March 28, 2014
February 09, 2014
NASA research pilot Tom McMurtry advanced the throttle of the sleek F-104 as it streaked across Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, barely a few hundred feet above the lakebed. With hundreds of employees gathered atop the main administration building and the ramp area, McMurtry piloted NASA 826 toward NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, with the airspeed indicator reading 450 knots.
That was the scenario on Feb. 3, 1994, 20 years ago this week at NASA Dryden. After 1,415 flights, NASA 826, one of three F-104G aircraft obtained by NASA from the German Luftwaffe in 1975, had flown its last. It would soon be retired and placed on display outside the center than had been its home for the preceding 19 years. It remains on exhibit today.
McMurtry's final flyover in NASA 826, which was preceded by a high-altitude pass at supersonic speed with a window-rattling sonic boom followed by a low-level flyby at a fairly pedestrian – for an F-104 – 275 knots, brought to an end 38 years of service by 11 F-104s at NASA Dryden. It was a fitting tribute.
"The sky cleared up just in time for F-104 826's last flight," reads the anonymous entry in NASA Dryden's Flight Operations log for the date. "Tom put on a beautiful show with a high, supersonic flyover, and two low, high-speed passes over Bldg. 4800."
Originally designed by Kelly Johnson and his team at Lockheed's "Skunk Works" as a day fighter/interceptor for the U.S. Air Force, the F-104 Starfighters later found other uses as low-level, high-speed fighter-bombers in the air forces of several nations. NASA acquired its first F-104A from the Air Force in August 1956, and the versatile high-performance aircraft soon proved to be ideal for both research, mission support and pilot training, becoming the workhorses in NASA's small stable of high-speed research aircraft.
Early on, a modified F-104 tested the reaction control thrusters for the hypersonic X-15 rocket plane. The F-104's short wings and low lift-to-drag ratio enabled it to simulate the X-15's landing profile, which pilots often undertook in F-104s before X-15 flights to acquaint them with the rocket plane's landing characteristics. This training role continued with the lifting bodies. NASA's F-104s were also used for high-speed research after the X-1E was retired. Lockheed built three of the aircraft specifically for NASA's requirements, and they were given the F-104N designation.
Two of NASA's F-104s were lost in crashes, including one that cost the life of the center's chief pilot Joseph Walker, following a mid-air collision with an XB-70 in 1966.NASA 826, officially registered as N826NA, accomplished a wide-range of research activities, including tests of the Space Shuttle's Thermal Protection System tiles during its 19 years at the center. But its days were numbered.
Difficulty in maintaining and obtaining parts for the aging F-104 fleet led NASA to make the decision to retire the last of the aircraft in favor of newer, more maneuverable F-18s and F/A-18s, early models of which had become available from the Navy's test fleet. Over the course of almost 38 years, from August 1956 through February 1994, the 11 F-104s flown by NASA had accumulated over 18,000 flights at NASA Dryden in a great variety of missions ranging from basic research to airborne simulation and service as an aerodynamic test bed.
NASA's Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes have spotted what might be one of the most distant galaxies known, harkening back to a time when our universe was only about 650 million years old (our universe is 13.8 billion years old). The galaxy, known as Abell2744 Y1, is about 30 times smaller than our Milky Way galaxy and is producing about 10 times more stars, as is typical for galaxies in our young universe.
The discovery comes from the Frontier Fields program, which is pushing the limits of how far back we can see into the distant universe using NASA's multi-wavelength suite of Great Observatories. Spitzer sees infrared light, Hubble sees visible and shorter-wavelength infrared light, and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory sees X-rays. The telescopes are getting a boost from natural lenses: they peer through clusters of galaxies, where gravity magnifies the light of more distant galaxies.
The Frontier Fields program will image six galaxy clusters in total. Hubble images of the region are used to spot candidate distant galaxies, and then Spitzer is needed to determine if the galaxies are, in fact, as far as they seem. Spitzer data also help determine how many stars are in the galaxy.
These early results from the program come from images of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster. The distance to this galaxy, if confirmed, would make it one of the farthest known. Astronomers say it has a redshift of 8, which is a measure of the degree to which its light has been shifted to redder wavelengths due to the expansion of our universe. The farther a galaxy, the higher the redshift. The farthest confirmed galaxy has a redshift of more than 7. Other candidates have been identified with redshifts as high as 11.
"Just a handful of galaxies at these great distances are known," said Jason Surace, of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. "The Frontier Fields program is already working to find more of these distant, faint galaxies. This is a preview of what's to come."
The findings, led by astronomers from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias and La Laguna University, are accepted for publication in the scientific journal Astronomy and Astrophysics Letters.
The cold of an Icelandic winter did not stop one NASA science aircraft from completing a mission to map glaciers on the island during the past week. NASA's C-20A, based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., flew four radar missions from Keflavik International Airport near Reykjavik, Iceland.
The aircraft carries a precision NASA synthetic aperture radar, developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., that uses a technique called interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) to detect and measure very subtle deformations in Earth's surface.
The Icelandic mission is designed to study how movement of the glaciers in winter differs from their movement in summer when there is considerable meltwater that reaches the bed of the glacier, according to principal investigator Mark Simons, a professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "This study will help scientists better understand the basic processes that control the fate of glaciers as climate changes. In so doing, this study contributes to our understanding of glacier behavior world wide and will aid in improving our estimates of rising sea levels," said Simons.
"We all recognize that the techniques being developed in this project both observationally and in terms of modeling should have significant impact on studies of the cryosphere around the globe, as well as on our planning for a future U.S. L-band radar satellite," he added.
The Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) is installed in a specialized pod mounted on the belly of NASA's aircraft. Each of the four flights, totaling more than 26 hours, was flown over the same path as a summer 2012 study of surface ice on glaciers.
Prior to the first science mission being flown Jan. 31, the C-20A had to be de-iced after being parked outside overnight due to lack of hangar space. When the crew arrived to prepare for flight, the "aircraft looked remarkably like a glazed donut," quipped NASA C-20A project manager John McGrath.
The C-20A, which is a military version of the civilian Gulfstream III business aircraft, and its specialized equipment arrived back in the U.S. Feb. 6.
February 01, 2014
Focusing on the future was the dominant theme of a busy year for NASA's aeronautical innovators during 2013.
A new strategic vision that will guide the agency's aviation research efforts now and into the future was adopted even as world class research continued at NASA centers across the nation to make air travel ever more efficient and environmentally friendly.
"This has been a truly incredible year for us as our entire team continued making exciting technical advances that show great promise for positively impacting our nation’s economy and job growth," said Jaiwon Shin, NASA's associate administrator for aeronautics.
"The future of aviation in this country is going to be even more remarkable thanks to the plans made and work we accomplished during 2013," Shin said.
Here are highlights of what NASA Aeronautics has done during the past year to improve aviation.
Based on a fresh look at the future of aviation – as well as global trends in technology, the environment and economics – NASA Aeronautics chartered a new strategic vision for its aviation research programs.
The updated vision is designed to ensure that, through NASA's aeronautics research, the United States will maintain its leadership in the sky, and sustain aviation so that it remains a key economic driver and cultural touchstone for the nation.
What this means for the flying public is that NASA's contributions to aviation will be even more relevant as ongoing research leads to new aircraft, improved mobility and safety, less impact on the environment, and an all-around better experience in the sky.
More Efficient Highways in the Sky
NASA is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and others to modernize the nation's air traffic control system with the help of new technology, software and procedures – an effort known as NextGen.
The technology behind one such tool, which was transferred to the FAA during 2013, is intended to help controllers determine the best time to release an airliner from its gate so it can taxi, takeoff and join a specific slot in the traffic flow overhead.
Known as the Precision Departure Release Capability, it is intended to work with other traffic management tools and will help controllers react more quickly when conditions change because of weather or other problems.
NASA's Physical Science Research Program will fund seven proposals, including one from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to conduct physics research using the agency's new microgravity laboratory, which is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2016.
NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will provide an opportunity to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the space station -- a frontier in scientific research that is expected to reveal interesting and novel quantum phenomena.
This environment makes it possible to conduct research in a way unachievable on Earth because atoms can be observed over a longer period, and mixtures of different atoms can be studied free of the effects of gravity, where cold atoms can be trapped more easily by magnetic fields.
The chosen proposals came from seven research teams, which include three Nobel laureates, in response to NASA's research announcement "Research Opportunities in Fundamental Physics." The proposals will receive a total of about $12.7 million over a four- to five-year period. Development of selected experiments will begin immediately.
Five of the selected proposals will involve flight experiments using CAL aboard the space station, following ground-based research activities to prepare the experiments for flight. Two of the selected proposals call for ground-based research to help NASA plan for future flight experiments. The Cold Atom Laboratory project office is at JPL, which is developing the instrument in-house. CAL is a joint partnership of JPL, NASA's International Space Station Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Branch at NASA Headquarters.
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover reached the edge of a dune on Jan. 30 and photographed the valley on the other side, to aid assessment of whether to cross the dune.
Curiosity is on a southwestward traverse of many months from an area where it found evidence of ancient conditions favorable for microbial life to its long-term science destination on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp. Based on analysis of images taken from orbit by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a location dubbed "Dingo Gap" was assessed as a possible gateway to a favorable route for the next portion of the traverse.
A dune across Dingo Gap is about 3 feet (1 meter) high, tapered off at both sides of the gap between two low scarps. Curiosity reached the eastern side of the dune on Jan. 30 and returned images that the rover team is using to guide decisions about upcoming drives.
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
January 20, 2014
Comets are among the most beautiful and least understood nomads of the night sky. To date, half a dozen of these most heavenly of heavenly bodies have been visited by spacecraft in an attempt to unlock their secrets. All these missions have had one thing in common: the high-speed flyby. Like two ships passing in the night (or one ship and one icy dirtball), they screamed past each other at hyper velocity -- providing valuable insight, but fleeting glimpses, into the life of a comet. That is, until Rosetta.
NASA is participating in the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, whose goal is to observe one such space-bound icy dirt ball from up close -- for months on end. The spacecraft, festooned with 25 instruments between its lander and orbiter (including three from NASA), is programmed to "wake up" from hibernation on Jan. 20. After a check-out period, it will monitor comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it makes its nosedive into, and then climb out of, the inner solar system. Over 16 months, during which old 67P is expected to transform from a small, frozen world into a roiling mass of ice and dust, complete with surface eruptions, mini-earthquakes, basketball-sized, fluffy ice particles and spewing jets of carbon dioxide and cyanide.
"We are going to be in the cometary catbird seat on this one," said Claudia Alexander, project scientist for U.S. Rosetta from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "To have an extended presence in the neighborhood of a comet as it goes through so many changes should change our perspective on what it is to be a comet."
Since work began on Rosetta back in 1993, scientists and engineers from all over Europe and the United States have been combining their talents to build an orbiter and a lander for this unique expedition. NASA's contribution includes three of the orbiter's instruments (an ultraviolet spectrometer called Alice; the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter; and the Ion and Electron Sensor. NASA is also providing part of the electronics package for an instrument called the Double Focusing Mass Spectrometer, which is part of the Swiss-built Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis instrument. NASA is also providing U.S. science investigators for selected non-U.S. instruments and is involved to a greater or lesser degree in seven of the mission's 25 instruments. NASA's Deep Space Network provides support for ESA's Ground Station Network for spacecraft tracking and navigation.
"All the instruments aboard Rosetta and the Philae lander are designed to work synergistically," said Sam Gulkis of JPL, the principal investigator for the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter. "They will all work together to create the most complete picture of a comet to date, telling us how the comet works, what it is made of, and what it can tell us about the origins of the solar system."
The three NASA-supplied instruments are part of the orbiter's scientific payload. Rosetta's Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter specializes in the thermal properties. The instrument combines a spectrometer and radiometer, so it can sense temperature and identify chemicals located on or near the comet's surface, and even in the dust and ices jetting out from it. The instrument will also see the gaseous activity through the dusty cloud of material. Rosetta scientists will use it to determine how different materials in the comet change from ice to gas, and to observe how much it changes in temperature as it approaches the sun.
Like the Microwave for Rosetta Orbiter, the Alice instrument contains a spectrometer. But Alice looks at the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum. Alice will analyze gases in the coma and tail and measure the comet’s production rates of water and carbon monoxide and dioxide. It will provide information on the surface composition of the nucleus, and make a potentially key measurement of argon, which will be a big clue about what the temperature was in the primordial solar system when the comet's nucleus originally formed (more than 4.6 billion years ago).
An M5 flare (medium-size) associated with a coronal mass ejection generated a fairly robust radiation storm (May 22-23, 2013). The outburst originated from active region right near the right edge of the Sun. After the eruption, cascades of magnetic loops spun up above the area as the magnetic fields tried to reorganize themselves. When viewed in profile, they put on a marvelous display of solar activity. The images are a combination of two wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light (at 171 and 304 Angstroms). Credit: NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Sea water off the east coast of Greenland looked a bit like marbled paper in October 2012. The shifting swirls of white were sea ice, as observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on October 17, 2012. In fact, this ice moved discernibly between October 16 and October 17. Thin, free-drifting ice moves very easily with winds and currents.
Each year, Arctic sea ice grows through the winter, reaching its maximum extent around March. It then melts through the summer, reaching its minimum in September. By October, Arctic waters start freezing again. However, the ice in the image above is more likely a remnant of old ice that migrated down to the coast of Greenland. Sea water is unlikely to start freezing this far south in October.
Along Greenland’s east coast, the Fram Strait serves as an expressway for sea ice moving out of the Arctic Ocean. The movement of ice through the strait used to be offset by the growth of ice in the Beaufort Gyre. Until the late 1990s, ice would persist in the gyre for years, growing thicker and more resistant to melt. Since the start of the twenty-first century, however, ice has been less likely to survive its trip through the southern part of the Beaufort Gyre. As a result, less Arctic sea ice has been able to pile up and form multi-year ice.
With less thick ice there is less Arctic sea ice volume, something the researchers at the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington have modeled from 1979 to 2012. Their results appear in the graph above. The model indicates that ice volume peaks in March through May of each year and reaches its lowest levels from August through October. But while the seasonal timing of the peaks and valleys has remained consistent since 1979, the total sea ice volume has declined.
The thick blue line is the 1979–2000 average, and the lighter blue bands surrounding it are one and two standard deviations from the median. The lines below the blue line are the calculated sea ice volumes for the years since 2000. All of them fall below the median, and almost all of them fall below two standard deviations.
The drop in sea ice volume is consistent with other observed changes in Arctic sea ice. In terms of sea ice extent, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA reported that Arctic sea ice set a record low in September 2012.
January 08, 2014
The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 5:13 a.m. EST on Jan. 7, 2014. Images of the flare were captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and showed that it came from an active region on the sun that currently sports one of the largest sunspots seen in the last 10 years. Sunspots are regions of strong and complex magnetic fields on the sun's surface.
Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however -- when intense enough -- they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.
To see how this event may impact Earth, please visit NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center at http://spaceweather.gov, the U.S. government's official source for space weather forecasts, alerts, watches and warnings.
This flare is classified as an M7.2-class flare.