Space Science @ Ames features research in infrared astrophysics, laboratory astrophysics, extrasolar planets, planetary sciences, exobiology, and astrobiology. For more information, view details.
Earth Science @ Ames features basic and applied research in atmospheric and biospheric sciences, and conducts airborne science campaigns.
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BioSciences @ Ames features research in fundamental space biology, and provides engineering and payload development for the International Space Station.
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Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.
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Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) addresses basic and applied scientific questions fundamental to understanding the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids, the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, and the near space environments of these target bodies.
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NASA Suspends 2016 Launch of InSight Mission to Mars
Dec. 22, 2015
After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload.
"Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we're not ready to launch in the 2016 window. A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars."
The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France's Centre National d'etudes Spatiales (CNES). Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom, the instrument requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
"InSight’s investigation of the Red Planet’s interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved," said Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. "Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets’ early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks. Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this.”
A leak earlier this year that previously had prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions was repaired, and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix also would be successful. However, during testing on Monday in extreme cold temperature (-49 degrees Fahrenheit/-45 degrees Celsius) the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum.
NASA officials determined there is insufficient time to resolve another leak, and complete the work and thorough testing required to ensure a successful mission.
Antarctic Anticyclone Sending Two NASA Scientific Balloons Flying in Circles
Dec. 11, 2015
WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. - While winter is upon us here, it's nearing summertime in Antarctica, which for NASA's Scientific Balloon Program means one thing: anticyclone!
An anticyclone is a weather phenomena characterized by high atmospheric pressure at its center, around which air slowly circulates in a counterclockwise pattern in the southern hemisphere (clockwise in the northern hemisphere).
Each year, the agency's globetrotting balloon team dons parkas and mukluks for their annual flight campaign in Antarctica, and the anticyclone that forms there is particularly helpful for conducting scientific investigations.
"The anticyclone takes our balloons on a circular flight trajectory, keeping the balloon over the Antarctic land mass for extended periods of time," said Debbie Fairbrother, NASA's Balloon Program Office chief. "Keeping the balloon over land helps enable recovery of the payload at the conclusion of the mission."p>
Campaign preparations began on-site at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in mid-October for the two science missions NASA has scheduled to fly from the continent. The balloon launch team is standing by flight ready and approved for launch, pending the formation of the anticyclone, which is expected by mid-December.
The two flights planned will take the Gamma-Ray Imager/Polarimeter for Solar flares (GRIPS) and the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO-II) payloads to altitudes around 130,000 feet, which is above more than 99.5 percent of the Earth's atmosphere.
GRIPS is an instrument that will collect data on the extremely high-energy particles released by solar flares, information that will help scientists pinpoint the processes that set off these explosive events. The mission is funded by the NASA Low Cost Access to Space (LCAS) program, now part of Heliophyics Technology and Instrument Development for Science (H-TIDeS) program
STO-II is a NASA-funded experiment designed to address a key problem in modern astrophysics: understanding the life cycle of the interstellar medium, which is the matter that fills the space between stars in the galaxy. STO-II's instruments will collect data by performing large-scale, high resolution spectroscopic galactic surveys. These surveys will cover a portion of the galactic plane as well as a deeper survey of galactic arm and inter-arm regions.
The payloads and instruments are solar-powered, making this time of year an ideal time to for balloon flights since the region experiences sunlight 24-hours a day during the Antarctic summer. Each science payloads weigh around 3,500 pounds. Including the gondola, ballast and weight of the balloon, the total load lifted by the massive heavy-lift balloons for each mission is around 9,600 pounds. NASA's is using its largest qualified zero pressure balloon for each flight, which at 40-million-cubic-feet of volume is as large as a football stadium when fully inflated.
"From the austere environment to time away from family during the holidays, the team endures a lot during this annual campaign," said Fairbrother. "We all wish the team well on the ice as they work the exciting sciencemissions flying this year."
Anyone may track the progress of NASA's scientific balloon flights via online tools that provide altitude and speed as well as a map showing the balloon's real-time location, at: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/antarctica/ice.htm
For more information on the balloon program, see: http://www.csbf.nasa.gov/antarctica/ice.htm
Orbital ATK provides program management, mission planning, engineering services and field operations for NASA's scientific balloon program. The program is executed from NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas. The Columbia team has launched more than 1,700 scientific balloons in over 35 years of operation.
The National Science Foundation's Division of Polar Programs provides logistics and aircraft support at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.Last Updated: Dec. 11, 2015
Editor: Patrick Black
Video: New Clues to Ceres’ Bright Spots and Origins
Dec. 4, 2015
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft sent home images that showed two very bright spots inside a large crater on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Now Ceres has revealed some of its well-kept secrets in two new studies in the journal Nature, thanks to data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. They include highly anticipated insights about mysterious bright features found all over the dwarf planet’s surface.
In one study, scientists identify this bright material as a kind of salt. The second study suggests the detection of ammonia-rich clays, raising questions about how Ceres formed.
About the Bright Spots
Ceres has more than 130 bright areas, and most of them are associated with impact craters. Study authors, led by Andreas Nathues at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, write that the bright material is consistent with a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite. A different type of magnesium sulfate is familiar on Earth as Epsom salt.
Nathues and colleagues, using images from Dawn’s framing camera, suggest that these salt-rich areas were left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids would have unearthed the mixture of ice and salt, they say.
“The global nature of Ceres’ bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice,” Nathues said.
This movie shows dwarf planet Ceres in false color. Scientists use false color to examine differences in surface materials. The color blue is generally associated with bright material, found in more than 130 locations, and seems to be consistent with salts, such as sulfates. It is likely that silicate materials are also present. The images were obtained by the framing camera on NASA's Dawn spacecraft from a distance of about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers). The flyover movie highlights Occator crater, home of the brightest area on Ceres, using the same false-color scheme. It was also created using images from Dawn at an altitude of about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers).
A New Look at Occator
The surface of Ceres, whose average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers), is generally dark — similar in brightness to fresh asphalt — study authors wrote. The bright patches that pepper the surface represent a large range of brightness, with the brightest areas reflecting about 50 percent of sunlight shining on the area. But there has not been unambiguous detection of water ice on Ceres; higher-resolution data are needed to settle this question.
The inner portion of a crater called Occator contains the brightest material on Ceres. Occator itself is 60 miles (90 kilometers) in diameter, and its central pit, covered by this bright material, measures about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide and 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) deep. Dark streaks, possibly fractures, traverse the pit. Remnants of a central peak, which was up to 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) high, can also be seen.
With its sharp rim and walls, and abundant terraces and landslide deposits, Occator appears to be among the youngest features on Ceres. Dawn mission scientists estimate its age to be about 78 million years old.
Study authors write that some views of Occator appear to show a diffuse haze near the surface that fills the floor of the crater. This may be associated with observations of water vapor at Ceres by the Herschel space observatory that were reported in 2014. The haze seems to be present in views during noon, local time, and absent at dawn and dusk, study authors write. This suggests that the phenomenon resembles the activity at the surface of a comet, with water vapor lifting tiny particles of dust and residual ice. Future data and analysis may test this hypothesis and reveal clues about the process causing this activity.
“The Dawn science team is still discussing these results and analyzing data to better understand what is happening at Occator,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Importance of Ammonia
In the second Nature study, members of the Dawn science team examined the composition of Ceres and found evidence for ammonia-rich clays. They used data from the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, a device that looks at how various wavelengths of light are reflected by the surface, allowing minerals to be identified.
Ammonia ice by itself would evaporate on Ceres today, because the dwarf planet is too warm. However, ammonia molecules could be stable if present in combination with (i.e. chemically bonded to) other minerals.
The presence of ammoniated compounds raises the possibility that Ceres did not originate in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where it currently resides, but instead might have formed in the outer solar system. Another idea is that Ceres formed close to its present position, incorporating materials that drifted in from the outer solar system – near the orbit of Neptune, where nitrogen ices are thermally stable.
“The presence of ammonia-bearing species suggests that Ceres is composed of material accreted in an environment where ammonia and nitrogen were abundant. Consequently, we think that this material originated in the outer cold solar system,” said Maria Cristina De Sanctis, lead author of the study, based at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Rome.
In comparing the spectrum of reflected light from Ceres to meteorites, scientists found some similarities. Specifically, they focused on the spectra, or chemical fingerprints, of carbonaceous chondrites, a type of carbon-rich meteorite thought to be relevant analogues for the dwarf planet. But these are not good matches for all wavelengths that the instrument sampled, the team found. In particular, there were distinctive absorption bands, matching mixtures containing ammoniated minerals, associated with wavelengths that can’t be observed from Earth-based telescopes.
The scientists note another difference is that these carbonaceous chondrites have bulk water contents of 15 to 20 percent, while Ceres’ content is as much as 30 percent.
“Ceres may have retained more volatiles than these meteorites, or it could have accreted the water from volatile-rich material,” De Sanctis said.
The study also shows that daytime surface temperatures on Ceres span from minus 136 degrees to minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit (180 to 240 Kelvin). The maximum temperatures were measured in the equatorial region. The temperatures at and near the equator are generally too high to support ice at the surface for a long time, study authors say, but data from Dawn’s next orbit will reveal more details.
As of this week, Dawn has reached its final orbital altitude at Ceres, about 240 miles (385 kilometers) from the surface of the dwarf planet. In mid-December, Dawn will begin taking observations from this orbit, including images at a resolution of 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel, infrared, gamma ray and neutron spectra, and high-resolution gravity data.
Dawn’s mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team.
More information about Dawn is available at the following sites:
Posted by: Soderman/ SSERVI Staff
New Horizons Returns the First of Its Very Best Images of Pluto
Dec. 4, 2015
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first few of a series of the sharpest views of Pluto it obtained during its July flyby - and this image sequence forms the best close-ups of Pluto that humans may see for decades.
Every week the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft transmits data stored on its digital recorders from its flight through the Pluto system on July 14. These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel - revealing features less than half the size of a city block on the diverse surface of the distant planet. In these new images, New Horizons captured a wide variety of spectacular, cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains.
"These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth," said John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see."
The images being released today form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide trending from Pluto's jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Sputnik and then across its icy plains.
"These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto's geology," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. "Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we're there already - down among the craters, ice fields and mountains - less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable."
A video made from these images reveals amazing details on a world 3 billion miles away - as do individual close-ups taken from the wider swath. The images are six times better than the resolution of the global Pluto map New Horizons obtained, and five times better than the best images of Pluto's cousin Triton, Neptune's large moon, obtained by Voyager 2 in 1989.
"Impact craters are nature’s drill rigs, and the new, highest-resolution pictures of the bigger craters seem to show that Pluto’s icy crust, at least in places, is distinctly layered," said William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, from Washington University in St. Louis. "Looking into Pluto's depths is also looking back into geologic time, which will help us piece together Pluto's geological history."
"The mountains bordering Sputnik Planum are absolutely stunning at this resolution" added New Horizons science team member John Spencer. "The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations."
These images were made with the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons, in a timespan of about a minute centered on 11:36 UT on July 14 - just about 15 minutes before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto - from a range of just 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers). They were obtained with an unusual observing mode; instead of working in the usual "point and shoot," LORRI snapped pictures every three seconds while the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons was scanning the surface. This mode requires unusually short exposures to avoid blurring the images.
Mission scientists expect more imagery from this set over the next several days, showing even more terrain at this highest resolution.
New Horizons, speeding through deep space at more than 32,000 miles per hour, is approximately 104 million miles (167 million kilometers) beyond Pluto and 3.2 billion miles (5.2 billion kilometers) from Earth. All spacecraft systems are healthy.
New Horizons is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute leads the mission and mission science, payload operations, and encounter science planning.
The images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide trending from Pluto's jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Sputnik Planum and then across its icy plains. They were made with the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons, over a timespan of about a minute centered on 11:36 UT on July 14 - just about 15 minutes before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto -from a range of just 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers). They were obtained with an unusual observing mode; instead of working in the usual "point and shoot," LORRI snapped pictures every three seconds while the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons was scanning the surface. This mode requires unusually short exposures to avoid blurring the images.
All told, the images are six times better than the resolution of the global Pluto map New Horizons obtained, and five times better than the best images of Pluto's cousin Triton, Neptune's large moon, obtained by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Posted by: Soderman/SSERVI Staff
Our Contribution to Understanding Climate Change and Other Global Processes: A Poster Session. Invitation and Call for Abstracts, Feb. 10, 2016
What has been our contribution to understanding climate change and other global processes? Find out at the Earth Science Division Poster Session on Feb. 10, 2016!
Members of Ames' Earth Science Division delivered more than 100 presentations at the recent American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting. Their presentations addressed a wide range of topics, including climate change, atmospheric and ocean processes, Earth system modeling, new technology developments and supercomputing methods and applications.
Even if you were not among the 24,000 conference attendees, or you missed a few presentations, you still have a chance to hear from Ames and other Bay Area scientists, about their work!
We invite you to join us at the Earth Science Division Poster Session on Feb. 10 at 1:00 p.m. in the NASA Ames Conference Center (Building 3). Anyone interested in learning more about Earth Science at Ames is welcome to attend, and we also encourage anyone with a poster they think might be of interest to the Earth Science community to submit their name and title of their poster to Ian Brosnan ( mailto: ian dot g dot brosnan at nasa dot gov ) for inclusion in the session.
Michael D. Bicay,
Director for Science
Kepler is a Discovery-class mission featuring a visible-light telescope designed to detect transiting planets around stars. It is expected to detect hundreds of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and will determine the fraction of stars with such terrestrial planets.
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SOFIA is an airborne observatory featuring a 2.5 m infrared telescope fitted aboard a 747 airplane. Flying state-of-the-art instrumentation at altitudes above 40,000 feet, the observatory will study astronomical phenomena in our Solar system, Galaxy and the nearby Universe.
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The International Space Station is now being utilized for science and engineering research. Ames conducts space biology experiments on ISS, while designing and developing the next generation of analytical laboratory hardware for ISS.
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