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Friday, December 15, 2017

Kepler Update: Thanks To Google, An 8th Exoplanet Is Found Orbiting Kepler-90...

An artist's concept of all eight exoplanets in the Kepler-90 star system.
NASA / Ames Research Center / Wendy Stenzel

Artificial Intelligence, NASA Data Used to Discover Eighth Planet Circling Distant Star (News Release - December 14)

Our solar system now is tied for most number of planets around a single star, with the recent discovery of an eighth planet circling Kepler-90, a Sun-like star 2,545 light years from Earth. The planet was discovered in data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope.

The newly-discovered Kepler-90i - a sizzling hot, rocky planet that orbits its star once every 14.4 days - was found using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence in which computers "learn." In this case, computers learned to identify planets by finding in Kepler data instances where the telescope recorded changes in starlight caused by planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.

"Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's Astrophysics Division in Washington. "This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come."

The discovery came about after researchers Christopher Shallue and Andrew Vanderburg trained a computer to learn how to identify exoplanets in the light readings recorded by Kepler - the miniscule change in brightness captured when a planet passed in front of, or transited, a star. Inspired by the way neurons connect in the human brain, this artificial "neural network" sifted through Kepler data and found weak transit signals from a previously-missed eighth planet orbiting Kepler-90, in the constellation Draco.

Machine learning has previously been used in searches of the Kepler database, and this continuing research demonstrates that neural networks are a promising tool in finding some of the weakest signals of distant worlds.

Other planetary systems probably hold more promise for life than Kepler-90. About 30 percent larger than Earth, Kepler-90i is so close to its star that its average surface temperature is believed to exceed 800 degrees Fahrenheit, on par with Mercury. Its outermost planet, Kepler-90h, orbits at a similar distance to its star as Earth does to the Sun.

"The Kepler-90 star system is like a mini version of our solar system. You have small planets inside and big planets outside, but everything is scrunched in much closer," said Vanderburg, a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow and astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.

Shallue, a senior software engineer with Google's research team Google AI, came up with the idea to apply a neural network to Kepler data. He became interested in exoplanet discovery after learning that astronomy, like other branches of science, is rapidly being inundated with data as the technology for data collection from space advances.

"In my spare time, I started Googling for 'finding exoplanets with large data sets' and found out about the Kepler mission and the huge data set available," said Shallue. "Machine learning really shines in situations where there is so much data that humans can't search it for themselves."

Kepler's four-year dataset consists of 35,000 possible planetary signals. Automated tests, and sometimes human eyes, are used to verify the most promising signals in the data. However, the weakest signals often are missed using these methods. Shallue and Vanderburg thought there could be more interesting exoplanet discoveries faintly lurking in the data.

First, they trained the neural network to identify transiting exoplanets using a set of 15,000 previously vetted signals from the Kepler exoplanet catalogue. In the test set, the neural network correctly identified true planets and false positives 96 percent of the time. Then, with the neural network having "learned" to detect the pattern of a transiting exoplanet, the researchers directed their model to search for weaker signals in 670 star systems that already had multiple known planets. Their assumption was that multiple-planet systems would be the best places to look for more exoplanets.

"We got lots of false positives of planets, but also potentially more real planets," said Vanderburg. "It's like sifting through rocks to find jewels. If you have a finer sieve then you will catch more rocks but you might catch more jewels, as well."

Kepler-90i wasn't the only jewel this neural network sifted out. In the Kepler-80 system, they found a sixth planet. This one, the Earth-sized Kepler-80g, and four of its neighboring planets form what is called a resonant chain - where planets are locked by their mutual gravity in a rhythmic orbital dance. The result is an extremely stable system, similar to the seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Their research paper reporting these findings has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal. Shallue and Vanderburg plan to apply their neural network to Kepler's full set of more than 150,000 stars.

Kepler has produced an unprecedented data set for exoplanet hunting. After gazing at one patch of space for four years, the spacecraft now is operating on an extended mission and switches its field of view every 80 days.

"These results demonstrate the enduring value of Kepler's mission," said Jessie Dotson, Kepler's project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "New ways of looking at the data - such as this early-stage research to apply machine learning algorithms - promise to continue to yield significant advances in our understanding of planetary systems around other stars. I'm sure there are more firsts in the data waiting for people to find them."

Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA'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. This work was performed through the Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowship Program executed by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

The FCC Has Repealed Net Neutrality...

Almost two weeks after Republicans in the U.S. Senate approved a shitty tax bill that would add around $1.4 trillion to the national deficit and take health coverage away from 13 million Americans, another Trump era-related abomination took place today when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal net neutrality. What that means is, internet providers like Verizon and Comcast will have the ability to block content that folks look at on the Web...and even potentially force Americans to pay to use currently-free online services like Google, YouTube and Twitter. On the plus side though, Congress and the nation's courts have the ability to block this repeal from taking effect. The downside though, is that Congress is led by the Republicans...and it's the corporations (like Verizon and Comcast) and the GOP members who receive donations from them who'll benefit the most from the end of net neutrality. So once again, America's First Amendment principles are threatened by conservatives using Donald Trump's so-called presidency to enhance their greed at the expense of ordinary citizens throughout the United States.

All I can say is, Eminem needs to write a new rap song about the FCC and its corrupt chairman, Ajit Pai—telling them to go fuck themselves. Hell, include the GOP and Trump in his song while he's at it. November of 2018 can't come soon enough... We need the Democrats to regain control of the House and Senate and punish folks like Pai for their obstinacy and insolence towards this great country. That is all.

Ajit Pai is yet another idiot U.S. government official who needs to be fired in the Trump era.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Dawn Update: New Spots on a Dwarf Planet's Surface...

A simulated view of Ceres' Occator Crater...with bright spots indicating salt-rich material in the crater's basin.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / PSI

Bright Areas on Ceres Suggest Geologic Activity (Press Release)

If you could fly aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft, the surface of dwarf planet Ceres would generally look quite dark, but with notable exceptions. These exceptions are the hundreds of bright areas that stand out in images Dawn has returned. Now, scientists have a better sense of how these reflective areas formed and changed over time -- processes indicative of an active, evolving world.

"The mysterious bright spots on Ceres, which have captivated both the Dawn science team and the public, reveal evidence of Ceres' past subsurface ocean, and indicate that, far from being a dead world, Ceres is surprisingly active. Geological processes created these bright areas and may still be changing the face of Ceres today," said Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Raymond and colleagues presented the latest results about the bright areas at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans on Tuesday, Dec. 12.

Different Kinds of Bright Areas

Since Dawn arrived in orbit at Ceres in March 2015, scientists have located more than 300 bright areas on Ceres. A new study in the journal Icarus, led by Nathan Stein, a doctoral researcher at Caltech in Pasadena, California, divides Ceres' features into four categories.

The first group of bright spots contains the most reflective material on Ceres, which is found on crater floors. The most iconic examples are in Occator Crater, which hosts two prominent bright areas. Cerealia Facula, in the center of the crater, consists of bright material covering a 6-mile-wide (10-kilometer-wide) pit, within which sits a small dome. East of the center is a collection of slightly less reflective and more diffuse features called Vinalia Faculae. All the bright material in Occator Crater is made of salt-rich material, which was likely once mixed in water. Although Cerealia Facula is the brightest area on all of Ceres, it would resemble dirty snow to the human eye.

More commonly, in the second category, bright material is found on the rims of craters, streaking down toward the floors. Impacting bodies likely exposed bright material that was already in the subsurface or had formed in a previous impact event.

Separately, in the third category, bright material can be found in the material ejected when craters were formed.

The mountain Ahuna Mons gets its own fourth category -- the one instance on Ceres where bright material is unaffiliated with any impact crater. This likely cryovolcano, a volcano formed by the gradual accumulation of thick, slowly flowing icy materials, has prominent bright streaks on its flanks.

Over hundreds of millions of years, bright material has mixed with the dark material that forms the bulk of Ceres' surface, as well as debris ejected during impacts. That means billions of years ago, when Ceres experienced more impacts, the dwarf planet's surface likely would have been peppered with thousands of bright areas.

"Previous research has shown that the bright material is made of salts, and we think subsurface fluid activity transported it to the surface to form some of the bright spots," Stein said.

The Case of Occator

Why do the different bright areas of Occator seem so distinct from one another? Lynnae Quick, a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, has been delving into this question.

The leading explanation for what happened at Occator is that it could have had, at least in the recent past, a reservoir of salty water beneath it. Vinalia Faculae, the diffuse bright regions to the northeast of the crater's central dome, could have formed from a fluid driven to the surface by a small amount of gas, similar to champagne surging out of its bottle when the cork is removed.

In the case of the Vinalia Faculae, the dissolved gas could have been a volatile substance such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane or ammonia. Volatile-rich salty water could have been brought close to Ceres' surface through fractures that connected to the briny reservoir beneath Occator. The lower pressure at Ceres' surface would have caused the fluid to boil off as a vapor. Where fractures reached the surface, this vapor could escape energetically, carrying with it ice and salt particles and depositing them on the surface.

Cerealia Facula must have formed in a somewhat different process, given that it is more elevated and brighter than Vinalia Faculae. The material at Cerealia may have been more like an icy lava, seeping up through the fractures and swelling into a dome. Intermittent phases of boiling, similar to what happened when Vinalia Faculae formed, may have occurred during this process, littering the surface with ice and salt particles that formed the Cerealia bright spot.

Quick's analyses do not depend on the initial impact that formed Occator. However, the current thinking among Dawn scientists is that when a large body slammed into Ceres, excavating the 57-mile-wide (92-kilometer-wide) crater, the impact may have also created fractures through which liquid later emerged.

"We also see fractures on other solar system bodies, such as Jupiter's icy moon Europa," Quick said. "The fractures on Europa are more widespread than the fractures we see at Occator. However, processes related to liquid reservoirs that might exist beneath Europa's cracks today could be used as a comparison for what may have happened at Occator in the past."

As Dawn continues the final phase of its mission, in which it will descend to lower altitudes than ever before, scientists will continue learning about the origins of the bright material on Ceres and what gave rise to the enigmatic features in Occator.

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

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

Photos of the Day: Tonight's Supermoon...

A raw image of the Supermoon that I took with my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera on December 3, 2017.

Just thought I'd share these pics that I took of tonight's Supermoon...also known as the Frost Moon, Cold Moon, Long Night Moon, Moon before Yule and the Strawberry Moon (as seen from the Southern Hemisphere, that is). This is the first of three consecutive Supermoons to grace the skies over the next two months; another Supermoon will take place on January 1st, while the third one—which will also be a total lunar eclipse that's visible over much of the U.S.—occurs on January 31st. Sweeet. In regards to the settings I employed on my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera for these images, I selected ISO 200 for the exposure, placed the shutter speed at 1/800, had the f-stop at 6.3 and used a Nikkor 70-300mm autofocus zoom lens that I got for my birthday this year. How sweet again. I'm totally lookin' forward to the lunar eclipse next month! Have a great week ahead.

A cropped image of the Supermoon that I took with my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera on December 3, 2017.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Voyager 1 Update: A Significant Development for the Interstellar Spacecraft...

An artist's concept of a Voyager spacecraft venturing through the cosmos.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Voyager 1 Fires Up Thrusters After 37 Years (News Release)

If you tried to start a car that's been sitting in a garage for decades, you might not expect the engine to respond. But a set of thrusters aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft successfully fired up Wednesday after 37 years without use.

Voyager 1, NASA's farthest and fastest spacecraft, is the only human-made object in interstellar space, the environment between the stars. The spacecraft, which has been flying for 40 years, relies on small devices called thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth. These thrusters fire in tiny pulses, or "puffs," lasting mere milliseconds, to subtly rotate the spacecraft so that its antenna points at our planet. Now, the Voyager team is able to use a set of four backup thrusters, dormant since 1980.

"With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years without use, we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years," said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Since 2014, engineers have noticed that the thrusters Voyager 1 has been using to orient the spacecraft, called "attitude control thrusters," have been degrading. Over time, the thrusters require more puffs to give off the same amount of energy. At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up.

The Voyager team assembled a group of propulsion experts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to study the problem. Chris Jones, Robert Shotwell, Carl Guernsey and Todd Barber analyzed options and predicted how the spacecraft would respond in different scenarios. They agreed on an unusual solution: Try giving the job of orientation to a set of thrusters that had been asleep for 37 years.

“The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters," said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.

In the early days of the mission, Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter, Saturn, and important moons of each. To accurately fly by and point the spacecraft's instruments at a smorgasbord of targets, engineers used "trajectory correction maneuver,” or TCM, thrusters that are identical in size and functionality to the attitude control thrusters, and are located on the back side of the spacecraft. But because Voyager 1's last planetary encounter was Saturn, the Voyager team hadn't needed to use the TCM thrusters since November 8, 1980. Back then, the TCM thrusters were used in a more continuous firing mode; they had never been used in the brief bursts necessary to orient the spacecraft.

All of Voyager's thrusters were developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The same kind of thruster, called the MR-103, flew on other NASA spacecraft as well, such as Cassini and Dawn.

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, Voyager engineers fired up the four TCM thrusters for the first time in 37 years and tested their ability to orient the spacecraft using 10-millisecond pulses. The team waited eagerly as the test results traveled through space, taking 19 hours and 35 minutes to reach an antenna in Goldstone, California, that is part of NASA's Deep Space Network.

Lo and behold, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, they learned the TCM thrusters worked perfectly -- and just as well as the attitude control thrusters.

“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all," said Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

The plan going forward is to switch to the TCM thrusters in January. To make the change, Voyager has to turn on one heater per thruster, which requires power -- a limited resource for the aging mission. When there is no longer enough power to operate the heaters, the team will switch back to the attitude control thrusters.

The thruster test went so well, the team will likely do a similar test on the TCM thrusters for Voyager 2, the twin spacecraft of Voyager 1. The attitude control thrusters currently used for Voyager 2 are not yet as degraded as Voyager 1's, however.

Voyager 2 is also on course to enter interstellar space, likely within the next few years.

The Voyager spacecraft were built by JPL, which continues to operate both. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena. The Voyager missions are a part of the NASA Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Random Thought To End This Month With...

Futuristic cars fly through the city of Los Angeles in BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Why are flying cars a DUMB IDEA? If people are generally too stupid or incapable of using their turn signals when changing lanes on the ground, what makes you think they'll be capable of safely flying a 2-ton machine hundreds to thousands of feet in the air?

That's my random thought for November. And no, I didn't type this entry as an excuse to post the cool screenshot from Blade Runner 2049 above, or an image of the Star Wars planet Coruscant below. I actually mean it. Speaking of Star Wars, The Last Jedi arrives in theaters two weeks from today! Can't wait to go to an advance screening of Episode VIII at 7 PM on December 14. Carry on.

The STAR WARS world of Coruscant...with rows of speeder traffic filling the skies above the planet-wide city.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Mars 2020 Update: America's Next Red Planet Rover Is Taking Shape At JPL...

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA Builds its Next Mars Rover Mission (News Release)

In just a few years, NASA's next Mars rover mission will be flying to the Red Planet.

At a glance, it looks a lot like its predecessor, the Curiosity Mars rover. But there's no doubt it's a souped-up science machine: It has seven new instruments, redesigned wheels and more autonomy. A drill will capture rock cores, while a caching system with a miniature robotic arm will seal up these samples. Then, they'll be deposited on the Martian surface for possible pickup by a future mission.

This new hardware is being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which manages the mission for the agency. It includes the Mars 2020 mission's cruise stage, which will fly the rover through space, and the descent stage, a rocket-powered "sky crane" that will lower it to the planet's surface. Both of these stages have recently moved into JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility.

Mars 2020 relies heavily on the system designs and spare hardware previously created for Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012. Roughly 85 percent of the new rover's mass is based on this "heritage hardware."

"The fact that so much of the hardware has already been designed -- or even already exists -- is a major advantage for this mission," said Jim Watzin, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "It saves us money, time and most of all, reduces risk."

Despite its similarities to Mars Science Laboratory, the new mission has very different goals. Mars 2020's instruments will seek signs of ancient life by studying terrain that is now inhospitable, but once held flowing rivers and lakes, more than 3.5 billion years ago.

To achieve these new goals, the rover has a suite of cutting-edge science instruments. It will seek out biosignatures on a microbial scale: An X-ray spectrometer will target spots as small as a grain of table salt, while an ultraviolet laser will detect the "glow" from excited rings of carbon atoms. A ground-penetrating radar will be the first instrument to look under the surface of Mars, mapping layers of rock, water and ice up to 30 feet (10 meters) deep, depending on the material.

The rover is getting some upgraded Curiosity hardware, including color cameras, a zoom lens and a laser that can vaporize rocks and soil to analyze their chemistry.

"Our next instruments will build on the success of MSL, which was a proving ground for new technology," said George Tahu, NASA's Mars 2020 program executive. "These will gather science data in ways that weren't possible before."

The mission will also undertake a marathon sample hunt: The rover team will try to drill at least 20 rock cores, and possibly as many as 30 or 40, for possible future return to Earth.

"Whether life ever existed beyond Earth is one of the grand questions humans seek to answer," said Ken Farley of JPL, Mars 2020's project scientist. "What we learn from the samples collected during this mission has the potential to address whether we're alone in the universe."

JPL is also developing a crucial new landing technology called terrain-relative navigation. As the descent stage approaches the Martian surface, it will use computer vision to compare the landscape with pre-loaded terrain maps. This technology will guide the descent stage to safe landing sites, correcting its course along the way.

A related technology called the range trigger will use location and velocity to determine when to fire the spacecraft's parachute. That change will narrow the landing ellipse by more than 50 percent.

"Terrain-relative navigation enables us to go to sites that were ruled too risky for Curiosity to explore," said Al Chen of JPL, the Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead. "The range trigger lets us land closer to areas of scientific interest, shaving miles -- potentially as much as a year -- off a rover's journey."

This approach to minimizing landing errors will be critical in guiding any future mission dedicated to retrieving the Mars 2020 samples, Chen said.

Site selection has been another milestone for the mission. In February, the science community narrowed the list of potential landing sites from eight to three. Those three remaining sites represent fundamentally different environments that could have harbored primitive life: an ancient lakebed called Jezero Crater; Northeast Syrtis, where warm waters may have chemically interacted with subsurface rocks; and a possible hot springs at Columbia Hills.

All three sites have rich geology and may potentially harbor signs of past microbial life. A final landing site decision is still more than a year away.

"In the coming years, the 2020 science team will be weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each of these sites," Farley said. "It is by far the most important decision we have ahead of us."

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Another art concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover studying the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Hubble's Successor Achieves a Major Milestone on the Path to Launch in 2019...

The large door of the Johnson Space Center's Chamber A is opened...revealing NASA's James Webb Space Telescope after it completed cryogenic testing on November 18, 2017.
NASA / Chris Gunn

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Completes Final Cryogenic Testing (News Release - November 20)

The vault-like, 40-foot diameter, 40-ton door of Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was unsealed on November 18, signaling the end of cryogenic testing for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

The historic chamber’s massive door opening brings to a close about 100 days of testing for Webb, a significant milestone in the telescope’s journey to the launch pad. The cryogenic vacuum test began when the chamber was sealed shut on July 10, 2017. Scientists and engineers at Johnson put Webb’s optical telescope and integrated science instrument module (OTIS) through a series of tests designed to ensure the telescope functioned as expected in an extremely cold, airless environment akin to that of space.

“After 15 years of planning, chamber refurbishment, hundreds of hours of risk-reduction testing, the dedication of more than 100 individuals through more than 90 days of testing, and surviving Hurricane Harvey, the OTIS cryogenic test has been an outstanding success,” said Bill Ochs, project manager for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The completion of the test is one of the most significant steps in the march to launching Webb.”

These tests included an important alignment check of Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments, to make sure all of the gold-plated, hexagonal segments acted like a single, monolithic mirror. This was the first time the telescope’s optics and its instruments were tested together, though the instruments had previously undergone cryogenic testing in a smaller chamber at Goddard. Engineers from Harris Space and Intelligence Systems, headquartered in Melbourne, Florida, worked alongside NASA personnel for the test at Johnson.

“The Harris team integrated Webb’s 18 mirror segments at Goddard and designed, built, and helped operate the advanced ground support and optical test equipment at Johnson,” said Rob Mitrevski, vice president and general manager of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at Harris. “They were a key, enabling part of the successful Webb telescope testing team.”

The Webb telescope team persisted with the testing even when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the coast of Texas on Aug. 25 as a category 4 hurricane before stalling over eastern Texas and weakening to a tropical storm, where it dropped as much as 50 inches of rain in and around Houston. Many Webb telescope team members at Johnson endured the historic storm, working tirelessly through overnight shifts to make sure Webb’s cryogenic testing was not interrupted. In the wake of the storm, some Webb team members, including team members from Harris, volunteered their time to help clean up and repair homes around the city, and distribute food and water to those in need.

“The individuals and organizations that have led us to this most significant milestone represent the very best of the best. Their knowledge, dedication, and execution to successfully complete the testing as planned, even while enduring Hurricane Harvey, cannot be overstated,” said Mark Voyton, James Webb Space Telescope optical telescope element and integrated science instrument manager at Goddard. “Every team member delivered critical knowledge and insight into the strategic and tactical planning and execution required to complete all of the test objectives, and I am honored to have experienced this phase of our testing with every one of them.”

Before cooling the chamber, engineers removed the air from it, which took about a week. On July 20, engineers began to bring the chamber, the telescope, and the telescope’s science instruments down to cryogenic temperatures — a process that took about 30 days. During cool down, Webb and its instruments transferred their heat to surrounding liquid nitrogen and cold gaseous helium shrouds in Chamber A. Webb remained at “cryo-stable” temperatures for about another 30 days, and on Sept. 27, the engineers began to warm the chamber back to ambient conditions (near room temperature), before pumping the air back into it and unsealing the door.

“With an integrated team from all corners of the country, we were able to create deep space in our chamber and confirm that Webb can perform flawlessly as it observes the coldest corners of the universe,” said Jonathan Homan, project manager for Webb’s cryogenic testing at Johnson. “I expect [Webb] to be successful, as it journeys to Lagrange point 2 [after launch] and explores the origins of solar systems, galaxies, and has the chance to change our understanding of our universe.”

While Webb was inside the chamber, insulated from both outside visible and infrared light, engineers monitored it using thermal sensors and specialized camera systems. The thermal sensors kept tabs on the temperature of the telescope, while the camera systems tracked the physical position of Webb to see how its components very minutely moved during the cooldown process. Monitoring the telescope throughout the testing required the coordinated effort of every Webb team member at Johnson.

“This test team spanned nearly every engineering discipline we have on Webb,” said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for the Webb telescope at Goddard. “In every area there was incredible attention to detail and great teamwork, to make sure we understand everything that happened during the test and to make sure we can confidently say Webb will work as planned in space.”

In space, the telescope must be kept extremely cold, in order to be able to detect the infrared light from very faint, distant objects. Webb and its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin (or about minus 387 Fahrenheit / minus 233 Celsius). Because the Webb telescope’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) must be kept colder than the other research instruments, it relies on a cryocooler to lower its temperature to less than 7 Kelvin (minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit / minus 266 degrees Celsius).

To protect the telescope from external sources of light and heat (like the Sun, Earth and Moon), as well as from heat emitted by the observatory, a five-layer, tennis court-sized sunshield acts like a parasol that provides shade. The sunshield separates the observatory into a warm, sun-facing side (reaching temperatures close to 185 degrees Fahrenheit / 85 degrees Celsius) and a cold side (minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit / minus 240 degrees Celsius). The sunshield blocks sunlight from interfering with the sensitive telescope instruments.

Webb’s combined science instruments and optics next journey to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, where they will be integrated with the spacecraft element, which is the combined sunshield and spacecraft bus. Together, the pieces form the complete James Webb Space Telescope observatory. Once fully integrated, the entire observatory will undergo more tests during what is called "observatory-level testing." This testing is the last exposure to a simulated launch environment before flight and deployment testing on the whole observatory.

Webb is expected to launch from Kourou, French Guiana, in the spring of 2019.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the scientific complement to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, will be the premier space observatory of the next decade. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

Source: NASA.Gov

Monday, November 20, 2017

More Details On Last Month's Interstellar Interloper Are Revealed...

An artist's concept of 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua) traveling through deep space.
European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser

Solar System’s First Interstellar Visitor Dazzles Scientists (News Release)

Astronomers recently scrambled to observe an intriguing asteroid that zipped through the solar system on a steep trajectory from interstellar space—the first confirmed object from another star.

Now, new data reveal the interstellar interloper to be a rocky, cigar-shaped object with a somewhat reddish hue. The asteroid, named ‘Oumuamua by its discoverers, is up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly-elongated—perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide. That aspect ratio is greater than that of any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system to date. While its elongated shape is quite surprising, and unlike asteroids seen in our solar system, it may provide new clues into how other solar systems formed.

The observations and analyses were funded in part by NASA and appear in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Nature. They suggest this unusual object had been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.

“For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now – for the first time – we have direct evidence they exist,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”

Immediately after its discovery, telescopes around the world, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world were called into action to measure the object’s orbit, brightness and color. Urgency for viewing from ground-based telescopes was vital to get the best data.

Combining the images from the FORS instrument on the ESO telescope using four different filters with those of other large telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii found that ‘Oumuamua varies in brightness by a factor of ten as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. No known asteroid or comet from our solar system varies so widely in brightness, with such a large ratio between length and width. The most elongated objects we have seen to date are no more than three times longer than they are wide.

“This unusually big variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape,” said Meech. We also found that it had a reddish color, similar to objects in the outer solar system, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.”

These properties suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years.

A few large ground-based telescopes continue to track the asteroid, though it’s rapidly fading as it recedes from our planet. Two of NASA’s space telescopes (Hubble and Spitzer) are tracking the object the week of Nov. 20. As of Nov. 20, ‘Oumuamua is travelling about 85,700 miles per hour (38.3 kilometers per second) relative to the Sun. Its location is approximately 124 million miles (200 million kilometers) from Earth -- the distance between Mars and Jupiter – though its outbound path is about 20 degrees above the plane of planets that orbit the Sun. The object passed Mars’s orbit around Nov. 1 and will pass Jupiter’s orbit in May of 2018. It will travel beyond Saturn’s orbit in January 2019; as it leaves our solar system, ‘Oumuamua will head for the constellation Pegasus.

Observations from large ground-based telescopes will continue until the object becomes too faint to be detected, sometime after mid-December. NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) continues to take all available tracking measurements to refine the trajectory of 1I/2017 U1 as it exits our solar system.

This remarkable object was discovered Oct. 19 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope, funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program, which finds and tracks asteroids and comets in Earth’s neighborhood. NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said, “We are fortunate that our sky survey telescope was looking in the right place at the right time to capture this historic moment. This serendipitous discovery is bonus science enabled by NASA’s efforts to find, track and characterize near-Earth objects that could potentially pose a threat to our planet.”

Preliminary orbital calculations suggest that the object came from the approximate direction of the bright star Vega, in the northern constellation of Lyra. However, it took so long for the interstellar object to make the journey – even at the speed of about 59,000 miles per hour (26.4 kilometers per second) -- that Vega was not near that position when the asteroid was there about 300,000 years ago.

While originally classified as a comet, observations from ESO and elsewhere revealed no signs of cometary activity after it slingshotted past the Sun on Sept. 9 at a blistering speed of 196,000 miles per hour (87.3 kilometers per second).

The object has since been reclassified as interstellar asteroid 1I/2017 U1 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for granting official names to bodies in the solar system and beyond. In addition to the technical name, the Pan-STARRS team dubbed it ‘Oumuamua (pronounced oh MOO-uh MOO-uh), which is Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first.”

Astronomers estimate that an interstellar asteroid similar to ‘Oumuamua passes through the inner solar system about once per year, but they are faint and hard to spot and have been missed until now. It is only recently that survey telescopes, such as Pan-STARRS, are powerful enough to have a chance to discover them.

“What a fascinating discovery this is!” said Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “It’s a strange visitor from a faraway star system, shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen in our own solar system neighborhood.”

Source: NASA.Gov

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Photos of the Day: Meeting Jessica Jones...

At The Grove's Barnes & Noble bookstore in Los Angeles to attend a signing by actress Krysten Ritter...on November 17, 2017.

A little over a week after I met Anna Faris there, I went back to the Barnes & Noble bookstore at L.A.'s The Grove to get an autograph by Krysten Ritter last night. As you know, Ms. Ritter appears in Marvel's Jessica Jones on Netflix and played Chloe on the short-lived ABC TV sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. Like Anna Faris, Ms. Ritter skipped having a discussion of her new novel Bonfire and went straight to signing it for everyone in attendance. What was awesome was that each fan was also able to get two other pieces of memorabilia signed by Ritter to go with her book. Unsurprisingly, the memorabilia presented to her either involved Jessica Jones or Apartment 23. I only had my copy of Bonfire signed.

Posing with Krysten Ritter at The Grove's Barnes & Noble bookstore in Los Angeles...on November 17, 2017.

As of right now, this may be the last book signing that I attend at The Grove in 2017. There's another celebrity who's promoting a new publication at Barnes & Noble next month, but I'll only show up if I'm not booked for work that day. I don't plan to take that day off for the signing, nor do I intend to tell you who I'm talking about! I'll keep y'all in suspense... Happy Saturday.

My autographed copy of Krysten Ritter's novel BONFIRE.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Norway Gets Its First Set of Joint Strike Fighters...

One of the first three Norwegian F-35 fighter jets to be stationed at the country's Ørland Air Base lands on November 3, 2017.
Torbjørn Kjosvold / Norwegian Armed Forces

The F-35 Aircraft Marks the Start of a New Era for the Norwegian Armed Forces (Press Release)

"The F-35 remains crucial to the continued modernization of our Armed Forces and our ability to preserve Norwegian and allied security and interests." The Government marked the procurement with a ceremony at Ørland Air Base November 10th. "Today, we are marking an important milestone in the development of Norway’s defence capabilities: The arrival in Norway of the first F-35 Lightning II jets," says Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

"We mark the start of a new era for the Norwegian Armed Forces. The new combat aircraft will be a key factor in deterring any attack on Norway, as well as ensuring that we meet our obligations to the NATO alliance. The F-35 remains crucial to the continued modernization of our Armed Forces and our ability to preserve Norwegian and allied security and interests," says Minister of Defence Frank Bakke-Jensen.

The F-35 is a 5th generation multi-role combat aircraft. It is a key procurement that ensures stronger and more relevant Norwegian Armed Forces in the future. The F-35 provides the Norwegian Armed Forces with a significantly strengthened strategic capability, in terms of sensors, weapons and survivability. This helps ensure that Norway is able to present any future opponent with a credible threshold against military aggression or coercion.

"We live in a more and more uncertain world. NATO is undertaking the biggest strengthening of our collective defences in decades. The Norwegian F-35 aircraft are an important contribution to this modernization and make the world’s strongest Alliance even stronger," says NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

"The F-35 is a lot more than simply an F-16 replacement. It adds a wide range of capabilities to our Armed Forces that Norway have never had before. The F-35 is not just a new fighter. It is a completely new weapons system.

"Norway’s participation in this programme enhances our ability to cooperate with other NATO countries, and at the same time gives us additional capabilities that we could never have acquired on our own. This illustrates the value of the Alliance we are a part of. It also shows that we are shouldering our share of the responsibility for ensuring that NATO has modern and effective capabilities," says Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Source: Norwegian Ministry of Defence

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Photos of the Day: Another Book Signing at The Grove in LA...

At The Grove's Barnes & Noble bookstore in Los Angeles to attend a signing by actress Anna Faris...on November 6, 2017.

Just thought I'd share these pics that I took when I met Anna Faris—who appeared in such films as Scary Movie and The House Bunny, as well as the CBS TV sitcom Mom—at The Grove in Los Angeles yesterday. Ms. Faris (formerly Mrs. Pratt...as she was married to Jurassic World's Chris Pratt up until this year) was promoting her new book Unqualified. Unfortunately, she didn't do a discussion of her book before the signing (like what 2 Broke Girls Beth Behrs and The Big Bang Theory's Mayim Bialik did last May), but at least she posed for the cool group photo below. Nice. This is the first of two book signings that I plan to attend at Barnes & Noble in The Grove this month. The other one will be on November 17, when Krysten Ritter of Marvel's Jessica Jones shows up at the bookstore to promote her new novel Bonfire. Happy Tuesday.

Anna Faris takes a group photo with everyone who attended her signing at The Grove's Barnes & Noble bookstore in Los Angeles...on November 6, 2017. That red arrow was added by me.

Anna Faris signs a copy of her new book UNQUALIFIED at The Grove's Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles...on November 6, 2017.

My autographed copy of Anna Faris' book UNQUALIFIED.

Monday, November 06, 2017

New Horizons Update: Help Give Its 2019 Kuiper Belt Target a Nickname! (I Prefer "Mjölnir" or "Camalor"...)

An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flying past the binary objects that may comprise 2014 MU69...on January 1, 2019.
Carlos Hernandez

Help Nickname New Horizons’ Next Flyby Target (News Release)

NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is looking for your ideas on what to informally name its next flyby destination, a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) past Pluto.

On New Year’s Day 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft will fly past a small, frozen world in the Kuiper Belt, at the outer edge of our solar system. The target Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) currently goes by the official designation "(486958) 2014 MU69." NASA and the New Horizons team are asking the public for help in giving “MU69” a nickname to use for this exploration target.

“New Horizons made history two years ago with the first close-up look at Pluto, and is now on course for the farthest planetary encounter in the history of spaceflight,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We’re pleased to bring the public along on this exciting mission of discovery.”

After the flyby, NASA and the New Horizons project plan to choose a formal name to submit to the International Astronomical Union, based in part on whether MU69 is found to be a single body, a binary pair, or perhaps a system of multiple objects. The chosen nickname will be used in the interim.

“New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we’ve never seen before,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Our close encounter with MU69 adds another chapter to this mission’s remarkable story. We’re excited for the public to help us pick a nickname for our target that captures the excitement of the flyby and awe and inspiration of exploring this new and record-distant body in space.”

The naming campaign is hosted by the SETI Institute of Mountain View, California, and led by Mark Showalter, an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team. The website includes names currently under consideration; site visitors can vote for their favorites or nominate names they think should be added to the ballot. “The campaign is open to everyone,” Showalter said. “We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69.”

The campaign will close at 3 p.m. EST/noon PST on Dec. 1. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January.

Telescopic observations of MU69, which is more than 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, hint at the Kuiper Belt Object being either a binary orbiting pair or a contact (stuck together) pair of nearly like-sized bodies – meaning the team might actually need two or more temporary tags for its target.

“Many Kuiper Belt Objects have had informal names at first, before a formal name was proposed. After the flyby, once we know a lot more about this intriguing world, we and NASA will work with the International Astronomical Union to assign a formal name to MU69,” Showalter said. “Until then, we’re excited to bring people into the mission and share in what will be an amazing flyby on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, 2019!”

To submit your suggested names and to vote for your favorites, go to:

http://frontierworlds.seti.org

Source: NASA.Gov

Friday, November 03, 2017

SOLAR PROBE PLUS Update: The Spacecraft Continues Marching on Towards Its Summer 2018 Launch to the Sun...

Engineers watch as NASA's Parker Solar Probe spacecraft undergoes vibration testing inside a clean room at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Parker Solar Probe Completes Launch Simulation Vibration Testing (News Release)

To ensure that NASA's Parker Solar Probe will be able to withstand the physical stresses of launch, engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory – where the probe was designed and is being integrated and tested – used a special device called a shaker table to simulate the forces of being hurled into space. The spacecraft successfully passed vibration testing, or "vibe," as the engineers call it, in late October.

"Our vibration testing uses our 40,000-pound force shaker to simulate many of the dynamic events that occur during launch and powered flight," said APL's Dave Persons, Parker Solar Probe lead structural engineer. "By safely simulating that process here in the clean room, we're able to fully monitor the spacecraft and make sure it's cleared for flight. During the test, we actively monitored over 300 channels of data."

During and after launch aboard a Delta IV Heavy—the world's largest launch vehicle—from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in summer 2018, Parker Solar Probe will undergo immense shaking and vibration. These Earth-bound tests are designed to make sure all of the systems and instruments on the spacecraft are up to those stresses.

"The predicted responses for major loading events – derived from studying and analyzing how payloads like spacecraft that are attached to the launch vehicle behave – establishes just how much force and vibration that Parker Solar Probe will be subjected to," said Shelly Conkey of APL, Parker Solar Probe structural analyst. "We load that information into our simulation, and the shaker table subjects the probe to that force and vibration. This testing lets us know that the probe is adequately designed to survive launch, and is ready to move on to further environmental testing, which we'll continue at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center."

The Parker Solar Probe spacecraft will explore the Sun's outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of stars. The resulting data will also improve forecasts of major eruptions on the Sun and subsequent space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space. The mission is named for Eugene N. Parker, whose profound insights into solar physics and processes have guided the discipline.

Source: Parker Solar Probe Website

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Better Luck Next Year, Dodgers...

The Houston Astros celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-1, in Game 7 of the World Series...on November 1, 2017.
Matt Slocum / Associated Press

A note to the Los Angeles Doyers: If you need motivation to return to the Fall Classic next year, look no further than to the 2015 Kansas City Royals. The Royals lost to the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 World Series, only to return the following year and defeat the New York Mets in five games. But if the Dodgers do make it back to the championship round in late 2018, here's a bit of advice: DO NOT start a World Series game with Yu Darvish at the pitching mound (assuming that he'll still be part of the team next April). Even if he wasn't bothered by the racist gesture of the Houston Astros' Yuli Gurriel in Game 3 (which he clearly was), Darvish would've still faltered like he did in the first few innings of Game 7 tonight. Asians don't generally do well in high-pressure situations (otherwise, I would be sleeping right now before I wake up for that 9-to-5 fast-paced corporate office job tomorrow, as opposed to being a freelance blogger and photographer who took the week off from my freelance background acting job due to medical reasons—and hoping that there would've been a Dodgers parade to attend in downtown L.A. this Friday), particularly in American professional sports. It didn't help that the Dodgers started an Asian during the most important game of the American pastime!

Anyways, congrats to the Astros. Like the New Orleans Saints—who won the Super Bowl almost five years after their city was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005—Justin Verlander and Co. had the city of Houston rally behind them two months after it was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. What a great way to lift up the spirits of those who went through this devastating natural disaster. And speaking of Verlander, not only is he now a World Series champ, but he's set to marry supermodel Kate Upton in Italy this weekend. I despise him more than Gurriel... I kid. I despise him as much as I do that Cuban (insert any insult here). Carry on.

Supermodel Kate Upton and her fiancé/Astros pitcher Justin Verlander share a moment after Houston won the World Series at Dodgers Stadium...on November 1, 2017.
Ezra Shaw / Getty Images, 2017 Getty Images

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mars 2020 Update: Curiosity's Successor Will Be Bristling With Cameras...

An infographic showing all of the cameras that will fly aboard NASA's Mars 2020 rover.
NASA / JPL

Next Mars Rover Will Have 23 'Eyes' (News Release)

When NASA's Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander, and three on NASA's first rover, Sojourner.

Since then, camera technology has taken a quantum leap. Photo sensors that were improved by the space program have become commercially ubiquitous. Cameras have shrunk in size, increased in quality and are now carried in every cellphone and laptop.

That same evolution has returned to space. NASA's Mars 2020 mission will have more "eyes" than any rover before it: a grand total of 23, to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere, and assist science instruments. They will provide dramatic views during the rover's descent to Mars and be the first to capture images of a parachute as it opens on another planet. There will even be a camera inside the rover's body, which will study samples as they're stored and left on the surface for collection by a future mission.

A Snapshot of Some Mars 2020 Cameras

Enhanced Engineering Cameras: Color, higher resolution and wider fields of view than engineering cameras.

Mastcam-Z: An improved version of Curiosity's MASTCAM with a 3:1 zoom lens.

SuperCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI): The highest-resolution remote imager will have color, a change from the imager that flew with Curiosity's ChemCam.

CacheCam: Will watch as rock samples are deposited into the rover's body.

Entry, descent and landing cameras: Six cameras will record the entry, descent and landing process, providing the first video of a parachute opening on another planet.

Lander Vision System Camera: Will use computer vision to guide the landing, using a new technology called terrain relative navigation.

SkyCam: A suite of weather instruments will include a sky-facing camera for studying clouds and the atmosphere.


All these cameras will be incorporated as the Mars 2020 rover is built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. They represent a steady progression since Pathfinder: after that mission, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were designed with 10 cameras each, including on their landers; Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover has 17.

"Camera technology keeps improving," said Justin Maki of JPL, Mars 2020's imaging scientist and deputy principal investigator of the Mastcam-Z instrument. "Each successive mission is able to utilize these improvements, with better performance and lower cost."

That advantage represents a full circle of development, from NASA to the private sector and back. In the 1980s, JPL developed active-pixel sensors that used less power than earlier digital camera technology. These sensors were later commercialized by the Photobit Corporation, founded by former JPL researcher Eric Fossum, now at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

20/20 Vision

The cameras on 2020 will include more color and 3-D imaging than on Curiosity, said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Tempe, principal investigator for 2020's Mastcam-Z. The "Z" stands for "zoom," which will be added to an improved version of Curiosity's high-definition Mastcam, the rover's main eyes.

Mastcam-Z's stereoscopic cameras can support more 3-D images, which are ideal for examining geologic features and scouting potential samples from long distances away. Features like erosion and soil textures can be spotted at the length of a soccer field. Documenting details like these is important: They could reveal geologic clues and serve as "field notes" to contextualize samples for future scientists.

"Routinely using 3-D images at high resolution could pay off in a big way," Bell said. "They're useful for both long-range and near-field science targets."

Finally, in color

The Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers were all designed with engineering cameras for planning drives (Navcams) and avoiding hazards (Hazcams). These produced 1-megapixel images in black and white.

On the new rover, the engineering cameras have been upgraded to acquire high-resolution, 20-megapixel color images.

Their lenses will also have a wider field of view. That's critical for the 2020 mission, which will try to maximize the time spent doing science and collecting samples.

"Our previous Navcams would snap multiple pictures and stitch them together," said Colin McKinney of JPL, product delivery manager for the new engineering cameras. "With the wider field of view, we get the same perspective in one shot."

That means less time spent panning, snapping pictures and stitching. The cameras are also able to reduce motion blur, so they can take photos while the rover is on the move.

A Data Link to Mars

There's a challenge in all this upgrading: It means beaming more data through space.

"The limiting factor in most imaging systems is the telecommunications link," Maki said. "Cameras are capable of acquiring much more data than can be sent back to Earth."

To address that problem, rover cameras have gotten "smarter" over time -- especially regarding compression.

On Spirit and Opportunity, the compression was done using the onboard computer; on Curiosity, much of it was done using electronics built into the camera. That allows for more 3-D imaging, color, and even high-speed video.

NASA has also gotten better at using orbiting spacecraft as data relays. That concept was pioneered for rover missions with Spirit and Opportunity. The idea of using relays started as an experiment with NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter, Bell said.

"We were expecting to do that mission on just tens of megabits each Mars day, or sol," he said. "When we got that first Odyssey overflight, and we had about 100 megabits per sol, we realized it was a whole new ballgame."

NASA plans to use existing spacecraft already in orbit at Mars -- the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and the European Space Agency's Trace Gas Orbiter -- as relays for the Mars 2020 mission, which will support the cameras during the rover's first two years.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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An artist's concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover on the surface of the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL

Saturday, October 28, 2017

An Interstellar Interloper...

An animated GIF showing interstellar object A/2017 U1 moving through our solar system on its trip back into deep space.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Small Asteroid or Comet 'Visits' from Beyond the Solar System (News Release - October 26)

A small, recently discovered asteroid -- or perhaps a comet -- appears to have originated from outside the solar system, coming from somewhere else in our galaxy. If so, it would be the first "interstellar object" to be observed and confirmed by astronomers.

This unusual object - for now designated A/2017 U1 - is less than a quarter-mile (400 meters) in diameter and is moving remarkably fast. Astronomers are urgently working to point telescopes around the world and in space at this notable object. Once these data are obtained and analyzed, astronomers may know more about the origin and possibly composition of the object.

A/2017 U1 was discovered Oct. 19 by the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, during the course of its nightly search for near-Earth objects for NASA. Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), was first to identify the moving object and submit it to the Minor Planet Center. Weryk subsequently searched the Pan-STARRS image archive and found it also was in images taken the previous night, but was not initially identified by the moving object processing.

Weryk immediately realized this was an unusual object. "Its motion could not be explained using either a normal solar system asteroid or comet orbit," he said. Weryk contacted IfA graduate Marco Micheli, who had the same realization using his own follow-up images taken at the European Space Agency's telescope on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. But with the combined data, everything made sense. Said Weryk, "This object came from outside our solar system."

"This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen," said Davide Farnocchia, a scientist at NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back."

The CNEOS team plotted the object's current trajectory and even looked into its future. A/2017 U1 came from the direction of the constellation Lyra, cruising through interstellar space at a brisk clip of 15.8 miles (25.5 kilometers) per second.

The object approached our solar system from almost directly "above" the ecliptic, the approximate plane in space where the planets and most asteroids orbit the Sun, so it did not have any close encounters with the eight major planets during its plunge toward the Sun. On Sept. 2, the small body crossed under the ecliptic plane just inside of Mercury's orbit and then made its closest approach to the Sun on Sept. 9. Pulled by the Sun's gravity, the object made a hairpin turn under our solar system, passing under Earth's orbit on Oct. 14 at a distance of about 15 million miles (24 million kilometers) -- about 60 times the distance to the Moon. It has now shot back up above the plane of the planets and, travelling at 27 miles per second (44 kilometers per second) with respect to the Sun, the object is speeding toward the constellation Pegasus.

"We have long suspected that these objects should exist, because during the process of planet formation a lot of material should be ejected from planetary systems. What's most surprising is that we've never seen interstellar objects pass through before," said Karen Meech, an astronomer at the IfA specializing in small bodies and their connection to solar system formation.

The small body has been assigned the temporary designation A/2017 U1 by the Minor Planet Center (MPC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where all observations on small bodies in our solar system -- and now those just passing through -- are collected. Said MPC Director Matt Holman, "This kind of discovery demonstrates the great scientific value of continual wide-field surveys of the sky, coupled with intensive follow-up observations, to find things we wouldn't otherwise know are there."

Since this is the first object of its type ever discovered, rules for naming this type of object will need to be established by the International Astronomical Union.

"We have been waiting for this day for decades," said CNEOS Manager Paul Chodas. "It's long been theorized that such objects exist -- asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system -- but this is the first such detection. So far, everything indicates this is likely an interstellar object, but more data would help to confirm it."

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) is a wide-field survey observatory operated by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. The Minor Planet Center is hosted by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and is a sub-node of NASA's Planetary Data System Small Bodies Node at the University of Maryland (http://www.minorplanetcenter.net/). JPL hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). All are projects of NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program, and elements of the agency's Planetary Defense Coordination Office within NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Posing for a photo atop the Haleakala volcanic summit—which is home to the Pan-STARRS telescope that discovered A/2017 U1—during a trip to Maui, Hawaii, in May of 2000.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

JWST Update: Hubble's Successor Deploys Its Shield...

The sunshield for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is fully deployed at the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California.
Northrop Grumman

Sunshield Deployment and Layers Fully Tensioned on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (Press Release)

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. – Oct. 26, 2017 – Northrop Grumman Corporation, which designed NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) optics, spacecraft bus, and sunshield for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, has deployed the sunshield subsystem and fully tensioned the five sunshield layers for the first time.

“The first tensioning of the sunshield is a monumental and exciting moment, not only for the program but for the collaborative JWST team,” said Scott Willoughby, vice president and program manager, James Webb Space Telescope, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems “The innovative sunshield is an industry first, and will protect Webb’s optics from heat, making it possible to gather images of the formation of the first stars and galaxies more than 13.5 billion years ago.”

In space, the sunshield subsystem divides the JWST observatory into a warm sun-facing side and a cold space-facing side comprised of the optics and scientific instruments. The sunshield subsystem, which includes the structure and mechanisms required for deploying the five-layer subsystem, was designed, manufactured and assembled by Northrop Grumman, with the five membrane layers manufactured by the NeXolve Corporation in Huntsville, Alabama.

The flight membranes will be folded, stowed and tensioned again two additional times for testing. The folding and stowing method is how the membranes will be folded and stowed for launch. The sunshield layers, known for being the size of a tennis court, will protect and prevent the background heat from the Sun, Earth and Moon from interfering with JWST’s infrared sensors.

The sunshield layers, each as thin as a human hair, work together to reduce the temperatures between the hot and cold sides of the observatory by approximately 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Moving from the Sun-facing layer to the one closest to the telescope, each successive layer of the sunshield, which is made of Kapton, is cooler than the one below. The sunshield, along with the rest of the spacecraft, will fold origami-style into an Ariane 5 rocket.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the scientific complement to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, will be the premier space observatory of the next decade. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Source: Northrop Grumman

Monday, October 23, 2017

The F-35A Is Ready to be Deployed Overseas...

An F-35A Lightning II is ready for takeoff at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii...on October 13, 2017.
USAF / Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman

U.S. Air Force's F-35A Lightning II Scheduled for First Operational Deployment to Indo-Asia-Pacific (Press Release)

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- Approximately 300 Airmen and 12 F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill Air Force Base, Utah’s 34th Fighter Squadron are set to deploy to Kadena Air Base, Japan for a six month rotation. The aircraft and supporting personnel are scheduled to arrive at Kadena in early November.

This marks U.S. Pacific Command’s first operational tasking for the F-35A and builds upon the U.S. Air Force fifth-generation stealth fighter’s successful debut in the Indo-Asia-Pacific at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition (ADEX) earlier this month.

“The F-35A gives the joint warfighter unprecedented global precision attack capability against current and emerging threats while complementing our air superiority fleet,” said Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces commander. “The airframe is ideally suited to meet our command’s obligations, and we look forward to integrating it into our training and operations.”

The F-35A is being deployed under U.S. PACOM’s theater security package (TSP) program, which has been in operation since 2004. This long-planned deployment is designed to demonstrate the continuing U.S. commitment to stability and security in the region.

While a first in-theater for the F-35A, the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B variant has been stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan since January, 2017.

Source: Pacific Air Forces

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Photos of the Day: An F-35B Conducts Training Exercises at Sea...

An F-35B Lightning II is about to take off from the deck of the USS Essex during a training exercise off the coast of Southern California...on October 22, 2017.
USMC / Lance Cpl. Roderick Jacquote

F-35B Lightning II Carrier Qualifications (News Release)

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II, assigned to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, descends to the flight deck of the USS Essex (LHD 2) during Exercise Dawn Blitz in the Pacific Ocean off California Oct. 22, 2017. Dawn Blitz is a scenario-driven amphibious exercise conducted between Expeditionary Strike Group 3 and 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, testing their ability to conduct amphibious operations in response to global crises and to project power ashore as part of a Navy-Marine Corps team.

Source: Defense Video Imagery Distribution System

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An F-35B Lightning II is about to touch down onto the deck of the USS Essex during a training exercise off the coast of Southern California...on October 22, 2017.
USMC / Lance Cpl. Roderick Jacquote

An F-35B Lightning II is about to touch down onto the deck of the USS Essex during a training exercise off the coast of Southern California...on October 22, 2017.
USMC / Lance Cpl. Roderick Jacquote

An F-35B Lightning II is about to touch down onto the deck of the USS Essex during a training exercise off the coast of Southern California...on October 22, 2017.
USMC / Lance Cpl. Roderick Jacquote

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Los Doyers Are Goin' Back to the World Series...

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate after defeating the Chicago Cubs, 11-1, in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS)...on October 19, 2017.
Getty Images

29 years after winning their last championship at the expense of the Oakland A's, the Los Angeles Dodgers are headed back to the Fall Classic after laying a smackdown on the Chicago Cubs, 11-1, in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field tonight. Game 1 of the World Series takes place at Dodger Stadium next Tuesday, October 24, against the winner of the American League Championship Series. So by either tomorrow night or Saturday evening, the Los Doyers will be prepping to play the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees in the final round. Chances are, the head honchos at Major League Baseball's main office are hoping it's the latter. Gotta make that dough and the high TV ratings, ya know...

I'm an Angels fan, but being a proud California native who's attended every Lakers parade since 2000 and both parades for the L.A. Kings in 2012 and 2014, respectively, I'll root for any team that continues to make SoCal—and Los Angeles in general—the championship capital of this nation. Keep in mind that the Los Angeles Sparks were so close to winning a WNBA title against the Minnesota Lynx a little over two weeks ago (the Lynx clinched the championship in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals...which took place on my birthday, October 4).

Assuming that the Dodgers win it all by November 1st (which is when a Game 7 would be played—in Los Angeles), the Clippers will be the only team in the City of Angels to not win a championship since the start of this century (the Rams and the Chargers are excluded...for now). I'll wait till the outcome of the World Series to pour haterade on the only title-less team to currently play inside STAPLES Center in downtown Los Angeles. That is all.

The Los Angeles Dodgers take a group photo after defeating the Chicago Cubs, 11-1, in Game 5 of the NLCS...on October 19, 2017.
Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Monday, October 16, 2017

Spotting a KILONOVA: An Awesome Discovery in the Cosmos...

A kilonova (box) as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory in optical and infrared light, as well as in X-ray.
NASA / CXC / E. Troja

NASA Missions Catch First Light from a Gravitational-Wave Event (Press Release)

For the first time, NASA scientists have detected light tied to a gravitational-wave event, thanks to two merging neutron stars in the galaxy NGC 4993, located about 130 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra.

Shortly after 8:41 a.m. EDT on Aug. 17, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope picked up a pulse of high-energy light from a powerful explosion, which was immediately reported to astronomers around the globe as a short gamma-ray burst. The scientists at the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves dubbed GW170817 from a pair of smashing stars tied to the gamma-ray burst, encouraging astronomers to look for the aftermath of the explosion. Shortly thereafter, the burst was detected as part of a follow-up analysis by ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) INTEGRAL satellite.

NASA's Swift, Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer missions, along with dozens of ground-based observatories, including the NASA-funded Pan-STARRS survey, later captured the fading glow of the blast's expanding debris.

"This is extremely exciting science," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. "Now, for the first time, we've seen light and gravitational waves produced by the same event. The detection of a gravitational-wave source’s light has revealed details of the event that cannot be determined from gravitational waves alone. The multiplier effect of study with many observatories is incredible."

Neutron stars are the crushed, leftover cores of massive stars that previously exploded as supernovas long ago. The merging stars likely had masses between 10 and 60 percent greater than that of our Sun, but they were no wider than Washington, D.C. The pair whirled around each other hundreds of times a second, producing gravitational waves at the same frequency. As they drew closer and orbited faster, the stars eventually broke apart and merged, producing both a gamma-ray burst and a rarely seen flare-up called a "kilonova."

"This is the one we've all been waiting for," said David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory at Caltech in Pasadena, California. "Neutron star mergers produce a wide variety of light because the objects form a maelstrom of hot debris when they collide. Merging black holes -- the types of events LIGO and its European counterpart, Virgo, have previously seen -- very likely consume any matter around them long before they crash, so we don't expect the same kind of light show."

"The favored explanation for short gamma-ray bursts is that they're caused by a jet of debris moving near the speed of light produced in the merger of neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole," said Eric Burns, a member of Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "LIGO tells us there was a merger of compact objects, and Fermi tells us there was a short gamma-ray burst. Together, we know that what we observed was the merging of two neutron stars, dramatically confirming the relationship."

Within hours of the initial Fermi detection, LIGO and the Virgo detector at the European Gravitational Observatory near Pisa, Italy, greatly refined the event's position in the sky with additional analysis of gravitational wave data. Ground-based observatories then quickly located a new optical and infrared source -- the kilonova -- in NGC 4993.

To Fermi, this appeared to be a typical short gamma-ray burst, but it occurred less than one-tenth as far away as any other short burst with a known distance, making it among the faintest known. Astronomers are still trying to figure out why this burst is so odd, and how this event relates to the more luminous gamma-ray bursts seen at much greater distances.

NASA’s Swift, Hubble and Spitzer missions followed the evolution of the kilonova to better understand the composition of this slower-moving material, while Chandra searched for X-rays associated with the remains of the ultra-fast jet.

When Swift turned to the galaxy shortly after Fermi’s gamma-ray burst detection, it found a bright and quickly fading ultraviolet (UV) source.

"We did not expect a kilonova to produce bright UV emission," said Goddard’s S. Bradley Cenko, principal investigator for Swift. "We think this was produced by the short-lived disk of debris that powered the gamma-ray burst."

Over time, material hurled out by the jet slows and widens as it sweeps up and heats interstellar material, producing so-called afterglow emission that includes X-rays.

But the spacecraft saw no X-rays -- a surprise for an event that produced higher-energy gamma rays.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory clearly detected X-rays nine days after the source was discovered. Scientists think the delay was a result of our viewing angle, and it took time for the jet directed toward Earth to expand into our line of sight.

"The detection of X-rays demonstrates that neutron star mergers can form powerful jets streaming out at near light speed," said Goddard's Eleonora Troja, who led one of the Chandra teams and found the X-ray emission. "We had to wait for nine days to detect it because we viewed it from the side, unlike anything we had seen before."

On Aug. 22, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope began imaging the kilonova and capturing its near-infrared spectrum, which revealed the motion and chemical composition of the expanding debris.

"The spectrum looked exactly like how theoretical physicists had predicted the outcome of the merger of two neutron stars would appear," said Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, who led one of the proposals for Hubble spectral observations. "It tied this object to the gravitational wave source beyond all reasonable doubt."

Astronomers think a kilonova's visible and infrared light primarily arises through heating from the decay of radioactive elements formed in the neutron-rich debris. Crashing neutron stars may be the universe's dominant source for many of the heaviest elements, including platinum and gold.

Because of its Earth-trailing orbit, Spitzer was uniquely situated to observe the kilonova long after the Sun moved too close to the galaxy for other telescopes to see it. Spitzer's Sept. 30 observation captured the longest-wavelength infrared light from the kilonova, which unveils the quantity of heavy elements forged.

"Spitzer was the last to join the party, but it will have the final word on how much gold was forged," says Mansi Kasliwal, Caltech assistant professor and principal investigator of the Spitzer observing program.

Numerous scientific papers describing and interpreting these observations have been published in Science, Nature, Physical Review Letters and The Astrophysical Journal.

Gravitational waves were directly detected for the first time in 2015 by LIGO, whose architects were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery.

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A kilonova (box), located within the galaxy NGC 4993, as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA and ESA