Thursday, January 27, 2011

Asteroids Ahoy! Jupiter Scar Likely from Rocky Body

A hurtling asteroid about the size of the Titanic caused the scar that appeared in Jupiter's atmosphere on July 19, 2009, according to two papers published recently in the journal Icarus.

Data from three infrared telescopes enabled scientists to observe the warm atmospheric temperatures and unique chemical conditions associated with the impact debris. By piecing together signatures of the gases and dark debris produced by the impact shockwaves, an international team of scientists was able to deduce that the object was more likely a rocky asteroid than an icy comet. Among the teams were those led by Glenn Orton, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Leigh Fletcher, researcher at Oxford University, U.K., who started the work while he was a postdoctoral fellow at JPL.

"Both the fact that the impact itself happened at all and the implication that it may well have been an asteroid rather than a comet shows us that the outer solar system is a complex, violent and dynamic place, and that many surprises may be out there waiting for us," said Orton. "There is still a lot to sort out in the outer solar system."

NASA's Hubble Finds Most Distant Galaxy Candidate Ever Seen in Universe

Astronomers have pushed NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to its limits by finding what is likely to be the most distant object ever seen in the universe. The object's light traveled 13.2 billion years to reach Hubble, roughly 150 million years longer than the previous record holder. The age of the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years.

The tiny, dim object is a compact galaxy of blue stars that existed 480 million years after the big bang. More than 100 such mini-galaxies would be needed to make up our Milky Way. The new research offers surprising evidence that the rate of star birth in the early universe grew dramatically, increasing by about a factor of 10 from 480 million years to 650 million years after the big bang.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Runaway Star Plows Through Space

A massive star flung away from its former companion is plowing through space dust. The result is a brilliant bow shock, seen here as a yellow arc in a new image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

The star, named Zeta Ophiuchi, is huge, with a mass of about 20 times that of our sun. In this image, in which infrared light has been translated into visible colors we see with our eyes, the star appears as the blue dot inside the bow shock.

Zeta Ophiuchi once orbited around an even heftier star. But when that star exploded in a supernova, Zeta Ophiuchi shot away like a bullet. It's traveling at a whopping 54,000 miles per hour (or 24 kilometers per second), and heading toward the upper left area of the picture.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Voyager Celebrates 25 Years Since Uranus Visit

As NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft made the only close approach to date of our mysterious seventh planet Uranus 25 years ago, Project Scientist Ed Stone and the Voyager team gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to pore over the data coming in.

Images of the small, icy Uranus moon Miranda were particularly surprising. Since small moons tend to cool and freeze over rapidly after their formation, scientists had expected a boring, ancient surface, pockmarked by crater-upon-weathered-crater. Instead they saw grooved terrain with linear valleys and ridges cutting through the older terrain and sometimes coming together in chevron shapes. They also saw dramatic fault scarps, or cliffs. All of this indicated that periods of tectonic and thermal activity had rocked Miranda's surface in the past.

The scientists were also shocked by data showing that Uranus's magnetic north and south poles were not closely aligned with the north-south axis of the planet's rotation. Instead, the planet's magnetic field poles were closer to the Uranian equator. This suggested that the material flows in the planet's interior that are generating the magnetic field are closer to the surface of Uranus than the flows inside Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are to their respective surfaces.

NASA’s Glory Mission Will Study Key Pieces of the Climate Puzzle

Earth’s climate continues to change at a rapid pace.

Last week, NASA announced that 2010 was tied as the warmest year on record. Likewise, the last decade was the warmest in the 130-year global temperature record maintained by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.

Meanwhile, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, engineers are preparing NASA’s next Earth-observing mission -- a satellite called Glory -- for launch in late February. The satellite, which contains two instruments that will monitor key parts of the climate system, aims to offer a new stream of data that climatologists will use as part of an ongoing effort to improve the accuracy of climate models.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Prepares for Valentine's Day Comet Rendezvous

NASA's Stardust-NExT spacecraft is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST), on Feb. 14. The mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet's surface that occurred following an orbit around the sun.

The Stardust-NExT, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma, or material surrounding the comet's nucleus. Data from the mission will provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA's Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft delivered an impactor to the surface of Tempel 1 to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater created by the impactor. This would be an added bonus to the huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cosmonauts to Perform 27th Russian Space Station Spacewalk

Two Russian cosmonauts will venture outside the International Space Station on Jan. 21 to complete installation of a new high-speed data transmission system, remove an old plasma pulse experiment, install a camera for the new Rassvet docking module and retrieve a materials exposure package.

Expedition 26 Flight Engineers Dmitry Kondratyev and Oleg Skripochka are scheduled to float outside the Pirs airlock at 9:20 a.m. EST to begin the six-hour excursion. Both spacewalkers will wear Russian Orlan-MK spacesuits.

Kondratyev will be designated as Extravehicular 1 (EV1), with a red stripe on his suit, and Skripochka will be EV2, with a blue stripe on his suit. Skripochka also will wear a NASA-provided wireless television camera system and helmet lights to provide live point-of-view video to Mission Control-Moscow, which will provide ground support for the spacewalk. Mission Control-Houston will monitor the spacewalk as well.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

NASA's Hubble Finds that Puny Stars Pack a Big Punch

A deep survey of more than 200,000 stars in our Milky Way galaxy has unveiled the sometimes petulant behavior of tiny red dwarf stars. These stars, which are smaller than the Sun, can unleash powerful eruptions called flares that may release the energy of more than 100 million atomic bombs.

Red dwarfs are the most abundant stars in our universe and are presumably hosts to numerous planets. However, their erratic behavior could make life unpleasant, if not impossible, for many alien worlds. Flares are sudden eruptions of heated plasma that occur when powerful magnetic field lines in a star's atmosphere "reconnect," snapping like a rubber band and releasing vast amounts of energy. When they occur, flares would blast any planets orbiting the star with ultraviolet light, bursts of X-rays, and a gush of charged particles called a stellar wind.

Studying the light from 215,000 red dwarfs collected in observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers found 100 stellar flares. The observations, taken over a seven-day period, constitute the largest continuous monitoring of red dwarf stars ever undertaken.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

NASA'S Kepler Mission Discovers Its First Rocky Planet

NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the discovery of its first rocky planet, named Kepler-10b. Measuring 1.4 times the size of Earth, it is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system.

The discovery of this so-called exoplanet is based on more than eight months of data collected by the spacecraft from May 2009 to early January 2010.

"All of Kepler's best capabilities have converged to yield the first solid evidence of a rocky planet orbiting a star other than our sun," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler's deputy science team lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and primary author of a paper on the discovery accepted by the Astrophysical Journal. "The Kepler team made a commitment in 2010 about finding the telltale signatures of small planets in the data, and it's beginning to pay off."

Kepler's ultra-precise photometer measures the tiny decrease in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it. The size of the planet can be derived from these periodic dips in brightness. The distance between the planet and the star is calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

NASA Chat: The Quest for Planets

A new planet discovery will be announced Monday Jan. 10 during the 'Exoplanets & Their Host Stars' presentation at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in Seattle, Washington.

Kepler is NASA's first mission to look specifically for Earth-size planets in the habitable zones (areas where liquid water could exist) around stars like our sun. Kepler will spend 3-1/2 years surveying more than 100,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of our Milky Way galaxy. More than 300 exoplanets have been discovered previously, most of which are low-density gas giants such as Jupiter or Saturn in our own solar system.

Natalie Batalha of the NASA Kepler Mission Team will be online answering your questions about this new planet finding on Monday, Jan. 10 from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST / 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. PST. Natalie will be chatting with you live from the conference in Seattle.

Joining the chat is easy. Simply visit this page on Monday from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. EST / 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. PST. The chat window will open at the bottom of this page starting 15 minutes before the chat. You can log in and be ready to ask questions at 3:30 p.m.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Hinode Observes Annular Solar Eclipse

On January 4, the Hinode satellite captured these breathtaking images of an annular solar eclipse. An annular eclipse occurs when the moon, slightly more distant from Earth than on average, moves directly between Earth and the sun, thus appearing slightly smaller to observers' eyes; the effect is a bright ring, or annulus of sunlight, around the silhouette of the moon. Hinode, a Japanese mission in partnership with NASA, NAOJ, STFC, ESA, and NSC, currently in Earth orbit, is studying the Sun to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that power the solar atmosphere and drive solar eruptions.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Andromeda is So Hot 'n' Cold

This mosaic of the Andromeda spiral galaxy highlights explosive stars in its interior, and cooler, dusty stars forming in its many rings. The image is a combination of observations from the Herschel Space Observatory taken in infrared light (seen in orange hues), and the XMM-Newton telescope captured in X-rays (seen in blues). NASA plays a role in both of these European Space Agency-led missions.

Herschel provides a detailed look at the cool clouds of star birth that line the galaxy's five concentric rings. Massive young stars are heating blankets of dust that surround them, causing them to glow in the longer-wavelength infrared light, known as far-infrared, that Herschel sees.

In contrast, XMM-Newton is capturing what happens at the end of the lives of massive stars. It shows the high-energy X-rays that come from, among other objects, supernova explosions and massive dead stars rotating around companions. These X-ray sources are clustered in the center of the galaxy, where the most massive stars tend to form.

Andromeda is our Milky Way galaxy's nearest large neighbor. It is located about 2.5 million light-years away and holds up to an estimated trillion stars. Our Milky Way is thought to contain about 200 billion to 400 billion stars.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Rover Will Spend 7th Birthday at Stadium-Size Crater

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured a Dec. 31, 2010, view of the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on the southwestern rim of a football-field-size crater called "Santa Maria."

Opportunity arrived at the western edge of Santa Maria crater in mid-December and will spend about two months investigating rocks there. That investigation will take Opportunity into the beginning of its eighth year on Mars. Opportunity landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time (Jan. 24, Pacific Time) for a mission originally planned to last for three months.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Bob Benson: Tales of Chilly Research

As the weather gets colder in Maryland, Bob Benson tells tales of winters he used to know in Minnesota, the South Pole, and Alaska. A five-decade career studying Earth's ionosphere – the part of Earth's atmosphere that reflects radio communication waves – has taken him to some extreme latitudes.

Standing in the corner of Bob Benson's office is a microfilm reader. You know, the big, boxy machine that was used to look up archived newspaper articles before such things were an Internet search away. That machine is one of the tools Benson has used to scan decades worth of data throughout his 46 years at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He studies the ionosphere – the swath of our atmosphere filled with electrons and ions stretching from about 30 to 600 miles above Earth's surface – and the data he studied from various ionospheric satellites were displayed on 35-millimeter film.

"We had thousands of these boxes," he says, holding up a small cardboard box in which a film lies curled. "When I first came here, we'd go pull them from a drawer at the National Space Science Data Center at Goddard and do analysis with a machine like this."

Monday, January 03, 2011

Discovery External Tank Repairs Begin Monday as Engineers Analyze Data

Technicians working on space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are off for the New Year holiday weekend. On Monday, they'll begin repairs on three support beams, called stringers, that recently were detected to have small cracks on their tops.

Engineers at various NASA centers continue to analyze data from testing and X-ray type image scans collected during the past week of all 108 stringers on the outside of the external tank's ‪intertank section. The image scans showed four small cracks on three stringers on the opposite side of the tank from Discovery. Managers decided Thursday to have those cracks repaired in a similar fashion to repairs made on cracks on two stringers found after Discovery's Nov. 5 launch attempt.

The repair work is estimated to take 2–3 days. Any further work will be evaluated thoroughly during the week after additional data and analysis are reviewed.

Managers also continue to evaluate an option to perform known and practiced modifications on some stringers. Before breaking for the holiday, technicians reconfigured scaffolding to provide access for the modification work, should it be required. A decision may be made on that work as early as Monday.

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