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  • richardmitnick 4:34 am on October 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From astrobio.net: “Planetary Atmospheres a Key to Assessing Possibilities for Life” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Oct 30, 2014
    No Writer Credit

    A planetary atmosphere is a delicate thing. On Earth, we are familiar with the ozone hole — a tear in our upper atmosphere caused by human-created chemicals that thin away the ozone. Threats to an atmosphere, however, can also come from natural causes.

    ear
    Earth’s atmosphere likely changed from a helium-heavy one to the nitrogen and oxygen mix we see today. Credit: NASA

    If a big enough asteroid smacks into a planet, it can strip the atmosphere away. Radiation from a star can also make an atmosphere balloon, causing its lighter elements to escape into space.

    Understanding how permanent an atmosphere is, where it came from, and most importantly what it is made of are key to understanding if a planet outside our solar system is habitable for life. Our instruments aren’t yet sophisticated enough to look at atmospheres surrounding Earth-sized planets, but astronomers are starting to gather data on larger worlds to do comparative studies.

    One such example was recently accepted in the journal Astrophysical Journal and is available now in a preprint version on Arxiv. The astronomers created models of planetary formation and then simulated atmospheric stripping, the process where a young star’s radiation can push lighter elements out into space.

    Next, the team compared their findings to data gathered from NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope. The researchers predict that the atmospheric mass of the planets Kepler found is, in some cases, far greater than the thin veneer of air covering Earth.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    Co-author Christoph Mordasini, who studies planet and star formation at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, cautioned there is likely an observational bias with the Kepler data.

    “Kepler systems are so compact, with the planets closer to their star than in our solar system,” said Mordasini.

    Astronomers are still trying to understand why.

    “Maybe some of these objects formed early in their system’s history, in the presence of lots of gas and dust,” he said. “This would have made their atmospheres relatively massive compared to Earth. Our planet probably only formed when the gas was already gone, so it could not form a similar atmosphere.”

    Blowing gas away

    Planetary systems come to be in a cloud of gas and dust, the theory goes. If enough mass gathers in a part of the cloud, that section collapses and creates a star surrounded by a thin disk. When the star ignites, its radiative force will gradually clear the area around it of any debris.

    Over just a few million years, the hydrogen and helium in the disk surrounding the star partially spirals onto the star, while the rest gets pushed farther and farther out into space. Proto-Earth likely had a hydrogen-rich atmosphere at this stage, but over time (with processes such as vulcanism, comet impacts, and biological activity) its atmosphere gradually changed to the nitrogen and oxygen composition we see today.

    Kepler’s data has showed other differences from our own solar system. In our own solar system, there is a vast size difference between Earth and the next-biggest planet, Neptune, which has a radius almost four times that of Earth’s. This means there’s a big dividing line when it comes to size between terrestrial planets and gas giants in our solar system.

    venus
    This global view of the surface of Venus is centered at 180 degrees east longitude. Magellan synthetic aperture radar mosaics from the first cycle of Magellan mapping are mapped onto a computer-simulated globe to create this image. Data gaps are filled with Pioneer Venus Orbiter data, or a constant mid-range value. Simulated color is used to enhance small-scale structure. The simulated hues are based on color images recorded by the Soviet Venera 13 and 14 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

    In Kepler surveys (as well as surveys from other planet-hunting telescopes), scientists have found more of a gradient. There are other planetary systems out there with planets in between Earth’s and Neptune’s sizes, which are sometimes called “super-Earths” or “mini-Neptunes.” Whether planets of this size are habitable is up for debate.

    “The gap between the Earth’s and Uranus’ or Neptune’s size, and also in their composition, doesn’t exist in extrasolar planets. So, what we see in the Solar System is not the rule,” Mordasini said.

    The planets that Kepler has picked up, however, tend to be massive and closer to their star, and are therefore easier to detect. They pass more frequently across the face of their parent star, making them more easily spotted from Earth.

    The size implies that they managed to grab their disk’s primordial hydrogen and helium atmosphere before it got blown away. Hydrogen and helium are light elements, so a star’s radiation would puff up the hydrogen and helium atmosphere far more than what we see on Earth, with its heavier elements.

    What does this mean? The team predicts that in some cases, when astronomers measure the radius of a planet, that measurement also includes a bulky atmosphere. In other words, the planet underneath could be a lot smaller than what Kepler’s measurements could indicate.

    This process assumes that the planet has an iron core and silica mantle, just like the Earth, but orbits its parent star about 10 times closer than we do ours. If the atmosphere is more massive — even 1 percent of the planet’s mass is many thousands of times more massive than Earth’s — it creates more pressure on the surface.

    “It depends, but you can imagine this pressure is comparable to the deepest parts of the Earth’s ocean. Additionally, these atmospheres can be isolating and insulating for heat, so it’s also very hot on the surface,” Mordasini said.

    High temperatures on Earth are known to destroy amino acids, the building blocks of carbon-based life.

    Delicate atmosphere

    The atmosphere may be more massive, but it is also delicate. It wouldn’t take too much of a push to send hydrogen, the lightest element, away from the planet and into space.

    k69
    A habitable zone planet, Kepler-69c, in an artist’s impression. The world is probably an inhospitable “super-Venus,” but then again, it might be habitable, depending on the character of its atmosphere. Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

    Young stars like the Sun in its youth are especially active in x-rays and ultraviolet radiation. When these forms of light hit a planetary atmosphere, they tend to heat it up. Since heating expands gases, the atmosphere grows. An atmosphere that flows beyond certain heights can get so high that part of it gets “unbounded” from the planet’s gravity and escapes into space.

    In our own solar system, for example, Mars likely lost its hydrogen to space over time while a heavier kind of hydrogen (called deuterium) remained behind. A new NASA orbiting spacecraft called Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) has just arrived at the Red Planet to study more about atmospheric escape today and researchers will to try to extrapolate that knowledge to space.

    NASA MAVEN
    NASA/MAVEN

    By contrast, the planet Venus is an example of having an exceptionally persistent atmosphere. The mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere is so thick today that the planet is completely shrouded in clouds. Underneath the atmosphere is a hellish environment, one in which the spacecraft that have made it there have only survived a few minutes in the 864 º Fahrenheit (462 º Celsius) heat on the surface. It is widely presumed that atmospheres like that of Venus would be too hot for carbon-based life.

    Why Venus, Mars and Earth are so different in their atmospheric composition and history is among the questions puzzling astronomers today. Understanding atmospheric escape on each of these worlds will be helpful, scientists say.

    “How strong atmospheric escape is depends on fundamental properties such as mass or planetary orbit,” Mordasini said. “We found out for giant planets like Jupiter, the operation is typically not as strong.”

    Future work of the team includes considering atmospheres that are not made of hydrogen or helium, which could bring researchers a step closer to understanding how different types of elements work on planets. Eventually, this could feed into models predicting habitability.

    See the full article here.

    NASA

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  • richardmitnick 4:26 pm on October 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Moon Studies, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From NOVA: “NASA Hopes to Test Mining Moon Water for Future Manned Missions” 

    PBS NOVA

    NOVA

    28 Oct 2014
    Bridget Reed Morawski

    Two proposed missions would scour the moon’s upper crust for deposits of ice that may support moon bases.

    We may soon be one sip of water closer to living on the moon, at least if NASA’s plans pan out. The space agency has announced their intention to send two new missions to the moon to analyze and mine pockets of frozen water. The projects, nicknamed Lunar Flashlight and Resource Prospector Mission (RPM), will launch in late 2017 and 2018, respectively.

    sp
    The lunar poles are thought to harbor massive reserves of ice.

    Scientists are seeking to determine if future manned lunar outposts could exploit the deposits as a resource for drinking water. Here’s Mike Wall reporting for Space.com:

    “If you’re going to have humans on the moon and you need water for drinking, breathing, rocket fuel, anything you want, it’s much, much cheaper to live off the land than it is to bring everything with you,” said Lunar Flashlight principal investigator Barbara Cohen, of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

    Lunar Flashlight will be making approximately 80 rotations around the moon’s atmosphere, hovering a mere 12 miles over the lunar surface. The intent of the mission is to find, measure, and map pockets of ice in darkened craters within and around the lunar poles.

    NASA Lunar Flashlight
    NASA/Lunar Flashlight

    The Lunar Flashlight mission would use a solar sail to carry the spacecraft along its orbital route. According to Cohen, the device would begin to expand upon reaching space, from “the size of a cereal box” into an 860-square foot solar sail. It will take Lunar Flashlight six months to reach the moon and another year to slowly descend to the 12-mile-high research orbit.
    LCROSS, an earlier NASA mission that looked for water on the moon, was a relatively low-budget affair.

    While Lunar Flashlight will only observe easily accessible deposits of water, RPM will operate on the surface of the moon. The rover will be equipped with drills and other materials to extract samples from 3.3 feet below the moon’s surface. It will chart water concentrations with an on-board neutron spectrometer and a near-infrared spectrometer. It’ll have to work fast, though, as it’s lifespan is expected to be only one week as it crawls from the near side of the moon into permanently dark lunar territory.

    Neither the Lunar Flashlight nor RPM projects have been approved by NASA yet, but if they are accepted, the knowledge could bring us closer to greater understanding the moon’s water resources—and what we might be able to do with them should we return.

    Two proposed NASA missions would lay more groundwork for manned lunar bases.

    See the full article here.

    NOVA is the highest rated science series on television and the most watched documentary series on public television. It is also one of television’s most acclaimed series, having won every major television award, most of them many times over.

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  • richardmitnick 2:20 pm on October 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Human Space Flight, , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From LLNL: “NASA taps Livermore photon scientists for heat-shield research” 


    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

    10/22/2014
    Breanna Bishop, LLNL, (925) 423-9802, bishop33@llnl.gov

    Researchers in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s NIF & Photon Science Directorate are working with NASA Ames Research Center at Moffet Field, California on the development of technology to simulate re-entry effects on the heat shield for the Orion spacecraft, NASA’s next crewed spaceship. Orion is designed to carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit to deep-space destinations such as an asteroid and, eventually, Mars.

    NASA Orion Spacecraft
    NASA/Orion

    The Orion heat shield will have to withstand re-entry temperatures that are too severe for existing reusable thermal protection systems, such as those used on the space shuttles. NASA’s development and characterization of a more robust shield requires that radiant heating capability be added to the Arc Jet Complex at NASA Ames, which develops thermal protection materials and systems in support of the Orion Program Office at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC.

    NASA Ames currently owns two 50 kilowatt (kW) commercial fiber laser systems and needs to augment the optical power into the Arc Jet chamber by another 100 to 200 kW. The team at Ames recently approached LLNL to explore an option of using commercially available radiance-conditioned laser diode arrays for this task, similar to the diodes used in the Laboratory’s Diode-Pumped Alkali Laser (DPAL) and E-23/HAPLS laser projects. Their aim is to assess whether such systems can better meet the technical objectives for survival testing. If successful, such diode arrays would offer a dramatically lower-cost solution.

    shield
    Technicians install a protective shell onto the Orion crew module for its first test flight this December. Credit: Dimitri Gerondidaki/NASA

    To perform these tests, LLNL is collaborating with Ames on diode array characterizations using an existing diode system developed for LLNL’s laser programs. These tests will allow NASA Ames to assess whether their optical output can meet in-chamber target illumination requirements, and thus inform their choice for a future system.

    While the space shuttles traveled at 17,000 miles per hour, Orion will be re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour on its first flight test in December. The faster a spacecraft travels through the atmosphere, the more heat it generates. The hottest the space shuttle tiles got was about 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit; the Orion back shell could get as hot as 4,000 degrees. For more about Orion, see the NASA video.

    See the full article here.

    LLNL Campus

    Operated by Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security
    Administration
    DOE Seal
    NNSA
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  • richardmitnick 6:49 pm on October 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA),   

    From NYT: “25 Years Ago, NASA Envisioned Its Own ‘Orient Express’” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    OCT. 20, 2014
    KENNETH CHANG

    The National Aero-Space Plane was to be a revolutionary advance beyond the space shuttle.

    plane

    In his 1986 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan promised “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low-earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.”

    On Oct. 3, 1989, an article in Science Times, Designing a Plane for the Leap of Space (and Back), reported frenetic activity at NASA and the Defense Department.

    “Scientists and engineers are making rapid progress in developing technologies needed to build a 17,000-mile-an-hour ‘space plane’ that could escape earth’s gravity and circle the globe in 90 minutes,” the article began.

    “Their goal,” it continued, “is a space plane that could take off and land from virtually any airport in the world, carry satellites and other space cargo into orbit cheaply, shuttle between the earth and an orbiting space station, or carry a load of bombs deep into enemy territory as fast as an intercontinental missile.”

    Proponents contended the space plane would be far cheaper to operate than the shuttle.

    Others were dubious. The Air Force, which was providing most of the financing, had already tried to back out, but the National Space Council, headed by Vice President Dan Quayle, recommended continuing work at a slower pace.

    The target for the first flight of the first experimental version, known as the X-30, was originally 1993 but was pushed back to 1997.

    25 YEARS LATER The space plane, able to fly by itself to orbit, never took off. The X-30 died in 1994. Smaller-scale hypersonic programs came and went.

    Was the X-30 technologically feasible?

    “No, and it’s still not,” said Jess Sponable, a program manager in the tactical technology office at Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For X-30 to succeed, infant ideas would have had to have been developed into robust, reliable technologies — materials that could survive intense temperatures, air-breathing engines that could fly faster and higher.

    Nonetheless, “absolutely, it was worthwhile,” Mr. Sponable said, although he added perhaps not worth the more than $1.6 billion spent. “We learned a lot.”

    The pendulum for spacecraft design has since swung away from the cutting edge to the tried and true. The Orion craft, which NASA is building for deep-space missions, is a capsule, just like the one used for the Apollo moon missions but bigger. The two private company designs that NASA chose to take future astronauts to the space station are also capsules. (The loser in that competition was a mini-shuttle offering.)

    NASA Orion Spacecraft
    NASA/Orion

    But the dream of hypersonic space planes continues.

    At Darpa, Mr. Sponable heads the XS-1 space plane project. It is not a do-it-all-at-once effort like the 1980s space plane but a much simpler, unmanned vehicle that would serve as a reusable first stage.

    Mr. Sponable is eager to figure out how to send it up many times, quickly and cheaply; the goal is 10 flights in 10 days.

    “We want operability No. 1,” he said. With the quick launches, the issue of cost “just disappears, because we can’t spend a lot of money from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3.”

    Darpa has awarded contracts to three industry teams to develop preliminary designs. Mr. Sponable said the decision of a next step would come next spring.

    The space plane episode illustrates the recurring money woes that have bedeviled NASA for decades: A grandiose plan is announced with fanfare and a burst of financing that fades as delays and cost overruns undercut the optimistic plans. Then a new president or a new NASA administrator changes course.

    Most recently, the Obama administration canceled plans started under President George W. Bush to send astronauts back to the moon and told NASA to consider an asteroid instead.

    If the pattern continues, NASA priorities could zig again after the next president moves into the White House in 2017.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 9:43 pm on October 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From SPACE.com: “Comet Siding Spring at Mars: How a Rare Celestial Event Was Discovered” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    October 18, 2014
    Elizabeth Howell

    A comet that was born before the Earth formed is flying in from the edge of the solar system, bound for a dramatic date with Mars on Sunday (Oct. 19).

    Comet Siding Spring — unknown and undiscovered until 2013 — will zoom past the Red Planet Sunday afternoon in an encounter that could help scientists better understand how the solar system came to be.

    Siding Spring will fly 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) from Mars at 2:27 p.m. EDT (1827 GMT) Sunday, about one-third of the distance from the Earth to the moon. Researchers will observe the close encounter with the fleet of orbiters and rovers at the Red Planet.

    Siding Spring is the first comet from the Oort Cloud, a collection of icy bodies at the edge of the solar system that will be observed up close by spacecraft. All comets examined in the past came from closer in, around Jupiter’s orbit or the edge of the Kuiper Belt, a huge set of icy objects beyond Neptune.

    oort
    Artist’s conception of the Oort Cloud

    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.

    “We can’t get to an Oort Cloud comet with our current rockets,” Carey Lisse, a senior astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said during a NASA news conference last week. “These orbits are very long and extended — and at very great velocities … It’s a free flyby, if you will, and that’s a very fantastic event for us to study.”

    A failed planet

    image
    In a rare celestial event, a comet will pass closer to Mars than the moon is from Earth. See how the Comet Siding Spring flyby of Mars works in this Space.com infographic.
    Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

    Siding Spring was created in the first few million years of Earth’s solar system, Lisse said. It likely formed somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune, where many similar objects coalesced into the giant planets. But a gravitational push kicked Siding Spring out into the Oort Cloud; it took another jolt from a passing star a million years ago or so to send it toward the inner solar system.

    Half of the comet is rocky, and the other half is made up of volatile ices, such as water and carbon dioxide. Its flight past Mars is the first time it will make it into the solar system, past Jupiter’s orbit. The comet just recently crossed the “water-ice line,” the point where water can exist as a liquid in the solar system.

    Siding Spring, which Lisse said is about the size of an Appalachian mountain, will swing by Mars in a retrograde direction, the opposite way in which the planets orbit around the sun. This means any dust that comes off the comet will be moving at about 119,000 mph (190,000 km/h) relative to Mars.

    “Anything that comes off the comet that hits either Mars or the spacecraft is going to pack a real large amount of kinetic energy — a real wallop — so that’s one of the things that we’ve been worried about,” Lisse said.

    As a result, NASA has maneuvered its three operational Mars orbiters to be on the “safe” side of the Red Planet when dust exposure is highest.

    NASA investigations

    The comet was first discovered in January 2013 by Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. Ever since then, scientists have been studying the celestial visitor with a variety of space- and ground-based assets, in an attempt to learn more about its history.

    Siding Spring Observatory
    Siding Spring Observatory Interior
    Siding Springs Observatory

    To learn about the comet, scientists will have to get an up-close look at its nucleus, to see its shape, size and composition. If all goes according to plan, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will take high-resolution pictures of the comet’s heart, making it the first time an Oort Cloud comet’s nucleus will be seen up close.

    NASA Mars Reconnaisence Orbiter
    NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    NASA’s Hubble, Swift and Spitzer space telescopes have mapped out the comet’s dust, water molecules and carbon dioxide. For now, it looks like dust is coming off more slowly than researchers had expected. Little activity was seen with the water ice until June, when the comet got close enough to the sun for ice to sublimate.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    NASA SWIFT Telescope
    NASA/Swift

    NASA Spitzer Telescope
    NASA/Spitzer

    Some other planned observations will come from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray telescope (which will look for any material thrown in Mars’ atmosphere), and the newly arrived Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which will see how the Red Planet’s atmosphere reacts as the comet passes by.

    NASA Chandra Telescope
    NASA/Chandra

    NASA Mars MAVEN
    NASA MAVEN

    NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity rovers will also participate in the campaign, attempting to take the first images of a comet from the surface of another planet.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA Curiosity

    NASA Mars Opportunity Rover
    NASA Opportunity

    See the full article, with video, here.

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  • richardmitnick 1:57 pm on October 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    Fromm NASA: “NASA Prepares its Science Fleet for Oct. 19 Mars Comet Encounter” 

    NASA

    NASA

    October 9, 2014
    Dwayne Brown
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726
    dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

    NASA’s extensive fleet of science assets, particularly those orbiting and roving Mars, have front row seats to image and study a once-in-a-lifetime comet flyby on Sunday, Oct. 19.

    Comet C/2013 A1, also known as comet Siding Spring, will pass within about 87,000 miles (139,500 kilometers) of the Red Planet — less than half the distance between Earth and our moon and less than one-tenth the distance of any known comet flyby of Earth.

    ss
    NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope Spots Mars-Bound Comet Sprout Multiple Jets

    Comet C/2013 A1 as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope The images above show — before and after filtering — comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, as captured by Wide Field Camera 3 on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    NASA Hubble WFC3
    WFC3 on HUbble

    NASA released Thursday an image of a comet that, on Oct. 19, will pass within 84,000 miles of Mars — less than half the distance between Earth and our moon.

    The image on the left, captured March 11 by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows comet C/2013 A1, also called Siding Spring, at a distance of 353 million miles from Earth. Hubble can’t see Siding Spring’s icy nucleus because of its diminutive size. The nucleus is surrounded by a glowing dust cloud, or COMA, that measures roughly 12,000 miles across.

    The right image shows the comet after image processing techniques were applied to remove the hazy glow of the coma revealing what appear to be two jets of dust coming off the location of the nucleus in opposite directions. This observation should allow astronomers to measure the direction of the nucleus’s pole, and axis of rotation.

    Hubble also observed Siding Spring on Jan. 21 as Earth was crossing its orbital plane, which is the path the comet takes as it orbits the sun. This positioning of the two bodies allowed astronomers to determine the speed of the dust coming off the nucleus.

    “This is critical information that we need to determine whether, and to what degree, dust grains in the coma of the comet will impact Mars and spacecraft in the vicinity of Mars,” said Jian-Yang Li of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

    Discovered in January 2013 by Robert H. McNaught at Siding Spring Observatory, the comet is falling toward the sun along a roughly 1 million year orbit and is now within the radius of Jupiter’s orbit. The comet will make its closest approach to our sun on Oct. 25, at a distance of 130 million miles – well outside of Earth’s orbit. The comet is not expected to become bright enough to be seen by the naked eye.

    Siding Spring Observatory
    Siding Spring Observatory Interior
    Siding Spring Observatory

    The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

    Siding Spring’s nucleus will come closest to Mars around 2:27 p.m. EDT, hurtling at about 126,000 mph (56 kilometers per second). This proximity will provide an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to gather data on both the comet and its effect on the Martian atmosphere.

    “This is a cosmic science gift that could potentially keep on giving, and the agency’s diverse science missions will be in full receive mode,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This particular comet has never before entered the inner solar system, so it will provide a fresh source of clues to our solar system’s earliest days.”

    Siding Spring came from the Oort Cloud, a spherical region of space surrounding our sun and occupying space at a distance between 5,000 and 100,000 astronomical units. It is a giant swarm of icy objects believed to be material left over from the formation of the solar system.

    oort
    Oort Cloud

    Siding Spring will be the first comet from the Oort Cloud to be studied up close by spacecraft, giving scientists an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the materials, including water and carbon compounds, that existed during the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

    Some of the best and most revealing images and science data will come from assets orbiting and roving the surface of Mars. In preparation for the comet flyby, NASA maneuvered its Mars Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and the newest member of the Mars fleet, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), in order to reduce the risk of impact with high-velocity dust particles coming off the comet.

    NASA Mars Odessy Orbiter
    NASA/ Mars Odyssey Orbiter

    NASA Mars Reconnaisence Orbiter
    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    NASA Mars MAVEN
    NASA/ Mars MAVEN

    The period of greatest risk to orbiting spacecraft will start about 90 minutes after the closest approach of the comet’s nucleus and will last about 20 minutes, when Mars will come closest to the center of the widening trail of dust flying from the comet’s nucleus.

    “The hazard is not an impact of the comet nucleus itself, but the trail of debris coming from it. Using constraints provided by Earth-based observations, the modeling results indicate that the hazard is not as great as first anticipated. Mars will be right at the edge of the debris cloud, so it might encounter some of the particles — or it might not,” said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

    The atmosphere of Mars, though much thinner that Earth’s, will shield NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity from comet dust, if any reaches the planet. Both rovers are scheduled to make observations of the comet.

    NASA Mars Opportunity Rover
    NASA/ Mars Opportunity rover

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    NASA/Mars Curiosity Rover

    NASA’s Mars orbiters will gather information before, during and after the flyby about the size, rotation and activity of the comet’s nucleus, the variability and gas composition of the coma around the nucleus, and the size and distribution of dust particles in the comet’s tail.

    Observations of the Martian atmosphere are designed to check for possible meteor trails, changes in distribution of neutral and charged particles, and effects of the comet on air temperature and clouds. MAVEN will have a particularly good opportunity to study the comet, and how its tenuous atmosphere, or coma, interacts with Mars’ upper atmosphere.

    Earth-based and space telescopes, including NASA’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope, also will be in position to observe the unique celestial object. The agency’s astrophysics space observatories — Kepler, Swift, Spitzer, Chandra — and the ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii — also will be tracking the event.

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    NASA SWIFT Telescope
    NASA/Swift

    NASA Chandra Telescope
    NASA Chandra

    astro
    NASA ground-based Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea

    NASA’s asteroid hunter, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), has been imaging, and will continue to image, the comet as part of its operations. And the agency’s two Heliophysics spacecraft, Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) and Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO), also will image the comet. The agency’s Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS), a sub-orbital balloon-carried telescope, already has provided observations of the comet in the lead-up to the close encounter with Mars.

    NASA Wise Telescope
    NASA WISE (NEOWISE)

    NASA STEREO spacecraft
    NASA/STEREO

    NASA SOHO
    NASA/SOHO

    NASA BOPPSNASA BOPPS

    Images and updates will be posted online before and after the comet flyby. Several pre-flyby images of Siding Spring, as well as information about the comet and NASA’s planned observations of the event, are available online at:

    http://mars.nasa.gov/comets/sidingspring

    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 12:16 pm on September 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From The New York Times: “NASA Missions Approved to Go On” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    SEPT. 8, 2014
    KENNETH CHANG

    Every two years, NASA reviews its long-running scientific missions — currently, the rovers trundling across Mars, the Cassini spacecraft exploring Saturn, and four others — to determine whether they are justifying their cost.

    NASA Curiosity
    NASA/Curiosity Mars Rover

    NASA Opportunity Rover
    NASA Opportunity Mars Rover

    NASA Cassini Spacecraft
    NASA/ Cassini-Huygens

    Last week, NASA presented the findings of the most recent review, conducted by a panel of outside experts, to the planetary science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council, which provides guidance to the agency’s management.

    All seven will continue, assuming NASA can find the money to pay for them.

    In particular, Cassini is to continue orbiting Saturn for three more years, making detailed measurements of the ringed planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields. The Curiosity rover is to continue searching for organic molecules in the Martian rocks — though the panel sharply criticized the rover’s mission team, saying its extension proposal “lacked scientific focus and detail” and placed too much emphasis on driving across the terrain rather than stopping to study the rocks.

    two
    Two of Saturn’s moons, Titan and Rhea, as seen from the Cassini spacecraft. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech, via Space Science Institute, via Associated Press

    Still, “all extended missions were rated higher than ‘good,’ some after adjustments to scope, as it was recognized that they continue to add important new data and observations for our understanding of solar system bodies and processes,” the review panel concluded.

    Supporters of NASA’s planetary program seemed happy. “I think fundamentally we were excited that every mission was given the go-ahead to go on,” said Casey Dreier, the director of advocacy at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes space exploration. “I think that was the biggest takeaway.”

    This year, the financial calculus for the review appeared more complex than usual, because Curiosity ended its two-year primary mission in June. Its costs now come out of the budget set aside for extended missions, and that led to speculation that agency officials might turn off Cassini to fit within fiscal constraints.

    The Obama administration has proposed deep cuts to the planetary science portion of NASA the last few years, and Congress has partly restored the cuts each year.

    The extensions, which would cost $200 million a year, or about 15 percent of NASA’s planetary science budget, still hinge on whether enough money is available. Congress has yet to pass a budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins next month.

    “If we do not end up with sufficient funds, NASA will revisit the senior review findings and make the necessary programmatic decisions across our portfolio,” said William P. Knopf, the lead program executive for mission operations in the planetary science division.

    A subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology will hold a hearing about the planetary science program Wednesday.

    Cassini, which has been in orbit around Saturn for a decade, was the only mission to receive an “excellent” rating from the panel. It was also the only mission to receive a three-year extension, long enough to conduct all of the planned science.

    “And best of all, we know now we will live out the full promise of one extraordinary mission,” Carolyn C. Porco, the head of Cassini’s imaging team, wrote on Twitter. “Happy tears in the eyes.”

    In 2017, fuel for the maneuvering thrusters will run out, and the spacecraft will be sent on a dive into Saturn.

    In giving a “very good/good” grade to the extension proposal for the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission, the panel was especially displeased that John P. Grotzinger, the project scientist, did not present the extension proposal in person, leaving it to a deputy.

    “This left the panel with the impression that the team felt they were too big to fail and that simply having someone show up would suffice,” the panel wrote. Dr. Grotzinger said in an interview that he had been scheduled to give a talk about Mars on the day the panel met, and, after consulting with NASA officials, decided not to cancel the talk. “I like to honor my existing professional commitments, especially when they involve outreach,” he said.

    He said the team was making the requested revisions. “The review panel was asking us to do more drilling and less driving, and we’re going to do that,” Dr. Grotzinger said.

    Curiosity, by coincidence, has just arrived at the destination to begin its main scientific investigation, the base of a three-mile-high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater. By examining the layers of rock as it drives up the mountain, planetary scientists hope to extract the climate history of early Mars when it was warmer and wetter.

    The Curiosity team will hold a news conference on Thursday to present its latest findings.

    Ranking above Curiosity was the older Opportunity rover, which received an “excellent/very good” rating, allowing it to continue driving to a large deposit of clays. Clay minerals form in aqueous environments that are not acidic, promising sites that could have once been hospitable to life.

    The Opportunity rover just had its memory erased and reformatted last Thursday, eliminating the 0.7 percent that had gone bad over the past decade. The rover has had several computer glitches in recent months.

    The other missions under review were the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Odyssey orbiter and the Mars Express orbiter. (Mars Express is a European Space Agency spacecraft, but NASA helps operate two of the of the instruments.)

    recon
    NASA/Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

    mars
    NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

    express
    ESA/Mars Express orbiter

    The next two years will be busy for NASA’s robotic probes. A new spacecraft, Maven, will arrive at Mars this month to look for clues why Mars long ago dried out and turned cold.

    NASA Mars MAVEN
    NASA/ Mars MAVEN

    Next July, the New Horizons spacecraft will zip past Pluto for the first close-up look at it; in 2016, another spacecraft, Juno, will arrive at Jupiter to study its interior.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    After 2017, however, the pipeline slows. An ambitious mission to study Europa, a moon of Jupiter with an ocean beneath its outer layer of ice and signs of plate tectonics, is not expected to launch until the 2020s.

    But Mr. Dreier, of the Planetary Society, said he was optimistic. “We’ve stemmed the bleeding and we’re making a strong case for why planetary is important,” he said. “It’s one of the few parts of NASA that really does explore.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 5:14 pm on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA),   

    From SPACE.com: “NASA’s Robot Army of ‘Swarmies’ Could Explore Other Planets” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    August 25, 2014
    Kelly Dickerson

    They may look like remote-controlled toy trucks, but a troop of new NASA robots could one day race across distant planets as a sort of space exploration vanguard.

    swarmies

    The autonomous robots, which engineers have dubbed “swarmies,” are much smaller than other NASA robots like the Mars rover Curiosity. Each comes equipped with a webcam, Wi-Fi antenna, and GPS system for navigation. The self-driving swarmie robots could be used to search alien surfaces one day. Credit: NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis

    The swarmies function in a way similar to an ant colony. When one ant stumbles across a food source, it sends out a signal to the rest of the colony, and then the ants work together to cart the food back to the nest. Engineers from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida developed software that directs the swarmies to fan out in different directions and search for a specific, predetermined material, like ice-water on Mars. Once one of the rovers finds something interesting, it can use radio communication to call its robotic brethren over to help collect samples.

    “For a while people were interested in putting as much smarts and capability as they could on their one robot,” Kurt Leucht, one of the engineers working on the project, said in a statement. “Now people are realizing you can have much smaller, much simpler robots that can work together and achieve a task. One of them can roll over and die and it’s not the end of the mission because the others can still accomplish the task.”

    Working out a way to send humans on lunar or Martian exploration missions is complicated and expensive and those kinds of missions are likely still a long way off. Sending robots is an easier alternative, and NASA is working on a whole new generation of autonomous robotic explorers. NASA engineers have already dreamed up slithering snake-like robots that could explore Mars and deep-diving robots that could explore the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    rr
    The RASSOR robot is programmed for digging and mining and will be incorporated into the swarmie test drives. Credit: NASA

    The swarmie tests are still in the preliminary stages, and NASA engineers are only driving the swarmies around the parking lots surrounding Kennedy’s Launch Control Center. Right now the robots are only programmed to hunt for barcoded slips of paper. Over the next few months, swarmie tests will also include RASSOR — a mining robot specially designed to dig into alien surfaces and search for interesting or valuable materials. The test will determine how well the swarming software translates to control other robotic vehicles.

    Swarmies might also find a use on Earth, NASA officials said. The robots could aid in rescue missions following natural disasters or building collapses, crashes and other wreckage sites. The robots would also make perfect pipeline inspectors.

    “This would give you something smaller and cheaper that could always be running up and down the length of the pipeline so you would always know the health of your pipelines,” Cheryle Mako, a NASA engineer who is leading the project, said in a statement. “If we had small swarming robots that had a couple sensors and knew what they were looking for, you could send them out to a leak site and find which area was at greatest risk.”

    See the full article here.

    NASA

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  • richardmitnick 2:29 pm on August 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From NASA: “Ozone-Depleting Compound Persists, NASA Research Shows “ 

    NASA

    NASA

    August 20, 2014
    Steve Cole
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-0918
    stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov

    Kathryn Hansen
    Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
    301-286-1046
    kathryn.h.hansen@nasa.gov

    NASA research shows Earth’s atmosphere contains an unexpectedly large amount of an ozone-depleting compound from an unknown source decades after the compound was banned worldwide.

    ball
    Satellites observed the largest ozone hole over Antarctica in 2006. Purple and blue represent areas of low ozone concentrations in the atmosphere; yellow and red are areas of higher concentrations. Image Credit: NASA

    Carbon tetrachloride (CCl4), which was once used in applications such as dry cleaning and as a fire-extinguishing agent, was regulated in 1987 under the Montreal Protocol along with other chlorofluorocarbons that destroy ozone and contribute to the ozone hole over Antarctica. Parties to the Montreal Protocol reported zero new CCl4 emissions between 2007-2012.

    However, the new research shows worldwide emissions of CCl4 average 39 kilotons per year, approximately 30 percent of peak emissions prior to the international treaty going into effect.

    “We are not supposed to be seeing this at all,” said Qing Liang, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study. “It is now apparent there are either unidentified industrial leakages, large emissions from contaminated sites, or unknown CCl4 sources.”

    As of 2008, CCl4 accounted for about 11 percent of chlorine available for ozone depletion, which is not enough to alter the decreasing trend of ozone-depleting substances. Still, scientists and regulators want to know the source of the unexplained emissions.

    For almost a decade, scientists have debated why the observed levels of CCl4 in the atmosphere have declined slower than expectations, which are based on what is known about how the compound is destroyed by solar radiation and other natural processes.

    “Is there a physical CCl4 loss process we don’t understand, or are there emission sources that go unreported or are not identified?” Liang said.

    With zero CCl4 emissions reported between 2007-2012, atmospheric concentrations of the compound should have declined at an expected rate of 4 percent per year. Observations from the ground showed atmospheric concentrations were only declining by 1 percent per year.

    To investigate the discrepancy, Liang and colleagues used NASA’s 3-D GEOS Chemistry Climate Model and data from global networks of ground-based observations. The CCl4 measurements used in the study were made by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Earth System Research Laboratory and NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    Model simulations of global atmospheric chemistry and the losses of CCl4 due to interactions with soil and the oceans pointed to an unidentified ongoing current source of CCl4. The results produced the first quantitative estimate of average global CCl4 emissions from 2000-2012.

    In addition to unexplained sources of CCl4, the model results showed the chemical stays in the atmosphere 40 percent longer than previously thought. The research was published online in the Aug. 18 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

    “People believe the emissions of ozone-depleting substances have stopped because of the Montreal Protocol,” said Paul Newman, chief scientist for atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and a co-author of the study. “Unfortunately, there is still a major source of CCl4 out in the world.”

    NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

    See the full article, with video, 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 8:34 pm on August 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)   

    From NASA: “How the Sun Caused an Aurora This Week “ 

    NASA

    NASA

    August 20, 2014
    Karen C. Fox
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

    On the evening of Aug. 20, 2014, the International Space Station was flying past North America when it flew over the dazzling, green blue lights of an aurora. On board, astronaut Reid Wiseman captured this image of the aurora, seen from above.

    aurora

    This auroral display was due to a giant cloud of gas from the sun – a coronal mass ejection or CME – that collided with Earth’s magnetic fields [magnetosphere] on Aug. 19, 2014, at 1:57 a.m. EDT. This event set off, as it often does, what’s called a geomagnetic storm.

    gs
    Artists’s rendition Goddard

    This is a kind of space weather event where the magnetic fields surrounding Earth compress and release. This oscillation is much like a spring moving back and forth, but unlike a spring, moving magnetic fields cause an unstable environment, setting charged particles moving and initiating electric currents.

    The geomagnetic storm passed within 24 hours or so but, while it was ongoing, the solar particles and magnetic fields caused the release of particles already trapped near Earth. These, in turn, triggered reactions in the upper atmosphere in which oxygen and nitrogen molecules released photons of light.

    The result: an aurora, and a special sight for the astronauts on board the space station.

    map
    This model shows where the aurora was visible at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 19, 2014, as the International Space Station flew over it. The model is an Ovation Prime model and it is available from the Community Coordinated Modeling Center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
    Image Credit: NASA/CCMC

    storm
    A coronal mass ejection, or CME, burst from the sun on Aug. 15, 2014. When it arrived at Earth, it sparked aurora over North America. This looping animated GIF of the CME was captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The bright planet seen moving toward the left is Mercury.
    Image Credit: ESA&NASA/SOHO

    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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