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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 2010

With a loud roar and mighty column of flame, NASA and ATK Aerospace Systems successfully completed a two-minute, full-scale test of the largest and most powerful solid rocket motor designed for flight. The motor is potentially transferable to future heavy-lift launch vehicle designs.

The stationary firing of the first-stage development solid rocket motor, dubbed DM-2, was the most heavily instrumented solid rocket motor test in NASA history. More than 760 instruments measured 53 test objectives.

Prior to the static test, the solid rocket motor was cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit to verify the performance of new materials and assess motor performance at low temperatures during the full-duration test. Initial test data showed the motor performance met all expectations.

"For every few degrees the temperature rises, solid propellant burns slightly faster and only through robust ground testing can we understand how material and motor performance is impacted by different operating conditions," said Alex Priskos, first stage manager for Ares Projects at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "Ground-testing at temperature extremes pushes this system to its limits, which advances our understanding of five-segment solid rocket motor performance."

The first-stage solid rocket motor is designed to generate up to 3.6-million pounds of thrust at launch. Information collected from this test, together with data from the first development motor test last year, will be evaluated to better understand the performance and reliability of the design.

Although similar to the solid rocket boosters that help power the space shuttle to orbit, the five-segment development motor includes several upgrades and technology improvements implemented by NASA and ATK engineers. Motor upgrades from a shuttle booster include the addition of a fifth segment, a larger nozzle throat, and upgraded insulation and liner. The motor cases are flight-proven hardware used on shuttle launches for more than three decades. The cases used in this ground test have collectively launched 59 previous missions, the earliest being STS-3.

After more testing, the first-stage solid rocket motor will be certified to fly at temperature ranges between 40-90 degrees Fahrenheit. The solid rocket motor was built as an element of NASA's Constellation Program and is managed by the Ares Projects Office at Marshall. ATK Aerospace Systems, a division of Alliant Techsystems of Brigham City, Utah, is the prime contractor.

NASA will hold a media teleconference Thursday, 26th Aug, at 1 p.m. to discuss the Kepler spacecraft's latest discovery about an intriguing planetary system.

Kepler Spacecraft, a space observatory, looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when the planets cross in front of, or transit, them. In June, mission scientists announced the mission has identified more than 700 planet candidates, including five candidates systems that appear to have more than one transiting planet.

Participating panelists are:
  • Jon Morse, director, Science Mission Directorate Astrophysics Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington.
  • William Borucki, Kepler Mission science principal investigator, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
  • Matthew Holman, associate director, Theoretical Astrophysics Division, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Alycia Weinberger, astronomer, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington.

Global plant productivity that once was on the rise with warming temperatures and a lengthened growing season is now on the decline because of regional drought according to a new study of NASA satellite data.

Plant productivity is a measure of the rate of the photosynthesis process that green plants use to convert solar energy, carbon dioxide and water to sugar, oxygen and eventually plant tissue. Compared with a 6 percent increase in plant productivity during the 1980s and 1990s, the decline observed over the last decade is only 1 percent. The shift, however, could impact food security, biofuels and the global carbon cycle.

Researchers Maosheng Zhao and Steven Running of the University of Montana in Missoula discovered the global shift from an analysis of NASA satellite data. The discovery comes from an analysis of plant productivity data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA's Terra satellite, combined with other growing season climate data, including temperature, solar radiation and water.

"We see this as a bit of a surprise, and potentially significant on a policy level because previous interpretations suggested global warming might actually help plant growth around the world," Running said.

Previous research found land plant productivity was on the rise. A 2003 paper in the journal Science led by scientist Ramakrishna Nemani, now a researcher at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., showed the 6 percent increase in global terrestrial plant productivity between 1982 and 1999. The increase was traced to nearly two decades of temperature, solar radiation and water availability conditions, influenced by climate change, that were favorable for plant growth.

Setting out to update that analysis, Zhao and Running expected to see similar results as global average temperatures continued to climb. Instead, they found the negative impact of regional drought overwhelmed the positive influence of a longer growing season, driving down global plant productivity between 2000 and 2009. The team published its findings Thursday in Science.

"This is a pretty serious warning that warmer temperatures are not going to endlessly improve plant growth," Running said.

Zhao and Running's analysis showed that since 2000, high-latitude Northern Hemisphere ecosystems have continued to benefit from warmer temperatures and a longer growing season. But that effect was offset by warming-associated drought that limited growth in the Southern Hemisphere, resulting in a net global loss of land productivity.

"This past decade’s net decline in terrestrial productivity illustrates that a complex interplay between temperature, rainfall, cloudiness, and carbon dioxide, probably in combination with other factors such as nutrients and land management, will determine future patterns and trends in productivity," said Diane Wickland, program manager of the Terrestrial Ecology research program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA is collaborating with award-winning recording artist Mary J. Blige to encourage young women to pursue exciting experiences and career choices by studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

A public service announcement featuring veteran NASA space shuttle astronaut Leland Melvin and Blige debuts this week on NASA TV and the agency's website at:

NASA's Summer of Innovation (SoI) project and Blige's Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now (FFAWN) have much in common. Both show students the many possibilities available if they follow their dreams and reach for the stars.

The SoI project is part of the President's Educate to Innovate Campaign. It started earlier this summer to help keep middle school students engaged in fun and stimulating STEM-related activities during the school break.

"Working with FFAWN is a rare opportunity to help spread the STEM message into communities not always readily accessible to us," Melvin said. "Mary's presence can help NASA make the STEM message more appealing to these communities and increase the pipeline of underrepresented students going into these disciplines."

NASA will host LAUNCH: Health, a global forum focusing on health issues, at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida from Oct. 30-31. NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State, and NIKE are partnering on LAUNCH to identify, showcase and support innovative approaches to sustainability challenges through a series of forums.

LAUNCH forums focus on key areas, including water, air, food, and energy. They provide a venue for evaluating creative ideas among peers and collaborative, solution-driven discussions.

This second forum, LAUNCH: Health, will bring together entrepreneurs from around the world who will be selected based on their innovative approaches to addressing health issues. During the two-and-a-half day forum, they will discuss their proposed solutions to health issues with "council members" who represent business, policy, engineering, science, communications and sustainability sectors. The sessions are designed to identify challenges and discuss future opportunities for entrepreneurs' innovations.

LAUNCH: Health seeks transformative innovations to improve health and the quality of life on Earth, specifically for people in the first 20 years of life, in the following categories:
- Nutrition and food
- Physical activity
- Preventive health care

"NASA's interest in technology development and problem solving in the area of human health issues makes hosting this discussion among innovators and thought leaders a natural fit," NASA's Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. "Solutions to health issues here on Earth have the potential to benefit space explorers of the future, as well as humankind overall."

NASA is hosting a forum to present an overview of common themes captured from industry responses to NASA's Commercial Crew Initiative Request For Information (RFI). The forum is scheduled for 9 to 11:30 a.m., Thursday, Aug. 19 at NASA Headquarters, 300 E St. SW, Washington.

The RFI, issued on May 21, collected information from industry to help NASA plan the overall strategy for the development and demonstration of a commercial crew transport capability and to receive comments on NASA human-rating technical requirements.

The Aug. 19 forum will include discussion about how NASA is addressing the common themes in the responses and presentations on the availability of agency facilities and the availability of service arrangements for commercial providers. NASA managers also will participate in a question-and-answer session.

NASA will host media in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Houston on Tuesday, Aug. 31, for a behind-the-scenes look at the agency's major airborne campaign studying Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico hurricanes. The campaign, called the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes mission, or GRIP, starts next week.

Scientists will spend six weeks flying NASA research aircraft in and around storms and the areas where they may be forming. Instruments onboard NASA's aircraft will collect data to help enhance understanding of how tropical storms form and become hurricanes.

NASA's DC-8 aircraft, which will carry seven science instruments, is based in Fort Lauderdale. NASA's WB-57 aircraft, which will carry two instruments, is based in Houston. Media day events will feature a briefing with mission scientists and flight crews, followed by tours of the aircraft and interviews.

The Florida event will be at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport from 8 to 10 a.m. EDT. The Texas media day will be at the Johnson Space Center's Ellington Field in Houston from 1 to 3 p.m. CDT. The date of the media day is subject to change depending on the schedule of research flights.

For the first time, twin brothers are slated to be in space simultaneously early next year. Mark Kelly will be in command of the last scheduled space shuttle flight, and Scott Kelly in command of the International Space Station.

The Kelly brothers will be available for live satellite interviews between 9:15 and 11:15 a.m. CDT Tuesday, Aug. 17. Scott Kelly is scheduled to launch to the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 7 (Oct. 8 local time) for a six-month-long mission aboard the complex. He will serve as flight engineer for Expedition 25 and commander for Expedition 26.

His twin brother Mark, commander of shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission, is scheduled to visit the station in February to deliver supplies and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. AMS is a device to study the universe's origin by searching for antimatter, dark matter, strange matter and measuring cosmic rays. If the launch schedule holds, the pair would be working together in orbit for eight days before the shuttle undocks and returns to Earth.

To arrange an interview, reporters should contact producer Jeremiah Maddix at 281-483-8631 or by e-mail to by 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 16. Video b-roll of the Kellys' previous missions and training will air on NASA TV Aug. 17 from 8:45 to 9:15 a.m.

The Kellys, both captains in the U.S. Navy, were born Feb. 21, 1964, in Orange, N.J., and consider West Orange, N.J., their hometown. Scott has flown on two prior shuttle missions: as pilot of STS-103 in 1999 and as commander of STS-118 in 2007. Mark is a veteran of three prior shuttle missions: as pilot of STS-108 in 2001 and STS-121 in 2006, and as commander of STS-124 in 2008.

NASA has selected Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies of Greenbelt, Md., to provide the agency's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., with computing support services for complex information technology (IT) systems and applications.

The five-year maximum value of the Langley Research Center Information Technology Enhanced Services (LITES) task order contract is $183 million.

The systems supported include unique and high-end systems used by mission and mission-support staff at Langley. LITES provides a wide range of support functions including those for non-standard operating systems, for system interfaces, or for use within a dynamic environment such as a research laboratory or test facility.

LITES provides integrated support that encompasses all activities necessary to develop, deploy, upgrade, operate and maintain a system that delivers an IT capability for research and development use and for business systems and applications. The contract provides support through Langley's Office of the Chief Information Officer in the areas of science and engineering applications; project management applications; business management applications; and center infrastructure applications and data center support not provided as part of NASA’s Information Technology Infrastructure Improvement Program.

NASA has selected the United States Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) in Norfolk, Va., for the Launch Facilities Protection Project at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. The total contract value is not to exceed $49.5 million. The period of performance is five years.

The United States Army Corp of Engineers provides an array of services that will allow NASA to complete the Launch Facilities Protection Project. The project is scheduled to begin in fall 2010. The United States Army Corp of Engineers will extend a seawall approximately 1,300 feet to the south of an existing seawall located on Wallops Island, and place approximately 3.2 million cubic yards of dredged sand along the Wallops Island shoreline.

This effort provides direct customer support to the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility’s through personnel, equipment, tools, materials, vehicles, specialized test equipment, supervision, and other services.

NASA has announced a second opportunity for the small satellite payloads to fly on rockets planned to launch in 2011 and 2012. These CubeSats could be auxiliary cargo on previously planned missions.

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft is called Nanosatellites. The cube-shaped satellites are approximately four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh less than 2.2 pounds.

CubeSat investigations should be consistent with the NASA's Strategic Plan or the Education Strategic Coordination Framework. The research should address aspects of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations.

Applicants must submit the proposals electronically by 4:30 p.m. EST, Nov. 15. NASA will select the payloads by Jan. 31, 2011, but selection does not guarantee a launch opportunity. Collaborators may be required to provide partial reimbursement of approximately $30,000 per CubeSat. NASA will not provide funding for the development of the small satellites.

NASA has recently announced the results from the first round of the CubeSat Launch Initiative. Twelve payloads have made the short-list for launch opportunities in 2011 and 2012. They are eligible for launch pending an appropriate opportunity and final negotiations. The satellites come from 10 states: Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and Vermont.

The first of two spacewalks by NASA astronauts to replace a failed ammonia pump on the International Space Station has been moved to Saturday, Aug. 7. A second spacewalk is planned for Wednesday, Aug. 11, to complete the repairs.

Teams of flight controllers, engineers, and spacewalk experts have made significant progress in preparing for the first spacewalk, but need an additional day to get ready. The additional time allows for final procedures to be sent late Thursday to the station, giving the crew a full day to review the plans developed by Mission Control. Managers also moved the second spacewalk to Wednesday to give the crew more time to rest and prepare.

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson are scheduled to perform the spacewalks, which will air on NASA Television. Coverage will begin at 5 a.m. CDT. The spacewalks are scheduled to begin at 5:55 a.m. Saturday's spacewalk will be the fourth for Wheelock and the first for Caldwell Dyson.

Approximately two hours after the conclusion of each spacewalk, NASA TV will broadcast a briefing from NASA's Johnson Space Center. The briefing participants will be Mike Suffredini, International Space Station program manager; Courtenay McMillan, Expedition 24 spacewalk flight director; and David Beaver, Expedition 24 spacewalk officer.

Johnson's newsroom will be open for credentialed reporters to attend the briefing. Johnson also will operate a telephone bridge for reporters with valid media credentials issued by a NASA center. Journalists planning to use the service must contact the Johnson newsroom at 281-483-5111 no later than 15 minutes prior to the start of a briefing. Phone bridge capacity is limited and will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Engineers and flight controllers continue to review data on the July 31 pump failure, which caused the loss of one of two cooling loops aboard the station. This failure resulted in a power down and required adjustments to maintain as much redundancy as possible for the station systems. The systems are stable, and the station's six crew members are not in any danger.

The first of two spacewalks by NASA astronauts to replace a unsuccessful ammonia pump on the International Space Station has been delayed by 24 hours to Friday, Aug. 6. A second spacewalk is planned for Monday, Aug. 9, to complete the repairs.

Flight controllers and station managers made the decision Monday night after reviewing proposed timelines, final procedures for the repair work, and the results from a spacewalk dress rehearsal conduct in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson are scheduled to perform spacewalks. The two NASA astronauts will replace an ammonia coolant pump that failed July 31.

NASA Television exposure of both spacewalks will begin at 5 a.m. CDT. Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson are expected to begin the spacewalks from the Quest airlock at 5:55 a.m. Friday's spacewalk will be the fourth for Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson's first.

Approximately 2 hours after the conclusion of each spacewalk, NASA Television will broadcast a briefing from Johnson. The briefing participants will be Mike Suffredini, International Space Station Program manager; Courtenay McMillan, Expedition 24 Spacewalk flight director; and David Beaver, Expedition 24 spacewalk officer.

Reporters may ask the questions from participating NASA locations, and should contact their preferred NASA center to confirm participation. Johnson will operate a telephone bridge for reporters with valid media credentials issued by a NASA center. Journalists planning to use the service must contact the Johnson newsroom at 281-483-5111 no later than 15 minutes prior to the start of a briefing. Phone bridge capacity is limited and will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Engineers and flight controllers continue to review the data on the failure, which resulted in the loss of one of two cooling loops aboard the station. This caused a significant power down and required adjustments to provide maximum redundancy possible for station systems. The systems are stable, and the six crew members aboard are not in any danger.

Wheelock and Caldwell Dyson originally were scheduled to make a spacewalk to outfit the Russian Zarya module for future robotics work and prepare the station for the installation of a new U.S. permanent multipurpose module. However, because of the importance of restoring redundancy to the station's cooling and power systems, the two new spacewalks will be dedicated to the pump module replacement.

NASA will hold a media teleconference on Thursday, Aug. 5, at 3 p.m. EDT to discuss its upcoming airborne research campaign into hurricane behavior.

The Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes mission, or GRIP, will study how hurricanes are created and why they can intensify rapidly. The mission involves three NASA research aircraft based in Florida, Texas, and California, and observations from several NASA satellites. GRIP will run from Aug. 15 to Sept. 25.

The teleconference panelists are:
  • Ramesh Kakar, weather focus area lead, NASA Headquarters, Washington .
  • Scott Braun, hurricane modeler/research meteorologist, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
  • Gerald Heymsfield, cloud radar expert/research meteorologist, Goddard .
  • Ed Zipser, professor of meteorology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

NASA mission controllers have not heard from the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit since March 22, and the rover is facing its toughest challenge yet - trying to survive the harsh Martian winter. The rover team anticipated Spirit would go into a low-power "hibernation" mode since the rover was not able to get to a favorable slope for its fourth Martian winter, which runs from May through November. The low angle of sunlight during these months limits the power generated from the rover's solar panels. During hibernation, the rover suspends communications and other activities so available energy can be used to recharge and heat batteries, and to keep the mission clock running.

On July 26, mission managers began using a paging technique called "sweep and beep" in an effort to communicate with Spirit. "Instead of just listening, we send commands to the rover to respond back to us with a communications beep," said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "If the rover is awake and hears us, she will send us that beep."

Based on models of Mars' weather and its effect on available power, mission managers believe that if Spirit responds, it most likely will be in the next few months. However, there is a very distinct possibility Spirit may never respond. "It will be the miracle from Mars if our beloved rover phones home," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program in Washington. "It's never faced this type of severe condition before - this is unknown territory."

Because most of the rover's heaters were not being powered this winter, Spirit is likely experiencing its coldest internal temperatures yet -- minus 55 degrees Celsius (minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit). During three previous Martian winters, Spirit communicated about once or twice a week with Earth and used its heaters to stay warm while parked on a sun-facing slope for the winter. As a result, the heaters were able to keep internal temperatures above minus 40 degrees Celsius.

Spirit is designed to wake up from its hibernation and communicate with Earth when its battery charge is adequate. But if the batteries have lost too much power, Spirit's clock may stop and lose track of time. The rover could still reawaken, but it would not know the time of day, a situation called a "mission-clock fault." Spirit would start a new timer to wake up every four hours and listen for a signal from Earth for 20 minutes of every hour while the sun is up.

The earliest date the rover could generate enough power to send a beep to Earth was calculated to be around July 23. However, mission managers don't anticipate the batteries will charge adequately until late September to mid-October. It may be even later if the rover is in a mission-clock fault mode. If Spirit does wake up, mission managers will do a complete health check on the rover's instruments and electronics.

Based on previous Martian winters, the rover team anticipates the increasing haziness in the sky over Spirit will offset longer daylight for the next two months. The amount of solar energy available to Spirit then will increase until the southern Mars summer solstice in March 2011. If we haven't heard from it by March, it is unlikely that we will ever hear from it.

"This has been a long winter for Spirit, and a long wait for us," said Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for NASA's two rovers who is based at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "Even if we never heard from Spirit again, I think her scientific legacy would be secure. But we're hopeful we will hear from her, and we're eager to get back to doing science with two rovers again."

Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, began exploring Mars in January 2004 on missions planned to last three months. Spirit has been nearly stationary since April 2009, while Opportunity is driving toward a large crater named Endeavour. Opportunity covered more distance in 2009 than in any prior year. Both rovers have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life.