Tuesday, April 30, 2013

ESA Herschel: Deep-space Infra-red telescope runs out of Helium Coolant

Europe's deep-space Herschel telescope has given up the ghost -- running out of coolant after a successful mission to observe the birth of stars and galaxies, the European Space Agency said Monday.

"Herschel has made over 35,000 scientific observations, amassing more than 25,000 hours' worth of science data from about 600 observing programmes," it said in a eulogy.

"The archive will become the legacy of the mission. It is expected to provide even more discoveries than have been made during the lifetime of the Herschel mission."

Launched in May 2009, Herschel carried 2,300 litres of liquid helium coolant, which has been slowly evaporating.

Herschel became the largest and most powerful infrared telescope in space. Its expected lifetime was 3.5 years.

The helium was used to cool the satellite's instruments to near absolute zero (minus 273.15 degrees Celsius or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit) to enable it to make its observations.

At 7.5 metres (24.3 feet) high and four metres (13 feet) wide, Herschel had a launch mass of 3.4 tonnes. It cost 1.1 billion euros ($1.4 billion)

It was named after Sir William Herschel, the German-born British astronomer who discovered Uranus in 1781 and infrared radiation in 1800.

It carried three cameras and spectrometers and a primary mirror 3.5 metres (11.37 feet) across -- able to collect almost 20 times more light than any previous infrared space telescope.

Its infrared technology allowed Herschel to see galaxies that were previously hidden from scientists' view by cosmic dust clouds.

In 2011, it was reported that Herschel found the first confirmed evidence of oxygen molecules in space.

"Herschel has offered us a new view of the hitherto hidden Universe, pointing us to a previously unseen process of star birth and galaxy formation, and allowing us to trace water through the Universe from molecular clouds to newborn stars and their planet-forming discs and belts of comets," said Goran Pilbratt, an ESA Herschel Project Scientist.

The telescope will still be able to communicate with its ground stations for some time, placed in a "parking orbit" around the Sun.

Two new exoplanets Discovered with Kepler, SOPHIE and HARPS-N

Artist’s impression of a “hot Jupiter”. 

Credit: Ricardo Cardoso Reis (CAUP)

An international team of astronomers, including Alexandre Santerne of the EXOEarths team at CAUP, identified and characterized two new exoplanets, thanks to combined observations from the Kepler space telescope, plus SOPHIE and HARPS-N spectrographs.

These planets, named KOI-200 b and KOI-889 b are among the first detected with the new high-accuracy spectrograph HARPS-N, the northern hemisphere counterpart of the most prolific exoplanet hunter, HARPS (ESO).

CAUP researcher Alexandre Santerne commented: "The SOPHIE spectrograph was already playing an important role in the characterization of Kepler planets by unveiling the true nature of the candidates and measuring the mass of giant planets.

With the new HARPS-N spectrograph, with an even better accuracy, we expect to characterize much smaller exoplanets, hopefully down to the size of the Earth."

The new planets have about the size of Jupiter, but eccentric orbits with periods of less than 10 days. These new results help to further understand the evolution of orbits of these planets located very close to their star, known as "hot Jupiters".

There are currently more than 850 known exoplanets, but as seen from the Earth, only some of them are oriented in a way that they are passing in front of their star every orbital period. These periodic transits of the planet in front of its star produce a small dip in its brightness. These micro eclipses allow astronomers to know the diameter of the planet and some details about its atmosphere.

The Kepler space mission (NASA) has identified more than 2000 stars that have great chance of hosting transiting planets.

However, most of them need complementary ground-based observations to establish their nature and to complete their characterization.

The team participated to these ground-based observations since 2010, using the SOPHIE instrument, which has already participated in the detection and characterization to more than fifteen Kepler planets, through the radial velocity method.

Their observing program is now completed by new observations with the more accurate HARPS-N spectrograph.

KOI-200 b is slightly bigger than Jupiter and slightly less massive. With a low density, this gaseous planet is orbiting around its star in less than one week.

The planet KOI-889 b is of the size of Jupiter but is ten times more massive.

This very-massive planet is orbiting around its star in slightly less than 9 days. These two planets have eccentric orbits: during their orbit, their distance to their star is varying.

This produces large variation in their equilibrium temperature of several hundred of degrees in a few days.

KOI-889 b, which is among the most massive planets discovered so far, is also among the most eccentric transiting planets. It could have been formed by a different mechanism than less massive planets.

Santerne added: "Even if there are just hot and giant planets as we already know hundreds of them, these two planets are orbiting on a highly eccentric orbit, which is relatively rare for such short-period planets.

I prefer to see these two new planets as two other bricks in the wall of our knowledge about planetary systems: bigger is the wall, better we understand planetary formation and evolution."

High-speed discovery helps measure greenhouse gases from space

Scientists have discovered how to measure greenhouse gases 200,000 times faster as the result of research by an award-winning PhD student from The University of Western Australia (UWA) and a US team.

The discovery - which is already being used by NASA scientists in Space - has major implications for global warming research, breath analysis (to detect illness), explosives detection, chemical process monitoring and a range of other applications, including fundamental quantum theory.

UWA physics graduate Gar-Wing Truong used highly-sensitive rapid laser scanning technology to help lead US scientists from National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland to build new gas measurement equipment with unparalleled speed, accuracy, precision and spectral coverage.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California has begun using data from Mr Truong's research to calibrate carbon monitoring satellites in orbit around Earth and better understand carbon dioxide molecules.

Eric May
The research is an extension of Mr Truong's PhD project on precision spectroscopy for gas metrology, which he has conducted at the University since 2009 under the supervision of UWA Winthrop Professor Eric May and former Winthrop Professor Andre Luiten (now at University of Adelaide) , with funding from the Australian Research Council's Discovery program.

Mr Truong said better, more reliable data on global warming held significant benefit to society, helping researchers better understand its causes and accurately evaluate the impact of policy decisions.

"This research is of particular significance to Australia if it is to take the lead in global warming policy and research," Mr Truong said. "It is also highly relevant to WA, where the economy is strongly driven by oil, gas and mineral industries."

Mr Truong, who worked on the new spectroscopy technique while on a year-long Australian Fulbright Fellowship at NIST, said the breakthrough combined ideas already being developed at UWA with apparatus and methods used at NIST.

The resulting novel approach - dubbed Frequency-Agile, Rapid Scanning spectroscopy (FARS) - had greatly improved the speed at which gases could be traced without compromising on precision.

"Usually in science or engineering if you want to make measurements go faster, you have to sacrifice sensitivity," Mr Truong said.

"What we have demonstrated here is a 200,000-fold increase in speed to enable high-precision spectroscopy without degrading sensitivity - we've built a new apparatus with unparalleled speed, accuracy, precision and spectral coverage."

"The unique properties of FARS make it well suited for many existing challenges in trace gas sensing," Mr Truong wrote in a paper published online today in the journal, Nature Photonics.

"We see clear applications in the real-time measurements of greenhouse gas fluxes, as well as in the monitoring of dynamic processes such as combustion."

More information: dx.doi.org/10.1038/NPHOTON.2013.98

NASA MARS Opportunity Rover Found in Standby Safe Mode

NASA's twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have now spent nine years on the surface of Mars.


NASA's long-lived Opportunity Mars rover has gone into a self-imposed standby mode on the Red Planet, the robot's handlers say.

Mission controllers for Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January 2004, first learned of the issue on Saturday (April 27).

On that day, the rover got back in touch after a nearly three-week communication moratorium caused by a planetary alignment called a Mars solar conjunction, in which Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the sun.

The Opportunity rover apparently put itself into standby on April 22 after sensing a problem during a routine camera check, mission managers said.

John Callas
"Our current suspicion is that Opportunity rebooted its flight software, possibly while the cameras on the mast were imaging the sun," Opportunity project manager John Callas, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., explained in a statement Monday (April 29).

"We found the rover in a standby state called automode, in which it maintains power balance and communication schedules, but waits for instructions from the ground," Callas added.

"We crafted our solar conjunction plan to be resilient to this kind of rover reset, if it were to occur."

Opportunity's handlers prepared new commands Monday designed to spur the rover into resuming operations, mission team members said.

The golf-cart-size Opportunity landed on Mars more than nine years ago along with its twin, Spirit, on a three-month mission to search for signs of past water activity on the Red Planet.

The two rovers found plenty of such evidence, and then kept trundling across Mars. Spirit was declared dead in 2010, but Opportunity is still going strong.

Mars solar conjunctions occur every 26 months, so Opportunity's team knows how to weather them. This most recent conjunction, in fact, is the fifth that the rover has endured.

Mars solar conjunctions affect NASA's entire fleet of robotic Red Planet explorers. Mission controllers resumed sending commands to the agency's venerable Mars Odyssey orbiter Monday and plan to do the same with the Mars rover Curiosity on Wednesday (May 1), officials said.

ESA-EDA DESIRE Flight Demonstration On RPA Systems Insertion Into Civil Airspace

DESIRE has undertaken a series of test flights to demonstrate the role of satellite communications for integrating in civil and military airspace RPAS flight Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS).

San Javier Air Base (Murcia) was selected to conduct the trials and demonstrate that satellite communications are suitable to operate Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPASs) and integrate them into civil airspace.

The DeSIRE project (Demonstration of Satellites enabling the Insertion of RPAS in Europe) is funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Defence Agency (EDA) within an initiative to support the utilisation of RPAS complemented by satellites for commercial and governmental applications.

To undertake this project the consultancy and technology multinational Indra (Spain) leads a European industrial consortium formed by AT-One (Germany and the Netherlands), SES ASTRA (Luxembourg), Thales Alenia Space (Italy and France) and CIRA (Italy).

DESIRE has undertaken a series of test flights to demonstrate the role of satellite communications for integrating in civil and military airspace RPAS flight Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS). The concepts and applicable procedures were defined in the precursor feasibility studies.

In particular, the flight completed this Wednesday provided a generic terrestrial and maritime surveillance service, demonstrating the dual use of RPAS.

In the presence of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Francisco Javier Garcia-Arnaiz, an aircraft without a pilot on board took off from the San Javier runway at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday 24 April and completed a 6-hour flight in civil and military airspace.

The operation was timed to coincide with civil and military flights operating from the base, which shares its facilities with Murcia Airport.

Monday, April 29, 2013

NASA's Cassini Image: Saturn's North Polar Storm - Rose

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The spinning vortex of Saturn's north polar storm resembles a deep red rose of giant proportions surrounded by green foliage in this false-color image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second).

This image is among the first sunlit views of Saturn's north pole captured by Cassini's imaging cameras. When the spacecraft arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was northern winter and the north pole was in darkness.

Saturn's north pole was last imaged under sunlight by NASA's Voyager 2 in 1981; however, the observation geometry did not allow for detailed views of the poles.

Consequently, it is not known how long this newly discovered north-polar hurricane has been active.

This spectacular false-color image from NASA's Cassini mission highlights the storms at Saturn's north pole.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI 

The images were taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 27, 2012, using a combination of spectral filters sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light.

The images filtered at 890 nanometers are projected as blue. The images filtered at 728 nanometers are projected as green, and images filtered at 752 nanometers are projected as red. In this scheme, red indicates low clouds and green indicates high ones.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 261,000 miles (419,000 kilometers) from Saturn and at a sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 94 degrees. Image scale is 1 mile (2 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org.

Mars Mission May Carry Asteroid-Smashing Probe ISIS and Insight in 2016

Impactor for Surface and Interior Science (ISIS) nears asteroid target: 1999 RQ36.

CREDIT: Steve Chesley

When a NASA mission to study Mars' deep interior blasts off in 2016, it may also carry a tag-along experiment that will slam an impactor into a potentially hazardous asteroid.

Scientists are studying the possibility of adding the asteroid-deflection effort — dubbed Impactor for Surface and Interior Science (ISIS) — to NASA's InSight Mars mission, which is slated to launch a lander toward the Red Planet in March 2016.

Once set loose in space, ISIS is designed to slam into the asteroid target of the already-on-the-books NASA mission Osiris-Rex, which aims to launch a robotic probe toward potentially dangerous asteroid 1999 RQ36 in September 2016.

Hardware alignment
"This opportunity with a free launch and the observer spacecraft already at the asteroid is like a planetary alignment. It almost never happens," said Steven Chesley of the solar system dynamics group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. who is leading the potential ISIS mission.

Chesley discussed ISIS here during the 2013 International Academy of Astronautics' Planetary Defense Conference, which ran from April 15 to 18.

SIS would take advantage of a boost into space from the InSight Mars lander mission in 2016.

CREDIT: Steve Chesley

NASA's Osiris-Rex mission has an amalgam of asteroid-studying duties, as the name suggests: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.

The Osiris-Rex mission is a partnership involving the University of Arizona, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Lockheed Martin, with collaborators worldwide.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft is scripted for travel to 1999 RQ36, a near-Earth carbonaceous asteroid.

The probe will rendezvous with that space rock in 2019-2021, gathering and returning specimens of the object for delivery to Earth in 2023.

The new plan being devised has ISIS arriving after Osiris-Rex has done its science work at the asteroid. ISIS would smack at high velocity into the near-Earth asteroid, creating a crater tens of meters in diameter.

Celestial wallop
From a safe vantage point, Osiris-Rex would observe the celestial wallop.

After debris clears, the probe would then approach the asteroid and image the crater for comparative analysis of previously mapped terrain. In addition, spectra of the pristine material exposed by the impact could be obtained.

The purposeful crash of ISIS into the asteroid is viewed, in part, as a seismic experiment. Global alterations (toppled rocks, landslides) due to shock waves and reverberations are anticipated, as is lofting of material far from the impact site. Just how much the asteroid is deflected from its course will also be measured.

The outcome of the ISIS impact, and the data it generates, are meant to showcase planetary defense aspects of an asteroid deflection experiment, like demonstrating terminal guidance capability.

ISIS also spotlights important science return per dollar, advocates say.

On the exploration side, ISIS squarely addresses numerous critical and strategic knowledge gaps for human exploration of near-Earth asteroids, Chesley told conference attendees.


A blast of particles flew out of the sun to the right on April 18-19, 2013. 

A coronal mass ejection (CME), associated with a solar flare, sent the cloud out from an active region at the sun’s edge. 

A secondary blast pointed a little lower followed.

This still frame from a video combines images from three instruments. 

Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) recorded the sun’s blast. 

The frames combine with C2 (red) and C3 (blue) coronagraph images from SOHO.

Coronagraph images block out the sun to observe the corona. The strut that holds the disk that occults the Sun in C3 creates the diagonal black line.

Scientists Bounce Laser Beams Off Lunokhod 1: Old Soviet Moon Rover

Laser beams shot to the moon from Grasse (MéO) station in Calern, France successfully targeted the reflector on the Soviet Union's old Lunokhod 1 rover, which trekked across the moon's landscape more than four decades ago.

Lunokhod 1 was the first remote-controlled rover ever to land on another celestial body. The wheeled vehicle was carried to the lunar surface by a spacecraft called Luna 17, touching down in the Sea of Rains on Nov. 17, 1970.

Among its instruments, the rover toted a French-built laser retroreflector consisting of 14 corner cubes that can reflect laser light beamed from Earth.

Attempts to contact the rover after the lunar night that began on Sept. 14, 1971, were unsuccessful, apparently due to a component failure on the rover.

Lunokhod 1's days of rambling around the moon formally ended on Oct. 4, 1971, after 11 lunar day-night cycles (322 Earth days).

Read the full paper here: Laser Ranging to the Lost Lunokhod-1 Reflector:  http://arxiv.org/abs/1009.5720

Sunday, April 28, 2013

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover Explores 'Yellowknife Bay'

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity used its left Navigation Camera (NavCam) to record this view of the step down into a shallow depression called "Yellowknife Bay." 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity this week is driving within a shallow depression called "Yellowknife Bay," providing information to help researchers choose a rock to drill.

Using Curiosity's percussive drill to collect a sample from the interior of a rock, a feat never before attempted on Mars, is the mission's priority for early 2013.

After the powdered-rock sample is sieved and portioned by a sample-processing mechanism on the rover's arm, it will be analyzed by instruments inside Curiosity.

Yellowknife Bay is within a different type of terrain from what the rover has traversed since landing inside Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 5, PDT (Aug. 6, UTC).

The terrain Curiosity has entered is one of three types that intersect at a location dubbed "Glenelg," chosen as an interim destination about two weeks after the landing.

MSL's percussive drill
Curiosity reached the lip of a 2-foot (half-meter) descent into Yellowknife Bay with a 46-foot (14-meter) drive on Dec. 11.

The next day, a drive of about 86 feet (26.1 meters) brought the rover well inside the basin.

Mast Camera (Mastcam)
The team has been employing the Mast Camera (Mastcam) and the laser-wielding Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) for remote-sensing studies of rocks along the way.

On Dec. 14, Curiosity drove about 108 feet (32.8 meters) to reach rock targets of interest called "Costello" and "Flaherty."

Researchers used the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at the end of the rover's arm to examine the targets.

Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)
After finishing those studies, the rover drove again on Dec. 17, traveling about 18 feet (5.6 meters) farther into Yellowknife Bay.

That brings the mission's total driving distance to 0.42 mile (677 meters) since Curiosity's landing.

One additional drive is planned this week before the rover team gets a holiday break.

Curiosity will continue studying the Martian environment from its holiday location at the end point of that drive within Yellowknife Bay.

The mission's plans for most of 2013 center on driving toward the primary science destination, a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer) layered mound called Mount Sharp.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project (MSL) is using Curiosity during a two-year prime mission to assess whether areas inside Gale Crater ever offered a habitable environment for microbes.

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover: MRO HiRise Traverse Map, Sol 130

This map traces where NASA's Mars rover Curiosity drove between landing at a site subsequently named "Bradbury Landing," and the position reached during the mission's 130th Martian day, or sol, (Dec. 17, 2012). 

The inset shows the most recent legs of the traverse in greater detail.

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

The rover entered a shallow depression called "Yellowknife Bay" with a drive of about 86 feet (26.1 meters) on Sol 125 (Dec. 12). 

It subsequently drove about 108 feet (32.8 meters) on Sol 127 (Dec. 14) and about 18 feet (5.6 meters) on Sol 130.

Yellowknife Bay 
Yellowknife Bay is a potential location for selection of the first target rock for Curiosity's hammering drill. 

The ground in this basin is a different type of terrain from the terrain Curiosity crossed getting there from Bradbury Landing. 

Nighttime observations from orbit indicate that the ground in the basin retains daytime heating better than the terrain around Bradbury Landing does, a property called high thermal inertia.

Bradbury Landing
The mapped area is within Gale Crater and north of the mountain called Mount Sharp in the middle of the crater. 

After the first use of the drill, the rover's main science destination will be on the lower reaches of Mount Sharp. 

The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

NASA Cassini and Saturn's Rings: A Splendour Seldom Seen

Image scale at Saturn is about 30 miles per pixel (50 kilometers per pixel).

Credit: NASA Cassini

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has delivered a glorious view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn's shadow.

The cameras were turned toward Saturn and our Sun, so that the planet and rings are back-lit.

In this image the sun is behind the planet, which is shielding the cameras from direct sunlight.

In addition to the visual splendour, this special, very-high-phase viewing geometry lets scientists study ring and atmosphere phenomena not easily seen at a lower phase.

Since images like this can only be taken while the sun is behind the planet, this beautiful view is all the more precious for its rarity.

The last time Cassini captured a view like this was in Sept. 2006, when it captured a mosaic processed to look like natural color, entitled "In Saturn's Shadow."

Inside the Cassini Spacecraft
In that mosaic, planet Earth put in a special appearance, making "In Saturn's Shadow" one of the most popular Cassini images to date.

Earth does not appear in this mosaic as it is hidden behind the planet.

Also captured in this image are two of Saturn's moons: Enceladus and Tethys.

Both appear on the left side of the planet, below the rings. Enceladus is closer to the rings; Tethys is below and to the left.

This view looks toward the non-illuminated side of the rings from about 19 degrees below the ring plane.

Images taken using infrared, red and violet spectral filters were combined to create this enhanced-colour view.

The images were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 17, 2012 at a distance of approximately 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) from Saturn.

MYO Wearable-computing armband with Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity

"Wave goodbye to camera-based gesture control." That is the confident directive coming from a one-year-old Waterloo, Ontario, startup called Thalmic Labs.

The company is prepared to ship its next batch of wearable-computing armbands for device controls early next year.

The $149 armbands called MYO do not require cameras in order to track hand or arm movements. The armbands can wirelessly control and interact with computers and other digital consumer products by recognizing the electric impulses in users' muscles.

The MYO is worn around the forearm; its purpose is to control computers, phones, and other devices, sending the data via Bluetooth. Windows and Mac operating systems are supported and APIs will be available for iOS and Android.

Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (BLE) is used for the MYO to communicate with the paired devices. (Bluetooth version 4.0 is the most recent version of Bluetooth wireless technology.

It includes a low-energy feature promoted as good news for developers and manufacturers of Bluetooth devices and applications—enabling markets for devices that are low-cost and operate with low-power wireless connectivity.)

The MYO specs include on-board, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and an ARM processor. Also part of the mix are the company's proprietary muscle-activity sensors and a six-axis inertial measurement unit.

A user's gestures and movements are actually detected in two ways: muscle activity and motion sensing. The Thalmic team says that when sensing the muscle movements of the user, the MYO can detect changes down to each individual finger.

Also, when tracking arm and hand positions, the MYO picks up subtle movements and rotations in all directions.

Right now, as indicated in their newly released video of the company, Thalmic Labs hopes for greater things for MYO via a developer community. They expect an official developer program to be up and running in the next few months.

They pride themselves in groundbreaking technology, as a team with specialties from electrical engineering to embedded system design. Nonetheless, they are looking to developers for innovative ideas in applications.

The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment finds 'hints'

Enectali Figueroa-Feliciano
Physicists operating an underground experiment in Minnesota reported last week that they have found possible hints of dark matter.

The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment detected three events with the characteristics expected of dark matter, Kevin McCarthy, a PhD student in physics at MIT, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Denver.

These results do not meet the criteria physicists use to claim a discovery, so CDMS scientists now plan to conduct more analysis.
Kevin McCarthy

One of those scientists, Enectali Figueroa-Feliciano, an associate professor of physics at MIT and McCarthy's adviser, spoke with MIT News about the new results.

The implications of this result
"We are trying to answer a very simple question: What is the universe made of? "

"The strange picture that has emerged over the last two decades is one where over 84 percent of the matter in the universe is not in the atoms that make up stars or planets or rocks or dust or gas, but in a new substance that we call dark matter."

"We currently think dark matter consists of a yet-to-be-discovered fundamental particle that permeates all of space."

"If this is the right picture, millions of these particles go through our bodies every second. Scientists have been trying to see interactions between dark matter and "normal" matter—the detectors at our underground experiment."

"If such interactions are found, they would carry the imprints of the properties of the dark-matter particle, information that would help us open a new window of understanding into the most fundamental properties of our universe at both the subatomic and cosmological scales."

MIT's contribution 
"The CDMS collaboration is composed of 18 institutions; running the experiment, taking the data, and analyzing it is a group effort."

"A significant portion of this analysis, however, was carried out by Kevin McCarthy as part of his PhD thesis at MIT. The analysis of a potential dark-matter interpretation of the data was done by MIT postdoctoral researcher Julien Billard."
Julien Billard

Next steps
"Our results are intriguing, but not enough for a definitive discovery. "

"To really determine the source of these events, we are doing further analysis on this data, and are taking new data right now in our experiment half a mile underground in an old iron mine in the town of Soudan, Minn."

"Other dark-matter experiments are also exploring this region of interest."

"It will take several experiments, seeing consistent signals, to definitively solve the dark-matter riddle."

NASA Space shuttle Atlantis (retired) exhibited

Space shuttle Atlantis (retired) is seen fully-exposed, its protective shrink-wrap cover removed, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, April 26, 2013.

CREDIT: Robert Z. Pearlman

Space Shuttle Atlantis (retired) is ready for its admiring public.

The retired NASA orbiter, which is set to go on public display June 29 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, was fully revealed Friday (April 26) after workers spent two days peeling off its protective shrink-wrap cover of the past five months.

"It looks fantastic," Tim Macy, director of project development and construction for Delaware North Parks and Resorts, which runs the visitor complex for NASA, said after seeing Atlantis unwrapped. "It looks better than I thought it was going to look."

"It looks completely different with the plastic on it than the plastic off," Macy told reporters. "But this is the way it is supposed to look. It looks so much like the exhibit's conceptual drawings."

On Thursday, workers began carefully cutting back the 16,000 square feet (1,486 square meters) of shrink wrap that protected Atlantis as its $100 million exhibition building was completed around it.

By the end of the first day, the shuttle's nose, tail, aft engines and left wing were exposed.

On Friday, the workers completed the process, revealing Atlantis' right wing and its 60-foot-long (18 meter) payload bay.

"I cannot wait to get the covers off the windows and get the doors open to see the final configuration," Macy said.

NASA SDO Video: 3 Years of the Sun in 3 Minutes

A new video showcases the sun's life over three years, stitched together from gorgeous snapshots taken by a NASA spacecraft in orbit around our nearest star.

The amazing new video of the sun is made up of photos captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) — two images a day for three years.

The eye-catching images offer an unprecedented glimpse of the daily commotion waxing and waning on the surface of the sun.

SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) records an image of the sun every 12 seconds in 10 different wavelengths, according to NASA officials. The images seen in the video are in the extreme ultraviolet range.

"In this wavelength it is easy to see the sun's 25-day rotation as well as how solar activity has increased over three years," agency officials said in a statement.

In the video, the size of the sun appears to subtly fluctuate. These changes are caused by the variation over time in the distance between SDO and the sun. Despite these tiny variations, the shots are fairly stable and consistent.

With SDO maintaining this steady and unbroken gaze, helio-physicists regularly observe the sun's active regions, and have been able to watch solar storms as they occur.

By closely monitoring changes in the sun's activity, researchers can catch solar flares and other major space weather events in the act.

"SDO's glimpses into the violent dance on the sun help scientists understand what causes these giant explosions — with the hopes of some day improving our ability to predict this space weather," NASA officials said.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched in February 2010 and is equipped with a suite of instruments to stare at the sun for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This type of uninterrupted coverage allowed scientists to monitor the star as it ramps up toward a period of solar maximum this year in its regular 11-year cycle of activity.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

NASA Messenger and Stereo Probes Survive Triple Solar Eruption (CMEs)

This image of a coronal mass ejection (CME) was captured on April 20, 2013. 

The CME is headed in the direction of Mercury. 

The large bright spot on the left is Venus.


Two NASA spacecraft are safe and sound, after the sun unleashed three intense back-to-back solar eruptions in their direction, scientists say.

NASA's Messenger spacecraft in orbit around Mercury and the Stereo-A, which studies the sun from Earth orbit, suffered no damage from the passing solar storms.

On April 20, the sun fired off a solar eruption that sent huge wave of plasma and charged particles, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), toward Mercury.

The next day, the sun unleashed two more CMEs in the same direction, and managers from both the Messenger and Stereo missions were alerted of the potential hazards should the CMEs hit or pass closely to the probes but both spacecraft appear to have made it through unscathed.

C. Alex Young
"The CME did pass by Stereo-A — we can see it in the data," said C. Alex Young, a solar astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Other than that, we didn't see anything out of the ordinary."

In severe cases, CMEs can scramble a spacecraft's onboard electronics, but these particular eruptions were not very strong, Young explained.

Still, spacecraft manufacturers are mindful of the amount of radiation their hardware will likely be exposed to in space.

"These spacecraft, while they certainly can be affected by spaceweather, they're generally made to withstand reasonable amounts of radiation," Young stated.

The sun's activity ebbs and flows on an 11-year cycle, and solar weather events are expected to increase this year as the current cycle ramps up toward the solar maximum. The current solar weather cycle is known as Solar Cycle 24.

Friday, April 26, 2013

NASA IceBridge Survey Flight Over Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord

This image of Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord with Kap Atholl in the background was taken during an Operation IceBridge survey flight in April, 2013. 

Sea ice coverage in the fjord ranges from thicker, white ice seen in the background, to thinner grease ice and leads showing open ocean water in the foreground.

In March 2013, NASA's Operation IceBridge scientists began another season of research activity over Arctic ice sheets and sea ice. 

IceBridge, a six-year NASA mission, is the largest airborne survey of Earth's polar ice ever flown.

It will yield an unprecedented three-dimensional view of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, ice shelves and sea ice. 

These flights will provide a yearly, multi-instrument look at the behavior of the rapidly changing features of the Greenland and Antarctic ice.

› Read more about IceBridge

Image Credit: NASA / Michael Studinger

MESSENGER mission: A close “peak of eternal light” (PEL) near Mercury’s south pole

A close “peak of eternal light” (PEL) near Mercury’s south pole.

Mercury, traveling in its 88-day-long orbit around the Sun with basically zero axial tilt, has many craters at its poles whose insides literally never see the light of day.

These permanently-shadowed locations have been found by the JPL MESSENGER mission to harbour considerable deposits of ice.

This is a seemingly strange discovery on a planet two-and-a-half times closer to the Sun than we are!)

But if there are places on Mercury where the Sun never shines then there may also be places where it always does.

That's what researchers are looking for in illumination maps made from MESSENGER data, and they're getting closer.

The image above shows a region near Mercury's south pole. The yellow arrow points to the closest thing to a true "peak of eternal light" found thus far on Mercury, a point that receives sunlight about 82% of the time i.e. almost constantly illuminated.

Studies of the illumination conditions near the north and south poles of Mercury are of interest because they can be used to determine locations of permanent shadow, extremely cold places where ice deposits lurk.

However, the illumination maps also reveal the locations that receive the maximum duration of sunlight during a Mercury solar day.

A "peak of eternal light" that is illuminated continuously for an entire solar day would be a favourable target for a lander, because solar power would be available all the time.

So far, no such peak of eternal light has been identified at Mercury's south pole.

The spot that get the most illumination (about 82%), is located at 89° S, 50.7° E.

Illumination map of Mercury’s south polar region (Pub. March 2012).

This image was acquired as part of Messenger's MDIS campaign to monitor the south polar region of Mercury.

By imaging the polar region approximately every four MESSENGER orbits as illumination conditions change, features that were in shadow on earlier orbits can be discerned and any permanently shadowed areas can be identified after repeated imaging over one solar day.

The top image above was acquired on Dec. 24, 2011. 

The large crater is Chao Meng-Fu, about 129 km (80 mi.) in diameter. 

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

NASA Asteroid Capture Mission Explained - Animation

NASA's 2014 budget poposes a mission to robotically capture a small near-Earth asteroid and bring it into a stable lunar orbit where astronauts can visit and explore it, a 'stepping stone' to future missions to farther asteroids.

Credit: NASA

Russian Progress 51 Cargo Spacecraft Docks with ISS - Video

The Russian Progress 51 automatically docked to the the ISS's Zvezda Service Module on April 26th, 2013. A navigational antenna did not diploy shortly after launch but mission controllers worked around the problem.

Credit: NASA

NASA Asteroid Capture Mission Explained (Infographic)

Find out how NASA's plan to move an asteroid works in this SPACE.com infographic.
Source SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

An audacious plan included in NASA’s 2014 budget proposal would send a robotic spacecraft out to capture an asteroid and haul it back to an orbit around the moon for study. One of NASA’s stated goals is to visit an asteroid by the year 2025.

A 2012 Keck Institute study described an Asteroid Capture and Return (ACR) spacecraft capable of intercepting an asteroid. A 50-foot (15 meters) capture bag would enclose the asteroid and allow the spacecraft to maneuver the rock in space by firing its rocket engines.

The spacecraft’s main propulsion would be provided by Hall-effect thrusters. This is a type of ion engine in which the fuel (xenon gas) is accelerated by an electric field. Ion engines produce moderate thrust, but can be fired for a long time to build up acceleration.

An asteroid would be moved from its original orbit to a new location near the moon, putting it in range of the manned Orion crew vehicle.

To move the asteroid, the spacecraft would first be launched from Earth on an Atlas 5 rocket, slowly spiraling away into space for 2.2 years. Then it gets a gravity slingshot boost from the moon and heads out into deep space.

The spacecraft cruises for 1.7 years until it reaches the target asteroid. Operations at the asteroid take about 90 days. The capture bag is deployed, and once secured, the asteroid is stabilized for towing.

The cruise back to the vicinity of the Earth takes two to six years. After another slingshot maneuver around the moon, the asteroid is placed in a stable orbit, where it can be reached by the manned Orion crew vehicle for study.

Planetary Scientists Protest: NASA Budget Cuts Proposed for 2014 'Disastrous'

Supporters of planetary science are rallying against NASA's proposed 2014 budget, which they say unfairly guts funding for solar system research and exploration.

The Obama administration unveiled the budget plan April 10, requesting $17.7 billion for NASA — $50 million less than the agency got in 2012.

The budget must be approved by Congress before it becomes official. Under the budget proposal, planetary science would receive $1.217 billion in 2014.

Discounting the $50 million earmarked for producing plutonium-238, which fuels deep space vehicles (this used to be paid for by the Department of Energy), and $20 million for asteroid detection in service of a future manned asteroid mission, this represents a $268 million cut from planetary science funding levels approved by Congress for 2013, advocates said.

Carl Sagan
"The Planetary Society has deep concerns about the continued effort to defund planetary science in NASA's 2014 budget proposal," wrote officials from the society, which was founded by astronomer Carl Sagan to promote solar-system exploration, in testimony submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology April 24.

"Without immediate investment in technology and mission development — not possible under the FY14 proposal — the United States will go 'radio dark' in almost all regions of the solar system by the end of the decade."

In this still from a NASA video, a robotic spacecraft's capture bag swallows an asteroid in order to return it to Earth. 

NASA plans to retrieve an asteroid and park it near the moon by 2025, possibly even by 2021, so astronauts can explore it.


The proposed budget would include $105 million in funds to support an asteroid-capture mission and other asteroid studies, but eliminate Europa Clipper, a planned robotic mission to Jupiter's intriguing moon Europa, which harbours an ocean buried beneath its icy surface that may support microbial life, and current missions, such as NASA's Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn and the Messenger orbiter around Mercury, may come to premature ends.

Bill Nye
Bill Nye, chief executive officer of the Planetary Society, called the budget "shortsighted and disastrous" in a letter urging supporters to write their Congressional representatives in support of planetary science.

The organization aims to send 25,000 messages to Capitol Hill by April 28.

A group of lawmakers also joined in the campaign, penning a letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden on April 19 asking that he and the Obama administration rethink their 2013 NASA budget, which is still unfinalised.

Senator Barbara Boxer
"We write to express opposition to any Fiscal Year 2013 NASA Operating Plan that disproportionately applies sequester and across-the-board cuts to the science budget," wrote Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in a letter signed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative John Culberson (R-TX).

"While we fully understand that the funding levels enumerated in the bill and report are subject to change to reflect the across the board and sequester cuts, we expect that the balance among programs will remain consistent with the structure directed by Congress."

Russian Progress 51 cargo spacecraft successfully docked to the ISS - Antenna Fault

A Russian Progress 51 robotic spacecraft successfully docked to the International Space Station today (April 26, 2013).


An unmanned cargo-carrying spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station Friday morning (April 26), despite a glitch in the capsule's navigation system.

After its launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, the Russian Progress 51 spacecraft failed to deploy one of the two antennas used for the Kurs automated docking system.

Russian ground controllers were able to reposition the antenna, allowing the automated docking to go ahead as planned.

Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Roman Romanenko kept an eye on Progress as it moved into position.

"We have contact," one of the cosmonauts said after docking, "We have capture."

Although the cosmonauts were prepared to take over docking procedures, the automated system worked and the spacecraft fully docked to the station at 8:34 a.m. EDT (1234 GMT) while flying 251 miles (404 kilometers) over the border between China and Kazakhstan.

The approach to the space station was slower than usual because controllers on the ground and astronauts on the International Space Station were carefully monitoring Progress's position, NASA officials said.

At first the Progress was "soft-docked" and not secured in place with hooks in latches, giving the station crew and flight controllers a chance to make sure its stuck antenna posed no risk to the station's exterior.

When they saw it was safe, the Progress was slowly drawn into the port and secured.

Progress delivered 1,764 pounds (800 kg) of propellant, 57 pounds (26 kg) of air, 48 pounds (21 kg) of oxygen, 926 pounds (420 kg) of water and 3,348 pounds (1519 kg) of experiment hardware, spare parts and other supplies to the residents of the space station, NASA officials said.

Animal Computer Interaction: Technology to help dogs assist humans in the home

Dr Clara Mancini at The Open University talks about the Animal-Computer Interaction team and their collaboration with the charity Dogs for the Disabled to design dog-friendly technologies which will make it easier for dogs to assist their humans in the home.

Dr Clara Mancini
Assistance dogs perform a range of daily tasks, such as operating light switches and door handles, but domestic technology is designed for humans rather than animals, making life harder for the dogs and their owners. So, a new animal-centered design perspective is needed.

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China helps Ecuador launch its first satellite into space

Ecuador launched its first satellite into space from China Friday morning, in a moment broadcast live on radio and television back home in Ecuador.

The "Pegaso" (Pegasus) nano-satellite, designed and built in Ecuador, set off aboard an unmanned rocket at 0413 GMT from the Jiuquan station in northern China.

Measuring just 10 by 10 by 75 centimeters (four by four by 30 inches), and weighing 1.2 kilograms (2.6 pounds), Pegaso will beam live video images back to Earth from an onboard camera.

"Welcome to the heavens, Pegaso. Welcome to space Ecuador. The mission is a success," said Ronnie Nader, Ecuador's first and only astronaut, who runs Ecuador's civilian space agency.

The Ecuadoran Space Agency plans a second satellite launch in July.