January 2012

Solar Burst's Effects
The largest solar particle event since 2005 has been detected by the radiation-monitoring instrument aboard the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, on its way from Earth to Mars.

The Radiation Assessment Detector, inside the mission's Curiosity rover tucked inside the spacecraft, is measuring the radiation exposure that could affect a human astronaut on a potential Mars mission. It has measured an increase resulting from a Jan. 22 solar storm observed by other NASA spacecraft. No harmful effects to the Mars Science Laboratory have been detected from this solar event.

Space Shuttle Program: Spanning 30 Years of Discovery
NASA's space shuttle fleet began setting records with its first launch on April 12, 1981 and continued to set high marks of achievement and endurance through 30 years of missions. Starting with Columbia and continuing with Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, the spacecraft has carried people into orbit repeatedly, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and built the largest structure in space, the International Space Station. The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, ended July 21, 2011 when Atlantis rolled to a stop at its home port, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

As humanity's first reusable spacecraft, the space shuttle pushed the bounds of discovery ever farther, requiring not only advanced technologies but the tremendous effort of a vast workforce. Thousands of civil servants and contractors throughout NASA's field centers and across the nation have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to mission success and the greater goal of space exploration.

We live in the extended atmosphere of an active star. While sunlight enables and sustains life, the Sun's variability produces streams of high energy particles and radiation that can harm life or alter its evolution. Under the protective shield of a magnetic field and atmosphere, the Earth is an island in the Universe where life has developed and flourished. The origins and fate of life on Earth are intimately connected to the way the Earth responds to the Sun's variations.

Understanding the Sun, Heliosphere, and Planetary Environments as a single connected system is the goal of the Science Mission Directorate's Heliophysics Research Program. In addition to solar processes, our domain of study includes the interaction of solar plasma and radiation with Earth, the other planets, and the Galaxy. By analyzing the connections between the Sun, solar wind, planetary space environments, and our place in the Galaxy, we are uncovering the fundamental physical processes that occur throughout the Universe. Understanding the connections between the Sun and its planets will allow us to predict the impacts of solar variability on humans, technological systems, and even the presence of life itself.

We have already discovered ways to peer into the internal workings of the Sun and understand how the Earth's magnetosphere responds to solar activity. Our challenge now is to explore the full system of complex interactions that characterize the relationship of the Sun with the solar system. Understanding these connections is especially critical as we contemplate our destiny in the third millennium. Heliophysics is needed to facilitate the accelerated expansion of human experience beyond the confines of our Earthly home. Recent advances in technology allow us, for the first time, to realistically contemplate voyages beyond the solar system.

There are three primary objectives that define the multi-decadal studies needed:

To understand the changing flow of energy and matter throughout the Sun, Heliosphere, and Planetary Environments.
To explore the fundamental physical processes of space plasma systems.
To define the origins and societal impacts of variability in the Earth-Sun System.

A combination of interrelated elements is used to achieve these objectives. They include complementary missions of various sizes; timely development of enabling and enhancing technologies; and acquisition of knowledge through research, analysis, theory, and modeling.

To prepare for the impending arrival of the ISS Progress 46 cargo craft to the International Space Station, Expedition 30 Flight Engineers Anton Shkaplerov and Oleg Kononenko reviewed procedures for the use of TORU, the Russian telerobotically operated rendezvous system. The crew can use TORU to monitor the docking of a Progress cargo craft with the station or take control of the process if difficulties arise.

At the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, Progress 46 was hauled to its launch pad by rail and vertically erected for final preparations for launch Wednesday at 6:06 p.m. EST (5:06 a.m. Baikonur time Thursday). Rollout occurred at sunrise at the Baikonur Cosmodrome with temperatures around zero degrees Fahrenheit. The Progress 46 craft is loaded with 2,050 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 2,778 pounds of spare parts and experiment hardware for a total of 2.9 tons of food, fuel and equipment to be delivered to the six crew members on the orbital laboratory. NASA TV coverage of the launch begins at 5:45 p.m.

Commander Dan Burbank spent a large portion of his day collecting fluid samples from the Internal Thermal Control System in the station’s U.S. segment. This sample collection is part of regular station maintenance. He also spoke to students in Placerville, Calif., via amateur radio.

Astronaut Don Pettit, a flight engineer, participated in a session with the Integrated Cardiovascular (ICV) experiment. ICV researches the extent and causes of weakening of the heart during long-duration missions. Additionally, Pettit conducted a safety video tour of the station, which is required once every increment for the benefit of ground controllers.

Kononenko participated in a Russian medical test called SPRUT-2, which investigates the distribution and behavior of human body fluids in zero gravity.
Flight Engineer Anatoly Ivanishin worked with the radiation payload suite Matryoshka-R. The Russian payload is designed for sophisticated radiation studies and is named after the traditional Russian set of nested dolls.

Andre Kuipers, also a flight engineer, set up and tested the Urine Monitoring System. He also initiated charging of batteries some of the Russian crew members will use for pistol grip tools during a spacewalk slated for Feb. 16. The spacewalkers will attach five debris shields to the Zvezda service module and move one of the two Strela booms from Pirs to the Poisk module.

At Mission Control, the robotics officers maneuvered the Canadarm2 in a viewing position to inspect the Common Berthing Mechanism on Harmony’s Earth-facing port, to which the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft will be berthed when it reaches the complex.

Ground controllers had been following reports earlier in the week from U.S. Space Command that a piece of Chinese satellite debris about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter might come close enough to the station to warrant moving out of the way, what is called a debris avoidance maneuver. Planning for the move was called off when tracking showed the highly erratic debris was not a concern.

The cold dust that builds blazing stars is revealed in new images that combine observations from the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions; and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The new images map the dust in the galaxies known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two of the closest neighbors to our own Milky Way galaxy.

The Large Magellanic Cloud looks like a fiery, circular explosion in the combined Herschel-Spitzer infrared data. Ribbons of dust ripple through the galaxy, with significant fields of star formation noticeable in the center, center-left and top right (the brightest center-left region is called 30 Doradus, or the Tarantula Nebula, for its appearance in visible light). The Small Magellanic Cloud has a much more irregular shape. A stream of dust extends to the left in this image, known as the galaxy's "wing," and a bar of star formation appears on the right.

The colors in these images indicate temperatures in the dust that permeate the Magellanic Clouds. Colder regions show where star formation is at its earliest stages or is shut off, while warm expanses point to new stars heating dust surrounding them. The coolest areas and objects appear in red, corresponding to infrared light taken up by Herschel's Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver at 250 microns, or millionths of a meter. Herschel's Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer fills out the mid-temperature bands, shown in green, at 100 and 160 microns. The warmest spots appear in blue, courtesy of 24- and 70-micron data from Spitzer.

"Studying these galaxies offers us the best opportunity to study star formation outside of the Milky Way," said Margaret Meixner, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md., and principal investigator for the mapping project. "Star formation affects the evolution of galaxies, so we hope understanding the story of these stars will answer questions about galactic life cycles."

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are the two biggest satellite galaxies of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, though they are still considered dwarf galaxies compared to the big spiral of the Milky Way. Dwarf galaxies also contain fewer metals, or elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Such an environment is thought to slow the growth of stars. Star formation in the universe peaked around 10 billion years ago, even though galaxies contained lesser abundances of metallic dust. Previously, astronomers only had a general sense of the rate of star formation in the Magellanic Clouds, but the new images enable them to study the process in more detail.

The results were presented today at the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas.

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the United States' astronomical community.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.


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