Friday, December 30, 2011

Will NASA’s Kepler find another Earth? Possibly in 2012 say scientists

It’s the question the entire scientific community is asking: Will NASA’s Kepler find another Earth, and how soon?

2011 was full of reports that astronomers are one step closer to discovering another habitable Earth-like planet outside of our own solar system. NASA earlier this year confirmed the discovery of the first-ever planet in a habitable zone outside our solar system. That planet is roughly twice the size of Earth. French astronomers earlier this year confirmed the first exoplanet to meet key requirements for sustaining life, and just last week NASA announced the discovery of the first two Earth-sized planets orbiting a sun-like star.

In September, Kepler scientists turned science fiction into reality when they announced the first observation of a planet with two suns — such as Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine in the “Star Wars” film series. Such planets are called “circumbinary” planets because they orbit a “binary pair” of stars. Until a few months ago, people only suspected two-star planets might exist.

The latest batch of discovery has left NASA clamoring for more. Speaking earlier this year, Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, said he expects NASA’s Kepler Telescope to discover a habitable planet within the coming year.

“Sooner or later, Kepler will find a lukewarm planet with a size making it probably Earthlike,” said Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re no more than a year away” from such a discovery, he said.

“We are finally there,” said David Charbonneau, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who is part of the team leading the Kepler mission, led by colleague Francois Fressin. “This demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars and that we can detect them,” Fressin said.

NASA officials announced earlier this year that the Kepler telescope, which has reportedly already discovered more than 2,000 new planet candidates, is nearly doubling its previously known count. Still, scientists said the space agency should focus on identifying which planets are most likely to maintain the environment necessary for water to exist, and, possibly, life.

Meanwhile, a number of scientists said the latest news is exciting in that Kepler’s batch of discoveries show a number of Earth-like planets exist outside of the Solar System. Astronomers says the number of discoveries in 2011 prove that Kepler can indeed find planets as small as our own, an encouraging sign that planet hunters would someday succeed in the goal of finding Earth-like abodes in the heavens. Since the first Jupiter-size exoplanets, as they are known, were discovered nearly 15 years ago, astronomers have been chipping away at the sky, finding smaller and smaller planets.

“The primary goal of the Kepler mission is to find Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature. “This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them.”

The Kepler science team uses ground-based telescopes and the Spitzer Space Telescope to review observations on planet candidates the spacecraft finds. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which candidates can be validated as planets.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.

The galaxy, which was discovered and confirmed using ground-based telescopes, is 12.9 billion light-years away. Data from Spitzer and Hubble were used to measure the galaxy’s high star production rate, equivalent to about 100 Suns per year. For reference, our Milky Way Galaxy is about five times larger and 100 times more massive than GN-108036, but makes roughly 30 times fewer stars per year.

“The discovery is surprising because previous surveys had not found galaxies this bright so early in the history of the universe,” said Mark Dickinson from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. “Perhaps those surveys were just too small to find galaxies like GN-108036. It may be a special, rare object that we just happened to catch during an extreme burst of star formation.”

The international team of astronomers, led by Masami Ouchi from the University of Tokyo, Japan, first identified the remote galaxy after scanning a large patch of sky with the Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Its great distance was then carefully confirmed with the W.M. Keck Observatory, also on Mauna Kea.

“We checked our results on three different occasions over two years, and each time confirmed the previous measurement,” said Yoshiaki Ono from the University of Tokyo.

GN-108036 lies near the beginning of time itself, a mere 750 million years after our universe was created 13.7 billion years ago in the “Big Bang.” Its light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach us, so we are seeing it as it existed in the distant past.

Astronomers refer to the object’s distance by a number called its “redshift,” which relates to how much of its light has stretched to longer, redder wavelengths due to the expansion of the universe.

Monday, December 19, 2011

NASA shuts doors, pulls plug on shuttle Discovery

NASA powered down the space shuttle Discovery for a final time Friday , more than 28 years after the agency's retired fleet leader first came alive. The vehicle was "unplugged" inside Orbiter Processing Facility-1 (OPF-1) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The electrical shutdown, which came soon after technicians closed the shuttle's twin 60-foot long payload bay doors, was a milestone in Discovery's transition from a space-worthy orbiter to a museum exhibit. The shuttle, the oldest of NASA's remaining orbiters, is destined for display next spring at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Discovery's cargo hold — which carried to orbit the Hubble Space Telescope and Ulysses solar probe along with modules for the International Space Station and more than a dozen satellites — was closed for what may be its last time. The Smithsonian plans to display the shuttle with its bay doors shut, at least initially.

The power down was much more permanent. Though Discovery's three electricity-generating fuel cells were reinstalled last week, they were first drained of all their reactants, and their feed lines were purged. Other than serving as an engineering example for researchers, they will never work again.

Since landing back on Earth after its 39th and final mission in March, Discovery has been carefully taken apart to preserve some of its components for future use while making the vehicle safe for public display. Its engines have been removed and replaced with replicas and its thrusters cleaned of their hazardous materials.

Inside its crew cabin, Discovery's waste collection system — otherwise known as its toilet — was removed, cleaned, and replaced, and its flight deck configured to appear ready for another mission, one that will never come. As with the fuel cells, the Smithsonian requested NASA keep Discovery as complete as possible so as to serve as a resource for future study.

Discovery is targeted to make one last flight in April 2012, though not under its own power and well within the atmosphere.

Monday, December 5, 2011

NASA ISS On-Orbit Status

All ISS systems continue to function nominally, except those noted previously or below. Sunday - Crew off day. Ahead: Week 3 of Increment 30 (three-person crew).

* Today 13 years ago (1998), the US-built Node-1 "Unity", 2nd component of ISS, was launched on STS-88/Endeavour, crewed by CDR Bob Cabana (today Director of NASA/KSC), PLT Fred Sturckow, and Mission Specialists Jerry Ross, Nancy Currie, Jim Newman & Sergey Krikalev (today Director of GCTC/Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City, Russia). "Unity" was mated to the Russian-built FGB "Zarya" by Currie on 12/6, and Bob & Sergey entered the rudimentary space station jointly.

After wakeup, FE-1 Shkaplerov performed the routine inspection of the SM (Service Module) PSS Caution & Warning panel as part of regular Daily Morning Inspection.

Anton also conducted the routine daily servicing of the SOZh system (Environment Control & Life Support System, ECLSS) in the SM. This included the weekly collection of the toilet flush (SP) counter and water supply (SVO) readings for calldown to TsUP-Moscow, as well as the weekly checkup on the Russian POTOK-150MK (150 micron) air filter unit of the SM's & FGB's SOGS air revitalization subsystem, gathering weekly data on total operating time & "On" durations for calldown. [SOZh servicing includes checking the ASU toilet facilities, replacement of the KTO & KBO solid waste containers and replacement of EDV-SV waste water and EDV-U urine containers].

CDR Burbank took the (approx.) monthly O-OHA (On-Orbit Hearing Assessment) test, his first, a 30-min NASA environmental health systems examination to assess the efficacy of acoustic countermeasures, using a special software application on the MEC (Medical Equipment Computer) laptop. [The O-OHA audiography test involves minimum audibility measurements for each ear over a wide range of frequencies (0.25-10 kHz) and sound pressure levels, with the crewmembers using individual-specific Prophonics earphones, new Bose ANC headsets (delivered on 30P) and the SLM (sound level meter). To conduct the testing, the experimenter is supported by special EarQ software on the MEC, featuring an up/down-arrow-operated slider for each test frequency that the crewmember moves to the lowest sound pressure level at which the tone can still be heard. The baseline test is required not later than about Flight Day 14 for each new Expedition and is then generally performed once per month. Note: There has been temporary hearing deficits documented on some U.S. and Russian crewmembers, all of which recovered to pre-mission levels.]

Later, Dan performed the VolSci (Voluntary Weekend Science) activity selected for today, an EPO (Educational Payload Operations) demo of 3 student-designed games,- Save the World, Alligator Clip Capture, and Independence Day. The demos were filmed with the G1 camcorder for subsequent downlink via HD MPC (Multi-Protocol Converter) on Ku-band. [EPO Demos are educational videos conducted by crewmembers on-board the ISS. Today's video is intended to be edited on the ground and will be seen by grade 5-8 students and educators. Demo 1: Using a dartboard, Dan demonstrated "sports in space", showing how Newton's Laws of Motion are applied to games in microgravity space. This video will be used on the Space Out Sports Website at . Demo 2: Crewmember was to release 5 alligator clips in the cabin, allowing them to float, then floated up to capture each alligator clip, from underneath and above the clip (created by students at Kinser Elementary {Department of Defense} School in Okinawa, Japan. Demo 3: Earning points by successfully tossing a baton-like object through a floating ring, cut from a sheet of paper and pasted appropriately. Crewmember then was to repeatedly toss unsharpened pencil (or like object) through the floating paper rings (created by students at Manhattan Beach Middle, Manhattan Beach, CA.]

Anton & Anatoly finished up their lengthy IFM (Inflight Maintenance) on the TVIS treadmill, performing the long-term periodic chassis Inspection which they had been unable to finish on 12/2. Afterwards, Anatoly was to perform the speed characterization test while recording acoustic survey data, which of course was also not done on 12/2. [The inspection included the belt slats, weld nuts, treadbelt, drum set screws, 50 truss blue roller assemblies, side black rollers, and bottom black rollers. The crew also replaced 3 misaligned belt slat screws.]

At ~4:45am EST, Anton Shkaplerov & Anatoly Ivanishin participated in an event set up for them in Moscow to cast their ballot in the Elections to the 6th State Duma of the Russian Federation Federal Assembly and Moscow Regional Duma Elections, formally authorizing their proxy agent Dmitry Alexandrovich Zhukov to fill out the ballot for them, with the required confidentiality being observed. [Alexander Ivanovich Popkov, chairman of the local election committee of Korolev City, Moscow Region, explained the ballot procedure and read out the ballot bulletin, then asked "Dear Anton Nikolayevich and Anatoly Alexeyevich, do you authorize Dmitry Alexandrovich Zhukov to fill out ballot bulletins thus giving effect to your will?" After filling out the forms in secrecy, D. A. Zhukov invited the participants to the voting room and dropped the ballots in a portable box while providing voice commentary of his actions to Anton & Anatoly, who thanked them thusly: "Participation in Russia's political life is a crucial right of every citizen of the country! By casting our vote we shape the direction our nation will take in the future. Our future depends on our vote!" Besides a group of political and communal VIPs, assembled media included "Novosti Cosmonavtiki" magazine; "Russia Today" TV company; ZVEZDA TV Channel; ITAR-TASS news agency; Branch of "Podmoskovye" TV Channel (City of Losino-Petrovsky); NTV TV company; Channel 1 TV company; and RIA Novosti.]

The crew worked out with their regular 2-hr physical exercise protocol on the CEVIS cycle ergometer with vibration isolation (CDR), ARED advanced resistive exercise device (CDR, FE-1, FE-2) and T2/COLBERT advanced treadmill (FE-1, FE-2).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Lightning-made Waves in Earth's Atmosphere Leak Into Space

At any given moment about 2,000 thunderstorms roll over Earth, producing some 50 flashes of lightning every second. Each lightning burst creates electromagnetic waves that begin to circle around Earth captured between Earth's surface and a boundary about 60 miles up. Some of the waves – if they have just the right wavelength – combine, increasing in strength, to create a repeating atmospheric heartbeat known as Schumann resonance. This resonance provides a useful tool to analyze Earth's weather, its electric environment, and to even help determine what types of atoms and molecules exist in Earth's atmosphere, but until now they have only ever been observed from below.

Now, NASA's Vector Electric Field Instrument (VEFI) aboard the U.S. Air Force's Communications/Navigation Outage Forecast System (C/NOFS) satellite has detected Schumann resonance from space. This comes as a surprise, since current models of Schumann resonance predict these waves should be caged at lower altitude, between the ground and a layer of Earth's atmosphere called the ionosphere.

"Researchers didn't expect to observe these resonances in space," says Fernando Simoes, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "But it turns out that energy is leaking out and this opens up many other possibilities to study our planet from above."

Simoes is the first author on a paper about these observations that appeared online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters on November 16 and will appear in the print publication in December. He explains that the concept of resonance in general is fairly simple: adding energy at the right time will help any given phenomenon grow. Think of a swing – if you push it back just as it hits the top of its arc, you add speed. Push it backwards in the middle of its swing, and you will slow it down. When it comes to waves, resonance doesn't occur because of a swing-like push, but because a series of overlapping waves are synchronized such that the crests line up with the other crests and the troughs line up with the other troughs. This naturally leads to a much larger wave than one where the crests and troughs cancel each other out.

The waves created by lightning do not look like the up and down waves of the ocean, but they still oscillate with regions of greater energy and lesser energy. These waves remain trapped inside an atmospheric ceiling created by the lower edge of the "ionosphere" – a part of the atmosphere filled with charged particles, which begins about 60 miles up into the sky. In this case, the sweet spot for resonance requires the wave to be as long (or twice, three times as long, etc) as the circumference of Earth. This is an extremely low frequency wave that can be as low as 8 Hertz (Hz) – some one hundred thousand times lower than the lowest frequency radio waves used to send signals to your AM/FM radio. As this wave flows around Earth, it hits itself again at the perfect spot such that the crests and troughs are aligned. Voila, waves acting in resonance with each other to pump up the original signal.