Thursday, October 29, 2009

New Celestial Map Gives Directions for GPS

Many of us have been rescued from unfamiliar territory by directions from a Global Positioning System (GPS) navigator. GPS satellites send signals to a receiver in your GPS navigator, which calculates your position based on the location of the satellites and your distance from them. The distance is determined by how long it took the signals from various satellites to reach your receiver.

The system works well, and millions rely on it every day, but what tells the GPS satellites where they are in the first place?

"For GPS to work, the orbital position, or ephemeris, of the satellites has to be known very precisely," said Dr. Chopo Ma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "In order to know where the satellites are, you have to know the orientation of the Earth very precisely."

This is not as obvious as simply looking at the Earth – space is not conveniently marked with lines to determine our planet's position. Even worse, "everything is always moving," says Ma. Earth wobbles as it rotates due to the gravitational pull (tides) from the moon and the sun. Even apparently minor things like shifts in air and ocean currents and motions in Earth's molten core all influence our planet's orientation.

Just as you can use landmarks to find your place in a strange city, astronomers use landmarks in space to position the Earth. Stars seem the obvious candidate, and they were used throughout history to navigate on Earth. "However, for the extremely precise measurements needed for things like GPS, stars won't work, because they are moving too," says Ma.

This is an artist's concept of a quasar (bright area with rays) embedded in the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

What is needed are objects so remote that their motion is not detectable. Only a couple classes of objects fit the bill, because they also need to be bright enough to be seen over incredible distances. Things like quasars, which are typically brighter than a billion suns, can be used. Many scientists believe these objects are powered by giant black holes feeding on nearby gas. Gas trapped in the black hole's powerful gravity is compressed and heated to millions of degrees, giving off intense light and/or radio energy.

Most quasars lurk in the outer reaches of the cosmos, over a billion light years away, and are therefore distant enough to appear stationary to us. For comparison, a light year, the distance light travels in a year, is almost six trillion miles. Our entire galaxy, consisting of hundreds of billions of stars, is about 100,000 light years across.

A collection of remote quasars, whose positions in the sky are precisely known, forms a map of celestial landmarks in which to orient the Earth. The first such map, called the International Celestial Reference Frame (ICRF), was completed in 1995. It was made over four years using painstaking analysis of observations on the positions of about 600 objects.

Ma led a three-year effort to update and improve the precision of the ICRF map by scientists affiliated with the International Very Long Baseline Interferometry Service for Geodesy and Astrometry (IVS) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Called ICRF2, it uses observations of approximately 3,000 quasars. It was officially recognized as the fundamental reference system for astronomy by the IAU in August, 2009.

Making such a map is not easy. Despite the brilliance of quasars, their extreme distance makes them too faint to be located accurately with a conventional telescope that uses optical light (the light that we can see). Instead, a special network of radio telescopes is used, called a Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI).

A sky map of the 295 defining sources of ICRF2. The dashed line represents the ecliptic and the solid line is the galactic plane. Credit: Dave Boboltz / USNO

The larger the telescope, the better its ability to see fine detail, called spatial resolution. A VLBI network coordinates its observations to get the resolving power of a telescope as large as the network. VLBI networks have spanned continents and even entire hemispheres of the globe, giving the resolving power of a telescope thousands of miles in diameter. For ICRF2, the analysis of the VLBI observations reduced uncertainties in position to angles as small as 40 microarcseconds, about the thickness of a 0.7 millimeter mechanical pencil lead in Los Angeles when viewed from Washington. This minimum uncertainty is about five times better than the ICRF, according to Ma.

These networks are arranged on a yearly basis as individual radio telescope stations commit time to make coordinated observations. Managing all these coordinated observations is a major effort by the IVS, according to Ma.

Additionally, the exquisite precision of VLBI networks makes them sensitive to many kinds of disturbances, called noise. Differences in atmospheric pressure and humidity caused by weather systems, flexing of the Earth's crust due to tides, and shifting of antenna locations from plate tectonics and earthquakes all affect VLBI measurements. "A significant challenge was modeling all these disturbances in computers to take them into account and reduce the noise, or uncertainty, in our position observations," said Ma.

Another major source of noise is related to changes in the structure of the quasars themselves, which can be seen because of the extraordinary resolution of the VLBI networks, according to Ma.

The ICRF maps are not only useful for navigation on Earth; they also help us find our way in space -- the ICRF grid and some of the objects themselves are used to assist spacecraft navigation for interplanetary missions, according to Ma.

A radio telescope at the Kokee Park Geophysical Observatory, NASA's VLBI station in Hawaii, one of the most active sites in the global geodetic/astrometric VLBI network. Credit: US Navy / PMRF

Despite its usefulness for things like GPS, the primary application for the ICRF maps is astronomy. Researchers use the ICRF maps as driving directions for telescopes. Objects are referenced with coordinates derived from the ICRF so that astronomers know where to find them in the sky.

Also, the optical light visible to our eyes is only a small part of the electromagnetic radiation produced by celestial objects, which ranges from less-energetic, low-frequency radiation, like radio and microwaves, through optical light to highly energetic, high-frequency radiation like X-rays and gamma-rays.

Astronomers use special detectors to make images of objects producing radiation our eyes can't see. Even so, since things in space can have extremely different temperatures, objects that generate radiation in one frequency band, say optical, do not necessarily produce radiation in another, perhaps radio. The main scientific use of the ICRF maps is a precise grid for combining observations of objects taken using different frequencies and accurately locating them relative to each other in the sky.

Astronomers also use the frame as a backdrop to record the motion of celestial objects closer to us. Tracing how stars and other objects move provides clues to their origin and evolution.

The next update to the ICRF may be done in space. The European Space Agency plans to launch a satellite called Gaia in 2012 that will observe about a half-million quasars. Gaia uses an optical telescope, but because it is above the atmosphere, the satellite will be able to clearly see these faint objects and precisely locate them in the sky. The mission will use quasars that are optically bright, many of which are too dim in radio to be useful for the VLBI networks. The project expects to have enough observations by 2018 to 2020 to produce the next-generation ICRF.

ICRF2 involved researchers from Australia, Austria, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States; and was funded by organizations from these countries, including NASA. The analysis efforts are coordinated by the IVS. The IAU officially adopts the ICRF maps and recommends their occasional updates.

Bill Steigerwald
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

For more information visit

Exoplanet House of Horrors

Astronomers may be closer than ever to discovering a planet that’s habitable like our own, but along the way they’ve discovered some very scary exoplanets – places where conditions are far too harsh for life as we know it to exist.

We’ve rounded up some of the most frightening, deadly exoplanets, places that make even the scariest haunted house on Earth pale in comparison.

Radiation Bath, Anyone?

The exoplanets PSR B1257+12 b, c and d were among the first discovered, and also happen to be three of the weirdest. The entire system is a graveyard, remnants of what used to be a normal, functional solar system before the star blew apart in a giant explosion known as a supernova.

The pulsar planets PSR B1257+12 b, c, and d are all that remains of a dead solar system. They are constantly beamed with intense radiation. (Artist's concept)

The massive shockwave from the supernova stripped away any atmosphere or living creatures that might have once lived on these planets, leaving behind ghostly, rocky shells, dead planets orbiting the corpse of an extinct star.

Except that PSR B1257+12 isn’t all dead - the remaining core from the old star has become a zombie star called a pulsar. Literally spinning in its grave, PSR B1257+12 makes a full rotation every 6.22 milliseconds and emits an intense beam of radiation that can be detected from Earth. The star’s unfortunate planets are thus bathed in deadly radiation on a regular basis, making sure that this system remains a cosmic no-man’s land.

A Mighty Wind

The sound of howling wind is a must for any Earth-based haunted house, but weather conditions on HD 189733 b make it a very dangerous place to go trick-or-treating.

HD 189733 b may have winds that blow up to 22,000 mph. (Artist's concept)

At first glance, HD 189733 b looks like the typical “hot Jupiter” – a huge gas planet perched dangerously close to a burning-hot star, with daytime temperatures around a balmy 1,770 degrees Fahrenheit. HD 189733 b is “tidally locked” in its orbit, meaning that the same side of the planet always faces its star.

But when scientists measured the planet’s nighttime temperature, they were shocked to find that it was only 500 degrees cooler. How does the back side of the planet stay so warm?

The answer is wind: insanely fast, dangerous wind that whisks heat from day-side to night-side at a speed of 4,500 mph, nearly six times the speed of sound. In fact, astronomers estimate that wind speeds might top out at 22,000 mph, conditions that make hurricanes on Earth look like a breezy day at the beach.

Needless to say, kite-flying on HD 189733 b is not recommended – unless you’re flying one from the cockpit of a fighter jet.

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble

The planet HD 209458 b has a few things in common with Earth: water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, key ingredients for life on our planet. Don’t be fooled, though, because this planet is a roiling cauldron of almost unimaginable heat.

HD 209458’s boiling atmosphere is being ripped from the planet as it orbits its star. (Artist's concept)

Even the hottest summer days on Earth don’t get as dangerous as the conditions on HD 209458 b, a planet that orbits so close to its host star that its atmosphere is literally boiling off, ripped away from the planet as it whips around on its breakneck 3.5-day orbit. The gas that escapes from HD 209458 b forms a tail about 124,000 miles (200,000 km) long.

Scientists have found many planets like HD 209458 b – huge gas giants that orbit hazardously close to their stars and have hellishly hot, poisonous atmospheres. Sometimes, planets like these can be in danger of being swallowed whole by their host stars, as may be the case for the doomed world WASP-18b.

As far as planets go, WASP-18b is on death’s doorstep. There’s a good chance that it will be torn apart completely within the next million years, when it finally spirals too close to its star. Scientists will know within 10 years whether or not WASP-18b is on a funeral march towards its untimely demise.

All Alone and Very, Very Cold

While most of the exoplanets found so far are hellishly hot, OGLE-2005-BLG-390L b has the distinction of being the coldest exoplanet yet discovered.

The planet takes about 10 Earth years to orbit its tiny dwarf star, and it’s a chilly trip; the average temperature on OGLE-2005-BLG-390L b is 50 Kelvin, or minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit. A good costume for trick-or-treating on this frigid planet would be a toasty self-heating spacesuit, an oxygen supply, ice skates and plenty of hot cocoa.

With an estimated temperature of just 50K, OGLE-2005-BLG-390L b is the chilliest exoplanet yet discovered. (Artist's concept)

Of course, don’t expect to find many houses with candy here, because despite the fact that it’s just a few times bigger than Earth, OGLE-2005-BLG-390L b is an uninhabitable ice ball stuck in a perpetual winter freeze. Even the coldest Halloween night in Antarctica is a balmy paradise compared to this frosty world.

Written By Joshua Rodriguez/PlanetQuest

For more information visit

NASA to Release New Images and Findings from Third Mercury Flyby

WASHINGTON -- NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Nov. 3, to announce scientific findings and release new images from the third and final flyby of Mercury by the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging spacecraft, known as MESSENGER.

The probe's cameras and instruments collected high-resolution and color images of the planet on Sept. 29, unveiling another six percent of Mercury's surface never before seen by a spacecraft.

The briefing participants are:
  • Sean Solomon, principal investigator, Carnegie Institution of Washington
  • Ronald J. Vervack, Jr., participating scientist, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md.
  • David J. Lawrence, participating scientist, APL
  • Brett Denevi, imaging team member and postdoctoral researcher, Arizona State University, Tempe
To participate in the teleconference, reporters should e-mail Sonja Alexander at:

Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live at:

At the beginning of the briefing, related images will be available online at:

And For more information visit

Interactions with Aerosols Boost Warming Potential of Some Gases

For decades, climate scientists have worked to identify and measure key substances -- notably greenhouse gases and aerosol particles -- that affect Earth’s climate. And they’ve been aided by ever more sophisticated computer models that make estimating the relative impact of each type of pollutant more reliable.

Yet the complexity of nature -- and the models used to quantify it -- continues to serve up surprises. The most recent? Certain gases that cause warming are so closely linked with the production of aerosols that the emissions of one type of pollatutant can indirectly affect the quantity of the other. And for two key gases that cause warming, these so-called “gas-aerosol interactions” can amplify their impact.

This map shows the distribution of methane at the surface. New research shows that methane has an elevated warming effect due to its interactions with other substances in the atmosphere. Credit: NASA/Goddard

“We’ve known for years that methane and carbon monoxide have a warming effect,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and lead author of a study published this week in Science. “But our new findings suggest these gases have a significantly more powerful warming impact than previously thought.”

Mixing a Chemical Soup

When vehicles, factories, landfills, and livestock emit methane and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, they are doing more than just increasing their atmospheric concentrations. The release of these gases also have indirect effects on a variety of other atmospheric constituents, including reducing the production of particles called aerosols that can influence both the climate and the air quality. These two gases, as well as others, are part of a complicated cascade of chemical reactions that features competition with aerosols for highly reactive molecules that cleanse the air of pollutants.

Aerosols can have either a warming or cooling effect, depending on their composition, but the two aerosol types that Shindell modeled -- sulfates and nitrates -- scatter incoming light and affect clouds in ways that cool Earth. They are also related to the formation of acid rain and can cause respiratory distress and other health problems for those who breathe them.

Human activity is a major source of sulfate aerosols, but smokestacks don’t emit sulfate particles directly. Rather, coal power production and other industrial processes release sulfur dioxide -- the same gas that billows from volcanoes -- that later reacts with atmospheric molecules called hydroxyl radicals to produce sulfates as a byproduct. Hydroxyl is so reactive scientists consider it an atmospheric "detergent" or "scrubber" because it cleanses the atmosphere of many types of pollution.

"Emissions-based" estimates highlight the indirect effects that emissions of certain gases can have on the climate via aerosols, methane, ozone, and other substances in the atmosphere. Credit: NASA/GISS

In the chemical soup of the lower atmosphere, however, sulfur dioxide isn’t the only substance interacting with hydroxyl. Similar reactions influence the creation of nitrate aerosols. And hydroxyls drive long chains of reactions involving other common gases, including ozone.

Methane and carbon monoxide use up hydroxyl that would otherwise produce sulfate, thereby reducing the concentration of sulfate aerosols. It's a seemingly minor change, but it makes a difference to the climate. “More methane means less hydroxyl, less sulfate, and more warming,” Shindell explained.

His team’s modeling experiment, one of the first to rigorously quantify the impact of gas-aerosol interactions on both climate and air quality, showed that increases in global methane emissions have caused a 26 percent decrease in hydroxyl and an 11 percent decrease in the number concentration of sulfate particles. Reducing sulfate unmasks methane’s warming by 20 to 40 percent over current estimates, but also helps reduce negative health effects from sulfate aerosols.

In comparison, the model calculated that global carbon monoxide emissions have caused a 13 percent reduction in hydroxyl and 9 percent reduction in sulfate aerosols.

Nitrogen oxides -- pollutants produced largely by power plants, trucks, and cars -- led to overall cooling when their effects on aerosol particles are included, said Nadine Unger, another coauthor on the paper and a climate scientist at GISS. That’s noteworthy because nitrogen oxides have primarily been associated with ozone formation and warming in the past.

A New Approach

To determine the climate impact of particular greenhouse gases, scientists have traditionally relied on surface stations and satellites to measure the concentration of each gas in the air. Then, they have extrapolated such measurements to arrive at a global estimate.

Many atmospheric pollutants compete for access to hydroxyl radicals (OH), highly reactive molecules that “scrub” the atmosphere of pollutants. This diagram illustrates hydroxyl converting methane (CH4) into carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) into sulfate aerosols. Credit: NASA/GISS

The drawback to that "abundance-based approach," explained Gavin Schmidt, another GISS climate scientist and coauthor of the study, is that it doesn’t account for the constant interactions that occur between various atmospheric constituents. Nor is it easy to parse out whether pollutants have human or natural origins.

“You get a much more accurate picture of how human emissions are impacting the climate -- and how policy makers might effectively counteract climate change -- if you look at what’s emitted at the surface rather than what ends up in the atmosphere,” said Shindell, who used this “emissions-based” approach as the groundwork for this modeling project.

However, the abundance-based approach serves as the foundation of key international climate treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade plans being discussed among policymakers. Such treaties underestimate the contributions of methane and carbon monoxide to global warming, Shindell said.

Unpacking the Implications

According to Shindell, the new findings underscore the importance of devising multi-pronged strategies to address climate change rather than focusing exclusively on carbon dioxide. “Our calculations suggest that all the non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases together have a net impact that rivals the warming caused by carbon dioxide."

In particular, the study reinforces the idea that proposals to reduce methane may be an easier place for policy makers to start climate change agreements. “Since we already know how to capture methane from animals, landfills, and sewage treatment plants at fairly low cost, targeting methane makes sense,” said Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C.

This research also provides regulators insight into how certain pollution mitigation strategies might simultaneously affect climate and air quality. Reductions of carbon monoxide, for example, would have positive effects for both climate and the public’s health, while reducing nitrogen oxide could have a positive impact on health but a negative impact on the climate.

Natural sources of methane include wetlands, termites, decomposing organic materials in ocean and fresh water, and a type of ice called methane hydrate. Man-made methane sources include livestock, rice paddies, biomass burning, landfills, coal mining, and gas production. Credit: U.S Dept. of Energy Technology Laboratory

“The bottom line is that the chemistry of the atmosphere can get hideously complicated,” said Schmidt. “Sorting out what affects climate and what affects air quality isn’t simple, but we’re making progress.”

Related links:

› Interaction of Ozone and Sulfate in Air Pollution and Climate Change
› Science to Support a Unified Policy on Climate Change and Air Quality
› Methane’s Impact May be Twice Previous Estimates
› Aerosols and Climate Change

Adam Voiland
NASA's Earth Science News Team

For more information visit

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Antarctic Airborne Science Mission Nears Mid-Point

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile – With seven science flights over Antarctica completed in the first 13 days of Operation Ice Bridge's first southern campaign in NASA's DC-8 flying laboratory, the mission is on track to complete its planned flights by mid-November.

The mission has 17 planned flights over different parts of the continent, focusing on the ice sheet, glaciers, and sea ice in West Antarctica. Which flight target is flown on a given day is largely determined by difficult-to-forecast Antarctic weather conditions. Several of the instruments onboard cannot gather data through clouds. Twice so far, however, flights have been scrubbed at the last minute due to snow at the airport in southernmost Chile.

Mission planners use a mix of weather forecasting tools and satellite observations to make their daily decisions about when and where to fly. In addition, updates from meteorologists at the airport provide critical information. "The Antarctic weather is a terrible problem for us," says Ice Bridge project scientist Seelye Martin of the University of Washington, Seattle. "We could not operate without the support we receive from the Chilean meteorologists here."

As of the landing of the Oct. 27 flight, completed targets included: three flights over glaciers, two over sea ice, one over the Getz ice shelf, and one to study the topography of the ice sheet on the mission's closest approach to the South Pole.

The Getz Ice Shelf was the target of the first flight on Oct. 16. Thwaites Glacier was the focus of the flight on Oct. 18, with Pine Island Glacier the target of a high-altitude flight on Oct. 20 and a low-altitude flight on Oct. 27.

"Pine Island Glacier is a major focus for our mission," says Martin. "We have four flights planned for this glacier. One of our hopes with these flights is to understand the detailed topography under the floating ice tongue. That topography controls the rate of melting there."

Sea ice is seen out the window of NASA's DC-8 research aircraft on Oct. 21, 2009, as it flies 2,000 feet above the Bellingshausen Sea in West Antarctica. This was the fourth science flight of NASA's Operation Ice Bridge airborne Earth science mission to study Antarctic ice sheets, sea ice and ice shelves. Credit: NASA/Jane Peterson

The mission's first sea ice flight on Oct. 21 over the Bellingshausen and Amundsen seas was a "pioneering flight," according to Martin. "We don't know what the thickness of the sea ice is here. These will be the first direct measurements of sea ice in this area. This area is important because it is the only Antarctic sector where the sea ice is actually retreating."

Martin was excited about the prospect that the combined data from two different instruments would give scientists a new way to make more accurate measurements of sea ice thickness. Thickness of sea ice is estimated from measurements of the depth of the snow and ice visible above the sea surface. But scientists have not been able to distinguish accurately how much of this material above the sea is snow and how much is ice. An accurate measurement of the two is needed to improve their calculation of overall ice thickness.

"With this flight we did something that has not been done successfully before," says Martin. "We flew a snow radar from the University of Kansas that is designed to measure the snow depth on sea ice and the laser Airborne Topographic Mapper from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility to measure the sea surface and the height of the combined snow/ice layer above the sea. If everything worked as planned, this will give us the first combined measurement of the 'layer cake' and the snow layer to an accuracy of about 2 inches."

The second sea ice flight on Oct. 24 flew over the Weddell Sea for low-altitude flights some 1500 feet above the sea under sporadically cloudy conditions.

The farthest flight of the mission took place on Oct. 25. The target was a portion of the circle of latitude at 86 degrees south. This area has been intensely mapped by NASA's ICESat satellite because the spacecraft's orbit only goes as far south as this latitude. By remapping the ICESat data points with another laser-based topographic instrument -- the Land, Vegetation, and Ice Sensor (LVIS) -- scientists hope to improve the accuracy of the ICESat data record and prepare to extend these critical ice surface change observations into the future.


Operation Ice Bridge

Ice Bridge Twitter

Ice Bridge Blog

Steve Cole
NASA Headquarters

For more information visit

Channels from Hale Crater

This image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows channels to the southeast of Hale crater on southern Mars. Taken by the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, this view covers an area about 3 kilometers (2 miles) wide.

Channels associated with impact craters were once thought to be quite rare. Scientists proposed a variety of unusual circumstances to explain them, such as impacts by comets or precipitation caused by the impact event. As more of Mars is photographed with high-resolution imagery, more craters surrounded by channel systems are being discovered.

The channels in this HiRISE image are from Hale crater, an exceptionally well-preserved, 125-by-150-kilometer (78-by-93-mile) impact crater located on the northern rim of Mars' Argyre basin. Hale crater is roughly 170 kilometers (100 miles) to the southeast of the site seen here. The channels in this image are up to about 250 meters (820 feet) across, though most are much smaller. The channels appear to emanate directly from material ejected from Hale. They were likely formed by the impact event. The heat of the impact could have melted large amounts of subsurface ice and generated surface runoff capable of carving the channels.

If a significant amount of water was released or mobilized by the Hale crater impact, larger impacts that formed during the early days of the Solar System may have been able to bring even more water to the surface of Mars. If this is true, a long-term, stable, warm and wet climate may not be required to explain the presence of such channels in the ancient Martian landscapes.

This view is a portion of a HiRISE observation taken on Oct. 7, 2007, at 32.6 degrees south latitude and 320.5 degrees east longitude. The full-frame image is available at

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

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Fermi Telescope Caps First Year With Glimpse of Space-Time

Click here for multimedia related to the Oct. 28, 2009, NASA briefing on Fermi's findings.

During its first year of operations, NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope mapped the extreme sky with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity.

It captured more than 1,000 discrete sources of gamma rays -- the highest-energy form of light. Capping these achievements was a measurement that provided rare experimental evidence about the very structure of space and time, unified as space-time in Einstein's theories.

"Physicists would like to replace Einstein's vision of gravity -- as expressed in his relativity theories -- with something that handles all fundamental forces," said Peter Michelson, principal investigator of Fermi's Large Area Telescope, or LAT, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "There are many ideas, but few ways to test them."

In this illustration, one photon (purple) carries a million times the energy of another (yellow). Some theorists predict travel delays for higher-energy photons, which interact more strongly with the proposed frothy nature of space-time. Yet Fermi data on two photons from a gamma-ray burst fail to show this effect, eliminating some approaches to a new theory of gravity. The animation link below shows the delay scientists had expected to observe. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet
› View animation
› Other versions from SVS

Many approaches to new theories of gravity picture space-time as having a shifting, frothy structure at physical scales trillions of times smaller than an electron. Some models predict that the foamy aspect of space-time will cause higher-energy gamma rays to move slightly more slowly than photons at lower energy.

Such a model would violate Einstein's edict that all electromagnetic radiation -- radio waves, infrared, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays -- travels through a vacuum at the same speed.

On May 10, 2009, Fermi and other satellites detected a so-called short gamma ray burst, designated GRB 090510. Astronomers think this type of explosion happens when neutron stars collide. Ground-based studies show the event took place in a galaxy 7.3 billion light-years away. Of the many gamma ray photons Fermi's LAT detected from the 2.1-second burst, two possessed energies differing by a million times. Yet after traveling some seven billion years, the pair arrived just nine-tenths of a second apart.

"This measurement eliminates any approach to a new theory of gravity that predicts a strong energy dependent change in the speed of light," Michelson said. "To one part in 100 million billion, these two photons traveled at the same speed. Einstein still rules."

Fermi's secondary instrument, the Gamma ray Burst Monitor, has observed low-energy gamma rays from more than 250 bursts. The LAT observed 12 of these bursts at higher energy, revealing three record setting blasts.

Fermi has detected more than 1,000 gamma-ray sources. Half are associated with active galaxies called blazars. This movie shows one year of blazar activity, starting on Aug. 4, 2008, around the galactic north pole. This region includes the constellations Ursa Major, Virgo, Leo, Boötes and Coma Berenices. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
› View video
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GRB 090510 displayed the fastest observed motions, with ejected matter moving at 99.99995 percent of light speed. The highest energy gamma ray yet seen from a burst -- 33.4 billion electron volts or about 13 billion times the energy of visible light -- came from September's GRB 090902B. Last year's GRB 080916C produced the greatest total energy, equivalent to 9,000 typical supernovae.

Scanning the entire sky every three hours, the LAT is giving Fermi scientists an increasingly detailed look at the extreme universe. "We've discovered more than a thousand persistent gamma ray sources -- five times the number previously known," said project scientist Julie McEnery at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "And we've associated nearly half of them with objects known at other wavelengths."

Blazars -- distant galaxies whose massive black holes emit fast-moving jets of matter toward us -- are by far the most prevalent source, now numbering more than 500. In our own galaxy, gamma ray sources include 46 pulsars and two binary systems where a neutron star rapidly orbits a hot, young star.

"The Fermi team did a great job commissioning the spacecraft and starting its science observations," said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "And now Fermi is more than fulfilling its unique scientific promise for making novel, high-impact discoveries about the extreme universe and the fabric of space-time."‪

This view of the gamma-ray sky constructed from one year of Fermi LAT observations is the best view of the extreme universe to date. The map shows the rate at which the LAT detects gamma rays with energies above 300 million electron volts -- about 120 million times the energy of visible light -- from different sky directions. Brighter colors equal higher rates. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
› Other versions from SVS

NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, along with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

Related Links:

› Multimedia related to the Oct. 28, 2009, NASA briefing on Fermi's findings
› NASA's Fermi Finds Gamma-ray Galaxy Surprises
› NASA's Fermi Mission, Namibia's HESS Telescopes Explore a Blazar
› Active Galaxies Flare and Fade in Fermi Telescope All-Sky Movie
› Continent-sized Radio Telescope Takes Close-ups of Fermi Active Galaxies
› NASA's Fermi Telescope Probes Dozens of Pulsars

Francis Reddy
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

For more information visit

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Robot Armada Might Scale New Worlds

An armada of robots may one day fly above the mountain tops of Saturn's moon Titan, cross its vast dunes and sail in its liquid lakes.

Wolfgang Fink, visiting associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena says we are on the brink of a great paradigm shift in planetary exploration, and the next round of robotic explorers will be nothing like what we see today.

"The way we explore tomorrow will be unlike any cup of tea we've ever tasted," said Fink, who was recently appointed as the Edward and Maria Keonjian Distinguished Professor in Microelectronics at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "We are departing from traditional approaches of a single robotic spacecraft with no redundancy that is Earth-commanded to one that allows for having multiple, expendable low-cost robots that can command themselves or other robots at various locations at the same time."

Fink and his team members at Caltech, the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Arizona are developing autonomous software and have built a robotic test bed that can mimic a field geologist or astronaut, capable of working independently and as part of a larger team. This software will allow a robot to think on its own, identify problems and possible hazards, determine areas of interest and prioritize targets for a close-up look.

The way things work now, engineers command a rover or spacecraft to carry out certain tasks and then wait for them to be executed. They have little or no flexibility in changing their game plan as events unfold; for example, to image a landslide or cryovolcanic eruption as it happens, or investigate a methane outgassing event.

"In the future, multiple robots will be in the driver's seat," Fink said. These robots would share information in almost real time. This type of exploration may one day be used on a mission to Titan, Mars and other planetary bodies. Current proposals for Titan would use an orbiter, an air balloon and rovers or lake landers.

In this mission scenario, an orbiter would circle Titan with a global view of the moon, with an air balloon or airship floating overhead to provide a birds-eye view of mountain ranges, lakes and canyons. On the ground, a rover or lake lander would explore the moon's nooks and crannies. The orbiter would "speak" directly to the air balloon and command it to fly over a certain region for a closer look. This aerial balloon would be in contact with several small rovers on the ground and command them to move to areas identified from overhead.

"This type of exploration is referred to as tier-scalable reconnaissance," said Fink. "It's sort of like commanding a small army of robots operating in space, in the air and on the ground simultaneously."

A rover might report that it's seeing smooth rocks in the local vicinity, while the airship or orbiter could confirm that indeed the rover is in a dry riverbed - unlike current missions, which focus only on a global view from far above but can't provide information on a local scale to tell the rover that indeed it is sitting in the middle of dry riverbed.

A current example of this type of exploration can best be seen at Mars with the communications relay between the rovers and orbiting spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. However, that information is just relayed and not shared amongst the spacecraft or used to directly control them.

"We are basically heading toward making robots that command other robots," said Fink, who is director of Caltech's Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory, where this work has taken place.

"One day an entire fleet of robots will be autonomously commanded at once. This armada of robots will be our eyes, ears, arms and legs in space, in the air, and on the ground, capable of responding to their environment without us, to explore and embrace the unknown," he added.

Papers describing this new exploration are published in the journal "Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine" and in the Proceedings of the SPIE.

For more information on this work, visit . More information on JPL missions is at http:/ .

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.

Media contact: Carolina Martinez/JPL 818-354-9382

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Microwave Satellite Imagery Shows an Eye Developing in Mirinae

Microwave satellite imagery has revealed that Tropical Storm Mirinae is strengthening enough to develop an eye, and that's what it's doing. Mirinae was formerly Tropical Depression 23W, but became a tropical storm and received its name.

Tropical Storm Mirinae had maximum sustained winds near 52 mph on Tuesday, October 27 at 1200 UTC (8 a.m. EDT). It was located about 205 nautical miles northwest of Guam, so all of the watches and warnings for Guam have been discontinued. Its center is near 15.6 North latitude and 142.2 East longitude. Mirinae was moving west-northwest near 19 mph.

The U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JWTC) is the organization that forecasts tropical cyclones in the Western Pacific Ocean. Today's JWTC discussion noted that microwave satellite imagery has shown that the storm is developing an eye, and that's "typical of systems 45 Knots (52 mph) or greater."

This NASA AIRS microwave image of Mirinae from October 27 shows the development of an eye (purple area resembling a half moon). Cold areas (yellow-green) indicate precipitation or ice in the cloud tops. The purple area has the coldest cloud temperatures (as cold as -63F) and suggest cloud tops are near the tropopause. Credit: NASA JPL, Ed Olsen

NASA's Aqua satellite flew over Tropical Storm Mirinae on October 27 at 0423 UTC. (12:23 a.m. EDT or 12:23 p.m. local Asia/Manila Time). Both infrared and microwave images were created from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument, and both showed some high, powerful thunderstorms and a developing eye, two signs that the storm was intensifying. A microwave image was created combining AIRS and Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU) data. AMSU is another instrument that flies on NASA's Aqua satellite.

The microwave image revealed cold areas in the storm that indicate ice in cloud tops, and heavy precipitation. Because winds are strongest around the eye, that's where you would also likely find the most powerful thunderstorms and rotation, so it makes sense that around the developing eye are the coldest cloud temperatures, as cold as -63F. Microwave data suggests cloud heights to the 200 millibar level, near the tropopause.

NASA's Aqua satellite AIRS instrument captured the western half of Tropical Storm Mirinae's cold thunderstorm cloud tops on October 27 at 0423 UTC. Mirinae appears as a round area of clouds (blue) on the right of the image. Credit: NASA JPL, Ed Olsen

Tropical Storm Mirinae continues to move west-northwest, away from the Northern Marianas and toward the Philippines. The storm is forecast to strengthen on its westward track, so residents in the Philippines need to prepare for its arrival toward the end of the week.

The Philippines Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, PAGASA noted on their Web site, "as of today, Tuesday, 27-Oct-2009 23:30:31 PHT no tropical cyclone existing within the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR)." That will likely change in the next couple of days.

Text credit: Rob Gutro, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Monday, October 26, 2009

JPL's 'Green' Space Flight Building Debuts with Ribbon-Cutting

NASA's "greenest" building to date -- an environmentally friendly Flight Projects Center at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. -- is now open for business, following a ribbon-cutting ceremony today attended by lawmakers and local dignitaries.

The building houses missions during their design and development phases. It will enable engineers and scientists from various countries to collaborate more closely during these critical mission phases.

JPL Director Charles Elachi and other dignitaries cut the ribbon for JPL's new, environmentally friendly Flight Projects Center, which is NASA's "greenest" building to date. Image credit: NASA/JPL

"It seems fitting that the new building, where teams will plan future space missions that use new technologies, also has the latest 'green' technologies to help JPL do its part to improve our environment here on Earth," said JPL Director Charles Elachi, who helped cut the ribbon at today's ceremony.

Also attending today's ceremony were U.S. Rep. David Drier; La Canada-Flintridge Mayor Laura Olhasso; staff representing U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff; and Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau.

The building has received the "LEED Gold Certification" under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, set up by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. It is the first NASA building to achieve that certification. To qualify, buildings must meet several criteria. For example, they must make efficient use of water, energy and resources, and provide a healthy and comfortable indoor workspace.

The many "green" features of the new building include:

  • A living roof to keep the building cool in summer months and warm in the winter. Desert plants on the roof and other landscaping require 72 percent less water than a typical Southern California landscape design.
  • Outdoor lighting is used for safety purposes only and is directed toward the ground, reducing the amount of light pollution that escapes to the night sky.
  • Low-flow faucets and toilets reduce water use by 40 percent compared with typical fixtures.
  • Improved wall insulation, efficient chillers and boilers and window shading devices.
  • The paints and other surface materials have low levels of toxic fumes.
  • The heating and cooling system is "smart" -- it knows whether people are in a room and adjusts the temperature and ventilation accordingly.
  • The janitorial staff uses green cleaning products and practices.

JPL's new Flight Projects Center is the first NASA building to receive a "LEED Gold Certification" from the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. Image credit: NASA/JPL

More than 75 percent of the waste generated during construction of the new building was diverted from a landfill to a local recycling facility. Wood was acquired from Forest Stewardship Council-certified suppliers, ensuring sustainable harvesting of trees.

More information about the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system and the U.S. Green Building Council is online at .

More information about JPL is online at . The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Elena Mejia/Mark Petrovich 818-393-5467/393-4359
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. /

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Meet John C. Fischbeck III, Master Mariner

John C. Fischbeck III, Master Mariner

John Fischbeck III, 59, is a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, a graduate of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in business administration and a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. His entire Navy service, 1965-1971, was spent aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

In 1979, he completed training as a Merchant Marine Officer and today has achieved the highest rank in the commercial maritime industry, Master Mariner. At NASA/USA, he serves as solid rocket booster retrieval operations supervisor.

Let's ask John what achieving Master Mariner means. John says, "Achieving Master Mariner is one of the most important goals in my life." The term Master Mariner was introduced in the United States in the mid-19th century; earlier in England. Currently, a U.S. Master Mariner License is reserved for those few who have attained the level of Unlimited Master, as well as Unlimited Chief EngineerSenior. Traditionally, a person holding an unrestricted master's license is called a Master Mariner. The term unrestricted indicates that there is no restriction of size, power or geographic location of the vessel on the license.

It is the highest level of professional qualification amongst mariners.

John has served as Master on all three booster recovery ships including the Liberty Star, Freedom Star and Independence. He has served on 125 booster recovery missions, more than any other member USA Marine Operations.

John's current responsibilities include onboard Marine Operations Manager for the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) Retrieval Operations and External Tank (ET) Ocean Transportation Operations.

What does John like most about the job at sea? In his own words, "supporting America's spaceflight program, the great team of people I work with, and the ever-changing conditions that confront us everyday. Challenge, Adjustment, Success!"

What does John like to do when not sailing with NASA? He ships out again...on ocean yacht racing, sail cruising and studying the guitar/banjo.

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Liberty Star Transfers Pegasus and ET-134 to Tug Boats Lou Anne Guidry and WP Scott in Port Canaveral

Pegasus is now under way in the calm waters of Port Canaveral channel enroute to the Banana River and eventually, the turn basin at the Kennedy Space Center near the Vehicle Assembly Building. Television producer Mick Speer and public affairs blogger Steve Roy negotiated, with excellent help from the crew on the tug boat WP Scott, the transfer to Pegasus without incident and without getting wet. The transit from Port Canaveral to the Vehicle Assembly Building will take approximately four hours.
In the Port Canaveral channel crews of Pegasus and Liberty Star complete the break of the tow in preparation for tug boats Lou Anne Guidry and WP Scott to move into position and begin the final leg of the trip to Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

As planned, after dropping the tow to the tugs, Liberty Star sailed off ahead of Pegasus, eager to prepare for the next mission.

The weather is beautiful this morning in the Cocoa Beach area as we progress thru the Port Canaveral locks. ET-134 looks sharp and ready to unload, perhaps even chomping at the bit.

The watch reports...all is well.

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Astronauts to Fly Amelia Earhart Watch, Scarf

Along with the obvious thrill of launching into space, astronaut Shannon Walker's flight to the space station next year will hold a sentimental and historical significance. Flying alongside Walker will be the watch of Amelia Earhart, the legendary aviator who was the first woman to fly as a passenger across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart later became the first woman to pilot a plane across that same ocean in a solo flight.

Earhart was one of the first female pilots best known for her two trans Atlantic flights. She was also a charter member and the first president of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of licensed women pilots from 35 countries that has more than 5,500 members worldwide. While there are other female pilot organizations in various states and countries, nearly all women of achievement in aviation are past or current members of The Ninety-Nines. Walker is among those women.

Earhart wore the watch during her two trans Atlantic flights, “one as a passenger and one as a solo flight,” said Joan Kerwin, director of The Ninety-Nines and member for 39 years.

When asked how she feels about the watch flying into space, Kerwin described it as “kind of scary in a way and Amelia is such an icon with women in aviation and now with women in space. We are thrilled that Shannon is a Ninety-Nine and will be taking Amelia into space with her.”

Kerwin presented the watch to Walker at Ellington Field in Houston on Oct. 22.

H. Gordon Selfridge, Jr. gave Earhart a watch in one of his shops in America. In return, she gave him the watch she wore on her two trans Atlantic flights.

Image above: Joan Kerwin, director of The Ninety-Nines, joins astronaut Shannon Walker as the two display a special item to onlookers in an Ellington Field hangar on Oct. 22. Credit: NASA

“Shortly after Amelia disappeared the watch was given (by H. Gordon Selfridge, Jr.) to Fay Gillis Wells, a charter member of The Ninety-Nines, and she kept it in her Washington, D.C., apartment until she founded the Forest of Friendship to honor other individuals in aviation. She needed funds for the Forest of Friendship in Amelia’s hometown of Atchison, Kan., so the watch was auctioned off,” said Kerwin, who bought the watch at the auction.

“She is a fascinating lady,” Walker said in regard to Earhart.

A licensed pilot since 1995, Walker learned to fly in a Cessna 150. Her grandmother served as an air traffic controller at William P. Hobby airport in Houston and had a private pilot’s license. Walker’s mother was also a pilot.

“One thing I really like about flying is that it is an activity that my mother and I can do together,” Walker said. “There is something quite special about getting into a plane with my mother and going somewhere.”

Walker said “it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time,” regarding her inspiration to become a pilot.

At age 30 Walker flew her first solo flight which was “the required short flight as part of pilot training.” Earhart was 24 years old when she flew her first solo flight in 1921.

Recognizing the significance of Earhart’s watch going into space with her, Walker says she is “very excited and honored to fly the watch” and hopes “that by flying the watch people will become interested in the continuing story of women in aviation, and perhaps draw some new pilots to the field.”

Walker shares some words of inspiration for women in aviation: “If you work hard, the things to which you aspire can happen. Flying gives me a tremendous sense of freedom and I hope that anyone who wishes to learn has the opportunity to do so.”

Along with the watch, another personal belonging of Earhart’s will soon fly into space. Astronaut Randy Bresnik, grandson of Earhart’s only authorized photographer, will take a scarf of Amelia’s with him aboard space shuttle Atlantis as part of STS-129, scheduled to launch in November 2009.

Once the watch comes back to Earth from being in orbit with Walker next year it will be put on display in The Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City.

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Tour de KSC Offers Unique Ride

Spacecraft and bicycles are more alike than you might think.

For example, many of today's top-flight bikes are made from carbon materials, just like the space shuttle's heat shield tiles. And just as with aerospace engineers, bicycle builders obsess over trimming the slightest gram from a design. Every ounce taken off a spacecraft means extra payload or speed into orbit. For bike riders, it means saving just a little extra pain in the leg during a steep climb or going a bit faster in a sprint.

On Oct. 17, cyclists even shared the same real estate as NASA's shuttle fleet in the name of charity during the Tour de KSC.

As an employee, I was allowed to bring three guests. My friend Mike Sheffield, Team-in-Training coach Jay Burke and team mentor Doug Oxendine joined me for the event.

Yeah, riding a bike is fun and cool when you're 12 and heading to a neighbor's house, but most people grow out of it in the amount of time it takes for a set of car keys to drop from a parent's hand into their palm. But it's still cool to us.

Image above: A group of cyclists rides past the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the Tour de KSC. The routes offered riders a chance to pedal down the shuttle runway and ride past Kennedy's two launch pads as well. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

Along with sharing the common bond of endurance road riding, all of us are connected by cancer. Oxendine and I survived different forms of leukemia, and Burke's son is a two-time childhood leukemia survivor. Sheffield also is a cancer survivor.

We're some of the ones for whom legs are the best engines and tight-and-bright clothing is cool. (We know the spandex is more comfortable for us to wear than it is for you look at. That's part of the fun.)

That morning, there were 500 of us and organizers say there could've been a lot more. Some of us were kids riding by the Vehicle Assembly Building under the wings of parents. Some were adults going by the launch pads on bikes that hadn't been out of the garage since John Young and Robert Crippen strapped into space shuttle Columbia for the first time.

There were riders from local teams with established uniforms, others wearing a couple T-shirts to brace from the sudden chill and a group from Constellation Ground Operations who made their own pro-caliber jerseys.

Part of the money raised from the event was donated to the United Way, which will divide it among different charities.

"I'm glad to see it go to something like that rather than just something internal," Burke said.

The event was the brainchild of Dicksy Hansen who was inspired to take up cycling after she met seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong a couple years ago.

"We were trying to come up with a fundraiser for the Combined Federal Campaign," Hansen said. "So I just thought of something I would enjoy . . . something we hadn't done before."

Working since February, organizers presented their plans to various center departments and got the clearances to hold the event. They drew up enough courses and speed schedules to make even Goldilocks proud. The only limit was the number of slots available. Hansen said she thought maybe 300 people would show up, on the high side. Instead, the 500 available tour tickets sold out and organizers spent the last two weeks turning people away.

Image above: Dicksy Hansen came up with the idea for a charity bike ride through Kennedy because it was an exciting place to do something fun. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

The good news is that the event went quite smoothly, so the team already is looking at ways to open it up to more folks next year.

"I thought it was going to be pretty overwhelming," said Jane Mosconi, one of the organizers. "We had all the security measures with unbadged people and 500 people doing all different routes. We wanted it to be fun, but it had to be safe."

Our group was scheduled to ride a 20 mph pace over the 37-mile course. Again, we found something in common with the shuttles – fighting the wind.

After a ride through the Industrial Area, the course threw our band of energetic riders against the harsh morning winds of Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility.

Our recreational stroll at a fast clip became a 3-mile grind. It felt like a treadmill – our legs were moving, but we weren't going anywhere. Our 22-mph pace became 15, then 13. It was worth it for the chance to snap a picture at the top of the runway. Plus, we barely had to pedal on the southbound leg.

After crossing the tow-way, we headed for the Vehicle Assembly Building and the first stop. Cameras came out almost before our bikes stopped. Oxendine posed in front of the building, a landmark his grandfather helped design as part of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Back on the bikes and into the wind again, this time out to a camera mound between pads A and B. Shuttle Atlantis was a popular backdrop as it stood on its mobile launcher platform prepared for liftoff.

Image above: Our group of Tour de KSC riders: Steve Siceloff, left, Doug Oxendine, Michael Sheffield and Jay Burke. Photo credit: NASA

We got back on the bikes and headed again into what seemed like a wind determined to meet us in the face. We crossed by the Vehicle Assembly Building and stopped for more shots before heading back to our start zone at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

There was no shortage of smiles as the riders helped themselves to box after box of waiting pizzas, and no compliment was spared in congratulating the organizers.

"The people coming back, they were saying, 'That was great! That was great!' which makes us feel good because we put a lot of work into it," said Ben Bryant, another organizer.

A lot of riders are eager to come back.

"It was great getting out there and seeing the sites as close as you can," Burk said. "It's a lot different than seeing them on TV."

Steve Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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Discs, Flags Commemorate I-X Flight

A few hundred people who don't know whether they'll ever travel to worlds beyond Earth will have their vision for space exploration touch the sky during the Ares I-X flight test.

Homemade videos that were submitted to the NASA Web site and then burned onto three DVDs are being packed inside the first stage of the experimental rocket.

For NASA's Constellation Program, the flight test will be a suborbital flight to prove the first stage of the Ares I design works as planned.

For the video producers, it's a chance to join the first flight of a new NASA rocket. The Ares I-X is the first vehicle designed with astronauts in mind since the space shuttle's debut in April 1981.

Image above:A pair of technicians working inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida place three shoebox-sized packages into the Ares I-X before the rocket is rolled to the launch pad. Each bag was loaded with small American flags to mark the flight test. There is also one DVD containing homemade videos submitted to the NASA Web site in each of the bags. Photo credit: NASA

"It gives them a piece of history that they're going to be part of," said Derek Wang, the NASA outreach coordinator for the video project. "It's using the power of the social media and participatory process."

It's more than a chance to vicariously ride a rocket – the videos also are an opportunity for people to tell the space agency what kind of space exploration they'd like to see.

"The attitude has been really positive," Wang said. "We've had tapes from different countries, we have people who want us to explore more. They definitely want to go somewhere, to a destination."

That desire to leave Earth orbit is a perfect theme for the Ares rockets, said Jon Cowart, the Ares I-X deputy mission manager.

"This rocket in particular excites and inspires because it represents our first tangible step toward new exploration goals," he said. "With the Ares family of rockets (Ares I and Ares V), we will once again be capable of leaving the bounds of Earth orbit and venturing out."

Wang has been sifting through the videos and many of them are posted on agency Web site. All will still fly on the rocket, though.

NASA has flown digitized names on space probes, but Wang said this is the first time homemade videos have been launched.

Although the videos have been produced by outsiders, making a safe place for them is strictly the domain of professional engineers. Cowart said the analysis was not hard in this case, but it had to be thorough.

"I know you're thinking, intuitively, 'It's just a couple of DVDs,' " Cowart said, "but I assure you, objects smaller and lighter than DVDs have hampered missions before by falling in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A few thousand flags also will share the space with the DVDs. Working from designs that flew on STS-96, engineers made three bags, each about the size of a shoebox, to hold 3,500 flags.

Larry Clark, director of Engineering for ATK's Florida operations, and Jim Bolton of NASA came up with the idea of flying flags inside the forward skirt of a solid rocket booster on STS-96 as commemorative items.

The flags moved to the backs of their minds for the STS-96 launch because the focus was on a successful liftoff.

Image above: The boxes holding flags and DVDs are arranged and fastened inside the fifth-stage simulator on the Ares I-X rocket. The boxes are in the first stage of the Ares I-X vehicle and are expected to be recovered intact. Image credit: NASA

"Once the boosters separated and came back down, we were like, "Yay! The flags survived!'" Clark said.

With that success in their minds, Clark and Bolton proposed it again for the Ares I-X mission, this time arranging them to fly in the fifth-segment simulator on the top of the first stage.

"Everyone liked the idea and so we went ahead with it," Clark said.

Technicians plan to recover the first stage of the Ares I-X, which will parachute down to the ocean just like the solid rocket boosters after a shuttle launch. The video discs and flags will be housed in roughly the same area as the parachutes.

The top part of the test rocket, which includes weight simulators for the upper stage and Orion spacecraft, is not scheduled to be recovered after it falls into the Atlantic Ocean.

Once the first stage is brought back to land, the mementoes will be pulled out of the rocket stage and mounted in award plaques to go on display, though exactly where hasn't been established yet.

Wang said plans are in the works to give people opportunities to take part in future missions in similar ways.

Steve Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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History in Slow Motion

For more than 40 years, the twin crawler-transporters at NASA's Kennedy Space Center have traveled the gravel track between the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and the two launch pads at Launch Complex 39. These mammoth beasts carried all the Apollo Saturn V rockets, and later each space shuttle, on the last Earth-bound leg of their journeys to space.

On Oct. 19, 2009, a new chapter in the crawler history was written as the first test rocket of the Constellation Program -- the Ares I-X -- was transported slowly along that same gravel track.

May 20, 1969: The Apollo 11 Saturn V rolls from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Complex 39A in preparation for the first moon landing during the mission. Image credit: NASA

The towering 327-foot-tall launch vehicle, bolted to its mobile launcher platform, road majestically into the spotlight atop one of the crawlers as it exited the huge building where the rocket was assembled. The combined weight of the Ares I-X, mobile launcher platform and the crawler itself was a whopping 16 million pounds. Moving at less than 1 mph, the crawler safely delivered its precious cargo to the launch pad, just as it had so many times throughout the years.

Dec. 29, 1980: Space shuttle Columbia rolls to the launch pad before the first shuttle flight, STS-1. Image credit: NASA

Crawler Stats

Number of Crawlers: 2
Height: 20-26 feet
Size: 31 feet long, 113 feet wide
Weight: 5.5 million pounds
Fuel Capacity: 5,000 gallons
Fuel Consumption: 42 feet per gallon, 125.7 gallons per mile
Maximum speed: 2 mph
Tread belt shoes: 456
Tread belt shoe size: 7.5 ft long, 1.5 feet wide, 2,200 pounds
Builder: Marion Power Shovel Company

The technology used to build the huge, reliable crawlers capable of such Herculean tasks was deeply rooted in the coal fields of Ohio. There, mammoth machines were used to excavate and extract the precious coal veins running through that part of the country.

But it's doubtful that the crawlers' designers from the Marion Power Shovel Company could have ever imagined their creation would still be moving launch vehicles in the 21st century as yet another generation of rockets prepare to take flight.

Oct. 20, 2009: The towering 327-foot-tall Ares I-X test vehicle, brightly lit against the night sky, rides aboard a crawler-transporter for the 4.2-mile trip to Launch Pad 39B. Image credit: NASA

Phil Koehring, son of the crawlers' engineering designer, said upon the vehicle's 40th anniversary, "This was a machine that was built to last. There were a lot of naysayers about this program in the early days, and all I can say is, 'We've shown them!'"

You can learn more about the history of the crawler, what it takes to drive the mammoth vehicle, and follow the Ares I-X flight test.

Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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