Boiling Bubbles are Cool in Space

It may seem illogical, but boiling is a very efficient way to cool engineering components and systems used in the extreme environments of space.

An experiment to gain a basic understanding of this phenomena launched to the International Space Station on space shuttle Discovery Feb. 24. The Nucleate Pool Boiling Experiment, or NPBX, is one of two experiments in the new Boiling eXperiment Facility, or BXF.

Nucleate boiling is bubble growth from a heated surface and the subsequent detachment of the bubble to a cooler surrounding liquid. As a result, these bubbles can efficiently transfer energy from the boiling surface into the surrounding fluid. This investigation provides an understanding of heat transfer and vapor removal processes that happen during nucleate boiling in microgravity. Researchers will glean information to better design and operate space systems that use boiling for efficient heat removal.

Bubbles in microgravity grow to different sizes than on Earth. This experiment will focus on the dynamics of single and multiple bubbles and the associated heat transfer.

NPBX uses a polished aluminum wafer, powered by heaters bonded to its backside, and five fabricated cavities that can be controlled individually. The experiment will study single and/or multiple bubbles generated at these cavities. It will measure the power supplied to each heater group, and cameras will record the bubble dynamics. Analysis of the heater power data and recorded images will allow investigators to determine how bubble dynamics and heat transfer differ in microgravity.

"With boiling, the size and weight of heat exchange equipment used in space systems can be significantly reduced," said Vijay Dhir, the experiment's principal investigator at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Boiling and multiphase heat transfer is an enabling technology for space exploration missions including storage and handling of cryogenic, or extremely low temperature liquids, life support systems, power generation and thermal management."

"The cost of transporting equipment to space depends on the size and weight of the equipment," added David Chao, the project scientist from NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. "The knowledge base that will be developed through the experiment will give us the capability to achieve cooling of various components and systems used in space in an efficient manner and could lead to smaller and lighter spacecraft."

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Discovering Discovery's Payloads for the STS-133 Mission

The Space Shuttle Discovery, which launched on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, blasted off into space en route for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. The shuttle carries not only the crewmembers, but some fascinating research and technology. Payloads include 5 investigations for the crew to perform and 24 studies with hardware or samples. On the trip back to Earth, Discovery will return 22 investigations with samples or data for the ground researchers to study.

The following are some of the investigations flying on STS-133, grouped by their focus area.

Biology and Biotechnology

Four biology and biotechnology investigations (two conducted during the STS-133 mission and two long duration performed on the space station) examine cell growth, immune system function, bacterial development, and plant growth under microgravity conditions. National Laboratory Pathfinder - Vaccine - Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or NLP-Vaccine-MRSA -- This investigation uses microgravity to examine Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a pathogenic (i.e., disease-causing) organism resistant to most common antibiotics. The goal is to develop a potential vaccine for the prevention of infection on Earth and in microgravity. Mouse Immunology Effect of Space Flight on Innate Immunity to Respiratory Viral Infections -- This investigation examines the impact of microgravity on the immune system by challenging it with respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.

National Laboratory Pathfinder - Cells - 6 (NLP-Cells-6) -- This investigation assesses the effects of microgravity on the formation, establishment, and multiplication of undifferentiated cells. It also evaluates changes in cell structure, growth and development, genetic changes, and differential gene expression of Jatropha curcas, a biofuel plant. This study identifies significant changes that occur in microgravity, which could contribute to the development of new cultivars of this biofuel plant.

Dynamism of Auxin Efflux Facilitators, CsPINs, Responsible for Gravity-regulated Growth and Development in Cucumber, or CsPINs -- This investigation uses cucumber seedlings to analyze the effect of gravity on gravimorphogenesis (i.e., peg formation) in cucumber plants.

Human Research

Three studies of the cardiovascular system, i.e. Integrated Cardiovascular evaluate different aspects of the cardiovascular system and the effects of long-duration spaceflight. These investigations represent an international collaboration using the same equipment to study different components of the cardiovascular system. Also part of human research are two nutritional studies and an immune study, which look at developing countermeasures for long-duration space flight.

Cardiac Atrophy and Diastolic Dysfunction During and After Long Duration Spaceflight: Functional Consequences for Orthostatic Intolerance, Exercise Capability and Risk for Cardiac Arrhythmias, or Integrated Cardiovascular -- This investigation quantifies the extent, time course, and clinical significance of cardiac atrophy (i.e., decrease in the size of the heart muscle) associated with long-duration space flight. This experiment identifies the mechanisms of this atrophy and the functional consequences for crewmembers who will spend extended periods of time in space.

Long Term Microgravity: A Model for Investigating Mechanisms of Heart Disease with New Portable Equipment, or Card -- This investigation studies blood pressure decreases in the human body exposed to microgravity on board the space station. Vascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight, or Vascular -- This investigation determines the impact of long-duration space flight on the blood vessels of crewmembers.

The Dietary Intake Can Predict and Protect Against Changes in Bone Metabolism during Spaceflight and Recovery, or Pro K -- This investigation is NASA's first evaluation of a dietary countermeasure to lessen crewmember bone loss. Pro K proposes that a flight diet with a decreased ratio of animal protein to potassium will lead to decreased loss of bone mineral. Pro K has impacts on the definition of nutritional requirements and development of food systems for future exploration missions, and could yield a method of counteracting bone loss that would have virtually no risk of side effects. During previous on-orbit, ground, and bed-rest studies, it was found that participants who ate more servings of fish rich in omega-fatty-3 acid per week had higher bone density than those who had fewer servings.

SOdium LOading in Microgravity, or SOLO -- This investigation studies the mechanisms of fluid and salt retention in the body during space flight. Samples from this study will come back to Earth on Discovery’s return flight.

Validation of Procedures for Monitoring Crew Member Immune Function known as Integrated Immune -- This investigation looks at the clinical risks to the human immune system during spaceflight. It also has samples returning to Earth as part of the mission for STS-133.


Investigations are only a part of the STS-133 mission. The crew will also reach a major milestone for the station by completing the interior outfitting of the National Laboratory. They will add a final rack to the Express Racks, which are bench-like structures that support equipment in the orbiting lab. The installation of the last rack, known as Express Rack 8, furnishes the facility with full research capabilities.

Another technological advancement launching on STS-133 is Robonaut, which serves as a springboard to help evolve new robotic capabilities in space. Robonaut demonstrates that a dexterous robot can launch and operate in a space vehicle, manipulate mechanisms in a microgravity environment, operate for an extended duration within the space environment, assist with tasks, and eventually interact with the crewmembers.

Also part of the Space Shuttle Discovery payload is a new facility, the Boiling eXperiment Facility or BXF. This equipment enables the study of boiling in space, paving the way for two new investigations: Microheater Array Boiling Experiment, or BXF-MABE and Nucleate Pool Boiling Experiment, or BXF-NPBX Boiling in microgravity differs from boiling here on Earth. In space, there is a lack of buoyancy, so the steam from boiling liquids does not rise. Studies completed in the BXF may generate new technology for energy production and the design of cooling systems on Earth and in space vehicles.

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NASA Spacecraft Images New Zealand Quake Region

A day after a powerful magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked Christchurch, a city of 377,000 on New Zealand's South Island, on Feb. 22, 2011, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft imaged the Christchurch region. The imaging was done at the request of the International Charter, Space and Major Disasters, which provides emergency satellite data to federal agencies in disaster-stricken regions.

Two images are presented here. The first is a perspective view showing the city of Christchurch and the Banks Peninsula at upper right, location of the quake's epicenter in Lyttelton. The Banks Peninsula is composed of two overlapping extinct volcanoes. The perspective view was created by draping the ASTER natural color image over the 3-D ASTER topographic data. The second image is a nadir view pointing straight down to the ground. The images cover an area of 19 by 26 kilometers (12 by 16 miles), and are located near 43.5 degrees south latitude, 172.6 degrees east longitude. The resolution of ASTER is not sufficient to spot damage to individual buildings.

The quake-the worst natural disaster to hit New Zealand in 80 years-struck at 12:51 p.m. local time on Feb. 22. It was centered in Lyttelton, just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Christchurch, at a shallow depth of just 5 kilometers (3.1 miles). It is considered to be part of the aftershock sequence of the much larger magnitude 7.0 earthquake of Sept. 4, 2010, which was centered 45 kilometers (30 miles) west of Christchurch. That quake, while larger, resulted in injuries and damage but no fatalities.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Feb. 22 quake involved faulting at the eastern edge of the aftershock zone from the Sept. 2010 event. The earthquake is broadly associated with deformation occurring at the boundary of the Pacific and Australia tectonic plates.

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NASA'S Chandra Finds Superfluid in Neutron Star's Core

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has discovered the first direct evidence for a superfluid, a bizarre, friction-free state of matter, at the core of a neutron star. Superfluids created in laboratories on Earth exhibit remarkable properties, such as the ability to climb upward and escape airtight containers. The finding has important implications for understanding nuclear interactions in matter at the highest known densities.

Neutron stars contain the densest known matter that is directly observable. One teaspoon of neutron star material weighs six billion tons. The pressure in the star's core is so high that most of the charged particles, electrons and protons, merge resulting in a star composed mostly of uncharged particles called neutrons.

Two independent research teams studied the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, or Cas A for short, the remains of a massive star 11,000 light years away that would have appeared to explode about 330 years ago as observed from Earth. Chandra data found a rapid decline in the temperature of the ultra-dense neutron star that remained after the supernova, showing that it had cooled by about four percent over a 10-year period.

"This drop in temperature, although it sounds small, was really dramatic and surprising to see," said Dany Page of the National Autonomous University in Mexico, leader of a team with a paper published in the February 25, 2011 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters. "This means that something unusual is happening within this neutron star."

Superfluids containing charged particles are also superconductors, meaning they act as perfect electrical conductors and never lose energy. The new results strongly suggest that the remaining protons in the star's core are in a superfluid state and, because they carry a charge, also form a superconductor.

"The rapid cooling in Cas A's neutron star, seen with Chandra, is the first direct evidence that the cores of these neutron stars are, in fact, made of superfluid and superconducting material," said Peter Shternin of the Ioffe Institute in St Petersburg, Russia, leader of a team with a paper accepted in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Both teams show that this rapid cooling is explained by the formation of a neutron superfluid in the core of the neutron star within about the last 100 years as seen from Earth. The rapid cooling is expected to continue for a few decades and then it should slow down.

"It turns out that Cas A may be a gift from the Universe because we would have to catch a very young neutron star at just the right point in time," said Page's co-author Madappa Prakash, from Ohio University. "Sometimes a little good fortune can go a long way in science."

The onset of superfluidity in materials on Earth occurs at extremely low temperatures near absolute zero, but in neutron stars, it can occur at temperatures near a billion degrees Celsius. Until now there was a very large uncertainty in estimates of this critical temperature. This new research constrains the critical temperature to between one half a billion to just under a billion degrees.

Cas A will allow researchers to test models of how the strong nuclear force, which binds subatomic particles, behaves in ultradense matter. These results are also important for understanding a range of behavior in neutron stars, including "glitches," neutron star precession and pulsation, magnetar outbursts and the evolution of neutron star magnetic fields.

Small sudden changes in the spin rate of rotating neutron stars, called glitches, have previously given evidence for superfluid neutrons in the crust of a neutron star, where densities are much lower than seen in the core of the star. This latest news from Cas A unveils new information about the ultra-dense inner region of the neutron star.

"Previously we had no idea how extended superconductivity of protons was in a neutron star," said Shternin's co-author Dmitry Yakovlev, also from the Ioffe Institute.

The cooling in the Cas A neutron star was first discovered by co-author Craig Heinke, from the University of Alberta, Canada, and Wynn Ho from the University of Southampton, UK, in 2010. It was the first time that astronomers have measured the rate of cooling of a young neutron star.

Page's co-authors were Prakash, James Lattimer (State University of New York at Stony Brook), and Andrew Steiner (Michigan State University.) Shternin's co-authors were Yakovlev, Heinke, Ho, and Daniel Patnaude (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.)

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Launching Balloons in Antarctica

They nicknamed it the "Little Balloon That Could." Launched in December of 2010 from McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the research balloon was a test run and it bobbed lower every day like it had some kind of leak. But every day for five days it rose back up in the sky to some 112,000 feet in the air.

Down on Earth, physicist Robyn Millan was cheering it on, hoping the test launch would bode well for the success of her grand idea: launches in 2013 and 2014 of 20 such balloons to float in the circular wind patterns above the South Pole. Each balloon will help track electrons from space that get swept up in Earth's magnetic field and slide down into our atmosphere. Such electrons are an integral part of the turbulent magnetic space weather system that extends from the sun to Earth.

A professor at Dartmouth College, Millan is the principal investigator for a project called BARREL, or Balloon Array for RBSP Relativistic Electron Losses. Millan's proposal will work hand in hand with NASA's Radiation Belt Space Probes (RBSP) mission, two NASA spacecraft due to launch in 2012 to study a mysterious part of Earth's magnetic environs called the Van Allen radiation belts. The radiation belts are made up of two regions, each one a gigantic donut of protons and electrons that surrounds Earth.

"We're both looking at the loss of particles from the radiation belts," says Millan. "RBSP sits in space near the equatorial plane and looks at the particles along magnetic field lines there. These particles come into our atmosphere – following magnetic field lines to their base at the Poles – and produce X-rays. BARREL measures those X-rays. Together we can combine measurements of the same set of particles."

Figuring out what causes this rain of electrons will do more than simply improve understanding of the physics behind what drives such high-energy particles. The charged particles within the radiation belts can damage sensitive electronics on spacecraft like those used for global positioning systems and communications, and can injure humans in space. (The electrons don't make it all the way to Earth, so pose no danger to those of us on the ground.) Experiments like BARREL and RBSP help us understand the processes and mitigate those risks.

Millan began working on balloons during her graduate work at University of California, Berkeley, where she studied physics. She worked on a balloon called MAXIS that focused on electron precipitation from the magnetosphere into the ionosphere. "Then," she says, "We got this idea. They launch these huge payloads in Antarctica, but before that they send up smaller test balloons to make sure conditions are right for the big launch. And we thought – what if you could put instruments on those? So we took our payload, and miniaturized it."

She and her team, which includes scientists and students at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and University of Washington, set about making payloads that weigh only 50 pounds for balloons that are some 90 feet in diameter. That still sounds fairly big unless you know that the typical balloons launched in Antarctica are the size of a football field and carry payloads of some 3,000 pounds. The team received funding from the National Science Foundation to fly a total of six small balloons in 2005, and shortly thereafter she learned that NASA had put out a call for experiments to support RBSP.

David Sibeck, the project scientist for RBSP at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., recalls that Millan's project proposal was well-tailored to RBSP's goals. "One of RBSP's main challenges will be to differentiate between the hordes of theories that try to explain why the belts wax and wane over time," Sibeck says. "The RBSP spacecraft will be equipped to distinguish between different options, but Millan's balloons have an advantage in one specific area: they can measure particles that break out of the belts and make it all the way to Earth's atmosphere."

The first test of BARREL -- funded by NASA and also supported by NSF's Office of Polar Programs that supports logistics of all research in Antarctica -- began in December of 2008. The final one began this past winter, when Millan left New Hampshire for Antarctica on Nov. 15. She arrived in McMurdo Station – after a transfer in Christ Church, New Zealand and a day lost due to crossing the date line – on Nov. 19. This flight needed to test travel and ease of launch capabilities as much as anything else, so Millan's team had shipped all the balloons ready to fly. Once in Antarctica, she and her colleague, Brett Anderson, a Dartmouth graduate student, got to work unpacking.

"It was great," she says. "We just had to pull them out of the box and turn them on. We mounted their solar panels and with just two people we were able to get things ready really fast, which isn't always the easiest thing to do when in Antarctica."

One reason to do such electron research at the Poles is that Earth's magnetic field lines touch down there. But equally important for this campaign are the slowly circling wind patterns that set up each summer. The BARREL project will release another balloon every 1-2 days and each should fall into line, consistently buoyed by the winds along the same circular path.

This past December – which is, of course, the summer in Antarctica – it took longer than normal for those winds, known as circumpolar winds, to set up. So when the first balloon was launched – a process spearheaded by the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility -- it floated straight North towards Tasmania. This was the balloon that came to be known as The Little Balloon That Could, says Millan: "Perhaps it had a very small hole, but it didn't quite make it as high as it was supposed to – some 120,000 feet. It only ever got to 112,000 feet, but it maintained that height doggedly and even sent back some interesting data as it flew through an X-ray aurora.” A second balloon did hit the right wind current, successfully transmitting data. (The second balloon did, however, have to be cut down a little early due to an overheated battery.)

So now the BARREL team will begin work on preparing the real show – two campaigns of 20 balloons each that will be launched during the 2012 to 2014 time frame.

"Her balloons will work in conjunction with RBSP," says Sibeck. "She can let us know if they're seeing particles and RBSP can look for the events that might be scattering them out of the radiation belts down to Earth." In addition, since each balloon is meant to stay aloft for 10 days, they will cover a huge area in the sky. When RBSP spots an interesting phenomenon, BARREL can give feedback over a large area as to where the particles went. The team will be able to see how big that region is and measure the total amount of particles that get kicked out of the belts – and thus determine how big of an effect different phenomena have. "That's something we would have more trouble doing with the spacecraft," says Sibeck.

Once each balloon is launched it moves slowly by floating in the wind. Those on the ground cannot control it, other than the single command to terminate the mission. A small explosive detonates and cuts the cable to the payload, which then floats down to the ground on a parachute. This was the fate of the two test balloons in December 2010, though they were particularly sorry to cut down the Little Balloon That Could. "We really wanted to see how far it would go," says Millan. "But it was so far north that we were getting close to Australian air space and we had to cut it down."

So the team declared the test a success, packed up their gear and began the long trip home to New Hampshire to oversee the building of 45 more payloads.

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Catching Space Weather in the Act

Close to the globe, Earth's magnetic field wraps around the planet like a gigantic spherical web, curving in to touch Earth at the poles. But this isn't true as you get further from the planet. As you move to the high altitudes where satellites fly, nothing about that field is so simple. Instead, the large region enclosed by Earth's magnetic field, known as the magnetosphere, looks like a long, sideways jellyfish with its round bulb facing the sun and a long tail extending away from the sun.

In the center of that magnetic tail lies the plasma sheet. Here, strange things can happen. Magnetic field lines pull apart and come back together, creating explosions when they release energy. Disconnected bits of the tail called "plasmoids" get ejected into space at two million miles per hour. And legions of charged particles flow back toward Earth.

Such space weather events cause auroras and, when very strong, can produce radiation events that could cause our satellites to fail. But until now no one has been able to take pictures of these fascinating processes in the plasma sheet.

"Earth’s magnetic tail and its charged particles are invisible to conventional cameras that detect light,” says Jim Slavin, a magnetotail researcher who is the Director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Events going on there have only been inferred based on other kinds of measurements."

Now, special cameras aboard the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spacecraft have snapped the first shots of this complex space environment. Instead of recording light, these two large single-pixel cameras detect energetic neutral atoms. Such fast-moving atoms are formed whenever atoms in the furthest reaches of Earth's atmosphere collide with charged particles and get sent speeding off in a new direction. Called Energetic Neutral Atom or ENA imaging, the technique captured unprecedented images of the plasma sheet.

"The image alone is remarkable and would have made a great paper in and of itself because it's the first time we’ve imaged these important regions of the magnetosphere," says Dr. David McComas, principal investigator of the IBEX mission and assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. The results appeared online in the Journal of Geophysical Research on Feb. 16, 2011.

But when they looked closely, the group realized they didn't only have a picture of a quiescent plasma sheet. The various images appear to show a piece of the plasma sheet being bitten off and ejected down the tail. They think they've caught a plasmoid in the moment it was being formed. If they're correct, this would be the first time such an event was directly seen.

"Imagine the magnetosphere as one of those balloons that people make animals out of. If you take your hands and squeeze the balloon, the pressure forces the air into another segment of the balloon," says McComas. "Similarly, the solar wind at times increases the pressure around the magnetosphere, resulting in a portion of the plasma sheet being pinched away from a larger mass and forced down the magnetotail."

Because researchers believe this phenomenon generally occurs deeper in the magnetotail, the IBEX team is considering other explanations for the event, as well. One possibility is that the plasma sheet is being squeezed by the solar wind.

While not specifically designed to observe the magnetosphere, IBEX's vantage point in space provides twice-yearly (spring and fall) seasons for viewing from outside the magnetosphere. Since its October 2008 launch, the IBEX science mission has flourished into multiple other research studies as well. In addition to supporting magnetospheric science, the spacecraft has also directly collected hydrogen and oxygen from the interstellar medium for the first time and produced the first ENA images of the outer edges of the bubble surrounding the Sun, called the heliosphere.

"Based upon the IBEX mission and its revolutionary ENA camera technology," says Slavin, "future NASA science missions may be able to make high definition videos of the development of space weather systems around the Earth to advance our scientific understanding of these phenomena and, eventually, enable space weather prediction like Earth weather prediction."

IBEX is the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers spacecraft. The Southwest Research Institute developed the IBEX mission with a team of national and international partners. Goddard manages the Explorers Program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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Can WISE Find the Hypothetical 'Tyche'?

In November 2010, the scientific journal Icarus published a paper by astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire, who proposed the existence of a binary companion to our sun, larger than Jupiter, in the long-hypothesized "Oort cloud" -- a faraway repository of small icy bodies at the edge of our solar system. The researchers use the name "Tyche" for the hypothetical planet. Their paper argues that evidence for the planet would have been recorded by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

WISE is a NASA mission, launched in December 2009, which scanned the entire celestial sky at four infrared wavelengths about 1.5 times. It captured more than 2.7 million images of objects in space, ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids and comets relatively close to Earth. Recently, WISE completed an extended mission, allowing it to finish a complete scan of the asteroid belt, and two complete scans of the more distant universe, in two infrared bands. So far, the mission's discoveries of previously unknown objects include an ultra-cold star or brown dwarf, 20 comets, 134 near-Earth objects (NEOs), and more than 33,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Following its successful survey, WISE was put into hibernation in February 2011. Analysis of WISE data continues. A preliminary public release of the first 14 weeks of data is planned for April 2011, and the final release of the full survey is planned for March 2012.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When could data from WISE confirm or rule out the existence of the hypothesized planet Tyche?

A: It is too early to know whether WISE data confirms or rules out a large object in the Oort cloud. Analysis over the next couple of years will be needed to determine if WISE has actually detected such a world or not. The first 14 weeks of data, being released in April 2011, are unlikely to be sufficient. The full survey, scheduled for release in March 2012, should provide greater insight. Once the WISE data are fully processed, released and analyzed, the Tyche hypothesis that Matese and Whitmire propose will be tested.

Q: Is it a certainty that WISE would have observed such a planet if it exists?

A: It is likely but not a foregone conclusion that WISE could confirm whether or not Tyche exists. Since WISE surveyed the whole sky once, then covered the entire sky again in two of its infrared bands six months later, WISE would see a change in the apparent position of a large planet body in the Oort cloud over the six-month period. The two bands used in the second sky coverage were designed to identify very small, cold stars (or brown dwarfs) -- which are much like planets larger than Jupiter, as Tyche is hypothesized to be.

Q: If Tyche does exist, why would it have taken so long to find another planet in our solar system?

A: Tyche would be too cold and faint for a visible light telescope to identify. Sensitive infrared telescopes could pick up the glow from such an object, if they looked in the right direction. WISE is a sensitive infrared telescope that looks in all directions.

Q: Why is the hypothesized object dubbed "Tyche," and why choose a Greek name when the names of other planets derive from Roman mythology?

A: In the 1980s, a different companion to the sun was hypothesized. That object, named for the Greek goddess "Nemesis," was proposed to explain periodic mass extinctions on the Earth. Nemesis would have followed a highly elliptical orbit, perturbing comets in the Oort Cloud roughly every 26 million years and sending a shower of comets toward the inner solar system. Some of these comets would have slammed into Earth, causing catastrophic results to life. Recent scientific analysis no longer supports the idea that extinctions on Earth happen at regular, repeating intervals. Thus, the Nemesis hypothesis is no longer needed. However, it is still possible that the sun could have a distant, unseen companion in a more circular orbit with a period of a few million years -- one that would not cause devastating effects to terrestrial life. To distinguish this object from the malevolent "Nemesis," astronomers chose the name of Nemesis's benevolent sister in Greek mythology, "Tyche."

JPL manages and operates the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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Herschel Measures Dark Matter for Star-Forming Galaxies

The Herschel Space Observatory has revealed how much dark matter it takes to form a new galaxy bursting with stars. Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission supported with important NASA contributions.

The findings are a key step in understanding how dark matter, an invisible substance permeating our universe, contributed to the birth of massive galaxies in the early universe.

"If you start with too little dark matter, then a developing galaxy would peter out," said astronomer Asantha Cooray of the University of California, Irvine. He is the principal investigator of new research appearing in the journal Nature, online on Feb. 16 and in the Feb. 24 print edition. "If you have too much, then gas doesn't cool efficiently to form one large galaxy, and you end up with lots of smaller galaxies. But if you have the just the right amount of dark matter, then a galaxy bursting with stars will pop out."

The right amount of dark matter turns out to be a mass equivalent to 300 billion of our suns.

Herschel launched into space in May 2009. The mission's large, 3.5-meter (11.5-foot) telescope detects longer-wavelength infrared light from a host of objects, ranging from asteroids and planets in our own solar system to faraway galaxies.

"This remarkable discovery shows that early galaxies go through periods of star formation much more vigorous than in our present-day Milky Way," said William Danchi, Herschel program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It showcases the importance of infrared astronomy, enabling us to peer behind veils of interstellar dust to see stars in their infancy."

Cooray and colleagues used the telescope to measure infrared light from massive, star-forming galaxies located 10 to 11 billion light-years away. Astronomers think these and other galaxies formed inside clumps of dark matter, similar to chicks incubating in eggs.

Giant clumps of dark matter act like gravitational wells that collect the gas and dust needed for making galaxies. When a mixture of gas and dust falls into a well, it condenses and cools, allowing new stars to form. Eventually enough stars form, and a galaxy is born.

Herschel was able to uncover more about how this galaxy-making process works by mapping the infrared light from collections of very distant, massive star-forming galaxies. This pattern of light, called the cosmic infrared background, is like a web that spreads across the sky. Because Herschel can survey large areas quickly with high resolution, it was able to create the first detailed maps of the cosmic infrared background.

"It turns out that it's much more effective to look at these patterns rather than the individual galaxies," said Jamie Bock of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Bock is the U.S. principal investigator for Herschel's Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver instrument used to make the maps. "This is like looking at a picture in a magazine from a reading distance. You don't notice the individual dots, but you see the big picture. Herschel gives us the big picture of these distant galaxies, showing the influence of dark matter."

The maps showed the galaxies are more clustered into groups than previously believed. The amount of galaxy clustering depends on the amount of dark matter. After a series of complicated numerical simulations, the astronomers were able to determine exactly how much dark matter is needed to form a single star-forming galaxy.

"This measurement is important, because we are homing in on the very basic ingredients in galaxy formation," said Alexandre Amblard of UC Irvine, first author of the Nature paper. "In this case, the ingredient, dark matter, happens to be an exotic substance that we still have much to learn about."

NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the U.S. astronomical community. JPL is managed by Caltech.

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NASA Releases Images of Man-Made Crater on Comet

NASA's Stardust spacecraft returned new images of a comet showing a scar resulting from the 2005 Deep Impact mission. The images also showed the comet has a fragile and weak nucleus.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to comet Tempel 1 on Monday, Feb. 14, at 8:40 p.m. PST (11:40 p.m. EST) at a distance of approximately 178 kilometers (111 miles). Stardust took 72 high-resolution images of the comet. It also accumulated 468 kilobytes of data about the dust in its coma, the cloud that is a comet's atmosphere. The craft is on its second mission of exploration called Stardust-NExT, having completed its prime mission collecting cometary particles and returning them to Earth in 2006.

The Stardust-NExT mission met its goals, which included observing surface features that changed in areas previously seen during the 2005 Deep Impact mission; imaging new terrain; and viewing the crater generated when the 2005 mission propelled an impactor at the comet.

"This mission is 100 percent successful," said Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. "We saw a lot of new things that we didn't expect, and we'll be working hard to figure out what Tempel 1 is trying to tell us."

Several of the images provide tantalizing clues to the result of the Deep Impact mission's collision with Tempel 1. "We see a crater with a small mound in the center, and it appears that some of the ejecta went up and came right back down," said Pete Schultz of Brown University, Providence, R.I. "This tells us this cometary nucleus is fragile and weak based on how subdued the crater is we see today."

Engineering telemetry downlinked after closest approach indicates the spacecraft flew through waves of disintegrating cometary particles, including a dozen impacts that penetrated more than one layer of its protective shielding.

"The data indicate Stardust went through something similar to a B-17 bomber flying through flak in World War II," said Don Brownlee, Stardust-NExT co-investigator from the University of Washington in Seattle. "Instead of having a little stream of uniform particles coming out, they apparently came out in chunks and crumbled."

While the Valentine's Day night encounter of Tempel 1 is complete, the spacecraft will continue to look at its latest cometary obsession from afar.

"This spacecraft has logged over 3.5 billion miles since launch, and while its last close encounter is complete, its mission of discovery is not," said Tim Larson, Stardust-NExT project manager at JPL. "We'll continue imaging the comet as long as the science team can gain useful information, and then Stardust will get its well-deserved rest."

Stardust-NExT is a low-cost mission that is expanding the investigation of comet Tempel 1 initiated by the Deep Impact spacecraft. The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and manages day-to-day mission operations.

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SDO Sundog Mystery

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), best known for cutting-edge images of the sun, has made a discovery right here on Earth.

"It's a new form of ice halo," says atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley of England. "We saw it for the first time at the launch of SDO--and it is teaching us new things about how shock waves interact with clouds."

Ice halos are rings and arcs of light that appear in the sky when sunlight shines through ice crystals in the air. A familiar example is the sundog—a rainbow-colored splash often seen to the left or right of the morning sun. Sundogs are formed by plate-shaped ice crystals drifting down from the sky like leaves fluttering from trees.

Last year, SDO destroyed a sundog—and that's how the new halo was discovered.

SDO lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 11, 2010—one year ago today. It was a beautiful morning with only a handful of wispy cirrus clouds crisscrossing the wintry-blue sky. As the countdown timer ticked to zero, a sundog formed over the launch pad. Play the movie, below, to see what happened next—and don't forget to turn up the volume to hear the reaction of the crowd:

"When the rocket penetrated the cirrus, shock waves rippled through the cloud and destroyed the alignment of the ice crystals," explains Cowley. "This extinguished the sundog."

The sundog's destruction was understood. The events that followed, however, were not.

"A luminous column of white light appeared next to the Atlas V and followed the rocket up into the sky," says Cowley. "We'd never seen anything like it."

Cowley and colleague Robert Greenler set to work figuring out what the mystery-column was. Somehow, shock waves from the rocket must have scrambled the ice crystals to produce the 'rocket halo.' But how? Computer models of sunlight shining through ice crystals tilted in every possible direction failed to explain the SDO event.

Then came the epiphany: The crystals weren't randomly scrambled, Cowley and Greenler realized. On the contrary, the plate-shaped hexagons were organized by the shock waves as a dancing army of microscopic spinning tops.

Cowley explains their successful model: "The crystals are tilted between 8 and 12 degrees. Then they gyrate so that the main crystal axis describes a conical motion. Toy tops and gyroscopes do it. The earth does it once every 26000 years. The motion is ordered and precise."

Bottom line: Blasting a rocket through a cirrus cloud can produce a surprising degree of order. "This could be the start of a new research field—halo dynamics," he adds.

The simulations show that the white column beside SDO was only a fraction of a larger oval that would have appeared if the crystals and shock waves had been more wide-ranging. A picture of the hypothetical complete halo may be found here.

"We'd love to see it again and more completely," says Cowley.

"If you ever get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be at a rocket launch," he advises with a laugh, "forget about the rocket! Look out instead for halos."

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A Nebula by Any Other Name

Nebulae are enormous clouds of dust and gas occupying the space between the stars. Some have pretty names to match their good looks, for example the Rose nebula, while others have much more utilitarian names. Such is the case with LBN 114.55+00.22, seen here in an image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

Named after the astronomer who published a catalogue of nebulae in 1965, LBN stands for "Lynds Bright nebula." The numbers 114.55+00.22 refer to nebula's coordinates in our Milky Way galaxy, serving as a sort of galactic home address.

Astronomers classify LBN 114.55+00.22 as an emission nebula. Unlike a reflection nebula, which reflects light from nearby stars, an emission nebula emits light. Emission nebulae are usually found in the disks of spiral galaxies, and are places where new stars are forming.

The colors used in this image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light. Blue and cyan represent light emitted at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns, which is predominantly from stars. Green and red represent light from 12 and 22 microns, respectively, which is mostly emitted by dust.

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New View of Family Life in the North American Nebula

Stars at all stages of development, from dusty little tots to young adults, are on display in a new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

This cosmic community is called the North American nebula. In visible light, the region resembles the North American continent, with the most striking resemblance being the Gulf of Mexico. But in Spitzer's infrared view, the continent disappears. Instead, a swirling landscape of dust and young stars comes into view.

"One of the things that makes me so excited about this image is how different it is from the visible image, and how much more we can see in the infrared than in the visible," said Luisa Rebull of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. Rebull is lead author of a paper about the observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. "The Spitzer image reveals a wealth of detail about the dust and the young stars here."

Rebull and her team have identified more than 2,000 new, candidate young stars in the region. There were only about 200 known before. Because young stars grow up surrounded by blankets of dust, they are hidden in visible-light images. Spitzer's infrared detectors pick up the glow of the dusty, buried stars.

A star is born inside a collapsing ball of gas and dust. As the material collapses inward, it flattens out into a disk that spins around together with the forming star like a spinning top. Jets of gas shoot perpendicularly away from the disk, above and below it. As the star ages, planets are thought to form out of the disk -- material clumps together, ultimately growing into mature planets. Eventually, most of the dust dissipates, aside from a tenuous ring similar to the one in our solar system, referred to as Zodiacal dust.

The new Spitzer image reveals all the stages of a star's young life, from the early years when it is swaddled in dust to early adulthood, when it has become a young parent to a family of developing planets. Sprightly "toddler" stars with jets can also be identified in Spitzer's view.

"This is a really busy area to image, with stars everywhere, from the North American complex itself, as well as in front of and behind the region," said Rebull. "We refer to the stars that are not associated with the region as contamination. With Spitzer, we can easily sort this contamination out and clearly distinguish between the young stars in the complex and the older ones that are unrelated."

The North American nebula still has a mystery surrounding it, involving its power source. Nobody has been able to identify the group of massive stars that is thought to be dominating the nebula. The Spitzer image, like images from other telescopes, hints that the missing stars are lurking behind the Gulf of Mexico portion of the nebula. This is evident from the illumination pattern of the nebula, especially when viewed with the detector on Spitzer that picks up 24-micron infrared light. That light appears to be coming from behind the Gulf of Mexico's dark tangle of clouds, in the same way that sunlight creeps out from behind a rain cloud.

The nebula's distance from Earth is also a mystery. Current estimates put it at about 1,800 light-years from Earth. Spitzer will refine this number by finding more stellar members of the North American complex.

The Spitzer observations were made before it ran out of the liquid coolant needed to chill its longer-wavelength instruments. Currently, Spitzer's two shortest-wavelength channels (3.6 and 4.5 microns) are still working. The composite image shows light from both the infrared array camera and multiband imaging processor. Infrared light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns is color-coded blue; 8.0-micron light is green; and 24-micron light is red.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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A Race Against Time to Find Apollo 14's Lost Voyagers

In communities all across the U.S., travelers that went to the moon and back with the Apollo 14 mission are living out their quiet lives. The whereabouts of more than 50 are known. Many, now aging, reside in prime retirement locales: Florida, Arizona and California. A few are in the Washington, D.C., area. Hundreds more are out there -- or at least, they were. And Dave Williams of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., wants to find them before it's too late.

The voyagers in question are not astronauts. They're "moon trees" -- redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir, and sweetgum trees sprouted from seeds that astronaut Stuart Roosa took to the moon and back 40 years ago.

"Hundreds of moon trees were distributed as seedlings," says Williams, "but we don't have systematic records showing where they all went."

And though some of the trees are long-lived species expected to live hundreds or thousands of years, others have started to succumb to the pressures of old age, severe weather and disease. At least a dozen have died, including the loblolly pine at the White House and a New Orleans pine that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and later removed.

To capture the vanishing historical record, Williams, a curator at the National Space Science Data Center, has been tracking down the trees, dead or alive.

His sleuthing started in 1996, prompted by an email from a third-grade teacher, Joan Goble, asking about a tree at the Camp Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton, Ind. A simple sign nearby read "moon tree."

"At the time, I had never heard of moon trees," Williams says. "The sign had a few clues, so I sent a message to the NASA history office and found more bits and pieces on the web. Then I got in touch with Stan Krugman and got more of the story."

Krugman had been the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service's staff director for forest genetics research in 1971. He had given the seeds to Roosa, who stowed them in his personal gear for the Apollo 14 mission. The seeds were symbolic for Roosa because he had fought wildfires as a smoke jumper before becoming an Air Force test pilot and then an astronaut.

The seeds flew in the command module that Roosa piloted, orbiting the moon 34 times while astronauts Alan Shepard Jr. and Edgar Mitchell walked -- and in Shepard's case, played a little golf -- on the moon.

Back then, biologists weren't sure the seeds would germinate after such a trip. Few experiments of this kind had been done. A mishap during decontamination procedures made the fate of the seeds even less certain: the canister bearing the seeds was exposed to vacuum and burst, scattering its contents.

But the seeds did germinate, and the trees seemed to grow normally. At Forest Service facilities, the moon trees reproduced with regular trees, producing a second generation called half-moon trees.

By 1975, the trees were ready to leave the Forest Service nurseries. One was sent to Washington Square in Philadelphia to be the first moon tree planted as part of the United States Bicentennial celebrations; Roosa took part in that ceremony. Another tree went to the White House. Many more were planted at state capitals, historic locations and space- and forestry-related sites across the country. Gerald Ford, then the president, called the trees "living symbol[s] of our spectacular human and scientific achievements."

When Williams could find no detailed records of which trees went where, he created a webpage to collect as much information as possible. A flurry of emails came in from people who either knew of or came upon the trees.

"About a year after I put the webpage up, someone contacted me and asked why I didn't have the moon tree at Goddard listed," he says. "I hadn't known it was there!" Goddard's moon tree is a sycamore, planted in 1977 next to the visitors' center.

Williams has so far listed trees in 22 states plus Washington, D.C., and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. In many cases, the trees' extraordinary pedigrees were recorded on plaques or in newspaper clippings commemorating the event. Whenever possible, Williams has posted photos of the trees.

Second-generation moon trees, also tracked by Williams, continue to be planted. On Feb. 9, 2005, the 34th anniversary of the Apollo 14 splashdown, a second-generation sycamore was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery "in honor of Apollo astronaut Stuart A. Roosa and the other distinguished Astronauts who have departed our presence here on earth." At the invitation of Roosa’s family, both Williams and a group of students from Cannelton attended the ceremony.

Another sycamore was planted at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., on April 22 (Earth Day), 2009. And on Feb. 3, 2011, one was planted in Roosa's honor at the Infinity Science Center, which is under construction at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Rosemary Roosa, the astronaut's daughter, attended the Stennis ceremony. Her father, she says, was a strong supporter of science and space exploration, and she hopes the trees will serve as a reminder of the accomplishments of the U.S. space program as well as an inspiration to "reach for the stars."

People who know of the special legacy of the trees periodically check on them and contact Williams if a tree gets sick or knocked down by a storm. "Sometimes, I get an email from someone who went to the site where the tree used to be, and it's just gone," he says. "There's no sign of it, and we don't know what happened."

"I think when people are aware of the heritage of the trees, they usually take steps to preserve them," Williams adds, recalling one tree that was nearly knocked down during a building renovation. "But sometimes people aren't aware. That's why we want to locate as many as we can soon. We want to have a record that these trees are -- or were -- a part of these communities, before they're gone."

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Stardust Celebrates Twelve Years With Rocket Burn

NASA's Stardust spacecraft marked its 12th anniversary in space on Monday, Feb. 7, with a rocket burn to further refine its path toward a Feb. 14 date with a comet.

The half-minute trajectory correction maneuver, which adjusts the spacecraft's flight path, began at about 1 p.m. PST (4 p.m. EST) on Monday, Feb. 7. The 30-second-long firing of the spacecraft's rockets consumed about 69 grams (2.4 ounces) of fuel and changed the spacecraft's speed by 0.56 meters per second (1.3 mph).

NASA's plan for the Stardust-NExT mission is to fly the spacecraft to a point in space about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from comet Tempel 1 at the time of its closest approach. During the encounter, the spacecraft will take images of the surface of comet Tempel 1 to observe what changes have occurred since a NASA spacecraft last visited. (NASA's Deep Impact flew by Tempel 1 in July 2005).

Along with the high-resolution images of the comet's surface, Stardust-NExT will also measure the composition, size distribution and flux of dust emitted into the coma, and provide important new information about how comets evolve.

Stardust was launched on Feb. 7, 1999. This current Stardust-NExT target is a bonus mission for the comet chaser, which flew past comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned particles from its coma to Earth.

While its sample return capsule parachuted to Earth in January 2006, mission controllers were placing the still-viable spacecraft on a path that would allow NASA the opportunity to re-use the already-proven flight system if a target of opportunity presented itself. In January 2007, NASA re-christened the mission "Stardust-NExT" (New Exploration of Tempel), and the Stardust team began a four-and-a-half year journey for the spacecraft to comet Tempel 1. The spacecraft has traveled more than 3.5 billion miles since launch.

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NASA’s “COSmIC” Simulator Helps Fingerprint Unknown Matter in Space

Who are we? Where do we come from? These are questions that scientists hope to find clues to by better understanding the composition and evolution of the universe.

NASA flies sophisticated space missions that can probe vast regions of space to detect spectral signatures, or fingerprints, of unknown materials.

Through the years, scientists have found that these materials are much more complicated than originally anticipated. Because conditions in space are vastly different from conditions on Earth, identifying extraterrestrial materials is extremely difficult. Recently, researchers have achieved a major milestone by adding a new capability to one of the world’s unique laboratory facilities.

Located at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., this specialized facility, called the Cosmic Simulation Chamber (COSmIC), integrates a variety of state-of-the-art instruments to allow scientists to form, process and monitor simulated space conditions for planetary and interstellar materials in the laboratory.

The chamber is the heart of the system. It recreates the extreme conditions that reign in space where average temperatures can be as low as 100 Kelvin (less than -170 degree Celsius!), densities are billionths of Earth's (of the order of 10-16 - 10-17) and interstellar molecules and ions are bathed in stellar ultraviolet and visible radiation.

"The harsh conditions of space are extremely difficult to reproduce in the laboratory, and have long hindered efforts to interpret and analyze observations from space," said Farid Salama, a space science researcher in the Astrophysics Branch at Ames.

The idea of building the COSmIC facility started as a Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) project initiated by Salama in 1996, and its realization represents a true success story for Ames’ DDF program. The facility resulted from collaboration between Ames space science researchers and Los Gatos research scientists as a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract awarded by NASA.

The team of space scientists and engineers, lead by Salama, designed and built this unique laboratory facility to gain a deeper understanding of the composition of our universe and of the evolution of galaxies, both major objectives of NASA’s space research program.

In 2003, Ames scientists delivered their first major milestone by coupling COSmIC with a cavity ringdown spectrometer, an extremely sensitive device that can detect the spectral fingerprint of matter at the molecular level.

Now, another major milestone has been achieved by coupling COSmIC with a time-of-flight mass spectrometer, an ultra-sensitive device that detects the mass of matter at the molecular level.

In the past, part of the problem that prevented scientists from identifying unknown matter was the inability to simulate space conditions in the gaseous state. Today, researchers can successfully simulate gas-phase environments similar to interstellar clouds, stellar envelopes or planetary atmospheres environments by expanding solids using a free jet spray.

“By doing this, we now can measure large carbon molecules, like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and similar carbon species. This is a major accomplishment,” said Salama. “This type of new research truly pushes the frontiers of science toward new horizons, and illustrates NASA's important contribution to science,” he added.

Scientists will use this “far out” facility to address two key problems: First, they want to identify the nature of big aerosol particles that have been detected by Cassini in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan. The second problem they will study is the formation of interstellar grains in the outflow of carbon stars.

“We can now truly simulate in the laboratory the formation of carbon grains in the envelope of stars, a major problem in today’s astrophysics,” said Cesar Contreras a NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) fellow and a member of the research team.

“We begin with small carbon molecules, expose these molecules to high energy processing in COSmIC, expand them in a cold jet spray and detect them with our highly sensitive detectors,” added Contreras, who studies interstellar grains.

Funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Astronomy and Physics Research and Analysis, Planetary Atmospheres and Cosmochemistry programs, this new facility will also study the very large aerosol particles that were seen by the Cassini spacecraft in the upper atmosphere of Titan.

“In the Cassini data we see evidence for large aerosols in the upper atmosphere of Titan that we plan to explain with COSmIC” said Claire Ricketts, another NASA NPP fellow and member of the team, who studies the composition of the atmosphere of Titan.

“Titan is an important body in our solar system because it helps us understand the conditions that existed on early Earth” added Ricketts. “Organic haze in the atmosphere of Titan is similar to haze in early Earth's air.”

To understand Cassini’s data, scientists need this very powerful, very sensitive new tool. They will begin their analysis by forming molecules and species in the lab, measuring them in situ (inside their environment without disturbing them), and then trying to match their identity to Titan’s unknown aerosol molecules.

“Titan’s upper atmosphere data shows a rich spectrum. We will recreate those data in the lab and compare them to Cassini’s data. If they fit, great. If not, we will try something else. We will know when we are coming close to understanding them. We now have the right tool to do this,” said Salama.

“One day we will talk about the details and the implications of the data, but today we are celebrating the new milestone in the completion of this unique tool,” concluded Salama.

The Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Laboratory is part of the Astrophysics Branch in the Space Science and Astrobiology Division. Scientists in the Astrophysics Branch perform a wide range of astronomy and astrophysics research focusing on the development of new space, airborne and ground-based laboratory instrumentation such as COSmIC and SOFIA, as well as laboratory simulation experiments. The Ames team includes Farid Salama (POC), Claire Ricketts (NPP), Cesar Contreras (NPP) and Robert Walker.

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First Ever STEREO Images of the Entire Sun

On Feb. 6th, NASA's twin STEREO probes moved into position on opposite sides of the sun, and they are now beaming back uninterrupted images of the entire star—front and back.

"For the first time ever, we can watch solar activity in its full 3-dimensional glory," says Angelos Vourlidas, a member of the STEREO science team at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC.

NASA released a 'first light' 3D movie on, naturally, Super Bowl Sunday:

"This is a big moment in solar physics," says Vourlidas. "STEREO has revealed the sun as it really is--a sphere of hot plasma and intricately woven magnetic fields."

Each STEREO probe photographs half of the star and beams the images to Earth. Researchers combine the two views to create a sphere. These aren't just regular pictures, however. STEREO's telescopes are tuned to four wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet radiation selected to trace key aspects of solar activity such as flares, tsunamis and magnetic filaments. Nothing escapes their attention.

"With data like these, we can fly around the sun to see what's happening over the horizon—without ever leaving our desks," says STEREO program scientist Lika Guhathakurta at NASA headquarters. "I expect great advances in theoretical solar physics and space weather forecasting."

Consider the following: In the past, an active sunspot could emerge on the far side of the sun completely hidden from Earth. Then, the sun's rotation could turn that region toward our planet, spitting flares and clouds of plasma, with little warning.

"Not anymore," says Bill Murtagh, a senior forecaster at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. "Farside active regions can no longer take us by surprise. Thanks to STEREO, we know they're coming."

NOAA is already using 3D STEREO models of CMEs (billion-ton clouds of plasma ejected by the sun) to improve space weather forecasts for airlines, power companies, satellite operators, and other customers. The full sun view should improve those forecasts even more.

The forecasting benefits aren't limited to Earth.

"With this nice global model, we can now track solar storms heading toward other planets, too," points out Guhathakurta. "This is important for NASA missions to Mercury, Mars, asteroids … you name it."

NASA has been building toward this moment since Oct. 2006 when the STEREO probes left Earth, split up, and headed for positions on opposite sides of the sun (movie). Feb. 6, 2011, was the date of "opposition"—i.e., when STEREO-A and -B were 180 degrees apart, each looking down on a different hemisphere. NASA's Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory is also monitoring the sun 24/7. Working together, the STEREO-SDO fleet should be able to image the entire globe for the next 8 years.

The new view could reveal connections previously overlooked. For instance, researchers have long suspected that solar activity can "go global," with eruptions on opposite sides of the sun triggering and feeding off of one another. Now they can actually study the phenomenon. The Great Eruption of August 2010 engulfed about 2/3rd of the stellar surface with dozens of mutually interacting flares, shock waves, and reverberating filaments. Much of the action was hidden from Earth, but plainly visible to the STEREO-SDO fleet.

"There are many fundamental puzzles underlying solar activity," says Vourlidas. "By monitoring the whole sun, we can find missing pieces."

Researchers say these first-look whole sun images are just a hint of what's to come. Movies with even higher resolution and more action will be released in the days and weeks ahead as more data are processed. Stay tuned!

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Proposed Mission to Jupiter System Achieves Milestone

With input from scientists around the world, American and European scientists working on the potential next new mission to the Jupiter system have articulated their joint vision for the Europa Jupiter System Mission. The mission is a proposed partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency. The scientists on the joint NASA-ESA definition team agreed that the overarching science theme for the Europa Jupiter System Mission will be "the emergence of habitable worlds around gas giants."

The proposed Europa Jupiter System Mission would provide orbiters around two of Jupiter's moons: a NASA orbiter around Europa called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, and an ESA orbiter around Ganymede called the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter.

"We've reached hands across the Atlantic to define a mission to Jupiter's water worlds," said Bob Pappalardo, the pre-project scientist for the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter, who is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The Europa Jupiter System Mission will create a leap in scientific knowledge about the moons of Jupiter and their potential to harbor life."

The new reports integrate goals that were being separately developed by NASA and ESA working groups into one unified strategy.

The ESA report is being presented to the European public and science community this week, and the NASA report was published online in December. The NASA report is available at .

The proposed mission singles out the icy moons Europa and Ganymede as special worlds that can lead to a broader understanding of the Jovian system and of the possibility of life in our solar system and beyond. They are natural laboratories for analyzing the nature, evolution and potential habitability of icy worlds, because they are believed to present two different kinds of sub-surface oceans.

The Jupiter Europa Orbiter would characterize the relatively thin ice shell above Europa's ocean, the extent of that ocean, the materials composing its internal layers, and the way surface features such as ridges and "freckles" formed. It will also identify candidate sites for potential future landers. Instruments that might be on board could include a laser altimeter, an ice-penetrating radar, spectrometers that can obtain data in visible, infrared and ultraviolet radiation, and cameras with narrow- and wide-angle capabilities. The actual instruments to fly would be selected through a NASA competitive call for proposals.

Ganymede is thought to have a thicker ice shell, with its interior ocean sandwiched between ice above and below. ESA's Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would investigate this different kind of internal structure. The Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would also study the intrinsic magnetic field that makes Ganymede unique among all the solar system's known moons. This orbiter, whose instruments would also be chosen through a competitive process, could include a laser altimeter, spectrometers and cameras, plus additional fields-and-particles instruments

The two orbiters would also study other large Jovian moons, Io and Callisto, with an eye towards exploring the Jupiter system as an archetype for other gas giant planets.

NASA and ESA officials gave the Europa Jupiter System Mission proposal priority status for continued study in 2009, agreeing that it was the most technically feasible of the outer solar system flagship missions under consideration.

Over the next few months, NASA officials will be analyzing the joint strategy and awaiting the outcome of the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies. That survey will serve as a roadmap for new NASA planetary missions for the decade beginning 2013.

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Northern Mars Landscape Actively Changing

Sand dunes in a vast area of northern Mars long thought to be frozen in time are changing with both sudden and gradual motions, according to research using images from a NASA orbiter.

These dune fields cover an area the size of Texas in a band around the planet at the edge of Mars' north polar cap. The new findings suggest they are among the most active landscapes on Mars. However, few changes in these dark-toned dunes had been detected before a campaign of repeated imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars five years ago next month.

Scientists had considered the dunes to be fairly static, shaped long ago when winds on the planet's surface were much stronger than those seen today, said HiRISE Deputy Principal Investigator Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. Several sets of before-and-after images from HiRISE over a period covering two Martian years -- four Earth years -- tell a different story.

"The numbers and scale of the changes have been really surprising," said Hansen.

A report by Hansen and co-authors in this week's edition of the journal Science identifies the seasonal coming and going of carbon-dioxide ice as one agent of change, and stronger-than-expected wind gusts as another.

A seasonal layer of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, blankets the region in winter and changes directly back to gaseous form in the spring.

"This gas flow destabilizes the sand on Mars' sand dunes, causing sand avalanches and creating new alcoves, gullies and sand aprons on Martian dunes," she said. "The level of erosion in just one Mars year was really astonishing. In some places, hundreds of cubic yards of sand have avalanched down the face of the dunes."

Wind drives other changes. Especially surprising was the discovery that scars of past sand avalanches could be partially erased by wind in just one Mars year. Models of Mars' atmosphere do not predict wind speeds adequate to lift sand grains, and data from Mars landers show high winds are rare.

"Perhaps polar weather is more conducive to high wind speeds," Hansen said.

In all, modifications were seen in about 40 percent of these far-northern monitoring sites over the two-Mars-year period of the study.

Related HiRISE research previously identified gully-cutting activity in smaller fields of sand dunes covered by seasonal carbon-dioxide ice in Mars' southern hemisphere. A report four months ago showed that those changes coincided with the time of year when ice builds up.

"The role of the carbon-dioxide ice is getting clearer," said Serina Diniega of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the earlier report and a co-author of the new report. "In the south, we saw before-and-after changes and connected the timing with the carbon-dioxide ice. In the north, we're seeing more of the process of the seasonal changes and adding more evidence linking the changes with the carbon dioxide."

Researchers are using HiRISE to repeatedly photograph dunes at all latitudes, to understand winds in the current climate on Mars. Dunes at latitudes lower than the reach of the seasonal carbon-dioxide ice do not show new gullies. Hansen said, "It's becoming clear that there are very active processes on Mars associated with the seasonal polar caps."

The new findings contribute to efforts to understand what features and landscapes on Mars can be explained by current processes, and which require different environmental conditions.

"Understanding how Mars is changing today is a key first step to understanding basic planetary processes and how Mars changed over time," said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, a co-author of both reports. "There's lots of current activity in areas covered by seasonal carbon-dioxide frost, a process we don't see on Earth. It's important to understand the current effects of this unfamiliar process so we don't falsely associate them with different conditions in the past."

The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter.

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NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Discovers Extraordinary New Planetary System

Scientists using NASA's Kepler, a space telescope, recently discovered six planets made of a mix of rock and gases orbiting a single sun-like star, known as Kepler-11, which is located approximately 2,000 light years from Earth.

"The Kepler-11 planetary system is amazing," said Jack Lissauer, a planetary scientist and a Kepler science team member at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "It’s amazingly compact, it’s amazingly flat, there’s an amazingly large number of big planets orbiting close to their star - we didn’t know such systems could even exist."

In other words, Kepler-11 has the fullest, most compact planetary system yet discovered beyond our own.

"Few stars are known to have more than one transiting planet, and Kepler-11 is the first known star to have more than three," said Lissauer. "So we know that systems like this are not common. There’s certainly far fewer than one percent of stars that have systems like Kepler-11. But whether it’s one in a thousand, one in ten thousand or one in a million, that we don’t know, because we only have observed one of them."

All of the planets orbiting Kepler-11, a yellow dwarf star, are larger than Earth, with the largest ones being comparable in size to Uranus and Neptune. The innermost planet, Kepler-11b, is ten times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun. Moving outwards, the other planets are Kepler-11c, Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e, Kepler-11f, and the outermost planet, Kepler-11g, which is twice as close to its star than Earth is to the sun.

"The five inner planets are all closer to their star than any planet is to our sun and the sixth planet is still fairly close," said Lissauer.

If placed in our solar system, Kepler-11g would orbit between Mercury and Venus, and the other five planets would orbit between Mercury and our sun. The orbits of the five inner planets in the Kepler-11 planetary system are much closer together than any of the planets in our solar system. The inner five exoplanets have orbital periods between 10 and 47 days around the dwarf star, while Kepler-11g has a period of 118 days.

"By measuring the sizes and masses of the five inner planets, we have determined they are among the smallest confirmed exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system," said Lissauer. "These planets are mixtures of rock and gases, possibly including water. The rocky material accounts for most of the planets' mass, while the gas takes up most of their volume."

According to Lissauer, Kepler-11 is a remarkable planetary system whose architecture and dynamics provide clues about its formation. The planets Kepler-11d, Kepler-11e and Kepler-11f have a significant amount of light gas, which Lissauer says indicates that at least these three planets formed early in the history of the planetary system, within a few million years.

A planetary system is born when a molecular cloud core collapses to form a star. At this time, disks of gas and dust in which planets form, called protoplanetary disks, surround the star. Protoplanetary disks can be seen around most stars that are less than a million years old, but few stars more than five million years old have them. This leads scientists to theorize that planets which contain significant amounts of gas form relatively quickly in order to obtain gases before the disk disperses.

The Kepler spacecraft will continue to return science data about the new Kepler-11 planetary system for the remainder of its mission. The more transits Kepler sees, the better scientists can estimate the sizes and masses of planets.

"These data will enable us to calculate more precise estimates of the planet sizes and masses, and could allow us to detect more planets orbiting the Kepler-11 star," said Lissauer. "Perhaps we could find a seventh planet in the system, either because of its transits or from the gravitational tugs it exerts on the six planets that we already see. We’re going to learn a fantastic amount about the diversity of planets out there, around stars within our galaxy."

A space observatory, Kepler looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets cross in front of, or transit, them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star's brightness. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period.

The Kepler science team is using ground-based telescopes, as well as the Spitzer Space Telescope, to perform follow-up observations on planetary candidates and other objects of interest found by the spacecraft. The star field that Kepler observes in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra can only be seen from ground-based observatories in spring through early fall. The data from these other observations help determine which of the candidates can be identified as planets.

Kepler will continue conducting science operations until at least November 2012, searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is predicted to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

"Kepler can only see 1/400 of the sky," said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and the mission’s science principal investigator. "Kepler can find only a small fraction of the planets around the stars it looks at because the orbits aren’t aligned properly. If you account for those two factors, our results indicate there must be millions of planets orbiting the stars that surround our sun."

Kepler is NASA's tenth Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system, and along with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is supporting mission operations. Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted at the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona, and the Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.

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