Monday, May 30, 2011

U.S. Honor Flag Bound for Space


It's toured the country and the world to honor the dedication and sacrifice of Americans who have lost their lives serving as police officers, firefighters and military personnel. Now, the U.S. Honor Flag will pay tribute to astronauts who have died in the line of duty as it flies this summer aboard space shuttle Atlantis during the shuttle program's final mission.

Begun as a tribute following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists' attacks, the flag serves as a traveling memorial to heroes who lost their lives while serving their communities and country. During a May 26 ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, the flag began its journey to space as James K. Loftus, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, presented it to Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"The flag honors all the first responders, military and now astronauts who've paid the ultimate price in service to our country. I think it's a real privilege to take it aboard Atlantis and bring it home safe," said Cabana following the ceremony.

With the visitor complex's Astronaut Memorial Mirror as a backdrop, a 100-member honor guard and bagpipe procession accompanied the flag, which Cabana handed over to veteran astronaut Jerry Ross in preparation for its flight aboard Atlantis. The handoff was followed by a moment of silence at the memorial, which bears the names of astronauts who have died in the exploration of space.

The flag's tour is sponsored by the non-profit Honor Network, but began with one man and his flag, Chris Heisler. Shortly after the Sep. 11attacks, an American flag from the Texas House of Representatives was given to Heisler, who decided to take the flag to Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site. Along the way, he helped organize one of the longest police motorcades in the history of the United States. His flag flew over Ground Zero for two weeks, and the U.S. Honor Flag was born.

"When we took the flag to Ground Zero, we had officers from all over the country, and firefighters. Since then, the flag has been to more than 1,000 different events and has truly become a piece of American history and a national treasure that is safeguarded and protected," says Heisler, "But we had no anticipation that the flag would go from there to NASA, aboard the space shuttle and to the International Space Station."

"When this flag comes back from space and goes to the next funeral for the next family," he explains, "it's the little boys and girls whose mother or father made the ultimate sacrifice who will see that flag there memorializing their parent and they'll know that all that history of all these heroes is embedded with their father or mother, so that history continues."

The launch of space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station will bring to a close the Space Shuttle Program.

For more information about the U.S. Honor Flag, visit the Honor Network website.

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

NASA Provides Satellite Data to Aid Louisiana Flood Response


NASA is providing critical satellite data to help residents in south Louisiana as they deal with a rising Mississippi River.

Data from NASA satellites is capturing the spread of water and sediment following the opening of the Bonnet Carré and the Morganza water control spillways. The data will help Louisiana officials as they respond to flooding caused by the spillway openings. Both water control structures were opened recently to help divert high Mississippi River waters from major south Louisiana cities. It was the first time in 38 years that the Morganza structure had been opened.

NASA provided the data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument flying on NASA's Aqua satellite in response to a request by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, La. It is part of an ongoing commitment by NASA's Applied Science and Technology Project Office to use data from agency satellites to help communities address issues of concern, such as forest management and coastal erosion.

Recent satellite data captured by NASA shows large sediment plumes across coastal Louisiana as a result of the opening of the two spillways and where the Mississippi River meet the Gulf of Mexico. The data is being used by the USGS National Wetlands Research Center helping Louisiana officials better understand the impacts to the La. waterways and Gulf of Mexico. "NASA satellites like Aqua and the USGS-operated Landsat are crucial in providing information to help monitor the extent and the effects of natural hazards, like floods and hurricanes," said Bill Graham, a NASA researcher at John C. Stennis Space Center. "These sensors allow managers to have a better perspective of regional impacts in a timely fashion."

NASA's Applied Sciences & Technology Project Office at Stennis is a lead in the space agency Earth science efforts throughout the Gulf of Mexico region.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

NASA is Making Hot, Way Cool


The more advanced the electronics, the more power they use. The more power they use, the hotter they get. The hotter they get, the more likely they’ll overheat. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what typically happens next: The electronics fry.

In the world of electronics, thermal control is always one of the limiting factors -- particularly in space where there is no air to help cool down electronic components.

However, Jeffrey Didion, a thermal engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Dr. Jamal Seyed-Yagoobi, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Ill., have collaborated to develop a technology that may overcome current limitations. They have formed technical partnerships with the U.S. Air Force and National Renewable Energy Laboratory to address the thermal-control concerns.

Called electrohydrodynamic (EHD)-based thermal control, the technology promises to make it easier and more efficient to remove heat from small spaces -- a particular challenge for engineers building advanced space instruments and microprocessors that could fail if the heat they generate is not removed.

"Today, higher-power computer chips are available, but they generate too much heat," said Didion, who is leading the technology-development effort also involving Matthew Showalter, associate branch chief of Goddard’s Advanced Manufacturing Branch, and Mario Martins of Edge Space Systems, an engineering company specializing in thermal systems in Glenelg, Md. "If I can carry away more heat, engineers will be able to use higher-power components. In other words, they will be able to do more things."

The project, a joint activity between NASA Goddard and its partners, received support from the Goddard Internal Research and Development (IRAD) program, which funds the development of promising new technologies that could advance NASA’s scientific and exploration goals. It is being demonstrated in June on a Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket mission, which also is flying the Small Rocket/Spacecraft Technology (SMART) platform, a microsatellite also developed at Goddard. This new microsatellite measures about 16 inches in diameter and was specifically designed to give scientific users less expensive access to space. (Read the related press release.)

The main objective of the EHD demonstration is showing that a prototype pump can withstand the extreme launch loads as the rocket lifts off and hurtles toward space. Should it survive the vibration, the technology will have achieved a major milestone in its development, Didion said. It will mean that it is at or near operational status, making it a viable technology for use on spaceflight instruments.

"Any electronic device that generates a lot of heat is going to benefit from this technology," said Ted Swanson, assistant chief for technology for Goddard’s Mechanical Systems Division. This could include everything from sensors flown in space to those used in automobiles and aircraft.

No Moving Parts

The technology promises significant advantages over more traditional cooling techniques. Unlike current technologies used today by instrument and component developers, EHD does not rely on mechanical pumps and other moving parts. Instead, it uses electric fields to pump coolant through tiny ducts inside a thermal cold plate. From there, the waste heat is dumped onto a radiator and dispersed far from heat-sensitive circuitry that must operate within certain temperature ranges. "Its architecture, therefore, is relatively straightforward," Didion said. Electrodes apply the voltage that pushes the coolant through the ducts.

"The advantages are many," he added. "Without mechanical parts, the system is lighter and consumes less power, roughly half a watt. But perhaps more importantly, the system can be scaled to different sizes, from larger cold plates to microscale electronic components and lab-on-a-chip devices."

In addition to flying the technology on the sounding rocket mission, the EHD development team will fly a prototype EHD cold plate as an experiment on the International Space Station in 2013. "This effort will demonstrate the long-term operation of an EHD thermal-control system," Didion said.

Lab-on-a-Chip Devices

In the meantime, the team is continuing its work to further advance EHD, Didion said. The team is working with Goddard detector engineer Timothy Miller to develop EHD pumps in microchannels that are etched onto silicon wafers. They plan to further experiment with other substrate and composite materials as well as special micro-fabrication techniques and coatings to create smaller, more robust EHD pumps.

These multifunctional devices could be used as stand-alone, off-the-shelf components ideal for quick-turnaround spacecraft -- a capability that particularly interests the Air Force -- or as units embedded within the walls of the electronic device.

The next step is placing the technology on circuit cards, with the ultimate goal of scaling it to the chip level where the ducts would be no larger than 100 microns (0.0039 inch), or about the width of a human hair. "The point is that you want to place the thermal-control unit closer to the source of heat," Didion said. "This would be a lot more efficient at eliminating waste heat."

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Student Scientists Fly Investigations to the Space Station


When you were in school, chances are your science classes included using a microscope to view cell reproduction or perhaps dissecting a worm or frog. In today's classroom, however, students have the opportunity to take their lessons to a whole new stratosphere. In fact, into orbit aboard the STS-134 shuttle flight on a mission to the International Space Station.

Schools and communities planned their student-run science investigations via the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, or SSEP, which is a partnership between the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, known as NCESSE, and NanoRacks, LLC. In parallel to the real process a scientist goes through, students from the various participating communities researched and submitted proposals to compete for an experiment slot in a research mini-lab that was reserved just for their school district.

Students chose samples from a master list of nine different science disciplines appropriate for microgravity research. They then designed experiments within the constraints of the NanoRacks hardware and the space shuttle, with the help of their community teachers and mentors. The winning investigations launched to the space station as payloads on space shuttle Endeavour. Using standardized parameters, the student-designed investigations fit into the mini-lab aboard the shuttle middeck for the launch.

The goal of the program is to get children interested in science education at an early age, according to Dr. Jeff Goldstein, center director of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. "This is nothing short of providing on orbit research opportunities for grades 5-12. It is not meant to simply be a cool education experience, it truly is meant to immerse students in real science."

A total of 447 proposals came in from teams across participating communities as they vied for a spot on the space shuttle. Student entries went through two review boards before judges narrowed entries to the final selection of 16 winners. This is a record setting number of student participants to work with NanoRacks. Jeff Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, expressed his amazement with the success of the this competition, "The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program has performed a miracle in bringing 16 school districts into STS-134 in just over half a year from contract signing to payload submission. And everyone at NASA has grown to embrace the energy that comes from working with both the program and the schools themselves."

The list below details the winning student investigations and the varied range of topics shows the creativity of the young minds that proposed them. "What's really wonderful is that even a 10-year-old, if you give them the ability to own the gift of a question and help them frame a pathway to an answer through an experiment design, they will really surprise you; they will do remarkable things!" added Goldstein.

* Development of Prokaryotic Cell Walls in Microgravity, Shelton High School (12th grade), Shelton, Connecticut
* Apples in Space, Crystal Lake Middle School (5th grade), Broward County, Florida
* The Effect of Microgravity on the Ability of Ethanol to Kill E. Coli, Maitland Middle School (8th grade), Orange County, Florida
* Efficiency of Microencapsulation in Microgravity as Compared to Gravity, Lincoln Hall Middle School (6th grade), Lincolnwood, Illinois
* The Effect of Micro-gravity on the Viability of Lactobacillus GG, The Academy at Shawnee (9-11th grade), Jefferson County, Kentucky
* What is the Effect of Microgravity on the Growth Rate of Murine Myoblasts, Copper Mill Elementary School (5th grade), Zachary, Louisiana
* Swimming Patterns and Development of Zebra Fish after Exposure to Microgravity, Esperanza Middle School (8th grade), Saint Mary's County, Maryland
* Honey as a Preservative on Long Duration Space Flights, Harry A. Burke High School (10th grade), Omaha, Nebraska
* Effects of Microgravity on Lysozyme's Antibacterial Properties, Omaha North High Magnet School (12th grade), Omaha Nebraska
* Does the Radiation Exposure Effect Seed Germination Without the Protection of the Ozone Layer?, Tse Bit ai middle School (8th grade), Central Consolidated School District, New Mexico
* The Development of Minnow Fish Eggs in Space, Milton Terrace South Elementary School (5th grade), Ballston Spa Central School District, New York
* Brine Shrimp Development, Mendenhall Middle School (6-8th grade), Guilford County, North Carolina
* Urokinase Protein Crystal Growth in Microgravity, Jackson Middle School (7th grade), Portland, Oregon
* The Effect of Microgravity on Biofilm Formation by E. coli on Polystyrene Particles, El Paso Community College Transmountain Campus and Transmountain Early college High School (11th grade; college sophomore), El Paso, Texas
* Microgravity's Effects on Morphogens in Common Species, Hillcrest High School (11th grade), Canyon’s School District, Utah
* How Does Spaceflight Alter Mutation Rate, Growth Rate, Rate of Plasmid Uptake, and the Ability to Withstand Subsequent Stressors in a Bacterial Strain?, Ballard High School (10-12th grade), Seattle, Washington

A second competition is scheduled to launch winners as part of STS-135, targeted for June 2011. This time the competition was open to students from Canada and ranged from 5th grade to students attending two-year community colleges. Despite tough financial times, the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program was still able to assist nine of the 11 finalist communities in this second competition in their efforts to find funding via foundations and philanthropy; the other two were able to supply their own funding.

A community-wide engagement model for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM education, the student program facilitates working with participants in the community-wide design competition. This way opportunities can be shared across the community for education purposes. Dr. Goldstein sees the program as a catalyst for science education on a grand scale. "My hope is that this program will bring high visibility to the space station as a true national laboratory; the only difference being that this laboratory is located in a very strange direction -- up. I think that through this program we can engage truly hundreds of thousands of students in real experiment design and use the station as a showcase."

A sentiment echoed by Manber as he touts the success of the program and his hopes for future student collaborations with NanoRacks. "I am looking forward to helping grow this program onto a truly national and even international level -- it is a wonderful example of the private sector and NASA working together."

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program on-orbit research opportunity is enabled through NanoRacks LLC, which is working in partnership with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

NASA Sky Cameras Capture Man-Sized Meteor Over Macon, Ga.


Astronomers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center have recorded the brightest meteor seen by their network in almost three years of operation. On May 20, 2011, at 9:47 p.m. CDT, a six-foot diameter fragment of an unknown comet entered the atmosphere approximately 66 miles above the city of Macon, Ga., traveling northwest at a speed of some 24 miles per second (86,000 mph). At this velocity, the boulder-sized "dirty snowball" possessed an energy or striking power somewhere between 500-1000 tons of TNT.

It was tracked by two NASA all sky cameras, one located in Chickamauga, Ga., and the other at the Tellus Science Museum in the town of Cartersville, Ga. Analysis of the video data from these cameras enabled the Meteoroid Environment Office to estimate the trajectory, speed, mass and orbit of the meteor. More information on these cameras and a log of recent meteor events can be found at:

Fortunately the atmosphere provided us with excellent protection, as the video below illustrates. Because the video is slowed to one-third of the actual real-time speed, it's easy to spot the large fragments coming off in the wake after the flares.

The video shows four distinct flares caused by the meteor breaking apart in its fiery final few seconds. You can see fragments coming off in the meteor's wake after three of these flares. After a last burst of light, the meteor ablated -- or "burned up" -- 38 miles above the town of Villa Rica, Ga., located on the border between Carrol and Douglas counties in Georgia.

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Power of A Moon Rock


Between 1969 and 1972 six Apollo missions brought back 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface. The six space flights returned 2,200 separate samples from six different exploration sites on the Moon.

The sample that sat before Debra and two of her younger brothers in 1970 returned to Earth from Apollo 11. And it landed on her kitchen table by way of her father, Duane Sea, a former a NASA science demonstrator, also known as a Spacemobiler.

Duane and his Spacemobile traveled to schools across the Mid-West, reaching more than 400,000 students. In the summer, Debra and her siblings would go along for the ride.

"Like everyone else, we were wildly optimistic about the future of space science," Debra said.

At age 10, her Moon Rock experience was documented with a photograph, which was labeled as "Moon Rock" in her family album. So, it was only natural that her film would also be labeled as "Moon Rock."

"It was always a story I wanted to tell," said Debra. "The timing was perfect."

Perfect because she was a working on her Master's of Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of North Carolina Greensboro when she chose "Moon Rock" as her Master Production film project. She was one of three students chosen to receive a 2011 Carole Fielding Student Grants awarded by the University Film and Video Association.

But Debra quickly learned that borrowing a Moon Rock from NASA was no easy task.

After six months and a great deal of determination, her Lunar Sample Application was approved. For pick-up, she was referred to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., because it was in her outreach region.

The larger, display Moon Rocks are considered a national treasure that cannot be shipped, only hand carried. With possession, comes a strict set of guidelines. It must be kept in sight or in a safe. It can't be kept in a motel room overnight. And don't touch the Lucite without gloves, because the oil from skin can damage and cloud the Lucite.

"We were like old friends," Debra said of the Moon Rock. Except this was a different rock -- from Apollo 14. And this time, she was responsible for it. That was quite the burden for Debra, who constantly worried about the rock, much like a mother worries for her child.

Meghan Guethe, Langley's exhibits manager, helped Debra through the process. She understood and appreciated Debra's desire to keep it safe. "Everything is priced when it is sent out with an exhibit," Guethe said. "We cannot price these."

It took a lot of planning to prepare the invaluable Moon Rock's trip to three classrooms at Wadena-Deer Creek, a K-12 school in Minnesota, where Debra's brother David teaches. She created a contingency plan for each airport.

And when she and her film assistant Adrienne Ostberg, a first-year MFA student, had their last flight canceled, they rotated staying with the rock in a private, locked room, purposed for nursing moms.

Their "baby" was a Moon Rock, which was enclosed in a Lucite pyramid. The 115-gram rock had its own carrying case and a small brass plate on the case reads, "IF FOUND, RETURN TO -- NASA, JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, HOUSTON, TEXAS 77058."

Duane accompanied her to the school. And despite the fact that he hadn't worked for NASA in 40 years, he smoothly converted back into his Spacemobiler ways.

"Have you ever driven a nail with a banana?" Duane asked the students after dipping one into a container of liquid nitrogen and freezing it solid.

As the banana proved to have the power of a hammer, the looks of authentic amazement and surprise on the student's faces spoke powerfully. And so did their questions.

"Is this a magic trick?" a student asked.

"No, magic. Just science" Duane replied.

"He had such a presence," Debra said of her father.

The Moon Rock temporarily abolished his presence. The students put gloves on and one-by-one touched the pyramid and gazed into the rock that had traveled some 238,857 miles (384,403 km) back to Earth 40 years prior.

"Everyone wanted to touch it, like a relic," Debra said of the students, and even airport security personnel that help her to guard it from harm.

But the contact that truly mattered was that of the students.

"I keep hearing that kids are different today than they were years ago. I just don't buy that," Duane said. "Kids are kids. The same eager faces that you see in front of you today are the same that I saw in front of me 40 years ago."

Debra and two of her brothers recreated the "Moon Rock" photo, and the moment that sparked their own sense of wonder. It seemingly had a great affect on them as each studied and works in a science-related field.

Whether Science or magic, their Moon Rock experience was afforded to a new generation. And now, it's up to them to decide what to do with it.

"I see incredible optimism and potential in these kids. And after bringing the Moon Rock home, I feel really hopeful about the future," Debra said. "I still believe that anything is possible. And I know I always will."

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cassini and Telescope See Violent Saturn Storm


NASA's Cassini spacecraft and a European Southern Observatory ground-based telescope tracked the growth of a giant early-spring storm in Saturn's northern hemisphere that is so powerful it stretches around the entire planet. The rare storm has been wreaking havoc for months and shooting plumes of gas high into the planet's atmosphere.

Cassini's radio and plasma wave science instrument first detected the large disturbance, and amateur astronomers tracked its emergence in December 2010. As it rapidly expanded, its core developed into a giant, powerful thunderstorm. The storm produced a 3,000-mile-wide (5,000-kilometer-wide) dark vortex, possibly similar to Jupiter's Great Red Spot, within the turbulent atmosphere.

The dramatic effects of the deep plumes disturbed areas high up in Saturn's usually stable stratosphere, generating regions of warm air that shone like bright "beacons" in the infrared. Details are published in this week's edition of Science Magazine.

"Nothing on Earth comes close to this powerful storm," says Leigh Fletcher, the study's lead author and a Cassini team scientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. "A storm like this is rare. This is only the sixth one to be recorded since 1876, and the last was way back in 1990."

This is the first major storm on Saturn observed by an orbiting spacecraft and studied at thermal infrared wavelengths, where Saturn's heat energy reveals atmospheric temperatures, winds and composition within the disturbance.

Temperature data were provided by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal in Chile and Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS), operated by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"Our new observations show that the storm had a major effect on the atmosphere, transporting energy and material over great distances, modifying the atmospheric winds -- creating meandering jet streams and forming giant vortices -- and disrupting Saturn's slow seasonal evolution," said Glenn Orton, a paper co-author, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The violence of the storm -- the strongest disturbances ever detected in Saturn's stratosphere -- took researchers by surprise. What started as an ordinary disturbance deep in Saturn's atmosphere punched through the planet's serene cloud cover to roil the high layer known as the stratosphere.

"On Earth, the lower stratosphere is where commercial airplanes generally fly to avoid storms which can cause turbulence," says Brigette Hesman, a scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park who works on the CIRS team at Goddard and is the second author on the paper. "If you were flying in an airplane on Saturn, this storm would reach so high up, it would probably be impossible to avoid it."

Other indications of the storm's strength are the changes in the composition of the atmosphere brought on by the mixing of air from different layers. CIRS found evidence of such changes by looking at the amounts of acetylene and phosphine, both considered to be tracers of atmospheric motion. A separate analysis using Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, led by Kevin Baines of JPL, confirmed the storm is very violent, dredging up larger atmospheric particles and churning up ammonia from deep in the atmosphere in volumes several times larger than previous storms. Other Cassini scientists are studying the evolving storm, and a more extensive picture will emerge soon.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany operates the VLT in Chile. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Wednesday, May 18, 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.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Atlantis' Final Rollover


Shuttle Atlantis makes its final planned move from Orbiter Processing Facility-1 to the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The move, called "rollover," is a major milestone in processing for the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station, targeted for early July. Inside the VAB, the shuttle will be attached to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters.

Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim were on hand for the move.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

JPL Shares Excitement of Exploration at Open House


This year, the annual Open House at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., welcomed over 38,000 visitors the weekend of May 14 and 15. The theme of this year's event was "The Excitement of Exploration," inviting visitors to share in the wonders of space through high-definition and 3-D videos, live demonstrations, interactions with scientists and engineers, and a first look at JPL's new Earth Science Center.

Other exhibits included:

• The Spacecraft Assembly Facility where the next Mars rover, "Curiosity," is being built and prepared for a November 2011 launch.
• Tours of the Microdevices Laboratory
• Hands-on demonstrations of JPL robotics
• An Earth "Puffersphere" globe that displays recent data from NASA's Earth-orbiting satellites

Many of JPL's facilities were open and staff members on-hand to answer questions about JPL's past, current and future missions.

In addition, over 27,000 people viewed Open House remotely via live steaming video. Live video webcasts aired from JPL's mission control, the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, and other key locations, giving viewers the opportunity to ask questions of scientists and engineers via a live chat. Those videos are now archived at .

JPL also kept space enthusiasts up-to-date on information about the event's various exhibits and demonstrations via Twitter @NASAJPL at and on Facebook at .

More information about JPL is online at: . Follow us via social media, including Facebook and Twitter . A full list, with links, is at:

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mars Mission Components Delivered to Florida


An Air Force C-17 transport plane delivered the heat shield, back shell and cruise stage of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on May 12, 2011. The heat shield and back shell together form the aeroshell, which will encapsulate the mission's rover and descent stage. The cruise stage will perform critical communication and navigation functions during the flight from Earth to Mars.

The mission will launch in late 2011 and deliver its rover, Curiosity, to the surface of Mars in August 2012.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

A live feed of Curiosity being built and tested in a clean room at JPL, with a chat feature available most days, is online at: . You can also follow the mission on Facebook at and Twitter @MarsCuriosity .

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Aquarius to Illuminate Links Between Salt, Climate


When NASA's salt-seeking Aquarius instrument ascends to the heavens this June, the moon above its launch site at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base won't be in the seventh house, and Jupiter's latest alignment with Mars will be weeks in the past, in contrast to the lyrics of the song from the popular Broadway musical "Hair." Yet for the science team eagerly awaiting Aquarius' ocean surface salinity data, the dawning of NASA's "Age of Aquarius" promises revelations on how salinity is linked to Earth's water cycle, ocean circulation and climate.

Salinity – the concentration of salt – on the ocean surface is a key missing puzzle piece in satellite studies of Earth that will improve our understanding of how the ocean and atmosphere are coupled and work in tandem to affect our climate. While satellites already measure sea surface temperature and winds, rainfall, water vapor, sea level, and ocean color, measurements of ocean surface salinity have, until quite recently, been limited to sparse data collected from ships, buoys and a small number of airborne science campaigns.

From those limited data, we know ocean surface salinity varies by only about five parts per thousand globally. Yet a change of just a fraction of one part per thousand can influence the circulation of the ocean. Knowing the salinity of the ocean surface can also help scientists trace Earth's water cycle – the process that circulates freshwater from the ocean to the atmosphere to the land and back again to the ocean through rainfall, evaporation, ice melt and river runoff. Aquarius, the primary science instrument on the Aquarius/Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D spacecraft built by Argentina's national space agency, Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales, will help scientists study these complex, interrelated processes and their link to climate.

Recent studies have shown Earth's water cycle is speeding up in response to climate change, which affects global precipitation patterns. Currently, scientists study the water cycle by making inferences from measurements of how much water is discharged from rivers and by measuring precipitation and evaporation rates using satellites like NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission.

"About 80 percent of Earth's water cycle takes place over the ocean," said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef of Earth & Space Research, Seattle. "By measuring ocean surface salinity, Aquarius will be able to track how the water cycle is changing in response to climate change."

Salinity and the Deep Blue Sea

While surface winds drive currents in the upper ocean, deep below the surface, it's a different story. There, ocean circulation is dominated by changes in the density of seawater. These changes are determined by salinity and temperature. The saltier and colder the water, the more dense it is. In parts of the world, cool, high-salinity surface waters become so dense that they sink to great depths, where they become part of deep ocean currents. Found in all ocean basins, these deep currents are interconnected and play an important role in regulating Earth's climate by transporting heat globally.

By revealing changes in patterns of global precipitation and evaporation and showing how these changes may affect ocean circulation, Aquarius will help improve predictions of future climate trends and short-term climate events, such as El Niño and La Niña.

'A Spoon of Salt in a Lake'

Gautama Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, once said, "A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable. A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed."

Such is the challenge faced by the scientists who designed Aquarius. Since ocean surface salinity generally averages just 32 to 37 parts per thousand around the globe, it's very hard for a satellite to detect its signal. The salinity differences between El Niño and La Niña are very small – only about one part per thousand.

Aquarius employs new technologies to be able to detect changes in ocean surface salinity as small as about two parts in 10,000, equivalent to about one-eighth of a teaspoon of salt in a gallon of water. Its unique, advanced design combines three radiometers, which measure the salinity signal, with a scatterometer that compensates for the effects of ocean surface "roughness" (waves). The result is expected to be the most accurate salinity data ever measured from space.

Scientists will combine Aquarius' maps of global ocean surface salinity with in-ocean salinity measurements to generate routine maps of ocean salinity distribution. Later in the mission, Aquarius data will be inter-calibrated and combined with complementary data from the European Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite.

Peering Into a Crystal Ball (of Salt)

Scientists believe Aquarius will lead to exciting and unexpected new discoveries - a "mind's true liberation" of sorts. They will be able to accurately calculate the rate at which surface ocean circulation transports freshwater. They'll see how salinity is affected by melting ice, freshwater flowing into the ocean, and fluxes of freshwater to and from the atmosphere from rainfall and evaporation. They'll be able to better study how ocean waters mix vertically. And they'll greatly reduce uncertainties in calculating the ocean's freshwater budget (the net difference between freshwater lost in the ocean through evaporation and freshwater added to the ocean by precipitation and runoff).

Perhaps nowhere is the potential for discovery from Aquarius higher than in the Southern Ocean. "Today's salinity maps don't show many features in the Southern Ocean," said Yi Chao, Aquarius project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., which jointly built Aquarius with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "This is because data there are so sparse. Yet the Southern Ocean is one of the key deepwater formation areas in the world and is one of the key drivers of deep ocean circulation and heat transport."

Other areas of particular interest to Aquarius researchers include:

• The Central North Atlantic, where salinity has been observed to be increasing, and the region has been getting more arid
• The Nordic and Labrador Seas, where dense water forms at the surface and sinks to deep layers in the ocean. Aquarius should be able to observe the year-to-year effects of ice melting on the circulation between Greenland and Iceland.
• The Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, which have a very large salinity signal but have been less frequently measured than the Atlantic and Pacific oceans

And then there's the Arctic Ocean, which has seen significant changes in sea ice cover in recent years. Aquarius will provide some salinity measurements over the Arctic during its ice-free seasons, though the Aquarius signal is less sensitive over cold water.

Aquarius' prime mission will last at least three years, long enough to map year-to-year variations in salinity that will allow researchers to develop the methodology for and demonstrate the usefulness of salinity as a climate data record.

Aquarius data will eventually be used to improve the accuracy of climate forecast models. Ocean surface salinity is not currently well represented in models used by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its assessment reports.

Lagerloef likened Aquarius to an explorer of an unexplored frontier. "We'll see the ocean in a whole different light. When the first Earth science satellites launched in the 1970s, we saw ocean eddies for the first time and got our first glimpse of the tremendous turbulence of the ocean. With Aquarius, we're going to see things we don't currently see. It's as though the blinders will be removed from our eyes."

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

NASA’s Spaceward Bound Takes Teachers Trekking across the Mojave Desert


What on Earth are the clues NASA scientists use to help them deduce that there may be life on other planets? Can the same process be applied in the classroom to inspire and motivate the next generation of explorers?

This spring, Spaceward Bound, a NASA education program, took teachers and education students on a high desert expedition across the dry, hot plains of the Mojave Desert. Students, teachers and scientists travelled to the Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park and surrounding regions, including Cima Crater and the Kelso Dunes, March 21-25 and April 18-22. Their mission was to find microbial life that also may be found on other planets.

Developed at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., Spaceward Bound's mission is to train the next generation of space explorers. Led by science teams from NASA and its research partners, students and teachers are given real planetary research experience by conducting field experiments at planetary analogue sites throughout the world. California State University's (CSU) Desert Studies Center, Zzyzx, Calif., served as the base camp for the 2011 expeditions.

"My experience was fantastic! After talking with scientists, working in the field and analyzing samples in the lab, I remembered why I fell in love with science," said Jan Winter, a science teacher from Stanley Middle School, Lafayette, Calif. "It also reminded me to ask my students more open-ended questions."

Teachers sometimes use "cookbook" experiments in their classrooms. By collaborating with scientists to analyze their data and formulate hypotheses after a long day of field research, teachers experienced an alternative method for teaching science. They noted significant differences between the highly structured techniques used in the classroom, and the less-structured approach of fieldwork, where results and indications from one day's work guided decisions about what to do the next day. As part of any investigation, "Students need to be told that we don't always know the 'right' answer," Winter said.

During the expedition, teachers from Las Vegas, Nev., Spaceward Bound alumni teachers and science education majors from California Polytechnic State University, and CSU's San Bernardino and San Francisco universities were taught how to evaluate microbes in the desert soil crusts, make batteries out of "dry" lake bed mud, launch instrumented high altitude balloons, remotely control rovers, and conduct other geology and soil experiments.

During field research, the group headed for the Kelso Dunes and Cima Dome and Lava Tubes to find and collect samples of biological soil crusts (BSC), complex communities of cyanobacteria, moss and lichen that are studied for their ability to survive extreme environments. Driving along desert plains, the expedition found samples large enough to collect without harming the viability of the colony. Their next task was to find a section of barren land and compare it to the life found in the BSC samples.

"Looking at soil crusts and hypoliths are tangible activities that can be incorporated into the school curricula," said Paula Mills, a teacher and curriculum leader from Prince Alfred College, Kent Town, South Australia. "I am currently thinking about including more Earth science in the middle school curricula. This program has enabled me to find new, exciting and real activities that students can participate in."

The desert group also travelled a rocky road to the Lava Tubes, where they observed gaps in the Earth formed by geologically "young" (approximately 10,000-15,000 years old) magma. After descending into the depths of the caves, they explored the interiors and took thermographic images as future satellites and astronauts might to identify potential habitats on other planets.

"This experience changed my view of how to teach science one hundred percent," said Leyla Morison, a science teacher from Valley High School, Las Vegas, Nev. "The most rewarding part of the experience was meeting with scientists and their crews every night after dinner. I was able to participate, as well as witness scientists justifying their empirical data, theories, paradigms, hypotheses, and data analysis to their peers."

As part of the field research experience, teachers and students were given time to practice laboratory techniques using field samples they had gathered during the day.

They also were given the opportunity to watch students from Valley View Middle School, Pleasanton, Calif., launch an instrumented weather balloon designed and built by Columbus High School, Ga., students in the Doing Research at Extreme Altitudes by Motivated Students (DREAMS) program. Mission objectives included investigating various perchlorates in Mars-like conditions, testing a full flight video system, using remote sensing to survey the Mojave National Preserve, collecting Geiger counter samples for full flight, performing an algae ultraviolet exposure experiment, and logging environmental data for full flight.

"We need to emphasize to our students the importance of working as a group. My students saw the videos I took of daily meetings, where scientists discuss their findings each day and their plans for the next day. It takes all types of scientists working together to solve problems," said Winter.

"I definitely feel that I have a better understanding of science practices. Now I can better motivate students in the classroom to be science professionals," said Morrison.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

NASA Mission Seeks to Uncover a Rainfall Mystery


Scientists from NASA and other organizations are on a mission to unlock the mysteries of why certain clouds produce copious amounts of rain. In a field mission that is now under way, aircraft are carrying instruments above and into rain clouds. Meanwhile scientists are also getting rainfall measurements on the ground.

This field campaign provides the most comprehensive observations of rainfall in the U.S. through the use of aircraft, spacecraft, remote sensing and ground sensors.

Convective clouds are the focus of a NASA mission that runs from April to June, 2011. Convective clouds form when warm, moist air rises and condenses at higher altitudes. Cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds or thunderclouds are types of convective clouds.

On April 22, scientists from NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched a weeks-long field campaign to learn more about the inner workings of cloud systems that generate significant amounts of rainfall. The field campaign, called the Mid-latitude Continental Convective Clouds Experiment (MC3E), will run until June 6 from the DOE's Southern Great Plains site near Ponca City in central Oklahoma. Because April through June is severe weather season in Oklahoma, there will be plenty of convective clouds to study.

"Because precipitation is so critical to our daily existence, we naturally would like to know how much rain falls at any given place and time," said Walt Petersen, a scientist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., who is leading NASA's component of the campaign. "Our goal is to observe and measure the entire precipitation process, from the ice that forms near the tops of clouds to the rainfall that ends up on the ground."

Campaign scientists say the effort is unprecedented in scope. It combines data gathered by instruments on the ground as well as those installed on aircraft flying at varying altitudes. This way, researchers can simultaneously observe clouds from high altitudes using instruments installed on NASA’s ER-2 aircraft, while sampling the sizes, types, and shapes of precipitation from aircraft flying at lower altitudes within the cloud. Meanwhile, ground-based radars and imaging networks are analyzing the precipitation that actually falls to the ground.

Data from various satellites are also being used in MC3E. NASA's CloudSat, CALIPSO, Aqua, and Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellites are also providing data to the field campaign. NOAA is providing data from their GOES and polar orbiting satellites.

The goal of MC3E is to intensively sample the entire column of the atmosphere underneath the satellite simulator (the ER-2) and verify that all aircraft and ground-based measurements paint a consistent picture of precipitation physics, Petersen said.

Convective clouds are most common in the tropics. Convective cloud systems are also common at higher latitudes, including Oklahoma, and appear as puffs, mounds, or towering clouds that can range from as low as 1,000 feet to more than 50,000 feet. In these clouds, large amounts of water vapor are cooled and condensed into water droplets and eventually falls as precipitation.

"Convective cloud processes play a critical role in our daily lives," added Michael Jensen, the meteorologist leading the DOE element of the MC3E campaign. "To represent these cloud systems in computer models of the atmosphere, we need to understand the details of why these clouds form, where they form, how they grow and shrink, and what factors control the amount of rain that falls from them. MC3E will provide insights into all of these questions."

Scientists will use this data to advance techniques for deriving more accurate rainfall information from a network of satellites as part of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission satellite to be launched in 2013. GPM, an international partnership lead by NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in coordination with space agencies of many nations, will measure rain and snow over the entire globe using more sophisticated instruments. It builds on the success of the NASA-JAXA TRMM satellite, which provides scientists with daily worldwide rain intensities in the tropics.

"Our ability to relate satellite observations to rain that hits the ground requires detailed knowledge of the atmospheric column above it," says Arthur Hou, the GPM project scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "That is why data collected in field campaigns like MC3E are vital for refining satellite algorithms during the pre-launch phase."

"The end goal of this campaign is to collect a dataset that enables us to build the best set of methods to estimate the amount of precipitation over a point on the earth's surface from an orbiting GPM satellite," Petersen explained. This will improve the accuracy of future satellite instruments, including those flying on GPM.

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

NASA, Space Community Remember 'Freedom 7'


On the morning of May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard crawled into the cramped Mercury capsule, "Freedom 7," at Launch Complex 5 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The slender, 82-foot-tall Mercury-Redstone rocket rose from the launch pad at 9:34 a.m. EST, sending Shepard on a remarkably successful, 15-minute suborbital flight.

But more than that, it kick-started America's future as a spacefaring nation.

On the 50th anniversary of Shepard's pioneering flight, his three daughters, Laura Churchley, Julie Jenkins and Alice Wackermann, joined former space workers and their families, community leaders and others to celebrate the flight and its legacy.

"In the audience today, we have more than 100 workers from the Mercury era who devoted their lives to flying humans safely in space," said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana. He asked them to stand, and they were greeted by a round of applause.

"You should be extremely proud of what you did for our country and for humankind," Cabana said.

The flight of "Freedom 7" boosted spirits throughout the country at a time when the U.S. appeared to be faltering in the quest for a viable space program. Just weeks before, on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space, orbiting the Earth for 108 minutes in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.

A U.S. Navy test pilot, Shepard was one of the first astronauts selected by NASA. The "Mercury Seven" astronauts -- M. Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, Shepard, John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom Jr., Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton -- were introduced to the nation in April 1959. NASA kept the identity of the first astronaut to fly a secret until word of Shepard's command got out just days before the launch.

After ignition, Shepard reached up to start the mission clock. The vehicle experienced some vibration about a minute and a half into flight when it pierced the area of peak aerodynamic pressure, but Shepard enjoyed a smoother ride as the Redstone pushed skyward. Once the Mercury spacecraft separated from the rocket, the capsule turned, with its heat shield facing forward. During the short flight, Shepard took in the amazing view and experimented with the spacecraft's controls.

At the anniversary event, the entire flight was replayed in a video that began five minutes before launch time, with liftoff and landing at the precise moment when Shepard began and ended his mission 50 years ago.

"It was an intense countdown. Everybody had their job. There was no joking around," said former Chief Test Conductor Bob Moser. "But we enjoyed it, and it worked. Congratulations to all of us. We were a great team."

The flight was significant not only because it displayed bravery and technological progress, but also because it played out before journalists and the public. For the first time, the world was able to share in the tension and excitement as the historic event unfolded on television in real time.

"To me -- and I've gone through hundreds of launches and done countdowns in hundreds of launches -- the first is always very special," said Jack King, former chief of NASA's Public Information Office. "I must admit, it's the only one when I was misty-eyed. The first American in space! I couldn't be prouder. And I couldn't be prouder for being a part of it."

"Freedom 7" was only the beginning of Shepard's spaceflight career. He went on to serve as chief of the Astronaut Office after his first flight. In 1971, he commanded the Apollo 14 mission, landing along with Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell in the Fra Mauro region originally intended as Apollo 13's target while Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa orbited overhead.

"I remember every time he spoke, he always gave credit to everyone in NASA who built the good ships that brought him home to us safely," Churchley said. "We thank you all very much."

Human spaceflight has changed dramatically in the ensuing half-century. A space shuttle flight is typically about two weeks; long-duration increments aboard the massive International Space Station last several months. Today's space missions are intricate and complex, requiring years of training and rehearsal, with crews of five, six or seven astronauts working together on a single flight. Rather than a race to the finish, a spirit of international cooperation provides a backdrop for today's space program.

"It's an honor to share this day with so many people who helped NASA pioneer human spaceflight and enable the agency's many accomplishments throughout our existence," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "I salute all of you."

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Growing Up at Goddard: Shuttle Small Payloads Launched Careers of Many


Airlines can not afford to fly with empty seats very often – and Space Shuttle orbiters can’t leave valuable payload capacity “on the ground.” Costing hundreds of millions of dollars per flight, NASA filled extra space in the shuttle’s cargo bay using the Shuttle Small Payloads Project (SSPP).

Hooks and power buses built into the shuttle bays allowed hundreds of small, modular experiments and technology test units to make the best use of missions that didn’t need all 50,000 pounds of payload capacity. Between 1982 and 2003, more than 200 of these projects, including Get-Away Special (GAS) Cannisters, Hitchhikers and Spartans, flew in 108 missions.

The program offered an invaluable proving ground for science and technology as well as for a large contingent of young scientists and engineers who came to Goddard in the early 1980s and grew up here working with small payloads. The Shuttle Small Payloads Project became one of NASA’s most fertile nurturing grounds as well as one of NASA’s most economically and technically successful programs. Many of these investigators rose to positions of authority, shaping the course of NASA science and exploration.

“Back then the SSPP, and the other projects in the Special Payloads Division (SPD), operated in a skunk-works type of atmosphere,” said Gerry Daelemans, now Project Formulations Manager for the Earth Science Program Office and Landsat 9. “Young people gravitated to it. There were a lot of different projects in the SPD – we had the original Small Explorers (SMEX) Project, the Shuttle based Spartan Project, the PegSat Project. A lot of people got a lot of really good engineering and management experience in a short period of time. There was a lot of cross-fertilization of training on a lot of different small and quick missions, all of which flew in less than three years. Today nobody would dream of that.”

Many missions could be approved to fly in two years from conception – mere months for a second flight if the experimenter was ready, Daelemans said. “You could risk failing, because if you did, we could just re-fly you.”

To Earth Orbit – and Beyond

In the mid 1980s, Dr. James Garvin, a fresh-faced geoscientist from Brown University, flew laser ranging Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) equipment aboard aircraft out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Systems he helped design graphed the meter-scal topography of Mars, the moon and Mercury.

However, to get the more detailed data needed to learn how to assess landing sites and surfaces of other planets, he needed to experiment with LIDAR in Earth orbit.

“Mapping Mars allowed us to have confidence to fly these kind of missions,” Garvin said of the Shuttle Laser Altimeter missions (SLA I and SLA II: Jan. 1996 and Aug. 1997)). “What it did for us was show what we could actually do for Earth science.”

Using leftover equipment from the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter project, the SLA team integrated a wave-form analyzer – allowing scientists to glean significant new data from individual backscattered photons, rather than from the bulk of the returned light.

He got his chance in 1996 aboard STS 72 on Endeavour. Their first topographic profiles showed the peak of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, one of the largest volcanoes on earth.

Later, Garvin and the SLA team noticed peculiar surface height distributions in the data. “We started getting these booming echoes that turned out to be the tops of trees, and smaller returns from the ground underneath,” he said. “We realized we could use this method to measure the biomass of the planet.” Individual signals teased out of the apparent noise also allowed them to measure the difference between glacier top surfaces and the ground beneath – technology and methods adapted for the IceSat-1 and Operation Ice Bridge missions.

“The legacy of those experiments was the proving ground for what we have since accomplished in developing these LIDAR instruments for other planets,” Garvin said. “Everyone who worked on this project went on to really make a contribution to science.”

Beyond Technology – Growing Up at Goddard

Small payloads work exposed many Goddard engineers and managers to the larger agency, said Joann Baker. She started in 1983 working with Get Away Special (GAS) cannisters.

“It was exciting because I got to go integrate payloads in the actual Shuttle bay. I learned a lot about safety. I presented safety information to the broader agency. We got a lot of inter-center interaction that way,” she said.

These opportunities and responsibilities boosted the career trajectories of many Goddard leaders.

“That was a powerful experience. It gave me a lot of confidence and experience that in other larger, more structured organizations would have taken many more years to garner that level of experience,” said Craig Tooley. He calls his start as a mechanical engineer in the Special Payloads Division at Goddard in 1983 the “luckiest thing” that ever happened to him. “We were kind of thrust into it.”

He went on to manage the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission and is now the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission Flight Project Manager.

The program was also open to students and institutions outside NASA, and many of those investigators drew big achievements from their small payloads, said Dr. Ruthan Lewis, who helped manage multiple SSPP missions.

“Engaging and inspiring students was very exciting,” she said. “To watch these students start from near zero experience, and just see their wonderment, their sense of, ‘Wow, I flew my experiment in space, and I learned so much from it.’ That was just incredible.”

Goddard engineers and managers are working to ensure low-cost access to space for science and technology payloads remains an agency priority.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

NASA's Gravity Probe B Confirms Two Einstein Space-Time Theories


NASA's Gravity Probe B (GP-B) mission has confirmed two key predictions derived from Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which the spacecraft was designed to test.

The experiment, launched in 2004, used four ultra-precise gyroscopes to measure the hypothesized geodetic effect, the warping of space and time around a gravitational body, and frame-dragging, the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it rotates.

GP-B determined both effects with unprecedented precision by pointing at a single star, IM Pegasi, while in a polar orbit around Earth. If gravity did not affect space and time, GP-B's gyroscopes would point in the same direction forever while in orbit. But in confirmation of Einstein's theories, the gyroscopes experienced measurable, minute changes in the direction of their spin, while Earth's gravity pulled at them.

The findings are online in the journal Physical Review Letters.

"Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey. As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it's the same with space and time," said Francis Everitt, GP-B principal investigator at Stanford University. "GP-B confirmed two of the most profound predictions of Einstein's universe, having far-reaching implications across astrophysics research. Likewise, the decades of technological innovation behind the mission will have a lasting legacy on Earth and in space."

GP-B is one of the longest running projects in NASA history, with agency involvement starting in the fall of 1963 with initial funding to develop a relativity gyroscope experiment. Subsequent decades of development led to groundbreaking technologies to control environmental disturbances on spacecraft, such as aerodynamic drag, magnetic fields and thermal variations. The mission's star tracker and gyroscopes were the most precise ever designed and produced.

GP-B completed its data collection operations and was decommissioned in December 2010.

"The mission results will have a long-term impact on the work of theoretical physicists," said Bill Danchi, senior astrophysicist and program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Every future challenge to Einstein's theories of general relativity will have to seek more precise measurements than the remarkable work GP-B accomplished."

Innovations enabled by GP-B have been used in GPS technologies that allow airplanes to land unaided. Additional GP-B technologies were applied to NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer mission, which accurately determined the universe's background radiation. That measurement is the underpinning of the big-bang theory, and led to the Nobel Prize for NASA physicist John Mather.

The drag-free satellite concept pioneered by GP-B made a number of Earth-observing satellites possible, including NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment and the European Space Agency's Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer. These satellites provide the most precise measurements of the shape of the Earth, critical for precise navigation on land and sea, and understanding the relationship between ocean circulation and climate patterns.

GP-B also advanced the frontiers of knowledge and provided a practical training ground for 100 doctoral students and 15 master's degree candidates at universities across the United States. More than 350 undergraduates and more than four dozen high school students also worked on the project with leading scientists and aerospace engineers from industry and government. One undergraduate student who worked on GP-B became the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. Another was Eric Cornell who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.

"GP-B adds to the knowledge base on relativity in important ways and its positive impact will be felt in the careers of students whose educations were enriched by the project," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., managed the Gravity Probe-B program for the agency. Stanford University, NASA's prime contractor for the mission, conceived the experiment and was responsible for the design and integration of the science instrument, mission operations and data analysis. Lockheed Martin Corp. of Huntsville designed, integrated and tested the space vehicle and some of its major payload components.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Two NASA Sites Win Webby Awards


Two NASA websites have been recognized in the 15th Annual Webby Awards -- the leading international honor for the world's best Internet sites.

NASA's main website,, received its third consecutive People's Voice Award for best government site. NASA's Global Climate Change site at, which won last year's People's Voice Award for science, won the 2011 judges' award for best science site.

"NASA is committed to sharing its compelling story with people everywhere and with every communication tool," said David Weaver, NASA's associate administrator for communications. "We are very grateful to the online community for its continued support of what we are doing, and are excited about our future."

NASA recently posted new interactive pieces on the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Program and the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. spaceflight. And in the last year, the agency has streamlined its online video presentation into a single player and deployed a version of the site optimized for mobile devices.

"NASA has a very broad-based Web team that can take content, literally the best raw material in the universe, and create compelling imagery, video and multimedia pieces to tell the agency's story," said Internet Services Manager Brian Dunbar in the Office of Communications at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Global Climate Change site for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

"NASA satellites take key measurements of our climate, and the Global Climate Change site gives the public access to that data as a visual, immersive experience," said Randal Jackson, JPL's Internet communications manager for the Global Climate Change site. "We're grateful for the high degree of interest the public has shown in Earth's vital signs."

NASA has had a Web presence almost since HTML was invented in the early 1990's, but the site's popularity skyrocketed after a 2003 redesign and relaunch focused on making it more usable and understandable for the general public. Since then, there have been more than 1.5 billion visits to the site, and its customer-satisfaction ratings are among the highest in government and comparable to popular commercial sites.

Reaching beyond the agency's website, NASA's online communications include a Facebook page with more than 368,000 "likes"; a Twitter feed with more than a million followers; and more than 160 accounts across a variety of social media platforms. Last fall, NASA placed first by a wide margin in the L2 Digital IQ Index for the Public Sector study that ranks 100 public sector organizations in the effectiveness of their websites, digital outreach, social media use and mobile sites.

The Office of Communications and the Office of the Chief Information Officer, both at NASA Headquarters, manage the agency's website.

Presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the Webby Award recognizes excellence in technology and creativity. The academy created the awards in 1996 to help drive the creative, technical, and professional progress of the Internet and evolving forms of interactive media. While members of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences select the Webby award winners, the online community determines the winners of the People's Voice Awards.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Project Morpheus Begins to Take Flight at NASA’s Johnson Space Center


Named for the Greek god of dreams, Project Morpheus is a project for people who dream big.

Engineers at Johnson Space Center began work in July of 2010 on the Morpheus lander – a testbed for new technologies that a vehicle intended to land on the moon, an asteroid or even Mars would need. It’s scheduled to take flight untethered for the first time in May, and will be the first prototype spacecraft to fly at Johnson since before man walked on the moon.

“Projects like Morpheus are invigorating and infectious,” said Steve Altemus, director of Johnson’s Engineering Directorate. “And they help us find better and cheaper ways to do things. To challenge our existing processes. To innovate.”

Altemus and the Morpheus team have used what they call “lean development” in their work on Morpheus. It calls for starting small, and building up fast – understanding that it’s better to do hands-on tests of a design in the early stages, so that it can fail and the failures can drive improvements before the team makes more expensive progress. That’s not an entirely new concept, but for many NASA engineers who have spent their entire careers to this point working on established programs where any change has the potential to introduce life-threatening problems into the system, it represents a culture change.

Lean development also calls for the engineers to find ways to save money by leveraging resources already in existence – whether that be through Innovative Partnerships with commercial companies, facilities with free space or integration of work already going on – and very little money.

“Today, human spaceflight exists in a very highly constrained fiscal environment, which is presenting significant challenges to all of us at the human spaceflight centers,” Altemus said. “However, with challenge and adversity comes opportunity. We’ve built a functioning spacecraft in less than a year by making good use of commercial partnerships and resources that we already had on hand.”

In this case, the functioning spacecraft brings together two key developing technologies that Johnson Space Center had previously been working on separately: an engine fueled by “green” propellants and an automated system for avoiding obstacles on whatever surface the vehicle might be landing on.

The green propellants are liquid oxygen and methane, called LOX/methane for short. They offer a safer alternative to traditional spacecraft fuels, and are at the same time not only 10 to 20 times less expensive, but also lighter. The weight of the fuel becomes very important when every pound of weight carried into space will require an additional 15 pounds of fuel to get it there.

And as an added bonus, the fuels may be available locally in some of NASA’s future exploration destinations. Engineers with NASA’s In-Situ Resource Utilization program are already testing methods of extracting oxygen from lunar dust, and methane exists in the Martian atmosphere.

But before a lander can take advantage of those resources, it has to get to the ground safely, which is where the Automated Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology – or ALHAT – comes in.

No matter what surface a spacecraft is landing on, it will need to be able to dodge craters, boulders and any other obstacle that it finds there. During the first moon landing on Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin almost used up their fuel trying to find a safe place to land. On Apollo 14, Allan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell landed on a slope, about a meter away from a hole. David Scott and Jim Irwin landed with one leg in a crater, off the ground, on Apollo 15.

And that was with carefully chosen landing sites. NASA aims to be more nimble in its future exploration, able to land anywhere. ALHAT is being developed to make that possible. It will be able to take laser images of the surface of a planet or asteroid as it flies over and descends, defining hazards in real time on spots where the lander will be touching down within five seconds.

“Both of these – ALHAT and LOX/methane – would be relevant on any vehicle,” said Matt Ondler, Project Morpheus manager. “It doesn’t matter where you’re going.”

Both technologies were already in work at Johnson before Project Morpheus. But integrated onto a single vehicle, engineers will have an opportunity to test the systems’ performance in the real world, gathering information on how they work together that isn’t likely to be found testing the pieces individually in a laboratory.

“There are a lot of interfaces that you don’t get and can’t learn until you put a system on a vehicle,” Ondler said. “The avionics folks can develop an avionics system and test it in a lab and learn a lot from doing that. But they learn a lot more from trying to plug it into a vehicle and integrate it with a propulsion system.”

Besides, while working in a laboratory can have its share of excitement, there’s nothing quite like seeing technology – and a dream – literally take flight.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

First Family Views Shuttle Atlantis


President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia, left, Sasha, Mrs. Obama's mother Marian Robinson, astronaut Janet Kavandi and United Space Alliance project lead for thermal protection systems Terry White, walk under the landing gear of the space shuttle Atlantis as they visit Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, April 29, 2011.