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New NASA Moon Mission Aims to Solve a 40-Year-Old Mystery

Artist's conception of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft in orbit above the moon as dust scatters light during the lunar sunset. Image credit: NASA Ames / Dana Berry

Artist’s conception of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft in orbit above the moon as dust scatters light during the lunar sunset. Click to enlarge. Image credit: NASA Ames / Dana Berry

A car-sized robotic spacecraft called LADEE, or Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, leaves on a mission to the moon as early as Friday, September 6.

LADEE will orbit the moon for about three months – picking up and analyzing samples from the lunar atmosphere and beaming data back to Earth – before self-destructing in an intentional crash landing on the lunar surface.

The $280 million LADEE mission was commissioned by NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, to answer a 41-year old mystery, one that was sketched out in December of 1972 from inside the command module of Apollo 17 as it orbited the dark side of the moon.

Greg Delory, deputy project scientist on LADEE mission, came in to KQED recently to tell the story, and what his team hopes to learn.

KQED Science: Tell us about Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, “the last man on the moon,” and that first glimpse of the mysterious lunar “streamers.”

DELORY: Imagine you’re an Apollo astronaut, riding in the Apollo command module as it orbits around the moon. You’re looking out the window, trying to take it all in, looking at the dark side of the moon. It’s very dark. You’ve got starlight against the blackest sky you can imagine.

Cernan saw a faint glow on the lunar horizon. That was expected. There’s a phenomenon called “zodiacal light,” which is basically sunlight and starlight scattered by dust that we know about.

But then something happened that no one expected. On top of this zodiacal light, Cernan saw these bands of light. They looked like streamers coming up form the lunar horizon. I would compare it to aurora borealis. This was not consistent with anything we know about the moon.

And he pulled out his sketchpad and drew a picture

Eugene Cernan's 1972 sketch, showing the mysterious "streamers" (in green) on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

Two images of Eugene Cernan’s 1972 sketch – the version on the right has been annotated to highlight the the mysterious “streamers” (in green) on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

(Click image to enlarge)

We owe him a big debt of gratitude because he did sit down and actually sketch this out, and describe it for us. It’s a little strange when we put together a science program based on an eyewitness account. But it’s part of the evidence we have.

And the best explanation we have for it is a population of dust particles between 5-10 millionths of a meter in diameter, levitating off the surface by a few feet.

I’m picturing the dust you see floating in your house, if you look under a lamp…

That may be an apt analogy. It could be electrostatic. The surface of the moon gets charged up in space because of sunlight and because of charged particles that impact the surface. So that could cause dust to levitate, to get repelled. So it may be not all that different from a situation where you’ve got a carpet that people have been walking over and it’s all charged up.

Is lunar dust like Earth dust?

Lunar dust is not like anything we on Earth have much experience with. It’s like little shards of glass. It’s actually pretty nasty stuff and you wouldn’t want to breathe it. It exists in this airless environment with no wind, no erosion, no water. So when it breaks off it’s sharp and angular and jagged, whereas Earth dust is smooth and rounded.

Which could be a problem for potential future missions to the moon, right?

“Now may be out last chance to characterize the pristine lunar environment. You can almost think of it like a fragile, future national park before all the tourists arrive.”

Yes, we worry about the toxicity of lunar dust, about it’s interaction with robotic systems and people.

Astronauts testified that there was a gunpowder smell when they brought their spacesuits inside, so that brings up the possibility that there could be a chemical reaction when the dust hits the spacesuit. There’s a lot we need to learn about lunar dust. It’s big on the agenda in terms of safety and reliability.

But it’s been a long time since humans went to the moon. The manned moon program ended with Apollo in 1972. Do you see people – rather than just robots – returning to the lunar surface anytime soon?

It’s a matter of when. We go through cycles. I’d say we’ve just gone through our second renaissance in understanding the moon. You’ve got the lunar reconnaissance orbiter; you had LCROSS impact, showing there’s was water in the poles. You’ve got LADEE coming up.

Neil Armstrong (1930–2012), commander of NASA's Apollo 11 mission, descends the ladder of the Apollo Lunar Module to become the first human to step foot on the surface of the Moon.

Neil Armstrong (1930–2012), commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, descends the ladder of the Apollo Lunar Module to become the first human to step foot on the surface of the Moon.

The Chinese recently announced that they’re going to put a lander down somewhere on the moon. We’re learning the details as we speak. They’re doing that in December, during the LADEE mission.

So LADEE will be there at the same time as the Chinese spacecraft. Is that going to be a problem?

Well, [the Chinese mission] is going to perturb the lunar environment and we’re going to see the effects almost immediately. But it’s not a negative thing. With LADEE, we can look at the environment’s response to the [Chinese spacecraft's] landing, and it’s almost like a scientific experiment.

Now’s a great time to do LADEE because it may be out last chance to characterize the pristine lunar environment. You can almost think of it like a fragile, future national park before all the tourists arrive. So we’ll have at least a few months to do that before other landers start coming along, including the Chinese lander.

LADEE is also a test run for a new way of getting data back to Earth, right? Tell us about that.

I don’t know if If you remember using a dial-up modem, ever? how excited were you when you got DSL, or cable internet. That’s what this new laser system feels like for scientists.

Today, the communications system is based on radio. This is relatively long wavelength electromagnetic waves which carry information back from the moon at dial up modem speeds. So we’re constrained to this tight spigot. Meanwhile, instruments are getting capable. We want to send back high-definition images; we want to send back video, from the moon and from Mars.


An artist's concept of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft seen orbiting near the surface of the moon. Image credit: NASA Ames / Dana Berry

An artist’s concept of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft seen orbiting near the surface of the moon. Click to enlarge. Image credit: NASA Ames / Dana Berry

A laser system uses laser light to encode the information. It’s the same rationale for why cable companies want to go to fiber optics. So how to do that from space? Well, you can’t string a cable. So you have to bring a ray gun, literally.

But it’s just a demonstration. You don’t want to couple your mission success with the technical risk that the laser system could fail. The laser demonstration will send a test pattern to demonstrate that it works. And put it on the road to interplanetary use. NASA Ames is hosting a science night from 5 to 9 p.m. PDT Friday, Sept. 6, on Shenandoah Plaza in the NASA Research Park at Moffett Field, Calif. Exhibits will be on display and Ames scientists and engineers will be available to speak about LADEE and other NASA programs and projects.

Comet ISON: Comet of the Century or Fanciful Fluff?

Hubble Space Telescope Image of Comet ISON, April 2013

Hubble Space Telescope Image of Comet ISON, April 2013

It’s been said that in order to be noticed, you have to do something daring and bold. A comet named ISON appears to be a thrill-and-glory seeker, for well in advance of demonstrating its potential as a possible “comet of the century,” it has already garnered more attention than comets or asteroids that pass harrowingly close to the Earth.

This comet, discovered in 2012 and named after the International Sky Observers Network (ISON) through which it was spotted, has taken a couple of dares to win a spot in history–or at least some media buzz.

First dare: get in front of a camera. On October 1st, ISON will pass within seven million miles of Mars (which is a lot closer than it will ever get to Earth, in case you were wondering if it’s a good time to restock your bunker). This gives NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and its huge HiRISE camera a front row viewing seat, and NASA is planning to take advantage of this by redirecting MRO’s attention to focus on ISON.

This sneak preview of ISON should tell us a lot more about the comet’s size, mass and composition, giving us ammunition to make some predictions on how spectacular (or not) it may become later in the fall. But beyond how bright and breezy ISON may grow, another factor depends critically on the comet’s physical stature.

That’s the second dare: ISON, as it turns out, is a “sun-grazer,” one of that breed of comets that risk it all by buzzing the sun. Some of these actually fall into the sun and are completely vaporized, like moths to a candle flame.

On November 28th, ISON will reach its closest approach to the sun, making a sharp hairpin turn as it swings through perihelion and is flung back toward deep space. If we were talking about a roller coaster ride, this would be the point when the coaster swoops through the bottom of the arc attaining its highest speed.

On that day, the comet will be less than a single solar diameter from the Sun’s surface–so close that someone standing on the comet’s surface would look up and see the sun spanning a quarter of the sky!

If ISON survives the intense solar radiation and powerful gravitational tidal forces brought to bear by this close encounter, then it has a chance to put on a really good show for us here on Earth.

Will it survive? That isn’t certain and won’t be until the end of November. But after MRO’s observations in October, we should have a better idea of the odds. If ISON is below a certain mass, then chances are higher that it will break apart during its Icarus-style sun-skimming stunt.

On the other hand, if ISON weighs in heavier (oh, let’s say 5 to 10 kilometers in diameter–something in that class), it has a much better chance of emerging intact, and the heating from its near-sun experience may produce a significant coma and tail, potentially lighting up the night for weeks.

This month, ISON is already showing up in telescopes, though it isn’t much more than a smudge. As we move into October and November, it will grow brighter, if only because it will be getting closer to us as well as its source of illumination, the sun. Though it’s too early to tell how bright it will get, ISON will rise in the east in the early morning before dawn.

A bit after mid-November, ISON will get lost in the sun’s glare and pass from our view until after its potentially fateful date with destiny on November 28.

Then, we wait.

If we ever see it again, ISON will reappear in our skies sometime in mid-December. If it lives up to some of the more optimistic predictions, ISON could be a great sight to behold.

If not, do we call it a fizzle, a dud?

Here’s how I like to think about it: Even if it doesn’t live up to the hype, ISON’s daring trajectory has already guided our thoughts along paths to exciting possibilities that we don’t usually consider, plunging our imaginations on a wild solar-coaster ride and filling our fancied nights with bright comet fluff.

Pretty good work for a comet yet to prove itself.

Peeling Away the Moon’s Mysteries

Bullialdus Crater, photo by Conrad Jung, Chabot Space & Science Center

Bullialdus Crater, photo by Conrad Jung, Chabot Space & Science Center

Sitting on the couch in the family room the other night, my eye caught a bright light shining in through the window: the moon, almost full, rising over the hills east of our house.

Remember the moon? There’s been so much news coming from more distant reaches of our solar system lately: from spacecraft like the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity on their geologic expeditions on the red planet; Cassini wheeling about the Saturn system; New Horizons getting ready for its historic flyby of Pluto next year; and even 30+ year veteran Voyager 2, recently announced to have, at long last, crossed the boundary of the solar system, the plasma “membrane” imposed by the sun’s solar wind as it pushes against the gases of interstellar space.

But the moon often seems like an ancient relic of space exploration, that dusty, dry, airless ball of rock and soil that we visited decades ago and have since left alone—possibly because we found nothing there but dust, rock, and soil?

Not so fast. Lately, the moon has begun to reveal a new face, fresh facets of fascination that are making us reconsider it not as Earth’s closest, but dead, partner in space, but as a world of subtle character with mysteries that still surprises us.

One of those surprising finds is water. An experiment performed in 2009 by NASA’s LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission revealed the presence of significant amounts of water ice deposits in the perpetually shaded floors of Cabeus Crater at the Moon’s South Pole. LCROSS bombarded the crater floor with a large impacting spacecraft—the upper stage of the rocket that took it to the Moon—and in the plume of dust that was kicked up water vapor was detected.

One possible source for these polar crater ice deposits is the solar wind, the constant flow of material (mostly hydrogen ions) that blows outward from the sun throughout the solar system. Over time, it is thought, the interaction of solar wind particles with lunar surface material may form water molecules, which can build up as layers in the shady recesses that never receive direct rays of sunlight.

Around the same time, India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter made another watery discovery in Bullialdus Crater near the moon’s equator: rock contained in the crater’s central peak—material that was once buried deep under the moon’s surface but exposed by the asteroid impact that formed the crater—contains a high concentration of hydroxyl (OH) molecules, indicating the presence, long ago, of water beneath the moon’s surface, water that originated from within the moon itself.

NASA launched another probe to the moon earlier this month, further asserting that our scientific curiosity about the moon is alive and well. LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, will make a study of another thing that we don’t associate with the moon: atmosphere.

Yes, contrary to what you learned in the classroom, the moon does possess an atmosphere, though we must use that term loosely. The density of this lunar atmosphere is somewhere around a million particles per cubic centimeter—particles like sodium and potassium atoms. That may sound like a lot, but when we compare it to air density on Earth’s surface (10 billion billion molecules per cc), we find that the lunar atmosphere is actually a purer vacuum than we can create in most laboratories. LADEE is still being maneuvered into what will eventually be a tight nearly circular orbit that will carry it around the moon once every 24 hours, so the fascinating facts of the moon’s “air”, as well as the dust environment closer to the surface, is yet to come.

Long ago, before we got so good at exploring places in outer space, people imagined all sorts of things on the moon: vast seas of water, strange life forms and civilizations, deities and springs bubbling forth the elixir of life. Then our scientific scrutiny of that sphere reduced it to a dead, dry, and long unchanged cinder.

But now that we’re getting even better at exploring, some “life” is returning to our musings of the moon. No life forms or vestiges of civilizations (so far), no black obelisks, and no wide liquid planes with waves lapping against shorelines (that would be Saturn’s moon Titan).

But, yes, polar ice, possible igneous sources of subsurface water, and a light whiff of air dancing around the skies. Sound like the makings of a hot vacation spot.

NASA Robots Are Sniffing For Clues on Mars and Titan

NASA's rover Curiosity in Gale Crater on Mars

NASA’s rover Curiosity in Gale Crater on Mars

While you are sleeping, robots work tirelessly on other planets, digging, probing, analyzing, searching; painting an ever more detailed picture of worlds beyond our own that have intrigued us for centuries.

Recent findings by two of these robots have turned up some surprises:

Close to home, NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, sniffing the cold, thin air as it crawls ever closer to the foot of Mount Sharp, has raised eyebrows by something it has not detected: methane. And much farther out the Cassini spacecraft has made a positive detection … of plastic, in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Why is finding a lack of methane on Mars surprising? Because previously we thought we had detected it.

Earlier observations made from Earth and from spacecraft orbiting Mars indicated the possible presence of this hydrocarbon. That was an exciting result, since methane, which most of us are familiar with as the gas that flows out of gas stoves, is formed in large quantities on Earth by living organisms, from microbes all the way up to large animals, like cows.

Might methane in Mars’ atmosphere mean there is life on Mars, today? Most of our missions to Mars have focused on the question of whether the environment on Mars in the past was suitable to support life, so the detection of a possible indicator of life there today created quite a buzz.

But Curiosity, a complex and self-contained roving chemistry and geology laboratory, has ground-truthed that rumor, telling us that if there is methane on Mars, its abundance falls below Curiosity’s considerable ability to detect it.

This does not kill off the possibility of life existing on Mars today. There are plenty of examples of life forms on Earth whose metabolic processes do not produce methane. It does, however, move the subject back into the camp of “no evidence yet found.”

Shifting to the Cassini spacecraft in the Saturn system, what does the detection of plastic—or a constituent thereof, propylene—say about the moon Titan? Propylene is the building block molecule of polypropylene, a plastic that surrounds us (for better or for worse) in our daily lives. This, along with the hydrocarbon “smog” that Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere has become famous for, might conjure up images of a world inundated with the pollution of an industrial society that never got its recycling and clean energy programs up to speed—completely unlike our civilization, of course.

Titan’s atmosphere, which is considerably thicker than Earth’s, is mostly nitrogen, but loaded heavily with hydrocarbons like methane, ethane, propane—and now propylene. It’s a brew of organic compounds, complete with global wind circulation and a liquid cycle that resembles the water cycle on Earth, including precipitation, river networks, and large surface lakes—although of liquid hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, not water.

Though the environment on Titan is cold in the extreme, these weather cycles and the rich broth of hydrocarbon molecules churning within them raises the exciting possibility of even more complex organic chemistry taking place there. Add to all of this the likely existence of a deep, subsurface ocean of liquid water far below Titan’s surface, and one’s imagination can really start getting out of control.

Life on Mars or on Titan? We don’t know. Organic molecules and chemistry don’t mean life, just the chemical foundations of life as we know it on Earth. Nor does the apparent lack of an indicator like methane mean an absence of life.

What it all means, on Mars, Titan, and other worlds out there, is that we have a lot more sniffing to do.

NASA’s ‘Mohawk Guy’ on the Search for Signs of Life on Mars


NASA’s Curiosity rover is still chugging along on the surface of Mars (contrary to early reports, it is still in operation despite the government shutdown).  In the 14 months since it landed, the nuclear-powered robot has documented an ancient stream bed, found some of the chemicals necessary for supporting life and shot lasers at hapless rocks with Twitter accounts.

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Curiosity rover. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

A “selfie” of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Now it’s on a six-month trek to Mount Sharp, where it will examine ancient Martian geology.

“The foothills, that’s the place we really want to go to,” NASA systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi explained to me. Ferdowsi, also known as “The Mohawk Guy,” dropped by KQED for a visit (he grew up watching KQED), so we swapped a tour for an interview. He said he’s excited about what the rover might find at Mt. Sharp.

“Even from this distance, with our cameras, we can see layering in the rock, kind of like Grand Canyon-sort of sediments,” he marveled. “And that’s amazing. You can imagine just kind of working your way up that layering and getting an entire history of Mars in that area.”

Watch more of our interview:

And some pieces of the interview that didn’t make the final video cut:

  •  Ferdowsi was a science fiction fan as a kid (surprise), especially of Star Trek and Arthur C. Clarke, which helped jump-start the work he does now. “(Clarke) had a real depth of understanding of the science of it all,” Ferdowsi told me, noting a special fondness for science fiction rooted in real science. “Even though it’s fantastic in some ways, he always has a basis in, ‘How would that spaceship really work, and how would they actually have done this?’ And I think that’s the kind of stuff that I love the most.”
  • And would he like to join the rover on Mars? “If it wasn’t a one-way trip, I think I would consider going to Mars. I think it’s such an interesting time for us. I hope we get to send people there. As much as I love working with robots, I think there’s something special about seeing humans get to these other places.”



Comet ISON: Celestial Popcorn That’s Ready to Pop?

Comet ISON - Sept 8 2013 - Chabot Space & Science Center, Photo by Conrad Jung

Comet ISON – October 13 2013 – Chabot Space & Science Center, Photo by Conrad Jung

Comet ISON has entered the inner solar system!

On about October 1st, the comet that has attracted so much attention and prompted many projections, prognostications and probably a few wagers, crossed the orbit of the planet Mars to begin its final sprint to the center of the solar system. It’s the last and fastest dog-leg of its long journey from the cold dark reaches of outer space to its potentially fateful close encounter with the Sun.

Discovered in September 2012 by Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok with a telescope of the International Sky Observer Network, Comet ISON has since been tracked by telescopes around the world—including the one that actually goes around the world: the Hubble Space Telescope. It has even been scoped out by cameras on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter when it sailed close to Mars a couple of weeks ago.

All of this scrutiny is aimed at learning as much about the physical nature of this ancient time capsule as possible before it reaches a crucial point in its flight through the solar system: perihelion, the point where it passes closest to the sun, on November 28. Crucial, because at that time it will be less than a single solar diameter from the Sun’s surface, and exposed to intense radiation that could vaporize it and gravitational tidal forces that will work to tear it apart.

What have all of these observations told us about the betting odds of the comet’s survival, or whether we’ll be able to see with our eyes?

Last April, the Hubble Space Telescope determined that ISON’s rotation is slow—so slow that, so far, only one side of it has been exposed to sunlight. Day by day, as the comet draws closer to the sun, the heating of its sunward size grows stronger. Its surface ices are transformed into gases that envelop the icy nucleus in a vast shroud called a coma.

When a comet gets close to the sun, its coma is blown away from the nucleus by sunlight into the familiar shape of the comet’s tail. Key to how bright and fluffy (or flat and ho-hum) a comet becomes is how big a coma it develops, how much ice is converted into gas, and how quickly.

The fact that this comet has shown only one face to the sun is intriguing. It means that it has a dark side, cold and protected, yet to feel the touch of solar rays. Sheltered on the shady side of ISON is likely to be a load of frozen but highly volatile ices. While the sunlit side of ISON has been warming and leaking away materials for at least a year now, the dark side remains pristine, a reservoir of untapped volatile material that awaits release.

Maybe a week before perihelion, the dark side of ISON is expected to begin turning into the sunlight. The sudden exposure to the intense radiation could cause a strong outburst of gases into the coma–like a celestial popcorn kernel suddenly bursting.

Another observation critical to predicting of the fate of ISON is its size. How big a comet is becomes an important factor when its orbital path is to carry it so scorching-close to the sun. As ISON has fallen closer, more and better data has been collected by telescopes, starting with the Hubble’s observations in April, continued by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter earlier this month and ongoing by many telescopes around the world.

From these observations ISON is estimated to be between 1 and 4 kilometers (0.6 to 2.5 miles) in diameter, roughly the size of Mount Diablo at the upper end—large enough, it is expected, to survive its close encounter with the sun on Thanksgiving.

Will it blossom or sputter? Will the popcorn kernel be a dud, or will it blow the lid off the pot? There has been speculation in both directions, based on observational evidence and past experiences with the fickle and often temperamental nature of comes.

The truth is, we won’t know until we know, likely in the week or so following the end of November, but my hopes—and my money—are on a good show in December.

Meteor Crashed with the Force of 600,000 Tons of TNT, Say Scientists (And It’ll Happen Again)


Last February 15, at 9:20 in the morning, residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia, looked out their windows and saw a giant ball of fire fly through the sky.

The Chelyabinsk meteor was a 65-foot hunk of space rock that entered the Earth’s atmosphere at about 12 miles per second before exploding with a force equal to 600,000 tons of TNT, enough to level buildings and send 1,200 people to local hospitals.

The scary thing is: No one saw it coming, says the author of a paper, out today in the journal Science by researchers who studied the Chelyabinsk event.

“Chelyabinsk was not detected in space at all,” said Peter Jenniskens, an astronomer with NASA Ames and the SETI Insitute. “It couldn’t be detected because it was coming from the direction of the sun.”

Over at Slate, the Bad Astronomer explains what the Science paper, as well as another Chelyabinsk paper published in Nature, say about the meteor’s trajectory and what it was made of.

Chelyabinsk-sized Asteroid Impacts May Happen More Often Than Previously ThoughtThey found that if you were 100 km (62 miles) from the Chelyabinsk impact, at peak brightness — and this stuns me — the asteroid was 30 times brighter than the Sun! I haven’t heard any anecdotes about this specifically, but the thermal pulse, the flash of heat, must have been palpable, even from that distance. Incredible.

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via Slate


Who’s keeping an eye on these “near-Earth objects” as they’re called, and devising plans to keep us from going the way of the dinosaurs? KQED Science’s video team looked into it.

Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly is mulling a plan for the world’s space agencies to defend the Earth against asteroids, reports NPR.

Space Agencies Of The World, Unite: The U.N.’s Asteroid Defense PlanScience The United Nations General Assembly may approve a plan soon for the world’s space agencies to defend the Earth against asteroids. The plan, introduced last week, is expected to be adopted by the General Assembly in December.

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NASA Launches its New Mars Mission


NASA’s newest Mars probe, MAVEN is now shooting through the solar system. A mere 440 million miles stand between the robotic explorer and its final destination: the Martian atmosphere. MAVEN launched this morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA engineers described the launch as “flawless.”

Scientists from University of California, Berkeley helped design MAVEN, or Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, which seeks to clues to the question: What makes Mars appear to be a barren wasteland, while Earth is verdant and full of life?

The answer may lie in Mars’ atmosphere, which is too thin to protect the planet from the Sun’s harsh glare.

Mars rovers, including Curiosity, have found telltale signs that water once flowed over the Martian surface. This suggests that Mars must once have had a thicker atmosphere, as Earth does, protecting the planet from the Sun and fostering a climate that could sustain water and maybe even life.


“The evidence for a much warmer climate in the distant past is very compelling,” says UC Berkeley space scientist David L. Mitchell. “So then the question is: Where did the atmosphere go?”

Mitchell’s team designed an instrument on MAVEN called the Solar Wind Electron Analyzer (or SEWA), which will analyze tiny particles of the Martian atmosphere, sending data about its chemical composition back to Earth.

This NASA video shows what a younger Mars may have looked like, billions of years ago when it had a thicker atmosphere and oceans of water.

Silicon Valley Goes to Space


Update: On November 21st, a Russian Dnepr rocket successfully launched into orbit Skybox Imaging’s first satellite, SkySat-1.

In May 2012, SpaceX became the first company to make a commercial mission to the International Space Station, successfully ferrying more than 1,000 pounds of supplies to the station. But SpaceX’s founder and CEO, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, has a larger prize in mind: flying people to Mars aboard SpaceX rockets within 10 or 15 years.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, founded by billionaire British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is on track to launch its first commercial spacecraft next year, rocketing “space tourists” on a $250,000 ride to the edge of space. So far, the company has collected deposits from more than 600 passengers, including wealthy children of the space age and celebrities like Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Today’s space exploration efforts look far different than the historic exploration of space pioneered by NASA during the Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s. Then, during the height of the Cold War, the US locked technological and ideological horns with the Soviet Union to prove that American ingenuity and technological prowess would triumph in the race to land a man on the moon.

But now, in the age of cutbacks and federal furloughs, NASA is turning to the private sector to more cheaply get to Low Earth Orbit, a region roughly 100 to 600 miles above earth where the International Space Station is located. From space tourism to plans to mine the moon, dozens of for-profit companies, many with the business models, characters and the high-tech, risk-taking culture of Silicon Valley, are reshaping American space exploration.

Stanford Aeronautics Professor G. Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years, said NASA’s growing partnership with the private sector is critical for America to work more efficiently and cheaply in space.

“In the old days, with all of these specifications, the reviews would get down to every nut and bolt,” he said. “In this new age, now, in ‘new space’, companies like SpaceX, like Orbital Sciences, are building their own vehicles, and NASA is saying, ‘OK, if you give us a service meeting this type of a milestone and this level of reliability, we’ll just take it…we’re not going to investigate every nut and bolt.’”

But the private sector isn’t simply providing lower-cost services to NASA. More fundamentally, it is disrupting the space industry by creating new technologies that make getting into space cheaper. And that is expanding the commercial, scientific and even extreme adventure possibilities of space.

Many of the country’s new space entrepreneurs hail from the tech sector and some, like Elon Musk, rocketed to prominence with startup success in the early days of e-commerce.

“Elon Musk didn’t come from an aerospace background, he is a computer scientist by training,” said Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, a SpaceX board member and investor in the company. “And he thinks about the rocket like computer scientists would – modular reuse, modern programming languages, everything.”

Clearly, there are risks associated with these new, for-profit space ventures. Not only does the threat of commercial failure loom large, so too is the threat of accidents aboard the rocket ships gearing up to fly wealthy thrill-seekers and space buffs dozens of miles above earth.

“If we fly in space often enough, people will die. That’s not a pleasant truth but it is the truth,” said Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave, California company that, like Virgin Galactic, is also accepting deposits for rides aboard its rocket ship.

Leaders of new space companies see the ventures in many ways similar to innovative, bootstrapping tech startups eager to take on bigger competitors.

SpaceX President and COO, Gwynne Shotwell, in an interview filmed at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, a gritty city five miles outside of L.A,  confidently spoke about the disruptive impact of SpaceX’s technologies and unorthodox business practices, which include publicly listing the multi-million-dollar price tag a client can expect to pay to launch its payload aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, shows off rocket engines being built at the company's headquarters near L.A. Image by Jayme Roy

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX, shows off rocket engines being built at the company’s headquarters near L.A. Image by Jayme Roy

“We’re winning launches from the Europeans, from the Russians, as well as from the Chinese,” she said. “Internationally, we’re probably 30 to 40 percent less expensive than our competitors.”

Shotwell said that a fully reusable rocket – such as the Grasshopper rocket that SpaceX is developing – could make the cost of a rocket launch 12 times less expensive than it is today.

Why is this important?

“The number one hurdle to making the space enterprise really flourish has to be access to space at an affordable price,” said Hubbard.

The cost of sending a payload into orbit has been stuck at roughly $10,000 a pound, according to Hubbard. “If you could get it to $1,000 or even $100 a pound, you’re going to see a lot more business activity,” he added.

Reducing the cost of getting to space is one central theme uniting many of these scrappy, “new space” startups who are able to cut costs and assume a level of risk-taking that government aerospace contractors have traditionally avoided.

One of these companies, Masten Space Systems, builds, tests and pushes to the limits vertical takeoff and vertical landing rockets at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the Southern California desert.

Engineer Travis O'Neal (in blue) oversees interns setting up Masten's Xaero-B rocket for a tethered flight test. Image by Jayme Roy.

Engineer Travis O’Neal (in blue) oversees interns setting up Masten’s Xaero-B rocket for a tethered flight test. Image by Jayme Roy.

Masten’s reusable rockets are being used to test out landing software and components being developed by clients such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has generated stunning new images and new information about Mars with its Curiosity rover over the past year.

Eventually, Masten CEO Sean Mahoney said, the company wants to reach a wider market by making its rockets available to researchers hungry for low-cost, fast and easy access to perform suborbital atmospheric experiments.

This new generation of space entrepreneurs is innovating more than rockets, however.

Skybox Imaging, based in Mountain View, sees itself as building “the iPhone of satellites.” The company exemplifies the Silicon Valley startup culture with its free, catered lunches, pickup games of basketball and a mission control powered exclusively by rows of shiny Macs.

Technicians at Skybox Imaging work on a satellite in a clean room at the company's headquarters in Mountain View. Image by Blake McHugh.

Technicians at Skybox Imaging work on a satellite in a clean room at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View. Image by Blake McHugh.

Skybox is carving out a new niche in the satellite imaging industry with lower-cost imaging satellites that are built with the latest computer processors to transmit rapid satellite imagery and video of practically any location on the planet, said the company’s co-founder and Executive Vice-President, Dan Berkenstock.

The potential applications include monitoring deforestation activity to tracking shipping activity in a busy California port, from day-to-day and month to month.

Skybox says its customers will be able to access online current satellite imagery of locations they’re interested in tracking for presumably a lot less than the “couple of thousand dollars” that Berkenstock said it costs today for a customer to order a new satellite image and receive it months later.

The trade-off, however, is quality: although Skybox’s satellites will provide high-resolution images, they won’t be as sophisticated as what the SUV-sized, expensive imaging satellites can provide.

“We can count how many cars are in a parking lot, but we probably can’t tell you it’s a Buick versus a Honda,” said Berkenstock.

The company plans to launch its first two satellites from rockets in Kazakhstan, starting sometime by the end of this year. A few years from now, the satellites may launch aboard SpaceX rockets fromVandenberg Air Force Base, he said.

It would be a fitting connection between two companies attempting to disrupt the space industry and bring it firmly into the digital age.

Cassini or Curiosity: Budget Cuts Could Force NASA to Make A Tough Choice

Curiosity Versus Cassini

Curiosity Versus Cassini

If you had to make a choice to shut down either the Mars rover Curiosity or that explorer of the Saturn system Cassini, how would you choose? Would you deliver a pink slip to the young, eager, energetic newbie, Curiosity, who’s been doing a great job and has only begun its work investigating Mars? Or would you force an early retirement on a veteran explorer who has delivered volumes of knowledge of Saturn and its moons in its nine year career?

A hard choice to say the least, especially for two such exciting and high-profile exploration missions, but a decision that could be necessary due to budget cuts at NASA.

It’s nothing new. Choosing to end a mission earlier than planned has been part of the space exploration budget calculus for a long time. Even the greatest space adventure epic of all time, the Apollo missions to the moon, were curtailed earlier than planned when public interest dipped below a critical cost-benefit analysis threshold.

Not every robotic employee of NASA faces layoff or early retirement, however. I recall a time back in the mid 1990′s when I worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center and was visiting the building across the street from my own. I was walking down a hall looking for someone’s office when I passed by an open door and decided to poke my head in. What appeared to be a rather large computer lab opened up before me, and the room had a single occupant: a man probably in his mid-to-late seventies sitting before a computer quietly doing his work.

“What do you do in here?” I asked.

“I,” the man said with a mixture of pride and wistfulness, “am the last employee on the Pioneer mission.”

Pioneer! Those early interplanetary probes, Pioneers 10 and 11, launched in 1972 and 1973, were still sending signals from deep space. NASA was still listening to them with the ear of the Deep Space Network of radio dishes. In fact, those missions only ended in 1995 for Pioneer 11 and in 2003 for Pioneer 10, when the strength of their radio transmissions faded to silence with great distance.

Pioneer’s successors, Voyagers 1 and 2, after their primary mission of exploring the giant planets from Jupiter to Neptune, are to this day in an active extended mission exploring the more distant boundaries of the solar system where the sun’s outward-blowing gases meet those of interstellar space: the heliopause.

And speaking of extended missions consider the Mars rover Opportunity, which landed in 2004 to begin a 90-day primary mission exploring Meridiani Planum and is now entering Year 10 of its extended mission.

But what about Curiosity and Cassini, NASA’s flagship missions of planetary exploration? If the off switch must be flipped on one of them (which would likely happen sometime in 2015), which should it be?

On the one hand, Cassini will run out of fuel in 2017 anyway and no longer be able to make orbital corrections that have allowed it to target close flybys of Saturn’s moons. On the other hand, with the wealth of information still pouring from Cassini’s radio transmitter back to earth, how can we shut off the fire hose early?

As for Curiosity, which is preparing to begin its climb up the slopes of Mount Sharp, the basis of the decision takes on a different form. Whereas with Cassini it would be a decision to cut off the flow of goodies we’ve been enjoying for years, at this point the goodies that Curiosity promises to deliver are still only potential. Curiosity has sent back good intelligence on the chemistry and geology at the foot of Mount Sharp. But the design of its mission is to analyze the stack of sedimentary layers of the mountain that were built up over a major portion of Mars’ past, probing the history of Mars in addition to its geography.

Early retirement for a proven veteran with volumes of discoveries to its credit or pink slip for a rising star with a promising career ahead?

If ever NASA needed an “easy” button….

En Route to Jupiter, Juno Sends First-Ever Video of Earth and Moon

NASA's Juno spacecraft is expected to reach Jupiter, our solar system's largest planet, in July 2016. (NASA)

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is expected to reach Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet, in July 2016. (NASA)

Twenty-four years ago, NASA’s Voyager One space probe sent back the mesmerizing image of what Carl Sagan called “a pale blue dot,” Earth captured from a distance of 3.7 billion miles. The image seemed to condense all our earthly concerns into one tiny fleck of light, as Sagan put it, “a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

“This is what Earth would look like to an alien, looking at us with a telescope like Galileo had.”

Now NASA’s Juno spacecraft, currently on its five-year journey to Jupiter, has brought back another perspective: the first-ever video of the moon as it orbits Earth, presented on Tuesday at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco

“This is what Earth would look like to an alien, looking at us with a telescope like Galileo had,” said Juno’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton.

“In the movie, you ride aboard Juno as it approaches Earth and then soars off into the blackness of space. No previous view of our world has ever captured the heavenly waltz of Earth and moon.”

Juno is looking for clues into the formation of the solar system’s largest planet. Launched in 2011, the spacecraft completed a speed-gathering slingshot orbit around the Earth, necessary to propel the spacecraft 400 million miles to Jupiter.

Plus: 1400 ham radio operators say “hi” to Juno.

That fly-by gave Juno scientists a rare opportunity to film what Bolton called the “cosmic dance” between the Earth and its moon.

The fly-by also provided a chance to try out some citizen science. During the four hours that Juno dipped closest to the Earth, at least 1400 amateur radio operators from around the world transmitted a greeting in Morse code, hoping the collective signal would be strong enough to be picked up by Juno. It worked.

Those six beeps — four, then two — say, in Morse code, “Hi!”

It’s the first time a NASA spacecraft has picked up radio signals sent intentionally from citizen scientists on Earth, says NASA’s Scott Bolton.

“At first we weren’t sure whether it would work,” says Bolton, “but if you had enough ham radio operators working together, there would be enough power, enough energy in their signal for us to see it.”

If all goes according to plan, Juno will fall into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

Jupiter’s Moon Has Vast Geysers, Says NASA


Artist’s concept of a giant geyser erupting from the icy surface of Europa, about 500 million miles from the sun. (NASA/ESA/K)


Today in San Francisco, NASA scientists announced that Europa — one of dozens of moons belonging to the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter – appears to have giant geysers erupting from its southern pole.

The existence of geysers bolsters the current belief that Europa’s icy crust covers a vast saltwater ocean, possibly with underwater volcanoes.

If there’s life swimming around down there, the geysers are most certainly spewing it onto Europa’s surface and into the atmosphere  — at a rate of approximately seven tons of material per second — where future NASA missions might be able to grab and study it.

“If the vapor comes from the oceans below, then we have a new way to explore its composition,” said NASA’s Kurt Retherford, also of Southwest Research Institute, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

“Who would have thought that a moon around a giant planet could have the conditions necessary for life to begin?” – James Green, NASA

The observations come from the Hubble Space Telescope’s spectrograph, which captures ultraviolet images. They wouldn’t have been possible without astronauts who, in 2009, completed one of the longest space walks in history — over eight hours — to fix the instrument.

Scientists have long suspected that Europa could harbor life. But without a way to puncture the moon’s thick icy crust, further understanding seemed elusive. The vapor plumes could change that.

So far, scientists have only spotted the plumes at Europa’s south pole, but north pole plumes may exist as well, said scientists at the press conference. “We want to explore those too,” said James Green, NASA’s Chief of Planetary Science.

The plumes appear to come and go as the moon is influenced by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

“When Europa gets close to Jupiter,” said Francis Nimmo, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, the moon “gets stretched and the poles get squished. And so when the poles are getting squished, all the cracks close up. And then as it moves further away, it becomes unsquished, the poles move outwards. And that’s when the cracks open.”

Artist's concept of an explosion on Europa's surface resulting from an impact from a space rock. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s concept of an explosion on Europa’s surface resulting from an impact from a space rock. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

With its liquid water and internal heat source, Europa is starting to look like one of, if not the best, candidate for finding extra-terrestrial life in our solar system.

This comes as a surprise to astronomers who long believed the solar system’s “habitable zone” — where heat from the sun would allow for the presence of liquid water — ended at Mars.

“When we saw Europa and realized that it had the energy, the organics, and certainly the water,” said Green, “it changed our ideas to where habitable zones can exist.  We now believe habitable zones can exist around these large planets.”

A spectacular collision with an asteroid or comet could have delivered the building blocks of life.

This week scientists also announced new findings based on 15-year old data collected by NASA’s Galileo Mission, showing that clay-type minerals on Europa’s surface appear to have been delivered by a spectacular collision with an asteroid or comet about the size of Comet ISON.

That object may have delivered organic materials that could, over time, give rise to life in Europa’s ocean.

Jim Shirley, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, says if life exists on Europa, it might be comparable to life found near deep-sea vents here on Earth.

“We know on Earth that life can evolve in the absence of light, with the right chemistry,” said Shirley. “And so one of the questions about this is how would we get carbon, the building blocks of life, into the ocean? And we have evidence now that impacts can bring the carbon.”

“With the energy, the water, and now organics,” said Green, “that really means life could exist on Europa.

One mission, called Clipper, currently in the concept stage, could send a spacecraft into Europa’s plumes to sample and analyze the vapor and any traces of life. But with an estimated price tag of several billion dollars – similar to the cost of the Curiosity Mars Rover – that mission could be a decade off, or more, said Green.


Space 2013: Another Great Year of Cosmic Adventure

Voyager 1 enters interstellar space. Credit: NASA

Voyager 1 enters interstellar space. (NASA)

Let’s take a moment to tally a few of 2013′s highlights of astronomy and space exploration. In brief, it was a very good year on a number of fronts.

Curious about Mars? Then it’s been a good year for you, 2013 being yet another year in a long unbroken succession where Mars still stands out as one of the most intriguing places to explore.

NASA’s rover Curiosity, resident on Mars since August 2012, has turned up a number of tantalizing clues about Mars’s past. Though its primary mission to climb the slopes of Mount Sharp and read the layers of sediment that were built up over a couple billion years still lies ahead, Curiosity’s preparatory activities at the mountain’s foot have already struck pay dirt.

River-bed-like gravel matrix. Interesting as dirt! Curiosity happened upon a bed of gravely stones in a solid matrix that strongly resembles formations on Earth left behind by the past action of flowing river and stream beds.

Water now? We’ve known of water on Mars for some time now: water-ice locked up in the polar caps and under the soils of the vast northern plains, and also water molecules bound up in minerals. One of Curiosity’s primary goals is to assess the past conditions on Mars to determine if they were ever suitable for the existence of life (as we know life)—that is, was there ever liquid water there? After a year of prospecting, including analysis of rock samples ground out of a deep (2.5 inch) bore hole and chemical measurements with other instruments, the presence of water chemically bound up in the minerals of Gale Crater is now well established.

No methane detected. One surprise from Mars this year was the failure of Curiosity to detect methane gas in the air—and it is not a failure of Curiosity’s instruments, but apparently a true dearth of this simple hydrocarbon. This was a surprise because earlier measurements by other spacecraft suggested the presence of methane—one source of which on Earth are living organisms. This does not rule out the possibility of life on Mars today, but is a bit like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit as expected.

On another frontier, NASA’s Juno spacecraft, launched in 2011, made a gravitational slingshot maneuver around Earth this year that sent it on a final trajectory to its target destination, Jupiter. Juno is destined to enter an orbit that will carry it over Jupiter’s polar regions, which have never before been scrutinized directly and up close. Juno will not only show us the detailed face of Jupiter’s northern and southern cloud tops, but by measuring the magnetic field emerging from within we hope to learn some things about Jupiter’s deep interior and core—analogous to how we can study properties of the Earth’s interior by examining what comes out of a volcano–well, sort of.

2013 was a great year for finding Earth-like extrasolar planets, even though it was not such a good year for NASA’s Kepler mission, the space telescope that was designed to look for “other Earths.” Though we had to say goodbye to Kepler when it experienced a critical technical failure in May, astronomers are still finding exoplanets within the hordes of data Kepler collected in the three years before its demise.

Planet candidates detected: To the date of its untimely end Kepler amassed a pool of 3538 candidate planets, a large percentage of which are expected to be actual planets.

Planets confirmed: Kepler has confirmed the existence of 199 planets, a number that is likely to grow by leaps and bounds as astronomers continue to analyze data from Kepler and other observatories.

Earth-sized planets found in habitable zones: Kepler set out to find Earth-sized worlds orbiting within their stars’ habitable zones, the range of distance within which water might exist in liquid form on a planet’s surface. Fortunately, Kepler accomplished this goal—more than once—showing us some other worlds in our neck of the Milky Way galaxy that are considered prime candidates for being able to support life. The most recent of these are Kepler 69c, Kepler 62e, and Kepler 62f.

Voyager 1. And the last shall be first…. Voyager 1, launched to explore the outer solar system’s gas giant planets 36 years ago, officially became the first human-made object to enter the realm of interstellar space. About 12 billion miles from our Sun, for the past year Voyager 1 has apparently been traveling through a region of plasma (ionized gas) outside the boundary of the Sun’s vast extended atmosphere, which forms a gigantic bubble as it pushes outward against the interstellar medium—the gases found between the stars.

Visions of a once wet and more Earth-like Mars, of possible Earth-like planets around other stars, and of humankind taking the first physical step into the greater Milky Way galaxy beyond our solar system.

Yes, it was a very good year in space….

3 of the World’s Best Scientific Aircraft Team Up for Climate Science Research

BAe-146; photo courtesy FAAM

BAe-146; photo courtesy FAAM

Of course spacecraft and astronauts and robot rovers are sexy. So are scientific submarines and their dives to the deep seafloor. But today I want to speak up for research aircraft and the plucky geniuses who maintain and fly them. They penetrate hurricanes; they peek high above thunderstorm complexes at night for a glimpse of sprites; they fly over the El Niños and the poles.

Most of all, aircraft are an indispensable part of our effort to understand Earth’s climate and the atmosphere that sustains it. They’re worthy of graphic-novel treatment, if there’s an artist out there who’s up for it. Here’s the story line: Next week three of the world’s best scientific aircraft will team up on a six-week mission, called CONTRAST, to explore a key part of the world’s climate system.

The tropical western Pacific, south of Guam, is the opposite of Antarctica: the warmest part of the ocean. As we shiver through winter, the atmosphere above the Western Pacific Warm Pool is at its most active. The region acts like an immense chimney, with thunderstorms and other deep convective disturbances pushing huge quantities of air some 20 kilometers straight up from the sea surface. Some of this air bursts into the quiet stratosphere, where it stays for years and spreads outward across the entire world. The West Pacific chimney is where most of the stratosphere’s input of surface air happens. Models of global climate need to account for the influence of this great engine of air, but its makeup is poorly known.

One notable ingredient of oceanic air is a set of organic bromine compounds emitted by sea life. Although these gases usually are swiftly neutralized by ozone within 100 meters of the sea surface, the western Pacific chimney is active enough to funnel bromine into the upper atmosphere, where it erodes the stratospheric ozone layer that protects us from damaging ultraviolet radiation. Volcanoes also inject bromine into the stratosphere, but in the Pacific chimney we can study the same process all the way up from the sea surface without dealing with a volcano’s dangers.

Three state-of-the-art aircraft will team up for CONTRAST (CONvective TRansport of Active Species in the Tropics). Two have human crews while the third, the high-altitude star, is a robot. Between them, they can cover the whole altitude range of this energetic region from the wavetops well into the stratosphere.

The British research aircraft BAe-146, part of the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements, will handle the low-altitude portion up to about 6 kilometers (20,000 feet). A large plane that can carry 18 people, its focus will be on the rising clouds, where exceptionally low ozone levels allow the bromine gases (and related iodine gases) to survive far beyond their normal lives. Its data will help fill in a large gap between the sea surface and the top of the chimney. Just as important will be the differences it discovers between air inside and outside clouds.

Tackling the middle part will be the National Science Foundation’s High-Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER), a modified Gulfstream business jet that can reach over 15 kilometers (51,000 feet). Its previous special mission was observing sprites over the Midwest last summer. It will continue the BAe-146′s measurements upward in the atmosphere. It will also gather data during the night as well as the day, because the chemical reactions in the air change dramatically when the sun goes down.

HIAPER; photo courtesy Carlye Calvin, UCAR

HIAPER; photo courtesy Carlye Calvin, UCAR

The high extreme, between 14 and 19 kilometers (up to 62,000 feet) will be handled by a large robot plane, NASA’s Global Hawk, as part of the ATTREX (Airborne Tropical TRopopause EXperiment) project. This heavily instrumented, pilotless observing platform is stationed at Edwards Air Force Base and has been in use for barely a year. It can make 30-hour flights that exceed the safe limits of any human pilot. Global Hawk will deal with the stratosphere, ranging widely around the West Pacific chimney to trace its injected air and study how it changes.

Global Hawk; NASA photo by C. Fratello

Global Hawk; NASA photo by C. Fratello

All three aircraft will also be measuring temperature, humidity, and the usual suspects among atmospheric gases: ozone, water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and more. Each gas has its own story in the stratosphere that must be accounted for in global climate models. The mission is summed up in this diagram.

CONTRAST campaign

The three CONTRAST aircraft will cover the vertical range of the tropical troposphere. CPT, cold point tropopause; TTL, tropopause transition layer; CBL, convective boundary layer. Diagram by Diane Pendlebury, Univ. Toronto

You can follow this all-star team as it takes on the Chimney during CONTRAST from January 14 to February 28 on NASA’s Aircraft Tracker: the BAe-146 is “FAAM BAE-146,” HIAPER is “NSF/NCAR G-V,” and Global Hawk is “Global Hawk AV6.” Give the aircraft some respect!

Opposition of Jupiter: Bright Beauty in the Sky

Illustration of Jupiter from the surface of Europa. NASA/JPL

Illustration of Jupiter from the surface of Europa. NASA/JPL

The planet Jupiter is once again a source of surprise and wonder to many a night-sky-gazer, as it has been many times since before recorded history, refreshing the age-old human experience of this bright celestial beacon as a “wandering star” ever on the move among the stars. Jupiter forms one vertex of a triangle with the stars Castor and Pollux—the twins of Gemini–high in the eastern sky.

I have received more than a few emails and phone calls from inquisitive people prompted by the sighting of a “UFO” high in the east. None of them suggested that they had seen a flying saucer, but were nevertheless mystified. In fact a couple of people were quite insistent that the apparition was certainly not a star or a planet.

I understand the feeling; the same thing happened to me in my teens when I happened to look up one night and see, as if for the first time, the star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. It was so bright, and flashed prismatically with so many colors as its light sliced through Earth’s atmosphere, that I could barely believe I was looking at a normal star.

When we look up and see something we may not have noticed before, or which may be presented in an unusually prominent situation, we can be quite puzzled by what we are viewing–even though it might be something we have seen before, but in a different light. Even as our brains try to classify the object–as a bright planet, a bright star, or maybe even an exploding star (which is one of the possibilities I assigned to Sirius on that night long ago)–the wonder and awe we feel can be electrifying.

It was 404 years ago this week that Galileo Galilei experienced the puzzlement and awe of a new celestial wonder—and in this case it was truly something that neither he nor anyone else had ever beheld. The invention of the telescope was brand new, and its use as a tool to scry the hidden secrets of the heavens even newer, Galileo being the first to do so.

In January 1610, Galileo aimed his telescope at Jupiter and discovered its large moons, the Galileans, which are just beyond the grasp of the unaided human eye to perceive. At first he thought the tiny dots might be background stars, but in the course of observing them on subsequent nights Galileo saw that not only did they move with Jupiter, they constantly changed their relative positions as they apparently orbited the planet.

After visits by seven spacecraft—six fly-by missions and one orbiter, the Galileo probe—we have revealed many of the wondrous secrets about Jupiter and its moons. Not only is Jupiter by far the largest planet in our solar system, containing more matter than the rest of the planets combined, it possesses the largest moon (Ganymede), the most volcanically active body (Io), the oldest surface (Callisto), and the greatest known liquid-water ocean (Europa). The adventure continues with NASA’s Juno spacecraft, currently on its final course to enter orbit around Jupiter in 2015 on a mission to study its polar regions and even probe the yet unseen reaches of its interior.

Galileo’s report of seeing Jupiter’s moons must have been like a modern UFO sighting—though in his time it was agents of the church in Rome, and not men-in-black driving unmarked vans, who showed up to silence the witness.

Rosetta Wakes Up for Final Approach to a Comet

The ESA's Rosetta Spacecraft

The ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft

On Monday, far beyond the orbit of Mars, an alarm clock went off and a robot began the slow process of waking up after a long, cold sleep. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft is now awake and on final approach to its target, the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which it will catch up with this May.

Rosetta was launched back in 2004 and has spent the last ten years conducting fancy “gravitational slingshot” maneuvers around the Inner Solar System designed to boost its speed. By making a series of close flybys of planets (three of Earth and one of Mars), Rosetta acquired some of their momentum—not unlike how a discus thrower flings a discus to higher speed by imparting a bit of their own momentum as they spin around.

The boost to Rosetta’s velocity was sufficient to fling it almost to the orbit of Jupiter, about five hundred million miles from the Sun. It was at this point, in 2011, when the solar-powered Rosetta spacecraft went into hibernation, the strength of sunlight at that distance not sufficient maintain full power.

Rosetta’s mission in the months ahead will feature feats of comet exploration that have never been done before.

Right now Rosetta is over 5 million miles from the comet, but will close the gap to little over a million miles by May.

In August, Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, giving us a much longer close-up look at one of these icy bodies than other spacecraft have achieved on fly-by missions in recent years. Those fly-by missions were exciting and we learned a lot from them, but their close approaches lasted only minutes. Rosetta will spend over a year in close proximity, studying the comet with its 11 scientific instruments—three of which were provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Even more exciting, Rosetta carries a probe that will be launched sometime in November, and if all goes well will set down and give us the first “boots on the ground” image from the surface of a comet. I’m a junky for otherworldly landscapes, so I’m particularly interested in the returns from Rosetta, and its landing probe Philae. To date we have achieved surface views from only a handful of bodies: the moon, Mars, the asteroid Eros, and Saturn’s moon Titan.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (say that five times fast) orbits the sun every 6.45 years. At the end of its orbit when it’s farthest from the sun (aphelion), the comet is farther out than Jupiter, but on closest approach (perihelion) it will be only slightly farther from the sun than we are. Rosetta will accompany the comet as it approaches perihelion in December 2015, giving us a front-row seat to a comet as it heats up. If only a tag-along spacecraft could have followed comet ISON to its perihelion, and demise, last Thanksgiving; what a show that would have been.

We’ve long been interested in comets, not only for the beauty of the rare one that comes close enough to the sun to be seen, but for the fact that comets are preserved specimens of materials from the very early times in the solar system. Think of them as time capsules, or fossils, or ice core samples from ancient ice sheets; the information preserved in their composition and structure can give us insight into the past, when the sun and planets were quite young, four and half billion years ago.

Rosetta still has some miles to go before it gets close to the comet, so set your alarm clock for next August when we should wake up to a fresh vision of these ancient and mysterious celestial objects.

NASA’s LADEE Spacecraft Sends Back New Moon Images


NASA’s LADEE Mission (that’s “LAD-ee,” not “lady,” short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer), managed by Ames Research Center in Mountain View, has sent back its first images from the moon.

So NASA made a nifty little gif out of them.

Five images captured by the LADEE spacecraft, on its mission to explain lunar dust. (NASA/Ames)

The five photos were taken at one-minute intervals on February 8th, as LADEE zoomed along the moon’s orbit at approximately 60 miles a minute.

NASA Ames provides a guide to the many craters captured in the images, including Krieger crater, about 14 miles in diameter, in the first image, and a lunar mountain range, Montes Agricola, in the third image.

LADEE’s lunar voyage is a $280-million attempt to answer a forty-two year-old mystery: Was it dust that caused those strange, colorful bands of light that Commander Eugene Cernan saw through the window of Apollo 17′s command module as it orbited the moon?

(For more on that – plus Cernan’s original sketch — here’s our post from last September.)

LADEE made for a striking light show when it passed over NYC back in September. It’ll orbit the moon for about three months, taking dust samples and beaming data back to Earth, while also experimenting with a new (and much faster) laser data transmission system.

Finally, LADEE will crash-land onto the surface of the moon, analyzing dust samples all the way until its bitter end.

Recent Observations Confirm Presence of Water Vapor on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Hubble Space Telescope image of Dwarf Planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope image of Dwarf Planet Ceres. (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)

Recent observations of the dwarf planet Ceres by the European Herschel Space Observatory have revealed for the first time the presence of water vapor on this object in the Main Asteroid Belt.

This is a tantalizing discovery. Although the presence of water ice on the rocky objects of the asteroid belt has long been theorized, this is the first definitive detection and the first detection of a possible atmosphere on a Main Belt object. Further, the amount of water ice on Ceres may be greater than all the water on Earth.

The Herschel Space Observatory, operated by the European Space Agency until its planned shutdown last April, was the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space. Herschel’s cool-gas-and-dust-sensing infrared vision has been applied to a number of observing programs, one of which was to analyze the chemical composition of the surfaces and atmospheres of objects in the solar system, including planets, moons, comets, asteroids…and the dwarf planet Ceres.

Herschel made detections of water vapor on Ceres on several occasions, but interestingly not in all observations. The timings of the detections suggest that the water vapor is outgassing in periodic bursts (probably powered by heating when Ceres swings closer to the sun), and the source of outgassing may be localized to specific regions on its surface.

Herschel’s discovery comes at an opportune moment as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, en route from its last port of call, the asteroid Vesta, gets ready to rendezvous with Ceres. Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in the spring of 2015, so we don’t have to wait long to get a detailed, up close look at the source of the water vapor and the nature of Ceres’ probable atmosphere.

Vesta and Ceres, the two largest objects in the asteroid belt, are not only an asteroid and a dwarf planet. They are protoplanets: infant bodies that formed in the earliest times of the solar system, but whose processes of development were halted. Where other protoplanets continued to grow by drawing in more and more material and “snowballing” into full-fledged planethood, the growth of objects like Vesta and Ceres was stunted—but this turned out to be an advantage for us.

Similar to how fossils can tell us about life forms and environments that existed on Earth long ago, leftover protoplanets like Vesta and Ceres are time-capsules of information about conditions in the earliest times of the solar system. The presence of water on Ceres may also inform us of the role that water played in the early formation of planets like Earth.

Ceres has been an object of mystery and revelation as long as we’ve known about it. An astronomical chameleon, it has defied definitive classification not once, not twice, but perhaps three times. Discovered in 1801 orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres was originally thought to be another planet, but later downgraded to the status of the newly-created classification of “asteroid” when other, smaller objects were found orbiting the sun in its realm—sound familiar, Pluto?

Then in 2006 Ceres was reclassified again as a dwarf planet, along with former planet Pluto, Ceres’ kindred spirit in the Kuiper Belt. And now, with the discovery of water vapor and a possible thin atmosphere, Ceres is subtly–and unofficially–elevated to the likeness of a world, a quality earned by a celestial object when we learn of the existence of air and water.

In 2015, we’ll have a much clearer view of what a dwarf planet actually looks like. Not only will Dawn arrive at Ceres, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, after an almost ten year journey, will reach Pluto.

One Galaxy, Many Worlds: Scientists Announce ‘Planet Bonanza’

NASA has discovered hundreds of planets that orbit stars in solar systems similar to ours. (NASA)

NASA has discovered hundreds of planets that orbit stars in solar systems similar to ours. (NASA)

Earth is a little less lonely in the galaxy today. A NASA research team announced the discovery of 715 new planets, all orbiting with other planets around a star, much like our own solar system.

A critical piece of the research — the tool, in fact, that unleashed such a huge number of planets, so suddenly — comes from the Bay Area’s own NASA outpost, Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

“Today we announce a major step forward toward the ultimate goal,” said Doug Hudgins, NASA’s exoplanet exploration program scientist, “finding Earth 2.0. Finding another planet capable of fostering life.”

‘We’ve been able to open the bottleneck to access the motherlode.’

The discovery is the result of analysis from two years of the Kepler mission, the space observatory that launched in 2009 and is aimed at discovering other planets in the Milky Way galaxy.

The research team announced two other significant findings: 1) the majority of planets in our galaxy are small, between the size of Earth and the size of Neptune, and 2) planetary systems, in which multiple planets orbit around one star, are common in our galaxy.

Researchers said they are able to announce such a large number of planets at once because of a new technique for verifying planetary systems.

While the Kepler mission has found what Ames planetary scientist Jack Lissauer called a “motherlode” of astral bodies that could be planets, the process of verifying whether they are planets or stars has been lengthy, mostly involving hours and hours of time looking through telescopes.

Scientists as NASA's Ames Research Center are able to identify planetary systems more quickly  than they could before. (NASA)

Scientists as NASA’s Ames Research Center are able to identify planetary systems more quickly than they could before. (NASA)

“It’s been a real bottleneck,” Lissauer said.

But no longer. The research team announced today they have a new technique — developed at Ames — for verifying planetary systems that allows them to identify planets by the dozens, rather than one by one.

“We’ve been able to open the bottleneck to access the motherlode,” Lissauer said, “and deliver to you more than 20 times as many planets as have ever been found and announced at once, previously.”

The new technique involves probability theory and applied math, which is Lissauer’s bailiwick. In essence, it goes like this: About one percent of stars show the slight dimming that suggests something is orbiting around them. Statistically, only one percent of that one percent of stars should reasonably have more than one planet orbiting around them. But Kepler was spotting a few hundred stars with more than one body orbiting them, which is vastly, hugely, more potential planetary systems than should, statistically, exist.

So there must be a reason, Lissauer said.

Now, the other kind of body that could orbit a star is another star. But here’s the clue: Star systems are notoriously unstable.  A bunch of stars orbiting another star would look like the animation on the right of this video, which resembles the daily life of the average mom, but doesn’t at all resemble the stable planetary system of the animation on the left.

The research team put all this knowledge together with some advanced mathematics and data crunching on the Kepler observations, and out popped—a probability. A number indicating the statistical probability that Kepler was seeing a lot of star systems. It was a very, very low probability. Extremely low. Lower than the threshold required for certainty. It’s the kind of probability I mean when I say I’ll probably write my Christmas thank you notes this weekend: It’s so thoroughly improbable you can go to press with it.

Kepler was not seeing star systems; it was seeing planetary systems. These 715 newly identified planets, NASA researchers can now say, are orbiting around 305 stars, and four of those planets are in the habitable zone.

Here’s NPR’s story on the new planets:

“Four of the planets are about twice the size of Earth and orbit in their star’s so-called habitable zone,” NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce reports for our Newscast unit, “where temperatures might be suitable for liquid water.”

Researchers will now turn to the next two years of Kepler data, and expect to be able to announce hundreds more planets in future years.

Martian Meteorite May Contain Evidence of Past Life on Mars

Micro-tunnel features in the Y000593 Martian meteorite. (NASA/JPL)

Micro-tunnel features in the Y000593 Martian meteorite. (NASA/JPL)

Investigation of an ancient Martian meteorite has re-fueled a debate about evidence of possible past life on Mars.

A team of NASA scientists studying the meteorite Y000593, one of a growing number of meteorites chemically identified as having originated on Mars, has reported finding structural and compositional features that may have been formed by biological processes. The tantalizing features include micro-tunnel structures permeating the rock that resemble structures found in Earth basalts modified by the action of bacteria, and microscopic spherules sandwiched between rock layers that contain a richer concentration of carbon than in surrounding layers.

Analysis of Y000593 tells a story of its formation 1.3 billion years ago in a Martian lava flow, and of its forced ejection from Mars 12 million years ago by a major impact event. About 50,000 years ago the tale of this rock’s interplanetary voyage ended when it fell onto the Yamato Glacier in Antarctica, where it was discovered by a Japanese research expedition in 2000.

Are ancient Martians sending us messages in a bottle?

Message delivered?

The findings were published in the February issue of Astrobiology, authored by Lauren White of NASA/JPL with co-authors Everett Gibson, Kathie Thomas-Keptra, Simon Clemett and the late David McKay (NASA/Johnson Space Center). In 1996, members of the same team announced that they had discovered features of possible biogenic origin in another Martian meteorite, ALH84001. In both cases the authors are cautious in pointing out that they cannot rule out non-biological processes to account for the features–but in the light of other evidence from robotic missions indicating more Earthly conditions in Mars’ past the argument for Martian life is compelling.

Exploration of Mars by robots with capable arrays of scientific instruments has painted a detailed picture of a warmer, wetter environment on Mars long ago. As we learn more about how Earth-like the Martian environment may once have been, and also how quickly life first appeared and thrived in Earth’s primordial oceans, the question of life on Mars becomes ever more poignant.

One thing that no robotic mission has yet achieved is the return of Martian rock and soil samples to Earth for detailed laboratory analysis. So meteorites of Martian origin like Y000593 and ALH84001 represent a wealth of geological and chemical information that we presently cannot obtain in any other way. NASA has a sample-return mission on the books for future Mars exploration expeditions, but a bird in the hand….

The scientific debate over these rocks has less to do with the bigger question of life on Mars, and more to do with whether the features studied in these specific samples are evidence of it. Neither possibility—whether the features are biological or non-biological in origin—has been ruled out by the evidence, yet. How much a return sample mission to Mars targeting a chosen geological location, rather than meteorite samples blasted from who knows where, might tell us?

And how cool would it be to step off a spaceship onto Mars and set forth on a trek with a rock hammer and microscope? Field prospecting conducted by future humans exploring Mars won’t be quite that simplistic of course, but can you imagine being there in person, digging into a Martian rock with your pick and peering through a magnifier to see what’s there—what may have been left there, long ago, like a message whispered to you across time, through the living rock?