Tuesday, December 27, 2011

NASA Launches Mission to Study Moon From Crust to Core

NASA's twin lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT (6:08 a.m. PDT) Saturday, Sept. 10, to study the moon in unprecedented detail.

GRAIL-A is scheduled to reach the moon on New Year's Eve 2011, while GRAIL-B will arrive New Year's Day 2012. The two solar-powered spacecraft will fly in tandem orbits around the moon to measure its gravity field. GRAIL will answer longstanding questions about the moon and give scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

"If there was ever any doubt that Florida's Space Coast would continue to be open for business, that thought was drowned out by the roar of today's GRAIL launch," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "GRAIL and many other exciting upcoming missions make clear that NASA is taking its next big leap into deep space exploration, and the space industry continues to provide the jobs and workers needed to support this critical effort."

The spacecraft were launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. GRAIL mission controllers acquired a signal from GRAIL-A at 10:29 a.m. EDT (7:29 a.m. PDT). GRAIL-B's signal was received eight minutes later. The telemetry downlinked from both spacecraft indicates they have deployed their solar panels and are operating as expected.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

NASA Selects Seven Firms to Provide Near-Space Flight Services

NASA has selected seven companies to integrate and fly technology payloads on commercial suborbital reusable platforms that carry payloads near the boundary of space.

As part of NASA's Flight Opportunities Program, each successful vendor will receive an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. These two-year contracts, worth a combined total of $10 million, will allow NASA to draw from a pool of commercial space companies to deliver payload integration and flight services. The flights will carry a variety of payloads to help meet the agency's research and technology needs.

"Through this catalog approach, NASA is moving toward the goal of making frequent, low-cost access to near-space available to a wide range of engineers, scientists and technologists," said NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The government's ability to open the suborbital research frontier to a broad community of innovators will enable maturation of the new technologies and capabilities needed for NASA's future missions in space."

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

NASA scientists have successfully completed flight tests in preparation for deployment of a multi-year airborne science campaign to study the humidity and chemical composition of air entering the tropical tropopause layer of the atmosphere. NASA's Airborne Tropical TRopopause EXperiment (ATTREX) will conduct the science campaign over the Pacific Ocean from three locations in 2013 and 2014.

Studies have shown that even small changes in stratospheric humidity may have climate impacts that are significant compared to those of decadal increases in greenhouse gases. Predictions of stratospheric humidity changes are uncertain, due to gaps in the understanding of the physical processes occurring in the tropical tropopause layer, which ranges from about eight to 11 miles above the ground.

"These were test flights, although we did get science-quality data, including samples from tropical thin cirrus clouds at about 55,000 feet altitude," said Leonhard Pfister, ATTREX deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "These clouds regulate water vapor in the lower tropical stratosphere, which is important for Earth's radiation balance."

Pfister will discuss the ATTREX mission goals, objectives and planned research flights at the Monday, Dec. 5, afternoon poster session at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting held at the Moscone Center, San Francisco, Calif.

Led by principal investigator Eric Jensen and project manager Dave Jordan of NASA Ames, scientists integrated instruments onto one of NASA's Global Hawk unmanned aircraft and verified their operation during four checkout flights from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Growing Knowledge in Space

Plants are critical in supporting life on Earth, and with help from an experiment that flew onboard space shuttle Discovery's STS-131 mission, they also could transform living in space.

NASA's Kennedy Space Center partnered with the University of Florida, Miami University in Ohio and Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to perform three different experiments in microgravity.

The studies concentrated on the effects microgravity has on plant cell walls, root growth patterns and gene regulation within the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Each of the studies has future applications on Earth and in space exploration.

"Any research in plant biology helps NASA for future long-range space travel in that plants will be part of bioregenerative life support systems," said John Kiss, one of the researchers who participated in the BRIC-16 experiment onboard Discovery's STS-131 flight in April 2010 and a distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Botany at Miami University in Ohio.

The use of plants to provide a reliable oxygen, food and water source could save the time and money it takes to resupply the International Space Station (ISS), and provide sustainable sources necessary to make long-duration missions a reality. However, before plants can be effectively utilized for space exploration missions, a better understanding of their biology under microgravity is essential.

Monday, December 05, 2011

We are in Antarctica

Our military C-17 flight landed on 2.3-meter thick sea ice in McMurdo Sound. McMurdo has three airfields that are used at different times during the austral summer. The sea-ice runway is located a few miles from McMurdo, and it usually operates from October to December, until the sea ice begins to break.

For a large number of us, this is our first time on the southernmost continent on Earth and, as you can imagine, landing on McMurdo Sound’s sea ice felt very special. The first minutes off the plane everyone was looking around and smiling a lot.

Weather conditions on landing were nice, despite a low cloud that turned everything extremely bright and made it difficult to tell the sky from the snow-covered ice.

Shortly after stepping into the snow, we had to jump into one of the two charismatic vehicles that were ready to transport us to McMurdo Station. We could choose between the famous Ivan the Terra Bus (red as our parka, a.k.a. the Big Red) or an orange delta truck from the early 80s (that vehicle was already carrying people from the runway to McMurdo station before I was born!). Both vehicles have incredibly big tires.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Spacecraft Design

MESSENGER's dual-mode, liquid chemical propulsion system is integrated into the spacecraft's structure to make economical use of mass. The structure is primarily composed of a graphite epoxy material. This composite structure provides the strength necessary to survive launch while offering lower mass. Two large solar panels, supplemented with a nickel-hydrogen battery, provide MESSENGER's power.

The "brains" of the spacecraft are redundant integrated electronics modules (IEMs) that house two processors each -- a 25-megahertz (MHz) main processor and a 10-MHz fault-protection processor.

Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS): This instrument consists of wide-angle and narrow-angle imagers that will map landforms, track variations in surface spectra and gather topographic information. A pivot platform will help point it in whatever direction the scientists choose. The two instruments will enable MESSENGER to "see" much like our two eyes do.

Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer (GRNS): This instrument will detect gamma rays and neutrons that are emitted by radioactive elements on Mercury's surface or by surface elements that have been stimulated by cosmic rays. It will be used to map the relative abundances of different elements and will help to determine if there is ice at Mercury's poles, which are never exposed to direct sunlight.

Gamma rays and high-energy X-rays from the Sun, striking Mercury's surface, can cause the surface elements to emit low-energy X-rays. XRS will detect these emitted X-rays to measure the abundances of various elements in the materials of Mercury's crust.

Magnetometer (MAG): This instrument is at the end of a 3.6 meter (nearly 12-foot) boom, and will map Mercury's magnetic field and will search for regions of magnetized rocks in the crust.

Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA): This instrument contains a laser that will send light to the planet's surface and a sensor that will gather the light after it has been reflected from the surface. Together they will measure the amount of time for light to make a round-trip to the surface and back. Recording variations in this distance will produce highly accurate descriptions of Mercury's topography.

Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer (MASCS): This spectrometer is sensitive to light from the infrared to the ultraviolet and will measure the abundances of atmospheric gases, as well as detect minerals on the surface.

Energetic Particle and Plasma Spectrometer (EPPS): EPPS measures the composition, distribution, and energy of charged particles (electrons and various ions) in Mercury's magnetosphere.

Radio Science (RS): RS will use the Doppler effect to measure very slight changes in the spacecraft's velocity as it orbits Mercury. This will allow scientists to study Mercury's mass distribution, including variations in the thickness of its crust.