From JPL: “NASA’s OMG Mission Maps Greenland’s Coastline”

JPL

August 26, 2015
Carol Rasmussen
NASA Earth Science News Team

1
NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland field campaign is gathering data to clarify how warm ocean water is speeding the loss of Greenland’s glaciers. Image credit: NordForsk

2
Seafloor depths on Greenland’s west coast, measured by sonar aboard a research ship as part of the OMG project. Red and yellow are shallower areas, greens and blues deeper. The thin green line is the ship’s path. The data give a better idea of where warm ocean water can reach glaciers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This summer, a refitted fishing boat is mapping the seafloor around Greenland as the first step in a six-year research program to document the loss of ice from the world’s largest island. NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) field campaign is gathering data that will help scientists both to understand how the oceans are joining with the atmosphere in melting the vast ice sheet and to predict the extent and timing of the resulting sea level rise.

“A lot of the major uncertainty in future sea level rise is in the Greenland Ice Sheet,” said OMG principal investigator Josh Willis, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. At about 660,000 square miles (1.7 million square kilometers), the ice sheet is three times the size of Texas. It’s about a mile deep on average and contains enough water to raise global sea levels about 20 feet (6 meters), if it were all to melt. “The question is how fast it’s melting,” Willis said.

If the ice sheet were simply melting from the top down, researchers could track its disappearance more easily. However, ocean water melts ice too. The northwest Atlantic Ocean has been warming at an unprecedented rate for the last 10 to 15 years. Where that warm, salty water can reach Greenland’s glaciers, it accelerates their melting.

Finding out where that is happening is no easy task. Greenland’s coastline is more than 27,000 miles (44,000 kilometers) long — longer than the distance around Earth at the equator — because of the island’s hundreds of long, narrow fjords, many containing glaciers. Just as the coast is scored by fjords, Greenland’s shallow continental shelf is gouged by underwater canyons cut by the glaciers of the last ice age.

In this part of the world, the warmest water is down deep in the ocean, but that water may be able to get into the underwater canyons and reach the glaciers.

“We don’t know how deep almost all of the glaciers and the fjords are, nor where the deep canyons cut through the continental shelf,” said OMG co-investigator Ian Fenty of JPL. OMG is making the first high-resolution maps of the complete Greenland coast and continental shelf.

The maps are just the opening act of the OMG campaign, however. From next year to 2020, NASA’s G-III research aircraft will take up the job of collecting data. The advantage of aircraft, Willis said, is that “we can encircle the island with observations of both the ocean and the ice. There’s really no other way to do that.” The G-III is based at Armstrong Flight Research Center, Palmdale, California.

Starting next spring, the plane will fly NASA’s Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN) instrument over the periphery of the island each year. GLISTIN will make very precise measurements of the heights and extents of more than 90 percent of Greenland’s coastal glaciers that reach the ocean, enabling researchers to quantify how much each glacier melted and retreated during the preceding melt season.

In the early fall when sea ice is at its minimum, the G-III will circumnavigate Greenland’s continental shelf, releasing about 250 expendable sensors that measure the temperature and salinity of the water up to a depth of about 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) — from the cold, fresh meltwater at the surface down to the warmer, heavier saltwater below.

According to Fenty, these comprehensive measurements will give scientists a real chance to answer questions they can only guess at with the limited observations they have now. “People have been going to Greenland, studying a few glaciers at a time, trying to make sense of the complex melting and glacier-retreat pattern observed by satellites,” he said. “But we really can’t, unless we take a far-reaching approach.”

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. The agency develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. NASA freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/earth

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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From JPL: “Scientists Take Aim at Four Corners Methane Mystery”

JPL

April 7, 2015
Carol Rasmussen
NASA Earth Science News Team

1
Shiprock, New Mexico, is in the Four Corners region where an atmospheric methane “hot spot” can be seen from space. Researchers are currently in the area, trying to uncover the reasons for the hot spot. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Researchers from several institutions are in the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest with a suite of airborne and ground-based instruments, aiming to uncover reasons for a mysterious methane “hot spot” detected from space.

“With all the ground-based and airborne resources that the different groups are bringing to the region, we have the unique chance to unequivocally solve the Four Corners mystery,” said Christian Frankenberg, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, who is heading NASA’s part of the effort. Other investigators are from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, Colorado; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Last fall, researchers including Frankenberg reported that a small region around the Four Corners intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah had the highest concentration of methane over background levels of any part of the United States. An instrument on a European Space Agency satellite measuring greenhouse gases showed a persistent atmospheric hot spot in the area between 2003 and 2009. The amount of methane observed by the satellite was much higher than previously estimated.

The satellite observations were not detailed enough to reveal the actual sources of the methane in the Four Corners. Likely candidates include venting from oil and gas activities, which are primarily coalbed methane exploration and extraction in this region; active coal mines; and natural gas seeps.

Researchers from CIRES, NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory and Michigan are conducting a field campaign called TOPDOWN (Twin Otter Projects Defining Oil Well and Natural gas emissions) 2015, bringing airborne and ground-based instruments to investigate possible sources of the methane hot spot. The JPL team will join the effort on April 17-24. The groups are coordinating their measurements, but each partner agency will deploy its own suite of instruments.

The JPL participants will fly two complementary remote sensing instruments on two Twin Otter research aircraft. The Next-Generation Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRISng), which observes spectra of reflected sunlight, flies at a higher altitude and will be used to map methane at fine resolution over the entire region. Using this information and ground measurements from the other research teams, the Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer (HyTES) will fly over suspected methane sources, making additional, highly sensitive measurements of methane. Depending on its flight altitude, the NASA aircraft can image methane features with a spatial resolution better than three feet (one meter) square. In other words, it can create a mosaic showing how methane levels vary every few feet, enabling the identification of individual sources.

With the combined resources, the investigators hope to quantify the region’s overall methane emissions and pinpoint contributions from different sources. They will track changes over the course of the month-long effort and study how meteorology transports emissions through the region.

“If we can verify the methane detected by the satellite and identify its sources, decision-makers will have critical information for any actions they are considering,” said CIRES scientist Gabrielle Pétron, one of the mission’s investigators. Part of President Obama’s recent Climate Action Plan calls for reductions in methane emissions.

Besides the groups mentioned above, the research team also includes scientists from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder; the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; and the state of New Mexico.

For more information about TOPDOWN 2015, see:

http://cires.colorado.edu/news/press/mapping-methane

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/csd/groups/csd7/measurements/2014topdown/

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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From JPL: “The Solar System and Beyond is Awash in Water”

JPL

April 7, 2015
Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Felicia Chou
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0257
Felicia.chou@nasa.gov

1
NASA is exploring our solar system and beyond to understand the workings of the universe, searching for water and life among the stars. Image credit: NASA

As NASA missions explore our solar system and search for new worlds, they are finding water in surprising places. Water is but one piece of our search for habitable planets and life beyond Earth, yet it links many seemingly unrelated worlds in surprising ways.

“NASA science activities have provided a wave of amazing findings related to water in recent years that inspire us to continue investigating our origins and the fascinating possibilities for other worlds, and life, in the universe,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for the agency. “In our lifetime, we may very well finally answer whether we are alone in the solar system and beyond.”

The chemical elements in water, hydrogen and oxygen, are some of the most abundant elements in the universe. Astronomers see the signature of water in giant molecular clouds between the stars, in disks of material that represent newborn planetary systems, and in the atmospheres of giant planets orbiting other stars.

There are several worlds thought to possess liquid water beneath their surfaces, and many more that have water in the form of ice or vapor. Water is found in primitive bodies like comets and asteroids, and dwarf planets like Ceres. The atmospheres and interiors of the four giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — are thought to contain enormous quantities of the wet stuff, and their moons and rings have substantial water ice.

Perhaps the most surprising water worlds are the five icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn that show strong evidence of oceans beneath their surfaces: Ganymede, Europa and Callisto at Jupiter, and Enceladus and Titan at Saturn.

Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope recently provided powerful evidence that Ganymede has a saltwater, sub-surface ocean, likely sandwiched between two layers of ice.

NASA Hubble Telescope
NASA/ESA Hubble

Europa and Enceladus are thought to have an ocean of liquid water beneath their surface in contact with mineral-rich rock, and may have the three ingredients needed for life as we know it: liquid water, essential chemical elements for biological processes, and sources of energy that could be used by living things. NASA’s Cassini mission has revealed Enceladus as an active world of icy geysers. Recent research suggests it may have hydrothermal activity on its ocean floor, an environment potentially suitable for living organisms.

NASA spacecraft have also found signs of water in permanently shadowed craters on Mercury and our moon, which hold a record of icy impacts across the ages like cryogenic keepsakes.

While our solar system may seem drenched in some places, others seem to have lost large amounts of water.

On Mars, NASA spacecraft have found clear evidence that the Red Planet had water on its surface for long periods in the distant past. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover discovered an ancient streambed that existed amidst conditions favorable for life as we know it.

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
Curiosity

More recently, NASA scientists using ground-based telescopes were able to estimate the amount of water Mars has lost over the eons. They concluded the planet once had enough liquid water to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’ northern hemisphere, in some regions reaching depths greater than a mile (1.6 kilometers). But where did the water go?

It’s clear some of it is in the Martian polar ice caps and below the surface. We also think much of Mars’ early atmosphere was stripped away by the wind of charged particles that streams from the sun, causing the planet to dry out. NASA’s MAVEN mission is hard at work following this lead from its orbit around Mars.

The story of how Mars dried out is intimately connected to how the Red Planet’s atmosphere interacts with the solar wind. Data from the agency’s solar missions — including STEREO, Solar Dynamics Observatory [SDO] and the planned Solar Probe Plus — are vital to helping us better understand what happened.

NASA STEREO spacecraft
NASA/STEREO

NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory
NASA/SDO

Understanding the distribution of water in our solar system tells us a great deal about how the planets, moons, comets and other bodies formed 4.5 billion years ago from the disk of gas and dust that surrounded our sun. The space closer to the sun was hotter and drier than the space farther from the sun, which was cold enough for water to condense. The dividing line, called the “frost line,” sat around Jupiter’s present-day orbit. Even today, this is the approximate distance from the sun at which the ice on most comets begins to melt and become “active.” Their brilliant spray releases water ice, vapor, dust and other chemicals, which are thought to form the bedrock of most worlds of the frigid outer solar system.

Scientists think it was too hot in the solar system’s early days for water to condense into liquid or ice on the inner planets, so it had to be delivered — possibly by comets and water-bearing asteroids. NASA’s Dawn mission is currently studying Ceres, which is the largest body in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Researchers think Ceres might have a water-rich composition similar to some of the bodies that brought water to the three rocky, inner planets, including Earth.

NASA Dawn Spacecraft
NASA/Dawn

The amount of water in the giant planet Jupiter holds a critical missing piece to the puzzle of our solar system’s formation. Jupiter was likely the first planet to form, and it contains most of the material that wasn’t incorporated into the sun. The leading theories about its formation rest on the amount of water the planet soaked up. To help solve this mystery, NASA’s Juno mission will measure this important quantity beginning in mid-2016.

NASA Juno
NASA/Juno

Looking further afield, observing other planetary systems as they form is like getting a glimpse of our own solar system’s baby pictures, and water is a big part of that story. For example, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has observed signs of a hail of water-rich comets raining down on a young solar system, much like the bombardment planets in our solar system endured in their youth.

NASA Spitzer Telescope
NASA/Spitzer

With the study of exoplanets — planets that orbit other stars — we are closer than ever to finding out if other water-rich worlds like ours exist. In fact, our basic concept of what makes planets suitable for life is closely tied to water: Every star has a habitable zone, or a range of distances around it in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission was designed with this in mind. Kepler looks for planets in the habitable zone around many types of stars.

NASA Kepler Telescope
NASA/Kepler

Recently verifying its thousandth exoplanet, Kepler data confirm that the most common planet sizes are worlds just slightly larger than Earth. Astronomers think many of those worlds could be entirely covered by deep oceans. Kepler’s successor, K2, continues to watch for dips in starlight to uncover new worlds.

The agency’s upcoming TESS mission will search nearby, bright stars in the solar neighborhood for Earth- and super-Earth-sized exoplanets. Some of the planets TESS discovers may have water, and NASA’s next great space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, will examine the atmospheres of those special worlds in great detail.

NASA TESS
NASA/TESS

NASA Webb Telescope
NASA/Webb

It’s easy to forget that the story of Earth’s water, from gentle rains to raging rivers, is intimately connected to the larger story of our solar system and beyond. But our water came from somewhere — every world in our solar system got its water from the same shared source. So it’s worth considering that the next glass of water you drink could easily have been part of a comet, or an ocean moon, or a long-vanished sea on the surface of Mars. And note that the night sky may be full of exoplanets formed by similar processes to our home world, where gentle waves wash against the shores of alien seas.

For more information about NASA’s exploration of the solar system and beyond, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov

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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From JPL: “Spacecraft Data Suggest Saturn Moon’s Ocean May Harbor Hydrothermal Activity”

JPL

March 11, 2015
Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

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

1
This cutaway view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus is an artist’s rendering that depicts possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of the moon’s subsurface ocean, based on recently published results from NASA’s Cassini mission. Hydrothermal activity is a process where seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust, emerging as a heated, mineral-laden solution. This is a natural occurrence in Earth’s oceans. Researchers think microscopic grains of rock detected in the Saturn system by Cassini most likely form when hot water containing dissolved minerals from the moon’s rocky interior travels upward, coming into contact with cooler water. Temperatures required for the interactions that produce the tiny rock grains would be at least 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius). On Earth, the most common way to form silica grains of the 6-to-9-nanometer size found by Cassini is hydrothermal activity involving a specific range of conditions. Namely, when slightly alkaline, slightly salty water that is super-saturated with silica undergoes a big drop in temperature. Gravity science measurements from Cassini also suggest Enceladus’ rocky core is quite porous, which would allow water from the ocean to percolate into the interior. This would provide a huge surface area where rock and water could interact. Cassini first revealed active geology on Enceladus in 2005 with evidence of an icy spray issuing from the moon’s south polar region and higher-than-expected temperatures in the icy surface there. With its powerful suite of complementary science instruments, the mission soon revealed a towering plume of water ice and vapor, salts and organic materials that issues from relatively warm fractures on the wrinkled surface. Gravity science results published in 2014 strongly suggested the presence of a 6-mile- (10-kilometer-) deep ocean beneath an ice shell about 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 kilometers) thick.

Fast Facts:

› Cassini finds first evidence of active hot-water chemistry beyond planet Earth
› Findings in two separate papers support the notion
› The results have important implications for the habitability of icy worlds

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has provided scientists the first clear evidence that Saturn’s moon Enceladus exhibits signs of present-day hydrothermal activity which may resemble that seen in the deep oceans on Earth. The implications of such activity on a world other than our planet open up unprecedented scientific possibilities.

NASA Cassini Spacecraft
Cassini

“These findings add to the possibility that Enceladus, which contains a subsurface ocean and displays remarkable geologic activity, could contain environments suitable for living organisms,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The locations in our solar system where extreme environments occur in which life might exist may bring us closer to answering the question: are we alone in the universe.”

Hydrothermal activity occurs when seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust and emerges as a heated, mineral-laden solution, a natural occurrence in Earth’s oceans. According to two science papers, the results are the first clear indications an icy moon may have similar ongoing active processes.

The first paper, published this week in the journal Nature, relates to microscopic grains of rock detected by Cassini in the Saturn system. An extensive, four-year analysis of data from the spacecraft, computer simulations and laboratory experiments led researchers to the conclusion the tiny grains most likely form when hot water containing dissolved minerals from the moon’s rocky interior travels upward, coming into contact with cooler water. Temperatures required for the interactions that produce the tiny rock grains would be at least 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius).

“It’s very exciting that we can use these tiny grains of rock, spewed into space by geysers, to tell us about conditions on — and beneath — the ocean floor of an icy moon,” said the paper’s lead author Sean Hsu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer (CDA) instrument repeatedly detected miniscule rock particles rich in silicon, even before Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004. By process of elimination, the CDA team concluded these particles must be grains of silica, which is found in sand and the mineral quartz on Earth. The consistent size of the grains observed by Cassini, the largest of which were 6 to 9 nanometers, was the clue that told the researchers a specific process likely was responsible.

On Earth, the most common way to form silica grains of this size is hydrothermal activity under a specific range of conditions; namely, when slightly alkaline and salty water that is super-saturated with silica undergoes a big drop in temperature.

“We methodically searched for alternate explanations for the nanosilica grains, but every new result pointed to a single, most likely origin,” said co-author Frank Postberg, a Cassini CDA team scientist at Heidelberg University in Germany.

Hsu and Postberg worked closely with colleagues at the University of Tokyo who performed the detailed laboratory experiments that validated the hydrothermal activity hypothesis. The Japanese team, led by Yasuhito Sekine, verified the conditions under which silica grains form at the same size Cassini detected. The researchers think these conditions may exist on the seafloor of Enceladus, where hot water from the interior meets the relatively cold water at the ocean bottom.

The extremely small size of the silica particles also suggests they travel upward relatively quickly from their hydrothermal origin to the near-surface sources of the moon’s geysers. From seafloor to outer space, a distance of about 30 miles (50 kilometers), the grains spend a few months to a few years in transit, otherwise they would grow much larger.

The authors point out that Cassini’s gravity measurements suggest Enceladus’ rocky core is quite porous, which would allow water from the ocean to percolate into the interior. This would provide a huge surface area where rock and water could interact.

The second paper, recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, suggests hydrothermal activity as one of two likely sources of methane in the plume of gas and ice particles that erupts from the south polar region of Enceladus. The finding is the result of extensive modeling to address why methane, as previously sampled by Cassini, is curiously abundant in the plume.

The team found that, at the high pressures expected in the moon’s ocean, icy materials called clathrates could form that imprison methane molecules within a crystal structure of water ice. Their models indicate that this process is so efficient at depleting the ocean of methane that the researchers still needed an explanation for its abundance in the plume.

In one scenario, hydrothermal processes super-saturate the ocean with methane. This could occur if methane is produced faster than it is converted into clathrates. A second possibility is that methane clathrates from the ocean are dragged along into the erupting plumes and release their methane as they rise, like bubbles forming in a popped bottle of champagne.

The authors agree both scenarios are likely occurring to some degree, but they note that the presence of nanosilica grains, as documented by the other paper, favors the hydrothermal scenario.

“We didn’t expect that our study of clathrates in the Enceladus ocean would lead us to the idea that methane is actively being produced by hydrothermal processes,” said lead author Alexis Bouquet, a graduate student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Bouquet worked with co-author Hunter Waite, who leads the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) team at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Cassini first revealed active geological processes on Enceladus in 2005 with evidence of an icy spray issuing from the moon’s south polar region and higher-than-expected temperatures in the icy surface there. With its powerful suite of complementary science instruments, the mission soon revealed a towering plume of water ice and vapor, salts and organic materials that issues from relatively warm fractures on the wrinkled surface. Gravity science results published in 2014 strongly suggested the presence of a 6-mile- (10-kilometer-) deep ocean beneath an ice shell about 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 kilometers) thick.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini CDA instrument was provided by the German Aerospace Center. The instrument team, led by Ralf Srama, is based at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information about Cassini, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

and

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

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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From JPL: “A New Way to View Titan: ‘Despeckle’ It”

JPL

February 11, 2015
Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

During 10 years of discovery, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has pulled back the smoggy veil that obscures the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

NASA Cassini Spacecraft

Cassini’s radar instrument has mapped almost half of the giant moon’s surface; revealed vast, desert-like expanses of sand dunes; and plumbed the depths of expansive hydrocarbon seas. What could make that scientific bounty even more amazing? Well, what if the radar images could look even better?

Thanks to a recently developed technique for handling noise in Cassini’s radar images, these views now have a whole new look. The technique, referred to by its developers as “despeckling,” produces images of Titan’s surface that are much clearer and easier to look at than the views to which scientists and the public have grown accustomed.

Typically, Cassini’s radar images have a characteristic grainy appearance. This “speckle noise” can make it difficult for scientists to interpret small-scale features or identify changes in images of the same area taken at different times. Despeckling uses an algorithm to modify the noise, resulting in clearer views that can be easier for researchers to interpret.

Antoine Lucas got the idea to apply this new technique while working with members of Cassini’s radar team when he was a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“Noise in the images gave me headaches,” said Lucas, who now works at the astrophysics division of France’s nuclear center (CEA). Knowing that mathematical models for handling the noise might be helpful, Lucas searched through research published by that community, which is somewhat disconnected from people working directly with scientific data. He found that a team near Paris was working on a “de-noising” algorithm, and he began working with them to adapt their model to the Cassini radar data. The collaboration resulted in some new and innovative analysis techniques.

“My headaches were gone, and more importantly, we were able to go further in our understanding of Titan’s surface using the new technique,” Lucas said.

As helpful as the tool has been, for now, it is being used selectively.

“This is an amazing technique, and Antoine has done a great job of showing that we can trust it not to put features into the images that aren’t really there,” said Randy Kirk, a Cassini radar team member from the U.S. Geologic Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. Kirk said the radar team is going to have to prioritize which images are the most important to applying the technique. “It takes a lot of computation, and at the moment quite a bit of ‘fine-tuning’ to get the best results with each new image, so for now we’ll likely be despeckling only the most important — or most puzzling — images,” Kirk said.

Despeckling Cassini’s radar images has a variety of scientific benefits. Lucas and colleagues have shown that they can produce 3-D maps, called digital elevation maps, of Titan’s surface with greatly improved quality. With clearer views of river channels, lake shorelines and windswept dunes, researchers are also able to perform more precise analyses of processes shaping Titan’s surface. And Lucas suspects that the speckle noise itself, when analyzed separately, may hold information about properties of the surface and subsurface.

“This new technique provides a fresh look at the data, which helps us better understand the original images,” said Stephen Wall, deputy team lead of Cassini’s radar team, which is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “With this innovative new tool, we will look for details that help us to distinguish among the different processes that shape Titan’s surface,” he said.

Details about the new technique were published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The VIMS team is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the US and several European countries.

More information about Cassini:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Despeckling Ligea Mare

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Presented here are side-by-side comparisons of a traditional Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) view and one made using a new technique for handling electronic noise that results in clearer views of Titan’s surface. The technique, called despeckling, produces images that can be easier for researchers to interpret.

The view is a mosaic of SAR swaths over Ligeia Mare, one of the large hydrocarbons seas on Titan. In particular, despeckling improves the visibility of channels flowing down to the sea.

Perspective on Kraken Mare Shores

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This Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) image is presented as a perspective view and shows a landscape near the eastern shoreline of Kraken Mare, a hydrocarbon sea in Titan’s north polar region. This image was processed using a technique for handling noise that results in clearer views that can be easier for researchers to interpret. The technique, called despeckling, also is useful for producing altimetry data and 3-D views called digital elevation maps.

Scientists have used a technique called radargrammetry to determine the altitude of surface features in this view at a resolution of approximately half a mile, or 1 kilometer. The altimetry reveals that the area is smooth overall, with a maximum amplitude of 0.75 mile (1.2 kilometers) in height. The topography also shows that all observed channels flow downhill.

The presence of what scientists call “knickpoints” — locations on a river where a sharp change in slope occurs — might indicate stratification in the bedrock, erosion mechanisms at work or a particular way the surface responds to runoff events, such as floods following large storms. One such knickpoint is visible just above the lower left corner, where an area of bright slopes is seen.

The image was obtained during a flyby of Titan on April 10, 2007. A more traditional radar image of this area on Titan is seen in PIA19046.

Titan Despeckled Montage

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This montage of Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images of the surface of Titan shows four examples of how a newly developed technique for handling noise results in clearer, easier to interpret views. The top row of images was produced in the manner used since the mission arrived in the Saturn system a decade ago; the row at bottom was produced using the new technique.

The three leftmost image pairs show bays and spits of land in Ligea Mare, one of Titan’s large hydrocarbon seas. The rightmost pair shows a valley network along Jingpo Lacus, one of Titan’s larger northern lakes.

North is toward the left in these images. Each thumbnail represents an area 70 miles (112 kilometers) wide.

Leilah Fluctus Despeckled

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Presented here are side-by-side comparisons of a traditional Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) view, at left, and one made using a new technique for handling electronic noise that results in clearer views of Titan’s surface, at right. The technique, called despeckling, produces images that can be easier for researchers to interpret.

The terrain seen here is in the flow region named Leilah Fluctus (55 degrees north, 80 degrees west). With the speckle noise suppressed, the overall pattern of bright and dark in the scene becomes more apparent. In particular, cone-shaped features near lower right stand out, which could be alluvial analogues on Titan — features produced by the action of rivers or floods.

North is toward right in this image, which shows an area about 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide.

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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From JPL: “Citizen Scientists Lead Astronomers to Mystery Objects in Space”

JPL

January 27, 2015
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
818-354-4673
whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

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Volunteers using the web-based Milky Way Project brought star-forming features nicknamed “yellowballs” to the attention of researchers, who later showed that they are a phase of massive star formation. The yellow balls — which are several hundred to thousands times the size of our solar system — are pictured here in the center of this image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared light has been assigned different colors; yellow occurs where green and red overlap. The yellow balls represent an intermediary stage of massive star formation that takes place before massive stars carve out cavities in the surrounding gas and dust (seen as green-rimmed bubbles with red interiors in this image).

Infrared light of 3.6 microns is blue; 8-micron light is green; and 24-micron light is red.

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This series of images show three evolutionary phases of massive star formation, as pictured in infrared images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The stars start out in thick cocoon of dust (left), evolve into hotter features dubbed “yellowballs” (center); and finally, blow out cavities in the surrounding dust and gas, resulting in green-rimmed bubbles with red centers (right). The process shown here takes roughly a million years. Even the oldest phase shown here is fairly young, as massive stars live a few million years. Eventually, the stars will migrate away from their birth clouds.

In this image, infrared light of 3.6 microns is blue; 8-micron light is green; and 24-micron light is red.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

NASA Spitzer Telescope
Spitzer

Milkyway@home
MilkyWay@home

Milkyway@Home uses the BOINC platform to harness volunteered computing resources, creating a highly accurate three dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy using data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). This project enables research in both astroinformatics and computer science.

SDSS Telescope
SDSS Telescope

BOINC

In computer science, the project is investigating different optimization methods which are resilient to the fault-prone, heterogeneous and asynchronous nature of Internet computing; such as evolutionary and genetic algorithms, as well as asynchronous newton methods. While in astroinformatics, Milkyway@Home is generating highly accurate three dimensional models of the Sagittarius stream, which provides knowledge about how the Milky Way galaxy was formed and how tidal tails are created when galaxies merge.

Milkyway@Home is a joint effort between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute‘s departments of Computer Science and Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy. Feel free to contact us via our forums, or email astro@cs.lists.rpi.edu.

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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From JPL: “SMAP Will Track a Tiny Cog That Keeps Cycles Spinning”

JPL

January 26, 2015
Carol Rasmussen
NASA Earth Science News Team

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Water evaporating from forest soil in the morning sun. Soil moisture links together the cycles of water, solar energy, and carbon in plants. Image credit: USDA

When you open the back of a fine watch, you see layer upon layer of spinning wheels linked by interlocking cogs, screws and wires. Some of the cogs are so tiny they’re barely visible. Size doesn’t matter — what’s important is that the cogs fit together well so the wheels keep turning smoothly.

For centuries, scientists have thought of the Earth system as a series of cycles or interlocking wheels like the ones in a watch. It’s a way to make sense of the movements of water and other essentials back and forth between the air and the land, ocean and soil or rock beneath them. In today’s changing climate, some cycles are spinning faster or beginning to wobble. There’s an urgent need to understand what is happening to the cogs that keep these cycles turning.

The minuscule fraction of Earth’s water lodged just beneath the land surface is a tiny cog that links the water cycle to two other fundamental Earth cycles: energy and carbon. “That linkage is what makes these three gears turn with a certain harmony,” said Dara Entekhabi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Entekhabi is science team leader for NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, scheduled to launch Jan. 29. Developed and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, SMAP will provide the most accurate information ever about this small but critical cog.

NASA SMAP
SMAP

You may have learned about the water cycle in school: Water falls from the sky to the land when it rains or snows, and rises from the land back to the sky when it heats up and evaporates. Your teacher may not have mentioned that water vapor isn’t the only thing that rises. The heat energy that turned liquid water into vapor also rises, cooling Earth’s surface. In fact, evaporating soil moisture is the main way that land sheds the solar energy it receives every day and thus is a major player in the energy cycle. “It’s the first process to kick in when the surface heats up, and it continues as long as there is moisture in the soil that can evaporate,” Entekhabi said. Evaporation gets rid of nearly half of the solar energy that reaches land, keeping our planet’s temperature comfortable.

If there’s any moisture at all in soil, there’s probably a plant growing there. That’s why most evaporation from soil starts with a plant absorbing water through its roots. Plants need water for photosynthesis, their food-creating process. During photosynthesis they “sweat” — or transpire — water onto their leaves, where it evaporates.

Besides using water and energy, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. Over land, this is virtually the only natural way for carbon to be removed from the atmosphere. Soil moisture keeps this vital carbon highway open by enabling plants to continue growing. “If a plant has access to water, it happily carries on with photosynthesis,” Entekhabi said. “If not, the plant shuts down, and eventually it wilts and dies.”

After SMAP launches, the new data it will provide are expected to help scientists answer some long-standing questions about what is likely to happen to these important Earth cycles in a changing climate. Entekhabi hopes to take advantage of the synergy available between SMAP and NASA’s new Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, which measures global carbon dioxide. “We have talked a lot with the OCO-2 scientists about how we can use simultaneous measurements to solve the puzzle of how plants respond to soil moisture and how the carbon cycle and the water cycle are linked,” he said. “If we get that linkage right, we will reduce the uncertainty in future climate projections and know more about how terrestrial plants are going to act in the future.”

NASA Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2
OCO-2

For more about SMAP, see:

http://smap.jpl.nasa.gov/

http://www.nasa.gov/smap/

SMAP will be the last of five NASA Earth science launches within 12 months. 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.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow

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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#applied-research-technology, #nasa-jpl, #nasa-smap, #soil-moisture