Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Perfect STORRM

It was a perfect STORRM. On Tuesday, July 20, NASA and its industry partners Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., successfully demonstrated a new sensor technology that will make it easier and safer for spacecraft to rendezvous and dock to the International Space Station.

This new docking navigation system prototype consists of an eye-safe lidar Vision Navigation Sensor, or VNS, a high-definition docking camera, developed as well as the avionics and flight software. Both sensors will provide real-time three-dimensional images to the crew with a resolution 16 times higher than the current space shuttle sensors. This next generation system also provides data from as far away as three miles – three times the range of the current shuttle navigation sensor.

"You are looking at the future of rendezvous and docking right here," said David L. Taylor, president and CEO of Ball Aerospace, as he welcomed dozens of NASA and industry engineers to the demonstration.

The hardware will be tested by astronauts aboard STS-134, the last planned shuttle mission, currently scheduled for February 2011, as part of the Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation (STORRM) Development Test Objective (DTO). On Flight Day 11 of the mission, the shuttle crew will conduct an unprecedented on-orbit maneuver; they will undock from the space station and then re-rendezvous with the station on an Orion-like approach.

Five retro-reflectors, which will serve as targets for the VNS, were installed on the station's visual docking target during the STS-131 shuttle mission in May.

The demonstration, held at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo. offered the STORRM team the chance to operate the flight hardware for personnel who will be supporting STORRM during the mission -- the astronaut crew, flight director, and mission operations personnel.

Mark Kirasich, deputy Orion Manager from the Orion Project Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston recognized the STORRM team for its perseverance and dedication to develop the DTO flight hardware on an aggressive and success-oriented schedule.

The intense project required NASA engineers and contractors to work holidays, evenings and weekends in order to successfully deliver the DTO flight hardware per the shuttle schedule. Normally, it takes more than two years to develop flight hardware, but the STORRM team was able to deliver the DTO sensor hardware in half that time. Despite the aggressive schedule, the team finished on time.

"It's been challenging -- but we were successful," said Frank Novak, STORRM project manager from NASA's Langley Research Center. "We were successful despite many challenges; my hat's off to the team."

"We have met every milestone along the way, and I could not be more proud of this team," echoed Howard Hu, manager of Orion Vehicle Performance and Analysis, responsible for STORRM from NASA Johnson.

Following the demonstration, the STS-134 crew was briefed on the STORRM hardware and mission objectives. After the hardware demonstration, the STORRM avionics lead Tom Johnson from NASA Langley and the Deputy Principal Investigator Sean Maguire from NASA Johnson, led the crew training activities, which gave crewmember Andrew Feustel and Commander Mark Kelly "hands on" time to gain experience running the software application and the STORRM flight hardware.

"I've been to the space station three times, and this is the first time that I'll be doing something like this," said Kelly, who will serve as commander on STS-134.

On Aug. 3, the STORRM hardware will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center where it will be integrated into the shuttle.

"This is a huge step forward for us," said Kirasich. "You saw Pad Abort-1. This is the next big thing."

STORRM was developed by the Orion Project Office at NASA Johnson, which is responsible for program management, technology evaluation, flight test objectives, operational concepts, contract management and data post-processing. Engineers at NASA Langley were responsible for engineering management, design and build of the avionics, STORRM software application and reflective elements. They are also responsible for the integration, testing and certification of these components. Industry partners Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ball Aerospace Technologies Corp. were responsible for the design, build and testing of the VNS and docking camera.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

GRAIL Spacecraft Takes Shape

Engineers have conducted a fuel tank check of one of NASA's GRAIL mission spacecraft (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory), scheduled for launch in 2011. Confirming the size and fit of manufactured components is one of the steps required prior to welding the spacecraft's fuel tanks into the propulsion system's feed lines.

The image was taken on June 29, 2010, during the propulsion subsystem assembly and integration effort in the Space Support Building clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver.

The GRAIL mission will fly twin spacecraft (spacecraft "A" and "B") in tandem orbits around the moon for several months to measure its gravity field in unprecedented detail. The mission will also answer longstanding questions about Earth's moon, and provide scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

CEIT Prepares Crew, Hardware and Payload for Space

Long before space shuttle Columbia flew on its STS-1 maiden flight and into the history books, NASA astronauts trained for years before they were ready to fly.

One of the mainstays of training has been the Crew Equipment Interface Test, or CEIT, developed to prepare astronauts for their missions in space while still here on Earth.

CEIT is held at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida about two months prior to launch, and gives astronauts the opportunity for hands-on training with the actual tools, equipment and hardware they'll use in orbit.

But there's more to the training than meets the eye. A lot of preparation goes into making sure all the elements are in place before the astronauts arrive -- and after they leave.

Dave Andrews, Engineering Systems Specialist with United Space Alliance's Flight Crew Systems Engineering Group, knows first-hand what it takes to get ready for CEIT. Since STS-41D, in 1984, Andrews has been working CEIT.

"It was a very new program in the '80s," said Andrews, "and it was exciting to meet all the different folks who worked out here including the astronauts, that we had personal contact with."

Some of the hardware for the shuttle is prepared at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and shipped to Kennedy. Andrews' group installs the flight equipment into the crew module for each training session and mission.

Many requirements come from Johnson but back then there were no computers, so instructions were sent and received by fax, while many procedures were hand-written with pen and paper, recalled Andrews.

With the advent of computers and email, planning for CEIT became less cumbersome, but no less exacting. Each flight has its own set of requirements and equipment.

"Over the years there have been a lot of modifications to the shuttle, so every CEIT is unique in that it incorporates the latest changes to the orbiter," Andrews said.

Aside from the modifications to the vehicles, with construction of the International Space Station underway, CEIT training became slightly more generic in that the vehicle configuration was generally similar. Only the payload was different, based on the needs to accomplish the mission.

The STS-125 mission to service NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is an example of the need for a different scope of equipment and hardware. "That mission," said Andrews, "had its own unique set of requirements because it wasn't going to the station and we had to prepare the vehicle in case it had to stay on orbit and wait for a rescue vehicle if there was an issue."

CEIT is a planned event, which means it's programmed around the astronauts' training schedule in Houston and usually falls on a weekend. The advantage is that during that time there's usually no maintenance work being done on the vehicle so crew and staff can have full access to every area of the shuttle.

While the mock-up shuttle trainers in Houston are amazingly accurate, some of the doors that open will have only a piece of plywood behind them according Andrews, so CEIT is very important for the astronauts to get a "real feel" for the vehicle and for what they'll experience while on orbit.

"During CEIT it might be the first time, first-time flyers have seen the shuttle they're going to fly in -- or have even seen the actual shuttle itself," Andrews said.

About a week before CEIT, Andrews' group installs the hardware into the vehicle's crew module and payload bay. Also installed are hundreds of cables providing connections for video, high-definition television and data links. His team then fit checks or tests the hardware on the ground before fight to ensure those parts can be installed on orbit as planned.

"Every mission is unique for our group so it keeps us on our toes. We get a lot of last minute requests to provide hardware for the space station or last-minute requests from the crew for changes they like to see incorporated," said Andrews. "A lot of times we're putting stuff into the orbiter a day before launch and sometimes our job's not done until the closeout crew closes the hatch on launch day."

In-fight maintenance procedures also are followed precisely so in case there's an anomaly during a mission the crew can practice the repair on the ground first. "It's a good training exercise both for the crew and for the in-flight maintenance crew who also come down here for CEIT," said Andrews.

Andrews said that one of the exceptional things about working with his group is that he gets not only to meet the astronauts but occasionally gets to know them on a personal level. "I'm grateful for the relationships that were established with many of the crew members over the years."

The astronauts have even commented on how important CEIT was to their success in space. Commander Eileen Collins said during the STS-114 Return to Flight CEIT training at Kennedy in July 2004, "from cable routing to tool stowage to tile inspection, CEIT makes us better prepared to carry out our mission."

After the astronauts have returned to Houston, Andrews' group checks all the cabling and hardware configurations before fight.

"We try to capture all the unique interfaces here on the ground to make sure everything is going to fit correctly -- if for some reason it doesn't fit here on the ground we repair the hardware or reroute a cable so it goes from point A to point B as it would on orbit," Andrews said. "We try to do everything here on the ground perfect or as close to perfect as we can so there are no issues on orbit for the crew to have to work or have to work around."

Andrews remarked about how proud he and his group are when the astronauts return from a mission and thank them for the exceptional work they've put into the spacecraft making their stay as issue-free as possible.

"For me it's been a great 26 years," Andrews said. "We all knew it had to end sometime, we couldn't fly the shuttle forever. We were told a few years ago that 2010 was about the time we were going to move on to the next program … It's been a great, great ride."

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Senior Year Can Wait -- I'm Working at JPL!

Imagine you're at school, munching on a cheeseburger during lunch, just chatting with your friends about how awesome it is that NASA is sending a rover to Mars. Now imagine eating a cheeseburger again, except you're now talking to some of the top-notch scientists and engineers in the world who are actually working on the rover. This is just one of the many opportunities a high school intern can experience at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

So far, my eight-week internship here at JPL has been amazing. I became a summer intern through the INSPIRE program (Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience), a nationwide program across 10 NASA centers. The program gives incoming high school seniors the opportunity to spend the summer working in a professional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) environment. At my high school, I am involved in the physics team, Science Bowl, Ocean Science Bowl, astronomy club and physics club. Clearly, I love science and I am thinking about majoring in engineering or computer science. I would say the most important prerequisite for a JPL internship is a strong interest in and passion for science, technology, engineering or math.

This summer, I am working with the Mars Public Engagement team. One of my main projects is to create a virtual tour of the possible landing sites of the Curiosity rover that will launch in late 2011. This opportunity is really cool because I get to chat with a Mars scientist and learn about all the landing sites. Several of my other projects involve designing and adding more features to Mars websites using HTML, CSS, Photoshop, Illustrator and other software programs. I've also contributed posts about the Curiosity rover for Facebook and Twitter, in addition to writing spotlights about Curiosity that go on NASA's Mars Exploration Program website and on the JPL Mars homepage. It's really cool seeing my work on official NASA/JPL websites! One of the other interns in my program is working hands-on in building an environmental control system for Curiosity, while another is working with databases and algorithms, and another is working with coding and software for robots.

While the INSPIRE program is common to all NASA centers, SpaceSHIP is a high school internship program that is specific to JPL. Students need to live within 50 miles of the lab, but in general, the high school students do similar work. Space Grant is another NASA program that accepts high school students.

What I like a lot about JPL is the work environment. It's professional yet laid back. Workplace doors are decorated with witty science jokes, scientists and engineers laugh and joke in the cafeteria, employees will ask you about your day in the elevator and everyone is invited to listen to lectures by renowned scientists. It kind of reminds me of a college campus, but much better! It's a place where ideas, even those of a high school intern, are heard, and creativity is allowed to bloom. The workplace is not intimidating, and I feel very comfortable here despite being just 17 years old. I am not treated as a high school student but as a contributing member of the team. While some of my friends are filing papers or running errands at other internships, I get to do what I like here at JPL in an experience of a lifetime!

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Curiosity Rover Grows by Leaps and Bounds

In this image, engineers are dressed head to toe in "bunny suits" (white hoods, lab-style coats and gloves). Only their eyes and foreheads can be seen. They are huddled around the base of the rover's "neck" (its Mast). They watch intently as they carefully lower the Mast to attach it to the rover's flat "back." A cluster of yellow and red wires on the rover's body pokes up in the foreground of the image. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech - Full image and caption

Talk about a growth-spurt. In one week, Curiosity grew by approximately 1 meter (3.5 feet) when spacecraft technicians and engineers attached the rover's neck and head (called the Remote Sensing Mast) to its body. At around 2 meters (about 7 feet) tall, the next rover to Mars now stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Mounted on Curiosity's mast are two navigation cameras (Navcams), two mast cameras (Mastcam), and the laser-carrying chemistry camera (ChemCam).

While it now has a good head on its shoulders, Curiosity's "eyes" (the Mastcam), have been blindfolded in a protective silvery material. The Mastcam, containing two digital cameras, will soon be unveiled, so engineers can test its picture-taking abilities.

Up next today (July 23), the towering rover will take its first baby steps: a slow roll on the floor of the clean room where it's being built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Bonnie Takes Aim at an Oily Gulf

The temperatures of Tropical Storm Bonnie's cloud tops are shown in this July 23 thermal infrared image from the AIRS instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft. The coldest clouds and heaviest precipitation are shown in purples and blues. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech - Larger Image

Tropical Storm Bonnie, the second named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, moved across the southern Florida peninsula on Friday afternoon, July 23, 2010, and is now taking aim at the Gulf of Mexico. The forecast track is expected to take it over or near the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 24.

According to NOAA's National Hurricane Center, Bonnie made landfall in South Florida with maximum sustained winds near 65 kilometers (40 miles) per hour. As it encountered land, it was downgraded to a tropical depression, with maximum sustained winds of 55 kilometers (35 miles) per hour. Bonnie is expected to regain tropical storm strength as it enters the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico Friday night and Saturday. At 5 p.m. EDT July 23, Bonnie was located about 55 kilometers south of Ft. Myers, Fla., moving to the west-northwest at 30 kilometers (18 miles) per hour. Bonnie is expected to slow and move over the eastern Gulf of Mexico Friday night, July 23, and Saturday, July 24, and reach the northern Gulf Coast late Saturday.

Bonnie is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 3 to 8 centimeters (1 to 3 inches) over parts of southeastern Louisiana, southern Alabama, southern Mississippi and the far western Florida panhandle, with possible isolated maximum amounts of up to 13 centimeters (5 inches). Additional rainfall amounts of 3 to 5 centimeters (1 to 2 inches) are possible today over Central and South Florida.

Of particular concern to Gulf Coast residents and oil spill response personnel is Bonnie's storm surge, which could potentially carry oil from the spill inland. The storm surge is expected to raise water levels by as much as 1 to 1.5 meters (3 to 5 feet) above ground level along the immediate coast near and to the right of where the center of Bonnie makes landfall on the northern Gulf Coast.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory-built and managed Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite captured this infrared image of Bonnie when it was a tropical storm at 2:47 p.m. EDT (18:47 UTC) on July 23, 2010. The AIRS data create an accurate 3-D map of atmospheric temperature, water vapor and clouds, data that are useful to hurricane forecasters. The image shows the temperature of Bonnie's cloud tops or the surface of Earth in cloud-free regions. The coldest cloud-top temperatures appear in purple, indicating towering cold clouds and heavy precipitation. The infrared signal of AIRS does not penetrate through clouds. Where there are no clouds, AIRS reads the infrared signal from the surface of the ocean waters, revealing warmer temperatures in orange and red.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hyperfast Star Was Booted From Milky Way

This illustration shows one possible mechanism for how the star HE 0437-5439 acquired enough energy to be ejected from our Milky Way galaxy. In this scenario, a triple-star system, consisting of a close binary system and another outer member bound to the group, is orbiting near the galaxy's monster black hole. One star is captured by the black hole and the tightly bound pair gets ejected from the galaxy. As the duo speeds through the galaxy, one member evolves more quickly and consumes the other. The resulting rejuvenated star, massive and very blue, is called a blue straggler. - Larger Image

A hundred million years ago, a triple-star system was traveling through the bustling center of our Milky Way galaxy when it made a life-changing misstep. The trio wandered too close to the galaxy's giant black hole, which captured one of the stars and hurled the other two out of the Milky Way. Adding to the stellar game of musical chairs, the two outbound stars merged to form a super- hot, blue star.

This story may seem like science fiction, but astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope say it is the most likely scenario for a so-called hypervelocity star, known as HE 0437-5439, one of the fastest ever detected. It is blazing across space at a speed of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers) an hour, three times faster than our Sun's orbital velocity in the Milky Way. Hubble observations confirm that the stellar speedster hails from the Milky Way's core, settling some confusion over where it originally called home.

Most of the roughly 16 known hypervelocity stars, all discovered since 2005, are thought to be exiles from the heart of our galaxy. But this Hubble result is the first direct observation linking a high-flying star to a galactic center origin.

"Using Hubble, we can for the first time trace back to where the star comes from by measuring the star's direction of motion on the sky. Its motion points directly from the Milky Way center," says astronomer Warren Brown of the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., a member of the Hubble team that observed the star. "These exiled stars are rare in the Milky Way's population of 100 billion stars. For every 100 million stars in the galaxy lurks one hypervelocity star."

The movements of these unbound stars could reveal the shape of the dark matter distribution surrounding our galaxy. "Studying these stars could provide more clues about the nature of some of the universe's unseen mass, and it could help astronomers better understand how galaxies form," says team leader Oleg Gnedin of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Dark matter's gravitational pull is measured by the shape of the hyperfast stars' trajectories out of the Milky Way."

The stellar outcast is already cruising in the Milky Way's distant outskirts, high above the galaxy's disk, about 200,000 light-years from the center. By comparison, the diameter of the Milky Way's disk is approximately 100,000 light- years. Using Hubble to measure the runaway star's direction of motion and determine the Milky Way's core as its starting point, Brown and Gnedin's team calculated how fast the star had to have been ejected to reach its current location.

"The star is traveling at an absurd velocity, twice as much as the star needs to escape the galaxy's gravitational field," explains Brown, a hypervelocity star hunter who found the first unbound star in 2005. "There is no star that travels that quickly under normal circumstances-something exotic has to happen."

There's another twist to this story. Based on the speed and position of HE 0437- 5439, the star would have to be 100 million years old to have journeyed from the Milky Way's core. Yet its mass - nine times that of our Sun - and blue color mean that it should have burned out after only 20 million years - far shorter than the transit time it took to get to its current location.

The most likely explanation for the star's blue color and extreme speed is that it was part of a triple-star system that was involved in a gravitational billiard-ball game with the galaxy's monster black hole. This concept for imparting an escape velocity on stars was first proposed in 1988. The theory predicted that the Milky Way's black hole should eject a star about once every 100,000 years.

Brown suggests that the triple-star system contained a pair of closely orbiting stars and a third outer member also gravitationally tied to the group. The black hole pulled the outer star away from the tight binary system. The doomed star's momentum was transferred to the stellar twosome, boosting the duo to escape velocity from the galaxy. As the pair rocketed away, they went on with normal stellar evolution. The more massive companion evolved more quickly, puffing up to become a red giant. It enveloped its partner, and the two stars spiraled together, merging into one superstar - a blue straggler.

"While the blue straggler story may seem odd, you do see them in the Milky Way, and most stars are in multiple systems," Brown says.

This vagabond star has puzzled astronomers since its discovery in 2005 by the Hamburg/European Southern Observatory sky survey. Astronomers had proposed two possibilities to solve the age problem. The star either dipped into the Fountain of Youth by becoming a blue straggler, or it was flung out of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy.

In 2008 a team of astronomers thought they had solved the mystery. They found a match between the exiled star's chemical makeup and the characteristics of stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The rogue star's position also is close to the neighboring galaxy, only 65,000 light-years away. The new Hubble result settles the debate over the star's birthplace.

Astronomers used the sharp vision of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to make two separate observations of the wayward star 3 1/2 years apart. Team member Jay Anderson of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., developed a technique to measure the star's position relative to each of 11 distant background galaxies, which form a reference frame.

Anderson then compared the star's position in images taken in 2006 with those taken in 2009 to calculate how far the star moved against the background galaxies. The star appeared to move, but only by 0.04 of a pixel (picture element) against the sky background. "Hubble excels with this type of measurement," Anderson says. "This observation would be challenging to do from the ground."

The team is trying to determine the homes of four other unbound stars, all located on the fringes of the Milky Way.

"We are targeting massive 'B' stars, like HE 0437-5439," says Brown, who has discovered 14 of the 16 known hypervelocity stars. "These stars shouldn't live long enough to reach the distant outskirts of the Milky Way, so we shouldn't expect to find them there. The density of stars in the outer region is much less than in the core, so we have a better chance to find these unusual objects."

The results were published online in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on July 20, 2010. Brown is the paper's lead author.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. in Washington, D.C.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

First-of-its-Kind Map Depicts Global Forest Heights

Using NASA satellite data, scientists have produced a first-of-its kind map that details the height of the world’s forests. Although there are other local- and regional-scale forest canopy maps, the new map is the first that spans the entire globe based on one uniform method.

The work -- based on data collected by NASA's ICESat, Terra, and Aqua satellites -- should help scientists build an inventory of how much carbon the world’s forests store and how fast that carbon cycles through ecosystems and back into the atmosphere. Michael Lefsky of the Colorado State University described his results in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The new map shows the world’s tallest forests clustered in the Pacific Northwest of North America and portions of Southeast Asia, while shorter forests are found in broad swaths across northern Canada and Eurasia. The map depicts average height over 5 square kilometers (1.9 square miles) regions), not the maximum heights that any one tree or small patch of trees might attain.

Temperate conifer forests -- which are extremely moist and contain massive trees such as Douglas fir, western hemlock, redwoods, and sequoias--have the tallest canopies, soaring easily above 40 meters (131 feet). In contrast, boreal forests dominated by spruce, fir, pine, and larch had canopies typically less than 20 meters (66 feet). Relatively undisturbed areas in tropical rain forests were about 25 meters (82 feet), roughly the same height as the oak, beeches, and birches of temperate broadleaf forests common in Europe and much of the United States.

Where’s the Carbon?

Scientific interest in the new map goes far beyond curiosities about tree height. The map has implications for an ongoing effort to estimate the amount of carbon tied up in Earth’s forests and for explaining what sops up 2 billion tons of “missing” carbon each year.

Humans release about 7 billion tons of carbon annually, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. Of that, 3 billion tons end up in the atmosphere and 2 billion tons in the ocean. It’s unclear where the last two billion tons of carbon go, though scientists suspect forests capture and store much of it as biomass through photosynthesis.

There are hints that young forests absorb more carbon than older ones, as do wetter ones, and that large amounts of carbon end up in certain types of soil. But ecologists have only begun to pin down the details as they try to figure out whether the planet can continue to soak up so much of our annual carbon emissions and whether it will continue to do so as climate changes.

“What we really want is a map of above-ground biomass, and the height map helps get us there,” said Richard Houghton, an expert in terrestrial ecosystem science and the deputy director of the Woods Hole Research Center.

One of Lefsky’s colleagues, Sassan Saatchi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has already started combining the height data with forest inventories to create biomass maps for tropical forests. Complete global inventories of biomass, when they exist, can improve climate models and guide policymakers on how to minimize the human impact on climate with carbon offsets.

More immediately, said University of Maryland remote sensing expert Ralph Dubayah, tree canopy heights can be plugged into models that predict the spread and behavior of fires, as well as ecological models that help biologists understand the suitability of species to specific forests.

Seeing Lasers through the Trees

Lefsky used data from a laser technology called LIDAR that’s capable of capturing vertical slices of surface features. It measures forest canopy height by shooting pulses of light at the surface and observing how much longer it takes for light to bounce back from the ground surface than from the top of the canopy. Since LIDAR can penetrate the top layer of forest canopy, it provides a fully-textured snapshot of the vertical structure of a forest -- something that no other scientific instrument can offer.

“LIDAR is unparalleled for this type of measurement,” Lefsky said, noting it would have taken weeks or more to collect the same amount of data in the field by counting and measuring tree trunks that LIDAR can capture in seconds.

He based his map on data from more than 250 million laser pulses collected during a seven year period. That may sound like an enormous amount of data, but each pulse returns information about just a tiny portion of the surface. Overall, the LIDAR offered direct measurements of 2.4 percent of the Earth’s forested surfaces.

To create his global map forest height map, Lefsky combined the LIDAR data with information from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), a satellite instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites that senses a much broader swath of Earth’s surface, even though it doesn’t provide the vertical profile.

“This is a really just a first draft, and it will certainly be refined in the future,” said Lefsky.

Fusing the two sets of data proved difficult, and Lefsky spent years honing quantitative techniques to make the combination possible. Part of the difficulty was that the LIDAR data Lefsky used came from an instrument aboard ICESat, a mission optimized to study the topography of ice sheets, not vegetation.

The next generation LIDAR measurements of forests and biomass, which will improve the resolution of the map considerably, could come from NASA's Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) satellite, proposed for the latter part of this decade.

“We’ve never been able to look at a map and say here’s how tall the canopy is before,” said Dubayah, one of the DESDynI project scientists. “This map is a big step forward, and it really helps set the stage for DESDynI and shows what’s possible.”

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NASA's Nebula Cloud Computing Technology To Play Key Role In New Open Source Initiative

WASHINGTON -- The core technology developed for NASA's Nebula cloud computing platform has been selected as a contributor for OpenStack, a newly-launched open source cloud computing initiative. It will pull together more than 25 companies to play a key role in driving cloud computing standards for interoperability and portability.

Cloud computing is a way to deliver computing resources, such as software, storage and virtual computing power, as services over the Internet. NASA launched the Nebula cloud computing platform to provide agency researchers with a range of services powerful enough to manage NASA's large-scale scientific data sets. Nebula offers unparalleled compute capability, storage and bandwidth to users at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"We hope that OpenStack will form the foundation of a new open source cloud ecosystem," said NASA chief technology officer for Information Technology Chris C. Kemp. "With Nebula technology at the core of OpenStack, NASA will be uniquely positioned to drive standards that will ensure products and services powered by OpenStack will meet federal interoperability, portability, and security requirements."

OpenStack is the first large-scale open source cloud project of its kind and is expected to gather significant momentum in the cloud and open source communities.

"Nebula technology was selected for inclusion in the OpenStack project because of its massively scalable architecture and the high quality of its code" said Jim Curry, director of OpenStack.

The announcement coincides with O'Reilly Media's Open Source Developers Conference, which is taking place in Portland, Ore., this week.

"Participating in OpenStack will allow NASA to tap into a well-established community of open source developers and enable us to benefit from crowd-sourced development efforts." said Raymond O'Brien, Nebula's program manager.

Nebula is an agency-wide program and was one of three flagship initiatives highlighted in NASA's Open Government Plan. For more information on Nebula:

For more information about NASA's Office of the Chief Information Officer, visit:

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Space Weather Turns into an International Problem

That's the message scientists are delivering at today's International Living with a Star (ILWS) meeting in Bremen, Germany, and representatives from more than 25 of the world's most scientifically-advanced nations have gathered to hear what they have to say.

"The problem is solar storms—figuring out how to foresee them and stay safe from their effects," says ILWS Chairperson Lika Guhathakurta of NASA headquarters. "We need to make progress on this before the next solar maximum arrives around 2013."

The sun and Earth are alienated by 93 million miles of space—a seemingly safe distance. But since the Space Age began, and especially in recent years, there has been a growing realization that 93 million miles really isn't so far apart. Spacecraft and ground-based observatories have shown that Earth is located in the sun's outer atmosphere, buffeted by solar winds and pelted by hail storms of energetic particles. Moreover, the two bodies are in fact connected by invisible threads of magnetism. During "reconnection events," which typically happen several times a day, you can trace invisible lines of force all the way from Earth's poles to the surface of the sun.

"The Earth and sun are interconnected. We cannot study them unconnectedly anymore," says Guhathakurta.

A few years ago, scientists coined the term "heliophysics" to describe the emerging science of the sun-Earth system. As a nod to the significance of the topic, NASA has set up a dedicated Heliophysics Division at HQ in Washington DC, and the United Nations declared 2007 the "International Heliophysical Year" (IHY) in hopes of spurring global involvement in this new field.

Predicting solar activity is a intricate problem, akin in some ways to terrestrial weather forecasting but multiplied in difficulty by the thorny physics of solar plasma and magnetism. Predicting the sun is only half the problem, though; the other half is Earth. How our planet's magnetic field and atmosphere respond to any given solar storm is a magnetohydrodynamical riddle that top scientists move aggressively to understand even with the aid of Earth's most powerful supercomputers. For these reasons, it is often said that space weather forecasting lags 50 years behind its terrestrial counterpart.

"We need more data--and more ideas," says Guhathakurta.

That's why, this week, she is handing over her chairmanship of ILWS to Dr. Ji Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In adding to leading the ILWS, Wu will spend the next two years harnessing the special talents of the world's most populous country for heliophysics.

"We have many scientists and lots of fresh ideas," says Wu. "China will be able to make significant contributions in this area."

Another complication is volume. Heliophysics plays out on a stage which is hundreds of millions of miles wide. Simply keeping track of what's going on is a important challenge. NASA and other space agencies have dozens of spacecraft out there, but they are spread over an massive volume.

"Imagine trying to monitor Earth's oceans with a small number of buoys. You'd miss a lot. That's the condition we're in now with the 'ocean of space,'" says Guhathakurta.

China is about to contribute a space-buoy known as "KuaFu," named after a giant in Chinese mythology who wished to capture the sun. Kuafu will be situated at the L1 Lagrange point where it will sample the solar wind upstream from Earth.

"We're putting KuaFu at a strategic point in space," says Wu. "The solar wind at L1 is an significant input to many science models of the sun-Earth interaction."

When KuaFu launches it will join a growing international fleet of spacecraft dedicated to heliophysics. NASA, the European Space Agency, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, JAXA and China are all making significant contributions.

And just in time...

If forecasters are correct, the solar cycle will peak during the years around 2013. And while it probably won't be the biggest peak on record, human society has never been more susceptible. The basics of daily life—from communications to weather forecasting to financial services—depend on satellites and high-tech electronics. A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences warned that a century-class solar storm could cause billions in economic damage.

Preparing for a "solar Katrina," launching a new science, harnessing the talents of scientists around the globe: "These are just a few of our goals for this week's meeting," says Guhathakurta.

Ambitious? Yes, but in heliophysics thinking big comes with the territory.
NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, will complete its first study of the entire sky on July 17, 2010. The mission has generated more than one million images so far, of everything from asteroids to distant galaxies.

"Like a globe-trotting shutterbug, WISE has completed a world tour with 1.3 million slides casing the whole sky," said Edward Wright, the principal investigator of the mission at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some of these images have been processed and stitched together into a novel picture being released today. It shows the Pleiades cluster of stars, also known as the Seven Sisters, resting in a tangled bed of wispy dust. The pictured region covers seven square degrees, or an area equal to 35 full moons, highlighting the telescope's ability to take wide shots of vast regions of space.

The new picture was taken in February. It shows infrared light from WISE's four detectors in a range of wavelengths. This infrared vision highlights the region's expansive dust cloud, through which the Seven Sisters and other stars in the cluster are passing. Infrared light also reveals the smaller and cooler stars of the family.

"The WISE all-sky survey is helping us sift through the huge and diverse population of celestial objects," said Hashima Hasan, WISE Program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It's a great example of the high impact science that's likely from NASA's Explorer Program."

The first release of WISE data, covering about 80 percent of the sky, will be delivered to the astronomical community in May of next year. The mission scanned strips of the sky as it orbited around the Earth's poles since its launch last December. WISE always stays over the Earth's day-night line. As the Earth moves around the sun, innovative slices of sky come into the telescope's field of view. It has taken six months, or the amount of time for Earth to travel halfway around the sun, for the mission to complete one full scan of the entire sky.

For the next three months, the mission will map half of the sky again. This will improve the telescope's data, revealing more hidden asteroids, stars and galaxies. The mapping will give astronomers a look at what's changed in the sky. The mission will end when the instrument's block of solid hydrogen coolant, desirable to chill its infrared detectors, runs out.

"The eyes of WISE have not blinked since launch," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Both our telescope and spacecraft have performed flawlessly and have imaged every corner of our universe, just as we planned."

So far, WISE has observed more than 100,000 asteroids, both known and formerly unseen. Most of these space rocks are in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, some are near-Earth objects, asteroids and comets with orbits that pass relatively close to Earth. WISE has discovered more than 90 of these new near-Earth objects. The infrared telescope is also good at spotting comets that orbit far from Earth and has discovered more than a dozen of these so far.

WISE's infrared vision also gives it an exceptional ability to pick up the glow of cool stars, called brown dwarfs, in addition to distant galaxies bursting with light and energy. These galaxies are called ultra-luminous infrared galaxies. WISE can see the brightest of them.

"WISE is filling in the blanks on the infrared properties of everything in the universe from nearby asteroids to distant quasars," said Peter Eisenhardt of JPL, project scientist for WISE. "But the most thrilling discoveries may well be objects we haven't yet imagined exist."

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

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

See Beautiful Ontario Lacus: Cassini's Guided Tour

NASA's Cassini spacecraft takes us on a guided tour of this mysterious lake on Titan.

Ontario Lacus, the largest lake in the southern hemisphere of Saturn's moon Titan, turns out to be a ideal exotic vacation spot, provided you can handle the frosty, subzero temperatures and enjoy soaking in liquid hydrocarbon.

Several current papers by scientists working with NASA's Cassini spacecraft describe evidence of beaches for sunbathing in Titan's low light, sheltered bays for mooring boats, and pretty deltas for wading out in the shallows. They also depict seasonal changes in the lake's size and depth, giving vacationers an opportunity to visit over and over without seeing the same lake twice. (Travel agents, of course, will have to help you figure out how to breathe in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen.)

Using data that give us the most complete picture yet of a lake on another world, scientists and animators have collaborated on a new video tour of Ontario Lacus based on radar data from Cassini's Titan flybys on June 22, 2009, July 8, 2009, and Jan. 12, 2010.
"With such frigid temperatures and meager sunlight, you wouldn't think Titan has a lot in common with our own Earth," said Steve Wall, deputy team lead for the Cassini radar team, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "But Titan continues to surprise us with activity and seasonal processes that look amazingly, eerily familiar."

Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 when the southern hemisphere of the planet and its moons were experiencing summer. The seasons have started to change toward autumn, with winter solstice darkening the southern hemisphere of Titan in 2017. A year on Titan is the equivalent of about 29 Earth years.

Titan is the only other world in our solar system identified to have standing bodies of liquid on its surface. Because surface temperatures at the poles average a chilly 90 Kelvin (about minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit), the liquid is a combination of methane, ethane and propane, rather than water. Ontario Lacus has a surface area of about 15,000 square kilometers (6,000 square miles), slightly smaller than its terrestrial namesake Lake Ontario.

Cassini first obtained an image of Ontario Lacus with its imaging camera in 2004. A paper submitted to the journal Icarus by Alex Hayes, a Cassini radar team connects at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and colleagues finds that the lake's shoreline has receded by about 10 kilometers (6 miles). This has resulted in a liquid level decrease of about 1 meter (3 feet) per year over a four-year period.

The shoreline appears to be thinning because of liquid methane evaporating from the lake, with a total amount of evaporation that would significantly exceed the yearly methane gas output of all the cows on Earth, Hayes said. Some of the liquid could also seep into porous ground material. Hayes said the changes in the lake are probable occurring as part of Titan's seasonal methane cycle, and would be expected to reverse during southern winter.

This seasonal filling and receding is analogous to what occurs at the shallow lakebed known as Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, Hayes said. In fact, from the air, the topography and shape of Racetrack Playa and Ontario Lacus are moderately similar, although Ontario Lacus is about 60 times larger.

"We are very excited about these results, because we did not imagine Cassini to be able to notice changes of this magnitude in Titan's lakes," Hayes said. "It is only through the sustained monitoring of seasonal variation during Cassini's extended mission that these discoveries have been made possible."

Other parts of the Ontario Lacus' shoreline, as described in the paper published in Geophysical Research Letters in March 2010 by Wall, Hayes and other colleagues, show flooded valleys and coasts, further proof that the lake level has distorted.

The delta exposed by Cassini radar data on the western shore of Ontario Lacus is also the first well-developed delta observed on Titan, Wall said. He explained that the shape of the land there shows liquid flowing down from superior plain switching channels on its way into the lake, forming at least two lobes.

Examples of this kind of channel switching and wave-modified deltas can be found on Earth at the southern end of Lake Albert between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, and the remains of an ancient lake identified as Megachad in the African country Chad, Wall said.

The radar data also show a smooth beach on the northwestern shore of Ontario Lacus. Smooth lines parallel to the current shoreline could be created by low waves over time, which were likely driven by winds extensive in from the west or southwest. The pattern at Ontario Lacus resembles what might be seen on the southeastern side of Lake Michigan, where waves sculpt the shoreline in a comparable fashion.

"Cassini continues to take our breath away as it fills in the details on the surfaces of these far-off moons," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist based at JPL. "It's exhilarating to ride along as it takes us on the final cold-weather adventure."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.

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A new discovery has the possible to answer the long-standing question of how massive stars are born -- and hints at the option that planets could form around the galaxy's biggest bodies.

"Astronomers have long been unclear about how the most massive stars form," said Stefan Kraus, a NASA Sagan Exoplanet Fellow and astronomer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "Because they tend to be at very large distances and bounded by dusty envelopes, it's very hard to separate and closely observe them."

To get a better look, Kraus' team used the Very Large Telescope Interferometer of the European Southern Observatory in Chile to focus on IRAS 13481-6124, a star situated at a distance of 10,000 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus, and about 20 times more massive than our sun. "We were able to get a very sharp view into the deepest regions around this star by combining the light of separate telescopes," Kraus said, "essentially mimicking the resolving power of a telescope with an incredible 85-meter [280-foot] mirror."

The team's observations yielded a jackpot result: the discovery of a massive disk of dust and gas encircling the giant young star. "It's the first time something like this has been experiential," Kraus said. "The disk very much resembles what we see around young stars that are much smaller, except everything is scaled up and more massive."

The presence of the disk is strong evidence that even the very main stars in the galaxy form by the same process as smaller ones -- growing out of the dense growth of vast quantities of gas and dust, rather than the merging of smaller stars, as had been previously suggested by some scientists. The results were confirmed by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. "We looked at archival images of the star taken by Spitzer, and confirmed that the star is flinging disk material outward from its polar regions, just as we see with minor stars and their dust disks," Kraus said.

The discovery also opens up the prospect that planets, perhaps even Earth-like ones, may be able to form around massive stars like IRAS 13481-6124, in the same way that they formed around our sun when it was much younger. "In the future, we might be able to see gaps in this and other dust disks formed by orbiting planets, although it is unlikely that such bodies could survive for long." Kraus said. "A planet around such a massive star would be destroyed by the strong stellar winds and intense radiation as soon as the protective disk material is gone, which leaves little chance for the development of solar systems like our own."

Still, huge stars like IRAS 13481-6124 provide the building blocks for life to arise elsewhere in the universe. "High-mass stars are where heavy elements necessary for life are created, so they are of major importance," Kraus said "This discovery is a clearer picture than we've had before and allows us to understand them better."

Spitzer formerly detected dusty disks of planetary debris around more mature massive stars, further supporting the notion that planets may form even in these extreme environments..

The recent and preceding Spitzer observations were made before the space telescope ran out of its liquid coolant in May 2009, officially beginning its warm mission.

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

The Sagan Fellowship Program, administered by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) at Caltech aims to advance the scientific and technical goals of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Farewell Lutetia

On its way to a 2014 rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, with NASA instruments aboard, flew past asteroid Lutetia on Saturday, July 10.

The instruments aboard Rosetta recorded the first close-up image of the biggest asteroid so far visited by a spacecraft. Rosetta made measurements to derive the mass of the object, understand the properties of the asteroid's surface crust, record the solar wind in the vicinity and look for evidence of an atmosphere. The spacecraft passed the asteroid at a minimum distance of 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) and at a velocity of 15 kilometers (9 miles) per second, completing the flyby in just a minute. But the cameras and other instruments had been working for hours and in some cases days beforehand, and will continue afterwards. Shortly after closest approach, Rosetta began transmitting data to Earth for processing.

Lutetia has been a mystery for many years. Ground telescopes have shown that it presents confusing characteristics. In some respects it resembles a ‘C-type’ asteroid, a primitive body left over from the formation of the solar system. In others, it looks like an ‘M-type’. These have been associated with iron meteorites, are usually reddish and thought to be fragments of the cores of much larger objects.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Securing a Place for History

A piece of NASA history landed at the Glenn Research Center's Visitor Center, now located at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The Apollo Command Module, used for the Skylab 3 mission in 1973, was moved effectively from Glenn to the Science Center on Tuesday, June 22. The module will be the focal point of the Visitor Center, which includes space and aeronautics artifacts, models and interactive experiences.

The move was carefully intended to protect and preserve the module, which weighs 12,800 pounds and is more than 11 feet tall and 13 feet wide. The module is on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Heavy Metal Rock Takes Center Stage

At a distance of 36,000 kilometers (22,369 miles) the OSIRIS Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) took this image catching the planet Saturn in the background. Image credit: ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - More Images

On its way to a 2014 rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, with NASA instruments aboard, will fly past asteroid Lutetia this Saturday, July 10.

The instruments aboard Rosetta will record the first close-up image of a metal asteroid. They will also make measurements to help scientists derive the mass of the object, understand the properties of the asteroid's surface crust, record the solar wind in the locality and look for facts of an atmosphere. The spacecraft will pass the asteroid at a least distance of 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) and at a velocity of 15 kilometers (9 miles) per second.

"Little is known about asteroid Lutetia other than it is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) wide," said Claudia Alexander, project scientist for the U.S. role in the Rosetta mission, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Allowing Rosetta's suite of science instruments to focus on this target of opportunity should deeply expand our knowledge of this huge space rock, while at the same time giving the mission's science instruments a real out-of-this-world workout."

Previous images of Lutetia were taken by ground-based telescopes and show only hints of the asteroid’s shape. Lutetia will be the second asteroid to obtain the full attention of Rosetta and its instruments. The spacecraft formerly flew within 800 kilometers (500 miles) of asteroid Steins in September of 2008. The Lutetia flyby is the final scientific milestone for Rosetta before controllers put the spacecraft into hibernation early in 2011, only to wake up in early 2014 for approach to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

NASA has contributed an ultraviolet instrument (Alice); a plasma instrument (the Ion and Electron Sensor); a microwave instrument (Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter); and portions of the electronics package for the double focusing mass spectrometer of the Rosetta orbiter sensor for ion and nonaligned analysis (ROSINA), among other contributions to this international mission. NASA's Deep Space Network, managed by JPL, will be giving support for tracking and science operations.

One hundred and fifteen elementary school students will be at JPL during the flyby. The students will see close-up images of Lutetia, talk to the U.S. Rosetta project manager and contribute in educational activities. The U.S. Rosetta project leaders hope to use this event as a kickoff of more coordinated activities with selected schools around the United States.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

NASA to Fly Into Hurricane Research this Summer

JPL instruments and spacecraft will participate in a six-week field campaign this summer to study how hurricanes form and rapidly intensify. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech - Larger Image

Three NASA aircraft will commence flights to study tropical cyclones on Aug. 15 during the agency's first major U.S.-based hurricane field campaign since 2001. The Genesis and Rapid strengthening Processes mission, or GRIP, will study the creation and rapid intensification of hurricanes. Advanced instruments from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., will be aboard two of the aircraft.

One of the major challenges in humid cyclone forecasting knows when a tropical cyclone is going to form. Scientists will use the data from this six-week field mission to better understand how steamy storms form and develop into major hurricanes. Mission scientists will also be looking at how storms reinforce, weaken and die.

"This is really going to be a game-changing hurricane experiment," said Ramesh Kakar, GRIP program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "For the first time, scientists will be able to study these storms and the conditions that produce them for up to 20 hours straight. GRIP will give a sustained, continuous look at hurricane behavior at critical times during their formation and evolution."

GRIP is led by Kakar and three project scientists: Scott Braun and Gerry Heymsfield of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Edward Zipser of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Three NASA satellites will play a key role in supplying data about tropical cyclones throughout the field mission. The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, or TRMM, managed by both NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will give rainfall estimates and help pinpoint the locations of "hot towers" or powerhouse thunderstorms in tropical cyclones. The CloudSat spacecraft, developed and managed by JPL, will provide cloud profiles of storms, which comprise altitude, temperatures and rainfall intensity. Several instruments onboard NASA's Aqua satellite, including JPL's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), will provide infrared, visible and microwave data that reveal such factors as temperature, air pressure, precipitation, cloud ice content, convection and sea surface temperatures.

The three NASA aircraft taking part in the mission are a DC-8, WB-57 and a tenuously piloted Global Hawk. The DC-8 will fly out of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida. The WB-57 will be based at the NASA Johnson Space Center's Ellington Field in Houston. The Global Hawk will be piloted and based from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, in Palmdale, Calif., while flying for up to 20 hours in the vicinity of hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

The aircraft will carry a total of 15 instruments, ranging from a higher microwave sounder to dropsondes that take measurements as they fall through the atmosphere to the ocean surface. In order to decide how a tropical cyclone will behave, the instruments will analyze many factors including: cloud droplet and aerosol concentrations, air temperature, wind speed and direction in storms and on the ocean's surface, air pressure, humidity, lightning, aerosols, and water vapor. The data also will validate the observations from space.

The JPL instruments include the High-Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit Sounding Radiometer (HAMSR), flying aboard the Global Hawk; and the Airborne Precipitation Radar (APR-2), aboard the DC-8. HAMSR is a microwave atmospheric sounder that will be used to infer the 3-D distribution of temperature, water vapor and cloud liquid water in the atmosphere. It operates even in the presence of clouds. APR-2 is dual-frequency weather radar that will take 3-D images of the precipitation beneath the DC-8 to compute its characteristics. These data will be used to infer rainfall rates, the location of ice and the speed of air updrafts, all of which are part of the atmospheric processes that give a hurricane's energy.

"It was a lot of hard work to assemble the science team and the payload for the three aircraft for GRIP," Kakar said. "But now that the start of the field experiment is almost here, we can hardly have our excitement."

In addition to JPL, several other NASA field centers are concerned in the mission, including Goddard; Johnson; Dryden; the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.; Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.; and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Centers provide scientists, instrument teams, project management or aircraft operations.

GRIP mission planning is being coordinated with two divide hurricane airborne research campaigns that will be in the field at the same time. The National Science Foundation is sponsoring the PRE-Depression Investigation of Cloud-systems in the Tropics mission. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are conducting the Intensity Forecast Experiment 2010. These flights will be based in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and Tampa, Fla.

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Planck Takes It All In

This image of the microwave sky was synthesized using data spanning the range of light frequencies detected by Planck. Image credit: ESA, HFI & LFI consortia (2010)

A new image from the Planck mission shows what it's been up to for the past year -- surveying the complete sky for clues to our universal origins. Planck, a European Space Agency mission with important participation from NASA, has been effectively scanning the whole sky at nine frequencies of light, with the ultimate goal of isolating fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background -- or light from the beginning of time. These fluctuations symbolize the seeds from which structure in our universe evolved.

"This image shows both our Milky Way galaxy and the universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang in one expansive view," said Charles Lawrence, the NASA project scientist for the mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The emission from the Milky Way traveled hundreds or thousands of years to reach us, while the radiation from the early universe traveled 13.7 billion years to reach us. What we see in this picture happened at very different times."

The picture has been color-coded to show how the sky looks over the range of frequencies observed by Planck. Planck detects light that we can't see with our eyes -- light with low frequencies ranging from 30 to 857 gigahertz. The disk of the Milky Way galaxy, seen edge-on from Earth's perspective, is the bright band running horizontally down the middle. Diffuse, huge clouds of gas and dust comparatively close to us in our galaxy can be seen above and below this band. The cosmic microwave background is obvious as the grainy structure towards the top and bottom of the image.

Scientists want to study this grainy signature across the entire sky, which means seeing through the "fog" of our Milky Way. The Planck teams are busy now removing this foreground fog, a meticulous process akin to identifying and removing all the hay in a haystack to reveal the needle within. The process will take about two more years, with the first processed data being released to the scientific community toward the end of 2012. The U.S. Planck team is helping with this task, with a primary tool being the Franklin supercomputer at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Berkeley, Calif. One of the world's fastest computers, Franklin will handle the most computationally concentrated analysis jobs for the Planck team worldwide.

Meanwhile, this fog is not something to discard. It contains a treasure trove of information about our galaxy and its structure, in addition to many other galaxies. The U.S. Planck team is accountable for releasing the first batch of this astronomy data, called the Early Release Compact Source Catalogue, an event schedule for January 2011.

Planck will prolong surveying the sky until at least the end of January 2012, completing almost five all-sky scans.

More information and images related to this story can be found at .

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ship Tracks in the North Pacific

Clouds form when water vapor condenses or freezes onto minute solid or liquid particles, such as dust, soot, or crystals of sea salt. Over the remote ocean, the air is naturally cleaner than it is over land, so there are fewer particles to act as seeds for cloud droplets. The scarcity of particles means that the droplets that do form grow comparatively large.

This pair of images demonstrates how air pollution can change the size of droplets in nautical clouds. The top image is a photo-like view of the North Pacific Ocean (south of the Aleutian Islands) on September 29, 2009. A blanket of clouds—a little thin in places—spans the scene. The lower image shows the size of cloud droplets within the area outlined in white in the top image. Bigger droplets are darker colors (blue, purple); smaller droplets are brighter (pink, yellow).

The bright yellow arcs that streak the marine cloud layer are ship tracks—clouds that form when water vapor condenses onto the myriad minuscule pollution particles in ship exhaust. There are more seed particles in ship exhaust than are found in clean marine air, and the accessible water vapor gets spread out more thinly among them. Because the available water is spread among more particles, the cloud droplets that form in the ships’ wakes are smaller than distinctive marine layer cloud droplets.

By increasing the number and decreasing the size of cloud droplets, pollution often makes clouds brighter (more reflective to incoming sunlight), in the same way that a crushed ice cube is more reflective than a solid one. In this image, however, the ship tracks don’t emerge significantly brighter than the surrounding cloud layer, perhaps because the cloud layer was previously fairly bright. (A March 2009 image from this area demonstrates the cloud-brightening effect more dramatically).

In marine layer clouds, an abundance of small particles may also delay the onset of precipitation, which depends on cloud droplets colliding and coalescing into larger, heavier drops. Said another way, pollution can amplify the lifetime of clouds.

Human pollution has likely been modifying clouds on a global scale during the modern (industrial) era. In fact, climate scientists suspect that these modifications—escalating cloud brightness and lifetime—have probably helped offset some of the warming influence of rising greenhouse gas concentrations.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Mare Crisium

Located in the northeast quadrant of the lunar near side, Mare Crisium is a Nectarian-aged basin (about 3.9 billion years old) that spans 740 km (about 460 miles). LOLA data reveal that the floor of Mare Crisium is approximately 1.8 km (about 1.1 miles) below lunar datum, or "sea level," while the outer rim is about 3.34 km (about 2.1 miles) above lunar datum. Lava flow features are prominent enough in this mare that they can be seen in the LOLA topographic data (see arrows in image for locations of some of these features). Two Soviet missions landed in Mare Crisium in the 1960s and '70s. Luna 24 landed in Mare Crisium in 1976 and returned samples from the lunar surface to Earth. Luna 24's predecessor, Luna 15, was less successful. It crash-landed in Mare Crisium in 1969. Mare Crisium is also the location of Luna City -- a fictional city featured in the book "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."

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Friday, July 2, 2010

NASA Mars Rover Seeing Destination in More Detail

Mars rover team members have begun informally naming features around the rim of Endeavour Crater, as they develop plans to investigate that destination when NASA's Opportunity rover arrives there after many more months of driving.

A new, super-resolution view of a portion of Endeavour's rim reveals details that were not discernible in earlier images from the rover. Several high points along the rim can be correlated with points discernible from orbit.

Super-resolution is an imaging technique combining information from multiple pictures of the same target to generate an image with a higher resolution than any of the individual images.

Endeavour has been the team's long-term destination for Opportunity since the summer of 2008, when the rover finished two years of studying Victoria Crater. By the spring of 2010, Opportunity had covered more than a third of the charted, 19-kilometer (12-mile) route from Victoria to Endeavour and reached an area with a gradual, southward slope offering a view of Endeavour's elevated rim.

After the rover team chose Endeavour as a long-term destination, the goal became even more alluring when observations with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, found clay minerals exposed at Endeavour. Clay minerals, which form under wet conditions, have been found extensively on Mars from orbit, but have not been examined on the surface. Additional observations with that spectrometer are helping the rover team choose which part of Endeavour's rim to visit first with Opportunity.

The team is using the theme of names of places visited by British Royal Navy Capt. James Cook in his 1769-1771 Pacific voyage in command of H.M.S. Endeavour for informal names of sites at Endeavour Crater. Points visible in the super-resolution view from May 12 include "Cape Tribulation" and "Cape Dromedary."NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, is sitting appealing on a set of spiffy new wheels that would be the desire of any car show on Earth.
The wheels and a deferral system were added this week by spacecraft technicians and engineers. These new and significant touches are a key step in assembling and testing the flight system in advance of a planned 2011 launch.
Curiosity, centerpiece of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, is a six-wheeler and uses a rocker-bogie deferral system like its smaller predecessors: Spirit, Opportunity and Sojourner. Each wheel has its own drive motor, and the corner wheels also have sovereign steering motors. Unlike earlier Mars rovers, Curiosity will also use its mobility system as a landing gear when the mission's rocket-powered tumble stage lowers the rover directly onto the Martian surface on a tether in August 2012.
In coming months at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mobility system will get practical testing and be part of environmental testing of the rover. The mobility system will now stay on Curiosity through launch unless testing identifies a need for rework that would oblige it to be disassembled.

The mission will launch from Florida during the period Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011. Curiosity will examine an area of Mars for modern or ancient livable environments, including any that may have also been approving for preserving clues about life and environment, though this mission will not seek confirmation of life. It will examine rocks, soil and atmosphere with a varied payload of tools, including a laser to vaporize patches of rock from a distance and an instrument intended to test for organic compounds.


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Thursday, July 1, 2010

'Hitchhiker' EPOXI: Next Stop, Comet Hartley 2

NASA's Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft flew past Earth Sunday (June 27) at about 3:03 p.m. Pacific time (6:03 p.m. Eastern time), as planned. The spacecraft is now on its way to its scheduled time with comet Hartley 2 this fall. The members of the EPOXI team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., are currently working with data returned from the flyby to refine the spacecraft trajectory estimates.

EPOXI is an extended mission of the Deep Impact spacecraft. Its name is consequent from its two tasked science investigations -- the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization (EPOCh) and the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). On Nov. 4, 2010, the mission will fly by Hartley 2 using all three of the spacecraft's instruments (two telescopes with digital imagers and an infrared spectrometer).

The University of Maryland, College Park, is the principal investigator institution. JPL manages EPOXI for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

For information about EPOXI, visit or

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