Wednesday, February 28, 2018

America's Next Mars Lander Arrives in California for Launch Preparations...

A shipping container holding NASA's InSight Mars lander is loaded onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane for transport from Denver, Colorado to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California...on February 28, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / Lockheed Martin Space

NASA InSight Mission to Mars Arrives at Launch Site (News Release)

NASA's InSight spacecraft has arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California to begin final preparations for a launch this May. The spacecraft was shipped from Lockheed Martin Space, Denver, today and arrived at Vandenberg at 3:49 p.m. PST (6:49 p.m. EST). The launch period for InSight opens May 5 and continues through June 8. InSight will be the first mission to look deep beneath the Martian surface, studying the planet's interior by listening for marsquakes and measuring the planet's heat output. It will also be the first planetary spacecraft to launch from the West Coast.

"The Air Force C-17 crew from the 21st Airlift Squadron gave us a great ride," said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Next time InSight travels as high and as fast, it will be about 23 seconds into its launch, on the way to Mars."

At the Astrotech payload processing facility at Vandenberg, InSight will soon be removed from its shipping container -- the first of several remaining milestones to prepare it for launch. Later next week, the spacecraft will begin functional testing to verify its state of health after the flight from Colorado. After that, the team will load updated flight software and perform a series of mission readiness tests. These tests involve the entire spacecraft flight system, the associated science instruments and the ground data system.

"One of the most important activities before launch is to load the spacecraft with the fuel needed for the journey to Mars," said Hoffman. "After fuel loading, the spacecraft will undergo a spin-balance test to determine precisely the center of mass. This knowledge is needed to be sure the entry and descent into the Mars atmosphere goes as planned."

InSight will be carried into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-401 rocket lifting off from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air Force Base. For a May 5 liftoff, the launch window opens at 4:05 a.m. PDT (7:05 a.m. EDT) and remains open through 6:05 a.m. PDT (9:05 a.m. EDT).

InSight will use the seismic waves generated by marsquakes to map the deep interior of Mars. These waves travel through geologic materials at different speeds and reflect off boundaries, giving scientists a glimpse of the composition and structure of the planet's interior. They reflect the initial formation of the planet, and the resulting insights into how Mars formed will help us better understand how other rocky planets are created, including our own Earth.

JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The InSight spacecraft, including cruise stage and lander, was built and tested by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver. A number of European partners, includingFrance's Centre National d'√Čtudes Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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An artist's concept of NASA's InSight lander on the surface of Mars.
NASA / JPL

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The PyeongChang Games Come To An End...

The closing ceremony for the 2018 Winter Games is held inside inside the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in South Korea...on February 25, 2018.
Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

Sixteen days after the opening ceremony was held inside the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium in South Korea, the 2018 Winter Games are no more. Norway ended the tournament as the winning country with a total of 39 medals (14 gold, 14 silver and 11 bronze), while the United States finished fourth (behind Norway, Germany and Canada, respectively) with 23 medals. America garnered 9 gold, 8 silver and 6 bronze (including one by Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, whose appearance in the PyeongChang Games may be her last in the Olympics). The Russians who weren't banned by the International Olympic Committee this year gathered 17 medals (2 gold, 6 silver and 9 bronze) under the Olympic Athletes from Russia banner.

South Korean rapper CL performs during the closing ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games...on February 25, 2018.
Doug Mills / The New York Times

The 2022 Winter Olympics will be back in Beijing, China...who hosted the Summer Games in 2008. I'm lookin' forward to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan...and definitely the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles (only 30 miles from where I live)! Carry on.

American alpine skier Lindsey Vonn won the Olympic bronze medal for her performance in the women's downhill competition...on February 21, 2018.
Associated Press

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Photo of the Day: My High School's Uniforms 54 Years Ago...

The color of the uniforms at my old high school...circa 1964.

One of my friends recently sent me this old picture that she found of our former high school back in 1964. This photo is jaw-dropping for two reasons: 1.) The colors of the uniforms are totally different from what they are today (the theme colors for our high school are now royal blue and gold). Also, it's amusing that there were uniforms back during the 1960s when my oldest brother (and I think my sister) got to wear casual clothing to class until uniforms were re-instated in the early 90s (all of my siblings—I have two brothers and one sister—and I attended this school). And 2.) The demographics of the students in this image are waaaaaay different from what they are in 2018 (and 1994 thru '98, the years that I attended this high school). How different, you ask? Well, let's just say that the neighborhoods surrounding my alma mater apparently didn't have any Asians or Latinos (mostly Latinos) living in 'em more than 50 years ago. That's how different.

And in case you didn't notice after I mentioned what years I was in high school in the previous paragraph: My 20-year high school reunion is this October! We'll see if I go. Have a happy Presidents' Day weekend.

Go Lancers!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

NASA's Next Exoplanet-Hunting Spacecraft Arrives at Cape Canaveral for Launch Preparations!

A file photo of Orbital ATK engineers working on NASA's TESS spacecraft...scheduled to launch no earlier than April 16, 2018.
NASA / Orbital ATK

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite Arrives at Kennedy Space Center for Launch (News Release)

NASA’s next planet-hunting mission has arrived in Florida to begin preparations for launch. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station nearby NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida no earlier than April 16, pending range approval. TESS was delivered Feb. 12 aboard a truck from Orbital ATK in Dulles, Virginia, where it spent 2017 being assembled and tested. Over the next month, the spacecraft will be prepped for launch at Kennedy’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).

TESS is the next step in NASA’s search for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets. The mission will scan nearly the entire sky to monitor more than 200,000 of the nearest and brightest stars in search of transit events — periodic dips in a star’s brightness caused by planets passing in front of their stars. TESS is expected to find thousands of exoplanets. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2019, will provide important follow-up observations of some of the most promising TESS-discovered exoplanets, allowing scientists to study their atmospheres and, in some special cases, to search for signs that these planets could support life.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Dr. George Ricker of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research serves as principal investigator for the mission. Additional partners include Orbital ATK, NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Space Telescope Science Institute. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission. NASA’s Launch Services Program is responsible for launch management. SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is the provider of the Falcon 9 launch service.

Source: NASA.Gov

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The TESS spacecraft is ready to undergo launch preparations inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA / Kim Shiflett

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mars 2020 Update: Bringing a Martian Rock Back to Its Planet of Origin...

A Mars 2020 mission scientist holds a piece of meteorite confirmed to have originated on the Red Planet.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

A Piece of Mars is Going Home (News Release)

A chunk of Mars will soon be returning home.

A piece of a meteorite called Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) will be carried on board NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission, now being built at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This chunk will serve as target practice for a high-precision laser on the rover's arm.

Mars 2020's goal is ambitious: collect samples from the Red Planet's surface that a future mission could potentially return to Earth. One of the rover's many tools will be a laser designed to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair.

That level of precision requires a calibration target to help tweak the laser's settings. Previous NASA rovers have included calibration targets as well. Depending on the instrument, the target material can include things like rock, metal or glass, and can often look like a painter's palette.

But working on this particular instrument sparked an idea among JPL scientists: why not use an actual piece of Mars? Earth has a limited supply of Martian meteorites, which scientists determined were blasted off Mars' surface millions of years ago.

These meteorites aren't as unique as the geologically diverse samples 2020 will collect. But they're still scientifically interesting -- and perfect for target practice.

"We're studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim," said Luther Beegle of JPL. Beegle is principal investigator for a laser instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals). "By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface."

SHERLOC will be the first instrument on Mars to use Raman and fluorescence spectroscopies, scientific techniques familiar to forensics experts. Whenever an ultraviolet light shines over certain carbon-based chemicals, they give off the same characteristic glow that you see under a black light.

Scientists can use this glow to detect chemicals that form in the presence of life. SHERLOC will photograph the rocks it studies, then map the chemicals it detects across those images. That adds a spatial context to the layers of data Mars 2020 will collect.

"This kind of science requires texture and organic chemicals -- two things that our target meteorite will provide," said Rohit Bhartia of JPL, SHERLOC's deputy principal investigator.

No Flaky Meteorites

Martian meteorites are precious in their rarity. Only about 200 have been confirmed by The Meteoritical Society, which has a database listing these vetted meteorites.

To select the right one for SHERLOC, JPL turned to contacts at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, as well as the Natural History Museum of London. Not just any Martian meteorite would do: its condition would need to be solid enough that it would not flake apart during the intensity of launch and landing.

It also needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC's sensitivity. These had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful.

Experts tried several samples, cutting off thin bits to test whether they would crumble. Using a "flaky" sample could damage the entire meteorite in the process.

The SHERLOC team ultimately agreed on using SaU008, a meteorite found in Oman in 1999. Besides being more rugged than other samples, a piece of it was available courtesy of Caroline Smith, principal curator of meteorites at London's Natural History Museum.

"Every year, we provide hundreds of meteorite specimens to scientists all over the world for study," Smith said. "This is a first for us: sending one of our samples back home for the benefit of science."

SaU008 will be the first Martian meteorite to have a fragment return to the planet's surface -- though not the first on a return trip to Mars.

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor included a chunk of a meteorite known as Zagami. It's still floating around the Red Planet onboard the now-defunct orbiter.

Additionally, the team behind Mars2020's SuperCam instrument will be adding a Martian meteorite to their own calibration target.

Preparing for Humans on Mars

Along with its own Martian meteorite, SHERLOC's calibration target will include several interesting scientific samples for human spaceflight. These include materials that could be used to make spacesuit fabric, gloves and a helmet's visor.

By watching how they hold up under Martian weather, including radiation, NASA will be able to test these materials for future Mars missions.

"The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface," said Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center. "It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars."

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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

Friday, February 09, 2018

Photos of the Day: Let the PyeongChang Games Begin!

Former figure skater Yuna Kim lights the torch during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea...on February 9, 2018.
Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

At 3 AM, PST (8 PM, Korean Time) today, the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics was held in PyeongChang County, South Korea. Here's hoping that the Games of the 23rd Winter Olympics (they aren't referred to as an 'Olympiad'—unlike the Summer Games, which are more historical in nature) occur without a hitch over the next 2+ weeks. Kim Jong-un can resume comparing the size of his 'nuclear button' with that of Donald Trump after the closing ceremony is held on February 25. And let's cross our fingers that North and South Koreans can peacefully compete against each other over the next 14 or so days even though the Olympic venues are only 50 miles from the deadly no-man's land otherwise known as the Demilitarized Zone. If not, then don't be surprised if you see, as a show of force, U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers or F-22 (and maybe F-35) jet fighters streaking high above a snowboarding or skiing competition being televised on NBC at the time. Being a military buff, that would be an awesome sight to see. But for anyone else (particularly hippie millennial pacifists), that would be such a disconcerting visual to take in while watching a competition designed to promote goodwill among nations occur on the Korean Peninsula.

The Olympic Flag is carried into the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea...on February 9, 2018.
Loic Venance / AFP / Getty Images

Godspeed to all of the athletes (except the 47 Russians who were banned from PyeongChang 2018 because their country is corrupt as f***) playing for the gold in South Korea. As an American, let me just say: Go kick some ass Lindsey Vonn! Alpine skiing is one of my favorite events during the Winter Olympic Games... What's yours?

The U.S. delegation marches around the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea...on February 9, 2018.
Doug Mills / The New York Times

U.S. alpine skier Lindsey Vonn (shown here in a 2016 photo) will be competing for the Olympic gold one final time during the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Vianney Thibaut / Agence Zoom / Getty Images

Thursday, February 08, 2018

New Horizons Update: The Spacecraft Makes History in the Kuiper Belt...

Two false-color snapshots of Kuiper Belt Objects 2012 HZ84 (left) and 2012 HE85...as seen by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in December 2017.
NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

New Horizons Captures Record-Breaking Images in the Kuiper Belt (News Release)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently turned its telescopic camera toward a field of stars, snapped an image – and made history.

The routine calibration frame of the “Wishing Well” galactic open star cluster, made by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Dec. 5, was taken when New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers, or 40.9 astronomical units) from Earth – making it, for a time, the farthest image ever made from Earth.

New Horizons was even farther from home than NASA’s Voyager 1 when it captured the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth. That picture was part of a composite of 60 images looking back at the solar system, on Feb. 14, 1990, when Voyager was 3.75 billion miles [6.06 billion kilometers, or about 40.5 astronomical units (AU)] from Earth. Voyager 1’s cameras were turned off shortly after that portrait, leaving its distance record unchallenged for more than 27 years.

LORRI broke its own record just two hours later with images of Kuiper Belt Objects 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 – further demonstrating how nothing stands still when you’re covering more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) of space each day.

Distance and Speed

New Horizons is just the fifth spacecraft to speed beyond the outer planets, so many of its activities set distance records. On Dec. 9 it carried out the most-distant course-correction maneuver ever, as the mission team guided the spacecraft toward a close encounter with a KBO named 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. That New Year’s flight past MU69 will be the farthest planetary encounter in history, happening one billion miles beyond the Pluto system – which New Horizons famously explored in July 2015.

During its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, which began in 2017, New Horizons is aiming to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and “Centaurs,” former KBOs in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the giant planets. Mission scientists study the images to determine the objects’ shapes and surface properties, and to check for moons and rings. The spacecraft also is making nearly continuous measurements of the plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment along its path.

The New Horizons spacecraft is healthy and is currently in hibernation. Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, will bring the spacecraft out of its electronic slumber on June 4 and begin a series of system checkouts and other activities to prepare New Horizons for the MU69 encounter.

Source: NASA.Gov

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Photos of the Day: A Demolition Crew in Action...

A demolition crew begins tearing down an old abandoned house on a vacant dirt lot behind my home in Pomona, CA...on January 26, 2018.

Over a week ago, I took these snapshots at home as a demolition crew began tearing down an old abandoned house in a vacant dirt lot behind my backyard. The lot is being cleared as the city of Pomona, CA (where I live) plans to build new houses in that area soon.

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With that house gone, where will all the druggies and homeless folks (plus other shady types of people) go to hang out? Not a joke. Friggin' Pomona.

A demolition crew begins tearing down an old abandoned house on a vacant dirt lot behind my home in Pomona, CA...on January 26, 2018.

Only the two chimneys of the old abandoned house remain, as a demolition crew continues tearing down the structure on a vacant dirt lot behind my home in Pomona, CA...on January 26, 2018.

Only one chimney remains, as a demolition crew continues tearing down the old abandoned house on a vacant dirt lot behind my home in Pomona, CA...on January 26, 2018.

The demolition crew begins cleaning up the area where the old abandoned house once stood on a vacant dirt lot behind my home in Pomona, CA...on January 26, 2018.

There is no longer any sign of the old abandoned house that once stood on a vacant dirt lot behind my home in Pomona, CA...on January 31, 2018.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Philadelphia Eagles Are The New Super Bowl Champs!

Nick Foles hoists the Vince Lombardi trophy after his Philadelphia Eagles defeat the New England Patriots, 41-33, in Super Bowl 52...on February 4, 2018.
Philadelphia Eagles / Kiel Leggere

Congrats to the Philadelphia Eagles for winning their first-ever Super Bowl championship by defeating the New England Patriots, 41-33 in Minneapolis today! Unlike the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI last year, Eagles quarterback/Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles and his team were able to gain the lead early (relinquishing it only once) and keep the momentum going during the whole game, allowing them to best Tom Brady and company during Super Bowl LII this evening! Speaking of Brady... Just like Kobe Bryant before his career ended less than two years ago, Brady was denied a 6th championship ring—at least in this now-concluded NFL season. But unlike Michael Jordan, his Chicago Bulls and their 6 NBA trophies, I was definitely not rooting for Brady to reach that rarefied plateau tonight. Michael Jordan pushing off Bryon Russell in the final moments of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals isn't as shady as 2015's Deflategate. Or maybe it is...but I just despise New England so much that I'm more biased against this team. Oh well.

Fly Eagles fly!

The Philadelphia Eagles are the 2018 Super Bowl champions!
Philadelphia Eagles

Thursday, February 01, 2018

It's February! Check Out This New Selfie From The Martian Surface...

A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, taken with a camera on her robotic arm on January 23, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

Mount Sharp 'Photobombs' Mars Curiosity Rover (News Release - January 31)

A new self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle on Vera Rubin Ridge, which it has been investigating for the past several months. Directly behind the rover is the start of a clay-rich slope scientists are eager to begin exploring. In coming weeks, Curiosity will begin to climb this slope. In the image, north is on the left and west is on the right, with Gale Crater's rim on the horizon of both edges.

Poking up just behind Curiosity's mast is Mount Sharp, photobombing the robot's selfie. When Curiosity landed on Mars five years ago, the team's intention was to study lower Mount Sharp, where the rover will remain for all of its time on Mars. The mountain's base provides access to layers formed over millions of years. These layers formed in the presence of water -- likely due to a lake or lakes where sediments accumulated, which formed these layers inside Gale Crater.

The mosaic was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity's Mars Hands Lens Imager (MAHLI). They were all taken on Jan. 23, 2018, during Sol 1943.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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A cropped version of the Curiosity Mars rover's self-portrait, taken with a camera on her robotic arm on January 23, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS