2006 Articles:

(Dateline: December 2006) Space Weather for Air Travelers

(Dateline: November 2006) Martian Devils

(Dateline: October 2006) The Planet In The Machine

(Dateline: September 2006) Staggering Distance

(Dateline: August 2006) Deadly Planets

(Dateline: July 2006) Celebrating 40 Years of Intent Listening

(Dateline: June 2006) From Thunderstorms to Solar Storms...

(Dateline: May 2006) Not a Moment Wasted

(Dateline: April 2006) Who Wants to be a Daredevil?

(Dateline: March 2006) Planets in Strange Places

(Dateline: February 2006) Micro-sats with Macro-potential

(Dateline: January 2006) Snowstorm on Pluto

Space Weather for Air Travelers

by Dr. Tony Phillips

At a time when much of the airline industry is struggling, one type of air travel is doing remarkably well: polar flights. In 1999, United Airlines made just twelve trips over the Arctic. By 2005, the number of flights had grown to 1,402. Other airlines report similar growth.

The reason for the increase is commerce. Business is booming along Asia’s Pacific Rim, and business travel is booming with it. On our spherical Earth, the shortest distance from Chicago to Beijing or New York to Tokyo is over the North Pole. Suddenly, business travelers are spending a lot of time in the Arctic.

With these new routes, however, comes a new concern: space weather.

"Solar storms have a big effect on polar regions of our planet," explains Steve Hill of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. Everyone knows about the Northern Lights, but there’s more to it than that: "When airplanes fly over the poles during solar storms, they can experience radio blackouts, navigation errors and computer reboots all caused by space radiation."

In 2005, United Airlines reported dozens of flights diverted from polar routes by nasty space weather. Delays ranged from 8 minutes to nearly 4 hours, and each unplanned detour burned expensive fuel. Money isn’t the only concern: Pilots and flight attendants who fly too often over the poles could absorb more radiation than is healthy. "This is an area of active research figuring out how much exposure is safe for flight crews," says Hill. "Clearly, less is better."

To help airlines avoid bad space weather, NOAA has begun equipping its GOES weather satellites with improved instruments to monitor the Sun. Recent additions to the fleet, GOES 12 and 13, carry X-ray telescopes that take spectacular pictures of sunspots, solar flares, and coronal holes spewing streams of solar wind in our direction. Other GOES sensors detect solar protons swarming around our planet, raising alarms when radiation levels become dangerous.

"Our next-generation satellite will be even better," says Hill. Slated for launch in 2014, GOES-R will be able to photograph the Sun through several different X-ray and ultra-violet filters. Each filter reveals a somewhat different layer of the Sun’s explosive atmosphere, a boon to forecasters. Also, advanced sensors will alert ground controllers to a variety of dangerous particles near Earth, including solar protons, heavy ions and galactic cosmic rays.

"GOES-R should substantially improve our space weather forecasts," says Hill. That means friendlier skies on your future trips to Tokyo.

For the latest space weather report, visit the website of the Space Weather Prediction Center at http://www.sec.noaa.gov . For more about the GOES-R series spacecraft, see http://goespoes.gsfc.nasa.gov/goes/spacecraft/r_spacecraft.html. For help in explaining geostationary orbits to kids, or anyone else, visit The Space Place at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/goes/goes_poes_orbits.shtml.

Caption: The shortest airline routes from the Eastern U.S. to popular destinations in Asia go very near the magnetic North Pole, where space weather is of greatest concern.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Martian Devils

Dr. Tony Phillips

Admit it. Whenever you see a new picture of Mars beamed back by Spirit or Opportunity, you scan the rocks to check for things peeking out of the shadows. A pair of quivering green antennas, perhaps, or a little furry creature crouched on five legs…? Looking for Martians is such a guilty pleasure.

Well, you can imagine the thrill in 2004 when scientists were checking some of those pictures and they did see something leap out. It skittered across the rocky floor of Gusev Crater and quickly disappeared. But it wasn’t a Martian; Spirit had photographed a dust devil!

Dust devils are tornadoes of dust. On a planet like Mars which is literally covered with dust, and where it never rains, dust devils are an important form of weather. Some Martian dust devils grow almost as tall as Mt. Everest, and researchers suspect they’re crackling with static electricity a form of Martian lightning.

NASA is keen to learn more. How strong are the winds? Do dust devils carry a charge? When does devil season begin and end? Astronauts are going to want to know the answers before they set foot on the red planet.

The problem is, these dusty twisters can be devilishly difficult to catch. Most images of Martian dust devils have been taken by accident, while the rovers were looking for other things. This catch-as-catch-can approach limits what researchers can learn.

No more! The two rovers have just gotten a boost of artificial intelligence to help them recognize and photograph dust devils. It comes in the form of new software, uploaded in July and activated in September 2006.

This software is based on techniques developed and tested as part of the NASA New Millennium Program’s Space Technology 6 project. Testing was done in Earth orbit onboard the EO-1 (Earth Observing-1) satellite, says Steve Chien, supervisor of JPL’s Artificial Intelligence Group. Scientists using EO-1 data were especially interested in dynamic events such as volcanoes erupting or sea ice breaking apart. So Chien and colleagues programmed the satellite to notice change. It worked beautifully: We measured a 100-fold increase in science results for transient events.

Now that the techniques have been tested in Earth orbit, they are ready to help Spirit and Opportunity catch dust devils or anything else that moves on Mars.

If we saw Martians, that would be great, laughs Chien. Even scientists have their guilty pleasures.

Find out more about the Space Technology 6 Autonomous Sciencecraft technology experiment at http://nmp.nasa.gov/st6/TECHNOLOGY/sciencecraft_tech.html, and the use of the technology on the Mars Rovers at http://nmp.nasa.gov/TECHNOLOGY/infusion.html. Kids can visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/nmp_action.shtml and do a New Millennium Program-like test at home to see if a familiar material would work well in space.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: The top half of this image is part of a series of images of a passing dust devil on Mars caught by Spirit. In the bottom half, the image has been filtered to remove everything that did not change from one image to the other. Notice the faint track left by the dust devil. Credit NASA/JPL/Mark T. Lemmon, Univ. of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

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The Planet In The Machine

By Diane K. Fisher and Tony Phillips

The story goes that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can, over time, cause a tornado in Kansas. The “butterfly effect” is a common term to evoke the complexity of interdependent variables affecting weather around the globe.  It alludes to the notion that small changes in initial conditions can cause wildly varying outcomes.

Now imagine millions of butterflies flapping their wings.  And flies and crickets and birds.  Now you understand why weather is so complex.

All kidding aside, insects are not in control.  The real “butterfly effect” is driven by, for example, global winds and ocean currents, polar ice (melting and freezing), clouds and rain, and blowing desert dust.  All these things interact with one another in bewilderingly complicated ways.

And then there’s the human race. If a butterfly can cause a tornado, what can humans cause with their boundlessly reckless disturbances of initial conditions?

Understanding how it all fits together is a relatively new field called Earth system science. Earth system scientists work on building and fine-tuning mathematical models (computer programs) that describe the complex inter-relationships of Earth’s carbon, water, energy, and trace gases as they are exchanged between the terrestrial biosphere and the atmosphere.  Ultimately, they hope to understand Earth as an integrated system, and model changes in climate over the next 50-100 years.  The better the models, the more accurate and detailed will be the image in the crystal ball.

NASA’s Earth System Science program provides real-world data for these models via a swarm of Earth-observing satellites.  The satellites, which go by names like Terra and Aqua, keep an eye on Earth’s land, biosphere, atmosphere, clouds, ice, and oceans.  The data they collect are crucial to the modeling efforts.

Some models aim to predict short-term effects—in other words, weather.  They may become part of severe weather warning systems and actually save lives. Other models aim to predict long-term effects—or climate.  But, long-term predictions are much more difficult and much less likely to be believed by the general population, since only time can actually prove or disprove their validity.  After all, small errors become large errors as the model is left to run into the future.  However, as the models are further validated with near- and longer-term data, and as different models converge on a common scenario, they become more and more trustworthy to show us the future while we can still do something about it—we hope.

For a listing and more information on each of NASA’s (and their partners’) Earth data-gathering missions, visit http://science.hq.nasa.gov/missions/earth.html.  Kids can get an easy introduction to Earth system science and play Earthy word games at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/earth/wordfind.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: CloudSat is one of the Earth observing satellites collecting data that will help develop and refine atmospheric circulation models and other types of weather and climate models. CloudSat’s unique radar system reads the vertical structure of clouds, including liquid water and ice content, and how clouds affect the distribution of the Sun’s energy in the atmosphere. See animation of this data simulation at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/calipso/multimedia/cloud_calip_mm.html.

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Staggering Distance

By Dr. Tony Phillips

Tonight, when the sun sets and the twilight fades to black, go outside and look southwest. There’s mighty Jupiter, gleaming brightly. It looks so nearby, yet Jupiter is 830 million km away. Light from the sun takes 43 minutes to reach the giant planet, and for Earth’s fastest spaceship, New Horizons, it’s a trip of 13 months.

That’s nothing.

Not far to the left of Jupiter is Pluto. Oh, you won’t be able to see it. Tiny Pluto is almost 5 billion km away. Sunlight takes more than 4 hours to get there, and New Horizons 9 years. From Pluto, the sun is merely the brightest star in a cold, jet-black sky.

That’s nothing.

A smidgen to the right of Pluto, among the stars of the constellation Ophiuchus, is Voyager 1. Launched from Florida 29 years ago, the spacecraft is a staggering 15 billion km away. It has traveled beyond all the known planets, beyond the warmth of the sun, almost beyond the edge of the solar system itself.

Now that’s something.

“On August 15, 2006, Voyager 1 reached the 100 AU mark—in other words, it is 100 times farther from the Sun than Earth,” says Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist and the former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is an important milestone in our exploration of the Solar System. No other spacecraft has gone so far.”

At 100 AU (astronomical units), Voyager 1 is in a strange realm called “the heliosheath.”

As Stone explains, our entire solar system—planets and all—sits inside a giant bubble of gas called the heliosphere. The sun is responsible; it blows the bubble by means of the solar wind. Voyager 1 has traveled all the way from the bubble’s heart to its outer edge, a gassy membrane dividing the solar system from interstellar space. This “membrane” is the heliosheath.

Before Voyager 1 reached its present location, researchers had calculated what the heliosheath might be like. “Many of our predictions were wrong,” says Stone. In situ, Voyager 1 has encountered unexpected magnetic anomalies and a surprising increase in low-energy cosmic rays, among other things. It’s all very strange—“and we’re not even out of the Solar System yet.”

To report new developments, Voyager radios Earth almost every day. At the speed of light, the messages take 14 hours to arrive. Says Stone, “it’s worth the wait.”

Keep up with the Voyager mission at http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov. To learn the language of Voyager’s messages, kids (of all ages) can check out http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/vgr_fact1.shtml.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: In case it is ever found by intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy, Voyager carries a recording of images and sounds of Earth and its inhabitants. The diagrams on the cover of the recording symbolize Earth’s location in the galaxy and how to play the record.

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Deadly Planets

By Patrick L. Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

About 900 light years from here, there's a rocky planet not much bigger than Earth. It goes around its star once every hundred days, a trifle fast, but not too different from a standard Earth-year. At least two and possibly three other planets circle the same star, forming a complete solar system.

Interested? Don't be. Going there would be the last thing you ever do.

The star is a pulsar, PSR 1257+12, the seething-hot core of a supernova that exploded millions of years ago. Its planets are bathed not in gentle, life-giving sunshine but instead a blistering torrent of X-rays and high-energy particles.

"It would be like trying to live next to Chernobyl," says Charles Beichman, a scientist at JPL and director of the Michelson Science Center at Caltech.

Our own sun emits small amounts of pulsar-like X-rays and high energy particles, but the amount of such radiation coming from a pulsar is "orders of magnitude more," he says. Even for a planet orbiting as far out as the Earth, this radiation could blow away the planet's atmosphere, and even vaporize sand right off the planet's surface.

Astronomer Alex Wolszczan discovered planets around PSR 1257+12 in the 1990s using Puerto Rico’s giant Arecibo radio telescope. At first, no one believed worlds could form around pulsars—it was too bizarre. Supernovas were supposed to destroy planets, not create them. Where did these worlds come from?

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope may have found the solution. Last year, a group of astronomers led by Deepto Chakrabarty of MIT pointed the infrared telescope toward pulsar 4U 0142+61. Data revealed a disk of gas and dust surrounding the central star, probably wreckage from the supernova. It was just the sort of disk that could coalesce to form planets!

As deadly as pulsar planets are, they might also be hauntingly beautiful. The vaporized matter rising from the planets' surfaces could be ionized by the incoming radiation, creating colorful auroras across the sky. And though the pulsar would only appear as a tiny dot in the sky (the pulsar itself is only 20-40 km across), it would be enshrouded in a hazy glow of light emitted by radiation particles as they curve in the pulsar's strong magnetic field.

Wasted beauty? Maybe. Beichman points out the positive: "It's an awful place to try and form planets, but if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere."

More news and images from Spitzer can be found at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/. In addition, The Space Place Web site features a cartoon talk show episode starring Michelle Thaller, a scientist on Spitzer. Go to http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/live/ for a great place to introduce kids to infrared and the joys of astronomy.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Artist’s concept of a pulsar and surrounding disk of rubble called a “fallback” disk, out of which new planets could form.

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Celebrating 40 Years of Intent Listening

By Diane K. Fisher

In nature, adjacent animals on the food chain tend to evolve together. As coyotes get sneakier, rabbits get bigger ears. Hearing impaired rabbits die young. Clumsy coyotes starve. So each species pushes the other to “improve.”

The technologies pushing robotic space exploration have been like that. Improvements in the supporting communications and data processing infrastructure on the ground (the “ears” of the scientists) have allowed spacecraft to go farther, be smaller and smarter, and send increasingly faint signals back to Earth—and with a fire hose instead of a squirt gun.

Since 1960, improvements in NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) of radio wave antennas have made possible the improvements and advances in the robotic spacecraft they support.

“In 1964, when Mariner IV flew past Mars and took a few photographs, the limitation of the communication link meant that it took eight hours to return to Earth a single photograph from the Red Planet. By 1989, when Voyager observed Neptune, the DSN capability had increased so much that almost real-time video could be received from the much more distant Planet, Neptune,” writes William H. Pickering, Director of JPL from 1954 to 1976, in his Foreword to the book, Uplink-Downlink: A History of the Deep Space Network, 1957-1997, by Douglas J. Mudgway.

Mudgway, an engineer from Australia, was involved in the planning and construction of the first 64-m DSN antenna, which began operating in the Mojave Desert in Goldstone, California, in 1966. This antenna, dubbed “Mars,” was so successful from the start, that identical 64-m antennas were constructed at the other two DSN complexes in Canberra, Australia, and Madrid, Spain.

As Mudgway noted in remarks made during the recent observance of the Mars antenna’s 40 years of service, “In no time at all, the flight projects were competing with radio astronomy, radio science, radar astronomy, SETI [Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence], geodynamics, and VLBI [Very Long Baseline Interferometry] for time on the antenna . . . It was like a scientific gold rush.”

In 1986 began an ambitious upgrade program to improve the antenna’s performance even further. Engineering studies had shown that if the antenna’s diameter were increased to 70 m and other improvements were made, the antenna’s performance could be improved by a factor of 1.6. Thus it was that all three 64-m DSN antennas around the world became 70-m antennas. Improvements have continued throughout the years.

“This antenna has played a key role in almost every United States planetary mission since 1966 and quite a few international space missions as well. Together with its twins in Spain and Australia, it has been a key element in asserting America’s pre-eminence in the scientific exploration of the solar system,” remarks Mudgway.

Find out more about the DSN and the history of the Mars antenna at http://deepspace.jpl.nasa.gov/dsn/features/40years.html. Kids (and grownups) can learn how pictures are sent through space at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/phonedrmarc/2003_august.shtml.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: For over 40 years, the “Mars” 70-m Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, has vigilantly listened for tiny signals from spacecraft that are billions of miles away.

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From Thunderstorms to Solar Storms...

By Patrick L. Barry

When severe weather occurs, there's a world of difference for people on the ground between a storm that's overhead and one that's several kilometers away. Yet current geostationary weather satellites can be as much as 3 km off in pinpointing the true locations of storms.

A new generation of weather satellites will boost this accuracy by 2 to 4 times. The first in this new installment of NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites series, called GOES-N, was launched May 24 by NASA and Boeing for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). (A new polar-orbiting weather satellite, NOAA-18, was launched May 2005.)

Along with better accuracy at pinpointing storms, GOES-N sports a raft of improvements that will enhance our ability to monitor the weather—both normal, atmospheric weather and “space weather.”

“Satellites eventually wear out or get low on fuel, so we've got to launch new weather satellites every few years if we want to keep up the continuous eye on weather that NOAA has maintained for more than 30 years now,” says Thomas Wrublewski, liaison officer for NOAA at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Currently, GOES-N is in a “parking” orbit at 90° west longitude over the equator. For the next 6 months it will remain there while NASA thoroughly tests all its systems. If all goes well, it will someday replace one of the two active GOES satellites—either the eastern satellite (75°W) or the western one (135°W), depending on the condition of those satellites at the time.

Unlike all previous GOES satellites, GOES-N carries star trackers aboard to precisely determine its orientation in space. Also for the first time, the storm-tracking instruments have been mounted to an “optical bench,” which is a very stable platform that resists thermal warping. These two improvements will let scientists say with 2 to 4 times greater accuracy exactly where storms are located.

Also, X-ray images of the Sun taken by GOES-N will be about twice as sharp as before. The new Solar X-ray Imager (SXI) will also automatically identify solar flares as they happen, instead of waiting for a scientist on the ground to analyze the images. Flares affect space weather, triggering geomagnetic storms that can damage communications satellites and even knock out city power grids. The improved imaging and detection of solar flares by GOES-N will allow for earlier warnings.

So for thunderstorms and solar storms alike, GOES-N will be an even sharper eye in the sky.

Find out more about GOES-N at goespoes.gsfc.nasa.gov/goes . Also, for young people, the SciJinks Weather Laboratory at scijinks.nasa.gov now includes a printable booklet titled “How Do You Make a Weather Satellite?” Just click on Technology.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: New GOES-N satellite launches, carrying an imaging radiometer, an atmospheric sounder, and a collection of other space environment monitoring instruments.

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Not a Moment Wasted

By Dr. Tony Phillips

The Ring Nebula. Check. M13. Check. Next up: The Whirlpool galaxy.

You punch in the coordinates and your telescope takes off, slewing across the sky. You tap your feet and stare at the stars. These Messier marathons would go much faster if the telescope didn’t take so long to slew. What a waste of time!

Don’t tell that to the x-ray astronomers.

“We’re putting our slew time to good use,” explains Norbert Schartel, project scientist for the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton x-ray telescope. The telescope, named for Sir Isaac Newton, was launched into Earth orbit in 1999. It’s now midway through an 11-year mission to study black holes, neutron stars, active galaxies and other violent denizens of the Universe that show up particularly well at x-ray wavelengths.

For the past four years, whenever XMM-Newton slewed from one object to another, astronomers kept the telescope’s cameras running, recording whatever might drift through the field of view. The result is a stunning survey of the heavens covering 15% of the entire sky.

Sifting through the data, ESA astronomers have found entire clusters of galaxies unknown before anyone started paying attention to “slew time.” Some already-known galaxies have been caught in the act of flaring—a sign, researchers believe, of a central black hole gobbling matter from nearby stars and interstellar clouds. Here in our own galaxy, the 20,000 year old Vela supernova remnant has been expanding. XMM-Newton has slewed across it many times, tracing its changing contours in exquisite detail.

The slew technique works because of XMM-Newton’s great sensitivity. It has more collecting area than any other x-ray telescope in the history of astronomy. Sources flit through the field of view in only 10 seconds, but that’s plenty of time in most cases to gather valuable data.

The work is just beginning. Astronomers plan to continue the slew survey, eventually mapping as much as 80% of the entire sky. No one knows how many new clusters will be found or how many black holes might be caught gobbling their neighbors. One thing’s for sure: “There will be new discoveries,” says Schartel.

Tap, tap, tap. The next time you’re in the backyard with your telescope, and it takes off for the Whirlpool galaxy, don’t just stand there. Try to keep up with the moving eyepiece. Look, you never know what might drift by.

See some of the other XMM-Newton images at http://sci.esa.int . For more about XMM-Newton’s Education and Public Outreach program, including downloadable classroom materials, go to http://xmm.sonoma.edu. Kids can learn about black holes and play “Black Hole Rescue” at The Space Place, http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/, under “Games.”

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: The image on the left is the Vela Supernova Remnant as imaged in X-rays by ROSAT. On the right are some of the slew images obtained by XMM-Newton in its “spare” time.

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Who Wants to be a Daredevil?

By Patrick L. Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

When exploring space, NASA naturally wants to use all the newest and coolest technologies—artificial intelligence, solar sails, onboard supercomputers, exotic materials.

But “new” also means unproven and risky, and that could be a problem. Remember HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”? The rebellious computer clearly needed some pre-flight testing.

Testing advanced technologies in space is the mission of the New Millennium Program (NMP), created by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in 1995 and run by JPL.  Like the daredevil test pilots of the 1950s who would fly the latest jet technology, NMP flies new technologies in space to see if they're ready for prime time.  That way, future missions can use the technologies with much less risk.

Example: In 1999, the program’s Deep Space 1 probe tested a system called “AutoNav,” short for Autonomous Navigation. AutoNav used artificial intelligence to steer the spacecraft without human intervention. It worked so well that elements of AutoNav were installed on a real mission, Deep Impact, which famously blasted a crater in Comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005. Without AutoNav, the projectile would have completely missed the comet.

Some NMP technologies “allow us to do things that we literally could not do before,” says Jack Stocky, Chief Technologist for NMP.  Dozens of innovative technologies tested by NMP will lead to satellites and space probes that are smaller, lighter, more capable and even cheaper than those of today.

Another example: An NMP test mission called Space Technology 9, which is still in the planning phase, may test-fly a solar sail.  Solar sails use the slight pressure of sunlight itself, instead of heavy fuels, to propel a spacecraft.  Two proposed NASA missions would be possible only with dependable solar sails—L1 Diamond and Solar Polar Imager—both of which would use solar sails to fly spacecraft that would study the Sun.

“The technologies that we validate have future missions that need them,” Stocky says.  “We try to target [missions] that are about 15 to 20 years out.”

A menagerie of other cool NMP technologies include ion thrusters, hyperspectral imagers, and miniaturized electronics for spacecraft navigation and control.  NMP focuses on technologies that have been proven in the laboratory but must be tested in the extreme cold, vacuum, and high radiation environment of space, which can’t be fully recreated in the lab.

New NMP missions fly every year and one-half to two years, taking tomorrow’s space technology for a daredevil test drive.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Artist’s rendering of a four-quadrant solar sail propulsion system, with payload. NASA is designing and developing such concepts, a sub-scale model of which may be tested on a future NMP mission.

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Planets in Strange Places

By Trudy E. Bell

Red star, blue star, big star, small star—planets may form around virtually any type or size of star throughout the universe, not just around mid-sized middle-aged yellow stars like the Sun. That’s the surprising implication of two recent discoveries from the 0.85-meter-diameter Spitzer Space Telescope, which is exploring the universe from orbit at infrared (heat) wavelengths blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.

At one extreme are two blazing, blue “hypergiant” stars 180,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the two companion galaxies to our Milky Way. The stars, called R 66 and R 126, are respectively 30 and 70 times the mass of the Sun, “about as massive as stars can get,” said Joel Kastner, professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. R 126 is so luminous that if it were placed 10 parsecs (32.6 light-years) away—a distance at which the Sun would be one of the dimmest stars visible in the sky—the hypergiant would be as bright as the full moon, “definitely a daytime object,” Kastner remarked.

Such hot stars have fierce solar winds, so Kastner and his team are mystified why any dust in the neighborhood hasn’t long since been blown away. But there it is: an unmistakable spectral signature that both hypergiants are surrounded by mammoth disks of what might be planet-forming dust and even sand.

At the other extreme is a tiny brown dwarf star called Cha 110913-773444, relatively nearby (500 light-years) in the Milky Way. One of the smallest brown dwarfs known, it has less than 1 percent the mass of the Sun. It’s not even massive enough to kindle thermonuclear reactions for fusing hydrogen into helium. Yet this miniature “failed star,” as brown dwarfs are often called, is also surrounded by a flat disk of dust that may eventually clump into planets. (Note: This brown dwarf discovery was made by a group led by Kevin Luhman of Pennsylvania State University.)

Although actual planets have not been detected (in part because of the stars’ great distances), the spectra of the hypergiants show that their dust is composed of forsterite, olivine, aromatic hydrocarbons, and other geological substances found on Earth.

These newfound disks represent “extremes of the environments in which planets might form,” Kastner said. “Not what you’d expect if you think our solar system is the rule. ”Hypergiants and dwarfs? The Milky Way could be crowded with worlds circling every kind of star imaginable—very strange, indeed.

Keep up with the latest findings from the Spitzer at www.spitzer.caltech.edu/. For kids, the Infrared Photo Album at The Space Place (spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/sirtf1/sirtf_action.shtml) introduces the electromagnetic spectrum and compares the appearance of common scenes in visible versus infrared light.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: Artist’s rendering compares size of a hypothetical hypergiant star and its surrounding dusty disk to that of our solar system.

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Micro-sats with Macro-potential

By Patrick L. Barry

Future space telescopes might not consist of a single satellite such as Hubble, but a constellation of dozens or even hundreds of small satellites, or “micro-sats,” operating in unison.

Such a swarm of little satellites could act as one enormous telescope with a mirror as large as the entire constellation, just as arrays of Earth-bound radio telescopes do.  It could also last for a long time, because damage to one micro-sat wouldn’t ruin the whole space telescope; the rest of the swarm could continue as if nothing had happened.

And that’s just one example of the cool things that micro-sats could do.  Plus, micro-sats are simply smaller and lighter than normal satellites, so they’re much cheaper to launch into space.

In February, NASA plans to launch its first experimental micro-sat mission, called Space Technology 5.  As part of the New Millennium Program, ST5 will test out the crucial technologies needed for micro-sats—such as miniature thrust and guidance systems—so that future missions can use those technologies dependably.

Measuring only 53 centimeters (20 inches) across and weighing a mere 25 kilograms (55 pounds), each of the three micro-sats for ST5 resembles a small television in size and weight. Normal satellites can be as large and heavy as a school bus.

”ST5 will also gather scientific data, helping scientists explore Earth’s magnetic field and space weather,” says James Slavin, Project Scientist for ST5.

Slavin suggests some other potential uses for micro-sats:

A cluster of micro-sats between the Earth and the Sun—spread out in space like little sensor buoys floating in the ocean—could sample incoming waves of high-speed particles from an erupting solar flare, thus giving scientists hours of warning of the threat posed to city power grids and communications satellites. 

Or perhaps a string of micro-sats, flying single file in low-Earth orbit, could take a series of snapshots of violent thunderstorms as each micro-sat in the “train” passes over the storm.  This technology would combine the continuous large-scale storm monitoring of geosynchronous weather satellites—which orbit far from the Earth at about 36,000 kilometers’ altitude—with the up-close, highly detailed view of satellites only 400 kilometers overhead.

If ST5 is successful, these little satellites could end up playing a big role in future exploration.

The ST5 Web site at nmp.jpl.nasa.gov/st5 has the details. Kids can have fun with ST5 at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov, by just typing ST5 in the site’s Find It field.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: The Space Technology 5 mission will test crucial micro-satellite technologies.

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Snowstorm on Pluto

by Dr. Tony Phillips

There’s a nip in the air. Outside it’s beginning to snow, the first fall of winter. A few delicate flakes tumble from the sky, innocently enough, but this is no mere flurry.

Soon the air is choked with snow, falling so fast and hard it seems to pull the sky down with it. Indeed, that’s what happens. Weeks later when the storm finally ends the entire atmosphere is gone. Every molecule of air on your planet has frozen and fallen to the ground.

That was a snowstorm—on Pluto.

Once every year on Pluto (1 Pluto-year = 248 Earth-years), around the beginning of winter, it gets so cold that the atmosphere freezes. Air on Pluto is made mainly of nitrogen with a smattering of methane and other compounds. When the temperature dips to about 32 K (-240 C), these molecules crystallize and the atmosphere comes down.

“The collapse can happen quite suddenly,” says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. “Snow begins to fall, the surface reflects more sunlight, forcing quicker cooling, accelerating the snowfall. It can all be over in a few weeks or months.”

Researchers believe this will happen sometime during the next 10 to 20 years. Pluto is receding from the warmth of the Sun, carried outward by its 25% elliptical orbit. Winter is coming.

So is New Horizons. Stern is lead scientist for the robotic probe, which left Earth in January bound for Pluto. In 2015 New Horizons will become the first spacecraft to visit that distant planet. The question is, will it arrive before the snowstorm?

“We hope so,” says Stern. The spacecraft is bristling with instruments designed to study Pluto’s atmosphere and surface. “But we can’t study the atmosphere if it’s not there.” Furthermore, a layer of snow on the ground (“probably a few centimeters deep,” estimates Stern) could hide the underlying surface from New Horizon’s remote sensors.

Stern isn’t too concerned: “Pluto’s atmosphere was discovered in 1988 when astronomers watched the planet pass in front of a distant star—a stellar occultation.” The star, instead of vanishing abruptly at Pluto’s solid edge, faded slowly. Pluto was “fuzzy;” it had air. “Similar occultations observed since then (most recently in 2002) reveal no sign of [impending] collapse,” says Stern. On the contrary, the atmosphere appears to be expanding, puffed up by lingering heat from Pluto’s waning summer.

Nevertheless, it’s a good thing New Horizons is fast, hurtling toward Pluto at 30,000 mph. Winter. New Horizons. Only one can be first. The race is on….

Find out more about the New Horizons mission at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu. Kids can learn amazing facts about Pluto at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/pluto.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Caption: This artist’s rendering shows how Pluto and two of its possible three moons might look from the surface of the third moon. Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STSci)

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