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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mars Gets A Google Doodle...

An animated GIF of the recent Mars 'Google doodle.'

Just thought I'd end this month with this "Google doodle" that honors NASA's recent announcement about liquid water still flowing (intermittently) on the surface of Mars. I'm wondering what will be the next big space event that the world's largest search engine will commemorate with a specially-designed GIF or logo on its homepage? There are too many future missions to give examples of... NASA's InSight lander touching down on the Red Planet's surface next year? The first crewed missions by SpaceX (with its Crew Dragon vehicle) and Boeing (with its CST-100 capsule) in 2017? The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, in 2018? Or the first crewed mission by NASA's Orion capsule, via the Space Launch System rocket, to the Moon in 2021 (but no later than 2023)? Ah, heck— Google doodle-fy all of 'em!

A screenshot of the Google homepage with the Mars Google doodle on it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Momentous News: H2O Still Flows on the Red Planet!

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae—thought to be formed by the flow of salty liquid water—emanate from the walls of Mars’ Garni crater in this image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today’s Mars (Press Release)

New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings published Sept. 28 by Nature Geoscience.

Ojha first noticed these puzzling features as a University of Arizona undergraduate student in 2010, using images from the MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars. The new study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren't as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.

Ojha and his co-authors interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius). On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts, and some types of perchlorates can be used as rocket propellant.

Perchlorates have previously been seen on Mars. NASA's Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover both found them in the planet's soil, and some scientists believe that the Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts. However, this study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form, in different areas than those explored by the landers. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.

MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.

"The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are," said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present-day water.

"When most people talk about water on Mars, they're usually talking about ancient water or frozen water," he said. "Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL."

The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA’s Mars missions.

“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”

There are eight co-authors of the Nature Geoscience paper, including Mary Beth Wilhelm at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and Georgia Tech; CRISM Principal Investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland; and HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Others are at Georgia Tech, the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique in Nantes, France.

The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin built the orbiter and collaborates with JPL to operate it.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

New Horizons Update: Pluto...in Enhanced Color!

A high-resolution, enhanced-color global image of Pluto that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Perplexing Pluto: New ‘Snakeskin’ Image and More from New Horizons (Press Release)

The newest high-resolution images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons are both dazzling and mystifying, revealing a multitude of previously unseen topographic and compositional details. The image below -- showing an area near the line that separates day from night -- captures a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that has astonished New Horizons team members.

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis. “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”

The “snakeskin” image of Pluto’s surface is just one tantalizing piece of data New Horizons sent back in recent days. The spacecraft also captured the highest-resolution color view yet of Pluto, as well as detailed spectral maps and other high-resolution images.

The new “extended color” view of Pluto – taken by New Horizons’ wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14 and downlinked to Earth on Sept. 19 – shows the extraordinarily rich color palette of Pluto.

“We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”

Additionally, a high-resolution swath across Pluto taken by New Horizons’ narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, and downlinked on Sept. 20, homes in on details of Pluto’s geology. These images -- the highest-resolution yet available of Pluto -- reveal features that resemble dunes, the older shoreline of a shrinking glacial ice lake, and fractured, angular water ice mountains with sheer cliffs. Color details have been added using MVIC’s global map shown above.

This closer look at the smooth, bright surface of the informally named Sputnik Planum shows that it is actually pockmarked by dense patterns of pits, low ridges and scalloped terrain. Dunes of bright volatile ice particles are a possible explanation, mission scientists say, but the ices of Sputnik may be especially susceptible to sublimation and formation of such corrugated ground.

Beyond the new images, new compositional information comes from a just-obtained map of methane ice across part of Pluto's surface that reveals striking contrasts: Sputnik Planum has abundant methane, while the region informally named Cthulhu Regio shows none, aside from a few isolated ridges and crater rims. Mountains along the west flank of Sputnik lack methane as well.

The distribution of methane across the surface is anything but simple, with higher concentrations on bright plains and crater rims, but usually none in the centers of craters or darker regions. Outside of Sputnik Planum, methane ice appears to favor brighter areas, but scientists aren’t sure if that’s because methane is more likely to condense there or that its condensation brightens those regions.

“It's like the classic chicken-or-egg problem,” said Will Grundy, New Horizons surface composition team lead from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. “We’re unsure why this is so, but the cool thing is that New Horizons has the ability to make exquisite compositional maps across the surface of Pluto, and that’ll be crucial to resolving how enigmatic Pluto works.”

“With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both color and composition,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI. “I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day.”

Source: NASA.Gov

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A high-resolution, enhanced-color image of Pluto's Tartarus Dorsa region that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

A high-resolution, enhanced-color image of Pluto's Sputnik Planum region that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Norway's First Joint Strike Fighter Is Unveiled...

An F-35A Lightning II jet fighter that will be used by Norway is unveiled at the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas...on September 22, 2015.
Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin and Norwegian Armed Forces Celebrate Rollout of Norway’s First F-35A (Press Release)

Fort Worth, Texas, Sept. 22, 2015 – Ceremonies were held today at the Lockheed Martin F-35 production facility celebrating the rollout of the first F-35A Lightning II for the Norwegian Armed Forces. The event marked an important production milestone for the future of Norway’s national defense.

“We all know that the F-35 is not simply another fighter. We know that it is much more,” said Her Excellency Ine Eriksen Søreide, Norwegian Minister of Defence. “The F-35 provides us a capability we’ve never had before. It’s by far the most advanced fighter ever made. Today we are indeed turning the future into the present. The F-35 represents a new way of thinking, a new way of operating, which will benefit the entire Norwegian Armed Forces.”

The Honorable Frank Kendall, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, pointed to the Norway partnership as crucial to the F-35 program.

“We are here because of the persistence, not just of the design team and the military, but also of the political leaders who have been involved... and also, in this case, of the Norwegian people,” said Kendall. “I want to thank the Norwegian people for their persistence and their consistent support for this program.”

Joining the Minister and Secretary Kendall at the ceremony were His Excellency Kåre R. Aas, Norway Ambassador; Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, Chief of Defence, Norwegian Armed Forces; Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, F-35 Program Executive Officer, and Ms. Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Lockheed Martin Corporation.

The 5th Generation F-35As will transition the Norwegian Armed Forces into a next generation net-centric fighter force capable of assuring the nation's territorial integrity and national security.

“I’m confident the F-35 will provide the strength that is needed, and is a unique solution for Norway’s high north threats,” said Hewson. “It is the only aircraft with adequate range, persistence, sensors and advanced communications to guarantee surveillance and defense of the high north against surface and airborne threats. This capability would not be possible without the unwavering support of the Norwegian government and the innovative and dependable contributions of Norwegian industry.”

The F-35 Lightning II aircraft provides the Norwegian industry with high technology work, ensuring the future health, competitiveness and viability of the defense industry in Norway. Work on the F-35 program has provided Norwegian industry with more than $450 million in contracts to date, along with opportunities for additional work over the life of the program.

AM-1 and Norway’s second jet, known as AM-2, are scheduled to be delivered to the Royal Norwegian Air Force later this year, and will be based at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where they will be used for Norwegian and partner country pilot training.

The F-35 Lightning II is a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. Three distinct variants of the F-35 will replace the A-10 and F-16 for the U.S. Air Force, the F/A-18 for the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 and AV8-B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps, and a variety of fighters for at least 10 other countries.

Source: Lockheed Martin

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An F-35A Lightning II jet fighter that will be used by Norway is unveiled at the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas...on September 22, 2015.
Lockheed Martin

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Photo / Moron of the Day...

Earlier today, I drove down to the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Long Beach (the one near my house closed down last year) when I stumbled upon this infuriating sight as I was about to park my car. No, this Honda Civic sedan isn't pulling into that spot nor backing out as I took this photo. The idiot who drove this vehicle actually had the audacity to park this way before they went off to infect whatever store they went into with their utter stupidity. And I thought I'd only see such pics taken by other folks on the Internet. Didn't think that I would take one of my own this weekend... Have a great day, everyone! Except the imbecile behind the steering wheel of the silver auto in this photo; I really do hope that someone either left a rude note on their windshield or keyed the side of that Civic after I headed home. Carry on.

I really DO hope that someone keyed the side of that silver Honda Civic at the center of this photo... Moron.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Horizons Update: The 16-Month Data Downlink Is Off to a Great Start!

An image of Pluto that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) on July 14, 2015.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Pluto ‘Wows’ in Spectacular New Backlit Panorama (Press Release)

The latest images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have scientists stunned – not only for their breathtaking views of Pluto’s majestic icy mountains, streams of frozen nitrogen and haunting low-lying hazes, but also for their strangely familiar, arctic look.

This new view of Pluto’s crescent -- taken by New Horizons’ wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14 and downlinked to Earth on Sept. 13 -- offers an oblique look across Plutonian landscapes with dramatic backlighting from the sun. It spectacularly highlights Pluto’s varied terrains and extended atmosphere. The scene measures 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) across.

“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”

Owing to its favorable backlighting and high resolution, this MVIC image also reveals new details of hazes throughout Pluto’s tenuous but extended nitrogen atmosphere. The image shows more than a dozen thin haze layers extending from near the ground to at least 60 miles (100 kilometers) above the surface. In addition, the image reveals at least one bank of fog-like, low-lying haze illuminated by the setting sun against Pluto’s dark side, raked by shadows from nearby mountains.

"In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth," said Will Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

Combined with other recently downloaded pictures, this new image also provides evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice.

Bright areas east of the vast icy plain informally named Sputnik Planum appear to have been blanketed by these ices, which may have evaporated from the surface of Sputnik and then been redeposited to the east. The new Ralph imager panorama also reveals glaciers flowing back into Sputnik Planum from this blanketed region; these features are similar to the frozen streams on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

"We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system,” said Alan Howard, a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.”

“Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” added Stern, “and no one predicted it.”

Source: NASA.Gov

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A cropped version of the image of Pluto that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) on July 14, 2015.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Don't We Already Know This About Enceladus? I Guess Not...

A diagram showing the different layers that comprise the interior of Saturn's moon Enceladus.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Cassini Finds Global Ocean in Saturn's Moon Enceladus (Press Release - September 15)

A global ocean lies beneath the icy crust of Saturn's geologically active moon Enceladus, according to new research using data from NASA's Cassini mission.

Researchers found the magnitude of the moon's very slight wobble, as it orbits Saturn, can only be accounted for if its outer ice shell is not frozen solid to its interior, meaning a global ocean must be present.

The finding implies the fine spray of water vapor, icy particles and simple organic molecules Cassini has observed coming from fractures near the moon's south pole is being fed by this vast liquid water reservoir. The research is presented in a paper published online this week in the journal Icarus.

Previous analysis of Cassini data suggested the presence of a lens-shaped body of water, or sea, underlying the moon's south polar region. However, gravity data collected during the spacecraft's several close passes over the south polar region lent support to the possibility the sea might be global. The new results -- derived using an independent line of evidence based on Cassini's images -- confirm this to be the case.

"This was a hard problem that required years of observations, and calculations involving a diverse collection of disciplines, but we are confident we finally got it right," said Peter Thomas, a Cassini imaging team member at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper.

Cassini scientists analyzed more than seven years' worth of images of Enceladus taken by the spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since mid-2004. They carefully mapped the positions of features on Enceladus -- mostly craters -- across hundreds of images, in order to measure changes in the moon's rotation with extreme precision.

As a result, they found Enceladus has a tiny, but measurable wobble as it orbits Saturn. Because the icy moon is not perfectly spherical -- and because it goes slightly faster and slower during different portions of its orbit around Saturn -- the giant planet subtly rocks Enceladus back and forth as it rotates.

The team plugged their measurement of the wobble, called a libration, into different models for how Enceladus might be arranged on the inside, including ones in which the moon was frozen from surface to core.

"If the surface and core were rigidly connected, the core would provide so much dead weight the wobble would be far smaller than we observe it to be," said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini participating scientist at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, and a co-author of the paper. "This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core," he said.

The mechanisms that might have prevented Enceladus' ocean from freezing remain a mystery. Thomas and his colleagues suggest a few ideas for future study that might help resolve the question, including the surprising possibility that tidal forces due to Saturn's gravity could be generating much more heat within Enceladus than previously thought.

"This is a major step beyond what we understood about this moon before, and it demonstrates the kind of deep-dive discoveries we can make with long-lived orbiter missions to other planets," said co-author Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute (SSI), Boulder, Colorado, and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. "Cassini has been exemplary in this regard."

The unfolding story of Enceladus has been one of the great triumphs of Cassini's long mission at Saturn. Scientists first detected signs of the moon's icy plume in early 2005, and followed up with a series of discoveries about the material gushing from warm fractures near its south pole. They announced strong evidence for a regional sea in 2014, and more recently, in 2015, they shared results that suggest hydrothermal activity is taking place on the ocean floor.

Cassini is scheduled to make a close flyby of Enceladus on Oct. 28, in the mission's deepest-ever dive through the moon's active plume of icy material. The spacecraft will pass a mere 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon's surface.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. The Cassini imaging operations center is based at Space Science Institute.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A composite image showing the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Since I Haven't Talked About LRO In A While...

An artist's concept showing the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Moon.
NASA

NASA's LRO Discovers Earth's Pull is 'Massaging' our Moon (Press Release)

Earth's gravity has influenced the orientation of thousands of faults that form in the lunar surface as the moon shrinks, according to new results from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft.

In August, 2010, researchers using images from LRO's Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) reported the discovery of 14 cliffs known as "lobate scarps" on the moon's surface, in addition to about 70 previously known from the limited high-resolution Apollo Panoramic Camera photographs. Due largely to their random distribution across the surface, the science team concluded that the moon is shrinking.

These small faults are typically less than 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) long and only tens of yards or meters high. They are most likely formed by global contraction resulting from cooling of the moon's still hot interior. As the interior cools and portions of the liquid outer core solidify, the volume decreases; thus the moon shrinks and the solid crust buckles.

Now, after more than six years in orbit, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) has imaged nearly three-fourths of the lunar surface at high resolution, allowing the discovery of over 3,000 more of these features. These globally distributed faults have emerged as the most common tectonic landform on the moon. An analysis of the orientations of these small scarps yielded a surprising result: the faults created as the moon shrinks are being influenced by an unexpected source—gravitational tidal forces from Earth.

Global contraction alone should generate an array of thrust faults with no particular pattern in the orientations of the faults, because the contracting forces have equal magnitude in all directions. "This is not what we found," says Smithsonian senior scientist Thomas Watters of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "There is a pattern in the orientations of the thousands of faults and it suggests something else is influencing their formation, something that's also acting on a global scale -- 'massaging' and realigning them." Watters is lead author of the paper describing this research published in the October issue of the journal Geology.

The other forces acting on the moon come not from its interior, but from Earth. These are tidal forces. When the tidal forces are superimposed on the global contraction, the combined stresses should cause predictable orientations of the fault scarps from region to region. "The agreement between the mapped fault orientations and the fault orientations predicted by the modeled tidal and contractional forces is pretty striking," says Watters.

"The discovery of so many previously undetected tectonic features as our LROC high-resolution image coverage continues to grow is truly remarkable," said Mark Robinson of Arizona State University, coauthor and LROC principal investigator. "Early on in the mission we suspected that tidal forces played a role in the formation of tectonic features, but we did not have enough coverage to make any conclusive statements. Now that we have NAC images with appropriate lighting for more than half of the moon, structural patterns are starting to come into focus."

The fault scarps are very young – so young that they are likely still actively forming today. The team's modeling shows that the peak stresses are reached when the moon is farthest from Earth in its orbit (at apogee). If the faults are still active, the occurrence of shallow moonquakes related to slip events on the faults may be most frequent when the moon is at apogee. This hypothesis can be tested with a long-lived lunar seismic network.

"With LRO we've been able to study the moon globally in detail not yet possible with any other body in the solar system beyond Earth, and the LRO data set enables us to tease out subtle but important processes that would otherwise remain hidden," said John Keller, LRO Project Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Launched on June 18, 2009, LRO has collected a treasure trove of data with its seven powerful instruments, making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the moon. LRO is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, under the Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of 'lobate scarps' that formed when crustal materials pushed together, breaking and thrusting upward along a fault to form a cliff. Cooling of the still hot lunar interior is causing the Moon to shrink..causing these scarps.
NASA / LRO / Arizona State University / Smithsonian Institution

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Long Beach Comic Con...

At the Long Beach Convention Center for Long Beach Comic Con...on September 12, 2015.

So yesterday afternoon, I drove down to the Long Beach Convention Center to get my geek on at the LBC's very own Comic Con. I didn't go because I wanted to be in a room full of cosplayers dressed as Deadpool, Boba Fett, Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey's character in 1994's The Mask) or Batman (yes, the Ben Affleck version from next year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), but I attended the show to meet two lovely actresses from a pair of my current favorite TV shows. The first one I met was Lindsey McKeon, who played Tessa (a 'Reaper') on the long-lived CW Network TV series, Supernatural. The second actress I took a pic with was Chloe Bennet...who plays Skye (whose real name is Daisy Johnson and is now known as Quake, a so-called Inhuman) on the hit ABC TV show, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ms. Bennet was originally supposed to appear at 1:00 PM but instead arrived at 5:30 PM for a photo op event at Comic Con. Thank God for the change though; Chloe showing up at the earlier time probably would've prevented me from meeting Lindsey (can't call her Ms. McKeon now since she got married two years ago—to a dude named Brant Hively) first. A long line formed about an hour before Bennet's photo op was supposed to begin. Everything worked out!

Posing with Lindsey McKeon (who played Tessa on the CW Network TV show SUPERNATURAL) at Long Beach Comic Con...on September 12, 2015.

Unlike the Star Wars Celebration in April and Disney's D23 Expo last month (I was thinking about attending this one but changed my mind), there were no new news at Comic Con pertaining to Star Wars: The Force Awakens...which opens in theaters 95 days from now (94 if you live in the UK; bastards). The only sign at the Long Beach Convention Center that Episode VII will soon be upon us were the two First Order Stormtroopers (shown towards the bottom of this entry) milling about inside the main showroom, and a booth that sold some Force Awakens merchandise. It's all good. I'm just wondering when J.J. Abrams will reveal the next trailer for the 7th live-action Star Wars installment, and in front of which film? Yea, I'm too lazy to go to Google and see which movies (other than the next Paranormal Activity film, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and the very last Hunger Games flick) are coming out this October and November. Carry on.

Posing with Chloe Bennet (who plays Skye on Marvel's AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.) at Long Beach Comic Con...on September 12, 2015.

Cosplayers dressed as Pepper Potts from IRON MAN 3 and the Hulkbuster from AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON strike a pose at Long Beach Comic Con...on September 12, 2015.

A Jedi cosplayer welding Mace Windu's lightsaber wonders if he needs to neutralize those First Order Stormtroopers in order to get that girl's digits...at Long Beach Comic Con on September 12, 2015.

If it's anything like the spoilers I read for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, this dude will be taken by the Stormtroopers to Kylo Ren for interrogation...at Long Beach Comic Con on September 12, 2015.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering 9/11...

Today marks 14 years since that fateful day which would change the geopolitical landscape of the U.S. and the world forever. Just thought I'd commemorate this anniversary by sharing this terrific photo of the 1 World Trade Center...which now stands tall and proud in New York City and serves as a reminder that the greatest nation on this planet will not succumb to those cowardly enough to resort to terrorism to achieve their destructive aims on September 11, 2001.

The 1 WTC's antenna spire shines above New York City's streets, on April 28, 2014.
Image courtesy of One World Trade Center - Facebook

Thursday, September 10, 2015

58 Days After the Pluto Flyby: New Horizons Has Resumed Sending Photos Back to Earth!

A synthetic perspective of Pluto, created with images taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

New Pluto Images from NASA’s New Horizons: It’s Complicated (Press Release)

New close-up images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveal a bewildering variety of surface features that have scientists reeling because of their range and complexity.

“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. “If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.”

New Horizons began its yearlong download of new images and other data over the Labor Day weekend. Images downlinked in the past few days have more than doubled the amount of Pluto’s surface seen at resolutions as good as 400 meters (440 yards) per pixel. They reveal new features as diverse as possible dunes, nitrogen ice flows that apparently oozed out of mountainous regions onto plains, and even networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over Pluto’s surface. They also show large regions that display chaotically jumbled mountains reminiscent of disrupted terrains on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”

New images also show the most heavily cratered -- and thus oldest -- terrain yet seen by New Horizons on Pluto next to the youngest, most crater-free icy plains. There might even be a field of dark wind-blown dunes, among other possibilities.

“Seeing dunes on Pluto -- if that is what they are -- would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”

Discoveries being made from the new imagery are not limited to Pluto’s surface. Better images of Pluto’s moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra will be released Friday at the raw images site for New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), revealing that each moon is unique and that big moon Charon’s geological past was a tortured one.

Images returned in the past days have also revealed that Pluto’s global atmospheric haze has many more layers than scientists realized, and that the haze actually creates a twilight effect that softly illuminates nightside terrain near sunset, making them visible to the cameras aboard New Horizons.

“This bonus twilight view is a wonderful gift that Pluto has handed to us,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from SwRI. “Now we can study geology in terrain that we never expected to see.”

The New Horizons spacecraft is now more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) from Earth, and more than 43 million miles (69 million kilometers) beyond Pluto. The spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally.

New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.

Source: NASA.Gov

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An image of Pluto's moon Charon that was taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers)...on July 14, 2015.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Dawn Update: The Bright Spots of Ceres...

An images of Ceres' Occator crater and its mysterious bright spots...taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Dawn Takes a Closer Look at Occator (Press Release)

This image, made using images taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, shows Occator crater on Ceres, home to a collection of intriguing bright spots.

The bright spots are much brighter than the rest of Ceres' surface, and tend to appear overexposed in most images. This view is a composite of two images of Occator: one using a short exposure that captures the detail in the bright spots, and one where the background surface is captured at normal exposure.

The images were obtained by Dawn during the mission's High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase, from which the spacecraft imaged the surface at a resolution of about 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel.

Source: NASA.Gov

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Oh, China— Just Keep Droppin' the Ball...

An image of China's Yutu rover that was taken by the country's Chang'e 3 lander after the joint spacecraft touched down on the Moon's surface on December 14, 2013.

Ten years ago this month, I posted this lengthy Blog entry highlighting my disappointment when I found out that I missed the opportunity to have my name on a DVD that was placed aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. The disappointment was so great that not only did it bring back my obsession for space exploration in a big way (the last time I was a major space geek was back in 8th grade...21 years ago), but it motivated me to keep track of every future interplanetary missions that NASA and other government space agencies developed that would have the potential of allowing the public to place names on them. It was after losing my chance to fly past Pluto and into interstellar space aboard New Horizons that the Dawn asteroid mission started collecting monikers for its ion propulsion-powered orbiter (Dawn was briefly canceled by NASA due to technical reasons a few weeks later, in October of 2005—but was reinstated in March of 2006). In October of 2006, the Phoenix Mars mission started collecting names via the California-based space advocacy group, The Planetary Society, and a little over a month after that, Japan's space agency (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA) collected names to be place on its SELENE spacecraft (eventually renamed to Kaguya) that was destined for the Moon. These three robotic probes were launched in 2007 alone.

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

Jump to 2015, and NASA and JAXA have given me the opportunity to have a virtual presence on more than a dozen missions. Not just Dawn, Phoenix and Kaguya (and Deep Impact, which NASA collected names for back in 2003...that intentionally got obliterated by a comet's nucleus in 2005), but the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Kepler space telescope, JAXA's Akatsuki Venus orbiter, IKAROS solar sail and asteroid-bound Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, the Curiosity Mars rover, the MAVEN Mars orbiter, the last three space shuttle missions (STS-133, STS-134 and STS-135) in 2011 and even Orion's first space voyage on Exploration Flight Test-1 last year. And next year, cross my fingers, my name plus hundreds of thousands of others will hopefully be soaring towards Mars and asteroid Bennu with NASA's InSight lander and the OSIRIS-REx sample return mission, respectively. Not bad... Not bad at all.

An artist's concept showing the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Moon.
NASA

So what does this have to do with China, you ask? Well, not only is having my name aboard a spacecraft that will eventually leave our solar system on my wishlist (or to be blunt: bucket list), but I also think that it would be cool to have my name on the surface of the Moon (intact) as well. JAXA has been proposing a lunar lander (dubbed SELENE-2) that would be the follow-up to its successful Kaguya mission. However, this was back in 2008 (or 2009, I think) and SELENE-2 is nowhere near the assembly stage. It was originally scheduled to launch in 2013, then 2015, and then 2017, but now it's not slated to take flight till 2019 at the earliest. A U.S. lander that would touch down on the Moon's South Pole-Aitken basin was proposed through a competition by NASA's New Frontiers program, but it eventually lost out to the OSIRIS-REx mission that will head to asteroid Bennu in late 2016.

On June 15, 2010 (Japan Standard Time), a small 'separation camera' was jettisoned from IKAROS to photograph the solar sail in its entirety.
JAXA

So again—what does this have to do with China, you ask? Well— China's lunar rover, Yutu, launched and landed on the Moon in December of 2014...as part of the Chang'e 3 mission. Reading about Yutu online was exciting; it would've been more exciting, personally, if I knew that my name briefly strolled around the lunar surface aboard this rover. So now Chang'e 4 is in the planning stages, with another lander and rover slated to head back to the Moon by 2020. And after that, the Chang'e 5 mission...which would collect samples from the Moon's surface and return them to China next decade.

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

Admittedly, there's still enough time before Chang'e 4 launches that China could decide to follow in the footsteps of NASA, JAXA and the European Space Agency (which collected names for the Huygens lander that touched down on Saturn's moon Titan in 2005, courtesy of NASA's Cassini orbiter) and allow the public to take part in this mission by collecting names via the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, this is China... A Communist superpower that enjoys grabbing territory in the Pacific Ocean at the expense of its Asian neighbors (including the Philippines; I'm Filipino), improving its technological infrastructure by conducting industrial espionage on the United States, and of course, continuing to have an abysmal human-rights record. (And let's not ignore the recent news about Chinese naval ships milling about off the coast of Alaska.) I'm gonna come out and admit that my opinion for China, despite these negative qualities, would improve if Beijing at least allowed folks (not just its Chinese populace) to submit their monikers to fly on its next mission to the Moon's surface. China is, after all, a fledgling space-faring nation...and has the political will to conduct missions that NASA wants to do but otherwise can't due to those stupid things called budget cuts, continuing resolutions and sequestration.

The USS Anchorage approaches the Orion EFT-1 spacecraft in preparation for the capsule being towed back to the ship for securing aboard the vessel, on December 5, 2014.
NASA

So the gist of this entry: If I can't have my name on a New Horizons-type spacecraft that will venture towards interstellar space anytime soon, then I can at least have my name resting on the lunar surface the same way the first Yutu rover and Apollo hardware from 40-plus years ago still sit peacefully on the Moon's landscape. If JAXA follows through with SELENE 2 and launches it in 2019 (but not before collecting names for it a la Kaguya, Akatsuki, IKAROS and Hayabusa 2), then all is good with Chang'e 4. If not, then I hope China will one day open a webpage that allows Chinese and non-Chinese folks alike to submit their names to be placed aboard Yutu's successor. The same way that NASA is currently collecting names to be placed aboard NASA's InSight lander. The deadline is this Tuesday, September 8, by the way.

That is all. Again, Happy Labor Day weekend to my fellow Yanks!

An image of China's Chang'e 3 lander that was taken by the country's Yutu rover after the joint spacecraft touched down on the Moon's surface on December 14, 2013.

Friday, September 04, 2015

May The Force (Friday) Be With You!

THE FORCE AWAKENS figurine playset that I bought from the Disney Store at my local mall on 'Force Friday,' September 4, 2015.

So earlier today, I spent more than two hours driving around to different Toys"R"Us, Walmart and Target stores looking for Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma action figures to buy as a way of participating in the much-hyped "Force Friday." I worked a night shift yesterday, and by the time I drove to the Toys"R"Us store that was right next to the freeway I used to head home early this morning, it had already closed following midnight festivities that only lasted an hour (stores selling The Force Awakens stuff opened at 12:01 AM; I didn't arrive at the Toys"R"Us till a couple of minutes after 1 AM). So right when I was about to head home empty-handed this afternoon since most of the new Star Wars merchandise at the three stores mentioned above were gone (yes— I went home, got some sleep and ate breakfast before I headed back out), I decided to visit the Disney Store at my local mall to see if they had the figures I was searching for. As the photo above shows, it did! Presumably, since the Disney Store didn't open at midnight (I didn't stumble upon anything online showing that Disney's own retail outlet would take part in the 12:01 AM activities), I assumed that it would have Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma figures in stock. And yep, I was right. The fact that this um, playset also comes with First Order Flametrooper, Finn, Rey and BB-8 figurines is an added bonus! Thanks Disney! Here's hoping Star Wars: Episode VII itself will deliver the goods like you did.

Lastly— If you wanna know just how big of a geek I am, open my closet door at home. Or just check out the pic below. Yes, that's a Pacific Rim Jaeger to screen right of my General Grievious figure from Revenge of the Sith. Have a nice weekend. Oh, and Happy Labor Day to my fellow Yanks!

My STAR WARS action figures and other collectibles inside my closet at home.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

F-35 Update: Welcome to Your New Home, Lightning IIs!

Military personnel gather for a press conference as the first two of 72 F-35A jet fighters are delivered to Hill Air Force Base in Utah...on September 2, 2015.
USAF / Lockheed Martin

Hill AFB Receives First Two F-35A Lightning IIs (Press Release)

The first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing were officially delivered to the base today. The two F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variants, known as AF-77 and AF-78, are the first of 72 F-35As scheduled for delivery to the base.

“The F-35A Lightning II represents the future of tactical aviation for the United States and our allies,” said Col. David Lyons, 388th FW Commander. “Alongside our 419th Fighter Wing counterparts, we’re excited to usher in a new era of combat capability for the Air Force.”

Today’s delivery marks the stand-up of the 10th F-35 base and Hill is the fifth Air Force base to receive the Lightning II. During the next several months, Hill will receive additional F-35As, pilots and maintenance personnel in order to meet requirements for the declaration of IOC in 2016.

“The F-35A Lightning II provides the USAF and international partners a decisive edge over its adversaries,” said Lorraine Martin, Lockheed Martin F-35 Program General Manager. "The exceptional capabilities of this 5th generation stealth fighter are now in the hands of the Hill team and we couldn’t be prouder of our warfighters at the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings.”

The F-35A Lightning II is a 5th generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. Three distinct variants of the F-35 will replace the A-10 and F-16 for the U.S. Air Force, the F/A-18 for the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps, and a variety of fighters for at least nine other countries.

Source: F35.com

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