Thursday, July 29, 2010

Martian Dust Devil Whirls Into Opportunity's View

Opportunity's first view of a dust devil on Mars
This is the first dust devil that NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has observed in the rover's six-and-a-half years on Mars. › Larger image

In its six-and-a-half years on Mars, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity had never seen a dust devil before this month, despite some systematic searches in past years and the fact that its twin rover, Spirit, has seen dozens of dust devils at its location halfway around the planet.

A tall column of swirling dust appears in a routine image that Opportunity took with its panoramic camera on July 15. The rover took the image in the drive direction, east-southeastward, right after a drive of about 70 meters (230 feet). The image was taken for use in planning the next drive.

"This is the first dust devil seen by Opportunity," said Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station, a member of the rover science team.

Spirit's area, inside Gusev Crater, is rougher in ground texture, and dustier, than the area where Opportunity is working in the Meridiani Planum region. Those factors at Gusev allow vortices of wind to form more readily and raise more dust, compared to conditions at Meridiani, Lemmon explained. Orbiters have photographed tracks left by dust devils near Opportunity, but the tracks are scarcer there than near Spirit. Swirling winds at Meridiani may be more common than visible signs of them, if the winds occur where there is no loose dust to disturb.

Just one day before Opportunity captured the dust devil image, wind cleaned some of the dust off the rover's solar array, increasing electricity output from the array by more than 10 percent.

"That might have just been a coincidence, but there could be a connection," Lemmon said. The team is resuming systematic checks for afternoon dust devils with Opportunity's navigation camera, for the first time in about three years.

Opportunity and Spirit arrived on Mars in January 2004 for missions designed to last for three months. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For more information about the project and images from the rovers, visit

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wild 2: If You Were There

On Jan. 2, 2004 NASA's Stardust spacecraft made a close flyby of comet Wild 2 (pronounced "Vilt-2"). Among the equipment the spacecraft carried on board was a navigation camera.that Comet Wild 2 is about 3.1 miles in diameter.

This artist's concept depicts a view of Wild 2 that shows the faint jets emanating from the comet.

NASA Delivers Nobel Medal Replica to National Air and Space Museum

NASA Nobel laureate John Mather presents a replica of the prize flown in space during the STS-132 shutle mission to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers
NASA scientist and Nobel Laureate John Mather, center, and NASA astronaut Piers Sellers, right, presented a replica of the Nobel Prize for Physics medal to John R. Dailey, left, director of the museum. The replica flew aboard space shuttle Atlantis during its STS-132 mission in May.

Over the years, the National Air and Space Museum has been the repository for many historically significant NASA artifacts. And in a ceremony today, it received a unique new addition. NASA scientist and Nobel Laureate John Mather and NASA astronaut Piers Sellers presented a replica of the Nobel Prize for Physics medal to John R. Dailey, director of the museum. The replica flew aboard space shuttle Atlantis during its STS-132 mission in May.

Mather won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006 for his groundbreaking astrophysics research using NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite. And Sellers is one of the six NASA astronauts who flew on STS-132, Atlantis' last planned mission. During the white-glove hand-off – necessary to preserve the integrity of the artifact – it was noted that this was the first time a Nobel Prize medal (or a replica) had flown in space. The medal is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

STS-132 crew members and students at the National Air and Space Museum. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers
The STS-132 crew give a presentation at the National Air and Space Museum.

Following the medal presentation, the crowd of about 300 that had gathered in the museum's Moving Beyond Earth gallery was treated to a special event. The entire STS-132 crew shared with the audience their experiences during their flight to the International Space Station. After showing the audience a 10-minute video of mission highlights, Commander Ken Ham and his five crewmates answered questions from the audience. The crowd included about 50 middle school students participating in NASA's Summer of Innovation program at the University of the District of Columbia. The Summer of Innovation initiative strives to keep students engaged in science, technology, engineering and math activities during their summer break from classroom studies. You can learn more here: The astronauts’ advice to students: Pursue something that is a personal passion and then study hard, particularly science and math. With hard work and dedication, anything is possible.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Astronauts in the Oval Office

President Barack Obama greets the STS-132 Atlantis crew and International Space Station astronaut T.J. Creamer in the Oval Office, July 26, 2010.

From left, STS-132 Commander Ken Ham; Expedition 22/23 Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer; STS-132 Mission Specialists Piers Sellers, Garret Reisman, and Steve Bowen; President Obama; STS-132 Mission Specialist Michael Good; and STS-132 Pilot Tony Antonelli.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mars Curiosity Takes First Baby Steps

The Curiosity rover rolling for the first time
Mars Curiosity team members gather in the clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to watch the rover roll for the first time. › Full image and caption

Like proud parents savoring their baby's very first steps, mission team members gathered in a gallery above a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to watch the Mars Curiosity rover roll for the first time.

Engineers and technicians wore "bunny suits" while guiding Curiosity through its first steps, or more precisely, its first roll on the clean room floor. The rover moved forward and backward about 1 meter (3.3 feet).

Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity) is scheduled to launch in fall 2011 and land on the Red Planet in August 2012. Curiosity is the largest rover ever sent to Mars. It will carry 10 instruments that will help search an intriguing region of the Red Planet for two things:
1. Environments where life might have existed
2. The capacity of those environments to preserve evidence of past life

Learn more about Curiosity at

NASA Telescope Finds Elusive Buckyballs in Space for First Time

Space Balls
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has at last found buckyballs in space, as illustrated by this artist's conception. › Full image and caption

Astronomers using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered carbon molecules, known as "buckyballs," in space for the first time. Buckyballs are soccer-ball-shaped molecules that were first observed in a laboratory 25 years ago.

They are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere. Buckyballs were thought to float around in space, but had escaped detection until now.

"We found what are now the largest molecules known to exist in space," said astronomer Jan Cami of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "We are particularly excited because they have unique properties that make them important players for all sorts of physical and chemical processes going on in space." Cami has authored a paper about the discovery that will appear online Thursday in the journal Science.

Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional, spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball. The research team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball. Both types of molecules belong to a class known officially as buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes.

The Cami team unexpectedly found the carbon balls in a planetary nebula named Tc 1. Planetary nebulas are the remains of stars, like the sun, that shed their outer layers of gas and dust as they age. A compact, hot star, or white dwarf, at the center of the nebula illuminates and heats these clouds of material that has been shed.

The buckyballs were found in these clouds, perhaps reflecting a short stage in the star's life, when it sloughs off a puff of material rich in carbon. The astronomers used Spitzer's spectroscopy instrument to analyze infrared light from the planetary nebula and see the spectral signatures of the buckyballs. These molecules are approximately room temperature -- the ideal temperature to give off distinct patterns of infrared light that Spitzer can detect. According to Cami, Spitzer looked at the right place at the right time. A century from now, the buckyballs might be too cool to be detected.

The data from Spitzer were compared with data from laboratory measurements of the same molecules and showed a perfect match.

"We did not plan for this discovery," Cami said. "But when we saw these whopping spectral signatures, we knew immediately that we were looking at one of the most sought-after molecules."

In 1970, Japanese professor Eiji Osawa predicted the existence of buckyballs, but they were not observed until lab experiments in 1985. Researchers simulated conditions in the atmospheres of aging, carbon-rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected. Surprisingly, these experiments resulted in the formation of large quantities of buckminsterfullerenes. The molecules have since been found on Earth in candle soot, layers of rock and meteorites.

The study of fullerenes and their relatives has grown into a busy field of research because of the molecules' unique strength and exceptional chemical and physical properties. Among the potential applications are armor, drug delivery and superconducting technologies.

Sir Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs, said, "This most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy."

Previous searches for buckyballs in space, in particular around carbon-rich stars, proved unsuccessful. A promising case for their presence in the tenuous clouds between the stars was presented 15 years ago, using observations at optical wavelengths. That finding is awaiting confirmation from laboratory data. More recently, another Spitzer team reported evidence for buckyballs in a different type of object, but the spectral signatures they observed were partly contaminated by other chemical substances.

For more information about Spitzer, visit: .

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Take Your Children to Work Day

Children experience NASA from the inside during the annual "Take Your Children to Work Day" held each summer at NASA facilities across the country. Children get to see NASA facilities, participate in education activities and shadow their parents during the workday. They can also observe the agency's many different careers, learning about occupations as varied as engineering, graphic design, accounting, maintenance and many other professions.

Pictured here, children explore the Exploration Experience exhibit at the Marshall Space Flight Center during a previous "Take Your Children to Work Day." The exhibit showcases NASA's accomplishments and goals, from the benefits of space exploration here on Earth, to the technologies NASA develops to explore our solar system.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

NASA Goes Deep in Search of Extreme Environments

A team recovers the hybrid robotic vehicle Nereus aboard the research vessel Cape Hatteras
A team recovers the hybrid robotic vehicle Nereus aboard the research vessel Cape Hatteras during a partially NASA-funded expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise in October 2009. A search for new hydrothermal vent sites along the 110-kilometer-long ridge, the expedition featured the first use of Nereus in "autonomous," or free-swimming, mode. Image credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

An expedition partially funded by NASA, part of a program to search extreme environments for geological, biological and chemical clues to the origins and evolution of life, has discovered the deepest known hydrothermal vent in the world, nearly 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) below the surface of the western Caribbean Sea. The research will help extend our understanding of the limits to which life can exist on Earth and help prepare for future efforts to search for life on other planets.

An interdisciplinary team led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass., and including research scientist Max Coleman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., sailed to the western Caribbean in October 2009 aboard the research vessel Cape Hatteras. Using sensors mounted on equipment and robotic vehicles, they searched for deep-sea hydrothermal vents along the 110-kilometer-long (68-mile-long) Mid-Cayman Rise, an ultra-slow spreading ridge located in the Cayman Trough -- the deepest point in the Caribbean Sea. Results of their research are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While high-temperature submarine vents were first discovered more than 30 years ago, the majority of the global Mid-Ocean Ridge, an underwater mountain range that snakes its way for more than 56,000 kilometers (35,000 miles) between Earth's continents, remains unexplored for hydrothermal activity. While such activity occurs on spreading centers all around the world, scientists are particularly interested in Earth's ultra-slow spreading ridges, like the Mid-Cayman Rise, which may host systems that are particularly relevant to pre-biotic chemistry and the origins of life. The Mid-Cayman Rise is part of the tectonic boundary between the North American and Caribbean Plates. At the boundary where the plates are being pulled apart, new material wells up from Earth's interior to form new crust on the seafloor.

The researchers found that the Mid-Cayman Rise hosts at least three discrete hydrothermal sites, each representing a different type of water-rock interaction. The diversity of the newly discovered vent types, their geologic settings and their relative geographic isolation make the Mid-Cayman Rise a unique environment in the world's ocean.

"This was probably the highest-risk expedition I have ever undertaken," said chief scientist Chris German, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution geochemist who has pioneered the use of autonomous underwater vehicles to search for hydrothermal vent sites. "We know hydrothermal vents appear along ridges approximately every 100 kilometers [62 miles]. But this ridge crest is only 100 kilometers long, so we should only have expected to find evidence for one site at most. So finding evidence for three sites was quite unexpected - but then finding out that our data indicated that each site represents a different style of venting - one of every kind known, all in pretty much the same place - was extraordinarily cool."

The team identified the deepest known hydrothermal vent site and two additional distinct types of vents, one of which is believed to be a shallow, low-temperature vent of a kind that has been reported only once previously - at the "Lost City" site in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.

"Being the deepest, these hydrothermal vents support communities of organisms that are the furthest from the ocean surface and sources of energy like sunlight," said JPL co-author Coleman. "Most life on Earth is sustained by food chains that begin with sunlight as their energy source. That's not an option for possible life deep in the ocean of Jupiter's icy moon Europa, prioritized by NASA for future exploration. However, organisms around the deep vents get energy from the chemicals in hydrothermal fluid, a scenario we think is similar to the seafloor of Europa, and this work will help us understand what we might find when we search for life there."

"We were particularly excited to find compelling evidence for high-temperature venting at almost 5,000 meters depth," said Julie Huber, a scientist in the Josephine Bay Paul Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. "We have absolutely zero microbial data from high-temperature vents at this depth." Huber and Marine Biological Laboratory postdoctoral scientist Julie Smith participated in this cruise to collect samples, and all of the microbiology work for this paper was carried out in Huber's laboratory. "With the combination of extreme pressure, temperature and chemistry, we are sure to discover novel microbes in this environment," Huber added. "We look forward to returning to the Cayman and sampling these vents in the near future. We are sure to expand the known growth parameters and limits for life on our planet by exploring these new sites."

For more on this research, read the full news release from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

Cassini Sees Moon Building Giant Snowballs in Saturn Ring

Mosaic of images of fan-like structures on Saturn's F ring
This mosaic of images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows three fan-like structures in Saturn's tenuous F ring. Such "fans" suggest the existence of additional objects in the F ring.
› Full image and caption

While orbiting Saturn for the last six years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has kept a close eye on the collisions and disturbances in the gas giant's rings. They provide the only nearby natural laboratory for scientists to see the processes that must have occurred in our early solar system, as planets and moons coalesced out of disks of debris.

New images from Cassini show icy particles in Saturn's F ring clumping into giant snowballs as the moon Prometheus makes multiple swings by the ring. The gravitational pull of the moon sloshes ring material around, creating wake channels that trigger the formation of objects as large as 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter.

"Scientists have never seen objects actually form before," said Carl Murray, a Cassini imaging team member based at Queen Mary, University of London. "We now have direct evidence of that process and the rowdy dance between the moons and bits of space debris."

Murray discussed the findings today (July 20, 2010) at the Committee on Space Research meeting in Bremen, Germany, and they are published online by the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters on July 14, 2010. A new animation based on imaging data shows how one of the moons interacts with the F ring and creates dense, sticky areas of ring material.

Saturn's thin, kinky F ring was discovered by NASA's Pioneer 11 spacecraft in 1979. Prometheus and Pandora, the small "shepherding" moons on either side of the F ring, were discovered a year later by NASA's Voyager 1. In the years since, the F ring has rarely looked the same twice, and scientists have been watching the impish behavior of the two shepherding moons for clues.

Prometheus, the larger and closer to Saturn of the two moons, appears to be the primary source of the disturbances. At its longest, the potato-shaped moon is 148 kilometers (92 miles) across. It cruises around Saturn at a speed slightly greater than the speed of the much smaller F ring particles, but in an orbit that is just offset. As a result of its faster motion, Prometheus laps the F ring particles and stirs up particles in the same segment once in about every 68 days.

"Some of these objects will get ripped apart the next time Prometheus whips around," Murray said. "But some escape. Every time they survive an encounter, they can grow and become more and more stable."

Cassini scientists using the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph previously detected thickened blobs near the F ring by noting when starlight was partially blocked. These objects may be related to the clumps seen by Murray and colleagues.

The newly-found F ring objects appear dense enough to have what scientists call "self-gravity." That means they can attract more particles to themselves and snowball in size as ring particles bounce around in Prometheus's wake, Murray said. The objects could be about as dense as Prometheus, though only about one-fourteenth as dense as Earth.

What gives the F ring snowballs a particularly good chance of survival is their special location in the Saturn system. The F ring resides at a balancing point between the tidal force of Saturn trying to break objects apart and self-gravity pulling objects together. One current theory suggests that the F ring may be only a million years old, but gets replenished every few million years by moonlets drifting outward from the main rings. However, the giant snowballs that form and break up probably have lifetimes of only a few months.

The new findings could also help explain the origin of a mysterious object about 5 to 10 kilometers (3 to 6 miles) in diameter that Cassini scientists spotted in 2004 and have provisionally dubbed S/2004 S 6. This object occasionally bumps into the F ring and produces jets of debris.

"The new analysis fills in some blanks in our solar system's history, giving us clues about how it transformed from floating bits of dust to dense bodies," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The F ring peels back some of the mystery and continues to surprise us."

The late Kevin Beurle was made the honorary first author on this paper because of his contributions in developing software and designing observation sequences for this research. He died in 2009.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information, visit: and

Celebrating Apollo 11

NASA and Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) officials joined with flight controllers to celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in the Mission Control Center. From left foreground Dr. Maxime A. Faget, MSC Director of Engineering and Development; George S. Trimble, MSC Deputy Director; Dr. Christopher C. Kraft Jr., MSC Director fo Flight Operations; Julian Scheer (in back), Assistant Adminstrator, Office of Public Affairs, NASA HQ.; George M. Low, Manager, Apollo Spacecraft Program, MSC; Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, MSC Director; and Charles W. Mathews, Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Manned Space Flight, NASA HQ.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Video Camera Will Show Mars Rover's Touchdown

Mars Descent Imager for Curiosity
This Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera will fly on the Curiosity rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. › Full image and caption

A downward-pointing camera on the front-left side of NASA's Curiosity rover will give adventure fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.

The Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will start recording high-resolution video about two minutes before landing in August 2012. Initial frames will glimpse the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover, revealing a swath of Martian terrain below illuminated in afternoon sunlight. The first scenes will cover ground several kilometers (a few miles) across. Successive images will close in and cover a smaller area each second.

The full-color video will likely spin, then shake, as the Mars Science Laboratory mission's parachute, then its rocket-powered backpack, slow the rover's descent. The left-front wheel will pop into view when Curiosity extends its mobility and landing gear.

The spacecraft's own shadow, unnoticeable at first, will grow in size and slide westward across the ground. The shadow and rover will meet at a place that, in the final moments, becomes the only patch of ground visible, about the size of a bath towel and underneath the rover.

Dust kicked up by the rocket engines during landing may swirl as the video ends and Curiosity's surface mission can begin.

All of this, recorded at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame, will be stored safely into the Mars Descent Imager's own flash memory during the landing. But the camera's principal investigator, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, and everyone else will need to be patient. Curiosity will be about 250 million kilometers (about 150 million miles) from Earth at that point. It will send images and other data to Earth via relay by one or two Mars orbiters, so the daily data volume will be limited by the amount of time the orbiters are overhead each day.

"We will get it down in stages," said Malin. "First we'll have thumbnails of the descent images, with only a few frames at full scale."

Subsequent downlinks will deliver additional frames, selected based on what the thumbnail versions show. The early images will begin to fulfill this instrument's scientific functions. "I am really looking forward to seeing this movie. We have been preparing for it a long time," Malin said. The lower-resolution version from thumbnail images will be comparable to a YouTube video in image quality. The high-definition version will not be available until the full set of images can be transmitted to Earth, which could take weeks, or even months, sharing priority with data from other instruments."

The Mars Descent Imager will provide the Mars Science Laboratory team with information about the landing site and its surroundings. This will aid interpretation of the rover's ground-level views and planning of initial drives. Hundreds of the images taken by the camera will show features smaller than what can be discerned in images taken from orbit.

"Each of the 10 science instruments on the rover has a role in making the mission successful," said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, chief scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory. "This one will give us a sense of the terrain around the landing site and may show us things we want to study. Information from these images will go into our initial decisions about where the rover will go."

The nested set of images from higher altitude to ground level will enable pinpointing Curiosity's location even before an orbiter can photograph the rover on the surface.

Malin said, "Within the first day or so, we'll know where we are and what's near us. MARDI doesn't do much for six-month planning -- we'll use orbital data for that -- but it will be important for six-day and 16-day planning."

In addition, combining information from the descent images with information from the spacecraft's motion sensors will enable calculating wind speeds affecting the spacecraft on its way down, an important atmospheric science measurement. The descent data will later serve in designing and testing future landing systems for Mars that could add more control for hazard avoidance.

After landing, the Mars Descent Imager will offer the capability to obtain detailed images of ground beneath the rover, for precise tracking of its movements or for geologic mapping. The science team will decide whether or not to use that capability. Each day of operations on Mars will require choices about how to budget power, data and time.

Last month, spacecraft engineers and technicians re-installed the Mars Descent Imager onto Curiosity for what is expected to be the final time, as part of assembly and testing of the rover and other parts of the Mars Science Laboratory flight system at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Besides the rover itself, the flight system includes the cruise stage for operations between Earth and Mars, and the descent stage for getting the rover from the top of the Martian atmosphere safely to the ground.

Malin Space Science Systems delivered the Mars Descent Imager in 2008, when NASA was planning a 2009 launch for the mission. This camera shares many design features, including identical electronic detectors, with two other science instruments the same company is providing for Curiosity: the Mast Camera and the Mars Hand Lens Imager. The company also provided descent imagers for NASA's Mars Polar Lander, launched in 1999, and Phoenix Mars Lander, launched in 2007. However, the former craft was lost just before landing and the latter did not use its descent imager due to concern about the spacecraft's data-handling capabilities during crucial moments just before landing.

Making Home a Safer Place

One day homeowners everywhere may be protected from deadly carbon monoxide fumes, thanks to a device invented at NASA's Langley Research Center. The device uses a new class of low-temperature oxidation catalysts to convert carbon monoxide to non-toxic carbon dioxide at room temperature and also removes formaldehyde from the air. The catalysts initially were developed for research involving carbon dioxide lasers.

Monday, July 19, 2010

NASA's WISE Mission to Complete Extensive Sky Survey

Seven Sisters Get WISE
This image shows the famous Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The mosaic contains a few hundred image frames -- just a fraction of the more than one million WISE has captured so far as it completes its first survey of the entire sky in infrared light. › Full image and caption

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, will complete its first survey of the entire sky on July 17, 2010. The mission has generated more than one million images so far, of everything from asteroids to distant galaxies.

"Like a globe-trotting shutterbug, WISE has completed a world tour with 1.3 million slides covering the whole sky," said Edward Wright, the principal investigator of the mission at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some of these images have been processed and stitched together into a new picture being released today. It shows the Pleiades cluster of stars, also known as the Seven Sisters, resting in a tangled bed of wispy dust. The pictured region covers seven square degrees, or an area equivalent to 35 full moons, highlighting the telescope's ability to take wide shots of vast regions of space.

The new picture was taken in February. It shows infrared light from WISE's four detectors in a range of wavelengths. This infrared view highlights the region's expansive dust cloud, through which the Seven Sisters and other stars in the cluster are passing. Infrared light also reveals the smaller and cooler stars of the family.

To view the new image, as well as previously released WISE images, visit and .

"The WISE all-sky survey is helping us sift through the immense and diverse population of celestial objects," said Hashima Hasan, WISE Program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It's a great example of the high impact science that's possible from NASA's Explorer Program."

The first release of WISE data, covering about 80 percent of the sky, will be delivered to the astronomical community in May of next year. The mission scanned strips of the sky as it orbited around the Earth's poles since its launch last December. WISE always stays over the Earth's day-night line. As the Earth moves around the sun, new slices of sky come into the telescope's field of view. It has taken six months, or the amount of time for Earth to travel halfway around the sun, for the mission to complete one full scan of the entire sky.

For the next three months, the mission will map half of the sky again. This will enhance the telescope's data, revealing more hidden asteroids, stars and galaxies. The mapping will give astronomers a look at what's changed in the sky. The mission will end when the instrument's block of solid hydrogen coolant, needed to chill its infrared detectors, runs out.

"The eyes of WISE have not blinked since launch," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Both our telescope and spacecraft have performed flawlessly and have imaged every corner of our universe, just as we planned."

So far, WISE has observed more than 100,000 asteroids, both known and previously unseen. Most of these space rocks are in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, some are near-Earth objects, asteroids and comets with orbits that pass relatively close to Earth. WISE has discovered more than 90 of these new near-Earth objects. The infrared telescope is also good at spotting comets that orbit far from Earth and has discovered more than a dozen of these so far.

WISE's infrared vision also gives it a unique ability to pick up the glow of cool stars, called brown dwarfs, in addition to distant galaxies bursting with light and energy. These galaxies are called ultra-luminous infrared galaxies. WISE can see the brightest of them.

"WISE is filling in the blanks on the infrared properties of everything in the universe from nearby asteroids to distant quasars," said Peter Eisenhardt of JPL, project scientist for WISE. "But the most exciting discoveries may well be objects we haven't yet imagined exist."

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The mission was selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., in 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.

For more information about WISE, visit and .

Thursday, July 15, 2010

See Beautiful Ontario Lacus: Cassini's Guided Tour

Artist's concept of Titan's Ontario Lacus
NASA's Cassini spacecraft takes us on a guided tour of this mysterious lake on Titan.

Ontario Lacus, the largest lake in the southern hemisphere of Saturn's moon Titan, turns out to be a perfect exotic vacation spot, provided you can handle the frosty, subzero temperatures and enjoy soaking in liquid hydrocarbon.

Several recent papers by scientists working with NASA's Cassini spacecraft describe evidence of beaches for sunbathing in Titan's low light, sheltered bays for mooring boats, and pretty deltas for wading out in the shallows. They also describe seasonal changes in the lake's size and depth, giving vacationers an opportunity to visit over and over without seeing the same lake twice. (Travel agents, of course, will have to help you figure out how to breathe in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen.)

Using data that give us the most detailed picture yet of a lake on another world, scientists and animators have collaborated on a new video tour of Ontario Lacus based on radar data from Cassini's Titan flybys on June 22, 2009, July 8, 2009, and Jan. 12, 2010. A Web video explaining how scientists look to Earth's Death Valley to understand places like Titan's Ontario Lacus is available at:

"With such frigid temperatures and meager sunlight, you wouldn't think Titan has a lot in common with our own Earth," said Steve Wall, deputy team lead for the Cassini radar team, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "But Titan continues to surprise us with activity and seasonal processes that look marvelously, eerily familiar."

Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 when the southern hemisphere of the planet and its moons were experiencing summer. The seasons have started to change toward autumn, with winter solstice darkening the southern hemisphere of Titan in 2017. A year on Titan is the equivalent of about 29 Earth years.

Titan is the only other world in our solar system known to have standing bodies of liquid on its surface. Because surface temperatures at the poles average a chilly 90 Kelvin (about minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit), the liquid is a combination of methane, ethane and propane, rather than water. Ontario Lacus has a surface area of about 15,000 square kilometers (6,000 square miles), slightly smaller than its terrestrial namesake Lake Ontario.

Cassini first obtained an image of Ontario Lacus with its imaging camera in 2004. A paper submitted to the journal Icarus by Alex Hayes, a Cassini radar team associate at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and colleagues finds that the lake's shoreline has receded by about 10 kilometers (6 miles). This has resulted in a liquid level reduction of about 1 meter (3 feet) per year over a four-year period.

The shoreline appears to be receding because of liquid methane evaporating from the lake, with a total amount of evaporation that would significantly exceed the yearly methane gas output of all the cows on Earth, Hayes said. Some of the liquid could also seep into porous ground material. Hayes said the changes in the lake are likely occurring as part of Titan's seasonal methane cycle, and would be expected to reverse during southern winter.

This seasonal filling and receding is similar to what occurs at the shallow lakebed known as Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, Hayes said. In fact, from the air, the topography and shape of Racetrack Playa and Ontario Lacus are quite similar, although Ontario Lacus is about 60 times larger.

"We are very excited about these results, because we did not expect Cassini to be able to detect changes of this magnitude in Titan's lakes," Hayes said. "It is only through the continued monitoring of seasonal variation during Cassini's extended mission that these discoveries have been made possible."

Other parts of the Ontario Lacus' shoreline, as described in the paper published in Geophysical Research Letters in March 2010 by Wall, Hayes and other colleagues, show flooded valleys and coasts, further proof that the lake level has changed.

The delta revealed by Cassini radar data on the western shore of Ontario Lacus is also the first well-developed delta observed on Titan, Wall said. He explained that the shape of the land there shows liquid flowing down from a higher plain switching channels on its way into the lake, forming at least two lobes.

Examples of this kind of channel switching and wave-modified deltas can be found on Earth at the southern end of Lake Albert between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, and the remains of an ancient lake known as Megachad in the African country Chad, Wall said.

The radar data also show a smooth beach on the northwestern shore of Ontario Lacus. Smooth lines parallel to the current shoreline could be formed by low waves over time, which were likely driven by winds sweeping in from the west or southwest. The pattern at Ontario Lacus resembles what might be seen on the southeastern side of Lake Michigan, where waves sculpt the shoreline in a similar fashion.

"Cassini continues to take our breath away as it fills in the details on the surfaces of these far-off moons," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist based at JPL. "It's exhilarating to ride along as it takes us on the ultimate cold-weather adventure."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.

More Cassini information is available, at and

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Giant Antenna Propped Up, Ready for Joint Replacement

Workers at NASA's Deep Space Network communications site
As the sun sets on July 8, 2010, workers prepare to pour new epoxy grout for the hydrostatic bearing assembly of the giant "Mars antenna" at NASA's Deep Space Network communications site in Goldstone, Calif. › Full image and caption
Workers at NASA's Deep Space Network complex in Goldstone, Calif., have been making precise, laser-assisted measurements to ensure a flat surface for pouring new grout as part of a major renovation on the 70-meter-wide (230-foot-wide) "Mars antenna." While officially dubbed Deep Space Station 14, the antenna picked up the Mars name from its first task: tracking NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft, which had been lost by smaller antennas after its historic flyby of Mars.

This work represents the first time network engineers have redesigned and replaced the hydrostatic bearing assembly, which enables the antenna to rotate horizontally. To accomplish this, they lifted the entire rotating structure of the giant antenna for the first time.

The hydrostatic bearing assembly puts the weight of the antenna on three pads, which glide on a film of oil around a large steel ring. The ring measures about 24 meters (79 feet) in diameter and must be flat to work efficiently. After 44 years of near-constant use, the Mars antenna needed a kind of joint replacement, since the bearing assembly had become uneven.

Engineers and managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which manages the Deep Space Network for NASA, drew up plans for new runner segments, new sole plates below the runner segments, and an epoxy grout that is more impervious to oil. The thicker segments deform less when the antenna's pads pass over them, and allow for more tightly sealed joints.

Since beginning work in March, engineers and technicians have carefully lifted several million pounds of delicate scientific instruments about five millimeters (0.2 inches) and transferred the weight of the antenna to temporary supporting legs. They have removed the old steel runner and cement-based grout. They have also installed sole plates, which cover the grout and anchor the new runner. Over the past week, JPL engineers checked to make sure the sole plates were level, and workers poured the new epoxy grout underneath to hold them in place. Mixing and pouring the new grout occurred at night to ensure the work was completed within the tight temperature tolerances required to handle this material.

Over the next few weeks, the new, thicker steel runner segments will be installed. Work is on track to return the antenna to service on Nov. 1, 2010.

For more details about the work on the Mars antenna, visit:

For more information about the Deep Space Network, visit:

For more information about NASA's space communications and navigation program, visit:

Curiosity Spins Its Wheels

Engineers just installed six new wheels on the Curiosity rover, and rotated all six wheels at once on July 9, 2010
Engineers just installed six new wheels on the Curiosity rover, and rotated all six wheels at once on July 9, 2010. › Full image and caption

The wheels that will touch down on Mars in 2012 are several rotations closer to spinning on the rocky trails of Mars.

This video clip shows engineers in the JPL clean room where the rover is being assembled as they put all six wheels into motion for the first time.

Engineers raised the rover just as a car mechanic would hoist a car to check the wheels, and started the "engine" to get the wheels rotating. The wheel mobility system has 10 motors in all-four for steering the rover and six for driving. During this test, all 10 motors ran in every direction. Each wheel spun forward and backwards.

Next up for Curiosity is a series of "tune-ups" to prep the rover for driving.

Learn more about Curiosity at: .

Farewell Lutetia

On its way to a 2014 rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, with NASA instruments aboard, flew past asteroid Lutetia on Saturday, July 10.

The instruments aboard Rosetta recorded the first close-up image of the biggest asteroid so far visited by a spacecraft. Rosetta made measurements to derive the mass of the object, understand the properties of the asteroid's surface crust, record the solar wind in the vicinity and look for evidence of an atmosphere. The spacecraft passed the asteroid at a minimum distance of 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) and at a velocity of 15 kilometers (9 miles) per second, completing the flyby in just a minute. But the cameras and other instruments had been working for hours and in some cases days beforehand, and will continue afterwards. Shortly after closest approach, Rosetta began transmitting data to Earth for processing.

Lutetia has been a mystery for many years. Ground telescopes have shown that it presents confusing characteristics. In some respects it resembles a ‘C-type’ asteroid, a primitive body left over from the formation of the solar system. In others, it looks like an ‘M-type’. These have been associated with iron meteorites, are usually reddish and thought to be fragments of the cores of much larger objects.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Securing a Place for History

A piece of NASA history landed at the Glenn Research Center's Visitor Center, now located at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The Apollo Command Module, used for the Skylab 3 mission in 1973, was moved successfully from Glenn to the Science Center on Tuesday, June 22. The module will be the focal point of the Visitor Center, which includes space and aeronautics artifacts, models and interactive experiences.

The move was carefully planned to protect and preserve the module, which weighs 12,800 pounds and is more than 11 feet tall and 13 feet wide. The module is on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Standing on the Chukchi Sea

Scientists on the sea ice in the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska disperse equipment on July 4, 2010, as they prepare to collect data on and below the ice. The research is part of NASA's ICESCAPE mission aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy to sample the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the ocean and sea ice. Impacts of Climate change on the Eco-Systems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) is a multi-year NASA shipborne project. The bulk of the research will take place in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea’s in the summer of 2010 and fall of 2011.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Smoother Landings

Spacecraft attempting to land on an unfamiliar surface need to perform a maneuver called “deep throttling" -- a step that allows the vehicle to precisely throttle down to perform a smooth, controlled landing. NASA and industry partners have demonstrated this type of engine control capability to help design a more reliable and robust descent engine that could be used to land space exploration vehicles on the moon, an asteroid or another planet.

The Common Extensible Cryogenic Engine, also known as CECE, recently completed the fourth and final series of hot-fire tests on a 15,000-pound thrust class cryogenic technology demonstrator rocket engine, increasing the throttling capability by 35 percent over previous tests. This test series demonstrated this engine could go from a thrust range of 104 percent power down to 5.9 percent. This equates to an unprecedented 17.6:1 deep-throttling capability, which means this cryogenic engine can quickly throttle up and down.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Place in History

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its navigation camera to take the images combined into this full 360-degree view of the rover's surroundings after a drive on the 2,220th Martian day, or sol, of its mission (April 22, 2010).

Opportunity launched on July 7, 2003, on a mission slated to last 90 days, landing on Mars in January 2004. The rover has exceeded its mission parameters by more than 2,200 days as its exploration of the Red Planet continues.

Opportunity took some of the component images for this mosaic on Sol 2220, after the drive, and the rest on Sol 2221. Wind-formed ripples of dark sand make up much of the terrain surrounding this position. Patches of outcrop are visible to the south. For scale, the distance between the parallel wheel tracks is about 1 meter (about 40 inches).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Celestial Fireworks

Like an Independence Day fireworks display, a young, glittering collection of stars looks like an aerial burst. The cluster is surrounded by clouds of interstellar gas and dust -- the raw material for new star formation. The nebula, located 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina, contains a central cluster of huge, hot stars, called NGC 3603.

This environment is not as peaceful as it looks. Ultraviolet radiation and violent stellar winds have blown out an enormous cavity in the gas and dust enveloping the cluster, providing an unobstructed view of the cluster.

Most of the stars in the cluster were born around the same time but differ in size, mass, temperature, and color. The course of a star's life is determined by its mass, so a cluster of a given age will contain stars in various stages of their lives, giving an opportunity for detailed analyses of stellar life cycles. NGC 3603 also contains some of the most massive stars known. These huge stars live fast and die young, burning through their hydrogen fuel quickly and ultimately ending their lives in supernova explosions.

Star clusters like NGC 3603 provide important clues to understanding the origin of massive star formation in the early, distant universe. Astronomers also use massive clusters to study distant starbursts that occur when galaxies collide, igniting a flurry of star formation. The proximity of NGC 3603 makes it an excellent lab for studying such distant and momentous events.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Launched on the Fourth of July

Space shuttle Discovery and its seven-member crew launched at 2:38 p.m. EDT on July 4, 2006 to begin their journey to the International Space Station during the STS-121 mission. The shuttle made history as it was the first human-occupied spacecraft to launch on Independence Day. During the 12-day mission, the crew tested new equipment and procedures that increase the safety of the orbiters. It also performed maintenance on the space station and delivered supplies, equipment and a new Expedition 13 crew member to the station. This mission carried on analysis of safety improvements that debuted on the Return to Flight mission, STS-114, and built upon those tests.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Rover Gets Its Wheels

Mars rover Curiosity, the centerpiece of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, is coming together for extensive testing prior to its late 2011 launch. This image taken June 29, 2010, shows the rover with the mobility system -- wheels and suspension -- in place after installation on June 28 and 29.

Spacecraft engineers and technicians are assembling and testing the rover in a large cleanroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Curiosity's six-wheel mobility system, with a rocker-bogie suspension system, resembles the systems on earlier, smaller Mars rovers, but for Curiosity, the wheels will also serve as landing gear. Each wheel is half a meter (20 inches) in diameter.

On the 'Couch'

The Mercury 7 astronauts examine their 'couches.' Each astronaut's couch was molded to fit his body to help withstand the G-loads of the launch. Plaster casts of the astronauts were created in order to properly mold the couches. Left to right are Alan Sheppard, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom and Bob Gilruth. Gilruth was director of the Space Task Group, which planned and managed the Mercury Project.