Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wall Divides East and West Sides of Cosmic Metropolis

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A new study unveils NGC 604, the largest region of star formation in the nearby galaxy M33, in its first deep, high-resolution view in X- rays. This composite image from Chandra X-ray Observatory data (colored blue), combined with optical light data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red and green), shows a divided neighborhood where some 200 hot, young, massive stars reside.

Throughout the cosmic metropolis, giant bubbles in the cool dust and warm gas are filled with diffuse, multi-million degree gas that emits X-rays. Scientists think these bubbles are generated and heated to X- ray temperatures when powerful stellar winds from the young massive stars collide and push aside the surrounding gas and dust. So, the vacated areas are immediately repopulated with the hotter material seen by Chandra.

However, there is a difference between the two sides of this bifurcated stellar city. (See annotated image for the location of the "wall".) On the western (right) side, the amount of hot gas found in the bubbles corresponds to about 4300 times the mass of the sun. This value and the brightness of the gas in X-rays imply that the western part of NGC 604 is entirely powered by winds from the 200 hot massive stars.

This result is interesting because previous modeling of other bubbles usually predicted them to be fainter than observed, so that additional heating from supernova remnants is required. The implication is that in this area of NGC 604, none or very few of the massive stars must have exploded as supernovas.

The situation is different on the eastern (left) side of NGC 604. On this side, the X-ray gas contains 1750 times the mass of the sun and winds from young stars cannot explain the brightness of the X-ray emission. The bubbles on this side appear to be much older and were likely created and powered by young stars and supernovas in the past.

A similar separation between east and west is seen in the optical results. This implies that a massive wall of gas shields the relatively quiet region in the east from the active star formation in the west.

This study was led by Ralph Tuellmann of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and was part of a very deep, 16-day long observation of M33 called the Chandra ACIS Survey of M33, or ChASeM33.

Growing Up With the Mars Rovers

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I am not supposed to be here, working with the Mars Exploration Rovers. There wasn’t supposed to be a Mars Rover here for me to work on. I arrived at JPL less than a month before Spirit’s landing in January 2004.Long before I earned the privilege of working on such a project, the three-month mission (six if we were lucky) would be completed. Robots are intricate machines, and Mars is a harsh place. Neither Spirit nor Opportunity should be here – and, as a result, neither should I be here to talk about them. Five years on Mars – inconceivable! But somehow, Spirit, Opportunity and I are celebrating our fifth anniversaries within a few weeks of each other. We’ve grown up together, in a way.

I have been working with the rovers for almost four and a half of their five years. I’ve discovered that Spirit and Opportunity are more than just a couple of robots or tools – they are a grand vision, a shared dream. A dream so powerful and so compelling that even those who come late to it, as I did, are fully invested. I look around at the room as I write this and I see people who have been here from the beginning (or even before the beginning from Pathfinder days in 1997) and I see the newest generations – those I have helped to train and with whom I have shared the vision. This dream is large enough for all of us.

Most engineers build a product and give it to the user. But those of us working on the Mars program are lucky enough to continue working with the scientists and get a real sense of the great purpose of what we do. We are an integral part of contributing to our understanding of the universe around us. I often step back and realize how truly fortunate I am, working on this amazing project with these remarkable, talented people.

This team of people is a family, and the rovers are our children. And, like parents of adult children who have moved away, we worry, we try to keep them safe, we try to teach them what we know and we give them guidance. Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t. But together, we’ve made amazing discoveries. Once Mars was a warmer place, a wetter place, a more Earthlike place – something we could only infer indirectly before. And it’s still a beautiful place with strangely colored sunsets that remind us we’re looking at another world.

Now, experience has matured us. And aged us. We have faced a lot of challenges. Racing to find places to survive harsh Martian winters, climbing mountains and crater walls, riding out dust storms, and working around arthritic body parts (broken wheels and failing arm joints). There have been sleepless nights and new gray hairs. But as Spirit and Opportunity begin long journeys to new places, we remember our starry-eyed youth and still nothing seems entirely out of reach. Five years on Mars? That’s just the beginning.

NASA Tracks Changes to Earth's Green-covered Regions

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NASA's satellite imagery, combined with high-resolution commercial imagery, is giving scientists new insight into the changing appearance of our planet on a regional scale, and whether it is due to human activity or extreme climate.

Researchers from NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and California State University Monterey Bay, Seaside, Calif., analyzed several years of imagery data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard the NASA Terra satellite, and then fused these results with high-resolution commercial images to identify changes to local vegetative "green" areas. They found that regional land cover disturbances can be identified, most recently as wildfire-burned areas and extensive forest harvests.

"This is the first application of its kind. NASA is beginning to take full advantage of using its daily satellite imagery data in tandem with the compelling visual detail and color images from commercial sources," said Chris Potter, lead author of the new study, published in the May 2008 Imaging Notes, a trade journal for the commercial satellite imaging companies.

By using NASA MODIS to pinpoint changes in extensive areas of land cover, underlying commercial images are given unique, dynamic attributes, allowing consumers and land use planners to make better interpretations of areas showing remarkable changes in color and vegetation.

Scientists found that between 1970 and 2005, California experienced a 75 percent increase in its population, resulting in rapid and extensive urbanization and loss of natural vegetative ground coverage. These urbanized areas expanded into irrigated prime farmland, fallow marginal farmlands and wildlands.

Between 2001 and 2005, the MODIS images taken above an area of approximately 3,200 sq. miles, revealed continually shrinking green areas in California. The area studied included forests (46 percent), shrublands (29 percent) and herbaceous cover (7 percent). According to the MODIS time series analysis, the forests and shrublands showed most of the continual reduction in surface area. In contrast, about 200 square miles of the MODIS image area, less than one percent, showed signs of expanding vegetation green areas. Scientists focused on the shrinking green areas for the remainder of the study.

By using high-resolution commercial images, scientists were able to examine in greater detail the Earth's diminishing vegetation coverage. The image analysis revealed a recent wildfire-burned area and extensive forest harvests near Lower Bear River Reservoir in Amador County, Calif.. Similar areas showed extensive forest cutting in the state's Mendocino, Butte, and Pulmas counties.

NASA researchers will continue to explore use of image analysis to help show greater detail of the ever-changing appearance of Earth.

"The use of satellite imagery has made the mapping of land cover changes possible on local and global scales, which has helped a variety of disciplines, including agronomy, urban planning, and forestry," said Potter.

The study also appeared in the following peer-reviewed article: Potter, C., V. Genovese, P. Gross, S. Boriah, M. Steinbach, and V. Kumar, 2007, "Revealing land cover change in California with satellite data," EOS Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 88(26): 269-274. Download pdf version [3.9 Mb].

For more information about NASA and agency programs on the Internet, visit: www.nasa.gov

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory and the Mystery of the Missing Sinks

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Picture a tree in the forest. The tree "inhales" carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, transforming that greenhouse gas into the building materials and energy it needs to grow its branches and leaves.

By removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the tree serves as an indispensable "sink," or warehouse, for carbon that, in tandem with Earth's other trees, plants and the ocean, helps reduce rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air that contribute to global warming.

Each year, humans release more than 30-billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels for powering vehicles, generating electricity and manufacturing products. Up to five-and-a-half additional tons of carbon dioxide are released each year by biomass burning, forest fires and land-use practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture. Between 40 and 50 percent of that amount remains in the atmosphere, according to measurements by about 100 ground-based carbon dioxide monitoring stations scattered across the globe. Another estimated 30 percent is dissolved into the ocean, the world's largest sink.

But what about the rest? The math doesn't add up. For years, scientists have sought to find the answer to this mystery. Though scientists agree the remaining carbon dioxide is also "inhaled" by Earth, they have been unable to precisely determine where it is going, what processes are involved, and whether Earth will continue to absorb it in the future. A new NASA satellite scheduled to launch in February 2009 is poised to shed a very bright light on these "missing" sinks: the Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

"It's important to make clear that the ‘missing' sinks aren't really missing, they are just poorly understood," said Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. "We know the ‘missing' sinks are terrestrial, land areas where forests, grasslands, crops and soil are absorbing carbon dioxide. But finding these sinks is like finding a needle in a haystack. It would be great if we could measure how much carbon every tree, shrub, peat bog or blade of grass takes in, but the world is too big and too diverse and is constantly changing, making such measurements virtually impossible. The solution is not in measuring carbon in trees. The solution is measuring carbon in the air."

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory will do just that: measure carbon in the air, from Earth's surface to the top of the atmosphere.

"NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite will work as a detective from space, measuring the distribution of carbon dioxide thousands of times daily as it orbits the planet, providing the data to create very precise carbon dioxide maps that will help us confirm the whereabouts, nature and efficiency of the sinks absorbing the 30 percent of carbon dioxide that disappears each year from the atmosphere," said Steve Wofsy, a professor of atmospheric and environmental chemistry at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and a co-investigator for the mission.

Carbon, a chemical element that is the basis of all known life and part of the chemical compound carbon dioxide, is the basic "currency" of the carbon cycle. It is "inhaled" by sinks to fuel photosynthesis in plant life. It is "exhaled" by natural sources when plant life dies or burns, and through human activities like the burning of fossil fuels, crops and forests.

If we think of Earth as "breathing," the balance between photosynthesis, or "inhaling," and respiration, or "exhaling," was about equal until humans began mining and burning large amounts of fossilized organic matter like coal, oil and natural gas a couple of hundred years ago.

Until about 1990, most scientists believed land was primarily a source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere because forests are continuously being destroyed by human activities like deforestation in tropical areas, urban and suburban development, and land clearing for farming.

"The amazing truth is that on a global scale, photosynthesis is greater than decomposition and has been for decades," said Denning. "Believe it or not, plant life is growing faster than it's dying. This means land is a net sink for carbon dioxide, rather than a net source."

Denning outlined the six different ways carbon dioxide sinks can develop on land:

-- Carbon dioxide fertilization, a process often prominent in land areas, happens when more carbon dioxide in the air stimulates photosynthesis to produce a temporary "bump" in the growth rates of plant life.

-- Agricultural abandonment occurs where once-deforested land formerly used as family farms is abandoned, allowing forests to re-grow into terrestrial carbon dioxide sinks.

-- Forest fire suppression, the aggressive extinguishing of forest fires that has led to preservation of more wooded areas than existed 100 years ago, saves trees that pull carbon dioxide from the air for growth.

-- Woody encroachment occurs when cattle graze on grass but leave behind carbon dioxide-absorbing woody shrubs that accumulate over land ranges throughout the western U.S. and elsewhere.

-- Boreal, or northern, warming takes place in northern latitude forests that are experiencing longer frost-free growing seasons due to global warming, allowing more woody growth and more absorption of carbon dioxide.

-- Lastly, carbon dioxide sinks are created when nitrogen in agricultural fertilizer or nitrogen oxide from car emissions dissolves into clouds, spreads for hundreds of miles on vegetation with rainfall, and acts in tandem with carbon dioxide fertilization to accelerate plant growth.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory will help scientists locate and characterize areas experiencing these biological processes.

"The future behavior of carbon dioxide sinks is one of the most uncertain things in predicting climate in the 21st century," said Denning. "Mapping today's sinks will allow us to measure how much of the carbon budget is controlled by carbon dioxide intake from ocean mixing, versus carbon dioxide fertilization, versus forest re-growth, etc. If we can determine that current land sinks are dominated by carbon dioxide fertilization, it would buy us more time to develop alternative energy and other mitigation measures."

Past attempts by researchers to measure terrestrial carbon dioxide were limited by an inability to account for the different ages of forests or how disturbances to the forests have affected their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Similar attempts to measure carbon dioxide in human-managed ecosystems like cropland, pastures, golf courses and suburban landscapes are also difficult because such areas are so varied and numerous.

"We're expecting the Orbiting Carbon Observatory to allow us to identify the precise geographic locations of these ‘missing' carbon dioxide-absorbing areas as well as the make-up of the sinks and the rate at which they soak up carbon dioxide," said Wofsy. "The efficiency of a sink and its location with respect to that of sources emitting carbon dioxide has critical implications for our ability to regulate carbon dioxide in global efforts to offset the well-documented global climate warming trend. We're anticipating a big step forward on this front with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory's help."

For more information on the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/oco .

62 Years at NASA and Still Going Strong

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Sixty-two years ago today, Jack Boyd, senior advisor to the Ames director, first reported to work at Moffett Field, the home of NASA's Ames Research Center.

To get there, Boyd traveled on a transcontinental train from Virginia to the San Francisco Bay Area. While most of his classmates at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University chose to work close to home at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., Boyd struck out on his own, and trailblazed his way to Ames.

"You'd have to be crazy not to be excited about space exploration," Boyd said about what motivates him to come into work every morning. "It's always fun. I'm continually amazed to think I've been with NASA for 62 years."

He first reported to work at the Personnel Office on Jan. 15, 1947, where after looking over his mechanical engineering degree with an aeronautics option, they decided to assign him to the Fluid Dynamics Division. "They walked me over to the1-foot-by-3-foot wind tunnel, introduced me to my colleagues and said, 'get to work!'" Boyd remembered. At 21 years old, Boyd was earning a respectable $2,644 a year, at a time when Walter Vincenti, his branch chief, and Harvey Allen, his division chief, were conducting cutting-edge, high-speed research in the Ames 1-foot-by-3-foot and 6-foot-by-6-foot wind tunnels on swept wings, conical camber, canards on supersonic aircraft, flights through non-Earth atmospheres and the shape of future space capsules.

In 1963, Harvey Allen nominated Boyd to corral all the new research at Ames into comprehensive programs. In the late 1960s, as America was redefining its space exploration mission and sending humans to the moon, Boyd served as the Ames’ lead to assist NASA Headquarters in Washington in creating new NASA research programs.

"Since the moon landing nearly 40 years ago, I think NASA's most remarkable achievement has been the robotic exploration of Mars, starting with the Viking spacecraft in 1976 to the Mars Exploration Rovers and Phoenix," Boyd said, when reflecting on NASA's many accomplishments.

Boyd worked as deputy director for Aeronautical and Flight Systems at Ames; deputy director of NASA's Dryden Research Center in Edwards, Calif.; acting deputy director and associate director of Ames, and then associate administrator for management at NASA Headquarters. He helped consolidate NASA’s helicopter research program, prepared Dryden for its role as a space shuttle landing site; implemented affirmative action programs for NASA; completed NASA’s advanced secure computing facility; worked with defense agencies on classified research, and led NASA to implement the reorganization and reforms of the Packard report about federal laboratories. Additionally, Boyd served as chancellor for research and was an adjunct professor of aerodynamics, engineering and the history of spaceflight for the University of Texas System.

In his 'second career' at Ames, Boyd supported educational outreach. Even when he became the executive assistant to the director, his primary role was that of advisor, teacher and mentor. Today, in addition to being the senior advisor to the Ames director, he also serves as the senior advisor for history and as the center ombudsman. In April last year, Boyd received the 2008 NASA Headquarters History Division Award for his energetic outreach and promo¬tion of NASA history and for making history relevant to NASA’s present and future.

"I'm most proud of my work helping and mentoring the new engineers as they came to work at NASA," Jack said.

Looking ahead, Boyd says he is excited for the upcoming launch of the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, mission to look for water ice on the moon, and the Kepler mission to search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system; the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, airborne laboratory which will help scientists study the universe using infrared astronomy; and all of NASA's continued efforts in aeronautics and exploration of our solar system.

Boyd's advice to anyone just starting out?

"Try to make as many acquaintances as possible to learn what's going on around NASA, and learn to deal with people," he advised with a smile.

Friday, January 23, 2009

NASA in the 2009 Inaugural Parade

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The President and First Lady
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue after the Jan. 20, 2009, swearing-in ceremony. Image Credit: NASA/Paul Alers.

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NASA's New Lunar Electric Rover
This prototype is of the new rover designed for lunar exploration and was part of the NASA contingent that took part in the 56th Inaugural Parade. The small pressurized rover is about the size of a pickup truck (with 12 wheels) and can house two astronauts for up to 14 days. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

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The View From Inside
This panoramic view of the parade route and reviewing stand was taken from inside the new lunar rover as it traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue. Image Credit: NASA.

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STS-126 Crew Passes the Reviewing Stand
The crew of the STS-126 mission takes its place in history along side others representing NASA at the 56th Inaugural Parade. Image Credit: NASA/Paul Alers.

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Rex Waldeim
Astronaut Rex Waldheim is shown alighting from the lunar rover after participating in the 56th Inaugural Parade. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Ambrose.

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Viewing the Future
Astronaut Michael Gernhardt drives the lunar rover during the 56th Inaugural Parade. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Ambrose.

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The Reviewing Stand
The crew of STS-126 and other NASA representatives pass the reviewing stand during the inaugural parade. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

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Lunar Rover Crew Salutes the President
President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden watch as the NASA Lunar Electric Rover stops in front of the reviewing stand. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

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NASA in the 56th Inaugural Parade Beginning the Parade
President and Mrs. Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue at the beginning of the 56th Inaugural Parade. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

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Satellites Confirm Half-Century of West Antarctic Warming

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The Antarctic Peninsula juts into the Southern Ocean, reaching farther north than any other part of the continent. The southernmost reach of global warming was believed to be limited to this narrow strip of land, while the rest of the continent was presumed to be cooling or stable.

Not so, according to a new analysis involving NASA data. In fact, the study has confirmed a trend suspected by some climate scientists.

"Everyone knows it has been warming on the Antarctic Peninsula, where there are lots of weather stations collecting data," said Eric Steig, a climate researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, and lead author of the study. "Our analysis told us that it is also warming in West Antarctica."

The finding is the result of a novel combination of historical temperature data from ground-based weather stations and more recent data from satellites. Steig and colleagues used data from each record to fill in gaps in the other and to reconstruct a 50-year history of surface temperatures across Antarctica.

Over the years, climate research in northern latitudes led researchers to believe that the Arctic is where impacts of global climate change would be seen first. Less certain is how climate is affecting Antarctica where inland temperatures are known to plunge to minus 112°F, and ground-based weather stations have been sparse.

It's this sparse data collection—from ground-stations on the Antarctic Peninsula and previous reports that much of East Antarctica has experienced cooling since 1978—that led the International Panel on Climate Change to conclude in its most recent report that Antarctica is the one continent where we have failed to detect human-caused temperature changes.

With funding from the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, Steig and colleagues set out to reconstruct Antarctica’s recent past. Ground-based stations have recorded temperatures since 1957, but most of those readings come from the peninsula and areas on the edges of the continent. But at the same time, scientists such as study co-author Joey Comiso of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have been gathering measurements from a series of Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) instruments deployed on satellites since 1981.

To construct the new 50-year temperature record, the team applied a statistical technique to estimate temperatures missing from ground-based observations. They calculated the relationship between overlapping satellite and ground-station measurements over the past 26 years. Next, they applied that correlation to ground measurements from 1957 to 1981 and calculated what the satellites would have observed.

The new analysis shows that Antarctic surface temperatures increased an average of 0.22°F (0.12°C) per decade between 1957 and 2006. That's a rise of more than 1°F (0.5°C) in the last half century. West Antarctica warmed at a higher rate, rising 0.31°F (0.17°C) per decade. The results, published Jan. 22 in Nature, confirm earlier findings based on limited weather station data and ice cores.

While some areas of East Antarctica have been cooling in recent decades, the longer 50-year trend depicts that, on average, temperatures are rising across the continent.

West Antarctica is particularly vulnerable to climate changes because its ice sheet is grounded below sea level and surrounded by floating ice shelves. If the West Antarctic ice sheet completely melted, global sea level would rise by 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters).

To identify causes of the warming, the team turned to Drew Shindell of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, who has used computer models to identify mechanisms driving Antarctica's enigmatic temperature trends.

Previously, researchers focused on Antarctic ozone depletion, which influences large-scale atmospheric fluctuations around the continent—most notably, the Southern Annular Mode, which speeds up wind flow to isolate and cool the continent.

Shindell compared Steig's temperature data with results from a computer model that can simulate the response of the atmospheric system to changes in land surface, ice cover, sea surface temperatures, and atmospheric composition. He found the ozone-influenced Southern Annular Mode is not necessarily the primary influence on Antarctic climate. Instead, it appears that smaller-scale, regional changes in wind circulation are bringing warmer air and more moisture-laden storms to West Antarctica.

"We still believe ozone depletion can increase wind speeds around Antarctica, further isolating the interior," Shindell said. "But it's clear now that it's not such a dominant influence on temperature trends."

Space Station Commander Guides New HD Tour Of Complex

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Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke, aboard the International Space Station with Flight Engineers Sandy Magnus and Yury Lonchakov, recently filmed a high-definition tour of the orbiting complex. The 35-minute tour will air as a special Video File on NASA Television’s HD Channel 105 at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. CST Thursday and Friday.

The special Video File also will be broadcast in standard-definition on NASA TV immediately following the regularly scheduled daily Video File broadcasts. For technical information on how to receive the special broadcast in high definition, and for NASA TV streaming video, downlink and scheduling information, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

With a mass of almost 630,000 pounds, the station has grown to a size larger than an average four-bedroom house on Earth. The next space shuttle mission, designated STS-119, will continue the space station’s assembly by delivering a fourth and final set of solar arrays. Shuttle Discovery and its seven-member crew are targeted to launch Feb. 12.

For the latest information about Expedition 18 and its crew, visit:


For more information on the STS-119 mission and its crew, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle

Space Shuttle Crew Visits Troops On Overseas Trip

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NASA astronauts of the STS-126 space shuttle mission will begin a new journey next week -- an 11-day trip to greet U.S. military personnel serving overseas. Shuttle Endeavour's crew will pay a special visit to troops in Germany and the Middle East from Jan. 26 to Feb. 5.

The trip is sponsored by Armed Forces Entertainment, the lead Department of Defense agency for providing entertainment to U.S. military personnel serving overseas. The shuttle crew members visiting the troops are Navy Capt. Chris Ferguson, who commanded the flight, Air Force Col. Eric Boe, who served as the pilot, and Mission Specialists Donald Pettit, Navy Capt. Steve Bowen, Navy Capt. Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Army Lt. Col. Shane Kimbrough.

"We are really looking forward to visiting the men and women who support and defend our country overseas," Ferguson said. "Although our jobs are different, we know it's tough being away from family and friends -- and being far from home. As a military family, we know that support and a pat on the back go a long way."

During their visit with the troops, the shuttle crew will present an overview of the STS-126 mission, which completed a 16-day flight in November 2008. The mission delivered equipment to the International Space Station that will allow the outpost to house up to six astronauts for long-duration stays.

"This is the first time in Armed Forces Entertainment's 55-year history that we have hosted astronauts on a tour to visit our troops overseas," said Air Force Col. Edward Shock, chief of Armed Forces Entertainment. "And with this crew, it makes it even more poignant -- since five of the six crew members are U.S. military themselves. They know the risks and the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make, and have a deep appreciation for their dedication."

For more information on the astronauts' overseas tour and updates, visit:

For more information on Armed Forces Entertainment, visit:

Pieces Coming Together for First Test Launch of NASA's New Spacecraft

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NASA is using powerful computers and software programs to design the rocket that will carry crew and cargo to space after the space shuttle retires. But those computers will have their work checked the old-fashioned way with the first of several uncrewed demonstration launches beginning in 2009.

Ares I-X, the first Ares I test rocket, will lift off from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. in the summer of 2009. It will climb about 25 miles (40.2 km) in a two-minute powered test of Ares I first stage performance and its first stage separation and parachute recovery system.

A less obvious -- but no less critical -- test will be of overall vehicle aerodynamics. Is the design safe and stable in flight? This is a question that must be answered before astronauts begin traveling into orbit and beyond.

With that question answered, the flight of Ares I-X will be an important step toward verifying analysis tools and techniques needed to further develop Ares I, NASA's next launch vehicle.

In order to ensure that the rocket's flight characteristics are fully understood, extreme care is being taken to precisely fabricate the rocket's simulated upper stage and the simulated Orion crew module and associated launch abort tower. These full-scale hardware components must accurately reflect the shape and physical properties of the models used in computer analyses and wind tunnel tests in order to confidently compare flight results with preflight predictions.

At NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., where the Orion crew module and tower-like launch abort system simulators are taking shape, researchers and managers are working to overcome multiple challenges.

"We are a highly matrixed team -- a lot of people from various organizations -- that must work together successfully on a tight schedule," explained Kevin Brown, project manager for the Ares I-X Crew Module/Launch Abort System (CM/LAS) project.

"We have a team doing fabrication and assembly work in conjunction with an off-site contractor, and we have another team readying to install about 150 sensors once the crew module and launch abort tower are completed," he added.

The simulated crew module, faithful to the vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2015, to the moon in the 2020 timeframe and ultimately to points beyond, will measure approximately five meters (16.4 ft) in diameter. While the conical module will have the same basic shape as the Apollo Command Module, it will be significantly larger. The simulated launch abort system, positioned above the crew module at launch, will add another 46 feet (14 m) in length to the combined simulator.

The sensors will measure aerodynamic pressure and temperature at the nose of the rocket, and contribute to measurements of vehicle acceleration and angle of attack. How the tip of the rocket slices through the atmosphere is important because that determines the flow of air over the entire vehicle.

"This launch will tell us what we got right and what we got wrong in the design and analysis phase," said Jonathan Cruz, deputy project manager for Ares I-X CM/LAS. "We have a lot of confidence, but we need those two minutes of flight data before NASA can continue to the next phase of rocket development," he said.

The completed two-part flight test article is to be delivered to Kennedy in early 2009. Before launch, the combined crew module and launch abort system tower will be used to help demonstrate lifting, handling and stacking of Ares I-X flight test vehicle elements.

Ares I-X will provide important data for developing Ares I in time to support the vehicle's critical design review in 2010.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Deadline Nears for Student Contest to Name NASA's Next Mars Rover

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NASA is issuing a last call to the nation's youth for entries in a contest to name the agency's next Mars rover.

The naming contest, in partnership with Disney-Pixar's WALL-E, invites ideas from students 5 to 18 years old and enrolled in a U.S. school. The contest began two months ago. Entries will be accepted until midnight Jan. 25 (Eastern Time).

Entrants should submit essays explaining why their suggested name for the rover is the right fit. In March, the public will have an opportunity to rank nine finalist names via the Internet as additional input for judges to consider. In April, NASA will announce the winning name.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover will be larger and more capable than any craft previously sent to land on the Red Planet. The rover will check to see whether the environment in a selected landing region ever has been favorable for supporting microbial life and preserving evidence of life. The rover also will search for minerals that formed in the presence of water and look for several chemical building blocks of life. NASA is currently building and testing the rover, which will launch in 2011.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For contest information and rules visit: http://marsrovername.jpl.nasa.gov .

Missions NOAA-N Prime Update

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In the early morning hours on Jan. 15, the NOAA-N Prime spacecraft was transported from the Building 1610 payload processing facility to Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It was hoisted from the pad surface and mated to the Delta II rocket. Spacecraft 'state of health' checks are under way.

The liquid oxygen tanking test and countdown demonstration and simulated flight test have been successfully completed. The Flight Program Verification, an integrated test of the Delta II and NOAA-N Prime, is scheduled for Jan. 22. This is the last major test before launch. The fairing is scheduled to be installed around the spacecraft on Jan. 27. Liftoff is set for Feb. 4 during a window that extends from 5:22 to 5:32 a.m. EST.

NOAA-N Prime is the latest satellite in the Advanced Television Infrared Observational Satellites (ATN) –N series built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. NOAA-N Prime will provide a polar-orbiting platform to support environmental monitoring instruments for imaging and measuring the Earth’s atmosphere, its surface and cloud cover, including Earth radiation, atmospheric ozone, aerosol distribution, sea surface temperature, and vertical temperature and water profiles in the troposphere and stratosphere. The satellite will assist in measuring proton and electron fluxes at orbit altitude, collecting data from remote platforms and will assist the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking system.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

NASA Radar Provides First Look Inside Moon’s Shadowed Craters

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Using a NASA radar flying aboard India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, scientists are getting their first look inside the moon's coldest, darkest craters.

The Mini-SAR instrument, a lightweight, synthetic aperture radar, has passed its initial in-flight tests and sent back its first data. The images show the floors of permanently-shadowed polar craters on the moon that aren't visible from Earth. Scientists are using the instrument to map and search the insides of the craters for water ice.

"The only way to explore such areas is to use an orbital imaging radar such as Mini-SAR," said Benjamin Bussey, deputy principal investigator for Mini-SAR, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "This is an exciting first step for the team which has worked diligently for more than three years to get to this point."

The images, taken on Nov. 17, 2008, cover part of the Haworth crater at the moon's south pole and the western rim of Seares crater, an impact feature near the north pole. Bright areas in each image represent either surface roughness or slopes pointing toward the spacecraft. Further data collection by Mini-SAR and analysis will help scientists to determine if buried ice deposits exist in the permanently shadowed craters near the moon's poles.

"During the next few months we expect to have a fully calibrated and operational instrument collecting valuable science data at the moon," said Jason Crusan, program executive for the Mini-RF Program for NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate in Washington.

Mini-SAR is one of 11 instruments on the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 and one of two NASA-sponsored contributions to its international payload. The other is the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, a state-of-the-art imaging spectrometer that will provide the first map of the entire lunar surface at high spatial and spectral resolution. Data from the two NASA instruments will contribute to the agency's increased understanding of the lunar environment as it implements America's space exploration plan, which calls for robotic and human missions to the moon.

Chandrayaan-1 launched from India's Satish Dhawan Space Center on Oct. 21 and began orbiting the moon Nov. 8. The Applied Physics Laboratory performed the final integration and testing on Mini-SAR. It was developed and built by the Naval Air Warfare Center and several other commercial and government contributors. The Applied Physics Laboratory's Satellite Communications Facility is Chandrayaan-1's primary ground station in the Western Hemisphere.

For more information about the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, visit:

http://m3.jpl.nasa.gov

For more information about Chandrayaan-1, visit:

http://www.isro.org/Chandrayaan

Socializing on Mars

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After five groundbreaking years exploring the Red Planet, the communications engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pretty much know what they are getting when another downlink from Spirit or Opportunity arrives. They know that with a typical transmission comes about 10 megabits of engineering data, another 4 megabits of science data, and around 26 megabits of images. They also realize that after the information is amassed and analyzed by the rovers' science teams that the most unique, scientifically exciting of that compiled data will be released via peer-reviewed papers, articles, science briefings and press releases.

To date, literally thousands of rover images have been analyzed and discussed in detail. But the rovers have sent back about a quarter-million images. NASA decided this incongruity could be best addressed by making every single Mars rover image available to all who were interested -- and had Internet access.

Access to all that imagery brought the thrill of exploration to people around the world in a way never envisioned before the rovers began to roam the Red Planet. Now, the Mars Exploration Rovers have new life on the likes of "Second Life," "YouTube," online forums like "Unmannedspaceflight.com," and the social networking site "Facebook."

Like the majority of college students today, Keri Bean knows the ins and outs of Facebook. But the Texas A&M student did her Earth-based socializing peers one planet better when she opened a page for the Mars Rovers. "If I had to chose, I would say I like Spirit better," said the 20 year-old meteorology major from College Station, Texas. "She's had to work for everything. Opportunity gets a major discovery handed to her by landing nearly on top of it, but Spirit's had to work hard for everything she gets."

Bean started her Mars Rovers Facebook page to keep a few of her friends in the loop on what's happening up there on the Red Planet. She populated it with rover information and updates when she could find time. To her surprise, the rovers' friends list began to grow well beyond her goal of "a few friends." Then one day, she got a new friend that changed everything.

"Steve Squyres, the scientist in charge of both of the rovers, messaged me and said he liked my site," said Bean. "I knew then I had to get serious."

Bean and the Mars Rovers now have almost 1,700 online friends from as far away as Norway and New Zealand. Her (or their, depending how you look at it), page includes links to interesting articles about the rovers, images, sometimes a heads-up about upcoming documentaries and even some first-person dialogue between Mars' roving twosome.

"I do not have a lot of time this semester, but I try to check it once a day," said Bean. "It is all about reaching out to people who would normally not pay attention."

If Bean's Facebook page is for those with short Martian attention spans, Doug Ellison of the United Kingdom has put together a Web site for those with an insatiable appetite. Ellison has been interested in the Red Planet ever since NASA/JPL's first scrappy Mars rover, Pathfinder, roved the Martian surface back in 1997.

"Mars grabbed me in an unhealthy way," quipped Ellison, the United Kingdom-based Web czar of unmannedspaceflight.com. "Just on the fringe of acceptable."

In those days, Ellison was reading everything he could on the journey of Pathfinder. Then, in February 2004, while Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity were still under factory warranty, and after his day job, Ellison used imaging software to "stitch" his first Mars panorama from a collection of raw images from the JPL Web site: (http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/all/).

Like Bean, Ellison had "no ambition or expectation" other than impressing himself and a few friends. But then a few more friends took an interest in his nascent Web site, and then a few more. Ellison's site – unmannedspaceflight.com -- was slowly being colonized with people with a serious jonesing for all things deep in deep space exploration.

"Our membership includes a care worker for the elderly here in the U.K. to a teacher in North Wales to a government employee in California," said Ellison. "In London, I recently met for the first time someone I had known through the Web site for four years. There were no "getting to know you" pleasantries. Straight off the bat it was right into a detailed, in-depth, insightful discussion about something ridiculously space-geeky."

Online discussions of spacecraft and mission science are only a small part of unmannedspaceflight.com's allure to the truly space geeky. The majority of the site, and its appeal, is dedicated to those stark and beautiful and sometimes puzzling images coming down from Spirit and Opportunity each and every day.

"Our members share results from stitching together rover images and working with those images," said Ellison. "Say Opportunity does a long drive. We download those pictures from the rover Web site. Somebody will make a mosaic from the imagery taken at the end of the drive. Somebody else will keep the route map up to date to show where Opportunity has been. Somebody else will then stitch together the next mosaic and have the full mosaic all together and then keep track of what the following day's activities are going to be."

All this pro-bono, unofficial fine-tuning of rover imagery by the members of the unmannedspaceflight.com forum has been recognized by some very official members of the aerospace and science media. Their work has made the cover of Aviation Week and Space Technology and Spaceflight and even been featured in NASA's own "Astronomy Picture of the Day" Web site: http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ .

As proud as Ellison is of his site's contributions to promoting the rovers and their stories, he is just as proud about how they can band together to police some of the more inimitable Mars storylines. With over 1,700 forum contributors surfing the internet, Mars stories that seem a little -- or a lot -- out of whack, are quickly identified. Like the one where numerous major media outlets began discussing the possibility of a Martian Sasquatch making an unscheduled appearance in a Spirit image.

"We took the story and quickly ripped it apart just by using the facts," said Ellison. "Some members worked out how far the "Sasquatch" was from the rover when the image was taken and calculated it was about the size of a packet of cigarettes. One of our posters did a brilliant job of taking the mosaic that the image came from and demonstrating how so many of the rocks in it could appear to look like something else."

Of course, not all Mars rover imagery that makes its way into the public consciousness is meant to be taken seriously (we think). Like Madison Avenue's pitch for an adult beverage that puts a new angle on the search for life in our solar system - available for viewing on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_iPvUWyzhE. Or a brace of commercials where both Mars rovers and their mission controllers meet their intellectual superiors on the Martian surface, also available for viewing on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvY9vMAMxc4 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYzM1M1X790&feature=PlayList&p=74F444229EB256C3&playnext=1&index=98 . Or the hilarious "Mars: 2020: Springtime" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjiGH9QNiU0 ) where multiple aspiring Mars landers meet an ignominious fate, much to the chagrin of local residents.

"Like any travel adventure, a big part of the fun is sharing the experience with family and friends back home," said John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover project manager at JPL. "For five years now, it has been very rewarding to see the fascination -- and the love -- for the rovers that runs deep and knows no international boundaries. And as many ways as we can find to share the experience of exploring Mars, we now know that many out in the general public will find even more ways to enrich the whole experience for everyone."

The story could end here, but this is about how those outside of NASA have managed to place Mars within their own sphere of influence. So in conclusion, the words of someone who took Mars and ran with it.

"People like me get to see a little bit of Mars that no one has ever seen before," said Ellison. "The downlink of the imagery from the rovers is an entirely automated process. So, it might be 2 a.m. in Pasadena (home of JPL) when images come down but it is lunchtime here. I can see the images before the scientists do. To be able to ride along every single day on that adventure, sometimes you have to kind of shake your head in disbelief that you are seeing something that nobody has ever seen before."

For more information about NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, visit us on the web at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/index.html and http://marsrovers.nasa.gov/home/ .

NASA and the Inaugural Parade

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The crew of STS-126 join representatives from across the country and the nation's armed forces in the 56th Inaugural Parade. The NASA contingent will include a next-generation lunar rover that astronauts could use for future exploration of the moon.

Astronaut Mike Gernhardt will drive the rover; while Astronaut Rex Walheim, wearing a spacesuit, will ride with him. The Lunar Electric Rover is a concept vehicle about the size of a pickup truck that NASA is evaluating for use when humans return to the moon and has the ability to house two astronauts for as long as 14 days. NASA will record video during the parade from a camera mounted on the lunar rover. A member of the lunar rover team will provide live updates to the NASA News Twitter feed throughout the event.

NASA photographers and videographers will document the agency's participation in the inaugural activities. Images will be posted online at the agency's Web site when they become available.

NASA Television will air a video file of the parade footage and the video recorded on the rover as soon as possible following the parade's conclusion. For NASA TV downlink information, schedules and links to streaming video, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv.

To access the NASA News Twitter feed and other agency Twitter feeds, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/collaborate.

For more information about NASA's Lunar Electric Rover, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/home/LER.html

For information about STS-126 and the next space shuttle mission in February, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Human Factor: Understanding the Sources of Rising Carbon Dioxide

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Every time we get into our car, turn the key and drive somewhere, we burn gasoline, a fossil fuel derived from crude oil. The burning of the organic materials in fossil fuels produces energy and releases carbon dioxide and other compounds into Earth's atmosphere. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide trap heat in our atmosphere, warming it and disturbing Earth's climate.

Space Station Scientists agree that human activities have been the primary source for the observed rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the beginning of the fossil fuel era in the 1860s. Eighty-five percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil, including gasoline. The remainder results from the clearing of forests and other land use, as well as some industrial processes such as cement manufacturing. The use of fossil fuels has grown rapidly, especially since the end of World War II and continues to increase exponentially. In fact, more than half of all fossil fuels ever used by humans have been consumed in just the last 20 years.

Human activities add a worldwide average of almost 1.4 metric tons of carbon per person per year to the atmosphere. Before industrialization, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million. By 1958, the concentration of carbon dioxide had increased to around 315 parts per million, and by 2007, it had risen to about 383 parts per million. These increases were due almost entirely to human activity.

While we are able to accurately measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, much about the processes that govern its atmospheric concentration remains a mystery. Scientists still do not know precisely where all the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere comes from and where it goes. They want to learn more about the magnitudes and distributions of carbon dioxide's sources and the places it is absorbed (sinks). This knowledge will help improve critical forecasts of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases as fossil fuel use and other human activities continue. Such information is crucial to understanding the impact of human activities on climate and for evaluating options for mitigating or adapting to climate change.

Scientists soon expect to get some answers to these and other compelling carbon questions, thanks to the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a new Earth-orbiting NASA satellite set to launch in early 2009. The new mission will allow scientists to record, for the first time, detailed daily measurements of carbon dioxide, making more than 100,000 measurements around the world each day. The new data will provide valuable new insights into where this important greenhouse gas is coming from and where it is being stored.

Before humans began emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the atmospheric uptake and loss of carbon dioxide was approximately in balance. "Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained pretty stable during the pre-industrial period," said Gregg Marland of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. "Carbon dioxide generated by human activity amounts to only about four percent of yearly atmospheric uptake or loss of carbon dioxide, but the result is that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been growing, on average, by four-tenths of one percent each year for the last 40 years. Though this may not seem like much of an influence, humans have essentially tipped the balance of the global cycling of carbon. Our emissions add significant weight to one side of the balance between carbon being added to the atmosphere and carbon being removed from the atmosphere.

"Plant life and geochemical processes on land and in the ocean 'inhale' large amounts of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and then 'exhale' most of it back into the atmosphere," Marland continued. "Humans, however, have altered the carbon cycle over the last couple of centuries, through the burning of fossil fuels that enable us to live more productively. Now that humans are acknowledging the environmental effects of our dependence on fossil fuels and other carbon dioxide-emitting activities, our goal is to analyze the sources and sinks of this carbon dioxide and to find better ways to manage it."

Current estimates of human-produced carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere are based on inventories and estimates of where fossil fuels are burned and where other carbon dioxide-producing human activities are occurring. However, the availability and precision of this information is not uniform around the world, not even from within developed countries like the United States.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory's highly sensitive instrument will measure the distribution of carbon dioxide, sampling information around the globe from its space-based orbit. Though the instrument will not directly measure the carbon dioxide emissions from every individual smokestack, tailpipe or forest fire, scientists will incorporate the observatory's global measurements of varying carbon dioxide concentrations into computer-based models. The models will infer where and when the sources are emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"The Orbiting Carbon Observatory data differ from that of other missions like the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite by having a relatively small measurement 'footprint,'" said Kevin Gurney, associate director of the Climate Change Research Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Rather than getting an average amount of carbon dioxide over a large physical area like a state or country, the mission will capture measurements over scales as small as a medium-sized city. This allows it to more accurately distinguish movements of carbon dioxide from natural sources versus from fossil fuel-based activities."

"Essentially, if you visualize a column of air that stretches from Earth's surface to the top of the atmosphere, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will identify how much of that vertical column is carbon dioxide, with an understanding that most is emitted at the surface," said Marland. "Simply, it will act like a plane observing the smoke from forest fires down below, with the task of assessing where the fires are and how big they are. Compare that aerial capability with sending a lot of people into the forest looking for fires. In this vein, the observatory will use its vantage point from space to peer down and capture a picture of where the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide are, rather than our cobbling data together from multiple sources with less frequency, reliability and detail."

Gurney believes the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will also complement a NASA/U.S. Department of Energy jointly-funded project he is currently leading called Vulcan.

"Vulcan estimates the movement of carbon dioxide through the combustion of fossil fuels at very small scales. Vulcan and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory together will act like partners in closing the carbon budget, with Vulcan estimating movements in the atmosphere from the bottom-up and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory estimating sources from the top-down," he said. "By tackling the problem from both perspectives, we'll stand to achieve an independent, mutually-compatible view of the carbon cycle. And the insight gained by combining these top-down and bottom-up approaches might take on special significance in the near future as our policymakers consider options for regulating carbon dioxide across the entire globe."

For more information on this topic, see: http://www.nasa.gov/oco and http://oco.jpl.nasa.gov .

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Discovery At the Launch Pad - Space Shuttle Mission: STS-119

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Space shuttle Discovery now sits on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- a major milestone met for the STS-119 mission. The approximate six-hour trip was complete at 12:16 p.m. EST Jan. 14.

The rotating service structure was moved into place around the shuttle to protect it from inclement weather and provide protected access to the orbiter for installation and servicing of payloads at the pad.

At NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the STS-119 crew members are rehearsing spacewalking techniques in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Later today Commander Lee Archambault and Pilot Tony Antonelli will fly to Edwards Air Force Base in California for landing practice in NASA's Shuttle Training Aircraft.

The Space Shuttle Program's two-day Flight Readiness Review is scheduled for Jan. 12-22. On Feb. 3 NASA senior managers will hold an Executive Review to set the official launch date for STS-119's 14-day mission to the International Space Station.

Commander Lee Archambault will lead a crew of seven, along with Pilot Tony Antonelli, and Mission Specialists Joseph Acaba, John Phillips, Steve Swanson, Richard Arnold and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata.

The astronauts will fly to Kennedy for a full-dress rehearsal called the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, or TCDT, scheduled for Jan. 19-21. They will have the opportunity to check out the spacecraft and payload, try on their custom-made flight suits and review safety procedures.

Discovery's STS-119 mission to the International Space Station is targeted to lift off at 7:32 a.m. EST, Feb. 12.

Martian Methane Reveals the Red Planet is not a Dead Planet

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Mars today is a world of cold and lonely deserts, apparently without life of any kind, at least on the surface. Worse still, it looks like Mars has been cold and dry for billions of years, with an atmosphere so thin, any liquid water on the surface quickly boils away while the sun's ultraviolet radiation scorches the ground.

But there is evidence of a warmer and wetter past -- features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that form in the presence of water indicate water once flowed through Martian sands. Since liquid water is required for all known forms of life, scientists wonder if life could have risen on Mars, and if it did, what became of it as the Martian climate changed.

New research reveals there is hope for Mars yet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates the planet is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists.

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Methane -- four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom -- is the main component of natural gas on Earth. It's of interest to astrobiologists because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane. "Right now, we don’t have enough information to tell if biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," said Mumma. "But it does tell us that the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It's as if Mars is challenging us, saying, hey, find out what this means." Mumma is lead author of a paper on this research appearing in Science Express Jan. 15.

If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface, where it's still warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water, as well as energy sources and a supply of carbon, are necessary for all known forms of life.

"On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon," said Mumma.

"Gases, like methane, accumulated in such underground zones might be released into the atmosphere if pores or fissures open during the warm seasons, connecting the deep zones to the atmosphere at crater walls or canyons," said Mumma.

"Microbes that produced methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth," noted Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which partially supported the research. "If life ever existed on Mars, it's reasonable to think that its metabolism might have involved making methane from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide."

However, it is possible a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either now or eons ago. On Earth, the conversion of iron oxide (rust) into the serpentine group of minerals creates methane, and on Mars this process could proceed using water, carbon dioxide, and the planet's internal heat. Although we don’t have evidence on Mars of active volcanoes today, ancient methane trapped in ice "cages" called clathrates might now be released.

The team found methane in the atmosphere of Mars by carefully observing the planet over several Mars years (and all Martian seasons) with NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, run by the University of Hawaii, and the W. M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The team used spectrometer instruments attached to the telescopes to make the detection. Spectrometers spread light into its component colors, like a prism separates white light into a rainbow. The team looked for dark areas in specific places along the rainbow (light spectrum) where methane was absorbing sunlight reflected from the Martian surface. They found three such areas, called absorption lines, which together are a definitive signature of methane, according to the team. They were able to distinguish lines from Martian methane from the methane in Earth's atmosphere because the motion of the Red Planet shifted the position of the Martian lines, much as a speeding ambulance causes its siren to change pitch as it passes by.

"We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane," said Dr. Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. Villanueva is stationed at NASA Goddard and is co-author of the paper. "The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons -- spring and summer -- perhaps because the permafrost blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air. Curiously, some plumes had water vapor while others did not," said Villanueva.

According to the team, the plumes were seen over areas that show evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. For example, plumes appeared over northern hemisphere regions such as east of Arabia Terra, the Nili Fossae region, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major, an ancient volcano 1,200 kilometers (about 745 miles) across.

It will take future missions, like NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, to discover the origin of the Martian methane. One way to tell if life is the source of the gas is by measuring isotope ratios. Isotopes are heavier versions of an element; for example, deuterium is a heavier version of hydrogen. In molecules that contain hydrogen, like water and methane, the rare deuterium occasionally replaces a hydrogen atom. Since life prefers to use the lighter isotopes, if the methane has less deuterium than the water released with it on Mars, it's a sign that life is producing the methane. The research was funded by NASA's Planetary Astronomy Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.