Space Missions

NASA, Citizen Scientists Discover Potential New Hunting Ground for Exoplanets

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Artist’s concept of the newly discovered disk. Credits: Jonathan Holden

 

Via a NASA-led citizen science project, eight people with no formal training in astrophysics helped discover what could be a fruitful new place to search for planets outside our solar system – a large disk of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disk.

paper, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and coauthored by eight citizen scientists involved in the discovery, describes a newly identified red dwarf star, AWI0005x3s, and its warm circumstellar disk, the kind associated with young planetary systems. Most of the exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, that have been imaged to date dwell in disks similar to the one around AWI0005x3s.

The disk and its star are located in what is dubbed the Carina association – a large, loose grouping of similar stars in the Carina Nebula approximately 212 light years from our sun. Its relative proximity to Earth will make it easier to conduct follow-on studies.

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Water Vapor Plumes Discovered on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

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Written by George McGinn
Cosmology and Space Research
September 27, 2016 at 4:32pm EST

This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes, photographed by NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity allowed for the features — rising over 100 miles (160 kilometers) above Europa’s icy surface — to be discerned. The water is believed to come from a subsurface ocean on Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. The image of Europa, superimposed on the Hubble data, is assembled from data from the Galileo and Voyager missions. Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center


In one of the most promising places in the Solar System where life may exist, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have photographed what appears to be water vapor plumes escaping Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The team from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore saw finger-like projections when viewing Europa as it past in front of Jupiter, according to team leader William Sparks.

The discovery occurred by accident as the team’s original proposal was to observe Europa to determine if it had an atmosphere or exosphere.

An exosphere of neon was detected on Earth’s Moon on August 17, 2015 based on study the data from the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft.

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NASA Scientists Find ‘Impossible’ Cloud on Titan — Again

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The hazy globe of Titan hangs in front of Saturn and its rings in this natural color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

The puzzling appearance of an ice cloud seemingly out of thin air has prompted NASA scientists to suggest that a different process than previously thought — possibly similar to one seen over Earth’s poles — could be forming clouds on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Located in Titan’s stratosphere, the cloud is made of a compound of carbon and nitrogen known as dicyanoacetylene (C4N2), an ingredient in the chemical cocktail that colors the giant moon’s hazy, brownish-orange atmosphere. 

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NASA’s Juno to Soar Closest to Jupiter This Saturday

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This dual view of Jupiter was taken on August 23, when NASA’s Juno spacecraft was 2.8 million miles (4.4 million kilometers) from the gas giant planet on the inbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS


This Saturday at 5:51 a.m. PDT, (8:51 a.m. EDT, 12:51 UTC) NASA’s Juno spacecraft will get closer to the cloud tops of Jupiter than at any other time during its prime mission. At the moment of closest approach, Juno will be about 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) above Jupiter’s swirling clouds and traveling at 130,000 mph (208,000 kilometers per hour) with respect to the planet. There are 35 more close flybys of Jupiter scheduled during its prime mission (scheduled to end in February of 2018). The Aug. 27 flyby will be the first time Juno will have its entire suite of science instruments activated and looking at the giant planet as the spacecraft zooms past.

“This is the first time we will be close to Jupiter since we entered orbit on July 4,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Back then we turned all our instruments off to focus on the rocket burn to get Juno into orbit around Jupiter. Since then, we have checked Juno from stem to stern and back again. We still have more testing to do, but we are confident that everything is working great, so for this upcoming flyby Juno’s eyes and ears, our science instruments, will all be open.”

“This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works,” Bolton said.

While the science data from the pass should be downlinked to Earth within days, interpretation and first results are not expected for some time.

“No other spacecraft has ever orbited Jupiter this closely, or over the poles in this fashion,” said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is our first opportunity and there are bound to be surprises. We need to take our time to make sure our conclusions are correct.”

Not only will Juno’s suite of eight science instruments be on, the spacecraft’s visible light imager — JunoCam will also be snapping some closeups. A handful of JunoCam images, including the highest resolution imagery of the Jovian atmosphere and the first glimpse of Jupiter’s north and south poles, are expected to be released during the later part of next week.

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Caltech, in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

More information on the Juno mission is available at: http://www.nasa.gov/juno

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/NASAJuno or http://www.twitter.com/NASAJuno

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft in Orbit Around Mighty Jupiter

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The Juno team celebrates at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, after receiving data indicating that NASA’s Juno mission entered orbit around Jupiter. Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at JPL, is seen at the center hugging JPL’s acting director for solar system exploration, Richard Cook. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Note from George McGinn: Yesterday I watched NASA’s briefing, and the Juno Spacecraft did something nearly impossible. The largest danger to the mission is the immense radiation. Jupiter’s version of Earth’s Van Allen belt have been catching huge amounts of solar radiation for 4.5 billion years. The gravity of Jupiter is so strong that it pulls more charged particles than would directly hit it. The Juno team estimated that the spacecraft will be exposed to radiation at LD25 (LD is Leathal Dose and 25 means 25 times, so 25 times the lethal dose to a human), or having 1 million dental X-rays all at once (in a space of 2 seconds). This is equal to 260 rads.

I applaud the Juno’s team, who worked almost 12 years to get this spacecraft safely in orbit. I am excited to see finally how deep the atmosphere goes, what gases make up Jupiter, and if there is a solid or semi-solid center, or just compressed gases. And can all that gas create the large magnetic field, or what is in the center, the speed of spin, and the chemical makeup. 

 

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit during a 35-minute engine burn. Confirmation that the burn had completed was received on Earth at 8:53 pm. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) Monday, July 4.

“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. “And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet’s interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved.” 

Confirmation of a successful orbit insertion was received from Juno tracking data monitored at the navigation facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as well as at the Lockheed Martin Juno operations center in Denver. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas in Goldstone, California, and Canberra, Australia.

“This is the one time I don’t mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the Fourth of July,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day.”

Preplanned events leading up to the orbital insertion engine burn included changing the spacecraft’s attitude to point the main engine in the desired direction and then increasing the spacecraft’s rotation rate from 2 to 5 revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilize it..

The burn of Juno’s 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine began on time at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), decreasing the spacecraft’s velocity by 1,212 mph (542 meters per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around Jupiter. Soon after the burn was completed, Juno turned so that the sun’s rays could once again reach the 18,698 individual solar cells that give Juno its energy.

“The spacecraft worked perfectly, which is always nice when you’re driving a vehicle with 1.7 billion miles on the odometer,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL. “Jupiter orbit insertion was a big step and the most challenging remaining in our mission plan, but there are others that have to occur before we can give the science team members the mission they are looking for.”

 

This is the final view taken by the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft before Juno’s instruments were powered down in preparation for orbit insertion. Juno obtained this color view on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Click image for full-size)


Over the next few months, Juno’s mission and science teams will perform final testing on the spacecraft’s subsystems, final calibration of science instruments and some science collection.

“Our official science collection phase begins in October, but we’ve figured out a way to collect data a lot earlier than that,” said Bolton. “Which when you’re talking about the single biggest planetary body in the solar system is a really good thing. There is a lot to see and do here.” 

Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras. The mission also will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter also can provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars. 

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for NASA. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

More information on the Juno mission is available at: http://www.nasa.gov/juno

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/NASAJuno or http://www.twitter.com/NASAJuno

NASA Announces Coverage, Media Activities for Juno Mission Arrival at Jupiter

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NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter July 4, 2016. Credits: NASA

 

This Fourth of July, NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter after an almost five-year journey. News briefings, photo opportunities and other media events will be held at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website. 

Juno was launched August 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida on an Atlas V rocket. It was estimated to take five years for the satellite to reach Jupiter, the only other gas giant without a dedicated satellite.

In the evening of July 4, Juno will perform a suspenseful orbit insertion maneuver, a 35-minute burn of its main engine, to slow the spacecraft by about 1,212 miles per hour (542 meters per second) so it can be captured into the gas giant’s orbit. Once in Jupiter’s orbit, the spacecraft will circle the Jovian world 37 times during 20 months, skimming to within 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) above the cloud tops. This is the first time a spacecraft will orbit the poles of Jupiter, providing new answers to ongoing mysteries about the planet’s core, composition and magnetic fields.

Juno will improve our understanding of the solar system’s beginnings by revealing the origin and evolution of Jupiter.

Specifically, Juno will… 

  • Determine how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which helps determine which planet formation theory is correct (or if new theories are needed)
  • Look deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere to measure composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties
  • Map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, revealing the planet’s deep structure
  • Explore and study Jupiter’s magnetosphere near the planet’s poles, especially the auroras – Jupiter’s northern and southern lights – providing new insights about how the planet’s enormous magnetic force field affects its atmosphere.

Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

With its suite of science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.

While the events below are for the media, the public is invited to watch each of the events starting on June 16. The following are televised events are: 

NASA TV Events Schedule 

For all media briefings, reporters may ask questions by phone by contacting Gina Fontes at 818-354-9380 or georgina.d.fontes@jpl.nasa.gov. All times are Eastern.
 

Thursday, June 16
2 p.m. — Mission status briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington

Thursday, June 30
4 p.m. — Mission overview news briefing at JPL
5 p.m. — Mission outreach briefing at JPL

Monday, July 4 – Orbit Insertion Day
Noon — Pre-orbit insertion briefing at JPL
10:30 p.m. — Orbit insertion and NASA TV commentary begin

Tuesday, July 5
1 a.m. — Post-orbit insertion briefing at JPL

 

To watch all of these events online, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv or http://www.ustream.tv/nasa or http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl


Additional material on Juno’s mission was added from additional sources by George McGinn to add more about why these events are important to planetary science.  – George McGinn 

Saturn Spacecraft Samples Interstellar Dust

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Of the millions of dust grains Cassini has sampled at Saturn, a few dozen appear to have come from beyond our solar system. Scientists believe these special grains have interstellar origins because they moved much faster and in different directions compared to dusty material native to Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected the faint but distinct signature of dust coming from beyond our solar system. The research, led by a team of Cassini scientists primarily from Europe, is published this week in the journal Science.

Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, studying the giant planet, its rings and its moons. The spacecraft has also sampled millions of ice-rich dust grains with its cosmic dust analyzer instrument. The vast majority of the sampled grains originate from active jets that spray from the surface of Saturn’s geologically active moon Enceladus.

But among the myriad microscopic grains collected by Cassini, a special few — just 36 grains — stand out from the crowd. Scientists conclude these specks of material came from interstellar space — the space between the stars. 

Alien dust in the solar system is not unanticipated. In the 1990s, the ESA/NASA Ulysses mission made the first in-situ observations of this material, which were later confirmed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. The dust was traced back to the local interstellar cloud: a nearly empty bubble of gas and dust that our solar system is traveling through with a distinct direction and speed.

“From that discovery, we always hoped we would be able to detect these interstellar interlopers at Saturn with Cassini. We knew that if we looked in the right direction, we should find them,” said Nicolas Altobelli, Cassini project scientist at ESA (European Space Agency) and lead author of the study. “Indeed, on average, we have captured a few of these dust grains per year, travelling at high speed and on a specific path quite different from that of the usual icy grains we collect around Saturn.”

The tiny dust grains were speeding through the Saturn system at over 45,000 mph (72,000 kilometers per hour), fast enough to avoid being trapped inside the solar system by the gravity of the sun and its planets.

“We’re thrilled Cassini could make this detection, given that our instrument was designed primarily to measure dust from within the Saturn system, as well as all the other demands on the spacecraft,” said Marcia Burton, a Cassini fields and particles scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and a co-author of the paper.

Importantly, unlike Ulysses and Galileo, Cassini was able to analyze the composition of the dust for the first time, showing it to be made of a very specific mixture of minerals, not ice. The grains all had a surprisingly similar chemical make-up, containing major rock-forming elements like magnesium, silicon, iron and calcium in average cosmic proportions. Conversely, more reactive elements like sulfur and carbon were found to be less abundant compared to their average cosmic abundance. 

“Cosmic dust is produced when stars die, but with the vast range of types of stars in the universe, we naturally expected to encounter a huge range of dust types over the long period of our study,” said Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg, a co-author of the paper and co-investigator of Cassini’s dust analyzer.

Stardust grains are found in some types of meteorites, which have preserved them since the birth of our solar system. They are generally old, pristine and diverse in their composition. But surprisingly, the grains detected by Cassini aren’t like that. They have apparently been made rather uniform through some repetitive processing in the interstellar medium, the researchers said.

The authors speculate on how this processing of dust might take place: Dust in a star-forming region could be destroyed and recondense multiple times as shock waves from dying stars passed through, resulting in grains like the ones Cassini observed streaming into our solar system.

“The long duration of the Cassini mission has enabled us to use it like a micrometeorite observatory, providing us privileged access to the contribution of dust from outside our solar system that could not have been obtained in any other way,” said Altobelli.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer is supported by the German Aerospace Center (DLR); the instrument is managed by the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

For more information about Cassini, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini or http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

 

NASA, Japan Make ASTER Earth Data Available At No Cost

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In March 2016, ASTER captured the eruption of Nicaragua’s Momotombo volcano with its visible and thermal infrared bands. The ash plume is depicted by the visible bands in blue-gray; the thermal infrared bands show hot lava flows in yellow and the active summit crater in white. Vegetation is red. Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Beginning today, all Earth imagery from a prolific Japanese remote sensing instrument operating aboard NASA’s Terra spacecraft since late 1999 is now available to users everywhere at no cost.

The public will have unlimited access to the complete 16-plus-year database for Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument, which images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER’s database currently consists of more than 2.95 million individual scenes. The content ranges from massive scars across the Oklahoma landscape from an EF-5 tornado and the devastating aftermath of flooding in Pakistan, to volcanic eruptions in Iceland and wildfires in California.

Previously, users could access ASTER’s global digital topographic maps of Earth online at no cost, but paid METI a nominal fee to order other ASTER data products. 

In announcing the change in policy, METI and NASA cited ASTER’s longevity and continued strong environmental monitoring capabilities. Launched in 1999, ASTER has far exceeded its five-year design life and will continue to operate for the foreseeable future as part of the suite of five Earth-observing instruments on Terra.

“We anticipate a dramatic increase in the number of users of our data, with new and exciting results to come,” said Michael Abrams, ASTER science team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to ASTER’s U.S. science team. ASTER data are processed into products using algorithms developed at JPL and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan. A joint U.S./Japan science team validates and calibrates the instrument and data products.

ASTER is used to create detailed maps of land surface temperature, reflectance and elevation. The instrument acquires images in visible and thermal infrared wavelengths, with spatial resolutions ranging from about 50 to 300 feet (15 to 90 meters). ASTER data cover 99 percent of Earth’s landmass and span from 83 degrees north latitude to 83 degrees south. A single downward-looking ASTER scene covers an area on the ground measuring about 37-by-37 miles (60-by-60-kilometers).

ASTER uses its near-infrared spectral band and downward- and backward-viewing telescopes to create stereo-pair images, merging two slightly offset two-dimensional images to create the three-dimensional effect of depth. Each elevation measurement point in the data is 98 feet (30 meters) apart.

The broad spectral coverage and high spectral resolution of ASTER provide scientists in numerous disciplines with critical information for surface mapping and monitoring of dynamic conditions and changes over time. Example applications include monitoring glacial advances and retreats, monitoring potentially active volcanoes, identifying crop stress, determining cloud morphology and physical properties, evaluating wetlands, monitoring thermal pollution, monitoring coral reef degradation, mapping surface temperatures of soils and geology, and measuring surface heat balance.

ASTER data are now available via electronic download from NASA’s Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC) at the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and from AIST. To access the data, visit: https://lpdaac.usgs.gov/dataset_discovery/aster or https://gbank.gsj.jp/madas/

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

For more information about ASTER, visit: http://asterweb.jpl.nasa.gov/

For more information on NASA’s Terra mission, visit: http://terra.nasa.gov

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/earth

NASA, UN Announce Final Winner of #whyspacematters Photo Competition

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February 23, 2016
RELEASE 16-021


NOTE: While this is a press release that will also appear on the Press Release page, The editors felt that this might also appeal to the general audience. It talks about both the US Astronaut Scott Kelly who spent one year in space to study the effects of prolonged exposure to the rigors of space, and the announcement of the winner of a year-long photo contest on “Why Space Matters.”


Each month, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly will announce the winning photo of the #whyspacematters competition by posting it to his Instagram account @StationCDRKelly. Credits: UNOOSA


As astronaut Scott Kelly’s one-year mission aboard the International Space Station draws to a close, NASA and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) are announcing the final winner of a global photography competition highlighting how the vantage point of space helps us better understand our home planet and provide benefits to humanity. 

NASA and UNOOSA invited the public to submit photos depicting why space matters to us all in our daily lives as a way to highlight the application of space-based science and technologies. In response, hundreds of participants from around the world posted pictures on Instagram using the hashtag #whyspacematters.

Kelly, who is scheduled to depart the space station and return to Earth on March 1, announced winning photos each month by posting them from his Instagram account @StationCDRKelly.

“Of course, I think space matters in a multitude of ways, but it’s been inspiring to see this proof that you don’t have to be an astronaut to recognize that,” Kelly said. “Space technology and research is impacting the lives of people around the world. Over the past year, I’ve been able to play a personal role in some of that research, and by speaking up about why it’s important, everyone who participated has played a part of their own.”

The winning photos for each month, from June 2015 to January, ranged from a striking Earth-bound, long-exposure image of the night sky in December to a view of solar panels on a roof in Mexico in September, to a photo of a female Nigerian firefighter using a NASA-developed breathing apparatus in June.

To view all of the winning photos, and read the associated stories from the #whyspacematters competition, visit: http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/contests/whyspacematters/

Kelly and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have spent nearly a year in space to improve our understanding of the medical, psychological and biomedical challenges faced by astronauts during long-duration spaceflight, an important step in research into the effects of long-term space habitation as part of NASA’s Journey to Mars

“It was an honor to have Scott Kelly share his experience in space with the United Nations. This campaign helped to promote the use of space science and technologies in such areas as disaster risk reduction, tracking the effects of climate change and in the equality of access to education and telemedicine,” said UNOOSA Director Simonetta Di Pippo.

Scientists worldwide use NASA data to tackle some of the biggest questions about how our planet is changing now and how Earth could change in the future. From rising sea levels to the changing availability of freshwater, NASA enables studies that unravel the complexities of our planet from the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere to its core.

The International Space Station is a convergence of science, technology and human innovation that enables us to demonstrate new technologies and make research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. It has been continuously occupied since November 2000 and, since then, has been visited by more than 200 people and a variety of international and commercial spacecraft. The space station remains the springboard to NASA’s next giant leap in exploration, including future missions to an asteroid and Mars.

For more information about the International Space Station and its crews and research, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/station

 

NASA’s LISA Pathfinder Thrusters Operated Successfully

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The LISA Pathfinder spacecraft will help pave the way for a mission to detect gravitational waves. NASA/JPL developed a thruster system onboard. (Credit: European Space Agency – ESA)

 

While some technologies were created to make spacecraft move billions of miles, the Disturbance Reduction System has the opposite goal: To keep a spacecraft as still as possible.

The thruster system, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, is part of the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, which launched from Kourou, French Guiana on Dec. 3, 2015 GMT (Dec. 2 PST). LISA Pathfinder will test technologies that could one day allow detection of gravitational waves, whose effects are so miniscule that a spacecraft would need to remain extremely steady to detect them. Observing gravitational waves would be a huge step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the universe.

Now, LISA Pathfinder is on its way to Lagrange Point L1, about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth in the direction of the sun. L1 is a special point that a spacecraft can orbit while maintaining a nearly constant distance to Earth. This month, scientists and engineers have been switching on LISA Pathfinder’s instruments to test them in space. This has included the Disturbance Reduction System instrument computer and thrusters.

The system uses colloid micronewton thrusters, which operate by applying an electric charge to small droplets of liquid and accelerating them through an electric field, to precisely control the position of the spacecraft. Thrusters that work this way had never been successfully operated in space before LISA Pathfinder launched.

As of Jan. 10, all eight identical thrusters, developed by Busek Co., Natick, Massachusetts, with technical support from JPL, passed their functional tests. The thrusters achieved their maximum thrust of 30 micronewtons, equivalent to the weight of a mosquito. This level of precision is necessary to counteract small forces on the spacecraft such as the pressure of sunlight, with the result that the spacecraft and the instruments inside are in near-perfect free-fall. A mission to detect gravitational waves would need that level of stability.

“We reached a major milestone with this technology development,” said Phil Barela, Disturbance Reduction System project manager at JPL. “The DRS is helping point the way to a system that could be used to detect gravitational waves in the future.”

Gravitational waves are one of the last unverified predictions from the theory of General Relativity, which Albert Einstein published about a century ago. Einstein wrote that as massive bodies accelerate, such as black holes, they produce distortions in space-time. Scientists are interested in observing and characterizing these ripples in space-time so that they can learn more about the astrophysical systems that produce them, and about gravity itself. Proposed experiments to detect them from space, such as a future LISA mission, would need to measure how two freely-falling objects move ever so slightly, relative to each other, as a result of gravitational waves. In order to rule out any disturbances that could mask these waves, there must be a system to compensate for solar pressure and other factors. The Disturbance Reduction System on LISA Pathfinder will demonstrate this technology.

The Disturbance Reduction System could also lead to advanced thruster systems for other space applications. Space telescopes need to be very stable to detect distant planets in other solar systems, for example, and could use a similar system. A set of thrusters like the Disturbance Reduction System’s could also be used in small satellites to help synchronize flying patterns.

LISA Pathfinder will reach its final orbit on Jan. 22, and begin science operations on March 1. For the first phase of the mission’s science operations, a thruster technology system designed by the European Space Agency will be used. JPL’s Disturbance Reduction System will then take over in June or July, operating for 90 days. 

LISA Pathfinder is managed by the European Space Agency. The spacecraft was built by Airbus Defence and Space, Ltd., United Kingdom. Airbus Defence and Space, GmbH, Germany, is the payload architect for the LISA Technology Package. The DRS is managed by JPL. The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.