Category: planet

Space Telescope Gets to Work

Our latest space telescope,
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April. This
week, planet hunters worldwide received all the data from the first two months
of its planet search. This view, from four cameras on TESS, shows just one
region of Earth’s southern sky.

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The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captured
this strip of stars and galaxies in the southern sky during one 30-minute
period in August. Created by combining the view from all four of its cameras, TESS
images will be used to discover new exoplanets. Notable features in this swath
include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and a globular cluster called NGC
104. The brightest stars, Beta Gruis and R Doradus, saturated an entire column
of camera detector pixels on the satellite’s second and fourth cameras.

Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS

The data in the images from TESS will soon lead to discoveries of
planets beyond our solar system – exoplanets. (We’re at 3,848 so far!)

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But first, all that data (about 27 gigabytes a day) needs to be
processed. And where do space telescopes like TESS get their data cleaned up?
At the Star Wash, of course!

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TESS sends about 10 billion pixels of data to Earth
at a time. A supercomputer at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley processes the raw
data, turning those pixels into measures of a star’s brightness.

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And that brightness? THAT’S HOW WE FIND PLANETS! A dip in a star’s
brightness can reveal an orbiting exoplanet in transit.

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TESS will spend a year studying our southern sky, then will turn
and survey our northern sky for another year. Eventually, the space telescope
will observe 85 percent of Earth’s sky, including 200,000 of the brightest and
closest stars to Earth.

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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.

Neptune

Neptune

The Kepler space telescope has shown us our ga…

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The Kepler space telescope

has taught us there are so many planets out there, they outnumber even
the stars. Here is a sample of these wondrous, weird and unexpected worlds (and
other spectacular objects in space) that Kepler has spotted with its “eye” opened to the heavens.

Kepler has found that double sunsets
really do exist.

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Yes, Star Wars fans, the double sunset on Tatooine could really exist.
Kepler discovered the first known planet around a double-star system, though

Kepler-16b is probably a gas giant without a solid surface.

Kepler has gotten us closer to finding
planets like Earth.

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Nope. Kepler hasn’t found Earth 2.0, and that wasn’t the job it set out
to do. But in its survey of hundreds of thousands of stars, Kepler found planets
near in size to Earth orbiting at a distance where liquid water could pool on
the surface. One of them, Kepler-62f, is about 40 percent bigger than Earth and
is likely rocky. Is there life on any of them? We still have a lot more to
learn.

This sizzling world is so hot iron would
melt!

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One of Kepler’s early discoveries was the small, scorched world of

Kepler-10b.

With a year that lasts less than an Earth day and density high enough to
imply it’s probably made of iron and rock, this “lava world” gave us the first
solid evidence of a rocky planet outside our solar system. 

If it’s not an alien megastructure, what
is this oddly fluctuating star?

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When Kepler detected the oddly fluctuating light from

Tabby’s
Star
,”

the internet lit up with speculation of an alien
megastructure. Astronomers have concluded it’s probably an orbiting dust
cloud.  

Kepler caught this dead
star cannibalizing its planet.

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What happens when a solar system dies? Kepler discovered a white dwarf,
the compact corpse of a star in the process of

vaporizing a
planet
.


These Kepler planets are more than twice the age of our Sun!

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The five small planets in Kepler-444

were born 11 billion years ago when our galaxy was in its youth. Imagine
what these ancient planets look like after all that time?

Kepler found a supernova exploding at
breakneck speed.

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This premier planet hunter has also been watching stars explode. Kepler
recorded a sped-up version of a supernova called a

fast-evolving
luminescent transit
” that reached its peak brightness at breakneck
speed. It was caused by a star spewing out a dense shell of gas that lit up
when hit with the shockwave from the blast. 

* All images are artist illustrations.

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Ultra-Close Orbits of Saturn = Ultra-Cool Scie…

On Sept. 15, 2017, our Cassini spacecraft ended its epic exploration of Saturn with a planned dive into the planet’s atmosphere–sending back new science to the very last second. The spacecraft is gone, but the science continues!

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New research emerging from the final orbits represents a huge leap forward in our understanding of the Saturn system – especially the mysterious, never-before-explored region between the planet and its rings. Some preconceived ideas are turning out to be wrong while new questions are being raised. How did they form? What holds them in place? What are they made of?

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Six teams of researchers are publishing their work Oct. 5 in the journal Science, based on findings from Cassini’s Grand Finale. That’s when, as the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team steered Cassini spectacularly close to Saturn in 22 orbits before deliberately vaporizing it in a final plunge into the atmosphere in September 2017.

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Knowing Cassini’s days were numbered, its mission team went for gold. The spacecraft flew where it was never designed to fly. For the first time, it probed Saturn’s magnetized environment, flew through icy, rocky ring particles and sniffed the atmosphere in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Not only did the engineering push the spacecraft to its limits, the new findings illustrate how powerful and agile the instruments were.

Many more Grand Finale science results are to come, but today’s highlights include:

  • Complex organic compounds embedded in water nanograins rain down from Saturn’s rings into its upper atmosphere. Scientists saw water and silicates, but they were surprised to see also methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The composition of organics is different from that found on moon Enceladus – and also different from those on moon Titan, meaning there are at least three distinct reservoirs of organic molecules in the Saturn system.
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  • For the first time, Cassini saw up close how rings interact with the planet and observed inner-ring particles and gases falling directly into the atmosphere. Some particles take on electric charges and spiral along magnetic-field lines, falling into Saturn at higher latitudes – a phenomenon known as “ring rain.” But scientists were surprised to see that others are dragged quickly into Saturn at the equator. And it’s all falling out of the rings faster than scientists thought – as much as 10,000 kg of material per second.
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  • Scientists were surprised to see what the material looks like in the gap between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. They knew that the particles throughout the rings ranged from large to small. They thought material in the gap would look the same. But the sampling showed mostly tiny, nanograin- and micron-sized particles, like smoke, telling us that some yet-unknown process is grinding up particles. What could it be? Future research into the final bits of data sent by Cassini may hold the answer.
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  • Saturn and its rings are even more interconnected than scientists thought. Cassini revealed a previously unknown electric current system that connects the rings to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere.
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  • Scientists discovered a new radiation belt around Saturn, close to the planet and composed of energetic particles. They found that while the belt actually intersects with the innermost ring, the ring is so tenuous that it doesn’t block the belt from forming.
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  • Unlike every other planet with a magnetic field in our Solar System, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost completely aligned with its spin axis. Think of the planet and the magnetic field as completely separate things that are both spinning. Both have the same center point, but they each have their own axis about which they spin. But for Saturn the two axes are essentially the same – no other planet does that, and we did not think it was even possible for this to happen. This new data shows a magnetic-field tilt of less than 0.0095 degrees. (Earth’s magnetic field is tilted 11 degrees from its spin axis.) According to everything scientists know about how planetary magnetic fields are generated, Saturn should not have one. It’s a mystery physicists will be working to solve.
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  • Cassini flew above Saturn’s magnetic poles, directly sampling regions where radio emissions are generated. The findings more than doubled the number of reported crossings of radio sources from the planet, one of the few non-terrestrial locations where scientists have been able to study a mechanism believed to operate throughout the universe. How are these signals generated? That’s still a mystery researchers are looking to uncover.

For the Cassini mission, the science rolling out from Grand Finale orbits confirms that the calculated risk of diving into the gap – skimming the upper atmosphere and skirting the edge of the inner rings – was worthwhile.

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Almost everything going on in that region turned out to be a surprise, which was the importance of going there, to explore a place we’d never been before. And the expedition really paid off!

Analysis of Cassini data from the spacecraft’s instruments will be ongoing for years to come, helping to paint a clearer picture of Saturn.

To read the papers published in Science, visit: URL to papers

To learn more about the ground-breaking Cassini mission and its 13 years at Saturn, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/main/index.html

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NASA’s 60th Anniversary: Home, Sweet Home

NASA’s 60th Anniversary: Home, Sweet Home

Earth is a complex, dynamic system. For 60 years, we have studied our changing planet, and our understanding continues to expand with the use of new technologies. With data from satellites, instruments on the International Space Station, airborne missions, balloons, and observations from ships and on land, we track changes to land, water, ice, and the atmosphere. Application of our Earth observations help improve life now and for future generations. Since we opened for business on Oct. 1, 1958, our history tells a story of exploration, innovation and discoveries. The next 60 years, that story continues. Learn more: https://www.nasa.gov/60

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Take a deep breath. Even if the air looks clea…

Take a deep breath. Even if the air looks clear, it is nearly certain that you will inhale millions of solid particles and liquid droplets. These ubiquitous specks of matter are known as aerosols, and they can be found in the air over oceans, deserts, mountains, forests, ice, and every ecosystem in between.

If you have ever watched smoke billowing from a wildfire, ash erupting from a volcano, or dust blowing in the wind, you have seen aerosols. Satellites like Terra, Aqua, Aura, and Suomi NPP “see” them as well, though they offer a completely different perspective from hundreds of kilometers above Earth’s surface. A version of one of our models called the Goddard Earth Observing System Forward Processing (GEOS FP) offers a similarly expansive view of the mishmash of particles that dance and swirl through the atmosphere.

The visualization above highlights GEOS FP model output for aerosols on August 23, 2018. On that day, huge plumes of smoke drifted over North America and Africa, three different tropical cyclones churned in the Pacific Ocean, and large clouds of dust blew over deserts in Africa and Asia. The storms are visible within giant swirls of sea salt aerosol(blue), which winds loft into the air as part of sea spray. Black carbon particles (red) are among the particles emitted by fires; vehicle and factory emissions are another common source. Particles the model classified as dust are shown in purple. The visualization includes a layer of night light data collected by the day-night band of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP that shows the locations of towns and cities.

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Solar System 10 Things: Spitzer Space Telescop…

Our Spitzer Space Telescope is celebrating 15 years since its launch on August 25, 2003. This remarkable spacecraft has made discoveries its designers never even imagined, including some of the seven Earth-size planets of TRAPPIST-1. Here are some key facts about Spitzer:

1. Spitzer is one of our Great Observatories.

Our Great Observatory Program aimed to explore the universe with four large space telescopes, each specialized in viewing the universe in different wavelengths of light. The other Great Observatories are our Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. By combining data from different kinds of telescopes, scientists can paint a fuller picture of our universe.

2. Spitzer operates in infrared light.

Infrared wavelengths of light, which primarily come from heat radiation, are too long to be seen with human eyes, but are important for exploring space — especially when it comes to getting information about something extremely far away. From turbulent clouds where stars are born to small asteroids close to Earth’s orbit, a wide range of phenomena can be studied in infrared light. Objects too faint or distant for optical telescopes to detect, hidden by dense clouds of space dust, can often be seen with Spitzer. In this way, Spitzer acts as an extension of human vision to explore the universe, near and far.

What’s more, Spitzer doesn’t have to contend with Earth’s atmosphere, daily temperature variations or day-night cycles, unlike ground-based telescopes. With a mirror less than 1 meter in diameter, Spitzer in space is more sensitive than even a 10-meter-diameter telescope on Earth.

3. Spitzer was the first spacecraft to fly in an Earth-trailing orbit.

Rather than circling Earth, as Hubble does, Spitzer orbits the Sun on almost the same path as Earth. But Spitzer moves slower than Earth, so the spacecraft drifts farther away from our planet each year.

This “Earth-trailing orbit” has many advantages. Being farther from Earth than a satellite, it receives less heat from our planet and enjoys a naturally cooler environment. Spitzer also benefits from a wider view of the sky by orbiting the Sun. While its field of view changes throughout the year, at any given time it can see about one-third of the sky. Our Kepler space telescope, famous for finding thousands of exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – also settled in an Earth-trailing orbit six years after Spitzer.

4. Spitzer began in a “cold mission.”

Spitzer has far outlived its initial requirement of 2.5 years. The Spitzer team calls the first 5.5 years “the cold mission” because the spacecraft’s instruments were deliberately cooled down during that time. Liquid helium coolant kept Spitzer’s instruments just a few degrees above absolute zero (which is minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273 degrees Celsius) in this first part of the mission.

5. The “warm mission” was still pretty cold.

Spitzer entered what was called the “warm mission” when the 360 liters of liquid helium coolant that was chilling its instruments ran out in May 2009.

At the “warm” temperature of minus 405 Fahrenheit, two of Spitzer’s instruments – the Infrared Spectrograph (IRS) and Multiband Imaging Photometer (MIPS) – stopped working. But two of the four detector arrays in the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) persisted. These “channels” of the camera have driven Spitzer’s explorations since then.

6. Spitzer wasn’t designed to study exoplanets, but made huge strides in this area.

Exoplanet science was in its infancy in 2003 when Spitzer launched, so the mission’s first scientists and engineers had no idea it could observe planets beyond our solar system. But the telescope’s accurate star-targeting system and the ability to control unwanted changes in temperature have made it a useful tool for studying exoplanets. During the Spitzer mission, engineers have learned how to control the spacecraft’s pointing more precisely to find and characterize exoplanets, too.

Using what’s called the “transit method,” Spitzer can stare at a star and detect periodic dips in brightness that happen when a planet crosses a star’s face. In one of its most remarkable achievements, Spitzer discovered three of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and confirmed that the system has seven Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star. Spitzer data also helped scientists determine that all seven planets are rocky, and made these the best-understood exoplanets to date.

Spitzer can also use a technique called microlensing to find planets closer to the center of our galaxy. When a star passes in front of another star, the gravity of the first star can act as a lens, making the light from the more distant star appear brighter. Scientists are using microlensing to look for a blip in that brightening, which could mean that the foreground star has a planet orbiting it. Microlensing could not have been done early in the mission when Spitzer was closer to Earth, but now that the spacecraft is farther away, it has a better chance of measuring these events.

7. Spitzer is a window into the distant past.

The spacecraft has observed and helped discover some of the most distant objects in the universe, helping scientists understand where we came from. Originally, Spitzer’s camera designers had hoped the spacecraft would detect galaxies about 12 billion light-years away. In fact, Spitzer has surpassed that, and can see even farther back in time – almost to the beginning of the universe. In collaboration with Hubble, Spitzer helped characterize the galaxy GN-z11 about 13.4 billion light-years away, whose light has been traveling since 400 million years after the big bang. It is the farthest galaxy known.

8. Spitzer discovered Saturn’s largest ring.

Everyone knows Saturn has distinctive rings, but did you know its largest ring was only discovered in 2009, thanks to Spitzer? Because this outer ring doesn’t reflect much visible light, Earth-based telescopes would have a hard time seeing it. But Spitzer saw the infrared glow from the cool dust in the ring. It begins 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Saturn and extends about 7.4 million miles (12 million kilometers) beyond that.

9. The “Beyond Phase” pushes Spitzer to new limits.

In 2016, Spitzer entered its “Beyond phase,” with a name reflecting how the spacecraft operates beyond its original scope.

As Spitzer floats away from Earth, its increasing distance presents communication challenges. Engineers must point Spitzer’s antenna at higher angles toward the Sun in order to talk to our planet, which exposes the spacecraft to more heat. At the same time, the spacecraft’s solar panels receive less sunlight because they point away from the Sun, putting more stress on the battery.

The team decided to override some autonomous safety systems so Spitzer could continue to operate in this riskier mode. But so far, the Beyond phase is going smoothly.

10. Spitzer paves the way for future infrared telescopes.

Spitzer has identified areas of further study for our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2021. Webb will also explore the universe in infrared light, picking up where Spitzer eventually will leave off. With its enhanced ability to probe planetary atmospheres, Webb may reveal striking new details about exoplanets that Spitzer found. Distant galaxies unveiled by Spitzer together with other telescopes will also be observed in further detail by Webb. The space telescope we are planning after that, WFIRST, will also investigate long-standing mysteries by looking at infrared light. Scientists planning studies with future infrared telescopes will naturally build upon the pioneering legacy of Spitzer.

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

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Solar System 10 Things: Dust in the Wind, on M…

To most of us, dust is an annoyance. Something to be cleaned up, washed off or wiped away. But these tiny particles that float about and settle on surfaces play an important role in a variety of processes on Earth and across the solar system. So put away that feather duster for a few moments, as we share with you 10 things to know about dust.

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1. “Dust” Doesn’t Mean Dirty, it Means Tiny

Not all of what we call “dust” is made of the same stuff. Dust in your home generally consists of things like particles of sand and soil, pollen, dander (dead skin cells), pet hair, furniture fibers and cosmetics. But in space, dust can refer to any sort of fine particles smaller than a grain of sand. Dust is most commonly bits of rock or carbon-rich, soot-like grains, but in the outer solar system, far from the Sun’s warmth, it’s also common to find tiny grains of ice as well. Galaxies, including our Milky Way, contain giant clouds of fine dust that are light years across – the ingredients for future generations of planetary systems like ours.

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2. Some Are Big, Some Are Small (and Big Ones Tend to Fall)

Dust grains come in a range of sizes, which affects their properties. Particles can be extremely tiny, from only a few tens of nanometers (mere billionths of a meter) wide, to nearly a millimeter wide. As you might expect, smaller dust grains are more easily lifted and pushed around, be it by winds or magnetic, electrical and gravitational forces. Even the gentle pressure of sunlight is enough to move smaller dust particles in space. Bigger particles tend to be heavier, and they settle out more easily under the influence of gravity.

For example, on Earth, powerful winds can whip up large amounts of dust into the atmosphere. While the smaller grains can be transported over great distances, the heavier particles generally sink back to the ground near their source. On Saturn’s moon Enceladus, jets of icy dust particles spray hundreds of miles up from the surface; the bigger particles are lofted only a few tens of miles (or kilometers) and fall back to the ground, while the finest particles escape the moon’s gravity and go into orbit around Saturn to create the planet’s E ring.

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3. It’s EVERYWHERE

Generally speaking, the space between the planets is pretty empty, but not completely so. Particles cast off by comets and ground up bits of asteroids are found throughout the solar system. Take any volume of space half a mile (1 kilometer) on a side, and you’d average a few micron-sized particles (grains the thickness of a red blood cell).

Dust in the solar system was a lot more abundant in the past. There was a huge amount of it present as the planets began to coalesce out of the disk of material that formed the Sun. In fact, motes of dust gently sticking together were likely some of the earliest seeds of the planet-building process. But where did all that dust come from, originally? Some of it comes from stars like our Sun, which blow off their outer layers in their later years. But lots of it also comes from exploding stars, which blast huge amounts of dust and gas into space when they go boom.

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4. From a Certain Point of View

Dust is easier to see from certain viewing angles. Tiny particles scatter light depending on how big their grains are. Larger particles tend to scatter light back in the direction from which it came, while very tiny particles tend to scatter light forward, more or less in the direction it was already going. Because of this property, structures like planetary rings made of the finest dusty particles are best viewed with the Sun illuminating them from behind. For example, Jupiter’s rings were only discovered after the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed by the planet, where it could look back and see them backlit by the Sun. You can see the same effect looking through a dusty windshield at sunset; when you face toward the Sun, the dust becomes much more apparent.

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5. Dust Storms Are Common on Mars

Local dust storms occur frequently on Mars, and occasionally grow or merge to form regional systems, particularly during the southern spring and summer, when Mars is closest to the Sun. On rare occasions, regional storms produce a dust haze that encircles the planet and obscures surface features beneath. A few of these events may become truly global storms, such as one in 1971 that greeted the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, our Mariner 9. In mid-2018, a global dust storm enshrouded Mars, hiding much of the Red Planet’s surface from view and threatening the continued operation of our uber long-lived Opportunity rover. We’ve also seen global dust storms in 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007.

Dust storms will likely present challenges for future astronauts on the Red Planet. Although the force of the wind on Mars is not as strong as portrayed in an early scene in the movie “The Martian,” dust lofted during storms could affect electronics and health, as well as the availability of solar energy.

6. Dust From the Sahara Goes Global

Earth’s largest, hottest desert is connected to its largest tropical rain forest by dust. The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rain forest is a dense green mass of humid jungle that covers northeast South America. But after strong winds sweep across the Sahara, a dusty cloud rises in the air, stretches between the continents, and ties together the desert and the jungle.

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust. Specifically, the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad – an ancient lake bed where minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the nutrient-poor Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.

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7. Rings and Things

The rings of the giant planets contain a variety of different dusty materials. Jupiter’s rings are made of fine rock dust. Saturn’s rings are mostly pure water ice, with a sprinkling of other materials. (Side note about Saturn’s rings: While most of the particles are boulder-sized, there’s also lots of fine dust, and some of the fainter rings are mostly dust with few or no large particles.) Dust in the rings of Uranus and Neptune is made of dark, sooty material, probably rich in carbon.

Over time, dust gets removed from ring systems due to a variety of processes. For example, some of the dust falls into the planet’s atmosphere, while some gets swept up by the planets’ magnetic fields, and other dust settles onto the surfaces of the moons and other ring particles. Larger particles eventually form new moons or get ground down and mixed with incoming material. This means rings can change a lot over time, so understanding how the tiniest ring particles are being moved about has bearing on the history, origins and future of the rings.

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8. Moon Dust is Clingy and Might Make You Sick

So, dust is kind of a thing on the Moon. When the Apollo astronauts visited the Moon, they found that lunar dust quickly coated their spacesuits and was difficult to remove. It was quite abrasive, causing wear on their spacesuit fabrics, seals and faceplates. It also clogged mechanisms like the joints in spacesuit limbs, and interfered with fasteners like zippers and Velcro. The astronauts also noted that it had a distinctive, pungent odor, not unlike gunpowder, and it was an eye and lung irritant.

Many of these properties apparently can be explained by the fact that lunar dust particles are quite rough and jagged. While dust particles on Earth get tumbled and ground by the wind into smoother shapes, this sort of weathering doesn’t happen so much on the Moon. The roughness of Moon dust grains makes it very easy for them to cling to surfaces and scratch them up. It also means they’re not the sort of thing you would want to inhale, as their jagged edges could damage delicate tissues in the lung.

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9. Dust is What Makes Comets So Pretty

Most comets are basically clods of dust, rock and ice. They spend most of their time far from the Sun, out in the refrigerated depths of the outer solar system, where they’re peacefully dormant. But when their orbits carry them closer to the Sun – that is, roughly inside the orbit of Jupiter – comets wake up. In response to warming temperatures, the ices on and near their surfaces begin to turn into gases, expanding outward and away from the comet, and creating focused jets of material in places. Dust gets carried away by this rapidly expanding gas, creating a fuzzy cloud around the comet’s nucleus called a coma. Some of the dust also is drawn out into a long trail – the comet’s tail.

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10. We’re Not the Only Ones Who’re So Dusty

Dust in our solar system is continually replenished by comets whizzing past the Sun and the occasional asteroid collision, and it’s always being moved about, thanks to a variety of factors like the gravity of the planets and even the pressure of sunlight. Some of it even gets ejected from our solar system altogether.

With telescopes, we also observe dusty debris disks around many other stars. As in our own system, the dust in such disks should evolve over time, settling on planetary surfaces or being ejected, and this means the dust must be replenished in those star systems as well. So studying the dust in our planetary environs can tell us about other systems, and vice versa. Grains of dust from other planetary systems also pass through our neighborhood – a few spacecraft have actually captured and analyzed some them – offering us a tangible way to study material from other stars.

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

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Solar System: 10 Ways Interns Are Exploring Sp…

Simulating alien worlds, designing spacecraft with origami and using tiny fossils to understand the lives of ancient organisms are all in a day’s work for interns at NASA.

Here’s how interns are taking our missions and science farther.

1. Connecting Satellites in Space

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Becca Foust looks as if she’s literally in space – or, at least, on a sci-fi movie set. She’s surrounded by black, except for the brilliant white comet model suspended behind her. Beneath the socks she donned just for this purpose, the black floor reflects the scene like perfectly still water across a lake as she describes what happens here: “We have five spacecraft simulators that ‘fly’ in a specially designed flat-floor facility,” she says. “The spacecraft simulators use air bearings to lift the robots off the floor, kind of like a reverse air hockey table. The top part of the spacecraft simulators can move up and down and rotate all around in a similar way to real satellites.” It’s here, in this test bed on the Caltech campus, that Foust is testing an algorithm she’s developing to autonomously assemble and disassemble satellites in space. “I like to call it space K’nex, like the toys. We’re using a bunch of component satellites and trying to figure out how to bring all of the pieces together and make them fit together in orbit,” she says. A NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, who splits her time between Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), working with Soon-Jo Chung and Fred Hadaegh, respectively, Foust is currently earning her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says of her fellowship, “I hope my research leads to smarter, more efficient satellite systems for in-space construction and assembly.”

2. Diving Deep on the Science of Alien Oceans

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Three years ago, math and science were just subjects Kathy Vega taught her students as part of Teach for America. Vega, whose family emigrated from El Salvador, was the first in her family to go to college. She had always been interested in space and even dreamed about being an astronaut one day, but earned a degree in political science so she could get involved in issues affecting her community. But between teaching and encouraging her family to go into science, It was only a matter of time before she realized just how much she wanted to be in the STEM world herself. Now an intern at NASA JPL and in the middle of earning a second degree, this time in engineering physics, Vega is working on an experiment that will help scientists search for life beyond Earth. 

“My project is setting up an experiment to simulate possible ocean compositions that would exist on other worlds,” says Vega. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, are key targets in the search for life beyond Earth because they show evidence of global oceans and geologic activity. Those factors could allow life to thrive. JPL is already building a spacecraft designed to orbit Europa and planning for another to land on the icy moon’s surface. “Eventually, [this experiment] will help us prepare for the development of landers to go to Europa, Enceladus and another one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, to collect seismic measurements that we can compare to our simulated ones,” says Vega. “I feel as though I’m laying the foundation for these missions.”

3. Unfolding Views on Planets Beyond Our Solar System

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“Origami is going to space now? This is amazing!” Chris Esquer-Rosas had been folding – and unfolding – origami since the fourth grade, carefully measuring the intricate patterns and angles produced by the folds and then creating new forms from what he’d learned. “Origami involves a lot of math. A lot of people don’t realize that. But what actually goes into it is lots of geometric shapes and angles that you have to account for,” says Esquer-Rosas. Until three years ago, the computer engineering student at San Bernardino College had no idea that his origami hobby would turn into an internship opportunity at NASA JPL. That is, until his long-time friend, fellow origami artist and JPL intern Robert Salazar connected him with the Starshade project. Starshade has been proposed as a way to suppress starlight that would otherwise drown out the light from planets outside our solar system so we can characterize them and even find out if they’re likely to support life. Making that happen requires some heavy origami – unfurling a precisely-designed, sunflower-shaped structure the size of a baseball diamond from a package about half the size of a pitcher’s mound. It’s Esquer-Rosas’ project this summer to make sure Starshade’s “petals” unfurl without a hitch. Says Esquer-Rosas, “[The interns] are on the front lines of testing out the hardware and making sure everything works. I feel as though we’re contributing a lot to how this thing is eventually going to deploy in space.”

4. Making Leaps in Extreme Robotics

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Wheeled rovers may be the norm on Mars, but Sawyer Elliott thinks a different kind of rolling robot could be the Red Planet explorer of the future. This is Elliott’s second year as a fellow at NASA JPL, researching the use of a cube-shaped robot for maneuvering around extreme environments, like rocky slopes on Mars or places with very little gravity, like asteroids. A graduate student in aerospace engineering at Cornell University, Elliott spent his last stint at JPL developing and testing the feasibility of such a rover. “I started off working solely on the rover and looking at can we make this work in a real-world environment with actual gravity,” says Elliott. “It turns out we could.” So this summer, he’s been improving the controls that get it rolling or even hopping on command. In the future, Elliott hopes to keep his research rolling along as a fellow at JPL or another NASA center. “I’m only getting more and more interested as I go, so I guess that’s a good sign,” he says.

5. Starting from the Ground Up

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Before the countdown to launch or the assembling of parts or the gathering of mission scientists and engineers, there are people like Joshua Gaston who are helping turn what’s little more than an idea into something more. As an intern with NASA JPL’s project formulation team, Gaston is helping pave the way for a mission concept that aims to send dozens of tiny satellites, called CubeSats, beyond Earth’s gravity to other bodies in the solar system. “This is sort of like step one,” says Gaston. “We have this idea and we need to figure out how to make it happen.” Gaston’s role is to analyze whether various CubeSat models can be outfitted with the needed science instruments and still make weight. Mass is an important consideration in mission planning because it affects everything from the cost to the launch vehicle to the ability to launch at all. Gaston, an aerospace engineering student at Tuskegee University, says of his project, “It seems like a small role, but at the same time, it’s kind of big. If you don’t know where things are going to go on your spacecraft or you don’t know how the spacecraft is going to look, it’s hard to even get the proposal selected.”

6. Finding Life on the Rocks

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By putting tiny samples of fossils barely visible to the human eye through a chemical process, a team of NASA JPL scientists is revealing details about organisms that left their mark on Earth billions of years ago. Now, they have set their sights on studying the first samples returned from Mars in the future. But searching for signatures of life in such a rare and limited resource means the team will have to get the most science they can out of the smallest sample possible. That’s where Amanda Allen, an intern working with the team in JPL’s Astrobiogeochemistry, or abcLab, comes in. “Using the current, state-of-the-art method, you need a sample that’s 10 times larger than we’re aiming for,” says Allen, an Earth science undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, who is doing her fifth internship at JPL. “I’m trying to get a different method to work.” Allen, who was involved in theater and costume design before deciding to pursue Earth science, says her “superpower” has always been her ability to find things. “If there’s something cool to find on Mars related to astrobiology, I think I can help with that,” she says.

7. Taking Space Flight Farther

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If everything goes as planned and a thruster like the one Camille V. Yoke is working on eventually helps send astronauts to Mars, she’ll probably be first in line to play the Mark Watney role. “I’m a fan of the Mark Watney style of life [in “The Martian”], where you’re stranded on a planet somewhere and the only thing between you and death is your own ability to work through problems and engineer things on a shoestring,” says Yoke. A physics major at the University of South Carolina, Yoke is interning with a team that’s developing a next-generation electric thruster designed to accelerate spacecraft more efficiently through the solar system. “Today there was a brief period in which I knew something that nobody else on the planet knew – for 20 minutes before I went and told my boss,” says Yoke. “You feel like you’re contributing when you know that you have discovered something new.”

8. Searching for Life Beyond Our Solar System

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Without the option to travel thousands or even tens of light-years from Earth in a single lifetime, scientists hoping to discover signs of life on planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets, are instead creating their own right here on Earth. This is Tre’Shunda James’ second summer simulating alien worlds as an intern at NASA JPL. Using an algorithm developed by her mentor, Renyu Hu, James makes small changes to the atmospheric makeup of theoretical worlds and analyzes whether the combination creates a habitable environment. “This model is a theoretical basis that we can apply to many exoplanets that are discovered,” says James, a chemistry and physics major at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “In that way, it’s really pushing the field forward in terms of finding out if life could exist on these planets.” James, who recently became a first-time co-author on a scientific paper about the team’s findings, says she feels as though she’s contributing to furthering the search for life beyond Earth while also bringing diversity to her field. “I feel like just being here, exploring this field, is pushing the boundaries, and I’m excited about that.”

9. Spinning Up a Mars Helicopter

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Chloeleen Mena’s role on the Mars Helicopter project may be small, but so is the helicopter designed to make the first flight on the Red Planet. Mena, an electrical engineering student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, started her NASA JPL internship just days after NASA announced that the helicopter, which had been in development at JPL for nearly five years, would be going to the Red Planet aboard the Mars 2020 rover. This summer, Mena is helping test a part needed to deploy the helicopter from the rover once it lands on Mars, as well as writing procedures for future tests. “Even though my tasks are relatively small, it’s part of a bigger whole,” she says.

10. Preparing to See the Unseen on Jupiter’s Moon Europa

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In the 2020s, we’re planning to send a spacecraft to the next frontier in the search for life beyond Earth: Jupiter’s moon Europa. Swathed in ice that’s intersected by deep reddish gashes, Europa has unveiled intriguing clues about what might lie beneath its surface – including a global ocean that could be hospitable to life. Knowing for sure hinges on a radar instrument that will fly aboard the Europa Clipper orbiter to peer below the ice with a sort of X-ray vision and scout locations to set down a potential future lander. To make sure everything works as planned, NASA JPL intern Zachary Luppen is creating software to test key components of the radar instrument. “Whatever we need to do to make sure it operates perfectly during the mission,” says Luppen. In addition to helping things run smoothly, the astronomy and physics major says he hopes to play a role in answering one of humanity’s biggest questions. “Contributing to the mission is great in itself,” says Luppen. “But also just trying to make as many people aware as possible that this science is going on, that it’s worth doing and worth finding out, especially if we were to eventually find life on Europa. That changes humanity forever!”

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

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