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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Supergirl, Meet Superman!

Melissa Benoist returns as Kara Danvers, while Tyler Hoechlin will join her as Superman in Season 2 of SUPERGIRL.

Can't wait to see Melissa Benoist kick ass as Supergirl again when the TV series begins Season 2 on the CW Network—the show originally aired on CBS last season—this October! (Supergirl premieres on October 10, to be exact.) However, the jury is out on Tyler Hoechlin (of MTV's Teen Wolf) as the Man of Steel. For starters, what's with that weird smirk on his face? And two, where's the spitcurl? At least Zack (Brian Thomas Smith) humorously sported it when he dressed as Superman to hang out with Penny (Kaley Cuoco) and Co. in a Season 4 episode of The Big Bang Theory... Looks like Hoechlin's portrayal will be more like that of Henry Cavill than those by the late Christopher Reeves and Brandon Routh. Oh well.

Zack (Brian Thomas Smith) is dressed as Superman while Penny (Kaley Cuoco) wears a Wonder Woman costume in a Season 4 episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Juno Update: Headin' Back Towards Jupiter...

An artist's concept of NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Five Years Post-Launch, Juno Is at a Turning Point (Press Release - July 29)

Five years after departing Earth, and a month after slipping into orbit around Jupiter, NASA's Juno spacecraft is nearing a turning point. On July 31 at 12:41 p.m. PDT (3:41 p.m. EDT), Juno will reach the farthest point in its orbit of Jupiter for the first time, known as "apojove," 5 million miles (8.1 million kilometers) from the giant planet. After that point, Jupiter's gravitational grip on Juno will cause the spacecraft to begin falling back toward the planet for another pass, this time with its scientific eyes wide open.

The spacecraft is currently executing the first of two long orbits prior to beginning its science mission. Each capture orbit is nearly two months long -- quite the wait for the mission's eager team of scientists -- but it's nothing compared to the long wait the team endured on the trek to Jupiter.

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011. The spacecraft took a long, looping path around the inner solar system to set up an Earth flyby, in which our planet's gravity flung the spinning probe onward toward Jupiter.

"For five years we've been focused on getting to Jupiter. Now we're there, and we're concentrating on beginning dozens of flybys of Jupiter to get the science we're after," said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4, firing its main rocket engine as planned for 35 minutes. The flawless maneuver allowed Jupiter's gravity to capture the solar powered spacecraft into the first of two 53.4-day-long orbits, referred to as capture orbits. Following the capture orbits, Juno will fire its engine once more to shorten its orbital period to 14 days and begin its science mission.

But before that happens, on Aug. 27, Juno must finish its first lap around Jupiter, with a finish line that represents the mission's closest pass over the gas giant. During the encounter, Juno will skim past Jupiter at a mere 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) above the cloud tops.

Juno's science instruments were turned off during orbit insertion, to simplify spacecraft operations during that critical maneuver. In contrast, all the instruments will be collecting data during the Aug. 27 pass, which serves as a trial run before the mission gets to work collecting the precious data it came for.

"We're in an excellent state of health, with the spacecraft and all the instruments fully checked out and ready for our first up-close look at Jupiter," said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

With its powerful suite of science instruments, Juno will probe Jupiter's deep structure, atmospheric circulation and the high-energy physics of its magnetic environment. What Juno finds there will reveal important clues to Jupiter's formation and evolution, along with insights about how our planetary system and others are built.

JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Caltech in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Milestone Is Crossed In America's Effort to Touch the Sun (So to Speak)...

An artist's concept of NASA's Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun.
JHU / APL

NASA’s Solar Probe Plus Mission Moves One Step Closer to Launch (News Release)

NASA’s Solar Probe Plus – the first mission that will fly into sun's upper atmosphere and “touch” the sun – has passed a design review, an important milestone leading to its anticipated summer 2018 launch. The successful review means the mission may now transition from formulation and design to final assembly and implementation. The spacecraft, as it appears in the image, currently includes the primary structure and propulsion system. Over the next phase of the mission, engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland – which manages the mission and is building the spacecraft – will finish assembly and install the rest of the spacecraft systems and science instruments.

Solar Probe Plus is slated to launch during a 20-day window that opens July 31, 2018. The spacecraft will collect data on the mechanisms that heat the corona and accelerate the solar wind, a constant flow of charged particles from the sun. These are two processes with fundamental roles in the complex interconnected system linking the sun and near-Earth space – a system that can drive changes in our space weather and impact our satellites. Solar Probe Plus is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, an initiative focused on aspects of the sun-Earth system that directly affect human lives and society. The program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Source: NASA.Gov

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At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, technicians prepare the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft—which is still undergoing construction—for thermal vacuum tests that simulate conditions in space.
NASA / JHUAPL

Monday, July 25, 2016

Photos of the Day #2: Glimpses Of The Sand Fire From Afar...

As seen from old town Pasadena, the Moon is tinted red by a cloud of smoke caused by the Sand Fire in Santa Clarita...on July 22, 2016.

Just thought I'd share these pics that I took of the effects of the wildfire that's currently burning in the Santa Clarita Mountains north of Los Angeles. Known as the Sand Fire, this inferno has been a fascinating sight to see (just don't tell that to someone whose home was either destroyed or endangered by this ever-growing blaze) from 40 to 60 miles away. The photos above and directly below were taken when the fire began last Friday. The Moon is tinted red by the cloud of smoke hanging above old town Pasadena, while the cloud itself was an ominous sight to see from my house in West Covina located 60-plus miles away from the calamity.

The cloud of smoke caused by the Sand Fire is an ominous sight to see from my house in West Covina...on July 22, 2016.

The images shown below were taken yesterday. As seen from the Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, the Sand Fire no longer leaves a huge cloud of smoke obscuring the skies over much of Southern California, but is still visible above the mountains in which it burns. The final photo below was taken from a street near my house in West Covina as I was heading to work in the evening. That cloud of smoke looks totally ominous...like something from the first (and good) Independence Day movie...

Much props to the firefighters working around the clock to put out this blaze.

A cloud of smoke is visible (towards the left of this image) behind the San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Anita Mall...on July 24, 2016.

The Sand Fire's cloud of smoke as seen from a street in West Covina 60-plus miles away...on July 24, 2016.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Photo of the Day: About Pokémon Go...

Last week, I stumbled upon this funny pic on Facebook showcasing one landlord's take on the (currently) popular video game. Needless to say, this exemplifies why I've resisted downloading Pokémon Go to my Samsung phone and begin walking into traffic, getting stuck in trees and loitering inside cemeteries just to catch Pikachu and its goofy anime brethren. If I'm gonna nurture my obsession for something old school and geeky, it would be playing the classic Star Wars: X-Wing video game on my laptop for the umpteenth time. That is all.

This person isn't a fan of Pokémon Go.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Video of the Day: Enter Sandman...

So I was driving around for Lyft last weekend (I signed up with the rideshare company earlier this month) when the L.A. station KROQ (or it might have been ALT 98.7) played Metallica's "Enter Sandman" on the radio late at night. All I can say is, I forgot just how freakin' awesome this song is! Check out the music video below to get your heavy metal groove on.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

(Two Habitable Alien Worlds?) Hubble Does It Again...

An artist's concept of potentially rocky exoplanets TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c orbiting their parent star.
NASA / ESA / STScI / J. de Wit (MIT)

NASA’s Hubble Telescope Makes First Atmospheric Study of Earth-Sized Exoplanets (Press Release)

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have conducted the first search for atmospheres around temperate, Earth-sized planets beyond our solar system and found indications that increase the chances of habitability on two exoplanets.

Specifically, they discovered that the exoplanets TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, approximately 40 light-years away, are unlikely to have puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres usually found on gaseous worlds.

“The lack of a smothering hydrogen-helium envelope increases the chances for habitability on these planets,” said team member Nikole Lewis of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. “If they had a significant hydrogen-helium envelope, there is no chance that either one of them could potentially support life because the dense atmosphere would act like a greenhouse.”

Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led a team of scientists to observe the planets in near-infrared light using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. They used spectroscopy to decode the light and reveal clues to the chemical makeup of an atmosphere. While the content of the atmospheres is unknown and will have to await further observations, the low concentration of hydrogen and helium has scientists excited about the implications.

“These initial Hubble observations are a promising first step in learning more about these nearby worlds, whether they could be rocky like Earth, and whether they could sustain life,” says Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is an exciting time for NASA and exoplanet research.”

The planets orbit a red dwarf star at least 500 million years old, in the constellation of Aquarius. They were discovered in late 2015 through a series of observations by the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), a Belgian robotic telescope located at ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) La Silla Observatory in Chile.

TRAPPIST-1b completes a circuit around its red dwarf star in 1.5 days and TRAPPIST-1c in 2.4 days. The planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth is to the sun. Because their star is so much fainter than our sun, researchers think that at least one of the planets, TRAPPIST-1c, may be within the star’s habitable zone, where moderate temperatures could allow for liquid water to pool.

On May 4, astronomers took advantage of a rare simultaneous transit, when both planets crossed the face of their star within minutes of each other, to measure starlight as it filtered through any existing atmosphere. This double-transit, which occurs only every two years, provided a combined signal that offered simultaneous indicators of the atmospheric characters of the planets.

The researchers hope to use Hubble to conduct follow-up observations to search for thinner atmospheres, composed of elements heavier than hydrogen, like those of Earth and Venus.

“With more data, we could perhaps detect methane or see water features in the atmospheres, which would give us estimates of the depth of the atmospheres,” said Hannah Wakeford, the paper’s second author, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Observations from future telescopes, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, will help determine the full composition of these atmospheres and hunt for potential biosignatures, such as carbon dioxide and ozone, in addition to water vapor and methane. Webb also will analyze a planet’s temperature and surface pressure – key factors in assessing its habitability.

“These Earth-sized planets are the first worlds that astronomers can study in detail with current and planned telescopes to determine whether they are suitable for life,” said de Wit. “Hubble has the facility to play the central atmospheric pre-screening role to tell astronomers which of these Earth-sized planets are prime candidates for more detailed study with the Webb telescope.”

The results of the study appear in the July 20 issue of the journal Nature.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA. Goddard manages the telescope and STScI conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Moving One Step Closer to Developing America's Next Mars Orbiter...

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

NASA Selects Five Mars Orbiter Concept Studies (Press Release - July 18)

NASA has selected five U.S. aerospace companies to conduct concept studies for a potential future Mars orbiter mission. Such a mission would continue key capabilities including telecommunications and global high-resolution imaging in support of the agency’s Journey to Mars.

The companies contracted for these four-month studies are: The Boeing Company in Huntington Beach, California; Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver; Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California; Orbital ATK in Dulles, Virginia; and Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, California.

“We’re excited to continue planning for the next decade of Mars exploration,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The concept studies will address how a potential new Mars orbiter mission could best provide communications, imaging and operational capabilities. They also will assess the possibilities for supporting additional scientific instruments and functionalities, in addition to optical communications. The orbiter concept under study would take advantage of U.S. industry’s technology capacities by using solar electric propulsion to provide flexible launch, mission and orbit capabilities.

The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, an organization designed to provide input to NASA from the Mars research science community, published a report six months ago on recommended science objectives for a Mars orbiter. These studies will provide input for assessing the feasibility of addressing these objectives. NASA also is pursuing partnership interest in contributing to this potential mission.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is managing the concept studies under the direction of the agency’s Mars Exploration Program.

NASA is on an ambitious Journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. The agency’s robotic spacecraft are leading the way, with two active rovers, three active orbiters, the planned launch of the InSight lander in 2018, and development of the Mars 2020 rover.

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A computer-generated drawing of NASA's Mars 2020 rover.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Monday, July 18, 2016

Kepler Update: Add 104 More Alien Worlds to Its List of Discoveries...

An artist's concept of NASA's Kepler spacecraft observing four rocky exoplanets that orbit the M dwarf star K2-72.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA's Kepler Confirms 100+ Exoplanets During Its K2 Mission (Press Release)

An international team of astronomers has discovered and confirmed a treasure trove of new worlds using NASA's Kepler spacecraft on its K2 mission. Out of 197 initial planet candidates, scientists have confirmed 104 planets outside our solar system. Among the confirmed is a planetary system comprising four promising planets that could be rocky.

These four planets, all between 20 and 50 percent larger than Earth by diameter, are orbiting the M dwarf star K2-72, found 181 light-years away in the direction of the Aquarius constellation. The host star is less than half the size of the sun and less bright. The planets' orbital periods range from five-and-a-half to 24 days, and two of them may experience irradiation levels from their star comparable to those on Earth. Despite their tight orbits -- closer than Mercury's orbit around our sun -- the possibility that life could arise on a planet around such a star cannot be ruled out, according to lead author Ian Crossfield, a Sagan Fellow at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson.

The researchers achieved this extraordinary "roundup" of exoplanets by combining data with follow-up observations by Earth-based telescopes including the North Gemini telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Automated Planet Finder of the University of California Observatories, and the Large Binocular Telescope operated by the University of Arizona. The discoveries are published online in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Both Kepler and its K2 mission discover new planets by measuring the subtle dip in a star's brightness caused by a planet passing in front of its star. In its initial mission, Kepler surveyed just one patch of sky in the northern hemisphere, determining the frequency of planets whose size and temperature might be similar to Earth orbiting stars similar to our sun. In the spacecraft's extended mission in 2013, it lost its ability to precisely stare at its original target area, but a brilliant fix created a second life for the telescope that is proving scientifically fruitful.

After the fix, Kepler started its K2 mission, which has provided an ecliptic field of view with greater opportunities for Earth-based observatories in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Additionally, the K2 mission is entirely community-driven with all targets proposed by the scientific community.

Because it covers more of the sky, the K2 mission is capable of observing a larger fraction of cooler, smaller, red-dwarf type stars, and because such stars are much more common in the Milky Way than sun-like stars, nearby stars will predominantly be red dwarfs.

"An analogy would be to say that Kepler performed a demographic study, while the K2 mission focuses on the bright and nearby stars with different types of planets," said Crossfield. "The K2 mission allows us to increase the number of small, red stars by a factor of 20, significantly increasing the number of astronomical 'movie stars' that make the best systems for further study."

To validate candidate planets identified by K2, the researchers obtained high-resolution images of the planet-hosting stars as well as high-resolution optical spectroscopy. By dispersing the starlight as through a prism, the spectrographs allowed the researchers to infer the physical properties of a star -- such as mass, radius and temperature -- from which the properties of any planets orbiting it can be inferred.

These observations represent a natural stepping stone from the K2 mission to NASA's other upcoming exoplanet missions, such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and James Webb Space Telescope.

"This bountiful list of validated exoplanets from the K2 mission highlights the fact that the targeted examination of bright stars and nearby stars along the ecliptic is providing many interesting new planets," said Steve Howell, project scientist for the K2 mission at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "These targets allow the astronomical community ease of follow-up and characterization, providing a few gems for first study by the James Webb Space Telescope, which could perhaps tell us about the planets' atmospheres."

This work was performed in part under contract with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory funded by NASA through the Sagan Fellowship Program executed by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.

NASA Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. JPL 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 at Boulder.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Friday, July 15, 2016

NASA Is One Step Closer to Building Curiosity's Successor...

A computer-generated drawing of NASA's Mars 2020 rover.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA's Next Mars Rover Progresses Toward 2020 Launch (Press Release)

After an extensive review process and passing a major development milestone, NASA is ready to proceed with final design and construction of its next Mars rover, currently targeted to launch in the summer of 2020 and arrive on the Red Planet in February 2021.

The Mars 2020 rover will investigate a region of Mars where the ancient environment may have been favorable for microbial life, probing the Martian rocks for evidence of past life. Throughout its investigation, it will collect samples of soil and rock and cache them on the surface for potential return to Earth by a future mission.

“The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA’s Journey to Mars – to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet.”

To reduce risk and provide cost savings, the 2020 rover will look much like its six-wheeled, one-ton predecessor, Curiosity, but with an array of new science instruments and enhancements to explore Mars as never before. For example, the rover will conduct the first investigation into the usability and availability of Martian resources, including oxygen, in preparation for human missions.

Mars 2020 will carry an entirely new subsystem to collect and prepare Martian rocks and soil samples that includes a coring drill on its arm and a rack of sample tubes. About 30 of these sample tubes will be deposited at select locations for return on a potential future sample-retrieval mission. In laboratories on Earth, specimens from Mars could be analyzed for evidence of past life on Mars and possible health hazards for future human missions.

Two science instruments mounted on the rover’s robotic arm will be used to search for signs of past life and determine where to collect samples by analyzing the chemical, mineral, physical and organic characteristics of Martian rocks. On the rover’s mast, two science instruments will provide high-resolution imaging and three types of spectroscopy for characterizing rocks and soil from a distance, also helping to determine which rock targets to explore up close.

A suite of sensors on the mast and deck will monitor weather conditions and the dust environment, and a ground-penetrating radar will assess sub-surface geologic structure.

The Mars 2020 rover will use the same sky crane landing system as Curiosity, but will have the ability to land in more challenging terrain with two enhancements, making more rugged sites eligible as safe landing candidates.

"By adding what’s known as range trigger, we can specify where we want the parachute to open, not just at what velocity we want it to open,” said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "That shrinks our landing area by nearly half."

Terrain-relative navigation on the new rover will use onboard analysis of downward-looking images taken during descent, matching them to a map that indicates zones designated unsafe for landing.

"As it is descending, the spacecraft can tell whether it is headed for one of the unsafe zones and divert to safe ground nearby,” said Chen. "With this capability, we can now consider landing areas with unsafe zones that previously would have disqualified the whole area. Also, we can land closer to a specific science destination, for less driving after landing."

There will be a suite of cameras and a microphone that will capture the never-before-seen or heard imagery and sounds of the entry, descent and landing sequence. Information from the descent cameras and microphone will provide valuable data to assist in planning future Mars landings, and make for thrilling video.

"Nobody has ever seen what a parachute looks like as it is opening in the Martian atmosphere,” said JPL's David Gruel, assistant flight system manager for the Mars 2020 mission. “So this will provide valuable engineering information.”

Microphones have flown on previous missions to Mars, including NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008, but never have actually been used on the surface of the Red Planet.

"This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time, and it could also provide useful engineering information," said Mars 2020 Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace of JPL.

Once a mission receives preliminary approval, it must go through four rigorous technical and programmatic reviews – known as Key Decision Points (KDP) — to proceed through the phases of development prior to launch. Phase A involves concept and requirements definition, Phase B is preliminary design and technology development, Phase C is final design and fabrication, and Phase D is system assembly, testing, and launch. Mars 2020 has just passed its KDP-C milestone.

"Since Mars 2020 is leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, a significant amount of the mission's heritage components have already been built during Phases A and B,” said George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "With the KDP to enter Phase C completed, the project is proceeding with final design and construction of the new systems, as well as the rest of the heritage elements for the mission."

The Mars 2020 mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. Driven by scientific discovery, the program currently includes two active rovers and three NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars. NASA also plans to launch a stationary Mars lander in 2018, InSight, to study the deep interior of Mars.

JPL manages the Mars 2020 project and the Mars Exploration Program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Juno Update: First Photo from Jovian Orbit!

An image of Jupiter that was taken by NASA's Juno spacecraft from a distance of 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) on July 10, 2016.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / SwRI / MSSS

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Sends First In-orbit View (Press Release)

The JunoCam camera aboard NASA's Juno mission is operational and sending down data after the spacecraft’s July 4 arrival at Jupiter. Juno’s visible-light camera was turned on six days after Juno fired its main engine and placed itself into orbit around the largest planetary inhabitant of our solar system. The first high-resolution images of the gas giant Jupiter are still a few weeks away.

"This scene from JunoCam indicates it survived its first pass through Jupiter's extreme radiation environment without any degradation and is ready to take on Jupiter," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "We can't wait to see the first view of Jupiter's poles."

The new view was obtained on July 10, 2016, at 10:30 a.m. PDT (1:30 p.m. EDT, 5:30 UTC), when the spacecraft was 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter on the outbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit. The color image shows atmospheric features on Jupiter, including the famous Great Red Spot, and three of the massive planet's four largest moons -- Io, Europa and Ganymede, from left to right in the image.

"JunoCam will continue to take images as we go around in this first orbit," said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator from the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona. "The first high-resolution images of the planet will be taken on August 27 when Juno makes its next close pass to Jupiter."

JunoCam is a color, visible-light camera designed to capture remarkable pictures of Jupiter's poles and cloud tops. As Juno's eyes, it will provide a wide view, helping to provide context for the spacecraft's other instruments. JunoCam was included on the spacecraft specifically for purposes of public engagement; although its images will be helpful to the science team, it is not considered one of the mission's science instruments.

The Juno team is currently working to place all images taken by JunoCam on the mission's website, where the public can access them.

During its mission of exploration, Juno will circle the Jovian world 37 times, soaring low over the planet's cloud tops -- as close as about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers). During these flybys, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Michael Ravine of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, is the JunoCam instrument lead. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Caltech in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Eat Your Heart Out, Tatooine!

An artist's concept of the exoplanet HD 131399Ab (foreground) orbiting among the three stars in its system.
European Southern Observatory / L. Calçada

Newly-Discovered Planet Has 3 Suns (Press Release)

If you thought Luke Skywalker's home planet, Tatooine, was a strange world with its two suns in the sky, imagine this: a planet with either constant daylight or triple sunrises and sunsets each day depending on the seasons (which last longer than human lifetimes).

Such a world has been discovered by a team of astronomers led by the University of Arizona using direct imaging. The planet, HD 131399Ab, is unlike any other known world – one with, by far, the widest known orbit within a multi-star system. The discovery will be published in an early online edition of the journal Science on July 7.

Located about 340 light years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus, HD 131399Ab is believed to be about 16 million years old, making it one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date. With a temperature of 850 kelvins (about 1,070 F or 580 C) and weighing in at an estimated four Jupiter masses, it is also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.

"HD 131399Ab is one of the few exoplanets that have been directly imaged, and it's the first one in such an interesting dynamical configuration," said Daniel Apai, an assistant professor of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona. He is the principal investigator of one of NASA’s teams in the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), which is an interdisciplinary network dedicated to the search for life on planets outside our solar system.

"For about half of the planet’s orbit, which lasts 550 Earth-years, three stars are visible in the sky, the fainter two always much closer together, and changing in apparent separation from the brightest star throughout the year," said Kevin Wagner, a doctoral student in Apai's research group and the paper's first author, who discovered HD 131399Ab. "For much of the planet’s year the stars appear close together, giving it a familiar night-side and day-side with a unique triple-sunset and sunrise each day. As the planet orbits and the stars grow farther apart each day, they reach a point where the setting of one coincides with the rising of the other – at which point the planet is in near-constant daytime for about one-quarter of its orbit, or roughly 140 Earth-years."

The planet marks the first discovery of an exoplanet made with SPHERE, which stands for the Spectro-Polarimetric High-Contrast Exoplanet Research Instrument. It is installed on the Very Large Telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, and dedicated to finding planets around other stars. SPHERE is sensitive to infrared light, making it capable of detecting the heat signatures of young planets, along with sophisticated features correcting for atmospheric disturbances and blocking out the otherwise blinding light of their host stars.

Although repeated and long-term observations will be needed to precisely determine the planet's trajectory among its host stars, observations and simulations seem to suggest the following scenario: At the center of the system lies a star estimated to be 80 percent more massive than the sun and dubbed HD 131399A, which itself is orbited by the two remaining stars, B and C, at about 300 AU (one AU, or astronomical unit, equals the average distance between Earth and the sun). All the while, B and C twirl around each other like a spinning dumbbell, separated by a distance roughly equal to that between our sun and Saturn.

In this scenario, planet HD 131399Ab travels around the central star, A, in an orbit about twice as large as Pluto’s if compared to our solar system, and brings the planet to about one-third of the separation of the stars themselves. The authors point out that a range of orbital scenarios is possible, and the verdict on long-term stability of the system will have to wait for planned follow-up observations that will better constrain the planet's orbit.

"If the planet was further away from the most massive star in the system, it would be kicked out of the system," Apai explained. "Our computer simulations showed that this type of orbit can be stable, but if you change things around just a little bit, it can become unstable very quickly."

Planets in multi-star systems are of special interest to astronomers and planetary scientists because they provide an example of how planet formation functions in these extreme scenarios. While multi-star systems seem exotic to us in our orbit around our solitary star – multi-star systems are in fact just as common as single stars.

"It is not clear how this planet ended up on its wide orbit in this extreme system, and we can't say yet what this means for our broader understanding of the types of planetary systems out there, but it shows there is more variety out there than many would have deemed possible," Wagner said. "What we do know is that planets in multi-star systems are much less explored, and potentially just as numerous as planets in single-star systems."

“This is the kind of discovery that helps us place our own solar system in the context of the diversity of worlds beyond it, by finding systems that are much different from our own,” says Mary Voytek, senior scientist for astrobiology and program manager of the NExSS network at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “By combining these results with research on the formation of habitable worlds, we will have a better understanding of the systems in which habitable worlds might form. NExSS will ensure such connections are made, within and beyond our NExSS teams.”

NExSS is a NASA-led research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability by bringing together researchers from different fields. NExSS aims to build an international community of interdisciplinary researchers, including those supported by other agencies, dedicated to exoplanet research through NASA investments. This network will explore the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context – as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy.

The co-authors on the paper are Markus Kasper and Melissa McClure of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany; Kaitlin Kratter at the UA's Steward Observatory; Massimo Roberto at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore; and Jean-Luc Beuzit with the University of Grenoble Alpes and the National Center of Scientific Research, both in Grenoble, France.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Welcome To Your New Jovian Home, Juno!

An artist's concept of NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA's Juno Spacecraft in Orbit Around Mighty Jupiter (Press Release)

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, NASA's Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit during a 35-minute engine burn. Confirmation that the burn had completed was received on Earth at 8:53 p.m. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) Monday, July 4.

“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer -- Juno is at Jupiter,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. “And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet’s interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved.”

Confirmation of a successful orbit insertion was received from Juno tracking data monitored at the navigation facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as well as at the Lockheed Martin Juno operations center in Littleton, Colorado. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA's Deep Space Network antennas in Goldstone, California, and Canberra, Australia.

“This is the one time I don’t mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the 4th of July,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day.”

Preplanned events leading up to the orbital insertion engine burn included changing the spacecraft’s attitude to point the main engine in the desired direction and then increasing the spacecraft’s rotation rate from 2 to 5 revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilize it.

The burn of Juno’s 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine began on time at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), decreasing the spacecraft’s velocity by 1,212 miles per hour (542 meters per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around Jupiter. Soon after the burn was completed, Juno turned so that the sun’s rays could once again reach the 18,698 individual solar cells that give Juno its energy.

“The spacecraft worked perfectly, which is always nice when you’re driving a vehicle with 1.7 billion miles on the odometer,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL. “Jupiter orbit insertion was a big step and the most challenging remaining in our mission plan, but there are others that have to occur before we can give the science team the mission they are looking for.”

Over the next few months, Juno’s mission and science teams will perform final testing on the spacecraft’s subsystems, final calibration of science instruments and some science collection.

“Our official science collection phase begins in October, but we’ve figured out a way to collect data a lot earlier than that,” said Bolton. “Which when you’re talking about the single biggest planetary body in the solar system is a really good thing. There is a lot to see and do here.”

Juno's principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras. The mission also will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter also can provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for NASA. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

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An animated GIF of Juno's 'Google doodle.'

Friday, July 01, 2016

Onward to MU69: NASA Approves New Horizons' Extended Mission to KBO Target!

An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Kuiper Belt Object.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons Receives Mission Extension to Kuiper Belt, Dawn to Remain at Ceres (Press Release)

Following its historic first-ever flyby of Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons mission has received the green light to fly onward to an object deeper in the Kuiper Belt, known as 2014 MU69. The spacecraft’s planned rendezvous with the ancient object – considered one of the early building blocks of the solar system -- is Jan. 1, 2019.

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green. “We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

Based upon the 2016 Planetary Mission Senior Review Panel report, NASA this week directed nine extended missions to plan for continued operations through fiscal years 2017 and 2018. Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.

In addition to the extension of the New Horizons mission, NASA determined that the Dawn spacecraft should remain at the dwarf planet Ceres, rather than changing course to the main belt asteroid Adeona.

Green noted that NASA relies on the scientific assessment by the Senior Review Panel in making its decision on which extended mission option to approve. “The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun -- has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.

Also receiving NASA approval for mission extensions, contingent on available resources, are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

Source: NASA.Gov

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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