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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 September 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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