New NASA Map Reveals Tropical Forest Carbon Storage

A NASA-led research team has used a variety of NASA satellite data to create the most precise map ever produced depicting the amount and location of carbon stored in Earth's tropical forests. The data are expected to provide a baseline for ongoing carbon monitoring and research and serve as a useful resource for managing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

The new map, created from ground- and space-based data, shows, for the first time, the distribution of carbon stored in forests across more than 75 tropical countries. Most of that carbon is stored in the extensive forests of Latin America.

"This is a benchmark map that can be used as a basis for comparison in the future when the forest cover and its carbon stock change," said Sassan Saatchi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who led the research. "The map shows not only the amount of carbon stored in the forest, but also the accuracy of the estimate." The study was published May 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Deforestation and forest degradation contribute 15 to 20 percent of global carbon emissions, and most of that contribution comes from tropical regions. Tropical forests store large amounts of carbon in the wood and roots of their trees. When the trees are cut and decompose or are burned, the carbon is released to the atmosphere.

Previous studies had estimated the carbon stored in forests on local and large scales within a single continent, but there existed no systematic way of looking at all tropical forests. To measure the size of the trees, scientists typically use a ground-based technique, which gives a good estimate of how much carbon they contain. But this technique is limited because the structure of the forest is extremely variable, and the number of ground sites is very limited.

To arrive at a carbon map that spans three continents, the team used data from the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System lidar on NASA's ICESat satellite. The researchers looked at information on the height of treetops from more than 3 million measurements. With the help of corresponding ground data, they calculated the amount of above-ground biomass and thus, the amount of carbon it contained.

The team then extrapolated these data over the varying landscape to produce a seamless map, using NASA imagery from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft, the QuikScat scatterometer satellite and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.

The map reveals that in the early 2000s, forests in the 75 tropical countries studied contained 247 billion tons of carbon. For perspective, about 10 billion tons of carbon is released annually to the atmosphere from combined fossil fuel burning and land use changes.

The researchers found that forests in Latin America hold 49 percent of the carbon in the world's tropical forests. For example, Brazil's carbon stock alone, at 61 billion tons, almost equals all of the carbon stock in sub-Saharan Africa, at 62 billion tons.

"These patterns of carbon storage, which we really didn't know before, depend on climate, soil, topography and the history of human or natural disturbance of the forests," Saatchi said. "Areas often impacted by disturbance, human or natural, have lower carbon storage."

The carbon numbers, along with information about the uncertainty of the measurements, are important for countries planning to participate in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program. REDD+ is an international effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests. It offers incentives for countries to preserve their forestland in the interest of reducing carbon emissions and investing in low-carbon paths of development.

The map also provides a better indication of the health and longevity of forests and how they contribute to the global carbon cycle and overall functioning of the Earth system. The next step in Saatchi's research is to compare the carbon map with satellite observations of deforestation to identify source locations of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere.

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NASA Infrared Satellite Sees Severe Weather in NW Georgia

Northwestern Georgia felt the effects of severe weather season yesterday, May 27, as severe thunderstorms brought heavy rainfall, gusty winds and reports of a tornado. NASA's Aqua satellite provided an infrared look at that storm system that revealed very strong thunderstorms with icy cold cloud tops.

Infrared imagery basically shows temperature signatures. That means that scientists can determine how hot or cold something is by looking at something using infrared light. The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite captured infrared imagery when it flew over severe thunderstorms in northwestern Georgia on May 27 at 07:17 UTC (3:17 a.m. EDT).

The infrared image from AIRS revealed a circular shaped area of thunderstorms over northwestern Georgia, with very high thunderstorm cloud-tops. AIRS data measured the cloud top temperatures to be as cold as or colder than -63 Fahrenheit/-52 Celsius. The rule with thunderstorms is that the higher the cloud top, the colder it is and the stronger the thunderstorm. These storms have the potential of dropping as much as 2 inches (50 mm) of rainfall per hour.

The image also showed a somewhat scraggly line of high thunderstorm cloud tops, indicative of the cold front those storms are a part of that stretch from northwestern Georgia up the western side of the Appalachian mountains to northwestern Maine. That line is moving east with the progression of the cold front on May 28.

The National Weather Service's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md. noted on May 28 "a weakening upper-level closed low over the Ohio valley will lift northeastward into southern Canada by Saturday. Showers and thunderstorms will develop along and ahead of the associated weakening cold front from the eastern gulf coast to the central Appalachians moving eastward to the mid-Atlantic and southward to the southeast."

The area on the AIRS imagery where the very high, cold, strong thunderstorms were located may have experienced a tornado. Chattoga County in northwestern Georgia reported damage from storms that may have been caused by a tornado. Chattooga County is about 80 miles northwest of the city of Atlanta. Today, the National Weather Service is investigating reported damages to determine if a tornado touched down. A small private airport in the county suffered damage to hangars and flipped planes, according to Channel 2, WSB-TV, Atlanta. The damage path began on Lookout Mountain and spread into the valley below, damaging homes, downing trees and power lines. Atlanta was not spared from severe weather from this system either. According to reports from Fox 5 television, Atlanta three people lost their lives from fallen trees. The National Weather Service reported golf-ball to softball-sized hail in Gwinnett and Fannin Counties. Power outages were reported in the Metro Atlanta area and in Dekalb and Clayton counties.

The AIRS instrument is one of several that fly onboard NASA's Aqua Satellite. With its ability to create three-dimensional maps of the atmosphere showing temperature, water vapor, and cloud properties, AIRS provides a unique view of the environment in which storms come to life. For more information about AIRS, visit:

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Satellite and Radar Data Reveal Damage Track of Alabama Tornadic Thunderstorms

Caption for Tuscaloosa, Ala., Image 1: This image shows the radar reflectivity from the National Weather Service Doppler Radar in Birmingham, Ala. at 5:10 p.m. CDT on April 27, 2011, as a supercell thunderstorm moved across the city. The radar reflectivity is overlaid upon Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, or ASTER, satellite data acquired on May 4, 2011, showing the damage track resulting from for the EF-4 tornado associated with the storm as it passed through the city and continued northeast toward Birmingham, Ala. The complex pattern of ASTER data indicate variability in land use characterized by colors in this three-channel composite. Here, the ASTER data shows the tornado damage scar -- aqua in color -- left by the violent tornado as damage disrupts other, more typical land use patterns, while radar data shows the classic "hook echo" signature associated with the rotating storm updraft. On the lower end of the hook is a round region of enhanced radar reflectivity -- near the Interstate 359 marker -- associated with the surface debris lofted by the tornadic winds. This "debris ball" signature corresponds to the ASTER tornado damage track in this and subsequent radar images.

Caption for Phil Campbell, Ala., Image 2: Similar to the radar and satellite composite imagery provided for the Tuscaloosa, Ala. tornado, this image from Phil Campbell, Ala. shows radar reflectivity from the National Weather Service Doppler Radar at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. at 3:33 p.m. CDT as a strong supercell departed Marion County, Ala. and entered Franklin County, Ala. As in the Tuscaloosa case, the “hook echo” signature is apparent with enhanced radar reflectivity along the damage scar indicated by Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, or ASTER satellite data, likely corresponding to lofted debris. Damage in the Phil Campbell area was rated as an EF-5 and continued northeast before weakening slightly in the Mount Hope, Ala. area. The damage scar continues southwest into Marion County, Ala., through the community of Hackleburg, Ala. -- not shown -- and further to the northeast as the storm continued into southwestern Lawrence County, Ala.

These images were created by the NASA Short-term Prediction Research and Transition, or SPoRT, Center at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., using ASTER data provided courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; the United States Geological Survey Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., Japan's Earth Remote Sensing Data Analysis Center in Tokyo, Japan; the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, along with the Japan Research Observation System Organization. Final ASTER imagery were produced using resources of the Nebula Cloud Computing Platform, tiled, and displayed within Google Earth. Radar imagery were provided by the NOAA National Climatic Data Center's NEXRAD Archive in Asheville, N.C. Storm survey information was provided by the National Weather Service Forecast Offices in Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala.

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James Webb Space Telescope ISIM on 'Spin Cycle'

Prior to taking a new telescope into space, engineers must put the spacecraft and its instruments through a "spin cycle" test for durability to ensure they'll still work after experiencing the forces of a rocket launch. Finding out they don't work once they're in orbit is too late. The structure that houses the science instruments of the James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing that cycle of tests during the weeks of May 23 and 30 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. This structure is called the Integrated Science Instrument Module, or ISIM.

The Webb telescope will experience significant shaking and gravitational forces when it is launched on the large Ariane V rocket. The ISIM structure will house the four main scientific instruments of the telescope.

During the testing process, as the ISIM structure is being spun and shaken, engineers take measurements to compare with their computer models. If there are discrepancies, the engineers hunt for the reasons so they can address them. The huge centrifuge will spin at speeds close to 11 rpm, exposing the ISIM structure to about 10 times the force of gravity.

Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and will serve thousands of astronomers worldwide. Webb will study the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of planetary systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. The Webb telescope is a joint mission of NASA, the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.

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NASA's Hubble Finds Rare 'Blue Straggler' Stars in Milky Way's Hub

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has found a rare class of oddball stars called blue stragglers in the hub of our Milky Way, the first detected within our galaxy's bulge.

Blue stragglers are so named because they seemingly lag behind in the aging process, appearing younger than the population from which they formed. While they have been detected in many distant star clusters, and among nearby stars, they never have been seen inside the core of our galaxy.

It is not clear how blue stragglers form. A common theory is that they emerge from binary pairs. As the more massive star evolves and expands, the smaller star gains material from its companion. This stirs up hydrogen fuel and causes the growing star to undergo nuclear fusion at a faster rate. It burns hotter and bluer, like a massive young star.

The findings support the idea that the Milky Way's central bulge stopped making stars billions of years ago. It now is home to aging sun-like stars and cooler red dwarfs. Giant blue stars that once lived there have long since exploded as supernovae.

The results have been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Lead author Will Clarkson of Indiana University in Bloomington, will discuss them today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston.

"Although the Milky Way bulge is by far the closest galaxy bulge, several key aspects of its formation and subsequent evolution remain poorly understood," Clarkson said. "Many details of its star-formation history remain controversial. The extent of the blue straggler population detected provides two new constraints for models of the star-formation history of the bulge."

The discovery followed a seven-day survey in 2006 called the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS). Hubble peered at 180,000 stars in the crowded central bulge of our galaxy, 26,000 light-years away. The survey was intended to find hot Jupiter-class planets that orbit very close to their stars. In doing so, the SWEEPS team also uncovered 42 oddball blue stars with brightness and temperatures typical for stars much younger than ordinary bulge stars.

The observations clearly indicate that if there is a young star population in the bulge, it is very small. It was not detected in the SWEEPS program. Blue stragglers long have been suspected to be living in the bulge, but had not been observed because younger stars in the disk of our galaxy lie along the line-of-sight to the core, confusing and contaminating the view.

Astronomers used Hubble to distinguish the motion of the core population from foreground stars in the Milky Way. Bulge stars orbit the galactic center at a different speed than foreground stars. Plotting their motion required returning to the SWEEPS target region with Hubble two years after the first observations were made. The blue stragglers were identified as moving along with the other stars in the bulge.

"The size of the field of view on the sky is roughly that of the thickness of a human fingernail held at arm's length, and within this region, Hubble sees about a quarter million stars toward the bulge," Clarkson said. "Only the superb image quality and stability of Hubble allowed us to make this measurement in such a crowded field."

From the 42 candidate blue stragglers, the investigators estimate 18 to 37 are likely genuine. The remainder could be a mix of foreground objects and, at most, a small population of genuinely young bulge stars.

"The SWEEPS program was designed to detect transiting planets through small light variations" said Kailash Sahu, the principal investigator of the SWEEPS program. "Therefore the program could easily detect the variability of binary pairs, which was crucial in confirming these are indeed blue stragglers."

Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington.

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Carina Nebula

This Chandra image shows the Carina Nebula, a star-forming region in the Sagittarius-Carina arm of the Milky Way a mere 7,500 light years from Earth. Chandra's sharp X-ray vision has detected over 14,000 stars in this region, revealed a diffuse X-ray glow, and provided strong evidence that massive stars have already self-destructed in this nearby supernova factory.

The lower energy X-rays in this image are red, the medium energy X-rays are green, and the highest energy X-rays are blue. The Chandra survey has a large field of 1.4 square degrees, made of a mosaic of 22 individual Chandra pointings. In total, this image represents 1.2 million seconds -- or nearly two weeks -- of Chandra observing time. A great deal of multi-wavelength data has been used in combination with this new Chandra campaign, including infrared observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Several pieces of evidence support the idea that supernova production has already begun in this star-forming region. Firstly, there is an observed deficit of bright X-ray sources in Trumpler 15, suggesting that some of the massive stars in this cluster were already destroyed in supernova explosions. Trumpler 15 is located in the northern part of the image, as shown in a labeled version, and is one of ten star clusters in the Carina complex. Several other well known clusters are shown in the labeled image.

The detection of six possible neutron stars, the dense cores often left behind after stars explode in supernovas, provides additional evidence that supernova activity is ramping up in Carina. Previous observations had only detected one neutron star in Carina. These six neutron star candidates are too faint to be easily picked out in this large-scale image of Carina.

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Hubble Views the Star That Changed the Universe

Though the universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, the discovery of a single variable star in 1923 altered the course of modern astronomy. And, at least one famous astronomer of the time lamented that the discovery had shattered his world view.

The star goes by the inauspicious name of Hubble variable number one, or V1, and resides in the outer regions of the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, or M31. But in the early 1900s, most astronomers considered the Milky Way a single "island universe" of stars, with nothing observable beyond its boundaries. Andromeda was cataloged as just one of many faint, fuzzy patches of light astronomers called "spiral nebulae."

Were these spiral nebulae part of the Milky Way or were they independent island universes lying outside our galaxy? Astronomers didn't know for sure, until Edwin Hubble found a star in Andromeda that brightened and faded in a predictable pattern, like a lighthouse beacon, and identified it as V1, a Cepheid variable. This special type of star had already been proven to be a reliable distance marker within our galaxy.

The star helped Hubble show that Andromeda was beyond our galaxy and settled the debate over the status of the spiral nebulae. The universe became a much bigger place after Hubble's discovery, much to the dismay of astronomer Harlow Shapley, who believed the fuzzy nebulae were part of our Milky Way.

Nearly 90 years later, V1 is in the spotlight again. Astronomers pointed Edwin Hubble's namesake, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, at the star once again, in a symbolic tribute to the legendary astronomer's milestone observation.

Astronomers with the Space Telescope Science Institute's Hubble Heritage Project partnered with the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) to study the star. AAVSO observers followed V1 for six months, producing a plot, or light curve, of the rhythmic rise and fall of the star's light. Based on this light curve, the Hubble Heritage team scheduled telescope time to capture images of the star.

"V1 is the most important star in the history of cosmology," says astronomer Dave Soderblom of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., who proposed the V1 observations.

"It's a landmark discovery that proved the universe is bigger and chock full of galaxies. I thought it would be nice for the Hubble telescope to look at this special star discovered by Hubble, the man."

But Hubble Heritage team member Max Mutchler of the STScI says that this observation is more than just a ceremonial nod to a famous astronomer.

"This observation is a reminder that Cepheids are still relevant today," he explains. "Astronomers are using them to measure distances to galaxies much farther away than Andromeda. They are the first rung on the cosmic distance ladder."

The Hubble and AAVSO observations of V1 will be presented at a press conference May 23 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston, Mass.

Ten amateur astronomers from around the world, along with AAVSO Director Arne Henden, made 214 observations of V1 between July 2010 and December 2010. They obtained four pulsation cycles, each of which lasts more than 31 days. The AAVSO study allowed the Hubble Heritage team to target Hubble observations that would capture the star at its brightest and dimmest phases.

The observations were still tricky, though. "The star's brightness has a gradual decline followed by a sharp spike upward, so if you're off by a day or two, you could miss it," Mutchler explains.

Using the Wide Field Camera 3, the team made four observations in December 2010 and January 2011.

"The Hubble telescope sees many more and much fainter stars in the field than Edwin Hubble saw, and many of them are some type of variable star," Mutchler says. "Their blinking makes the galaxy seem alive. The stars look like grains of sand, and many of them have never been seen before."

For Soderblom, the Hubble observations culminated more than 25 years of promoting the star. Shortly after Soderblom arrived at the Institute in 1984, he thought it would be fitting to place a memento of Edwin Hubble's aboard the space shuttle Discovery, which would carry the Hubble Space Telescope into space.

"At first, I thought the obvious artifact would be his pipe, but [cosmologist] Allan Sandage [Edwin Hubble's protege] suggested another idea: the photographic glass plate of V1 that Hubble made in 1923," Soderblom recalls.

He made 15 film copies of the original 4-inch-by-5-inch glass plate. Ten of them flew onboard space shuttle Discovery in 1990 on the Hubble deployment mission. Fittingly, two of the remaining five film copies were part of space shuttle Atlantis's cargo in 2009 for NASA's fifth servicing mission to Hubble. One of those copies was carried aboard by astronaut and astronomer John Grunsfeld, now the STScI's deputy director.

Telltale Star Expands the Known Universe

Prior to the discovery of V1 many astronomers thought spiral nebulae, such as Andromeda, were part of our Milky Way galaxy. Others weren't so sure. In fact, astronomers Shapley and Heber Curtis held a public debate in 1920 over the nature of these nebulae. During the debate, Shapley championed his measurement of 300,000 light-years for the size of the Milky Way. Though Shapley overestimated its size, he was correct in asserting that the Milky Way was much larger than the commonly accepted dimensions. He also argued that spiral nebulae were much smaller than the giant Milky Way and therefore must be part of our galaxy. But Curtis disagreed. He thought the Milky Way was smaller than Shapley claimed, leaving room for other island universes beyond our galaxy.

To settle the debate, astronomers had to establish reliable distances to the spiral nebulae. So they searched for stars in the nebulae whose intrinsic brightness they thought they understood. Knowing a star's true brightness allowed astronomers to calculate how far away it was from Earth. But some of the stars they selected were not dependable milepost markers.

For example, Andromeda, the largest of the spiral nebulae, presented ambiguous clues to its distance. Astronomers had observed different types of exploding stars in the nebula. But they didn't fully understand the underlying stellar processes, so they had difficulty using those stars to calculate how far they were from Earth. Distance estimates to Andromeda, therefore, varied from nearby to far away. Which distance was correct? Edwin Hubble was determined to find out.

The astronomer spent several months in 1923 scanning Andromeda with the 100-inch Hooker telescope, the most powerful telescope of that era, at Mount Wilson Observatory in California. Even with the sharp-eyed telescope, Andromeda was a monstrous target, about 5 feet long at the telescope's focal plane. He therefore took many exposures covering dozens of photographic glass plates to capture the whole nebula.

He concentrated on three regions. One of them was deep inside a spiral arm. On the night of Oct. 5, 1923, Hubble began an observing run that lasted until the early hours of Oct. 6. Under poor viewing conditions, the astronomer made a 45-minute exposure that yielded three suspected novae, a class of exploding star. He wrote the letter "N," for nova, next to each of the three objects.

Later, however, Hubble made a startling discovery when he compared the Oct. 5-6 plate with previous exposures of the novae. One of the so-called novae dimmed and brightened over a much shorter time period than seen in a typical nova.

Hubble obtained enough observations of V1 to plot its light curve, determining a period of 31.4 days, indicating the object was a Cepheid variable. The period yielded the star's intrinsic brightness, which Hubble then used to calculate its distance. The star turned out to be 1 million light-years from Earth, more than three times Shapley's calculated diameter of the Milky Way.

Taking out his marking pen, Hubble crossed out the "N" next to the newfound Cepheid variable and wrote "VAR," for variable, followed by an exclamation point.

For several months the astronomer continued gazing at Andromeda, finding another Cepheid variable and several more novae. Then Hubble sent a letter along with a light curve of V1 to Shapley telling him of his discovery. After reading the letter, Shapley was convinced the evidence was genuine. He reportedly told a colleague, "Here is the letter that destroyed my universe."

By the end of 1924 Hubble had found 36 variable stars in Andromeda, 12 of which were Cepheids. Using all the Cepheids, he obtained a distance of 900,000 light-years. Improved measurements now place Andromeda at 2 million light-years away.

"Hubble eliminated any doubt that Andromeda was extragalactic," says Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "Basically, astronomers didn't know the distance to novae, so they had to make a rough estimate as to where they were and therefore what their absolute luminosity was. But that is on very treacherous ground. When you get a Cepheid that's been reasonably calculated, the period will tell you where it sits on the luminosity curve, and from that you can calculate a distance."

Shapley and astronomer Henry Norris Russell urged Hubble to write a paper for a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science at the end of December 1924. Hubble's paper, entitled "Extragalactic Nature of Spiral Nebulae," was delivered in absentia and shared the prize for the best paper. A short article about the award appeared in the Feb. 10, 1925, issue of The New York Times. Gingerich says Hubble's discovery was not big news at the meeting because the astronomer had informed the leading astronomers of his result months earlier.

Edwin Hubble's observations of V1 became the critical first step in uncovering a larger, grander universe. He went on to find many galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Those galaxies, in turn, allowed him to determine that the universe is expanding.

Could Hubble ever have imagined that nearly 100 years later, technological advances would allow amateur astronomers to perform similar observations of V1 with small telescopes in their backyards? Or, could Hubble ever have dreamed that a space-based telescope that bears his name would continue his quest to precisely measure the universe's expansion rate?

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

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Radio Telescopes Capture Best-Ever Snapshot of Black Hole Jets

An international team, including NASA-funded researchers, using radio telescopes located throughout the Southern Hemisphere has produced the most detailed image of particle jets erupting from a supermassive black hole in a nearby galaxy.

"These jets arise as infalling matter approaches the black hole, but we don't yet know the details of how they form and maintain themselves," said Cornelia Mueller, the study's lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

The new image shows a region less than 4.2 light-years across -- less than the distance between our sun and the nearest star. Radio-emitting features as small as 15 light-days can be seen, making this the highest-resolution view of galactic jets ever made. The study will appear in the June issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics and is available online.

Mueller and her team targeted Centaurus A (Cen A), a nearby galaxy with a supermassive black hole weighing 55 million times the sun's mass. Also known as NGC 5128, Cen A is located about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Centaurus and is one of the first celestial radio sources identified with a galaxy.

Seen in radio waves, Cen A is one of the biggest and brightest objects in the sky, nearly 20 times the apparent size of a full moon. This is because the visible galaxy lies nestled between a pair of giant radio-emitting lobes, each nearly a million light-years long.

These lobes are filled with matter streaming from particle jets near the galaxy's central black hole. Astronomers estimate that matter near the base of these jets races outward at about one-third the speed of light.

Using an intercontinental array of nine radio telescopes, researchers for the TANAMI (Tracking Active Galactic Nuclei with Austral Milliarcsecond Interferometry) project were able to effectively zoom into the galaxy's innermost realm.

"Advanced computer techniques allow us to combine data from the individual telescopes to yield images with the sharpness of a single giant telescope, one nearly as large as Earth itself," said Roopesh Ojha at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The enormous energy output of galaxies like Cen A comes from gas falling toward a black hole weighing millions of times the sun's mass. Through processes not fully understood, some of this infalling matter is ejected in opposing jets at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. Detailed views of the jet's structure will help astronomers determine how they form.

The jets strongly interact with surrounding gas, at times possibly changing a galaxy's rate of star formation. Jets play an important but poorly understood role in the formation and evolution of galaxies.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has detected much higher-energy radiation from Cen A's central region. "This radiation is billions of times more energetic than the radio waves we detect, and exactly where it originates remains a mystery," said Matthias Kadler at the University of Wuerzburg in Germany and a collaborator of Ojha. "With TANAMI, we hope to probe the galaxy's innermost depths to find out."

Ojha is funded through a Fermi investigation on multiwavelength studies of Active Galactic Nuclei.

The astronomers credit continuing improvements in the Australian Long Baseline Array (LBA) with TANAMI's enormously increased image quality and resolution. The project augments the LBA with telescopes in South Africa, Chile and Antarctica to explore the brightest galactic jets in the southern sky.

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, along with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the U.S. The Australia Long Baseline Array is part of the Australia Telescope National Facility, which is funded by the Commonwealth of Australia for operation as a National Facility managed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

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NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer Helps Confirm Nature of Dark Energy

A five-year survey of 200,000 galaxies, stretching back seven billion years in cosmic time, has led to one of the best independent confirmations that dark energy is driving our universe apart at accelerating speeds. The survey used data from NASA's space-based Galaxy Evolution Explorer and the Anglo-Australian Telescope on Siding Spring Mountain in Australia.

The findings offer new support for the favored theory of how dark energy works -- as a constant force, uniformly affecting the universe and propelling its runaway expansion. They contradict an alternate theory, where gravity, not dark energy, is the force pushing space apart. According to this alternate theory, with which the new survey results are not consistent, Albert Einstein's concept of gravity is wrong, and gravity becomes repulsive instead of attractive when acting at great distances.

"The action of dark energy is as if you threw a ball up in the air, and it kept speeding upward into the sky faster and faster," said Chris Blake of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Blake is lead author of two papers describing the results that appeared in recent issues of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. "The results tell us that dark energy is a cosmological constant, as Einstein proposed. If gravity were the culprit, then we wouldn't be seeing these constant effects of dark energy throughout time."

Dark energy is thought to dominate our universe, making up about 74 percent of it. Dark matter, a slightly less mysterious substance, accounts for 22 percent. So-called normal matter, anything with atoms, or the stuff that makes up living creatures, planets and stars, is only approximately four percent of the cosmos.

The idea of dark energy was proposed during the previous decade, based on studies of distant exploding stars called supernovae. Supernovae emit constant, measurable light, making them so-called "standard candles," which allows calculation of their distance from Earth. Observations revealed dark energy was flinging the objects out at accelerating speeds.

Dark energy is in a tug-of-war contest with gravity. In the early universe, gravity took the lead, dominating dark energy. At about 8 billion years after the Big Bang, as space expanded and matter became diluted, gravitational attractions weakened and dark energy gained the upper hand. Billions of years from now, dark energy will be even more dominant. Astronomers predict our universe will be a cosmic wasteland, with galaxies spread apart so far that any intelligent beings living inside them wouldn't be able to see other galaxies.

The new survey provides two separate methods for independently checking the supernovae results. This is the first time astronomers performed these checks across the whole cosmic timespan dominated by dark energy. The team began by assembling the largest three-dimensional map of galaxies in the distant universe, spotted by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer. The ultraviolet-sensing telescope has scanned about three-quarters of the sky, observing hundreds of millions of galaxies.

"The Galaxy Evolution Explorer helped identify bright, young galaxies, which are ideal for this type of study," said Christopher Martin, principal investigator for the mission at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It provided the scaffolding for this enormous 3-D map."

The astronomers acquired detailed information about the light for each galaxy using the Anglo-Australian Telescope and studied the pattern of distance between them. Sound waves from the very early universe left imprints in the patterns of galaxies, causing pairs of galaxies to be separated by approximately 500 million light-years.

This "standard ruler" was used to determine the distance from the galaxy pairs to Earth -- the closer a galaxy pair is to us, the farther apart the galaxies will appear from each other on the sky. As with the supernovae studies, this distance data were combined with information about the speeds at which the pairs are moving away from us, revealing, yet again, the fabric of space is stretching apart faster and faster.

The team also used the galaxy map to study how clusters of galaxies grow over time like cities, eventually containing many thousands of galaxies. The clusters attract new galaxies through gravity, but dark energy tugs the clusters apart. It slows down the process, allowing scientists to measure dark energy's repulsive force.

"Observations by astronomers over the last 15 years have produced one of the most startling discoveries in physical science; the expansion of the universe, triggered by the Big Bang, is speeding up," said Jon Morse, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Using entirely independent methods, data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer have helped increase our confidence in the existence of dark energy."

Caltech leads the Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission and is responsible for science operations and data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, manages the mission and built the science instrument. The mission was developed under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Researchers sponsored by Yonsei University in South Korea and the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in France collaborated on this mission. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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Free-Floating Planets May Be More Common Than Stars

Astronomers, including a NASA-funded team member, have discovered a new class of Jupiter-sized planets floating alone in the dark of space, away from the light of a star. The team believes these lone worlds were probably ejected from developing planetary systems.

The discovery is based on a joint Japan-New Zealand survey that scanned the center of the Milky Way galaxy during 2006 and 2007, revealing evidence for up to 10 free-floating planets roughly the mass of Jupiter. The isolated orbs, also known as orphan planets, are difficult to spot, and had gone undetected until now. The newfound planets are located at an average approximate distance of 10,000 to 20,000 light-years from Earth.

"Although free-floating planets have been predicted, they finally have been detected, holding major implications for planetary formation and evolution models," said Mario Perez, exoplanet program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The discovery indicates there are many more free-floating Jupiter-mass planets that can't be seen. The team estimates there are about twice as many of them as stars. In addition, these worlds are thought to be at least as common as planets that orbit stars. This would add up to hundreds of billions of lone planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone.

"Our survey is like a population census," said David Bennett, a NASA and National Science Foundation-funded co-author of the study from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. "We sampled a portion of the galaxy, and based on these data, can estimate overall numbers in the galaxy."

The study, led by Takahiro Sumi from Osaka University in Japan, appears in the May 19 issue of the journal Nature.

The survey is not sensitive to planets smaller than Jupiter and Saturn, but theories suggest lower-mass planets like Earth should be ejected from their stars more often. As a result, they are thought to be more common than free-floating Jupiters.

Previous observations spotted a handful of free-floating, planet-like objects within star-forming clusters, with masses three times that of Jupiter. But scientists suspect the gaseous bodies form more like stars than planets. These small, dim orbs, called brown dwarfs, grow from collapsing balls of gas and dust, but lack the mass to ignite their nuclear fuel and shine with starlight. It is thought the smallest brown dwarfs are approximately the size of large planets.

On the other hand, it is likely that some planets are ejected from their early, turbulent solar systems, due to close gravitational encounters with other planets or stars. Without a star to circle, these planets would move through the galaxy as our sun and other stars do, in stable orbits around the galaxy's center. The discovery of 10 free-floating Jupiters supports the ejection scenario, though it's possible both mechanisms are at play.

"If free-floating planets formed like stars, then we would have expected to see only one or two of them in our survey instead of 10," Bennett said. "Our results suggest that planetary systems often become unstable, with planets being kicked out from their places of birth."

The observations cannot rule out the possibility that some of these planets may have very distant orbits around stars, but other research indicates Jupiter-mass planets in such distant orbits are rare.

The survey, the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA), is named in part after a giant wingless, extinct bird family from New Zealand called the moa. A 5.9-foot (1.8-meter) telescope at Mount John University Observatory in New Zealand is used to regularly scan the copious stars at the center of our galaxy for gravitational microlensing events. These occur when something, such as a star or planet, passes in front of another, more distant star. The passing body's gravity warps the light of the background star, causing it to magnify and brighten. Heftier passing bodies, like massive stars, will warp the light of the background star to a greater extent, resulting in brightening events that can last weeks. Small planet-size bodies will cause less of a distortion, and brighten a star for only a few days or less.

A second microlensing survey group, the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE), contributed to this discovery using a 4.2-foot (1.3 meter) telescope in Chile. The OGLE group also observed many of the same events, and their observations independently confirmed the analysis of the MOA group.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,Calif., manages NASA's Exoplanet Exploration program office. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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NASA Mission Will Observe Earth's Salty Seas

Final preparations are under way for the June 9 launch of the international Aquarius/SAC-D observatory. The mission's primary instrument, Aquarius, will study interactions between ocean circulation, the water cycle and climate by measuring ocean surface salinity.

Engineers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California are performing final tests before mating Aquarius/SAC-D to its Delta II rocket. The mission is a collaboration between NASA and Argentina's space agency, Comision Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE), with participation from Brazil, Canada, France and Italy. SAC stands for Satelite de Applicaciones Cientificas. Aquarius was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

In addition to Aquarius, the observatory carries seven other instruments that will collect environmental data for a wide range of applications, including studies of natural hazards, air quality, land processes and epidemiology.

The mission will make NASA's first space observations of the concentration of dissolved salt at the ocean surface. Aquarius' observations will reveal how salinity variations influence ocean circulation, trace the path of freshwater around our planet, and help drive Earth's climate. The ocean surface constantly exchanges water and heat with Earth's atmosphere. Approximately 80 percent of the global water cycle that moves freshwater from the ocean to the atmosphere to the land and back to the ocean happens over the ocean.

Salinity plays a key role in these exchanges. By tracking changes in ocean surface salinity, Aquarius will monitor variations in the water cycle caused by evaporation and precipitation over the ocean, river runoff, and the freezing and melting of sea ice.

Salinity also makes seawater denser, causing it to sink, where it becomes part of deep, interconnected ocean currents. This deep ocean "conveyor belt" moves water masses and heat from the tropics to the polar regions, helping to regulate Earth's climate.

"Salinity is the glue that bonds two major components of Earth's complex climate system: ocean circulation and the global water cycle," said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. "Aquarius will map global variations in salinity in unprecedented detail, leading to new discoveries that will improve our ability to predict future climate."

Aquarius will measure salinity by sensing microwave emissions from the water's surface with a radiometer instrument. These emissions can be used to indicate the saltiness of the surface water, after accounting for other environmental factors. Salinity levels in the open ocean vary by only about five parts per thousand, and small changes are important. Aquarius uses advanced technologies to detect changes in salinity as small as about two parts per 10,000, equivalent to a pinch (about one-eighth of a teaspoon) of salt in a gallon of water.

Aquarius will map the entire open ocean every seven days for at least three years from 408 miles (657 kilometers) above Earth. Its measurements will produce monthly estimates of ocean surface salinity with a spatial resolution of 93 miles (150 kilometers). The data will reveal how salinity changes over time and from one part of the ocean to another.

The Aquarius/SAC-D mission continues NASA and CONAE's 17-year partnership. NASA provided launch vehicles and operations for three SAC satellite missions and science instruments for two.

JPL will manage Aquarius through its commissioning phase and archive mission data. Goddard will manage Aquarius mission operations and process science data. NASA's Launch Services Program at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is managing the launch.

CONAE is providing the SAC-D spacecraft, an optical camera, a thermal camera in collaboration with Canada, a microwave radiometer,; sensors from various Argentine institutions and the mission operations center there. France and Italy are contributing instruments.

For more information about Aquarius/SAC-D, visit: and .

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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New Experiments Headed to Station on STS-134/ULF6

The Space Shuttle Endeavour launched to the International Space Station on May 16, carrying with it a mix of research that will be performed on the station during and after the shuttle mission. Nearly 150 experiments are continuing aboard the station as the transition from assembly work to expanded research on the international laboratory progresses. They span the basic categories of biological and biotechnology, human research, physical and materials sciences, technology development, Earth and space science and educational activities.

Among the new experiments flying will be several experiments, flown by NASA in cooperation with the Italian Space Agency, including one that looks at how the same kind of memory shape foam used in beds on Earth might be useful as a new kind of actuator, or servomechanism that supplies and transmits a measured amount of energy for mechanisms. The U.S.-Italian experiments also will look at cellular biology, radiation, plant growth and aging; how diet may affect night vision, and how an electronic device may be able used for air quality monitoring in spacecraft.

One NASA experiment known as Biology will use, among other items, C. elegans worms that are descendants of worms that survived the STS-107 space shuttle Columbia accident. The Rapid Turn Around engineering proof-of-concept test will use the Light Microscopy Microscope to look at three-dimensional samples of live organisms, tissue samples and fluorescent beads.

A NASA educational payload will deliver several toy Lego kits that can be assembled to form satellites, space shuttles and a scale model of the space station itself to demonstrate scientific concepts, and a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency experiment called Try Zero-G that will help future astronauts show children the difference between microgravity and Earth gravity.

Research activities on the shuttle and station are integrated to maximize return during station assembly. The shuttle serves as a platform for completing short-duration research, while providing supplies and sample-return for ongoing research on station. For a full list of investigations available on this flight, see the STS-134 Press kit or visit

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Moon's Rough 'Wrinkles' Reveal Clues To Its Past

Written on the moon's weary face are the damages it has endured for the past 4-1/2 billion years. From impact craters to the dark plains of maria left behind by volcanic eruptions, the scars are all that remain to tell the tale of what happened to the moon. But they only hint at the processes that once acted—and act today—to shape the surface.

To get more insight into those processes, Meg Rosenburg and her colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. put together the first comprehensive set of maps revealing the slopes and roughness of the moon's surface. These maps are based on detailed data collected by the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. LOLA and LRO were built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Like wrinkles on skin, the roughness of craters and other features on the moon's surface can reveal their age. "The key is to look at the roughness at both long and short scales," says Rosenburg, who is the first author on the paper describing the results, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research earlier this year.

The roughness depends on the subtle ups and downs of the landscape, a quality that the researchers get at by measuring the slope at locations all over the surface. To put together a complete picture, the researchers looked at roughness at a range of different scales—the distances between two points—from 17 meters (about 56 feet) to as much as 2.7 kilometers (about 1.6 miles).

"Old and young craters have different roughness properties—they are rougher on some scales and smoother on others," says Rosenburg. That's because the older craters have been pummeled for eons by meteorites that pit and mar the site of the original impact, changing the original shape of the crater.

"Because this softening of the terrain hasn't happened at the new impact sites, the youngest craters immediately stand out," says NASA Goddard's Gregory Neumann, a co-investigator on LOLA.

"It is remarkable that the moon exhibits a great range of topographic character: on the extremes, surfaces roughened by the accumulation of craters over billions of years can be near regions smoothed and resurfaced by more recent mare volcanism," says Oded Aharonson, Rosenburg's advisor at the California Institute of Technology.

By looking at where and how the roughness changes, the researchers can get important clues about the processes that shaped the moon. A roughness map of the material surrounding Orientale basin, for example, reveals subtle differences in the ejecta, or debris, that was thrown out when the crater was formed by a giant object slamming into the moon.

That information can be combined with a contour map that shows where the high and low points are. "By looking at both together, we can say that one part of Orientale is not just higher or lower, it's also differently rough," Rosenburg says. "That gives us some clues about the impact process that launched the ejecta and also about the surface processes that later acted to modify it."

Likewise, the smooth plains of maria, which were created by volcanic activity, have a different roughness "signature" from the moon's highlands, reflecting the vastly different origins of the two terrains. Maria is Latin for "seas," and they got that name from early astronomers who mistook them for actual seas.

Just as on the moon, the same approach can be used to study surface processes on other bodies as well, Rosenburg says. "The processes at work are different on Mars than they are on an asteroid, but they each leave a signature in the topography for us to interpret. By studying roughness at different scales, we can begin to understand how our nearest neighbors came to look the way they do."

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Broadband Lidar Instrument Successfully Tested on NASA's DC-8

How do instruments end up on satellites orbiting the Earth?

For many of them, long before they are ever launched into space, they are tested from NASA airplanes. One of the objectives of the NASA Airborne Science Program is to test new instruments in space-like environments. Testing future satellite instruments from airplanes is the next best thing to actually testing them in space.

Over the past three weeks, a team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., led by Bill Heaps has been testing a new broadband lidar instrument on NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory that they hope will fly on the ASCENDS satellite mission. ASCENDS, an acronym for Active Sensing of Carbon dioxide Emissions over Nights, Days and Seasons, is an upcoming NASA satellite expected to be launched in 2018-2020. The goal of the ASCENDS mission is to measure the sources, distribution and variations in carbon dioxide gas with very high precision all over the Earth. Mapping carbon dioxide is important for understanding the global carbon cycle and for modeling global climate change.

How is carbon dioxide measured from space?

Carbon dioxide makes up a very small fraction of the gas in Earth’s atmosphere. In addition, the majority of the carbon dioxide variability occurs in the first 100 feet above the surface of the Earth. In order to measure the abundance of carbon dioxide from a satellite, any instrument must therefore look through Earth’s entire atmosphere in order to detect the variations in carbon dioxide occurring near the surface.

Heaps’ broadband lidar – an acronym for light detection and ranging -- uses an infrared laser beam aimed at the surface of the Earth. As the laser passes through the atmosphere and bounces off the ground, carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere absorb some of the light from the laser. Measuring the amount of absorption that occurs as the instrument passes over different locations on the Earth will allow the team to build global carbon dioxide maps.

Typical lidar systems have lasers that emit light at very specific colors, or wavelengths. The carbon dioxide molecule, however, absorbs light at a several different infrared wavelengths. The broadband laser used in Heaps’ instrument emits light with a broader range of wavelengths, and thus has the advantage of being able to detect carbon dioxide absorption in multiple wavelength bands with one laser. The wavelength control requirements are also less strict than for a more conventional narrowband laser, which may make the system easier to implement on a satellite.

The Goddard team worked for over two weeks to install and test their instrument in the belly of the DC-8 at the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.

The team then flew with their instrument on two four-hour flights on the converted jetliner during the week of May 2 – 6 over northern and central California. During the flights, they tested the instrument’s performance at variety of altitudes and over different types of surfaces – deserts, agricultural fields, mountainous terrain, the ocean and the flat waters of Lake Tahoe. The team was very pleased with the performance of the instrument.

“The system definitely measured CO2 on both flights, even transmitting a very small amount of laser power. I believe the broadband technique has excellent potential to be scaled up for measurements from space,” Heaps said.

This July, several instrument teams, all vying to have their instrument fly on ASCENDS, will test their instruments side-by-side on the DC-8. With data from the test flights of the broadband lidar instrument in hand, Heaps’ team will return to Goddard to make refinements and improvements in the hope that their instrument will be chosen to fly on the ASCENDS satellite mission.

The NASA Earth Science Technology Office Instrument Incubator program provided funding for the Goddard broadband lidar.

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TRMM Maps a Wet Spring, 2011 for the Central U.S.

NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite has been keeping track of the drenching rainfall that has been occurring in the central U.S. this springtime, and a newly created rain map from that data from April to May 4, 2011 shows those soaked areas.

A combination of heavy rains and a large snow melt has put parts of the central U.S. at risk for record flooding this spring with several locations along the Mississippi already at or near record levels. One likely culprit is La Niña. Despite the fact that the current La Niña appears to be winding down, its effects in the atmosphere can persist for a while. Furthermore, although not every La Niña brings major flooding to the region, La Niña's are conducive for above-normal rainfall from East Texas and northern Louisiana up through Arkansas and the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys with below-normal rainfall across Texas, southern Louisiana and Florida.

During La Niña, below-normal sea surface temperatures occur in the equatorial East Pacific and above-normal temperatures in the West Pacific. This pattern leads to enhanced tropical thunderstorm activity over the West Pacific, which in turn can influence the weather in middle latitudes by shifting the jet stream pattern. On average, La Niña's favor an upper-level trough over the Midwest with the jet stream dipping down out of the northern Rockies and flowing west-to-east across the central Mississippi and Ohio Valleys before heading back up over the Northeast. This pattern steers developing low pressure systems across the Plains and central Mississippi into the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys. These areas of low pressure provide the focus for showers and storms while drawing warm moist air up from the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in enhanced rainfall across the central part of the country.

The main objective of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission or TRMM satellite is to measure rainfall over the global Tropics. TRMM measures rainfall using a combination of passive microwave and active radar sensors. For expanded coverage, TRMM can be used to calibrate rainfall estimates from other satellites. The TRMM-based, near-real time Multi-satellite Precipitation Analysis (TMPA) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. provides rainfall estimates over the global Tropics.

TMPA rainfall anomalies were created in a rainfall map for the period April 4 to May 4, 2011 for the eastern two thirds of the country. The anomalies were constructed by computing the average rainfall rate over the period and then subtracting the 10-year average rate for the same period. The resulting pattern shows a broad area of above-normal rainfall (shown in green and blue) stretching from eastern Oklahoma across the central Mississippi Valley and up into the lower Ohio Valley with below-normal rainfall along the northern Gulf Coast. This rainfall pattern is consistent with a La Niña.

In addition to rainfall, this type of jet stream pattern can lead to strong storms by allowing strong jet stream winds to override warm moist air from the Gulf as was evidenced by the recent tornado outbreak. In fact, some of the biggest tornado outbreaks, including the previous record "Super Outbreak" in 1974, have occurred during La Niña's.

TRMM is a joint mission between NASA and the Japanese space agency JAXA.

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NASA Satellite Observes Damage Path of April Tornadoes in Alabama

Recent images of the April 27 storm damage path have been captured by NASA's Terra satellite, part of NASA's Earth Observing Satellite system, or EOS. An instrument aboard Terra, called Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer or ASTER, captured the images show the scars from the outbreak.

ASTER combines infrared, red, and green wavelengths of light to make false-color images that distinguish between water and land. Water is blue. Buildings and paved surfaces are blue-gray. Vegetation is red.

The images to the right are from an observation that occurred on May 4, 2011 at 11:45 A.M. local time (1645 UTC), near Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The physical principle guiding the use of satellite data to detect tornado damage is based on the premise that the strong winds associated with a tornado will change the physical characteristics of the surface in such a way as to alter the visible and infrared energy reflected. These characteristics could be a change in the orientation of surface features, such as the complete destruction of a house in a residential area, the snapping of trees in a forest region, the uprooting of crops in an agriculture area, or minimal damage to grassland in a pasture or field.

Images from NASA satellites will aid in damage assessment, determining the tornado width and path length. Further scientific analysis using satellite imagery is planned.

Terra/ASTER is a joint activity between NASA's Science Mission Directorate Earth Science Division and Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Terra is one of 14 NASA satellites that look at the Earth to study and understand changes in the Earth system and provide societal benefits.

The NASA image created by the Short-term Prediction and Research Transition or SPoRT project at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, using data provided courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center, Japan’s Earth Remote Sensing Data Analysis Center, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, along with the Japan Research Observation System Organization.

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NASA Selects Investigations for Future Key Missions

NASA has selected three science investigations from which it will pick one potential 2016 mission to look at Mars' interior for the first time; study an extraterrestrial sea on one of Saturn's moons; or study in unprecedented detail the surface of a comet's nucleus. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., would lead the Mars investigation.

Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct its mission's concept phase or preliminary design studies and analyses. After another detailed review in 2012 of the concept studies, NASA will select one to continue development efforts leading up to launch. The selected mission will be cost-capped at $425 million, not including launch vehicle funding.

NASA's Discovery Program requested proposals for spaceflight investigations in June 2010. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed 28 submissions. The selected investigations could reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes. Three technology developments for possible future planetary missions also were selected.

"NASA continues to do extraordinary science that is re-writing textbooks," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Missions like these hold great promise to vastly increase our knowledge, extend our reach into the solar system and inspire future generations of explorers."

The planetary missions selected to pursue preliminary design studies are:

-- Geophysical Monitoring Station (GEMS) would study the structure and composition of the interior of Mars and advance understanding of the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets. Bruce Banerdt of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is principal investigator. JPL would manage the project.

The proposed Mars lander would carry three experiments. A seismometer for measuring Mars quakes would yield knowledge about interior materials from the crust to the core. A thermal probe beneath the surface would monitor heat flow from the planet's interior. Radio capability for Doppler tracking of tiny variations in the planet's wobble would provide information about the size and nature of the core. Understanding more about the deep interior of another planet would enable important new comparisons with what is known about Earth's interior.

"We want to know more about how the pieces that formed planets came together in the first place, and about the changes that took place afterwards," Banerdt said. "This would be a mission to understand the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets."

-- Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would provide the first direct exploration of an ocean environment beyond Earth by landing in, and floating on, a large methane-ethane sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md., is principal investigator. Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., would manage the project.

-- Comet Hopper would study cometary evolution by landing on a comet multiple times and observing its changes as it interacts with the sun. Jessica Sunshine of the University of Maryland in College Park is principal investigator. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., would manage the project.

"This is high science return at a price that's right," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "The selected studies clearly demonstrate a new era with missions that all touch their targets to perform unique and exciting science."

The three selected technology development proposals will expand the ability to catalog near-Earth objects, or NEOs; enhance the capability to determine the composition of comet ices; and validate a new method to reveal the population of objects in the poorly understood, far-distant part of our solar system. During the next several years, selected teams will receive funding that is determined through contract negotiations to bring their respective technologies to a higher level of readiness. To be considered for flight, teams must demonstrate progress in a future mission proposal competition.

The proposals selected for technology development are:

-- NEOCam would develop a telescope to study the origin and evolution of near-Earth Objects and study the present risk of Earth-impact. It would generate a catalog of objects and accurate infrared measurements to provide a better understanding of small bodies that cross our planet's orbit. Amy Mainzer of JPL is principal investigator.

A space-based telescope, NEOCam would be positioned in a location about four times the distance between Earth and the moon. From this lofty perch, NEOCam could observe the comings and goings of NEOs every day without the impediments to efficient observing like cloud cover and even daylight. The location in space NEOCam would inhabit is also important, because it allows the monitoring of areas of the sky generally inaccessible to ground-based surveys.

"Near-Earth objects are some of the most bountiful, intriguing and least understood of Earth's neighbors," said Amy Mainzer. "With NEOCam, we would get to know these solar system nomads in greater detail."

-- Primitive Material Explorer (PriME) would develop a mass spectrometer that would provide highly precise measurements of the chemical composition of a comet and explore the objects' role in delivering volatiles to Earth. Anita Cochran of the University of Texas in Austin is principal investigator.

-- Whipple: Reaching into the Outer Solar System would develop and validate a technique called blind occultation that could lead to the discovery of various celestial objects in the outer solar system and revolutionize our understanding of the area's structure. Charles Alcock of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., is principal investigator.

Created in 1992, the Discovery Program sponsors frequent, cost-capped solar system exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. The program's 11 missions include MESSENGER, Dawn, Stardust, Deep Impact and Genesis. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

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Comet Elenin: Preview of a Coming Attraction

You may have heard the news: Comet Elenin is coming to the inner-solar system this fall. Comet Elenin (also known by its astronomical name C/2010 X1), was first detected on Dec. 10, 2010 by Leonid Elenin, an observer in Lyubertsy, Russia, who made the discovery "remotely" using the ISON-NM observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. At the time of the discovery, the comet was about 647 million kilometers (401 million miles) from Earth. Over the past four-and-a-half months, the comet has – as comets do – closed the distance to Earth's vicinity as it makes its way closer to perihelion (its closest point to the sun). As of May 4, Elenin's distance is about 274 million kilometers (170 million miles).

"That is what happens with these long-period comets that come in from way outside our planetary system," said Don Yeomans of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They make these long, majestic, speedy arcs through our solar system, and sometimes they put on a great show. But not Elenin. Right now that comet looks kind of wimpy."

How does a NASA scientist define cometary wimpiness?

"We're talking about how a comet looks as it safely flies past us," said Yeomans. "Some cometary visitors arriving from beyond the planetary region – like Hale-Bopp in 1997 -- have really lit up the night sky where you can see them easily with the naked eye as they safely transit the inner-solar system. But Elenin is trending toward the other end of the spectrum. You'll probably need a good pair of binoculars, clear skies, and a dark, secluded location to see it even on its brightest night."

Comet Elenin should be at its brightest shortly before the time of its closest approach to Earth on Oct. 16 of this year. At its closest point, it will be 35 million kilometers (22 million miles) from us. Can this icy interloper influence us from where it is, or where it will be in the future? What about this celestial object inspiring some shifting of the tides or even tectonic plates here on Earth? There have been some incorrect Internet speculations that external forces could cause comet Elenin to come closer.

"Comet Elenin will not encounter any dark bodies that could perturb its orbit, nor will it influence us in any way here on Earth," said Yeomans. "It will get no closer to Earth than 35 million kilometers [about 22 million miles]. "

"Comet Elenin will not only be far away, it is also on the small side for comets," said Yeomans. "And comets are not the most densely-packed objects out there. They usually have the density of something akin to loosely packed icy dirt.

"So you've got a modest-sized icy dirtball that is getting no closer than 35 million kilometers," said Yeomans. "It will have an immeasurably miniscule influence on our planet. By comparison, my subcompact automobile exerts a greater influence on the ocean's tides than comet Elenin ever will."

Yeomans did have one final thought on comet Elenin.

"This comet may not put on a great show. Just as certainly, it will not cause any disruptions here on Earth. But there is a cause to marvel," said Yeomans. "This intrepid little traveler will offer astronomers a chance to study a relatively young comet that came here from well beyond our solar system's planetary region. After a short while, it will be headed back out again, and we will not see or hear from Elenin for thousands of years. That's pretty cool."

NASA detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing relatively close to Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The Near-Earth Object Observations Program, commonly called "Spaceguard," discovers these objects, characterizes a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

JPL manages the Near-Earth Object Program Office for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Dawn Reaches Milestone Approaching Asteroid Vesta

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has reached its official approach phase to the asteroid Vesta and will begin using cameras for the first time to aid navigation for an expected July 16 orbital encounter. The large asteroid is known as a protoplanet – a celestial body that almost formed into a planet.

At the start of this three-month final approach to this massive body in the asteroid belt, Dawn is 1.21 million kilometers (752,000 miles) from Vesta, or about three times the distance between Earth and the moon. During the approach phase, the spacecraft's main activity will be thrusting with a special, hyper-efficient ion engine that uses electricity to ionize and accelerate xenon. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less thrust than conventional engines, but will provide propulsion for years during the mission and provide far greater capability to change velocity.

"We feel a little like Columbus approaching the shores of the New World," said Christopher Russell, Dawn principal investigator, based at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). "The Dawn team can't wait to start mapping this Terra Incognita."

Dawn previously navigated by measuring the radio signal between the spacecraft and Earth, and used other methods that did not involve Vesta. But as the spacecraft closes in on its target, navigation requires more precise measurements. By analyzing where Vesta appears relative to stars, navigators will pin down its location and enable engineers to refine the spacecraft's trajectory. Using its ion engine to match Vesta's orbit around the sun, the spacecraft will spiral gently into orbit around the asteroid. When Dawn gets approximately 16,000 kilometers (9,900 miles) from Vesta, the asteroid's gravity will capture the spacecraft in orbit.

"After more than three-and-a-half years of interplanetary travel, we are finally closing in on our first destination," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We're not there yet, but Dawn will soon bring into focus an entire world that has been, for most of the two centuries scientists have been studying it, little more than a pinpoint of light."

Scientists will search the framing camera images for possible moons around Vesta. None of the images from ground-based and Earth-orbiting telescopes have seen any moons, but Dawn will give scientists much more detailed images to determine whether small objects have gone undiscovered.

The gamma ray and neutron detector instrument also will gather information on cosmic rays during the approach phase, providing a baseline for comparison when Dawn is much closer to Vesta. Simultaneously, Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer will take early measurements to ensure it is calibrated and ready when the spacecraft enters orbit around Vesta.

Dawn's odyssey, which will take it on a journey of 4.8-billion kilometers (3-billion miles), began on Sept. 27, 2007, with its launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will stay in orbit around Vesta for one year. After another long cruise phase, Dawn will arrive at its second destination, an even more massive body in the asteroid belt, called Ceres, in 2015.

These two icons of the asteroid belt will help scientists unlock the secrets of our solar system's early history. The mission will compare and contrast the two giant bodies, which were shaped by different forces. Dawn's science instrument suite will measure surface composition, topography and texture. In addition, the Dawn spacecraft will measure the tug of gravity from Vesta and Ceres to learn more about their internal structures.

The Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of SMD's Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the Dawn spacecraft. The framing cameras have been developed and built under the leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau in Germany, with significant contributions by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, and in coordination with the Institute of Computer and Communication Network Engineering in Braunschweig. The framing camera project is funded by NASA, the Max Planck Society and DLR.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

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