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  • richardmitnick 10:51 am on October 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From SPACE.com: “Beyond Pluto: NASA Eyes Distant Targets for New Horizons Probe” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    October 13, 2014
    Mike Wall

    Pluto may not be the end of the line for a far-flung NASA spacecraft.

    NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted a few objects that the New Horizons probe might be able to explore after it zooms past the Pluto system during a highly anticipated flyby on July 14, 2015. Mission team members are assessing the candidates now, to get a better understanding of their orbits — a difficult task that could take a few more months.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA Hubble schematic
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    “We hope to know before the year is out, and we will keep you posted as soon as we’ve made a determination [of] whether there are reachable objects — we certainly hope so,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute’s Planetary Science Directorate in Boulder, Colorado, said during a news conference in late August.

    A long journey

    New Horizons launched in January 2006 on a $700 million mission to study Pluto and its five known moons. The probe’s flyby should return the first up-close looks at the dwarf planet, which is so distant and dim that it remains cloaked in mystery more than eight decades after its 1930 discovery.

    “Everything that we know about the Pluto system today could probably fit on one piece of paper,” Stern said, adding that New Horizon’s observations should provide “a bonanza for science in so many ways.”

    But the New Horizons team has never been fixated solely on Pluto. Stern and his colleagues are also preparing for a possible extended mission, which would send New Horizons out to explore another object in the Kuiper Belt— the ring of frigid bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit that includes Pluto.

    kb
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt, derived from data from the Minor Planet Center. Objects in the main belt are colored green, whereas scattered objects are colored orange. The four outer planets are blue. Neptune’s few known trojans are yellow, whereas Jupiter’s are pink. The scattered objects between Jupiter’s orbit and the Kuiper belt are known as centaurs. The scale is in astronomical units. The pronounced gap at the bottom is due to difficulties in detection against the background of the plane of the Milky Way

    Finding another Kuiper Belt object (KBO) to explore has proven challenging, however.

    “These are objects that are much smaller than Pluto, and probably much more primitive in terms of their chemistry and their appearance,” Stern said. “These are objects the size of counties, for example, not the size of planets. They’re very faint.”

    Indeed, mission scientists have spent about four years searching for post-Pluto targets, using some of the world’s biggest ground-based telescopes. The hunt turned up some KBOs, but none of them was within New Horizons’ fuel reach, Stern said.

    So the team applied for time on Hubble, which is always hotly contested. In June, the researchers were granted observation time on 200 Hubble orbits of Earth.

    Possibilities for New Horizons

    The Hubble search is complete, and the New Horizons team is now going through the telescope’s data.

    “Hubble has done a spectacularly good job, and has yielded literally hundreds of images of that part of the sky, from which we’ve found some candidates,” Stern said. “We don’t know if any of them, though, are within our fuel reach, and we won’t still for some months, because we have to track them as they move in their orbits.”

    New Horizons’ fuel reach will apparently be a bit greater than the probe’s handlers had originally envisioned. A trajectory-correction burn performed this summer was so accurate that an additional potential burn planned for January won’t be necessary, mission officials said.

    “This is a good omen for our hoped-for Kuiper Belt flyby because each burn we can cancel saves a little fuel and makes the Kuiper Belt mission more feasible,” Stern wrote in a mission update last month.

    New Horizons has been in hibernation since Aug. 29. It will wake up on Dec. 6 to begin preparing for the Pluto flyby, which officially begins in January, team members said.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 12:17 pm on October 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From astrobio.net: “Moons Can Help Planets Remain Stable Long Enough for Life to Form” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Oct 9, 2014
    Charles Q. Choi

    The Moon is more than just Earth’s partner in space — it may have helped stabilize Earth’s orbit enough for it to become hospitable for the evolution of complex forms of life.

    moon
    The Galileo spacecraft sent back this image of the Moon as it headed into the outer solar system. Credit: NASA

    NASA Galileo
    NASA/Galileo

    A new study suggests that large moons can form and remain stable for long times around distant planets as well, potentially helping alien life evolve.

    Researchers also suggest that if the recently discovered rocky alien planet Kepler-62f has a moon, the moon could last more than 5 billion years, perhaps long enough to help foster the evolution of complex life. The investigators detailed their findings in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

    kf
    Kepler-62f (foreground) and Kepler-62e (right) are habitable zone exoplanets orbiting the star Kepler-62 (center).

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    In the past two decades or so, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 1,700 planets beyond the Solar System, and they may soon prove the existence of thousands more of such exoplanets. Of special interest are distant planets in habitable zones, the regions around stars just warm enough for worlds to possess liquid water on their surfaces, as there is life virtually wherever liquid water is found on Earth.

    To support complex forms of life, a world needs more than just an orbit within its star’s habitable zone. It probably also needs a climate that remains stable over long time spans as well. One major factor controlling a world’s climate is its obliquity, also known as axial tilt, which has to do with the amount its axis of rotation is tilted in relation to the path it takes around its star.

    Earth’s seasons, for example, depend on the axial tilt, as the amount of light hitting the northern and southern hemispheres varies with the way the northern and southern hemispheres point toward or away from the Sun.

    Earth’s axial tilt was stabilized with the help of the gravitational pull of its large moon, which is roughly one-quarter the diameter of the Earth.

    “If the Earth did not have the Moon, the Earth’s axial tilt would have changed rapidly and the climate of the Earth would have changed often,” said lead study author Takashi Sasaki, a planetary scientist at the University of Idaho.

    In contrast, Mars has relatively small moons, and its axial tilt has changed substantially over long periods of time, fluctuating chaotically on a 100,000-year time scale. These wobbles in Mars’ axial tilt might help explain why vast underground pockets of ice have been discovered far from the Red Planet’s poles. In the distant past, Mars’ axis might have been tilted at a significantly more extreme angle than it is now, and ice caps were able to reach across the planet. Even after Mars’ axial tilt became less extreme, this ice far from the poles survived, protected by subsequent layers of dust.

    sys
    View of a planetary system seen from Kepler-62f. Credit: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute

    A planet whose axial tilt fluctuates wildly like Mars may not maintain a favorable climate for a long enough time for complex forms of life to evolve. For example, it took about 3.8 billion years for life on the 4.6-billion-year-old Earth to evolve from single-celled organisms to multicellular life such as plants, animals and fungi.

    “Because the Earth has had a long-term stable climate, life on the Earth has had time to evolve from single cells to complex life forms,” Sasaki said.

    Since the Moon is a key reason why Earth has had a relatively stable climate for a long time, the Moon is one of the key factors in Earth’s evolution of complex life forms, he said.

    Sasaki and his colleague Jason Barnes sought to understand how long moons might last around rocky planets in habitable zones, given varying masses and compositions of moons, planets and stars. They focused on systems where moons could last 5 billion years, assuming that such a duration is long enough for complex life to evolve.

    Their model accounted for how a planet or moon’s gravitational pull increases in relation to increasing mass. In addition, their calculations factored in how gravitational tidal forces are greater the closer two bodies are to one another. The gravitational pull of a planet’s star can also influence the relationship between that world and its moon.

    pho
    Mars’ moon Phobos as seen by the Mars Express spacecraft. Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR, ESA

    ESA Mars Express Orbiter
    ESA/Mars Express

    Three potential scenarios were possible. First, a moon could get closer and closer to its planet until it breaks apart or collides with its host, as Mars’ moon Phobos is predicted to do about 50 million years from now. Next, a moon could get farther and farther away until it escapes the planet. Last, a moon can reach a stable distance from its planet, as is the case for the dwarf planet Pluto’s moon Charon.

    The rate at which a moon gets closer to or farther away from its planet depends on the extent to which the tidal forces they exert on each other dissipates and slows their rates of spin. For instance, as the Moon’s orbit has taken it farther away from Earth over time, the Moon’s rate of spin has slowed to the point that it now always shows just one side to Earth. Eventually, the Earth will also slow its rate of spin enough to always show just one side to the Moon.

    pluto
    An artist’s concept of Pluto as viewed from the surface of one its moons. Pluto is the large disk at the center of the image. Charon is the smaller disk to the right. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

    The degree to which a moon and its planet dissipate the tidal forces they exert on each other relies greatly on the mass, compositions and structures of those bodies. For instance, the way tides slosh water around in the shallow seas of Earth dissipates large amounts of tidal energy. Planets with no oceans or with deep oceans would dissipate less tidal energy than Earth.

    The researchers examined four typical planet compositions: Earth-like planets composed of 67 percent mostly silicon-based rock and 33 percent iron; planets with 50 percent rock and 50 percent ice; planets with 100 percent rock; and planets with 100 percent iron. These planets were one-tenth to ten times Earth’s mass and orbited the habitable zones of stars that ranged from 40 percent to equal the mass of the Sun.

    The scientists found that stars with less than 42 percent of the Sun’s mass may not be good places to look for complex life because moons cannot survive for more than 5 billion years in these systems. This is because the habitable zones are closer to stars that have dimmer and lower masses than in brighter, higher-mass star systems. For instance, in solar systems with stars 40 to 50 percent of the Sun’s mass, the habitable distance is approximately one-quarter of the distance between the Sun and Earth. Since these planet-moon systems are so close to their host stars, their stars gravitational pull perturbs the planet-moon systems too much for the moons to remain around their planets, Sasaki said.

    image
    New Horizons LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) composite image showing the detection of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. When these images were taken on July 1 and July 3, 2013, the New Horizons spacecraft was still about 550 million miles (880 million kilometers) from Pluto. On July 14, 2015, the spacecraft is scheduled to pass just 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface, where LORRI will be able to spot features about the size of a football field. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    This finding runs counter to the belief that lower-mass stars are good for habitable planets because they live longer than higher-mass stars, potentially giving them more time for life to evolve. For example, while the lifetime of a planet with a mass twice the Sun’s mass is about 1.2 billion to 1.3 billion years, the lifetime of a star with half the Sun’s mass is about 80 billion years, Sasaki said. However, he noted “our results show that small-mass stars may not be good parent stars for habitable planets.”

    For stars more than 42 percent the Sun’s mass, whether a moon survives depends on factors such as the planet’s composition and how well the planet dissipates tidal energy. A moon has a longer lifetime the higher the density of its host planet.

    The researchers also investigated the prospect for moons in the Kepler-62 system, which at a distance of 1,200 light years from Earth has a star that is a bit cooler and smaller than the Sun, as well as two planets in the habitable zone: Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f. The planets are 1.4 and 1.6 times Earth’s diameter, respectively.

    planets
    The diagram compares the planets of the inner solar system to Kepler-62, a five-planet system about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

    The scientists found that Kepler-62e would have to be composed almost entirely of a high-density material, such as iron, for a moon orbiting it to exist for more than 5 billion years. They also discovered that Kepler-62f could have a moon for more than 5 billion years if it had a variety of different compositions, particularly if it had an absence of oceans or only deep oceans, either of which would cause the planet to dissipate less tidal energy.

    In the future, instead of looking at moons around Earth-sized planets in habitable zones, Sasaki said they would like to investigate moons around giant planets in habitable zones.

    “If a giant planet at habitable zone has a big enough moon, there may be life on the moon,” Sasaki said. “Finding the conditions favorable for habitable moons is a direction we might go.”

    See the full article here.

    NASA

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  • richardmitnick 3:00 pm on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA: "NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Crosses Neptune Orbit En Route to Historic Pluto Encounter " 

    NASA

    NASA

    August 25, 2014

    Dwayne Brown
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726
    dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

    Michael Buckley
    Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
    240-228-7536
    michael.buckley@jhuapl.edu

    Preston Dyches
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-5011
    preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

    NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has traversed the orbit of Neptune. This is its last major crossing en route to becoming the first probe to make a close encounter with distant Pluto on July 14, 2015.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    The sophisticated piano-sized spacecraft, which launched in January 2006, reached Neptune’s orbit — nearly 2.75 billion miles from Earth — in a record eight years and eight months. New Horizons’ milestone matches precisely the 25th anniversary of the historic encounter of NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft with Neptune on Aug. 25, 1989.

    NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft
    NASA/Voyager2

    Newptiune/triton
    Neptune with Triton

    “It’s a cosmic coincidence that connects one of NASA’s iconic past outer solar system explorers, with our next outer solar system explorer,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Exactly 25 years ago at Neptune, Voyager 2 delivered our ‘first’ look at an unexplored planet. Now it will be New Horizons’ turn to reveal the unexplored Pluto and its moons in stunning detail next summer on its way into the vast outer reaches of the solar system.”

    New Horizons now is about 2.48 billion miles from Neptune — nearly 27 times the distance between the Earth and our sun — as it crosses the giant planet’s orbit at 10:04 p.m. EDT Monday. Although the spacecraft will be much farther from the planet than Voyager 2’s closest approach, New Horizons’ telescopic camera was able to obtain several long-distance “approach” shots of Neptune on July 10.

    “NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 explored the entire middle zone of the solar system where the giant planets orbit,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Now we stand on Voyager’s broad shoulders to explore the even more distant and mysterious Pluto system.”

    Several senior members of the New Horizons science team were young members of Voyager’s science team in 1989. Many remember how Voyager 2’s approach images of Neptune and its planet-sized moon Triton fueled anticipation of the discoveries to come. They share a similar, growing excitement as New Horizons begins its approach to Pluto.

    “The feeling 25 years ago was that this was really cool, because we’re going to see Neptune and Triton up-close for the first time,” said Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, who leads the New Horizons energetic-particle investigation and served on the Voyager plasma-analysis team. “The same is happening for New Horizons. Even this summer, when we’re still a year out and our cameras can only spot Pluto and its largest moon as dots, we know we’re in for something incredible ahead.”

    Voyager’s visit to the Neptune system revealed previously unseen features of Neptune itself, such as the Great Dark Spot, a massive storm similar to, but not as long-lived, as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Voyager also, for the first time, captured clear images of the ice giant’s ring system, too faint to be clearly viewed from Earth. “There were surprises at Neptune and there were surprises at Triton,” said Ed Stone, Voyager’s long-standing project scientist from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “I’m sure that will continue at Pluto.”

    gds
    Neptune’s Great dark Spot

    Many researchers feel the 1989 Neptune flyby — Voyager’s final planetary encounter — might have offered a preview of what’s to come next summer. Scientists suggest that Triton, with its icy surface, bright poles, varied terrain and cryovolcanoes, is a Pluto-like object that Neptune pulled into orbit. Scientists recently restored Voyager’s footage of Triton and used it to construct the best global color map of that strange moon yet — further whetting appetites for a Pluto close-up.

    “There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up,” McNutt said. “That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this — we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.”

    Similar to Voyager 1 and 2’s historic observations, New Horizons also is on a path toward potential discoveries in the Kuiper Belt, which is a disc-shaped region of icy objects past the orbit of Neptune, and other unexplored realms of the outer solar system and beyond.

    kuiper
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt, derived from data from the Minor Planet Center. Objects in the main belt are colored green, whereas scattered objects are colored orange. The four outer planets are blue. Neptune’s few known trojans are yellow, whereas Jupiter’s are pink. The scattered objects between Jupiter’s orbit and the Kuiper belt are known as centaurs. The scale is in astronomical units. The pronounced gap at the bottom is due to difficulties in detection against the background of the plane of the Milky Way.

    “No country except the United States has the demonstrated capability to explore so far away,” said Stern. “The U.S. has led the exploration of the planets and space to a degree no other nation has, and continues to do so with New Horizons. We’re incredibly proud that New Horizons represents the nation again as NASA breaks records with its newest, farthest and very capable planetary exploration spacecraft.”

    Voyager 1 and 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977, and one of the spacecraft visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 now is the most distant human-made object, about 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) away from the sun. In 2012, it became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. Voyager 2, the longest continuously operated spacecraft, is about 9 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) away from our sun.

    New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. APL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. APL also built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

    The Voyager spacecraft were built and continue to be operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Voyager missions are part of NASA’s Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate.

    See the full article here.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble,
    Chandra, Spitzer ]and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

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  • richardmitnick 3:24 pm on August 5, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA New Horizons, ,   

    From NRAO: “ALMA Pinpoints Pluto to Help Guide NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft” 

    NRAO Icon
    National Radio Astronomy Observatory

    NRAO Banner

    August 5, 2014
    Charles Blue, NRAO Public Information Officer
    (434) 296-0314; cblue@nrao.edu

    Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) are making high-precision measurements of Pluto’s location and orbit around the Sun to help NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft accurately home in on its target when it nears Pluto and its five known moons in July 2015.

    ALMA Array
    ALMA

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    Though observed for decades with ever-larger optical telescopes on Earth and in space, astronomers are still working out Pluto’s exact position and path around our Solar System. This lingering uncertainty is due to Pluto’s extreme distance from the Sun (approximately 40 times farther out than the Earth) and the fact that we have been studying it for only about one-third of its orbit. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and takes 248 years to complete one revolution around the Sun.

    “With these limited observational data, our knowledge of Pluto’s position could be wrong by several thousand kilometers, which compromises our ability to calculate efficient targeting maneuvers for the New Horizons spacecraft,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

    The New Horizons team made use of the ALMA positioning data, together with newly analyzed visible light measurements stretching back to Pluto’s discovery, to determine how to perform the first such scheduled course correction for targeting, known as a Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM), in July. This maneuver helped ensure that New Horizons uses the minimum fuel to reach Pluto, saving as much as possible for a potential extended mission to explore Kuiper Belt objects after the Pluto system flyby is complete.

    kuiper
    Kuiper Belt

    To prepare for this first TCM, astronomers needed to pinpoint Pluto’s position using the most distant and most stable reference points possible. Finding such a reference point to accurately calculate trajectories of such small objects at such vast distances is incredibly challenging. Normally, stars at great distances are used by optical telescopes for astrometry (the positioning of things on the sky) since they change position only slightly over many years. For New Horizons, however, even more precise measurements were necessary to ensure its encounter with Pluto would be as on-target as possible.

    The most distant and most apparently stable objects in the Universe are quasars, galaxies more than 10 billion light-years away. Though quasars appear very dim to optical telescopes, they are incredibly bright at radio wavelengths, particularly the millimeter wavelengths that ALMA can see.

    “The ALMA astrometry used a bright quasar named J1911-2006 with the goal to cut in half the uncertainty of Pluto’s position,” said Ed Fomalont, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and currently assigned to ALMA’s Operations Support Facility in Chile.

    ALMA was able to study Pluto and its largest moon Charon by picking up the radio emission from their cold surfaces, which are about 43 degrees Kelvin (-230 degrees Celsius).

    The team first observed these two icy worlds in November 2013, and then three more times in 2014 — once in April and twice in July. Additional observations are scheduled for October 2014.

    “By taking multiple observations at different dates, we allow Earth to move along its orbit, offering different vantage points in relation to the Sun,” said Fomalont. “Astronomers can then better determine Pluto’s distance and orbit.” This astronomical technique is called measuring Pluto’s parallax.

    “We are very excited about the state-of-the-art capabilities that ALMA brings to bear to help us better target our historic exploration of the Pluto system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “We thank the entire ALMA team for their support and for the beautiful data they are gathering for New Horizons.”

    The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

    ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

    New Horizons is the first mission to the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt of rocky, icy objects beyond. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate; Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning; APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. For more information, visit http://pluto.jhuapl.edu.

    See the full article here.

    The NRAO operates a complementary, state-of-the-art suite of radio telescope facilities for use by the scientific community, regardless of institutional or national affiliation: the Very Large Array (VLA), the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)*.

    NRAO ALMA
    NRAO ALMA

    NRAO GBT
    NRAO GBT

    NRAO VLA
    NRAO VLA

    The NRAO is building two new major research facilities in partnership with the international community that will soon open new scientific frontiers: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA). Access to ALMA observing time by the North American astronomical community will be through the North American ALMA Science Center (NAASC).
    *The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) comprises ten radio telescopes spanning 5,351 miles. It’s the world’s largest, sharpest, dedicated telescope array. With an eye this sharp, you could be in Los Angeles and clearly read a street sign in New York City!

    Astronomers use the continent-sized VLBA to zoom in on objects that shine brightly in radio waves, long-wavelength light that’s well below infrared on the spectrum. They observe blazars, quasars, black holes, and stars in every stage of the stellar life cycle. They plot pulsars, exoplanets, and masers, and track asteroids and planets.

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  • richardmitnick 8:51 am on July 31, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From SPACE.com: “How Far Away is Neptune?” 

    SpacedotcomHeader
    SPACE.com

    December 14, 2012
    Nola Taylor Redd

    The ice giant Neptune is the eighth and most distant planet from the sun. Since its discovery, only one Neptunian year has passed.

    neptune
    On June 25, 2011, Neptune arrived at the same location in space where it was discovered 165 years earlier. To commemorate the event, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope took “anniversary pictures” of the blue-green giant planet.
    Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

    How far is Neptune from Earth?

    The distance from one planet to another is constantly shifting because both bodies are moving through space. When Neptune and Earth line up on the same side of the sun, at their closest, they are only 2.7 billion miles (4.3 billon kilometers) apart. But when the planets are on opposite sides of the sun, they can put as many as 2.9 billion miles (4.7 billion km) between them.

    Neptune’s extreme distance made it the last full-size planet to be discovered. Unlike Uranus, it was found primarily by pouring over mathematical formulas rather than peering through a telescope. Astronomers had noticed that the recently-discovered Uranus had some orbital oddities that could not be explained. John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier independently calculated the planet’s orbit between 1845 and 1846, and several astronomers began to search for the proposed planet. On September 23, 1846, the icy body was found within one degree of Le Verrier’s predictions and 12 degrees from where Adams suggested it would travel. This prompted discussion over who should be credited with the discovery, but ultimately both men were recognized for their roles.

    The planet was spotted in 1612 and 1613 by Galileo Galilei. Unfortunately, the Italian astronomer made his observations when Neptune had just begun its backward, or retrograde, motion across the sky. Planets that lie farther from Earth occasionally appear to move backward when our planet passes them in their orbit. The enormous distance to Neptune meant that the motion was too small to record in Galileo’s early telescope, resulting in his mischaracterization.

    How far is Neptune from the sun?

    Like all planets, Neptune orbits the sun in a stretched-out circle known as an ellipse. This means that its distance from the star is constantly changing. When the icy planet is closest to the sun, it lies “only” 2.77 billion miles (4.46 billion km). At its farthest, it passes 2.82 billion miles (4.54 billion km) from the star.

    Although Neptune is the eighth most distant planet, it was not always. The dwarf planet Pluto occasionally dips inside of Neptune’s orbit. Thus, when Pluto was classified as a planet, it was sometimes the eighth most distant planet while Neptune was the ninth. The two bodies will never collide, however, because for every three trips Neptune makes around the sun, Pluto takes exactly two, which keeps them from every traveling through the same area at the same time.

    Neptune takes 164.79 Earth-years to travel around the sun. On July 11, 2011, Neptune had completed one full orbit since its discovery. It was not in the same spot in the sky, however, because Earth lay at a different point in its orbit.

    Although the most distant planet now, it is possible the Neptune was not always so far away. The amount of gas and ice needed to form the giant planet is greater than fits current models. Some scientists suggest that Neptune may have formed closer to the sun, then migrated out to its present location over time.

    How long does it take to reach Neptune?

    The constant motion of Neptune and Earth is the biggest force that determines how long it takes to travel between the two planets. It would take a satellite longer to reach Neptune if it was launched when the two planets were on opposite sides of the sun instead of the same time.

    The only spacecraft to visit Neptune was Voyager 2. Launched on August 20, 1977, it made its closest approach to the planet on August 25, 1989, after a dozen years of travel. Voyager 2 observed Neptune’s “Great Dark Spot,” a series of short-term storms in Neptune’s atmosphere. The dark spot is approximately the same size as Earth, and is thought to be a hole in Neptune’s methane clouds.

    NASA Voyager 2
    NASA/Voyager 2

    No other craft has traveled to the planet. However, NASA’s New Horizons, launched January 19, 2006, will pass through Neptune’s orbit on its way to visit Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft will travel through the planet’s orbit in August of 2014, after eight years of traveling.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft

    kuiper belt
    Kuiper Belt

    See the full article here.


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  • richardmitnick 10:11 pm on July 14, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From Christian Science Monitor: ” Science Is Pluto really a planet? NASA probe could rekindle debate.” 

    csm

    Christian Science Monitor

    July 14, 2014
    Mike Wall

    In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft is set to offer the best look yet at Pluto, which astronomers reclassified in 2006 as a ‘dwarf planet.’

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft

    In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons probe will fly by frigid and faraway Pluto, which was demoted to “dwarf planet” in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union. (Despite the ruling, many scientists still regard Pluto as a planet…)
    The encounter will mark the first “unveiling” of a major solar system body since 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by the ice giant Neptune, Pluto’s nearest planetary neighbor.

    NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft
    NASA/Voyager 2

    The world will get its first good look at Pluto a little more than a year from now, possibly reigniting the debate over the object’s planetary status.

    The encounter will mark the first “unveiling” of a major solar system body since 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by the ice giant Neptune, Pluto’s nearest planetary neighbor. [NASA's New Horizons Flight to Pluto in Pictures]
    Recommended: Are you scientifically literate? Take our quiz

    “For most people, going to a brand-new planet — not back to Mars to rove a different place, but to a whole new place for the first time, and to see it revealed — is going to be an experience unlike anything they’ve ever seen,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told Space.com earlier this year. “I think we’re going to have a chance to really enthuse people.”

    Pluto: planet or not?

    Pluto had been known as the solar system’s ninth planet since its 1930 discovery. But that all changed when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the organization responsible for giving “official” scientific names to celestial objects — decided to revise its definition of “planet” in August 2006.

    That decision was based in part upon the growing realization that Pluto is far from the only large object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies that orbits the sun beyond Neptune.

    kuiper belt
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt, derived from data from the Minor Planet Center. Objects in the main belt are colored green, whereas scattered objects are colored orange. The four outer planets are blue. Neptune’s few known trojans are yellow, whereas Jupiter’s are pink. The scattered objects between Jupiter’s orbit and the Kuiper belt are known as centaurs. The scale is in astronomical units. The pronounced gap at the bottom is due to difficulties in detection against the background of the plane of the Milky Way.

    The biggest jolt came in 2005, when a team of astronomers led by Mike Brown of Caltech found Eris, a Kuiper Belt body that seemed to be even larger than Pluto.

    So on Aug. 24, 2006, the IAU came up with a new definition of “planet”: a body that orbits the sun without being another object’s satellite, is large enough to be rounded into a sphere by its own gravity (but not so big that it sparks nuclear fusion reactions, like a star) and has “cleared its neighborhood” of most other orbiting bodies.

    Pluto was demoted to the newly created category of “dwarf planet” because it failed to meet the “clear your neighborhood” criterion.

    Some astronomers largely embraced the new classification, but others, such as Stern, were not at all happy. The neighborhood-clearing requirement particularly displeased Stern.

    “In no other branch of science am I familiar with something that absurd,” Stern told Space.com in 2011. “A river is a river, independent of whether there are other rivers nearby. In science, we call things what they are based on their attributes, not what they’re next to.”

    Stern doesn’t have a problem with the term “dwarf planet.” He just thinks that dwarf planets should be included in the ranks of “true” planets, along with rocky worlds such as Earth and gas giants like Saturn and Neptune. Excluding the dwarfs, which are likely incredibly numerous, seems like an attempt by the IAU to keep the number of true planets down to a manageable size, he said in 2011.

    “That’s not a very scientific way of going about it, since we have countless numbers of stars, galaxies, asteroids and everything else,” Stern said.
    New views of Pluto

    The New Horizons spacecraft launched in January 2006. Its historic flyby next summer may spur further conversation about the planethood of Pluto, which orbits the sun at an average distance of 3.65 billion miles (5.87 billion kilometers) — so far away that the object looks like a fuzzy ball in the best Hubble Space Telescope photos.

    The encounter will shine a very bright spotlight on Pluto, which remains largely mysterious more than 80 years after its discovery.

    For example, scientists didn’t know the dwarf planet had any moons until 1978, when they spotted the big satellite Charon orbiting Pluto. At 750 miles (1,207 km) across, Charon is about half as wide as Pluto itself.

    Recent observations by Hubble revealed four more moons, all of them tiny. Astronomers spotted Nix and Hydra in 2005, and discovered Kerberos and Styx in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

    New Horizons will search for additional moons around Pluto, and determine whether or not the dwarf planet has a ring system. The craft will also map the surface composition and characterize the geology of both Pluto and Charon, before flying on and continuing to explore the Kuiper Belt.

    The New Horizons mission should greatly increase researchers’ understanding of Pluto, the Kuiper Belt and ice dwarfs in general, mission officials say.

    “The United States has made history by being the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe,” officials write on the New Horizons website, which is maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “The New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — the first NASA launch to a ‘new’ planet since Voyager more than 30 years ago — allows the U.S. to complete the reconnaissance of the solar system.”

     
  • richardmitnick 5:49 pm on July 1, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From NASA/ESA Hubble: “Hubble to Proceed with Full Search for New Horizons Targets” 

    NASA Hubble Telescope

    Hubble

    July 1, 2014
    Ray Villard
    Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
    410-338-4514
    villard@stsci.edu

    J.D. Harrington
    NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
    202-358-5241
    j.d.harrington@nasa.gov

    NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has been given the go-ahead to conduct an intensive search for a suitable outer solar system object that the New Horizons (NH) spacecraft could visit after the probe streaks though the Pluto system in July 2015.

    kb2

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons Spacecraft

    Hubble observations will begin in July and are expected to conclude in August.

    Assuming a suitable target is found at the completion of the survey and some follow-up observations are made later in the year, if NASA approves, the New Horizon’s trajectory can be modified in the fall of 2015 to rendezvous with the target Kuiper Belt object (KBO) three to four years later.

    KB
    Kuiper Belt

    The Kuiper Belt is a debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago. Though the belt was hypothesized in a 1951 science paper by astronomer Gerard Kuiper, no Kuiper Belt objects were found until the early 1990s. So far over 1,000 KBOs have been cataloged, though it’s hypothesized many more KBOs exist.

    The approval for additional observing time for the needle-in-a-haystack search is based on the analysis of a set of pilot observations obtained with the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) director’s discretionary time on Hubble. After a swift and intensive data analysis of approximately 200 Hubble images, the NH team met the pilot program criterion of finding a minimum of two KBOs.

    “Once again the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated the ability to explore the universe in new and unexpected ways,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Hubble science is at its best when it works in concert with other NASA missions and ground-based observatories.”

    It will be many weeks before the team can establish whether either of these pilot-program KBOs is a suitable target for New Horizons to visit, but their discovery provides sufficient evidence that a wider search to be executed with Hubble will find an optimum object.

    “I am delighted that our initial investment of Hubble time paid off. We are looking forward see if the team can find a suitable KBO that New Horizons might be able to visit after its fly-by of Pluto,” said STScI director Matt Mountain.

    In early June, Hubble’s Time Allocation Committee awarded time for a full search with the requirement that its implementation be contingent on the success of the pilot survey.

    From June 16 to June 26, the New Horizons team used Hubble to perform a preliminary search to see how abundant small Kuiper Belt objects are in the vast outer rim of our solar system.

    Hubble looked at 20 areas of the sky to identify any small KBOs. The team analyzed each of pilot program images with software tools that sped up the KBO identification process. Hubble’s sharp vision and unique sensitivity allowed very faint KBOs to be identified as they drifted against the far more distant background stars, objects that had previously eluded searches by some of the world’s largest ground-based telescopes.

    See the full article here.

    The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), is a free-standing science center, located on the campus of The Johns Hopkins University and operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) for NASA, conducts Hubble science operations.

    ESA50 Logo large

    AURA Icon


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  • richardmitnick 12:06 pm on June 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From NASA: “NASA Hubble to Begin Search Beyond Pluto for a New Horizons Mission Target” 

    NASA

    NASA

    June 16, 2014
    J.D. Harrington
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-5241
    j.d.harrington@nasa.gov

    Ray Villard
    Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore
    410-338-4514
    villard@stsci.edu

    After careful consideration and analysis, the Hubble Space Telescope Time Allocation Committee has recommended using Hubble to search for an object the Pluto-bound NASA New Horizons mission could visit after its flyby of Pluto in July 2015.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons Spacecraft

    The planned search will involve targeting a small area of sky in search of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) for the outbound spacecraft to visit. The Kuiper Belt is a vast debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago. A KBO has never been seen up close because the belt is so far from the sun, stretching out to a distance of 5 billion miles into a never-before-visited frontier of the solar system.

    “I am pleased that our science peer-review process arrived at a consensus as to how to effectively use Hubble’s unique capabilities to support the science goals of the New Horizons mission,” said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.

    Fully carrying out the KBO search is contingent on the results from a pilot observation using Hubble data.

    The space telescope will scan an area of sky in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius to try and identify any objects orbiting within the Kuiper Belt. To discriminate between a foreground KBO and the clutter of background stars in Sagittarius, the telescope will turn at the predicted rate that KBOs are moving against the background stars. In the resulting images, the stars will be streaked, but any KBOs should appear as pinpoint objects.

    If the test observation identifies at least two KBOs of a specified brightness it will demonstrate statistically that Hubble has a chance of finding an appropriate KBO for New Horizons to visit. At that point, an additional allotment of observing time will continue the search across a field of view roughly the angular size of the full moon.

    Astronomers around the world apply for observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope. Competition for time on the telescope is extremely intense and the requested observing time significantly exceeds the observing time available in a given year. Proposals must address significant astronomical questions that can only be addressed with Hubble’s unique capabilities, and are beyond the capabilities of ground-based telescopes. The proposals are peer reviewed annually by an expert committee, which looks for the best possible science that can be conducted by Hubble and recommends to the Space Telescope Science Institute director a balanced program of small, medium, and large investigations.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    Though Hubble is powerful enough to see galaxies near the horizon of the universe, finding a KBO is a challenging needle-in-haystack search. A typical KBO along the New Horizons trajectory may be no larger than Manhattan Island and as black as charcoal.

    Even before the launch of New Horizons in 2006, Hubble has provided consistent support for this edge-of-the-solar system mission. Hubble was used to discover four small moons orbiting Pluto and its binary companion object Charon, providing new targets to enhance the mission’s scientific return. And Hubble has provided the most sensitive search yet for potentially hazardous dust rings around the Pluto. Hubble also has made a detailed map of the dwarf planet’s surface, which astronomers are using to plan New Horizon’s close-up reconnaissance photos.

    In addition to Pluto exploration, recent Hubble solar system observations have discovered a new satellite around Neptune, probed the magnetospheres of the gas-giant planets, found circumstantial evidence for oceans on Europa, and uncovered several bizarre cases of asteroids disintegrating before our eyes. Hubble has supported numerous NASA Mars missions by monitoring the Red Planet’s seasonal atmospheric changes. Hubble has made complementary observations in support of the Dawn asteroid mission, and comet flybys. In July 1994, Hubble documented the never-before-seen string of comet collisions with Jupiter that resulted from the tidal breakup of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

    NASA Dawn Spacecraft
    NASA/Dawn

    “The planned search for a suitable target for New Horizons further demonstrates how Hubble is effectively being used to support humankind’s initial reconnaissance of the solar system,” said Mountain. “Likewise, it is also a preview of how the powerful capabilities of the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will further bolster planetary science. We are excited by the potential of both observatories for ongoing solar system exploration and discovery.”

    For images and more information about Hubble, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

    and

    http://hubblesite.org/news/2014/29

    See the full article here.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble,
    Chandra, Spitzer ]and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.


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