The highest highlight of 2009 was clearly the revival of the Hubble Space Telescope, a mission that blended moments of beauty and brute force 350 miles above the earth.
Or was it?
Maybe the top story was the reassessment of NASA’s plans for human spaceflight. After all, tens of billions of dollars could be at stake. Or maybe it was the series of victories in NASA-backed competitions that had gone unwon for years.
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Taken by astronaut William Anders from the Apollo 8 spacecraft, this December 1968 photo of Earth rising over the lunar surface would become one of the most famous images of the 20th century. Credit: NASA
NASA heads into 2010 with the bittersweet assignment of retiring the space shuttle after nearly three decades. But that’s not all the agency has planned: There are also launches of three new satellites aimed at better understanding the Earth’s climate and oceans, and the sun.
Two of the probes will examine Earth — specifically the concentration of salt in the world’s oceans and the presence of aerosol particles, such as soot, in the atmosphere. A third mission will study the sun and its effect on space weather including solar flares that can disrupt communication on Earth.
All three come at a critical time for NASA. Data from the two Earth probes will likely influence global-warming research, and the trio of launches could serve as bright spots in a year otherwise dominated by debate over the future of the agency’s manned space program.
“They are extraordinary timely,” said Michael Freilich, head of NASA’s Earth-science division, of the two Earth probes. “It is a quest for understanding of the Earth system and [to improve] our ability to predict how our wonderful environment and our planet is going to change in the future.”
Combined, the three missions will cost more than $1.5 billion.
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“…we must choose between two assumptions: either the souls which move the planets are the less active the farther the planet is removed from the sun, or there is only one moving soul in the center of all the orbits, that is the sun, which drives the planet the more vigorously the closer the planet is, but whose force is quasi-exhausted when acting on the outer planets because of the long distance and the weakening of the force which it entails.” (in ref. 1, p 261)
As the story goes, on Christmas night 2,000 years ago, wise men followed a star in the night sky to reach the baby Jesus. NASA-Ames is following the stars too, looking for life on other worlds, and astronomers have a new celestial tool to help them.
“If we’re going to be looking for planets, earth-like planets are the key,” Foothill College Astronomy Department Chair Andrew Fraknoi said.
Fraknoi has loved astronomy since childhood. He says NASA’s Kepler mission is one of the most exciting in quite some time.
“In the last 16 years, we’ve discovered over 400 planets going around other stars, but the methods so far that we have been using only allowed us to find big planets like Jupiter,” Fraknoi said.
Kepler is a telescope designed to find planets orbiting other stars by looking for a break in the star light as a planet moves in front of it.
The challenge now is to find planets that are half to twice the size of the earth in the habitable zone of their stars, where it is possible that water and even life might exist.
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Blue lines show Earth’s northern magnetic field and the magnetic north pole in an artist’s rendering. Credit: Stefan Maus, NOAA NGDC
Earth’s north magnetic pole is racing toward Russia at almost 40 miles (64 kilometers) a year due to magnetic changes in the planet’s core, new research says.
The core is too deep for scientists to directly detect its magnetic field. But researchers can infer the field’s movements by tracking how Earth’s magnetic field has been changing at the surface and in space.
Now, newly analyzed data suggest that there’s a region of rapidly changing magnetism on the core’s surface, possibly being created by a mysterious “plume” of magnetism arising from deeper in the core.
And it’s this region that could be pulling the magnetic pole away from its long-time location in northern Canada, said Arnaud Chulliat, a geophysicist at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France.
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Dreamliner First Class seating Credit: Boeing Company
The successful test flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner this week marks not only the introduction of a next generation aircraft, but is also a technological milestone. For example, the aircraft makes extensive use of composite materials, making its airframe lighter, stronger, and more fuel efficient. But that’s just the start of many new innovations.
The larger, eye level windows have no sliding plastic shades for a reason. There is an electrostatic film sandwiched internally that can adjust the level of light which passes through them, individually controlled by passengers, as well as the flight crew. They act the same way as tinted windows, but with multiple levels of adjustment.
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This artist’s conception shows the WISE telescope mapping the whole sky in infrared. The mission will unveil hundreds of thousands of asteroids, and hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies. Credit: NASA
NASA is getting ready to launch a new space telescope that will scan the entire sky for the infrared glow of hidden asteroids and stars that are close to Earth but too dim to be easily seen.
Unlike telescopes that look for visible light, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE telescope, will pick up infrared light. All objects that have any heat give off infrared light — and that includes things we normally think of as being cold. WISE will be able to see objects at a wide range of temperatures, from as cold as liquid nitrogen to as hot as molten aluminum, according to NASA.
To make sure WISE isn’t blinded by its own heat, it has to be kept supercold. It will work inside a giant thermos bottle called a cryostat, and hydrogen ice will keep the telescope at -438 degrees Fahrenheit. “We have now 40 pounds of solid hydrogen in our cryostat,” says William Irace, WISE project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. “Some people think it looks like R2D2 without wheels. It’s kind of a funny-looking thing.”
The funny-looking thing is about the size of a polar bear. A rocket will blast it into orbit around the Earth. NASA is targeting launch for Monday morning.
Once it reaches orbit, WISE will spend about six months taking over 1 million images that will be stitched together to create a panoramic, infrared view of the entire sky.
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Most astronomers today believe that one of the most plausible reasons we have yet to detect intelligent life in the universe is due to the deadly effects of local supernova explosions that wipe out all life in a given region of a galaxy.
While there is, on average, only one supernova per galaxy per century, there is something on the order of 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. Taking 10 billion years for the age of the Universe (it’s actually 13.7 billion, but stars didn’t form for the first few hundred million), Dr. Richard Mushotzky of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, derived a figure of 1 billion supernovae per year, or 30 supernovae per second in the observable Universe!
Certain rare stars -real killers -type 11 stars, are core-collapse hypernova that generate deadly gamma ray bursts (GRBs). These long burst objects release 1000 times the non-neutrino energy release of an ordinary “core-collapse” supernova. Concrete proof of the core-collapse GRB model came in 2003.
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Even more from NASA here: A Hypernova: The Super-charged Supernova and its link to Gamma-Ray Bursts
A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum asks the big questions: How can human spaceflight become routine? How can a home and workplace be created in the extreme environment of space? What does the future hold for humans in space?
“Moving Beyond Earth” at the Washington D.C. museum features launch-vehicle models representing the quest for space, telescopes brought back from the Hubble, the suit worn by space tourist Dennis Tito and other items from NASA’s space exploration history.
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NASA’s launch of its Ares test rocket has Buzz Aldrin questioning the vehicle’s design and outlining the need for better rockets.
The launch of NASA’s new rocket, Ares I-X, on October 28 was the first test flight of a new launch vehicle since the Apollo missions. The flight was spectacular and historic, but the famous Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin says it was little more than a half-a-billion dollar political show.
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