Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

by Alfredo Carpineti

On Sunday, January 24, NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity reached 12 Earth years on the surface of Mars, having landed on the same day in 2004.

It was budgeted to last 90 days, with a lifespan of a few months, before it was thought its solar panel would be covered in dust and stop working. But thanks to a number of factors, including wind on Mars, the tenacious rover has been able to endure the harsh Martian environment for much, much longer.

The rover has begun to show its age, becoming more difficult to maneuver and having memory storage problems. Also, two of its scientific instruments have now stopped functioning completely. Problems aside, though, Opportunity continues to produce an abundance of science.

Opportunity is currently exploring a region rich in clay minerals that would have formed in wet conditions. The area is called Marathon Valley, since it’s 42 kilometers (26 miles) – the Olympic marathon distance – from Opportunity’s landing site in Eagle Crater.

“With healthy power levels, we are looking forward to completing the work in Marathon Valley this year and continuing onward with Opportunity,” Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas said in a statement.

The rover is currently removing surface crust from rocks in the valley, and the texture and composition are being examined with the use of its robotic arm.

The Martian winter started in January, so the solar energy that the rover is currently receiving is significantly lower than usual. The team positioned the rover in a more favorable sun-facing orientation, which has increased the amount of power the solar panels are generating, allowing for power-consuming operations like drilling and rock-grinding.

“Opportunity has stayed very active this winter, in part because the solar arrays have been much cleaner than in the past few winters,” said Callas.

The rover is fully funded until the end of 2016, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is currently working on the next extension proposal. In the last review, Opportunity received the highest rating of any ongoing Mars mission.

http://www.iflscience.com/opportunity-s-twelve-years-red-planet

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Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.”

When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

Three weeks later, Ebeling and another engineer separately and anonymously detailed to NPR the first account of that contentious pre-launch meeting. Both were despondent and in tears as they described hours of data review and arguments. The data showed that the rubber seals on the shuttle’s booster rockets wouldn’t seal properly in cold temperatures and this would be the coldest launch ever.

Ebeling, now 89, decided to let NPR identify him this time, on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion.

“I was one of the few that was really close to the situation,” Ebeling recalls. “Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome.”

We spoke in the same house, kitchen and living room that we spoke in 30 years ago, when Ebeling didn’t want his name used or his voice recorded. He was afraid he would lose his job.

“I think the truth has to come out,” he says about the decision to speak privately then.

“NASA ruled the launch,” he explains. “They had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.”

A presidential commission found flaws in the space agency’s decision-making process. But it’s still not clear why NASA was so anxious to launch without delay.

The space shuttle program had an ambitious launch schedule that year and NASA wanted to show it could launch regularly and reliably. President Ronald Reagan was also set to deliver the State of the Union address that evening and reportedly planned to tout the Challenger launch.

Whatever the reason, Ebeling says it didn’t justify the risk.

“There was more than enough [NASA officials and Thiokol managers] there to say, ‘Hey, let’s give it another day or two,’ ” Ebeling recalls. “But no one did.”

Ebeling retired soon after Challenger. He suffered deep depression and has never been able to lift the burden of guilt. In 1986, as he watched that haunting image again on a television screen, he said, “I could have done more. I should have done more.”

He says the same thing today, sitting in a big easy chair in the same living room, his eyes watery and his face grave. The data he and his fellow engineers presented, and their persistent and sometimes angry arguments, weren’t enough to sway Thiokol managers and NASA officials. Ebeling concludes he was inadequate. He didn’t argue the data well enough.

A religious man, this is something he has prayed about for the past 30 years.

“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling says softly. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.’ ”

I reminded him of something his late colleague and friend Roger Boisjoly once told me. Boisjoly was the other Thiokol engineer who spoke anonymously with NPR 30 years ago. He came to believe that he and Ebeling and their colleagues did all they could.

“We were talking to the right people,” Boisjoly told me. “We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch.”

“Maybe,” Ebeling says with a weak wave as I leave. “Maybe Roger’s right.”

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/28/464744781/30-years-after-disaster-challenger-engineer-still-blames-himself

During a panel discussion on Tuesday, April 7 NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan had some exciting news:

“I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years,” Stofan said.

However, Stofan and the team of panelists were less sure about exactly where humankind will discover the first signs of alien life.

“I think we’re one generation away in our solar system, whether it’s on an icy moon or on Mars, and one generation [away] on a planet around a nearby star,” said another panelist member and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld.

Last month, Business Insider spoke with NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay about where he thought humankind would first find signs of alien life in our solar system. Surprisingly, the most likely place is not nearby or on any surface.

We need to start looking underground, according to McKay.

“Things are better below the surface,” says McKay, who is a senior scientist with NASA’s Planetary Systems Branch. She investigates where else life could exist in our solar system.

Unfortunately, designing and dispatching a lander that can dig deep beneath a planet’s surface is incredibly difficult and expensive. The only places scientists have drilled, collected, and examined samples beneath the surface is on the moon and Mars.

One place where we wouldn’t need to dig and drill is on Saturn’s tiny moon, Enceladus. It harbors a massive ocean underneath a thick layer of ice on its surface. Two different teams of scientists found compelling evidence there that indicates active volcanoes line the tiny moon’s seafloor.

McKay is excited about the prospect of Enceladus for another reason though. “Enceladus is most likely to give us an answer soonest,” he said. “The reason is Enceladus has a plume coming into space.”

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft flew by Enceladus and spotted plumes of water vapor and other materials gushing out of its surface. If there’s life in the solar system, the first place we’re likely to find it is inside of those plumes, McKay said.

Sadly, Cassini is not equipped with the right instruments to detect signs of life in these plumes. And right now, NASA has no plans to dispatch another probe to Saturn or its moons anytime soon. That’s not stopping McKay and others from discussing what they’d look for there if they had the chance.

“I’d suggest that the best molecules to measure are amino acids, the building blocks of proteins,” McKay said during a live webcast hosted by The Kavli Foundation in January. “Life on Earth has made specific choices in amino acids. It uses a set of just 20 amino acids to build proteins, and those amino acids are all left-handed.”

Left-handed amino acids are chemically identical (meaning they have all the same atoms in the same amounts) to right-handed animo acids. The difference is that they are structured in a way so they’re mirror images of one another, just like how your right and left hands are the same shape but don’t line up when you put one on top of the other.

One of the outstanding mysteries in astrobiology is why RNA and DNA is only constructed from proteins built by left-handed amino acids. Regardless of why or how, this fact will come in handy during potential future studies of Enceladus.

“If Chris were to find amino acids in the plumes of Enceladus, the challenge becomes determining whether they are the products of a biological process,” Steven Benner, president of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, said during the webcast. “If he were to find that they’re all the same hand, that would be convincing, because that’s what makes the protein evolvable.”

For McKay, the excitement of the hunt is not just about discovering whether aliens exist. It’s discovering unique alien life that is completely different from life on Earth, which might be quite a bit harder since the building blocks of life are so complex.

“In my mind that’s the real question. Not, ‘Is there life on these other worlds?’ but ‘iI there a second genesis of life on these other worlds?'” McKay told Business Insider. “That’s a subtlety that’s not obvious until you think about it.”

A second-genesis of alien life could, in theory, have a completely different biomolecular structure from life on Earth. Right now, scientists debate whether or not life on Earth originated on another celestial object, like Mars, that then hitched a ride to Earth inside of a meteorite.

That is not a stretch to imagine, researchers say, since Mars was covered with liquid water around the same time that life is believed to have begun on Earth. If we do find evidence of life on Mars and it has the same DNA as us, then it’s probably our cousins, McKay told Business Insider.

If we want to find truly unique alien life, then we’ll have to travel farther than next door.

“As we go from Mars to Europa to Enceladus to Titan, as the worlds get farther away from Earth the conditions get less and less like Earth,” McKay said. “We’re more likely to find life that’s not related to us the farther out we go.”

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/where-were-most-likely-to-find-alien-life-in-the-space-2015-4#ixzz3Wlha9IoQ

Thanks to Da Brayn

How will cows survive on the Moon?

One of the most vexing questions asked about space, scientists have spent decades debating this key issue.

Finally, after extensive computer modeling and over a dozen midnight milkings, engineers have designed, built, and now tested the new Lunar Grazing Module (LGM), a multi-purpose celestial bovine containment system.

Happy April Fool’s Day from APOD!

To the best of our knowledge, there are no current plans to launch cows into space. For one reason, cows tend to be large animals that don’t launch easily or cheaply. As friendly as cows may be, head-to-head comparisons show that robotic rovers are usually more effective as scientific explorers. The featured image is of a thought-provoking work of art named “Mooooonwalk” which really is on display at a popular science museum.

http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150401.html

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

IT SOUNDS ALMOST like a late ’90s sci-fi flick: NASA sends a spacecraft to an asteroid, plucks a boulder off its surface with a robotic claw, and brings it back in orbit around the moon. Then, brave astronaut heroes go and study the space rock up close—and bring samples back to Earth.

Except it’s not a movie: That’s the real-life idea for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which NASA announced today. Other than simply being an awesome space version of the claw arcade game (you know you really wanted that stuffed Pikachu), the mission will let NASA test technology and practice techniques needed for going to Mars.

The mission, which will cost up to $1.25 billion, is slated to launch in December 2020. It will take about two years to reach the asteroid (the most likely candidate is a quarter-mile-wide rock called 2008 EV5). The spacecraft will spend up to 400 days there, looking for a good boulder. After picking one—maybe around 13 feet in diameter—it will bring the rock over to the moon. In 2025, astronauts will fly NASA’s still-to-be-built Orion to dock with the asteroid-carrying spacecraft and study the rock up close.

Although the mission would certainly give scientists an up-close opportunity to look at an asteroid, its main purpose is as a testing ground for a Mars mission. The spacecraft will test a solar electronic propulsion system, which uses the power from solar panels to pump out charged particles to provide thrust. It’s slower than conventional rockets, but a lot more efficient. You can’t lug a lot of rocket fuel to Mars.

Overall, the mission gives NASA a chance at practicing precise navigation and maneuvering techniques that they’ll need to master for a Mars mission. Such a trip will also require a lot more cargo, so grabbing and maneuvering a big space rock is good practice. Entering lunar orbit and docking with another spacecraft would also be helpful, as the orbit might be a place for a deep-space habitat, a rendezvous point for astronauts to pick up cargo or stop on their way to Mars.

And—you knew this part was coming, Armageddon fans—the mission might teach NASA something about preventing an asteroid from striking Earth. After grabbing the boulder, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid. With the added heft from the rock, the spacecraft’s extra gravity would nudge the asteroid, creating a slight change in trajectory that NASA could measure from Earth. “We’re not talking about a large deflection here,” says Robert Lightfoot, an associate administrator at NASA. But the idea is that a similar technique could push a threatening asteroid off a collision course with Earth.

NASA chose this mission concept over one that would’ve bagged an entire asteroid. In that plan, the spacecraft would’ve captured the space rock by enclosing it in a giant, flexible container. The claw concept won out because its rendezvous and soft-landing on the asteroid will allow NASA to test and practice more capabilities in preparation for a Mars mission, Lightfoot says. The claw would’ve also given more chances at grabbing a space rock, whereas it was all or nothing with the bag idea. “It’s a one-shot deal,” he says. “It is what it is when we get there.” But the claw concept offers some choices. “I’ve got three to five opportunities to pull one of the boulders off,” he says. Not bad odds. Better than winning that Pikachu.

http://www.wired.com/2015/03/nasas-plan-give-moon-moon/


The ocean there is thought to extend to 10 times the depth of Earth’s oceans.

A salty ocean is lurking beneath the surface of Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have found.

The ocean on Ganymede—which is buried under a thick crust of ice—could actually harbor more water than all of Earth’s surface water combined, according to NASA officials. Scientists think the ocean is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick, 10 times the depth of Earth’s oceans, NASA added. The new Hubble Space Telescope finding could also help scientists learn more about the plethora of potentially watery worlds that exist in the solar system and beyond.

“The solar system is now looking like a pretty soggy place,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science. Scientists are particularly interested in learning more about watery worlds because life as we know it depends on water to thrive.

Scientists have also found that Ganymede’s surface shows signs of flooding. Young parts of Ganymede seen in a video map may have been formed by water bubbling up from the interior of the moon through faults or cryo-volcanos at some point in the moon’s history, Green said.

Scientists have long suspected that there was an ocean of liquid water on Ganymede—the largest moon in the solar system, at about 3,273 miles (5,268 kilometers) across—has an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface. The Galileo probe measured Ganymede’s magnetic field in 2002, providing some data supporting the theory that the moon has an ocean. The newly announced evidence from the Hubble telescope is the most convincing data supporting the subsurface ocean theory yet, according to NASA.

Scientists used Hubble to monitor Ganymede’s auroras, ribbons of light at the poles created by the moon’s magnetic field. The moon’s auroras are also affected by Jupiter’s magnetic field because of the moon’s proximity to the huge planet.

When Jupiter’s magnetic field changes, so does Ganymede’s. Researchers were able to watch the two auroras “rock” back and forth with Hubble. Ganymede’s aurora didn’t rock as much as expected, so by monitoring that motion, the researchers concluded that a subsurface ocean was likely responsible for dampening the change in Ganymede’s aurora created by Jupiter.

“I was always brainstorming how we could use a telescope in other ways,” Joachim Saur, geophysicist and team leader of the new finding, said in a statement. “Is there a way you could use a telescope to look inside a planetary body? Then I thought, the aurorae! Because aurorae are controlled by the magnetic field, if you observe the aurorae in an appropriate way, you learn something about the magnetic field. If you know the magnetic field, then you know something about the moon’s interior.”

Hunting for auroras on other worlds could potentially help identify water-rich alien planets in the future, Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said during the teleconference. Scientists might be able to search for rocking auroras on exoplanets that could potentially harbor water using the lessons learned from the Hubble observations of Ganymede.

Astronomers might be able to detect oceans on planets near magnetically active stars using similar methods to those used by Saur and his research team, Hammel added.

“By monitoring auroral activity on exoplanets, we may be able to infer the presence of water on or within an exoplanet,” Hammel said. “Now, it’s not going to be easy—it’s not as easy as Ganymede and Jupiter, and that wasn’t easy. It may require a much larger telescope than Hubble, it may require some future space telescope, but nevertheless, it’s a tool now that we didn’t have prior to this work that Joachim and his team have done.”

Jupiter’s moons are popular targets for future space missions. The European Space Agency is planning to send a probe called JUICE—short for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer—to Jupiter and its moons in 2022. JUICE is expected to check out Europa, Callisto and Ganymede during its mission. NASA also has its eye on the Jupiter system. Officials are hoping to send a probe to Europa by the mid-2020s.

NASA will also celebrate the Hubble telescope’s 25th anniversary this year.

“This discovery marks a significant milestone, highlighting what only Hubble can accomplish,” John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission, said in the same statement. “In its 25 years in orbit, Hubble has made many scientific discoveries in our own solar system. A deep ocean under the icy crust of Ganymede opens up further exciting possibilities for life beyond Earth.”

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/jupiter-s-moon-ganymede-has-a-salty-ocean-with-more-water-than-earth/

There is no precedent in contemporary weather records for the kinds of droughts the country’s West will face, if greenhouse gas emissions stay on course, a NASA study said.

No precedent even in the past 1,000 years.

The feared droughts would cover most of the western half of the United States — the Central Plains and the Southwest.

Those regions have suffered severe drought in recent years. But it doesn’t compare in the slightest to the ‘megadroughts’ likely to hit them before the century is over due to global warming.
These will be epochal, worthy of a chapter in Earth’s natural history.

Even if emissions drop moderately, droughts in those regions will get much worse than they are now, NASA said.

The space agency’s study conjures visions of the sun scorching cracked earth that is baked dry of moisture for feet below the surface, across vast landscapes, for decades. Great lake reservoirs could dwindle to ponds, leaving cities to ration water to residents who haven’t fled east.

“Our projections for what we are seeing is that, with climate change, many of these types of droughts will likely last for 20, 30, even 40 years,” said NASA climate scientist Ben Cook.

That’s worse and longer than the historic Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when “black blizzards” — towering, blustery dust walls — buried Southern Plains homes, buggies and barns in dirt dunes.

It lasted about 10 years. Though long, it was within the framework of a contemporary natural drought.

To find something almost as extreme as what looms, one must go back to Medieval times.

Nestled in the shade of Southwestern mountain rock, earthen Ancestral Pueblo housing offers a foreshadowing. The tight, lively villages emptied out in the 13th century’s Great Drought that lasted more than 30 years.

No water. No crops. Starvation drove populations out to the east and south.

If NASA’s worst case scenario plays out, what’s to come could be worse.

Its computations are based on greenhouse gas emissions continuing on their current course. And they produce an 80% chance of at least one drought that could last for decades.

One “even exceeding the duration of the long term intense ‘megadroughts’ that characterized the really arid time period known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly,” Cook said.

That was a period of heightened global temperatures that lasted from about 1100 to 1300 — when those Ancestral Pueblos dispersed. Global average temperatures are already higher now than they were then, the study said.

The NASA team’s study was very data heavy.

It examined past wet and dry periods using tree rings going back 1,000 years and compared them with soil moisture from 17 climate models, NASA said in the study published in Science Advances.

Scientists used super computers to calculate the models forward along the lines of human induced global warming scenarios. The models all showed a much drier planet.

Some Southwestern areas that are currently drought-stricken are filling up with more people, creating more demand for water while reservoirs are already strained.

The predicted megadroughts will wrack water supplies much harder, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center said.

“These droughts really represent events that nobody in the history of the United States has ever had to deal with,” Cook said.

Compared with the last millennium, the dryness will be unprecedented. Adapting to it will be tough.

http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/14/us/nasa-study-western-megadrought/index.html