Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Planck Sees a Icy and Violent Orion

The big hunter in the sky is seen in a new light by Planck, a European Space Agency mission with significant NASA participation. The long-wavelength image shows most of the constellation Orion, highlighting turbid clouds of cold material, where new stars are being stirred into existence.

The Planck mission is busy surveying the whole sky at longer wavelengths of light than we can see with our eyes, ranging from infrared to even longer-wavelength microwaves. It is collecting ancient light from when the universe was very young, less than half a million years old, telling us about the birth and fate of our universe. In the process, the mission is gathering data on our Milky Way galaxy that astronomers are using to see through cold pools of gas and dust, which block visible-light views of star formation.

The new image is online at: It shows one such region in our Milky Way, where stars are actively bursting to life. The much-photographed Orion nebula is the bright spot to the lower center. The bright spot to the right of center is around the Horsehead Nebula, so called because at high magnifications a pillar of dust resembles a horse's head. The whole view covers a square patch of sky equivalent to 26 by 26 moons.

"Because Planck is mapping the whole sky, we can capture mosaics of huge regions of the Milky Way," said Charles Lawrence, the NASA project scientist for Planck at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We are seeing the coldest material in star-forming regions, where stars are at the very earliest stages of formation."

The giant red arc of Barnard's Loop is thought to be the blast wave from a star that blew up inside the region about two million years ago. The bubble it created is now about 300 light-years across.

The picture shows light resulting from two different types of sources. At the lowest frequencies, Planck primarily maps emission from ionized gas heated by newly formed hot stars. At higher frequencies, Planck maps the meager heat emitted by extremely cold dust. This can reveal the coldest cores in the clouds, which are approaching the final stages of collapse, before they are reborn as full-fledged stars.

Monday, April 26, 2010

NASA Conducts Winning Parachute Expansion Test

On April 14, NASA conducted a drogue parachute drop test at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground near Yuma, Ariz. The 68-foot-diameter drogue and all test hardware functioned properly and landed safely.

The design load limit test will provide engineers with a better understanding of the full structural capabilities of the drogue parachute, currently under development to return next-generation space vehicles safely to Earth.

This was the second in a series of three planned load limit tests designed to place the loads expected in flight on the parachute canopy. The next test series, called overload tests, will subject the parachute canopy to loads greater than what would typically be experienced in flight, to prove the parachute is strong enough to survive some degree of unexpected events.

Future full resolution images of the drogue parachute test will be made publicly available when they are fully processed:

When video from the test becomes available, it will air on NASA Television's Video File. For NASA TV downlink, schedule and streaming video information, visit:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lunar Polar Craters May Be Electrified

As the solar wind flows over natural obstructions on the moon, it may charge polar lunar craters to hundreds of volts, according to new calculations by NASA’s Lunar Science Institute team.

Polar lunar craters are of interest because of resources, including water ice, which exist there. The moon’s orientation to the sun keeps the bottoms of polar craters in permanent shadow, allowing temperatures there to plunge below minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to store volatile material like water for billions of years. "However, our research suggests that, in addition to the wicked cold, explorers and robots at the bottoms of polar lunar craters may have to contend with a complex electrical environment as well, which can affect surface chemistry, static discharge, and dust cling," said William Farrell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Farrell is lead author of a paper on this research published March 24 in the Journal of Geophysical Research. The research is part of the Lunar Science Institute’s Dynamic Response of the Environment at the moon (DREAM) project.

"This important work by Dr. Farrell and his team is further evidence that our view on the moon has changed dramatically in recent years," said Gregory Schmidt, deputy director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "It has a dynamic and fascinating environment that we are only beginning to understand."

Solar wind inflow into craters can erode the surface, which affects recently discovered water molecules. Static discharge could short out sensitive equipment, while the sticky and extremely abrasive lunar dust could wear out spacesuits and may be hazardous if tracked inside spacecraft and inhaled over long periods.

The solar wind is a thin gas of electrically charged components of atoms -- negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions -- that is constantly blowing from the surface of the sun into space. Since the moon is only slightly tilted compared to the sun, the solar wind flows almost horizontally over the lunar surface at the poles and along the region where day transitions to night, called the terminator.

The researchers created computer simulations to discover what happens when the solar wind flows over the rims of polar craters. They discovered that in some ways, the solar wind behaves like wind on Earth -- flowing into deep polar valleys and crater floors. Unlike wind on Earth, the dual electron-ion composition of the solar wind may create an unusual electric charge on the side of the mountain or crater wall; that is, on the inside of the rim directly below the solar wind flow.

Monday, April 19, 2010

NASA Celebrates Earth Day 2010 on the National Mall

NASA is taking part in the celebration of Earth Day's fortieth anniversary on the National Mall in Washington beginning Saturday, April 17. The agency's involvement is much expanded over previous years and includes 9 consecutive days of activities and exhibits open to the public.

The 'NASA Village,' which contains three domed tents, will highlight the use of NASA science and technology to advance knowledge and awareness about our home planet and sustain our environment. The area is located on the Mall one block west of 12th Street and the Smithsonian Metro station entrance. On the weekend of April 17-18, a performance stage at 12th Street will also feature NASA presentations along with a wide variety of entertainment organized by the Earth Day Network.

The Science Tent which will host exhibits and hands-on demonstrations. The Cinema Tent will feature multimedia presentations by NASA scientists and others. The Technology Tent will present exhibits and demonstrations on a wide range of NASA environmental technologies.

Monday, April 12, 2010

NASA Announces Winners of 17th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race

NASA has announced the victors in the 17th annual Great Moonbuggy Race: The team representing the International Space Education Institute of Leipzig, Germany, won the high school division; and racers from the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao took first place in the college division.

The teams bested more than 70 teams from 18 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, Germany, India and Romania. More than 600 drivers, engineers and mechanics -- all students -- gathered with their team advisors and cheering sections to take part in the matchup of wits and wheels at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center April 9-10 in Huntsville, Ala.

The race is organized by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. It challenges students to design, build and race lightweight, human-powered buggies that tackle many of the same engineering challenges dealt with by Apollo-era lunar rover developers at the Marshall Center in the late 1960s.

The International Space Education Institute of Leipzig, Germany, won the high school division of the 2010 Great Moonbuggy Race

The International Space Education Institute, known among moonbuggy racers as "Team Germany," has been a prominent contender in the competition since they debuted in 2007 as the German Space Education Institute. Their team this year included two Russian students, reflecting the school's expanded international scope.

The University of Puerto Rico in Humacao -- the only school in the world to enter a moonbuggy in every race since the event was founded in 1994 -- won the second-place prize in 2009, and finally took home first place in this, their 17th appearance.

The winning teams posted the fastest vehicle assembly and race times in their divisions and received the fewest on-course penalties. The International Space Education Institute finished the roughly half-mile course -- twisting curves, treacherous gravel pits and other obstacles simulating lunar surface conditions -- in just 3 minutes 37 seconds. The University of Puerto Rico at Humacao posted a time of 4 minutes 18 seconds.

Finishing in second place this year in the high school division was Fajardo Vocational High School of Humacao, Puerto Rico, which entered the competition for the first time in 2009. Third place in the high school division yielded a tie: race newcomer Jupiter High School of Jupiter, Fla., matched perennial top-three winner Huntsville Center for Technology Team 1 of Huntsville, Ala. -- who also tied last year for the top high school trophy.

The University of Utah from Salt Lake City won second place in the college division, boosting them onto the trophy platform for the first time since they debuted in the race in 2007; and the Rhode Island School of Design from Providence, R.I., took home third place in their first race appearance -- despite having no engineers on their team (all team members are industrial design students).

Race organizers presented both first-place winners with trophies depicting NASA's original lunar rover. NASA also gave plaques and certificates to every team that competed.

The first-place high school team also received $500 and a week at Space Camp, courtesy of race sponsors ATK Aerospace Systems of Huntsville. ATK awarded the second- and third-place high school teams $250 each. Race sponsor Lockheed Martin Corp. of Huntsville also presented the winning college team with $5,700 in cash.

Individuals on the winning teams also received commemorative medals and other prizes. (For a complete list of additional awards for design, safety, innovation and spirit, see below.)

"Each year, NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race clearly demonstrates the popularity, worldwide reach and intrinsic value of the agency's education initiatives," said Tammy Rowan, manager of the Marshall Center's Academic Affairs Office, which organizes the race. "It's our goal to augment and enrich the classroom experience, and inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers and explorers to carry on NASA's mission of discovery throughout our solar system and deliver untold benefits back home on Earth."

The moonbuggy race is inspired by the original lunar rover, first piloted across the moon's surface in the early 1970s during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. The first race, held in 1994, commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. At the time, the event was only open to college teams, and eight participated. Two years later, the event was expanded to include high school teams.

NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race is hosted each year by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Major corporate sponsorship is provided by Lockheed Martin Corp., The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Corp., and Jacobs Engineering ESTS Group, all of Huntsville

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Small Companion to Brown Dwarf

- As our telescopes grow more powerful, astronomers are uncovering objects that defy conventional wisdom. The latest example is the discovery of a planet-like object circling a brown dwarf. It's the right size for a planet, estimated to be 5-10 times the mass of Jupiter. But the object formed in less than 1 million years -- the approximate age of the brown dwarf -- and much faster than the predicted time it takes to build planets according to some theories.

Kamen Todorov of Penn State University and co-investigators used the keen eyesight of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory to directly image the companion of the brown dwarf, which was uncovered in a survey of 32 young brown dwarfs in the Taurus star-forming region. Brown dwarfs are objects that typically are tens of times the mass of Jupiter and are too small to sustain nuclear fusion to shine as stars do.

The mystery object orbits the nearby brown dwarf at a separation of approximately 2.25 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers -- which is between the distances of Saturn and Uranus from the Sun). The team's research is being published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

There has been a lot of discussion in the context of the Pluto debate over how small an object can be and still be called a planet. This new observation addresses the question at the other end of the size spectrum: How small can an object be and still be a brown dwarf rather than a planet? This new companion is within the range of masses observed for planets around stars -- less than 15 Jupiter masses. But should it be called a planet? The answer is strongly connected to the mechanism by which the companion most likely formed.

There are three possible formation scenarios: Dust in a circumstellar disk slowly agglomerates to form a rocky planet 10 times larger than Earth, which then accumulates a large gaseous envelope; a lump of gas in the disk quickly collapses to form an object the size of a gas giant planet; or, rather than forming in a disk, a companion forms directly from the collapse of the vast cloud of gas and dust in the same manner as a star (or brown dwarf).

If the last scenario is correct, then this discovery demonstrates that planetary-mass bodies can be made through the same mechanism that builds stars. This is the likely solution because the companion is too young to have formed by the first scenario, which is very slow. The second mechanism occurs rapidly, but the disk around the central brown dwarf probably did not contain enough material to make an object with a mass of 5-10 Jupiter masses.

"The most interesting implication of this result is that it shows that the process that makes binary stars extends all the way down to planetary masses. So it appears that nature is able to make planetary-mass companions through two very different mechanisms," says team member Kevin Luhman of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University. If the mystery companion formed through cloud collapse and fragmentation, as stellar binary systems do, then it is not a planet by definition because planets build up inside disks.

The mass of the companion is estimated by comparing its brightness to the luminosities predicted by theoretical evolutionary models for objects at various masses for an age of 1 millon years.

Friday, April 02, 2010

NASA theme 'A Question to the World'

Imagine a close flyby mission to Mars, where micro sensors are deposited into the atmosphere over half an orbit or more.

The sensors, captured by the atmospheric drag and Martian gravity, slowly descend, buffeted about by Martian winds and weather until they settle on the surface a great time later. (Think of how long dust takes to settle.)

As they descend they communicate a vast array of data: temperature, chemistry, pressure, electric or magnetic properties from a huge region of the planet and an individual sensor need not measure the same quantity as its neighbors.

Initially they could move at the whim of the environment, but later versions could have locomotion or propulsion mechanisms. Humans wouldn't need to decide where they go, they do that for themselves.

This is a key strength of a sensor swarm. The intelligence relies on the group, not on a decision-maker on Earth. Real-time sensor inputs direct what the swarm considers most interesting to investigate resulting in "emergent behavior."

Ans - Because an idea can come from anywhere, Mel Ferebee and Erik Vedeler are leading an initiative to get more people involved in NASA's innovation process. They decided to "issue a question to the world and have the wisdom and knowledge of the crowd solve it," said Ferebee, who heads up the Participatory Exploration team at NASA Langley. To make that wisdom and knowledge flow, it was necessary to prime the pump.

"You motivate the crowd with an award, in this case $20,000," Ferebee said. The deadline for answers is April 26, and more than 250 have been filed so far. The program is part of a desire to interact with the public in a new and different way. Most of that interaction now comes from the agency and its centers, answering questions it asks itself, then issuing white papers or being interviewed for scientific stories to communicate that information.

"But the smartest people sometimes aren't at NASA's Langley Research Center," Ferebee said. "The thought is that we can be innovative by getting the collective knowledge, by getting the folks outside the NASA gate engaged in our problem." With that aim, Ferebee sought questions from among the nine strategic opportunity teams, which were set up to find problems and sell Langley's ability to solve them.

Enter Vedeler, who heads the Frontier Sensors Strategic Opportunity team. His group is seeking new and different ways to use sensors, and Vedeler has a particular interest in the potential of sensor swarms in exploration.

"If you think about the human brain, you've got millions of neurons, and it's the interconnectivity of these simple things that makes our brain as complex as it is," he said, explaining the logic of sensor swarms. He also points to the collective actions of flocks of birds and schools of fish in avoiding prey or finding food. Linking the concept to exploration wasn't difficult.

"I just had in my own mind, suppose you want to send a probe to Mars?" Vedeler said. "You want to know the atmospheric chemistry and dynamics. You might want to know about methane. You might want to know about other measurable life signs.

"So you go there, but rather than having a probe like we've always done, Viking or Sojourner or Spirit and Opportunity, where single things come down at a single place on the planet to collect information" you instead have a vehicle fly over the planet and open a tank to release micro sensors into the atmosphere that could number in the tens of thousands."

On their way to the planet's surface, the sensors measure different things and communicate with each other, forming a sort of artificial brain. Perhaps they have locomotion. Above all, they are relatively cheap and plentiful.

"The swarming concept implies that with 80 percent sensor failure you can still have 100 percent mission success," Vedeler said. "Evidence in biological systems supports these numbers." With all of that as background, "how do you convert it to something that's engineering?" he added. "That's the challenge." With a grant of $46,000, including logistics with, a research firm, and the prize money, Ferebee is seeking the answer from the general public.

"The thought is that we can be innovative by getting the collective knowledge of folks outside the NASA gate involved in our problem," Ferebee said. That they might not be scientists or engineers has occurred to him and Vedeler and is not an issue. Ferebee tells the story of a concrete manufacturer who helped solve the problem of cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Price Edward Sound in Alaska offering a chemical that was used to get concrete over long distances.

"It turns out that it also can be used to break down oil and make it slush enough to pump out," Ferebee said.

And, at Johnson Space Center, which pioneered the innovation challenge process, people are seeking a way to predict solar events that generate radiation that can be dangerous to humans exploring the moon or other planets.

"They are providing an awful lot of data," Ferebee said. "You would think that all of the radiation guys are looking through all of this data, but that doesn't mean that stockbrokers, who also deal with a lot of data, can't look through it and find trends because that's what they look for."

So biologists could offer the answer to sensor swarms exploring Mars, Vedeler said. Or computer scientists used to working with swarms of information on the Internet. Or anybody. Or nobody. They are seeking an algorithm, but perhaps it's a problem that can't be answered in a $20,000 challenge. If there's no acceptable answer, there's no payment.