Sunday, January 31, 2010

Agency Remembers Fallen Astronauts

NASA on Friday marked the passing of those who gave their all in the name of space exploration during a wreath-laying service at the base of the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex. The service was part of the agency's Day of Remembrance on Jan. 29.

The national memorial to lost members of the NASA family is etched with the names of 24 people who perished during missions or in training since the American space effort began.

"President John F. Kennedy characterized this as the most hazardous, dangerous and the greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked," said Bob Cabana, NASA Kennedy Space Center's director and a former astronaut. "But it's not an adventure without risk. The explorers throughout history have put themselves at risk for the never-ending quest for knowledge that drives us all."

Image above: Bob Cabana, NASA Kennedy Space Center director, right, led a memorial service on the agency's Day of Remembrance. He was joined by Janet Petro, deputy director of Kennedy; and Mark Nappi, vice president of Launch and Recovery Systems for United Space Alliance, left. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

Surrounded by former astronauts, NASA workers and space enthusiasts, Cabana spoke of the rewards that have come from the sacrifice of those memorialized on the monument.

"We've had our setbacks over the years, but we've always come back stronger, rededicating ourselves to achieving our goal in the safest manner possible," he said.

The Astronauts Memorial Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that funds math and science scholarships, built the memorial in 1991. It has since been designated by Congress as a national memorial.

Cabana was joined in the wreath-laying by Janet Petro, Kennedy's deputy director, and Mark Nappi, United Space Alliance vice president for Launch and Recovery Systems.

Image above: A woman weaves a flower into the gate at the base of the Space Mirror Memorial following a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument on Jan. 29. NASA officials were joined by the public during the memorial service. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The crew members who died in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, the Challenger explosion in 1986 and Columbia's break-up during re-entry in 2003, are included on the memorial. All three accidents occurred during the last week of January or early February of their respective years.

Others memorialized include test pilots for the X-15 and F-104, as well as four astronauts who were killed while flying T-38s. Another died in a commercial plane crash while on NASA business.

Image above: The Space Mirror Memorial was dedicated in 1991 to honor those lost in pursuit of the exploration of space. There are 24 people memorialized on the granite blocks that make up the monument.. Photo credit: NASA file photo

Cabana, who called the astronauts "some of the finest people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing," said the most fitting tribute to their sacrifice is to continue their goals of space exploration safely.

"So as we pause today to remember the sacrifice of those on this mirror, let's rededicate ourselves to safely achieving our goals as we transition to a new era of space exploration," he said. "This is an exciting time and we honor those who have gone before us by continuing our quest for knowledge in this greatest adventure of all time."

Steve Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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President Barack Obama on NASA's Day of Remembrance

Message from the President on NASA's Day of Remembrance

For more than a half-century, NASA has explored our final frontier and transformed humankind's understanding of our planet and its place in the universe. These extraordinary achievements have required great sacrifice.

On this Day of Remembrance, we pause to reflect on the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia crews, as well as others who lost their lives supporting NASA’s mission of exploration and study of the earth, the planets and the stars. All of humanity has benefited from their courage and devotion.

We mourn their loss while celebrating their spirit of discovery. May their sacrifice be an inspiration as we continue our nation's work to explore our universe.

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Next Generation Weather/Environmental Satellite Marks Major Milestone

The development of a new series of weather and environmental monitoring satellites has marked a significant milestone with the delivery and the beginning of spacecraft integration efforts for a key science instrument.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) will be one of five instruments to fly on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft. VIIRS is regarded as a key component in NPP’s suite of instruments because it will provide highly detailed imagery of clouds, vegetation, snow cover, dust storms, sea surface temperature and other environmental phenomena.

NPP is a joint mission to extend the time series environmental data records initiated with NASA’s Earth Observing System, including measurements made by the Terra, Aqua, and Aura satellites, and to provide risk reduction for NPOESS instruments, algorithms, ground data processing, archive, and distribution prior to the launch of the first NPOESS spacecraft.

"The delivery of the VIIRS instrument marks a long awaited and huge step towards completing the integration of the NPP mission. VIIRS will be the fourth flight instrument integrated onto the NPP spacecraft, only the CrIS instrument remains," said Ken Schwer, NPP Project Manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) arrives and begins integration with the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Co. Credit: Ball Aerospace

The Raytheon Corporation, El Segundo, Calif. built VIIRS under contract to the NPOESS prime contractor, Northrop Grumman. The ITT Corporation, Fort Wayne, IN is building CrIS also under contract to the NPOESS prime contractor, Northrop Grumman. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. under contract to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center built the NPP spacecraft and is performing the integration and checkout of the NPP spacecraft.

NPP is scheduled for launch in Fall 2011 aboard a Delta rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The NPP Project is a joint effort of the NPOESS Integrated Program Office (IPO), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the NPP mission on behalf of the Earth Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

NPOESS represents the next-generation low-Earth orbiting weather and climate monitoring satellites that will provide operational and long-term weather and climate data for both military and civilian use for the next two decades.

The NPOESS will collect a massive amount of very precise earth surface, atmospheric and space environmental measurements from a variety of on-board sensors. This volume of data will allow scientists and forecasters to monitor and predict weather patterns with greater speed and accuracy.

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Montes Pyrenaeus and Mare Nectaris

The Montes Pyrenaeus (15.6°S 41.2°E) mountain range borders the eastern edge of Mare Nectaris, on the rim of the Nectaris basin (330km diameter), which formed by the impact of an asteroid or comet about 3.9 billion years ago. This basin is easily visible in the lower right corner (western limb) of the Moon's disk as seen from Earth (Figure 1).

During the Nectaris basin-forming impact, the lunar crust uplifted and overturned to create the highland mountains of Montes Pyrenaeus; the remaining lunar crust beneath the basin was fractured to great depths. Much later, basaltic magmas rose to the surface through these fractures and erupted, covering the basin floor to form the dark basaltic plains of Mare Nectaris that we see today.

A contact between the dark basalt (left) of Mare Nectaris and the lighter anorthosite highlands (right) of Montes Pyrenaeus runs through the Constellation Program region of interest on the western rim of the Nectaris impact basin. Image width is 2.5 km, raw image resolution is 1m/pixel. NAC frame M104248025L Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

This region in the Montes Pyrenaeus is one of the 50 NASA Constellation Program Regions of Interest targeted by LROC. Since Montes Pyrenaeus and the mare deposits within the Nectaris basin are both very old, the contact between these two terrains is no longer sharp, but can still be distinguished through the difference in brightness between the two regions.

Older surfaces on the moon were hit more frequently by comets and asteroids and thus should have more impact craters on them. However, there are a large number of small impact craters on the young mare material compared to the older highland material. This discrepancy is the result of heavily fractured anorthosite regolith of the highlands, which is weaker and steeper than the younger basaltic mare. These two factors make it easier to erode and erase small craters during moonquakes and shaking from nearby meteorite impacts. So here is a case where fewer impact craters indicate an older age!

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

New NASA Web Site Launches Kids on Mission to Save Our PlanetNew NASA Web Site Launches Kids on Mission to Save Our Planet

Climate change can be a daunting topic for most adults to grasp, let alone kids. A new NASA Web site can help our future explorers and leaders understand how and why their planet is changing and what they can do to help keep it habitable.

Called "Climate Kids," the new Web site is the latest companion to NASA's award-winning Global Climate Change Web site, . Geared toward students in grades 4 through 6, the multimedia-rich Climate Kids site uses age-appropriate language, games and humorous illustrations and animations to help break down the important issue of climate change. Climate Kids can be found at .

Visitors to Climate Kids can:

  • Command an interactive Climate Time Machine to travel back and forth through time and see how climate changes have affected our world or may affect it in the future.
  • Choose the "greenest" transportation options in a game called "Go Green," or go on a "Wild Weather Adventure."
  • Learn about green careers from people who are working to understand climate change.

"The climate our children inherit will be different from what we as adults know today," said Diane Fisher of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who developed the content for the site. "Climate Kids aims to answer some of the big questions about global climate change using simple, fun illustrations and language kids can relate to, helping them become better stewards of our fragile planet. Students will learn basic Earth science concepts such as what the difference is between weather and climate, how we know Earth's climate is changing and what the greenhouse effect is."

NASA's new "Climate Kids" Web site helps young people understand climate change. Credit: NASA JPL

Climate Kids is a collaboration between JPL's Earth Science Communications Team and NASA's award-winning Space Place website, which is at .

NASA's Global Climate Change Web site is devoted to educating the public about Earth's changing climate, providing easy-to-understand information about the causes and effects of climate change and how NASA studies it. For more on NASA's Earth Science Program, visit:

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Envisioning Future Flight

Today's students will be designing tomorrow's aircraft, and NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Student Competition gives them a head start.

Each year, the competition challenges students to research a particular real-world issue in aeronautics and to develop their own solutions to the problem.

Past participants in NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Student Competition said the experience was a rewarding one that helped them learn more about aeronautics and encouraged them to improve their approaches to research and creative problem-solving.

In the 2008-2009 competition, students were challenged to develop ideas for making commercial supersonic air transportation available by 2020. Contest participants did so by examining obstacles to supersonic transportation and proposing solutions. In an additional challenge, some students submitted designs for a small supersonic airliner.

The top U.S. individual winner won a $1,000 cash prize, and members of the top U.S. team split $1,500. International students were not eligible for cash prizes but received an engraved trophy. All participants received a NASA certificate and free student versions of two engineering software programs.

Edric San Miguel's design concept, "The Silent Airliner," was the first-place winner in the U.S. individual category. Image Credit: NASA

Edric San Miguel was the first-place winner in the U.S. individual category for his design concept, "The Silent Airliner." When he entered, San Miguel was a junior at the Norfolk Technical Center in Norfolk, Va.

San Miguel is a student in Norfolk Public Schools' NORSTAR Gifted Program, which promotes scientific research, robotics, inventions and innovations. He first entered the program after being told about it by his teacher, Joy Young, during his sophomore year.

"That year, I entered the competition as an individual and placed second in the U.S. individual awards category," he said. "I tied with a senior from Arizona. Last year, I decided that I would take on the next challenge of the contest as a high school junior. That is when I placed first place in the entire high school division."

The aeronautics contest is just one way San Miguel has been involved with NASA. During the summer, he participated in the NASA Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars project. "Through this program, I worked as an intern at NASA Langley's Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate and Aeronautics Systems Analysis Branch," he said. He continued working as an intern through the fall session as a part-time intern. He plans to participate in the aeronautics contest again.

"The biggest thing I got out of this contest is the internship," he said. "Through this internship, I was able to work with NASA engineers and experience what aeronautical engineers do. I was able to make new friends with my fellow interns, establish contacts with engineers, and enter the pipeline into working for NASA."

Edric San Miguel is a student in Norfolk Public Schools' NORSTAR Gifted Program. Image Credit: NASA

San Miguel hopes to attend Virginia Tech and major in aerospace engineering and minor in business management.

Second place in the individual category went to Andrew Andraka, who was a sophomore at Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., at the time he designed his entry, "Next-Generation Supersonic Airliner."

"I learned about this contest two years ago when my dad pointed it out, noting it was a topic where I could write all I wanted about airplanes," he said. "The first essay I wrote was 'The Next Generation DC-3,' where I designed a hybrid aircraft encompassing a canard wing setup, coupled with a Custer Channel wing. I received an honorable mention for my essay, so I decided I would try again with the 'Next Generation Supersonic Airliner.'"

Participating in the contest, Andraka said, was both a good learning experience and an enjoyable opportunity. "I learned a lot more about airline design and the thought process entailed to devise original concepts," he said. "It also gave me a good excuse to expand my library of aviation resources."

Andrew Andraka hopes to establish his own aircraft research and production company someday. Image Credit: NASA

Andraka said that after majoring in aerospace engineering, he hopes to start an aircraft research and manufacturing company, specializing in light-sport aircraft and general aviation aircraft. He is working on flight training and hopes to be a private pilot with multiple endorsements before graduating college.

Jason Jong and Ziang Xie, of Arcadia High School in Arcadia, Calif., won first place in the U.S. team category of the contest. Jong, a junior at the time of the entry, and Xie, then a senior, named their design concept "The Lazarus T1."

"I had never participated in the NASA aeronautics competition nor any other NASA related or funded opportunities before entering the aeronautics competition," Jong said. "I don't quite remember, but I believe I was simply clicking around on NASA's Web site and came across the 'student contests' section for high schoolers. From the list, I saw the aeronautics contest, described as an aircraft design contest. At the time, I was an incoming sophomore. From about seventh-grade, I have had a lot of enthusiasm with airplanes, reading books, and searching the Web, so naturally, the contest was something I really really gravitated towards. I made a goal to enter, but unfortunately I waited until my junior year before I organized the completion of the project.

"The most rewarding aspect of entering this contest was the openness in creativity the contest allowed to designers," Jong said. "Though I have seen many plane designs through photos online, it was not until I entered this competition that I began piecing together feasible airplane designs of my own and developing my own imagination, like a precursor to actual aerospace engineering. It really brought a sense of creativity that I find rewarding, considering what we were able to accomplish."

Jong is currently applying to colleges. "My intended major is physics, which I have always liked," he said. "However, engineering seems a likely major for me as well, as my dad is a civil engineer. I'm keeping my options open for now. And, if I don't get into college, the Air Force sounds like a mighty fun place to go too!"

Jason Jong and Ziang Xie split the responsibilities in creating their entry for the contest. Image Credit: NASA

Xie heard about the contest through Jong. "I had never participated in this or any other NASA-affiliated contest before, with the exception of a regional Science Bowl competition at JPL (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and at first I was hesitant about entering with my minimal knowledge," he said. "I gradually became more interested in the contest, however, as my teammate described how our submission would address issues with supersonic flight. We decided Jason would handle most of the basic design components, and I would work on creating a CAD model of our plane as well as help research technological advances, which might make supersonic flight more plausible in the future.

"The Fundamental Aeronautics competition piqued my interest in aeronautics and also helped me learn how to collaborate with a teammate in writing a design proposal," Xie said. "Most importantly, I learned how to quickly research and become more knowledgeable about a specific field."

Xie is currently attending UC Berkeley, majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.

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Prometheus: Over Easy

Looking for all intents and purposes like a celestial egg after a session in Saturn's skillet, Prometheus displayed its pockmarked, irregular surface for NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Jan. 27, 2010.

Prometheus is one of Saturn's innermost moons. It orbits the gas-giant at a distance of 139,353 kilometers (85,590 miles) and is 86 kilometers (53 miles) across at its widest point. The porous, icy-bodied world was originally discovered by images taken by Voyager 1 back in 1980. You could say this latest "egg-cellent" view has the Cassini science team licking their chops at the thought of future Prometheus images.

Prometheus displayed its pockmarked, irregular surface for NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Jan. 27, 2010. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This raw, unprocessed image of Prometheus [pro-MEE-thee-us] , taken in visible light, was obtained by Cassini's narrow-angle camera at a distance of approximately 36,000 kilometers (23,000 miles).

The Cassini Equinox Mission is a joint United States and European endeavor. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. 

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Newborn Black Holes May Add Power to Many Exploding Stars

Astronomers studying two exploding stars, or supernovae, have found evidence the blasts received an extra boost from newborn black holes. The supernovae were found to emit jets of particles traveling at more than half the speed of light.

Previously, the only catastrophic events known to produce such high-speed jets were gamma-ray bursts, the universe's most luminous explosions. Supernovae and the most common type of gamma-ray bursts occur when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel and collapse. A neutron star or black hole forms at the star's core, triggering a massive explosion that destroys the rest of the star.

"The explosion dynamics in typical supernovae limit the speed of the expanding matter to about three percent the speed of light," explained Chryssa Kouveliotou, an astrophysicst at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., co-author of one of the new studies. "Yet, in these new objects, we're tracking gas moving some 20 times faster than this."

Initial e-VLBI detection of SN 2007gr with the EVN on 6-7 September 2007 (colors). The EVN and Green Bank Telescope VLBI image obtained on 5-6 November 2007 is overlaid (contour representation). Image Credit: Z. Paragi, Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE).

The new results, published in this week's edition of the journal Nature, used observations from several space and ground-based observatories, including NASA's SWIFT satellite.

The astronomers discovered the ultrafast debris by studying two supernovae at radio wavelengths using numerous facilities, including the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array in Socorro, N.M., and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. One team used the real-time operating mode of the European Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network, an international collaboration of radio telescopes, to rapidly analyze data.

"In every respect, these objects look like gamma-ray bursts -- except that they produced no gamma rays," said Alicia Soderberg at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Soderberg led a team that studied SN 2009bb, a supernova discovered in March 2009. It exploded in the spiral galaxy NGC 3278, located about 130 million light-years away.

The other object is SN 2007gr, which was first detected in August 2007 in the spiral galaxy NGC 1058, some 35 million light-years away. The study team, which included Kouveliotou and Alexander van der Horst, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow in Huntsville, was led by Zsolt Paragi at the Netherlands-based Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry in Europe.

In March 2009, NASA's Swift observed the supernova SN 2009bb in the spiral galaxy NGC 3278. The explosion is apparent in visible light, but not at ultraviolet and X-ray energies, and satellites recorded no gamma-ray burst. Nevertheless, particle jets reaching 85 percent of the speed of light accompanied the explosion. Image Credit: NASA, Swift, Stefan Immler

The researchers searched for gamma-ray signals associated with the supernovae using archived records in the Gamma-Ray Burst Coordination Network located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The project distributes and archives observations of gamma-ray bursts by NASA's Swift spacecraft, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and many others. However, no bursts coincided with the supernovae.

Unlike typical core-collapse supernovae, the stars that produce gamma-ray bursts possess what astronomers call a "central engine" -- likely a nascent black hole -- that drives particle jets clocked at more than 99 percent the speed of light.

By contrast, the fastest outflows detected from SN 2009bb reached 85 percent the speed of light and SN 2007gr reached more than 60 percent of light speed.

"These observations are the first to show some supernovae are powered by a central engine," Soderberg said. "These new radio techniques now give us a way to find explosions that resemble gamma-ray bursts without relying on detections from gamma-ray satellites."

The radio telescopes that participated in the initial e-VLBI observations of SN2007gr. Image Credit: Image Credit: P. Boven, Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE); NASA Visible Earth.

Perhaps as few as one out of every 10,000 supernovae produce gamma rays that we detect as a gamma-ray burst. In some cases, the star's jets may not be angled in a way to produce a detectable burst. In others, the energy of the jets may not be enough to allow them to overcome the overlying bulk of the star.

"We've now found evidence for the unsung crowd of supernovae -- those with relatively dim and mildly relativistic jets that only can be detected nearby," Kouveliotou said. "These likely represent most of the population."

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GOES-P Proceeds Toward Launch

The latest Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, GOES-P is proceeding through more checks in preparation for its launch, which is no earlier than March 1.

The GOES-P spacecraft continues being processed at the Astrotech Facility in Titusville, Fla. The Imager, Sounder and Solar X-Ray Imager have completed cleaning and inspections. The optical port covers have been successfully installed. Those covers are one of the last mechanisms to be deployed once GOES-P gets into orbit.

GOES-P is the latest weather satellite developed by NASA to aid the nation's meteorologists and climate scientists. GOES satellites provide the familiar weather pictures seen on United States television newscasts every day. GOES provides nearly continuous imaging and sounding, which allows forecasters to better measure changes in atmospheric temperature and moisture distributions, which increase the accuracy of their forecasts. GOES environmental information is used for a host of applications, including weather monitoring and prediction models.

Two solid rocket boosters were installed on Jan. 15, 2010, on the Delta IV Launch Vehicle that will carry GOES-P into space. Credit: NASA

Along with the instruments GOES-P will carry, it also contains seven appendages and mechanisms that are stowed for launch and later deployed during transfer orbit or at various phases of on-orbit testing. Those deployable mechanisms and appendages are: Aft omni antenna; Deployable aft blanket (DAB); Solar array; X-ray positioner (XRP); Magnetometer boom; Instrument radiant cooler covers; and the optical port covers.

These seven mechanisms are put into operation after the Delta IV rocket deploys GOES-P into space. Here's the order of how they work: Shortly after separation from the launch vehicle on day one of Launch and Orbit Raising (LOR), the Aft omni and DAB are deployed. At about the twelfth day, once geosynchronous orbit is achieved, the solar array is deployed. The solar array powers GOES-P in orbit. At around day 13 or 14 the XRP is released, followed by the magnetometer boom. By around day 17 in orbit, the instrument optical port covers are deployed at the end of Bus In-Orbit Testing (IOT). Finally, after about 30 days in orbit the radiant cooler covers are deployed.

Two solid rocket boosters were installed on Jan. 15, 2010, on the Delta IV Launch Vehicle that will carry GOES-P into space. GOES-P was transferred to its fueling stand on Monday, January 18. The L-35 Countdown Launch Procedure (CLP) Rehearsal was successfully completed on January 19, and the next day, the Propulsion System Valve Driver Functional Testing was completed. Now, Propulsion System Pressurization and Leak Checks are in progress in preparation for fueling operations.

The Eastern Range has approved the GOES-P new launch date of March 1, 2010.

NASA contracted with Boeing to build and launch the GOES-P spacecraft. NASA's Launch Services Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida supported the launch in an advisory role. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages the GOES program, establishes requirements, provides all funding and distributes environmental satellite data for the United States. Goddard procures and manages the design, development and launch of the satellites for NOAA on a cost-reimbursable basis.

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Route 66: Cassini's Next Look at Titan

Sixteen days after last visiting Saturn's largest moon, NASA's Cassini spacecraft returns for another look-see of the cloud-shrouded moon - this time from on high. The flyby on Thursday, Jan. 28, referred to as "T-66" in the hollowed halls of Cassini operations, will place the spacecraft within 7,490 kilometers (4,654 miles) above the surface during time of closest approach.

While this latest close approach places Cassini more than 6,400 kilometers (3,970 miles) higher above Titan's surface than the Jan. 12 flyby, it should not considered of lesser scientific value. Instead, this high-altitude encounter will provide an opportunity for some of the spacecraft's instruments to gain another unique perspective on this crepuscular world.

During T-66, the Imaging Science Subsystem is set to acquire high-resolution observations during and after closest-approach, covering territory from the trailing hemisphere at high southern latitudes northeast to near-equatorial Adiri. On the inbound leg, the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer will have the opportunity to do one stellar occultation. (A stellar occultation occurs when an intervening body -- in this case Titan -- blocks the light from a star). Thursday's stellar occultation should allow the Cassini science team to further constrain the composition and the spectral properties of Titan's atmosphere.

Artist concept of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying by Saturn's moon Titan on Jan. 28. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Although this latest flyby is dubbed "T66," planning changes early in the orbital tour made this the 67th targeted flyby of Titan. T66 is the 22nd Titan encounter in Cassini's Solstice Mission.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. The Huygens probe, built and managed by the European Space Agency, was bolted to Cassini and rode along during its nearly seven-year journey to Saturn, before being released for its descent through Titan's atmosphere.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

NASA Tests All-Composite Space Capsule for Toughness, Safety

Spacecraft of the future may well be built using the same tough, lightweight laminated materials used today for race cars, business jets and high-end sports equipment.

A team led by the NASA Engineering and Safety Center designed and built such a space capsule, called a crew module, then mounted the full-scale test article into a custom-built rig for static testing at NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. Internal pressure and forces are being applied to critical parts of the crew module, simulating the stresses it would encounter as it carries astronauts during a space flight.

"We pressurized the module to twice Earth's atmosphere to demonstrate the ultimate design capability of the structure, and followed that by pushing and pulling it to simulate the forceful tug of the different mission phases," said Mike Kirsch, manager of the Composite Crew Module (CCM) project. "There were no anomalies and performance aligned amazingly well with analytical predictions," he added.

Additional testing of the composite crew module will be conducted at Langley to gauge the structure's resistance to damage, culminating in a planned test to failure. As a first step, the structure has proven resistant to the type of damage that might occur during ground handling, as proven by a carefully designed set of damage-related experiments followed by a repeat of the internal pressure test.

NASA's Composite Crew Module has performed well in tests simulating structural stresses of launch and atmospheric reentry.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

The crew module structure was fabricated by a collaborative team of NASA and industry partners at Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Iuka, Miss. Its top and bottom halves were laid up by hand using a stiffened honeycomb sandwich of carbon fiber impregnated with resin, heat- and pressure-treated in an autoclave, then spliced together using local heaters outside the autoclave. During buildup of the two halves, many of the critical, orthogonal joints were assembled by the use of preformed three dimensional weaving technology, termed Pi joints.

For the push and pull load tests, the structure was blanketed with 318 strain gages -- fiber optic cables generating about 3,500 channels of data -- and 80 acoustic sensors that listen for fiber breaks in the composite lay-ups during the testing. In addition, a stereo video system focused on complex-shaped zones of interest to generate a computerized view of surface deformation.

Composite materials are desirable because they are stiff and lightweight and can be formed into complex shapes that may be more structurally efficient. In space travel, where every additional pound of weight drives costs higher, any weight savings provides increased payload capacity and potentially reduces mission expense.

Kirsch believes work on this project will enable more informed decisions about structural materials for future NASA spacecraft.

"One of the primary project objectives was to gain hands-on experience for NASA with our contract partners by designing, building and testing a full scale complex structure such as this, then communicate lessons learned to engineers working composites across the agency," said Kirsch.

There have been many lessons learned, including the challenge of keeping weight down while meeting design requirements for a human-rated spacecraft.

Composite Crew Module at ATK, where it was fabricated, prior to shipping to NASA Langley Research Center. Credit: ATK

NESC sponsored the three-year CCM project as part of its mission to solve technical problems related to spaceflight and to make spaceflight safer. The CCM is an all-composite representation of the part-metal, part-composite flight crew module Orion, which is part of NASA's Constellation Program to return man to the moon and/or Mars.

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NASA Airborne Radar to Study Quake Faults in Haiti, Dominican Republic

PASADENA, Calif. - In response to the disaster in Haiti on Jan. 12, NASA has added a series of science overflights of earthquake faults in Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola to a previously scheduled three-week airborne radar campaign to Central America.

NASA's Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar, or UAVSAR, left NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., on Jan. 25 aboard a modified NASA Gulfstream III aircraft.

During its trek to Central America, which will run through mid-February, the repeat-pass L-band wavelength radar, developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., will study the structure of tropical forests; monitor volcanic deformation and volcano processes; and examine Mayan archeology sites. After the Haitian earthquake, NASA managers added additional science objectives that will allow UAVSAR's unique observational capabilities to study geologic processes in Hispaniola following the earthquake. UAVSAR's ability to provide rapid access to regions of interest, short repeat flight intervals, high resolution and its variable viewing geometry make it a powerful tool for studying ongoing Earth processes.

NASA's UAVSAR airborne radar will create 3-D maps of earthquake faults over wide swaths of Haiti (red shaded area) and the Dominican Republic (yellow shaded area). Image credit: NASA

"UAVSAR will allow us to image deformations of Earth's surface and other changes associated with post-Haiti earthquake geologic processes, such as aftershocks, earthquakes that might be triggered by the main earthquake farther down the fault line, and the potential for landslides," said JPL's Paul Lundgren, the principal investigator for the Hispaniola overflights. "Because of Hispaniola's complex tectonic setting, there is an interest in determining if the earthquake in Haiti might trigger other earthquakes at some unknown point in the future, either along adjacent sections of the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault that was responsible for the main earthquake, or on other faults in northern Hispaniola, such as the Septentrional fault."

Lundgren says these upcoming flights, and others NASA will conduct in the coming weeks, months and years, will help scientists better assess the geophysical processes associated with earthquakes along large faults and better understand the risks.

UAVSAR uses a technique called interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or InSAR, that sends pulses of microwave energy from the aircraft to the ground to detect and measure very subtle deformations in Earth's surface, such as those caused by earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides and glacier movements. Flying at a nominal altitude of 12,500 meters (41,000 feet), the radar, located in a pod under the aircraft's belly, collects data over a selected region. It then flies over the same region again, minutes to months later, using the aircraft's advanced navigation system to precisely fly over the same path to an accuracy of within 5 meters (16.5 feet). By comparing these camera-like images, interferograms are formed that have encoded the surface deformation, from which scientists can measure the slow surface deformations involved with the buildup and release of strain along earthquake faults.

Since November of 2009, JPL scientists have collected data gathered on a number of Gulfstream III flights over California's San Andreas fault and other major California earthquake faults, a process that will be repeated about every six months for the next several years. From such data, scientists will create 3-D maps for regions of interest.

The UAVSAR underbelly pod is in clear view as NASA's Gulfstream-III research aircraft banks away over Edwards Air Force Base during aerodynamic clearance flights. Image credit: NASA/Lori Losey

Flight plans call for multiple observations of the Hispaniola faults this week and in early to mid-February. Subsequent flights may be added based on events in Haiti and aircraft availability. After processing, NASA will make the UAVSAR imagery available to the public through the JPL UAVSAR website and the Alaska Satellite Facility Distributed Active Archive Center. The initial data will be available in several weeks.

Lundgren said the Dominican Republic flights over the Septentrional fault will provide scientists with a baseline set of radar imagery in the event of future earthquakes there. Such observations, combined with post-event radar imagery, will allow scientists to measure ground deformation at the time of the earthquakes to determine how slip on the faults is distributed and also to monitor longer-term motions after the earthquakes to learn more about fault zone properties. The UAVSAR data could also be used to pinpoint exactly which part of the fault slipped during an earthquake, data that can be used by rescue and damage assessment officials to better estimate what areas might be most affected.

For more on UAVSAR, visit: For more on how UAVSAR is being used to study earthquake faults and landslide processes, visit: .

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

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Groovy Hills Rising from Titan Surface

Hills with a wrinkly radial pattern stand out in a new radar image captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Dec. 28, 2009.

The grooved mounds in the picture, which are located in a northern hemisphere region known as Belet, are about 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide and about 60 meters (200 feet) high.

The shapes of these landscape features have not been seen on Titan before, though they bear similarity to spidery features known as coronae on Venus. A corona is a circular to elliptical feature thought to result from the flow of heat in a planet's interior.

In this synthetic aperture radar image obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, two generally similar features, upper center and lower right, appear to be low mountains with grooves running roughly in the up-down direction. Credit: NASA/JPL/

Like forensic scientists, radar team members are trying to sleuth out what created these lines and hills on Titan.

"This star-shaped pattern of the hills indicates something significant happening in the middle of the star," said Steve Wall of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a Cassini scientist on the radar team. "It might be caused by tectonic forces, such as the forces that pull the crust of a planet apart, or rainfall that leads to erosion, or an ice intrusion like a dike."

All of these forces produce grooves on Earth's surface, but Wall says the radar team is not yet sure what is happening on Titan.

Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

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Curriculum Vitae

NAME: Spirit, Mars Exploration Rover A

ADDRESS:"Troy," 14.6 degrees South, 175.5 degrees East, Gusev Crater, Mars, 4th Rock from the Sun

PROFESSIONAL GOAL: To investigate the historical geology and climate of Mars, but would like to do less travel than in the past

EMPLOYMENT HISTORY: Geologist, meteorologist, chemist, photographer and mountain climber for NASA, working in the field since Jan. 3, 2004


Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

  • Trekked 7,730 meters (4.8 miles) across Gusev Crater, including driving backwards after the right front wheel stopped working in 2006
  • Crossed the Columbia Hills, including scaling a 30.2 degree-incline at "West Spur" and reaching the 82-meter (269-foot) summit of "Husband Hill," the highest peak in the range
  • Returned 27,000 raw images and 16 color, 360-degree panoramic mosaics
  • Drilled into 15 rock targets and scoured 92 with my brush
  • Survived three Martian winters despite low light and low energy for my solar panels

  • Unearthed a patch of nearly pure silica, the main ingredient of window glass, in 2007 while dragging my right front wheel. The silica patch, dubbed "Gertrude Weise," provided strong evidence that ancient Mars was much wetter than it is now because it was likely produced in an environment of hot springs or steam vents. It is my biggest scientific achievement to date.
  • Found evidence of a long-ago explosion at a bright, low plateau called "Home Plate" in 2006. I saw coarse, bulbous grains overlaying finer material, which fits with the pattern of accumulation of material falling to the ground after a volcanic or impact explosion. These rocks, some of which had never been seen before on Mars, revealed the crater's violent history.
  • Captured several movies of dust devils in motion in 2005, providing the best look of the wind effects on the Martian surface as they were happening.
  • Churned up bright Martian soil in 2006 at a place named "Tyrone" that contained loads of sulfur and a trace of water. This material could be a volcanic deposit formed around ancient gas vents or could have been left behind by water that dissolved these minerals underground and evaporated when they came to the surface and evaporated.
  • Discovered a surprising variety of bedrock in the Columbia Hills in 2004, showing a complex geological history for the region. Some of the rocks showed evidence of alteration by water.
EDUCATION: Built and trained at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. After reaching Mars, completed post-graduate courses online in autonomous processing with special attention to target tracking, hazard navigation and cloud recognition.


  • Extremely independent, but work well in teams
  • Adapt well to challenging environments
  • Nimble with new media, regularly updating my website, Twitter and Facebook
Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the Mars rovers' science instruments: "Spirit has been a wonderful workhorse. Because of Spirit's visit to the Columbia Hills, we know it was a violent place, a place churned by impacts and volcanic explosions. Spirit has shown us an ancient Mars that was very different from the Mars we see today."

2004 Best of the Best - Software of the Year Award from NASA
2004 Best of What's New Grand Award from Popular Science
2005 Laureates Hall of Fame Award from Aviation Week and Space Technology
2007 Best Corporate/Team Achievement Award at the Sir Arthur Clarke Awards in England
2009 Thomas O. Paine Award for the Advancement of Human Exploration of Mars from the Planetary Society

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Melt Pond Near King Crater

The lunar far side crater King is about 77 km in diameter and 5 km deep. King Crater is one of the youngest craters on the far side. It is an excellent example of a Copernican-aged complex impact crater. Simple impact craters are bowl shaped, whereas complex craters have central peaks, and sometimes even concentric rings. King is known particularly for its remarkable claw-shaped central peak and an unusually large ~20 km diameter, ca. 225 km3 melt pond. The melt pond, which lies to the northwest of King, has a relatively flat, smooth surface that is a potentially safe landing site for both robotic and human lunar exploration. (see the Apollo 16 Metric camera image taken in 1972 below.) Scientific questions that could be answered by exploring this site include: How old is King Crater? What is the origin of the melt pond? What is the nature of the regolith in the lunar highlands?

A Constellation Program Region of Interest near the northeast edge of the unusually large melt pond adjacent to the lunar far side crater King. The boundary between the dark, coherent impact melt rock at the lower left of the image and the bright, pulverized ejecta blanket to the upper right is clearly visible in the floor of a smaller crater that formed at the boundary between these two units. Image width is 1.3 km; pixel width is 1.29 m. (Subset of NAC frame M106088433R) Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Questions about the origin of the melt pond were raised in the 1970's, after King was photographed by Apollo 16. Is the melt pond composed of impact-related melt? Or does it have a volcanic origin? A volcanic origin is supported by the large size of the melt pond, and the fact that there are few small impact melt ponds evenly distributed around the entire crater. However, there is no apparent volcanic source for the melt, rather the melt drapes the surrounding area and exhibits flow features that indicate that it flowed into and accumulated in the topographic low of an old crater. One possible explanation as to why there is little impact melt distributed around the entire crater, which could also explain the unusual central peak complex, is that King Crater may have been formed by an oblique impact. During an oblique impact, impact melt would be preferentially deposited along the direction of the incoming projectile, not evenly around the margin of the crater. Samples of the melt pond and surrounding impact debris, collected either robotically or by humans, can answer the questions about the melt pond's origin. In addition, new information about impact craters on the Moon helps us understand howterrestrial impact craters form on the Earth, where erosion and other geological processes often destroy valuable scientific evidence.

Apollo 16 Metric Camera image of King Crater. (Image AS16-M-0891) Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

NAC image M106088433R (above), centered at 6.91 N, 119.93 E, extends from the northern rim of King, across the large melt pond, and into the ejecta blanket of King. The image was taken at a solar illumination angleof 35 degrees, which means that the Sun was relatively high in the sky. Such imaging conditions are useful for seeing subtle color differences between different areas within the image. For example, the impact melt pond is darker in color than the ejecta blanket. The brightest spots in the image are boulders of anorthositic (highlands) material that lie on top of the ejecta blanket. Such reflectance differences also offer clues to how long materials have been exposed to the solar wind, cosmic radiation, and micrometeorite impacts, processes collectively called space weathering.

Related Links

› Arizona State University's Web site for the LRO Camera
› More images from Arizona State University's LROC site

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Now a Stationary Research Platform, NASA's Mars Rover Spirit Starts a New Chapter in Red Planet Scientific Studies

WASHINGTON -- After six years of unprecedented exploration of the Red Planet, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit no longer will be a fully mobile robot. NASA has designated the once-roving scientific explorer a stationary science platform after efforts during the past several months to free it from a sand trap have been unsuccessful.

The venerable robot's primary task in the next few weeks will be to position itself to combat the severe Martian winter. If Spirit survives, it will continue conducting significant new science from its final location. The rover's mission could continue for several months to years.

"Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit's current location on Mars will be its final resting place."

Ten months ago, as Spirit was driving south beside the western edge of a low plateau called Home Plate, its wheels broke through a crusty surface and churned into soft sand hidden underneath.

After Spirit became embedded, the rover team crafted plans for trying to get the six-wheeled vehicle free using its five functioning wheels – the sixth wheel quit working in 2006, limiting Spirit's mobility. The planning included experiments with a test rover in a sandbox at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., plus analysis, modeling and reviews. In November, another wheel quit working, making a difficult situation even worse.

Recent drives have yielded the best results since Spirit became embedded. However, the coming winter mandates a change in strategy. It is mid-autumn at the solar-powered robot's home on Mars. Winter will begin in May. Solar energy is declining and expected to become insufficient to power further driving by mid-February. The rover team plans to use those remaining potential drives for improving the rover's tilt. Spirit currently tilts slightly toward the south. The winter sun stays in the northern sky, so decreasing the southward tilt would boost the amount of sunshine on the rover's solar panels.

"We need to lift the rear of the rover, or the left side of the rover, or both," said Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver at JPL. "Lifting the rear wheels out of their ruts by driving backward and slightly uphill will help. If necessary, we can try to lower the front right of the rover by attempting to drop the right-front wheel into a rut or dig it into a hole."

This view from the front hazard-avoidance camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the position of Spirit's front wheels following a backward drive during the 2,154th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's mission on Mars (Jan. 23, 2010). The view is toward the north. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At its current angle, Spirit probably would not have enough power to keep communicating with Earth through the Martian winter. Even a few degrees of improvement in tilt might make enough difference to enable communication every few days.

"Getting through the winter will all come down to temperature and how cold the rover electronics will get," said John Callas, project manager at JPL for Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity. "Every bit of energy produced by Spirit's solar arrays will go into keeping the rover's critical electronics warm, either by having the electronics on or by turning on essential heaters."

Even in a stationary state, Spirit continues scientific research.

"There's a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving," said Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University and principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity. "Degraded mobility does not mean the mission ends abruptly. Instead, it lets us transition to stationary science."

One stationary experiment Spirit has begun studies tiny wobbles in the rotation of Mars to gain insight about the planet's core. This requires months of radio-tracking the motion of a point on the surface of Mars to calculate long-term motion with an accuracy of a few inches.

"If the final scientific feather in Spirit's cap is determining whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid, that would be wonderful -- it's so different from the other knowledge we've gained from Spirit," said Squyres.

Tools on Spirit's robotic arm can study variations in the composition of nearby soil, which has been affected by water. Stationary science also includes watching how wind moves soil particles and monitoring the Martian atmosphere.

Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004. They have been exploring for six years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission. Opportunity currently is driving toward a large crater called Endeavor and continues to make scientific discoveries. It has driven approximately 12 miles and returned more than 133,000 images.

JPL manages the rovers for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, visit: .

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Friday, January 22, 2010

NASA Adds Extensive Data to Open Government Initiative Web Site

NASA has contributed a wide range of scientific data to the new publicly accessible Web site "" in accordance with the administration's Open Government Directive issued in Dec. 2009.

The purpose of is to increase public access to high value datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the federal government. Public users may search for information by topic or by accessing the data contributed by any of the 24 participating major government departments and agencies.

Learn more about Open Government at

NASA's input includes timely, extensive, accurate and relevant data about, Earth science and observation research, global change, agency missions, projects and instruments. is a searchable Web site providing access to government information through the Raw Data, Tool and GeoData Catalogs.

The data may be read on line or downloaded to improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; potentially create economic opportunities; or respond to need and demand as identified through public or industry consultation.

NASA products are in the Tool and GeoData Catalogs. Tool Catalog products include planet counter and climate change widgets and various Earth observation and other analysis utilities. In the GeoData Catalog, the agency posted more than 600 datasets across a wide range of imagery, maps, atmospheric, climate, geological and geophysical data. NASA will continuously update and add new data sets as they become available.

An Earth dataset visualization showing topography with the data overlaid on the Earth found within the The Global Change Master Directory. This catalog of data was created to enable users to access datasets and services relevant to global change and Earth science research. Image Credit: NASA.

NASA's submission of an additional 18 catalogs released today is the first milestone within the Open Government Directive. Over the coming weeks, NASA will release a new Web site and provide a platform for public participation and engagement becoming a more transparent, participatory and collaborative agency.

For information about and access to, visit:

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The First of Many Asteroid Finds for WISE

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has spotted its first never-before-seen near-Earth asteroid, the first of hundreds it is expected to find during its mission to map the whole sky in infrared light.

The near-Earth object, designated 2010 AB78, was discovered by WISE Jan. 12. After the mission's sophisticated software picked out the moving object against a background of stationary stars, researchers followed up and confirmed the discovery with the University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter (88-inch) visible-light telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea.

The asteroid is currently about 158 million kilometers (98 million miles) from Earth. It is estimated to be roughly 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter and circles the sun in an elliptical orbit tilted to the plane of our solar system. The object comes as close to the sun as Earth, but because of its tilted orbit, it is not thought to pass near our planet. This asteroid does not pose any foreseeable impact threat to Earth, but scientists will continue to monitor it.

The red dot at the center of this image is the first near-Earth asteroid discovered by NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

WISE, which began its all-sky survey on Jan. 14, is expected to find about 100-thousand previously undiscovered asteroids in the Main Belt between Mars and Jupiter, and hundreds of new near-Earth asteroids. It will also spot millions of new stars and galaxies.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. The ground-based observations are partly supported by the National Science Foundation.

More information is online at, and .

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NASA Extends the World Wide Web Out Into Space

HOUSTON -- Astronauts aboard the International Space Station received a special software upgrade this week - personal access to the Internet and the World Wide Web via the ultimate wireless connection.

Expedition 22 Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer made first use of the new system Friday, when he posted the first unassisted update to his Twitter account, @Astro_TJ, from the space station. Previous tweets from space had to be e-mailed to the ground where support personnel posted them to the astronaut's Twitter account.

"Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station -- the 1st live tweet from Space! :) More soon, send your ?s"

This personal Web access, called the Crew Support LAN, takes advantage of existing communication links to and from the station and gives astronauts the ability to browse and use the Web. The system will provide astronauts with direct private communications to enhance their quality of life during long-duration missions by helping to ease the isolation associated with life in a closed environment.

During periods when the station is actively communicating with the ground using high-speed Ku-band communications, the crew will have remote access to the Internet via a ground computer. The crew will view the desktop of the ground computer using an onboard laptop and interact remotely with their keyboard touchpad.

Astronauts will be subject to the same computer use guidelines as government employees on Earth. In addition to this new capability, the crew will continue to have official e-mail, Internet Protocol telephone and limited videoconferencing capabilities.

To follow Twitter updates from Creamer and two of his crewmates, ISS Commander Jeff Williams and Soichi Noguchi, visit:

For more information about the space station, visit:

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Making Medical Grade Saline in Space

Whenever an injured or ill person is admitted into an emergency room, one of the first steps in many treatments is for the patient to receive saline solution intravenously (through a vein). This basic, yet essential, treatment both keeps the patient hydrated and prepares them to receive any other needed drugs intravenously. Severely injured patients, such as burn victims, can require several liters of saline, a mixture of salt and purified water.

When astronauts venture out into space—whether to the International Space Station, the moon, Mars or beyond—they receive specialized first-aid and medical training to ensure they can care for health issues that might confront themselves or other crew members. NASA spacecraft are equipped with medical equipment and supplies, including saline solution. However, saline solution cannot be stored indefinitely, and given that NASA is developing vehicles and planning for exploration missions progressively further away from Earth, a method is needed to create sterile saline solution on spacecraft or the space station.

NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio is preparing to launch their IntraVenous Fluid Generation (IVGEN) technology demonstration hardware to the space station on shuttle mission STS-131, currently scheduled for March. IVGEN represents years of dedicated work by Glenn scientists and engineers and their industry partner, ZIN Technologies, Inc. of Middleburg Heights, Ohio. IVGEN will be tested on the space station to validate its performance in microgravity, and could eventually become a key component of the medical equipment carried on long-duration space flights.

Jane Moultrie, M.D. tests the hardware aboard NASA's Reduced Gravity Aircraft C-9 in May 2007. Image Credit: NASA

"IVGEN is important because medical requirements stipulate that exploration missions carry over 100 liters of IV fluid. The vehicle cannot afford the mass and volume necessary to meet that requirement," says DeVon Griffin, the Exploration Medical Capability Project Manager at Glenn and the project manager for IVGEN. "IVGEN technology will consume much less mass and volume, while allowing the crew to generate the needed treatment fluid should that become necessary."

The goal of IVGEN is to generate U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) grade IV solution using "in situ" resources—to make sterile saline solution using the water that is available on the space station. This solution is normal saline, or a mix of .9% salt and water. The saline must meet strict medical requirements and weigh less and take up less space than pre-prepared solution would (it’s expensive to launch liquid into space because it's heavy.)

DeVon Griffin, his Glenn team and ZIN Technologies have developed, designed and extensively tested their invention. IVGEN has exceeded expectations in its Earth bound trials as well as in reduced gravity flight tests aboard the NASA C-9 aircraft. Now, it is ready to be tested in the long duration microgravity environment on the space station.

To operate, the device is hooked up to the Water Processor Assembly (WPA) on the space station because USP regulations require using potable, or drinkable, water. The water first flows into an accumulator—a plastic bag within a container. Nitrogen from the space station pressurizes the accumulator between the inner wall of the container and the outer wall of the bag, to push the water out of the container and through the first filter. The IVGEN team also developed concepts to provide fluid flow in the event of an emergency where nitrogen is not available.

IVGEN sends water through a variety of filters and mixes it with salt to create a sterile saline solution. Image Credit: NASA

This Glenn-designed filter, called a deionizing filter, is a high-tech version of a water softening filter that is commonly used on Earth. The filter contains beads coated in special chemicals to remove impurities and sterilize the water. The water flows through additional filters to remove air (to prevent bubbles which could lead to embolisms during injection) and any remaining particles.

The water then flows into an IV bag, similar to the kind that are used in hospitals on Earth. This bag, which contains a stir bar and salt, is then pressurized to evenly and thoroughly mix the saline solution. After a final filtration to ensure the solution is completely bacteria-free, the sterile saline solution is complete.

The accumulator transfers water from the Space Station into IVGEN. Image Credit: NASA

During the upcoming testing on the space station, crew members will run the device several times. For the purposes of this flight test, additional computers and sensors have been installed to take on-orbit data of all solution created and measure the equipment performance. Two bags of the sterile saline solution will return to Earth on a shuttle for additional testing.

The ability to manufacture sterile saline solution—of the same high quality that can be made on Earth—has the potential to influence even more than life aboard the space station. It could quite possibly change the way we explore space, helping enable our astronauts to travel farther than ever before.

"IVGEN is currently the number one priority of the Exploration Medical Capabilities Element of the Human Research Program," DeVon Griffin says.

Tori Woods (S.G.T.)
NASA’s Glenn Research Center

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