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NASA Probe Sees Solar Wind Decline

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

Super-Earth Atmosphere

A team of astronomers, including two NASA Sagan Fellows, has made the first characterizations of a super-Earth's atmosphere, by using a ground-based telescope...

Kepler Discovers

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

Pulverized Planet

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

Dark Asteroids

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

Archive for April 2011

Space isn't empty. Space is considered an environment — an extreme environment, filled with entities that can be harmful to spacecraft.

In space, there are several environmental threats that can harm materials used to create spacecraft. These threats include ultraviolet rays and x-rays from the sun; solar wind particle radiation; thermal cycling (hot and cold cycles); space particles (micrometeoroids and debris); and atomic oxygen.

It is essential for NASA to research and understand how materials are affected by the environmental threats that exist in space. Since 2001, NASA and its partners have operated a series of flight experiments called Materials International Space Station Experiment, or MISSE. The objective of MISSE is to test the stability and durability of materials and devices in the space environment.

Testing on the International Space Station

MISSE experiments have been flown in space on five different occasions, and will be flown once more. During each mission, either one or two Passive Experiment Containers (PECs) are flown. PECs, which are attached to the exterior of the International Space Station, are about 2-feet by 2-feet and hold a variety of materials samples and devices whose reactions in space are of interest.

"Each PEC has two trays that are hinged like a suitcase. Samples are loaded onto the top surface of the trays, and then the PEC is closed to protect the samples during launch on the space shuttle," says Kim de Groh, the principal investigator for the MISSE Science program at Glenn. "The PECs are taken up to the space station, where an astronaut does a spacewalk and installs each PEC at its designated location on the outside of the space station. The PEC is opened by the astronaut and the trays are placed back-to-back and secured, exposing the samples to the space environment."

More than 30 years after they left Earth, NASA's twin Voyager probes are now at the edge of the solar system. Not only that, they're still working. And with each passing day they are beaming back a message that, to scientists, is both unsettling and thrilling.

The message is, "Expect the unexpected."

"It's uncanny," says Ed Stone of Caltech, Voyager Project Scientist since 1972. "Voyager 1 and 2 have a knack for making discoveries."

Today, April 28, 2011, NASA held a press conference to reflect on what the Voyager mission has accomplished--and to preview what lies ahead as the probes prepare to enter the realm of the Milky Way itself.

The adventure began in the late 1970s when the probes took advantage of a rare alignment of outer planets for an unprecedented Grand Tour. Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturn, while Voyager 2 flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. (Voyager 2 is still the only probe to visit Uranus and Neptune.)

When pressed to name the top discoveries from those encounters, Stone pauses, not for lack of material, but rather an embarrassment of riches. "It's so hard to choose," he says.

Stone's partial list includes the discovery of volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io; evidence for an ocean beneath the icy surface of Europa; hints of methane rain on Saturn's moon Titan; the crazily-tipped magnetic poles of Uranus and Neptune; icy geysers on Neptune's moon Triton; planetary winds that blow faster and faster with increasing distance from the sun.

"Each of these discoveries changed the way we thought of other worlds," he says Stone.

In 1980, Voyager 1 used the gravity of Saturn to fling itself slingshot-style out of the plane of the Solar System. In 1989, Voyager 2 got a similar assist from Neptune. Both probes set sail into the void.

Sailing into the void sounds like a quiet time, but the discoveries have continued.

Stone sets the stage by directing our attention to the kitchen sink. "Turn on the faucet," he instructs. "Where the water hits the sink, that's the sun, and the thin sheet of water flowing radially away from that point is the solar wind. Note how the sun 'blows a bubble' around itself."

There really is such a bubble, researchers call it the "heliosphere," and it is gargantuan. Made of solar plasma and magnetic fields, the heliosphere is about three times wider than the orbit of Pluto. Every planet, asteroid, spacecraft, and life form belonging to our solar system lies inside.

The Voyagers are trying to get out, but they're not there yet. To locate them, Stone peers back into the sink: "As the water (or solar wind) expands, it gets thinner and thinner, and it can't push as hard. Abruptly, a sluggish, turbulent ring forms. That outer ring is the heliosheath--and that is where the Voyagers are now."

The heliosheath is a very strange place, filled with a magnetic froth no spacecraft has ever encountered before, echoing with low-frequency radio bursts heard only in the outer reaches of the solar system, so far from home that the sun is a mere pinprick of light.

"In many ways, the heliosheath is not like our models predicted,” says Stone.

Here are five facts about NASA's twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, the longest continuously-operating spacecraft in deep space. The Voyagers were built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which continues to operate both spacecraft.

Long-Distance Space Runners
Voyager 2 launched on Aug. 20, 1977, and Voyager 1 launched about two weeks later, on Sept. 5. Since then, the spacecraft have been traveling along different flight paths and at different speeds. Now some 17.4 billion kilometers  from the sun and hurtling toward interstellar space, Voyager 1 is the farthest human-made object from Earth. Voyager 2 is about 14.2 billion kilometers (8.8 billion miles) from the sun.

Can You Hear Me Now?
Both spacecraft are still sending scientific information about their surroundings through NASA's Deep Space Network. A signal from the ground, traveling at the speed of light, takes about 13 hours one way to reach Voyager 2, and 16 hours one way to reach Voyager 1.

Planetary Tour
The primary five-year mission of the Voyagers included the close-up exploration of Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn's rings and the larger moons of the two planets. The mission was extended after a succession of discoveries, and between them, the two spacecraft have explored all the giant outer planets of our solar system -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, 49 moons, and the systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess.

The current mission, the Voyager Interstellar Mission, was planned to explore the outermost edge of our solar system and eventually leave our sun's sphere of influence and enter interstellar space – the space between the stars.

The Golden Record
Both Voyager spacecraft carry recorded messages from Earth on golden phonograph records – 12-inch, gold-plated copper disks. A committee chaired by the late astronomer Carl Sagan selected the contents of the records for NASA. The records are cultural time capsules that the Voyagers carry with them to other star systems. They contain images and natural sounds, spoken greetings in 55 languages and musical selections from different cultures and eras.

Where No Spacecraft Has Gone Before
Voyager 1 has reached a distant point at the edge of our solar system, where the outward motion of solar wind ceases. The event is the latest milestone in Voyager 1's passage through the heliosheath, the outer shell of the sun's sphere of influence, before entering interstellar space. Interstellar space begins at the heliopause, and scientists estimate Voyager 1 will cross this frontier around 2015.

Students and educators nationwide will have the opportunity to interact with NASA engineers and scientists through two newly developed NASA flight initiatives.

The programs, developed at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, are designed to give students and educators hands-on flight experiences using NASA sounding rockets and scientific balloons.

The Wallops Rocket Academy for Teachers and Students (WRATS) will provide high school participants with a technical flight experience to reinforce science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts. Teachers and students will participate in person or virtually in authentic, hands-on experiences based on NASA's sounding rocket engineering and science data collection. WRATS will include interactive Web based data to give students and educators lessons in physics and engineering. Teachers also receive resources to integrate the data into classroom lessons.

Selected participants in other NASA education projects will have the opportunity to attend a rocketry flight week June 19 - 24, at Wallops. Participants will learn about the dynamics of launch, safe flight operations and view a NASA Terrier-Orion sounding rocket liftoff on Thursday, June 23.

The Wallops Balloon Experience for Educators (WBEE) provides opportunities for high school teachers to fly experiments on scientific flights. WBEE will build upon an existing partnership between NASA and the Louisiana Space Consortium, which has developed student outreach programs, including the High Altitude Space Platform (HASP) and Louisiana Aerospace Catalyst Experiences for Students (LaACES).

Since 2002, the programs have flown multiple missions involving hundreds of students in undergraduate though post-graduate programs. WBEE will expand the LaACES platform into secondary education with a focus on core principles and future partnership with educators and their institutions.

WBEE will involve teams of selected educators who have participated in other NASA education projects. They will visit the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, for a week-long workshop in July. Participants will be involved in classroom and hands-on balloon science activities. The teams will have the opportunity to build and test their own science payload for a flight to the edge of space under the direction of NASA and Louisiana Space Consortium personnel.

The WBEE experience culminates with the launch of these payloads aboard a NASA scientific balloon. WBEE will be an intensive course involving a broad-based learning experience educators may implement at their home schools.

The Teaching From Space office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston is partnering with Wallops to provide the flights. The program continues NASA's investment in the nation's education programs by supporting the goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines critical to future space exploration.

To celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's deployment into space, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., pointed Hubble's eye at an especially photogenic pair of interacting galaxies called Arp 273.

"For 21 years, Hubble has profoundly changed our view of the universe, allowing us to see deep into the past while opening our eyes to the majesty and wonders around us," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said."I was privileged to pilot space shuttle Discovery as it deployed Hubble. After all this time, new Hubble images still inspire awe and are a testament to the extraordinary work of the many people behind the world's most famous observatory."

Hubble was launched April 24, 1990, aboard Discovery's STS-31 mission. Hubble discoveries revolutionized nearly all areas of current astronomical research from planetary science to cosmology.

"Hubble is America's gift to the world," Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said. "Its jaw-dropping images have rewritten the textbooks and inspired generations of schoolchildren to study math and science. It has been documenting the history of our universe for 21 years. Thanks to the daring of our brave astronauts, a successful servicing mission in 2009 gave Hubble new life. I look forward to Hubble's amazing images and inspiring discoveries for years to come."

The newly released Hubble image shows a large spiral galaxy, known as UGC 1810, with a disk that is distorted into a rose-like shape by the gravitational tidal pull of the companion galaxy below it, known as UGC 1813. A swath of blue jewel-like points across the top is the combined light from clusters of intensely bright and hot young blue stars. These massive stars glow fiercely in ultraviolet light.

The smaller, nearly edge-on companion shows distinct signs of intense star formation at its nucleus, perhaps triggered by the encounter with the companion galaxy.


Arp 273 lies in the constellation Andromeda and is roughly 300 million light-years away from Earth. The image shows a tenuous tidal bridge of material between the two galaxies that are separated from each other by tens of thousands of light-years.

A series of uncommon spiral patterns in the large galaxy are a tell-tale sign of interaction. The large, outer arm appears partially as a ring, a feature seen when interacting galaxies actually pass through one another. This suggests the smaller companion dived deep, but off-center, through UGC 1810. The inner set of spiral arms is highly warped out of the plane, with one of the arms going behind the bulge and coming back out the other side. How these two spiral patterns connect is not precisely known.

The larger galaxy in the UGC 1810 - UGC 1813 pair has a mass about five times that of the smaller galaxy. In unequal pairs such as this, the relatively rapid passage of a companion galaxy produces the lopsided or asymmetric structure in the main spiral. Also in such encounters, the starburst activity typically begins in the minor galaxies earlier than in the major galaxies. These effects could be because the smaller galaxies have consumed less of the gas present in their nuclei, from which new stars are born.

The interaction was imaged on Dec. 17, 2010, with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). The picture is a composite of data taken with three separate filters on WFC3 that allow a broad range of wavelengths covering the ultraviolet, blue, and red portions of the spectrum.

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.

NASA is partnering with other federal agencies to fund new research and applications efforts that will bring the global view of climate from space down to Earth to benefit wildlife and key ecosystems.

NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Smithsonian Institution will provide $18 million for 15 new research projects during the next four years. Organizations across the United States in academia, government and the private sector will study the response of different species and ecosystems to climate changes and develop tools to better manage wildlife and natural resources. The projects were selected from 151 proposals.

NASA's Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate has funded several ecosystem and biodiversity research projects during recent years. This is the first time the agency has targeted research investigating the intersection of climate and biological studies.

The wildlife species that will be studied include polar bears in Greenland, bowhead whales in the Arctic Ocean, and migratory birds and waterfowl in the United States. Other studies will focus on species of commercial interest such as clams, oysters and other bivalves in U.S. coastal waters, and Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico.

To learn more about climatic effects on plants, researchers will focus on the loss of cordgrass marshes in coastal wetlands of the southeastern states. They also will examine the stresses to native tree species, many of commercial value, across the western states and Canada.

"We know very little about how the majority of species and ecosystems will respond to environmental changes related to changing climates," said Woody Turner, manager of NASA's Ecological Forecasting program in Washington. "These projects bring together NASA's global satellite data of the physical environment with ground-based data on specific species and ecosystems and computer modeling to detect and understand biological responses to climate. As a result, we will improve our management and mitigation of the impact of changing climate."

The studies will use long-term observations of Earth from space, including data on sea surface temperature, vegetation cover, rainfall, snow cover, sea ice and the variability in the microscopic marine green plants that form the base of ocean food chains.

One study seeks to determine how waterfowl and forest bird populations respond to extreme events such as long-term droughts, heat waves and cold snaps. Wildlife biologists like Patricia Heglund of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in La Crosse, Wis., the leader of the study, have several hypotheses, including lower reproduction rates and adult mortality. Satellite data will be used to map the habitats and identify extreme events in the continental United States.

Another study will seek to explain why the distribution of native tree species across the western states and Canada is changing and why some species are dying as the climate becomes progressively warmer and drier. Scientists have used computer models to explain how environmental stresses have affected tree species in the Pacific Northwest. The new study, led by Richard Waring of Oregon State University in Corvallis, will extend that research to the entire Rocky Mountain west and 25 native tree species, including aspen and lodgepole pine.

A project led by Mitchell Roffer of Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service in West Melbourne, Fla., aims to improve existing models to predict spawning habitat of Atlantic bluefin and other migratory tunas in the Gulf of Mexico. The model will assess possible effects of future climate change scenarios on fish populations.

According to Turner, the most ambitious project in terms of scale will use a global inventory of data from about 1,000 species, merged with satellite and ground-based observations of the environment and climate. These data will be used to assess climate's impact on biodiversity during the past 40 years in two 20-year increments. The study, led by Walter Jetz of Yale University, will focus on land-based mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

NASA scientists conducting an airborne campaign right now in the Arctic to monitor changes in sea ice and ice sheet thickness have a new tool.

A second aircraft -- the King Air B200 - arrived in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, carrying an instrument that maps the icy surface from more than five miles (8 km) above, providing yet another perspective of Earth's changing polar regions.

The newest addition flew on April 13 to join Operation IceBridge -- a six-year airborne mission to monitor Earth's polar ice. The B200 will target the southeastern portion of the Greenland Ice Sheet, where NASA satellites have shown ice loss.

The flight marks the first trip to Greenland for the aircraft from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The King Air is carrying the Land Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS) instrument, a laser altimeter that can map large areas of sea ice and ice sheets.

IceBridge data provides a three-dimensional view of the Greenland Ice Sheet that will help predict future contributions to rising seas. A series of science flights designed to increase knowledge of ice sheet processes and sea level rise contributions are scheduled for April 15 through May 9.

Current estimates of sea level rise from Greenland are placed at .5 millimeters annually.

The B200 flights complement sea ice flights by the P-3B aircraft out of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. The P-3B has been in Greenland since March 14. Flights were conducted from Thule for the first part of the mission and then out of Kangerlussuaq since April 1.

The P-3B is carrying a suite of instruments including a magnetometer, gravimeter, Airborne Topographic Mapper and camera systems.

PSLV-C16, is the eighteenth flight of ISRO's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV. In this flight, the standard version of PSLV with six solid strap-on motors is used.

PSLV-C16 will place three satellites with a total payload mass of 1404 kg - RESOURCESAT-2 weighing 1206 kg, the Indo-Russian YOUTHSAT weighing 92 kg and Singapore's X-SAT weighing 106 kg – into an 822 km polar Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO). PSLV-C16 will be launched from the First Launch Pad (FLP) at Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota.

The major changes made in PSLV since its first launch include changes in strap-on motors ignition sequence, increase in the propellant loading of the first stage and strap-on solid propellant motors as well as the second and fourth stage liquid propellant motors, improvement in the performance of the third stage motor by optimising motor case and enhanced propellant loading and employing a carbon composite payload adapter.

PSLV has also become a more versatile vehicle for launching multiple satellites in polar SSOs as well as Low Earth Orbits (LEO) and Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). With sixteen successful launches, PSLV has emerged as the workhorse launch vehicle of ISRO and is offered for launching satellites for international customers also. During 1994-2010 period, PSLV has launched a total of 44 satellites, of which 25 satellites are from abroad and 19 are Indian satellites.


If you've ever stood in front of a hot stove, watching a pot of water and waiting impatiently for it to boil, you know what it feels like to be a solar physicist.

Back in 2008, the solar cycle plunged into the deepest minimum in nearly a century. Sunspots all but vanished, solar flares subsided, and the sun was eerily quiet.

"Ever since, we've been waiting for solar activity to pick up," says Richard Fisher, head of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. "It's been three long years."

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded this X1.5-class solar flare on March 9, 2011. › View movie of flare event
Screen capture from movie of X1.5-class flare captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on March 9, 2011. Credit: NASA/SDO Quiet spells on the sun are nothing new. They come along every 11 years or so—it's a natural part of the solar cycle. This particular solar minimum, however, was lasting longer than usual, prompting some researchers to wonder if it would ever end.

News flash: The pot is starting to boil. "Finally," says Fisher, "we are beginning to see some action."

As 2011 unfolds, sunspots have returned and they are crackling with activity. On February 15th and again on March 9th, Earth orbiting satellites detected a pair of "X-class" solar flares-the most powerful kind of x-ray flare. The last such eruption occurred back in December 2006.

Another eruption on March 7th hurled a billion-ton cloud of plasma away from the sun at five million mph (2200 km/s). The rapidly expanding cloud wasn't aimed directly at Earth, but it did deliver a glancing blow to our planet's magnetic field. The off-center impact on March 10th was enough to send Northern Lights spilling over the Canadian border into US states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.

"That was the fastest coronal mass ejection in almost six years," says Angelos Vourlidas of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC. "It reminds me of a similar series of events back in Nov. 1997 that kicked off Solar Cycle 23, the solar cycle before this one."

"To me," says Vourlidas, "this marks the beginning of Solar Cycle 24." The slow build-up to this moment is more than just "the watched pot failing to boil," says Ron Turner, a space weather analyst at Analytic Services, Inc. "It really has been historically slow."

High up in the sky near the poles some 50 miles above the ground, silvery blue clouds sometimes appear, shining brightly in the night. First noticed in 1885, these clouds are known as noctilucent, or "night shining," clouds. Their discovery spawned over a century of research into what conditions causes them to form and vary – questions that still tantalize scientists to this day. Since 2007, a NASA mission called Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) has shown that the cloud formation is changing year to year, a process they believe is intimately tied to the weather and climate of the whole globe.
 Noctilucent clouds streaming across the sky in Utrecht, The Netherlands on June 16, 2009.


 "The formation of the clouds requires both water and incredibly low temperatures," says Charles Jackman, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is NASA's project scientist for AIM. "The temperatures turn out to be one of the prime driving factors for when the clouds appear."

So the appearance of the noctilucent clouds, also known as polar mesospheric clouds or PMCs since they occur in a layer of the atmosphere called the mesosphere, can provide information about the temperature and other characteristics of the atmosphere. This in turn, helps researchers understand more about Earth's low altitude weather systems, and they've discovered that events in one hemisphere can have a sizable effect in another.

Since these mysterious clouds were first spotted, researchers have learned much about them. They light up because they're so high that they reflect sunlight from over the horizon. They are formed of ice water crystals most likely created on meteoric dust. And they are exclusively a summertime phenomenon.

"The question people usually ask is why do clouds which require such cold temperatures form in the summer?" says James Russell, an atmospheric scientist at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., who is the Principal Investigator for AIM. "It's because of the dynamics of the atmosphere. You actually get the coldest temperatures of the year near the poles in summer at that height in the mesosphere."

As summer warmth heats up air near the ground, the air rises. As it rises, it also expands since atmospheric pressure decreases with height. Scientists have long known that such expansion cools things down – just think of how the spray out of an aerosol can feels cold – and this, coupled with dynamics in the atmosphere that drives the cold air even higher, brings temperatures in the mesosphere down past a freezing -210º F (-134 ºC).

In the Northern hemisphere, the mesosphere reaches these temperatures consistently by the middle of May. Since AIM has been collecting data, the onset of the Northern season has never varied by more than a week or so. But the southern hemisphere turns out to be highly variable. Indeed, the 2010 season started nearly a month later than the 2009 season.

Atmospheric scientist Bodil Karlsson, a member of the AIM team, has been analyzing why the start of the southern noctilucent cloud season can vary so dramatically. Karlsson is a researcher at Stockholm University in Sweden, though until recently she worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Colorado. A change in when some pretty clouds show up may not seem like much all by itself, but it's a tool for mapping the goings-on in the atmosphere, says Karlsson.

"Since the clouds are so sensitive to the atmospheric temperatures," says Karlsson. "They can act as a proxy for information about the wind circulation that causes these temperatures. They can tell us that the circulation exists first of all, and tell us something about the strength of the circulation."

She says the onset of the clouds is timed to something called the southern stratospheric vortex – a winter wind pattern that circles above the pole. In 2010, that vortex lingered well into the southern summer season, keeping the lower air cold and interfering with cloud formation. This part of the equation is fairly straightforward and Karlsson has recently submitted a paper on the subject to the Journal of Geophysical Research. But this is not yet the complete answer to what drives the appearance of these brightly lit clouds.

AIM researchers also believe there is a connection between seemingly disparate atmospheric patterns in the north and south. The upwelling of polar air each summer that contributes to noctilucent cloud formation is part of a larger circulation loop that travels between the two poles. So wind activity some 13,000 miles (20,920 km) away in the northern hemisphere appears to be influencing the southern circulation.

The first hints that wind in the north and south poles were coupled came in 2002 and 2003 when researchers noticed that despite a very calm lower weather system near the southern poles in the summer, the higher altitudes showed variability. Something else must be driving that change.

Now, AIM's detailed images of the clouds have enabled researchers to look at even day-to-day variability. They've spotted a 3 to10 day time lag between low-lying weather events in the north – an area that, since it is fairly mountainous, is prone to more complex wind patterns – and weather events in the mesosphere in the south. On the flip side, the lower atmosphere at the southern poles has little variability, and so the upper atmosphere where the clouds form at the northern poles stays fairly constant. Thus, there's a consistent start to the cloud season each year.

"The real importance of all of that," says Hampton's Russell, "is not only that events down where we live can affect the clouds 50 miles (80 km) above, but that the total atmosphere from one pole to the next is rather tightly connected."

Hammering out the exact mechanisms of that connection will, of course, take more analysis. The noctilucent cloud season will also surely be affected by the change in heat output from the sun during the upcoming solar maximum. Researchers hope to use the clouds to understand how the sun's cycle affects the Earth's atmosphere and the interaction between natural- and humankind-caused changes.

"These are the highest clouds in Earth's atmosphere, formed in the coldest place in Earth's atmosphere," says Goddard's Jackman. "Although the clouds occur only in the polar summer, they help us to understand more about the whole globe."
Looking down from above, AIM captured this composite image of the noctilucent cloud cover above the Southern Pole on December 31, 2009. The 2009 cloud season began a month earlier than the 2010 season did.
AIM is a NASA-funded Small Explorers (SMEX) mission. NASA Goddard manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. The mission is led by the Principal Investigator from the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton University in Virginia. The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Utah State University, built the instruments. LASP also manages the mission and controls the satellite.

To celebrate Earth Day 2011, the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is hosting a live Web video chat where your students can ask a NASA/JPL scientist questions emailed in advance.  Questions should be on the topic of Earth science. Our chat is best suited for students and afterschool groups in grades 4 - 6.

Our guest will be NASA/JPL research scientist Annmarie Eldering, who specializes in clouds, aerosols and trace gases in Earth's atmosphere. She is currently the deputy project scientist for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, a NASA satellite mission now in development that will measure atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth's climate.

Left: April 2001: Heat given off by the Earth's surface and atmosphere and pumped out into space. Right: April 2001: Sunlight reflected back out to space by the oceans, land, clouds and aerosols.


The live video chat will be streamed at http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2 on Thursday, April 21 at 10 a.m. PDT/ 1 p.m. EDT. The Web page is open to the general public. The program will be archived on the same page.

Classrooms are strongly encouraged to visit the Web page in advance to make sure their school provides access. We will run a video and audio feed all day on Wednesday, April 20 (starting at 9 a.m. PDT) so we also strongly suggest schools visit the page that day. e question per class. 


A rotating device developed by NASA inventors to grow better living tissue specimens was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame Thursday, April 14. The Space Foundation honored the NASA team who created the device, which promises help for several diseases, during a ceremony at the 27th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Developed in 1986 by a group of NASA engineers and researchers at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the device, known as the bioreactor, enables the growth of tissue, cancer tumors and virus cultures outside the body in space and on Earth. It has many advantages over typical laboratory methods.

Lab-grown cell cultures tend to be small, flat and two-dimensional, unlike normal tissues in the body. However, tissues grown in the bioreactor are larger and three-dimensional, with structural and chemical characteristics similar to normal tissue. The bioreactor has no internal moving parts, which minimizes forces that might damage the delicate cell cultures.

Three of the co-developers of the bioreactor also are being inducted in the Space Technology Hall of Fame: Dr. David Wolf, NASA astronaut, physician and electrical engineer; Tinh Trinh, senior mechanical engineer, Wyle Integrated Science and Engineering Group; and Ray Schwarz, chief engineer and co-founder of Synthecon Inc.

The bioreactor has been used for experiments aboard the space shuttle, the Russian Mir space station and on Earth. Researchers across the United States use this technology to study cancer, stem cells, diabetes, cartilage and nerve growth, and infectious disease.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health used the methods to propagate the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, in artificial lymph node tissue. This research resulted in the ability to study the virus life cycle under controlled conditions outside of the human body.

The bioreactor is a spinoff technology that entered the commercial world when Synthecon licensed it in 1993. Regenetech Inc. licensed 11 patents from Johnson in 2001 to produce three-dimensional tissues in the bioreactor. Regenetech, through a special NASA agreement, provides the technology to researchers pursuing rare disease treatments. In December, 2010, Emerging Healthcare Solutions Inc. acquired a sublicense from Regenetech to use the bioreactor. The bioreactor is manufactured for commercial sale by Synthecon.

A closed tubular cylinder forms the bioreactor's cell culture chamber, which is filled with a liquid medium in which cells grow. The chamber rotates around a horizontal axis, allowing the cells to develop in an environment similar to the free fall of microgravity. Oxygen, required by cells for growth, is fed into the liquid medium through a porous wall in the chamber. The importance of this cell culture technique is that fluid mechanical conditions obtained in microgravity, and emulated on Earth, allow the growth of tissues in the laboratory that cannot be grown any other way.

The 2011 Space Technology Hall of Fame organizational inductees are those that developed the technology and refined it for commercial use: NASA's Johnson Space Center, Regenetech Inc. and Synthecon Inc. All three are based in Houston.

The first six of 18 segments that will form NASA's James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror for space observations will begin final round-the-clock cryogenic testing this week. These tests will confirm the mirrors will respond as expected to the extreme temperatures of space prior to integration into the telescope's permanent housing structure.

The X-ray and Cryogenic Facility at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. will provide the space-like environment to help engineers measure how well the telescope will image infrared sources once in orbit.

Each mirror segment measures approximately 4.3 feet in diameter to form the 21.3 foot (6.5 meters), hexagonal telescope mirror assembly critical for infrared observations. Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped mirror assemblies weighs approximately 88 pounds. The mirrors are made of a light and strong metal called beryllium, and coated with a microscopically thin coat of gold to enabling the mirror to efficiently collect light.

"The six flight mirrors sitting ready for cryogenic acceptance tests have been carefully polished to their exact prescriptions," said Helen Cole, project manager for Webb activities at Marshall. "It's taken the entire mirror development team, including all the partners, over eight years of fabrication, polishing and cryogenic testing to get to this point."

During cryogenic testing, the mirrors are subjected to extreme temperatures dipping to minus 415 degrees Fahrenheit (-248C) in a 7,600 cubic-foot (approximately 215 cubic meter) helium-cooled vacuum chamber. This permits engineers to measure in extreme detail how the shape of the mirror changes as it cools. This simulates the actual processes each mirror will undergo as it changes shape over a range of operational temperatures in space.

"This final cryotest is expected to confirm the exacting processes that have resulted in flight mirrors manufactured to tolerances as tight as 20 nanometers, or less than one millionth of an inch," said Scott Texter, Webb Optical Telescope element manager at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, Calif.

A second set of six mirror assemblies will arrive at Marshall in July to begin testing, and the final set of six will arrive during the fall.

The Webb Telescope is NASA's next-generation space observatory and successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The most powerful space telescope designed, Webb will observe the most distant objects in the universe, provide images of the very first galaxies ever formed and help identify unexplored planets around distant stars. The telescope will orbit approximately one million miles from Earth.

"The Webb telescope continues to make good technological progress," said Rick Howard, JWST Program Director in Washington. "We’re currently developing a new baseline cost and schedule to ensure the success of the program."

The telescope is a combined project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor under NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., is responsible for mirror development. L-3- Tinsley Laboratories Inc. in Richmond, Calif. is responsible for mirror grinding and polishing.

After 30 years of spaceflight, more than 130 missions, and numerous science and technology firsts, NASA's space shuttle fleet will retire and be on display at institutions across the country to inspire the next generation of explorers and engineers.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Tuesday announced the facilities where four shuttle orbiters will be displayed permanently at the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program.
  • Shuttle Enterprise, the first orbiter built, will move from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.
  • The Udvar-Hazy Center will become the new home for shuttle Discovery, which retired after completing its 39th mission in March.
  • Shuttle Endeavour, which is preparing for its final flight at the end of the month will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
  • Shuttle Atlantis, which will fly the last planned shuttle mission in June, will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Florida.
"We want to thank all of the locations that expressed an interest in one of these national treasures," Bolden said. "This was a very difficult decision, but one that was made with the American public in mind. In the end, these choices provide the greatest number of people with the best opportunity to share in the history and accomplishments of NASA's remarkable Space Shuttle Program. These facilities we've chosen have a noteworthy legacy of preserving space artifacts and providing outstanding access to U.S. and international visitors."

NASA also announced that hundreds of shuttle artifacts have been allocated to museums and education institutions.
  • Various shuttle simulators for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum of McMinnville, Ore., and Texas A&M's Aerospace Engineering Department
  • Full fuselage trainer for the Museum of Flight in Seattle
  • Nose cap assembly and crew compartment trainer for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio
  • Flight deck pilot and commander seats for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston
  • Orbital maneuvering system engines for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center of Huntsville, Ala., National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum

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As of 7 March 2010 (2010 -03-07), 225 satellites have received USA designations. For an unknown reason, the designation USA-163 has never been assigned.

Number USA-224
Launch date 2011-01-20
Rocket Delta IV-H
Other designations NROL-49 (KH-11)
Function Optical imaging
Status Active
Remarks -
Number USA-225
Launch date 2011-02-06
Rocket Minotaur I
Other designations NROL-66 (RPP)
Function Technology
Status Active
Remarks -
Number USA-226
Launch date 2011-03-05
Rocket Atlas V 501
Other designations Boeing X-37B OTV-2
Function Technology
Status Active
Remarks Spaceplane, maiden flight of second X-37B

Satellite LaunchDate Launch Vehicle Type of Satellite
RESOURCESAT-2 20.04.2011 PSLV-C16 Earth Observation Satellite
YOUTHSAT 20.04.2011 PSLV-C16 Experimental / Small Satellite
GSAT-5P 25.12.2010 GSLV-F06 Geo-Stationary Satellite
STUDSAT 12.07.2010 PSLV-C15 Experimental / Small Satellite
CARTOSAT-2B 12.07.2010 PSLV-C15 Earth Observation Satellite
GSAT-4 15.04.2010 GSLV-D3 Geo-Stationary Satellite
Oceansat-2 23.09.2009 PSLV-C14 Earth Observation Satellite
ANUSAT 20.04.2009 PSLV-C12 Experimental / Small Satellite
RISAT-2 20.04.2009 PSLV-C12 Earth Observation Satellite
Chandrayaan-1 22.10.2008 PSLV-C11 Space Mission
CARTOSAT - 2A 28.04.2008 PSLV-C9 Earth Observation Satellite
IMS-1 28.04.2008 PSLV-C9 Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-4B 12.03.2007 Ariane-5ECA Geo-Stationary Satellite
CARTOSAT - 2 10.01.2007 PSLV-C7 Earth Observation Satellite
SRE - 1 10.01.2007 PSLV-C7 Experimental / Small Satellite
INSAT-4CR 02.09.2007 GSLV-F04 Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-4C 10.07.2006 GSLV-F02 Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-4A 22.12.2005 Ariane-5GS Geo-Stationary Satellite
HAMSAT 05.05.2005 PSLV-C6 Experimental / Small Satellite
CARTOSAT-1 05.05.2005 PSLV-C6 Earth Observation Satellite
EDUSAT (GSAT-3) 20.09.2004 GSLV-F01 Geo-Stationary Satellite
Resourcesat-1(IRS-P6) 17.10.2003 PSLV-C5 Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-3A 10.04.2003 Ariane-5G Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-3E 28.09.2003 Ariane-5G Geo-Stationary Satellite
GSAT-2 08.05.2003 GSLV-D2 Geo-Stationary Satellite
KALPANA-1(METSAT) 12.09.2002 PSLV-C4 Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-3C 24.01.2002 Ariane-42L H10-3 Geo-Stationary Satellite
Technology Experiment Satellite (TES) 22.10.2001 PSLV-C3 Earth Observation Satellite
GSAT-1 18.04.2001 GSLV-D1 Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-3B 22.03.2000 Ariane-5G Geo-Stationary Satellite
Oceansat(IRS-P4) 26.05.1999 PSLV-C2 Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-2E 03.04.1999 Ariane-42P H10-3 Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-2DT January 1998 Ariane-44L H10 Geo-Stationary Satellite
IRS-1D 29.09.1997 PSLV-C1 Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-2D 04.06.1997 Ariane-44L H10-3 Geo-Stationary Satellite
IRS-P3 21.03.1996 PSLV-D3 Earth Observation Satellite
IRS-1C 28.12.1995 Molniya Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-2C 07.12.1995 Ariane-44L H10-3 Geo-Stationary Satellite
IRS-P2 15.10.1994 PSLV-D2 Earth Observation Satellite
Stretched Rohini Satellite Series (SROSS-C2) 04.05.1994 ASLV Space Mission
IRS-1E 20.09.1993 PSLV-D1 Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-2B 23.07.1993 Ariane-44L H10+ Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-2A 10.07.1992 Ariane-44L H10 Geo-Stationary Satellite
Stretched Rohini Satellite Series (SROSS-C) 20.05.1992 ASLV Space Mission
IRS-1B 29.08.1991 Vostok Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-1D 12.06.1990 Delta 4925 Geo-Stationary Satellite
INSAT-1C 21.07.1988 Ariane-3 Geo-Stationary Satellite
Stretched Rohini Satellite Series

(SROSS-2)
13.07.1988 ASLV Earth Observation Satellite
IRS-1A 17.03.1988 Vostok Earth Observation Satellite
Stretched Rohini Satellite Series
(SROSS-1)
24.03.1987 ASLV Space Mission
INSAT-1B 30.08.1983 Shuttle [PAM-D] Geo-Stationary Satellite
Rohini (RS-D2) 17.04.1983 SLV-3 Earth Observation Satellite
INSAT-1A 10.04.1982 Delta 3910 PAM-D Geo-Stationary Satellite
Bhaskara-II 20.11.1981 C-1 Intercosmos Earth Observation Satellite
Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE) 19.06.1981 Ariane-1(V-3) Geo-Stationary Satellite
Rohini (RS-D1) 31.05.1981 SLV-3 Earth Observation Satellite
Rohini (RS-1) 18.07.1980 SLV-3 Experimental / Small Satellite
Rohini Technology Payload (RTP) 10.08.1979 SLV-3 Experimental / Small Satellite
Bhaskara-I 07.06.1979 C-1 Intercosmos Earth Observation Satellite
Aryabhata 19.04.1975 C-1 Intercosmos Experimental / Small Satellite

Since 1981, NASA space shuttles have been rocketing from the Florida coast into Earth orbit. The five orbiters — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — have flown more than 130 times, carrying over 350 people into space and travelling more than half a billion miles, more than enough to reach Jupiter. Designed to return to Earth and land like a giant glider, the shuttle was the world's first reusable space vehicle. More than all of that, though, the shuttle program expanded the limits of human achievement and broadened our understanding of our world.

It all started with STS-1, launched on April 12, 1981, just twenty years to the day after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. When astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen launched that morning in Columbia, it was the first time in history a new spacecraft was launched on its maiden voyage with a crew aboard.
For an entire generation, the space shuttle was NASA. We've watched a parade of firsts -- Sally Ride, Guy Bluford, Kathy Sullivan, John Glenn and others. We've seen astronauts float free, and launch and repair spacecraft like Hubble which have fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe.

In this feature, we look back at the Shuttle's historic missions, the people it flew into space, and its achievements.

One week shy of the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, NASA astronaut Ron Garan and Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev launched to the International Space Station at 6:18 p.m. EDT Monday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz rocket that lifted Garan, Borisenko and Samokutyaev into orbit was decorated with Yuri Gagarin's name. The mission lifted off from the same launch pad used April 12, 1961, when Gagarin became the first human to journey into space.



The crew is scheduled to dock its Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft to the station's Poisk port at 7:18 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6. The crew members will join Expedition 27 Commander Dmitry Kondratyev and Flight Engineers Cady Coleman of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency, who have been aboard the orbiting laboratory since December 2010.

NASA and co-researchers from the United States, South Korea and Japan have found a new mineral named "Wassonite" in one of the most historically significant meteorites recovered in Antarctica in December 1969.

The new mineral was discovered within the meteorite officially designated Yamato 691 enstatite chondrite. The meteorite was discovered the same year as other landmark meteorites Allende and Murchison and the return of the first Apollo lunar samples. The study of meteorites helps define our understanding of the formation and history of the solar system.

The meteorite likely may have originated from an asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Wassonite is among the tiniest, yet most important, minerals identified in the 4.5-billion-year-old sample. The research team, headed by NASA space scientist Keiko Nakamura-Messenger, added the mineral to the list of 4,500 officially approved by the International Mineralogical Association.

"Wassonite is a mineral formed from only two elements, sulfur and titanium, yet it possesses a unique crystal structure that has not been previously observed in nature," said Nakamura-Messenger.

In 1969, members of the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition discovered nine meteorites on the blue ice field of the Yamato Mountains in Antarctica. This was the first significant recovery of Antarctic meteorites and represented samples of several different types. As a result, the United States and Japan conducted systematic follow-up searches for meteorites in Antarctica that recovered more than 40,000 specimens, including extremely rare Martian and lunar meteorites.

Researchers found Wassonite surrounded by additional unknown minerals that are being investigated. The mineral is less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair or 50x450 nanometers. It would have been impossible to discover without NASA's transmission electron microscope, which is capable of isolating the Wassonite grains and determining their chemical composition and atomic structure.

"More secrets of the universe can be revealed from these specimens using 21st century nano-technology," said Nakamura-Messenger.

The new mineral's name was approved by the International Mineralogical Association. It honors John T. Wasson, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Wasson is known for his achievements across a broad swath of meteorite and impact research, including the use of neutron activation data to classify meteorites and to formulate models for the chemical makeup of bulk chondrites.

"Meteorites, and the minerals within them, are windows to the formation of our solar system," said Lindsay Keller, space scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Keller is the co-discoverer and principal investigator of the microscope used to analyze the Wassonite crystals. "Through these kinds of studies we can learn about the conditions that existed and the processes that were occurring then."

Johnson's advanced work in nanotechnology is part of the center's Astromaterial Research and Exploration Science Directorate. It is currently the location for celestial materials that would be returned to Earth from spacecraft. The facility collaborates with industry, academic and international organizations.

"The beauty of this research is that it really demonstrates how the Johnson Space Center has become a pre-eminent leader in the field of nanoscale analysis," said Simon Clemett, a space scientist at Johnson and co-discoverer of the new mineral. "In the words of the great English poet William Blake, we are now able 'to see the world in a grain of sand'.

Collaborators in the discovery of the new mineral include Clemett, Keller and Zia Rahman in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at Johnson; Alan Rubin from UCLA; Byeon-Gak Choi from Seoul National University, South Korea; Shouliang Zhang from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston; and Katsunari Oikawa from Tohoku University, Japan.