2011

Dark Side of Vesta

Dawn took this image over Vesta's northern hemisphere after the spacecraft completed its first passage over the dark side of the giant asteroid. It is northern hemisphere winter on Vesta now, so its north pole is in deep shadow.

The Dawn science team is working to determine the significance of the distinct features in this image, which include large grooves or ridges extending for great distances around Vesta.

This image was taken by Dawn's framing camera on July 23, from a distance of 3,200 miles (5,200 kilometers).

The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for NASA. The University of California, Los Angeles, is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. The Dawn framing cameras have been developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, with significant contributions by DLR German Aerospace Center, Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering, Braunschweig. The Framing Camera project is funded by the Max Planck Society, DLR, and NASA/JPL.

NASA's Juno spacecraft completed its last significant terrestrial journey today, July 27, with a 15-mile (25-kilometer) trip from Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., to its launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The solar-powered, Jupiter-bound spacecraft was secured into place on top of its rocket at 10:42 a.m. EDT (7:42 a.m. PDT).

Juno will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016 and orbit its poles 33 times to learn more about the gas giant's interior, atmosphere and aurora.

"We're about to start our journey to Jupiter to unlock the secrets of the early solar system," said Scott Bolton, the mission's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "After eight years of development, the spacecraft is ready for its important mission."

Juno Mission to JupiterNow that the Juno payload is atop the most powerful Atlas rocket ever made -- the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 -- a final flurry of checks and tests can begin and confirm that all is go for launch. The final series of checks begins Wednesday with an on-pad functional test. The test is designed to confirm that the spacecraft is healthy after the fueling, encapsulation and transport operations.

"The on-pad functional test is the first of seven tests and reviews that Juno and its flight team will undergo during the spacecraft's last 10 days on Earth," said Jan Chodas, Juno's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "There are a number of remaining pre-launch activities that we still need to focus on, but the team is really excited that the final days of preparation, which we've been anticipating for years, are finally here. We are ready to go."

The launch period for Juno opens Aug. 5, 2011, and extends through Aug. 26. For an Aug. 5 liftoff, the launch window opens at 11:34 a.m. EDT (8:34 a.m. PDT) and remains open through 12:43 p.m. EDT (9:43 a.m. PDT).

JPL manages the Juno mission for principal investigator Scott Bolton. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver built the spacecraft. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope crossed another milestone in its space odyssey of exploration and discovery. On Monday, July 4, the Earth-orbiting observatory logged its one millionth science observation during a search for water in an exoplanet's atmosphere 1,000 light-years away.

"For 21 years Hubble has been the premier space science observatory, astounding us with deeply beautiful imagery and enabling ground-breaking science across a wide spectrum of astronomical disciplines," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. He piloted the space shuttle mission that carried Hubble to orbit. "The fact that Hubble met this milestone while studying a faraway planet is a remarkable reminder of its strength and legacy."

Hubble's Millionth ObservationAlthough Hubble is best known for its stunning imagery of the cosmos, the millionth observation is a spectroscopic measurement, where light is divided into its component colors. These color patterns can reveal the chemical composition of cosmic sources.

Hubble's millionth exposure is of the planet HAT-P-7b, a gas giant planet larger than Jupiter orbiting a star hotter than our sun. HAT-P-7b, also known as Kepler 2b, has been studied by NASA's planet-hunting Kepler observatory after it was discovered by ground-based observations. Hubble now is being used to analyze the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

"We are looking for the spectral signature of water vapor. This is an extremely precise observation and it will take months of analysis before we have an answer," said Drake Deming of the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Hubble demonstrated it is ideally suited for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets, and we are excited to see what this latest targeted world will reveal."

Hubble was launched April 24, 1990, aboard space shuttle's Discovery's STS-31 mission. Its discoveries revolutionized nearly all areas of astronomical research from planetary science to cosmology. The observatory has collected more than 50 terabytes of data to-date.

Hubble's odometer reading includes every observation of astronomical targets since its launch and observations used to calibrate its suite of instruments. Hubble made the millionth observation using its Wide Field Camera 3, a visible and infrared light imager with an on-board spectrometer. It was installed by astronauts during the Hubble Servicing Mission 4 in May 2009.

"The Hubble keeps amazing us with groundbreaking science," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee that funds NASA. "I championed the mission to repair and renew Hubble not just to get one million science observations, but also to inspire millions of children across the planet to become our next generation of stargazers, scientists, astronauts and engineers."

Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. Goddard 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.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on track to begin the first extended visit to a large asteroid. The mission expects to go into orbit around Vesta on July 16 and begin gathering science data in early August. Vesta resides in the main asteroid belt and is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth.

Dawn Approaching Vesta"The spacecraft is right on target," said Robert Mase, Dawn project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We look forward to exploring this unknown world during Dawn's one-year stay in Vesta's orbit."

After traveling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometers), Dawn is approximately 96,000 miles (155,000 kilometers) away from Vesta. When Vesta captures Dawn into its orbit on July 16, there will be approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between them. When orbit is achieved, they will be approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) away from Earth.

Hubble and Dawn Views of VestaAfter Dawn enters Vesta's orbit, engineers will need a few days to determine the exact time of capture. Unlike other missions where a dramatic, nail-biting propulsive burn results in orbit insertion around a planet, Dawn has been using its placid ion propulsion system to subtly shape its path for years to match Vesta's orbit around the sun.

Images from Dawn's framing camera, taken for navigation purposes, show the slow progress toward Vesta. They also show Vesta rotating about 65 degrees in the field of view. The images are about twice as sharp as the best images of Vesta from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, but the surface details Dawn will obtain are still a mystery.

"Navigation images from Dawn's framing camera have given us intriguing hints of Vesta, but we're looking forward to the heart of Vesta operations, when we begin officially collecting science data," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, at UCLA. "We can't wait for Dawn to peel back the layers of time and reveal the early history of our solar system."

Dawn's three instruments are all functioning and appear to be properly calibrated. The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, for example, has started to obtain images of Vesta that are larger than a few pixels in size. During the initial reconnaissance orbit, at approximately 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers), the spacecraft will get a broad overview of Vesta with color pictures and data in different wavelengths of reflected light. The spacecraft will move into a high-altitude mapping orbit, about 420 miles (680 kilometers) above the surface to systematically map the parts of Vesta's surface illuminated by the sun; collect stereo images to see topographic highs and lows; acquire higher-resolution data to map rock types at the surface; and learn more about Vesta's thermal properties.

Dawn then will move even closer, to a low-altitude mapping orbit approximately 120 miles (200 kilometers) above the surface. The primary science goals of this orbit are to detect the byproducts of cosmic rays hitting the surface and help scientists determine the many kinds of atoms there, and probe the protoplanet's internal structure. As Dawn spirals away from Vesta, it will pause again at the high-altitude mapping orbit. Because the sun's angle on the surface will have progressed, scientists will be able to see previously hidden terrain while obtaining different views of surface features.

"We've packed our year at Vesta chock-full of science observations to help us unravel the mysteries of Vesta," said Carol Raymond, Dawn's deputy principal investigator at JPL. Vesta is considered a protoplanet, or body that never quite became a full-fledged planet.

Dawn launched in September 2007. Following a year at Vesta, the spacecraft will depart for its second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, in July 2012. Dawn's mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission team. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena

After nearly three months in orbit about Mercury, MESSENGER's payload is providing a wealth of new information about the planet closest to the Sun, as well as a few surprises.

Targeted color imaging – Degas craterThe spacecraft entered orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011 UTC, becoming the first spacecraft ever to do so. Tens of thousands of images of major features on the planet — previously seen only at comparatively low resolution — are now available in sharp focus. Measurements of the chemical composition of Mercury's surface are providing important clues to the origin of the planet and its geological history. Maps of the planet's topography and magnetic field are revealing new clues to Mercury's interior dynamical processes. And scientists now know that bursts of energetic particles in Mercury's magnetosphere are a continuing product of the interaction of Mercury's magnetic field with the solar wind.

This week, MESSENGER completed is first perihelion passage from orbit, its first superior solar conjunction from orbit, and its first orbit-correction maneuver. "Those milestones provide important context to the continuing feast of new observations that MESSENGER has been sending home on nearly a daily basis,” offers MESSENGER Principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

A Surface Revealed in Unprecedented Detail

Among the fascinating features seen in MESSENGER flyby images of Mercury were bright, patchy deposits on some crater floors. Without high-resolution images to obtain a closer look, these features remained a curiosity. New targeted Mercury Dual Imaging System images at up to 10 meters per pixel reveal these patchy deposits to be clusters of rimless, irregular pits varying in size from hundreds of meters to several kilometers. These pits are often surrounded by diffuse halos of higher-reflectance material, and they are found associated with central peaks, peak rings, and rims of craters.

"The etched appearance of these landforms is unlike anything we've seen before on Mercury or the Moon," says Brett Denevi, a staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., and a member of the MESSENGER imaging team. "We are still debating their origin, but they appear to have a relatively young age and may suggest a more abundant than expected volatile component in Mercury's crust."

Magnetic field lines differ at Mercury's north and south poles
Mercury's Surface Composition

The X-ray Spectrometer (XRS) — one of two instruments on MESSENGER designed to measure the abundances of many key elements on Mercury — has made several important discoveries since the orbital mission began. The magnesium/silicon, aluminum/silicon, and calcium/silicon ratios averaged over large areas of the planet's surface show that, unlike the surface of the Moon, Mercury's surface is not dominated by feldspar-rich rocks.

XRS observations have also revealed substantial amounts of sulfur at Mercury's surface, lending support to prior suggestions from ground-based telescopic spectral observations that sulfide minerals are present. This discovery suggests that the original building blocks from which Mercury was assembled may have been less oxidized than those that formed the other terrestrial planets, and it has potentially important implications for understanding the nature of volcanism on Mercury.


Mapping of Mercury's Topography and Magnetic Field


MESSENGER's Mercury Laser Altimeter has been systematically mapping the topography of Mercury's northern hemisphere. After more than two million laser-ranging observations, the planet's large-scale shape and profiles of geological features are both being revealed in high detail. The north polar region of Mercury, for instance, is a broad area of low elevations. The overall range in topographic heights seen to date exceeds 9 kilometers.

Two decades ago, Earth-based radar images showed that around both Mercury's north and south poles are deposits characterized by high radar backscatter. These polar deposits are thought to consist of water ice and perhaps other ices preserved on the cold, permanently shadowed floors of high-latitude impact craters. MESSENGER's altimeter is testing this idea by measuring the floor depths of craters near Mercury's north pole. To date, the depths of craters hosting polar deposits are consistent with the idea that those deposits occupy areas in permanent shadow.

Energetic Particle Events at Mercury

One of the major discoveries made by Mariner 10 during the first of its three flybys of Mercury in 1974 were bursts of energetic particles in Mercury's Earth-like magnetosphere. Four bursts of particles were observed on that flyby, so it was puzzling that no such strong events were detected by MESSENGER during any of its three flybys of the planet in 2008 and 2009. With MESSENGER now in near-polar orbit about Mercury, energetic events are being seen almost like clockwork.

"We are assembling a global overview of the nature and workings of Mercury for the first time,” adds Solomon, "and many of our earlier ideas are being cast aside as new observations lead to new insights. Our primary mission has another three Mercury years to run, and we can expect more surprises as our solar system's innermost planet reveals its long-held secrets."

First complete image of the solar far side of the sun

The far side unveiled! This is the first complete image of the solar far side, the half of the sun invisible from Earth. Captured on June 1, 2011, the composite image was assembled from NASA's two Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft. STEREO-Ahead's data is shown on the left half of image and STEREO-Behind's data on the right.

The STEREO spacecraft reached opposition (180° separation) on February 6 but part of the sun was inaccessible to their combined view until June 1. This image represents the first day when the entire far side could be seen.

The image is aligned so that solar north is directly up. The seam between the two images is inclined because the plane of Earth’s -- and STEREO's -- orbit, known as the "ecliptic", is inclined with respect to the sun's axis of rotation. The data was collected by STEREO's Extreme Ultraviolet Imagers in the SECCHI instrument suites.

STEREO was built and is operated for NASA by the Applied Physical Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University; the spacecraft were launched on October 25, 2006 aboard a Delta II. The SECCHI instrument suite is a collaboration led by the Naval Research Laboratory, and the EUVI instruments were built by the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory.

Tornado Track near Sturbridge, Massachusetts

On June 1, 2011, a supercell thunderstorm developed over western Massachusetts. The storm produced an EF3 tornado that cut a 39-mile (63-kilometer) track of destruction across southwest and south-central Massachusetts. Not only did the long-lived tornado remain on the ground for many miles, but it also widened to 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).

The Thematic Mapper on the Landsat 5 satellite captured this natural-color image on June 5, 2011. This image shows part of the tornado track, including damage in Sturbridge. According to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts state police reported a tornado on the ground in Sturbridge at 5:22 p.m. The tornado was spotted on the Interstate 84 exit, and cars were overturned.

The Boston Globe reported that the Massachusetts governor declared a state of emergency and ordered National Guard troops to assist with cleanup efforts. Tornadoes on June 1 killed at least four residents of the state, as well as reducing homes, schools, and churches to rubble.

The Landsat Program is a series of Earth-observing satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 1972, Landsat satellites have collected information about Earth from space. This science, known as remote sensing, has matured with the Landsat Program.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has found a rare class of oddball stars called blue stragglers in the hub of our Milky Way, the first detected within our galaxy's bulge.

Blue stragglers are so named because they seemingly lag behind in the aging process, appearing younger than the population from which they formed. While they have been detected in many distant star clusters, and among nearby stars, they never have been seen inside the core of our galaxy.

It is not clear how blue stragglers form. A common theory is that they emerge from binary pairs. As the more massive star evolves and expands, the smaller star gains material from its companion. This stirs up hydrogen fuel and causes the growing star to undergo nuclear fusion at a faster rate. It burns hotter and bluer, like a massive young star.

Blue straggler stars in the Milky WayThe findings support the idea that the Milky Way's central bulge stopped making stars billions of years ago. It now is home to aging sun-like stars and cooler red dwarfs. Giant blue stars that once lived there have long since exploded as supernovae.

The results have been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Lead author Will Clarkson of Indiana University in Bloomington, will discuss them today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston.

"Although the Milky Way bulge is by far the closest galaxy bulge, several key aspects of its formation and subsequent evolution remain poorly understood," Clarkson said. "Many details of its star-formation history remain controversial. The extent of the blue straggler population detected provides two new constraints for models of the star-formation history of the bulge."

The discovery followed a seven-day survey in 2006 called the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS). Hubble peered at 180,000 stars in the crowded central bulge of our galaxy, 26,000 light-years away. The survey was intended to find hot Jupiter-class planets that orbit very close to their stars. In doing so, the SWEEPS team also uncovered 42 oddball blue stars with brightness and temperatures typical for stars much younger than ordinary bulge stars.

The observations clearly indicate that if there is a young star population in the bulge, it is very small. It was not detected in the SWEEPS program. Blue stragglers long have been suspected to be living in the bulge, but had not been observed because younger stars in the disk of our galaxy lie along the line-of-sight to the core, confusing and contaminating the view.

Astronomers used Hubble to distinguish the motion of the core population from foreground stars in the Milky Way. Bulge stars orbit the galactic center at a different speed than foreground stars. Plotting their motion required returning to the SWEEPS target region with Hubble two years after the first observations were made. The blue stragglers were identified as moving along with the other stars in the bulge.

"The size of the field of view on the sky is roughly that of the thickness of a human fingernail held at arm's length, and within this region, Hubble sees about a quarter million stars toward the bulge," Clarkson said. "Only the superb image quality and stability of Hubble allowed us to make this measurement in such a crowded field."

From the 42 candidate blue stragglers, the investigators estimate 18 to 37 are likely genuine. The remainder could be a mix of foreground objects and, at most, a small population of genuinely young bulge stars.

"The SWEEPS program was designed to detect transiting planets through small light variations" said Kailash Sahu, the principal investigator of the SWEEPS program. "Therefore the program could easily detect the variability of binary pairs, which was crucial in confirming these are indeed blue stragglers."

Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., 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 in Washington.

NASA is ending attempts to regain contact with the long-lived Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, which last communicated on March 22, 2010.

A transmission that will end on Wednesday, May 25, will be the last in a series of attempts. Extensive communications activities during the past 10 months also have explored the possibility that Spirit might reawaken as the solar energy available to it increased after a stressful Martian winter without much sunlight. With inadequate energy to run its survival heaters, the rover likely experienced colder internal temperatures last year than in any of its prior six years on Mars. Many critical components and connections would have been susceptible to damage from the cold.

Artist's Concept of Rover on MarsEngineers' assessments in recent months have shown a very low probability for recovering communications with Spirit. Communications assets that have been used by the Spirit mission in the past, including NASA's Deep Space Network of antennas on Earth, plus two NASA Mars orbiters that can relay communications, now are needed to prepare for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. MSL is scheduled to launch later this year.

"We're now transitioning assets to support the November launch of our next generation Mars rover, Curiosity," said Dave Lavery, NASA’s program executive for solar system exploration. "However, while we no longer believe there is a realistic probability of hearing from Spirit, the Deep Space Network may occasionally listen for any faint signals when the schedule permits."

Spirit landed on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004, for a mission designed to last three months. After accomplishing its prime-mission goals, Spirit worked to accomplish additional objectives. Its twin, Opportunity, continues active exploration of Mars.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft and a European Southern Observatory ground-based telescope tracked the growth of a giant early-spring storm in Saturn's northern hemisphere that is so powerful it stretches around the entire planet. The rare storm has been wreaking havoc for months and shooting plumes of gas high into the planet's atmosphere.

Saturn Northern Storm in Infrared and Visible LightCassini's radio and plasma wave science instrument first detected the large disturbance, and amateur astronomers tracked its emergence in December 2010. As it rapidly expanded, its core developed into a giant, powerful thunderstorm. The storm produced a 3,000-mile-wide (5,000-kilometer-wide) dark vortex, possibly similar to Jupiter's Great Red Spot, within the turbulent atmosphere.

The dramatic effects of the deep plumes disturbed areas high up in Saturn's usually stable stratosphere, generating regions of warm air that shone like bright "beacons" in the infrared. Details are published in this week's edition of Science Magazine.

"Nothing on Earth comes close to this powerful storm," says Leigh Fletcher, the study's lead author and a Cassini team scientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. "A storm like this is rare. This is only the sixth one to be recorded since 1876, and the last was way back in 1990."

This is the first major storm on Saturn observed by an orbiting spacecraft and studied at thermal infrared wavelengths, where Saturn's heat energy reveals atmospheric temperatures, winds and composition within the disturbance.

Temperature data were provided by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal in Chile and Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS), operated by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"Our new observations show that the storm had a major effect on the atmosphere, transporting energy and material over great distances, modifying the atmospheric winds -- creating meandering jet streams and forming giant vortices -- and disrupting Saturn's slow seasonal evolution," said Glenn Orton, a paper co-author, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Updrafts of Large Ammonia Crystals in Saturn StormThe violence of the storm -- the strongest disturbances ever detected in Saturn's stratosphere -- took researchers by surprise. What started as an ordinary disturbance deep in Saturn's atmosphere punched through the planet's serene cloud cover to roil the high layer known as the stratosphere.

"On Earth, the lower stratosphere is where commercial airplanes generally fly to avoid storms which can cause turbulence," says Brigette Hesman, a scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park who works on the CIRS team at Goddard and is the second author on the paper. "If you were flying in an airplane on Saturn, this storm would reach so high up, it would probably be impossible to avoid it."

Other indications of the storm's strength are the changes in the composition of the atmosphere brought on by the mixing of air from different layers. CIRS found evidence of such changes by looking at the amounts of acetylene and phosphine, both considered to be tracers of atmospheric motion. A separate analysis using Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, led by Kevin Baines of JPL, confirmed the storm is very violent, dredging up larger atmospheric particles and churning up ammonia from deep in the atmosphere in volumes several times larger than previous storms. Other Cassini scientists are studying the evolving storm, and a more extensive picture will emerge soon.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany operates the VLT in Chile. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA Radar Image Shows Topography of Sendai

The topography surrounding Sendai, Japan is clearly visible in this combined radar image and topographic view generated with data from NASA's Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) acquired in 2000. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake struck offshore about 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Sendai, the capital city of Japan's Miyagi Prefecture, generating a tsunami that devastated the low-lying coastal city of about 1 million residents.

The city is centered in the image and lies along the coastal plain between the Ohu Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The eastern part of the city is a low-lying plains area, while the city center is hilly (the city's official elevation is about 43 meters, or 141 feet). Sendai's western areas are mountainous, with its highest point being Mt. Funagata at an elevation of about 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) above sea level.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake occurred as a result of thrust faulting on or near the subduction zone interface plate boundary between the Pacific and North America plates. At the latitude of this earthquake, the Pacific plate moves approximately westwards with respect to the North America plate at a velocity of 83 millimeters (3.3 inches) per year. The Pacific plate thrusts underneath Japan at the Japan Trench, and dips to the west beneath Eurasia. The location, depth and focal mechanism of the March 11 earthquake are consistent with the event having occurred as thrust faulting associated with subduction along this plate boundary.

This image combines a radar image acquired in February 2000 during the SRTM mission, and color-coding by topographic height using data from the same mission. Dark green colors indicate low elevations, rising through yellow and tan, to white at the highest elevations.

The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission is a cooperative project between NASA, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) of the U.S. Department of Defense and the German and Italian space agencies. It is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

NASA's versatile Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began orbiting Mars five years ago on March 10, has radically expanded our knowledge of the Red Planet and is now working overtime.

The mission has provided copious information about ancient environments, ice-age-scale climate cycles and present-day changes on Mars.

The orbiter observes Mars' surface, subsurface and atmosphere in unprecedented detail. The spacecraft's large solar panels and dish antenna have enabled it to transmit more data to Earth -- 131 terabits and counting, including more than 70,000 images than all other interplanetary missions combined. Yet many things had to go well for the mission to achieve these milestones.

True Gullies on MarsAfter a seven-month journey from Earth, the spacecraft fired its six main engines for nearly 27 minutes as it approached Mars on March 10, 2006. Mars could not capture it into orbit without this critically timed maneuver to slow the spacecraft. The orbiter's intended path took it behind Mars, out of communication, during most of the engine burn.

"That was tense, waiting until the spacecraft came back out from behind Mars and we had contact," recalled Dan Johnston, now the mission's deputy project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission met all its science goals in a two-year primary science phase. Two extensions, the latest beginning in 2010, have added to the bounty of science returns.

The mission has illuminated three very different periods of Mars history. Its observations of the heavily cratered terrains of Mars, the oldest on the planet, show that different types of ancient watery environments formed water-related minerals. Some of these would have been more favorable for life than others.

In more recent times, water appears to have cycled as a gas between polar ice deposits and lower-latitude deposits of ice and snow. Extensive layering in ice or rock probably took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to form and, like ice ages on Earth, is linked to cyclic changes in the tilt of the planet's rotation axis and the changing intensity of sunlight near the poles.

The present climate is also dynamic, with volatile carbon dioxide and, just possibly, summertime liquid water modifying gullies and forming new streaks. With observations of new craters, avalanches and dust storms, the orbiter has shown a partially frozen world, but not frozen in time, as change continues today.

In addition to its science observations, the mission provides support for other spacecraft as they land and operate on the surface. The orbiter's cameras captured the Phoenix Mars Lander as it parachuted to the surface in 2008 and monitored the atmosphere for dust storms that would affect Phoenix and the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter augmented NASA's Mars Odyssey in performing relay functions for these missions.

JPL's Phil Varghese, project manager for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, said, "The spacecraft is still in excellent health. After five years at Mars, it continues with dual capabilities for conducting science observations, monitoring the Mars environment and serving as a relay."

The orbiter has examined potential landing sites for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will land a rover named Curiosity at one of those sites in August 2012. "We are preparing to support the arrival of the Mars Science Laboratory and the rover's surface operations," Varghese said. "In the meantime, we will extend the science observations into a third Martian year." One Mars year lasts nearly two Earth years.

The orbiter's Mars Color Imager has produced more than four Earth years of daily global weather maps. More than 18,500 images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera have resolved features as small as a desk in target areas scattered around the planet that, combined, cover about as much ground as Alaska. More than 36,900 images from the Context Camera cover nearly two-thirds of the surface of Mars at a resolution that allows detection of features the size of large buildings.

The Compact Reconnaissance Spectrometer for Mars has mapped minerals on more than three-fourths of the planet's surface. The Mars Climate Sounder has monitored atmospheric temperature and aerosols with more than 59 million soundings. The Shallow Radar has checked for underground layers in more than 8,600 swaths of ground-penetrating observations.

"Each Mars year is unique, and additional coverage gives us a better chance to understand the nature of changes in the atmosphere and on the surface," said JPL's Rich Zurek, project scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. "We have already learned that Mars is a more dynamic and diverse planet than what we knew five years ago. We continue to see new things."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter and partners with JPL in spacecraft operations. For more about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Pointing a Finger at Star Formation

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, captured this image of a star-forming cloud of dust and gas, called Sh2-284, located in the constellation of Monoceros. Lining up along the edges of a cosmic hole are several "elephant trunks" -- or monstrous pillars of dense gas and dust.

The most famous examples of elephant trunks are the "Pillars of Creation" found in an iconic image of the Eagle nebula from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. In this WISE image, the trunks are seen as small columns of gas stretching toward the center of the void in Sh2-284, The most notable one can be seen on the right side at about the 3 o'clock position. It appears as a closed hand with a finger pointing toward the center of the void. That elephant trunk is about 7 light-years long.

Deep inside Sh2-284 resides an open star cluster, called Dolidze 25, which is emitting vast amounts of radiation in all directions, along with stellar winds. These stellar winds and radiation are clearing out a cavern inside the surrounding gas and dust, creating the void seen in the center. The bright green wall surrounding the cavern shows how far out the gas has been eroded. However, some sections of the original gas cloud were much denser than others, and they were able to resist the erosive power of the radiation and stellar winds. These pockets of dense gas remained and protected the gas "downwind" from them, leaving behind the elephant trunks.

Sh2-284 is relatively isolated at the very end of an outer spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy. In the night sky, it's located in the opposite direction from the center of the Milky Way.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages and operates the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

The storm is subsiding now, but it could start up again in response to ongoing high-speed solar wind.

Poker Flat, AlaskaA solar wind stream hit Earth's magnetic field during the early hours of March 1st. The impact sparked a polar geomagnetic storm that was, at first, minor, but the storm has been intensifying throughout the day. Spotters are now reporting auroras over Northern Ireland, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden. If the trend continues, high-latitude sky watchers will likely witness bright auroras after nightfall on March 1-2. Northern-tier US states such as Maine, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington could be favored with photographic and/or visual displays.

edge of the Sun

When a rather large M 3.6 class flare occurred near the edge of the Sun on Feb. 24, 2011, it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted for 90 minutes. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the event in extreme ultraviolet light. Because SDO images are high definition, the team was able to zoom in on the flare and still see exquisite details. And using a cadence of a frame taken every 24 seconds, the sense of motion is, by all appearances, seamless.

They nicknamed it the "Little Balloon That Could." Launched in December of 2010 from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the research balloon was a test run and it bobbed lower every day like it had some kind of leak. But every day for five days it rose back up in the sky to some 112,000 feet in the air.

Down on Earth, physicist Robyn Millan was cheering it on, hoping the test launch would bode well for the success of her grand idea: launches in 2013 and 2014 of 20 such balloons to float in the circular wind patterns above the South Pole. Each balloon will help track electrons from space that get swept up in Earth's magnetic field and slide down into our atmosphere. Such electrons are an integral part of the turbulent magnetic space weather system that extends from the sun to Earth.

A professor at Dartmouth College, Millan is the principal investigator for a project called BARREL, or Balloon Array for RBSP Relativistic Electron Losses. Millan's proposal will work hand in hand with NASA's Radiation Belt Space Probes (RBSP) mission, two NASA spacecraft due to launch in 2012 to study a mysterious part of Earth's magnetic environs called the Van Allen radiation belts. The radiation belts are made up of two regions, each one a gigantic donut of protons and electrons that surrounds Earth.

The two RBSP spacecraft"We're both looking at the loss of particles from the radiation belts," says Millan. "RBSP sits in space near the equatorial plane and looks at the particles along magnetic field lines there. These particles come into our atmosphere – following magnetic field lines to their base at the Poles – and produce X-rays. BARREL measures those X-rays. Together we can combine measurements of the same set of particles."

Figuring out what causes this rain of electrons will do more than simply improve understanding of the physics behind what drives such high-energy particles. The charged particles within the radiation belts can damage sensitive electronics on spacecraft like those used for global positioning systems and communications, and can injure humans in space. (The electrons don't make it all the way to Earth, so pose no danger to those of us on the ground.) Experiments like BARREL and RBSP help us understand the processes and mitigate those risks.

Millan began working on balloons during her graduate work at University of California, Berkeley, where she studied physics. She worked on a balloon called MAXIS that focused on electron precipitation from the magnetosphere into the ionosphere. "Then," she says, "We got this idea. They launch these huge payloads in Antarctica, but before that they send up smaller test balloons to make sure conditions are right for the big launch. And we thought – what if you could put instruments on those? So we took our payload, and miniaturized it."

She and her team, which includes scientists and students at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and University of Washington, set about making payloads that weigh only 50 pounds for balloons that are some 90 feet in diameter. That still sounds fairly big unless you know that the typical balloons launched in Antarctica are the size of a football field and carry payloads of some 3,000 pounds. The team received funding from the National Science Foundation to fly a total of six small balloons in 2005, and shortly thereafter she learned that NASA had put out a call for experiments to support RBSP.

David Sibeck, the project scientist for RBSP at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., recalls that Millan's project proposal was well-tailored to RBSP's goals. "One of RBSP's main challenges will be to differentiate between the hordes of theories that try to explain why the belts wax and wane over time," Sibeck says. "The RBSP spacecraft will be equipped to distinguish between different options, but Millan's balloons have an advantage in one specific area: they can measure particles that break out of the belts and make it all the way to Earth's atmosphere."

The first test of BARREL -- funded by NASA and also supported by NSF's Office of Polar Programs that supports logistics of all research in Antarctica -- began in December of 2008. The final one began this past winter, when Millan left New Hampshire for Antarctica on Nov. 15. She arrived in McMurdo Station – after a transfer in Christ Church, New Zealand and a day lost due to crossing the date line – on Nov. 19. This flight needed to test travel and ease of launch capabilities as much as anything else, so Millan's team had shipped all the balloons ready to fly. Once in Antarctica, she and her colleague, Brett Anderson, a Dartmouth graduate student, got to work unpacking.

"It was great," she says. "We just had to pull them out of the box and turn them on. We mounted their solar panels and with just two people we were able to get things ready really fast, which isn't always the easiest thing to do when in Antarctica."

One reason to do such electron research at the Poles is that Earth's magnetic field lines touch down there. But equally important for this campaign are the slowly circling wind patterns that set up each summer. The BARREL project will release another balloon every 1-2 days and each should fall into line, consistently buoyed by the winds along the same circular path.

This past December – which is, of course, the summer in Antarctica – it took longer than normal for those winds, known as circumpolar winds, to set up. So when the first balloon was launched – a process spearheaded by the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility -- it floated straight North towards Tasmania. This was the balloon that came to be known as The Little Balloon That Could, says Millan: "Perhaps it had a very small hole, but it didn't quite make it as high as it was supposed to – some 120,000 feet. It only ever got to 112,000 feet, but it maintained that height doggedly and even sent back some interesting data as it flew through an X-ray aurora.” A second balloon did hit the right wind current, successfully transmitting data. (The second balloon did, however, have to be cut down a little early due to an overheated battery.)

So now the BARREL team will begin work on preparing the real show – two campaigns of 20 balloons each that will be launched during the 2012 to 2014 time frame.

"Her balloons will work in conjunction with RBSP," says Sibeck. "She can let us know if they're seeing particles and RBSP can look for the events that might be scattering them out of the radiation belts down to Earth." In addition, since each balloon is meant to stay aloft for 10 days, they will cover a huge area in the sky. When RBSP spots an interesting phenomenon, BARREL can give feedback over a large area as to where the particles went. The team will be able to see how big that region is and measure the total amount of particles that get kicked out of the belts – and thus determine how big of an effect different phenomena have. "That's something we would have more trouble doing with the spacecraft," says Sibeck.

Once each balloon is launched it moves slowly by floating in the wind. Those on the ground cannot control it, other than the single command to terminate the mission. A small explosive detonates and cuts the cable to the payload, which then floats down to the ground on a parachute. This was the fate of the two test balloons in December 2010, though they were particularly sorry to cut down the Little Balloon That Could. "We really wanted to see how far it would go," says Millan. "But it was so far north that we were getting close to Australian air space and we had to cut it down."

So the team declared the test a success, packed up their gear and began the long trip home to New Hampshire to oversee the building of 45 more payloads.

Comet Tempel

Mission controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., have begun receiving the first of 72 anticipated images of comet Tempel 1 taken by NASA's Stardust spacecraft.

The first six, most distant approach images are available at http://www.nasa.gov/stardust and http://www.jpl.nasa.gov. Additional images, including those from closest approach, are being downlinked in chronological order and will be available later in the day.

A news conference will be held at 12:30 p.m. PST (3:30 p.m. EST) to allow scientists more time to analyze the data and images.

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that expands on the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages Stardust-NExT for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Joe Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., is the mission's principal investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

North American nebula

Stars at all stages of development, from dusty little tots to young adults, are on display in a new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

This cosmic community is called the North American nebula. In visible light, the region resembles the North American continent, with the most striking resemblance being the Gulf of Mexico. But in Spitzer's infrared view, the continent disappears. Instead, a swirling landscape of dust and young stars comes into view.

"One of the things that makes me so excited about this image is how different it is from the visible image, and how much more we can see in the infrared than in the visible," said Luisa Rebull of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. Rebull is lead author of a paper about the observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. "The Spitzer image reveals a wealth of detail about the dust and the young stars here."

Rebull and her team have identified more than 2,000 new, candidate young stars in the region. There were only about 200 known before. Because young stars grow up surrounded by blankets of dust, they are hidden in visible-light images. Spitzer's infrared detectors pick up the glow of the dusty, buried stars.

North American Nebula in Different LightsA star is born inside a collapsing ball of gas and dust. As the material collapses inward, it flattens out into a disk that spins around together with the forming star like a spinning top. Jets of gas shoot perpendicularly away from the disk, above and below it. As the star ages, planets are thought to form out of the disk -- material clumps together, ultimately growing into mature planets. Eventually, most of the dust dissipates, aside from a tenuous ring similar to the one in our solar system, referred to as Zodiacal dust.

The new Spitzer image reveals all the stages of a star's young life, from the early years when it is swaddled in dust to early adulthood, when it has become a young parent to a family of developing planets. Sprightly "toddler" stars with jets can also be identified in Spitzer's view.

"This is a really busy area to image, with stars everywhere, from the North American complex itself, as well as in front of and behind the region," said Rebull. "We refer to the stars that are not associated with the region as contamination. With Spitzer, we can easily sort this contamination out and clearly distinguish between the young stars in the complex and the older ones that are unrelated."

an nebula still has a mystery surrounding it, involving its power source. Nobody has been able to identify the group of massive stars that is thought to be dominating the nebula. The Spitzer image, like images from other telescopes, hints that the missing stars are lurking behind the Gulf of Mexico portion of the nebula. This is evident from the illumination pattern of the nebula, especially when viewed with the detector on Spitzer that picks up 24-micron infrared light. That light appears to be coming from behind the Gulf of Mexico's dark tangle of clouds, in the same way that sunlight creeps out from behind a rain cloud.

The nebula's distance from Earth is also a mystery. Current estimates put it at about 1,800 light-years from Earth. Spitzer will refine this number by finding more stellar members of the North American complex.

The Spitzer observations were made before it ran out of the liquid coolant needed to chill its longer-wavelength instruments. Currently, Spitzer's two shortest-wavelength channels (3.6 and 4.5 microns) are still working. The composite image shows light from both the infrared array camera and multiband imaging processor. Infrared light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns is color-coded blue; 8.0-micron light is green; and 24-micron light is red.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer.

Stardust Celebrates Twelve Years With Rocket Burn

NASA's Stardust spacecraft marked its 12th anniversary in space on Monday, Feb. 7, with a rocket burn to further refine its path toward a Feb. 14 date with a comet.

The half-minute trajectory correction maneuver, which adjusts the spacecraft's flight path, began at about 1 p.m. PST (4 p.m. EST) on Monday, Feb. 7. The 30-second-long firing of the spacecraft's rockets consumed about 69 grams (2.4 ounces) of fuel and changed the spacecraft's speed by 0.56 meters per second (1.3 mph).

NASA's plan for the Stardust-NExT mission is to fly the spacecraft to a point in space about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from comet Tempel 1 at the time of its closest approach. During the encounter, the spacecraft will take images of the surface of comet Tempel 1 to observe what changes have occurred since a NASA spacecraft last visited. (NASA's Deep Impact flew by Tempel 1 in July 2005).

Along with the high-resolution images of the comet's surface, Stardust-NExT will also measure the composition, size distribution and flux of dust emitted into the coma, and provide important new information about how comets evolve.

Stardust was launched on Feb. 7, 1999. This current Stardust-NExT target is a bonus mission for the comet chaser, which flew past comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned particles from its coma to Earth.

While its sample return capsule parachuted to Earth in January 2006, mission controllers were placing the still-viable spacecraft on a path that would allow NASA the opportunity to re-use the already-proven flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself. In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission "Stardust-NExT" (New Exploration of Tempel), and the Stardust team began a four-and-a-half year journey for the spacecraft to comet Tempel 1. The spacecraft has traveled more than 3.5 billion miles since launch.

Sun based on high resolution STEREO data

On Feb. 6th, NASA's twin STEREO probes moved into position on opposite sides of the sun, and they are now beaming back uninterrupted images of the entire star—front and back.

"For the first time ever, we can watch solar activity in its full 3-dimensional glory," says Angelos Vourlidas, a member of the STEREO science team at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC.

NASA released a 'first light' 3D movie on, naturally, Super Bowl Sunday:

"This is a big moment in solar physics," says Vourlidas. "STEREO has revealed the sun as it really is--a sphere of hot plasma and intricately woven magnetic fields."

Each STEREO probe photographs half of the star and beams the images to Earth. Researchers combine the two views to create a sphere. These aren't just regular pictures, however. STEREO's telescopes are tuned to four wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet radiation selected to trace key aspects of solar activity such as flares, tsunamis and magnetic filaments. Nothing escapes their attention.

"With data like these, we can fly around the sun to see what's happening over the horizon—without ever leaving our desks," says STEREO program scientist Lika Guhathakurta at NASA headquarters. "I expect great advances in theoretical solar physics and space weather forecasting."

Consider the following: In the past, an active sunspot could emerge on the far side of the sun completely hidden from Earth. Then, the sun's rotation could turn that region toward our planet, spitting flares and clouds of plasma, with little warning.

"Not anymore," says Bill Murtagh, a senior forecaster at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. "Farside active regions can no longer take us by surprise. Thanks to STEREO, we know they're coming."

STEREO surrounding the sunNOAA is already using 3D STEREO models of CMEs (billion-ton clouds of plasma ejected by the sun) to improve space weather forecasts for airlines, power companies, satellite operators, and other customers. The full sun view should improve those forecasts even more.

The forecasting benefits aren't limited to Earth.

"With this nice global model, we can now track solar storms heading toward other planets, too," points out Guhathakurta. "This is important for NASA missions to Mercury, Mars, asteroids … you name it."

NASA has been building toward this moment since Oct. 2006 when the STEREO probes left Earth, split up, and headed for positions on opposite sides of the sun (movie). Feb. 6, 2011, was the date of "opposition"—i.e., when STEREO-A and -B were 180 degrees apart, each looking down on a different hemisphere. NASA's Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory is also monitoring the sun 24/7. Working together, the STEREO-SDO fleet should be able to image the entire globe for the next 8 years.

The new view could reveal connections previously overlooked. For instance, researchers have long suspected that solar activity can "go global," with eruptions on opposite sides of the sun triggering and feeding off of one another. Now they can actually study the phenomenon. The Great Eruption of August 2010 engulfed about 2/3rd of the stellar surface with dozens of mutually interacting flares, shock waves, and reverberating filaments. Much of the action was hidden from Earth, but plainly visible to the STEREO-SDO fleet.

"There are many fundamental puzzles underlying solar activity," says Vourlidas. "By monitoring the whole sun, we can find missing pieces."

Researchers say these first-look whole sun images are just a hint of what's to come. Movies with even higher resolution and more action will be released in the days and weeks ahead as more data are processed. Stay tuned!

Jupiter Europa Orbiter

With input from scientists around the world, American and European scientists working on the potential next new mission to the Jupiter system have articulated their joint vision for the Europa Jupiter System Mission. The mission is a proposed partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency. The scientists on the joint NASA-ESA definition team agreed that the overarching science theme for the Europa Jupiter System Mission will be "the emergence of habitable worlds around gas giants."

The proposed Europa Jupiter System Mission would provide orbiters around two of Jupiter's moons: a NASA orbiter around Europa called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, and an ESA orbiter around Ganymede called the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter.

"We've reached hands across the Atlantic to define a mission to Jupiter's water worlds," said Bob Pappalardo, the pre-project scientist for the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter, who is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The Europa Jupiter System Mission will create a leap in scientific knowledge about the moons of Jupiter and their potential to harbor life."

The new reports integrate goals that were being separately developed by NASA and ESA working groups into one unified strategy.

The ESA report is being presented to the European public and science community this week, and the NASA report was published online in December. The NASA report is available at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/opag .

The proposed mission singles out the icy moons Europa and Ganymede as special worlds that can lead to a broader understanding of the Jovian system and of the possibility of life in our solar system and beyond. They are natural laboratories for analyzing the nature, evolution and potential habitability of icy worlds, because they are believed to present two different kinds of sub-surface oceans.

The Jupiter Europa Orbiter would characterize the relatively thin ice shell above Europa's ocean, the extent of that ocean, the materials composing its internal layers, and the way surface features such as ridges and "freckles" formed. It will also identify candidate sites for potential future landers. Instruments that might be on board could include a laser altimeter, an ice-penetrating radar, spectrometers that can obtain data in visible, infrared and ultraviolet radiation, and cameras with narrow- and wide-angle capabilities. The actual instruments to fly would be selected through a NASA competitive call for proposals.

Ganymede is thought to have a thicker ice shell, with its interior ocean sandwiched between ice above and below. ESA's Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would investigate this different kind of internal structure. The Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would also study the intrinsic magnetic field that makes Ganymede unique among all the solar system's known moons. This orbiter, whose instruments would also be chosen through a competitive process, could include a laser altimeter, spectrometers and cameras, plus additional fields-and-particles instruments

The two orbiters would also study other large Jovian moons, Io and Callisto, with an eye towards exploring the Jupiter system as an archetype for other gas giant planets.

NASA and ESA officials gave the Europa Jupiter System Mission proposal priority status for continued study in 2009, agreeing that it was the most technically feasible of the outer solar system flagship missions under consideration.

Over the next few months, NASA officials will be analyzing the joint strategy and awaiting the outcome of the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies. That survey will serve as a roadmap for new NASA planetary missions for the decade beginning 2013.

Seasonal Changes in Northern Mars Dune Field

Sand dunes in a vast area of northern Mars long thought to be frozen in time are changing with both sudden and gradual motions, according to research using images from a NASA orbiter.

These dune fields cover an area the size of Texas in a band around the planet at the edge of Mars' north polar cap. The new findings suggest they are among the most active landscapes on Mars. However, few changes in these dark-toned dunes had been detected before a campaign of repeated imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars five years ago next month.

Scientists had considered the dunes to be fairly static, shaped long ago when winds on the planet's surface were much stronger than those seen today, said HiRISE Deputy Principal Investigator Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. Several sets of before-and-after images from HiRISE over a period covering two Martian years -- four Earth years -- tell a different story.

"The numbers and scale of the changes have been really surprising," said Hansen.

A report by Hansen and co-authors in this week's edition of the journal Science identifies the seasonal coming and going of carbon-dioxide ice as one agent of change, and stronger-than-expected wind gusts as another.

A seasonal layer of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, blankets the region in winter and changes directly back to gaseous form in the spring.

"This gas flow destabilizes the sand on Mars sand dunes, causing sand avalanches and creating new alcoves, gullies and sand aprons on Martian dunes," she said. "The level of erosion in just one Mars year was really astonishing. In some places, hundreds of cubic yards of sand have avalanched down the face of the dunes."

Wind drives other changes. Especially surprising was the discovery that scars of past sand avalanches could be partially erased by wind in just one Mars year. Models of Mars' atmosphere do not predict wind speeds adequate to lift sand grains, and data from Mars landers show high winds are rare.

"Perhaps polar weather is more conducive to high wind speeds," Hansen said.

In all, modifications were seen in about 40 percent of these far-northern monitoring sites over the two-Mars-year period of the study.

Related HiRISE research previously identified gully-cutting activity in smaller fields of sand dunes covered by seasonal carbon-dioxide ice in Mars' southern hemisphere. A report four months ago showed that those changes coincided with the time of year when ice builds up.

"The role of the carbon-dioxide ice is getting clearer," said Serina Diniega of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the earlier report and a co-author of the new report. "In the south, we saw before-and-after changes and connected the timing with the carbon-dioxide ice. In the north, we're seeing more of the process of the seasonal changes and adding more evidence linking the changes with the carbon dioxide."

Researchers are using HiRISE to repeatedly photograph dunes at all latitudes, to understand winds in the current climate on Mars. Dunes at latitudes lower than the reach of the seasonal carbon-dioxide ice do not show new gullies. Hansen said, "It's becoming clear that there are very active processes on Mars associated with the seasonal polar caps."

The new findings contribute to efforts to understand what features and landscapes on Mars can be explained by current processes, and which require different environmental conditions.

"Understanding how Mars is changing today is a key first step to understanding basic planetary processes and how Mars changed over time," said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, a co-author of both reports. "There's lots of current activity in areas covered by seasonal carbon-dioxide frost, a process we don't see on Earth. It's important to understand the current effects of this unfamiliar process so we don't falsely associate them with different conditions in the past."

The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter.

NASA/Tim Pyle

Scientists using NASA's Kepler, a space telescope, recently discovered six planets made of a mix of rock and gases orbiting a single sun-like star, known as Kepler-11, which is located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth.

"The Kepler-11 planetary system is amazing," said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and a Kepler science team member at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "It’s amazingly compact, it’s amazingly flat, there’s an amazingly large number of big planets orbiting close to their star - we didn’t know such systems could even exist."

In other words, Kepler-11 has the fullest, most compact planetary system yet discovered beyond our own.

"Few stars are known to have more than one transiting planet, and Kepler-11 is the first known star to have more than three," said Lissauer. "So we know that systems like this are not common. There’s certainly far fewer than one percent of stars that have systems like Kepler-11. But whether it’s one in a thousand, one in ten thousand or one in a million, that we don’t know, because we only have observed one of them."

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11, a yellow dwarf star, are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outwards, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is twice as close to its star than Earth is to the sun.

"The five inner planets are all closer to their star than any planet is to our sun and the sixth planet is still fairly close," said Lissauer.

If placed in our solar system, Kepler-11g would orbit between Mercury and Venus, and the other five planets would orbit between Mercury and our sun. The orbits of the five inner planets in the Kepler-11 planetary system are much closer together than any of the planets in our solar system. The inner five exoplanets have orbital periods between 10 and 47 days around the dwarf star, while Kepler-11g has a period of 118 days.

"By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we have determined they are among the smallest confirmed exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system," said Lissauer. "These planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets' mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume."

According to Lissauer, Kepler-11 is a remarkable planetary system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation. The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which Lissauer says indicates that at least these three planets formed early in the history of the planetary system, within a few million years.

A planetary system is born when a molecular cloud core collapses to form a star. At this time, disks of gas and dust in which planets form, called protoplanetary disks, surround the star. Protoplanetary disks can be seen around most stars that are less than a million years old, but few stars more than five million years old have them. This leads scientists to theorize that planets which contain significant amounts of gas form relatively quickly in order to obtain gases before the disk disperses.

The Kepler spacecraft will continue to return science data about the new Kepler-11 planetary system for the remainder of its mission. The more transits Kepler sees, the better scientists can estimate the sizes and masses of planets.

"These data will enable us to calculate more precise estimates of the planet sizes and masses, and could allow us to detect more planets orbiting the Kepler-11 star," said Lissauer. "Perhaps we could find a seventh planet in the system, either because of its transits or from the gravitational tugs it exerts on the six planets that we already see. We’re going to learn a fantastic amount about the diversity of planets out there, around stars within our galaxy."

A space observatory, Kepler looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star's brightness. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period.

The Kepler science team is using ground-based telescopes, as well as the Spitzer Space Telescope, to perform follow-up observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest found by the spacecraft. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which of the candidates can be identified as planets.

Kepler will continue conducting science operations until at least November 2012, searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is predicted to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

"Kepler can only see 1/400 of the sky," said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the mission’s science principal investigator. "Kepler can find only a small fraction of the planets around the stars it looks at because the orbits aren’t aligned properly. If you account for those two factors, our results indicate there must be millions of planets orbiting the stars that surround our sun."

Kepler is NASA's tenth Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system, and along with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is supporting mission operations. Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted at the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona, and the Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.

Five THEMIS spacecraft

NASA's Time History of Events and Macroscale Interaction during Substorms (THEMIS) spacecraft combined with computer models have helped track the origin of the energetic particles in Earth's magnetic atmosphere that appear during a kind of space weather called a substorm. Understanding the source of such particles and how they are shuttled through Earth's atmosphere is crucial to better understanding the Sun's complex space weather system and thus protect satellites or even humans in space.


The results show that these speedy electrons gain extra energy from changing magnetic fields far from the origin of the substorm that causes them. THEMIS, which consists of five orbiting satellites, helped provide these insights when three of the spacecraft traveled through a large substorm on February 15, 2008. This allowed scientists to track changes in particle energy over a large distance. The observations were consistent with numerical models showing an increase in energy due to changing magnetic fields, a process known as betatron acceleration.

"The origin of fast electrons in substorms has been a puzzle," says Maha Ashour-Abdalla, the lead author of a Nature Physics paper that appeared online on January 30, 2011 on the subject and a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It hasn't been clear until now if they got their burst of speed in the middle of the storm, or from some place further away."

Substorms originate opposite the sun on Earth's "night side," at a point about a third of the distance to the moon. At this point in space, energy and particles from the solar wind store up over time. This is also a point where the more orderly field lines near Earth -- where they look like two giant ears on either side of the globe, a shape known as a dipole since the lines bow down to touch Earth at the two poles – can distort into long lines and sometimes pull apart and "reconnect." During reconnection, the stored energy is released in explosions that send particles out in all directions. But reconnection is a magnetic phenomenon and scientists don't know the exact mechanism that creates speeding particles from that phenomenon.

"For thirty years, one of the questions about the magnetic environment around Earth has been, 'how do magnetic fields give rise to moving, energetic particles?'" says NASA scientist Melvyn Goldstein, chief of the Geospace Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and another author on the paper. "We need to know such things to help plan the next generation of reconnection research instruments such as the Magnetospheric MultiScale mission (MMS) due to launch in 2014. MMS needs to look in the right place and for the correct signatures of particle energization."

In the early 1980s, scientists hypothesized that the quick, high-energy particles might get their speed from rapidly changing magnetic fields. Changing magnetic fields can cause electrons to zoom along a corkscrew path by the betatron effect.

artist's concept of the THEMIS spacecraftIndeed, electrons moving toward Earth from a substorm will naturally cross a host of changing magnetic fields as those long, stretched field lines far away from Earth relax back to the more familiar dipole field lines closer to Earth, a process called dipolarization. Betatron acceleration causes the particles to gain energy and speed much farther away from the initial reconnection site. But in the absence of observations that could simultaneously measure data near the reconnection site and closer to Earth, the hypothesis was hard to prove or contradict.

THEMIS, however, was specifically designed to study the formation of substorms. It launched with five spacecraft, which can be spread out over some 44,000 miles – a perfect tool for examining different areas of Earth's magnetic environment at the same time. Near midnight, on February 15, 2008, three of the satellites moving through Earth's magnetic tail, about 36,000 miles from Earth, traveled through a large substorm.

"I looked at the THEMIS data for that substorm," says Ashour-Abdalla, "and saw there was a direct correlation of the increased particle energy at the origin with the region of dipolarization nearer to Earth."

To examine the data, Ashour-Abdalla and a team of researchers from UCLA, Nanchang University in China, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, used their expertise with computer modeling to simulate the complex dynamics that occur in space. The team began with spacecraft data from an ESA mission called Cluster that was in the solar wind at the time of the substorm. Using these observations of the solar environment, they modeled large scale electric and magnetic fields in space around Earth. Then they modeled the future fate of the various particles observed.

When the team looked at their models they saw that electrons near the reconnection sites didn't gain much energy. But as they looked closer to Earth, where the THEMIS satellites were located, their model showed particles that had some ten times as much energy – just as THEMIS had in fact observed.

This is consistent with the betatron acceleration model. The electrons gain a small amount of energy from the reconnection and then travel toward Earth, crossing many changing magnetic field lines. These fields produce betatronic acceleration just as Kivelson predicted in the early 1980s, speeding the electrons up substantially.

"This research shows the great science that can be accomplished when modelers, theorists and observationalists join forces," says astrophysicist Larry Kepko, who is a deputy project scientist for the THEMIS mission at Goddard. "THEMIS continues to yield critical insights into the dynamic processes that produce the space weather that affects Earth."

Launched in 2007, THEMIS was NASA's first five-satellite mission launched aboard a single rocket. The unique constellation of satellites provided scientists with data to help resolve the mystery of how Earth's magnetosphere stores and releases energy from the sun by triggering geomagnetic substorms. Two of the satellites have been renamed ARTEMIS and are in the process of moving to a new orbit around the moon. They are due to reach their final lunar orbit in July 2011. The three remaining THEMIS satellites continue to study substorms.

THEMIS is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, is responsible for project management, space and ground-based instruments, mission integration, mission operations and science. ATK (formerly Swales Aerospace), Beltsville, Md., built the THEMIS probes. THEMIS is an international project conducted in partnership with Germany, France, Austria, and Canada.

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