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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 January 2011

NASA's Time History of Events and Macroscale Interaction during Substorms (THEMIS) spacecraft combined with computer models have helped track the origin of the energetic particles in Earth's magnetic atmosphere that appear during a kind of space weather called a substorm. Understanding the source of such particles and how they are shuttled through Earth's atmosphere is crucial to better understanding the Sun's complex space weather system and thus protect satellites or even humans in space.

The results show that these speedy electrons gain extra energy from changing magnetic fields far from the origin of the substorm that causes them. THEMIS, which consists of five orbiting satellites, helped provide these insights when three of the spacecraft traveled through a large substorm on February 15, 2008. This allowed scientists to track changes in particle energy over a large distance. The observations were consistent with numerical models showing an increase in energy due to changing magnetic fields, a process known as betatron acceleration.

"The origin of fast electrons in substorms has been a puzzle," says Maha Ashour-Abdalla, the lead author of a Nature Physics paper that appeared online on January 30, 2011 on the subject and a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It hasn't been clear until now if they got their burst of speed in the middle of the storm, or from some place further away."

Substorms originate opposite the sun on Earth's "night side," at a point about a third of the distance to the moon. At this point in space, energy and particles from the solar wind store up over time. This is also a point where the more orderly field lines near Earth -- where they look like two giant ears on either side of the globe, a shape known as a dipole since the lines bow down to touch Earth at the two poles – can distort into long lines and sometimes pull apart and "reconnect." During reconnection, the stored energy is released in explosions that send particles out in all directions. But reconnection is a magnetic phenomenon and scientists don't know the exact mechanism that creates speeding particles from that phenomenon.

"For thirty years, one of the questions about the magnetic environment around Earth has been, 'how do magnetic fields give rise to moving, energetic particles?'" says NASA scientist Melvyn Goldstein, chief of the Geospace Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and another author on the paper. "We need to know such things to help plan the next generation of reconnection research instruments such as the Magnetospheric MultiScale mission (MMS) due to launch in 2014. MMS needs to look in the right place and for the correct signatures of particle energization."

In the early 1980s, scientists hypothesized that the quick, high-energy particles might get their speed from rapidly changing magnetic fields. Changing magnetic fields can cause electrons to zoom along a corkscrew path by the betatron effect.

Indeed, electrons moving toward Earth from a substorm will naturally cross a host of changing magnetic fields as those long, stretched field lines far away from Earth relax back to the more familiar dipole field lines closer to Earth, a process called dipolarization. Betatron acceleration causes the particles to gain energy and speed much farther away from the initial reconnection site. But in the absence of observations that could simultaneously measure data near the reconnection site and closer to Earth, the hypothesis was hard to prove or contradict.

An artist's concept of the THEMIS spacecraft as it might appear in orbit. Credit: NASA THEMIS, however, was specifically designed to study the formation of substorms. It launched with five spacecraft, which can be spread out over some 44,000 miles – a perfect tool for examining different areas of Earth's magnetic environment at the same time. Near midnight, on February 15, 2008, three of the satellites moving through Earth's magnetic tail, about 36,000 miles from Earth, traveled through a large substorm.

"I looked at the THEMIS data for that substorm," says Ashour-Abdalla, "and saw there was a direct correlation of the increased particle energy at the origin with the region of dipolarization nearer to Earth."

To examine the data, Ashour-Abdalla and a team of researchers from UCLA, Nanchang University in China, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, used their expertise with computer modeling to simulate the complex dynamics that occur in space. The team began with spacecraft data from an ESA mission called Cluster that was in the solar wind at the time of the substorm. Using these observations of the solar environment, they modeled large scale electric and magnetic fields in space around Earth. Then they modeled the future fate of the various particles observed.

When the team looked at their models they saw that electrons near the reconnection sites didn't gain much energy. But as they looked closer to Earth, where the THEMIS satellites were located, their model showed particles that had some ten times as much energy – just as THEMIS had in fact observed.

This is consistent with the betatron acceleration model. The electrons gain a small amount of energy from the reconnection and then travel toward Earth, crossing many changing magnetic field lines. These fields produce betatronic acceleration just as Kivelson predicted in the early 1980s, speeding the electrons up substantially.

"This research shows the great science that can be accomplished when modelers, theorists and observationalists join forces," says astrophysicist Larry Kepko, who is a deputy project scientist for the THEMIS mission at Goddard. "THEMIS continues to yield critical insights into the dynamic processes that produce the space weather that affects Earth."

Launched in 2007, THEMIS was NASA's first five-satellite mission launched aboard a single rocket. The unique constellation of satellites provided scientists with data to help resolve the mystery of how Earth's magnetosphere stores and releases energy from the sun by triggering geomagnetic substorms. Two of the satellites have been renamed ARTEMIS and are in the process of moving to a new orbit around the moon. They are due to reach their final lunar orbit in July 2011. The three remaining THEMIS satellites continue to study substorms.

THEMIS is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, is responsible for project management, space and ground-based instruments, mission integration, mission operations and science. ATK (formerly Swales Aerospace), Beltsville, Md., built the THEMIS probes. THEMIS is an international project conducted in partnership with Germany, France, Austria, and Canada.

Fifty years ago, a young President facing mounting pressure at home propelled a fledgling space agency on a bold, new course that would push the frontiers of exploration to new heights. Today, on this Day of Remembrance when NASA reflects on the mighty sacrifices made to push those frontiers, America’s space agency is working to achieve even greater goals. NASA’s new 21st Century course will foster new industries that create jobs, pioneer technology innovation, and inspire a new generation of explorers through education – all while continuing its fundamental missions of exploring our home planet and the cosmos.

President Barack Obama on NASA's Day of Remembrance
Throughout history, however, we have seen that achieving great things sometimes comes at great cost and we mourn the brave astronauts who made the ultimate sacrifice in support of NASA missions throughout the agency’s storied history. We pause to reflect on the tragic loss of the Apollo 1 crew, those who boarded the space shuttle Challenger in search of a brighter future, and the brave souls who perished on the space shuttle Columbia.

Through triumph and tragedy, each of us has benefited from their courage and devotion, and we honor their memory by dedicating ourselves to a better tomorrow. Despite the challenges before us today, let us commit ourselves and continue their valiant journey toward a more vibrant and secure future.

NASA's Stardust spacecraft has downlinked its first images of comet Tempel 1, the target of a flyby planned for Valentine's Day, Feb. 14. The images were taken on Jan. 18 and 19 from a distance of 26.3 million kilometers (16.3 million miles), and 25.4 million kilometers (15.8 million miles) respectively. On Feb. 14, Stardust will fly within about 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the comet's nucleus.

"This is the first of many images to come of comet Tempel 1," said Joe Veverka, principal investigator of NASA's Stardust-NExT mission from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "Encountering something as small and fast as a comet in the vastness of space is always a challenge, but we are very pleased with how things are setting up for our Valentine's Day flyby."

The composite image is a combination of several images taken by Stardust's navigation camera. Future images will be used to help mission navigators refine Stardust's trajectory, or flight path, as it closes the distance between comet and spacecraft at a rate of about 950,000 kilometers (590,000 miles) a day. On the night of encounter, the navigation camera will be used to acquire 72 high-resolution images of the comet's surface features. Stardust-NExT mission scientists will use these images to see how surface features on comet Tempel 1 have changed over the past five-and-a-half years. (Tempel 1 had previously been visited and imaged in July of 2005 by NASA's Deep Impact mission).

Launched on Feb. 7, 1999, Stardust became the first spacecraft in history to collect samples from a comet (comet Wild 2), and return them to Earth for study. While its sample return capsule parachuted to Earth in January 2006, mission controllers were placing the still-viable spacecraft on a path that would allow NASA the opportunity to re-use the already-proven flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself. In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission "Stardust-NExT" (New Exploration of Tempel), and the Stardust team began a four-and-a-half year journey for the spacecraft to comet Tempel 1. This will be the second exploration of Tempel 1 by a spacecraft.

Along with the high-resolution images of the comet's surface, Stardust-NExT will also measure the composition, size distribution and flux of dust emitted into the coma, and provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolve and how they formed 4.6 billion years ago.

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that will expand the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages Stardust-NExT for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Joe Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is the mission's principal investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden meets with seventh and eighth grade students from Albert Hill Middle School this Friday at the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond, Va. Bolden will highlight the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education as he shares his career experiences in the military and the space program. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Obama emphasized the importance of STEM education for the U.S. to remain competitive in the world and win the future.


U.S. Senator Mark Warner is scheduled to join the administrator and science center executives for this special NASA student event on Friday, Jan. 28, at 10 a.m. EST. Bolden's remarks will begin around 11 a.m.

Media representatives interested in attending should contact Robin Newton at 804-343-6525 x227 by 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27. The MathScience Innovation Center is located at 2401 Hartman Street in Richmond.

The MathScience Innovation Center's goal is to be the innovator, incubator and advocate of 21st Century math and science programs for the Virginia-capital region's kindergarten through 12th grade educators and students. It also houses the Challenger Center Learning Center Richmond. January 28 will mark the 25th anniversary of the loss of space shuttle Challenger astronauts.

In his first education address of 2011, Bolden will reinforce NASA's commitment to STEM education and highlight opportunities for students who pursue those fields. STEM studies are a key part of NASA's effort to build the agency's future high-tech workforce and cultivate the next generation of explorers.

In addition to hearing from Bolden and Warner, the students will have an opportunity to engage in hands-on activities related to science and exploration. Education staff from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., will lead the activities.

NASA engineers successfully integrated and completed system testing on a new robotic lander recently at Teledyne Brown Engineering’s facility in Huntsville in support of the Robotic Lunar Lander Project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The lander prototype was placed on modified skateboards and a customized track system as a low-cost solution to control movement during final testing of the prototype’s sensors, onboard computer, and thrusters. The functional test focused on ensuring that all system components work seamlessly to sense, communicate, and command the lander's movements.

The prototype will be transported to the United States Army Redstone Arsenal Test Center in Huntsville this week to begin strap-down testing, which will lead to free-flying tests later this year.

The lander prototype will aid NASA’s development of a new generation of small, smart, versatile landers for airless bodies such as the moon and asteroids. The lander's design is based on cutting-edge technology, which allows precision landing in high-risk, but high-priority areas, enabling NASA to achieve scientific and exploration goals in previously unexplored locations.

Development of the lander prototype is a cooperative endeavor led by the Robotic Lunar Lander Development Project at the Marshall Center, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory of Laurel, Md., and the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation, which includes the Science Applications Internatil Corporation, Dynetics Corp., Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., and Millennium Engineering and Integration Company, all of Huntsville.

Seen in X-rays, the entire sky is aglow. Even far away from bright sources, X-rays originating from beyond our galaxy provide a steady glow in every direction. Astronomers have long suspected that the chief contributors to this cosmic X-ray background were dust-swaddled black holes at the centers of active galaxies. The trouble was, too few of them were detected to do the job.

An international team of scientists using data from NASA's Swift satellite confirms the existence of a largely unseen population of black-hole-powered galaxies. Their X-ray emissions are so heavily absorbed that little more than a dozen are known. Yet astronomers say that despite the deeply dimmed X-rays, the sources may represent the tip of the iceberg, accounting for at least one-fifth of all active galaxies.

"These heavily shrouded black holes are all around us," said Neil Gehrels, the Swift principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a co-author of the new study. "But before Swift, they were just too faint and too obscured for us to see."
Most large galaxies contain a giant central black hole, and those observed in the Swift study weigh in at about 100 million times the sun's mass. In an active galaxy, matter falling toward the supermassive black hole powers high-energy emissions so intense that two classes of active galaxies, quasars and blazars, rank as the most luminous objects in the universe.

The X-ray background led astronomers to suspect that active galaxies were undercounted. Astronomers could never be certain that they had detected most of even the closest active galaxies. Thick clouds of dust and gas surround the central black hole and screen out ultraviolet, optical and low-energy (or soft) X-ray light. While infrared radiation can make it through the material, it can be confused with warm dust in the galaxy's star-forming regions.

However, some of the black hole's more energetic X-rays do penetrate the shroud, and that's where Swift comes in.  Since 2004, Swift's Burst Alert Telescope (BAT), developed and operated at NASA Goddard, has been mapping the entire sky in hard X-rays with energies between 15,000 and 200,000 electron volts -- thousands of times the energy of visible light. Gradually building up its exposure year after year, the survey is now the largest, most sensitive and most complete census at these energies. It includes hundreds of active galaxies out to a distance of 650 million light-years.

From this sample, the researchers eliminated sources less than 15 degrees away from the dusty, crowded plane of our own galaxy. All active galaxies sporting an energetic particle jet were also not considered, leaving 199 galaxies.

Although there are many different types of active galaxy, astronomers explain the different observed properties based on how the galaxy angles into our line of sight. We view the brightest ones nearly face on, but as the angle increases, the surrounding ring of gas and dust absorbs increasing amounts of the black hole's emissions.

Astronomers assumed that there were many active galaxies oriented edgewise to us, but they just couldn't be detected because the disk of gas attenuates emissions too strongly.

"These extremely obscured active galaxies are very faint and difficult to find. Out of a sample of 199 sources, we detected only nine of them," said Davide Burlon, the lead author of the study and a graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich.

"But even Swift's BAT has trouble finding these highly absorbed sources, and we know that the survey undercounts them," Burlon explained. "When we factored this in, we found that these shrouded active galaxies are very numerous, making up about 20 to 30 percent of the total."

"With Swift we have now quantified exactly how many active galaxies there are around us -- really, in our back yard," said Marco Ajello at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Menlo Park, Calif. "The number is large, and it agrees with models that say they are responsible for most of the X-ray background." If the numbers remain consistent at greater distances, when the universe was substantially younger, then there are enough supermassive black holes to account for the cosmic X-ray background.

The team then merged Swift BAT data with archived observations from its X-Ray Telescope in an effort to study how the intensity of the galaxies' emissions changed at different X-ray energies.

"This is the first time we could investigate the average spectrum of heavily absorbed active galaxies," said Ajello. "These galaxies are responsible for the shape of the cosmic X-ray background -- they create the peak of its energy."

All of this is consistent with the idea that the cosmic X-ray background is the result of emission from obscured supermassive black holes active when the universe was 7 billion years old, or about half its current age.

Swift, launched in November 2004, is managed by Goddard. It was built and is being operated in collaboration with Penn State, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and General Dynamics in Falls Church, Va.; the University of Leicester and Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory in the United Kingdom; Brera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy; plus additional partners in Germany and Japan.

The next three crew members to live and work aboard the International Space Station will hold a news conference at 1 p.m. CST on Wednesday, Jan. 26 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The news conference will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency's website. Questions will be taken from participating NASA centers.

NASA astronaut Ron Garan and crewmates, Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Andrey Borisenko, will participate in individual round-robin interviews, in person or by phone, following the news conference. The crew also will participate in a photo opportunity for reporters at Johnson.


U.S. and foreign media representatives planning to attend the briefing or participate in the round-robin interviews must contact the Johnson newsroom at 281-483-5111 by 4 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 24.

Garan, Samokutyaev and Borisenko are three of the six crew members for Expedition 27 and 28. The trio is scheduled to launch to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 29 (March 30 Kazakhstan time). They will join Expedition 27 NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli and Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev who will stay aboard the station until mid-May.

A test photo of British Columbia's snow-capped West Coast Mountains is the first official image taken from the International Space Station's new Window Observational Research Facility, or WORF.

The image was taken to test the functionality of the control computer and camera associated with EarthKAM, an educational outreach project that allows Earth bound middle school students to take pictures of our home planet from the unique perspective of the space station, 220 miles above the Earth's surface. WORF was delivered to the station on the STS-131 mission of space shuttle Discovery in April 2010.
EarthKAM uses a Nikon D2X digital camera, and was set up in the WORF by Expedition 26 NASA flight engineer Cady Coleman on Jan. 17. EarthKAM ground controllers took the test photo. Expedition 26 also includes Commander Scott Kelly of NASA, European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka, Alexander Kaleri and Dmitry Kontratyev.

The test photo, designated ISS EarthKAM Image Winter 2011 #9362, is of an area of British Columbia, Canada, just north of Vancouver Island. The center point of the photo is 51 degrees, 48 minutes north and 127 degrees, 54 minutes west. Visible in the photo are Calvert and Hecate Islands on the Canadian coast and the southern portion of Hunter Island. Also visible are glaciers of the Ha-iltzuk Icefield near the 8,720-foot-tall - 2,658-meter-tall - Mount Somolenko. Mount Somolenko is a volcanic peak in southwestern British Columbia that lies in a circular volcanic depression in the Pacific Ranges of the Coast Mountains called the Silverthrone Caldera.
While this isn't a particularly unique Earth observation image, it is notable that even though it was taken with a wider angle, 50mm lens and covers an area 124 miles/200 kilometers, by 83 miles/134 kilometers, it can be enlarged by more than 400 percent while keeping features in the photo identifiable. This is made possible by the high-quality optics of the Earth-facing window of the Destiny Laboratory, which was launched on Feb. 7, 2001.

The installation of WORF allowed removal of an internal "scratch pane" that has reduced the quality of images taken though the window. WORF also provides a highly stable mounting platform to hold cameras and sensors rock steady at the window, as well as the power, command, data, and cooling connections needed for their operation.

"With the WORF finally in place we can now for the first time make full use of the investment we made in having an optical quality window onboard the station for Earth science and observation," said former astronaut Mario Runco, who was part of the design and development teams for the Destiny window and WORF, and now serves as NASA's lead for Spacecraft Window Optics and Window/WORF Utilization at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston.
"We are very excited to have a new camera system that appears to be functional and taking incredible images," said Karen Flammer, who manages EarthKAM operations at the University of California, can Diego. "The first student images were taken by Parkview Montessori in the Jackson-Madison County (Tenn.) School System, and Public School 229 - Dyker in Brooklyn, N.Y., part of the New York City Department of Education.

Parkview teacher Vickie LeCroy's students plan to study landforms, such as islands, mountains and deserts in the image they took of Mexico, and Dyker teacher Camille Fratantoni’s students plan to enrich their studies of earth science and learn more about NASA missions.

In addition to their educational outreach role with EarthKAM, the combination of the window and WORF adds to the station's capabilities as an Earth science remote sensing platform for high-resolution cameras and multi and hyperspectral imagers. Images from space have many applications, such as in the study of climate and meteorology; oceanography; geology and volcanology; coastal, agricultural, ranch and forestry management; and disaster assessments and management.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., confirmed that the NanoSail-D nanosatellite deployed its 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit and is operating as planned. Actual deployment occurred on Jan. 20 at 10 p.m. EST and was confirmed today with beacon packets data received from NanoSail-D and additional ground-based satellite tracking assets. In addition, the NanoSail-D orbital parameter data set shows an appropriate change which is consistent with sail deployment.

"This is tremendous news and the first time NASA has deployed a solar sail in low-Earth orbit," said Dean Alhorn, NanoSail-D principal investigator and aerospace engineer at the Marshall Center. "To get to this point is an incredible accomplishment for our small team and I can't thank the amateur ham operator community enough for their help in tracking NanoSail-D. Their assistance was invaluable. In particular, the Marshall Amateur Radio Club was the very first to hear the radio beacon. It was exciting!"


It is estimated that NanoSail-D will remain in low-Earth orbit between 70 and 120 days, depending on atmospheric conditions. NanoSail-D is designed to demonstrate deployment of a compact solar sail boom technology. This research demonstration could lead to further advances of this alternative solar sail propulsion and the critical need for new de-orbit technologies. This ejection experiment also demonstrates a spacecraft’s ability, like the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite, or FASTSAT, to eject a nano-satellite from a micro-satellite, while avoiding re-contact with the primary satellite.

"This is a significant accomplishment for both the FASTSAT and NanoSail-D projects. This accomplishment validates that we've met another of our primary mission objectives -- successfully ejecting a nanosatellite from an orbiting microsatellite," said Mark Boudreaux, FASTSAT project manager at the Marshall Center. "This is another significant accomplishment for our inter Agency, Industry and Governmental FASTSAT-HSV01 partnership team."

The team operating NASA's Mars rover Opportunity will temporarily suspend commanding for 16 days after the rover's seventh anniversary next week, but the rover will stay busy.

For the fourth time since Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time , the planets' orbits will put Mars almost directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective.

During the days surrounding such an alignment, called a solar conjunction, the sun can disrupt radio transmissions between Earth and Mars. To avoid the chance of a command being corrupted by the sun and harming a spacecraft, NASA temporarily refrains from sending commands from Earth to Mars spacecraft in orbit and on the surface. This year, the commanding moratorium will be Jan. 27 to Feb. 11 for Opportunity, with similar periods for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Downlinks from Mars spacecraft will continue during the conjunction period, though at a much reduced rate. Mars-to-Earth communication does not present risk to spacecraft safety, even if transmissions are corrupted by the sun.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will scale back its observations of Mars during the conjunction period due to reduced capability to download data to Earth and a limit on how much can be stored onboard.


Opportunity will continue sending data daily to the Odyssey orbiter for relay to Earth. "Overall, we expect to receive a smaller volume of daily data from Opportunity and none at all during the deepest four days of conjunction," said Alfonso Herrera, a rover mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The rover team has developed a set of commands to be sent to Opportunity in advance so that the rover can continue science activities during the command moratorium.

"The goal is to characterize the materials in an area that shows up with a mineralogical signal, as seen from orbit, that's different from anywhere else Opportunity has been," said JPL's Bruce Banerdt, project scientist for Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit. The area is at the southeastern edge of a crater called "Santa Maria," which Opportunity approached from the west last month.

Drives last week brought Opportunity to the position where it will spend the conjunction period. From that position, the rover's robotic arm can reach an outcrop target called "Luis de Torres." The rover's Moessbauer spectrometer will be placed onto the target for several days during the conjunction to assess the types of minerals present. The instrument uses a small amount of radioactive cobalt-57 to elicit information from the target. With a half-life of less than a year, the cobalt has substantially depleted during Opportunity's seven years on Mars, so readings lasting several days are necessary now to be equivalent to much shorter readings when the mission was newer.

Opportunity will also make atmospheric measurements during the conjunction period. After conjunction, it will spend several more days investigating Santa Maria crater before resuming a long-term trek toward Endurance crater, which is about 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter and, at its closest edge, about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from Santa Maria.

Opportunity's drives to the southeastern edge of Santa Maria brought the total distance driven by the rover during its seventh year on Mars to 7.4 kilometers (4.6 miles), which is more than in any previous year. The rover's total odometry for its seventh anniversary is 26.7 kilometers (16.6 miles).

NASA's Stardust-Next spacecraft is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST), on Feb. 14. The mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet's surface that occurred following an orbit around the sun.

The Stardust-Next, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma, or material surrounding the comet's nucleus. Data from the mission will provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA's Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft delivered an impactor to the surface of Tempel 1 to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater created by the impactor. This would be an added bonus to the huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.


"Every day we are getting closer and closer and more and more excited about answering some fundamental questions about comets," said Joe Veverka. Tempel 1 will provide new insights on how comets work and how they were put together four-and-a-half billion years ago."

At approximately 336 million kilometers away from Earth, Stardust-Next will be almost on the exact opposite side of the solar system at the time of the encounter. During the flyby, the spacecraft will take 72 images and store them in an onboard computer.

Initial raw images from the flyby will be sent to Earth for processing that will begin at approximately midnight PST (3 a.m. EST) on Feb. 15. Images are expected to be available at approximately 1:30 a.m.

As of today, the spacecraft is approximately 24.6 million kilometers away from its encounter. Since 2007, Stardust-Next executed eight flight path correction maneuvers, logged four circuits around the sun and used one Earth gravity assist to meet up with Tempel 1.

Another three maneuvers are planned to refine the spacecraft's path to the comet. Tempel 1's orbit takes it as close in to the sun as the orbit of Mars and almost as far away as the orbit of Jupiter. The spacecraft is expected to fly past the nearly 6-kilometer-wide comet at a distance of approximately 200 kilometers.

In 2004, the Stardust mission became the first to collect particles directly from comet Wild 2, as well as interstellar dust. Samples were returned in 2006 for study via a capsule that detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to the ground southwest of Salt Lake City. Mission controllers placed the still viable Stardust spacecraft on a trajectory that could potentially reuse the flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself.

Plants are fundamental to life on Earth, converting light and carbon dioxide into food and oxygen. Plant growth may be an important part of human survival in exploring space, as well. Gardening in space has been part of the International Space Station from the beginning - whether peas grown in the Lada greenhouse or experiments in the Biomass Production System. The space station offers unique opportunities to study plant growth and gravity, something that cannot be done on Earth.

The latest experiment that has astronauts putting their green thumbs to the test is Hydrotropism and Auxin-Inducible Gene expression in Roots Grown Under Microgravity Conditions, known as HydroTropi. Operations were conducted October 18-21, 2010, HydroTropi is a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)-run study that looks at directional root growth. In microgravity, roots grow latterly or sideways, instead of up and down like they do under Earth’s gravitational forces.

Using cucumber plants (scientific name Cucumis sativus), investigators look to determine whether hydrotropic - plant root orientation due to water—response can control the direction of root growth in microgravity. To perform the HydroTropi experiment, astronauts transport the cucumber seeds from Earth to the space station and then coax them into growth. The seeds, which reside in Hydrotropism chambers, undergo 18 hours of incubation in a Cell Biology Experiment Facility or CBEF. Then the crewmembers activate the seeds with water or a saturated salt solution, followed by a second application of water 4 to 5 hours later. The crew harvests the cucumber seedlings and preserves them using fixation tubes called Kenney Space Center Fixation Tubes or KFTs, which then store in one of the station MELFI freezers to await return to Earth.

The results from HydroTropi, which returns to Earth on STS-133, will help investigators to better understand how plants grow and develop at a molecular level. The experiment will demonstrate a plant’s ability to change growth direction in response to gravity vs directional growth in response to water. By looking at the reaction of the plants to the stimuli and the resulting response of differential auxin -  the compound regulating the growth of plants - investigators will learn about plants inducible gene expression. In space, investigators hope HydroTropi will show them how to control directional root growth by using the hydrotropism stimulus; this knowledge may also lead to significant advancements in agriculture production on Earth.

In late 2010, NASA awarded contracts to three teams - Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, The Boeing Company — to study advanced concept designs for aircraft that could take to the skies in the year 2025.


At the time of the award, the team gave NASA a sneak peek of the particular design they plan to pursue.


Each design looks very different, but all final designs have to meet NASA's goals for less noise, cleaner exhaust and lower fuel consumption. Each aircraft has to be able to do all of those things at the same time, which requires a complex dance of tradeoffs between all of the new advanced technologies that will be on these vehicles.

The proposed aircraft will also have to operate safely in a more modernized air traffic management system.

And each design has to fly up to 85 percent of the speed of sound; cover a range of approximately 7,000 miles; and carry between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of payload, either passengers or cargo. For the rest of this year, each team will be exploring, testing, simulating, keeping and discarding innovations and technologies to make their design a winner.


Global surface temperatures in 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest on record, according to an analysis released Wednesday by researchers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York.

The two years differed by less than 0.018 degrees Fahrenheit. The difference is smaller than the uncertainty in comparing the temperatures of recent years, putting them into a statistical tie. In the new analysis, the next warmest years are 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007, which are statistically tied for third warmest year. The GISS records begin in 1880.

The analysis found 2010 approximately 1.34 F warmer than the average global surface temperature from 1951 to 1980. To measure climate change, scientists look at long-term trends. The temperature trend, including data from 2010, shows the climate has warmed by approximately 0.36 F per decade since the late 1970s.
"If the warming trend continues, as is expected, if greenhouse gases continue to increase, the 2010 record will not stand for long," said James Hansen, the director of GISS.

The analysis produced at GISS is compiled from weather data from more than 1000 meteorological stations around the world, satellite observations of sea surface temperature and Antarctic research station measurements. A computer program uses the data to calculate temperature anomalies -- the difference between surface temperature in a given month and the average temperature for the same period during 1951 to 1980. This three-decade period acts as a baseline for the analysis.

The resulting temperature record closely matches others independently produced by the Met Office Hadley Centre in the United Kingdom and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center.

The record temperature in 2010 is particularly noteworthy, because the last half of the year was marked by a transition to strong La Nina conditions, which bring cool sea surface temperatures to the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

"Global temperature is rising as fast in the past decade as in the prior two decades, despite year-to-year fluctuations associated with the El Nino-La Nina cycle of tropical ocean temperature," Hansen and colleagues reported in the Dec. 14, 2010, issue of Reviews of Geophysics.

A chilly spell also struck this winter across northern Europe. The event may have been influenced by the decline of Arctic sea ice and could be linked to warming temperatures at more northern latitudes.

Arctic sea ice acts like a blanket, insulating the atmosphere from the ocean's heat. Take away that blanket, and the heat can escape into the atmosphere, increasing local surface temperatures. Regions in northeast Canada were more than 18 degrees warmer than normal in December.

The loss of sea ice may also be driving Arctic air into the middle latitudes. Winter weather patterns are notoriously chaotic, and the GISS analysis finds seven of the last 10 European winters warmer than the average from 1951 to 1980. The unusual cold in the past two winters has caused scientists to begin to speculate about a potential connection to sea ice changes.

NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

The discovery of this so-called exoplanet is based on more than eight months of data collected by the spacecraft from May 2009 to early January 2010.

"All of Kepler's best capabilities have converged to yield the first solid evidence of a rocky planet orbiting a star other than our sun," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler's deputy science team lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and primary author of a paper on the discovery accepted by the Astrophysical Journal. "The Kepler team made a commitment in 2010 about finding the telltale signatures of small planets in the data, and it's beginning to pay off."

Kepler's ultra-precise photometer measures the tiny decrease in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it. The size of the planet can be derived from these periodic dips in brightness. The distance between the planet and the star is calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star.

Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone, the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the planet's surface. However, since it orbits once every 0.84 days, Kepler-10b is more than 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun and not in the habitable zone.

Kepler-10 was the first star identified that could potentially harbor a small transiting planet, placing it at the top of the list for ground-based observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory 10-meter telescope in Hawaii.

Scientists waiting for a signal to confirm Kepler-10b as a planet were not disappointed. Keck was able to measure tiny changes in the star's spectrum, called Doppler shifts, caused by the telltale tug exerted by the orbiting planet on the star.

"The discovery of Kepler-10b, a bona fide rocky world, is a significant milestone in the search for planets similar to our own," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Although this planet is not in the habitable zone, the exciting find showcases the kinds of discoveries made possible by the mission and the promise of many more to come," he said.

"Our knowledge of the planet is only as good as the knowledge of the star it orbits," said Batalha. Because Kepler-10 is one of the brighter stars being targeted by Kepler, scientists were able to detect high frequency variations in the star's brightness generated by stellar oscillations, or starquakes. "This is the analysis that really allowed us to pin down Kepler-10b's properties.," she added.


"We have a clear signal in the data arising from light waves that travel within the interior of the star," said Hans Keldsen, an astronomer at the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium at Aarhus University in Denmark. Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium scientists use the information to better understand the star, just as earthquakes are used to learn about Earth's interior structure. "As a result of this analysis, Kepler-10 is one of the most well characterized planet-hosting stars in the universe next to our sun," Kjeldsen said.

That's good news for the team studying Kepler-10b. Accurate stellar properties yield accurate planet properties. In the case of Kepler-10b, the picture that emerges is of a rocky planet with a mass 4.6 times that of Earth and with an average density of 8.8 grams per cubic centimeter -- similar to that of an iron dumbbell.

"This planet is unequivocally rocky, with a surface you could stand on," commented team member Dimitar Sasselov, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and a Kepler co-investigator.

"All of Kepler’s best capabilities have converged for this discovery," Batalha said, "yielding the first solid evidence of a rocky planet orbiting a star other than our sun."

Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development.

Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data.

A deep survey of more than 200,000 stars in our Milky Way galaxy has unveiled the sometimes petulant behavior of tiny red dwarf stars. These stars, which are smaller than the Sun, can unleash powerful eruptions called flares that may release the energy of more than 100 million atomic bombs.

Red dwarfs are the most abundant stars in our universe and are presumably hosts to numerous planets. However, their erratic behavior could make life unpleasant, if not impossible, for many alien worlds. Flares are sudden eruptions of heated plasma that occur when powerful magnetic field lines in a star's atmosphere "reconnect," snapping like a rubber band and releasing vast amounts of energy. When they occur, flares would blast any planets orbiting the star with ultraviolet light, bursts of X-rays, and a gush of charged particles called a stellar wind.

Studying the light from 215,000 red dwarfs collected in observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers found 100 stellar flares. The observations, taken over a seven-day period, constitute the largest continuous monitoring of red dwarf stars ever undertaken.

"We know that hyperactive young stars produce flares, but this study shows that even in fairly old stars that are several billion years old, flares are a fact of life," says astronomer Rachel Osten of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., leader of the research team. "Life could be rough for any planets orbiting close enough to these flaring stars. Their heated atmospheres could puff up and might get stripped away."

Osten and her team, including Adam Kowalski of the University of Washington in Seattle, found that the red dwarf stars flared about 15 times less frequently than in previous surveys, which observed younger and less massive stars.

The stars in this study were originally part of a search for planets. Hubble monitored the stars continuously for a week in 2006, looking for the signature of planets passing in front of them. The stars were photographed by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys during the extrasolar-planet survey called the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS).

Osten and Kowalski realized that this powerful census contained important information on the stars themselves, and they took advantage of it. They searched the Hubble data, looking for a slight increase in the brightness of red dwarfs, a signature of flares. Some of the stars grew up to 10 percent brighter over a short period of time, which is actually much brighter than flares on our Sun. The average duration of the flares was 15 minutes. A few stars produced multiple flares.

The astronomers found that stars that periodically oscillate in brightness, called variable stars, were more prone to the short-term outbursts.


"We discovered that variable stars are about a thousand times more likely to flare than non-variable stars," Kowalski says. "The variable stars are rotating fast, which may mean they are in rapidly orbiting binary systems. If the stars possess large star spots, dark regions on a star's surface, that will cause the star's light to vary when the spots rotate in and out of view. Star spots are produced when magnetic field lines poke through the surface. So, if there are big spots, there is a large area covered by strong magnetic fields, and we found that those stars had more flares."

Although red dwarfs are smaller than the Sun, they have a deeper convection zone, where cells of hot gas bubble to the surface, like boiling oatmeal," Osten explains. This zone generates the magnetic field and enables red dwarfs to put out such energetic flares.

"The red dwarfs also have magnetic fields that are stronger than the Sun's," Osten continues. "They cover a much larger area than the Sun. Sunspots cover less than 1 percent of the Sun's surface, while red dwarfs can have star spots that cover half of their surfaces."

Kowalski will present the team's results on Jan. 10, 2011, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Wash.

The FIRST Robotics Competition is an exciting, nationwide competition that teams professionals and young people to solve an engineering design problem in an intense and competitive way.

For many years, the NASA Robotics Alliance Project has been supporting participation in the FIRST Robotics Competition by providing grants to high school teams as well as sponsoring FIRST regional competitions.
Providing support to competitions like FIRST Robotics is one way the NASA Robotics Alliance Project strives to create a human, technical and programmatic resource of robotics capabilities to aid future robotic space exploration missions.

The "Extreme Planet Makeover" on the NASA/JPL PlanetQuest site lets you roll up your sleeves and create your very own planet.

Balance five factors to create an Earth-like habitable world, or get wild and make your own extreme exoplanet. Use the Image Gallery feature to compare your creation with those of other Earthlings. Once you've finished creating the exoplanet of your dreams, download a picture of your custom world for posterity.

The interactive feature is online at http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/planetMakeover/planetMakeover.html

On January 4, the Hinode satellite captured these breathtaking images of an annular solar eclipse. An annular eclipse occurs when the moon, slightly more distant from Earth than on average, moves directly between Earth and the sun, thus appearing slightly smaller to observers' eyes; the effect is a bright ring, or annulus of sunlight, around the silhouette of the moon. Hinode, a Japanese mission in partnership with NASA, NAOJ, STFC, ESA, and NSC, currently in Earth orbit, is studying the Sun to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that power the solar atmosphere and drive solar eruptions.

Hinode, launched in September 2006, uses three advanced optical instruments to further our understanding of the solar atmosphere and turbulent solar eruptions that can impact hardware in orbit and life on Earth.

NASA's Robotic Lunar Lander Development Project at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has completed a series of hot fire tests and taken delivery of a new propulsion system for integration into a more sophisticated free-flying autonomous robotic lander prototype. The project is partnered with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., to develop a new generation of small, smart, versatile robotic landers to achieve scientific and exploration goals on the surface of the moon and near-Earth asteroids.

The new robotic lander prototype will continue to mature the development of a robotic lander capability by bringing online an autonomous flying test lander that will be capable of flying up to sixty seconds, testing the guidance, navigation and control system by demonstrating a controlled landing in a simulated low gravity environment.

By the spring of 2011, the new prototype lander will begin flight tests at the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal Test Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The prototype’s new propulsion system consists of 12 small attitude control thrusters, three primary descent thrusters to control the vehicle’s altitude, and one large "gravity-canceling" thruster which offsets a portion of the prototype’s weight to simulate a lower gravity environment, like that of the moon and asteroids. The prototype uses a green propellant, hydrogen peroxide, in a stronger concentration of a solution commonly used in homes as a disinfectant. The by-products after use are water and oxygen.

"The propulsion hardware acceptance test consisted of a series of tests that verified the performance of each thruster in the propulsion system," said Julie Bassler, Robotic Lunar Lander Development Project Manager. "The series culminated in a test that characterized the entire system by running a scripted set of thruster firings based on a flight scenario simulation."

The propulsion system is currently at Teledyne Brown’s manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Ala., for integration with the structure and avionics to complete the new robotic lander prototype. Dynetics Corp. developed the robotic lander prototype propulsion system under the management of the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation both located in Huntsville, Ala.
"This is the second phase of a robotic lander prototype development program," said Bassler. "Our initial "cold gas" prototype was built, delivered and successfully flight tested at the Marshall Center in a record nine months, providing a physical and tangible demonstration of capabilities related to the critical terminal descent and landing phases for an airless body mission."

The first robotic lander prototype has a record flight time of ten seconds and descended from three meters altitude. This first robotic lander prototype began flight tests in September 2009 and has completed 142 flight tests, providing a platform to develop and test algorithms, sensors, avionics, ground and flight software and ground systems to support autonomous landings on airless bodies, where aero-braking and parachutes are not options.


The Object Oriented Data Technology (OODT) architecture, originally developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., was recently selected to become a fully-fledged Top Level Project at the Apache Software Foundation, Forest Hill, Md. This important recognition means that OODT will be one of the few projects to receive project management and resource support from the open-source software foundation.
JPL-Led Software Architecture
The Object Oriented Data Technology architecture makes use of metadata to seek out disparate and geographically dispersed computing and data resources for use by any end user. For example, users of a data network could use OODT tools to make data that is physically hosted on one side of the country searchable and available for processing on the other side of the country.

NASA will give 100 of its Twitter followers an insider look at its planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft and the agency's Ames Research Center on Feb. 11 in Moffett Field in California.

For the first time, NASA's Twitter followers are being invited to Ames to learn about planetary discoveries from Kepler and the science flights of NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft.

The Tweeps also will get behind-the-scenes access to NASA's research center in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. Attendees will tour the center and speak with NASA officials, managers and scientists.
"This Tweetup will give participants and those who follow along online another look at the diverse ways NASA is pioneering the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research," said Stephanie Schierholz, social media manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Tweetup registration opens at 1 p.m. EST on Jan. 5 and closes at 1 p.m. on Jan. 10. NASA will accommodate 100 active Tweeps randomly selected from those who sign up online. Additional registrants will be placed on a waiting list. Those who cannot attend the Tweetup can follow along via Web coverage, including tweets and live streaming.