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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

LCROSS Shepherding Spacecraft Observations of Centaur Impact

Near-Infrared (NIR) and Ultra Violet/Visible (UV/Vis) SpectrometersLCROSS impact crater as viewed with near-infrared (NIR) and ultra violet/visible (UV/Vis) spectrometers. Credit NASA Ames.

At approximately 4:31 a.m. PDT on Oct. 9, 2009, the LCROSS Centaur impacted the surface of the Cabeus crater. From approximately 373 miles (600 km), the LCROSS Shepherding Spacecraft captured the impact flash with its instruments. The faint but distinct flash was only a few pixels wide in the LCROSS cameras and lasted only a brief moment but will yield valuable information about the composition of the material at the impact site.

MRI Flash DetectionThe LCROSS mid-infrared (MIR) Camera detected a sodium flash at Centaur Impact. Credit NASA Ames.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Water Molecules Found on the Moon

NASA scientists have discovered water molecules in the polar regions of the Moon. Instruments aboard three separate spacecraft revealed water molecules in amounts that are greater than predicted, but still relatively small. Hydroxyl, a molecule consisting of one oxygen atom and one hydrogen atom, also was found in the lunar soil. The findings were published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science.

The observations were made by NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3 ("M-cubed"), aboard the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. NASA's Cassini spacecraft and NASA's Epoxi spacecraft have confirmed the find.

Above: A very young lunar crater as viewed by NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper. On the right, the distribution of water-rich minerals is shown in false-color blue.

"Water ice on the Moon has been something of a holy grail for lunar scientists for a very long time," said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This surprising finding has come about through the ingenuity, perseverance and international cooperation between NASA and the India Space Research Organization."

From its perch in lunar orbit, M3's state-of-the-art spectrometer measured light reflecting off the Moon's surface at infrared wavelengths, splitting the spectral colors of the lunar surface into small enough bits to reveal a new level of detail in surface composition. When the M3 science team analyzed data from the instrument, they found the wavelengths of light being absorbed were consistent with the absorption patterns for water molecules and hydroxyl.

"When we say 'water on the Moon,' we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles," explained Carle Pieters, M3's principal investigator from Brown University, Providence, R.I. "Water on the Moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl that interact with molecules of rock and dust specifically in the top millimeters of the Moon's surface.

The M3 team found water molecules and hydroxyl at diverse areas of the sunlit region of the Moon's surface, but the water signature appeared stronger at the Moon's higher latitudes. Water molecules and hydroxyl previously were suspected in data from a Cassini flyby of the Moon in 1999, but the findings were not published until now.

Above: Data from NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper. The image on the left shows albedo, or the sunlight reflected from the surface of the Moon. The image on the right shows where infrared light is absorbed by water and hydroxyl molecules. The water signature is strongest at cool, high latitudes near the poles. The blue arrow indicates Goldschmidt crater, a large feldspar-rich region with a higher water and hydroxyl signature. Image credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ.

"The data from Cassini's VIMS instrument and M3 closely agree," said Roger Clark, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Denver and member of both the VIMS and M3 teams. "We see both water and hydroxyl. While the abundances are not precisely known, as much as 1,000 water molecule parts-per-million could be in the lunar soil. To put that into perspective, if you harvested one ton of the top layer of the Moon's surface, you could get as much as 32 ounces of water."

For additional confirmation, scientists turned to the Epoxi mission while it was flying past the Moon in June 2009 on its way to a November 2010 encounter with comet Hartley 2. The spacecraft not only confirmed the VIMS and M3 findings, but also expanded on them.

"With our extended spectral range and views over the north pole, we were able to explore the distribution of both water and hydroxyl as a function of temperature, latitude, composition, and time of day," said Jessica Sunshine of the University of Maryland. Sunshine is Epoxi's deputy principal investigator and a scientist on the M3 team. "Our analysis unequivocally confirms the presence of these molecules on the Moon's surface and reveals that the entire surface appears to be hydrated during at least some portion of the lunar day."

The discovery of water molecules and hydroxyl on the Moon raises new questions about the origin of "Moon water" and its effect on lunar mineralogy. Answers to these questions will be studied and debated for years to come.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Thousands of New Images Show Mars in High Resolution

PASADENA, Calif. -- Thousands of newly released images from more than 1,500 telescopic observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show a wide range of gullies, dunes, craters, geological layering and other features on the Red Planet.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the orbiter recorded these images from the month of April through early August of this year. The camera team at the University of Arizona, Tucson, releases several featured images each week and periodically releases much larger sets of new images, such as the batch posted today.

The new images are available at .

Each full image from HiRISE covers a strip of Martian ground 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) wide, about two to four times that long, showing details as small as 1 meter, or yard, across.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been studying Mars with an advanced set of instruments since 2006. It has returned more data about the planet than all other past and current missions to Mars combined. For more information about the mission, visit: .

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

NASA Space Telescope Discovers Largest Ring about Saturn

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered an enormous ring around Saturn -- by far the largest of the giant planet's many rings.

The new belt lies at the far reaches of the Saturnian system, with an orbit tilted 27 degrees from the main ring plane. The bulk of its material starts about six million kilometers (3.7 million miles) away from the planet and extends outward roughly another 12 million kilometers (7.4 million miles). One of Saturn's farthest moons, Phoebe, circles within the newfound ring, and is likely the source of its material.

Saturn's newest halo is thick, too -- its vertical height is about 20 times the diameter of the planet. It would take about one billion Earths stacked together to fill the ring.

"This is one supersized ring," said Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. "If you could see the ring, it would span the width of two full moons' worth of sky, one on either side of Saturn." Verbiscer; Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland, College Park; and Michael Skrutskie, of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, are authors of a paper about the discovery to be published online tomorrow by the journal Nature.

An artist's concept of the newfound ring is online at .

The ring itself is tenuous, made up of a thin array of ice and dust particles. Spitzer's infrared eyes were able to spot the glow of the band's cool dust. The telescope, launched in 2003, is currently 107 million kilometers (66 million miles) from Earth in orbit around the sun.

The discovery may help solve an age-old riddle of one of Saturn's moons. Iapetus has a strange appearance -- one side is bright and the other is really dark, in a pattern that resembles the yin-yang symbol. The astronomer Giovanni Cassini first spotted the moon in 1671, and years later figured out it has a dark side, now named Cassini Regio in his honor. A stunning picture of Iapetus taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft is online at .

Saturn's newest addition could explain how Cassini Regio came to be. The ring is circling in the same direction as Phoebe, while Iapetus, the other rings and most of Saturn's moons are all going the opposite way. According to the scientists, some of the dark and dusty material from the outer ring moves inward toward Iapetus, slamming the icy moon like bugs on a windshield.

"Astronomers have long suspected that there is a connection between Saturn's outer moon Phoebe and the dark material on Iapetus," said Hamilton. "This new ring provides convincing evidence of that relationship."

Verbiscer and her colleagues used Spitzer's longer-wavelength infrared camera, called the multiband imaging photometer, to scan through a patch of sky far from Saturn and a bit inside Phoebe's orbit. The astronomers had a hunch that Phoebe might be circling around in a belt of dust kicked up from its minor collisions with comets -- a process similar to that around stars with dusty disks of planetary debris. Sure enough, when the scientists took a first look at their Spitzer data, a band of dust jumped out.

The ring would be difficult to see with visible-light telescopes. Its particles are diffuse and may even extend beyond the bulk of the ring material all the way in to Saturn and all the way out to interplanetary space. The relatively small numbers of particles in the ring wouldn't reflect much visible light, especially out at Saturn where sunlight is weak.

"The particles are so far apart that if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn't even know it," said Verbiscer.

Spitzer was able to sense the glow of the cool dust, which is only about 80 Kelvin (minus 316 degrees Fahrenheit). Cool objects shine with infrared, or thermal radiation; for example, even a cup of ice cream is blazing with infrared light. "By focusing on the glow of the ring's cool dust, Spitzer made it easy to find," said Verbiscer.

These observations were made before Spitzer ran out of coolant in May and began its "warm" mission.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. The multiband imaging photometer for Spitzer was built by Ball Aerospace Corporation, Boulder, Colo., and the University of Arizona, Tucson. Its principal investigator is George Rieke of the University of Arizona.

Monday, October 05, 2009

NASA Spacecraft Sees Ice on Mars Uncovered by Meteor Impacts

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed frozen water hiding just below the surface of mid-latitude Mars. The spacecraft's observations were obtained from orbit after meteorites excavated fresh craters on the Red Planet.

Scientists controlling instruments on the orbiter found bright ice exposed at five Martian sites with new craters that range in depth from approximately half a meter to 2.5 meters (1.5 feet to 8 feet). The craters did not exist in earlier images of the same sites. Some of the craters show a thin layer of bright ice atop darker underlying material. The bright patches darkened in the weeks following initial observations, as the freshly exposed ice vaporized into the thin Martian atmosphere. One of the new craters had a bright patch of material large enough for one of the orbiter's instruments to confirm it is water-ice.

The finds indicate water-ice occurs beneath Mars' surface halfway between the north pole and the equator, a lower latitude than expected in the Martian climate.

"This ice is a relic of a more humid climate from perhaps just several thousand years ago," said Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Byrne is a member of the team operating the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE camera, which captured the unprecedented images. Byrne and 17 co-authors report the findings in the Sept. 25 edition of the journal Science.

"We now know we can use new impact sites as probes to look for ice in the shallow subsurface," said Megan Kennedy of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, a co-author of the paper and member of the team operating the orbiter's Context Camera.

During a typical week, the Context Camera returns more than 200 images of Mars that cover a total area greater than California. The camera team examines each image, sometimes finding dark spots that fresh, small craters make in terrain covered with dust. Checking earlier photos of the same areas can confirm a feature is new. The team has found more than 100 fresh impact sites, mostly closer to the equator than the ones that revealed ice.

An image from the camera on Aug. 10, 2008, showed apparent cratering that occurred after an image of the same ground was taken 67 days earlier. The opportunity to study such a fresh impact site prompted a look by the orbiter's higher resolution camera on Sept. 12, 2008, confirming a cluster of small craters.

"Something unusual jumped out," Byrne said. "We observed bright material at the bottoms of the craters with a very distinct color. It looked a lot like ice."

The bright material at that site did not cover enough area for a spectrometer instrument on the orbiter to determine its composition. However, a Sept. 18, 2008, image of a different mid-latitude site showed a crater that had not existed eight months earlier. This crater had a larger area of bright material.

"We were excited about it, so we did a quick-turnaround observation," said co-author Kim Seelos of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "Everyone thought it was water-ice, but it was important to get the spectrum for confirmation."

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project Scientist Rich Zurek, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., said, "This mission is designed to facilitate coordination and quick response by the science teams. That makes it possible to detect and understand rapidly changing features."

The ice exposed by fresh impacts suggests that NASA's Viking Lander 2, digging into mid-latitude Mars in 1976, might have struck ice if it had dug 10 centimeters (4 inches) deeper. The Viking 2 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, launched in September 1975 and became one of the first two space probes to land successfully on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers characterized the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface. They also conducted on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet.