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NASA Probe Sees Solar Wind Decline

The 33-year odyssey of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has reached a distant point at the edge of our solar system where there is no outward motion of solar wind. Now hurtling toward interstellar space some 17.4 billion...

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...

Kepler Discovers

NASA's Kepler spacecraft has discovered the first confirmed planetary system with more than one planet crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star...

Pulverized Planet

Tight double-star systems might not be the best places for life to spring up, according to a new study using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope....

Dark Asteroids

NASA is set to launch a sensitive new infrared telescope to seek out sneaky things in the night sky -- among them, dark asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth....

Archive for April 2010

Scientists using a NASA funded telescope have detected water-ice and carbon-based organic compounds on the surface of an asteroid. The cold hard facts of the discovery of the frosty mixture on one of the asteroid belt's largest occupants, suggests that some asteroids, along with their celestial brethren, comets, were the water carriers for a primordial Earth. The research is published in today's issue of the journal Nature.

"For a long time the thinking was that you couldn't find a cup's worth of water in the entire asteroid belt," said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Today we know you not only could quench your thirst, but you just might be able to fill up every pool on Earth – and then some."


The discovery is a result of six years of observing asteroid 24 Themis by astronomer Andrew Rivkin of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Rivkin, along with Joshua Emery, of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, employed the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility to take measurements of the asteroid on seven separate occasions beginning in 2002. Buried in their compiled data was the consistent infrared signature of water ice and carbon-based organic materials.

The study's findings are particularly surprising because it was believed that Themis, orbiting the sun at "only" 479 million kilometers (297 million miles), was too close to the solar system's fiery heat source to carry water ice left over from the solar system's origin 4.6 billion years ago.

Space shuttle Discovery roared into orbit April 24, 1990, with a most precious cargo, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. In the two decades since, teams of astronauts working from other shuttles repaired the orbiting eye on the universe and extended its abilities far beyond what was thought possible for longer than many thought realistic.

Hubble, named for groundbreaking astronomer Edwin Hubble, repaid the commitment with some of the most dazzling images the world has seen, along with fresh data that answered a wealth of questions and led to many new ones. The telescope's observations allowed astronomers to set the age of the universe at about 13.7 billion years with a high degree of certainty.

"I never believed in 1990 that the Hubble would end up this great," said Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and chief scientist for the Hubble program when it launched. "It's changed a lot of thinking and it's changed a lot of what I learned 30 years ago in grad school."


Hubble's discoveries stretch over most aspects of astronomy, but its highlights include proving massive black holes exist and defining the age of the universe. It also proved the existence of something no one has seen -- dark energy.

"Nobody ever knew it existed before Hubble," said Jon Grunsfeld, an astronaut and astronomer who worked on Hubble during two shuttle missions.

The telescope's most unique element, though, is its orbit -- a perch so high above the planet that its pictures are not warped or distorted by the air currents, moisture and other effects from Earth's atmosphere.

"It's that extreme clarity that gives us the feeling we've traveled out into space to see these objects," Grunsfeld said. "It really is our time machine."

From more than 300 miles in space, Hubble looked back in time, showing astronomers what embryonic galaxies looked like almost 14 billion years ago. In some cases, Hubble's instruments picked up light that left stars only 600 million years after the Big Bang. "We're seeing the universe as it was perhaps as a toddler," Grunsfeld said.

An image that is perhaps Hubble's most famous, known as the Hubble Deep Field, was made when the telescope was pointed at a small sliver of space in the constellation Ursa Major, which appeared black and empty. Hubble found it brimming with young galaxies and stars in a kind of photographic time capsule from the universe. Astronomers called it a baby picture of space.

NASA's recently launched Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, is returning early images that confirm an unprecedented new capability for scientists to better understand our sun’s dynamic processes. These solar activities affect everything on Earth.

Some of the images from the spacecraft show never-before-seen detail of material streaming outward and away from sunspots. Others show extreme close-ups of activity on the sun’s surface. The spacecraft also has made the first high-resolution measurements of solar flares in a broad range of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

"These initial images show a dynamic sun that I had never seen in more than 40 years of solar research,” said Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "SDO will change our understanding of the sun and its processes, which affect our lives and society. This mission will have a huge impact on science, similar to the impact of the Hubble Space Telescope on modern astrophysics.”

Astronauts will soar spaceward in commercial spacecraft while NASA develops technology so humans can venture to Mars and out into the solar system, President Barack Obama told a space conference Thursday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Laying out his plans, President Obama committed NASA to a series of development milestones he said would lead to new spacecraft for astronauts to ride to the International Space Station, a modified Orion capsule developed as an emergency return spacecraft, and a powerful new rocket. He also promised a host of new technologies that would protect space travelers from radiation and other unique hazards.

"Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit," the president said. "And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."



The president spoke to 200 senior officials, space and industry leaders, and academic experts inside the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy in the same area that was used to process Apollo spacecraft for the missions to the moon in the 1960s and 70s.

Standing in front of one of the space shuttle main engines that launched former U.S. Senator and astronaut John Glenn into orbit, President Obama said, "It was from here that men and women, propelled by sheer nerve and talent, set about pushing the boundaries of humanity's reach.

"The question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something, or the end of something. I prefer to believe it was the beginning of something." The president's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal increases NASA's budget by $6 billion throughout the next five years to fund the plans.

Noting "the sense that folks in Washington -- driven less by vision than by politics -- have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it," the president said the budget increase changes that.

The president's address comes at a critical juncture for NASA because the space shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired after three more missions. The president said it will be quicker and less costly to let private companies develop new spacecraft for astronauts rather than continue with NASA's Constellation Program, which was deemed too expensive and behind schedule.

"Pursuing this new strategy will require that we revise the old strategy. In part, this is because the old strategy -- including the Constellation Program -- was not fulfilling its promise in many ways," the president said. "That’s not just my assessment; that’s also the assessment of a panel of respected non-partisan experts charged with looking at these issues closely."

President Obama's plan largely mirrors the "flexible path" option offered by a blue-ribbon panel established by the president last year to help decide the best map for future space exploration.

The outline does not do away with all the research and development from Constellation . Noting the success of the agency's development of the Orion crew capsule, Obama called on NASA to develop a version of that spacecraft so it can be launched without a crew to the International Space Station. It will be based there as an emergency craft for astronauts living on the orbiting laboratory.