Saturday, April 28, 2012

'Beautiful Earth' Combines Live Music, American Indian Perspectives with NASA Science and Technology

Composer Kenji Williams couples awe-inspiring NASA satellite imagery with innovative violin and electronic melodies in his "Bella Gaia" program. The Visitor Center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., hosted a live performance of Bella Gaia on April 19 as part of a NASA educational program called "Beautiful Earth."

Beautiful Earth combines Williams's Bella Gaia show with interactive talks by scientists and American Indian educators, and hands-on workshops for students. Williams's performance of Bella Gaia (which translates to "Beautiful Earth)" provides an emotional element to the science education program.

"I would love for people to feel a real and personal connection with the science of the living Earth," Williams said. "Without this emotional connection, stewardship of our resources will be difficult to develop in any long-lasting way. A 'culture of ecology’ is what is needed to create pervasive change, and this is what I would like audiences to feel with their minds and hearts."

NASA's Beautiful Earth showcases Earth's systems and highlights many NASA missions studying Earth. The show on April 19 focused on the water cycle and featured video of American Indians from the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes undertaking a "water walk," a sacred ceremony that celebrates the connections between water and life. The production also included imagery of forest fires in the Amazon and time-lapses of Arctic ice.

Williams created Bella Gaia to inspire people and give them a glimpse into the rare vantage point that astronauts have when they are in space.

"I was inspired by a meeting and conversation with NASA astronaut Mike Fincke several years ago," Williams said. "He told me of his profound transformation the first time he saw the Earth from space, from the International Space Station. I was so inspired by his story that it got me thinking, 'How could I bring this transformative experienced that astronauts commonly have, to those of us who can't go to space?'"

This "transformative experience," which author Frank White called the Overview Effect, represents a change in how some returning astronauts conceptualize Earth, one that overshadows manmade boundaries by a sudden awareness that Earth operates as a borderless, interconnected whole.

In this Beautiful Earth program, Williams played violin over electronic music against a multimedia backdrop of NASA scientific visualizations and views of Earth from space. Interactive talks featured several speakers, including astronomer Jim Rock, of the Native American Dakota tribe, and Thorsten Markus, chief of Goddard's Cryospheric Sciences Lab.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

NASA Celebrates Earth Day 2012 in the Washington Area

NASA is taking part in the celebration of Earth Day's 42nd anniversary on the National Mall in Washington from April 20 through April 22. The agency's involvement includes three consecutive days of activities and exhibits open to the public. Additional activities are scheduled at nearby NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The "NASA Village" on the National Mall will contain activities and exhibits in three tents that highlight the use of NASA science and technology to advance knowledge and awareness of our home planet. The area is located one block west of 12th Street and the Smithsonian Metro station entrance.

The Earth and Activities tents will host exhibits and hands-on demonstrations throughout the weekend. Activities include the Weather Versus Climate game, a "Go Green" environment challenge, and Earth Science Pursuit. The Green Theater will feature large satellite images and presentations by NASA scientists and others.

On Earth Day, April 22, a performance stage hosted by the Earth Day Network will feature presentations by NASA along with a wide variety of entertainment.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

NASA's WISE Mission Sees Skies Ablaze With Blazars


Astronomers are actively hunting a class of supermassive black holes throughout the universe called blazars thanks to data collected by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The mission has revealed more than 200 blazars and has the potential to find thousands more.

Blazars are among the most energetic objects in the universe. They consist of supermassive black holes actively "feeding," or pulling matter onto them, at the cores of giant galaxies. As the matter is dragged toward the supermassive hole, some of the energy is released in the form of jets traveling at nearly the speed of light. Blazars are unique because their jets are pointed directly at us.

"Blazars are extremely rare because it's not too often that a supermassive black hole's jet happens to point towards Earth," said Francesco Massaro of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology near Palo Alto, Calif., and principal investigator of the research, published in a series of papers in the Astrophysical Journal. "We came up with a crazy idea to use WISE's infrared observations, which are typically associated with lower-energy phenomena, to spot high-energy blazars, and it worked better than we hoped."

The findings ultimately will help researchers understand the extreme physics behind super-fast jets and the evolution of supermassive black holes in the early universe.

WISE surveyed the entire celestial sky in infrared light in 2010, creating a catalog of hundreds of millions of objects of all types. Its first batch of data was released to the larger astronomy community in April 2011 and the full-sky data were released last month.

Massaro and his team used the first batch of data, covering more than one-half the sky, to test their idea that WISE could identify blazars. Astronomers often use infrared data to look for the weak heat signatures of cooler objects. Blazars are not cool; they are scorching hot and glow with the highest-energy type of light, called gamma rays. However, they also give off a specific infrared signature when particles in their jets are accelerated to almost the speed of light.

One of the reasons the team wants to find new blazars is to help identify mysterious spots in the sky sizzling with high-energy gamma rays, many of which are suspected to be blazars. NASA's Fermi mission has identified hundreds of these spots, but other telescopes are needed to narrow in on the source of the gamma rays.

Sifting through the early WISE catalog, the astronomers looked for the infrared signatures of blazars at the locations of more than 300 gamma-ray sources that remain mysterious. The researchers were able to show that a little more than half of the sources are most likely blazars.

"This is a significant step toward unveiling the mystery of the many bright gamma-ray sources that are still of unknown origin," said Raffaele D'Abrusco, a co-author of the papers from Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "WISE's infrared vision is actually helping us understand what's happening in the gamma-ray sky."

The team also used WISE images to identify more than 50 additional blazar candidates and observed more than 1,000 previously discovered blazars. According to Massaro, the new technique, when applied directly to WISE's full-sky catalog, has the potential to uncover thousands more.

"We had no idea when we were building WISE that it would turn out to yield a blazar gold mine," said Peter Eisenhardt, WISE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who is not associated with the new studies. "That's the beauty of an all-sky survey. You can explore the nature of just about any phenomenon in the universe."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sector 33 Puts You in the Control Tower

Angry birds in space may be OK, but angry pilots in the sky are another thing altogether.

NASA in January released an educational game called Sector 33 in which the goal is to keep imaginary pilots and their airliners happy by remaining a safe distance in the sky from each other using math and problem-solving skills.

In the game, available free of charge for Apple iPhone and iPad devices, the player acts as an air traffic controller by guiding airplanes through a sector of airspace spanning Nevada and California.

The player can adjust the planes' path and speed to safely reach certain spots in the sky in the fastest time possible, while at the same time keeping the planes a specific distance from each other.

So far the app has been a big hit with the online community, earning a top rating of five stars with more than 60 percent of those offering customer reviews.

"Users of Sector 33 are telling us that they love the app, it's fun yet educational, and makes gamers think on their feet as they try to solve the various air traffic control problems built into the game," said Gregory Condon, manager of NASA's Smart Skies Education Project based at the Ames Research Center in California.

Sector 33 is based on Smart Skies Line Up With Math, an educational software title developed under the direction of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate and distributed in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tackling the Global Water Challenge


In a speech on March 22, 2012, marking World Water Day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a new partnership to improve water security. The U.S. Water Partnership is a public-private partnership that seeks to mobilize U.S.-based knowledge, expertise and resources to improve water security around the world, particularly in those countries most in need.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver joined Secretary Clinton and representatives of other U.S. government and private sector entities for the World Water Day event at the U.S. Department of State in Washington as the partnership was announced.

As one of the new members of the Partnership, NASA brings a variety of expertise, ingenuity and resources to the challenge.

In response to widespread famines in Africa in the 1980s, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created an early warning system to provide timely information about drought and famine conditions. The system has since evolved into a worldwide Famine Early Warning System Network that uses data from NASA and others to classify food insecurity levels and alert authorities to predicted crises. NASA's data on long-term changes in rainfall, vegetation, reservoir height and other climate factors enhance USAID's ability to accurately predict food shortages and disseminate these findings to a broad audience around the world.

In April 2011, NASA and USAID signed a memorandum of understanding to expand their joint efforts to overcome international development challenges such as food security, climate change, and energy and environmental management. The agreement formalized ongoing agency collaborations that use Earth science data to address developmental challenges, and to assist in disaster mitigation and humanitarian responses.

Another NASA-USAID partnership, SERVIR, is bringing Earth observation information to local decision makers in targeted areas of the world to address threats related to climate change, biodiversity, and extreme events such as flooding, forest fires, and storms. SERVIR, which comes from the Spanish word meaning "to serve," features web-based access to satellite imagery, decision-support tools and interactive visualization capabilities to put previously inaccessible information into the hands of scientists, environmental managers, and decision-makers.

Regional SERVIR hubs are located at the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean in Panama, the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development based in Kenya, and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal. SERVIR was developed by researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

NASA’s Earth observation research capabilities in space are also contributing new knowledge to tackle the global water challenge. In 2009, researchers using data from the NASA/German Aerospace Center Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite showed that groundwater in northern India had been disappearing. The research, lead by Matt Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., showed that the water was being consumed primarily to irrigate cropland faster than the aquifers were being replenished by natural processes.

Data on the depletion of groundwater around the world using GRACE observations is also contributing to public awareness of the global water challenge. Starting today, World Water Day, graphic displays of changes in global groundwater supply appear on a huge electronic billboard in New York City’s Time Square.

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