Monday, May 31, 2010

Tiny Technology With a Big Heart

When undergoing medical treatment, physicians frequently determine that a patient's vital signs need to be monitored. This includes closely monitoring things like blood pressure and heart rate. For most patients today, this means a variety of wires and sensors will be attached to their bodies. But thanks to technology developed at NASA, there might be a better way.

A new biomedical sensor which incorporates technology pioneered at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is currently being developed by a company called Endotronix. The company is investigating using the sensors to measure blood pressure and heart rate.

"When this opportunity came about, we immediately understood that we could tailor our technology for a biomedical application. It was an opportunity for direct societal impact that could assist a lot of people in the medical community," says Dr. Félix Miranda, one of the two Glenn scientists responsible for the technology.

The sensors are about the size of the head of a pin—1 millimeter wide and .5 millimeter thick. Crafted out of gold and silicone, each tiny sensor also includes a multi-turn loop antenna, which means data collected from the sensor can be wirelessly transmitted to an external unit. Called Biomedical Microelectromechanical Systems, or Bio-MEMS, each sensor makes use of NASA patented radiofrequency technology.

Developed for Space, Used on Earth

Dr. Félix Miranda, a supervisory electronics engineer, and Dr. Rainee Simons, a supervisory physicist, are both part of the Communications, Instrumentation and Controls Division at Glenn. In 2001, the Technology Transfer and Partnership Office (TTPO) at Glenn awarded the team $50,000 to work towards finding a way to use Glenn's radiofrequency technology in the biomedical field.

Dr. Félix Miranda (background) and Dr. Rainee Simons investigate the miniature inductor/antenna on a Bio-MEMS sensor at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
Photo Credit: NASA

"It is a testament to how much you can do with a small amount of seed money—how you can leverage that," Miranda says. "The center has gotten an acceptable return on investment on this effort, and it has given us satisfaction because we have been able to evolve technology."

Initially, the two were investigating the technology for potential use in space suits, as a way to remotely monitor astronauts' health. The initiative was especially important for astronauts performing space walks, and could prove essential as plans develop to send astronauts further into space.

"There is an emphasis to develop sensors for astronauts that are convenient as well as accurate. Safety is the initial motivation," Simons says.

Drs. Miranda and Simons achieved patents for their work in 2003 and 2007, and extensively published their work. Through these publications, Dr. Anthony Nunez, a cardiovascular surgeon and president of Endotronix, learned about the work at Glenn in 2006.

"Unlike other devices, ours is very small," Miranda says. "[Dr. Nunez] was very impressed by that, and decided that this was the technology he needed for his cardiovascular products."

Endotronix now holds the exclusive license for cardiovascular applications of the Glenn technology. Glenn and Endotronix signed a Space Act Agreement to work on developing and validating the technology for these particular medical uses. Though the Space Act Agreement has now ended, Endotronix keeps Drs. Miranda and Simons updated on their progress.

"We want [Endotronix] to succeed. That is what NASA's 'For the Benefit of All' is all about," Miranda says.

Monitoring and Wireless Transmitting

The cardiovascular sensors will operate by being implanted in the body of the patient. Each tiny unit doesn't require a battery, which means the unit can last indefinitely in the body while causing less damage to surrounding tissue and lessening the risk of infection or toxicity. The device, manufactured out of biocompatible materials, operates by sensing the pressure that the heart or an artery creates when the blood flows by a membrane. It transmits data to a small, portable external reader, which can be worn by the patient or kept nearby for readings. This transmission occurs wirelessly, and the absence of a wire in the body also helps prevent risk of infection and other negative side effects.

The tiny, 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter antenna, provides wireless signals of exceptional strength.
Photo Credit: NASA

Because the sensors are so small, they are not disruptive to the patients in whom they are implanted. All types of patients can potentially benefit from the device, from nursing home residents requiring intensive care to active patients who wish to travel, while still monitoring their health. The external readers are easy to use, allowing patients to take their own readings.

"As this technology evolves to be a product for the general public, it needs to be as simple as possible without sacrificing the accuracy of the information," Miranda says.

Building Bridges and Beyond

Drs. Miranda and Simons have received many accolades for their work. In October of 2009, the two were runners-up in the Wall Street Journal's Technology Innovation Awards, in the wireless category. They also won a 2010 Northeast Ohio Technology Coalition Innovation Award (NorTech Award) for their work, and received commendations from the Ohio State Senate and the Secretary of the State of Ohio.

Endotronix has licensed the technology for cardiovascular applications, but there are other potential uses for these pressure sensors. Companies have expressed interest in investigating the technology for other biomedical areas, such as general surgery and bone, neck and spine health. Other areas of human interest, like structural safety in bridges and buildings, could also benefit from this technology.

"We still have opportunities based on this concept that we'd like to explore, and the agency environment is consistent with this kind of effort. There are good opportunities ahead," Miranda says. "We can really tailor the concept to support diverse applications."

Impacting the Community

The technology, used for both aerospace and non-aerospace applications, is notable. It is the second largest licensing of intellectual property at Glenn and has pioneered a new area of collaboration with the commercial sector.

"This is the very first medical and surgical application for space biosensor technology," Simons says.

Drs. Miranda and Simons are pleased with how their research has been integrated into the medical field, and they are looking forward to seeing what new areas—biomedical and beyond—the sensors may influence.

"It is very gratifying to see that work like this found its way to some commercial use," Simons says. "The technology is doing good for the community, which is very satisfying."

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Spinoffs Reveal Earth Benefits of NASA Technologies

Congressional staffers in the Rayburn House Office Building on May 20 were wondering why a robot was roaming the halls. Those who followed the robot were led to further surprises: an igloo-shaped life raft, long socks full of fine powder, an inflatable antenna shaped like an enormous beach ball -- all NASA technologies that, through commercial partnerships between NASA and industry, are improving life on Earth.

The second annual Spinoff Day on the Hill, hosted by Representative Suzanne Kosmas of Florida, featured seven companies who have partnered with NASA to bring innovations to market that are saving lives, protecting the environment, and enriching how we experience our planet.

The 1958 Space Act that created NASA mandated that the Agency transfer as much of its technology as possible for the benefit of the public. To date, NASA has documented more than 1662 of these technologies, called spinoffs, in its annual Spinoff publication (, launched in 1976.

"We invest in technologies for what they will bring to NASA in terms of future missions of science and of exploration, but we can never forget that we also invest in these things because of what they do for us right here on Earth," said NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun, who presented remarks at the event.

The products on show at Spinoff Day on the Hill all trace their origins back to space. The igloo-shaped life raft? Engineers at Johnson Space Center originally developed the self-righting raft design to prevent life rafts holding astronauts from capsizing from the downdraft of helicopters after Apollo-era splashdown landings. Now manufactured by Givens Marine Survival Co. Inc. of Tiverton, Rhode Island, the raft is credited with saving the lives of over 450 sailors.

Unirem Inc., managed by Summit International/Rasstech Industries, of Houston, exhibited its Petroleum Remediation Product, or PRP, developed through the collaboration of industry scientists and NASA researchers. The powder technology, which absorbs and captures oil as it floats on the water's surface, may soon play a role in the cleanup of the catastrophic oil spill currently endangering the nation's Gulf coast.

GATR Technologies of Huntsville, Alabama, displayed one of its inflatable antennas, developed under NASA's Small Business Innovation Research program. Quickly deployable from two suitcase-size containers, GATR's antennas enabled communications during wild fires in southern California, after Hurricane Katrina, and following the earthquake in Haiti.

Airocide, a unique air purifier that helps preserve perishable foods and destroys airborne pathogens, was presented by KES Science and Technology Inc. of Kennesaw, Georgia, and Akida Holdings of Jacksonville, Florida. Originally developed by NASA-funded researchers to help preserve plants grown in space, the technology is improving food storage and distribution in remote regions of the world, as well as helping sanitize operating rooms and doctors' offices.

Also on display was Menlo Park, California-based Allocade Inc.'s OnCue scheduling software. The technology was invented by a former Ames Research Center computer scientist who helped design scheduling software for the Hubble Space Telescope. OnCue now helps hospitals operate more efficiently by optimizing constantly changing schedules for imaging procedures.

An igloo-shaped life raft and roaming robots were just a few of the NASA spinoff products showcased during the second annual "Spinoff Day on the Hill." Image Credit: NASA

Gigapan photographic technology, derived from the panoramic camera mast assemblies on the Mars Exploration Rovers, awed attendees with its ultra-high resolution imagery, while the Webby Award-winning NASA@Home and City interactive Web site ( shared information about spinoff technologies that can be found in homes and hometowns across the Nation.

Braun noted the economic impact NASA’s technological advancements can create, leading to "more Earth-based spinoffs, more technology-oriented jobs, and more business and industries that can compete in the global marketplace." He also highlighted the inspiration such innovation provides to students exploring education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

"What we have here are just a few outstanding examples, but there are so many others to learn about," said Doug Comstock, director of NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program. "The fabric of our everyday lives benefits from these space technologies."

One such example zipped along the halls of the Rayburn building even as Spinoff Day on the Hill came to an end. The Multi-function Agile Remote Control Robot, or MARCbot, was enhanced by NASA engineers and is now manufactured by Applied Geo Technologies Inc. of Choctaw, Mississippi. More than 300 of the robots are now in service overseas, keeping soldiers safer by helping identify possible explosive devices.

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X-51A Makes Longest Scramjet Flight

An engine first validated in a NASA wind tunnel successfully made the longest supersonic combustion ramjet-powered hypersonic flight to date off the southern California coast on May 26.

The air-breathing scramjet engine, built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, burned for more than 200 seconds to accelerate the U.S. Air Force's X-51A vehicle to Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. It broke the previous record for the longest scramjet burn in a flight test, set by NASA's X-43 vehicle.

"This is great news for the hypersonics community," said Jim Pittman, principal investigator for the Hypersonics Project of NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program. "It's also good for NASA's research into flight at Mach 5 or faster. We will receive the X-51 flight data for analysis and comparison to the data we obtained during ground tests at NASA Langley's 8-Foot High Temperature Tunnel and to predictions from our propulsion codes."

Air Force officials called the test -- the first of four planned -- an unqualified success. The flight is considered the first use of a practical hydrocarbon-fueled scramjet in flight.

"We are ecstatic to have accomplished most of our test points on the X-51A's very first hypersonic mission," said program manager Charlie Brink of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. "We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post-World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines."

The X-51A launched from Edwards Air Force Base in California, carried aloft under the left wing of an Air Force Flight Test Center B-52 Stratofortress. It was released while the B-52 flew at 50,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range. After release, an Army Tactical Missile solid rocket booster accelerated the X-51A to about Mach 4.8 before it and a connecting interstage were jettisoned. The launch and separation were normal, according to Brink.

Once the X-51A was free of its booster and interstage, its SJY61 engine ignited, initially on a mix of ethylene, similar to lighter fluid, and JP-7 jet fuel then exclusively on JP-7 jet fuel. The flight reached an altitude of about 70,000 feet and a peak speed of Mach 5.

The SJX61-2 engine that powered the X-51A test vehicle successfully completed ground tests simulating Mach 5 flight conditions at NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., in 2008. Credit: NASA

Onboard sensors transmitted data to an airborne U.S. Navy P-3, as well was ground systems at Point Mugu, Vandenberg and Edwards Air Force bases in California. The flight was terminated after about 200 seconds of engine operation because of a technical issue. The X-51A was not designed to be recovered for examination, so engineers are busily examining the data to identify the cause of the problem.

Four X-51A cruisers have been built for the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency by industry partners Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, West Palm Beach, Fla., and The Boeing Company, Palmdale, Calif. Brink said the Air Force intends to fly the three remaining X-51A flight test vehicles this fall on virtually identical flight profiles, building knowledge from each successive flight.

X-51A, artist's concept. Credit: NASA

"This first flight was the culmination of a six-year effort by a small, but very talented AFRL, DARPA, NASA and industry development team," Brink said. "Now we will go back and really scrutinize our data. No test is perfect, and I'm sure we will find anomalies that we will need to address before the next flight. But anyone will tell you that we learn just as much, if not more, when we encounter a glitch."

The engine can produce between 400 and 1,000 pounds of thrust. Like a conventional jet engine, the SJY61 is capable of adjusting thrust throughout the X-51's flight envelope.

Hypersonic flight presents unique technical challenges with heat and pressure, which make conventional turbine engines impractical. Program officials said producing thrust with a scramjet has been compared to lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it burning.

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NASA's Webb Telescope Has 'Made It' to New York City!

The James Webb Space Telescope has finally made the "big time" at least according to the old Frank Sinatra song "New York, New York." The life-sized model of NASA's next generation space telescope is being set up in New York City's Battery Park for the 2010 World Science Festival, which runs June 1- June 6. The opening ceremony will be held in front of the model on June 1.

As the song goes, "if (the Webb telescope) can make it there, it'll make it anywhere" and scientists are hoping that it will safely arrive in its orbit one million miles from Earth.

"The World Science Festival is a great opportunity for people to get a look at, and learn more about, the future of astronomy from space," said Eric Smith, NASA's Webb Program Scientist. "The Webb telescope full scale model dramatically highlights how far the next generation of space telescopes will be from its predecessors. It’s unlike any telescope you’ve ever seen."

The Webb telescope full scale model lit up at night in Munich, Germany in 2009. Credit: EADS

The James Webb Space Telescope is the next-generation premier space observatory, exploring deep space phenomena from distant galaxies to nearby planets and stars. The telescope will give scientists clues about the formation of the universe and the evolution of our own solar system, from the first light after the Big Bang to the formation of star systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth.

For six days in June, New York City residents can get a free look at the full-scale model of the Webb telescope as it sits on display in Battery Park. The model viewing hours run from Tuesday, June 1 from 9:00 a.m. to Sunday, June 6 at 9:00 p.m. EDT. The actual size model is highly detailed. It is constructed mainly of aluminum and steel, weighs 12,000 pounds, is approximately 80 feet long, 40 feet wide and 40 feet tall. It is as large as a tennis court. The model requires 2 trucks to ship it and assembly takes a crew of 12 approximately four days. The model will be lit up from its base so that night-time viewers can take in all the details.

The full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope was built by the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, to provide a better understanding of the size, scale and complexity of this satellite.

Visitors will also be able to learn about what the Webb telescope is going to show scientists. They can play with interactive exhibits, watch videos about what the Webb will be exploring in the cosmos, and even ask a scientist about the telescope.

On Friday June 4, from 8-9:30 p.m. EDT, there will be a special event at the base of the full-sized model, called "From the City to the Stars," where scientists will talk about the possible discoveries that the Webb telescope could make.

The life-sized James Webb Space Telescope model sits in front of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, in Dublin, Ireland. Credit: Richard Bent, Northrop Grumman Space Technology.

The event is also free and open to the public. Dr. John Mather, Nobel laureate and the Webb telescope’s senior project scientist; Dr. John Grunsfeld, astronaut, physicist and "chief repairman" of the Hubble Telescope and planetary astronomer Dr. Heidi Hammel will be at the event to talk about the discoveries anticipated from the Webb telescope. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver will be a featured speaker at the Festival kick-off. She will share with the New York audience NASA’s strong commitment to continued scientific discovery, with missions like the Webb telescope, and talk about some of the other exciting endeavors on NASA’s new path forward.

Since 2005, the model has journeyed to Florida, Germany, Ireland and Washington, D.C. The actual Webb space telescope is going a lot further, about a million miles from Earth!

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Friday, May 28, 2010

NASA Spacecraft Burns for Home, Then Comet

PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Deep Impact/Epoxi spacecraft has successfully performed a trajectory correction maneuver to refine its orbit prior to an upcoming Earth flyby June 27. The maneuver, along with the Earth flyby, will place the spacecraft on a trajectory to fly past comet Hartley 2 on Nov. 4.

The maneuver began at 2 p.m. EST (11 a.m. PST) today, when the spacecraft fired its engines for 11.3 seconds. While the burn changed the spacecraft's velocity by only 0.1 meters per second (less than a quarter mile per hour), that was all the mission's navigators requested to set the stage for an Earth gravity assist on June 27.

This is an artist concept of Epoxi, which uses the Deep Impact spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL

"While it was a small burn, it was a big step in getting us to Hartley 2," said Tim Larson, project manager of NASA's Epoxi mission. "Humanity's fifth close-up view of a comet is less than five months away."

Epoxi is an extended mission of the Deep Impact spacecraft. Its name is derived from its two tasked science investigations -- the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI) and the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization (EPOCh).

The University of Maryland is the Principal Investigator institution. JPL manages Epoxi for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

For information about Epoxi, visit .

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Mare Tranquillitatis

The Sea of Tranquility has long captivated astronomers. Once thought to be an ocean on the Moon, its relatively smooth fields of basaltic lavas and equatorial position made it an ideal location for the first manned lunar landing. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the first human footprints on the Moon near the southwestern shores of Mare Tranquillitatis.

Image credit: NASA/Goddard

Mare Tranquillitatis (approximately 873 km in diameter) lies in the Tranquillitatis basin (centered on 0.68 N, 23.43 E; extending, roughly, from 20.4 N-4.4 S, 15.0-45.9 E). This basin is thought to have been formed as a result of a very large impact in the Moon's early history, likely more than 3.9 million years ago. The crater was then flooded with mare basalts, making it appear dark when viewed from Earth, and making it smooth and relatively flat, as seen in LOLA data. There is only a little over a 500 m elevation difference between the highest and lowest points within the mare, excluding overprinted craters. The mare has an irregular margin because several basins, including Serenitatis and Nectaris, intersect in this region. See if you can find other features surrounding Mare Tranquillitatis on a map of the Moon.

For other information and exploration news, check out one of Science@NASA's Apollo Chronicles featuring Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's experience in the Sea of Tranquility, the featured LROC images of a wrinkle ridge in the Mare Tranquillitatis Constellation Region of Interest, and the Apollo landing sites.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Small Near-Earth Object Probably a Rocket Part

PASADENA, Calif. -- Scientists at NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., have determined that a small object that safely passed Earth on May 21 is more than likely an upper-stage of a rocket that carried a spacecraft on an interplanetary trajectory.

"The orbit of this object is very similar to that of the Earth, and one would not expect an object to remain in this type of orbit for very long," said Paul Chodas, a scientist at NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Observations by astronomer S.J. Bus, using the NASA-sponsored Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, indicate that 2010 KQ's spectral characteristics do not match any of the known asteroid types, and the object's absolute magnitude (28.9) suggests it is only a few meters in size.

2010 KQ was discovered by astronomer Richard Kowalski at the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey in the mountains just north of Tucson, Ariz., on May 16. Five days later, it made its closest approach to Earth at a distance just beyond the moon's orbit. The object is departing Earth's neighborhood but will be returning in 2036.

Graphic depicting the trajectory of near-Earth object 2010 KQ. Image credit: NASA/JPL

"At present, there is a 6 percent probability that 2010 KQ will enter our atmosphere over a 30-year period starting in 2036," said Chodas. "More than likely, additional observations of the object will refine its orbit and impact possibilities. Even in the unlikely event that this object is headed for impact with Earth, whether it is an asteroid or rocket body, it is so small that it would disintegrate in the atmosphere and not cause harm on the ground."

NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them, and plots their orbits to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

JPL manages the Near-Earth Object Program Office for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information about asteroids and near-Earth objects is at:

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NASA Orbiter Penetrates Mysteries of Martian Ice Cap

PASADENA, Calif. -- Data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have helped scientists solve a pair of mysteries dating back four decades and provided new information about climate change on the Red Planet.

The Shallow Radar, or SHARAD, instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed subsurface geology allowing scientists to reconstruct the formation of a large chasm and a series of spiral troughs on the northern ice cap of Mars. The findings appear in two papers in the May 27 issue of the journal Nature.

"SHARAD is giving us a beautifully detailed view of ice deposits, whether at the poles or buried in mid-latitudes, as they changed on Mars over the last few million years," said Rich Zurek, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

This image, combining data from two instruments aboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor, depicts an orbital view of the north polar region of Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On Earth, large ice sheets are shaped mainly by ice flow. According to this latest research, other forces have shaped, and continue to shape, polar ice caps on Mars. The northern ice cap is a stack of ice and dust layers up to two miles deep, covering an area slightly larger than Texas. Analyzing radar data on a computer, scientists can peel back the layers like an onion to reveal how the ice cap evolved over time.

One of the most distinctive features of the northern ice cap is Chasma Boreale, a canyon about as long as Earth's Grand Canyon but deeper and wider. Some scientists believe Chasma Boreale was created when volcanic heat melted the bottom of the ice sheet and triggered a catastrophic flood. Others suggest strong polar winds carved the canyon out of a dome of ice.

Other enigmatic features of the ice cap are troughs that spiral outward from the center like a gigantic pinwheel. Since the troughs were discovered in 1972, scientists have proposed several hypotheses about how they formed. Perhaps as Mars spins, ice closer to the poles moves slower than ice farther away, causing the semi-fluid ice to crack. Perhaps, as one mathematical model suggests, increased solar heating in certain areas and lateral heat conduction could cause the troughs to assemble.

Data from Mars now points to both the canyon and spiral troughs being created and shaped primarily by wind. Rather than being cut into existing ice very recently, the features formed over millions of years as the ice sheet grew. By influencing wind patterns, the shape of underlying, older ice controlled where and how the features grew.

"Nobody realized that there would be such complex structures in the layers," said Jack Holt, of the University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics. Holt is the lead author of the paper focusing on Chasma Boreale. "The layers record a history of ice accumulation, erosion and wind transport. From that, we can recover a history of climate that's much more detailed than anybody expected."

This image shows a cross-section of a portion of the north polar ice cap of Mars, derived from data acquired by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's Shallow Radar (SHARAD), one of six instruments on the spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/UT

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched on Aug. 12, 2005. SHARAD and the spacecraft's five other instruments began science operations in November 2006.

"These anomalous features have gone unexplained for 40 years because we have not been able to see what lies beneath the surface," said Roberto Seu, Shallow Radar team leader at the University of Rome. "It is gratifying to me that with this new instrument we can finally explain them."

The MRO mission is managed by JPL for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Headquarters in Washington. The Shallow Radar instrument was provided by the Italian Space Agency, and its operations are led by the InfoCom Department, University of Rome. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.

To view images and learn more about MRO, visit:

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

NASA's Swift Survey Finds 'Smoking Gun' Of Black Hole Activation

Click here for multimedia related to the May 26, 2010, NASA briefing on Swift's findings.

Data from an ongoing survey by NASA's Swift satellite have helped astronomers solve a decades-long mystery about why a small percentage of black holes emit vast amounts of energy.

Only about one percent of supermassive black holes exhibit this behavior. The new findings confirm that black holes "light up" when galaxies collide, and the data may offer insight into the future behavior of the black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy. The study will appear in the June 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The intense emission from galaxy centers, or nuclei, arises near a supermassive black hole containing between a million and a billion times the sun's mass. Giving off as much as 10 billion times the sun's energy, some of these active galactic nuclei (AGN) are the most luminous objects in the universe. They include quasars and blazars.

The optical counterparts of many active galactic nuclei (circled) detected by the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey clearly show galaxies in the process of merging. These images, taken with the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, show galaxy shapes that are either physically intertwined or distorted by the gravity of nearby neighbors. These AGN were known prior to the Swift survey, but Swift has found dozens of new ones in more distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss and Richard Mushotzky (Univ. of Maryland)

"Theorists have shown that the violence in galaxy mergers can feed a galaxy's central black hole," said Michael Koss, the study's lead author and a graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park. "The study elegantly explains how the black holes switched on."

Until Swift's hard X-ray survey, astronomers never could be sure they had counted the majority of the AGN. Thick clouds of dust and gas surround the black hole in an active galaxy, which can block ultraviolet, optical and low-energy, or soft X-ray, light. Infrared radiation from warm dust near the black hole can pass through the material, but it can be confused with emissions from the galaxy's star-forming regions. Hard X-rays can help scientists directly detect the energetic black hole.

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STS-132 Space Shuttle Mission to Station Complete

Space shuttle Atlantis descended to a smooth landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:48 a.m. EDT Wednesday, concluding the successful STS-132 mission to the International Space Station.

Atlantis undocked from the station Sunday after spending 7 days and 54 minutes docked to the orbiting laboratory. STS-132 was the 34th shuttle mission dedicated to station assembly and maintenance.

Image above: The newly-installed Rassvet Russian Mini-Research Module-1 is pictured with space shuttle Atlantis performing its flyaround of the International Space Station just after undocking. Credit: NASA

The third of five shuttle missions planned for 2010, this was the last scheduled flight for Atlantis. The mission delivered the Russian-built Mini Research Module-1 to the station. Also known as Rassvet ("dawn" in Russian), the module provides additional storage space and a new docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.

› Read more about the STS-132 mission

International Space Station Expedition 23 Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineer Alexander Skvortsov opened the hatch of the Mini Research Module-1, named Rassvet, Thursday.

The 11,000-pound module was attached to its permanent home on the Russian segment of the station May 18.

The new module will host a variety of biotechnology and biological science experiments and fluid physics and educational research. Rassvet contains a pressurized compartment with eight workstations, including a glove box to keep experiments separated from the in-cabin environment; two incubators to accommodate high- and low-temperature experiments; and a special platform to protect experiments from onboard vibrations.

Attached to its exterior is an experiment airlock that will be used on another Russian laboratory module set for delivery in 2012.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why NASA Keeps a Close Eye on the Sun's Irradiance

For more than two centuries, scientists have wondered how much heat and light the sun expels, and whether this energy varies enough to change Earth’s climate. In the absence of a good method for measuring the sun's output, the scientific conversation was often heavy with speculation.

By 1976, that began to change when Jack Eddy, a solar astronomer from Boulder, Colo., examined historical records of sunspots and published a seminal paper that showed some century-long variations in solar activity are connected with major climatic shifts. Eddy helped show that an extended lull in solar activity during the 17th Century --called the Maunder Minimum -- was likely connected to a decades-long cold period on Earth called the "Little Ice Age."

Two years after Eddy published his paper, NASA launched the first in a series of satellite instruments called radiometers, which measure the amount of sunlight striking the top of Earth's atmosphere, or total solar irradiance. Radiometers have provided unparalleled details about how the sun's irradiance has varied in the decades since. Such measurements have helped validate and expand upon Eddy's findings. And they've led to a number of other discoveries—and questions—about the sun.

Sunspots are darker areas of the Sun that have lower solar irradiance than other areas. A large sunspot group in 2003, observed by the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) radiometer, caused irradiance to decrease by 0.34 percent. Credit: University of Colorado/Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics/Greg Kopp

Without radiometers, scientists would probably still wonder how much energy the sun emits and whether it varies with the sunspot cycle. They wouldn't know of the competition between dark sunspots and bright spots called faculae that drives irradiance variations.

And they’d have little chance of answering a question that continues to perplex solar experts today: Has overall irradiance changed progressively throughout the past three 11-year cycles, or are variations in the sun's irradiance limited to a single cycle?

The answer has important implications for understanding climate change, as some scientists have suggested that trends in solar irradiance account for a significant portion of global warming.

The next space radiometer, slated for launch this November aboard NASA's Glory satellite, should help chip away at the uncertainty that surrounding the sun's role in climate change.

A Variable Sun It's well known today that the sun's irradiance fluctuates constantly in conjunction with sunspots, which become more and less abundant every 11 years due to turbulent magnetic fields that course through the sun's interior and erupt onto its surface.

But as recently as the 1970s, scientists assumed that the sun’s irradiance was unchanging; the amount of energy it expels was even called the "solar constant."

It was data from radiometers aboard Nimbus 7, launched in 1978, and the Solar Maximum Mission, launched two years later, that were the death knell to the solar constant. Soon after launching, instruments aboard both satellites showed that solar irradiance changed significantly as patches of sunspots rotated around the sun's surface. Irradiance would fall, for example, when groups of sunspots faced Earth. And it would recover when the sunspots rotated to the far side of the sun.

Likewise, in 2003, a radiometer aboard NASA's Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) satellite observed large sunspot patches that caused irradiance to drop by as much 0.34 percent, the largest short-term decrease ever recorded.

"When you look at longer scales on the sun, it's the opposite," said Lean, a solar scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and a member of Glory's science team. "Overall, irradiance actually increases when the sun is more active even though sunspots are more common."

Although sunspots cause a decrease in irradiance they're accompanied by bright white blotches called faculae that cause an overall increase in solar irradiance. Credit: NASA/Goddard/SORCE

How can increases in dark, cool sunspots yield increases in irradiance? "It didn't make much sense until we were able to show that sunspots are just half of the story," said Lean.

Measurements collected during the 1980s and 1990s gave scientists the evidence they needed to prove that irradiance is actually a balance between darkening from sunspots and brightening from accompanying hot regions called faculae, a word meaning "bright torch" in Latin.

When solar activity increases, as it does every 11 years or so, both sunspots and faculae become more numerous. But during the peak of a cycle, the faculae brighten the sun more than sunspots dim it.

Overall, radiometers show that the sun’s irradiance changes by about 0.1 percent as the number of sunspots varies from about 20 sunspots or less per year during periods of low activity (solar minimum) to between 100 and 150 during periods of high activity (solar maximum).

“That may seem like a tiny amount, but it’s critical we understand even these small changes if we want to understand whether the sun's output is trending up or down and affecting climate,” said Greg Kopp, a principal investigator for Glory and scientist at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Like sunspots, solar prominences are more likely to occur during the most active part of the solar cycle. Yet despite their striking appearance, they have little impact on the sun's total solar irradiance. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory's AIA Instrument

Though most scientists believe the 0.1 percent variation is too subtle to explain all of the recent warming, it's not impossible that long-term patterns -- proceeding over hundreds or thousands of years -- could cause more severe swings that could have profound impacts on climate.

Searching for a Trend Line A total of 10 radiometers have monitored the sun since Nimbus 7, and by patching all of the measurements together into one data stream, scientists have tried to identify whether the sun’s irradiance has increased or decreased over the last three cycles.

However, melding the results from different instruments has proven complicated because many of the radiometers record slightly different absolute measurements. And the areas of overlap between instruments in the long-term record aren't as robust as scientists would like.

As a result, questions remain about how the sun's irradiance has changed. Richard Willson, principal investigator for NASA's Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor (ACRIM), reported in a 2003 paper that the overall brightness of the sun was increasing by 0.05 percent per decade.

Subsequent assessments of the same data have come to a different conclusion. Other groups of scientists have shown that the apparent upward trend is actually an artifact of the radiometers and how they degrade in orbit. Complicating the issue further, an instrument aboard NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) measured irradiance levels during a solar minimum in 2008 that were actually lower than the previous solar minimum.

Which measurements are right? Has the sun experienced subtle brightening or dimming during the last few solar cycles? Such questions remain controversial, but the radiometer aboard Glory, called the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM), is ready to provide answers. The Glory TIM will be more accurate and stable than previous instruments because of unique optical and electrical advances. And each of its components has undergone a rigorous regime of calibrations at a newly-built facility at the University of Colorado.

“It’s a very exciting time to be studying the sun,” said Lean. “Every day there's something new, and we’re on the verge of answering some very important questions.”

Related Links:
Changing Sun, Changing Climate

New Sun Watching Instrument to monitor Sunlight Fluctuations

Glory Website

LASP Total Irradiance Monitor Website

GISS Total Irradiance Monitor Page

SORCE Website

SORCE Earth Observatory Factsheet

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NASA Uses 'Polka Dots' For Precision Measurements

What weighs 600 pounds, is shiny-silver with black and white polka dots and shaped like an upside-down saucer? If you guessed some sort of mod, fancy looking UFO, you are close. It's a fuel tank dome being developed for NASA's next-generation launch vehicles.

But why polka dots? They are part of an engineering tool called photogrammetry, the practice of determining the geometric properties of objects from photographic images. It is a process used by engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to accurately measure most everything from hardware to the tools used to make the hardware. Analytical photogrammetry is now routinely employed in tasks as diverse as machine tool inspection, fixture checking and structural deformation monitoring.

"This is a reasonably cheap process that provides engineers with a precise, three-dimensional measuring tool," said Sandeep Shah, upper stage manufacturing and assembly subsystem manager for Ares Projects at the Marshall Center. "It's a novel application of an existing technology that allows us to capture the true geometry of parts and components as they are produced, and provides immediate feedback to our team."

Rob Black, senior applications engineer with Shape Fidelity Inc., of Huntsville, Ala., a contractor with the Ares I Upper Stage team, sets up for photogrammetry process. Image credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

So How Does It Work?
The system typically requires only two engineers, a computer, a camera, targets or dots, two scale bars -- used as points of reference because of their exact length -- and a specially designed 3-D scanner.

"That’s what makes photogrammetry such a great tool," Shah said. "It's simple, mobile, fast, cheap and extremely accurate. Though we've only used photogrammetry for a couple of years, I can't imagine future development and production of flight hardware without it."

First, black and white target dots are irregularly placed several inches apart on the test object. The irregular spacing is designed to assist the computer software in identifying each individual target. Next, the engineer takes pictures of the test article from every angle, using a standard, 10-megapixel camera. The number of photographs needed varies depending on the size and shape of the test article. The photos then are transferred to a computer, where the software identifies the targets to produce a skeleton-like outline, referred to as an optical global framework.

Finally, a three-dimensional, white-light scanner is used to scan small sections of the test article -- producing accurate surface definitions and thus a near-perfect computer-aided design, or CAD, model.

"CAD systems allow engineers to view a design from any angle, with the push of a button, to zoom in or out for close-ups or long-distance views," said Rob Black, senior applications engineer with Shape Fidelity Inc., of Huntsville, Ala, a contractor for Ares Projects at Marshall. "NASA is one of the very few organizations worldwide that employs this technology on large-scale precision hardware."

Photogrammetry is often used for large terrestrial applications such as architecture or shipbuilding, but NASA is unique in its routine use of close-range, precision photogrammetry and scanning on large aerospace structures and tooling.

"We have used this process to build CAD models of everything from an airplane to a roach -- that's right, a bug -- just to demonstrate the flexibility of the system," Black said. "When engineers needed a computer model of a C-130 aircraft, we used the photogrammetry process to provide an exact computer model.

At left, a computer-aided design model of a B-52 cockpit section and a cockroach captured with the same system for comparison purposes using the photogrammetry process. Image credit: Shape Fidelity Inc.

"But it's important to understand that with photogrammetry we are providing a fully functional, 3D engineering model of the test article," he said. "Take the roach for example -- once photographed and scanned into the system, the software is capable of providing exact measurements of every detail, from the length of its antenna to the exact width of its wing. How cool is that?"

This technology provides an additional application called reverse engineering, a process that allows engineers to put a completed product through the photogrammetry process, then compare it to the original engineering model.

"We have a project involving valves that need to be replaced, but no drawings, models or other documentation exists," Shah said. "This technology allows us to rebuild these items digitally and generate data necessary to manufacture new ones or define analysis models."

"The larger vision for photogrammetry is that we can quickly develop manufacturing definitions of major vehicle elements while they are still at their respective fabrication sites," he said. "These elements can be assembled digitally to find integration, alignment or any other problems before they are shipped to the assembly site. Problems can be detected early, addressed and fixed prior to shipment -- saving tremendously on both schedule and cost."

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Sailor Reflects on NASA Technology That Saved His Life

Just seven days after setting sail for a tiny island off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico on Dec. 26, 2009, Missourian Dennis Clements thought his life was over; his crippled 34-foot Fiberglas sailboat -- buffeted for four days by gale-force winds and high seas -- had capsized, tossing him into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

A storm capsized Dennis Clements's boat off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., in January. Clements owes his rescue to the crew of the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as to NASA satellites and a 406 MHz beacon. Video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

"At one point, I saw the mast pointed straight down to the bottom of sea, and the boat continued to roll," he said. "I was shaken loose somewhere underwater and when I reached the surface, I could see my boat about 30 feet away... I could see her stand up... She righted herself. She was heavily flooded. There was still a piece of sail and I saw it catch the wind. I saw her sail away and leave me there. And I was alone in the dark, and in the storm, 250 miles from the shore... As I floated there, I knew this was the end. This was how it would end for me."

Today, Clements considers himself fortunate.

Thanks to NASA technology, the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) program managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the bravery of military rescuers, Clements was ultimately plucked to safety by a Navy seaman who had been dispatched from the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was the only vessel within a hundred miles of Clements' location able to respond to the Coast Guard's call for help and attempt the rescue, which took only four minutes once the Navy helicopter arrived on the scene. "It was the bravest thing I've ever seen," Clements said.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer from Air Station Atlantic City prepares to enter the water off of Atlantic City, N.J., during a water rescue training exercise Sept. 28, 2006.Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by PAC Tom Sperduto

In a sense, Clements dramatic rescue began years earlier when he bought a 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), designed for maritime use. When his sailboat, "Gloria Adios" had taken on water, the beacon activated, transmitting an emergency distress signal that NOAA weather satellites equipped with NASA-developed repeaters then relayed back to NOAA-operated ground stations. While Clements battled the storm, which was slowly but surely overwhelming his sailboat, a chain reaction had already been set in place before the rogue wave had even capsized his boat.

Sometime after the beacon began transmitting the emergency alert, SARSAT equipment located hundreds of miles away received the signal and had begun processing it to determine its precise location. The U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for at-sea rescues, received the alert and searched the NOAA Registration Database to determine whether the beacon had been registered. Luckily for Clements, he had done so, providing emergency contact numbers and other information that the Coast Guard used to contact Clements' family.

The database is a vital part of the SARSAT program. "We use the database to provide critical information to help expedite the search process, especially if the location of the beacon is not immediately known," said Mickey Fitzmaurice, a space systems engineer for the SARSAT program, the organization that operates the U.S. component of the COSPAS-SARSAT system now comprised of 40 nations.

The beacon on Clements' boat was an older model and did not encode GPS location data, with its signal. However, the ground-station equipment used the Doppler effect from its low-Earth-orbiting weather satellites to help pinpoint the location of the signal. This can take a little time depending on where the satellites are located at the time of the incident. While the SARSAT system calculated the location of the signal, a Coast Guard search and rescue controller was on the phone calling to find out if Clements had gone to sea and where he was headed. From this information, a more precise location could be provided to the rescuers.

A variety of emergency beacons used to transmit distress signals. All 406 MHz beacons can and should be registered, and Search and Rescue authorities encourage owners of these beacons to do so as registration will help rescue forces find persons in distress faster in an emergency. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth

Given the harrowing weather conditions the night Clements was rescued, Fitzmaurice said it fortuitous that Clements had registered his beacon. The U.S. Coast Guard was able to confirm the validity of Clements’s distress signal. Therefore, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy personnel involved in his rescue were not unnecessarily exposed to life-threatening conditions due to a false alert.

"The beacon registration information can help save lives, not only the person in distress, but also the rescuers," said LCDR Kathy Niles, U.S. Coast Guard SARSAT Liaison Officer. "NOAA's database currently contains about 275,000 registrations which, unfortunately, are only about 75 percent of the beacons out there."

Since his rescue on Jan. 2, 2010, Clements has had time to reflect on the technology and people who saved his life. "I'm very glad I had that beacon," he said. "I knew it was a satellite system and somewhere there were people monitoring it, but I didn't know it was a weather satellite. It really is a wonderful system that they have come up with," he said. "It speaks volumes about the United States of America in the things that matter to us as a nation, that we would invest time, resources, and manpower (into technologies) that save people's lives."

Now, NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Air Force officials say they are working together to develop and new and improved search and rescue system, called the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS).

Engineers at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., are developing next-generation search and rescue technologies that will more quickly detect and locate distress signals generated by 406 MHz beacons installed on aircraft and vessels or carried by individuals. That's because NASA plans to install the repeaters on Global Position System (GPS), a constellation of 24 spacecraft operating in mid-Earth orbit, and not weather satellites.

"A few years ago, we looked to see how we could improve the system and we concluded that the international search and rescue community would benefit from new technology installed on GPS," said NASA Search and Rescue Mission Manager David Affens. "We would be able to identify distress signals faster and with a greater level of precision. In the end, this will save more lives, reduce risk to rescuers, and save money because less time will be spent searching."

Inside the Search and Rescue Mission Office at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Debbie McCallum

The improved response time is made possible because of the coverage provided by a constellation of satellites encircling the globe. With a mid-Earth orbit search and rescue capability provided by GPS, one emergency signal goes off, and at least four satellites will be in view. Almost instantly, processing of the signal can begin to determine its precise location."

Although the current system is effective, as evidenced by Clements' rescue and those of 27,000 others worldwide since the system became operational in the mid-1980s, a satellite may not be in position to pick up a distress signal the moment a user activates the beacon. Furthermore, weather satellites in geostationary orbit cannot independently locate a beacon unless it contains a navigation receiver that encodes and transmits its position -- a capability not offered on most units. "Right now, it can take an hour or more before we can even act on a signal," Fitzmaurice said.

The new GPS-based system is now being tested. Currently, nine GPS satellites are flying the proof-of-concept technology and an additional 12 are planned. Goddard is conducting testing to fine tune the technology before transitioning to a final system after 2015, which will be deployed on the Air Force’s Block III GPS satellites.

"The bottom-line here is that within one minute, we'll know where the distress signals come from," Fitzmaurice said. "It is the future."

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Phoenix Mars Lander is Silent, New Image Shows Damage

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has ended operations after repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful. A new image transmitted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander's solar panels.

"The Phoenix spacecraft succeeded in its investigations and exceeded its planned lifetime," said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Although its work is finished, analysis of information from Phoenix's science activities will continue for some time to come."

Last week, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the Phoenix landing site 61 times during a final attempt to communicate with the lander. No transmission from the lander was detected. Phoenix also did not communicate during 150 flights in three earlier listening campaigns this year.

This view of one of the Mars Phoenix Lander's solar panels is a composite of multiple exposures taken by the spacecraft's Surface Stereo Imager camera. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University Arizona/Texas A&M University

Earth-based research continues on discoveries Phoenix made during summer conditions at the far-northern site where it landed May 25, 2008. The solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later.

Phoenix was not designed to survive the dark, cold, icy winter. However, the slim possibility Phoenix survived could not be eliminated without listening for the lander after abundant sunshine returned.

An image of Phoenix taken this month by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests the lander no longer casts shadows the way it did during its working lifetime.

"Before and after images are dramatically different," said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a science team member for both Phoenix and HiRISE. "The lander looks smaller, and only a portion of the difference can be explained by accumulation of dust on the lander, which makes its surfaces less distinguishable from surrounding ground."

Apparent changes in the shadows cast by the lander are consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the lander's solar panels. Mellon calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter.

During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. The mission's biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others.

Two images of the Phoenix Mars lander taken from Martian orbit in 2008 and 2010. The 2008 lander image shows two relatively blue spots on either side corresponding to the spacecraft's clean circular solar panels. In the 2010 image scientists see a dark shadow that could be the lander body and eastern solar panel, but no shadow from the western solar panel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

"We found that the soil above the ice can act like a sponge, with perchlorate scavenging water from the atmosphere and holding on to it," said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "You can have a thin film layer of water capable of being a habitable environment. A micro-world at the scale of grains of soil -- that's where the action is."

The perchlorate results are shaping subsequent astrobiology research, as scientists investigate the implications of its antifreeze properties and potential use as an energy source by microbes. Discovery of the ice in the uppermost soil by Odyssey pointed the way for Phoenix. More recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected numerous ice deposits in middle latitudes at greater depth using radar and exposed on the surface by fresh impact craters.

"Ice-rich environments are an even bigger part of the planet than we thought," Smith said. "Somewhere in that vast region there are going to be places that are more habitable than others."

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reached the planet in 2006 to begin a two-year primary science mission. Its data show Mars had diverse wet environments at many locations for differing durations during the planet's history, and climate-change cycles persist into the present era. The mission has returned more planetary data than all other Mars missions combined.

Odyssey has been orbiting Mars since 2001. The mission also has played important roles by supporting the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The Phoenix mission was led by Smith at the University of Arizona, with project management at JPL and development partnership at Lockheed Martin in Denver. The University of Arizona operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., in Boulder. Mars missions are managed by JPL for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Splendors of Mare Smythii - Fresh Impact Craters

The featured image shows the interior of a fresh impact crater (approximately 300 m in diameter) in the Mare Smythii region. In the high-sun image above, it is hard to recognize topographic features because there are no shadows. The wider view below, paired with a lower-sun image of the same crater on the right, gives a sharper view of small scale features such as boulders.

Interior of fresh impact crater in the Smythii region. Portion of image M126371530LE, scene width is 530 m Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

The floor of this small crater looks like a basket of impact-melt covered rocks, containing secrets about the age of recent impacts and the processes that cause their fresh rays to fade.

A wider view of the same fresh crater under high-sun (left, image M126371530LE, incidence angle of 21°) and lower sun image with illumination from the east (right, image M113392375LE, incidence angle of 50°) Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

Mare Smythii, located on the eastern limb of the Moon, contains relatively young (1-2 billion years old) basaltic lavas. The western portion of the region encompasses the crater Schubert C, the floor of which is fractured, possibly due to intrusions of lava beneath its surface.

WAC context image of the Mare Smythii region (40x40 km box is centered on the region), which includes the eastern portion of crater Schubert C. Arrow indicates the location of the fresh crater above. Image M115753790CE Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

Under high-sun, craters can take on an unusual appearance (left, M126371530LE). Under more typical illumination conditions, slumps of material and large boulders are revealed as the source of the high and low reflectance patterns (right, M113392375LE) Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

Mare Smythii contains many beautiful features, several of which are highlighted in high-sun images such as the one above.

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Anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint Garrett Reisman conducts the mission's first spacewalk. During the seven-hour, 25-minute spacewalk, Reisman and Steve Bowen installed a second antenna for high-speed Ku-band transmissions and added a spare parts platform to Dextre, a two-armed extension for the station’s robotic arm.

Image Credit: NASA

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hubble Finds a Star Eating a Planet

The hottest known planet in the Milky Way galaxy may also be its shortest-lived world. The doomed planet is being eaten by its parent star, according to observations made by a new instrument on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS). The planet may only have another 10 million years left before it is completely devoured.

The planet, called WASP-12b, is so close to its sunlike star that it is superheated to nearly 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit and stretched into a football shape by enormous tidal forces. The atmosphere has ballooned to nearly three times Jupiter's radius and is spilling material onto the star. The planet is 40 percent more massive than Jupiter.

This effect of matter exchange between two stellar objects is commonly seen in close binary star systems, but this is the first time it has been seen so clearly for a planet.

"We see a huge cloud of material around the planet, which is escaping and will be captured by the star. We have identified chemical elements never before seen on planets outside our own solar system," says team leader Carole Haswell of The Open University in Great Britain.

Haswell and her science team's results were published in the May 10, 2010 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A theoretical paper published in the science journal Nature last February by Shu-lin Li of the Department of Astronomy at the Peking University, Beijing, first predicted that the planet's surface would be distorted by the star's gravity, and that gravitational tidal forces make the interior so hot that it greatly expands the planet's outer atmosphere. Now Hubble has confirmed this prediction.

Artist's concept of the exoplanet WASP-12b. Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon

WASP-12 is a yellow dwarf star located approximately 600 light-years away in the winter constellation Auriga. The exoplanet was discovered by the United Kingdom's Wide Area Search for Planets (WASP) in 2008. The automated survey looks for the periodic dimming of stars from planets passing in front of them, an effect called transiting. The hot planet is so close to the star it completes an orbit in 1.1 days.

The unprecedented ultraviolet (UV) sensitivity of COS enabled measurements of the dimming of the parent star's light as the planet passed in front of the star. These UV spectral observations showed that absorption lines from aluminum, tin, manganese, among other elements, became more pronounced as the planet transited the star, meaning that these elements exist in the planet's atmosphere as well as the star's. The fact the COS could detect these features on a planet offers strong evidence that the planet's atmosphere is greatly extended because it is so hot.

The UV spectroscopy was also used to calculate a light curve to precisely show just how much of the star's light is blocked out during transit. The depth of the light curve allowed the COS team to accurately calculate the planet's radius. They found that the UV-absorbing exosphere is much more extended than that of a normal planet that is 1.4 times Jupiter's mass. It is so extended that the planet's radius exceeds its Roche lobe, the gravitational boundary beyond which material would be lost forever from the planet's atmosphere.

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