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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Final Post of 2015: An Amazing Photo Taken by LRO...

An image of Earth and the Moon taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft...on October 12, 2015.
NASA / Goddard / Arizona State University

NASA Releases New High-Resolution Earthrise Image (Press Release - December 18)

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) recently captured a unique view of Earth from the spacecraft's vantage point in orbit around the moon.

"The image is simply stunning," said Noah Petro, Deputy Project Scientist for LRO at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "The image of the Earth evokes the famous 'Blue Marble' image taken by Astronaut Harrison Schmitt during Apollo 17, 43 years ago, which also showed Africa prominently in the picture."

In this composite image we see Earth appear to rise over the lunar horizon from the viewpoint of the spacecraft, with the center of the Earth just off the coast of Liberia (at 4.04 degrees North, 12.44 degrees West). The large tan area in the upper right is the Sahara Desert, and just beyond is Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America are visible to the left. On the moon, we get a glimpse of the crater Compton, which is located just beyond the eastern limb of the moon, on the lunar farside.

LRO was launched on June 18, 2009, and has collected a treasure trove of data with its seven powerful instruments, making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the moon. LRO experiences 12 earthrises every day; however the spacecraft is almost always busy imaging the lunar surface so only rarely does an opportunity arise such that its camera instrument can capture a view of Earth. Occasionally LRO points off into space to acquire observations of the extremely thin lunar atmosphere and perform instrument calibration measurements. During these movements sometimes Earth (and other planets) pass through the camera's field of view and dramatic images such as the one shown here are acquired.

This image was composed from a series of images taken Oct. 12, when LRO was about 83 miles (134 kilometers) above the moon's farside crater Compton. Capturing an image of the Earth and moon with LRO's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) instrument is a complicated task. First the spacecraft must be rolled to the side (in this case 67 degrees), then the spacecraft slews with the direction of travel to maximize the width of the lunar horizon in LROC's Narrow Angle Camera image. All this takes place while LRO is traveling faster than 3,580 miles per hour (over 1,600 meters per second) relative to the lunar surface below the spacecraft!

The high-resolution Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) on LRO takes black-and-white images, while the lower resolution Wide Angle Camera (WAC) takes color images, so you might wonder how we got a high-resolution picture of the Earth in color. Since the spacecraft, Earth, and moon are all in motion, we had to do some special processing to create an image that represents the view of the Earth and moon at one particular time. The final Earth image contains both WAC and NAC information. WAC provides the color, and the NAC provides high-resolution detail.

"From the Earth, the daily moonrise and moonset are always inspiring moments," said Mark Robinson of Arizona State University in Tempe, principal investigator for LROC. "However, lunar astronauts will see something very different: viewed from the lunar surface, the Earth never rises or sets. Since the moon is tidally locked, Earth is always in the same spot above the horizon, varying only a small amount with the slight wobble of the moon. The Earth may not move across the 'sky', but the view is not static. Future astronauts will see the continents rotate in and out of view and the ever-changing pattern of clouds will always catch one's eye, at least on the nearside. The Earth is never visible from the farside; imagine a sky with no Earth or moon - what will farside explorers think with no Earth overhead?"

NASA's first Earthrise image was taken with the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft in 1966. Perhaps NASA's most iconic Earthrise photo was taken by the crew of the Apollo 8 mission as the spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts -- Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders -- held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Said Lovell, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."

Source: NASA.Gov

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The U.S. Post Office Is Finally Giving Pluto Some Love!

New U.S. Postal Service stamps commemorating NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and its flyby of Pluto last July.
USPS / Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS

Postal Service Honors NASA Planetary Discoveries with 2016 Stamps (Press Release)

The U.S. Postal Service has previewed the New Year’s series of stamps highlighting NASA’s Planetary Science program, including a do-over of a famous Pluto stamp commemorating the NASA New Horizons’ historic 2015 flyby.

The Postal Service on Wednesday released a preview of its new 2016 stamps, which include an image of Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft, eight new colorful Forever stamps of NASA images of solar system planets, a Global Forever stamp dedicated to Earth’s moon as well as another postal treat for space fans: a tribute to 50 years of Star Trek.

“U.S. Postal stamps express the enthusiasm and personality of senders to favorite themes in our society. From Mercury to Neptune, Pluto and Star Trek, it’s exciting to see that planetary science and space exploration are being celebrated in these new 2016 stamps,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington. “On behalf of NASA scientists across the nation, we’re honored that the U.S. Postal Service has chosen to highlight NASA’s New Horizons and 50 years of planetary exploration with these iconic images.”

The Pluto stamps are of special significance to NASA and the New Horizons team, which placed a 29-cent 1991 “Pluto: Not Yet Explored” stamp on board the spacecraft. On July 14, New Horizons carried the tiny postage stamp on its history-making journey to Pluto and beyond, as members of the mission team celebrated with a large print, striking the words “not yet.”

“The New Horizons project is proud to have such an important honor from the U.S. Postal Service,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Since the early 1990s the old, ‘Pluto Not Explored’ stamp served as a rallying cry for many who wanted to mount this historic mission of space exploration. Now that NASA’s New Horizons has accomplished that goal, it’s a wonderful feeling to see these new stamps join others commemorating first explorations of the planets.”

The souvenir sheet of four stamps contains two new stamps appearing twice. The first stamp shows an artist’s rendering of NASA’s New Horizons Pluto flyby spacecraft and the second shows the spacecraft’s enhanced color image of Pluto taken by New Horizons near its closest approach to Pluto.

The view — which is color enhanced to highlight surface texture and composition — is a composite of images from New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), combined with color data from the imaging instrument Ralph that clearly reveals the now-famous heart-shaped feature stretched across Pluto’s surface; this feature has been named Tombaugh Regio in honor of Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. Antonio Alcalá of Alexandria, Virginia was the art director for these stamp designs.

“Our stamps articulate the American experience through miniature works of art,” said Acting Stamp Services Director Mary-Anne Penner. “Our diverse stamp topics for 2016 are sure to appeal to everyone, and with the New Year just around the corner, now is a perfect time to get started in stamp collecting. It’s an educational hobby the entire family can enjoy.”

The “Pluto Explored!” stamps will be dedicated in late May of 2016 at the World Stamp Show in New York.

Other space-themed stamps highlighting NASA images of the solar system planets, Earth’s moon, and popular culture in the 2016 collection include:

Source: NASA.Gov

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New U.S. Postal Service stamps featuring the eight official planets of our solar system.
USPS / Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS

New U.S. Postal Service stamps featuring our Moon.
USPS / Greg Breeding under the art direction of William Gicker © 2016 USPS

New U.S. Postal Service stamps celebrating the 50th anniversary of STAR TREK next year.
USPS / Heads of State under the art direction of Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS

Monday, December 28, 2015

Hubble's Successor Continues to Make Awesome Progress...

Engineers install the ninth of 18 mirror segments onto the James Webb Space Telescope's backplane at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Chris Gunn

James Webb Space Telescope Mirror Halfway Complete (Press Release)

Inside NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's massive clean room in Greenbelt, Maryland, the ninth flight mirror was installed onto the telescope structure with a robotic arm. This marks the halfway completion point for the James Webb Space Telescope's segmented primary mirror.

The James Webb Space Telescope team has been working tirelessly to install all 18 of Webb's mirror segments onto the telescope structure.

"The years of planning and practicing is really paying dividends and the progress is really rewarding for everyone to see," said NASA's Optical Telescope Element Manager Lee Feinberg.

In these NASA images, the engineering team is seen using a robotic arm to lift and lower the hexagonal-shaped segment that measures just over 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) across and weighs approximately 88 pounds (40 kilograms). After being pieced together, the 18 primary mirror segments will work together as one large 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) mirror. The full installation is expected to be complete early in 2016.

The mirrors were built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., in Boulder, Colorado. Ball is the principal subcontractor to Northrop Grumman for the optical technology and lightweight mirror system. The installation of the mirrors onto the telescope structure is performed by Harris Corporation of Rochester, New York. Harris Corporation leads integration and testing for the telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the scientific successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever built. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Engineers install the ninth of 18 mirror segments onto the James Webb Space Telescope's backplane at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Chris Gunn

Friday, December 25, 2015

Photos of the Day: Captain Phasma and a Stormtrooper on Display in Hollywood...

Posing with the Captain Phasma suit worn by Gwendoline Christie in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE! Just thought I'd share these photos that I took of the Captain Phasma and First Order Stormtrooper outfits from Star Wars: The Force Awakens that have been on display at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood for over a week now. The suit of the "Chrometrooper" (that was the nickname for Gwendoline Christie's character before the name Captain Phasma was officially confirmed by Lucasfilm, via Vanity Fair magazine, back in May) was the only major First Order attire that I haven't yet seen in person up to this point. (The TIE Fighter pilot suit and even the General Hux uniform worn by Domhnall Gleeson have never been displayed in public, as far as I recall.) Hopefully (SPOILER ALERT), we'll see more of Phasma in May of 2017. This is assuming, of course, that Star Wars: Episode VIII writer/director Rian Johnson explains how she escaped from a trash compactor on Starkiller Base towards the end of The Force Awakens... That is all.

Captain Phasma's armor and a First Order Stormtrooper suit from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...on display at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

Captain Phasma's armor from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...on display at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

The First Order Stormtrooper suit from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...on display at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

Captain Phasma's armor from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...on display at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

Captain Phasma's armor and the First Order Stormtrooper suit from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...on display at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Terrific News for Deep Space Exploration!

By producing 50 grams of plutonium-238, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has demonstrated America's ability to provide a valuable energy source for deep space robotic and manned missions.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

ORNL Achieves Milestone with Plutonium-238 Sample (Press Release - December 22)

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – With the production of 50 grams of plutonium-238, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have restored a U.S. capability dormant for nearly 30 years and set the course to provide power for NASA and other missions.

Plutonium-238 produces heat as it decays and can be used in systems that power spacecraft instruments. The new sample, which is in the same oxide powder form used to manufacture heat sources for power systems, represents the first end-to-end demonstration of a plutonium-238 production capability in the United States since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina ceased production of the material in the late 1980s.

Researchers will analyze the sample for chemical purity and plutonium-238 content, then verify production efficiency models and determine whether adjustments need to be made before scaling up the process.

“Once we automate and scale up the process, the nation will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems such as those used by NASA for deep space exploration,” said Bob Wham, who leads the project for the lab’s Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division.

The success of Wham and a team of engineers and technicians at ORNL comes two years after NASA began funding the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy through a roughly $15 million per year effort to revive the department’s capability to make plutonium-238.

Production begins at Idaho National Laboratory, which stores the existing inventory of neptunium-237 feedstock and ships it as needed to ORNL. Engineers mix the neptunium oxide with aluminum and press the mixture into high-density pellets. They use the High Flux Isotope Reactor, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at ORNL, to irradiate the pellets, creating neptunium-238, which quickly decays and becomes plutonium-238.

The irradiated pellets are then dissolved and ORNL staff use a chemical process to separate the plutonium from remaining neptunium. The plutonium product is converted to an oxide and shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the material will be stored until needed for a mission. Remaining neptunium is recycled into new targets to produce more plutonium-238.

There are currently only 35 kilograms, or about 77 pounds, of plutonium-238 set aside for NASA missions, and only about half of this supply meets power specifications. This is only sufficient to power two to three proposed NASA missions through the middle of the 2020s. Fortunately, the additional material that will be produced at ORNL can be blended with the existing portion that doesn’t meet specifications to extend the usable inventory.

With continued NASA funding, DOE’s Oak Ridge and Idaho national laboratories can ensure that NASA’s needs are met, initially by producing 300 to 400 grams of the material per year and then, through automation and scale-up processes, by producing an average of 1.5 kilograms per year.

“With this initial production of plutonium-238 oxide, we have demonstrated that our process works and we are ready to move on to the next phase of the mission,” Wham said.

The next NASA mission planning to use a radioisotope thermoelectric generator is the Mars 2020 rover, due to be launched in July 2020. The mission seeks signs of life on Mars and will test technology for human exploration and gather samples of rocks and soil that could be returned to Earth.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the DOE's Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Source: ORNL.Gov

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An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which is powered by plutonium-238, traveling past the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
NASA / JHU APL / SwRI / Steve Gribben

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

InSight Won't Launch This Year... That's A Bummer

Engineers work on NASA's InSight Mars lander at the Lockheed Martin facility in Denver, Colorado...on April 30, 2015.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / Lockheed Martin

NASA Suspends 2016 Launch of InSight Mission to Mars (Press Release)

After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload.

“Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we’re not ready to launch in the 2016 window. A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars.”

The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France’s Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES). Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom, the instrument requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.

“InSight's investigation of the Red Planet's interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. “Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets' early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks. Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this."

A leak earlier this year that previously had prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions was repaired, and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix also would be successful. However, during testing on Monday in extreme cold temperature (-49 degrees Fahrenheit/-45 degrees Celsius) the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum.

NASA officials determined there is insufficient time to resolve another leak, and complete the work and thorough testing required to ensure a successful mission.

“It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built. We were very close to succeeding, but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation. Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won’t be solved in time for a launch in 2016,” said Marc Pircher, Director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre.

The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on Dec. 16. With the 2016 launch canceled, the spacecraft will be returned from Vandenberg to Lockheed’s facility in Denver.

The relative positions of the planets are most favorable for launching missions from Earth to Mars for only a few weeks every 26 months. For InSight, that 2016 launch window existed from March 4 to March 30.

“In 2008, we made a difficult, but correct decision to postpone the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission for two years to better ensure mission success,” said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, in Washington. “The successes of that mission's rover, Curiosity, have vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay."

NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet, and that work remains on track despite Tuesday’s decision. Robotic spacecraft are leading the way for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover being designed and built, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers exploring the Martian surface, the Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft currently orbiting the planet, along with the MAVEN orbiter, which recently helped scientists understand what happened to the Martian atmosphere.

NASA and CNES also are participating in the European Space Agency's (ESA’s) Mars Express mission currently operating at Mars and plans to participate on ESA’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing telecommunication radios for ESA's 2016 orbiter and a critical element of a key astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

“The JPL and CNES teams and their partners have made a heroic effort to prepare the InSight instrument, but have run out of time given the celestial mechanics of a launch to Mars,” said JPL Director Charles Elachi. “It is more important to do it right than take an unacceptable risk.”

InSight’s science payload includes two key instruments: SEIS, provided by CNES, and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

SEIS was built with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), with support from the Swiss Space Office and the European Space Agency PRODEX program; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), supported by DLR; Imperial College, supported by the United Kingdom Space Agency; and JPL.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, December 17, 2015

InSight Update: One Step Closer to the Red Planet...

A shipping container holding NASA's InSight Mars lander is about to be loaded onto a C-17 aircraft for transport to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where the spacecraft will launch from in March of 2016.
NASA

Mars Spacecraft Shipped to California for March Launch (Press Release)

NASA's next Mars spacecraft has arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for final preparations before a launch scheduled in March 2016 and a landing on Mars six months later.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built and tested the spacecraft and delivered it on Dec. 16 from Buckley Air Force Base in Denver to Vandenberg, on the central California Coast.

Preparations are on a tight schedule for launch during the period March 4 through March 30. The work ahead includes installation and testing of one of the mission's key science instruments, its seismometer, which is scheduled for delivery to Vandenberg in January.

"InSight has traveled the first leg of its journey, getting from Colorado to California, and we're on track to start the next leg, to Mars, with a launch in March," said InSight Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The seismometer, provided by France's national space agency (CNES), includes a vacuum container around its three main sensors. Maintaining the vacuum is necessary for the instrument's extremely high sensitivity; the seismometer is capable of measuring ground motions as small as the width of an atom. A vacuum leak detected during testing of the seismometer was repaired last week in France and is undergoing further testing.

InSight's heat-probe instrument from Germany's space agency (DLR), the lander's robotic arm and the rest of the payload are already installed on the spacecraft.

InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport, is the first Mars mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of the Red Planet. This Mars lander's findings will advance understanding about the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth.

One of the newest additions installed on the InSight lander is a microchip bearing the names of about 827,000 people worldwide who participated in an online "send your name to Mars" activity in August and September 2015.

InSight will be the first mission to Mars ever launched from California. The mission is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A microchip bearing the names of 826,923 names is installed onto the flight deck of the InSight Mars lander at the Lockheed Martin facility near Denver, Colorado...in November of 2015.
NASA

Monday, December 14, 2015

Hayabusa 2 Update: On-Track for Ryugu...

An image of Earth that the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft took on December 4, 2015 (Japan Standard Time) as it flew away from our home planet following a gravity assist maneuver the day before.
JAXA

Hayabusa 2 Earth Swing-by Result (Press Release)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed that the Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa 2 is cruising on its target orbit after measuring and calculating the post-Earth-swing-by orbit.

The Hayabusa 2 performed the Earth swing-by on the night of December 3 (Thursday), 2015 (Japan Standard Time). The Hayabusa 2 flew closest to the Earth at 7:08 p.m. (JST) and passed over the Pacific Ocean near the Hawaiian islands at an altitude of about 3,090 km (1,920 miles). With the swing-by, the explorer’s orbit turned by about 80 degrees and its speed increased by about 1.6 km per second (1 mile per second) to about 31.9 km per second (20 miles per second against the Sun) thus the orbit achieved the target numbers.

According to the operation supported by the NASA Deep Space Network stations and European Space Agency deep space ground station, the Hayabusa 2 is in good health.

Message from Project Manager Yuichi Tsuda

I would like to express my deep gratitude to all pertinent parties and people and those who are supporting our operation. All the Hayabusa 2 project team members have been working together and will continue our challenging voyage. The Hayabusa 2 gained orbit energy through the swing-by to leave the Earth. The target is the asteroid “Ryugu”. “See you later, people on Earth!”

At 12:00 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2015, the Hayabusa 2 is flying at: about 4.15 million km (2.6 million miles) from the Earth, and about 144.85 million km (90 million miles) from the Sun.

Its cruising speed is 32.31 km per second (20 miles per second against the Sun).

The Hayabusa 2 is increasing its speed under the influence of the Sun’s gravity after the swing-by.

After the swing-by, the Hayabusa 2 took images of the Earth using its onboard Optical Navigation Camera - Telescopic (ONC-T). The ONC-T can shoot color images using seven filters.

The image above is composed by using three of these filters. You can see the Australian continent and Antarctica in the image. The South Pole is not lit by the sun during the summer, and meteorological satellites also do not cover the Antarctic area to take its images, hence the shot this time is precious.

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dawn Update: Ceres' Mysteries Begin to Unravel...

A false-color image taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft of the Occator crater on dwarf planet Ceres.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

New Clues to Ceres' Bright Spots and Origins (Press Release - December 9)

Ceres reveals some of its well-kept secrets in two new studies in the journal Nature, thanks to data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. They include highly anticipated insights about mysterious bright features found all over the dwarf planet's surface.

In one study, scientists identify this bright material as a kind of salt. The second study suggests the detection of ammonia-rich clays, raising questions about how Ceres formed.

About the Bright Spots

Ceres has more than 130 bright areas, and most of them are associated with impact craters. Study authors, led by Andreas Nathues at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, write that the bright material is consistent with a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite. A different type of magnesium sulfate is familiar on Earth as Epsom salt.

Nathues and colleagues, using images from Dawn's framing camera, suggest that these salt-rich areas were left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids would have unearthed the mixture of ice and salt, they say.

"The global nature of Ceres' bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice," Nathues said.

A New Look at Occator

The surface of Ceres, whose average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers), is generally dark -- similar in brightness to fresh asphalt -- study authors wrote. The bright patches that pepper the surface represent a large range of brightness, with the brightest areas reflecting about 50 percent of sunlight shining on the area. But there has not been unambiguous detection of water ice on Ceres; higher-resolution data are needed to settle this question.

The inner portion of a crater called Occator contains the brightest material on Ceres. Occator itself is 60 miles (90 kilometers) in diameter, and its central pit, covered by this bright material, measures about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide and 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) deep. Dark streaks, possibly fractures, traverse the pit. Remnants of a central peak, which was up to 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) high, can also be seen.

With its sharp rim and walls, and abundant terraces and landslide deposits, Occator appears to be among the youngest features on Ceres. Dawn mission scientists estimate its age to be about 78 million years old.

Study authors write that some views of Occator appear to show a diffuse haze near the surface that fills the floor of the crater. This may be associated with observations of water vapor at Ceres by the Herschel space observatory that were reported in 2014. The haze seems to be present in views during noon, local time, and absent at dawn and dusk, study authors write. This suggests that the phenomenon resembles the activity at the surface of a comet, with water vapor lifting tiny particles of dust and residual ice. Future data and analysis may test this hypothesis and reveal clues about the process causing this activity.

"The Dawn science team is still discussing these results and analyzing data to better understand what is happening at Occator," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Importance of Ammonia

In the second Nature study, members of the Dawn science team examined the composition of Ceres and found evidence for ammonia-rich clays. They used data from the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, a device that looks at how various wavelengths of light are reflected by the surface, allowing minerals to be identified.

Ammonia ice by itself would evaporate on Ceres today, because the dwarf planet is too warm. However, ammonia molecules could be stable if present in combination with (i.e. chemically bonded to) other minerals.

The presence of ammoniated compounds raises the possibility that Ceres did not originate in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where it currently resides, but instead might have formed in the outer solar system. Another idea is that Ceres formed close to its present position, incorporating materials that drifted in from the outer solar system – near the orbit of Neptune, where nitrogen ices are thermally stable.

"The presence of ammonia-bearing species suggests that Ceres is composed of material accreted in an environment where ammonia and nitrogen were abundant. Consequently, we think that this material originated in the outer cold solar system,” said Maria Cristina De Sanctis, lead author of the study, based at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Rome.

In comparing the spectrum of reflected light from Ceres to meteorites, scientists found some similarities. Specifically, they focused on the spectra, or chemical fingerprints, of carbonaceous chondrites, a type of carbon-rich meteorite thought to be relevant analogues for the dwarf planet. But these are not good matches for all wavelengths that the instrument sampled, the team found. In particular, there were distinctive absorption bands, matching mixtures containing ammoniated minerals, associated with wavelengths that can't be observed from Earth-based telescopes.

The scientists note another difference is that these carbonaceous chondrites have bulk water contents of 15 to 20 percent, while Ceres' content is as much as 30 percent.

"Ceres may have retained more volatiles than these meteorites, or it could have accreted the water from volatile-rich material," De Sanctis said.

The study also shows that daytime surface temperatures on Ceres span from minus 136 degrees to minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit (180 to 240 Kelvin). The maximum temperatures were measured in the equatorial region. The temperatures at and near the equator are generally too high to support ice at the surface for a long time, study authors say, but data from Dawn's next orbit will reveal more details.

As of this week, Dawn has reached its final orbital altitude at Ceres, about 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface of the dwarf planet. In mid-December, Dawn will begin taking observations from this orbit, including images at a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel, infrared, gamma ray and neutron spectra, and high-resolution gravity data.

Dawn's mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA. 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, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

It's Official: Akatsuki Is Safely Orbiting Venus!

An image of Venus that was taken by Akatsuki using the spacecraft's ultraviolet camera on December 6, 2015 (Pacific Time)...from a distance of 73,000 km (45,000 miles).
JAXA

Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki Inserted Into Venus' Orbit‏ (Press Release)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully inserted the Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki into the orbit circling around Venus.

As a result of measuring and calculating the Akatsuki’s orbit after its thrust ejection, the orbiter is now flying on the elliptical orbit at the apoapsis altitude of about 400 km (249 miles) and periapsis altitude of about 440,000 km (273,462 miles) from Venus. The orbit period is 13 days and 14 hours. We also found that the orbiter is flying in the same direction as that of Venus’s rotation.

The Akatsuki is in good health.

We will deploy the three scientific mission instruments namely the 2μm camera (IR2), the Lightning and Airglow Camera (LAC) and the Ultra-Stable oscillator (USO) and check their functions. JAXA will then perform initial observations with the above three instruments along with the three other instruments whose function has already been confirmed, the Ultraviolet Imager (UVI), the Longwave IR camera (LIR), and the 1μm camera (IR1) for about three months. At the same time, JAXA will also gradually adjust the orbit for shifting its elliptical orbit to the period of about nine days. The regular operation is scheduled to start in April, 2016.

Orbit calculation result (as of Dec. 9):

Periapsis altitude: About 400 km (249 miles)

Apoasis altitude: About 440,000 km (273,462 miles)

Inclination: About 3 degrees against Venus’ revolution plane

Period: About 13 days and 14 hours

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

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An image of Venus that was taken by Akatsuki using the spacecraft's one-micron infrared camera on December 6, 2015 (Pacific Time)...from a distance of 68,000 kilometers (42,000 miles).
JAXA

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Photos of the Day: Autograph Signings at The Grove in LA...

A photo I took with Leah Remini inside the Barnes & Noble bookstore at The Grove in Los Angeles...on December 8, 2015.

Today and yesterday, I drove down to The Grove near Beverly Hills to attend autograph signings (held in the Barnes & Noble bookstore there) by singer/actress Katharine McPhee and actress Leah Remini. McPhee (who was the Season 5 finalist of American Idol in 2006 and now appears in the CBS TV series Scorpion) promoted her new CD album Hysteria last night, while Remini (who was in the long-running CBS sitcom King of Queens and such films as the 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Old School) did signings for her new book Troublemaker a few hours ago. Personally speaking, my favorite pic from the last two days is the one that I took with Remini...even though I only said 'hi' to her when I finally walked up to her table. McPhee struck a brief conversation with me (she asked me where I was from; we're both born and raised in Los Angeles), but the fact that she's three inches taller than me (plus she had high heels on) kinda made me wish that she was sitting down when the photo below was taken. Oh well. All that matters is that I had the opportunity to meet these two awesome ladies in person and that I wish them the best of luck in future endeavors. Carry on!

A photo I took with Katharine McPhee inside the Barnes & Noble bookstore at The Grove in Los Angeles...on December 7, 2015.

My autographed CD cover by Katharine McPhee...on December 7, 2015.

My autographed book by Leah Remini...on December 8, 2015.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

(It Took 5 Extra Years, But...) Welcome To Venus, Akatsuki!

An artist's concept of the Akatsuki spacecraft firing its thrusters as it enters orbit around Venus.
Go Miyazaki

Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki: Result of Attitude Control Engine Thrust Operation for Venus Orbit Insertion (Press Release)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) performed the attitude control engine thrust operation of the Venus Climate Orbiter Akatsuki for its Venus orbit insertion from 8:51 a.m. on December 7 (Japan Standard Time).

As a result of analyzing data transmitted from the orbiter, we confirmed that the thrust emission of the attitude control engine was conducted for about 20 minutes as scheduled.

The orbiter is now in good health. We are currently measuring and calculating its orbit after the operation. It will take a few days to estimate the orbit, thus we will announce the operation result once it is determined.

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

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A screenshot from a simulation depicting the Akatsuki spacecraft entering orbit around Venus.
Real-time simulation courtesy of Lizard-Tail.com

Friday, December 04, 2015

New Horizons Update: An Awesome New Hi-Res Pic of Pluto...

A high-resolution image of the al-Idrisi mountains at Pluto's Sputnik Planum region...taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

The Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum (Press Release)

In this highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Several sheer faces appear to show crustal layering, perhaps related to the layers seen in some of Pluto’s crater walls. Other materials appear crushed between the mountains, as if these great blocks of water ice, some standing as much as 1.5 miles high, were jostled back and forth. The mountains end abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named Sputnik Planum, where the soft, nitrogen-rich ices of the plain form a nearly level surface, broken only by the fine trace work of striking, cellular boundaries and the textured surface of the plain’s ices (which is possibly related to sunlight-driven ice sublimation). This view is about 50 miles wide. The top of the image is to Pluto’s northwest.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Thursday, December 03, 2015

Hayabusa 2 Flies Past Earth on Its Way to Asteroid Ryugu...

An image of Earth and the Moon that the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft took as it approached our home planet for a gravity assist maneuver on November 26, 2015.
JAXA

Hayabusa 2 Earth Swing-by (Press Release)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) performed an Earth swing-by operation of the Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa 2 on the night of December 3 (Thursday), 2015 (Japan Standard Time). The Hayabusa 2 flew closest to the Earth at 7:08 p.m. (JST) and passed over the Pacific Ocean around the Hawaiian islands at an altitude of about 3,090 kilometers (1,920 miles).

After its closest flight to the Earth, we have confirmed the good health of the Hayabusa 2 through operations supported by the NASA Deep Space Network stations.

The Hayabusa 2 project team is currently measuring and calculating the post-swing-by orbit. It will take about a week to confirm if the explorer entered the target orbit. We will report the result once it is determined.

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Photos of the Day: Atari or Sega Genesis for the Price of $50...

Classic Atari and Sega Genesis game consoles on sale at my local Walgreens store...on November 15, 2015.

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to my local Walgreens store when I saw that it was selling vintage Atari and Sega Genesis game consoles...each for the really low price of $50! As if that wasn't cool enough, the Sega Genesis came with the game Sonic the Hedgehog, which I totally wanted to play when I was in 6th grade (that would be in 1991-'92). As it stands, I instead played Super Mario World, F-Zero, Star Fox and other awesome titles when my family had a Super Nintendo Entertainment System while I was in grade school. Yea— Back in the day... Would I play those games if I still had them today, you ask? Definitely! As it stands, I'll just live out my youth by playing the Star Wars: X-Wing game (which I originally played during my sophomore year in high school between 1995-'96) that I bought for my PC about a year ago. That is all.

A classic Sega Genesis console (which comes with the game SONIC THE HEDGEHOG) on sale at my local Walgreens store...on November 15, 2015.