Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NASA GRAIL Returns First Student-Selected Moon Images

PASADENA, Calif. -- One of two NASA spacecraft orbiting the moon has beamed back the first student-requested pictures of the lunar surface from its onboard camera. Fourth grade students from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., received the honor of making the first image selections by winning a nationwide competition to rename the two spacecraft.

The image was taken by the MoonKam, or Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students. Previously named Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) A and B, the twin spacecraft are now called Ebb and Flow. Both washing-machine-sized orbiters carry a small MoonKAM camera. Over 60 student–requested images were taken by the Ebb spacecraft from March 15-17 and downlinked to Earth March 20.

"MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees," said Maria Zuber, GRAIL mission principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is great to see things off to such a positive start."

GRAIL is NASA's first planetary mission to carry instruments fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Students will select target areas on the lunar surface and request images to study from the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center in San Diego.

The MoonKAM program is led by Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, and her team at Sally Ride Science in collaboration with undergraduate students at the University of California in San Diego. More than 2,700 schools spanning 52 countries are using the MoonKAM cameras.

"What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures," Ride said. "The students really are excited about MoonKAM, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering."

Launched in September 2011, Ebb and Flow will answer longstanding questions about the moon and give scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the GRAIL mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, is home to the mission's principal investigator, Maria Zuber. GRAIL is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

NASA GRACE Data Hit Big Apple on World Water Day

To highlight declines in the world's groundwater supplies, a new visualization of Earth's groundwater reserves, created in part with space data from the joint NASA/German Aerospace Center (DLR) Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, debuted on New York's Times Square on March 22, International World Water Day.

The 30-second animation, titled "Visualizing Seasonal and Long-term Changes in Groundwater Levels," will be on display several times each hour through April 22 on Times Square's massive Thomson Reuters and NASDAQ digital signboards. Viewers of the interactive animation are invited to use their mobile devices to submit their city and add a graph to the sign.

Netherlands designer Richard Vijgen developed the animation using GRACE data analyzed by professor Jay Famiglietti, director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine; and from United States Geological Survey data supplied by Leonard Konikow. Vijgen was the winning entry in an international design visualization competition sponsored by the organization HeadsUP!, in collaboration with Visualizing.org. Founded by digital media artist Peggy Weil, HeadsUp! challenges designers to visualize critical global issues and create a shared sign for the public square.

Groundwater is a critical, but often overlooked, natural resource. According to a U.N. report, more than 1.5 billion people around the world depend on groundwater for their drinking water. It comes from the natural percolation of precipitation and other surface waters down through Earth's soil and rock, accumulating in cavities and layers of porous rock, gravel, sand or clay. Groundwater levels respond slowly to changes in weather and can take months or years to replenish once pumped for irrigation or other uses.

Famiglietti's analyses show that groundwater is being depleted at alarming rates in many of the world's major aquifers. "The GRACE data set is exciting, because it gives us the first global pictures of Earth's changing freshwater," he said.

The twin GRACE satellites, which celebrated their 10th year in orbit this week, measure minute changes in Earth's gravity field by measuring micron-scale variations in the separation between the two spacecraft, flying in formation 137 miles (220 kilometers) apart in low Earth orbit. These variations in gravitational pull are caused by local changes in Earth's mass. Masses of water, ice, air and solid Earth can be moved by weather patterns, seasonal change, climate change and even tectonic events such as large earthquakes. GRACE was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The depletion of groundwater from large aquifers due to drought and human activities affects gravity enough to provide a signal that GRACE can measure, in concert with other remote sensing data. After accounting for other mass variations, such changes in gravity can be translated into an equivalent change in water. GRACE has been used to detect major depletion of groundwater in northern India, California's Central Valley and elsewhere around the globe.

Groundwater levels are monitored by local sensors as well as from space with GRACE, but the data are formatted for expert hydrologists, rather than concerned citizens. Underground and out of sight, the public lacks a clear indicator of changing groundwater levels. By using the GRACE satellite data, HeadsUP! offered designers the chance to visualize the water under the surface of Earth, as "seen" from space.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What's Next For NASA?

The end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space. NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will last for years to come. Here is what's next for NASA:

NASA is designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars. We will build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions.

NASA is also moving forward with the development of the Space Launch System -- an advanced heavy-lift launch vehicle that will provide an entirely new national capability for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. The SLS rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, which will include shuttle engines for the core stage and the J-2X engine for the upper stage.

We are developing the technologies we will need for human exploration of the solar system, including solar electric propulsion, refueling depots in orbit, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems.

International Space Station
The International Space Station is the centerpiece of our human spaceflight activities in low Earth orbit. The ISS is fully staffed with a crew of six, and American astronauts will continue to live and work there in space 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Part of the U.S. portion of the station has been designated as a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for scientific research.

The ISS is a test bed for exploration technologies such as autonomous refueling of spacecraft, advanced life support systems and human/robotic interfaces. Commercial companies are well on their way to providing cargo and crew flights to the ISS, allowing NASA to focus its attention on the next steps into our solar system.

NASA is researching ways to design and build aircraft that are safer, more fuel-efficient, quieter, and environmentally responsible. We are also working to create traffic management systems that are safer, more efficient and more flexible. We are developing technologies that improve routing during flights and enable aircraft to climb to and descend from their cruising altitude without interruption.

We believe it is possible to build an aircraft that uses less fuel, gives off fewer emissions, and is quieter, and we are working on the technologies to create that aircraft. NASA is also part of the government team that is working to develop the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, to be in place by the year 2025. We will continue to validate new, complex aircraft and air traffic control systems to ensure that they meet extremely high safety levels.

NASA is conducting an unprecedented array of missions that will seek new knowledge and understanding of Earth, the solar system and the universe. NASA has observatories in Earth orbit and deep space, spacecraft visiting the moon and other planetary bodies, and robotic landers, rovers, and sample return missions. NASA's science vision encompasses questions as practical as hurricane formation, as enticing as the prospect of lunar resources, and as profound as the origin of the Universe.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

5 NASA rockets to light up stretch of East Coast skies

A quintuple rocket launch promises to put on a spectacular, but brief, overnight light show of luminescent vapor trails in the skies above the U.S. East Coast tonight, weather permitting. The sky display may puzzle and amaze some unsuspecting observers, so before you make that phone call to your local news or police, here is why this is happening and when you may see it.

The bright phenomenon will be caused by NASA's Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX), which will launch five chemical-bearing suborbital rockets in about five minutes to test the flow of winds and electrical currents at high altitudes. The rockets will blast off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., on the Atlantic coast during a window that opens tonight at midnight EDT and closes at 1:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.

As part of the mission, the five rockets will each release a chemical tracer that should inscribe brilliant milky white trails in the nighttime sky and allow scientists and the general public to actually "see" high-altitude winds at the edge of space, according to a NASA description.

Midnight launch lights
If all goes well, NASA intends to photograph the trails from three different sites: Wallops Island, southern New Jersey and the outer banks of North Carolina. Should weather conditions be unfavorable, the firings will be delayed to another night, with alternate launch dates available between March 16 and April 3.

Three different types of sounding rockets will be used to create the five cloud trails: two Terrier Improved Malemutes, two Terrier Improved Orions and one Terrier Oriole. These small rockets are powerful enough to launch instruments off the planet on short flights, but not strong enough to reach orbit and circle the Earth.

Each rocket will eject a stream of the chemical trimethyl aluminum (TMA), which will be illuminated at high altitudes by the sun (which will be below the local horizon at ground level). Initially, the clouds are expected to glow in reddish hues, then quickly turn to white, They could persist in the sky for as long as 20 minutes before fading completely away.

The ATREX project is aimed at gathering information to better understand the processes responsible for the high-altitude jet stream winds located 60 to 65 miles (97 to 105 kilometers) above the surface of the Earth.

That works out to a potential viewing radius of up to 450 miles (725 km), suggesting that the resultant cloud trails might be glimpsed from perhaps as far north as southern Vermont and New Hampshire, as far south as the border of coastal North and South Carolina and as far west as central West Virginia.

Monday, March 12, 2012

NASA's Goddard, Glenn Centers Look to Lift Space Astronomy out of the Fog

A fogbank is the least useful location for a telescope, yet today's space observatories effectively operate inside one. That's because Venus, Earth and Mars orbit within a vast dust cloud produced by comets and occasional collisions among asteroids. After the sun, this so-called zodiacal cloud is the solar system's most luminous feature, and its light has interfered with infrared, optical and ultraviolet observations made by every astronomical space mission to date.

"To put it simply, it has never been night for space astronomers," said Matthew Greenhouse, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Light from zodiacal dust can be a thousand times brighter than the sources astronomers actually target, limiting sensitivity in much the same way that bright moonlight hampers ground-based observatories. The dust and its unwanted illumination are greatest in the plane of Earth's orbit, the same plane in which every space telescope operates.

Placing future astronomy missions on more tilted orbits would let spacecraft spend significant amounts of time above and below the thickest dust and thereby reduce its impact on observations. So Greenhouse teamed with Scott Benson at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, to investigate how these "dark sky" or extra-zodiacal orbits might improve mission science and to develop a means of cost-effectively reaching them.

"Just by placing a space telescope on these inclined orbits, we can improve its sensitivity by a factor of two in the near-ultraviolet and by 13 times in the infrared," Greenhouse explained. "That's a breakthrough in science capability with absolutely no increase in the size of the telescope's mirror."

Greenhouse, Benson and the COllaborative Modeling and Parametric Assessment of Space Systems (COMPASS) study team at NASA Glenn designed a mission that utilizes new developments in solar arrays, electric propulsion and lower-cost expendable launch vehicles. Their proof-of-concept mission is the Extra-Zodiacal Explorer (EZE), a 1,500-pound EX-class observatory that could accommodate a telescope in the size range of the recently completed WISE mission — all within the cLinkost and schedule constraints of NASA’s Explorer Program.

Launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, EZE would use a powerful new solar-electric drive as an upper stage to direct the spacecraft on a gravity-assist maneuver past Earth or Mars. This flyby would redirect the mission into an orbit inclined by as much as 30 degrees to Earth's.

The result, the scientists say, will be the highest-performance observatory ever achieved in the decades-long history of NASA's Explorer program.

"We see EZE as a game-changer, the first step on a new path for NASA Explorers that will yield major science goals despite limited resources," said Benson, who previously managed the new electric propulsion technology project.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Solar storm shakes Earth magnetic field

WASHINGTON (AP) — A solar storm shook the Earth's magnetic field early Friday, but scientists said they had no reports of any problems with electrical systems.

After reports Thursday of the storm fizzling out, a surge of activity prompted space weather forecasters to issue alerts about changes in the magnetic field.

"We really haven't had any reports from power system operators yet," Rob Steenburgh, a space weather forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., said early Friday. "But sometimes they don't come in until after the storm."

He said the storm reached a moderate level late Thursday, before going to a strong level early Friday. For most of Thursday, it was rated as minor.

Scientists say such storms don't pose a threat to people, just technology.

The space weather center's website says a storm rated as strong could force corrections to voltage systems and trigger false alarms on some protection devices, as well as increase drag on satellites and affect their orientation.

The forecasters weren't aware of any significant impact to electrical or technological systems, but said there was a two-hour blackout of high frequency radio communications — affecting mainly ham radio operations — stretching from eastern Africa to eastern Australia.

Steenburgh also said that there was another solar flare late Thursday, similar to the one a few days ago that set off the current storm.

"Right now we're still analyzing when it will arrive" and how strong it could be, he said.

The space weather center had reports of Northern Lights across Canada and dipping into the northern tier of U.S. states, Steenburgh said.

While some experts thought the threat from the solar storm passed by earlier Thursday, the space weather center maintained the storm's effects could continue through Friday morning.

The current storm, which started with a solar flare Tuesday evening, caused a stir Wednesday because forecasts were for a strong storm with the potential to knock electrical grids offline, mess with GPS and harm satellites. It even forced airlines to reroute a few flights on Thursday.

It was never seen as a threat to people, just technology, and teased skywatchers with the prospect of colorful Northern Lights dipping further south.

But when the storm finally arrived around 6 a.m. EST Thursday, after traveling at 2.7 million mph, it was more a magnetic breeze than a gale. The power stayed on. So did GPS and satellites. And the promise of auroras seemed to be more of a mirage.

Scientists initially figured the storm would be the worst since 2006, but now seems only as bad as ones a few months ago, said Joe Kunches, a scientist at the NOAA center. The strongest storm in recorded history was probably in 1859, he said.

"It's not a terribly strong event. It's a very interesting event," Kunches said.

Forecasters can predict the speed a solar storm travels and its strength, but the north-south orientation is the wild card. This time it was a northern orientation, which is "pretty benign," Kunches said. Southern would have caused the most damaging technological disruption and biggest auroras.

On Thursday, North American utilities didn't report any problems, said Kimberly Mielcarek, spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a consortium of electricity grid operators. Her office didn't respond to a phone call early Friday.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

NASA Mars Orbiter Catches Twister in Action

An afternoon whirlwind on Mars lofts a twisting column of dust more than half a mile (800 meters) high in an image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

HiRISE captured the image on Feb. 16, 2012, while the orbiter passed over the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars. In the area observed, paths of many previous whirlwinds, or dust devils, are visible as streaks on the dusty surface.

The active dust devil displays a delicate arc produced by a westerly breeze partway up its height. The dust plume is about 30 yards or meters in diameter.

The image was taken during the time of Martian year when that planet is farthest from the sun. Just as on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. Exposure to the sun's rays declines during this season, yet even now, dust devils act relentlessly to clean the surface of freshly deposited dust, a little at a time.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been examining Mars with six science instruments since 2006. Now in an extended mission, the orbiter continues to provide insights into the planet's ancient environments and how processes such as wind, meteorite impacts and seasonal frosts continue to affect the Martian surface today. This mission has returned more data about Mars than all other orbital and surface missions combined.

More than 21,700 images taken by HiRISE are available for viewing on the instrument team's website: http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu . Each observation by this telescopic camera covers several square miles, or square kilometers, and can reveal features as small as a desk.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

NASA finds thickest parts of Arctic ice cap melting faster

A new NASA study revealed that the oldest and thickest Arctic sea ice is disappearing at a faster rate than the younger and thinner ice at the edges of the Arctic Ocean's floating ice cap. The thicker ice, known as multi-year ice, survives through the cyclical summer melt season, when young ice that has formed over winter just as quickly melts again. The rapid disappearance of older ice makes Arctic sea ice even more vulnerable to further decline in the summer, said Joey Comiso, senior scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and author of the study, which was recently published in Journal of Climate.

The new research takes a closer look at how multi-year ice, ice that has made it through at least two summers, has diminished with each passing winter over the last three decades. Multi-year ice "extent" -- which includes all areas of the Arctic Ocean where multi-year ice covers at least 15 percent of the ocean surface -- is diminishing at a rate of -15.1 percent per decade, the study found.

There's another measurement that allows researchers to analyze how the ice cap evolves: multi-year ice "area," which discards areas of open water among ice floes and focuses exclusively on the regions of the Arctic Ocean that are completely covered by multi-year ice. Sea ice area is always smaller than sea ice extent, and it gives scientists the information needed to estimate the total volume of ice in the Arctic Ocean. Comiso found that multi-year ice area is shrinking even faster than multi-year ice extent, by -17.2 percent per decade.

"The average thickness of the Arctic sea ice cover is declining because it is rapidly losing its thick component, the multi-year ice. At the same time, the surface temperature in the Arctic is going up, which results in a shorter ice-forming season," Comiso said. "It would take a persistent cold spell for most multi-year sea ice and other ice types to grow thick enough in the winter to survive the summer melt season and reverse the trend."

Scientists differentiate multi-year ice from both seasonal ice, which comes and goes each year, and "perennial" ice, defined as all ice that has survived at least one summer. In other words: all multi-year ice is perennial ice, but not all perennial ice is multi-year ice (it can also be second-year ice).

Comiso found that perennial ice extent is shrinking at a rate of -12.2 percent per decade, while its area is declining at a rate of -13.5 percent per decade. These numbers indicate that the thickest ice, multiyear-ice, is declining faster than the other perennial ice that surrounds it.

As perennial ice retreated in the last three decades, it opened up new areas of the Arctic Ocean that could then be covered by seasonal ice in the winter. A larger volume of younger ice meant that a larger portion of it made it through the summer and was available to form second-year ice. This is likely the reason why the perennial ice cover, which includes second year ice, is not declining as rapidly as the multiyear ice cover, Comiso said.

Multi-year sea ice hit its record minimum extent in the winter of 2008. That is when it was reduced to about 55 percent of its average extent since the late 1970s, when satellite measurements of the ice cap began. Multi-year sea ice then recovered slightly in the three following years, ultimately reaching an extent 34 percent larger than in 2008, but it dipped again in winter of 2012, to its second lowest extent ever.