Saturday, June 23, 2018

Curiosity Update: A Selfie in a 'Global Dust Event'...

A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover (with dust obscuring the hills in the horizon), taken with a camera on her robotic arm on June 15, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

Martian Dust Storm Grows Global; Curiosity Captures Photos of Thickening Haze (News Release - June 20)

A storm of tiny dust particles has engulfed much of Mars over the last two weeks and prompted NASA's Opportunity rover to suspend science operations. But across the planet, NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been studying Martian soil at Gale Crater, is expected to remain largely unaffected by the dust. While Opportunity is powered by sunlight, which is blotted out by dust at its current location, Curiosity has a nuclear-powered battery that runs day and night.

The Martian dust storm has grown in size and is now officially a "planet-encircling" (or "global") dust event, according to Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. He is deputy principal investigator of the Mars Color Imager camera (MARCI) on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Though Curiosity is on the other side of Mars from Opportunity, dust has steadily increased over it, more than doubling over the weekend. The sunlight-blocking haze, called "tau," is now above 8.0 at Gale Crater -- the highest tau the mission has ever recorded. Tau was last measured near 11 over Opportunity, thick enough that accurate measurements are no longer possible for Mars' oldest active rover.

For NASA's human scientists watching from the ground, Curiosity offers an unprecedented window to answer some questions. One of the biggest is: why do some Martian dust storms last for months and grow massive, while others stay small and last only a week?

"We don't have any good idea," says Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity's dust storm investigation.

Curiosity, he points out, plus a fleet of spacecraft in the orbit of Mars, will allow scientists for the first time to collect a wealth of dust information both from the surface and from space. The last storm of global magnitude that enveloped Mars was in 2007, five years before Curiosity landed there.

Curiosity's engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have studied the potential for the growing dust storm to affect the rover's instruments, and say it poses little risk. The largest impact is to the rover's cameras, which require extra exposure time due to the low lighting. The rover already routinely points its Mastcam down at the ground after each use to reduce the amount of dust blowing at its optics. JPL leads the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission.

Martian dust storms are common, especially during southern hemisphere spring and summer, when the planet is closest to the Sun. As the atmosphere warms, winds generated by larger contrasts in surface temperature at different locations mobilize dust particles the size of individual talcum powder grains. Carbon dioxide frozen on the winter polar cap evaporates, thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure. This enhances the process by helping suspend the dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds reach up to 40 miles (60 kilometers) or more in elevation.

Though they are common, Martian dust storms typically stay contained to a local area. By contrast, the current storm, if it were happening on Earth, is bigger than North America and Russia combined, says Guzewich.

The dust storm may seem exotic to some Earthlings, but it's not unique to Mars. Earth has dust storms, too, in desert regions such as North Africa, the Middle East, and the southwest United States.

But conditions here prevent them from spreading globally, said Ralph A. Kahn, a Goddard senior research scientist who studies the atmospheres of Earth and Mars. These include the structure of our thicker atmosphere and stronger gravity that helps settle dust. Earth also has vegetation cover on land that binds the soil with its roots and helps block the wind and rain that wash the particles out of the atmosphere.

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Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Friday, June 22, 2018

Hayabusa 2 Update: Snapshots of Ryugu...

Images of asteroid Ryugu that were taken from distances ranging from 100 to 220 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 18-20, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Ryugu Seen From a Distance of 220-100km (News Release - June 21)

The onboard ONC-T (Optical Navigation Camera - Telescopic) imaged Ryugu from June 18, 2018 at around 12:00 JST to June 20 at around 19:00 JST. At 12:00 JST on June 18, the distance between the spacecraft and asteroid was about 220km, and this decreased to about 100km by June 20, 19:00 JST.

The following image in Figure 1 (above) is the original photograph without any pixel smoothing. The order of the images is the chronological order in which they were captured. The size of the asteroid remains proportional to the distance (no size correction; the asteroid appears smaller when more distant.)

In the following Figure 2 (below), the image has been smoothed and the brightness adjusted to emphasize light and dark regions.

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

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Enhanced images of asteroid Ryugu that were taken from distances ranging from 220 to 100 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 18-20, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Q&A Screening for SANTA CLARITA DIET...

At a Q&A screening for SANTA CLARITA DIET at Landmark Theatres in west Los Angeles...on June 14, 2018.

One week ago today, I went to the Landmark Theatres in west Los Angeles to attend a screening for two episodes of the Netflix web series Santa Clarita Diet. What a very funny and twisted show! If you love dark comedy, then you definitely need to check this out. Afterwards, a Q&A session was held with main stars Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant...as well as series creator Victor Fresco (who wrote for the 1980s TV sitcom ALF. Remember ALF?). Very interesting panel.

Here are some pics that I took during the Q&A. I apologize for the blurriness of these photos... I used my smartphone to take 'em instead of a digital still camera—which I intend to bring when I go back to The Landmark this Saturday (June 23) to attend a Q&A by another well-known actress! Won't reveal who it is till after the event takes place. Happy Summer Solstice!

Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant and series creator Victor Fresco do a Q&A panel for SANTA CLARITA DIET in west Los Angeles...on June 14, 2018.

Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant and series creator Victor Fresco do a Q&A panel for SANTA CLARITA DIET in west Los Angeles...on June 14, 2018.

Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant and series creator Victor Fresco do a Q&A panel for SANTA CLARITA DIET in west Los Angeles...on June 14, 2018.

EDIT (June 24): The well-known actress who I'm referring to in the last paragraph above is none other than Natalie Portman herself! She did a Q&A for a documentary that she co-produced and narrated, titled Eating Animals. Click on this link to read my brief review of it.

Natalie Portman takes part in a Q&A panel for EATING ANIMALS at Landmark Theatres in west Los Angeles...on June 23, 2018.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Photo of the Day: Become Pen Pals with Trump Lackey PAUL MANAFORT! Sort of...

Send mail to that Trump-supporting American traitor Paul Manafort!

I saw this image on Twitter earlier today. I gotta remember to stop by the local Walmart later to buy a postcard! I actually wanted to go to the nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore to collect as many magazine subscription cards that I could carry, but sadly, this county jail doesn't allow publications to be delivered to prisoners. (Read the rules for mailing letters to Northern Neck Regional inmates here.) Oh well. And yes, this address is real.

But in case you can't read the writing on the postcard above, here it is below:

Paul Manafort
c/o Northern Neck Regional Jail
P.O. Box 1060
Warsaw, Virginia 22572


Happy Hump Day!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Happy 40th Birthday, GARFIELD!

So today marks four decades since Indiana-born cartoonist Jim Davis created Garfield. I started reading this comic strip over 25 years ago—when I was in elementary school—and continue to do so since. I no longer subscribe to a newspaper (I used to get the Los Angeles Times delivered to my doorstep), so I now go to the official Garfield website to read up on the latest exploits of the lasagna-cravin', Monday-hatin' fat cat as well as his dorky, polka music-loving owner Jon Arbuckle, and the lovable but dimwitted canine Odie. Oh, and Liz, Garfield's veterinarian and Jon's long-time girlfriend...who tolerates the trio's tomfoolery on a weekly basis. Here's hoping the wacky shenanigans of Garfield and company will continue for years to come!

And no, I never saw the two live-action Garfield movies starring Bill Murray and Jennifer Love Hewitt. That is all.

Happy 40th birthday, Garfield! Did any of those candles singe Jon Arbuckle's face?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Donald Trump Wants to Create the UNITED STATES SPACE FORCE...

T-65 starfighters...also known as X-Wings.

Note to the Dotard, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bars any signatory nation from deploying nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction beyond Earth's atmosphere. Keep that in mind while you contemplate the idea of having a new branch in the American military: the Space Force.

But if you want to make the T-65, RZ-1, A/SF-01 and Delta-7 fighters a reality, be my guest! Star Wars geeks everywhere will be grateful...maybe.

An RZ-1 starfighter...also known as the A-Wing.

An A/SF-01 starfighter...also known as the B-Wing.

A Delta-7 starfighter...also known as the Jedi Starfighter.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Photos of the Day #2: Explore JPL...

Posing with the Mars 2020 descent stage behind me inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility...at Explore JPL on June 9, 2018.

One week ago today, I went back to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Pasadena, California, to attend its annual open house...which was renamed Explore JPL a few years ago. There was nothing new to see at the lab since I last visited the NASA field center on May 30, but it's all good. It never gets old visiting the historic Space Flight Operations Facility, as well as checking out flight hardware for the Mars 2020 rover inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. And even though it was extremely crowded (like it's been for the past six years or so), it's always a thrill to see the amount of people in the general public who take an interest in space exploration. Happy Father's Day weekend!

LINK: Additional photos that I took at the June 2018 Explore JPL event

The Mars 2020 descent and cruise stages (the latter is visible towards the right edge of this photo) on display inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility...at Explore JPL on June 9, 2018.

A snapshot inside the historic Space Flight Operations Facility at Explore JPL...on June 9, 2018.

A full-size replica of NASA's Mars-bound InSight lander...on display at Explore JPL on June 9, 2018.

A full-size replica of NASA's Red Planet-bound Mars Cube One spacecraft...on display at Explore JPL on June 9, 2018.

A clear and sunny day to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California...during Explore JPL on June 9, 2018.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Photo of the Day: Make This Lakers Super Team Happen!

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard AND LeBron James playing on the Los Angeles Lakers?? Make it happen!!

A few hours ago, I found out that 2-time NBA All-Star Kawhi Leonard wants to be traded from the San Antonio Spurs...the team he's been with for about seven seasons (and won an NBA championship with in 2014). Leonard, a Los Angeles native, prefers to play for a team in his home town—which either means going to the Lakers or the Clippers, preferably the Lakers. Combine this report with the other one about LeBron James thinking about joining the Lake Show after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals two weeks ago (only to fall to the Golden State Warriors for the third time in four years, one week ago today), and you have a doozy. Combine these reports with the one about Paul George wanting to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to play in the City of Angels as well, and you have a major doozy.

LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard all playing on the Lakers?! Make it happen! Don't toy with my emotions like that, basketball gods (and Jeanie Buss)! Carry on.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Hayabusa 2 Update: Asteroid Ryugu Begins to Reveal Itself...

An image of asteroid Ryugu that was taken from a distance of 920 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 13, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Ryugu Seen From a Distance of 920km (Press Release)

Hayabusa 2 is steadily approaching asteroid Ryugu. Figure 1 (above) shows a photograph of Ryugu taken on June 13, 2018 with the ONC-T (Optical Navigation Camera - Telescopic) from a distance of about 920km. The celestial body shining brightly in the center of the frame is Ryugu. The movement of Ryugu (in comparison to the background stars) can be seen by comparing this image with those taken on June 6 and June 10. The brightness of Ryugu is now about -6.6 mag (astronomical magnitude: a logarithmic scale for the apparent brightness for an object).

Figure 2 (below) shows the photograph taken with an exposure time of about 0.09 seconds. The part of the image that covers Ryugu is now about 10 pixels in diameter. We are describing the shape seen so far as a "dango"-type, as it looks like the round dango Japanese sweet dumpling made from rice flour (they taste delicious and we can recommend trying one). However, the shape does seem a little more angular.

These images were taken on June 13th, the same day that Hayabusa returned to Earth eight years ago. Just eight years later, Hayabusa 2 is less than 1000 km from asteroid Ryugu. We are looking forward to seeing what developments come next!

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

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Another image of asteroid Ryugu that was taken from a distance of 920 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 13, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Photos of the Day: The MPR Raccoon...

A fan-made illustration that celebrates the MPR Raccoon's daring exploits atop the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 12 - 13, 2018.

Just thought I'd share these images, which were originally posted on Twitter, of the courageous raccoon that made her way to the top of the 25-story UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota earlier today. The raccoon (nicknamed "MPR Raccoon" by Minnesota Public Radio news reporters who initially covered the animal's brave exploits), was stuck on the skyscraper for the past two days...having been scared off from a neighboring office block by city workers on Tuesday morning, only to start scaling the UBS building soon thereafter. I myself didn't notice the #MPRraccoon hashtag on Twitter till last night. Once I saw it, I kept refreshing the page till midnight as I waited for new tweets to appear reporting on the latest progress made by this furry daredevil.

A snapshot of MPR Raccoon scaling the side of the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 12, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

I went to sleep around midnight after it became apparent that the raccoon was taking a nap on a ledge after she changed course and initially made her way a couple of stories down the UBS Tower. When I woke up around 7 this morning, I quickly retrieved my smartphone and clicked on the Twitter app...only to pleasantly see that MPR Raccoon was already on the rooftop of the skyscraper, and most likely sitting inside a cage feasting on cat food that was waiting for her!


Just like the feelings of other folks who also kept tabs on the trash panda's exploits, this happy conclusion was quite the morale booster! At a time when Donald Trump's latest destabilizing move is to legitimize a brutal communist dictator by meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore (making history by showing an American president who's willing to make amends with an adversary that slaughtered millions of people in his own country, while at the same time shunning long-standing U.S. allies like Canada, France and Germany), it was refreshing to see a little creature beat the odds by accomplishing a daring feat that could've easily resulted in her death. MPR Raccoon exemplified that with determination, stamina and a little rest, anything is possible. Including getting through a lousy administration (and the complicit Republican Party that enables it) whose shenanigans have been wreaking havoc on America since the day Trump was sworn in. Happy Hump Day.

A snapshot of MPR Raccoon lying on a ledge at the Town Square Building in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 12, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A snapshot of MPR Raccoon scaling the side of the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 12, 2018.
Ben - @Johnson88Ben on Twitter.com

A snapshot of MPR Raccoon sitting on a ledge at the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 12, 2018.
Paige Donnelly law - @donnelly_law on Twitter.com

A snapshot of MPR Raccoon about to reach the rooftop of the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 12, 2018.
D.P. - @@DPet_KARE11News on Twitter.com

A snapshot of MPR Raccoon sitting inside a cage after reaching the rooftop of the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 13, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

MPR Raccoon scurries away after she is released from her cage following her rescue from the rooftop of the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota...on June 13, 2018.
Wildlife Management Services

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

F-35 Update: A Major Milestone Is Achieved for the Joint Strike Fighter...

The 300th F-35 Lightning II lifts off from the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth Texas.
Lockheed Martin

Pentagon and Lockheed Martin Deliver 300th F-35 Aircraft (Press Release - June 11)

FORT WORTH, Texas, June 11, 2018 -- The F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin delivered the 300th production F-35 aircraft, demonstrating the program's continued progress and momentum. The 300th aircraft is a U.S. Air Force F-35A, to be delivered to Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

"The F-35 weapons system is a key enabler of our National Defense Strategy and is providing our warfighters the combat proven, advanced capabilities they need to meet mission requirements," said Vice Admiral Mat Winter, program executive officer for the F-35 Joint Program Office. "The 300th production aircraft delivery is a significant milestone that highlights the effective F-35 Enterprise collaboration across the JPO, U.S. services, partners and industry. Moving forward, our F-35 team remains committed to driving costs down, quality up and faster delivery timelines across our development, production and sustainment lines of effort."

The first 300 F-35s include 197 F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variants, 75 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variants, and 28 F-35C carrier variants (CV) and have been delivered to U.S. and international customers. More than 620 pilots and 5,600 maintainers have been trained, and the F-35 fleet has surpassed more than 140,000 cumulative flight hours.

"This milestone is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our joint government and industry team as we collaborate to deliver transformational F-35 capabilities to the men and women in uniform," said Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of the F-35 program. "We are focused on reducing costs, increasing efficiencies, and ensuring the highest level of quality as we ramp to full rate production and sustainment of the operational fleet."

Increasing Production, Reducing Costs

As production volume increases and additional efficiencies are implemented, Lockheed Martin is on track to reduce the cost of an F-35A to $80 million by 2020, which is equal to or less than legacy 4th generation aircraft. With the incorporation of lessons learned, process efficiencies, production automation, facility and tooling upgrades, supply chain initiatives and more, the F-35 enterprise has already significantly reduced costs and improved efficiency. For example:

- The price of an F-35A has come down more than 60 percent from the first contract.

- Touch labor has been reduced by about 75 percent over the last five years.

- Production span time has decreased by about 20 percent since 2015.

The F-35 enterprise met its 2017 delivery target of 66 aircraft, representing more than a 40 percent increase from 2016. In 2018, the team is targeting 91 aircraft deliveries and is preparing to increase production volume year-over-year to hit a rate of approximately 160 aircraft in 2023.

Economic Impact

The F-35 is built by thousands of men and women in America and around the world. With more than 1,500 suppliers in 46 states and Puerto Rico, the F-35 program supports more than 194,000 direct and indirect jobs in the U.S. alone. The program also includes more than 100 international suppliers, creating or sustaining thousands of international jobs.

With stealth technology, supersonic speed, advanced sensors, weapons capacity and range, the F-35 is the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft ever built. More than a fighter jet, the F-35's ability to collect, analyze and share data is a powerful force multiplier that enhances all airborne, surface and ground-based assets in the battlespace and enables men and women in uniform to execute their mission and return home safe.

Source: Lockheed Martin

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Hayabusa 2 Gets Closer To Its Asteroid Target...

An image of asteroid Ryugu that was taken from a distance of 1,500 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 10, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Ryugu Seen From a Distance of 1500km (Press Release)

Hayabusa 2 is continuing to approach asteroid Ryugu using optical navigation. Figure 1 (above) shows Ryugu photographed by the ONC-T (Optical Navigation Camera - Telescopic) on June 10, 2018, from a distance of about 1500km. The celestial body shining brightly in the center of the image is Ryugu. Compared with images taken on June 6, the position in the sky (relative to background stars) where Ryugu is visible has changed. The astronomical magnitude of Ryugu is now -5.7 mag.

Figure 2 (below) shows a photograph taken at approximately the same time but using an exposure of about 0.09 seconds. Here, only Ryugu is imaged as a point and the background stars are now too faint to be seen. In expanding the section of image that contains Ryugu, the asteroid can be seen to have a diameter of about 5 or 6 pixels but this is still not sufficient to see the shape. However, from this image is does seem that Ryugu is not elongated like Itokawa.

Hayabusa 2 will continue to draw closer to Ryugu. Please keep following us for future images!

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

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Another image of asteroid Ryugu that was taken from a distance of 1,500 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 10, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Sunday, June 10, 2018

America's Oldest Active Mars Rover Braces Itself for Severe Weather on the Red Planet...

The blue dot in this image shows the location of NASA's Opportunity rover as a giant dust storm (photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) swirls across the surface of the Red Planet...on June 6, 2018.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

Opportunity Hunkers Down During Dust Storm (News Release - June 9)

Science operations for NASA's Opportunity rover have been temporarily suspended as it waits out a growing dust storm on Mars.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1. As soon as the orbiter team saw how close the storm was to Opportunity, they notified the rover's team to begin preparing contingency plans.

In a matter of days, the storm had ballooned. It now spans more than 7 million square miles (18 million square kilometers) -- an area greater than North America -- and includes Opportunity's current location at Perseverance Valley. More importantly, the swirling dust has raised the atmospheric opacity, or "tau," in the valley in the past few days. This is comparable to an extremely smoggy day that blots out sunlight. The rover uses solar panels to provide power and to recharge its batteries.

Opportunity's power levels had dropped significantly by Wednesday, June 6, requiring the rover to shift to minimal operations.

This isn't Opportunity's first time hunkering down in bad weather: in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet. That led to two weeks of minimal operations, including several days with no contact from the rover to save power. The project's management prepared for the possibility that Opportunity couldn't balance low levels of power with its energy-intensive survival heaters, which protect its batteries from Mars' extreme cold. It's not unlike running a car in the winter so that the cold doesn't sap its battery charge. There is a risk to the rover if the storm persists for too long and Opportunity gets too cold while waiting for the skies to clear.

Ultimately, the storm subsided and Opportunity prevailed. The Martian cold is believed to have resulted in the loss of Spirit, Opportunity's twin in the Mars Exploration Rover mission, back in 2010. Despite this, both rovers have vastly exceeded expectations: they were only designed to last 90 days each. Opportunity is in its 15th year; the team has operated the rover for more than 50 times longer than originally planned. Full dust storms like this one are not surprising, but are infrequent. They can crop up suddenly but last weeks, even months. During southern summer, sunlight warms dust particles, lifting them higher into the atmosphere and creating more wind. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists still seek to understand.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and two other NASA spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet -- Odyssey and MAVEN -- routinely support rovers on the ground.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Full-size models of the Mars Exploration Rover and Sojourner rover (near the right side of this photo) at JPL...on May 20, 2017.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

2 of the 3 Closest Stars Outside Our Solar System May Not Be that Hostile to Any Habitable World Orbiting Them, After All...

Visible and X-ray photos of Alpha Centauri in a vast starfield...with the X-ray image taken by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Optical: Zdenek Bardon; X-ray: NASA / CXC / Univ. of Colorado / T. Ayres et al.

Alpha Centauri: A Triple Star System about 4 Light Years from Earth (News Release - June 6)

A new study involving long-term monitoring of Alpha Centauri by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that any planets orbiting the two brightest stars are likely not being pummeled by large amounts of X-ray radiation from their host stars. This is important for the viability of life in the nearest star system outside the Solar System. Chandra data from May 2nd, 2017 are seen in the pull-out, which is shown in context of a visible-light image taken from the ground of the Alpha Centauri system and its surroundings.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star system located just over four light years, or about 25 trillion miles, from Earth. While this is a large distance in terrestrial terms, it is three times closer than the next nearest Sun-like star.

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system include a pair called “A” and “B,” (AB for short) which orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Cen A is a near twin of our Sun in almost every way, including age, while Alpha Cen B is somewhat smaller and dimmer but still quite similar to the Sun. The third member, Alpha Cen C (also known as Proxima), is a much smaller red dwarf star that travels around the AB pair in a much larger orbit that takes it more than 10 thousand times farther from the AB pair than the Earth-Sun distance. Proxima currently holds the title of the nearest star to Earth, although AB is a very close second.

The Chandra data reveal that the prospects for life in terms of current X-ray bombardment are actually better around Alpha Cen A than for the Sun, and Alpha Cen B fares only slightly worse. Proxima, on the other hand, is a type of active red dwarf star known to frequently send out dangerous flares of X-ray radiation, and is likely hostile to life. Planets in the habitable zone around Proxima receive an average dose of X-rays about 500 times larger than the Earth, and 50,000 times larger during a big flare.

Tom Ayres of the University of Colorado at Boulder presented these results at the 232rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Denver, Colorado, and some of these results were published in January 2018 in the Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

Source: NASA.Gov

Friday, June 08, 2018

Hayabusa 2 Closes In On Its Asteroid Target...

An image of asteroid Ryugu that was taken from a distance of 2,600 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 6, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Ryugu Seen From a Distance of 2600km (Press Release - June 7)

On June 3, 2018, ion engine operation was completed and the final approach to the asteroid begun. By photographing the asteroid with the Optical Navigation Camera, optical navigation (precisely “hybrid navigation using optical and radiometric observations”) can be used to approach Ryugu while accurately estimating the trajectory of the spacecraft and asteroid.

Figure 1 above shows an image taken with the ONC-T (Optical Navigation Camera - Telescopic). This photo was taken on June 6 at approximately 04:15 JST from the spacecraft in the direction of Ryugu. Ryugu appears extremely bright due to a long exposure time of 178 seconds, which was used in order to image background stars. Because of this, Ryugu has become blurred and smears are generated. The brightness of Ryugu here is about -5 magnitude (a brightness scale used for stars).

In order to image Ryugu properly, a shorter exposure time is needed. Figure 2 (below) shows a photograph taken at approximately the same time with an exposure time of about 0.09 seconds. On Ryugu is seen as a point, without any stars in the background. An enlargement of that part of the image is seen on the left side of Figure 2, with the image of Ryugu being about 3 pixels in diameter.

The distance from the spacecraft to Ryugu at the time the images were taken is about 2600km. In the ONC-T image, one pixel is about 22 arcseconds. Therefore, in Figure 2, the length of one pixel would be approximately 0.3km. This means we still cannot yet know the shape of the asteroid.

Source: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

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Another image of asteroid Ryugu that was taken from a distance of 2,600 kilometers...by JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft on June 6, 2018 (Japan Time).
JAXA

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Curiosity Update: The Search for Life on Mars Has Made a Huge Breakthrough...

A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, taken with a camera on her robotic arm on August 5, 2015.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

NASA Finds Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane on Mars (Press Release)

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet. While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface.

The new findings – “tough” organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere – appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources.

“The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter,” said Eigenbrode. “Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.”

Seasonal Methane Releases

In the second paper, scientists describe the discovery of seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere over the course of nearly three Mars years, which is almost six Earth years. This variation was detected by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it," said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper. "This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal 'breathing.'"

Finding Organic Molecules

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. The rock samples were analyzed by SAM, which uses an oven to heat the samples (in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, or 500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules from the powdered rock.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample – fragments of larger organic molecules that don’t vaporize easily. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make car tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more. This is close to the amount observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times greater than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars’ surface. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.

In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. This new discovery builds on the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency's) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

These results also inform scientists’ decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars.

“Are there signs of life on Mars?” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters. “We don’t know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.”

This work was funded by NASA's Mars Exploration Program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. Goddard provided the SAM instrument. JPL built the rover and manages the project for SMD.

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An image showing the drill site where NASA's Curiosity Mars rover found organic matter at Gale Crater, Curiosity's landing site.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / MSSS

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Photos of the Day: Parker Gets Its Wings...

A snapshot of NASA's Parker Solar Probe after its twin solar arrays were installed on May 31, 2018...at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Power Up: Solar Arrays Installed on NASA’s Mission to Touch the Sun (News Release)

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe depends on the Sun, not just as an object of scientific investigation, but also for the power that drives its instruments and systems. On Thursday, May 31, 2018, the spacecraft’s solar arrays were installed and tested. These arrays will power all of the spacecraft’s systems, including the suites of scientific instruments studying the solar wind and the Sun’s corona as well as the Solar Array Cooling System (SACS) that will protect the arrays from the extreme heat at the Sun.

“Unlike solar-powered missions that operate far from the Sun and are focused only on generating power from it, we need to manage the power generated along with the substantial heat that comes from being so close to the Sun,” said Andy Driesman, project manager from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “When we’re out around the orbit of Venus, we fully extend the arrays to get the power we need. But when we’re near the Sun, we tuck the arrays back until only a small wing is exposed, and that portion is enough to provide needed electrical power.”

The solar arrays are cooled by a gallon of water that circulates through tubes in the arrays and into large radiators at the top of the spacecraft. They are just over three and a half feet (1.12 meters) long and nearly two and a half feet (0.69 meters) wide. Mounted on motorized arms, the arrays will retract almost all of their surface behind the Thermal Protection System – the heat shield – when the spacecraft is close to the Sun. The solar array installation marks some of the final preparation and testing of Parker Solar Probe leading up to the mission’s July 31 launch date.

Source: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

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Parker Solar Probe team engineers inspect one of the twin solar arrays installed aboard the spacecraft on May 31, 2018...at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Parker Solar Probe team engineers use a laser to illuminate the cells on the twin solar arrays installed aboard the spacecraft on May 31, 2018...at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Parker Solar Probe team engineers use a laser to illuminate the cells on the twin solar arrays installed aboard the spacecraft on May 31, 2018...at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Back in the Day: My High School Graduation!

So today marks 20 years since I graduated from Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente, California. How time flies! The group photo below was taken two days earlier on June 3, 1998. My class attended Grad Nite in Disneyland the following day. A pack of school buses drove us to the Happiest Place on Earth the night of June 4th, and returned to Bishop Amat the following morning. I took a nice nap when I got home before I had to get dressed and head back to Amat later in the day for my commencement ceremony—which was professionally recorded to a VHS tape that I purchased (I've been meaning to transfer it to a DVD). Our graduation song was Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me."

I could go on about all of the memorable details and events that took place around the time I graduated...as well as the Summer of 1998 itself. But I won't 'cause this would be a pretty long Blog entry! All I'll say next is that my 20-year high school reunion is set to take place aboard a yacht in Newport Beach on October 6, but I'm still deciding whether I should go or not.

If you look closely at this pic, you can spot a red arrow I put that denotes my location in this group photo. Go Lancers!

A group photo that my class took two days before our graduation from Bishop Amat Memorial High School...which was on June 5, 1998.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Remembering Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals...

The L.A. Lakers' Kobe Bryant makes a play against the Portland Trailblazers' Rasheed Wallace in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals...on June 4, 2000.

On this day 18 years ago, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal triumphantly celebrated after the Los Angeles Lakers came back from a 15-point deficit in the 4th quarter to defeat the Portland Trailblazers, 89-84, in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. I probably shouldn't admit this ("Bandwagon jumper!"), but I remember angrily leaving the room around the end of the 3rd quarter thinking about becoming a Toronto Raptors fan (what with that season's slam dunk champion Vince Carter being on the team at the time) if the Lakers ended their playoff run in yet another failure. Suffice it to say, that fortunately wasn't the case as my family was still watching the game and celebrated when Shaq, Kobe, Glen Rice and company slowly crawled their way back to regaining the lead (or did they ever have the lead at any point in Game 7? Can't remember) before a rapturous crowd at STAPLES Center. And when Kobe lobbed the basketball to Shaq for that alley-oop dunk in the game's final minutes? Well... I knew that they were about to begin a new era of greatness for the Lakers franchise that Sunday night.

Shaquille O'Neal celebrates after the Lakers defeat the Trailblazers, 89-84, in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals...on June 4, 2000.

So what did I do after the final buzzer sounded and the Lakers officially clinched their spot against the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals? Simple— I quickly stepped out of the front door of the house to scream like a raving lunatic (okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little) as I couldn't wait for Game 1 of the championship series to begin. After three previous playoff runs that ended in Shaq and Kobe leaving the court in disappointment due to the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs, they finally reached the promise land. Happy Monday!

Friday, June 01, 2018

InSight Update: "WALL-E" and "EVE" Refine Their Course to the Red Planet...

An artist's concept of the two MarCO CubeSats (nicknamed 'WALL-E' and 'EVE' after the two Disney-Pixar characters, respectively) flying through deep space.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA CubeSats Steer Toward Mars (News Release)

NASA has achieved a first for the class of tiny spacecraft known as CubeSats, which are opening new access to space.

Over the past week, two CubeSats called MarCO-A and MarCO-B have been firing their propulsion systems to guide themselves toward Mars. This process, called a trajectory correction maneuver, allows a spacecraft to refine its path to Mars following launch. Both CubeSats successfully completed this maneuver; NASA's InSight spacecraft just completed the same process on May 22.

The pair of CubeSats that make up the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission both launched on May 5, along with the InSight lander, which is headed toward a Nov. 26 touchdown on the Red Planet. They were designed to trail InSight on the way to Mars, aiming to relay back data about InSight as it enters the planet's atmosphere and attempts to land. The MarCOs were never intended to collect any science data; instead, they are a test of miniaturized communication and navigation technology that can blaze a path for future CubeSats sent to other planets.

Both MarCO-A and B successfully completed a set of communications tests in the past couple of weeks, said John Baker, program manager for planetary SmallSats at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. JPL built both MarCO CubeSats and leads the mission.

"Our broadest goal was to demonstrate how low-cost CubeSat technology can be used in deep space for the first time," Baker said. "With both MarCOs on their way to Mars, we've already traveled farther than any CubeSat before them."

While MarCO-A corrected its course to Mars relatively smoothly, MarCO-B faced some unexpected challenges. Its maneuver was smaller due to a leaky thruster valve that engineers have been monitoring for the past several weeks. The leak creates small trajectory changes on its own. Engineers have factored in these nudges so that MarCO-B can still perform a trajectory correction maneuver. It will take several more weeks of tracking to refine these nudges so that MarCO-B can follow InSight on its cruise through space.

"We're cautiously optimistic that MarCO-B can follow MarCO-A," said Joel Krajewski of JPL, MarCO's project manager. "But we wanted to take more time to understand the underlying issues before attempting the next course-correction maneuver."

Once the MarCO team has analyzed data, they'll know the size of follow-on maneuvers. Several more course corrections will be needed to reach the Red Planet.

Should the CubeSats make it all the way to Mars, they will attempt to relay data to Earth about InSight's landing. InSight won't rely on either CubeSat for that data relay, however; that job will fall to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory