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Thursday, August 25, 2016

America's Next Mars Rover Gets a Ride...

A computer-generated drawing of NASA's Mars 2020 rover.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA Awards Launch Services Contract for Mars 2020 Rover Mission (Press Release)

NASA has selected United Launch Services LLC of Centennial, Colorado, to provide launch services for a mission that will address high-priority science goals for the agency’s Journey to Mars.

Mars 2020 is targeted for launch in July 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers.

Additionally, scientists will use the instruments aboard the rover to identify and collect samples of rock and soil, encase them in sealed tubes, and leave them on the surface of Mars for potential return to Earth by a future mission to the Red Planet.

The mission will build on the achievements of Curiosity and other Mars Exploration Program missions, and offer opportunities to deploy new capabilities developed through investments by NASA's Space Technology Program and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, as well as contributions from international partners.

The Mars 2020 rover mission presents new opportunities to learn how future human explorers could use natural resources available on the surface of the Red Planet. An ability to live off the land could reduce costs and engineering challenges posed by Mars exploration.

The total cost for NASA to launch Mars 2020 is approximately $243 million, which includes: the launch service; spacecraft and spacecraft power source processing; planetary protection processing; launch vehicle integration; and tracking, data and telemetry support.

NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet. The robotic missions of NASA’s Planetary Science Division are leading the way with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover, the InSight lander mission targeted for 2018, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers currently exploring the Martian surface, Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft currently orbiting the planet, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) orbiter, which is helping scientists understand what happened to the planet’s atmosphere.

NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will manage and oversee the Atlas V launch service for Mars 2020. The Mars 2020 Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars 2020 spacecraft development for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

HUGE NEWS: An Alien World Is Officially Found Orbiting 'Only' 24+ Trillion Miles From Earth... (James Cameron Would Be Proud)

An artist's concept of the exoplanet Proxima b orbiting its star Proxima Centauri.
ESO / M. Kornmesser

Planet Found in Habitable Zone Around Nearest Star (Press Release)

Pale Red Dot campaign reveals Earth-mass world in orbit around Proxima Centauri

Astronomers using ESO telescopes and other facilities have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the closest star to Earth, Proxima Centauri. The long-sought world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool red parent star every 11 days and has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth and is the closest exoplanet to us — and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the Solar System. A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on 25 August 2016.

Just over four light-years from the Solar System lies a red dwarf star that has been named Proxima Centauri as it is the closest star to Earth apart from the Sun. This cool star in the constellation of Centaurus is too faint to be seen with the unaided eye and lies near to the much brighter pair of stars known as Alpha Centauri AB.

During the first half of 2016 Proxima Centauri was regularly observed with the HARPS spectrograph on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla in Chile and simultaneously monitored by other telescopes around the world. This was the Pale Red Dot campaign, in which a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé, from Queen Mary University of London, was looking for the tiny back and forth wobble of the star that would be caused by the gravitational pull of a possible orbiting planet.

As this was a topic with very wide public interest, the progress of the campaign between mid-January and April 2016 was shared publicly as it happened on the Pale Red Dot website and via social media. The reports were accompanied by numerous outreach articles written by specialists around the world.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé explains the background to this unique search: “The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO and others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning.”

The Pale Red Dot data, when combined with earlier observations made at ESO observatories and elsewhere, revealed the clear signal of a truly exciting result. At times Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about 5 kilometres per hour — normal human walking pace — and at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern of changing radial velocities repeats with a period of 11.2 days. Careful analysis of the resulting tiny Doppler shifts showed that they indicated the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times that of the Earth, orbiting about 7 million kilometres from Proxima Centauri — only 5% of the Earth-Sun distance.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé comments on the excitement of the last few months: "I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!"

Red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of a planet. To exclude this possibility the team also monitored the changing brightness of the star very carefully during the campaign using the ASH2 telescope at the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile and the Las Cumbres Observatory telescope network. Radial velocity data taken when the star was flaring were excluded from the final analysis.

Although Proxima b orbits much closer to its star than Mercury does to the Sun in the Solar System, the star itself is far fainter than the Sun. As a result Proxima b lies well within the habitable zone around the star and has an estimated surface temperature that would allow the presence of liquid water. Despite the temperate orbit of Proxima b, the conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star — far more intense than the Earth experiences from the Sun.

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate. They find that the existence of liquid water on the planet today cannot be ruled out and, in such case, it may be present over the surface of the planet only in the sunniest regions, either in an area in the hemisphere of the planet facing the star (synchronous rotation) or in a tropical belt (3:2 resonance rotation). Proxima b's rotation, the strong radiation from its star and the formation history of the planet makes its climate quite different from that of the Earth, and it is unlikely that Proxima b has seasons.

This discovery will be the beginning of extensive further observations, both with current instruments and with the next generation of giant telescopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Proxima b will be a prime target for the hunt for evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe. Indeed, the Alpha Centauri system is also the target of humankind’s first attempt to travel to another star system, the StarShot project.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé concludes: "Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us. Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next...

Source: European Southern Observatory

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An artist's concept of the terrain on Proxima b.
ESO / M. Kornmesser

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Countdown to Bennu: T-Minus 22 Days Till OSIRIS-REx Lifts Off!

An artist's concept of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to take a sample from asteroid Bennu.
NASA / Goddard / Chris Meaney

NASA Prepares to Launch First U.S. Asteroid Sample Return Mission (Press Release)

NASA is preparing to launch its first mission to return a sample of an asteroid to Earth. The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and bring a sample back to Earth for intensive study. Launch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. EDT Thursday, Sept. 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“This mission exemplifies our nation’s quest to boldly go and study our solar system and beyond to better understand the universe and our place in it,” said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA science is the greatest engine of scientific discovery on the planet and OSIRIS-REx embodies our directorate’s goal to innovate, explore, discover, and inspire.”

The 4,650-pound (2,110-kilogram) fully-fueled spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 rocket during a 34-day launch period that begins Sept. 8, and reach its asteroid target in 2018. After a careful survey of Bennu to characterize the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, OSIRIS-REx will collect between 2 and 70 ounces (about 60 to 2,000 grams) of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.

"The launch of OSIRIS-REx is the beginning of a seven-year journey to return pristine samples from asteroid Bennu," said OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. "The team has built an amazing spacecraft, and we are well-equipped to investigate Bennu and return with our scientific treasure."

OSIRIS-REx has five instruments to explore Bennu:

-- OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) – A system consisting of three cameras provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, will observe Bennu and provide global imaging, sample site imaging, and will witness the sampling event.

-- OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) – A scanning LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) contributed by the Canadian Space Agency will be used to measure the distance between the spacecraft and Bennu's surface, and will map the shape of the asteroid.

-- OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) – An instrument provided by Arizona State University in Tempe that will investigate mineral abundances and provide temperature information with observations in the thermal infrared spectrum.

-- OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) – An instrument provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and designed to measure visible and infrared light from Bennu to identify mineral and organic material.

-- Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) – A student experiment provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, which will observe the X-ray spectrum to identify chemical elements on Bennu’s surface and their abundances.

Additionally, the spacecraft has two systems that will enable the sample collection and return:

-- Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – An articulated robotic arm with a sampler head, provided by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, to collect a sample of Bennu's surface.

-- OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule (SRC) – A capsule with a heat shield and parachutes in which the spacecraft will return the asteroid sample to Earth, provided by Lockheed Martin.

"Our upcoming launch is the culmination of a tremendous amount of effort from an extremely dedicated team of scientists, engineers, technicians, finance and support personnel," said OSIRIS-REx Project Manager Mike Donnelly at Goddard. "I'm incredibly proud of this team and look forward to launching the mission's journey to Bennu and back."

Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed Martin Space Systems built the spacecraft. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an illumination test is conducted on one of OSIRIS-REx's twin solar arrays inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility.
NASA / Cory Huston

Monday, August 08, 2016

OSIRIS-REx Update: Only One Month Till Launch!

The Atlas V payload fairing that will enshroud the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during launch is in storage inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA / United Launch Alliance

Last week, the components for the Atlas V 411 rocket that will send the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on its way to asteroid Bennu arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida. While OSIRIS-REx itself undergoes final preps for launch (it was loaded with fuel last week), the Atlas V will begin stacking operations inside Space Launch Complex 41's Vertical Integration Facility at CCAFS today. OSIRIS-REx will be encapsulated inside the rocket's payload fairing on August 24-25 and join Atlas V at the pad on August 29. The excitement is building... September 8 can't come soon enough!

The barge carrying components for OSIRIS-REx's Atlas V rocket is about to dock at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
NASA / United Launch Alliance

The Centaur second stage motor that will give OSIRIS-REx its final boost towards asteroid Bennu is transported to Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
NASA / United Launch Alliance

The Atlas V first stage booster that will begin OSIRIS-REx's mission is about to be transported to SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
NASA / United Launch Alliance

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The F-35A Is Ready for Battle...

As of August 2, 2016, the F-35A Lightning II is officially ready to go to war.
USAF / Lockheed Martin

AF Declares the F-35A ‘Combat Ready’ (Press Release)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) -- The F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter aircraft was declared ‘combat ready’ by Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, Aug 2.

Carlisle lauded the aircraft’s performance, noting that the aircraft had met all key criteria for reaching initial operational capability: Airmen trained, manned and equipped to conduct basic close air support, interdiction and limited suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses in a contested environment with an operational squadron of 12-24 aircraft; the ability to deploy and conduct operational missions using program of record weapons and missions systems; and having all necessary logistics and operational elements in place.

“I am proud to announce this powerful new weapons system has achieved initial combat capability,” Carlisle said. “The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield.”

The F-35A is the latest addition to ACC’s fleet of deployable and fifth-generation aircraft. It provides air superiority, interdiction, suppression of enemy air defenses and close air support as well as great command and control functions through fused sensors, and it will provide pilots with unprecedented situational awareness of the battlespace that will be more extensive than any single-seat platform in existence.

“Bringing the F-35A to initial combat readiness is a testament to our phenomenal Airmen and the outstanding support of the Joint Program Office and our enterprise partners. This important milestone for our fighter force ensures the United States, along with our allies and international partners, remains prepared to deter, deny, and defeat the full spectrum of growing threats around the globe," added Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein, said that dynamic new capability will benefit the joint warfighter.

"The combat ready F-35A is the latest fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the Air Force's inventory and provides our nation air dominance in any environment. The F-35A brings an unprecedented combination of lethality, survivability, and adaptability to joint and combined operations, and is ready to deploy and strike well-defended targets anywhere on Earth," Goldfein said. "Today's declaration of IOC is an important milestone on the road to achieving full warfighting capability for the F-35A.”

The 34th Fighter Squadron of the 388th Fighter Wing, based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is the service’s first operational F-35A squadron, having met all the established criteria for initial operational capability including a successful June deployment to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and a series of eight-aircraft sorties held in mid-July. 34th FS Airmen will fly and maintain the F-35A alongside Air Force Reservists from Hill’s 419th Fighter Wing.

"Our Airmen have worked tirelessly to make sure our aircraft are combat ready: meeting challenges head-on and completing all the required milestones," said Col. David Lyons, the 388th Fighter Wing commander. "We're very proud that the Air Force has declared us combat ready and we're prepared to take this aircraft wherever it's needed in support of our national defense."

Those sentiments were echoed by Col. David Smith, the 419th FW commander. “It's an honor to fly and maintain the F-35 with our active-duty counterparts here at Hill,” Smith said. “Our units were the first to fly combat-ready F-16s nearly 40 years ago, and we're very proud to have made history once again in bringing the Air Force's newest fighter jet to IOC.”

Source: United States Air Force

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The first two of 72 F-35A jet fighters are delivered to Hill Air Force Base in Utah...on September 2, 2015.
USAF / Lockheed Martin

Monday, August 01, 2016

So I Just Came Up With The Weirdest Word (In My Sleep)...

"Oboe biking?" What the heck is that? Even though I said this during a dream I had last night, I'm mad at myself for saying that to my celebrity crush—who appeared in the dream. For most of the fantasy, I was standing next to this girl while she was mingling with other people. It was towards the end of the dream where she finally turned to me to ask a question, and I replied with that odd phrase mentioned at the start of this entry. She corrected me with the actual wording (I forgot what it was) before telling me to walk away. Ouch. That was a crappy first impression that I left during my REM sleep. Anyways, in case you're wondering who my celebrity crush is, I typed about her in this entry...or just click on the first keyword listed below. 'Kay, that's enough cryptic talk for this morning. Happy August!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Supergirl, Meet Superman!

Melissa Benoist returns as Kara Danvers, while Tyler Hoechlin will join her as Superman in Season 2 of SUPERGIRL.

Can't wait to see Melissa Benoist kick ass as Supergirl again when the TV series begins Season 2 on the CW Network—the show originally aired on CBS last season—this October! (Supergirl premieres on October 10, to be exact.) However, the jury is out on Tyler Hoechlin (of MTV's Teen Wolf) as the Man of Steel. For starters, what's with that weird smirk on his face? And two, where's the spitcurl? At least Zack (Brian Thomas Smith) humorously sported it when he dressed as Superman to hang out with Penny (Kaley Cuoco) and Co. in a Season 4 episode of The Big Bang Theory... Looks like Hoechlin's portrayal will be more like that of Henry Cavill than those by the late Christopher Reeves and Brandon Routh. Oh well.

Zack (Brian Thomas Smith) is dressed as Superman while Penny (Kaley Cuoco) wears a Wonder Woman costume in a Season 4 episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Juno Update: Headin' Back Towards Jupiter...

An artist's concept of NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Five Years Post-Launch, Juno Is at a Turning Point (Press Release - July 29)

Five years after departing Earth, and a month after slipping into orbit around Jupiter, NASA's Juno spacecraft is nearing a turning point. On July 31 at 12:41 p.m. PDT (3:41 p.m. EDT), Juno will reach the farthest point in its orbit of Jupiter for the first time, known as "apojove," 5 million miles (8.1 million kilometers) from the giant planet. After that point, Jupiter's gravitational grip on Juno will cause the spacecraft to begin falling back toward the planet for another pass, this time with its scientific eyes wide open.

The spacecraft is currently executing the first of two long orbits prior to beginning its science mission. Each capture orbit is nearly two months long -- quite the wait for the mission's eager team of scientists -- but it's nothing compared to the long wait the team endured on the trek to Jupiter.

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011. The spacecraft took a long, looping path around the inner solar system to set up an Earth flyby, in which our planet's gravity flung the spinning probe onward toward Jupiter.

"For five years we've been focused on getting to Jupiter. Now we're there, and we're concentrating on beginning dozens of flybys of Jupiter to get the science we're after," said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4, firing its main rocket engine as planned for 35 minutes. The flawless maneuver allowed Jupiter's gravity to capture the solar powered spacecraft into the first of two 53.4-day-long orbits, referred to as capture orbits. Following the capture orbits, Juno will fire its engine once more to shorten its orbital period to 14 days and begin its science mission.

But before that happens, on Aug. 27, Juno must finish its first lap around Jupiter, with a finish line that represents the mission's closest pass over the gas giant. During the encounter, Juno will skim past Jupiter at a mere 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) above the cloud tops.

Juno's science instruments were turned off during orbit insertion, to simplify spacecraft operations during that critical maneuver. In contrast, all the instruments will be collecting data during the Aug. 27 pass, which serves as a trial run before the mission gets to work collecting the precious data it came for.

"We're in an excellent state of health, with the spacecraft and all the instruments fully checked out and ready for our first up-close look at Jupiter," said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

With its powerful suite of science instruments, Juno will probe Jupiter's deep structure, atmospheric circulation and the high-energy physics of its magnetic environment. What Juno finds there will reveal important clues to Jupiter's formation and evolution, along with insights about how our planetary system and others are built.

JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Caltech in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Milestone Is Crossed In America's Effort to Touch the Sun (So to Speak)...

An artist's concept of NASA's Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun.
JHU / APL

NASA’s Solar Probe Plus Mission Moves One Step Closer to Launch (News Release)

NASA’s Solar Probe Plus – the first mission that will fly into sun's upper atmosphere and “touch” the sun – has passed a design review, an important milestone leading to its anticipated summer 2018 launch. The successful review means the mission may now transition from formulation and design to final assembly and implementation. The spacecraft, as it appears in the image, currently includes the primary structure and propulsion system. Over the next phase of the mission, engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland – which manages the mission and is building the spacecraft – will finish assembly and install the rest of the spacecraft systems and science instruments.

Solar Probe Plus is slated to launch during a 20-day window that opens July 31, 2018. The spacecraft will collect data on the mechanisms that heat the corona and accelerate the solar wind, a constant flow of charged particles from the sun. These are two processes with fundamental roles in the complex interconnected system linking the sun and near-Earth space – a system that can drive changes in our space weather and impact our satellites. Solar Probe Plus is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, an initiative focused on aspects of the sun-Earth system that directly affect human lives and society. The program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Source: NASA.Gov

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At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, technicians prepare the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft—which is still undergoing construction—for thermal vacuum tests that simulate conditions in space.
NASA / JHUAPL

Monday, July 25, 2016

Photos of the Day #2: Glimpses Of The Sand Fire From Afar...

As seen from old town Pasadena, the Moon is tinted red by a cloud of smoke caused by the Sand Fire in Santa Clarita...on July 22, 2016.

Just thought I'd share these pics that I took of the effects of the wildfire that's currently burning in the Santa Clarita Mountains north of Los Angeles. Known as the Sand Fire, this inferno has been a fascinating sight to see (just don't tell that to someone whose home was either destroyed or endangered by this ever-growing blaze) from 40 to 60 miles away. The photos above and directly below were taken when the fire began last Friday. The Moon is tinted red by the cloud of smoke hanging above old town Pasadena, while the cloud itself was an ominous sight to see from my house in West Covina located 60-plus miles away from the calamity.

The cloud of smoke caused by the Sand Fire is an ominous sight to see from my house in West Covina...on July 22, 2016.

The images shown below were taken yesterday. As seen from the Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, the Sand Fire no longer leaves a huge cloud of smoke obscuring the skies over much of Southern California, but is still visible above the mountains in which it burns. The final photo below was taken from a street near my house in West Covina as I was heading to work in the evening. That cloud of smoke looks totally ominous...like something from the first (and good) Independence Day movie...

Much props to the firefighters working around the clock to put out this blaze.

A cloud of smoke is visible (towards the left of this image) behind the San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Anita Mall...on July 24, 2016.

The Sand Fire's cloud of smoke as seen from a street in West Covina 60-plus miles away...on July 24, 2016.