Sunday, January 30, 2011

NASA Comet Hunter Spots Its Valentine

NASA's Stardust spacecraft has downlinked its first images of comet Tempel 1, the target of a flyby planned for Valentine's Day, Feb. 14. The images were taken on Jan. 18 and 19 from a distance of 26.3 million kilometers (16.3 million miles), and 25.4 million kilometers (15.8 million miles) respectively. On Feb. 14, Stardust will fly within about 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the comet's nucleus.

"This is the first of many images to come of comet Tempel 1," said Joe Veverka, principal investigator of NASA's Stardust-NExT mission from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "Encountering something as small and fast as a comet in the vastness of space is always a challenge, but we are very pleased with how things are setting up for our Valentine's Day flyby."

The composite image is a combination of several images taken by Stardust's navigation camera. Future images will be used to help mission navigators refine Stardust's trajectory, or flight path, as it closes the distance between comet and spacecraft at a rate of about 950,000 kilometers (590,000 miles) a day. On the night of encounter, the navigation camera will be used to acquire 72 high-resolution images of the comet's surface features. Stardust-NExT mission scientists will use these images to see how surface features on comet Tempel 1 have changed over the past five-and-a-half years. (Tempel 1 had previously been visited and imaged in July of 2005 by NASA's Deep Impact mission).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Asteroids Ahoy! Jupiter Scar Likely from Rocky Body

A hurtling asteroid about the size of the Titanic caused the scar that appeared in Jupiter's atmosphere on July 19, 2009, according to two papers published recently in the journal Icarus.

Data from three infrared telescopes enabled scientists to observe the warm atmospheric temperatures and unique chemical conditions associated with the impact debris. By piecing together signatures of the gases and dark debris produced by the impact shockwaves, an international team of scientists was able to deduce that the object was more likely a rocky asteroid than an icy comet. Among the teams were those led by Glenn Orton, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Leigh Fletcher, researcher at Oxford University, U.K., who started the work while he was a postdoctoral fellow at JPL.

"Both the fact that the impact itself happened at all and the implication that it may well have been an asteroid rather than a comet shows us that the outer solar system is a complex, violent and dynamic place, and that many surprises may be out there waiting for us," said Orton. "There is still a lot to sort out in the outer solar system."

NASA's Hubble Finds Most Distant Galaxy Candidate Ever Seen in Universe

Astronomers have pushed NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to its limits by finding what is likely to be the most distant object ever seen in the universe. The object's light traveled 13.2 billion years to reach Hubble, roughly 150 million years longer than the previous record holder. The age of the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years.

The tiny, dim object is a compact galaxy of blue stars that existed 480 million years after the big bang. More than 100 such mini-galaxies would be needed to make up our Milky Way. The new research offers surprising evidence that the rate of star birth in the early universe grew dramatically, increasing by about a factor of 10 from 480 million years to 650 million years after the big bang.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Runaway Star Plows Through Space

A massive star flung away from its former companion is plowing through space dust. The result is a brilliant bow shock, seen here as a yellow arc in a new image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

The star, named Zeta Ophiuchi, is huge, with a mass of about 20 times that of our sun. In this image, in which infrared light has been translated into visible colors we see with our eyes, the star appears as the blue dot inside the bow shock.

Zeta Ophiuchi once orbited around an even heftier star. But when that star exploded in a supernova, Zeta Ophiuchi shot away like a bullet. It's traveling at a whopping 54,000 miles per hour (or 24 kilometers per second), and heading toward the upper left area of the picture.

As the star tears through space, its powerful winds push gas and dust out of its way and into what is called a bow shock. The material in the bow shock is so compressed that it glows with infrared light that WISE can see. The effect is similar to what happens when a boat speeds through water, pushing a wave in front of it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Voyager Celebrates 25 Years Since Uranus Visit

As NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft made the only close approach to date of our mysterious seventh planet Uranus 25 years ago, Project Scientist Ed Stone and the Voyager team gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to pore over the data coming in.

Images of the small, icy Uranus moon Miranda were particularly surprising. Since small moons tend to cool and freeze over rapidly after their formation, scientists had expected a boring, ancient surface, pockmarked by crater-upon-weathered-crater. Instead they saw grooved terrain with linear valleys and ridges cutting through the older terrain and sometimes coming together in chevron shapes. They also saw dramatic fault scarps, or cliffs. All of this indicated that periods of tectonic and thermal activity had rocked Miranda's surface in the past.

The scientists were also shocked by data showing that Uranus's magnetic north and south poles were not closely aligned with the north-south axis of the planet's rotation. Instead, the planet's magnetic field poles were closer to the Uranian equator. This suggested that the material flows in the planet's interior that are generating the magnetic field are closer to the surface of Uranus than the flows inside Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are to their respective surfaces.

Mars Sliding Behind Sun After Rover Anniversary

The team operating NASA's Mars rover Opportunity will temporarily suspend commanding for 16 days after the rover's seventh anniversary next week, but the rover will stay busy.

For the fourth time since Opportunity landed on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time (Jan. 24, Pacific Time), the planets' orbits will put Mars almost directly behind the sun from Earth's perspective.

During the days surrounding such an alignment, called a solar conjunction, the sun can disrupt radio transmissions between Earth and Mars. To avoid the chance of a command being corrupted by the sun and harming a spacecraft, NASA temporarily refrains from sending commands from Earth to Mars spacecraft in orbit and on the surface. This year, the commanding moratorium will be Jan. 27 to Feb. 11 for Opportunity, with similar periods for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

NASA Spacecraft Prepares for Valentine's Day Comet Rendezvous

NASA's Stardust-NExT spacecraft is nearing a celestial date with comet Tempel 1 at approximately 8:37 p.m. PST (11:37 p.m. EST), on Feb. 14. The mission will allow scientists for the first time to look for changes on a comet's surface that occurred following an orbit around the sun.

The Stardust-NExT, or New Exploration of Tempel, spacecraft will take high-resolution images during the encounter, and attempt to measure the composition, distribution, and flux of dust emitted into the coma, or material surrounding the comet's nucleus. Data from the mission will provide important new information on how Jupiter-family comets evolved and formed.

The mission will expand the investigation of the comet initiated by NASA's Deep Impact mission. In July 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft delivered an impactor to the surface of Tempel 1 to study its composition. The Stardust spacecraft may capture an image of the crater created by the impactor. This would be an added bonus to the huge amount of data that mission scientists expect to obtain.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More Asteroids Could Have Made Life's Ingredients

A wider range of asteroids were capable of creating the kind of amino acids used by life on Earth, according to new NASA research.

Amino acids are used to build proteins, which are used by life to make structures like hair and nails, and to speed up or regulate chemical reactions. Amino acids come in two varieties that are mirror images of each other, like your hands. Life on Earth uses the left-handed kind exclusively. Since life based on right-handed amino acids would presumably work fine, scientists are trying to find out why Earth-based life favored left-handed amino acids.

In March, 2009, researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., reported the discovery of an excess of the left-handed form of the amino acid isovaline in samples of meteorites that came from carbon-rich asteroids. This suggests that perhaps left-handed life got its start in space, where conditions in asteroids favored the creation of left-handed amino acids. Meteorite impacts could have supplied this material, enriched in left-handed molecules, to Earth. The bias toward left-handedness would have been perpetuated as this material was incorporated into emerging life.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Holes in the Sun's Corona

This Solar Dynamics Observatory image of the Sun taken on January 10 in extreme ultraviolet light captures a dark coronal hole just about at sun center. Coronal holes are areas of the Sun's surface that are the source of open magnetic field lines that head way out into space. They are also the source regions of the fast solar wind, which is characterized by a relatively steady speed of approximately 800 km/s (about 1.8 million mph). As the sun continues to rotate, the high speed solar wind particles blowing from this hole will likely reach Earth in a few days and may spark some auroral activity.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Hotspots in Fountains on the Sun's Surface Help Explain Coronal Heating Mystery

Among the many constantly moving, appearing, disappearing and generally explosive events in the sun's atmosphere, there exist giant plumes of gas -- as wide as a state and as long as Earth -- that zoom up from the sun's surface at 150,000 miles per hour. Known as spicules, these are one of several phenomena known to transfer energy and heat throughout the sun's magnetic atmosphere, or corona.

Thanks to NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Japanese satellite Hinode, these spicules have recently been imaged and measured better than ever before, showing them to contain hotter gas than previously observed. Thus, they may perhaps play a key role in helping to heat the sun's corona to a staggering million degrees or more. (A number made more surprising since the sun's surface itself is only about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Hinode Observes Annular Solar Eclipse

On January 4, the Hinode satellite captured these breathtaking images of an annular solar eclipse. An annular eclipse occurs when the moon, slightly more distant from Earth than on average, moves directly between Earth and the sun, thus appearing slightly smaller to observers' eyes; the effect is a bright ring, or annulus of sunlight, around the silhouette of the moon. Hinode, a Japanese mission in partnership with NASA, NAOJ, STFC, ESA, and NSC, currently in Earth orbit, is studying the Sun to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that power the solar atmosphere and drive solar eruptions.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Rover Will Spend 7th Birthday at Stadium-Size Crater

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured a Dec. 31, 2010, view of the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on the southwestern rim of a football-field-size crater called "Santa Maria."

Opportunity arrived at the western edge of Santa Maria crater in mid-December and will spend about two months investigating rocks there. That investigation will take Opportunity into the beginning of its eighth year on Mars. Opportunity landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars on Jan. 25, 2004, Universal Time (Jan. 24, Pacific Time) for a mission originally planned to last for three months.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

NASA Checking on Rover Spirit During Martian Spring

Nine months after last hearing from the Mars rover Spirit, NASA is stepping up efforts to regain communications with the rover before spring ends on southern Mars in mid-March.

Spirit landed on Mars Jan. 4, 2004 (Universal Time; Jan. 3, Pacific Time) for a mission designed to last for three months. After accomplishing its prime-mission goals, Spirit worked for more than five years in bonus-time extended missions.

"The amount of solar energy available for Spirit is still increasing every day for the next few months," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "As long as that's the case, we will do all we can to increase the chances of hearing from the rover again."

After mid-March, prospects for reviving Spirit would begin to drop. Communication strategies would change based on reasoning that Spirit's silence is due to factors beyond just a low-power condition. Mission-ending damage from the cold experienced by Spirit in the past Martian winter is a real possibility.