September 2010

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

PASADENA, Calif. -- What will the Martian atmosphere be like when the next Mars rover descends through it for landing in August of 2012?

An instrument studying the Martian atmosphere from orbit has begun a four-week campaign to characterize daily atmosphere changes, one Mars year before the arrival of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. A Mars year equals 687 Earth days.

The planet's thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide is highly repeatable from year to year at the same time of day and seasonal date during northern spring and summer on Mars.

The Mars Climate Sounder instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter maps the distribution of temperature, dust, and water ice in the atmosphere. Temperature variations with height indicate how fast air density changes and thus the rates at which the incoming spacecraft slows down and heats up during its descent.

"It is currently one Mars year before the Mars Science Laboratory arrival season," said atmospheric scientist David Kass of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This campaign will provide a set of observations to support the Mars Science Laboratory engineering team and Mars atmospheric modelers. The information will constrain the expected climate at their landing season. It will also help define the range of possible weather conditions on landing day."

During the four years the Mars Climate Sounder has been studying the Martian atmosphere, its observations have seen conditions only at about three in the afternoon and three in the morning. For the new campaign, the instrument team is inaugurating a new observation mode, looking to both sides as well as forward. This provides views of the atmosphere earlier and later in the day by more than an hour, covering the range of possible times of day that the rover will pass through the atmosphere before landing.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, provided the Mars Climate Sounder instrument and manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Science Laboratory projects for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

The external fuel tank for space shuttle Endeavour's upcoming STS-134 mission

The external tank for space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission was taken off the Pegasus barge this morning and moved to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Technicians there will process and stack the tank for the launch next year. The tank was towed beginning just before 9:30 a.m. at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Processing also moves ahead for the STS-133 mission. Technicians will conduct leak checks today on the quick disconnects for space shuttle Discovery's forward reaction control system and auxiliary power units. The shuttle is at Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the launch site of all the shuttle missions.

At NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, training home to the astronauts, the STS-133 crew will practice procedures in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory for the mission's first spacewalk.

During space shuttle Discovery's final spaceflight, the STS-133 crew members will take important spare parts to the International Space Station along with the Express Logistics Carrier-4. Discovery has been moved to Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. STS-133 is slated to launch Nov. 1.

Turning a midsummer night's dream into reality, NASA's Cassini spacecraft begins its new mission extension the Cassini Solstice Mission today. The mission extension will take Cassini a few months past Saturn's northern summer solstice (or midsummer) through September 2017. It will enable scientists to study seasonal changes and other long-term weather changes on Saturn and its moons.

Cassini had arrived just after Saturn's northern winter solstice in 2004, and the extension continues a few months past the northern summer solstice in May 2017. A complete seasonal period on Saturn has never been studied at this level of detail.

Artist concept of Cassini spacecraftCassini has revealed a bounty of scientific discoveries since its launch in 1997, including previously unknown characteristics of the Earth-like world of Saturn's moon Titan, and the plume of water vapor and organic particles spewing from another moon, Enceladus.

The Cassini Solstice Mission will enable continued study of these intriguing worlds. It will also allow scientists to continue observations of Saturn's rings and the magnetic bubble around the planet, known as the magnetosphere. Near the end of the mission, the spacecraft will make repeated dives between Saturn and its rings to obtain in-depth knowledge of the gas giant. During these dives, the spacecraft will study the internal structure of Saturn, its magnetic fluctuations and ring mass.

Cassini entered orbit around Saturn in 2004. Mission managers had originally planned for a four-year tour of the Saturnian system. In 2008, Cassini received a mission extension through September 2010 to probe the planet and its moons through equinox, when the sun was directly over the equator. Equinox, which occurred in August 2009, marked the turn from southern fall to northern spring. The second mission extension, called the Cassini Solstice Mission, was announced earlier this year.

"After nearly seven years in transit and six years in Saturn orbit, this spacecraft still just hums along," said Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "With seven more years to go, the science should be just as exciting as what we've seen so far."

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

NASA's Cassini spacecraft will swing high over Saturn's moon Titan on Friday, Sept. 24, taking a long, sustained look at the hazy moon. At closest approach, Cassini will fly within 8,175 kilometers (5,080 miles) above the hazy moon's surface. This flyby is the first in a series of high-altitude Titan flybys for Cassini over the next year and a half.

Cassini Gazes at Veiled TitanCassini's composite infrared spectrometer instrument will be probing Titan's stratosphere to learn more about its vertical structure as the seasons change. Equinox, when the sun shone directly over the equator, occurred in August 2009, and the northern hemisphere is now in spring.

Another instrument, the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, will be mapping an equatorial region known as Belet at a resolution of 5 kilometers (3 miles) per pixel. This mosaic will complement the mosaics that were obtained in earlier Titan flybys in January and April. This spectrometer will also look for clouds at northern mid-latitudes and near the poles.

Cassin's visible-light imaging cameras will also be taking images of Titan's trailing hemisphere, or the side that faces backward as Titan orbits around Saturn. If Titan cooperates and has a cloudy day, scientists plan to analyze the images for cloud patterns.

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 mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

The northern hemisphere of Saturn's moon Titan is set for mainly fine spring weather, with polar skies clearing since the equinox in August last year. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) aboard NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been monitoring clouds on Titan regularly since the spacecraft entered orbit around Saturn in 2004. Now, a group led by Sébastien Rodriguez, a Cassini VIMS team collaborator based at Université Paris Diderot, France, has analyzed more than 2,000 VIMS images to create the first long-term study of Titan's weather using observational data that also includes the equinox. Equinox, when the sun shone directly over the equator, occurred in August 2009.

Rodriguez is presenting the results and new images at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome on Sept. 22.

Spring on Titan Brings Sunshine and Patchy CloudsThough Titan's surface is far colder and lacks liquid water, this moon is a kind of "sister world" to Earth because it has a surface covered with organic material and an atmosphere whose chemical composition harkens back to an early Earth. Titan has a hydrological cycle similar to Earth's, though Titan's cycle depends on methane and ethane rather than water.

A season on Titan lasts about seven Earth years. Rodriguez and colleagues observed significant atmospheric changes between July 2004 April 2010. The images showed that cloud activity has recently decreased near both of Titan's poles. These regions had been heavily overcast during the late southern summer until 2008, a few months before the equinox.

Over the past six years, the scientists found that clouds clustered in three distinct latitude regions of Titan: large clouds at the north pole, patchy clouds at the south pole and a narrow belt around 40 degrees south. "However, we are now seeing evidence of a seasonal circulation turnover on Titan – the clouds at the south pole completely disappeared just before the equinox and the clouds in the north are thinning out," Rodriguez said. "This agrees with predictions from models and we are expecting to see cloud activity reverse from one hemisphere to another in the coming decade as southern winter approaches."

 the percentage of cloud coverage across the surface of Saturn's moon TitanThe Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team is based at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter put itself into a precautionary standby mode after experiencing a spontaneous computer reboot on Sept. 15. The mission's ground team has begun restoring the spacecraft to full operations.

Initial analysis of telemetry from the orbiter indicates the "safe mode" status was triggered by a reboot similar to one experienced Aug. 26, 2009. That was the most recent time that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter put itself into safe mode. For 10 months prior to this latest reboot, the spacecraft operated normally, making science observations and returning data. During 2009, unplanned reboots put the spacecraft into safe mode four times.

Mars Reconnaissance OrbiterThe orbiter has normal power, fully charged batteries and safe temperatures. The team has increased the data-rate of communications and is taking additional steps to resume science observations soon.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, at Mars since 2006, has met the mission's science goals and returned more data than all other Mars missions combined. It completed its primary science phase of operations in November 2008, but continues to observe Mars both for science and for support of future landed missions.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Enjoying a frozen treat on a hot summer day can leave a sticky mess as it melts in the Sun and deforms. In the cold vacuum of space, there is no edible ice cream, but there is radiation from massive stars that is carving away at cold molecular clouds, creating bizarre, fantasy-like structures.

These one-light-year-tall pillars of cold hydrogen and dust, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, are located in the Carina Nebula. Violent stellar winds and powerful radiation from massive stars are sculpting the surrounding nebula. Inside the dense structures, new stars may be born.

This image of dust pillars in the Carina Nebula is a composite of 2005 observations taken of the region in hydrogen light (light emitted by hydrogen atoms) along with 2010 observations taken in oxygen light (light emitted by oxygen atoms), both times with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. The immense Carina Nebula is an estimated 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina.

Cosmic Ice SculpturesThe Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. in Washington, D.C.

Earth from the Moon taken by LRO on August 9, 2010As LRO orbits the Moon every two hours sending down a stream of science data, it is easy to forget how close the Moon is to the Earth. The average distance between the two heavenly bodies is just 384,399 km (238,854 miles). Check your airline frequent flyer totals, perhaps you have already flown the distance to the Moon and back on a single airline! Contrast the current image with the NAC view taken last June, which revealed much of central Asia.

Earth from the Moon taken by LRO on August 9, 2010The Moon is a spectacular sight in the nighttime sky. Now imagine the Earth from the Moon, four times larger, a delicate blue, and it does not rise nor set. To astronauts, the Earth is a constant companion, at least on the nearside. Of course, on the farside you can never see the Earth.

Evidence that a star has recently engulfed a companion star or a giant planet has been found using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. The likely existence of such a "cannibal" star provides new insight into how stars and the planets around them may interact as they age.

The star in question, known as BP Piscium (BP Psc), appears to be a more evolved version of our Sun, but with a dusty and gaseous disk surrounding it. A pair of jets several light years long blasting out of the system in opposite directions has also been seen in optical data. While the disk and jets are characteristics of a very young star, several clues including the new results from Chandra suggest that BP Psc is not what it originally appeared to be.

Chandra Finds Evidence for Stellar CannibalismInstead, astronomers have suggested that BP Psc is an old star in its so-called red giant phase. And, rather than being hallmarks of its youth, the disk and jets are, in fact, remnants of a recent and catastrophic interaction whereby a nearby star or giant planet was consumed by BP Psc.

When stars like the Sun begin to run of nuclear fuel, they expand and shed their outer layers. Our Sun, for example, is expected to swell so that it nearly reaches or possibly engulfs Earth, as it becomes a red giant star.

"It appears that BP Psc represents a star-eat-star Universe, or maybe a star-eat-planet one," said Joel Kastner of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who led the Chandra study. "Either way, it just shows it's not always friendly out there."

Several pieces of information have led astronomers to rethink how old BP Psc might be. First, BP Psc is not located near any star-forming cloud, and there are no other known young stars in its immediate vicinity. Secondly, in common with most elderly stars, its atmosphere contains only a small amount of lithium. Thirdly, its surface gravity appears to be too weak for a young star and instead matches up with one of an old red giant.

Chandra adds to this story. Young, low-mass stars are brighter than most other stars in X-rays, and so X-ray observations can be used as a sign of how old a star may be. Chandra does detect X-rays from BP Psc, but at a rate that is too low to be from a young star. Instead, the X-ray emission rate measured for BP Psc is consistent with that of rapidly rotating giant stars.

The spectrum of the X-ray emission that is how the amount of X-rays changes with wavelength -- is consistent with flares occurring on the surface of the star, or with interactions between the star and the disk surrounding it. The magnetic activity of the star itself might be generated by a dynamo caused by its rapid rotation. This rapid rotation can be caused by the engulfment process.

"It seems that BP Psc has been energized by its meal," said co-author Rodolfo (Rudy) Montez Jr., also from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The star's surface is obscured throughout the visible and near-infrared bands, so the Chandra observation represents the first detection at any wavelength of BP Psc itself.

"BP Psc shows us that stars like our Sun may live quietly for billions of years," said co-author David Rodriguez from UCLA, "but when they go, they just might take a star or planet or two with them."

Although any close-in planets were presumably devastated when BP Psc turned into a giant star, a second round of planet formation might be occurring in the surrounding disk, hundreds of millions of years after the first round. A new paper using observations with the Spitzer Space Telescope has reported possible evidence for a giant planet in the disk surrounding BP Psc. This might be a newly formed planet or one that was part of the original planetary system.

"Exactly how stars might engulf other stars or planets is a hot topic in astrophysics today," said Kastner. "We have many important details that we still need to work out, so objects like BP Psc are really exciting to find."

These results appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Other co-authors on the study were Nicolas Grosso of the University of Strasbourg, Ben Zuckerman from UCLA, Marshall Perrin from the Space Telescope Science Institute, Thierry Forveille of the Grenoble Astrophysics Laboratory in France and James Graham from University of California, Berkeley.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

The universe is still an arcane place that scientists know very little about, but a new NASA Solar Terrestrial Probe mission is going to shed light on one especially mysterious event called magnetic reconnection. It occurs when magnetic lines of force cross, cancel, and reconnect releasing magnetic energy in the form of heat and charged-particle kinetic energy.

On the sun, magnetic reconnection causes solar flares more powerful than several atomic bombs combined. In Earth's atmosphere, magnetic reconnection dispenses magnetic storms and auroras, and in laboratories on Earth it can cause big problems in fusion reactors.

Although the study of magnetic reconnection dates back to the 1950s and despite numerous scientific papers addressing this perplexing issue, scientists still cannot agree on one accepted model.

Magnetospheric MultiscaleIn 2014, NASA is scheduled to launch a satellite that will greatly increase our understanding of this phenomenon when it launches the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, a suite of four identical spacecraft that will study magnetic reconnection in the best possible laboratory – the Earth’s magnetosphere. The spacecraft will obtain measurements necessary to test prevailing theories as to how reconnection is enabled and how it progresses.

Recently, NASA and members of an independent review board painstakingly reviewed every aspect of the MMS mission, and successfully completed the mission’s critical design review. This technical review is held to ensure that a mission can proceed into fabrication, demonstration and test and can meet stated performance requirements, including cost, schedule, risk and other system constraints.

According to MMS deputy project scientist Mark Adrian of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., “This is the last hurdle before the spacecraft and instrument teams begin to build actual flight hardware.”

MMS was approved for implementation in June 2009 following a successful Preliminary Design Review in May 2009.

Dr. James L. Burch of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, will lead the MMS science team. According to Burch, “Magnetic reconnection is a fundamental physical process that occurs throughout the universe,” says Burch. “MMS will enable us to study this dynamic process in the near-Earth space environment, where it transfers energy from the solar wind to the magnetosphere and drives disturbances known as space weather.”

Goddard is the lead Center for the mission. Engineers there will perform the required environmental testing, build the spacecraft and integrate all four sets of instruments into the MMS satellites, support launch vehicle integration and operations, and develop the Mission Operations Center which to monitor and control the spacecraft.

MMS will carry identical suites of plasma analyzers, energetic particle detectors, magnetometers, and electric field instruments as well as a device to prevent spacecraft charging from interfering with the highly sensitive measurements required in and around the diffusion regions.

Scientists and engineers at Goddard have designed and will build one of the instruments – the Fast Plasma Instrument, which will measure the ion and electron distributions and the electric and magnetic fields with unprecedentedly high millisecond time resolution and accuracy.

Currently, MMS is scheduled to launch in August 2014 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL aboard an Atlas V rocket.

With a loud roar and mighty column of flame, NASA and ATK Aerospace Systems successfully completed a two-minute, full-scale test of the largest and most powerful solid rocket motor designed for flight. The motor is potentially transferable to future heavy-lift launch vehicle designs.

The stationary firing of the first-stage development solid rocket motor, dubbed DM-2, was conducted by ATK, a division of Alliant Techsystems of Brigham City, Utah. DM-2 is the most heavily instrumented solid rocket motor in NASA history, with a total of 53 test objectives measured through more than 760 instruments.

Prior to the static test, the solid rocket motor was cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit to verify the performance of new materials and assess motor performance at low temperatures during the full-duration test. Initial test data showed the motor performance met all expectations.

"For every few degrees the temperature rises, solid propellant burns slightly faster and only through robust ground testing can we understand how material and motor performance is impacted by different operating conditions," said Alex Priskos, first stage manager for Ares Projects at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "Ground-testing at temperature extremes pushes this system to its limits, which advances our understanding of five-segment solid rocket motor performance."

The first-stage solid rocket motor is designed to generate up to 3.6-million pounds of thrust at launch. Information collected from this test, together with data from the first development motor test last year, will be evaluated to better understand the performance and reliability of the design.

Although similar to the solid rocket boosters that help power the space shuttle to orbit, the five-segment development motor includes several upgrades and technology improvements implemented by NASA and ATK engineers. Motor upgrades from a shuttle booster include the addition of a fifth segment, a larger nozzle throat, and upgraded insulation and liner. The motor cases are flight-proven hardware used on shuttle launches for more than three decades. The cases used in this ground test have collectively launched 59 previous missions.

After more testing, the first-stage solid rocket motor will be certified to fly at temperature ranges between 40-90 degrees Fahrenheit. The solid rocket motor was built as an element of NASA's Constellation Program and is managed by the Ares Projects Office at Marshall. ATK Aerospace Systems is the prime contractor.

MKRdezign

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