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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 2011

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NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, which will examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars, is in final preparations for a launch from Florida's Space Coast at 10:25 a.m. EST (7:25 a.m. PST) on Nov. 25.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission will carry Curiosity, a rover with more scientific capability than any ever sent to another planet. The rover is now sitting atop an Atlas V rocket awaiting liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"Preparations are on track for launching at our first opportunity," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "If weather or other factors prevent launching then, we have more opportunities through Dec. 18."

Scheduled to land on the Red Planet in August 2012, the one-ton rover will examine Gale Crater during a nearly two-year prime mission. Curiosity will land near the base of a layered mountain 3 miles (5 kilometers) high inside the crater. The rover will investigate whether environmental conditions ever have been favorable for development of microbial life and preserved evidence of those conditions.

"Gale gives us a superb opportunity to test multiple potentially habitable environments and the context to understand a very long record of early environmental evolution of the planet," said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. Layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water."

Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as earlier Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The rover will carry a set of 10 science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessors' science payloads.

A mast extending to 7 feet (2.1 meters) above ground provides height for cameras and a laser-firing instrument to study targets from a distance. Instruments on a 7-foot-long (2.1-meter-long) arm will study targets up close. Analytical instruments inside the rover will determine the composition of rock and soil samples acquired with the arm's powdering drill and scoop. Other instruments will characterize the environment, including the weather and natural radiation that will affect future human missions.

"Mars Science Laboratory builds upon the improved understanding about Mars gained from current and recent missions," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This mission advances technologies and science that will move us toward missions to return samples from, and eventually send humans to, Mars."

The mission is challenging and risky. Because Curiosity is too heavy to use an air-bag cushioned touchdown, the mission will use a new landing method, with a rocket-powered descent stage lowering the rover on a tether like a kind of sky-crane.

The mission will pioneer precision landing methods during the spacecraft's crucial dive through Mars' atmosphere next August to place the rover onto a smaller landing target than any previously for a Mars mission. The target inside Gale Crater is 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) by 15.5 miles (25 kilometers). Rough terrain just outside that area would have disqualified the landing site without the improved precision.

No mission to Mars since the Viking landers in the 1970s has sought a direct answer to the question of whether life has existed on Mars. Curiosity is not designed to answer that question by itself, but its investigations for evidence about prerequisites for life will steer potential future missions toward answers.

The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA's Space Network, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide space communications services for the rocket. NASA's international Deep Space Network will provide MSL spacecraft acquisition and communication throughout the mission.

An instrument on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity can check for any water that might be bound into shallow underground minerals along the rover's path.

"If we conclude that there is something unusual in the subsurface at a particular spot, we could suggest more analysis of the spot using the capabilities of other instruments," said this instrument's principal investigator, Igor Mitrofanov of the Space Research Institute, Russia.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission will use 10 instruments on Curiosity to investigate whether the area selected for the mission has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for life and favorable for preserving evidence about life.

"The strength of Mars Science Laboratory is the combination of all the instruments together," Mitrofanov added.

The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument, or DAN, will scout for underground clues to a depth of about 20 inches (50 centimeters). The Russian Federal Space Agency contributed it to NASA as part of a broad collaboration between the United States and Russia in the exploration of space. Sergey Saveliev, deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, emphasized that the cooperation on this project serves as a continuation of the joint activities associated with the study of Mars to enhance the scientific return to the international community in the areas of Mars exploration and Mars knowledge. The accommodation and integration of the Russian DAN in the U.S. Mars Science Laboratory flight and mission systems give evidence of strengthening cooperation between the two countries in space endeavors.

DAN will bring to the surface of Mars an enhancement of nuclear technology that has already detected Martian water from orbit. "Albedo" in the instrument's name means reflectance -- in this case, how original high-energy neutrons injected into the ground bounce off atomic nuclei in the ground. Neutrons that collide with hydrogen atoms bounce off with a characteristic decrease in energy, similar to how one billiard ball slows after colliding with another. By measuring the energies of the neutrons leaking from the ground, DAN can detect the fraction that was slowed in these collisions, and therefore the amount of hydrogen.

Oil prospectors use this technology in instruments lowered down exploration holes to detect the hydrogen in petroleum. Space explorers have adapted it for missions to the moon and Mars, where most hydrogen is in water ice or in water-derived hydroxyl ions.

Mitrofanov is the principal investigator for a Russian instrument on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, the high-energy neutron detector (HEND), which measures high energy of neutrons coming from Mars. In 2002, it and companion instruments on Odyssey detected hydrogen interpreted as abundant underground water ice close to the surface at high latitudes. That discovery led to NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander going to far northern Mars in 2008 and confirming the presence of water ice.

"You can think of DAN as a reconnaissance instrument," Mitrofanov said. Just as Phoenix investigated what Odyssey detected, Curiosity can use various tools to investigate what DAN detects. The rover has a soil scoop and can also dig with its wheels. Its robotic arm can put samples into instruments inside the rover for thorough analyses of ingredients. Rock formations that Curiosity's cameras view at the surface can be traced underground with DAN, enhancing the ability of scientists to understand the geology.

The neutron detectors on Odyssey rely on galactic cosmic rays hitting Mars as a source of neutrons. DAN can work in a passive mode relying on cosmic rays, but it also has its own pulsing neutron generator for an active mode of shooting high-energy neutrons into the ground. In active mode, it is sensitive enough to detect water content as low as one-tenth of one percent in the ground beneath the rover.

The neutron generator is mounted on Curiosity's right hip. A module with two neutron detectors is mounted on the left hip. With pulses lasting about one microsecond and repeated as frequently as 10 times per second, key measurements by the detectors are the flux rate and delay time of moderated neutrons with different energy levels returning from the ground. The generator will be able to emit a total of about 10 million pulses during the mission, with about 10 million neutrons at each pulse.

"We have a fixed number of about 10 million shots, so one major challenge is to determine our strategy for how we will use them," said Maxim Litvak, leading scientist of the DAN investigation from the Space Research Institute.

Operational planning anticipates using DAN during short pauses in drives and while the rover is parked. It will check for any changes or trends in subsurface hydrogen content, from place to place along the traverse. Because there is a low possibility for underground water ice at Curiosity's Gale crater landing site, the most likely form of hydrogen in the ground of the landing area is hydrated minerals. These are minerals with water molecules or hydroxyl ions bound into the crystalline structure of the mineral. They can tenaciously retain water from a wetter past when all free water has gone.

"We want a better understanding of where the water has gone," said Alberto Behar, DAN investigation scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "DAN fits right into the follow-the-water strategy for studying Mars."

Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena said, "DAN will provide the ability to detect hydrated minerals or water ice in the shallow subsurface, which provides immediate clues as to how the geology of the subsurface might guide exploration of the surface. In addition, DAN can tell us how the shallow subsurface may differ from what the rover sees at the surface. None of our other instruments have the ability to do this. DAN measurements will tell us about the habitability potential of subsurface rocks and soils -- whether they contain water -- and as we drive along, DAN may help us understand what kinds of rocks are under the soils we drive across."

Information from DAN will also provide a ground-truth calibration for the measurements that the gamma-ray and neutron detectors on Odyssey have made and continue to make, all around the planet, enhancing the value of that global data set. The team leader of Odyssey's gamma-ray spectrometer suite, William Boynton of the University of Arizona in Tucson, is a co-investigator on the DAN investigation, with the major responsibility to provide DAN data products to NASA's Planetary Data System for usage by scientists everywhere.

The distorted shapes in the cluster are distant galaxies from which the light is bent by the gravitational pull of an invisible material called dark matter within the cluster of galaxies. This cluster is an early target in a survey that will allow astronomers to construct the most detailed dark matter maps of more galaxy clusters than ever before.

These maps are being used to test previous, but surprising, results that suggest that dark matter is more densely packed inside clusters than some models predict. This might mean that galaxy cluster assembly began earlier than commonly thought.
The multi-wavelength survey, called the Cluster Lensing And Supernova survey with Hubble (CLASH), probes, with unparalleled precision, the distribution of dark matter in 25 massive clusters of galaxies. So far, the CLASH team has observed six of the 25 clusters.

Dark matter makes up the bulk of the universe’s mass, yet it can only be detected by measuring how its gravity tugs on visible matter and warps space like a fun house mirror so that the light from distant objects is distorted.

Galaxy clusters like MACS 1206 are perfect laboratories for studying dark matter’s gravitational effects because they are the most massive structures in the universe. Because of their heft, the clusters act like giant cosmic lenses, magnifying, distorting and bending any light that passes through them – an effect known as gravitational lensing.

Lensing effects can also produce multiple images of the same distant object, as evident in this Hubble picture. In particular, the apparent numbers and shapes of distant galaxies far beyond a galaxy cluster become distorted as the light passes through, yielding a visible measurement of how much mass is in the intervening cluster, and how it is distributed. The substantial lensing distortions seen are proof that the dominant component of clusters is dark matter. The distortions would be far weaker if the clusters’ gravity came only from the visible galaxies in the clusters.

MACS 1206 lies 4 billion light-years from Earth. Hubble’s keen vision helped CLASH astronomers uncover 47 multiple images of 12 newly identified faraway galaxies. Finding so many multiple images in a cluster is a unique capability of Hubble, and the CLASH survey is optimized to find them. The new observations build on earlier work by Hubble and ground-based telescopes.

Taking advantage of two of Hubble’s powerful cameras, the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3, the CLASH survey covers a broad wavelength range, from ultraviolet to near infrared. Astronomers need the diverse colors to estimate the distances to lensed galaxies and study them in more detail. Hubble’s unique capabilities allow astronomers to estimate distances to galaxies that are four times fainter than ground-based telescopes can see.

The era when the first clusters formed is not precisely known, but is estimated to be at least 9 billion years ago and possibly as far back as 12 billion years ago. If most of the clusters in the CLASH survey are found to have excessively high accumulations of dark matter in their central cores, then it may yield new clues to the early stages in the origin of structure in the universe.

Future telescopes like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a space-based infrared observatory now being built, will be able to study the fainter lensed galaxies in clusters like MACS 1206 in greater detail. The Webb will be powerful enough to the spectra of some of the magnified galaxies to study their early chemical composition.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

A fleet of spacecraft including NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered unprecedented details in the surroundings of a supermassive black hole. Observations reveal huge bullets of gas being driven away from the gravitational monster and a corona of very hot gas hovering above the disk of matter that is falling into the black hole.

A team led by Jelle Kaastra of SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research made use of data from ESA's XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL spacecraft (which study X-rays and gamma rays, respectively), the Hubble Space Telescope (for ultraviolet observations with the COS instrument), and NASA's Chandra (X-ray) Observatory and Swift (gamma-ray) satellites.

The black hole that the team chose to study lies at the heart of the galaxy Markarian 509 (Mrk 509), nearly 500 million light-years away. This black hole is colossal, containing 300 million times the mass of the Sun, and is growing more massive every day as it continues to feed on surrounding matter, which glows brightly as it forms a rotating disk around the black hole. Mrk 509 was chosen because it is known to vary in brightness, which indicates that the flow of matter is turbulent.

The above image of Mrk 509 was taken in April 2007 with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. But using a large number of telescopes that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light gave astronomers unprecedented coverage running from the infrared, through the visible, ultraviolet, X-rays, and into the gamma-ray band.

Observations from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission indicate the family of asteroids some believed was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs is not likely the culprit, keeping open the case on one of Earth's greatest mysteries.

While scientists are confident a large asteroid crashed into Earth approximately 65 million years ago, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and some other life forms on our planet, they do not know exactly where the asteroid came from or how it made its way to Earth. A 2007 study using visible-light data from ground-based telescopes first suggested the remnant of a huge asteroid, known as Baptistina, as a possible suspect.

According to that theory, Baptistina crashed into another asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter about 160 million years ago. The collision sent shattered pieces as big as mountains flying. One of those pieces was believed to have impacted Earth, causing the dinosaurs' extinction.

Since this scenario was first proposed, evidence developed that the so-called Baptistina family of asteroids was not the responsible party. With the new infrared observations from WISE, astronomers say Baptistina may finally be ruled out.

"As a result of the WISE science team's investigation, the demise of the dinosaurs remains in the cold case files," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The original calculations with visible light estimated the size and reflectivity of the Baptistina family members, leading to estimates of their age, but we now know those estimates were off. With infrared light, WISE was able to get a more accurate estimate, which throws the timing of the Baptistina theory into question."

WISE surveyed the entire celestial sky twice in infrared light from January 2010 to February 2011. The asteroid-hunting portion of the mission, called NEOWISE, used the data to catalogue more than 157,000 asteroids in the main belt and discovered more than 33,000 new ones.

Visible light reflects off an asteroid. Without knowing how reflective the surface of the asteroid is, it's hard to accurately establish size. Infrared observations allow a more accurate size estimate. They detect infrared light coming from the asteroid itself, which is related to the body's temperature and size. Once the size is known, the object's reflectivity can be re-calculated by combining infrared with visible-light data.

The NEOWISE team measured the reflectivity and the size of about 120,000 asteroids in the main belt, including 1,056 members of the Baptistina family. The scientists calculated the original parent Baptistina asteroid actually broke up closer to 80 million years ago, half as long as originally proposed.

This calculation was possible because the size and reflectivity of the asteroid family members indicate how much time would have been required to reach their current locations -- larger asteroids would not disperse in their orbits as fast as smaller ones. The results revealed a chunk of the original Baptistina asteroid needed to hit Earth in less time than previously believed, in just about 15 million years, to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs.

"This doesn't give the remnants from the collision very much time to move into a resonance spot, and get flung down to Earth 65 million years ago," said Amy Mainzer, a co-author of a new study appearing in the Astrophysical Journal and the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Calif. "This process is thought to normally take many tens of millions of years." Resonances are areas in the main belt where gravity nudges from Jupiter and Saturn can act like a pinball machine to fling asteroids out of the main belt and into the region near Earth.

The asteroid family that produced the dinosaur-killing asteroid remains at large. Evidence that a 10-kilometer (about 6.2-mile) asteroid impacted Earth 65 million years ago includes a huge, crater-shaped structure in the Gulf of Mexico and rare minerals in the fossil record, which are common in meteorites but seldom found in Earth's crust. In addition to the Baptistina results, the NEOWISE study shows various main belt asteroid families have similar reflective properties. The team hopes to use NEOWISE data to disentangle families that overlap and trace their histories.

"We are working on creating an asteroid family tree of sorts," said Joseph Masiero, the lead author of the study. "We are starting to refine our picture of how the asteroids in the main belt smashed together and mixed up."

NASA has selected two game-changing space technology projects for development. The selections are part of the agency's efforts to pursue revolutionary technology required for future missions, while proving the capabilities and lowering the cost of government and commercial space activities.

"NASA's Game Changing Technology Development program uses a rolling selection process to mature new, potentially transformative technologies from low to moderate technology readiness levels -- from the edge of reality to a test article ready for the rigors of the lab," said Space Technology Director Michael Gazarik at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These two new projects are just the beginning. Space Technology is making investments in critical technology areas that will enable NASA's future missions, while benefiting the American aerospace community."

The "Ride the Light" concept seeks to provide external power on demand for aerospace vehicles and other applications. The concept uses beamed power and propulsion produced by commercially available power sources such as lasers and microwave energy. The project will attempt to develop a low-cost, modular power beaming capability and explore multiple technologies to function as receiving elements of the beamed power.

This combination of technologies could be applied to space propulsion, performance and endurance of unpiloted aerial vehicles or ground-to-ground power beaming applications. Development of such capabilities fulfills NASA's strategic goal of developing high payoff technology and enabling missions otherwise unachievable with today's technology.

NASA has awarded approximately $3 million for concept studies to multiple companies during this first phase of the Ride the Light project. Systems engineering and analysis during this first phase of the Ride the Light project will be done by Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville, Ala.; Aerojet in Redmond, Wash.; ATK in Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; and Teledyne Scientific, Boeing, and the Aerospace Corp., all located in Los Angeles. Following these studies, NASA expects to make an implementation decision in 2013.

NASA also has selected Amprius Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., to pursue development of a prototype battery that could be used for future agency missions. Amprius is teaming with JPL and NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland on the project, with an estimated value of $710,000 for one year of development.

The Amprius project will focus on the material optimization of silicon anodes and electrolyte formulation to meet the agency's low-temperature energy requirements. Amprius developed a unique ultra-high capacity silicon anode for lithium ion batteries that will enable NASA to dramatically improve the specific energy of mission critical rechargeable batteries. NASA requirements are unique because of the extremely low temperatures encountered in space.

A nearby star is pummeling a companion planet with a barrage of X-rays 100,000 times more intense than the Earth receives from the sun.

New data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope suggest that high-energy radiation is evaporating about 5 million tons of matter from the planet every second. This result gives insight into the difficult survival path for some planets.

The planet, known as CoRoT-2b, has a mass about three times that of Jupiter - 1,000 times that of Earth - and orbits its parent star, CoRoT-2a at a distance roughly 10 times the distance between Earth and the moon.

The CoRoT-2 star and planet - so named because the French Space Agency’s Convection, Rotation and planetary Transits, or CoRoT, satellite discovered them in 2008 - is a relatively nearby neighbor of the solar system at a distance of 880 light years.

"This planet is being absolutely fried by its star," said Sebastian Schroeter of the University of Hamburg in Germany. "What may be even stranger is that this planet may be affecting the behavior of the star that is blasting it."

According to optical and X-ray data, the CoRoT-2 system is estimated to be between about 100 million and 300 million years old, meaning that the star is fully formed. The Chandra observations show that CoRoT-2a is a very active star, with bright X-ray emission produced by powerful, turbulent magnetic fields. Such strong activity is usually found in much younger stars.

"Because this planet is so close to the star, it may be speeding up the star's rotation and that could be keeping its magnetic fields active," said co-author Stefan Czesla, also from the University of Hamburg. "If it wasn't for the planet, this star might have left behind the volatility of its youth millions of years ago." Support for this idea come from observations of a likely companion star that orbits CoRoT-2a at a distance about a thousand times greater than the separation between the Earth and our sun. This star is not detected in X-rays, perhaps because it does not have a close-in planet like CoRoT-2b to cause it to stay active.

NASA will invite 25 of its U.S. Twitter followers to a Tweetup expected to culminate in the launch of the first of a new generation of Earth-observing satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California.

The event will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PDT on Monday, Oct. 24. NASA's NPP satellite is scheduled to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket between 2:48 and 2:57 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) will observe many facets of our changing Earth. It will collect critical data on long-term climate change and short-term weather conditions. With NPP, NASA continues many key data records initiated by the agency's Earth Observing System satellites, monitoring changes in the atmosphere, oceans, vegetation, ice and solid Earth.

During Tweetup activities on Oct. 24, participants will tour Vandenberg's launch facilities; speak with agency and NPP mission scientists and managers; and interact with each other and NASA's social media team. For the early-morning rocket launch, participants will watch from a special viewing section that will include a pre-launch concert by "Mobility" from the United States Air Force Band of the Golden West.

Vandenberg is headquarters for the 30th Space Wing, which manages space and missile testing for the Department of Defense and places satellites into polar orbit from the West Coast using expendable boosters.

Registration opens at noon EDT (9 a.m. PDT) on Tuesday, Sept. 13, and closes at 5 p.m. EDT (2 p.m. PDT) on Thursday, Sept. 15. NASA will randomly select 25 participants and create a waiting list. Because this event takes place on an Air Force base with restricted areas, registration is limited to U.S. citizens.

NASA's partnership with industry to develop transportation to the International Space Station reached another step Aug. 23, as the cargo module for Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus spacecraft, which will carry supplies to the station, arrived at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled for a demonstration flight early next year on an Orbital Taurus II launch vehicle under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services agreement with the company.

NASA/Wallops Flight Facility

Scientists using data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have discovered the coldest class of star-like bodies, with temperatures as cool as the human body.

Astronomers hunted these dark orbs, termed Y dwarfs, for more than a decade without success. When viewed with a visible-light telescope, they are nearly impossible to see. WISE's infrared vision allowed the telescope to finally spot the faint glow of six Y dwarfs relatively close to our sun, within a distance of about 40 light-years.

"WISE scanned the entire sky for these and other objects, and was able to spot their feeble light with its highly sensitive infrared vision," said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "They are 5,000 times brighter at the longer infrared wavelengths WISE observed from space than those observable from the ground."

The Y's are the coldest members of the brown dwarf family. Brown dwarfs are sometimes referred to as "failed" stars. They are too low in mass to fuse atoms at their cores and thus don't burn with the fires that keep stars like our sun shining steadily for billions of years. Instead, these objects cool and fade with time, until what little light they do emit is at infrared wavelengths.

Astronomers study brown dwarfs to better understand how stars form, and to understand the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system. The atmospheres of brown dwarfs are similar to those of gas-giant planets like Jupiter, but they are easier to observe because they are alone in space, away from the blinding light of a parent star.

So far, WISE data have revealed 100 new brown dwarfs. More discoveries are expected as scientists continue to examine the enormous quantity of data from WISE. The telescope performed the most advanced survey of the sky at infrared wavelengths to date, from Jan. 2010 to Feb. 2011, scanning the entire sky about 1.5 times.

Of the 100 brown dwarfs, six are classified as cool Y's. One of the Y dwarfs, called WISE 1828+2650, is the record holder for the coldest brown dwarf, with an estimated atmospheric temperature cooler than room temperature, or less than about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).

"The brown dwarfs we were turning up before this discovery were more like the temperature of your oven," said Davy Kirkpatrick, a WISE science team member at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "With the discovery of Y dwarfs, we've moved out of the kitchen and into the cooler parts of the house."

Kirkpatrick is lead author of a paper appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, describing the 100 confirmed brown dwarfs. Michael Cushing, a WISE team member at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is lead author of a paper describing the Y dwarfs in the Astrophysical Journal.

The Y dwarfs are in our sun's neighborhood, from approximately nine to 40 light-years away. The Y dwarf approximately nine light-years away, WISE 1541-2250, may become the seventh closest star system, bumping Ross 154 back to eighth. By comparison, the star closest to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, is about four light-years away.

"Finding brown dwarfs near our sun is like discovering there's a hidden house on your block that you didn't know about," Cushing said. "It's thrilling to me to know we've got neighbors out there yet to be discovered. With WISE, we may even find a brown dwarf closer to us than our closest known star."

Once the WISE team identified brown dwarf candidates, they turned to NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to narrow their list. To definitively confirm them, the WISE team used some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth to split apart the objects' light and look for telltale molecular signatures of water, methane and possibly ammonia. For the very coldest of the new Y dwarfs, the team used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The Y dwarfs were identified based on a change in these spectral features compared to other brown dwarfs, indicating they have a lower atmospheric temperature.

The ground-based telescopes used in these studies include the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; Caltech's Palomar Observatory near San Diego; the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii; and the Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile, among others.

JPL manages WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The principal investigator is Edward Wright at UCLA. The WISE satellite was decommissioned in 2011 after completing its sky survey observations. The mission was selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., in Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing are at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA officials will meet with aeronautics industry, academia, and government leaders Aug. 25 to kick off a series of roundtable discussions about future directions for aeronautics research and technology. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will address the participants.

The roundtable is sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. Its purpose is to facilitate candid dialogue among participants, to foster greater partnership among the NASA-related aeronautics community and, where appropriate, carry awareness of consequences to the wider public.

The meeting will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EDT in Room 100 of the Keck Building at 500 Fifth St. NW in Washington, DC. The administrator's remarks are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Bolden will join NASA's associate administrator for aeronautics research, Jaiwon Shin, in open dialogue with members of the roundtable.

Overview presentations of programs managed by NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate are scheduled from 10:45 a.m. to noon. During a working lunch, participants will discuss the organization and operation of future roundtables. Beginning at 1 p.m., participants will turn their attention to topics including the state of the aviation industry, major needs and opportunities for aeronautics in the next 10 to 20 years, promising areas for integrated systems-level research to motivate rapid technology transition, and public-private partnership success stories.

The Aeronautics Research and Technology Roundtable was established at NASA's request by the National Research Council's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. The 25-member panel includes a broad range of executives, entrepreneurs and experts representing airframe and engine manufacturers, general aviation companies, academia, industry associations, and other federal agencies.

NASA has a long history of aeronautics research for public benefit. Through scientific study, NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate works to find practical solutions to the problems of flight. In the past five years, the directorate has revitalized its aeronautics research investment portfolio with a back-to-basics philosophy balanced by a growing portfolio of systems-level research efforts that ensures excellence in broad-based fundamental research with robust mechanisms for community participation.

During several recent site visits with U.S. aerospace companies, NASA officials learned there are many productive avenues for future innovation with the aeronautics sector. They sought the National Research Council's assistance expanding this communication to enable more vigorous public-private collaboration in pre-competitive areas of common interest.

NASA's lunar-bound GRAIL twins were mated to their Delta II launch vehicle at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 17 at 8:45 a.m. EDT (5:45 a.m. PDT) today. The 15-mile (25-kilometer) trip from Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., is the last move for GRAIL before it begins its journey to the moon. NASA's dynamic duo will orbit the moon to determine the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core and to advance understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon.

"We are about to finish one chapter in the GRAIL story and open another," said Maria Zuber, GRAIL's principal investigator, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Let me assure you this one is a real page-turner. GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us."

Now that the GRAIL spacecraft are atop their rocket, a final flurry of checks and tests can begin to confirm that all is go for launch. The final series of checks begins tomorrow, Aug. 19, with an on-pad functional test. The test is designed to confirm that the spacecraft is healthy after the fueling and transport operations. Next week, among all the upcoming final tests, reviews and closeout operations leading up to liftoff, the GRAIL team will install the launch vehicle fairing around the spacecraft.

GRAIL's launch period opens Sept. 8 and extends through Oct. 19. On each day, there are two separate instantaneous launch opportunities separated in time by approximately 39 minutes. On Sept. 8, the first launch opportunity is at 8:37 a.m. EDT (5:37 a.m. PDT). The second launch opportunity is 9:16 a.m. EDT (6:16 a.m. PDT).

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

Wilcutt is a retired Marine colonel and veteran astronaut who is serving as director of safety and mission assurance at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. He will assume the post from Bryan O'Connor, who will retire from the agency on Aug. 31.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the appointment Tuesday.

"As NASA looks beyond the space shuttle to new programs of human exploration, technology development and scientific research, we remain committed to the highest standards for mission success and the well-being of our work force," Bolden said. "Terry Wilcutt has more than 20 years of experience in human spaceflight and safety, as well as the integrity and courage necessary to lead what arguably is NASA's most important support organization, the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, and serve as my conscience on issues of safety as did Bryan O'Connor during our time together. I am delighted Terry stepped forward to guide us safely into the future."

In his new role, Wilcutt will be responsible for the development, implementation and oversight of safety and mission assurance policies and procedures for all NASA programs.

"I look forward to continuing Bryan's work and to meeting the challenges of the next chapter in human space exploration as well as the rest of NASA's diverse portfolio," Wilcutt said.

Wilcutt joined NASA as an astronaut in 1990. He was the pilot on two space shuttle missions, STS-68 in 1994 and STS-79 in 1996. He commanded two others, STS-89 in 1998 and STS-106 in 2000. He served as manager of safety and mission assurance for the Space Shuttle Program, and as Johnson's deputy director of safety and mission assurance before becoming director in 2008.

NASA’s groundbreaking Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) will reach a key milestone in September when the International Space Station (ISS) robots transfer the module to its permanent home on space station’s ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4. Robotic operations for the technology demonstration are currently slated to begin soon afterwards.

A joint effort between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, RRM is designed to demonstrate the technologies, tools, and techniques needed to robotically service satellites, especially those not built with servicing in mind.

The results of this two-year technology test bed are expected to the reduce risks associated with satellite servicing as well as lay the foundation and encourage future robotic servicing missions. Such future missions could include the repair and repositioning of orbiting satellites.

President Obama called the RRM demonstration “innovative” during a July 15 phone call to STS-135 astronauts onboard the ISS noting its potential future benefits to the commercial satellite industry. “It’s a good reminder of how NASA technology and research often times has huge spillover effects into the commercial sector, and makes it all that much more important in terms of peoples’ day to day lives.”

Launched to the ISS in July onboard the last shuttle mission, RRM marks the first use of the space station’s Dextre robot beyond robotic station maintenance for technology research and development. It is also the first on-orbit demonstration to test, prove and advance the technology needed to perform robotic servicing on spacecraft not designed for refueling and repair.

"Robotic refueling and satellite servicing could extend the lifetimes of satellites, offering significant savings in delayed replacement costs," said Frank Cepollina, Associate Director of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "Such servicing has the potential to allow human and robotic explorers to reach distant destinations more efficiently and effectively."

The RRM module is about the size of a washing machine and weighs approximately 550 pounds, with dimensions of 33" by 43" by 45.” RRM includes 0.45 gallon (1.7 liters) of ethanol that will be used to demonstrate fluid transfer on orbit.

On July 12, space station astronauts Mike Fossum and Ron Garan removed the RRM module from the cargo bay of shuttle Atlantis and placed the module onto a temporary platform on the Dextre robot. In September, the Canadarm2 robot will permanently secure RRM on the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 (ELC-4), an external platform also built at Goddard. The ISS will provide command, telemetry and power support for the module through ELC-4 during the experiment’s two-year window of operations.

After the transfer to ELC-4, mission operators will release the launch locks on the four RRM tools to be used at a later date by Dextre. This will be followed by a series of vision tasks, to develop machine vision algorithms against the harsh lighting on orbit verifying the RRM can see during future demonstrations.

The first set of refueling demonstration tasks are currently scheduled for January 2012. These activities will verify that on-orbit satellite repairs can be performed with today’s technology.

Satellite servicing with astronauts is not new for NASA. Skylab, NASA's first space station, was repaired in space in 1973. Solar Maximum and Syncon IV, with help from the shuttle, were successfully repaired in the 1980's. In the 1990's NASA serviced the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, Intelsat 6 and executed a series of highly successful servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.

"You know NASA has been doing space servicing for quite some time now," said Cepollina. "We will be demonstrating abilities that will allow for the servicing of existing satellites and could influence the build of future satellites to allow easy on-orbit access for refueling and repair."

More recently, human and robotic servicing capabilities have contributed to the assembly, upkeep and repair of the ISS. With RRM, NASA can begin the work of confirming the robotic satellite-servicing technologies needed for the development of future robotic servicing spacecraft.

Cepollina believes it is just a matter of time before such servicing could become routine. "If we are to venture further from Earth, the need for robotic servicing will increase," said Cepollina. "With the build of the space station we see the increase of collaboration between human and robotic abilities in space servicing."

RRM operations will be entirely remote controlled by flight controllers at Goddard, Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Canadian Space Agency's control center in St. Hubert, Quebec. The station's two-armed robotic system, Canada’s Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or “Dextre,” will manipulate the tools necessary for the demonstrations.

Included within the RRM module are four unique tools developed at Goddard: the Wire Cutter/Blanket Manipulation Tool, the Multifunction Tool, the Safety Cap Removal Tool, and the Nozzle Tool. Each tool will be stowed in its own storage bay until Dextre retrieves it for use. Each tool contains two integral cameras with built-in LEDs to give mission controllers the ability to see and control the tools.

Drawing upon 20 years of experience servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s SSCO initiated the development of RRM in 2009. Atlantis, the same shuttle that carried tools and instruments for the final, astronaut-based Hubble Servicing Mission 4, launched RRM to space. The last shuttle mission carried the first step to robotic refueling and satellite servicing to orbit—a new era sprung from the old.

The ultimate dream for any school student would be to make it to in the US and win a competition there. Students of Bishop Cotton Boys School did precisely that - win the international prize for designing a settlement on Mars. They were joint winners in the Asian final with a Pakistan school.

Bishop Cotton, along with three other schools - from USA, Romania and UK - all of whom were part of `one company' that designed the settlement of Mars, was declared international winners of the space settlement design competition for 2011 organized by Nasa on July 30, 31 and August 1 at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, USA.

The Herschel Space Observatory's large telescope and state-of-the-art infrared detectors have provided the first confirmed finding of oxygen molecules in space. The molecules were discovered in the Orion star-forming complex.

Individual atoms of oxygen are common in space, particularly around massive stars. But, molecular oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of the air we breathe, has eluded astronomers until now.

"Oxygen gas was discovered in the 1770s, but it's taken us more than 230 years to finally say with certainty that this very simple molecule exists in space," said Paul Goldsmith, NASA's Herschel project scientist at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

Goldsmith is lead author of a recent paper describing the findings in the Astrophysical Journal. Herschel is a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions.

Astronomers searched for the elusive molecules in space for decades using balloons, as well as ground- and space-based telescopes. The Swedish Odin telescope spotted the molecule in 2007, but the sighting could not be confirmed.

Goldsmith and his colleagues propose that oxygen is locked up in water ice that coats tiny dust grains. They think the oxygen detected by Herschel in the Orion nebula was formed after starlight warmed the icy grains, releasing water, which was converted into oxygen molecules.

"This explains where some of the oxygen might be hiding," said Goldsmith. "But we didn't find large amounts of it, and still don't understand what is so special about the spots where we find it. The universe still holds many secrets."

The researchers plan to continue their hunt for oxygen molecules in other star-forming regions.

"Oxygen is the third most common element in the universe and its molecular form must be abundant in space," said Bill Danchi, Herschel program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Herschel is proving a powerful tool to probe this unsolved mystery. The observatory gives astronomers an innovative tool to look at a whole new set of wavelengths where the tell-tale signature of oxygen may be hiding."

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments.

NASA's Juno spacecraft completed its last significant terrestrial journey today, July 27, with a 15-mile (25-kilometer) trip from Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., to its launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The solar-powered, Jupiter-bound spacecraft was secured into place on top of its rocket at 10:42 a.m. EDT (7:42 a.m. PDT).
Juno will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016 and orbit its poles 33 times to learn more about the gas giant's interior, atmosphere and aurora.

"We're about to start our journey to Jupiter to unlock the secrets of the early solar system," said Scott Bolton, the mission's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "After eight years of development, the spacecraft is ready for its important mission."

Now that the Juno payload is atop the most powerful Atlas rocket ever made -- the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 -- a final flurry of checks and tests can begin and confirm that all is go for launch. The final series of checks begins Wednesday with an on-pad functional test. The test is designed to confirm that the spacecraft is healthy after the fueling, encapsulation and transport operations. 

The on-pad functional test is the first of seven tests and reviews that Juno and its flight team will undergo during the spacecraft's last 10 days on Earth," said Jan Chodas, Juno's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "There are a number of remaining pre-launch activities that we still need to focus on, but the team is really excited that the final days of preparation, which we've been anticipating for years, are finally here. We are ready to go."

The launch period for Juno opens Aug. 5, 2011, and extends through Aug. 26. For an Aug. 5 liftoff, the launch window opens at 11:34 a.m. EDT (8:34 a.m. PDT) and remains open through 12:43 p.m. EDT (9:43 a.m. PDT).

JPL manages the Juno mission for principal investigator Scott Bolton. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver built the spacecraft. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA's chief of safety and mission assurance since 2002, has announced plans to retire from the agency on Aug. 31.

"Bryan is a fellow Marine, trusted advisor and friend I have been privileged to serve with off and on since our years as plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "I am deeply grateful for his vigilance over the safety and well-being of NASA's people and its work. His concern and commitment have encompassed not just the space shuttle and the astronaut corps, but every mission, large or small, and every member of the NASA family. He'll be sorely missed."

O'Connor announced his plans to members of his staff in NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance on Tuesday. In his current role, he is responsible for the safety, reliability, maintainability and quality assurance of all NASA programs.

"Even though good practice suggests shorter tours for senior leaders, I did not want to pass the safety baton until after the STS-135 crew left Atlantis on the runway," O'Connor said. "This transition is a great time to let someone new takes on this wonderful role you've permitted me to serve in."

Atlantis completed STS-135, the last mission of the space shuttle program, with a landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21.

O'Connor held management positions in NASA's space shuttle, International Space Station, and Shuttle-Mir programs, and played prominent safety management roles in the agency's recovery from two space shuttle accidents, the loss of Challenger in 1986 and the loss of Columbia in 2003. Prior to that, he joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1980 and flew two missions aboard the space shuttle.

Today’s wakeup song was “Don’t Panic,” by Coldplay, played at 9:59 p.m. EDT for space shuttle Atlantis Pilot Doug Hurley.

Hurley will guide Atlantis away from the International Space Station on a half-lap fly-around about an hour after the shuttle undocks at 2:28 a.m.

Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson and Pilot Doug Hurley have reloaded software into General Purpose Computer (GPC) 4 and recovered the computer. It has been added to the common set of GPCs and is operating normally, processing data.

Meanwhile, Mission Control is evaluating the “dump” of data from the computer that Atlantis transmitted earlier this morning to determine what caused the Thursday evening failure. GPCs 1, 2 & 4 are in “run” and GPC 3 is in “standby.” All four of the primary computers are processing data.

In Firing Room 4 in the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, launch team members gather at their consoles preparing for space shuttle Atlantis' STS-135 mission to the International Space Station.

Atlantis and its crew of four are scheduled to lift off at 11:26 a.m. EDT on July 8 to deliver the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module packed with supplies and spare parts to the station.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope crossed another milestone in its space odyssey of exploration and discovery. On Monday, July 4, the Earth-orbiting observatory logged its one millionth science observation during a search for water in an exoplanet's atmosphere 1,000 light-years away.

"For 21 years Hubble has been the premier space science observatory, astounding us with deeply beautiful imagery and enabling ground-breaking science across a wide spectrum of astronomical disciplines," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. He piloted the space shuttle mission that carried Hubble to orbit. "The fact that Hubble met this milestone while studying a faraway planet is a remarkable reminder of its strength and legacy."

Although Hubble is best known for its stunning imagery of the cosmos, the millionth observation is a spectroscopic measurement, where light is divided into its component colors. These color patterns can reveal the chemical composition of cosmic sources.

Hubble's millionth exposure is of the planet HAT-P-7b, a gas giant planet larger than Jupiter orbiting a star hotter than our sun. HAT-P-7b, also known as Kepler 2b, has been studied by NASA's planet-hunting Kepler observatory after it was discovered by ground-based observations. Hubble now is being used to analyze the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

A busy weekend is under way at NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A in Florida.

With space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-135 mission payload now secured inside the pad’s rotating service structure, the RSS was closed Saturday morning, and Atlantis' payload bay doors are scheduled to be opened Saturday night. It's all part of the preparations to install the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module and other payloads bound for the International Space Station into the shuttle’s cargo bay on Monday.‬

Also on Saturday, technicians begin high-tech X-ray scans of the tops and bottoms of 50 support beams, called stringers, on the shuttle-facing side of Atlantis’ external tank. The scans are expected to take about a week to complete and confirm there are no issues with the tank stringers.

Technicians also begin preparations to replace a suspected leaky valve in Atlantis’ space shuttle main engine No. 3. ‪

And Atlantis’ four veteran astronauts are scheduled to fly in their T-38 aircraft from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to Kennedy on Monday. They’re set to arrive at about 5:45 p.m. EDT to being their prelaunch countdown dress rehearsal, called the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT), and related training.

Cue the surfing music. Scientists have spotted the iconic surfer's wave rolling through the atmosphere of the sun. This makes for more than just a nice photo-op: the waves hold clues as to how energy moves through that atmosphere, known as the corona.

Since scientists know how these kinds of waves -- initiated by a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability if you're being technical -- disperse energy in the water, they can use this information to better understand the corona. This in turn, may help solve an enduring mystery of why the corona is thousands of times hotter than originally expected.

"One of the biggest questions about the solar corona is the heating mechanism," says solar physicist Leon Ofman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. and Catholic University, Washington. "The corona is a thousand times hotter than the sun's visible surface, but what heats it up is not well-understood. People have suggested that waves like this might cause turbulence which cause heating, but now we have direct evidence of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves."

Ofman and his Goddard colleague, Barbara Thompson, spotted these waves in images taken on April 8, 2010. These were some of the first images caught on camera by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a solar telescope with outstanding resolution that launched on February 11, 2010 and began capturing data on March 24 of that year. The team's results appeared online in Astrophysical Journal Letters on May 19, 2011 and will be published in the journal on June 10.

That these "surfer" waves exist in the sun at all is not necessarily a surprise, since they do appear in so many places in nature including, for example, clouds on Earth and between the bands of Saturn. But observing the sun from almost 93 million miles away means it's not easy to physically see details like this. That's why the resolution available with SDO gets researchers excited.

"The waves we're seeing in these images are so small," says Thompson who in addition to being a co-author on this paper is the deputy project scientist for SDO. "They're only the size of the United States," she laughs.

Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities occur when two fluids of different densities or different speeds flow by each other. In the case of ocean waves, that's the dense water and the lighter air. As they flow past each other, slight ripples can be quickly amplified into the giant waves loved by surfers. In the case of the solar atmosphere, which is made of a very hot and electrically charged gas called plasma, the two flows come from an expanse of plasma erupting off the sun's surface as it passes by plasma that is not erupting. The difference in flow speeds and densities across this boundary sparks the instability that builds into the waves.

In order to confirm this description, the team developed a computer model to see what takes place in the region. Their model showed that these conditions could indeed lead to giant surfing waves rolling through the corona.

Ofman says that despite the fact that Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities have been spotted in other places, there was no guarantee they'd be spotted in the sun's corona, which is permeated with magnetic fields. "I wasn't sure that this instability could evolve on the sun, since magnetic fields can have a stabilizing effect," he says. "Now we know that this instability can appear even though the solar plasma is magnetized."

Seeing the big waves suggests they can cascade down to smaller forms of turbulence too. Scientists believe that the friction created by turbulence – the simple rolling of material over and around itself – could help add heating energy to the corona. The analogy is the way froth at the top of a surfing wave provides friction that will heat up the wave. (Surfers of course don't ever notice this, as any extra heat quickly dissipates into the rest of the water.)

Hammering out the exact mechanism for heating the corona will continue to intrigue researchers for some time but, says Thompson, SDO's ability to capture images of the entire sun every 12 seconds with such precise detail will be a great boon. "SDO is not the first solar observatory with high enough visual resolution to be able to see something like this," she says. "But for some reason Kelvin-Helmholtz features are rare. The fact that we spotted something so interesting in some of the first images really shows the strength of SDO."

NASA's Aquarius mission is less than a week away from its June 9 launch date. Liftoff preparations continue on schedule at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The second-stage oxidizer will be loaded today and fuel loading will follow on Monday. Although its batteries will soon be charged, no other work is scheduled for the spacecraft, which will lift off aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. The launch window extends from 7:20:13 a.m. to 7:25:13 a.m. PDT (10:20:13 a.m. to 10:25:13 a.m. EDT).

While the weather this weekend will be rainy and windy, it will not affect operations at Space Launch Complex-2. Forecasters predict favorable conditions for Thursday's scheduled launch.

The Aquarius mission will measure ocean surface salinity to understand the links between ocean circulation, global water cycle and climate. NASA's Aquarius instrument is part of the SAC-D spacecraft provided by Argentina.

At NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A, teams closed the rotating service structure (RSS) this morning and will evaluate data from a storm that passed over Kennedy yesterday. A lightning strike was detected about half a mile from the pad. Teams will perform walkdowns and evaluate the data.

Meanwhile, technicians completed a hotfire of space shuttle Atlantis' auxiliary power unit and connected the ground umbilical carrier plate Wednesday.

At Kennedy's Orbiter Processing Facility-1, technicians will begin draining the residual cryogenic fuel from shuttle Endeavour's power reaction control distribution system today.

Space shuttle Endeavour and its crew of six astronauts are to return to Earth in the early morning of June 1, 2011, to complete the STS-134 mission, the last of Endeavour's spacegoing career. Landing is scheduled for 2:35 a.m. EDT. The mission launched Monday, May 16, 2011, at 8:56 a.m. EDT on a mission to the International Space Station.

We will cover Endeavour's return to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida from the Air Traffic Control Tower at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy beginning at 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Tiny crystals of a green mineral called olivine are falling down like rain on a burgeoning star, according to observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

This is the first time such crystals have been observed in the dusty clouds of gas that collapse around forming stars. Astronomers are still debating how the crystals got there, but the most likely culprits are jets of gas blasting away from the embryonic star.

"You need temperatures as hot as lava to make these crystals," said Tom Megeath of the University of Toledo in Ohio. He is the principal investigator of the research and the second author of a new study appearing in Astrophysical Journal Letters. "We propose that the crystals were cooked up near the surface of the forming star, then carried up into the surrounding cloud where temperatures are much colder, and ultimately fell down again like glitter."

Spitzer's infrared detectors spotted the crystal rain around a distant, sun-like embryonic star, or protostar, referred to as HOPS-68, in the constellation Orion.

The crystals are in the form of forsterite. They belong to the olivine family of silicate minerals and can be found everywhere from a periodot gemstone to the green sand beaches of Hawaii to remote galaxies. NASA's Stardust and Deep Impact missions both detected the crystals in their close-up studies of comets.

"If you could somehow transport yourself inside this protostar's collapsing gas cloud, it would be very dark," said Charles Poteet, lead author of the new study, also from the University of Toledo. "But the tiny crystals might catch whatever light is present, resulting in a green sparkle against a black, dusty backdrop."

Forsterite crystals were spotted before in the swirling, planet-forming disks that surround young stars. The discovery of the crystals in the outer collapsing cloud of a proto-star is surprising because of the cloud's colder temperatures, about minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 170 degrees Celsius). This led the team of astronomers to speculate the jets may in fact be transporting the cooked-up crystals to the chilly outer cloud.

The findings might also explain why comets, which form in the frigid outskirts of our solar system, contain the same type of crystals. Comets are born in regions where water is frozen, much colder than the searing temperatures needed to form the crystals, approximately 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius). The leading theory on how comets acquired the crystals is that materials in our young solar system mingled together in a planet-forming disk. In this scenario, materials that formed near the sun, such as the crystals, eventually migrated out to the outer, cooler regions of the solar system.

Poteet and his colleagues say this scenario could still be true but speculate that jets might have lifted crystals into the collapsing cloud of gas surrounding our early sun before raining onto the outer regions of our forming solar system. Eventually, the crystals would have been frozen into comets. The Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions, also participated in the study by characterizing the forming star.

"Infrared telescopes such as Spitzer and now Herschel are providing an exciting picture of how all the ingredients of the cosmic stew that makes planetary systems are blended together," said Bill Danchi, senior astrophysicist and program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The Spitzer observations were made before it used up its liquid coolant in May 2009 and began its warm mission.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

At 11:55 p.m. EDT, space shuttle Endeavour undocked from the International Space Station. Endeavour spent 11 days, 17 hrs and 41 minutes docked to the orbiting laboratory. At undocking, the spacecraft were 215 miles above LaPaz, Bolivia.

The fly around of the space station will begin at 12:22 a.m., with Pilot Greg Johnson maneuvering Endeavour to circle the station at a distance of about 600 feet. The shuttle crew members will take detailed photographs of the external structure of the station, which serves as important documentation for the ground teams in Houston to monitor the orbiting laboratory.

Once the shuttle completes 1.5 revolutions of the complex, Johnson will fire Endeavour’s jets to leave the area. Nearly two hours after undocking a second firing of the engines, which would normally take the shuttle further away, will serve as the first maneuver to bring Endeavour back toward the station for the Sensor Test for Orion Relative-navigation Risk Mitigation, or STORRM. Commander Mark Kelly will pilot Endeavour for the re-rendezvous.

The test will characterize the performance of sensors in Endeavour’s payload bay and acquisition of reflectors on the shuttle’s docking target at the station. The re-rendezvous will mimic the Orion vehicle’s planned rendezvous trajectory and will approach no closer than 600 feet to the station. Endeavour is targeted to approach the station to a point 1,000 feet below and 300 feet behind the station at its closest point.

NASA will launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 and use a robotic arm to pluck samples that could better explain our solar system's formation and how life began. The mission, called Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth.

"This is a critical step in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama to extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore into deep space," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. "It’s robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations."

NASA selected OSIRIS-REx after reviewing three concept study reports for new scientific missions, which also included a sample return mission from the far side of the Moon and a mission to the surface of Venus.

Asteroids are leftovers formed from the cloud of gas and dust -- the solar nebula -- that collapsed to form our sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago. As such, they contain the original material from the solar nebula, which can tell us about the conditions of our solar system's birth.

After traveling four years, OSIRIS-REx will approach the primitive, near Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2020. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping. The science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft's arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023. The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.

The sample will be stored in a capsule that will land at Utah's Test and Training Range in 2023. The capsule's design will be similar to that used by NASA's Stardust spacecraft, which returned the world's first comet particles from comet Wild 2 in 2006. The OSIRIS-REx sample capsule will be taken to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The material will be removed and delivered to a dedicated research facility following stringent planetary protection protocol. Precise analysis will be performed that cannot be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments.

RQ36 is approximately 1,900 feet in diameter or roughly the size of five football fields. The asteroid, little altered over time, is likely to represent a snapshot of our solar system's infancy. The asteroid also is likely rich in carbon, a key element in the organic molecules necessary for life. Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating some of life's ingredients can be created in space. Scientists want to see if they also are present on RQ36.

"This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration," said Jim Green, director, NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids."

The mission will accurately measure the "Yarkovsky effect" for the first time. The effect is a small push caused by the sun on an asteroid, as it absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat. The small push adds up over time, but it is uneven due to an asteroid's shape, wobble, surface composition and rotation. For scientists to predict an Earth-approaching asteroid's path, they must understand how the effect will change its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will help refine RQ36's orbit to ascertain its trajectory and devise future strategies to mitigate possible Earth impacts from celestial objects.

Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the mission's principal investigator. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. The OSIRIS-REx payload includes instruments from the University of Arizona, Goddard, Arizona State University in Tempe and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., the Langley Research Center in Hampton Va., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., also are involved. The science team is composed of numerous researchers from universities, private and government agencies.

This is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. The first, New Horizons, was launched in 2006. It will fly by the Pluto-Charon system in July 2015, then target another Kuiper Belt object for study. The second mission, Juno, will launch in August to become the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter from pole to pole and study the giant planet's atmosphere and interior. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.