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Friday, December 15, 2017

Kepler Update: Thanks To Google, An 8th Exoplanet Is Found Orbiting Kepler-90...

An artist's concept of all eight exoplanets in the Kepler-90 star system.
NASA / Ames Research Center / Wendy Stenzel

Artificial Intelligence, NASA Data Used to Discover Eighth Planet Circling Distant Star (News Release - December 14)

Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.

The newly-discovered Kepler-90i - a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days - was found using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which computers "learn." In this case, computers learned to identify planets by finding in Kepler data instances where the telescope recorded changes in starlight caused by planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.

"Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in Washington. "This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come."

The discovery came about after researchers Christopher Shallue and Andrew Vanderburg trained a computer to learn how to identify exoplanets in the light readings recorded by Kepler - the miniscule change in brightness captured when a planet passed in front of, or transited, a star. Inspired by the way neurons connect in the human brain, this artificial "neural network" sifted through Kepler data and found weak transit signals from a previously-missed eighth planet orbiting Kepler-90, in the constellation Draco.

Machine learning has previously been used in searches of the Kepler database, and this continuing research demonstrates that neural networks are a promising tool in finding some of the weakest signals of distant worlds.

Other planetary systems probably hold more promise for life than Kepler-90. About 30 percent larger than Earth, Kepler-90i is so close to its star that its average surface temperature is believed to exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit, on par with Mercury. Its outermost planet, Kepler-90h, orbits at a similar distance to its star as Earth does to the Sun.

"The Kepler-90 star system is like a mini version of our solar system. You have small planets inside and big planets outside, but everything is scrunched in much closer," said Vanderburg, a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow and astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.

Shallue, a senior software engineer with Google's research team Google AI, came up with the idea to apply a neural network to Kepler data. He became interested in exoplanet discovery after learning that astronomy, like other branches of science, is rapidly being inundated with data as the technology for data collection from space advances.

"In my spare time, I started Googling for 'finding exoplanets with large data sets' and found out about the Kepler mission and the huge data set available," said Shallue. "Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can't search it for themselves."

Kepler's four-year dataset consists of 35,000 possible planetary signals. Automated tests, and sometimes human eyes, are used to verify the most promising signals in the data. However, the weakest signals often are missed using these methods. Shallue and Vanderburg thought there could be more interesting exoplanet discoveries faintly lurking in the data.

First, they trained the neural network to identify transiting exoplanets using a set of 15,000 previously vetted signals from the Kepler exoplanet catalogue. In the test set, the neural network correctly identified true planets and false positives 96 percent of the time. Then, with the neural network having "learned" to detect the pattern of a transiting exoplanet, the researchers directed their model to search for weaker signals in 670 star systems that already had multiple known planets. Their assumption was that multiple-planet systems would be the best places to look for more exoplanets.

"We got lots of false positives of planets, but also potentially more real planets," said Vanderburg. "It's like sifting through rocks to find jewels. If you have a finer sieve then you will catch more rocks but you might catch more jewels, as well."

Kepler-90i wasn't the only jewel this neural network sifted out. In the Kepler-80 system, they found a sixth planet. This one, the Earth-sized Kepler-80g, and four of its neighboring planets form what is called a resonant chain - where planets are locked by their mutual gravity in a rhythmic orbital dance. The result is an extremely stable system, similar to the seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Their research paper reporting these findings has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal. Shallue and Vanderburg plan to apply their neural network to Kepler's full set of more than 150,000 stars.

Kepler has produced an unprecedented data set for exoplanet hunting. After gazing at one patch of space for four years, the spacecraft now is operating on an extended mission and switches its field of view every 80 days.

"These results demonstrate the enduring value of Kepler's mission," said Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "New ways of looking at the data - such as this early-stage research to apply machine learning algorithms - promise to continue to yield significant advances in our understanding of planetary systems around other stars. I'm sure there are more firsts in the data waiting for people to find them."

Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. This work was performed through the Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowship Program executed by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

The FCC Has Repealed Net Neutrality...

Almost two weeks after Republicans in the U.S. Senate approved a shitty tax bill that would add around $1.4 trillion to the national deficit and take health coverage away from 13 million Americans, another Trump era-related abomination took place today when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal net neutrality. What that means is, internet providers like Verizon and Comcast will have the ability to block content that folks look at on the Web...and even potentially force Americans to pay to use currently-free online services like Google, YouTube and Twitter. On the plus side though, Congress and the nation's courts have the ability to block this repeal from taking effect. The downside though, is that Congress is led by the Republicans...and it's the corporations (like Verizon and Comcast) and the GOP members who receive donations from them who'll benefit the most from the end of net neutrality. So once again, America's First Amendment principles are threatened by conservatives using Donald Trump's so-called presidency to enhance their greed at the expense of ordinary citizens throughout the United States.

All I can say is, Eminem needs to write a new rap song about the FCC and its corrupt chairman, Ajit Pai—telling them to go fuck themselves. Hell, include the GOP and Trump in his song while he's at it. November of 2018 can't come soon enough... We need the Democrats to regain control of the House and Senate and punish folks like Pai for their obstinacy and insolence towards this great country. That is all.

Ajit Pai is yet another idiot U.S. government official who needs to be fired in the Trump era.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Dawn Update: New Spots on a Dwarf Planet's Surface...

A simulated view of Ceres' Occator Crater...with bright spots indicating salt-rich material in the crater's basin.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / PSI

Bright Areas on Ceres Suggest Geologic Activity (Press Release)

If you could fly aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft, the surface of dwarf planet Ceres would generally look quite dark, but with notable exceptions. These exceptions are the hundreds of bright areas that stand out in images Dawn has returned. Now, scientists have a better sense of how these reflective areas formed and changed over time -- processes indicative of an active, evolving world.

"The mysterious bright spots on Ceres, which have captivated both the Dawn science team and the public, reveal evidence of Ceres' past subsurface ocean, and indicate that, far from being a dead world, Ceres is surprisingly active. Geological processes created these bright areas and may still be changing the face of Ceres today," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Raymond and colleagues presented the latest results about the bright areas at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans on Tuesday, Dec. 12.

Different Kinds of Bright Areas

Since Dawn arrived in orbit at Ceres in March 2015, scientists have located more than 300 bright areas on Ceres. A new study in the journal Icarus, led by Nathan Stein, a doctoral researcher at Caltech in Pasadena, California, divides Ceres' features into four categories.

The first group of bright spots contains the most reflective material on Ceres, which is found on crater floors. The most iconic examples are in Occator Crater, which hosts two prominent bright areas. Cerealia Facula, in the center of the crater, consists of bright material covering a 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) pit, within which sits a small dome. East of the center is a collection of slightly less reflective and more diffuse features called Vinalia Faculae. All the bright material in Occator Crater is made of salt-rich material, which was likely once mixed in water. Although Cerealia Facula is the brightest area on all of Ceres, it would resemble dirty snow to the human eye.

More commonly, in the second category, bright material is found on the rims of craters, streaking down toward the floors. Impacting bodies likely exposed bright material that was already in the subsurface or had formed in a previous impact event.

Separately, in the third category, bright material can be found in the material ejected when craters were formed.

The mountain Ahuna Mons gets its own fourth category -- the one instance on Ceres where bright material is unaffiliated with any impact crater. This likely cryovolcano, a volcano formed by the gradual accumulation of thick, slowly flowing icy materials, has prominent bright streaks on its flanks.

Over hundreds of millions of years, bright material has mixed with the dark material that forms the bulk of Ceres' surface, as well as debris ejected during impacts. That means billions of years ago, when Ceres experienced more impacts, the dwarf planet's surface likely would have been peppered with thousands of bright areas.

"Previous research has shown that the bright material is made of salts, and we think subsurface fluid activity transported it to the surface to form some of the bright spots," Stein said.

The Case of Occator

Why do the different bright areas of Occator seem so distinct from one another? Lynnae Quick, a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, has been delving into this question.

The leading explanation for what happened at Occator is that it could have had, at least in the recent past, a reservoir of salty water beneath it. Vinalia Faculae, the diffuse bright regions to the northeast of the crater's central dome, could have formed from a fluid driven to the surface by a small amount of gas, similar to champagne surging out of its bottle when the cork is removed.

In the case of the Vinalia Faculae, the dissolved gas could have been a volatile substance such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane or ammonia. Volatile-rich salty water could have been brought close to Ceres' surface through fractures that connected to the briny reservoir beneath Occator. The lower pressure at Ceres' surface would have caused the fluid to boil off as a vapor. Where fractures reached the surface, this vapor could escape energetically, carrying with it ice and salt particles and depositing them on the surface.

Cerealia Facula must have formed in a somewhat different process, given that it is more elevated and brighter than Vinalia Faculae. The material at Cerealia may have been more like an icy lava, seeping up through the fractures and swelling into a dome. Intermittent phases of boiling, similar to what happened when Vinalia Faculae formed, may have occurred during this process, littering the surface with ice and salt particles that formed the Cerealia bright spot.

Quick's analyses do not depend on the initial impact that formed Occator. However, the current thinking among Dawn scientists is that when a large body slammed into Ceres, excavating the 57-mile-wide (92-kilometer-wide) crater, the impact may have also created fractures through which liquid later emerged.

"We also see fractures on other solar system bodies, such as Jupiter's icy moon Europa," Quick said. "The fractures on Europa are more widespread than the fractures we see at Occator. However, processes related to liquid reservoirs that might exist beneath Europa's cracks today could be used as a comparison for what may have happened at Occator in the past."

As Dawn continues the final phase of its mission, in which it will descend to lower altitudes than ever before, scientists will continue learning about the origins of the bright material on Ceres and what gave rise to the enigmatic features in Occator.

The Dawn mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

Photos of the Day: Tonight's Supermoon...

A raw image of the Supermoon that I took with my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera on December 3, 2017.

Just thought I'd share these pics that I took of tonight's Supermoon...also known as the Frost Moon, Cold Moon, Long Night Moon, Moon before Yule and the Strawberry Moon (as seen from the Southern Hemisphere, that is). This is the first of three consecutive Supermoons to grace the skies over the next two months; another Supermoon will take place on January 1st, while the third one—which will also be a total lunar eclipse that's visible over much of the U.S.—occurs on January 31st. Sweeet. In regards to the settings I employed on my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera for these images, I selected ISO 200 for the exposure, placed the shutter speed at 1/800, had the f-stop at 6.3 and used a Nikkor 70-300mm autofocus zoom lens that I got for my birthday this year. How sweet again. I'm totally lookin' forward to the lunar eclipse next month! Have a great week ahead.

A cropped image of the Supermoon that I took with my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera on December 3, 2017.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Voyager 1 Update: A Significant Development for the Interstellar Spacecraft...

An artist's concept of a Voyager spacecraft venturing through the cosmos.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years (News Release)

If you tried to start a car that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond. But a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft successfully fired up Wednesday after 37 years without use.

Voyager 1, NASA's farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars. The spacecraft, which has been flying for 40 years, relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth. These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs," lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet. Now, the Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980.

"With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Since 2014, engineers have noticed that the thrusters Voyager 1 has been using to orient the spacecraft, called "attitude control thrusters," have been degrading. Over time, the thrusters require more puffs to give off the same amount of energy. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up.

The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios. They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years.

“The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters," said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.

In the early days of the mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and important moons of each. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver,” or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft. But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft.

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn.

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA's Deep Space Network.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly -- and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all," said Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power -- a limited resource for the aging mission. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters.

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. The attitude control thrusters currently used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however.

Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Random Thought To End This Month With...

Futuristic cars fly through the city of Los Angeles in BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Why are flying cars a DUMB IDEA? If people are generally too stupid or incapable of using their turn signals when changing lanes on the ground, what makes you think they'll be capable of safely flying a 2-ton machine hundreds to thousands of feet in the air?

That's my random thought for November. And no, I didn't type this entry as an excuse to post the cool screenshot from Blade Runner 2049 above, or an image of the Star Wars planet Coruscant below. I actually mean it. Speaking of Star Wars, The Last Jedi arrives in theaters two weeks from today! Can't wait to go to an advance screening of Episode VIII at 7 PM on December 14. Carry on.

The STAR WARS world of Coruscant...with rows of speeder traffic filling the skies above the planet-wide city.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Mars 2020 Update: America's Next Red Planet Rover Is Taking Shape At JPL...

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA Builds its Next Mars Rover Mission (News Release)

In just a few years, NASA's next Mars rover mission will be flying to the Red Planet.

At a glance, it looks a lot like its predecessor, the Curiosity Mars rover. But there's no doubt it's a souped-up science machine: It has seven new instruments, redesigned wheels and more autonomy. A drill will capture rock cores, while a caching system with a miniature robotic arm will seal up these samples. Then, they'll be deposited on the Martian surface for possible pickup by a future mission.

This new hardware is being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which manages the mission for the agency. It includes the Mars 2020 mission's cruise stage, which will fly the rover through space, and the descent stage, a rocket-powered "sky crane" that will lower it to the planet's surface. Both of these stages have recently moved into JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility.

Mars 2020 relies heavily on the system designs and spare hardware previously created for Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012. Roughly 85 percent of the new rover's mass is based on this "heritage hardware."

"The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed -- or even already exists -- is a major advantage for this mission," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "It saves us money, time and most of all, reduces risk."

Despite its similarities to Mars Science Laboratory, the new mission has very different goals. Mars 2020's instruments will seek signs of ancient life by studying terrain that is now inhospitable, but once held flowing rivers and lakes, more than 3.5 billion years ago.

To achieve these new goals, the rover has a suite of cutting-edge science instruments. It will seek out biosignatures on a microbial scale: An X-ray spectrometer will target spots as small as a grain of table salt, while an ultraviolet laser will detect the "glow" from excited rings of carbon atoms. A ground-penetrating radar will be the first instrument to look under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water and ice up to 30 feet (10 meters) deep, depending on the material.

The rover is getting some upgraded Curiosity hardware, including color cameras, a zoom lens and a laser that can vaporize rocks and soil to analyze their chemistry.

"Our next instruments will build on the success of MSL, which was a proving ground for new technology," said George Tahu, NASA's Mars 2020 program executive. "These will gather science data in ways that weren't possible before."

The mission will also undertake a marathon sample hunt: The rover team will try to drill at least 20 rock cores, and possibly as many as 30 or 40, for possible future return to Earth.

"Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer," said Ken Farley of JPL, Mars 2020's project scientist. "What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we're alone in the universe."

JPL is also developing a crucial new landing technology called terrain-relative navigation. As the descent stage approaches the Martian surface, it will use computer vision to compare the landscape with pre-loaded terrain maps. This technology will guide the descent stage to safe landing sites, correcting its course along the way.

A related technology called the range trigger will use location and velocity to determine when to fire the spacecraft's parachute. That change will narrow the landing ellipse by more than 50 percent.

"Terrain-relative navigation enables us to go to sites that were ruled too risky for Curiosity to explore," said Al Chen of JPL, the Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead. "The range trigger lets us land closer to areas of scientific interest, shaving miles -- potentially as much as a year -- off a rover's journey."

This approach to minimizing landing errors will be critical in guiding any future mission dedicated to retrieving the Mars 2020 samples, Chen said.

Site selection has been another milestone for the mission. In February, the science community narrowed the list of potential landing sites from eight to three. Those three remaining sites represent fundamentally different environments that could have harbored primitive life: an ancient lakebed called Jezero Crater; Northeast Syrtis, where warm waters may have chemically interacted with subsurface rocks; and a possible hot springs at Columbia Hills.

All three sites have rich geology and may potentially harbor signs of past microbial life. A final landing site decision is still more than a year away.

"In the coming years, the 2020 science team will be weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each of these sites," Farley said. "It is by far the most important decision we have ahead of us."

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Another art concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Hubble's Successor Achieves a Major Milestone on the Path to Launch in 2019...

The large door of the Johnson Space Center's Chamber A is opened...revealing NASA's James Webb Space Telescope after it completed cryogenic testing on November 18, 2017.
NASA / Chris Gunn

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Completes Final Cryogenic Testing (News Release - November 20)

The vault-like, 40-foot diameter, 40-ton door of Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was unsealed on November 18, signaling the end of cryogenic testing for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

The historic chamber’s massive door opening brings to a close about 100 days of testing for Webb, a significant milestone in the telescope’s journey to the launch pad. The cryogenic vacuum test began when the chamber was sealed shut on July 10, 2017. Scientists and engineers at Johnson put Webb’s optical telescope and integrated science instrument module (OTIS) through a series of tests designed to ensure the telescope functioned as expected in an extremely cold, airless environment akin to that of space.

“After 15 years of planning, chamber refurbishment, hundreds of hours of risk-reduction testing, the dedication of more than 100 individuals through more than 90 days of testing, and surviving Hurricane Harvey, the OTIS cryogenic test has been an outstanding success,” said Bill Ochs, project manager for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The completion of the test is one of the most significant steps in the march to launching Webb.”

These tests included an important alignment check of Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments, to make sure all of the gold-plated, hexagonal segments acted like a single, monolithic mirror. This was the first time the telescope’s optics and its instruments were tested together, though the instruments had previously undergone cryogenic testing in a smaller chamber at Goddard. Engineers from Harris Space and Intelligence Systems, headquartered in Melbourne, Florida, worked alongside NASA personnel for the test at Johnson.

“The Harris team integrated Webb’s 18 mirror segments at Goddard and designed, built, and helped operate the advanced ground support and optical test equipment at Johnson,” said Rob Mitrevski, vice president and general manager of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at Harris. “They were a key, enabling part of the successful Webb telescope testing team.”

The Webb telescope team persisted with the testing even when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the coast of Texas on Aug. 25 as a category 4 hurricane before stalling over eastern Texas and weakening to a tropical storm, where it dropped as much as 50 inches of rain in and around Houston. Many Webb telescope team members at Johnson endured the historic storm, working tirelessly through overnight shifts to make sure Webb’s cryogenic testing was not interrupted. In the wake of the storm, some Webb team members, including team members from Harris, volunteered their time to help clean up and repair homes around the city, and distribute food and water to those in need.

“The individuals and organizations that have led us to this most significant milestone represent the very best of the best. Their knowledge, dedication, and execution to successfully complete the testing as planned, even while enduring Hurricane Harvey, cannot be overstated,” said Mark Voyton, James Webb Space Telescope optical telescope element and integrated science instrument manager at Goddard. “Every team member delivered critical knowledge and insight into the strategic and tactical planning and execution required to complete all of the test objectives, and I am honored to have experienced this phase of our testing with every one of them.”

Before cooling the chamber, engineers removed the air from it, which took about a week. On July 20, engineers began to bring the chamber, the telescope, and the telescope’s science instruments down to cryogenic temperatures — a process that took about 30 days. During cool down, Webb and its instruments transferred their heat to surrounding liquid nitrogen and cold gaseous helium shrouds in Chamber A. Webb remained at “cryo-stable” temperatures for about another 30 days, and on Sept. 27, the engineers began to warm the chamber back to ambient conditions (near room temperature), before pumping the air back into it and unsealing the door.

“With an integrated team from all corners of the country, we were able to create deep space in our chamber and confirm that Webb can perform flawlessly as it observes the coldest corners of the universe,” said Jonathan Homan, project manager for Webb’s cryogenic testing at Johnson. “I expect [Webb] to be successful, as it journeys to Lagrange point 2 [after launch] and explores the origins of solar systems, galaxies, and has the chance to change our understanding of our universe.”

While Webb was inside the chamber, insulated from both outside visible and infrared light, engineers monitored it using thermal sensors and specialized camera systems. The thermal sensors kept tabs on the temperature of the telescope, while the camera systems tracked the physical position of Webb to see how its components very minutely moved during the cooldown process. Monitoring the telescope throughout the testing required the coordinated effort of every Webb team member at Johnson.

“This test team spanned nearly every engineering discipline we have on Webb,” said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for the Webb telescope at Goddard. “In every area there was incredible attention to detail and great teamwork, to make sure we understand everything that happened during the test and to make sure we can confidently say Webb will work as planned in space.”

In space, the telescope must be kept extremely cold, in order to be able to detect the infrared light from very faint, distant objects. Webb and its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin (or about minus 387 Fahrenheit / minus 233 Celsius). Because the Webb telescope’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) must be kept colder than the other research instruments, it relies on a cryocooler to lower its temperature to less than 7 Kelvin (minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit / minus 266 degrees Celsius).

To protect the telescope from external sources of light and heat (like the Sun, Earth and Moon), as well as from heat emitted by the observatory, a five-layer, tennis court-sized sunshield acts like a parasol that provides shade. The sunshield separates the observatory into a warm, sun-facing side (reaching temperatures close to 185 degrees Fahrenheit / 85 degrees Celsius) and a cold side (minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit / minus 240 degrees Celsius). The sunshield blocks sunlight from interfering with the sensitive telescope instruments.

Webb’s combined science instruments and optics next journey to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, where they will be integrated with the spacecraft element, which is the combined sunshield and spacecraft bus. Together, the pieces form the complete James Webb Space Telescope observatory. Once fully integrated, the entire observatory will undergo more tests during what is called "observatory-level testing." This testing is the last exposure to a simulated launch environment before flight and deployment testing on the whole observatory.

Webb is expected to launch from Kourou, French Guiana, in the spring of 2019.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the scientific complement to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, will be the premier space observatory of the next decade. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

Source: NASA.Gov

Monday, November 20, 2017

More Details On Last Month's Interstellar Interloper Are Revealed...

An artist's concept of 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) traveling through deep space.
European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser

Solar System’s First Interstellar Visitor Dazzles Scientists (News Release)

Astronomers recently scrambled to observe an intriguing asteroid that zipped through the solar system on a steep trajectory from interstellar space—the first confirmed object from another star.

Now, new data reveal the interstellar interloper to be a rocky, cigar-shaped object with a somewhat reddish hue. The asteroid, named ‘Oumuamua by its discoverers, is up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly-elongated—perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide. That aspect ratio is greater than that of any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system to date. While its elongated shape is quite surprising, and unlike asteroids seen in our solar system, it may provide new clues into how other solar systems formed.

The observations and analyses were funded in part by NASA and appear in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Nature. They suggest this unusual object had been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.

“For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now – for the first time – we have direct evidence they exist,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”

Immediately after its discovery, telescopes around the world, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world were called into action to measure the object’s orbit, brightness and color. Urgency for viewing from ground-based telescopes was vital to get the best data.

Combining the images from the FORS instrument on the ESO telescope using four different filters with those of other large telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii found that ‘Oumuamua varies in brightness by a factor of ten as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. No known asteroid or comet from our solar system varies so widely in brightness, with such a large ratio between length and width. The most elongated objects we have seen to date are no more than three times longer than they are wide.

“This unusually big variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape,” said Meech. We also found that it had a reddish color, similar to objects in the outer solar system, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.”

These properties suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years.

A few large ground-based telescopes continue to track the asteroid, though it’s rapidly fading as it recedes from our planet. Two of NASA’s space telescopes (Hubble and Spitzer) are tracking the object the week of Nov. 20. As of Nov. 20, ‘Oumuamua is travelling about 85,700 miles per hour (38.3 kilometers per second) relative to the Sun. Its location is approximately 124 million miles (200 million kilometers) from Earth -- the distance between Mars and Jupiter – though its outbound path is about 20 degrees above the plane of planets that orbit the Sun. The object passed Mars’s orbit around Nov. 1 and will pass Jupiter’s orbit in May of 2018. It will travel beyond Saturn’s orbit in January 2019; as it leaves our solar system, ‘Oumuamua will head for the constellation Pegasus.

Observations from large ground-based telescopes will continue until the object becomes too faint to be detected, sometime after mid-December. NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) continues to take all available tracking measurements to refine the trajectory of 1I/2017 U1 as it exits our solar system.

This remarkable object was discovered Oct. 19 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope, funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program, which finds and tracks asteroids and comets in Earth’s neighborhood. NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said, “We are fortunate that our sky survey telescope was looking in the right place at the right time to capture this historic moment. This serendipitous discovery is bonus science enabled by NASA’s efforts to find, track and characterize near-Earth objects that could potentially pose a threat to our planet.”

Preliminary orbital calculations suggest that the object came from the approximate direction of the bright star Vega, in the northern constellation of Lyra. However, it took so long for the interstellar object to make the journey – even at the speed of about 59,000 miles per hour (26.4 kilometers per second) -- that Vega was not near that position when the asteroid was there about 300,000 years ago.

While originally classified as a comet, observations from ESO and elsewhere revealed no signs of cometary activity after it slingshotted past the Sun on Sept. 9 at a blistering speed of 196,000 miles per hour (87.3 kilometers per second).

The object has since been reclassified as interstellar asteroid 1I/2017 U1 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for granting official names to bodies in the solar system and beyond. In addition to the technical name, the Pan-STARRS team dubbed it ‘Oumuamua (pronounced oh MOO-uh MOO-uh), which is Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first.”

Astronomers estimate that an interstellar asteroid similar to ‘Oumuamua passes through the inner solar system about once per year, but they are faint and hard to spot and have been missed until now. It is only recently that survey telescopes, such as Pan-STARRS, are powerful enough to have a chance to discover them.

“What a fascinating discovery this is!” said Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “It’s a strange visitor from a faraway star system, shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen in our own solar system neighborhood.”

Source: NASA.Gov

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Photos of the Day: Meeting Jessica Jones...

At The Grove's Barnes & Noble bookstore in Los Angeles to attend a signing by actress Krysten Ritter...on November 17, 2017.

A little over a week after I met Anna Faris there, I went back to the Barnes & Noble bookstore at L.A.'s The Grove to get an autograph by Krysten Ritter last night. As you know, Ms. Ritter appears in Marvel's Jessica Jones on Netflix and played Chloe on the short-lived ABC TV sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. Like Anna Faris, Ms. Ritter skipped having a discussion of her new novel Bonfire and went straight to signing it for everyone in attendance. What was awesome was that each fan was also able to get two other pieces of memorabilia signed by Ritter to go with her book. Unsurprisingly, the memorabilia presented to her either involved Jessica Jones or Apartment 23. I only had my copy of Bonfire signed.

Posing with Krysten Ritter at The Grove's Barnes & Noble bookstore in Los Angeles...on November 17, 2017.

As of right now, this may be the last book signing that I attend at The Grove in 2017. There's another celebrity who's promoting a new publication at Barnes & Noble next month, but I'll only show up if I'm not booked for work that day. I don't plan to take that day off for the signing, nor do I intend to tell you who I'm talking about! I'll keep y'all in suspense... Happy Saturday.

My autographed copy of Krysten Ritter's novel BONFIRE.