Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Space Science Mission to Venus

From top to bottom, pictured (not to scale) are the moon, Venus, and an asteroid. These three celestial bodies from our solar system are possible candidates for NASA's next space venture.

NASA has selected three proposals as candidates for the agency's next space venture to another celestial body in our solar system. The final project selected in mid-2011 may provide a better understanding of Earth's formation or perhaps the origin of life on our planet.

The proposed missions would probe the atmosphere and crust of Venus; return a piece of a near-Earth asteroid for analysis; or drop a robotic lander into a basin at the moon's south pole to return lunar rocks back to Earth for study.

NASA will select one proposal for full development after detailed mission concept studies are completed and reviewed. The studies begin during 2010, and the selected mission must be ready for launch no later than Dec. 30, 2018. Mission cost, excluding the launch vehicle, is limited to $650 million.

"These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These three proposals provide the best science value among eight submitted to NASA this year."

Each proposal team initially will receive approximately $3.3 million in 2010 to conduct a 12-month mission concept study that focuses on implementation feasibility, cost, management and technical plans. Studies also will include plans for educational outreach and small business opportunities.

Glittering Metropolis - nasa space information

Like a whirl of shiny flakes sparkling in a snow globe, Hubble caught this glimpse of many hundreds of thousands of stars moving about in the globular cluster M13, one of the brightest and best-known globular clusters in the northern sky. This glittering metropolis of stars is easily found in the winter sky in the constellation Hercules and can even be glimpsed with the unaided eye under dark skies.

M13 is home to over 100,000 stars and located at a distance of 25,000 light-years. These stars are packed so closely together in a ball, approximately 150 light-years across, that they will spend their entire lives whirling around in the cluster.

Near the core of this cluster, the density of stars is about a hundred times greater than the density in the neighborhood of our sun. These stars are so crowded that they can, at times, slam into each other and even form a new star, called a "blue straggler."

The brightest reddish stars in the cluster are ancient red giants. These aging stars have expanded to many times their original diameters and cooled. The blue-white stars are the hottest in the cluster.

Globular clusters can be found spread largely in a vast halo around our galaxy. M13 is one of nearly 150 known globular clusters surrounding our Milky Way galaxy.

Globular clusters have some of the oldest stars in the universe. They likely formed before the disk of our Milky Way, so they are older than nearly all other stars in our galaxy. Studying globular clusters therefore tells us about the history of our galaxy.

This image is a composite of archival Hubble data taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Quiet Sun Means Cooling of Earth's Upper Atmosphere

New measurements from a NASA satellite show a dramatic cooling in the upper atmosphere that correlates with the declining phase of the current solar cycle. For the first time, researchers can show a timely link between the Sun and the climate of Earth’s thermosphere, the region above 100 km, an essential step in making accurate predictions of climate change in the high atmosphere.

Scientists from NASA's Langley Research Center and Hampton University in Hampton, Va., and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., presented these results at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco from Dec. 14 to 18.

Earth's thermosphere and mesosphere have been the least explored regions of the atmosphere. The NASA Thermosphere-Ionosphere-Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) mission was developed to explore the Earth’s atmosphere above 60 km altitude and was launched in December 2001. One of four instruments on the TIMED mission, the Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry (SABER) instrument, was specifically designed to measure the energy budget of the mesosphere and lower thermosphere. The SABER dataset now covers eight years of data and has already provided some basic insight into the heat budget of the thermosphere on a variety of timescales.

The extent of current solar minimum conditions has created a unique situation for recent SABER datasets, explains Stan Solomon, acting director of the High Altitude Observatory, National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. The end of solar cycle 23 has offered an opportunity to study the radiative cooling in the thermosphere under exceptionally quiescent conditions.

"The Sun is in a very unusual period," said Marty Mlynczak, SABER associate principal investigator and senior research scientist at NASA Langley. "The Earth’s thermosphere is responding remarkably — up to an order of magnitude decrease in infrared emission/radiative cooling by some molecules."

The TIMED measurements show a decrease in the amount of ultraviolet radiation emitted by the Sun. In addition, the amount of infrared radiation emitted from the upper atmosphere by nitric oxide molecules has decreased by nearly a factor of 10 since early 2002. These observations imply that the upper atmosphere has cooled substantially since then. The research team expects the atmosphere to heat up again as solar activity starts to pick up in the next year.

While this warming has no implications for climate change in the troposphere, a fundamental prediction of climate change theory is that the upper atmosphere will cool in response to increasing carbon dioxide. As the atmosphere cools the density will decrease, which ultimately may impact satellite operations through decreased drag over time.

The SABER dataset is the first global, long-term, and continuous record of the Nitric oxide (NO) and Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the thermosphere.

"We suggest that the dataset of radiative cooling of the thermosphere by NO and CO2 constitutes a first climate data record for the thermosphere," says Mlynczak.

The TIMED data provide a climate record for validation of upper atmosphere climate models, which is an essential step in making accurate predictions of climate change in the high atmosphere. SABER provides the first long-term measurements of natural variability in key terms of the upper atmosphere climate.

"A fundamental prediction of climate change theory is that upper atmosphere will cool in response to greenhouse gases in the troposphere," says Mlynczak. "Scientists need to validate that theory. This climate record of the upper atmosphere is our first chance to have the other side of the equation."

James Russell III, SABER principal investigator and co-director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., agrees adding, "The atmosphere is a coupled system. If you pick up one end of the stick, you automatically pick up the other – they're intrinsically linked. To be as accurate as possible, scientists have to understand global change throughout the atmosphere."

As the TIMED mission continues, these data derived from SABER will become important in assessing long term atmospheric changes due to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

TIMED is the first mission in the Solar Terrestrial Probes Program within the Heliophysics Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

NASA Calculates a Carbon Budget for the State of California

While world organizations struggle to find a benchmark and tracking standards for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, NASA has been supporting California’s new carbon emissions inventory report, using its satellite imaging data and computer models of the state’s natural ecosystems.

Researchers report that in 2004, the state’s natural ecosystems absorbed as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as fossil fuel carbons emitted into the atmosphere. They also discovered that during periods of above normal rainfall, ecosystems trapped significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in forests and soils. For these reasons, researchers suggest the ecosystems should be more extensively protected and conserved, and their emissions be monitored as closely as fossil fuel sources of GHG emissions. The results, based largely on a computer model called the NASA-Carnegie Ames Stanford Approach (CASA), will be presented this morning at the 2009 American Geophysical Union Fall meeting in San Francisco.

"One way to facilitate emissions reductions is by using regional and national carbon budgets," explained Christopher Potter, senior research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and author of this study. "California’s growing population and demand for all forms of energy make it essential to maintain an accurate and complete accounting of the state’s greenhouse emissions inventory," Potter added.

California’s population is more than 10 percent of the total population in the United States, and produces 13 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, according to 2000 U.S. Census Bureau data. Because of its large population, the state also contributes significantly to global GHG emissions. If California was a country, it would rank among the top 20 national GHG emitters worldwide.

The carbon budget of a region is determined by the amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gases absorbed or released by “green” vegetative ground cover, as observed by NASA satellites. These fluctuations are important to quantify, because they originate from both natural and anthropogenic processes.

In California, the main sources of carbon dioxide emissions are energy consumption in commercial, residential, industrial, and transportation sectors, production of cement and lime, and waste treatment. The main sources of methane emission are derived from landfills and agricultural (principally livestock-based) systems.

Scientists believe that California’s carbon budget is of special interest because the state may represent a U.S. national carbon budget; both have diversified lands, similar consumption of natural resources, and urban lifestyles. Other similarities include a mix of fossil fuel emissions, alternative energy sources, and ecosystem sinks.

Each year, California is required by law to compile a new carbon emission inventory, which is conducted by the California Energy Commission and California’s Air Resources Board. To refine the state’s emission inventory, NASA was asked to provide NASA satellite imaging data and carbon models. To locate the largest ecosystem sources and carbon sinks in California, scientists used the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the NASA Terra satellite. The vegetation “greenness” data from the MODIS sensor was directly downloaded into the CASA ecosystem simulation model. Scientists used the data to estimate monthly variations in the accumulated biomass of wood and other plant materials, such as the accumulated dead leaf biomass transferred into soil carbon pools. Inventory data from the California Energy Commission also was used to model the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural lands throughout the state.

This project was funded by NASA as part of a long-term research program dedicated to understanding how human-induced and natural changes affect our global environment.

Constellation Finalizes Thrust Oscillation Fix

NASA and contractor engineers have developed multiple options for "de-tuning" the Ares I rocket to prevent any problematic thrust oscillations from originating in its solid-rocket main stage to sync up with the natural resonance of the rest of the vehicle.

The Constellation Program Control Board set a formal baseline for thrust oscillation mitigation during a meeting Dec. 17. Moving forward, the Ares I vehicle design will be updated to include the addition of upper plane C-Spring isolator module and the upper stage fuel tank LOX damper.

While evaluations of data from the DM-1 motor test and Ares I-X test flight to date show no problematic thrust oscillation vibrations occurred, the Constellation team concluded incorporating the upper plane C-Spring isolators and LOX damper at this phase of design is a sensible addition.

"When we discover an engineering risk, like thrust oscillation, we tackle it with full rigor," said Jeff Hanley, Constellation Program manager. "That's what this team has done with thrust oscillation. We assumed the worst when the problem was first discovered. The good news is there is no empirical evidence of problematic oscillations from our ground test of the first stage development motor or during the Ares I-X first test flight."

"The isolators work like shock absorbers to de-tune the vehicle and the LOX damper will counter the vehicle acoustic response by absorbing and disrupting the oscillation. Together these options will give us added confidence in the tuning of the vehicle as we mature the Ares and Orion designs," added Hanley.

The NASA team, along with the prime contractors, has worked this issue carefully, understanding and minimizing any effects of the integrated vehicle response by introducing new thrust oscillation hardware into the design. The team will "scar," or prepare, the upper stage design to accommodate the addition of this mitigation hardware at a later time, if desirable.

"The options approved today puts us on a robust foundation as we move forward," said Hanley. "Finalizing the thrust oscillation design now allows us to keep to our schedule and provides contractors specific requirements about what we need them to build."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Constellation Spacesuit System

Terry Hill once dreamed of being a pilot, but his ambitions have taken him beyond the friendly skies. Hill, now grown up, is working on the future of spaceflight for NASA. He’s helping to develop the next generation of spacesuits to send humans to the International Space Station, moon, Mars and beyond as part of NASA's Constellation Program.

“Never in a million years did I think I would be designing spacesuits for NASA as my job,” said Hill, the engineering project manager for the Constellation Spacesuit System at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Prior to joining America's space program, the Texarkana, Texas native pursued his dreams of navigating the aerospace landscape. Hill got his start with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.

At UT Austin, Hill discovered an interest in orbital mechanics and was hooked on working with projects pertaining to space. He decided to take on graduate school at UT Austin and received his master’s in aerospace guidance, navigation and control theory.

Mayon Volcano, The Phillipines

Tens of thousands of people living within the danger zone of Mayon Volcano in the Philippines were forced to evacuate to emergency shelters in mid-December 2009 as small earthquakes, incandescent lava at the summit and minor ash falls suggested a major eruption was on the way. On the evening of Dec. 14, the local volcano observatory raised the alert level to Level 3, which means "magma is close to the crater and hazardous explosive eruption is imminent."

This natural-color image of Mayon was captured on Dec. 15, 2009, by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA's Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. A small plume of ash and steam is blowing west from the summit. Dark-colored lava or debris flows from previous eruptions streak the flanks of the mountain. A ravine on the southeast slope is occupied by a particularly prominent lava or debris flow.

The Phillipine Star said on Dec. 22 that "ashfall blanketed at least three towns in Albay, raising new health fears for thousands already bracing for an eruption that could come at any time ... Health officials warned the tiny particles could cause respiratory problems or skin diseases, and could affect the thousands of people crammed into evacuation centers.

Also on Dec. 22, CNN reported that "tens of thousands of people have already fled their homes. More than 9,000 families -- a total of 44,394 people -- are being housed in evacuation camps after authorities raised the alert status of the country's most active volcano" as "fountains of red-hot lava shot up from the intensifying Mayon volcano."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Keck Telescopes Gaze into Young Star's "Life Zone"

The inner regions of young planet-forming disks offer information about how worlds like Earth form, but not a single telescope in the world can see them. Yet, for the first time, astronomers using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii have measured the properties of a young solar system at distances closer to the star than Venus is from our sun.

"When it comes to building rocky planets like our own, the innermost part of the disk is where the action is," said team member William Danchi at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Planets forming in a star's inner disk may orbit within its "habitable zone," where conditions could potentially support the development of life.

To achieve the feat, the team used the Keck Interferometer to combine infrared light gathered by both of the observatory's twin 10-meter telescopes, which are separated by 85 meters. The double-barreled approach gives astronomers the effective resolution of a single 85-meter telescope -- several times larger than any now planned.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Astronauts Test Glenn Exercise Harnesses

Imagine that you want to exercise on a treadmill. You step onto the machine and select your desired speed. As the belt starts moving, you start walking and eventually running. Your feet rhythmically hit the belt, and you get a nice workout.

In space, it isn't that simple.

For astronauts living in space, like those who reside on the International Space Station, getting a good workout is equally -- and in some ways even more important -- than for earthbound people.

"Crew members exercise for a host of important reasons. There's a psychological benefit to exercise, and crew members work out to combat spaceflight deconditioning -- to help fend off the bone loss that they experience in microgravity and to help maintain muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance. All of these things are adversely affected by long-duration space flight," says Gail Perusek, Manager for Exercise Physiology and Countermeasures Project at NASA's Glenn Research Center.

Like your local gym, the space station has a variety of exercise equipment. The exercise complement includes a resistance device, a cycle ergometer and two treadmills.

The two different types of treadmills on the space station are the Treadmill with Vibration Isolation System (TVIS) and the newly-installed Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT), named after comedian Stephen Colbert. They're different in many ways, but both treadmills share the need for an exercise harness. Astronauts must use a harness to attach themselves to the treadmill while running in space due to the lack of gravity. The harness prevents them from floating off the machine, provides friction against the treadmill belt as they run and exerts an external load, or force, on their body to simulate the resistance of gravity that a terrestrial workout would naturally provide.

The current harness, which has been in use for several years, has some drawbacks. It isn't comfortable and has limited adjustability. Some crew members have reported chafing, as well as pain in their hips and shoulders from using the harness. As a result, the astronauts are not loading their bodies to the optimal amount needed to maintain muscle and bone health. The thinking is, the more load applied to an astronaut while running (ideally the equivalent of their full body weight on Earth) the better the workout; it increases the health benefits and decreases health risks.

"Bone loss occurs at a more rapid rate in space than it does on Earth," Perusek says. "In space, astronauts don't get nearly the same amount or quality of repetitive loading as we do here on earth, and bone mineral density loss occurs when the skeleton is unloaded."

The need for a new treadmill harness that is more comfortable and effective inspired the development of a new harness by NASA's Glenn Research Center. This effort, undertaken in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic and funded by the Human Research Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, resulted in the creation of a new harness design called the Glenn Harness. The team also developed custom instrumentation to measure the loads on the harness during exercise. Two Glenn Harnesses are currently being tested by space station crew members on orbit, in a study called the Harness Station Development Test Objective, or Harness SDTO. Additional harnesses will soon be tested on the station by different crewmembers.

Four years ago, the team from the NASA Glenn, ZIN Technologies of Middleburg Heights, Ohio and the Cleveland Clinic began work on their re-imagined harness. They realized that the treadmill harness operates much like a backpack, with shoulder straps and a hip belt distributing load. The team travelled to Colorado to consult with backpack companies, such as Osprey and Kelty. Upon their return, the team designed and created prototypes of the new harnesses (initial prototypes were actually crafted from disassembled backpack components) and began testing.

"At Glenn, we have an Enhanced Zero-gravity Locomotion Simulator (eZLS) where we can simulate zero-g treadmill exercise with human subjects," Perusek says. "We tested the prototypes with our treadmill and determined that indeed the harness was more comfortable than the current harness in a side-by-side comparison on the eZLS, and was able to distribute loads more evenly."

The team also sought extensive input from former space station crew members regarding the new harness. The idea to use antimicrobial fabric (containing silver ions) for the harness, for example, came from an astronaut who commented on the amount of sweat the harness must endure without a lot of washing.

After all of the research, designing and testing, the team worked with Terrazign, Inc. of Portland Oregon, to create the finished flight harnesses. The flight harnesses were shipped to Johnson Space Center in the spring of 2009, and packaged with additional equipment from Johnson to capture the load data. The first harnesses were blasted into space in September 2009.

The crew members participating in the study will use and evaluate the new and existing harnesses, and will complete questionnaires after each session to provide qualitative comfort data. The team also designed special sensors, called buckle transducers, which will measure the amount of tension in the harness straps and external loading each astronaut uses during their workout.

Once the crewmembers have returned to earth, they will share their experiences with Perusek and her team during the crew debriefing process. If the feedback proves favorable, the hope is to incorporate the new harness as part of the standard crew exercise equipment.

The in-flight study is expected to continue through November 2010 on Expedition 24, and encompass the results from up to seven participating crewmembers.

"Working on a project that has the potential to positively affect crew members so directly is very rewarding. A lot of great effort has gone into this, and we're very hopeful that it will be of benefit for the crew," Perusek says. "As long as we have a manned presence in space, humans will be exercising in zero gravity or even partial gravity, like on the moon, and we'll need comfortable harnessing systems."

Monday, December 21, 2009

New Results from a Terra-ific Decade in Orbit

December 18, 2009, marks the tenth year since the launch of Terra, one of NASA's "flagship" Earth observing satellites. But the decade is more than just a mechanical milestone. With each additional day and year that the satellite monitors Earth, scientists achieve a lengthened record of Earth's vital signs. It's that record that helps scientists assess the health of Earth's ocean, land, and atmosphere, and determine how these systems are changing.

"Earth system science is a relatively young science," said Marc Imhoff, project scientist for the mission and a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Terra's sensors have provided the first coordinated set of observations allowing us to link Earth system processes across space and time so we can better understand how they function together and how we interact with them."

Since Terra's five instruments officially saw "first light" on Feb 24, 2000, after a post-launch checkout, the data have continued to advance Earth system science. Here's a sample of the latest developments to be presented by Terra researchers at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Droughts Slow Earth's Carbon Metabolism

Data from Terra's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) have turned up evidence that climate change may have negative effects for ecosystems earlier than we thought, according to Maosheng Zhao, an ecologist at the University of Montana in Missoula.

For the past several decades, photosynthesis by land plants and trees has absorbed, or acted as a "sink," for about one third of global carbon dioxide emissions, helping to slow the increase of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. But scientists have found that global carbon uptake by land plants is declining.

"This decreasing trend has very important implications for how much and how long humans should count on the carbon sink capacity of terrestrial ecosystems," Zhao said.

To arrive at their finding, Zhao and colleagues analyzed MODIS data from 2000 to 2008. Directly measuring carbon dioxide from space is difficult, so scientists rely on sensors to measure the photosynthetic activity of plants. That activity can then be translated to an estimate of how much carbon dioxide the plants are absorbing. "So far, MODIS is the best sensor we have for monitoring global vegetation dynamics," Zhao said.

A closer look reveals that carbon uptake is still on the rise in middle and high latitudes of the northern hemisphere. But that benefit is outweighed by changes in the tropics and southern hemisphere, where scientists observed less carbon being absorbed.

Zhao thinks that a major cause of the decrease is warming-related droughts, which impact crop yields, timber production, and expanses of natural vegetation.

Some computer models have predicted that by the middle of this century, carbon-climate feedbacks could cause terrestrial ecosystems to shift from being carbon sinks to sources, according to Zhao. "Our result is an early warning that we must take some actions to mitigate human-induced climate change."

Natural Hazards Tracked

There's no escaping the risk to human populations posed by natural hazards. But for almost 10 years, Terra has helped governments and local groups respond to and mitigate the consequences.

Just last month in El Salvador, Hurricane Ida brought heavy rains that triggered flooding and deadly mudslides. In another incident in November, a major algal bloom in Guatemala's Lake Atitlan had residents concerned about the lake's health and the safety of people who swim in and drink the water.

To help monitor these hazards, local governments and data processing groups turn to NASA for images from Terra's Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER ). The instrument's spatial resolutions of about 15 to 90 meters produce detailed maps of land surface characteristics such as temperature, reflectance and elevation, which are key for helping decision-makers determine where and how to respond.

"The request for the mudslide and algal bloom images are typical of the types of requests we receive," said Michael Abrams, ASTER science team leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We also work with the U.S. Forest Service to image active wildfires for logistical support and often for post-fire damage assessment and mitigation."

Instrument operators can point ASTER -- an instrument provided by Japan's Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry -- at specific targets and acquire about 500 images per day. Each day about 3,000 requests are active in the request database, ranging from field work, global maps, and regional monitoring. To decide where to point the instrument, an algorithm was developed to automatically prioritize requests.

For example, immediate threats such as the requests from El Salvador's Civil Protection Agency to monitor the flooding and mudslides and Guatemala's Ministry of Agriculture to monitor the algal bloom, receive higher priority. Lower priority targets include a project to obtain complete global maps of ASTER imagery at least 3-5 times during mission.

As part of its monitoring of natural hazards, ASTER has been keeping a long-term eye on more than 1,000 active volcanoes around the world. The extended archive will be used by researchers to characterize the historical behavior for each volcano.

"To improve prediction, we need to know which signals are important," Abrams said.

Pollution Travels High and Far

The Station wildfire that burned southern California in late August 2009 was the largest fire in the recorded history of Los Angeles County and its Angeles National Forest, with more than 160,577 acres burned. Pollution created by the wildfire traveled even further. Rising more than 4 miles (7 kilometers) above Earth's surface, smoke from the fire was carried over Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and carbon monoxide from the fire traveled at least as far as Louisiana.

The measurement of smoke height was possible with Terra's Multiangle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR ), which can resolve atmospheric components -- such as, clouds, dust and smoke plumes -- in three dimensions. MISR can also measure horizontal winds.

Scientists have used the instrument to develop a multi-year "climatology" or statistical database of the heights to which wildfires inject smoke into the atmosphere. The database now contains observations from more than 7,000 smoke plumes in North America, Siberia, and Africa.

"We discovered that for about one-fifth of wildfires, the smoke particles escape the low, turbulent part of the atmosphere and rise to a higher altitude, where they can remain concentrated for long periods and also be transported great distances " said David Diner, MISR principal investigator at JPL.

Researchers studying the dispersal of particulates from wildfires, volcanoes, and dust storms also use the data to test theoretical simulations against observed behavior. These simulations will help researchers understand, for example, what the effect of more fires in a warmer climate might have on air quality.

Other scientists are watching pollution that travels even greater distances, across international boundaries. Measurements of carbon monoxide from the Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere instrument MOPITT -- provided by the Canadian Space Agency -- and of aerosols from the MISR and MODIS instruments allow scientists to observe both the sources and transport of pollution on a global scale.

"The Terra satellite made it possible to track pollution plumes as they are transported across the ocean, allowing us to observe numerous plumes of Asian pollution transported to the United States," said Daniel Jacob, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "The findings show that air pollution is a global issue, and thus that meeting air quality goals in the United States will increasingly require international cooperation."

Balancing the Energy Budget

As society considers carbon dioxide caps and geoengineering, open questions remain about exactly how, why, and where Earth is warming. Answering those questions requires a clear picture of how the Earth's energy budget is changing.

For a decade, researchers using the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) experiment on Terra have been taking stock of how much solar energy is absorbed by the planet's atmosphere and surface, and how much infrared and heat energy is emitted back into space. CERES scientists also study how cloud properties influence the energy exchange from space to the atmosphere to the ground and back again.

"CERES has provided a decade of accurate observations that allow us to explore changes over time, to see how radiation at the top of the atmosphere varies seasonally and annually," said Kevin Trenberth, A CERES investigator from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "The longer the record, the more valuable it becomes."

The observations have shown that the world is cloudier than we thought, and changes in cloudiness can lead to regional and global fluctuations in the heat budget. For instance, albedo is decreasing in the Arctic as snow and sea ice melt, but there is also evidence of compensation from an increase in cloud cover.

Researchers including Norman Loeb of NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., and principal investigator for the CERES instrument, have found that measurements of the energy budget from space correlate well with what is being observed by heat content observations in the ocean, where most solar heat retained by Earth is stored.

Most strikingly, the CERES science team has updated the numbers in the planetary budget ledger and found a gap between incoming and outgoing radiation. The Earth is estimated to be absorbing at a rate of about 0.9 Watts per square meter more than it is emitting -- large enough to provoke the question: what does it mean for climate change?

"Terra has allowed us to observe cloud heights with MISR; cloud density and coverage, with MODIS, as well as sea ice, glaciers and surface temperatures; and incoming and outgoing radiation with CERES," said Marc Imhoff, project scientist for Terra. "That's a very powerful combo for understanding how the atmosphere, land, and oceans work together in balancing heat."

Related AGU talks
Wednesday, Dec. 16
U31C-01 Tracking Earth's global energy
U31C-05 Terra at 10: CERES Results
U32A-01 Geological mapping and hazards monitoring using ASTER data
U32A-02 Using Terra observations to quantify sources and intercontinental transport of pollution
U32A-04 MISR at 10: Looking back, ahead, and in between
U32A-07 Variations and trends of terrestrial primary production observed by MODIS

Expedition 22 Lifts Off

The Soyuz TMA-17 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:52 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 20, carrying Expedition 22 NASA Flight Engineer Timothy J. Creamer of the U.S., Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov of Russia and Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of Japan to the International Space Station.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

NASA's Flight Research

NASA's Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base in 1959 with the Air Launched Sounding Rocket (ALSOR) attached to its underbelly. NASA test pilot Milton O. Thompson ejected from this aircraft on Dec. 20, 1962, after an asymmetrical flap condition made the jet uncontrollable.

NASA research pilot Milton O. Thompson was scheduled to evaluate weather conditions over Mud Lake, Nev., in preparation for the launch of an X-15 rocket plane over that area a few hours later. Weather flights were critical because go/no-go decisions were based on real-time observations made along the planned flight path.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Early Friday morning at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft left its processing facility on a rail car then was vertically set up at its launch pad. On Sunday at 4:52 p.m. EST, three new crew members will launch aboard the TMA-17 to join the Expedition 22 crew after docking to the International Space Station. They dock to the International Space Station Tuesday.

Watch NASA TV for coverage of the launch, which begins Sunday at 4 p.m.

NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will expand Expedition 22 to five crew members. Residing onboard the station since Oct. 2 are Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev.

First Earth vs. Space Chess Match Ends – Earth Wins

The first Earth vs. Space chess match, begun during astronaut Greg Chamitoff’s Expedition 17 stay aboard the International Space Station, is over – and the Earth won.

NASA and the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) teamed up to host the match, which started in September 2008. Chamitoff conceded the match in a Dec. 16, 2009, letter to the third grade U.S. Chess Championship Team and its chess club teammates from Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash. The USCF facilitated the match, coordinating worldwide voting on the Earth’s moves, which were proposed by the K-3 champions.

Chamitoff, who continued the match via e-mail after his 183-day space mission and return to Earth on Nov. 30, 2008, is scheduled to fly again on the upcoming STS-134 mission of Space Shuttle Endeavour. He sent the following letter to the students:

Dear Stevenson Elementary Chess Team,

What a game! Huge congratulations on your victory! I'm truly proud of you, and inspired by your dedication, focus, brilliance, and patience too! Also, a huge congratulations to all of you who followed the game and participated as part of the “Earth Team,” by voting for the moves on-line.

This was a fantastic game with so many intricate twists and turns. When the time between moves is measured in days, it seems that the depth of analysis and strategy happens at a different level. This made for a very exciting game! This wasn't the longest game ever played, but for sure it set a record for long distance!

I wish we could have played the entire game between “Space” and “Earth” while I was still onboard the International Space Station, but perhaps there will be time for a complete “Earth vs Space” match one day, when some of you are living on the Moon or Mars. No doubt, that the game of chess will travel with us to the stars. But more importantly, it's terrific to see how the game of chess is inspiring so many young minds to think and work in ways that can prepare them for the roles they will play in building our future.

It's been a great honor for me to play a small part in that. Thanks to so many people from NASA, the U.S. Chess Federation, Stevenson Elementary, Bellevue College, the Seattle Museum of Flight, ChessMagnetSchool.com, and many others who made this game possible. May All Your Dreams Come True,

Greg Chamitoff
ISS Expedition 17/18 Flight Engineer and Science Officer

The USCF, established in 1939, is the governing body for chess in the U.S. and is dedicated to extending the role of chess in American society. It promotes the study and knowledge of the game for its own sake and as a useful tool in the classroom for developing critical thinking and social skills.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hubble's Festive View of a Grand Star-Forming Region

Just in time for the holidays: a Hubble Space Telescope picture postcard of hundreds of brilliant blue stars wreathed by warm, glowing clouds. The festive portrait is the most detailed view of the largest stellar nursery in our local galactic neighborhood.

The massive, young stellar grouping, called R136, is only a few million years old and resides in the 30 Doradus Nebula, a turbulent star-birth region in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. There is no known star-forming region in our galaxy as large or as prolific as 30 Doradus.

Many of the diamond-like icy blue stars are among the most massive stars known. Several of them are over 100 times more massive than our Sun. These hefty stars are destined to pop off, like a string of firecrackers, as supernovas in a few million years.

The image, taken in ultraviolet, visible, and red light by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, spans about 100 light-years. The nebula is close enough to Earth that Hubble can resolve individual stars, giving astronomers important information about the stars' birth and evolution.

The brilliant stars are carving deep cavities in the surrounding material by unleashing a torrent of ultraviolet light, and hurricane-force stellar winds (streams of charged particles), which are etching away the enveloping hydrogen gas cloud in which the stars were born. The image reveals a fantasy landscape of pillars, ridges, and valleys, as well as a dark region in the center that roughly looks like the outline of a holiday tree. Besides sculpting the gaseous terrain, the brilliant stars can also help create a successive generation of offspring. When the winds hit dense walls of gas, they create shocks, which may be generating a new wave of star birth.

The movement of the LMC around the Milky Way may have triggered the massive cluster's formation in several ways. The gravitational tug of the Milky Way and the companion Small Magellanic Cloud may have compressed gas in the LMC. Also, the pressure resulting from the LMC plowing through the Milky Way's halo may have compressed gas in the satellite. The cluster is a rare, nearby example of the many super star clusters that formed in the distant, early universe, when star birth and galaxy interactions were more frequent. Previous Hubble observations have shown astronomers that super star clusters in faraway galaxies are ubiquitous.

The LMC is located 170,000 light-years away and is a member of the Local Group of Galaxies, which also includes the Milky Way.

The Hubble observations were taken Oct. 20-27, 2009. The blue color is light from the hottest, most massive stars; the green from the glow of oxygen; and the red from fluorescing hydrogen.

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 conducts Hubble science operations. The institute is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, and is an International Year of Astronomy 2009 program partner.

International Space Station

Space shuttle Endeavour was lowered onto the mobile launcher platform and attached to the massive external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters. Early in January the entire stack will be rolled out to Launch Pad 39A for the STS-130 mission to the International Space Station.

In addition, the Endeavour astronauts will fly to Kennedy in January to participate in the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, or TCDT, to familiarize themselves with the hardware and payload they'll be working with while on the mission.

Endeavour and its crew will deliver a third connecting module, the Tranquility node, to the station and a seven-windowed cupola to be used as a control room for robotics. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

Steering the Ares Rockets on a Straight Path

The Ares I-X rocket stood more than 325 feet tall on the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Spectators watched in awe as its massive solid rocket motor blazed to life with a thunderous roar, and the spacecraft rose off the launch pad.

But what steered this rocket on its path as it climbed through Earth's atmosphere? The answer is a roll control system.

The roll control system used for the recently completed Ares I-X test flight is different from the system being developed for its sister vehicle the Ares I, but operates on the same premise.

For the Ares I-X test flight the roll control system performed two primary functions for the vehicle: It rolled the vehicle 90 degrees after liftoff to emulate the Ares I roll attitude at launch, and was used to maintain a constant roll attitude during ascent up to stage separation. The system began operating just after the rocket cleared the tower at launch and shut down just before first stage separation.

Unlike the system being designed for Ares I, the Ares I-X roll control propulsion system components were harvested from decommissioned Peacekeeper missiles, which were to be dismantled by the U.S. Air Force as part of the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, called START II. The use of Peacekeeper parts for the roll control system – and shuttle parts for the first stage of Ares I-X – was an effective means for NASA to reduce the cost and development time of this flight test.

For the Ares I -- the first launch vehicle in NASA's Constellation Program, intended to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, the moon and beyond in coming decades -- engineers are designing a roll control system that will use clusters of small thrusters to keep the rocket from spinning or rolling. The first-stage roll control system will work together with the first-stage motor to steer the 2-million-pound vehicle during the first 126 seconds of flight, and then will cease operation when the first stage separates.

Engineers with the Marshall Center and Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., recently completed two rounds of hot-fire testing for two prototype Ares I roll control thrusters at Aerojet’s state-of-the-art engine test facility in Sacramento. Aerojet is working on the project under an advanced development contract for the Marshall Center.

In the first series, one thruster design was tested at ambient pressure, or sea-level conditions and performed as expected, with a life cycle of more than four times the required mission duration. The unit demonstrated a wide range of operation in the pulse mode, which tested the thruster by turning it off and on for varying lengths of time, and in the steady-state mode, which allowed the thruster to continue running for longer periods of time. The second test series evaluated the second prototype thruster. It involved several days of testing to further evaluate the thruster performance under simulated pressure altitude conditions representative of first stage ascent.

The Science of Steering

To learn more about steering the Ares I, a brief review of the science behind flying is in order. The science of air and space vehicle control is called flight dynamics. Three critical flight dynamics parameters -- pitch, roll and yaw -- are the three-dimensional angles of rotation around the vehicle's center of mass.

"For the Ares I, vehicle control will be somewhat similar to an airplane," said Phillip Best, subsystem manager for the reaction control system in the Ares I Upper Stage Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "On an airplane, roll control is accomplished with the ailerons -- hinged flaps on the wings -- that keep the wings level with the horizon," he said. “From liftoff to first-stage separation, roll control for Ares I will be accomplished by firing the first-stage roll control system thrusters."

The roll control system will receive commands from computers, electronics and other equipment, called the avionics system, to help steer it during flight. The avionics system is the brain that will control, or assist in controlling, most of the rocket's systems, including the thrusters.

It is important for the vehicle to remain in a steady position during launch for several reasons, including keeping the astronauts oriented by providing them a continuous view of the horizon, and keeping the vehicle's antennas in the correct position for tracking and communications purposes.

Project engineers determined that there are a couple of sources that could generate unwanted roll in the Ares rocket. First, roll torques -- the tendency of a force to rotate an object around its axis -- may be generated internally because of the way burning fuel exits the first-stage nozzle. Second, rotation also may be caused by outside environmental forces, such as wind hitting the vehicle’s exterior. The thrusters will work to correct these roll disturbances.

How the Control Systems Will Work

The Ares I rocket, currently in development, will consist of a single solid rocket motor first stage with a single nozzle -- a large, bell-shaped structure at the aft end of the rocket where the burning fuel escapes and provides the thrust, or power, to propel the rocket off the launch pad. The first-stage nozzle will provide the pitch and yaw control, working in tandem with the roll control thrusters.

The first-stage roll control system will include two thruster modules, each containing six thrusters, situated on opposite sides of the vehicle's interstage. Each module will fire two thrusters at a time, providing 625 pounds of force (lbf) per thruster, or 1250 lbf per module. There is redundancy in the system, enabling each module to accommodate a single thruster failure.

Sensors aboard the rocket will detect changes in the flight path or changes in the vehicle's position, sending information to the avionics command center. The avionics computers will immediately determine the corrective action needed to get the rocket back on track. Within a fraction of a second, commands are sent to the appropriate thrusters that will fire to “right” the vehicle.

Designed as "pulsing" thrusters, these small control rockets can be turned on and off for brief periods of time, over and over again. This particular design can be pulsed for 1/10th of one second or may be fired 30 or 40 seconds at a time.

"We recognized the need to do early design and development work relative to large, pulsing, monopropellant thruster designs," Best said. "By maximizing heritage designs and capitalizing on lessons learned from past programs, we have been able to reduce recurring and non-recurring costs and deliver a design that will be less expensive to manufacture, all in less time."

NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston manages the Constellation Program, which includes the Ares I rocket, the Ares V heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Orion crew capsule and the Altair lunar lander. The Marshall Center manages the Ares Projects.

The Dark Side of Carbon

As interest in Earth's changing climate heats up, a tiny dark particle is stepping into the limelight: black carbon. Commonly known as soot, black carbon enters the air when fossil fuels and biofuels, such as coal, wood, and diesel are burned. Black carbon is found worldwide, but its presence and impact are particularly strong in Asia.

Black carbon, a short-lived particle, is in perpetual motion across the globe. The Tibetan Plateau's high levels of black carbon likely impact the region's temperature, clouds and monsoon season.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Science Grows Aboard Station as Crew Awaits New Arrivals

Aboard the orbiting International Space Station, Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev focused on housekeeping and biological experiments Tuesday as they await the arrival of the remainder of the Expedition 22 crew.

Following the crew’s daily planning conference with teams on the ground, Williams conducted a periodic analysis of a sample from the Water Recovery System using the Total Organic Carbon Analyzer. Williams also performed preventative maintenance on some of the station’s exercise equipment.

Later, Williams harvested Arabidopsis thaliana plants, commonly known as thale cress, from the Advanced Biological Research System. This investigation seeks to understand spaceflight-induced molecular changes in gene activity. Thale cress makes a good subject for this type of research because its genome was the first set of plant genes to be fully sequenced by scientists.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Space Station

Endeavour's STS-130 Mission
Commander George Zamka will lead the STS-130 mission to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Terry Virts will serve as the pilot. Mission specialists are Nicholas Patrick, Robert Behnken, Stephen Robinson and Kathryn Hire. Virts will be making his first trip to space.

Endeavour will deliver a third connecting module, the Tranquility node, to the station in addition to the seven-windowed Cupola module, which will be used as a control room for robotics. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

Liftoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is targeted for February 4, 2010 at 5:52 a.m. EST.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lifting Off to Study the Sky

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket at 9:09 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. WISE will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images.

WISE Lifts Off to Map the Sky

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket at 9:09 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. WISE will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

NASA EDGE Nominated for Best Video Podcast in the 5th Annual Podcast Awards!

Just though I would share the news with our NASA EDGE Fans:

NASA EDGE continues their unprecedented, unscripted journey through the world of video podcasting with their very first award nomination. This is no small accomplishment considering that only two and half years ago, they weren’t sure that they would find an audience.

Well, they have. Almost three years and 3.2 million downloads later, NASA EDGE is now recognized in the company of such internet greats and fellow nominees as “Buzz out Loud,” “Diggnation” and “Filmriot” just to name a few.

In fact, the 5th Annual Podcast Awards, managed by Podcast Connect Inc., mentioned on their web site that this year’s competition received more than 321,000 nominations for over 3500 different shows.

Be sure to vote for NASA EDGE

You can vote once a day from November 13th to November 30th, 2009 by visiting www.podcastawards.com. NASA EDGE is listed in the “Best Video Podcast” category with 9 other video podcasts.

If you’re already a fan of NASA EDGE, please vote for them. If you haven’t seen or heard of NASA EDGE, visit their home page at www.nasa.gov/nasaedge and download any or all of their 46 video podcasts. You will not be disappointed.

What is NASA EDGE?

NASA EDGE is different. Unscripted and unpredictable, NASA EDGE takes a unique look in and around the greatest space program on the planet. They have hosted the Great Moonbuggy Race, examined NASA spinoff technology at the X Games, followed the Desert-RATS with an unconventional set of duct tape boots, coined the term Magnetospherence and even made an appearance on ESPN’s nationally syndicated Mike & Mike in the Morning Show.

Their latest Vodcast added a new wrinkle. In October they covered NASA’s historic Ares I-X Flight Demonstration live on the web. That show featured the entire broadcast team and an attempt at defining and redefining ‘triboelectrification.’

Of course, NASA EDGE isn’t just a video podcast. If you have questions, comments or thoughts about NASA or NASA EDGE, you can friend them on facebook and ask questions, chat or check out some exclusive facebook videos.

Or if you just want to keep up with their latest shows or activities you can follow them on twitter (@NASA_EDGE.)

If all goes well, you’ll hear from them the second they win their very first award!

Freezing WISE's Hydrogen

A scaffolding structure built around NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, allows engineers to freeze its hydrogen coolant. The WISE infrared instrument is kept extremely cold by a bottle-like tank filled with frozen hydrogen, called the cryostat. The cryostat can be seen at the top of the spacecraft.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Glitch delays Nasa 'sky mapper' launch

Nasa has delayed the launch of its sky-mapping spacecraft because of a problem with a steering engine.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE for short, was scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday. Engineers doing final checks on the Delta 2 rocket found a problem late Wednesday with its booster steering engine.

The US$320 million mission will now launch no earlier than Saturday, although there's an 80 per cent chance the weather will not cooperate.

WISE will scan the entire sky in infrared light in search of never-before-seen asteroids, comets and other celestial objects. One of its main tasks is to catalog objects posing a danger to Earth.

International Space Station

Expedition 22 Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Maxim Suraev are currently the sole residents on the International Space Station. Three new crew members are preparing to join them when the Soyuz TMA-17 launches on Dec. 20 from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

An international crew comprised of NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi will complete the Expedition 22 crew when they dock to the station on Dec. 22.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chopper Drop Tests New Technology

How do you make a helicopter safer to fly? You crash one.

NASA aeronautics researchers recently dropped a small helicopter from a height of 35 feet (10.7 m) to see whether an expandable honeycomb cushion called a deployable energy absorber could lessen the destructive force of a crash.

On impact, the helicopter's skid landing gear bent outward, but the cushion attached to its belly kept the rotorcraft's bottom from touching the ground. Four crash test dummies along for the ride appeared only a little worse for the wear.

Researchers must analyze the test results before they can say for sure whether the deployable energy absorber worked as designed.

"I'd like to think the research we're doing is going to end up in airframes and will potentially save lives," said Karen Jackson, an aerospace engineer who oversaw the test at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, more than 200 people are injured in helicopter accidents in the United States each year, in part because helicopters fly in riskier conditions than most other aircraft. They fly close to the ground, not far from power lines and other obstacles, and often are used for emergencies, including search and rescue and medical evacuations.

For the test at Langley, researchers used an MD-500 helicopter donated by the U.S. Army. The rotorcraft was equipped with instruments that collected 160 channels of data. One of the four crash test dummies was a special torso model equipped with simulated internal organs. It came from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Technicians outfitted the underside of the helicopter's crew and passenger compartment with the deployable energy absorber. Created by engineer Sotiris Kellas at Langley, the device is made of Kevlar and has a unique flexible hinge design that allows the honeycomb to be packaged and remain flat until needed.

Kellas initially came up with the idea as a way to cushion the next generation of astronaut-carrying space capsules, but soon realized it had many other possible applications. So the concept became part of a helicopter drop test for the Subsonic Rotary Wing Project of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington.

Jackson said researchers tested the deployable energy absorber under realistic conditions. "We crash-tested the helicopter by suspending it about 35 feet (10.7 m) into the air using cables. Then, as it swung to the ground, we used pyrotechnics to remove the cables just before the helicopter hit so that it reacted like it would in a real accident," she explained.

The test conditions imitated what would be a relatively severe helicopter crash. The flight path angle was about 33 degrees and the combined forward and vertical speeds were about 48 feet per second or 33 miles per hour (14.6 meters per second, 53.1 kph).

"We got data to validate our integrated computer models that predict how all parts of the helicopter and the occupants react in a crash. Plus the torso model test dummy will help us assess internal injuries to occupants during a helicopter crash."

Engineers say the MD-500 survived relatively intact as a result of the honeycomb cushion. They plan to recycle the helicopter and drop it again next year, but without the deployable energy absorber attached, in order to compare the results.


An F/A-18 mission support aircraft shadows NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, 747SP during a functional check flight Dec. 9, 2009. The flight included an evaluation of the aircraft's systems, including engines, flight controls and communication.

newest spacecraft

NASA’s newest spacecraft is currently perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Santa Barbara, Calif. It is scheduled to roar into space at dawn on Dec. 11, at 6:09:33 a.m. PST (9:09:33 a.m. EST), on a short journey to its final Earth-circling orbit 52astro5 kilometers (326 miles) overhead.

After a one-month checkout, the mission will spend the next nine months mapping the cosmos in infrared light. It will cover the whole sky one-and-a-half times, snapping millions of pictures of everything from near-Earth asteroids to faraway galaxies bursting with new stars.

“The last time we mapped the whole sky at these particular infrared wavelengths was 26 years ago,” said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, who is the principal investigator of the mission. “Infrared technology has come a long way since then. The old all-sky infrared pictures were like impressionist paintings — now, we’ll have images that look like actual photographs.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wheel Balance for Endeavour

Technicians at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will lower space shuttle Endeavour onto its wheels, weigh it and balance it today for its upcoming move into the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Tomorrow, Endeavour will be hooked up to the vehicle that will tow it from Orbiter Processing Facility-2 to the VAB. The move, or rollover, is scheduled to start at 7 a.m. EST on Saturday.

At NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the six STS-130 astronauts are conducting an integrated simulation to practice techniques for the second of three scheduled spacewalks.

Shuttle Endeavour, with its payload of the Tranquility node and the seven-windowed Cupola module, is targeted to launch Feb. 4, 2010.

Mission STS-129: Delivering the Goods

Space shuttle Atlantis' STS-129 mission was an ambitious and demanding undertaking that began Nov. 16, 2009, with a spectacular and on-time liftoff at 2:28 p.m. EST from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Aboard were Commander Charles O. Hobaugh, Pilot Barry E. Wilmore, Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Mike Foreman, Robert L. Satcher Jr. and Randy Bresnik. In addition to the crew, there were nearly 30,000 pounds of replacement parts packed in the Express Logistics Carriers, or ELCs, secured inside Atlantis' payload bay.

With a picture-perfect launch behind them, the first task at hand on Nov. 17 was checking the shuttle's wing leading edges and nose cap using the orbiter boom sensor system. The end of the boom consists of cameras and lasers, giving experts on the ground 3-D views of the shuttle's heat shield to ensure there wasn't any damage from launch.

Later in the day while the shuttle was catching up with the International Space Station, Bresnik, Foreman and Satcher checked out the two spacesuits they would use for the three planned spacewalks.

Once in range of the station on Nov. 18, the shuttle was delicately maneuvered into the rendezvous pitch maneuver, or "backflip," where Expedition 21 Flight Engineers Jeffrey Williams and Nicole Stott took photos from their vantage point.

Images from the first and second inspection were sent back to Earth for experts to review, making sure the shuttle would have a safe flight back through Earth's atmosphere.

Hobaugh then carefully guided Atlantis closer to the station until it was locked into the station's docking port on the Harmony node. It took a couple hours for a series of hatch leak checks to be performed and once accomplished, the hatches were opened and the Atlantis crew was enthusiastically greeted and welcomed aboard the station by the Expedition 21 team.

As the hatch opened, Nicole Stott's responsibilities as station flight engineer officially ended and she became an STS-129 mission specialist for the remainder of her time in space. Stott is the last NASA astronaut to experience the rotation of launching from and being returned to Earth by a space shuttle. In the future, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be used for station crew rotations.

With a demanding to-do list ahead of them, the two crews began with the first task at hand. ELC 1 was grappled from Atlantis' payload bay by Melvin and Bresnik with the shuttle's robotic arm and handed off to the station's robotic arm controlled by Wilmore and Williams. The platform was permanently installed to the outside of the station to store large cargo.

That evening Foreman and Satcher spent the night camping out in the Quest airlock preparing for their first spacewalk. After stepping out into space the next day, Foreman and Satcher completed all major tasks almost two hours ahead of schedule. In addition, Foreman was able to successfully connect a cable on the Unity node -- one that was uncooperative for the STS-128 crew in September.

Inside the station, work was ongoing to prepare for the arrival of the Tranquility node, which will be flown on shuttle Endeavour's STS-130 mission targeted for early 2010.

Overnight, a false depressurization alarm sounded and woke the crew, but flight control teams on the ground determined there was no danger to the station or crew. In the STS-129 post-landing crew press conference, Satcher said, "The training the crew members received helped them deal with the false alarms that went off a few times during their stay on the orbiting outpost."

The relocation of supplies and equipment between Atlantis and the station continued Nov. 20, in addition to tackling a variety of maintenance, troubleshooting and science activities -- keeping both station and shuttle crews busy.

Early the next morning, the second carrier with almost 10,000 pounds of large spare parts, including an attitude-control gyroscope, was moved from the shuttle's cargo bay to its permanent location on the S3 side of the station's truss, or backbone.

The two platforms that were attached to the station allow additional storage space for the mountain of supplies and equipment needed for the smooth and efficient running of the orbiting laboratory, now and well into the future after the shuttles are retired.

A little later, Foreman and Bresnik made their way into the emptiness of space for the second successful spacewalk of the mission. They not only completed their tasks ahead of schedule but also accomplished some get-ahead jobs -- all in six hours, eight minutes.

Meanwhile, another success story was in the making. On the morning of Nov. 22, Bresnik was told by the Mission Control Center in Houston that his wife, Rebecca, had given birth to their daughter, Abigail Mae Bresnik. He was assured that both baby and mother were doing just fine. Atlantis' crew members were given a well-earned, half day off to celebrate. The rest of day was dedicated to preparing for the third spacewalk on Nov. 23, featuring Satcher and Bresnik.

The space excursion began more than an hour later than planned because a drinking-water valve in Satcher's spacesuit became dislodged and the helmet had to be opened to reattach the valve. With the fix behind them, Bresnik and Satcher completed all the tasks in just five hours, 42 minutes -- almost on time, regardless of the late start.

Later, the last of the mission's spare hardware was moved thanks to the combined effort of all 12 shuttle and station crew members.

On Nov. 22, the shuttle and station crew members said their final farewells before the hatches between shuttle Atlantis and the station were securely closed -- after which the shuttle crew prepared for undocking.

Wilmore eased the shuttle away from the station circling around the outpost. Crew members videoed and snapped photos of the orbiting laboratory in order to assess its exterior condition.

One more survey was in store for the shuttle's heat shield with Wilmore and Melvin using the orbiter boom sensor system -- a five-hour process.

Atlantis crew members spent part of Thanksgiving preparing for their Nov. 27 landing date. They tested the thruster jets that control the shuttle's orientation in space and during early re-entry, as well as the flaps and rudders that guide it through the atmosphere.

The day didn't pass without a surprise, though. A traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings found its way aboard Atlantis before undocking -- compliments of the Expedition 21 crew members.

It was a perfect end to a nearly perfect mission. After the twin sonic booms echoed and Atlantis came out of a clear-blue sky, the vehicle and crew touched down on Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility on Nov. 27 at 9:44 a.m. EST.

After winding up a successful 11-day flight to deliver spare parts, other equipment and supplies to the International Space Station, the crew took their last walk around the vehicle that served them well from start to finish.

After a short ride to crew quarters, the astronauts were given a thorough medical exam and met with their families. On Nov. 28, the crew flew home to Houston, and on Nov. 30, they were honored at a homecoming ceremony held at nearby Ellington Field.

Atlantis' STS-129 mission was the 31st flight dedicated to space station assembly, resupply and maintenance -- one that should help keep the station supplied well into the future.

Earth's Moon

During its mission, the Galileo spacecraft returned a number of images of Earth's only natural satellite. Galileo surveyed the moon on Dec. 7, 1992, on its way to explore the Jupiter system in 1995-1997.

This color mosaic was assembled from 18 images taken by Galileo's imaging system through a green filter. On the upperleft is the dark, lava-filled Mare Imbrium, Mare Serenitatis (middle left), Mare Tranquillitatis (lower left), and Mare Crisium, the dark circular feature toward the bottom of the mosaic. Also visible in this view are the dark lava plains of the Marginis and Smythii Basins at the lower right. The Humboldtianum Basin, a 400-mile impact structure partly filled with dark volcanic deposits, is seen at the center of the image.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

STS-130 Mission

Endeavour's STS-130 Mission

Commander George Zamka will lead the STS-130 mission to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Terry Virts will serve as the pilot. Mission specialists are Nicholas Patrick, Robert Behnken, Stephen Robinson and Kathryn Hire. Virts will be making his first trip to space.

Endeavour will deliver a third connecting module, the Tranquility node, to the station in addition to the seven-windowed Cupola module, which will be used as a control room for robotics. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

Liftoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is targeted for February 4, 2010 at 5:52 a.m. EST.

Monday, December 7, 2009

View a Rocket Launch

See a Launch Up Close!
Launch of Mars Exploration RoverCape Canaveral Launch Viewing

All expendable vehicles launched in Central Florida begin their journeys on the launch pads of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located next door to Kennedy Space Center. Launch Transportation Tickets are available for some, but not all, of these launches. Call the KSC Visitor Complex at (321) 449-4444 for information on purchasing tickets.

Image to left: Rising above a cloud of smoke and steam, the Delta II launch vehicle carrying NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: NASA

Because the ELV launch pads are a few miles south of the Shuttle launch pads, the first two areas listed below are usually best for viewing ELV launches.

  • State Road 528 over the Indian River (the Bennett Causeway) and the Banana River
  • Jetty Park at Port Canaveral, just south of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
    (Call 321-783-7111 for information regarding park hours and admission fees)
  • Off State Road A1A along the Atlantic Ocean in Cocoa Beach
  • Along the Indian River on U.S. Highway 1, especially in Titusville
Note: Mariners and pilots can learn about launch hazard areas and restrictions by calling 1-800-470-7232. The United States Coast Guard broadcasts this information on Marine Band Channel 16.

Vandenberg Air Force Base Launch Viewing

There are currently two public viewing areas for launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB).
    View of Gravity Probe B launch from VAFB
  • Hawk's Nest
    Enter using Azalea Lane from Highway One just south of the VAFB main gate. Security personnel will guide you to public parking and viewing areas. Some locations in this area will be off-limits to the public. Launches best viewed from Hawk's Nest are Titan IV, Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon.

  • Vandenberg Golf Course or Weather Station
    The weather station is at the top of Corral Road. The Vandenberg Golf Course is off San Antonio Creek Road. Directions: From Northbound 101; Hwy 1 Vandenberg AFB exit left on Ocean Ave, right to "H" Street and follow signs to Vandenberg AFB. Turn right at main gate stoplight; then left on San Antonio Rd. West, follow signs to club. From Southbound 101 in Santa Maria: Orcutt/Clark Ave. exit right on Clark to Hwy 135; left seven miles to San Antonio Rd. West, exit right, follow signs to club. Launches best viewed from the golf course or the weather station are Delta II, ICBM (Peacekeeper, Minuteman) and Taurus.
Image above: A view of the Delta II carrying the Gravity Probe B spacecraft after liftoff from Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg AFB. Credit: NASA

Dry Valleys, Antarctica

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are a row of valleys west of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, so named because of their extremely low humidity and lack of snow and ice cover. Photosynthetic bacteria have been found living in the relatively moist interior of rocks. Scientists consider the Dry Valleys to be the closest of any terrestrial environment to Mars.

With its 14 spectral bands from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region and its high spatial resolution of about 50 to 300 feet, ASTER images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER is one of five Earth-observing instruments launched Dec. 18, 1999, on NASA's Terra satellite. The instrument was built by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. A joint U.S./Japan science team is responsible for validation and calibration of the instrument and the data products.

The broad spectral coverage and high spectral resolution of ASTER provides scientists with critical information for surface mapping and monitoring of dynamic conditions and temporal change.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Endeavour's STS-130 Mission

Commander George Zamka will lead the STS-130 mission to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Terry Virts will serve as the pilot. Mission specialists are Nicholas Patrick, Robert Behnken, Stephen Robinson and Kathryn Hire. Virts will be making his first trip to space.

Endeavour will deliver a third connecting module, the Tranquility node, to the station in addition to the seven-windowed Cupola module, which will be used as a control room for robotics. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

Liftoff from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is targeted for February 4, 2010 at 5:52 a.m. EST.