Stories tagged nasa

Dec
21
2011

A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.
A helpless astronaut is attacked by robospheres: Or not. But I don't believe for a second that Red, Blue, and Orange aren't thinking about it.Courtesy NASA
History has shown us time and time again that careless exploration of backronyms can be a dangerous mistake. Think of Sir Isaac Newton, who had a mild stroke while constructing his theory of Green Round Apples Veer Inward To Dang. Or consider the vicious beating Roald Dahl received after founding his youth literacy and mentoring program, Real Everyday Adults Delivering Intelligence Not Gum. Constructing an acronym to fit an already decided upon word or phrase is a process fraught with the threat of physical harm (or, at the very least, mild embarrassment).

Thank goodness for the ironically straightforwardly acronymed NASA and MIT, who are braving the field of wild, retroactively applied acronyms so the rest of us don’t have to.

NASA’s and MIT’s current research in the field centers on its SPHERES project. SPHERES stands for “Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around. For the time being, NASA is attempting to sneak up on the principles of causation by pretending that it was a coincidence.

In addition to stressing linguistic credibility to the extent that its breaking point may become clear, the SPHERES project has a physical component with secondary objectives. SPHERES is actually composed of three separate robots, each about the size and shape of a bowling ball (get it?! “SPHERES”?!) The robots will be taken to the International Space Station, where they’ll just kind of float around together.

Or, I guess, they won’t just be floating around. I mean, if you’re in space and not tied down, you’ll float around. But if you, like the SPHERES robots, have your own onboard power supply (AA batteries), navigation and propulsion system (CO2 jets), and computer system, you can do a lot more than just float. The SPHERES robots will practice flying around the ISS in tightly controlled formation with each other.

I suppose it doesn’t sound all that tricky—after all, dumb ol’ birds can fly in formation, and they’re dumb. But, then again, birds have evolved for millions of years to do that sort of thing, and being in space—where there really isn’t a true “up” or “down”—presents its own challenges. These simple little robots have to coordinate with each other and their surroundings perfectly to stay in formation. And once they (that is, the people that make and program the robots) get the hang of that, there are some pretty slick applications for objects in space that can automatically stay in perfect formation.

For one, it should make the processes of servicing, re-supplying, reconfiguring, and upgrading the ISS and other space systems easier, because these things all involve two or more extremely expensive floating objects that need to be oriented just right to get a job done and avoid smashing each other up while doing it.

Also, it turns out that a formation of itty-bitty satellites (sort of like the SPHERES spheres) can do some of the work of a much bigger, more expensive satellite. For example, instead of using a satellite telescope that relies on one huge mirror, a formation of lots of small satellites could gather bits of light that could be put together into an image. That way, if one small satellite was damaged, it wouldn’t wreck the whole project. Also, the formation of satellites could potentially be larger than a single mirror (or mirror array on one satellite).

And then there’s also the notion that each astronaut could have his or her own fleet of tiny floating robots. They could be used to feed and clean the astronauts, and, of course, fight for their amusement.*

Here’s a video of the a recent (recent-ish—it’s from 2009) test run of the spheres. Watch as they do what they do best:

And here’s MIT’s SPHERES website, where they delve more into the motivations of the SPHERES project (but not so much into the acronym issue.)

For more pictures of the spheres floating in the ISS, scroll to the bottom of this page.

*This paragraph contains no NASA endorsed ideas. It just seems to me like the obvious thing to do.

Dec
20
2011

The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.
The largest aircraft ever flown!: Imagine the image title being said in an old-timey announcer voice. And then imagine that it's real, because it is. Or it will be, in about five years.Courtesy Stratolaunch Systems
Billionaire and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, was always told that the sky was the limit.

Oh, and how those words chafed at him. They chafed and they chafed, until one day Allen finally pushed his nay-saying assistant into the koi pond and shouted, “’The sky’s the limit’? I’ll show you limits!” And on that day he founded Stratolaunch Systems, a company that would create a plane that would help propel a craft beyond the sky, to space!

And those people who still argued that space is part of the sky, depending on your definition? Allen had them frozen in carbonite and turned into coffee tables for his vast mansion. (The assistant eventually crawled out of the koi pond, but he kept his mouth shut after that, because he had already spent a summer encased in carbonite, and didn’t intend to repeat it.)

All of that may be true. But the parts that are certainly true are those directly concerning billionaire Paul Allen’s plan to build a gigantic plane that will carry a space rocket high into the atmosphere (about 6 miles up), where the rocket can more easily launch itself into orbit. And, by “gigantic,” I mean that the plane will have a wingspan of 385 feet, and a total weight of 1.2 million pounds.

This is an interesting thing because, a) a rocket-carrying plane has seemed like a good idea for a while, but has never been tried on this scale; and b) with the end of NASA’s shuttle program, we’re going to be looking for new (and hopefully cheaper) ways to get people and equipment into space. Private companies like Stratolaunch Systems and its partner on this project, SpaceX, will likely be a big part of the solution.

(SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, one of the folks behind paypal. There’s also Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. So Paul Allen’s motivation could also have been that he didn’t want to be the only eccentric billionaire without his own spaceflight company. Which is understandable.)

While this plane/rocket system won’t be able carry quite as much cargo into space as other rockets, the Stratolaunch plane has other advantages. (Together, the plane and the rocket weigh more than one and a half million points, and they’re using repurposed engines from 747 jets, so they think the payload limit should be around 13,500 pounds.) For one, it doesn’t require a complicated and stationary launch pad, meaning that launch costs should be lower, and the process of getting the rocket launched will be more flexible—if weather isn’t cooperating at the launch site, the plane can be flown somewhere else (with a 12,000-foot runway) and sent up there. Also, once a rocket is released, the plane can just turn around, land, and be fitted for another launch by the next day. So, you know, if you have a lot of stuff to get up into space, and not so much time, maybe this is yer bird.

But what’s the point? For that, let’s go back to “interesting thing b).” Aside from every billionaire’s dream of having a spaceship, Allen and co. expect the very costly project to be profitable (eventually). NASA may be done with the shuttle program, but they aren’t done with their work in space—currently astronauts rely on Russian launches to get into space, but contracts with companies like Allen’s could give them some more options.

And, of course, who isn’t interested in space?

The Stratolaunch system could be tossing rockets into space as soon as 2016. It'll start with unmanned rockets, but assuming that those launches prove to be safe and reliable, they hope to move to launching manned spacecraft. (And check out Stratolaunch's site for more on the launch system.)

It is estimated that two-thirds of sulfur dioxide (SO2) air pollution in North America comes from coal power plants. In a recent scientific article published in Geophysical Research Letters, a team of scientists have confirmed that SO2 levels in the vicinity of U.S. coal power plants have fallen by nearly 50% since 2005. .Mean SO2 values for 2005-2007
Mean SO2 values for 2005-2007Courtesy NASA
This finding, using satellite observations, confirms ground-based measurements of declining SO2 levels. In many parts of the world, ground-based monitoring does not exist or is not extensive; therefore, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on the Aura satellite could potentially measure levels of harmful emissions in regions of the world where reliable ground monitoring is unavailable..Mean SO2 values for 2008-2010
Mean SO2 values for 2008-2010Courtesy NASA
Key: Yellow to violet colors correspond to statistically significant enhancements in SO2 pollution in the vicinity of the largest SO2 emitting coal-burning power plants indicated by the black dots.
Key: Yellow to violet colors correspond to statistically significant enhancements in SO2 pollution in the vicinity of the largest SO2 emitting coal-burning power plants indicated by the black dots.Courtesy NASA

Previously, space-based SO2 monitoring was limited to plumes from volcanic eruptions and detecting anthropogenic emissions from large source regions as in China. A new spatial filtration technique allows the detection of individual pollution sources in Canada and the U.S.

"What we’re seeing in these satellite observations represents a major environmental accomplishment," said Bryan Bloomer, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist familiar with the new satellite observations. "This is a huge success story for the EPA and the Clean Air Interstate Rule," he said.

Article: NASA Satellite Confirms Sharp Decline In Pollution From US Coal Power Plants

Oct
30
2011

Thailand Flooding from Space
Thailand Flooding from SpaceCourtesy NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team
From the NASA Image of the Day on October 28:

Since July 2011, heavy monsoon rains in southeast Asia have resulted in catastrophic flooding. In Thailand, about one third of all provinces are affected. On Oct. 23, 2011, when this image from ASTER, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft was acquired, flood waters were approaching the capital city of Bangkok as the Ayutthaya River overflowed its banks. In this image, vegetation is displayed in red, and flooded areas are black and dark blue. Brighter blue shows sediment-laden water, and gray areas are houses, buildings and roads. The image covers an area of 35.2 by 66.3 miles (56.7 by 106.9 kilometers) and is located at 14.5 degrees north latitude, 100.5 degrees east longitude.

With its 14 spectral bands from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region and its high spatial resolution of 15 to 90 meters (about 50 to 300 feet), ASTER images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER is one of five Earth-observing instruments launched Dec. 18, 1999, on Terra. The instrument was built by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. A joint U.S./Japan science team is responsible for validation and calibration of the instrument and data products. The broad spectral coverage and high spectral resolution of ASTER provides scientists in numerous disciplines with critical information for surface mapping and monitoring of dynamic conditions and temporal change.

Oct
28
2011

What do a banana and a chunk of coal have in common? Carbon!

Dr. Peter Griffith, Director of NASA's Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems office, spoke to twenty of us training to be Earth Ambassadors for NASA about why it's important to teach people about the way carbon moves around on our planet, in order to help them understand climate change.

He showed us this fantastic video that describes the Carbon Cycle on earth and describes how "young, fast carbon" like that in a banana differs from "old, slow" carbon, like that in coal and other fossil fuels.

See video

Dr. Griffith also described how you can tell the difference between objects containing old carbon and young carbon by looking at the radioactive decay of carbon 14. Carbon in its normal state is called carbon 12, or C12. However, cosmic rays, like those from the sun, convert some atmospheric carbon into a slightly radioactive form called carbon 14, or C14. Over time, this carbon decays back into Carbon 12.

All living plants and animals contain some C14, since they constantly take in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Fossil fuels like coal and oil, which have been underground for millions of years, contain only C12 (fully decayed Carbon,) while a banana still contains some C14 from atmospheric carbon dioxide the banana tree absorbed.

It is not surprising that the carbon downwind of power plants burning coal is mostly C12. Trees can also lock up carbon in their trunks and branches in for many years.

The carbon released by burning fossil fuels and setting tropical forests ablaze is carbon that would naturally have remained "locked" up. Human activities like these are creating an excess of long-lived carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere and are causing our world's climate to warm.

NASA and other scientists are working hard to study the science of climate change. How our planet and its inhabitants will respond to the challenges resulting from this change remains to be seen.

Oct
26
2011

Trajectory of comet Elenin
Trajectory of comet EleninCourtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Below is a news release from NASA/JPL about a comet that is going through some difficult times. NASA is sort of harsh in this release, imho, and really does not take the comet's feelings into account. Take a gander to see what I mean. Even the title is a little severe.

NASA Says Comet Elenin Gone and Should Be Forgotten

Comet Elenin is no more.

Latest indications are this relatively small comet has broken into even smaller, even less significant, chunks of dust and ice. This trail of piffling particles will remain on the same path as the original comet, completing its unexceptional swing through the inner solar system this fall.

"Elenin did as new comets passing close by the sun do about two percent of the time: It broke apart," said Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office in Pasadena, Calif. "Elenin's remnants will also act as other broken-up comets act. They will trail along in a debris cloud that will follow a well-understood path out of the inner solar system. After that, we won't see the scraps of comet Elenin around these parts for almost 12 millennia."

Twelve millennia may be a long time to Earthlings, but for those frozen inhabitants of the outer solar system who make this commute, a dozen millennia give or take is a walk in the celestial park. Comet Elenin came as close as 45 million miles (72 million kilometers) to the sun, but it arrived from the outer solar system's Oort Cloud, which is so far away its outer edge is about a third of the way to the nearest star other than our sun.

For those broken up over the breakup of what was formerly about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) of uninspiring dust and ice, remember what Yeomans said about comets coming close to the sun – they fall apart about two percent of the time.

"Comets are made up of ice, rock, dust and organic compounds and can be several miles in diameter, but they are fragile and loosely held together like dust balls," said Yeomans. "So it doesn't take much to get a comet to disintegrate, and with comets, once they break up, there is no hope of reconciliation."

Comet Elenin first came to light last December, when sunlight reflecting off the small comet was detected by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin of Lyubertsy, Russia. Also known by its astronomical name, C/2010 X1, Elenin somehow quickly became something of a "cause célèbre" for a few Internet bloggers, who proclaimed this minor comet could/would/should be responsible for causing any number of disasters to befall our planet.

Internet posts began appearing, many with nebulous, hearsay observations and speculations about earthquakes and other disasters being due to Elenin’s gravitational effects upon Earth. NASA’s response to such wild speculations was then in turn speculated to be an attempt to hide the truth.

"I cannot begin to guess why this little comet became such a big Internet sensation," said Yeomans. "The scientific reality is this modest-sized icy dirtball's influence upon our planet is so incredibly miniscule that my subcompact automobile exerts a greater gravitational influence on Earth than the comet ever would. That includes the date it came closest to Earth (Oct. 16), when the comet’s remnants got no closer than about 22 million miles (35.4 million kilometers)."

Yeomans knows that while Elenin may be gone, there will always be Internet rumors that will attempt to conjure up some form of interplanetary bogeyman out of Elenin, or some equally obscure and scientifically uninteresting near-Earth object. Thinking of ways to make himself any more clear about the insignificance of this matter is somewhat challenging for a scientist who has dedicated his life to observing asteroids and comets and discovering their true nature and effects on our solar system.

"Perhaps a little homage to a classic Monty Python dead parrot sketch is in order," said Yeomans. "Comet Elenin has rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-comet."
NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing relatively close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes the physical nature of a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet. There are no known credible threats to date.

Its like the person writing this had a personal vendetta against this poor comet. Though the Monty Python reference at the end helps lighten the mood, the overall dismissive tone of this news release is a bit sad.

Poor Elenin and its remaining "piffling particles".

Oct
06
2011

Sputnik 1
Sputnik 1Courtesy NASA
From NASA’s Image of the Day this past Tuesday:

On Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik 1 successfully launched and entered Earth's orbit. Thus, began the space age. The successful launch shocked the world, giving the former Soviet Union the distinction of putting the first human-made object into space. The word 'Sputnik' originally meant 'fellow traveler,' but has become synonymous with 'satellite' in modern Russian.

This past September 30, almost exactly 54 years later, China launched their first inhabitable space laboratory module, Tiangong-1. The module, a part of a large and ambitious national space program, is the first step in placing a larger modular space station in orbit by 2020.
Combine this effort with Chinese plans to visit the moon and a manned Mars mission, could this be the beginning of a new space race? Personally, I hope so. NASA needs a kick in the pants, and a little “friendly” competition with China could push NASA and its partners in a good way.

During the last two decades, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite was revolving about Earth. The satellite arrived at what National Aeronautics and Space Administration called "the end of a productive scientific life" a full six years ago. The atmosphere of Earth will burn up most of UARS when it passes down to the planet. Several huge pieces, however, are expected to strike land. Source of article: UARS satellite pieces have 1 in 3,200 chance of hitting Earth

A lengthy lived life

In 1991, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite was put into orbit. The satellite was meant to study the Earth's atmosphere, specifically the ozone layer. The UARS was not supposed to last long. It was only supposed to be around three years at first. UARS had 60 percent of instruments still working after 14 years, but NASA decided shutting it down was the best option. There was gold foil-like material covering most of UARS which is the size of a bus.

Concern with re-entry

NASA explained that the satellite is a “heavily decaying orbit.” Between September 22 and 24, the UARS is expected to get back to the Earth’s atmosphere. There will be up to 100 pieces of the satellite that won't melt away, although the atmosphere is expected to burn up most of it. The portions might be very heavy. They might weigh as much as 300 pounds. National Aeronautics and Space Administration believes that UARS most likely won’t hit ground. There's a 1 in 3,200 chance any piece will hit the ground. The only continent that is not within the fall zone is Antarctica. There is a 1 in 20 trillion chance that each piece will hit a person.

Two hours to get away

National Aeronautics and Space Administration is providing hourly updates on the status of the UARS satellite. Even with that, the best estimate is that NASA will be able to provide two hours' warning on the UARS re-entry. UARS is falling fast. This is because of the solar activity going on. The increased solar activity is also blamed for troubles with communications satellites. Though UARS is falling from the sky easily, it is just one of the estimated 22,000 portions of "space junk" revolving about the earth.

Articles cited

MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44580262/ns/technology_and_science-space/#.T...

NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/09/19/140598814/space-junk-will...

NASA.gov: (PDF) http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/585584main_UARS_Status.pdf

Slatest: http://slatest.slate.com/posts/2011/09/19/uars_climate_satellite_expecte...

LA Times: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/nationnow/2011/09/space-junk-expert-on-w...

Sep
20
2011

There’s been some buzz about the relationship between clouds and climate recently, prompting Andrew Revkin of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog to get his panties in a twist about the “…over-interpretation of a couple of [scientific] papers…”

What gives? I wanted to know too, so I’ve done a bit – ok, a lot – of research and this is what I can tell you: The heart of the discussion is not whether there is a cloud-climate connection (that’s clear), but rather over what that relationship behaves like. There are at least three possible theories, but before we get to those, let’s review some important background concepts.

Gimme the Basics First

Cloud Formation

First, scientists think of air as units of volume called air masses. Each air mass is identified by its temperature and moisture content. Clouds are basically wet air masses that form when rising air masses expand and cool, causing the moisture in the air to condense. You can see the process in action yourself just by exhaling outside on a cool morning. The Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes has a webpage to answer your other questions about clouds.

Earth’s Energy Budget
Earth's energy budget: Incoming solar energy is either absorbed (orange) or reflected (yellow).  Outgoing energy is radiated (red).  The arrows show the direction and magnitude of movement where thick arrows signify bigger movements.
Earth's energy budget: Incoming solar energy is either absorbed (orange) or reflected (yellow). Outgoing energy is radiated (red). The arrows show the direction and magnitude of movement where thick arrows signify bigger movements.Courtesy NASA

Energy from the Sun is essential for life on Earth. Let’s pretend the Earth has an “energy budget” where solar energy is like money, absorption is like a deposit, reflection is like a transfer, and radiation is like a withdrawal. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’ll work for starters: Most of the incoming solar energy (money) is absorbed by (deposited into) the ocean and earth surface, but some is absorbed or reflected (transferred) by the atmosphere and clouds. Most of the outgoing energy is radiated (withdrawn) to space from the atmosphere and clouds. The figure to the right illustrates this process.

The Greenhouse Effect

Thanks to the greenhouse effect, our planet is warm enough to live on. The greenhouse effect occurs within the earth’s energy budget when some of the heat radiating (withdrawing… remember our budget analogy from above?) from the ocean and earth surface is reflected (transferred) back to Earth by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor. This National Geographic interactive website entertains the concept.

Climate Change

Climate change is occurring largely because humans are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere means more heat reflected back to earth and warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures might sound pretty good to your right now (especially if you live in Minnesota and could see your breath this morning as you walked to school or work), but it’s not. Why? Check out NASA’s really great website on the effects of climate change.

Alright, already. What’s the climate-cloud relationship?

From what I can tell, there are three possible theories about the climate-cloud relationship:

  • Clouds actively drive climate change. This is a linear process where clouds reflect too much heat back to Earth, which increases the average global temperature and causes climate change.
  • Clouds passively blunt climate change. This is a cyclical process where more climate change includes increasing average global temperature, which increases average global evaporation, which creates more clouds. More clouds absorb more heat, keeping the average global temperature from rising even faster and lessening climate change. This slows down (note: it does not stop) the rate of climate change.
  • Clouds passively amplify climate change. This is a cyclical process where more climate change includes increasing the average global temperature, which increases average global evaporation, which creates more clouds. More clouds reflect more heat back to Earth, which raises the average global temperatures and worsens climate change. This speeds up the rate of climate change.
  • So which is it? Probably NOT Theory #1. Maybe Theory #2… or maybe it’s Theory #3? Scientists aren’t quite sure yet, so neither am I, but the evidence is stacking against Theory #1 leaving two possible options. The next big question seems to be surrounding the size of the effects of Theory #2 and Theory #3.

    Using what you just read about cloud formation, the earth’s energy budget, greenhouse gases, and climate change (Woah. You just learned a lot!), what do you think? What’s the climate-cloud relationship?

    If you want, you can read more about what scientists are saying about the climate-cloud relationship here:

Planet Earth
Planet EarthCourtesy NOAA/NASA GOES Project
Head over to NASA's Global Climate Change website and see how you fare with their interactive climate quizzes. There are six quizzes you can do. I have to admit I was surprised at some of the answers. But even if you don't get every one of the right (I answered about 55% correctly), hopefully you'll learn something from your mistakes.