Friday, September 23, 2011

NASA Rover Inspects Next Rock at Endeavour


NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is using instruments on its robotic arm to inspect targets on a rock called "Chester Lake."

This is the second rock the rover has examined with a microscopic imager and a spectrometer since reaching its long-term destination, the rim of vast Endeavour crater, in August. Unlike the first rock, which was a boulder tossed by excavation of a small crater on Endeavour's rim, Chester Lake is an outcrop of bedrock.

The rocks at Endeavour apparently come from an earlier period of Martian history than the rocks that Opportunity examined during its first seven-and-a-half years on Mars. More information about the ongoing exploration of Endeavour's rim is at: .

Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for 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 stopped communicating in 2010. NASA will launch the next-generation Mars rover, car-size Curiosity, this autumn for arrival at Mars' Gale crater in August 2012.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Lee's Heavy Rainfall Makes a Muddy Susquehanna in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Traveling northward from the Gulf of Mexico, Tropical Storm Lee carried heavy rain to the northeastern U.S. in early September 2011. The rain swelled multiple rivers, including the Susquehanna.

Authorities evacuated residents of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then nervously watched the city’s 41-foot (12-meter) high levees, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. By September 11, the river had receded. The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this natural-color image on September 10.

Loaded with sediment, the Susquehanna flows through the city, but appears confined within its embankments. According to the Advanced Hydrological Prediction Service of the U.S. National Weather Service, the Susquehanna River fell rapidly between September 9 and 12, 2011, from major flood stage to below flood level.

The levees withstood the river’s pressure in Harrisburg, but other communities along the banks of the Susquehanna were less fortunate. The river stressed levees “beyond what they were built to withstand,” said The Philadelpha Inquirer. The paper reported that some towns suffered more from Tropical Storm Lee than they had from Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

By September 9, 2011, President Obama declared an emergency in New York and Pennsylvania, Agence France-Presse reported. Roughly 100,000 people had been forced to evacuate, and the death toll stood at five. By September 11, the death toll for Pennsylvania had climbed to seven.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Memorial Image Taken on Mars on September 11, 2011

A view of a memorial to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center towers was taken on Mars yesterday, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

The memorial, made from aluminum recovered from the site of the twin towers in weeks following the attacks, serves as a cable guard on a tool on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and bears an image of the American flag.

The view combining exposures from two cameras on the rover is online at: .

The memorial is on the rover's rock abrasion tool, which was being made in September 2001 by workers at Honeybee Robotics in lower Manhattan, less than a mile from the World Trade Center.

Opportunity's panoramic camera and navigation camera photographed the tool on Sept. 11, 2011, during the 2,713th Martian day of the rover's work on Mars. Opportunity completed its three-month prime mission on Mars in April 2004 and has worked for more than seven years since then in bonus extended missions.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

NPP Satellite Prevents Gap in Critical Climate Data


The consequences of global warming are not only challenging, but they are far-reaching, which is why NASA maintains a strong scientific focus on climatic and global change research. As the growing human population continues to burn fossil fuels and release carbon into the atmosphere at an accelerated rate, we are faced with a complex problem: a warming Earth.

A warmer Earth leads to warmer oceans that expand and rise from melting ice, potentially forcing millions of coastal residents to move inland. A warmer climate, even by just a few degrees, also means we could expect more extreme and erratic weather, from heavier blizzards to stronger hurricanes.

Measuring climate is not as easy as popping a thermometer in Earth's mouth every day. The crux of climate change is energy. In 1984, NASA began measuring and keeping a record of changes in Earth's energy with a satellite instrument known as ERBE (Earth Radiation Budget Experiment) and then its successor, CERES (Clouds and Earth's Radiant Energy System).

Five satellites and 27 years later, not a single year has passed without a record of Earth's energy budget. This year, the climate-monitoring torch is being passed to the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), a satellite carrying the fifth edition of CERES.

Norman Loeb, a climate scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center and the principal investigator for CERES, gave us some insight into what he and other scientists have been able to discern from our current record of Earth's climate -- and why a long-term, continuous record is so important.

Why are we measuring energy on Earth? What does that have to do with the Earth getting warmer?

Just like you have a budget at home that you must balance with income coming in and expenses going out, the climate has a very similar process. Sunlight is the incoming resource (or energy), and the outgoing energy back to space is from reflected sunlight and emitted thermal radiation. The balance of incoming and outgoing energy is commonly referred to as the Earth's energy budget. A balanced energy budget keeps Earth's temperature at a consistent level. However, we currently have less energy leaving the Earth than is necessary to keep a steady temperature. Most of the extra, trapped energy is stored in the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise, and the remainder melts snow and ice over land and warms the atmosphere.

Can you point to the cause of this trapped energy?

We feel confident that one reason for the change in Earth's energy budget is due to greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases, like water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2), block energy from radiating back out to space. Just as if you were to put another blanket on your bed at night, a layer of greenhouse gases makes the Earth warmer by not allowing heat to fully escape. The more CO2 we put in the atmosphere, the thicker the blanket we have, and the warmer the Earth gets.

A second key component of climate change is the role of clouds. The CERES team combines measurements made by other instruments on the same spacecraft as the CERES instrument to observe changes in cloud properties in conjunction with changes in Earth's energy budget. The influence of clouds on the energy budget is complex because clouds both reflect sunlight back to space and block energy from radiating to space. Which of these two dominates depends upon the properties of clouds, such as their amount, thickness and height. As the Earth undergoes changes in its climate, cloud properties may change in ways that may amplify or offset climate change. Understanding the influence of clouds on the energy budget is therefore a critical climate problem.

Based on all of the ERBE and CERES energy data that has been collected, how much, exactly, has the energy budget changed in the last few decades?

We measure the energy coming into earth in watts per square meter. Averaged over the entire planet, the sun gives us about 340 watts per meter (about the energy radiated from six incandescent light bulbs) yearly. The Earth returns an equal amount of energy back to space, keeping the temperature constant. However, because greenhouse gases are preventing some energy from leaving, there appears to be a little over 0.8 watts per square meter that aren't leaving. This trapping process doesn't change the atmospheric temperature immediately, because most of this excess energy is absorbed and stored in the ocean. However, over the past century the global temperature has risen 1.44 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius).

There are still CERES instruments actively taking measurements of Earth's energy budget from space. Why do we need another CERES instrument on NPP?

The CERES instruments on the Aqua and Terra satellites are indeed continuing to take measurements, however both of these instruments have exceeded their expected lifetime. While we are happy they have continued to provide data, they could stop working at any time.

The easiest way to see significant changes in Earth's climate is to know what the normal pattern of incoming and outgoing energy looks like and to keep a continuous record. We've been tracking those patterns with CERES, but if we were to lose an instrument before another was launched, we would lose the ability to intercalibrate the newer instrument with the older one, and would also lose time interval of data. It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to accurately tie the two records together, and it would be impossible to accurately determine what happened to the energy budget during the measurement gap. We can't just guess the missing measurements and pencil them in, nor can we correct for any calibration differences between the two instruments without having overlap; we essentially have to reset the climate record to zero and the separate pieces of the record are forced to stand on their own.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

CERES Continues Legacy of Cloud Study on NPP

In October when NASA launches its next-generation Earth-observing satellite, NPP (NPOESS Preparatory Project), one of the passengers aboard will be the latest in a series of instruments that has studied the Earth's climate for nearly 30 years.

The first Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument launched in 1997. Before that, the job was done by the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE) beginning in 1984.

For 27 years without a break, the instruments collectively have returned a vast amount of data about the solar energy reflected and absorbed by Earth, the heat the planet emits, and the role of clouds in that process.

"Like wine, CERES gets better with time," said Norman Loeb, CERES principal investigator at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Amassing a long record of data is important because CERES monitors minute changes in the Earth's energy budget - the balance between incoming and outgoing energy - that can lead to serious longer-term consequences, such as polar ice melting and rising sea levels, said Loeb.

How It Works

Scientists are studying the planetary energy balance that results from these interactions primarily because the Earth's atmosphere is influenced by the buildup of human-released carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

CERES sensor reflected solar radiation
Click to enlarge

This image from NASA's Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) sensor on the Terra satellite show reflected solar radiation. Dark blue in the Arctic regions of the right image show the lack of reflected radiation. Greens, yellows, and whites indicate higher levels of reflected radiation in higher latitudes. Credit: NASA/T. Wong, CERES Science Team
"Clouds both reflect sunlight and block energy from radiating to space," Loeb said. "Which of these two dominates depends upon the properties of clouds, such as their amount, thickness and height."

"As the Earth undergoes changes in its climate, cloud properties may change in ways that may amplify or offset climate change. Understanding the influence of clouds on the energy budget is therefore a critical climate problem."

The four other CERES instruments are in orbit aboard NASA's Aqua and Terra satellites. The instruments use a radiometer to measure the power of electromagnetic radiation being transmitted in the atmosphere.

All the radiometers on the CERES instruments are essentially the same, are well calibrated and produce comparable data - and that's critical, said Mark Folkman, director of sensor products for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, which made CERES.

"Because scientists need to measure minute changes in the Earth's radiance over decades, CERES provides the absolute radiometric accuracy that is essential to monitoring the temperature of our planet," he said.

"If the instrument calibration were to change over these long timeframes, scientists might draw the wrong conclusions about the Earth's environment," Folkman added. "For more than 25 years, CERES has generated the accurate, long-term measurements that are essential to providing a true picture of the Earth's radiation balance, a critical element of the climate system."

Overall Mission

This fall, the climate-monitoring torch is being passed to NASA's NPP, a satellite carrying the fifth edition of CERES. The spacecraft, carrying four other Earth-observing instruments, is scheduled for launch into a polar orbit Oct. 25 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a Boeing Delta II-7920-10 launch vehicle.

The five-instrument suite will collect and distribute remotely sensed land, ocean, and atmospheric data to the meteorological and global climate change communities. It will provide atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, humidity sounding, land and ocean biological productivity, cloud and aerosol properties, total/profile ozone measurements, and monitor changes in the Earth's radiation budget.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the NPP mission on behalf of the Earth Science Division of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. NASA Langley manages the CERES mission. The TRW Space & Electronics Group in Redondo Beach, Calif., now owned by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, built all of the CERES instruments.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Sees Wind-Whipped Fires in East Texas

As most of Texas continues to experience the worst one-year drought on record, more than 170 wildfires have erupted across the Lone Star State so far this month alone. The Texas Forest Service reports the past week’s blazes have charred more than 135,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

Strong, gusty winds on the western side of Tropical Storm Lee, which passed over Louisiana on Monday, Sept. 5, 2011, stoked the fires burning throughout eastern Texas. The Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft passed over the wildfires at 12:05 p.m. CDT on Sept. 5. At that time, temperatures were around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius), with winds from the north gusting to 25 mph (40 kilometers per hour).

This image is a blend of data from MISR's vertical-viewing camera, which provides the sharpest view of surface features, and data acquired at a view angle of 70 degrees, which accentuates the appearance of smoke plumes generated by the fires. The Bear Creek Fire north of Marshall, near the top center of the image, is the largest fire in the image. When this image was acquired, the fire had charred 30,000 acres and was 0 percent contained. To the west is the Diana Fire, just north of Longview, and the Henderson-502 Fire, northwest of Nacogdoches.

The combined smoke from these two fires extends more than 171 miles (275 kilometers), passing over Lake Livingston into the northern outskirts of Houston. The city of Houston appears as the grayish area at the bottom of the image, to the left of Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

This image covers about 275 miles (442 kilometers) in the north-south direction, and 199 miles (320 kilometers) in the east-west direction.

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Jupiter-Bound Space Probe Captures Earth and Moon


On its way to the biggest planet in the solar system -- Jupiter, NASA's Juno spacecraft took time to capture its home planet and its natural satellite -- the moon.

"This is a remarkable sight people get to see all too rarely," said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "This view of our planet shows how Earth looks from the outside, illustrating a special perspective of our role and place in the universe. We see a humbling yet beautiful view of ourselves."

The image was taken by the spacecraft’s camera, JunoCam, on Aug. 26 when the spacecraft was about 6 million miles (9.66 million kilometers) away. The image was taken as part of the mission team’s checkout of the Juno spacecraft. The team is conducting its initial detailed checks on the spacecraft’s instruments and subsystems after its launch on Aug. 5.

Juno covered the distance from Earth to the moon (about 250,000 miles or 402,000 kilometers) in less than one day's time. It will take the spacecraft another five years and 1,740 million miles (2,800 million kilometers) to complete the journey to Jupiter. The spacecraft will orbit the planet's poles 33 times and use its eight science instruments to probe beneath the gas giant's obscuring cloud cover to learn more about its origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere, and look for a potential solid planetary core.

The solar-powered Juno spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:25 a.m. PDT (12:25 p.m. EDT) on Aug. 5 to begin its five-year journey to Jupiter.

JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mars Science Laboratory Mission Status Report

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project continues to press ahead with launch preparation activities, planning to use additional time before encapsulating the rover in the launch vehicle's nose cone.

Officials want to maintain additional schedule margin for enhanced safety procedures in assembly and testing. System testing put the rover and other parts of the spacecraft through simulations of many activities from launch through operations on Mars' surface. Aspects of the test simulating the final moments before landing took longer than scheduled. Additional margin that had been built into the schedule has been consumed in recent weeks by stepped-up safety procedures in assembly and testing.

Based on this, the rover development team will turn over the spacecraft for encapsulation four days later in October than originally scheduled. The project expects to know in approximately two weeks if launch timelines may need to be adjusted. The mission's launch period begins Nov. 25 and runs through Dec. 18.

"We consumed some of the slack in our schedule during system testing in August, and we want to restore the slack to give the assembly, test and launch operations team time to do its job," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Pete Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The Mars Science Laboratory will deliver Curiosity to an August 2012 landing beside a mountain inside Gale crater on Mars. During a two-year mission on the Red Planet, the rover will investigate whether a selected area of Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life and for preserving evidence about life.

The spacecraft's back shell, heat shield and cruise stage were delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in May. The rover and descent stage were delivered in June.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Extreme 2010 Russian Fires and Pakistan Floods Linked Meteorologically

Two of the most destructive natural disasters of 2010 were closely linked by a single meteorological event, even though they occurred 1,500 miles (2,414 km) apart and were of completely different natures, a new NASA study suggests.

The research finds that the same large-scale meteorological event — an abnormal Rossby wave — sparked extreme heat and persistent wildfires in Russia as well as unusual downstream wind patterns that shifted rainfall in the Indian monsoon region and fueled heavy flooding in Pakistan. Although the heat wave started before the floods, both events attained maximum strength at approximately the same time, the researchers found by analyzing satellite data generated by NASA instruments capable of measuring the land surface temperature, precipitation intensity and wildfire activity.

William Lau and Kyu-Myong Kim, atmospheric scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., authored the study, which the Journal of Hydrometeorology published in August

A Rossby Connection

The atmosphere, gaseous and transparent, may not seem like a fluid, but that’s precisely how the thin layer of air encasing the planet behaves. As Earth spins on its axis, huge rivers of air — scientists call them Rossby waves — meander around the globe in a westerly direction. Currents in the center of these waves form the jet streams, fast-moving columns of air that push weather systems from west to east.

Rossby waves aren’t uniform. They tend to undulate and have troughs and ridges. Areas of low-pressure typically develop in the troughs of the waves, while high-pressure areas form in their ridges. Parcels of warm air from the tropics and cool air from the poles swirl around the low- and high-pressure parts of the waves creating a complex tapestry of warm and cool fronts that meet and interact constantly. Collisions between warm and cool fronts produce storms and precipitation.

Under normal summertime conditions, the jet stream pushes weather fronts through Eurasia in four or five days, but something unusual happened in July of 2010. A large-scale, stagnant weather pattern — known as an Omega blocking event — developed over a high-pressure ridge above western Russia. This blocking event, which divided the jet stream, had the effect of slowing the Rossby wave and prevented the normal progression of weather systems from west to east.

As a result, a large region of high pressure formed over Russia and trapped a hot, dry air mass. As the high lingered, the land surface dried and the normal transfer of moisture from the soil to the atmosphere slowed. Precipitation ceased, vegetation dried out, and the region became a taiga tinderbox.

Meanwhile, the blocking pattern created unusual downstream wind patterns over Pakistan. Areas of low pressure on the leading edge of the Rossby wave formed in response to the high that pulled cold, dry Siberian air into lower latitudes.

"From NASA satellite data and wind analysis, we can clearly see the connection between the two events," Lau said. "Think of the atmosphere like a loose membrane. If you push one part up, something else has to come down somewhere else. If you produce a high in one region, you produce a corresponding low in another."

This cold air from Siberia clashed with warm, moist air arriving over Pakistan from the Bay of Bengal. There’s nothing unusual about moisture moving north over India toward the Himalayas. It’s a normal part of the monsoon. However, in this case, the unusual wind patterns associated with the blocking high brought upper level air disturbances farther south than is typical, which helped shift the entire monsoon rainfall system north and west. The shift brought heavy monsoon rains squarely over the northern part of Pakistan.

Future Directions

While the new study highlights the degree of interconnection that can exist between two seemingly unrelated weather events, Lau cautions that many questions remain. For example, why did such a powerful blocking high form in the first place? And did some particular process occurring on the land or in the atmosphere sustain and strengthen it?

Lau’s analysis of data from the Modern Era Retrospective-analysis for Research and Applications (MERRA) – an atmospheric model focused on hydrology that blends data from satellites and the Goddard Earth Observing System Model, Version 5 (GEOS-5) – suggests that certain interactions between the land and atmosphere may have amplified the heat wave as it dragged on creating what climatologists call a positive feedback cycle.

Clouds, for example, typically provide shade and precipitation, but Lau’s research shows they were suppressed in the vicinity of the blocking high because prolonged drought dried the soil and slowed the rate of evaporation. The modeling and satellite data suggest that over time the reduced cloud cover would have resulted in an even greater dose of heat reaching the surface, which, in turn, would have dried the soil out even more and amplified the effect.

What’s more, Lau thinks that graphite-like dark particles in wildfire smoke – a type of aerosol called black carbon – may have helped burn clouds away, making the surface even drier and more fire prone. "We need more research to say for sure whether land and aerosol feedback sustained the high, but this study suggests it’s possible," said Ralph Kahn, an atmospheric scientist at Goddard who wasn’t involved in the study.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Socializing Science With Smartphones in Space

One may think that participation with the International Space Station would be restricted to an exclusive club of high ranking officials and agencies. In actuality, students, teachers and commercial companies have also been taking advantage of the station's unique environment for years. One of those commercial companies, Houston-based Odyssey Space Research, plans to bring the experience to the rest of us via our mobile devices!

International Space Station National Laboratory partner NanoRacks LLC has a collaboration with Odyssey and Apple. This relationship enabled Odyssey to send two iPhone 4's to the space station as part of the STS-135 mission on July 8, 2011. These phones are just like the ones you can find at the store, but with certain alterations to meet NASA flight certification standards. It took less than a year to make the necessary changes and launch the devices to the station.

The iPhone 4 was selected for its mix of features, according to Odyssey CEO Brian Rishikof. "It had a three-axis gyro, and accelerometer, a high resolution camera and screen, and the means to manipulate the image. We had done some projects in the past that used all those features, but of course it was big, dedicated equipment and suddenly here it is in this small little package," said Rishikof.

The smartphones use the same software as their Earth counterparts and Odyssey used standard tools to develop a new app called SpaceLab for iOS, which will enable the planned research aboard the station. The app is also available for people to download to their own devices.

These devices are part of an investigation called NanoRacks Smartphone, which looks at how the phones will operate in space. The hope is to use the compact hardware in future research studies and to augment crew performance and productivity in operational activities. Currently there are four separate experiments that will run on the smartphones via SpaceLab for iOS.

The first study is Limb Tracker, a navigation experiment using photos of the Earth and image overlay manipulation to match the horizon to an arc to give an estimate of altitude and off-axis angles. Next is the Sensor Calibration or Sensor Cal experiment, which uses reference photos and the three-axis gyro and accelerometer for calibration to improve measurement accuracy. The State Acquisition or State Acq experiment also uses photos, but this time to estimate spacecraft orbital parameters. After the first three investigations are complete, the Lifecycle Flight Instrumentation or LFI experiment will operate to track the impact of radiation on the phones. To do this, the devices will monitor radiation-induced single bit upsets, which are unintended changes in memory location values.

One of the other goals in sending the phones to the space station is to engage the public. The SpaceLab for iOS app for users on the ground is identical to the software that was downloaded onto the space devices prior to launch. According to Rishikof, there is a setting in the application that indicates if the equipment is in microgravity or not. The software operates differently to accommodate the presence of gravity. "There are 200 million devices that run the operating system and could potentially run the application," said Rishikof. "Which means there are 200 million users out there that could get a sense of what it does; a sense of what an experiment in space might look like; a sense of participation."

The investigation is planned to run on the space station in the fall of 2011. The phones are not intended to have the same leisure appeal as they do on Earth, however, given the lack of iTunes, games and Internet or roaming connectivity. "People have asked me if we were loading games on the phones for the crew. No, we did not want them to be distracted, though certainly it would have been fun!" said Rishikof.

Once the investigation completes, the smartphones will return to Earth at the next opportunity. Scientists will then analyze the stored data to better understand how the devices can be used for future research on the space station and how the phones react to the space environment.

Rishikof hopes to be able to share some of the space data with SpaceLab for iOS app users, as well. "We do not have a monopoly on good ideas and hope users will suggest new and compelling things to add," commented Rishikof. "It is not a game, there's no leveling or challenges, the objective is to get data. It really just provides a way to see what's going on and while we don’t expect tons of downloads, we do expect a lot of interest. This would create an unusual opportunity for the entire world to get a look at some space data and explore it on their handheld device."

The NanoRacks Smartphone investigation is not the only phone-related study to launch to the space station with STS-135. The Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites or SPHERES, which has been aboard station since 2006, will also use smartphones to enhance the satellites' capabilities. While the two studies use different hardware, the overall capabilities of these smartphones offer bigger returns for research using a smaller package.

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