Tuesday, August 31, 2010

ISRO Announces Instruments for Second Lunar Mission

Officials at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) finally announced the instruments and tool suites that will go aboard its next lunar mission, called the Chandrayaan-2.

For the past few years, India has been playing an increasingly important role in space exploration, developing a number of missions alongside other space agencies, or on its own.

One of the most important missions that the ISRO developed was the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, which managed to achieve lunar orbit, and conduct observations from its vantage point.

The mission eventually ended in failure, after contact with the orbiter was lost, but to the Indians this was a monumental achievement. Now, they want to continue in the footsteps of the first mission.

The Chandrayaan-2 is a more complex plan, which calls for the construction of both a rover and a lander, all of which are to be finished by 2013.

ISRO officials said yesterday that they expect the mission to launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Center, in Sriharikota, aboard an Indian-built Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

The lander itself will be built by the Russian Federation, under an agreement between the two parties. At this point, only the basic instrumentation for both mission components has been approved.

Experts believe that other equipment may be selected for integration aboard the Chandrayaan-2 mission as well, but that will be decided upon in technical review that will take place further along the mission time line.

Some of the instruments and suites experts recommend for the orbiter include the Large Area Soft X-ray Spectrometer (CLASS) and the Solar X-ray monitor (XSM).

Both of these payloads are meant to give the orbiter the ability to map out the most interesting elements of the lunar surface in great detail.

Other instrument suites include an L and S band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), an Imaging IR Spectrometer (IIRS), a Neutral Mass Spectrometer (ChACE-2), and a Terrain Mapping Camera-2 (TMC-2).

As far as the experts are concerned, the orbiter could include only two scientific payloads. One of them could be the Laboratory for Electro Optic Systems (LEOS)- built Laser induced Breakdown Spectroscope (LIBS).

The second one could be that Alpha Particle Induced X-ray Spectroscope (APIXS), an instrument designed and built by the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), SpaceRef reports.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Strange Ring Galaxy

Is this one galaxy or two? Astronomer Art Hoag first asked this question when he chanced upon this unusual extragalactic object. On the outside is a ring dominated by bright blue stars, while near the center lies a ball of much redder stars that are likely much older. Between the two is a gap that appears almost completely dark. How Hoag's Object formed remains unknown, although similar objects have been identified and collectively labeled as a form of ring galaxy. Genesis hypotheses include a galaxy collision billions of years ago and the gravitational effect of a central bar that has since vanished.

This image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in July 2001, reveals unprecedented details of Hoag's Object and may yield a better understanding. Hoag's Object spans about 100,000 light years and lies about 600 million light years away toward the constellation of the Snake (Serpens). Coincidentally, visible in the gap (at about one o'clock) is yet another ring galaxy that likely lies far in the distance.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hydrogen Sulfide and Dust Plumes on Namibia's Coast

Cloudless skies allowed a clear view of dust and hydrogen sulfide plumes along the coast of Namibia in early August 2010. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image on Aug. 10, 2010.

Multiple dust plumes blow off the coast toward the ocean, most or all of them probably arising from streambeds. Unlike the reddish-tan sands comprising the dunes directly south of the Kuiseb River, the stream-channel sediments are lighter in color. Wind frequently pushes dust plumes seaward along the Namibian Coast. Easterly trade winds blow from the Indian Ocean over the African continent, losing much of their moisture as they go. The winds are hot and dry as they pass over Namibia’s coastal plain, where they are prone to stir fine sediments.

Even with dust plumes overhead, the marked change in land cover is obvious along the Kuiseb River. South of the river, sand dunes predominate, but the vegetation along the Kuiseb River prevents the dunes from advancing northward. North of the river, the land surface consists primarily of gravel plains punctuated by rocky hills.

Hydrogen sulfide appears as a swath of irridescent green running parallel to the coast north of Walvis Bay. A 2009 study linked the emissions in this region to ocean currents, biological activity in the water column, and carbon-rich organic sediments under the water column. The meeting of hydrogen sulfide gas and oxygen-rich surface waters causes pure sulfur to precipitate into the water. The sulfur’s yellow color makes the water appear green to the satellite sensor.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Launch Preps Move Ahead for Mission to International Space Station

During space shuttle Discovery's final spaceflight, the STS-133 crew members will take important spare parts to the International Space Station along with the Express Logistics Carrier-4. Discovery is being readied for flight inside Kennedy's Orbiter Processing Facility-3 while its solid rocket boosters are stacked inside the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building. STS-133 is slated to launch Nov. 1.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Massive Attack

This image shows the eruption of a galactic “super-volcano” in the massive galaxy M87, as witnessed by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NSF's Very Large Array (VLA). At a distance of about 50 million light years, M87 is relatively close to Earth and lies at the center of the Virgo cluster, which contains thousands of galaxies.

The cluster surrounding M87 is filled with hot gas glowing in X-ray light (and shown in blue) that is detected by Chandra. As this gas cools, it can fall toward the galaxy's center where it should continue to cool even faster and form new stars.

However, radio observations with the VLA (red) suggest that in M87 jets of very energetic particles produced by the black hole interrupt this process. These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy's atmosphere because of their supersonic speed. The interaction of this cosmic “eruption” with the galaxy's environment is very similar to that of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland that occurred in 2010. With Eyjafjallajokull, pockets of hot gas blasted through the surface of the lava, generating shock waves that can be seen passing through the grey smoke of the volcano. This hot gas then rises up in the atmosphere, dragging the dark ash with it. This process can be seen in a movie of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano where the shock waves propagating in the smoke are followed by the rise of dark ash clouds into the atmosphere.

In the analogy with Eyjafjallajokull, the energetic particles produced in the vicinity of the black hole rise through the X-ray emitting atmosphere of the cluster, lifting up the coolest gas near the center of M87 in their wake. This is similar to the hot volcanic gases drag up the clouds of dark ash. And just like the volcano here on Earth, shockwaves can be seen when the black hole pumps energetic particles into the cluster gas.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tropically Speaking, NASA Investigates Precipitation Shapes, Sizes for Severity

Rain drops are fat and snowflakes are fluffy, but why does it matter in terms of predicting severe storms?

We've all seen fat rain drops, skinny rain drops, round hailstones, fluffy snowflakes and even ice needles. This summer, NASA researchers are going to get a look at just how much these shapes influence severe storm weather. To do it, they'll have to look inside the guts of some of the world's fiercest storms. NASA recently assembled a team of hurricane scientists from across the country to carry out high-altitude-aircraft surveillance to explore in detail how storms form, intensify and dissipate.

Earth scientists and engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., have redesigned one of their instruments, the Advanced Microwave Precipitation Radiometer, or AMPR, to better observe the different shapes of precipitation. In August and September, AMPR will fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. It will sit in the bomb bay of a WB-57 airplane, which is based at the NASA Johnson Space Center's Ellington Field in Houston.

AMPR will sit in the bomb bay of a WB-57 airplane, where it will scan the surfaces below to measure both how hard it’s raining and the type of precipitation being produced by a storm. (NASA/JSC)

During these flights, AMPR researchers will test a new build -- the instrument is an upgraded version of the original AMPR built at NASA Marshall in the early 1990s -- and use it to participate in NASA's upcoming hurricane study, the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes field campaign, better known as GRIP. The campaign involves three planes mounted with 14 different instruments, including AMPR. The instruments will all work together to create the most complete view of a hurricane to date.

Researchers hope the hurricane campaign will help them answer some of nature's most perplexing questions. As tropical storms grow, they produce massive amounts of rain -- a key element in the development of full-scale hurricanes. Scientists will use AMPR along with the other instruments, such as data from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission or TRMM satellite, to figure out just how hard it's raining inside these ferocious storms, and how much of that rain is associated with the production of ice during intensification.

"If you don't know how hard it's raining or where the rain is forming in the atmosphere, you don't know hurricanes," said Dr. Walt Petersen, AMPR principle investigator and Marshall Center earth scientist. "AMPR provides us an opportunity to see their precipitation structure by using an instrument like those currently flying on, for example, the TRMM and Aqua satellites in space."

That's because AMPR doesn't just give scientists new information about hurricanes. The instrument also enables them to test equipment currently in space. Every day, numerous weather satellites orbit Earth to measure the rainfall rate of storms across the globe. They work much like AMPR except over much larger scales. Because they're so far above the Earth and moving so fast, they can take only one measurement every few miles along their track. Scientists can correct for such coarse measurements, but to do so they need highly accurate data. AMPR can take several measurements per mile, giving scientists the data they need to verify that weather satellites continue to provide accurate data.

Crashing waves in the deep ocean can generate enough energy to create a seismic "hum." (Bruce Molnia/U.S. Geological Survey)

"It's like the pixels in your computer screen," Petersen said. "When satellites take measurements, they have really big pixels, and we might lose some of the finer details of what's happening on the ground. AMPR has much smaller pixels, much higher resolution, and allows us to see a much clearer picture. It's a part of our arsenal to make sure what we're measuring from space makes sense. We'd hate to send something up and not have it accurately measure what's happening on the ground."

That information translates into better predictions of hurricane track and intensity -- how hard it's going to rain in a certain area when a hurricane hits, for example, aiding in early flood warnings.

AMPR doesn't just measure how hard rain falls. Within the last several years, the AMPR team has worked vigorously to upgrade the instrument. These upgrades will enable AMPR to more accurately detect what kind of precipitation is in the storm. By identifying the shape of the precipitation, AMPR may present scientists with recognizable signatures that define different types of precipitation. For example, varying combinations of fat or skinny rain drops, snow, ice or hail distributed throughout the depth of the storm will produce different brightness temperatures when viewed at different angles. A storm may develop and behave differently depending on these variations.

Engineers packed the 380-pound AMPR payload with a delicate set of instruments and computer hardware. AMPR gathers data by measuring the amount of microwave radiation rising from the surface beneath -- often the ocean. Because rain water is a better emitter of microwave radiation than ocean water, the radiation measured from rainfall is actually greater during a big storm. This measurement is converted to a "brightness temperature," which correlates to how much radiation is being generated. The more rain, the higher the brightness temperature.

Alternatively, if a hurricane's clouds are full of ice or hail, as they usually are, much of the microwave radiation is scattered away. The corresponding brightness temperature is much lower than the anticipated surface measurement. Scientists can use those changes to determine how hard it's raining inside a storm or how much ice a given storm might contain.

"Whether rain drops are fat or skinny, and whether ice is round or bumpy, these factors are critical when we're trying to estimate rainfall rates," Petersen explained. "Because of air drag, the rate at which these precipitation particles fall through the air depends on their thickness or shape. A fat rain drop falls more slowly than a hail stone of the same size, for example -- that factor enables you to determine rainfall rate."

This image over Southern Brazil, taken from the space shuttle by an astronaut in February 1984 and shows a mixture of cold and warm clouds. (NASA/JSC)

After the GRIP experiment ends in September, Petersen and his team will unload the data and begin analyzing it, adding their findings to the increasingly large body of hurricane knowledge.

"The GRIP experiment will give us information about how a hurricane circulates and how it intensifies. Basically we have a bunch of theories about the role of precipitation in hurricanes, and we need to test them. That's where instruments like AMPR come in."

After this summer’s hurricane study, AMPR will continue to fly in storm campaigns. It's already scheduled for a major joint NASA and U.S. Department of Energy study in April 2011 to support the Global Precipitation Measurement

Petersen loves the challenge. Storms have fascinated him ever since his junior year of high school, when lightning struck just inches away from him while he was at a drive-in movie.

"The thing that excites me is looking inside a storm that we can't fly into," he said. "We can't fly inside these big storms because they're just too nasty. The only way to get information about what's going on inside is to do what AMPR does.

"Being able to look at the guts of a storm and figure out what's going on, that's the key thing for me," he added.

With any luck, AMPR's look into hurricanes will put scientists one step closer to predicting some of the world's fiercest storms.

For more information visit

Galactic Super-Volcano in Action

This image shows the eruption of a galactic “super-volcano” in the massive galaxy M87, as witnessed by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NSF's Very Large Array (VLA). At a distance of about 50 million light years, M87 is relatively close to Earth and lies at the center of the Virgo cluster, which contains thousands of galaxies.

The cluster surrounding M87 is filled with hot gas glowing in X-ray light (and shown in blue) that is detected by Chandra. As this gas cools, it can fall toward the galaxy's center where it should continue to cool even faster and form new stars.

However, radio observations with the VLA (red) suggest that in M87 jets of very energetic particles produced by the black hole interrupt this process. These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy's atmosphere because of their supersonic speed.

The interaction of this cosmic “eruption” with the galaxy's environment is very similar to that of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland that occurred in 2010. With Eyjafjallajokull, pockets of hot gas blasted through the surface of the lava, generating shock waves that can be seen passing through the grey smoke of the volcano. This hot gas then rises up in the atmosphere, dragging the dark ash with it. This process can be seen in a movie of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano where the shock waves propagating in the smoke are followed by the rise of dark ash clouds into the atmosphere.

In the analogy with Eyjafjallajokull, the energetic particles produced in the vicinity of the black hole rise through the X-ray emitting atmosphere of the cluster, lifting up the coolest gas near the center of M87 in their wake. This is similar to the hot volcanic gases drag up the clouds of dark ash. And just like the volcano here on Earth, shockwaves can be seen when the black hole pumps energetic particles into the cluster gas. The energetic particles, coolest gas and shockwaves are shown in a labeled version.

Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/N. Werner et al Radio: NSF/NRAO/AUI/W. Cotton

For more information visit

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

NASA Video Shows Global Reach of Pollution from Fires

A series of large wildfires burning across western and central Russia, eastern Siberia and western Canada has created a noxious soup of air pollution that is affecting life far beyond national borders. Among the pollutants created by wildfires is carbon monoxide, a gas that can pose a variety of health risks at ground level. Carbon monoxide is also an ingredient in the production of ground-level ozone, which causes numerous respiratory problems. As the carbon monoxide from these wildfires is lofted into the atmosphere, it becomes caught in the lower bounds of the mid-latitude jet stream, which swiftly transports it around the globe.

Two movies were created using continuously updated data from the "Eyes on the Earth 3-D" feature on NASA's global climate change website . They show three-day running averages of daily measurements of carbon monoxide present at an altitude of 5.5 kilometers (18,000) feet, along with its global transport. The data are from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft. AIRS is most sensitive to carbon monoxide at this altitude, which is a region conducive to long-range transport of the smoke. The abundance of carbon monoxide is shown in parts per billion, with the highest concentrations shown in yellows and reds.

The first movie, centered over Moscow, highlights the series of wildfires that continue to burn across Russia. It covers the period between July 18 and Aug. 10, 2010.

The second movie is centered over the North Pole and covers the period from July 16 to Aug. 10, 2010. From this vantage point, the long-range transport of pollutants is more easily visible.

AIRS is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information about AIRS can be found at .

For more information visit

Endeavour Braces for STORRM

A STORRM is brewing aboard space shuttle Endeavour.

The next generation in docking and rendezvous technology will make its debut early next year during the STS-134 mission, scheduled to be the final space shuttle flight. Officially called the Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation, the "STORRM" system was installed Aug. 10 inside Endeavour's payload bay, where it will fly as a Development Test Objective, or DTO -- in other words, an in-flight experiment.

Designed for use on the Orion capsule, STORRM includes the Visual Navigation Sensor, or VNS, along with an advanced docking camera. The VNS relies on a light-based remote sensing technology called lidar to provide extremely accurate data while the docking camera offers high-resolution docking imagery.

Image above: Technicians in Endeavour's payload bay lower the Sensor Enclosure Assembly into place between the orbiter docking system and crew module. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossman

When the STORRM's two hardware components -- the Sensor Enclosure Assembly (SEA) and Avionics Enclosure Assembly (AEA) -- were lowered into place in Endeavour's payload bay, an unusually large crowd of enthusiastic agency and contractor representatives were on hand to observe and celebrate the milestone.

"I'd have to say this is the most people I've ever seen come for a payload installation," said NASA's Vehicle Manager for Endeavour, Shelley Ford, as she surveyed a crowd of about 30 people vying for the best views among the myriad of access platforms surrounding the orbiter. "It's exciting that Endeavour will be contributing to the technology development for our future space program."

STORRM was developed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, which is responsible for program management, technology evaluation, flight test objectives, operational concepts, contract management and data post-processing. Engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia were in charge of engineering management, design and build of the avionics, STORRM software application and reflective elements. They are also responsible for the integration, testing and certification of these components. Industry partners Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Ball Aerospace Technologies Corp. handled the design, build and testing of the VNS and docking camera.

Installation began with the Sensor Enclosure Assembly, a 52-pound box about the size of a microwave oven. United Space Alliance Lead Mechanical Technician Tim Keyser, serving as move director, oversaw the installation as technicians using a jib hoist carefully lifted the SEA over several levels of platforms, then lowered it into the forward end of Endeavour's payload bay.

The SEA was mounted in place in front of the shuttle's airlock, alongside the existing Trajectory Control System. The location of the docking camera offers an accurate snapshot of how the system would handle on the Orion capsule, and provide precise visual cues to the crew.

"This works great for us," said Scott Cryan, Orion relative navigation hardware subsystem manager at Johnson. "The docking camera in the SEA is right in line with the orbiter's center line."

Image above: The Avionics Enclosure Assembly is moved into its port-sidewall, Bay 3, flight location in Endeavour's payload bay. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossman

Next, the team picked up the 82-pound Avionics Enclosure Assembly, which provides power distribution, data recording and memory for the camera and navigation system. The AEA is mounted in bay 3 on the port side of the payload bay.

According to Deputy Project Manager Rick Walker, visiting from Langley, the assembly's location in the payload bay is due to the large volumes of high-speed data the hardware will have to digest. But placing it in the bay resulted in the need for radiation-tolerant memory. The team succeeded by using a blend of commercial and Langley-developed technologies, completing the work in nearly half the time it would normally take.

"This was done in 14 months -- a pretty quick turnaround," Walker said after the AEA was bolted into place. "Now, this is the exciting part. You see the hard work, long hours and travel away from home come together. This is what it's all about."

Electrical connections were completed the next day, followed by a round of functional testing that verified the STORRM hardware is ready to fly.

"The team successfully completed the test and checkout of the STORRM payload yesterday, so after the test cables are demated and some final inspections are accomplished, it will be ready for flight," Ford said after the testing wrapped up. "We'll be cheering the STORRM folks on and wishing for their success when Endeavour docks to the ISS early next year."

For more information visit

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Robonaut Flexes for the Camera

In the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the dexterous humanoid astronaut helper Robonaut (R2) flexes its mechanical muscles during a media event hosted by NASA. R2 will fly to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission. Although it will initially only participate in operational tests, upgrades could eventually allow the robot to realize its true purpose -- helping spacewalking astronauts with tasks outside the space station.

Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann, Aug. 13, 2010

For more information visit

Ping-Pong Balls to Float Crew Capsule Simulator

If ping-pong balls can float a sunken boat, they should be able to keep an uncrewed space capsule simulator from sinking.


That's what a team of summer students and engineers think at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Langley is fabricating a proposed design of an astronaut crew module simulator for uncrewed flight-testing as part of the agency's effort to build a vehicle to replace the space shuttle.

The Orion crew exploration vehicle is the nation's next generation spacecraft designed to carry up to four astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond.

Orion's first suborbital flight test will launch to 400,000 feet, or 75 miles above Earth. Because the crew module will not be pressurized during the test, it will not have the buoyancy of a pressurized spacecraft. This puts the simulated crew module at risk of sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after splashdown.

To save the valuable test article for analysis and possible reuse, Langley called on a team of creative minds for a solution.

NASA Langley students gather around the crew module mockup that they propose to keep afloat with ping-pong balls after it splashes down. From left, front row: Edward Tillistrand, Brice Collamer, Patrick Cragg, Caroline Kirk and Kurian Thomas. In the capsule, from left; Joseph Randall Hunt, Heather Blount and Victor Stewart. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

And as it turned out, inexpensive, lightweight ping-pong balls provided the answer. Langley engineer John DiNonno proposed the idea, and the Orion Flight Test Office told the team to study it.

The idea quickly became "very plausible," said student Caroline Kirk.

Way to go

"At first we didn't really realize that we were going to get so far in proving that it would be possible," said Kirk, a Suffolk, Va., native attending Virginia Tech as an aerospace engineering major. "But when we thought about everything logically, it just seemed like ping-pong balls were the way to go."

She and a team of seven other students worked the project in Langley's Mechanical Systems Branch, where they were assigned for the summer.

DiNonno got the idea from a Discovery Channel program about raising a sunken boat using 27,000 ping-pong balls.

Engineer David Covington said that when DiNonno suggested the ping-pong ball idea, "I just laughed. Not a 'what are you thinking' kind of laugh, but more of a 'that's the most awesome thing I've heard in a long time' laugh. I asked him 'are you serious?' and he said 'yeah, we're authorized to do a four-week study.' So we went straight to work."

Ensuring the outcome would be relatively low-cost was a top priority, said DiNonno.

"Recovering the capsule was not a requirement, but it was a desire," he said. "So there wasn't going to be a lot of investment in it."

Testing process

The students divided the tasks needed to determine if the idea was feasible, each becoming a "principal investigator" for a specific area.

They tested ping-pong balls of varying quality, much the way spacecraft hardware is tested. They studied how the balls would react to the near-vacuum at the edge of space. Using buoyancy tests, they determined how well the balls would float.

The students also subjected the ping-pong balls to mechanical loads using a hydraulic press, and heated them to see how they would react to the high temperatures of descent into the Earth's atmosphere. And they performed electrostatic discharge tests to determine if the balls would produce a static charge that could disrupt the space capsule's electronics.

Ping-Pong Ball Facts

›› Ping-pong balls are made of celluloid, which is processed cotton.
›› Each ping-pong ball weighs less than an ounce (2.7 grams) and is roughly 1.5 inches (38 - 40 mm) in diameter.
›› Ping-pong ball quality is rated from zero to three stars.

Credit: Microsoft

The ping-pong balls passed all the challenges, said Heather Blount, a materials science engineering student at Virginia Tech.

"Through all our testing and calculations, we figured out that it could be a safe and viable option," said Blount, of Yorktown, Va.

Keeping the crew module afloat would take at least 150,000 ping-pong balls, the students estimate, at a retail price of 50 cents or less each -- a fraction of the cost of traditional options. The students hope to reduce the cost through a bulk purchase.

If the flight test is approved, the ping-pong ball concept would still need to be vetted with the flight test team and reviewed by NASA senior management. If implemented, the ping-pong balls probably will be put into netted bags and secured inside the crew module just prior to launch. They would virtually fill the available space inside the uncrewed capsule.

Then, when the unsealed capsule splashes down, the buoyancy of the ping-pong balls will offset the weight of incoming water and it will float instead of sink.

The ping-pong balls also will reduce the volume of air that needs to be vented from the capsule during ascent - as well as drawn in during descent - as the capsule travels through significant changes in atmospheric pressure.

'Awesome' students

Approval of the flight test, as well as a launch date, has yet to be determined. "Even if it is not used, it's an idea that's out there that someone else could use," said Langley engineer Amanda Cutright, a student mentor.

Cutright said she has been enthused by the students.

"It's awesome working with them," she said. "They bring a different perspective. I've been really impressed with how quickly they pick up new ideas and new technology. It seems each team of students that we mentor learns quicker and is able to provide creative ideas."


The ping-pong ball team has been using a social media tool called Yammer to communicate with each other, share files, links, work status, questions, and solutions.

"Yammer has been a great tool to communicate with the interns," said Brendan Shaughnessy, an engineer in the Mechanical Systems Branch. "They can post updates on their work or links to websites they found. I can also let them all know about something I need them to do or that I've done in one quick message."

To join NASA's Yammer site, you must have an email address that ends in

The Orion FTA Students site is open to anyone with a NASA Yammer account.


Kirk said the ping-pong ball project has been a unique experience. At school, she said, "we do lab experiments but nothing similar to this at all. Being able to develop an experiment that will be used for space flight tests is an opportunity of a lifetime."

NASA employees and contractors involved in the project include engineers Amanda Cutright; Brendan Shaughnessy, Analytical Services and Materials Inc.; David Covington, ATK Space Systems Inc.; and John DiNonno, all of the Mechanical Systems Branch.

Student team members:

Brice Collamer, Virginia Tech, Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars (LARSS) program
→ Principal investigator for electrostatic discharge tests
Patrick Cragg, Princeton University, DEVELOP program
→ Principal investigator for further testing and research
Kurian Thomas, University of Virginia, DEVELOP program
→ Principal investigator for loading tests and cost analysis
Caroline Kirk, Virginia Tech, LARSS
→ Co-principal investigator for vacuum oven tests
Joseph Randall Hunt, Western Carolina University, Undergraduate Student Research Program
→ Principal investigator for packing efficiency tests and operations concerns
Heather Blount, Virginia Tech, LARSS
→ Co-principal investigator for vacuum oven tests
Edward Tillistrand, University of Virginia, DEVELOP program
→ Principal investigator for buoyancy tests and quantity analysis
Victor Stewart, Virginia Tech, Cooperative Education Program
→ Principal investigator for support and review of experiment work

For more information visit

Monday, August 16, 2010

IBEX Spacecraft Finds Discoveries Close to Home

Imagine floating 35,000 miles above the sunny side of Earth. Our home planet gleams below, a majestic whorl of color and texture. All seems calm around you. With no satellites or space debris to dodge, you can just relax and enjoy the black emptiness of space.

But looks can be deceiving.

In reality, you've unknowingly jumped into an invisible mosh pit of electromagnetic mayhem — the place in space where a supersonic "wind" of charged particles from the Sun crashes head-on into the protective magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet. Traveling at a million miles per hour, the solar wind's protons and electrons sense Earth's magnetosphere too late to flow smoothly around it. Instead, they're shocked, heated, and slowed almost to a stop as they pile up along its outer boundary, the magnetopause, before getting diverted sideways.

Space physicists have had a general sense of these dynamic goings-on for decades. But it wasn't until the advent of the Interstellar Boundary Explorer or IBEX, a NASA spacecraft launched in October 2008, that they've been able to see what the human eye cannot: the first-ever images of this electromagnetic crash scene. They can now witness how some of the solar wind's charged particles are being neutralized by gas escaping from Earth's atmosphere.

A New Way to See Atoms

IBEX wasn't designed to keep tabs on Earth's magnetosphere. Instead, its job is to map interactions occurring far beyond the planets, 8 to 10 billion miles away, where the Sun's own magnetic bubble, the heliosphere, meets interstellar space.

IBEX found that Energetic Neutral Atoms, or ENAs, are coming from a region just outside Earth's magnetopause where nearly stationary protons from the solar wind interact with the tenuous cloud of hydrogen atoms in Earth's exosphere. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Only two spacecraft, Voyagers 1 and 2, have ventured far enough to probe this region directly. IBEX, which travels in a looping, 8-day-long orbit around Earth, stays much closer to home, but it carries a pair of detectors that can observe the interaction region from afar.

Here's how: When fast-moving protons in the solar wind reach the edge of the heliosphere, they sometimes grab electrons from the slower-moving interstellar atoms around them, like batons getting passed between relay runners. This charge exchange creates electrically neutral hydrogen atoms that are no longer controlled by magnetic fields. Suddenly, they're free to go wherever they want — and because they're still moving fast, they quickly zip away from the interstellar boundary in all directions.

> Download video

This animation shows a neutral solar particle's path leaving the Sun, following the magnetic field lines out to the Heliosheath. The solar particle hits a hydrogen atom, stealing it's electron and we follow it until we see it hit one of IBEXs detectors. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Some of these "energetic neutral atoms," or ENAs, zip past Earth, where they're recorded by IBEX. Its two detectors don't take pictures with conventional optics. Instead, they record the number and energy of atoms arriving from small spots of sky about 7 degrees across (the apparent size of a tennis ball held at arm's length). Because its spin axis always points at the Sun, the spacecraft slowly turns throughout Earth's orbit and its detectors scan overlapping strips that create a complete 360 degrees map every six months.

A Collision Zone Near Earth

Because IBEX is orbiting Earth, it also has a front-row seat for observing the chaotic pileup of solar-wind particles occurring along the "nose" of Earth's magnetopause, about 35,000 miles out. ENAs are created there too, as solar-wind protons wrest electrons from hydrogen atoms in the outermost vestiges of our atmosphere, the exosphere.

Other spacecraft have attempted to measure the density of the dayside exosphere, without much success. NASA's Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) spacecraft probably detected ENAs from this region a decade ago, but its detectors didn't have the sensitivity to pinpoint or measure the source.

Now, thanks to IBEX, we know just how tenuous the outer exosphere really is. "Where the interaction is strongest, there are only about eight hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter," explains Stephen A. Fuselier, the Lockheed Martin Space Systems researcher who led the mapping effort. His team's results appear in the July 8 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

The key observations were made in March and April 2009, when IBEX was located far from Earth — about halfway to the Moon's orbit — and its detectors could scan the region directly in front of the magnetopause. During some of the March observations, the European Space Agency's Cluster 3 spacecraft was positioned just in front of the magnetopause, where it measured the number of deflected solar-wind protons directly. "Cluster played a very important role in this study," Fuselier explains. "It was in the right place at the right time."

Artist concept of the IBEX satellite. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The new IBEX maps show that the ENAs thin out at locations away from the point of peak intensity. This falloff makes sense, Fuselier says, because Earth's magnetopause isn't spherical. Instead, it has a teardrop shape that's closest to Earth at its nose but farther away everywhere else. So at locations well away from the magnetopause's centerline, even fewer of the exosphere's hydrogen atoms are hanging around to interact with the solar wind. "No exosphere, no ENAs," he explains.

A Versatile Spacecraft

Since its launch, IBEX has also scanned another nearby world, with surprising results. The moon has no atmosphere or magnetosphere, so the solar wind slams unimpeded into its desolate surface. Most of those particles get absorbed by lunar dust. In fact, space visionaries wonder if the moon's rubbly surface has captured enough helium-3, an isotope present in tiny amounts in the Sun's outflow, to serve as a fuel for future explorers.

Yet cosmic chemists have long thought that some solar-wind protons must be bouncing off the lunar surface, becoming ENAs through charge exchange as they do. So does the moon glow in IBEX's scans? Indeed it does, says David J. McComas of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, who serves as the mission's Principal Investigator.

In a report published last year in Geophysical Research Letters, McComas and other researchers conclude that about 10 percent of the solar-wind particles striking the Moon escape to space as ENAs detectable by IBEX. That amounts to roughly 150 tons of recycled hydrogen atoms per year.

Meanwhile, the squat, eight-sided spacecraft continues its primary task of mapping the interactions between the outermost heliosphere and the interstellar medium that lies beyond. McComas and his team are especially eager to learn more about the mysterious and unexpected "ribbon" of ENAs that turned up in the spacecraft's initial all-sky map.

At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., IBEX Mission Scientist Robert MacDowall says the spacecraft should be able to continue its observations through at least 2012. "We weren't sure those heliospheric interactions would vary with time, but they do," he explains, "and it's great that IBEX will be able to record them for years to come."

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GRIP 'Shakedown' Flight Planned over Gulf Coast

The first flight of NASA's hurricane airborne research mission is scheduled to take off from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 17. NASA's DC-8 research aircraft will be making a planned five-hour flight along the Gulf Coast from western Florida to Louisiana primarily as a practice run for the many scientific instruments aboard.

Mission scientists, instrument teams, flight crew and support personnel gathered in Fort Lauderdale this weekend to begin planning the six-week Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes mission, or GRIP. NASA's DC-8, the largest of NASA's three aircraft taking part in the mission, is based at the Fort Lauderdale airport. The two other aircraft -- the WB-57 based in Houston and the autonomous Global Hawk flying out of southern California -- will join the campaign in about a week.

The NASA DC-8 airplane on the tarmac at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Florida on Aug. 15 as preparations continue for its part in the GRIP hurricane experiment. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers

The target for Tuesday's "shakedown" flight is the remnants of Tropical Depression 5, a poorly organized storm system whose center is currently hugging the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana and moving westward. While forecasters do not expect this storm system to strengthen significantly before it reaches landfall in Louisiana, the system offers the DC-8's seven instrument teams an opportunity to try out their equipment on possible convective storms. Rainfall rates, wind speed and direction below the airplane to the surface, cloud droplet sizes, and aerosol particle sizes are just some of the information that these instruments will collect.

Jeffrey Beyon (left) and Paul Joseph Petzar of NASA's Langley Research Center work on the Doppler Aerosol Wind Lidar (DAWN) instrument aboard NASA's DC-8 research aircraft on Aug. 15. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers

GRIP science team members and project managers are now meeting daily at the airport to review weather forecasts and plan upcoming flights with their counterparts in two other airborne hurricane research missions sponsored by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation. Instrument teams are also working on their equipment onboard the DC-8 in preparation for the flight.

The GRIP science team met on Aug. 16 in Fort Lauderdale to review weather forecasts and plan the first flight of NASA's DC-8 aircraft. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers

On Sunday, Aug. 15, NASA's Global Hawk completed a successful test flight over NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., that took the remotely piloted plane to an altitude of 60,000 feet. The last of three instruments being mounted on the Global Hawk for GRIP is being installed this week.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

NASA Statement on Release of NRC's 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey

NASA is pleased to receive the National Research Council's Astro2010 report, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics*. We appreciate the science community's efforts in defining a set of compelling science objectives for space-based astrophysical research for the coming decade, and for carefully considering the cost of the initiatives the report recommends.

Image of newborn stars from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

We look forward to assessing the report's findings and recommendations for strengthening the nation's world-class space astrophysics program. From new worlds to new physics, the coming decade of discovery leverages not only our current space observatories – such as the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra and Fermi space telescopes – but also our planned facilities – especially those from previous decadal surveys, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The survey calls for new facilities that expand our reach into the cosmos that will include opportunities for coordination and cooperation with other Federal agencies and international partners.

There are exciting times ahead and NASA is proud to be a part of it.

Cassini Bags Enceladus 'Tigers'

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its flyby over the "tiger stripes" in the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus and has sent back images of its passage. The spacecraft also targeted the moon Tethys.

The tiger stripes are actually giant fissures that spew jets of water vapor and organic particles hundreds of kilometers, or miles, out into space. While the winter is darkening the moon's southern hemisphere, Cassini has its own version of "night vision goggles" -- the composite infrared spectrometer instrument - to track heat even when visible light is low. It will take time for scientists to assemble the data into temperature maps of the fissures.

The camera was pointing toward Enceladus at approximately 348,913 kilometers (216,805 miles) away, and the image was taken using the CL1 and GRN filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. A validated/calibrated image will be archived with the NASA Planetary Data System in 2011. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

More raw images from the Enceladus flyby, dubbed "E11," are available at:

More information about the Cassini-Huygens mission is at: and

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Backpack, Communications Network Face Desert Test

Science experiments don't always involve bubbling beakers and people dressed in lab coats and goggles. In the case of NASA's Desert RATS project, an experiment can look like a plastic box bolted to a backpack frame and be carried around the Arizona desert for a month.

Inside the plastic box is a host of off-the-shelf electronics capable of telling the backpacker where he is, letting him talk to distant colleagues and beaming pictures of notable objects to geologists and other scientists.

"The backpack tells you where you are, where you were and it allows you to communicate and share your experience with someone in a different location," said Marc Seibert, a senior research engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "This backpack has been dreamed about for 10 years."

The backpack is an important part of Kennedy's role in the Desert Research and Technology Studies project, which is set up as a large-scale experiment to find out what equipment and operations scenarios NASA needs to explore the surface of an alien world, such as an asteroid, the moon or Mars.

A team of astronauts, scientists and engineers from several NASA centers head to Arizona's desert each year to simulate the unique environment of space explorers. The effort is meant to test equipment and people to find out the best way to explore another world.

Kennedy's engineers develop the communications, navigation and data transmission networks needed, a task that includes a semitrailer set up as a mission operations center, a command vehicle, a specialized RV, a pair of Humvees plus enough communications gear to set up a wireless network for a small crew of explorers to talk back to "Earth" like they will from other planets.

Equipment from other centers, such as a pair of large rovers, has to work on the same communications network. The rovers, for example, relay the signals from the backpacks to the mission operations center.

Although the area they test in is not a perfect stand-in for the moon or Mars in terms of having breathable air and normal gravity, the site does a pretty good job of isolating the participants, said Mike Miller, communications research engineer at Kennedy.

"We have to take everything to the site, just like we will to other planet surfaces," Miller said.

The research program began 13 years ago, and grows in complexity with each annual run. The 2010 program is focused largely on seeing how effectively astronauts can explore a foreign surface under different communications scenarios and rover modes of operation. It also will put pressure on the scientists to have daily plans ready when the explorers awake each day. That means long nights of studying the day's findings to find out what should be done the next.

"This is probably the highest fidelity lunar simulation that's ever been done," Seibert said.

The backpack carries a pair of cameras, a GPS antenna to pinpoint location and all the electronics needed to store then transmit information. The person wearing the backpack controls its systems using an electronic wrist display, supplied by NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio, that is generations ahead of the flip cards Apollo astronauts used during the first trips to the moon. Researchers will also test an iPod Touch from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Image above: Mike Miller demonstrates one of the backpacks his team designed and built for the Desert Research and Technology Studies project's upcoming field test in Arizona. Miller led the team that developed the backpacks. The backpacks are equipped with GPS antennas, communications components and cameras. They are meant to show researchers what an astronaut might need to explore an alien world and give designers a look at the hardships the equipment could encounter. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

Right now, the backpack and its host of attached gear only has to stand up to the winds and heat of a desert on Earth.

"Environment is a big thing out there," Miller said. "The winds are very high, it gets very hot. We are pretty much out in the middle of nowhere."

Designers don't have to worry just yet about the life support systems that would be required for any astronaut working on another world. The life support functions will be incorporated into the backpacks as they evolve and improve. Other parts of the backpack design will be incorporated into the rover so the astronauts can quickly leave the vehicle for a spacewalk.

Miller said the month-long exercise should show them whether the design works technically and what can be improved.

Image above: Isaac Hutson assembles components at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for one of the backpacks that will be tested during the Desert Research and Technology Studies project's upcoming field test in Arizona. The backpacks are equipped with GPS antennas, communications components and cameras. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

"Success would be to have all the systems up and working, for the scientists to get the science data and the test team to meet their objectives," Miller said.

Miller and his team were given the backpack assignment only a couple months before the equipment had to be assembled and shipped out.

"We only had two to three months here for everything, the design and building, getting the parts, everything," Miller said as others on his team put the finishing touches on a couple of backpacks.

With the short time frame, Miller said his group worked with Glenn partners and with off-the-shelf equipment to get the job done. The software for the controls was written from scratch to make the gear work with each other and operate to their needs.

"The whole communications infrastructure has been upgraded this year," Miller said.

The biggest challenge, he said, was keeping the weight down since the individual components could not be made from scratch by Miller's team.

Between excursions, the Desert RATS participants catalog what they've learned and look at ways to incorporate changes for the next one, along with passing on changes to other in-depth research programs NASA runs.

The backpack's capabilities are designed with space exploration in mind, but the arrangement may have applications for earthbound explorers, too. Basically, a geologist or other explorer could make a solo trek with the backpack and, on his return, play back the whole trip or selected highlights for those who weren't on the journey.

"Any explorer could use this backpack," Seibert said.

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Fermi Detects 'Shocking' Surprise from Supernova's Little Cousin

Astronomers using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected gamma-rays from a nova for the first time, a finding that stunned observers and theorists alike. The discovery overturns the notion that novae explosions lack the power to emit such high-energy radiation.

A nova is a sudden, short-lived brightening of an otherwise inconspicuous star. The outburst occurs when a white dwarf in a binary system erupts in an enormous thermonuclear explosion.

"In human terms, this was an immensely powerful eruption, equivalent to about 1,000 times the energy emitted by the sun every year," said Elizabeth Hays, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "But compared to other cosmic events Fermi sees, it was quite modest. We're amazed that Fermi detected it so strongly."

Fermi's Large Area Telescope saw no sign of a nova in 19 days of data prior to March 10 (left), but the eruption is obvious in data from the following 19 days (right). The images show the rate of gamma rays with energies greater than 100 million electron volts (100 MeV); brighter colors indicate higher rates. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light, and Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) detected the nova for 15 days. Scientists believe the emission arose as a million-mile-per-hour shock wave raced from the site of the explosion.

A paper detailing the discovery will appear in the Aug. 13 edition of the journal Science.

The story opened in Japan during the predawn hours of March 11, when amateur astronomers Koichi Nishiyama and Fujio Kabashima in Miyaki-cho, Saga Prefecture, imaged a dramatic change in the brightness of a star in the constellation Cygnus. They realized that the star, known as V407 Cyg, was 10 times brighter than in an image they had taken three days earlier.

The team relayed the nova discovery to Hiroyuki Maehara at Kyoto University, who notified astronomers around the world for follow-up observations. Before this notice became widely available, the outburst was independently reported by three other Japanese amateurs: Tadashi Kojima, Tsumagoi-mura Agatsuma-gun, Gunma prefecture; Kazuo Sakaniwa, Higashichikuma-gun, Nagano prefecture; and Akihiko Tago, Tsuyama-shi, Okayama prefecture.

Japanese amateur astronomers discovered Nova Cygni 2010 in an image taken at 19:08 UT on March 10 (4:08 a.m. Japan Standard Time, March 11). The erupting star (circled) was 10 times brighter than in an image taken several days earlier. The nova reached a peak brightness of magnitude 6.9, just below the threshold of naked-eye visibility. Credit: K. Nishiyama and F. Kabashima/H. Maehara, Kyoto Univ.

On March 13, Goddard's Davide Donato was on-duty as the LAT "flare advocate," a scientist who monitors the daily data downloads for sources of potential interest, when he noticed a significant detection in Cygnus. But linking this source to the nova would take several days, in part because key members of the Fermi team were in Paris for a meeting of the LAT scientific collaboration.

"This region is close to the galactic plane, which packs together many types of gamma-ray sources -- pulsars, supernova remnants, and others in our own galaxy, plus active galaxies beyond them," Donato said. "If the nova had occurred elsewhere in the sky, figuring out the connection would have been easier."

The LAT team began a concerted effort to identify the mystery source over the following days. On March 17, the researchers decided to obtain a "target-of-opportunity" observation using NASA's Swift satellite -- only to find that Swift was already observing the same spot.

"At that point, I knew Swift was targeting V407 Cyg, but I didn't know why," said Teddy Cheung, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., and the lead author of the study. Examining the Swift data, Cheung saw no additional X-ray sources that could account for what Fermi's LAT was seeing.

V407 Cyg had to be it.

Half an hour later, Cheung learned from other members of the LAT team that the system had undergone a nova outburst, which was the reason the Swift observations had been triggered. "When we looked closer, we found that the LAT had detected the first gamma rays at about the same time as the nova's discovery," he said.

This image from Steve O'Connor in St. Georges, Bermuda, shows the nova (red star, center) on March 17, about a week into the eruption. Credit: Steve O'Connor

V407 Cyg lies 9,000 light-years away. The system is a so-called symbiotic binary containing a compact white dwarf and a red giant star about 500 times the size of the sun.

"The red giant is so swollen that its outermost atmosphere is just leaking away into space," said Adam Hill at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France. The phenomenon is similar to the solar wind produced by the sun, but the flow is much stronger. "Each decade, the red giant sheds enough hydrogen gas to equal the mass of Earth," he added.

The white dwarf intercepts and captures some of this gas, which accumulates on its surface. As the gas piles on for decades to centuries, it eventually becomes hot and dense enough to fuse into helium. This energy-producing process triggers a runaway reaction that explodes the accumulated gas.

The white dwarf itself, however, remains intact.

The blast created a hot, dense expanding shell called a shock front, composed of high-speed particles, ionized gas and magnetic fields. According to an early spectrum obtained by Christian Buil at Castanet Tolosan Observatory, France, the nova's shock wave expanded at 7 million miles per hour -- or nearly 1 percent the speed of light.

Watch V407 Cyg go nova! Gamma rays (magenta) arise when accelerated particles in the explosion's shock wave crash into the red giant's stellar wind. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/ Conceptual Image Lab.

The magnetic fields trapped particles within the shell and whipped them up to tremendous energies. Before they could escape, the particles had reached velocities near the speed of light. Scientists say that the gamma rays likely resulted when these accelerated particles smashed into the red giant's wind.

"We know that the remnants of much more powerful supernova explosions can trap and accelerate particles like this, but no one suspected that the magnetic fields in novae were strong enough to do it as well," said NRL's Soebur Razzaque.

Supernovae remnants endure for 100,000 years and affect regions of space thousands of light-years across.

Kent Wood at NRL compares astronomical studies of supernova remnants to looking at static images in a photo album. "It takes thousands of years for supernova remnants to evolve, but with this nova we've watched the same kinds of changes over just a few days," he said. "We've gone from a photo album to a time-lapse movie."

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Saving the Samples

People who lived through extended power outages know that one of the first concerns is the food in the freezer. Short of eating all the ice cream you can, there is little to do to save perishable items. The International Space Station (ISS) experienced a similar power outage on orbit this week. Only ISS freezers hold science instead of food.

On Saturday, July 31, an ISS system pump failed due to an electrical current spike, shutting down half the ISS cooling system. The crew’s first concern was ensuring a safe and stable environment. Saving the science onboard was a follow-up goal, as the pump failure also impaired the Low Temperature Loop (LTL) in the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). This meant the ISS crew had to shut down one of the onboard science freezers, the Minus Eighty-Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI).

The ISS perishable experiment samples in danger of thawing included:

  • Nutrition: Studies changes in human physiology during long-term space flight.
  • HydroTropi: Examines a cucumber model plant and changes in root structure and direction of growth due to gravity and other stimuli.
  • SOLO: Studies the mechanisms of fluid and salt retention in the body during space flight.
The ISS crew and NASA Cold Stowage team worked together to save the samples, preventing the loss of scientific knowledge and international investment. John Bartlett, resident Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Payload Operations Director, was on consol in MSFC at the time of the transfers and commented, “Two MELFIs operating on orbit has always been a contingency plan for a failed unit on board.” MELFI 2 was not impacted, as it resides in the U.S. Laboratory and not JEM, so the ground team decided to relocate MELFI 1 samples to MELFI 2.

View of Shannon Walker as she works to replace a dewar tray filled with samples, into the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI-1) in the Kibo laboratory during Expedition 24. In the larger image, Tracy Caldwell-Dyson can be seen assisting. Image credit: NASA

Instructions to locate and transfer the science in MELFI 1 were sent to the POIC, who called the instructions up to the ISS crew. Mr. Bartlett commended the effort, "I was extremely pleased with the quick response by the MELFI/COLD Team... for them to provide such a well structured, two phased retrieval and stow plan in that short of a time was outstanding!"

The crew performed the transfer in two stages. They used the Double Coldbag (DCB) and two -32 Degrees Celcius Icepac Belts for deep frozen samples. The crew then used a coldbag with +4 Degrees Celcius Ice Bricks to transfer the remaining frozen samples to MELFI 2.

Thanks to the quick actions and teamwork between the ISS crew and ground support, all samples now safely reside in MELFI 2. The crew may not have been working with ice cream in their freezers, but they certainly deserve a celebratory ice cream social with their teammates when they return home to Earth!

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Ultraviolet Ring Around the Galaxies

Astronomers have found unexpected rings and arcs of ultraviolet light around a selection of galaxies, four of which are shown here as viewed by NASA's and the European Space Agency's Hubble Space Telescope.

Observations from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) picked out 30 elliptical and lens-shaped "early-type" galaxies with puzzlingly strong ultraviolet emissions but no signs of visible star formation. Early-type galaxies, so the scientists' thinking goes, have already made their stars and now lack the cold gas necessary to build new ones.

Hubble images captured the great, shining rings of ultraviolet light, with some ripples stretching 250,000 light-years.

In these Hubble images, ultraviolet light has been rendered in blue, while green and red light from the galaxies is shown in their natural colors.

Image credit: NASA/ESA /JPL-Caltech/STScI /UCLA

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

WISE's View of a Wispy Cloud

This image captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) highlights the Small Magellanic Cloud. Also known as NGC 292, the Small Magellanic Cloud is a small galaxy about 200,000 light-years away.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is named after the Portuguese explorer Fernando de Magellan who observed it on his voyage around the world in 1519. Since it is visible to the naked eye in dark-sky conditions, it is likely that people in the southern hemisphere observed the galaxy long before Magellan recorded it.

Located in the constellation Tucana, the Small Magellanic Cloud looks like a wispy cloud that circles the south celestial pole. Nearby, but not visible in this image, is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a sister galaxy to the Small Magellanic Cloud. Astronomers originally thought that both galaxies were orbiting our Milky Way galaxy. But recent research suggests that they might be moving too fast to be bound by the Milky Way's gravity and are passing by for the first time.

This WISE image illustrates why the SMC is considered an irregular galaxy. Galaxies are classified according to their shape, such as spiral or elliptical. Irregular galaxies don't fit into any of these categories -- they are unique in shape.

The two streaks seen in the upper half of the image are satellites orbiting Earth, which happened to pass in front of the Small Magellanic Cloud when WISE captured this view.

This mosaic image was made from all four infrared detectors aboard WISE. The color in this image represents different wavelengths of infrared light. Blue and cyan represent light at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns mostly emitted from stars. Green and red represent light at 12 and 22 microns, which is mostly light from warm dust.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

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Star Wars Meets UPS as Robonaut Packed for Space

Getting into space isn't necessarily easy for astronauts, and it's not much easier for a robotic astronaut, either.

Cocooned inside an aluminum frame and foam blocks cut out to its shape, Robonaut 2, or R2, is heading to the International Space Station inside the Permanent Multipurpose Module in space shuttle Discovery's payload bay as part of the STS-133 mission.

Once in place inside the station, R2, with its humanlike hands and arms and stereo vision, is expected to perform some of the repetitive or more mundane functions inside the orbiting laboratory to free astronauts for more complicated tasks and experiments. It could one day also go along on spacewalks.

Making sure the first humanoid robot to head into space still works when it gets there has been the focus of workers at NASA's Kennedy and Johnson space centers. Engineers and technicians with decades of experience among them packing for space have spent the last few months devising a plan to secure the 330-pound machine against the fierce vibrations and intense gravity forces during launch.

Robonaut2 is designed as an assistant to astronauts on the International Space Station. But to to get there, it will need some assistance of its own from engineers and technicians on Earth. Photo credit: NASA

"I think back in May we realized we had a huge challenge on our hands," said Michael Haddock, a mechanical engineer designing the procedures and other aspects of preparing R2 for launch, including careful crane operations inside the Space Station Processing Facility's high bay.

Though it was fast-paced, intense work, the payoff of getting to help R2 into space added extra motivation for the engineers involved.

By spaceflight standards, planning for the packing effort moved quite quickly, particularly considering R2 is perhaps the heaviest payload to be taken into space inside a cargo module.

"The mass is what's driving the crane operations, otherwise we'd be handling the robot by hand," Haddock said. "But the robot itself weighs on the order of 333 pounds and when it is installed in the structural launch enclosure, it will weigh over 500 pounds."

As they must when loading anything for spaceflight, the engineers designed the packaging so astronauts could easily remove R2 from its launch box, known by its acronym SLEEPR or Structural Launch Enclosure to Effectively Protect Robonaut.

"We were trying to do something very unique and very fast," said Scott Higginbotham, payload manager for the STS-133 mission. "And we've got the best team in the world for dealing with things like that."

There was talk of simply strapping the robot into the empty seat on the shuttle's middeck, Higginbotham said, but R2 was too heavy for that. So the teams came up with a plan to fasten R2 to a base plate and use struts to support the back and shoulders. Then dense foam will provide more support, followed by an aluminum frame. A clamshell of foam tops off the package.

Assembling the packing precisely is important for R2 because a space shuttle accelerates to more than three times the force of gravity during its eight-minute climb into orbit.

"The team had to educate ourselves, learn the uniqueness of it as well as learn how to install it into the vehicle," said Ken Koby, lead systems engineer for Boeing. "That's what the team has basically been doing every day for the last three months, educating ourselves about Robonaut."

Coincidentally, detailed analysis showed that R2's best position to withstand the launch forces will be the same as the astronauts -- facing toward the nose of the shuttle with the back taking all the weight.

"The orientation is just like the crew flies," Koby said. "The crew will be facing straight up on their backs and Robonaut will be the same direction, obviously 30 feet behind them in the module here."

The astronauts of STS-133 met Robonaut at NASA's Johnson Space Center before the launch of Discovery. Photo credit: NASA

Although the robot is fundamentally a very complex machine full of state-of-the-art sensors and operated by phenomenally sophisticated software, it is its shape that stirs fascination. Designed by NASA and General Motors as a robotic assistant for astronauts working in space, R2 looks like the upper torso of a sculpted bodybuilder and is topped with a helmeted head that includes two cameras to give it three-dimensional vision plus other sensors.

Its look has been compared to Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett, the endoskeleton from the Terminator films and the animated robot that plays football on Fox Sports.

"It's rather intimidating at first sight because of its size, its physique and you can't see its eyes," Haddock said.

"From the moment you walk into the room and see R2, it's everything you'd expect from a robot, from the gold-shield face to the thickness, the broadness of his shoulders," Koby said. "It's truly very science fiction-like, but it's all fact in this case."

It also has a pair of beefy arms and two hands, complete with four fingers and one thumb each, that can shake hands. Its programming is sensitive enough to respond to a handshake with the same amount of force as the person squeezing R2's hands. In other words, it can hold a piece of equipment in space without crushing it.

"It really grabs people's attention," said Higginbotham. "It's so incredibly cool. It can use the same tools and procedures as an astronaut."

This Robonaut was not meant to fly at first. Instead, it was strictly a developmental model to be tested and perfected on the ground. However, it was adapted for flight and has tested well for launch. That is a bit of a theme for the STS-133 mission because the Permanent Multipurpose Module that Discovery is taking to the station also was retrofitted to add more capabilities. The PMM was formerly a Multipurpose Logistics Module known as Leonardo and was built to stay in space for only short periods at a time. But its mission has changed and engineers built up its armor and added some interior features so it can be permanently attached to the station and used as more of a storage closet than the moving van first envisioned.

"Someone said this mission is anything but ordinary," said Higginbotham, "and that is a fact."

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