Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mars Odyssey and Phoenix Mars Lander Missions Status Report

NASA's Mars Odyssey began a second campaign Monday to check on whether the Phoenix Mars Lander has revived itself after the northern Martian winter. The orbiter received no signal from the lander during the first 10 overflights of this campaign.

Odyssey will listen for Phoenix during 50 additional overflights, through Feb. 26, during the current campaign.

Phoenix Mars Lander and surrounding ground as seen from orbit on Feb. 25, 2010

Phoenix landed on Mars on May 25, 2008, and operated successfully in the Martian arctic for about two months longer than its planned three-month mission. Operations ended when waning sunlight left the solar-powered craft with insufficient energy to keep working. The season at the Phoenix landing site is now mid-springtime, with the sun above the horizon for roughly 22 hours each Martian day. That is comparable to the illumination that Phoenix experienced a few weeks after completing its three-month primary mission.

Phoenix was not designed to withstand the extremely low temperatures and the ice load of the Martian arctic winter. In the extremely unlikely event that the lander has survived the winter and has achieved a stable energy state, it would operate in a mode where it periodically awakens and transmits a signal to any orbiter in view.

A third campaign to check on whether Phoenix has revived itself is scheduled for April 5-9, when the sun will be continuously above the Martian horizon at the Phoenix site.

Mars Odyssey is managed for NASA's Science Mission Directorate by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and made the spacecraft. The successful Phoenix mission was led by Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, with project management at JPL and development partnership at Lockheed Martin. International contributions came from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; the Max Planck Institute in Germany; the Finnish Meteorological Institute; and Imperial College, London.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Latest Images of space shuttle Endeavour

Headed for the Hangar

Space shuttle Endeavour is prepared for transport to the Orbiter Processing Facility following its successful landing on Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


Darkness enshrouded space shuttle Endeavour as it touched down on Runway 15 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After 14 days in space, Endeavour's 5.7-million-mile STS-130 mission was completed on orbit 217.

During the STS-130 mission, the crew installed the Tranquility node, a module that provides additional room for crew members and many of the station's life support and environmental control systems. Attached to Tranquility is a cupola that provides a panoramic view of Earth, celestial objects and visiting spacecraft. The module was built in Turin, Italy, by Thales Alenia Space for the European Space Agency. With these improvements, the orbiting laboratory is approximately 90 percent complete.

Behold the Violent History of Saturn's White Whale Moon

Like the battered white whale Moby Dick taunting Captain Ahab, Saturn's moon Prometheus surges toward the viewer in a 3-D image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

The image exposes the irregular shape and circular surface scars on Prometheus, pointing to a violent history. These craters are probably the remnants from impacts long ago.

Saturn's potato-shaped moon Prometheus is rendered in three dimensions in this close-up from Cassini.

Saturn's potato-shaped moon
Prometheus is rendered in three dimensions
in this close-up from Cassini.

Prometheus is one of Saturn's innermost moons. It orbits the gas-giant at a distance of about 140,000 kilometers (86,000 miles) and is 86 kilometers (53 miles) across at its widest point. The porous, icy world was originally discovered in images taken by NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft back in 1980.

Cassini's narrow-angle camera captured two black-and-white images of the moon on Dec. 26, 2009, and the imaging team combined the images to make this new stereo view. It looks different from the "egg-cellent" raw image of Prometheus obtained on Jan. 27 because that view shows one of the short ends of the oddly shaped moon. In this 3-D image, the sun illuminates Prometheus at a different angle, making the moon's elongated body visible.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NASA's WISE Mission release First Images

Visitor from Deep Space
Comet Siding Spring appears to streak across the sky like a superhero in this new infrared image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The comet, also known as C/2007 Q3, was discovered in 2007 by observers in Australia.

At the Heart of Stellar Chaos This infrared image taken by
NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, shows a star-forming cloud teeming with gas, dust and massive newborn stars. The inset reveals the very center of the cloud, a cluster of stars called NGC 3603. It was taken in visible light by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Our Neighbor Andromeda The immense Andromeda galaxy, also known as Messier 31 or simply M31, is captured in full in this new image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

Warped Andromeda This image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, highlights the Andromeda galaxy's older stellar population in blue. It was taken by the shortest-wavelength camera on WISE, which detects infrared light of 3.4 microns.

The Dirt on Andromeda This image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, highlights the dust that speckles the Andromeda galaxy's spiral arms. It shows light seen by the longest-wavelength infrared detectors on WISE (12-micron light has been color coded orange, and 22-micron light, red).

Fornax Galaxy Cluster This image of a dense cluster of galaxies was captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The cluster, called Fornax because of its location in a constellation of the same name, is 60 million light-years from Earth, and is one of the closest galaxy clusters to the Milky Way.

Ablaze with Infrared Light Is it a bird, or a plane? No, it's comet Siding Spring streaking across the sky, as seen by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. This movie stitches together five frames taken by WISE as it orbited Earth during its ongoing infrared survey of the whole sky. The images span about eight hours of time.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Layers Piled in a Mars Crater Record a History of Changes

Near the center of a Martian crater about the size of Connecticut, hundreds of exposed rock layers form a mound as tall as the Rockies and reveal a record of major environmental changes on Mars billions of years ago.

The history told by this tall parfait of layers inside Gale Crater matches what has been proposed in recent years as the dominant planet-wide pattern for early Mars, according to a new report by geologists using instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

"Looking at the layers from the bottom to the top, from the oldest to the youngest, you see a sequence of changing rocks that resulted from changes in environmental conditions through time," said Ralph Milliken of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This thick sequence of rocks appears to be showing different steps in the drying-out of Mars."

Using geological layers to understand stages in the evolution of a planet's climate has a precedent on Earth. A change about 1.8 billion years ago in the types of rock layers formed on Earth became a key to understanding a dramatic change in Earth's ancient atmosphere.

Milliken and two co-authors report in Geophysical Research Letters that clay minerals, which form under very wet conditions, are concentrated in layers near the bottom of the Gale stack. Above that, sulfate minerals are intermixed with the clays. Sulfates form in wet conditions and can be deposited when the water in which they are dissolved evaporates. Higher still are sulfate-containing layers without detectable clays. And at the top is a thick formation of regularly spaced layers bearing no detectable water-related minerals.

Monday, February 15, 2010

SDO to Spike important Space Weather Data

Solar storms can wreak havoc on power grids, communications systems and delicate satellites. Currently, there's no way to predict severe space weather, but that could change with the heaps of information NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, will send back to Earth after its 2010 launch.

"The biggest challenge of this mission was the data rate," said Liz Citrin, SDO project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "SDO will blast back 1.5 terabytes of information every day . . . that's equivalent to a half-million song downloads. It's unprecedented."

Citrin said there was no way to record that much data on board the spacecraft. Instead, the SDO team designed a mammoth 18-meter radio antenna, as well as a back-up, at White Sands Space Harbor in Las Cruces, N.M., to receive it all. Then, the data will be sent out to scientists at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Lockheed Martin's Solar Astrophysics Lab in Colorado.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center also is expecting to receive quick-look data the moment SDO is operational.

Another pretty cool technology developed by the SDO team to handle the data rate was the use of the Ka band, which recently was put to use for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, mission.

SDO has three major instruments on board that will send data back for at least five years, hopefully 10.

Both the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, or HMI, and the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, or AIA, will allow scientists to see the entire disc of the sun in very high resolution -- 4,096 by 4,096 mm CCDs. In comparison, a standard digital camera uses a 7.176 by 5.329 mm CCD sensor.

AIA also will image the outer layer of the sun's atmosphere, while the Extreme ultraviolet Variability Experiment, or EVE, measures its ultraviolet spectrum every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day.

HMI will map the helioseismic and magnetic fields of the sun to understand its interior and magnetic activity.

"Space weather forecasting is in its infancy. . . just like hurricane forecasting was years ago. We built up experience in collecting data, designed models, tested those models, and now look what we can do," said Citrin. "SDO and all of NASA's Living with a Star Program missions will lead to better prediction of space weather."

SDO will travel to its geosynchronous transfer orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket, a trip that's been much anticipated. The mission was supposed to launch in August 2008, but the spacecraft team needed a few more months of test time.

"Atlas manifest challenges resulted in the current launch date in 2010. The mission team has been very patient and we're all happy to be launching now," said Rex Engelhardt, SDO mission manager.

NASA's Launch Services Program, or LSP, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, began processing SDO for launch in July 2009.

Engelhardt said from the first day the team had to consider the spacecraft's high-contamination sensitivity.
Inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, Fla., technicians set up a laminar flow enclosure -- a four-wall clean enclose that blows air in one side and sucks it out the other -- keeping the spacecraft free of dust, particles, dirt and debris.

Another unique aspect of this mission is the rocket itself. Unlike other rockets assembled at the launch pad, Atlas rockets are put together in the Vertical Integration Facility on Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

"Everything is protected until rollout, which right now is scheduled for Feb. 9," said Engelhardt. "If we needed to roll back, we perform a few disconnects and roll it back. The pad is just a slab of concrete, so after launch there's no tower to refurbish."

Things are looking good for Engelhardt and his LSP team members, who are ready to kick this year off from their home base. Last year they processed and launched eight missions, three from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Shuttle Crew’s First STS-130 Spacewalk Completed

STS-130 crew members installed a 2,600-cubic-foot addition to the International Space Station early Friday, combining the talents of robotic arm operators and spacewalkers to connect the Italian-built Tranquility module.

Tranquility was installed at 1:20 a.m. EST Friday over the Indian Ocean west of Singapore. Mission Specialist Kay Hire and Pilot Terry Virts used the station’s Canadarm2 to pull Tranquility out of the space shuttle Endeavour’s payload bay and position it on the port side of the station’s 10-year-old Unity module. Tranquility was locked in place with 16 remotely controlled bolts.

Spacewalkers Bob Behnken and Nick Patrick stepped outside the Quest airlock module at 9:17 p.m. Thursday and immediately began preparing the new module for its trip from the cargo bay to the station. Mission Specialist Steve Robinson helped coordinate the 6-hour, 32-minute spacewalk, which ended at 3:49 a.m. Friday. As Behnken and Patrick waited for the robotic arm operators to carefully maneuver Tranquility into position, they relocated a temporary platform from the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or Dextre, to the station’s truss structure and installed two handles on the robot.

Once Tranquility was structurally mated to Unity, the spacewalkers connected heater and data cables that will integrate the new module with the rest of the station’s systems. They also pre-positioned insulation blankets and ammonia hoses that will be used to connect Tranquility to the station’s cooling radiators during the mission’s second spacewalk that begins Saturday night. The station’s new room with a view, the cupola, will be moved from Tranquility’s end to its Earth-facing port on Sunday.

As the spacewalk ended, Mission Control reported that all data and heater connections were working well, and that the vestibule separating Tranquility and Unity had passed its initial leak check.