Category: spacecraft

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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9 Ocean Facts You Likely Don’t Know, but Shoul…

Earth is a place dominated by water, mainly oceans. It’s also a place our researchers study to understand life. Trillions of gallons of water flow freely across the surface of our blue-green planet. Ocean’s vibrant ecosystems impact our lives in many ways. 

In celebration of World Oceans Day, here are a few things you might not know about these complex waterways.

1. Why is the ocean blue? 

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The way light is absorbed and scattered throughout the ocean determines which colors it takes on. Red, orange, yellow,and green light are absorbed quickly beneath the surface, leaving blue light to be scattered and reflected back. This causes us to see various blue and violet hues.

2. Want a good fishing spot? 

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Follow the phytoplankton! These small plant-like organisms are the beginning of the food web for most of the ocean. As phytoplankton grow and multiply, they are eaten by zooplankton, small fish and other animals. Larger animals then eat the smaller ones. The fishing industry identifies good spots by using ocean color images to locate areas rich in phytoplankton. Phytoplankton, as revealed by ocean color, frequently show scientists where ocean currents provide nutrients for plant growth.

3. The ocean is many colors. 

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When we look at the ocean from space, we see many different shades of blue. Using instruments that are more sensitive than the human eye, we can measure carefully the fantastic array of colors of the ocean. Different colors may reveal the presence and amount of phytoplankton, sediments and dissolved organic matter.

4. The ocean can be a dark place. 

About 70 percent of the planet is ocean, with an average depth of more than 12,400 feet. Given that light doesn’t penetrate much deeper than 330 feet below the water’s surface (in the clearest water), most of our planet is in a perpetual state of darkness. Although dark, this part of the ocean still supports many forms of life, some of which are fed by sinking phytoplankton

5. We study all aspects of ocean life. 

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Instruments on satellites in space, hundreds of kilometers above us, can measure many things about the sea: surface winds, sea surface temperature, water color, wave height, and height of the ocean surface.

6. In a gallon of average sea water, there is about ½ cup of salt. 

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The amount of salt varies depending on location. The Atlantic Ocean is saltier than the Pacific Ocean, for instance. Most of the salt in the ocean is the same kind of salt we put on our food: sodium chloride.

7. A single drop of sea water is teeming with life.  

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It will most likely have millions (yes, millions!) of bacteria and viruses, thousands of phytoplankton cells, and even some fish eggs, baby crabs, and small worms. 

8. Where does Earth store freshwater? 

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Just 3.5 percent of Earth’s water is fresh—that is, with few salts in it. You can find Earth’s freshwater in our lakes, rivers, and streams, but don’t forget groundwater and glaciers. Over 68 percent of Earth’s freshwater is locked up in ice and glaciers. And another 30 percent is in groundwater. 

9. Phytoplankton are the “lungs of the ocean”.

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Just like forests are considered the “lungs of the earth”, phytoplankton is known for providing the same service in the ocean! They consume carbon dioxide, dissolved in the sunlit portion of the ocean, and produce about half of the world’s oxygen. 

Want to learn more about how we study the ocean? Follow @NASAEarth on twitter.

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Cracking Earth’s Carbon Puzzle

It’s a scientific conundrum with huge implications for our future: How will our planet react to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

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Carbon – an essential building block for life – does not stay in one place or take only one form. Carbon, both from natural and human-caused sources, moves within and among the atmosphere, ocean and land. 

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We’ve been a trailblazer in using space-based and airborne sensors to observe and quantify carbon in the atmosphere and throughout the land and ocean, working with many U.S. and international partners.

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Our Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is making unprecedented, accurate global measurements of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and providing unique information on associated natural processes.

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ABoVE, our multi-year field campaign in Alaska and Canada is investigating how changes in Arctic ecosystems such as boreal forests in a warming climate result in changes to the balance of carbon moving between the atmosphere and land.

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This August we’re embarking on an ocean expedition with the National Science Foundation to the northeast Pacific called EXPORTS that will help scientists develop the capability to better predict how carbon in the ocean moves, which could change as Earth’s climate changes. 

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ECOSTRESS is slated to launch this summer to the International Space Station to make the first-ever measurements of plant water use and vegetation stress on land – providing key insights into how plants link Earth’s global carbon cycle with its water cycle.

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Later this year, ECOSTRESS will be joined on the space station by GEDI, which will use a space borne laser to help estimate how much carbon is locked in forests and how that quantity changes over time.

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In early 2019, the OCO-3 instrument is scheduled to launch to the space station to complement OCO-2 observations and allow scientists to probe the daily cycle of carbon dioxide exchange processes over much of the Earth.

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And still in the early stages of development is the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCarb) satellite, planned to launch in the early 2020s. GeoCarb will collect 10 million observations a day of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide.

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Our emphasis on carbon cycle science and the development of new carbon-monitoring tools is expected to remain a top priority for years to come. READ MORE.

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Solar System: 10 Things to Know

Movie Night

Summer break is just around the corner. Hang a sheet from the clothesline in the backyard and fire up the projector for a NASA movie night.

1. Mars in a Minute

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Back in the day, movies started with a cartoon. Learn the secrets of the Red Planet in these animated 60 second chunks.

2. Crash of the Titans

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Watch two galaxies collide billions of years from now in this high-definition visualization.

3. Tour the Moon in 4K

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Wait for the dark of the waning Moon next weekend to take in this 4K tour of our constant celestial companion.

4. Seven Years of the Sun

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Watch graceful dances in the Sun’s atmosphere in this series of videos created by our 24/7 Sun-sentinel, the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO).

5. Light ‘Em Up

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Crank up the volume and learn about NASA science for this short video about some of our science missions, featuring a track by Fall Out Boy.

6. Bennu’s Journey

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Follow an asteroid from its humble origins to its upcoming encounter with our spacecraft in this stunning visualization.

7. Lunar Landing Practice

Join Apollo mission pilots as they fly—and even crash—during daring practice runs for landing on the Moon.

8. Earthrise

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Join the crew of Apollo 8 as they become the first human beings to see the Earth rise over the surface of the Moon.

9. Musical Descent to Titan

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Watch a musical, whimsical recreation of the 2005 Huygens probe descent to Titan, Saturn’s giant moon.

10. More Movies

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Our Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio provides a steady stream of fresh videos for your summer viewing pleasure. Come back often and enjoy.

Read the full version of this article on the web HERE

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Meet More Humans Behind the Robots

There are many paths to a career at NASA. Here are 10 amazing people on the frontlines of deep space exploration.

1—The Pub Master

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“I was running a pub in the North of England after dropping out of college, and as fate would have it, I met a lovely American physics lecturer Dr. Jim Gotaas,” said Abi Rymer (shown above in the bottom right of the group photo). Abi works on the Europa Clipper mission.

“I was sold on a course he ran on Observational Astronomy and Instrumentation at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, Lancashire and I went from there to join the second year of the Physics and Astronomy at Royal Holloway, part of London University. I loved theoretical physics but never imagined I was talented enough to do a PhD. When I graduated, I was shocked to be top of the year.”

2—The Orbit Artist

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“Within seven months of being at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” says Brent Buffington, a mission design manager, “I figured out we could modify the Cassini Prime Mission trajectory to fly very close to the moon Tethys—a moon that didn’t have any close flybys in the original Prime Mission—and simultaneously lower a planned 621-mile (1,000-kilometer) targeted flyby of Hyperion down to 311 miles (500 kilometers). To be this young buck fresh out of grad school standing in front of a room full of seasoned engineers and scientists, trying to convince them that this was the right thing to do with a multi-billion dollar asset, and ultimately getting the trajectory modification approved was extremely rewarding.”

3—The Searcher

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“Geochemical evidence suggests that between 4 and 2.5 billion years ago, there may have been an intermittent haze in the atmosphere of Earth similar to the haze in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan,” says astrobiologist Giada Arney. “It’s a really alien phase of Earth’s history —our planet wouldn’t have been a pale blue dot, it would have been a pale orange dot. We thought about questions like: What would our planet look like if you were looking at it as an exoplanet? How you might infer biosignatures—the signs of life—from looking at such an alien planet?”

4—The Volcanologist

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“I spent the summer after graduating from studying Mars’ remnant magnetic field in the Planetary Magnetospheres Lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center,” says planetary geophysicist Lynnae Quick. “My advisor, Mario Acuña, showed me how to bring up Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) images of the Martian surface on my computer. This was the first time I’d ever laid eyes, firsthand, on images of another planet’s surface returned from a spacecraft. I remember just being in awe.

“My second favorite moment has to be pouring over mosaics of Europa and learning to identify and map chaos regions, impact craters and other surface units during my first summer at APL. Once again, I felt that there was a whole other alien world at my fingertips.”

5—The Pioneer

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“A few months after NASA was formed I was asked if I knew anyone who would like to set up a program in space astronomy,” says Nancy Roman, a retired NASA astronomer. “I knew that taking on this responsibility would mean that I could no longer do research, but the challenge of formulating a program from scratch that I believed would influence astronomy for decades to come was too great to resist.”

6—The Modeler

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“I took Planetary Surfaces with Bruce Murray (whom I later found out had been JPL’s fifth director) and did a presentation on Europa’s chaos terrains,” say Serina Diniega, an investigation scientist on the Europa Clipper mission. “I was fascinated to learn about the different models proposed for the formation of these enigmatic features and the way in which scientists tried to discriminate between the models while having very limited observational data. In this, I realized I’d found my application: modeling the evolution of planetary landforms.“

7—The Bassist

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“I admire people who dedicate themselves 110 percent to what they do,” says Warren Kaye, a software engineer. “People like the recently deceased Stephen Hawking, who rose above his own physical limitations to develop new scientific theories, or Frank Zappa, who was able to produce something like 50 albums worth of music over a 20-year span.”

8—The (Space) Photographer

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“I got to pick what the camera took pictures of in a given week, and then analyze those pictures from the standpoint of a geologist,” says Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist. “There aren’t many people in the world who get paid to take pictures of Mars every day! Seeing the first images…It was almost surreal – not only are you picking what to take pictures of on Mars, you’re also typically the first person on Earth to see those pictures when they come back from Mars.”

9—The Scientist

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As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

“A scientist,” says Casey Lisse, a scientist on our New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

At what point did you determine that you would become a scientist?

“Age 5.”

10 —The Extrovert

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“Throughout my life, I’ve gone from being an extremely shy introvert to more of an outgoing extrovert,” says science writer Elizabeth Landau. “It’s been a gradual uphill climb. I used to be super shy. When I was really young, I felt like I didn’t know how to talk to other kids. I was amazed by how people fluidly spoke to each other without thinking too hard about it, without appearing to have any kind of embarrassment or reservation about what they were saying. I’ve definitely developed confidence over time—now I can very quickly and comfortably switch from talking about something like physics to personal matters, and be totally open to listening to others as well.”

Check out the full version of “Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week” HERE.

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Astronaut Journal Entry – Launch & Docking

Currently, six humans are living and working on the International Space Station, which orbits 250 miles above our planet at 17,500mph. Below you will find a real journal entry, written in space, by NASA astronaut Scott Tingle.

To read more entires from this series, visit our Space Blogs on Tumblr.

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The launch went as planned. Our Soyuz spacecraft did a great job getting the three of us to the International Space Station (ISS).  

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A week later, it all seems like a blur. The bus driver played me a video of my family and friends delivering their good luck messages. After exiting the bus at the launch pad, I was fortunate to have the Soyuz chief designer (Roman) and NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (Bill Gerstenmaier) walk me to the stairs and elevator that would take us to the top of the rocket for boarding. The temperature at the pad was approximately -17 degrees centigrade, and we were wearing the Russian Polar Bear suits over our spacesuits in order to stay warm. Walking in these suits is a little hard, and I was happy to have Roman and Bill helping me. 

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We walked into the fog created by the systems around the rocket, climbed the ladder, and waved goodbye. My last words before launch were to Bill, “Boiler Up!”. Bill is a fellow and very well-known Boilermaker. We strapped in, and the launch and docking were nominal. But I will add that the second stage cutoff and separation, and ignition of the third stage was very exciting. We were under approximately 4 Gs when the engine cutoff, which gave us a good jolt forward during the deceleration and then a good jolt back into the seat after the third stage ignited. I looked at Anton and we both began to giggle like school children.

We spent two days in orbit as our phase angle aligned with ISS. Surprisingly, I did not feel sick. I even got 4 hours of sleep the first night and nearly 6 hours the second night. Having not been able to use my diaper while sitting in the fetal position during launch, it was nice to get out of our seats and use the ACY (Russian toilet). Docking was amazing. I compared it to rendezvousing on a tanker in a fighter jet, except the rendezvous with ISS happened over a much larger distance. As a test pilot, it was very interesting to watch the vehicle capture and maintain the centerline of ISS’s MRM-1 docking port as well as capturing and maintaining the required speed profile. 

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Just like landing at the ship, I could feel the vehicle’s control system (thrusters) making smaller and faster corrections and recorrections. In the flight test world, this is where the “gains” increase rapidly and where any weaknesses in the control system will be exposed. It was amazing to see the huge solar arrays and tons of equipment go by my window during final approach. What an engineering marvel the ISS is. Smooth sailing right into the docking port we went!  

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About an hour later, after equalizing pressures between the station and Soyuz, we opened the hatch and greeted our friends already onboard. My first view of the inside of the space station looked pretty close to the simulators we have been training in for the last several years. My first words were, “Hey, what are you guys doing at Building 9?”. Then we tackled each other with celebratory hugs!

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Find more ‘Captain’s Log’ entries HERE.

Follow NASA astronaut Scott Tingle on Instagram and Twitter.

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Astronaut Journal Entry – Pre-Launch

Currently, six humans are living and working on the International Space Station, which orbits 250 miles above our planet at 17,500mph. Below you will find a real journal entry written by NASA astronaut Scott Tingle.

To read more entires from this series, visit our Space Blogs on Tumblr.

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Our crew just finished the final training event before the launch. Tomorrow, at 13:20 local time (Baikonur), we will strap the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft to our backs and fly it to low Earth orbit. We will spend 2.5 days in low Earth orbit before docking to the MRM-1 docking port on the International Space Station (ISS). There we will begin approximately 168 days of maintenance, service and science aboard one of the greatest engineering marvels that humans have ever created.

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Today was bittersweet. Ending a 2-year process of intense training was welcomed by all of us. We are very tired. Seeing our families for the last time was difficult. I am pretty lucky, though. My wife, Raynette, and the kids have grown up around military service and are conditioned to endure the time spent apart during extended calls-to-duty. We are also very much anticipating the good times we will have upon my return in June. Sean and Amy showed me a few videos of them mucking it up at Red Square before flying out to Baikonur. Eric was impressed with the Russian guards marching in to relieve the watch at Red Square. Raynette was taking it all in stride and did not seem surprised by any of it. I think I might have a family of mutants who are comfortable anywhere. Nice! And, by the way, I am VERY proud of all of them!

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Tomorrow’s schedule includes a wake-up at 04:00, followed by an immediate medical exam and light breakfast. Upon returning to our quarters, we will undergo a few simple medical procedures that should help make the 2.5-day journey to ISS a little more comfortable. I’ve begun prepping with motion sickness medication that should limit the nausea associated with the first phases of spaceflight. I will continue this effort through docking. This being my first flight, I’m not sure how my body will respond and am taking all precautions to maintain a good working capability. The commander will need my help operating the vehicle, and I need to not be puking into a bag during the busy times. We suit up at 09:30 and then report to the State Commission as “Готовы к Полёту”, or “Ready for Flight”. We’ll enter the bus, wave goodbye to our friends and family, and then head out to the launch pad. Approximately 2 kilometers from the launch pad, the bus will stop. 

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The crew will get out, pee on the bus’s tire, and then complete the last part of the drive to the launch pad. This is a traditional event first done by Yuri Gagarin during his historic first flight and repeated in his honor to this day. We will then strap in and prepare the systems for launch. Next is a waiting game of approximately 2 hours. Ouch. The crew provided five songs each to help pass the time. My playlist included “Born to Run” (Springsteen), “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (Guns and Roses), “Cliffs of Dover” (Eric Johnson), “More than a Feeling” (Boston), and “Touch the Sky” (Rainbow Bridge, Russian). Launch will happen precisely at 13:20.

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I think this sets the stage. It’s 21:30, only 6.5 hours until duty calls. Time to get some sleep. If I could only lower my level of excitement!

Find more ‘Captain’s Log’ entries HERE.

Follow NASA astronaut Scott Tingle on Instagram and Twitter.

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What are the Universe’s Most Powerful Particle…

Every second, every square meter of Earth’s atmosphere is pelted by thousands of high-energy particles traveling at nearly the speed of light. These zippy little assailants are called cosmic rays, and they’ve been puzzling scientists since they were first discovered in the early 1900s. One of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope’s top priority missions has been to figure out where they come from.

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“Cosmic ray” is a bit of a misnomer. Makes you think they’re light, right? But they aren’t light at all! They’re particles that mostly come from outside our solar system — which means they’re some of the only interstellar matter we can study — although the Sun also produces some. Cosmic rays hit our atmosphere and break down into secondary cosmic rays, most of which disperse quickly in the atmosphere, although a few do make it to Earth’s surface.

Cosmic rays aren’t dangerous to those of us who spend our lives within Earth’s atmosphere. But if you spend a lot of time in orbit or are thinking about traveling to Mars, you need to plan how to protect yourself from the radiation caused by cosmic rays.

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Cosmic rays are subatomic particles — smaller particles that make up atoms. Most of them (99%) are nuclei of atoms like hydrogen and helium stripped of their electrons. The other 1% are lone electrons. When cosmic rays run into molecules in our atmosphere, they produce secondary cosmic rays, which include even lighter subatomic particles.

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Most cosmic rays reach the same amount of energy a small particle accelerator could produce. But some zoom through the cosmos at energies 40 million times higher than particles created by the world’s most powerful man-made accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. (Lightning is also a pretty good particle accelerator).

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So where do cosmic rays come from? We should just be able to track them back to their source, right? Not exactly. Any time they run into a strong magnetic field on their way to Earth, they get deflected and bounce around like a game of cosmic pinball. So there’s no straight line to follow back to the source. Most of the cosmic rays from a single source don’t even make it to Earth for us to measure. They shoot off in a different direction while they’re pin balling.

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Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory

In 1949 Enrico Fermi — an Italian-American physicist, pioneer of high-energy physics and Fermi satellite namesake — suggested that cosmic rays might accelerate to their incredible speeds by ricocheting around inside the magnetic fields of interstellar gas clouds. And in 2013, the Fermi satellite showed that the expanding clouds of dust and gas produced by supernovas are a source of cosmic rays.

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When a star explodes in a supernova, it produces a shock wave and rapidly expanding debris. Particles trapped by the supernova remnant magnetic field bounce around wildly.

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Every now and then, they cross the shock wave and their energy ratchets up another notch. Eventually they become energetic enough to break free of the magnetic field and zip across space at nearly the speed of light — some of the fastest-traveling matter in the universe.

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How can we track them back to supernovas when they don’t travel in a straight line, you ask? Very good question! We use something that does travel in a straight line — gamma rays (actual rays of light this time, on the more energetic end of the electromagnetic spectrum).

When the particles get across the shock wave, they interact with non-cosmic-ray particles in clouds of interstellar gas. Cosmic ray electrons produce gamma rays when they pass close to an atomic nucleus. Cosmic ray protons, on the other hand, produce gamma rays when they run into normal protons and produce another particle called a pion (Just hold on! We’re almost there!) which breaks down into two gamma rays.

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The proton- and electron-produced gamma rays are slightly different. Fermi data taken over four years showed that most of the gamma rays coming from some supernova remnants have the energy signatures of cosmic ray protons knocking into normal protons. That means supernova remnants really are powerful particle accelerators, creating a lot of the cosmic rays that we see!

There are still other cosmic ray sources on the table — like active galactic nuclei — and Fermi continues to look for them. Learn more about what Fermi’s discovered over the last 10 years and how we’re celebrating its accomplishments.

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10 Things: Journey to the Center of Mars

May the fifth be with you because history is about to be made: As early as May 5, 2018, we’re set to launch Mars InSight, the very first mission to study the deep interior of Mars. We’ve been roaming the surface of Mars for a while now, but when InSight lands on Nov. 26, 2018, we’re going in for a deeper look. Below, 10 things to know as we head to the heart of Mars.

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Coverage of prelaunch and launch activities begins Thursday, May 3, on NASA Television and our homepage.

1. What’s in a name? 

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“Insight” is to see the inner nature of something, and the InSight lander—a.k.a. Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport—will do just that. InSight will take the “vital signs” of Mars: its pulse (seismology), temperature (heat flow) and reflexes (radio science). It will be the first thorough check-up since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago.

2. Marsquakes. 

You read that right: earthquakes, except on Mars. Scientists have seen a lot of evidence suggesting Mars has quakes, and InSight will try to detect marsquakes for the first time. By studying how seismic waves pass through the different layers of the planet (the crust, mantle and core), scientists can deduce the depths of these layers and what they’re made of. In this way, seismology is like taking an X-ray of the interior of Mars.

Want to know more? Check out this one-minute video.

3. More than Mars. 

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InSight is a Mars mission, but it’s also so much more than that. By studying the deep interior of Mars, we hope to learn how other rocky planets form. Earth and Mars were molded from the same primordial stuff more than 4.5 billion years ago, but then became quite different. Why didn’t they share the same fate? When it comes to rocky planets, we’ve only studied one in great detail: Earth. By comparing Earth’s interior to that of Mars, InSight’s team hopes to better understand our solar system. What they learn might even aid the search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system, narrowing down which ones might be able to support life.

4. Robot testing. 

InSight looks a bit like an oversized crane game: When it lands on Mars this November, its robotic arm will be used to grasp and move objects on another planet for the first time. And like any crane game, practice makes it easier to capture the prize.

Want to see what a Mars robot test lab is like? Take a 360 tour.

5. The gang’s all here. 

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InSight will be traveling with a number of instruments, from cameras and antennas to the heat flow probe. Get up close and personal with each one in our instrument profiles.

6. Trifecta. 

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InSight has three major parts that make up the spacecraft: Cruise Stage; Entry, Descent, and Landing System; and the Lander. Find out what each one does here.

7. Solar wings. 

Mars has weak sunlight because of its long distance from the Sun and a dusty, thin atmosphere. So InSight’s fan-like solar panels were specially designed to power InSight in this environment for at least one Martian year, or two Earth years.

8. Clues in the crust. 

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Our scientists have found evidence that Mars’ crust is not as dense as previously thought, a clue that could help researchers better understand the Red Planet’s interior structure and evolution. “The crust is the end-result of everything that happened during a planet’s history, so a lower density could have important implications about Mars’ formation and evolution,” said Sander Goossens of our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

9. Passengers. 

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InSight won’t be flying solo—it will have two microchips on board inscribed with more than 2.4 million names submitted by the public. “It’s a fun way for the public to feel personally invested in the mission,” said Bruce Banerdt of our Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re happy to have them along for the ride.”

10. Tiny CubeSats, huge firsts. 

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The rocket that will loft InSight beyond Earth will also launch a separate NASA technology experiment: two mini-spacecraft called Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These suitcase-sized CubeSats will fly on their own path to Mars behindInSight. Their goal is to test new miniaturized deep space communication equipment and, if the MarCOs make it to Mars, may relay back InSight data as it enters the Martian atmosphere and lands. This will be a first test of miniaturized CubeSat technology at another planet, which researchers hope can offer new capabilities to future missions.

Check out the full version of ‘Solar System: 10 Thing to Know This Week’ HERE

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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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