Tuesday, December 31, 2013

NASA SDO: Quiet Corona and Upper Transition Region of the Sun

This image, taken on Dec. 31, 2013 by the AIA instrument on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory at 171 Angstrom, shows the current conditions of the quiet corona and upper transition region of the Sun.

AIA will image the outer layer of the Sun's atmosphere, the corona, at all temperatures from 20 thousand to 20 million degrees. 

Image Credit: NASA/SDO

ESA Mars Express Image: Juventae Chasma

Intriguing mounds of light-toned layered deposits sit inside Juventae Chasma, surrounded by a bed of soft sand and dust.

The origin of the chasma is linked to faulting associated with volcanic activity more than 3 billion years ago, causing the chasma walls to collapse and slump inwards, as seen in the blocky terrain in the right-hand side of this image.

At the same time, fracturing and faulting allowed subsurface water to spill out and pool in the newly formed chasm. 

Observations by ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show that the large mounds inside the chasma consist of sulphate-rich materials, an indication that the rocks were indeed altered by water.

The mounds contain numerous layers that were most likely built up as lake-deposits during the Chasma’s wet epoch. 

But ice-laden dust raining out from the atmosphere – a phenomenon observed at the poles of Mars – may also have contributed to the formation of the layers.

While the water has long gone, wind erosion prevails, etching grooves into the exposed surfaces of the mounds and whipping up the surrounding dust into ripples. 

The image was taken by the high-resolution stereo camera on ESA’s Mars Express on 4 November 2013 (orbit 12 508), with a ground resolution of 16 m per pixel. 

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

ESA Mars Express: Phobos Flyby - Video

On 29 December 2013, ESA's Mars Express will make the closest flyby yet of the Red Planet's moon Phobos, skimming past only 45 km above its surface.

As the spacecraft passes close to Phobos, it will be pulled slightly off course by the moon's gravity, by a few tens of centimetres. 

This small deviation will be measured using the spacecraft's radio signals, and then translated into measurements of gravity, mass and density at different locations on the moon.

NASA SLAMMD: Medical Science for Crew as Year Nears End

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins enjoys time in the Cupola, which affords the most broad views of Earth.

The six-member Expedition 38 crew is getting ready for another eventful year of scientific research, finishing up 2013 with medical research activities.

Both NASA and Russian spacewalkers also are cleaning up after three fast-paced spacewalks.

With one exception, all station systems are powered up and running normally following two spacewalks by NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins to replace a degraded cooling system pump module.

The new pump module is working well, which allows electrical systems cooled by that loop to be put back into full service.

The last string of power to the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory is scheduled to be brought back on line Tuesday.

The Caribbean country of Cuba is pictured in this high oblique image with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in the foreground.

Hopkins started his day working in the Human Research Facility (HRF) and collecting biological samples for stowage inside a science freezer.

In the afternoon he used the HRF’s space linear acceleration mass measurement device (SLAMMD) to calculate his body mass.

SLAMMD subjects a crew member to a known force and the resulting acceleration provides a body mass measurement that is accurate to within a half-pound.

Horsehead and Flame Nebulae - David Ellison

David Ellison captured this image of the Horsehead and Flame Nebulae from his backyard in Chattanooga, Tenn. 

Credit: David Ellison

The iconic Horsehead and Flame nebulas paint the night sky in this beautiful image.

Amateur astrophotographer David Ellison captured this image from his backyard in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Located approximately 1,500 light years from Earth in the constellation Orion, the Horsehead Nebula is simple to spot due to its unique shape resembling a horse's head.

A light-year is the distance light travels in one year, or about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers).

"People don't realize just how large this nebula is in the sky," Ellison reported. His image is a narrow band photograph of four hours of exposure using a QSI camera and a 4-inch telescope. The star seen just above the Flame nebula is Alnitak.

The Horsehead Nebula is also called Barnard 33 in emission nebula IC 434 and is part of a large, dark molecular cloud.

It was first spotted in 1888 by astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory, who imaged the nebula using a telescope and photographic plates.

Monday, December 30, 2013

NASA Cassini Image: Saturn's Titan and Icy Rhea

Saturn's largest and second largest moons, Titan and Rhea, appear to be stacked on top of each other in this true-colour scene from NASA's Cassini spacecraft released on Dec. 23, 2013.

The north polar hood can be seen on Titan appearing as a detached layer at the top of the moon on the top right. 

This view looks toward the Saturn-facing side of the smaller Rhea.

Credit: NASA

Orbital Science's Antares rocket launch Jan 7th 2014

The Antares rocket for Orbital Science's A-ONE inaugural mission is hoisted inside Wallops' Horizontal Integration Facility for placement on its transporter. 

Credit: Orbital Science

The NASA Wallops Flight Facility and Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport are set to support the launch of Orbital Sciences’ Corp. Antares rocket at 1:55 p.m. EST, Jan. 7.

The Antares rocket will carry Orbital’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

The cargo craft will be filled with 2,780 pounds of supplies for the station, including vital science experiments to expand the research capability of the Expedition 38 crew members aboard the orbiting laboratory, crew provisions, spare parts and experiment hardware.

Also aboard the flight are 23 student experiments that will involve more than 10,000 students on the ground.

These experiments will involve life sciences topics ranging from amoeba reproduction to calcium in the bones to salamanders.

The launch may be visible, weather permitting, to residents throughout the mid-Atlantic region from New York City to North Carolina.

Large Asteroid scheduled to Fly-by Earth

The space rock was discovered on Dec. 23rd, 2013 and will be makes its closest approach to Earth (3.6 lunar distance) on Jan. 3rd, 2014. Its is estimated to be 102 meters or 400 feet-wide.

Credit: NASA / JPL

NASA's Cassini Spacecraft: Saturn's rings cast shadows on the planet

The spectacular rings of Saturn cast dark shadows on the ringed planet as the winter season approaches in Saturn's southern hemisphere in this view from the Cassini spacecraft

With the cold season comes a blue hue on Saturn that is likely caused by a drop in ultraviolet sunlight and haze it produces. This image was taken on July 29, 2013 and released on Dec. 23.

Credit: NASA /JPL-Caltech /Space Science Institute

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has capped 2013 with a spectacular new collection of Saturn photos showcasing the planet's beauty, as well with its trademark rings and strange moons.

The newly released Saturn photos by Cassini include two views of Enceladus, Saturn's sixth-largest moon. Enceladus is a winter-appropriate ice world.

Geysers at its poles shoot ice particles into space, some of which make it into orbit around Saturn. Some of this space "snow" becomes part of Saturn's E ring, Saturn's second outermost ring that is made of microscopic particles.

Other images highlight Saturn's largest moon, Titan. There are no jolly elves at Titan's north pole; liquid methane and ethane seas appear as splotchy features near the moon's poles.

At the south pole, a high-altitude vortex swirls. The hazy orange atmosphere of Titan is thought to resemble the atmosphere of early Earth.

Hubble captures a stellar "sneeze"

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Gilles Chapdelaine

Look at the bright star in the middle of this image.

It appears as if it just sneezed. This sight will only last for a few thousand years—a blink of an eye in the young star's life.

If you could carry on watching for a few years you would realize it's not just one sneeze, but a sneezing fit.

This young star is firing off rapid releases of super-hot, super-fast gas, like multiple sneezes, before it finally exhausts itself.

These bursts of gas have shaped the turbulent surroundings, creating structures known as Herbig-Haro objects.

These objects are formed from the star's energetic "sneezes." Launched due to magnetic fields around the forming star, these energetic releases can contain as much mass as our home planet, and cannon into nearby clouds of gas at hundreds of kilometers/miles per second.

Shock waves form, such as the U-shape below this star. Unlike most other astronomical phenomena, as the waves crash outwards, they can be seen moving across human timescales of years.

Soon, this star will stop sneezing, and mature to become a star like our sun.

This region is actually home to several interesting objects. The star at the center of the frame is a variable star named V633 Cassiopeiae, with Herbig-Haro objects HH 161 and HH 164 forming parts of the horseshoe-shaped loop emanating from it.

The slightly shrouded star just to the left is known as V376 Cassiopeiae, another variable star that has succumbed to its neighbour's infectious sneezing fits; this star is also sneezing, creating yet another Herbig-Haro object—HH 162.

Both stars are very young and are still surrounded by dusty material left over from their formation, which spans the gap between the two.

Soyuz-2.1v rocket successfully puts Aist satellite into orbit

The Soyuz-2.1v light class rocket includes a new engine design.

Russia's Soyuz-2.1v light-weight launch vehicle, which blasted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Arkhangelsk region of northwestern Russia on Saturday, has successfully delivered the latest Aist satellite into orbit.

The satellite separated from the rocket's Volga upper stage and reached its designated orbit at 6:09 pm Moscow time (0209 pm GMT), the Russian Defense Ministry said.

Control over the satellite has already been transferred to the customer.

The Soyuz-2.1v launch vehicle has successfully lifted its Volga upper stage and a group of satellites to an interim orbit, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said on Saturday.

The new rocket represents a major development in the Soyuz program, which began in 1966.

The rocket features a completely reworked first stage, powered by a NK-33 (14D15) rocket engine which has twice the thrust in comparison with its predecessors.

The new carrier and its Volga upper stage are designed to inject various spacecrafts into circular orbits of up to 1,500 kilometers and sun-synchronous orbits of up to 850 kilometers. The light class booster is able to carry up to 2,800 kilograms of payload.

The Soyuz-2.1v was developed in response to an increasing demand to launch small satellites and end the use of Tsiklon and Kosmos boosters - as well as in response to insufficient numbers of Rokot boosters.

The Aist satellite which the new rocket launched into orbit was created by students and young scientists at Samara State Aerospace University and Progress Central Assembly and Design Engineering Bureau.

The spacecraft is aimed at testing the technologies that are used during the construction of microsatellites, which weigh between 10 and 100 kilograms.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Chaparrastique volcano eruption, El Salvador: Villages evacuated

An area around the Chaparrastique volcano in El Salvador has been evacuated after the peak shot a cloud of gas and ash about three miles into the air.

Civil defence director Jorge Melendez said a yellow alert had been issued and investigators had been sent to the area to look for signs of fresh lava, but that none has been detected so far.

"We have implemented emergency measures to evacuate villages located within 3 km (1.8 miles) of the volcano," He said.

Shelters have been set up for the evacuees, but Mr Melendez said some inhabitants had been reluctant to leave their homes. "One has to leave for one's own safety," he said.

Assistant health minister Eduardo Espinoza said two people had been treated at hospitals for respiratory problems apparently linked to the eruption yesterday, "but we do not have any serious cases to report".

He said: "We are providing assistance to people evacuating, and we are asking them to protect themselves against the gases, which can affect the respiratory tract."

He also urged people living near the volcano to avoid drinking from local water sources.

The 7,025ft volcano is located about 90 miles east of San Salvador, the capital. Its last significant eruption was in 1976.

San Miguel is one of the country's largest cities and is located 30 miles from the volcano.

Mysterious Fireball Caught On Security Camera

Mysterious Fireball Caught On Security Camera

CCTV Video Footage shows a fiery object streaking across the sky in America's Midwest - but what was the object?

3D Printing Chocolate: Eat your Own Face Desserts

MIT research associate David Carr created a special 3D printer called the "Eat Your Face Machine," which takes a model of your face and carves it into chocolate

Cornell University has developed a 3-D food printer that allows users to create edible designs.

Snowflake printed with dark Belgian Chocolate now available to order for Christmas 2014!

‘Everyone loves chocolate so that’s why we’ve tried to make it easy and accessible for mainstream consumers,’ said Choc Edge owner and University of Exeter lecturer Dr Liang Hao.

Visit: ChocEdge.com

Saturday, December 28, 2013

ISS Cosmonauts Hit Snag with HD Cameras during Record-Breaking Spacewalk

Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, Expedition 38 commander, and flight engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy perform a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Dec. 27, 2013. 

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio took this photo from inside the station.

Credit: NASA/Rick Mastracchio, via @AstroRM

Two Russian cosmonauts installed new HD camera eyes on the International Space Station during a record-setting spacewalk Friday (Dec. 27), only to have to return the devices inside due to an unspecified data glitch.

Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy spent just over eight hours — a new endurance record for Russian spacewalks — working outside the space station to install the new Earth-watching cameras for the Canadian company UrtheCast as part of an agreement with Russia's Federal Space Agency. 

But shortly after the installation, Russian engineers reported a problem receiving data from the imaging system.

"It appears that we have seen an unsuccessful attempt at bringing those two cameras to life," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during spacewalk commentary. 

"The exact cause of the problem is not known at this time."

The new cameras are designed to snap detailed views of Earth from space for UrtheCast, which will then provide the imagery to customers via the Internet.

They launched to the station in late November on the Russian Progress 53 cargo ship.

"UrtheCast's two cameras will stream unprecedented footage of our evolving Earth to anyone with an internet connection," the company's website promises.

"In near real-time, you will be able to visit your favorite locales and learn about current events as they unfold."

The UrtheCast cameras include a high-resolution instrument on a swivel platform for detailed observations, and a medium-resolution instrument attached to a fixed platform.

Both cameras were initially installed by Kotov and Ryazanskiy on their respective Earth-facing platforms outside the station's Zvezda service module.

"When the flight control team at the Russian Mission Control Center outside Moscow did not see the expected telemetry and electrical connectivity from the newly installed medium and high resolution cameras, Kotov and Ryazanskiy were directed to remove the cameras and return them to the airlock for further analysis," NASA officials said in a statement.

"The spacewalkers also were instructed to take detailed photographs of the electrical connectors mated earlier for additional review."

Friday, December 27, 2013

Lowell Observatory's Clark Telescope closes for renovation on January 1

Lowell Observatory's iconic Clark Telescope is about to undergo a much-needed facelift. After 117 years of constant use, the instrument will be closed for more than a year as engineers and technicians carefully remove telescope components and repair or replace poorly operating parts.

The Clark was built by the preeminent telescope makers of their time, the Alvan Clark & Sons firm of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts.

The instrument saw first light on July 23, 1896, and Percival Lowell initially used it to study Mars in support of his controversial theories about life on that planet.

Significant research with the Clark include;

  • Vesto Melvin Slipher's revolutionary discovery of the first evidence of the expanding nature of the universe, 
  • the confirmation of Pluto's discovery in 1930 (made by Clyde Tombaugh with another telescope at Lowell Observatory), and 
  • the creation of lunar maps in the 1960s in support of the Apollo program that sent astronauts to the Moon.

Jeff Hall
Lowell director Jeff Hall commented, "The Clark Telescope is a national treasure and is Lowell Observatory's first research telescope."

"Last year, we celebrated first light of our newest eye on the sky, the Discovery Channel Telescope, which will carry us through several more decades of astronomical discoveries, as the Clark did in the early days of Lowell."

"That makes it an appropriate time to look back and ensure that this telescope that started it all—a lovely old refractor in the wooden dome overlooking Flagstaff—is restored and maintained for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Mars Hill who will look through it in the future."

For the past three decades, the Clark Telescope has been a staple of the Observatory's outreach program.

Astronaut Mike Hopkins on Dec. 24 Spacewalk

On Dec. 24, 2013, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, Expedition 38 Flight Engineer, participates in the second of two spacewalks, spread over a four-day period, which were designed to allow the crew to change out a degraded pump module on the exterior of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. 

He was joined on both spacewalks by NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, whose image shows up in Hopkins' helmet visor.

The pump module controls the flow of ammonia through cooling loops and radiators outside the space station, and, combined with water-based cooling loops inside the station, removes excess heat into the vacuum of space.

Image Credit: NASA

Russian Cosmonauts Taking 7-Hour Spacewalk Outside Station

Two Russian cosmonauts are tackling a seven-hour spacewalk outside the International Space Station today (Dec. 27) to install commercial high-resolution cameras and other new experiments on the orbiting lab's hull. You can watch the spacewalk live here in the window above.

Today's spacewalk began at about 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) and is being performed by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy.

The two spacewalkers will install two high-fidelity cameras on the Earth-facing side of the station's Russian-built Zvezda service module for the commercial Earth imagery company Urthecast (pronounced Earthcast), which seeks to offer live HD webcasts of Earth from space via an online service.

Today's spacewalk is unrelated to two earlier spacewalks by American astronauts to replace a coolant pump on the space station.

Kotov and Ryazanskiy will also install hardware for a new earthquake-monitoring experiment, called Seismoprognoz, and remove and older experiment that tracked the seismic effects of high-energy particles in the near-Earth environment, NASA officials said.

That older experiment, called Vsplesk, will be tossed into space in a direction that won't endanger the space station so it can burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

The spacewalkers will also dispose of a frame to an old material exposure experiment and retrieve a case of samples from a materials space exposure experiment during their work outside the International Space Station.

NASA Asteroid Robotic Retrieval Mission: Retrieving an asteroid - Tempel1

An image of the asteroid Tempel 1 taken during the Deep Impact visit. 

Tempel 1 is about five kilometers across. 

CfA astronomers have estimated the size of the smallest measured near Earth asteroid, 2009 BD, as only about three meters across, perhaps too small for it to be useful in NASA's planned asteroid recovery mission. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMd

Asteroids (or comets) whose orbits bring them close to the earth's orbit are called near Earth objects.

Some of them are old, dating from the origins of the solar system about four and one-half billion years ago, and expected to be rich in primitive materials.

They are of great interest to scientists studying the young solar system. Others, of lower scientific priority, are thought to contain minerals of potential economic value.

NASA has announced its interest in sending a manned mission to a near Earth object. The NASA Asteroid Robotic Retrieval Mission concept involves the capture of an asteroid, and dragging it onto a new trajectory that traps it in the Earth–Moon system where it will be further investigated by astronauts.

The current mission design requires the target asteroid to have a diameter of seven to ten meters. The object NEO 2009BD is a prime candidate for this retrieval mission.

It was discovered on January 16, 2009, at a distance from the Earth of only 0.008 AU (one AU is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun).

Its orbit is very Earth–like, with a period of 400 days, and it will end up close to the Earth–Moon system again in late 2022 when the proposed capture would take place.

It seems to be a perfect candidate, with a time frame that allows for proper mission planning.

The problem is that the size of the NEO 2009BD is uncertain, and thus its density and composition are also uncertain, but first estimates are that it likely falls in the diameter range specified by the mission.

The uncertainty arises because it was detected at optical wavelengths; they measure reflected light, which is a combination of both an object's size and reflectivity (albedo).

For NASA mission planning to succeed, a more direct size measurement of 2009 BD is needed—and soon, before its increasing distance from the Earth makes such an observation a practical impossibility.

CfA astronomers Joe Hora, Howard Smith and Giovanni Fazio have been regularly using the IRAC camera on the Spitzer Space Telescope to measure the infrared emission of near Earth objects, and (with some modeling) deriving both the sizes and densities of these objects.

They received special observatory time to study NEO 2009BD, and in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal they and their colleagues report on their conclusions.

They did not detect the NEO 2009BD to a very low light level, implying that it is very small, probably only about 2.9 meters in diameter, and modeling suggests it has a rubble-pile composition.

This is the smallest object ever reported on by Spitzer; whether it is still suitable for a NASA mission is now something that the NASA Retrieval Mission team must determine.

More information: "Constraining the Physical Properties of The Near–Earth Object 2009 BD," M. Mommert,J. L. Hora,D. E. Trilling,S. R. Chesley and D. Farnocchia,D. Vokrouhlick´y, M. Mueller,A. W. Harris, H. A. Smith and G. G. Fazio, ApJ, 2013, in press.

NASA and JAXA Announce Launch Date for Global Precipitation Satellite GPM

Environmental research and weather forecasting are about to get a significant technology boost as NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) prepare to launch a new satellite in February.

NASA and JAXA selected 1:07 p.m. to 3:07 p.m. EST Thursday, Feb. 27 (3:07 a.m. to 5:07 a.m. JST Friday, Feb. 28) as the launch date and launch window for a Japanese H-IIA rocket carrying the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite from JAXA's Tanegashima Space Center.

GPM is an international satellite mission that will provide advanced observations of rain and snowfall worldwide, several times a day to enhance our understanding of the water and energy cycles that drive Earth's climate.

The data provided by the Core Observatory will be used to calibrate precipitation measurements made by an international network of partner satellites to quantify when, where, and how much it rains or snows around the world.

"Launching this core observatory and establishing the Global Precipitation Measurement mission is vitally important for environmental research and weather forecasting," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division in Washington.

"Knowing rain and snow amounts accurately over the whole globe is critical to understanding how weather and climate impact agriculture, fresh water availability, and responses to natural disasters."

"We will use data from the GPM mission not only for Earth science research but to improve weather forecasting and respond to meteorological disasters," said Shizuo Yamamoto, executive director of JAXA.

"We would also like to aid other countries in the Asian region suffering from flood disasters by providing data for flood alert systems. Our dual-frequency precipitation radar, developed with unique Japanese technologies, plays a central role in the GPM mission."

The GPM spacecraft oriented for inspections after its arrival in the clean room at Tanegashima Space Center. 

Image Credit: NASA / Michael Starobin

The GPM Core Observatory builds on the sensor technology developed for the TRMM mission, with two innovative new instruments.

The GPM Microwave Imager, built by Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp., Boulder, Colo., will observe rainfall and snowfall at 13 different frequencies.

The Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar, developed by JAXA with the National Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Tokyo, transmits radar frequencies that will detect ice and light rain, as well as heavier rainfall.

It also will be able to measure the size and distribution of raindrops, snowflakes and ice particles.

UK Met Office to offer Space Weather forecasts

Solar flares and eruptions in the Sun's atmosphere are sources of potentially destructive storms

The UK Meteorological Office is to begin offering daily forecasts about the weather in space.

The 24 hour service will aim to help businesses and government departments by providing early warnings of solar storms that can disrupt satellites, radio communications and power grids.

The first forecast is expected to be available next spring.

The Department for Business will support the scheme with £4.6m of funding over the next three years.

The UK Met Office will aim to develop better ways of predicting space weather in collaboration with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

UK partners involved in the project include the British Geological Survey, Bath University and RAL Space.

Met Office - Space Weather from If...Media on Vimeo.

Solar flares and eruptions in the Sun's atmosphere - known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) - are powerful sources of potentially destructive solar storms.

Mark Gibbs, head of space weather at the Met Office, said: "Space weather is a relatively immature science but understanding is growing rapidly."

He said the Met Office collaboration aimed to "accelerate the development of improved space weather models and prediction systems to make more effective use of space weather data".

Mr Gibbs added: "This investment will enable the Met Office to complete the space weather forecasting capability that it has been developing over the past two years and begin delivering forecasts, warnings and alerts to key sectors to minimise the impact to the technology-based services we all rely on."

The Ice Cube: Searching for Neutrinos at the South Pole - Video

Scientists like Ignacio Taboada, an assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Physics, are using a one cubic kilometer block of ice at the South Pole to help unravel one of the great scientific mysteries of our time.

A 250 TeV neutrino interaction in IceCube. 

At the neutrino interaction point (bottom), a large particle shower is visible, with a muon produced in the interaction leaving up and to the left. 

The direction of the muon indicates the direction of the original neutrino.

Image Credit: NSF

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole is a telescope like no other on Earth.

This giant structure buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice has done what no other telescope or space probe could, it has discovered the first neutrinos from outside our solar system.

IceCube’s discovery has created a whole new frontier for astronomers. One where scientists don’t just observe giant objects from distant galaxies, but the tiny particles that form them.

This discovery may help scientists explain supernovae, black holes, pulsars, active galactic nuclei and other extreme extra-galactic phenomena.

The IceCube Observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, in Antarctica.

Image Credit: Sven Lidstrom, Intensive research

Neutrinos are tiny, near-massless particles created by “cosmic accelerators”.

These are violent astrophysical sources such as exploding stars, gamma ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars.

Neutrinos aren’t rare: our sun creates 65 billion neutrinos every second for every square centimetre of Earth, but neutrinos from outside the solar system are extremely hard to detect; partly because they are so incredibly small, but also because we are swamped with billions upon billions from inside our own solar system.

The IceCube Observatory has found 28 needles in this metaphorical haystack, 28 neutrinos that scientists are convinced are from outside our solar system.

The hot water drill manages to bore deep holes through the Antarctic ice.

Image Credit: NSF

Currently the IceCube can’t tell us the exact origins of the neutrinos but they have speculated on the direction and general area.

According to Science magazine: “the origin of this flux is unknown, the findings are consistent with expectations for a neutrino population with origins outside the solar system.”

The IceCube Observatory was designed for this very purpose. It is a unique structure consisting of 86 strings drilled deep into the Antarctic ice.

Attached to these strings are 5,160 digital optical modules, which are embedded between 1.4 and 2.4km below the Antarctic ice.

Vladimir Papitashvili
"IceCube is a wonderful and unique astrophysical telescope.” said Vladimir Papitashvili, Antarctic astrophysics and geospace science programme director with the National Science Foundation.

“It is deployed deep in the Antarctic ice, but looks over the entire universe."

The IceCube Observatory consists of 86 arrays dug almost two and a half kilometres into the ice. 

Image credit: Nasa-verve, Wikipedia

How it works
Neutrinos carry information about the workings of the most distant phenomena in the universe.

But it’s hard to capture /measure neutrinos because they are near massless, and carry no electrical charge.

Neutrinos are not affected by electromagnetic forces, and pass straight through matter, including the Earth.

They do, however, causes tiny flashes of blue light, called Cherenkov light, when they interact with the ice. It is these tiny blue flashes deep beneath the South Pole that IceCube has been built to monitor.

A Digital Optical Module (DOM) being attached to the final string just before the detector array was switched online 

Image Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

Rather than looking into the sky, the IceCube monitor has over five thousand Digital Optical Modules (DOMs).

Each one has a photomultiplier tube (PMT) and a data acquisition computer. A PMT is a vacuum tube that is extremely sensitive to light in the ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared range.

It can multiply the current produced by such light by as much as 100 million times.

Digital Optical Modules are suspended on strings in holes melted into the ice using a hot water drill, at depths ranging from 1,450 to 2,450 metres 

Image Credit: Amble, Wikipedia

Breaking the ice
These DOMs are attached to 86 different strings that have been buried deep beneath the ice.

Scientists used a hot water drill to bore holes with depths ranging from 1,450 to 2,450 metres and suspended the DOMs on the strings beneath the ice.

The photomultiplier tube inside the DOM scans for the Cherenkov effect, and the on-board computer sends any data back to the surface.

According to the National Science Foundation the observation of 28 very high-energy particle events constitutes the first solid evidence for astrophysical neutrinos from cosmic accelerators.

Francis Halzen
"This is the first indication of high-energy neutrinos coming from outside our solar system," says Francis Halzen, principal investigator of IceCube and the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"It is gratifying to finally see what we have been looking for. This is the dawn of a new age of astronomy."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

ISS Astronauts Celebrate Holidays in Orbit

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio performs a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Dec. 22, 2013, the first of two spacewalks to replace an ammonia coolant pump in one of two cooling loops on the orbiting lab.

Credit: NASA

Six space travelers living in orbit definitely aren't home for Christmas today, but that doesn't mean they won't get into the holiday spirit on the International Space Station.

The space station's six-man Expedition 38 crew includes two Americans, three Russians and one Japanese astronaut.

This year, Christmas falls between two spacewalks — a Christmas Eve spacewalk to fix the outpost's cooling system and a Dec. 27 excursion by Russian cosmonauts — so it is likely a welcome rest in an otherwise busy week.

"Hey folks, MERRY CHRISTMAS!" NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio wrote in a Twitter post Sunday (Dec. 22), adding that he would write more after finishing the station's "home improvement project" to replace a cooling system pump.

He and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins finished that work in a spacewalk on Tuesday.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

ISS Astronauts complete Coolant Pump repair

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have received a gift just in time for Christmas: a new pump module to repair their ailing cooling system and to restore the outpost to full power.

Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins embarked on their second spacewalk together, setting out at 6:53 a.m. EST (1153 GMT) on Tuesday (Dec. 24) to complete the work they began Saturday to remove and replace an ammonia pump module with a faulty flow control valve.

NASA's Mike Hopkins holds the space station's new pump module while floating past a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. 

Hopkins is riding the orbiting outpost's robotic arm to install the new pump module and fix the laboratory's vital cooling system.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

NASA Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2: Carbon sleuth gets simulated taste of space

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 spacecraft is moved into a thermal vacuum chamber at Orbital Sciences Corporation's Satellite Manufacturing Facility in Gilbert, Ariz., for a series of environmental tests. 

The tests confirmed the integrity of the observatory's electrical connections and subjected the OCO-2 instrument and spacecraft to the extreme hot, cold and airless environment they will encounter once in orbit. 

The observatory's solar array panels were removed prior to the test. 

Image credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation/NASA/JPL-Caltech

A NASA observatory that will make the most precise, highest-resolution and most complete, space-based measurements of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere to date has marked a key milestone in preparation for its planned July 2014 launch.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 spacecraft was moved into a thermal vacuum chamber at Orbital Science Corporation's Satellite Manufacturing Facility in Gilbert, Ariz., southeast of Phoenix, in late November, where it underwent a series of environmental tests that were completed last week.

The thermal vacuum tests are designed to confirm the integrity of the observatory's electrical connections and to subject the OCO-2 instrument and spacecraft to the extreme hot, cold, airless environment they will encounter once in orbit.

The observatory, consisting of the OCO-2 instrument, built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and the Orbital-built OCO-2 spacecraft bus, is continuing its integration and test campaign, scheduled for completion in the spring.

The observatory will then be shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for final preparations for its planned July 1, 2014, launch.

OCO-2 is NASA's first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide and is the latest mission in NASA's study of the global carbon cycle.

Carbon dioxide is the most significant human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change.

The mission will uniformly sample the atmosphere above Earth's land and ocean, collecting between 100,000 and 200,000 measurements of carbon dioxide concentration over Earth's sunlit hemisphere every day for at least two years.

It will do so with the accuracy, resolution and coverage needed to provide the first complete picture of the regional-scale geographic distribution and seasonal variations of both human and natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions as well as the places where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 spacecraft sits "on its back" atop ground support equipment at Orbital Sciences Corporation's Satellite Manufacturing Facility in Gilbert, Ariz., in preparation for environmental testing. 

The observatory's solar array panels were removed prior to the test. 

Image credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists will use OCO-2 mission data to improve global carbon cycle models, better characterize the processes responsible for adding and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and make more accurate predictions of global climate change.

ESA Mars Express heading towards daring flyby of Phobos

The High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) onboard the ESA spacecraft Mars Express took this image of Phobos using the HRSC nadir channel on 7 March 2010, HRSC Orbit 7915. 

This image has additionally been enhanced photometrically for better bringing features in the less illuminated part. Resolution: about 4.4 meters per pixel. 

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

Late this month, ESA's Mars Express will make the closest flyby yet of the Red Planet's largest moon Phobos, skimming past at only 45 km above its surface.

The flyby on 29 December will be so close and fast that Mars Express will not be able to take any images, but instead it will yield the most accurate details yet of the moon's gravitational field and, in turn, provide new details of its internal structure.

As the spacecraft passes close to Phobos, it will be pulled slightly off course by the moon's gravity, changing the spacecraft's velocity by no more than a few centimetres per second.

These small deviations will be reflected in the spacecraft's radio signals as they are beamed back to Earth, and scientists can then translate them into measurements of the mass and density structure inside the moon.

Earlier flybys, including the previous closest approach of 67 km in March 2010, have already suggested that the moon could be between a quarter and a third empty space – essentially a rubble pile with large spaces between the rocky blocks that make up the moon's interior.

Knowing the structure of the roughly 27 x 22 x 18 km Phobos will help to solve a big mystery concerning its origin and that of its more distant sibling, Deimos, which orbits Mars at approximately three times greater distance.

The leading theories propose that the duo are either asteroids captured by Mars, or that they were born from debris thrown up from giant impacts on Mars.

The innermost moon of Mars, Phobos, is seen here in full 360 degree glory. 

The images were taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on ESA’s Mars Express at various times throughout the mission’s 10 years. 

The moon’s parallel sets of grooves are perhaps the most striking feature, along with the giant 9 km-wide Stickney impact crater that dominates one face of the 27 x 22 x 18 km moon. 

The origin of the moon’s grooves is a subject of much debate.

One idea assumes that the crater chains are associated with impact events on the moon itself. 

Another idea suggests they result from Phobos moving through streams of debris thrown up from impacts 6000 km away on the surface of Mars, with each ‘family’ of grooves corresponding to a different impact event.

Mars Express has imaged Phobos from a wide range of distances, but will make its closest flyby yet on 29 December 2013, at just 45 km above the moon. 

Although this is too close to take images, gravity experiments will give insight into the interior structure of Phobos. 

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

"By making close flybys of Phobos with Mars Express in this way, we can help to put constraints on the origin of these mysterious moons," says Olivier Witasse, ESA's Mars Express project scientist.

In addition to probing the gravitational field of Phobos during its close approach, Mars Express will be making measurements of how the solar wind influences the moon's surface.

"At just 45 km from the surface, our spacecraft is passing almost within touching distance of Phobos," says Michel Denis, Mars Express Operations Manager.

"We've been carrying out manoeuvres every few months to put the spacecraft on track and, together with the ground stations that will be monitoring it on its close approach, we are ready to make some extremely accurate measurements at Phobos."