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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 August 2011

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




NASA/Wallops Flight Facility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the appointment Tuesday.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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