Wednesday, March 31, 2010

NASA Ames Researcher Revolutionizes Air Traffic Management

Heinz Erzberger revolutionized air traffic managementForty-five years ago, 27-year old Heinz Erzberger arrived at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. armed with a new doctorate in mathematics and engineering. In 1973 Erzberger began the work that revolutionized air traffic management by using a new approach for the decisions made by air traffic controllers, using math and physics as part of the analysis.

Erzberger's research focused on using mathematics and physics to create a set of algorithms, which have been used for more than 14 years and are still being used today by the FAA to control air traffic. The significance of his work was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering when Erzberger was recently elected as a new member.

"It's a wonderful honor to be a member of this prestigious group. I'm very humbled by it all," said Erzberger.

Focusing on aircraft safety, fuel efficiency, and on-time arrivals, Erzberger began automating the nation’s air traffic control system. "I took all of the data and formulated it into compact analytical logic. There were many wonderful Eureka moments. As things fall into place, a lot of times it’s surprising to find the answer turns out to be so simple," said Erzberger.

As is everything with aeronautics, safety is of utmost importance. "The safety of the passengers is always the most important,” said Erzberger but he also understood the importance of being environmentally responsible decades before it became fashionable to be so. "I made sure not to waste anything – that the planes weren't flying around waiting."

Over the years, Erzberger’s enthusiasm for his work has never weakened. "You don’t get something done if you don't have a passionate interest in it," Erzberger commented.

Much of the air traffic management research currently being done is a spinoff of Erzberger's work. "It was really the tip of the iceberg for what is potentially possible. The outgrowth of this work resulted in many new innovations," said Erzberger.

Erzberger's current research focuses on algorithms for the Next Generation air traffic management system. NextGen, as it is called, will use software to detect and resolve conflicts between aircraft. "It is the most challenging of all the problems we have tackled so far," said Erzberger.

However, it isn't all about the work. Sitting in his office, Erzberger motions towards the open door.

"There are so many people up and down those hallways who are working on projects I can relate to," Erzberger observed. "What really makes it a pleasure is to be able to mentor younger colleagues who are at the beginning of their research careers. That really is the most satisfying part of my life." Erzberger lives in Los Altos Hills, Calif.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Expedition 22 Crew Lands

The Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 22 Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev near the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan on Thursday, March 18, 2010. NASA Astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian Cosmonaut Maxim Suraev are returning from six months onboard the International Space Station where they served as members of the Expedition 21 and 22 crews.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

NASA's Spitzer Unearths Primitive Black Holes

This artist's conception illustrates one of the most primitive   supermassive black holes known (central black dot) at the core of a   young, star-rich galaxy.
This artist's conception illustrates one of the most primitive supermassive black holes known (central black dot) at the core of a young, star-rich galaxy.
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Astronomers have come across what appear to be two of the earliest and most primitive supermassive black holes known. The discovery, based largely on observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, will provide a better understanding of the roots of our universe, and how the very first black holes, galaxies and stars came to be.

"We have found what are likely first-generation quasars, born in a dust-free medium and at the earliest stages of evolution," said Linhua Jiang of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Jiang is the lead author of a paper announcing the findings in the March 18 issue of Nature.

Black holes are beastly distortions of space and time. The most massive and active ones lurk at the cores of galaxies, and are usually surrounded by doughnut-shaped structures of dust and gas that feed and sustain the growing black holes. These hungry, supermassive black holes are called quasars.

As grimy and unkempt as our present-day universe is today, scientists believe the very early universe didn't have any dust -- which tells them that the most primitive quasars should also be dust-free. But nobody had seen such immaculate quasars -- until now. Spitzer has identified two -- the smallest on record -- about 13 billion light-years away from Earth. The quasars, called J0005-0006 and J0303-0019, were first unveiled in visible light using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. That discovery team, which included Jiang, was led by Xiaohui Fan, a coauthor of the recent paper at the University of Arizona. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory had also observed X-rays from one of the objects. X-rays, ultraviolet and optical light stream out from quasars as the gas surrounding them is swallowed.

"Quasars emit an enormous amount of light, making them detectable literally at the edge of the observable universe," said Fan.

When Jiang and his colleagues set out to observe J0005-0006 and J0303-0019 with Spitzer between 2006 and 2009, their targets didn't stand out much from the usual quasar bunch. Spitzer measured infrared light from the objects along with 19 others, all belonging to a class of the most distant quasars known. Each quasar is anchored by a supermassive black hole weighing more than 100 million suns.

Of the 21 quasars, J0005-0006 and J0303-0019 lacked characteristic signatures of hot dust, the Spitzer data showed. Spitzer's infrared sight makes the space telescope ideally suited to detect the warm glow of dust that has been heated by feeding black holes.

"We think these early black holes are forming around the time when the dust was first forming in the universe, less than one billion years after the Big Bang," said Fan. "The primordial universe did not contain any molecules that could coagulate to form dust. The elements necessary for this process were produced and pumped into the universe later by stars."

The astronomers also observed that the amount of hot dust in a quasar goes up with the mass of its black hole. As a black hole grows, dust has more time to materialize around it. The black holes at the cores of J0005-0006 and J0303-0019 have the smallest measured masses known in the early universe, indicating they are particularly young, and at a stage when dust has not yet formed around them.

Other authors include W.N. Brandt of Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Chris L. Carilli of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Socorro, N.M.; Eiichi Egami of the University of Arizona; Dean C. Hines of the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.; Jaron D. Kurk of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany; Gordon T. Richards of Drexel University, Philadephia, Pa.; Yue Shen of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.; Michael A. Strauss of Princeton, N.J.; Marianne Vestergaard of the University of Arizona and Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark; and Fabian Walter of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany. Fan and Kurk were based in part at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy when this research was conducted.

The Spitzer observations were made before the telescope ran out of its liquid coolant in May 2009, beginning its "warm" mission.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit and .

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Friday, March 26, 2010

WISE Captures a Cosmic Rose

A new infrared image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey   Explorer, or WISE, shows a cosmic rosebud blossoming with new stars.
A new infrared image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, shows a cosmic rosebud blossoming with new stars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
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A new infrared image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, shows a cosmic rosebud blossoming with new stars. The stars, called the Berkeley 59 cluster, are the blue dots to the right of the image center. They are ripening out of the dust cloud from which they formed, and at just a few million years old, are young on stellar time scales.

The rosebud-like red glow surrounding the hot, young stars is warm dust heated by the stars. Green "leafy" nebulosity enfolds the cluster, showing the edges of the dense, dusty cloud. This green material is from heated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, molecules that can be found on Earth in barbecue pits, exhaust pipes and other places where combustion has occurred.

Red sources within the green nebula indicate a second generation of stars forming at the surface of the natal cloud, possibly as a consequence of heating and compression from the younger stars. A supernova remnant associated with this region, called NGC 7822, indicates that a massive star has already exploded, blowing the cloud open in a "champagne flow" and leaving behind this floral remnant. Blue dots sprinkled throughout are foreground stars in our Milky Way galaxy.

Berkeley 59 and NGC 7822 are located in the constellation of Cepheus at a distance of about 3,300 light-years from Earth.

Infrared light is color coded in this picture as follows: blue shows 3.4-micron light; cyan, 4.6-micron light; green, 12-micron light; and red, 22-micron light.

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

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

UV exposure has increased over the last 30 years, but stabilized since the mid-1990s

Ultraviolet radiation can damage DNA by distorting its structureNASA scientists analyzing 30 years of satellite data have found that the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching Earth's surface has increased markedly over the last three decades. Most of the increase has occurred in the mid-and-high latitudes, and there's been little or no increase in tropical regions.

The new analysis shows, for example, that at one line of latitude — 32.5 degrees — a line that runs through central Texas in the northern hemisphere and the country of Uruguay in the southern hemisphere, 305 nanometer UV levels have gone up by some 6 percent on average since 1979.

The primary culprit: decreasing levels of stratospheric ozone, a colorless gas that acts as Earth’s natural sunscreen by shielding the surface from damaging UV radiation.

The finding reinforces previous observations that show UV levels are stabilizing after countries began signing an international treaty that limited the emissions of ozone-depleting gases in 1987. The study also shows that increased cloudiness in the southern hemisphere over the 30-year period has impacted UV.

Jay Herman, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., stitched together data from several earth observing satellites — including NASA's Aura satellite, NOAA weather satellites, and commercial satellites — to draw his conclusions. The results were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in February.

"Overall, we're still not where we'd like to be with ozone, but we're on the rightThe high latitudes of the southern hemisphere have seen  ultraviolet exposure increase by as much as a quarter track," said Jay Herman. "We do still see an increase in UV on a 30-year timescale, but it's moderate, it could have been worse, and it appears to have leveled off."

In the tropics, the increase has been minimal, but in the mid-latitudes it has been more obvious. During the summer, for example, UV has increased by more than 20 percent in Patagonia and the southern portions of South America. It has risen by nearly 10 percent in Buenos Aires, a city that's about the same distance from the equator as Little Rock, Ark. At Washington, D.C.'s latitude — about 35 degrees north — UV has increased by about 9 percent since 1979.

The southern hemisphere tends to have more UV exposure because of the ozone hole, a seasonal depletion of the ozone layer centered on the South Pole. There are also fewer particles of air pollution — which help block UV — due to the comparatively small numbers of people who live in the southern hemisphere.

Despite the overall increases, there are clear signs that ultraviolet radiation levels are on the verge of falling. Herman's analysis, which is in agreement with a World Meteorological Report published in recent years, shows that decreases in ozone and corresponding increases in UV irradiance leveled off in the mid-nineties.

The Many Sides of Radiation
The largest increases in UV (shown in white, red, orange, and  yellow) have occurred in the southern hemisphere during summers
Shorter ultraviolet wavelengths of light contain more energy than the infrared or visible portions of sunlight that reach Earth’s surface. Because of this, UV photons can break atmospheric chemical bonds and cause complex health effects.

Longer wavelengths (from 320 to 400 nanometers) — called UV-A — cause sunburn and cataracts. Yet, UV-A can also improve health by spurring the production of Vitamin D, a substance that's critical for calcium absorption in bones and that helps stave off a variety of chronic diseases.

UV-B, which has slightly shorter wavelengths (from 320 to 290 nanometers), damages DNA by tangling and distorting its ladder-like structure, causing a range of health problems such as skin cancer and diseases affecting the immune system.

As part of his study, Herman developed a mathematical technique to quantify the biological impacts of UV exposure. He examined and calculated how changing levels of ozone and ultraviolet irradiance affect life. For Greenbelt, Md., for example, he calculated that a 7 percent increase in UV yielded a 4.4 percent increase in the damage to skin, a 4.8 percent increase in damage to DNA, a 5 percent increase in Vitamin D production, and less than a percent of increase in plant growth.

"If you go to the beach these days, you're at slightly higher risk of getting skin cancer (without protection)," Herman said, though he noted the risk would have been even greater in the absence of regulations on ozone-depleting substances.
Electromagnetic radiation exists in a range of wavelengths, which  are delineated into major divisions for our convenience
Last year, one of Herman's Goddard colleagues, Paul Newman, published a study showing that the ozone hole likely would have become a year-round fixture and UV radiation would increase 650 percent by 2065 in mid-latitude cities if not for the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1987 that limited the amount of ozone-depleting gases countries could emit.

Clouds and Hemispheric Dimming

In addition to analyzing ozone and ultraviolet trends, Herman also used satellite data to study whether changes in cloudiness have affected UV trends. To his surprise, he found that increased cloudiness in the southern hemisphere produced a dimming effect that increased the shielding from UV compared to previous years.

In the higher latitudes especially, he detected a slight reduction — typically of 2 to 4 percent -- in the amount of UV passing through the atmosphere and reaching the surface due to clouds. "It’s not a large amount, but it’s intriguing," Herman said. "We aren’t sure what’s behind it yet."

Vitali Fioletov, a Canadian scientist and member of the World Meteorological Organization's advisory group on ultraviolet radiation, agreed that Herman’s findings about cloudiness warrant additional investigation. "I found the cloud effects on the global scale to be the most interesting aspect of the study,” he said. "This isn't something you could see without satellites."

Herman synthesized measurements from the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) aboard Nimbus 7 and Earth Probe, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite, NASA’s Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-view sensor (SeaWiFS) on the commercial SeaStar satellite, and the Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet Instrument (SBUV) on several polar orbiting NOAA weather satellites.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

NASA Awards Civil Design, Engineering and Services Contract

NASA has selected Jones Edmunds & Associates, Inc. of Gainesville, Fla., to provide civil and environmental design, engineering and other professional services. Services will be provided at NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and overseas emergency space shuttle landing sites. The work will rehabilitate, modernize or provide new facilities and systems at these locations.

This new indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract begins in March 2010 with a five year ordering period. The maximum potential value of this contract is approximately $25 million.

Jones Edmunds & Associates will provide services for the design of sewage treatment facilities, road repair and development, and parking facilities. the company also will be responsible for the design of new and reconfigured structures and facilities, building envelope, interior finishes, and site development. The work includes storm water management and utilities as well as facility equipment designed to process and condition hazardous and industrial waste products. Additional work involved includes HVAC and plumbing, industrial and institutional electrical systems, grounding, lighting, lightning protection, fire alarm and detection systems, and construction management.

For information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Cassini Data Show Ice and Rock Mixture Inside Titan

This artist's illustration shows the likely interior structure of  Saturn's moon Titan deduced from gravity field data collected by NASA's  Cassini spacecraft.
This artist's illustration shows the likely interior structure of Saturn's moon Titan deduced from gravity field data collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
› Full image and caption
By precisely tracking NASA's Cassini spacecraft on its low swoops over Saturn's moon Titan, scientists have determined the distribution of materials in the moon's interior. The subtle gravitational tugs they measured suggest the interior has been too cold and sluggish to split completely into separate layers of ice and rock.

The finding, to be published in the March 12 issue of the journal Science, shows how Titan evolved in a different fashion from inner planets such as Earth, or icy moons such as Jupiter's Ganymede, whose interiors have split into distinctive layers.

"These results are fundamental to understanding the history of moons of the outer solar system," said Cassini Project Scientist Bob Pappalardo, commenting on his colleagues' research. Pappalardo is with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We can now better understand Titan's place among the range of icy satellites in our solar system."

Scientists have known that Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is about half ice and half rock, but they needed the gravity data to figure out how the materials were distributed. It turns out Titan's interior is a sorbet of ice studded with rocks that probably never heated up beyond a relatively lukewarm temperature. Only in the outermost 500 kilometers (300 miles) is Titan's ice devoid of any rock, while ice and rock are mixed to various extents at greater depth.

"To avoid separating the ice and the rock, you must avoid heating the ice too much," said David J. Stevenson, one of the paper's co-authors and a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "This means that Titan was built rather slowly for a moon, in perhaps around a million years or so, back soon after the formation of the solar system."

This incomplete separation of ice and rock makes Titan less like Jupiter's moon Ganymede, where ice and rock have fully separated, and perhaps more like another Jovian moon, Callisto, which is believed to have a mixed ice and rock interior. Though the moons are all about the same size, they clearly have diverse histories.

The Cassini measurements help construct a gravity map, which may help explain why Titan has a stunted topography, since interior ice must be warm enough to flow slowly in response to the weight of heavy geologic structures, such as mountains.

Creating the gravity map required tracking minute changes in Cassini's speed along a line of sight from Earth to the spacecraft as it flew four close flybys of Titan between February 2006 and July 2008. The spacecraft took paths between about 1,300 to 1,900 kilometers (800 to 1,200 miles) above Titan.

"The ripples of Titan's gravity gently push and pull Cassini along its orbit as it passes by the moon and all these changes were accurately recorded by the ground antennas of the Deep Space Network within 5 thousandths of a millimeter per second [0.2 thousandths of an inch per second] even as the spacecraft was over a billion kilometers [more than 600 million miles] away," said Luciano Iess, a Cassini radio science team member at Sapienza University of Rome in Italy, and the paper's lead author. "It was a tricky experiment."

The results don't speak to whether Titan has an ocean beneath the surface, but scientists say this hypothesis is very plausible and they intend to keep investigating. Detecting tides induced by Saturn, a goal of the radio science team, would provide the clearest evidence for such a hidden water layer.

A Cassini interdisciplinary investigator, Jonathan Lunine, said of his colleagues' findings, "Additional flybys may tell us whether the crust is thick or thin today." Lunine is with the University of Rome, Tor Vergata, Italy, and the University of Arizona, Tucson. "With that information we may have a better understanding of how methane, the ephemeral working fluid of Titan's rivers, lakes and clouds, has been resupplied over geologic time. Like the history of water on Earth, this is fundamental to a deep picture of the nature of Titan through time."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. Cassini's radio science subsystem has been jointly developed by NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

More Cassini information is available, at and

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

NASA Extends Johnson Safety and Mission Assurance Contract

NASA has exercised a $60 million, one-year extension option for a contract with Science Applications International Corporation of Houston to provide support to safety and mission assurance activities at the agency's Johnson Space Center.

The Safety and Mission Assurance Support Services contract helps ensure safety, reliability, maintainability and quality in the International Space Station, space shuttle and Constellation programs.

The cost-plus-award-fee contract option that has been exercised continues services from May 1, 2010, through April 30, 2011. Work under the contract will be performed at Johnson, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and NASA's White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.

Significant subcontractors in the work include Futron Corp. of Bethesda, Md.; GHG of Houston; M.H. Chew of Livermore, Calif.; URS - Washington Division of Princeton, N.J.; Management Technology Associates of Huntsville, Ala.; J&P Technologies and JES Tech, both of Houston; SoHaR Incorporated of Culver City, Calif.; and Texas Southern University of Houston.

For more information about NASA's Johnson Space Center, visit:

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The 2010 FIRST Robotics Competition

FIRST is a spirited competition using sophisticated robotics  technologyThe FIRST Robotics Competition is an exciting, nationwide competition that teams professionals and young people to solve an engineering design problem in an intense and competitive way.

For many years, the NASA Robotics Alliance Project has been supporting participation in the FIRST Robotics Competition by providing grants to high school teams as well as sponsoring FIRST regional competitions.

Providing support to competitions like FIRST Robotics is one way the NASA Robotics Alliance Project strives to create a human, technical and programmatic resource of robotics capabilities to aid future robotic space exploration missions.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Winds of Change

This is a composite image of NGC 1068, one of the nearest and brightest galaxies containing a rapidly growing supermassive black hole. The X-ray images and spectra obtained using Chandra's High Energy Transmission Grating Spectrometer show that a strong wind is being driven away from the center of NGC 1068 at a rate of about a million miles per hour. This wind is likely generated as surrounding gas is accelerated and heated as it swirls toward the black hole. A portion of the gas is pulled into the black hole, but some of it is blown away. High energy X-rays produced by the gas near the black hole heat the ouflowing gas, causing it to glow at lower X-ray energies.

X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory are shown in red, optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope in green and radio data from the Very Large Array in blue. The spiral structure of NGC 1068 is shown by the X-ray and optical data, and a jet powered by the central supermassive black hole is shown by the radio data.

This Chandra study is much deeper than previous X-ray observations. Using this data, researchers believe that each year several times the mass of our sun is being deposited out to large distances, about 3,000 light years from the black hole. The wind likely carries enough energy to heat the surrounding gas and suppress extra star formation.

These results help explain how a supermassive black hole can alter the evolution of its host galaxy. It has long been suspected that material blown away from a black hole can affect its environment, but a key question has been whether such "black hole blowback" typically delivers enough power to have a significant impact.

NGC 1068 is located about 50 million light years from Earth and contains a supermassive black hole about twice as massive as the one in the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Lava likely made river-like channel on Mars

Details from the Ascraeus channel (red), meandering across the  surface of MarsFlowing lava can carve or build paths very much like the riverbeds and canyons etched by water, and this probably explains at least one of the meandering channels on the surface of Mars. These results were presented on March 4, 2010 at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference by Jacob Bleacher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Whether channels on Mars were formed by water or by lava has been debated for years, and the outcome is thought to influence the likelihood of finding life there.
"To understand if life, as we know it, ever existed on Mars, we need to understand where water is or was," says Bleacher. Geologists think that the water currently on the surface of Mars is either held in the soil or takes the form of ice at the planet's north and south poles. But some researchers contend that water flowed or pooled on the surface sometime in the past; water in this form is thought to increase the chance of some form of past or present life.
One of the lines of support for the idea that water once flowed on Mars comes from images that reveal details resembling the erosion of soil by water: terracing of channel walls, formation of small islands in a channel, hanging channels that dead-end and braided channels that branch off and then reconnect to the main branch. "These are thought to be clear evidence of fluvial [water-based] erosion on Mars," Bleacher says.
The Tharsis region of Mars, including the three volcanoes of  Tharsis Montes (Arsia, Pavonis and Ascraeus Mons), as well as Olympic  Mons in the upper left cornerLava is generally not thought to be able to create such finely crafted features. Instead, "the common image is of the big, open channels in Hawaii," he explains.
Bleacher and his colleagues carried out a careful study of a single channel on the southwest flank of Mars' Ascraeus Mons volcano, one of the three clustered volcanoes collectively called the Tharsis Montes. To piece together images covering more than 270 kilometers (~168 miles) of this channel, the team relied on high-resolution pictures from three cameras—the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), the Context Imager (CTX) and the High/Super Resolution Stereo Color (HRSC) imager—as well as earlier data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). These data gave a much more detailed view of the surface than previously available.
Because the fluid that formed this and other Ascraeus Mons channels is long-gone, its identity has been hard to deduce, but the visual clues at the source of the channel seem to point to water. These clues include small islands, secondary channels that branch off and rejoin the main one and eroded bars on the insides of the curves of the channels.
But at the channel's other end, an area not clearly seen before, Bleacher and colleagues found a ridge that appears to have lava flows coming out of it. In some areas, "the channel is actually roofed over, as if it were a lava tube, and lined up along this, we see several rootless vents," or openings where lava is forced out of the tube and creates small structures, he explains. These types of features don't form in water-carved channels, he notes. Bleacher argues that having one end of the channel formed by water and the other end by lava is an "exotic" combination. More likely, he thinks, the entire channel was formed by lava.
To find out what kinds of features lava can produce, Bleacher, along with W. Brent Garry and Jim Zimbelman at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, examined the 51-kilometer (~32 mile) lava flow from the 1859 eruption of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii. Their main focus was an island nearly a kilometer long in the middle of the channel; Bleacher says this is much larger than islands typically identified within lava flows. To survey the island, the team used differential GPS, which provides location information to within about 3 to 5 centimeters (1.1 to 1.9 inches), rather than the roughly 3 to 5 meters (9.8 to 16.4 feet) that a car's GPS can offer.
"We found terraced walls on the insides of these channels, channels that go out and just disappear, channels that cut back into the main one, and vertical walls 9 meters (~29 feet) high," Bleacher says. "So, right here, in something that we know was formed only by flowing lava, we found most of the features that were considered to be diagnostic of water-carved channels on Mars."
The new results make "a strong case that fluid lava can produce channels that look very much like water-generated features," says Zimbelman. "So, we should not jump to a water-related conclusion when we see such channels on other planets, particularly in volcanic terrain such as that around the Tharsis Montes volcanoes."
Further evidence that such features could be created by lava flows came from the examination of a detailed image of channels from the Mare Imbrium, a dark patch on the moon that is actually a large crater filled with ancient lava rock. In this image, too, the researchers found channels with terraced walls and branching secondary channels.
The conclusion that lava probably made the channel on Mars "not only has implications for the geological evolution of the Ascraeus Mons but also the whole Tharsis Bulge [volcanic region]," says Andy de Wet, a co-author at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Penn. "It may also have some implications for the supposed widespread involvement of water in the geological evolution of Mars."
Bleacher notes that the team's conclusions do not rule out the possibility of flowing water on Mars, nor of the existence of other channels carved by water. "But one thing I've learned is not to underestimate the way that liquid rock will flow," he says. "It really can produce a lot of things that we might not think it would."
Philip Christensen of Arizona State University is the principal investigator for the THEMIS instrument on the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and Mike Malin of Malin Space Science Systems is the principal investigator for the CTX instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Both missions are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. MOLA was aboard the Mars Global Surveyor, built by JPL. HRSC is aboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Seeing Eye-to-Eye on How to Fly

The National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, or NACA, which celebrates its 95th anniversary on March 3, provided the nation's earliest research and helped develop important technologies, as well as knowledge of flight safety and efficiency.
NASA adopted many of these research techniques and many of the places in which to do it, like wind tunnels and entire research centers, from the NACA. Engine cowlings to cover propellers and a series of proven air foil shapes for aircraft wings--both of which reduced drag and improved speed and efficiency--were chief NACA contributions subsequently adopted by every aircraft of the day and improved upon over the decades.
This image shows NACA chief test pilot Melvin Cough outside a hangar at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. The test vehicle on the right is a Curtiss BF2C-1 Goshawk, which was used by the U.S. Navy in the early 1930s and featured retractable landing gear.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chilean Quake May Have Shortened Earth Days

View of Earth
This view of Earth comes from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard the Terra satellite.

The Feb. 27 magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile may have shortened the length of each Earth day.

JPL research scientist Richard Gross computed how Earth's rotation should have changed as a result of the Feb. 27 quake. Using a complex model, he and fellow scientists came up with a preliminary calculation that the quake should have shortened the length of an Earth day by about 1.26 microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second).

Perhaps more impressive is how much the quake shifted Earth's axis. Gross calculates the quake should have moved Earth's figure axis (the axis about which Earth's mass is balanced) by 2.7 milliarcseconds (about 8 centimeters, or 3 inches). Earth's figure axis is not the same as its north-south axis; they are offset by about 10 meters (about 33 feet).

By comparison, Gross said the same model estimated the 2004 magnitude 9.1 Sumatran earthquake should have shortened the length of day by 6.8 microseconds and shifted Earth's axis by 2.32 milliarcseconds (about 7 centimeters, or 2.76 inches).

Gross said that even though the Chilean earthquake is much smaller than the Sumatran quake, it is predicted to have changed the position of the figure axis by a bit more for two reasons. First, unlike the 2004 Sumatran earthquake, which was located near the equator, the 2010 Chilean earthquake was located in Earth's mid-latitudes, which makes it more effective in shifting Earth's figure axis. Second, the fault responsible for the 2010 Chiliean earthquake dips into Earth at a slightly steeper angle than does the fault responsible for the 2004 Sumatran earthquake. This makes the Chile fault more effective in moving Earth's mass vertically and hence more effective in shifting Earth's figure axis.

Gross said the Chile predictions will likely change as data on the quake are further refined.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Centennial Challenges 2009 Prizewinners Recognition Ceremony

2009 Award WinnersNASA Admimistrator Charlie Bolden along with senior NASA officials Doug Comstock and Andy Petro, acknowledges winners and organizers of NASA’s 2009 Centennial Challenges. The award ceremony was held at NASA Headquarters, Washington.
The multi-year competitions address a range of technical challenges that support NASA's missions in aeronautics and space with a goal of encouraging novel solutions from non-traditional sources. In 2009, NASA awarded a total of 3.65 million dollars to eight winning teams in four competitions. The partner organizations that conducted the competitions are: California Space Education and Workforce Institute (Regolith Excavation), X Prize Foundation (Lunar Lander), Spaceward Foundation (Power Beaming and Strong Tether), Volanz Aerospace Inc. (Astronaut Glove) and Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation (Green Flight). NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program manages the Centennial Challenges.
For more information on Centennial Challenges, visit:

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Giving Teachers the Tools to Inspire

Fifth-grade science teacher Sharie Lanning-Lester of Crown Point Elementary in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system participates in a workshop given by Karen Ricks of NASA Langley through the Digital Learning NetworkTeachers found themselves on the other side of the desk this week as they played the part of student, participating in workshops and learning how to get students psyched about science during the second annual NASA STEM Educators Workshop series in Charlotte, N.C.

The three-day free workshop held at the IBM Center consisted of 40 sessions that offered elementary, middle and high school teachers creative and hands-on ways to incorporate NASA content into their classrooms.

For elementary teacher Nancy Brooks from Kannapolis, N.C., it didn't take long to find something that would spark her students' interest.

During a workshop Brooks learned how to make an end effector, which in robotics is the device at the end of a robot arm.

"It only took two Styrofoam cups, string, tape, and a little bit of practice," said Brooks who planned on having her students complete the same project the very next day.

"There are so many resources and activities here that I can take back with me and use to motivate my students to dig a little deeper," she continued.

Dynae Fullwood, aerospace education specialist from NASA's Langley Research Center, said the workshops are specifically designed to give teachers tangible resources for immediate use in the classrooms.

"We know teachers face an everyday challenge to make concepts exciting and interesting for students," Fullwood said.

In the hands-on lab elementary and middle school teachers examined robots and did their best to follow the instructions of their teacher Taunya Sweet, a traveling education specialist for NASA's Aerospace Education Services Project (AESP).

Similar to students, the teachers were anxious to get started and play with their robot.

"Don't touch them," cautioned Sweet. "I know these robots are interesting, but wait until after we observe them to turn them on."

In another classroom, teachers in the video conferencing lab listened as Karen Ricks from NASA Langley's Digital Learning Network discussed "Traveling to Space" over a live digital feed. Just down the hall, NASA exhibits encouraged teachers to make Post Cards from space and find their "space weight."

Tracie Hall, an elementary school teacher from North Carolina, and Garrison Hall, a middle school teacher from South Carolina, work together to program a robot during a workshopThe sessions culminated with a guest appearance from Astronaut Leland Melvin, who only the day before gave an inspiring speech to hundreds of middle school students at the CIAA Education Day, about "living your dreams."

Melvin, who got his start in fiber optic sensors at NASA Langley and went on to become an astronaut with two missions under his belt, appealed to the teachers as a fellow educator himself.

As the co-manager of NASA's Educator Astronaut Program, Melvin travels across the country engaging students and teachers in the excitement of space exploration. He also came from a family of educators. Both of his parents were teachers.

"My dad, the educator, was my role model, my inspiration," he said.

He encouraged teachers to find their own inspiration and to continue inspire and be role models for the next generation.

"We need to keep the kids excited about STEM subjects," he said to a round of applause.

Melvin stressed the importance education played in his life even when he was on track to play football in NFL.

"I always had a back-up plan," Melvin said. "And that plan was education."

A pulled hamstring thwarted Melvin's dreams of playing for the Dallas Cowboys, but his enrollment in graduate school at the University of Virginia kept him on track to realize his dreams, which turned to be helping others find theirs.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Mars Odyssey and Phoenix Mars Lander Missions Status Report

Stages in the seasonal disappearance of surface ice from the ground around the Phoenix Mars Lander
NASA's Mars Odyssey began a second campaign Monday to check on whether the Phoenix Mars Lander has revived itself after the northern Martian winter. The orbiter received no signal from the lander during the first 10 overflights of this campaign.
Odyssey will listen for Phoenix during 50 additional overflights, through Feb. 26, during the current campaign.
Phoenix landed on Mars on May 25, 2008, and operated successfully in the Martian arctic for about two months longer than its planned three-month mission. Operations ended when waning sunlight left the solar-powered craft with insufficient energy to keep working. The season at the Phoenix landing site is now mid-springtime, with the sun above the horizon for roughly 22 hours each Martian day. That is comparable to the illumination that Phoenix experienced a few weeks after completing its three-month primary mission.
Phoenix was not designed to withstand the extremely low temperatures and the ice load of the Martian arctic winter. In the extremely unlikely event that the lander has survived the winter and has achieved a stable energy state, it would operate in a mode where it periodically awakens and transmits a signal to any orbiter in view.
A third campaign to check on whether Phoenix has revived itself is scheduled for April 5-9, when the sun will be continuously above the Martian horizon at the Phoenix site.
Mars Odyssey is managed for NASA's Science Mission Directorate by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and made the spacecraft. The successful Phoenix mission was led by Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, with project management at JPL and development partnership at Lockheed Martin. International contributions came from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; the Max Planck Institute in Germany; the Finnish Meteorological Institute; and Imperial College, London.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

NASA Hosts RockOn! 2010 University Rocket Science Workshop in June

U.S. university faculty and students are invited to a weeklong workshop to learn how to build and launch a scientific experiment into space. NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia is hosting the RockOn! 2010 workshop June 19-24 in partnership with the Colorado and Virginia Space Grant Consortia. Registrations for the 2010 workshop are being accepted through March 22.
The hands-on workshop teaches participants to build experiments that fly on sounding rockets. During the week, participants will work together in teams of three to construct and integrate a sounding rocket payload from a kit in four days. On the fifth day of the workshop, June 24, their experiments will fly on a NASA Terrier-Orion sounding rocket expected to reach an altitude of 73 miles.
Each experiment will provide valuable scientific data, analyzed as part of the student led science and engineering research. The program engages faculty and students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills critical to NASA's future engineering, scientific, and technical missions.
Approximately 100 faculty and students participated each year in the 2008 and 2009 workshops. All experiments have been successful, completed on time, launched and recovered.
NASA initiated the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program in 1989. The Space Grant national network includes more than 850 affiliates from universities, colleges, industry, museums, science centers, and state and local agencies. The goal is to support and enhance science and engineering education, and research and public outreach efforts for NASA's aeronautics and space projects. These affiliates belong to one of 52 consortia in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
For more information about RockOn! and to register online, visit:
For more information about NASA education programs, visit:
The Sounding Rockets Program Office at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility will be providing the rocket and launch operations during the workshop. For more information about NASA's sounding rocket program, visit:

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New NASA Web Page Sheds Light on Science of a Warming World

Will 2010 be the warmest year on record? How do the recent U.S. "Snowmageddon" winter storms and record low temperatures in Europe fit into the bigger picture of long-term global warming? NASA has launched a new web page to help people better understand the causes and effects of Earth's changing climate.
The new "A Warming World" page hosts a series of new articles, videos, data visualizations, space-based imagery and interactive visuals that provide unique NASA perspectives on this topic of global importance.
The page includes feature articles that explore the recent Arctic winter weather that has gripped the United States, Europe and Asia, and how El Nino and other longer-term ocean-atmosphere phenomena may affect global temperatures this year and in the future. A new video, "Piecing Together the Temperature Puzzle," illustrates how NASA satellites monitor climate change and help scientists better understand how our complex planet works.
The new web page is available on NASA's Global Climate Change Web site at:
For more information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Seventeenth South Pacific Tropical Cyclone Forms

GOES-11 captured a visible image of the Tropical Storm 17P at 1800 UTC (1 p.m. ET) February 22On February 21, the seventeenth tropical depression formed in the South Pacific Ocean. Today, February 22, the storm has strengthened into Tropical Storm 17P (TS 17P) with maximum sustained winds near 39 mph, and it was about 740 miles east-northeast of Pago Pago.
The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, GOES-11 captured a visible image of the storm at 1800 UTC (1 p.m. ET) February 22. The storm does not appear well organized. TD 17P was located near 9.6 South latitude and 159.0 East longitude, and was moving south-southwest near 4 mph (3 knots). TS 17P was creating 15 foot-high waves in open waters.
Although TS 17P is expected to continue tracking in open waters its winds and surf may impact some land areas. So, regional warnings have been posted for the Northern Cook Islands. Currently, a gale wind warning is in effect for Penrhyn and an alert is in effect for Rakahanga, Manihiki and nearby islands.
TS 17P is in an area of wind shear, and that's limiting any intensification of the storm. It is expected to strengthen a little more over the next couple of days however, before it dissipates later this week.

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