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.

Image Credit: http://science.nasa.gov/

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

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