NASA’s Nanosail-D ‘Sails’ Home – Mission Complete
After spending more than 240 days “sailing” around Earth, NASA’s NanoSail-D — a nanosatellite that deployed NASA’s first-ever solar sail in low-Earth orbit — has successfully completed its Earth orbiting mission. Launched to space Nov. 19, 2010 as a payload on NASA’s FASTSAT, a small satellite, NanoSail-D’s sail deployed on Jan. 20. The flight phase of the mission successfully demonstrated a deorbit capability that could potentially be used to bring down decommissioned satellites and space debris by re-entering and totally burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.
My mind got a chance to wildly expand a few weeks ago as I participated in back-to-back meetings investigating big ideas in space. Mind expansion is good: it psychologically diminishes today’s political problems (like the NASA budget) and program setbacks (like Russia’s Phobos spacecraft loss). The two big ideas were moving an asteroid toward Earth for human exploration, and interstellar flight. The two meetings overlapped and for me were separated only by a cross-country red-eye flight — a small constraint on mind expansion.
NASA Probe Beams Home Best Moon Map Ever
Scientists have stitched together the highest-resolution topographic map of the moon ever created, using observations made by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft. The new lunar map covers 98.2 percent of the moon and depicts the natural satellite’s surface and features at a pixel scale of about 330 feet (100 meters). A global view of Earth’s nearest neighbor at such high resolution had never existed before, scientists said.
Why Is It So Hard to Go to Mars?
As NASA prepares to launch its huge new Curiosity rover toward Mars on Saturday (Nov. 26), the current travails of a robotic Russian probe stranded around Earth offer an uncomfortable truth: Getting to the Red Planet is tough. Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe, which launched Nov. 8 on a mission aimed at the Martian moon Phobos, remains stuck in low-Earth orbit, and the chances of salvaging the craft appear slim. If Phobos-Grunt can’t be saved, it will be the 19th straight Russian Mars mission that failed to achieve its mission goals in full.
NASA’s Swift Finds a Gamma-Ray Burst With a Dual Personality
A peculiar cosmic explosion first detected by NASA’s Swift observatory on Christmas Day 2010 was caused either by a novel type of supernova located billions of light-years away or an unusual collision much closer to home, within our own galaxy. Papers describing both interpretations appear in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Nature. Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the universe’s most luminous explosions, emitting more energy in a few seconds than our sun will during its entire energy-producing lifetime.
Astronomers Discover New Exoplanet Similar in Size to Earth; Planet Kepler-21b Found Using Space and Ground-Based Observations
The NASA Kepler Mission is designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way Galaxy to discover Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist, and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets. It now has another planet to add to its growing list.
Could Natural Nuclear Reactors Have Boosted Life on This and Other Planets?
While modern-day humans use the most advanced engineering to build nuclear reactors, Nature sometimes makes them by accident. Evidence for a cluster of natural nuclear reactors has been found on Earth, and some scientists say our planet may have had many more in its ancient past. There’s also reason to think other planets might have had their own naturally occurring nuclear reactors, though evidence to confirm this is hazy.
Setting the Stage for Life: Scientists Make Key Discovery About the Atmosphere of Early Earth
Scientists in the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have used the oldest minerals on Earth to reconstruct the atmospheric conditions present on Earth very soon after its birth. The findings, which appear in the Dec. 1 edition of the journal Nature, are the first direct evidence of what the ancient atmosphere of the planet was like soon after its formation and directly challenge years of research on the type of atmosphere out of which life arose on the planet.
American human spaceflight and future options, short- and long-term
One has to decide whether to consider the question of the future of human spaceflight from either a global or national perspective. Taking the question in reverse order, the United States is not out of the human spaceflight business quite yet, but the future configuration of the country’s efforts will clearly be different unless there arises a threat from the proverbial little green men.
Lightning-Made Waves in Earth’s Atmosphere Leak Into Space
At any given moment about 2,000 thunderstorms roll over Earth, producing some 50 flashes of lightning every second. Each lightning burst creates electromagnetic waves that begin to circle around Earth captured between Earth’s surface and a boundary about 60 miles up. Some of the waves — if they have just the right wavelength — combine, increasing in strength, to create a repeating atmospheric heartbeat known as Schumann resonance.
New NASA Rover May Climb 3-Mile-High Martian Mountain
NASA’s next Mars rover is a rolling chemistry and geology laboratory, but it may prove to be an expert mountain climber as well. The car-size Curiosity rover is due to launch Saturday (Nov. 26) on a mission to assess whether the Red Planet is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life. In the course of its duties, Curiosity could end up at the summit of a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer) mountain near its landing site, provided it keeps chugging for long enough, researchers said.
Strange New ‘Species’ of Ultra-Red Galaxy Discovered
In the distant reaches of the universe, almost 13 billion light-years from Earth, a strange species of galaxy lay hidden. Cloaked in dust and dimmed by the intervening distance, even the Hubble Space Telescope couldn’t spy it. It took the revealing power of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to uncover not one, but four remarkably red galaxies. And while astronomers can describe the members of this new “species,” they can’t explain what makes them so ruddy.
In a Star’s Final Days, Astronomers Hunt ‘Signal of Impending Doom’
An otherwise nondescript binary star system in the Whirlpool Galaxy has brought astronomers tantalizingly close to their goal of observing a star just before it goes supernova. The study, submitted in a paper to the Astrophysical Journal, provides the latest result from an Ohio State University galaxy survey underway with the Large Binocular Telescope, located in Arizona.
The SLS: too expensive for exploration?
Many members of the space community have spoken out strongly against NASA’s plans to develop the Space Launch System (SLS), disparagingly called the “Senate Launch System” by some and the “Franken-Rocket” by others. It should be noted for fairness that, to a large degree, this wrong design has been forced on NASA by a Congress bent on keeping current space jobs in their current locations. Most of the reasons currently debated for opposing the SLS are short-term, such as single-source contract legalities, but there are even more important long-term reasons.
Physicists Set Strongest Limit On Mass of Dark Matter
Brown University physicists have set the strongest limit for the mass of dark matter, the mysterious particles believed to make up nearly a quarter of the universe. The researchers report in Physical Review Letters that dark matter must have a mass greater than 40 giga-electron volts. The distinction is important because it casts doubt on recent results from underground experiments that have reported detecting dark matter. If dark matter exists in the universe, scientists now have set the strongest limit to date on its mass.
Making the case, again, for space-based solar power
Space-based solar power (SBSP) is one of those ideas that, on the surface, looks particularly attractive. Harnessing sunlight in space—where it’s not limited by the day-night cycle or weather, as on Earth—and beaming that energy to Earth could provide effectively limitless amounts of power to meet the growing needs of humanity without the resource limitations or environmental impacts of alternatives like fossil fuels.
Astronomers Take a Photograph of the Youngest Supernova Right After Its Explosion
Astronomers have obtained a never-before achieved radio astronomical photograph of the youngest supernova. Fourteen days after the explosion of a star in the galaxy Galàxia del Remolí (M51) last June, coordinated telescopes around Europe have taken a photograph of the cosmic explosion in great detail — equivalent to seeing a golf ball on the surface of the moon.
EU Code of Conduct: commentary on Indian concerns and their effects
There has been much debate in 2011 over the draft version of the European Union’s proposed Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (the CoC), released in October 2010. Since its release, the CoC has been analyzed by policy experts in several different forums including a panel discussion at the George Marshall Institute as well as the pages of this publication. Little has been said publically since the flurry of analysis in the first half of the year due in no small part to the State Department and other branches of the United States government’s review of the CoC in lieu of formal adoption by the United States.
Mars Science Laboratory: NASA Launches Most Capable and Robust Rover to Red Planet
NASA began a historic voyage to Mars with the Nov. 26 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity. Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket occurred at 10:02 a.m. EST (7:02 a.m. PST). “We are very excited about sending the world’s most advanced scientific laboratory to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while it advances science, we’ll be working on the capabilities for a human mission to the Red Planet and to other destinations where we’ve never been.”
What’s Next for Mars Exploration?
NASA launched its newest, largest and most sophisticated rover yet to Mars on Saturday (Nov. 26), marking an important step toward the agency’s ambitious goal of one day landing humans on the surface of the Red Planet. The Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity rover, lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After an 8 1/2-month journey, the rover is expected to arrive at the Red Planet in August 2012. Once on the surface, Curiosity will investigate whether the planet is or ever was habitable.
In the Heart of Cygnus, NASA’s Fermi Reveals a Cosmic-Ray Cocoon
The constellation Cygnus, now visible in the western sky as twilight deepens after sunset, hosts one of our galaxy’s richest-known stellar construction zones. Astronomers viewing the region at visible wavelengths see only hints of this spectacular activity thanks to a veil of nearby dust clouds forming the Great Rift, a dark lane that splits the Milky Way, a faint band of light marking our galaxy’s central plane.
Secretive Air Force Space Plane Nears Orbital Record
The secretive X-37B robotic space plane is about to set its own space-endurance record on a hush-hush project operated by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The craft, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle-2, was boosted into Earth orbit atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 5. Tomorrow (Nov. 30), the X-37B spacecraft will mark its 270th day of flight — a lifetime in space that was heralded in the past as the vehicle’s upper limit for spaceflight by project officials.
FLEX-Ible Insight Into Flame Behavior
Whether free-burning or smoldering, uncontrolled fire can threaten life and destroy property. On Earth, a little water, maybe some chemicals, and the fire is smothered. In space, where there is no up or down, flames behave in unconventional ways. And when your entire world is the size of a five-bedroom home like the International Space Station, putting out even a small fire quickly is a life-and-death matter. Since March 2009, NASA’s Flame Extinguishment Experiment, or FLEX, has conducted more than 200 tests to better understand the fundamentals of flames and how best to suppress fire in space.
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