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  • richardmitnick 4:05 pm on December 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From CfA: “Magnetic Fields on Solar-Type Stars” 

    Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
    Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

    Friday, December 12, 2014
    No Writer Credit

    The Sun rotates slowly, about once every 24 days at its equator although the hot gas at every latitude rotates at a slightly different rate. Rotation helps to drive the mechanisms that power stellar magnetic fields, and in slowly rotating solar-type stars also helps to explain the solar activity cycle. In the case of solar-type stars that rotate much faster than does the modern-day Sun, the dynamo appears to be generated by fundamentally different mechanisms that, along with many details of solar magnetic field generation, are not well understood. Astronomers trying to understand dynamos across a range of solar-type stars (and how they evolve) have been observing a variety of active stars, both slow and fast rotators, to probe how various physical parameters of stars enhance or inhibit dynamo processes.

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    Vivid orange streamers of super-hot, electrically charged gas (plasma) arc from the surface of the Sun reveal the structure of the solar magnetic field rising vertically from a sunspot. Astronomers are now studying the magnetic fields on solar-type stars using techniques of polarimetry.
    Hinode, JAXA/NASA

    Most techniques used to observe stellar magnetism rely on indirect proxies of the field, for example on characteristics of the radiation emitted by atoms. Surveys using these proxies have found clear dependencies between rotation and the stellar dynamo and the star’s magnetic cycles, among other things. Recent advances in instrumentation that can sense the polarization of the light extend these methods and have made it possible to directly measure solar-strength magnetic fields on other stars.

    CfA astronomer Jose-Dias do Nascimento is a member of a team of astronomers that has just completed the most extensive polarization survey of stars to date. They detected magnetic fields on sixty-seven stars, twenty-one of them classified as solar-type, about four times as many solar-type stars as had been previously classified. The scientists found that the average field increases with the stellar rotation rate and decreases with stellar age, and that its strength correlates with emission from the stars’ hot outer layers, their chromospheres. Not only does this paper represent the most extensive survey to date of its kind, it demonstrates the power of the polarization technique. It signals that it is possible to greatly expand the study of magnetic fields in solar-type stars, which efforts will continue to improve our understanding of the surface fields in the Sun.

    See the full article here.

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    About CfA

    The Center for Astrophysics combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under a single director to pursue studies of those basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1890. The Harvard College Observatory (HCO), founded in 1839, is a research institution of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and provides facilities and substantial other support for teaching activities of the Department of Astronomy. The long relationship between the two organizations, which began when the SAO moved its headquarters to Cambridge in 1955, was formalized by the establishment of a joint center in 1973. The CfA’s history of accomplishments in astronomy and astrophysics is reflected in a wide range of awards and prizes received by individual CfA scientists.

    Today, some 300 Smithsonian and Harvard scientists cooperate in broad programs of astrophysical research supported by Federal appropriations and University funds as well as contracts and grants from government agencies. These scientific investigations, touching on almost all major topics in astronomy, are organized into the following divisions, scientific departments and service groups.

     
  • richardmitnick 1:56 pm on December 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From AAAS: “NASA gets 2% boost to science budget” 

    AAAS

    AAAS

    10 December 2014
    Eric Hand

    For an agency regularly called “adrift” without a mission, NASA will at least float through next year with a boatload of money for its science programs.

    Yesterday Congress reached agreement on a spending deal for fiscal year 2015 that boosts the budget of the agency’s science mission by nearly 2% to $5.24 billion. The big winner within the division is planetary sciences, which received $160 million more than the president’s 2015 request in March. Legislators also maintained support for an infrared telescope mounted on a Boeing 747, a project that the White House had proposed grounding. NASA’s overall budget also rose by 2%, to $18 billion. That’s an increase of $364 million over 2014 levels, and half a billion dollars beyond the agency’s request.

    Planetary scientists are thrilled not only that their discipline was supported but also that no other space science areas were taxed to pay for their increase. “They added nearly $300 million to the entire science mission directorate. No one paid the price for restoration of the cuts to planetary science. That’s a big deal,” says Casey Dreier, advocacy director for the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. Congress is expected to pass the spending deal later this week, and Obama is expected to sign it into law.

    The $1.44 billion planetary science division is directed to spend “not less than $100 million” on a mission to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter with plate tectonics and a subsurface ocean that has intrigued astrobiologists. The mission has been a perennial battleground between Congress and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. OMB has viewed a Europa mission as too expensive for NASA when it is considering embarking on a Mars Sample Return mission. But legislators in districts with NASA-supported research centers like the idea, and Congress keeps giving the agency money to get started on the Europa mission. “There was astonishing support for Europa,” Dreier says. “Hopefully this is going to send that signal to the White House and OMB to ask for this new start.”

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    NASA would get $100 million to pursue a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa under the new spending agreement.

    NASA’s earth science division got exactly what Obama asked for, at $1.77 billion. “We’re pleased to see that in an era of flat budgets, science is holding its own,” says Chris McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C.

    In an effort to keep the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) focused on its expensive, flagship weather satellites, the Senate, in its version of the spending bill, had given NASA control of two smaller missions, Jason-3, an ocean altimetry satellite, and the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a space weather satellite. But in the final reckoning, primary ownership of these missions would remain with NOAA.

    NOAA Jason 3
    NOAA/Jason

    NOAA DISCOVR
    NOAA/DISCOVR

    The astrophysics division was funded at $1.33 billion, $70 million above the president’s request. The additional money will be used to continue flying the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified 747 jet with a telescope in its rear. That’s less than the NASA spent last year to operate SOFIA, but enough to allow the mission to keep going. In its 2015 request, the White House tried to cancel the expensive, long-suffering mission. The division also got $645 million that the agency says is needed to continue developing its flagship mission, the James Webb Space Telescope.

    NASA SOFIA
    NASA/SOFIA

    NASA James Webb Telescope
    NASA/Webb

    On the human spaceflight side, which accounts for about half of the agency’s budget, Congress continued to support both public and private approaches to getting humans into space. It gave $2.9 billion to continue developing the internal, “NASA-owned” successors to the space shuttle: the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion capsule that sits on top. But in giving $805 million to the commercial crew program, Congress also continued to support private efforts to develop human-rated rockets by companies such as SpaceX.

    NASA Space Launch System
    NASA/SLS

    NASA Orion Spacecraft
    NASA/Orion

    To see all of our stories on the 2015 budget, click here.

    See the full article here.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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  • richardmitnick 8:45 am on December 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NYT: 28 Months on Mars 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    December 9, 2014
    By Mike Bostock, Shan Carter, Jonathan Corum and Jeremy White
    Sources: NASA; Jet Propulsion Laboratory; NASA’s Navigation and Ancillary Information Facility; Joe Knapp; U.S.G.S. Astrogeology Science Center. Images by NASA and J.P.L. Panoramas, animation and mountain rendering by The New York Times

    NASA’s Curiosity rover has explored Gale Crater for 833 Martian days, or Sols. And it has found evidence, written in red rocks and sand, of lakes and streams on a warmer, wetter, habitable Mars.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    Curiosity

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    Traces of a Crater Lake
    Gale Crater as it might have appeared several billion years ago. Snow on the crater’s rim fed rivers and deltas flowing into the lake. The moving water carried sediment and carved patterns in the sand of the lakebed, leaving traces in the rocks that Curiosity is now driving over. The water was not too salty or too acidic, and could have supported microbial life.

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    Precision Landing
    Sol 0·Aug. 6, 2012
    The Curiosity rover touches down after an intricate, seven-minute landing sequence. The first images returned from the martian surface show the rover’s shadow stretching toward the bright slopes of Mount Sharp.

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    Rolling Out
    Sol 16·Aug. 22, 2012
    After spending two weeks testing its instruments, Curiosity makes its first drive and leaves its rocket-scorched landing site.

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    A Scoop of Rocknest
    Sol 61·Oct. 7, 2012
    Curiosity’s arm scoops its first sample of Martian soil, leaving a dark mark in a dune named Rocknest.

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    Self Portrait at Rocknest
    Sol 84·Oct. 31, 2012
    The rover spends six weeks at the Rocknest dune, studying the composition of the crater’s wind blown sand.

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    Six Months in Yellowknife Bay
    Sols 124–299·Dec. 11, 2012–June 9, 2013
    Curiosity spent most of its first Earth year on Mars in a broad, shallow basin called Yellowknife Bay. The rover drilled holes and took samples of low-lying mudstone, which formed from ancient lake and stream sediment.

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    Drilling at John Klein
    Sol 168·Jan. 25, 2013
    The rover examines a patch of mudstone on the floor of Yellowknife Bay for a suitable spot to drill. Curiosity was the first rover to drill a hole in another planet and extract a sample. A suite of chemistry experiments in the rover analyze the rock, which formed billions of years ago from lake sediments.

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    Drilling at Cumberland
    Sol 279·May 19, 2013
    Curiosity’s extended arm drills a second hole in Yellowknife Bay, extracting samples from a flat mudstone site named Cumberland.

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    The Long Drive to Mount Sharp
    Sol 324·July 4, 2013
    Curiosity begins driving toward its destination at the base of Mount Sharp, after almost a full Earth year studying the terrain near the landing site.

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    Darwin
    Sol 392·Sept. 12, 2013
    The rover’s first waypoint on its long drive to Mount Sharp is an outcrop called Darwin, an exposed patch of the bedrock underlying Gale Crater. Curiosity briefly studies the rock for evidence of past flowing water.

    c
    Upgrade at Cooperstown
    Sol 442·Nov. 3, 2013
    Curiosity pauses at its second waypoint, a scarp named Cooperstown. The rover spends a week downloading, installing and unexpectedly troubleshooting a software update from Earth.

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    Crossing Dingo Gap
    Sol 538·Feb. 9, 2014
    Curiosity looks back after driving over an elegant crescent-shaped dune spanning a narrow valley pass.

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    Layered Sandstone at the Kimberley
    Sol 580·March 25, 2014
    Curiosity examines the Kimberley, a large outcrop of layered sandstone slabs tilted toward Mount Sharp. The outcrop supports the idea that layers of lake and stream sediment accumulated in Gale Crater over millions of years.

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    Self Portrait at Windjana
    Sol 613·April 27, 2014
    Curiosity takes a self portrait near the end of its two-month exploration of the Kimberley outcrop. The rover is looking down at Windjana, a sandstone slab it drilled into eight days later.

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    On Damaged Wheels
    Sol 679·July 4, 2014
    The rover’s aluminum wheels have been heavily torn by driving five miles across the rough terrain of Gale Crater. To limit further damage, the rover has tried choosing paths over softer ground and sometimes driving in reverse.

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    Retreat From Hidden Valley
    Sol 711·Aug. 6, 2014
    Curiosity ends its second Earth year on Mars with its wheels deep in soft sand. Mission planners had hoped to drive across the rippled sand of Hidden Valley to protect the rover’s battered wheels, but decide to back out and stick to harder ground.

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    Pahrump Hills
    Sol 752·Sept. 17, 2014
    Curiosity reaches the Pahrump Hills, a pale outcrop of rock that is part of the base of Mount Sharp. The dark rippled areas are windblown drifts of sand and dust covering the flat bright rocks of the Pahrump Hills outcrop.

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    Drilling Into the Mountain
    Sol 759·Sept. 24, 2014
    Curiosity drills a hole in the Pahrump Hills outcrop. This is the rover’s first chance to sample rock from the base of Mount Sharp. Previous drill sites were rocks from the plain surrounding the mountain.

    s
    Salt Crystals in Mojave
    Sol 809·Nov. 15, 2014
    Curiosity cleans red dust from a patch of Martian rock named Mojave, part of the Pahrump Hills outcrop. Scattered through the rock are rice-shaped crystals of salt, which likely formed when an ancient lake or stream dried out. The crystals hint at a cycle of dry and wet conditions in the distant past of Gale Crater.

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    This Week
    Sol 831·Dec. 7, 2014
    In its 11th week at Pahrump Hills, Curiosity is making a second loop around the pale stones of the outcrop, brushing dust from the most interesting rocks and looking for a suitable place to drill.

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    The Path Ahead
    Curiosity has driven six miles since leaving its landing site. Soon the rover will begin climbing Mount Sharp, picking its way through buttes striped with layers that record the geological history of Gale Crater and the changing Martian environment.

    See the full article, with animations, here.

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  • richardmitnick 1:56 pm on December 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From JPL: “NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Clues to How Water Helped Shape Martian Landscape” 

    JPL

    December 8, 2014
    Guy Webster
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6278
    guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

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

    Observations by NASA’s Curiosity Rover indicate Mars’ Mount Sharp was built by sediments deposited in a large lake bed over tens of millions of years.

    lb

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    Curiosity

    This interpretation of Curiosity’s finds in Gale Crater suggests ancient Mars maintained a climate that could have produced long-lasting lakes at many locations on the Red Planet.

    “If our hypothesis for Mount Sharp holds up, it challenges the notion that warm and wet conditions were transient, local, or only underground on Mars,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “A more radical explanation is that Mars’ ancient, thicker atmosphere raised temperatures above freezing globally, but so far we don’t know how the atmosphere did that.”

    Why this layered mountain sits in a crater has been a challenging question for researchers. Mount Sharp stands about 3 miles (5 kilometers) tall, its lower flanks exposing hundreds of rock layers. The rock layers – alternating between lake, river and wind deposits — bear witness to the repeated filling and evaporation of a Martian lake much larger and longer-lasting than any previously examined close-up.

    “We are making headway in solving the mystery of Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Where there’s now a mountain, there may have once been a series of lakes.”

    Curiosity currently is investigating the lowest sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, a section of rock 500 feet (150 meters) high, dubbed the Murray formation. Rivers carried sand and silt to the lake, depositing the sediments at the mouth of the river to form deltas similar to those found at river mouths on Earth. This cycle occurred over and over again.

    “The great thing about a lake that occurs repeatedly, over and over, is that each time it comes back it is another experiment to tell you how the environment works,” Grotzinger said. “As Curiosity climbs higher on Mount Sharp, we will have a series of experiments to show patterns in how the atmosphere and the water and the sediments interact. We may see how the chemistry changed in the lakes over time. This is a hypothesis supported by what we have observed so far, providing a framework for testing in the coming year.”

    After the crater filled to a height of at least a few hundred yards, or meters, and the sediments hardened into rock, the accumulated layers of sediment were sculpted over time into a mountainous shape by wind erosion that carved away the material between the crater perimeter and what is now the edge of the mountain.

    On the 5-mile (8-kilometer) journey from Curiosity’s 2012 landing site to its current work site at the base of Mount Sharp, the rover uncovered clues about the changing shape of the crater floor during the era of lakes.

    “We found sedimentary rocks suggestive of small, ancient deltas stacked on top of one another,” said Curiosity science team member Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College in London. “Curiosity crossed a boundary from an environment dominated by rivers to an environment dominated by lakes.”

    Despite earlier evidence from several Mars missions that pointed to wet environments on ancient Mars, modeling of the ancient climate has yet to identify the conditions that could have produced long periods warm enough for stable water on the surface.

    NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project uses Curiosity to assess ancient, potentially habitable environments and the significant changes the Martian environment has experienced over millions of years. This project is one element of NASA’s ongoing Mars research and preparation for a human mission to the planet in the 2030s.

    “Knowledge we’re gaining about Mars’ environmental evolution by deciphering how Mount Sharp formed will also help guide plans for future missions to seek signs of Martian life,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

    Caltech Logo
    jpl

     
  • richardmitnick 5:19 am on December 5, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA: “Japan Launches Asteroid Mission” 

    NASA

    NASA

    Dec. 4, 2014
    Science@NASA

    On Dec. 3, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched its Hayabusa2 mission to rendezvous with an asteroid, land a small probe plus three mini rovers on its surface, and then return samples to Earth. NASA and JAXA are cooperating on the science of the mission and NASA will receive a portion of the Hayabusa2 sample in exchange for providing Deep Space Network communications and navigation support for the mission.

    JAXA Hayabasu spacecraft
    JAXA Hayabasu schematic
    Hayabusa2

    Hayabusa2 builds on lessons learned from JAXA’s initial Hayabusa mission, which collected samples from a small asteroid named Itokawa and returned them to Earth in June 2010. Hayabusa2’s target is a 750 meter-wide asteroid named 1999 JU3, because of the year when it was discovered by the NASA-sponsored Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project, Lexington, Massachusetts. This is a C-type asteroid which are thought to contain more organic material than other asteroids. Scientists hope to better understand how the solar system evolved by studying samples from these asteroids.

    1999
    1999 JU3

    “We think of C-type asteroids as being less altered than others,” says Lucy McFadden, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Bringing that material back and being able to look at it in the lab — I think it’s going to be very exciting.”
    Auroras Underfoot (signup)

    On Nov. 17, NASA and JAXA signed a Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation on the Hayabusa2 mission and NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission to mutually maximize their missions’ results. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch in 2016. It will be the first U.S. asteroid sample return mission. OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with the 500-meter-sized asteroid Bennu in 2019 for detailed reconnaissance and a return of samples to Earth in 2023.

    NASA Osiris-REx
    NASA/OSIRIS-REx

    n
    Bennu

    Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx will further strengthen the two space agencies’ relationship in asteroid exploration.

    The missions will also help NASA choose its target for the first-ever mission to capture and redirect an asteroid. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in the 2020s will help NASA test new technologies needed for future human missions for the Journey to Mars.

    Comets and asteroids contain material that formed in a disk surrounding our infant sun. The hundreds of thousands of known asteroids are leftovers from material that didn’t coalesce into a planet or moon in the inner solar system. The thousands of known comets likely formed in the outer solar system, far from the sun’s heat, where water exists as ice.

    Larger objects like dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres also formed in the outer solar system, where water ice is stable. Pluto and Ceres will soon be explored by NASA missions New Horizons and Dawn, respectively. Asteroids and comets are of unique interest to scientists, though, because they could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    NASA Dawn Spacescraft
    NASA/Dawn

    These missions have greatly increased scientific knowledge on Earth about our solar system and the history of our planet. Many scientists suspect we could find organic material in asteroids and comets, like amino acids—critical building blocks for life, which could help answer questions about the origins of life on Earth. These questions drive us to continue exploring the intriguing asteroids and comets of our solar system.

    Multiple missions that are operating in space or in development by NASA and international partners could bring us much closer to answering that question in our lifetimes and also help identify Near-Earth Objects that might pose a risk of Earth impact, and further help inform developing options for planetary defense.

    Follow the latest missions and discoveries at: http://www.nasa.gov/asteroid-and-comet-watch/

    See the full article here.

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    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.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    NASA Chandra Telescope
    NASA/Chandra

    NASA Spitzer Telescope
    NASA/Spitzer

     
  • richardmitnick 10:29 pm on November 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “How Far Away is Venus?” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    November 16, 2012
    Nola Taylor Redd

    How far is Venus from Earth?

    v
    Global radar view of the surface from Magellan radar imaging between 1990 and 1994

    NASA Magellan
    NASA/Magellan

    Venus is the closest planet to Earth (it’s also the most similar in size). But its proximity to our planet depends on the orbits of both. The two planets travel in ellipses around the sun, and so the distance between them is constantly shifting. At its farthest, Venus lies 162 million miles (261 million kilometers) away.

    Venus takes 224.7 Earth days to travel around the sun. It makes its closest approach to Earth about once every 584 days, when the planets catch up to one another. On average, it is 25 million miles (40 million km) away at this point, though it can reach as close as 24 million miles (38 million km).

    How far is Venus from the sun?

    All of the planets orbit the sun in an ellipse, rather than a circle, but Venus has the most circular orbit of the planets. On average, the distance to Venus from the sun is 67 million miles (108 million km). At its closest (perihelion), it is only 66.7 million miles away (107 million km); at its farthest (aphelion), only 67.7 million miles (108.9 million km) separate the two.

    Venus isn’t the brightest planet in the sky because it is the closest to the sun; Mercury bears that honor. But unlike Mercury, Venus has a thick, cloudy atmosphere that reflects the light better than Mercury’s rocky surface (it also keeps the planet piping hot). This causes it to stand out, brighter than any star even at its dimmest.

    Phases of Venus

    When Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei studied Venus with a telescope, he was astonished to find that it had phases. Like the moon, these phases depended on where the planet and the sun lay in relationship to the Earth. The phases of Venus were used as evidence that Venus, like the other planets, orbited the sun rather than the Earth in the Copernican model of the solar system.

    Transits of Venus

    Because Venus lies inside of the orbit of the Earth, it periodically transits, or crosses, the sun, blocking out a portion of the star. If the planets traveled within the same plane of the solar system, this would happen on a frequent basis. Instead, Venus has an orbit that is inclined by 3.4 degrees with respect to Earth, so sometimes it tends to pass outside of the range.

    Transits occur in pairs every 243 years; the pairs are separated by eight years. The last transit of the 21st century occurred on June 5 and 6, 2012 (its partner passing took place in 2004). Other transits occurred in 1639 (the first one scientifically observed; its companion transit was missed), 1761 and 1769, and 1874 and 1882. Ancient cultures such as the Greeks, the Mayans, and the Chinese charted the motion of Venus, but records indicate no clues as to transits. [PHOTOS: Transit of Venus 2012 in Pictures]

    Combining information about Venus’ 1639 transit with the principle of parallax allowed for the most accurate estimates of the distance from the Earth to the sun at the time.

    How long does it take to get to Venus?

    The time it takes to travel to Venus depends not only on what speed a rocket can obtain but also on the path a spacecraft travels. Space agencies frequently use gravity boosts from moons, the sun, and other planets to accelerate a craft without using fuel.

    In 1962, NASA’s Mariner 2 became the first spacecraft to send back information from another planet. Launched on August 27, 1962, it performed a flyby of the planet on Dec. 14, having taken less than four months to reach Venus.

    NASA Mariner 2
    NASA/Mariner 2

    The Soviet Union launched Venera 7 on Aug. 17, 1970. On Dec. 15 of that same year, it landed on Venus and became the first spacecraft to send back information from another planet. It took slightly more time to reach Venus than Mariner 2, but still fell short of the four-month mark.

    USSR Venera 7
    USSR Venera 7

    The most recent terrestrial visitor Venus was NASA’s Magellan spacecraft, which took up orbit around the shining planet. Launched on May 4, 1989, it began its orbital insertion movement on Aug. 7, 1990, having taken a more roundabout trip after scheduling issues following the Challenger disaster. Magellan mapped the surface of Venus in depth.

    NASA Magellan
    NASA/ Magellan

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 11:42 am on November 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Spirit Rover: Trapped by the Sands of Mars” 2012 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    December 04, 2012
    Elizabeth Howell

    The promised warranty on the Spirit rover was 90 Martian days (or “sols“). It ended up lasting more than 2,200 sols and gave a window into Mars’ early and wet history.

    But there was one obstacle Spirit couldn’t overcome: an unexpected sand trap. NASA spent weeks trying to help the robot on to safer ground, with little headway. Trapped, the rover eventually stopped transmitting information back to Earth.

    sp

    The rover left behind a trove of scientific information about Mars history. It also paved the way for a more robust rover to follow: Curiosity, which is still exploring the Red Planet today.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    Curiosity

    Following the water

    Spirit is one of a suite of spacecraft in NASA’s second wave of Mars exploration. The agency sent several missions to Mars in the 1960s and 1970s, but paused after the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers in the 1970s did not bring back definitive evidence of current or past life.

    NASA Viking 1
    NASA/Viking 1

    NASA Viking 2
    NASA/Viking 2

    According to the agency, interest in Mars began to turn again in the 1980s and 1990s, as research on Earth uncovered microbes not only surviving, but thriving in extreme environments such as underwater volcanic vents. Further, the Viking pictures showed possible evidence that the area had water in the past.

    NASA sent Mars Global Surveyor to the planet in 1996 to map out possible water sites, and also placed the Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner rover mission to the surface in 1997 with great scientific and public success.

    NASA Mars Global Surveyor
    NASA/Mars Global Surveyor

    NASA Mars Pathfinder
    NASA/Mars Pathfinder

    NASA Mars Sojourner
    NASA/Mars Sojourner

    This spurred enough interest for more rovers. NASA ultimately launched two rovers towards Mars: Spirit, and Opportunity. More formally known as the Mars Exploration Rovers, the machines received their names from 9-year-old Sofi Collis following a naming contest.

    NASA Mars Spirit
    NASA/Mars Spirit

    NASA Mars Opportunity Rover
    NASA/Mars Opportunity

    Spirit and Opportunity together cost $800 million and carried a large collection of scientific equipment. They had panoramic cameras to scope out their surroundings, and a small spectrometer that could seek out signs of heat on the surface. Each rover also had an arm, which carried tools such as a microscopic imager to get a close-up look at rocks on the surface.

    Going for Gusev

    It took two years of wrangling for scientists and engineers to agree on landing sites for Opportunity and Spirit. “The places most appealing to scientists (the side of a cliff, for example, on which the planet’s history is recorded in layers of sedimentary rock) are often the most frightening to engineers charged with the robot’s safety,” NASA wrote of the process.

    Opportunity targeted Meridiani Planum based on a layer of hematite that MGS spotted from above. Hematite is an iron oxide that often forms in water. (And as it turned out, Opportunity found lots of hematite on the surface.)

    s
    Photo of sunset on Mars taken by NASA’s Spirit rover in 2005.
    Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

    Spirit’s destination was Gusev Crater, which stretches bigger than the state of Connecticut. From MGS pictures, scientists were pretty sure the crater held water in the ancient past. Gusev itself was dug out by an asteroid or comet impacting the planet as early as 4 billion years ago.

    Spirit was the first of the rovers to leave Earth. It blasted off from Cape Canaveral on June 10, 2003, and was on its way to Mars within hours. Seven months later, on Jan. 3, 2004, Spirit made its final descent to Mars.

    After snapping open a parachute, the rover careened to the surface in a cocoon of airbags, rolling safely to a stop on the surface. Right on target in Gusev, too. Opportunity also landed safely and at the right spot, on Jan. 25.

    Reboots, water and wheels

    Spirit was still sitting in its landing shell when it spotted the first possible signs of water in the distance: carbonate, which often forms in wet environments. “We came looking for carbonates. We have them. We’re going to chase them,” said Phil Christensen, one of the Spirit scientists, in a press release.

    But within a week, Spirit was in trouble. It stopped sending data from the surface on Jan. 21, 2004. Within two days, NASA later determined the rover’s computer was perpetually rebooting due to a software error; it restarted more than 60 times in three days.

    The agency stabilized the rover in February. Then, in March, Spirit hit a jackpot: it found a volcanic rock that had hints of a watery past in its composition.

    Three months later, NASA was surprised when Spirit stumbled across hematite, which is a mineral that can form in water. Opportunity also found hematite at its landing site halfway across Mars.

    By late 2005, Spirit had driven up a nearby landmark, Husband Hill, to take a look at the landscape around it. It was the first time a rover climbed a hill on another planet.

    The area was a testament to Mars’ early violent history, NASA said. “We’ve got this dramatic topography covered with sand and loose boulders, then, every so often, a little window into the bedrock underneath,” stated science instruments principal investigator Steve Squyres at the time.

    One of Spirit’s wheels quit in March 2006 as the rover was racing to a slope to get enough sunlight to last the winter. NASA dragged the wheel behind the rover, slowly moving Spirit an hour a day as the sun’s strength allowed. It safely arrived at its destination in April.

    The location proved to be a good spot to stop, as the rover found “water-altered minerals” nearby when it resumed operations in late 2006.

    Latter years on Mars

    Spirit journeyed 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) during its years on Mars, more than a dozen times the distance that NASA planned to travel. Spirit soldiered on despite a spite of mechanical and Martian difficulties.

    Funny enough, the tricky wheel ended up being useful to the mission; in March 2007, NASA announced the rover churned up some soil that had sulfur and water traces in it.

    As the year passed, it uncovered the site of a possible volcanic outburst, and survived an extensive dust storm. Another storm in late 2008 put Spirit’s power down to concerning levels, but the rover pulled through.

    Martian winds cleared some of the dust away in February 2009. In April, Spirit began to have rebooting trouble from its computer again, with periods of what NASA described as “amnesia.” The rover began driving again as NASA worked to fix the problem, but then ran into a worse problem: sinking sand. The rover unexpectedly broke through a crust on April 23 into softer sand, and couldn’t get out again.

    NASA spent months running simulations and sending commands to the stranded rover, but also performed some science while standing in place. The agency was delighted to see sand with basalt, sulfate and silica in it, all revealed to the rover as it tried to get out of its trap. One press release called the location, Troy, “one of the most interesting places Spirit has been.”

    On Dec. 31, 2009, NASA warned there may not be enough power to last the winter. Spirit’s last communication came on March 22, 2010, and it remained silent as NASA spent months hailing it.

    “Engineers’ assessments in recent months have shown a very low probability for recovering communications with Spirit,” NASA wrote in a press release on May 24, 2011. Besides, the space assets being used to look for Spirit would soon be needed for Curiosity.

    NASA concluded its efforts to reach Spirit that month. However, the rover’s place in history is secured from its six years of discovery on the Red Planet.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 12:14 pm on November 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Jupiter, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA),   

    From Space.com: “Planet Jupiter: Facts About Its Size, Moons and Red Spot” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    November 14, 2014
    Charles Q. Choi

    Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. Fittingly, it was named after the king of the gods in Roman mythology. In a similar manner, the ancient Greeks named the planet after Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon.

    j

    Jupiter helped revolutionize the way we saw the universe and ourselves in 1610, when Galileo discovered Jupiter’s four large moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, now known as the Galilean moons. This was the first time celestial bodies were seen circling an object other than Earth, major support of the Copernican view that Earth was not the center of the universe.
    Physical characteristics

    Jupiter is the most massive planet in our solar system, more than twice as massive as all the other planets combined, and had it been about 80 times more massive, it would have actually become a star instead of a planet. Its atmosphere resembles that of the sun, made up mostly of hydrogen and helium, and with four large moons and many smaller moons in orbit around it, Jupiter by itself forms a kind of miniature solar system. All told, the immense volume of Jupiter could hold more than 1,300 Earths.

    The colorful bands of Jupiter are arranged in dark belts and light zones created by strong east-west winds in the planet’s upper atmosphere traveling more than 400 mph (640 kph). The white clouds in the zones are made of crystals of frozen ammonia, while darker clouds of other chemicals are found in the belts. At the deepest visible levels are blue clouds. Far from being static, the stripes of clouds change over time. Inside the atmosphere, diamond rain may fill the skies.

    The most extraordinary feature on Jupiter is undoubtedly the Great Red Spot,

    grs
    Great red Spot

    a giant hurricane-like storm seen for more than 300 years. At its widest, the Great Red Spot is three times the diameter of the Earth, and its edge spins counterclockwise around its center at a speed of about 225 mph (360 kph). The color of the storm, which usually varies from brick red to slightly brown, may come from small amounts of sulfur and phosphorus in the ammonia crystals in Jupiter’s clouds. The spot grows and shrinks over time, and every now and again, seems to fade entirely.

    Jupiter’s gargantuan magnetic field is the strongest of all the planets in the solar system at nearly 20,000 times the strength of Earth’s.

    j
    Jupiter’s magnetosphere

    It traps electrically charged particles in an intense belt of electrons and other electrically charged particles that regularly blasts the planet’s moons and rings with a level of radiation more than 1,000 times the lethal level for a human, damaging even heavily shielded spacecraft such as NASA’s Galileo probe. The magnetosphere of Jupiter, which is composed of these fields and particles, swells out some 600,000 to 2 million miles (1 million to 3 million km) toward the sun and tapers to a tail extending more than 600 million miles (1 billion km) behind Jupiter.

    Jupiter spins faster than any other planet, taking a little under 10 hours to complete a turn on its axis, compared with 24 hours for Earth. This rapid spin makes Jupiter bulge at the equator and flatten at the poles, making the planet about 7 percent wider at the equator than at the poles.

    Jupiter broadcasts radio waves strong enough to detect on Earth. These come in two forms — strong bursts that occur when Io, the closest of Jupiter’s large moons, passes through certain regions of Jupiter’s magnetic field, and continuous radiation from Jupiter’s surface and high-energy particles in its radiation belts. These radio waves could help scientists to probe the oceans on its moons.

    ju
    Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com

    Composition & structure

    Atmospheric composition (by volume): 89.8 percent molecular hydrogen, 10.2 percent helium, minor amounts of methane, ammonia, hydrogen deuteride, ethane, water, ammonia ice aerosols, water ice aerosols, ammonia hydrosulfide aerosols

    Magnetic field: Nearly 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s

    Chemical composition: Jupiter has a dense core of uncertain composition, surrounded by a helium-rich layer of fluid metallic hydrogen, wrapped up in an atmosphere primarily made of molecular hydrogen.

    Internal structure: A core less than 10 times Earth’s mass surrounded by a layer of fluid metallic hydrogen extending out to 80 to 90 percent of the diameter of the planet, enclosed in an atmosphere mostly made of gaseous and liquid hydrogen.
    Orbit & rotation

    Average distance from the sun: 483,682,810 miles (778,412,020 km). By comparison: 5.203 times that of Earth

    Perihelion (closest approach to the sun): 460,276,100 miles (740,742,600 km). By comparison: 5.036 times that of Earth

    Aphelion (farthest distance from the sun): 507,089,500 miles (816,081,400 km). By comparison: 5.366 times that of Earth

    (Source: NASA.)

    Jupiter’s moons

    Jupiter has at least 63 moons, which are often named after the Roman god’s many lovers. The four largest moons of Jupiter, now called Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, were discovered by Galileo Galilei himself, and are appropriately known today as the Galilean satellites.

    Ganymede is the largest moon in our solar system, larger even than Mercury and Pluto. It is also the only moon known to have its own magnetic field. The moon has at least one thick ocean between layers of ice, although it may contain several layers of both materials.

    Io is the most volcanically active body in our solar system. The sulfur its volcanoes spew out gives Io a blotted yellow-orange appearance that is often compared to a pepperoni pizza. As Io orbits Jupiter, the planet’s immense gravity causes ‘tides’ in Io’s solid surface that rise 300 feet (100 meters) high, generating enough heat for volcanic activity.

    The frozen crust of Europa is made up mostly of water ice, and it may hide a liquid ocean holding twice as much water as Earth does. Icy oceans may also exist beneath the crusts of Callisto and Ganymede. Some of this liquid spouts from the surface in newly spotted sporadic plumes at the southern pole. Its potential to host life caused NASA to request funding for a mission to explore Europa.

    Callisto has the lowest reflectivity, or albedo, of the four Galilean moons. This suggests that its surface may be composed of dark, colorless rock.
    Jupiter’s rings

    Jupiter’s three rings came as a surprise when NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft discovered them around the planet’s equator in 1979. Each are much fainter than Saturn’s rings.

    NASA Voyager 1
    NASA/Voyager 1

    The main ring is flattened. It is about 20 miles (30 km) thick and more than 4,000 miles (6,400 km) wide.

    The inner cloud-like ring, called the halo, is roughly 12,000 miles (20,000 km) thick. The halo extends halfway from the main ring down to the planet’s cloud tops and expands by interaction with Jupiter’s magnetic field. Both the main ring and halo are composed of small, dark particles.

    The third ring, known as the gossamer ring because of its transparency, is actually three rings of microscopic debris from three of Jupiter’s moons, Amalthea, Thebe and Adrastea. It is probably made up of dust particles less than 10 microns in diameter, about the same size of the particles found in cigarette smoke, and extends to an outer edge of about 80,000 miles (129,000 km) from the center of the planet and inward to about 18,600 miles (30,000 km).

    Ripples in the rings of both Jupiter and Saturn may be signs of impacts from comets and asteroids.

    Research & exploration

    Seven missions have flown by Jupiter — Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Ulysses, Cassini and New Horizons — while another, NASA’s Galileo, actually orbited the planet.

    NASA Pioneer 10
    NASA/Pioneer 10

    NASA Pioneer 11
    NASA/Pioneer 11

    NASA Voyager 1
    NASA/Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are identical

    NASA Cassini Spacecraft
    NASA/Cassini

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    NASA Galileo
    NASA/Galileo

    Pioneer 10 revealed how dangerous Jupiter’s radiation belt is, while Pioneer 11 provided data on the Great Red Spot and close-up pictures of its polar region. Voyager 1 and 2 helped astronomers create the first detailed maps of the Galilean satellites, discovered Jupiter’s rings, revealed sulfur volcanoes on Io, and saw lightning in Jupiter’s clouds. Ulysses discovered the solar wind has a much greater impact on Jupiter’s magnetosphere than before suggested. New Horizons took close-up pictures of Jupiter and its largest moons.

    In 1995, Galileo sent a probe plunging towards Jupiter, making the first direct measurements of its atmosphere and measuring the amount of water and other chemicals there. When Galileo ran low on fuel, the craft was intentionally crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere to avoid any risk of it slamming into and contaminating Europa, which might have an ocean below its surface capable of supporting life.

    Another spacecraft, named Juno, is heading toward Jupiter and will reach the planet in 2016. It will study Jupiter from a polar orbit to figure out how it and the rest of the solar system formed, which could shed light on how alien planetary systems might have developed.

    NASA Juno
    NASA/Juno

    Jupiter’s gravitational impact on the solar system

    As the most massive body in the solar system after the sun, the pull of Jupiter’s gravity has helped shape the fate of our system. It may have violently hurled Neptune and Uranus outward, according to calculations published in the journal Nature. Jupiter, along with Saturn, may have slung a barrage of debris toward the inner planets early in the system’s history, according to an article in Science magazine. It may even nowadays help keep asteroids from bombarding Earth, and recent events certainly have shown that it can absorb potentially deadly impacts.

    Currently, Jupiter’s gravitational field influences numerous asteroids that have clustered into the regions preceding and following Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. These are known as the Trojan asteroids, after three large asteroids there, Agamemnon, Achilles and Hector, names drawn from the Iliad, Homer’s epic about the Trojan War.
    Possibility of life on Jupiter

    If one were to dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere, one would discover it to grow warmer with depth, reaching room temperature, or 70 degrees F (21 degrees C), at an altitude where the atmospheric pressure is about 10 times as great as it is on Earth. Scientists have conjectured that if Jupiter has any form of life, it might dwell at this level, and would have to be airborne. However, researchers have found no evidence for life on Jupiter.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:32 am on November 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From Huff Post: “NASA Is Building a Sustainable ‘Highway’ for Unprecedented Deep Space Exploration” 

    Huffington Post
    The Huffington Post

    11/20/2014
    Dan Dumbacher

    In early December, NASA will take an important step into the future with the first flight test of the Orion spacecraft — the first vehicle in history capable of taking humans to multiple destinations in deep space. And while this launch is an un-crewed test, it will be the first peek at how NASA has revamped itself since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

    NASA Orion Spacecraft
    NASA/Orion

    While the space shuttle achieved many ground-breaking accomplishments, it was limited to flights in low-Earth orbit (approx. 250 miles high). Its major goal, over the program’s last 10 years, was to launch and assemble the International Space Station, where the risks and challenges of long duration human space flight can be addressed and retired. With the ISS construction complete, NASA is in the process of handing over supply and crew transportation missions to private industry, so NASA can focus on what’s next – deep space exploration. And this first flight test of Orion is a significant milestone on the path to get us there.

    The flight itself will be challenging. Orion will fly 3,600 miles above Earth on a 4.5-hour mission to test many of the systems necessary for future human missions into deep space. After two orbits, Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at almost 20,000 miles per hour, reaching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before its parachute system deploys to slow the spacecraft for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

    While this launch is an important step to taking humans farther than we’ve ever gone before, it is important to note that it also reflects the fact that, after 30 years of space shuttle missions dominating its human spaceflight activities, NASA has reevaluated everything – from its rockets and launch facilities to how it designs and manages its programs. NASA has now infused innovation and flexibility into everything it does.

    With the Orion spacecraft, NASA wanted to develop a vehicle that could fly for decades with the flexibility to visit different destinations and safely return astronauts to Earth as the nation’s exploration goals evolve. As capable as the Apollo capsule was, the longest round trip mission to the Moon took 12 days. Orion is designed as a long-duration spacecraft that will allow us to undertake human missions to Mars – a two year round trip. In addition, NASA built enough capability into Orion so there is no need for redesign, or to start up a new program, as new destinations are identified.

    Innovation and flexibility are also evident with the ground infrastructure. At Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, NASA has eliminated the ground systems and launch pads that were built specifically for the space shuttle. They have developed a “clean pad” approach that can be used by a variety of launch vehicles. The new streamlined infrastructure will be much more cost-efficient, reducing the time for on-the-pad processing from 30 days, the space shuttle’s timeline, to just five to six days.

    The key to launching Orion on deep space exploration missions is NASA’s new “super rocket.” Known as the Space Launch System (SLS), it will be the most powerful rocket in history. The enormous power of the SLS will provide the capability to go farther into our solar system than humans have ever gone before. It will enable launches to other planets in less than half the time of any existing rocket. And, like Orion and the new ground systems at KSC, it is designed to be flexible and evolvable to meet a wide variety of crew and cargo mission requirements.

    The SLS is an absolute game-changer for ambitious robotic missions to the outer planets and large unprecedented astronomical observatories. Those missions will build on the discoveries of Curiosity on Mars, the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, and multiple robotic missions in the years ahead.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    Curiosity

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    NASA Webb Telescope
    NASA/Webb

    Through the development of the SLS and Orion, NASA has learned many lessons on how to streamline the design to make it more affordable than past systems. For the early missions, SLS will use heritage space shuttle hardware for the liquid engines and solid rocket boosters. Also, instead of initially building the “full-up” SLS, NASA has designed it to evolve by planning upgraded upper stages and boosters that future missions will require in the 2020’s and 2030’s. These innovations have allowed SLS to stay on a relatively flat budget throughout its design phase.

    Even the way NASA manages its programs has been revamped. The Agency’s management structure for systems engineering and integration has been streamlined to increase communication and enhance decision-making. Strong communication has led to increased precision, and the potential cost avoidance is close to $100 million per year. Evidence of these savings can be seen in the successful completions of Preliminary Design Reviews for Orion, SLS and KSC ground systems.

    As a nation, the U.S. has not sent crews beyond low Earth orbit since the last Apollo crew walked on the Moon in 1972. With Orion and SLS, America will have the fundamental capabilities to support missions taking the next steps into deep space, and with innovation and flexibility at the foundation of these programs, NASA is literally building a “Highway” for deep space exploration that will be sustainable for decades to come.

    See the full article here.

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    • jasper2489 11:19 am on November 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Reblogged this on On The First Page and commented:
      This is exciting. I hope this project actually does what NASA says it will. It means we may be finally taking space exploration more seriously.

      Like

  • richardmitnick 10:14 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From JPL: “Second Time Through, Mars Rover Examines Chosen Rocks” 

    JPL

    November 18, 2014
    Guy Webster
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6278
    guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov

    NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has completed a reconnaissance “walkabout” of the first outcrop it reached at the base of the mission’s destination mountain and has begun a second pass examining selected rocks in the outcrop in more detail.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    Curiosity

    r
    This small ridge, about 3 feet (1 meter) long, appears to resist wind erosion more than the flatter plates around it. Such differences are among the rock characteristics that NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is examining at selected targets at the base of Mount Sharp.

    The ridge pictured here, called “Pink Cliffs,” is within the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop forming part of the basal layer of the mountain. This view is a mosaic of exposures acquired by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) shortly before a two-week walkabout up the outcrop, scouting to select which targets to examine in greater detail during a second pass.

    Pink Cliffs is one of the targets chosen for closer inspection. This image combines several frames taken with the Mastcam on Oct. 7, 2014, the 771st Martian day, or sol of Curiosity’s work on Mars. The color has been approximately white-balanced to resemble how the scene would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.

    Exposed layers on the lower portion of Mount Sharp are expected to hold evidence about dramatic changes in the environmental evolution of Mars. That was a major reason NASA chose this area of Mars for this mission. The lowermost of these slices of time ascending the mountain includes a pale outcrop called “Pahrump Hills.” It bears layers of diverse textures that the mission has been studying since Curiosity acquired a drilled sample from the outcrop in September.

    In its first pass up this outcrop, Curiosity drove about 360 feet (110 meters), and scouted sites ranging about 30 feet (9 meters) in elevation. It evaluated potential study targets from a distance with mast-mounted cameras and a laser-firing spectrometer.

    “We see a diversity of textures in this outcrop — some parts finely layered and fine-grained, others more blocky with erosion-resistant ledges,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Overlaid on that structure are compositional variations. Some of those variations were detected with our spectrometer. Others show themselves as apparent differences in cementation or as mineral veins. There’s a lot to study here.”

    During a second pass up the outrcrop, the mission is using a close-up camera and spectrometer on the rover’s arm to examine selected targets in more detail. The second-pass findings will feed into decisions about whether to drill into some target rocks during a third pass, to collect sample material for onboard laboratory analysis.

    “The variations we’ve seen so far tell us that the environment was changing over time, both as the sediments were laid down and also after they hardened into bedrock,” Vasavada said. “We have selected targets that we think give us the best chance of answering questions about how the sediments were deposited — in standing water? flowing water? sand blowing in the wind? — and about the composition during deposition and later changes.”

    The first target in the second pass is called “Pelona,” a fine-grained, finely layered rock close to the September drilling target at the base of Pahrump Hills outcrop. The second is a more erosion-resistant ledge called “Pink Cliffs.”

    Before examining Pelona, researchers used Curiosity’s wheels as a tool to expose a cross section of a nearby windblown ripple of dust and sand. One motive for this experiment was to learn why some ripples that Curiosity drove into earlier this year were more difficult to cross than anticipated.

    While using the rover to investigate targets in Pahrump Hills, the rover team is also developing a work-around for possible loss of use of a device used for focusing the telescope on Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, the laser-firing spectrometer.

    Diagnostic data from ChemCam suggest weakening of the instrument’s smaller laser. This is a continuous wave laser used for focusing the telescope before the more powerful laser is fired. The main laser induces a spark on the target it hits; light from the spark is received though the telescope and analyzed with spectrometers to identify chemical elements in the target. If the smaller laser has become too weak to continue using, the ChemCam team plans to test an alternative method: firing a few shots from the main laser while focusing the telescope, before performing the analysis. This would take advantage of more than 2,000 autofocus sequences ChemCam has completed on Mars, providing calibration points for the new procedure.

    Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012, but before beginning the drive toward Mount Sharp, the rover spent much of the mission’s first year productively studying an area much closer to the landing site, but in the opposite direction. The mission accomplished its science goals in that Yellowknife Bay area. Analysis of drilled rocks there disclosed an ancient lakebed environment that, more than three billion years ago, offered ingredients and a chemical energy gradient favorable for microbes, if any existed there.

    Curiosity spent its second year driving more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Yellowknife Bay to the base of Mount Sharp, with pauses at a few science waypoints.

    NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

    For more information about Curiosity, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/msl

    http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

    You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

    http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity

    http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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