Category: atmosphere

Science-Heavy SpaceX Dragon Headed to Space St…

Heads up: a new batch of science is headed to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Dragon on April 2, 2018. Launching from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Falcon 9 rocket, this fire breathing (well, kinda…) spacecraft will deliver science that studies thunderstorms on Earth, space gardening, potential pathogens in space, new ways to patch up wounds and more.


Let’s break down some of that super cool science heading 250 miles above Earth to the orbiting laboratory:

Sprites and Elves in Space

Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) experiment will survey severe thunderstorms in Earth’s atmosphere and upper-atmospheric lightning, or transient luminous events. 


These include sprites, flashes caused by electrical break-down in the mesosphere; the blue jet, a discharge from cloud tops upward into the stratosphere; and ELVES, concentric rings of emissions caused by an electromagnetic pulse in the ionosphere.

Here’s a graphic showing the layers of the atmosphere for reference:


Metal Powder Fabrication

Our Sample Cartridge Assembly (MSL SCA-GEDS-German) experiment will determine underlying scientific principles for a fabrication process known as liquid phase sintering, in microgravity and Earth-gravity conditions.


Science term of the day: Liquid phase sintering works like building a sandcastle with just-wet-enough sand; heating a powder forms interparticle bonds and formation of a liquid phase accelerates this solidification, creating a rigid structure. But in microgravity, settling of powder grains does not occur and larger pores form, creating more porous and distorted samples than Earth-based sintering. 

Sintering has many applications on Earth, including metal cutting tools, automotive engine connecting rods, and self-lubricating bearings. It has potential as a way to perform in-space fabrication and repair, such as building structures on the moon or creating replacement parts during extraterrestrial exploration.

Plants in space! It’s l[a]unch time!

Understanding how plants respond to microgravity and demonstrating reliable vegetable production in space represent important steps toward the goal of growing food for future long-duration missions. The Veggie Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (Veggie PONDS) experiment will test a passive nutrient delivery system in the station’s Veggie plant growth facility by cultivating lettuce and mizuna greens for harvest and consumption on orbit.

The PONDS design features low mass and low maintenance, requires no additional energy, and interfaces with the Veggie hardware, accommodating a variety of plant types and growth media.


Quick Science Tip: Download the Plant Growth App to grow your own veggies in space! Apple users can download the app HERE! Android users click HERE!

Testing Materials in Space

The Materials ISS Experiment Flight Facility (MISSE-FF) experiment will provide a unique platform for testing how materials, coatings and components react in the harsh environment of space.


A continuation of a previous experiment, this version’s new design eliminates the need for astronauts to perform spacewalks for these investigations. New technology includes power and data collection options and the ability to take pictures of each sample on a monthly basis, or more often if required. The testing benefits a variety of industries, including automotive, aeronautics, energy, space, and transportation.

Patching up Wounds

NanoRacks Module 74 Wound Healing (Wound Healing) experiment will test a patch containing an antimicrobial hydrogel that promotes healing of a wound while acting as a foundation for regenerating tissue. Reduced fluid motion in microgravity allows more precise analysis of the hydrogel behavior and controlled release of the antibiotic from the patch.


For the first part of the experiment, the hydrogels will be assembled aboard the station and returned to Earth for analysis of mechanical and structural properties. The second part of the experiment assembles additional hydrogels loaded with an antibiotic. Crew members will collect real-time data on release of antibiotics from these gels into surrounding water during spaceflight. This patch could serve as a non-surgical treatment for military combat wounds and reduce sepsis, or systemic inflammation, usually caused by contamination of an open wound.

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What Scientists Are Learning from the Eclipse

While millions of
people in North America headed outside to watch the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, hundreds of scientists got out telescopes, set up instruments, and
prepared balloon launches – all so they could study the Sun and its complicated
influence on Earth.


Total solar
eclipses happen about once every 18 months somewhere in the world, but the
August eclipse was rare because of its long path over land. The total eclipse
lasted more than 90 minutes over land, from when it first reached Oregon to
when it left the U.S. in South Carolina.


This meant that
scientists could collect more data from land than during most eclipses, giving
us new insight into our world and the star that powers it.

A moment in the Sun’s

During a total solar
eclipse, the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is visible from Earth. It’s
normally too dim to see next to the Sun’s bright face, but, during an eclipse, the
Moon blocks out the Sun, revealing the corona.


Image Credit: Peter Aniol, Miloslav Druckmüller and Shadia Habbal

Though we can
study parts of the corona with instruments that create artificial eclipses, some
of the innermost regions of the corona are only visible during total solar
eclipses. Solar scientists think this part of the corona may hold the secrets
to some of our most fundamental questions about the Sun: Like how the solar
wind – the constant flow of magnetized material that streams out from the Sun
and fills the solar system – is accelerated, and why the corona is so much
hotter than the Sun’s surface below.  

Depending on
where you were, someone watching the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 might have
been able to see the Moon completely obscuring the Sun for up to two minutes
and 42 seconds. One scientist wanted to stretch that even further – so he used
a pair of our WB-57 jets to chase the path of the Moon’s shadow, giving their
telescopes an uninterrupted view of the solar corona for just over seven and half minutes.


telescopes were originally designed to help monitor space shuttle launches, and
the eclipse campaign was their first airborne astronomy project!


scientists weren’t the only ones who had the idea to stretch out their view of
the eclipse: The Citizen CATE project (short for Continental-America Telescopic
Eclipse) did something similar, but with the help of hundreds of citizen scientists. 

Citizen CATE included
68 identical small telescopes spread out across the path of totality, operated
by citizen and student scientists. As the Moon’s shadow left one telescope, it reached
the next one in the lineup, giving scientists a longer look at the way the
corona changes throughout the eclipse.


accounting for clouds, Citizen CATE telescopes were able to collect 82 minutes
of images, out of the 93 total minutes that the eclipse was over the US. Their
images will help scientists study the dynamics of the inner corona, including
fast solar wind flows near the Sun’s north and south poles.

The magnetized solar
wind can interact with Earth’s magnetic field, causing auroras, interfering
with satellites, and – in extreme cases – even straining our power systems, and
all these measurements will help us better understand how the Sun sends this
material speeding out into space.

Exploring the Sun-Earth

Scientists also
used the eclipse as a natural laboratory to explore the Sun’s complicated
influence on Earth.

High in Earth’s
upper atmosphere, above the ozone layer, the Sun’s intense radiation creates a
layer of electrified particles called the ionosphere. This region of the
atmosphere reacts to changes from both Earth below and space above. Such
changes in the lower atmosphere or space weather can manifest as disruptions in
the ionosphere that can interfere with communication and navigation signals.


One group of
scientists used the eclipse to test computer models of the ionosphere’s effects
on these communications signals. They predicted that radio signals would travel
farther during the eclipse because of a drop in the number of energized particles.
Their eclipse day data – collected by scientists spread out across the US and
by thousands of amateur radio operators – proved that prediction right.

In another
experiment, scientists used the Eclipse Ballooning Project to investigate the eclipse’s effects
lower in the atmosphere. The project incorporated weather balloon flights from
a dozen locations to form a picture of how Earth’s lower atmosphere – the part
we interact with and which directly affects our weather – reacted to the
eclipse. They found that the planetary boundary layer, the lowest part of
Earth’s atmosphere, actually moved closer to Earth during the eclipse, dropped
down nearly to its nighttime altitude.


A handful of these
balloons also flew cards containing harmless bacteria
to explore the potential
for contamination
of other planets with Earth-born life. Earth’s stratosphere is similar to the surface of Mars, except in one main way:
the amount of sunlight. But during the eclipse, the level of sunlight dropped
to something closer to what you’d expect to see on Mars, making this the
perfect testbed to explore whether Earth microbes could hitch a ride to the Red
Planet and survive. Scientists are working through the data collected, hoping
to build up better information to help robotic and human explorers alike avoid
carrying bacterial hitchhikers to Mars.


Image: The small metal card used to transport bacteria.

Finally, our
EPIC instrument aboard NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite provided awe-inspiring views of the
eclipse, but it’s also helping scientists understand Earth’s energy balance. Earth’s energy system is in a constant
dance to maintain a balance between incoming radiation from the Sun and
outgoing radiation from Earth to space, which scientists call the Earth’s
energy budget. The role of clouds, both thick and thin, is important in their
effect on energy balance.


Like a giant
cloud, the Moon during the total solar eclipse cast a large shadow across a
swath of the United States. Scientists know the dimensions and light-blocking
properties of the Moon, so they used ground- and space-based instruments to
learn how this large shadow affects the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s
surface, especially around the edges of the shadow. Measurements from EPIC show
a 10% drop in light reflected from Earth during the eclipse (compared to about
1% on a normal day). That number will help scientists model how clouds radiate the
Sun’s energy – which drives our planet’s ocean currents, seasons, weather and
climate – away from our planet.

even more eclipse science updates, stay tuned to

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After 20 years in space, the Cassini spacecraft is running out…

After 20 years in space, the Cassini spacecraft is running out of fuel. In 2010, Cassini began a seven-year mission extension in which the plan was to expend all of the spacecraft’s propellant exploring Saturn and its moons. This led to the Grand Finale and ends with a plunge into the planet’s atmosphere at 6:32 a.m. EDT on Friday, Sept. 15.

The spacecraft will ram through Saturn’s atmosphere at four times the speed of a re-entry vehicle entering Earth’s atmosphere, and Cassini has no heat shield. So temperatures around the spacecraft will increase by 30-to-100 times per minute, and every component of the spacecraft will disintegrate over the next couple of minutes…

Cassini’s gold-colored multi-layer insulation blankets will char and break apart, and then the spacecraft’s carbon fiber epoxy structures, such as the 11-foot (3-meter) wide high-gain antenna and the 30-foot (11-meter) long magnetometer boom, will weaken and break apart. Components mounted on the outside of the central body of the spacecraft will then break apart, followed by the leading face of the spacecraft itself.

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Our pale blue dot, planet Earth, is seen in this video captured…

Our pale blue dot, planet Earth, is seen in this video captured by NASA astronaut Jack Fischer from his unique vantage point on the International Space Station. From 250 miles above our home planet, this time-lapse imagery takes us over the Pacific Ocean’s moon glint and above the night lights of San Francisco, CA. The thin hue of our atmosphere is visible surrounding our planet with a majestic white layer of clouds sporadically seen underneath.

The International Space Station is currently home to 6 people who are living and working in microgravity. As it orbits our planet at 17,500 miles per hour, the crew onboard is conducting important research that benefits life here on Earth.

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Freaky fast and really awesome! NASA astronaut Jack Fischer…

Freaky fast and really awesome! NASA astronaut Jack Fischer posted this GIF to his social media Tuesday saying, “I was checking the view out the back window & decided to take a pic so you can see proof of our ludicrous speed! #SpaceIsAwesome”.

In case you didn’t know, the International Space Station travels 17,500 miles per hour as it orbits 250 miles above the Earth.

Currently, three humans are living and working there, conducting important science and research. The orbiting laboratory is home to more than 250 experiments, including some that are helping us determine the effects of microgravity on the human body. Research on the station will not only help us send humans deeper into space than ever before, including to Mars, but also benefits life here on Earth.

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1,000 Days in Orbit: MAVEN’s Top 10 Discoveries at Mars

On June 17, our MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) will celebrate 1,000 Earth days in orbit around the Red Planet.


Since its launch in November 2013 and its orbit insertion in September 2014, MAVEN has been exploring the upper atmosphere of Mars. MAVEN is bringing insight to how the sun stripped Mars of most of its atmosphere, turning a planet once possibly habitable to microbial life into a barren desert world.


Here’s a countdown of the top 10 discoveries from the mission so far:

10. Unprecedented Ultraviolet View of Mars


Revealing dynamic, previously invisible behavior, MAVEN was able to show the ultraviolet glow from the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail. Nightside images showed ultraviolet “nightglow” emission from nitric oxide. Nightglow is a common planetary phenomenon in which the sky faintly glows even in the complete absence of eternal light.

9. Key Features on the Loss of Atmosphere


Some particles from the solar wind are able to penetrate unexpectedly deep into the upper atmosphere, rather than being diverted around the planet by the Martian ionosphere. This penetration is allowed by chemical reactions in the ionosphere that turn the charged particles of the solar wind into neutral atoms that are then able to penetrate deeply.

8. Metal Ions


MAVEN made the first direct observations of a layer of metal ions in the Martian ionosphere, resulting from incoming interplanetary dust hitting the atmosphere. This layer is always present, but was enhanced dramatically by the close passage to Mars of Comet Siding Spring in October 2014.

7. Two New Types of Aurora


MAVEN has identified two new types of aurora, termed “diffuse” and “proton” aurora. Unlike how we think of most aurorae on Earth, these aurorae are unrelated to either a global or local magnetic field.

6. Cause of the Aurorae


These aurorae are caused by an influx of particles from the sun ejected by different types of solar storms. When particles from these storms hit the Martian atmosphere, they can also increase the rate of loss of gas to space, by a factor of ten or more.

5. Complex Interactions with Solar Wind


The interactions between the solar wind and the planet are unexpectedly complex. This results due to the lack of an intrinsic Martian magnetic field and the occurrence of small regions of magnetized crust that can affect the incoming solar wind on local and regional scales. The magnetosphere that results from the interactions varies on short timescales and is remarkably “lumpy” as a result.

4. Seasonal Hydrogen


After investigating the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet for a full Martian year, MAVEN determined that the escaping water does not always go gently into space. The spacecraft observed the full seasonal variation of hydrogen in the upper atmosphere, confirming that it varies by a factor of 10 throughout the year. The escape rate peaked when Mars was at its closest point to the sun and dropped off when the planet was farthest from the sun.

3. Gas Lost to Space


MAVEN has used measurements of the isotopes in the upper atmosphere (atoms of the same composition but having different mass) to determine how much gas has been lost through time. These measurements suggest that 2/3 or more of the gas has been lost to space.

2. Speed of Solar Wind Stripping Martian Atmosphere


MAVEN has measured the rate at which the sun and the solar wind are stripping gas from the top of the atmosphere to space today, along with details of the removal process. Extrapolation of the loss rates into the ancient past – when the solar ultraviolet light and the solar wind were more intense – indicates that large amounts of gas have been lost to space through time.

1. Martian Atmosphere Lost to Space


The Mars atmosphere has been stripped away by the sun and the solar wind over time, changing the climate from a warmer and wetter environment early in history to the cold, dry climate that we see today.

Maven will continue its observations and is now observing a second Martian year, looking at the ways that the seasonal cycles and the solar cycle affect the system.

For more information about MAVEN, visit:

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