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Thursday, April 30, 2015

One Earth: New Horizons Message Update‏... Support Its Crowdfunding Campaign!

Support the One Earth: New Horizons Message.
Click above to visit the One Earth: New Horizons Message Website

On April 14, the team behind the One Earth: New Horizons Message project unveiled a webpage where you can donate money to fund its effort to collect photos, videos and other content that will hopefully be uploaded onto NASA's New Horizons spacecraft after its Pluto flyby this summer (I waited till the end of this month to blog this to increase its exposure). The 90-day effort concludes in mid-July—around the time that the robotic, grand piano-sized explorer will make its closest approach to the dwarf planet. Click on the blue link provided at the beginning of this entry to contribute to this intriguing project! Any donation that's $50 or more will allow the backer to have his or her name transmitted alongside the One Earth Message to New Horizons. Needless to say, that was $50 I didn't mind spending. Once again, click on the blue link at the top of this post to leave your own indelible mark on this digital time capsule to the cosmos! Carry on.

Support the One Earth: New Horizons Message.
NASA / JHU APL / SwRI / Steve Gribben



Wednesday, April 29, 2015

3 Billion Miles Away: A Dwarf Planet Begins to Reveal Itself...

An animated GIF showing Pluto and Charon revolving around each other at their barycenter...as seen from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft between April 12-18, 2015.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

NASA’s New Horizons Detects Surface Features, Possible Polar Cap on Pluto (Press Release)

For the first time, images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are revealing bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto – the primary target of the New Horizons close flyby in mid-July.

The images were captured in early to mid-April from within 70 million miles (113 million kilometers), using the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed images beamed back to Earth. New Horizons scientists interpreted the data to reveal the dwarf planet has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap.

“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons."

Also captured in the images is Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit. The exposure times used to create this image set – a tenth of a second – were too short for the camera to detect Pluto’s four much smaller and fainter moons.

Since it was discovered in 1930, Pluto has remained an enigma. It orbits our sun more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) from Earth, and researchers have struggled to discern any details about its surface. These latest New Horizons images allow the mission science team to detect clear differences in brightness across Pluto’s surface as it rotates.

“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”

The images the spacecraft returns will dramatically improve as New Horizons speeds closer to its July rendezvous with Pluto.

“We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer,” said Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

APL designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Source: NASA.Gov

Monday, April 27, 2015

Photos of the Day: A Comedy-Charity Event in Silver Lake...

At the Cowboys & Turbans restaurant in Silver Lake, CA, for a comedy-charity event that was hosted by Milana Vayntrub...on April 26, 2015.

Yesterday, I drove down to the Cowboys & Turbans restaurant in Silver Lake to attend a comedy-charity event that was hosted by none other than Milana Vayntrub. The event was a rousing success... The goal of this fun-filled evening was to earn $1,300 for the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition (GWHFC)—which sought to purchase an industrial fridge in which to store food (Duh!) for the scores of homeless individuals that the coalition feeds in that part of Hollywood each day. The donation by attendees (including myself) led to a final tally of $1,600 for the GWHFC's cause. Good work!

Watching a comedy show at the Cowboys & Turbans restaurant in Silver Lake, CA...on April 26, 2015.
Image courtesy of Effinfunny Fan Page - Facebook.com

People bought raffle tickets to win items ranging from an iPhone 6 (which was donated directly from AT&T, I believe) to a 30-minute acting class by someone whose name I forgot, to even a shirt that Milana wore in an AT&T commercial...which was autographed by retired NBA star Grant Hill (who appeared in one of Ms. Vayntrub's first AT&T ads). I devoted all of my tickets to the iPhone, of course. I didn't win it though—but it was $10 well spent. Props to Milana, the GWHFC and Cowboys & Turbans for hosting this great cause for Los Angeles!

Milana Vayntrub runs a raffle during a comedy show hosted by her at the Cowboys & Turbans restaurant in Silver Lake, CA...on April 26, 2015.

Posing with Milana Vayntrub before a comedy-charity event that she hosted at the Cowboys & Turbans restaurant in Silver Lake, CA...on April 26, 2015.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Happy Birthday, Hubble!

An image of a stellar breeding ground known as Gum 29...taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope for the 25th anniversary of its launch aboard space shuttle Discovery.
NASA / ESA

NASA Unveils Celestial Fireworks as Official Image for Hubble 25th Anniversary (Press Release - April 23)

The brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resemble a glittering fireworks display in the 25th anniversary NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, released to commemorate a quarter century of exploring the solar system and beyond since its launch on April 24, 1990.

“Hubble has completely transformed our view of the universe, revealing the true beauty and richness of the cosmos” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “This vista of starry fireworks and glowing gas is a fitting image for our celebration of 25 years of amazing Hubble science.”

The sparkling centerpiece of Hubble’s anniversary fireworks is a giant cluster of about 3,000 stars called Westerlund 2, named for Swedish astronomer Bengt Westerlund who discovered the grouping in the 1960s. The cluster resides in a raucous stellar breeding ground known as Gum 29, located 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Carina.

To capture this image, Hubble’s near-infrared Wide Field Camera 3 pierced through the dusty veil shrouding the stellar nursery, giving astronomers a clear view of the nebula and the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster. The cluster measures between 6 and 13 light-years across.

The giant star cluster is about 2 million years old and contains some of our galaxy’s hottest, brightest and most massive stars. Some of its heftiest stars unleash torrents of ultraviolet light and hurricane-force winds of charged particles etching into the enveloping hydrogen gas cloud.

The nebula reveals a fantasy landscape of pillars, ridges and valleys. The pillars, composed of dense gas and thought to be incubators for new stars, are a few light-years tall and point to the central star cluster. Other dense regions surround the pillars, including reddish-brown filaments of gas and dust.

The brilliant stars sculpt the gaseous terrain of the nebula and help create a successive generation of baby stars. When the stellar winds hit dense walls of gas, the shockwaves may spark a new torrent of star birth along the wall of the cavity. The red dots scattered throughout the landscape are a rich population of newly-forming stars still wrapped in their gas-and-dust cocoons. These tiny, faint stars are between 1 million and 2 million years old -- relatively young stars -- that have not yet ignited the hydrogen in their cores. The brilliant blue stars seen throughout the image are mostly foreground stars.

Because the cluster is very young -- in astronomical terms -- it has not had time to disperse its stars deep into interstellar space, providing astronomers with an opportunity to gather information on how the cluster formed by studying it within its star-birthing environment.

The image’s central region, which contains the star cluster, blends visible-light data taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys with near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Shades of red represent hydrogen and bluish-green hues are predominantly oxygen.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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NASA's Hubble Space Telescope before it is docked with the orbiter Atlantis during space shuttle flight STS-125, on May 13, 2009.
NASA

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy Earth Day, Everyone!

A squirrel lingers on an inactivated escalator that connects the Lower Campus to the Upper Campus at Cal State Long Beach...on January 3, 2015.

What better way to celebrate Mother Nature than by taking these random snapshots of a squirrel crawling down an escalator at my college alma mater earlier this year? These photos were taken at Cal State Long Beach while the campus was still on Winter Break back in January. The escalator was obviously not activated, yet I would've liked to have seen this little critter freak out once the metal floor beneath it came to life. Go Beach, you varmint!

A squirrel lingers on an inactivated escalator that connects the Lower Campus to the Upper Campus at Cal State Long Beach...on January 3, 2015.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Photos of the Day: Meeting Tina Shukshin!

Posing with Milana Vayntrub at the Inner Sanctum Cafe on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood...on April 20, 2015.

So last night, I finally got to meet the very beautiful and talented Milana Vayntrub...who performed two hilarious skits at the Inner Sanctum Cafe in Hollywood. For those of you who don't know who Milana is (AS IF!), she appeared on such TV shows as Californication, House of Lies and Silicon Valley. Oh, and she's been playing the charming Lily Adams on AT&T commercials for about a year now. But her most recent work can be seen on the Yahoo! web series Other Space—which is created by Paul Feig, the director behind the hit film Bridesmaids and the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot. (Milana's Other Space co-star Neil Casey was on-hand to perform the skits with her yesterday.)

Milana Vayntrub, her OTHER SPACE co-star Neil Casey (the guy wearing the dark-blue baseball cap near the right edge of this photo) and the rest of their group—nicknamed the 'Fat Baby Basement Boys'—perform one of two skits at the Inner Sanctum Cafe on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood...on April 20, 2015.

I'm quite relieved that I finally met Ms. Vayntrub! Considering how popular she's becoming by the day, I was afraid that the only way to meet her would be to attend a book signing (like I did with Jessica Alba in March of 2013) or to go to a comic book expo (as in the case with Alyssa Milano in November of that same year) and dish out some cash! Thank God that's not the case (though I did have to pay $5 for parking last night). Oh, and check out Other Space now! It's totally hilarious (Tina Shukshin is the name of Milana's character on the show, FYI)... Probably my second favorite sci-fi-themed, geeky comedy behind The Big Bang Theory. Carry on.

The hilarious cast of the Yahoo! sci-fi comedy series, OTHER SPACE.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dawn Update: The Dwarf Planet Re-emerges from the Darkness...

An image of the dwarf planet Ceres that was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft from a distance of about 14,000 miles (22,000 kilometers), on April 14 and 15, 2015.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Ceres' Bright Spots Come Back Into View (Press Release)

The two brightest spots on dwarf planet Ceres, which have fascinated scientists for months, are back in view in the newest images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Dawn took these images on April 14 and 15 from a vantage point 14,000 miles (22,000 kilometers) above Ceres’ north pole.

An animation and still image are available here:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA19064

The images show the brightest spot and its companion clearly standing out against their darker surroundings, but their composition and sources are still unknown. Scientists also see other interesting features, including heavy cratering. As Dawn gets closer to Ceres, surface features will continue to emerge at increasingly better resolution.

Dawn has now finished delivering the images that have helped mission planners maneuver the spacecraft to its first science orbit and prepare for subsequent observations. All of the approach operations have executed flawlessly and kept Dawn on course and on schedule. Beginning April 23, Dawn will spend about three weeks in a near-circular orbit around Ceres, taking observations from 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) above the surface. On May 9, Dawn will begin to make its way to lower orbits to improve the view and provide higher-resolution observations.

"The approach imaging campaign has completed successfully by giving us a preliminary, tantalizing view of the world Dawn is about to start exploring in detail. It has allowed us to start asking some new and intriguing questions," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's mission director and chief engineer, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

On March 6, Dawn became the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet, and the first to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. Scientists will be comparing Ceres to giant asteroid Vesta, which Dawn studied from 2011 to 2012, in order to gain insights about the formation of our solar system. Both Vesta and Ceres, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, were on their way to becoming planets before their development was interrupted.

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

Source: NASA.Gov

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Star Wars Celebration...

Kylo Ren's outfit from THE FORCE AWAKENS on display at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

So last Thursday and Friday, I drove down to the Anaheim Convention Center to attend the latest Star Wars Celebration. The main event (which I missed since I didn't pick my badge up early enough to join the line on Wednesday evening; instead, I watched the panel via simulcast in a separate showroom at the convention center) was the morning panel devoted to The Force Awakens on Thursday. During this presentation, director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy unveiled the newest trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII...plus introduced the film's three main stars, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, onto the stage to divulge details about their characters for the very first time. Several minutes later, the cast of the Original Trilogy—Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew (Harrison Ford couldn't make it since he was still recovering from that plane crash last month)—appeared on stage to thank the fans for their 35-plus-year devotion to the science fantasy franchise.

A model of the X-Wing fighter that will be seen in THE FORCE AWAKENS on display at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

Originally, I was only going to attend the Celebration on Thursday, but I went back on Friday to visit the costume and prop exhibit devoted to The Force Awakens. I spent much of Thursday looking for this exhibit (it was on the 2nd floor of the convention center), and by the time I found it later that evening, the line to get into the showroom was cut off since the exhibit was closing for the day. But that's okay... It was another $65 (plus $10 for parking at Angel Stadium; I had to take a shuttle to the convention center on both days) well-spent. Here are several photos from my two days in Star Wars nerdvana.

Director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy discuss THE FORCE AWAKENS during a panel at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 16, 2015.

THE FORCE AWAKENS' actors Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega join J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy on stage at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 16, 2015.

Original Trilogy actors Peter Mayhew, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels are flanked by Stormtroopers from THE FORCE AWAKENS at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 16, 2015.

Posing with a Stormtrooper from THE FORCE AWAKENS at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 16, 2015.

Posing with a fan dressed as Padmé Amidala from ATTACK OF THE CLONES at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 16, 2015.

Posing with a fan-made version of the landspeeder used by Rey (Daisy Ridley) in THE FORCE AWAKENS... at the Star Wars Celebration on April 16, 2015.

Posing with Kylo Ren's outfit inside THE FORCE AWAKENS exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

Kylo Ren's lightsaber hilt on display inside THE FORCE AWAKENS exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

Two Stormtrooper suits on display inside THE FORCE AWAKENS exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

A Flametrooper suit on display inside THE FORCE AWAKENS exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

Posing with a Snowtrooper suit inside THE FORCE AWAKENS exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

BB-8 on display inside THE FORCE AWAKENS exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

The desert attire worn by Rey on display inside THE FORCE AWAKENS exhibit at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

Posing with fans dressed as SPACEBALLS characters at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

Post-PHANTOM MENACE Darth Maul poses with another Sith Lord at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 16, 2015.

Fans dressed as Princess Leia and a Stormtrooper strike a pose at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 16, 2015.

Enjoying a nice view of Orange County from the 3rd floor balcony of the Anaheim Convention Center...on April 16, 2015.

A lightsaber-welding assassin from ASSASSIN'S CREED poses for photos at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California...on April 17, 2015.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Dwarf Planet Still Beckons: Exactly 3 Months to Pluto!

An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft traveling past the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
NASA / JHU APL / SwRI / Steve Gribben

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Nears Historic July 14 Encounter with Pluto (Press Release)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is three months from returning to humanity the first-ever close up images and scientific observations of distant Pluto and its system of large and small moons.

"Scientific literature is filled with papers on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from ground based and Earth orbiting space observations, but we’ve never studied Pluto up close and personal,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut, and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries."

The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons has traveled a longer time and farther away – more than nine years and three billion miles – than any space mission in history to reach its primary target. Its flyby of Pluto and its system of at least five moons on July 14 will complete the initial reconnaissance of the classical solar system. This mission also opens the door to an entirely new “third” zone of mysterious small planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt, a large area with numerous objects beyond Neptune’s orbit.

The flyby caps a five-decade-long era of reconnaissance that began with Venus and Mars in the early 1960s, and continued through first looks at Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s and Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.

Reaching this third zone of our solar system – beyond the inner, rocky planets and outer gas giants – has been a space science priority for years. In the early 2000s the National Academy of Sciences ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – and particularly Pluto and its largest moon, Charon – as its top priority planetary mission for the coming decade.

New Horizons – a compact, lightweight, powerfully equipped probe packing the most advanced suite of cameras and spectrometers ever sent on a first reconnaissance mission – is NASA’s answer to that call.

“This is pure exploration; we’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “New Horizons is flying to Pluto – the biggest, brightest and most complex of the dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. This 21st century encounter is going to be an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s.”

Pluto, the largest known body in the Kuiper Belt, offers a nitrogen atmosphere, complex seasons, distinct surface markings, an ice-rock interior that may harbor an ocean, and at least five moons. Among these moons, the largest – Charon - may itself sport an atmosphere or an interior ocean, and possibly even evidence of recent surface activity.

“There’s no doubt, Charon is a rising star in terms of scientific interest, and we can’t wait to reveal it in detail in July,” said Leslie Young, deputy project scientist at SwRI.

Pluto’s smaller moons also are likely to present scientific opportunities. When New Horizons was started in 2001, it was a mission to just Pluto and Charon, before the four smaller moons were discovered.

The spacecraft’s suite of seven science instruments – which includes cameras, spectrometers, and plasma and dust detectors – will map the geology of Pluto and Charon and map their surface compositions and temperatures; examine Pluto’s atmosphere, and search for an atmosphere around Charon; study Pluto’s smaller satellites; and look for rings and additional satellites around Pluto.

Currently, even with New Horizons closer to Pluto than the Earth is to the Sun, the Pluto system resembles little more than bright dots in the distance. But teams operating the spacecraft are using these views to refine their knowledge of Pluto’s location, and skillfully navigate New Horizons toward a precise target point 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) from Pluto’s surface. That targeting is critical, since the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point its science instruments are based on knowing the exact time and location that New Horizons passes Pluto.

“Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we know we have just one shot to make this work,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, which built and operates the spacecraft. “We’ve plotted out each step of the Pluto encounter, practiced it over and over, and we’re excited the ‘real deal’ is finally here.”

The spacecraft’s work doesn’t end with the July flyby. Because it gets one shot at its target, New Horizons is designed to gather as much data as it can, as quickly as it can, taking about 100 times as much data on close approach as it can send home before flying away. And although the spacecraft will send select, high-priority datasets home in the days just before and after close approach, the mission will continue returning the data stored in onboard memory for a full 16 months.

“New Horizons is one of the great explorations of our time,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver at APL. “There’s so much we don’t know, not just about Pluto, but other worlds like it. We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch.”

APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern of SwRI is the principal investigator. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A colored image of the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon...taken from a distance of 71 million miles (115 million kilometers) by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on April 9, 2015.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Monday, April 13, 2015

Another Curiosity Update: More News About Mars' Habitability, Yadda Yadda Yadda...

A close-up of the REMS (Rover Environmental Monitoring Station) experiment on the mast of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

NASA Mars Rover's Weather Data Bolster Case for Brine (Press Release)

Martian weather and soil conditions that NASA's Curiosity rover has measured, together with a type of salt found in Martian soil, could put liquid brine in the soil at night.

Perchlorate identified in Martian soil by the Curiosity mission, and previously by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission, has properties of absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere and lowering the freezing temperature of water. This has been proposed for years as a mechanism for possible existence of transient liquid brines at higher latitudes on modern Mars, despite the Red Planet's cold and dry conditions.

New calculations were based on more than a full Mars year of temperature and humidity measurements by Curiosity. They indicate that conditions at the rover's near-equatorial location were favorable for small quantities of brine to form during some nights throughout the year, drying out again after sunrise. Conditions should be even more favorable at higher latitudes, where colder temperatures and more water vapor can result in higher relative humidity more often.

"Liquid water is a requirement for life as we know it, and a target for Mars exploration missions," said the report's lead author, Javier Martin-Torres of the Spanish Research Council, Spain, and Lulea University of Technology, Sweden, and a member of Curiosity's science team. "Conditions near the surface of present-day Mars are hardly favorable for microbial life as we know it, but the possibility for liquid brines on Mars has wider implications for habitability and geological water-related processes."

The weather data in the report published today in Nature Geosciences come from the Curiosity's Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), which was provided by Spain and includes a relative-humidity sensor and a ground-temperature sensor. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to investigate both ancient and modern environmental conditions in Mars' Gale Crater region. The report also draws on measurements of hydrogen in the ground by the rover's Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument, from Russia.

"We have not detected brines, but calculating the possibility that they might exist in Gale Crater during some nights testifies to the value of the round-the-clock and year-round measurements REMS is providing," said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, one of the new report's co-authors.

Curiosity is the first mission to measure relative humidity in the Martian atmosphere close to the surface and ground temperature through all times of day and all seasons of the Martian year. Relative humidity depends on the temperature of the air, as well as the amount of water vapor in it. Curiosity's measurements of relative humidity range from about five percent on summer afternoons to 100 percent on autumn and winter nights.

Air filling pores in the soil interacts with air just above the ground. When its relative humidity gets above a threshold level, salts can absorb enough water molecules to become dissolved in liquid, a process called deliquescence. Perchlorate salts are especially good at this. Since perchlorate has been identified both at near-polar and near-equatorial sites, it may be present in soils all over the planet.

Researchers using the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have in recent years documented numerous sites on Mars where dark flows appear and extend on slopes during warm seasons. These features are called recurring slope lineae, or RSL. A leading hypothesis for how they occur involves brines formed by deliquesence.

"Gale Crater is one of the least likely places on Mars to have conditions for brines to form, compared to sites at higher latitudes or with more shading. So if brines can exist there, that strengthens the case they could form and persist even longer at many other locations, perhaps enough to explain RSL activity," said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, also a co-author of the new report.

In the 12 months following its August 2012 landing, Curiosity found evidence for ancient streambeds and a lakebed environment more than 3 billion years ago that offered conditions favorable for microbial life. Now, the rover is examining a layered mountain inside Gale Crater for evidence about how ancient environmental conditions evolved. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory and Mars Reconnaissance Projects for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, taken with a camera on her robotic arm in late January of 2015.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Dwarf Planet Beckons: Only 98 Days to Pluto!

An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft approaching Pluto.
NASA

Inside 100 Days to the Historic First Exploration of Pluto, New Horizons Set to Deliver (Press Release)

Less than 100 days to Pluto closest approach, and counting.

Speeding toward a historic flyby on July 14 – just over 98 days from now – NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has moved into the second phase of its approach to Pluto and its moons, beginning a series of observations and activities that will bring these distant, icy worlds into sharper focus than humankind has ever seen.

New Horizons began its long-distance encounter phase with Pluto in January, taking dozens of images used primarily to navigate the spacecraft toward Pluto and using its plasma and energetic-particle sensors and dust detector to sample the environment and learn more about the Sun's influence – or space weather – near where Pluto orbits 3 billion miles from the Sun. During this first approach phase New Horizons also made an important course-correction homing maneuver on March 10.

In the more intensive Approach Phase 2, which started April 5 and lasts through mid-June, the mission adds numerous new and significant observations of the Pluto system, including the first color and spectral observations of Pluto and its moons, and series of long-exposure images that will help the team spot additional moons or rings in the Pluto system. The spacecraft will also make its first ultraviolet observation to study the surface and atmosphere of Pluto and the surface of Pluto's largest moon, Charon, and the spacecraft will conduct a major joint test of flyby radio science observations in conjunction with NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN). These various activities are critical to developing a fuller picture of that system, and in assessing any hazards New Horizons could face as the spacecraft passes between Pluto and Charon.

"The best images we have today still show Pluto and its moons as dots in the distance, but by the time AP2 ends in June, we'll see Pluto like never seen before," said Alan Stern, mission principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "This is the time when Pluto transforms from a planetary astronomer's world – spied only through telescopes with just the slightest detail – to a planetary science target of the most capable flyby spacecraft ever sent on a first reconnaissance mission."

That spacecraft – operated from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland – is healthy, operating normally and homing in on Pluto at more than 31,000 miles per hour. New Horizons is approximately 2.98 billion miles (4.79 billion kilometers) from Earth and just about 73 million miles (118 million kilometers) from Pluto itself. The team is evaluating new tracking data to decide whether they'll need to carry out a course correction on May 15; a decision is expected about May 1.

"As the year started, we said New Horizons was on Pluto's doorstep," said mission Project Manager Glen Fountain, of APL. "Now we're opening that door, getting closer and closer to our first real look at these mysterious worlds on the edge of the planetary frontier. This is pure exploration, and it's amazing to be a part of it."

Source: New Horizons Website

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Curiosity Update: More Evidence That The Red Planet May Have Been Habitable...

A mosaic that NASA's Curiosity rover took of mineral veins on the surface of Mars...using images shot on March 18, 2015.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

Curiosity Sees Prominent Mineral Veins on Mount Sharp, Mars (Press Release)

This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a network of two-tone mineral veins at an area called "Garden City" on lower Mount Sharp.

The veins combine light and dark material. The veins at this site jut to heights of up to about 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) above the surrounding rock, and their widths range up to about 1.5 inches (4 centimeters). Figure 1 includes a 30-centimeter scale bar (about 12 inches).

Mineral veins such as these form where fluids move through fractured rocks, depositing minerals in the fractures and affecting chemistry of the surrounding rock. In this case, the veins have been more resistant to erosion than the surrounding host rock.

This scene is a mosaic combining 28 images taken with Mastcam's right-eye camera, which has a telephoto lens with a focal length of 100 millimeters. The component images were taken on March 18, 2015, during the 929th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. The color has been approximately white-balanced to resemble how the scene would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates the rover's Mastcam. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, taken with a camera on her robotic arm in late January of 2015.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

New Horizons Update: Studying the Solar Wind as Pluto Beckons...

Engineers install the PEPSSI (top photo) and SWAP instruments onto the New Horizons spacecraft in 2005.
NASA / JHU APL / SwRI

New Horizons Sampling ‘Space Weather’ on Approach to Pluto (Press Release - March 27)

As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft approaches the Pluto system, its space plasma (also called charged particle) instruments —SWAP and PEPSSI — have already been taking measurements and assessing the space weather environment in the Kuiper Belt near Pluto.

“Results from those measurements are being radioed to the ground and our team is already learning new things about the distant environment near Pluto’s orbit, 3 billion miles from Earth,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.

The solar wind consists mainly of protons and electrons, but also has trace amounts of ions of helium and oxygen that New Horizons detects. Typical solar wind speeds at Pluto’s orbit distance range from 350-500 kilometers per second (about 750,000-1 million miles per hour); typical densities of the solar wind near Pluto’s orbit are about 6,000 particles per cubic meter – about a 1,000 times less than the solar wind at Earth. For comparison, the Earth’s atmosphere at its surface is one hundred billion-billion times denser.

“For some unknown reason, the Sun has been blowing less hard over the past decade and a half, and we are seeing the weakest solar wind of the space age,” says New Horizons co-investigator Dave McComas, also of SwRI, who leads the SWAP instrument team. “A weaker solar wind means that the size of the region where the solar wind interacts with the planet’s escaping atmosphere is expanded beyond our earlier predictions.”

Added New Horizons co-investigator Fran Bagenal, from University of Colorado, Boulder: “This means that New Horizons may cross the interaction boundary between the solar wind and Pluto’s atmosphere up to dozens of Pluto radii [and several hours] before its closest approach on July 14, creating a scientific bonanza for studies of the composition and escape rate of Pluto’s atmosphere!”

Source: New Horizons Website

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An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft traveling past the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
NASA / JHU APL / SwRI / Steve Gribben