Category: earth

NASA Science Show & Tell

This week, we’re at one of the biggest science conferences in the country, where our scientists are presenting new results from our missions and projects. It’s called the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting.

Here are a few of the things we shared this week…


The Sun

A few months into its seven-year mission, Parker Solar Probe has already flown far closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has ever gone. The data from this visit to the Sun has just started to come back to Earth, and scientists are hard at work on their analysis.


Parker Solar Probe sent us this new view of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona. The image was taken by the mission’s WISPR instrument on Nov. 8, 2018, and shows a coronal streamer seen over the east limb of the Sun. Coronal streamers are structures of solar material within the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona, that usually overlie regions of increased solar activity. The fine structure of the streamer is very clear, with at least two rays visible. Parker Solar Probe was about 16.9 million miles from the Sun’s surface when this image was taken. The bright object near the center of the image is Mercury, and the dark spots are a result of background correction.

Hurricane Maria

Using a satellite view of human lights, our scientists watched the lights go out in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. They could see the slow return of electricity to the island, and track how rural and mountainous regions took longer to regain power.


In the spring, a team of scientists flew a plane over Puerto Rico’s forests, using a laser instrument to measure how trees were damaged and how the overall structure of the forests had changed.


Earth’s Ice

Our scientists who study Antarctica saw some surprising changes to East Antarctica. Until now, most of the continent’s melting has been on the peninsula and West Antarctica, but our scientists have seen glaciers in East Antarctica lose lots of ice in the last few years.


Our ICESat-2 team showed some of their brand new data. From the changing height of Antarctic ice to lagoons off the coast of Mexico, the little satellite has spent its first few months measuring our planet in 3D. The laser pulses even see individual ocean waves, in this graph.


Scientists are using our satellite data to track Adélie penguin populations, by using an unusual proxy – pictures of their poop! Penguins are too small to be seen by satellites, but they can see large amounts of their poop (which is pink!) and use that as a proxy for penguin populations.


Asteroid Bennu

Our OSIRIS-REx mission recently arrived at its destination, asteroid Bennu. On approach, data from the spacecraft’s spectrometers revealed chemical signatures of water trapped in clay minerals.  While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding indicates that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

We also released a new, detailed shape model of Bennu, which is very similar to our ground-based observations of Bennu’s shape. This is a boon to ground-based radar astronomy since this is our first validation of the accuracy of the method for an asteroid! One change from the original shape model is the size of the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole, nicknamed “Benben.” The boulder is much bigger than we thought and overall, the quantity of boulders on the surface is higher than expected. Now the team will make further observations at closer ranges to more accurately assess where a sample can be taken on Bennu to later be returned to Earth.



The Juno mission celebrated it’s 16th science pass of #Jupiter, marking the halfway point in data collection of the prime mission. Over the second half of the prime mission — science flybys 17 through 32 — the spacecraft will split the difference, flying exactly halfway between each previous orbit. This will provide coverage of the planet every 11.25 degrees of longitude, providing a more detailed picture of what makes the whole of Jupiter tick.



The Mars 2020 team had a workshop to discuss the newly announced landing site for our next rover on the Red Planet. The landing site…Jezero Crater! The goal of Mars 2020 is to learn whether life ever existed on Mars. It’s too cold and dry for life to exist on the Martian surface today. But after Jezero Crater formed billions of years ago, water filled it to form a deep lake about the same size as Lake Tahoe. Eventually, as Mars’ climate changed, Lake Jezero dried up. And surface water disappeared from the planet.

Interstellar Space

Humanity now has two interstellar ambassadors. On Nov. 5, 2018, our Voyager 2 spacecraft left the heliosphere — the bubble of the Sun’s magnetic influence formed by the solar wind. It’s only the second-ever human-made object to enter interstellar space, following its twin, Voyager 1, that left the heliosphere in 2012.


Scientists are especially excited to keep receiving data from Voyager 2, because — unlike Voyager 1 — its plasma science instrument is still working. That means we’ll learn brand-new information about what fills the space between the stars.

Learn more about NASA Science at

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The Shrinking Aral Sea

The Aral Sea was once the
fourth-largest lake in the world. Fed primarily by snowmelt and precipitation
flowing down from faraway mountains, it was a temperate oasis in an arid
region. But in the 1960s, the Soviet Union diverted two major rivers to
irrigate farmland, cutting off the inland sea from its source. As the Aral Sea
dried up, fisheries collapsed, as did the communities that depended on them.
The remaining water supply became increasingly salty and polluted with runoff
from agricultural plots. Loss of the Aral Sea’s water influenced regional
climate, making the winters even colder and the summers much hotter.


While seasonal rains still
bring water to the Aral Sea, the lake is roughly one-tenth of its original size.
These satellite images show how the Aral Sea and its surrounding landscape has
changed over the past few decades.

For more details about these
images, read the full stories here:

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Human Research, Robotic Refueling, Crystallogr…

science is headed to the International Space Station aboard
the SpaceX Dragon.

on this flight include a test of robotic technology for refueling spacecraft, a
project to map the world’s forests and two student studies inspired by Marvel’s
“Guardians of the Galaxy” series.

more about the science heading into low-Earth orbit:

forest is strong with this one: GEDI studies Earth’s forests in 3D

The Global Ecosystem
Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) is an instrument to measure and map Earth’s
tropical and temperate forests in 3D.


The Jedi knights may help
protect a galaxy far, far away, but our GEDI
will help us study and understand forest changes right here on Earth.

refueling in space

What’s cooler than cool? Cryogenic propellants,
or ice-cold spacecraft fuel! Our Robotic Refueling Mission 3 (RRM3) will demonstrate technologies for storing and
transferring these special liquids. By establishing ways to replenish this fuel
supply in space, RRM3 could help spacecraft live
longer and journey farther


The mission’s techniques could even be applied
to potential lunar gas stations at the Moon, or refueling
rockets departing from Mars.

strong in space

Molecular Muscle investigation examines the
molecular causes of muscle abnormalities from spaceflight in C. elgans, a
roundworm and model organism.

study could give researchers a better understanding of why muscles deteriorate
in microgravity so they can improve methods to help crew members maintain their
strength in space.


studies space-grown crystals for protection against radiation

Perfect Crystals is a study to learn more about an
antioxidant protein called manganese superoxide dismutase that protects the
body from the effects of radiation and some harmful chemicals.

station’s microgravity environment allows researchers to grow more perfectly
ordered crystals of the proteins. These crystals are brought back to Earth and
studied in detail to learn more about how the manganese superoxide dismutase
works. Understanding how this protein functions may aid researchers in
developing techniques to reduce the threat of radiation exposure to astronauts
as well as prevent and treat some kinds of cancers on Earth.

deployment reaching new heights with SlingShot

is a new, cost-effective commercial satellite deployment system that will be
tested for the first time.


hardware, two small CubeSats, and a hosted payload will be carried to the
station inside SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and installed on a Cygnus spacecraft
already docked to the orbiting laboratory. Later, Cygnus will depart station
and fly to a pre-determined altitude to release the satellites and interact
with the hosted payload.

studies accelerated aging in microgravity

appears to accelerate aging in both humans and mice. Rodent Research-8 (RR-8) is a study to understand the physiology of
aging and the role it plays on the progression of disease in humans. This
investigation could provide a better understanding of how aging changes the
body, which may lead to new therapies for related conditions experienced by
astronauts in space and people on Earth.

of the space station: Student contest flies to orbiting lab

MARVEL ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Space Station Challenge is a joint project between
the U.S. National Laboratory and Marvel Entertainment featuring two winning
experiments from a contest for American teenage students. For the contest,
students were asked to submit microgravity experiment concepts that related to
the Rocket and Groot characters from Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic
book series.


Rocket: Staying Healthy in Space

an astronaut suffers a broken tooth or lost filling in space, they need a
reliable and easy way to fix it. This experiment investigates how well a dental
glue activated by ultraviolet light would work in microgravity. Researchers
will evaluate the use of the glue by treating simulated broken teeth and
testing them aboard the station.

Groot: Aeroponic Farming in Microgravity

experiment explores an alternative method for watering plants in the absence of
gravity using a misting device to deliver water to the plant roots and an air
pump to blow excess water away. Results from this experiment may enable humans
to grow fruits and vegetables in microgravity, and eliminate a major obstacle
for long-term spaceflight.

investigation join hundreds of others currently happening aboard the station.
For more info, follow @ISS_Research!

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Launching Rockets from the Top of the World 🚀

Over the next 14 months, our scientists will join a group of
international researchers to explore a special region — Earth’s northern polar
cusp, one of just two places on our planet where particles from the Sun have
direct access to our atmosphere.


Earth is surrounded by a giant magnetic bubble known as a magnetosphere,
which protects our planet from the hot, electrically charged stream of
particles from the Sun known as the solar wind. The northern and southern polar
cusps are two holes in this protection — here, Earth’s magnetic field lines
funnel the solar wind downwards, concentrating its energy before injecting it
into Earth’s atmosphere, where it mixes and collides with particles of Earthly


The cusp is the only place where dayside auroras
are found — a special version of northern and southern lights, visible when the
Sun is out and formed by a different process than the more familiar nighttime
aurora. That’s what makes this region so interesting for scientists to study: The
more we learn about auroras, the more we understand about the fundamental
processes that drive near-Earth space — including those processes that disrupt
our technology and endanger our astronauts.


Photo credit: Violaene

The teams working on the Grand
Challenge Initiative — Cusp
will fly sounding rockets from two
Norwegian rocket ranges that fall under the cusp for a short time each day. Sounding
are sub-orbital rockets that shoot up into space for a few
minutes before falling back to Earth, giving them access to Earth’s atmosphere
between 30 and 800 miles above the surface. Cheaper and faster to develop than
large satellite missions, sounding rockets often carry the latest scientific
instruments on their first-ever flights, allowing for unmatched speed in the
turnaround from design to implementation.


Each sounding rocket mission will study a different aspect
of Earth’s upper atmosphere and its connection to the Sun and particles in
space. Here’s a look at the nine missions coming up.

1. VISIONS-2 (Visualizing
Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2) — December 2018

The cusp isn’t just the inroad into our atmosphere — it’s a
two-way street. Counteracting the influx of particles from the Sun is a process
called atmospheric escape, in which Earthly particles acquire enough energy to
escape into space. Of all
the particles that escape Earth’s atmosphere, there’s one that presents a
particular mystery: oxygen.

At 16 times the mass of hydrogen, oxygen should be too heavy
to escape Earth’s gravity. But scientists have found singly ionized oxygen in
near-Earth space, which suggests that it came from Earth. The two VISIONS-2 rockets,
led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will create
maps of the oxygen outflow in the cusp, tracking where these heavy ions are and
how they’re moving to provide a hint at how they escape.

2. TRICE-2 (Twin
Rockets to Investigate Cusp Electrodynamics 2) — December 2018

If the cusp is like a funnel, then magnetic reconnection is
what turns on the faucet. When the solar wind collides with Earth’s magnetic
field, magnetic reconnection breaks open the previously closed magnetic field
lines, allowing some solar wind particles to stream into Earth’s atmosphere
through the cusp.

But researchers have noticed that the stream of particles
coming in isn’t smooth: instead, it has abrupt breaks in it. Is magnetic
reconnection turning on and off? Or is the solar wind shooting in from
different locations? TRICE-2, led by the University of Iowa in Iowa City, will
fly two separate rockets through a single magnetic field line in the cusp, to
help distinguish these possibilities. If reconnection sputters on and off over
time, then the two rockets should get quite different measurements, like noting
how it feels to run your finger back and forth under a faucet that is being
turned on and off. If instead reconnection happens consistently in multiple
locations — like having ten different faucets, all running constantly — then the
two rockets should have similar measurements whenever they pass through the
same locations.


Magnetic reconnection is a process by which magnetic field
lines explosively realign  

3. CAPER-2 (Cusp
Alfvén and Plasma Electrodynamics Rocket) — January 2019

The CAPER-2 rocket, led by Dartmouth College in Hanover, New
Hampshire, will examine how fast-moving electrons — particles that can trigger
aurora — get up to such high speeds. The team will zero in on the role that
Alfvén waves, a special kind of low-frequency wave that oscillates along
magnetic field lines, play in accelerating auroral electrons.


An illustration of rippling Alfvén waves

4. G-CHASER (Grand
Challenge Student Rocket) — January 2019

G-CHASER is made up entirely of student researchers from universities
in the United States, Norway and Japan, many of whom are flying their
experiments for the first time. The mission, led by the Colorado Space
Grant Consortium at the University of Colorado Boulder,
is a collaboration between seven different student-led missions,
providing a unique opportunity for students to design, test and ultimately fly
their experiment from start to finish. The students involved in the mission —
mostly undergraduates but including some graduate teams — are responsible for
all aspects of the mission, from developing the initial idea, to securing the
funding, to making sure it passes all the tests before flight.

5 & 6. AZURE (Auroral
Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment) and CHI
(Cusp Heating Investigation) — April & November/December 2019

When the aurora shine, they don’t just emit light — they
also release thermal and kinetic energy into the atmosphere. Some of this
energy escapes back into space, but some of it stays with us. Which way this
balance tips depends, in part, on the winds in the cusp. AZURE, led by Clemson
University in South Carolina, will measure the vertical winds that swish energy
and particles around within the auroral oval, the larger ring around the pole
where the aurora are most common.

Later that year, the same team will launch the CHI mission, using a
methodology similar to AZURE to measure the flow of charged and neutral gases
inside the cusp. The goal is to better understand how particles, flowing in
horizontal and vertical directions, interact with each other to produce heating
and acceleration.

7. C-REX-2 (Cusp-Region
Experiment) — November 2019

The cusp is a place where strange physics happens, producing
some anomalies in the physical structure of the atmosphere that can make our
technology go haywire. For satellites that pass through the cusp, density
increases act like potholes, shaking up their orbits. Scientists don’t
currently understand what causes these density increases, but they have some
clues. C-REX-2, led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, aims to figure out
which variables — wind, temperature or ion velocity — are responsible.

8. ICI-5
(Investigation of Cusp Irregularities-5) — December 2019

Recent research has uncovered mysterious hot patches of
turbulent plasma inside the auroral region that rain energetic particles
towards Earth. GPS signals become garbled as they pass through these turbulent
plasma patches, affecting so many of today’s technologies that depend on them. ICI-5,
led by the University of Oslo, will launch into the cusp to take measurements
from inside these hot patches. To measure their structure as several scales,
the rocket will eject 12 daughter payloads in concentric squares which will
achieve a variety of different separations.


9. JAXA’s SS-520-3
— January 2020

Exploring the phenomenon of atmospheric escape, the Japan
Aerospace Exploration Agency’s SS-520-3 mission will fly 500 miles high over
the cusp to take measurements of the electrostatic waves that heat ions up and
get them moving fast enough to escape Earth.

For updates on the Grand Challenge Initiative and other
sounding rocket flights, visit
or follow along with NASA Wallops and NASA heliophysics on Twitter and

@NASA_Wallops | NASA’s Wallops Flight
| @NASASun | NASA Sun

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Uncovering a Massive Meteor Crater Found Lurki…


For the first time ever, we’ve found a massive crater hiding under one of Earth’s ice sheets. Likely caused by a meteor, it was uncovered in Greenland by a team of international scientists using radar data.


The data was collected by missions like our Operation IceBridge, which flies planes over Greenland and Antarctica to study the ice and snow at our planet’s poles.


In this case, the crater is near Hiawatha Glacier, covered by a sheet of ice more than half a mile thick. We’re pretty sure that the crater was caused by a meteor because it has characteristics traditionally associated with those kinds of impacts, like a bowl shape and central peaks.


It’s also one of the 25 largest impact craters in the world, large enough to hold the cities of Paris or Washington, D.C. The meteor that created it was likely half a mile wide.


Currently, there’s still lots to learn about the crater – and the meteor that created it – but it’s likely relatively young in geologic timescales. The meteor hit Earth within the last 3 million years, but the impact could have been as recent as 13,000 years ago.


While it was likely smaller than the meteor credited with knocking out the dinosaurs, this impact could have potentially caused a large influx of fresh water into the northern Atlantic Ocean, which would have had profound impacts for life in the region at the time.


Go here to learn more about this discovery:


Operation IceBridge continues to uncover the hidden secrets under Earth’s ice. IceBridge has been flying for 10 years, providing a data bridge between ICESat, which flew from 2003 to 2009, and ICESat-2, which launched in September. IceBridge uses a suite of instruments to help track the changing height and thickness of the ice and the snow cover above it. IceBridge also measures the bedrock below the ice, which allows for discoveries like this crater.

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Scarred Landscape


With California wildfires still burning, the
2018 fire season continues to leave its mark on the state’s landscape.
Together, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire (as seen above) have burned more than
248,000 acres (1003 square kilometers, or 387 square miles).

Burn scars are what wildfire leaves behind.
With no vegetation to hold the land in place, many burned locations are
susceptible to landslides and mudslides, especially in areas with steep slopes.
Fighting fires on these slopes is more difficult, too — once a slope’s
steepness exceeds 30 percent, firefighting with bulldozers or trucks becomes
dangerous, and emergency response teams must fight the fires on foot.

For the past two weeks, our scientists have
been working every day producing maps and damage assessments that can help
agency fire managers understand the active wildfire and plan for recovery. By
deploying research aircraft carrying instruments, like the Uninhabited Aerial
Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR), scientists can identify burned areas
at risk of mudslides in advance of winter rains expected in the area.

Learn more about how we’re mobilizing to aid California fire response here.

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I never get tired of this photo, and will post…

I never get tired of this photo, and will post it again and again.  In the words of Carl Sagan…a pale blue dot.

Take a moment to contemplate our home in the grand scheme of the universe.  In the middle of petty squabbles and power grabs, in the end, we are adrift on our cosmic journey.  We need to take better care of our “spaceship”. 

And for those who do not care or would not hesitate to screw our home over to make some money, I’d love to banish you to Venus.