Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Runaway Star Plows Through Space

A massive star flung away from its former companion is plowing through space dust. The result is a brilliant bow shock, seen here as a yellow arc in a new image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

The star, named Zeta Ophiuchi, is huge, with a mass of about 20 times that of our sun. In this image, in which infrared light has been translated into visible colors we see with our eyes, the star appears as the blue dot inside the bow shock.

Zeta Ophiuchi once orbited around an even heftier star. But when that star exploded in a supernova, Zeta Ophiuchi shot away like a bullet. It's traveling at a whopping 54,000 miles per hour (or 24 kilometers per second), and heading toward the upper left area of the picture.

As the star tears through space, its powerful winds push gas and dust out of its way and into what is called a bow shock. The material in the bow shock is so compressed that it glows with infrared light that WISE can see. The effect is similar to what happens when a boat speeds through water, pushing a wave in front of it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Voyager Celebrates 25 Years Since Uranus Visit

As NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft made the only close approach to date of our mysterious seventh planet Uranus 25 years ago, Project Scientist Ed Stone and the Voyager team gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to pore over the data coming in.

Images of the small, icy Uranus moon Miranda were particularly surprising. Since small moons tend to cool and freeze over rapidly after their formation, scientists had expected a boring, ancient surface, pockmarked by crater-upon-weathered-crater. Instead they saw grooved terrain with linear valleys and ridges cutting through the older terrain and sometimes coming together in chevron shapes. They also saw dramatic fault scarps, or cliffs. All of this indicated that periods of tectonic and thermal activity had rocked Miranda's surface in the past.

The scientists were also shocked by data showing that Uranus's magnetic north and south poles were not closely aligned with the north-south axis of the planet's rotation. Instead, the planet's magnetic field poles were closer to the Uranian equator. This suggested that the material flows in the planet's interior that are generating the magnetic field are closer to the surface of Uranus than the flows inside Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are to their respective surfaces.

NASA’s Glory Mission Will Study Key Pieces of the Climate Puzzle

Earth’s climate continues to change at a rapid pace.

Last week, NASA announced that 2010 was tied as the warmest year on record. Likewise, the last decade was the warmest in the 130-year global temperature record maintained by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.

Meanwhile, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, engineers are preparing NASA’s next Earth-observing mission -- a satellite called Glory -- for launch in late February. The satellite, which contains two instruments that will monitor key parts of the climate system, aims to offer a new stream of data that climatologists will use as part of an ongoing effort to improve the accuracy of climate models.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Prepares for Valentine's Day Comet Rendezvous

NASA's Stardust-NExT spacecraft is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST), on Feb. 14. The mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet's surface that occurred following an orbit around the sun.

The Stardust-NExT, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma, or material surrounding the comet's nucleus. Data from the mission will provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA's Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft delivered an impactor to the surface of Tempel 1 to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater created by the impactor. This would be an added bonus to the huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cosmonauts to Perform 27th Russian Space Station Spacewalk

Two Russian cosmonauts will venture outside the International Space Station on Jan. 21 to complete installation of a new high-speed data transmission system, remove an old plasma pulse experiment, install a camera for the new Rassvet docking module and retrieve a materials exposure package.

Expedition 26 Flight Engineers Dmitry Kondratyev and Oleg Skripochka are scheduled to float outside the Pirs airlock at 9:20 a.m. EST to beg
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in the six-hour excursion. Both spacewalkers will wear Russian Orlan-MK spacesuits.

Kondratyev will be designated as Extravehicular 1 (EV1), with a red stripe on his suit, and Skripochka will be EV2, with a blue stripe on his suit. Skripochka also will wear a NASA-provided wireless television camera system and helmet lights to provide live point-of-view video to Mission Control-Moscow, which will provide ground support for the spacewalk. Mission Control-Houston will monitor the spacewalk as well.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Planck Mission Peels Back Layers of the Universe

The Planck mission released a new data catalogue Tuesday from initial maps of the entire sky. The catalogue includes thousands of never-before-seen dusty cocoons where stars are forming, and some of the most massive clusters of galaxies ever observed. Planck is a European Space Agency mission with significant contributions from NASA.

"NASA is pleased to support this important mission, and we have eagerly awaited Planck's first discoveries," said Jon Morse, NASA's Astrophysics Division director at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "We look forward to continued collaboration with ESA and more outstanding science to come."

Planck launched in May 2009 on a mission to detect light from just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, an explosive event at the dawn of the universe approximately 13.7 billion years ago. The spacecraft's state-of-the-art detectors ultimately will survey the whole sky at least four times, measuring the cosmic microwave background, or radiation left over from the Big Bang. The data will help scientists decipher clues about the evolution, fate and fabric of our universe. While these cosmology results won't be ready for another two years or so, early observations of specific objects in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as more distant galaxies, are being released.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

NASA'S Kepler Mission Discovers Its First Rocky Planet

NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

The discovery of this so-called exoplanet is based on more than eight months of data collected by the spacecraft from May 2009 to early January 2010.

"All of Kepler's best capabilities have converged to yield the first solid evidence of a rocky planet orbiting a star other than our sun," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler's deputy science team lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and primary author of a paper on the discovery accepted by the Astrophysical Journal. "The Kepler team made a commitment in 2010 about finding the telltale signatures of small planets in the data, and it's beginning to pay off."

Kepler's ultra-precise photometer measures the tiny decrease in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it. The size of the planet can be derived from these periodic dips in brightness. The distance between the planet and the star is calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

NASA Chat: The Quest for Planets

A new planet discovery will be announced Monday Jan. 10 during the 'Exoplanets & Their Host Stars' presentation at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Seattle, Washington.

Kepler is NASA's first mission to look specifically for Earth-size planets in the habitable zones (areas where liquid water could exist) around stars like our sun. Kepler will spend 3-1/2 years surveying more than 100,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy. More than 300 exoplanets have been discovered previously, most of which are low-density gas giants such as Jupiter or Saturn in our own solar system.

Natalie Batalha of the NASA Kepler Mission Team will be online answering your questions about this new planet finding on Monday, Jan. 10 from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST / 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. PST. Natalie will be chatting with you live from the conference in Seattle.

Friday, January 7, 2011

NASA Research Team Reveals Moon Has Earth-Like Core

State-of-the-art seismological techniques applied to Apollo-era data suggest our moon has a core similar to Earth's.

Uncovering details about the lunar core is critical for developing accurate models of the moon's formation. The data sheds light on the evolution of a lunar dynamo -- a natural process by which our moon may have generated and maintained its own strong magnetic field.

The team's findings suggest the moon possesses a solid, iron-rich inner core with a radius of nearly 150 miles and a fluid, primarily liquid-iron outer core with a radius of roughly 205 miles. Where it differs from Earth is a partially molten boundary layer around the core estimated to have a radius of nearly 300 miles. The research indicates the core contains a small percentage of light elements such as sulfur, echoing new seismology research on Earth that suggests the presence of light elements -- such as sulfur and oxygen -- in a layer around our own core.

The researchers used extensive data gathered during the Apollo-era moon missions. The Apollo Passive Seismic Experiment consisted of four seismometers deployed between 1969 and 1972, which recorded continuous lunar seismic activity until late-1977.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Andromeda is So Hot 'n' Cold

This mosaic of the Andromeda spiral galaxy highlights explosive stars in its interior, and cooler, dusty stars forming in its many rings. The image is a combination of observations from the Herschel Space Observatory taken in infrared light (seen in orange hues), and the XMM-Newton telescope captured in X-rays (seen in blues). NASA plays a role in both of these European Space Agency-led missions.

Herschel provides a detailed look at the cool clouds of star birth that line the galaxy's five concentric rings. Massive young stars are heating blankets of dust that surround them, causing them to glow in the longer-wavelength infrared light, known as far-infrared, that Herschel sees.

In contrast, XMM-Newton is capturing what happens at the end of the lives of massive stars. It shows the high-energy X-rays that come from, among other objects, supernova explosions and massive dead stars rotating around companions. These X-ray sources are clustered in the center of the galaxy, where the most massive stars tend to form.

Andromeda is our Milky Way galaxy's nearest large neighbor. It is located about 2.5 million light-years away and holds up to an estimated trillion stars. Our Milky Way is thought to contain about 200 billion to 400 billion stars.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Rover Will Spend 7th Birthday at Stadium-Size Crater

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured a Dec. 31, 2010, view of the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on the southwestern rim of a football-field-size crater called "Santa Maria."

Opportunity arrived at the western edge of Santa Maria crater in mid-December and will spend about two months investigating rocks there. That investigation will take Opportunity into the beginning of its eighth year on Mars. Opportunity landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time (Jan. 24, Pacific Time) for a mission originally planned to last for three months.