Friday, January 29, 2010

High School Students Can Send Experiments Flying with NASA

NASA is inviting student teams nationwide to design and build an experiment or technology demonstration to be sent to the near space environment of the stratosphere, an altitude of 100,000 feet. The Balloonsat High Altitude Flight competition will launch on a NASA weather balloon May 25-27 in Cleveland.

To participate, student teams in grades nine through 12 must submit a research or flight demonstration proposal to NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland by Friday, Feb. 19. Teams of four or more may pursue a wide variety of topics in this competition, including science and weather observations, remote sensing and image processing. A panel of engineers and scientists at Glenn will evaluate and select four top-ranked proposals by Friday, March 5.

The top four teams will be awarded travel expenses and up to $1,000 to develop their flight experiment or technology demonstration. Teams will participate in three flight days to release, track and recover their experiments. In addition, students will tour Glenn facilities and present their findings at Glenn's Balloonsat Symposium. All participants visiting NASA must be U.S. citizens.

NASA will host an informational webcast about the competition Jan. 27 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. EST. A link to the webcast and additional information about Balloonsat High Altitude Flight is available at:

This and similar education programs help NASA attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines critical to the agency's future missions.

NASA's student Balloonsat competition is sponsored by Teaching From Space, a NASA Education Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Educational Programs Office at Glenn and the Ohio Space Grant Consortium.

For more information about NASA's education programs, visit:

For information about NASA's Glenn Research Center, visit:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

From Space to the Classroom: NASA Science Improves Climate Change Education

NASA has awarded approximately $1.4 million in cooperative agreements to enhance learning through the use of the agency's unique Earth science resources. The grants will support elementary, secondary and undergraduate education, along with lifelong teaching and learning.

Recipients are the University of Washington, the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va., and Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. NASA also provided approximately $210,000 in additional funding for an earlier award made to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The awards will fund innovative uses of data from NASA's Earth observations and Earth system models. The goal is to engage students in the critical disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and inspire the next generation of explorers.

NASA provided $6.1 million to 15 colleges and universities, nonprofit groups, museums, science centers and a school district in October 2009. At the same time, NASA identified these four proposals for selection if funds became available in 2010. To continue the program in 2010, NASA expects to issue a new solicitation for proposals this spring.

The cooperative agreements are part of a program Congress began in fiscal year 2008. For a complete list of selected organizations and projects descriptions, click on "Selected Proposals" and look for "Global Climate Change Education (GCCE): Research Experiences, Teaching & Learning" or solicitation NNL09ZB1005C at:

For more information about NASA's Global Climate Change Education initiative, visit:

For information about NASA's Education programs, visit:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NASA Ames Plays Key Role in Proposed Space Missions

Computer simulated global view of VenusScientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., are contributing to proposed missions to probe the atmosphere and crust of Venus and return a piece of a near-Earth asteroid for analysis on Earth.

Ames has a role in two of the winning proposals NASA selected as candidates for the agency's next space venture to another celestial body in our solar system. NASA will select one proposal for full development in mid-2011 after detailed mission concept studies are completed and reviewed. The final project may provide a better understanding of Earth's formation or perhaps the origin of life on our planet.

Each winning proposal team initially will receive approximately $3.3 million in 2010 to conduct a 12-month mission concept study that focuses on implementation feasibility, cost, management and technical plans. Studies also will include plans for educational outreach and small business opportunities. The studies will begin this year, and the selected mission must be ready for launch no later than Dec. 30, 2018. Mission cost, excluding the launch vehicle, is limited to $650 million.

"These are projects that inspire and excite young scientists, engineers and the public," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These three proposals provide the best science value among eight submitted to NASA."

The Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, or SAGE, mission to Venus would release a probe to descend through the planet's atmosphere. During descent, instruments would conduct extensive measurements of the atmosphere's composition and obtain meteorological data. The probe then would land on the surface of Venus, where its abrading tool would expose both a weathered and a pristine surface area to measure its composition and mineralogy. Scientists hope to understand the origin of Venus and why it is so different from Earth. Larry Esposito of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the principal investigator.

Asteroid 951 GaspraTony Colaprete and Kevin Zahnle, both research scientists at NASA Ames, are SAGE science team co-investigators. Colaprete also is the principal investigator of the SAGE Atmospheric Structure Investigation (ASI) and instrument package. The ASI instrument package will measure pressure, temperature and wind as the probe descends from the top of its atmosphere, approximately 93 miles high, to the surface. NASA Ames also is responsible for the SAGE Instrument Control Module, which interfaces with each module and the lander. The instrument package will determine Venus's atmospheric structure, stability and composition, using sensors, including an Inertial Measurement Unit. The unit includes accelerometers and gyroscopes; a temperature and pressure measuring assembly, to measure temperature, dynamic and static pressure and determine the spacecraft's descent speed; and an anemometer to measure surface wind speed.

“We can build a coherent picture of Venus's atmospheric profile by taking direct measurements in unprecedented accuracy and resolution with a unique set of sensors as SAGE flies through the atmosphere,” Colaprete said. “Wind speed, direction and the rate at which the atmosphere overturns are critical to understanding the chemistry of the atmosphere and how it interacts with the surface.”

Zahnle is part of a team that will interpret the abundances of gases in Venus's atmosphere measured by SAGE as it descends to the planet's surface. Zahnle will focus on the presence of noble gases, such as helium and neon, but particularly xenon.

"Noble gases are both rare on planets like Earth and Venus and chemically inert, but they accumulate in the atmosphere," Zahnle said. "This makes them accessible to a probe like SAGE."

Some of the noble gases are made by radioactive decay of rock-forming elements like potassium and uranium, which enter the atmosphere through volcanic eruptions.

"Some noble gases can be used to determine the geologic history of Venus because radioactive decay acts as a kind of clock," Zahnle explained. "Other noble gases are primordial, in the sense that they formed before the planets, and can be used to determine the origin and earliest evolution of planets and their atmospheres."

The Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer spacecraft, called OSIRIS-REx, would rendezvous and orbit a primitive asteroid. After extensive measurements, instruments would collect more than two ounces of material from the asteroid's surface for analysis on Earth. The returned samples would help scientists better understand and answer long-held questions about the formation of our solar system and the origin of complex molecules necessary for life. Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson, is the principal investigator.

Scott Sandford, research scientist at NASA Ames, an OSIRIS-REx science team co-investigator, will assess and control spacecraft contamination, particularly for organic particles that may appear during the design, construction, flight or recovery of the spacecraft.

While at the asteroid, the OSIRIS-REx will study the asteroid's shape, rotation and other features. Scientists then will analyze the sample to identify the minerals and organics that comprise the asteroid.

"We are hoping to find out what the true composition of organic-rich asteroids are and find out what sort of impact hazards and potential space resources they represent," said Sandford.

Sandford also will help organize and lead a portion of the Preliminary Examination Team that will study and analyze the organic particles present in the returned samples, as well as assess the cleanliness of the sample return capsule (SRC).

"When the SRC re-enters Earth's atmosphere, the spacecraft lets atmospheric air into the capsule," explained Sandford. "However, we don't want that air to also suck in contamination that will ruin the samples."

To prevent contamination, the SRC will be equipped with an air filter to protect the sample. Sandford brings his experience testing filter designs from his work on NASA's Stardust mission to collect comet dust and NASA's Genesis mission to collect solar wind particles.

Sandford also is part of another science team that will study a force that acts on rotating bodies in space, known as the Yarkovsky effect, which can cause asteroids to change their orbits. Data from the mission science instruments can also be compared with data from Earth-based telescopes. These comparisons will help scientists understand the nature of asteroids in our solar system.

"This is a key issue for being able to predict the orbits of asteroids and determine their dangers as impact hazards," said Sandford. "The science instruments also will measure the composition of the asteroid even before we get samples back."

After the samples have been analyzed, Sandford will work with the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, to organize their distribution to various organizations and researchers.

In addition to science team support, the Human-Computer Interaction Group at NASA Ames is developing software for the science processing and operations center at the University of Arizona, Tuscon.

If OSIRIS-REx is selected as a mission, NASA Ames also will provide thermal protection systems support by completing heat shield and design testing and verification in the NASA Ames arc jet facilities.

The proposals were submitted to NASA on July 31, 2009, in response to the New Frontiers Program 2009 Announcement of Opportunity. New Frontiers seeks to explore the solar system with frequent, medium-class spacecraft missions that will conduct high-quality, focused scientific investigations designed to enhance our understanding of the solar system. The New Frontiers Program is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., for NASA Headquarters.

The final selection will become the third mission in the program. New Horizons, NASA’s first New Frontiers mission, launched in 2006, will fly by the Pluto-Charon system in 2015, then target another Kuiper Belt object for study. The second mission, called Juno, is designed to orbit Jupiter from pole to pole for the first time, conducting an in-depth study of the giant planet's atmosphere and interior. It is slated for launch in August 2011.

For more information about the New Frontiers Program, visit the New Frontiers program site.

Monday, January 25, 2010

NASA to Hold Briefing on Advanced Mission to Study Our Sun

NASA is scheduled to host a briefing at 1 p.m. EST, on Thursday, Jan. 21, to discuss the upcoming launch and science of an unprecedented mission to study the sun and its dynamic behavior. The briefing on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, mission will take place in the NASA Headquarters auditorium, located at 300 E St. S.W. in Washington and at the press site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The briefing participants are:
- Richard Fisher, Heliophysics division director, NASA Headquarters in Washington
- Madhulika Guhathakurta, SDO program scientist, NASA Headquarters
- Dean Pesnell, SDO project scientist, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
- Elizabeth Citrin, SDO project manager, Goddard

The briefing will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency's Web site. To watch the briefing on the Web, visit:

Reporters unable to attend the briefing may ask questions by telephone. To reserve a telephone line, journalists should e-mail their name, media affiliation and telephone number to J.D. Harrington at:

NOTE: Due to launch processing schedules, this briefing may move to 2 p.m. EST, Friday, Jan. 22. Media representatives should contact Harrington at 202-358-5241 Thursday morning for an update.

For more information about the SDO mission, visit:

NASA Names New Wallops Flight Facility Director

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has named William Wrobel as director of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., and director of the center's Suborbital and Special Orbital Projects Directorate. This directorate manages the agency's sounding rockets and scientific balloon programs.

Wrobel, the assistant associate administrator for launch services at NASA Headquarters, will continue in that capacity until several near-term activities are completed and an effective transfer to an acting assistant associate administrator can be accomplished. In this role, he is responsible for the administration, management and direction of the acquisition and certification of expendable launch vehicles within the agency. In addition, he manages the overall policy definition, strategic planning, direction and administration of the Rocket Propulsion Test Program.

"Bill is a natural fit as Wallop's director," Bolden said. "His background, experience and knowledge about NASA's various suborbital and orbital programs will benefit the agency and our many research partners who count on Wallops for support."

The Wallops Flight Facility conducts suborbital research programs using sounding rockets, scientific balloons and aircraft. Wallops operates a test range that includes tracking facilities, a research airport and a rocket launch range for suborbital and orbital vehicles. The test range supports activities for government agencies, academia and the aerospace industry.

Wrobel earned his bachelor's degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Ohio State University in 1982, and went to work for McDonnell Douglas on the Delta Launch Vehicle Program. While at McDonnell Douglas, he worked in a variety of spacecraft programs before joining Orbital Sciences Corporation in 1990.

In 1999, he was named the program director for Orbital's Taurus Launch Vehicle Program. He also supported the company's Advanced Programs Group, providing satellite development support for Department of Defense customers.

Wrobel joined NASA in August 2006. He replaces John Campbell, who retired on Dec. 31, 2009. Campbell had been the Wallops director since January 2002.

For more information about NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, visit:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Is Antarctica Melting?

The continent of Antarctica has been losing more than 100 cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) of ice per year since 2002There has been lots of talk lately about Antarctica and whether or not the continent's giant ice sheet is melting. One new paper 1, which states there’s less surface melting recently than in past years, has been cited as "proof" that there’s no global warming. Other evidence that the amount of sea ice around Antarctica seems to be increasing slightly 2-4 is being used in the same way. But both of these data points are misleading. Gravity data collected from space using NASA's Grace satellite show that Antarctica has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) of ice each year since 2002. The latest data reveal that Antarctica is losing ice at an accelerating rate, too. How is it possible for surface melting to decrease, but for the continent to lose mass anyway? The answer boils down to the fact that ice can flow without melting.

Two-thirds of Antarctica is a high, cold desert. Known as East Antarctica, this section has an average altitude of about 2 kilometer (1.2 miles), higher than the American Colorado Plateau. There is a continent about the size of Australia underneath all this ice; the ice sheet sitting on top averages at a little over 2 kilometer (1.2 miles) thick. If all of this ice melted, it would raise global sea level by about 60 meter (197 feet). But little, if any, surface warming is occurring over East Antarctica. Radar and laser-based satellite data show a little mass loss at the edges of East Antarctica, which is being partly offset by accumulation of snow in the interior, although a very recent result from the NASA/German Aerospace Center's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) suggests that since 2006 there has been more ice loss from East Antarctica than previously thought 5. Overall, not much is going on in East Antarctica -- yet.

A Frozen Hawaii

West Antarctica is very different. Instead of a single continent, it is a series of islands covered by ice -- think of it as a frozen Hawaii, with penguins. Because it's a group of islands, much of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS, in the jargon) is actually sitting on the floor of the Southern Ocean, not on dry land. Parts of it are more than 1.7 kilometer (1 mile) below sea level. Pine Island is the largest of these islands and the largest ice stream in West Antarctica is called Pine Island Glacier. The WAIS, if it melted completely, would raise sea level by 5 to 7 meter (16 to 23 feet). And the Pine Island Glacier would contribute about 10 percent of that.

The Antarctic ice sheet. East Antarctica is much higher in elevation than West Antarctica

Since the early 1990s, European and Canadian satellites have been collecting radar data from West Antarctica. These radar data can reveal ice motion and, by the late 1990s, there was enough data for scientists to measure the annual motion of the Pine Island Glacier. Using radar information collected between 1992 and 1996, oceanographer Eric Rignot, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), found that the Pine Island Glacier's "grounding line" -- the line between the glacier's floating section and the part of the glacier that rests on the sea floor -- had retreated rapidly towards the land. That meant that the glacier was losing mass. He attributed the retreat to the warming waters around West Antarctica 6. But with only a few years of data, he couldn't say whether the retreat was a temporary, natural anomaly or a longer-term trend from global warming.

Rignot's paper surprised many people. JPL scientist Ron Kwok saw it as demonstrating that "the old idea that glaciers move really slowly isn't true any more." One result was that a lot more people started to use the radar data to examine much more of Antarctica. A major review published in 2009 found that Rignot's Pine Island Glacier finding hadn't been a fluke 7: a large majority of the marine glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula were retreating, and their retreat was speeding up. This summer, a British group revisited the Pine Island Glacier finding and found that its rate of retreat had quadrupled between 1995 and 2006 8.

How the Ice Shelf Crumbles

The retreat of West Antarctica's glaciers is being accelerated by ice shelf collapse. Ice shelves are the part of a glacier that extends past the grounding line towards the ocean they are the most vulnerable to warming seas. A longstanding theory in glaciology is that these ice shelves tend to buttress (support the end wall of) glaciers, with their mass slowing the ice movement towards the sea, and this was confirmed by the spectacular collapse of the Rhode Island-sized Larsen B shelf along the Eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula in 2002. The disintegration, which was caught on camera by NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) imaging instruments on board its Terra and Aqua satellites, was dramatic: it took just three weeks to crumble a 12,000-year old ice shelf. Over the next few years, satellite radar data showed that some of the ice streams flowing behind Larsen B had accelerated significantly, while others, still supported by smaller ice shelves, had not 9. This dynamic process of ice flowing downhill to the sea is what enables Antarctica to continue losing mass even as surface melting declines.

Michael Schodlok, a JPL scientist who models the way ice shelves and the ocean interact, says melting of the underside of the shelf is a pre-requisite to these collapses. Thinning of the ice shelf reduces its buttressing effect on the glacier behind it, allowing glacier flow to speed up. The thinner shelf is also more likely to crack. In the summer, meltwater ponds on the surface can drain into the cracks. Since liquid water is denser than solid ice, enough meltwater on the surface can open the cracks up deeper down into the ice, leading to disintegration of the shelf. West Antarctica is a series of islands covered by ice. Think of it as a frozen Hawaii, with penguinsThe oceans surrounding Antarctica have been warming 10, so Schodlok doesn't doubt that the ice shelves are being undermined by warmer water being brought up from the depths. But he admits that it hasn't been proven rigorously, because satellites can’t measure underneath the ice.

Glaciologist Robert Bindschadler of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center intends to show just that. He's leading an expedition scheduled to start in 2011 to drill through the Pine Island Glacier and place an automated buoy into the water below it. According to Bindschadler, Pine Island Glacier "is the place to go because that is where the changes are the largest. If we want to understand how the ocean is impacting the ice sheet, go to where it's hitting the ice sheet with a sledgehammer, not with a little tack hammer."

Meanwhile, measurements from the Grace satellites confirm that Antarctica is losing mass 11. Isabella Velicogna of JPL and the University of California, Irvine, uses Grace data to weigh the Antarctic ice sheet from space. Her work shows that the ice sheet is not only losing mass, but it is losing mass at an accelerating rate. "The important message is that it is not a linear trend. A linear trend means you have the same mass loss every year. The fact that it’s above linear, this is the important idea, that ice loss is increasing with time," she says. And she points out that it isn’t just the Grace data that show accelerating loss; the radar data do, too. "It isn't just one type of measurement. It's a series of independent measurements that are giving the same results, which makes it more robust."

For more information about this topic, visit NASA's Global Climate Change website.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A NASA Mission to Iraq

Malcom Phelps stands near the Minister of Education’s Teacher Training Center in BaghdadA person who becomes part of the NASA team never knows where the journey may lead, from a spacecraft in orbit to an underwater habitat to Earth's extreme environments.

For Malcom Phelps, his experience with NASA led to Baghdad. There, in the war-torn capital of Iraq, he is part of a team involved in improving education infrastructure.

Specifically, Phelps is working with the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT. The team is a project of the United States government to work with Iraqi leaders to help rebuild the infrastructure in Iraq. Provincial Reconstruction Teams include members of the U.S. military and civilian specialists from the U.S. government who offer their expertise to assist local leaders. These teams have been key to improvements in security and governance in Iraq, and their success is now being replicated in Afghanistan.

Phelps, a NASA education official, is the senior education advisor for the Baghdad team. He joined NASA as the chief of education technology in 1991; he was promoted to associate director of the education division in 1995. He joined the Provincial Reconstruction Team in April 2008 and accepted a request to extend his tour for one year.

"I became interested in the team's work because of a desire to contribute to our country's effort to rebuild Iraq," Phelps said. "So many Americans made sacrifices, and I thought I could help. Many of our young soldiers have endured multiple combat tours, so the separation from family, the risk and the austerity have seemed like a relatively small sacrifice for me in comparison."

To join the team, Phelps contacted the U.S. Department of State, which accepted him as a member of the Provincial Reconstruction Team education team. When he was accepted, NASA, and its Office of Education, agreed to assign Phelps to work with the team in Iraq.

He said that he was proud to be representing the agency as a part of the PRT. "The NASA Education Office is therefore making a significant contribution to the U.S. reconstruction mission in Iraq," Phelps said. Education is an important focus for NASA, and domestically the agency works to attract and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines and to strengthen its and the nation's future workforce.

Students proudly raise the Iraqi flag during the reopening ceremony of the Huda Girls School in Tarmiya, IraqWhen Phelps arrived in Iraq, the emphasis was on school reconstruction and supplies. Working with the Iraqi Ministry of Education, he supervised more than $20 million worth of school refurbishments. More than 200 schools were returned to service after they had been damaged in combat. Schools were the favored bases for the violent insurgency. Restoring them has provided the population with a tangible sign of progress while engaging young people in productive activity where they are less susceptible to propaganda. Phelps is especially proud of the reopening of a girls' school in rural Tarmiya. When he arrived in 2008, it had just been cleared of explosives, and there was a 4-foot hole in the wall of the principal's office made by an artillery round. The school now educates 500 girls and is the pride of the town.

Since being asked to lead the education effort in Baghdad, where four of Iraq's major universities are located, Phelps' focus has been on higher education. The team has worked to support a laboratory at Iraq's major engineering school that was the scene of destruction and looting only two years ago. He also has arranged for the U.S. engineering accreditation board to travel to Baghdad for an assessment to guide further progress. While numerous other projects are underway, such as training for English teachers, he is especially proud of being asked by the U.S. Embassy to plan and implement a program for Iraqi faculty that is preparing 200 of them to advise students about how to study in the U.S. "The students who are educated in the U.S. will return to Iraq and contribute to economic development and a hopeful future," Phelps said. With the improved security, collaborations with U.S. universities are now possible, and it's even conceivable that some can be facilitated through NASA programs such as the Space Grant consortium, he said.

When people think about NASA, places like the moon and Mars come to mind far more commonly than Baghdad. But Malcom Phelps' contribution in education to the reconstruction team is just one more way that the agency is improving life here on Earth and helping people to reach for the stars.

On the Web:
Expedition 22 Crew Members Salute the Troops →
NASA Education

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jupiter's Moons

On Jan. 7, 1610, Galileo Galilei's improvements to the telescope enabled humanity to see Jupiter's four largest moons for the first time. Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto--the so-called Galilean satellites--were seen by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on the New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby of Jupiter in late February 2007. The images have been scaled to represent the true relative sizes of the four moons and are arranged in their order from Jupiter.

Io is notable for its active volcanism, which New Horizons studied extensively. On the other hand, Europa's smooth, icy surface likely conceals an ocean of liquid water. New Horizons obtained data on Europa's surface composition and imaged subtle surface features, and analysis of these data may provide new information about the ocean and the icy shell that covers it.

New Horizons spied Ganymede from 2.2 million miles away. Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, has a dirty ice surface cut by fractures and peppered by impact craters. New Horizons' infrared observations may provide insight into the composition of the moon's surface and interior.

Scientists are using the infrared spectra New Horizons gathered of Callisto's ancient, cratered surface to calibrate spectral analysis techniques that will help them to understand the surfaces of Pluto and its moon Charon when New Horizons passes them in 2015.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Planets Can Form Around Hefty Stars

This artist's conception shows a Jupiter-sized planet forming from a disk of dust and gas surrounding a young, massive star.
This artist's conception shows a Jupiter-sized planet forming from a disk of dust and gas surrounding a young, massive star. The planet's gravity has cleared a gap in the disk. Of more than 500 stars examined in the W5 star-forming region, 15 show evidence of central clearing that may be due to forming planets.
Most searches for planets around other stars, also known as exoplanets, focus on sun-like stars. Those searches have proven successful, turning up more than 400 alien worlds. However, sun-like stars aren't the only potential homes for planets. New research from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All-Sky Survey confirms that planet formation is a natural by-product of star formation, even around stars much heftier than the sun.

For more details, please go to .

Planets Can Form Around Hefty Stars

This artist's conception shows a Jupiter-sized planet forming from a disk of dust and gas surrounding a young, massive star.
This artist's conception shows a Jupiter-sized planet forming from a disk of dust and gas surrounding a young, massive star. The planet's gravity has cleared a gap in the disk. Of more than 500 stars examined in the W5 star-forming region, 15 show evidence of central clearing that may be due to forming planets.
Most searches for planets around other stars, also known as exoplanets, focus on sun-like stars. Those searches have proven successful, turning up more than 400 alien worlds. However, sun-like stars aren't the only potential homes for planets. New research from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All-Sky Survey confirms that planet formation is a natural by-product of star formation, even around stars much heftier than the sun.

For more details, please go to .

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Galaxy Exposes Its Dusty Inner Workings in New Spitzer Image

infrared portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud
The infrared portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud, taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, reveals the stars and dust in this galaxy as never seen before.
› Full image and caption
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has captured an action-packed picture of the nearby Small Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that looks like a wispy cloud when seen from Earth.

From Spitzer's perch up in space, the galaxy's clouds of dust and stars come into clear view. The telescope's infrared vision reveals choppy piles of recycled stardust -- dust that is being soaked up by new star systems and blown out by old ones.

To some people, the new view might resemble a sea creature, or even a Rorschach inkblot test. But to astronomers, it offers a unique opportunity to study the whole life cycle of stars close-up. The image is available online at and .

"It's quite the treasure trove," said Karl Gordon, the principal investigator of the latest Spitzer observations at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. "Because this galaxy is so close and relatively large, we can study all the various stages and facets of how stars form in one environment."

The Small Magellanic Cloud, and its larger sister galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, are named after the seafaring explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who documented them while circling the globe nearly 500 years ago. From Earth's southern hemisphere, they can appear as wispy clouds. The Small Magellanic Cloud is the farther of the pair, at 200,000 light-years away.

Recent research has shown that the galaxies may not, as previously suspected, orbit around the Milky Way. Instead, they are thought to be merely sailing by, destined to go their own way. Astronomers say the two galaxies, which are both less evolved than a galaxy like ours, were triggered to create bursts of new stars by gravitational interactions with the Milky Way and with each other. In fact, the Large Magellanic Cloud may eventually consume its smaller companion.

Gordon and his team are interested in the Small Magellanic Cloud not only because it is so close and compact, but also because it is very similar to young galaxies thought to populate the universe billions of years ago. The Small Magellanic Cloud has only one-fifth the amount of heavier elements, such as carbon, contained in the Milky Way, which means that its stars haven't been around long enough to pump large amounts of these elements back into their environment. Such elements were necessary for life to form in our solar system.

Studies of the Small Magellanic Cloud therefore offer a glimpse into the different types of environments in which stars form.

The new Spitzer observations were presented today at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington. They reveal the galaxy's youngest stars embedded in thick dust, in addition to the older stars, which spit the dust out. Taken together with visible-light observations, these Spitzer data help provide a census of the whole stellar population.

"With Spitzer, we are pinpointing how to best calculate the numbers of new stars that are forming right now," said Gordon. "Observations in the infrared give us a view into the birthplace of stars, unveiling the dust-enshrouded locations where stars have just formed."

Infrared light is color-coded in the new picture, so that blue shows older stars, green shows organic dust and red highlights dust-enshrouded star formation. Light encoded in blue has a wavelength of 3.6 microns; green is 8.0 microns; and red is 24 microns. This image was taken before Spitzer ran out of its liquid coolant in May 2009 and began its "warm" mission.

Other collaborators include: M. Meixner, M, Sewilo and B. Shiao of the Space Telescope Science Institute; M. Meade, B. Babler, S. Bracker of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; C. Engelbracht, M. Block, K. Misselt of the University of Arizona, Tucson; R. Indebetouw of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville; and J. Hora and T. Robitaille of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.

The image includes Spitzer observations taken previously by a team led by Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland, College Park.

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

For more information about Spitzer, visit and

Monday, January 18, 2010

NASA Awards Goddard Unified Enterprise Services and Technology Contract

NASA has selected ASRC Primus of Greenbelt, Md., for the Goddard Unified Enterprise Services and Technology (GUEST), Fixed Price-Incentive indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contract. The five-year contract has a minimum value of $2 million and a maximum value of $229 million.

ASRC Primus will develop, integrate, sustain, and manage the information technology infrastructure and systems for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in the areas of information systems management, business infrastructure and application development, system administration, and network design.

The contract encompasses all phases of information technology project implementation, design and development, integration, operations, maintenance, sustaining engineering, data administration, system administration and management.

For information about NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, visit:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Eclipses Yield First Images of Elusive Iron Line in Solar Corona

images of the solar coronaSolar physicists attempting to unlock the mysteries of the solar corona have found another piece of the puzzle by observing the sun’s outer atmosphere during eclipses.

Ground-based observations reveal the first images of the solar corona in the near-infrared emission line of highly ionized iron, or Fe XI 789.2 nm. The observations were taken during total solar eclipses in 2006, 2008, and 2009 by astrophysicist Adrian Daw of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., with an international team of scientists led by Shadia Habbal from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA).

Comparison of the first image of the corona in Fe XI 789.2 nm, taken during the 2006 eclipse, with a white-light image taken by Miloslav Drückmuller from Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic"The first image of the corona in Fe XI 789.2 nm was taken during the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006," said Daw.

The images revealed some surprises. Most notably, that the emission extends out at least three solar radii -- that’s one-and-a-half times the sun’s width at its equator, or middle -- above the surface of the sun, and that there are localized regions of enhanced density for these iron ions.

Combined with observations of other iron charge states, the observations yield the two-dimensional distribution of electron temperature and charge-state measurements for the first time, and establish the first direct link between the distribution of charge states in the corona and in interplanetary space.

This image of the solar corona contains a color overlay of the emission from highly ionized iron lines and white light taken of the 2008 eclipse"These are the first such maps of the 2-D distribution of coronal electron temperature and ion charge state," said Daw.

Mapping the distribution of electron temperature and iron charge states in the corona with total solar eclipse observations represents an important step in understanding the solar corona and how space weather impacts Earth.

The scientists’ results will be presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting on January 4 in Washington and published in the January issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Massive Black Hole Implicated in Stellar Destruction

Composite image of a so-called ultraluminous X-ray source, or ULXNew results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescopes suggest that a dense stellar remnant has been ripped apart by a black hole a thousand times as massive as the Sun. If confirmed, this discovery would be a cosmic double play: it would be strong evidence for an intermediate mass black hole, which has been a hotly debated topic, and would mark the first time such a black hole has been caught tearing a star apart.

This scenario is based on Chandra observations, which revealed an unusually luminous source of X-rays in a dense cluster of old stars, and optical observations that showed a peculiar mix of elements associated with the X-ray emission. Taken together, a case can be made that the X-ray emission is produced by debris from a disrupted white dwarf star that is heated as it falls towards a massive black hole. The optical emission comes from debris further out that is illuminated by these X-rays.

The intensity of the X-ray emission places the source in the "ultraluminous X-ray source" or ULX category, meaning that it is more luminous than any known stellar X-ray source, but less luminous than the bright X-ray sources (active galactic nuclei) associated with supermassive black holes in the nuclei of galaxies. The nature of ULXs is a mystery, but one suggestion is that some ULXs are black holes with masses between about a hundred and several thousand times that of the Sun, a range intermediate between stellar-mass black holes and supermassive black holes located in the nuclei of galaxies.

This ULX is in a globular cluster, a very old and crowded conglomeration of stars. Astronomers have suspected that globular clusters could contain intermediate-mass black holes, but conclusive evidence for this has been elusive.

"Astronomers have made cases for stars being torn apart by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies before, but this is the first good evidence for such an event in a globular cluster," said Jimmy Irwin of the University of Alabama who led the study.

Irwin and his colleagues obtained optical spectra of the object using the Magellan I and II telescopes in Las Campanas, Chile. These data reveal emission from gas rich in oxygen and nitrogen but no hydrogen, a rare set of signals from globular clusters. The physical conditions deduced from the spectra suggest that the gas is orbiting a black hole of at least 1,000 solar masses. The abundant amount of oxygen and absence of hydrogen indicate that the destroyed star was a white dwarf, the end phase of a solar-type star that has burned its hydrogen leaving a high concentration of oxygen. The nitrogen seen in the optical spectrum remains an enigma.

"We think these unusual signatures can be explained by a white dwarf that strayed too close to a black hole and was torn apart by the extreme tidal forces," said coauthor Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan.

Theoretical work suggests that the tidal disruption-induced X-ray emission could stay bright for more than a century, but it should fade with time. So far, the team has observed there has been a 35 percent in X-ray emission from 2000 to 2008.

The ULX in this study is located in NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light years from Earth.

Irwin presented these results at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

More information, including images and other multimedia, can be found at:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

NASA Astronaut John Grunsfeld, Instrumental to Hubble Telescope Repair, Will Help Oversee its Science Operations

NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld, who participated in three spaceflights to service the Hubble Space Telescope, is leaving the agency to become the deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The institute is the science operations center for Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is planned for launch in 2014.

"During the past 18 years, John has been a true asset to the agency," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who few on the STS-31 mission that deployed the Hubble. "Some have called him the chief Hubble repairman, but I call him a friend and wish him the best in his new endeavor."

In addition to Grunsfeld's flights to Hubble (STS-103 in Dec. 1999, STS-109 in March 2002, and STS-125 in May 2009), he also served on two other shuttle missions. He performed eight critical spacewalks and logged more than 835 hours in space.

During 2003 and 2004, he was NASA's Chief Scientist at the agency's headquarters in Washington. He helped develop the Vision for Space Exploration, which set NASA on the path for future exploration endeavors.

In accepting the institute position, Grunsfeld said, "This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for me to work at a focal point of top astronomers at the leading edge of scientific inquiry. The team at the Space Telescope Science Institute has a demonstrated record of meeting the high performance challenges of operating the Hubble Space Telescope and preparing for the James Webb Space Telescope. I look forward to working with this excellent team as we continue to explore the mysteries of the universe."

Related Site:

› John Grunsfeld's Official Biography
› Hubble Space Telescope Mission Section

Monday, January 11, 2010

NASA's Mars Rover has Uncertain Future as Sixth Anniversary Nears

NASA's Mars rover Spirit will mark six years of unprecedented science exploration and inspiration for the American public on Sunday. However, the upcoming Martian winter could end the roving career of the beloved, scrappy robot.

Spirit successfully landed on the Red Planet at 8:35 p.m. PST on Jan. 3, 2004, and its twin Opportunity arrived at 9:05 p.m. Jan. 24, 2004. The rovers began missions intended to last for three months but which have lasted six Earth years, or 3.2 Mars years. During this time, Spirit has found evidence of a steamy and violent environment on ancient Mars that was quite different from the wet and acidic past documented by Opportunity, which has been operating successfully as it explores halfway around the planet.

A sand trap and balky wheels are challenges to Spirit's mobility that could prevent NASA's rover team from using a key survival strategy for the rover. The team may not be able to position the robot's solar panels to tilt toward the sun to collect power for heat to survive the severe Martian winter.

Nine months ago, Spirit's wheels broke through a crusty surface layer into loose sand hidden underneath. Efforts to escape this sand trap barely have budged the rover. The rover's inability to use all six wheels for driving has worsened the predicament. Spirit's right-front wheel quit working in 2006, and its right-rear wheel stalled a month ago. Surprisingly, the right-front wheel resumed working, though intermittently. Drives with four or five operating wheels have produced little progress toward escaping the sand trap. The latest attempts resulted in the rover sinking deeper in the soil.

"The highest priority for this mission right now is to stay mobile, if that's possible," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He is principal investigator for the rovers.

If mobility is not possible, the next priority is to improve the rover's tilt, while Spirit is able to generate enough electricity to turn its wheels. Spirit is in the southern hemisphere of Mars, where it is autumn, and the amount of daily sunshine available for the solar-powered rover is declining. This could result in ceasing extraction activities as early as January, depending on the amount of remaining power. Spirit's tilt, nearly five degrees toward the south, is unfavorable because the winter sun crosses low in the northern sky.

Unless the tilt can be improved or luck with winds affects the gradual buildup of dust on the solar panels, the amount of sunshine available will continue to decline until May 2010. During May, or perhaps earlier, Spirit may not have enough power to remain in operation.

"At the current rate of dust accumulation, solar arrays at zero tilt would provide barely enough energy to run the survival heaters through the Mars winter solstice," said Jennifer Herman, a rover power engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The team is evaluating strategies for improving the tilt even if Spirit cannot escape the sand trap, such as trying to dig in deeper with the wheels on the north side. In February, NASA will assess Mars missions, including Spirit, for their potential science versus costs to determine how to distribute limited resources. Meanwhile, the team is planning additional research about what a stationary Spirit could accomplish as power wanes.

"Spirit could continue significant research right where it is," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy principal investigator for the rovers. "We can study the interior of Mars, monitor the weather and continue examining the interesting deposits uncovered by Spirit's wheels."

A study of the planet's interior would use radio transmissions to measure wobble of the planet's axis of rotation, which is not feasible with a mobile rover. That experiment and others might provide more and different findings from a mission that has already far exceeded expectations.

"Long-term change in the spin direction could tell us about the diameter and density of the planet's core," said William Folkner of JPL. He has been developing plans for conducting this experiment with a future, stationary Mars lander. "Short-period changes could tell us whether the core is liquid or solid," he said.

In 2004, Opportunity discovered the first mineralogical evidence that Mars had liquid water. The rover recently finished a two-year investigation of a half-mile wide crater called Victoria and now is headed toward Endeavor crater, which is approximately seven miles from Victoria and nearly 14 miles across. Since landing, Opportunity has driven more than 11 miles and returned more than 132,000 images.

For more information about the rovers, visit:

Read more: Road Trip Memories of Mars.

Friday, January 8, 2010

NASA Awards Contract For Fabrication Services To Hampton, Va., Firm

NASA has selected Science and Technology Corp. of Hampton, Va., to provide fabrication support services to NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton.

The value of the indefinite delivery indefinite quantity contract is not to exceed $35 million. The period of performance is five years from the effective date, including a one-month phase-in period.

Science and Technology Corp. will provide technical support to fabricate research-oriented electronics circuitry, including circuit assemblies for ground support equipment, aircraft, spaceflight, laboratory, science and research facility instrumentation. Special fabrication operations, procedures and techniques may be required. Services will be performed at Langley, the contractor facility and other sites.

For information about
NASA's Langley Research Center, visit:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Moon Marvels

The moon Rhea, at far right, is dwarfed by Saturn. The shadow of another moon, Tethys, dots the disk at far leftThe Cassini orbiter has been working overtime during the holidays to deliver a cartload of gifts from Saturn and its moons. Highlights include fresh views of frost-spewing Enceladus and yam-shaped Prometheus, plus a "Nutcracker"-style ballet of Saturnian satellites.

The excitement began last week with the animated images of moonsimage advisory, the folks who process Cassini's pictures compared the interplay to the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet. passing back and forth with the giant planet and its rings as a backdrop. In an

My favorite movie is "Moon Jumble," which has Rhea in the starring role, joined by its siblings Janus, Mimas and Pandora. (That's the real Pandora, not the fictional "Avatar" moon). Make sure you stretch your browser window wide enough to take in the whole picture.

"As yet another year in Saturn orbit draws to a close, these wondrous movies of an alien place clear across the solar system remind us how fortunate we are to be engaged in this magnificent exploratory expedition," imaging team leader Carolyn Porco said. "So, from all of us on the Cassini Imaging Team to all of you, Happy Holidays!"

That might fool you into thinking the Cassini team was taking the holidays off. There's no way that was going to happen. On Christmas and the day after, the orbiter snapped pictures as it flew past Enceladus and Prometheus. Over the weekend, Cassini zoomed within 600 miles (960 kilometers) of Titan's north pole.

Cassini's view of Enceladus highlights geysers spewing ice from the southern hemisphere

A sampling of the raw imagery released on Sunday includes a striking full-disk view of Enceladus and its geysers of water ice, spewing out from southern fissures that have been nicknamed "tiger stripes." Such geysers hint at the existence of a subsurface ocean beneath Enceladus' icy surface - an ocean that just might harbor alien life.

The latest picture was taken from a distance of 383,000 miles (617,000 kilometers), and it might make you wonder why those geysers hadn't been spotted decades ago when the Voyager spacecraft flew past. In a posting to the imaging team's Web site, Porco says it wouldn't have been that easy for Voyager to spot the frosty spray.

"We never got a good look at the southern hemisphere with Voyager; we even missed the tiger stripes back then," she wrote. Porco also said "some of the jets - and maybe all of them - are 'intermittent' in the sense that we expect they could turn on and off on a daily timescale (where 'daily' here means 1.3 Earth days)."

Another raw image provides the best view yet of Prometheus, a "shepherding" moon that along with Pandora helps keep Saturn's F ring in line. This view was captured from a distance of 36,000 miles (59,000 kilometers). A farther-out image from Cassini, released five years ago, shows Prometheus at work.

The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla put together the raw imagery to produce a natural-color composite photo of the moon, which measures 74 miles long and as little as 38 miles wide (119 by 87 by 61 kilometers).

The Planetary Society's Emily Lackdawalla produced this color composite view of the Saturnian moon Prometheus from Cassini's raw imagery

"This is one of the more elongated moons to be seen in the solar system, almost exactly twice as long as it is wide," Lakdawalla observes. "The word 'potato' is commonly used to describe the shape of small bodies in the solar system, but I think that Prometheus, with its pointy ends, looks more like a related vegetable, a yam."

The fact that candied yams are a traditional holiday dish makes Prometheus even more palatable as a year-end picture - and whets the appetite for more from Cassini in the year to come.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Passing of Stan Lebar

Stan Lebar, who led the Westinghouse Electric Corporation team that developed the lunar camera that brought the televised news images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon to more than 500 million people on earth, died on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009.

Stan Lebar next to an image of him with the lunar cameraDuring his long and distinguished career, other camera programs he managed for NASA included the Apollo Color TV Cameras, the Skylab series of TV cameras, and the TV cameras for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program (ASTP).

From 1943 until the end of World War II, Lebar served in the Pacific Theater of Operations as an Air Force B-24 Ball Turret Gunner. After the war, he attended the University of Missouri and received a BS in Electrical Engineering in 1950. He joined Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1953, and worked in the Aerospace Division, Baltimore, Maryland, until his retirement in 1986.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Undergraduate Students Fly High for Weightless Science

NASA has selected 28 undergraduate student teams to test their science experiments in simulated weightlessness. The teams were selected to fly in the summer of 2010 with NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities and Systems Engineering Educational Discovery (SEED) programs.

Selected teams will test and evaluate their experiments aboard an aircraft modified to simulate a reduced-gravity environment. The aircraft will fly approximately 30 roller-coaster-like climbs and dips during experiment flights to produce periods of weightlessness and hyper-gravity ranging from 0 g to 2 g.

"Today's students will be the ones going to the moon and beyond to live, explore and work," said Douglas Goforth, the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program manager at
NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston."This project gives them a head start in preparing for those future ventures by allowing them to conduct hands-on research and engineering today in a unique reduced-gravity laboratory."

The Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program provides a rare academic experience for undergraduate students to propose, design, fabricate, fly and evaluate a reduced-gravity experiment. The overall experience includes scientific research, hands-on experimental design, test operations and outreach activities.

Teams selected to participate in the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program are from Utah State University, San Jacinto College North, the College of New Jersey, State University of New York at Buffalo, West Virginia University, Purdue University, Yale University, Austin Community College, the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, two teams from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and two teams from the University of Michigan. Teams also may invite a full-time, accredited journalist to fly with them and document the team's experiment and experiences.

Teams selected to participate in the
SEED program will work with NASA scientists, engineers and researchers on systems engineering projects that use a reduced gravity environment to test spaceflight hardware, spacecraft components and spaceflight procedures. Each team is assigned a NASA principal investigator to help prepare their experiment for flight. The SEED teams also will participate in at least two videoconferences through NASA's Digital Learning Network to work with other engineering and agency organizations.

SEED teams for 2010 are from Washington University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin, Auburn University, the Ohio State University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Toledo, Carthage College, Yale University, the University of Kentucky, the University of Colorado, and Boise State University, from which two teams were selected.

Under these programs,
NASA continues its investment in the nation's education programs. It is directly tied the agency's education goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce. Through this and other college and university programs, NASA will identify and develop the critical skills and capabilities needed to carry out its space exploration mission.

The flights are provided in cooperation with the
Reduced Gravity Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center. For more information about the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program or to view abstracts of the selected team's experiments visit:

For more information about SEED, visit:

For more information about NASA's education programs, visit: