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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sonic Booms and Unmanned Drones: What an Awesome Day at Edwards AFB!

Posing with an F/A-18 Hornet and F-15 Eagle at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards Air Force Base, CA...on May 31, 2016.

Earlier today, I attended a NASA Social event at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) in Edwards Air Force Base, California. I haven't been to a NASA-hosted social media gathering since December of 2014...when I drove down to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Pasadena to celebrate the maiden launch of Orion on Exploration Flight Test 1. This is my third Social since the NASA Tweetup I went to in June of 2011...which also took place at JPL and celebrated the then-impending launch of the Curiosity Mars rover.

Arrived at Edwards Air Force Base early in the morning to attend the NASA Social at Armstrong Flight Research Center...on May 31, 2016.

Today's event was devoted to learning about how the noise level of sonic booms can be reduced to avoid causing disruption in populated areas...and applying this knowledge to an experimental aircraft that NASA is planning to build, known as the Low Boom Flight Demonstration Quiet Supersonic Transport—or QueSST. During the Social, we stood outside at one point and watched as an F/A-18 Hornet performed several so-called “low-boom dive maneuvers” to demonstrate different sonic boom intensities. The F/A-18 then did a low flyover near our area so we could get some cool snapshots and video footage of the jet before it landed.

Posing for a group photo with some of my fellow NASA Social attendees outside the Edwards Air Force Base perimeter...on May 31, 2016.

Afterwards, we walked over to various hangars that housed other aircraft being used by AFRC, such as two F-15 Eagles, a Gulfstream III aircraft, as well as the Ikhana Predator B (which I also learned about during the NASA Social in December of 2014) and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones. The twin Solid Rocket Boosters that will be transported to the California Science Center to be mated with shuttle fuel tank ET-94 and orbiter Endeavour in 2018 were at a hangar nearby, but visiting these wasn't on today's itinerary so we were unable to check them out. Oh well.

An Ikhana Predator B drone and Gulfstream III aircraft rest inside a hangar at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards Air Force Base...on May 31, 2016.

I'm currently on the waiting list to attend another NASA Social at JPL during the Independence Day weekend (on July 3-4, specifically). Hopefully, I'll be able to get selected for the event if one of the confirmed attendees drops out. This Social is commemorating the arrival of NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter on July 4...and I want to be at JPL's Space Flight Operations Facility (a.k.a. mission control) to witness this event unfold in person! Carry on.

LINK: Photos I took at the May 2016 NASA Social

Posing with an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone inside a hangar at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards Air Force Base...on May 31, 2016.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Back in the Day: Soaring 13,000 Feet Above Perris...

Soaring 13,000 feet above Perris Valley, California...on May 28, 2006.

Today marks 10 years since I went skydiving at Perris Valley in Riverside County, California. Good times! Last year marked 10 years since I went skydiving in San Diego, while 2023 will mark a decade since I did the HALO jump...and 2024 marks the 10-year anniversary since my birthday skydive above Lake Elsinore. I have no idea why I'm looking that deep into the future—it's freakin' me out. Anyways, have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Leaping out of an aircraft 13,000 feet above Perris Valley, California...on May 28, 2006.

Touching down at the drop zone after doing a tandem skydive above Perris Valley, California...on May 28, 2006.

Rock on, dude!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Photo of the Day: An Airbus Above Inglewood...

An Airbus A380 belonging to Korean Air flies over the city of Inglewood in California...on May 21, 2016.

Last Saturday, I was in Inglewood waiting for the space shuttle fuel tank dubbed ET-94 to roll by when this Airbus A380 flew over the area on its way to Los Angeles International Airport. Don't let this pic (the image above is obviously a cropped version of the one below, that's why I don't use plural. Duh) fool you... This airliner is huge! I'm just wondering when I'll take an overseas trip aboard an A380. Presumably it won't be one that belongs to Korean Air—whose logo is on the tail of this plane. Happy Hump Day!

An Airbus A380 belonging to Korean Air flies over the city of Inglewood in California...on May 21, 2016.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Akatsuki Makes a Movie of Venus...

An animated GIF showing Venus' atmosphere as taken in the infrared by the Akatsuki spacecraft...on March 29, 2016 (Japan Standard Time).
JAXA

A Movie of the Venus' Night-Side Produced by IR2 (Press Release - May 23)

This movie is produced from the IR2 2.26-μm images, acquired on 29 March 2016 at a distance of 0.36 million km. Original 4 images were acquired with 4-hour intervals from 16:03 JST (07:03 UT).

In 4 hours, the super-rotating clouds move by ~10 degrees. Such images are numerically derotated to produce intermediate images so that the resultant motion becomes smoother. Deformation, appearance and disappearance of clouds are obvious in this movie. As the mission enters the "nominal" observing phase, we plan to shorten the intervals to 2 hours or even shorter so the high-definition movies will definitely help understanding of the Venus atmosphere.

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Monday, May 23, 2016

Welcome to Florida, OSIRIS-REx!

At Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado, a container carrying NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is about to be loaded onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane for a flight to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida...on May 20, 2016.
Lockheed Martin / NASA

Lockheed Martin Delivers NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft to Launch Site (Press Release)

Asteroid Sample Return Spacecraft Progressing Toward a September Launch

DENVER, May 23, 2016 – NASA’s asteroid sampling spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, took an across-country journey of about 1,600 miles before it launches on its 509 million mile journey to the asteroid Bennu. On May 20, Lockheed Martin delivered the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The spacecraft will now undergo final processing in preparation for a September launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, is scheduled to launch on Sept. 8, 2016. The spacecraft’s target is Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid that could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth. It will collect at least 60 grams (2.1 ounces) — about the weight of a full-sized candy bar—of pristine asteroid material and return it to Earth for analysis.

Lockheed Martin designed, built and tested the spacecraft and is responsible for spacecraft launch processing and mission operations.

“Delivering OSIRIS-REx to the launch site marks an important milestone, one that’s been many years in the making,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “The spacecraft has undergone a rigorous environmental test program in Denver but we still have plenty of work ahead of us. Many on our team have temporarily moved to Florida so they can continue final processing and have the spacecraft ready for launch in three and a half months.”

The 1,980-pound (900 kg) spacecraft was shipped Friday on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane in an environmentally controlled container. The aircraft, with 30 support personnel onboard, took off from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado and touched down at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, on one of the largest runways in the world.

While at Kennedy, the spacecraft will undergo final testing and configuration for flight including a spin test, solar array release test, electrical system testing and propellant loading.

“I'm extremely proud of our team and excited to be shipping the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We still have a few major milestones to go, but I'm confident that we'll get them done and be ready to launch on time and begin our mission to Bennu.”

After launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will take two years to reach Bennu, arriving in late 2018. It will then spend over two years conducting surface mapping and sample site reconnaissance before collecting a sample in 2020. The spacecraft will return the pristine sample of Bennu back to Earth in 2023.

“This team has done a phenomenal job assembling and testing the spacecraft,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “As we begin the final preparations for launch, I am confident that this spacecraft is ready to perform its science operations at Bennu. And I can’t wait to fly it.”

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona leads the science team and observation planning and processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Launch and countdown management is the responsibility of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Source: Lockheed Martin

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As of May 21, 2016, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is about to begin launch preparations inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Lockheed Martin / NASA

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Kepler Update: 2,325 Worlds and Counting!

An artist's concept of select exoplanets that were discovered by NASA's Kepler spacecraft as of May 2016.
NASA / W. Stenzel

NASA's Kepler Mission Announces Largest Collection of Planets Ever Discovered (Press Release)

NASA's Kepler mission has verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of planets to date.

“This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.”

Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope’s July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets. For 1,284 of the candidates, the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent – the minimum required to earn the status of “planet.” An additional 1,327 candidates are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques.

"Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. "This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe."

Kepler captures the discrete signals of distant planets – decreases in brightness that occur when planets pass in front of, or transit, their stars – much like the May 9 Mercury transit of our sun. Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system more than two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets.

This latest announcement, however, is based on a statistical analysis method that can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously. Timothy Morton, associate research scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey and lead author of the scientific paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, employed a technique to assign each Kepler candidate a planet-hood probability percentage – the first such automated computation on this scale, as previous statistical techniques focused only on sub-groups within the greater list of planet candidates identified by Kepler.

"Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs,” said Morton. “If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you're going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom."

In the newly-validated batch of planets, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these orbit in their sun's habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets now are known to be members of this exclusive group.

"They say not to count our chickens before they're hatched, but that's exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet)," said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets -- a number that's needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds.”

Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets. For four years, Kepler monitored 150,000 stars in a single patch of sky, measuring the tiny, telltale dip in the brightness of a star that can be produced by a transiting planet. In 2018, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will use the same method to monitor 200,000 bright nearby stars and search for planets, focusing on Earth and Super-Earth-sized.

Ames manages the Kepler missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system, with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Source: NASA.Gov

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Video of the Day: Luke Skywalker Channels Celine Dion!

Luke Skywalker takes out a microphone and sings to the tune of the Celine Dion song 'All by Myself.'

Star Wars: Episode VII star Daisy Ridley posted this hilarious Instagram video yesterday poking fun at the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Rey at the end of The Force Awakens. As Rey looks on in astonishment, Luke takes out a microphone and breaks out a tune from the Celine Dion song "All by Myself." The Jedi Master's performance is so mesmerizing that it destroys a planet. Or planets... The destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope as well as the obliteration of the Hosnian Prime system and Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens are combined to show the magnitude of Skywalker's intense power ballad. Anyways, check out the video below and enjoy the brief hilarity.

Update: Daisy deleted her Instagram account, so here's the YouTube version...

Monday, May 02, 2016

Kepler Prepares to Study Three Intriguing Exoplanets...

An artist's concept of the TRAPPIST-1 star system.
ESO / M. Kornmesser / N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Promising Worlds Found Around Nearby Ultra-cool Dwarf Star (Press Release)

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory have discovered three planets with sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth, orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth.

Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium, leading a team of astronomers including Susan M. Lederer of NASA Johnson Space Center, have used the TRAPPIST telescope to observe the star 2MASS J23062928-0502285, now also known as TRAPPIST-1. They found that this dim and cool star faded slightly at regular intervals, indicating that several objects were passing between the star and the Earth. Detailed analysis showed that three planets are present around the star.

TRAPPIST-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star — it is much cooler and redder than the Sun and barely larger than Jupiter. Despite being so close to the Earth, this star is too dim and too red to be seen with the naked eye or even visually with a large amateur telescope. It lies in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier).

Follow-up observations with larger telescopes, including the HAWK-I instrument on ESO’s 8-metre Very Large Telescope in Chile, have shown that the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 have sizes very similar to that of Earth. Two of the planets have orbital periods of about 1.5 days and 2.4 days respectively, and the third planet has a less well-determined orbital period in the range 4.5 to 73 days.

"With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun. The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter’s moons than to that of the Solar System," explains Michaël Gillon.

Although they orbit very close to their host dwarf star, the inner two planets only receive four times and twice, respectively, the amount of radiation received by the Earth, because their star is much fainter than the Sun. That puts them closer to the star than the so-called habitable zone for this system, defined as having surface temperatures where liquid water can exist, although it is still possible that they possess potentially habitable regions on their surfaces. The third, outer, planet’s orbit is not yet well known, but it probably receives less radiation than the Earth does, but maybe still enough to lie within the habitable zone. The new results will be published in the journal Nature on 2 May 2016.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and K2, the Kepler spacecraft's second mission, will be observing TRAPPIST-1 and its planets later this year.

Fortuitously, two of these planets are transiting the star on May 4, an event that happens only once every two years as seen from Earth. Astronomers hope to make measurements of the atmospheres of both of these planets and look for evidence of water vapor. The Hubble Space Telescope can characterize the atmospheres of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system by observing them as they pass in front of, or transit, their parent star. Hubble astronomers will use spectroscopy to measure starlight as it filters through a planet’s atmosphere.

K2 will observe TRAPPIST-1 as part of their Campaign 12, which is scheduled to take place from Dec. 15 to March 4, 2017. The data are expected to be available at the public archive the end of May 2017.

K2 will observe tens of transits of the two close-in Earth-sized exoplanets during the approximately 80-day campaign. The continuous and multiple observations will allow for measurements of predicted transit timing variations – the gravitational interaction between planets that cause transits to occur slightly earlier or slightly later than predicted. This will provide estimates of the masses of these exoplanets. Using K2’s mass measurements and TRAPPIST's ground-based size measurements, astronomers can calculate or constrain the density of the exoplanets to determine if they could be rocky worlds.

K2’s observations will also help scientists determine the orbital period of the third planet, and help find any additional small transiting objects in the system.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is an ideal target for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Webb’s infrared sensitivity will be able to detect carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and other molecules common in the atmospheres of the rocky planets in our own solar system.

"Thanks to several giant telescopes currently under construction, including ESO’s E-ELT and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope due to launch for 2018, we will soon be able to study the atmospheric composition of these planets and to explore them first for water, then for traces of biological activity. That's a giant step in the search for life in the Universe," says Julien de Wit, a co-author from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA.

The TRAPPIST survey is a prototype for a more ambitious project called SPECULOOS that will be installed at ESO’s Paranal Observatory.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Dr. Susan Lederer of NASA's Johnson Space Center poses next to the UKIRT Telescope, which was used to confirm the existence of the three TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
NASA