Thursday, October 31, 2013

ESA ExoMars: Development of Martian Sample Return box

This spherical container has been engineered to house the most scientifically valuable cargo imaginable: samples brought back from the Red Planet.

Still probably many years in the future and most likely international in nature, a Mars sample-return mission is one of the most challenging space ventures possible for robotic exploration.

A robust, multifunctional sample container is an essential link in the long technical chain necessary to make such a mission successful.

Weighing less than 5 kg, this 23 cm-diameter sphere is designed to keep martian samples in pristine condition at under –10°C throughout their long journey back to Earth.

First, the sample container must be landed on Mars, along with a rover to retrieve a cache of samples carefully selected by a previous mission, according to current mission scenarios.

The container seen here hosts 11 sealable receptacles, including one set aside for a sample of martian air.

Then, once filled, it will be launched back up to Mars orbit. There it will remain for several days until a rendezvous spacecraft captures it.

To ease the process of rendezvous, the sample container carries a radio emitter and retroreflectors for close-up laser ranging.

Before being returned to Earth, the container will be enclosed in another larger bio-sealed vessel to ensure perfect containment of any returned martian material. This container will then be returned to Earth for a high-speed entry.

"Because there is the potential, however remote, that the samples contain alien life, we have to comply with strict planetary protection protocols not to bring them into contact with Earth's biosphere," explained Benoit Laine, Head of ESA's Thermal Analysis and Verification section, who oversaw the sample container project.

"In effect, the parachute technology is not reliable enough – which means the container must be able to withstand a crash landing without parachute.

"The mission design therefore does not include any parachute, and the capsule literally falls from Mars onto Earth, decelerated only by the pressure on the heatshield through Earth's atmosphere, and by the impact at landing."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gimball: A robust, crash-happy flying robot - Video

Credit: Adrien Briod holding the Gimball

Gimball bumps into and ricochets off of obstacles, rather than avoiding them.

This 34 centimeter in diameter spherical flying robot buzzes around the most unpredictable, chaotic environments, without the need for fragile detection sensors.

This resiliency to injury, inspired by insects, is what sets it apart from other flying robots.

Gimball is protected by a spherical, elastic cage which enables it to absorb and rebound from shocks. It keeps its balance using a gyroscopic stabilization system.

When tested in the forests above Lausanne, Switzerland, it performed brilliantly, careening from tree trunk to tree trunk but staying on course. It will be presented in public at the IREX conference in Tokyo, Japan from November 5-9, 2013.

Adrien Briod
Powered by twin propellers and steered by fins, Gimball can stay on course despite its numerous collisions. This feat was a formidable challenge for EPFL PhD student Adrien Briod.

"The idea was for the robot's body to stay balanced after a collision, so that it can keep to its trajectory," he explains.

"Its predecessors, which weren't stabilized, tended to take off in random directions after impact."

With colleague Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski, Briod developed the gyroscopic stabilization system consisting of a double carbon-fiber ring that keeps the robot oriented vertically, while the cage absorbs shocks as it rotates. Going sensor-free: insect-inspired design

Kornatowski
Most robots navigate using a complex network of sensors, which allow them to avoid obstacles by reconstructing the environment around them. It's an inconvenient method, says Briod.

"The sensors are heavy and fragile. And they can't operate in certain conditions, for example if the environment is full of smoke." Gimball's robustness lies in its technological simplicity, says Briod.

"Flying insects handle collisions quite well. For them, shocks aren't really accidents, because they're designed to bounce back from them. This is the direction we decided to take in our research."




Gimball likes to make contact. In fact, this small ultralight flying spheroid resembles an insect as it goes around bumping into things. 

The goal of EPFL researchers was to develop a machine that could operate in extremely chaotic environments without the need for fragile sensors.

Sky at Night returns to UK BBC4 following 40,000-signature petition

Over 40,000 fans signed a petition in support of the show, which was presented by Sir Patrick Moore until his death last December. 

Photograph: Roger Bamber/Rex Features

The sun will not set on the The Sky at Night after the BBC announced the long-running science show would move to a new slot on BBC4 following a petition signed by 40,000 viewers who feared it would be axed.

The astronomy show, first broadcast in 1957, will lose its slot on BBC1 but will be expanded from 20 to 30 minutes in its new monthly home on BBC4, with a repeat on BBC2.

The future of the series appeared to be in doubt last month after the corporation declined to confirm its future beyond the end of the year.

More than 40,000 fans signed an online petition in support of the show, which was presented by Sir Patrick Moore until his death last December, aged 89.

The programme will be off air in January, when the gap will be filled by BBC2's live astronomy series, Stargazing Live, presented by Professor Brian Cox and Dara O Briain, before returning in February.

Kim Shillinglaw, head of commissioning science and natural history, said: "Sir Patrick Moore inspired generations of astronomers and The Sky at Night will enthuse further generations about the wonder of the night sky."

Losing its BBC1 slot is likely to deprive the show of its biggest audiences. The show's last BBC1 outing, on 6 October, was watched by 655,000 viewers.

No decisions have been made about the presenter's role on the show which has been filled by a series of guest hosts following Moore's death.

Moore presented a total of 721 episodes, missing just one outing in the programme's history, when he was struck down by food poisoning.

NASA's Orion spacecraft comes to life

Orion's avionics system was installed on the crew module and powered up for a series of systems tests at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week. 

Credit: Lockheed Martin.

NASA's first-ever deep space craft, Orion, has been powered on for the first time, marking a major milestone in the final year of preparations for flight.

Orion's avionics system was installed on the crew module and powered up for a series of systems tests at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week.

Preliminary data indicate Orion's vehicle management computer, as well as its innovative power and data distribution system—which use state-of-the-art networking capabilities—performed as expected.

All of Orion's avionics systems will be put to the test during its first mission, Exploration Flight Test-1(EFT-1), targeted to launch in the fall of 2014.

"Orion will take humans farther than we've ever been before, and in just about a year we're going to send the Orion test vehicle into space," said Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development in Washington.

"The work we're doing now, the momentum we're building, is going to carry us on our first trip to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. No other vehicle currently being built can do that, but Orion will, and EFT-1 is the first step."

Orion provides the United States an entirely new human space exploration capability—a flexible system that can to launch crew and cargo missions, extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit, and enable new missions of exploration throughout our solar system.

EFT-1 is a two-orbit, four-hour mission that will send Orion, uncrewed, more than 3,600 miles above the Earth's surface —15 times farther than the International Space Station.

During the test, Orion will return to Earth, enduring temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit while traveling 20,000 miles per hour, faster than any current spacecraft capable of carrying humans.

The data gathered during the flight will inform design decisions, validate existing computer models and guide new approaches to space systems development.

The information gathered from this test also will aid in reducing the risks and costs of subsequent Orion flights.

"It's been an exciting ride so far, but we're really getting to the good part now," said Mark Geyer, Orion program manager. "This is where we start to see the finish line.

Our team across the country has been working hard to build the hardware that goes into Orion, and now the vehicle and all our plans are coming to life."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

ESA's Mars Express: Huge Martian Landforms Detail Revealed



ESA's Mars Express orbited the Red Planet nearly 12,500 times by October 2013. Its high resolution stereo camera images, assembled in this "fly-around," show riverbeds, volcanoes, canyons and craters.

Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

NASA Messenger: Sunlight on the Side of the Planet Mercury

Another day, another beautiful view of Mercury's horizon. 

In this scene, which was acquired looking from the shadows toward the sunlit side of the planet, a 120-km (75 mi.) impact crater stands out near the center.

Emanating from this unnamed crater are striking chains of secondary craters, which gouged linear tracks radially away from the crater.

While this crater is not especially fresh (its rays have faded into the background), it does appear to have more prominent secondary crater chains than many of its peers.

This image was acquired on Oct. 2, 2013 by the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) aboard NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft, as part of the MDIS's limb imaging campaign.

Once per week, MDIS captures images of Mercury's limb, with an emphasis on imaging the southern hemisphere limb.

These limb images provide information about Mercury's shape and complement measurements of topography made by the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) of Mercury's northern hemisphere.

The MESSENGER spacecraft is the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury, and the spacecraft's seven scientific instruments and radio science investigation are unraveling the history and evolution of the solar system's innermost planet.

During the first two years of orbital operations, MESSENGER acquired over 150,000 images and extensive other data sets. MESSENGER is capable of continuing orbital operations until early 2015.

Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

NASA Dryden: SNC Dream Chaser Performs Free-Flight Test

Sierra Nevada Corporation has performed its first free-flight approach-and-landing test of the Dream Chaser spacecraft.

The vehicle successfully released from its carrier aircraft, an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter, as planned at approximately 11:10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

Following release, the Dream Chaser spacecraft automated flight control system gently steered the vehicle to its intended glide slope.

The vehicle adhered to the design flight trajectory throughout the flight profile. Less than a minute later, Dream Chaser smoothly flared and touched down on Edwards Air Force Base's Runway 22L right on centerline.

While there was an anomaly with the left landing gear deployment, the high-quality flight and telemetry data throughout all phases of the approach-and-landing test will allow SNC teams to continue to refine their spacecraft design.

SNC and NASA Dryden are currently reviewing the data.

A spokesman said; "As with any space flight test program, there will be anomalies that we can learn from, allowing us to improve our vehicle and accelerate our rate of progress."

Monday, October 28, 2013

ISS Expedition 37 Crew members in Kibo lab

Expedition 37 crew members pose for an inflight crew portrait in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station. 

Pictured (clockwise from lower left) are Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, commander; Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins, all flight engineers.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano has been on board the ISS since May 2013. Read more about the Volare Mission in his blog: blogs.esa.int/luca-parmitano

ESA ATV Albert Einstein undocks from ISS

The European Space Agency’s fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-4) undocks from the aft port of the International Space Station’s Zvezda service module. Image Credit: NASA TV

The European Space Agency’s fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-4), also known as the “Albert Einstein,” undocked from the aft port of the International Space Station’s Zvezda service module at 4:55 a.m. EDT Monday.

Its departure sets the stage for the relocation of a Soyuz spacecraft currently docked at the station and the arrival of three new crew members.

Expedition 37 Flight Engineers Luca Parmitano and Oleg Kotov, who together closed up the hatches to the ATV-4 Friday, monitored the automated departure from a control panel inside Zvezda, ready to take control of the process if needed.

Meanwhile Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin photographed the departing space freighter to capture imagery of its docking assembly and a set of sensors at the forward end of the spacecraft.

At the time of undocking, the station was orbiting about 260 miles above Kazakhstan.

Fyodor Yurchikhin
ATV-4, now filled with trash and unneeded items, fired its thrusters to back a safe distance away from the orbiting complex.

An engine firing Saturday will send it into the Earth’s atmosphere for a planned destructive re-entry over an uninhabited area of the southern Pacific Ocean.

The “Albert Einstein,” named in honour of the famed German-born theoretical physicist and icon of modern science, delivered more than 7 tons of food, fuel and supplies to the orbiting complex when it docked automatically on June 15.

During its time at the station, the ATV-4 also provided an additional reboost capability for the complex, as flight controllers periodically commanded its engines to fire to adjust the station’s orbit.

The fifth and final ATV, designated the “Georges Lemaître” after the Belgian astronomer who first proposed the theory of the expansion of the universe, is scheduled to launch in mid-2014 for a six-month mission at the station.

More than 32 feet long -- about the size of a traditional London double-decker bus – the ATV is the largest and heaviest vehicle in the station’s resupply fleet.

The departure of ATV-4 clears the way for Parmitano, Yurchikhin and Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg to relocate their Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft from its docking port on the Rassvet module to the newly vacated Zvezda port on Nov. 1.

MIT Develop Microthruster for next generation Cube satellites

Lozano holds a prototype of a microthruster, developed to propel small satellites in space. Credit: Bryce Vickmark

The MIT News Office is reporting that the University's Space Power and Propulsion Laboratory (headed by Paulo Lozano) is seeing progress with micro-sized thruster design to power the next generation of self-propelled cubesats.

Because traditional combustion or electric engines don't scale down well, the team has been testing ion electrospray thrusters that can be made as small as a postage stamp.

For most of their still relatively short history, satellites have been extremely expensive ventures, both to design and build and to launch into space.

Paulo Lozano
With the miniaturization of electronics, however, scientists see a way to reduce the costs associated with sending craft into orbit, and also for sending them into outer space—cubesats—satellites that are tiny versions of the older models.

They range in size from a shoebox to a Rubix cube. The current versions are sent aloft (sans engine) as part of a cargo load carrying other bigger equipment and remain orbiting the planet for a short time, till gravity pulls them back down.

To get more out of their investment, scientists would like to put an engine on the little satellites so that they could stay in orbit, or even be sent to other parts of the solar system.

Current research has centered around plasma or colloid thrusters.

The researchers at MIT believe that ion thrusters are the better bet.

Their idea is to use solar power to generate a charge to electrify a very small amount of liquid propellant—releasing an ion stream through a nozzle—generating just enough thrust to change the course of a cubesat or push it forward.

Four of the thrusters would be sufficient to provide both attitude control and propulsion.

Scientists believe it might be possible in the near future to send an entire fleet of cubesats into space for the amount of money it currently takes to send just one.

In addition to designing tiny engines for them, engineers have also been hard at work designing other components necessary for fully utilizing such a satellite—one such example is the recently developed (also at MIT) inflatable antennae that greatly extends their range. Some suggest cubesats may even provide the long-sought solution to cleaning up space junk.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

NASA Back to work as usual: This Week @NASA video



With the government shutdown over, Administrator Charlie Bolden welcomed employees back to the work of NASA's mission.

Bolden visited Goddard Space Flight Center with Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski for an update on several projects.

These included; the Global Precipitation Measurement mission (PMM), the Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft (MMS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Bolden also visited Mississippi to thank employees at Stennis Space Center for their critical engineering and testing work on the agency's next generation rocket engines and the staff of the NASA Shared Services Center for their support of the agency during the shutdown.

Also, While we were away, Cygnus Completes, MAVEN in Waiting, SLS Tests, and More Arctic Sea Ice!

NASA Aura Image: Antarctic ozone hole monitoring report

The Antarctic ozone hole reached its maximum single-day area for 2013 on Sept. 16. 

The ozone hole (purple and blue) is the region over Antarctica with total ozone at or below 220 Dobson units (a common unit for measuring ozone concentration). 

Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

The ozone hole that forms each year in the stratosphere over Antarctica was slightly smaller in 2013 than average in recent decades, according to NASA satellite data.

The ozone hole is a seasonal phenomenon that starts to form during the Antarctic spring (August and September).

The September-October 2013 average size of the hole was 8.1 million square miles (21 million square kilometers).

For comparison, the average size measured since the mid-1990s when the annual maximum size stopped growing is 8.7 million square miles (22.5 million square kilometers).

However, the size of the hole in any particular year is not enough information for scientists to determine whether a healing of the hole has begun.

"There was a lot of Antarctic ozone depletion in 2013, but because of above average temperatures in the Antarctic lower stratosphere, the ozone hole was a bit below average compared to ozone holes observed since 1990," said Paul Newman, an atmospheric scientist and ozone expert at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The ozone hole forms when the sun begins rising again after several months of winter darkness.

Polar-circling winds keep cold air trapped above the continent, and sunlight-sparked reactions involving ice clouds and chlorine from manmade chemicals begin eating away at the ozone.

Most years, the conditions for ozone depletion ease before early December when the seasonal hole closes.

Levels of most ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere have gradually declined as the result of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to protect the ozone layer by phasing out production of ozone-depleting chemicals.

As a result, the size of the hole has stabilized, with variation from year to year driven by changing meteorological conditions.



Daily images from Jul. 1 to Oct. 15 show the evolution of the 2013 ozone hole. The ozone hole maximum occurred on Sept. 16, 2013. 

Image Credit: NASA/Robert Simmon/Ozone Hole Watch

The single-day maximum area this year was reached on Sept. 16 when the maximum area reached 9.3 million square miles (24 million square kilometers), about equal to the size of North America.

The largest single-day ozone hole since the mid-1990s was 11.5 million square miles (29.9 million square kilometers) on Sept. 9, 2000.

Science teams from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been monitoring the ozone layer from the ground and with a variety of instruments on satellites and balloons since the 1970s.

These ozone instruments capture different aspects of ozone depletion. The independent analyses ensure that the international community understands the trends in this critical part of Earth's atmosphere.

The resulting views of the ozone hole have differences in the computation of the size of the ozone hole, its depth, and record dates.

NASA observations of the ozone hole during 2013 were produced from data supplied by the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA's Aura satellite and the Ozone Monitoring and Profiler Suite instrument on the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite.

Long-term satellite ozone-monitoring instruments have included the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer, the second generation Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet Instrument, the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment series of instruments, and the Microwave Limb Sounder.

ESA ATV undocks from ISS and performs new maneuvres

ATV Albert Einstein, Europe’s supply and support ferry, docked with the International Space Station on 15 June 2013, some ten days after its launch from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana. 

Credit: ESA/NASA

This year, the ATV team has planned a special departure.

After undocking at 09:00 GMT on 28 October, Albert Einstein will be instructed by the ATV Control Centre in Toulouse, France, to perform a series of delicate manoeuvres over the course of five days to position itself directly below the Station.

Controllers will start the reentry procedure around 1300 CET on 2 November when ATV-4 is 120 km below the Station – so astronauts will observe the craft from above as it disintegrates over the Pacific Ocean.

This procedure will provide valuable information to calibrate future spacecraft reentries.


ESA ENVISAT Radar Image: Western Uganda lakes and mountains

Lakes and mountains of Western Uganda are captured in this Envisat radar image.

The area pictured is part of the Albertine Rift, a branch of the East African Rift where the Somali Plate is splitting away from the rest of the continent.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

ESA ISS Astronaut image: Smoke Plume from Mount Etna

ESA astronaut on the ISS, Luca Parmitano, took this picture of Mount Etna issuing smoke from a recent eruption.

Friday, October 25, 2013

NASA SDO: Solar Filament Eruption Creates 'Canyon of Fire'

A magnetic filament of solar material erupted on the sun in late September, breaking the quiet conditions in a spectacular fashion. 

The 200,000 mile long filament ripped through the sun's atmosphere, the corona, leaving behind what looks like a canyon of fire. 

The glowing canyon traces the channel where magnetic fields held the filament aloft before the explosion. 

In reality, the sun is not made of fire, but of something called plasma: particles so hot that their electrons have boiled off, creating a charged gas that is interwoven with magnetic fields.

These images were captured on Sept. 29-30, 2013, by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, which constantly observes the sun in a variety of wavelengths.

Different wavelengths help capture different aspect of events in the corona. The red images shown in the movie help highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000° F and are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt. 

The yellow images, showing temperatures at 1,000,000° F, are useful for observing material coursing along the sun's magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption.

The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000° F, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious.

By comparing this with the other colours, one sees that the two swirling ribbons moving farther away from each other are, in fact, the footprints of the giant magnetic field loops, which are growing and expanding as the filament pulls them upward.

Image Credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory

ESA Gaia spacecraft’s Deployable Sunshield Assembly (DSA) deployment test

Gaia spacecraft’s Deployable Sunshield Assembly (DSA) underwent deployment testing in the S1B integration building at Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on Oct. 10, 2013. 

The shield has two purposes: to shade Gaia’s telescopes and cameras, and to provide power. 

Gaia spacecraft represents ESA’s billion-star surveyor, designed to provide a precise 3D map of the Milky Way galaxy in order to understand its composition, formation and evolution. 

The previously scheduled launch date for Gaia has been pushed back from Nov. 20, 2013, to the next available launch window from Dec. 17 to January 5, 2014.

Amber 2 robot walks with a human gait - Video

The engineering team at Texas A&M's Amber robotics labs has been hard at work trying to improve one area of robotics that others seem to be ignoring—getting a robot to mimic the natural gait of a human being. 

Their latest effort is a robot they've named Amber 2—it's basically a pair of legs and feet attached to an overhead boom, but it appears to come closer to walking like a person than any other robot out there.

People are able to walk so smoothly because of the seamless interaction between the muscles, bone, ligaments, etc. in the legs, ankles and feet.

More specifically there is a rolling motion that goes on when people walk—we push off with our toes and land with our heels.

But there is more to it than that, our heel and toes must work independently of each other, allowing for pivoting, bending, twisting and stretching.

It's a smooth dance between our bodies and the external world beneath us. Getting a robot to walk like us means not just building legs, ankles or feet like ours, it means programming them all to work together in way that is graceful when the robot walks, and that appears to be where the Amber 2 team is headed.

Amber 2 walks like a person—there's little doubt about that. But, it's also still attached to a boom—unleashed it would fall.

The engineers on the project realize this of course and that's why they are undoubtedly working on an Amber 3 or 4—there is still the problem of maintaining balance while walking like we do, something that for us at least, has as much to do with our brains, fluid in our ears, and even our arms, as it does with our legs, ankles and feet.

 
Demonstration of human-like mulit-contact locomotion on the bipedal robot AMBER. In particular, as inspired by human-locomotion, the robot demonstrates three phases of walking throughout the walking gait characterized by changing contact points at the heel and toe.

Furthermore, these changing contact points result in different three different types of actuation throughout the walking gait: full actuation, underactuation and over actuation. The end result is human-like locomotion on the robot.

Watching the Amber 2 in action stirs the imagination—it's not difficult to envision such a robot with legs covered to resemble ours, with shoes on, walking around like we do, blending in.

It's all part of the ultimate goal—to build a robot indistinguishable from a human being—though what we'll want from such a machine is still very much up for debate.

NASA SDO: Powerful Solar Flare recorded


An M9-class eruption lofted a faint coronal mass ejection towards Earth on Oct. 24th, 2013. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the fireworks.

Credit: NASA / SDO

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Human Spaceflight: Just two weeks in orbit causes changes in Astronauts' eyes

Animal Enclosure Modules similar to the one shown here, being inspected by Mission Specialist Tracy Caldwell, Ph.D., and Pilot Charles Hobaugh aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-118), are used to study animals in low gravity conditions. 

Scientists are reporting mice traveling aboard STS-133 showed evidence of ocular nerve damage and changes in eye gene expression. 

Credit: NASA

Just 13 days in space may be enough to cause profound changes in eye structure and gene expression, report researchers from Houston Methodist, NASA Johnson Space Center, and two other institutions in the October 2013 issue of Gravitational and Space Research.

The study, which looked at how low gravity and radiation and oxidative damage impacts mice, is the first to examine eye-related gene expression and cell behavior after spaceflight.

Patricia Chévez-Barrios
"We found many changes in the expression of genes that help cells cope with oxidative stress in the retina, possibly caused by radiation exposure," said Houston Methodist pathologist Patricia Chévez-Barrios, M.D., the study's principal investigator.

"These changes were partially reversible upon return to Earth. We also saw optic nerve changes consistent with mechanical injury, but these changes did not resolve."

"We also saw changes in the expression of DNA damage repair genes and in apoptotic pathways, which help the body destroy cells that are irreparably damaged."

Since 2001, studies have shown astronauts are at increased risk of developing eye problems, like premature age-related macular degeneration. Experts suspect the cause is low gravity, heightened exposure to solar radiation, or a combination of the two.

In Nov. 2011, a NASA-sponsored Ophthalmology study of seven astronauts showed that all seven had experienced eye problems after spending at least six months in space.

Doctors saw a flattening of the back of the eyeball, folding of the choroid (vascular tissue behind the retina), excess fluid around and presumed swelling of the optic nerve, or some combination of these.

High-energy radiation from the Sun can cause nasty, extremely damaging chemical reactions in cells, collectively called oxidative stress.

Earth's atmosphere reflects or absorbs much of this radiation and is, ironically, a much better shield than the thick metal hulls of space shuttles and the International Space Station.

Damage to eyes isn't merely a long-term health issue for some astronauts back on Earth—it could interfere with future missions.

Any loss of focus or vision will make it difficult for humans to complete long missions, such as round-trip travel to Mars (12 to 16 months) or to the moons of Jupiter (about two years).

If both radiation exposure and gravity loss are to blame, one solution to save astronauts' eyes might be a spacecraft with a more protective hull and inside, a spinning hamster wheel that simulates gravity similar to those envisioned by futurist author Arthur C. Clarke and realized in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Japan JAXA Hayabusa-2 Mission: Commercial Exploitation of Space rocks and Asteroids

In 2013 the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are sending the space probe, Hayabusa 2, on a long journey to an asteroid named 1999 JU3 (Image by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency).

A unique space cannon developed for Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft has successfully test-fired on Earth in preparation for a 2014 mission.

During its upcoming journey into space, the cannon will blast an asteroid and mine samples of its soil.

The test took place in the Japanese prefecture of Gifu, paving the way for the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to extract soil samples from the asteroid, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced on Monday.

During the mission of Hayabusa 2, scheduled to begin in December 2014, the space probe will extract soil from inside the asteroid.

To do this, it will be equipped with a collision device designed to shoot at the surface of the asteroid from a distance of 100 meters with metal shell ammunition moving at a speed of two kilometers per second.

JAXA hopes to create a small (a few meters in diameter), artificial crater from which Japanese scientists can extract valuable samples capable of revealing the history of the formation of cosmic bodies of this type.

"A new function, [a] 'collision device,' is considered to be [on board] to create a crater artificially," JAXA explained on its website, adding that collecting samples from the surface that is exposed by a collision will ensure acquiring "fresh samples that are less weathered by the space environment or heat."

In order to calibrate the precision of the cannon, JAXA engineers had to overcome a number of challenges. However, the agency assures that all problems have already been solved.

"We were able to solve several problems associated with the development of the device. During the tests, the projectile hit right on target, and with the expected speed," JAXA engineer Takanao Saiki said.

Japanese scientists actively began exploring asteroids with the Hayabusa mission, which returned to earth in June 2010 after exploring a 500-meter-long rock-rich S-type Itokawa asteroid.

Hayabusa 2 is a successor of the first spacecraft and is scheduled to be launched in 2014 to conduct research of a C-type asteroid temporally called '1999 JU3.'

It is believed to contain a higher concentration of organic matters and water.

"Minerals and seawater which form the Earth as well as materials for life are believed to be strongly connected in the primitive solar nebula in the early solar system"

"Thus, we expect to clarify the origin of life by analyzing samples acquired from a primordial celestial body, such as a C-type asteroid, to study organic matter and water in the solar system and how they coexist while affecting each other," JAXA posted on its website.

So far, research into '1999 JU3' revealed that it is a sphere approximately 920 meters in diameter with an albedo on the surface of about 0.06. The rotation period of the celestial object is approximately 7.6 hours.

Hayabusa 2 is expected to reach its target in the middle of 2018 before departing back to Earth in 2019.

Mars rover Opportunity heads uphill

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity captured this southward uphill view after beginning to ascend the northwestern slope of "Solander Point" on the western rim of Endeavour Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover has begun climbing "Solander Point," the northern tip of the tallest hill it has encountered in the mission's nearly 10 Earth years on Mars.

Guided by mineral mapping from orbit, the rover is exploring outcrops on the northwestern slopes of Solander Point, making its way up the hill much as a field geologist would do.

The outcrops are exposed from several feet (about 2 meters) to about 20 feet (6 meters) above the surrounding plains, on slopes as steep as 15 to 20 degrees.

The rover may later drive south and ascend farther up the hill, which peaks at about 130 feet (40 meters) above the plains.

"This is our first real Martian mountaineering with Opportunity," said the principal investigator for the rover, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

"We expect we will reach some of the oldest rocks we have seen with this rover—a glimpse back into the ancient past of Mars."

The hill rises southward as a ridge from Solander Point, forming an elevated portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

The crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. The ridge materials were uplifted by the great impact that excavated the crater billions of years ago, reversing the common geological pattern of older materials lying lower than younger ones.

Key targets on the ridge include clay-bearing rocks identified from observations by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, which is on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The observations were specially designed to yield mineral maps with enhanced spatial resolution.

This segment of the crater's rim stands much higher than "Cape York," a segment to the north that Opportunity investigated for 20 months beginning in mid-2011.

Cassini gets new views of Titan's land of lakes

This false-colour mosaic, made from infrared data collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, reveals the differences in the composition of surface materials around hydrocarbon lakes at Titan, Saturn's largest moon. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

With the sun now shining down over the north pole of Saturn's moon Titan, a little luck with the weather, and trajectories that put the spacecraft into optimal viewing positions, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has obtained new pictures of the liquid methane and ethane seas and lakes that reside near Titan's north pole.

The images reveal new clues about how the lakes formed and about Titan's Earth-like "hydrologic" cycle, which involves hydrocarbons rather than water.

While there is one large lake and a few smaller ones near Titan's south pole, almost all of Titan's lakes appear near the moon's north pole.

Cassini scientists have been able to study much of the terrain with radar, which can penetrate beneath Titan's clouds and thick haze.

And until now, Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer and imaging science subsystem had only been able to capture distant, oblique or partial views of this area.

Several factors combined recently to give these instruments great observing opportunities. Two recent flybys provided better viewing geometry.

Sunlight has begun to pierce the winter darkness that shrouded Titan's north pole at Cassini's arrival in the Saturn system nine years ago.

A thick cap of haze that once hung over the north pole has also dissipated as northern summer approaches. And Titan's beautiful, nearly cloudless, rain-free weather continued during Cassini's flybys this past summer.

The images are mosaics in infrared light based on data obtained during flybys of Titan on July 10, July 26, and Sept. 12, 2013.

The colorised mosaic from the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, which maps infrared colors onto the visible-color spectrum, reveals differences in the composition of material around the lakes.

The data suggest parts of Titan's lakes and seas may have evaporated and left behind the Titan equivalent of Earth's salt flats.

Only at Titan, the evaporated material is thought to be organic chemicals originally from Titan's haze particles that once dissolved in liquid methane.

They appear orange in this image against the greenish backdrop of Titan's typical bedrock of water ice.

Almost all of the hydrocarbon seas and lakes on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan cluster around the north pole, as can be seen in this mosaic from NASA's Cassini mission. 

This mosaic, made from near-infrared images of Titan obtained by Cassini's imaging science subsystem, shows a view from the north pole (upper middle of mosaic) down to near the equator at the bottom. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/JHUAPL/Univ. of Arizona

"The view from Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer gives us a holistic view of an area that we'd only seen in bits and pieces before and at a lower resolution," said Jason Barnes, a participating scientist for the instrument at the University of Idaho, Moscow.

"It turns out that Titan's north pole is even more interesting than we thought, with a complex interplay of liquids in lakes and seas and deposits left from the evaporation of past lakes and seas."

NASA laser communication system sets record - Data transmissions to and from Moon

NASA's Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) has made history using a pulsed laser beam to transmit data over the 239,000 miles between the moon and Earth at a record-breaking download rate of 622 megabits per second (Mbps).

LLCD is NASA's first system for two-way communication using a laser instead of radio waves.

It also has demonstrated an error-free data upload rate of 20 Mbps transmitted from the primary ground station in New Mexico to the spacecraft currently orbiting the moon.

"LLCD is the first step on our roadmap toward building the next generation of space communication capability," said Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation (SCaN) in Washington.

"We are encouraged by the results of the demonstration to this point, and we are confident we are on the right path to introduce this new capability into operational service soon."

Since NASA first ventured into space, it has relied on radio frequency (RF) communication.

However, RF is reaching its limit as demand for more data capacity continues to increase.

The development and deployment of laser communications will enable NASA to extend communication capabilities such as increased image resolution and 3-D video transmission from deep space.

"The goal of LLCD is to validate and build confidence in this technology so that future missions will consider using it," said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"This unique ability developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory has incredible application possibilities."

LLCD is a short-duration experiment and the precursor to NASA's long-duration demonstration, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD).

LCRD is a part of the agency's Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which is working to develop crosscutting technology capable of operating in the rigors of space. It is scheduled to launch in 2017.

LLCD is hosted aboard NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), launched in September from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. LADEE is a 100-day robotic mission operated by the agency's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. LADEE's mission is to provide data that will help NASA determine whether dust caused the mysterious glow astronauts observed on the lunar horizon during several Apollo missions.

It also will explore the moon's atmosphere. Ames designed, developed, built, integrated and tested LADEE, and manages overall operations of the spacecraft.

The LLCD system, flight terminal and primary ground terminal at NASA's White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, N.M., were developed by the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT.

The Table Mountain Optical Communications Technology Laboratory operated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is participating in the demonstration.

A third ground station operated by the European Space Agency on Tenerife in the Canary Islands also will be participating in the demonstration.

More information: esc.gsfc.nasa.gov/267/271.html

Pathfinding Operations for Orion Spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center

Add caption
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Orion ground test vehicle has been lifted high in the air by crane in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building. 

The ground test vehicle is being used for pathfinding operations, including simulated manufacturing, assembly and stacking procedures.

Orion is the exploration spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to destinations not yet explored by humans, including an asteroid and Mars. 

It will have emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

The first unpiloted test flight of Orion, Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 is scheduled to launch in 2014. EFT-1 will be Orion's first mission, which will send an uncrewed spacecraft 3,600 miles into Earth's orbit. 

As part of the test flight, Orion will return to Earth at a speed of approximately 20,000 mph for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

For more information, visit www.nasa.gov/orion.

Image Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

ALMA reveals ghostly shape of 'coldest place in the universe'

The Boomerang Nebula, called the "coldest place in the Universe," reveals its true shape with ALMA

The background blue structure, as seen in visible light with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a classic double-lobe shape with a very narrow central region. 

ALMA's resolution and ability to see the cold molecular gas reveals the nebula's more elongated shape, as seen in red. 

Credit: Bill Saxton; NRAO/AUI/NSF; NASA/Hubble; Raghvendra Sahai

At a cosmologically crisp one degree Kelvin (minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit), the Boomerang Nebula is the coldest known object in the Universe – colder, in fact, than the faint afterglow of the Big Bang, which is the natural background temperature of space.

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope have taken a new look at this intriguing object to learn more about its frigid properties and to determine its true shape, which has an eerily ghost-like appearance.

As originally observed with ground-based telescopes, this nebula appeared lopsided, which is how it got its name.

Later observations with the Hubble Space Telescope revealed a bow-tie-like structure. The new ALMA data, however, reveal that the Hubble image tells only part of the story, and the twin lobes seen in that image may actually be a trick of the light as seen at visible wavelengths.

Raghvendra Sahai
"This ultra-cold object is extremely intriguing and we're learning much more about its true nature with ALMA," said Raghvendra Sahai, a researcher and principal scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and lead author of a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.

"What seemed like a double lobe, or 'boomerang' shape, from Earth-based optical telescopes, is actually a much broader structure that is expanding rapidly into space."

The Boomerang Nebula, located about 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus, is a relatively young example of an object known as a planetary nebula.

Planetary nebulae, contrary to their name, are actually the end-of-life phases of stars like our Sun that have sloughed off their outer layers.

What remains at their centers are white dwarf stars, which emit intense ultraviolet radiation that causes the gas in the nebulae to glow and emit light in brilliant colours.

The Boomerang is a pre-planetary nebula, representing the stage in a star's life immediately preceding the planetary nebula phase, when the central star is not yet hot enough to emit enough ultraviolet radiation to produce the characteristic glow. At this stage, the nebula is seen by starlight reflecting off its dust grains.

The outflow of gas from this particular star is expanding rapidly and cooling itself in the process. This is similar in principle to the way refrigerators use expanding gas to produce cold temperatures.

The researchers were able to take the temperature of the gas in the nebula by seeing how it absorbed the cosmic microwave background radiation, which has a very uniform temperature of 2.8 degrees Kelvin (minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit).

"When astronomers looked at this object in 2003 with Hubble, they saw a very classic 'hourglass' shape," commented Sahai.

"Many planetary nebulae have this same double-lobe appearance, which is the result of streams of high-speed gas being jettisoned from the star. The jets then excavate holes in a surrounding cloud of gas that was ejected by the star even earlier in its lifetime as a red giant."

Observations with single-dish millimeter wavelength telescopes, however, did not detect the narrow waist seen by Hubble. Instead, they found a more uniform and nearly spherical outflow of material.

ALMA's unprecedented resolution allowed the researchers to reconcile this discrepancy. By observing the distribution of carbon monoxide molecules, which glow brightly at millimeter wavelengths, the astronomers were able to detect the double-lobe structure that is seen in the Hubble image, but only in the inner regions of the nebula. Further out, they actually observed a more elongated cloud of cold gas that is roughly round.

Hubble and Keck: Most Distant Galaxy (so far) revealed

z8_GND_5296 is churning out stars at a remarkable rate, say astronomers

An international team of astronomers has detected the most distant galaxy yet.

The galaxy is about 30 billion light-years away and is helping scientists shed light on the period that immediately followed the Big Bang.

It was found using the Hubble Space Telescope and its distance was then confirmed with the ground-based Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Because it takes light so long to travel from the outer edge of the Universe to us, the galaxy appears as it was 13.1 billion years ago (its distance from Earth of 30 billion light-years is because the Universe is expanding).

Steven Finkelstein
Lead researcher Steven Finkelstein, from the University of Texas at Austin, US, said: "This is the most distant galaxy we've confirmed. We are seeing this galaxy as it was 700 million years after the Big Bang."

The far-off galaxy goes by the catchy name of z8_GND_5296.

Astronomers were able to measure how far it was from Earth by analysing its colour.

Because the Universe is expanding and everything is moving away from us, light waves are stretched. This makes objects look redder than they actually are.

Astronomers rate this apparent colour-change on a scale that is called redshift.

They found that this galaxy has a redshift of 7.51, beating the previous record-holder, which had a redshift of 7.21.

This makes it the most distant galaxy ever found.

The system is small: about 1-2% the mass of the Milky Way and is rich in heavier elements.

But it has a surprising feature: it is turning gas and dust into new stars at a remarkable rate, churning them out hundreds of times faster than our own galaxy can.

It is the second far-flung galaxy known that has been found to have a high star-production rate.

Prof Finkelstein said: "One very interesting way to learn about the Universe is to study these outliers and that tells us something about what sort of physical processes are dominating galaxy formation and galaxy evolution.

"What was great about this galaxy is not only is it so distant, it is also pretty exceptional."

He added that in the coming years, astronomers are likely to discover even more distant galaxies when Nasa's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is launched and other ground-based telescopes come online.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

China Challenging Earth Security from Space

There is a view that the recent China's attempt to capture a satellite in space by using mechanical arm actually demonstrates their capability to develop counter-space technologies. This article attempts to put this experimentation in space by China into context.

The 'test' under discussion was initially viewed as a scientific experiment. China had launched three satellites on July 19, 2013 by using their Long March-4C launcher.

Officially, China has identified these satellites as 'scientific experimentation satellites to perform experiments on space maintenance technologies.' Also, these satellites are expected to be used for the observation of space debris. Amongst these three satellites (Chuang Xin-3, the Shiyan Weixing-7 and the Shijian-15) the satellite Shiyan Weixing-7 made a sudden manoeuvre on Aug 19, 2013.

It was a surprise rendezvous with a completely different satellite, Shijian 7 (SJ-7, Practice 7), launched by China in 2005. Interestingly, since its launch Shiyan Weixing-7 (SY-7) had completed a series of orbital changes and was put close to Chuang Xin-3(CX-3) but as mentioned, suddenly it conducted an unusual manoeuvre with a different satellite.

Space analysts are of the opinion that SY-7 has a robotic arm and it could rendezvous with CX-3 which might have been developed to act as target for the robotic arm experiment. But, instated it rendezvoused with SJ-7.

Presently, there is no clarity in regards to the exact nature of this 'maintenance technology' tested by China by doing such manoeuvre. It is likely that the mechanical arm was used to capture another satellite in space. But, as per some analysts, another possibility is that, 'the test involved detaching a part of one satellite and its release into a separate orbit, and the subsequent recapturing of this component by using the extension arm'.

Now, the basic challenge is to know whether this activity is a part of China's space warfare programme.

ESA GAIA Launch delayed by technical issue

The European Space Agency says it will delay the launch of a galaxy-mapping spacecraft due to a technical issue with some on-board components.

The launch of the Gaia mission -- intended to survey billions of stars to create a precise 3-D map of our Milky Way galaxy -- was postponed Tuesday after a technical issue was identified in another satellite already in orbit that shares some components with the Gaia spacecraft.

To avoid potential problems, the components on Gaia -- two transponders generating timing signals for down-linking the science telemetry -- will be replaced, the ESA's Paris headquarters announced Wednesday.

The transponders will be removed from Gaia, currently at the ESA Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, and returned to Europe where the potentially faulty components will be replaced and verified, the agency said.

The change means it will not be possible to meet the previously targeted launch date of Nov. 20, ESA scientists said; the next available launch window is Dec. 17 to Jan. 20, 2014.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

World View Enterprises design for near-Space Balloon and Capsule

This artist's rendering provided by World View Enterprises on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 shows their design for a capsule lifted by a high-altitude balloon up 19 miles into the air for tourists. 

WWE CEO Jane Poynter said people would pay $75,000 to spend a couple hours looking down at the curve of the Earth. 

AP Photo/World View Enterprises

The latest space tourism venture depends more on hot air than rocket science.

World View Enterprises announced plans Tuesday to send people up 19 miles in a capsule, lifted by a high-altitude balloon.

Company CEO Jane Poynter said the price for spending a couple of hours looking down at the curve of the Earth will be $75,000.

But it's not quite space. Space starts at 62 miles.

Still, the plan requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space. She said it uses existing technology and the first launch could be as early as the end of 2016.

The same team last February proposed a private venture to send a married couple to Mars in 2018.

Artist's rendering provided by World View Enterprises on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 showing their design for a capsule. 

Credit: AP Photo/World View Enterprises

Cygnus Releases from International Space Station

Expedition 37 crew members aboard the International Space Station released Orbital Sciences' Cygnus spacecraft from the station's robotic arm at 7:31 a.m. EDT on Oct. 22. 

Orbital Sciences engineers now will conduct a series of planned burns and maneuvers to move Cygnus toward a destructive re-entry in Earth's atmosphere Wednesday, Oct. 23.

Cygnus had been attached to the space station's Harmony module for 23 days. The spacecraft delivered about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothing and student experiments, on a demonstration cargo resupply mission to the station.

Cygnus was launched on Orbital's Antares rocket on Sept. 18 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Image Credit: NASA/Karen Nyberg