Author: George McGinn

NASA HQ News: NASA Launches 2015 Space Apps Challenge to Spark Innovation

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March 6, 2015

NASA Launches 2015 Space Apps Challenge to Spark Innovation

2015 International Space Apps ChallengeImage Credit: NASA

NASA and other space agencies around the world are preparing for the fourth annual

International Space Apps Challenge, which will be held April 10-12 at more than 135 locations worldwide, including New York, host of the event’s Global Mainstage.

During this three-day code-a-thon, participants are asked to develop mobile applications, software, hardware, data visualization and platform solutions that could contribute to space exploration missions and help improve life on Earth.

“These challenges provide opportunities for US and global citizen scientists, engineers, and students to interact and contribute to space exploration through code development, data analytics innovation, open source software and hardware,” said Deborah Diaz, agency chief technology officer at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

This year’s challenge will include the first ever Data Bootcamp, with a focus on Women in Data. The bootcamp is open to the public and will give participants the opportunity to improve their skills with computer coding and data. The April 10 bootcamp will stream live online from the Global Mainstage. Astronaut Cady Coleman and NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan will be on hand at the New York event to work with STEM students and also will be available for media interviews.

More than 200 data sources, including data sets, services and tools will be available for this challenge. This event brings together techy-savvy citizens, scientists, entrepreneurs, educators, and students to help solve problems and questions relevant to space exploration and broader subjects that impact life on Earth.

This year, 35 challenges represent NASA mission priorities in four areas: Earth studies, space exploration, human health research and robotics. Many of the challenges are in the Earth theme, supporting NASA’s missions to monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space.

A full list of challenges can be viewed at:

Follow the challenge on Twitter using the hashtag #spaceapps.

For information about NASA’s programs and missions, visit:


Karen Northon
Headquarters, Washington

NASA’s Chandra Observatory Finds Cosmic Showers Halt Galaxy Growth

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PRESS RELEASE(NASA) – Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have found that the growth of galaxies containing supermassive black holes can be slowed down by a phenomenon referred to as cosmic precipitation.

Cosmic precipitation is not a weather event, as we commonly associate the word — rain, sleet, or snow. Rather, it is a mechanism that allows hot gas to produce showers of cool gas clouds that fall into a galaxy. Researchers have analyzed X-rays from more than 200 galaxy clusters, and believe that this gaseous precipitation is key to understanding how giant black holes affect the growth of galaxies.

“We know that precipitation can slow us down on our way to work,” said Mark Voit of Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, lead author of the paper that appears in the latest issue of Nature. “Now we have evidence that it can also slow down star formation in galaxies with huge black holes.”

Astronomers have long pursued the quest to understand how supermassive black holes, which can be millions or even billions of times the mass of the sun, affect their host galaxies.

“We’ve known for quite some time that supermassive black holes influence the growth of their host galaxies, but we haven’t yet figured out all of the details,” said co-author Megan Donahue, also of MSU. “These results get us a step closer.”

The study looked at some of the largest known galaxies lying in the middle of galaxy clusters. These galaxies are embedded in enormous atmospheres of hot gas. This hot gas should cool and many stars should then form. However, observations show that something is hindering the star birth.

The answer appears to lie with the supermassive black holes at the centers of the large galaxies. Under specific conditions, clumps of gas can radiate away their energy and form cool clouds that mix with surrounding hot gas. Some of these clouds form stars, but others rain onto the supermassive black hole, triggering jets of energetic particles that push against the falling gas and reheat it, preventing more stars from forming. This cycle of cooling and heating creates a feedback loop that regulates the growth of the galaxies.

“We can say that a typical weather forecast for the center of a massive galaxy is this: cloudy with a chance of heat from a huge black hole,” said co-author Greg Bryan of Columbia University in New York.

Voit and his colleagues used Chandra data to estimate how long it should take for the gas to cool at different distances from the black holes in the study. Using that information, they were able to accurately predict the “weather” around each of the black holes.

They found that the precipitation feedback loop driven by energy produced by the black hole jets prevents the showers of cold clouds from getting too strong. The Chandra data indicate the regulation of this precipitation has been going on for the last 7 billion years or more.

“Without these black holes and their jets, the central galaxies of galaxy clusters would have many more stars than they do today,” said co-author Michael McDonald of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

While a rain of cool clouds appears to play a key role in regulating the growth of some galaxies, the researchers have found other galaxies where the cosmic precipitation had shut off. The intense heat in these central galaxies, possibly from colliding with another galaxy cluster, likely “dried up” the precipitation around the black hole.

Future studies will test whether this precipitation-black hole feedback process also regulates star formation in smaller galaxies, including our own Milky Way galaxy.

A pre-print of the Nature study is available online. The study builds on work by Voit and Donahue that was published in the Jan. 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters and also is available online.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

An interactive image, podcast, and video about these findings are available at:

For more Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit:

Planet ‘Reared’ by Four Parent Stars

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Planet ‘Reared’ by Four Parent Stars

— Astronomers have discovered the second known case of a planet residing in a quadruple star system.

— The planet was known before, but was thought to have only three stars, not four.

— The findings help researchers understand how multiple star systems can influence the development and fate of planets.

Growing up as a planet with more than one parent star has its challenges. Though the planets in our solar system circle just one star — our sun — other more distant planets, called exoplanets, can be reared in families with two or more stars. Researchers wanting to know more about the complex influences of multiple stars on planets have come up with two new case studies: a planet found to have three parents, and another with four.

The discoveries were made using instruments fitted to telescopes at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego: the Robo-AO adaptive optics system, developed by the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in India and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and the PALM-3000 adaptive optics system, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Caltech.

This is only the second time a planet has been identified in a quadruple star system. While the planet was known before, it was thought to have only three stars, not four. The first four-star planet, KIC 4862625, was discovered in 2013 by citizen scientists using public data from NASA’s Kepler mission.

The latest discovery suggests that planets in quadruple star systems might be less rare than once thought. In fact, recent research has shown that this type of star system, which usually consists of two pairs of twin stars slowly circling each other at great distances, is itself more common than previously believed.

“About four percent of solar-type stars are in quadruple systems, which is up from previous estimates because observational techniques are steadily improving,” said co-author Andrei Tokovinin of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

The newfound four-star planetary system, called 30 Ari, is located 136 light-years away in the constellation Aries. The system’s gaseous planet is enormous, with 10 times the mass of Jupiter, and it orbits its primary star every 335 days. The primary star has a relatively close partner star, which the planet does not orbit. This pair, in turn, is locked in a long-distance orbit with another pair of stars about 1,670 astronomical units away (an astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the sun). Astronomers think it’s highly unlikely that this planet, or any moons that might circle it, could sustain life.

Were it possible to see the skies from this world, the four parent stars would look like one small sun and two very bright stars that would be visible in daylight. One of those stars, if viewed with a large enough telescope, would be revealed to be a binary system, or two stars orbiting each other.

In recent years, dozens of planets with two or three parent stars have been found, including those with “Tatooine” sunsets reminiscent of the Star Wars movies. Finding planets with multiple parents isn’t too much of a surprise, considering that binary stars are more common in our galaxy than single stars.

“Star systems come in myriad forms. There can be single stars, binary stars, triple stars, even quintuple star systems,” said Lewis Roberts of JPL, lead author of the new findings appearing in the journal Astronomical Journal. “It’s amazing the way nature puts these things together.”

Roberts and his colleagues want to understand the effects that multiple parent stars can have on their developing youthful planets. Evidence suggests that stellar companions can influence the fate of planets by changing the planets’ orbits and even triggering some to grow more massive. For example, the “hot Jupiters” — planets around the mass of Jupiter that whip closely around their stars in just days — might be gently nudged closer to their primary parent star by the gravitational hand of a stellar companion.

In the new study, the researchers describe using the automated Robo-AO system on Palomar Observatory to scan the night skies, searching hundreds of stars each night for signs of stellar companions. They found two candidates hosting exoplanets: the four-star system 30 Ari, and a triple-star planetary system called HD 2638. The findings were confirmed using the higher-resolution PALM-3000 instrument, also at Palomar Observatory.

The new planet with a trio of stars is a hot Jupiter that circles its primary star tightly, completing one lap every three days. Scientists already knew this primary star was locked in a gravitational tango with another star, about 0.7 light-years away, or 44,000 astronomical units. That’s relatively far apart for a pair of stellar companions. The latest discovery is of a third star in the system, which orbits the primary star from a distance of 28 astronomical units — close enough to have influenced the hot Jupiter’s development and final orbit.

“This result strengthens the connection between multiple star systems and massive planets,” said Roberts.

In the case of Ari 30, the discovery brought the number of known stars in the system from three to four. The fourth star lies at a distance of 23 astronomical units from the planet. While this stellar companion and its planet are closer to each other than those in the HD 2638 system, the newfound star does not appear to have impacted the orbit of the planet. The exact reason for this is uncertain, so the team is planning further observations to better understand the orbit of the star and its complicated family dynamics.

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA SMAP Observatory Ready for Launch

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PRESS RELEASE (JPL) – The launch of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 29. Liftoff from Space Launch Complex 2 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket is targeted for 6:20:42 a.m. PST (9:20:42 a.m. EST) at the opening of a three-minute launch window. If needed, a backup launch opportunity is available on the Western Range on Jan. 30 with the same launch window.

SMAP is the first U.S. Earth-observing satellite designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture and its freeze/thaw state. High-resolution space-based measurements of soil moisture and whether the soil is frozen or thawed will give scientists a new capability to better predict natural hazards of extreme weather, climate change, floods and droughts, and will help reduce uncertainties in our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles.

The mission will provide the most accurate and highest-resolution maps of soil moisture ever obtained, mapping the globe every two to three days from space for a least three years. The spacecraft’s final circular polar orbit will be 426 miles (685 kilometers) at an inclination of 98.1 degrees. The spacecraft will orbit Earth once every 98.5 minutes and will repeat the same ground track every eight days.

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Begins First Stages of Pluto Encounter

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PRESS RELEASE (NASA/JPL) – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently began its long-awaited, historic encounter with Pluto. The spacecraft is entering the first of several approach phases that culminate July 14 with the first close-up flyby of the dwarf planet, 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) from Earth.

“NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly.”

NASA’s New Horizons is the first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt of icy, rocky mini-worlds on the solar system’s outer frontier. This animation follows the New Horizons spacecraft as it leaves Earth after its January 2006 launch, through a gravity-assist flyby of Jupiter in February 2007, to the encounter with Pluto and its moons in summer 2015. (Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL)

The fastest spacecraft when it was launched, New Horizons lifted off in January 2006. It awoke from its final hibernation period last month after a voyage of more than 3 billion miles, and will soon pass close to Pluto, inside the orbits of its five known moons. In preparation for the close encounter, the mission’s science, engineering and spacecraft operations teams configured the piano-sized probe for distant observations of the Pluto system that start Sunday, Jan. 25 with a long-range photo shoot.

The images captured by New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will give mission scientists a continually improving look at the dynamics of Pluto’s moons. The images also will play a critical role in navigating the spacecraft as it covers the remaining 135 million miles (220 million kilometers) to Pluto.

“We’ve completed the longest journey any spacecraft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto over the next few

Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter. Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
Timeline of the approach and departure phases — surrounding close approach on July 14, 2015 — of the New Horizons Pluto encounter.
Image Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

months to refine current estimates of the distance between the spacecraft and the dwarf planet. Though the Pluto system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until May, mission navigators will use the data to design course-correction maneuvers to aim the spacecraft toward its target point this summer. The first such maneuver could occur as early as March.

“We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it,” said Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “The flyby timing also has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto – which these images will help us determine.”

The “optical navigation” campaign that begins this month marks the first time pictures from New Horizons will be used to help pinpoint Pluto’s location.

Throughout the first approach phase, which runs until spring, New Horizons will conduct a significant amount of additional science. Spacecraft instruments will gather continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits, including measurements of the high-energy particles streaming from the sun and dust-particle concentrations in the inner reaches of the Kuiper Belt. In addition to Pluto, this area, the unexplored outer region of the solar system, potentially includes thousands of similar icy, rocky small planets.

More intensive studies of Pluto begin in the spring, when the cameras and spectrometers aboard New Horizons will be able to provide image resolutions higher than the most powerful telescopes on Earth. Eventually, the spacecraft will obtain images good enough to map Pluto and its moons more accurately than achieved by previous planetary reconnaissance missions.

APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

For more information about the New Horizons mission, visit:
NASA’s New Horizon’s Webpage

NASA’s Pluto–Kuiper Belt Mission Webpage

Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington

Michael Buckley
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.

Maria Stothoff
Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio

Components of Beagle 2 Flight System on Mars

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PRESS RELEASE (JPL) – The Beagle 2 Mars Lander, built by the United Kingdom, has been thought lost on Mars since 2003, but has now been found in images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Beagle 2 was released by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter but never heard from after its expected landing. Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been interpreted as showing the Beagle 2 did make a soft landing and at least partially deployed its solar panels.

A set of three observations with the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows Beagle 2 partially deployed on the surface of the planet, ending the mystery of what happened to the mission more than a decade ago. They show that the lander survived its Dec. 25, 2003, touchdown enough to at least partially deploy its solar arrays.

“I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars,” said Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, U.K. He was an integral part of the Beagle 2 project from the start, leading the initial study phase and was Beagle 2 mission manager. “Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2. My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars. To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars.

HiRISE images initially searched by Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, a former member of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express operations team, provide evidence for the lander and key descent components on the surface of Mars within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia, an impact basin close to the equator.

Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 team, the HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, have confirmed that the targets discovered are of the correct size, shape, color and dispersion to be Beagle 2. JPL planetary geologist Tim Parker, who has assisted in the search and processed some of the images said, “I’ve been looking over the objects in the images carefully, and I’m convinced that these are Beagle 2 hardware.”

Analysis of the images indicates what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue chute (still attached) and main parachute close by. Due to the small size of Beagle 2 (less than 7 feet, or 2 meters across for the deployed lander) it is right at the limit of detection of HiRISE, the highest-resolution camera orbiting Mars. The targets are within the expected landing area at a distance of about three miles (five kilometers) from its center.

“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle 2 team must feel,” said Richard Zurek of JPL, project scientist now for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and previously for NASA’s still-missing 1998 Mars Polar Lander. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task, as the craft are small and the search areas are vast. It takes the best camera we have in Mars orbit and work by dedicated individuals to be successful at this.”

HiRISE is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson. The instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project is managed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

View all images (color) on JPL site

For more information about HiRISE

Additional information about MRO

Media Contact

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Ten Exciting Astronomy Stories from 2014 (Space Daily)

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PHOTO: Messier 82, seen in radio frequencies by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array. (Credit: Josh Marvil (NM Tech/NRAO), Bill Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), NASA)

Using news releases from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Science Daily ( staffers at the NRAO came up with a list of the top 10 stories of 2014 using both the story’s scientific impact and public interest.

NRAO Chief Scientist Chris Carilli said of the list, “These ‘top ten’ are just a small sampling of the myriad ways in which the state-of-the-art NRAO facilities are enabling forefront research by the astronomical community.”

Carilli also said of 2014 list that U.S. and International astronomers, using new telescopes, instruments and techniques, worked on addressing the issues on the formation of planets, stars and galaxies, the fundamentals of physics and cosmology, astrochemistry and biology; “While finding some real surprises along the way!”

Continue to the top 10 stories of 2014:

Technology Innovations Spin NASA’s SMAP into Space

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It’s active. It’s passive. And it’s got a big, spinning lasso.

Scheduled for launch on Jan. 29, 2015, NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) instrument will measure the moisture lodged in Earth’s soils with an unprecedented accuracy and resolution. The instrument’s three main parts are a radar, a radiometer and the largest rotating mesh antenna ever deployed in space.

Remote sensing instruments are called “active” when they emit their own signals and “passive” when they record signals that already exist. The mission’s science instrument ropes together a sensor of each type to corral the highest-resolution, most accurate measurements ever made of soil moisture — a tiny fraction of Earth’s water that has a disproportionately large effect on weather and agriculture.

To enable the mission to meet its accuracy needs while covering the globe every three days or less, SMAP engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, designed and built the largest rotating antenna that could be stowed into a space of only one foot by four feet (30 by 120 centimeters) for launch. The dish is 19.7 feet (6 meters) in diameter.

“We call it the spinning lasso,” said Wendy Edelstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, the SMAP instrument manager.

Like the cowboy’s lariat, the antenna is attached on one side to an arm with a crook in its elbow. It spins around the arm at about 14 revolutions per minute (one complete rotation every four seconds). The antenna dish was provided by Northrop Grumman Astro Aerospace in Carpinteria, California. The motor that spins the antenna was provided by the Boeing Company in El Segundo, California.

“The antenna caused us a lot of angst, no doubt about it,” Edelstein noted. Although the antenna must fit during launch into a space not much bigger than a tall kitchen trash can, it must unfold so precisely that the surface shape of the mesh is accurate within about an eighth of an inch (a few millimeters).

The mesh dish is edged with a ring of lightweight graphite supports that stretch apart like a baby gate when a single cable is pulled, drawing the mesh outward. “Making sure we don’t have snags, that the mesh doesn’t hang up on the supports and tear when it’s deploying — all of that requires very careful engineering,” Edelstein said. “We test, and we test, and we test some more. We have a very stable and robust system now.”

SMAP’s radar, developed and built at JPL, uses the antenna to transmit microwaves toward Earth and receive the signals that bounce back, called backscatter. The microwaves penetrate a few inches or more into the soil before they rebound. Changes in the electrical properties of the returning microwaves indicate changes in soil moisture, and also tell whether or not the soil is frozen. Using a complex technique called synthetic aperture radar processing, the radar can produce ultra-sharp images with a resolution of about half a mile to a mile and a half (one to three kilometers).

SMAP’s radiometer detects differences in Earth’s natural emissions of microwaves that are caused by water in soil. To address a problem that has seriously hampered earlier missions using this kind of instrument to study soil moisture, the radiometer designers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, developed and built one of the most sophisticated signal-processing systems ever created for such a scientific instrument.

The problem is radio frequency interference. The microwave wavelengths that SMAP uses are officially reserved for scientific use, but signals at nearby wavelengths that are used for air traffic control, cell phones and other purposes spill over into SMAP’s wavelengths unpredictably. Conventional signal processing averages data over a long time period, which means that even a short burst of interference skews the record for that whole period. The Goddard engineers devised a new way to delete only the small segments of actual interference, leaving much more of the observations untouched.

Combining the radar and radiometer signals allows scientists to take advantage of the strengths of both technologies while working around their weaknesses. “The radiometer provides more accurate soil moisture but a coarse resolution of about 40 kilometers [25 miles] across,” said JPL’s Eni Njoku, a research scientist with SMAP. “With the radar, you can create very high resolution, but it’s less accurate. To get both an accurate and a high-resolution measurement, we process the two signals together.”

SMAP will be the fifth NASA Earth science mission launched within the last 12 months.

For more about the SMAP mission, visit:

NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from space, air and land with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities this year, visit:

Media Contact

Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Written by Carol Rasmussen
NASA Earth Science News Team


Dawn Spacecraft Begins Approach to Dwarf Planet Ceres

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• Dawn has entered its approach phase toward Ceres
• The spacecraft will arrive at Ceres on March 6, 2015

PRESS RELEASE (NASA/JPL) – NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has entered an approach phase in which it will continue to close in on Ceres, a Texas-sized dwarf planet never before visited by a spacecraft. Dawn launched in 2007 and is scheduled to enter Ceres orbit in March 2015.

Dawn recently emerged from solar conjunction, in which the spacecraft is on the opposite side of the sun, limiting communication with antennas on Earth. Now that Dawn can reliably communicate with Earth again, mission controllers have programmed the maneuvers necessary for the next stage of the rendezvous, which they label the Ceres approach phase. Dawn is currently 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers) from Ceres, approaching it at around 450 miles per hour (725 kilometers per hour).

The spacecraft’s arrival at Ceres will mark the first time that a spacecraft has ever orbited two solar system targets. Dawn previously explored the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months, from 2011 to 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body.

“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised.”

The two planetary bodies are thought to be different in a few important ways. Ceres may have formed later than Vesta, and with a cooler interior. Current evidence suggests that Vesta only retained a small amount of water because it formed earlier, when radioactive material was more abundant, which would have produced more heat. Ceres, in contrast, has a thick ice mantle and may even have an ocean beneath its icy crust.

Ceres, with an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers), is also the largest body in the asteroid belt, the strip of solar system real estate between Mars and Jupiter. By comparison, Vesta has an average diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers), and is the second most massive body in the belt.

The spacecraft uses ion propulsion to traverse space far more efficiently than if it used chemical propulsion. In an ion propulsion engine, an electrical charge is applied to xenon gas, and charged metal grids accelerate the xenon particles out of the thruster. These particles push back on the thruster as they exit, creating a reaction force that propels the spacecraft. Dawn has now completed five years of accumulated thrust time, far more than any other spacecraft.

“Orbiting both Vesta and Ceres would be truly impossible with conventional propulsion. Thanks to ion propulsion, we’re about to make history as the first spaceship ever to orbit two unexplored alien worlds,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The next couple of months promise continually improving views of Ceres, prior to Dawn’s arrival. By the end of January, the spacecraft’s images and other data will be the best ever taken of the dwarf planet.

The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science.

More information about Dawn:
Media Contact

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


NASA Finds Good News on Forests and Carbon Dioxide

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A new NASA study suggests that tropical forests, like this one in Malaysia, absorb more atmospheric carbon dioxide than is absorbed by forests in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A new NASA study suggests that tropical forests, like this one in Malaysia, absorb more atmospheric carbon dioxide than is absorbed by forests in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

PRESS RELEASE (NASA/JPL) – A new NASA-led study shows that tropical forests may be absorbing far more carbon dioxide than many scientists thought, in response to rising atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas. The study estimates that tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total global absorption of 2.5 billion — more than is absorbed by forests in Canada, Siberia and other northern regions, called boreal forests.

“This is good news, because uptake in boreal forests is already slowing, while tropical forests may continue to take up carbon for many years,” said David Schimel of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Schimel is lead author of a paper on the new research, appearing online today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Forests and other land vegetation currently remove up to 30 percent of human carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. If the rate of absorption were to slow down, the rate of global warming would speed up in return.

The new study is the first to devise a way to make apples-to-apples comparisons of carbon dioxide estimates from many sources at different scales: computer models of ecosystem processes, atmospheric models run backward in time to deduce the sources of today’s concentrations (called inverse models), satellite images, data from experimental forest plots and more. The researchers reconciled all types of analyses and assessed the accuracy of the results based on how well they reproduced independent, ground-based measurements. They obtained their new estimate of the tropical carbon absorption from the models they determined to be the most trusted and verified.

“Until our analysis, no one had successfully completed a global reconciliation of information about carbon dioxide effects from the atmospheric, forestry and modeling communities,” said co-author Joshua Fisher of JPL. “It is incredible that all these different types of independent data sources start to converge on an answer.”

The question of which type of forest is the bigger carbon absorber “is not just an accounting curiosity,” said co-author Britton Stephens of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. “It has big implications for our understanding of whether global terrestrial ecosystems might continue to offset our carbon dioxide emissions or might begin to exacerbate climate change.”

As human-caused emissions add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, forests worldwide are using it to grow faster, reducing the amount that stays airborne. This effect is called carbon fertilization. “All else being equal, the effect is stronger at higher temperatures, meaning it will be higher in the tropics than in the boreal forests,” Schimel said.

But climate change also decreases water availability in some regions and makes Earth warmer, leading to more frequent and larger wildfires. In the tropics, humans compound the problem by burning wood during deforestation. Fires don’t just stop carbon absorption by killing trees, they also spew huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as the wood burns.

For about 25 years, most computer climate models have been showing that mid-latitude forests in the Northern Hemisphere absorb more carbon than tropical forests. That result was initially based on the then-current understanding of global air flows and limited data suggesting that deforestation was causing tropical forests to release more carbon dioxide than they were absorbing.

In the mid-2000s, Stephens used measurements of carbon dioxide made from aircraft to show that many climate models were not correctly representing flows of carbon above ground level. Models that matched the aircraft measurements better showed more carbon absorption in the tropical forests. However, there were still not enough global data sets to validate the idea of a large tropical-forest absorption. Schimel said that their new study took advantage of a great deal of work other scientists have done since Stephens’ paper to pull together national and regional data of various kinds into robust, global data sets.

Schimel noted that their paper reconciles results at every scale from the pores of a single leaf, where photosynthesis takes place, to the whole Earth, as air moves carbon dioxide around the globe. “What we’ve had up till this paper was a theory of carbon dioxide fertilization based on phenomena at the microscopic scale and observations at the global scale that appeared to contradict those phenomena. Here, at least, is a hypothesis that provides a consistent explanation that includes both how we know photosynthesis works and what’s happening at the planetary scale.”

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Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Written by Carol Rasmussen
NASA Earth Science News Team