Monday, January 31, 2011

NASA Administrator Speaks to Richmond Middle School Students

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden today visited the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond, Va., to meet seventh and eighth-grade students from the city's Albert Hill Middle School. Bolden discussed his military and space career and the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education for tomorrow's careers. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama emphasized the importance of STEM education for the U.S. to compete globally and create jobs.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott joined Bolden and science center executives for the event.

"President Obama's call for us to win the future means we need to develop the skills and capabilities to stay competitive in the global economy," Administrator Bolden said. "Today's students have the opportunity to build and take part in tomorrow's big adventures and keep our country strong and competitive through science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

STEM education is the foundation of NASA's learning initiatives, such as the Summer of Innovation (SoI) project. Begun in 2010, the project engages middle school students in STEM studies and hands-on, or participatory, exploration during the summer hiatus, when many lose academic skills acquired during the school year. SoI also supports a continuum of coordinated services to engage students in meaningful ways through summer and extended learning during the school year. NASA will announce this year's Summer of Innovation plans in the spring.

"Americans have never been afraid of the future, and we shouldn't start now. We know what the challenges are, and we know that these new times demand new thinking and new skills, including advanced math and science," Sen. Warner said. "We need to face up to these challenges by working together to make sure that our young people get a fair chance to compete, and to win, in the race for the future."

The MathScience Innovation Center's goal is to be the innovator, incubator and advocate of 21st Century math and science programs for the Virginia capital region's kindergarten through 12th grade educators and students. It also houses the Challenger Learning Center for Space Science Education. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the loss of space shuttle Challenger and her crew of seven.

Before Bolden, Warner and Scott took the stage, students had an opportunity to engage in hands-on activities related to science and exploration, including a rocket-building exercise. Education staff from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., led the activities. Studies have shown that hands-on, experiential learning is a key factor in capturing students' interest in technical fields and inspiring the next generation to reach new heights.

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

NASA Remembers its Fallen Heroes

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, Kennedy Space Center observed NASA's Day of Remembrance, Jan. 27, with a wreath-laying ceremony at the KSC Visitor Complex Space Mirror Memorial. The Day of Remembrance honors members of the NASA family who lost their lives while furthering the cause of exploration and discovery, including the astronaut crews of Apollo 1 and shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

Kennedy's Center Director Robert Cabana, Deputy Center Director Janet Petro, and United Space Alliance's Associate Program Manager for Solid Rocket Boosters Roger Elliott laid the wreath, inscribed with the words, "Remembering our Fallen Heroes," at the memorial, and observed a moment of silence.

A statement issued by President Barack Obama read in part, "Today, on this Day of Remembrance when NASA reflects on the mighty sacrifices made to push those frontiers, America's space agency is working to achieve even greater goals. Through triumph and tragedy, each of us has benefited from their courage and devotion, and we honor their memory by dedicating ourselves to a better tomorrow. Despite the challenges before us today, let us commit ourselves and continue their valiant journey toward a more vibrant and secure future."

Before a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden also issued a statement that read in part, "The legacy of those who have perished is present every day in our work and inspires generations of new space explorers. Every day, with each new challenge we overcome and every discovery we make, we honor these remarkable men and women. Please join me in working to fulfill their dreams for the future."

"I think it's really important that every year we take a few moments of our day, on this Day of Remembrance, to remember those that paid the ultimate sacrifice in the quest to explore space," Cabana said. "The loss of their lives would be meaningless if we did not continue. I think it's extremely important to continue our quest to explore and expand our knowledge."

On Jan. 28, The Astronauts Memorial Foundation's remembrance service at the Space Mirror Memorial was attended by NASA officials, dignitaries, families of the fallen, Kennedy workers and the general public.

Moderated by the foundation's President Stephen Feldman, the guest speakers included NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Gerstenmaier; Dr. June Scobee Rodgers, widow of STS-51L Commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee and founding chair of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education; Cabana; former astronaut and chairman of The Astronauts Memorial Foundation Mike McCulley; and Rick Soria, 2009 Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award winner.

Scobee Rodgers said, "We're not a nation of naysayers, we're a nation of believers. We're innovators and problem solvers. We're risk-takers with a pioneering spirit. We as a nation are indebted to the space pioneers who blazed a trail of exploration and discovery."

She and the families of the lost Challenger crew came together and created the Challenger Center as a living tribute to their loved ones. Scobee Rodgers said their vision became a reality with the first one in Houston. There are now 48 Challenger Centers throughout the U.S., and also in Canada, England and South Korea.

"It's time for the next 25 years to unfold," Scobee Rodgers said.

McCulley read a portion of the Gettysburg Address, ending with the words, "that we here shall highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

Cabana said, "We learned many lessons from the loss of Challenger. And the vehicle that returned to flight two-and-a-half years later may have looked the same, but had hundreds of changes to make it safer and more reliable."

Soria, the Alan Shepard Technology in Education Award winner said, "It is fitting to pause and challenge each other to become more involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education of our students. The future beckons."

It's not easy to look back and reflect," Gerstenmaier said. "We learned that little things that seem harmless can become catastrophic events. The human spaceflight team has learned tremendous lessons from these events.

"We seek to answer the most difficult questions imaginable and formulate new questions," Gerstenmaier said. "Rededicate yourselves to expanding the frontier of knowledge in a manner that is fitting of the huge sacrifice made by those who have gone before."

"We will continue to strive to be better. To explore, to expand our knowledge of our universe and to reach beyond," Cabana said.

At the conclusion of the memorial, Scobee Rodgers and Gerstenmaier placed a wreath below the names of the Challenger crew.

The event was open to the general public and the visitor complex provided flowers for attendees to place at the memorial throughout the day.

The Apollo 1 tragedy occurred at Launch Pad 34, Jan. 27, 1967, during a preflight test. Astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a fire swept through the command module.

Space shuttle Challenger's STS-51L mission ended in tragedy during ascent after lifting off from Launch Pad 39B on Jan. 28, 1986. A faulty O-ring on one of the solid rocket boosters caused a chain of events that resulted in an explosion and the loss of Challenger and its seven crew members. Commander Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Ronald E. McNair, and Payload Specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe perished in the accident.

Space shuttle Columbia and the seven-member crew of the STS-107 mission perished when the orbiter broke apart during re-entry Feb. 1, 2003. Lost were Commander Rick D. Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown and Laurel B. Clark, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, with the Israeli Space Agency.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Exposed Boulders in the Aitken Mare

Boulder fields on the Moon are a fairly common feature. In general, large boulder fields are usually part of an ejecta deposit surrounding their parent crater or a product of gravity-driven mass wasting, where blocks on a slope are dislodged from the regolith or rock outcrops by various geologic processes (including meteorite impacts or moonquakes) and roll downhill. Since this boulder field is located at the base of a slope, it is likely a product of gravity-driven mass wasting. This field has boulders as large as 10 meters in size.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An Astronomer's Field of Dreams

An innovative new radio telescope array under construction in central New Mexico will eventually harness the power of more than 13,000 antennas and provide a fresh eye to the sky. The antennas, which resemble droopy ceiling fans, form the Long Wavelength Array, designed to survey the sky from horizon to horizon over a wide range of frequencies.

The University of New Mexico leads the project, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., provides the advanced digital electronic systems, which represent a major component of the observatory.

The first station in the Long Wavelength Array, with 256 antennas, is scheduled to start surveying the sky by this summer. When complete, the Long Wavelength Array will consist of 53 stations, with a total of 13,000 antennas strategically placed in an area nearly 400 kilometers (248 miles) in diameter. The antennas will provide sensitive, high-resolution images of a region of the sky hundreds of times larger than the full moon. These images could reveal radio waves coming from planets outside our solar system, and thus would turn out to be a new way to detect these worlds. In addition to planets, the telescope will pick up a host of other cosmic phenomena.

"We'll be looking for the occasional celestial flash," said Joseph Lazio, a radio astronomer at JPL. "These flashes can be anything from explosions on surfaces of nearby stars, deaths of distant stars, exploding black holes, or even perhaps transmissions by other civilizations." JPL scientists are working with multi-institutional teams to explore this new area of astronomy. Lazio is lead author of an article reporting scientific results from the Long Wavelength Demonstrator Array, a precursor to the new array, in the December 2010 issue of Astronomical Journal.

The new Long Wavelength Array will operate in the radio-frequency range of 20 to 80 megahertz, corresponding to wavelengths of 15 meters to 3.8 meters (49.2 feet to 12.5 feet). These frequencies represent one of the last and most poorly explored regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In recent years, a few factors have triggered revived interest in radio astronomy at these frequencies. The cost and technology required to build these low-frequency antennas has improved significantly. Also, advances in computing have made the demands of image processing more attainable. The combination of cost-effective hardware and technology gives scientists the ability to return to these wavelengths and obtain a much better view of the universe. The predecessor Long Wavelength Demonstrator Array was also in New Mexico. It was successful in identifying radio flashes, but all of them came from non-astronomy targets -- either the sun, or meteors reflecting TV signals high in Earth's atmosphere. Nonetheless, its findings indicate how future searches using the Long Wavelength Array technology might lead to new discoveries.

Radio astronomy was born at frequencies below 100 megahertz and developed from there. The discoveries and innovations at this frequency range helped pave the way for modern astronomy. Perhaps one of the most important contributions made in radio astronomy was by a young graduate student at New Hall (since renamed Murray Edwards College) of the University of Cambridge, U.K. Jocelyn Bell discovered the first hints of radio pulsars in 1967, a finding that was later awarded a Nobel Prize. Pulsars are neutron stars that beam radio waves in a manner similar to a lighthouse beacon.

Long before Bell's discovery, astronomers believed that neutron stars, remnants of certain types of supernova explosions, might exist. At the time, however, the prediction was that these cosmic objects would be far too faint to be detected. When Bell went looking for something else, she stumbled upon neutron stars that were in fact pulsing with radio waves -- the pulsars. Today about 2,000 pulsars are known, but within the past decade, a number of discoveries have hinted that the radio sky might be far more dynamic than suggested by just pulsars.

"Because nature is more clever than we are, it's quite possible that we will discover something we haven't thought of," said Lazio.

 The Long Wavelength Array project is led by the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, N.M., and includes the Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., the United States Naval Research Laboratories, Washington, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

The Early Cosmos

Stars are forming in Henize 2-10, a dwarf starburst galaxy located about 30 million light years from Earth, at a prodigious rate, giving the star clusters in this galaxy their blue appearance. This combination of a burst of star formation and a massive black hole is analogous to conditions in the early Universe. Since Henize 2-10 does not contain a significant bulge of stars in its center, these results show that supermassive black hole growth may precede the growth of bulges in galaxies. This differs from the relatively nearby universe where the growth of galaxy bulges and supermassive black holes appears to occur in parallel.

The combined observations from multiple telescopes has provided astronomers with a detailed new look at how galaxy and black hole formation may have occurred in the early universe. This image shows optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope in red, green and blue, X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory in purple, and radio data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array in yellow. A compact X-ray source at the center of the galaxy coincides with a radio source, giving evidence for an actively growing supermassive black hole with a mass of about one million times that of the sun.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Half a Million Take a Gander at Space

The first-ever NASA/JPL iPhone application, Space Images, has reached 500,000 downloads, just as JPL prepares to release its newest version of the free app. Space Images features breathtaking views of Earth, the solar system and the universe beyond.

Soon after its release in January 2010, Space Images was selected as a "Staff Favorite" in iTunes and quickly became a top app in the Education category. It has since received praise from users for its extensive and stunning collection of images taken by NASA/JPL spacecraft and for its educational uses.

The new version, Space Images 2.0, optimized for iPad and iPhone 4, brings even more stellar photos to viewers' fingertips, plus videos, Facebook and Twitter connectivity, and a new format that makes it easier to browse through photos at a higher resolution. It will be available in the iTunes Store this spring.

Droid more your style? Space Images 2.0 for Android devices is coming soon.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

NASA's First Solar Sail NanoSail-D Deploys in Low-Earth Orbit

Friday, Jan. 21 at 10 a.m. EST, engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., confirmed that the NanoSail-D nanosatellite deployed its 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit and is operating as planned. Actual deployment occurred on Jan. 20 at 10 p.m. EST and was confirmed today with beacon packets data received from NanoSail-D and additional ground-based satellite tracking assets. In addition, the NanoSail-D orbital parameter data set shows an appropriate change which is consistent with sail deployment.

"This is tremendous news and the first time NASA has deployed a solar sail in low-Earth orbit," said Dean Alhorn, NanoSail-D principal investigator and aerospace engineer at the Marshall Center. "To get to this point is an incredible accomplishment for our small team and I can't thank the amateur ham operator community enough for their help in tracking NanoSail-D. Their assistance was invaluable. In particular, the Marshall Amateur Radio Club was the very first to hear the radio beacon. It was exciting!"

It is estimated that NanoSail-D will remain in low-Earth orbit between 70 and 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions. NanoSail-D is designed to demonstrate deployment of a compact solar sail boom technology. This research demonstration could lead to further advances of this alternative solar sail propulsion and the critical need for new de-orbit technologies. This ejection experiment also demonstrates a spacecraft’s ability, like the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite, or FASTSAT, to eject a nano-satellite from a micro-satellite, while avoiding re-contact with the primary satellite.

"This is a significant accomplishment for both the FASTSAT and NanoSail-D projects. This accomplishment validates that we've met another of our primary mission objectives -- successfully ejecting a nanosatellite from an orbiting microsatellite," said Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager at the Marshall Center. "This is another significant accomplishment for our inter Agency, Industry and Governmental FASTSAT-HSV01 partnership team."

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

NASA’s Glory Mission Will Study Key Pieces of the Climate Puzzle

Earth’s climate continues to change at a rapid pace.

Last week, NASA announced that 2010 was tied as the warmest year on record. Likewise, the last decade was the warmest in the 130-year global temperature record maintained by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.

Meanwhile, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, engineers are preparing NASA’s next Earth-observing mission -- a satellite called Glory -- for launch in late February. The satellite, which contains two instruments that will monitor key parts of the climate system, aims to offer a new stream of data that climatologists will use as part of an ongoing effort to improve the accuracy of climate models.

The Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS), a science instrument mounted on the Earth-facing side of the spacecraft, will collect information about small airborne particles called aerosols that can affect climate by absorbing and scattering light. The Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM), which is located on the opposite side of the spacecraft, facing the sun, will measure the intensity of solar radiation at the top of Earth’s atmosphere.

While climatologists have a good understanding of the role that greenhouse gases have on climate, less is known about the impacts of aerosols and long-term solar variability. "We are trying to achieve better measurements of both aerosols and total solar irradiance in order to calculate the energy budget -- the amount of energy entering and exiting Earth’s atmosphere -- as accurately as possible," said Michael Mishchenko, Glory’s project scientist and a researcher at GISS.

Perplexing Particles

The need for better measurements is particularly acute for aerosols. "The range of uncertainty associated with the climate impact of aerosols is three or four times that of greenhouse gases," said James Hansen, the director of GISS and a member of Glory’s science team.

Aerosol particles, or the gases that lead to their formation, can come from vehicle tailpipes and desert winds, from sea spray and campfires, volcanic eruptions and factories. Even lush forests, soils, or communities of plankton in the ocean can be sources of certain types of aerosols.

Detecting subtle differences between the many different types of aerosols -- such as salt, mineral dust, soot, and smoke -- will be one of Glory’s primary strengths. And by closely monitoring the shape and size distribution of aerosols, as well as the way in which the particles reflect light, scientists will be able to distinguish natural from human-produced aerosols more precisely.

Of the 25 climate models included by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a major report released in 2007, only a handful considered the scattering or absorbing role of aerosol types other than sulfates, a well-studied category of aerosol produced by volcanic eruptions and by burning certain fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, clouds, which form in the presence of aerosols and can be more reflective when human-produced aerosol particles are present, remain a sort of terra incognito to climatologists. Less than a third of the IPCC models included aerosol impacts on clouds, even in a limited way, and, again, those that did only considered sulfates.

Glory, with its innovative APS, aims to advance understanding of the problematic particles. While other NASA instruments—including ground, aircraft, and satellite-based instruments—have studied aerosols in the past, the APS is NASA’s first satellite-based instrument that will do so by measuring the polarization of light, the orientation of light-wave vibrations.

The Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency, has launched instruments capable of measuring polarized light in the past. However, Mishchenko expects APS to make more accurate polarimetric measurements of aerosols because it will measure particles from more than 250 angles across nine different spectral channels.

Each type of aerosol leaves a unique polarization signature on light it encounters. Glory scientists, like detectives analyzing blood droplets at a crime scene to reconstruct what happened, will look at the polarization of scattered light and work backwards to deduce the type of aerosol that must have scattered it.

"We know the technique works because we’ve been testing it for a number of years with an airplane-based version of the APS called the Research Scanning Polarimeter (RSP)," said Brian Cairns, Glory’s APS instrument scientist and a researcher at GISS.

Monitoring the Sun

Scientists used to describe the incoming energy from the sun -- the foundation of Earth’s climate -- as the "solar constant." However, satellite measurements made by numerous instruments during the last three decades have revealed that solar output actually fluctuates by about 0.1 percent over an 11-year cycle as the sun progresses through periods of more and less intense electromagnetic activity.

"Those fluctuations do not explain the global warming the planet has experienced in the last few decades," said Judith Lean, a member of Glory’s science team and a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. "However, it’s possible -- probable even -- that longer-term solar cycles exist that could have an impact on climate."

There are clues that broader solar cycles exist -- historical records of sunspots and other types of evidence show that the sun entered an extended quiet period of solar activity between 1645 and 1715 called the Maunder Minimum, for example -- but modern satellite instruments have only been available to monitor total solar irradiance since 1978.

Glory’s TIM instrument will extend and improve upon the existing record of solar irradiance that multiple satellite missions -- some sponsored by NASA and others by international partners -- have maintained. NASA’s most recent solar irradiance instrument was launched in 2003 on the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) satellite, and included a first-generation TIM instrument.

Learning from that instrument, engineers have modified the electronics of the instrument to make the Glory TIM even more accurate. "The Glory TIM should be three times more accurate than the SORCE TIM and about ten times more accurate than earlier instruments," said Greg Kopp, a physicist at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the leader of the TIM science team.

The Glory TIM has a key advantage: access to a one-of-a-kind TSI Radiometer Facility. Funded by NASA and built by LASP, the new facility has allowed Kopp’s team to validate the TIM instrument -- as well as check many ground-based versions of some of the other instruments that have measured solar irradiance -- in the most rigorous manner to date.

Retrofitting a Spacecraft

Overall, at 1.9 meters (6.2 feet) by 1.4 meters (4.6 feet), Glory is neither the largest nor the heaviest of NASA’s Earth-observing satellites. The whole of the spacecraft is not much taller than most people, and is slightly narrower than a park bench. It weighs about 525 kilograms (1,158 pounds), about half the weight of a vintage Volkswagen Beetle.

But there’s one detail that makes Glory particularly interesting: the spacecraft’s bus was originally designed for the Vegetation Canopy Lidar (VCL), a mission that never flew due to a technical glitch in the development of an instrument.

Transforming VCL -- a spacecraft that would have launched on a larger rocket, flown in a different orbit, and faced slightly different conditions in space -- into Glory wasn’t easy. "We had to overcome some interesting engineering challenges, but we have done multiple rounds of environmental tests on all of the components on the spacecraft and we’re confident Glory is ready for the space environment," said Bryan Fafaul, Glory’s project manager.

When Glory launches, it will join a group of satellites called the A-Train that fly in similar low-Earth orbits and make coordinated measurements of the surface. "In a sense, we’ve created the first 'super-observatory' with the A-Train," said Joy Bretthauer, the program executive for Glory at NASA headquarters.

NASA held a press conference about Glory on January 20 at NASA headquarters in Washington.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Prepares for Valentine's Day Comet Rendezvous

NASA's Stardust-NExT spacecraft is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST), on Feb. 14. The mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet's surface that occurred following an orbit around the sun.

The Stardust-NExT, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma, or material surrounding the comet's nucleus. Data from the mission will provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA's Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft delivered an impactor to the surface of Tempel 1 to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater created by the impactor. This would be an added bonus to the huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

"Every day we are getting closer and closer and more and more excited about answering some fundamental questions about comets," said Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "Going back for another look at Tempel 1 will provide new insights on how comets work and how they were put together four-and-a-half billion years ago."

At approximately 336 million kilometers (209 million miles) away from Earth, Stardust-NExT will be almost on the exact opposite side of the solar system at the time of the encounter. During the flyby, the spacecraft will take 72 images and store them in an onboard computer.

Initial raw images from the flyby will be sent to Earth for processing that will begin at approximately midnight PST (3 a.m. EST) on Feb. 15. Images are expected to be available at approximately 1:30 a.m. PST (4:30 a.m. EST).

As of today, the spacecraft is approximately 24.6 million kilometers (15.3 million miles) away from its encounter. Since 2007, Stardust-NExT executed eight flight path correction maneuvers, logged four circuits around the sun and used one Earth gravity assist to meet up with Tempel 1.

Another three maneuvers are planned to refine the spacecraft's path to the comet. Tempel 1's orbit takes it as close in to the sun as the orbit of Mars and almost as far away as the orbit of Jupiter. The spacecraft is expected to fly past the nearly 6-kilometer-wide comet (3.7 miles) at a distance of approximately 200 kilometers (124 miles).

In 2004, the Stardust mission became the first to collect particles directly from comet Wild 2, as well as interstellar dust. Samples were returned in 2006 for study via a capsule that detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to the ground southwest of Salt Lake City. Mission controllers placed the still viable Stardust spacecraft on a trajectory that could potentially reuse the flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself.

In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission Stardust-NExT and began a four-and-a-half year journey to comet Tempel 1.

"You could say our spacecraft is a seasoned veteran of cometary campaigns," said Tim Larson, project manager for Stardust-NExT at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's been half-way to Jupiter, executed picture-perfect flybys of an asteroid and a comet, collected cometary material for return to Earth, then headed back out into the void again, where we asked it to go head-to-head with a second comet nucleus."

The mission team expects this flyby to write the final chapter of the spacecraft's success-filled story. The spacecraft is nearly out of fuel as it approaches 12 years of space travel, logging almost 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) since launch in 1999. This flyby and planned post-encounter imaging are expected to consume the remaining fuel.

JPL manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations. JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

NASA Satellites Capture a Stronger La Nina

New NASA satellite data indicate the current La Niña event in the eastern Pacific has remained strong during November and December 2010.

A new Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)/Jason-2 satellite image of the Pacific Ocean that averaged 10 days of data was just released from NASA. The image, centered on Dec. 26, 2010, was created at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.

"The solid record of La Niña strength only goes back about 50 years and this latest event appears to be one of the strongest ones over this time period," said Climatologist Bill Patzert of JPL. "It is already impacting weather and climate all around the planet."

"Although exacerbated by precipitation from a tropical cyclone, rainfalls of historic proportion in eastern Queensland, Australia have led to levels of flooding usually only seen once in a century," said David Adamec, Oceanographer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "The copious rainfall is a direct result of La Niña’s effect on the Pacific trade winds and has made tropical Australia particularly rainy this year."

The new image depicts places where the Pacific sea surface height is near-normal, higher (warmer) than normal and lower (cooler) than normal. The cooler-than normal pool of water that stretches from the eastern to the central Pacific Ocean is a hallmark of a La Niña event.

Earth's ocean is the greatest influence on global climate. Only from space can we observe our vast ocean on a global scale and monitor critical changes in ocean currents and heat storage. Continuous data from satellites like OSTM/Jason-2 help us understand and foresee the effects of ocean changes on our climate and on climate events such as La Niña and El Niño.

The latest report from NOAA's Climate Prediction Center (CPC) noted that "A moderate-to-strong La Niña continued during December 2010 as reflected by well below-average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) across the equatorial Pacific Ocean." The CPC report said that La Niña is expected to continue well into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2011.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

A First Look at Flight in 2025

In late 2010, NASA awarded contracts to three teams — Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, The Boeing Company — to study advanced concept designs for aircraft that could take to the skies in the year 2025.

At the time of the award, the team gave NASA a sneak peek of the particular design they plan to pursue.

Each design looks very different, but all final designs have to meet NASA's goals for less noise, cleaner exhaust and lower fuel consumption. Each aircraft has to be able to do all of those things at the same time, which requires a complex dance of tradeoffs between all of the new advanced technologies that will be on these vehicles.

The proposed aircraft will also have to operate safely in a more modernized air traffic management system.

And each design has to fly up to 85 percent of the speed of sound; cover a range of approximately 7,000 miles; and carry between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of payload, either passengers or cargo.

For the rest of this year, each team will be exploring, testing, simulating, keeping and discarding innovations and technologies to make their design a winner.

How different will the final designs look from these initial glimpses?

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

NASA Telescopes Help Find Most Distant Galaxy Cluster

Astronomers have uncovered a burgeoning galactic metropolis, the most distant known in the early universe. This ancient collection of galaxies presumably grew into a modern galaxy cluster similar to the massive ones seen today.

The developing cluster, named COSMOS-AzTEC3, was discovered and characterized by multi-wavelength telescopes, including NASA's Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble space telescopes, and the ground-based W.M. Keck Observatory and Japan's Subaru Telescope.

"This exciting discovery showcases the exceptional science made possible through collaboration among NASA projects and our international partners," said Jon Morse, NASA's Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Scientists refer to this growing lump of galaxies as a proto-cluster. COSMOS-AzTEC3 is the most distant massive proto-cluster known, and also one of the youngest, because it is being seen when the universe itself was young. The cluster is roughly 12.6 billion light-years away from Earth. Our universe is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old. Previously, more mature versions of these clusters had been spotted at 10 billion light-years away.

The astronomers also found that this cluster is buzzing with extreme bursts of star formation and one enormous feeding black hole.

"We think the starbursts and black holes are the seeds of the cluster," said Peter Capak of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "These seeds will eventually grow into a giant, central galaxy that will dominate the cluster -- a trait found in modern-day galaxy clusters." Capak is first author of a paper appearing in the Jan. 13 issue of the journal Nature.

Most galaxies in our universe are bound together into clusters that dot the cosmic landscape like urban sprawls, usually centered around one old, monstrous galaxy containing a massive black hole. Astronomers thought that primitive versions of these clusters, still forming and clumping together, should exist in the early universe. But locating one proved difficult—until now.

Capak and his colleagues first used the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the United Kingdom's James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to search for the black holes and bursts of star formation needed to form the massive galaxies at the centers of modern galaxy cities. The astronomers then used the Hubble and Subaru telescopes to estimate the distances to these objects, and look for higher densities of galaxies around them. Finally, the Keck telescope was used to confirm that these galaxies were at the same distance and part of the same galactic sprawl.

Once the scientists found this lumping of galaxies, they measured the combined mass with the help of Spitzer. At this distance, the optical light from stars is shifted, or stretched, to infrared wavelengths that can only be observed in outer space by Spitzer. The lump sum of the mass turned out to be a minimum of 400 billion suns -- enough to indicate that the astronomers had indeed uncovered a massive proto-cluster. The Spitzer observations also helped confirm that a massive galaxy at the center of the cluster was forming stars at an impressive rate.

Chandra X-ray observations were used to find and characterize the whopping black hole with a mass of more than 30 million suns. Massive black holes are common in present-day galaxy clusters, but this is the first time a feeding black hole of this heft has been linked to a cluster that is so young.

Finally, the Institut de Radioastronomie Millimétrique's interferometer telescope in France and 30-meter (about 100-foot) telescope in Spain, along with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico, measured the amount of gas, or fuel for future star formation, in the cluster. The results indicate the cluster will keep growing into a modern city of galaxies.

"It really did take a village of telescopes to nail this cluster," said Capak. "Observations across the electromagnetic spectrum, from X-ray to millimeter wavelengths, were all critical in providing a comprehensive view of the cluster's many facets."

COSMOS-AzTEC3, located in the constellation Sextans, is named after the region where it was found, called COSMOS after the Cosmic Evolution Survey. AzTEC is the name of the camera used on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope; this camera is now on its way to the Large Millimeter Telescope located in Mexico's Puebla state.

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 Caltech in Pasadena.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

SOFIA Opens New Window on Star Formation in Orion

A mid-infrared mosaic image from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, offers new information about processes of star formation in and around the nebula Messier 42 in the constellation Orion. The image data were acquired using the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, or FORCAST, by principal investigator Terry Herter, of Cornell University during SOFIA’s Short Science 1 observing program in December 2010.

SOFIA’s mid-infrared image of Messier 42, plus comparison images of the same region made at other wavelengths by other observatories.

SOFIA's view combines images at mid-infrared wavelengths of 19.7 microns (green) and 37.1 microns (red). The latter wavelength cannot be accessed by any telescope on the ground or currently in space. Detailed structures in the clouds of star construction material can be seen, as well as warm clouds of dust and gas surrounding, and partly obscuring, a cluster of luminous newborn stars at upper right.

The left and center panels of the three-image comparison have the same scale and orientation as the SOFIA image.

The image in the left panel, made at wavelengths visible to the human eye, shows dense clouds of interstellar dust blocking our view into parts of the star forming region, plus the rosy glow of hydrogen gas excited by radiation from the young stars just above the center.

In the center panel, the near-infrared image penetrates some of the dust and reveals numerous stars at various stages of formation, embedded inside the clouds.

SOFIA’s observations reveal distinctly different aspects of the M42 star formation complex than the other images. For example, the dense dust cloud at upper left is completely opaque in the visible-light image, partly transparent in the near-infrared image, and is seen shining with its own heat radiation in the SOFIA mid-infrared image. The hot stars of the Trapezium cluster are seen just above the centers of the visible-light and near-infrared images, but they are almost undetectable in the SOFIA image. At upper right, the dust-embedded cluster of high-luminosity stars that is the most prominent feature in the SOFIA mid-infrared image is less apparent in the near-infrared image and is completely hidden in the visible-light image.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

The International Space Station Enters the New Year with a New Era of Utilization

The new year is here, and along with it a new era of utilization for research and technology begins for the completed International Space Station. The orbiting laboratory shifts focus in 2011 from finalizing construction efforts to full-scale use of the facility for scientific investigation and technological advances.

Mark Uhran, assistant associate administrator for the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters, kicked off the year at the 49th AIAA Meeting speaking on the topic, Positioning the International Space Station for the Utilization Era.

"Full-scale ISS utilization will re-boot the spacecraft for the purposes for which it was originally designed -- scientific research, applications development, technological demonstration and industrial growth," Uhran says.

With benefits from research conducted under microgravity conditions already being realized, the NASA authorization act of 2010 extends the life of the space station to 2020. Accomplishments during the second decade of continuous human life, work and research on the station will depend upon the global-market impact of station-based research and development, as well as continued government programmatic support.

The past 25 years of microgravity-based research, on earlier missions and during station assembly, can be viewed as a survey phase. Although it can take a long time for the full application of research results in our daily lives, early space research has already yielded important progress and advances for industry and health here on Earth. In his AIAA paper, Uhran reviews five specific examples of notable discoveries and their benefits:

Thermo-physical Properties Measurement -- Using electromagnetic levitators, investigators can position and study samples free of contamination from container walls. They also can transition the samples from solid to liquid phases via energy flux. This capability has enabled the understanding of thermodynamic properties for complex, metallic glass alloys, advancing the capably to produce bulk metallic glasses on the ground. The Liquidmetal® Technologies company has recently granted an exclusive worldwide license to Apple Computer, Inc., for use of their patented Liquidmetal® alloy in consumer electronics.

Cellular Tissue Culturing -- The use of a bioreactor, originally developed for microgravity-based research, enables cells to grow and propagate in a three-dimensional matrix, similar to their natural development inside the human body. Ground-based labs were previously limited to two-dimensional cell growth. Research laboratories around the nation now routinely use bioreactors in studies of tumors and tissue growth, and the space-based research will continue on board the station in the future where conditions have proven to be optimum.

Macromolecular Crystallization -- Microgravity allows for larger and more perfect biological macromolecular crystal growth, due to the lack of sedimentation, buoyancy, thermal convection, etc. The resulting crystal allows a more exact determination of molecular structures, needed for therapeutic drug design. At the International Astronautics Congress in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 2010, Dr. Yoshihiro Urade of Japan unveiled recent results from his space station research using crystallization to learn the structure of an enzyme protein. His work has led to a potential new treatment for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy.

Differential Gene Expression -- Gene expression radically changes under microgravity conditions because the physical forces experienced at the cellular level are different than on the ground. Improved understanding of the cues that cause genes to turn "on" and "off" is now enabled through microgravity experimentation. Healthy maintenance of human systems can benefit from a better understanding of gene expression, which regulates physiological performance.

Microbial Pathogenicity -- Some bacterial microbes have proven to be more virulent in space than on the ground. Research may lead to new vaccine development here on Earth. Microgravity investigations have shown that signal transduction pathways at the cellular level alter in the absence of gravitational forces. The original government-funded scientific studies, which focused on Salmonella enterica, have since led to privately sponsored research on the development of vaccine candidates for bacterial infections, which could help in the fight against food poisoning.

As the world looks to findings from the space station, it is necessary to anticipate a realistic lag from research to results. As Uhran explains, "The notion that a single experimental finding is going to yield a profound discovery that rapidly impacts society in the form of widely available products is well beyond the bounds of history." Even so, the survey period findings point to the promising prospects ahead in this new era of utilization, making the space station an asset of great potential to watch in the coming decade.

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's Statement on the Shooting of Congresswoman Giffords

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden issued the following statement Saturday about the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several others:

"We at NASA are deeply shocked and saddened by the senseless shooting of Representative Giffords and others at Saturday’s public event in Tucson. As a long-time supporter of NASA, Representative Giffords not only has made lasting contributions to our country, but is a strong advocate for the nation’s space program and a member of the NASA family. She also is a personal friend with whom I have had the great honor of working. We at NASA mourn this tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords, her husband Mark Kelly, their family, and the families and friends of all who perished or were injured in this terrible tragedy."

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Friday, January 7, 2011

NASA Chat: The Quest for Planets

A new planet discovery will be announced Monday Jan. 10 during the 'Exoplanets & Their Host Stars' presentation at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Seattle, Washington.

Kepler is NASA's first mission to look specifically for Earth-size planets in the habitable zones (areas where liquid water could exist) around stars like our sun. Kepler will spend 3-1/2 years surveying more than 100,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy. More than 300 exoplanets have been discovered previously, most of which are low-density gas giants such as Jupiter or Saturn in our own solar system.

Natalie Batalha of the NASA Kepler Mission Team will be online answering your questions about this new planet finding on Monday, Jan. 10 from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST / 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. PST. Natalie will be chatting with you live from the conference in Seattle.

Joining the chat is easy. Simply visit this page on Monday from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST / 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. PST. The chat window will open at the bottom of this page starting 15 minutes before the chat. You can log in and be ready to ask questions at 3:30 p.m.

About Dr. Natalie Batalha

Natalie Batalha is a professor of physics and astronomy at San Jose State University in the heart of Silicon Valley, California and deputy science team lead for NASA’s Kepler Mission. She holds a bachelor's in physics from the University of California (UC), Berkeley and a doctorate in astrophysics from UC Santa Cruz. Batalha started her career as a stellar spectroscopist studying young, sun-like stars. After a post-doctoral fellowship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Batalha returned to California. Inspired by the growing number of exoplanet discoveries she joined the team led by William Borucki at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., working on transit photometry -- an emerging technology for finding exoplanets. As a member of the Kepler team, Batalha is responsible for the selection of the more than 150,000 stars the spacecraft monitors and works closely with team members at Ames to identify viable planet candidates from Kepler photometry.

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hinode Observes Annular Solar Eclipse

On January 4, the Hinode satellite captured these breathtaking images of an annular solar eclipse. An annular eclipse occurs when the moon, slightly more distant from Earth than on average, moves directly between Earth and the sun, thus appearing slightly smaller to observers' eyes; the effect is a bright ring, or annulus of sunlight, around the silhouette of the moon. Hinode, a Japanese mission in partnership with NASA, NAOJ, STFC, ESA, and NSC, currently in Earth orbit, is studying the Sun to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that power the solar atmosphere and drive solar eruptions.

Hinode, launched in September 2006, uses three advanced optical instruments to further our understanding of the solar atmosphere and turbulent solar eruptions that can impact hardware in orbit and life on Earth.

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Venus Rising

This hemispheric view of Venus was created using more than a decade of radar investigations culminating in the 1990-1994 Magellan mission, and is centered on the planet's North Pole. The Magellan spacecraft imaged more than 98 percent of the planet Venus and a mosaic of the Magellan images (most with illumination from the west) forms the image base. Gaps in the Magellan coverage were filled with images from the Earth-based Arecibo radar in a region centered roughly on 0 degree latitude and longitude, and with a neutral tone elsewhere (primarily near the south pole). This composite image was processed to improve contrast and to emphasize small features, and was color-coded to represent elevation. Gaps in the elevation data from the Magellan radar altimeter were filled with altimetry from the Venera spacecraft and the Pioneer Venus missions.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

NASA Checking on Rover Spirit During Martian Spring

Nine months after last hearing from the Mars rover Spirit, NASA is stepping up efforts to regain communications with the rover before spring ends on southern Mars in mid-March.

Spirit landed on Mars Jan. 4, 2004 (Universal Time; Jan. 3, Pacific Time) for a mission designed to last for three months. After accomplishing its prime-mission goals, Spirit worked for more than five years in bonus-time extended missions.

"The amount of solar energy available for Spirit is still increasing every day for the next few months," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "As long as that's the case, we will do all we can to increase the chances of hearing from the rover again."

After mid-March, prospects for reviving Spirit would begin to drop. Communication strategies would change based on reasoning that Spirit's silence is due to factors beyond just a low-power condition. Mission-ending damage from the cold experienced by Spirit in the past Martian winter is a real possibility.

The rover's motors worked far beyond their design life, but eventually, Spirit lost use of drive motors on two of its six wheels. This left it unable to obtain a favorable tilt for solar energy during the rover's fourth Martian winter, which began last May.

Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, which landed three weeks after Spirit and is still active, both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life.

Spirit last communicated on March 22, 2010. The rover team had anticipated that the rover would enter a low-power fault mode with minimal activity except charging and heating the batteries and keeping its clock running. With most heaters shut off, Spirit's internal temperatures dipped lower than ever before on Mars. That stress could have caused damage, such as impaired electrical connections, that would prevent reawakening or, even if Spirit returns to operation, would reduce its capabilities.

Southern-Mars spring began in November 2010. Even before that, NASA's Deep Space Network of antennas in California, Spain and Australia has been listening for Spirit daily. The rover team has also been sending commands to elicit a response from the rover even if the rover has lost track of time.

Now, the monitoring is being increased. Additional listening periods include times when Spirit might mistake a signal from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a signal from Earth and respond to such a signal. Commands for a beep from Spirit will be sent at additional times to cover a wider range of times-of-day on Mars when Spirit might awaken. Also, NASA is listening on a wider range of frequencies to cover more possibilities of temperature effects on Spirit's radio systems.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Tidal Flats and Channels, Long Island, Bahamas

The islands of the Bahamas are situated on large depositional platforms—the Great and Little Bahama Banks—composed mainly of carbonate sediments ringed by reefs. The islands are the only parts of the platform currently exposed above sea level. The sediments were formed mostly from the skeletal remains of organisms settling to the sea floor; over geologic time, these sediments consolidated to form carbonate sedimentary rocks such as limestone.

This astronaut photograph provides a view of tidal flats and channels near Sandy Cay, on the western side of Long Island and along the eastern margin of the Great Bahama Bank. The continuously exposed parts of the island are brown, a result of soil formation and vegetation growth. To the north of Sandy Cay, an off-white tidal flat composed of carbonate sediments is visible; light blue-green regions indicate shallow water on the tidal flat. The tidal flow of seawater is concentrated through gaps in the land surface, leading to the formation of relatively deep channels that cut into the sediments. The channels and areas to the south of the island have a vivid blue color that indicates deeper water.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bob Benson: Tales of Chilly Research

Standing in the corner of Bob Benson's office is a microfilm reader. You know, the big, boxy machine that was used to look up archived newspaper articles before such things were an Internet search away. That machine is one of the tools Benson has used to scan decades worth of data throughout his 46 years at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He studies the ionosphere – the swath of our atmosphere filled with electrons and ions stretching from about 30 to 600 miles above Earth's surface – and the data he studied from various ionospheric satellites were displayed on 35-millimeter film.

"We had thousands of these boxes," he says, holding up a small cardboard box in which a film lies curled. "When I first came here, we'd go pull them from a drawer at the National Space Science Data Center at Goddard and do analysis with a machine like this."

With such a long tenure at Goddard, Benson is a one-person historical record of ionospheric studies at NASA and even beyond. Benson’s research has taken him from pioneering Antarctic campaigns with supplies air-dropped in, to years in the wilds of Alaska, and finally back to an office to archive and rescue some of the earliest data from this field. He has helped improve our understanding of a mysterious, expansive layer of the atmosphere that we nonetheless rely on for things as simple as driving directions, says Benson.

"Everyone wants to know when to turn right or left when driving down the road," he says. "And the military wants to make sure that the missile arrives at the correct military target. Our GPS radio signals travel through the ionosphere and under normal conditions that works well, but when there's a strong ionospheric storm your links to the GPS satellites can fail completely." In addition, there are many important non-communications satellites in the ionosphere and these can be damaged during magnetic storms, so scientists wish to be able to forecast this kind of space weather just as meteorologists forecast weather on Earth.

A side effect of studying such phenomenon for Benson has been research time spent in cold environments, since much space research is done near the magnetic poles where solar wind particles can more easily slip down magnetic field lines. He studied physics at the University of Minnesota, was part of the first group to spend the winter at the South Pole Station in 1957, and attended graduate school in Alaska.

Upon graduating from college, he took a job as a scientist on the 18-person – and one dog -- team that was the very first to winter at the geographic South Pole in 1957, during the International Geophysical Year. He was there under the leadership of Paul Siple, a man who first went to Antarctica as a Boy Scout with Admiral Richard Byrd and who had substantial Antarctic experience. The group spent the first few weeks securing the South Pole base for the winter, setting up their scientific instruments, and retrieving supplies that were dropped in around them by parachute.

The sun set on March 21, and after a few weeks of twilight, Benson and his colleagues settled in for nearly six months of darkness with temperatures typically between -60° to -80° F. (Which felt additionally cold, due to the wind. In fact, Paul Siple was the man who invented the concept of and the equations for the wind chill index for his PhD in 1939.) Benson was 21 years old when he arrived at the South Pole, and he remembers Siple as a dynamic leader who worked longer hours out in the cold than anyone else and who, much to the group's dismay, doled out the supply of movies slowly so morale wouldn't run too low at the end of the winter if there were only re-runs to be had.

Benson's scientific work at the South Pole station included the study of the ionosphere using something called an ionosonde. This instrument sends radio waves up into the atmosphere and measures the time it takes them to bounce off the ionosphere and return, carrying information about the height and density of the ionosphere. Bouncing radio communiqués off the ionosphere to distant locations was at the time a common method of communication, so understanding its effects was crucial. Indeed, there was some concern that the ionosphere above their station would disappear during part of the winter disrupting radio communications with the outside world. While there were times when communications were difficult, radio contact with relatives and friends in the U.S. was possible throughout the long winter via ham radio.

After the South-Pole experience, Benson returned to the University of Minnesota for his master's degree in 1959 before moving to Fairbanks for his PhD in Geophysics at the University of Alaska.

"My wife, Marilyn, never says how many years we spent in Alaska," says Benson. "She says, 'We spent four winters in Alaska.'" Alaska is where he learned to respect the cold. "In Alaska you always went out in survival mode. You never went on a long trip by car in the winter without sleeping bags in the trunk, because there might not be anybody to help you if your car broke down."

While in Alaska, Benson continued to study the ionosphere. Made up of electrons and ions that stretch across the inner layer of Earth's magnetosphere, the ionosphere not only affects the performance of radio communication systems but is the site for auroras and many complex physical processes. And, as Benson likes to point out, it is the easiest, cheapest space environment to investigate because it is filled with the same kind of electrified gas, or plasma, that surrounds the sun and other objects in our solar system.

In the early 1960s, technological advances enabled scientists to send ionosondes up on spacecraft high up in the ionosphere. The first satellite to carry such an instrument was the Canadian-built Alouette 1, launched in 1962 by the US. For the first time with Alouette 1, the "topside" of the ionosphere could be routinely observed.

"That first one," says Benson, "Some people at NASA thought it wouldn't last more than a few months – that was a typical lifetime at the time. It was launched in 1962, and I have a plaque here displaying an Alouette-1 ionogram recorded after ten years in space." Benson continued his work on Alouette 2, launched in 1965, and two additional Canadian satellites ISIS 1, launched in 1969 and ISIS 2 launched in 1971, both of which were supported until 1990, pumping out data that led to thousands more of those curled films for Benson's microfilm reader.

Not all of the data were put on film due to cost considerations. Some were simply kept on magnetic tapes and left to sit in a storage house in Canada. So, in 1992 when the Canadian government announced it could no longer store the tapes, Benson led a restoration project initially funded by NASA's Ionosphere, Thermosphere, Mesosphere (ITM) Data Evaluation Panel to convert the tapes to digital data. "It's like having a new satellite mission suddenly appear with all this historical data," says Benson. "There have been many publications written on these observations."

Much of the original ionospheric data is only available on film, so Benson's microfilm reader isn't ready for the Smithsonian yet. Like the machine itself, Benson will continue to use technologies and stories from the past to look forward and improve our understanding of Earth's magnetosphere.

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