Category: exploration

Why Bennu? 10 Reasons

After traveling for two years and billions of kilometers from Earth, the OSIRIS-REx probe is only a few months away from its destination: the intriguing asteroid Bennu. When it arrives in December, OSIRIS-REx will embark on a nearly two-year investigation of this clump of rock, mapping its terrain and finding a safe and fruitful site from which to collect a sample.

The spacecraft will briefly touch Bennu’s surface around July 2020 to collect at least 60 grams (equal to about 30 sugar packets) of dirt and rocks. It might collect as much as 2,000 grams, which would be the largest sample by far gathered from a space object since the Apollo Moon landings. The spacecraft will then pack the sample into a capsule and travel back to Earth, dropping the capsule into Utah’s west desert in 2023, where scientists will be waiting to collect it.

This years-long quest for knowledge thrusts Bennu into the center of one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted. But the humble rock is but one of about 780,000 known asteroids in our solar system. So why did scientists pick Bennu for this momentous investigation? Here are 10 reasons:

1. It’s close to Earth

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Unlike most other asteroids that circle the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Bennu’s orbit is close in proximity to Earth’s, even crossing it. The asteroid makes its closest approach to Earth every 6 years. It also circles the Sun nearly in the same plane as Earth, which made it somewhat easier to achieve the high-energy task of launching the spacecraft out of Earth’s plane and into Bennu’s. Still, the launch required considerable power, so OSIRIS-REx used Earth’s gravity to boost itself into Bennu’s orbital plane when it passed our planet in September 2017.

2. It’s the right size

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Asteroids spin on their axes just like Earth does. Small ones, with diameters of 200 meters or less, often spin very fast, up to a few revolutions per minute. This rapid spinning makes it difficult for a spacecraft to match an asteroid’s velocity in order to touch down and collect samples. Even worse, the quick spinning has flung loose rocks and soil, material known as “regolith” — the stuff OSIRIS-REx is looking to collect — off the surfaces of small asteroids. Bennu’s size, in contrast, makes it approachable and rich in regolith. It has a diameter of 492 meters, which is a bit larger than the height of the Empire State Building in New York City, and rotating once every 4.3 hours.

3. It’s really old

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Bennu is a leftover fragment from the tumultuous formation of the solar system. Some of the mineral fragments inside Bennu could be older than the solar system. These microscopic grains of dust could be the same ones that spewed from dying stars and eventually coalesced to make the Sun and its planets nearly 4.6 billion years ago. But pieces of asteroids, called meteorites, have been falling to Earth’s surface since the planet formed. So why don’t scientists just study those old space rocks? Because astronomers can’t tell (with very few exceptions) what kind of objects these meteorites came from, which is important context. Furthermore, these stones, that survive the violent, fiery decent to our planet’s surface, get contaminated when they land in the dirt, sand, or snow. Some even get hammered by the elements, like rain and snow, for hundreds or thousands of years. Such events change the chemistry of meteorites, obscuring their ancient records.

4. It’s well preserved

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Bennu, on the other hand, is a time capsule from the early solar system, having been preserved in the vacuum of space. Although scientists think it broke off a larger asteroid in the asteroid belt in a catastrophic collision between about 1 and 2 billion years ago, and hurtled through space until it got locked into an orbit near Earth’s, they don’t expect that these events significantly altered it.

5. It might contain clues to the origin of life

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Analyzing a sample from Bennu will help planetary scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to Earth. We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang. Bennu is likely rich in organic molecules, which are made of chains of carbon bonded with atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements in a chemical recipe that makes all known living things. Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid.

6. It contains valuable materials

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Besides teaching us about our cosmic past, exploring Bennu close-up will help humans plan for the future. Asteroids are rich in natural resources, such as iron and aluminum, and precious metals, such as platinum. For this reason, some companies, and even countries, are building technologies that will one day allow us to extract those materials. More importantly, asteroids like Bennu are key to future, deep-space travel. If humans can learn how to extract the abundant hydrogen and oxygen from the water locked up in an asteroid’s minerals, they could make rocket fuel. Thus, asteroids could one day serve as fuel stations for robotic or human missions to Mars and beyond. Learning how to maneuver around an object like Bennu, and about its chemical and physical properties, will help future prospectors.

7. It will help us better understand other asteroids

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Astronomers have studied Bennu from Earth since it was discovered in 1999. As a result, they think they know a lot about the asteroid’s physical and chemical properties. Their knowledge is based not only on looking at the asteroid, but also studying meteorites found on Earth, and filling in gaps in observable knowledge with predictions derived from theoretical models. Thanks to the detailed information that will be gleaned from OSIRIS-REx, scientists now will be able to check whether their predictions about Bennu are correct. This work will help verify or refine telescopic observations and models that attempt to reveal the nature of other asteroids in our solar system.

8. It will help us better understand a quirky solar force …

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Astronomers have calculated that Bennu’s orbit has drifted about 280 meters (0.18 miles) per year toward the Sun since it was discovered. This could be because of a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect, a process whereby sunlight warms one side of a small, dark asteroid and then radiates as heat off the asteroid as it rotates. The heat energy thrusts an asteroid either away from the Sun, if it has a prograde spin like Earth, which means it spins in the same direction as its orbit, or toward the Sun in the case of Bennu, which spins in the opposite direction of its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will measure the Yarkovsky effect from close-up to help scientists predict the movement of Bennu and other asteroids. Already, measurements of how this force impacted Bennu over time have revealed that it likely pushed it to our corner of the solar system from the asteroid belt.

9. … and to keep asteroids at bay

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One reason scientists are eager to predict the directions asteroids are drifting is to know when they’re coming too-close-for-comfort to Earth. By taking the Yarkovsky effect into account, they’ve estimated that Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the Moon is in 2135, and possibly even closer between 2175 and 2195. Although Bennu is unlikely to hit Earth at that time, our descendants can use the data from OSIRIS-REx to determine how best to deflect any threatening asteroids that are found, perhaps even by using the Yarkovsky effect to their advantage.

10. It’s a gift that will keep on giving

Samples of Bennu will return to Earth on September 24, 2023. OSIRIS-REx scientists will study a quarter of the regolith. The rest will be made available to scientists around the globe, and also saved for those not yet born, using techniques not yet invented, to answer questions not yet asked.

Read the web version of this week’s “Solar System: 10 Things to Know” article HERE.

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5 Reasons our Space Launch System is the Backb…

Our Space Launch
System
(SLS) will be the world’s most powerful rocket, engineered to carry
astronauts and cargo farther and faster than any rocket ever built. Here are
five reasons it is the backbone of bold, deep space exploration missions.

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5. We’re Building This Rocket to Take Humans to the Moon and Beyond

The SLS rocket is a national asset for leading new missions to deep
space. More than 1,000 large and small
companies in 44 states
are building the rocket that will take humans to
the Moon.
Work on SLS has an economic impact of $5.7 billion and
generates 32,000 jobs. Small businesses across the U.S. supply 40 percent of
the raw materials for the rocket. An investment in SLS is an investment in
human spaceflight and in American industry and will lead to applications beyond
NASA.

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4. This Rocket is Built for Humans

Modern deep space systems are designed and built to keep humans safe
from launch to landing.  SLS provides the
power to safely send the Orion
spacecraft
and astronauts to the Moon. Orion, powered by the European
Service Module
, keeps the crew safe during the mission. Exploration
Ground Systems
at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, safely
launches the SLS with Orion on top and recovers the astronauts and Orion after splashdown.

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3. This Rocket is Engineered for a Variety of Exploration Missions

SLS is engineered for decades of human space exploration to come. SLS is
not just one rocket but a transportation
system
that evolves to meet the needs of a variety of missions. The
rocket can send more than 26 metric tons (57,000 pounds) to the Moon and can
evolve to send up to 45 metric tons (99,000 pounds) to the Moon. NASA has the
expertise to meet the challenges of designing and building a new, complex
rocket that evolves over time while developing our nation’s capability to
extend human existence into deep space.

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2. This Rocket can Carry Crews and Cargos Farther, Faster

SLS’s versatile
design
enables it to carry astronauts their supplies as well as cargo
for resupply and send science missions far in the solar system. With its power
and unprecedented ability to transport heavy and large volume science payloads in
a single mission, SLS can send cargos to Mars or probes even farther out in the
solar system, such as to Jupiter’s moon Europa, faster than any other rocket
flying today. The rocket’s large cargo volume makes it possible to design
planetary probes, telescopes and other scientific instruments with fewer complex
mechanical parts.

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1. This Rocket Complements International and Commercial Partners

The Space Launch System is the right rocket to enable
exploration on and around the Moon and even longer missions
away
from home. SLS makes it possible for astronauts to bring along supplies and
equipment needed to explore, such as pieces of the Gateway,
which will be the cornerstone of sustainable lunar exploration. SLS’s ability
to launch both people and payloads to deep space in a single mission makes
space travel safer and more efficient. With no buildings, hardware or grocery
stores on the Moon or Mars, there are plenty of opportunities for support by
other rockets. SLS and contributions by international and commercial partners
will make it possible to return to the Moon and create a springboard for exploration
of other areas in the solar system where we can discover and expand knowledge
for the benefit of humanity.

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Learn more about the Space Launch System.

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Meet Parker Solar Probe, Our Mission to Touch …

In just a few weeks, we’re launching a spacecraft to get closer to the Sun than any human-made object has ever gone.

The mission, called Parker Solar Probe, is outfitted with a lineup of instruments to measure the Sun’s particles, magnetic and electric fields, solar wind and more – all to help us better understand our star, and, by extension, stars everywhere in the universe.

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Parker Solar Probe is about the size of a small car, and after launch – scheduled for no earlier than Aug. 6, 2018 – it will swing by Venus on its way to the Sun, using a maneuver called a gravity assist to draw its orbit closer to our star. Just three months after launch, Parker Solar Probe will make its first close approach to the Sun – the first of 24 throughout its seven-year mission.

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Though Parker Solar Probe will get closer and closer to the Sun with each orbit, the first approach will already place the spacecraft as the closest-ever human-made object to the Sun, swinging by at 15 million miles from its surface. This distance places it well within the corona, a region of the Sun’s outer atmosphere that scientists think holds clues to some of the Sun’s fundamental physics.

For comparison, Mercury orbits at about 36 million miles from the Sun, and the previous record holder – Helios 2, in 1976 – came within 27 million miles of the solar surface. 

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Humanity has studied the Sun for thousands of years, and our modern understanding of the Sun was revolutionized some 60 years ago with the start of the Space Age. We’ve come to understand that the Sun affects Earth in more ways than just providing heat and light – it’s an active and dynamic star that releases solar storms that influence Earth and other worlds throughout the solar system. The Sun’s activity can trigger the aurora, cause satellite and communications disruptions, and even – in extreme cases – lead to power outages.

Much of the Sun’s influence on us is embedded in the solar wind, the Sun’s constant outflow of magnetized material that can interact with Earth’s magnetic field. One of the earliest papers theorizing the solar wind was written by Dr. Gene Parker, after whom the mission is named.

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Though we understand the Sun better than we ever have before, there are still big questions left to be answered, and that’s where scientists hope Parker Solar Probe will help.  

First, there’s the coronal heating problem. This refers to the counterintuitive truth that the Sun’s atmosphere – the corona – is much, much hotter than its surface, even though the surface is millions of miles closer to the Sun’s energy source at its core. Scientists hope Parker Solar Probe’s in situ and remote measurements will help uncover the mechanism that carries so much energy up into the upper atmosphere.

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Second, scientists hope to better understand the solar wind. At some point on its journey from the Sun out into space, the solar wind is accelerated to supersonic speeds and heated to extraordinary temperatures. Right now, we measure solar wind primarily with a group of satellites clustered around Lagrange point 1, a spot in space between the Sun and Earth some 1 million miles from us. 

By the time the solar wind reaches these satellites, it has traveled about 92 million miles already, blending together the signatures that could shed light on the acceleration process. Parker Solar Probe, on the other hand, will make similar measurements less than 4 million miles from the solar surface – much closer to the solar wind’s origin point and the regions of interest.

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Scientists also hope that Parker Solar
Probe will uncover the mechanisms at work behind the acceleration of solar
energetic particles, which can reach speeds more than half as fast as the speed
of light as they rocket away from the Sun! Such particles can interfere with
satellite electronics, especially for satellites outside of Earth’s magnetic
field.

Parker
Solar Probe will launch from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station, adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Because of the enormous speed required to
achieve its solar orbit, the spacecraft will launch on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, one of the most powerful rockets in the
world.

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Stay tuned over the next few weeks to learn more about Parker Solar Probe’s science and follow along with its journey to launch. We’ll be posting updates here on Tumblr, on Twitter and Facebook, and at nasa.gov/solarprobe.

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Solar System 10 Things: Looking Back at Pluto

In July 2015, we saw Pluto up close for the first time and—after three years of intense study—the surprises keep coming. “It’s clear,” says Jeffery Moore, New Horizons’ geology team lead, “Pluto is one of the most amazing and complex objects in our solar system.”

1. An Improving View

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These are combined observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. More frames show of Pluto as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto taken by our New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015.

2. The Heart

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Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors are enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). Zoom in on the full resolution image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features.

3. The Smiles

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July 14, 2015: New Horizons team members Cristina Dalle Ore, Alissa Earle and Rick Binzel react to seeing the spacecraft’s last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach.

4. Majestic Mountains

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide.

5. Icy Dunes

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Found near the mountains that encircle Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia plain, newly discovered ridges appear to have formed out of particles of methane ice as small as grains of sand, arranged into dunes by wind from the nearby mountains.

6. Glacial Plains

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The vast nitrogen ice plains of Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia – the western half of Pluto’s “heart”—continue to give up secrets. Scientists processed images of Sputnik Planitia to bring out intricate, never-before-seen patterns in the surface textures of these glacial plains.

7. Colorful and Violent Charon

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High resolution images of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, show a surprisingly complex and violent history. Scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they found a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.

8. Ice Volcanoes

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One of two potential cryovolcanoes spotted on the surface of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft. This feature, known as Wright Mons, was informally named by the New Horizons team in honor of the Wright brothers. At about 90 miles (150 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) high, this feature is enormous. If it is in fact an ice volcano, as suspected, it would be the largest such feature discovered in the outer solar system.

9. Blue Rays

Pluto’s receding crescent as seen by New Horizons at a distance of 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers). Scientists believe the spectacular blue haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere. These hydrocarbons accumulate into small haze particles, which scatter blue sunlight—the same process that can make haze appear bluish on Earth.

10. Encore

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On Jan. 1, 2019, New Horizons will fly past a small Kuiper Belt Object named MU69 (nicknamed Ultima Thule)—a billion miles (1.5 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto and more than four billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from Earth. It will be the most distant encounter of an object in history—so far—and the second time New Horizons has revealed never-before-seen landscapes.

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Meet Our New Flight Directors!

We just hired six new flight directors to join a unique group of individuals who lead human spaceflights from mission control at our Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A flight director manages all human spaceflight missions and related test flights, including International Space Station missions, integration of new American-made commercial spacecraft and developing plans for future Orion missions to the Moon and beyond. 

Only 97 people have served as flight directors, or are in training to do so, in the 50-plus years of human spaceflight. That’s fewer than the over 300 astronauts!
We talked with the new class about their upcoming transitions, how to keep calm in stressful situations, the importance of human spaceflight and how to best learn from past mistakes. Here’s what they had to say…

Allison Bollinger

Allison is from Lancaster, Ohio and received a BS in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue University. She wanted to work at NASA for as long as she can remember. “I was four-and-a-half when Challenger happened,” she said. “It was my first childhood memory.” Something in her clicked that day. “After, when people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an astronaut.” 

By high school a slight fear of heights, a propensity for motion sickness and an aptitude for engineering shifted her goal a bit. She didn’t want to be an astronaut. “I wanted to train astronauts,” she said. Allison has most recently worked as at our Neutral Buoyancy Lab managing the daily operations of the 40-ft-deep pool the astronauts use for spacewalk training! She admits she’ll miss “the smell of chlorine each day. Coming to work at one of the world’s largest pools and training astronauts is an incredible job,” she says. But she’s excited to be back in mission control, where in a previous role she guided astronauts through spacewalks. 

She’s had to make some tough calls over the years. So we asked her if she had any tips for when something… isn’t going as planned. She said, “It’s so easy to think the sky is falling. Take a second to take a deep breath, and then you’ll realize it’s not as bad as you thought.”

Adi Boulos

Adi is from Chicago, Illinois and graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign with a BS in Aerospace Engineering. He joined us in 2008 as a member of the very first group of flight controllers that specialize in data handling and communications and tracking systems aboard the space station. 

Most recently he served as the group lead in the Avionics Trainee group, which he loved. “I was managing newer folks just coming to NASA from college and getting to become flight controllers,” he said. “I will miss getting to mentor them from day one.” But he’s excited to start his new role alongside some familiar faces already in mission control. “It’s a great group of people,” he said of his fellow 2018 flight director class. “The six of us, we mesh well together, and we are all from very diverse backgrounds.” 

As someone who has spent most of his career supporting human spaceflight and cargo missions from mission control, we asked him why human spaceflight is so important. He had a practical take. “It allows us to solve problems we didn’t know we had,” he said. “For example, when we went to the moon, we had to solve all kinds of problems on how to keep humans alive for long-duration flights in space which directly impacts how we live on the ground. All of the new technology we develop for living in space, we also use on the ground.”

Marcos Flores

Marcos is from Caguas, Puerto Rico and earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Puerto Rico and an MS in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue University. Spanish is his first language; English is his second. 

The first time he came to the Continental US was on a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a kid! “I always knew I wanted to work for NASA,” he said. “And I knew I wanted to be an engineer because I liked to break things to try to figure out how they worked.” He joined us in 2010 as an intern in a robotics laboratory working on conceptual designs for an experimental, autonomous land rover. He later transitioned to the space station flight control team, where he has led various projects, including major software transitions, spacewalks and commercial cargo missions! 

He shares his new coworkers’ thoughts on the practical aspects of human spaceflight and believes it’s an expression of our “drive to explore” and our “innate need to know the world and the universe better.” But for him, “It’s more about answering the fundamental questions of where we come from and where we’re headed.”

Pooja Jesrani

Pooja graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a BS in Aerospace Engineering. She began at NASA in 2007 as a flight controller responsible for the motion control system of the International Space Station. She currently works as a Capsule Communicator, talking with the astronauts on the space station, and on integration with the Boeing Starliner commercial crew spacecraft. 

She has a two-year-old daughter, and she’s passionate about motherhood, art, fashion, baking, international travel and, of course, her timing as a new flight director! “Not only have we been doing International Space Station operations continuously, and we will continue to do that, but we are about to launch U.S. crewed vehicles off of U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle in 2011. Exploration is ramping up and taking us back to the moon!” she said.” “By the time we get certified, a lot of the things we will get to do will be next-gen.”  

We asked her if she had any advice for aspiring flight directors who might want to support such missions down the road. “Work hard every day,” she said. “Every day is an interview. And get a mentor. Or multiple mentors. Having mentorship while you progress through your career is very important, and they really help guide you in the right direction.”

Paul Konyha

Paul was born in Manhasset, NY, and has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Louisiana Tech University, a Master’s of Military Operational Arts and Science from Air University, and an MS in Astronautical Engineering from the University of Southern California. He began his career as an officer in the United States Air Force in 1996 and authored the Air Force’s certification guide detailing the process through which new industry launch vehicles (including SpaceX’s Falcon 9) gain approval to launch Department of Defense (DoD) payloads. 

As a self-described “Star Wars kid,” he has always loved space and, of course, NASA! After retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2016, Paul joined Johnson Space Center as the Deputy Director of the DoD Space Test Program Human Spaceflight Payloads Office. He’s had a rich career in some pretty high-stakes roles. We asked him for advice on handling stress and recovering from life’s occasional setbacks. “For me, it’s about taking a deep breath, focusing on the data and trying not to what if too much,” he said. “Realize that mistakes are going to happen. Be mentally prepared to know that at some point it’s going to happen—you’re going to have to do that self-reflection to understand what you could’ve done better and how you’ll fix it in the future. That constant process of evaluation and self-reflection will help you get through it.”

Rebecca Wingfield

Rebecca is from Princeton, Kentucky and has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kentucky and an MS in Systems Engineering from the University of Houston, Clear Lake. She joined us in 2007 as a flight controller responsible for maintenance, repairs and hardware installations aboard the space station. 

Since then, she’s worked as a capsule communicator for the space station and commercial crew programs and on training astronauts. She’s dedicated her career to human spaceflight and has a special appreciation for the program’s long-term benefits. “As our human race advances and we change our planet in lots of different ways, we may eventually need to get off of it,” she said. “There’s no way to do that until we explore a way to do it safely and effectively for mass numbers of people. And to do that, you have to start with one person.” We asked her if there are any misconceptions about flight directors. She responded, “While they are often steely-eyed missile men and women, and they can be rough around the edges, they are also very good mentors and teachers. They’re very much engaged in bringing up the next generation of flight controllers for NASA.”

Congrats to these folks on leading the future of human spaceflight! 

You can learn more about each of them HERE

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Solar System 10 Things: Two Years of Juno at J…

Our Juno mission arrived at the King of Planets in July 2016. The intrepid robotic explorer has been revealing Jupiter’s secrets ever since. 

Here are 10 historic Juno mission highlights:

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1. Arrival at a Colossus

After an odyssey of almost five years and 1.7 billion miles (2.7 billion kilometers), our Juno spacecraft fired its main engine to enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Juno, with its suite of nine science instruments, was the first spacecraft to orbit the giant planet since the Galileo mission in the 1990s. It would be the first mission to make repeated excursions close to the cloud tops, deep inside the planet’s powerful radiation belts.

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2. Science, Meet Art

Juno carries a color camera called JunoCam. In a remarkable first for a deep space mission, the Juno team reached out to the general public not only to help plan which pictures JunoCam would take, but also to process and enhance the resulting visual data. The results include some of the most beautiful images in the history of space exploration.

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3. A Whole New Jupiter

It didn’t take long for Juno—and the science teams who hungrily consumed the data it sent home—to turn theories about how Jupiter works inside out. Among the early findings: Jupiter’s poles are covered in Earth-sized swirling storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together. Jupiter’s iconic belts and zones were surprising, with the belt near the equator penetrating far beneath the clouds, and the belts and zones at other latitudes seeming to evolve to other structures below the surface.

4. The Ultimate Classroom

The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) project, a collaboration among NASA, JPL and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, lets students do real science with a large radio telescope. GAVRT data includes Jupiter observations relevant to Juno, and Juno scientists collaborate with the students and their teachers.

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5. Spotting the Spot

Measuring in at 10,159 miles (16,350 kilometers) in width (as of April 3, 2017) Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is 1.3 times as wide as Earth. The storm has been monitored since 1830 and has possibly existed for more than 350 years. In modern times, the Great Red Spot has appeared to be shrinking. In July 2017, Juno passed directly over the spot, and JunoCam images revealed a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval.

“For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.”

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6. Beauty Runs Deep

Data collected by the Juno spacecraft during its first pass over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in July 2017 indicate that this iconic feature penetrates well below the clouds. The solar system’s most famous storm appears to have roots that penetrate about 200 miles (300 kilometers) into the planet’s atmosphere.

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7. Powerful Auroras, Powerful Mysteries

Scientists on the Juno mission observed massive amounts of energy swirling over Jupiter’s polar regions that contribute to the giant planet’s powerful auroras – only not in ways the researchers expected. Examining data collected by the ultraviolet spectrograph and energetic-particle detector instruments aboard Juno, scientists observed signatures of powerful electric potentials, aligned with Jupiter’s magnetic field, that accelerate electrons toward the Jovian atmosphere at energies up to 400,000 electron volts. This is 10 to 30 times higher than the largest such auroral potentials observed at Earth. 

Jupiter has the most powerful auroras in the solar system, so the team was not surprised that electric potentials play a role in their generation. What puzzled the researchers is that despite the magnitudes of these potentials at Jupiter, they are observed only sometimes and are not the source of the most intense auroras, as they are at Earth.

8. Heat from Within

Juno scientists shared a 3D infrared movie depicting densely packed cyclones and anticyclones that permeate the planet’s polar regions, and the first detailed view of a dynamo, or engine, powering the magnetic field for any planet beyond Earth (video above). Juno mission scientists took data collected by the spacecraft’s Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument and generated a 3D fly-around of the Jovian world’s north pole. 

Imaging in the infrared part of the spectrum, JIRAM captures light emerging from deep inside Jupiter equally well, night or day. The instrument probes the weather layer down to 30 to 45 miles (50 to 70 kilometers) below Jupiter’s cloud tops.

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9. A Highly Charged Atmosphere

Powerful bolts of lightning light up Jupiter’s clouds. In some ways its lightning is just like what we’re used to on Earth. In other ways,it’s very different. For example, most of Earth’s lightning strikes near the equator; on Jupiter, it’s mostly around the poles.

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10. Extra Innings

In June, we approved an update to Juno’s science operations until July 2021. This provides for an additional 41 months in orbit around. Juno is in 53-day orbits rather than 14-day orbits as initially planned because of a concern about valves on the spacecraft’s fuel system. This longer orbit means that it will take more time to collect the needed science data, but an independent panel of experts confirmed that Juno is on track to achieve its science objectives and is already returning spectacular results. The spacecraft and all its instruments are healthy and operating nominally. ​

Read the full web version of this week’s ‘Solar System: 10 Things to Know’ article HERE

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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: 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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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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All About That (Nucleic) Base

Studying DNA Aboard the International Space Station

What do astronauts, microbes and plants all have in common? Each relies on DNA – essentially a computer code for living things – to grow and thrive. The microscopic size of DNA, however, can create some big challenges for studying it aboard the International Space Station.

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The real question about DNA in space:
but why, tho?

Studying DNA in space could lead to a better understanding of
microgravity’s impact on living organisms and could also offer ways to identify
unknown microbes in spacecraft, humans and the deep space locations we hope to
visit one day.

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Most Earth-based
molecular research equipment is large and requires significant amounts of power
to run. Those are two characteristics that can be difficult to support aboard
the station, so previous research samples requiring DNA amplification and sequencing had to be stored in space until they
could be sent back to Earth aboard a cargo spacecraft, adding to the time
required to get results.

Fun science pro tip:
amplification means to make lots and lots of copies of a specific section of
DNA.

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However, all of
that has changed in a few short years as we’ve worked to find new solutions
for rapid in-flight molecular testing aboard the space station.

“We need[ed] to
get machines to be compact, portable, robust, and independent of much power
generation to allow for more agile testing in space,” NASA astronaut and molecular biologist Kate
Rubins said in a 2016 downlink with the National Institutes of Health.

The result? An advanced
suite of tabletop and palm-sized tools including MinION, miniPCR, and Wet-Lab-2, and more tools and processes on the
horizon.

The timeline:

Space-based DNA
testing took off in 2016 with the Biomolecule Sequencer.

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Comprised of
the MinION sequencer and a Surface Pro 3 tablet for analysis, the
tool was used to sequence DNA in space for the first time with Rubins at the helm.

In 2017, that tool was used again for Genes in Space-3, as NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson
collected and tested samples of microbial growth from around the station.

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Alongside MinION,
astronauts also tested miniPCR, a thermal cycler used to perform the polymerase
chain reaction that had been downsized to fit workbenches aboard the space
station. Together these platforms provided the identification of unknown
station microbes for the first time EVER from space.

This year, those testing capabilities translated
into an even stronger portfolio of DNA-focused research for the orbiting
laboratory’s fast-paced science schedule. For example, miniPCR is being used to
test weakened immune systems and DNA alterations as part of a student-designed
investigation known as Genes in Space-5.

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The study hopes
to reveal more about astronaut health and potential stress-related changes to
DNA created by spaceflight. Additionally, WetLab-2 facility is a suite of tools aboard the station
designed to process biological samples for real-time gene expression analysis.

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More tools for filling out the complete
molecular studies opportunities on the orbiting laboratory are heading to space
soon.

“The mini
revolution has begun,” said Sarah Wallace, our principal investigator for
the upcoming Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) investigation. “These are very small, efficient tools. We
have a nicely equipped molecular lab on station and devices ideally sized for
spaceflight.”

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BEST is
scheduled to launch to the station later this spring and will compare
swab-to-sequencer testing of unknown microbes aboard the space station against current
culture-based methods.

Fast, reliable
sequencing and identification processes could keep explorers safer on missions
into deep space. On Earth, these technologies may make genetic research more
accessible, affordable and mobile.

To learn more
about the science happening aboard the space station, follow @ISS_Research for daily updates. For opportunities to
see the space station pass over your town, check out Spot
the Station
.

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