Tag Archives: NASA

Every Flight is a Mission to Planet Earth

30 years  Space Shuttle

“The Space Shuttle launched major satellites that helped revolutionize our study of the Earth. Its on-board experiments provided discoveries and new climatologies never before available…It provided for multiple flight opportunities for highly calibrated instruments to help verify results from satellites…Shuttle flights provided for on-orbit demonstration of techniques that helped pave the way for subsequent instruments and satellites…The shuttle enabled international cooperation.”

Jack Kaye, associate director for NASA’s Earth Science Division,  in a recent book entitled Wings In Orbit:


Image Credit: NASA KSC-81PC-0136


Columbia sits on Launch Pad 39A before its maiden flight on STS-1.  Launch was on April 12, 1981.


Image Credit: NASA S81-30498 (12 April 1981)

The April 12, 1981 launch, at Pad 39A, just seconds past 7 a.m., carries astronaut John Young and Robert Crippen into an Earth-orbital mission scheduled to last for 54 hours, ending with unpowered landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. STS-1, the first in a series of shuttle vehicles planned for the Space Transportation System, utilizes reusable launch and return components.

Sources and further reading: NASA STS-1 Shuttle Mission , NASA Archive , Earth Observatory

Mapping Global Warming

Whether the cause is human activity or natural variability, one thing is certain. The world is getting warmer.

According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8°Celsius (1.4°Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.

acquired January 1, 2000 - December 31, 2009. Image Credit: @earthobservatory.nasa

The map above show temperature anomalies for 2000-2009. The map do not depict absolute temperature, but how much warmer or colder a region is compared to the norm for that same region from 1951-1980.

acquired January 1, 1970 - December 31, 1979. Image Credit: @earthobservatory.nasa

The above map show temperature anomalies for 1970-1979.

That period was chosen largely because the U.S. National Weather Service uses a three-decade period to define “normal” or average temperature. The GISS temperature analysis effort began around 1980, so the most recent 30 years were 1951-1980. It is also a period when many of today’s adults grew up, so it is a common reference that many people can remember.

To conduct its analysis, GISS uses publicly available data from 6,300 meteorological stations around the world; ship-based and satellite observations of sea surface temperature; and Antarctic research station measurements. These three data sets are loaded into a computer analysis program—available for public download from the GISS web site—that calculates trends in temperature anomalies relative to the average temperature for the same month during 1951-1980.

The objective, according to GISS scientists, is to provide an estimate of temperature change that can be compared with predictions of global climate change in response to atmospheric carbon dioxide, aerosols, and changes in solar activity.

Read more in World of Change: Global Temperatures.

Source: NASA Earthobservatory

NASA’s travel advisory for spacecraft: Watch out for Comet Hartley 2, it is experiencing a significant winter snowstorm.

Comet Snowstorm Engulfs Hartley 2. Image Credit: NASA

Comet Snowstorm Engulfs Hartley 2. Credit: Science@NASA

Deep Impact photographed the unexpected tempest when it flew past the nucleus comet Hartley 2, on November 4th at a distance of only 700 km (435 miles). This contrast-enhanced image reveals a cloud of icy particles surrounding the comet’s active nucleus.

The ‘snowstorm’ occupies a roughly-spherical volume centered on Hartley 2′s spinning nucleus. The dumbbell-shaped nucleus, measuring only 2 km from end to end, is tiny compared to the surrounding swarm. “The ice cloud is a few tens of kilometers wide–and possibly much larger than that,” says University of Maryland professor Mike A’Hearn, principal investigator of Deep Impact’s EPOXI mission. “We still don’t know for sure how big it is”.

The process of comet-snow begins with dry ice in the comet’s crust. Dry ice is solid CO2, one of Hartley 2′s more abundant substances. When heat from the sun reaches a pocket of dry ice—poof!—it instantly transforms from solid to vapor, forming a jet wherever local topography happens to collimate the outrushing gas. Apparently, these CO2 jets are carrying chunks of snowy water ice along for the ride.

More: Science@NASA | Credit: Dr. Tony Phillips

As the Sun Awakens, NASA Keeps a Wary Eye on Space Weather

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms.”    says Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

In a report which was published two years ago by the National Academy of Sciences, entitled “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts,” it was noted what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a “super solar flare” followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm.

The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, also known as the Solar Superstorm, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who observed the largest flare which caused a massive coronal mass ejection (CME), to travel directly toward Earth, a journey of 18 hours.

The report warns that “a contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions.”  Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions which would affect smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, banking and financial services, telecommunications and emergency radio communications.

Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, about twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

Further information and reading: http://science.nasa.gov, Solar storm of 1859

Click on the image to play a 39 MB movie about space weather and NASA's heliophysics fleet. Image Credit: http://science.nasa.gov

Stunning New Images of the Sun Released by NASA

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is beaming back stunning new images of the sun, revealing our own star as never seen before. Even veteran solar physicists say they are amazed by the data. Movies and images may be found in today’s story from Science@NASA.

An erupting prominence observed by SDO on March 30, 2010.

Launched on February 11th from Cape Canaveral, the observatory has spent the past two months moving into a geosynchronous orbit and activating its instruments. As soon as SDO’s telescope doors opened, the spacecraft began beaming back scenes so beautiful and puzzlingly complex that even seasoned observers were stunned.

A full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO on March 30, 2010.

The Yukon River: Imprinting patterns on the frozen Alaskan landscape

Yukon means “great river” in Gwich’in, the language of the Native people who live in the northwestern part of North America mostly above the Arctic Circle.

The Yukon River is the longest river (3185 km), in Yukon & Alaska and the third longest river in North America. It flows from the Coastal Range mountains of northern British Columbia, through the Yukon Territory and Alaska to the Bering Sea. During the Klondike Gold Rush the Yukon River was one of the principal means of transportation. Paddle-wheel riverboats continued to ply the river until the 1950s, when the Klondike Highway was completed.

NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

The  Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this true-color image on January 11, 2010.

Like a winter-bare tree viewed against a cloudy sky, a network of roots, or the veins, arteries, and capillaries that enclose an organ, the Yukon River branches across the snowy Yukon Delta to the Bering Sea. The main branches of the river are bright white, the surface frozen and probably covered in snow. The smaller distributaries (the branches that break away from the main branch of the river) are darker, highlighted against the field of white that covers the rest of the delta region.

Source and futher reading: NASA, Yukon Info, Wikipedia

Hottest November on record.

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, November 2009 was the warmest November on record, beating the 2001 record by 0.02°C.  James Hansen predicts that there is a high likelihood, greater than 50 percent, depends in part upon the continuation of the present moderate El Nino for at least several months, “that 2010 will be the warmest year in the period of instrumental data.”

January-Nobember (11 months) mean is used for 2009 data. Image Credit: @NASA”]

This is an update of Fig. 1A in Hansen et al. (2006)

NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center recorded its fourth warmest November since record keeping began in 1880. The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature on November 2009 was 0.60°C (1.08°F) above the 20th century average of 12.9°C (55.2°F). NOAA recorded November 2009 the warmest November on record for the Southern Hemisphere as a whole. The land and ocean surface combined was 0.60°C (1.08°F) above the 20th century average.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), November 2009 was abnormally warm across southeastern Australia. According to the Met Office, the United Kingdom experienced its warmest November since 2003 and the seventh warmest since records began in 1914.

The period September-November 2009 was the fourth warmest on record for the season, 0.59°C (1.06°F) above the 20th century average of 14.0°C (57.1°F).

Across the equatorial Pacific Ocean, El Niño persisted during November 2009. Consequently, sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific Ocean were between 1.0-2.0°C (1.8-3.6°F) above average during the month. El Niño is expected to strengthen and last through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2009-2010, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC).

Let’s go WISE…

WISE, stands for Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer, is a NASA spacecraft that will circle Earth over the poles, carrying an infrared telescope which will scan the entire sky one-and-a-half times in nine months.

Contrary to other missions which focus on selected areas of the sky, WISE is designed to provide an “all-sky” infrared map uncovering hidden cosmic objects, including the most luminous galaxies. Additionally, WISE will measure more than 100,000 asteroids in the solar system, and identify stars in the solar neighbourhood that have not yet been seen.

Image above: Installation of the Delta II payload fairing around NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, is under way in the White Room at Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: NASA

The WISE telescope sees infrared light, which is light beyond the red part of the rainbow invisible to our eyes. Because the atmosphere blocks the infrared, ground based surveys are not able to gather data in these wavelengths. With its sensitive four channel, super cooler, infrared telescope, WISE  has the ability to survey the entire sky in four wavelengths, and provide to astronomers information for decades to come.

The satellite will spend six months mapping the sky in the infrared, after which it will make a second, three-month pass to further refine the mapping. In order to observe the infrared, the telescope needs to be colder that the objects in space it will observe so that the detectors can see their dim infrared emissions.

To stay cool the WISE instrument will be contained in a cryostat – something like a giant thermos – with solid hydrogen that boils off as it cools the instrument- it will keep the telescope a chilly 17 degrees Kelvin (minus 429 degrees Fahrenheit). Cryogen lasts for 10 months and that is the reason that the mission is going to last about 10 months. Solar panels that will always point toward the Sun, will provide WISE with the electricity it needs to operate.

WISE, built by Ball Aerospace, is all ready to go. It is now rescheduled to launch on Monday, December 14, with a launch window of 6:09-6:23 a.m. PST (9:09:33 – 9:23:51 a.m. EST). The first launch attempt scheduled for Dec. 11 was delayed due to an anomaly in the motion of a booster steering engine. NASA will have live coverage of the launch available on NASA TV.

Sources and more information: NASA

SOFIA: The world’s biggest, most advanced airborne observatory for the infrared spectrum.

Short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA will change the way we view the universe. The 17-ton and 9-foot wide telescope is situated into a Boeing 747 which is going to glide through the stratosphere at 45,000 feet, when the operations begin next year.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy's 747SP sits on an aircraft ramp during nighttime testing and operation of the SOFIA's German-built telescope assembly. The aircraft is based at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. 24 September, 2009 NASA Photo, Credit: Tom Tschida

SOFIA will be the world’s greatest airborne observatory for the infrared (IR) spectrum. The infrared spectrum is the spectrum that is beyond the visible spectrum that means outside the range we can see with our eyes. It is a different way for astronomers to look at the cosmos, watching the light and the heat radiation coming out of the stars rather that the stars themselves.

The galaxy teems with planetary systems, but astronomers don’t know exactly how they form because ordinary telescopes can’t see through the giant, dense clouds of gas and dust that spawn planets. Using infrared wavelengths, SOFIA can penetrate these hazy regions of space and reveal images of the molecular clouds that come together to construct stars – the birthing process of making worlds. The telescope has actually the potential to help scientists understand how planets form.

As a mobile observatory, SOFIA can fly anywhere, anytime. It can move into position to capture especially interesting astronomical events such as stellar occultations – when the light from a star is blocked by an intervening body, i.e. a planet or an asteroid. Ground-based telescopes usually miss these events because they are fastened to the “wrong” geographic locations on Earth’s surface.

The 3 metre (10 feet) mirror that collects the light from the stars is one of the most impressive parts of the German-built telescope. It is largely composed of carbon fibre reinforced plastic or CFRP, a material commonly found in tennis racquets and modern sailboat hulls. These types of composite materials provide the light weight and stiffness required for precision airborne optical components. The mirror can move from 20 to 60 degrees, so it can rotate up and down and move from one side to the other.

This close up of SOFIA offers a view of both the primary and secondary mirrors, the latter a small black circle in the center supported by three braces. NASA Photo, Credit: Tom Tschida

SOFIA will be also able to locate the ‘planetary snowline,’ the region where, as astronomers think, gas giants are born. As the star contracts at constant temperature, the snowline which separates regions of rocky planet formation from regions of icy planet formation moves inward. This process enables rapid formation of icy protoplanets that collide and merge into super-Earths, planets that each has more mass than the Earth.

One of the telescope’s key strengths is its ability to complement other infrared observatories. With a 20-year lifetime, it can do follow-up studies on objects shorter-lived infrared scopes don’t have time to hone in on. If, for example, orbiting observatories like WISE spots something deserving of more attention, SOFIA can move in for a long, slow look, while WISE continues gazing at the rest of the sky. SOFIA can also do follow-up science to reap the full benefits of discoveries from Herschel‘s deep spatial surveys when it will run out of its 3-year supply of coolant, and complement James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) investigations, when it will launch in 2014.

To illustrate how infrared sensors can see things the human eye cannot, project scientist Pamela Marcum offers these white light vs. IR images of a warm-blooded dog and a cold-blooded lizard. Image Credit: Science@NASA

Sources and further reading,

Dryden Flight Research Center, NASA,   Science@NASA,   Discovery channel

Dryden Flight Research Center News Release, 2008 July 2,

Grant M. Kennedy, Scott J. Kenyon, Benjamin C. Bromley, “Planet Formation Around Low-Mass Stars: The Moving Snow Line And Super-Earths”, The Astrophysical Journal, 650: L139–L142, 2006 October.

A self-portrait: Walking – and working- in Space!

Astronaut Robert Satcher uses a digital still camera to expose take a self-portrait during the STS-129 mission‘s first spacewalk. During the six-hour, 37-minute spacewalk, Satcher and astronaut Mike Foreman installed a spare S-band antenna structural assembly to the Z1 segment of the station’s truss, or backbone.

Robert Satcher's Self-Portrait. Image Credit: NASA

Satcher and Foreman also installed a set of cables for a future space-to-ground antenna on the Destiny laboratory and replaced a handrail on the Unity node with a new bracket used to route an ammonia cable that will be needed for the Tranquility node when it is delivered next year.

Destiny is the International Space Station’s primary research laboratory. It supports a wide range of experiments and studies that can contribute to health, safety and quality of life for people all over the world. The results of these experiments will allow scientists to better understand our world and ourselves and prepare us for future missions, to the Moon and Mars.

The Unity Node is a connecting passageway to living and work areas of the International Space Station. It is fabricated of aluminium and it is 5.5 metres (18 feet) long and 4.6 metres (15 feet) in diameter.  It has six hatches that serve as docking ports for other modules such as the U.S. Laboratory Module.

The Tranquillity Node, has being flown from Turin, Italy, on May 2009, and is slated to be installed on the International Space Station in early 2010. Tranquility will house a treadmill that NASA named the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill – or COLBERT.

The two spacewalkers also repositioned a cable connector on Unity, checked S0 truss cable connections and lubricated latching snares on the Kibo robotic arm and the station’s mobile base system.