2009 Articles:

(Dateline: December 2009) Sunglasses for a Solar Observatory

(Dateline: November 2009) A Cosmic Crash

(Dateline: October 2009) Staring at Lightning

(Dateline: September 2009) Spitzer, the Sequel

(Dateline: August 2009) A Planet Named Easterbunny?

(Dateline: July 2009) SARSAT to the Rescue

(Dateline: June 2009) The Cool Chemistry of Alien Life

(Dateline: May 2009) Scoring More Energy from Less Sunlight

(Dateline: April 2009) The Swiss Army Knife of Weather Satellites

(Dateline: March 2009) Apollo Upgrade

(Dateline: February 2009) Where Did All These Gadgets Come From?!

(Dateline: January 2009) Severe Space Weather

Sunglasses for a Solar Observatory

by Patrick Barry

In December 2006, an enormous solar flare erupted on the Sun’s surface. The blast hurled a billion-ton cloud of gas (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) toward Earth and sparked days of intense geomagnetic activity with Northern Lights appearing across much of the United States.

While sky watchers enjoyed the show from Earth's surface, something ironic was happening in Earth orbit.

At the onset of the storm, the solar flare unleashed an intense pulse of X-rays. The flash blinded the Solar X-Ray Imager (SXI) on NOAA's GOES-13 satellite, damaging several rows of pixels. SXI was designed to monitor solar flares, but it must also be able to protect itself in extreme cases.

That’s why NASA engineers gave the newest Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite a new set of sophisticated "sunglasses." The new GOES-14 launched June 27 and reached geosynchronous orbit July 8.

Its "sunglasses" are a new flight-software package that will enable the SXI sensor to observe even intense solar flares safely. Radiation from these largest flares can endanger military and civilian communications satellites, threaten astronauts in orbit, and even knock out cities’ power grids. SXI serves as an early warning system for these flares and helps scientists better understand what causes them.

"We wanted to protect the sensor from overexposure, but we didn’t want to shield it so much that it couldn’t gather data when a flare is occurring," says Cynthia Tanner, SXI instrument systems manager for the GOES-NOP series at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (GOES-14 was called GOES-O before achieving orbit).

Shielding the sensor from X-rays also reduces the amount of data it can gather about the flare. It’s like stargazing with dark sunglasses on. So NASA engineers must strike a balance between protecting the sensor and gathering useful data.

When a dangerous flare occurs, the new SXI sensor can protect itself with five levels of gradually "darker" sunglasses. Each level is a combination of filters and exposure times carefully calibrated to control the sensor’s exposure to harmful high-energy X-rays.

As the blast of X-rays from a major solar flare swells, GOES-14 can step up the protection for SXI through these five levels. The damaged sensor on GOES-13 had only two levels of protection - low and high. Rather than gradually increasing the amount of protection, the older sensor would remain at the low level of protection, switching to the high level only when the X-ray dose was very high.

"You can collect more science while you’re going up through the levels of protection," Tanner says. "We’ve really fine-tuned it."

Forecasters anticipate a new solar maximum in 2012-2013, with plenty of sunspots and even more solar flares. "GOES-14 is ready," says Tanner.

For a great kid-level explanation of solar "indigestion" and space weather, check out http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/goes/spaceweather/

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

Caption: X-9 class solar flare December 6, 2006, as seen by GOES-13’s Solar X-ray Imager. It was one of the strongest flares in the past 30 years.

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A Cosmic Crash

by Patrick Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

Two small planets hurtle toward each other at 22,000 miles per hour. They’re on a collision course. With unimaginable force, they smash into each other in a flash of light, blasting streams of molten rock far out into space.

This cataclysmic scene has happened countless times in countless solar systems. In fact, scientists think that such collisions could have created Earth’s moon, tilted Uranus on its side, set Venus spinning backward, and sheared the crust off Mercury.

But witnessing such a short-lived collision while pointing your telescope in just the right direction would be a tremendous stroke of luck. Well, astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer space telescope recently got lucky.

"It’s unusual to catch such a collision in the act, that’s for sure," said Geoffrey Bryden, A cosmic Crashspitzer - an astronomer specializing in extrasolar planet formation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the science team that made the discovery.

When Bryden and his colleagues pointed Spitzer at a star 100 light-years away called HD 172555, they noticed something strange. Patterns in the spectrum of light coming from nearby the star showed distinctive signs of silicon monoxide gas - huge amounts of it - as well as a kind of volcanic rock called tektite.

It was like discovering the wreckage from a cosmic car crash. The silicon monoxide was produced as the high-speed collision literally vaporized huge volumes of rock, which is made largely of silicon and oxygen. The impact also blasted molten lava far out into space, where it later cooled to form chunks of tektite. Based on the amount of silicon monoxide and tektites, Bryden’s team calculated that the colliding planetary bodies must have had a combined mass more than twice that of Earth’s moon. The collision probably happened between 1,000 and 100,000 years ago - a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.

The scientists used the Spitzer space telescope because, unlike normal telescopes, Spitzer detects light at invisible, infrared wavelengths.

"Spitzer wavelengths are the best wavelengths to identify types of rock," Bryden says. "You can pin down which type of rock, dust, or gas you’re looking at."

Bryden says the discovery provides further evidence that planet-altering collisions are more common in other star systems than people once thought. The "crash-bang" processes at work in our own solar system may indeed be universal. If so, Spitzer has a front row seat on a truly smashing show.

See Spitzer Space Telescope’s brand new Web site at http://spitzer.caltech.edu/

Kids can learn about infrared light and see beautiful Spitzer images by playing the new Spitzer Concentration game at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration

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 cosmic collision involving two objects whose combined mass was at least twice that of our Moon. Discovered using the Spitzer Space Telescope in the planetary system of a star called HD 172555 100 light-years away.

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Staring at Lightning

There’s something mesmerizing about watching a thunderstorm. You stare at the dark, dramatic clouds waiting for split-second bursts of brilliant light - intricate bolts of lightning spidering across the sky. Look away at the wrong time and (FLASH!) you miss it.

Lightning is much more than just a beautiful spectacle, though. It’s a window into the heart of the storm, and it could even provide clues about climate change.

Strong vertical motions within a storm cloud help generate the electricity that powers lightning. These updrafts are caused when warm, moist air rises. Because warmth and lightning are inextricably connected, tracking long-term changes in lightning frequency could reveal the progress of climate change.

It’s one of many reasons why scientists want to keep an unwavering eye on lightning. The best way to do that? With a satellite 35,800 km overhead.

At that altitude, satellites orbit at just the right speed to remain over one spot on the Earth’s surface while the planet rotates around its axis - a "geostationary" orbit. NASA and NOAA scientists are working on an advanced lightning sensor called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) that will fly onboard the next generation geostationary operational environmental satellite, called GOES-R, slated to launch around 2015.

"GLM will give us a constant, eye-in-the-sky view of lightning over a wide portion of the Earth," says Steven Goodman, NOAA chief scientist for GOES-R at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Once GLM sensors are flying on GOES-R and its sister GOES-S, that view will extend 18,000 km from New Zealand, east across the Pacific Ocean, across the Americas, and to Africa’s western coast.

With this hemisphere-scale view, scientists will gather an unprecedented amount of data on how lightning varies from place to place, year to year, and even decade to decade. Existing lightning sensors are either on the ground - which limits their geographic range - or on satellites that orbit much closer to Earth. These satellites circle the Earth every 90 minutes or so, quickly passing over any one area, which can leave some awkward gaps in the data.

Goodman explains: "Low-Earth orbit satellites observe a location such as Florida for only a minute at a time. Many of these storms occur in the late afternoon, and if the satellite’s not overhead at that time, you’re going to miss it."

GLM, on the other hand, won't miss a thing. Indeed, in just two weeks of observations, GLM is expected gather more data than NASA’s two low-Earth orbiting research sensors did in 10+ years.

The new data will have many uses beyond understanding climate change. For example, wherever lightning flashes are abundant, scientists can warn aircraft pilots of strong turbulence. The data may also offer new insights into the evolution of storms and prompt improvements in severe weather forecasting.

(FLASH!) Did you miss another one? The time has come for GLM.

Want to know how to build a weather satellite? Check the "how to" booklet at http://scijinks.jpl.nasa.gov//weather/technology/build_satellite/

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 Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) on the next generation of GOES satellites will detect the very rapid and transient bursts of light produced by lightning at near-infrared wavelengths. This image was taken from the International Space Station and shows the Aurora Australis and lightning.

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Spitzer, the Sequel

The Spitzer Space Telescope is getting a second chance at life.

The liquid helium "lifeblood" that flows through the telescope has finally run out, bringing Spitzer's primary mission to an end. But a new phase of this infrared telescope's exploration of the universe is just beginning.

Even without liquid helium, which cooled the telescope to about 2 degrees above absolute zero (-271°C), Spitzer will continue to do important research - some of which couldn't easily be done during its primary mission. For example, scientists will use Spitzer's "second life" to explore the rate of expansion of the universe, study variable stars, and search for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet.

"We always knew that a 'warm phase' of the mission was a possibility, but it became ever more exciting scientifically as we started to plan for it seriously," says JPL's Michael Werner, Project Scientist for Spitzer. "Spitzer is just going on and on like the Energizer bunny."

Launched in August 2003 as the last of NASA's four Great Observatories, Spitzer specializes in observing infrared light, which is invisible to normal, optical telescopes.

That gives Spitzer the power to see relatively dark, cool objects such as planet-forming discs or nearby asteroids. These objects are too cold to emit light at visible wavelengths, but they're still warm enough to emit infrared light.

In fact, all warm objects "glow" with infrared light - even telescopes. That's why Spitzer had to be cooled with liquid helium to such a low temperature. Otherwise, it would be blinded by its own infrared glow.

As the helium expires, Spitzer will warm to about 30 degrees above absolute zero (-243°C). At that temperature, the telescope will begin emitting long-wavelength infrared light, but two of its short-wavelength sensors will still work perfectly.

And with more telescope time available for the remaining sensors, mission managers can more easily schedule new research proposals designed for those sensors. For example, scientists have recently realized how to use infrared observations to improve our measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe. And interest in tracking near-Earth objects has grown in recent years - a task for which Spitzer is well suited.

"Science has progressed, and people always have new ideas," Werner says. In its second life, Spitzer will help turn those ideas into new discoveries.

For kids, The Space Place Web site has a fun typing game using Spitzer and infrared astronomy words. Check it out at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/signs/

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 "warm mission" of the Spitzer Space Telescope will still be able to use two sensors in its Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) to continue its observations of the infrared universe.

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A Planet Named Easterbunny?

You know Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. But how about their smaller cousins Eris, Ceres, Orcus, and Makemake? How about Easterbunny?

These are all names given to relatively large "planet-like" objects recently found in the outer reaches of our solar system. Some were just temporary nicknames, others are now official and permanent. Each has a unique story.

"The names we chose are important," says Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, who had a hand in many of the discoveries. "These objects are a part of our solar system; they're in our neighborhood. We ‘gravitate’ to them more if they have real names, instead of technical names like 2003 UB313."

Nearby planets such as Venus and Mars have been known since antiquity and were named by the ancient Romans after their gods. In modern times, though, who gets to name newly discovered dwarf planets and other important solar-system bodies?

In short, whoever finds it names it. For example, a few days after Easter 2005, Brown and his colleagues discovered a bright dwarf planet orbiting in the Kuiper belt. The team’s informal nickname for this new object quickly became Easterbunny.

However, ever since its formation in 1919, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) ultimately decides whether to accept or reject the name suggested by an object’s discoverers. "Easterbunny" probably wouldn’t be approved.

According to IAU guidelines, comets are named after whoever discovered them - such as comet Hale-Bopp, named after its discoverers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp. Asteroids can be named almost anything. IAU rules state that objects in the Kuiper belt should be given mythological names related to creation.

So Brown’s team started brainstorming. They considered several Easter-esque names: Eostre, the pagan mythological figure that may be Easter’s namesake; Manabozho, the Algonquin rabbit trickster god.

In the end, they settled on Makemake (pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay), the creator of humanity in the mythology of Easter Island, so named because Europeans first arrived there on Easter 1722.

Other names have other rationales. The dwarf planet discovered in 2005 that triggered a fierce debate over Pluto’s status was named Eris, for the Greek goddess of strife and discord. Another dwarf planet with an orbit that mirrors Pluto’s was dubbed Orcus, a god in Etruscan mythology that, like Pluto, ruled the underworld.

Brown says he takes "this naming business" very seriously and probably spends too much time on it. "But I enjoy it." More tales of discovery and naming may be found in Brown's blog at http://www.mikebrownsplanets.com/

Constellations have also been named after ancient gods, human figures, and animals. Kids can start to learn their constellations by making a Star Finder for this month at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/st6starfinder/st6starfinder.shtml

There you will also find a handy explanation of why astrology has no place in science.

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 dwarf planet MakeMake, discovered around Easter 2005. Unlikely to gain acceptance their nickname Easterbunny, the discoverers named it for the god of humanity in the mythology of Easter Island.

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SARSAT to the Rescue

If a plane crashes in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Never mind contemplating this scenario as a philosophical riddle. This can be a real life or death question. And the answer most of the time is that, even if no people are nearby, "something" is indeed listening high above.

That something is a network of satellites orbiting about 450 miles overhead. The "sound" they hear isn’t the crash itself, but a distress signal from a radio beacon carried by many modern ships, aircraft, and even individual people venturing into remote wildernesses.

In the last 25 years, more than 25,000 lives have been saved using the satellite response system called Search and Rescue Satellite-aided Tracking (SARSAT). So what are these life-saving superhero satellites?

Why, they are mild-mannered weather satellites.

"These satellites do double duty," says Mickey Fitzmaurice, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) systems engineer for SARSAT. "Their primary purpose is to gather continuous weather data, of course. But while they’re up there, they might as well be listening for distress signals too."

In February, NASA launched the newest of these Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (or POES) into orbit. This new satellite, called N-Prime at launch and now dubbed NOAA-19, prevents a gap in this satellite network as another, aging NOAA satellite reached the end of its operational life.

"The launch of N-Prime was a big deal for us," Fitzmaurice says. With N-Prime/NOAA-19 in place, there are now six satellites in this network. Amongst them, they pass over every place on Earth, on average, about once an hour.

To pinpoint the location of an injured explorer, a sinking ship, or a downed plane, POES use the same Doppler effect that causes a car horn to sound higher-pitched when the car is moving toward you than it sounds after it passes by.

In a similar way, POES "hear" a higher frequency when they’re moving toward the source of the distress signal, and a lower frequency when they’ve already passed overhead. It takes only three distress-signal bursts - each about 50 seconds apart - to determine the source’s location.

Complementing the POES are the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), which, besides providing weather data, continuously monitor the Western Hemisphere for distress signals. Since their geostationary orbit leaves them motionless with respect to Earth below, there is no Doppler effect to pinpoint location. However, they do provide near instantaneous notification of distress signals.

In the future, the network will be expanded by putting receivers on new Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, Fitzmaurice says. "We want to be able to locate you after just one burst." With GPS, GOES will also be able to provide the location of the transmitter.

Philosophers beware: SARSAT is making "silent crashes" a thing of the past.

Download a two-page summary of NOAA-19 at http://www.osd.noaa.gov/POES/NOAA-NP_Fact_Sheet.pdf

Also, the Wild Weather Adventure game awaits kids at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/goes/wwa/

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

Caption: NOAA's polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, along with Russia's Cospas spacecraft, are part of the sophisticated, international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System.

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The Cool Chemistry of Alien Life

Alien life on distant worlds. What would it be like? For millennia people could only wonder, but now NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is producing some hard data. It turns out that life around certain kinds of stars would likely be very different from life as we know it.

Using Spitzer, astronomers have discovered the organic chemical acetylene in the planet-forming discs surrounding 17 M-dwarf stars. It’s the first time any chemical has been detected around one of these small, cool stars. However, scientists are more intrigued by what was not there: a chemical called hydrogen cyanide (HCN), an important building block for life as we know it.

"The fact that we do not detect hydrogen cyanide around cool stars suggests that that prebiotic chemistry may unfold differently on planets orbiting cool stars," says Ilaria Pascucci, lead scientist for the Spitzer observations and an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

That’s because HCN is the basic component for making adenine, one of the four information-carrying chemicals in DNA. All known life on Earth is based on DNA, but without adenine available, life in a dwarf-star solar system would have to make do without it. "You cannot make adenine in another way," Pascucci explains. "You need hydrogen cyanide."

M-dwarf and brown dwarf stars emit far less ultraviolet light than larger, hotter stars such as our sun. Pascucci thinks this difference could explain the lack of HCN around dwarf stars. For HCN to form, molecules of nitrogen must first be split into individual nitrogen atoms. But the triple bond holding molecular nitrogen together is very strong. High-energy ultraviolet photons can break this bond, but the lower-energy photons from M-dwarf stars cannot.

"Other nitrogen-bearing molecules are going to be affected by this same chemistry," Pascucci says, possibly including the precursors to amino acids and thus proteins.

To search for HCN, Pascucci’s team looked at data from Spitzer, which observes the universe at infrared wavelengths. Planet-forming discs around M-dwarf stars have very faint infrared emissions, but Spitzer is sensitive enough to detect them.

HCN’s distinctive 14-micron emission band was absent in the infrared spectra of the M-dwarf stars, but Spitzer did detect HCN in the spectra of 44 hotter, sun-like stars.

Infrared astronomy will be a powerful tool for studying other prebiotic chemicals in planet-forming discs, says Pascucci, and the Spitzer Space Telescope is at the forefront of the field. Spitzer can’t yet draw us a picture of alien life forms, but it’s beginning to tell us what they could - and could not - be made of. "That’s pretty wonderful, too," says Pascucci.

For news of other discoveries based on Spitzer data, visit http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/

Kids can learn Spitzer astronomy words and concepts by playing the Spitzer "Sign Here!" game at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/signs/

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

Caption: Do alien planets around other stars have the right ingredients for a pre-biotic soup?

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Scoring More Energy from Less Sunlight

For spacecraft, power is everything. Without electrical power, satellites and robotic probes might as well be chunks of cold rock tumbling through space. Hundreds to millions of miles from the nearest power outlet, these spacecraft must somehow eke enough power from ambient sunlight to stay alive.

That’s no problem for large satellites that can carry immense solar panels and heavy batteries. But in recent years, NASA has been developing technologies for much smaller microsatellites, which are lighter and far less expensive to launch. Often less than 10 feet across, these small spacecraft have little room to spare for solar panels or batteries, yet must still somehow power their onboard computers, scientific instruments, and navigation and communication systems.

Space Technology 5 was a mission that proved, among other technologies, new concepts of power generation and storage for spacecraft. "We tested high efficiency solar cells on ST-5 that produce almost 60 percent more power than typical solar cells. We also tested batteries that hold three times the energy of standard spacecraft batteries of the same size," says Christopher Stevens, manager of NASA’s New Millennium Program. This program flight tests cutting-edge spacecraft technologies so that they can be used safely on mission-critical satellites and probes.

"This more efficient power supply allows you to build a science-grade spacecraft on a miniature scale," Stevens says.

Solar cells typically used on satellites can convert only about 18 percent of the available energy in sunlight into electrical current. ST-5 tested experimental cells that capture up to 29 percent of this solar energy. These new solar cells, developed in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio, performed flawlessly on ST-5, and they’ve already been swooped up and used on NASA’s svelte MESSENGER probe, which will make a flyby of Mercury later this year.

Like modern laptop batteries, the high-capacity batteries on ST-5 use lithium-ion technology. As a string of exploding laptop batteries in recent years shows, fire safety can be an issue with this battery type.

"The challenge was to take these batteries and put in a power management circuit that protects against internal overcharge," Stevens explains. So NASA contracted with ABSL Power Solutions to develop spacecraft batteries with design control circuits to prevent power spikes that can lead to fires. "It worked like a charm."

Now that ST-5 has demonstrated the safety of this battery design, it is flying on NASA’s THEMIS mission (for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) and is slated to fly aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Solar Dynamics Observatory, both of which are scheduled to launch later this year.

Thanks to ST-5, a little sunlight can go a really long way.

Find out about other advanced technologies validated in space and now being used on new missions of exploration at http://nmp.nasa.gov/TECHNOLOGY/scorecard

Kids can calculate out how old they would be before having to replace lithium-ion batteries in a handheld game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/st5_bats.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: Helen Johnson, a spacecraft technician at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, works on one of the three tiny Space Technology 5 spacecraft in preparation for its technology validation mission.

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The Swiss Army Knife of Weather Satellites

Spotting volcanic eruptions, monitoring the health of crops, pinpointing distress signals for search and rescue teams.

It’s not what you might expect from a weather satellite. But these are just a few of the abilities of NOAA’s newest polar-orbiting weather satellite, launched by NASA on February 6 and turned over to NOAA for full-time operations on February 26.

Formerly called NOAA-N Prime and now renamed NOAA-19, it is the last in its line of weather satellites that stretches back almost 50 years to the dawn of the Space Age. Over the decades, the abilities of these Television Infrared Observation Satellites (TIROS) have gradually improved and expanded, starting from the grainy, black-and-white images of Earth’s cloud cover taken by TIROS-1 and culminating in NOAA-19’s amazing array of capabilities.

"This TIROS series has become quite the Swiss army knife of weather satellites, and NOAA-19 is the most capable one yet," says Tom Wrublewski, NOAA-19 Satellite Acquisition Manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The evolution of TIROS began in 1998 with NOAA-K. The satellites have carried microwave sensors that can measure temperature variations as small as 1 degree Celsius between Earth’s surface and an altitude of 40 kilometers - even through clouds. Other missions have added the ability to track large icebergs for cargo ships, monitor sea surface temperatures to aid climate change research, measure the amount of ozone in Earth’s protective ozone layer, and even detect hazardous particles from solar flares that can affect communications and endanger satellites, astronauts in orbit, and city power grids.

NOAA-19 marks the end of the TIROS line, and for the next four years it will bridge the gap to a new series of satellites called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. NPOESS will merge civilian and military weather satellites into a single system. Like NOAA-19, NPOESS satellites will orbit Earth from pole to pole, circling the planet roughly every 100 minutes and observing every location at least twice each day.

NPOESS will have yet more capabilities drawn from its military heritage. Dim-light sensors will improve observations of the Earth at night, and the satellites will better monitor winds over the ocean - important information for ships at sea and for weather and climate models.

"A lot more capability is going to come out of NPOESS, improving upon the 161 various environmental data products we already produce today," Wrublewski says.

Not even a Swiss army knife can do that many things, he points out.

For more on the NPOESS, check out http://www.npoess.noaa.gov

Kids can find out about another NOAA satellite capability - tracking endangered migrating species - and play a fun memory game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/poes_tracking

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 new NOAA-19 is the last and most capable in the long line of Television Infrared Observation Satellites (TIROS).

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Apollo Upgrade

The flight computer onboard the Lunar Excursion Module, which landed on the Moon during the Apollo program, had a whopping 4 kilobytes of RAM and a 74-kilobyte "hard drive." In places, the craft’s outer skin was as thin as two sheets of aluminum foil.

It worked well enough for Apollo. Back then, astronauts needed to stay on the Moon for only a few days at a time. But when NASA once again sends people to the Moon starting around 2020, the plan will be much more ambitious - and the hardware is going to need a major upgrade.

"Doing all the things we want to do using systems from Apollo would be very risky and perhaps not even possible," says Frank Peri, director of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program.

So the program is designing new, more capable hardware and software to meet the demands of NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon. Instead of staying for just a few days, astronauts will be living on the Moon’s surface for months on end. Protecting astronauts from harsh radiation at the Moon’s surface for such a long time will require much better radiation shielding than just a few layers of foil. And rather than relying on food and water brought from Earth and jettisoning urine and other wastes, new life support systems will be needed that can recycle as much water as possible, scrub carbon dioxide from the air without depending on disposable filters, and perhaps grow a steady supply of food - far more than Apollo life-support systems could handle.

Next-generation lunar explorers will perform a much wider variety of scientific research, so they’ll need vehicles that can carry them farther across the lunar surface. ETDP is building a new lunar rover that outclasses the Apollo-era moon buggy by carrying two astronauts in a pressurized cabin. "This vehicle is like our SUV for the Moon," Peri says.

The Exploration Technology Development Program is also designing robots to help astronauts maintain their lunar outpost and perform science reconnaissance. Making the robots smart enough to take simple verbal orders from the astronauts and carry out their tasks semi-autonomously requires vastly more powerful computer brains than those on Apollo; four kilobytes of RAM just won’t cut it.

The list goes on: New rockets to carry a larger lunar lander, spacesuits that can cope with abrasive moon dust, techniques for converting lunar soil into building materials or breathable oxygen. NASA’s ambitions for the Moon have been upgraded. By tapping into 21st century technology, this program will ensure that astronauts have the tools they need to turn those ambitions into reality.

Learn more about the Exploration Technology Development Program at http://www.nasa.gov/directorates/esmd/aboutesmd/acd/technology_dev.html

Kids can build their own Moon habitat at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/exploration/habitat/

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 Chariot Lunar Truck is one idea for a vehicle equal to the lunar terrain. Each of the six wheels pivot in any direction, and two turrets allow the astronauts to rotate 360°.

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Where Did All These Gadgets Come From?!

Ion propulsion. Artificial intelligence. Hyper-spectral imagers. It sounds like science fiction, but all these technologies are now flying around the solar system on real-life NASA missions.

How did they get there? Answer: the New Millennium Program (NMP). NMP is a special NASA program that flight tests wild and far-out technologies. And if they pass the test, they can be used on real space missions.

The list of probes that have benefited from technologies incubated by NMP reads like the Who’s Who of cutting-edge space exploration: Spirit and Opportunity (the phenomenally successful rovers exploring Mars), the Spitzer Space Telescope, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the Dawn asteroid-exploration mission, the comet-smashing probe Deep Impact, and others. Some missions were merely enhanced by NMP technologies; others would have been impossible without them.

"In order to assess the impact of NMP technologies, NASA has developed a scorecard to keep track of all the places our technologies are being used," says New Millennium Program manager Christopher Stevens of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

For example, ion propulsion technology flight-tested on the NMP mission Deep Space 1, launched in October 1998, is now flying aboard the Dawn mission. Dawn will be the first probe to orbit an asteroid (Vesta) and then travel to and orbit a dwarf planet (Ceres). The highly efficient ion engine is vital to the success of the 3 billion mile, 8 year journey. The mission could not have been flown using conventional chemical propulsion; launching the enormous amount of fuel required would have broken the project’s budget. "Ion propulsion was the only practical way," says Stevens.

In total, 10 technologies tested by Deep Space 1 have been adopted by more than 20 robotic probes. One, the Small Deep Space Transponder, has become the standard system for Earth communications for all deep-space missions.

And Deep Space 1 is just one of NMP’s missions. About a half-dozen others have flown or will fly, and their advanced technologies are only beginning to be adopted. That’s because it takes years to design probes that use these technologies, but Stevens says experience shows that "if you validate experimental technologies in space, and reduce the risk of using them, missions will pick them up."

Stevens knew many of these technologies when they were just a glimmer in an engineer’s eye. Now they’re "all grown up" and flying around the solar system. It’s enough to make a program manager proud!

The results of all NMP's technology validations are online and the list is impressive: http://nmp.nasa.gov/TECHNOLOGY/scorecard/scorecard_results.cfm

For kids, the rhyming storybook, "Professor Starr's Dream Trip: Or, How a Little Technology Goes a Long Way" at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/nmp/starr/ gives a scientist's perspective on the technology that makes possible the Dawn mission.

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

Caption: Dawn will be the first spacecraft to establish orbits around two separate target bodies during its mission - thanks to ion propulsion validated by Deep Space 1.

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Severe Space Weather

by Dr. Tony Phillips

Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working?

That's the surprising conclusion of a NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Severe Space Weather Events - Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. In the 132-page report, experts detailed what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a "super solar flare" followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm. They found that almost nothing is immune from space weather - not even the water in your bathroom.

The problem begins with the electric power grid. Ground currents induced during an extreme geomagnetic storm can melt the copper windings of huge, multi-ton transformers at the heart of power distribution systems. Because modern power grids are interconnected, a cascade of failures could sweep across the country, rapidly cutting power to tens or even hundreds of millions of people. According to the report, this loss of electricity would have a ripple effect with "water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on."

"The concept of interdependency," the report notes, "is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power - and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site."

It takes a very strong geomagnetic storm to cause problems on this scale - the type of storm that comes along only every century or so. A point of reference is the "Carrington Event" of August-September 1859, named after British amateur astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the Sun on a white screen. Geomagnetic storms triggered by the flare electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning!

"A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause...extensive social and economic disruptions," the report warns. Widespread failures could include telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion (some 20 times greater than the costs of Hurricane Katrina).

The report concluded with a call for infrastructure designed to better withstand geomagnetic disturbances and improvements in space weather forecasting. Indeed, no one knows when the next super solar storm will erupt. It could be 100 years away or just 100 days. It’s something to think about...the next time you flush.

One of the jobs of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) operated by NOAA is to keep an eye on space weather and provide early warning of solar events that could cause trouble for Earth.

You can keep an eye on space weather yourself at the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center at http://www.swpc.noaa.gov

And for young people, space weather is explained and illustrated simply and clearly at the SciJinks Weather Laboratory: http://scijinks.gov/weather/howwhy/spaceweather

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

Caption: On this power-grid map of the United States, the black-circled areas are regions especially vulnerable to collapse during an extreme geomagnetic storm. Inside those boundaries are more than 130 million people. Credit: National Academy of Sciences report on severe space weather.

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