Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Night with the Stars...in a Conference Room

Ancient astronomers looked up at the dark skies in wonder, as the stars marched by overhead like precision dancers. In the early 17th century, Galileo Galilei brought the world one step closer to the heavens with his telescope, discovering, among other celestial marvels, moons around Jupiter, and our own moon's pockmarked surface.

Nowadays, the stars are closer to us than ever, thanks to powerful telescopes in space and on the ground. Modern astronomers don't have to step outside, because they get precise data delivered straight to their own laptops. If Galileo could see us now, he'd probably be thrilled by the advances -- and also a little puzzled that astronomy no longer means gazing through telescopes at the twinkling, dark skies.

"You can access a priceless wealth of astronomy data from your couch," said Amy Mainzer, the deputy project scientist for NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We can do almost all of our research on our laptops."

Sometimes astronomers do take trips out to ground-based observatories. They sleep during the day, and, instead of peering up at the night sky, they command the telescopes from computer screens. Some telescopes can also be operated remotely from laptops. Mainzer and a colleague, Mike Cushing, a member of the WISE team at JPL, recently spent an evening with the stars in a conference room at NASA's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

"I guess in some sense, there is a slight loss of romance doing remote observing," said Cushing. "But it is more than made up for by being able to sleep in your own bed!"

This particular night, Mainzer and Cushing, along with an undergraduate student, Emily DeBaun from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., were on a hunt for brown dwarfs. These are cool, dim stars with somewhat stunted development. They begin life like stars, but never grow massive enough to ignite nuclear fusion and shine with sunlight, as our sun does so brilliantly. Instead, brown dwarfs glow because of the heat leftover from their formation. This heat makes them easy to see with infrared telescopes.

The first brown dwarf wasn't discovered until 1995, though these objects had been predicted to exist as far back as the 1960s. More discoveries rolled in during the early 2000s with the help of data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Two Micron All-Sky Survey, an infrared all-sky mapping project sponsored by the Infrared Analysis and Processing Center and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The WISE mission promises to find even more of these little stars, with its improved infrared all-sky maps. In fact, WISE will likely more than double the number of known brown dwarfs out to 25 light-years from our sun, and it may even find one that's closer to us than our closet known star, Proxima Centauri, which is about 4 light-years away. The WISE telescope wrapped up its all-sky survey and went into hibernation in Feb. 2011, but astronomers are just now beginning to sift through the data.

Mainzer and Cushing had plucked a few good brown dwarf candidates out of the WISE data. Their next step was to use the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii to gather more information on the objects, and figure out if they are indeed brown dwarfs, and not something else, such as a distant galaxy masquerading as a nearby, cool star. That's what brought them to a quiet conference room late at night, when even the most owlish of the astronomers usually working in the building had gone home.

"You've got Guidedog," said Cushing, talking via speaker-phone to the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility telescope operator in Hawaii. Guidedog is the name of one of the computers that controls the camera on the telescope. The operator took control of the computer in order to focus the telescope.

Throughout the night, Mainzer and Cushing told the operator when they were ready to point the telescope at a different patch of sky, while controlling the specific settings from a software interface on their laptops. The laptop screen was projected onto a big screen in the conference room, where they could get a better view of the software.

One task involved placing their objects of interest into thin windows, or slits, which mask other nearby stars. Once the command was given to capture an image, an instrument on the Infrared Telescope Facility, called a spectrometer, broke apart the object's light into its basic components, much as a prism disperses sunlight into a rainbow. These data were then transformed into plots, called spectra, showing the various light intensities at each wavelength. The resulting peaks and dips revealed molecules making up the object, as well as its temperature.

"I think we bagged another T-dwarf," said Mainzer, referring to a classification system that organizes brown dwarfs according to their temperature. T-dwarfs are about 1,400 to 500 Kelvin (about 1,130 to 230 degrees Celsius). WISE will likely find even colder brown dwarfs, possibly even the elusive Y-dwarfs, which some theories say could be as cold as 200 Kelvin (minus 73 degrees Celsius). If such an object is revealed, it would be the coldest star-like body known.

The search for brown dwarfs continued on into night. Keeping the astronomers awake were bags of sweet-and-sour gummies and M&Ms, not to mention the thrill of discovering new worlds.

They stayed up until about 3 a.m. that night, which was midnight in Hawaii. The telescope was then handed off to another team of remote observers.

"We're still up late with the stars, even though we see them with electronic sensors instead of peering through the telescope with our own eyes," said Mainzer. "But compared to ancient astronomers, I think our sense of awe is the same, and we’re continuing the quest to understand our astonishing universe."

For more information visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-167

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Monday, May 30, 2011

James Webb Space Telescope ISIM on 'Spin Cycle'

Prior to taking a new telescope into space, engineers must put the spacecraft and its instruments through a "spin cycle" test for durability to ensure they'll still work after experiencing the forces of a rocket launch. Finding out they don't work once they're in orbit is too late. The structure that houses the science instruments of the James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing that cycle of tests during the weeks of May 23 and 30 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. This structure is called the Integrated Science Instrument Module, or ISIM.

The Webb telescope will experience significant shaking and gravitational forces when it is launched on the large Ariane V rocket. The ISIM structure will house the four main scientific instruments of the telescope.

During the testing process, as the ISIM structure is being spun and shaken, engineers take measurements to compare with their computer models. If there are discrepancies, the engineers hunt for the reasons so they can address them. The huge centrifuge will spin at speeds close to 11 rpm, exposing the ISIM structure to about 10 times the force of gravity.

Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and will serve thousands of astronomers worldwide. Webb will study the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of planetary systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. The Webb telescope is a joint mission of NASA, the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/isim-spin-test.html

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

NASA's Swift Finds Most Distant Gamma-ray Burst Yet

On April 29, 2009, a five-second-long burst of gamma rays from the constellation Canes Venatici triggered the Burst Alert Telescope on NASA's Swift satellite. As with most gamma-ray bursts, this one -- now designated GRB 090429B -- heralded the death of a star some 30 times the sun's mass and the likely birth of a new black hole.

"What's important about this event isn't so much the 'what' but the 'where,'" said Neil Gehrels, lead scientist for Swift at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "GRB 090429B exploded at the cosmic frontier, among some of the earliest stars to form in our universe."

Because light moves at finite speed, looking farther into the universe means looking back in time. GRB 090429B gives astronomers a glimpse of the cosmos as it appeared some 520 million years after the universe began.

Now, after two years of painstaking analysis, astronomers studying the afterglow of the explosion say they're confident that the blast was the farthest explosion yet identified -- and at a distance of 13.14 billion light-years, a contender for the most distant object now known.

Swift's discoveries continue to push the cosmic frontier deeper back in time. A gamma-ray burst detected on Sept. 4, 2005, was shown to be 12.77 billion light-years away. Until the new study dethroned it, GRB 090423, which was detected just six days before the current record-holder, reigned with a distance of about 13.04 billion light-years.

Gamma-ray bursts are the universe's most luminous explosions, emitting more energy in a few seconds than our sun will during its energy-producing lifetime. Most occur when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. When such a star runs out of fuel, its core collapses and likely forms a black hole surrounded by a dense hot disk of gas. Somehow, the black hole diverts part of the infalling matter into a pair of high-energy particle jets that tear through the collapsing star.

The jets move so fast -- upwards of 99.9 percent the speed of light -- that collisions within them produce gamma rays. When the jets breach the star's surface, a gamma-ray burst is born. The jet continues on, later striking gas beyond the star to produce afterglows.

"Catching these afterglows before they fade out is the key to determining distances for the bursts," Gehrels said. "Swift is designed to detect the bursts, rapidly locate them, and communicate the position to astronomers around the world." Once word gets out, the race is on to record as much information from the fading afterglow as possible.

In certain colors, the brightness of a distant object shows a characteristic drop caused by intervening gas clouds. The farther away the object is, the longer the wavelength where this sudden fade-out begins. Exploiting this effect gives astronomers a quick estimate of the blast's "redshift" -- a color shift toward the less energetic red end of the electromagnetic spectrum that indicates distance.

The Gemini-North Telescope in Hawaii captured optical and infrared images of GRB 090429B's quickly fading afterglow within about three hours of Swift's detection. “Gemini was the right telescope, in the right place, at the right time," said lead researcher Antonino Cucchiara at the University of California, Berkeley. "The data from Gemini was instrumental in allowing us to reach the conclusion that the object is likely the most distant GRB ever seen."

The team combined the Gemini images with wider-field images from the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope, which is also located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to narrow estimates of the object's redshift.

Announcing the finding at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston on Wednesday, May 25, the team reported a redshift of 9.4 for GRB 090429B. Other researchers have made claims for galaxies at comparable or even larger redshifts, with uncertain distance estimates, and the burst joins them as a candidate for the most distant object known.

Studies by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope in Chile were unable to locate any other object at the burst location once its afterglow had faded away, which means that the burst's host galaxy is so distant that it couldn’t be seen with the best existing telescopes. "Because of this, and the information provided by the Swift satellite, our confidence is extremely high that this event happened very, very early in the history of our universe,” Cucchiara said.

Swift, launched in November 2004, is managed by Goddard. It was built and is being operated in collaboration with Penn State University, University Park, Pa., the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and General Dynamics of Gilbert, Ariz., in the U.S. International collaborators include the University of Leicester and Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory in the United Kingdom, Brera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy, and additional partners in Germany and Japan.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/swift/bursts/swift-20110527.html

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Juno Solar Panels Complete Testing

The three massive solar panels that will provide power for NASA's Juno spacecraft during its mission to Jupiter have seen their last photons of light until they are deployed in space after launch. The last of the Jupiter-bound spacecraft's panels completed pre-flight testing at the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla., and was folded against the side of the spacecraft into its launch configuration Thursday, May 26. The solar-powered Juno spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 30 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

"Completing the testing and stow of solar panels is always a big pre-launch milestone, and with Juno, you could say really big because our panels are really big," said Jan Chodas, Juno's project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The next time these three massive solar arrays are extended to their full length, Juno will be climbing away from the Earth at about seven miles per second."

This is the first time in history a spacecraft has used solar power so far out in space (Jupiter is five times farther from the sun than Earth). To operate on the sun's light that far out requires solar panels about the size of the cargo section of a typical tractor-trailer you'd see on the interstate highway. Even with all that surface area pointed sunward, all three panels, which are 2.7 meters wide (9 feet), by 8.9 meters long (29 feet), will only generate about enough juice to power five standard light bulbs -- about 450 watts of electricity. If the arrays were optimized to operate at Earth, they would produce 12 to 14 kilowatts of power.

In other recent events, the 106-foot-long (32-meter-long), 12.5-foot-wide (3.8-meter-wide) first stage of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle that will carry Juno into space arrived at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 24, aboard the world's second largest cargo aircraft -- a Volga-Dnepr Antonov AN-124-100. The two-stage Atlas V, along with the five solid rocket boosters that ring the first stage, will be assembled and tested on site at Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral this summer.

The launch period for Juno opens Aug. 5, 2011, and extends through Aug. 26. For an Aug. 5 liftoff, the launch window opens at 8:39 a.m. PDT (11:39 am EDT) and remains open through 9:39 a.m. PDT (12:39 p.m. EDT).

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information about Juno is online at http://www.nasa.gov/juno .

You can learn more about the Juno mission to Jupiter by logging on to the mission's new website. The new site was created by Juno Principal Investigator Scott Bolton in conjunction with Radical Media of New York. "It is one-stop shopping for anyone who wants to be entertained as much as informed about space science and the upcoming Juno mission," said Bolton. This Juno website can be found at: http://missionjuno.swri.edu .

For more information visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-164

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

NASA-Funded Scientists Make Watershed Lunar Discovery

A team of NASA-funded researchers has measured for the first time water from the moon in the form of tiny globules of molten rock, which have turned to glass-like material trapped within crystals. Data from these newly-discovered lunar melt inclusions indicate the water content of lunar magma is 100 times higher than previous studies suggested.

The inclusions were found in lunar sample 74220, the famous high-titanium "orange glass soil" of volcanic origin collected during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The scientific team used a state-of-the-art ion microprobe instrument to measure the water content of the inclusions, which were formed during explosive eruptions on the moon approximately 3.7 billion years ago.

The results, published in the May 26 issue of Science Express, raise questions about aspects of the "giant impact theory" of how the moon was created. That theory predicted very low water content of lunar rock due to catastrophic degassing during the collision of Earth with a Mars-sized body very early in its history. The study also provides additional scientific justification for returning similar samples from other planetary bodies in the solar system.

"Water plays a critical role in determining the tectonic behavior of planetary surfaces, the melting point of planetary interiors and the location and eruptive style of planetary volcanoes," said Erik Hauri, a geochemist with the Carnegie Institution of Washington and lead author of the study. "I can conceive of no sample type that would be more important to return to Earth than these volcanic glass samples ejected by explosive volcanism, which have been mapped not only on the moon but throughout the inner solar system."

In contrast to most volcanic deposits, the lunar melt inclusions are encased in crystals that prevent the escape of water and other volatiles during eruption.

"These samples provide the best window we have on the amount of water in the interior of the moon where the orange glass came from," said science team member James Van Orman of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

In a 2008 study led by Alberto Saal of Brown University in Providence, R.I., the same team reported the first evidence of water in lunar volcanic glasses. They used magma degassing models to estimate how much water was originally in the magmas before eruption. Building on that study, Thomas Weinreich, a Brown undergraduate student, searched for and found the melt inclusions. With that data, the team measured the pre-eruption concentration in the magma and estimated the amount of water in the moon's interior.

"The bottom line is that in 2008, we said the primitive water content in the lunar magmas should be similar to lavas coming from the Earth's depleted upper mantle," Saal said. "Now, we have proven that is indeed the case."

The study also puts a new twist on the origin of water-ice detected in craters at the lunar poles by several recent NASA missions. The ice has been attributed to comet and meteor impacts, but the researchers believe it is possible that some of the ice came from water released by the eruption of lunar magmas eons ago.

The paper entitled, "High Pre-Eruptive Water Contents Preserved in Lunar Melt Inclusions," was written by Hauri, Weinreich, Saal, Van Oman and Malcolm Rutherford of Brown. The research is funded by NASA's Lunar Advanced Science and Exploration Research and Cosmochemistry Programs in Washington, the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) at the agency's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and the Astrobiology Institute at Ames.

The NLSI is a virtual organization enabling collaborative, interdisciplinary research in support of agency lunar science programs. The researchers are members of NLSI teams from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and Brown. The institute uses technology to bring scientists together around the world, and it is comprised of seven competitively selected U.S. teams and several international partners. NASA's Science Mission and Exploration Systems Mission Directorates in Washington fund the institute.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/moonmars/features/moon_water.html

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

NASA to Launch New Science Mission to Asteroid in 2016

NASA will launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 and use a robotic arm to pluck samples that could better explain our solar system's formation and how life began. The mission, called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth.

"This is a critical step in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama to extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore into deep space," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. "It’s robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations."

NASA selected OSIRIS-REx after reviewing three concept study reports for new scientific missions, which also included a sample return mission from the far side of the Moon and a mission to the surface of Venus.

Asteroids are leftovers formed from the cloud of gas and dust -- the solar nebula -- that collapsed to form our sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago. As such, they contain the original material from the solar nebula, which can tell us about the conditions of our solar system's birth.

After traveling four years, OSIRIS-REx will approach the primitive, near Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2020. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping. The science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft's arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023. The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.

The sample will be stored in a capsule that will land at Utah's Test and Training Range in 2023. The capsule's design will be similar to that used by NASA's Stardust spacecraft, which returned the world's first comet particles from comet Wild 2 in 2006. The OSIRIS-REx sample capsule will be taken to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The material will be removed and delivered to a dedicated research facility following stringent planetary protection protocol. Precise analysis will be performed that cannot be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments.

RQ36 is approximately 1,900 feet in diameter or roughly the size of five football fields. The asteroid, little altered over time, is likely to represent a snapshot of our solar system's infancy. The asteroid also is likely rich in carbon, a key element in the organic molecules necessary for life. Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating some of life's ingredients can be created in space. Scientists want to see if they also are present on RQ36.

"This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration," said Jim Green, director, NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids."

The mission will accurately measure the "Yarkovsky effect" for the first time. The effect is a small push caused by the sun on an asteroid, as it absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat. The small push adds up over time, but it is uneven due to an asteroid's shape, wobble, surface composition and rotation. For scientists to predict an Earth-approaching asteroid's path, they must understand how the effect will change its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will help refine RQ36's orbit to ascertain its trajectory and devise future strategies to mitigate possible Earth impacts from celestial objects.

Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the mission's principal investigator. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. The OSIRIS-REx payload includes instruments from the University of Arizona, Goddard, Arizona State University in Tempe and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., the Langley Research Center in Hampton Va., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., also are involved. The science team is composed of numerous researchers from universities, private and government agencies.

This is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. The first, New Horizons, was launched in 2006. It will fly by the Pluto-Charon system in July 2015, then target another Kuiper Belt object for study. The second mission, Juno, will launch in August to become the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter from pole to pole and study the giant planet's atmosphere and interior. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/osiris-rex.html

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

NASA's TRMM Satellite Saw Heavy Rainfall in Supercell That Spawned Joplin Tornado

On Sunday May 22, 2011, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite captured an image of the rainfall rate in the supercell thunderstorm that generated the deadly twister that struck Joplin, Missouri.

TRMM is a satellite that is managed by both NASA and the Japanese Space Agency, and monitors rainfall rates in the tropics. It's often used for hurricane research, but also calculates rain rates in other weather systems. On May 22 at 2042 UTC (3:42 p.m. CDT), about two hours before the deadly tornado touched down in Joplin, Missouri, TRMM captured rainfall rates in a supercell thunderstorm that was approaching Joplin from the west. A supercell, also known as a rotating thunderstorm, is a thunderstorm with a deep, continuously-rotating updraft.

"This supercell contained a deadly tornado as it moved into southwestern Missouri a few hours later and hit Joplin, Missouri," said Hal Pierce, meteorologist on NASA's TRMM team who created images using TRMM rainfall imagery. TRMM's Microwave Imager (TMI) and Precipitation Radar (PR) were used to create images that showed an analysis of rainfall in the vicinity of the storm. TRMM data revealed a large area of heavy rainfall, where rainfall rates were more than 2 inches (50 millimeters) per hour.

Two hours after the TRMM satellite captured that heavy rainfall, the tornado touched down in Joplin with winds up to 198 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service. As of May 24, 117 people were reported killed, making the twister the most deadly in the U.S. in over 60 years.

Southwestern Missouri can't get a break from the severe weather as the recovery efforts continue today, May 24. The National Weather Service (NWS) in southwestern Missouri noted that "Multiple rounds of thunderstorms are expected over the region from this evening through at least Wednesday morning."

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/joplin_tornado-20110524.html

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Monday, May 23, 2011

President Kennedy's Speech and America's Next Moonshot Moment

NASA is once again charting a new course to extend humanity's presence into the solar system, developing a new heavy lift rocket and crew capsule to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.

This journey into the future has its foundations 50 years in the past, when President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge that transformed the tentative early steps of human spaceflight into a giant leap for mankind.

In just a short six weeks in the spring of 1961, a trio of dramatic events set the stage for our first journey to another world: Soviet Yuri Gagarin's first human spaceflight on April 12, was followed on May 5 by Alan Shepard's first American flight. Then, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy went to Congress for an address on "Urgent National Needs."

Kennedy told Congress and the nation that "space is open to us now," and said that space exploration "may hold the key to our future here on Earth." Then he issued an audacious challenge to NASA that seemed unthinkable after just a single U.S. spaceflight:

NASA fulfilled Kennedy's goal on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11's lunar module Eagle touched down in the Sea of Tranquility, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard (› Interactive Feature: Apollo 11). A dozen men would walk on the moon before the Apollo program ended in 1972.

Now, we stand at a moonshot moment once again, with 50 years of accomplishment to build on. NASA planners and engineers are already working new capabilities to take us farther into the solar system and help us learn even more about our place in it.

We will use the recently completed International Space Station as a test bed and stepping stone for the challenging journey ahead. We are changing the way we do business, fostering a commercial industry that will safely service low Earth orbit so we can focus our energy and resources on sending astronauts to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.

All the while, NASA continues to invest in science missions that study our earth, solar system and beyond, as well as aeronautics research focused on increased safety and reduced economic impact. We're also focused on educating the next generation of technology leaders and investing in high payoff, high-risk technology that industry cannot tackle today.

Later in his speech, President Kennedy said that "this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space."

Fifty years later, NASA is moving forward at full speed.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/history/features/kennedy_moon_speech.html

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

NASA/University Japan Quake Study Yields Surprises

A new NASA and university study of the March 11, 2011, Japan earthquake that included researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., provides the most comprehensive look to date at how Earth moved that day, unleashing widespread destruction and a devastating tsunami.

The study of the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki quake, led by researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and published online in the May 19 issue of Science Express, details the first large set of observational data from this rare megathrust earthquake event.

The researchers used observations from a dense regional monitoring network that allows measurements of Earth movement to be gathered from GPS satellite data, along with globally distributed broadband seismographic networks and open-ocean tsunami data, to begin to construct models that describe how Earth moved due to the quake.

JPL researchers Susan Owen, Angelyn Moore and Frank Webb provided the GPS observations on which the study’s fault slip model was based. They analyzed the GPS data from Japan’s network and found the large horizontal and vertical movements that were used to determine where the earthquake ruptured the subduction zone fault.

Among the study’s findings:

* The length of fault that experienced significant slip during the quake was about 155 miles (250 kilometers), about half of what would be conventionally expected for an event of this magnitude. The area of greatest slip -- 98 feet (30 meters) or more -- happened within a 31- to 62-mile-long (50- to 100-kilometer-long) segment.
* High- and low-frequency seismic waves can come from different areas of a fault. The quake’s high-frequency seismic waves were generated much closer to the coast, away from the area of the fault slip, where low-frequency waves were observed.
* The amount of strain associated with the quake’s displacement was five to 10 times larger than normally seen in large megathrust earthquakes. Before now, it was generally believed that the relatively soft material of the seafloor near the Japan Trench could not support such a large amount of stress. Because of this local strengthening of the seafloor, the researchers believe the Pacific and Okhotsk tectonic plates had been pinned together for a long time, perhaps 500 to 1,000 years.
* The area just south of where the fault slipped in March, which is close to Tokyo, should be a focus area for researchers because they do not have data on the area and don’t know yet what it might do in the future.

The University of Michigan also participated in the study. The work was also funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, National Science Foundation grants and the Southern California Earthquake Center.

For more information visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-152

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Timeline to Launch for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS, was carried into orbit on STS-134 on a mission to the International Space Station. While it may sound like just another instrument, in actuality it is the largest scientific collaboration to use the laboratory! This investigation is sponsored by the United States Department of Energy and made possible by funding from 16 different nations. Led by Nobel Laureate Professor Samuel Ting, more than 600 physicists from around the globe will be able to participate in the data generated from this particle physics detector.

According to Trent Martin, AMS project manager for NASA, "This type of collaboration is starting to become more common in the space science community, but AMS is by far the most diversely funded space based science detector ever built. This is the type of collaboration that NASA hopes the ISS National Laboratory will help foster in the space scientific community."

The mission, to seek out answers to the mysteries of antimatter, dark matter, and cosmic ray propagation in the universe, is only part of the story. To fully understand where the science is going, you have to look at where it came from. NASA efforts with AMS began in 1994, when NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, conducted a feasibility study to see if such a delicate instrument could even fly in space and still produce usable data.

Ken Bollweg, AMS deputy project manager for NASA, mentions the challenges that needed to be overcome for the hazardous environment of space. "The detectors used in these types of experiments are typically used in an underground environment where the temperature doesn’t change more than two degrees from winter to summer and the bedrock hasn't moved in millennia," comments Bollweg. "Reviews of the detectors and their operating requirements indicated that it would be very challenging to adapt this technology to space -- but possible nonetheless."

Work on AMS integration and interface hardware began in earnest upon approval in 1995. One of the first understandings NASA needed to reach with the AMS Collaboration was the limitations of mass, size and power. For instance, the AMS Collaboration considered the AMS permanent magnet lightweight at approximately 2 tons, given that similar electromagnets on Earth weigh about 10,000 tons.

Working together, NASA and the AMS Collaboration developed a two-part plan to enable the mass requirements. The Unique Support Structure or USS-01 completed in 1997 and was launched with STS-91 in June of 1998. It carried a 9,197 lb engineering evaluation version of AMS. With the successful STS-91 mission and some extra time, since it was clear that the station would not be ready to host AMS in 2001, the scientists decided to make a few improvements. Plans for the AMS grew to be more complex, including the upgrade to a more powerful cryogenic superconducting superfluid helium-cooled magnet. These changes increased the projected weight for AMS to 15,251 lb, making it necessary to test a second support structure, called USS-02.

Determining a way to communicate the data from AMS to the ground was another important element of the undertaking. A digital data recorder system was developed and used during the STS-91 mission to capture data for the AMS Collaboration. Even though this was a preliminary effort to the overall AMS goal, the resulting data led to improved measurement sensitivity.

Several years passed as engineers continued working on procedures, certification requirements, and entered into the testing phases of development. In December 2001 NASA flew a prototype synchrotron radiation detector with STS-108. This flight test clarified performance of the detector for the AMS. The enhanced complexity of the AMS also meant an increase in data channels from close to 70,000 to over 300,000. In response, NASA developed a new digital data recorder system, which launched on STS-133 in February 2011. This enabled a trial run of the recorder system in preparation for the actual launch of AMS with STS-134.

With the announcement that the space station would continue to operate through 2020, the AMS Collaboration swapped out the current cryogenic magnet with a permanent magnet, which would have an infinite life. The entire AMS was taken apart, the magnets exchanged, and put back together for testing. From concept to implementation, this only took seven months to extend the potential life of the AMS investigation.

Martin commends the efforts of the many NASA and contractor personnel who made significant contributions to the completion of the AMS investigation. These individuals will continue to support AMS while it is on its mission in orbit to gather valuable data. Martin notes in particular the support of NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations. "[He was] critical to AMS's success, especially while AMS was off the space shuttle and space station manifests after the Columbia accident," says Martin. "He saw to it that Advanced Projects Office personnel were able to continue with the integration and certification tasks and personally visited AMS at various stages of development and testing."

The AMS will be the most advanced charge particle detector flown in space, increasing global knowledge of antimatter and dark matter and providing a powerful tool to physicists. The investigation will enable the discipline of modern physics to grow as scientists seek answers to the origins of our universe.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/ams.html

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Paul Dembling, Co-Author of Space Act, Dies at 91

Paul G. Dembling, co-author of the legislation that founded NASA, died on Monday, May 16, in Florida. He was 91 years old.

As general counsel to NASA's precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Dembling helped shape the agency's legislative charter, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. In a 1992 interview, Dembling described the process of drafting the bill.

"A lot of the policy aspects of it were done quickly," Dembling said. "But the functions and the authorities that were embodied in that piece of legislation were well thought out and very well considered."

Dembling was born in Rahway, N.J., on Jan. 11, 1920. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics in 1940 and a master's degree in 1942 from Rutgers University. He earned a J.D. from George Washington University Law School, where he served as an editor of the law review.

After NASA became operational, Dembling joined the staff, eventually becoming the agency's general counsel. He also managed the agency’s Legislative Affairs Office under Administrator James Webb, and served as a deputy associate administrator before retiring in December 1969.

"Of all the jobs I have had and things I have done, I am most pleased with the creation of the legislation for NASA," Dembling said in a 2002 interview.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/people/features/dembling_obit.html

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Virtual Open House: Next Best Thing to Being Here

Can't make it to this year's annual Open House at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory? Not a problem! Join our virtual event live on Ustream.tv on Saturday, May 14. To participate, visit the "NASAJPL" channel at: http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2. The site will be available live on Saturday, May 14, starting at 9 a.m. PDT. The segments will also be archived for later viewing.

We will broadcast live from selected Open House JPL sites from 9 a.m. to noon PDT (noon to 3 p.m. EDT). Join the chat, get answers and meet other space enthusiasts.

On Twitter? You can follow what Open House visitors are saying on @NASAJPL, at www.twitter.com/NASAJPL. On May 14-15, use the hashtag #JPLOpen .

For more information visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-144

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

J-2X Test Series Proves Part Integrity

Engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center gave a key component of the J-2X engine a brisk workout to ensure it can withstand its extreme operating environment. The engine's fuel turbopump first stage nozzle passed the test, performing even better than expected.

The J-2X is a highly efficient and versatile upper stage rocket engine that can stop and restart in space to support a variety of mission requirements. Full-scale testing begins later this summer but before then, engineers examined the longevity and durability of the engine's fuel turbopump first stage nozzle. The nozzle directs hot gas flow onto the turbine blades.

The entire engine operates at extremes, but the fuel turbopump's first stage nozzle really takes a beating. Drastic thermal changes, being super chilled and then immediately super heated, stresses the metal nozzle causing it to rapidly expand and contract which eventually causes it to crack. During engine operations, this turbine nozzle is exposed to cryogenic hydrogen at -422 degrees Fahrenheit and less than two seconds after the start sequence it is hit with hot gases at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Apollo-era rocket scientists studied this same issue on the original J-2 engine. After a battery of tests, Apollo engineers discovered the fuel turbopump first stage nozzle cracked after dozens of starts and stops. While the part cracked, additional tests proved the engine performance and safety were not compromised.

Modeling and simulation for the J-2X suggested the same issue would emerge, so designers selected a new type of nickel metal alloy for the turbopump nozzle which is less brittle and was predicted to hold up better under extreme temperature fluctuations.

"We did a lot of design and analysis work on this issue to show required part life before we finalized design," said Gary Genge, J-2X turbomachinery manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "We looked at making dramatic design alterations but changing the geometry of the part would have had a downstream effect we wanted to avoid. Also, the historic data hinted that wiith the improved material and minor changes, the new design might be acceptable."

In total, 43 tests were conducted which simulated the actual engine start and shutdown environment. Non-destructive evaluations were performed at the beginning of every test day and no detrimental condition was ever found.

"By taxing the same part over and over and carefully inspecting frequently, we know with confidence the part is very durable," said Genge. "This knowledge will save time and money in the long run because we can't inspect this area on the actual J-2X engines without disassembling the engine. This thorough test series shows we should be safe throughout the planned test series and we now have a better understanding of its longevity and structural integrity."

Assembly of J-2X Engine 10001, the first engine off the production line, is in full swing at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Full-scale engine testing will begin in June.

The J-2X is designed and built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/j2x/j2x_test.html

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

NASA's Dawn Captures First Image of Nearing Asteroid

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has obtained its first image of the giant asteroid Vesta, which will help fine-tune navigation during its approach. Dawn is expected to achieve orbit around Vesta on July 16, when the asteroid is about 188 million kilometers (117 million miles) from Earth.

The image from Dawn's framing cameras was taken on May 3 when the spacecraft began its approach and was approximately 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) from Vesta. The asteroid appears as a small, bright pearl against a background of stars. Vesta is also known as a protoplanet, because it is a large body that almost formed into a planet.

"After plying the seas of space for more than a billion miles, the Dawn team finally spotted its target," said Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This first image hints of detailed portraits to come from Dawn's upcoming visit."

Vesta is 530 kilometers (330 miles) in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. Ground- and space-based telescopes obtained images of the bright orb for about two centuries, but with little surface detail.

Mission managers expect Vesta's gravity to capture Dawn in orbit on July 16. To enter orbit, Dawn must match the asteroid's path around the sun, which requires very precise knowledge of the body's location and speed. By analyzing where Vesta appears relative to stars in framing camera images, navigators will pin down its location and enable engineers to refine the spacecraft's trajectory.

Dawn will start collecting science data in early August at an altitude of approximately 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) above the asteroid's surface. As the spacecraft gets closer, it will snap multi-angle images, allowing scientists to produce topographic maps. Dawn will later orbit at approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) to perform other measurements and obtain closer shots of parts of the surface. Dawn will remain in orbit around Vesta for one year. After another long cruise phase, Dawn will arrive in 2015 at its second destination, Ceres, an even more massive body in the asteroid belt.

Gathering information about these two icons of the asteroid belt will help scientists unlock the secrets of our solar system's early history. The mission will compare and contrast the two giant bodies shaped by different forces. Dawn's science instruments will measure surface composition, topography and texture. Dawn will also measure the tug of gravity from Vesta and Ceres to learn more about their internal structures. The spacecraft's full odyssey will take it on a 5-billion-kilometer (3-billion-mile) journey, which began with its launch in September 2007.

Dawn's mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The University of California in Los Angeles is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The framing cameras were developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau in Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering in Braunschweig. The framing camera project is funded by NASA, the Max Planck Society and DLR.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/news/dawn20110511.html

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

NASA Selects Classroom Teachers For SOFIA Science Flights

NASA has selected six teachers to work with scientists aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) during research flights in May and June. This is the first team of educators selected to participate in SOFIA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program.

SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft fitted with a 100 inch (2.5 meter) diameter telescope. It analyzes infrared light to study the formation of stars and planets; chemistry of interstellar gases; composition of comets, asteroids and planets; and supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. Infrared observations are optimal for studying low-temperature objects in space such as the raw materials for star and planet formation and for seeing through interstellar dust clouds that block light at visible wavelengths.

"Enabling educators to join SOFIA's scientific research and take that experience back to their schools and communities is a unique opportunity for NASA to enhance science and math education across the country," said John Gagosian, SOFIA program executive at agency headquarters in Washington. "More than 70 teachers flew on NASA's previous flying observatory, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, from 1991 through 1995, and that program had long-lasting, positive effects on both the teachers and their students."

The six teachers selected for the SOFIA program submitted applications that included plans for taking their training and flight experience back to their classrooms.
The teachers selected are:
-- Marita Beard, Branham High School, San Jose, Calif.
-- Mary Blessing, Herndon High School, Herndon, Va.
-- Cris DeWolf, Chippewa Hills High School, Remus, Mich.
-- Kathleen Joanne Fredette, Desert Willow Intermediate School, Palmdale, Calif.
-- Theresa Paulsen, Mellen School District, Mellen, Wis.
-- Margaret Piper, Lincoln Way High School, Frankfort, Ill.

"We know teachers who participate in science research programs return inspired, and their students' engagement with technical subjects are measurably increased for many years afterward," said Dana Backman, manager of SOFIA's education and outreach programs. "Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors is an outstanding opportunity for NASA to reach out to both new and veteran teachers of science, technology, engineering and math to bring the excitement of real science research into the classroom and the community at large."

NASA's international partners in developing and operating SOFIA, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI), will fly educators as well. The DLR and DSI plan to announce their first two ambassadors later this month.

SOFIA is a joint program between NASA and DLR in Bonn, Germany. The SOFIA program is managed at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif. The aircraft is based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and DSI in Stuttgart, Germany.

NASA will host an online video chat about SOFIA with Project Scientist Pamela Marcum for approximately one hour at 1 p.m. EDT on Thursday, May 12. Participants will join a conversation about SOFIA’s first science flights, targets of opportunity, and plans for future flights.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/may/HQ_11-142_SOFIA_Teachers_Flights.html

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Bobko, Helms Join Astronaut Hall of Fame

One of the space shuttle program's earliest commanders and the first woman to live on the International Space Station took their places alongside the nation's space heroes May 7 as they were welcomed into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Karol "Bo" Bobko and Susan Helms joined the Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The celebration came two days after NASA marked the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight in 1961 that made him the first American in space.

Bobko flew as the pilot on STS-6, the first flight of space shuttle Challenger, in April 1983. Two years later, he commanded Discovery on STS-51D and landed the shuttle safely despite a blown main gear tire. Six months later, Bobko commanded Atlantis on its maiden flight, STS-51J.

"My wife said whenever I was given a chance, I chose the career path toward space," Bobko said. "All spaceflight is beautiful and inspiring."

The astronaut thought he would go into space a lot sooner. The Air Force chose him for its own astronaut corps in 1966 to crew the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL, a project the Air Force later canceled. Like STS-1 Pilot Bob Crippen and five others who were in the MOL program, Bobko joined NASA. He worked on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project as a support team member before flying as a chase pilot on the shuttle prototype Enterprise landing tests.

"Bo loved spaceflight and he wanted everyone working with him to enjoy it as much as he did," said Bobko's presenter, former astronaut Jeff Hoffman. "He enjoyed flying so much that his family said they could judge how close he was getting to a flight because the smile on his face kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

Helms, an Air Force veteran like Bobko, flew five times on the shuttle beginning with STS-54 in January 1993. Her spaceflight career included flights on Endeavour, Discovery, Columbia, Atlantis and the International Space Station. She spent more than 5,000 hours in space, with 163 days of that on the station.

"It was one of the most amazing things that I've ever had the chance to do, which was be part of a space outpost" Helms said. "That truly was a human adventure that has no equal."

Working from Discovery, Helms performed a world-record spacewalk lasting eight hours and 56 minutes.

Endurance was kind of a trademark of Helms, said her presenter, NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden. She went for a jog on one occasion with her dog, Radar, and when she and the dog got back, she said the jog had gone fine. But Radar went and laid down on the bed for two days.

"She outran the dog," Bolden said.

Bobko and Helms join a group that includes the legends of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, along with the astronauts who flew the space shuttle on some of its most noted missions.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/news/ahof2011.html

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Comet Elenin - Preview of a Coming Attraction

You may have heard the news: Comet Elenin is coming to the inner-solar system this fall. Comet Elenin (also known by its astronomical name C/2010 X1), was first detected on Dec. 10, 2010 by Leonid Elenin, an observer in Lyubertsy, Russia, who made the discovery "remotely" using the ISON-NM observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. At the time of the discovery, the comet was about 647 million kilometers (401 million miles) from Earth. Over the past four-and-a-half months, the comet has – as comets do – closed the distance to Earth's vicinity as it makes its way closer to perihelion (its closest point to the sun). As of May 4, Elenin's distance is about 274 million kilometers (170 million miles).

"That is what happens with these long-period comets that come in from way outside our planetary system," said Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They make these long, majestic, speedy arcs through our solar system, and sometimes they put on a great show. But not Elenin. Right now that comet looks kind of wimpy."

How does a NASA scientist define cometary wimpiness?

"We're talking about how a comet looks as it safely flies past us," said Yeomans. "Some cometary visitors arriving from beyond the planetary region – like Hale-Bopp in 1997 -- have really lit up the night sky where you can see them easily with the naked eye as they safely transit the inner-solar system. But Elenin is trending toward the other end of the spectrum. You'll probably need a good pair of binoculars, clear skies, and a dark, secluded location to see it even on its brightest night."

Comet Elenin should be at its brightest shortly before the time of its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 16 of this year. At its closest point, it will be 35 million kilometers (22 million miles) from us. Can this icy interloper influence us from where it is, or where it will be in the future? What about this celestial object inspiring some shifting of the tides or even tectonic plates here on Earth? There have been some incorrect Internet speculations that external forces could cause comet Elenin to come closer.

"Comet Elenin will not encounter any dark bodies that could perturb its orbit, nor will it influence us in any way here on Earth," said Yeomans. "It will get no closer to Earth than 35 million kilometers [about 22 million miles]. "

"Comet Elenin will not only be far away, it is also on the small side for comets," said Yeomans. "And comets are not the most densely-packed objects out there. They usually have the density of something akin to loosely packed icy dirt.

"So you've got a modest-sized icy dirtball that is getting no closer than 35 million kilometers," said Yeomans. "It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean's tides than comet Elenin ever will."

Yeomans did have one final thought on comet Elenin.

"This comet may not put on a great show. Just as certainly, it will not cause any disruptions here on Earth. But there is a cause to marvel," said Yeomans. "This intrepid little traveler will offer astronomers a chance to study a relatively young comet that came here from well beyond our solar system's planetary region. After a short while, it will be headed back out again, and we will not see or hear from Elenin for thousands of years. That's pretty cool."

NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing relatively close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

JPL manages the Near-Earth Object Program Office for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/comet20110504.html

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

NASA Administrator Visits Jupiter-Bound Spacecraft

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visited NASA's Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft on Thursday, May 5, 2011, at the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. The solar-powered Juno spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

Juno will be carried into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, lifting off from Launch Complex-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch period opens Aug. 5, 2011, and extends through Aug. 26. For an Aug. 5 liftoff, the launch window opens at 8:39 a.m. PDT (11:39 am EDT) and remains open through 9:39 a.m. PDT (12:39 p.m. EDT).

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute at San Antonio. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-137

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mars Tribute Marks Memories of Shepard's Flight

The team exploring Mars via NASA's Opportunity rover for the past seven years has informally named a Martian crater for the Mercury spacecraft that astronaut Alan Shepard christened Freedom 7. On May 5, 1961, Shepard piloted Freedom 7 in America's first human spaceflight.

The team is using Opportunity this week to acquire images covering a cluster of small, relatively young craters along the rover's route toward a long-term destination. The cluster's largest crater, spanning about 25 meters (82 feet), is the one called "Freedom 7." The diameter of Freedom 7 crater, about 25 meters (82 feet), happens to be equivalent to the height of the Redstone rocket that launched Shepard's flight.

"Many of the people currently involved with the robotic investigations of Mars were first inspired by the astronauts of the Mercury Project who paved the way for the exploration of our solar system," said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who is this week's long-term planning leader for the rover science team. Shepard's flight was the first of six Project Mercury missions piloted by solo astronauts.

An image of Freedom 7 crater taken this week is online at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/multimedia/gallery/pia13988.html.

Rover team member James Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., said, "The first 50 years of American manned spaceflight have been built upon immeasurable courage, dedication, sacrifice, vision, patriotism, teamwork and good old-fashioned hard work, all terms that embody and define the United States and her people. Alan Shepard's brave and historic 15-minute flight in Freedom 7 put America in space, and then a scant eight years later, Americans were standing upon the surface of the moon." Shepard himself would later walk on the moon when he commanded the Apollo 14 mission in early 1971, less than 10 years after his Freedom 7 flight. He died on July 21, 1998.

By taking advantage of seeing many craters of diverse ages during drives toward major destinations, the Opportunity mission is documenting how impact craters change with time. The cluster that includes Freedom 7 crater formed after sand ripples in the area last migrated, which is estimated to be about 200,000 years ago.

"This cluster has about eight craters, and they're all the same age," said Matt Golombek, rover team member at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They're from an impactor that broke up in the atmosphere, which is quite common."

Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for years of bonus, extended missions. Both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit has not communicated with Earth since March 2010. Opportunity remains active. It has driven 28.6 kilometers (17.8 miles) total on Mars, including 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) since leaving "Santa Maria" crater on March 24, 2011, after studying that crater for three months.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer20110504.html

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NASA Space Images App, Website Broaden Cosmic Horizons

Professional and amateur space aficionados are in for a treat with the new Space Images Version 2 app, created by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena Calif. The free app is now optimized for iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and Android, and is also available online.

The app's higher-resolution images and improved user interface allow galactic admirers to zoom in on and rate their favorite images and share photos from NASA/JPL spacecraft with their friends on Facebook and Twitter.

The Space Images app uses an intuitive category-selection tool. People can see the initial batch of images, showing galaxies, stars, the sun and planets – including Earth and dwarf planets –as well as videos and editor picks. In the videos tab, users can see footage compiled by active NASA/JPL spacecraft and watch movies about astronomy and various space missions. Additional images will be added in coming months.

The app release is coupled with the launch of a Space Images website, which pulls in ratings from the app and allows users to create an account and photo albums, as well as download wallpapers. The website also includes an extensive collection of images in an easy-to-browse and interactive format.

After its release in January 2010, the original version of Space Images was selected as an iTunes "Staff Favorite," became a top app in the App Store's Education category, and reached over half a million downloads. The app has been praised for its extensive and stunning image collection and for its educational uses.

For more information visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-132

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Satellites Reveal Tornado Tracks in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama

Tornado tracks from last week's powerful tornado outbreak are visible in data from NASA's Aqua satellite and the Landsat satellite.

Among the more than 150 tornadoes reported on April 27 and 28, 2011, was a rare EF-5 storm. Such a storm has the capacity to collapse a concrete building. The tornado hit Smithville, Mississippi, where it killed at least 14 people, and moved northeast nearly 3 miles toward the Alabama border. It is the first EF5 tornado to occur in Mississippi since 1966, according to the National Weather Service.

An image captured by NASA's Aqua satellite shows the path of exposed ground left in the tornado’s wake. The trail left by the EF5 tornado in Mississippi is much shorter than a similar trail that cuts across northwestern Alabama. The National Weather Service rated this tornado at EF4, with winds around 175 miles per hour, said local news reports. The track was about 12 miles long, and the tornado caused more than 20 deaths.

The image was taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on April 28. The image was compared to an earlier image taken on April 12, 2011 and the tracks were not present.

Another satellite revealed the track from a tornado that touched down near Griffin, Georgia. In a Landsat image from April 28, 2011, a pale green swath indicated the path of a tornado outside of Griffin, Georgia. The tornado was on the ground between 12:03 and 12:28 a.m. local time on April 28, hours before the image was taken. By the time the funnel cloud lifted, the tornado had covered about 20 miles with a path about half a mile wide, said the National Weather Service. The tornado was an EF3 tornado with winds of about 140 miles per hour.

The Landsat satellite image showed that the tornado moved across lightly populated farmland. Bright-colored spots that appear in the image are buildings, and some were close to storm’s path. The town of Griffin is the nearest community to the storm track in this area. Landsat data was provided by the United States Geological Survey.

The large storm system that generated the tornadoes was the deadliest to hit the United States since 1974.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/tornado-tracks.html

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