Monday, August 31, 2009

NASA Research Reveals Major Insight Into Evolution of Life on Earth

Humans might not be walking on Earth today if not for the ancient fusing of two microscopic, single-celled organisms called prokaryotes, NASA-funded research has found.

By comparing proteins present in more than 3000 different prokaryotes - a type of single-celled organism without a nucleus -- molecular biologist James A. Lake from the University of California at Los Angeles' Center for Astrobiology showed that two major classes of relatively simple microbes fused together more than 2.5 billion years ago. Lake's research reveals a new pathway for the evolution of life on Earth. These insights are published in the Aug. 20 online edition of the journal Nature.

Molecular biologist James A. Lake from the University of California at Los Angeles Center for Astrobiology.This endosymbiosis, or merging of two cells, enabled the evolution of a highly stable and successful organism with the capacity to use energy from sunlight via photosynthesis. Further evolution led to photosynthetic organisms producing oxygen as a byproduct. The resulting oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere profoundly affected the evolution of life, leading to more complex organisms that consumed oxygen, which were the ancestors of modern oxygen-breathing creatures including humans.

"Higher life would not have happened without this event," Lake said. "These are very important organisms. At the time these two early prokaryotes were evolving, there was no oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. Humans could not live. No oxygen-breathing organisms could live."

The genetic machinery and structural organization of these two organisms merged to produce a new class of prokaryotes, called double membrane prokaryotes. As they evolved, members of this double membrane class, called cyanobacteria, became the primary oxygen-producers on the planet, generating enough oxygen to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere and set the stage for the evolution of more complex organisms such as animals and plants.

"This work is a major advance in our understanding of how a group of organisms came to be that learned to harness the sun and then effected the greatest environmental change Earth has ever seen, in this case with beneficial results," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which co-funded the study with the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Founded in 1998, the NASA Astrobiology Institute is a partnership between NASA, 14 U.S. teams and six international consortia. The institute's goals are to promote, conduct, and lead interdisciplinary astrobiology research; train a new generation of astrobiology researchers; and share the excitement of astrobiology with learners of all ages.

The institute is part of NASA's Astrobiology Program in Washington. The program supports research into the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and the potential for life elsewhere.

For more information about the NASA's Astrobiology Program and the institute, visit:

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Atlantic Hurricane Season Springs to Life: A Recap of the 2009 Season So Far

TRMM was able to capture an image of Bill at 11:33 UTC (7:33 am EDT) on August 17, 2009 just after Bill was upgraded to a hurricaneAfter a rather slow start, the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season has seen a sudden surge in activity with the rapid emergence of three named storms: Tropical Storms Ana and Claudette and Hurricane Bill, the first hurricane of the season. After the first tropical depression (TD) of the season, called Tropical Depression One (TD #1) formed back in late May, the Atlantic was quiet for two and a half months.

Since 2001, there have been nearly 5 named storms on average by the middle of August.

Sea surface temperatures have been slightly above normal over nearly all of the tropical North Atlantic since mid-July. A strong tropical wave that moved off of the west coast of Africa on Wednesday, August 12 was able to take advantage of the warm water and formed into a tropical depression (TD #3) on the morning of August 15 as it was moving westward about 700 miles west-southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. TD #2, which would later become Tropical Storm Ana, had also formed in this same general area four days prior. Storms that form in this region are known as "Cape Verde" storms. Cape Verde storms most often occur in August and September during the height of the season.

TD #3 was upgraded to a tropical storm and named Bill on the afternoon of August 15. Bill slowly intensified but remained at tropical storm intensity on the 16th as it made its way through the central Atlantic. On the morning of August 17, Bill continued to intensify and was upgraded to hurricane intensity.

The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite (known as TRMM) was placed into service in November of 1997. From its low-earth orbit, TRMM has been providing valuable images and information on tropical cyclones around the Tropics using a combination of passive microwave and active radar sensors, including the first precipitation radar in space.

TRMM was able to capture an image of Bill at 11:33 UTC (7:33 am EDT) on August 17, 2009 just after Bill was upgraded to a hurricane. The image shows the horizontal pattern of rain intensity within the storm. Rain rates in the center swath are based on the TRMM Precipitation Radar (PR), and those in the outer swath on the TRMM Microwave Imager (TMI). The rain rates are overlaid on infrared (IR) data from the TRMM Visible Infrared Scanner (VIRS). TRMM reveals that although Bill does not yet have an eye or eyewall, it does have a well-developed cyclonic circulation as evidenced by the curvature in the surrounding rain bands (green and blue areas indicating moderate to light rain, respectively) spiraling in towards the center. Within these rain bands are embedded areas of intense rain (shown in red). At the time of this image, Bill's maximum sustained winds were estimated at 65 knots (75 mph) by the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Bill is expected to continue to intensify and could become a major hurricane. It is forecast by the National Hurricane Center to recurve to the northwest and be in the vicinity of Bermuda by Saturday.

TRMM is a joint mission between NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

NASA's WISE Mission Arrives at Launch Site

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has arrived at its last stop on Earth -- Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

WISE is scheduled to blast into space in December, aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from NASA's Space Launch Complex 2. Orbiting around Earth, it will scan the entire sky at infrared wavelengths, unveiling hundreds of thousands of asteroids, and hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies.

WISE arrives at Vandenberg Air Force BaseThe spacecraft arrived at Vandenberg along the central California coast today, after a winding journey via truck from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colo. Ball built the mission's spacecraft; its telescope and science instrument were built by Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

"WISE has arrived and is almost ready to go," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "After we check the spacecraft out and fill the telescope cooling tanks with solid hydrogen, we'll mate it to the rocket and launch."

WISE is an infrared space telescope like two currently orbiting missions, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation. But, unlike these missions, WISE will survey the entire sky. It is designed to cast a wide net to catch all sorts of unseen cosmic treasures. Millions of images from the survey will serve as rough maps for other observatories, such as Spitzer and NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, guiding them to intriguing targets.

"WISE will survey the cosmic landscape in the infrared so that future telescopes can home in on the most interesting 'properties,'" said Edward Wright, the principal investigator for the mission at UCLA.

The infrared surveyor will pick up the heat from a cornucopia of objects, both near and far. It will find hundreds of thousands of new asteroids in our main asteroid belt, and hundreds of near-Earth objects, which are comets and asteroids with orbits that pass relatively close to Earth. The mission will uncover the coldest stars, called brown dwarfs, perhaps even one closer to us than our closest known neighbor, Proxima Centauri, which is 4 light-years away. More distant finds will include nurseries of stars, swirling planet-building disks and the universe's most luminous galaxies billions of light-years away.

The data will help answer fundamental questions about how solar systems and galaxies form, and will provide the astronomical community with mountains of data to mine.

"WISE will create a legacy that endures for decades," said Peter Eisenhardt, the mission's project scientist at JPL. "Today, we still refer to the catalogue of our predecessor, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which operated in 1983."

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite was a joint infrared survey mission between NASA, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. WISE's survey, thanks to next-generation technology, will be hundreds of times more sensitive.

The mission will scan the sky from a sun-synchronous orbit, 500 kilometers (about 311 miles) above Earth. After a one-month checkout period, it will map the whole sky over a period of six months. Onboard frozen hydrogen, which will cool the infrared detectors, is expected to last several months longer, allowing WISE to map much of the sky a second time and see what has changed.

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The mission's principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing will take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

NASA’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for government oversight of the Delta II and launch countdown management.

More information is online at .

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

All in the Family of Kennedy Space Center

From left, sisters Sharon Lane, Teresa Strobush and Karon Buchner have a combined 106 years of service at Kennedy Space Center.Besides being sisters, Sharon Lane, Karon Buchner and Teresa Strobush have another important thing in common -- they all work at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with a combined 106 years on the job.

Lane, the oldest of the three, is an operations and processing specialist in the Requirements Verification and Data Retention Department for United Space Alliance. She works in Operations Support Building II and reviews and closes work authorization documents for ground support equipment modifications. Lane worked for Federal Electric Corp. beginning in June 1971, and then moved to Computer Science Corp., Grumman, Lockheed and Lockheed Martin through contract transitions, before settling in with USA.

Lane said one of the challenges of her job is staying focused on the importance of safety first, meeting schedules, but never forgetting that lives and hardware depend on following set procedures. "For 38 years I've been part of making history," Lane said. "I'm literally doing what others dream."

Lane said their father worked at Cape Kennedy, before it was Kennedy Space Center, as a firefighter. "I was always fascinated by his job. As long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be here.

"We hardly see each other, but just knowing they are not far away is very comforting, and if we need each other, we're there," Lane said. She described a time when her sister, Buchner, was attending a meeting in her building and they walked outside to see the shuttle landing. "It struck me then that of all the time we have worked at the center, this was the first time we had ever been together to view any of the launch or landing activities," Lane said.

Buchner is a program analyst for NASA in the Launch Vehicle Processing Directorate. She is the Kennedy budget manager for Ares I-X. During her junior year in high school, she had the opportunity to join NASA as part of the Stay in School Program. After graduation, she was offered a full-time job. "I loved being part of the team making the space exploration dream come alive," Buchner said. "I worked full time and went to school at night to get a Bachelor of Science degree in computer information systems."

She said the best part of her job is seeing a project from development through implementation. "One of the challenges is being able to find ways to mitigate the never-ending budget challenges," Buchner said.

The youngest of the three, Strobush works in the Business Office of the Information Technology and Communications Services Directorate. She started working at Kennedy when she was 15 through a school work program, with her parents' permission. "I thought it was a great opportunity. I saw that my sisters were enjoying their work with the space program," Strobush said.

One of the best parts of her job is being able to help workers get the materials they need to do their jobs and meet their milestones. "It's nice to have someone you love close to you all the time," Strobush added. "It's nice to have your big sisters here for support, when needed."

Strobush said she's looking forward to the U.S. going back to the moon. "I was a little young when we did it the first time, so it would be great to be able to support the program to get us there again.

"Our mom was very proud of all of us working and making a difference in the space program," Strobush said.

"I hope the Constellation program will be a major leap in learning about our universe and I hope I get a chance to be a part of that contribution to science," Lane said.

Buchner hopes the government will continue to see the many benefits NASA has provided and will continue to fund the space exploration dream. "With the transition from shuttle to Constellation, Kennedy has critical skills, processes and facilities to support more than just operations," Buchner said. "Kennedy can continue to provide support to development, fabrication and implementation of the new program."

Other family members at the center included Lane's husband, Skip, who retired after 38 years; their sister-in-law, Debbie Hamm, who worked as a buyer for the NASA Exchange for 18 years; Robbie Watts, who worked for USA; Jennifer (Buchner) Watts, Jason Buchner and Shawn Hamm.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Braille Displays Get New Life With Artificial Muscles

A blind person uses the dielectric elastomer EAP based refreshable Braille displayResearch with tiny artificial muscles may yield a full-page active Braille system that can refresh automatically and come to life right beneath your fingertips.

Yosi-Bar Cohen, a senior researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, was inspired during a business trip to Washington, D.C., where a convention for people with visual impairments was taking place.

Bar-Cohen came up with an idea to create a "living Braille," a digital, refreshable Braille device using electroactive polymers, also known as artificial muscles. He wrote up a technology report and included information in a related book that he published. His writings inspired other scientists and engineers to create active displays using this technology, and prototypes are now under development around the world.

"I hope that sometime in the future we will have Braille on an iPhone. It will be portable and able to project a picture of a neighborhood popping up in front of you in the form of raised dots," said Bar-Cohen. "A digital Braille operated by artificial muscles could provide for rapid information exchange, such as e-mail, text messaging and access to the web and other electronic databases or archives." According to the World Health Organization, about 314 million people are visually impaired worldwide; 45 million of them are blind.

A Braille display using dielectric elastomer EAP using bubble shape dotsRecently, Bar-Cohen was contacted by the Center for Braille Innovation of the Boston-based National Braille Press to reach out to the Electroactive Polymer community and take advantage of his role in this field. The National Braille Press is a non-profit Braille printing and publishing house that promotes the literacy of blind children through Braille.

Current Braille Display Technologies

The challenge for creating an active Braille display is in packing many small dots into a tiny volume.

Unlike hardcopy Braille, a refreshable display requires the raising and lowering of a large number of densely packed dots that allow a person to quickly read them. Currently, commercial active Braille devices are limited to a single line of characters. A full page of Braille typically has 25 lines of up to 40 characters per line. Characters are represented by six or eight dots per cell, arranged in two columns. To produce a page of refreshable Braille using electroactive polymers requires individually activating and controlling thousands of raiseable dots.

Developing New Braille Technologies

Some of the leading-edge work in Braille technology was developed at SRI in Menlo Park, Calif. Richard Heydt, a senior research engineer there who was involved in developing a prototype says, "The electroactive polymer technology seems to be a natural fit for Braille and tactile display applications."

The Braille display developed at SRI is based on activating a type of polymer consisting of a thin sheet of acrylic that deforms in response to voltage applied across the film. The individual Braille dots are defined by a pattern on this film, and each dot is independently activated to produce the dot combinations for Braille letters and numbers.

In currently available active refreshable Braille displays, each dot is a pin driven by a small motor or electromagnetic coil. In contrast, in the SRI display the actuators are defined regions on a single sheet of film. Thus, while each dot is raised or lowered by its own applied voltage, there are no motors, bulky actuators, or similar components. Since the system has far fewer discrete components for a Braille dot array, it would be potentially much lower in cost.

"The contributions of the developers of electroactive materials to making a low-cost, active Braille display would significantly improve the life of many people with visual impairments, while advancing the field to benefit other applications" said Bar-Cohen.

Looking for the 'Holy Braille'

The Boston-based National Braille Press has recently established a Center for Braille Innovation. They're looking for the "Holy Braille," a full-page electronic Braille display, at a low cost.

"We feel that the exciting field of electroactive polymer technology has matured to the point where it can provide real solutions for Braille displays. We welcome and encourage anyone who wants to take part in Braille innovation," said Noel H. Runyan, National Braille Press, Center for Braille Innovation

In the spring of 2010, Bar-Cohen is including a special session on tactile displays at an SPIE conference. SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics. Tactile displays will be presented and possibly demonstrated at the conference. He hopes these baby steps may someday lead to a full-page Braille system that will allow people to feel and "see" the universe beneath their fingers.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Planck Sees Light Billions of Years Old

PlanckThe Planck space telescope has begun to collect light left over from the Big Bang explosion that created our universe. The mission, which is led by the European Space Agency with important participation from NASA, will help answer the most fundamental of questions: How did space itself pop into existence and expand to become the universe we live in today? The answer is hidden in ancient light, called the cosmic microwave background, which has traveled more than 13 billion years to reach us. Planck will measure tiny variations in this light with the best precision to date.

The mission officially started collecting science data today, Aug. 13, as part of a test period. If all goes as planned, these observations will be the first of 15 or more months of data gathered from two full-sky scans. Science results are expected in about three years.

Read about NASA and JPL's role in the mission at .
More information about the mission is also online at .

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Mars Orbiter Shows Angled View of Martian Crater

Victoria crater from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned a dramatic oblique view of the Martian crater that a rover explored for two years.

The new view of Victoria Crater shows layers on steep crater walls, difficult to see from straight overhead, plus wheel tracks left by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity between September 2006 and August 2008. The orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera shot it at an angle comparable to looking at landscape from an airplane window. Some of the camera's earlier, less angled images of Victoria Crater aided the rover team in choosing safe routes for Opportunity and contributed to joint scientific studies.

The new Victoria Crater image is available online at: and as a sub-image of the full-frame image at: .

Another new image from the same camera catches an active dust devil leaving a trail and casting a shadow. These whirlwinds have been a subject of investigation by Opportunity's twin rover, Spirit.

The new dust devil image is available online at: and as a sub-image of the full-frame image at: .

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been studying Mars with an advanced set of instruments since 2006. It has returned more data about the planet than all other past and current missions to Mars combined. For more information about the mission, visit: .

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the instrument was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Meteorite Found on Mars Yields Clues About Planet's Past

This view of a rock called 'Block Island', the largest meteorite yet found on Mars.
NASA's Mars Rover Opportunity is investigating a metallic meteorite the size of a large watermelon that is providing researchers more details about the Red Planet's environmental history.

The rock, dubbed "Block Island," is larger than any other known meteorite on Mars. Scientists calculate it is too massive to have hit the ground without disintegrating unless Mars had a much thicker atmosphere than it has now when the rock fell. An atmosphere slows the descent of meteorites. Additional studies also may provide clues about how weathering has affected the rock since it fell.

This iron-nickel meteorite found near Fort Stockton, Texas, in 1952 shows a surface texture similar to some portions of the surface of an iron-nickel meteorite that NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity found on Mars in July 2009.
Two weeks ago, Opportunity had driven approximately 180 meters (600 feet) past the rock in a Mars region called Meridiani Planum. An image the rover had taken a few days earlier and stored was then transmitted back to Earth. The image showed the rock is approximately 60 centimeters (2 feet) in length, half that in height, and has a bluish tint that distinguishes it from other rocks in the area. The rover team decided to have Opportunity backtrack for a closer look, eventually touching Block Island with its robotic arm.

"There's no question that it is an iron-nickel meteorite," said Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Gellert is the lead scientist for the rover's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, an instrument on the arm used for identifying key elements in an object. "We already investigated several spots that showed elemental variations on the surface. This might tell us if and how the metal was altered since it landed on Mars."

The microscopic imager on the arm revealed a distinctive triangular pattern in Block Island's surface texture, matching a pattern common in iron-nickel meteorites found on Earth.

"Normally this pattern is exposed when the meteorite is cut, polished and etched with acid," said Tim McCoy, a rover team member from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "Sometimes it shows up on the surface of meteorites that have been eroded by windblown sand in deserts, and that appears to be what we see with Block Island."

The triangular pattern of small ridges seen at the upper right in this image and elsewhere on the rock is characteristic of iron-nickel meteorites found on Earth.
Opportunity found a smaller iron-nickel meteorite, called "Heat Shield Rock," in late 2004. At about a half ton or more, Block Island is roughly 10 times as massive as Heat Shield Rock and several times too big to have landed intact without more braking than today's Martian atmosphere could provide.

"Consideration of existing model results indicates a meteorite this size requires a thicker atmosphere," said rover team member Matt Golombek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Either Mars has hidden reserves of carbon-dioxide ice that can supply large amounts of carbon-dioxide gas into the atmosphere during warm periods of more recent climate cycles, or Block Island fell billions of years ago."

Spectrometer observations have already identified variations in the composition of Block Island at different points on the rock's surface. The differences could result from interaction of the rock with the Martian environment, where the metal becomes more rusted from weathering with longer exposures to water vapor or liquid.

"We have lots of iron-nickel meteorites on Earth. We're using this meteorite as a way to study Mars," said Albert Yen, a rover team member at JPL. "Before we drive away from Block Island, we intend to examine more targets on this rock where the images show variations in color and texture. We're looking to see how extensively the rock surface has been altered, which helps us understand the history of the Martian climate since it fell."

When the investigation of Block Island concludes, the team plans to resume driving Opportunity on a route from Victoria Crater, which the rover explored for two years, toward the much larger Endeavour Crater. Opportunity has covered about one-fifth of the 19-kilometer (12-mile) route plotted for safe travel to Endeavour since the rover left Victoria nearly a year ago.

Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, landed on Mars in January 2004 for missions originally planned to last for three months. Both rovers show signs of aging but are still very able to continue to explore and study Mars.

To see the image and obtain more information about the rovers, visit: .

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Friday, August 14, 2009

"Robots on the Road" Demonstrates Mars Rovers’ Work is Children’s Play

Mars rover Spirit"Where can I get one of these?" is the most often asked question by children playing with miniature robots built to resemble NASA’s six-wheeled, one-armed rovers on Mars.

To educate the next generation of explorers, NASA took its science and robots on the road. It’s a travelling program called "Robots on the Road" (ROTR), sponsored by NASA's Aerospace Education Services Project, which gives children hands-on experience working with robots and introduces them to the math and science behind space exploration. The exhibit visited NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. from July 29 – 31, 2009.

"Since our June 2008 kickoff, I’ve been amazed by how many kids show up to play with these robots. We used commercial kits to build motorized robots that are programmed to do different tasks, like finding and sorting items, and mapping paths around objects. Kids love playing with them," said Taunya Sweet, a Pennsylvania State University employee and a travelling education specialist for the program.

As part of the learning process, children are asked to imagine tiny robots, named Spirit and Opportunity, travelling wide stretches of Mars, climbing cliffs, mapping terrains and sorting, cracking and grinding colorful rocks, with the sole purpose of finding water.

In two days, more than 400 children arrived at the exhibit, ready to explore. The display is open and inviting to kids, with eight robots available for discovery and exploration.

Children are handed a robot and asked to identify its tasks by watching its actions. Some robots manipulate and sort items; others map paths and navigate around obstacles. But to understand how robots operate, youngsters need to use problem-solving, team building, and critical thinking skills, which simulate those skills used by NASA scientists and engineers.

"The program gives kids hands-on experience with robots, which we hope will increase their science and math awareness and understanding of the mechanics used to study or explore space," said Sweet.

Robots on the Road will provide programs with the travelling NASA Exploration Experience. Unlike its travelling partner, Robots on the Road is available for classroom programs. Classroom robots provide standards-based instruction for students in the areas of inquiry-based learning, mathematics and science.

Teachers can request a Robot on the Road school visit by completing a request form found at Requests will be filled depending upon the current availability and location of the Robots on the Road van.

"We will attempt to visit as many states as possible during the year. In January, we hope to go into the southern regions, where we can visit other NASA centers, including Johnson, Stennis and Marshall," said Sweet.

Besides the occasional groan heard from parents, when they realize that their child will want the robot kit for their birthdays, parents are very receptive to the program. Many adults have never seen this kind of robotics technology.

"I often hear kids tell their parents when they leave the exhibit: 'Mom, I really want one of these,'" said Sweet.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Grunsfeld Takes the Windy City by Storm

NASA astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld talks with broadcaster Ed Farmer at the White Sox game during the 2009 Hometown Heroes campaign in ChicagoNASA astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld signs autographs at the White Sox game during the 2009 Hometown Heroes campaign in Chicago.NASA astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld presents a photo of Chicago from space to management at the White Sox game during the 2009 Hometown Heroes campaign in ChicagoIn the early morning hours of a balmy summer day, NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld arrived at the first of several media interviews on his two-day tour of Chicago. Grunsfeld’s trip to the Windy City was a part of NASA’s 2009 Hometown Heroes campaign. Throughout the summer, several astronauts will travel to their home regions to throw out the first pitch at Major League Baseball games as part of NASA’s celebration of the International Space Station’s 10th year in orbit.

The trip kicked off with live television interviews at local network affiliates, ABC and CBS. At ABC, Grunsfeld was asked his opinion about the importance of education.

“I think that kids are our future and it’s so important that they stick with science, math and technology, and that they understand the role of all of that in the modern world,” Grunsfeld said.

After talking about the benefits of space exploration with the morning show hosts, it was off to WGN Radio to speak with nationally known talk show host Greg Jarrett. Jarrett hosted Grunsfeld on the show for the entire 7 a.m. hour. He praised Grunsfeld for his impressive career and asked him about his next steps.

“I’m hoping to get to travel to the International Space Station and live in space for six months.” Grunsfeld said. “The International Space Station is the most incredible engineering feat ever done by humans in space and it would be great to live up there and do science experiments that can help us here on earth.”

Following the media interviews, Grunsfeld met with Bill Mullen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and a Chicago Tribune veteran of more than 40 years. Mullen shadowed Grunsfeld during his visit to gather information for a magazine feature about his career and life growing up in the Chicago area.

Later that afternoon, it was on to the Museum of Science and Industry. The appearance included presentations to museum VIPs and a sold out crowd in the museum’s main auditorium. After an hour long autograph session, Grunsfeld wrapped up the day’s activities with a 30 minute podcast interview for the museum’s Web site.

The next day, the Adler Planetarium, which was designed by Grunsfeld’s grandfather, hosted him for the entire afternoon. Grunsfeld spoke to the students of the Astro Science Workshop (ASW). ASW is a summer program for teens with a strong interest in astronomy and was where Grunsfeld fostered his love of the subject when he was in high school.

Following his time with the ASW students, it was off to the auditorium to speak to a packed house. At the end of the lecture, Grunsfeld presented a 200-year-old telescope that he flew for the museum on STS-125 to the Adler’s president and signed autographs for guests.

“We are so happy to have John visit us,” said Sarah Beck, Manager of Public Relations for the Adler Planetarium. “Our visitors loved his presentation and were so excited to meet him during the autograph session.”

That evening it was on to “Sox ‘n Space Night” at U.S. Cellular field, home of the Chicago White Sox. As his proud wife and two children watched from behind home plate, Grunsfeld took to the pitcher’s mound and threw out the first pitch of the game. He went on to sign autographs for fans and spent some time on air with Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson of White Sox radio.

“We were honored to have Dr. Grunsfeld visit U.S. Cellular Field,” said Amy Sheridan, Director of Game Operations for the White Sox. “It’s always a pleasure to recognize accomplished White Sox fans like Dr. Grunsfeld, and his presence at the ballpark made our “Sox ‘n Space Night” a memorable and successful event.”

For more information about the NASA Hometown Heroes 2009 campaign, visit:

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Orbiter Safe After Computer Swap

Mars Reconnaissance OrbiterMars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission Status Report

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is in safe mode, a precautionary standby status, and in communications with Earth after unexpectedly switching to its backup computer on Thurs. Aug. 6.

Engineers are working to determine the cause of the spontaneous swap from the orbiter's "A" side computer and subsystems to the redundant "B" side. They have successfully increased the communication rate from the orbiter, but some engineering data about what was occurring just before the side swap may never be available. The team expects it will be at least several days until normal science operations resume.

The event has some similarities with, but also differences from, two earlier instances of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spontaneously swapping sides.

Jim Erickson, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., said, "The spacecraft is safe, with good temperatures and battery charge and with solar panels properly facing the sun. The flight team is cautiously taking steps to bring it back to normal operations."

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been studying Mars with an advanced set of instruments since 2006. It has returned more data about the planet than all other past and current missions to Mars combined.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

'Block Island' Meteorite on Mars, Sol 1961

Composition measurements by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity confirm that this rock on the Martian surface is an iron-nickel meteorite.
Composition measurements by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity confirm that this rock on the Martian surface is an iron-nickel meteorite.

The rover's panoramic camera took this image during the 1,961st Martian day, or sol, of Opportunity's mission on Mars (July 31), after approaching close enough to touch the rock with tools on the rover's robotic arm.

Researchers have informally named the rock "Block Island." With a width of about two-thirds of a meter (2 feet), it is the largest meteorite yet found on Mars. Opportunity found a smaller iron-nickel meteorite, called "Heat Shield Rock" in late 2004.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Astronauts Arrive at Kennedy for Launch Practice

Rick "C.J." Sturckow, commanding the STS-128 mission of Discovery, led his crew of astronauts to the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday to begin three days of launch training. Flying in T-38 jet trainers, Sturckow and Mission Specialist Patrick Forrester landed first under cloud-strewn skies. Mission Specialists Jose Hernandez and Sweden's Christer Fuglesang landed in separate planes just afterward. Pilot Kevin Ford and Mission Specialists Nicole Stott and John "Danny" Olivas arrived a few minutes later. The training the next few days includes M113 emergency vehicle practice and simulated shuttle landings in the Shuttle Training Aircraft. Discovery is being prepped at Launch Pad 39A for its part during Friday's countdown rehearsal, when the astronauts will be strapped in while they and the launch teams at Kennedy and the Mission Control Center in Houston, practice the complex choreography of liftoff.

Space Shuttle Mission: STS-128

The STS-128 crew arrives for TCDT.
Discovery Readies for Station Resupply Flight

Space shuttle Discovery will carry the Leonardo supply module to the International Space Station during STS-128, along with a new crew member for the station, Nicole Stott. Commanded by veteran astronaut Rick "C.J." Sturckow, the mission is targeted to liftoff Aug. 25 to deliver refrigerator-sized racks full of equipment, including the COLBERT treadmill, an exercise device named after comedian Stephen Colbert. Stott will take the place of Tim Kopra, who moved into the station during STS-127. Pilot Kevin Ford and Mission Specialists Patrick Forrester, Jose Hernandez, John "Danny" Olivas and Sweden's Christer Fuglesang round out the crew.

STS-128 Additional Resources
› Mission Summary (592 Kb PDF)

Endeavour Lands at Kennedy Space Center

Space shuttle Endeavour landed at Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Friday with a touchdown at 10:48 a.m. EDT, capping the 16-day STS-127 mission to the International Space Station. The shuttle began its descent from orbit with a deorbit engine firing at 9:41 a.m., followed by a smooth re-entry that brought the winged spacecraft across Central America, Cuba and the state of Florida on its way to the spaceport.

Endeavour launched July 15 at 6:03 p.m. EDT from Kennedy's Launch Pad 39A. Highlighted by five spacewalks and intricate robotics work, the mission completed construction of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory. Astronauts attached a platform to the outside of the Japanese module that will allow experiments to be exposed to space.

STS-127 Additional Resources
› Mission Press Kit (6.9 Mb PDF)
› Mission Summary (429 Kb PDF)
› Meet the STS-127 Crew

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Friday, August 7, 2009

NASA's Moon Mapper Beholds Home

This image of Earth taken from 200 kilometers (124 miles) above the lunar surface was taken by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper
This image of Earth taken from 200 kilometers (124 miles) above the lunar surface was taken by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, one of two NASA instruments onboard the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Australia is visible in the lower center of the image. The image is presented as a false-color composite with oceans a dark blue, clouds white, and vegetation an enhanced green. The image data were acquired on July 22, 2009.

The Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument is a state-of-the-art imaging spectrometer designed to provide the first map of the entire lunar surface at high spatial and spectral resolution. Scientists will use this information to answer questions about the moon's origin and development and the evolution of terrestrial planets in the early solar system. Future astronauts will use it to locate resources, possibly including water, that can support exploration of the moon and beyond.

The Moon Mineralogy Mapper was selected as a Mission of Opportunity through the NASA Discovery Program. Carle Pieters of Brown University, Providence, R.I., is the principal investigator and has oversight of the instrument as a whole, as well as the Moon Mineralogy Mapper Science Team. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., designed and built the Moon Mineralogy Mapper and is home to its project manager, Mary White. JPL manages the program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft was constructed, launched, and is operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation.

More information about Chandrayaan-1 is at : .

More information about NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper is at : .

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

New Spin On Saturn's Rotation

Cassini's view of SaturnNew meteorological data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft indicates the value for Saturn's rotation period could be more than 5 minutes shorter than previously believed - and that Saturn is more like its larger neighbor Jupiter than previously considered. The rate at which Saturn spins provides important data for planetary scientists interested in the ringed world. Obtaining an accurate fix on that number is critical to enhancing scientist's understanding of the planet's evolution, formation and meteorology. The report on this finding, led by Cassini scientist Peter Read of Oxford University, England, is published in the July 30 issue of the journal Nature.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. JPL manages the mission for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

More information about the Cassini mission is available at or .

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

NASA Honors Apollo Astronaut Al Worden with Moon Rock

NASA will honor Apollo astronaut Al Worden with the presentation of an Ambassador of Exploration Award for his contributions to the U.S. space program.

Worden will receive the award during a ceremony Thursday, July 30, at 4 p.m. EDT. The ceremony will be held at the Apollo Saturn V Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, where the moon rock will be displayed.

Reporters interested in covering the ceremony should contact Andrea Farmer at 321-449-4318 or Jillian McRae at 321-449-4273.

NASA is giving the Ambassador of Exploration Award to the first generation of explorers in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs for realizing America's goal of going to the moon. The award is a moon rock encased in Lucite, mounted for public display. The rock is part of the 842 pounds of lunar samples collected during six Apollo expeditions from 1969 to 1972. Those astronauts who receive the award will then present the award to a museum of their choice, where the moon rock will be placed for public display.

Worden served as command module pilot for the Apollo 15 mission, which set several moon records for NASA, including the longest lunar surface stay time, the longest lunar extravehicular activity and the first use of a lunar roving vehicle. Worden spent 38 minutes in a spacewalk outside the command module and logged a total of 295 hours, 11 minutes in space during the mission.

Worden was born in Jackson, Mich. He received a bachelor of military science degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1955, and master of science degrees in astronautical and aeronautical engineering and instrumentation engineering from the University of Michigan in 1963.

For more biographical information about Worden, visit:

NASA Television will broadcast a Video File of the event. For NASA TV streaming video, schedules and downlink information, visit:

For more information about the Apollo Saturn V Center, visit:

For information about and pictures of the NASA Ambassador of Exploration Award, visit:

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility

This image shows the Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility as it looks from inside Kibo. The Japanese Experiment Module, or JEM, called Kibo -- which means "hope" in Japanese -- is Japan's first human space facility and enhances the unique research capabilities of the International Space Station. Experiments in Kibo focus on space medicine, biology, Earth observations, material production, biotechnology and communications research. Kibo experiments and systems are operated from the Mission Control Room at the Space Station Operations Facility, or SSOF, at Tsukuba Space Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, just north of Tokyo.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Nasa EAA AirVenture : An Aviator's Dream World

Inflatable exhibits of a lunar habitat concept and an Orion Crew capsuleAviation enthusiasts seek out certain destinations. There are Paris and Farnborough for the big international crowd, Kill Devil Hills, N.C. for the historians and Oshkosh, Wisc., for those who crave a look at aircraft that are a little different.

For a week every summer a small airfield in central Wisconsin is an aviator's dream world. It's been that way for more than half a century, since what is now called EAA AirVenture started as a way to celebrate men and women who fly experimental aircraft.

It's grown so much since 1953 that Wittman Regional Airport, the home of the Experimental Aircraft Association, becomes the busiest airport in the country for that week according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That's pretty amazing since it normally doesn't even have scheduled airline service.

Matt Shezifi of Livermore, Calif., tries out a demonstration that shows how astronauts use tools in space.Among the aircraft expected to fly into the airfield this year will be a research aircraft from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. A NASA Gulfstream III aircraft will land at EAA AirVenture and be parked for public viewing at Aeroshell Square, perhaps not far from a huge Airbus 380 or Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo spacecraft. The G-III serves as multi-role testbed for a variety of flight research experiments. The aircraft's pilot will be available to answer questions.

And they aren't the only NASA researchers and engineers who will talk to members of the public at the air show about everything from uncrewed air vehicles, past and future moon missions to how the space shuttle flies.

This year marks a special anniversary for NASA and the rest of the world — 40 years since humans first walked on the moon. To commemorate the occasion visitors to EAA AirVenture will be able to see a piece of the lunar surface in person. A moon rock picked up by astronaut Edgar Mitchell in 1971 during the Apollo XIV mission is a star attraction at the NASA pavilion.

This year we're celebrating not only our historic landing on the moon 40 years ago, but looking forward to the next generation of moon missions," said Jim Hull, NASA exhibits manager. "Last month we launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It's circling the moon right now, transmitting images. Then this fall the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite will impact the moon looking for water ice."

The Oshkosh exhibit reflects the country's plans to return to the moon. Outside the building are two huge inflatables that represent a lunar habitat concept and the Orion crew capsule. Inside visitors can learn more about robotic moon missions and the systems that will rocket astronauts to the lunar surface from engineers from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

From the moon, air show participants are able to move onto Mars and a full-scale replica of one of the Mars Exploration Rovers in front of a three-dimensional Martian landscape.

No NASA presentation at an air show is complete without a look at NASA's contributions to aeronautics. Not only do exhibits feature a number of NASA-developed aviation technologies that are now common in airplanes, a special education area allows youngsters to make and take their own ring wing gliders and offer other hands-on activities.

But by far one of the most popular stops at the NASA building is the area known as the NASA craftsmen. Technicians from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Langley Research center in Hampton, Va., show off some of the models and tools researchers use to advance aerospace design.

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Veteran Astronaut Pam Melroy Leaves NASA

NASA astronaut Pam Melroy is leaving the agency to take a job in the private sector. Melroy, a retired Air Force colonel, is a veteran of three space shuttle flights and the second woman to command one.

"Pam has performed superbly as an astronaut," said Steve Lindsey, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "She has flown three highly successful space shuttle missions and contributed in several other technical areas during her 14 years of service with the Astronaut Office. Her leadership as the commander of the STS-120 space shuttle mission paved the way to six-person crew operations on the International Space Station."

"As a classmate and a friend, I feel privileged to have served beside her. We wish Pam the best of luck in her new career -- she will be missed," Lindsey added.

Melroy flew on shuttle missions STS-92 in 2000, STS-112 in 2002 and STS-120 in 2007. She served as pilot on her first two flights and commanded the third. She has logged more than 924 hours in space, contributing to the construction of the space station on every mission. She was selected as an astronaut in December 1994.

Melroy made history with Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson in October 2007 when the hatches between the space shuttle and space station were opened. They became the first female spacecraft commanders to lead space shuttle and space station missions concurrently.

For Melroy's complete biography, visit:

For information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

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