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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mars 2020 Update...

An artist's sketch of NASA's Mars 2020 rover.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA Announces Mars 2020 Rover Payload to Explore the Red Planet as Never Before (Press Release)

The next rover NASA will send to Mars in 2020 will carry seven carefully-selected instruments to conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet.

NASA announced the selected Mars 2020 rover instruments Thursday at the agency's headquarters in Washington. Managers made the selections out of 58 proposals received in January from researchers and engineers worldwide. Proposals received were twice the usual number submitted for instrument competitions in the recent past. This is an indicator of the extraordinary interest by the science community in the exploration of the Mars. The selected proposals have a total value of approximately $130 million for development of the instruments.

The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed almost two years ago, and currently is operating on Mars. The new rover will carry more sophisticated, upgraded hardware and new instruments to conduct geological assessments of the rover's landing site, determine the potential habitability of the environment, and directly search for signs of ancient Martian life.

"Today we take another important step on our journey to Mars," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.” While getting to and landing on Mars is hard, Curiosity was an iconic example of how our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way for humans to pioneer Mars and beyond. Mars exploration will be this generation’s legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans' journey to the Red Planet."

Scientists will use the Mars 2020 rover to identify and select a collection of rock and soil samples that will be stored for potential return to Earth by a future mission. The Mars 2020 mission is responsive to the science objectives recommended by the National Research Council's 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey.

“The Mars 2020 rover, with these new advanced scientific instruments, including those from our international partners, holds the promise to unlock more mysteries of Mars’ past as revealed in the geological record,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This mission will further our search for life in the universe and also offer opportunities to advance new capabilities in exploration technology.”

The Mars 2020 rover also will help advance our knowledge of how future human explorers could use natural resources available on the surface of the Red Planet. An ability to live off the Martian land would transform future exploration of the planet. Designers of future human expeditions can use this mission to understand the hazards posed by Martian dust and demonstrate technology to process carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce oxygen. These experiments will help engineers learn how to use Martian resources to produce oxygen for human respiration and potentially oxidizer for rocket fuel.

"The 2020 rover will help answer questions about the Martian environment that astronauts will face and test technologies they need before landing on, exploring and returning from the Red Planet," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry. Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible."

The selected payload proposals are:

- Mastcam-Z, an advanced camera system with panoramic and stereoscopic imaging capability with the ability to zoom. The instrument also will determine mineralogy of the Martian surface and assist with rover operations. The principal investigator is James Bell, Arizona State University in Tempe.

- SuperCam, an instrument that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy. The instrument will also be able to detect the presence of organic compounds in rocks and regolith from a distance. The principal investigator is Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico. This instrument also has a significant contribution from the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales,Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Plane’tologie (CNES/IRAP) France.

- Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer that will also contain an imager with high resolution to determine the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials. PIXL will provide capabilities that permit more detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements than ever before. The principal investigator is Abigail Allwood, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

- Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet (UV) laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and detect organic compounds. SHERLOC will be the first UV Raman spectrometer to fly to the surface of Mars and will provide complementary measurements with other instruments in the payload. The principal investigator is Luther Beegle, JPL.

- The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), an exploration technology investigation that will produce oxygen from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide. The principal investigator is Michael Hecht, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

- Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), a set of sensors that will provide measurements of temperature, wind speed and direction, pressure, relative humidity and dust size and shape. The principal investigator is Jose Rodriguez-Manfredi, Centro de Astrobiologia, Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial, Spain.

- The Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), a ground-penetrating radar that will provide centimeter-scale resolution of the geologic structure of the subsurface. The principal investigator is Svein-Erik Hamran, Forsvarets Forskning Institute, Norway.

"We are excited that NASA's Space Technology Program is partnered with Human Exploration and the Mars 2020 Rover Team to demonstrate our abilities to harvest the Mars atmosphere and convert its abundant carbon dioxide to pure oxygen," said James Reuther, deputy associate administrator for programs for the Space Technology Mission Directorate. "This technology demonstration will pave the way for more affordable human missions to Mars where oxygen is needed for life support and rocket propulsion."

Instruments developed from the selected proposals will be placed on a rover similar to Curiosity, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. Using a proven landing system and rover chassis design to deliver these new experiments to Mars will ensure mission costs and risks are minimized as much as possible, while still delivering a highly capable rover.

Curiosity recently completed a Martian year on the surface -- 687 Earth days -- having accomplished the mission's main goal of determining whether Mars once offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

The Mars 2020 rover is part the agency's Mars Exploration Program, which includes the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, the Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft currently orbiting the planet, and the MAVEN orbiter, which is set to arrive at the Red Planet in September and will study the Martian upper atmosphere.

In 2016, a Mars lander mission called InSight will launch to take the first look into the deep interior of Mars. The agency also is participating in the European Space Agency's (ESA’s) 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 orbiter and a critical element of the astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

NASA's Mars Exploration Program seeks to characterize and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and biological potential. In parallel, NASA is developing the human spaceflight capabilities needed for future round-trip missions to Mars.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will build and manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A diagram that shows all of the science instruments that will fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover.
NASA

Friday, July 25, 2014

A San Diego Adventure...

Posing near a pier at La Jolla Shores Beach in San Diego, on July 25, 2014.

Earlier today, two friends and I took a road trip down to California's southernmost metropolis. No, it wasn't to get into Comic-Con International (though that didn't stop us from getting close to the convention center where this ever-growing event took place), but to buy donuts, visit the (haunted?) Hotel del Coronado, kick back at a La Jolla beach, walk around the Gaslamp Quarter and eat pizza at an Italian restaurant. Needless to say, it was a very fun adventure. And yes, Nancy was one of the two buddies who I drove to San Diego with (we didn't go hiking at San Diego as mentioned in this earlier entry...but it's all good). I'm missing her as I type this, haha.

Cruising along the Coronado Bridge in San Diego, on July 25, 2014.

Downtown San Diego as seen from the Coronado Bridge, on July 25, 2014.

Visiting the Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island in San Diego, on July 25, 2014.

Visiting the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, on July 25, 2014.

Walking past the San Diego Convention Center, home of Comic-Con International, on July 25, 2014.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

SpaceX Does It Again!

Landing legs are deployed on a Falcon 9 first stage booster after returning to Earth following launch on July 14, 2014...in this footage taken by an onboard camera whose lens were covered in ice.
SpaceX

I should post this in my Human Spaceflight Blog since this has a huge impact on SpaceX's future plans to conduct manned space exploration at a truly affordable cost, but it's all good. Check out this cool Rocketcam video showing a Falcon 9 first stage booster successfully touching down in the Atlantic Ocean (though the booster broke apart after going horizontal and impacting the water moments later) after launching six Orbcomm communications satellites into Earth orbit on July 14. Much of the footage is obscured by ice that built up on the camera lens during the vehicle's descent through the atmosphere, but the gist of this video is clear: SpaceX is making considerable progress in creating a rocket that will pretty much be completely reusable and allow the company to pursue the goal that it, NASA, um China and all other spacefaring nations want to attain...and that's to send people to Mars. Godspeed everyone! And China.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kepler Update...

An artist's concept of the exoplanet Kepler-421b.
Harvard-Smithsonian, Center for Astrophysics / D. A. Aguilar

Astronomers Discover Transiting Exoplanet with Longest Known Year (Press Release)

Astronomers using NASA Kepler data have discovered a transiting exoplanet with the longest known year. Kepler-421b orbits its star once every 704 days. In comparison, Mars orbits our sun once every 780 days. Most of the more than 1,800 confirmed exoplanets discovered to date are much closer to their stars and have much shorter orbital periods.

"Finding Kepler-421b was a stroke of luck," says lead author David Kipping of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "The farther a planet is from its star, the less likely it is to transit the star from Earth's point of view. It has to line up just right."

Kepler-421b orbits an orange, K-type star that is cooler and dimmer than our sun and is located about 1,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra.

The newly confirmed world circles the star at a distance of about 110 million miles. As a result, this Uranus-sized planet is chilled to a temperature of -135 degrees Fahrenheit (-93 degrees Celsius).

This research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online. Additional information can be found at https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~dkipping/kepler421.html.

NASA's Ames Research Center is responsible for the Kepler mission concept, ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data.

Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

Source: NASA.Gov

Sunday, July 20, 2014

1 WTC: Photos of the Day...

Under the night sky, the 1 World Trade Center's (1 WTC) antenna spire glows above New York City.
Image courtesy of One World Trade Center - Facebook

It's been a while since I posted an entry about New York City's (and America's) newest symbol of greatness on this Blog, so just thought I'd share these cool photos that I found on Facebook. The 1 World Trade Center is expected to open to the public later this year.

The 1 WTC's antenna spire is visible above a layer of fog that enshrouds New York City.
Image courtesy of One World Trade Center - Facebook

The 1 WTC towers above New York City's skyline.
Image courtesy of One World Trade Center - Facebook

An AH-64 Apache attack helicopter flies past the 1 WTC in New York City.
Image courtesy of One World Trade Center - Facebook

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Back in the Day: Jupiter Gets Hit By A Comet

Brown spots mark the impact sites of Comet Shoemaker Levy-9 after its fragments collided with Jupiter, between July 16-22, 1994.
NASA / Hubble Space Telescope Comet Team

20 years ago this month, I enthusiastically went outside everyday (for seven days) to retrieve the L.A. Times newspaper from my front yard to see awesome photos of this celestial occurrence on the front page. Of course, the press release posted with this entry will tell you why this event was so cool; the summer of 1994 was also the period of time as I prepared to enter the 9th grade. Yup, what better way to get ready for my first year in high school than to geek (or nerd) out over an amazing scientific opportunity instead of looking good for hot freshman girls on the first day of class. Um, anyways... Read on.

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Looking Back at the Jupiter Crash 20 Years Later (Press Release - July 15)

Twenty years ago, human and robotic eyes observed the first recorded impact between cosmic bodies in the solar system, as fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into the atmosphere of Jupiter. Between July 16 and July 22, 1994, space- and Earth-based assets managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, joined an armada of other NASA and international telescopes, straining to get a glimpse of the historic event:

- NASA's Galileo spacecraft, still a year-and-a-half out from its arrival at Jupiter, had a unique view of fireballs that erupted from Jupiter's southern hemisphere as the comet fragments struck.

- NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, using the JPL-developed and -built Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, observed the comet and the impact scars it left on Jupiter.

- The giant radio telescopes of NASA's Deep Space Network -- which perform radio and radar astronomy research in addition to their communications functions -- were tasked with observing radio emissions from Jupiter's radiation belt, looking for disturbances caused by comet dust.

- NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft, then about 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from Jupiter, observed the impacts with its ultraviolet spectrometer and a planetary radio astronomy instrument.

- The Ulysses spacecraft also made observations during the comet impact from about 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) away. Ulysses observed radio transmissions from Jupiter with its combined radio wave and plasma wave instrument.

The work of scientists in studying the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact raised awareness about the potential for asteroid impacts on Earth and the need for predicting them ahead of time, important factors in the formation of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office. The NEO Program Office coordinates NASA-sponsored efforts to detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach Earth.

The Galileo mission was managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. JPL also manages the Voyager mission and the Deep Space Network for NASA. NASA's Near-Earth Object Program at NASA Headquarters, Washington, manages and funds the search, study and monitoring of asteroids and comets whose orbits periodically bring them close to Earth. JPL manages the Near-Earth Object Program Office for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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NASA's Galileo spacecraft took this shot of fragment W, which was once part of Comet Shoemaker Levy-9, striking Jupiter on July 22, 1994.
NASA / JPL

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jack Bauer Lives Another Day...But At Great Cost

24 logo.

So last night was the season finale for 24: Live Another Day...and all I can say is, if this is the permanent finale for the hit FOX TV series, then this show ended on a great note! A very sad and bleak note, but a great note nonetheless. Jack Bauer once again proved why he's one of the greatest action heroes to grace the small screen, and Kiefer Sutherland displayed that he was up to the task of bringing this character back to life after a four-year absence from television. Not to be outdone by Sutherland was Mary Lynn Rajskub as Chloe O'Brian—who showed that she will always be Jack's best friend and trusty sidekick whenever a terrorist comes along to make the proverbial crap hit the fan.

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) ponders his next move after defeating Cheng Zhi and averting a world war in the finale of 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY.

In regards to the finale, this episode was completely emotional and action-packed. The fact that there were two silent clocks (one for the death of Audrey, Jack's one true live and the daughter of President James Heller, and the other to mark Bauer's uncertain fate at the hands of the Russians) showed that the producers were gonna have 24: Live Another Day punch TV viewers in the gut (in a good way) before the end credits came rolling. To see the anguish on CIA agent Kate Morgan's (played by the ever talented and beautiful Yvonne Strahovski) face as Audrey (portrayed with grace by Kim Raver) lay dying in her arms after being shot by a second Chinese sniper (the first one was eliminated by Agent Morgan) was devastating to say the least. But it was even more heartbreaking to see the initial responses by Jack and President Heller (played superbly by William Devane) when they got word that Heller's daughter was no more. Heller's collapse to the floor upon hearing the news about Audrey's death, and subsequent confession to the British Prime Minister on an airport tarmac (while Audrey's casket was being loaded aboard Air Force One) that Heller won't remember his daughter's horrific fate, let alone that he had a daughter at all due to Alzheimer's, was the kind of performance that should earn Devane an Emmy nomination next year. As for Jack...

President James Heller (William Devane) is about to receive devastating news regarding his daughter Audrey in the finale of 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY.

If Kiefer Sutherland gets an Emmy nomination for Live Another Day next year, it will be for the reaction he conveyed upon Jack getting a phone call by Agent Morgan about Audrey being fatally wounded. Jack initially takes out his handgun and ponders doing what he probably thought about doing on the previous 8 'days'—ending his life—but quickly places the firearm back into its holster when Bauer realizes that he has one last job to do as he was about to save the world from disaster once more. The following events proved an adage that's been shown numerous times before in the other seasons: When Jack Bauer is pissed off, he's really pissed off...and you don't mess with him at all. Particularly, you don't mess with Jack when he's welding a Samurai sword. Cheng Zhi (played with sinister relish by Tzi Ma) learned this the hard way when he was the one responsible for Audrey's death and the next world war that would've begun between America and China had Bauer not located him in time. Considering all of the brutal things he did (not just to Audrey but to a couple of Chloe O'Brian's friends) in the few episodes he was in during this season, it was definitely a well-earned payoff to see Bauer dispatch (Re: decapitate) Cheng with that sword. But even though Jack achieved justice for Audrey and the other people who suffered at the hands of Cheng in the final moments of this season, there was more justice to be had in the world of 24; unfortunately, it would be at Jack's expense.

Cheng Zhi (Tzi Ma) is about to meet his fate by way of a Samurai sword welded by Jack Bauer in the 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY finale.

Jack's ability to save the world on nine different days was not without cost: He had to take the lives of colleagues who stood in the way of a crisis being averted, he lost many people (along with Audrey) that he loved, and his anger in wanting to take out the bad guy resulted in him eliminating foreign dignitaries that would cause those nations to seek vengeance on him (which is how Bauer met Cheng Zhi in the first place). One such nation is Russia...who would use Jack's friendship with Chloe O'Brian as a way to force him to surrender himself to the Russians and atone for the acts that he committed against their country in Day 8. Like the previous seasons of 24, there was no way that Jack Bauer was gonna have a happy ending, and to see him say his goodbye to Chloe just as Jack was about to board that Russian helicopter to Moscow (to be interrogated, tortured and incarcerated, no doubt) was fitting for a hero who saved the world so many times and suffered so much while doing it. If this season of 24 is indeed the final time that we'll see Jack Bauer thwart terrorists on the TV screen, then this ending was the right way to conclude it. As mentioned in the second paragraph of this entry, there was a silent clock to mark Jack's fate and the conclusion of Live Another Day. There's no better way to accentuate the ultimate sacrifice that Bauer made in this 12-part series...but here's hoping that there will also be a way to celebrate his ultimate victories if 24 gets another season. Jack deserves as much. Carry on.

Jack Bauer and Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) bid farewell to each other, prior to Jack boarding a Russian helicopter and heading to an uncertain fate in the 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY finale.

Monday, July 14, 2014

July 14, 2015: A Big Day for Space Exploration...

An illustration marking the one-year wait till NASA's New Horizons spacecraft reaches the dwarf planet Pluto.
Image courtesy of the New Horizons Mission Website

New Horizons Only One Year from Pluto‏ (Press Release)

In July 2015, NASA will discover a new world. No one knows what to expect when the alien landscape comes into focus. There could be icy geysers, towering mountains, deep valleys, even planetary rings.

At this point, only one thing is certain: Its name is Pluto.

On July 14th, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will make a close flyby of that distant world. "Because Pluto has never been visited up-close by a spacecraft from Earth, everything we see will be a first," says Adriana Ocampo, the Program Executive for NASA's New Frontiers program at NASA headquarters. "I know this will be an astonishing experience full of history making moments."

The mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, has likened the way New Horizons will revolutionize knowledge about the Pluto system to the way that Mariner 4, which flew past Mars in July 1965, revolutionized knowledge of that planet. At the time, many people on Earth thought the Red Planet was a lush world with water and vegetation friendly to life. Instead, Mariner 4 revealed a desert world of haunting beauty.

New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto will occur almost exactly 50 years after Mariner 4’s flyby of Mars—and it could shock observers just as much.

Pluto is almost completely unknown. It is so far away, that even the Hubble Space Telescope strains to see it. The best images so far show little more than Pluto's shape (spherical) and color (reddish). Over the years, changes in those color patterns hint at a dynamic planet where something is happening, but no one knows what.

By late April 2015, New Horizons will be close enough to Pluto to take pictures rivaling those of Hubble—and it only gets better from there. At closest approach in July 2015, New Horizons will be a scant 10,000 km above the surface of Pluto. If New Horizons flew over Earth at the same altitude, it could see individual buildings and their shapes.

Flying so close to Pluto could be risky business. Pluto has five known moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. Numerical simulations show that meteoroids striking those satellites could send debris into orbit around Pluto, forming a debris system that waxes and wanes over time in response to changes in the bombardment. During the approach to Pluto, the science team will keep a wary eye out for debris, and guide the spacecraft away from danger.

"The New Horizons Team continues to do a magnificent job in keeping the spacecraft healthy and ready for this incredible rendezvous," Ocampo says. "The spacecraft is in good hands."

No one knows what New Horizons will discover. "Many predictions have being made by the science community, including possible rings, geyser eruptions, and even lakes," says Ocampo. "Whatever we find, I believe Pluto and its satellites will surpass all our expectations and surprise us beyond our imagination."

"Think about seeing something for the first time and discovering the unknown," she concludes. "That’s what we're about to do."

Source: NASA.Gov

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A U.S. postage stamp commemorating the New Horizons spacecraft's flyby of Pluto next year.
NewHorizons2015 - Twitter.com

Sunday, July 13, 2014

FIFA World Cup Brazil...

Getting photobombed while holding a replica of the World Cup trophy at the Legends sports bar in Long Beach, CA...on July 13, 2014.

Earlier today, two of my friends and I went to the Legends sports bar in Long Beach to watch the World Cup final match between Argentina and Germany. Great game... Argentina (who I was rooting for; though it was inadvertent that I wore a shirt with their white and blue color scheme to the bar) had so many chances to score during this match but blew it. Germany deserved to win considering they had possession of the ball a lot more than Argentina did. Despite the fact I wanted the losing team to win (the final score was Germany: 1-0 in double extra time), a German loss wouldn't have allowed us to witness Argentina fans at MaracanĂ£ Stadium in Brazil cry like little b*tches (cue Madonna's famous song from the 1996 film Evita for emphasis; you know which song I'm talking about) for all the world to see on television. Sorry, but that put a smile on my face, hah.

Two of my friends and I pose with the World Cup trophy replica at the Legends sports bar in Long Beach, CA...on July 13, 2014.

Grabbing a bite to eat at the Legends sports bar in Long Beach, CA, before the start of the World Cup final game in Brazil...on July 13, 2014.

It's a full house at the Legends sports bar in Long Beach, CA, for the World Cup final game in Brazil...on July 13, 2014.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Miami Super Friends Are No More!

Welcome back to Cleveland, LeBron. Nice to know that you were willing to ignore that letter your boss wrote to Cavaliers fans declaring how they were gonna win a title before you did as you joined the Miami Heat in 2010. However, do us Lakers fans a favor and tell Gilbert to go f**k himself for helping nix the Chris Paul trade to Los Angeles' true basketball team three years ago. Have a good day, King James! And in case I need to reiterate this again, screw you Dan.

LeBron James is going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

GO LIGHTSAIL! Aiming For Launch In 2016 (And Possibly 2015 As Well)...

An artist's concept of The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society just announced tonight that it is aiming to launch a privately-funded solar sailing spacecraft into Earth orbit in early 2016. Known as Lightsail-1, this craft would hitch a ride aboard SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket (which will make its maiden flight sometime next year) in April of 2016 and soar up to 450 miles above the Earth before deploying its Mylar-constructed solar sail. If successful, Lightsail would become the third craft [or fourth...depending on when NASA's Sunjammer takes flight (possibly by the end of this year)] to deploy an ultra-thin membrane out in deep space—behind Japan's IKAROS interplanetary probe and NASA's NanoSail-D (both launched in 2010).

Waiting for launch vehicles and launch dates to be chosen, the twin Lightsail spacecraft are secured inside a cleanroom in early 2012.
The Planetary Society

The Lightsail launching in 2016 is actually known as Lightsail-B; The Planetary Society will possibly try to launch a test version, known as Lightsail-A, into low-Earth orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket in early 2015. Unlike Lightsail-B, however, Version A will only be used to test sail deployment, the craft's telecommunication system and take images. Lightsail-B will be the one to utilize its membrane to push off against sunlight as a means of propelling itself through deep space. If this mission is successful, Lightsail will definitely join IKAROS and company in paving the way for a new era of efficient propulsion through the cosmos. Godspeed!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Cool News from Interstellar Space...

An artist's concept of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft soaring through interstellar space.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Sun Sends More 'Tsunami Waves' to Voyager 1 (Press Release)

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft has experienced a new "tsunami wave" from the sun as it sails through interstellar space. Such waves are what led scientists to the conclusion, in the fall of 2013, that Voyager had indeed left our sun's bubble, entering a new frontier.

"Normally, interstellar space is like a quiet lake," said Ed Stone of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, the mission's project scientist since 1972. "But when our sun has a burst, it sends a shock wave outward that reaches Voyager about a year later. The wave causes the plasma surrounding the spacecraft to sing."

Data from this newest tsunami wave generated by our sun confirm that Voyager is in interstellar space -- a region between the stars filled with a thin soup of charged particles, also known as plasma. The mission has not left the solar system -- it has yet to reach a final halo of comets surrounding our sun -- but it broke through the wind-blown bubble, or heliosphere, encasing our sun. Voyager is the farthest human-made probe from Earth, and the first to enter the vast sea between stars.

"All is not quiet around Voyager," said Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, Iowa City, the principal investigator of the plasma wave instrument on Voyager, which collected the definitive evidence that Voyager 1 had left the sun's heliosphere. "We're excited to analyze these new data. So far, we can say that it confirms we are in interstellar space."

Our sun goes through periods of increased activity, where it explosively ejects material from its surface, flinging it outward. These events, called coronal mass ejections, generate shock, or pressure, waves. Three such waves have reached Voyager 1 since it entered interstellar space in 2012. The first was too small to be noticed when it occurred and was only discovered later, but the second was clearly registered by the spacecraft's cosmic ray instrument in March of 2013.

Cosmic rays are energetic charged particles that come from nearby stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The sun's shock waves push these particles around like buoys in a tsunami. Data from the cosmic ray instrument tell researchers that a shock wave from the sun has hit.

Meanwhile, another instrument on Voyager registers the shock waves, too. The plasma wave instrument can detect oscillations of the plasma electrons.

"The tsunami wave rings the plasma like a bell," said Stone. "While the plasma wave instrument lets us measure the frequency of this ringing, the cosmic ray instrument reveals what struck the bell -- the shock wave from the sun."

This ringing of the plasma bell is what led to the key evidence showing Voyager had entered interstellar space. Because denser plasma oscillates faster, the team was able to figure out the density of the plasma. In 2013, thanks to the second tsunami wave, the team acquired evidence that Voyager had been flying for more than a year through plasma that was 40 times denser than measured before -- a telltale indicator of interstellar space.

Why is it denser out there? The sun's winds blow a bubble around it, pushing out against denser matter from other stars.

Now, the team has new readings from a third wave from the sun, first registered in March of this year. These data show that the density of the plasma is similar to what was measured previously, confirming the spacecraft is in interstellar space. Thanks to our sun's rumblings, Voyager has the opportunity to listen to the singing of interstellar space -- an otherwise silent place.

Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, were launched 16 days apart in 1977. Both spacecraft flew by Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 also flew by Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2, launched before Voyager 1, is the longest continuously operated spacecraft and is expected to enter interstellar space in a few years.

JPL, a division of Caltech, built and operates the twin Voyager spacecraft. The Voyagers Interstellar Mission is a part of NASA's Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA's Deep Space Network, managed by JPL, is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of the solar system and the universe. The network also supports selected Earth-orbiting missions. The spacecraft's nuclear batteries were provided by the Department of Energy.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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An art concept showing Voyager 1's position out in deep space as of September of 2013. The scale bar is measured in Astronomical Units, or AU (1 AU equals 93 million miles, or the distance between the Earth and the Sun).
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Rosetta Update...

An artist's concept of ESA's Rosetta spacecraft approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
ESA

Rosetta’s Comet ‘Sweats’ Two Glasses Of Water A Second (Press Release - June 30)

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft has found that comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is releasing the equivalent of two small glasses of water into space every second, even at a cold 583 million kilometres from the Sun.

The first observations of water vapour streaming from the comet were made by the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter, or MIRO, on 6 June, when the spacecraft was about 350,000 kilometres from the comet.

Since the initial detection, water vapour has been found every time MIRO has been pointed towards the comet.

“We always knew we would see water vapour outgassing from the comet, but we were surprised at how early we detected it,” says Sam Gulkis, the instrument’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, USA.

“At this rate, the comet would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in about 100 days. But, as it gets closer to the Sun, the gas production rate will increase significantly. With Rosetta, we have an amazing vantage point to observe these changes up close and learn more about exactly why they happen.”

Water is a major volatile component of comets, along with carbon monoxide, methanol and ammonia. MIRO is designed to help determine the abundance of each of these ingredients, in order to understand the nature of the comet’s nucleus, the process of outgassing and where they originate on the surface.

These gases stream away from the nucleus carrying dust, forming the comet’s surrounding ‘coma’. As the comet moves closer to the Sun, its coma will expand and, eventually, pressure from the solar wind will cause some of the material to stream out into a long tail.

Rosetta will be there to watch these developments up close. The comet – and Rosetta – will make its nearest approach to the Sun in August 2015, between the orbits of Earth and Mars.

Determining the changes in production rate of water vapour and other gases as the icy object moves around the Sun is important for comet science. But it is also vital for mission planning, because once Rosetta is closer to the comet, the outflow of gases may alter the craft’s trajectory.

“Our comet is coming out of its deep-space slumber and beginning to put on a show for Rosetta’s science instruments,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.

“Rosetta’s engineers will also be using MIRO’s observations to help them plan for future mission events when we are operating close to the comet’s nucleus.”

Today, the spacecraft is within 72,000 km of its destination. Six out of a total of ten rendezvous manoeuvres still need to be carried out to ensure that Rosetta arrives at a distance of just 100 km from the nucleus on 6 August.

Source: European Space Agency

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An infographic showing how ESA's Rosetta spacecraft detected water vapor being outgassed from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which Rosetta will begin orbiting early next month (on August 6).
ESA

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Another Neat Discovery by Cassini...

An artist's concept depicting NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying past Saturn's moon Titan.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Ocean on Saturn Moon Could be as Salty as the Dead Sea (Press Release)

Scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini mission have firm evidence the ocean inside Saturn's largest moon, Titan, might be as salty as the Earth's Dead Sea.

The new results come from a study of gravity and topography data collected during Cassini's repeated flybys of Titan during the past 10 years. Using the Cassini data, researchers presented a model structure for Titan, resulting in an improved understanding of the structure of the moon's outer ice shell. The findings are published in this week’s edition of the journal Icarus.

"Titan continues to prove itself as an endlessly fascinating world, and with our long-lived Cassini spacecraft, we’re unlocking new mysteries as fast as we solve old ones," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, who was not involved in the study.

Additional findings support previous indications the moon's icy shell is rigid and in the process of freezing solid. Researchers found that a relatively high density was required for Titan's ocean in order to explain the gravity data. This indicates the ocean is probably an extremely salty brine of water mixed with dissolved salts likely composed of sulfur, sodium and potassium. The density indicated for this brine would give the ocean a salt content roughly equal to the saltiest bodies of water on Earth.

"This is an extremely salty ocean by Earth standards," said the paper's lead author, Giuseppe Mitri of the University of Nantes in France. "Knowing this may change the way we view this ocean as a possible abode for present-day life, but conditions might have been very different there in the past."

Cassini data also indicate the thickness of Titan's ice crust varies slightly from place to place. The researchers said this can best be explained if the moon's outer shell is stiff, as would be the case if the ocean were slowly crystalizing, and turning to ice. Otherwise, the moon's shape would tend to even itself out over time, like warm candle wax. This freezing process would have important implications for the habitability of Titan's ocean, as it would limit the ability of materials to exchange between the surface and the ocean.

A further consequence of a rigid ice shell, according to the study, is any outgassing of methane into Titan's atmosphere must happen at scattered "hot spots" -- like the hot spot on Earth that gave rise to the Hawaiian Island chain. Titan's methane does not appear to result from convection or plate tectonics recycling its ice shell.

How methane gets into the moon's atmosphere has long been of great interest to researchers, as molecules of this gas are broken apart by sunlight on short geological timescales. Titan's present atmosphere contains about five percent methane. This means some process, thought to be geological in nature, must be replenishing the gas. The study indicates that whatever process is responsible, the restoration of Titan's methane is localized and intermittent.

"Our work suggests looking for signs of methane outgassing will be difficult with Cassini, and may require a future mission that can find localized methane sources," said Jonathan Lunine, a scientist on the Cassini mission at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and one of the paper's co-authors. "As on Mars, this is a challenging task."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Using data provided by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, this illustration depicts the possible interior of Saturn's moon Titan.
NASA / JPL / SSI / Univ. of Arizona / G. Mitri / University of Nantes

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

New Horizons Update: Huntin' Down Those KBOs...

An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in the outer solar system.
JHUAPL / SwRI

Hubble to Proceed with Full Search for New Horizons Targets (Press Release)

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has been given the go-ahead to conduct an intensive search for a suitable outer solar system object that the New Horizons (NH) spacecraft could visit after the probe streaks though the Pluto system in July 2015.

Hubble observations will begin in July and are expected to conclude in August.

Assuming a suitable target is found at the completion of the survey and some follow-up observations are made later in the year, if NASA approves, the New Horizons' trajectory can be modified in the fall of 2015 to rendezvous with the target Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) three to four years later.

The Kuiper Belt is a debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system's formation 4.6 billion years ago. Though the belt was hypothesized in a 1951 science paper by astronomer Gerard Kuiper, no Kuiper Belt objects were found until the early 1990s. So far over 1,000 KBOs have been cataloged, though it's hypothesized many more KBOs exist.

The approval for additional observing time for the needle-in-a-haystack search is based on the analysis of a set of pilot observations obtained with the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) director's discretionary time on Hubble. After a swift and intensive data analysis of approximately 200 Hubble images, the NH team met the pilot-program criterion of finding a minimum of two KBOs.

"Once again the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated the ability to explore the universe in new and unexpected ways," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Hubble science is at its best when it works in concert with other NASA missions and ground-based observatories."

It will be many weeks before the team can establish whether either of these pilot-program KBOs is a suitable target for New Horizons to visit, but their discovery provides sufficient evidence that a wider search to be executed with Hubble will find an optimum object.

"I am delighted that our initial investment of Hubble time paid off. We are looking forward see if the team can find a suitable KBO that New Horizons might be able to visit after its fly-by of Pluto," said STScI director Matt Mountain.

In early June, Hubble's Time Allocation Committee awarded time for a full search with the requirement that its implementation be contingent on the success of the pilot survey.

From June 16 to June 26, the New Horizons team used Hubble to perform a preliminary search to see how abundant small Kuiper Belt Objects are in the vast outer rim of our solar system.

Hubble looked at 20 areas of the sky to identify any small KBOs. The team analyzed each of pilot program images with software tools that sped up the KBO identification process. Hubble's sharp vision and unique sensitivity allowed very faint KBOs to be identified as they drifted against the far more distant background stars, objects that had previously eluded searches by some of the world's largest ground-based telescopes.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute

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Images showing the two KBOs that the Hubble Space Telescope found during pilot-program observations conducted by NASA's New Horizons mission team last month.
NASA, ESA, SwRI, JHU / APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team