Thursday, July 30, 2009

NASA's Spitzer Images Out-of-This-World Galaxy

The NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has imaged a wild creature of the dark -- a coiled galaxy with an eye-like object at its center.

The galaxy, called NGC 1097, is located 50 million light-years away. It is spiral-shaped like our Milky Way, with long, spindly arms of stars. The "eye" at the center of the galaxy is actually a monstrous black hole surrounded by a ring of stars. In this color-coded infrared view from Spitzer, the area around the invisible black hole is blue and the ring of stars, white.

The black hole is huge, about 100 million times the mass of our sun, and is feeding off gas and dust along with the occasional unlucky star. Our Milky Way's central black hole is tame by comparison, with a mass of a few million suns.

"The fate of this black hole and others like it is an active area of research," said George Helou, deputy director of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "Some theories hold that the black hole might quiet down and eventually enter a more dormant state like our Milky Way black hole."

The ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation. An inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy is causing the ring to light up with new stars.

"The ring itself is a fascinating object worthy of study because it is forming stars at a very high rate," said Kartik Sheth, an astronomer at NASA's Spitzer Science Center. Sheth and Helou are part of a team that made the observations.

In the Spitzer image, infrared light with shorter wavelengths is blue, while longer-wavelength light is red. The galaxy's red spiral arms and the swirling spokes seen between the arms show dust heated by newborn stars. Older populations of stars scattered through the galaxy are blue. The fuzzy blue dot to the left, which appears to fit snuggly between the arms, is a companion galaxy.

"The companion galaxy that looks as if it's playing peek-a-boo through the larger galaxy could have plunged through, poking a hole," said Helou. "But we don't know this for sure. It could also just happen to be aligned with a gap in the arms."

Other dots in the picture are either nearby stars in our galaxy, or distant galaxies.

This image was taken during Spitzer's "cold mission," which lasted more than five-and-a-half years. The telescope ran out of coolant needed to chill its infrared instruments on May 15, 2009. Two of its infrared channels will still work perfectly during the new "warm mission," which is expected to begin in a week or so, once the observatory has been recalibrated and warms to its new temperature of around 30 Kelvin (about minus 406 degrees Fahrenheit).

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. Spitzer's infrared array camera, which made the observations, was built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The instrument's principal investigator is Giovanni Fazio of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

For more information about Spitzer, visit http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/spitzer and http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer .

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A 21st Century-Style Return to the Moon

The three Apollo 11 crew men await pickup by a helicopter from the USS Hornet, prime recovery ship for the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing missionMembers of the 920th Rescue Wing work on a mockup Orion crew exploration vehicle off the coast of Port Canaveral, Fla.It was an extraordinary feat when Apollo engineers designed a spacecraft to go somewhere no human had ever gone before. Especially when that place was the moon - 240,000 miles from Earth. Now forty years after the first moon landing, NASA has turned its attention back to lunar missions, this time planning to stay longer.

The spacecraft to carry future explorers to the moon, the Orion crew exploration vehicle, looks very similar to the Apollo spacecraft. The crew module borrows the familiar conical shape with a curved heatshield, which has proven to be the optimal shape for missions returning from the moon.

Additionally, Orion and Apollo both use the same heat-resistant thermal material, called AVCOAT, to shield the capsules from heat generated by the 25,000 mile-per-hour atmosphere re-entry from missions to the moon.

However, the Orion crew module is one-third larger than the Apollo command module and the inside will be different. Engineers will incorporate advances in technology into the interior and since the plan for missions to the moon is different, different types of systems are being designed also.

When Apollo astronauts visited the moon, they only stayed for a few days at a time, three astronauts traveled to lunar orbit on Apollo, and then only two descended to the moon’s surface.

When America returns to the moon, four astronauts will ride in Orion to lunar orbit and then all of them will move into the Altair lunar lander to go explore the moon. Orion will operate on its own in lunar orbit, standing by for the return trip to Earth.

Orion will start out supporting week-long missions and then will be able to support up to 210-day missions when astronauts eventually live and work at outposts on the moon.

Being able to operate autonomously in lunar orbit will be a key factor in Orion being able to support longer missions. Its systems will operate automatically, with Mission Control watching from Earth, while the crew explores the moon.

By going to the moon for extended periods of time, astronauts will search for resources and learn how to work safely in a harsh environment -- stepping stones to future exploration. The moon also offers many clues about the time when the planets were formed.

To support longer missions, Orion also will have larger tanks to carry the fuel for course adjustments during the trip and will use advanced solar array technology to collect sunlight for conversion into electricity. Apollo used fuel cell technology (as does the space shuttle), which requires oxygen and hydrogen be carried along for the ride. Using solar arrays saves weight that can be used to enhance safety and launch more cargo.

Orion will have more power, too. It will hold six batteries for power storage and will use a 120V DC power distribution system, compared to Apollo’s three-battery storage and 28V DC system.

Orion’s crew module will feature a streamlined glass cockpit interface for the astronauts, with about ten times fewer switches than Apollo’s roughly 450 switches.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Oceanographer Gene Feldman is Going Home for the First Time

The Galapagos Islands were created by volcanic eruptions and have gone relatively untouched by humans over the past few millennia.It has been 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and 150 since the publication of his world-changing work, On the Origin of Species. It has been 50 years since the creation of the international Charles Darwin Foundation and the establishment of the Galapagos National Park by the government of Ecuador.

And it has been 25 years since Gene Feldman made the cover of Science magazine with his first paper about the living evolutionary and environmental experiment that is the Galapagos archipelago.

Now a NASA oceanographer, Feldman was studying imagery from the Coastal Zone Color Scanner on NASA's Nimbus 7 satellite while working on his doctoral research at the State University of New York. From his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa, Feldman had been curious about why some regions around oceanic islands were more productive than others. His interest was piqued when he learned that there was a NASA satellite that might help unravel the mystery.

After building a data set of some of the first ocean color observations of the region, Feldman and his colleagues believed they saw a strong correlation between the changes in the patterns and abundance of floating marine plants (phytoplankton) during the 1982-83 El NiƱo and the decline of seabirds and fur seals.

What was happening in the sea -- measured by ocean scientists in the currents, temperatures, chemistry, and plankton abundance -- was affecting the life in the water and on land. And all of it was visible, for the first time, from space.

At the time, Feldman wrote: "Satellite ocean color observations, with their synoptic, broad area coverage, place the often limited surface measurements into a broader perspective." Feldman and colleagues have spent the past three decades building on those remote observations of the Galapagos and of the oceans worldwide.

Of all the places in the world, there's no place like the Galapagos. The 19 volcanic islands are relatively new in geologic time, ranging from one to four million years old, with new islands still sprouting. They sit along the equator, between 700 to 1000 kilometers (435 to 621 miles) from the nearest land masses, and the isolation has also made the islands a natural laboratory for evolution.

The Galapagos are most famous for their iguanas, tortoises, blue-footed Boobies and, of course, Darwin's finches. "You'll find tropical, sub-tropical, and almost Antarctic species," Feldman says. "It's the only place where you'll find both penguins and coral reefs."

The marine life is influenced by unique oceanographic conditions. Specifically, the deep "equatorial undercurrent," or Cromwell Current, flows from the middle Pacific and slams into the islands, pushing up cool water and nutrients from the depths and into the shallower waters. Fingers of this water push east, between and beyond the islands, fertilizing the ocean on the leeward side and creating biological abundance and diversity in an area that might otherwise be barren.

For five decades, the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) has been promoting and supporting research to understand and monitor biodiversity in this natural laboratory. From July 20 to 24, CDF will take stock of what has been learned in five decades, bringing together biologists, geologists, oceanographers, and historians for the Galapagos Science Symposium.

Feldman was invited to the symposium, taking him back to where it all began professionally. He has studied the islands from 600 kilometers (372 miles) up in space. He helped established a ground station on the islands to retrieve data from NASA's SeaWifs instrument on Orbital Corporation's SeaStar spacecraft. But he has never been there in person.

After the symposium, Gene will set out with John Morrison of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Stuart Bank of Charles Darwin Research Station, and other colleagues for a short research cruise. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, NASA, and CDF, the team will conduct a systematic study of the oceanographic conditions that make the waters around Galapagos so fertile for life and the evolution of it. They will also look for signals of climate change and how it affects marine ecosystems.

Divers will map habitat and survey the reefs. Water sampling instruments will examine water chemistry, temperature, and the concentration of plankton. And, of course, remote sensing eyes from Feldman's beloved satellites will capture the big picture. Throughout the trip, Gene will share his experiences through a series of blog entries on the NASA Earth Observatory.

He hopes to follow in Darwin’s footsteps and in the HMS Beagle’s wake. He has been reading the journals of Darwin and of Beagle Captain Robert Fitzroy -- not just the published accounts, but the original, hand-written notebooks and logs. He has been reading the accounts of 19th century whalers who frequented the area. He wants his 2009 trip to be his own voyage of discovery.

"I feel like I know the Galapagos so well, but I also know that I don’t know them at all."

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dryden Flight Research Center's Contributions to Apollo's Moon Landing Success

The late Joseph Algranti maneuvers the first Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, or LLRV, over Edwards Air Force Base' South Base ramp area on Aug. 19, 1966.NASA's Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base (renamed the Dryden Flight Research Center), generally thought of as an aeronautical flight-test facility in the 1960s, made a number of contributions to the NASA space program during that era as well.

For example, researchers explored the concept of paraglider landings for a space vehicle and the use of wingless spacecraft that could glide to precise landings, but it was the X-15 hypersonic research program and the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle that had the most direct impact on the Apollo missions to the Moon.

The North American Aviation X-15 rocket planes--designed to explore the problems of atmospheric and space flight at supersonic and hypersonic speeds--served as flying laboratories, carrying scientific experiments above the reaches of the atmosphere. Many research results from the X-15 program at Dryden Flight Research Center contributed directly to the success of the Apollo lunar missions, now being celebrated on the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20, 1969. North American – later North American Rockwell, then Rockwell International – served as prime contractor for both the X-15 and Apollo Command/Service Module spacecraft.

Designers of the Apollo CSM drew upon experience from the X-15 program, and even used the X-15 as a test bed for new materials. Advanced titanium and nickel-steel alloys developed for the X-15 were used in the Apollo and later spacecraft designs. The discovery of localized hot spots on the X-15, for example, led to development of a bi-metallic 'floating retainer' concept to dissipate stresses in the X-15's windshield. This technology was subsequently applied to the Apollo and space shuttle orbiter windshields.

The X-15's performance allowed researchers to accurately simulate the aerodynamic heating conditions that the Apollo Saturn rocket would face, and allowed full recovery of test equipment, calibration of results, and repeated testing where necessary. In 1967, technicians applied samples of cryogenic insulation--designed for use on the Apollo Saturn V second stage--to the X-15's speed brakes to test the material's adhesive characteristics and response to high temperatures.

X-15 re-entry experience and heat-transfer data were also valuable, and led to design of a computerized mathematical model for aerodynamic heating that was used in the initial Apollo design study. Lessons learned from X-15 turbulent heat-transfer studies contributed to the design of the Apollo CSM because designers found that they could build lighter-weight vehicles using less thermal protection than was previously thought possible.

Following the challenge by president John F. Kennedy in 1962 to land on the moon, two groups began working on a way to prepare astronauts for the critical descent and landing on the moon. The problems facing them were considerable: how to build a free-flying simulator that could negate 5/6ths of the Earth's gravity while entirely eliminating the effects of the atmosphere, since the moon had no atmosphere and only 1/6th of Earth's gravity.

Ideas for this unique type of flying machine had begun circulating at Dryden Flight Research Center, a year earlier. Center engineers initially didn't know that Bell Aircraft Company, later Bell Aerosystems, was also working on the task, but by the end of the year, the center had awarded a study contract to Bell. Bell was the only firm in the United States that had significant experience developing vertical takeoff aircraft using jet lift for takeoff and landing. After winning a contract from the center to design and build the machines in 1963, Bell delivered two Lunar Landing Research Vehicles or LLRVs--often called 'flying bedsteads' due to their ungainly appearance--to the Flight Research Center in 1964 for flight testing and development.

The LLRV had a jet engine hung vertically in the middle of the frame, fixed inside two gimbals, allowing the vehicle itself to rotate as much as 40 degrees in any direction while the jet remained vertically aligned. A series of hydrogen peroxide thrusters, eight around the frame's center and four at each corner, provided lunar simulation thrust that the pilot controlled.

Three analog computers took data on side forces and vehicle weight and produced just enough jet thrust so that, in lunar simulation, the LLRV descended as though in lunar gravity. Any gusts of wind were cancelled when the computers sensed them and fired thrusters to automatically cancel the wind. There were no mechanical links between the pilot and the engine or thrusters: everything was sent to the computers that, in turn, commanded the thrust desired.

During flight tests, a pilot directed the LLRV to climb about 300 feet, initiated lunar simulation mode, and then had less than eight minutes to complete a safe descent. Research flying over the next two-and-half years yielded a configuration suitable for astronaut training, and Bell subsequently built three similar craft--Lunar Landing Training Vehicles--that were sent to the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, now the Johnson Space Center. One of the LLRVs at the Flight Research Center was also sent to Houston for the training.

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong recalled later that his landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 was a familiar job because of the LLTV’s authenticity.

As a side note, today's aircraft with fly-by-wire digital electronic control systems trace their lineage to the LLRV and its analog computers, and to the engineers who worked on that project. They cut their teeth on computer-controlled flight systems with the LLRV, allowing them the confidence to modify an F-8 jet fighter into the first aircraft with pure digital fly-by-wire electronic controls.

Partially restored by a movie company in the late 1990s, one of the two original Lunar Landing Research Vehicles remains on sheltered display today at NASA Dryden.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Mystery Source of Solar Wind Heating Identified

The solar wind, shown here in a plot of data from the Ulysses spacecraft, flows away from the sun at a million miles per hour and is heated by a turbulent cascade.The solar wind is hotter than it should be, and for decades researchers have puzzled over the unknown source of energy that heats it. In a paper published in the June 12 issue of Physical Review Letters, NASA scientists say they may have found the answer.

"The energy source is turbulence," says co-author Melvyn Goldstein, chief of the Geospace Physics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "The sun heats the solar wind by stirring it up."

It's a bit like stirring your coffee--in reverse. When you stir your morning cup of Joe, the coffee cools off. But when the sun stirs the solar wind, the solar wind heats up.

The basic concept introduced by physicist Lewis Richardson in 1920.A true cascade of water and turbulence at the Iguazu Falls in Argentina.Jupiter's swirling Great Red Spot surrounded by turbulent swirls and eddies.Consider the coffee. When you stir it with a spoon, the stirring produces swirls and vortices in the liquid. The vortices fragment into smaller and smaller eddies until, at the smallest scales, the motions dissipate and the energy turns into heat. Because energy cascades down from the large swirls to the smaller ones, the process is called a turbulent cascade.

Theoretically, the turbulent cascade should heat the coffee. Real coffee cools off, however, because the act of stirring brings warm coffee from the depths of the cup into contact with cooler air above. Cool air absorbs the heat—the heat the coffee had to begin with plus the heat you added by stirring—and you can take a sip without scalding yourself.

But there is no cool air in space, and therein lies the difference between coffee and solar wind.

The sun stirs the solar wind with fast streams of gas that pour out of holes in the sun's atmosphere. Essentially, the solar wind stirs itself. The stirring produces swirls and eddies; larger eddies break into smaller ones, producing a cascade of energy that eventually dissipates as heat. The temperature shoots up and there is no cool air to stop it.

"We've suspected for years that turbulence heats the solar wind," says Fouad Sahraoui, lead author of the paper and a visiting NASA Fellow from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France. "Now we're getting detailed measurements of the process in action."

The key data came from a quartet of European spacecraft collectively known as Cluster, launched in 2000 to study the giant bubble of magnetism that surrounds Earth. The magnetosphere protects our planet from solar wind and cosmic rays. It contains the Van Allen radiation belts, auroras, and giant electrical "ring currents" of staggering power. Cluster spends much of its time inside the magnetosphere, where the spacecraft can study the wide variety of phenomena at work there.

One day in March 2006, the four spacecraft took a brief excursion outside the bubble into the solar wind. For three hours, their sensors made rapid-fire measurements of electromagnetic waves and turbulent eddies in the million-kilometer-per-hour gas flowing past them.

"That was when we made the discovery," says Goldstein. "Turbulent energy was cascading from large scale structures around 1,000,000 kilometers (621,400 miles) in size all the way down to structures as small as 3 kilometers (1.8 miles). At the small end of the cascade, energy was absorbed by electrons in the solar wind."

Sahraoui and Goldstein would like to confirm their findings and flesh out the details by sending Cluster back into the solar wind for more than "three lucky hours." But the basic result seems solid enough: Turbulent heating boosts the temperature of the solar wind near Earth from tens of thousands of degrees (the value theoreticians expect) to hundreds of thousands or more.

Goldstein says such turbulent heating probably happens in many other astrophysical situations, from stellar winds to planetary magnetospheres to black holes. There's even a down-to-Earth application: nuclear fusion reactors. Turbulence inside experimental fusion chambers can produce instabilities that destroy the confinement of the fusion plasma.

"The solar wind is a natural laboratory for understanding this physics," says Sahraoui, "and we are planning more observations to see how common the phenomenon might be."

Related Links:

Cluster – home page
http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/area/index.cfm?fareaid=8

Cluster's insight into space turbulence – press release
http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/object/index.cfm?fobjectid=44480

The Solar Wind – a tutorial
http://solarscience.msfc.nasa.gov/SolarWind.shtml

Evidence of a Cascade and Dissipation of Solar-Wind Turbulence at the Electron Gyroscale, F. Sahraoui et al, Phys. Rev. Lett. 102, 231102 (2009)
http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=PRLTAO000102000023231102000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=yes

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Taking Flight To Seek Out The Least Understood Climate Driver

The High Spectral Resolution Lidar on the B200 captured this measurement of backscatter from aerosols on a flight from the Gulf Coast near Houston back to Oklahoma.Earth’s atmosphereA NASA research plane spent the month of June crisscrossing the southern Great Plains in search of more detailed information on the least understood variable in long-term climate change scenarios.

Tiny suspended particles are nearly everywhere in the atmosphere, and what we see as dust, smoke, soot or haze in the sky scientists study collectively as aerosols. Some aerosols are easy to see with the naked eye, however, they have proven difficult to pin down in terms of their impact on the climate and, in the long run, climate change.

The month of flights – from a Department of Energy Climate Research Facility near Ponca City, Oklahoma – were conducted in part to help evaluate algorithms to be used in the upcoming Glory mission as well as to address NASA’s larger goal of getting a tighter grip on the important but poorly quantified impact of aerosols on climate. A team from NASA’s Langley Research Center flew the center’s B200 plane for the research flights. The B200 was outfitted with a lidar instrument which measures vertical profiles of aerosols and an instrument called a polarimeter, developed by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that measures polarized light scattered by aerosols to gather more accurate details about the size, shape and composition of aerosols.

Aerosols directly affect Earth’s energy budget – the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation – by absorbing and scattering incoming solar rays. That impact is understood only within a large margin of uncertainty. Aerosols also influence cloud formation. The microscopic particles help form water and ice clouds and can change cloud properties – often leading to greater cloud cover and a cooling effect. This indirect effect has been even harder to measure and model than the direct effect. It accounts for the largest uncertainty in models used for predicting future climate, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report. This finding led the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), in a report released in January 2009, to state the case for much-needed improvements in both measuring and modeling aerosols in the atmosphere including their interactions with clouds. The commonly accepted range of potential surface temperature increase over the course of a century – assuming a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide – is 1.2 degrees to 4.7 degrees Celsius. Most of the temperature increase should occur in the latter part of the century. The majority of the uncertainty that leads to that wide range in the prediction of heating is due to unknowns about the impact of aerosols.

“Such a range is too wide to meaningfully predict the climate response to greenhouse gases,” the CCSP report concluded.

The flights in Oklahoma were designed to offer a closer look at aerosol-cloud interactions and see how the airborne polarimeter – called the Research Scanning Polarimeter (RSP) – and lidar – called the High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL) – could work together to give a more complete picture of aerosols. Data from the flights – which covered a vast region of the southern plains, in an attempt to capture useful data over a common type of land surface – will test the algorithms to be used to process data gathered by the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS) that will fly on the Glory satellite. In addition, the flights also served as a test of the instruments’ ability to make measurements of the size, type, amount, and distribution of aerosols.

Brian Cairns, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies-based principal investigator for the RSP instrument and the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor that will fly on Glory, said polarimetry could eventually significantly improve remote sensing measurements of aerosol size and substantially reduce the uncertainty related to measurements of amounts of aerosols.

On the more experimental end, Cairns said, scientists are using the data from the lidar and polarimeter to look at the concentration of water droplets in clouds – an important parameter that could be significantly influenced by the presence of manmade aerosols, such as pollution. Determining a suitable method for measuring droplet concentration could go a long way toward making better estimates of the influence aerosols have on cloud properties.

“You’re really just trying to get the number concentration of droplets,” Cairns said. “Over oceans, it’s not that variable within a given type of clouds. But with the addition of some pollution, that could change.”

In the long line of NASA’s ground-, airborne- and satellite-based instruments designed to observe aerosols, these flights pairing the RSP and HSRL provides another important perspective.

“The idea is we can combine data from the two instruments to get more detailed information about the aerosols,” said Rich Ferrare, a research scientist with the HSRL team at Langley. “We can combine the data to get more than either, alone, can provide.”

Ferrare also said that while satellite-based sensors provide a global view of aerosol coverage, airborne measurements allow scientists to get a closer look at the still incompletely understood processes of aerosol-cloud interactions. Studying that full range is necessary to ultimately reduce the unknowns about aerosols and their impact on climate.

“Just from the measurement standpoint, you’ve got to be able to look at the small scale, to see how those processes work,” Ferrare said. “You also need global measurements from satellites. Then you need to improve the models.

“There are a lot of things involved in reducing those error bars.”

Related Links:

> High Spectral Resolution Lidar (HSRL)
> Glory: Observing the Earth's Aerosols and Solar Irradiance

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Keeping a 'Trained Eye' on the James Webb Space Telescope

Diagram of James Webb Space Telescope Instruments including OTEJames Webb Space Telescope vs. Hubble Mirror Sizes.Pictured with the OTE mockup is Josh Levi, the OTE Integration and Test leadNASA and Northrop Grumman are keeping a "trained eye" on the James Webb Space Telescope, by training their engineers on how to handle and assemble the telescope's Optical Telescope Element (OTE), also known as the "eye" of the telescope.

Recently, a mock-up of the OTE’s Primary Mirror Backplane Assembly (PMBA), which supports the telescope’s mirror segments, was used to simulate how the element frame will be handled when the actual components of the telescope are being assembled.

The OTE's support frame will actually house all 18 of the Primary Mirror Segment Assemblies that comprise the Primary Mirror on the telescope. The OTE gathers the light coming from space and directs it into the science instruments.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the next-generation premier space observatory, exploring deep space phenomena from distant galaxies to nearby planets and stars. The Webb Telescope will give scientists clues about the formation of the universe and the evolution of our own solar system, from the first light after the Big Bang to the formation of star systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth.

The Webb telescope needs a large mirror (made up of the 18 mirrors) to collect as much light as possible to see galaxies from the beginning of the Universe. The Webb telescope scientists and engineers have determined that a primary mirror 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) across is needed to collect enough light to measure these galaxies.

As with the assembly of any satellite or spacecraft, it's important for engineers to practice first, so, a mock-up of the PMBA was created at Northrop Grumman, Redondo Beach, Calif. for that purpose. Engineers there are simulating the handling, installation and alignment of the frame as they will when doing so with the flight hardware. They also check for clearance problems in advance of moving the real telescope between Northrop Grumman’s facility in Redondo Beach Calif. and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md."When it comes to handling one-of-a-kind space telescopes, practice makes perfect," said Lee Feinberg, NASA Optical Telescope Element Manager at Goddard.

Charles Atkinson, Deputy Telescope Manager, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems said, "Even though it is many months from when we will perform the Integration and Test of the actual flight hardware, the mock-up has already been incredibly beneficial. The OTE's large size and many handling and test configurations make early demonstrations very important when laying out the handling equipment and volume necessary to perform the various integration and test operations."

The other major components of the OTE include the Secondary Mirror Assembly and its tripod support, the secondary mirror support structure, the Aft Optics Subsystem which contains the tertiary mirror and the fine steering mirror, the Deployable Tower Assembly, along with electronics and thermal control hardware. In addition to holding the OTE together, the PMBA will be where the science instruments, in the Integrated Science Instrument Module, are installed in the Observatory.

The Primary Mirror Backplane Assembly that holds the OTE is too wide to fit inside a rocket. So, the answer to making it fit is to enable the OTE to fold up. That's just what the engineering team has enabled the OTE to do. Once folded it will fit into a rocket, and once launched will then unfold in space under the command of messages transmitted from Earth.

All of the flight primary mirror segments that will populate the OTE have completed the grinding phase. "With all 18 flight mirror segments in the final polishing stage of production its time to start preparations for their installation, beginning with the challenging task of handling the telescope’s outsized mounting structure," said Mark Clampin, Webb Telescope Observatory Project Scientist at Goddard.

The 18 primary mirror segments in the OTE are made up of three slightly different shapes, consisting of six mirrors of each shape. Another challenge to engineers was to make the mirrors light enough to launch, so they solved that problem by using a metal called Beryllium.

Once the actual OTE structure is built and finalized and the mirrors have been completed, the mirrors will be integrated into the OTE. "Mirror installation begins on the structure in August 2011 and the telescope is built with the mirrors in May 2012," Feinberg said. NASA Goddard is managing the overall development effort for the Webb Telescope. The telescope, being built by Northrop Grumman, is a joint project of NASA and many U.S. partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The Webb telescope is expected to launch in 2014.

Related Link:

> JWST Project web site

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mars Dust Devil Has Colorful Effect in Image Series

The panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit was taking exposures with different color filters during the 1,919th Martian day.Scientists have combined a trio of shots taken seconds apart through different colored filters to create a special-effects portrait of a moving dust devil on Mars.

The panoramic camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit was taking exposures through different filters during the 1,919th Martian day of Spirit's mission (May 27, 2009) as part of constructing a large color panorama. Three westward shots, with several seconds intervening between them, caught a whirlwind in motion. A composite image combining the three exposures to make a color image of the Martian ground shows the dust devil in different colors, according to where it was on the horizon when each exposure was taken.

Dust devils occur on both Mars and on Earth when solar energy heats the surface, resulting in a layer of warm air just above the surface. Since the warmed air is less dense than the cooler atmosphere above it, it rises, making a swirling thermal plume that picks up the fine dust from the surface and carries it up into the atmosphere. This plume of dust moves with the local wind.

More than 650 dust devils have been recorded by Spirit since its operations began in 2004. The mission is currently in its third season of dust devils on Mars, which typically begin in Martian spring.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Astronomers, royalty, rock stars to inaugurate world's largest telescope

world's largest telescopeFour hundred years after Galileo first turned his handmade telescope toward the heavens, the world's largest, most technologically advanced telescope is set to make its formal debut.

The inauguration of the Gran Telescopio Canarias — with its 10.4-meter diameter mirror, the telescope has more light-collecting area than any other — is scheduled for July 24 in Spain's Canary Islands. Officials and astronomers from the University of Florida, the only U.S. institution that is part of the project, will join more than 500 astronomers, journalists and celebrities in a ceremony presided over by Spain's King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia.

"The completion and inauguration of the GTC is a huge milestone for astronomy and for the University of Florida in collaboration with its partners in Spain and Mexico," UF Provost Joe Glover said. "We look forward to our astronomers playing a central role in the major discoveries this uniquely powerful telescope will enable."

Perched 7,874 feet above sea level on a mountain on the island of La Palma, the GTC has 6 square meters more light collecting area than any of the roughly one dozen 8- to 10-meter telescopes worldwide. With a mirror composed of 36 hexagonal segments thought to have the smoothest surfaces ever made, it is also the world's most technologically advanced optical telescope. Sensors keep the mirrors aligned to counteract the force of gravity, with the result that they act as a single surface, even as the telescope is rotated and aligned in place.

Spain owns 90 percent, Mexico 5 percent and UF 5 percent of the telescope under construction since 2000. UF contributed $5 million toward the $180 million project — and its astronomers designed and built one of the first two astronomical instruments for the telescope, a multimillion dollar heat-sensing camera called CanariCam.

Stan Dermott, chairman of UF's astronomy department, said the GTC's size and technical attributes enable it not only to gather more light than any other telescope, but also resolve the light into sharper and clearer focus. For astronomers, he said, those capabilities make it a powerful tool to study cosmic origins – the early days of the universe and the very early moments in the mysterious births of stars, planets and galaxies.

"The interpretation of the structure of the disks where new planets form is highly dependent on the quality of the image," he said, adding that the GTC also will enable the discoveries of new planets, possibly including the first habitable planet.

The telescope gathers the light, but only astronomical instruments can reveal the mysteries it contains. The car engine-sized CanariCam, built at UF but now in La Palma and expected to become operational next year, "sees" the infrared light — the invisible light that accompanies heat — emitted by stars and planets as they form in space. It also sees the light that, in its visible form, is obscured by the dust clouds and gas in space.

CanariCam is unique among mid-infrared cameras in its ability to determine the direction of polarized light and accomplish coronagraphy, which blocks the bright light of stars to make faint planets nearby more visible. Those abilities will help it reveal cool planets and more about the role of magnetic fields in planet and star formation, said Charles Telesco, UF astronomy professor and the principal investigator on the CanariCam project.

UF astronomer Eric Ford became one of the first astronomers worldwide to use the GTC earlier this year. Dermott said he anticipates that about 60 astronomy faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral associates and others — most of the members of the department — will become involved with GTC-related observations or research. He stressed that access to such a prominent telescope is key to success in astronomical research.

"All the objects we study are remote, and you have to get your information from looking at images," he said. "If the competition has a better image than you, you are basically out of business. So having the GTC puts our students and faculty on the front line."

There is far more demand for the world's largest telescopes than available nights, with the result that most astronomers get far less time than they want — and in some years, none at all. UF's part ownership of the GTC means that its astronomers are guaranteed 20 nights each year. UF'S instrument-building program will result in additional nights, as will UF astronomers' collaborations with Mexican and Spanish astronomers, Dermott said.

Brian May, lead guitarist of the rock group Queen and an astronomer himself, is expected to be among the celebrities present for the inauguration. 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, celebrates Galileo's first telescope observations in 1609.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Endeavour Launch Now Scheduled for July 13

Space shuttle Endeavour's STS-127 launch now is scheduled for July 13 at 6:51 p.m. EDT.

Officials at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida called off Sunday's planned liftoff due to inclement weather. Cumulus clouds and lightning violated rules for launching Endeavour because of weather near the Shuttle Landing Facility. The runway would be needed in the unlikely event that Endeavour would have to make an emergency landing back at Kennedy.

The STS-127 astronauts left Launch Pad 39A at about 8:35 p.m. EDT to return to crew quarters at Kennedy's Operations & Checkout Building for the night.

Monday's live countdown coverage will begin at 1:30 p.m on NASA Television and NASA's Launch Blog.

Space Shuttle Mission: STS-127

Storm clouds roll in over the NASA Vehicle Assembly building.
STS-127 Mission Overview
The 16-day mission will feature five spacewalks and complete construction of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory. Astronauts will attach a platform to the outside of the Japanese module that will allow experiments to be exposed to space.

The STS-127 crew members are Commander Mark Polansky, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Dave Wolf, Christopher Cassidy, Tom Marshburn, Tim Kopra and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette. Kopra will join the space station crew and replace Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. Wakata will return to Earth on Endeavour to conclude a three-month stay at the station.

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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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Herschel Instruments Get First Peek at Cosmos

All three of Herschel's instruments have now opened their eyes and collected their first astronomy data. The new images and spectra (fingerprints of cosmic light) demonstrate that the instruments and the telescope, which observe light with longer infrared wavelengths, are working as expected. The mission, led by the European Space Agency with important participation from NASA, has reached its final destination -- an orbit around the second Lagrange point of the Earth-sun system, located 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) from Earth.
galaxy called M74 in three wavelengths
Once Herschel's checkout is complete, in a few months or so, Herschel will begin probing the youthful side of our cosmos. It will investigate the raw materials for stars; baby stars still nestled in cocoons; and sprightly galaxies churning out new stars. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., developed and built crucial mission-enabling technology for two of the three instruments, the heterodyne instrument for the far infrared, and the spectral and photometric imaging receiver.

More information is online at http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMAYT6CTWF_index_0.html .

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory Arrives at Kennedy Space Center

SDO arrives at Astrotech Space Operations, located near Kennedy Space Center.
NASA's upcoming mission to study the sun in unprecedented detail and its effects on Earth, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla. on July 9.

The spacecraft left NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on July 7, where it was built and tested.
SDO will undergo final testing at Astrotech Space Operations, located near Kennedy Space Center, in preparation for its anticipated November launch. The SDO team will conduct of series of tests to be sure that the observatory arrived in good condition, as it is being readied for launch.

After the final tests are completed, SDO will move to launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will launch the solar-studying spacecraft into orbit.

SDO will take measurements and images of the sun in multiple wavelengths for at least five years during its primary science mission. The spacecraft will collect a staggering 1.5 terabytes of data daily, the equivalent of downloading a half million songs a day.

Space weather results from changes on the sun, called solar activity. Active regions on the sun can erupt suddenly and violently, usually in the form of a solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME).

The truck carrying the SDO satellite arrived during a summertime thunderstorm's downpour.Flares and CMEs can send millions of tons of solar material and charged particles streaming toward Earth on the solar wind. When the star stuff reaches Earth's atmosphere, it can damage orbiting satellites and wreak havoc on navigation systems and the power grid. Understanding space weather requires knowing the nature of changes that happen in the sun.

SDO is the first space weather research network mission in NASA's Living With a Star Program. The spacecraft's long-term measurements will give solar scientists in-depth information about changes in the sun’s magnetic field and insight into how those changes affect Earth.

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SDO arrives at Astrotech Space Operations, located near Kennedy Space Center.
NASA's upcoming mission to study the sun in unprecedented detail and its effects on Earth, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla. on July 9.

The spacecraft left NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on July 7, where it was built and tested.
SDO will undergo final testing at Astrotech Space Operations, located near Kennedy Space Center, in preparation for its anticipated November launch. The SDO team will conduct of series of tests to be sure that the observatory arrived in good condition, as it is being readied for launch.

After the final tests are completed, SDO will move to launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will launch the solar-studying spacecraft into orbit.

SDO will take measurements and images of the sun in multiple wavelengths for at least five years during its primary science mission. The spacecraft will collect a staggering 1.5 terabytes of data daily, the equivalent of downloading a half million songs a day.

Space weather results from changes on the sun, called solar activity. Active regions on the sun can erupt suddenly and violently, usually in the form of a solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME).

The truck carrying the SDO satellite arrived during a summertime thunderstorm's downpour.Flares and CMEs can send millions of tons of solar material and charged particles streaming toward Earth on the solar wind. When the star stuff reaches Earth's atmosphere, it can damage orbiting satellites and wreak havoc on navigation systems and the power grid. Understanding space weather requires knowing the nature of changes that happen in the sun.

SDO is the first space weather research network mission in NASA's Living With a Star Program. The spacecraft's long-term measurements will give solar scientists in-depth information about changes in the sun’s magnetic field and insight into how those changes affect Earth.

Read more

Monday, July 13, 2009

NASA and ESA Establish a Mars Exploration Joint Initiative

Mars, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1997The following joint statement was issued today by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA):

On June 29 and 30 the NASA Associate Administrator for Science (Ed Weiler) and ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration (David Southwood) met in Plymouth, England, to establish a way for a progressive program for exploration of the Red Planet. The outcome of the bilateral meeting was an agreement to create a Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) that will provide a framework for the two agencies to define and implement their scientific, programmatic and technological goals at Mars.

Discussions between NASA and ESA began in December 2008, driven by the ESA Ministerial Council's recommendation to seek international cooperation to complete the ExoMars mission and to prepare further Mars robotic exploration missions. At the same time, NASA was reassessing its Mars Exploration Program portfolio after the launch of its Mars Science Laboratory was delayed from 2009 to 2011. This provided NASA and ESA with an opportunity to increase cooperation and expand collective capabilities. To investigate the options in depth, a joint NASA/ESA engineering working group was established, along with a joint executive board to steer the efforts and develop final recommendations on how to proceed.

At the bilateral meeting in Plymouth, the executive board recommended NASA and ESA establish MEJI, spanning launch opportunities in 2016, 2018 and 2020, with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical and other high-priority investigations, and leading to the return of samples from Mars in the 2020's. The director and associate administrator agreed, in principle, to establish the Initiative and continue studies to determine the most viable joint mission architectures.

NASA and ESA also agreed to establish a joint architecture review team to assist the agencies in planning the mission portfolio. As plans develop, they will be reviewed by ESA member states for approval and by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. This unique collaboration of missions and technologies will pave the way for exciting discoveries at Mars.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Atlantic Ocean Temperatures at End of June 2009

Sea temperature at the end of June 2009

The first month of the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season drew to a close without so much as a tropical storm, but that isn’t unusual. According to the National Hurricane Center, the 1944-2002 average for named storms in June was only about 0.75, which means they don't occur every year. When they do form, it is usually the Gulf of Mexico that brews them up, and this image of sea surface temperatures on June 30, 2009, shows why.

Based on a blend of observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS (AMSR-E) on NASA’s Aqua satellite and MODIS on the Terra satellite, the image shows temperatures that are generally warm enough to sustain hurricanes in yellow, orange and red. The waters of the Caribbean Sea (south of Cuba), the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic off the Southeast coast were all warm enough to fuel hurricanes, while most of the tropical Atlantic between the Americas and Africa was still too cool.

The northwestern Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the nearshore waters of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas are all considered “likely” areas for June tropical storm formation (white dashed outline), but storms are especially likely in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico (white oval). The black lines on the image show the average paths that June storms tend to follow. One track takes storms through the Caribbean Sea, brushing the western tip of Cuba, and arcing across northern Florida to follow the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The other track favored by June storms is in the western Gulf of Mexico. Storms cross Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and head north toward the Texas side of the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Storms occur often enough in June and July for those months to be considered part of the hurricane season, but named storms don’t really start to accumulate until August. By the end of July there still will have been fewer than two named storms on average; by the end of August, the number is closer to five.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Space Station Marathon

Sunlight glints from the space station's solar arrays on May 22, 2009If you've never seen a spaceship with your own eyes, now's your chance.

The International Space Station (ISS) has recently started a remarkable series of flybys over the United States. Beginning the first weekend of July, the station has been appearing once, twice, and sometimes three times a day successively. No matter where you live, you should have at least a few opportunities to see the biggest spaceship ever built.

Check NASA's ISS Tracker for flyby times.

The ISS has been under construction for nearly 11 years, and it has grown very large and very bright. The station is now more than 350 ft wide (wider than a football field), has 12,600 cubic feet of labs and living quarters, and on Earth would weigh about 670,000 lb. Sunlight illuminating the massive outpost makes it shine fifteen times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

Sometimes it is even brighter than that. Sunlight glinting from the station's flat surfaces (mainly solar arrays) produce dazzling flares as much as six hundred times brighter than Sirius. For astronomers: On the scale of visual magnitudes, space station flares register -8.

"The station flared spectacularly on May 22 when it passed over my backyard observatory in the Netherlands," reports amateur astronomer Quintus Oostendorp. "I knew the ISS was coming, so I had my telescope ready and I was able see exactly what happened."

At present, the flares are unpredictable. No one knows when they will happen or exactly how bright they will be. Any given flyby could be interrupted by one—and that's what makes the watch so much fun.

The marathon of space station flybys won't stop until mid-to-late July (depending on your location). That gives space shuttle Endeavour, currently scheduled to launch on July 11, time to reach the space station and join the show. As the shuttle approaches station for docking, many observers will witness a memorable double flyby—Endeavour and the ISS sailing side by side across the starry night sky.

Endeavour is on yet another space station construction mission. This time it will deliver a "space porch" to be added to Japan's Kibo science laboratory module. The porch is not a place where astronauts can sit, relax and watch the stars drift by (although that is not a bad idea); it is a science platform. When an experiment needs to be exposed to the hard vacuum or energetic radiation of space, it can placed outside on the porch to take advantage of the space station's unique research environment. The official name of the porch is the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility and it will add its own small contribution to the station's reflected luminosity in the night sky.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Coldest Known Objects in Space

Artist's concept of Planck, with Earth in the background.

The detectors of Planck's High Frequency Instrument reached their amazingly low operational temperature of -273.05 degrees Celsius (-459.49 degrees Fahrenheit), making them the coldest known objects in space. The spacecraft has also just entered its final orbit around the second Lagrange point of the sun-Earth system, called L2.

For more information, go to the story on ESA’s Planck site at http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Planck/SEM0Y5S7NWF_0.html

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

NASA's Fermi Telescope Probes Dozens of Pulsars

With NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, astronomers now are getting their best look at those whirling stellar cinders known as pulsars. In two studies published in the July 2 edition of Science Express, international teams have analyzed gamma-rays from two dozen pulsars, including 16 discovered by Fermi. Fermi is the first spacecraft able to identify pulsars by their gamma-ray emission alone.

A pulsar is the rapidly spinning and highly magnetized core left behind when a massive star explodes. Most of the 1,800 cataloged pulsars were found through their periodic radio emissions. Astronomers believe these pulses are caused by narrow, lighthouse-like radio beams emanating from the pulsar's magnetic poles.

"Fermi has truly unprecedented power for discovering and studying gamma-ray pulsars," said Paul Ray of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. "Since the demise of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory a decade ago, we've wondered about the nature of unidentified gamma-ray sources it detected in our galaxy. These studies from Fermi lift the veil on many of them."

The Vela pulsar, which spins 11 times a second, is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays in the sky. Yet gamma rays -- the most energetic form of light -- are few and far between. Even Fermi's Large Area Telescope sees only about one gamma-ray photon from Vela every two minutes.

"That's about one photon for every thousand Vela rotations," said Marcus Ziegler, a member of the team reporting on the new pulsars at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "From the faintest pulsar we studied, we see only two gamma-ray photons a day."

Radio telescopes on Earth can detect a pulsar easily only if one of the narrow radio beams happens to swing our way. If not, the pulsar can remain hidden.

A pulsar's radio beams represent only a few parts per million of its total power, whereas its gamma rays account for 10 percent or more. Somehow, pulsars are able to accelerate particles to speeds near that of light. These particles emit a broad beam of gamma rays as they arc along curved magnetic field lines.

All-sky map image showing the positions and names of 16 new pulsars
This all-sky map shows the positions and names of 16 new pulsars (yellow) and eight millisecond pulsars (magenta) studied using Fermi's LAT. The famous Vela, Crab, and Geminga pulsars (right) are the brightest ones Fermi sees. The pulsars Taz, Eel, and Rabbit have taken the nicknames of nebulae they are now known to power. The Gamma Cygni pulsar resides within a supernova remnant of the same name.
Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
> Larger image
> Larger image (unlabeled)

The new pulsars were discovered as part of a comprehensive search for periodic gamma-ray fluctuations using five months of Fermi Large Area Telescope data and new computational techniques.

"Before launch, some predicted Fermi might uncover a handful of new pulsars during its mission," Ziegler added. "To discover 16 in its first five months of operation is really beyond our wildest dreams."

Like spinning tops, pulsars slow down as they lose energy. Eventually, they spin too slowly to power their characteristic emissions and become undetectable.

But pair a slowed dormant pulsar with a normal star, and a stream of stellar matter from the companion can spill onto the pulsar and increase its spin. At rotation periods between 100 and 1,000 times a second, ancient pulsars can resume the activity of their youth. In the second study, Fermi scientists examined gamma rays from eight of these "born-again" pulsars, all of which were previously discovered at radio wavelengths.

"Before Fermi launched, it wasn't clear that pulsars with millisecond periods could emit gamma rays at all," said Lucas Guillemot at the Center for Nuclear Studies in Gradignan, near Bordeaux, France. "Now we know they do. It's also clear that, despite their differences, both normal and millisecond pulsars share similar mechanisms for emitting gamma rays."

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, along with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the U.S.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Five Things About Hurricanes

Hurricane Gustav moved along the southern side of Jamaica on Aug. 29, 2008.JPL scientist Bjorn LambrigtsenJPL scientist Bjorn Lambrigtsen goes on hurricane watch every June. He is part of a large effort to track hurricanes and understand what powers them. Lambrigtsen specializes in the field of microwave instruments, which fly aboard research planes and spacecraft, penetrating through thick clouds to see the heart of a hurricane. While scientists are adept at predicting where these powerful storms will hit land, there are crucial aspects they still need to wrench from these potentially killer storms.

Here are thoughts and factoids from Lambrigtsen in the field of hurricane research.

1. Pinpointing the moment of birth

Most Atlantic hurricanes start as a collection of thunderstorms off the coast of Africa. These storm clusters move across the Atlantic, ending up in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico or Central America. While only one in 10 of these clusters evolve into hurricanes, scientists do not yet know what triggers this powerful transformation. Pinpointing a hurricane's origin will be a major goal of a joint field campaign in 2010 between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

2. Predicting intensity

Another focus of next year's research campaign will be learning how to better predict a storm's intensity. It is difficult for emergency personnel and the public to gauge storm preparations when they don't know if the storm will be mild or one with tremendous force. NASA's uncrewed Global Hawk will be added to the 2010 research armada. This drone airplane, which can fly for 30 straight hours, will provide an unprecedented long-duration view of hurricanes in action, giving a window into what fuels storm intensity.

3. Deadly force raining down

Think about a hurricane. You imagine high, gusting winds and pounding waves. However, one of the deadliest hurricanes in recent history was one that parked itself over Central America in October 1998 and dumped torrential rain. Even with diminished winds, rain from Hurricane Mitch reached a rate of more than 4 inches per hour. This caused catastrophic floods and landslides throughout the region.

4. Replenishing "spring"

Even though hurricanes can wreak havoc, they also carry out the important task of replenishing the freshwater supply along the Florida and southeastern U.S. coast and Gulf of Mexico. The freshwater deposited is good for the fish and the ecological environment.

5. One size doesn't fit all

Hurricanes come in a huge a variety of sizes. Massive ones can cover the entire Gulf of Mexico (about 1,000 miles across), while others are just as deadly at only 100 miles across. This is a mystery scientists are still trying to unravel.

NASA and NOAA conduct joint field campaigns to study hurricanes. The agencies use research planes to fly through and above hurricanes, and scientists collect data from NASA spacecraft that fly overhead. NOAA, along with its National Hurricane Center, is the U.S. government agency tasked with hurricane forecasting.

For more information on how NASA and JPL study hurricanes, go towww.nasa.gov/hurricane and http://tropicalcyclone.jpl.nasa.gov

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Monday, July 6, 2009

NASA TV to Broadcast Space Station Crew's Move of Return Craft

Three members of the International Space Station crew will board a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the station and move it to a different docking port on Thursday, July 2. The journey will be broadcast live on NASA Television.

Expedition 20 Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineers Mike Barratt of NASA and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will undock the Soyuz TMA-14 return spacecraft, from the Zvezda service module and fly a short distance to the Pirs docking compartment. The flight is expected to take about 30 minutes.

NASA TV coverage will begin at 4 p.m. CDT with undocking planned for 4:26 p.m.

While Padalka, Barratt and Wakata are aboard the Soyuz, Expedition 20 Flight Engineers Roman Romanenko of Russia, Bob Thirsk of the Canadian Space Agency and Frank De Winne of the European Space Agency will monitor the move from inside the station. Their Soyuz return craft, the TMA-15, is docked to the Earth-facing port of the station's Zarya module.

The relocation of Soyuz TMA-14 opens the Zvezda docking port for the arrival of a new Russian Progress cargo vehicle in late July.

For information about the International Space Station, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/station

For information about NASA TV streaming video, downlink and schedule information, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

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