Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NASA's Two Lunar-Bound Spacecraft, Vacuum-Packed

NASA's two Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (Grail) spacecraft have completed all assembly and testing prior to shipment to Florida.
As seen in the photo, taken April 29, technicians installed lifting brackets prior to hoisting the 200-kilogram (440- pound) Grail-A spacecraft out of a vacuum chamber at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. Along with its twin Grail-B, the Grail-A spacecraft underwent an 11-day-long test that simulated many of the flight activities they will perform during the mission, all while being exposed to the vacuum and extreme hot and cold that simulate space.
The Grail mission is scheduled for launch late this summer. The Grail-A and Grail-B spacecraft will fly in tandem orbits around Earth's moon for several months to measure its gravity field in unprecedented detail. The mission will also answer longstanding questions about the moon and provide scientists with a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.
 NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Grail mission. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, is home to the mission's principal investigator Maria Zuber. The Grail mission is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Researchers Provide Detailed Picture of Ice Loss Following Collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves

An international team of researchers has combined data from multiple sources to provide the clearest account yet of how much glacial ice surges into the sea following the collapse of Antarctic ice shelves.
The work by researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), the Laboratoire d'Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University of Toulouse, France, and the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, Colo., details recent ice losses while promising to sharpen future predictions of further ice loss and sea level rise likely to result from ongoing changes along the Antarctic Peninsula.

"Not only do you get an initial loss of glacial ice when adjacent ice shelves collapse, but you get continued ice losses for many years -- even decades -- to come," says Christopher Shuman, a researcher at UMBC's Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology (JCET) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Shuman is lead author of the study published online July 25 in the Journal of Glaciology. "This further demonstrates how important ice shelves are to Antarctic glaciers."

An ice shelf is a thick floating tongue of ice, fed by a tributary glacier, extending into the sea off a land mass. Previous research showed that the recent collapse of several ice shelves in Antarctica led to acceleration of the glaciers that feed into them. Combining satellite data from NASA and the French space agency CNES, along with measurements collected during aircraft missions similar to ongoing NASA IceBridge flights, Shuman, Etienne Berthier, of the University of Toulouse, and Ted Scambos, of the University of Colorado, produced detailed ice loss maps from 2001 to 2009 for the main tributary glaciers of the Larsen A and B ice shelves, which collapsed in 1995 and 2002, respectively.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

This Time It's Both Rocket Science AND Surgery


Not all great collaborations are planned. In fact, many of the best partnerships are the work of timing and serendipity. This is the case with two friends who met to talk over their lives and work and wound up brainstorming a new development with the potential to benefit people all over the globe.

Scott Dulchavsky, Ph.D. was the primary investigator for NASA's Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity or ADUM investigation when he met up with his friend Dr. Stephen Smith, Chair of the American College of Surgeons National Ultrasound Faculty. During the course of catching up, they discovered an unlikely pairing between their respective careers. Dulchavsky had a cutting-edge software -- known as Onboard Proficiency Enhancement or OPE -- for training astronauts on ultrasound use. Smith, coincidentally enough, needed a better way to provide ultrasound education to residents and practicing surgeons around the country.

"I've known Scott for years," said Smith, "and about that time he told me about what he was doing with NASA to facilitate ultrasound training on the space station and he showed me the training modules they had created. We then thought this would be a great next step in putting together training programs for surgeons."

Dulchavsky recalls the positive reaction he received when he presented the ultrasound training software possibilities to the American College of Surgeons National Ultrasound Faculty Board. "I showed the software to board and they loved it, thought it was best in class, and wanted to incorporate the teaching methods into their new CD-ROM based courses for surgeons. This software is now a required component for ultrasound instruction for all surgeons," said Dulchavsky.

Commissioned by the American College of Surgeons Division of Education, the software was revamped to incorporate the technology developed for use on the space station with specialized surgical ultrasound knowledge and techniques. The resulting multimedia surgical training module is now in use by residents and practicing general surgeons on a national level. Known as the Ultrasound for Surgeons: Basic Course 2nd Edition, this software provides a core training education in ultrasound imaging for clinical applications.

"It's cutting edge stuff, it's really good," said Smith. "Residents love it, faculty love it. We've been able to disseminate ultrasound education to areas that we could never have reached before. There have been guys in the military that were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan that have been able to use these modules on CD-ROM to bring their knowledge up to speed."

The software incorporates rich, multimedia components, such as the detailed Maya modeling, which demonstrates key relationships in the body via an animated anatomic model. This allows for an accelerated learning curve, compared to hands-on ultrasound techniques, simplifying many of the examination elements.

The origins of this training application on the space station contributed to the success of the final product, as well. "The space station was an excellent test bed to evaluate new educational paradigms to promote medical care in remote environments. The constraints of that environment required us to develop novel, just-in-time training methods, and focus on efficient processes. The astronaut and cosmonaut participants provided essential feedback to improve the software and procedures," explained Dulchavsky.

The basic course has been in use for approximately three years and a newer resident-focused module hit the market last year. Smith is confident that more courses will follow, given the advances enabled by the software. "It took us literally from sticks and stone knives into the computer age, as far as our computer training programs online. I think that all of our subspecialty training courses can at some point in time be placed online or on the CD-ROM based technology; our thoughts are to continue with the process and develop other modules as demand and time mandate," said Smith

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

NASA's Dawn Spacecraft Beams Back New Photo

Dawn took this image during its current orbit of Vesta, traveling from the day side to the night side. The large structure near the south pole that showed up so prominently in previous images is visible in the center of the illuminated surface. Compared to other images, this one shows more of the surface beneath the spacecraft in the shadow of night. Vesta turns on its axis once every five hours and 20 minutes.

Dawn entered orbit around Vesta on July 15, 2011, and will spend a year orbiting the body. After that, the next stop on its itinerary will be an encounter with the dwarf planet Ceres.

The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for NASA. The University of California, Los Angeles, is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. The Dawn framing cameras have been developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, with significant contributions by DLR German Aerospace Center, Institute of Planetary Research, Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering, Braunschweig. The Framing Camera project is funded by the Max Planck Society, DLR, and NASA/JPL.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Juno Processing Continues in Florida

Processing on NASA's Juno spacecraft continues with the spacecraft being inserted into its payload fairing yesterday, (July 18, 2011). The payload fairing acts as a protective cocoon that will shield Juno from the elements during the first 205 seconds of the spacecraft's ascent to orbit. The encapsulation process is expected to take about four days. On Friday, July 15, the Juno team used a process called gamma-ray radiography to inspect solder connections leading to a heater element aboard one of Juno's two magnetometers. The results of the inspection indicated there was an ample amount of solder connecting wire leads to the heater, enabling it to operate effectively during its mission.
The Juno spacecraft carries two redundant Flux Gate Magnetometer instruments that will measure Jupiter's powerful magnetic environment. Lab testing of heaters similar to ones on Juno, designed to keep the Flux Gate Magnetometer instruments warm in space, had indicated a small probability that wire connections might not operate as expected. As a precaution, NASA and Juno mission personnel had decided to inspect the Juno heater elements and, if necessary, repair solder joints connecting the heaters' electrical wires to their mounting surfaces to ensure mission success.
"This test gave us confidence that our magnetometer will work as advertised in just about the harshest environment you could find in the solar system," said Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
The launch period for Juno opens Aug. 5 and extends through Aug. 26. For an Aug. 5 liftoff, the launch window opens at 8:34 a.m. PDT (11:34 am EDT) and remains open through 9:43 a.m. PDT (12:43 p.m. EDT).
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute at San Antonio, Texas. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is building the spacecraft. The Italian Space Agency in Rome is contributing an infrared spectrometer instrument and a portion of the radio science experiment. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

They're Trying to Make a Dream Come True


The story began on June 3, 1982, when a camera in an Australian P-3 patrol plane captured images of a Soviet ship recovering a space craft from the Indian Ocean.

It continued Wednesday, when Sierra Nevada Corp. honored the employees -- many now retired -- at NASA's Langley Research Center who used those photos to carve a cherry wood model of the Soviet craft, a BOR-4, then used that model as the jumping-off point to the HL-20 (for horizontal lander) personnel space vehicle.

A proper ending, says Sierra Nevada chairman, Mark Sirangelo, would be for its version of the HL-20, the "Dream Chaser," to ferry crews from Earth to the International Space Station and back.

On April 18, NASA awarded Sierra Nevada -- a Louisville, Colo., firm -- $80 million to continue work on the Dream Chaser after it was judged among four winners of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

"I had made a promise that if we ever got to the point where the program was beginning to go to the next level, that we would find a way to come back and thank all of those people who enabled this," Sirangelo told an assembly at Langley's Pearl Young Theater.

In the audience was Bobby Braun, now NASA's chief technologist. In the early 1980s, he was among several at Langley who tested access and egress of the cabin on the HL-20 mockup.

Lori Garver, deputy NASA administrator, represented the agency and put the role of the space taxi competition into perspective.

"After we retire the space shuttle, we will be relying on our international partners to provide this capability to and from the space station," she said. "In the not-too-distant future we believe that we will have that U.S. capability to take American astronauts to and from the space station as we envisioned more than 20 years ago."

That vision began after the photos from the Australian plane came to Langley, via American intelligence.

"We spent a long time trying to figure out what it was," said Del Freeman, who was one of the few people at the center who had the compartmentalized security clearance to see the photos.

"We were 'reverse-engineering it.' Finally, we got enough information to build a model and we put it into (a wind) tunnel. When we tested it, we really figured out that we had something."

More tests showed that the lifting body design could carry the plane through a range of speeds with little or no effect on control, said George Ware, who tested the model from Mach 0.3 to Mach 4.6.

From the reverse-engineering came more ideas. One was to enable the vehicle to land like an airplane.

The HL-20 evolved, then stalled when NASA moved on to other things. Then the idea of a space taxi stalled altogether.

It's back, with commercial interests.

Sierra Nevada was casting about for ideas and considered four concepts before turning to the HL-20.

"The HL-20 had the best combination: a lot of history, a lot of testing done on it," Sirangelo said. "Also, the people who worked on it are still alive and around and engaged, so we had a chance to get that history."

One of the first steps was seeing the mockup, which was done by students and researchers from North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T, under the eyes of NASA personnel.

"A little over seven years ago, we visited Langley and had the opportunity to see the HL-20, which was, at that time, in the back of a warehouse covered with a lot of dust and other stuff," Sirangelo said.

"A lot of people told us we needed to get a clear sheet and start all over again. We decided we didn't want to do that. We wanted to build on something."

More background told them they were on the right path. Sierra Nevada entered into a Space Act Agreement with NASA Langley. Agreements with six other NASA centers followed.

"We realized that the vehicle was one of the most tested and reviewed vehicles that had never flown," Sirangelo said. "Among its missions, it was initially meant to be the lifeboat to the space station."

It could be again.

Sierra Nevada has built its own test article and, next year, intends to drop test it in the atmosphere, either from a helicopter or an airplane.

A suborbital test is scheduled for 2013, with an orbital test in 2014, in part depending on Sierra Nevada's progress through NASA's system of winnowing out contenders to find the commercial space taxi that it can support.

There were 25 companies when the competition began.

At first glance, the testing schedule appears ambitious, but, Sirangelo points out, "when you think about it, these guys did 10 years of work on it. We've been working on it for seven years. So it will be the 20th year of the vehicle when it goes into orbit."

The spacecraft of two decades ago and today's "Dream Chaser" look remarkably alike.

"You'd be surprised at how little it's changed," Sirangelo said. "The more we got into it, the more we realized how smart you all were."

The Sierra Nevada party was given a Langley tour before the ceremony and seemed to be taken with it all.

"We decided today, perhaps in an emotional manner, that we're going to take one of the seats on the (mockup) and turn it into an HL-20 seat," Sirangelo said, just before inviting all of the NASA Langley participants to the eventual launch of the "Dream Chaser."

It could offer an opportunity for something few anticipated after the HL-20 program ended: actually seeing the craft fly.

"We knew it was a viable concept then, early on," Freeman said. "It's got a lot of merit."

Enough so that Sierra Nevada is trying to end the story by having the "Dream Chaser" perform as a taxi between Earth and the International Space Station.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

NASA's Aura Satellite Measures Pollution "Butterfly" from Fires in Central Africa


Fires raging in central Africa are generating a high amount of pollution that is showing up in data from NASA's Aura Satellite, with the ominous shape of a dark red butterfly in the skies over southern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Angola.

An image of the pollution from agricultural fires in central Africa was created from data of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels over the period from July 7 to 12, 2011. It was created from Ozone Measuring Instrument (OMI) data using the NASA Giovanni system by Dr. James Acker at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Each year, people in the region burn croplands to clear fields after harvests. Burning is also used to create new growth in pastures and move grazing animals to new locations.

NO2 forms during fires when nitrogen reacts with oxygen. In fact, NO2 is formed in any combustion process where the oxygen is provided by Earth's atmosphere.

Detection of NO2 is important because it reacts with sunlight to create low-level ozone or smog and poor air quality. The OMI instrument that flies aboard NASA's Aura satellite is able to detect NO2. Low-level ozone (smog) is hazardous to the health of both plants and animals, and ozone in association with particulate matter causes respiratory problems in humans.

OMI measures NO2 by the number of molecules in a cubic centimeter. The highest concentrations appear in dark red and are coming from extreme northern Angola and south central part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The high concentration coming from the DRC appears to look like a butterfly.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

MILA Tracks its Last Launch and Landing


With its beginnings rooted deeply in the historic days of Apollo, the MILA Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network Station has played a key role throughout the 30 years of the Space Shuttle Program. But just as the shuttle program is drawing to a close, so is the long history of MILA.

"The end of MILA is officially six weeks from wheelstop. That's it. We hand the keys back to Kennedy Space Center and we walk away," says MILA Station Manager Martyn Thomas. "The MILA mission ends."

The Merritt Island Launch Annex, simply known to most as MILA, sits in an area somewhat remote from the main hub of processing and launch facilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Located west of Kennedy's Visitor Complex and about a mile south of NASA Causeway, the small building is surrounded by a field of complex antennas, dishes and arrays used to perform its vital role: Tracking the space shuttle during launch and landing.

But MILA's work begins before liftoff as the countdown clock ticks down and continues as the shuttle climbs into the sky.

"It's a combined effort between the Mission Control Center and the Launch Control Center getting together. The interface to those facilities is MILA, because it gets them their data they need to make those decisions," says Gary Morse, station director for MILA. "We're getting command to the space shuttle, we're getting telemetry from the space shuttle, were getting TV from the external tank, which is looking down at the leading edges of the wing surfaces to see if any foam or ice comes off. We are getting tracking data as soon as we lift off from our signal and sharing that with the flight dynamics facility at Goddard as well as the Mission Control Center in Houston."

Inside MILA tracking station.

Image above: Inside the MILA facility that has served as a tracking station since the days of Apollo, the team prepares for the final shuttle launch. Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
› View larger image
The tracking station serves as the primary voice, data and telemetry communications link between the shuttle and the ground from launch until seven and a half minutes into the flight. Millions of clues about the performance of the space shuttle's main engines and other components are communicated to launch managers, technicians and engineers on the ground, who must keep their fingers on the pulse of the space shuttle during the critical ascent.

Beginning with the first space shuttle launch on the STS-1 mission in 1981, the Ponce DeLeon Inlet Tracking Annex at New Smyrna Beach, Fla., was added to MILA's support capability. Located 30 miles north of Kennedy, the station was needed to track the space shuttle during the second and third minutes of flight when the highly reflective plume of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters impede S-band radio transmissions to MILA.

MILA also provides communications during space shuttle landings, beginning about 13 minutes before touchdown on Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility runway.

"Once it comes into range at the Kennedy Space Center, then MILA acquires and can auto track and stay with the vehicle," explains Morse.

"It's an interesting period of time," says Thomas. "You're sitting there watching and watching the displays. And you're waiting for the signal light to come on -- that one little light. Then it flickers... and it flickers again... then it goes green and we've got them! Everybody's watching that one little light."

Although MILA is located at Kennedy, for most of its history it actually served as a Goddard Space Flight Center operation. The tracking station was originally established in 1966 by Goddard as part of a global, ground-based data network of 17 tracking stations that provided orbital support to the Apollo program and Earth-orbiting scientific satellites. These stations were gradually phased out with the creation of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation, but MILA remained operational as it continued to serve over the 30 years of the Space Shuttle Program.

Now, with the space shuttle's final flight, MILA too will close its doors for good and become a part of U.S. space history.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Marshall Center's Bassler Leads NASA Robotic Lander Work


Growing up on a working farm in rural Breese, Ill., NASA engineer Julie Bassler constantly found her attention drawn away from the tranquility of farm life by the thunder of jets from nearby Scott Air Force Base, and she knew early on that her heart's ambition was not in the soil, but among the stars.

Today, as manager of the Robotic Lunar Lander Development Project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., she is fulfilling that ambition -- and helping to create some unprecedented thunder herself. Bassler and her team have spent the past 21 months designing, developing and testing a sophisticated robotic lander prototype for a new generation of automated spacecraft capable of exploring and conducting science on the surface of the moon, near-Earth asteroids and other airless planetary bodies in the solar system.

In a U.S. Army propulsion test facility on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Bassler gives the word, and a hissing roar fills the chamber as the latest robotic lander prototype lifts off. It's a three-legged construct 4 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter, weighing roughly 700 pounds when fueled. It's powered during this test series by an environmentally friendly propellant that's 90 percent hydrogen peroxide -- a substitute for a monomethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide blend called MMH/MON-25, which has an extremely low freezing point suited for long missions in the icy reaches of space.

The lander, a blocky metal tripod, rises more than six feet into the air. It's putting out nowhere near the 750 pounds of maximum thrust the final version will deliver, but it nonetheless hangs effortlessly in space. After just 33 seconds of controlled, autonomous flight, it descends. A short test run -- but the assembled engineers and onlookers applaud. Bassler looks pleased.

"Big science in a very small, very smart package," she says. "That's our goal." She says the team -- small and efficient, like the prototype itself -- remains on a record-setting development pace to deliver a practical, low-cost, highly versatile lander that will expand the frontiers of automated research and discovery across the solar system. It took them just 17 months to go from the drawing board to the first powered flight test of the lander prototype, which the team has nicknamed "MightyEagle." This prototype is a warm-gas, peroxide-fueled test article; a cold-gas version was completed and tested in only nine months. Since then, the team has conducted approximately 160 flight tests on its prototypes, and Bassler says they still clap at the end of nearly every one. It's hard not to.

"This is the most rewarding project I've worked on in my years at NASA," she says -- and it's evident in her voice why she traded farm life for a chance at a legacy in space, an opportunity to touch -- even remotely -- the soil and rock of worlds other than ours.

Progress on the Path to Other Worlds
Bassler credits much of the excitement -- and the project's success to date -- to a strong team, which includes Marshall Center engineers and partners at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation in Huntsville. The latter includes two Huntsville-based contributors: Teledyne Brown Engineering, which integrated the lander's structure and avionics systems; and Dynetics Corp., which developed its innovative altitude-control thrusters and a unique, "Earth gravity canceling" thruster which counteracts up to 5/6ths of normal Earth gravity.

The lander project also has conducted component level testing on heritage descent thrusters initially developed by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. Tests were conducted at NASA's White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, N.M.

The Planetary Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington directs the project.

Even as they assess the prototype in flight, work is under way on other fronts. The team is tackling inventive new solutions for the lander’s thermal protection system, which will protect its components while traveling through space. Conventional NASA multilayer insulation stands up well to the rigors of space flight, but in this instance would inhibit the lander's ability to make mid-flight course corrections using its array of thrusters, so the team is investigating efficient, low-mass alternatives suitable for the lander's complex flight configuration.

The lander team also is working on thermal management of the lander once it has set down on another celestial body, and for the duration of its multi-year mission. On the lunar surface, for example, the lander would be exposed to widely varying thermal conditions. Lunar surface temperatures can climb as high as 260 degrees Fahrenheit during the day -- then plummet to minus-279 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. The lander’s electronics, batteries and other sensitive equipment must be protected from this widely varying environment, while maintaining its ability to support continuous operations.

On-board batteries are another source of innovation on the project. To sustain the lander's electrical power and energy storage systems in extreme environments for long months or years, the team is studying two types of lithium ion batteries at the Marshall Center. Advanced, lightweight lithium iron phosphate batteries have proven themselves capable of supplying high power levels at sub-freezing temperatures, increasing the inherent safety of the energy storage system and permitting the team to devote more mass to payload. Meanwhile, energy-dense lithium cobalt oxide batteries are being tested to prove whether they're up to a six-year mission to another world, braving temperatures similar to those documented at the moon's equator while maintaining power system requirements. Battery testing at Marshall is expected to be completed in October.

Upon completion of the latest prototype tests -- the project's fourth major series of autonomous, closed-loop, free-flight tests since September 2009 -- the team will pass another major milestone on the robotic lander's promising journey to space. Over the hot summer months, it will go higher and for longer durations, glide horizontally over and around the test floor and descend 100 feet under its own power from an overhead crane, all the while permitting the team to assess its sensors, avionics and software systems and integrated structures. Testing will conclude in late summer with a series of more complex, autonomous free flight tests, lasting up to 60 seconds each, on the Army's Redstone Arsenal test range.

The lander is proving itself capable of handling all aspects of closed-loop, autonomous descent and landing, Bassler says -- preparing to find its way unaided around surfaces far stranger and less forgiving than the gray concrete of the test chamber.

The spaceflight version of the lander will be expected to take on a variety of science and exploration excursions in a wide range of airless alien environs. Nimble enough to touch down in craters or other harsh geological formations that could foil traditional aerobraking systems or parachutes, the lander also will be robust enough to operate for more than six years -- performing equally well in the frigid darkness of the moon's night side, or under the punishing glare of a sun unshielded by Earth's atmosphere.

"Our approach to designing the final robotic lander has been incremental," Bassler said. "During testing, we're running through an actual mission-sequence scenario, training a team capable of building and executing an actual lunar mission in less than two years if we got the go-ahead today."

More About the Team Leader
Bassler was a natural choice to lead the lander effort at Marshall. A 1988 graduate from Parks College of St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., where she received an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, she went on to earn a master's degree in space science in 1992 from the University of Houston in Texas.

She conducted a variety of software integration and engineering tasks for two NASA contractors in Clear Lake, Texas -- Rockwell Space Operations from 1988-1990 and McDonnell Douglas from 1990-1994 -- before accepting a full-time position at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1994. There, she led a team of engineers in the International Space Station Program Office for three years before transferring to the Marshall Center in 1997.

Among numerous key management posts at Marshall over the next 14 years, she was deputy manager of the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program and supervisor of the Lunar Precursor Robotic Office at Marshall from 2006 to 2008. In that post, Bassler helped set the stage for a number of successful lunar missions including NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation Sensing Satellite -- which flew to the moon in tandem in 2009 to map the surface and search for water ice, respectively -- and laid the groundwork for the new lander development effort, which began in 2009.

Her prime advantage, though, may have come much earlier -- as far back, she says, as those years as an Illinois farm girl with an eye on the stars. She credits her parents, Lucille Beckmann Loepker and the late Wendell Loepker of Breese, Ill., for setting her on a path to win the future.

"Living on a dairy farm, the clock never stopped on things to do," she remembers. "My parents taught me that if you work hard and expect good things, you will achieve the goals you set for yourself."

That work ethic has served her well as she juggles her demanding NASA position with her other busy vocation -- mothering four active children, which often means transitioning quickly from test site to ball field, from laboratory to gymnasium. She changes hats deftly; she has to.

Bassler is handed a sheet of data. She calls to her team to start their post-test tasks, already thinking ahead to the lander's next scheduled flight, and another step toward space.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Three Active Volcanoes Spotted on Satellite Imagery from NASA

From space, NASA keeps a watchful eye on volcanic activity around the world with many satellites. NASA has just released satellite images showing activity this week from volcanoes in the countries of Eritrea, Chile and Indonesia.

NASA's Terra satellite and the GOES-11 satellite captured ash plumes or heat coming from the Nabro volcano, the Puyehue-Cordón volcano, and the Soputan volcano, respectively, over the past week. There are a number of other volcanoes showing activity around the world, but thanks to good visibility these three volcanoes were more easily seen from space this week.

NASA’s Terra satellite flew over the Nabro volcano in Eritrea on July 6 at 07:50 UTC (3:50 a.m. EDT) and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument captured "heat signatures" or hot areas in the volcano. The MODIS images are created by the MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The team provides images from the MODIS instrument (that flies on both the Terra and Aqua satellite) every day.

Nabro is located in the State of Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa. Eritrea's neighboring countries include Ethiopia to the south, Djibouti to the southeast and Sudan to the west. An ash plume was difficult to pinpoint on the imagery because of dust blowing in the direction of the volcano and over the Gulf of Aden from nearby Somalia.

An image from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite called GOES-11 (a satellite managed by NOAA) showed a light brown ash plume from the Puyehue-Cordón volcano at 14:45 UTC (10:45 a.m. EDT) n July 3, 2011. The image was created by the NASA/NOAA GOES Project at NASA Goddard, and clearly shows an ash plume blowing into the eastern Pacific Ocean. On Thursday, July 7, ash continued streaming from the volcano and grounding flights in South America.

The Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano is located in the Andes Mountains of central Chile, near the Argentina border. According to, it consists of Puyehue volcano and Cordón Caulle fissure complex.

The MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite captured an image of an ash plume from the eruption of the Soputan volcano, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia on July 3, 2011 at 02:25 UTC (July 2, 10:25 p.m. EDT).

Mount Soputan is located in the North Sulawesi province. It erupted on July 3 and sent ash and smoke more than three miles (five kilometers) high, according to On July 3, sixteen flights from Manado International Airport were canceled or postponed, according to

Mount Soputan last erupted in 2008 and is located in a sparsely populated area. By July 7, the Mount Soputan Geological Survey reported that the eruption appears to have stopped.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

First-Ever View of a Sungrazer Comet In Front of the Sun


On the evening of Tuesday, July 5, a comet flew into the sun. Such comets are not unusual, and they're called "sungrazers" since they come so close to the star that it is believed they evaporate and disappear. However, no one has actually seen the end of that journey, since the comets are best seen in cameras from SOHO (SOlar and Heliospheric Observatory) that block out the bright disk of the sun itself.

But this was different. For the first time ever, SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory) captured a 20-minute movie of the comet streaking directly in front of the sun. It's not immediately obvious, but if you watch the movie closely, you'll see a line of light appear in the right and move across to the left.

At its most basic, the movie has scientists excited since it's a "first," but additional analysis of the data may hold more clues about the fate of the comet. Most likely, given the intense heat and radiation, the comet simply evaporated away completely.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sounding Rockets Study How Winds In Space Drive Currents in the Upper Atmosphere


Some 50 miles up in the sky begins a dynamic region of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere. The region is filled with charged particles created by extreme ultraviolet radiation from the sun. At the base of the ionosphere, charged particle motions create a global current called the "atmospheric dynamo." Generally moving in loops from the equator to the poles, the dynamo changes daily based on solar heating and magnetic activity – but what keeps it moving isn't well understood.

This July, scientists will launch four rockets from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Va., for a five-minute journey some 100 miles up into the atmosphere. The rockets will collect data on the charged particles as well as winds of neutral particles that sweep through the lower ionosphere and how each affects the other, ultimately causing these dynamo currents.

The variations matter because all of our communications and GPS satellites send signals through the ionosphere. A disturbed ionosphere translates to disturbed signals, so scientists want to know just what causes the ionosphere to behave in specific ways.

"This experiment has never been done before," says Rob Pfaff, the project scientist for NASA’s sounding rocket program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "We've measured the dynamo currents using rocket probes, but we've never simultaneously measured the currents along with the upper atmosphere winds and the electric fields that drive the currents."

The rockets -- known as sounding rockets from the nautical term "to sound," meaning to measure -- will launch sometime between July 5 and 23 depending on ionospheric and weather conditions. NASA's sounding rocket program at Wallops dates back to the agency's inception in 1958. Not only do sounding rockets offer a low cost way to access space, they also provide access to areas of the atmosphere too low for satellites.

In this experiment, the scientists will fly two pair of rockets. One in each pair will measure data about the charged or "ionized" gas -- called plasma -- as well as the neutral gas, through which it travels. The other will shoot out a long trail of lithium gas to track the wind movement. The instrumented rockets are 40 feet long and 17 inches in diameter, carrying a payload of 600 lbs. The lithium rockets are 14 inches in diameter and are about six feet long.

Beginning July 5, the team will set up each day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT, ready to launch as soon as there's evidence of currents in the ionosphere as well as a crystal clear skies – necessary for successful observation of the lithium trail.

"We're studying a current that runs through the atmosphere much like the Gulf Stream moves through the ocean," says Doug Rowland a space scientist at Goddard who also helped design this mission. "In the Gulf Stream, a given parcel of water travels around the whole system, and the same thing happens with the plasma in the atmosphere. In general, during the day it travels in giant, horizontal loops from equator to pole and back."

What happens on such a typical day is not, of course, the whole story. The charged particle loops are guided by electric fields generated by winds and solar activity. But in the lower part of the ionosphere, there are a billion times more neutral particles than charged ones. The neutral particles, moving in their own wind patterns, can collide with the charged particles and slow them down.

Increased solar activity can adjust the magnetic fields around Earth and cause even more variation in the ionosphere. Ideally one set of rockets will go up on a day of "quiet" solar activity, and the second will launch into increased space weather activity from the sun.

"The currents we are studying are part of a large global system called the atmospheric dynamo," says Pfaff. "So it's important not just for understanding how it affects our satellites, but because it is a fundamental process of Earth's upper atmosphere – and probably other planets with atmospheres as well."

Both sets of rockets will collect data on the currents, the electric fields, the electron density, the neutral gas density, and the motion of the neutral wind. The researchers will compare information from the two flights to better understand how the solar wind and the neutral wind interact and cause those communications-jamming instabilities in the ionosphere.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mars Rover Driving Leaves Distinctive Tracks


When NASA's Opportunity Mars rover uses an onboard navigation capability during backward drives, it leaves a distinctive pattern in the wheel tracks visible on the Martian ground.

The pattern appears in an image posted at .

The rover team routinely commands Opportunity to drive backward as a precaution for extending the life of the rover's right-front wheel, which has been drawing more electrical current than the other five wheels. Rover drivers can command the rover to check for potential hazards in the drive direction, whether the rover is driving backward or forward. In that autonomous navigation mode, the rover pauses frequently, views the ground with the navigation camera on its mast, analyzes the stereo images, and makes a decision about proceeding.

When the drive is backward, the drive-direction view from the navigation camera is partially blocked by an antenna in the middle of the rover. Therefore, at each pause to check for hazards, the rover pivots slightly to the side to get a clear view. If it sees no hazard, it turns back to the direction it was going and continues the drive for about another 4 feet (1.2 meters) before checking again. This set of activities leaves tracks showing the slight turnout on a rhythmically repeated basis, like a dance step.

Opportunity has driven more than 1.6 miles (about 2.6 kilometers) since leaving "Santa Maria" crater in late March and resuming a long-term trek toward the much larger Endeavour crater. Opportunity has now driven more than 18 miles (29 kilometers) on Mars.

Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued in years of bonus, extended missions. Both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit has not communicated with Earth since March 2010.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

NASA's Spitzer Finds Distant Galaxies Grazed on Gas

Galaxies once thought of as voracious tigers are more like grazing cows, according to a new study using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

Astronomers have discovered that galaxies in the distant, early universe continuously ingested their star-making fuel over long periods of time. This goes against previous theories that the galaxies devoured their fuel in quick bursts after run-ins with other galaxies.

"Our study shows the merging of massive galaxies was not the dominant method of galaxy growth in the distant universe," said Ranga-Ram Chary of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "We're finding this type of galactic cannibalism was rare. Instead, we are seeing evidence for a mechanism of galaxy growth in which a typical galaxy fed itself through a steady stream of gas, making stars at a much faster rate than previously thought."

Chary is the principal investigator of the research, appearing in the Aug. 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. According to his findings, these grazing galaxies fed steadily over periods of hundreds of millions of years and created an unusual amount of plump stars, up to 100 times the mass of our sun.

"This is the first time that we have identified galaxies that supersized themselves by grazing," said Hyunjin Shim, also of the Spitzer Science Center and lead author of the paper. "They have many more massive stars than our Milky Way galaxy."

Galaxies like our Milky Way are giant collections of stars, gas and dust. They grow in size by feeding off gas and converting it to new stars. A long-standing question in astronomy is: Where did distant galaxies that formed billions of years ago acquire this stellar fuel? The most favored theory was that galaxies grew by merging with other galaxies, feeding off gas stirred up in the collisions.

Chary and his team addressed this question by using Spitzer to survey more than 70 remote galaxies that existed 1 to 2 billion years after the Big Bang (our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old). To their surprise, these galaxies were blazing with what is called H alpha, which is radiation from hydrogen gas that has been hit with ultraviolet light from stars. High levels of H alpha indicate stars are forming vigorously. Seventy percent of the surveyed galaxies show strong signs of H alpha. By contrast, only 0.1 percent of galaxies in our local universe possess this signature.

Previous studies using ultraviolet-light telescopes found about six times less star formation than Spitzer, which sees infrared light. Scientists think this may be due to large amounts of obscuring dust, through which infrared light can sneak. Spitzer opened a new window onto the galaxies by taking very long-exposure infrared images of a patch of sky called the GOODS fields, for Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey.

Further analyses showed that these galaxies furiously formed stars up to 100 times faster than the current star-formation rate of our Milky Way. What's more, the star formation took place over a long period of time, hundreds of millions of years. This tells astronomers that the galaxies did not grow due to mergers, or collisions, which happen on shorter timescales. While such smash-ups are common in the universe -- for example, our Milky Way will merge with the Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years -- the new study shows that large mergers were not the main cause of galaxy growth. Instead, the results show that distant, giant galaxies bulked up by feeding off a steady supply of gas that probably streamed in from filaments of dark matter.

Chary said, "If you could visit a planet in one of these galaxies, the sky would be a crazy place, with tons of bright stars, and fairly frequent supernova explosions."

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

NASA Adds Unique Touch to Transformers

NASA's historic adventures and cutting-edge technology provide some of the underpinnings for "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," and there are also some star turns of a different sort for some of the workers who appeared as extras in the film.

Director Michael Bay and his production team all but moved in to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a week in October 2010. There were casting calls, costuming and catering tents, and of course a flotilla of high-performance cars and trucks.

Employees at the center were able to see the outcome of all the effort during a sneak preview of the movie June 28 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's IMAX theater.

"I thought they did a great job," said Mike Cianelli, a NASA Test Director (NTD) at Kennedy who appears in the movie. "It was fun to see the production and then to see the end product."

The cast and crew filmed at Launch Pad 39A where Discovery stood ahead of its STS-133 mission, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and an orbiter processing facility and at the Space Station Processing Facility.

Bill Heidtman, also an NTD, said the agency shined in the feature.

"It was kind of an homage to the space program," Heidtman said.

The feature film is the third installment of the Transformers franchise, covering the life-and-death battles of a species of robots that bring their war to Earth.

For Bay, the science fiction elements bring out the most in what audiences go to movies to see.

"The highest grossing films of all time are science fiction movies and things that are in space. I think it's something we still have to discover," Bay said.

"It all looked good," said Ron Feile, lead air traffic controller at the Shuttle Landing Facility, who helped coordinate the setup for the scenes shot there. He was particularly pleased with the role a trio of NASA helicopters played in the film. "That was impressive."

The Shuttle Landing facility's role in the movie was short, but Feile said it was worth the effort.

"It was an interesting endeavor," he said. "We had fun."

The film's leading characters played by Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Josh Duhamel were on set at Kennedy at different times.

It was easy for them to get excited about real-life space technology during the filming, even though they're acting opposite computer-generated creatures that convert from robots to vehicles and back.

"It's kind of hard to believe that you're standing in front of the shuttle over here, said Paul Turturro, who plays Agent Simmons. "When you see something for real you kind of have to keep looking at it, walk around."

Kennedy was a natural backdrop for a science fiction story, said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, one of the film's producers.

"The idea of the space program always was how to get in contact with others, so we've brought the 'Transformers' to the shuttle," said di Bonaventura. "The Kennedy Space Center has always been this sort of mythical thing, I think, for me. You imagine it out there and then you come here and you realize how many people are working here and what this kind of endeavor entails."

The production called for dozens of extras who were volunteers from the Kennedy work force. They spent long days on the sets running inside the VAB, working at computers and performing other tasks at the other locations.

"I thought for the time that they were here we had an awful lot of play time in the movie," said Greg Gaddis, an NTD. "Not personally, but definitely the space center."

The 'Transformers' films are a mix of live-action and computer-generated characters based on a cartoon series and toy line. Many of the people who took part in the filming got to relive a bit of their childhood when they played with the metamorphosing robots.

"Being that kid watching the cartoon back in the 80s and being part of it now is just an awesome experience," said Danny Zeno, another NTD who also took part in the filming.

The movie opened nationwide Wednesday and is expected to be a major summer blockbuster.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Landsat Satellite Images Reveal Extent of Historic North Dakota Flooding


Heavy rains in Canada caused historic flooding in Minot, N.D. Landsat satellite images taken before and during the flooding reveal the water's extent.

The Souris River finally crested on June 26, but not before more than 4,000 homes and hundreds of businesses were flooded. About one-fourth of Minot's 40,000 residents evacuated the city. Residents expect a long recovery as the river slowly retreats.

The Souris River reading at Minot's Broadway Bridge around 11:00 p.m. on June 25 reached nearly four feet higher than the all-time high set in 1881.

The Landsat Program is a series of Earth-observing satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Landsat satellites have been consistently gathering data about our planet since 1972. They continue to improve and expand this unparalleled record of Earth's changing landscapes, for the benefit of all. The next Landsat satellite is scheduled to launch in December 2012.

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