Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NASA Google Earth Application Maps Carbon's Course

A Google Earth application reveals carbon dioxide in the lowest part of the atmosphere close to Earth's surface (green tracks) and carbon dioxide at higher altitudes that are immune from ground influences (red tracks)Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, particularly when the picture is used to illustrate science. Technology is giving us better pictures every day, and one of them is helping a NASA-funded scientist and her team to explain the behavior of a greenhouse gas.

Google Earth -- the digital globe on which computer users can fly around the planet and zoom in on key features -- is attracting attention in scientific communities and aiding public communication about carbon dioxide. Recently Google held a contest to present scientific results using KML, a data format used by Google Earth.

"I tried to think of a complex data set that would have public relevance," said Tyler Erickson, a geospatial researcher at the Michigan Tech Research Institute in Ann Arbor.

He chose to work with data from NASA-funded researcher Anna Michalak of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who develops complex computer models to trace carbon dioxide back in time to where it enters and leaves the atmosphere.

"The datasets have three spatial dimensions and a temporal dimension," Erickson said. "Because the data is constantly changing in time makes it particularly difficult to visualize and analyze."

A better understanding of the carbon cycle has implications for energy and environmental policy and carbon management. In June 2009, Michalak described this research at the NASA Earth System Science at 20 symposium in Washington, D.C.

A snapshot from Erickson's Google Earth application shows green tracks representing carbon dioxide in the lowest part of the atmosphere close to Earth's surface where vegetation and land processes can impact the carbon cycle. Red tracks indicate particles at higher altitudes that are immune from ground influences.

The application is designed to educate the public and even scientists about how carbon dioxide emissions can be traced. A network of 1,000-foot towers across the United States is equipped with instruments by NOAA to measure the carbon dioxide content of parcels of air at single locations.

The application is designed to educate the public and even scientists about how carbon dioxide emissions can be traced. A network of 1,000-foot towers across the United States, like the tower above, are equipped with instruments by NOAA to measure the carbon dioxide content of parcels of air at single locations.

But where did that gas come from and how did it change along its journey? To find out, scientists rely on a sleuthing technique called "inverse modeling" – measuring gas concentrations at a single geographic point and then using clues from weather and atmospheric models to deduce where it came from. The technique is complex and difficult to explain even to fellow scientists.

Michalak related the technique to cream in a cup of coffee. "Say someone gave you a cup of creamy coffee," Michalak said. "How do you know when that cream was added?" Just as cream is not necessarily mixed perfectly, neither is the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If you can see the streaks of cream (carbon dioxide) and understand how the coffee (atmosphere) was stirred (weather), then scientists can use those clues to retrace the time and location that the ingredient was added to the mix.

The visual result typically used by scientists is a static two-dimensional map of the location of the gas, as averaged over the course of a month. Most carbon scientists know how to interpret the 2D map, but visualizing the 3D changes for non-specialists has proved elusive. Erickson spent 70 hours programming the Google Earth application that makes it easy to navigate though time and watch gas particles snake their way toward the NOAA observation towers. For his work, Erickson was declared one of Google's winners in March 2009.

"Having this visual tool allows us to better explain the scientific process," Michalak said. "It's a much more human way of looking at the science."

The next step, Erickson said, is to adapt the application to fit the needs of the research community. Scientists could use the program to better visualize the output of complex atmospheric models and then improve those models so that they better represent reality.

"Encouraging more people to deliver data in an interactive format is a good trend," Erickson said. "It should help innovation in research by reducing barriers to sharing data."

Related Links:

› New Tools for Carbon Detectives: Tracking Carbon Emissions and Sequestration
› Download the Google Earth file
› YouTube: Research in Atmospheric Carbon for North America – Introduction
› YouTube: Research in Atmospheric Carbon for North America – Instructions

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Planck Snaps its First Images of Ancient Cosmic Light

The Planck mission has captured its first rough images of the sky, demonstrating the observatory is working and ready to measure light from the dawn of time. Planck – a European Space Agency mission with significant NASA participation – will survey the entire sky to learn more about the history and evolution of our universe.

The space telescope started surveying the sky regularly on Aug. 13 from its vantage point far from Earth. Planck is in orbit around the second Lagrange point of our Earth-sun system, a relatively stable spot located 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) away from Earth.

Planck's First Glimpse at the Universe

"We are beginning to observe ancient light that has traveled more than 13 billion years to reach us," said Charles Lawrence, the NASA project scientist for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's tremendously exciting to see these very first data from Planck. They show that all systems are working well and give a preview of the all-sky images to come."

A new image can be seen online at .

Following launch on May 14, the satellite's subsystems were checked out in parallel with the cool-down of its instruments' detectors. The detectors are looking for temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background, which consists of microwaves from the early universe. The temperature variations are a million times smaller than one degree. To achieve this precision, Planck's detectors have been cooled to extremely low temperatures, some of them very close to the lowest temperature theoretically attainable.

Instrument commissioning, optimization and initial calibration were completed by the second week of August.

During the "first-light" survey, which took place from Aug. 13 to 27, Planck surveyed the sky continuously. It was carried out to verify the stability of the instruments and the ability to calibrate them over long periods to the exquisite accuracy needed. The survey yielded maps of a strip of the sky, one for each of Planck's nine frequencies. Preliminary analysis indicates that the quality of the data is excellent.

Routine operations will now continue for at least 15 months without a break. In this time, Planck will be able to gather data for two full independent all-sky maps. To fully exploit the high sensitivity of Planck, the data will require a great deal of delicate calibrations and careful analysis. The mission promises to contain a treasure trove of data that will keep cosmologists and astrophysicists busy for decades to come.

Planck is a European Space Agency mission, with significant participation from NASA. NASA's Planck Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for both of Planck's science instruments. European, Canadian, U.S. and NASA Planck scientists will work together to analyze the Planck data. More information is online at and .

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Asteroid Juno Grabs the Spotlight

On or before Sept. 21, 2009, look for Juno after midnight a few degrees east of the brighter glow of Uranus and in the constellation PiscesToward the end of September, the sun will turn a spotlight on the asteroid Juno, giving that bulky lump of rock a rare featured cameo in the night sky. Those who get out to a dark, unpolluted sky will be able to spot the asteroid's silvery glint near the planet Uranus with a pair of binoculars.

"It can usually be seen by a good amateur telescope, but the guy on the street doesn't usually get a chance to observe it," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program Office at JPL. "This is going to be as bright as it gets until 2018."

Juno, one of the first asteroids discovered, is thought to be the parent of many of the meteorites that rain on Earth. The asteroid is composed mostly of hardy silicate rock, which is tough enough that fragments broken off by collisions can often survive a trip through Earth's atmosphere.

The asteroid Juno was photographed in 2003 with a special optics system on the Hooker telescope at the Mount Wilson ObservatoryThough pockmarked by bang-ups with other asteroids, Juno is large; in fact, it is the tenth largest asteroid. It measures about 234 kilometers (145 miles) in diameter, or about one-fifteenth the diameter of the moon.

The asteroid, which orbits the sun on a track between Mars and Jupiter, will be at its brightest on Sept. 21, when it is zooming around the sun at about 22 kilometers per second (49,000 miles per hour). At that time, its apparent magnitude will be 7.6, which is about two-and- a-half times brighter than normal. The extra brightness will come from its position in a direct line with the sun and its proximity to Earth. (The asteroid will still be about 180 million kilometers [112 million miles] away, so there is no danger it will fall towards Earth.)

Skywatchers with telescopes can probably see Juno from now until the end of the year, but it is most visible to binoculars in late September. On or before Sept. 21, look for Juno near midnight a few degrees east of the brighter glow of Uranus and in the constellation Pisces. It will look like a gray dot in the sky, and each night at the end of September, it will appear slightly more southwest of its location the night before. By Sept. 25, it will be closer to the constellation Aquarius and best seen before midnight.

For more information: .

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NASA, Partners Celebrate First Anniversary of Vital Air Quality Communications Resource in Mesoamerica, Caribbean

SERVIR's Smog Blog provides timely information about air pollution and its sources throughout Mesoamerica and the CaribbeanNASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and their partners today celebrate the first anniversary of the air quality initiative within SERVIR that delivers in-situ, satellite-based, and modeled air quality data to forecasters, researchers, broadcasters, and communities throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean.

A key component of SERVIR is now the Mesoamerica and Caribbean 'Smog Blog,' which provides timely information about air pollution and its sources in the region. This Smog Blog helps the public, governments and health officials monitor air quality and mitigate health impacts. In the past year of the Smog Blog's implementation, daily reports on air quality have been provided by faculty and students at the University of Panama in Panama City, and staff from the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean, known by its Spanish acronym CATHALAC. The Smog Blog is building on capacity in the region. The team of bloggers is beginning to expand to involve specialists from other institutions in the region.

The SERVIR air quality initiative is part of the broader SERVIR effort. SERVIR is a Spanish acronym for the Regional Visualization & Monitoring System. The SERVIR system integrates the satellite resources of the United States and other countries to put Earth observation data and other tools into action across Mesoamerica. SERVIR is supported by NASA and USAID, which is the foreign assistance agency which works to improve the livelihoods of people in developing countries. Satellites launched and maintained by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provide air quality information of use to the region, as well as information about forest fires, floods and other severe events.

"We are very pleased with our progress during the past 12 months," said NASA researcher Dan Irwin, project director for SERVIR at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "SERVIR is now routinely providing extremely useful air quality information to users throughout the region. Through NASA's successful partnership with CATHALAC, we are helping deliver information to improve the lives of Central America’s 41 million inhabitants."

In addition to the Smog Blog, in-situ data from Panama and forecast data from the Community Multiscale Air Quality Modeling System (CMAQ) also have been integrated recently into SERVIR's air quality component. These tools all help to provide a comprehensive picture of current, historical and future air quality in the region. Through SERVIR, users also can access training materials. Online tutorials are available to teach members of the community to use the satellite data for assessment of air quality. Additionally, help files accessible on the site make complex satellite data easier for users to understand.

SERVIR's tools help to provide a comprehensive picture of current, historical and future air quality in the region"SERVIR's new air quality initiative has been a powerful communication tool serving the entire region," said Emilio Sempris, Director of CATHALAC. "It has improved the everyday lives of our community and aided government agencies as well."

Users in the region concur. "As a newcomer to Panama City, I find SERVIR's Smog Blog extremely useful in looking at the City's overall air quality, so that I can plan my daily trips. I can see when events in other countries are affecting the quality of the air I'm breathing here, and I can even check to see if my family back home in Belize is breathing easy," said Marlon Brown, an international student studying architecture at the University of Panama, and an avid reader of the Smog Blog.

"We hope, by providing additional avenues to share real-time air quality information, to make an impact in improving the quality of life throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean," said Dr. Amy Huff; research scientist for Battelle Memorial Institute, a SERVIR partner based in Columbus, Ohio. "Air quality has had an immense public health impact on this region, and one goal of the SERVIR team is to mitigate health-related issues brought on by poor air quality."

The SERVIR air quality initiative is implemented by CATHALAC, NASA, the University of Panama, Battelle and Baron Advanced Meteorological Systems. NASA, USEPA and USAID have funded the initiative. The Smog Blog builds on an endeavor of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

To read the Mesoamerican and Caribbean Smog Blog, visit:

To learn more about SERVIR and NASA's work to improve real-time earth observation, visit:


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Monday, September 21, 2009

Desert RATS Kicks Into High Gear

Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS)
Fall 2009, Arizona desert

Desert RATS photos from the field!

Desert RATS are back in the Arizona desert to perform a range of mobility tests and extravehicular activity simulations. These tests will demonstrate feasibility of surface operation concepts, including rovers, EVA timelines, and ground support.

The terrain of the Arizona desert provides a testing environment geologically similar to the lunar surface. It is here that NASA first introduced the Lunar Electric Rover, a conceptual vehicle with an extended range and the capability to travel rugged planetary terrain.

List of Teams Participating

Participants from outside of NASA include:
  • The Smithsonian Institution of Washington
  • The United States Geological Survey, in Flagstaff, AZ
  • Arizona State University of Tempe, AZ
  • University of Texas at El Paso
  • University of Colorado Denver
  • Brown University in Providence, RI
  • The Mars Institute in Moffett Field, CA
NASA centers involved include:
  • Johnson Space Center, TX
  • Langley Research Center, VA
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center, both in CA
  • Kennedy Space Center, FL
  • Goddard Space Flight Center, MD
  • Glenn Research Center, OH
  • Marshall Space Flight Center, AL
  • NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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Desert RATS

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NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden speaks to students during a visit to Davis Elementary School, Friday, Sept. 11, 2009, in WashingtonAs part of the September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden visited students at the Davis Elementary School in Washington on Friday. Bolden, along with Principal Joyce Thompson, Youth Service America President Steve Culbertson and Scott Richardson of Learn and Serve America, encouraged the students to focus their educations on math and science.

Bolden stressed how important education is in every aspect of space travel, as well as in our daily lives. As part of the visit, NASA donated science-related education materials to each participating student and brought science, technology, engineering and math curricula for teachers. Scholastic Books also donated a non-fiction book about the Wright Brothers and early flight to all 120 students who took part in Friday’s event. Bolden and one of the students read aloud from the book to the audience.

Bolden also answered questions from this excited audience of young people. He gave demonstrations of how the space shuttle launches into space and lands. He discussed how he came to be the NASA Administrator. He chatted with the students about serving in the military and being an astronaut. And he explained to the students that his parents, who were educators, encouraged him to study math and science at an early age.

In April, President Obama signed the Serve America Act, which officially recognizes Sept. 11 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. President Obama has asked Americans to recommit to uniting in the service of our communities to honor of the heroes of Sept. 11, on this anniversary and in the days, weeks and months ahead. Bolden encouraged the students to use this day to serve their school and community.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Electronic Nose to Return from Space Station

The ENose flew for six months on the International Space Station monitoring the air the astronauts breathedSniffing out any potential contaminants on the International Space Station where it was stationed for the last six months, the JPL-built electronic nose, or ENose, is homeward bound.

While on the space station, the ENose sampled the air with 32 sensors that can detect various odors and pinpoint which ones are dangerous to humans. The sleek, shoebox-sized ENose, the third generation of its kind, monitored the air for 10 contaminants continuously.

"Our six-month test went very well. The ENose identified formaldehyde, Freon 218, methanol and ethanol, but all of them were at harmless levels," said Amy Ryan, principal investigator of the ENose at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Ryan built the ENose at JPL and has managed the project from its early beginnings in 1996. "An instrument like this could one day remain on the Space Station and monitor air quality in real-time."

In the future, the ENose could be used in monitoring crew cabins for vehicles to the moon and other destinations or be stationed on a moon base. Other potential applications include detecting a smoldering fire before it erupts, sniffing for unexploded land mines and monitoring for chemical spills in a work area. There are also possible applications in medical diagnosis.

"A human nose is not always as sensitive to chemicals as the ENose and our noses cannot even detect some hazardous chemicals," said Ryan. "The ENose can smell trouble and give people advance warning before contamination levels cause harm."

The ENose was flown to the International Space Station by the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-126 mission in December 2008. It is set to return home today on the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-128, after its 13-day flight.

For more information on the ENose see: .

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NASA Helps Students Blast Back to School

Start the school year off with NASA educational resourcesAs you get ready for the new school year, consider adding a little space to your class. NASA offers educational resources for use with kindergarten through college, as well as resources for the informal education community. Many of NASA's educational products are quick and easy to find on the NASA Web site. Here are some opportunities and resources to help kick off the new school year.

Click on a category below for a detailed list of NASA opportunities available to you and your students.

> Bring NASA Missions Into Your Classroom
> Bring NASA to Your School and Neighborhood
> Attend a NASA Educator Workshop
> Current Opportunities for Educators and Students
> NASA Resources for Your Classroom
> Especially for Students

Did You Know ...

Educators can search NASA downloadable educational materials online by subject, grade level and product type?
> View site

Educators can receive e-mail messages about new NASA educational products, events and opportunities?
> View site

NASA educational multimedia products may be ordered from the Central Operation of Resources for Educators? Visit the CORE Web site for a catalog of products and ordering information.
> View site

NASA educational programming is available daily on NASA TV?
> View site

An alphabetic list of NASA items of interest to educators is available for browsing?
> View site

Students can play online games that explain each space shuttle mission?
> View site

NASA launches a variety of vehicles from launch sites on both U.S. coasts? Viewers can follow NASA's launches via NASA TV. For a list of key launch dates:
> View site

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NASA Briefings to Unveil Hubble's New Observations

NASA will hold news briefings at 11 a.m. and noon EDT Wednesday, Sept. 9, to release and discuss the first images from the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope. NASA Television and the agency's Web site will provide live coverage of the briefings from NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Space shuttle Atlantis' STS-125 mission upgraded the telescope in May with state-of-the-art science instruments, leaving it more powerful than ever and extending its life into the next decade.

Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator and pilot of space shuttle Discovery on the STS-31 mission that launched Hubble in 1990, will join U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., in the unveiling of the Hubble images during the 11 a.m. briefing. A panel of scientists then will discuss Hubble's new and refurbished instruments and the images they produced.

The participants are:
-- Ed Weiler, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters
-- Bob O'Connell, chair of the science oversight committee for the Wide Field Camera 3 at the University of Virginia
-- James Green, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph principal investigator at the University of Colorado
-- David Leckrone, senior project scientist for Hubble at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
-- Heidi Hammel, senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The briefings will be held in the James E. Webb Memorial Auditorium, 300 E St. S.W., Washington. Reporters also may ask questions from participating NASA locations by phone. To reserve a phone line, journalists should send an e-mail to J.D. Harrington at with their name, media affiliation and telephone number.

The second briefing immediately follows at noon. The STS-125 astronauts will discuss how they enabled Hubble's new capabilities during their historic servicing mission.

Scott Altman commanded Atlantis' crew, which included Pilot Gregory C. Johnson and Mission Specialists Andrew Feustel, Michael Good, John Grunsfeld, Megan McArthur and Mike Massimino.

For more information about NASA TV downlinks and streaming video, visit:

For more information about Hubble, visit:

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Monday, September 14, 2009

NASA Webcast Connects Students with Astronauts, New Hubble Images

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and space shuttle astronauts will participate in live education webcasts on Sept. 8 at 2 p.m. EDT and Sept. 10 at 1 p.m.

On Sept. 8, students will hear insights from Bolden, young agency professionals, and STS-128 mission astronauts Jose M. Hernandez and John D. Olivas about the challenges and successes of their exciting NASA careers.

On Sept. 10, Bolden will join astronauts from the STS-125 Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission to discuss the flight and newly released images from the observatory. Commander Scott Altman, Shuttle Pilot Greg (Ray J) Johnson and Program Scientist Eric Smith will participate.

Webcasts are produced free of charge by the NASA Digital Learning Network. NASA uses the network's capabilities to deliver unique content by linking students and educators with agency experts. The program provides interactive educational experiences for students and teachers from kindergarten through college across the country and around the world.

To view the webcasts on Sept. 8 and 10, visit:

For information about NASA's education programs, visit:

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Titan, seen during Cassini's flyby on March 31, 2005Since its discovery by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655, Saturn's most massive moon, Titan, has been known as a place of mystery and intrigue. The large, cloud-enshrouded moon is such a scientific enigma that for the past five years, it has been targeted by NASAs Cassini spacecraft with more than 60 probing flybys. One of its latest findings could be a valuable asset to future generations of space explorers hunting for materials to whip up a Labor Day barbecue.

"Titan's atmosphere is extremely rich in an assortment of hydrocarbon chemicals, including propane, which we use to fill our barbecue tanks," said Cassini scientist Conor Nixon of the University of Maryland, College Park. "Titan's atmospheric inventory would fuel about 150 billion barbecue cookouts, enough for several thousand years of Labor Days."

For those who are burger, barbecue or Titan challenged, propane is a three-carbon alkane (a chemical compound consisting of carbon and hydrogen), that is non-toxic and heavier than air. With its low boiling point of minus 43.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 42 degrees Centigrade), propane vaporizes as soon as it is released from its pressurized container. Here on Earth, propane is commonly used as a fuel for forklifts, flamethrowers, residential central heating, portable stoves, hot air balloons, and - of course - barbecues. On other worlds propane is an untapped resource.

This gas of many terrestrial uses was first discovered in Titan's atmosphere back in 1980 when NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft flew past the Saturnian system. Over the years, both ground and space-based instruments have added to the research, but accurately quantifying the amount of propane on Titan has proved elusive. Then, in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft entered orbit around Saturn.

Measuring the amount of propane on Titan is important to scientists because the gas is a very complex molecule, and its signature in the infrared spectrum is close to those of several molecules scientists are hoping to discover in Titan's atmosphere.

"It was not so much that measuring propane was our endgame, but it helps enormously in our hunt for other complex molecules," said Nixon. "These include pyrimidines that are potential building blocks for biological molecules, such as the nuceleobases of our DNA." If we can detect them on Titan, that would be very significant."

Artist concept to illustrate propane in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon titan.Propane on Titan was measured using data from Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer instrument. During multiple flybys of the moon between June 2004 and June 2008, the instrument measured infrared light from the edge of Titan's atmosphere. After a detailed analysis of the gas's characteristic 'emission bands' or signature, using computer predictions backed by the latest laboratory research into its infrared spectrum, the Composite Infrared Spectrometer team came up with an estimate of the amount of propane in Titan's atmosphere So exactly how much propane does it take to fire 150 billion cookouts?

"We estimate there are nearly 700 million barrels of propane on Titan, said Nixon. "That is enough to fill six-billion 20-pound tanks of liquefied propane gas. It sounds like a huge amount, but that would satisfy total U.S. consumption of propane for only 18 months."

Which still leaves, with regards to Saturn's biggest moon, one Labor Day staple still to be determined. How many hamburgers could future generations of outer-planet explorers grill using Titan's atmospheric propane?

"A dozen at a time, that's two trillion hamburgers," said Cassini's Nixon, "assuming you stop at medium-well."

Nixon is the lead author on a paper about propane on Titan to be published in an upcoming issue of Planetary and Space Science.

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. Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer team is based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

More information about the Cassini mission is available at or .

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

LRO Takes a First Look at the Apollo 12 Landing Site

LRO image of Apollo 12 LM descent stage and Surveyor 3
Four months after the success of Apollo 11, NASA launched Apollo 12 in November 1969. Almost exactly 40 years later, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has seen the landing site.

Engineering and safety constraints in place for these earliest manned lunar missions dictated landing Apollo 12 at an equatorial site on a flat lava plain (known as maria on the moon). NASA selected a site near where the unmanned Surveyor 3 had landed two years earlier, in western Oceanus Procellarum.

Of course, landing within walking distance of the now inactive robotic lander (operational from April 20 to May 3, 1967) would prove pinpoint landing capability and allow the astronauts to return parts from the Surveyor for engineering assessment. The Surveyor 3 site also provided the opportunity to sample debris from the Copernicus crater impact, and what appeared from crater counts to be relatively young mare basalt.

Astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean piloted Intrepid to a landing within 200 meters of Surveyor 3 on Nov. 14, 1969. During their brief stay of almost 32 hours, the two astronauts performed two moonwalks, each a little less than four hours long.

On the first moonwalk, they deployed an Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP), which returned scientific data directly to Earth for more than seven years. Next, the explorers headed to the northwest to collect soil and rock samples. In all they collected about about 15 kg (about 33 lbs) of lunar samples on this first excursion.

The next day Conrad and Bean headed out on the first lunar geologic traverse. They traveled west, skirting around Head crater, then south to Bench crater. At both locations the astronauts collected rock and soil samples and photographed the interiors of the two craters. After Bench their furthest point (about 400 meters, or 437 yards) from the LM was Sharp crater. Their next goal was a rendezvous with the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, some 450 meters to the East. They extensively documented the condition of the Surveyor and collected hardware samples for terrestrial analysis, providing crucial data for present-day designers of lunar surface hardware.

The Surveyor landed on the interior slope of what was later called Surveyor crater. There was some worry that as the astronauts removed parts for return to the Earth the spacecraft might slide downhill, so they always stayed up-slope. The iconic image of the Apollo astronaut examining the Surveyor with the LM in the background reminds us of the important role that both robots and humans can play in planetary exploration.

In all, the Apollo 12 crew returned over 32 kg (more than 60 lbs) of lunar samples. From these precious samples scientists learned that the Copernicus crater impact occurred some 810 million years ago; four different types of local basalts were sampled with ages much younger than those from Apollo 11, and a small sample of highlands rock previewed the complexity of the lunar highlands to be sampled on later Apollo missions. All in all Apollo 12 was an incredible success.

Related Links

› LRO images of other Apollo landing sites
› More information on the LROC instrument that captured the images

Supplemental Material

graphic depicting locations of Apollo landings

This graphic shows the approximate locations of the Apollo moon landing sites.

› Larger image
› View animation

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

NASA Partners to Revolutionize Personal Transportation

Unimodal Systems' SkyTran vehicle will test NASA's intelligent control system softwareThe morning commute may never be the same.

NASA officials have signed an agreement with Unimodal Systems, LLC to collaborate on the use of NASA-developed control software and human factors techniques to evaluate acceleration, jerk and vibration of an advanced transportation vehicle system. The control software was originally designed to control robots and other applications. The collaboration will help NASA better understand the software’s usefulness, human performance and safety.

“This collaborative effort is anticipated to help NASA with its aeronautics and space activities, while Unimodal gets to develop the next generation high-speed transportation system,” said Jeffery Smith, deputy chief of the Entrepreneurial Initiatives Division at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “NASA will receive valuable feedback from our systems software usage.”

Per the agreement, Unimodal will contribute its SkyTran vehicle, currently located at NASA Ames Research Park, and its advanced transportation technology; NASA will provide its Plan Execution Interchange Language (PLEXIL) and Universal Executive (UE) software to control the vehicle.

In the future, SkyTran will use small vehicles running on elevated, magnetically levitated (maglev) guideways, which distinguishes it from other railed systems. The vehicles are lightweight, personal compartments that can transport up to three passengers. Travelers board the pod-like vehicles and type their destinations into a small computer. Using intelligent control system software, SkyTran will run non-stop point-to-point service without interrupting the flow of traffic.

These vehicles will eventually travel up to 150 mph and move 14,000 people per hour, both locally and regionally. SkyTran will serve as a feeder system to other transit systems, such as BART and high-speed rail.

"SkyTran’s personal rapid transit has generated serious interest with local, regional and state transportation leaders who are considering funding the building of the Unimodal maglev PRT system in the NASA Research Park,” said Michael Marlaire, director of NASA Research Park at Ames. “This construction and new R&D partnership may usher a new ‘green’ technology maglev PRT system into Silicon Valley."

“We’re working with NASA and aerospace engineers to ensure aerospace-level standards that exceed the safety records of current transportation systems,” explained Christopher Perkins, chief executive officer of Unimodal Systems, LLC, based in NASA Research Park

Both organizations will mutually benefit. NASA will receive feedback on its software’s usefulness in ground-based propulsion systems, while Unimodal will develop a transportation system designed to eliminate traffic congestion, mitigate greenhouse gases and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

“For cities across the nation, SkyTran will create greentech jobs and launch a new era of public-private partnerships that will make public transit affordable to install, and profitable to operate," said Perkins.

For more information about Unimodal SkyTran, visit:

For more information about NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program, and NASA technology infusion activities, visit:

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Satellites and Submarines Give the Skinny on Sea Ice Thickness

Changes to sea ice influence the Arctic's local weather, climate and ecosystemsThis summer, a group of scientists and students — as well as a Canadian senator, a writer, and a filmmaker — set out from Resolute Bay, Canada, on the icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent. They were headed through the Northwest Passage, but instead of opening shipping lanes in the ice, they had gathered to open up new lines of thinking on Arctic science.

Among the participants in the shipboard workshop (hosted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada) was Ron Kwok of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Kwok has long provided checkups on the health of Arctic sea ice — the frozen sea water floating within the Arctic Ocean basin. He also knows that some important clues about ice changes can't be seen from a ship.

Extending the Record

While satellites provide accurate and expansive coverage of ice in the Arctic Ocean, the records are relatively new. Satellites have only monitored sea ice extent since 1973. NASA's Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) has been on the task since 2003, allowing researchers to estimate ice thickness as well.

To extend the record, Kwok and Drew Rothrock of the University of Washington, Seattle, recently combined the high spatial coverage from satellites with a longer record from Cold War submarines to piece together a history of ice thickness that spans close to 50 years.

Analysis of the new record shows that since a peak in 1980, sea ice thickness has declined 53 percent. "It's an astonishing number," Kwok said. The study, published online August 6 in Geophysical Research Letters, shows that the current thinning of Arctic sea ice has actually been going on for quite some time.

Patterns of average winter ice thickness from February to March show thicker ice in 1988 (above), compared to thinner ice averaged from 2003-2008 (below)"A fantastic change is happening on Earth — it's truly one of the biggest changes in environmental conditions on Earth since the end of the ice age," said Tom Wagner, cryosphere program manager at NASA Headquarters. "It's not an easy thing to observe, let alone predict, what might happen next."

Sea ice influences the Arctic's local weather, climate, and ecosystems. It also affects global climate. As sea ice melts, there is less white surface area to reflect sunlight into space. Sunlight is instead absorbed by the ocean and land, raising the overall temperature and fueling further melting. Ice loss puts a damper on the Arctic air conditioner, disrupting global atmospheric and ocean circulation.

To better identify what these changes mean for the future, scientists need a long-term look at past ice behavior. Each year, Arctic ice undergoes changes brought about by the seasons, melting in the summer warmth and refreezing in the cold, dark winter. A single extreme melt or freeze season may be the result of any number of seasonal factors, from storminess to the Arctic Oscillation (variations in atmospheric circulation over the polar regions that occur on time scales from weeks to decades).

But climate is not the same as weather. Climate fluctuates subtly over decades and centuries, while weather changes from day to day and by greater extremes.

"We need to understand the long-term trends, rather than the short-term trends that could be easily biased by short-term changes," Kwok said. "Long-term trends are more reliable indicators of how sea ice is changing with the global and regional climate."

That's why a long-term series of data was necessary. "Even decadal changes can be cyclical, but this decline for more than three decades does not appear to be cyclical," Rothrock said.

All the Ice Counts

Arctic sea ice records have become increasingly comprehensive since the latter half of the 20th century, with records of sea ice anomalies viewed from satellites, ships, and ice charts collected by various countries. Most of that record, kept in the United States by the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, describes the areal extent of sea ice.

But a complete picture of sea ice requires an additional, vertical measurement: thickness. Melting affects more than just ice area; it can also impact ice above and below the waterline. By combining thickness and extent measurements, scientists can better understand how the Arctic ice cover is changing.

Kwok and other researchers used ICESat’s Geoscience Laser Altimeter System to estimate the height of sea ice above the ocean surface. Knowing the height, scientists can estimate how much ice is below the surface.

Buoyancy causes a fraction (about 10 percent) of sea ice to stick out above the sea surface. By knowing the density of the ice and applying "Archimedes' Principle" — an object immersed in a fluid is buoyed by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object — and accounting for the accumulation of snowfall, the total thickness of the ice can be calculated.

In 2008, Kwok and colleagues used ICESat to produce an ice thickness map over the entire Arctic basin. Then in July 2009, Kwok and colleagues reported that multiyear 'permanent' ice in the Arctic Ocean has thinned by more than 40 percent since 2004. For the first time, thin seasonal ice has overtaken thick older ice as the dominant type.

Submarines and Satellites

To put the recent decline in context, Kwok and Rothrock examined the recent five-year record from ICESat in the context of the longer history of ice thickness observed by U.S. Navy submarines.

During the Cold War, the submarines collected upward-looking sonar profiles, for navigation and defense, and converted the information into an estimate of ice thickness. Scientists also gathered profiles during a five-year collaboration between the Navy and academic researchers called the Scientific Ice Expeditions, or "SCICEX," of which Rothrock was a participant. In total, declassified submarine data span nearly five decades—from 1958 to 2000—and cover a study area of more than 1 million square miles, or close to 40 percent of the Arctic Ocean.

Kwok and Rothrock compared the submarine data with the newer ICESat data from the same study area and spanning 2003 to 2007. The combined record shows that ice thickness in winter of 1980 averaged 3.64 meters. By the end of 2007, the average was 1.89 meters.

"The dramatic decrease in multiyear ice coverage is quite remarkable and explains to a large degree the decrease in total ice area and volume," Kwok said.

Rothrock, who has worked extensively with the submarine data, agrees. "This paper shows one of the most compelling signals of global warming with one of the greatest and fastest regional environmental impacts."

Ice Through Human Eyes

While it is critical to keep monitoring the Arctic with satellites and aircraft, Kwok believes there is also a benefit in physically standing in a place and seeing the changes through human eyes—particularly for non-scientists, who do not keep a close watch on sea ice.

The August 2009 workshop in the Northwest Passage brought together an eclectic group of politicians, artists, and scientists to see the ice firsthand. The challenge was to see the problem of a changing Arctic environment from a variety of scientific, political, cultural and human perspectives and to discuss the future of collaborative study in the Arctic. The science of sea ice has implications for people’s livelihoods, for long-established ecosystems, and for opening a new part of the world to exploration and exploitation.

The workshop participants now take their experiences and observations back to warmer climates, where there is sometimes less urgency about ice retreat.

"Sea ice is about more than just hard science; it's a geopolitical and human issue," Kwok noted. "There is a big personal impact when you get away from your desk and see it in person."

Related Links:

> NASA Satellite Reveals Dramatic Arctic Ice Thinning
> Satellites Show Arctic Literally on Thin Ice
> Canada’s Three Oceans project
> Ron Kwok
> Earth Observatory: Sea Ice
> Canada's Three Ocean's project multimedia
> Scientific Ice Expeditions

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

What's Holding Antarctic Sea Ice Back From Melting?

Ozone depletion has caused more intense low pressure systems (shown in blue) to develop over the Amundsen and Ross Seas, while higher pressure systems (red) have developed on the periphery of the Southern OceanGlobal temperatures are increasing. Sea levels are rising. Ice sheets in many areas of the world are retreating. Yet there’s something peculiar going on in the oceans around Antarctica: even as global air and ocean temperatures march upward, the extent of the sea ice around the southern continent isn’t decreasing. In fact, it's increasing.

Since 1979, sea ice volume has decreased in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas, while it has increased in the Ross Sea and around much of the rest of AntarcticaSea ice at the other end of the world has been making headlines in recent years for retreating at a breakneck pace. Satellite measurements show that, on average, Arctic sea ice has decreased by four percent per decade since the late 1970s, explained Claire Parkinson, a cryospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who has been tracking the movements of the ice for 30 years. Antarctic sea ice, in contrast, has expanded northward by about 1 percent — the equivalent to 100,000 square kilometers (38,610 square miles) — per decade.

Why is there such a drastic difference in the behavior of the two poles? Scientists from Goddard and the University of Washington, Seattle, recently described three theories — ozone depletion, changing ocean dynamics, and the flooding of sea ice — for what's happening in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

Dwindling Ozone Levels

The weight of accumulated snowfall can press down on a slab of sea ice until it floods with sea water and refreezes to form a layer of snow-iceIn the 1980s, scientists discovered that emissions of refrigerants and accelerants called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had depleted the ozone layer, especially over Antarctica. Ozone depletion, notorious for permitting more cancer-causing ultraviolet light to reach the surface, has a lesser known impact: It cools the stratosphere, the layer of atmosphere between 10 and 60 kilometers (6 and 37 miles) above the surface.

Since the ozone hole began developing, researchers believe the Antarctic stratosphere has cooled between 2°C and 6°C (3.6°F and 10.8°F). Such cooling changes the dynamics between the stratosphere and lower layers of the atmosphere and strengthens Antarctica's already fierce winds.

Ever since mariners first attempted to navigate the Southern Ocean, the region has been notorious for its powerful and stormy cyclonic winds during the winter. The "polar vortex" whips around the Southern Ocean and produces sustained periods of freezing temperatures unlike any other place in the world.

Since 1980, the strength of the polar vertex has intensified by about 15 percent due to ozone depletion. The loss of ozone caused atmospheric pressure to decrease over the Amundsen Sea, thereby strengthening the winds on the Ross Ice Shelf, according to NASA Goddard scientist Josefino Comiso, coauthor of a recent study that models the connection between ozone, wind speeds, and climate in the Antarctic. The changes help explain one of the paradoxes of the Antarctic: while sea ice in some areas is growing rapidly, it's retreating at a rapid pace in others.

The new model suggests that colder, stormier, and faster winds are rushing over the waters encircling Antarctic — especially the Ross Sea, where ice growth has been the most rapid. The winds create areas of open water near the coast – known as polynyas – that promote sea ice production.

At the same time, warmer air from higher pressure systems are simultaneously encroaching upon the Antarctic Peninsula, one sliver of the continent that is experiencing rapid warming.

Since the late-1970s, the area covered by Antarctic sea ice has increased by approximately one percent per decade."We see a very mixed pattern of both melting and ice growth in the Antarctic," said Thorsten Markus, head of NASA Goddard's Cryospheric Sciences Branch. "Changes in the cyclonic pattern due to the ozone hole are one of the best explanations we have."

A More Stratified Southern Ocean

Changes in ocean circulation may also play a role. Jinlun Zhang, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, has pieced together a complex computer model that helps explain why Antarctic sea ice is expanding even with signs that ocean and air temperatures are on the rise. The key is that warming temperatures can lead to more stratified ocean layers.

In the Southern Ocean, there’s a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Normally, convection causes the two layers to mix and exchange water, a process that brings heat from the lower layers to the surface layer and ultimately helps keep sea ice expansion in check. This transfer of heat is the primary reason that first-year ice in the Antarctic is much thinner than in the Arctic.

But if global air temperatures warm, the model indicates that the amount of rain and snowfall could increase, and surface waters could freshen. Since fresh water is less dense and less apt to mix with the heavier, saltier, and warmer water below, the layer at the ocean's surface could become more stratified and mix less. This, in turn, would reduce the amount of heat flowing upward, allowing surface ice to expand.

Field measurements suggest that there has been a marked freshening of some parts of the Southern Ocean. Researchers from Columbia University, New York City, have detailed a freshening in the Ross Sea, and a recent study shows that the Antarctic-Australian Bottom Water has freshened somewhat since the mid-1990s. Still, Zhang cautions that scientists can’t yet say without qualification that all of the Southern Ocean is freshening.

"Though the limited data available does suggest wide-scale freshening, we need more data to confirm this," he said. NASA’s Aquarius instrument, which will launch on Argentina's SAC-D satellite in 2010, will perform global measurements of ocean salinity and should help provide such data.

Flooded Sea Ice Turns Snow to Ice

A map of the Southern Ocean’s salinity since 1979 shows a marked decrease – or freshening (shown in blue) – in certain parts of the Ross, Bellingshausen, Amundsen, and Weddell SeasWater-logged sea ice is the third phenomenon that may explain why sea ice in the Antarctic is increasing. The process, which scientists call "snow-to-ice conversion," occurs when the weight of accumulated snow presses down on a slab of sea ice until it's nearly submerged. When that happens, waves cause ocean water to spill on top of the ice and into the snow, forming a layer that eventually freezes and becomes "snow ice."

"You can add eight-to-ten centimeters to the thickness of sea ice each time this happens," said Markus. Though this process doesn't directly affect sea ice extent as observed over short time periods, some scientists believe it may have an impact on ice extent over the course of a full season.

Ice formed in this manner isn’t easy to distinguish without performing tests on isotopes, yet scientists believe thickening from snow ice is ubiquitous around Antarctica. Researchers have discovered it on Antarctic pack ice in all regions and during all seasons, with the most snow ice formation occurring in the Eastern Ross and Amundsen Seas. One study suggests that snow-ice constitutes as much as 38 percent of the sea ice mass in these areas. However, such numbers are difficult to pin down definitively, given the complexities of field research in the extreme conditions of the continent.

"We’ve made some progress," said Markus, "but in the next few years, I think we're going to see much more detailed measurements of the flooding of the snow-ice interface."

Related Links:

> Atmospheric Circulation Change Induced by Stratospheric Ozone Depletion and Its Role in the Recent Increase of Antarctic Sea Ice Extent
> Antarctic Sea Ice
> Arctic and Antarctic Sea Ice Marching to Different Drivers
> Sea Ice May Be on Increase in the Antarctic: A Phenomenon Due to a Lot of "Hot Air"

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Science Instruments Ready for SOFIA Airborne Telescope

The SOFIA airborne observatory's 2.5-meter infrared telescope peers out from the SOFIA 747SP's rear fuselage during nighttime line operations testingScientists are busy preparing for the "First Light" flight of NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, a highly modified Boeing 747SP with a 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) diameter infrared telescope installed in its rear fuselage. The first-light astronomical observation flights are now tentatively scheduled for Spring 2010 from NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.

A team of international partners is developing eight instruments that will enable SOFIA to study the universe primarily in the infrared spectral band, but with capabilities extending from wavelengths of 0.3 to 1600 microns, across ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and sub-millimeter ranges.

"Working with our German colleagues, we are eagerly anticipating SOFIA's First Light flight," said Erick Young, SOFIA's recently appointed director of Science and Mission Operations. "SOFIA will be a discovery engine for the next 20 years, and our collaborator teams have spent a number of years perfecting these powerful scientific instruments."

The German-built 2.5-meter infrared telescope is nestled in its cavity in the SOFIA airborne observatoryFour of the new instruments are now ready for use on the airborne observatory. They include:
  • The Faint Object infraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, or FORCAST, a mid-infrared camera developed at New York's Cornell University that operates at wavelengths of 5-40 microns;
  • A heterodyne spectrometer called the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies or GREAT, which operates at 60-200 microns. GREAT was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy, Bonn, Germany;
  • The Lowell Observatory's High-Speed Imaging Photometer for Occultations, or HIPO, which operates in the 0.3 to 1.1 micron range;
  • The Far-Infrared Field-Imaging Line Spectrometer, or FIFI-LS, that operates from 42 to 210 microns, FIFI-LS was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, in Garching, Germany.
Several other instruments will be installed later. They include:
  • The CAltech Submillimeter Interstellar Medium Investigations Receiver, or CASIMIR, another heterodyne spectrometer. CASIMIR operates in the 250-600 micron range, and The Lowell Observatory's High-speed Imaging Photometer for Occultation rests on its dolly in the lab prior to installation on the SOFIA airborne observatoryis being built at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena;
  • The High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera or HAWC, a far-infrared bolometer camera that functions in the 50-240 micron range, developed by the University of Chicago;
  • Echelon-Cross-Echelle Spectrograph, or EXES, an echelon spectrometer under construction at the University of California in Davis that operates between five and 28 microns; and
  • The First Light Infrared Test Experiment CAMera, or FLITECAM, a near-infrared camera in the one-to-five micron range being developed at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Three of the first nine instruments have been thoroughly tested on ground-based telescopes – HIPO at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., FLITECAM at the University of California's Lick Observatory, and FORCAST on Caltech's Mt. Palomar five-meter telescope. HIPO has also been mounted on SOFIA's telescope and used to observe celestial objects from the ground to test the observatory's systems during line operations in Palmdale in late 2008. FORCAST is slated for installation for SOFIA's First Light flight, when photons from a celestial object come down the telescope tube for the first time while the aircraft is airborne.

GREAT, which has been tested in a lab environment, awaits its flight opportunity where it will be able to demonstrate its capabilities. This spectrometer has not yet been tested onboard SOFIA because it analyzes infrared wavelengths that are entirely inaccessible from the ground.

SOFIA will fly with one instrument fitted to the telescope for each airborne observation period.

When flying science missions, SOFIA cruises between 39,000 and 45,000 feet at a speed of Mach 0.8 – about 520 mph – on seven- to nine-hour observing flights. When in full operation, the observatory will typically fly three nights per week for approximately 1,000 hours of observing time each year.

SOFIA's telescope weighs 34,000 pounds and was built in Germany by MAN Technologie AG and Kayser-Threde GmbH. It has an elevation range of 20 to 60 degrees above the horizon, and a clear, undistorted field-of-view diameter of 8 arc minutes – about a quarter the diameter of the full moon.

SOFIA is the successor to NASA's extremely successful Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a modified Lockheed C-141 fitted with a one-meter infrared telescope that operated from NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., from 1974 to 1995.The Kuiper observatory discovered the rings around the planet Uranus, the atmosphere surrounding the planet Pluto, and the presence of water vapor in the interstellar medium.

The new SOFIA observatory is a joint NASA and German Space Agency (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR) program. The development program is currently managed at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif. with the aircraft based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale. NASA's Ames Research Center manages SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association and the Deutsches SOFIA Institute in Stuttgart, Germany.

To learn more about SOFIA, visit these Web sites:

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

NASA Extends Space Station Cargo Integration Contract

NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems Inc. in Houston a one-year contract extension valued at $33 million to provide integration services for cargo delivery to and from the International Space Station.

Lockheed Martin has held the station's cargo mission contract since January 2004. The one-year extension will bring the total value of the contract to $381 million.

The contract provides cargo packing for delivery to and from the space station, consisting of pressurized and unpressurized science and logistics carriers, assembly hardware and crew support. Other contract services include determining the most efficient way to pack cargo, verifying the adequacy of the integrated carriers, packing the pressurized cargo into sub-carriers and returning the cargo to providers once it returns to Earth. The contract also provides sustaining engineering for NASA carriers.

The extension begins Oct. 1, 2009. It is the second of two such options provided for in the original contract.

Major subcontractors include Astrium GmbH in Bremen, Germany; Bastion Technologies Inc. in Houston; BAE Systems in Fayetteville, Ga.; Futron Corporation in Bethesda, Md.; LZ Technology Inc. in Alvin, Texas; MEI Technologies, Inc. in Houston; Oceaneering Space Systems in Houston, Rothe Enterprises, Inc. in San Antonio; SPACEHAB Inc. in Houston; System Studies and Simulation, Inc. in Huntsville, Ala.; Teledyne Brown Engineering, Inc. in Huntsville, Ala.; and United Space Alliance, LLC in Houston. The work will be performed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

For more information about the space station, visit:

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New Vision for 'Eyes on the Earth' 3D

Enhanced capabilities of NASA's Eyes on the Earth visualization tool include displays of the recent data maps of ozone, sea level or carbon dioxide and a video tourNASA’s “Eyes on the Earth 3D” is back and better than ever before. This online experience now offers new features that allow users to view the latest data beamed back from NASA space satellites – in some cases, less than a few hours old. Developed using a state-of-the-art, browser-based visualization technology, "Eyes on the Earth 3D" displays the location of all of NASA's 15 currently operating Earth-observing missions in real time. These missions constantly monitor our planet's vital signs, such as sea level height, concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, global temperatures and extent of sea ice in the Arctic, to name but a few. By using the new toolbar on the left of the screen, users can display the latest data maps of ozone, sea level or carbon dioxide. Also new is a video tour hosted by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Amber Jenkins, who introduces many of the site’s in-depth features and capabilities. Users can:
  • Fly along with a satellite as it sweeps the Earth below in accelerated time.
  • Compare the size of each spacecraft to a car or a scientist.
  • Blast through a global carbon dioxide map to uncover some of the world's most populous and polluting cities in the interactive game, "Metropolis."
Click here to launch “Eyes on the Earth 3D” in your web browser.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

NASA Researcher Nets First Measure of Africa's Coastal Forests

NASA researcher Lola Fatoyinbo (left), seen here in June 2005 on the site where she conducted some of her field measurementsImpoverished fishermen along the coast of tropical African countries like Mozambique and Madagascar may have only a few more years to eke out a profit from one of their nations’ biggest agricultural exports. Within a few decades, they may no longer have a livelihood at all.

That's because swampy mangrove forests – essential breeding grounds for fish and shellfish in these countries – are being destroyed by worsening pollution, encroaching real estate development, and deforestation necessary to sustain large-scale commercial shrimp farming.

The decline of these forests threatens much of Africa’s coastal food supply and economy. The destruction of mangroves -- one of Earth’s richest natural resources – also has implications for everything from climate change to biodiversity to the quality of life on Earth. Growing up in Cotonou, Benin, environmental scientist Lola Fatoyinbo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) passed polluted mangroves daily. Inspired to help save the forests, she began a mission as a graduate student in the United States to gain more insight about African mangroves.

Her studies have brought her back to Africa, where she has journeyed along the coastlines to test a new satellite technique for measuring the area, height, and biomass of mangrove forests. She developed and employed a method that can be used across the continent, overcoming expensive, ad hoc, and inconsistent modes of ground-based measurement. Fatoyinbo’s approach recently produced what she believes is the first full assessment of the continent’s mangrove forests.

“We’ve lost more than 50 percent of the world’s mangrove forests in a little over half a century; a third of them have disappeared in the last 20 years alone," said Fatoyinbo, whose earlier study of Mozambique’s coastal forests laid the groundwork for the continent-wide study. "Hopefully this technique will offer scientists and officials a method of estimating change in this special type of forest.”

An Ecosystem Apart

Mangroves are the most common ecosystem in coastal areas of the tropics and sub-tropics. The swampy forests are essential -- especially in densely-populated developing countries -- for rice farming, fishing and aquaculture (freshwater and saltwater farming), timber, and firewood. Some governments also increasingly depend on them for eco-tourism.

The large, dense root systems are a natural obstacle that helps protect shorelines against debris and erosion. Mangroves are often the first line of defense against severe storms, tempering the impact of strong winds and floods.

These coastal woodlands also have a direct link to climate, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere at a rate of about 100 pounds per acre per day – comparable to the per acre intake by tropical rainforests (though rainforests cover more of Earth’s surface).

“To my knowledge, this study is the first complete mapping of Africa’s mangroves, a comprehensive, historic baseline enabling us to truly begin monitoring the welfare of these forests,” said Assaf Anyamba, a University of Maryland-Baltimore County expert on vegetation mapping, based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Climbing the Right Tree

Fatoyinbo’s research combines multiple satellite observations of tree height and land cover, mathematical formulas, and “ground-truthing” data from the field to measure the full expanse and makeup of the coastal forests.

Her measurements yielded three new kinds of maps of mangroves: continental maps of how much land the mangroves cover; a three-dimensional map of the height of forest canopies across the continent; and biomass maps that allow researchers to assess how much carbon the forests store.

“Beyond density or geographical size of the forests, the measurements get to the heart of the structure, or type, of mangroves," explained Fatoyinbo. "It’s that trait – forest type – that drives which forests land managers target for agriculture, conservation, and habitat suitability for animals and people.”

Fatoyinbo's height map of Gabon's mangrove forest canopy, left image, indicates heights ranging from 0 to 40 meters. In the right image, Fatoyinbo used Google Earth software to overlay the same three dimensional height map of Gabon's mangroves.
> View larger image

Fatoyinbo’s height map of Gabon’s mangrove forest canopy (left image) indicates heights ranging from 0 to 40 meters. In the right image, Fatoyinbo used Google Earth software to overlay the same three-dimensional height map of Gabon’s mangroves.

Fatoyinbo and colleague Marc Simard of JPL used satellite images from the NASA-built Landsat and a complex software-based color classification system to distinguish areas of coastal forests from other types of forests, urban areas or agricultural fields. They also integrated data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) to create relief maps of the height of the forest canopy. Finally, they merged the broad radar maps with high-accuracy observations from a light detection and ranging (commonly called lidar) instrument aboard NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) to obtain accurate height estimates.

Fatoyinbo double-checked the accuracy of her satellite measurements at the ground level in the only way possible: She went to Africa to measure tree heights and trunk diameters in person. Using a hand-held instrument called a clinometer and a simple trigonometry formula, Fatoyinbo visited Mozambique, measured the trees, and found she indeed had very accurate measurements of the forests.

Preserving the Forest for the Trees

Mangroves are hardy and adaptable forests that can thrive under extreme heat, very high salt levels, and swampy soil. Rampant clearing for agriculture and construction, soil toxicity, and long-term oil and sewage pollution, however, are increasingly threatening their survival and more than 1,300 animal species in ways that nature cannot.

“The United States’ largest mangrove forests, Florida’s Everglades, are largely protected now and recognized as an endangered natural resource,” explained Fatoyinbo. “But in many other places, resource managers lack solid monitoring capabilities to counter mangrove exploitation. Better mangrove monitoring will, I hope, mean better management and preservation.”

Free satellite data can help ease the problems of money, logistics, and political instability that can prevent mangrove preservation. For that reason, Anyamba and Fatoyinbo are working to convince the United Nations Environment Program and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to include the study’s data in their environmental assessments.

The new technique also distinguishes itself, added Anyamba, “as an excellent example of how we can use different remote sensing technologies together to address science questions and global social issues.”

Related Links:

> Fatoyinbo’s original study on mangrove measurements in Mozambique, Journal of Geophysical Research
> More about NASA’s Lola Fatoyinbo
> Scientists Find Climate Change to Have Paradoxical Effects on Coastal Wetlands
> Rice Farming in Mangroves, Guinea-Bissau
> Mangroves Along Bombetoka Bay, Madagascar
> NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission
> NASA’s ICESat Mission

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