Category: spacecraft

Earth from Afar

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

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This week we’re celebrating Earth Day 2018 with some of our favorite images of Earth from afar…

At 7.2 million Miles…and 4 Billion Miles

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Voyager famously captured two unique views of our homeworld from afar. One image, taken in 1977 from a distance of 7.3 million miles (11.7 million kilometers) (above), showed the full Earth and full Moon in a single frame for the first time in history. The second (below), taken in 1990 as part of a “family portrait of our solar system from 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers), shows Earth as a tiny blue speck in a ray of sunlight.” This is the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image immortalized by Carl Sagan.

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“This was our willingness to see the Earth as a one-pixel object in a far greater cosmos,” Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan said of the image. “It’s that humility that science gives us. That weans us from our childhood need to be the center of things. And Voyager gave us that image of the Earth that is so heart tugging because you can’t look at that image and not think of how fragile, how fragile our world is. How much we have in common with everyone with whom we share it; our relationship, our relatedness, to everyone on this tiny pixel.“

A Bright Flashlight in a Dark Sea of Stars

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Our Kepler mission captured Earth’s image as it slipped past at a distance of 94 million miles (151 million kilometers). The reflection was so extraordinarily bright that it created a saber-like saturation bleed across the instrument’s sensors, obscuring the neighboring Moon.

Hello and Goodbye

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This beautiful shot of Earth as a dot beneath Saturn’s rings was taken in 2013 as thousands of humans on Earth waved at the exact moment the spacecraft pointed its cameras at our home world. Then, in 2017, Cassini caught this final view of Earth between Saturn’s rings as the spacecraft spiraled in for its Grand Finale at Saturn.

‘Simply Stunning’

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The image is simply stunning. The image of the Earth evokes the famous ‘Blue Marble’ image taken by astronaut Harrison Schmitt during Apollo 17…which also showed Africa prominently in the picture.“ -Noah Petro, Deputy Project Scientist for our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

Goodbye—for now—at 19,000 mph

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As part of an engineering test, our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured this image of Earth and the Moon in January 2018 from a distance of 39.5 million miles (63.6 million kilometers). When the camera acquired the image, the spacecraft was moving away from our home planet at a speed of 19,000 miles per hour (8.5 kilometers per second). Earth is the largest, brightest spot in the center of the image, with the smaller, dimmer Moon appearing to the right. Several constellations are also visible in the surrounding space.

The View from Mars

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A human observer with normal vision, standing on Mars, could easily see Earth and the Moon as two distinct, bright "evening stars.”

Moon Photobomb

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“This image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite captured a unique view of the Moon as it moved in front of the sunlit side of Earth in 2015. It provides a view of the far side of the Moon, which is never directly visible to us here on Earth. “I found this perspective profoundly moving and only through our satellite views could this have been shared.” – Michael Freilich, Director of our Earth Science Division.

Eight Days Out

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Eight days after its final encounter with Earththe second of two gravitational assists from Earth that helped boost the spacecraft to Jupiterthe Galileo spacecraft looked back and captured this remarkable view of our planet and its Moon. The image was taken from a distance of about 3.9 million miles (6.2 million kilometers).

A Slice of Life

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Earth from about 393,000 miles (633,000 kilometers) away, as seen by the European Space Agency’s comet-bound Rosetta spacecraft during its third and final swingby of our home planet in 2009.

So Long Earth

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The Mercury-bound MESSENGER spacecraft captured several stunning images of Earth during a gravity assist swingby of our home planet on Aug. 2, 2005.

Earth Science: Taking a Closer Look

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Our home planet is a beautiful, dynamic place. Our view from Earth orbit sees a planet at change. Check out more images of our beautiful Earth here.

Join Our Earth Day Celebration!

We pioneer and supports an amazing range of advanced technologies and tools to help scientists and environmental specialists better understand and protect our home planet – from space lasers to virtual reality, small satellites and smartphone apps. 

To celebrate Earth Day 2018, April 22, we are highlighting many of these innovative technologies and the amazing applications behind them.

Learn more about our Earth Day plans HERE

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The Hunt for New Worlds Continues with TESS

We’re getting ready to start our next mission to find new worlds! The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will find thousands of planets beyond our solar system for us to study in more detail. It’s preparing to launch from our Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

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Once it launches, TESS will look for new planets that orbit bright stars relatively close to Earth. We’re expecting to find giant planets, like Jupiter, but we’re also predicting we’ll find Earth-sized planets. Most of those planets will be within 300 light-years of Earth, which will make follow-up studies easier for other observatories.

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TESS will find these new exoplanets by looking for their transits. A transit is a temporary dip in a star’s brightness that happens with predictable timing when a planet crosses between us and the star. The information we get from transits can tell us about the size of the planet relative to the size of its star. We’ve found nearly 3,000 planets using the transit method, many with our Kepler space telescope. That’s over 75% of all the exoplanets we’ve found so far!

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TESS will look at nearly the entire sky (about 85%) over two years. The mission divides the sky into 26 sectors. TESS will look at 13 of them in the southern sky during its first year before scanning the northern sky the year after.

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What makes TESS different from the other planet-hunting missions that have come before it? The Kepler mission (yellow) looked continually at one small patch of sky, spotting dim stars and their planets that are between 300 and 3,000 light-years away. TESS (blue) will look at almost the whole sky in sections, finding bright stars and their planets that are between 30 and 300 light-years away.

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TESS will also have a brand new kind of orbit (visualized below). Once it reaches its final trajectory, TESS will finish one pass around Earth every 13.7 days (blue), which is half the time it takes for the Moon (gray) to orbit. This position maximizes the amount of time TESS can stare at each sector, and the satellite will transmit its data back to us each time its orbit takes it closest to Earth (orange).

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Kepler’s goal was to figure out how common Earth-size planets might be. TESS’s mission is to find exoplanets around bright, nearby stars so future missions, like our James Webb Space Telescope, and ground-based observatories can learn what they’re made of and potentially even study their atmospheres. TESS will provide a catalog of thousands of new subjects for us to learn about and explore.

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The TESS mission is led by MIT and came together with the help of many different partners. Learn more about TESS and how it will further our knowledge of exoplanets, or check out some more awesome images and videos of the spacecraft. And stay tuned for more exciting TESS news as the spacecraft launches!

Watch the Launch + More!

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Sunday, April 15
11 a.m. EDT – NASA Social Mission Overview

Join mission experts to learn more about TESS, how it will search for worlds beyond our solar system and what scientists hope to find! Have questions? Use #askNASA to have them answered live during the broadcast.

Watch HERE


1 p.m. EDT – Prelaunch News Conference

Get an update on the spacecraft, the rocket and the liftoff operations ahead of the April 16 launch! Have questions? Use #askNASA to have them answered live during the broadcast.

Watch HERE.


3 p.m. EDT – Science News Conference

Hear from mission scientists and experts about the science behind the TESS mission. Have questions? Use #askNASA to have them answered live during the broadcast. 

Watch HERE.


4 p.m. EDT – TESS Facebook Live

This live show will dive into the science behind the TESS spacecraft, explain how we search for planets outside our solar system and will allow you to ask your questions to members of the TESS team. 

Watch HERE


Monday, April 16
10 a.m. EDT – NASA EDGE: TESS Facebook Live

This half-hour live show will discuss the TESS spacecraft, the science of searching for planets outside our solar system, and the launch from Cape Canaveral.

Watch HERE.

1 p.m. EDT – Reddit AMA

Join us live on Reddit for a Science AMA to discuss the hunt for exoplanets and the upcoming launch of TESS!

Join in HERE.


6 p.m. EDT – Launch Coverage!

TESS is slated to launch at 6:32 p.m. EDT on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from our Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Watch HERE.

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A Tour of our Moon

Want to go to the Moon? 

Let our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter take you there!

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Our lunar orbiter, also known as LRO, has been collecting data on lunar topography, temperature, resources, solar radiation, and geology since it launched nine years ago. Our latest collection of this data is now in 4K resolution. This updated “Tour of the Moon” takes you on a virtual tour of our nearest neighbor in space, with new science updates from the vastly expanded data trove.

Orientale Basin

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First stop, Orientale Basin located on the rim of the western nearside. It’s about the size of Texas and is the best-preserved impact structure on the Moon. Topography data from LRO combined with gravity measurements from our twin GRAIL spacecraft reveal the structure below the surface and help us understand the geologic consequences of large impacts.

South-Pole and Shackleton Crater

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Unlike Earth, the Moon’s axis is barely tilted relative to the Sun. This means that there are craters at the poles where the sunlight never reaches, called permanently shadowed regions. As a result, the Moon’s South Pole has some of the coldest measured places in the solar system. How cold? -410 degrees F.

Because these craters are so cold and dark, water that happens to find its way into them never has the opportunity to evaporate. Several of the instruments on LRO have found evidence of water ice, which you can see in the highlighted spots in this visualization.

South-Pole Aitken Basin

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South Pole-Aitken Basin is the Moon’s largest, deepest and oldest observed impact structure. Its diameter is about 2,200 km or 1,367 miles across and takes up ¼ of the Moon! If there was a flat, straight road and you were driving 60 mph, it would take you about 22 hours to drive across. And the basin is so deep that nearly two Mount Everests stacked on each other would fit from the bottom of the basin to the rim. South-Pole Aitken Basin is a top choice for a landing site on the far side of the Moon.

Tycho Crater

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Now let’s go to the near side. Tycho Crater is 100 million years young. Yes, that’s young in geologic time. The central peak of the impact crater likely formed from material that rebounded back up after being compressed in the impact, almost like a spring. Check out that boulder on top. It looks small in this image, but it could fill a baseball stadium.

Aristarchus Plateau

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Also prominent on the nearside is the Aristarchus Plateau. It features a crater so bright that you could see it with your naked eye from Earth! The Aristarchus Plateau is particularly interesting to our scientists because it reveals much of the Moon’s volcanic history. The region is covered in rocks from volcanic eruptions and the large river-like structure is actually a channel made from a long-ago lava flow.

Apollo 17 Landing Site

As much as we study the Moon looking for sites to visit, we also look back at places we’ve already been. This is because the new data that LRO is gathering helps us reinterpret the geology of familiar places, giving scientists a better understanding of the sequence of events in early lunar history.

Here, we descend to the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon. The LRO camera is even able to capture a view of the bottom half of the Apollo 17 Lunar Lander, which still sits on the surface, as well as the rover vehicle. These images help preserve our accomplishment of human exploration on the Moon’s surface.

North Pole

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Finally, we reach the North Pole. Like the South Pole, there are areas that are in permanent shadow and others that bask in nearly perpetual light. LRO scientists have taken detailed brightness and terrain measurements of the North Pole in order to model these areas of sunlight and shadow through time.  Sunlit peaks and crater rims here may be ideal locations for generating solar power for future expeditions to the Moon.

LRO was designed as a one-year mission. Now in its ninth year, the spacecraft and the data emphasize the power of long-term data collection. Thanks to its many orbits around the Moon, we have been able to expand on lunar science from the Apollo missions while paving the way for future lunar exploration. And as the mission continues to gather data, it will provide us with many more opportunities to take a tour of our Moon. 

And HERE’s the full “Tour of the Moon” video:

We hope you enjoyed the tour. If you’d like to explore the moon further, please visit moon.nasa.gov and moontrek.jpl.nasa.gov.

Make sure to follow @NASAMoon on Twitter for the latest lunar updates and photos.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com

Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Planets Outside Our Solar System

Let the planet-hunting begin!

Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will scan the skies to look for planets beyond our solar system—known as exoplanets—is now in Florida to begin preparations for launch in April. Below, 10 Things to know about the many, many unknown planets out there awaiting our discovery.

1Exo-what?

We call planets in our solar system, well, planets, but the many planets we’re starting to discover outside of our solar system are called exoplanets. Basically, they’re planets that orbit another star.

2All eyes on TRAPPIST-1.

Remember the major 2016 announcement that we had discovered seven planets 40 light-years away, orbiting a star called TRAPPIST-1? Those are all exoplanets. (Here’s a refresher.)

3Add 95 new ones to that.

Just last month, our Kepler telescope discovered 95 new exoplanets beyond our solar system (on top of the thousands of exoplanets Kepler has discovered so far). The total known planet count beyond our solar system is now more than 3,700. The planets range in size from mostly rocky super-Earths and fluffy mini-Neptunes, to Jupiter-like giants. They include a new planet orbiting a very bright star—the brightest star ever discovered by Kepler to have a transiting planet.

4Here comes TESS.

How many more exoplanets are out there waiting to be discovered? TESS will monitor more than 200,000 of the nearest and brightest stars in search of transit events—periodic dips in a star’s brightness caused by planets passing in front—and is expected to find thousands of exoplanets.

5With a sidekick, too.

Our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, will provide important follow-up observations of some of the most promising TESS-discovered exoplanets. It will also allow scientists to study their atmospheres and, in some special cases, search for signs that these planets could support life.

6Prepped for launch.

TESS is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station nearby our Kennedy Space Center in Florida, no earlier than April 16, pending range approval.

7A groundbreaking find.

In 1995, 51 Pegasi b (also called “Dimidium”) was the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a star like our Sun. This find confirmed that planets like the ones in our solar system could exist elsewhere in the universe.

8Trillions await.

A recent statistical estimate places, on average, at least one planet around every star in the galaxy. That means there could be a trillion planets in our galaxy alone, many of them in the range of Earth’s size.

9Signs of life.

Of course, our ultimate science goal is to find unmistakable signs of current life. How soon can that happen? It depends on two unknowns: the prevalence of life in the galaxy and a bit of luck. Read more about the search for life.

10Want to explore the galaxy?

No need to be an astronaut. Take a trip outside our solar system with help from our Exoplanet Travel Bureau.

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

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Science-Heavy SpaceX Dragon Headed to Space St…

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

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

Sprites and Elves in Space

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

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

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

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Metal Powder Fabrication

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

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

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

Plants in space! It’s l[a]unch time!

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

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

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

Testing Materials in Space

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

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

Patching up Wounds

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

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

Follow @ISS_Research on Twitter for your daily dose of nerdy, spacey goodness.

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With unearthly jet-streams, many massive swirl…

With unearthly jet-streams, many massive swirling cyclones and winds running deep into its atmosphere — new data from our Juno Mission to Jupiter unveils discoveries and clues about the gas-giant planet. 

This composite image, derived from data collected by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard our Juno spacecraft, shows the central cyclone at the planet’s north pole and the eight cyclones that encircle it.

However, as tightly spaced as the cyclones are, they have remained distinct, with individual morphologies over the seven months of observations. The question is, why do they not merge? We are beginning to realize that not all gas giants are created equal.

Read more about these discoveries HERE

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Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Pioneer Days

Someone’s got to be first. In space, the first explorers beyond Mars were Pioneers 10 and 11, twin robots who charted the course to the cosmos.

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1-Before Voyager

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Voyager, with its outer solar system tour and interstellar observations, is often credited as the greatest robotic space mission. But today we remember the plucky Pioneers, the spacecraft that proved Voyager’s epic mission was possible.

2-Where No One Had Gone Before

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Forty-five years ago this week, scientists still weren’t sure how hard it would be to navigate the main asteroid belt, a massive field of rocky debris between Mars and Jupiter. Pioneer 10 helped them work that out, emerging from first the first six-month crossing in February 1973. Pioneer 10 logged a few meteoroid hits (fewer than expected) and taught engineers new tricks for navigating farther and farther beyond Earth.

3-Trailblazer No. 2

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Pioneer 11 was a backup spacecraft launched in 1973 after Pioneer 10 cleared the asteroid belt. The new mission provided a second close look at Jupiter, the first close-up views of Saturn and also gave Voyager engineers plotting an epic multi-planet tour of the outer planets a chance to practice the art of interplanetary navigation.

4-First to Jupiter

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Three-hundred and sixty-three years after humankind first looked at Jupiter through a telescope, Pioneer 10 became the first human-made visitor to the Jovian system in December 1973. The spacecraft spacecraft snapped about 300 photos during a flyby that brought it within 81,000 miles (about 130,000 kilometers) of the giant planet’s cloud tops.

5-Pioneer Family

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Pioneer began as a Moon program in the 1950s and evolved into increasingly more complicated spacecraft, including a Pioneer Venus mission that delivered a series of probes to explore deep into the mysterious toxic clouds of Venus. A family portrait (above) showing (from left to right) Pioneers 6-9, 10 and 11 and the Pioneer Venus Orbiter and Multiprobe series. Image date: March 11, 1982. 

6-A Pioneer and a Pioneer

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Classic rock has Van Halen, we have Van Allen. With credits from Explorer 1 to Pioneer 11, James Van Allen was a rock star in the emerging world of planetary exploration. Van Allen (1914-2006) is credited with the first scientific discovery in outer space and was a fixture in the Pioneer program. Van Allen was a key part of the team from the early attempts to explore the Moon (he’s pictured here with Pioneer 4) to the more evolved science platforms aboard Pioneers 10 and 11.

7-The Farthest…For a While

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For more than 25 years, Pioneer 10 was the most distant human-made object, breaking records by crossing the asteroid belt, the orbit of Jupiter and eventually even the orbit of Pluto. Voyager 1, moving even faster, claimed the most distant title in February 1998 and still holds that crown.

8-Last Contact

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We last heard from Pioneer 10 on Jan. 23, 2003. Engineers felt its power source was depleted and no further contact should be expected. We tried again in 2006, but had no luck. The last transmission from Pioneer 11 was received in September 1995. Both missions were planned to last about two years.

9-Galactic Ghost Ships

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Pioneers 10 and 11 are two of five spacecraft with sufficient velocity to escape our solar system and travel into interstellar space. The other three—Voyagers 1 and 2 and New Horizons—are still actively talking to Earth. The twin Pioneers are now silent. Pioneer 10 is heading generally for the red star Aldebaran, which forms the eye of Taurus (The Bull). It will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it. Pioneer 11 is headed toward the constellation of Aquila (The Eagle) and will pass nearby in about 4 million years.

10-The Original Message to the Cosmos

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Years before Voyager’s famed Golden Record, Pioneers 10 and 11 carried the original message from Earth to the cosmos. Like Voyager’s record, the Pioneer plaque was the brainchild of Carl Sagan who wanted any alien civilization who might encounter the craft to know who made it and how to contact them. The plaques give our location in the galaxy and depicts a man and woman drawn in relation to the spacecraft.

Read the full version of this week’s 10 Things article HERE

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During a recent close flyby of the gas giant J…

During a recent close flyby of the gas giant Jupiter, our Juno spacecraft captured this stunning series of images showing swirling cloud patterns on the planet’s south pole. At first glance, the series might appear to be the same image repeated. But closer inspection reveals slight changes, which are most easily noticed by comparing the far-left image with the far-right image.

Directly, the images show Jupiter. But, through slight variations in the images, they indirectly capture the motion of the Juno spacecraft itself, once again swinging around a giant planet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth.

Juno captured this color-enhanced time-lapse sequence of images on Feb. 7 between 10:21 a.m. and 11:01 a.m. EST. At the time, the spacecraft was between 85,292 to 124,856 miles (137,264 to 200,937 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet with the images centered on latitudes from 84.1 to 75.5 degrees south.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

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This animation blinks between two images of ou…

This animation blinks between two images of our Mars Phoenix Lander. The first – dark smudges on the planet’s surface. The second – the same Martian terrain nearly a decade later, covered in dust. Our Mars orbiter captured this shot as it surveyed the planet from orbit: the first in 2008. The second: late 2017.

In August 2008, Phoenix completed its three-month mission studying Martian ice, soil and atmosphere. The lander worked for two additional months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning. The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive through the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter.

Read the full story HERE.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

A Year on the Sun Through Our Satellite’s Eyes

Did you know we’re watching the Sun 24/7 from space?

We use a whole
fleet of satellites
to monitor the Sun and its influences on the solar
system. One of those is the Solar Dynamics
Observatory
. It’s been in space for eight years, keeping an eye on the Sun
almost every moment of every day. Launched on Feb. 11, 2010, this satellite
(also known as SDO) was originally designed for a two-year mission, but it’s
still collecting data to this day — and one of our best ways to keep an eye on
our star.

To celebrate another year of SDO, we’re sharing some of our
favorite solar views that the spacecraft sent back to Earth in 2017.

 March: A long spotless
stretch

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For 15 days starting on March 7, SDO
saw the yolk-like spotless Sun in visible light
.

The Sun goes through a natural 11-year cycle of activity
marked by two extremes: solar maximum and solar minimum. Sunspots are dark
regions of complex magnetic activity on the Sun’s surface, and the number of
sunspots at any given time is used as an index of solar activity.

  • Solar maximum = intense solar activity and more
    sunspots
  • Solar minimum = less solar activity and fewer
    sunspots

This March 2017 period was the longest stretch of spotlessness since the last solar minimum in April 2010 – a sure sign that the solar cycle is marching on toward the next minimum, which scientists expect in 2019-2020. For comparison, the images on the left are from Feb. 2014 – during the last solar maximum –  and show a much spottier Sun.

June: Energized active
regions

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 A pair of relatively small but frenetic
active regions
– areas of intense and complex magnetic fields – rotated
into SDO’s view May 31 – June 2, while spouting off numerous small flares and
sweeping loops of plasma. The dynamic regions were easily the most remarkable
areas on the Sun during this 42-hour period.

July: Two weeks in the
life of a sunspot

On July 5, SDO watched an active region rotate into view on
the Sun. The satellite continued
to track the region
as it grew and eventually rotated across the Sun and
out of view on July 17.  

With their complex magnetic fields, sunspots are often the
source of interesting solar activity: During its 13-day trip across the face of
the Sun, the active region — dubbed AR12665 — put on a show for our Sun-watching
satellites, producing several solar flares, a coronal mass ejection and a solar
energetic particle event. 

August: An eclipse in
space

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While millions of people in North America experienced a
total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, SDO
saw a partial eclipse from space
. SDO actually sees several
lunar transits
a year from its perspective – but an eclipse on the ground doesn’t necessarily
mean that SDO will see anything out of the ordinary. Even on Aug. 21, SDO saw
only 14 percent of the Sun blocked by the Moon, while most US residents saw 60
percent blockage or more.

September: A spate of
solar activity

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In September 2017, SDO saw a
spate of solar activity
, with the Sun emitting 31 notable flares and
releasing several powerful coronal mass ejections between Sept. 6-10. Solar
flares are powerful bursts of radiation, while coronal mass ejections are
massive clouds of solar material and magnetic fields that erupt from the Sun at
incredible speeds.

One of the flares imaged by SDO on Sept. 6 was classified as
X9.3 – clocking in at the most powerful flare of the current solar cycle. The
current cycle began in December 2008 and is now decreasing in intensity,
heading toward solar minimum. During solar minimum, such eruptions on the Sun
are increasingly rare, but history has shown that they can nonetheless be
intense.

September: A trio of
tempests

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Three
distinct solar active regions
with towering arches rotated into SDO’s view
over a three-day period from Sept. 24-26. Charged particles spinning along the
ever-changing magnetic field lines above the active regions trace out the
magnetic field in extreme ultraviolet light, a type of light that is typically
invisible to our eyes, but is colorized here in gold. To give some sense of
scale, the largest arches are many times the size of Earth.

December: A curling
prominence

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SDO saw a small prominence arch up
and send streams of solar material curling back into the Sun over a 30-hour
period on Dec. 13-14. Prominences are relatively cool strands of solar material
tethered above the Sun’s surface by magnetic fields.

 December: Solar
question mark

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An elongated coronal hole — the darker area near the center
of the Sun’s disk — looked
something like a question mark
when seen in extreme ultraviolet light by SDO
on Dec. 21-22. Coronal holes are magnetically open areas on the Sun that
allow high-speed solar wind to gush out into space. They appear as dark areas
when seen in certain wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light.

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