Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Photos of the Day: Visiting Mount Wilson Observatory...

A selfie I took with Mount Wilson Observatory's CHARA array interferometer (foreground), the 60-inch telescope and a 150-foot solar telescope (background) on March 24, 2016.

Last Thursday, I drove down to the Mount Wilson Observatory near La Cañada Flintridge to check out the telescope that astronomer Edwin Hubble used in the late 1920s to discover that the Universe is expanding. While the observatory is only less than 18 miles from where I live, it took more than an hour and a distance of 50-plus miles to reach the summit of Mount Wilson...due to the long winding road through Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. The ride was pretty fun and definitely worth it, seeing as how this is the only working observatory near Los Angeles (Griffith Park Observatory near Hollywood is more of a tourist attraction)...and the closest one after that is the Palomar Observatory (home to the 200-inch Hale Telescope) near San Diego.

My 2015 Honda Civic is visible at the left side of this photo while Mount Wilson Observatory's two 150-foot solar telescopes are visible to the right...on March 24, 2016.

Along with checking out the 100-inch Hooker Telescope (which Hubble used to make his discovery about the Universe's expansion, which he confirmed in 1929), I also took photos of the domes housing the 60-inch telescope, the two 150-foot-tall solar telescope towers and the various domes housing the CHARA (The Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy) array interferometers that began scientific use by Georgia State University in 2002. Also a sight to see is the "antenna farm"...which consists of several giant radio and TV antennas that were constructed as far back as 1947. The largest radio tower on Mount Wilson is the guyed mast that is owned by Richland Towers. It stands at 972 feet-tall.

A photo I took of the 'antenna farm' near Mount Wilson Observatory...on March 24, 2016.

Having visited Griffith Park Observatory (the last time I went there was in 1994), Palomar (traveled there back in '91, I believe) and now Mount Wilson, the next astronomical site I want to check out is the Mauna Kea Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii. Home to the twin Keck Telescopes, this observatory sits on Mauna Kea's summit 13,796 feet above sea level (compared to 5,710 feet for Mount Wilson). Yea, I'd either have to learn how to drive stick shift if I want to travel up Mauna Kea by myself, or take a tour bus to the observatory. I'm leaning towards taking the tour bus. That is all.

LINK: All of the photos that I took at Mount Wilson Observatory

Greater Los Angeles as seen from the summit of Mount Wilson...on March 24, 2016.

Another photo I took of Mount Wilson Observatory's CHARA array interferometer (foreground), the 60-inch telescope and a 150-foot solar telescope (background) on March 24, 2016.

The dome housing Mount Wilson Observatory's 60-inch telescope, with a 150-foot solar telescope visible in the background...on March 24, 2016.

Mini-domes (which are part of the CHARA array? Not sure) at Mount Wilson Observatory...on March 24, 2016.

The dome housing Mount Wilson Observatory's historic 100-inch Hooker Telescope...on March 24, 2016.

A photo I took of the historic 100-inch Hooker Telescope (which Edwin Hubble used to discover that the Universe is expanding)...on March 24, 2016.

A photo I took of one of the 150-foot solar telescopes at Mount Wilson Observatory...on March 24, 2016.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

New Horizons Update: A Lake on a Distant Dwarf Planet...

An image of a frozen nitrogen lake on Pluto...taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.
NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Pluto: On Frozen Pond (Press Release)

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft spied several features on Pluto that offer evidence of a time millions or billions of years ago when – thanks to much higher pressure in Pluto's atmosphere and warmer conditions on the surface – liquids might have flowed across and pooled on the surface of the distant world.

"In addition to this possible former lake, we also see evidence of channels that may also have carried liquids in Pluto's past," said Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado—principal investigator of New Horizons and lead author of a scientific paper on the topic submitted to the journal Icarus.

This feature appears to be a frozen, former lake of liquid nitrogen, located in a mountain range just north of Pluto's informally named Sputnik Planum. Captured by the New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, the image shows details as small as about 430 feet (130 meters). At its widest point the possible lake appears to be about 20 miles (30 kilometers) across.

Source: New Horizons Website

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

All's Well on the Journey to Mars...

An artist's concept of Europe's Trace Gas Orbiter releasing the Schiaparelli demonstrator module towards Mars.
ESA – D. Ducros

ExoMars Performing Flawlessly (Press Release)

Following a spectacular liftoff, ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is performing flawlessly en route to the Red Planet.

The ESA–Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator are well on their way following the 14 March launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

After a raucous 10 minute ascent, the three-stage Proton-M rocket delivered the Breeze-M upper stage and its ExoMars payload into an initial parking orbit.

Following four crucial engine burns in the next 10 hours, Breeze-M released ExoMars into its interplanetary path to Mars, achieving a departure speed accurate to within just 1.5 m/s.

“We had an extremely precise orbital injection thanks to Proton–Breeze and our Russian colleagues, and we are now well on our way to Mars,” says ESA flight director Michel Denis.

“After the critical first few days in space, TGO is performing flawlessly. Over the next two weeks we will continue to check and commission its systems, including the power, communications, startrackers, and guidance and navigation system.”

Schiaparelli, which is hitching a ride to Mars with TGO, will also be thoroughly checked in the coming weeks.

Starting in April, the ExoMars team at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, will work with the science teams to start switching on and commissioning the craft’s scientific instruments.

NASA’s Electra radio relay will also be switched on and checked next month.

In June, the science control centre at ESA’s establishment near Madrid, Spain, will start working with the instrument teams at their various institutes, and the Roscosmos science operations centre, to perform a mid-cruise checkout of TGO’s instruments.

Not Many Problems to Solve

In the only problem seen so far, the team noted some hours after establishing a communication link that the temperature of the main engine, to be used later during the cruise and at Mars arrival, had started to rise more than expected.

In consultations with engineers from Thales Alenia Space France, TGO’s prime contractor, it was determined that simply adjusting the craft’s orientation in space by a few degrees so that the engine nozzle was no longer directly facing the Sun would do the trick. It did.

“It’s obvious that the European industry who built ExoMars has done an excellent job,” says Michel.

By Thursday evening, 17 March, the mission control team had declared the ‘Launch and Early Orbit Phase’ – one of the most critical periods in any mission’s life – complete, and finished work in the main control room in Darmstadt.

From now on, routine operations will be handled from a smaller room, where space and facilities will be shared with other interplanetary missions.

Source: European Space Agency


Another art concept showing Europe's Trace Gas Orbiter traveling through deep space.
ESA / ATG medialab

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Photos of the Day: Thank God for Obamacare!

Awesome special effects make-up work that was applied to me on set today.

Apparently, I was having a very bad day today... Or another great day working on an exciting gig in the Entertainment Capital of the World (no, not Las Vegas). I'll leave it at that.

Awesome special effects make-up work that was applied to me on set today.

Awesome special effects make-up work that was applied to me on set today.

Awesome special effects make-up work that was applied to me on set today.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Foggy Day on a Dwarf Planet...

An image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015...showing haze layers above the dwarf planet.

Haze Layers Above Pluto (Press Release)

This image of haze layers above Pluto’s limb was taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. About 20 haze layers are seen; the layers have been found to typically extend horizontally over hundreds of kilometers, but are not strictly parallel to the surface. For example, scientists note a haze layer about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the surface (lower left area of the image), which descends to the surface at the right.

This week, in the journal Science, New Horizons scientists have authored the first comprehensive set of papers describing results from last summer’s Pluto system flyby. Above the surface, scientists discovered Pluto’s atmosphere contains layered hazes, and is both cooler and more compact than expected. This affects how Pluto’s upper atmosphere is lost to space, and how it interacts with the stream of charged particles from the sun known as the solar wind.

Source: NASA.Gov

Monday, March 14, 2016

ExoMars Is Bound for the Red Planet!

An artist's concept of Europe's Trace Gas Orbiter releasing the Schiaparelli demonstrator module towards Mars.
ESA – D. Ducros

The Planetary Society & CEO Bill Nye Congratulate ExoMars Mission Team (Press Release)

Successful launch of first phase sets stage for next steps in multi-phased Mars mission

Pasadena, CA (March 14, 2016) -- The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos today launched the first mission of the ExoMars program aboard a Proton-M rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The ExoMars 2016 mission includes a Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. The Trace Gas Orbiter will use four science instruments to search for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signs of present-day active biological or geological processes. Schiaparelli will test technologies in preparation for future ESA and Roscosmos missions to the surface of Mars. ExoMars will also carry an Electra radio system that will make it part of the interplanetary communications network designed to relay precious data from present and future ESA, Roscosmos, and NASA Mars landers back to Earth.

Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, issued the following congratulatory statement:

“The Planetary Society congratulates ESA and Roscosmos on the successful ExoMars launch. It’s a big step in a mission that will build on the successes of the international Mars program. This mission will help us understand the source or sources of methane on Mars, which may be signs of present geologic activity or of past or even present life: Discoveries that would change the world. The more we learn about Mars and other worlds, the closer we come to understanding our origin and place within the cosmos. We look forward to ExoMars providing insights into the Martian methane mystery. In the meantime, we’re rooting for a successful arrival for this landmark mission.”

Source: The Planetary Society


A Russian Proton-M rocket carrying Europe's ExoMars spacecraft lifts off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on March 14, 2016.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

InSight Gets a New Lease on Life!

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

NASA Targets May 2018 Launch of Mars InSight Mission (Press Release)

NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to study the deep interior of Mars is targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018.

InSight’s primary goal is to help us understand how rocky planets – including Earth – formed and evolved. The spacecraft had been on track to launch this month until a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument prompted NASA in December to suspend preparations for launch.

InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and France's space agency, Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), on a path forward; the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument was accepted in support of a 2018 launch.

“The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will redesign, build and conduct qualifications of the new vacuum enclosure for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), the component that failed in December. CNES will lead instrument level integration and test activities, allowing the InSight Project to take advantage of each organization’s proven strengths. The two agencies have worked closely together to establish a project schedule that accommodates these plans, and scheduled interim reviews over the next six months to assess technical progress and continued feasibility.

The cost of the two-year delay is being assessed. An estimate is expected in August, once arrangements with the launch vehicle provider have been made.

The seismometer instrument's main sensors need to operate within a vacuum chamber to provide the exquisite sensitivity needed for measuring ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom. The rework of the seismometer's vacuum container will result in a finished, thoroughly tested instrument in 2017 that will maintain a high degree of vacuum around the sensors through rigors of launch, landing, deployment and a two-year prime mission on the surface of Mars.

The InSight mission draws upon a strong international partnership led by Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of JPL. The lander's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). This probe will hammer itself to a depth of about 16 feet (five meters) into the ground beside the lander.

SEIS was built with the participation of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, with support from the Swiss Space Office and the European Space Agency PRODEX program; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, supported by DLR; Imperial College, supported by the United Kingdom Space Agency; and JPL.

"The shared and renewed commitment to this mission continues our collaboration to find clues in the heart of Mars about the early evolution of our solar system," said Marc Pircher, director of CNES's Toulouse Space Centre.

The mission’s international science team includes researchers from Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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 Systems in Denver. It was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in December 2015 in preparation for launch, and returned to Lockheed Martin's Colorado facility last month for storage until spacecraft preparations resume in 2017.

NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet, and that work remains on track. Robotic spacecraft are leading the way for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover being designed and built, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers exploring the Martian surface, the Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft currently orbiting the planet, along with the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) orbiter, which is helping scientists understand what happened to the Martian atmosphere.

NASA and CNES also are participating in ESA’s (European Space Agency's) Mars Express mission currently operating at Mars. NASA is participating on ESA’s 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing telecommunication radios for ESA's 2016 orbiter and a critical element of a key astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover.

Source: NASA.Gov


NASA's InSight Mars lander is tucked inside its aeroshell at the Lockheed Martin facility near Denver, Colorado.
NASA / Lockheed Martin

Monday, March 07, 2016

Dawn Update: The Probe Is Just Doin' Its Thang In LAMO Around Ceres...

A high-resolution image of Ceres' Ahuna Mons mountain...as seen by NASA's Dawn spacecraft in December of 2015.
NASA / JPL - Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Ahuna Mons on Ceres Seen From Low-Altitude Mapping Orbit (Press Release)

The mysterious mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO), from an altitude of 240 miles (385 kilometers) in December 2015. The resolution of the component images is 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel.

On its steepest side, this mountain is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) high. Its average overall height is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). These figures are slightly lower than what scientists estimated from Dawn's higher orbits because researchers now have a better sense of Ceres' topography.

The diameter of the mountain is about 12 miles (20 kilometers). Researchers are exploring the processes that could have led to this feature's formation.

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, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

Source: NASA.Gov

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Designing a 21st Century Version of the Concorde...

An artist's concept of an 'X-plane' being designed by Lockheed Martin for NASA.
Lockheed Martin

NASA Begins Work to Build a Quieter Supersonic Passenger Jet (Press Release - February 29)

The return of supersonic passenger air travel is one step closer to reality with NASA's award of a contract for the preliminary design of a “low boom” flight demonstration aircraft. This is the first in a series of ‘X-planes’ in NASA's New Aviation Horizons initiative, introduced in the agency’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the award at an event Monday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.

“NASA is working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter – all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently,” said Bolden. “To that end, it’s worth noting that it's been almost 70 years since Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 as part of our predecessor agency's high speed research. Now we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy with this preliminary design award for a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight."

NASA selected a team led by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company of Palmdale, California, to complete a preliminary design for Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST). The work will be conducted under a task order against the Basic and Applied Aerospace Research and Technology (BAART) contract at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

After conducting feasibility studies and working to better understand acceptable sound levels across the country, NASA's Commercial Supersonic Technology Project asked industry teams to submit design concepts for a piloted test aircraft that can fly at supersonic speeds, creating a supersonic "heartbeat" -- a soft thump rather than the disruptive boom currently associated with supersonic flight.

“Developing, building and flight testing a quiet supersonic X-plane is the next logical step in our path to enabling the industry's decision to open supersonic travel for the flying public," said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission.

Lockheed Martin will receive about $20 million over 17 months for QueSST preliminary design work. The Lockheed Martin team includes subcontractors GE Aviation of Cincinnati and Tri Models Inc. of Huntington Beach, California.

The company will develop baseline aircraft requirements and a preliminary aircraft design, with specifications, and provide supporting documentation for concept formulation and planning. This documentation would be used to prepare for the detailed design, building and testing of the QueSST jet. Performance of this preliminary design also must undergo analytical and wind tunnel validation.

In addition to design and building, this Low Boom Flight Demonstration (LBFD) phase of the project also will include validation of community response to the new, quieter supersonic design. The detailed design and building of the QueSST aircraft, conducted under the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate's Integrated Aviation Systems Program, will fall under a future contract competition.

NASA’s 10-year New Aviation Horizons initiative has the ambitious goals of reducing fuel use, emissions and noise through innovations in aircraft design that departs from the conventional tube-and-wing aircraft shape.

The New Aviation Horizons X-planes will typically be about half-scale of a production aircraft and likely are to be piloted. Design-and-build will take several years with aircraft starting their flight campaign around 2020, depending on funding.

Source: NASA.Gov


The now-retired Concorde is about to land at England's Farnborough Airport in September of 1974.
Steve Fitzgerald