Author: NASA

Navigating Space by the Stars

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A sextant is a tool for measuring the angular altitude of a star above the horizon and has helped guide sailors across oceans for centuries. It is now being tested aboard the International Space Station as a potential emergency navigation tool for guiding future spacecraft across the cosmos. The Sextant Navigation investigation will test the use of a hand-held sextant that utilizes star sighting in microgravity. 

Read more about how we’re testing this tool in space!  

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10 Things to Know: Massive Dust Storm on Mars

Massive Martian dust storms have been challenging—and enticing—scientists for decades. Here’s the scoop on Martian dust:

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1: Challenging Opportunity

Our Opportunity rover is facing one of the greatest challenges of its 14 ½ year mission on the surface of Mars–a massive dust storm that has turned day to night. Opportunity is currently hunkered down on Mars near the center of a storm bigger than North America and Russia combined. The dust-induced darkness means the solar-powered rover can’t recharge its batteries.

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2: One Tough Robot

This isn’t the first time Opportunity has had to wait out a massive storm. In 2007, a monthlong series of severe storms filled the Martian skies with dust. Power levels reached critical lows, but engineers nursed the rover back to health when sunlight returned.

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3: Windswept

Martian breezes proved a saving grace for the solar-powered Mars rovers in the past, sweeping away accumulated dust and enabling rovers to recharge and get back to science. This is Opportunity in 2014. The image on the left is from January 2014. The image on the right in March 2014.

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4: Dusty Disappointment

Back in 1971, scientists were eager for their first orbital views of Mars. But when Mariner 9 arrived in orbit, the Red Planet was engulfed by a global dust storm that hid most of the surface for a month. When the dust settled, geologists got detailed views of the Martian surface, including the first glimpses of ancient riverbeds carved into the dry and dusty landscape.

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5: Dramatic License

As bad as the massive storm sounds, Mars isn’t capable of generating the strong winds that stranded actor Matt Damon’s character on the Red Planet in the movie The Martian. Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and winds are more breezy than brutal. The chore of cleaning dusty solar panels to maintain power levels, however, could be a very real job for future human explorers.

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6: Semi-Regular Visitors

Scientists know to expect big dust storms on Mars, but the rapid development of the current one is surprising. Decades of Mars observations show a pattern of regional dust storms arising in northern spring and summer. In most Martian years, nearly twice as long as Earth years, the storms dissipate. But we’ve seen global dust storms in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007. The current storm season could last into 2019.

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7: Science in the Dust

Dust is hard on machines, but can be a boon to science. A study of the 2007 storm published earlier this year suggests such storms play a role in the ongoing process of gas escaping from the top of Mars’ atmosphere. That process long ago transformed wetter, warmer ancient Mars into today’s arid, frozen planet. Three of our orbiters, the Curiosity rover and international partners are already in position to study the 2018 storm.

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8: Adjusting InSight

Mission controllers for Mars InSight lander–due to land on Mars in November–will be closely monitoring the storm in case the spacecraft’s landing parameters need to be adjusted for safety. 

Once on the Red Planet, InSight will use sophisticated geophysical instruments to delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).

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9: Martian Weather Report

One saving grace of dust storms is that they can actually limit the extreme temperature swings experienced on the Martian surface. The same swirling dust that blocks out sunlight also absorbs heat, raising the ambient temperature surrounding Opportunity.

Track the storm and check the weather on Mars anytime.

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10: Dust: Not Just a Martian Thing

A dust storm in the Sahara can change the skies in Miami and temperatures in the North Atlantic. Earth scientists keep close watch on our home planet’s dust storms, which can darken skies and alter Earth’s climate patterns.

Read the full web version of this article HERE

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Exploring an Asteroid Without Leaving Earth

This 45 day mission – which began May 5, 2018 and ends today, June 18 – will help our researchers learn how isolation and close quarters affect individual and group behavior. This study at our Johnson Space Center prepares us for long duration space missions, like a trip to an asteroid or even to Mars.

The Human Research Exploration Analog (HERA) that the crew members will be living in is one compact, science-making house. But unlike in a normal house, these inhabitants won’t go outside for 45 days. Their communication with the rest of planet Earth will also be very limited, and they won’t have any access to internet. So no checking social media, kids!

The only people they will talk with regularly are mission control and each other.

The HERA XVII crew is made up of 2 men and 2 women, selected from the Johnson Space Center Test Subject Screening (TSS) pool. The crew member selection process is based on a number of criteria, including criteria similar to what is used for astronaut selection. The four would-be astronauts are:

  • William Daniels
  • Chiemi Heil
  • Eleanor Morgan
  • Michael Pecaut

What will they be doing?

The crew are going on a simulated journey to an asteroid, a 715-day journey that we compress into 45 days. They will fly their simulated exploration vehicle around the asteroid once they arrive, conducting several site surveys before 2 of the crew members will participate in a series of virtual reality spacewalks.

They will also be participating in a suite of research investigations and will also engage in a wide range of operational and science activities, such as growing and analyzing plants and brine shrimp, maintaining and “operating” an important life support system, exercising on a stationary bicycle or using free weights, and sharpening their skills with a robotic arm simulation.

During the whole mission, they will consume food produced by the Johnson Space Center Food Lab – the same food that the astronauts enjoy on the International Space Station – which means that it needs to be rehydrated or warmed in a warming oven.

This simulation means that even when communicating with mission control, there will be a delay on all communications ranging from 1 to 5 minutes each way.

A few other details:

  • The crew follows a timeline that is similar to one used for the space station crew.
  • They work 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday. This includes time for daily planning, conferences, meals and exercise.
  • Mission: May 5 – June 18, 2018

But beware! While we do all we can to avoid crises during missions, crews need to be able to respond in the event of an emergency. The HERA crew will conduct a couple of emergency scenario simulations, including one that will require them to respond to a decrease in cabin pressure, potentially finding and repairing a leak in their spacecraft.

Throughout the mission, researchers will gather information about living in confinement, teamwork, team cohesion, mood, performance and overall well-being. The crew members will be tracked by numerous devices that each capture different types of data.

Learn more about the HERA mission HERE.

Explore the HERA habitat via 360-degree videos HERE.

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Studying the tiny life of phytoplankton

Phytoplankton. Have you ever heard of them? At NASA, these
tiny organisms are kind of a big deal.

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Biodiversity in the ocean is a delicate, but essential
balance for life on Earth. One way NASA
studies this balance is by observing phytoplankton – microalgae that contain
chlorophyll, require light to grow, and form the base of the marine food chain.

Phytoplankton even have an essential role in an upcoming
NASA mission.

This mission is called PACE- “Plankton, Aerosol,
Cloud, ocean Ecosystem.” It will reveal interactions between the ocean and
atmosphere, including how they exchange carbon dioxide and how atmospheric
aerosols might fuel phytoplankton growth in the surface ocean.

Here are four areas main areas the mission will focus on as
part of #WorldOceansMonth.

1.
Harmful algal blooms: Not the good kind of bloom

The word “bloom” sounds pretty, but harmful algal blooms
(HABs) are anything but.

When an ocean region is rich in nutrients – think of it as adding
fertilizer to the ocean –  phytoplankton such
as cyanobacteria multiply much faster than usual. This is called a “bloom.”

Some blooms are smelly and ugly but harmless. Others, like
HABs, release toxins into the water that can make fish, shellfish, turtles and
even humans very sick.

NASA’s PACE mission will help track phytoplankton growth
and ocean health to make sure all of us stay healthy, balanced and blooming. In
a good way.

2.
Aerosols: The sea-sky connection

What do phytoplankton and clouds have in common? More than
you might think.

PACE will also study aerosols, which are any particles or
droplets suspended in our atmosphere. Humans create aerosols, like soot or car
exhaust, but some phytoplankton release aerosols too.

For example, dust – also an aerosol – can blow into the
ocean, depositing iron that helps phytoplankton grow. These phytoplankton then
release dimethyl sulfide, a gas that turns into an aerosol, which can influence
how clouds form.

Whether the aerosols in our atmosphere come from the ocean
or land, it’s important to know how they are impacting our environment. PACE
will help clear up some of our questions about what is in our air.

3. Biodiversity:
The more, the merrier

A healthy ocean supports healthy industries and economies,
contributes to a healthy atmosphere and helps keep plants, animals and humans
healthy and happy. One key to a healthy, balanced ocean is lots of biodiversity.

Biodiversity means having a wide variety of plant and
animal species in an ecosystem. It’s important to have many different species
of phytoplankton, because each species plays a different role in processing
carbon, providing food for tiny animals, and keeping the ocean healthy.

PACE will track the size and movements of phytoplankton
populations from space to help our seas stay diverse and bountiful.

4.
Fisheries: Phytoplankton feed fish feed friends

One simple reason for tracking the ocean’s health is that
fish eat tiny animals that eat phytoplankton, and people eat fish.

Fisheries and aquaculture support about 12 percent of jobs
around the world, including employing more than 3 million people in the United
States. By better understanding our ocean’s health and how it might change in
the future, we can make predictions about impacts to our economies and food
supply.

To learn more about phytoplankton, visit our website.

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5 Out-of-This World Technologies Developed for…

Our James Webb Space Telescope is the most ambitious and complex space science observatory ever built. It will study every phase in the history of our universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.

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In order to carry out such a daring mission, many innovative and powerful new technologies were developed specifically to enable Webb to achieve its primary mission.  

Here are 5 technologies that were developed to help Webb push the boundaries of space exploration and discovery:

1. Microshutters

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Microshutters are basically tiny windows with shutters that each measure 100 by 200 microns, or about the size of a bundle of only a few human hairs. 

The microshutter device will record the spectra of light from distant objects (spectroscopy is simply the science of measuring the intensity of light at different wavelengths. The graphical representations of these measurements are called spectra.)

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Other spectroscopic instruments have flown in space before but none have had the capability to enable high-resolution observation of up to 100 objects simultaneously, which means much more scientific investigating can get done in less time. 

Read more about how the microshutters work HERE.

2. The Backplane

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Webb’s backplane is the large structure that holds and supports the big hexagonal mirrors of the telescope, you can think of it as the telescope’s “spine”. The backplane has an important job as it must carry not only the 6.5 m (over 21 foot) diameter primary mirror plus other telescope optics, but also the entire module of scientific instruments. It also needs to be essentially motionless while the mirrors move to see far into deep space. All told, the backplane carries more than 2400kg (2.5 tons) of hardware.

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This structure is also designed to provide unprecedented thermal stability performance at temperatures colder than -400°F (-240°C). At these temperatures, the backplane was engineered to be steady down to 32 nanometers, which is 1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair!

Read more about the backplane HERE.

3. The Mirrors

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One of the Webb Space Telescope’s science goals is to look back through time to when galaxies were first forming. Webb will do this by observing galaxies that are very distant, at over 13 billion light years away from us. To see such far-off and faint objects, Webb needs a large mirror. 

Webb’s scientists and engineers determined that a primary mirror 6.5 meters across is what was needed to measure the light from these distant galaxies. Building a mirror this large is challenging, even for use on the ground. Plus, a mirror this large has never been launched into space before! 

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If the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror were scaled to be large enough for Webb, it would be too heavy to launch into orbit. The Webb team had to find new ways to build the mirror so that it would be light enough – only 1/10 of the mass of Hubble’s mirror per unit area – yet very strong. 

Read more about how we designed and created Webb’s unique mirrors HERE.

4. Wavefront Sensing and Control

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Wavefront sensing and control is a technical term used to describe the subsystem that was required to sense and correct any errors in the telescope’s optics. This is especially necessary because all 18 segments have to work together as a single giant mirror.

The work performed on the telescope optics resulted in a NASA tech spinoff for diagnosing eye conditions and accurate mapping of the eye.  This spinoff supports research in cataracts, keratoconus (an eye condition that causes reduced vision), and eye movement – and improvements in the LASIK procedure.

Read more about the tech spinoff HERE

5. Sunshield and Sunshield Coating

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Webb’s primary science comes from infrared light, which is essentially heat energy. To detect the extremely faint heat signals of astronomical objects that are incredibly far away, the telescope itself has to be very cold and stable. This means we not only have to protect Webb from external sources of light and heat (like the Sun and the Earth), but we also have to make all the telescope elements very cold so they don’t emit their own heat energy that could swamp the sensitive instruments. The temperature also must be kept constant so that materials aren’t shrinking and expanding, which would throw off the precise alignment of the optics.

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Each of the five layers of the sunshield is incredibly thin. Despite the thin layers, they will keep the cold side of the telescope at around -400°F (-240°C), while the Sun-facing side will be 185°F (85°C). This means you could actually freeze nitrogen on the cold side (not just liquify it), and almost boil water on the hot side. The sunshield gives the telescope the equivalent protection of a sunscreen with SPF 1 million!

Read more about Webb’s incredible sunshield HERE

Learn more about the Webb Space Telescope and other complex technologies that have been created for the first time by visiting THIS page.

For the latest updates and news on the Webb Space Telescope, follow the mission on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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10 Things: Calling All Pluto Lovers

June 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Charon’s discovery—the dwarf planet Pluto’s largest and first known moon. While the definition of a planet is the subject of vigorous scientific debate, this dwarf planet is a fascinating world to explore. Get to know Pluto’s beautiful, fascinating companion this week.

1. A Happy Accident

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Astronomers James Christy and Robert Harrington weren’t even looking for satellites of Pluto when they discovered Charon in June 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station in Arizona – only about six miles from where Pluto was discovered at Lowell Observatory. Instead, they were trying to refine Pluto’s orbit around the Sun when sharp-eyed Christy noticed images of Pluto were strangely elongated; a blob seemed to move around Pluto. 

The direction of elongation cycled back and forth over 6.39 days―the same as Pluto’s rotation period. Searching through their archives of Pluto images taken years before, Christy then found more cases where Pluto appeared elongated. Additional images confirmed he had discovered the first known moon of Pluto.

2. Forever and Always

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Christy proposed the name Charon after the mythological ferryman who carried souls across the river Acheron, one of the five mythical rivers that surrounded Pluto’s underworld. But Christy also chose it for a more personal reason: The first four letters matched the name of his wife, Charlene. (Cue the collective sigh.)

3. Big Little Moon

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Charon—the largest of Pluto’s five moons and approximately the size of Texas—is almost half the size of Pluto itself. The little moon is so big that Pluto and Charon are sometimes referred to as a double dwarf planet system. The distance between them is 12,200 miles (19,640 kilometers).

4. A Colorful and Violent History

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Many scientists on the New Horizons mission expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they found a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more. High-resolution images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, taken by New Horizons as the spacecraft sped through the Pluto system on July 14 and transmitted to Earth on Sept. 21, reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator.

5. Grander Canyon

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This great canyon system stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon and likely around onto Charon’s far side. Four times as long as the Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, these faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past.

6. Officially Official

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In April 2018, the International Astronomical Union—the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and their surface features—approved a dozen names for Charon’s features proposed by our New Horizons mission team. Many of the names focus on the literature and mythology of exploration.

7. Flying Over Charon

This flyover video of Charon was created thanks to images from our New Horizons spacecraft. The “flight” starts with the informally named Mordor (dark) region near Charon’s north pole. Then the camera moves south to a vast chasm, descending to just 40 miles (60 kilometers) above the surface to fly through the canyon system.

8. Strikingly Different Worlds

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This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by New Horizons as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain.

9. Quality Facetime

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Charon neither rises nor sets, but hovers over the same spot on Pluto’s surface, and the same side of Charon always faces Pluto―a phenomenon called mutual tidal locking.

10. Shine On, Charon

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Bathed in “Plutoshine,” this image from New Horizons shows the night side of Charon against a star field lit by faint, reflected light from Pluto itself on July 15, 2015.

Read the full version of this week’s ‘10 Things to Know’ article on the web HERE.

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Pick Your Favorite Findings From Fermi’s First…

Here’s a few of our favorite Fermi discoveries, pick your favorite in the first round of our “Fermi Science Playoff.” The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has been observing some of the most extreme objects and events in the universe — from supermassive black holes to merging neutron stars and thunderstorms — for 10 years. Fermi studies the cosmos using gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, and has discovered thousands of new phenomena for scientists.

Colliding Neutron Stars

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In 2017, Fermi detected a gamma ray burst at nearly the same moment ground observatories detected gravitational waves from two merging neutron stars. This was the first time light and ripples in space-time were detected from the same source.

The Sun and Moon in Gamma Rays

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In 2016, Fermi showed the Moon is brighter in gamma rays than the Sun. Because the Moon doesn’t have a magnetic field, the surface is constantly pelted from all directions by cosmic rays. These produce gamma rays when they run into other particles, causing a full-Moon gamma-ray glow.

Record Rare from a Blazar

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The supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy 3C 279 weighs a billion times the mass of our Sun. In June 2015, this blazar became the brightest gamma-ray source in the sky due to a record-setting flare.

The First Gamma-Ray Pulsar in Another Galaxy

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In 2015, for the first time, Fermi discovered a gamma-ray pulsar, a kind of rapidly spinning superdense star, in a galaxy outside our own. The object, located on the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula, also set the record for the most luminous gamma-ray pulsar we’ve seen so far.

A Gamma-Ray Cycle in Another Galaxy

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Many galaxies, including our own, have black holes at their centers. In active galaxies, dust and gas fall into and “feed” the black hole, releasing light and heat. In 2015 for the first time, scientists using Fermi data found hints that a galaxy called PG 1553+113 has a years-long gamma-ray emission cycle. They’re not sure what causes this cycle, but one exciting possibility is that the galaxy has a second supermassive black hole that causes periodic changes in what the first is eating.

Gamma Rays from Novae

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A nova is a fairly common, short-lived kind of explosion on the surface of a white dwarf, a type of compact star not much larger than Earth. In 2014, Fermi observed several novae and found that they almost always produce gamma-rays, giving scientists a new type of source to explore further with the telescope.

A Record-Setting Cosmic Blast

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Gamma-ray bursts are the most luminous explosions in the universe. In 2013, Fermi spotted the brightest burst it’s seen so far in the constellation Leo. In the first three seconds alone, the burst, called GRB 130427A, was brighter than any other burst seen before it. This record has yet to be shattered.

Cosmic Rays from Supernova Leftovers

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Cosmic rays are particles that travel across the cosmos at nearly the speed of light. They are hard to track back to their source because they veer off course every time they encounter a magnetic field. In 2013, Fermi showed that these particles reach their incredible speed in the shockwaves of supernova remains — a theory proposed in 1949 by the satellite’s namesake, the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi.

Discovery of a Transformer Pulsar

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In 2013, the pulsar in a binary star system called AY Sextanis switched from radio emissions to high-energy gamma rays. Scientists think the change reflects erratic interaction between the two stars in the binary.

Gamma-Ray Measurement of a Gravitational Lens

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A gravitational lens is a kind of natural cosmic telescope that occurs when a massive object in space bends and amplifies light from another, more distant object. In 2012, Fermi used gamma rays to observe a spiral galaxy 4.03 billion light-years away bending light coming from a source 4.35 billion light-years away.

New Limits on Dark Matter

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We can directly observe only 20 percent of the matter in the universe. The rest is invisible to telescopes and is called dark matter — and we’re not quite sure what it is. In 2012, Fermi helped place new limits on the properties of dark matter, essentially narrowing the field of possible particles that can describe what dark matter is.

‘Superflares’ in the Crab Nebula

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The Crab Nebula supernova remnant is one of the most-studied targets in the sky — we’ve been looking at it for almost a thousand years! In 2011, Fermi saw it erupt in a flare five times more powerful than any previously seen from the object. Scientists calculate the electrons in this eruption are 100 times more energetic than what we can achieve with particle accelerators on Earth.

Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space

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Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes are created by thunderstorms. In 2011, Fermi scientists announced the satellite had detected beams of antimatter above thunderstorms, which they think are a byproduct of gamma-ray flashes.

Giant Gamma-Ray Bubbles in the Milky Way

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Using data from Fermi in 2010, scientists discovered a pair of “bubbles” emerging from above and below the Milky Way. These enormous bubbles are half the length of the Milky Way and were probably created by our galaxy’s supermassive black hole only a few million years ago.

Hint of Starquakes in a Magnetar

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Neutron stars have magnetic fields trillions of times stronger than Earth’s. Magnetars are neutron stars with magnetic fields 1,000 times stronger still. In 2009, Fermi saw a storm of gamma-ray bursts from a magnetar called SGR J1550-5418, which scientists think were related to seismic waves rippling across its surface.

A Dark Pulsar

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We observe many pulsars using radio waves, visible light or X-rays. In 2008, Fermi found the first gamma-ray only pulsar in a supernova remnant called CTA 1. We think that the “beam” of gamma rays we see from CTA 1 is much wider than the beam of other types of light from that pulsar. Those other beams never sweep across our vision — only the gamma-rays.

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Have a favorite Fermi discovery or want to learn more? Cast your vote in the first of four rounds of the Fermi Science Playoff to help rank Fermi’s findings. Or follow along as we celebrate the mission all year.

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9 Ocean Facts You Likely Don’t Know, but Shoul…

Earth is a place dominated by water, mainly oceans. It’s also a place our researchers study to understand life. Trillions of gallons of water flow freely across the surface of our blue-green planet. Ocean’s vibrant ecosystems impact our lives in many ways. 

In celebration of World Oceans Day, here are a few things you might not know about these complex waterways.

1. Why is the ocean blue? 

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The way light is absorbed and scattered throughout the ocean determines which colors it takes on. Red, orange, yellow,and green light are absorbed quickly beneath the surface, leaving blue light to be scattered and reflected back. This causes us to see various blue and violet hues.

2. Want a good fishing spot? 

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Follow the phytoplankton! These small plant-like organisms are the beginning of the food web for most of the ocean. As phytoplankton grow and multiply, they are eaten by zooplankton, small fish and other animals. Larger animals then eat the smaller ones. The fishing industry identifies good spots by using ocean color images to locate areas rich in phytoplankton. Phytoplankton, as revealed by ocean color, frequently show scientists where ocean currents provide nutrients for plant growth.

3. The ocean is many colors. 

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When we look at the ocean from space, we see many different shades of blue. Using instruments that are more sensitive than the human eye, we can measure carefully the fantastic array of colors of the ocean. Different colors may reveal the presence and amount of phytoplankton, sediments and dissolved organic matter.

4. The ocean can be a dark place. 

About 70 percent of the planet is ocean, with an average depth of more than 12,400 feet. Given that light doesn’t penetrate much deeper than 330 feet below the water’s surface (in the clearest water), most of our planet is in a perpetual state of darkness. Although dark, this part of the ocean still supports many forms of life, some of which are fed by sinking phytoplankton

5. We study all aspects of ocean life. 

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Instruments on satellites in space, hundreds of kilometers above us, can measure many things about the sea: surface winds, sea surface temperature, water color, wave height, and height of the ocean surface.

6. In a gallon of average sea water, there is about ½ cup of salt. 

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The amount of salt varies depending on location. The Atlantic Ocean is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, for instance. Most of the salt in the ocean is the same kind of salt we put on our food: sodium chloride.

7. A single drop of sea water is teeming with life.  

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It will most likely have millions (yes, millions!) of bacteria and viruses, thousands of phytoplankton cells, and even some fish eggs, baby crabs, and small worms. 

8. Where does Earth store freshwater? 

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Just 3.5 percent of Earth’s water is fresh—that is, with few salts in it. You can find Earth’s freshwater in our lakes, rivers, and streams, but don’t forget groundwater and glaciers. Over 68 percent of Earth’s freshwater is locked up in ice and glaciers. And another 30 percent is in groundwater. 

9. Phytoplankton are the “lungs of the ocean”.

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Just like forests are considered the “lungs of the earth”, phytoplankton is known for providing the same service in the ocean! They consume carbon dioxide, dissolved in the sunlit portion of the ocean, and produce about half of the world’s oxygen. 

Want to learn more about how we study the ocean? Follow @NASAEarth on twitter.

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Two Steps Forward in the Search for Life on Ma…

We haven’t found aliens but we are a little further along in our search for life on Mars thanks to two recent discoveries from our Curiosity Rover.

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We detected organic molecules at the harsh surface of Mars! And what’s important about this is we now have a lot more certainty that there’s organic molecules preserved at the surface of Mars. We didn’t know that before.

One of the discoveries is we found organic molecules just beneath the surface of Mars in 3 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

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Second, we’ve found seasonal variations in methane levels in the atmosphere over 3 Mars years (nearly 6 Earth years). These two discoveries increase the chances that the record of habitability and potential life has been preserved on the Red Planet despite extremely harsh conditions on the surface.

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Both discoveries were made by our chem lab that rides aboard the Curiosity rover on Mars.

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Here’s an image from when we installed the SAM lab on the rover. SAM stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars” and SAM did two things on Mars for this discovery.

One – it tested Martian rocks. After the arm selects a sample of pulverized rock, it heats up that sample and sends that gas into the chamber, where the electron stream breaks up the chemicals so they can be analyzed.

What SAM found are fragments of large organic molecules preserved in ancient rocks which we think come from the bottom of an ancient Martian lake. These organic molecules are made up of carbon and hydrogen, and can include other elements like nitrogen and oxygen. That’s a possible indicator of ancient life…although non-biological processes can make organic molecules, too.

The other action SAM did was ‘sniff’ the air.

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When it did that, it detected methane in the air. And for the first time, we saw a repeatable pattern of methane in the Martian atmosphere. The methane peaked in the warm, summer months, and then dropped in the cooler, winter months.

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On Earth, 90 percent of methane is produced by biology, so we have to consider the possibility that Martian methane could be produced by life under the surface. But it also could be produced by non-biological sources. Right now, we don’t know, so we need to keep studying the Mars!

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One of our upcoming Martian missions is the InSight lander. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to give the Red Planet its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. It is the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that our Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

Read the full release on today’s announcement HERE

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Cracking Earth’s Carbon Puzzle

It’s a scientific conundrum with huge implications for our future: How will our planet react to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

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Carbon – an essential building block for life – does not stay in one place or take only one form. Carbon, both from natural and human-caused sources, moves within and among the atmosphere, ocean and land. 

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We’ve been a trailblazer in using space-based and airborne sensors to observe and quantify carbon in the atmosphere and throughout the land and ocean, working with many U.S. and international partners.

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Our Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is making unprecedented, accurate global measurements of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and providing unique information on associated natural processes.

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ABoVE, our multi-year field campaign in Alaska and Canada is investigating how changes in Arctic ecosystems such as boreal forests in a warming climate result in changes to the balance of carbon moving between the atmosphere and land.

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This August we’re embarking on an ocean expedition with the National Science Foundation to the northeast Pacific called EXPORTS that will help scientists develop the capability to better predict how carbon in the ocean moves, which could change as Earth’s climate changes. 

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ECOSTRESS is slated to launch this summer to the International Space Station to make the first-ever measurements of plant water use and vegetation stress on land – providing key insights into how plants link Earth’s global carbon cycle with its water cycle.

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Later this year, ECOSTRESS will be joined on the space station by GEDI, which will use a space borne laser to help estimate how much carbon is locked in forests and how that quantity changes over time.

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In early 2019, the OCO-3 instrument is scheduled to launch to the space station to complement OCO-2 observations and allow scientists to probe the daily cycle of carbon dioxide exchange processes over much of the Earth.

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And still in the early stages of development is the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCarb) satellite, planned to launch in the early 2020s. GeoCarb will collect 10 million observations a day of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide.

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Our emphasis on carbon cycle science and the development of new carbon-monitoring tools is expected to remain a top priority for years to come. READ MORE.

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