Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Flying underground: First hot air balloon flies into Mamet cave in Croatia

Ivan Trifonov, a seventy-year-old Austrian with a Croatian passport, was the first man to try, and succeed in flying a hot-air balloon underground.

This experienced hot-air balloon pilot is already a proud holder of 4 Guinness records, and flying into the Mamet Cave, touching it's bottom and successfully flying out of the Cave is likely to be his fifth record, since no-one has ever done such a thing before.

The inspiration of Trifonov's adventure was the famous Jules Verne's visionary book 'Journey to the Center of the Earth'.

NASA MODIS: The Shrinking of the Aral Sea 2001 - 2014

The Aral Sea in 2001
Although irrigation made the desert bloom, it devastated the Aral Sea.

This series of images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite documents the changes.

At the start of the series in 2000, the lake was already a fraction of its 1960 extent (black line).

The Northern Aral Sea (sometimes called the Small Aral Sea) had separated from the Southern (Large) Aral Sea.

The Southern Aral Sea had split into eastern and western lobes that remained tenuously connected at both ends.

The Aral Sea in 2014

Read the full story and view the full series of images taken by MODIS from 2001 to 2014, here.

NASA TRMM Satellite captures Tropical Storm Phanfone fragments

On Sept. 30, the TRMM satellite passed over Tropical Storm Phanfone and saw fragmented bands of thunderstorms with some isolated areas of heavy rain (red) falling at 2 inches per hour. 

Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce

The bands of thunderstorms wrapping around Tropical Storm Phanfone in the Northwestern Pacific Ocean appeared fragmented to NASA's TRMM satellite.

On Sept. 30, a typhoon watch remains in effect for the far northern Marianas Islands including Pagan and, extinct volcano, Alamagan.

Tropical storm warnings have been cancelled for Tinian and Saipan, but remain in effect for PaganAlamagan and surrounding waters.

A flash flood watch remains in effect for the island of Saipan. For updated forecasts for these islands, visit the U.S. National Weather Service Office's Guam website.

On Sept. 30 at 01:51 UTC (Sept. 29 at 9:51 p.m. EDT) from its orbit in space, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite passed over Tropical Storm Phanfone.

Most of the rainfall in the fragmented bands of thunderstorms was light to moderate, falling at a rate between 10 and 20 mm (0.39 to 0.79 inch) per hour.

However, TRMM saw some isolated areas of heavy rain falling at 50 mm (2 inches) per hour.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center noted that animated multi-spectral satellite imagery on Sept. 30 revealed that the tropical storm had slightly unraveled as the bands of thunderstorms had become even more fragmented than they were on Sept. 29.

On Sept. 30 at 1500 UTC (11 a.m. EDT) Phanfone's maximum sustained winds were near 45 knots (83.3 mph/51.7 kph).

It was centered near 17.1 north latitude and 145.0 east longitude, about 103 nautical miles north of Saipan. Phanfone was moving to the west-northwest at 15 knots (17.2 mph/17.7 kph).

Phanfone is forecast to intensify as it moves in a generally northwesterly direction through warm sea surface temperatures, toward the island of Iwo To.

Forecasters at the Joint Typhoon Warning Center expect Phanfone to reach typhoon strength on Oct. 1 and maintain it as it passes west of the island of Iwo To on Oct. 3, later moving toward Japan.

MARS Nili Patera: Sandblasting winds shift Mars' sand dunes

Migration orientation of sand ripples laying on top of Martian dunes in the Nili Patera area.

Sand ripple migration is tracked from the comparison of satellite images of the dune field acquired at different time. 

Credit: Francois Ayoub, Caltech

High winds are a near-daily force on the surface of Mars, carving out a landscape of shifting dunes and posing a challenge to exploration, scientists said Tuesday.

Wind has long been known to be a factor in the Red Planet's topography and climate, creating dust storms that can be visible to astronomers on Earth.

But data about the strength, frequency and origin of winds has been sketchy, and many specialists had expected that gusts strong enough to move sand would be rare on a planet with such a thin atmosphere.

"We observed that martian sand dunes are currently migrating and that their migration speed varies with the season, which is at odds with the common view of a static martian landscape and very rare sand-moving winds," study co-author Francois Ayoub of the California Institute of Technology's planetary sciences division told AFP.

Ayoub and a joint US-British team of scientists measured the displacement of sand ripples on a dozen satellite images taken of a 40-square-kilometre (15-square-mile) area in the Nili Patera dune field over one Mars Year.

"From these measurements, we estimated the sand flux and its seasonal variability," said Ayoub.

Next, they calculated the wind speed and strength required to move the sand, and the frequency.

"Winds on Mars can be strong and can reach hurricane speed (more than 120 kilometres per hour or 75 miles per hour)," Ayoub said.

"In our study area, sand-moving wind occurs almost daily" throughout much of the year, he added.

Understanding the characteristics of Mars' winds would allow scientists to make predictions about the rate of erosion of the landscape and about the martian climate, which is heavily influenced by dust in the atmosphere, and the data may aid future rover missions from Earth.

"An accurate prediction of the wind and sand load is important to avoid the rover to be 'sandblasted' without being prepared for it," explained Ayoub.

"The (NASA) rover Curiosity, which is about to cross an active dune field in Gale crater will most probably have to sustain sand blows."

"From a scientific point of view, these findings could indicate areas on Mars deserving more attention from observation orbiters for their peculiar wind/sand/erosion behaviours."

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

More information: Threshold for sand mobility on Mars calibrated from seasonal variations of sand flux, Nature Communications 5, Article number: 5096, dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms6096

NASA Terra MODIS Image captures Great Lakes in the Fall

A few days after autumn showed up on the calendar in the Northern Hemisphere, it showed up on the landscape of North America. 

Image Credit: Jeff Schmaltz at NASA GSFC. Caption by Mike Carlowicz

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this view of fall colors around the Great Lakes on Sept. 26, 2014.

The changing of leaf colour in temperate forests involves several causes and reactions, but the dominant factors are sunlight and heat.

Since temperatures tend to drop sooner and sunlight fades faster at higher latitudes, the progression of fall colour changes tends to move from north to south across North America from mid-September through mid-November.

In late summer and autumn, tree and plant leaves produce less chlorophyll, the green pigment that harvests sunlight for plants to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars.

The subsidence of chlorophyll allows other chemical compounds in the leaves, particularly carotenoids and flavonoids, to emerge from the green shadow of summer.

These compounds do not decay as fast as chlorophyll, so they shine through in yellows, oranges, and reds as the green fades.

Another set of chemicals, anthocyanins, are associated with the storage of sugars and give the leaves of some species deep purple and red hues.

European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti wears a NASA spacesuit

European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti of Italy wears a NASA spacesuit ahead of spacewalk training inside the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a giant training pool near the Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

Cristoforetti will launch to the International Space Station on Nov. 24 to join the orbiting lab's Expedition 42 crew. 

NASA astronaut Terry Virts and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov will join her. 

Credit: NASA, ESA

NASA Orion spacecraft transfers to Launch Abort System Facility

NASA and Lockheed Martin have finished fueling the Orion spacecraft with ammonia, hydrazine and high pressure helium at Kennedy Space Center's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. 

Orion has now been moved to the Launch Abort System Facility for integration with the launch abort system (LAS).

"Once the launch abort system is integrated and functional testing concludes, the spacecraft is considered done," said Michael Hawes Lockheed Martin Orion program manager.

"Then in November we'll integrate to the rocket, which is rolling out to the launch pad today."

NASA engineers and contractors conduct static loads testing of the Orion Launch Abort System (LAS) Fairing Assembly, flight hardware that will be used to cover and protect the Orion crew module during Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), scheduled for September 2014.

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

Orion's LAS is a critical launch safety technology designed to immediately pull the capsule and crew out of harm's way in the event of an emergency.

The LAS is the highest thrust and acceleration escape system ever created, significantly improving crew safety from pad operations through ascent.

Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1)
It consists of three solid rocket motors: an attitude control motor, which steers the crew away from the launch vehicle, a jettison motor, which pulls the LAS away from the crew module, and an abort motor, which propels the crew module away from the launch pad.

During Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) all nominal functions, including separation, will be tested on the LAS, however the abort functions are inactive.

The LAS abort functions were previously tested in New Mexico at White Sands Missile Range during Pad Abort Test 1.

During EFT-1, the uncrewed spacecraft will launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket and will travel 3,600 miles beyond Earth—15 times further than the International Space Station.

That same day, Orion will return to Earth at a speed of approximately 20,000 mph for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

EFT-1 will provide engineers with data about systems critical to crew safety such as heat shield performance, separation events, avionics and software performance, attitude control and guidance, parachute deployment, and recovery operations to validate designs of the spacecraft before it begins carrying humans to new destinations in deep space.

Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS: Two Tails and still going

Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS photographed on September 26, 2014. 

Two tails are seen, a dust tail points off to the left and the gas or ion tail to the right. 

Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Thank you K1 PanSTARRS for hanging in there! Some comets crumble and fade away.

Others linger a few months and move on, but after looping across the night sky for more than a year, this one is nowhere near quitting. Matter of fact, the best is yet to come.

This new visitor from the Oort Cloud making its first passage through the inner solar system, C/2012 K1 was discovered in May 2012 by the Pan-STARRS 1 survey telescope atop Mt. Haleakala in Hawaii.

The orbit of comet K1 PanSTARRS through the inner solar system. 

The yellow arrows denote the motion of the planets and the comet as seen from north of the ecliptic plane. 

Credit-NASA/JPL Horizons Solar System Dynamics generator.

On its the inbound journey from the Oort Cloud, C/2012 K1 approached with an orbit estimated in the millions of years. Perturbed by its interactions with the planets, its new orbit has been reduced to a mere ~400,000 years.

That makes the many observing opportunities K1 PanSTARRS has provided that much more appreciated. No one alive now will ever see the comet again once this performance is over.

Many amateur astronomers first picked up the comet's trail in the spring of 2013 when it had brightened to around magnitude 13.5.

K1 PanSTARRS slowly brightened in Serpens last fall until it was lost in evening twilight. Come January this year it returned to the morning sky a little closer to Earth and Sun and a magnitude brighter.

As winter snow gave way to frogs and flowers, the comet rocketed across Corona Borealis, Bootes and Ursa Major.

Its fat, well-condensed coma towed a pair of tails and grew bright enough to spot in binoculars at magnitude 8.5 in late May.

Comet C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS’ changing appearance over the past year. 

Credit: upper left clockwise: Carl Hergenrother, Damian Peach, Chris Schur and Rolando Ligustri

By July, it hid away in the solar glare a second time only to come back swinging in September's pre-dawn sky.

Now in the constellation Hydra and even closer to Earth, C/2012 K1 has further brightened to magnitude 7.5.

Though low in the southeast at dawn, astronomers were pleasantly surprised to see it several mornings ago.

Mid-northern observers can watch the comet's antics through mid-October. From then on, K1 will only be accessible from the far southern U.S. and points south as it makes the rounds of Pictor, Dorado and Horologium.

After all this time you might think the comet is ready to depart Earth's vicinity but it is not.

C/2012 K1 will finally make its closest approach to our planet on Halloween (88.6 million miles, 143 million km) when it could easily shine at magnitude 6.5, making it very nearly a naked-eye comet.

K1 PanSTARRS's not giving up anytime soon. Southern skywatchers will keep it in view through the spring of 2015 before it returns to the deep chill from whence it came.

After delighting skywatchers for nearly two years, it'll be hard to let this one go.

Skywatchers can find C/2012 K1 PanSTARRS in the morning sky in the Hydra and Puppis just before dawn when it’s highest in the southeastern sky. 

The map shows its location daily with stars to magnitude 8.5. 

The numbers next to some stars are standard Flamsteed atlas catalogue numbers. 

Credit: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Space debris: Expert warns of increasing CubeSat collision risk

A Clyde-Space CubeSat in the Scottish test lab.

Credit: Clyde-Space

The increasing number of small 'CubeSat' satellites being launched combined with a relaxed attitude to debris mitigation could lead to hazards for all space users unless preventative measures are taken, warns a leading space debris expert from the University of Southampton.

Speaking today at the 65th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) 2014 in Toronto, Dr Hugh Lewis said that this combination leads to a growth in space debris, as a result of collisions between CubeSats and other objects in orbit.

CubeSats are small satellites (around 10x10x10cm) that are providing opportunities for companies to break into the space data and communications industries.

Despite many CubeSats not having any manoeuvring capability so they cannot avoid collisions during the mission or manoeuvre to a disposal orbit at their mission end, they are still perceived to have a low impact on the space debris environment.

However, despite guidelines requiring the satellites to deorbit within 25 years, some are being launched into high Earth orbits, which means their orbital lifetime could be much greater.

More than a third of all CubeSats launched to-date (around 160 between 2003 and 2013) are predicted to remain on-orbit for more than 25 years.

Since 2005, CubeSats have been involved in more than 360,000 close approaches of less than 5 km with other orbiting objects.

Dr Lewis says: "To reduce the risks, some effort is needed to engage with the growing small satellite community."

"All space users, not just those in the CubeSat community, who are taking the right steps should be encouraged to continue and, ultimately, lead on sustainable practices and debris mitigation activities.

"Those who are not yet engaged with this approach should be encouraged to do so. It's probably a matter of changing their perceptions of the risks and helping them to understand that there is a collective responsibility to ensure that outer space activities are sustainable so that future generations have the same opportunities to use space as we do."

Dr Lewis and his team used their Debris Analysis and Monitoring Architecture to the Geosynchronous Environment (DAMAGE) model to simulate three future CubeSat launch traffic scenarios until the year 2043.

By comparing these with close approach data from 2005 to 2013, the team found CubeSats are estimated to be involved in millions of close approaches over the next 30 years, with a handful leading to a collision.

Analysis of the close approaches found that most of the collision risk from CubeSats comes from high-speed encounters with large spacecraft.

In addition, many of these encounters were in Sun-synchronous orbits that are popular with remote sensing and Earth science satellites.

Dr Lewis adds: "By far the greatest risk comes from those with long lifetimes at altitudes of about 750 km. If CubeSats continue to be launched into long-lived orbits without any means of disposing of them, then they will contribute to the growing space debris hazard."

"This is not a responsible or sustainable practice, in my view. However, if efforts are made to limit the lifetimes, as some are already doing, then the risks will be reduced."

NASA SDO: Sounding rocket has 6 mins to study Solar Heating

A view of the sun from Sept. 24, 2014 from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows bright spots representing magnetically active regions in the lower right quadrant of the sun. 

The VAULT2.0 mission will focus on this area to better understand what heats the solar atmosphere. 

Credit: NASA/SDO

On Sept. 30, 2014, a sounding rocket will fly up into the sky,  past Earth's atmosphere that obscures certain wavelengths of light from the sun, for a 15-minute journey to study what heats up the sun's atmosphere.

This is the fourth flight for the Very high Angular Resolution Ultraviolet Telescope (VAULT), will launch from the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The instrument, now called VAULT 2.0, has been refurbished with new electronics and an imaging detector to capture images more frequently than before.

While in space, VAULT 2.0 will observe light emitted from hydrogen atoms at temperatures of 18,000 to 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"That's the temperature range where the action is," said Angelos Vourlidas, the principal investigator for VAULT 2.0 at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

"These are the temperatures where the heating of the sun's atmosphere, the corona, really takes place."

Understanding how the corona heats remains one of the great, unanswered questions on the sun.

The solar surface itself is only about 10,500 F, but further up in the atmosphere, the temperatures rise to million of degrees Fahrenheit, the opposite of what one typically expects when moving away from a heat source.

Something heats up that corona, and VAULT 2.0 will be watching.

The sounding rocket will fly up to about 180 miles in the air, just below the height where the International Space Station travels. It will fly in an arc, taking 15 minutes from launch to landing back on the ground.

This allows for just six minutes of actual observations while it is above the atmosphere, during which VAULT 2.0 will capture an image every six to eight seconds.

Vourlidas plans to focus the telescope on active regions at the center of the sun, areas of intense and complex magnetic activity, to understand the heating process there.

NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS)
During the VAULT 2.0 launch, three other observatories will watch the same area: NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), the joint Japanese Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA's Hinode, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

IRIS focuses on solar material slightly hotter than does VAULT 2.0, while Hinode can see solar material both cooler and much hotter.

The temperatures also loosely correlate to heights in the atmosphere with the cooler temperatures at the bottom, and the hotter temperatures higher up.

SDO will observe the larger scale structure of the solar atmosphere as well as the underlying magnetic field.

"Together the three telescopes will be looking at a sandwich of solar material," said Vourlidas.

"We'll be looking at the layers from near the surface all the way up into the corona, the layers where the bulk of coronal heating is believed to happen."

VAULT's launch time is planned for 1:47 p.m. EDT on Sept. 30. Launch timing will depend on good weather conditions as well as optimum times for coordinating with Hinode satellite and IRIS spacecraft.

India's Mangalyaan spacecraft shows active dust storms on Mars

This spectacular view of Mars from India's Mangalyaan spacecraft shows active dust storms in the Red Planet's northern hemisphere. 

This photo was released on Sept. 29, 2014, less than a week after the Indian Mars orbiter arrived at the planet. 

Credit: Indian Space Research Organisation

India's first spacecraft to visit Mars has beamed home its greatest photo of the Red Planet yet, a view that reveals the planet from pole to pole.

The new photo of Mars from India's Mangalyaan probe was unveiled today (Sept. 29) by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

It shows Mars as a red globe in space, with the planet's southern ice cap clearly visible, while a huge dust storm blankets part of the northern region.

"Something's brewing here!" ISRO officials wrote in a Twitter post for the Mars orbiter.

ISRO Mangalyaan spacecraft
The Mangalyaan spacecraft used its Mars Colour Camera to capture the amazing photo from a distance of 46,292 miles (74,500 kilometers) above the Red Planet on Sunday (Sept. 28), according to an ISRO photo description.

It is the third and best view of Mars from Mangalyaan since the spacecraft arrived in orbit around the planet last week.

The Mars Colour Camera is one of five different instruments riding aboard Mangalyaan to study Mars from orbit.

Mangalyaan (the name is Sanskrit for "Mars Craft") is the centerpiece of India's $74 million Mars Orbiter Mission, which launched toward the Red Planet in November 2013 and arrived in orbit on Sept. 24 of this year.

The Arctic ice is melting into Nordic Seas but the Gulf Stream remains

Mosaic of images of the Arctic by MODIS on the Aqua satellite. 

Credit: NASA

The melting ice in the Arctic is not the source of reduced saline in Nordic Seas.

It is the Gulf Stream that has provided less salt.

A new study published Sunday in Nature Geoscience claims; the source of fresher Nordic Seas, since 1950, is rooted in the saline Atlantic, as opposed to an influx of Arctic freshwater, dispelling the common inference.

"This is an important finding as it shows that the Gulf Stream is not about to short circuit. A halting Gulf Stream has been a concern with ongoing climate change; its collapse was taken to the extreme in the Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow," says Tor Eldevik, professor in oceanography at the University of Bergen and the Bjerknes Centre.

Reversing the chain of events
The Nordic Seas have freshened substantially since 1950. At the same time, there has been observed an increased river runoff and net ice melting in the Arctic.

The concurrence of a less saline ocean and Arctic freshwater input has given the climate research community reason for concern.

"It has been a concern that a layer of Arctic freshwater could impede the Gulf Stream's Arctic branch."

"Going back in time, into and through the ice ages, such a freshwater lid has been understood to reduce ocean circulation and thus the Gulf Stream's poleward heat transport," says Tor Eldevik.

Eldevik is co-author of the study where Mirjam Glessmer and colleagues at the Bjerknes Centre in Bergen, Norway, show that change in the Nordic Seas is at the receiving end of change in the more global climate system.

Southern freshwater
The researchers from the Bjerknes Centre have analysed the available observations back to 1950 and conclude that the changing salt content in the Nordic Seas is explained by the variable salinity of the Gulf Stream's Arctic branch entering the seas from the south.

The mode of operation is also realised in a numerical ocean model forced by the observed stated of the atmosphere during the period in question.

Although not part of the present study, it appears to be several reasons for the freshening of the Atlantic source waters.

A dominant explanation is a general increase in net precipitation over the North Atlantic Ocean (which may very well relate to global climate change).

The contribution is spread over the Gulf Stream system, and accordingly transported further northward.

The analysis of Glessmer and colleagues further shows, and in line with the above, that the salt deficit in the Nordic Seas is not related to a surface layer of freshwater.

The low-salinity anomaly since 1950 is distributed throughout the water column following the Gulf Stream's northern overturning from warm surface flow to cold deep water.

Potential for climate prediction
The study has important practical implications.

The Bjerknes Centre is presently developing the Norwegian Climate Prediction Model, with the aim of establishing a Norwegian operational system for climate prediction on seasonal to decadal time scale.

"Our study documents how large-scale changes in our marine climate propagate with the extension of the Gulf Stream into the Nordic Seas."

"This suggests that the marine climate could be predictable on the time scale that a climate signal is travelling north," concludes Tor Eldevik.

More information: Glessmer, M.S., T. Eldevik, K. Våge, J.E.Ø. Nilsen, and E. Behrens, 2014: "Atlantic origin of observed and modelled freshwater anomalies in the Nordic Seas." Advance online publication Nature Geoscience, dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2259

Europe's SSTL new ocean winds and waves measuring method - video

The video shows in about 20 times real time speed the motion of the TechDemoSat-1 satellite over an orbit, indicated by a white cross on the world map. 

The specular reflections targeted by the SGR-ReSI are shown by yellow spots, and the measurement tracks are shown in yellow. 

The four Delay Doppler Map channels from the SGR-ReSI are shown at the top right. The spreading horseshoe shape is caused by reflections being received away from the specular point, and a rougher ocean causes more spreading. 

When reflections are received from over land and over ice, there is much less spreading. 

The red band on the map indicates the collection of “raw” unprocessed data, which takes a few minutes to transfer before the processed Delay Doppler Maps resume.

Credit: SSTL

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) has successfully demonstrated an innovative method of measuring winds and waves from space, using GNSS Reflectometry.

This paves the way for a cost effective satellite system supporting the maritime sector and the organisations that rely on this information and it also offers improvements to weather services and climate research.

The measurements were taken from an instrument developed by SSTL, the SGR-ReSI, (Space GNSS Receiver Remote Sensing Instrument) which is flying on-board TechDemoSat-1, a technology demonstration satellite which was launched in July 2014.

SSTL's SGR-ReSI collects the signals from GPS and other navigation satellites after they have been reflected off the ocean surface and processes them into images called Delay Doppler Maps, from which ocean roughness and wind speed measurements at the sea surface can be interpreted.

The technique works in a similar way to existing scatterometric radar from satellites, however it eliminates the need for a transmitter and can process up to four reflections from different GPS satellites simultaneously, presenting an opportunity for collecting data more regularly and in a denser grid across the globe.

By flying the receivers on a constellation of small satellites GNSS Reflectometry data could be used to map all of the Earth's ocean surface with refreshed data every couple of hours.

This would be of enormous benefit to the maritime industry who depend on wave height and wind speed predictions for optimum ship routing, insurance claims, oil and gas rig operations, undersea cable laying and fishing conditions.

Such wind speed and wave height measurements are currently very difficult to make over the open ocean in timely manner and in a dense enough grid to be useful.

Luis Gomes, Director of Earth Observation and Science at SSTL, commented: "We are very excited about the future application of this development which extends the applications of small satellites.

"For instance, a constellation of 18 SGR-ReSIs could cover most of the world's oceans every few hours providing a real time wind and wave height service."

"These do not need to be dedicated satellites as the SGR-ReSI can be easily accommodated as a hosted payload on small satellites with a different primary mission. Our aim is to deploy such a constellation in the next two years."

The SGR-ReSI can pick up GPS reflections not only off the ocean, but also off land, snow and ice, opening up other potential new opportunities for remote sensing - for example, measuring the thickness of sea ice, snow depth, soil moisture levels and the classification of vegetative foliage.

SSTL, supported by the European Space Agency, is now working on preparing the ground processing and web interface that will allow users access to the measurements over the internet with a short delay.

NASA Mars Rover Opportunity: On West Rim Endeavour heading for Ulysses crater

NASA Mars Rover Opportunity is on the west rim of Endeavour Crater heading towards "Marathon Valley," a putative location for abundant clay minerals.

The rover is headed to a near-term target, a small crater named "Ulysses."

The rover is moving closer to Ulysses to get a peek inside.

Ulysses Crater
On Sol 3787 (Sept. 18, 2014), Opportunity drove a little over 44 feet (13.5 meters) in rocky terrain, requiring the use of Visual Odometry to safely navigate.

On Sol 3789 (Sept. 20, 2014), the rover moved closer to the rim of Ulysses, but the drive stopped after 15 feet (4.6 meters) because Visual Odometry was not tracking on the last steps.

An evening Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of atmospheric argon was performed on Sol 3790 (Sept. 21, 2014).

The rover continued closer to Ulysses on the next sol with a 13-feet (4-meter) bump.

High slip prevented the rover from completing the turn for communication at the end of the drive.

Recently, there were more Flash-related events. Two more "amnesia" events occurred on the evenings of Sols 3786 and 3789 (Sept. 17 and Sept. 20, 2014). And two Flash write errors to Bank 7 occurred on Sols 3791 and 3792 (Sept. 22 and Sept. 23, 2014).

All these events were benign and did not impact the rover's operation. The project continues to investigate. Otherwise, Opportunity continues in good health.

As of Sol 3792 (Sept. 23, 2014), the solar array energy production was 639 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.889 and a solar array dust factor of 0.740.

Total odometry is 25.34 (40.77 kilometers).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Newly Expanded Space Station Crew Tackles Research and EVA Spacewalk Preparation

NASA Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman photo showing Flight Engineers Barry Wilmore (left) and ESA's Alexander Gerst at work in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.

Image Credit: NASA

The International Space Station’s Expedition 41 crew, which doubled the number of humans in space when three new crew members arrived last week, began its first full work week schedule as a six-person crew Monday with biological research and preparations for a pair of U.S. spacewalks.

Alex Samokutyaev
Flight Engineers Barry Wilmore, Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova joined their Expedition 41 crewmates on the station early Friday following a six-hour, four-orbit trek aboard their Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft from the launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Wilmore, Samokutyaev and Serova are slated to spend 5 ½ months aboard the station.

Max Suraev
Commander Max Suraev and Flight Engineers Reid Wiseman and Alexander Gerst, who arrived on May 28, will return to Earth in November.

Shortly after the usual 2 a.m. EDT reveille, the entire crew conducted body mass measurements, inspected their orbital home and participated in a daily planning conference with the flight control teams around the world to review the day’s activities.

Yelena Serova
For WisemanGerst and Wilmore, most of those activities were centered primarily on gearing up for their upcoming spacewalks.

During an Oct. 7 excursion outside the station, Wiseman and Gerst will transfer a previously uninstalled pump module from its temporary stowage location to the External Stowage Platform-2.

The two spacewalkers also will install the Mobile Transporter Relay Assembly (MTRA) that adds the capability to provide “keep-alive” power to the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) when the Mobile Transporter is moving between worksites.

Wiseman and Gerst spent some time reviewing the procedures for that spacewalk and later participated in a conference call with spacewalk specialists on the ground.

Wilmore meanwhile began “scrubbing” the cooling loops of the U.S. spacesuits, including the Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment that he will wear under his own spacesuit when he joins Wiseman for the second Expedition 41 spacewalk on Oct. 15.

Wiseman completed the spacesuit water recharge in the afternoon and Gerst checked in on the Zebrafish Muscle study.

Zebra Danios
He assessed the water condition inside the Aquatic Habitat, which is housing a school of spacefaring fish popularly known in the aquarium trade as Zebra Danios.

Cassini captures evolution of mysterious feature in Titan sea - Video

These three images, created from Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, show the appearance and evolution of a mysterious feature in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest hydrocarbon seas on Saturn's moon Titan. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is monitoring the evolution of a mysterious feature in a large hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's moon Titan.

The feature covers an area of about 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest seas on Titan.

It has now been observed twice by Cassinis radar experiment, but its appearance changed between the two apparitions.

The mysterious feature, which appears bright in radar images against the dark background of the liquid sea, was first spotted during Cassini's July 2013 Titan flyby.

Ligeia Mare on Titan. 

Credit: NASA Cassini

Previous observations showed no sign of bright features in that part of Ligeia Mare.

Scientists were perplexed to find the feature had vanished when they looked again, over several months, with low-resolution radar and Cassini's infrared imager (VIMS).

This led some team members to suggest it might have been a transient feature, but during Cassini's flyby on August 21, 2014, the feature was again visible, and its appearance had changed during the 11 months since it was last seen.

Scientists on the radar team are confident that the feature is not an artifact, or flaw, in their data, which would have been one of the simplest explanations.

They also do not see evidence that its appearance results from evaporation in the sea, as the overall shoreline of Ligeia Mare has not changed noticeably.

The team has suggested the feature could be surface waves, rising bubbles, floating solids, solids suspended just below the surface, or perhaps something more exotic.

The researchers suspect that the appearance of this feature could be related to changing seasons on Titan, as summer draws near in the moon's northern hemisphere.

Monitoring such changes is a major goal for Cassini's current extended mission.

"Science loves a mystery, and with this enigmatic feature, we have a thrilling example of ongoing change on Titan," said Stephen Wall, the deputy team lead of Cassini's radar team, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"We're hopeful that we'll be able to continue watching the changes unfold and gain insights about what's going on in that alien sea."

More information: Images of the feature taken during the Cassini flybys are available at: photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18430

NASA LandSat-8: Phytoplankton green blue algae bloom near the Pribilof Islands

Phytoplankton bloom (green and blue swirls) near the Pribilof Islands off the coast of Alaska, in the Bering Sea. 

The turquoise waters are likely coloured by a type of phytoplankton called coccolithophores

This Sept. 22, 2014, image was created with Landsat 8 data.

Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Norman Kuring; USGS

The greens and blues of the ocean colour from NASA satellite data have provided new insights into how climate and ecosystem processes affect the growth cycles of phytoplankton (coccolithophores), microscopic aquatic plants important for fish populations and Earth’s carbon cycle.

At the bottom of the ocean’s food chain, phytoplankton account for roughly half of the net photosynthesis on Earth.

Their photosynthesis consumes carbon dioxide and plays a key role in transferring carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean.

Unlike the plant ecosystems on land, the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean is always followed closely by the abundance of organisms that eat phytoplankton, creating a perpetual dance between predators and prey.

This new analysis shows how tiny imbalances in this predator-prey relationship, caused by environmental variability, give rise to massive phytoplankton blooms, having huge impacts on ocean productivity, fisheries and carbon cycling.

The study was released Thursday, Sept. 25, in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“The continuous year-in and year-out measurements provided by NASA’s ocean color satellites have dramatically changed our understanding of phytoplankton dynamics on the Earth,” said Mike Behrenfeld, author of the study and phytoplankton ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.

“What we now see is a closely linked system of phytoplankton cell division and consumption lying at the heart of the plant’s annual cycle.”

Behrenfeld calls this close predator-prey relationship the “Dance of the Plankton.”

This view is different from previous perspectives that have simply focused on environmental resources used by phytoplankton to grow, such as nutrients and light.

The new view is important because it reveals that tiny imbalances can greatly impact Earth’s ecology.

More Information:
"Climate-mediated dance of the plankton" Author: Michael J. Behrenfeld - Nature Climate Change 4, 880–887 (2014) doi:10.1038/nclimate2349