Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Leaders of Congress honored astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins with congressional gold medals in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on Nov. 16, 2011. The Gold Medal, Congress' highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions, was first given to George Washington in 1776.
Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, achieving the feat aboard Friendship 7 on Feb. 20, 1962. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon, while Collins piloted Apollo 11's command module.
"We stand on the shoulders of the extraordinary men we recognize today," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the ceremony. "Those of us who have had the privilege to fly in space followed the trail they forged."
"When, 50 years ago this year, President Kennedy challenged the nation to reach the moon, to "take longer strides" toward a "great new American enterprise," these men were the human face of those words," said Bolden. "From Mercury and Gemini, on through our landings on the Moon in the Apollo Program, their actions unfolded the will of a nation for the greater achievement of humankind."
Administrator Bolden also noted that five members of the most recent Astronaut Candidate Class were in attendance, pointing out that the new generation "will redefine space exploration in the years to come and continue to honor the legacy of John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins."
All four astronauts have also received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded with distinction, as well as NASA's own Ambassador of Exploration Award.
For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/people/features/gold_medal.html
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
NASA announced the short list for five potential new "Explorer class" spacecraft. These missions are by definition small and relatively inexpensive, designed to be led by a small team.
The Explorer class missions are numbered at 92 so far, with more constantly planned. Explorer class spacecraft recorded the signature left over from the big bang. They mapped out the complex geometry of Earth's magnetic environment. They found gamma rays coming from everywhere in the sky. They help warn scientists of incoming radiation from solar flares.
"The neat thing about the Explorers is that they're tailored to a specific problem," says Wilt Sanders the program scientist for the Explorer’s Program. "That's their strength. They're relatively inexpensive but they've come up with game changing results."
And it all began over five decades ago.
The First Explorer
It was January 31, 1958 and a Juno 1 rocket was almost ready to launch. It carried precious cargo -- a satellite called Explorer 1, that everyone hoped would be the first U.S. satellite in space. The mood among those at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. was tense. Not only had the Soviets already successfully launched Sputnik into space, but three months earlier, a rocket attempting to launch a U.S. satellite had flown a mere four feet before tumbling back to the ground.
The familiar countdown began: "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . " and at 10:48 p.m. EDT, the Juno shot up, climbed over 200 miles into the sky, and released Explorer 1 into space. It wasn't until some two hours later, when the satellite had made its first complete orbit of Earth and was in close enough range to send a signal that it was operational, that the observers rejoiced. The very first U.S. satellite was officially a success.
For many, the tale of Explorer 1 stops here, a triumph of human ingenuity in reaching space. But, truly, that's only the beginning of the story. "Explorer 1 was also a science mission," says Willis Jenkins, the program executive for NASA's Explorer program. "This wasn't just launched to get a satellite up in space, it was meant to bring science data back."
And it certainly did. Explorer 1 contained experiments that turned our understanding of space upside down. To this day, scientists try to understand the dynamic, seething environment encircling Earth – known as the Van Allen radiation belts – that Explorer 1 helped discover.
Space Science Begins . . .
Explorer 1 was also, of course, the first in a long line of scientific workhorses.
Some of the latest explorers have names that are well known in the scientific community: the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer (Swift) and the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). (The last one brought home data that earned a Nobel Prize.) But the early Explorers were simply named with numbers, and it is these that are some of the unsung heroes of space exploration – making new discoveries that scientist today take for granted.
Explorer 1 and Explorer 3, for example, launched in January and March of 1958, respectively. They carried an instrument built by the University of Iowa scientist James Van Allen that could detect energetic particles in space. This instrument was quite simply a single Geiger counter attached to a miniature tape recorder. As the satellites climbed upwards, the rates of the particles usually increased but, periodically, they zeroed out completely. Van Allen and his team realized this was neither because the particles disappeared nor because the instruments failed, but because the radiation counts were so high that the sensors overloaded. From this, Van Allen deduced that a swath of intensely energetic particles was trapped in a circle around Earth. Ultimately two such belts were found, and they're now known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts.
Not all was easy on those early missions. Neither Explorer 2 nor Explorer 5 even made it into orbit, due to launch rocket failure. While such losses were devastating, the amount of time going into building these early, simpler satellites was nothing like the years it takes today. All five of the first Explorers were launched within the first six months of 1958.
By the time of Explorer 10 in 1961, the Explorer Program was now run by the newly founded NASA. They'd also earned the right to have names as well as numbers, albeit modest ones: Explorer 10 was also known as P 14. It gathered data for only 52 hours since its goal was merely to fly up out of Earth's magnetic environment and bring back information from interplanetary space on the other side. But the satellite saw a far more complicated magnetic system than expected.
"At that point the magnetosphere was thought to be a sphere conforming to the shape of Earth," says Frank McDonald who became a project scientist for the Explorer Program at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. in 1961 and is now a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. "We didn't know how complex a shape it was, or that there was a magnetotail flurrying out behind."
Explorer 10 discovered this "magnetotail" as it moved through the night side of Earth, facing away from the sun. The instruments detected an area devoid of the electrically charged solar wind steadily streaming off the sun, since it was deflected by Earth's own magnetic field. This "shadow", the magnetotail, extends some 800,000 miles long, well past the orbit of the moon.
As the Explorer program grew, the satellites were eventually divided into those that study the sun-Earth system, or heliophysics, and those that study astrophysics. But in the early days this was originally considered all part of general space science. However, that was beginning to change.
The next, Explorer 11 or S15, was used to search for cosmic gamma radiation, and indeed found that it came from all directions, giving birth to the field of gamma ray astronomy. The field has matured significantly over the decades and now studies such things as gamma ray bursts that originate from the distant universe, thought to be the signatures of black holes and certain supernovae.
Explorer 12 launched in August of 1961, just over 50 years ago, but it remains a historical highlight for many a contemporary studier of space. This satellite cemented into cannon much information we know about space today. It was the first to identify Earth's "magnetopause" – the boundary between Earth's magnetic environment and interplanetary space. It also improved our understanding of the Van Allen radiation belts and Earth's magnetosphere. Notably, it helped establish that the radiation belts were not so strong that they would prevent manned spaceflight.
"We published science papers on solar activity almost every few weeks based on Explorer 12," says emeritus astrophysicist Thomas Cline at Goddard, whose first job at NASA focused on Explorer 12. "We had constant mini-discoveries. As soon as you put an instrument in space that has never been used before, you invariably observe things you've never seen before."
From Explorer 12 onward, many of the early Explorers had highly elliptical orbits that shot the spacecraft well outside of Earth's magnetosphere, into interplanetary space. Scientists like Cline would use these spacecraft to expand their understanding of interplanetary space. Explorers looked at the universe in many wavelengths, brought back information about the particles in space, and mapped out the structure of the early universe.
On the heliophysics side, while those early missions simply identified the shape of Earth's magnetic environment, today's spacecraft try to spot currents in that magnetotail, to determine the shape of Earth's magnetic fields, and to see how large inputs of energy from the sun cause space weather storms that can affect Earth.
When funding is available ,NASA selects new Explorers – and while the time it takes to build an Explorer is several years compared to the several months it often took in the 1950s and 1960s – the price tag still remains low and the scientific output prodigious.
For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/history/features/explorer1.html
Friday, November 18, 2011
Two NASA California centers have been selected to develop new space-aged technologies that could be game-changers in the way we look at planets from above and how we safely transport robots or humans through space and bring them safely back to Earth.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., will use advanced compound semiconductor materials to develop new technologies for the High Operating Temperature Infrared Sensor Demonstration. The higher the temperature at which an infrared detector can operate, the less power is required to cool it. Reduced power needs can translate into operational cost and system weight savings. If successful, this sensor technology could be used in many future NASA Earth and planetary science instruments, as well as for U.S. commercial and defense applications.
"The technology demonstration effort is different in the fact that we're focused on affordability concurrently with performance," said Sarath Gunapala of JPL, who is project manager for the High Operating Temperature Infrared Sensor Demonstration. "This technology has excellent potential for transitioning from laboratory demonstration to NASA and commercial product lines."
The overall goal for this technology development effort is to achieve 100 percent cost savings as compared with traditional cryogenically cooled infrared sensors. The weight and volume savings allow for more compact instruments -- an important consideration for a spacecraft's payload size and cost. This state-of-the-art technology also will have spinoff applications for commercial instrument manufacturers.
Seeking to radically change the way heat shields protect spacecraft during atmospheric entry, NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., is developing the Woven Thermal Protection System. The project is a revolutionary approach to thermal protection system design and manufacturing for extreme environments. Ames is the lead center for the project, partnering with NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Partnering with the U.S. textile industry, NASA is employing an advanced, three-dimensional weaving approach in the design and manufacture of thermal protection systems. Today, lightweight aircraft parts are being manufactured using similar weaving technologies. This will be expanded to include spacecraft heatshield applications. The system will enhance performance using advanced design tools with cost savings from a shortened product development and testing cycle.
"Woven TPS has the potential to significantly impact future NASA missions by changing heat shield development from a challenge to be overcome into a mission-enabling component,” said NASA Langley's Ethiraj Venkatapathy, principal investigator of the project. "By delivering improved heat shield performance and affordability, this technology will impact all future exploration missions, from the robotic science missions to Mars, Venus and Saturn to the next generation of human missions."
NASA’s Game-Changing Technology Division focuses on maturing advanced space technologies that may lead to entirely new approaches for the agency's future space missions while finding solutions to significant national needs. NASA Langley oversees project management of the Game Changing Technology programs.
For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/tech20111117.html
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011
A new NASA study suggests if life ever existed on Mars, the longest lasting habitats were most likely below the Red Planet's surface.
A new interpretation of years of mineral-mapping data, from more than 350 sites on Mars examined by European and NASA orbiters, suggests Martian environments with abundant liquid water on the surface existed only during short episodes. These episodes occurred toward the end of a period of hundreds of millions of years during which warm water interacted with subsurface rocks. This has implications about whether life existed on Mars and how the Martian atmosphere has changed.
"The types of clay minerals that formed in the shallow subsurface are all over Mars," said John Mustard, professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Mustard is a co-author of the study in the journal Nature. "The types that formed on the surface are found at very limited locations and are quite rare."
Discovery of clay minerals on Mars in 2005 indicated the planet once hosted warm, wet conditions. If those conditions existed on the surface for a long era, the planet would have needed a much thicker atmosphere than it has now to keep the water from evaporating or freezing. Researchers have sought evidence of processes that could cause a thick atmosphere to be lost over time.
This new study supports an alternative hypothesis that persistent warm water was confined to the subsurface and many erosional features were carved during brief periods when liquid water was stable at the surface.
"If surface habitats were short-term, that doesn't mean we should be glum about prospects for life on Mars, but it says something about what type of environment we might want to look in," said the report's lead author, Bethany Ehlmann, assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena. "The most stable Mars habitats over long durations appear to have been in the subsurface. On Earth, underground geothermal environments have active ecosystems."
The discovery of clay minerals by the OMEGA spectrometer on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter added to earlier evidence of liquid Martian water. Clays form from the interaction of water with rock. Different types of clay minerals result from different types of wet conditions.
During the past five years, researchers used OMEGA and NASA's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer, or CRISM, instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to identify clay minerals at thousands of locations on Mars. Clay minerals that form where the ratio of water interacting with rock is small generally retain the same chemical elements as those found in the original volcanic rocks later altered by the water.
The study interprets this to be the case for most terrains on Mars with iron and magnesium clays. In contrast, surface environments with higher ratios of water to rock can alter rocks further. Soluble elements are carried off by water, and different aluminum-rich clays form.
Another clue is detection of a mineral called prehnite. It forms at temperatures above about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (about 200 degrees Celsius). These temperatures are typical of underground hydrothermal environments rather than surface waters.
"Our interpretation is a shift from thinking that the warm, wet environment was mostly at the surface to thinking it was mostly in the subsurface, with limited exceptions," said Scott Murchie of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., a co-author of the report and principal investigator for CRISM.
One of the exceptions may be Gale Crater, the site targeted by NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Launching this year, the mission’s Curiosity rover will land and investigate layers that contain clay and sulfate minerals.
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN, in development for a 2013 launch, may provide evidence for or against this new interpretation of the Red Planet's environmental history. The report predicts MAVEN findings consistent with the atmosphere not having been thick enough to provide warm, wet surface conditions for a prolonged period.
For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/MRO/news/mro20111102.html
Monday, November 7, 2011
On a bluff overlooking the Atlantic, Grady Koch spent a month watching ocean winds.
He beamed a laser over the sea, day after day, measuring conditions offshore using an instrument called Doppler Aerosol Wind (DAWN) lidar.
What Koch learns from the experiment will be used by scientists to advance weather forecasting technology -- and also by a consortium hoping to develop a wind farm in the very spot where the wind data is being taken.
"It's been going well," said Koch, a scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
"It works. We're showing that we can measure wind at different heights. One issue we've been working is, how far can we see? We've been able to see pretty well out to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles)."
The wind farm is proposed by the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, a partnership of universities, state and local governments, and industry. The Virginia legislature formed the consortium in 2007 to develop coastal energy technologies.
A wind farm would provide Virginia with about 10 percent of its power demand, said George Hagerman, a scientist at Virginia Tech, a consortium partner.
"We're at a point now where offshore wind is not just an academic exercise," he said. I don't think it's a question of 'if.' It's a question of when."
The consortium, Hagerman said, is working with private and government agencies to ensure the potential wind farm is placed in an area where it does not interfere with shipping routes or military exercises, which are common in the waters off Virginia Beach.
The location under study is about 15 miles off the Atlantic coast in Virginia Beach, Va. and covers about 240 square miles. Companies wishing to place wind-powered energy generators in the area would have to sign leases with the federal government, which controls the waters, Hagerman said.
A huge requirement for persuading industry to invest is providing them with reliable data about wind speed and direction.
That's where NASA Langley comes in.
The DAWN laser used by Grady Koch is extremely powerful, and capable of compiling three-dimensional wind profiles. "It's much stronger than anything you can buy on the commercial market," Koch said.
DAWN is the product of three decades of development for use in weather forecasting.
Last year, for example, DAWN was part of a research campaign called the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Process (GRIP) mission. The campaign was conducted to better understand how tropical storms form and develop into hurricanes.
The laser function of DAWN measures wind speed and direction by tracking dust and other particles blowing in the wind. The particles, in a sense, illuminate the wind.
For the current project, DAWN was fitted to a large trailer and towed from Langley to the experiment site. It's a stone's throw from the ocean at the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, an Army/Navy installation at Cape Henry, where the Atlantic meets the Chesapeake Bay.
For NASA, the experiment will add much-needed marine wind data to an existing 30-year dataset about wind. That information will be used to improve the capabilities of instruments like DAWN.
The hope is to provide new data for meteorologists so they can make better forecasts about hurricane intensity, track, and landfall. Eventually, scientists hope, a DAWN-like instrument will be launched into space to provide continuous global coverage.
Said Koch of the wind-profiling project: "We're proving a concept."
For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/dawn-lidar.html
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