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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 November 2010

More than one million people have watched assembly and testing of NASA's next Mars rover via a live webcam since it went online in October.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover, is being tested and assembled in a clean room at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The webcam, affectionately dubbed "Curiosity Cam," shows engineers and technicians clad in head-to-toe white smocks working on the rover.
Metrics from the webcam's hosting platform, Ustream, showed more than one million unique viewers spent more than 400,000 hours watching Curiosity Cam between Oct. 21 and Nov. 23. There have been more than 2.3 million viewer sessions.

The camera is mounted in the viewing gallery of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL. While the gallery is a regular stop on JPL's public tour, Curiosity Cam allows visitors from around the world to see NASA engineers at work without traveling to Pasadena

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television.

Participants are:
  • Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
  • Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
  • Pamela Conrad, Astrobiologist, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
  • Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
  • James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Artist's concept showing a planned flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus by NASA's Cassini spacecraft This artist's concept shows a planned flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Nov. 30. During the closest part of the flyby, Cassini's radio science subsystem will make gravity measurements.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft resumed normal operations today, Nov. 24. All science instruments have been turned back on, the spacecraft is properly configured and Cassini is in good health. Mission managers expect to get a full stream of data during next week's flyby of the Saturnian moon Enceladus.
Cassini went into safe mode on Nov. 2, when one bit flipped in the onboard command and data subsystem computer. The bit flip prevented the computer from registering an important instruction, and the spacecraft, as programmed, went into the standby mode. Engineers have traced the steps taken by the computer during that time and have determined that all spacecraft responses were proper, but still do not know why the bit flipped.

The flyby on will bring Cassini to within about 48 kilometers of the surface of Enceladus. At 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.

During the closest part of the 30th November flyby, Cassini's radio science subsystem will make gravity measurements. The results will be compared with those from an earlier flyby of the Enceladus South Pole to understand the moon's interior structure better. Cassini's fields and particles instruments will sample the charged particle environment around Enceladus. Other instruments will capture images in visible light and other parts of the light spectrum after Cassini makes its closest approach.

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

Astronomers have caught sight of an unusual galaxy that has illuminated new details about a celestial "sandbar" connecting two massive islands of galaxies. The research was conducted in part with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

These "sandbars," or filaments, are known to span vast distances between galaxy clusters and form a lattice-like structure known as the cosmic web. Two years ago, Spitzer's infrared eyes revealed that one such intergalactic filament containing star forming galaxies ran between the galaxy clusters called Abell 1763 and Abell 1770.

Now these observations have been bolstered by the discovery, inside this same filament, of a galaxy that has a rare boomerang shape and unusual light emissions. Hot gas is sweeping the wandering galaxy into this shape as it passes through the filament, presenting a new way to gauge the filament's particle density. Researchers hope that other such galaxies with oddly curved profiles could serve as signposts for the faint threads, which in turn signify regions ripe for forming stars.

A space shuttle main engine burns at 6,000 degrees F, but the outside of the nozzle remains cool to the touch. Prior to launch, sometimes it even frosts over. The nozzle technology that allows a finger-width of ridged metal to contain and steer flames that would boil iron is just one of the scores of innovations designers came up with for the engines three decades ago.

Such advances were critical if NASA was going to realize its plans for a reusable space shuttle that, unlike the previous rockets, would not use its engines once and then drop them in the ocean.

Some of the others:
  • A system that lets the engines be incrementally throttled up and down depending on the needs of the mission
  • A hydrogen turbo pump spins 567 times a second with each 2” tall turbine blade generating 700 horsepower.
  • A computer that runs 50 health checks on the engine every second using data from 200 sensors
  • A system of pipes, or ducts, those withstand pressures as high as 7,000 pounds per square inch
  • A main combustion chamber strong enough to contain the explosion of 970 pounds of oxygen and 162 pounds of hydrogen fuel every second, continuously for 8 1/2 minutes
  • The only heavy-lift booster engine that continuously performs all the way from launch pad to orbit
  • Engineering and materials that allow the engine to be reused multiple times
  • A compact, efficient design that produces 8 times the thrust of a modern high performance jet engine per each pound of weight.
Added together, the innovations became a rocket engine that is more than 99.9 percent efficient, which means that almost all of its hydrogen and oxygen is used to create thrust. For comparison, an automobile engine is about a third as efficient, since most of its energy is created in the form of heat that does not turn the wheels.

Teams have completed final inspections on the stringer repair work on space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The environmental enclosure, built to support foaming operations, was removed. Flight Crew Systems middeck stow operations are under way.

Inspections Complete on Repaired Tank Stringers
The Space Shuttle Program will review the analysis and repairs that are required to safely launch shuttle Discovery on its STS-133 mission at a special Program Requirements Control Board session Wednesday. Pending a successful review of the flight rationale at that meeting, a Launch Status Briefing would be held with senior NASA management on Monday, 29th Nov at Kennedy.

Glory is a remote-sensing Earth-orbiting observatory designed to achieve two separate mission objectives. One is to collect data on the chemical, microphysical, and optical properties, and spatial and temporal distributions of aerosols. The other is to continue collection of total solar irradiance data for the long-term climate record.

The Glory mission's scientific objectives are met by implementing two separate science instruments, one with the ability to collect polarimetric measurements along the satellite ground track within the solar reflective spectral region (0.4 to 2.4 micrometers) and one with the ability to monitor changes in sunlight incident on the Earth's atmosphere by collecting high accuracy, high precision measurements of total solar irradiance.

Glory accomplishes these objectives by deploying two instruments aboard a low earth orbit satellite, the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS) and the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM). Additionally, a cloud camera system will provide images that allow the APS scans along the spacecraft ground track to be put into spatial context and to facilitate determination of cloud occurrence within the APS instantaneous field of view.

The Glory mission will respond to the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) by continuing and improving upon NASA's research of the forcings influencing climate change in the atmosphere. As summarized below, measurements produced by this mission and the scientific knowledge such observations will provide are essential to predicting future climate change, and to making sound, scientifically based economic and policy decisions related to environmental change.

The science objectives of the Glory mission include:

1. The determination of the global distribution, microphysical properties, and chemical composition of natural and anthropogenic aerosols and clouds with accuracy and coverage sufficient for a reliable quantification of the aerosol direct and indirect effects on climate.

2. The continued measurement of the total solar irradiance to determine the Sun's direct and indirect effect on the Earth's climate.

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To make a difference look- NASA, Microsoft, Google, The World Bank and Yahoo! are welcoming software developers, independent computer experts and students to participate in the Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) event on December 4th and 5th in several locations around the world.

RHoK is a worldwide event that will use the new technology to make the world a better place by building a community of innovation. A "hackathon" brings together the best and brightest hackers from around the world, who volunteer their time to solve real-world troubles. Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is also an opportunity to meet and work with top software developers and experts from around the world, create new applications and win prizes.

"NASA is proud to be supporting Random Hacks of Kindness and promote wider usage of our open data to solve the world's greatest challenges,” said by Linda Cureton (CIO). The hackathon is a fast-paced competition where software developers have a specific time to solve challenges. The winners will earn prizes and the opportunity to see their applications put to use to respond to critical disaster risk challenges.

When Patrick Minnis saw video of the "mystery" contrail Nov. 9 that looked like a missile launch near Catalina Island off Los Angeles, he figured it the way most people did. "I assumed it was a missile," said Minnis, a contrail expert in the Science Directorate at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Then he got a call from an Associated Press reporter and told her, yes, it sure looks like a missile.

"She responded with links to two different blogs that compared it to older aircraft contrail pictures, and indicated that the blog authors thought it was an aircraft contrail," Minnis recalls. "I had not really thought about that aspect previously and, at first glance, the video showed what looked like a missile launch. Once the idea that it was an aircraft contrail entered my head, I had to pay closer attention, because aircraft contrails are part of my job description."

Minnis usually studies contrails to determine their effect on Earth's climate. He and others have discovered that airplane contrails create cirrus clouds on days they wouldn't usually exist. Because of this, he calculates, the cirrus-cloud cover over the United States is increasing by one percent each decade and contributing to global warming by blocking the release of heat from the planet.

Technicians at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A in Florida plan to install new quick disconnect hardware Tuesday morning in the recently-installed ground umbilical carrier plate (GUCP) to fix a hydrogen gas leak that scrubbed space shuttle Discovery’s launch Nov. 5. Technicians installed a new flight seal in the GUCP attached to Discovery’s external fuel tank last Friday night and spent the weekend taking precise measurements of the hardware to ensure all components are properly aligned and prevent another hydrogen leak.

Another team of technicians is working on repairing cracks on the tops of two, 21-foot-long support beams, called stringers, on the exterior of the external tank in an area known as the intertank. The team includes personnel from the external tank manufacturing plant in Louisiana, the Michoud Assembly Facility.

Over the weekend, technicians removed a section of one of the stringers that had two, 9-inch cracks in it. Last Friday, during foam removal and inspection of adjacent stringers to the one with the 9-inch cracks, technicians identified a crack about 3-inches long on the left-hand adjacent stringer. Further foam removal revealed one additional corresponding crack on the same left-hand adjacent stringer. Technicians plan to remove that section of the stringer Monday night. They’ll also install a new section of metal, called a doubler because it’s twice as thick as the original stringer metal, on the stringer that had the 9-inch cracks.

Engineers continue evaluating the intertank for any potential issues, but so far no other cracks have been found beyond the ones on the two previously identified stringers. There are a total of 108 stringers on the intertank. Senior managers plan to meet on Nov. 22 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and via video conference for a launch status briefing to assess and review the repair work and launch preparations. Although managers have not set a new target launch date for Discovery’s STS-133 mission to the International Space Station, the repair work and planning still are aimed at supporting an attempt in the upcoming launch window that opens November 30.

NASA selected DB Consulting Group, Inc. in Silver Spring, Md., to provide information technology, multimedia, information management and external relations support services at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The new Information Technology and Multimedia Services contract has a maximum value of $251.5 million.

The services provided are primarily under the management of Johnson's Information Resources Directorate with participation by the Office of External Relations. The services include operation and maintenance of primary information technology services; graphics; library management; imagery acquisition, processing and cataloguing; television systems support for human spaceflight missions; public affairs services including creative content for NASA Television, live mission television, multimedia and the public Internet; and education program support.

The three-year base performance period is valued at $150.5 million. Two one-year options are valued at $50.5 million each. The base period extends from Jan. 18, 2011 through Jan. 17, 2014. If both options are exercised, the contract would extend to Jan. 17, 2017. It is a cost-plus-incentive, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract.

Overnight, crews removed space shuttle Discovery’s ground umbilical carrier assembly, or GUCA, which includes the flight seal, the 7-inch quick disconnect, or QD and the carrier plate, known as the GUCP, as they continue working to investigate the leak.

Teams performed an initial inspection of the flight seal and quick disconnect prior to sending them to labs for a thorough inspection. Data collected from the initial inspections will be evaluated today by the investigation team. Engineering saw some areas of interest that are being further evaluated. Based on this evaluation, crews could be ready to install a new GUCA on Friday.

Also, technicians have removed external tank foam insulation that cracked during initial loading operations for space shuttle Discovery’s launch attempt on Nov. 5. After foam removal, two cracks were found on a section of the tank’s metal exterior. The cracks were found on the stringer, which is the aluminum strip that forms the section between the Liquid Oxygen tank and the Liquid Hydrogen tank.
Status of GUCP Work, ET Foam and Stringer CracksStringers provide structural integrity to the intertank. The cracks are approximately nine inches long and were found at the top of one of the stringers beneath the area of foam that cracked during tanking. The cracks in the stringer moved the metal outward sufficiently to dislocate the foam. Engineers are reviewing images of the cracks to determine the best possible repair method, which would be done at Launch Pad 39A.

The stringers are manufactured using a lighter weight, stronger material of Aluminum Lithium, which was initially incorporated with the Super Light Weight Tank on ET-96 and first flown on STS-91. While the material is stronger and lighter in weight, it is more brittle and has resulted in increased cases of cracked stringers in the areas noted.

The cracked stringer section matches well with the area of foam that cracked, which indicates the stringer crack was the root cause of the foam crack. Analysis shows the intertank has sufficient structural capability for the launch and ascent environments with the cracks in a single stringer. Although the foam was firmly attached to the damaged structure, it is undesirable to launch in this configuration. This area is clearly visible during the pre-launch inspections and would have been detected by the final inspection team.

Crews have repaired similar cracks during external tank production by installing a second piece of aluminum for reinforcement on top of the cracked area before replacing the foam insulation. This piece frequently is referred to as a "doubler." The repair plan being put into effect is a known one consisting of cutting out the cracked section and replacing it with an available piece that matches its size. A doubler will be inserted before the mounting rivets to complete the repair.

BX foam then will be formed over the newly repaired stringer and will require about four days to cure.Exact schedules and repair options still are being evaluated. Engineers will meet Friday to discuss the status of the three repair activities underway, the external tank stringer and foam repair, the ground umbilical carrier plate and the cockpit panel L4 removal and replacement.

NASA will hold a news conference on Monday, Nov. 15 at 12 PM and to discuss about the Chandra X-ray Observatory's discovery.

The news conference will start off from NASA Headquarters' TV studio, 300 E St. SW in Washington and going to live on NASA TV.

Precocious Galaxy Cluster Identified by Chandra
Media representatives may also attend the conference and they join by telephone or ask questions from NASA locations. To obtain dial-in information, journalists must send their name, affiliation and telephone number email to by 10 a.m. on Nov. 15.

Reporters wishing to be present at the conference in-person must have a valid press credential for access. Non-U.S. media people must bring passports.

Scientists involved answering questions.
  • Jon Morse - Director, Astrophysics Division, NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Kimberly Weaver - Astrophysicist, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
  • Alex Filippenko - Astrophysicist, University of California, Berkeley

Active sunspot 1121 has unleashed one of the brightest x-ray solar flares in years, an M5.4-class eruption.

Radiation from the flare created a wave of ionization in Earth's upper atmosphere that altered the propagation of low-frequency radio waves. There was, however, no bright CME hurled in our direction, so the event is unlikely to produce auroras in the nights ahead.

This is the third M-flare in as many days from this increasingly active sunspot. So far none of the eruptions has been squarely Earth-directed, but this could change in the days ahead as the sun's rotation turns the active region toward our planet.

During the encounter, the spacecraft and comet whisked past each other at a speed of 12.3 kilometers per second (27,560 miles per hour). The spacecraft came within about 700 kilometers (435 miles) of the comet's nucleus at the time of closest approach.

The video clip of the flyby is comprised of 40 frames taken from the spacecraft's Medium-Resolution Instrument during the encounter. The first image was taken at about 37 minutes before the time of closest approach at a distance of about 27,350 kilometers (17,000 miles). The last image was taken 30 minutes after closest approach at a distance of 22,200 kilometers (13,800 miles). The spacecraft was able to image nearly 50 percent of the comet's illuminated surface in detail.
EPOXI mission's flyby of comet Hartley 2The EPOXI mission's flyby of comet Hartley 2 was only the fifth time in history that a comet nucleus has been imaged, and the first time in history that two comets have been imaged with the same instruments and same spatial resolution.

EPOXI is an extended mission that utilizes the already "in flight" Deep Impact spacecraft to explore distinct celestial targets of opportunity. The name EPOXI itself is a combination of the names for the two extended mission components: the extrasolar planet observations, called Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh), and the flyby of comet Hartley 2, called the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI). The spacecraft will continue to be referred to as "Deep Impact."

Light-colored mounds of a mineral deposited on a volcanic cone more than three billion years ago may preserve evidence of one of the most recent habitable microenvironments on Mars.

Observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter enabled researchers to identify the mineral as hydrated silica and to see its volcanic context. The mounds' composition and their location on the flanks of a volcanic cone provide the best evidence yet found on Mars for an intact deposit from a hydrothermal environment -a steam fumarole, or hot spring. Such environments may have provided habitats for some of Earth's earliest life forms.

"The heat and water required to create this deposit probably made this a habitable zone," said J.R. Skok of Brown University, Providence, R.I., lead author of a paper about these findings published online today by Nature Geoscience. "If life did exist there, this would be a promising type of deposit to entomb evidence of it - a microbial mortuary."

No studies have yet determined whether Mars has ever supported life. The new results add to accumulating evidence that, at some times and in some places, Mars has had favorable environments for microbial life. This specific place would have been habitable when most of Mars was already dry and cold. Concentrations of hydrated silica have been identified on Mars previously, including a nearly pure patch found by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit in 2007. However, none of those earlier findings were in such an intact setting as this one, and the setting adds evidence about the origin.