NASA

Let It Go! SMAP Almost Ready to Map Frozen Soil

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SMAP will monitor the frozen or thawed state of the global landscape north of 45 degrees north latitude.
SMAP will monitor the frozen or thawed state of the global landscape north of 45 degrees north latitude. Image credit: UCAR/Carlye Calvin

Those who feel as though they’ve been living in the never-ending winter of the movie “Frozen” this year may be glad to hear that the spring thaw is now typically arriving up to two weeks earlier in the Northern Hemisphere than it did 20 to 30 years ago. But the changing date of the spring thaw has consequences far beyond reducing the number of mornings when you have to scrape off your windshield.

One ecosystem where scientists would most like to understand the effects of changing freeze/thaw cycles is boreal forests, the great ring of green covering the land nearest the North Pole. The forests of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia cover almost 15 percent of Earth’s land surface. The Arctic is warming more quickly than lower latitudes, and the way these forests respond to this rapid change could provide valuable clues about our planet’s warmer future.

But we know very little about how the boreal forests are changing. Millions of square miles have no roads or even villages. “What we have now are very sparse, seasonal measurements from the ground,” said John Kimball, a professor of systems ecology at the University of Montana, Missoula, and a member of the science team for NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, launched Jan. 31. “We do have long-term, global satellite data sets that are sensitive to freeze-thaw, but they tend to be very coarse.” That means each measurement averages the status of a large area. Like a mosaic made of large tiles, these data cannot show much detail.

That’s about to change. By the end of April, SMAP will begin monitoring the frozen or thawed state of the landscape north of 45 degrees north latitude (about the latitude of Minneapolis) every two days. The primary mission of SMAP is to measure the amount of moisture in the top few inches of soil globally, but it also detects whether that moisture is frozen or in liquid form. SMAP’s radar measurements, with “tiles” only half a mile to a mile and a half (1 to 3 kilometers) across, will reveal far more detail than scientists now have about the freeze/thaw status of the land surface.

Why is greater detail needed? In the Arctic, the timing of the spring thaw can vary considerably within a small area. Because the returning sun is low on the horizon, the shadowed north side of a hill may remain icy many days after plants have started growing again on the sunlit south side. Those early spring weeks are critical in the short Arctic growing season. “Once the vegetation thaws, boom! Photosynthesis takes off,” Kimball explained. “You can get your highest rates of photosynthesis within a few weeks after the thaw, and a later thaw can mean much lower vegetation growth for the season. We need observations at what I call the landscape level to more precisely monitor those patterns and changes.”

During photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The carbon stays in their wood, roots and leaves, and when they die, most of it remains in the soil. That makes undisturbed forests what scientists call carbon sinks — places that remove carbon from the atmosphere. Longer unfrozen seasons in the Arctic give forests more time to grow and spread, increasing the extent of the carbon sink.

On the other hand, climate warming has increased the occurrence of droughts and wildfires in the Arctic. A burning forest spews enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere; in scientific terms, it is a carbon source. Thus, global climate change is causing the northern forests both to absorb and to release more carbon.

With so little Arctic data to crunch, models of Arctic land processes do not agree on which of these trends is prevailing, much less what the future could hold. Lack of consensus does not indicate fundamental disagreements on the physical processes involved, according to JPL scientist Josh Fisher, a member of the SMAP algorithm team. The problem is that, at present, if you put the Arctic’s emitted carbon on one side of a scale and absorbed carbon on the other, the scales would almost balance. “The source/sink balance is usually close to zero, and it’s very easy to get on the wrong side of the zero,” he said. Yet the wrong answer on this fundamental question can cascade into a chain of wrong answers in the course of a model simulation. SMAP’s fine-scale observations have the potential to improve modelers’ understanding of both today’s situation and how it may change in the future.

This spring, SMAP will spin up in time to track the spring thaw in the boreal forest with the detail scientists need — as Princess Anna in “Frozen” says, “For the first time in forever.”

For more about SMAP, visit:

http://smap.jpl.nasa.gov/

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

U-Texas & NASA: Study Sees New Threat to East Antarctic Ice

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IMG_3677
This is the East Antarctic coastline. Icebergs are highlighted by the sunlight, and the open ocean appears black. Image credit: NASA

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, NASA and other research organizations have discovered two seafloor troughs that could allow warm ocean water to reach the base of Totten Glacier, East Antarctica’s largest and most rapidly thinning glacier. The discovery likely explains the glacier’s extreme thinning and raises concern about its impact on sea level rise.

The result, published in the journal Nature Geoscience today, March 16, has global implications because the ice flowing through Totten Glacier alone is equivalent to the entire volume of the more widely studied West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If Totten Glacier were to collapse completely, global sea levels would rise by at least 11 feet (3.3 meters). As in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, complete collapse of Totten Glacier may take centuries, although the timing of retreat in both places is the subject of intensive research.

This image shows the previously unknown landscape beneath Totten Glacier. Orange arrows point to seafloor troughs deep enough to allow warm water to enter beneath the floating ice. Image credit: UTA/Jamin Greenbaum
This image shows the previously unknown landscape beneath Totten Glacier. Orange arrows point to seafloor troughs deep enough to allow warm water to enter beneath the floating ice. Image credit: UTA/Jamin Greenbaum

East Antarctica has appeared to be stable compared with the rapidly melting western side of the continent. The new finding shows that “Totten Glacier and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet are a much more interesting and dynamic part of the sea level rise story than we’d previously thought,” said co-author Dustin Schroeder, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Schroeder helped analyze data from an ice-penetrating radar to demonstrate that ocean water could access the glacier through the newfound troughs.

In some areas of the ocean surrounding Antarctica, warm water can be found below cooler water because it is saltier, and therefore heavier, than the shallower water. Seafloor valleys that connect this deep warm water to the coast can especially compromise glaciers, but this process had previously been seen only under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Deep warm water had been observed seaward of Totten Glacier, but there was no evidence that it could compromise coastal ice.

The newly discovered troughs are deep enough to give the deep warm water access to the huge cavity under the glacier. The deeper of the two troughs extends from the ocean to the underside of Totten Glacier in an area not previously known to be floating.

The data for this study were gathered as part of the International Collaboration for Exploration of the

The Totten Glacier Catchment (outlined in blue) is a collection basin for ice and snow that flows into the ocean through Totten Glacier alone. The catchment is estimated to contain enough frozen water to raise global sea level by at least 11 feet (3.3 meters). Image credit: Australian Antarctic Division
The Totten Glacier Catchment (outlined in blue) is a collection basin for ice and snow that flows into the ocean through Totten Glacier alone. The catchment is estimated to contain enough frozen water to raise global sea level by at least 11 feet (3.3 meters). Image credit: Australian Antarctic Division

Cryosphere through Airborne Profiling (ICECAP) project, which, together with the East Antarctic component of NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission, made the first comprehensive survey of the Totten Glacier Ice Shelf and nearby regions between 2008 and 2012. Other coauthors of the study come from research organizations and universities in Australia, France and England.

For more information on the new study, see:

http://www.jsg.utexas.edu/news/2015/03/east-antarctica-melting-could-be-explained-by-oceanic-gateways

To learn more about Operation IceBridge and ICECAP, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/icebridge/

and

http://www.ig.utexas.edu/research/projects/icecap/

The paper is available at:

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo2388.html

New Desktop Application Has Potential to Increase Asteroid Detection, Now Available to Public

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NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter contest series was part of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, which is focused on finding all asteroid threats to human populations and knowing what to do about them. (Image Credit: NASA)


PRESS RELEASE (NASA) – A software application based on an algorithm created by a NASA challenge has the potential to increase the number of new asteroid discoveries by amateur astronomers.

Analysis of images taken of our solar system’s main belt asteroids between Mars and Jupiter using the algorithm showed a 15 percent increase in positive identification of new asteroids.

During a panel Sunday at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, NASA representatives discussed how citizen scientists have made a difference in asteroid hunting. They also announced the release of a desktop software application developed by NASA in partnership with Planetary Resources, Inc., of Redmond, Washington. The application is based on an Asteroid Data Hunter-derived algorithm that analyzes images for potential asteroids. It’s a tool that can be used by amateur astronomers and citizen scientists.

The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge was part of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. The data hunter contest series, which was conducted in partnership with Planetary Resources under a Space Act Agreement, was announced at the 2014 South by Southwest Festival and concluded in December. The series offered a total of $55,000 in awards for participants to develop significantly improved algorithms to identify asteroids in images captured by ground-based telescopes. The winning solutions of each piece of the contest combined to create an application using the best algorithm that increased the detection sensitivity, minimized the number of false positives, ignored imperfections in the data, and ran effectively on all computer systems.

“The Asteroid Grand Challenge is seeking non-traditional partnerships to bring the citizen science and space enthusiast community into NASA’s work,” said Jason Kessler, program executive for NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. “The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge has been successful beyond our hopes, creating something that makes a tangible difference to asteroid hunting astronomers and highlights the possibility for more people to play a role in protecting our planet.”

Catalina Sky Survey telescope

The Big Dipper rising behind the Catalina Sky Survey 60″ telescope. 

Image Credit: Catalina Sky Survey, University of Arizona

The data hunter challenge incorporated data provided by the Minor Planet Center (MPC), at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and images provided by the Catalina Sky Survey, an astronomical survey project run by the University of Arizona, Tucson, and focused on the discovery and study of near-Earth asteroids and comets.

“We applaud all the participants in the Asteroid Data Hunter challenge. We are extremely encouraged by the algorithm created and it’s already making a difference. This increase in knowledge will help assess more quickly which asteroids are potential threats, human destinations or resource rich,” said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer at Planetary Resources. “It has been exciting for our team to work with NASA on this project, and we also look forward to future space-based systems leveraging these results.”

Astronomers find asteroids by taking images of the same place in the sky and looking for star-like objects that move between frames, an approach that has been used since before Pluto was discovered in 1930. With more telescopes scanning the sky, the ever-increasing volume of data makes it impossible for astronomers to verify each detection by hand. This new algorithm gives astronomers the ability to use computers to autonomously and rapidly check the images and determine which objects are suitable for follow up, which leads to finding more asteroids than previously possible.

“The beauty of such archives is that the data doesn’t grow stale, and with novel approaches, techniques and algorithms, they can be harvested for new information. The participants of the Asteroid Data Hunter challenge did just that, probing observations of the night sky for new asteroids that might have slipped through the software cracks the first time the images were analyzed,” said Jose Luis Galache of the MPC. “Moreover, this software can now be used to analyze new images and is available to any observer who wants to use it. The Minor Planet Center applauds these efforts to provide superior tools to all, and looks forward to receiving new asteroid observations generated with them.”

The desktop software application is free and can be used on any basic desktop or laptop computer. Amateur astronomers may take images from their telescopes and analyze them with the application. The application will tell the user whether a matching asteroid record exists and offer a way to report new findings to the Minor Planet Center, which then confirms and archives new discoveries.

Through NASA’s asteroid initiative, the agency seeks to enhance its ongoing work in the identification and characterization of near-Earth objects for further scientific investigation. This work includes locating potentially hazardous asteroids and identifying those viable for redirection to a stable lunar orbit for future exploration by astronauts using NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. The Asteroid Grand Challenge, one part of the asteroid initiative, expands the agency’s efforts beyond traditional boundaries and encourages partnerships and collaboration with a variety of organizations.

The algorithm contests were managed and executed by NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI). CoECI was established at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to advance NASA’s open innovation efforts and extend that expertise to other federal agencies. CoECI uses the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) for its advanced algorithmic and software development contests. Through its contract with the Crowd Innovation Lab at Harvard University, NTL uses Appirio’s Crowdsourcing platform powered by Topcoder to enable a community of more than 750,000 designers, developers and data scientists to create the most innovative, efficient and optimized solutions for specific, real-world challenges faced by NASA. Data storage of the Catalina Sky Survey data was provided by Amazon Web Services.

The new asteroid hunting application can be downloaded at:

http://topcoder.com/asteroids

For information about NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative

NASA’s Hubble Observations Suggest Underground Ocean on Jupiter’s Largest Moon

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In this artist’s concept, the moon Ganymede orbits the giant planet Jupiter. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observed aurorae on the moon generated by Ganymede’s magnetic fields. A saline ocean under the moon’s icy crust best explains shifting in the auroral belts measured by Hubble. Image Credit: NASA/ESA



NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has the best evidence yet for an underground saltwater ocean on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. The subterranean ocean is thought to have more water than all the water on Earth’s surface.

Identifying liquid water is crucial in the search for habitable worlds beyond Earth and for the search of life as we know it.

“This discovery marks a significant milestone, highlighting what only Hubble can accomplish,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. “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.”

Ganymede is the largest moon in our solar system and the only moon with its own magnetic field. The magnetic field causes aurorae, which are ribbons of glowing, hot electrified gas, in regions circling the north and south poles of the moon. Because Ganymede is close to Jupiter, it is also embedded in Jupiter’s magnetic field. When Jupiter’s magnetic field changes, the aurorae on Ganymede also change, “rocking” back and forth.

By watching the rocking motion of the two aurorae, scientists were able to determine that a large amount of saltwater exists beneath Ganymede’s crust affecting its magnetic field.

Hubble telescope image of Ganymede auroral belts

NASA Hubble Space Telescope images of Ganymede’s auroral belts (colored blue in this illustration) are overlaid on a Galileo orbiter image of the moon. The amount of rocking of the moon’s magnetic field suggests that the moon has a subsurface saltwater ocean.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA

A team of scientists led by Joachim Saur of the University of Cologne in Germany came up with the idea of using Hubble to learn more about the inside of the moon.

“I was always brainstorming how we could use a telescope in other ways,” said Saur. “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.”

If a saltwater ocean were present, Jupiter’s magnetic field would create a secondary magnetic field in the ocean that would counter Jupiter’s field. This “magnetic friction” would suppress the rocking of the aurorae. This ocean fights Jupiter’s magnetic field so strongly that it reduces the rocking of the aurorae to 2 degrees, instead of the 6 degrees, if the ocean was not present.

Scientists estimate the ocean is 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick – 10 times deeper than Earth’s oceans – and is buried under a 95-mile (150-kilometer) crust of mostly ice.

Scientists first suspected an ocean in Ganymede in the 1970s, based on models of the large moon. NASA’s Galileo mission measured Ganymede’s magnetic field in 2002, providing the first evidence supporting those suspicions. The Galileo spacecraft took brief “snapshot” measurements of the magnetic field in 20-minute intervals, but its observations were too brief to distinctly catch the cyclical rocking of the ocean’s secondary magnetic field.

The new observations were done in ultraviolet light and could only be accomplished with a space telescope high above the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks most ultraviolet light.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating 25 years of groundbreaking science on April 24. It has transformed our understanding of our solar system and beyond, and helped us find our place among the stars. To join the conversation about 25 years of Hubble discoveries, use the hashtag #Hubble25.

Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

For images and more information about Hubble, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

and

http://hubblesite.org/news/2015/09

NASA Holds Teleconference on Hubble Observations of Jupiter’s Largest Moon

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NASA Holds Teleconference on Hubble Observations of Jupiter’s Largest Moon
(March 9, 2015)

Image of Jupiter's moon, GanymedeThis image of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons and the largest moon in our solar system was taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

NASA will host a teleconference at 11 a.m. EDT on Thursday, March 12, to discuss Hubble Space Telescope’s observations of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. These results will help scientists in the search for habitable worlds beyond Earth.

Participants in the teleconference will be:

  • Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington
  • Joachim Saur, professor for geophysics, University of Cologne, Germany
  • Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble senior project scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
  • Heidi Hammel, executive vice president, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Washington

To participate by phone, reporters must contact Felicia Chou at felicia.chou and provide their media affiliation no later than noon Wednesday.

Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live on NASA’s website at:

http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio

For information about NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

For information about our solar system, including Jupiter and Ganymede, visit:

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/

NASA News: NASA’s Space Launch System Booster Passes Major Ground Test

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NASA’s Space Launch System Booster Passes Major Ground Test

(March 11, 2015)

Space Launch System rocket boosterAt the Promontory, Utah test facility of Orbital ATK, the booster for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was fired for a two minute test on March 11. The test is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight before SLS begins carrying NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other potential payloads to deep

Image Credit: NASA

The largest, most powerful rocket booster ever built successfully fired up Wednesday for a major-milestone ground test in preparation for future missions to help propel NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft to deep space destinations, including an asteroid and Mars.

The booster fired for two minutes, the same amount of time it will fire when it lifts the SLS off the launch pad, and produced about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The test was conducted at the Promontory, Utah test facility of commercial partner Orbital ATK, and is one of two tests planned to qualify the booster for flight. Once qualified, the flight booster hardware will be ready for shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the first SLS flight.

“The work being done around the country today to build SLS is laying a solid foundation for future exploration missions, and these missions will enable us to pioneer far into the solar system,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “The teams are doing tremendous work to develop what will be a national asset for human exploration and potential science missions.”

It took months to heat the 1.6 million pound booster to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to verify its performance at the highest end of the booster’s accepted propellant temperature range. A cold-temperature test, at a target of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the low end of the propellant temperature range, is planned for early 2016. These two tests will provide a full range of data for analytical models that inform how the booster performs. During the test, temperatures inside the booster reached more than 5,600 degrees.

“This test is a significant milestone for SLS and follows years of development,” said Todd May, SLS program manager. “Our partnership with Orbital ATK and more than 500 suppliers across the country is keeping us on the path to building the most powerful rocket in the world.”

During the test, more than 531 instrumentation channels on the booster were measured to help assess some 102 design objectives. The test also demonstrated the booster meets applicable ballistic performance requirements, such as thrust and pressure. Other objectives included data gathering on vital motor upgrades, such as the new internal motor insulation and liner and an improved nozzle design.

When completed, two five-segment boosters and four RS-25 main engines will power the SLS on deep space missions. The 177-feet-long solid rocket boosters operate in parallel with the main engines for the first two minutes of flight. They provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed for the rocket to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth.

The first flight test of SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to test the performance of the integrated system. The SLS will later be configured to provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions farther into our solar system.

For more information on SLS, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/sls

-end-

Rachel Kraft
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1100
rachel.h.kraft

Kim Henry
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
256-544-0034
kimberly.h.henry

NASA Spacecraft Becomes First to Orbit a Dwarf Planet

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NASA Spacecraft Becomes First to Orbit a Dwarf Planet

Latest News From NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has become the first mission to achieve orbit around a dwarf planet. The spacecraft was approximately 38,000 miles (61,000) kilometers from Ceres when it was captured by the dwarf planet’s gravity at about 4:39 a.m. PST (7:39 a.m. EST) Friday.Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California received a signal from the spacecraft at 5:36 a.m. PST (8:36 a.m. EST) that Dawn was healthy and thrusting with its ion engine, the indicator Dawn had entered orbit as planned.

“Since its discovery in 1801, Ceres was known as a planet, then an asteroid and later a dwarf planet,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission director at JPL. “Now, after a journey of 3.1 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) and 7.5 years, Dawn calls Ceres, home.”

In addition to being the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, Dawn also has the distinction of being the first mission to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. From 2011 to 2012, the space-craft explored the giant asteroid Vesta, delivering new insights and thousands of images from that distant world. Ceres and Vesta are the two most massive residents of our solar system’s main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The most recent images received from the spacecraft, taken on March 1, show Ceres as a crescent, mostly in shadow because the spacecraft’s trajectory put it on a side of Ceres that faces away from the sun until mid-April. When Dawn emerges from Ceres’ dark side, it will deliver ever-sharper images as it spirals to lower orbits around the planet.

“We feel exhilarated,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “We have much to do over the next year and a half, but we are now on station with ample reserves, and a robust plan to obtain our science objectives.”

Dawn’s mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.

For a complete list of mission participants, visit:

http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission

For more information about Dawn, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/dawn

track.php?msgid=155012&act=2FIS&r=17340975&c=1389932

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:

http://spaceappschallenge.org

Follow the challenge on Twitter using the hashtag #spaceapps.

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

-end-

Karen Northon
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1540
karen.northon

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:

http://chandra.si.edu

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

http://www.nasa.gov/chandra

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.