Monday, March 26, 2012

NASA GRAIL Returns First Student-Selected Moon Images

One of two NASA spacecraft orbiting the moon has beamed back the first student-requested pictures of the lunar surface from its onboard camera. Fourth grade students from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., received the honor of making the first image selections by winning a nationwide competition to rename the two spacecraft.

The image was taken by the MoonKam, or Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students. Previously named Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) A and B, the twin spacecraft are now called Ebb and Flow. Both washing-machine-sized orbiters carry a small MoonKAM camera. Over 60 student–requested images were taken by the Ebb spacecraft from March 15-17 and downlinked to Earth March 20.

"MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees," said Maria Zuber, GRAIL mission principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is great to see things off to such a positive start."

GRAIL is NASA's first planetary mission to carry instruments fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Students will select target areas on the lunar surface and request images to study from the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center in San Diego.

The MoonKAM program is led by Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, and her team at Sally Ride Science in collaboration with undergraduate students at the University of California in San Diego. More than 2,700 schools spanning 52 countries are using the MoonKAM cameras.

"What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures," Ride said. "The students really are excited about MoonKAM, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering."

Launched in September 2011, Ebb and Flow will answer longstanding questions about the moon and give scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the GRAIL mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, is home to the mission's principal investigator, Maria Zuber. GRAIL is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NASA spacecraft puts moon in new focus


After buzzing around the moon for two years, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has beamed more than 192 terabytes of data back to its home planet — more than all the printed information contained in the U.S. Library of Congress, says project scientist Richard Vondrak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Among those data are 4 billion measurements made by the orbiter’s laser altimeter, which allowed scientists to construct a detailed elevation map of the moon’s pockmarked surface. An animation of the moon’s rotation shows the orbiter’s data compared with maps made in 2005 by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Unified Lunar Control Network. Scientists presented the animation during a conference held on June 21. “We go from a relatively fuzzy moon that kind of looks out of focus, to one that’s sharp and very well-defined,” says NASA’s Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist for exploration.

Flying approximately 50 kilometers above the cratered world, the 1,900-kilogram spacecraft has helped illuminate Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor by studying its features, temperature, composition and elusive dark side. Using the data sent back home, scientists have identified locations likely to hold frozen water ice — shaded regions that never see sunlight and which are among the coldest places in the solar system — as well as sunnier spots that could one day host a solar-powered moon base.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NASA’s Astrobiology Research Sparks 'GreenTech' Revolution

NASA’s astrobiologists study microbial life to understand how it transformed a rocky Earth into the thriving, diverse, life-sustaining planet we inhabit today. These studies of photosynthetic ‘green’ algae are creating sparks for new ‘green technologies’ on Earth and future human space exploration missions.

“Once we understand these microbial recycling pathways, we can apply these processes in imaginative and innovative ways to solve problems on Earth, and in various space microgravity environments,” said Leslie Bebout, a research scientist in the Exobiology Branch at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Exobiology scientists at NASA Ames are conducting astrobiology research into the origin and early evolution of life, the potential of life to adapt to different environments, and the implications for life elsewhere. Goals of this research are to determine the nature of the most primitive organisms and the environments in which they evolved, and how those microbes and environments have changed over time to produce the world we have today.

These findings are helping scientists understand the transformations of Earth and its atmosphere throughout time. This requires an investigation of the evolution of genes, metabolic pathways, and microbial species, subject to long-term environmental change. Such an investigation will show the co-evolution of, and interactions within, microbial communities that drive the major recycling processes on Earth. These constantly flowing cycles of energy and elements are what make Earth unique, and are critical to the development of new technologies for sustainable energy, food and water processing.

“It may surprise people to learn that NASA’s space science research has so many direct applications to the development of ‘greentech.’ Many of the organisms we study are important producers of hydrogen, methane and lipids that can be used as carbon neutral fuels, and other products,” said Orlando Santos, chief of the Exobiology Branch at Ames.

Microbial ecology links this research together. By studying microbes in a given environment, scientists can observe how they thrive and interact with each other. It is important to note that microbial communities are profoundly influenced by their environment. By looking at geographic location, or a shift to short- or long-term environmental perturbations, scientists can determine how microbial populations and processes differ in response to different environments.

Monday, March 5, 2012

NASA Seeking University Participants for Summer Rocket Workshop

NASA Seeking University Participants for Summer
University faculty and students are invited to join a weeklong workshop June 16-21 to learn how to build and launch a scientific experiment to space. Registration is open through May 1.

RockOn! 2012 will be held at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The annual workshop is held in partnership with the Colorado and Virginia Space Grant Consortia.

"This workshop provides an opportunity for participants to learn how to build an experiment for space flight," said Phil Eberspeaker, chief of the sounding rocket program office at Wallops. "The hope is this experience will encourage them to participate in more ambitious payload programs, including someday building instruments for orbital spacecraft and beyond."

During the program, participants will work together to build experiment payloads for a NASA Terrier-Orion sounding rocket predicted to fly to an altitude of 73 miles. The flight will take place June 21, the last day of the workshop, weather permitting.

"During the week, the participants will gain an understanding of what it takes to build a basic scientific payload," said Chris Koehler, director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. "Through hands-on learning, they will learn how to develop circuit boards, program flight code and work together as a cohesive team."

Since the annual workshop began in 2008, 150 students and instructors have participated. It has been a successful program, with all experiments completed on time, launched and recovered. In addition, 48 of the 50 payloads have worked as intended.