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  • richardmitnick 6:58 pm on March 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), NASA JPL - Caltech, NASA Wants to Create the Coolest Spot in the Universe   

    From JPL-Caltech: “NASA Wants to Create the Coolest Spot in the Universe” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    March 6, 2017
    Andrew Good
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-393-2433
    andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    Artist’s concept of an atom chip for use by NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) aboard the International Space Station. CAL will use lasers to cool atoms to ultracold temperatures. Image Credit: NASA

    This summer, an ice chest-sized box will fly to the International Space Station, where it will create the coolest spot in the universe.

    Inside that box, lasers, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic “knife” will be used to cancel out the energy of gas particles, slowing them until they’re almost motionless. This suite of instruments is called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), and was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. CAL is in the final stages of assembly at JPL, ahead of a ride to space this August on SpaceX CRS-12.

    Its instruments are designed to freeze gas atoms to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero. That’s more than 100 million times colder than the depths of space.

    “Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity,” said CAL Project Scientist Robert Thompson of JPL. “The experiments we’ll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy — some of the most pervasive forces in the universe.”

    When atoms are cooled to extreme temperatures, as they will be inside of CAL, they can form a distinct state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. In this state, familiar rules of physics recede and quantum physics begins to take over. Matter can be observed behaving less like particles and more like waves. Rows of atoms move in concert with one another as if they were riding a moving fabric. These mysterious waveforms have never been seen at temperatures as low as what CAL will achieve.

    NASA has never before created or observed Bose-Einstein condensates in space. On Earth, the pull of gravity causes atoms to continually settle towards the ground, meaning they’re typically only observable for fractions of a second.

    But on the International Space Station, ultra-cold atoms can hold their wave-like forms longer while in freefall. That offers scientists a longer window to understand physics at its most basic level. Thompson estimated that CAL will allow Bose-Einstein condensates to be observable for up to five to 10 seconds; future development of the technologies used on CAL could allow them to last for hundreds of seconds.

    Bose-Einstein condensates are a “superfluid” — a kind of fluid with zero viscosity, where atoms move without friction as if they were all one, solid substance.

    “If you had superfluid water and spun it around in a glass, it would spin forever,” said Anita Sengupta of JPL, Cold Atom Lab project manager. “There’s no viscosity to slow it down and dissipate the kinetic energy. If we can better understand the physics of superfluids, we can possibly learn to use those for more efficient transfer of energy.”

    Five scientific teams plan to conduct experiments using the Cold Atom Lab. Among them is Eric Cornell of the University of Colorado, Boulder and the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Cornell is one of the Nobel Prize winners who first created Bose-Einstein condensates in a lab setting in 1995.

    The results of these experiments could potentially lead to a number of improved technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.

    Especially exciting are applications related to dark energy detection, said Kamal Oudrhiri of JPL, the CAL deputy project manager. He noted that current models of cosmology divide the universe into roughly 27 percent dark matter, 68 percent dark energy and about 5 percent ordinary matter.

    “This means that even with all of our current technologies, we are still blind to 95 percent of the universe,” Oudrhiri said. “Like a new lens in Galileo’s first telescope, the ultra-sensitive cold atoms in the Cold Atom Lab have the potential to unlock many mysteries beyond the frontiers of known physics.”

    The Cold Atom Lab is currently undergoing a testing phase that will prepare it prior to delivery to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

    “The tests we do over the next months on the ground are critical to ensure we can operate and tune it remotely while it’s in space, and ultimately learn from this rich atomic physics system for years to come,” said Dave Aveline, the test-bed lead at JPL.

    JPL is developing the Cold Atom Laboratory, sponsored by the International Space Station Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

    The Space Life and Physical Sciences Division of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington manages the Fundamental Physics Program.

    For more information about the Cold Atom Lab, visit:

    http://coldatomlab.jpl.nasa.gov/

    The Cold Atom Lab will be the topic of two free lectures in March, one of which will be streamed live at:

    http://www.ustream.tv/NASAJPL2

    Details about the lecture are at:

    http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/events/lectures_archive.php?year=2017&month=3

    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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  • richardmitnick 4:43 pm on March 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 3.77-billion-year-old fossils stake new claim to oldest evidence of life, , , , , , Hydrothermal vents, NASA JPL - Caltech, ,   

    From Science: “3.77-billion-year-old fossils stake new claim to oldest evidence of life” 

    AAAS
    Science Magazine

    Mar. 1, 2017
    Carolyn Gramling

    1
    These tubelike structures, formed of an iron ore called hematite, may be microfossils of 3.77-billion-year-old life at ancient hydrothermal vents.

    Life on Earth may have originated in the sunless depths of the ocean rather than shallow seas. In a new study, scientists studying 3.77-billion-year-old rocks have found tubelike fossils similar to structures found at hydrothermal vents, which host thriving biological communities. That would make them more than 300 million years older than the most ancient signs of life on Earth—fossilized microbial mats called stromatolites that grew in shallow seas. Other scientists are skeptical about the new claims.

    “The authors offer a convincing set of observations that could signify life,” says Kurt Konhauser, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who was not involved in the study. But “at present, I do not see a way in which we will definitively prove ancient life at 3.8 billion years ago.”

    When life first emerged on Earth has been an enduring and frustrating mystery. The planet is 4.55 billion years old, but thanks to plate tectonics and the constant recycling of Earth’s crust, only a handful of rock outcrops remain that are older than 3 billion years, including 3.7-billion-year-old formations in Greenland’s Isua Greenstone Belt. And these rocks tend to be twisted up and chemically altered by heat and pressure, making it devilishly difficult to detect unequivocal signs of life.

    “It’s a challenge in rocks that have been this messed up,” says Abigail Allwood, a geologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who was also not involved in the study. “There’s only so much you can do with them.”

    Nevertheless, researchers have searched through these most ancient rocks for structural or chemical relics that may have lingered. Last year, for example, scientists reported identifying odd reddish peaks in 3.7-billion-year-old rocks in Greenland that may be the product of stromatolites, though many doubted that interpretation. The best evidence for these fossilized algal mats comes from 3.4-billion-year-old rocks in Australia, generally thought of as the strongest evidence for early life on Earth.

    But some scientists think ocean life may have begun earlier—and deeper. In the modern ocean, life thrives in and around the vents that form near seafloor spreading ridges or subduction zones—places where Earth’s tectonic plates are pulling apart or grinding together. The vents spew seawater, superheated by magma in the ocean crust and laden with metal minerals such as iron sulfide. As the water cools, the metals settle out, forming towering spires and chimneys. The mysterious ecosystem that inhabits this sunless, harsh environment includes bacteria and giant tube worms that don’t derive energy from photosynthesis. Such hardy communities, scientists have suggested, may not only have thrived on early Earth, but may also be an analog for life on other planets.

    Now, a team led by geochemist Dominic Papineau of University College London and his Ph.D. student Matthew Dodd says it has found clear evidence of such ancient vent life. The clues come from ancient rocks in northern Quebec in Canada that are at least 3.77 billion years old and may be even older than 4 billion years. Dodd examined hair-thin slices of rock from this formation and found intriguing features: tiny tubes composed of an iron oxide called hematite, as well as filaments of hematite that branch out and sometimes terminate into large knobs.

    Filaments and tubes are common features in more recent fossils that are attributed to the activity of iron-oxidizing bacteria at seafloor hydrothermal vents. Papineau was initially skeptical. However, he says, “within a year [Dodd] had found so much compelling evidence that I was convinced.”

    The team also identified carbonate “rosettes,” tiny concentric rings that contain traces of life’s building blocks including carbon, calcium, and phosphorus; and tiny, round granules of graphite, a form of carbon. Such rosettes and granules had been observed previously in rocks of similar age, but whether they are biological in origin is hotly debated. The rosettes can form nonbiologically from a series of chemical reactions, but Papineau says the rosettes in the new study contain a calcium phosphate mineral called apatite, which strongly suggests the presence of microorganisms. The graphite granules may represent part of a complicated chemical chain reaction mediated by the bacteria, he says. Taken together, the structures and their chemistry point to a biological origin near a submarine hydrothermal vent, the team reports online today in Nature. That would make them among the oldest signs of life on Earth—and, depending on the actual age of the rocks, possibly the oldest.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that life originated in deep waters rather than in shallow seas, Papineau says. “It’s not necessarily mutually exclusive—if we are ready to accept the fact that life diversified very early.” Both the iron-oxidizing bacteria and the photosynthetic cyanobacteria that build stromatolite mats could have evolved from an earlier ancestor, he says.

    But researchers like Konhauser remain skeptical of the paper’s conclusion. For example, he says, the observed hematite tubes and filaments are similar to structures associated with iron-oxidizing bacteria, “but of course that does not mean the [3.77-] billion-year-old structures are cells.” Moreover, he notes, if the tubes were formed by iron-oxidizing bacteria, they would need oxygen, in short supply at this early moment in Earth’s history. It implies that photosynthetic bacteria were already around to produce it. But it’s still unclear how oxygen would get down to the depths of early Earth’s ocean. The cyanobacteria that make stromatolites, on the other hand, make oxygen rather than consume it.

    The new paper makes “a more detailed case than has been presented previously,” Allwood says. Most previous reports of possible signs of life older than about 3.5 billion years have been questioned, she adds—not because life didn’t exist, but because it’s just so difficult to prove the further back in time you go in the rock record. “There’s still quite a bit of room for doubt.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:16 pm on February 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, NASA JPL - Caltech, ,   

    From JPL-Caltech: “NASA-funded Website Lets the Public Search for New Nearby Worlds” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    February 15, 2017
    Elizabeth Landau
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6425
    elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

    NASA is inviting the public to help search for possible undiscovered worlds in the outer reaches of our solar system and in neighboring interstellar space. A new website, called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, lets everyone participate in the search by viewing brief movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The movies highlight objects that have gradually moved across the sky.

    NASA/WISE Telescope
    NASA/WISE Telescope

    The new website uses the data to search for unknown objects in and beyond our own solar system. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech, in Pasadena, California, showed that several distant solar system objects possessed orbital features indicating they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet, which the researchers nicknamed “Planet Nine.” If Planet Nine — also known as Planet X — exists and is as bright as some predictions, it could show up in WISE data.

    The search also may discover more-distant objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby interstellar space.

    “Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter,” said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds.”

    Unlike more distant objects, those in or closer to the solar system appear to move across the sky at different rates. The best way to discover them is through a systematic search of moving objects in WISE images. While parts of this search can be done by computers, machines are often overwhelmed by image artifacts, especially in crowded parts of the sky. These include brightness spikes associated with star images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE’s instruments.

    Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts. It’s a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago this week.

    On the website, people around the world can work their way through millions of “flipbooks,” which are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over several years. Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project.

    “Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images.

    Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration among NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University in Tempe, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet.

    “There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.”

    WISE scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary mission, WISE was shut down in 2011. It was then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission assisting NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of Earth’s orbit. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE).

    ‘Y Dwarf’ Chillin’ in Space (Artist’s Concept)
    1

    This artist’s conception illustrates what a “Y dwarf” might look like. Y dwarfs are the coldest star-like bodies known, with temperatures that can be even cooler than the human body. NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer uncovered these elusive objects for the first time, using its heat-sensing, infrared vision. The telescope found six Y dwarfs, ranging in atmospheric temperatures from 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius) to less than about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).

    Y dwarfs belong to a larger family of objects called brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs begin their lives like stars but they never accumulate enough mass to fuse atoms steadily at their cores and shine with starlight — as our sun does so well. Instead, they fade and cool with time, giving off most of their light in infrared wavelengths.

    WISE was able to pick up this faint glow for six Y dwarfs, which are the coldest class of brown dwarfs and the latest letter in the stellar classification scheme. This scheme describes stars of all temperatures, beginning with the hottest “O” stars and now ending with the coldest Y dwarfs. The entire scheme includes the classes: O, B, A, F, G, K, M, L, T, Y. Our yellow sun belongs to the G class of stars. M stars are colder than our sun, and reddish in color.

    While the O through K classes are all considered stars, M and L objects are a mixture of stars and brown dwarfs, and T and Y objects are all brown dwarfs. The term “brown dwarfs” was chosen because at that time, astronomers didn’t know what colors these objects would actually have at the visible wavelengths our eyes see, and brown is not a true color of light (there are no “brown photons”). Astronomers now know that T dwarfs would appear reddish, or magenta, to the eye. But they are not certain what color Y dwarfs are, since these objects have not been detected at visible wavelengths. The purple color shown here was chosen mainly for artistic reasons. In addition, the Y dwarf is illustrated as reflecting a faint amount of visible starlight from interstellar space.

    2
    A previously cataloged brown dwarf named WISE 0855?0714 shows up as a moving orange dot in this loop of WISE images spanning five years. By viewing movies like this, anyone can help discover more of these objects. Credits: NASA/WISE

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

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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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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  • richardmitnick 5:08 pm on February 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA JPL - Caltech, Organics at Ceres   

    From JPL-Caltech: “Dawn Discovers Evidence for Organic Material on Ceres” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    Feb. 16, 2017
    Elizabeth Landau
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA
    818-354-6425
    elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    This enhanced color composite image, made with data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows the area around Ernutet Crater. The bright red portions appear redder with respect to the rest of Ceres. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    NASA’s Dawn mission has found evidence for organic material on Ceres, a dwarf planet and the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

    NASA/Dawn Spacecraft
    NASA/Dawn Spacecraft

    Scientists using the spacecraft’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) detected the material in and around a northern-hemisphere crater called Ernutet. Organic molecules are interesting to scientists because they are necessary, though not sufficient, components of life on Earth.

    The discovery adds to the growing list of bodies in the solar system where organics have been found. Organic compounds have been found in certain meteorites as well as inferred from telescopic observations of several asteroids. Ceres shares many commonalities with meteorites rich in water and organics — in particular, a meteorite group called carbonaceous chondrites. This discovery further strengthens the connection between Ceres, these meteorites and their parent bodies.

    “This is the first clear detection of organic molecules from orbit on a main belt body,” said Maria Cristina De Sanctis, lead author of the study, based at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Rome. The discovery is reported in the journal Science.

    Data presented in the Science paper support the idea that the organic materials are native to Ceres. The carbonates and clays previously identified on Ceres provide evidence for chemical activity in the presence of water and heat. This raises the possibility that the organics were similarly processed in a warm water-rich environment.

    Significance of organics

    The organics discovery adds to Ceres’ attributes associated with ingredients and conditions for life in the distant past. Previous studies have found hydrated minerals, carbonates, water ice, and ammoniated clays that must have been altered by water. Salts and sodium carbonate, such as those found in the bright areas of Occator Crater, are also thought to have been carried to the surface by liquid.

    “This discovery adds to our understanding of the possible origins of water and organics on Earth,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, Dawn project scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    2
    his enhanced color composite image from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer shows the area around Ernutet Crater on Ceres. The instrument detected the evidence of organic materials in this area, as reported in a 2017 study in the journal Science. In this view, areas that appear pink with respect to the background appear to be rich in organics, and green areas are where organic material appears to be less abundant.Light with a wavelength of 2000 nanometers is shown in blue, 3400 nanometers is shown in green and 1700 nanometers is shown in red. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

    Where are the organics?

    The VIR instrument was able to detect and map the locations of this material because of its special signature in near-infrared light.

    The organic materials on Ceres are mainly located in an area covering approximately 400 square miles (about 1,000 square kilometers). The signature of organics is very clear on the floor of Ernutet Crater, on its southern rim and in an area just outside the crater to the southwest. Another large area with well-defined signatures is found across the northwest part of the crater rim and ejecta. There are other smaller organic-rich areas several miles (kilometers) west and east of the crater. Organics also were found in a very small area in Inamahari Crater, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) away from Ernutet.

    In enhanced visible color images from Dawn’s framing camera, the organic material is associated with areas that appear redder with respect to the rest of Ceres. The distinct nature of these regions stands out even in low-resolution image data from the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer.

    “We’re still working on understanding the geological context for these materials,” said study co-author Carle Pieters, professor of geological sciences at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

    Next steps for Dawn

    Having completed nearly two years of observations in orbit at Ceres, Dawn is now in a highly elliptical orbit at Ceres, going from an altitude of 4,670 miles (7,520 kilometers) up to almost 5,810 miles (9,350 kilometers). On Feb. 23, it will make its way to a new altitude of around 12,400 miles (20,000 kilometers), about the height of GPS satellites above Earth, and to a different orbital plane. This will put Dawn in a position to study Ceres in a new geometry. In late spring, Dawn will view Ceres with the sun directly behind the spacecraft, such that Ceres will appear brighter than before, and perhaps reveal more clues about its nature.

    The Dawn mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit:

    http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission

    More information about Dawn is available at the following sites:

    http://www.nasa.gov/dawn

    http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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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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  • richardmitnick 10:48 am on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Descent into a Frozen Underworld, Ice Screw End Effector (ISEE), JPL's Extreme Environments Robotics Group, Mt. Erebus - our planet's southernmost active volcano reaching 12448 feet (3794 meters) above Ross Island in Antarctica, NASA JPL - Caltech, PUFFER, Robotic Prototyping Lab, Testing robots and instruments designed for icy worlds like Europa   

    From JPL-Caltech: “Descent into a Frozen Underworld” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    February 13, 2017
    Andrew Good
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-393-2433
    andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    Aaron Curtis, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, traveled to Antarctica this past December, where he tested robots and instruments designed for icy worlds like Europa. Image Credit: Nial Peters

    JPL tests robotics in ice caves near active volcano.

    Mt. Erebus is at the end of our world — and offers a portal to another.

    It’s our planet’s southernmost active volcano, reaching 12,448 feet (3,794 meters) above Ross Island in Antarctica. Temperatures at the surface are well below freezing most of the year, but that doesn’t stop visits from scientists: Erebus is also one of the few volcanoes in the world with an exposed lava lake. You can peer over the lip of its main crater and stare straight into it.

    It’s also a good stand-in for a frozen alien world, the kind NASA wants to send robots to someday. That’s why Aaron Curtis, a post-doctoral scholar at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, spent the month of December exploring ice caves beneath the volcano. For several weeks, he tested robots, a drill and computer-aided mapping technology that could one day help us understand the icy worlds in our outer solar system.

    It was Curtis’ seventh visit to Mt. Erebus, which he made on behalf of both JPL and the Mt. Erebus Volcano Observatory. He traveled with several colleagues who were studying everything from the age of the rocks to the composition of gasses emitted from the lava lake.

    Ocean worlds like Europa are sure to be distinctly more alien than Erebus. Europa’s temperatures are hundreds of degrees below freezing; its ice is certain to be different than that of Earth’s; its surface is bathed in Jupiter’s radiation.

    But there are some similarities that make Erebus a good testing ground for future technologies.

    “We think some features of these caves are similar to what you might see on a moon like Europa,” Curtis said.

    2
    Aaron Curtis, peers into the caldera of Mt. Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica. Image Credit: Dylan Taylor

    Frozen beauty

    For the ancient Greeks, Erebus was an entrance to the underworld. It’s a fitting namesake: scientists have discovered that Mt. Erebus has its own underworld — though one of stunning beauty.

    The volcano’s gases have carved out massive caves, which are filled with forests of hoarfrost and cathedral-like ice ceilings. Curtis said the heat from Erebus keeps the caves cozy — close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) — and drives warm gases out of vents at the surface, where they freeze into towers. Within the caves, the mixing of warm and cold air forms icy “chimneys” that reach toward the ground.

    While pursuing his doctorate at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Curtis wrote his dissertation on the formation of these caves. He said that in recent years, scientists have also discovered a diverse array of microscopic organisms living in their interior. These extremophiles, as they’re known, suggest that life might be possible on distant planets with similar cave systems.

    3
    Aaron Curtis, in one of the Mt. Erebus ice caves. Image Credit: Dylan Taylor.

    Tools for an Icy Moon

    Curtis joined JPL’s Extreme Environments Robotics Group in 2016, where engineers are developing nimble machines that can climb, scurry and rove across difficult terrain.

    Aaron Parness, manager of the Robotic Prototyping Lab, said Mt. Erebus was a good testing ground for some of the robots and instruments in development. When a member of the group is conducting field research, they often test each other’s work. It’s part of the rapid design prototyping that steers the group’s efforts.

    “Field testing shows you things that are hard to learn in the laboratory,” Parness said. “We jump on those opportunities. Even if the prototype isn’t ready to work perfectly, it doesn’t mean it isn’t ready to teach us lessons on how to make the next iteration better.”

    Curtis tested several unique projects at Mt. Erebus. There was the Ice Screw End Effector (ISEE), a kind of ice drill designed for the “feet” of a wall-climbing robot called LEMUR. The drill would allow LEMUR to attach itself to walls, while also pulling out samples of the ice with each step. Future designs might be able to check for chemical signs of life within these samples.

    ISEE hadn’t seen much field testing before this trip — just the ice growing inside a fridge at JPL.

    “We’re trying to get a feel for what kind of ice this drill works in,” Curtis said. He added that ice can be plastic or brittle depending on different densities, humidity and other factors. The ice caves under Erebus proved to have much higher concentrations of air than expected: “The differences involved can be like trying to climb a marshmallow versus a light metal.”

    Another test was for PUFFER, an origami-inspired robot that can sit flat during storage and “puff up” to explore a wider area. PUFFER has driven extensively around JPL, in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco and other desert environments — but not on snow. Curtis joysticked the robot around using newly designed snow wheels, which have a broad, flat surface.

    Another tool that that could be helpful for future explorers is a structured light sensor used for creating 3-D cave maps. JPL’s Jeremy Nash and Renaud Detry provided the sensor, which relies on computer vision to map the interior of a cave.

    Curtis said that ice is a hard material to 3-D model, in large part because it’s so reflective. Light has a tendency to bounce off its surface, making it difficult for a computer to read that data and reconstruct a space.

    “Ice sparkles, and the sparkly crystals look different from each angle,” Curtis said. “It’s like a hall of mirrors.”

    4
    A helicopter brings in supplies to Lower Erebus Hut, a camp at 11,000 feet. The camp is considered the main base of operations that scientists work out of. Image Credit: Dylan Taylor

    Adventurous Science

    Make no mistake about it — a research trip to Mt. Erebus isn’t exactly a vacation.

    Curtis and his colleagues faced three large blizzards during their trip, each lasting around a week. That led to travel delays when supply helicopters couldn’t make safe passage.

    The team also dealt with limited energy in a region that experiences six months of night, blocking out sunlight for solar cells. Wind turbines on the volcano are the most common form of energy, though they face their own challenges: frost builds up on the blades, causing them to vibrate themselves to bits.

    But the chance to conduct research in such a desolate and awe-inspiring location is hard to pass up.

    “When I smell that hydrogen sulfide perfuming the minus-25-degrees-Celsius air, there’s nowhere I’d rather be,” Curtis said.

    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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  • richardmitnick 1:49 pm on February 11, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Goldstone Antenna, NASA JPL - Caltech   

    From JPL: “Asteroid Resembles Dungeons and Dragons Dice” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    Feb. 10, 2017
    DC Agle
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
    818-393-9011
    agle@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    This composite of 25 images of asteroid 2017 BQ6 was generated with radar data collected using NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert.

    NASA DSCC Goldstone Antenna located in the Mojave Desert near Barstow in California, USA
    NASA DSCC Goldstone Antenna located in the Mojave Desert near Barstow in California, USA

    The images were gathered on Feb. 7, 2017, between 8:39 and 9:50 p.m. PST (11:39 p.m. EST and 12:50 a.m., Feb. 7), revealing an irregular, angular-appearing asteroid about 660 feet (200 meters) in size that rotates about once every three hours. The images have resolutions as fine as 12 feet (3.75 meters) per pixel. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

    Radar images of asteroid 2017 BQ6 were obtained on Feb. 6 and 7 with NASA’s 70-meter (230-foot) antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. They reveal an irregular, angular-appearing asteroid about 660 feet (200 meters) in size that rotates about once every three hours. The images have resolutions as fine as 12 feet (3.75 meters) per pixel.

    “The radar images show relatively sharp corners, flat regions, concavities, and small bright spots that may be boulders,” said Lance Benner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who leads the agency’s asteroid radar research program. “Asteroid 2017 BQ6 reminds me of the dice used when playing Dungeons and Dragons. It is certainly more angular than most near-Earth asteroids imaged by radar.”

    Asteroid 2017 BQ6 safely passed Earth on Feb. 6 at 10:36 p.m. PST (1:36 a.m. EST, Feb. 7) at about 6.6 times the distance between Earth and the moon (about 1.6 million miles, or 2.5 million kilometers). It was discovered on Jan. 26 by the NASA-funded Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) Project, operated by MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the Air Force Space Command’s Space Surveillance Telescope at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

    Radar has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids. When these small, natural remnants of the formation of the solar system pass relatively close to Earth, deep space radar is a powerful technique for studying their sizes, shapes, rotation, surface features, and roughness, and for more precise determination of their orbital path.

    NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages and operates NASA’s Deep Space Network, including the Goldstone Solar System Radar, and hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program within the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

    JPL hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program within the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

    More information about asteroids and near-Earth objects can be found at:

    http://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov

    http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch

    For more information about NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/planetarydefense

    For asteroid and comet news and updates, follow AsteroidWatch on Twitter:

    twitter.com/AsteroidWatch

    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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  • richardmitnick 8:13 am on February 9, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , MASTER and AVIRIS, NASA ER-2 aircraft, NASA HyspIRI, NASA JPL - Caltech, USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO)   

    From JPL-Caltech: “NASA-Led Campaign Studies Hawaii’s Iconic Volcanoes” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    February 8, 2017
    Alan Buis
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-0474
    Alan.Buis@jpl.nasa.gov

    Kate Squires
    NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif.
    661-276-2020
    Kate.k.squires@nasa.gov

    1
    Night view of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano, one of Earth’s most active volcanoes. A NASA-led team is studying Hawaiian volcanoes from the air, ground and space to better understand volcanic processes and hazards.Credit: NASA

    2
    Imaging spectroscopy data of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano from NASA’s Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer. Kilauea’s lava lake (orange) and ash plume (light blue) are visible in the lower center. The data are used to study lava temperature and properties, and ash and gas plume characteristics.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    3
    NASA-Led Campaign Studies Hawaii’s Iconic Volcanoes
    View of the island of Hawaii from the window of NASA’s ER-2 aircraft. Credit: NASA

    Fast Facts:

    › Multiple teams are collaborating to study volcano impacts on Hawaiian air quality and vegetation, volcanic gas plumes and lava flows

    › Mission will help us better understand volcanic processes and help mitigate volcanic hazards

    › Data will help in developing a planned NASA satellite mission to study natural hazards and ecosystems

    Kilauea Volcano on the island of Hawaii is one of Earth’s most active volcanoes, drawing scientists and tourists alike from all over the world to study and witness its spectacular displays of nature. This month, a NASA-led science team is exploring Kilauea and the adjacent volcano Mauna Loa from the air, ground and space. Their goal: to better understand volcanic processes and hazards.

    In late January, scientists from NASA, the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO), Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and several universities embarked on a six-week field campaign to study the links between volcanic gases/thermal emissions and vegetation health and extent; the flow of lava from the volcanoes; thermal anomalies; gas plumes; other active volcanic processes; and ways to mitigate volcanic hazards. The campaign, which is also studying Hawaii’s coral reefs, will provide precursor data for NASA’s Hyperspectral Infrared Imager (HyspIRI) satellite mission concept to study Earth ecosystems and natural hazards such as volcanoes, wildfires and drought.

    Flying high to get the lowdown on Hawaii’s volcanoes

    A high-altitude ER-2 aircraft from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, Palmdale, California, based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on the island of Oahu, is the main platform for the HyspIRI airborne campaign. The ER-2 carries the Airborne Visible and Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS), developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California; and the MODIS-ASTER Airborne Simulator (MASTER), developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. This week, a Gulfstream III aircraft from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, will join the campaign. It will carry JPL’s Glacier and Land Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN) instrument, which will collect high-resolution data to measure topographic changes from new Kilauea lava flows.

    “The data collected during the HyspIRI airborne campaign will advance our understanding of volcanic processes on Hawaii and elsewhere around the world,” said Ben Phillips, lead for NASA’s Earth Surface and Interior focus area, NASA Headquarters, Washington. “Such observations may inform future decisions by volcano hazard responders and regulatory agencies.”

    Flying at 65,000 feet (19,800 meters), above 95 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the ER-2 can closely replicate the data a future satellite could collect. The instruments onboard are designed to carefully measure reflected sunlight and emitted thermal radiation in hundreds of distinct channels. The data give scientists quantitative and accurate information on Earth surface composition, types of gases and temperature. By combining these data with ground-based validation measurements, scientists can study atmospheric, geologic and ecological processes to understand our natural environment.

    What will they study?

    Vog: JPL scientist Vincent Realmuto is using MASTER and AVIRIS data to study vog, the island of Hawaii’s notorious volcanic air pollution. His team is studying Kilauea’s releases of heat and gas, mapping the composition and chemical evolution of its gas plumes.

    When Kilauea’s summit resumed erupting in 2008, sulfur dioxide emissions increased dramatically. Sulfur dioxide converts to sulfate aerosol to create vog: a noxious, corrosive suspension of sulfur dioxide and fine sulfate aerosols. Communities downwind of Kilauea suffer adverse effects. To help the public deal with vog, the Vog Measurement and Prediction Project (VMAP) at the University of Hawaii-Manoa (UH) produces forecasts of vog motion and concentration across the Hawaiian Islands. VMAP uses sulfur dioxide emission rates measured by HVO to set the initial conditions for the vog forecast. The accuracy of the forecasts is evaluated by comparing them with air quality measurements from a sparse network of ground stations.

    Realmuto’s team is using MASTER data to map sulfur dioxide concentrations at Kilauea’s summit and track changes in concentration with distance from the summit. AVIRIS data are used to map concentrations and spatial distributions of sulfate aerosols downwind of the summit. The data will help scientists better understand how quickly sulfur dioxide gas converts to sulfate aerosols, and create maps of how the rates vary from place to place. The gas and aerosol maps derived from the airborne data will be validated with ground-based data collected by HVO and UH scientists. The validated maps will be used to initialize the VMAP forecasts to assess the impact of the new data products on their accuracy.

    In the future, data collected during a spaceborne HyspIRI mission may contribute substantially to Hawaii air quality monitoring efforts. These observations will be used to estimate sulfur dioxide and sulfate concentrations at a spatial resolution of about 200 feet (60 meters) on time scales of hours to days. “Such timely observations may be used to track changes in the behavior of volcanoes and may lead volcano observatories and air quality officials to increase their scrutiny of such changes,” Realmuto said. “The experience we gain from the HyspIRI airborne campaign will allow us to make immediate use of the data from a spaceborne HyspIRI mission.”

    Links between volcanoes and plants: Scientist Chad Deering of Michigan Technological University, Houghton, is leading an investigation to detect changes in volcanic state by using AVIRIS and MASTER data to remotely measure possible links between volcanic gases and their thermal emissions, and the health and extent of vegetation near volcanoes. When a shallow magma reservoir is replenished, it can signal either the start of an eruption of an active, but not currently erupting, volcano like Mauna Loa, or significant changes in behavior at an erupting volcano like Kilauea. Rising magma releases gases through the surface. Detecting and characterizing these gas emissions and their indirect effects on vegetation may help hazard managers better detect significant changes in volcanic behavior and monitor shifts in the location of the activity.

    How volcanic gases and aerosols are transported: JPL researcher David Pieri is using instruments on small unmanned aerial platforms (free-flying unmanned aircraft and tethered aerostat kites) to conduct ground-based validation of MASTER and AVIRIS data. The unmanned aircraft and kites are operated in conjunction with NASA Ames and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia. The instruments are sampling sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and aerosols at Kilauea. The data will improve understanding of how gases and aerosols are transported in the atmosphere and will help improve estimates of volcanic gas emissions. Pieri’s team will also acquire simultaneous data with the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft to help develop a strategy to extend ASTER’s 15-year data set of global volcano observations into the future.

    Ways to improve estimates of volcano thermal data: A team led by researcher Michael Ramsey of the University of Pittsburgh is using a new ground-based instrument to collect multispectral thermal infrared data at Kilauea’s lava lake as the ER-2 flies overhead. The goal is to develop an approach to correct the HyspIRI satellite’s thermal infrared data on high-temperature surfaces to account for temperature mixing and apparent changes in emitted radiation. The corrections will improve the accuracy of estimates of volcanic (and wildfire) thermal output and changes in composition. Both estimates are typically used to monitor ongoing volcanic activity.

    Thermal anomaly detection: USGS researcher Greg Vaughan is developing a new algorithm to detect and forecast volcanic unrest or related hazards based on heat signals that precede them. The envisioned alert algorithm will be automated, able to spot anomalous thermal behavior at most volcanoes worldwide, and sensitive enough to detect relatively subtle heat signatures. The new approach, which exploits the HyspIRI satellite mission’s envisioned capabilities, should allow scientists to detect small, warm anomalies that current thermal alert systems might miss. Vaughan will compare the HyspIRI airborne campaign data with HVO’s own high-resolution airborne data. The observations will be merged with satellite data to generate extended time series to test and refine the new approach.

    Measuring changes in lava flow volume: JPL researcher Paul Lundgren is leading the upcoming GLISTIN flights, which will collect high-resolution topography data over active Kilauea lava flows to measure changes. More accurate tracking of changes in lava flow volume will improve models used to understand characteristics of active eruptions, such as changes in eruption rate.

    “If deployed to an evolving volcano crisis, GLISTIN could provide important measurements of lava flow volumes or lava dome growth that aren’t possible with current satellites,” says Lundgren. “It can help scientists better understand and predict the volume of volcanic eruptions as well as volcano behavior.”

    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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  • richardmitnick 3:01 pm on January 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "the Signature 17 standard" amino acids, , Capillary electrophoresis, NASA JPL - Caltech, Ocean worlds like Europa   

    From JPL-Caltech: “A New Test for Life on Other Planets” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    January 26, 2017
    Andrew Good
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-393-2433
    andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    Mono Lake, California, with salt pillars known as “tufas” visible. JPL scientists tested new methods for detecting chemical signatures of life in the salty waters here, believing them to be analogs for water on Mars or ocean worlds like Europa. Image Credit: Mono County Tourism.

    A simple chemistry method could vastly enhance how scientists search for signs of life on other planets.

    The test uses a liquid-based technique known as capillary electrophoresis to separate a mixture of organic molecules into its components. It was designed specifically to analyze for amino acids, the structural building blocks of all life on Earth. The method is 10,000 times more sensitive than current methods employed by spacecraft like NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, according to a new study published in Analytical Chemistry. The study was carried out by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

    One of the key advantages of the authors’ new way of using capillary electrophoresis is that the process is relatively simple and easy to automate for liquid samples expected on ocean world missions: it involves combining a liquid sample with a liquid reagent, followed by chemical analysis under conditions determined by the team. By shining a laser across the mixture — a process known as laser-induced fluorescence detection — specific molecules can be observed moving at different speeds. They get separated based on how quickly they respond to electric fields.

    While capillary electrophoresis has been around since the early 1980s, this is the first time it has been tailored specifically to detect extraterrestrial life on an ocean world, said lead author Jessica Creamer, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL.

    “Our method improves on previous attempts by increasing the number of amino acids that can be detected in a single run,” Creamer said. “Additionally, it allows us to detect these amino acids at very low concentrations, even in highly salty samples, with a very simple ‘mix and analyze’ process.”

    The researchers used the technique to analyze amino acids present in the salt-rich waters of Mono Lake in California. The lake’s exceptionally high alkaline content makes it a challenging habitat for life, and an excellent stand-in for salty waters believed to be on Mars, or the ocean worlds of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    The researchers were able to simultaneously analyze 17 different amino acids, which they are calling “the Signature 17 standard.” These amino acids were chosen for study because they are the most commonly found on Earth or elsewhere.

    “Using our method, we are able to tell the difference between amino acids that come from non-living sources like meteorites versus amino acids that come from living organisms,” said the project’s principal investigator, Peter Willis of JPL.

    Key to detecting amino acids related to life is an aspect known as “chirality.” Chiral molecules such as amino acids come in two forms that are mirror images of one another. Although amino acids from non-living sources contain approximately equal amounts of the “left” and “right”-handed forms, amino acids from living organisms on Earth are almost exclusively the “left-handed” form.

    It is expected that amino acid life elsewhere would also need to “choose” one of the two forms in order to create the structures of life. For this reason, chirality of amino acids is considered one of the most powerful signatures of life.

    “One of NASA’s highest-level objectives is the search for life in the universe,” Willis said. “Our best chance of finding life is by using powerful liquid-based analyses like this one on ocean worlds.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:19 pm on January 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA JPL - Caltech, , Supernova SN 2014C   

    From JPL-Caltech: “NuSTAR Finds New Clues to ‘Chameleon Supernova'” 

    NASA JPL Banner

    JPL-Caltech

    January 24, 2017
    Elizabeth Landau
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6425
    Elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    This visible-light image from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey shows spiral galaxy NGC 7331, center, where astronomers observed the unusual supernova SN 2014C .

    The inset images are from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, showing a small region of the galaxy before the supernova explosion (left) and after it (right). Red, green and blue colors are used for low, medium and high-energy X-rays, respectively.

    SDSS Telescope at Apache Point, NM, USA
    SDSS Telescope at Apache Point, NM, USA

    Fast Facts:

    — Supernova SN 2014C dramatically changed its appearance over a year

    — It appears SN 2014C threw off a lot of material before it exploded

    — The study suggests astronomers should pay attention to the lives of massive stars in the centuries before they explode

    “We’re made of star stuff,” astronomer Carl Sagan famously said. Nuclear reactions that happened in ancient stars generated much of the material that makes up our bodies, our planet and our solar system. When stars explode in violent deaths called supernovae, those newly formed elements escape and spread out in the universe.

    One supernova in particular is challenging astronomers’ models of how exploding stars distribute their elements. The supernova SN 2014C dramatically changed in appearance over the course of a year, apparently because it had thrown off a lot of material late in its life. This doesn’t fit into any recognized category of how a stellar explosion should happen. To explain it, scientists must reconsider established ideas about how massive stars live out their lives before exploding.

    “This ‘chameleon supernova’ may represent a new mechanism of how massive stars deliver elements created in their cores to the rest of the universe,” said Raffaella Margutti, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Margutti led a study about supernova SN 2014C published this week in The Astrophysical Journal.

    A supernova mystery

    Astronomers classify exploding stars based on whether or not hydrogen is present in the event. While stars begin their lives with hydrogen fusing into helium, large stars nearing a supernova death have run out of hydrogen as fuel. Supernovae in which very little hydrogen is present are called “Type I.” Those that do have an abundance of hydrogen, which are rarer, are called “Type II.”

    But SN 2014C, discovered in 2014 in a spiral galaxy about 36 million to 46 million light-years away, is different. By looking at it in optical wavelengths with various ground-based telescopes, astronomers concluded that SN 2014C had transformed itself from a Type I to a Type II supernova after its core collapsed, as reported in a 2015 study led by Dan Milisavljevic at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Initial observations did not detect hydrogen, but, after about a year, it was clear that shock waves propagating from the explosion were hitting a shell of hydrogen-dominated material outside the star.

    In the new study, NASA’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) satellite, with its unique ability to observe radiation in the hard X-ray energy range — the highest-energy X-rays — allowed scientists to watch how the temperature of electrons accelerated by the supernova shock changed over time. They used this measurement to estimate how fast the supernova expanded and how much material is in the external shell.

    NASA/NuSTAR
    NASA/NuSTAR

    To create this shell, SN 2014C did something truly mysterious: it threw off a lot of material — mostly hydrogen, but also heavier elements — decades to centuries before exploding. In fact, the star ejected the equivalent of the mass of the sun. Normally, stars do not throw off material so late in their life.

    “Expelling this material late in life is likely a way that stars give elements, which they produce during their lifetimes, back to their environment,” said Margutti, a member of Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics.

    NASA’s Chandra and Swift observatories were also used to further paint the picture of the evolution of the supernova.

    NASA/Chandra Telescope
    NASA/Chandra Telescope

    NASA/SWIFT Telescope
    NASA/SWIFT Telescope

    The collection of observations showed that, surprisingly, the supernova brightened in X-rays after the initial explosion, demonstrating that there must be a shell of material, previously ejected by the star, that the shock waves had hit.

    Challenging existing theories

    Why would the star throw off so much hydrogen before exploding? One theory is that there is something missing in our understanding of the nuclear reactions that occur in the cores of massive, supernova-prone stars. Another possibility is that the star did not die alone — a companion star in a binary system may have influenced the life and unusual death of the progenitor of SN 2014C. This second theory fits with the observation that about seven out of 10 massive stars have companions.

    The study suggests that astronomers should pay attention to the lives of massive stars in the centuries before they explode. Astronomers will also continue monitoring the aftermath of this perplexing supernova.

    “The notion that a star could expel such a huge amount of matter in a short interval is completely new,” said Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR principal investigator based at Caltech in Pasadena. “It is challenging our fundamental ideas about how massive stars evolve, and eventually explode, distributing the chemical elements necessary for life.”

    NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, and the official data archive is at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. ASI provides the mission’s ground station and a mirror archive. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

    For more information on NuSTAR, visit:

    http://www.nasa.gov/nustar

    http://www.nustar.caltech.edu

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:21 am on January 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA JPL - Caltech, , Science and instruments   

    From Eos: “Seeking Signs of Life and More: NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission” 

    Eos news bloc

    Eos

    11 January 2017
    K. A. Farley
    farley@gps.caltech.edu

    K. H. Williford

    1
    MEDA. Artist’s conception of the instrument mast for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which will carry out new objectives using the basic engineering of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    NASA Mars 2020 orbiter
    NASA Mars 2020 orbiter

    NASA recently confirmed that it plans to fly to Mars in 2020, sending the fifth in a series of increasingly ambitious rovers to investigate the Red Planet. The specific landing site hasn’t been chosen yet, but the Mars 2020 mission will explore one of several possible paleoenvironments older than 3.5 billion years that might once have been conducive to microbial life.

    The rover will assess the geology of the landing site and analyze surface targets for signs of ancient life using imaging, organic and inorganic geochemistry, and mineralogy. Notably, the rover, also called Mars 2020, will also be the first to select, collect, and cache a suite of samples from another planet for possible future return to Earth, fulfilling the vision of the most recent planetary science decadal survey to take the first step toward Mars Sample Return [National Research Council, 2011].

    A Shift in Strategy

    Previous rovers used sophisticated analytic instruments and prepared rock and soil specimens for analysis on board the rover itself. Mars 2020, however, will be the first rover tasked with detailed exploration of the surface to support the collection of a large, high-value sample suite designated for possible later study in laboratories back on Earth.

    Conceptually, Mars 2020 marks a transition from missions in which sampling guided exploration to one where exploration guides sampling. In other words, the rover’s scientific instruments will observe the surrounding terrain and provide the critical context for choosing where samples will be collected. Ultimately, this context will also be used to interpret the samples. This evolution is familiar on Earth, where initial field observations and limited sampling in the service of geologic mapping lead to hypotheses that are eventually tested through focused sample collection and laboratory analysis.

    Instruments on Board

    2
    Fig. 1. The Mars 2020 rover closely follows the design of Curiosity, but it has new scientific instruments and a sampling and caching system for the drilling and storage of samples for possible return to Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    The architecture of this mission closely follows the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosity rover, but Mars 2020 will be modified with new scientific instruments and capabilities that allow more intensive and efficient use of the rover (Figure 1).

    Two instruments will be mounted on the rover mast: Mastcam-Z, a high-resolution, color stereo zoom camera,

    3
    Mastcam-Z

    and SuperCam, a multifaceted instrument that collects spectroscopic data using visible–near-infrared (Vis-NIR),

    4
    SuperCam

    Raman, and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) techniques.

    SuperCam will analyze data from rock and regolith materials that may be several meters away from the rover to characterize their texture, mineralogy, and chemistry.

    Two instruments on the robotic arm will permit researchers to study rock surfaces with unprecedented spatial resolution (features as small as about 100 micrometers). The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) will use X-ray fluorescence to map elemental composition, whereas Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) will use deep-UV Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy to map the molecular chemistry of organic matter and select mineral classes. SHERLOC also includes a high-resolution color microscopic imager.

    6
    SHERLOC

    The rover will be able to assess subsurface geologic structure using a ground-penetrating radar instrument called Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX).

    7
    RIMFAX

    The rover will characterize environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity, and winds, using the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) instrument. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will demonstrate a critical technology for human exploration of Mars by converting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen as a potential source of rocket propellant.

    Rover Hits the Ground Running

    In addition to the new scientific instruments, Mars 2020 builds on the innovative MSL “sky crane” entry, descent, and landing system. The sky crane lowers the rover to the surface from a rocket-powered descent stage rather than using air bags to provide a soft landing. New onboard navigational capabilities will enable the rover to land closer to regions with abundant rock outcroppings, which are scientifically desirable but potentially hazardous for landing. The rover will also have stronger wheels to reduce the puncture problems that plague the Curiosity rover.

    New onboard software provides the rover with more autonomy for driving and for science investigations. New Earth-based tools and practices will enable the operations team to assess results and develop the next planning cycle over a much shorter timeline.

    Studying the Samples

    Mars 2020 will carry an entirely new subsystem to collect and prepare samples. As studies of lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions demonstrated, specimens brought back from Mars would be analyzed for an extraordinary diversity of purposes. Notable examples include igneous and sedimentary petrology, geochemistry, geochronology, and astrobiology.

    Samples brought back to Earth would also help researchers assess hazards associated with possible human exploration of Mars. And, of course, the samples would be analyzed for the presence of current life on Mars.

    Readying samples for such study creates demanding requirements on this subsystem (Table 1). These requirements and their implementation are informed by previous studies [e.g., McLennan et al., 2012; Summons et al., 2014], as well as by the mission’s Returned Sample Science Board. Notable among these requirements are capabilities to ensure that contamination from Earth, brought over by the spacecraft, is limited to less than 10 parts per billion of total organic carbon and statistically less than one viable Earth organism in each of the returned samples.

    nasa-mars-2020-collection-table-1
    nasa-mars-2020-collection-table-2

    5
    Fig. 2. (a) Sample tubes will be coated with titanium nitride (gold color) to limit organic molecule adsorption and with aluminum oxide (white) to reduce solar heating during residence on Mars’s surface. The tube is mounted within a rotary-percussive drill bit, and sample core material is introduced directly into the tube through an opening (located at the top in the orientation shown here). Features at the bottom of the tube are used for robotic tube manipulation. (b) Samples are cylindrical cores, typically 7.5 centimeters in length. Samples frequently break into fragments during drilling, as illustrated by this basalt test core. Both images are at the scale indicated. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Coring, Sealing, and Storing

    The rover will carry a rack of about 40 sample tubes, each capable of holding a single core of rock or regolith measuring about 7.5 cubic centimeters and weighing about 10–15 grams (Figure 2). To collect a sample, the rover will withdraw a clean tube from the tube silo and insert it into a reusable coring drill bit. This assembly will then be inserted into the drill mechanism on the robotic arm and placed on the target.

    The drill bit will use rotary motion with or without percussion to penetrate the rock and to force the core into the sample tube. After the core is broken off from the surrounding rock, the drill bit will be returned to storage. The sample and tube will be handed off to an assembly that carries the tubes through a series of stations: The sample will be photographed, the sample volume will be confirmed, and a cap will be inserted that provides a hermetic metal-on-metal seal that prevents contamination and loss of volatile components.

    As a quality assurance check, the rover will carry and process multiple blank sample tubes. If the sample tubes pick up any Earth-sourced elemental, organic, or biologic contamination during the mission and possible Earth return, the blank samples will indicate the presence and nature of this contamination.

    Mars 2020 has adopted an approach to caching in which sample tubes are filled and stored on board the rover. When the rover obtains an adequate number of samples, it will deposit them as a cache in a “depot” on the Martian surface for possible return to Earth.

    The depot’s location will be carefully selected to prevent blowing sand and dust from obscuring the individual tubes. Then, a vehicle from a possible follow-on element of the Mars Sample Return campaign could easily locate and pick up the samples. The tubes are designed to survive at least a decade after being deposited on the surface and another decade in space on the potential return journey.

    Making Preparations

    Mars 2020 is currently under development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The mission has a 2-month launch window in midsummer 2020, followed by landing in February 2021. Mars 2020 has a prime mission of at least 1 Mars year (just under 2 Earth years).

    Eight potential landing sites are now being considered. Scientists have hypothesized that environments at these sites range from ancient rivers, lakes, and deltas to extensive hydrothermal systems, similar to hot springs found on Earth.

    Over the next few years, the landing site list will be honed down to a single site and a backup site that meet scientific desires and engineering constraints. We highly encourage the continued involvement of the broad scientific community, including scientists who may someday analyze the returned samples, in site selection. The next Mars 2020 landing site workshop is scheduled for 8–10 February 2017.
    Acknowledgment

    This project is being developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, for NASA.
    References

    McLennan, S. M., et al. (2012), Planning for Mars returned sample science: Final report of the MSR End-to-End International Science Analysis Group (E2E-iSAG), Astrobiology, 12(3), 175–230, doi:10.1089/ast.2011.0805.

    National Research Council (2011), Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013–2022, 398 pp., Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, D. C., doi:10.17226/13117.

    Summons, R. E., et al. (2014), Planning considerations related to the organic contamination of Martian samples and implications for the Mars 2020 rover, Astrobiology, 14(12), 969–1027, doi:10.1089/ast.2014.1244.
    Author Information

    K. A. Farley (email: farley@gps.caltech.edu), Geological and Planetary Sciences Division, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; and K. H. Williford, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena

    © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
    Citation: Farley, K. A., and K. H. Williford (2017), Seeking signs of life, and more: NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, Eos, 98, doi:10.1029/2017EO066153. Published on 11 January 2017.

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