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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Photos of the Day #3: An Autograph Signing in the City of Industry...

At Sports Authentics USA inside Puente Hills Mall to attend an autograph signing by Vida Guerra...on January 21, 2017.

Just thought I'd end this month by posting these pics that were taken when I met the very lovely actress and model Vida Guerra at my local mall yesterday. The meet-and-greet took place at Puente Hills Mall in the City of Industry...inside the new Sports Authentics USA store. This is the third autograph signing to take place at this new retail outlet since it opened late last year—the first one being by 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell (who played for the Boston Celtics) and the second one by 7-time NBA champ Robert Horry (who won three rings with the Los Angeles Lakers, and two each with the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, respectively). It's so cool to attend an autograph signing so close to home; it would be absolutely awesome if Kobe Bryant one day does an autograph signing at Puente Hills Mall [or at the Frank & Son Collectible Show (where Shaquille O'Neal did a photo op almost four years ago) a few miles away, also in the City of Industry]! It would've been better if he was still a player with the Lakers if he did so, but it's all good.

At Sports Authentics USA inside Puente Hills Mall to attend an autograph signing by Vida Guerra...on January 21, 2017.

Back on topic, it was awesome to meet Vida Guerra! You can see her in the upcoming movie adaptation of the classic TV show CHIPS...starring Michael Peña and Dax Shepard. In fact, CHIPS hits theaters next month, on March 24. Lookin' forward to seeing you on the big screen, Vida! Happy Monday.

Posing with Vida Guerra inside Sports Authentics USA at Puente Hills Mall...on January 21, 2017.

My autograph by Vida Guerra.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Photos of the Day #2: Visiting the City of Venice...in California, that is

Visiting the Venice Canal Historic District south of downtown Los Angeles...on January 30, 2017.

Earlier today, I drove to the Venice Canal Historic District south of downtown Los Angeles to take photos of the iconic waterways. With the original canals built in 1905 (they no longer exist since they were paved over for streets and parking lots; the current pathways weren't built yet), these passages were pretty cool to see in person. It's intriguing that people live in houses and condos along these various canals. [Of course, the monthly rent (or mortgage? I dunno) for these residences must be pretty darn high.] Empty canoes and boats lie docked along the sides of these canals, though I'm pretty sure the pathways are flowing with watercraft as their owners row through the passages on the weekends or during holidays. The Venice Canals are a great tourist spot to check out before walking over to Venice Beach—which is literally right across the street (past Pacific Avenue, that is) from this famous landmark. Here are some photos that I took of the waterways this afternoon...enjoy!

Ducks paddle through a waterway in the Venice Canal Historic District on January 30, 2017.

One of many bridges that interconnects the residential areas located in the middle of the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

One of many bridges that interconnects the residential areas located in the middle of the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

A pink flamingo boat that's docked near a condo in the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

Another group of ducks paddle through a waterway in the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

A condo and other dwellings located in the middle of the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

Boats and canoes line the sides of a waterway in the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

A condo and other dwellings located in the middle of the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

Another group of ducks paddle through a waterway in the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

Another group of ducks paddle through a waterway in the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

A street sign located along South Venice Boulevard points tourists toward the Venice Canal Historic District...on January 30, 2017.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Photos of the Day: Meet the Titanium Goose...

The A-12 'Titanium Goose' on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles...on December 12, 2016.

I took these photos during work last month, but just thought I'd finally share these pics that I took of Lockheed's A-12 spy plane that's been on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles for quite some time now. This A-12 in particular, dubbed the Titanium Goose (although the A-12 was generally called Cygnus by its pilots), is a two-seater training variant that is one of 15 aircraft that were built under the CIA's Oxcart program that began in the late 1950s. Nine of the SR-71 Blackbird's precursors are on display at museums (and CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia) throughout the nation...with the other six being lost during in-flight mishaps (with three fatalities) from 1963 to 1968. What a sad way to end this aerospace program, but I'm glad that this engineering marvel was still able to go on exhibit here in the City of Angels.

The A-12 Titanium Goose on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles...on December 12, 2016.

The A-12 Titanium Goose on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles...on December 12, 2016.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Arase Is Close to Beginning Its Science Mission...

A computer-generated art concept of JAXA's Arase spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
JAXA

Completion of Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace Arase (ERG)'s Critical Operations Phase (Press Release)

JAXA confirmed completion of the critical operations phase* of the Arase mission, formerly known as Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace (ERG). It results from a sequence of significant tasks that occurred as anticipated: perigee up maneuvers and extension of its wire antennae and masts.

Arase is currently in good condition and is scheduled to enter into a two-month commissioning phase, then followed by a science operations phase.

JAXA expresses its deepest appreciation for the indispensable contributions and support by all.

* Critical operations phase: period initiated at the separation of payload from a launch vehicle until payload’s stability is established. During this period, solar array paddles are deployed, and status of attitude control and tracking systems, and operations of ground tracking and control facility are ensured.

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Photos of the Day: Visiting Griffith Observatory...

Visiting Griffith Observatory after an almost 23-year absence...on January 21, 2017.

So yesterday, I visited Griffith Observatory for the first time in almost 23 years! This historic Los Angeles landmark still looks as elegant as it did when I last went here in the summer of 1994...right before I started my first year in high school. The Astronomers Monument out in the front lawn is still a neat sight to see, it was cool to watch the pendulum swing away inside the main lobby again, and it was great to get a glimpse of the 12-inch Zeiss Telescope in the left dome (if you're viewing Griffith from the front lawn) of the observatory.

Checking out the pendulum inside the main lobby of Griffith Observatory...on January 21, 2017.

I was thinking about attending a show inside the Samuel Oschin Planetarium (not to be confused with the Samuel Oschin Pavilion—the temporary home of space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Exposition Park), but it would've been about a two-hour wait for the next one to begin. So I decided to take a few more pics and bought two fridge magnets at the gift shop before I took a lengthy but quick walk (thank you, gravity!) to my car parked about a mile down the hill.

Getting a glimpse of the 12-inch Zeiss Telescope at Griffith Observatory...on January 21, 2017.

I'm a huge space geek today...thanks in part to a field trip that my class took to Griffith back in the 4th grade (in April of 1990). The many astronomy exhibits on display throughout the observatory are a thrill to see if you love learning about the cosmos. And if you don't care about learning about the cosmos (damn you), Griffith is still a wonderful place to just hang out and use one of the many spotting scopes placed on and around the building to gaze down at the Los Angeles Basin, or the Hollywood Sign a few miles away.

LINK: January 2017 photos that I took at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles

A fascinating cloud formation as seen from Griffith Observatory...on January 21, 2017.

All-in-all, Griffith Observatory is a must-see if you're a tourist visiting from out of state or out of country, or you're an L.A. native who wants to check out a landmark that makes you appreciate just how amazing the City of Angels really is. Will I visit Griffith again, you ask? You betcha! And this time I'm gonna dish out $7 to catch a cool show inside the planetarium. Happy (rainy) Monday!

Griffith Observatory with the Downtown Los Angeles skyline visible in the backdrop...on January 21, 2017.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Trumpire Rises...

Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States...on January 20, 2017.
Getty Images

So a new period of uncertainty has officially begun now that Donald Trump has been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. All I can say is, it appears that Trump borrowed elements of his inaugural speech from Bane in The Dark Knight Rises... How dare The Donald gives the leader of the League of Shadows a bad name!

The fire rises.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Dark Era Will Soon Be Upon Us...

To paraphrase a wise old man (who once welded a lightsaber): "Less than 24 hours to go before the rise of the dark times...before the Trumpire."

Get ready to join the rebellion!

Obi-Wan Kenobi is ready to fight in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE...just like how we need to be ready to fight if Donald Trump follows through on his dark pledges for America.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Lightning II Arrives in the Land of the Rising Sun...

An F-35B Lightning II arrives at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan...on January 18, 2017.
III Marine Expeditionary Force - USMC

F-35B Arrives in Japan (News Release)

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- F-35B Lightning II aircraft, belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, Marine Aircraft Group 12, arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni January 18, beginning the squadron’s permanent basing at the air station.

The F-35B represents the future of Marine Corps tactical aviation and incorporates the mission capabilities of the current Marine Corps platforms it is replacing—the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet, and EA-6B Prowler—within a single airframe. In addition to its short takeoff and vertical landing capability, the F-35B’s unique combination of stealth, cutting-edge radar, sensor technology, and electronic warfare systems bring all of the access and lethality capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, a modern bomber, and an adverse-weather, all-threat environment air support platform.

“The arrival of the F-35B embodies our commitment to the defense of Japan and the regional-security of the Pacific,” said Maj. Gen. Russell Sanborn, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General. “We are bringing the most advanced technology to the Pacific to respond to the wide range of missions we take part in and provide greater support to our regional allies.”

Prior to arriving in Iwakuni, VMFA-121 was stationed with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at MCAS Yuma, Arizona. During the squadron’s time in Arizona, the aircraft successfully participated in numerous exercises and training events.

"Our training in the U.S. has prepared us well for our mission here in Japan and we are very honored to have such a warm welcome," said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. J. T. Bardo, commanding officer of VMFA-121. "Our Marines and family members take great pride in being able to serve here and be part of the amazing community in Iwakuni, both on and around the air station.”

Source: III Marine Expeditionary Force

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

OSIRIS-REx Update: Altering Its Course Towards Asteroid Bennu...

An artist's concept that shows OSIRIS-REx firing its main engines in deep space.
University of Arizona

Successful Deep Space Maneuver for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft (Press Release)

New tracking data confirms that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft aced its first Deep Space Maneuver (DSM-1) on Dec. 28, 2016. The engine burn sets up the spacecraft for an Earth gravity assist this fall as it continues its two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu.

The large maneuver was the first using OSIRIS-REx’s main engines and resulted in a 964 miles per hour (431 meters per second) change in the vehicle’s velocity utilizing 780 pounds (354 kilograms) of fuel.

Tracking data from the Deep Space Network (DSN) confirmed the successful maneuver, and subsequent downlink of high-rate telemetry from the spacecraft shows that all subsystems performed as expected.

"DSM-1 was our first major trajectory change and first use of the main engines, so it’s good to have that under our belts and be on a safe trajectory to Bennu," said Arlin Bartels, deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

DSM-1 represents the first major, post-launch milestone for OSIRIS-REx. The significant change in trajectory from DSM-1 was necessary to put OSIRIS-REx on course for an encounter with Earth in September of this year.

A smaller trajectory correction maneuver will be executed on Wednesday, Jan. 18 to refine the course for the Earth flyby, during which Earth's gravity will bend the OSIRIS-REx trajectory and slinging it toward a rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu in the fall of 2018.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s observation planning and processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing spacecraft flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for its Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A graphic showing OSIRIS-REx's location in deep space as of January 16, 2017.
Courtesy of AsteroidMission.org

Friday, January 13, 2017

Back in the Day: Honoring the POTUS on the Surface of Mars...

An image of a plaque bearing the signatures of President Obama, Vice President Biden and other U.S. officials that's on the Curiosity Mars rover.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

President's Signature Onboard Curiosity (News Release - September 21, 2012)

This view of Curiosity's deck shows a plaque bearing several signatures of U.S. officials, including that of President Obama and Vice President Biden. The image was taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the rover's 44th Martian day, or sol, on Mars (Sept. 19, 2012). The plaque is located on the front left side of the rover's deck.

The rectangular plaque is made of anodized aluminum and measures 3.94 inches (100 millimeters) tall by 3.23 inches (82 millimeters) wide. The plaque was affixed to the rover's deck with four bolts.

Similar plaques with signatures -- including those of the sitting president and vice-president -- adorn the lander platforms for NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on Mars in January of 2004. An image from Spirit's plaque can be found at PIA05034.

The main purpose of Curiosity's MAHLI camera is to acquire close-up, high-resolution views of rocks and soil at the rover's Gale Crater field site. The camera is capable of focusing on any target at distances of about 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, providing versatility for other uses, such as views of the rover itself from different angles.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Thursday, January 12, 2017

F-35 Update #2: The U.S. Air Force's Lightning II Gets a New Home Base...

As of August 2, 2016, the F-35A Lightning II is officially ready to go to war.
USAF / Lockheed Martin

AF Announces NAS JRB Fort Worth as the Preferred Location for Next F-35A Base (Press Release)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Air Force officials announced Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, as the preferred location for the first Air Force Reserve-led F-35 base, which is expected to begin receiving its first F-35As in the mid-2020s.

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona; Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida; and Whiteman AFB, Missouri, will be considered as reasonable alternatives during the environmental analysis process which must be completed before the Air Force makes a final basing decision.

"We selected the Air Force Reserve unit in Fort Worth because it is the location that meets all of the necessary training requirements at the lowest cost,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “Additionally, the location will provide mission synergy and access to an experienced workforce for recruiting as a result of its proximity to the F-35 manufacturing plant.”

According to the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, the F-35 is even better than advertised.

“In the hands of our Airmen, the F-35 will be the most lethal, survivable and adaptable aircraft in our inventory for decades to come," Goldfein said. “No matter how you slice it, the F-35's stealth characteristics, maneuverability, interoperability and its ability to make other aircraft better through sensor fusion make it unmatched by any adversary."

In December 2016, the Air Force released the candidate bases for the next two Air National Guard-led F-35 bases. The candidate bases included Dannelly Field Air Guard Station, Alabama; Gowen Field AGS, Idaho; Jacksonville AGS, Florida; Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan; and Truax AGS, Wisconsin.

The Air Force will be conducting on-the-ground site surveys at each candidate location assessing each location against operational requirements, potential impacts to existing missions, infrastructure and manpower, and then develop cost estimates to bed down the F-35A.

The preferred and reasonable alternatives for the ANG bases are expected to be selected in the summer of 2017.

The F-35As are expected to begin arriving at the second and third ANG locations in the early to mid-2020s.

Currently, three active-duty operational locations—Hill AFB, Utah; Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom; and Eielson AFB, Alaska— and one ANG location – Burlington AGS, Vermont – have been identified for F-35A basing.

Source: United States Air Force

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

F-35 Update: The U.S. Marine Corps Sends a Squadron of Lightning IIs to the Land of the Rising Sun...

An F-35B Lightning II undergoes aerial refueling on its way to Alaska on January 9, 2017...with its final destination being Iwakuni, Japan.
Courtesy Photo - USMC

FY17001 - VMFA-121 Departs for Relocation to Japan (Press Release)

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, California -- Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, an F-35B squadron with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, departed Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, transferring to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Jan. 9, 2017.

The first location to receive the Marine Corps' F-35B, as part of its worldwide deployment capability, is Iwakuni, Japan.

In November 2012, the Marine Corps announced that after a century of Marine Corps aviation, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing would introduce its first F-35B Lightning II squadron. The F-35B was developed to replace the Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier and EA-6B Prowler. The Short Take-off Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft is a true force multiplier. The unique combination of stealth, cutting-edge radar and sensor technology, and electronic warfare systems bring all of the access and lethality capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, a modern bomber, and an adverse-weather, all-threat environment air support platform.

Nov. 20, 2012: VMFA (All Weather)-121, formerly a 3rd MAW F/A-18 Hornet squadron, was redesignated as the Corps’ first operational F-35 squadron, VMFA-121. The Commandant of the Marine Corps publicly declared VMFA-121 initial operating capability (IOC) on July 31, 2015, following a five-day operational readiness inspection (ORI). Since IOC, the squadron has continued to fly sorties and employ ordnance as part of their normal training cycle.

In December 2015, VMFA-121 employed its F-35Bs in support of Exercise Steel Knight. The exercise is a combined-arms live-fire exercise which integrates capabilities of air and ground combat elements to complete a wide range of military operations in an austere environment to prepare the 1st Marine Division for deployment as the ground combat element of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The F-35B preformed exceedingly well during the exercise.

In October 2016, a contingent of Marine Corps F-35B’s, pilots and maintainers participated in Developmental Test III and the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration aboard the USS America (LHA-6). The final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant. Data and lessons learned laid the groundwork for developing the concepts of operations for F-35B deployments aboard U.S. Navy amphibious carriers, the first two of which will take place in 2018.

The transition of VMFA-121 from MCAS Yuma to MCAS Iwakuni marks a significant milestone in the F-35B program as the Marine Corps continues to lead the way in the advancement of stealth fighter attack aircraft.

Source: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar

Thursday, January 05, 2017

More Info on the Lucy Mission...

An artist's concept of the Lucy spacecraft exploring Trojan asteroids in Jupiter's orbit.
Southwest Research Institute

Lockheed Martin to Build NASA's Lucy Spacecraft, a Mission to Trojan Asteroids (Press Release)

NASA's Newest Discovery Mission to Study Asteroids Orbiting with Jupiter

DENVER, Jan. 5, 2017 -- Lockheed Martin has been selected to design, build and operate the spacecraft for NASA's Lucy mission. One of NASA's two new Discovery Program missions, Lucy will perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids orbiting the sun in tandem with the gas giant. The Lucy spacecraft will launch in 2021 to study six of these exciting worlds.

The mission is led by Principal Investigator Dr. Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland will manage the mission. The program has a development cost cap of about $450 million.

"This is a thrilling mission as the Jupiter Trojan asteroids have never been studied up close," said Guy Beutelschies, director of Interplanetary Systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. "The design of the spacecraft draws from the flight-proven OSIRIS-REx spacecraft currently on its way to a near-Earth asteroid. This heritage of spacecraft and mission operations brings known performance, reliability and cost to the mission."

Lucy will study the geology, surface composition and bulk physical properties of these bodies at close range. It's slated to arrive at its first destination, a main belt asteroid, in 2025. From 2027 to 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. These asteroids are trapped by Jupiter's gravity in two swarms that share the planet's orbit, one leading and one trailing Jupiter in its 12-year circuit around the sun. The Trojans are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system, and may have formed far beyond Jupiter's current orbit.

"This is a unique opportunity," said Dr. Levison. "Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins."

Lucy is the seventh NASA Discovery Program mission in which Lockheed Martin has participated. Previously, the company developed the Lunar Prospector spacecraft; developed the aeroshell entry system for Mars Pathfinder; developed and operated the spacecraft for both Stardust missions; developed and operated the Genesis spacecraft; developed and operated the two GRAIL spacecraft; and developed and will operate the InSight Mars lander set to launch in May 2018.

NASA's Discovery program class missions are relatively low-cost, their development capped at a specific cost. They are managed for NASA's Planetary Science Division by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The missions are designed and led by a principal investigator, who assembles a team of scientists and engineers, to address key science questions about the solar system.

Source: Lockheed Martin

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Getting 'Psyched' Up for NASA's Two New Interplanetary Missions...

An artist's concept of the Psyche spacecraft orbiting a metallic asteroid named Psyche.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA Selects Two Missions to Explore the Early Solar System (Press Release)

NASA has selected two missions that have the potential to open new windows on one of the earliest eras in the history of our solar system – a time less than 10 million years after the birth of our sun. The missions, known as Lucy and Psyche, were chosen from five finalists and will proceed to mission formulation, with the goal of launching in 2021 and 2023, respectively.

“Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science.”

Lucy, a robotic spacecraft, is scheduled to launch in October 2021. It’s slated to arrive at its first destination, a main belt asteroid, in 2025. From 2027 to 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. These asteroids are trapped by Jupiter’s gravity in two swarms that share the planet’s orbit, one leading and one trailing Jupiter in its 12-year circuit around the sun. The Trojans are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system, and may have formed far beyond Jupiter’s current orbit.

“This is a unique opportunity,” said Harold F. Levison, principal investigator of the Lucy mission from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”

Lucy will build on the success of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, using newer versions of the RALPH and LORRI science instruments that helped enable the mission’s achievements. Several members of the Lucy mission team also are veterans of the New Horizons mission. Lucy also will build on the success of the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu, with the OTES instrument and several members of the OSIRIS-REx team.

The Psyche mission will explore one of the most intriguing targets in the main asteroid belt – a giant metal asteroid, known as 16 Psyche, about three times farther away from the sun than is the Earth. This asteroid measures about 130 miles (210 kilometers) in diameter and, unlike most other asteroids that are rocky or icy bodies, is thought to be comprised mostly of metallic iron and nickel, similar to Earth’s core. Scientists wonder whether Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet that could have been as large as Mars, but which lost its rocky outer layers due to a number of violent collisions billions of years ago.

The mission will help scientists understand how planets and other bodies separated into their layers – including cores, mantles and crusts – early in their histories.

“This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” said Psyche Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe. “16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”

Psyche, also a robotic mission, is targeted to launch in October of 2023, arriving at the asteroid in 2030, following an Earth gravity assist spacecraft maneuver in 2024 and a Mars flyby in 2025.

In addition to selecting the Lucy and Psyche missions for formulation, the agency will extend funding for the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) project for an additional year. The NEOCam space telescope is designed to survey regions of space closest to Earth’s orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids may be found.

“These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA’s larger strategy of investigating how the solar system formed and evolved,” said NASA’s Planetary Science Director Jim Green. “We’ve explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the sun. Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the solar system, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body. These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold.”

Discovery Program class missions like these are relatively low-cost, their development capped at about $450 million. They are managed for NASA’s Planetary Science Division by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The missions are designed and led by a principal investigator, who assembles a team of scientists and engineers, to address key science questions about the solar system.

The Discovery Program portfolio includes 12 prior selections such as the MESSENGER mission to study Mercury, the Dawn mission to explore asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and the InSight Mars lander, scheduled to launch in May 2018.

NASA’s other missions to asteroids began with the NEAR orbiter of asteroid Eros, which arrived in 2000, and continues with Dawn, which orbited Vesta and now is in an extended mission phase at Ceres. The OSIRIS-REx mission, which launched on Sept. 8, 2016, is speeding toward a 2018 rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, and will deliver a sample back to Earth in 2023. Each mission focuses on a different aspect of asteroid science to give scientists the broader picture of solar system formation and evolution.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Using data from the Dawn spacecraft's first science orbit in 2015, this image of Ceres approximates how the dwarf planet's colors would appear to the human eye.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Just thought I'd commemorate the start of 2017 by mentioning that today marks 216 years since dwarf planet Ceres was discovered by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi. This September celebrates 10 years since NASA's Dawn spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to investigate this intriguing world! More details on the Ceres anniversary below...

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Ceres: Keeping Well-Guarded Secrets for 215 216 Years (News Release - January 26, 2016)

New Year's Day, 1801, the dawn of the 19th century, was a historic moment for astronomy, and for a space mission called Dawn more than 200 years later. That night, Giuseppe Piazzi pointed his telescope at the sky and observed a distant object that we now know as Ceres.

Today, NASA's Dawn mission allows us to see Ceres in exquisite detail. From the images Dawn has taken over the past year, we know Ceres is a heavily cratered body with diverse features on its surface that include a tall, cone-shaped mountain and more than 130 reflective patches of material that is likely salt. But on that fateful evening in 1801, Piazzi wasn't sure what he was seeing when he noticed a small, faint light through his telescope.

"When Piazzi discovered Ceres, exploring it was beyond imagination. More than two centuries later, NASA dispatched a machine on a cosmic journey of more than 3 billion miles to reach the distant, mysterious world he glimpsed," said Marc Rayman, mission director and chief engineer for Dawn at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Piazzi was the director of the Palermo Observatory in Sicily, Italy, which has collected documents and instruments from the astronomer's time, and published a booklet on the discovery of Ceres. According to the observatory, Piazzi had been working on a catalog of star positions on January 1, 1801, when he noticed something whose "light was a little faint and colored as Jupiter." He looked for it again on subsequent nights and saw that its position changed slightly.

What was this object? Piazzi wrote to fellow astronomers Johann Elert Bode and Barnaba Oriani to tell them he had discovered a comet.

"I have presented this star as a comet, but owing to its lack of nebulosity, and to its motion being so slow and rather uniform, I feel in the heart that it could be something better than a comet, perhaps. However, I should be very careful in passing this conjecture to the public," Piazzi wrote to Oriani.

A Missing Planet?

Piazzi didn't entirely keep this secret. He told the press that this object was a comet, but did not provide data from his observations, which generated criticism from other astronomers. Piazzi then became sick for a time, and said he could not observe the object any more.

As newspapers spread the word that a comet had been found, astronomer Jerome de Lalande, based in Paris, wrote to Piazzi requesting relevant data in February. The Italian astronomer obliged in April, after recovering from his illness. One of Lalande's students, Johann Karl Burckhardt, performed calculations that revealed Piazzi's discovery did not have an orbit consistent with a comet's orbit. Instead, the data appeared to better fit a circular orbit.

Of course, there was no email in those days, and letters that Piazzi wrote to his friends Bode and Oriani about the so-called comet were delayed due to the Napoleonic Wars. They finally reached the astronomers in March.

The news was especially interesting to Bode because he had championed the Titius-Bode hypothesis: that the positions of planets in our solar system follow a specific pattern, which predicts each planet's distance from the sun. Uranus, discovered in 1781, fit the prediction, too. But the pattern also demanded that there be a planet, yet undiscovered, between Mars and Jupiter.

To find this missing planet, a group of German astronomers had established a society called the "Celestial Police" (Himmelspolizei in German), with Franz Xaver von Zach as its secretary, in 1800. There were 24 astronomers who each scoured a 15-degree piece of zodiacal sky for the missing object. However, Piazzi did not receive his invitation to join this group until after he had spotted Ceres.

Bode calculated an orbit based on Piazzi's data, and he believed that the object Piazzi saw was the missing planet that fit his formula (which was later discredited). Oriani, meanwhile, also calculated an orbit, and on April 7 asked von Zach to publish the news in his well-known astronomy journal, Monatliche Correspondenz, that such a planet may have been discovered.

Almost a 'Lost Comet'

As of spring 1801, besides Piazzi, no one had been able to observe the new celestial object because of cloudy skies and the object's position in its orbit -- it was no longer visible at night, and the sun blocked astronomers' views. Meanwhile, Piazzi still did not publish anything on the object, while he continued to refine his data. Several of his colleagues grew upset with Piazzi for holding back information. Without the data from his observations that concluded on Feb. 11, confirming his discovery would be more difficult -- since February, Ceres had been lost.

Why did Piazzi hesitate to make his data public? One reason might be that, though Piazzi was a skilled observer, he didn't have a solid theoretical knowledge of astronomy, so he couldn't calculate orbits quickly. Secondly, he risked the credibility and reputation of both himself and the observatory. But while he wavered, colleagues in Germany such as Bode firmly believed that there needed to be a planet between Mars and Jupiter. It was their conviction that helped keep the work going on this object, said Ileana Chinnici, who edited the Palermo Observatory's booklet on Ceres.

"Without the determination of the German astronomers, Piazzi would have been just the discoverer of a lost comet, in the best case. They 'believed' in the existence of the planet and were driven by the endeavor to confirm it. This shows how powerful are ideas, models, theories -- yesterday as well as today," Chinnici said.

The Search for Ceres

At last, in July 1801, Piazzi worked on calculating the object's orbit and made public his data about his observations from earlier in the year. And while other astronomers had already come up with their own names -- such as Juno, Hera and Piazzi (to honor the astronomer) -- Piazzi himself announced that the "new star" was called Ceres Ferdinandea. The "Ferdinandea" part honored King Ferdinand of Sicily.

Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, was also the patron deity of Sicily, where Piazzi then lived and worked. Bode, who had wanted to call the object Juno, agreed on Ceres: "You have discovered it in Taurus, and it was re-observed in Virgo, Ceres of the old times. These two constellations are the symbol of agriculture. This occurrence is quite unique."

By the end of July 1801, many astronomers believed Ceres was a planet, but they needed additional confirmation and observations. Piazzi published his complete data set in von Zach's journal in September and, by doing so, got the attention of a young mathematician who would become instrumental in the fate of Ceres.

Twenty-four-year-old Carl Friedrich Gauss had been experimenting with mathematical methods for which he would later become famous. When he applied those methods to Ceres, he came up with different predictions for its position than what others had calculated. Though some were skeptical about Gauss's results, his calculations enabled von Zach to be the first to see Ceres again, on Dec. 7, 1801, followed by other prominent astronomers of the time, and by Piazzi himself on February 23, 1802.

Asteroids: A New Category of Objects

We credit Gauss for calculating the orbit of Ceres. But he did not resolve a fundamental question: What is Ceres?

In March 1802, Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers discovered a second, similar object, which later became known as Pallas. William Herschel, one of the most famous astronomers in history, then wrote an essay proposing that both Ceres and Pallas represented an entirely new class of objects: asteroids. Herschel wrote of Ceres: "if we called it planet, it would not fill the space between Mars and Jupiter with the dignity required by that position."

Though Herschel considered it an achievement that Piazzi had encountered the first example of an asteroid, Piazzi was disappointed. He thought that Herschel, who had discovered Uranus, just wanted to downplay Ceres. Piazzi wrote to Oriani: "Be they called planetoides or cometoides then, but never asteroides. [...] If an Asteroid Ceres must be called, so must also be called Uranus."

Nonetheless, the door had opened for many more asteroids to be observed. The discoveries of Juno in 1804 and Vesta in 1807 (which would later become the first target of NASA's Dawn mission) reinforced Herschel's notion that asteroids are a class of their own. Herschel coined the term "asteroid" because of their star-like appearance in telescopes. Today, we know there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Piazzi's Legacy

Piazzi could not have known that NASA's Hubble Space Telescope would one day deliver many intriguing images of Ceres, allowing scientists to confirm that the body is, indeed, round like Earth. He could not imagine that in 2006, long after his death, the International Astronomical Union would upgrade Ceres from asteroid to dwarf planet, receiving the same classification as Pluto, which had not yet been discovered in his lifetime. He did not know that in 2007, NASA's Dawn mission would launch from a place called Cape Canaveral in Florida to embark on an unprecedented journey to orbit Vesta and Ceres.

He likely didn't imagine that a space observatory named after Herschel would find in 2013 that there is water vapor emanating from Ceres, following up on 1992 observations of hydroxide at Ceres from NASA's International Ultraviolet Explorer.

Nor could he have guessed that on March 6, 2015, Dawn would be successfully captured into Ceres' orbit, and would spend the rest of the year sending photos and other valuable data back to Earth. He wouldn't know that scientists would use the Hubble Space Telescope's unique capabilities in November 2015 to observe Ceres in the ultraviolet spectrum, complementing Dawn's observations.

Now, as we commemorate the 215th 216th anniversary of Ceres' discovery this month, Dawn is observing the dwarf planet from its lowest orbit ever: 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface. The many craters and other features that Piazzi could not see with his telescope are being named after agricultural deities or festivals, extending the theme that Piazzi began with the name "Ceres."

"Our knowledge, our capabilities, our reach and even our ambition all are far beyond what Piazzi could have imagined, and yet it is because of his discovery that we can apply them to learn more, not only about Ceres itself but also about the dawn of the solar system," Rayman said.

Dawn's mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory 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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A composite image of the Dawn spacecraft departing from asteroid Vesta in September of 2012.
NASA / JPL - Caltech