Stories tagged nasa

Dec
12
2007

Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.
Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.Courtesy NASA
There’s nothing quite as deflating, figuratively, as a getting a flat tire. And what about if you’re a space rover on Mars, where there’s no shop to go to get your tire fixed?

That’s what NASA’s Spirit Mars rover has been dealing with since its right front tire went bad nearly two years ago. It didn’t go flat, but it’s quit turning forcing NASA to move the rover around in reverse ever since, trailing the stuck wheel behind.

But nearly a year later, that astronomic misfortune has led to an interesting discovery. Ruts carved by the bad wheel last May churned up a bright spot in the rover’s wake.

Rover guiders turned the craft back to the colorful streak for a closer look and discovered that the rock contains high levels of silica. Upon further investigation, however, another nearby rock cracked open that was jam-packed with silica.

You’re wondering what’s the big deal?

Well, on Earth high levels of silica occur only in two places: hot springs or fumaroles, which are environments near volcanoes where acidic steam rises through cracks in the ground. In each of those environments on Earth, water is present and the area is teeming with life forms.

NASA Mars researchers are terming the discovery, made through these very accidental means, as one of the biggest breakthroughs to discovering life forms could have existed on the Red Planet.

By the way, if the bad wheel isn’t enough of a problem for Spirit, it’s also been through a bad dust storm which has coated much of its solar panels with grit. Because of that, it’s only operating at about 30 percent power and rover operators will soon be driving it up a higher altitude for a rest and to have the panels wind-cleaned.

Dec
11
2007

Streaming space light: Satellites on NASA's Themis mission have discovered what may be some of the mysteries behind the northern lights. Charged particles from the sun are blasting through magnetic fields stretching out from Earth's upper atmosphere, bursting with the energy of a medium earthquake.
Streaming space light: Satellites on NASA's Themis mission have discovered what may be some of the mysteries behind the northern lights. Charged particles from the sun are blasting through magnetic fields stretching out from Earth's upper atmosphere, bursting with the energy of a medium earthquake.Courtesy NASA
I know the source of the energy that powers the Christmas lights in my home’s windows: the outlet on my wall. No surprises there.

But today scientists announced that they have found what they believe is the energy source behind the spectacular views that make up the northern lights. NASA’s Themis mission has used five satellites to track down this magical, astronomical phenomenon.

What’s been discovered is that charged particles from the sun are flowing through space and are twisted through magnetic fields that link Earth’s upper atmosphere to the sun.

The satellites were launched last winter and on one two-hour span of time, measured the particle flows while northern lights were shimmering over Alaska and Canada in March.

If you’ve ever seen the northern lights, you know how cool and magical they can look. But you really wouldn’t want to get too close.

The same satellites measured the forces flowing through the March light show and found that the charged particles were moving around 400 miles per hour. The movement and energy release of their passing through the magnetic field was about the same as a 5.5 magnitude earthquake.

Nov
27
2007

Mars Rovers
Mars RoversCourtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
About this time last year it was springtime on Mars. The two rovers had survived winter but a large, planet wide dust storm threatened to deplete their source of energy. To survive, both rovers were put into survival mode for several months. The both came through OK but because their solar panels are coated with dust, they do not have the energy they used to. Another winter is now approaching so both Rovers need to find a spot to maximize their solar gain.

Preparing for a long Mars winter

Spirit spent last winter on the sunny side of a hill called "Winter Haven" (click to see panorama) This winter Spirit is heading north toward an extra steep slope on "Home Plate". Right now it is stuck in what appears to be loose soil.

Rovers are showing their age

Spirit is having trouble getting around because one of its wheels doesn't work. It needs to go backwards, dragging its bad front wheel. Opportunity has a wheel that cannot steer. Its instrument arm is arthritic due to a bad motor in its shoulder. Opportunity is also blind in its infrared "eye" because of too much dirt on its lens. Both rovers are having problems with their grinding tools (RAT).

Mars rover's mission extended again

The twin rovers landed on the surface of Mars in January, 2004. Mission planners expected that it would only take a few months before dust coated the rovers' solar panels so thickly that they wouldn't be able to generate power any more. But the Martian weather had a trick; dust devils and wind gusts came by often enough to keep the solar panels relatively clear of dust. Without the loss of power looming, the rovers have been able to keep going, and going, and going. UniverseToday

Catch up on news about the Mars Rovers

Oct
30
2007

Million dollar prize unclaimed

Space elevator: Artist Pat Rawling's concept of a space elevator viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down along the length of the elevator toward Earth.
Space elevator: Artist Pat Rawling's concept of a space elevator viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down along the length of the elevator toward Earth.
The concept of building an elevator to carry materials up to space orbit was proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1987 science fiction novel, 2061: Odyssey Three. Spaceward Foundation, which partnered with NASA holds two space-elevator-related competitions - the Tether Challenge and the Beam Power Challenge.

Tether Challenge

The tether competition is a perpetual dare for any group to present a tether that is at least 50% better than last year's best offering. Tethers are ranked according to strength and weight.

The strength of a material is measured in Giga-Pascals (GPa) and its weight, or more precisely, its density, is measured in grams per cubic centimeter {g/cc). In order to build the Space Elevator, we need a material that has a specific strength of 80-100 GPa-cc/g. elevator2010.org

The best entry in 2005 tether competition, using spectra 2000 fiber (Honeywell) had specific strength of 2.8. The best entry in 2006 tether competition, using Zylon fiber (Toyobo Inc.) had a specific strength of 3. This year's $500,000 offered to any team that could produce a tether with a specific strength of 4.5 went unclaimed.

Beam Power Challenge

The Beam Challenge tests the climbing ability and weight-bearing capability of robots scaling a cable.

The climbers net weight is limited to between 10 and 25 kg [22 - 55 lbs], and they must ascend the ribbon at a minimum of 2 m/s. [6.6 feet per second] Climbers will be rated according to their speed multiplied by the amount of payload they carried, and divided by their net weight. For example, a 15 kg climber, carrying 5 kgs of payload at 2.5 m/s will have a score of 5 · 2.5 · / 15 = 0.83

Climbers have to scale the ribbon while carrying some amount of payload, using only power that was transferred from the ground using beamed power. Power is unlimited. Some teams used mirrors and sunlight instead of laser beams. They were big trouble on cloudy days, though. The University of Saskatchewan Design for Space (USST) team came in first but missed the big money prize by a few seconds. Click here to see a video of the USST climber attempt.

Recommended Space Elevator links:

Oct
16
2007

Ten year birthday for Cassini Huygens

Cassini-Huygens
Cassini-Huygens
The Cassini Huygens mission to Saturn just passed its ten year mark. It blasted off from Earth on Oct 15, 1997. I hooked up my computer to the internet a month later, and have been enjoying photos from it ever since. Last year for Paul McCartney's 64th birthday, sixty-four images from Cassini were put together into a poster and a movie.

Jupiter, Saturn, and its moons

Cassini flew by Jupiter on the way to Saturn . Cassini approached Saturn in mid-2004. One of my favorite photos is titled, The Dragon Storm. You can click through all of the Cassini photos by starting on this Cassini Imaging Diary page.

Huygens lands on Titan

The term "Huygens" refers to a probe attached to the Cassini craft. On Christmas Day, 2004 it separated itself and landed on Saturn's moon, Titan (click here to access videos and photos).

Learn more about Cassini-Huygens

If you haven't been following this exciting mission, you have ten years of catching up available.

Oct
10
2007

Industrial sites for sale?: According to some futurists, the moon could be the creation site and launching pad of missions to Mars. Robots would use materials found on the moon to make the spacecraft and then be able to blast off faster and cheaper from the moon's smaller gravitational pull. (Photo from NASA)
Industrial sites for sale?: According to some futurists, the moon could be the creation site and launching pad of missions to Mars. Robots would use materials found on the moon to make the spacecraft and then be able to blast off faster and cheaper from the moon's smaller gravitational pull. (Photo from NASA)
It looks like our moon could someday be rezoned for industrial use.

That’s what those involved in space exploration learned at a recent conference. For economic and efficiency reasons, robots would lead a team of manufacturers based on the moon building the spacecraft that would go to Mars.

Those attending the Space & Missile Defense Conference in Huntsville, Ala., learned that a Mars spaceship might be too large to build and launch from Earth. The ideal situation would be to have a team of robots based on the moon doing most of the work in building the craft.

Robots would be needed because the construction work would be too cumbersome for humans to do while wearing spacesuits. Researchers are also investigating ways to process moon soils into metals, such as aluminum, iron and titanium, which would then be used to build the spacecraft.

And due to the moon’s weaker gravitational pull, it will 20 times cheaper to launch Mars missions from the moon than from Earth.

While this all sounds pretty futuristic, aeronautic and space manufacturers are already designing and building the next generation of U.S. spacecrafts, the Ares I and Ares V, which will replace the current fleet of space shuttles. The Ares I will shuttle astronauts in and out of space. The larger Ares V will be used to transport heavier cargos.

What do you think about using the moon as a factory? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Oct
06
2007

Another race to the moon

Chang'e 1: China lunar probe
Chang'e 1: China lunar probe
United States, India, China, and Japan have each announced high-profile plans to send humans back to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 landed there in 1972.

United States on moon by 2020

NASA has a 2020 deadline for returning Americans to the moon. China would like to beat that. At a recent meeting, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said,

"I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are,''

China's ambitious space program

Luo Ge, Vice Administrator, China National Space Administration, at the 22nd National Space Symposium (NSS) outlined China's agenda in space.

Generally speaking, in the coming five to eight years we will be launching about 100 satellites. Next year, the country's first lunar orbiter/fly mission is to fly. By 2012, China space planners will be landing a rover on the Moon surface. Based on success in the manned mission area, China intends to establish an orbiting space lab by 2015. In 2017, that country's lunar exploration plans call for robotic lunar sample return missions. China will also consider the possibility of manned mission to the Moon. Space.com

Next step, China's moon probe, Chang'e 1

Chang'e 1 will be outfitted with a stereo camera system to chart the lunar surface, an altimeter to measure the distance between the spacecraft and the lunar surface, a gamma/X-ray spectrometer to study the overall composition and radioactive components of the Moon, a microwave radiometer to map the thickness of the lunar regolith, and a system of space environment monitors to collect data on the solar wind and near-lunar region. Click here to read more about Chang'e 1.

Sep
05
2007

The crew of STS-120: Image courtesy NASA.
The crew of STS-120: Image courtesy NASA.
NASA space shuttle mission STS-120 this October will be brining more to the International Space Station (ISS) than the Harmony module, which will provide attachment points for European and Japanese laboratory modules. In addition, it will bring the original prop lightsaber from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The prop is being flown to the ISS to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Star Wars franchise, which began with 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

As both a Star Wars nut and a fan of most things space related, I read this story with mixed feelings. Is this more a PR opportunity for Star Wars or NASA? Star Wars can almost do no wrong in my mind (except possibly with Jar-Jar Binks) and I wonder if this story, while giving props to Star Wars, isn’t really more of a boost to NASA for being associated with something cool like Star Wars. Personally, I think a lot of stuff NASA does is cool but I know a lot of people who could care less about NASA and space in general (I call them “space haters”).

And, hey, its something fun. I’ve read a few blogs that are accusing NASA of wasting funds on this, but I doubt this cost NASA much in terms of money, and probably has exposed them in a fun and positive light. I’m all for it.

Aug
14
2007

Barbara Morgan
Barbara Morgan
Astronaut Barbara Morgan is also a teacher. Several educational sessions are scheduled for the STS-118 mission.

Students from Challenger Learning Centers interact with Astronauts on Wednesday August 15th at 11am and 3pm; Shuttle Downlink with astronauts Barbara Morgan and Rick Mastracchio on Thursday August 16.(more info)

I am watching Barbara Morgan live on the NASA TV as she uses the shuttle's arm to install the external stowage platform. Yesterday a new gyroscope was installed. To follow activities I recommend these links:

I use the windows media link because it allows full screen viewing. If you want to use other video formats they are here.

Aug
11
2007

A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought.  (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought. (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

We here at Science Buzz have discussed global warming a time or two. And long-time readers know that I am The Science Museum’s resident global warming skeptic. Not a denier – I recognize that the Earth’s temperatures have been generally increasing over the last 25 to 30 years, and I’ll admit that human-produced carbon dioxide could well be a contributing factor. However, I am skeptical about claims that human activity is the sole or even primary cause of this warming; that there is a simple, direct correlation between our actions and global climate; or that the planet is headed toward some sort of ecological disaster in the next 10 years if we don’t do something drastic now.

Toward that end, I keep an eye on the various global warming threads, and try to temper the more intemperate comments made by those who hold different views. (And they do the same for me, of course.) So, in the course of a debate, if someone says “the Earth is warming,” I correct them by pointing out that the Earth has warmed: global temperatures rose in the 1980s and ‘90s, peaked in the US in 1998, and have held steady or dropped slightly since.

I have recently learned that this was wrong. As painful as it is for me to admit, I must set the record straight: temperatures in the US did not peak in 1998. They actually peaked in…

1934

In 1934, the world’s population was a fraction of what it is today. (One-sixth, more or less.) Manufacturing and industry were smaller. The number of cars and the miles traveled in them were far fewer. Commercial air travel – a huge producer of greenhouse gases – was in its infancy.

(1934 was also the year my mother was born and, in a coincidence science has thus far been unable to explain, the year Yoko Ono was born.)

And yet despite the lower levels of greenhouse gas, 1934 was warmer than any other year, before or since. And while global temperatures had been generally increasing since about 1890, they leveled off around 1940 and even took a slight dip in the 1970s. All of which indicates that record-high temperatures may not be the harbinger of doom so many assume them to be.

So, how could I have made such a drastic mistake? Well, I’m not the only one. Y’see, I was relying on a temperature chart produced by NASA scientists Reto Reudy and James Hansen. Their graph showed temperatures spiking in the late ‘90s, and staying near that peak.

Of course, other people were studying that chart, too. One of them, Steve McIntyre, thought it looked a little fishy. So he asked Hansen for the formula he used to produce his chart. Hansen, operating in the spirit of openness and transparency that is the hallmark of science and a requirement of the federal government…refused. (Other scientists have also accused some federal agencies of not sharing their data so it can be reviewed.) So McIntyre reverse-engineered the formula from the published data. And he found something interesting.

Temperature data from many reporting stations around the country suddenly jumped around the year 2000. After some digging, McIntyre found an error in the formula used to process the data. As a result, Reudy and Hansen reported many years as being warmer than they really were.

(Is this the same James Hansen who has accused the Bush administration of playing politics with science, trying to suppress views that contradict their positions and cherry-picking data that advances its agenda? Why, yes it is!)

NASA has recomputed the figures and issued a new set of corrected data. It now shows that five of the ten warmest years on record occurred before World War II, when global temps leveled off and later fell. Four of the years in our current decade which were supposed to have been near record highs were actually colder than 1900.

Minnesotans can be proud that their state played a role in uncovering this mistake. It was data at the Detroit Lakes station that first led McIntyre to believe something was amiss.

So, what lesson do we learn from all this? That I need to be more skeptical. I have to stop believing everything I read in the New York Times. I need to recognize that even rocket scientists can sometimes make mistakes.

So my promise to you, dear readers, is I will check my sources and do my best never to fall for this sort of mistake again.