Thursday, October 28, 2010

Space Radar Provides a Taste of Comet Hartley 2

Exactly one week before the world gets a new look at comet Hartley 2 via NASA's EPOXI mission, observations of the comet by the Arecibo Planetary Radar in Puerto Rico have offered scientists a tantalizing preview.

"It kind of looks like a cross between a bowling pin and a pickle," said EPOXI project manager Tim Larson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Only it's about 14-thousand-times larger and hurtling through space at 23 miles per second."

Scientists using Arecibo's massive radar dish began observations of Hartley 2 on Oct. 24, just four days after the comet made its closest approach to Earth since its discovery in 1986. (On Oct. 20, the comet came within 17.7 million kilometers, or 11 million miles, of Earth). The observations are scheduled to continue through Friday, Oct. 29.

During the Nov. 4 flyby, the cameras aboard the EPOXI mission spacecraft will get within 700 kilometers (about 435 miles) of the comet.

"Observing comet Hartley 2 from the Earth with radar was like imaging a 6-inch spinning cucumber from 836 miles away," said Jon Giorgini, a scientist at JPL and a member of the Arecibo team that imaged the comet. "Even without all the data in, we can still make some basic assertions about Hartley 2. Its nucleus is highly elongated and about 2.2 kilometers [1.4 mile] long, and it rotates around itself about once every 18 hours. In addition we now know the size, speed and direction of particles being blown off the comet, and we immediately forwarded all this information to the EPOXI team."

Just what a celestial pickle means for the EPOXI mission remains to be seen. Mission engineers and scientists are discussing the new findings and what - if anything - they signify for the upcoming comet encounter.

Along with Giorgini, observations of comet Hartley 2 were led by Arecibo Obervatory's John Harmon, with contributions by Mike Nolan and E. S. Howell.

The name EPOXI itself is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The spacecraft will continue to be referred to as "Deep Impact."

JPL manages the EPOXI mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The University of Maryland, College Park, is home to the mission's principal investigator, Michael A'Hearn. Drake Deming of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., is the science lead for the mission's extrasolar planet observations. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NASA Goddard Delivers Magnetometers for Juno Mission

Magnetometers developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., for the Juno mission to Jupiter were delivered recently to Lockheed Martin in Denver. Designed and built by an in-house team of Goddard scientists, engineers and technicians, these instruments will map the planet's magnetic field with great accuracy and observe its variations over time. Each of the two vector magnetometers carries with it a pair of non-magnetic star cameras to determine its orientation in space with commensurate accuracy. These were designed and built by a team led by John Jorgensen at the Danish Technical University in Copenhagen, Denmark.

"Juno's magnetometers will measure Jupiter's magnetic field with extraordinary precision and give us a detailed picture of what the field looks like, both around the planet and deep within," says Goddard's Jack Connerney, the mission's deputy principal investigator and head of the magnetometer team. "This will be the first time we've mapped the magnetic field all around Jupiter-it will be the most complete map of its kind ever obtained about any planet with an active dynamo, except, of course, our Earth."

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Juno mission for NASA. Scheduled for launch in 2011, Juno is the second mission in NASA's New Frontiers program. The mission will improve our understanding of the solar system by advancing studies of the origin and evolution of Jupiter. The spacecraft will carry nine instruments to investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras.

"The magnetometers play a unique and important role in Juno's investigation of the formation and evolution of Jupiter," says Juno's principal investigator, Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "They provide one of the ways that Juno will see deep inside the giant planet, and this will help us understand how and where Jupiter's powerful magnetic field is generated."

The Juno magnetometers will study Jupiter's powerful magnetic field, which is nearly 20,000 times as strong as Earth's. The field is generated deep within the planet's atmosphere, where the intense pressure compresses hydrogen gas into an electrically conductive fluid. Fluid motion within the planet drives electric currents in this liquid hydrogen, and these currents generate the magnetic field. If a map were drawn of the magnetic field lines running between Jupiter's north and south poles, the region of space filled by the lines (called the magnetosphere) would be enormous. Jupiter's magnetosphere extends up to 3 million kilometers (nearly 2 million miles) toward the sun and as far as Saturn's orbit in the other direction.

"From a distance, Jupiter's magnetic field has two poles, north and south, like Earth's. But looking closer, below Jupiter's surface, the magnetic field is thought to be quite complex and tangled," says Connerney. "Juno will give us a detailed picture of the magnetic field extending down to the surface of the dynamo, or engine, that generates it."

Jupiter's powerful magnetic environment also creates the brightest auroras in the solar system, as charged particles get trapped by the field and rain down into the atmosphere. Juno will directly sample the charged particles and magnetic fields near Jupiter's poles for the first time, while simultaneously observing the auroras at ultraviolet wavelengths of light. These investigations will greatly improve the understanding of this remarkable phenomenon and of similar magnetic objects, such as young stars that have their own planetary systems.

"With Juno, we will learn much more about the structure and evolution of Jupiter, and this will help us understand our own solar system," says Connerney. "But astronomers have now found many other giant planets outside our solar system. What we learn about Jupiter also will help us understand the planets orbiting other stars."

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, Colo., is building the spacecraft. The Italian Space Agency in Rome is contributing an infrared spectrometer instrument and a portion of the radio science experiment.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sun's Northern Hemisphere Bristling with Solar Flares

This movie show the activity on the Sun over the latest 48-hours in the 171 Angstrom emission line (showing the ~700,000K plasma) from the Atmospheric and Imaging Assembly (AIA) onboard the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). With a large active region currently in the northern hemisphere of the Sun, there has been a flurry of small solar flares over the past day. This larger active region may actually be comprised of four different active regions that are very close to each other forming one large, interconnected active region with multiple magnetic poles. This magnetically complex region has lead to 12 B-class and 1 C-class solar flare over the last 24 hours.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Teen Sailor Meets NASA Team That Helped Saved Her Life

It has been almost six months since 16-year-old Abby Sunderland’s 40-foot vessel, Wild Eyes, was damaged in a storm, leaving her stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But today, she finally got a chance to meet the people who developed the technology used to save her life.

Abby visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on Oct. 25 to meet Search and Rescue Manager Dave Affens and a team of engineers. He and his team developed the Search and Rescue Satellite (SARSAT) technologies that contributed to her rescue. “Without NASA technology, she may have lost her life,” Affens said. “This case was more interesting than most because we contributed to every aspect of it.

“The system is great, super actually,” Sunderland said about the search-and-rescue technology that pinpointed her exact location during the aggressive storm.

After giving a presentation about her extraordinary journey from Marina Del Ray, Calif., to her dismasting 2,000 miles from the nearest land, Sunderland took questions from the engineering team and a group of congressional staffers, who were also in attendance, regarding the moments that lead up to her rescue and the safety measures and devices she used during her ordeal. In addition, Affens explained in detail to Sunderland and the group how SARSAT technology operates.

“We developed the concept of detecting distress signals by the satellite, relaying it to the ground stations where the locations were calculated,” Affens explained. “We then launched the distress-detection device on a NOAA weather satellite, tested the concept, and approved the system for operational use.

Currently, the SARSAT system has saved more than 205 lives in the United States this year alone. However, Affens and his team are developing new technology that will detect distress signals in less than five minutes, a process made possible by placing repeater technology on the Air Force’s network of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The current system, which places the technology on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite or GOES (which alerts) and the Polar Operational Environmental Satellite or POES (which provides the location of the distressed) could take up to an hour or more depending on the location of the satellite.

Sunderland's signal reached an Indian satellite (INSAT) and two NOAA weather satellites that were launched by NASA and used NASA technology to pinpoint her location less than an hour later.

“It was a real surprise when the airbus flew over me. I wasn’t expecting it, I was expecting it to be weeks,” she said about the amount of time it took for her rescue to begin. “When you set off your beacon, you know someone is going to hear you, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be helped. But I don’t think it could have been done any faster,” she added.

Also critical to her rescue was a small, yellow device that Microwave Monolithics Inc. (MMInc.) in Simi Valley, Calif., had developed under a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program award. The MicroPLB Type GXL handheld device -- about the size of a BlackBerry -- emitted an emergency distress signal picked up by a SARSAT satellite orbiting 22,500 miles up in space. The satellite also was equipped with NASA-developed repeater technology that then relayed the signal to the United States via the international satellite-aided search and rescue network now comprised of 40 participating nations.

The company’s president, Daniel Ch’en, had given Sunderland the beacon before she attempted to sail the world solo and non-stop, a record previously held by her older brother, Zac. “I wasn’t expecting her to use it, and I was hoping she wouldn’t have to, but I knew this would be the last line of safety [if needed],” he added.

The company originally developed the device for the U.S. government. It is the only sub-miniature PLB certified by the international satellite-based search and rescue community. It operates for a minimum of 48 hours after the user activates the emergency signal. These extra hours are vital given that most rescue teams cannot reach the individual until after a storm subsides, which can be more than a day or two. In Sunderland’s case, the boat sent to rescue her arrived two days after she had activated her device. Most PLBs, in general, are not made for 48-hour operation.

Because Sunderland used the device correctly and made a point to register the beacon with NOAA (adding personal and contact information), the U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Area Command in Alameda, Calif., was able to contact her parents in less than 10 minutes.

“We couldn’t ask for a better scenario,” said U.S. Coast Guard’s Adolfo Viezca, also in attendance. “When beacons aren’t registered and I’m on the receiving end, I don’t know who you are, where you are and I end up with a quagmire.”

Sunderland isn’t discouraged by her ordeal. She still plans on sailing the world solo, carrying the beacon and relying on NASA technology of course. “Overall, it’s the best experience of my life,” she said.

After meeting with Affens and his team, Sunderland was able to enjoy the other revolutionary science and technological developments at Goddard. Center Director Rob Strain presented her with a glass globe with an image of the Hubble Space Telescope emblazoned inside as a keepsake. In addition to enjoying the Visitors Center exhibits, including the Science On a Sphere globe, Sunderland visited the Earth Science and LRO control centers, and the Spacecraft Test & Integration Facilities.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hinode Investigates the Magnetic Field Structure of Active Regions

Hinode has shown us complex structures in the solar chromosphere, once thought to be static, these move and twist with time.

These prominences were observed on the southwestern limb of the Sun on April 24, 2007 in the light of Hydrogen-alpha, at a wavelength of 656.3 nm, which is in the red part of the visible spectrum. Hinode observations of such prominences have shown that these phenomena are not simple or static. High-resolution Hinode images have revealed plumes rising from the prominence base, streams of plasma that rain back down, and complex vortices. The large structure to the right in the images is approximately 36,000 km (22,000 mi) across, just slightly less than the circumference of Earth.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Crackling with Solar Flares

Fast-growing sunspot 1112 is crackling with solar flares. So far, none of the blasts has hurled a substantial CME, or coronal mass ejection, toward Earth. In addition, a vast filament of magnetism is cutting across the sun's southern hemisphere. This filament is so large it spans a distance greater than the separation of Earth and the moon. A bright 'hot spot' just north of the filament's midpoint is UV radiation from sunspot 1112. The proximity is no coincidence; the filament appears to be rooted in the sunspot below. If the sunspot flares, it could cause the entire structure to erupt. Thus far, none of the flares has destabilized the filament.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Spring Has Sprung ... On Titan

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has sent back dreamy raw images of Saturn's moon Titan that show the appearance of clouds around the moon's midsection. These bright clouds likely appeared because the moon is changing seasons and spring has arrived in Titan's northern hemisphere. The images were taken from about 2.5 million kilometers (1.5 million miles) away from Titan on Oct. 18, 2010, and also show the faint etchings of Saturn's rings. One of the new raw images also features a cameo from the icy moon Tethys, which looks smaller and brighter than Titan in the image.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Comet Cometh: Hartley 2 Visible in Night Sky

Backyard stargazers with a telescope or binoculars and a clear night's sky can now inspect the comet that in a little over two weeks will become only the fifth in history to be imaged close up. Comet Hartley 2 will come within 17.7 million kilometers (11 million miles) of Earth this Wed., Oct. 20 at noon PDT (3 p.m. EDT). NASA's EPOXI mission will come within 700 kilometers (435 miles) of Hartley 2 on Nov. 4.

"On October 20, the comet will be the closest it has ever been since it was discovered in 1986 by Australian astronomer Malcolm Hartley," said Don Yeomans, head of NASA's Near-Earth Object Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. and a member of the EPOXI science team. "It's unusual for a comet to approach this close. It is nice of Mother Nature to give us a preview before we see Hartley 2 in all its cometary glory with some great close-up images less than two weeks later."

Comet Hartley 2, also known as 103P/Hartley 2, is a relatively small, but very active periodic comet that orbits the sun once every 6.5 years. From dark, pristine skies in the Northern Hemisphere, the comet should be visible with binoculars as a fuzzy object in the constellation Auriga, passing south of the bright star Capella. Viewing of Hartley 2 from high ambient light locations including urban areas may be more difficult.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 20, the optimal dark sky window for mid-latitude northern observers is under two hours in length. This dark interval will occur between the time when the nearly-full moon sets at about 4:50 a.m. (local time) and when the morning twilight begins at about 6:35 a.m.

By October 22, the comet will have passed through the constellation Auriga. It will continue its journey across the night sky in the direction of the constellation Gemini.

EPOXI is an extended mission that utilizes the already "in-flight" Deep Impact spacecraft to explore distinct celestial targets of opportunity. The name EPOXI itself is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The spacecraft will continue to be referred to as "Deep Impact."

JPL manages the EPOXI mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The University of Maryland, College Park, is home to the mission's principal investigator, Michael A'Hearn. Drake Deming of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., is the science lead for the mission's extrasolar planet observations. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Where Stars Are Born

Found among the Small Magellanic Cloud's clusters and nebulae NGC 346 is a star-forming region about 200 light-years across, pictured above by the Hubble Space Telescope. A satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is a wonder of the southern sky, a mere 210,000 light-years distant in the constellation of the Toucan. Exploring NGC 346, astronomers have identified a population of embryonic stars strung along the dark, intersecting dust lanes visible here on the right. Still collapsing within their natal clouds, the stellar infants' light is reddened by the intervening dust. A small, irregular galaxy, the SMC represents a type of galaxy more common in the early Universe. But these small galaxies are thought to be a building blocks for the larger galaxies present today. Within the SMC, stellar nurseries like NGC 346 also are thought to be similar to those found in the early universe.

This image, like many Hubble images, has a curious stair-step shape. These images come from a scientific instrument called the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, or WFPC2 -- which was removed from the telescope in mid-2009. It is WFPC2’s unique design that underlies the oddly-shaped images in Hubble’s portfolio.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hubble's Lagoon

Like brush strokes on a canvas, ridges of color seem to flow across the Lagoon Nebula, a canvas nearly 3 light-years wide. The colors map emission from ionized gas in the nebula were recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Also known as M8, the nebula is a star-forming region in the constellation Sagittarius. Hubble's remarkably sharp, close-up view reveals undulating shapes sculpted by the energetic light and winds from the region's new born stars. Of course, the Lagoon Nebula is a popular target for earthbound skygazers, too.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Many Infrared 'Personalities' of the Sculptor Galaxy

The Sculptor galaxy is shown in different infrared hues, in this new mosaic from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The main picture is a composite of infrared light captured with all four of the space telescope's infrared detectors.

The red image at bottom right shows the galaxy's active side. Infant stars are heating up their dusty cocoons, particularly in the galaxy's core, making the Sculptor galaxy burst with infrared light. This light -- color-coded red in this view -- was captured using WISE's longest-wavelength, 22-micron detector. The dusty burst of stars is so intense in the core that it generates diffraction spikes. Diffraction spikes are telescope artifacts normally seen only around very bright stars.

The green image at center right reveals the galaxy's emerging young stars, concentrated in the core and spiral arms. Ultraviolet light from these hot stars is being absorbed by tiny dust or soot particles left over from their formation, making the particles glow with infrared light that has been color-coded green in this view. WISE can see this light with a detector designed to capture wavelengths of 12 microns.

The blue image at top right was taken with the two shortest-wavelength detectors on WISE (3.4 and 4.6 microns). It shows stars of all ages, which can be found not just in the core and spiral arms, but throughout the galaxy.

The Sculptor galaxy, or NGC 253, was discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel, a sister and collaborator of the discoverer of infrared light, Sir William Herschel. It was named after the constellation in which it is found, and is part of a cluster of galaxies known as the Sculptor group. The Sculptor galaxy can be seen by observers in the southern hemisphere with a pair of good binoculars.

NGC 253 is an active galaxy, which means that a significant fraction of its energy output does not come from normal populations of stars within the galaxy. The extraordinarily high amount of star formation occurring in the nucleus of this galaxy has led astronomers to classify it as a "starburst" galaxy. At a distance of approximately 10.5 million light-years away, NGC 253 is the closest starburst galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy. However, the starburst alone cannot explain all the activity observed in the nucleus. One strong possibility is that a giant black hole lurks at the heart of it all, similar to the one that lies at the center of the Milky Way.

In late September of this year, after surveying the sky about one-and-a-half times, WISE exhausted its supply of the frozen coolant needed to chill its longest-wavelength detectors -- the 12- and 22-micron channels. The satellite is continuing to survey the sky with its two remaining detectors, focusing primarily on asteroids and comets.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

NASA Selects Astronaut Leland D. Melvin to Lead Office of Education

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced Tuesday the selection of Leland D. Melvin as the agency's new associate administrator for education, effective immediately. He succeeds James L. Stofan, who had served in an acting capacity since the spring.

Since April 2010, Melvin has been assigned to the Office of Education at Headquarters leading the Education Design Team. His job was to develop a strategy to improve NASA's education offerings and to assist the agency in establishing goals, structures, processes and evaluation techniques to implement a sustainable and innovative science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education program. He also served as the partnership development manager for the agency's new Summer of Innovation education initiative, aimed at engaging middle school students in STEM activities during the summer break.

"I am delighted to have Leland lead the Office of Education at a time when engaging more students in STEM-related studies and careers is so critical -- not only to NASA but to our nation," Bolden said. "With his dedication and passion, I know we will have a bright future in education under his leadership."

"I also want to thank Jim Stofan for the outstanding job he has done leading the Office of Education since April," Bolden added. "He launched several key new education programs during his tenure and will continue to be a valued asset as he resumes his previous role as deputy associate administrator."

As associate administrator, Melvin will be responsible for the development and implementation of the agency's education programs that strengthen student involvement and public awareness about NASA's scientific goals and missions.

"My passion for education was inspired by my parents, who were both middle school teachers," Melvin said. "I witnessed the direct impact that educators can have in a community and on an individual's destiny. NASA's people, programs and resources are unparalleled. Our unique assets are poised to engage students, to captivate their imagination and to encourage their pursuit of STEM-related studies that are so vital to their future. This is an exciting challenge and I am ready to work with Administrator Bolden, my colleagues at NASA, our partners, and students across the country to usher in a new era of opportunity to inspire that next generation of explorers."

Melvin joined NASA in 1989 as an aerospace research engineer at the agency's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He joined the astronaut corps in 1998 and has served as a mission specialist on two space shuttle missions: STS-122 in 2008 and STS-129 in 2009. He has logged more than 565 hours in space. In 2003, Melvin co-managed the former Educator Astronaut Program, which recruited teachers to become fully-trained astronauts in an effort to connect space exploration with students across the country.

Melvin earned a bachelor of science in chemistry from the University of Richmond, where he also excelled as a wide receiver for the Spiders’ football team. He was drafted into the National Football League by the Detroit Lions in 1986 and also spent time with the Dallas Cowboys and the Toronto Argonauts. After injuries sidelined his football career, he returned to academia and earned his master’s degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

His recreational interests include photography, piano, reading, music, cycling, tennis, and snowboarding. He also loves walking his dogs, Jake and Scout.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

President Signs NASA Authorization Act

President Barack Obama signs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 in the Oval Office, Monday, Oct. 11, 2010.

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