December 2010

Cassini Jupiter Portrait

Ten years ago, on Dec. 30, 2000, NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its closest approach to Jupiter on its way to orbiting Saturn. The main purpose was to use the gravity of the largest planet in our solar system to slingshot Cassini towards Saturn, its ultimate destination. But the encounter with Jupiter, Saturn's gas-giant big brother, also gave the Cassini project a perfect lab for testing its instruments and evaluating its operations plans for its tour of the ringed planet, which began in 2004.


"The Jupiter flyby allowed the Cassini spacecraft to stretch its wings, rehearsing for its prime time show, orbiting Saturn," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Ten years later, findings from the Jupiter flyby still continue to shape our understanding of similar processes in the Saturn system."

Cassini spent about six months - from October 2000 to March 2001 - exploring the Jupiter system. The closest approach brought Cassini to within about 9.7 million kilometers (6 million miles) of Jupiter's cloud tops at 2:05 a.m. Pacific Time, or 10:05 a.m. UTC, on Dec. 30, 2000.

Cassini captured some 26,000 images of Jupiter and its moons over six months of continual viewing, creating the most detailed global portrait of Jupiter yet.

While Cassini's images of Jupiter did not have higher resolution than the best from NASA's Voyager mission during its two 1979 flybys, Cassini's cameras had a wider color spectrum than those aboard Voyager, capturing wavelengths of radiation that could probe different heights in Jupiter's atmosphere. The images enabled scientists to watch convective lightning storms evolve over time and helped them understand the heights and composition of these storms and the many clouds, hazes and other types of storms that blanket Jupiter.

The Cassini images also revealed a never-before-seen large, dark oval around 60 degrees north latitude that rivaled Jupiter's Great Red Spot in size. Like the Great Red Spot, the large oval was a giant storm on Jupiter. But, unlike the Great Red Spot, which has been stable for hundreds of years, the large oval showed itself to be quite transient, growing, moving sideways, developing a bright inner core, rotating and thinning over six months. The oval was at high altitude and high latitude, so scientists think the oval may have been associated with Jupiter's powerful auroras.

The imaging team was also able to amass 70-day movies of storms forming, merging and moving near Jupiter's north pole. They showed how larger storms gained energy from swallowing smaller storms, the way big fish eat small fish. The movies also showed how the ordered flow of the eastward and westward jet streams in low latitudes gives way to a more disordered flow at high latitudes.

Meanwhile, Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer was able to do the first thorough mapping of Jupiter's temperature and atmospheric composition. The temperature maps enabled winds to be determined above the cloud tops, so scientists no longer had to rely on tracking features to measure winds. The spectrometer data showed the unexpected presence of an intense equatorial eastward jet (roughly 140 meters per second, or 310 mph) high in the stratosphere, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the visible clouds. Data from this instrument also led to the highest-resolution map so far of acetylene on Jupiter and the first detection of organic methyl radical and diacetylene in the auroral hot spots near Jupiter's north and south poles. These molecules are important to understanding the chemical interactions between sunlight and molecules in Jupiter's stratosphere.

As Cassini approached Jupiter, its radio and plasma wave instrument also recorded naturally occurring chirps created by electrons coming from a cosmic sonic boom. The boom occurs when supersonic solar wind - charged particles that fly off the sun - is slowed and deflected around the magnetic bubble surrounding Jupiter.

Because Cassini arrived at Jupiter while NASA's Galileo spacecraft was still orbiting the planet, scientists were also able to take advantage of near-simultaneous measurements from two different spacecraft. This coincidence enabled scientists to make giant strides in understanding the interaction of the solar wind with Jupiter. Cassini and Galileo provided the first two-point measurement of the boundary of Jupiter's magnetic bubble and showed that it was in the act of contracting as a region of higher solar wind pressure blew on it.

"The Jupiter flyby benefited us in two ways, one being the unique science data we collected and the other the knowledge we gained about how to effectively operate this complex machine," said Bob Mitchell, Cassini program manager based at JPL. "Today, 10 years later, our operations are still heavily influenced by that experience and it is serving us very well."

In celebrating the anniversary of Cassini's visit 10 years ago, scientists are also excited about the upcoming and proposed missions to the Jupiter system, including NASA's Juno spacecraft, to be launched next August, and the Europa Jupiter System Mission, which has been given a priority by NASA.

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, Calif., manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. The composite infrared spectrometer team is based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., where the instrument was built. The radio and plasma wave science team is based at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, where the instrument was built.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/whycassini/cassini20101229.html

GOES-13 Satellite

Snows are finally winding down in New England today, Dec. 27, as a powerful low pressure system brought blizzard conditions from northern New Jersey to Maine over Christmas weekend. The GOES-13 satellite captured an image of the low's center off the Massachusetts coast and saw the snowfall left behind.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite called GOES-13 captured the visible image. GOES satellites are operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA's GOES Project, located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. creates some of the GOES satellite images and animations.

As of 1:30 p.m. EST, all blizzard warnings were canceled as the low has pulled much of its snow and rain away from land areas and into the North Atlantic Ocean. The winds behind the system are now causing more problems for residents along the U.S. East coast.

Snowfall ranged from 1.5 inches in Atlanta, Georgia to more than a foot in various areas of New Jersey, New York and the New England states. Near Wallops Island, Va. where NASA has a facility, more than 11 inches of snow was reported this morning. Newark, N.J. reported 17.7 inches of snow by midnight last night. Central Park in New York City reported 12.0 inches of snow had fallen just before midnight. Providence, Rhode Island reported 7.9 inches by midnight, while Boston, Mass. reported 9.9 inches at that time. More snow fell on top of those totals during the morning hours today.

Some of those snows are visible in today's GOES-13 satellite image. Snowfall on the ground can be seen in the image over South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and southeastern New York. The clouds of the low obscure New England in the image.

From Maine south to the Carolinas winds are howling in excess of 30 mph, and power outages could occur as a result of the winds and the areas with the heaviest snows. The winds in Portland, Maine today are blowing from the northwest from 20 to 30 mph with gusts over 40 mph. Yesterday in Newark, N.J. sustained winds of 41 mph were reported with gusts as high as 51 mph. Going further south, the Raleigh, N.C. National Weather Service noted that sustained northwest winds of 10 to 20 mph with gusts up to 30 mph are expected today. Even further south, Atlanta, Georgia is also experiencing winds up to 20 mph today.

The winds are making clean-up efforts difficult along the east coast, but as temperatures are expected to slowly and steadily climb over the course of the week travel will become easier every day.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/features/2010/goes13-snow.html

Phobos Passes in Front of Sun's Face

A new Mars movie clip gives us a rover's-eye view of a bluish Martian sunset, while another clip shows the silhouette of the moon Phobos passing in front of the sun.

America's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, carefully guided by researchers with an artistic sense, has recorded images used in the simulated movies.

These holiday treats from the rover's panoramic camera, or Pancam, offer travel fans a view akin to standing on Mars and watching the sky.

"These visualizations of an alien sunset show what it must have looked like for Opportunity, in a way we rarely get to see, with motion," said rover science team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station. Dust particles make the Martian sky appear reddish and create a bluish glow around the sun.

Lemmon worked with Pancam Lead Scientist Jim Bell, of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., to plot the shots and make the moving-picture simulation from images taken several seconds apart in both sequences.

The sunset movie, combining exposures taken Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, 2010, through different camera filters, accelerates about 17 minutes of sunset into a 30-second simulation. One of the filters is specifically used to look at the sun. Two other filters used for these shots provide color information. The rover team has taken Pancam images of sunsets on several previous occasions, gaining scientifically valuable information about the variability of dust in the lower atmosphere. The new clip is the longest sunset movie from Mars ever produced, taking advantage of adequate solar energy currently available to Opportunity.

The two Martian moons are too small to fully cover the face of the sun, as seen from the surface of Mars, so these events -- called transits or partial eclipses -- look quite different from a solar eclipse seen on Earth. Bell and Lemmon chose a transit by Phobos shortly before the Mars sunset on Nov. 9, 2010, for a set of Pancam exposures taken four seconds apart and combined into the new, 30-second, eclipse movie. Scientifically, images years apart that show Phobos' exact position relative to the sun at an exact moment in time aid studies of slight changes in the moon's orbit. This, in turn, adds information about the interior of Mars.

The world has gained from these movies and from more than a quarter million other images from Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, since they landed on Mars in January 2004. Those gains go beyond the facts provided for science.

Bell said, "For nearly seven years now, we've been using the cameras on Spirit and Opportunity to help us experience Mars as if we were there, viewing these spectacular vistas for ourselves. Whether it's seeing glorious sunsets and eclipses like these, or the many different and lovely sandy and rocky landscapes that we've driven through over the years, we are all truly exploring Mars through the lenses of our hardy robotic emissaries.

"It reminds me of a favorite quote from French author Marcel Proust: 'The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,'" he added.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer20101222.html

Earthrise

Christmas Eve, 1968. As one of the most turbulent, tragic years in American history drew to a close, millions around the world were watching and listening as the Apollo 8 astronauts -- Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders -- became the first humans to orbit another world.

As their command module floated above the lunar surface, the astronauts beamed back images of the moon and Earth and took turns reading from the book of Genesis, closing with a wish for everyone "on the good Earth."

"We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice," recalled Borman during 40th anniversary celebrations in 2008. "And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate."

"The first ten verses of Genesis is the foundation of many of the world's religions, not just the Christian religion," added Lovell. "There are more people in other religions than the Christian religion around the world, and so this would be appropriate to that and so that's how it came to pass."

The mission was also famous for the iconic "Earthrise" image, snapped by Anders, which would give humankind a new perspective on their home planet. Anders has said that despite all the training and preparation for an exploration of the moon, the astronauts ended up discovering Earth.

The Apollo 8 astronauts got where they were that Christmas Eve because of a bold, improvisational call by NASA. With the clock ticking on President Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon by decade's end, delays with the lunar module were threatening to slow the Apollo program. So NASA decided to change mission plans and send the Apollo 8 crew all the way to the moon without a lunar module on the first manned flight of the massive Saturn V rocket.

The crew rocketed into orbit on December 21, and after circling the moon 10 times on Christmas Eve, it was time to come home. On Christmas morning, mission control waited anxiously for word that Apollo 8's engine burn to leave lunar orbit had worked. They soon got confirmation when Lovell radioed, "Roger, please be informed there is a Santa Claus."

The crew splashed down in the Pacific on December 27. A lunar landing was still months away, but for the first time ever, men from Earth had visited the moon and returned home safely.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/topics/history/features/apollo_8.html

NASA's Cassini spacecraft will be making its close flyby of the northern hemisphere of Saturn's moon Enceladus today, Monday, Dec. 20. The closest approach will take place at 5:08 PM PST (8:08 EST) on Dec. 20, or 1:08 AM UTC on Dec. 21. The spacecraft will zip by at an altitude of about 48 kilometers (30 miles) above the icy moon's surface.

Artist concept of Enceladus flybyCassini's fields and particles instruments will get priority during this flyby. They will be trying to characterize the particles that may form a tenuous atmosphere around Enceladus and see if they may be similar to the faint oxygen- and carbon-dioxide atmosphere detected recently around Rhea, another Saturnian moon. The instruments will be particularly interested in the Enceladus environment away from the jets emanating from the south polar region. A goal of the observations will be to try to measure the rate of dust coming off the moon from the bombardment of micrometeoroids alone. These measurements will help scientists understand the rate of micrometeoroid bombardment in the Saturn system, which will help them get at the age of Saturn's main rings.

The composite infrared spectrometer and imaging cameras will also be active, looking for additional hot spots on the moon and taking pictures of some regions at a higher resolution than is currently available.

This is the 13th flyby of Enceladus in Cassini's mission and takes a similar path to the last Enceladus flyby.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/whycassini/cassini20101220.html

LOLA topographic map of the moon's northern hemisphere

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is allowing researchers to create the most precise and complete map to date of the moon's complex, heavily cratered landscape.

"This dataset is being used to make digital elevation and terrain maps that will be a fundamental reference for future scientific and human exploration missions to the moon," said Dr. Gregory Neumann of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "After about one year taking data, we already have nearly 3 billion data points from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter on board the LRO spacecraft, with near-uniform longitudinal coverage. We expect to continue to make measurements at this rate through the next two years of the science phase of the mission and beyond. Near the poles, we expect to provide near-GPS-like navigational capability as coverage is denser due to the spacecraft's polar orbit." Neumann will present the map at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco December 17.

The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) works by propagating a single laser pulse through a Diffractive Optical Element that splits it into five beams. These beams then strike and are backscattered from the lunar surface. From the return pulse, the LOLA electronics determines the time of flight which, accounting for the speed of light, provides a precise measurement of the range from the spacecraft to the lunar surface. Range measurements, combined with accurate tracking of the spacecraft's location, are used to build a map revealing the contours of the lunar landscape. The five beams create a two-dimensional spot pattern that unambiguously reveals slopes. LOLA will also measure the spreading of the return pulse to get the surface roughness and the change in the transmitted compared to the return energy of the pulse to determine surface reflectance.

The new LOLA maps are more accurate and sample more places on the lunar surface than any available before. "The positional errors of image mosaics of the lunar far side, where direct spacecraft tracking – the most accurate -- is unavailable, have been one to ten kilometers (about 0.62 to 6.2 miles)," said Neumann. "We're beating these down to the level of 30 meters (almost 100 feet) or less spatially and one meter (almost 3.3 feet) vertically. At the poles, where illumination rarely provides more than a glimpse of the topography below the crater peaks, we found systematic horizontal errors of hundreds of meters (hundreds of yards) as well." In terms of coverage, the nearly three billion range measurements so far by LRO compare to about eight million to nine million each from three recent international lunar missions, according to Neumann. "They were limited to a mile or so between individual data points, whereas our measurements are spaced about 57 meters (about 187 feet) apart in five adjacent tracks separated by about 15 meters (almost 50 feet)."

"Recent papers have clarified some aspects of lunar processes based solely on the more precise topography provided by the new LOLA maps," adds Neumann, "such as lunar crater density and resurfacing by impacts, or the formation of multi-ring basins."

"The LOLA data also allow us to define the current and historical illumination environment on the moon," said Neumann. Lunar illumination history is important for discovering areas that have been shaded for long periods. Such places, typically in deep craters near the lunar poles, act like cold storage, and are capable of accumulating and preserving volatile material like water ice.

The landscape in polar craters is mysterious because their depths are often in shadow. The new LOLA dataset is illuminating details of their topography for the first time. "Until LRO and the recent Japanese Kaguya mission, we had no idea of what the extremes of polar crater slopes were," said Neumann. "Now, we find slopes of 36 degrees over several kilometers (several thousands of yards) in Shackleton crater, for example, which would make traverses quite difficult and apparently causes landslides. The LOLA measurements of shadowed polar crater slopes and their surface roughness take place at scales from lander size to kilometers. These measurements are helping the LRO science team model the thermal environment of these craters, and team members are developing temperature maps of them."

LRO and LOLA were built and are managed by NASA Goddard. The research was funded by NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LRO/news/lola-topo-map.html

West Antarctica is seeing dramatic ice loss particularly the Antarctic Peninsula and Pine Island regions

Scientists have previously shown that West Antarctica is losing ice, but how that ice is lost remained unclear. Now, using data from Earth observing satellites and airborne science missions, scientists are closing in on ice loss culprits above and below the ice.

The findings, presented Dec. 15 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, Calif., are expected to improve predictions of sea level rise.

Time Not Healing Glacial Wounds

A new analysis by Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder Colo., and colleagues found that more than a decade after two major Antarctic ice shelves collapsed, glaciers once buttressed by the shelves continue to lose ice.

Changes are most evident in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and along the Antarctic Peninsula. A spine of mountains forces passing winds to give up their moisture as snow, feeding glaciers that in turn feed the ice shelves that jut out into the Southern Ocean. More than a decade ago, dramatic changes started affecting a series of ice shelves, collectively called Larsen, along the Peninsula's northeast coast. In 1995, Larsen A was the first to collapse followed by a larger loss of Larsen B in 2002. Today, a small piece of the Larsen B and the entirety of the vast Larsen C hang on.

Investigating how the glaciers have responded to the loss of these ice shelf "dams," Scambos and colleagues tracked elevation information using data from satellites such as NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and previous airborne missions. They show that between 2001 and 2006, glaciers feeding Larsen A and Larsen B lost 12 gigatons of ice loss per year, or 30 percent of all ice lost throughout the Peninsula.

Moreover, the continued draw down of glaciers, such as Drygalski Glacier, fifteen years after the loss of Larsen A, have set precedent for what to expect elsewhere. Losses by glaciers that fed the Larsen B, such as Crane Glacier, are likely to continue.

Scambos and a team of colleagues have now placed instruments on glaciers just south of the area where the shelves disintegrated, anticipating that further warming will lead to further glacier speed-ups. The instruments and new aircraft overflights will provide further insight into shelf break-up and the onset of ice acceleration.

Wind Matters

Further south is West Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier, another site of major ice loss presently draining more than 19 cubic miles of ice per year from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It continues to deteriorate rapidly and scientists want to know why.

By combining satellite and airborne data, Bob Bindschadler, a glaciologist with the Goddard Earth Sciences and Technology Center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has successfully gained more insight into interactions between the atmosphere, ocean and ice even though the data can’t reveal these connections directly.

Bindschadler and colleagues looked at images from the Landsat satellite and spotted a series of large surface undulations on the ice shelf. Next they matched the undulations with the timing of warm water pulses in the waters adjacent to the ice shelf. When surface winds are strong, they stir the Southern Ocean and lift the warm water onto the continental shelf where the additional heat contributes to melt.

Airborne data showed the ice shelf was up to 150 meters (492 feet) thinner when the warmer water was present, allowing Bindschadler’s team to establish a direct link between the rate of ice shelf melting and atmospheric wind speed. When the team accounted for the heat coming in and the ice lost, they concluded that only 22 percent of the heat is used in melting. Whether the remaining heat might melt additional ice is unknown, but it is clear that the atmospheric circulation has a strong role on the future of the ice shelf and the fate of the ice sheet inland. Stronger winds would lead to an acceleration of ice loss; weaker winds would have a stabilizing effect.

"In short, ice shelves are affected by what winds are doing," Bindschadler said. "As Antarctic Circumpolar winds continue to increase, ice shelves are at increasing risk."

Underwater Channel Promoting Melt?

Taking a closer look at Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier is Michael Studinger, a glaciologist with the Goddard Earth Sciences and Technology Center at NASA Goddard.

Studinger is project scientist for NASA's Operation IceBridge mission -- an airborne science campaign that makes annual surveys of polar snow and ice -- that is helping researchers understand changes to Pine Island and other critical regions along West Antarctica and the Peninsula.

After analyzing data from the mission's first Antarctic deployment in 2009, the team revealed for the first time a curious feature below the Pine Island shelf: a sinuous channel that allows warm ocean water to reach the grounding line, leading to melting of the ice shelf from below.

More information will become available throughout Operation IceBridge, which sustains watch over Earth's poles until the launch of ICESat-2, scheduled for January 2016. In November 2010, teams concluded the second Antarctic campaign during which they flew over sea ice and key glaciers including a return mission over Pine Island Glacier. These data will be incorporated into the tools scientists use to refine estimates of future sea level rise.

Area of Saturn's moon Titan known as Sotra Facula

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found possible ice volcanoes on Saturn's moon Titan that are similar in shape to those on Earth that spew molten rock.

Topography and surface composition data have enabled scientists to make the best case yet in the outer solar system for an Earth-like volcano landform that erupts in ice. The results were presented today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

"When we look at our new 3-D map of Sotra Facula on Titan, we are struck by its resemblance to volcanoes like Mt. Etna in Italy, Laki in Iceland and even some small volcanic cones and flows near my hometown of Flagstaff," said Randolph Kirk, who led the 3-D mapping work, and is a Cassini radar team member and geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Scientists have been debating for years whether ice volcanoes, also called cryovolcanoes, exist on ice-rich moons, and if they do, what their characteristics are. The working definition assumes some kind of subterranean geological activity warms the cold environment enough to melt part of the satellite's interior and sends slushy ice or other materials through an opening in the surface. Volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io and Earth spew silicate lava.

Some cryovolcanoes bear little resemblance to terrestrial volcanoes, such as the tiger stripes at Saturn's moon Enceladus, where long fissures spray jets of water and icy particles that leave little trace on the surface. At other sites, eruption of denser materials might build up volcanic peaks or finger-like flows. But when such flows were spotted on Titan in the past, theories explained them as non-volcanic processes, such as rivers depositing sediment. At Sotra, however, cryovolcanism is the best explanation for two peaks more than 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) high with deep volcanic craters and finger-like flows.

"This is the very best evidence, by far, for volcanic topography anywhere documented on an icy satellite," said Jeffrey Kargel, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "It's possible the mountains are tectonic in origin, but the interpretation of cryovolcano is a much simpler, more consistent explanation."

Kirk and colleagues analyzed new Cassini radar images. His USGS group created the topographic map and 3-D flyover images of Sotra Facula. Data from Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer revealed the lobed flows had a composition different from the surrounding surface. Scientists have no evidence of current activity at Sotra, but they plan to monitor the area.

"Cryovolcanoes help explain the geological forces sculpting some of these exotic places in our solar system," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "At Titan, for instance, they explain how methane can be continually replenished in the atmosphere when the sun is constantly breaking that molecule down."

Cassini launched Oct. 15, 1997, and began orbiting Saturn in 2004. Saturn has more than 60 known moons, with Titan being the largest. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington.

The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and ASI, working with team members from the U.S. and several European countries. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer was built by JPL, with a major contribution by ASI. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer science team is based at the University of Arizona, Tucson. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.


For more information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/whycassini/cassini20101214.html

Artist concept of the two Voyager

The 33-year odyssey of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has reached a distant point at the edge of our solar system where there is no outward motion of solar wind.

Now hurtling toward interstellar space some 17.4 billion kilometers (10.8 billion miles) from the sun, Voyager 1 has crossed into an area where the velocity of the hot ionized gas, or plasma, emanating directly outward from the sun has slowed to zero. Scientists suspect the solar wind has been turned sideways by the pressure from the interstellar wind in the region between stars.

The event is a major milestone in Voyager 1's passage through the heliosheath, the turbulent outer shell of the sun's sphere of influence, and the spacecraft's upcoming departure from our solar system.

"The solar wind has turned the corner," said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Voyager 1 is getting close to interstellar space."

Our sun gives off a stream of charged particles that form a bubble known as the heliosphere around our solar system. The solar wind travels at supersonic speed until it crosses a shockwave called the termination shock. At this point, the solar wind dramatically slows down and heats up in the heliosheath.

Launched on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock in December 2004 into the heliosheath. Scientists have used data from Voyager 1's Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument to deduce the solar wind's velocity. When the speed of the charged particles hitting the outward face of Voyager 1 matched the spacecraft's speed, researchers knew that the net outward speed of the solar wind was zero. This occurred in June, when Voyager 1 was about 17 billion kilometers (10.6 billion miles) from the sun.

Because the velocities can fluctuate, scientists watched four more monthly readings before they were convinced the solar wind's outward speed actually had slowed to zero. Analysis of the data shows the velocity of the solar wind has steadily slowed at a rate of about 20 kilometers per second each year (45,000 mph each year) since August 2007, when the solar wind was speeding outward at about 60 kilometers per second (130,000 mph). The outward speed has remained at zero since June.

The results were presented today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

"When I realized that we were getting solid zeroes, I was amazed," said Rob Decker, a Voyager Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument co-investigator and senior staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "Here was Voyager, a spacecraft that has been a workhorse for 33 years, showing us something completely new again."

Scientists believe Voyager 1 has not crossed the heliosheath into interstellar space. Crossing into interstellar space would mean a sudden drop in the density of hot particles and an increase in the density of cold particles. Scientists are putting the data into their models of the heliosphere's structure and should be able to better estimate when Voyager 1 will reach interstellar space. Researchers currently estimate Voyager 1 will cross that frontier in about four years.

"In science, there is nothing like a reality check to shake things up, and Voyager 1 provided that with hard facts," said Tom Krimigis, principal investigator on the Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument, who is based at the Applied Physics Laboratory and the Academy of Athens, Greece. "Once again, we face the predicament of redoing our models."

A sister spacecraft, Voyager 2, was launched in Aug. 20, 1977 and has reached a position 14.2 billion kilometers (8.8 billion miles) from the sun. Both spacecraft have been traveling along different trajectories and at different speeds. Voyager 1 is traveling faster, at a speed of about 17 kilometers per second (38,000 mph), compared to Voyager 2's velocity of 15 kilometers per second (35,000 mph). In the next few years, scientists expect Voyager 2 to encounter the same kind of phenomenon as Voyager 1.

The Voyagers were built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which continues to operate both spacecraft. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/voyager . JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/voyager20101213.html

A new NASA computer modeling effort has found that additional growth of plants and trees in a world with doubled atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would create a new negative feedback – a cooling effect – in the Earth's climate system that could work to reduce future global warming.

The cooling effect would be -0.3 degrees Celsius (C) (-0.5 Fahrenheit (F)) globally and -0.6 degrees C (-1.1 F) over land, compared to simulations where the feedback was not included, said Lahouari Bounoua, of Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Bounoua is lead author on a paper detailing the results that will be published Dec. 7 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Without the negative feedback included, the model found a warming of 1.94 degrees C globally when carbon dioxide was doubled.

Bounoua stressed that while the model's results showed a negative feedback, it is not a strong enough response to alter the global warming trend that is expected. In fact, the present work is an example of how, over time, scientists will create more sophisticated models that will chip away at the uncertainty range of climate change and allow more accurate projections of future climate.

"This feedback slows but does not alleviate the projected warming," Bounoua said.

To date, only some models that predict how the planet would respond to a doubling of carbon dioxide have allowed for vegetation to grow as a response to higher carbon dioxide levels and associated increases in temperatures and precipitation.

Of those that have attempted to model this feedback, this new effort differs in that it incorporates a specific response in plants to higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. When there is more carbon dioxide available, plants are able to use less water yet maintain previous levels of photosynthesis. The process is called "down-regulation." This more efficient use of water and nutrients has been observed in experimental studies and can ultimately lead to increased leaf growth. The ability to increase leaf growth due to changes in photosynthetic activity was also included in the model. The authors postulate that the greater leaf growth would increase evapotranspiration on a global scale and create an additional cooling effect.

"This is what is completely new," said Bounoua, referring to the incorporation of down-regulation and changed leaf growth into the model. "What we did is improve plants' physiological response in the model by including down-regulation. The end result is a stronger feedback than previously thought."

The modeling approach also investigated how stimulation of plant growth in a world with doubled carbon dioxide levels would be fueled by warmer temperatures, increased precipitation in some regions and plants' more efficient use of water due to carbon dioxide being more readily available in the atmosphere. Previous climate models have included these aspects but not down-regulation. The models without down-regulation projected little to no cooling from vegetative growth.

Scientists agree that in a world where carbon dioxide has doubled – a standard basis for many global warming modeling simulations – temperature would increase from 2 to 4.5 degrees C (3.5 to 8.0 F). (The model used in this study found warming – without incorporating the plant feedback – on the low end of this range.) The uncertainty in that range is mostly due to uncertainty about "feedbacks" – how different aspects of the Earth system will react to a warming world, and then how those changes will either amplify (positive feedback) or dampen (negative feedback) the overall warming.

An example of a positive feedback would be if warming temperatures caused forests to grow in the place of Arctic tundra. The darker surface of a forest canopy would absorb more solar radiation than the snowy tundra, which reflects more solar radiation. The greater absorption would amplify warming. The vegetative feedback modeled in this research, in which increased plant growth would exert a cooling effect, is an example of a negative feedback. The feedback quantified in this study is a result of an interaction between all these aspects: carbon dioxide enrichment, a warming and moistening climate, plants' more efficient use of water, down-regulation and the ability for leaf growth.

This new paper is one of many steps toward gradually improving overall future climate projections, a process that involves better modeling of both warming and cooling feedbacks.

"As we learn more about how these systems react, we can learn more about how the climate will change," said co-author Forrest Hall, of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Goddard Space Flight Center. "Each year we get better and better. It's important to get these things right just as it's important to get the track of a hurricane right. We've got to get these models right, and improve our projections, so we'll know where to most effectively concentrate mitigation efforts."

The results presented here indicate that changes in the state of vegetation may already be playing a role in the continental water, energy and carbon budgets as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, said Piers Sellers, a co-author from NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.

"We're learning more and more about how our planet really works," Sellers said. "We have suspected for some time that the connection between vegetation photosynthesis and the surface energy balance could be a significant player in future climate. This study gives us an indication of the strength and sign of one of these biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks."

Dark Matter Clumps

Cosmologists have come up with a new way to solve their problems. They are inviting scientists, including those from totally unrelated fields, to participate in a grand competition. The idea is to spur outside interest in one of cosmology's trickiest problems -- measuring the invisible dark matter and dark energy that permeate our universe.

The results will help in the development of new space missions, designed to answer fundamental questions about the history and fate of our universe.

"We're hoping to get more computer scientists interested in our work," said cosmologist Jason Rhodes of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who is helping to organize the challenge, which begins on Dec. 3, 2010. "Some of the mathematical problems in our field are the same as those in machine-learning applications -- for example facial-recognition software."

JPL and several European Universities, including The University of Edinburgh and University College London in the United Kingdom, are helping to support the event, which is funded by a European Union group called Pattern Analysis, Statistical Modelling and Computation Learning. The principal investigator is Thomas Kitching of the University of Edinburgh.

This year, the competition, which has operated since 2008, is called GREAT 2010, after GRavitational lEnsing Accuracy Testing. The challenge is to solve a series of puzzles involving distorted images of galaxies. Occasionally in nature, a galaxy is situated behind a clump of matter that is causing the light from the galaxy to bend. The result is a magnified and skewed image of the galaxy. In the most extreme cases, the warping results in multiple images and even a perfect ring, called an Einstein Ring after Albert Einstein, who predicted the effect. But most of the time, the results are more subtle and a galaxy image is distorted just a tiny bit -- not even enough to be perceived by eye. This is called weak gravitational lensing, or just weak lensing for short.

Weak lensing is a powerful tool for unlocking the fabric of our universe. Only four percent of our universe consists of the stuff that makes up people, stars and anything with atoms. Twenty-four percent is dark matter -- a mysterious substance that we can't see but which tugs on the regular matter we can see. Most of our universe, 72 percent, consists of dark energy, which is even more baffling than dark matter. Dark energy is gravity's nemesis -- where gravity pulls, dark energy pushes. By studying lensed, or distorted, galaxies, scientists can create better maps of dark matter -- and by studying how dark matter changes over time, they can better understand dark energy.

Weak lensing is a promising method for tackling these questions. The 2010 U.S. National Research Council Decadal Survey on astronomy and astrophysics has ranked mission proposals using this method as high priorities.

The GREAT 2010 challenge is designed to improve weak-lensing know-how. Participants will start with fuzzy pictures of galaxies that have been distorted ever so slightly by invisible dark matter parked in front of them. The effect is so small that you can't see it with your eyes. The problem is even trickier because the telescopes are also distorting the galaxy images to an even greater degree than the dark matter. It takes complex techniques -- mathematical models and image-analysis algorithms -- to tease apart these various influences and ultimately discover how dark matter is warping a galaxy's shape.

"This is an image-analysis challenge. You don't need to be an astronomer or cosmologist to help measure the weak-lensing effect," said Kitching. "This challenge is meant to encourage a multidisciplinary approach to the problem."

Participants will have nine months to solve a series of thousands of puzzles. The winners will be announced at a closing ceremony and workshop held at JPL. Prize-winners can expect some kind of cool gadget -- as well as the satisfaction of having brought the world one step closer to understanding what makes our universe tick.

To participate in the venture, in-depth technical information is available online at: http://www.greatchallenges.info .

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

For more information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/great20101206.html

A team of astronomers, including two NASA Sagan Fellows, has made the first characterizations of a super-Earth's atmosphere, by using a ground-based telescope. A super-Earth is a planet up to three times the size of Earth and weighing up to 10 times as much. The findings, reported in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal Nature, are a significant milestone toward eventually being able to probe the atmospheres of Earth-like planets for signs of life.

The team determined the planet, GJ 1214b, is either blanketed with a thin layer of water steam or surrounded by a thick layer of high clouds. If the former, the planet itself would have an icy composition. If the latter, the planet would be rocky or similar to the composition of Neptune, though much smaller.

Super-Earth Exposed"This is the first super-Earth known to have an atmosphere," said Jacob Bean, a NASA Sagan Fellow and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "But even with these new measurements, we can't say yet what that atmosphere is made of. This world is being very shy and veiling its true nature from us."

GJ 1214b, first discovered in December 2009, is 2.7 times the size of Earth and 6.5 times as massive. Previous observations of the planet's size and mass demonstrated it has a low density for its size, leading astronomers to conclude the planet is some kind of solid body with an atmosphere.

The planet orbits close to its dim star, at a distance of 0.014 astronomical units. An astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the sun, approximately 93 million miles. GJ 1214b circles too close to its star to be habitable by any life forms.

Bean and his team observed infrared light as the planet crossed in front of its star. During such transits, the star's light filters through the atmosphere. Gases absorb the starlight at particular wavelengths, leaving behind chemical fingerprints detectable from Earth. This same type of technique has been used to study the atmospheres of distant "hot Jupiters," or Jupiter-like planets orbiting close to their stars, and found gases like hydrogen, methane and sodium vapor.

In the case of the super-Earth, no chemical fingerprints were detected; however, this doesn't mean there are no chemicals present. Instead, this information ruled out some possibilities for GJ 1214b's atmosphere, and narrowed the scope to either an atmosphere of water steam or high clouds. Astronomers believe it's more likely the atmosphere is too thin around the planet to let enough light filter through and reveal chemical fingerprints.

"A steamy atmosphere would have to be very dense – about one-fifth water vapor by volume -- compared to our Earth, with an atmosphere that's four-fifths nitrogen and one-fifth oxygen with only a touch of water vapor," Bean said. "During the next year, we should have some solid answers about what this planet is truly like."

The team, which included Bean's co-authors -- Eliza Miller-Ricci Kempton, a NASA Sagan Fellow at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and Derek Homeier of the Institute for Astrophysics in Gottingen, Germany -- examined GJ 1214b using the ground-based Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile.

"This is an important step forward, narrowing our understanding of the atmosphere of this planet," said NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program Scientist Douglas Hudgins at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Bizarre worlds like this make exoplanet science one of the most compelling areas in astrophysics today."

The Sagan Fellowship Program is administered by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Its purpose is to advance the scientific and technical goals of NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program. The program is managed for NASA by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.


For more information visit: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/exoplanet20101201.html

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