NASA Report Reviews Crew Safety Measures During Columbia Accident, Recommends Improvements

NASA has completed a comprehensive study of crew safety equipment and procedures used during the space shuttle Columbia accident with recommendations for improving the safety of all future human spaceflights.

A media teleconference will be held at 3 p.m. CST Tuesday to discuss the report. To participate, reporters must contact NASA’s Johnson Space Center newsroom at 281-483-5111 no later than 2 p.m. Space may be limited.

Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live at:

The teleconference participants are Wayne Hale, deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships; astronaut Pam Melroy, deputy project manager for the investigation team; Nigel Packham, project manager for the investigation team; and Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager.

The Spacecraft Crew Survival Integrated Investigation Team report is available at:

"The members of this team have done an outstanding job under difficult and personal circumstances," said Johnson Space Station Center Director Michael L. Coats. "Their work will ensure that the legacy of Columbia and her heroic crew continues to be the improved safety of future human spaceflights worldwide."

The team's final report includes 30 recommendations to improve spacecraft design and crew safety. The recommendations cover a broad range of subjects from crew training, procedures, restraints and individual safety equipment to spacecraft design methods and recommendations regarding future accident investigations.

NASA already has implemented some of the report's recommendations and is evaluating others. A fact sheet describing actions that have been taken or are in work by both the Space Shuttle Program and Constellation Program as a result of the investigation is available at the same web link as the report.

This was the first-ever in-depth crew survival study of a spaceflight accident. The investigation was conducted by a multi-disciplinary NASA team based at NASA's Johnson Space Center. The study team also consulted experts outside of NASA for portions of its work.

NASA TV To Air Space Station Crew's New Year's Message

NASA TV will air a special New Year's message from International Space Station Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke and Flight Engineer Sandy Magnus beginning on Monday's noon EST Video File (newsfeed).

From their vantage point 220 miles above Earth, the astronauts express their year-end thoughts on the significance of the international outpost and their New Year's wish for the complex in 2009. The crew also shares their wish for peace in the languages of all of the countries represented in the space station partnership.

For the NASA TV downlink, streaming video and scheduling information, visit:

For more about the space station and the Expedition 18 mission, visit:

Mars Rovers Near Five Years of Science and Discovery

NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity may still have big achievements ahead as they approach the fifth anniversaries of their memorable landings on Mars.

Of the hundreds of engineers and scientists who cheered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 3, 2004, when Spirit landed safely, and 21 days later when Opportunity followed suit, none predicted the team would still be operating both rovers in 2009.

"The American taxpayer was told three months for each rover was the prime mission plan," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The twins have worked almost 20 times that long. That's an extraordinary return of investment in these challenging budgetary times."

The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them.

"These rovers are incredibly resilient considering the extreme environment the hardware experiences every day," said John Callas, JPL project manager for Spirit and Opportunity. "We realize that a major rover component on either vehicle could fail at any time and end a mission with no advance notice, but on the other hand, we could accomplish the equivalent duration of four more prime missions on each rover in the year ahead."

Occasional cleaning of dust from the rovers' solar panels by Martian wind has provided unanticipated aid to the vehicles' longevity. However, it is unreliable aid. Spirit has not had a good cleaning for more than 18 months. Dust-coated solar panels barely provided enough power for Spirit to survive its third southern-hemisphere winter, which ended in December.

"This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit," Callas said. "We just made it through."

With Spirit's energy rising for spring and summer, the team plans to drive the rover to a pair of destinations about 183 meters (200 yards) south of the site where Spirit spent most of 2008. One is a mound that might yield support for an interpretation that a plateau Spirit has studied since 2006, called Home Plate, is a remnant of a once more-extensive sheet of explosive volcanic material. The other destination is a house-size pit called Goddard.

"Goddard doesn't look like an impact crater," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. Squyres is principal investigator for the rover science instruments. "We suspect it might be a volcanic explosion crater, and that's something we haven't seen before."

A light-toned ring around the inside of the pit might add information about a nearby patch of bright, silica-rich soil that Squyres counts as Spirit's most important discovery so far. Spirit churned up the silica in mid-2007 with an immobile wheel that the rover has dragged like an anchor since it quit working in 2006. The silica was likely produced in an environment of hot springs or steam vents.

For Opportunity, the next major destination is Endeavour Crater. It is approximately 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter, more than 20 times larger than another impact crater, Victoria, where Opportunity spent most of the past two years. Although Endeavour is about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from Victoria, it is considerably farther as the rover drives on a route evading major obstacles.

Since climbing out of Victoria four months ago, Opportunity has driven more than a mile of its route toward Endeavour and stopped to inspect the first of several loose rocks the team plans to examine along the way. High-resolution images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars in 2006, are helping the team plot routes around potential sand traps that were not previously discernable from orbit.

"We keep setting the bar higher for what these rovers can do," said Frank Hartman, a JPL rover driver. "Once it seemed like a crazy idea to go to Endeavour, but now we're doing it."

Squyres said, "The journeys have been motivated by science, but have led to something else important. This has turned into humanity's first overland expedition on another planet. When people look back on this period of Mars exploration decades from now, Spirit and Opportunity may be considered most significant not for the science they accomplished, but for the first time we truly went exploring across the surface of Mars."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rovers for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, visit: .

Next NASA Mars Mission Rescheduled for 2011

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will launch two years later than previously planned, in the fall of 2011. The mission will send a next-generation rover with unprecedented research tools to study the early environmental history of Mars.

A launch date of October 2009 no longer is feasible because of testing and hardware challenges that must be addressed to ensure mission success. The window for a 2009 launch ends in late October. The relative positions of Earth and Mars are favorable for flights to Mars only a few weeks every two years. The next launch opportunity after 2009 is in 2011.

"We will not lessen our standards for testing the mission's complex flight systems, so we are choosing the more responsible option of changing the launch date," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Up to this point, efforts have focused on launching next year, both to begin the exciting science and because the delay will increase taxpayers' investment in the mission. However, we've reached the point where we can not condense the schedule further without compromising vital testing."

The Mars Science Laboratory team recently completed an assessment of the progress it has made in the past three months. As a result of the team's findings, the launch date was changed.

"Despite exhaustive work in multiple shifts by a dedicated team, the progress in recent weeks has not come fast enough on solving technical challenges and pulling hardware together," said Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The right and smart course now for a successful mission is to launch in 2011."

The advanced rover is one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever designed. It will use new technologies to adjust its flight while descending through the Martian atmosphere, and to set the rover on the surface by lowering it on a tether from a hovering descent stage. Advanced research instruments make up a science payload 10 times the mass of instruments on NASA's Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. The Mars Science Laboratory is engineered to drive longer distances over rougher terrain than previous rovers. It will employ a new surface propulsion system.

Rigorous testing of components and systems is essential to develop such a complex mission and prepare it for launch. Tests during the middle phases of development resulted in decisions to re-engineer key parts of the spacecraft.

"Costs and schedules are taken very seriously on any science mission," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. "However, when it's all said and done, the passing grade is mission success."

The mission will explore a Mars site where images taken by NASA's orbiting spacecraft indicate there were wet conditions in the past. Four candidate landing sites are under consideration. The rover will check for evidence of whether ancient Mars environments had conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and preserving evidence of that life if it existed there.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Mars Science Laboratory project for the Science Mission Directorate.

For more information about the Mars Science Laboratory, visit:

Mars Orbiter Completes Prime Mission

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has completed its primary, two-year science phase. The spacecraft has found signs of a complex Martian history of climate change that produced a diversity of past watery environments.

The orbiter has returned 73 terabits of science data, more than all earlier Mars missions combined. The spacecraft will build on this record as it continues to examine Mars in unprecedented detail during its next two-year phase of science operations.

Among the major findings during the primary science phase is the revelation that the action of water on and near the surface of Mars occurred for hundreds of millions of years. This activity was at least regional and possibly global in extent, though possibly intermittent. The spacecraft also observed that signatures of a variety of watery environments, some acidic, some alkaline, increase the possibility that there are places on Mars that could reveal evidence of past life, if it ever existed.

Since moving into position 186 miles above Mars' surface in October 2006, the orbiter also has conducted 10,000 targeted observation sequences of high-priority areas. It has imaged nearly 40 percent of the planet at a resolution that can reveal house-sized objects in detail, 1 percent in enough detail to see desk-sized features. This survey has covered almost 60 percent of Mars in mineral mapping bands at stadium-size resolution. The orbiter also assembled nearly 700 daily global weather maps, dozens of atmospheric temperature profiles, and hundreds of radar profiles of the subsurface and the interior of the polar caps.

"These observations are now at the level of detail necessary to test hypotheses about when and where water has changed Mars and where future missions will be most productive as they search for habitable regions on Mars," said Richard Zurek, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Included in the observations are hundreds of stereo pairs used to make detailed topography maps and classic images in support of other Mars missions. One image showed the Mars rover Opportunity poised on the rim of Victoria Crater and another of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander during its descent to the surface. Orbiter data prompted the Phoenix team to change the spacecraft's landing site, and are being used to select the landing location for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, which is scheduled for launch in 2011. For five months of Phoenix operations on Mars that ended in November, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter shared the vital communications roles of relaying commands to the lander and data from Phoenix back to Earth.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found repetitive layering in Mars' permanent polar ice caps. The patterns suggest climate change cycles continuing to the present. They may record possible effects of cyclical changes in Mars' tilt and orbit on global sunlight patterns. Recent climate cycles are indicated by radar detection of subsurface icy deposits outside the polar regions, closer to the equator, where near-surface ice is not permanently stable. Other results reveal details of ancient streambeds, atmospheric hazes and motions of water, along with the ever-changing weather on Mars.

Most observations from the orbiter will be discontinued for a few weeks while the sun is between Earth and Mars, which will disrupt communications. In December, the orbiter will begin a new phase, with science observations continuing as Mars makes another orbit around the sun, which takes approximately two Earth years.

"This spacecraft truly exemplifies the best in capabilities to support science and other Martian spacecraft activities," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "MRO has exceeded its own goals and our expectations. We look forward to more discoveries as we continue to look at the Red Planet in spectacular detail."

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.

For more information about the mission, visit:

NASA Invites Young Engineers To Alabama Student Launch Initiative

NASA has invited 14 groups of ambitious young rocketeers from 11 middle schools, high schools and youth organizations around the country to light up the sky over North Alabama during NASA's 2008-2009 Student Launch Initiative rocketry challenge.

The rocketeering challenge will be held April 15-20, 2009, when student teams will converge on NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for a professional review of their rockets by NASA engineers. Day-long launch activities will take place at nearby Bragg Farms in Toney, Ala.

The annual event, which Marshall manages, is designed to inspire young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- fields important to NASA's exploration mission.

Each team will design, build and field-test a rocket while gaining real experience in managing complex, technical development projects from the drawing board to the launch pad. They must address twin challenges: designing a vehicle capable of traveling to an altitude of 1 mile and devising an on-board science experiment that can survive the trip and deliver data when the rocket parachutes back to Earth.

Teams are eligible to participate in the program for one or two years. Each new team receives a $3,700 grant, and each returning team receives a $2,450 grant.

In addition to designing and flying working rockets, participants will develop a project Web site, and write and submit preliminary and post-launch reports like NASA engineers working actual missions. Teams also will devise outreach projects for schools or youth organizations in their area, helping to spread interest in rocketry to students younger than themselves.

For more information about the NASA Student Launch Initiative, visit:

What Can Swiss Cheese Teach us About Dark Energy?

About 10 years ago, scientists reached the astonishing conclusion that our universe is accelerating apart at ever-increasing speeds, stretching space and time itself like melted cheese. The force that's pushing the universe apart is still a mystery, which is precisely why it was dubbed "dark energy."

But is dark energy really real? Is our universe really accelerating? These questions hang around in the mind of Ali Vanderveld, a post-doctoral cosmologist at JPL. Vanderveld and her colleagues recently published a paper in the journal Physical Review looking at how giant holes in our "Swiss-cheese-like" universe might make space look as if it's accelerating when it's really not. They concluded these holes, or voids, are not sufficient to explain away dark energy; nevertheless, Vanderveld says it's important to continue to question fundamental traits of the very space we live in.

"Sometimes we take dark energy for granted," said Vanderveld. "But there are other theories that could explain why the universe appears to be moving apart at faster and faster speeds."

Why do scientists think the universe is accelerating? A large part of the evidence comes from observations taken over the last decade or so of very distant, colossal star explosions called supernovae. JPL's Wide-Field and Planetary Camera 2 on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope contributed to this groundbreaking research. Astronomers had already figured out that space, since its inception about 13.7 billion years ago in a tremendous "Big Bang" explosion, is expanding. But they didn't know if this expansion was happening at a constant rate, and even speculated that it could be slowing down. By examining distant supernovae billions of light-years away, scientists could get a look at how the expansion of space behaves over time.

The results were baffling. The more distant supernovae were dimmer than predicted, which would suggest they are farther away than previously believed. If they are farther away, then this means the space between us and the supernovae is expanding at ever-increasing speeds. Additional research has since pointed to an accelerating universe.

A group of researchers from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., recently invoked what's called the Swiss-cheese model of the universe to explain why these supernovae might appear to be moving faster away from us than they really are. The universe is made up of lumps of matter interspersed with giant holes, or voids, somewhat like Swiss cheese. In fact, last year, astronomers at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, reported finding the king of all known voids, spanning one billion light-years. In other words, it would take light -- which holds the title for fastest stuff in the universe -- one billion years to go from one side of the void to the other!

The researchers at Fermi said these voids might lie between us and the supernovae being observed, acting like concave lenses to make the objects appear dimmer and farther than they really are. If so, then the supernova might not be accelerating away from us after all. Their theory claimed to provide a way in which dark energy might go poof.

Vanderveld and her colleagues at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., looked more closely at this theory and found a few "holes." The group at Fermi had assumed a bunch of voids would line up between us and the supernovae, but Vanderveld's group said, in reality, the voids would be distributed more randomly -- again like Swiss cheese. With this random distribution, the voids are not enough to explain away dark energy.

"The lumpiness of the universe could still be tricking us into thinking it's accelerating," said Vanderveld. "But we did not find this to be the case with our best, current models of the universe."

There is, however, one other freakish possibility that could mean a void is creating the illusion of an accelerating universe. If our solar system just happened to sit in the middle of a void, then that void would distort our observations. Said Vanderveld, "It's really hard to tell if we're in a void, but for the most part this possibility has been ruled out."

New Oceanography Mission Data Now Available

Oceanography data that will help scientists around the world better understand climate change are now available. The data come from the Ocean Surface Topography Mission, also known as OSTM/Jason-2, a spacecraft developed jointly by NASA and the French space agency.

Launched June 20, 2008, the mission's first validated data products in support of improved weather, climate and ocean forecasts are now being distributed to the public within a few hours of observation. Beginning in 2009, other data products for climate research will be available a few days to a few weeks after observations are taken by the satellite.

The satellite is monitoring 95 percent of the world's ice-free oceans every 10 days from its low Earth orbit. Like its predecessor satellites Topex/Poseidon and Jason-1, OSTM/Jason-2 is extending the climate data record by providing a long-term survey of Earth's ocean. It tracks ocean circulation patterns and measures sea-surface height and the rate of sea-level rise, which are critical factors in understanding climate change.

The mission is a joint effort among NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, or CNES, and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, or EUMETSAT. An international science team of more than 200 investigators will use data obtained from the satellite's instruments to study the world's ocean and its effect on our society.

"The joint development by NASA and CNES during the past 20 years of an effective technique for measuring sea level from space is a tremendous success story for both agencies and the international science community," said Lee-Lueng Fu, OSTM/Jason-2 project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "With the successful transition of this important measurement to our partners, NOAA and EUMETSAT, a new era has dawned in humankind's long-term monitoring of this vital barometer of our changing climate."

"Sea level is rising at a rate of 0.13 inches per year, nearly twice as fast as the previous 100 years," said Laury Miller, chief of NOAA's Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry in Silver Spring, Md. "If this rate continues unchanged during the coming decades, it will have a huge impact on erosion and flooding in coastal regions. We need the OSTM/Jason-2 data to help us monitor what is happening."

Throughout the mission, CNES will continue to monitor and evaluate the spacecraft and instruments it provided. The French space agency also will process, distribute and archive the research-quality data products that will become available next year. EUMETSAT will process and distribute operational data received by its ground station to users in Europe and archive the data. NOAA will process and distribute operational data received by its ground stations to non-European users and archive that data along with the CNES data products.

NOAA will operate the satellite. NASA will evaluate the performance of its instruments: the advanced microwave radiometer, the Global Positioning System payload, and the laser retroreflector assembly. In addition, NASA and CNES will validate scientific data products.

CNES provided the OSTM/Jason 2 spacecraft, and NASA and CNES jointly provided the primary payload instruments. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

To learn more about the ocean monitoring mission, visit:

Dark Energy Found Stifling Growth in the Universe

For the first time, astronomers have clearly seen the effects of "dark energy" on the most massive collapsed objects in the universe using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. By tracking how dark energy has stifled the growth of galaxy clusters and combining this with previous studies, scientists have obtained the best clues yet about what dark energy is and what the destiny of the universe could be.

This work, which took years to complete, is separate from other methods of dark energy research such as supernovas. These new X-ray results provide a crucial independent test of dark energy, long sought by scientists, which depends on how gravity competes with accelerated expansion in the growth of cosmic structures. Techniques based on distance measurements, such as supernova work, do not have this special sensitivity.

Scientists think dark energy is a form of repulsive gravity that now dominates the universe, although they have no clear picture of what it actually is. Understanding the nature of dark energy is one of the biggest problems in science. Possibilities include the cosmological constant, which is equivalent to the energy of empty space. Other possibilities include a modification in general relativity on the largest scales, or a more general physical field.

To help decide between these options, a new way of looking at dark energy is required. It is accomplished by observing how cosmic acceleration affects the growth of galaxy clusters over time.

"This result could be described as 'arrested development of the universe'," said Alexey Vikhlinin of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., who led the research. "Whatever is forcing the expansion of the universe to speed up is also forcing its development to slow down."

Vikhlinin and his colleagues used Chandra to observe the hot gas in dozens of galaxy clusters, which are the largest collapsed objects in the universe. Some of these clusters are relatively close and others are more than halfway across the universe.

The results show the increase in mass of the galaxy clusters over time aligns with a universe dominated by dark energy. It is more difficult for objects like galaxy clusters to grow when space is stretched, as caused by dark energy. Vikhlinin and his team see this effect clearly in their data. The results are remarkably consistent with those from the distance measurements, revealing general relativity applies, as expected, on large scales.

"For years, scientists have wanted to start testing how gravity works on large scales and now, we finally have," said William Forman, a co-author of the study from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. "This is a test that general relativity could have failed."

When combined with other clues -- supernovas, the study of the cosmic microwave background, and the distribution of galaxies -- this new X-ray result gives scientists the best insight to date on the properties of dark energy.

The study strengthens the evidence that dark energy is the cosmological constant. Although it is the leading candidate to explain dark energy, theoretical work suggests it should be about 10 raised to the power of 120 times larger than observed. Therefore, alternatives to general relativity, such as theories involving hidden dimensions, are being explored.

"Putting all of this data together gives us the strongest evidence yet that dark energy is the cosmological constant, or in other words, that 'nothing weighs something'," said Vikhlinin. "A lot more testing is needed, but so far Einstein's theory is looking as good as ever."
These results have consequences for predicting the ultimate fate of the universe. If dark energy is explained by the cosmological constant, the expansion of the universe will continue to accelerate, and the Milky Way and its neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, never will merge with the Virgo cluster. In that case, about a hundred billion years from now, all other galaxies ultimately would disappear from the Milky Way's view and, eventually, the local superclusters of galaxies also would disintegrate.

The work by Vikhlinin and his colleagues will be published in two separate papers in the Feb. 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

Additional information and images are available at:

New Digs For The Space Station

Next NASA Moon Mission Completes Major Milestone

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, has successfully completed thermal vacuum testing, which simulates the extreme hot, cold and airless conditions of space LRO will experience after launch. This milestone concludes the orbiter's environmental test program at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The orbiter will carry seven instruments to provide scientists with detailed maps of the lunar surface and increase our understanding of the moon's topography, lighting conditions, mineralogical composition and natural resources. Data returned to Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will be used to select safe landing sites, determine locations for future outposts and help mitigate radiation dangers to astronauts. The spacecraft will spend at least a year in a low, polar orbit approximately 30 miles above the lunar surface while the instruments work together to collect detailed information about the moon's environment.

The thermal vacuum testing on the spacecraft took about two months. The orbiter, which was built at Goddard, was subjected to the extreme temperature cycles of the lunar environment as engineers conducted simulated flight operations.

"We have cooked LRO, frozen it, shaken it, and blasted it with electromagnetic waves, and still it operates," said Dave Everett, LRO mission system engineer at Goddard. "We have performed more than 2,500 hours of powered testing since January, more than 600 of that in vacuum."

The first two checks were the spin and vibration tests. The spin test determined the spacecraft's center of gravity and measured characteristics of its rotation. During vibration testing, engineers checked the structural integrity of the spacecraft aboard a large, shaking table that simulated the rigorous ride the orbiter will encounter during liftoff aboard an Atlas rocket.

Next, the orbiter was subjected to acoustics testing. The bagged spacecraft was placed near wall-sized speakers that simulate the noise-induced vibrations of launch. Following acoustics testing, LRO underwent tests that simulated the orbiter's separation from the rocket during launch. The spacecraft also underwent electromagnetic compatibility testing to ensure internal and external electrical signals do not interfere with its critical functions.

"It was less than one year ago that LRO was a myriad collection of parts not yet delivered to our clean room," said Craig Tooley, LRO project manager at Goddard. "This truly is a significant accomplishment -- a hard earned milestone. It is a humbling and awe-inspiring experience to work with the LRO team."

LRO will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in early 2009 to be prepared for its April 24 launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. Accompanying the spacecraft will be the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, a mission that will impact the moon's surface in its search for water ice.

Goddard is building and managing the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, visit:

NASA to Announce Space Station Resupply Services Contract

NASA will host a media teleconference with Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier at 4 p.m. EST, Tuesday, Dec. 23, to discuss the contract selection for commercial cargo resupply services for the International Space Station.

NASA released a Request for Proposal on April 14 for the cargo needs of the space station beyond those supplied by current international agreements. NASA will depend on commercial resupply for reliable, safe and cost effective cargo delivery services to the station.

Reporters who wish to participate must call 202-358-1100 by 2 p.m. on Tuesday for dial-in information. Replays of the call will be available through Dec. 24 by dialing 866-465-2115 and entering the pass code 122308.

The Commercial Resupply Services procurement will include requirements for launch services, orbital rendezvous and berthing with a crewed spacecraft, delivery of internal and/or external cargo, unberthing and deorbit, and disposal or return of internal cargo.

The teleconference will be broadcast live at:

For more information on the station resupply Request for Proposal, visit:

For more information about the space station, visit

NASA Response to Aviation Week and Space Technology Article

NASA recently submitted the following response to Aviation Week:

Unfortunately, Aviation Week’s recent article of Dec. 21, 2008, entitled “Bush Administration Nixed NASA's U.S.-China Cooperation Idea," is inaccurate and misleading.

As an initial matter, NASA has never asked the White House for a cooperative mission such as the one described in the article. The fact is that the White House has been very supportive of a deliberate and careful establishment of relations between NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) over the past two years. As a result, NASA commenced working group discussions with CNSA representatives on Earth and space science earlier this year. The discussions of potential areas of future cooperation were based on the principles of mutual benefit, reciprocity, and transparency, with the understanding that any proposal for specific projects would undergo careful review within the United States Government. Approval would, of course, be affected by the overall status of the U.S.-China government-to-government relationship. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), space shuttle flights, and International Space Station were never intended by either NASA or CNSA to be considered by the NASA-CNSA working group.

Regarding AMS, it is not an international project managed by NASA; the international aspects of AMS are managed by the Department of Energy (DOE). Currently, NASA is prepared to take necessary steps to fly one additional space shuttle flight to deliver AMS to the International Space Station before the scheduled retirement of the shuttle in 2010, provided that additional funding is provided to the agency for this additional flight. However, we anticipate this flight will be reviewed by the new administration.

NASA Awards Space Station Commercial Resupply Services Contracts

NASA has awarded two contracts -- one to Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and one to Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. -- for commercial cargo resupply services to the International Space Station. At the time of award, NASA has ordered eight flights valued at about $1.9 billion from Orbital and 12 flights valued at about $1.6 billion from SpaceX.

These fixed-price indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts will begin Jan. 1, 2009, and are effective through Dec. 31, 2016. The contracts each call for the delivery of a minimum of 20 metric tons of upmass cargo to the space station. The contracts also call for delivery of non-standard services in support of the cargo resupply, including analysis and special tasks as the government determines are necessary.

NASA has set production milestones and reviews on the contracts to monitor progress toward providing services. The maximum potential value of each contract is about $3.1 billion. Based on known requirements, the value of both contracts combined is projected at $3.5 billion.

These agreements will fulfill NASA's need to procure cargo delivery services to the space station using a U.S. commercial carrier after the retirement of the space shuttle.

For more information about the space station, visit:

NASA Television Commemorates Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Broadcast

NASA Television will honor the 40th anniversary of the historic Christmas Eve broadcast by the Apollo 8 crew with special programming Dec. 24 and 25 on the NASA TV Public Channel (101).

Forty years ago, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first humans to visit another heavenly body as they successfully orbited the moon in their Apollo 8 spacecraft. On Dec. 24, 1968, the three astronauts devoted one of their mission's six live television transmissions to reading from the biblical book of Genesis during what has since come to be known as the Christmas Eve Broadcast.

To commemorate the anniversary, NASA TV will air the following special programs:

"The Annual John H. Glenn Lecture -- An Evening with the Apollo 8 Astronauts," a panel discussion with Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders recorded Nov. 13, 2008, at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Former U.S. senator and NASA astronaut John Glenn provided their introduction.

"The Apollo 8 Crew Remembers Historic Mission, Live from the Newseum," a panel discussion with the Apollo 8 astronauts moderated by Nick Clooney and recorded Nov. 13, 2008, at the Newseum in Washington.

"De-Brief Apollo 8," an historical documentary of Apollo 8, narrated by Burgess Meredith (1970).

"Apollo 8 Christmas Video," a 10-minute documentary featuring Apollo 8 astronauts describing their historic mission. (Excerpts from the John H. Glenn Lecture recorded Nov. 13, 2008.)

"Apollo 8 -- December 21, 1968," a NASA Manned Space Flight Film Report on the Apollo 8 mission (1970).

The NASA Television Video File also will include footage documenting the Apollo 8 mission's Christmas Eve broadcast. For program times and listings, consult the NASA Television schedule online at:

Scientists Find 'Missing' Mineral and Clues to Mars Mysteries

Researchers using a powerful instrument aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found a long sought-after mineral on the Martian surface and, with it, unexpected clues to the Red Planet's watery past.

Surveying intact bedrock layers with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, or CRISM, scientists found carbonate minerals, indicating that Mars had neutral to alkaline water when the minerals formed at these locations more than 3.6 billion years ago. Carbonates, which on Earth include limestone and chalk, dissolve quickly in acid. Therefore, their survival until today on Mars challenges suggestions that an exclusively acidic environment later dominated the planet. Instead, it indicates that different types of watery environments existed. The greater the variety of wet environments, the greater the chances one or more of them may have supported life.

"We're excited to have finally found carbonate minerals because they provide more detail about conditions during specific periods of Mars' history," said Scott Murchie, principal investigator for the instrument at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

The findings will appear in the Dec. 19 issue of Science magazine and were announced Thursday at a briefing at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Carbonate rocks are created when water and carbon dioxide interact with calcium, iron or magnesium in volcanic rocks. Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere becomes trapped within the rocks. If all of the carbon dioxide locked in Earth's carbonates were released, our atmosphere would be thicker than that of Venus. Some researchers believe that a thick, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere kept ancient Mars warm and kept water liquid on its surface long enough to have carved the valley systems observed today.

"The carbonates that CRISM has observed are regional rather than global in nature, and therefore, are too limited to account for enough carbon dioxide to form a thick atmosphere," said Bethany Ehlmann, lead author of the article and a spectrometer team member from Brown University in Providence, R.I.

"Although we have not found the types of carbonate deposits which might have trapped an ancient atmosphere," Ehlmann said, "we have found evidence that not all of Mars experienced an intense, acidic weathering environment 3.5 billion years ago, as has been proposed. We've found at least one region that was potentially more hospitable to life."

The article reports clearly defined carbonate exposures in bedrock layers surrounding the 925-mile diameter Isidis impact basin, which formed more than 3.6 billion years ago. The best-exposed rocks occur along a trough system called Nili Fossae, which is 414 miles long, at the edge of the basin. The region has rocks enriched in olivine, a mineral that can react with water to form carbonate.

"This discovery of carbonates in an intact rock layer, in contact with clays, is an example of how joint observations by CRISM and the telescopic cameras on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are revealing details of distinct environments on Mars," said Sue Smrekar, deputy project scientist for the orbiter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander discovered carbonates in soil samples. Researchers had previously found them in Martian meteorites that fell to Earth and in windblown Mars dust observed from orbit. However, the dust and soil could be mixtures from many areas, so the carbonates' origins have been unclear. The latest observations indicate carbonates may have formed over extended periods on early Mars. They also point to specific locations where future rovers and landers could search for possible evidence of past life.

The Applied Physics Laboratory led the effort to build the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars and operates the instrument in coordination with an international team of researchers from universities, government and the private sector. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, visit:

Polyimide Foam Named NASA Commercial Invention Of 2007

The 2007 NASA Commercial Invention of the Year is a multi-use foam that insulates for sound, heat and cold with aerospace and down to Earth applications.

"Polyimide Foam" can be flexible or rigid, structural or non-structural and is highly durable. The foam's density can be varied for a variety of uses including fire protection since it generates no harmful combustion products and has been tested at temperatures above 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

For future NASA exploration vehicles, the foam could be used in applications where reduced weight and increased durability are necessary for missions to the moon or Mars. Several commercial companies have purchased hundreds of thousands of board feet for various applications because it is lighter and safer than earlier materials. The foam outperforms similar materials currently used in the aerospace industry.

The inventors, Roberto Cano, Brian Jensen and Erik Weiser from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and Miguel Vazquez of Polyumac Techno Core, Inc. in Hialeah, Fla., will be honored during the NASA Project Management Challenge Conference in early 2009. Polyumac is the licensee and manufacturer of NASA's polyimide foam technology.

NASA's general counsel selects the Invention of the Year Award with technical assistance from NASA's Inventions and Contributions Board. For more information about NASA's Inventions and Contributions Board, visit:

Space Station Crew Marks 40th Anniversary of First Human Moon Trip

The International Space Station crew, paving the way for NASA's return to the moon, will honor the first humans to journey there 40 years ago with a special message.

Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke and Flight Engineers Sandy Magnus and Yury Lonchakov will pay homage to that bold December 1968 voyage in a message that will air on NASA Television as part of the daily Video File, beginning at 11 a.m. CST, Friday, Dec. 19. The video also will be broadcast in high definition on the NASA TV HD channel at 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 19, and Tuesday, Dec. 23.

Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders roared into space on the first flight of the massive Saturn V rocket on Dec. 21, 1968. They became the first humans to circumnavigate the moon on Dec. 24, 1968, and returned safely to Earth three days later. Their mission demonstrated the ability of the Saturn V and the Apollo command and service modules to cross the 238,000-mile gulf between Earth and the moon, and set the stage for the first human lunar landing six months later.

For more about the space station and the Expedition 18 mission, visit:

For more information about Apollo 8 mission and its crew, visit:

For technical information on how to receive the special broadcast in high definition, and for NASA TV streaming video, downlink and scheduling information, visit:

Presidential Inaugural Committee Invites NASA To March In Parade

The Inauguration Committee for President-elect Barack Obama officially extended an invitation Wednesday for NASA to be part of the 56th Inaugural Parade on Jan. 20.

The crew of NASA's recent STS-126 space shuttle mission and other agency officials will join representatives from across the country and our armed forces in this historic parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington following swearing-in ceremonies on the steps of the Capitol.

Chris Ferguson commanded the STS-126 mission and was joined by Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists Donald Pettit, Steve Bowen, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Shane Kimbrough and Sandra Magnus. Magnus remained aboard the station, replacing Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Greg Chamitoff, who returned to Earth on Endeavour after more than five months on the station.

In addition to the Endeavour crew, the NASA space contingent will include a small pressurized rover. That vehicle is a concept for a new generation of lunar rovers that astronauts will take with them when they return to the moon by 2020. The rovers are being tested at sites around the country that have terrain similar to the moon's.

Organizations wishing to participate in the parade submitted applications to the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee. A total of 1,382 organizations applied to participate.

For more information about NASA and Inaugural activities, visit;

NASA Solicits Ideas for Displaying Retired Space Shuttles and Main Engines

NASA has issued a Request for Information, or RFI, seeking ideas from educational institutions, science museums and other appropriate organizations about the community's ability to acquire and publicly display the space shuttle orbiters and space shuttle main engines after the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program.

Sponsored by NASA's Office of Infrastructure, the RFI seeks input from appropriate officials and decision-makers from museums, science centers, institutions and other organizations dedicated to education or educational outreach with experience in public display of space hardware and nationally-recognized historical artifacts. NASA will use information gained from this RFI to develop strategies for eventual placement of two space shuttle orbiters and a minimum of six unassembled space shuttle main engine display "kits."

NASA's primary goal of this effort is to collect a wide variety of perspectives about whether eligible recipient organizations are capable of appropriately displaying the space shuttle orbiters and main engines, and bearing the full cost of preparing the hardware for display and transportation to its final destination. The RFI also seeks ideas about how the space shuttle orbiters and space shuttle main engines can best be used in the broad national interest to inspire the American public and students in particular. Organizations interested in responding to the RFI must provide their input to NASA by March 17, 2009.

For additional information and to view the RFI, visit:

For additional information about the shuttle program, visit:

NASA Administrator Hails Agreement with Ad Astra

NASA and Ad Astra Rocket Company of Webster, Texas, have signed a Space Act Agreement that could lead to the testing of a new plasma-based space propulsion technology on the International Space Station. The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine initially was studied by NASA and is being commercially developed by Ad Astra.

This is the first such agreement for a payload on the space station’s exterior and represents an expansion of NASA’s plans to operate the U.S. portion of the space station as a national laboratory. This effort follows the success achieved by the agency last year in reaching multiple agreements to utilize internal space station sites for this endeavor.

"Ad Astra's Space Act Agreement with NASA offers an example of just the kind of research and technology development that we should be doing on the International Space Station, can do there, and cannot easily do anywhere else," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said. "Dr. Chang-Diaz's VASIMR engine concept has long held great theoretical promise for future high-efficiency space propulsion. With this agreement, we are taking the first steps down the road to its practical realization. I am grateful to the teams on both sides who have worked to develop a plan that yields a near-term step forward for both Ad Astra and NASA on this exciting prospect."

NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Gerstenmaier and Ad Astra's President and Chief Executive Officer Franklin Chang Diaz signed the agreement on Dec. 8. The agreement is structured in a series of "gates," designed to allow the parties to assess milestones on an incremental basis while proceeding to flight. Upon the achievement of these milestones, NASA and Ad Astra envision that VASIMR will be launched to the station and be tested, for the first time, in the vacuum of space.

The VASIMR project will pave the way in demonstrating a new class of larger, more complex science and technology payloads to be installed on the space station's exterior. Smaller projects already have been started for installation inside the space station as part of the effort to use the U.S. portion of the station as a national laboratory. NASA hopes the agreement with Ad Astra will encourage other entities, governmental and commercial, to pursue similar projects and to facilitate the success of those projects by providing a model for implementation.

Chang-Diaz, a former astronaut and veteran of seven space shuttle flights is a plasma physicist. In 2001, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics awarded him the Wyld Propulsion Award for his 21 years of research on the VASIMR engine.

For more information on the space station, visit:

Saturn's Dynamic Moon Enceladus Shows More Signs of Activity

The closer scientists look at Saturn's small moon Enceladus, the more they find evidence of an active world. The most recent flybys of Enceladus made by NASA's Cassini spacecraft have provided new signs of ongoing changes on and around the moon. The latest high-resolution images of Enceladus show signs that the south polar surface changes over time.

Close views of the southern polar region, where jets of water vapor and icy particles spew from vents within the moon's distinctive "tiger stripe" fractures, provide surprising evidence of Earth-like tectonics. They yield new insight into what may be happening within the fractures. The latest data on the plume -- the huge cloud of vapor and particles fed by the jets that extend into space -- show it varies over time and has a far-reaching effect on Saturn's magnetosphere.

"Of all the geologic provinces in the Saturn system that Cassini has explored, none has been more thrilling or carries greater implications than the region at the southernmost portion of Enceladus," said panel member Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

A panel of Cassini scientists presented these new findings Monday in a news briefing at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

"Enceladus has Earth-like spreading of the icy crust, but with an exotic difference -- the spreading is almost all in one direction, like a conveyor belt," said panelist Paul Helfenstein, Cassini imaging associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Asymmetric spreading like this is unusual on Earth and not well understood."

"Enceladus has asymmetric spreading on steroids," Helfenstein added. "We are not certain about the geological mechanisms that control the spreading, but we see patterns of divergence and mountain-building similar to what we see on Earth, which suggests that subsurface heat and convection are involved."

The tiger stripes are analogous to the mid-ocean ridges on Earth's seafloor where volcanic material wells up and creates new crust. Using Cassini-based digital maps of the moon's south polar region, Helfenstein reconstructed a possible history of the tiger stripes by working backward in time and progressively snipping away older and older sections of the map, each time finding that the remaining sections fit together like puzzle pieces.

Images from recent close flybys also have bolstered an idea the Cassini imaging team has that condensation from the jets erupting from the surface may create ice plugs that close off old vents and force new vents to open. The opening and clogging of vents also corresponds with measurements indicating the plume varies from month to month and year to year.

"We see no obvious distinguishing markings on the surface in the immediate vicinity of each jet source, which suggests that the vents may open and close and thus migrate up and down the fractures over time," Porco said. "Over time, the particles that rain down onto the surface from the jets may form a continuous blanket of snow along a fracture."

Enceladus' output of ice and vapor dramatically impacts the entire Saturnian system by supplying the ring system with fresh material and loading ionized gas from water vapor into Saturn's magnetosphere.

"The ions added to the magnetosphere are spun up from Enceladus' orbital speed to the rotational speed of Saturn," said Cassini magnetometer science team member Christopher Russell of the University of California, Los Angeles. "The more material is added by the plume, the harder this is for Saturn to do, and the longer it takes to accelerate the new material."

With water vapor, organic compounds and excess heat emerging from Enceladus' south polar terrain, scientists are intrigued by the possibility of a liquid-water-rich habitable zone beneath the moon's south pole.

Cassini's flybys on Aug. 11 and Oct. 31 targeted Enceladus' fractured southern region. An Oct. 9 flyby took the spacecraft deep into the plume of water vapor and ice shooting out of the moon's vents. Cassini's next flyby of Enceladus will be in November 2009. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit: