Space Exploration – Spacecraft

NASA Releases Tool Enabling Citizen Scientists to Examine Asteroid Vesta

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Vesta Trek’s interface allows explorers to fly around and even skim the surface of Vesta. Image credit: NASA

NASA has announced the release of Vesta Trek, a free, web-based application that provides detailed visualizations of Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in our solar system. 

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft studied Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012. Data gathered from multiple instruments aboard Dawn have been compiled into Vesta Trek’s user-friendly set of tools, enabling citizen scientists and students to study the asteroid’s features. The application includes:

— Interactive maps, including the ability to overlay a growing range of data sets including topography, mineralogy, abundance of elements and geology, as well as analysis tools for measuring the diameters, heights and depths of surface features and more

— 3-D printer-exportable topography so users can print physical models of Vesta’s surface 

— Standard keyboard gaming controls to maneuver a first-person visualization of “flying” across the surface of the asteroid

Vesta Trek was developed by NASA’s Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project (LMMP), which provides mission planners, lunar scientists and the public with analysis and data visualization tools for our moon, spanning multiple instruments on multiple missions. Vesta Trek represents the first application of LMMP’s capabilities to another world beyond the moon. LMMP-based portals for other worlds in our Solar System are currently in development.

“There’s nothing like seeing something with your own eyes, but these types of detailed data-visualizations are the next best thing,” said Kristen Erickson, Director, Science Engagement and Partnerships at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’re thrilled to release Vesta Trek to the citizen science community and the public, not only as a scientific tool, but as a portal to an immersive experience that, just by the nature of it, will allow a deeper understanding of Vesta and asteroids in general.”

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is continuing its exploration in the asteroid belt, after arriving at the dwarf planet Ceres on March 6. As Dawn conducts its mapping and measurements of Ceres, LMMP will continue to work closely with the Dawn mission.

The Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project is managed by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, headquartered at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. LMMP’s development team is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. JPL also manages the Dawn mission for NASA. LMMP is funded by and receives direction from the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and the Advanced Exploration Systems program in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

To explore Vesta Trek, visit:

For more information about the Dawn mission, visit:

To learn more about the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, visit:

NASA Announces New Partnerships with U.S. Industry for Key Deep-Space Capabilities

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 Building on the success of NASA’s partnerships with commercial industry to date, NASA has selected 12 Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) to advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites.

Through these public-private partnerships, selected companies will partner with NASA to develop the exploration capabilities necessary to enable commercial endeavors in space and human exploration to deep-space destinations such as the proving ground of space around the moon, known as cis-lunar space, and Mars.

“Commercial partners were selected for their technical ability to mature key technologies and their commitment to the potential applications both for government and private sector uses,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters. “This work ultimately will inform the strategy to move human presence further into the solar system.”

Results from these studies and hardware developments also will help determine the role for international partner involvement, by fully exploring domestic capabilities, and for Orion and Space Launch Systems missions in cis-lunar space. This work also will advance system understanding and define a need for further testing of habitation systems and components on the International Space Station.

Selected advanced electric propulsion projects will develop propulsion technology systems in the 50- to 300-kilowatt range to meet the needs of a variety of deep space mission concepts. State-of-the-art electric propulsion technology currently employed by NASA generates less than five kilowatts, and systems being developed for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) Broad Area Announcement (BAA) are in the 40-kilowatt range.

The three NextSTEP advanced propulsion projects, $400,000 to $3.5 million per year per award, will have no more than a three-year performance period focused on ground testing efforts. The selected companies are:

  • Ad Astra Rocket Company of Webster, Texas
  • Aeroject Rocketdyne Inc. of Redmond, Washington
  • MSNW LLC of Redmond, Washington

Habitation systems selections will help define the architecture and subsystems of a modular habitation capability to enable extended missions in deep space. Orion is the first component of human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and will be capable of sustaining a crew of four for 21 days in deep space and returning them safely to Earth.

These selections are intended to augment the Orion capsule with the development of capabilities to initially sustain a crew of four for up to 60 days in cis-lunar space with the ability to scale up to transit habitation capabilities for future Mars missions. The selected projects will address concepts and, in some cases, provide advancement in technologies related to habitation and operations, or environmental control and life support capabilities of a habitation system.

The seven NextSTEP habitat projects will have initial performance periods of up to 12 months, at a value of $400,000 to $1 million for the study and development efforts, and the potential for follow-on phases to be defined during the initial phase. The selected companies are:

  • Bigelow Aerospace LLC of North Las Vegas, Nevada
  • The Boeing Company of Pasadena, Texas
  • Dynetics Inc. of Huntsville, Alabama
  • Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International of Windsor Locks, Connecticut
  • Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company of Denver, Colorado
  • Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia
  • Orbital Technologies Corporation of Madison, Wisconsin

The CubeSat projects selected through this award will potentially fly as secondary payload missions on the first flight of the Space Launch System, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). CubeSat selections will address NASA’s strategic knowledge gaps in order to reduce risk, increase effectiveness, and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration.

EM-1 will provide a rare opportunity to boost these CubeSats to deep space and enable science, technology demonstration, exploration or commercial applications in that environment. The two NextSTEP CubeSat projects will have fixed-price contracts with technical and payment milestones and total values for the entire development and operations of $1.4 to $7.9 million per award. The selected companies are:

  • Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company of Denver, Colorado
  • Morehead State University of Morehead, Kentucky

NextSTEP activities will be executed through fixed-price contracts with milestone payments, combined with corporate-resource contributions the selected partner will provide toward overall study and technology development efforts, benefitting NASA and future commercial endeavors.

“This type of public-private partnership helps NASA stimulate the U.S. space industry while expanding the frontiers of knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space,” said Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AESD) of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington.

AESD manages NextSTEP and is committed to pioneering new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.

For additional information about NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, visit:


NASA’s Hubble, Chandra Find Clues that May Help Identify Dark Matter

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Here are images of six different galaxy clusters taken with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (blue) and Chandra X-ray Observatory (pink) in a study of how dark matter in clusters of galaxies behaves when the clusters collide. A total of 72 large cluster collisions were studied. Image Credit: NASA and ESA


Using observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have found that dark matter does not slow down when colliding with itself, meaning it interacts with itself less than previously thought. Researchers say this finding narrows down the options for what this mysterious substance might be.

Dark matter is an invisible matter that makes up most of the mass of the universe. Because dark matter does not reflect, absorb or emit light, it can only be traced indirectly by, such as by measuring how it warps space through gravitational lensing, during which the light from a distant source is magnified and distorted by the gravity of dark matter.

To learn more about dark matter and test such theories, researchers study it in a way similar to experiments on visible matter — by watching what happens when it bumps into other objects. In this case, the colliding objects under observation are galaxy clusters.

Researchers used Hubble and Chandra to observe these space collisions. Specifically, Hubble was used to map the distribution of stars and dark matter after a collision, which was traced through its gravitational lensing effect on background light. Chandra was used to detect the X-ray emission from colliding gas clouds. The results are published in the March 27edition of the journal Science.

“Dark matter is an enigma we have long sought to unravel,” said John Grunsfeld, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “With the combined capabilities of these great observatories, both in extended mission, we are ever closer to understanding this cosmic phenomenon.”

Galaxy clusters are made of three main ingredients: galaxies, gas clouds, and dark matter. During collisions, the gas clouds surrounding galaxies crash into each other and slow down or stop. The galaxies are much less affected by the drag from the gas and, because of the huge gaps between the stars within them, do not slow each other down.

“We know how gas and stars react to these cosmic crashes and where they emerge from the wreckage. Comparing how dark matter behaves can help us to narrow down what it actually is,” said the study’s lead author David Harvey of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

Harvey and his team studied 72 large cluster collisions. The collisions happened at different times and were viewed from different angles — some from the side, and others head-on.

The team found that, like the galaxies, the dark matter continued straight through the violent collisions without slowing down much. This means dark matter does not interact with visible particles and flies by other dark matter with much less interaction than previously thought. Had the dark matter dragged against other dark matter, the distribution of galaxies would have shifted.

“A previous study had seen similar behavior in the Bullet Cluster,” said team member Richard Massey of Durham University in the United Kingdom. “But it’s difficult to interpret what you’re seeing if you have just one example. Each collision takes hundreds of millions of years, so in a human lifetime we only get to see one freeze-frame from a single camera angle. Now that we have studied so many more collisions, we can start to piece together the full movie and better understand what is going on.”

With this discovery, the team has successfully narrowed down the properties of dark matter. Particle physics theorists now have a smaller set of unknowns to work around when building their models.

“It is unclear how much we expect dark matter to interact with itself because dark matter already is going against everything we know,” said Harvey. “We know from previous observations that it must interact with itself reasonably weakly.”

Dark matter may have rich and complex properties, and there are still several other types of interactions to study. These latest results rule out interactions that create a strong frictional force, causing dark matter to slow down during collisions.

The team also will study other possible interactions, such as dark matter particles bouncing off each other like billiard balls and causing dark matter particles to be ejected from the clouds by collisions or for dark matter blobs to change shape. The team also is looking to study collisions involving individual galaxies, which are much more common.

“There are still several viable candidates for dark matter, so the game is not over. But we are getting nearer to an answer,” said Harvey. “These astronomically large particle colliders are finally letting us glimpse the dark world all around us, but just out of reach.”

The Hubble Space Telescope 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 conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

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

For images and more information about the Hubble Space Telescope, visit:

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

Astronomers Upgrade Their Cosmic Light Bulbs

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The brilliant explosions of dead stars have been used for years to illuminate the far-flung reaches of our cosmos. The explosions, called Type Ia supernovae, allow astronomers to measure the distances to galaxies and measure the ever-increasing rate at which our universe is stretching apart.

But these tools aren’t perfect. In the cosmic hardware store of our universe, improvements are ongoing. In a new report, appearing March 27 in the journal Science, astronomers identify the best, top-of-the-line Type Ia supernovae for measuring cosmic distances, pushing other, more clunky tools to the back of the shelf.

Using archived data from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), scientists show that a particular class of Type Ia supernovae that occur near youthful stars can improve these measurements with a precision of more than two times that achieved before.

“We have discovered a population of Type Ia supernovae whose light output depends very precisely on how quickly they fade, making it possible to measure very exact distances to them,” said Patrick Kelly of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of the new study. “These supernovae are found close to populations of bright, hot young stars.”

The findings will help light the way to understanding dark energy, one of the greatest mysteries in the field of cosmology, the study of the origin and development of the universe. Dark energy is the leading culprit behind the baffling acceleration of our cosmos, a phenomenon discovered in 1998. The acceleration was uncovered when astronomers observed that galaxies are pulling away from each other at increasing speeds.

The key to measuring this acceleration — and thus the nature of dark energy — lies with Type Ia supernovae, which work much like light bulbs strung across space. Imagine lining up 60-watt light bulbs across a field and standing at one end. The farthest light bulb wouldn’t appear as bright as the closest one due to its distance. Since you know how bright the light bulb inherently is, you can use the extent of its dimming to figure out the distance.

Type Ia supernovae, also referred to as “standard candles,” work in a similar way because they consistently shine with about the same amount of light. While the process that leads to these explosions is still not clear, they occur when the burnt-out core of a star, called a white dwarf, blasts apart in a regular way, briefly lighting up the host galaxy.

However, the explosions aren’t always precisely uniform. They can differ considerably depending on various factors, which appear to be connected to the environments and histories of the exploding stars. It’s as if our 60-watt bulbs sometimes give off 55 watts of light, skewing distance measurements.

Kelly and his team investigated the reliability of these tools by analyzing the surroundings of nearly 100 previous Type Ia explosions. They used data from GALEX, which detects ultraviolet light. Populations of hot, young stars in galaxies will shine brightly with ultraviolet light, so GALEX can distinguish between young and older star-forming communities.

The results showed that the Type Ia supernovae affiliated with the hot, young stars were significantly more reliable at indicating distances than their counterparts.

“These explosions are likely the result of youthful white dwarfs,” said Kelly.

By focusing on this particular brand of Type Ia tools, astronomers will be able to, in the future, make even sharper measurements of the size and scale of our universe. According to the science team, this class of tools could work at distances up to six billion light-years away, and perhaps farther.

“GALEX surveyed the entire sky, allowing past and future eruptions of these high-quality standard candles to be identified easily,” said Don Neill, a member of the GALEX team at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, not affiliated with the study. “Any improvement in the standard candles will have a direct impact on theories of dark energy, allowing us to home in on this mysterious force propelling the acceleration of the universe.”

Caltech led the Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission and was responsible for science operations and data analysis. The mission ended in 2013 after more than a decade of scanning the skies in ultraviolet light. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed the mission and built the science instrument. The mission was developed under NASA’s Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. Researchers sponsored by Yonsei University in South Korea and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in France collaborated on this mission. ?

Graphics and additional information about the Galaxy Evolution Explorer are online at:

NASA’s SOFIA Finds Missing Link Between Supernovae and Planet Formation

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Using NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an international scientific team discovered that supernovae are capable of producing a substantial amount of the material from which planets like Earth can form.

These findings are published in the March 19 online issue of Science magazine.

“Our observations reveal a particular cloud produced by a supernova explosion 10,000 years ago contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earths,” said Ryan Lau of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The research team, headed by Lau, used SOFIA’s airborne telescope and the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, FORCAST, to take detailed infrared images of an interstellar dust cloud known as Supernova Remnant Sagittarius A East, or SNR Sgr A East.

Supernova remnant dust as seen by SOFIA

Supernova remnant dust detected by SOFIA (yellow) survives away from the hottest X-ray gas (purple). The red ellipse outlines the supernova shock wave. The inset shows a magnified image of the dust (orange) and gas emission (cyan).

Image Credit: NASA/CXO/Lau et al

The team used SOFIA data to estimate the total mass of dust in the cloud from the intensity of its emission. The investigation required measurements at long infrared wavelengths in order to peer through intervening interstellar clouds and detect the radiation emitted by the supernova dust.

Astronomers already had evidence that a supernova’s outward-moving shock wave can produce significant amounts of dust. Until now, a key question was whether the new soot- and sand-like dust particles would survive the subsequent inward “rebound” shock wave generated when the first, outward-moving shock wave collides with surrounding interstellar gas and dust.

“The dust survived the later onslaught of shock waves from the supernova explosion, and is now flowing into the interstellar medium where it can become part of the ‘seed material’ for new stars and planets,” Lau explained.

These results also reveal the possibility that the vast amount of dust observed in distant young galaxies may have been made by supernova explosions of early massive stars, as no other known mechanism could have produced nearly as much dust.

“This discovery is a special feather in the cap for SOFIA, demonstrating how observations made within our own Milky Way galaxy can bear directly on our understanding of the evolution of galaxies billions of light years away,” said Pamela Marcum, a SOFIA project scientist at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747 Special Performance jetliner that carries a telescope with an effective diameter of 100 inches (2.5 meters) at altitudes of 39,000 to 45,000 feet (12 to 14 km). SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. The aircraft observatory is based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center facility in Palmdale, California. The agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is home to the SOFIA Science Center, which is managed by NASA in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart.

For more information about SOFIA, visit:


For information about SOFIA’s science mission and scientific instruments, visit:



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:


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:

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

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

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:


Rachel Kraft
Headquarters, Washington

Kim Henry
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

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:

For more information about Dawn, visit:


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.

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