Tuesday, August 31, 2010

NASA's Kepler Mission Discovers Two Planets Transiting Same Star

This artist’s concept illustrates the two Saturn-sized planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission.
This artist's concept illustrates the two Saturn-sized planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission. The star system is oriented edge-on, as seen by Kepler, such that both planets cross in front, or transit, their star, named Kepler-9. This is the first star system found to have multiple transiting planets.
NASA's Kepler spacecraft has discovered the first confirmed planetary system with more than one planet crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star.

The transit signatures of two distinct planets were seen in the data for the sun-like star designated Kepler-9. The planets were named Kepler-9b and 9c. The discovery incorporates seven months of observations of more than 156,000 stars as part of an ongoing search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. The findings will be published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

Kepler's ultra-precise camera measures tiny decreases in stars' brightness that occur when a planet transits them. The size of the planet can be derived from these temporary dips.

The distance of the planet from a star can be calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star. Small variations in the regularity of these dips can be used to determine the masses of planets and detect other non-transiting planets in the system.

In June 2010, Kepler mission scientists submitted findings for peer review that identified more than 700 planet candidates in the first 43 days of Kepler data. The data included five additional candidate systems that appear to exhibit more than one transiting planet. The Kepler team recently identified a sixth target exhibiting multiple transits and accumulated enough followup data to confirm this multi-planet system.

"Kepler's high-quality data and round-the-clock coverage of transiting objects enable a whole host of unique measurements to be made of the parent stars and their planetary systems," said Doug Hudgins, the Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Scientists refined the estimates of the masses of the planets using observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The observations show Kepler-9b is the larger of the two planets, and both have masses similar to but less than Saturn. Kepler-9b lies closest to the star, with an orbit of about 19 days, while Kepler-9c has an orbit of about 38 days. By observing several transits by each planet over the seven months of data, the time between successive transits could be analyzed.

"This discovery is the first clear detection of significant changes in the intervals from one planetary transit to the next, what we call transit timing variations," said Matthew Holman, a Kepler mission scientist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "This is evidence of the gravitational interaction between the two planets as seen by the Kepler spacecraft."

In addition to the two confirmed giant planets, Kepler scientists also have identified what appears to be a third, much smaller transit signature in the observations of Kepler-9. That signature is consistent with the transits of a super-Earth-sized planet about 1.5 times the radius of Earth in a scorching, near-sun 1.6 day-orbit. Additional observations are required to determine whether this signal is indeed a planet or an astronomical phenomenon that mimics the appearance of a transit.

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data.

For graphics, including new animations, visit http://www.nasa.gov/kepler .

More information about exoplanets and NASA's planet-finding program is at http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov .

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Tracing the Big Picture of Mars' Atmosphere

Martian Atmosphere Profiles
The Mars Climate Sounder instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter maps the vertical distribution of temperatures, dust, water vapor and ice clouds in the Martian atmosphere as the orbiter flies a near-polar orbit. › Full image and caption
One of the instruments on a 2016 mission to orbit Mars will provide daily maps of global, pole-to-pole, vertical distributions of the temperature, dust, water vapor and ice clouds in the Martian atmosphere.

The joint European-American mission, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, will seek faint gaseous clues about possible life on Mars. This instrument, called the ExoMars Climate Sounder, will supply crucial context with its daily profiling of the atmosphere's changing structure.

The European Space Agency and NASA have selected five instruments for ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. The European Space Agency will provide one instrument and the spacecraft. NASA will provide four instruments, including ExoMars Climate Sounder, which is coming from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Two of the other selected instruments are spectrometers -- one each from Europe and the United States -- designed to detect very low concentrations of methane and other important trace gases in the Martian atmosphere.

"To put the trace-gas measurements into context, you need to know the background structure and circulation of the atmosphere," said JPL's Tim Schofield, principal investigator for the ExoMars Climate Sounder. "We will provide the information needed to understand the distribution of trace gases identified by the spectrometers. We'll do this by characterizing the role of atmospheric circulation and aerosols, such as dust and ice, in trace-gas transport and in chemical reactions in the atmosphere affecting trace gases."

The ExoMars Climate Sounder is an infrared radiometer designed to operate continuously, day and night, from the spacecraft's orbit about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) above the Martian surface. It can pivot to point downward or toward the horizon, measuring temperature, water vapor, dust and ices for each 5-kilometer (3-mile) increment in height throughout the atmosphere from ground level to 90 kilometers (56 miles) altitude.

Schofield and his international team have two other main goals for the investigation, besides aiding in interpretation of trace-gas detections.

One is to extend the climate mapping record currently coming from a similar instrument, the Mars Climate Sounder, on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been working at Mars since 2006. The orbital geometry of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission enables this sounder to record atmospheric profiles only at about 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. during the Martian day, except near the poles. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will fly an orbital pattern that allows the spacecraft to collect data at all times of day, at all latitudes.

"We'll fill in information about variability at different times of day, and we'll add to the number of Mars years for understanding year-to-year variability," said Schofield. "The most obvious year-to-year change is that some years have global dust storms and others don't. We'd like to learn whether there's anything predictive for anticipating the big dust storms, and what makes them so variable from year to year."

A third research goal is to assist future landings on Mars by supplying information about the variable density of the atmosphere. At a chosen landing site, atmospheric density can change from one day to the next, affecting a spacecraft's descent.

"We want to provide background climatology for what to expect at a given site, in a given season, for a particular time of day, and also nearly real-time information for the atmospheric structure in the days leading up to the landing of a spacecraft launched after 2016," said Schofield.

The 2016 ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is the first in a series of planned Mars mission collaborations of the European Space Agency and NASA. A variable presence of small amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere has been indicated from orbital and Earth-based observations. A key goal of the mission is to gain a better understanding of methane and other trace gases that could be evidence about possible biological activity. Methane can be produced both biologically and without life.

Besides the two spectrometers and the climate sounder, the orbiter's selected instruments include two NASA-provided imagers: a high-resolution, stereo, color imager, and a wide-angle, color, weather camera. The orbiter will also serve as a communications relay for missions on the surface of Mars and will carry a European-built descent-and-landing demonstration module designed to operate for a few days on the Mars surface. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages NASA's roles in the mission.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Teachers turn to NASA for Inspiration

With a desire to learn more about aerospace technology, eight teachers gave up part of their summer vacation this year to come to NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and become students themselves. The teachers visited Ames as part of the Simulation-Based Aerospace Engineering Teacher Professional Development Program with hopes of learning about technology so they could increase their students’ enthusiasm in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Enthusiasm is contagious. We’re hoping that these teachers go home with a passion for technology that they can share with their students,” said Tom Clausen, Education Specialist at NASA Ames.

Many of the teachers came to Ames from schools that were falling behind academically, and the teachers hoped to be a part of helping students at those schools learn effectively.

“Our school, Wakefieild Middle School, has been labeled as underachieving,” said Denise LaClair from Tucson, Ariz. “I want Wakefield Middle School to become one of the premiere schools in Tucson,and I want to have a role in helping achieve this dream.”

LaClair is interested in learning new techniques to help students learn and fully understand complex concepts.

“It is amazing how research is showing educators new ways of presenting material and making it relevant to students and applying that in my classroom to engage all students in discovery and learning. Seeing a student’s eyes light up with understanding, use appropriate vocabulary in context, or tell me how much they love programming the rotor in my class really makes my day,” said LaClair.

LaClair is not alone in her love of teaching. The teachers who attended the program all said they enjoyed seeing the reaction of a young student who suddenly understands a concept.

“I enjoy working with young minds and seeing their reactions when they learn concepts. I enjoy helping support my students during such an important time in their development,” said Carolyn Jones from Sahuaro High School in Tucson, Ariz.

These teachers know that the students they are teaching are our future technical work force.

“I enjoy being in a position to impact young people today who will make an impact on the world tomorrow,” said John Sterling from Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Miami, Fla. “I have a unique opportunity to change lives,” added Clara Hall Brown from Miami Central Senior High School in Miami, Fla.

These eight teachers learned about this opportunity different ways – through flyers, their principals, or friends at other schools. They came with the same motivation – to learn more about how to teach their students as effectively as possible. They left with a new understanding of how to approach technical concepts in the classroom.

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Artemis Spacecraft First to Enter New Type of Orbit

The full Moon yesterday evening helped light the way for NASA's ARTEMIS-P1 to become the first spacecraft successfully placed into an Earth-Moon libration orbit.

At 12:33 a.m. on August 25 NASA engineers, in association with the University of Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory operations facility, performed a propulsion maneuver to capture ARTEMIS-P1 into the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrangian point, located on the far side of the Moon from Earth about 38,100 miles (61,300 km) above the lunar surface. The orbit is unique because it relies on a precise balancing of the Sun, Earth, and Moon’s gravity.

In October, its sister spacecraft – ARTEMIS-P2 – will be captured into the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrangian point located between the Earth and Moon.

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NASA/NOAA Study Finds El Niños are Growing Stronger

Deviations from normal sea surface temperatures (left) and sea surface heights (right)
Deviations from normal sea surface temperatures (left) and sea surface heights (right) at the peak of the 2009-2010 central Pacific El Niño, as measured by NOAA polar orbiting satellites and NASA's Jason-1 spacecraft, respectively. The warmest temperatures and highest sea levels were located in the central equatorial Pacific. › Larger image
A relatively new type of El Niño, which has its warmest waters in the central-equatorial Pacific Ocean, rather than in the eastern-equatorial Pacific, is becoming more common and progressively stronger, according to a new study by NASA and NOAA. The research may improve our understanding of the relationship between El Niños and climate change, and has potentially significant implications for long-term weather forecasting.

Lead author Tong Lee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Michael McPhaden of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, measured changes in El Niño intensity since 1982. They analyzed NOAA satellite observations of sea surface temperature, checked against and blended with directly-measured ocean temperature data. The strength of each El Niño was gauged by how much its sea surface temperatures deviated from the average. They found the intensity of El Niños in the central Pacific has nearly doubled, with the most intense event occurring in 2009-10.

The scientists say the stronger El Niños help explain a steady rise in central Pacific sea surface temperatures observed over the past few decades in previous studies-a trend attributed by some to the effects of global warming. While Lee and McPhaden observed a rise in sea surface temperatures during El Niño years, no significant temperature increases were seen in years when ocean conditions were neutral, or when El Niño's cool water counterpart, La Niña, was present.

"Our study concludes the long-term warming trend seen in the central Pacific is primarily due to more intense El Niños, rather than a general rise of background temperatures," said Lee.

"These results suggest climate change may already be affecting El Niño by shifting the center of action from the eastern to the central Pacific," said McPhaden. "El Niño's impact on global weather patterns is different if ocean warming occurs primarily in the central Pacific, instead of the eastern Pacific.

"If the trend we observe continues," McPhaden added, "it could throw a monkey wrench into long-range weather forecasting, which is largely based on our understanding of El Niños from the latter half of the 20th century."

El Niño, Spanish for "the little boy," is the oceanic component of a climate pattern called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, which appears in the tropical Pacific Ocean on average every three to five years. The most dominant year-to-year fluctuating pattern in Earth's climate system, El Niños have a powerful impact on the ocean and atmosphere, as well as important socioeconomic consequences. They can influence global weather patterns and the occurrence and frequency of hurricanes, droughts and floods; and can even raise or lower global temperatures by as much as 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

During a "classic" El Niño episode, the normally strong easterly trade winds in the tropical eastern Pacific weaken. That weakening suppresses the normal upward movement of cold subsurface waters and allows warm surface water from the central Pacific to shift toward the Americas. In these situations, unusually warm surface water occupies much of the tropical Pacific, with the maximum ocean warming remaining in the eastern-equatorial Pacific.

Since the early 1990s, however, scientists have noted a new type of El Niño that has been occurring with greater frequency. Known variously as "central-Pacific El Niño," "warm-pool El Niño," "dateline El Niño" or "El Niño Modoki" (Japanese for "similar but different"), the maximum ocean warming from such El Niños is found in the central-equatorial, rather than eastern, Pacific. Such central Pacific El Niño events were observed in 1991-92, 1994-95, 2002-03, 2004-05 and 2009-10. A recent study found many climate models predict such events will become much more frequent under projected global warming scenarios.

Lee said further research is needed to evaluate the impacts of these increasingly intense El Niños and determine why these changes are occurring. "It is important to know if the increasing intensity and frequency of these central Pacific El Niños are due to natural variations in climate or to climate change caused by human-produced greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Results of the study were published recently in Geophysical Research Letters.

For more information on El Niño, visit: http://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/.

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Hydrogen Sulfide and Dust Plumes on Namibia's Coast

Cloudless skies allowed a clear view of dust and hydrogen sulfide plumes along the coast of Namibia in early August 2010. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image on Aug. 10, 2010.

Multiple dust plumes blow off the coast toward the ocean, most or all of them probably arising from streambeds. Unlike the reddish-tan sands comprising the dunes directly south of the Kuiseb River, the stream-channel sediments are lighter in color. Wind frequently pushes dust plumes seaward along the Namibian Coast. Easterly trade winds blow from the Indian Ocean over the African continent, losing much of their moisture as they go. The winds are hot and dry as they pass over Namibia’s coastal plain, where they are prone to stir fine sediments.

Even with dust plumes overhead, the marked change in land cover is obvious along the Kuiseb River. South of the river, sand dunes predominate, but the vegetation along the Kuiseb River prevents the dunes from advancing northward. North of the river, the land surface consists primarily of gravel plains punctuated by rocky hills.

Hydrogen sulfide appears as a swath of irridescent green running parallel to the coast north of Walvis Bay. A 2009 study linked the emissions in this region to ocean currents, biological activity in the water column, and carbon-rich organic sediments under the water column. The meeting of hydrogen sulfide gas and oxygen-rich surface waters causes pure sulfur to precipitate into the water. The sulfur’s yellow color makes the water appear green to the satellite sensor.

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WISE Captures the Unicorn's Rose

Rosette nebula
A new image taken by WISE shows the Rosette nebula located within the constellation Monoceros, or the Unicorn.
Unicorns and roses are usually the stuff of fairy tales, but a new cosmic image taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE) shows the Rosette nebula located within the constellation Monoceros, or the Unicorn.

This flower-shaped nebula, also known by the less romantic name NGC 2237, is a huge star-forming cloud of dust and gas in our Milky Way galaxy. Estimates of the nebula's distance vary from 4,500 to 5,000 light-years away.

At the center of the flower is a cluster of young stars called NGC 2244. The most massive stars produce huge amounts of ultraviolet radiation, and blow strong winds that erode away the nearby gas and dust, creating a large, central hole. The radiation also strips electrons from the surrounding hydrogen gas, ionizing it and creating what astronomers call an HII region.

Although the Rosette nebula is too faint to see with the naked eye, NGC 2244 is beloved by amateur astronomers because it is visible through a small telescope or good pair of binoculars. The English astronomer John Flamsteed discovered the star cluster NGC 2244 with a telescope around 1690, but the nebula itself was not identified until John Herschel (son of William Herschel, discoverer of infrared light) observed it almost 150 years later.

The streak seen at lower left is the trail of a satellite, captured as WISE snapped the multiple frames that make up this view.

This image is a four-color composite created by all four of WISE's infrared detectors. Color is representational: blue and cyan represent infrared light at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns, which is dominated by light from stars. Green and red represent light at 12 and 22 microns, which is mostly light from warm dust.

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

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Anaxagoras Crater

This image from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the floor of the moon's Anaxagoras crater, including a portion of the crater's anorthositic central uplift. The boulders perched on ridges are eroding out of densely fractured bedrock. This image was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, which consists of a pair of narrow-angle cameras and a single wide-angle camera. The mission is expected to return over 70 terabytes of image data.

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Perseids Complete 2010 August Light Show

The 2010 Perseid meteor shower is drawing to a close after painting brilliant streaks across the August nighttime skies. This year's shower began around July 17, peaked August 12-13 and will be officially over by August 24.

"The Perseids are a great shower, one I look forward to every year. And this year didn’t disappoint!" said Dr. Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, located at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

More About the Perseids

The Perseid meteor shower has been observed for at least 2,000 years and is associated with the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 133 years or so. Each year in August, the Earth passes through a cloud of the comet's debris. These bits of ice and dust travel around 132,000 mph, burning up about 56 miles overhead in the Earth's atmosphere to create one of the best meteor showers of the year. The shower is called the "Perseids" because the meteors appear to come from the direction of the constellation Perseus.

The Perseids can be of any brightness, but most are as bright as Polaris – the North Star -- or brighter. This meteor shower, however, is known for producing "fireball" meteors that appear at least as bright as the planet Venus as they burn up in the night sky. The bits of Swift-Tuttle debris range in size from one millimeter to several centimeters – the larger the particle hitting the Earth's atmosphere, the brighter the meteor trail. The streak of light in a meteor trail isn’t a view of the particle, but the ionization trail. Ionization happens as the speeding particle causes electrons to be ripped away from atoms in the atmosphere. The meteor trails from a Perseid meteor can be many miles long and remain visible for several seconds.

Missed the Perseids? December Brings the Geminids

If you missed the Perseids this year, another good meteor shower is coming in December. The Geminids will happen between Dec. 7-17, with the best viewing after moonset Dec. 13-14. The forecast is for 50-120 meteors per hour at the peak on Dec. 14 at roughly 2 in the morning. The Geminids are named for the constellation Gemini, the direction from which the meteors appear to originate.

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NASA To Announce Latest Findings By Kepler Spacecraft

NASA will hold a media teleconference Thursday, Aug. 26, at 1 p.m. EDT to discuss the Kepler spacecraft's latest discovery about an intriguing planetary system.

Kepler, a space observatory, looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. In June, mission scientists announced the mission has identified more than 700 planet candidates, including five candidate systems that appear to have more than one transiting planet.

Participating telecon panelists are:
-- Jon Morse, director, Science Mission Directorate Astrophysics Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington
-- William Borucki, Kepler Mission science principal investigator, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
-- Matthew Holman, associate director, Theoretical Astrophysics Division, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass.
-- Alycia Weinberger, astronomer, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington

To participate in the teleconference, reporters should e-mail J.D. Harrington at j.d.harrington@nasa.gov by 11 a.m. EDT, Thursday, Aug. 26. Journalists must include their name, media affiliation and telephone number. Supporting information for the briefing will be posted at: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler when the telecon begins.

Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live at: http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio

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"Avatar" Director And NASA Focus On Earth Science Exploration In Psa Campaign

James Cameron, director of "Avatar," the most successful film ever released, is featured in a series of new NASA public service announcements that describe the many contributions of the agency's Earth science program to environmental awareness and exploration of our home planet.

"When NASA ventures into space, it remembers to keep a steady eye on home," Cameron said. "Its fleet of Earth-orbiting satellites constantly reveals our whole planet: its remotest places, its mysteries and the powerful influence of humans."

Cameron's 3-D epic, based on the fictional planet of Pandora and is coming back to theaters this week. The story centers on a beautiful planet threatened by forces that want to exploit its natural resources.

The public service announcements feature "Avatar" film imagery and include computer animations and data from NASA's fleet of Earth-observing satellites. NASA has 14 science satellites in orbit making cutting-edge global observations of the entire global system including the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, snow and ice.

NASA Television will broadcast the announcements beginning Tuesday and they are available to television and radio stations, and other interested media outlets.

To download or view the PSAs online, visit:



For information about NASA's Earth science missions, visit:


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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vote for NASA Panels at South By Southwest

Artist concept of an Astronaut sitting in a chair
This artist's concept of an armchair astronaut illustrates space exploration via Web-enabled tools. › Larger view

How can you participate in space exploration? How can armchair astronauts interact instantly with NASA? What does an Earth flyby look like from an asteroid's point of view? These are just a handful of the questions that will be answered at the 2011 South By Southwest Interactive Conference (SXSW) if NASA's three proposed panels make the cut.

Audience voting counts for 30 percent of whether or not a panel gets selected from the nearly 2,400 panels up for consideration. In previous years, about 100 panels made the schedule for the five-day event.

Here's how to vote:

1. Register (for free) at the PanelPicker website.

2. Click the links below to read brief descriptions of NASA's proposed panels and vote.

Voting is open now through Friday, Aug. 27, 2010.

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Pulverized Planet Dust May Lie Around Double Stars

This artist's concept illustrates an imminent planetary collision around a pair of double stars.
This artist's concept illustrates an imminent planetary collision around a pair of double stars.
› Full image and caption
Tight double-star systems might not be the best places for life to spring up, according to a new study using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The infrared observatory spotted a surprisingly large amount of dust around three mature, close-orbiting star pairs. Where did the dust come from? Astronomers say it might be the aftermath of tremendous planetary collisions.

"This is real-life science fiction," said Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. "Our data tell us that planets in these systems might not be so lucky -- collisions could be common. It's theoretically possible that habitable planets could exist around these types of stars, so if there happened to be any life there, it could be doomed."

Drake is the principal investigator of the research, published in the Aug.19 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The particular class of binary, or double, stars in the study are about as snug as stars get. Named RS Canum Venaticorums, or RS CVns for short, they are separated by only about two million miles (3.2 million kilometers), or two percent of the distance between Earth and our sun. The stellar pairs orbit around each other every few days, with one face on each star perpetually locked and pointed toward the other.

The close-knit stars are similar to the sun in size and are probably about a billion to a few billion years old -- roughly the age of our sun when life first evolved on Earth. But these stars spin much faster, and, as a result, have powerful magnetic fields, and giant, dark spots. The magnetic activity drives strong stellar winds -- gale-force versions of the solar wind -- that slow the stars down, pulling the twirling duos closer over time. And this is where the planetary chaos may begin.

As the stars cozy up to each other, their gravitational influences change, and this could cause disturbances to planetary bodies orbiting around both stars. Comets and any planets that may exist in the systems would start jostling about and banging into each other, sometimes in powerful collisions. This includes planets that could theoretically be circling in the double stars' habitable zone, a region where temperatures would allow liquid water to exist. Though no habitable planets have been discovered around any stars beyond our sun at this point in time, tight double-star systems are known to host planets; for example, one system not in the study, called HW Vir, has two gas-giant planets.

"These kinds of systems paint a picture of the late stages in the lives of planetary systems," said Marc Kuchner, a co-author from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "And it's a future that's messy and violent."

Spitzer spotted the infrared glow of hot dusty disks, about the temperature of molten lava, around three such tight binary systems. One of the systems was originally flagged as having a suspicious excess of infrared light in 1983 by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite. In addition, researchers using Spitzer recently found a warm disk of debris around another star that turned out to be a tight binary system.

The astronomy team says that dust normally would have dissipated and blown away from the stars by this mature stage in their lives. They conclude that something -- most likely planetary collisions -- must therefore be kicking up the fresh dust. In addition, because dusty disks have now been found around four, older binary systems, the scientists know that the observations are not a fluke. Something chaotic is very likely going on.

If any life forms did exist in these star systems, and they could look up at the sky, they would have quite a view. Marco Matranga, first author of the paper, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and now a visiting astronomer at the Palermo Astronomical Observatory in Sicily, said, "The skies there would have two huge suns, like the ones above the planet Tatooine in 'Star Wars.'"

Other authors include V.L. Kashyap of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Massimo Marengo of Iowa State University, Ames.

The Spitzer observations were made before it ran out of its liquid coolant in May 2009, officially beginning 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. For more information about Spitzer, visit http://spitzer.caltech.edu/ and http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer .

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite, known commonly by its acronym, IRAS, was a joint project between NASA, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

NASA Images Show Anatomy of Pakistan Flood Disaster

ASTER image from Aug. 18, 2010, shows the extent of flooding in and around the city of Sukkur in Pakistan's Sindh Province
ASTER image from Aug. 18, 2010, shows the extent of flooding in and around the city of Sukkur in Pakistan's Sindh Province. The Indus River, Pakistan's longest, snakes vertically through the image. › View related images

In late July 2010, flooding caused by heavy monsoon rains began across several regions of Pakistan. According to the Associated Press, the floods have affected about one-fifth of this country of more than 170 million. Tens of thousands of villages have been flooded, more than 1,500 people have been killed, and millions have been left homeless. The floodwaters are not expected to recede fully before late August.

NASA's CloudSat satellite captured the genesis of the flooding event as it flew over the region on July 28, 2010. At that time, a large area of intense thunderstorms covered much of Pakistan. Between July 28 and 29, up to 400 millimeters (16 inches) of rain fell from these storm cells, triggering flooding along the Indus and Kabul Rivers. Storms with similar structures to this one have become common this summer as tropical monsoon moisture, coupled with a strengthening La Nina (which has different effects around the world), dominate this region's weather patterns.

A series of NASA images shows the anatomy of the flood disaster. Click here to view all five images.

The top portion of the first image, from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft, reveals the bright white cloud tops of the cluster of thunderstorms. The blue vertical line shows CloudSat's path at the time the MODIS image was acquired. CloudSat's path cut through a large thunderstorm cell in the northern section of the country.

The Cloudsat data are shown in the bottom portion of the first image. As seen in the top half of the bottom image, CloudSat classified the majority of the clouds present at the time as deep convective (cumulonimbus) clouds, typical of thunderstorms. The bottom half of the lower image shows the 3-D vertical structure of the storm along the satellite's flight path, revealing its heavy precipitation. CloudSat measured the cloud heights along the radar's flight path at around 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) in the areas of deepest convection.

The next pair of images was taken by the vertical-viewing camera on the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) instrument aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft. The image on the left was taken Aug. 8, 2009, while the one on the right is from Aug. 11, 2010. These false-color views display the instrument's near-infrared, red and green bands as shades of red, green and blue. The colors distinctly highlight the contrast between water and vegetation on the river banks, since vegetation appears bright in the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The region of southern Pakistan shown here includes the Sindh Province. The Indus River, Pakistan's longest, can be seen snaking across the image from lower left to upper right. The feature near the bottom and left of center is Manchhar Lake. Water appears as shades of blue and cyan, though sediment content can add a tan color, as seen in the upper right. Clouds appear white. In the image from 2009, the Indus is typically about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) wide. In contrast, in the 2010 image, the river is around 23 kilometers (14 miles) wide in spots, and flooding is very evident in much of the surrounding region, particularly in the Larkana District west of the river.

A different before-and-after perspective of the floods is provided by the next pair of false-color images, taken by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft using its four visible and near-infrared channels. These images also show southern Pakistan and the Sindh Province. The Indus River appears to enter from the upper right and winds its way southwestward toward the lower left. The image at the left was taken before the flooding on July 9, 2010, while the right-hand image was taken on Aug. 10, 2010.

The Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft provides the next image, a cloud-free view over the city of Sukkur, Pakistan, taken on Aug. 18, 2010. Sukkur, a city of a half million residents in southeastern Pakistan's Sindh Province, is visible as the gray, urbanized area in the lower left center of the image. It lies along the Indus River, which snakes vertically from north to south through the image and forms the basis for the world's largest canal-based irrigation system. As reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Sukkur is one of the few urban areas in the region that has so far escaped widespread destruction from the flooding, which has affected an estimated 4 million people in the province. Relief camps have sprung up across the city to house some of these displaced people. The land along the Indus River in this region is largely agricultural, and the flooding has taken a heavy toll on the region's crops and fruit trees.

The final image was created with data from the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit instrument, which flies on NASA's Aqua spacecraft as part of the AIRS instrument suite. It shows how surface emissivity-how efficiently Earth's surface radiates heat-changed in the affected region over a 32-day period between July 11 and August 12. Surface emission, in this case in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum, depends strongly on what type of surface is present. For dry land, surface emission is high-measuring close to 1 (land radiates heat very efficiently); while for water, it is quite low-measuring less than 0.5 (water tends to retain heat better than land). The image shows that the emission dropped over this time span by up to 0.4 in large areas surrounding the Indus River, indicating that these areas are almost completely underwater.

Scientists can use this technique to estimate how much of the land surface has been inundated. A significant advantage is that the technique works both day and night, and under both clear and cloudy conditions.

For more information about CloudSat, see: http://cloudsat.atmos.colostate.edu/ and http://www.nasa.gov/cloudsat . For more on MISR, visit: http://www-misr.jpl.nasa.gov/ . For more on AIRS, see: http://airs.jpl.nasa.gov . For more information on ASTER, see: http://asterweb.jpl.nasa.gov/ .

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NASA Bids Fond Farewell to Summer’s Students and Teachers

The summer may end but its memories will last forever. This was the sentiment at a farewell commencement last week at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., where hundreds of undergraduate interns, graduate fellows, and faculty from higher education programs and their mentors were acknowledged for jobs well done.

As the United States enters the second century of flight, NASA has committed itself to excellence in science, technology, engineering and technology (STEM) education to ensure that the next generation of Americans can meet our country’s future challenges. To help meet the demands of a technical workforce, NASA designed more than a dozen summer Higher Education projects that target America’s students and educators at all levels, but especially those in traditionally underserved and underrepresented communities.

This summer, hundreds of students and teachers came to Ames to participate in NASA’s STEM activities and learn how they are applied to its missions and technology programs. As an added benefit, NASA scientists, researchers and engineers assumed the roles of mentor and educator, developing and supervising multi-week summer learning programs. NASA focuses on engaging and retaining students in STEM education programs to ensure their success in a demanding and competitive workforce.

“NASA is about the future. We do three things here. We do science. We revolutionized physics with Dr. John Mather’s Noble-Prize-winning work on the Big Bang. We do things on Earth. For instance, we’re addressing how to study climate change. We also do human flight research. We’re on the verge of sending humans to another planet,” said S. Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. at the commencement. “To you students, I want to say: the future is the limit. You are our replacement.”

This was a wonderful day. Students and mentors gathered together to celebrate their achievements and say “we’re so glad we got to know you,” “thank you” and “best wishes.” Students participated in a variety of NASA’s higher education programs. Although education programs were diverse, students seemed similarly excited and inspired by the summer’s activities and events. After a ten-week tenure, NASA Ames acknowledged them as our next generation of explorers, innovators and entrepreneurs.

“I never did any research before. At Ames, I learned a new computer program, which I used to model engine data that is scalable for a new aircraft design,” said Adam Cortese, a graduate student at Georgia Technology University, Atlanta. “I really learned a lot this summer. The experience showed me how the aircraft industry works.” Cortese entered NASA’s first rotorcraft design competition at school and, consequently, was accepted into NASA’s Education Associates Program (EAP).

EAP is a unique workforce development education program. Its students are given hands-on experience with NASA scientists, engineers and program managers on a range of NASA projects and missions, and they also receive academic credit for the experience.

Another EAP student shared his appreciation of the NASA experience.

“At school, I was working on a NASA-funded project, called N+2. It’s a futuristic commercial airline that mounts the engines on top of the wing to make it quieter, and the wings are more blended with the body. My work on N+2 is what brought me to Ames,” said Bryan Castanza, a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. “In the future, I’d like to work at NASA Ames to flight test engines, or maybe start my own company some day.”

Serving underserved and underrepresented STEM students is the focus of many NASA higher education programs. One such program is Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology Project (MUST). Funded by NASA, it is a joint partnership between the Hispanic College Fund, the United Negro College Fund Special Programs and the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers.

These students also were present and given the opportunity to do rewarding work at Ames. “At Ames, I worked like a researcher. In school, I followed directions. I was taught how to do things. Here, I was allowed to develop my own method of creating a compound. I was given a goal to make cadmium sulfide. I did the literature search, and selected the chemical to make it. I was given the freedom to be creative here,” said Olivia Lenz, an undergraduate chemistry student from Seattle Pacific University, Wash. who is a MUST program participant.

While learning experiences were designed to benefit students and teachers in the higher education programs, mentors also claimed satisfaction with the summer’s events. When asked to comment on mentoring these participants, they seemed very pleased with the amount and quality of the work performed over the summer. Experiences were diverse but similarly positive.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to my students,” said Pat Cowing, a psychology physiologist at Ames. “They worked hard and gave me a lot of support. I literally could not have done this job without their help this summer.”

As the ceremony drew to a close, STEM participants and mentors were asked to share their memorable experiences at NASA, or what important lessons they had learned in the last ten weeks. Responses were similarly hopeful and sincere.

“I really wanted to do well this summer. It was my one shot, and I wanted to take it,” said one student of his tenure at NASA. “I met great people here, and had some really exciting moments. I will definitely share my NASA experience with the world.”

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Massive Attack

This image shows the eruption of a galactic “super-volcano” in the massive galaxy M87, as witnessed by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NSF's Very Large Array (VLA). At a distance of about 50 million light years, M87 is relatively close to Earth and lies at the center of the Virgo cluster, which contains thousands of galaxies.

The cluster surrounding M87 is filled with hot gas glowing in X-ray light (and shown in blue) that is detected by Chandra. As this gas cools, it can fall toward the galaxy's center where it should continue to cool even faster and form new stars.

However, radio observations with the VLA (red) suggest that in M87 jets of very energetic particles produced by the black hole interrupt this process. These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy's atmosphere because of their supersonic speed. The interaction of this cosmic “eruption” with the galaxy's environment is very similar to that of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland that occurred in 2010. With Eyjafjallajokull, pockets of hot gas blasted through the surface of the lava, generating shock waves that can be seen passing through the grey smoke of the volcano. This hot gas then rises up in the atmosphere, dragging the dark ash with it. This process can be seen in a movie of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano where the shock waves propagating in the smoke are followed by the rise of dark ash clouds into the atmosphere.

In the analogy with Eyjafjallajokull, the energetic particles produced in the vicinity of the black hole rise through the X-ray emitting atmosphere of the cluster, lifting up the coolest gas near the center of M87 in their wake. This is similar to the hot volcanic gases drag up the clouds of dark ash. And just like the volcano here on Earth, shockwaves can be seen when the black hole pumps energetic particles into the cluster gas.

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NASA Asks Public for Final Shuttle Missions' Wakeup Songs

If you like music, the space program and are a little nostalgic, NASA has the perfect opportunity for you. For the first time, the public can help choose songs to wake up the astronauts during the last two scheduled space shuttle missions.

Traditionally, the songs played to wake up the astronauts are selected by friends and family of the crews. For the last two scheduled missions, NASA is inviting the public to visit the "Wakeup Song Contest" website to select songs from a list of the top 40 previous wakeup calls or to submit original tunes for consideration. To vote or submit a song, visit:


The two songs with the most votes from the top 40 list will be played as crew wakeup calls on the final scheduled flight of space shuttle Discovery. Discovery's STS-133 mission is targeted to launch on Nov. 1.

"We're looking forward to hearing which songs the public wants played for us," STS-133 Commander Steve Lindsey said. "It's going to be a difficult choice, because there have been so many great songs played over the years."

Original songs must have a space theme and be submitted to NASA by 4 p.m. CST on Jan. 10, 2011. The songs will be reviewed by agency officials and the top finalists put to a public vote. The top two songs will be used to wake space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 crew.
Endeavour's mission is the last scheduled space shuttle flight. It is targeted to launch on Feb. 26, 2011.

"Space shuttle crews really enjoy the morning wake-up music," STS-134 Commander Mark Kelly said. "While we don't have the best quality speaker in the space shuttle, it will be interesting to hear what the public comes up with. We are looking forward to it."

The song contest campaign follows NASA's ongoing "Face in Space" project. It invites the public to send electronic images of their faces into orbit aboard one of the final remaining space shuttle missions. To submit your image, visit:


For more information about the Space Shuttle Program and the STS-133 and STS-134 missions to the International Space Station, visit:


For more information about the space station, visit:


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History-Making Mars Mission Launched 35 Years Ago

This is the first photograph ever taken on the surface of the planet Mars.
This is the first photograph ever taken on the surface of the planet Mars. It was obtained by Viking 1 just minutes after the spacecraft landed successfully early today.
› Full image and caption
Thrust from a Titan 3/Centaur rocket launched NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft on a 505-million-mile journey to Mars on Aug. 20, 1975. Viking 2 followed three weeks later.

Each mission included both an orbiter and a lander, and all four components accomplished successes. On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 lander returned the first photograph taken on the surface of Mars. That lander in a region called Chryse Planitia operated until Nov. 13, 1982. The Viking 2 lander operated in the Utopia Planitia region from Sept. 3, 1976 to April 11, 1980. The orbiters sent home images of the entire planet at resolutions of 300 meters or less per pixel.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cosmic Lens Used to Probe Dark Energy for First Time

This is the Hubble Space Telescope image of the inner region of Abell 1689.
This is the Hubble Space Telescope image of the inner region of Abell 1689, an immense cluster of galaxies located 2.2 billion light-years away. › Full image and caption
Astronomers have devised a new method for measuring perhaps the greatest puzzle of our universe -- dark energy. This mysterious force, discovered in 1998, is pushing our universe apart at ever-increasing speeds.

For the first time, astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope were able to take advantage of a giant magnifying lens in space -- a massive cluster of galaxies -- to narrow in on the nature of dark energy. Their calculations, when combined with data from other methods, significantly increase the accuracy of dark energy measurements. This may eventually lead to an explanation of what the elusive phenomenon really is.

"We have to tackle the dark energy problem from all sides," said Eric Jullo, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "It's important to have several methods, and now we've got a new, very powerful one." Jullo is lead author of a paper on the findings appearing in the Aug. 20 issue of the journal Science.

Scientists aren't clear about what dark energy is, but they do know that it makes up a large chunk of our universe -- about 72 percent. Another chunk, about 24 percent, is thought to be dark matter, also mysterious in nature but easier to study than dark energy because of its gravitational influence on matter that we can see. The rest of the universe, a mere four percent, is the stuff that makes up people, planets, stars and everything made up of atoms.

In their new study, the science team used images from Hubble to examine a massive cluster of galaxies, named Abell 1689, which acts as a magnifying, or gravitational, lens. The gravity of the cluster causes galaxies behind it to be imaged multiple times into distorted shapes, sort of like a fun house mirror reflection that warps your face.

Using these distorted images, the scientists were able to figure out how light from the more distant, background galaxies had been bent by the cluster -- a characteristic that depends on the nature of dark energy. Their method also depends on precise ground-based measurements of the distance and speed at which the background galaxies are traveling away from us. The team used these data to quantify the strength of the dark energy that is causing our universe to accelerate.

"What I like about our new method is that it's very visual," said Jullo. "You can literally see gravitation and dark energy bend the images of the background galaxies into arcs."

According to the scientists, their method required multiple, meticulous steps. They spent the last several years developing specialized mathematical models and precise maps of the matter -- both dark and "normal" -- constituting the Abell 1689 cluster.

"We can now apply our technique to other gravitational lenses," said co-author Priya Natarajan, a cosmologist at Yale University, New Haven, Conn. "We're exploiting a beautiful phenomenon in nature to learn more about the role that dark energy plays in our universe."

Other authors of the paper include Jean-Paul Kneib and Carlo Schimd of the Université de Provence, France; Anson D'Aloisio of Yale University; Marceau Limousin of Université de Provence and University of Copenhagen, Denmark; and Johan Richard of Durham University, United Kingdom.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute, operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. in Washington, conducts Hubble science operations. More information is online at http://www.nasa.gov/hubble .

The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA. More information is at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov .

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