properties that make them important players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in space." Cami has authored a paper about the discovery that will appear online Thursday in the journal Science.

Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional, spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball. The research team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball. Both types of molecules belong to a class known officially as buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes.

The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary nebula named Tc 1. Planetary nebulas are the remains of stars, like the sun, that shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age. A compact, hot star, or white dwarf, at the center of the nebula illuminates and heats these clouds of material that has been shed.

The buckyballs were found in these clouds, perhaps reflecting a short stage in the star's life, when it sloughs off a puff of material rich in carbon. The astronomers used Spitzer's spectroscopy instrument to analyze infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral signatures of the buckyballs. These molecules are approximately room temperature -- the ideal temperature to give off distinct patterns of infrared light that Spitzer can detect. According to Cami, Spitzer looked at the right place at the right time. A century from now, the buckyballs might be too cool to be detected.

The data from Spitzer were compared with data from laboratory measurements of the same molecules and showed a perfect match.

"We did not plan for this discovery," Cami said. "But when we saw these whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were looking at one of the most sought-after molecules."

In 1970, Japanese professor Eiji Osawa predicted the existence of buckyballs, but they were not observed until lab experiments in 1985. Researchers simulated conditions in the atmospheres of aging, carbon-rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected. Surprisingly, these experiments resulted in the formation of large quantities of buckminsterfullerenes. The molecules have since been found on Earth in candle soot, layers of rock and meteorites.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nasa struggles even as its science missions bring universe into sharper focus

Life is tough these days at NASA, the space agency that can’t launch anyone into space.

It wrestles with basic questions: Where to go? How to get there? When? And for what purpose?

It killed a plan to return to the moon and now is building a jumbo rocket to go to ... well, it’s unclear. Maybe to an asteroid: a rock to be named later.

NASA is betting that private companies will create a commercial taxi for flights to low Earth orbit. In the meantime, NASA astronauts ride on aging Russian rockets that look increasingly creaky. At any given moment, a few Americans are on the international space station, circling the planet every 90 minutes, nearly as anonymous as they are weightless.

But even as NASA goes through this awkward transition in human space flight, the agency has one bright spot: science. NASA’s scientific missions — robotic probes, telescopes, satellites — are bringing Earth, the sun, the solar system and the universe into sharper focus.

Science at NASA is not without serious problems, a fact expected to be reflected in the Obama administration’s budget request Monday.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble, has gone far over budget and is still years from launch. The next Mars rover has also experienced cost overruns. As a result, planetary science, one of the divisions within NASA’s science directorate, will suffer a sharp cut under the new Obama budget, according to scientists familiar with the administration’s plans. Scientists expect that NASA will terminate its collaboration on two European-led robotic Mars missions scheduled for later this decade.

The question is: To what extent will future science missions be squeezed, delayed or terminated by the NASA budget crunch? What’s certain is that NASA has managed in recent years to launch a formidable fleet of scientific instruments.

NASA’s internal chart shows 86 missions, involving 96 spacecraft, either in service or preparation. That doesn’t include the two European Mars missions. It does include other international collaborations, and the extended operations of aging spacecraft that have completed their primary mission and are still blinking away.

One probe, New Horizons, is on its way to Pluto. Another, Messenger, has been orbiting Mercury since March. A lunar orbiter launched in 2009 has mapped the moon in unprecedented detail, and two more NASA spacecraft achieved lunar orbit six weeks ago on a mission to study the moon’s gravitational field and interior structure.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft blasted off in August on a five-year mission to Jupiter. The robotic probe Cassini continues to study Saturn, and in a week will make another close pass of the huge moon Titan.

Kepler, a space telescope launched in 2009, has found 61 planets by last count, with many more candidate planets yet to be confirmed. The longer Kepler observes a small patch of deep space, the more likely it is that it will detect a true Earth twin — a planet that’s both Earth-size and in a propitious orbit that puts it in a star’s “habitable zone.”

NASA is eager to see what happens on the morning of Aug. 6, when the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory, launched in November, lands in a crater and dispatches a souped-up rover, Curiosity, to look for signs that Mars was once warm, wet and teeming with Martian life. The laboratory will land on Mars using a never-before-deployed technology called a sky crane.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Ship that destroyed Ky. bridge carries piece of NASA rocket

LOUISVILLE, KY. — The hulking cargo ship that tore through a western Kentucky bridge last month is carrying millions of dollars of rocket components that will be used to blast satellites into space for NASA and Department of Defense missions.

The Coast Guard on Monday allowed the Delta Mariner to move away from the damaged bridge so that debris, including twisted steel and asphalt, could be cleared from the boat’s bow. The five-story tall ship struck the bridge on the Tennessee River on Jan. 26, tearing away a span and halting traffic on the western entrance to the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

The boat is carrying an Atlas V rocket and a Centaur upper stage component that belong to a rocket system that typically costs hundreds of millions of dollars to launch. The rocket parts had been sitting stranded on the ship for about 10 days until the Delta Mariner was moved on Monday.

The Delta Mariner was headed to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., with the rocket parts when it hit the 90-year-old bridge.

The company that built the rocket parts, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has declined to give the value of the components on board the boat. The company has said the cargo was not damaged in the bridge collision and it will remain on the ship so it can eventually be taken to the Florida coast.

The upper stage that’s on the boat is an essential component of the Atlas V rocket system, said Warren Ferster, editor of Space News International, who estimated the cost of building the upper stage component is in the tens of millions of dollars.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

NASA satellite tastes atoms away from the solar system

NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, the centerpiece of a $169 million mission map the boundary of the sun's influence, has detected atoms from interstellar space streaming by Earth, finding the material is dissimilar from the chemical make-up of the solar system, scientists announced Tuesday.

The data recommend the area of interstellar space just outside the solar system may be deficient in oxygen compared to its abundance inside the heliosphere, a teardrop-shaped bubble blown out by the energy from the solar wind. The heliosphere's bubble is compressed ahead of the sun's motion like a bow shock in front of a ship, while it stretches behind the solar system similar to a boat's wake.

The heliosphere blocks most hazardous cosmic radiation from reaching Earth.

Researchers published their results in the Astrophysics Journal on Jan. 31. IBEX found 74 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms in the interstellar material, compared with 111 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms within the solar system.

IBEX, launched in October 2008, uses two instruments to identify energetic neutral atoms as they strike the spacecraft. If the imagers are facing the right direction when the particle meets the satellite, the atom registers and the instrument can distinguish its elemental composition.

IBEX is in an orbit stretching 200,000 miles from Earth, placing the craft outside of the planet's magnetic field, a constraint to detect energetic particles streaming in from the outer heliosphere and interstellar space.