Monday, December 6, 2010

NASA Aids in Characterizing Super-Earth Atmosphere

A team of astronomers, including two NASA Sagan Fellows, has made the first characterizations of a super-Earth's atmosphere, by using a ground-based telescope. A super-Earth is a planet up to three times the size of Earth and weighing up to 10 times as much. The findings, reported in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal Nature, are a significant milestone toward eventually being able to probe the atmospheres of Earth-like planets for signs of life.

The team determined the planet, GJ 1214b, is either blanketed with a thin layer of water steam or surrounded by a thick layer of high clouds. If the former, the planet itself would have an icy composition. If the latter, the planet would be rocky or similar to the composition of Neptune, though much smaller.

"This is the first super-Earth known to have an atmosphere," said Jacob Bean, a NASA Sagan Fellow and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "But even with these new measurements, we can't say yet what that atmosphere is made of. This world is being very shy and veiling its true nature from us."

GJ 1214b, first discovered in December 2009, is 2.7 times the size of Earth and 6.5 times as massive. Previous observations of the planet's size and mass demonstrated it has a low density for its size, leading astronomers to conclude the planet is some kind of solid body with an atmosphere.

The planet orbits close to its dim star, at a distance of 0.014 astronomical units. An astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the sun, approximately 93 million miles. GJ 1214b circles too close to its star to be habitable by any life forms.

Bean and his team observed infrared light as the planet crossed in front of its star. During such transits, the star's light filters through the atmosphere. Gases absorb the starlight at particular wavelengths, leaving behind chemical fingerprints detectable from Earth. This same type of technique has been used to study the atmospheres of distant "hot Jupiters," or Jupiter-like planets orbiting close to their stars, and found gases like hydrogen, methane and sodium vapor.

In the case of the super-Earth, no chemical fingerprints were detected; however, this doesn't mean there are no chemicals present. Instead, this information ruled out some possibilities for GJ 1214b's atmosphere, and narrowed the scope to either an atmosphere of water steam or high clouds. Astronomers believe it's more likely the atmosphere is too thin around the planet to let enough light filter through and reveal chemical fingerprints.

"A steamy atmosphere would have to be very dense – about one-fifth water vapor by volume -- compared to our Earth, with an atmosphere that's four-fifths nitrogen and one-fifth oxygen with only a touch of water vapor," Bean said. "During the next year, we should have some solid answers about what this planet is truly like."

The team, which included Bean's co-authors -- Eliza Miller-Ricci Kempton, a NASA Sagan Fellow at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and Derek Homeier of the Institute for Astrophysics in Gottingen, Germany -- examined GJ 1214b using the ground-based Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile.

"This is an important step forward, narrowing our understanding of the atmosphere of this planet," said NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program Scientist Douglas Hudgins at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Bizarre worlds like this make exoplanet science one of the most compelling areas in astrophysics today."

The Sagan Fellowship Program is administered by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Its purpose is to advance the scientific and technical goals of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program. The program is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about NASA's planet-finding missions is online at: . More information about NASA's Sagan Fellowship Program is at .

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cassini Returns Images of Bright Jets at Enceladus

NASA's Cassini spacecraft successfully dipped near the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus on Nov. 30. Though Cassini's closest approach took it to within about 48 kilometers (30 miles) of the moon's northern hemisphere, the spacecraft also captured shadowy images of the tortured south polar terrain and the brilliant jets that spray out from it.

Many of the raw images feature darkened terrain because winter has descended upon the southern hemisphere of Enceladus. But sunlight behind the moon backlights the jets of water vapor and icy particles. In some images, the jets line up in rows, forming curtains of spray.

The new raw images can be seen at .

The Enceladus flyby was the 12th of Cassini's mission, with the spacecraft swooping down around 61 degrees north latitude. This encounter and its twin three weeks later at the same altitude and latitude, are the closest Cassini will come to the northern hemisphere surface of Enceladus during the extended Solstice mission. (Cassini's closest-ever approach to Enceladus occurred in October 2008, when the spacecraft dipped to an altitude of 25 kilometers, or 16 miles.)

Among the observations Cassini made during this Enceladus flyby, the radio science subsystem collected gravity measurements to understand the moon's interior structure, and the fields and particles instruments sampled the charged particle environment around the moon.

About two days before the Enceladus flyby, Cassini also passed the sponge-like moon Hyperion, beaming back intriguing images of the craters on its surface. The flyby, at 72,000 kilometers (45,000 miles) in altitude, was one of the closest approaches to Hyperion that Cassini has made.

Scientists are still working to analyze the data and images collected during the flybys.

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.

More Cassini information is available, at t and .

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thin Air - Cassini Finds Ethereal Atmosphere at Rhea

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has detected a very tenuous atmosphere known as an exosphere, infused with oxygen and carbon dioxide around Saturn's icy moon Rhea. This is the first time a spacecraft has directly captured molecules of an oxygen atmosphere – albeit a very thin one -- at a world other than Earth.

The oxygen appears to arise when Saturn's magnetic field rotates over Rhea. Energetic particles trapped in the planet's magnetic field pepper the moon’s water-ice surface. They cause chemical reactions that decompose the surface and release oxygen. The source of the carbon dioxide is less certain.

Oxygen at Rhea's surface is estimated to be about 5 trillion times less dense than what we have at Earth. But the new results show that surface decomposition could contribute abundant molecules of oxygen, leading to surface densities roughly 100 times greater than the exospheres of either Earth's moon or Mercury. The formation of oxygen and carbon dioxide could possibly drive complex chemistry on the surfaces of many icy bodies in the universe.

"The new results suggest that active, complex chemistry involving oxygen may be quite common throughout the solar system and even our universe," said lead author Ben Teolis, a Cassini team scientist based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "Such chemistry could be a prerequisite for life. All evidence from Cassini indicates that Rhea is too cold and devoid of the liquid water necessary for life as we know it."

Releasing oxygen through surface irradiation could help generate conditions favorable for life at an icy body other than Rhea that has liquid water under the surface, Teolis said. If the oxygen and carbon dioxide from the surface could somehow get transported down to a sub-surface ocean, that would provide a much more hospitable environment for more complex compounds and life to form. Scientists are keen to investigate whether life on icy moons with an ocean is possible, though they have not yet detected it.

The tenuous atmosphere with oxygen and carbon dioxide makes Rhea, Saturn's second largest moon, unique in the Saturnian system. Titan has a thick nitrogen-methane atmosphere, but very little carbon dioxide and oxygen.

"Rhea is turning out to be much more interesting than we had imagined," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The Cassini finding highlights the rich diversity of Saturn’s moons and gives us clues on how they formed and evolved."

Scientists had suspected Rhea could have a thin atmosphere with oxygen and carbon dioxide, based on remote observations of Jupiter's icy moons by NASA's Galileo spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope. Other Cassini observations detected oxygen escaping from icy Saturn ring particles after ultraviolet bombardment. But Cassini was able to detect oxygen and carbon dioxide in the exosphere directly because of how close it flew to Rhea – 101 kilometers, or 63 miles – and its special suite of instruments.

In the new study, scientists combined data from Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer and the Cassini plasma spectrometer during flybys on Nov. 26, 2005, Aug. 30, 2007, and March 2, 2010. The ion and neutral mass spectrometer "tasted" peak densities of oxygen of around 50 billion molecules per cubic meter (1 billion molecules per cubic foot). It detected peak densities of carbon dioxide of around 20 billion molecules per cubic meter (about 600 million molecules per cubic foot).

The plasma spectrometer saw clear signatures of flowing streams of positive and negative ions, with masses that corresponded to ions of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

"How exactly the carbon dioxide is released is still a puzzle," said co-author Geraint Jones, a Cassini team scientist based at University College London in the U.K. "But with Cassini's diverse suite of instruments observing Rhea from afar, as well as sniffing the gas surrounding it, we hope to solve the puzzle."

The carbon dioxide may be the result of “dry ice” trapped from the primordial solar nebula, as is the case with comets, or it may be due to similar irradiation processes operating on the organic molecules trapped in the water ice of Rhea. The carbon dioxide could also come from carbon-rich materials deposited by tiny meteors that bombarded Rhea's surface.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The ion and neutral mass spectrometer team and the Cassini plasma spectrometer team are based at Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.

For more information about the Cassini mission, visit: and .

Friday, November 26, 2010

Stripes Are Back in Season on Jupiter

New NASA images support findings that one of Jupiter's stripes that "disappeared" last spring is now showing signs of a comeback. These new observations will help scientists better understand the interaction between Jupiter's winds and cloud chemistry.

Earlier this year, amateur astronomers noticed that a longstanding dark-brown stripe, known as the South Equatorial Belt, just south of Jupiter's equator, had turned white. In early November, amateur astronomer Christopher Go of Cebu City, Philippines, saw an unusually bright spot in the white area that was once the dark stripe. This phenomenon piqued the interest of scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and elsewhere.

After follow-up observations in Hawaii with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, the W.M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini Observatory telescope, scientists now believe the vanished dark stripe is making a comeback.

First-glimpse images of the re-appearing stripe are online at:

"The reason Jupiter seemed to 'lose' this band - camouflaging itself among the surrounding white bands - is that the usual downwelling winds that are dry and keep the region clear of clouds died down," said Glenn Orton, a research scientist at JPL. "One of the things we were looking for in the infrared was evidence that the darker material emerging to the west of the bright spot was actually the start of clearing in the cloud deck, and that is precisely what we saw."

This white cloud deck is made up of white ammonia ice. When the white clouds float at a higher altitude, they obscure the missing brown material, which floats at a lower altitude. Every few decades or so, the South Equatorial Belt turns completely white for perhaps one to three years, an event that has puzzled scientists for decades. This extreme change in appearance has only been seen with the South Equatorial Belt, making it unique to Jupiter and the entire solar system.

The white band wasn't the only change on the big, gaseous planet. At the same time, Jupiter's Great Red Spot became a darker red color. Orton said the color of the spot - a giant storm on Jupiter that is three times the size of Earth and a century or more old - will likely brighten a bit again as the South Equatorial Belt makes its comeback.

The South Equatorial Belt underwent a slight brightening, known as a "fade," just as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was flying by on its way to Pluto in 2007. Then there was a rapid "revival" of its usual dark color three to four months later. The last full fade and revival was a double-header event, starting with a fade in 1989, revival in 1990, then another fade and revival in 1993. Similar fades and revivals have been captured visually and photographically back to the early 20th century, and they are likely to be a long-term phenomenon in Jupiter's atmosphere.

Scientists are particularly interested in observing this latest event because it's the first time they've been able to use modern instruments to determine the details of the chemical and dynamical changes of this phenomenon. Observing this event carefully may help to refine the scientific questions to be posed by NASA's Juno spacecraft, due to arrive at Jupiter in 2016, and a larger, proposed mission to orbit Jupiter and explore its satellite Europa after 2020.

The event also signifies another close collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers. The amateurs, located worldwide, are often well equipped with instrumentation and are able to track the rapid developments of planets in the solar system. These amateurs are collaborating with professionals to pursue further studies of the changes that are of great value to scientists and researchers everywhere.

"I was fortunate to catch the outburst," said Christopher Go, referring to the first signs that the band was coming back. "I had a meeting that evening and it went late. I caught the outburst just in time as it was rising. Had I imaged earlier, I would not have caught it," he said. Go, who also conducts in the physics department at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City, Philippines, witnessed the disappearance of the stripe earlier this year, and in 2007 he was the first to catch the stripe's return. "I was able to catch it early this time around because I knew exactly what to look for."

NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages time allocation on the Keck telescope for NASA. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tuning an 'Ear' to the Music of Gravitational Waves

A team of scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has brought the world one step closer to "hearing" gravitational waves -- ripples in space and time predicted by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century.

The research, performed in a lab at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., tested a system of lasers that would fly aboard the proposed space mission called Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA. The mission's goal is to detect the subtle, whisper-like signals of gravitational waves, which have yet to be directly observed. This is no easy task, and many challenges lie ahead.

The new JPL tests hit one significant milestone, demonstrating for the first time that noise, or random fluctuations, in LISA's laser beams can be hushed enough to hear the sweet sounds of the elusive waves.

"In order to detect gravitational waves, we have to make extremely precise measurements," said Bill Klipstein, a physicist at JPL. "Our lasers are much noisier than what we want to measure, so we have to remove that noise carefully to get a clear signal; it's a little like listening for a feather to drop in the middle of a heavy rainstorm." Klipstein is a co-author of a paper about the lab tests that appeared in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters.

The JPL team is one of many groups working on LISA, a joint European Space Agency and NASA mission proposal, which, if selected, would launch in 2020 or later. In August of this year, LISA was given a high recommendation by the 2010 U.S. National Research Council decadal report on astronomy and astrophysics.

One of LISA's primary goals is to detect gravitational waves directly. Studies of these cosmic waves began in earnest decades ago when, in 1974, researchers discovered a pair of orbiting dead stars -- a type called pulsars -- that were spiraling closer and closer together due to an unexplainable loss of energy. That energy was later shown to be in the form of gravitational waves. This was the first indirect proof of the waves, and ultimately earned the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.

LISA is expected to not only "hear" the waves, but also learn more about their sources -- massive objects such as black holes and dead stars, which sing the waves like melodies out to the universe as the objects accelerate through space and time. The mission would be able to detect gravitational waves from massive objects in our Milky Way galaxy as well as distant galaxies, allowing scientists to tune into an entirely new language of our universe.

The proposed mission would amount to a giant triangle of three distinct spacecraft, each connected by laser beams. These spacecraft would fly in formation around the sun, about 20 degrees behind Earth. Each one would hold a cube made of platinum and gold that floats freely in space. As gravitational waves pass by the spacecraft, they would cause the distance between the cubes, or test masses, to change by almost imperceptible amounts -- but enough for LISA's extremely sensitive instruments to be able to detect corresponding changes in the connecting laser beams.

"The gravitational waves will cause the 'corks' to bob around, but just by a tiny bit," said Glenn de Vine, a research scientist and co-author of the recent study at JPL. "My friend once said it's sort of like rubber duckies bouncing around in a bathtub."

The JPL team has spent the last six years working on aspects of this LISA technology, including instruments called phase meters, which are sophisticated laser beam detectors. The latest research accomplishes one of their main goals -- to reduce the laser noise detected by the phase meters by one billion times, or enough to detect the signal of gravitational waves.

The job is like trying to find a proton in a haystack. Gravitational waves would change the distance between two spacecraft -- which are flying at 5 million kilometers (3.1 million miles) apart -- by about a picometer, which is about 100 million times smaller than the width of a human hair. In other words, the spacecraft are 5,000,000,000 meters apart, and LISA would detect changes in that distance on the order of .000000000005 meters!

At the heart of the LISA laser technology is a process known as interferometry, which ultimately reveals if the distances traveled by the laser beams of light, and thus the distance between the three spacecraft, have changed due to gravitational waves. The process is like combining ocean waves -- sometimes they pile up and grow bigger, and sometimes they cancel each other out or diminish in size.

"We can't use a tape measure to get the distances between these spacecraft," said de Vine, "So we use lasers. The wavelengths of the lasers are like our tick marks on a tape measure."

On LISA, the laser light is detected by the phase meters and then sent to the ground, where it is "interfered" via data processing (the process is called time-delay interferometry for this reason -- there's a delay before the interferometry technique is applied). If the interference pattern between the laser beams is the same, then that means the spacecraft haven't moved relative to each other. If the interference pattern changes, then they did. If all other reasons for spacecraft movement have been eliminated, then gravitational waves are the culprit.

That's the basic idea. In reality, there are a host of other factors that make this process more complex. For one thing, the spacecraft don't stay put. They naturally move around for reasons that have nothing to do with gravitational waves. Another challenge is the laser beam noise. How do you know if the spacecraft moved because of gravitational waves, or if noise in the laser is just making it seem as if the spacecraft moved?

This is the question the JPL team recently took to their laboratory, which mimics the LISA system. They introduced random, artificial noise into their lasers and then, through a complicated set of data processing actions, subtracted most of it back out. Their recent success demonstrated that they could see changes in the distances between mock spacecraft on the order of a picometer.

In essence, they hushed the roar of the laser beams, so that LISA, if selected for construction, will be able to hear the universe softly hum a tune of gravitational waves.

Other authors of the paper from JPL are Brent Ware; Kirk McKenzie; Robert E. Spero and Daniel A. Shaddock, who has a joint post with JPL and the Australian National University in Canberra.

LISA is a proposed joint NASA and European Space Agency mission. The NASA portion of the mission is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Some of the key instrumentation studies for the mission are being performed at JPL. The U.S. mission scientist is Tom Prince at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How to See the Best Meteor Showers of the Year: Tools, Tips and 'Save the Dates'

There are several major meteor showers to enjoy every year at various times, with some more active than others. For example, April's Lyrids are expected to produce about 15 meteors an hour at their peak for observers viewing in good conditions. Now, if you put the same observer in the same good conditions during a higher-rate shower like August's Perseids or December's Geminids, that person could witness up to 80 meteors an hour during peak activity.

The 2010 Leonid meteor shower peaks the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 17. While the annual shower has been spectacular in the past, this year's half-full moon will obstruct viewing for most backyard astronomers.

If you're viewing in dark conditions, the best viewing time will be after midnight, in the hours just before dawn. At most, expect to see approximately 15 meteors per hour.

Whether you're watching from a downtown area or the dark countryside, here are some tips to help you enjoy these celestial shows of shooting stars. Those streaks of light are really caused by tiny specks of comet-stuff hitting Earth's atmosphere at very high speed and disintegrating in flashes of light.

First a word about the moon - it is not the meteor watcher's friend. Light reflecting off a bright moon can be just as detrimental to good meteor viewing as those bright lights of the big city. There is nothing you can do except howl at the moon, so you'll have to put up with it or wait until the next favorable shower. However, even though the 2010 Perseids and Geminids share the night sky with the moon, they are still expected to produce more visible meteor activity than other major showers that don't have an interfering moon.

The best thing you can do to maximize the number of meteors you'll see is to get as far away from urban light pollution as possible and find a location with a clear, unclouded view of the night sky. If you enjoy camping, try planning a trip that coincides with dates of one of the meteor showers listed below. Once you get to your viewing location, search for the darkest patch of sky you can find, as meteors can appear anywhere overhead. The meteors will always travel in a path away from the constellation for which the shower is named. This apparent point of origin is called the "radiant." For example, meteors during a Leonid meteor shower will appear to originate from the constellation Leo. (Note: the constellation only serves as a helpful guide in the night's sky. The constellation is not the actual source of the meteors. For an overview of what causes meteor showers click on Meteor Showers: Shooting for Shooting Stars)

Whether viewing from your front porch or a mountaintop, be sure to dress for success. This means clothing appropriate for cold overnight temperatures, which might include mittens or gloves, and blankets. This will enable you to settle in without having to abandon the meteor-watching because your fingers are starting to turn colors.

Next, bring something comfortable on which to sit or lie down. While Mother Nature can put on a magnificent celestial display, meteor showers rarely approach anything on the scale of a July 4th fireworks show. Plan to be patient and watch for at least half an hour. A reclining chair or ground pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky.

Lastly, put away the telescope or binoculars. Using either reduces the amount of sky you can see at one time, lowering the odds that you'll see anything but darkness. Instead, let your eyes hang loose and don't look in any one specific spot. Relaxed eyes will quickly zone in on any movement up above, and you'll be able to spot more meteors. Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light. Both destroy night vision. If you have to look at something on Earth, use a red light. Some flashlights have handy interchangeable filters. If you don't have one of those, you can always paint the clear filter with red fingernail polish.

The meteor showers listed below will provide casual meteor observers with the most bang for their buck. They are the easiest to observe and most active. All these showers are best enjoyed in the hours after midnight. Be sure to also check the "Related Links" box for additional information, and for tools to help you determine how many meteors may be visible from your part of the world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rocks and Stars with Amy: This Asteroid Inspected by #32

Over the course of the nine months we’ve been operating WISE, we’ve observed over 150,000 asteroids and comets of all different types. We had to pick all of these moving objects out of the hundreds of millions of sources observed all over the sky — so you can imagine that sifting through all those stars and galaxies to find the asteroids is not easy!

We use a lot of techniques to figure out how to distinguish an asteroid from a star or galaxy. Even though just about everything in the universe moves, asteroids are a whole lot closer to us than your average star (and certainly your average galaxy), so they appear to move from place to place in the WISE images over a timescale of minutes, unlike the much more distant stars. It’s almost like watching a pack of cyclists go by in the Tour de France. Also, WISE takes infrared images, which means that cooler objects like asteroids look different than the hotter stars. If you look at the picture below, you can see that the stars appear bright blue, whereas the sole asteroid in the frame appears red. That’s because the asteroid is about room temperature and is therefore much colder than the stars, which are thousands of degrees. Cooler objects will give off more of their light at longer, infrared wavelengths that our WISE telescope sees. We can use both of these unique properties of asteroids — their motion and their bright infrared signatures — to tease them out of the bazillions of stars and galaxies in the WISE images.

Thanks to the efforts of some smart scientists and software engineers, we have a very slick program that automatically searches the images for anything that moves at the longer, infrared wavelengths. With WISE, we take about a dozen or so images of each part of the sky over a couple of days. The system works by throwing out everything that appears again and again in each exposure. What’s left are just the so-called transient sources, the things that don’t stay the same between snapshots. Most of these are cosmic rays — charged particles zooming through space that are either spat out by our sun or burped up from other high-energy processes like supernovae or stars falling into black holes. These cosmic rays hit our detectors, leaving a blip that appears for just a single exposure. Also, really bright objects can leave an after-image on the detectors that can persist for many minutes, just like when you stare at a light bulb and then close your eyes. We have to weed the real asteroid detections out from the cosmic rays and after-images.

The data pipeline is smart enough to catch most of these artifacts and figure out what the real moving objects are. However, if it’s a new asteroid that no one has ever seen before, we have to have a human inspect the set of images and make sure that it’s not just a collection of artifacts that happened to show up at the right place and right time. About 20 percent of the asteroids that we observe appear to be new, and we examine those using a program that we call our quality assurance (QA) system, which lets us rapidly sift through hundreds of candidate asteroids to make sure they’re real. The QA system pops up a set of images of the candidate asteroid, along with a bunch of “before” and “after” images of the same part of the sky. This lets us eliminate any stars that might have been confused for the asteroids. Finally, since the WISE camera takes a picture every 11 seconds, we take a look at the exposures taken immediately before the ones with the candidate asteroid — if the source is really just an after-image persisting after we’ve looked at something bright, it will be there in the previous frame. We’ve had many students — three college students and two very talented high school students — work on asteroid QA. They’ve become real pros at inspecting asteroid candidates!

Meanwhile, the hunt continues — we’re still trekking along through the sky with the two shortest-wavelength infrared bands, now that we’ve run out of the super-cold hydrogen that was keeping two of the four detectors operating. Even though our sensitivity is lower, we’re still observing asteroids and looking for interesting things like nearby brown dwarfs (stars too cold to shine in visible light because they can’t sustain nuclear fusion). Our dedicated team of asteroid inspectors keeps plugging away, keeping the quality of the detections very high so that we leave the best possible legacy when our little telescope’s journey is finally done.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cassini Sees Saturn on a Cosmic Dimmer Switch

Like a cosmic lightbulb on a dimmer switch, Saturn emitted gradually less energy each year from 2005 to 2009, according to observations by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. But unlike an ordinary bulb, Saturn's southern hemisphere consistently emitted more energy than its northern one. On top of that, energy levels changed with the seasons and differed from the last time a spacecraft visited Saturn in the early 1980s. These never-before-seen trends came from a detailed analysis of long-term data from the composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS), an instrument built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as well as a comparison with earlier data from NASA's Voyager spacecraft. When combined with information about the energy coming to Saturn from the sun, the results could help scientists understand the nature of Saturn's internal heat source.

"The fact that Saturn actually emits more than twice the energy it absorbs from the sun has been a puzzle for many decades now," said Kevin Baines, a Cassini team scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and a co-author on a new paper about Saturn's energy output. "What generates that extra energy? This paper represents the first step in that analysis."

The research, reported this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets, was led by Liming Li of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. (now at the University of Houston).

"The Cassini CIRS data are very valuable because they give us a nearly complete picture of Saturn," Li said. "This is the only single data set that provides so much information about this planet, and it's the first time that anybody has been able to study the power emitted by one of the giant planets in such detail."

The planets in our solar system lose energy in the form of heat radiation in wavelengths that are invisible to the human eye. The CIRS instrument picks up wavelengths in the thermal infrared region, far enough beyond red light where the wavelengths correspond to heat emission.

"In planetary science, we tend to think of planets as losing power evenly in all directions and at a steady rate," Li said. "Now we know Saturn is not doing that." (Power is the amount of energy emitted per unit of time.)

Instead, Saturn's flow of outgoing energy was lopsided, with its southern hemisphere giving off about one-sixth more energy than the northern one, Li explains. This effect matched Saturn's seasons: during those five Earth-years, it was summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern one. (A season on Saturn lasts about seven Earth-years.) Like Earth, Saturn has these seasons because the planet is tilted on its axis, so one hemisphere receives more energy from the sun and experiences summer, while the other receives less energy and is shrouded in winter. Saturn's equinox, when the sun was directly over the equator, occurred in August 2009.

In the study, Saturn's seasons looked Earth-like in another way: in each hemisphere, its effective temperature, which characterizes its thermal emission to space, started to warm up or cool down as a change of season approached. The effective temperature provides a simple way to track the response of Saturn's atmosphere to the seasonal changes, which is complicated because Saturn's weather is variable and the atmosphere tends to retain heat. Cassini's observations revealed that the effective temperature in the northern hemisphere gradually dropped from 2005 to 2008 and started to warm up again by 2009. In the southern hemisphere, the effective temperature cooled from 2005 to 2009.

The emitted energy for each hemisphere rose and fell along with the effective temperature. Even so, during this five-year period, the planet as a whole seemed to be slowly cooling down and emitting less energy.

To find out if similar changes were happening one Saturn-year ago, the researchers looked at data collected by the Voyager spacecraft in 1980 and 1981 and did not see the imbalance between the southern and northern hemispheres. Instead, the two regions were much more consistent with each other.

Why wouldn't Voyager have seen the same summer-versus-winter difference between the two hemispheres? One explanation is that cloud patterns at depth could have fluctuated, blocking and scattering infrared light differently.

"It's reasonable to think that the changes in Saturn's emitted power are related to cloud cover," says Amy Simon-Miller, who heads the Planetary Systems Laboratory at Goddard and is a co-author on the paper. "As the amount of cloud cover changes, the amount of radiation escaping into space also changes. This might vary during a single season and from one Saturn-year to another. But to fully understand what is happening on Saturn, we will need the other half of the picture: the amount of power being absorbed by the planet."

Scientists will be doing that as a next step by comparing the instrument's findings to data obtained by Cassini's imaging cameras and infrared mapping spectrometer instrument. The spectrometer, in particular, measures the amount of sunlight reflected by Saturn. Because scientists know the total amount of solar energy delivered to Saturn, they can derive the amount of sunlight absorbed by the planet and discern how much heat the planet itself is emitting. These calculations help scientists tackle what the actual source of that warming might be and whether it changes.

Better understanding Saturn's internal heat flow "will significantly deepen our understanding of the weather, internal structure and evolution of Saturn and the other giant planets," Li said.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The composite infrared spectrometer team is based at NASA Goddard, where the instrument was built.

More Cassini information is available at and .

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In the well known Pleiades star cluster, starlight is slowly destroying this wandering cloud of gas and dust. The star Merope lies just off the upper

In the well known Pleiades star cluster, starlight is slowly destroying this wandering cloud of gas and dust. The star Merope lies just off the upper left edge of this picture from the Hubble Space Telescope. In the past 100,000 years, part of the cloud has by chance moved so close to this star--only 3,500 times the Earth-Sun distance--that the starlight itself is having a very dramatic effect. Pressure of the star's light significantly repels the dust in the reflection nebula, and smaller dust particles are repelled more strongly. As a result, parts of the dust cloud have become stratified, pointing toward Merope. The closest particles are the most massive and the least affected by the radiation pressure. A longer-term result will be the general destruction of the dust by the energetic starlight.

In the well known Pleiades star cluster, starlight is slowly destroying this wandering cloud of gas and dust. The star Merope lies just off the upper

In the well known Pleiades star cluster, starlight is slowly destroying this wandering cloud of gas and dust. The star Merope lies just off the upper left edge of this picture from the Hubble Space Telescope. In the past 100,000 years, part of the cloud has by chance moved so close to this star--only 3,500 times the Earth-Sun distance--that the starlight itself is having a very dramatic effect. Pressure of the star's light significantly repels the dust in the reflection nebula, and smaller dust particles are repelled more strongly. As a result, parts of the dust cloud have become stratified, pointing toward Merope. The closest particles are the most massive and the least affected by the radiation pressure. A longer-term result will be the general destruction of the dust by the energetic starlight.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Dark Reflections in the Southern Cross

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, captured this colorful image of the reflection nebula IRAS 12116-6001. This cloud of interstellar dust cannot be seen directly in visible light, but WISE's detectors observed the nebula at infrared wavelengths.

In images of reflection nebulae taken with visible light, clouds of dust reflect the light of nearby stars. The dust is warmed to relatively cool temperatures by the starlight and glows with infrared light, which WISE can detect. Reflection nebulae are of interest to astronomers because they are often the sites of new star formation.

The bright blue star on the right side of the image is the variable star Epsilon Crucis. In the Bayer system of stellar nomenclature, stars are given names based on their relative brightness within a constellation. The Greek alphabet is used to designate the star's apparent brightness compared to other stars in the same constellation. "Alpha" is the brightest star in the constellation, "beta" the second brightest, and so on. In this case, "epsilon" is the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, so Epsilon Crucis is the fifth brightest star in the constellation Crux.

Crux is a well-known constellation that can be easily seen by observers in the Southern Hemisphere and from low northern latitudes. Also known as the Southern Cross, Crux is featured in many country's flags, including Australia, Brazil and New Zealand (although New Zealand's flag does not include Epsilon Crucis).

The colors used in this image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light. The blue color of Epsilon Crucis represents light emitted at 3.4 and 4.6 microns. The green-colored star seen beside Epsilon Crucis is emitting light at 12 microns. This star is IRAS 12194-6007, a carbon star that is near the end of its lifecycle. Since the infrared wavelengths emitted by this star are longer than those from Epsilon Crucis, it is cooler. The green and red colors seen in the reflection nebula represent 12- and 22-micron light coming from the nebula's dust grains warmed by nearby stars.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

[VIDEO] “Indonesia Tsunami 2010″

A major earthquake has struck off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island, but there are no immediate reports of damage or casualties.amage or casualties.

Earthquake off Indonesia's Aceh triggers tsunami alert

An earthquake of magnitude 7.4 has struck offshore near the Indonesian island of Sumatra, near Aceh province.

The quake struck 214km (133 miles) south of Aceh's capital of Banda Aceh, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said.

A local tsunami alert was issued and later lifted by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

The site is very near that of 2004's 9.2 magnitude earthquake. About 220,000 people were killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami the quake triggered.

The epicentre of the latest quake was at a depth of 61.4km, about 66km (41 miles) south-west of Meulaboh district, the USGS said.

The district, and other parts of Aceh, were devastated in the 26 December 2004 earthquake.

Ring of Fire

The quake hit at 1259 (0559 GMT). Local media reported some houses were damaged and power lines knocked down, Associated Press news agency said.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center lifted its tsunami watch several hours after the earthquake.

"Sea level readings indicate that a significant tsunami was not generated," the Hawaii-based centre said in a statement on its website.

"Therefore, the tsunami watch issued by this center is now cancelled."

The USGS earlier said it believed there was no threat of a destructive, widespread tsunami but the possibility of a local tsunami existed.

Indonesia is located on the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire, a belt of tectonic activity girdling the Pacific Ocean that triggers earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Aceh is on the north-western tip of Sumatra, one of Indonesia's main islands, and is frequently rocked by earthquakes.

One last year near Padang in West Sumatra province killed more than 1,000 people.

About 170,000 people were killed in Aceh from the 2004 earthquake and the tsunami it launched.

The waves spread across the Indian Ocean to cause death and destruction as far away as Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lunar Impact May Impact Lunar Science For Years To Come

The lunar rocks brought back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts were found to have very little water, and were much drier than rocks on Earth. An explanation for this was that the moon formed billions of years ago in the solar system's turbulent youth, when a Mars-sized planet crashed into Earth. The impact stripped away our planet's outer layer, sending it into orbit. The pieces later coalesced under their own gravity to form our moon. Heat from all this mayhem vaporized most of the water in the lunar material, so the water was lost to space.

However, there was still a chance that water might be found in special places on the moon. Due to the moon's orientation to the sun, scientists theorized that deep craters at the lunar poles would be in permanent shadow and thus extremely cold and able to trap volatile material, like water as ice perhaps delivered there by comet impacts or chemical reactions with hydrogen carried by the solar wind.

In October 9, 2009, NASA's LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) was intentionally crashed into the Cabeus crater near the lunar south pole. The idea was to kick up debris from the bottom of the crater so its composition could be analyzed. LCROSS hit at over 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles) per hour, sending up a plume of material over 19 kilometers (12 miles) high.

"Seeing mostly pure water ice grains in the plume means water ice was somehow delivered or chemical processes are causing ice to accumulate in large quantities," said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "Furthermore, the diversity and abundance of certain materials called volatiles in the plume, suggest a variety of sources, like comets and asteroids, and an active water cycle within the lunar shadows."

LCROSS was a companion mission to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission. The two missions were designed to work together, and support from LRO was critical to the success of LCROSS. During impact, LRO, which is normally looking at the lunar surface, was tilted toward the horizon so it could observe the plume. Shortly after LCROSS hit the moon, LRO flew past debris and gas from the impact while its instruments collected data.

"LRO assisted LCROSS in two primary ways - selecting the impact site and confirming the LCROSS observations," said Gordon Chin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., LRO associate project scientist.

"Since observatories on Earth were also planning to view the LCROSS impact, there were a lot of constraints on the location - the impact plume had to rise out of the crater and into sunlight, and it had to be visible from Earth," said Chin.

"Originally, the LCROSS team was going with a site farther north than the Cabeus crater, because it was better for Earth visibility," said Chin. "However, LEND revealed that the area did not have a high hydrogen concentration, but Cabeus did. Also, Diviner showed that Cabeus was one of the coldest sites, and LOLA indicated it was in permanent shadow. So, we were able to influence the decision to aim for Cabeus farther south -- while it was a little less visible from Earth, Cabeus was ultimately better for what we were trying to find."

The Diviner instrument aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was built and is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Temperature maps from LRO's Diviner instrument were also crucial to identify where the coldest places were.

David Paige, principal investigator of the Diviner instrument from the University of California, Los Angeles, used temperature measurements of the lunar south pole obtained by Diviner to model the stability of water ice both at and near the surface.

"The temperatures inside these permanently shadowed craters are even colder than we had expected. Our model results indicate that in these extreme cold conditions, surface deposits of water ice would almost certainly be stable," said Paige, "but perhaps more significantly, these areas are surrounded by much larger permafrost regions where ice could be stable just beneath the surface."

"We conclude that large areas of the lunar south pole are cold enough to trap not only water ice, but other volatile compounds (substances with low boiling points) such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, ammonia, methanol, mercury and sodium," Paige added.

A UCLA graduate student and Diviner team member, Paul Hayne, was monitoring the data in real-time as it was sent back from Diviner.

"During the flyby 90 seconds after impact, all seven of Diviner's infrared channels measured an enhanced thermal signal from the crater. The more sensitive of its two solar channels also measured the thermal signal, along with reflected sunlight from the impact plume. Two hours later, the three longest wavelength channels picked up the signal, and after four hours only one channel detected anything above the background temperature."

Scientists were able to learn two things from these measurements: first, they were able to constrain the mass of material that was ejected outwards into space from the impact crater; second, they were able to infer the initial temperature and make estimates about the effects of ice in the soil on the observed cooling behavior.

Another LRO instrument, the Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP), used data on the gas cloud to confirm the presence of the gases molecular hydrogen, carbon monoxide and atomic mercury, along with smaller amounts of calcium and magnesium, also in gas form.

"We had hints from Apollo soils and models that the volatiles we see in the impact plume have been long collecting near the moon's polar regions," said Randy Gladstone, LAMP acting principal investigator, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "Now we have confirmation."

"The detection of mercury in the soil was the biggest surprise, especially that it's in about the same abundance as the water detected by LCROSS," said Kurt Retherford, LAMP team member, also of Southwest Research Institute.

"The observations by the suite of LRO and LCROSS instruments demonstrate the moon has a complex environment that experiences intriguing chemical processes," said Richard Vondrak, LRO project scientist at NASA Goddard. "This knowledge can open doors to new areas of research and exploration."

LCROSS launched with LRO aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on June 18, 2009.

The research was funded by NASA's Exploration Systems Missions Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. LRO was built and is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. LCROSS is managed by NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. LAMP was developed by the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas; LOLA was built by NASA Goddard; LROC was provided by Arizona State University, Tempe; LEND was provided by Institute for Space Research, Moscow; The Diviner instrument was built and is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. UCLA is the home institution of Diviner's principal investigator.

For more information on Diviner, visit:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taking On Water Resource Issues

Worldwide today, it is estimated that nearly 1.1 billion people live without access to adequate water supplies and about 2.6 billion people lack adequate water sanitation. Improved understanding of water processes at global and regional scales is essential for sustainability.

Researchers at JPL recently launched the Western Water Resource Solutions website to highlight activities that apply NASA expertise and data to water resource issues in the western United States.

One focus area for this new site is the hydrologic cycle and using global satellite observations of the Earth to improve our understanding of water processes on a regional and local level. The western United States is expected to bear the brunt of impacts to water resource availability because of changing precipitation patterns, increasing temperatures, and a growing population. California is already starting to feel the impacts and is taking action to develop new adaptive management practices to ensure a safe and reliable water supply, while maintaining healthy ecosystems throughout the state.

NASA researchers at Ames Research Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Marshall Space Flight Center are currently working with water managers to apply NASA expertise and data to water resource issues in California. The project partners with universities, agencies and other stakeholders, to utilize information from a number of sources, including existing ground observations and models.

This project is only one of several NASA initiatives aimed at providing actionable scientific information on water quality and the water balance worldwide. These other projects include development of better estimates of snow pack, groundwater monitoring, soil moisture and evapotranspiration, water quality, and monitoring fragile levee systems.

In addition to raising awareness about current water resource challenges, the new website highlights NASA’s capability to use satellite and airborne data to help solve some of these challenges.

Learn more about the Western Water Resource Solution Group at:

Friday, October 15, 2010

NASA Study of Haiti Quake Yields Surprising Results

The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that caused more than 200,000 casualties and devastated Haiti's economy in January resulted not from the Enriquillo fault, as previously believed, but from slip on multiple faults -- primarily a previously unknown, subsurface fault -- according to a study published online this week in Nature Geoscience.

In addition, because the earthquake did not involve slip near Earth's surface, the study suggests that it did not release all of the strain that has built up on faults in the area over the past two centuries, meaning that future surface-rupturing earthquakes in this region are likely.

Geophysicist Eric Fielding of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., along with lead author Gavin Hayes of the U.S. Geological Survey and other colleagues from USGS, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the University of Texas at Austin, and Nagoya University, Japan, used a combination of seismological observations, geologic field data and satellite geodetic measurements to analyze the earthquake source. Initially the Haiti earthquake was thought to be the consequence of movement along a single fault -- the Enriquillo -- that accommodates the motion between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. But scientists in the field found no evidence of surface rupture on that fault.

The researchers found the pattern of surface deformation was dominated by movement on a previously unknown, subsurface thrust fault, named the Léogâne fault, which did not rupture the surface.

Fielding, who processed synthetic aperture radar interferometry data from a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) satellite used in the study, said, "I was surprised when I saw the satellite data showed the Haiti earthquake must have ruptured a different fault than the major Enriquillo fault, which everybody expected was the source. Without the radar images, we might still be wondering what happened."

Fielding said NASA images acquired after the earthquake over the major fault zones of Hispaniola by the JPL-built Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) airborne instrument will give scientists much more detailed information should another large earthquake occur in the region in the future.

For more information, read the USGS news release: .
To read the full study, visit: .

For more on UAVSAR, see: .

STS-133 Crew Begins Dress Rehearsal

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, STS-133 Commander Steve Lindsey speaks to the media gathered at the Shuttle Landing Facility. From left are Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt, Eric Boe, Tim Kopra and Alvin Drew. The crew is gathered for a practice launch dress rehearsal called the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT) in preparation for the upcoming mission. TCDT provides each shuttle crew and launch team with an opportunity to participate in various simulated countdown activities, including equipment familiarization and emergency training. Space shuttle Discovery and its STS-133 crew will deliver the Permanent Multipurpose Module, packed with supplies and critical spare parts, as well as Robonaut 2, the dexterous humanoid astronaut helper, to the International Space Station. Launch is targeted for Nov. 1 at 4:40 p.m.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cassini Catches Saturn Moons in Paintball Fight

PASADENA, Calif. – Scientists using data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft have learned that distinctive, colorful bands and splotches embellish the surfaces of Saturn's inner, mid-size moons. The reddish and bluish hues on the icy surfaces of Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione and Rhea appear to be the aftermath of bombardments large and small.

A paper based on the findings was recently published online in the journal Icarus. In it, scientists describe prominent global patterns that trace the trade routes for material exchange between the moons themselves, an outer ring of Saturn known as the E ring and the planet's magnetic environment. The finding may explain the mysterious Pac-Man thermal pattern on Mimas, found earlier this year by Cassini scientists, said lead author Paul Schenk, who was funded by a Cassini data analysis program grant and is based at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

"The beauty of it all is how the satellites behave as a family, recording similar processes and events on their surfaces, each in its own unique way," Schenk said. "I don't think anyone expected that electrons would leave such obvious fingerprints on planetary surfaces, but we see it on several moons, including Mimas, which was once thought to be rather bland."

Schenk and colleagues processed raw images obtained by Cassini's imaging cameras from 2004 to 2009 to produce new, high-resolution global color maps of these five moons. The new maps used camera frames shot through visible-light, ultraviolet and infrared filters which were processed to enhance our views of these moons beyond what could be seen by the human eye.

The new images are available at and .

"The richness of the Cassini data set – visible images, infrared images, ultraviolet images, measurements of the radiation belts – is such that we can finally 'paint a picture' as to how the satellites themselves are 'painted,'" said William B. McKinnon, one of six co-authors on the paper. McKinnon is based at Washington University in St. Louis and was also funded by the Cassini data analysis program.

Icy material sprayed by Enceladus, which makes up the misty E ring, appears to leave a brighter, blue signature. The pattern of bluish material on Enceladus, for example, indicates that the moon is covered by the fallback of its own "breath."

Enceladean spray also appears to splatter the parts of Tethys, Dione and Rhea that run into the spray head-on in their orbits around Saturn. But scientists are still puzzling over why the Enceladean frost on the leading hemisphere of these moons bears a coral-colored, rather than bluish, tint.

On Tethys, Dione and Rhea, darker, rust-colored, reddish hues paint the entire trailing hemisphere, or the side that faces backward in the orbit around Saturn. The reddish hues are thought to be caused by tiny particle strikes from circulating plasma, a gas-like state of matter so hot that atoms split into an ion and an electron, in Saturn's magnetic environment. Tiny, iron-rich "nanoparticles" may also be involved, based on earlier analyses by the Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team.

Mimas is also touched by the tint of Enceladean spray, but it appears on the trailing side of Mimas. This probably occurs because it orbits inside the path of Enceladus, or closer to Saturn, than Tethys, Dione and Rhea.

In addition, Mimas and Tethys sport a dark, bluish band. The bands match patterns one might expect if the surface were being irradiated by high-energy electrons that drift in a direction opposite to the flow of plasma in the magnetic bubble around Saturn. Scientists are still figuring out exactly what is happening, but the electrons appear to be zapping the Mimas surface in a way that matches the Pac-Man thermal pattern detected by Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer, Schenk said.

Schenk and colleagues also found a unique chain of bluish splotches along the equator of Rhea that re-open the question of whether Rhea ever had a ring around it. The splotches do not seem related to Enceladus, but rather appear where fresh, bluish ice has been exposed on older crater rims. Though Cassini imaging scientists recently reported that they did not see evidence in Cassini images of a ring around Rhea, the authors of this paper suggest the crash of orbiting material, perhaps a ring, to the surface of Rhea in the not-too-distant past could explain the bluish splotches.

"Analyzing the image color ratios is a great way to really enhance the otherwise subtle color variations and make apparent some of the processes at play in the Saturn system," said Amanda Hendrix, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The Cassini images highlight the importance and potential effects of so-called 'space weathering' that occurs throughout the solar system – on any surface that isn't protected by a thick atmosphere or magnetic field."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Spiral Extraordinaire

Scientists have yet to discover what caused the strange spiral structure. Nor do they know why it glows. The glow may be caused by light reflected from nearby stars. As for the spiral itself, current supposition is that this is the result of a star in a binary star system entering the planetary nebula phase, when its outer atmosphere is ejected. Given the expansion rate of the spiral gas, a new layer must appear about every 800 years, a close match to the time it takes for the two stars to orbit each other. The above image was taken in near-infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Observe the Moon

This photograph shows the Laser Ranging Facility at the Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The observatory helps NASA keep track of orbiting satellites. In this image, the lower of the two green beams is from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's dedicated tracker. The other laser originates from another ground system at the facility. Both beams are pointed at the moon -- specifically at LRO in orbit around the moon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Cassini Gazes at Veiled Titan

NASA's Cassini spacecraft will swing high over Saturn's moon Titan on Friday, Sept. 24, taking a long, sustained look at the hazy moon. At closest approach, Cassini will fly within 8,175 kilometers (5,080 miles) above the hazy moon's surface. This flyby is the first in a series of high-altitude Titan flybys for Cassini over the next year and a half.

Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer instrument will be probing Titan's stratosphere to learn more about its vertical structure as the seasons change. Equinox, when the sun shone directly over the equator, occurred in August 2009, and the northern hemisphere is now in spring.

Another instrument, the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, will be mapping an equatorial region known as Belet at a resolution of 5 kilometers (3 miles) per pixel. This mosaic will complement the mosaics that were obtained in earlier Titan flybys in January and April. This spectrometer will also look for clouds at northern mid-latitudes and near the poles.

Cassin's visible-light imaging cameras will also be taking images of Titan's trailing hemisphere, or the side that faces backward as Titan orbits around Saturn. If Titan cooperates and has a cloudy day, scientists plan to analyze the images for cloud patterns.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Move Over Caravaggio: Cassini's Light and Dark Moons

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has returned Saturnian moon images from its flyby late last week, revealing light and dark contrasts worthy of chiaroscuro painters like Caravaggio.
The flyby on August 13 targeted the geyser moon Enceladus, but also brought Cassini close to two other moons--Tethys and Dione.
The raw images include the best ones to date of Penelope crater on the icy moon Tethys . Penelope crater, which is 150 kilometers (90 miles) wide, is the second-largest crater on Tethys.
Cassini was also able to obtain a portrait of Enceladus over the bright arc of Saturn's atmosphere and a moody still life of one of the "tiger stripe" fissures at the Enceladus south polar region on the cusp of darkness . This particular "tiger stripe" -- which is the nickname for the fissures spewing water vapor and organic particles out into space - is called Damascus Sulcus. It was also the subject of a heat scan by Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer. Scientists are still analyzing the results.
Images of Dione highlight the moon's battered surface .
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
More raw images from the Enceladus flyby, dubbed "E11," are available at:
More information about the Cassini-Huygens mission is at: and .

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fermi Detects 'Shocking' Surprise from Supernova's Little Cousin

Astronomers using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected gamma-rays from a nova for the first time, a finding that stunned observers and theorists alike. The discovery overturns the notion that novae explosions lack the power to emit such high-energy radiation.

A nova is a sudden, short-lived brightening of an otherwise inconspicuous star. The outburst occurs when a white dwarf in a binary system erupts in an enormous thermonuclear explosion.

"In human terms, this was an immensely powerful eruption, equivalent to about 1,000 times the energy emitted by the sun every year," said Elizabeth Hays, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "But compared to other cosmic events Fermi sees, it was quite modest. We're amazed that Fermi detected it so strongly."

Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light, and Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) detected the nova for 15 days. Scientists believe the emission arose as a million-mile-per-hour shock wave raced from the site of the explosion.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Juno Armored Up to Go to Jupiter

NASA's Juno spacecraft will be forging ahead into a treacherous environment at Jupiter with more radiation than any other place NASA has ever sent a spacecraft, except the sun. In a specially filtered cleanroom in Denver, where Juno is being assembled, engineers recently added a unique protective shield around its sensitive electronics. New pictures of the assembly were released today.
"Juno is basically an armored tank going to Jupiter," said Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator, based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "Without its protective shield, or radiation vault, Juno's brain would get fried on the very first pass near Jupiter."
An invisible force field filled with high-energy particles coming off from Jupiter and its moons surrounds the largest planet in our solar system. This magnetic force field, similar to a less powerful one around Earth, shields Jupiter from charged particles flying off the sun. The electrons, protons and ions around Jupiter are energized by the planet's super-fast rotation, sped up to nearly the speed of light.

Jupiter's radiation belts are shaped like a huge doughnut around the planet's equatorial region and extend out past the moon Europa, about 650,000 kilometers (400,000 miles) out from the top of Jupiter's clouds.
"For the 15 months Juno orbits Jupiter, the spacecraft will have to withstand the equivalent of more than 100 million dental X-rays," said Bill McAlpine, Juno's radiation control manager, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "In the same way human beings need to protect their organs during an X-ray exam, we have to protect Juno's brain and heart."
The strategy? Give Juno a kind of six-sided lead apron on steroids.
With guidance from JPL and the principal investigator, engineers at Lockheed Martin Space Systems designed and built a special radiation vault made of titanium for a centralized electronics hub. While other materials exist that make good radiation blockers, engineers chose titanium because lead is too soft to withstand the vibrations of launch, and some other materials were too difficult to work with.
Each titanium wall measures nearly a square meter (nearly 9 square feet) in area, about 1 centimeter (a third of an inch) in thickness, and 18 kilograms (40 pounds) in mass. This titanium box -- about the size of an SUV's trunk – encloses Juno's command and data handling box (the spacecraft's brain), power and data distribution unit (its heart) and about 20 other electronic assemblies. The whole vault weighs about 200 kilograms (500 pounds).
The vault is not designed to completely prevent every Jovian electron, ion or proton from hitting the system, but it will dramatically slow down the aging effect radiation has on electronics for the duration of the mission.
"The centralized radiation vault is the first of its kind," Bolton said. "We basically designed it from the ground up."
When NASA's Galileo spacecraft visited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003, its electronics were shielded by special components designed to be resistant to radiation. Galileo also didn't need to survive the harshest radiation regions, where Juno will operate.
But Juno isn't relying solely on the radiation vault. Scientists designed a path that takes Juno around Jupiter's poles, spending as little time as possible in the sizzling radiation belts around Jupiter's equator. Engineers also used designs for electronics already approved for the Martian radiation environment, which is harsher than Earth's, though not as harsh as Jupiter's. Parts of the electronics were made from tantalum, or tungsten, another radiation-resistant metal. Some assemblies also have their own mini-vaults for protection.
Packing the assemblies next to each other allows them to shield their neighbors. In addition, engineers wrapped copper and stainless steel braids like chain mail around wires connecting the electronics to other parts of the spacecraft.
JPL tested pieces of the vault in a radiation environment similar to Jupiter's to make sure the design will be able to handle the stress of space flight and the Jupiter environment, McAlpine said. In a special lead-lined testing tub there, they battered pieces of the spacecraft with gamma rays from radioactive cobalt pellets and analyzed the results for Juno's expedition.
The vault was lifted onto Juno's propulsion module on May 19 at Lockheed Martin's high-bay cleanroom. It will undergo further testing once the whole spacecraft is put together. The assembly and testing process, which also includes installing solar panels for the first-ever solar-powered mission to Jupiter, is expected to last through next spring. Juno is expected to launch in August 2011.
"The Juno assembly is proceeding well," said Tim Gasparrini, Lockheed Martin program manager. "We have a number of the flight and test unit spacecraft avionics components installed into the radiation vault for system testing and we have also just installed the first instrument, the microwave radiometer."
JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute at San Antonio, Texas. 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.
More information about Juno is online at .

Monday, July 19, 2010

See Beautiful Ontario Lacus: Cassini's Guided Tour

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

Several recent papers by scientists working with NASA's Cassini spacecraft describe evidence of beaches for sunbathing in Titan's low light, sheltered bays for mooring boats, and pretty deltas for wading out in the shallows. They also describe seasonal changes in the lake's size and depth, giving vacationers an opportunity to visit over and over without seeing the same lake twice.

With such frigid temperatures and meager sunlight, you wouldn't think Titan has a lot in common with our own Earth," said Steve Wall, deputy team lead for the Cassini radar team, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "But Titan continues to surprise us with activity and seasonal processes that look marvelously, eerily familiar."

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

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

Friday, July 16, 2010

NASA Sensor Completes Initial Gulf Oil Spill Flights

NASA's Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer instrument collected an image over the site of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil rig disaster on May 17, 2010. Crude oil on the surface appears orange to brown. Scientists are using spectroscopic methods to analyze measurements for each point in images like this one to detail the characteristics of the oil on the surface.

AVIRIS extensively mapped the region affected by the spill during 11 flights conducted between May 6 and May 25, 2010, at the request of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In total, AVIRIS measured more than 100,000 square kilometers of the national oil spill response. The instrument flew at altitudes of up to 19,800 meters aboard a NASA ER-2 aircraft from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.

Figure 1 depicts AVIRIS imaging spectrometer measurements along the Gulf coast to measure the characteristics and condition of the ecosystem and habitat prior to possible oil contamination and impact. The location is near Johnson's Bayou and along the Gulf Beach Highway, between Port Arthur, La., to the west and Cameron, La., to the east. The west corner of the image includes part of the Texas Point National Wildlife Refuge.

AVIRIS data provide scientists with many different types of information about the spill. Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey's Spectroscopy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., are working to determine the characteristics of the oil based upon the AVIRIS measured spectral signature.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

NASA Finds Super Hot Planet with Unique Comet-Like Tail

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of a baked object that could be called a "cometary planet." The gas giant planet, named HD 209458b, is orbiting so close to its star that its heated atmosphere is escaping into space.

Observations taken with Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph powerful stellar winds are sweeping the cast-off atmospheric material behind the scorched planet and shaping it into a comet-like tail.

"Since 2003 scientists have theorized the lost mass is being pushed back into a tail, and they have even calculated what it looks like," said astronomer Jeffrey Linsky of the University of Colorado in Boulder, leader of the COS study. "We think we have the best observational evidence to support that theory. We have measured gas coming off the planet at specific speeds, some coming toward Earth. The most likely interpretation is that we have measured the velocity of material in a tail."

The planet, located 153 light-years from Earth, weighs slightly less than Jupiter but orbits 100 times closer to its star than the Jovian giant. The roasted planet zips around its star in a short 3.5 days. In contrast, our solar system's fastest planet, Mercury, orbits the Sun in 88 days. The extrasolar planet is one of the most intensely scrutinized, because it is the first of the few known alien worlds that can be seen passing in front of, or transiting, its star.

Linsky and his team used COS to analyze the planet's atmosphere during transiting events. During a transit, astronomers study the structure and chemical makeup of a planet's atmosphere by sampling the starlight that passes through it. The dip in starlight because of the planet's passage, excluding the atmosphere, is very small, only about 1.5 percent. When the atmosphere is added, the dip jumps to 8 percent, indicating a bloated atmosphere.

COS detected the heavy elements carbon and silicon in the planet's super-hot, 2,000-degree-Fahrenheit atmosphere. This detection revealed the parent star is heating the entire atmosphere, dredging up the heavier elements and allowing them to escape the planet.

The COS data also showed the material leaving the planet was not all traveling at the same speed. "We found gas escaping at high velocities, with a large amount of this gas flowing toward us at 22,000 miles per hour," Linsky said. "This large gas flow is likely gas swept up by the stellar wind to form the comet-like tail trailing the planet."
The results appeared in the July 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

ISS Progress 38 Launches

As the Progress made its way to the orbiting complex Thursday, the Expedition 24 crew members made preparations for its arrival and worked with a variety of science experiments.

Commander Alexander Skvortsov and Flight Engineer Mikhail Kornienko had a conference with specialists on Earth to review docking procedures for the arrival of the Progress.

The Progress is scheduled to dock to the International Space Station using the automated Kurs docking system at 12:58 p.m. Friday.

To make room for the ISS Progress 38, the Expedition 24 crew relocated the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft from the aft end of the Zvezda service module to the Rassvet module Monday.

Flight Engineer Doug Wheelock worked with the VO2max experiment, which involves recording the oxygen intake of exercising crew members before, during and after their stays aboard the station to evaluate and document the changes in their aerobic capacity.

Flight Engineer Tracy Caldwell Dyson worked with the Coarsening in Solid-Liquid Mixtures-2 experiment, which studies the way that particles of tin suspended in a molten tin/lead mixture increase in size – a process known as coarsening – without the influence of the Earth’s gravity. This work has direct applications to metal alloy manufacturing on Earth, including materials critical for aerospace applications.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Earth to Lend Helping Hand to Comet Craft

Earth is a great place to pick up orbital velocity," said Tim Larson, the EPOXI project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This flyby will give our spacecraft a 1.5-kilometer-per-second [3,470 mph] boost, setting us up to get up close and personal with comet Hartley 2."

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

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