Monday, September 30, 2013

Plastic Moon: Propylene Detected On Titan | Video

The main ingredient in industrial plastic number 5, has been detected in the atmosphere of the Saturn moon. 

The propylene molecule was missing in Voyager 1's probe of the moon in 1980, and had baffled scientists until now.

Credit: NASA / GSFC

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo spacecraft docks with ISS

The Cygnus cargo spacecraft is just a few feet away from the International Space Station's Canadarm2. Image Credit: NASA

An unmanned cargo ship successfully berthed with the orbiting International Space Station on Sunday following a one-week delay due to a technical glitch, NASA said.

ISS astronauts "successfully captured the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo spacecraft with the station's robotic arm" at 1100 GMT, NASA said.

"Following its capture, the spacecraft is being maneuvered by Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Karen Nyberg of NASA for installation onto the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony module," the space agency said on its website.

The Cygnus capsule, built by Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, launched on September 18 on a demonstration mission meant to show it can successfully deliver cargo to the space station.

Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA that requires the company to deliver freight to the ISS over the course of eight flights by the beginning of 2016.

However a software problem delayed the Cygnus spacecraft's planned approach to the research outpost. The capsule manufacturers eventually figured out how to fix what they called a data format mismatch.

Orbital Sciences is one of just two private US firms enlisted by NASA to carry payloads to the ISS.

California-based SpaceX already showed it could send its reusable Dragon capsule to the ISS bearing cargo in May 2012.

Cygnus's delay however allowed time for three new ISS crew members -- Michael Hopkins of NASA and Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian space agency -- to launch aboard a Russian Soyuz.

Their Soyuz-TMA-10M capsule blasted off from Kazakhstan and docked successfully with the ISS just six hours later, in a new shortcut route now used by the Russian space agency.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Perchlorates: Mars Chemical Changes Search for Red Planet Life

The Curiosity Rover took this composite self-portrait in the Rocknest sand patch on Mars. Tests of soil at the site suggest that troublesome chemicals called perchlorates are common on the Red Planet.

Credit: NASA

Astronauts sent to Mars on future space missions will have to contend with the toxic and explosive chemical known as perchlorate that's widespread in Red Planet dirt.

Perchlorates have already proved to be problematic for researchers using robotic rovers to hunt for possible traces of Martian life, a new study has found.

As part of its science mission, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity heats up scoops of Red Planet dirt to test for organic carbon compounds — the building blocks of life on Earth.

But that heat can cause perchlorates in soil samples to set off a chemical reaction that destroys organics, researchers discovered.

Daniel Glavin
"The presence of perchlorates isn't good news for some of the techniques currently being used with Curiosity," study lead author Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement.

"This may change the way we search for organics in the future on Mars."

Perchlorates, which are salts comprised of chlorine and oxygen, were first detected in Martian polar soil by NASA's Phoenix lander in May 2008.

More recently, Curiosity found perchlorates while trekking around the Rocknest sand dune in November 2012.

Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) system uses a pyrolysis gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which is an instrument that breaks soil down into its chemical components and measures the concentration of each type of molecule.

But when perchlorates in these soil samples are heated above 392 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius), they release pure oxygen, the researchers say.

This oxygen then causes organic molecules in the sample to combust into carbon dioxide.

However, Glavin said not all of the organic carbon would be destroyed in this reaction; some might be preserved inside more heat-resistant materials, or the molecules could possibly be detected before the breakdown of perchlorates.

Scientists might be able to account for the organic carbon that has combusted if they assume a certain baseline of perchlorate in Martian dirt, he added.

The recent findings at Rocknest could help scientists establish this baseline.

"It will be absolutely critical as we move on to other samples to compare them to the Rocknest dune to infer the presence or absence of Martian organic material," Glavin said in a statement.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Powerful jets spew out of black hole - Video

Some 2 million years ago, around the time our ancestors were learning to walk upright, a light appeared in the night sky, rivalling the moon for brightness and size but it was more fuzzball than orb.

The glow came from the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's heart suddenly exploding into life.

This novel picture emerges from work announced this week at a conference in Sydney, Australia, which ingeniously pieces together two seemingly unrelated, outstanding galactic puzzles.

As well as offering a welcome way to solve both, it gives us an unexpected glimpse of how the cosmos might have appeared to Earthlings 2 million years ago (see "Which species saw the flare?").

Joss Bland-Hawthorn
"That is when we had Homo erectus running around Earth," says Joss Bland-Hawthorn of the University of Sydney, who led the team behind the work.

It also paints supermassive black holes as unpredictable, and capable of generating some of the brightest flares in the universe, almost on a whim.

That in turn throws up the possibility of modern humans being treated to a similar sight sometime in the future – thankfully we are too far away for a flare-up to pose a risk.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

NASA Mars Curiosity Rover: 2% Water found in surface soil

Future Mars explorers may be able to get all the water they need out of the red dirt beneath their boots, a new study suggests.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has found that surface soil on the Red Planet contains about 2 percent water by weight.

That means astronaut pioneers could extract roughly 2 pints (1 liter) of water out of every cubic foot (0.03 cubic meters) of Martian dirt they dig up, said study lead author Laurie Leshin, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

"For me, that was a big 'wow' moment," Leshin told reporters. "I was really happy when we saw that there's easily accessible water here in the dirt beneath your feet. And it's probably true anywhere you go on Mars."

The new study is one of five papers published in the journal Science today (Sept. 26) that report what researchers have learned about Martian surface materials from the work did during its first 100 days on the Red Planet.

Soaking up atmospheric water
Curiosity touched down inside Mars' huge Gale Crater in August 2012, kicking off a planned two-year surface mission to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life.

It achieved that goal in March, when it found that a spot near its landing site called Yellowknife Bay was indeed habitable billions of years ago.

Laurie Leshin
But Curiosity did quite a bit of science work before getting to Yellowknife Bay. Leshin and her colleagues looked at the results of Curiosity's first extensive Mars soil analyses, which the 1-ton rover performed on dirt that it scooped up at a sandy site called Rocknest in November 2012.

Using its Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM), Curiosity heated this dirt to a temperature of 1,535 degrees Fahrenheit (835 degrees Celsius), and then identified the gases that boiled off.

SAM saw significant amounts of carbon dioxide, oxygen and sulfur compounds — and lots of water on Mars.

Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM)
SAM also determined that the soil water is rich in deuterium, a "heavy" isotope of hydrogen that contains one neutron and one proton (as opposed to "normal" hydrogen atoms, which have no neutrons).

The water in Mars' thin air sports a similar deuterium ratio, Leshin said.

"That tells us that the dirt is acting like a bit of a sponge and absorbing water from the atmosphere," she said.

X-Ray Pulsar Pair Caught Morphing - Video

It’s like watching siblings tussle: Astronomers have finally witnessed a long-sought example of pulsar evolution. Designated PSR J1824-2452I, this X-ray Binary is being spun up to millisecond speeds by a tiny companion, 1/5th the Sun’s mass.

Credit: CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science / Music: Atom Strange

ISS Crew Change: Soyuz reaches International Space Station in under six hours

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three new Expedition 37 crew members is seen approaching the International Space Station on Sept. 25, 2013. 

The Soyuz ferried American astronaut Mike Hopkins and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy to the space station.

A Soyuz spacecraft carrying an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts linked up with the International Space Station late Wednesday (Sept. 25), doubling the orbiting lab's crew size after an express trip to orbit.

A Soyuz capsule carrying two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut arrived at the station at 10:45 p.m. EDT (0245 GMT Thursday), less than six hours after launching into space from Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.

The two spacecraft were sailing 261 miles (420 kilometers) over the southern Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Peru, during their rendezvous.

The hatches between the two spacecraft are slated to open at 12:25 a.m. (0425 GMT) Thursday, at which point cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA's Michael Hopkins can join the three crew members of the current Expedition 37 already aboard the $100 billion orbiting lab.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

NASA MARS Curiosity Rover: MSL finds no trace of Methane on Mars

Data from NASA's Curiosity rover has revealed the Martian environment lacks methane.

This is a surprise to researchers because previous data reported by U.S. and international scientists indicated positive detections.

The roving laboratory performed extensive tests to search for traces of Martian methane.

Whether the Martian atmosphere contains traces of the gas has been a question of high interest for years because methane could be a potential sign of life, although it also can be produced without biology.

"This important result will help direct our efforts to examine the possibility of life on Mars," said Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration.

Michael Meyer
"It reduces the probability of current methane-producing Martian microbes, but this addresses only one type of microbial metabolism. As we know, there are many types of terrestrial microbes that don't generate methane."

Curiosity analyzed samples of the Martian atmosphere for methane six times from October 2012 through June and detected none.

Given the sensitivity of the instrument used, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, and not detecting the gas, scientists calculate the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere today must be no more than 1.3 parts per billion.

That is about one-sixth as much as some earlier estimates. Details of the findings appear in the Thursday edition of Science Express.

Chris Webster
"It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what's really important," said the report's lead author, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane."

NASA MARS Curiosity Rover: Inspection of Pebbly Rocks at Martian Waypoint

This mosaic of nine images, taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, shows detailed texture in a conglomerate rock bearing small pebbles and sand-size particles.

The rock is at a location called "Darwin," inside Gale Crater.

Exposed outcrop at this location, visible in images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, prompted Curiosity's science team to select it as the mission's first waypoint during the mission's long trek from the "Glenelg" area to Mount Sharp.

MAHLI took the component images shortly before sunset on the 400th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Sept. 21, 2013).

The camera was positioned about 4 inches (10 centimeters) from the rock. Scale is indicated by the Lincoln penny from the MAHLI calibration target, shown beside the mosaic.

Reddish dust coats much of the surface visible in this mosaic, but the patch of rock also offers some bare patches where sand and pebble grains can be seen.

Pebbles here are mostly gray, with some white in them. Some grains are somewhat translucent, and some are shiny.

Researchers interpret the sand and pebbles in the rock as material that was deposited by flowing water, then later buried and cemented into rock.

Curiosity's science team is studying the textures and composition of the conglomerate rock at Darwin to understand its relationship to streambed conglomerate rock found closer to Curiosity's landing site.

A major goal for observations at waypoint stops along the 5-mile (8-kilometer) route to Mount Sharp is to piece together the relationship between rock layers at "Yellowknife Bay" in the Glenelg area, where the mission found evidence of an ancient freshwater-lake environment favorable for microbial life, and layers at the main destination on lower slopes of Mount Sharp.

ESO APEX: ArTeMiS camera Captures Amazing Image of Cat's Paw Nebula

This image represents some of the first data collected by the ArTeMiS camera on the European Southern Observatory's APEX telescope. Image released Sept. 25, 2013.

Credit: ArTeMiS team/Ph. André, M. Hennemann, V. Revéret et al./ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

A new camera on a telescope in the Southern Hemisphere has captured a stunning image of the Cat's Paw Nebula, offering a colorful and detailed view of a star-forming region of the Milky Way.

Released by the European Southern Observatory, the new photo of the Cat's Paw Nebula located about 5,500 light-years from Earth is one of the first shots taken by ArTeMiS — a submillimeter-wavelength camera added to APEX, the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment in Chile. ESO officials also produced a video fly-through of the incredible Cat's Paw Nebula view using the new camera observations.

The new instrument is expected to help scientists create more detailed wide-field maps of the sky in a shorter amount of time, ESO officials said in an image description. But the installation of the new hardware was no cakewalk.

"The commissioning team that installed ArTeMiS had to battle against extreme weather conditions to complete the task," ESO officials wrote. "Very heavy snow on the Chajnantor Plateau had almost buried the APEX control building."

The staff had to use an improvised road in order to transport and install the instrument in its proper location.

The research team also battled the weather when it came time to observe using ArTeMiS. The light observed by the camera is absorbed by water vapor in Earth's atmosphere, according to ESO officials. Because of this, the scientists had to wait for dry weather before testing out the instrument.

Since its initial commissioning, researchers have used ArTeMiS for scientific projects including one that produced the new photo of the Cat's Paw Nebula.

"This new ArTeMiS image is significantly better than earlier APEX images of the same region," according to ESO officials.

The ArTeMiS cryostat installed in the APEX telescope on the Chajnantor Plateau in northern Chile. 

ArTeMiS is a new wide-field submillimetre-wavelength camera that will be a major addition to APEX’s suite of instruments and further increase the depth and detail that can be observed. 

Credit: ArTeMiS team/ESO

Since its initial commissioning, researchers have used ArTeMiS for scientific projects including one that produced the new photo of the Cat's Paw Nebula.

"This new ArTeMiS image is significantly better than earlier APEX images of the same region," according to ESO officials.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Two Generations of Windblown Sediments on Mars

This colorful scene is situated in the Noctis Labyrinthus region of Mars, perched high on the Tharsis rise in the upper reaches of the Valles Marineris canyon system.

Targeting the bright rimmed bedrock knobs, the image also captures the interaction of two distinct types of windblown sediments.

Surrounding the bedrock knobs is a network of pale reddish ridges with a complex interlinked morphology.

These pale ridges resemble the simpler “transverse aeolian ridges” (called TARs) that are common in the equatorial regions of Mars.

The TARs are still poorly understood, and are variously ascribed to dunes produced by reversing winds, coarse grained ripples, or indurated dust deposits.

The Mars HiRISE observations of TARs have so far shown that these bedforms are stable over time, suggesting either that they form slowly over much longer time scales than the duration of Mars Reconaissance Orbiter MRO's mission, or that they formed in the past during periods of very different atmospheric conditions than the present.

Dark sand dunes comprise the second type of windblown sediment visible in this image. The dark sand dune seen just below the center of the cutout displays features that are common to active sand dunes observed by HiRISE elsewhere on Mars, including sets of small ripples crisscrossing the top of the dune.

In many cases, it is the motion of these smaller ripples that drives the advance of Martian sand dunes. The dark dunes are made up of grains composed of iron-rich minerals derived from volcanic rocks on Mars, unlike the pale quartz-rich dunes typical of Earth.

This image clearly shows the dark sand situated on top of the pale TAR network, indicating that the sand dunes are younger than the TARs.

Moreover, the fresh appearance of the sand dunes suggest that they are currently active, and may help shape the unusual TAR morphology by sandblasting the TARs in the present day environment.

Caption Credit: Paul Geissler

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Pilotless F-16 jet tested as Drone by Boeing and US Air Force

The pilotless jet flew over the Gulf of Mexico on the test carried out on 19 September

Boeing has revealed that it has retrofitted retired fighter jets to turn them into drones. (Watch the video)

It said that one of the Lockheed Martin F-16 made a first flight with an empty cockpit last week.

Two US Air Force pilots controlled the plane from the ground as it flew from a Florida base to the Gulf of Mexico.

Boeing suggested that the innovation could ultimately be used to help train pilots, providing an adversary they could practise firing on.

The jet - which had previously sat mothballed at an Arizona site for 15 years - flew at an altitude of 40,000ft (12.2km) and a speed of Mach 1.47 (1,119mph/1,800km/h).

It carried out a series of manoeuvres including a barrel roll and a "split S" - a move in which the aircraft turns upside down before making a half loop so that it flies the right-way-up in the opposite direction. This can be used in combat to evade missile lock-ons.

Boeing said the unmanned F16 was followed by two chase planes to ensure it stayed in sight, and also contained equipment that would have allowed it to self-destruct if necessary.

The firm added that the flight attained 7Gs of acceleration but was capable of carrying out manoeuvres at 9Gs - something that might cause physical problems for a pilot.

"It flew great, everything worked great, [it] made a beautiful landing - probably one of the best landings I've ever seen," said Paul Cejas, the project's chief engineer.

Lt Col Ryan Inman, Commander of the US Air Force's 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, also had praise for how the test had gone.

Boeing said that this was the first time an F-16 jet had been flown without a pilot

"It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around," he said.

Boeing said that it had a total of six modified F-16s, which have been renamed QF-16s, and that the US military now planned to use some of them in live fire tests.

However, a spokesman for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots warned of the temptation to use them in warfare.

"I'm very concerned these could be used to target people on the ground," said Prof Noel Sharkey.

"I'm particularly worried about the high speed at which they can travel because they might not be able to distinguish their targets very clearly.

"There is every reason to believe that these so-called 'targets' could become a test bed for drone warfare, moving us closer and closer to automated killing."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mars Water: Curiosity Rover Uncovers a Flood of Evidence

The Curiosity rover investigated an area on Mars named Hottah, which appears to be part of an ancient riverbed. 

Credit: Malin Space Science Systems

That’s the picture of ancient Mars that has emerged during the past few months thanks to discoveries by NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the Red Planet since touching down inside Gale Crater in August 2012.

The announcements have come in dribs and drabs, but presented together recently here at the European Planetary Science Congress, they provide compelling evidence that Mars was quite wet in the distant past.

During many sessions at the conference, which was held Sept. 8 to Sept. 13 in London, scientists presented details of the rover’s most exciting finds, made before it began the long drive toward the towering Mount Sharp this past July.

And the words that could be heard most often were hydrogen, hydration, rocks and water. Especially water.

Melissa Rice
"We know that on Mars there was what we interpret to be a habitable environment, where water was good enough for us to drink," Melissa Rice, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, said after a presentation on imaging results from Curiosity’s workhorse Mastcam instrument.

She talked about rocks that Curiosity studied earlier this year, finding evidence that ancient Mars could have supported microbial life.

"We know that we had an initial habitable environment when these rocks formed, and then sometime later — we don't know when — these rocks had water flowing through them, through these fractures, leaving calcium sulfate behind," Rice said.

"We don't know if that era would have also been habitable, but it tells us that there were at least two major wet stages."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Antares Rocket With Cygnus Spacecraft Launches From Wallops Flight Facility

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft aboard, is seen as it launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Va., at 10:58 a.m. EDT on Wed., Sept. 18, 2013. 

Cygnus is on its way to rendezvous with the International Space Station. The spacecraft will deliver about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food and clothing, to the Expedition 37 crew. 

Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WINFOCUS ADUM brings ISS ultrasound from orbit to the ends of the Earth

NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn assists Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, with an Ultrasound 2 scan in the Columbus Module of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Fast, efficient and readily available medical attention is key to survival in a health emergency.

When a person is stricken with injury or illness, getting a quick and accurate diagnosis through medical imaging technology can be crucial for ensuring proper treatment. NASA

For people who live in major cities and towns where fully-equipped hospitals are only a quick ambulance ride away, that's not usually a problem. But for those without medical facilities within easy reach, it can mean the difference between life and death.

For astronauts in orbit about 240 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station, that problem was addressed through the Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM) investigation.

Station crew members trained to use a small ultrasound unit aboard the station to examine fellow crewmates.

In the event of a health concern, astronauts could use this facility to diagnose many injuries and illnesses with the help of doctors on Earth.

Last year, the ultrasound unit used for ADUM was replaced with a smaller and even more sophisticated scanner dubbed Ultrasound 2, currently in use aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Now those same techniques are being adapted and used for people living in remote, underdeveloped areas far from any hospital, where CT scans, MRIs and even simple X-ray exams are impossible.

Scott Dulchavsky
In partnership with the World Interactive Network Focused on Critical Ultrasound (WINFOCUS), ADUM principal investigator Dr. Scott Dulchavsky is taking techniques originally developed for space station astronauts and adapting them for use in Earth's farthest corners.

"The ADUM experiment developed protocols for performing complex procedures rapidly with remote expert guidance," said Dulchavsky.

"The procedure was streamed live to allow doctors to request adjustments to the exam real-time.

We did about 80 hours of ultrasound exams on the space station, and it worked pretty famously. After some modification of the process, we got a pretty slick product."

This is a view of the screen during a tele-ultrasound guidance session performed by a WINFOCUS doctor in Italy to a team in rural Brazil. Credit: WINFOCUS

Although the experiment worked on the space station, Dulchavsky was looking to further the reach of this valuable tool.

"I'm a doctor on Earth way more than I'm a space medicine doctor, so I was trying to figure out how we could transition this work to care for people on the planet, particularly in remote, austere, underserved environments," Dulchavsky explained.

He already had adapted ADUM protocols for Earth-bound use by non-medical professionals, such as athletic trainers of several pro sports teams and Olympic athletes, but he knew that much more was possible. Enter WINFOCUS.

"Ninety-five percent of the population doesn't have quick access to some of the most common diagnostic tools doctors use," said Dulchavsky.

"WINFOCUS is a global network organization, and their main goal is to use ultrasound as an enabling point-of-care device."

DARPA: Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) shooting for 'aircraft-like' operations in orbit

DARPA’s new Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program seeks to lower satellite launch costs by developing a reusable hypersonic unmanned vehicle with costs, operation and reliability similar to traditional aircraft. 

XS-1 envisions that a reusable first stage would fly to hypersonic speeds at a suborbital altitude. 

At that point, one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into Low Earth Orbit. 

The reusable hypersonic vehicle would then return to earth, land and be prepared for the next flight.

Commercial, civilian and military satellites provide crucial real-time information essential to providing strategic national security advantages to the United States.

The current generation of satellite launch vehicles, however, is expensive to operate, often costing hundreds of millions of dollars per flight.

Moreover, U.S. launch vehicles fly only a few times each year and normally require scheduling years in advance, making it extremely difficult to deploy satellites without lengthy pre-planning.

Quick, affordable and routine access to space is increasingly critical for U.S. Defense Department operations.

To help address these challenges, DARPA has established the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program. The program aims to develop a fully reusable unmanned vehicle that would provide aircraft-like access to space.

The vehicle is envisioned to operate from a "clean pad" with a small ground crew and no need for expensive specialized infrastructure.

This setup would enable routine daily operations and flights from a wide range of locations. XS-1 seeks to deploy small satellites faster and more affordably, while demonstrating technology for next-generation space and hypersonic flight for both government and commercial users.

"We want to build off of proven technologies to create a reliable, cost-effective space delivery system with one-day turnaround," said Jess Sponable, DARPA program manager heading XS-1.

"How it's configured, how it gets up and how it gets back are pretty much all on the table—we're looking for the most creative yet practical solutions possible."

DARPA seeks ideas and technical proposals for how to best develop and implement the XS-1 program. The agency has scheduled an XS-1 Proposers' Day for Monday, October 7, 2013.

The agency also plans to hold 1-on-1 discussions with potential proposers on the following day, October 8, 2013. Advance registration is required; more information is available at 

Registration closes on Tuesday, October 10 2013, at 12:00 PM EDT. For more information, please email

The DARPA Special Notice describing the specific capabilities the program seeks is available at

A Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for XS-1 is forthcoming and will be posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

Algorithm finds missing phytoplankton in Southern Ocean

This still image is showing the concentrations of phytoplankton observed by satellites in the Southern Ocean. Credit: Robert Johnson 

NASA satellites may have missed more than 50% of the phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean, making it far more difficult to estimate the carbon capture potential of this vast area of sea.

But now, new research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Three improved satellite chlorophyll algorithms for the Southern Ocean, has led to the development of an algorithm that produces substantially more accurate estimates of Southern Ocean phytoplankton populations.

That research from the University of Tasmania's Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) was led by PhD student Rob Johnson and Associate Prof Peter Strutton

"This new algorithm allows us to detect changes in plankton numbers that have previously gone unnoticed," said Johnson.

"This better understanding of the phytoplankton population will, in turn, allow us to gain a much more accurate idea of how much carbon this ocean can take up."

The importance of phytoplankton and their role in our planetary ecosystem cannot be underestimated.

They form the base of the marine food chain, produce half the oxygen on Earth and are partly responsible for the ocean uptake of at least a third of total human induced CO2 emissions.

So it was important to understand why existing ocean colour satellites systematically underestimated the chlorophyll concentration (a proxy for phytoplankton biomass) of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

To get the observations needed to make valid comparisons and develop the algorithm, the researchers used more than 1000 Southern Ocean phytoplankton samples collected over 10 years and compared these to satellite measurements.

Once this observational data was collected, the new algorithm was used to process satellite data and make comparisons.

It quickly became clear that the algorithm produced a much closer estimate of phytoplankton numbers than past satellite measurements.

ESO VLT Image: IC4628 - Prawn nebula

The glowing jumble of gas clouds visible in new image make up a huge stellar nursery nicknamed the Prawn Nebula. 

Taken using the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile, this may well be the sharpest picture ever taken of this object. 

It shows clumps of hot new-born stars nestled in among the clouds that make up the nebula. 

This image also contains information from images of this object taken by Martin Pugh. 

Credit: ESO. Acknowledgement: Martin Pugh

The glowing jumble of gas clouds visible in this new image make up a huge stellar nursery nicknamed the Prawn Nebula.

Taken using the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile, this may well be the sharpest picture ever taken of this object. It shows clumps of hot new-born stars nestled in among the clouds that make up the nebula.

Located around 6000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion), the nebula formally known as IC 4628 is a huge region filled with gas and clumps of dark dust.

These gas clouds are star-forming regions, producing brilliant hot young stars. In visible light, these stars appear as a blue-white colour, but they also emit intense radiation in other parts of the spectrum—most notably in the ultraviolet.

It is this ultraviolet light from the stars that causes the gas clouds to glow. This radiation strips electrons from hydrogen atoms, which then later recombine and release energy in the form of light.

Each chemical element emits light at characteristic colours when this process occurs, and for hydrogen the predominant colour is red. IC 4628 is an example of an HII region.

The Prawn Nebula is around 250 light-years across, covering an area of sky equivalent to four times that of the full Moon.

Despite this huge size it has been often overlooked by observers due to its faintness and because most of its light is emitted at wavelengths where the human eye is not sensitive.

The nebula is also known as Gum 56, after the Australian astronomer Colin Gum, who published a catalogue of HII regions in 1955.

Over the last few million years this region of sky has formed many stars, both individually and in clusters.

There is a large scattered star cluster named Collinder 316 which extends over most of this image. This cluster is a part of a much larger gathering of very hot and luminous stars.

Also visible are many dark structures or cavities, where interstellar matter has been blown away by the powerful winds generated by the nearby hot stars.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Boeing's stretched Dreamliner (787-9) completes successful test flight

Boeing's stretched Dreamliner, the 787-9, embarks on its first test flight. Photograph: Elaine Thompson/AP

Boeing has successfully test-flown the stretched version of its 787 Dreamliner as the planemaker tries to move forward from battery fires that culminated in worldwide grounding.

The 787-9 jet landed at 4.18pm at Boeing Field in Seattle. It has room for 290 passengers, 40 more than the original 787-8 jetliner, and about 300 more nautical miles of range.

Boeing hopes it will be more profitable to sell, and for its customers to operate, than the current production model.

In its maiden voyage the 787-9 was scheduled to run detailed tests of its flight controls, part of a nine-month programme. The aircraft used for the tests would eventually be delivered to Air New Zealand in mid-2014, Boeing said.

The jet flew at a speed of up to 366 knots (421mph) and altitude of 20,000ft (6,096 metres), according to flight tracking website The trip took it over Puget Sound and then the eastern part of Washington state.

Boeing has unfilled orders for 936 Dreamliners, worth about US$217bn at list prices, or nearly eight years' worth of production at its target construction rate of 10 per month, which it aims to hit by the end of 2013.

About 41% of the orders, or 388 planes, are for the 787-9. Boeing began selling an even longer version of the jet, the 787-10, in June, and has orders for 50 of them. The rest are for the 787-8.

The 787 series has been dogged by problems – overheating and fires related to its next-generation lithium ion battery system caused several emergencies and led to grounding of the jets worldwide.

After they were allowed back into the air, another of the planes was at the centre of drama when a fire broke out near its emergency beacon system, prompting American authorities to issue an airworthiness directive requiring checks on the electrical wiring.

Bombadier CS100
A day before the stretched Dreamliner flight, Bombardier successfully flew its CSeries jetliner, kicking off a renewed effort to sell the all-new narrow-body plane amid questions about its development cost.

The plane brings the Canadian-based company into direct competition for the firist time with the smallest airliners of Boeing and Airbus.

The CS100 test aircraft gently touched down in clear, chilly weather beside the Bombardier plant in Mirabel, Quebec, at 12.23pm on Monday. "It flew very well," said Bombardier chief test pilot Chuck Ellis. "It's a very, very nice airplane."

At a press conference Bombardier said an alert had gone off for one of the subsystems during the flight, without providing details.

The "advisory message" did not affect the plane and would not have required the pilot to land even if the plane had commercial passengers aboard, Ellis said.

The Bombardier CSeries airliner returns from its maiden test flight.

Photograph: Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Montreal-based Bombardier, which also makes trains, is staking a claim in a niche: the single-aisle, 100- to 149-seat class that is midway between the size of so-called "regional" planes and the larger commercial jetliners of Boeing and Airbus.

Bombardier says it can corner half of that market over the next 20 years. Brazil's Embraer SA, the world's number three planemaker, leads in sales of smaller, regional jets.

CSeries sales are at 177 firm orders, far short of Bombardier's goal of 300 by the time the plane enters service in 2014.

Critics say the Canadian design for the medium-haul jet made of lightweight composite materials ignores a trend towards larger aircraft seating 150 people or more as air traffic expands and carriers offer more seats.

Bombardier says its plane will have a 15% cash operating cost advantage, 20% fuel consumption advantage and will be the world's quietest commercial aircraft.

The new jet faces an ambitious 12-month deadline to enter commercial service, and tough sales competition from Boeing's Dreamliner as well as Airbus's A319neo and A320neo models, according to analysts.

The first flight was delayed three times over the last nine months and the plane still faces considerable work in testing, certification and setting up production.

Brazil hackers mistake NASA website for NSA

A view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on September 11, 2009 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Hackers have hit back in retaliation for US cyber-spying on Brazil but mistook the US space agency NASA for the National Security Agency (NSA), a news website reported here Tuesday.

Hackers have hit back in retaliation for US cyber-spying on Brazil but mistook the US space agency NASA for the National Security Agency (NSA), a news website reported here Tuesday.

"Some activists decided to protest this US practice but it seems that they picked the wrong target," a specialized blog of the Brazilian news portal Uol said. "They hacked NASA's web page and left the message: Stop spying on us," it said.

The hackers' message also called on the United States not to attack Syria.

A NASA spokesman confirmed that a Brazilian hacker group last week posted a political message on a number of NASA websites.

"At no point were any of the agency's primary websites, missions or classified systems compromised," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.

"We are diligently taking action to investigate and reconstitute the websites impacted during web defacement incident," he said.

The attack followed recent disclosures that the NSA spied on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's email communications and on the state-run energy giant Petrobras.

The disclosures were based on documents obtained by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

Brasilia slammed the alleged spying as "unacceptable" and demanded explanations from Washington.

Rousseff, who spoke by telephone with US President Barack Obama about the affair late Monday, was expected to announce Tuesday whether she will go ahead with a state visit to Washington that had been planned for October 23.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has called off a state visit to Washington next month in a row over allegations of US espionage.

Lynx with Dorsal payload Pod showing ATSA Telescope Payload

Lynx with Dorsal payload Pod showing ATSA Telescope Payload (Lynx Mk. III USA only). 

Credit: XCOR Aerospace

In an old World War II-era hangar here in this blistering-hot town, a passionate group of young aerospace engineers is building a private spaceship called Lynx. 

Developed by XCOR Aerospace, Lynx is the main competitor of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, built by Scaled Composites, also in Mojave.

Commercial flights of the Lynx space plane are expected to commence in 2015, mainly through the Dutch company Space Expedition Corporation.

XCOR's CEO Jeff Greason.

Monday, September 16, 2013

NASA GOES: Three tropical cyclones in one shot

On Saturday, Sept. 14, NOAA's GOES-East saw newborn Tropical Storm Manuel in the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Ingrid in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico, the remnants of Gabrielle absorbed into a cold front over the North Atlantic, and Tropical Depression Humberto in the eastern Atlantic. 

Credit: NASA Goes Project

There were three tropical cyclones between the north Eastern Pacific and the North Atlantic Ocean on Saturday, Sept. 14, and NOAA's GOES-East satellite captured them in one image created by NASA.

Because Mexico was being hit with Tropical Storm Ingrid and Manuel, both coasts were under Tropical Storm Warnings.

The National Hurricane Center cautioned that some areas in eastern and western Mexico may receive up to two feet of rainfall from each storm!

NASA's GOES Project at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center uses the data gathered by NOAA's GOES series of satellites and makes them into images and animations.

On Saturday, Sept. 14 at 1145 UTC/7:45 a.m. EDT, an image was created that showed newborn Tropical Storm Manuel in the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Ingrid in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico, the remnants of Gabrielle absorbed into a cold front over the North Atlantic, and Tropical Depression Humberto in the eastern Atlantic.

Scientists reveal a cosmic factory for making the building blocks of life

Scientists have discovered a 'cosmic factory' for producing the building blocks of life, amino acids, in research published today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The team from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, amino acids can be produced.

These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky meteorite crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet had been bombarded by comets and meteorites.

Dr Zita Martins, co-author of the paper from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, says:
"Our work shows that the basic building blocks of life can be assembled anywhere in the Solar System and perhaps beyond. However, the catch is that these building blocks need the right conditions in order for life to flourish. Excitingly, our study widens the scope for where these important ingredients may be formed in the Solar System and adds another piece to the puzzle of how life on our planet took root."
Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: "This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins."

The abundance of ice on the surfaces of Enceladus and Europa, which are moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter respectively, could provide a perfect environment for the production of amino acids, when meteorites crash into their surface, say the researchers.

Their work further underlines the importance of future space missions to these moons to search for signs of life.

The researchers discovered that when a comet impacts on a world it creates a shock wave that generates molecules that make up amino acids.

The impact of the shock wave also generates heat, which then transforms these molecules into amino acids.

The team made their discovery by recreating the impact of a comet by firing projectiles through a large high speed gun.

This gun, located at the University of Kent, uses compressed gas to propel projectiles at speeds of 7.15 kilometres per second into targets of ice mixtures, which have a similar composition to comets.

The resulting impact created amino acids such as glycine and D-and L-alanine.

More information: Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1930

JAXA Epsilon Launch: New generation of Japan Rocket launched

Japan's new Epsilon rocket launches on its debut mission from Uchinoura Space Center on Sept. 14, 2013 carrying the SPRINT-A (Hisaki) space telescope, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) satellite designed to study the planets of the solar system from Earth orbit. 

Credit: JAXA

Japan space agency JAXA, has launched the first in a new generation of space rockets, hoping the design will make missions more affordable.

The Epsilon rocket is about half the size of Japan's previous generation of space vehicles, and uses artificial intelligence to perform safety checks.

Japan's space agency Jaxa says the Epsilon cost $37m (£23m) to develop, half the cost of its predecessor.

Epsilon launched from south-western Japan in the early afternoon.

Crowds of Japanese gathered to watch the launch, which was also broadcast on the internet.

It was carrying  SPRINT-A (Hisaki) space telescope, being billed by Jaxa as the world's first space telescope that will remotely observe planets including Venus, Mars and Jupiter from its Earth orbit.

Jaxa said the rocket successfully released the Sprint-A telescope as scheduled, about 1,000km (620 miles) above the Earth's surface.

Epsilon's predecessor, the M-5, was retired in 2006 because of spiralling costs.

Jaxa said the Epsilon was not only cheaper to produce, but also cheaper to launch than the M-5.

Because of its artificial intelligence, the new rocket needs only eight people at the launch site, compared with 150 people for earlier launches.

Returning ISS Astronauts 'flew blind' after Soyuz sensors failed

The three crew of the International Space Station (ISS) who returned to Earth this week endured a hair-raising descent after their height sensors failed, a Russian cosmonaut revealed on Friday.

Pavel Vinogradov said that he and the two other crew of the Soyuz capsule which touched down in Kazakhstan Wednesday had groped their way through the landing after they lost all data about their height from the ground.

"There were problems. For some reason after the undocking all our parameters disappeared. Essentially, after the undocking, we flew blind," he said at the Star City cosmonaut training centre outside Moscow, quoted by Russian news agencies.

He said that the only data the crew could receive about their approach to the earth -- crucial for knowing when to fire the engines to soften the landing -- came from the salvage team on the ground.

He said the rescue teams were able to radio to the crew that they were 300 metres (1,000 feet) and then 100 metres (330 feet) from the ground in the Soyuz capsule, which lands vertically with the help of a parachute after reentering the atmosphere.

"I managed to count eight seconds and we touched down very softly," he said, adding that aside from the usual G-forces and jolting "everyone felt normal".

Vinogradov, fellow Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy touched down on the Kazakh steppe on Wednesday morning, in a landing that at the time seemed hitch-free.

Russia is currently the only nation capable of transporting humans to the ISS in its Soyuz rocket and capsule system after the withdrawal of the US shuttle.

However, the head of Russia's Federal Space Agency denied the cosmonaut's claim Friday, RIA Novosti reported.

"It wasn't a blind landing," Vladimir Popovkin said, explaining mission control simply switched off an information display in the landing module of the Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft.

The cosmonauts still had enough readings to complete the landing procedure without problems, he said.

"Two dates simply overlapped in a program, and we had to turn off the [information] display so that [the readings] would not be patchy on the screen," Popovkin said.

ESA CHEOPS: SSTL to design Exoplanet satellite mission

CHEOPS was selected from 25 missions proposed in response to ESA Call for Small Missions in 2012, which was targeting innovative small science missions that offer high value at low cost (cheapest option wins).

Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) for the competitive design phase of CHEOPS science satellite, which will improve mankind's understanding of exoplanets - planets orbiting distant stars outside our solar system.

The contractor selection for the implementation phase is planned by mid-2014 and the launch is scheduled late 2017.

The CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite (CHEOPS) will finely characterise known exoplanets and their parent stars with an unprecedented accuracy.

The satellite will measure the orbit and radius of those exoplanets, enabling the scientists to assess their potential habitability.

The mission will also act as a "scout" performing preliminary observations on targets for the future European Extremely Large Telescope (ESO ELT) and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that will be capable of more detailed analysis.

CHEOPS was selected from 25 missions proposed in response to ESA Call for Small Missions in 2012, which was targeting innovative small science missions that offer high value at low cost.

CHEOPS is jointly developed by ESA and a consortium of Member States led by Switzerland.

The Swiss-built instrument using a Ritchey-Chretien optical telescope will observe the stars and their orbiting planets, while ESA is responsible for the provision of the satellite platform and the launch.

Over the next 10 months SSTL will design the satellite platform, which will host the telescope payload.

To provide the mission within a short schedule and at low cost, ESA asked that any solution be based on an existing, flight-proven, satellite platform.

SSTL's solution is based on a variant of the highly successful SSTL-150 platform, which has seen recent service in Canada's Sapphire space surveillance mission and the 5-satellite RapidEye Earth observation constellation.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Orbital Sciences' Antares Rocket and Cygnus Spacecraft at the Launch Pad

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., rolled out its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. 

The Antares is scheduled to launch Cygnus at 11:16 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, Sept. 17 on a demonstration cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. 

Cygnus will deliver about 1,300 pounds (589 kilograms) of cargo, including food and clothing, to the Expedition 37 crew aboard the space station, who will capture and install the spacecraft on Sept. 22 using the station's robotic arm. 

Orbital is building and testing its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program

Following a successful demonstration mission, Orbital is poised to begin eight cargo flights contracted by NASA to resupply the station. 

Future flights of Cygnus will significantly increase NASA's ability to deliver new science investigations to the nation's only laboratory in microgravity. 

Image Credit: NASA/Brea Reeves

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., will postpone by at least 24 hours the launch of its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station. 

The new launch window is targeted for Wednesday, Sept. 18 between 10:50 to 11:05 a.m. EDT from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia.