Friday, February 25, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Images New Zealand Quake Region

NASA Spacecraft Images New Zealand Quake Region
A day after a powerful magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked Christchurch, a city of 377,000 on New Zealand’s South Island, on Feb. 22, 2011, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft imaged the Christchurch region. The imaging was done at the request of the International Charter, Space and Major Disasters, which provides emergency satellite data to federal agencies in disaster-stricken regions.

Two images are presented here. The first is a perspective view showing the city of Christchurch and the Banks Peninsula at upper right, location of the quake’s epicenter in Lyttelton. The Banks Peninsula is composed of two overlapping extinct volcanoes. The perspective view was created by draping the ASTER natural color image over the 3-D ASTER topographic data. The second image is a nadir view pointing straight down to the ground. The images cover an area of 19 by 26 kilometers (12 by 16 miles), and are located near 43.5 degrees south latitude, 172.6 degrees east longitude. The resolution of ASTER is not sufficient to spot damage to individual buildings.

The quake—the worst natural disaster to hit New Zealand in 80 years—struck at 12:51 p.m. local time on Feb. 22. It was centered in Lyttelton, just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Christchurch, at a shallow depth of just 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). It is considered to be part of the aftershock sequence of the much larger magnitude 7.0 earthquake of Sept. 4, 2010, which was centered 45 kilometers (30 miles) west of Christchurch. That quake, while larger, resulted in injuries and damage but no fatalities.
NASA Spacecraft Images New Zealand Quake Region

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Feb. 22 quake involved faulting at the eastern edge of the aftershock zone from the Sept. 2010 event. The earthquake is broadly associated with deformation occurring at the boundary of the Pacific and Australia tectonic plates.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NASA's NEOWISE Completes Scan for Asteroids and Comets

NASA's NEOWISE Completes
NASA's NEOWISE mission has completed its survey of small bodies, asteroids and comets, in our solar system. The mission's discoveries of previously unknown objects include 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 134 near-Earth objects (NEOs). The NEOs are asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 45 million kilometers (28 million miles) of Earth's path around the sun.

NEOWISE is an enhancement of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission that launched in December 2009. WISE scanned the entire celestial sky in infrared light about 1.5 times. It captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids and comets close to Earth.

In early October 2010, after completing its prime science mission, the spacecraft ran out of the frozen coolant that keeps its instrumentation cold. However, two of its four infrared cameras remained operational. These two channels were still useful for asteroid hunting, so NASA extended the NEOWISE portion of the WISE mission by four months, with the primary purpose of hunting for more asteroids and comets, and to finish one complete scan of the main asteroid belt.

"Even just one year of observations from the NEOWISE project has significantly increased our catalog of data on NEOs and the other small bodies of the solar systems," said Lindley Johnson, NASA's program executive for the NEO Observation Program.

Now that NEOWISE has successfully completed a full sweep of the main asteroid belt, the WISE spacecraft will go into hibernation mode and remain in polar orbit around Earth, where it could be called back into service in the future.

In addition to discovering new asteroids and comets, NEOWISE also confirmed the presence of objects in the main belt that had already been detected. In just one year, it observed about 153,000 rocky bodies out of approximately 500,000 known objects. Those include the 33,000 that NEOWISE discovered.

NEOWISE also observed known objects closer and farther to us than the main belt, including roughly 2,000 asteroids that orbit along with Jupiter, hundreds of NEOs and more than 100 comets.

These observations will be key to determining the objects' sizes and compositions. Visible-light data alone reveal how much sunlight reflects off an asteroid, whereas infrared data is much more directly related to the object's size. By combining visible and infrared measurements, astronomers also can learn about the compositions of the rocky bodies -- for example, whether they are solid or crumbly. The findings will lead to a much-improved picture of the various asteroid populations.

NEOWISE took longer to survey the whole asteroid belt than WISE took to scan the entire sky because most of the asteroids are moving in the same direction around the sun as the spacecraft moves while it orbits Earth. The spacecraft field of view had to catch up to, and lap, the movement of the asteroids in order to see them all.

"You can think of Earth and the asteroids as racehorses moving along in a track," said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We're moving along together around the sun, but the main belt asteroids are like horses on the outer part of the track. They take longer to orbit than us, so we eventually lap them."

NEOWISE data on the asteroid and comet orbits are catalogued at the NASA-funded International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, a clearinghouse for information about all solar system bodies at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The science team is analyzing the infrared observations now and will publish new findings in the coming months.

When combined with WISE observations, NEOWISE data will aid in the discovery of the closest dim stars, called brown dwarfs. These observations have the potential to reveal a brown dwarf even closer to us than our closest known star, Proxima Centauri, if such an object does exist. Likewise, if there is a hidden gas-giant planet in the outer reaches of our solar system, data from WISE and NEOWISE could detect it.

The first batch of observations from the WISE mission will be available to the public and astronomical community in April.

"WISE has unearthed a mother lode of amazing sources, and we're having a great time figuring out their nature," said Edward (Ned) Wright, the principal investigator of WISE at UCLA.

JPL manages WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program, which NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages. The Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, built the science instrument, and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., built the spacecraft. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL manages NEOWISE for NASA's Planetary Sciences Division. The mission's data processing also takes place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Advanced NASA Instrument Gets Close-up on Mars Rocks

Advanced NASA Instrument
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, will carry a next generation, onboard "chemical element reader" to measure the chemical ingredients in Martian rocks and soil. The instrument is one of 10 that will help the rover in its upcoming mission to determine the past and present habitability of a specific area on the Red Planet. Launch is scheduled between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011, with landing in August 2012.

The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument, designed by physics professor Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, uses the power of alpha particles, or helium nuclei, and X-rays to bombard a target, causing the target to give off its own characteristic alpha particles and X-ray radiation. This radiation is "read by" an X-ray detector inside the sensor head, which reveals which elements and how much of each are in the rock or soil.

Identifying the elemental composition of lighter elements such as sodium, magnesium or aluminum, as well as heavier elements like iron, nickel or zinc, will help scientists identify the building blocks of the Martian crust. By comparing these findings with those of previous Mars rover findings, scientists can determine if any weathering has taken place since the rock formed ages ago.

All NASA Mars rovers have carried a similar instrument – Pathfinder's rover Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, and now Curiosity, too. Improvements have been made with each generation, but the basic design of the instrument has remained the same.

"APXS was modified for Mars Science Laboratory to be faster so it could make quicker measurements. On the Mars Exploration Rovers [Spirit and Opportunity] it took us five to 10 hours to get information that we will now collect in two to three hours," said Gellert, the intrument's principal investigator. “We hope this will help us to investigate more samples.”

Another significant change to the next-generation APXS is the cooling system on the X-ray detector chip. The instruments used on Spirit and Opportunity were able to take measurements only at night. But the new cooling system will allow the instrument on Curiosity to take measurements during the day, too.

The main electronics portion of the tissue-box-sized instrument lives in the rover's body, while the sensor head, the size of a soft drink can, is mounted on the robotic arm. With the help of Curiosity’s remote sensing instruments – the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument and the Mastcam – the rover team will decide where to drive Curiosity for a closer look with the instruments, including APXS. Measurements are taken with the APXS by deploying the sensor head to make direct contact with the desired sample.

The rover’s brush will be used to remove dust from rocks to prepare them for inspection by APXS and by MAHLI, the rover’s arm-mounted, close-up camera. Whenever promising samples are found, the rover will then use its drill to extract a few grains and feed them into the rover’s analytical instruments, SAM and CheMin, which will then make very detailed mineralogical and other investigations.

Scientists will use information from APXS and the other instruments to find the interesting spots and to figure out the present and past environmental conditions that are preserved in the rocks and soils.

"The rovers have answered a lot of questions, but they've also opened up new questions," said Gellert. "Curiosity was designed to pick up where Spirit and Opportunity left off."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Monday, February 21, 2011

NASA Releases Images of Man-Made Crater on Comet

 Man-Made Crater on Comet
NASA's Stardust spacecraft returned new images of a comet showing a scar resulting from the 2005 Deep Impact mission. The images also showed the comet has a fragile and weak nucleus.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to comet Tempel 1 on Monday, Feb. 14, at 8:40 p.m. PST (11:40 p.m. EST) at a distance of approximately 178 kilometers (111 miles). Stardust took 72 high-resolution images of the comet. It also accumulated 468 kilobytes of data about the dust in its coma, the cloud that is a comet's atmosphere. The craft is on its second mission of exploration called Stardust-NExT, having completed its prime mission collecting cometary particles and returning them to Earth in 2006.

The Stardust-NExT mission met its goals, which included observing surface features that changed in areas previously seen during the 2005 Deep Impact mission; imaging new terrain; and viewing the crater generated when the 2005 mission propelled an impactor at the comet.

"This mission is 100 percent successful," said Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "We saw a lot of new things that we didn't expect, and we'll be working hard to figure out what Tempel 1 is trying to tell us."

Several of the images provide tantalizing clues to the result of the Deep Impact mission's collision with Tempel 1. "We see a crater with a small mound in the center, and it appears that some of the ejecta went up and came right back down," said Pete Schultz of Brown University, Providence, R.I. "This tells us this cometary nucleus is fragile and weak based on how subdued the crater is we see today."

Engineering telemetry downlinked after closest approach indicates the spacecraft flew through waves of disintegrating cometary particles, including a dozen impacts that penetrated more than one layer of its protective shielding.

"The data indicate Stardust went through something similar to a B-17 bomber flying through flak in World War II," said Don Brownlee, Stardust-NExT co-investigator from the University of Washington in Seattle. "Instead of having a little stream of uniform particles coming out, they apparently came out in chunks and crumbled."

While the Valentine's Day night encounter of Tempel 1 is complete, the spacecraft will continue to look at its latest cometary obsession from afar.

"This spacecraft has logged over 3.5 billion miles since launch, and while its last close encounter is complete, its mission of discovery is not," said Tim Larson, Stardust-NExT project manager at JPL. "We'll continue imaging the comet as long as the science team can gain useful information, and then Stardust will get its well-deserved rest."

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that is expanding the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by the Deep Impact spacecraft. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

NASA Helps Create a More Silent Night

NASA Helps Create a More Silent Night
The holidays are here and the nation's airports are busier than ever –thousands of airplanes taking off and landing. Passengers and people living around airports are reminded that the airplane is not the quietest mode of transportation; certainly not as quiet as a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer.

Fear not, because even while travelers are heading home, NASA continues working with others in industry and academia on technologies that will create a more silent night (and day) around airports.

One of the most recent noise-reducing technologies shepherded through the research process by NASA and now making a difference on commercial jet engines is chevrons.

Chevrons are the sawtooth pattern seen on the trailing edges of some jet engine nozzles. As hot air from the engine core mixes with cooler air blowing through the engine fan, the shaped edges serve to smooth the mixing, which reduces turbulence that creates noise.

"Successes like chevrons are the result of a lot of different, hard-working people and are the result of a lot of very small efforts that all come together, often across many scientific disciplines," said James Bridges, the associate principal investigator responsible for coordinating aircraft noise research at NASA.

The new Boeing 787 is among the most modern jets relying on chevrons to reduce engine noise levels. It sports chevrons on the nacelles, or fan housings. The Boeing 747-8 has chevrons on both the nacelles and inner core engine nozzles.

At first glance chevrons appear to be an elegant solution, but the simplistic-looking design masks years of experimentation that relied on an ever-evolving set of research tools to correct mistakes along the way.

"Early on, we didn't have the advanced diagnostics, instrumentation and insight to know what we had done to make it worse instead of better," Bridges said. "You have an idea and then you cut out a piece of metal and try it. Sometimes the kernel of the idea might have worked out, but the way you did it wound up causing more noise."

NASA is exploring another noise-reducing technology – this one for helicopters – that is going through a process of discovery similar to that for the chevron.

Helicopters are notoriously loud because of the turbulence caused by their blades spinning through the air. Before specific solutions can be tested, NASA must first collect data on how the rotor blades interact with air under a variety of operating conditions. A series of tests to do that were conducted on a UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter rotor in a NASA wind tunnel from January to May 2010.

But even before the tests could be run, new techniques for making measurements over the large area covered by the whirling blades had to be invented and tested. Three different data-gathering methods using lasers, light and high-speed photography were modified for use in the wind tunnel.

It's exactly this kind of methodic, detailed effort – where a critical measurement may first require thorough tests to make sure the data collection is even possible – that defines the foundational research necessary to solve the problems of flight in general, and noise in particular, Bridges said.

"Until somebody works on the details that make the measurement work or validates the computer code in the first place, we wouldn’t realize the insights we need to make progress," Bridges said.

"Sometimes it’s hard to make a direct connection between all of this preliminary work and the ultimate goal," he said, "but when you have enough of these things going you will have breakthroughs and successes."

Noise reduction research is just one of several key investigations underway by NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington. These include efforts to improve the intrinsic safety of current and future aircraft, to improve air traffic control procedures for the Next Generation Air Transportation System, and to develop technologies that will enable more fuel efficient aircraft with reduced emissions

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Engineers Assemble Giant 3-D Space Puzzle

Engineers Assemble Giant 3-D Space Puzzle
Piece by piece a team of NASA researchers put together a huge composite and metal structure that looked a lot like high-tech tinkertoys on steroids.

The structural mechanics and concepts branch engineers are going back to the past to try to explore the future. Most of them were involved with large space structure research done at NASA's Langley Research Center from the 70s to the early 90s. Now they're dusting off some of the hardware to see if the concepts would work in the 21st century"Back almost 20 years ago we were doing research in how to build large space telescopes that astronauts could put together on orbit during a space walk," said senior researcher John Dorsey. "Since NASA is now looking at in-space operations to support Near Earth Object missions as well as satellite servicing, we are going back here at Langley and starting to look at telescope assembly again. But now because we are working in the human robotics systems project we are going to try to do it with robots."

Dorsey and five others recently spent about three and a half hours in a corner of the Langley aircraft hangar -- the only place big enough to construct the almost 46-foot wide (14 meter) node and strut superstructure indoors. The truss system, which has been in storage for years, was developed as part of a four-year program called the Precision Segmented Reflector that ended in 1992. The program goal, which was successfully accomplished, was to come up with a structural configuration that was lightweight, low-cost, compactly stored and easy to put together. Reflectors could then be attached to the truss structure to form a space telescope mirror.

"What we're doing now is inventorying the parts and all the mechanical components and making sure they work okay," added Dorsey. "The easiest way to do that was to put the giant structure together."
"What we're doing now is inventorying the parts and all the mechanical components and making sure they work okay," added Dorsey. "The easiest way to do that was to put the giant structure together."

Immediately after the team put the three-dimensional puzzle of the 315 struts and 84 nodes together -- they took it apart and packed it into six crates. Langley is shipping the crates to a new robotics center at West Virginia University that was built with support of a grant from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"We've been collaborating with Goddard, which has a lot of experience in Hubble repair missions," said researcher Dorsey. "Now they're doing work in robotic satellite servicing and already have experience with robotic operations on orbit. Goddard has a continuing grant with the facility at West Virginia University."

Monday, February 14, 2011

NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Discovers Extraordinary New Planetary System

NASA's Ames Research Center

Scientists using NASA's Kepler, a space telescope, recently discovered six planets made of a mix of rock and gases orbiting a single sun-like star, known as Kepler-11, which is located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth.

"The Kepler-11 planetary system is amazing," said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and a Kepler science team member at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "It’s amazingly compact, it’s amazingly flat, there’s an amazingly large number of big planets orbiting close to their star - we didn’t know such systems could even exist."

In other words, Kepler-11 has the fullest, most compact planetary system yet discovered beyond our own.

"Few stars are known to have more than one transiting planet, and Kepler-11 is the first known star to have more than three," said Lissauer. "So we know that systems like this are not common. There’s certainly far fewer than one percent of stars that have systems like Kepler-11. But whether it’s one in a thousand, one in ten thousand or one in a million, that we don’t know, because we only have observed one of them."

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11, a yellow dwarf star, are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outwards, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is twice as close to its star than Earth is to the sun.

"The five inner planets are all closer to their star than any planet is to our sun and the sixth planet is still fairly close," said Lissauer.

If placed in our solar system, Kepler-11g would orbit between Mercury and Venus, and the other five planets would orbit between Mercury and our sun. The orbits of the five inner planets in the Kepler-11 planetary system are much closer together than any of the planets in our solar system. The inner five exoplanets have orbital periods between 10 and 47 days around the dwarf star, while Kepler-11g has a period of 118 days.
NASA's Ames Research Center

"By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we have determined they are among the smallest confirmed exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system," said Lissauer. "These planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets' mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume."

According to Lissauer, Kepler-11 is a remarkable planetary system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation. The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which Lissauer says indicates that at least these three planets formed early in the history of the planetary system, within a few million years.

A planetary system is born when a molecular cloud core collapses to form a star. At this time, disks of gas and dust in which planets form, called protoplanetary disks, surround the star. Protoplanetary disks can be seen around most stars that are less than a million years old, but few stars more than five million years old have them. This leads scientists to theorize that planets which contain significant amounts of gas form relatively quickly in order to obtain gases before the disk disperses.

The Kepler spacecraft will continue to return science data about the new Kepler-11 planetary system for the remainder of its mission. The more transits Kepler sees, the better scientists can estimate the sizes and masses of planets.

"These data will enable us to calculate more precise estimates of the planet sizes and masses, and could allow us to detect more planets orbiting the Kepler-11 star," said Lissauer. "Perhaps we could find a seventh planet in the system, either because of its transits or from the gravitational tugs it exerts on the six planets that we already see. We’re going to learn a fantastic amount about the diversity of planets out there, around stars within our galaxy."

A space observatory, Kepler looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star's brightness. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period.

The Kepler science team is using ground-based telescopes, as well as the Spitzer Space Telescope, to perform follow-up observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest found by the spacecraft. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which of the candidates can be identified as planets.

Kepler will continue conducting science operations until at least November 2012, searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is predicted to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

"Kepler can only see 1/400 of the sky," said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the mission’s science principal investigator. "Kepler can find only a small fraction of the planets around the stars it looks at because the orbits aren’t aligned properly. If you account for those two factors, our results indicate there must be millions of planets orbiting the stars that surround our sun."

Kepler is NASA's tenth Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system, and along with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is supporting mission operations. Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted at the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona, and the Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Five Things About NASA's Valentine's Day Comet

Five Things About NASA's Valentine's Day Comet
Here are five facts you should know about NASA's Stardust-NExT spacecraft as it prepares for a Valentine's "date" with comet Tempel 1. Feel free to sing along!

1. "The Way You Look Tonight" – The spacecraft is on a course to fly by comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at about 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST) -- Valentine's Day. Time of closest approach to Tempel 1 is significant because of the comet's rotation. We won't know until images are returned which face the comet has shown to the camera.

2. "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" – In 2004, Stardust became the first mission to collect particles directly from a comet, Wild 2, as well as samples of interstellar dust. The samples were returned in 2006 via a capsule that detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to the ground at a targeted area in Utah. Mission controllers then placed the still-viable Stardust spacecraft on a flight path that could reuse the flight system, if a target of opportunity presented itself. Tempel 1 became that target of opportunity.

3. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" – The Stardust-NExT mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet's surface that occurred after one orbit around the sun. Tempel 1 was observed in 2005 by NASA's Deep Impact mission, which put an impactor on a collision course with the comet. Stardust-NExT might get a glimpse of the crater left behind, but if not, the comet would provide scientists with previously unseen areas for study. In addition, the Stardust-NExT encounter might reveal changes to Tempel 1 between Deep Impact and Stardust-Next, since the comet has completed an orbit around the sun.

4. "The Wind Beneath My Wings" – This Tempel 1 flyby will write the final chapter of the spacecraft's success story. The aging spacecraft approached 12 years of space travel on Feb. 7, logging almost 6 billion kilometers (3.5 billion miles) since launch. The spacecraft is nearly out of fuel. The Tempel 1 flyby and return of images are expected to consume the remaining fuel.

5. "Love is Now the Stardust of Yesterday" – Although the spacecraft itself will no longer be active after the flyby, the data collected by the Stardust-NExT mission will provide comet scientists with years of data to study how comets formed and evolved.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Taurus XL Ready to Launch Glory Spacecraft

Taurus XL Ready to Launch Glory Spacecraft
The Glory spacecraft and its Taurus XL launch vehicle are coming together at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as NASA gets ready to launch its first Launch Services Program mission of 2011.

Researchers are looking for more puzzle pieces to fill out the picture of Earth's climate and Glory was designed to give them the pieces relating to the role tiny particles known as aerosols play in the planet's weather. The spacecraft, about the size of a refrigerator, is also equipped with an instrument to measure the sun's impact on Earth's conditions. Glory is to lift off Feb. 23 at 5:09 a.m. EST.

"The Glory satellite will help us understand the interaction of what's called aerosols in our environment," said Chuong Nguyen, LSP's mission integration manager for Glory.

The particles Glory will measure are small enough to float in the atmosphere and affect weather conditions by either absorbing sunlight or reflecting it. The particles can also affect rain patterns by seeding clouds and have other effects. The Glory mission is to also find out how long-lasting the effects for aerosols and how far their effects reach.
Taurus XL Ready to Launch Glory Spacecraft

The effects of some aerosols are limited to those parts of the world that generate them. For example, cities in developing nations often produce the most "black carbon," or soot, and it is in those areas that the effects are seen most dramatically, sometimes even in the form of health problems.

However, other aerosols including dust from the Sahara desert, reach high enough into the air that they are transported across the oceans. In the case of the Sahara, its dust has been seen in the Caribbean.

While the spacecraft will get due attention, many eyes also will be on the Taurus XL rocket that will lift Glory. The four-stage, solid-fueled rocket was last used in February 2009 to launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. However, the payload fairing protecting the spacecraft during the early part of launch did not separate and the spacecraft never reached orbit.

"Glory is going to do some fantastic stuff as far as mapping out aerosols in the atmosphere, but it's also a groundbreaker in that this is the first flight after a failure of the Taurus XL vehicle," said Omar Baez, launch director for the Glory mission. "So we're excited to be doing this and Glory just happens to be the science that we're taking up with us this time."

Compared with other rockets that have launched many hundreds of times, the Taurus XL is quite young and Baez said the trouble with the last launch is part of any new system's growing pains.

"We've had a lot of work put into this vehicle so essentially you're flying some systems that you’re well aware of," Baez said. "They're brand new but you know them intimately. We'll take out those problems that we had with the failure."

Two review boards were established to find the cause of the failure, one by NASA and one by the rocket's maker, Orbital Sciences. When those were complete, the launch team moved ahead with changes and preparations for the Glory mission.

"There's physically been people that have been working this one item for two years," Baez said.

Glory is launching from the California coast so it can go into a sun-synchronous orbit to scan almost all of the Earth's surface as part of the "A-Train" of Earth-observation satellites already in orbit.

Together, Glory, the other spacecraft already in orbit and a future mission called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, the replacement for the original OCO, are expected to give the most complete picture to date of Earth's climate and what makes it change.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

NASA’s “COSmIC” Simulator Helps Fingerprint Unknown Matter in Space

NASA’s “COSmIC” Simulator
Who are we? Where do we come from? These are questions that scientists hope to find clues to by better understanding the composition and evolution of the universe.

NASA flies sophisticated space missions that can probe vast regions of space to detect spectral signatures, or fingerprints, of unknown materials.

Through the years, scientists have found that these materials are much more complicated than originally anticipated. Because conditions in space are vastly different from conditions on Earth, identifying extraterrestrial materials is extremely difficult. Recently, researchers have achieved a major milestone by adding a new capability to one of the world’s unique laboratory facilities.

Located at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., this specialized facility, called the Cosmic Simulation Chamber (COSmIC), integrates a variety of state-of-the-art instruments to allow scientists to form, process and monitor simulated space conditions for planetary and interstellar materials in the laboratory.

The chamber is the heart of the system. It recreates the extreme conditions that reign in space where average temperatures can be as low as 100 Kelvin (less than -170 degree Celsius!), densities are billionths of Earth's (of the order of 10-16 - 10-17) and interstellar molecules and ions are bathed in stellar ultraviolet and visible radiation.

"The harsh conditions of space are extremely difficult to reproduce in the laboratory, and have long hindered efforts to interpret and analyze observations from space," said Farid Salama, a space science researcher in the Astrophysics Branch at Ames.

The idea of building the COSmIC facility started as a Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) project initiated by Salama in 1996, and its realization represents a true success story for Ames’ DDF program. The facility resulted from collaboration between Ames space science researchers and Los Gatos research scientists as a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract awarded by NASA.

The team of space scientists and engineers, lead by Salama, designed and built this unique laboratory facility to gain a deeper understanding of the composition of our universe and of the evolution of galaxies, both major objectives of NASA’s space research program.
NASA’s “COSmIC” Simulator

In 2003, Ames scientists delivered their first major milestone by coupling COSmIC with a cavity ringdown spectrometer, an extremely sensitive device that can detect the spectral fingerprint of matter at the molecular level.

Now, another major milestone has been achieved by coupling COSmIC with a time-of-flight mass spectrometer, an ultra-sensitive device that detects the mass of matter at the molecular level.

In the past, part of the problem that prevented scientists from identifying unknown matter was the inability to simulate space conditions in the gaseous state. Today, researchers can successfully simulate gas-phase environments similar to interstellar clouds, stellar envelopes or planetary atmospheres environments by expanding solids using a free jet spray.

“By doing this, we now can measure large carbon molecules, like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and similar carbon species. This is a major accomplishment,” said Salama. “This type of new research truly pushes the frontiers of science toward new horizons, and illustrates NASA's important contribution to science,” he added.

Scientists will use this “far out” facility to address two key problems: First, they want to identify the nature of big aerosol particles that have been detected by Cassini in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan. The second problem they will study is the formation of interstellar grains in the outflow of carbon stars.

NASA Finds Earth-size Planet Candidates in the Habitable Zone

Planet Candidates in the Habitable Zone
Is our Milky Way galaxy home to other planets the size of Earth? Are Earth-sized planets common or rare? NASA scientists seeking answers to those questions recently revealed their discovery.

"We went from zero to 68 Earth-sized planet candidates and zero to 54 candidates in the habitable zone - a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Some candidates could even have moons with liquid water," said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the Kepler Mission’s science principal investigator. "Five of the planetary candidates are both near Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their parent stars."

Planet Candidates in the Habitable Zone
Planet candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.

"We have found over twelve hundred candidate planets - that’s more than all the people have found so far in history," said Borucki. "Now, these are candidates, but most of them, I’m convinced, will be confirmed as planets in the coming months and years."

The findings increase the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler to-date to 1,235. Of these, 68 are approximately Earth-size; 288 are super-Earth-size; 662 are Neptune-size; 165 are the size of Jupiter and 19 are larger than Jupiter. Of the 54 new planet candidates found in the habitable zone, five are near Earth-sized. The remaining 49 habitable zone candidates range from super-Earth size -- up to twice the size of Earth -- to larger than Jupiter. The findings are based on the results of observations conducted May 12 to Sept. 17, 2009 of more than 156,000 stars in Kepler’s field of view, which covers approximately 1/400 of the sky.

"The fact that we’ve found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests there are countless planets orbiting stars like our sun in our galaxy," said Borucki. "Kepler can find only a small fraction of the planets around the stars it looks at because the orbits aren’t aligned properly. If you account for those two factors, our results indicate there must be millions of planets orbiting the stars that surround our sun."

“We’re about half-way through Kepler’s scheduled mission," said Roger Hunter, the Kepler project manager. "Today’s announcement is very exciting and portends many discoveries to come. It’s looking like the galaxy may be littered with many planets.”

Among the stars with planetary candidates, 170 show evidence of multiple planetary candidates, including one, Kepler-11, that scientists have been able to confirm that has no fewer than six planets.

"Another exciting discovery has been the tremendous variations in the structure of the confirmed planets – some have the density of Styrofoam and others are denser than iron. The Earth's density is in between."

"The historic milestones Kepler makes with each new discovery will determine the course of every exoplanet mission to follow," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Kepler, a space telescope, looks for planet signatures by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars caused by planets crossing in front of them - this is known as a transit.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

LRO Could Have Given Apollo 14 Crew Another Majestic View

LRO Could Have Given Apollo 14 Crew
Although the Apollo 14 mission to the moon was filled with incredible sights and was completely successful -- it met all its science goals -- the crew experienced a bit of a disappointment at missing the spectacular view from the rim of a 1,000-foot-wide crater. They might have gazed into its depths if they had the high-resolution maps now available from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft.

Pressure was on the Apollo 14 mission, launched January 31, 1971, from the start. The Apollo 13 landing had to be aborted because an oxygen tank explosion crippled the spacecraft as it was on its way to the moon. It was a heroic effort just to return the crew safely to Earth, but the Apollo 14 team knew a second failure would probably result in cancellation of the remaining Apollo missions.

Although nothing as catastrophic as an explosion threatened their mission, the Apollo 14 crew had to improvise their way out of some tense situations. On the way to the moon, the crew had to dock their spacecraft, the Command and Service Module "Kitty Hawk," to the spacecraft that would land on the moon, the Lunar Module "Antares." However, latches that would lock the two spaceships together refused to engage. Kitty Hawk pilot Stuart Roosa tried the docking maneuver six times over more than an hour and a half before the latches activated, linking the spacecraft so that mission commander Alan Shepard and Antares pilot Edgar Mitchell could transfer to the Antares lander. On the way down in Antares, the crew had to overcome computer and radar glitches in the system that was supposed to guide their landing. Even with the balky guidance system, they were able to pilot Antares to within 87 feet from the targeted landing point, at the time the most precise landing for the Apollo missions.

The site, which the crew named the "Fra Mauro Base," was the area to be explored by Apollo 13, a hilly zone about 300 miles from the edge of the 750-mile-wide Mare Imbrium basin formed long ago by the impact of a giant asteroid. The hills of Fra Mauro were believed to be made of rubble blasted from the Imbrium impact, and lunar geologists wanted the crew to collect rocks from the region so they could accurately date when giant impacts like Imbrium occurred on the moon

Similar massive craters exist on Mercury and Mars, so it appears that the entire solar system experienced a chaotic period of "heavy bombardment" from enormous asteroids. Scientists were keen to date this event because it's very likely Earth was hit as well, and impacts of that scale would alter the evolution of life. However, on our world, such ancient craters have been erased by erosion from wind and water, as well as the recycling of the crust from its slow motion as a result of plate tectonics.

Shepard and Mitchell landed Feb. 5, and they performed two moonwalks, technically called "Extravehicular Activities," or EVAs, one on each day of the two days spent on the lunar surface. The first EVA went according to plan, with the deployment of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, a suite of instruments that included a seismometer to measure moonquakes and laser reflectors to accurately measure changes in the Earth-moon distance using lasers fired from stations on Earth. During the second EVA, the crew hoped to reach the rim of Cone crater, a more recent impact crater about 1,000 feet wide a little over a mile from the Antares lander.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Northern Mars Landscape Actively Changing

Northern Mars Landscape Actively Changing
Sand dunes in a vast area of northern Mars long thought to be frozen in time are changing with both sudden and gradual motions, according to research using images from a NASA orbiter.

These dune fields cover an area the size of Texas in a band around the planet at the edge of Mars' north polar cap. The new findings suggest they are among the most active landscapes on Mars. However, few changes in these dark-toned dunes had been detected before a campaign of repeated imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars five years ago next month.

Scientists had considered the dunes to be fairly static, shaped long ago when winds on the planet's surface were much stronger than those seen today, said HiRISE Deputy Principal Investigator Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. Several sets of before-and-after images from HiRISE over a period covering two Martian years -- four Earth years -- tell a different story.

"The numbers and scale of the changes have been really surprising," said Hansen.

A report by Hansen and co-authors in this week's edition of the journal Science identifies the seasonal coming and going of carbon-dioxide ice as one agent of change, and stronger-than-expected wind gusts as another.

A seasonal layer of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, blankets the region in winter and changes directly back to gaseous form in the spring.

"This gas flow destabilizes the sand on Mars' sand dunes, causing sand avalanches and creating new alcoves, gullies and sand aprons on Martian dunes," she said. "The level of erosion in just one Mars year was really astonishing. In some places, hundreds of cubic yards of sand have avalanched down the face of the dunes."

Wind drives other changes. Especially surprising was the discovery that scars of past sand avalanches could be partially erased by wind in just one Mars year. Models of Mars' atmosphere do not predict wind speeds adequate to lift sand grains, and data from Mars landers show high winds are rare.

"Perhaps polar weather is more conducive to high wind speeds," Hansen said.

In all, modifications were seen in about 40 percent of these far-northern monitoring sites over the two-Mars-year period of the study.

Related HiRISE research previously identified gully-cutting activity in smaller fields of sand dunes covered by seasonal carbon-dioxide ice in Mars' southern hemisphere. A report four months ago showed that those changes coincided with the time of year when ice builds up.

"The role of the carbon-dioxide ice is getting clearer," said Serina Diniega of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the earlier report and a co-author of the new report. "In the south, we saw before-and-after changes and connected the timing with the carbon-dioxide ice. In the north, we're seeing more of the process of the seasonal changes and adding more evidence linking the changes with the carbon dioxide."

Researchers are using HiRISE to repeatedly photograph dunes at all latitudes, to understand winds in the current climate on Mars. Dunes at latitudes lower than the reach of the seasonal carbon-dioxide ice do not show new gullies. Hansen said, "It's becoming clear that there are very active processes on Mars associated with the seasonal polar caps."

The new findings contribute to efforts to understand what features and landscapes on Mars can be explained by current processes, and which require different environmental conditions.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Developers Support JPL-Led Software Architecture

Apache Top Level Project
The Object Oriented Data Technology (OODT) architecture, originally developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., was recently selected to become a fully-fledged Top Level Project at the Apache Software Foundation, Forest Hill, Md. This important recognition means that OODT will be one of the few projects to receive project management and resource support from the open-source software foundation.

The Object Oriented Data Technology architecture makes use of metadata to seek out disparate and geographically dispersed computing and data resources for use by any end user. For example, users of a data network could use OODT tools to make data that is physically hosted on one side of the country searchable and available for processing on the other side of the country.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

NASA To Announce New Planetary Discoveries

NASA To Announce New Planetary Discoveries
WASHINGTON -- NASA will host a news briefing at 1 p.m. EST, Wednesday, Feb. 2, to announce the Kepler mission's latest findings about planets outside our solar system. The briefing will be held in the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St S.W. in Washington and carried live on NASA Television and the agency's website at

Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the "habitable zone," the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the surface of the orbiting planet. Although additional observations will be needed over time to achieve that milestone, Kepler is detecting planets and planet candidates with a wide range of sizes and orbital distances to help us better understand our place in the galaxy.

The news conference will follow the scheduled release of Kepler mission science data on Feb. 1. The data release will update the number of planet candidates and is based on observations conducted between May 2 and Sept. 17, 2009.

Participants are:
-- Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist, NASA Headquarters, Washington
-- William Borucki, Kepler Science principal investigator, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
-- Jack Lissauer, Kepler co-investigator and planetary scientist, Ames
-- Debra Fischer, professor of Astronomy, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Reporters also may ask questions from participating NASA field centers or by phone. To obtain dial-in information, journalists must send their name, affiliation and telephone number to Steve Cole by e-mail at by noon EST on Feb. 1.

An Astronomer 's Field of Dreams

An Astronomer's Field of Dreams
An innovative new radio telescope array under construction in central New Mexico will eventually harness the power of more than 13,000 antennas and provide a fresh eye to the sky. The antennas, which resemble droopy ceiling fans, form the Long Wavelength Array, designed to survey the sky from horizon to horizon over a wide range of frequencies.

The University of New Mexico leads the project, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., provides the advanced digital electronic systems, which represent a major component of the observatory.

The first station in the Long Wavelength Array, with 256 antennas, is scheduled to start surveying the sky by this summer. When complete, the Long Wavelength Array will consist of 53 stations, with a total of 13,000 antennas strategically placed in an area nearly 400 kilometers (248 miles) in diameter. The antennas will provide sensitive, high-resolution images of a region of the sky hundreds of times larger than the full moon. These images could reveal radio waves coming from planets outside our solar system, and thus would turn out to be a new way to detect these worlds. In addition to planets, the telescope will pick up a host of other cosmic phenomena.

"We'll be looking for the occasional celestial flash," said Joseph Lazio, a radio astronomer at JPL. "These flashes can be anything from explosions on surfaces of nearby stars, deaths of distant stars, exploding black holes, or even perhaps transmissions by other civilizations." JPL scientists are working with multi-institutional teams to explore this new area of astronomy. Lazio is lead author of an article reporting scientific results from the Long Wavelength Demonstrator Array, a precursor to the new array, in the December 2010 issue of Astronomical Journal.

The new Long Wavelength Array will operate in the radio-frequency range of 20 to 80 megahertz, corresponding to wavelengths of 15 meters to 3.8 meters (49.2 feet to 12.5 feet). These frequencies represent one of the last and most poorly explored regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In recent years, a few factors have triggered revived interest in radio astronomy at these frequencies. The cost and technology required to build these low-frequency antennas has improved significantly. Also, advances in computing have made the demands of image processing more attainable. The combination of cost-effective hardware and technology gives scientists the ability to return to these wavelengths and obtain a much better view of the universe. The predecessor Long Wavelength Demonstrator Array was also in New Mexico. It was successful in identifying radio flashes, but all of them came from non-astronomy targets -- either the sun, or meteors reflecting TV signals high in Earth's atmosphere. Nonetheless, its findings indicate how future searches using the Long Wavelength Array technology might lead to new discoveries

Radio astronomy was born at frequencies below 100 megahertz and developed from there. The discoveries and innovations at this frequency range helped pave the way for modern astronomy. Perhaps one of the most important contributions made in radio astronomy was by a young graduate student at New Hall (since renamed Murray Edwards College) of the University of Cambridge, U.K. Jocelyn Bell discovered the first hints of radio pulsars in 1967, a finding that was later awarded a Nobel Prize. Pulsars are neutron stars that beam radio waves in a manner similar to a lighthouse beacon.

Long before Bell's discovery, astronomers believed that neutron stars, remnants of certain types of supernova explosions, might exist. At the time, however, the prediction was that these cosmic objects would be far too faint to be detected. When Bell went looking for something else, she stumbled upon neutron stars that were in fact pulsing with radio waves -- the pulsars. Today about 2,000 pulsars are known, but within the past decade, a number of discoveries have hinted that the radio sky might be far more dynamic than suggested by just pulsars