Monday, August 31, 2009

The Ultimate Long Distance Communication

This image shows cratered regions near the moon's Mare Nubium regionThis image shows cratered regions near the moon's Mare Nubium regionAnyone who's vacationed in the mountains or lived on a farm knows that it's hard to get good internet access or a strong cell phone signal in a remote area. Communicating across great distances has always been a challenge. So when NASA engineers designed the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), they knew it would need an extraordinary communications system.

Over the next year, the LRO, NASA's diligent robotic scout, will collect more information about the moon's surface and environment than any previous mission. It takes a powerful system to send all of this information more than 238,800 miles back to Earth.

A 13-inch-long tube, called a Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier, is making it possible for scientists to receive massive amounts of images and data from the orbiter at an unusually fast rate. It is the first high data rate K-band transmitter to fly on a NASA spacecraft.

With this new amplifier, LRO can transmit 461 gigabytes of data per day. That's more information than you can find in a four-story library. And it transmits this information at a rate of up to 100 megabytes per second. By comparison, typical high-speed internet service provides about 1 to 3 megabytes per second.

L-3 Communications Electron Technologies built the amplifier under the supervision of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The device uses electrodes in a vacuum tube to amplify microwave signals to high power. It's ideal for sending large amounts of data over a long distance because it provides more power and more efficiency than its alternative, the transistor amplifier.

As the orbiter collects information about the moon's geography, climate and environment, the communication system transmits this information to a receiver at a Ka band antenna network at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. Scientists are using the data to compile high-resolution, 3D maps of the lunar surface.

"We're sending back more data than ever, faster and it's nearly real time," said Glenn project manager Todd Peterson.

Traveling Wave Tube Amplifiers have been used for other planetary missions, such as Kepler and Cassini, but previous designs were less powerful. According to Rainee Simons, chief of Glenn's Electron and Optoelectronic Device Branch, engineers had to redesign the internal circuitry of the amplifier.

"In order to provide the power and frequency needed to send communications from the vicinity of the moon, it had to be custom designed and handmade," he said.

The orbiter's Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier is also more efficient than previous amplifiers. When it comes to launching satellites, weight means money. The heavier the spacecraft, the more fuel it needs to reach orbit. Because the new amplifier packs more power into a lighter design than previous microwave amplifiers, it's cheaper to fly.

The amplifier underwent vigorous spaceflight testing -- including vibration, thermal vacuum, radiation and electromagnetic interference tests -- to ensure that it could withstand the intense conditions of launch and lunar orbit.

Simons, Peterson and other members of the Glenn team were on standby when LRO entered its final orbit and began transmitting data. They were thrilled to hear that it's working properly, not only because LRO is a vital step toward returning humans to the moon, but also because they believe the new amplifier can improve life on Earth in countless ways.

If used on communication satellites, it could allow for much better tracking, monitoring and control of transoceanic flights and ships traveling beyond the reach of radar.

It also could enable real-time data transfer from future Earth-orbiting satellites. Such satellites are used to track migratory animals, endangered species, icebergs, volcanic eruptions and forest fires, and to aid in search and rescue operations. They're used to study climate change and meteorology as well.

According to Simons, by collecting more timely data about the interaction of our atmosphere, ocean and land, we could save lives and property during severe weather.

"This technology has the potential to create a better world," he said.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cassini's Last Earthly Date Was 10 Years Ago Today

Cassini spacecraftA decade ago today, NASA's Cassini spacecraft flew past Earth at a distance of 1,171 kilometers (727 miles) on its way to an appointment with the solar system's second largest occupant - Saturn.

Launched in October of 1997, Cassini required a grand total of four planetary flybys to provide the gravity boost it needed to get to the ringed world. A gravity boost uses a planet's mass and orbital speed to "boost" a spacecraft's velocity as it flies past. Prior to its Earth encounter, Cassini had flown past Venus on two occasions (April 26, 1998 and June 24, 1999). The Earth flyby on Aug. 18, 1999 gave Cassini a 5.5-kilometer-per-second (about 12,000-mile-per-hour) boost in velocity, speeding Cassini toward its final gravity boost target of Jupiter in December of the following year. The total effect of the probe's four planetary flybys -- two Venus, one Earth and one Jupiter - was an extra 21.44 kilometers (13.64 miles) per second of velocity for the spacecraft.

Cassini arrived at Saturn and was captured into orbit on June 30, 2004. Since then, it has been returning a wealth of data about the planet, its rings and its moons.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the and the European Space Agency Italian Space Agency. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. JPL manages the mission for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

More information about the Cassini mission is available at or

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

NASA Researchers Make First Discovery of Life's Building Block in Comet

NASA scientists have discovered glycine, a fundamental building block of life, in samples of comet Wild 2 returned by NASA's Stardust spacecraft.

"Glycine is an amino acid used by living organisms to make proteins, and this is the first time an amino acid has been found in a comet," said Dr. Jamie Elsila of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Our discovery supports the theory that some of life's ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite and comet impacts."

Elsila is the lead author of a paper on this research accepted for publication in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science. The research will be presented during the meeting of the American Chemical Society at the Marriott Metro Center in Washington, DC, August 16.

"The discovery of glycine in a comet supports the idea that the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent in space, and strengthens the argument that life in the universe may be common rather than rare," said Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which co-funded the research.

Proteins are the workhorse molecules of life, used in everything from structures like hair to enzymes, the catalysts that speed up or regulate chemical reactions. Just as the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged in limitless combinations to make words, life uses 20 different amino acids in a huge variety of arrangements to build millions of different proteins.

Stardust passed through dense gas and dust surrounding the icy nucleus of Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt-2") on January 2, 2004. As the spacecraft flew through this material, a special collection grid filled with aerogel – a novel sponge-like material that's more than 99 percent empty space – gently captured samples of the comet's gas and dust. The grid was stowed in a capsule which detached from the spacecraft and parachuted to Earth on January 15, 2006. Since then, scientists around the world have been busy analyzing the samples to learn the secrets of comet formation and our solar system's history.

"We actually analyzed aluminum foil from the sides of tiny chambers that hold the aerogel in the collection grid," said Elsila. "As gas molecules passed through the aerogel, some stuck to the foil. We spent two years testing and developing our equipment to make it accurate and sensitive enough to analyze such incredibly tiny samples."

Earlier, preliminary analysis in the Goddard labs detected glycine in both the foil and a sample of the aerogel. However, since glycine is used by terrestrial life, at first the team was unable to rule out contamination from sources on Earth. "It was possible that the glycine we found originated from handling or manufacture of the Stardust spacecraft itself," said Elsila. The new research used isotopic analysis of the foil to rule out that possibility.

Isotopes are versions of an element with different weights or masses; for example, the most common carbon atom, Carbon 12, has six protons and six neutrons in its center (nucleus). However, the Carbon 13 isotope is heavier because it has an extra neutron in its nucleus. A glycine molecule from space will tend to have more of the heavier Carbon 13 atoms in it than glycine that's from Earth. That is what the team found. "We discovered that the Stardust-returned glycine has an extraterrestrial carbon isotope signature, indicating that it originated on the comet," said Elsila.

The team includes Dr. Daniel Glavin and Dr. Jason Dworkin of NASA Goddard. "Based on the foil and aerogel results it is highly probable that the entire comet-exposed side of the Stardust sample collection grid is coated with glycine that formed in space," adds Glavin.

"The discovery of amino acids in the returned comet sample is very exciting and profound," said Stardust Principal Investigator Professor Donald E. Brownlee of the University of Washington, Seattle, Wash. "It is also a remarkable triumph that highlights the advancing capabilities of laboratory studies of primitive extraterrestrial materials."

The research was funded by the NASA Stardust Sample Analysis program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Stardust mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operated the spacecraft.

To learn more about the mission, visit .

For more about the NASA Goddard astrobiology team, visit .

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ares I-X Complete

Standing tall at its fully assembled height of 327 feet, the Ares I-X is one of the largest rockets ever processed in the Vehicle Assembly Building's High Bay 3, Super Stack 5 at the Kennedy Space Center.

Ares I-X rivals the height of the Apollo Program's 364-foot-tall Saturn V. Five super stacks make up the rocket's upper stage that is integrated with the four-segment solid rocket booster first stage. Ares I-X is the test vehicle for the Ares I, which is part of the Constellation Program to return humans to the moon and beyond.

The Ares I-X flight test currently is targeted for Oct. 31.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tiny Flares Responsible for Outsized Heat of Sun's Atmosphere

Two active regions appear as bright areas on this full-disk image of the sun, taken with the Hinode spacecraft's X-Ray"Why is the sun's corona so darned hot?" asks James Klimchuk, an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center's Solar Physics Laboratory in Greenbelt, Md.

The mystery of why temperatures in the solar corona, the sun's outer atmosphere, soar to several million degrees Kelvin (K) —much hotter than temperatures nearer the sun's surface—has puzzled scientists for decades. New observations made with instruments aboard Japan's Hinode satellite reveal the culprit to be nanoflares.

Nanoflares are small, sudden bursts of heat and energy. "They occur within tiny strands that are bundled together to form a magnetic tube called a coronal loop," says Klimchuk. Coronal loops are the fundamental building blocks of the thin, translucent gas known as the sun's corona.

Scientists previously thought steady heating explained the corona's million degree temperatures. The steady heating model indicates that a coronal loop of a given length and temperature should have a specific density. However, observations showed that coronal loops have much higher density than the steady heating model predicts. Newer models based on nanoflares can explain the observed density. But no direct evidence of the nanoflares existed until now.

Observations from the NASA-funded X-Ray Telescope (XRT) and Extreme-ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) instruments aboard Hinode reveal that ultra-hot plasma is widespread in solar active regions. The XRT measured plasma at 10 million degrees K, and the EIS measured plasma at 5 million degrees K. "These temperatures can only be produced by impulsive energy bursts,"says Klimchuk, who presented the findings on August 6 at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"Coronal loops are bundles of unresolved strands that are heated by storms of nanoflares."

Coronal heating is a dynamic process. The brightness of the observed X-ray and ultraviolet emission is strongly dependent on the density of the coronal plasma. Where there's low density, there isn't much brightness. Where there's high density, there's a lot of brightness. The corona is mostly bright at about 1 million degrees K.

This false-color temperature map shows solar active region AR10923, observed close to center of the sun's diskKlimchuk and colleagues constructed a theoretical model to explain how plasma evolves within these coronal tubes and what causes temperatures to skyrocket. "We simulate a burst of heating and see how the corona responds," says Klimchuk. "Then we make predictions about how much emission we should see from plasma of different temperatures."

Klimchuk surmises that when a nanoflare suddenly releases its energy, the plasma in the low-temperature, low-density strands becomes very hot—around 10 million degrees K—very quickly. The density remains low, however, so the emission, or brightness, remains faint. Heat flows from up in the strand, where it's hot, down to the base of the coronal loop, where it's not as hot. This heats up the dense plasma at the loop’s base. Because it is so dense at the base, the temperature only reaches about 1 million degrees K. This dense plasma expands up into the strand. Thus, a coronal loop is a collection of 5-10 million degree K faint strands and 1 million degree K bright strands.

"What we see is 1 million degree K plasma that has received its energy from the heat flowing down from the superhot plasma," says Klimchuk. "For the first time, we have detected this 10 million degree plasma, which can only be produced by the impulsive energy bursts of nanoflares."

The Hinode observations and the scientists' analysis verify that nanoflares are occurring on the sun and that they explain much and perhaps most coronal heating. The observations also confirm "there is some nanoflare activity everywhere" in the sun's active regions, says Klimchuk.

Nanoflares are responsible for changes in the X-ray and ultraviolet (UV) radiation that happen as an active region evolves. X-ray and UV get absorbed by Earth's upper atmosphere, which heats up and expands. Changes in the upper atmosphere can affect the orbits of satellites and space debris by slowing them down, an effect known as "drag." It is important to know the changing orbits so that maneuvers can be made to avoid space collisions. The X-ray and UV also affect the propagation of radio signals and thereby adversely affect communication and navigation systems.

The discovery that nanoflares play an important and perhaps dominant role in coronal heating paves the way to understanding how the sun affects Earth, our place in the universe.

Related Link:

> Hinode spacecraft

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tropics of Saturn's Moon No Tropical Paradise On Some Days

This image of Titan shows data taken with Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer during the last three flybys of TitanAstronomers have identified a storm cell on Titan the size of the country of India. The storm system appeared in April 2008 in the moon's tropical region, an area not known for its cloudiness. Using the Gemini North Telescope and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano, a team of astronomers from the University of Hawaii, the Lowell Observatory, and the California Institute of Technology found a significant mass of methane clouds in a cold desert area where no clouds were expected. Large cloud outbursts such as these are thought to be associated with significant amounts of precipitation and probably play a major part in shaping the geological features on the surface of Titan..

The paper, "Storms in the tropics of Titan," appears in the August 13 issue of Nature.

For a release on Titan research, please visit:

More information about the Cassini mission is available at or .

Monday, August 17, 2009

Space Telescopes Find Trigger-Happy Star Formation

A new study from two of NASA's Great Observatories provides fresh insight into how some stars are born, along with a beautiful new image of a stellar nursery in our Milky Way galaxy. The research shows that radiation from massive stars may trigger the formation of many more stars than previously thought.

While astronomers have long understood that stars and planets form from the collapse of a cloud of gas, the question of the main causes of this process has remained open.

image from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope shows the star-forming cloud Cepheus B, located in our Milky Way galaxy about 2,400 light years from Earth
One option is that the cloud cools, gravity gets the upper hand, and the cloud falls in on itself. The other possibility is that a "trigger" from some external source -- like radiation from a massive star or a shock from a supernova -- initiates the collapse. Some previous studies have noted a combination of triggering mechanisms in effect.

By combining observations of the star-forming cloud Cepheus B from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers have taken an important step in addressing this question. Cepheus B is a cloud of mainly cool molecular hydrogen located about 2,400 light years from Earth. There are hundreds of very young stars inside and around the cloud -- ranging from a few million years old outside the cloud to less than a million in the interior -- making it an important testing ground for star formation.

"Astronomers have generally believed that it's somewhat rare for stars and planets to be triggered into formation by radiation from massive stars," said Konstantin Getman of Penn State University, University Park, Pa., lead author of the study. "Our new result shows this belief is likely to be wrong."

This particular type of triggered star formation had previously been seen in small populations of a few dozen stars, but the latest result is the first time it has been clearly observed in a rich population of several hundred stars.

While slightly farther away than the famous Orion star-forming region, Cepheus B is at a better orientation for astronomers to observe the triggering process. The Chandra observations allowed the astronomers to pick out young stars within and around Cepheus B. Young stars have turbulent interiors that generate highly active magnetic fields, which, in turn, produce strong and identifiable X-ray signatures.

The Spitzer data revealed whether the young stars have a disk of material (known as "protoplanetary" disks) around them. Since they only exist in very young systems where planets are still forming, the presence of protoplanetary disks -- or lack thereof -- is an indication of the age of a star system.

The new study suggests that star formation in Cepheus B is mainly triggered by radiation from one bright, massive star outside the molecular cloud. According to theoretical models, radiation from this star would drive a compression wave into the cloud-triggering star formation in the interior, while evaporating the cloud's outer layers. The Chandra-Spitzer analysis revealed slightly older stars outside the cloud, and the youngest stars with the most protoplanetary disks in the cloud interior -- exactly what is predicted from the triggered star formation scenario.

"We essentially see a wave of star and planet formation that is rippling through this cloud," said co-author Eric Feigelson, also of Penn State. "It's clear that we can learn a lot about stellar nurseries by combining data from these two Great Observatories."

A paper describing these results was published in the July 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. The team of astronomers that worked with Getman and Feigelson also included Kevin Luhman and Gordon Garmire from Penn State; Aurora Sicilia-Aguilar from Max-Planck-Institut fur Astronomie in Germany; and Junfeng Wang from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., 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. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. The Spitzer observations were taken during the observatory's "cold" mission, before its coolant ran out and it began operating at a warmer temperature.

The new image and information about Spitzer are online at and . The image and information about Chandra are online at and .

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Planet Smash-Up Sends Vaporized Rock, Hot Lava Flying

This artist's concept shows a celestial body about the size of our moon slamming at great speed into a body the size of Mercury.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has found evidence of a high-speed collision between two burgeoning planets around a young star.

Astronomers say that two rocky bodies, one as least as big as our moon and the other at least as big as Mercury, slammed into each other within the last few thousand years or so -- not long ago by cosmic standards. The impact destroyed the smaller body, vaporizing huge amounts of rock and flinging massive plumes of hot lava into space. An artist's animation of the event is at .

Spitzer's infrared detectors were able to pick up the signatures of the vaporized rock, along with pieces of refrozen lava, called tektites.

"This collision had to be huge and incredibly high-speed for rock to have been vaporized and melted," said Carey M. Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., lead author of a new paper describing the findings in the Aug. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. "This is a really rare and short-lived event, critical in the formation of Earth-like planets and moons. We're lucky to have witnessed one not long after it happened."

Lisse and his colleagues say the cosmic crash is similar to the one that formed our moon more than 4 billion years ago, when a body the size of Mars rammed into Earth.

"The collision that formed our moon would have been tremendous, enough to melt the surface of Earth," said co-author Geoff Bryden of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Debris from the collision most likely settled into a disk around Earth that eventually coalesced to make the moon. This is about the same scale of impact we're seeing with Spitzer -- we don't know if a moon will form or not, but we know a large rocky body's surface was red hot, warped and melted."

Our solar system's early history is rich with similar tales of destruction. Giant impacts are thought to have stripped Mercury of its outer crust, tipped Uranus on its side and spun Venus backward, to name a few examples. Such violence is a routine aspect of planet building. Rocky planets form and grow in size by colliding and sticking together, merging their cores and shedding some of their surfaces. Though things have settled down in our solar system today, impacts still occur, as was observed last month after a small space object crashed into Jupiter.

Lisse and his team observed a star called HD 172555, which is about 12 million years old and located about 100 light-years away in the far southern constellation Pavo, or the Peacock (for comparison, our solar system is 4.5 billion years old). The astronomers used an instrument on Spitzer, called a spectrograph, to break apart the star's light and look for fingerprints of chemicals, in what is called a spectrum. What they found was very strange. "I had never seen anything like this before," said Lisse. "The spectrum was very unusual."

After careful analysis, the researchers identified lots of amorphous silica, or essentially melted glass. Silica can be found on Earth in obsidian rocks and tektites. Obsidian is black, shiny volcanic glass. Tektites are hardened chunks of lava that are thought to form when meteorites hit Earth.

Large quantities of orbiting silicon monoxide gas were also detected, created when much of the rock was vaporized. In addition, the astronomers found rocky rubble that was probably flung out from the planetary wreck.

The mass of the dust and gas observed suggests the combined mass of the two charging bodies was more than twice that of our moon.

Their speed must have been tremendous as well -- the two bodies would have to have been traveling at a velocity relative to each other of at least 10 kilometers per second (about 22,400 miles per hour) before the collision.

Spitzer has witnessed the dusty aftermath of large asteroidal impacts before, but did not find evidence for the same type of violence -- melted and vaporized rock sprayed everywhere. Instead, large amounts of dust, gravel, and boulder-sized rubble were observed, indicating the collisions might have been slower-paced. "Almost all large impacts are like stately, slow-moving Titanic-versus-the-iceberg collisions, whereas this one must have been a huge fiery blast, over in the blink of an eye and full of fury," said Lisse.

Other authors include C.H. Chen of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.; M.C. Wyatt of the University of Cambridge, England; A. Morlok of the Open University, London, England; I. Song of The University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.; and P. Sheehan of the University of Rochester, N.Y.

JPL manages the Spitzer 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. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. Spitzer's infrared spectrograph, which made the observations in 2004 before the telescope began its "warm" mission, was built by Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Its development was led by Jim Houck of Cornell.

For more information about Spitzer, visit and . More information about NASA's planet-finding program is at .

Friday, August 14, 2009

TEXAS Students To Talk Live With Astronaut In Space

Students will have a unique opportunity to speak with International Space Station resident and NASA astronaut Timothy Kopra during an in-flight hookup from 10:20 to 10:40 a.m. EDT on Wednesday.

Kopra is a U.S Army colonel and flight engineer on the station's Expedition 20 crew. A native of Austin, Texas, he will field questions from students in the Knowledge is Power Program and others at the city's Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. The event is historic; it is Kopra's first spaceflight and the first live station downlink in Austin.

The museum is offering free public access starting at 8 a.m. CDT Wednesday. Complimentary museum educational activities will include on-site experiments, hands-on educational programming, an inflatable planetarium, IMAX theater film screenings and special guest speakers from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. For museum information, contact Timothy Dillon at

NASA's education downlinks are an integral component of the Teaching from Space Program, which encourages students to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The event is one in a series promoting learning opportunities and encouraging partnerships with U.S. and foreign educational organizations using the unique environment of human spaceflight.

The downlink will air live on NASA Television and stream on the NASA Web site at:

For information on the International Space Station, visit:

For information about NASA's education programs, visit:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

NASA Goes Inside a Volcano, Monitors Activity

Scientists have placed high-tech "spiders" inside and around the mouth of Mount St. Helens, one of the most active volcanoes in the United States. Networks such as these could one day be used to respond rapidly to an impending eruption.

On July 14, 2009, these spider pods were lowered by cable from a helicopter hovering about 100 feet up (30 meters) and gently put in hot spots inside and around the volcano crater.

"This project demonstrates that a low-cost sensor network system can support real-time monitoring in extremely challenging environments," said WenZhan Song of Washington State University Vancouver. Song is the principal investigator for this NASA-funded technology research project, which also draws on participation from the U.S. Geological Survey and from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

These robotic emissaries were built to go where no human can and operate in extreme temperatures and treacherous terrain. Fifteen pods form a virtual wireless network, communicating with each other and the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite, operated by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.

"Taking data from the ground onsite and from above by satellite gives you a great picture of what is going on inside the volcano," said Steve Chien, principal scientist for autonomous systems at JPL.

Each pod contains a seismometer to detect earthquakes; a GPS receiver to pinpoint the exact location and measure subtle ground deformation; an infrared sounder to sense volcanic explosions; and a lightning detector to search for ash cloud formation. The main instrument box is the size and shape of a microwave oven. It sits on top of a three-legged tripod, which is why scientists call them spiders. The pods are powered by batteries that can last for at least a year.
A sensor like this is being placed inside and around the mouth of Mount St. Helens. One day it may be used to respond rapidly to an impending eruption

"With these high-tech instruments, we can rapidly respond during periods of volcanic unrest to supplement our permanent monitoring network or quickly replace damaged stations without excessive exposure to personnel," said Rick LaHusen, an instrumentation engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory, Vancouver, Wash.

In 1980, a tremendous eruption at Mount St. Helens caused considerable loss of life and damage. More recently, in 2004, the volcano came back to life and erupted more than 100 million cubic meters (26 billion gallons) of lava, accompanied by a series of explosions that hurled rock and ash far from the vent. If eruptions like these ever occur again, a sensor network could be quickly put in place to provide valuable real-time information to scientists and emergency services.

This work is part of NASA's plan to develop a sensor web to provide timely data and analyses for scientific research, natural hazard mitigation, and the exploration of other planets in this solar system and beyond.

"We hope this network will provide a blueprint for future networks to be installed on many of the world's unmonitored active volcanoes, so educated and reliable estimates can be made when a town or a village needs to be evacuated to reduce the risk to life and property," said Project Manager Sharon Kedar (shah-RONE keh-DARR) of JPL.

Chien said, "Hostile environments like Mount St. Helens are proving grounds for future space missions, such as to Mars, where we may someday have similar sensor networks to track a meteor strike, dust storm or Mars quake, as a virtual scientist on the ground."

Song said, "The design and deployment experiences will help us understand challenging environments and inspire new discoveries."

A team of engineers, students, volcanologists and geologists put the system together. The team includes the U.S. Geological Survey's, Cascades Volcano Observatory staff, who designed and built the "spider" hardware; Washington State University in Vancouver, where the sensor network software was written; and NASA, which developed software to make the spiders able to detect events to trigger space observations by the EO-1 satellite.

For more information on Volcano sensor networks see: .

The work is funded by NASA's Earth Science Technology Office through the Advanced Information System Technology program and also by the USGS Volcano Hazards Program. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Revelations in Saturn's Rings Continue as Equinox Approaches

Cassini's view of SaturnThanks to a special play of sunlight and shadow as Saturn continues its march towards its August 11 equinox, recent images captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft are revealing new three-dimensional objects and structures in the planet's otherwise flat rings. The Cassini spacecraft captured this image of a small object in the outer portion of Saturn's B ring casting a shadow on the rings as Saturn approaches its August 2009 equinox.

This new moonlet, situated about 300 miles (480 kilometers), inward from the outer edge of the B ring, was found by detection of its shadow which stretches 25 miles, or 41 kilometers, across the rings. The shadow length implies the moonlet is protruding about 660 feet, or 200 meters, above the ring plane. If the moonlet is orbiting in the same plane as the ring material surrounding it, which is likely, it must be about 1,300 feet, or 400 meters, across.

This object is not attended by a propeller feature, unlike the band of moonlets discovered in Saturn's A ring earlier by Cassini. The A ring moonlets, which have not been directly imaged, were found because of the propeller-like narrow gaps on either side of them that they create as they orbit within the rings. The lack of a propeller feature surrounding the new moonlet is likely because the B ring is dense, and the ring material in a dense ring would be expected to fill in any gaps around the moonlet more quickly than in a less dense region like the mid-A ring. Also, it may simply be harder in the first place for a moonlet to create propeller-like gaps in a dense ring.

The search for three-dimensional structures in Saturn's rings has been a major goal of the imaging team during Cassini's "Equinox Mission," the two-year period containing exact equinox -- that moment when the sun is seen directly overhead at noon at the planet's equator. This novel illumination geometry, which occurs every half-Saturn-year, or about 15 Earth years, lowers the sun's angle to the ring plane and causes out-of-plane structures to cast long shadows across the rings' broad expanse, making them easy to detect.

The new images can be found at and

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Astronomers Find Hyperactive Galaxies in the Early Universe

The fast moving stars shed new light on how these distant galaxies, which are a fraction the size of our Milky Way, may have evolved into the full grown galaxies seen around us today.
Looking almost 11 billion years into the past, astronomers have measured the motions of stars for the first time in a very distant galaxy and clocked speeds upwards of one million miles per hour, about twice the speed of our Sun through the Milky Way.

The fast-moving stars shed new light on how these distant galaxies, which are a fraction the size of our Milky Way, may have evolved into the full-grown galaxies seen around us today. The results will be published in the August 6, 2009 issue of the journal Nature, with a companion paper in the Astrophysical Journal.

“This galaxy is very small, but the stars are whizzing around as if they were in a giant galaxy that we would find closer to us and not so far back in time,” says Pieter van Dokkum, professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who led the study. It is still not understood how galaxies like these, with so much mass in such a small volume, can form in the early universe and then evolve into the galaxies we see in the more contemporary nearby universe that is about 13.7 billion years old.

The work by the international team combined data collected using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope with observations taken by the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile. According to van Dokkum, “The Hubble data, taken in 2007, confirmed that this galaxy was a fraction the size of most galaxies we see today in the more evolved, older universe. The giant 8-meter mirror of the Gemini telescope then allowed us to collect enough light to determine the overall motions of the stars using a technique not very different from the way police use laser light to catch speeding cars.” The Gemini near-infrared spectroscopic observations required an extensive 29 hours on the sky to collect the extremely faint light from the distant galaxy, which goes by the designation 1255-0.

“By looking at this galaxy we are able to look back in time and see what galaxies looked like in the distant past when the universe was very young,” says team member Mariska Kriek of Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. 1255-0 is so far away that the universe was only about 3 billion years old when its light was emitted.

Astronomers confess that it is a difficult riddle to explain how such compact, massive galaxies form, and why they are not seen in the current, local universe. “One possibility is that we are looking at what will eventually be the dense central region of a very large galaxy,” explains team member Marijn Franx of Leiden University in the Netherlands. “The centers of big galaxies may have formed first, presumably together with the giant black holes that we know exist in today’s large galaxies that we see nearby.”

To witness the formation of these extreme galaxies astronomers plan to observe galaxies even further back in time in great detail. By using the Wide Field Camera 3, which was recently installed on the Hubble Space Telescope, such objects should be detectable. “The ancestors of these extreme galaxies should have quite spectacular properties as they probably formed a huge amount of stars, in addition to a massive black hole, in a relatively short amount of time,” says van Dokkum.

This research follows recent studies revealing that the oldest, most luminous galaxies in the early universe are very compact yet surprisingly have stellar masses similar to those of present-day elliptical galaxies. The most massive galaxies we see in the local universe (where we don’t look back in time significantly) which have a mass similar to 1255-0 are typically five times larger than a young compact galaxy. How galaxies grew so much in the past 10 billion years is an active area of research, and understanding the dynamics in these young compact galaxies is a key piece of evidence in eventually solving this puzzle.

The Hubble Space Telescope observations were made with the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS).

The Gemini observations were made using the Gemini Near Infrared Spectrograph (GNIRS), which is currently undergoing upgrades and will be reinstalled on the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in 2010.

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

STScI is an International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009) program partner.

Related Links:

> Space Telescope Science Institute
> Gemini Observatory

Monday, August 10, 2009

NASA's Spitzer Sees the Cosmos Through 'Warm' Infrared Eyes


Spitzer image of a cloud bursting with stars in the Cygnus region of the sky.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is starting a second career and taking its first shots of the cosmos since warming up.

The infrared telescope ran out of coolant May 15, 2009, more than five-and-a-half-years after launch. It has since warmed to a still-frosty 30 degrees Kelvin (about minus 406 degrees Fahrenheit).

New images taken with two of Spitzer's infrared detector channels -- two that work at the new, warmer temperature -- demonstrate the observatory remains a powerful tool for probing the dusty universe. The images show a bustling star-forming region, the remains of a star similar to the sun, and a swirling galaxy lined with stars.

"The performance of the two short wavelength channels of Spitzer's infrared array camera is essentially unchanged from what it was before the observatory's liquid helium was exhausted," said Doug Hudgins, the Spitzer program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "To put that in perspective, that means Spitzer's sensitivity at those wavelengths is still roughly the same as a 30-meter ground-based telescope. These breathtaking images demonstrate Spitzer will continue to deliver world-class imagery and science during its warm mission."

The first of three images shows a cloud bursting with stars in the Cygnus region of our Milky Way galaxy. Spitzer's infrared eyes peer through and see dust, revealing young stars tucked in dusty nests. A second image shows a nearby dying star -- a planetary nebula called NGC 4361 -- which has outer layers that expand outward in the rare form of four jets. The last picture is of a classic spiral galaxy called NGC 4145, located approximately 68 million light-years from Earth.

"With Spitzer's remaining shorter-wavelength bands, we can continue to see through the dust in galaxies and get a better look at the overall populations of stars," said Robert Hurt, imaging specialist for Spitzer at NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "All stars are equal in the infrared."

Since its launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Aug. 25, 2003, Spitzer has made many discoveries. They include planet-forming disks around stars, the composition of the material making up comets, hidden black holes, galaxies billions of light-years away and more.

Perhaps the most revolutionary and surprising Spitzer finds involve planets around other stars, called exoplanets. In 2005, Spitzer detected the first photons of light from an exoplanet. In a clever technique, now referred to as the secondary-eclipse method, Spitzer was able to collect the light of a hot, gaseous exoplanet and learn about its temperature. Later detailed studies revealed more about the composition and structure of the atmospheres of these exotic worlds.

Warm Spitzer will address many of the same science questions as before. It also will tackle new projects, such as refining estimates of Hubble's constant, or the rate at which our universe is stretching apart; searching for galaxies at the edge of the universe; characterizing more than 700 near-Earth objects, or asteroids and comets with orbits that pass close to our planet; and studying the atmospheres of giant gas planets expected to be discovered soon by NASA's Kepler mission.

As during the cold Spitzer mission, these and the other programs are selected by a competition in which scientists from around the world are invited to participate.

Spitzer officially began its warm science mission on July 27, 2009. The new pictures were taken while the telescope was being re-commissioned on July 18 (NGC 4145, NGC 4361) and July 21 (Cygnus).

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology.

For more information about Spitzer, visit and .

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sam Katzoff Turns 100

Sam Katzoff is celebrating his 100th birthday Monday in a cozy three-bedroom apartment, with his oxygen machine, his books, his art and memories. . .

. . .of 1936, when he was a newly-minted chemist with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, looking for a job at a time when more chemists were being laid off than hired.

"I saw an advertisement for a junior physicist," Katzoff says, occasionally haltingly, more often in a firm, conversational tone from his chair, alongside an oxygen pump. "I was very good in all of the physics courses I had taken, so it wasn't very far-fetched for me."

He took a test and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' Langley Research Center hired Katzoff, who stayed for four decades, along the way repairing at least one deficiency in his resume.

"I didn't know a thing about flying," Katzoff says. "I didn't know what made a plane fly. But I knew how to study and I learned."

Well enough to develop codes for translating wind tunnel data into actual flyiDr. Sam' at homeng information for the development of many of the planes of World War II. And well enough to span flight from the propeller to the jet engine.

"Since I was largely theoretical, I wasn't out there getting my hands on things," Katzoff said. "I calculated what was wrong with them."

He spanned mathematics from NASA's female calculators to digital computers. And eventually he became the senior staff scientist under then-director Floyd Thompson.

"That meant I could do whatever I pleased," Katzoff said. "People thought the senior scientist had to keep an eye on everything in science, which wasn't true. I was doing my own work. If anybody wanted me to help, they knew where to find me."

He was found often when somebody was writing a technical paper.

"He was the eminence grise," says Dennis Bushnell, Langley's chief scientist. "You cared what he thought. You cared what he said."

You had to, particularly if you wrote.

"He was the kind of person who could look at a paper and tell whether it was a lot of bull," said George Brooks, former structures and materials head at Langley. "If you were writing a paper and were publishing, he would review it and that would help a lot of people in the field to come up with a better way of saying what they were trying to get across."

Says Bushnell: "He was the guy who instituted the clean way to write reports."

Katzoff eventually turned the method into "Clarity in Technical Reporting," a pamphlet produced at Langley. Through four printings, it was circulated throughout the agency after "Clarity in Technical Reporting" -- according to Melvin Day, head of the Scientific and Technical Information Division at the time -- "began to earn a word-of-mouth reputation as a small classic."

Sue Miller, technical information specialist at Langley's Technical Library, says she continues to get requests for the pamphlet.

In it, Katzoff advises, "The purpose of the report is to present information. You will hardly disagree with this statement; yet many authors seem to subordinate this purpose and quite forget the poor reader when preparing a report. . ."

"Apparently the presumed purpose to present information is frequently forgotten in the author's desire to show his own brilliance, to impress the boss, to impress the secretary, to demolish the rival or to get a raise. Worthy as these objectives may be, the basic objective should be to make the report clear and informative; furthermore, if this objective is attained, the secondary objectives will automatically be attained."

Says Katzoff, simply: "I had a reputation for being able to write English."

He has a wry wit and is ready to teach at any opportunity.

"I traveled with Sam on at least one occasion where we happened to spend a night at a hotel," Brooks says. "That evening, he was teaching me the basic elements of the Old Testament."

Another time, Brooks asked Katzoff about an old Dodge he owned.

"He said, 'Oh, I got it painted,' " Brooks recounts. "I said, 'What color did you get it painted?' He said, 'The family color: Kelly green.' "

When Katzoff retired from NASA, he moved back to his native Baltimore, where a school principal of his acquaintance talked him into teaching sixth-grade youngsters science for one hour a week.

"I didn't know how to say no," he says, then laughs. "I taught. That's why I'm so old. No, I enjoyed it. It was a challenge."

From that classroom, he moved into working with older children in John Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth. Eventually, Katzoff funded scholarships to the center and wrote a book called "Twists and Turns and Tangles in Math and Physics."

"I didn't intend for it to be bought," he says. "I meant for it to be given away to bright kids all over the country. I meant it for bright high school kids on the verge of graduating. I was considering myself when I was graduating. I could have enjoyed that."

Instead, there is a generation shunning math and science.

"I worry about it," he says. "I don't know the answer to that."

He spends his days working on puzzles. "I do Sodoku," he says, smiling. "The ones in the newspaper are the easiest ones I do in a day."

Anyone who visits gets a tour of his "art gallery," conducted by Katzoff, who whips off his oxygen breather and scurries about on his walker, talking about a reproduction of a Picasso, a mosaic -- "from the walls of Babylon," he says -- and a print of flowers in a vase that was once on his wall at Langley.

Nearby are the NACA wings that virtually everyone who worked with the organization -- which was the forerunner of NASA -- has somewhere in their homes.

The stories come from his memories, of friends like Hewitt Phillips, who recently passed away, and of Dick Whitcomb.

But Sam Katzoff left a few memories of his own.

"Sam was good for Langley because he helped people," Brooks says simply.

It's an epitaph that was embellished at Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and it lingers at NASA, every time Sue Miller gets a call in the library for a copy of "Clarity in Technical Writing."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Robert Shane Kimbrough Visits the Atlanta Braves

Women in Engineering campers pose with Astronaut Shane Kimbrough on the Georgia Tech campusAstronaut Shane Kimbrough speaks with a group of Aviation Camp kids at the Fernbank Science CenterAstronaut Shane Kimbrough presents a picture of Atlanta taken from space to Braves General Manager Frank WrenNASA astronaut Robert Shane Kimbrough had two dreams growing up as a child; to be an astronaut and to play baseball. He grew up in the small town of Smyrna, Ga., just outside of Atlanta. Recently Kimbrough’s two passions came together while making a special appearance in his native Georgia. He spoke to the people of Atlanta about being an astronaut and was given the opportunity to participate in pregame activities for an Atlanta Braves’ game.

Kimbrough’s appearance in Atlanta marked the second stop of NASA’s Hometown Hero 2009 campaign. He is one of several astronauts returning to their home regions to spread knowledge about the importance of continuing space exploration. At each stop, the astronauts participate in pregame activities at a Major League Baseball game and do community outreach about NASA, the International Space Station, and why space exploration is so vital to the nation.

Kimbrough started his trip with an event-filled afternoon at the Fernbank Science Center. Sporting his blue flight suit, he did media interviews and presented his post-flight presentation to a group of aviation camp kids and the public. Kimbrough talked about the importance of education and raising the next generation’s interest in science and space exploration. The evening wrapped up with a free planetarium show for all who attended.

“It was a pleasure to host Lt. Col. Kimbrough at the Fernbank Science Center,” said Fernbank Science Center Director Doug Hrabe. “The groups were very appreciative of the time that he shared with them.”

The trip continued early next morning with three live interviews. Kimbrough stopped by WXIA-TV to talk with Karyn Greer about his recent mission, STS-126, and his time onboard the space station, where he performed two space walks. Kimbrough also had a radio interview with Kevin and Taylor in the Morning from 104.7 “The Fish.” He discussed the 10-year anniversary of the space station and how there are significant benefits derived from research conducted in space.

“All the things we do up there are to help people on Earth,” Kimbrough said. “We don’t do it for our sake or NASA’s sake—it’s to go up there and figure out how to live better on Earth.”

His last stop of the morning was at WAGA-TV. Kimbrough visited with Suchita Vadlamani. He recounted his days of growing up in Georgia and why he really became an astronaut.

“What first sparked your imagination and inspired you to be an astronaut?” Vadlamani asked.

“People my age were watching men walk on the moon, and that’s really what sparked the whole thing,” Kimbrough said.

After the early morning interviews, Kimbrough headed to Georgia Tech, where he made a post-flight presentation and signed autographs for students and summer campers. Kimbrough received a Master of Science degree in operations research from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1998, so his visit was somewhat of a welcome home party.

Kimbrough ended his two-day trip with a major strike! He participated in numerous pregame activities at the Atlanta Braves versus Boston Red Sox game. He presented the general manager with a special photo taken from the space station. Later, Kimbrough and his son Zack also gave the “Play ball” call to start the game. But his journey didn’t end there. He signed several autographs and gave a live interview in the Braves’ plaza.

In the end, Kimbrough enjoyed his Hometown Heroes trip and thought the diversity of his events helped educate people about NASA and its goals.

“I had a chance to speak to kids, college students, the public and athletes, which is a very broad spectrum of folks,” Kimbrough said. “I think we did a lot of good for NASA overall.”

For more information about the NASA Hometown Heroes 2009 campaign, visit:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility

This image shows the Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility as it looks from inside Kibo. The Japanese Experiment Module, or JEM, called Kibo -- which means "hope" in Japanese -- is Japan's first human space facility and enhances the unique research capabilities of the International Space Station. Experiments in Kibo focus on space medicine, biology, Earth observations, material production, biotechnology and communications research. Kibo experiments and systems are operated from the Mission Control Room at the Space Station Operations Facility, or SSOF, at Tsukuba Space Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, just north of Tokyo.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

NASA Honors Apollo Astronaut Al Worden with Moon Rock

NASA will honor Apollo astronaut Al Worden with the presentation of an Ambassador of Exploration Award for his contributions to the U.S. space program.

Worden will receive the award during a ceremony Thursday, July 30, at 4 p.m. EDT. The ceremony will be held at the Apollo Saturn V Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, where the moon rock will be displayed.

Reporters interested in covering the ceremony should contact Andrea Farmer at 321-449-4318 or Jillian McRae at 321-449-4273.

NASA is giving the Ambassador of Exploration Award to the first generation of explorers in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs for realizing America's goal of going to the moon. The award is a moon rock encased in Lucite, mounted for public display. The rock is part of the 842 pounds of lunar samples collected during six Apollo expeditions from 1969 to 1972. Those astronauts who receive the award will then present the award to a museum of their choice, where the moon rock will be placed for public display.

Worden served as command module pilot for the Apollo 15 mission, which set several moon records for NASA, including the longest lunar surface stay time, the longest lunar extravehicular activity and the first use of a lunar roving vehicle. Worden spent 38 minutes in a spacewalk outside the command module and logged a total of 295 hours, 11 minutes in space during the mission.

Worden was born in Jackson, Mich. He received a bachelor of military science degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1955, and master of science degrees in astronautical and aeronautical engineering and instrumentation engineering from the University of Michigan in 1963.

For more biographical information about Worden, visit:

NASA Television will broadcast a Video File of the event. For NASA TV streaming video, schedules and downlink information, visit:

For more information about the Apollo Saturn V Center, visit:

For information about and pictures of the NASA Ambassador of Exploration Award, visit:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Warmed Up and Ready to Go

An infrared view of the choppy star-making cloud called M17, or the Swan nebula.NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has put its infrared eyes back on the sky to observe the cold and dusty universe. The telescope ran out of liquid coolant on May 15, 2009, after more than five-and-a-half years of observations. Two of its infrared channels are working at full capacity at the observatory's new "warm" temperature of approximately 30 Kelvin (minus 406 degrees Fahrenheit) -- still quite chilly by our Earthly standards.

Engineers and scientists have been busy recalibrating the telescope and making preparations for Spitzer's new era of science. Routine science operations begin today, July 27, 2009. More information about the warm mission can be found at

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cargo Carrier Returned to Endeavour's Payload Bay

In yet another deft handoff maneuver, the space shuttle robotic arm grabbed the Japanese Exposed Section cargo carrier from the space station robotic arm. Endeavour Commander Mark Polansky and Mission Specialist Julie Payette then used the shuttle arm to place the cargo carrier back into the shuttle payload bay.

The Exposed Section was launched with two science experiments and a communication system that were transferred to the Kibo Exposed Facility earlier in the mission.

Space Shuttle Mission: STS-127

S127-E-008608: STS-127 and Expedition 20 crews
Crews Focus on Robotics, Spacewalk Preparations

Sunday morning, the space shuttle robotic arm grabbed the Japanese Exposed Section cargo carrier from the International Space Station's robotic arm and carefully placed the cargo carrier back into Endeavour’s payload bay bringing to close this mission’s robotics work on the space station’s new porch.

The 13 crew members aboard the space station and space shuttle transitioned back to work by tucking the Exposed Section away, hosting a joint crew news conference and studying the new procedures for Monday’s fifth and final spacewalk.

Spacewalkers Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn prepared their spacesuits and tools and reviewed procedures. Monday's spacewalk is expected to run about six and a half hours.

The Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly (CDRA), which along with a similar Russian system removes carbon dioxide from the station’s atmosphere, is continuing to operate in manual mode. The primary heater tripped a circuit breaker Saturday afternoon, and since then the ground team has been manually operating the backup heater.

› Read more

STS-127 Additional Resources
› Mission Press Kit (6.9 Mb PDF)
› Mission Summary (429 Kb PDF)
› Meet the STS-127 Crew