Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NASA's WISE Space Telescope Jettisons its Cover

Artist's concept of NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer

NASA's recently launched Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer opened its eyes to the starry sky today, after ejecting its protective cover.

Engineers and scientists say the maneuver went off without a hitch, and everything is working properly. The mission's "first-light" images of the sky will be released to the public in about a month, after the telescope has been fully calibrated.

"The cover floated away as we planned," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Our detectors are soaking up starlight for the first time."

WISE will perform the most detailed infrared survey of the entire sky to date. Its millions of images will expose the dark side of the cosmos -- objects, such as asteroids, stars and galaxies, that are too cool or dusty to be seen with visible light. The telescope will survey the sky one-and-a-half times in nine months, ending its primary mission when the coolant it needs to see infrared light evaporates away.

WISE launched on Dec. 14 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Once it was thoroughly checked out in space, it was ready to "flip its lid."

The cover served as the top to a Thermos-like bottle that chilled the instrument -- a 40-centimeter (16-inch) telescope and four infrared detector arrays with one million pixels each. The instrument must be maintained at frosty temperatures, as cold as below 8 Kelvin (minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit), to prevent it from picking up its own heat, or infrared, glow. The cover kept everything cool on the ground by sealing a vacuum space into the instrument chamber. In the same way that Thermos bottles use thin vacuum layers to keep your coffee warm or iced tea cold, the vacuum space inside WISE stopped heat from getting in. Now, space itself will provide the instrument with an even better vacuum than before.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Glittering Metropolis

globular cluster
Like a whirl of shiny flakes sparkling in a snow globe, Hubble caught this glimpse of many hundreds of thousands of stars moving about in the globular cluster M13, one of the brightest and best-known globular clusters in the northern sky. This glittering metropolis of stars is easily found in the winter sky in the constellation Hercules and can even be glimpsed with the unaided eye under dark skies.

M13 is home to over 100,000 stars and located at a distance of 25,000 light-years. These stars are packed so closely together in a ball, approximately 150 light-years across, that they will spend their entire lives whirling around in the cluster.

Near the core of this cluster, the density of stars is about a hundred times greater than the density in the neighborhood of our sun. These stars are so crowded that they can, at times, slam into each other and even form a new star, called a "blue straggler."

The brightest reddish stars in the cluster are ancient red giants. These aging stars have expanded to many times their original diameters and cooled. The blue-white stars are the hottest in the cluster.

Globular clusters can be found spread largely in a vast halo around our galaxy. M13 is one of nearly 150 known globular clusters surrounding our Milky Way galaxy.

Globular clusters have some of the oldest stars in the universe. They likely formed before the disk of our Milky Way, so they are older than nearly all other stars in our galaxy. Studying globular clusters therefore tells us about the history of our galaxy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Passing of Stan Lebar

Stan Lebar next to an image of him with the lunar camera.
Stan Lebar, who led the Westinghouse Electric Corporation team that developed the lunar camera that brought the televised news images of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon to more than 500 million people on earth, died on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009.

During his long and distinguished career, other camera programs he managed for NASA included the Apollo Color TV Cameras, the Skylab series of TV cameras, and the TV cameras for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program (ASTP).

From 1943 until the end of World War II, Lebar served in the Pacific Theater of Operations as an Air Force B-24 Ball Turret Gunner. After the war, he attended the University of Missouri and received a BS in Electrical Engineering in 1950. He joined Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1953, and worked in the Aerospace Division, Baltimore, Maryland, until his retirement in 1986.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dreams of Flight Redefined

Terry Hill
Terry Hill once dreamed of being a pilot, but his ambitions have taken him beyond the friendly skies. Hill, now grown up, is working on the future of spaceflight for NASA. He’s helping to develop the next generation of spacesuits to send humans to the International Space Station, moon, Mars and beyond as part of NASA's Constellation Program.

“Never in a million years did I think I would be designing spacesuits for NASA as my job,” said Hill, the engineering project manager for the Constellation Spacesuit System at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Prior to joining America's space program, the Texarkana, Texas native pursued his dreams of navigating the aerospace landscape. Hill got his start with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.

At UT Austin, Hill discovered an interest in orbital mechanics and was hooked on working with projects pertaining to space. He decided to take on graduate school at UT Austin and received his master’s in aerospace guidance, navigation and control theory.

“It’s just been a series of unexpected but good events that lead me down this path, and I have found myself in a totally different place than I thought possible,” Hill said.

Hill said his graduate school experience was completely different from his undergraduate studies. His graduate studies focused more on understanding advanced concepts rather than basic engineering. While working on his master’s degree, Hill jumped on a new and exciting opportunity: working for NASA JSC as a primary investigator on his educational advisor’s contract.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

NASA Scientists Find Evidence for Liquid Water on a Frozen Early Mars

Evidence suggests flowing water formed the rivers and gullies on the Mars surface, even though surface temperatures were below freezing
NASA scientists modeled freezing conditions on Mars to test whether liquid water could have been present to form the surface features of the Martian landscape.

Researchers report that fluids loaded with dissolved minerals containing elements such as silicon, iron, magnesium, potassium and aluminum, can remain in a liquid state at temperatures well below freezing. The results of this research appear in the May 21 issue of Nature magazine entitled "Stability Against Freezing of Aqueous Solutions on Early Mars."

"We found that the salts in water solutions can reduce the melting point of water, which may help explain how liquid water existed in a frozen Martian environment," said Alberto Fairén, a space scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. and the lead author of the study.

To understand what formed the surface features on Mars, scientists have focused on the early Martian conditions. Was early Mars warm and wet, or cold and dry? Surface features throughout most of the Martian landscape suggest the presence of water ponds ranging from seas to lakes, and rivers and gullies formed by flowing water, which imply that early Mars was wet.

But there also is some evidence that suggests that Mars may have been permanently cold, with global temperatures well below the freezing point of pure water. To study the 'liquidity' of water on Mars, climate modelers first simulated various concentrations of greenhouse gases in its atmosphere. They found that these gases cannot efficiently raise the surface temperature above freezing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Supernova Explosions Stay in Shape

At a very early age, children learn how to classify objects according to their shape. Now, new research suggests studying the shape of the aftermath of supernovas may allow astronomers to do the same.

A new study of images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory on supernova remnants -- the debris from exploded stars - shows that the symmetry of the remnants, or lack thereof, reveals how the star exploded. This is an important discovery because it shows that the remnants retain information about how the star exploded even though hundreds or thousands of years have passed.

Supernova remnants Kepler and G292

"It's almost like the supernova remnants have a 'memory' of the original explosion," said Laura Lopez of the University of California at Santa Cruz, who led the study. "This is the first time anyone has systematically compared the shape of these remnants in X-rays in this way."

Astronomers sort supernovas into several categories, or "types," based on properties observed days after the explosion and which reflect very different physical mechanisms that cause stars to explode. But, since observed remnants of supernovas are leftover from explosions that occurred long ago, other methods are needed to accurately classify the original supernovas.

Lopez and colleagues focused on the relatively young supernova remnants that exhibited strong X-ray emission from silicon ejected by the explosion so as to rule out the effects of interstellar matter surrounding the explosion. Their analysis showed that the X-ray images of the ejecta can be used to identify the way the star exploded. The team studied 17 supernova remnants both in the Milky Way galaxy and a neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orion Launch Abort System Attitude Control Motor Test-fired

Orion Launch Abort System Attitude Control Motor Test-fired
NASA, Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Lockheed Martin celebrated a major milestone with a ground test of a full-scale attitude control motor (ACM) for the Orion crew exploration vehicle’s launch abort system (LAS).

"The completion of the Demonstration Motor 1 hot-fire test is a substantial advancement in developing the ACM," said LAS Manager Kevin Rivers, of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "With an elaborate eight-valve control system that relies on advanced ceramic composites for several key components, the ACM is among the most complex solid rocket systems ever built."

The test performed at ATK’s facility in Elkton, Md., was the sixth in a series of ground tests of Orion’s attitude control motor system. The ACM is charged with keeping the crew module on a controlled flight path after it jettisons, steering it away from the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle in the event of an emergency, and then reorienting the module for parachute deployment.

Having reached this milestone brings Constellation another step closer to flight-ready status and demonstrates progress toward improved flight safety for astronauts, which is at the core of Constellation Program success.

The launch abort system, mounted on top of the Orion crew module, centers around three solid propellant rocket motors: an abort motor, an attitude control motor; and a jettison motor. Successful tests of both the abort and jettison motors were completed in 2008. The attitude control motor consists of a solid propellant gas generator, with eight proportional valves equally spaced around the outside of the 32-inch diameter motor. Together, the valves can exert up to 7,000 pounds of steering force to the vehicle in any direction upon command from the crew module.

"Controllable solid rockets have only recently begun seeing application in spacecraft, and the ACM delivers an order of magnitude greater thrust than any of those systems," said Rivers. "It represents a significant technical advancement in controllable solid propulsion."

Hubble's Festive View of a Grand Star-Forming Region

Massive, young stellar grouping
Just in time for the holidays: a Hubble Space Telescope picture postcard of hundreds of brilliant blue stars wreathed by warm, glowing clouds. The festive portrait is the most detailed view of the largest stellar nursery in our local galactic neighborhood.

The massive, young stellar grouping, called R136, is only a few million years old and resides in the 30 Doradus Nebula, a turbulent star-birth region in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. There is no known star-forming region in our galaxy as large or as prolific as 30 Doradus.

Many of the diamond-like icy blue stars are among the most massive stars known. Several of them are over 100 times more massive than our Sun. These hefty stars are destined to pop off, like a string of firecrackers, as supernovas in a few million years.

The image, taken in ultraviolet, visible, and red light by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, spans about 100 light-years. The nebula is close enough to Earth that Hubble can resolve individual stars, giving astronomers important information about the stars' birth and evolution.

The brilliant stars are carving deep cavities in the surrounding material by unleashing a torrent of ultraviolet light, and hurricane-force stellar winds (streams of charged particles), which are etching away the enveloping hydrogen gas cloud in which the stars were born. The image reveals a fantasy landscape of pillars, ridges, and valleys, as well as a dark region in the center that roughly looks like the outline of a holiday tree. Besides sculpting the gaseous terrain, the brilliant stars can also help create a successive generation of offspring. When the winds hit dense walls of gas, they create shocks, which may be generating a new wave of star birth.

The movement of the LMC around the Milky Way may have triggered the massive cluster's formation in several ways. The gravitational tug of the Milky Way and the companion Small Magellanic Cloud may have compressed gas in the LMC. Also, the pressure resulting from the LMC plowing through the Milky Way's halo may have compressed gas in the satellite. The cluster is a rare, nearby example of the many super star clusters that formed in the distant, early universe, when star birth and galaxy interactions were more frequent. Previous Hubble observations have shown astronomers that super star clusters in faraway galaxies are ubiquitous.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Magnetic Dance of Titan and Saturn To Be Main Attraction during Flyby

Artist's concept of Cassini's
When it flies by Saturn's largest moon, Titan, this weekend, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will study the interactions between the magnetic field of Saturn and Titan. The flyby will take place the evening of Dec. 11 California time, or shortly after midnight Universal Time on Dec. 12.

As Titan plows through the magnetic bubble, or magnetosphere around Saturn, it creates a wake in the magnetic field lines coming away from the planet. This flyby will allow Cassini's fields and particles instruments to study that wake about 5,200 kilometers (3,200 miles) away from the moon, a relatively unexamined region. Other instruments will also be taking a closer look at Titan's clouds.

At closest approach to Titan, Cassini will swing to within about 4,900 kilometers (3,000 miles) of the surface of the moon.

Cassini last zoomed by Titan two months ago. Although this latest flyby is dubbed "T63," planning changes early in the orbital tour have made this the sixty-fourth targeted flyby of Titan.

Titan is a kind of "sister world" to Earth because it has a surface covered with organic material and an atmosphere whose chemical composition hearkens back to an early Earth.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Galaxy Collision Switches on Black Hole

This composite image of data from three different telescopes shows an ongoing collision between two galaxies, NGC 6872 and IC 4970. X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown in purple, while Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared data is red and optical data from ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) is colored red, green and blue.

Astronomers think that supermassive black holes exist at the center of most galaxies. Not only do the galaxies and black holes seem to co-exist, they are apparently inextricably linked in their evolution. To better understand this symbiotic relationship, scientists have turned to rapidly growing black holes -- so-called active galactic nucleus (AGN) -- to study how they are affected by their galactic environments.

The latest data from Chandra and Spitzer show that IC 4970, the small galaxy at the top of the image, contains an AGN, but one that is heavily cocooned in gas and dust. This means in optical light telescopes, like the VLT, there is little to see. X-rays and infrared light, however, can penetrate this veil of material and reveal the light show that is generated as material heats up before falling onto the black hole (seen as a bright point-like source).

Monday, December 07, 2009

Steering the Ares Rockets on a Straight Path

Ares I-X test rocket
The Ares I-X rocket stood more than 325 feet tall on the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Spectators watched in awe as its massive solid rocket motor blazed to life with a thunderous roar, and the spacecraft rose off the launch pad.

But what steered this rocket on its path as it climbed through Earth's atmosphere? The answer is a roll control system.

The roll control system used for the recently completed Ares I-X test flight is different from the system being developed for its sister vehicle the Ares I, but operates on the same premise.

For the Ares I-X test flight the roll control system performed two primary functions for the vehicle: It rolled the vehicle 90 degrees after liftoff to emulate the Ares I roll attitude at launch, and was used to maintain a constant roll attitude during ascent up to stage separation. The system began operating just after the rocket cleared the tower at launch and shut down just before first stage separation.

Ares I-X rocket looking back at the launch padUnlike the system being designed for Ares I, the Ares I-X roll control propulsion system components were harvested from decommissioned Peacekeeper missiles, which were to be dismantled by the U.S. Air Force as part of the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, called START II. The use of Peacekeeper parts for the roll control system – and shuttle parts for the first stage of Ares I-X – was an effective means for NASA to reduce the cost and development time of this flight test.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Another Stall of Right-Rear Wheel Ends Drive

Spirit's right-rear wheel stalled again on Sol 2099 (Nov. 28, 2009) during the first step of a two-step extrication maneuver. This stall is different in some characteristics from the stall on Sol 2092 (Nov. 21). The Sol 2099 stall occurred more quickly and the inferred rotor resistance was elevated at the end of the stall. Investigation of past stall events along with these characteristics suggest that this stall might not be result of the terrain, but might be internal to the right-rear wheel actuator. Rover project engineers are developing a series of diagnostics to explore the actuator health and to isolate potential terrain interactions. These diagnostics are not likely to be ready before Wednesday. Plans for future driving will depend on the results of the diagnostic tests.

Before the Sol 2099 drive ended, Spirit completed 1.4 meters of wheel spin and the rover's center moved 0.5 millimeters (0.02 inch) forward, 0.25 millimeters (0.01 inch) to the left and 0.5 millimeters (0.02 inch) downward. Since Spirit began extrication on Sol 2088, the rover has performed 9.5 meters (31 feet) of wheel spin and the rover's center, in total, has moved 16 millimeters (0.63 inch) forward, 10 millimeters (0.39 inch) to the left and 5 millimeters (0.20 inch) downward.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

NASA Moon Mission Wins Second-Best of 'What's New' Award by Popular Science

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is cited as one of the best innovations in aviation in the December issue of Popular Science.

"It is an honor to be selected by Popular Science for Best of What’s New in aviation," said Craig Tooley, LRO project manager from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "There was tremendous excitement about the United States returning to the moon after many years. I believe our selection is a result of that excitement."

Each year, the editors of Popular Science review thousands of products in search of the top 100 tech innovations of the year; breakthrough products and technologies that represent a significant leap in their categories. The winners -- the Best of What's New -- are awarded inclusion in the much-anticipated December issue of Popular Science, the most widely read issue of the year since the debut of Best of What's New in 1987. Best of What's New awards are presented to 100 new products and technologies in 11 categories: Automotive, Aviation and Space, Computing, Engineering, Gadgets, Green Technology, Home Entertainment, Security, Home Technology, Personal Health and Recreation.

"For 22 years, Popular Science has honored the innovations that surprise and amaze us -- those that make a positive impact on our world today and challenge our views of what’s possible in the future." said Mark Jannot, editor-in-chief of Popular Science. "The Best of What’s New Award is the magazine’s top honor, and the 100 winners -- chosen from among thousands of entrants -- represent the highest level of achievement in their fields."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Prometheus Plays Tug of War with One of Saturn's Rings

Saturn's moon Prometheus
The diminutive moon Prometheus whips gossamer ice particles out of Saturn's F ring in this image taken by the Cassini spacecraft on Aug. 21, 2009. The moon and the ring have eccentric, offset orbits, so Prometheus dips in and out of the F ring as it travels around Saturn. Its gravitational force drags the dust-sized particles at the edge of the F ring along for the ride.

The ability of the potato-shaped Prometheus to pull material out of the F ring was first theorized in the late 1990s and finally imaged by Cassini in 2004. But because these so-called "streamer-channels" have constantly shifted as Prometheus and the F ring have moved, the F ring has never looked the same twice. The gravitational pull of other moons on other rings has created waves in the edges, but nothing quite as extreme as the streamer-channels of Prometheus.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Crab Nebula: A Cosmic Icon

Crab Nebula
A star's spectacular death in the constellation Taurus was observed on Earth as the supernova of 1054 A.D. Now, almost a thousand years later, a super dense object -- called a neutron star -- left behind by the explosion is seen spewing out a blizzard of high-energy particles into the expanding debris field known as the Crab Nebula. X-ray data from Chandra provide significant clues to the workings of this mighty cosmic "generator," which is producing energy at the rate of 100,000 suns.

This composite image uses data from three of NASA's Great Observatories. The Chandra X-ray image is shown in blue, the Hubble Space Telescope optical images are in yellow and red, and the Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared image is in purple. The X-ray image is smaller than the others because extremely energetic electrons emitting X-rays radiate away their energy more quickly than the lower-energy electrons emitting optical and infrared light. Along with many other telescopes, Chandra has repeatedly observed the Crab Nebula over the course of the mission’s lifetime. The Crab Nebula is one of the most studied objects in the sky, truly making it a cosmic icon.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wise a Bit Closer to the Sky

Wise, is seen here being hoisted to the top of its United Launch Alliance Detla II rocket
NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or Wise, is now perched atop its rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Santa Barbara, Calif. The mission, which will scan the whole sky in infrared light, is scheduled to blast off on Dec. 9. It was hoisted to the top of its United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket on Friday, Nov. 20.

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The mission's principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cassini Sends Back Images of Enceladus as Winter Nears

unprocessed image was captured by NASA's CassiniNASA's Cassini spacecraft has sailed seamlessly through the Nov. 21 flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus and started transmitting uncalibrated temperature data and images of the rippling terrain. These data and images will be processed and analyzed in the coming weeks. They will help scientists create the most-detailed-yet mosaic image of the southern part of the moon's Saturn-facing hemisphere and a contiguous thermal map of one of the intriguing "tiger stripe" features, with the highest resolution to date.

"These first raw images are spectacular, and paint an even more fascinating picture of Enceladus," said Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The Cassini teams will be delving into the data to better understand the workings of this bizarre, active moon."

Scientists are particularly interested in the tiger stripes, which are fissures in the south polar region, because they spew jets of water vapor and other particles hundreds of kilometers, or miles, from the surface. This flyby was scientists' last peek at the tiger stripes before the south pole fades into the darkness of winter for several years. The thermal imaging work focused on the tiger stripe known as Baghdad Sulcus.

The Nov. 21 encounter, which is sometimes called "E8" because it is the eighth targeted flyby of Enceladus, brought Cassini to within about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) of the moon's surface, at around 82 degrees south latitude. Cassini is now cruising toward Rhea, another one of Saturn's moons, for more imaging and mapping work.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Before Darkness Falls: Cassini to Scan Enceladus on Winter's Cusp

Enceladus flybyNASA's Cassini spacecraft will fly by Saturn's moon Enceladus this weekend for a last peek at the intriguing "tiger stripes" before winter darkness blankets the area for several years.

Scientists are particularly interested in the tiger stripes, which are fissures in the south polar region, because they spew jets of water vapor and other particles hundreds of kilometers, or miles, from the surface.

The flyby, which is sometimes called "E8" because it is the eighth targeted flyby of Enceladus, is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 21 UTC, which is the evening of Friday, Nov. 20 in U.S. time zones. Cassini team members expect to fly the spacecraft to within about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) of the moon's surface, at around 82 degrees south latitude. This will be a more distant flyby than the one on Nov. 2, when Cassini flew about 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the surface.

During this flyby, scientists will focus on a tiger stripe called Baghdad Sulcus and create a contiguous thermal map of the feature. The spacecraft will also be snapping high-resolution images of the southern part of the Saturn-facing hemisphere.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NASA and Microsoft Allow Earthlings to Become Martians

Martin NASA and Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., have collaborated to create a Web site where Internet users can have fun while advancing their knowledge of Mars.

Drawing on observations from NASA’s Mars missions, the "Be a Martian" Web site will enable the public to participate as citizen scientists to improve Martian maps, take part in research tasks, and assist Mars science teams studying data about the Red Planet.

"We're at a point in history where everyone can be an explorer," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "With so much data coming back from Mars missions that are accessible by all, exploring Mars has become a shared human endeavor. People worldwide can expand the specialized efforts of a few hundred Mars mission team members and make authentic contributions of their own."

Participants will be able to explore details of the solar system's grandest canyon, which resides on Mars. Users can call up images in the Valles Marineris canyon before moving on to chart the entire Red Planet. The collaboration of thousands of participants could assist scientists in producing far better maps, enabling smoother zoom-in views and easier interpretation of Martian surface changes.

By counting craters, the public also may help scientists determine the relative ages of small regions on Mars. In the past, counting Martian craters has posed a challenge because of the vast numbers involved. By contributing, Web site users will win game points assigned to a robotic animal avatar they select.

With a common goal of inspiring digital-age workforce development and life-long learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, NASA and Microsoft unveiled the Web site at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles this week. The site also beckons software developers to win prizes for creating tools that provide access to and analysis of hundreds of thousands of Mars images for online, classroom and Mars mission team use.

"Industry leaders like NASA and Microsoft have a social responsibility as well as a vested interest in advancing science and technology education," said Walid Abu-Hadba, corporate vice president of the Developer and Platform Evangelism Group at Microsoft. "We are excited to be working with NASA to provide new opportunities to engage with Mars mission data, and to help spark interest and excitement among the next generation of scientists and technologists."

To encourage more public participation, the site also provides a virtual town hall forum where users can expand their knowledge by proposing Mars questions and voting on which are the most interesting to the community. Online talks by Mars experts will address some of the submitted questions. Other features include interactive tools for viewing Martian regions and movies about people who study Mars in diverse ways.

"Mars exploration inspires people of all ages, and we are especially eager to encourage young people to explore Mars for themselves," said Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We are delighted to be involved in providing the creative opportunity for future explorers to contribute to our understanding of Mars."

"The beauty of this type of experience is that it not only teaches people about Mars and the work NASA is doing there, but it also engages large groups of people to help solve real challenges that computers cannot solve by themselves," said Marc Mercuri, director of business innovation in the Developer and Platform Evangelism Group at Microsoft.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

LCROSS Impact Data Indicates Water on Moon

The visible camera image showing the ejecta plume at about 20 seconds after impact.
The argument that the moon is a dry, desolate place no longer holds water.

Secrets the moon has been holding, for perhaps billions of years, are now being revealed to the delight of scientists and space enthusiasts alike.

NASA today opened a new chapter in our understanding of the moon. Preliminary data from the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, indicates that the mission successfully uncovered water during the Oct. 9, 2009 impacts into the permanently shadowed region of Cabeus cater near the moon’s south pole.

The impact created by the LCROSS Centaur upper stage rocket created a two-part plume of material from the bottom of the crater. The first part was a high angle plume of vapor and fine dust and the second a lower angle ejecta curtain of heavier material. This material has not seen sunlight in billions of years.

"We're unlocking the mysteries of our nearest neighbor and by extension the solar system. It turns out the moon harbors many secrets, and LCROSS has added a new layer to our understanding," said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Scientists have long speculated about the source of vast quantities of hydrogen that have been observed at the lunar poles. The LCROSS findings are shedding new light on the question of water, which could be more widespread and in greater quantity than previously suspected.

Permanently shadowed regions could hold a key to the history and evolution of the solar system, much as an ice core sample taken on Earth reveals ancient data. In addition, water, and other compounds represent potential resources that could sustain future lunar exploration.

Friday, November 13, 2009

NASA to Begin Attempts to Free Sand-Trapped Mars Rover

Computer reconstruction of spirit predicamentNASA will begin transmitting commands to its Mars exploration rover Spirit on Monday as part of an escape plan to free the venerable robot from its Martian sand trap.

Spirit has been lodged at a site scientists call "Troy" since April 23. Researchers expect the extraction process to be long and the outcome uncertain based on tests here on Earth this spring that simulated conditions at the Martian site.

"This is going to be a lengthy process, and there's a high probability attempts to free Spirit will not be successful" said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "After the first few weeks of attempts, we're not likely to know whether Spirit will be able to free itself."

Spirit has six wheels for roving the Red Planet. The first commands will tell the rover to rotate its five working wheels forward approximately six turns. Engineers anticipate severe wheel slippage, with barely perceptible forward progress in this initial attempt. Since 2006, Spirit's right-front wheel has been inoperable, possibly because of wear and tear on a motor as a result of the rover's longevity.

Spirit will return data the next day from its first drive attempt. The results will be assessed before engineers develop and send commands for a second attempt. Using results from previous commands, engineers plan to continue escape efforts until early 2010.

"Mobility on Mars is challenging, and whatever the outcome, lessons from the work to free Spirit will enhance our knowledge about how to analyze Martian terrain and drive future Mars rovers," McCuisition said. "Spirit has provided outstanding scientific discoveries and shown us astounding vistas during its long life on Mars, which is more than 22 times longer than its designed life."

In the spring, Spirit was driving backward and dragging the inoperable right front wheel. While driving in April, the rover's other wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering a bright-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap. Driving was suspended to allow time for tests and reviews of possible escape strategies.

"The investigations of the rover embedding and our preparations to resume driving have been extensive and thorough," said John Callas, project manager for Spirit and Opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We've used two different test rovers here on Earth in conditions designed to simulate as best as possible Spirit's predicament. However, Earth-based tests cannot exactly replicate the conditions at Troy."

Data show Spirit is straddling the edge of a 26-foot-wide crater that had been filled long ago with sulfate-bearing sands produced in a hot water or steam environment. The deposits in the crater formed distinct layers with different compositions and tints, and they are capped by a crusty soil. It is that soil that Spirit's wheels broke through. The buried crater lies mainly to Spirit's left. Engineers have plotted an escape route from Troy that heads up a mild slope away from the crater.

"We'll start by steering the wheels straight and driving, though we may have to steer the wheels to the right to counter any downhill slip to the left," said Ashley Stroupe, a JPL rover driver and Spirit extraction testing coordinator. "Straight-ahead driving is intended to get the rover's center of gravity past a rock that lies underneath Spirit. Gaining horizontal distance without losing too much vertical clearance will be a key to success. The right front wheel's inability to rotate greatly increases the challenge."

Spirit has been examining its Martian surroundings with tools on its robotic arm and its camera mast. The rover's work at Troy has augmented earlier discoveries it made indicating ancient Mars had hot springs or steam vents, possible habitats for life. If escape attempts fail, the rover's stationary location may result in new science findings.

"The soft materials churned up by Spirit's wheels have the highest sulfur content measured on Mars,” said Ray Arvidson a scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and deputy principal investigator for the science payloads on Spirit and Opportunity. “We're taking advantage of its fixed location to conduct detailed measurements of these interesting materials."

Spirit and its twin rover landed on Mars in January 2004. They have explored Mars for five years, far surpassing their original 90-day mission. Opportunity currently is driving toward a large crater called Endeavor.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This Month in Exploration - November

Wright military flyerVisit "This Month in Exploration" every month to find out how aviation and space exploration have changed throughout the years, improving life for humans on Earth and in space. While reflecting on the events that led to NASA's formation and its rich history of accomplishments, "This Month in Exploration" will reveal where the agency is leading us -- to the moon, Mars and beyond.

100 Years Ago

November 3, 1909: Lt. George C. Sweet became the first naval officer to fly in the Wright airplane during the military trials of the Wright Flyer at College Park, Md. On the same day, Dr. William H. Greene set a passenger-carrying record at Morris Park, N.Y. A. Leo Stevens, an aviation pioneer in his own right, and two others rode as passengers for short flights in the Greene biplane.

90 Years Ago

November 12, 1919: Ross MacPherson Smith commenced his historic, 11,500-mile intercontinental flight in a British Vickers-Vimy heavy bomber aircraft in Heston, London. He completed the trip at Port Darwin, Australia on December 10, 1919 and was knighted for his efforts.

80 Years Ago

November 28-29, 1929: Commander Richard E. Byrd made the first flight over the South Pole in a Ford trimotor piloted by Bernt Balchen and two American pilots. During this first expedition to Antarctica, Byrd established a base he named Little America that was located on the Bay of Whales.

75 Years Ago

November 18, 1934: The United States Navy issued a contract to the Northrop Corporation for the XBT-1: a two-seat scout and 1,000-pound dive bomber. The aircraft was the first prototype in a sequence that led to the SBD Dauntless series of dive bombers used throughout World War II.

60 Years Ago

November 22, 1949: The Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, a research plane, exceeded the speed of sound at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. It was powered by both a Westinghouse J-34 turbojet engine and a Reaction Motors rocket motor.

50 Years Ago

November 4, 1959: NASA launched a second LJ-1A rocket (nicknamed Little Joe) from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. to test the Mercury escape system under severe dynamic pressure. The launch vehicle functioned perfectly, but the escape rocket ignited ten seconds too late.

November 11-22, 1959: The United States contributed 10 rocket firings to an internationally coordinated program of rocket sounds of the upper atmosphere sponsored by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

45 Years Ago

November 28, 1964: NASA launched the Mars explorer Mariner 4 spacecraft at 9:22 a.m. EST from the Eastern Space and Missile Center. The first successful mission to Mars, it encountered the planet on July 14, 1965.

40 Years Ago

November 14, 1969: NASA launched Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission, at 11:22 a.m. EST from NASA's Kennedy Space Station, Fla. Astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., Richard F. Gordon, and Alan L. Bean were aboard. The event was witnessed by Richard Nixon, the first U.S. President to attend the launch of a manned space flight.

30 Years Ago

November 21, 1979: The Eastern Space and Missile Center hosted the launch of the U.S. Air Force's Defense Satellites DSCS II-13 and 14.

25 Years Ago

November 8, 1984: NASA launched the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-51A) from Kennedy Space Center at 7:15 a.m. EST. The satellites TELESAT-H (ANIK) and SYNCOM IV-I (also known as LEASAT-1) were deployed, while disabled satellites PALAPA-B2 and WESTAR-VI were retrieved. The mission marked the first retrieval and return of two disabled communications satellites. The mission duration was 7 days, 23 hours, 44 minutes

20 Years Ago

November 18, 1989: NASA launched the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE ) at 6:34 a.m. PST from Vandenberg Air Force Base. This satellite was designed to measure diffuse infrared and microwave radiation from the early universe. COBE determined the temperature of the cosmic microwave background -- essentially the afterglow of the big bang.

15 Years Ago

November 3, 1994: NASA launched Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-66) at 11:59 a.m. EDT from Kennedy Space Center. The primary payload was the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Sciences - 3 (ATLAS-03), which measured and studied the hole in Earth's ozone layer. The mission duration was 10 days, 22 hours, 34 minutes.

10 Years Ago

November 26, 1999: NASA's Galileo spacecraft completed a historic flyby of Jupiter's moon, Io. Through Galileo's instruments, scientists determined that some of the volcanoes located on Io are hotter than any on Earth.

Five Years Ago

November 12, 2004: NASA's X-43A research vehicle set a new world speed record by a jet-powered aircraft when it traveled at Mach 10 - nearly 7,000 miles per hour. The X-43A's air-breathing scramjet engine has no moving parts. The aircraft is part of NASA's Hyper-X Program.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Amnesia-Like Behavior Returns on Spirit

Full-circle view from the panoramic camera
Until Oct. 24, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover had gone more than six months without an episode of amnesia-like symptoms like those that appeared on four occasions earlier this year.

In these amnesia events, Spirit fails to record data from the day's activities onto the type of computer memory -- non-volatile "flash" memory -- that can retain the data when the rover powers down for its energy-conserving periods of "sleep." The reappearance of this behavior in recent days might delay the start of planned drives by Spirit geared toward extricating the rover from a patch of soft soil where its wheels have been embedded since April.

Spirit sent data Oct. 24 through Oct. 27 indicating that the rover was not using its flash memory. The rover also has alternate memory (volatile, random-access memory) where data can be saved for communicating to Earth if the communication session comes before the next sleep period. Spirit remains in communication with Earth, maintaining good power and temperatures.

"We still don't have information about what causes these amnesia events," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "If they are intermittent and infrequent, they are a nuisance that would set us back a day or two when they occur. If the condition becomes persistent or frequent, we will need to go to an alternate strategy that avoids depending on flash memory. We would only get data collected the same day and any unsent data from an earlier day would be lost. The total volume of data returned by the rover is expected to be about the same."

This week, an independent panel of robotics experts has been reviewing the rover team's tests and plans for getting Spirit away from the site called "Troy," where the rover's wheels broke through a crusty, dark surface layer and became embedded in bright, loose material that had been hidden underneath.

Spirit has worked on Mars for more than 69 months in what was originally planned as a three-month mission.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Frost-Covered Phoenix Lander Seen in Winter Images

Winter images of NASA's Phoenix Lander showing the lander shrouded in dry-ice frost on Mars have been captured with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE camera, aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The HiRISE camera team at the University of Arizona, Tucson, captured one image of the Phoenix lander on July 30, 2009, and the other on Aug. 22, 2009. That's when the sun began peeking over the horizon of the northern polar plains during winter, the imaging team said. The first day of spring in the northern hemisphere began Oct. 26.

"We decided to try imaging the site despite the low light levels," said HiRISE team member Ingrid Spitale of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

"The power of the HiRISE camera helped us see it even under these poor light conditions," added HiRISE team member Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, who was also on the Phoenix Mars Lander science team.

The HiRISE team targeted their camera at the known location of the lander to get the new images and compared them to a HiRISE image of the frost-free lander taken in June 2008. That enabled them to identify the hardware disguised by frost, despite the fact that their views were hindered by poor lighting and by atmospheric haze, which often obscures the surface at this location and season.

Carbon dioxide frost completely blankets the surface in both images. The amount of carbon dioxide frost builds as late winter transitions to early spring, so the layer of frost is thicker in the Aug. 22 image.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Successful Flight Through Enceladus Plume

The Cassini spacecraft has weathered the Monday, Nov. 2, flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus in good health and has been sending images and data of the encounter back to Earth. Cassini had approached Enceladus more closely before, but this passage took the spacecraft on its deepest plunge yet through the heart of the plume shooting out from the south polar region. Scientists are eagerly sifting through the results.

In an unprocessed image (top right), sunlight brightens a crescent curve along the edge of Enceladus and highlights the moon's misty plume. The image was captured by Cassini's narrow-angle camera as the spacecraft passed about 190,000 kilometers (120,000 miles) over the moon.

A second raw image (bottom right) appears to show separate jets spewing from the moon. This image was taken from approximately 330,000 kilometers (200,000 miles) away.

At its closest point on Nov. 2, Cassini flew about 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the surface of Enceladus.

Since the discovery of the plume in 2005, scientists have been captivated by the enigmatic jets. Previous flybys detected water vapor, sodium and organic molecules, but scientists need to know more about the plume's composition and density to characterize the source, possibly a liquid ocean under the moon's icy surface. It would also help them determine whether Enceladus has the conditions necessary for life.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Mars Hoax Goes Viral

For the sixth year in a row, a message about the Red Planet is infecting worldwide email boxes. It instructs readers to go outside after dark on August 27th and behold the sky. "Mars will look as large as the full moon," it says. "No one alive today will ever see this again."

Don't believe it.

Here's what will really happen if you go outside after dark on August 27th. Nothing. Mars won't be there. On that date, the red planet will be nearly 250 million km away from Earth and completely absent from the evening sky.

The Mars Hoax got its start in 2003 when Earth and Mars really did have a close encounter. On Aug. 27th of that year, Mars was only 56 million km away, a 60,000-year record for martian close approaches to Earth. Someone sent an email alerting friends to the event. The message contained some misunderstandings and omissions—but what email doesn't? A piece of advanced technology called the "forward button" did the rest.

Tolerant readers may say that the Mars Hoax is not really a hoax, because it is not an intentional trick. The composer probably believed everything he or she wrote in the message. If that's true, a better name might be the "Mars Misunderstanding" or maybe the "Confusing-Email-About-Mars-You-Should-Delete-and-Not-Forward-to-Anyone-Except-Your-In-Laws."

Another aspect of the Mars Hoax: It says "Mars will look as large as the full Moon if you magnify it 75x using a backyard telescope." The italicized text is usually omitted from verbal and written summaries of the Hoax. (For example, see the beginning of this story.) Does this fine print make the Mars Hoax true? After all, if you magnify the tiny disk of Mars 75x, it does subtend an angle about the same as the Moon.

No. Even with magnification, Mars does not look the same as a full Moon.

This has more to do with the mysterious inner workings of the human brain than cold, hard physics. Looking at Mars magnified 75x through a slender black tube (the eyepiece of a telescope) and looking at the full Moon shining unfettered in the open sky are two very different experiences.

A good reference is the Moon Illusion. Moons on the horizon look huge; Moons directly overhead look smaller. In both cases, it is the same Moon, but the human mind perceives the size of the Moon differently depending on its surroundings.

Likewise, your perception of Mars is affected by the planet's surroundings. Locate the planet at the end of a little dark tunnel, and it is going to look tiny regardless of magnification.

Friday, October 30, 2009

NASA and ESA Establish a Mars Exploration Joint Initiative

MarsOn June 29 and 30 the NASA Associate Administrator for Science (Ed Weiler) and ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration (David Southwood) met in Plymouth, England, to establish a way for a progressive program for exploration of the Red Planet. The outcome of the bilateral meeting was an agreement to create a Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) that will provide a framework for the two agencies to define and implement their scientific, programmatic and technological goals at Mars.

Discussions between NASA and ESA began in December 2008, driven by the ESA Ministerial Council's recommendation to seek international cooperation to complete the ExoMars mission and to prepare further Mars robotic exploration missions. At the same time, NASA was reassessing its Mars Exploration Program portfolio after the launch of its Mars Science Laboratory was delayed from 2009 to 2011. This provided NASA and ESA with an opportunity to increase cooperation and expand collective capabilities. To investigate the options in depth, a joint NASA/ESA engineering working group was established, along with a joint executive board to steer the efforts and develop final recommendations on how to proceed.

At the bilateral meeting in Plymouth, the executive board recommended NASA and ESA establish MEJI, spanning launch opportunities in 2016, 2018 and 2020, with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical and other high-priority investigations, and leading to the return of samples from Mars in the 2020's. The director and associate administrator agreed, in principle, to establish the Initiative and continue studies to determine the most viable joint mission architectures.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Teamwork Brings About Successful Ares I-X Launch

Ares I-X Flight TestOutstanding teamwork was the theme of the Ares I-X postlaunch news conference as the successful flight test was discussed.

"I can't say enough about this team," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "They've been together probably a little over three years now, and they went from a concept to flying this vehicle in that period of time, which is the first time this has been done by a human spaceflight team in a long time."

Referring to the weather, which was the only issue of the day, Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley said, "We were ready when Mother Nature was ready, and we took our opportunity and what a great outcome. We're very proud of the result."

"It was a spectacular day," said Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager. "The vehicle flew even better than we expected."

"It is just a fantastic day," said Launch Director Ed Mango. "The team really excelled. I can't say enough about the folks who worked together to go make this thing happen. It was a great team, and as you can tell, it was a great vehicle."

NASA's Ares I-X test rocket lifted off at 11:30 a.m. EDT Wednesday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a two-minute powered flight. The flight test lasted about six minutes from its launch from the newly modified Launch Pad 39B until splashdown of the rocket's booster stage nearly 150 miles downrange.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Undergrad Proposal Deadline Nears for NASA Reduced Gravity Flights

NASAThe deadline is fast-approaching for undergraduate students to submit their team proposals to NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. Proposals must be received by 11:59 p.m. CDT , Wednesday, Oct. 28.

NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program gives aspiring explorers a chance to propose, design and fabricate a reduced gravity experiment. Selected teams will get to test and evaluate their experiment aboard a modified Boeing 727 jetliner provided by the Zero-Gravity Corporation of Las Vegas . Zero-Gravity Corporation will conduct the flights in cooperation with the Reduced Gravity Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston .

The aircraft will fly approximately 30 roller-coaster-like climbs and dips during experiment flights to produce periods of weightlessness and hyper-gravity ranging from 0 g to 2 g.
"Today's students will be conducting tomorrow's space exploration," said Douglas Goforth, the program manager at Johnson. "Conducting a hands-on research and engineering project in a truly reduced gravity laboratory gives students a head start in preparing for those future ventures."

All applicants must be full-time students, U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old. NASA will announce selected teams Dec. 9. Teams will fly in the summer of 2010. Selected teams also may invite a full-time, accredited journalist to fly with them and document the team's experiment and experiences.

Through this program, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. It is directly tied to the agency's education goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce. Through this and other college and university programs, NASA will identify and develop the critical science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills and capabilities needed to carry out its space exploration mission.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Building an Original

327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocketAres I-X has completed the first leg of its upcoming mission.

NASA's newest rocket -- currently the largest in the world -- emerged from the Vehicle Assembly Building at 1:39 a.m. EDT Oct. 20, 2009, beginning a 7.5-hour trek through the predawn darkness to Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It's the first new vehicle to occupy Launch Pad 39B in more than 25 years.

The goal of the test is to give NASA the chance to see the Ares I flight hardware, facilities and launch procedures in action. With more than 700 sensors on board, Ares I-X is wired to relay ascent data that will be critical for future flights.

The 1.8-million-pound rocket stayed "steady as a rock" throughout the 4.2-mile journey, according to NASA's Jon Cowart, one of two Ares I-X deputy mission managers overseeing the assembly and launch.
Steep ladders mounted inside the upper stage simulator
"For those of us who've lived with the shuttle and grew up looking at the Saturn Vs, it's obviously a little different than what we're used to seeing," Cowart said as the tracked crawler-transporter carried the 327-foot-tall rocket and its mobile launcher platform to the top of the pad. The rocket's upper stage loomed high above the top of the pad's fixed service structure, surpassed only by the pad's three lightning masts.

Closer in height to the hulking Saturn V moon rockets than the space shuttle, Ares I-X looks unlike any rocket that's ever stood at Launch Complex 39. But it blends familiar hardware from existing programs with newly developed components.

Four first-stage, solid-fuel booster segments are derived from the Space Shuttle Program. A simulated fifth booster segment contains Atlas-V-based avionics, and the rocket's roll control system comes from the Peacekeeper missile. The launch abort system, simulated crew and service modules, upper stage, and various connecting structures all are original.

'We've Got a Rocket'

Ares I-X in High Bay 3
The fast-paced assembly sequence kicked off in late 2008, when flight hardware began arriving at the Florida spaceport from NASA field centers and contractors across the country.

In order to handle the influx of Ares I-X components, the processing team needed more room than the Vehicle Assembly Building's High Bay 3 and booster facilities could provide. So elements were stored, inspected, fitted or joined together in additional facilities across the space center, and even at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in nearby Titusville, Fla.

The simulated upper stage arrived in November 2008 aboard the Delta Mariner barge after a journey from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio. In January 2009, a C5 cargo plane carried the full-scale crew module simulator and launch abort system from the agency's Langley Research Center in Virginia to Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility.

As assembly began, NASA Vehicle Processing Engineer Trent Smith was tasked with ensuring the work was done in the right order and that all necessary parts and personnel were available.

"When the hardware started showing up, I thought, 'Oh wow, it's here,' " Smith said. "We've got a rocket!"

Along with the crew module and abort tower, the upper stage's seven tuna can-shaped pieces, service module, spacecraft adapter and two interstage connectors were staged in the Vehicle Assembly Building's High Bay 4 prior to stacking.

The funnel-like frustum, forward skirt with its extension, and simulated fifth booster segment arrived from Indiana, where they were manufactured by Major Tool and Machine. First-stage prime contractor ATK Space Systems built the four solid-fueled booster segments, which reached Kennedy in March 2009 after a seven-day, cross-country train ride from Utah.

Stacking Begins

Smaller sections called "super stacks" were assembled first. The two interstage pieces, frustum, forward skirt and extension were mated to the simulated fifth booster segment in early July, completing Super Stack 1.

A day later, the aft, or bottom, segment of the first-stage solid booster rolled into the Vehicle Assemble Building and was secured to the mobile launcher platform in High Bay 3, marking the official start of final assembly.

"When we started stacking, it was a very big deal for us," Cowart said of the Ares I-X team. "We stacked all four of the boosters, then we were ready to bring over Super Stack 1."

Ares I-X finally was taking shape.

The first "tuna can" segment, comprising upper stage segment 1, was labeled Super Stack 2. Upper stage segments 2 through 5 made up Super Stack 3, and Super Stack 4 comprised upper stage segments 6 and 7. Segments 1 and 7 contain steel ballasts weighing a combined 160,000 pounds to mimic the weight of the Ares I liquid propellant tanks.

"I remember going up to Level 34 and looking down, and going on the E roof -- which is right about where the fifth segment simulator is -- and looking up, then down," Smith said. "That's when it really dawned on us that this is a tremendously tall rocket."

Barely five weeks after stacking began, Ares I-X was crowned with Super Stack 5, consisting of the launch abort system, crew module, service module and spacecraft adapter. The completed rocket towered above the surface of the mobile launcher platform, leaving only 10 feet of clearance for the heavy-lift crane to remove the birdcage-shaped framework that lowered the final pieces into place.

Assembly of the one-of-a-kind launch vehicle finally was complete. But plenty of work remained. The rocket was put through its paces: a power-up test, or "smoke test," to validate the electronics boxes and wiring; a "sway test" to check the vehicle's response to vibrations it could face during rollout; instrumentation tests; and a simulated countdown and liftoff.

Positioned for Launch

Once Ares I-X arrived at Launch Pad 39B, remaining milestones included a hot-fire of the rocket's auxiliary power units and checkout of the communications, instrumentation and telemetry. On launch day, most team members will be at their consoles seven hours before the opening of a four-hour launch window; Smith will ensure things are going well at the launch pad before retreating to a facility a safe distance away.

A successful liftoff will cap a demanding development and assembly process that Cowart believes illustrated NASA's entrepreneurial capability, as well as the dedication of the relatively small team that brought this flight from paper to reality.

Smith emphasized that the Ares I-X effort involved design centers, research centers, and multiple contractors -- all of which intersected at Kennedy.

"There was some education on all sides. Integrating and communicating were key to our success," he said. "What made it so rewarding was working through all the challenges and frustrations."

The Ares I-X flight test vehicle was still a concept about four years ago, Cowart pointed out.

"This is unprecedented in NASA history, for a rocket of this size," he said. "It's incredible."

NASA's Ares I-X Ready to Launch

The Ares I-X flight test is scheduled to blast off in late October, accomplishing a huge milestone in NASA’s space exploration plans. This flight test, an essential first stepping stone in the Constellation program and the first flight test of Ares I, represents a successful collaboration between NASA centers all around the country. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is playing a pivotal role in this achievement.

“It’s been almost 30 years since NASA and our partners have developed a new launch vehicle,” says Vince Bilardo, manager of Ares I-X Upper Stage Simulator effort. “That’s part of the objective of this flight: to demonstrate we still have the right stuff. We still have what it takes to design, develop, test and launch a new launch vehicle. A NASA government team can, in under four years, develop a brand new launch vehicle, process it and fly it.”

More than 200 people from NASA’s Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland, Ohio, spent almost 4 years developing and manufacturing the Upper Stage Simulator (USS), one of the five components that make up the Ares I-X. A wide array of talented specialists contributed to the project, Bilardo says. Project management, systems engineering, design engineering, structural mechanics, structural dynamics, fluid and thermal, manufacturing engineering, weld engineering, metallurgical engineering, technicians, test and verification, instrumentation, safety, reliability, and transportation and logistics were all involved in the successful production and delivery of the USS to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida via truck and ship.

“The function of the Upper Stage Simulator is to simulate the weight, the aerodynamic shape and the center of gravity—how the weight is distributed—on what will eventually be the “real” upper stage that will fly on Ares I in a few more years,” Bilardo says.

The Ares I crew launch vehicle will be a workhorse vehicle in performing the Constellation missions, and the Ares I-X test is the first flight test of Ares I. The Upper Stage Simulator (USS) is the portion of the Ares I-X that extends from the top of the first stage to the bottom of the crew module. It weighs 430,000 pounds and is 110 feet tall and was built and delivered in eleven different segments. Each segment is 18 feet in diameter and an average of 9.5 feet tall. The huge steel cylinder segments are fastened together with 180 bolts on each of the flanges as they are stacked together to form the USS. The Glenn team affectionately called the segments “tuna cans” while in development, as they share a similar diameter to height ratio.

This nautical nickname is also fitting because the USS will be swimming with the fishes after its test flight. Approximately two minutes after launch, the Ares I-X will separate into two parts which will somersault from the sky into the ocean. While the First Stage will be recovered, the Crew Module Simulator and USS will become fish reefs on the floor of the Atlantic.

Although the USS won’t be returning to solid ground, the invaluable information generated during its test flight will. The Ares I-X flight test vehicle has been outfitted with about 700 sensors that will measure pressure, temperature, vibration and acceleration during the flight test. This data will be transmitted to the ground during the flight and also recorded on a flight data recorder located in the First Stage. This data will help with the final design of the Ares I vehicle.

A team of about twenty people from Glenn joined the USS at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, assisting with hardware assembly, installing the avionic sensors and stacking the segments. At least one team member from Glenn has been at Kennedy continuously for the past year, and about ten will be on site for the launch. A team of four (including Bilardo) will serve on the launch support team in the back up firing room.

The Ares I-X project has been a collaborative effort between NASA centers all over the country, including Glenn, Kennedy, Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

“Five centers have been intimately involved over the last four years to pull this off, and we’ve developed quite a bit of camaraderie and team esprit de corps as a dedicated mission team. It’s really been a privilege to work with these folks,” Bilardo says. “Once you get to know people as well as we have on this project, those relationships endure for the balance of your career.”

In addition to providing essential hardware components to Ares I-X, Glenn has made significant contributions to the Constellation Program, including setting new standards for requirements verification regimes, acceptance review processes and management metrics for tracking budget process and schedule progress.

“Glenn did an outstanding job,” Bilardo says. “Throughout this process, Glenn has led by example in terms of achieving schedule, in terms of the management and engineering rigor that we brought to how we did our business and in terms of achieving the milestones and supporting the mission, which we will continue to do.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Engineers to Practice on Webb Telescope Simulator

James Webb Space Telescope's optical telescopeThe huge assembly standing in Northrop Grumman Corporation’s high bay looks a lot like NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, but it’s a full-scale simulator of the space telescope’s key elements.

Engineers are using the simulator, consisting of the telescope’s primary backplane assembly and the sunshield’s integrated validation article, to develop the Webb Telescope’s hardware design. In addition, technicians are using it to gain experience handling large elements in advance of working with the actual hardware that will fly in space.

"Having a functioning demonstration article enables us to see how components, which were developed and tested individually, fit together as a whole system," said Martin Mohan, Webb Telescope program manager for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector. "The simulator is an effective risk reduction tool to help us validate design approaches early."

John E. Decker, Deputy Associate Director for the Webb Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said, "Simulators are important for the development of any spacecraft, and they are absolutely critical for one with the size and complexity of the Webb Telescope. We have already learned many important lessons from this simulator, and we expect to learn many more."

The simulator is a key element in the company’s extensive test and verification program, which relies on incremental verification, testing, and the use of crosschecks throughout the Webb Telescope’s development. The goal is to ensure that the final end-to-end Observatory test is a confirmation of the expected results. Northrop Grumman’s approach emulates its highly successful Chandra X-ray Observatory test and verification program.

Northrop has conducted a variety of tests with the simulator, including checking the clearances between sunshield membranes and the telescope to evaluating membrane management hardware and simulating the backplane support structure’s alignment measurements for future testing.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for the Webb Telescope, leading a design and development team under contract to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is the principal optical subcontractor to Northrop Grumman for the JWST program. ATK builds the telescope backplane and ITT develops the complex cryogenic metrology for optical testing.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the next-generation premier space observatory, exploring deep space phenomena from distant galaxies to nearby planets and stars. The Webb Telescope will give scientists clues about the formation of the universe and the evolution of our own solar system, from the first light after the Big Bang to the formation of star systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth. It is expected to launch in 2014. The telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The 2009 Orionid Meteor Shower

The Orionid meteor shower peaks this week and it could be a very good show.

"Earth is passing through a stream of debris from Halley's Comet, the source of the Orionids," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "Flakes of comet dust hitting the atmosphere should give us dozens of meteors per hour."

The best time to look is before sunrise on Wednesday, Oct. 21st. That's when Earth encounters the densest part of Halley's debris stream. Observing is easy: Wake up a few hours before dawn, brew some hot chocolate, go outside and look up. No telescope is required to see Orionids shooting across the sky.

Above: An Orionid meteor photographed on Oct. 21, 2008, by amateur astronomer Rich Swanson of Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Orionids appear every year around this time when Earth orbits through an area of space littered with debris from the ancient comet. Normally, the shower produces 10 to 20 meteors per hour, a modest display. The past few years, however, have been much better than usual.

"Since 2006, the Orionids have been one of the best showers of the year, with counts of 60 or more meteors per hour," says Cooke.

According to Japanese meteor scientists Mikiya Sato and Jun-ichi Watanabe, 2006 marked Earth's first encounter with some very old debris. "We have found that the [elevated activity of 2006] was caused by dust trails ejected from 1P/Halley in 1266 BC, 1198 BC, and 911 BC," they wrote in the August 2007 edition of Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan. In their paper "Origin of the 2006 Orionid Outburst," Sato and Watanabe used a computer to model the structure and evolution of Halley's many debris streams stretching back in time as far as 3400 years. The debris that hit Earth in 2006 was among the oldest they studied and was rich in large fireball-producing meteoroids.

Repeat encounters produced good displays in 2007 and 2008—and "the meteoroids are expected to approach Earth [again] in 2009," say Sato and Watanabe. They note that these old broad streams tend to produce equally broad showers, lasting several nights around the peak. So, if clouds interfere on the 21st, try again on the 22nd or 23rd.

Orionid meteors
Above: Orionid meteors stream from the elbow of Orion the Hunter. Because the shower's radiant point is close to the celestial equator, sky watchers in both hemispheres can enjoy the show.

The phase of the Moon favors a good show. The Moon is almost new and completely absent from the pre-dawn sky at the time of the shower's peak. Bright moonlight will not be a problem.

Last but not least, the display will be framed by some of the prettiest stars and planets in the night sky. In addition to Orionids, you'll see brilliant Venus, red Mars, the dog star Sirius, and bright winter constellations such as Orion, Gemini and Taurus. Even if the shower is a dud, the rest of the sky is dynamite.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Engineers Excited by EuTEF's Return on Discovery

EuTEFWhen Fabio Tominetti and Marco Grilli last saw the EuTEF research platform in early 2008, it was carefully packed inside the payload bay of space shuttle Atlantis. It had been built and handled with the utmost care, and its white and thermal insulation and golden reflective sheets and experiments were pristine.

EuTEF didn’t look much different as it hung upside down in a work stand a few days after coming back to Earth aboard Discovery following about a year and a half attached to the orbiting International Space Station.

"It’s almost brand new," said Tominetti, the EuTEF program manager for the Milan-based Carlo Gavazzi Space. "It could probably fly again tomorrow. I expected to see something to tell you that it had been exposed to 18 months in space."

EuTEF is short for European Technology Exposure Facility, a remote-controlled base complete with power and communications networks built to host nine experiments from Europe’s scientific community, including prestigious universities and foundations. The research largely focused on the effects of space on materials, including window materials that could be used on future spacecraft.

Tominetti and Grilli, a systems engineer with Carlo Gavazzi, recently traveled to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to pack the research platform and its experiments for their return to Europe.

The EuTEF went into space with the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory module as part of the STS-122 mission in February 2008. After Columbus was connected to the space station, spacewalking astronauts attached EuTEF to one of its platforms on the outside.

Astronauts remove EuTEFFrom there, the experiments would be exposed to the harshness of a constant vacuum, a round-the-clock dose of radiation, and heat and cold extremes that vary 200 degrees during each 90-minute orbit of the planet.

Despite the conditions, EuTEF returned exciting early results, Tominetti said. For example, a study of atomic oxygen around the space station revealed that two computer models of the chemical’s distribution were not as accurate as they should be, but a third model was correct. Knowing where corrosive atomic oxygen molecules are and how they behave in orbit helps future spacecraft designers.

Although EuTEF delivered some results while still in space, researchers will get the chance to look at the materials samples and other experiment results firsthand once EuTEF is taken back to Europe and shipped to their sponsors.

"There are a lot of small samples to see the exposure to atomic oxygen and to radiation, so they will be quite busy analyzing the chemical reactions of the samples," Tominetti said.

The mission also proved that the design for the research facility was sound.

"Starting with nothing in your hands but some scrap paper and then building it up was the first big achievement," Tominetti said.

"What was a little bit scary to me was the amount of paperwork you have to do before you have the real hardware working, to be tested, designed and flown," Grilli said.

The team had worked for years to design and build the research station, including extensive discussions and review sessions with agencies such as ESA and NASA, plus many conversations about the experiments that designers planned for orbit.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t a couple glitches along the way, though.

"We fixed a couple problems by remote," Grilli said.

High radiation in orbit is suspected of causing trouble for the electronics on EuTEF, but the issue was quickly fixed with a simple reboot, Tominetti said.

Another glitch developed because of the success of an experiment studying static electricity on the station. The device on EuTEF designed to discharge static electricity from the station did what it was supposed to, but that caused some concern when controllers on Earth saw an electric discharge around the station. Once the experiment was tracked down as the cause -- and then proven to be working correctly – the research was turned back on.

Tominetti and Grilli watched over the experiments package from the European Space Agency’s Erasmus Command and Control Center in the Netherlands.

"Having switched it on was great," Tominetti said. "We see it alive, like a little mechanical baby. So we followed this growth for one year and half, but it was sad to arrive at the end, even though it was a successful mission."

As Discovery headed into space in August to equip the station and recover EuTEF, the Earth-bound controllers switched off the experiments and set up the platform so astronauts could safely detach it from the Columbus lab and bring it back aboard the shuttle without damaging the valuable results.

The return trip called for a whole new set of procedures for the spacewalkers because the platform Discovery carried to retrieve the experiment set was different from the kind EuTEF was bolted to when it rode into space.

"It was like designing a whole new mission," Grilli explained.

The return capped seven years of work on the project by the two engineers – work they would happily repeat if called on for another EuTEF mission.

"It was very exciting, but also a little bit sad, because the mission being over, the story ends," Tominetti said.