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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Photos of the Day: The F-22 Raptor Gets Refueled Before Combat...

An F-22 Raptor gets refueled in mid-flight by a KC-10 Extender prior to conducting a combat sortie in Syria, on September 26, 2014.
USAF / Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf

Just thought I'd end this month by posting these cool photos that the U.S. Air Force released showing the F-22 Raptor getting refueled in mid-flight before conducting a sortie in Syria last Friday. As mentioned in this previous entry, I was hoping that the Raptor would finally see lots of action (after almost ten years of not engaging in any combat) as it takes part in the ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State in the Middle East. These photos obviously show that that's the case. Godspeed, airmen—both American and otherwise (unless they're Syrian. Or Russian or Iranian...or Chinese...)

An F-22 Raptor gets refueled in mid-flight by a KC-10 Extender prior to conducting a combat sortie in Syria, on September 26, 2014.
USAF / Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf

An F-22 Raptor gets refueled in mid-flight by a KC-10 Extender prior to conducting a combat sortie in Syria, on September 26, 2014.
USAF / Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf

An F-22 Raptor gets refueled in mid-flight by a KC-10 Extender prior to conducting a combat sortie in Syria, on September 26, 2014.
USAF / Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rosetta Update: Philae's Date With Comet 67P Is Now Set...

An image of Philae's landing site on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, known as Site J, as seen by the Rosetta spacecraft on September 21, 2014.
ESA / Rosetta / NAVCAM

Rosetta to Deploy Lander on 12 November (Press Release)

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission will deploy its lander, Philae, to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November.

Philae’s landing site, currently known as Site J, is located on the smaller of the comet’s two ‘lobes’, with a backup site on the larger lobe. The sites were selected just six weeks after Rosetta arrived at the comet on 6 August, following its 10-year journey through the Solar System.

In that time, the Rosetta mission has been conducting an unprecedented scientific analysis of the comet, a remnant of the Solar System’s 4.6 billion-year history. The latest results from Rosetta will be presented on the occasion of the landing, during dedicated press briefings.

The main focus to date has been to survey 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in order to prepare for the first ever attempt to soft-land on a comet.

Site J was chosen unanimously over four other candidate sites as the primary landing site because the majority of terrain within a square kilometre area has slopes of less than 30ยบ relative to the local vertical and because there are relatively few large boulders. The area also receives sufficient daily illumination to recharge Philae and continue surface science operations beyond the initial 64-hour battery-powered phase.

Over the last two weeks, the flight dynamics and operations teams at ESA have been making a detailed analysis of flight trajectories and timings for Rosetta to deliver the lander at the earliest possible opportunity.

Two robust landing scenarios have been identified, one for the primary site and one for the backup. Both anticipate separation and landing on 12 November.

For the primary landing scenario, targeting Site J, Rosetta will release Philae at 08:35 GMT/09:35 CET at a distance of 22.5 km from the centre of the comet, landing about seven hours later. The one-way signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on 12 November is 28 minutes 20 seconds, meaning that confirmation of the landing will arrive at Earth ground stations at around 16:00 GMT/17:00 CET.

If a decision is made to use the backup Site C, separation will occur at 13:04 GMT/14:04 CET, 12.5 km from the centre of the comet. Landing will occur about four hours later, with confirmation on Earth at around 17:30 GMT/18:30 CET. The timings are subject to uncertainties of several minutes.

Final confirmation of the primary landing site and its landing scenario will be made on 14 October after a formal Lander Operations Readiness Review, which will include the results of additional high-resolution analysis of the landing sites conducted in the meantime. Should the backup site be chosen at this stage, landing can still occur on 12 November.

A competition for the public to name the primary landing site will also be announced during the week of 14 October.

The Rosetta orbiter will continue to study the comet and its environment using its 11 science instruments as they orbit the Sun together. The comet is on an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany the comet for more than a year as they swing around the Sun and back to the outer Solar System again.

The analyses made by the Rosetta orbiter will be complemented by the in situ measurements performed by Philae’s 10 instruments.

Source: European Space Agency

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An artist's concept of the Philae lander touching down on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
ESA

Thursday, September 25, 2014

LightSail Spreads Its Wings (on the Ground)!

A screenshot showing the LightSail-A spacecraft deploying its solar sails during a day-in-the-life test held at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo...on September 23, 2014.
The Planetary Society

Here's a cool video showing The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft deploying its sails during a day-in-the-life test held at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Tuesday. This marked a huge milestone for the privately-funded project...with the test pretty much going smoothly, and thus paving the way for a possible flight to space for LightSail-A aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle next year. The Society ultimately plans to send LightSail-B (a.k.a. LightSail-1) on an official flight 450 miles above the Earth in April of 2016. This demonstration would set sail (pun intended) aboard SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy rocket. Can't wait!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

(About Friggin' Time...) The F-22 Raptor Sees First Combat in the Middle East!

I used to have this issue of POPULAR MECHANICS magazine... Actually, I think I still do.

Just thought I'd share these photos of America's most high-tech fighter jet in honor of it taking part in airstrikes against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Syria yesterday. Having been operational since 2005, the F-22 Raptor spent almost a decade facing controversy due to its $67 billion price tag...and being grounded after pilots frequently lost consciousness in flight because of faulty oxygen generation systems aboard the Raptor. Also, the F-22 was relegated to only seeing cinematic combat in Marvel comic book flicks like Hulk and Iron Man...as well as playing the Decepticon named Starscream in Michael Bay's first three Transformers movies. Oh, and the F-22 has been serving as an interceptor...scaring off an Iranian fighter jet that followed a U.S. drone flying in international airspace in 2013, and escorting Russian military aircraft that veered close to the Alaskan coastline a few times this year. Not to sound like a warmonger (okay, I am), but here's hoping that the Raptor will enjoy more action in the ongoing conflict against ISIS. Seeing the F-22 finally strut its stuff in combat will make it come a long way since competing against Northrop's YF-23 to become America's sole Advanced Tactical Fighter more than 20 years ago. U.S. air power rules!

A squad of F-22 Raptors fly over Alaska.
U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

A squad of F-22 Raptors soar in the wild blue yonder.
U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller

An F-22 Raptor fires flares while in flight.
U.S. Air Force

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Welcome to Mars, MAVEN!

A composite image showing NASA's MAVEN spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
NASA

NASA’s Newest Mars Mission Spacecraft Enters Orbit around Red Planet (Press Release)

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, where it now will prepare to study the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere as never done before. MAVEN is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the tenuous upper atmosphere of Mars.

“As the first orbiter dedicated to studying Mars’ upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of the history of the Martian atmosphere, how the climate has changed over time, and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability of the planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “It also will better inform a future mission to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.”

After a 10-month journey, confirmation of successful orbit insertion was received from MAVEN data observed at the Lockheed Martin operations center in Littleton, Colorado, as well as from tracking data monitored at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) navigation facility in Pasadena, California. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna station in Canberra, Australia.

“NASA has a long history of scientific discovery at Mars and the safe arrival of MAVEN opens another chapter,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “MAVEN will complement NASA’s other Martian robotic explorers—and those of our partners around the globe—to answer some fundamental questions about Mars and life beyond Earth.”

Following orbit insertion, MAVEN will begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes maneuvering into its final science orbit and testing the instruments and science-mapping commands. MAVEN then will begin its one Earth-year primary mission, taking measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind.

"It's taken 11 years from the original concept for MAVEN to now having a spacecraft in orbit at Mars,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU/LASP). “I'm delighted to be here safely and successfully, and looking forward to starting our science mission."

The primary mission includes five “deep-dip” campaigns, in which MAVEN’s periapsis, or lowest orbit altitude, will be lowered from 93 miles (150 kilometers) to about 77 miles (125 kilometers). These measurements will provide information down to where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

“This was a very big day for MAVEN,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’re very excited to join the constellation of spacecraft in orbit at Mars and on the surface of the Red Planet. The commissioning phase will keep the operations team busy for the next six weeks, and then we’ll begin, at last, the science phase of the mission. Congratulations to the team for a job well done today.”

MAVEN launched Nov. 18, 2013, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying three instrument packages. The Particles and Fields Package, built by the University of California at Berkeley with support from CU/LASP and Goddard contains six instruments that will characterize the solar wind and the ionosphere of the planet. The Remote Sensing Package, built by CU/LASP, will identify characteristics present throughout the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer, provided by Goddard, will measure the composition and isotopes of atomic particles.

MAVEN's principal investigator is based at CU/LASP. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. The University of California at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory also provided four science instruments for the mission. Goddard manages the MAVEN project. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. JPL provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, as well as Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations.

Source: NASA.Gov

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The MAVEN spacecraft undergoes testing at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems facility in Littleton, Colorado in early 2013.
NASA / Lockheed Martin

Attached to one of MAVEN's twin solar arrays is a DVD bearing the names of 100,000 people, as well as artwork and Japanese haiku that were submitted online in early 2013.
NASA

My participation certificate for the MAVEN mission.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Star Wars: Artwork of the Day...

Another drawing of a Sith Inquisitor...complete with 'gauntlet sabers.'

Because of the fact that this was a slow work week for me, I had the time to draw a couple of more illustrations inspired by online rumors and recent news pertaining to Star Wars: Episode VII. With the artwork above, there is no talk about a Sith Lord (or Inquisitor) welding lightsabers whose blades shoot out from hilts attached to the antagonist's gloves—but I drew this piece precisely because I wanted to illustrate these "gauntlet sabers" (which Lucasfilm may or may not have already invented and trademarked) primed for action. In the image directly below, I wanted to draw a black X-Wing that was recently spotted during filming at Greenham Common in the UK last week. Since it was obviously not known as to which character this X-Wing belongs to, I decided to go the villainous route and have this starfighter shoot green lasers a la TIE Fighters in the Original Trilogy and the Jedi Starfighters from Revenge of the Sith.

My own drawing of a black X-Wing from STAR WARS: EPISODE VII.

In the artwork below, I decided to draw my own renditions of the Episode VII Stormtroopers. The design of the helmets are based on the leaked photo from more than a month back...while I took liberties on the rest of the suit since its design hasn't been leaked or revealed yet. The two TIE Fighters flying above these trio of Imperial goons are called TIE Raiders. In case you've never heard of this craft before, it's because I made them up. They're a combination of TIE Bombers from The Empire Strikes Back and Interceptors from Return of the Jedi, all rolled up into one. And lastly, don't let those streak marks in the clouds fool you— The coloring done on these drawings (with Crayola markers) are much better in the original work than they look in this pic. I used a crappy computer scanner that tends to overexpose the images after they're done being scanned; I had to adjust the contrast through Adobe Photoshop afterwards. Carry on.

My own drawing of Stormtroopers (and TIE Raiders, which I made up) from STAR WARS: EPISODE VII.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

T-Minus 4-Days and Counting for MAVEN's Arrival!

A composite image showing NASA's MAVEN spacecraft approaching Mars.
NASA

NASA Mars Spacecraft Ready for Sept. 21 Orbit Insertion (Press Release)

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft is nearing its scheduled Sept. 21 insertion into Martian orbit after completing a 10-month interplanetary journey of 442 million miles (711 million kilometers).

Flight Controllers at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado, will be responsible for the health and safety of the spacecraft throughout the process. The spacecraft's mission timeline will place the spacecraft in orbit at approximately 6:50 p.m. PDT (9:50 p.m. EDT).

"So far, so good with the performance of the spacecraft and payloads on the cruise to Mars," said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The team, the flight system, and all ground assets are ready for Mars orbit insertion."

The orbit-insertion maneuver will begin with the brief firing of six small thruster engines to steady the spacecraft. The engines will ignite and burn for 33 minutes to slow the craft, allowing it to be pulled into an elliptical orbit with a period of 35 hours.

Following orbit insertion, MAVEN will begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes maneuvering the spacecraft into its final orbit and testing its instruments and science-mapping commands. Thereafter, MAVEN will begin its one-Earth-year primary mission to take measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars' upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind.

"The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about where did the water that was present on early Mars go, about where did the carbon dioxide go," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate, and its potential to support at least microbial life."

MAVEN launched Nov. 18, 2013, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying three instrument packages. It is the first spacecraft dedicated to exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars. The mission's combination of detailed measurements at specific points in Mars' atmosphere and global imaging provides a powerful tool for understanding the properties of the Red Planet's upper atmosphere.

"MAVEN is another NASA robotic scientific explorer that is paving the way for our journey to Mars," said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Together, robotics and humans will pioneer the Red Planet and the solar system to help answer some of humanity's fundamental questions about life beyond Earth."

The spacecraft's principal investigator is based at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at University of Colorado, Boulder. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the project and also provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley provided four science instruments for MAVEN. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, and Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations. JPL manages the Mars Exploration Program for NASA.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Another composite image showing NASA's MAVEN spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
NASA

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rosetta Update: Finding A Permanent Home for Philae on Comet 67P...

An image showing the primary landing site (Site J) for the Rosetta spacecraft's Philae lander, on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA

'J' Marks the Spot for Rosetta's Lander (Press Release)

The European Space Agency's Rosetta's lander, Philae, will target Site J, an intriguing region on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that offers unique scientific potential, with hints of activity nearby, and minimum risk to the lander compared to the other candidate sites. The 220-pound (100-kilogram) lander is scheduled to reach the surface on November 11, where it will perform in-depth measurements to characterize the nucleus. Rosetta is an international mission spearheaded by the European Space Agency with support and instruments provided by NASA.

Site J is on the "head" of the comet, an irregular shaped world that is just over 2.5 miles (four kilometers) across at its widest point. The decision to select Site J as the primary site was unanimous. The backup, Site C, is located on the "body" of the comet.

"As we have seen from recent close-up images, the comet is a beautiful but dramatic world - it is scientifically exciting, but its shape makes it operationally challenging," says Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne. "None of the candidate landing sites met all of the operational criteria at the 100-percent level, but Site J is clearly the best solution."

Over the weekend, the Landing Site Selection Group of engineers and scientists from Philae's Science, Operations and Navigation Center at the National Center of Space Studies of France (CNES), the Lander Control Center at DLR, and scientists representing the Philae Lander instruments and ESA's Rosetta team, met at CNES, Toulouse, France, to consider the available data and to choose the primary and backup sites.

A number of critical aspects had to be considered, not least that it had to be possible to identify a safe trajectory for deploying Philae to the surface and that the density of visible hazards in the landing zone should be minimized. Once on the surface, other factors come into play, including the balance of daylight and night-time hours, and the frequency of communications passes with the orbiter.

The descent to the comet is passive and it is only possible to predict that the landing point will be within a "landing ellipse" (typically a few hundred meters) in size. For each of Rosetta's candidate sites, a larger area -- four-tenths of a square mile (one square kilometer) -- was assessed. At Site J the majority of slopes are less than 30-degrees relative to the local vertical, reducing the chances of Philae toppling over during touchdown. Site J also appears to have relatively few boulders, and it receives sufficient daily illumination to recharge Philae and continue science operations on the surface beyond the initial battery-powered phase.

Provisional assessment of the trajectory to Site J found that the descent time of Philae to the surface would be about seven hours, a length that does not compromise the on-comet observations by using up too much of the battery during the descent.

Both Sites B and C were considered as the backup, but C was preferred because of a higher illumination profile and fewer boulders. Sites A and I had seemed attractive during first rounds of discussion, but were dismissed at the second round because they did not satisfy a number of the key criteria.

A detailed operational timeline will now be prepared to determine the precise approach trajectory of Rosetta in order to deliver Philae to Site J. The landing must take place before mid-November, as the comet is predicted to grow more active as it moves closer to the sun.

"There's no time to lose, but now that we're closer to the comet, continued science and mapping operations will help us improve the analysis of the primary and backup landing sites," says ESA Rosetta flight director Andrea Accomazzo from the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. "Of course, we cannot predict the activity of the comet between now and landing, and on landing day itself. A sudden increase in activity could affect the position of Rosetta in its orbit at the moment of deployment and in turn the exact location where Philae will land, and that's what makes this a risky operation."

All commands for Philae's descent will be uploaded prior to the lander's separation from the Rosetta orbiter. Once deployed from Rosetta, Philae's descent will be autonomous, with the lander taking images and other observations of the comet's environment.

Philae will touch down at the equivalent of walking pace and then use harpoons and ice screws to fix itself onto the comet's surface. It will then make a 360-degree panoramic image of the landing site to help determine where and in what orientation it has landed. The initial science phase will then begin, with other instruments analyzing the plasma and magnetic environment, and the surface and subsurface temperature. The lander will also drill and collect samples from beneath the surface, delivering them to the on-board laboratory for analysis. The interior structure of the comet will also be explored by sending radio waves through the surface toward Rosetta.

"No one has ever attempted to land on a comet before, so it is a real challenge," says Fred Jansen, the ESA Rosetta mission manager from the European Space Research Technology Center, Noordwijk, the Netherlands. "The complicated 'double' structure of the comet has had a considerable impact on the overall risks related to landing, but they are risks worth taking to have the chance of making the first ever soft landing on a comet."

The landing date should be confirmed on September 26 after further trajectory analysis and the final Go/No Go for a landing at the primary site will follow a comprehensive readiness review on October 14.

Launched in March 2004, Rosetta was reactivated in January 2014 after a record 957 days in hibernation. Composed of an orbiter and lander, Rosetta's objectives since arriving at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko earlier this month are to study the celestial object up close in unprecedented detail, prepare for landing a probe on the comet's nucleus in November, and track its changes through 2015, as it sweeps past the sun.

Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when the sun and its planets formed. Rosetta's lander will obtain the first images taken from a comet's surface and will provide comprehensive analysis of the comet's possible primordial composition by drilling into the surface. Rosetta also will be the first spacecraft to witness at close proximity how a comet changes as it is subjected to the increasing intensity of the sun's radiation. Observations will help scientists learn more about the origin and evolution of our solar system and the role comets may have played in seeding Earth with water, and perhaps even life.

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Rosetta's Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by the German Aerospace Center, Cologne; Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen; National Center of Space Studies of France (CNES), Paris; and the Italian Space Agency, Rome. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the U.S. participation in the Rosetta mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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An image showing the backup landing site (Site C) for the Rosetta spacecraft's Philae lander, on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA

Friday, September 12, 2014

Welcome to Mount Sharp!

An image taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover which shows the 'Amargosa Valley,' on the slopes leading up to Mount Sharp on the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Arrives at Martian Mountain (Press Release - September 11)

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has reached the Red Planet's Mount Sharp, a Mount-Rainier-size mountain at the center of the vast Gale Crater and the rover mission's long-term prime destination.

"Curiosity now will begin a new chapter from an already outstanding introduction to the world," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "After a historic and innovative landing along with its successful science discoveries, the scientific sequel is upon us."

Curiosity’s trek up the mountain will begin with an examination of the mountain's lower slopes. The rover is starting this process at an entry point near an outcrop called Pahrump Hills, rather than continuing on to the previously-planned, further entry point known as Murray Buttes. Both entry points lay along a boundary where the southern base layer of the mountain meets crater-floor deposits washed down from the crater’s northern rim.

"It has been a long but historic journey to this Martian mountain,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The nature of the terrain at Pahrump Hills and just beyond it is a better place than Murray Buttes to learn about the significance of this contact. The exposures at the contact are better due to greater topographic relief."

The decision to head uphill sooner, instead of continuing to Murray Buttes, also draws from improved understanding of the region’s geography provided by the rover’s examinations of several outcrops during the past year. Curiosity currently is positioned at the base of the mountain along a pale, distinctive geological feature called the Murray Formation. Compared to neighboring crater-floor terrain, the rock of the Murray Formation is softer and does not preserve impact scars, as well. As viewed from orbit, it is not as well-layered as other units at the base of Mount Sharp.

Curiosity made its first close-up study last month of two Murray Formation outcrops, both revealing notable differences from the terrain explored by Curiosity during the past year. The first outcrop, called Bonanza King, proved too unstable for drilling, but was examined by the rover’s instruments and determined to have high silicon content. A second outcrop, examined with the rover's telephoto Mast Camera, revealed a fine-grained, platy surface laced with sulfate-filled veins.

While some of these terrain differences are not apparent in observations made by NASA's Mars orbiters, the rover team still relies heavily on images taken by the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to plan Curiosity’s travel routes and locations for study.

For example, MRO images helped the rover team locate mesas that are over 60 feet (18 meters) tall in an area of terrain shortly beyond Pahrump Hills, which reveal an exposure of the Murray Formation uphill and toward the south. The team plans to use Curiosity's drill to acquire a sample from this site for analysis by instruments inside the rover. The site lies at the southern end of a valley Curiosity will enter this week from the north.

Though this valley has a sandy floor the length of two football fields, the team expects it will be an easier trek than the sandy-floored Hidden Valley, where last month Curiosity's wheels slipped too much for safe crossing.

Curiosity reached its current location after its route was modified earlier this year in response to excessive wheel wear. In late 2013, the team realized a region of Martian terrain littered with sharp, embedded rocks was poking holes in four of the rover’s six wheels. This damage accelerated the rate of wear and tear beyond that for which the rover team had planned. In response, the team altered the rover’s route to a milder terrain, bringing the rover farther south, toward the base of Mount Sharp.

"The wheels issue contributed to taking the rover farther south sooner than planned, but it is not a factor in the science-driven decision to start ascending here rather than continuing to Murray Buttes first," said Jennifer Trosper, Curiosity Deputy Project Manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "We have been driving hard for many months to reach the entry point to Mount Sharp," Trosper said. "Now that we've made it, we'll be adjusting the operations style from a priority on driving to a priority on conducting the investigations needed at each layer of the mountain."

After landing inside Gale Crater in August 2012, Curiosity fulfilled in its first year of operations its major science goal of determining whether Mars ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Clay-bearing sedimentary rocks on the crater floor, in an area called Yellowknife Bay, yielded evidence of a lakebed environment billions of years ago that offered fresh water, all of the key elemental ingredients for life, and a chemical source of energy for microbes.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project continues to use Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. The destinations on Mount Sharp offer a series of geological layers that recorded different chapters in the environmental evolution of Mars.

The Mars Exploration Rover Project is one element of NASA's ongoing preparation for a human mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s. JPL built Curiosity and manages the project and MRO for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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This image (which uses data acquired by NASA's Mar Reconnaissance Orbiter) shows the old and new routes of the Curiosity Mars rover to the base of Mount Sharp.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / Univ. of Arizona

Thursday, September 11, 2014

13 Years Ago, Today...

The Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center complex are struck by airliners hijacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.

We Will Never Forget. That has been this nation's mantra since the 1-year anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001. While the photos above and below show how far New York City has come since its Twin Towers were taken out by two airliners that fateful morning, the threat to this country still remains as serious as ever. Al-Qaeda has not been the same since Osama bin Laden was eliminated by American Special Forces more than three years ago, but the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Iraq and Syria exemplifies that the U.S. and its allies need to be increasingly vigilant for extremist groups that will emerge to replace Al-Qaeda as a major menace to peace and freedom-loving nations (President Obama proved this when he went in front of the TV camera last night to address the American public on how the U.S. will move forward to "degrade and ultimately defeat" the ISIS threat). Here's hoping that ISIS will eventually be eliminated, with its demise joining the diminishing (but still-present) danger posed by al-Qaeda—and other counter-terrorist victories such as the U.S. airstrike that caused the death of Somali terrorist leader Ahmed Abdi Godane a little over a week ago—as signs that America and other countries with free societies will not rest until terrorists are either neutralized or brought to justice around the globe. That is all.

The 1 World Trade Center in New York City, as of August 27, 2014.
Image courtesy of Eric Eisenhour - Facebook

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rosetta Update: Even Spacecraft Take Selfies...

Just thought I'd share this amazing new picture that Europe's Rosetta spacecraft took as it continues to orbit comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. This is the second time that the spacecraft took a photo of itself (actually, the images were taken by the Philae lander...which will be deployed by Rosetta and touch down onto the surface of the comet's nucleus sometime in November)...with the first selfie being taken above Mars back in 2007. Amazing stuff.

On September 7, 2014, this image was taken by the Philae lander that's currently attached to the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. Philae will be deployed by Rosetta and land on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko's nucleus in November.
ESA / Rosetta / Philae / CIVA

Monday, September 08, 2014

Why We Need The Europa Clipper...

An illustration showing the subduction process causing a cold, brittle, outer portion of Europa’s thick ice shell to move into the warmer shell interior and subsequently become absorbed.
Noah Kroese, I.NK

Scientists Find Evidence of ‘Diving’ Tectonic Plates on Jupiter’s Moon Europa (Press Release)

Scientists have found evidence of plate tectonics on Jupiter’s moon Europa. This indicates the first sign of this type of surface-shifting geological activity on a world other than Earth.

Researchers have clear visual evidence of Europa’s icy crust expanding. However, they could not find areas where the old crust was destroyed to make room for the new. While examining Europa images taken by NASA’s Galileo orbiter in the early 2000s, planetary geologists Simon Kattenhorn, of the University of Idaho, Moscow, and Louise Prockter, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, discovered some unusual geological boundaries.

“We have been puzzled for years as to how all this new terrain could be formed, but we couldn’t figure out how it was accommodated,” said Prockter. “We finally think we’ve found the answer.”

Plate tectonics is the scientific theory that Earth's outer layer is made up of plates or blocks that move, which accounts for why mountain and volcanoes form and earthquakes happen.

The surface of Europa -- one of Jupiter’s four largest moons and slightly smaller than Earth’s moon -- is riddled with cracks and ridges. Surface blocks are known to have shifted in the same way blocks of Earth's outer ground layer on either side of the San Andreas fault move past each in California. Many parts of Europa’s surface show evidence of extension, where wide bands miles wide formed as the surface ripped apart and fresh icy material from the underlying shell moved into the newly created gap -- a process akin to seafloor spreading on Earth.

On Earth, as new surface material forms at mid-ocean ridges, old material is destroyed at subduction zones, which are regions where two tectonic plates converge and overlap as one is forced under the other. However, despite the degree of extension evident on Europa’s surface, researchers had not been able to determine how the surface could accommodate all the new material.

Scientists studying Europa often reconstruct the moon’s surface blocks into their original configuration -- as with a jigsaw puzzle -- to get a picture of what the surface looked like before the disruption occurred. When Kattenhorn and Prockter rearranged the icy terrain in the images, they discovered about 7,700 square miles (about 20,000 square kilometers) of the surface were missing in the moon’s high northern latitudes.

Further evidence suggested the missing terrain moved under a second surface plate -- a scenario commonly seen on Earth at plate-tectonic boundaries. Kattenhorn and Prockter saw ice volcanoes on the overriding plate, possibly formed through melting and absorption of the slab as it dove below the surface, and a lack of mountains at the subduction zone, implying material was pushed into the interior rather than crumpled up as the two plates mashed against each other.

The scientists believe the subducted area was absorbed into Europa's ice shell, which may be up to 20 miles (about 30 kilometers) thick, rather than breaking through it into Europa's underlying ocean. On Europa’s relatively young surface -- about 40-90 million years old, on average -- scientists have seen evidence of material moving up from under the shell but, until now, no mechanism had been found for moving material back into the shell, and possibly into the large ocean below the ice.

“Europa may be more Earth-like than we imagined, if it has a global plate tectonic system,” Kattenhorn says. “Not only does this discovery make it one of the most geologically interesting bodies in the solar system, it also implies two-way communication between the exterior and interior -- a way to move material from the surface into the ocean -- a process which has significant implications for Europa’s potential as a habitable world.”

The team’s results appear in the Sunday online edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

In July, NASA issued an Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for proposals for science instruments that could be carried aboard a future mission to Europa.

“Europa continues to reveal itself as a dynamic world with compelling similarities to our own planet Earth,” said Curt Niebur, Outer Planets program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Studying Europa addresses fundamental questions about this potentially habitable icy moon and the search for life beyond Earth.”

Previous scientific findings point to the existence of a liquid water ocean located under the moon’s icy crust. This ocean covers Europa entirely and contains more liquid water than all of Earth's oceans combined.

NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989, was the only space mission to make repeated visits to Europa, passing close by the moon about a dozen times.

Galileo’s many firsts include discovering evidence for the existence of a saltwater ocean beneath Europa's icy surface. The mission officially was ended when Galileo plunged into Jupiter's atmosphere in September 2003 to prevent an impact with Europa. The mission was managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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An artist's concept showing NASA's proposed Europa Clipper spacecraft flying above Jupiter's moon Europa and analyzing it.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Wilshire Grand Center: Finally Emerging Above the Chasm...

A composite image showing the Wilshire Grand Center in downtown Los Angeles.

With its main concrete structure finally emerging above street level near Wilshire Boulevard, the Wilshire Grand Center (WGC) continues its ascension towards the sky as construction remains on pace for a 2017 opening of America's tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi River. These images were posted on the Facebook fan page for the Wilshire Grand Center...which will be both an office complex and residential building for folks living in downtown Los Angeles. I'm looking forward to visiting the WGC when it is finally completed. Just like the Empire State Building and the 1 World Trade Center in New York, I'm hoping that non-employees and visitors like myself will get to go to the topmost floor inside the Wilshire Grand Center and take amazing photos of the L.A. skyline and the Southern California landscape beyond it. Carry on.

The Wilshire Grand Center's construction status as of September 4, 2014.
Image courtesy of Wilshire Grand Center - Facebook

The Wilshire Grand Center's construction status as of September 4, 2014.
Image courtesy of Wilshire Grand Center - Facebook

The Wilshire Grand Center's construction status as of September 4, 2014.
Image courtesy of Wilshire Grand Center - Facebook

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Photo of the Day: Just Another Day at Work for a Fighter Pilot...

Just thought I'd share this cool video screenshot that I found online of an F/A-18 fighter pilot, Captain Christopher Prout, firing an AIM-7 Sparrow missile at an airborne target off-screen. This pic was posted on The Aviationist...and supposedly went viral online on other sites after the U.S. Marine Corps originally released this image on the Web. The video from which this came was taken on May 16, 2013—so one can't remark that this pilot was attacking an Islamic State target in Iraq or something. Also, the Sparrow is an air-to-air missile, not a bomb, so that's another reason why viewers can't say that this occurred during the latest crisis in the Middle East.

Captain Christopher Prout fires an AIM-7 Sparrow missile from his F/A-18C Hornet fighter jet on May 16, 2013.
U.S. Marine Corps

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

OSIRIS-REx Update: Tweets in Outer Space...

Submit messages to be placed aboard NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.
Heather Roper / University of Arizona / OSIRIS-REx

NASA Invites Public to Submit Messages for Asteroid Mission Time Capsule (Press Release)

NASA is inviting the worldwide public to submit short messages and images on social media that could be placed in a time capsule aboard a spacecraft launching to an asteroid in 2016.

Called the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), the spacecraft will rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu in 2019, collect a sample and return the cache in a capsule to Earth in 2023 for detailed study. The robotic mission will spend more than two years at the 1,760-foot (500-meter)-wide asteroid and return a minimum of 2 ounces (60 grams) of its surface material.

Topics for submissions by the public should be about solar system exploration in 2014 and predictions for space exploration activities in 2023. The mission team will choose 50 tweets and 50 images to be placed in the capsule. Messages can be submitted Sept. 2 - 30.

"Our progress in space exploration has been nothing short of amazing," says Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "I look forward to the public taking their best guess at what the next 10 years holds and then comparing their predictions with actual missions in development in 2023."

This event is the second of NASA’s efforts to engage space enthusiasts around the world in the OSIRIS-REx mission, following the agency’s January invitation to participate in Messages to Bennu, which asked the public to submit their names to be etched on a microchip aboard the spacecraft.

"It is exciting to think that some people may formulate predictions then have the chance to help make their prediction a reality over the next decade," said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

When the sample return capsule returns to Earth in 2023 with the asteroid material, the mission team will open the time capsule to view the messages and images, at which time the selected submissions will be posted online at:

http://www.asteroidmission.org/timecapsule

"OSIRIS-REx has to take many years to perform a complex asteroid sample return," said Bruce Betts, the director of science and technology at The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, a public outreach partner on the asteroid mission. "A time capsule capitalizes on the long duration of the mission to engage the public in thinking about space exploration -- where are we now, and where will we be."

The OSIRIS-REx mission is focused on finding answers to basic questions about the composition of the very early solar system and the source of organic materials and water that made life possible on Earth. The mission also will contribute to NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and support the agency's efforts to understand the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects and characterize those suitable for future asteroid exploration missions.

NASA's ARM is a first-ever mission to identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon, where astronauts will explore it in the 2020s, and return with samples. The mission will advance the new technologies and spaceflight experience needed for humans to explore Mars in the 2030s.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will provide overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance. The University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator institution. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver will build the spacecraft. 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 NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For details on procedures and rules for submitting a message and image, visit:

http://www.asteroidmission.org/timecapsule

More information is available online about Messages to Bennu, at:

http://www.planetary.org/get-involved/messages/bennu/

Source: NASA.Gov

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