NASA Will Host 150 People for Tweetup at Launch of Jupiter-Bound Mission

NASA will host a two-day launch Tweetup for 150 of its Twitter followers on Aug. 4-5 at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Tweetup is expected to culminate in the launch of the Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket.

The launch window opens at 8:39 a.m. PDT (11:39 a.m. EDT) on Aug. 5. The spacecraft is expected to arrive at Jupiter in 2016. The mission will investigate the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. Juno's color camera will provide close-up images of Jupiter, including the first detailed glimpse of the planet's poles.

The Tweetup will provide @NASA Twitter followers with the opportunity to tour the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex; speak with scientists and engineers from the Juno and other upcoming missions; and, if all goes as scheduled, view the spacecraft launch. The event also will provide participants the opportunity to meet fellow tweeps and members of NASA's social media team.

Juno is the second of four space missions launching this year, making 2011 one of the busiest ever in planetary exploration. Aquarius was launched June 10 to study ocean salinity; Grail will launch Sept. 8 to study the moon's gravity field; and the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover will head to the Red Planet no earlier than Nov. 25.

Tweetup registration opens at noon PDT (3 p.m. EDT) on Friday, June 24, and closes at noon PDT (3 p.m. EDT) on Monday, June 27. NASA will randomly select 150 participants from online registrations. For more information about the Tweetup and registration, visit: .

For information about connecting and collaborating with NASA, visit: .

Juno's principal investigator is Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the mission.
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NASA Scientists Theorize Titan Shaped By Weather, Not Ice Volcanoes

Have the surface and belly of Saturn's smog-shrouded moon, Titan, recently simmered like a chilly, bubbling cauldron with ice volcanoes, or has this distant moon gone dead? In a newly published analysis, a pair of NASA scientists analyzing data collected by the Cassini spacecraft suggest Titan may be much less geologically active than some scientists think.

In the paper, published in the April 2011 edition of the journal Icarus, scientists conclude Titan's interior may be cool and dormant and incapable of causing active ice volcanoes.

"It would be fantastic to find strong evidence that clearly shows Titan has an internal heat source that causes ice volcanoes and lava flows to form," said Jeff Moore, lead author of the paper and a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "But we find that the evidence presented to date is unconvincing, and recent studies of Titan’s interior conducted by geophysicists and gravity experts also weaken the possibility of volcanoes there."

Scientists agree that Titan shows evidence of having lakes of liquid methane and ethane, and valleys carved by these exotic liquids, as well as impact craters. However, a debate continues to brew about how to interpret the Cassini data about Titan. Some scientists theorize ice volcanoes exist and suggest energy from an internal heat source may have caused ice to rise and release methane vapors as it reached Titan’s surface.

But in the new paper, the authors conclude that the only features on Titan’s surface that have been unambiguously identified were created by external forces – such as objects hitting the surface and creating craters, wind and rain pummeling its surface, and the formation of rivers and lakes.

"Titan is a fascinating world," said Robert Pappalardo, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and former Cassini project scientist. "Its uniqueness comes from its atmosphere and organic lakes, but in this study, we find no strong evidence for icy volcanism on Titan."

In December 2010, a group of Cassini scientists presented new topographic data on an area of Titan called Sotra Facula, which they think makes the best case yet for a possible volcanic mountain that once erupted ice on Titan. Although Moore and Pappalardo do not explicitly consider this recent topographic analysis in their paper, they do not find the recent analysis of Sotra Facula to be convincing so far. It remains to be seen whether ongoing analyses of Sotra Facula can change minds.

Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only known moon to have a dense atmosphere, composed primarily of nitrogen, with two to three percent methane. One goal of the Cassini mission is to find an explanation for what, if anything, might be maintaining this atmosphere.

Titan's dense atmosphere makes its surface very difficult to study with visible-light cameras, but infrared instruments and radar signals can peer through the haze and provide information about both the composition and shape of the surface.

"Titan is most akin to Jupiter's moon Callisto, if Callisto had weather," Moore added. "Every feature we have seen on Titan can be explained by wind, rain, and meteorite impacts, rather than from internal heating."

Callisto is almost the exact same size as Titan. It has a cratered appearance and because of its cool interior, its surface features are not affected by internal forces. Moore and Pappalardo conclude that Titan also may have a cool interior, with only external processes like wind, rain and impacts shaping its surface."

The Cassini spacecraft, currently orbiting Saturn, continues to make fly-bys of Titan. Scientists will continue to explore Titan's mysteries, including investigations of the changes in the landscapes.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and several of its instruments were designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

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MESSENGER Provides New Data about Mercury

After nearly three months in orbit about Mercury, MESSENGER's payload is providing a wealth of new information about the planet closest to the Sun, as well as a few surprises.

The spacecraft entered orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011 UTC, becoming the first spacecraft ever to do so. Tens of thousands of images of major features on the planet — previously seen only at comparatively low resolution — are now available in sharp focus. Measurements of the chemical composition of Mercury's surface are providing important clues to the origin of the planet and its geological history. Maps of the planet's topography and magnetic field are revealing new clues to Mercury's interior dynamical processes. And scientists now know that bursts of energetic particles in Mercury's magnetosphere are a continuing product of the interaction of Mercury's magnetic field with the solar wind.

This week, MESSENGER completed is first perihelion passage from orbit, its first superior solar conjunction from orbit, and its first orbit-correction maneuver. "Those milestones provide important context to the continuing feast of new observations that MESSENGER has been sending home on nearly a daily basis,” offers MESSENGER Principal investigator Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

A Surface Revealed in Unprecedented Detail

Among the fascinating features seen in MESSENGER flyby images of Mercury were bright, patchy deposits on some crater floors. Without high-resolution images to obtain a closer look, these features remained a curiosity. New targeted Mercury Dual Imaging System images at up to 10 meters per pixel reveal these patchy deposits to be clusters of rimless, irregular pits varying in size from hundreds of meters to several kilometers. These pits are often surrounded by diffuse halos of higher-reflectance material, and they are found associated with central peaks, peak rings, and rims of craters.

"The etched appearance of these landforms is unlike anything we've seen before on Mercury or the Moon,” says Brett Denevi, a staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., and a member of the MESSENGER imaging team. "We are still debating their origin, but they appear to have a relatively young age and may suggest a more abundant than expected volatile component in Mercury's crust.”

Mercury's Surface Composition

The X-ray Spectrometer (XRS) — one of two instruments on MESSENGER designed to measure the abundances of many key elements on Mercury — has made several important discoveries since the orbital mission began. The magnesium/silicon, aluminum/silicon, and calcium/silicon ratios averaged over large areas of the planet's surface show that, unlike the surface of the Moon, Mercury's surface is not dominated by feldspar-rich rocks.

XRS observations have also revealed substantial amounts of sulfur at Mercury's surface, lending support to prior suggestions from ground-based telescopic spectral observations that sulfide minerals are present. This discovery suggests that the original building blocks from which Mercury was assembled may have been less oxidized than those that formed the other terrestrial planets, and it has potentially important implications for understanding the nature of volcanism on Mercury.

Mapping of Mercury's Topography and Magnetic Field

MESSENGER's Mercury Laser Altimeter has been systematically mapping the topography of Mercury's northern hemisphere. After more than two million laser-ranging observations, the planet's large-scale shape and profiles of geological features are both being revealed in high detail. The north polar region of Mercury, for instance, is a broad area of low elevations. The overall range in topographic heights seen to date exceeds 9 kilometers.

Two decades ago, Earth-based radar images showed that around both Mercury's north and south poles are deposits characterized by high radar backscatter. These polar deposits are thought to consist of water ice and perhaps other ices preserved on the cold, permanently shadowed floors of high-latitude impact craters. MESSENGER's altimeter is testing this idea by measuring the floor depths of craters near Mercury's north pole. To date, the depths of craters hosting polar deposits are consistent with the idea that those deposits occupy areas in permanent shadow.

Energetic Particle Events at Mercury

One of the major discoveries made by Mariner 10 during the first of its three flybys of Mercury in 1974 were bursts of energetic particles in Mercury's Earth-like magnetosphere. Four bursts of particles were observed on that flyby, so it was puzzling that no such strong events were detected by MESSENGER during any of its three flybys of the planet in 2008 and 2009. With MESSENGER now in near-polar orbit about Mercury, energetic events are being seen almost like clockwork.

"We are assembling a global overview of the nature and workings of Mercury for the first time,” adds Solomon, "and many of our earlier ideas are being cast aside as new observations lead to new insights. Our primary mission has another three Mercury years to run, and we can expect more surprises as our solar system's innermost planet reveals its long-held secrets."

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Firestorm of Star Birth in the Active Galaxy Centaurus A

Resembling looming rain clouds on a stormy day, dark lanes of dust crisscross the giant elliptical galaxy Centaurus A.

Hubble's panchromatic vision, stretching from ultraviolet through near-infrared wavelengths, reveals the vibrant glow of young, blue star clusters and a glimpse into regions normally obscured by the dust.

The warped shape of Centaurus A's disk of gas and dust is evidence for a past collision and merger with another galaxy. The resulting shockwaves cause hydrogen gas clouds to compress, triggering a firestorm of new star formation. These are visible in the red patches in this Hubble close-up.

At a distance of just over 11 million light-years, Centaurus A contains the closest active galactic nucleus to Earth. The center is home for a supermassive black hole that ejects jets of high-speed gas into space, but neither the supermassive or the jets are visible in this image.

This image was taken in July 2010 with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.

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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NASA's Chandra Finds Massive Black Holes Common in Early Universe

Using the deepest X-ray image ever taken, astronomers found the first direct evidence that massive black holes were common in the early universe. This discovery from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory shows that very young black holes grew more aggressively than previously thought, in tandem with the growth of their host galaxies.

By pointing Chandra at a patch of sky for more than six weeks, astronomers obtained what is known as the Chandra Deep Field South (CDFS). When combined with very deep optical and infrared images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, the new Chandra data allowed astronomers to search for black holes in 200 distant galaxies, from when the universe was between about 800 million to 950 million years old.

"Until now, we had no idea what the black holes in these early galaxies were doing, or if they even existed,” said Ezequiel Treister of the University of Hawaii, lead author of the study appearing in the June 16 issue of the journal Nature. “Now we know they are there, and they are growing like gangbusters."

The super-sized growth means that the black holes in the CDFS are less extreme versions of quasars -- very luminous, rare objects powered by material falling onto supermassive black holes. However, the sources in the CDFS are about a hundred times fainter and the black holes are about a thousand times less massive than the ones in quasars.

The observations found that between 30 and 100 percent of the distant galaxies contain growing supermassive black holes. Extrapolating these results from the small observed field to the full sky, there are at least 30 million supermassive black holes in the early universe. This is a factor of 10,000 larger than the estimated number of quasars in the early universe.

“It appears we've found a whole new population of baby black holes,” said co-author Kevin Schawinski of Yale University. “We think these babies will grow by a factor of about a hundred or a thousand, eventually becoming like the giant black holes we see today almost 13 billion years later.”

A population of young black holes in the early universe had been predicted, but not yet observed. Detailed calculations show that the total amount of black hole growth observed by this team is about a hundred times higher than recent estimates.

Because these black holes are nearly all enshrouded in thick clouds of gas and dust, optical telescopes frequently cannot detect them. However, the high energies of X-ray light can penetrate these veils, allowing the black holes inside to be studied.

Physicists studying black holes want to know more how the first supermassive black holes were formed and how they grow. Although evidence for parallel growth of black holes and galaxies has been established at closer distances, the new Chandra results show that this connection starts earlier than previously thought, perhaps right from the origin of both.

“Most astronomers think in the present-day universe, black holes and galaxies are somehow symbiotic in how they grow,” said Priya Natarajan, a co-author from Yale University. “We have shown that this codependent relationship has existed from very early times.”

It has been suggested that early black holes would play an important role in clearing away the cosmic "fog" of neutral, or uncharged, hydrogen that pervaded the early universe when temperatures cooled down after the Big Bang. However, the Chandra study shows that blankets of dust and gas stop ultraviolet radiation generated by the black holes from traveling outwards to perform this “reionization.” Therefore, stars and not growing black holes are likely to have cleared this fog at cosmic dawn.

Chandra is capable of detecting extremely faint objects at vast distances, but these black holes are so obscured that relatively few photons can escape and hence they could not be individually detected. Instead, the team used a technique that relied on Chandra’s ability to accurately determine the direction from which the X-rays came to add up all the X-ray counts near the positions of distant galaxies and find a statistically significant signal.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

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New Insights On How Solar Minimums Affect Earth

Since 1611, humans have recorded the comings and goings of black spots on the sun. The number of these sunspots wax and wane over approximately an 11-year cycle -- more sunspots generally mean more activity and eruptions on the sun and vice versa. The number of sunspots can change from cycle to cycle and 2008 saw the longest and weakest solar minimum since scientists have been monitoring the sun with space-based instruments.

Observations have shown, however, that magnetic effects on Earth due to the sun, effects that cause the aurora to appear, did not go down in synch with the cycle of low magnetism on the sun. Now, a paper in Annales Geophysicae that appeared on May 16, 2011 reports that these effects on Earth did in fact reach a minimum -- indeed they attained their lowest levels of the century -- but some eight months later. The scientists believe that factors in the speed of the solar wind, and the strength and direction of the magnetic fields embedded within it, helped produce this anomalous low.

"Historically, the solar minimum is defined by sunspot number," says space weather scientist Bruce Tsurutani at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., who is first author on the paper. "Based on that, 2008 was identified as the period of solar minimum. But the geomagnetic effects on Earth reached their minimum quite some time later in 2009. So we decided to look at what caused the geomagnetic minimum."

Geomagnetic effects basically amount to any magnetic changes on Earth due to the sun, and they're measured by magnetometer readings on the surface of the Earth. Such effects are usually harmless, the only obvious sign of their presence being the appearance of auroras near the poles. However, in extreme cases, they can cause power grid failures on Earth or induce dangerous currents in long pipelines, so it is valuable to know how the geomagnetic effects vary with the sun.

Three things help determine how much energy from the sun is transferred to Earth's magnetosphere from the solar wind: the speed of the solar wind, the strength of the magnetic field outside Earth's bounds (known as the interplanetary magnetic field) and which direction it is pointing, since a large southward component is necessary to connect successfully to Earth's magnetosphere and transfer energy. The team -- which also included Walter Gonzalez and Ezequiel Echer of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research in São José dos Campos, Brazil -- examined each component in turn.

First, the researchers noted that in 2008 and 2009, the interplanetary magnetic field was the lowest it had been in the history of the space age. This was an obvious contribution to the geomagnetic minimum. But since the geomagnetic effects didn't drop in 2008, it could not be the only factor.

To examine the speed of the solar wind, they turned to NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), which is in interplanetary space outside the Earth’s magnetosphere, approximately 1 million miles toward the sun. The ACE data showed that the speed of the solar wind stayed high during the sunspot minimum. Only later did it begin a steady decline, correlating to the timing of the decline in geomagnetic effects.

The next step was to understand what caused this decrease. The team found a culprit in something called coronal holes. Coronal holes are darker, colder areas within the sun's outer atmosphere. Fast solar wind shoots out the center of coronal holes at speeds up to 500 miles per second, but wind flowing out of the sides slows down as it expands into space.

"Usually, at solar minimum, the coronal holes are at the sun's poles," says Giuliana de Toma, a solar scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research whose research on this topic helped provide insight for this paper. "Therefore, Earth receives wind from only the edges of these holes and it's not very fast. But in 2007 and 2008, the coronal holes were not confined to the poles as normal."

Those coronal holes lingered at low-latitudes to the end of 2008. Consequently, the center of the holes stayed firmly pointed towards wind at Earth begin to slow down. And, of course, the geomagnetic effects and sightings of the aurora along with it.

Coronal holes seem to be responsible for minimizing the southward direction of the interplanetary magnetic field as well. The solar wind's magnetic fields oscillate on the journey from the sun to Earth. These fluctuations are known as Alfvén waves. The wind coming out of the centers of the coronal holes have large fluctuations, meaning that the southward magnetic component – like that in all the directions -- is fairly large. The wind that comes from the edges, however, has smaller fluctuations, and comparably smaller southward components. So, once again, coronal holes at lower latitudes would have a better chance of connecting with Earth's magnetosphere and causing geomagnetic effects, while mid-latitude holes would be less effective.

Working together, these three factors -- low interplanetary magnetic field strength combined with slower solar wind speed and smaller magnetic fluctuations due to coronal hole placement -- create the perfect environment for a geomagnetic minimum.

Knowing what situations cause and suppress intense geomagnetic activity on Earth is a step toward better predicting when such events might happen. To do so well, Tsurutani points out, requires focusing on the tight connection between such effects and the complex physics of the sun. "It's important to understand all of these features better," he says. "To understand what causes low interplanetary magnetic fields and what causes coronal holes in general. This is all part of the solar cycle. And all part of what causes effects on Earth."

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NASA Chat: Giant Black Holes in the Early Universe

Portrayed in movies and on television most often as gateways to another dimension or cosmic vacuum cleaners sucking up everything in sight, the misconceptions surrounding black holes are many and varied. In reality, black holes form when, at the end of their life cycle, heavy stars collapse into a supernova. These relatively puny black holes may provide a "seed" for the development of the giant black holes -- called supermassive -- found at the center of galaxies, which grow by absorbing gas, stars and other black holes.

On Wednesday, June 15, NASA will announce a new discovery about giant black holes in the early universe. This discovery was made using the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra gives astronomers a powerful tool to investigate the universe, especially those hot spots where black holes, exploding stars and colliding galaxies are most likely to live. Since the Earth's atmosphere absorbs the vast majority of X-rays, they are not detectable from Earth-based telescopes, requiring a space-based telescope to make these observations. Chandra launched in 1999 aboard the Columbia during the STS-93 mission.

Astrophysicists Ezequiel Treister and Kevin Schawinski will be online at 3:00 p.m. EDT on June 15 to answer your questions about the announcement and about black holes in general. Joining the chat is easy. Simply visit this page on Wednesday, June 15, from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT. The chat window will open at the bottom of this page starting about 30 minutes before the chat. You can log in and be ready to ask questions at 3 p.m.

About the Experts

Ezequiel Treister is an astrophysicist for the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has a doctorate in astronomy from the Universidad de Chile, two masters degrees in astronomy from Yale University and a bachelors in physics, also from Universidad de Chile. His interests include active galactic nuclei -- the compact regions at the centers of galaxies with higher than normal luminosity over the electromagnetic spectrum. He studies these nuclei in relation to the cosmic X-ray and Infrared backgrounds of the universe.

Kevin Schawinski is currently an astrophysicist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. He has a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Oxford and a bachelors in physics and mathematics from Cornell University. His interests include how galaxies formed and how they co-evolved with the supermassive black holes that lurk at their centers.

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Nearby Galaxy Boasts Two Monster Black Holes, Both Active

A study using NASA's Swift satellite and the Chandra X-ray Observatory has found a second supersized black hole at the heart of an unusual nearby galaxy already known to be sporting one.

The galaxy, which is known as Markarian 739 or NGC 3758, lies 425 million light-years away toward the constellation Leo. Only about 11,000 light-years separate the two cores, each of which contains a black hole gorging on infalling gas.

The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"At the hearts of most large galaxies, including our own Milky Way, lies a supermassive black hole weighing millions of times the sun's mass," said Michael Koss, the study's lead author at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland in College Park (UMCP). "Some of them radiate billions of times as much energy as the sun."

Astronomers refer to galaxy centers exhibiting such intense emission as active galactic nuclei (AGN). Yet as common as monster black holes are, only about one percent of them are currently powerful AGN. Binary AGN are rarer still: Markarian 739 is only the second identified within half a billion light-years.

Many scientists think that disruptive events like galaxy collisions trigger AGN to switch on by sending large amounts of gas toward the black hole. As the gas spirals inward, it becomes extremely hot and radiates huge amounts of energy.

Since 2004, the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) aboard Swift has been mapping high-energy X-ray sources all around the sky. The survey is sensitive to AGN up to 650 million light-years away and has uncovered dozens of previously unrecognized systems. Follow-up studies by Koss and colleagues published in 2010 reveal that about a quarter of the Swift BAT AGN were either interacting or in close pairs, with perhaps 60 percent of them poised to merge in another billion years.

"If two galaxies collide and each possesses a supermassive black hole, there should be times when both black holes switch on as AGN," said coauthor Richard Mushotzky, professor of astronomy at UMCP. "We weren't seeing many double AGN, so we turned to Chandra for help."

Swift's BAT instrument is scanning one-tenth of the sky at any given moment, its X-ray survey growing more sensitive every year as its exposure increases. Where Swift's BAT provided a wide-angle view, the X-ray telescope aboard the Chandra X-ray Observatory acted like a zoom lens and resolved details a hundred times smaller.

For decades, astronomers have known that the eastern nucleus of Markarian 739 contains a black hole that is actively accreting matter and generating prodigious energy. The Chandra study shows that its western neighbor is too. This makes the galaxy one of the nearest and clearest cases of a binary AGN.

The distance separating the two black holes is about a third of the distance separating the solar system from the center of our own galaxy. The dual AGN of Markarian 739 is the second-closest known, both in terms of distance from one another and distance from Earth. However, another galaxy known as NGC 6240 holds both records.

How did the second AGN remain hidden for so long? "Markarian 739 West shows no evidence of being an AGN in visible, ultraviolet and radio observations," said coauthor Sylvain Veilleux, a professor of astronomy at UMCP. "This highlights the critical importance of high-resolution observations at high X-ray energies in locating binary AGN."

The research team also includes Ezequiel Treister and David Sanders at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Kevin Schawinski at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and Ranjan Vasudevan, Neal Miller and Margaret Trippe at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Swift, launched in November 2004, is managed by Goddard. It was built and is being operated in collaboration with Penn State University, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and General Dynamics in Falls Church, Va.; the University of Leicester and Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory in the United Kingdom; Brera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy; plus additional partners in Germany and Japan.

The Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

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STEREO Sees Complete Far Side

The far side unveiled! This is the first complete image of the solar far side, the half of the sun invisible from Earth. Captured on June 1, 2011, the composite image was assembled from NASA's two Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft. STEREO-Ahead's data is shown on the left half of image and STEREO-Behind's data on the right.

The STEREO spacecraft reached opposition (180° separation) on February 6 but part of the sun was inaccessible to their combined view until June 1. This image represents the first day when the entire far side could be seen.

The image is aligned so that solar north is directly up. The seam between the two images is inclined because the plane of Earth’s -- and STEREO's -- orbit, known as the "ecliptic", is inclined with respect to the sun's axis of rotation. The data was collected by STEREO's Extreme Ultraviolet Imagers in the SECCHI instrument suites.

STEREO was built and is operated for NASA by the Applied Physical Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University; the spacecraft were launched on October 25, 2006 aboard a Delta II. The SECCHI instrument suite is a collaboration led by the Naval Research Laboratory, and the EUVI instruments were built by the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory.

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A Big Surprise from the Edge of the Solar System

NASA's Voyager probes are truly going where no one has gone before. Gliding silently toward the stars, 9 billion miles from Earth, they are beaming back news from the most distant, unexplored reaches of the solar system.

Mission scientists say the probes have just sent back some very big news indeed.

It's bubbly out there.

According to computer models, the bubbles are large, about 100 million miles wide, so it would take the speedy probes weeks to cross just one of them. Voyager 1 entered the "foam-zone" around 2007, and Voyager 2 followed about a year later. At first researchers didn't understand what the Voyagers were sensing--but now they have a good idea.

"The sun's magnetic field extends all the way to the edge of the solar system," explains Opher. "Because the sun spins, its magnetic field becomes twisted and wrinkled, a bit like a ballerina's skirt. Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are now, the folds of the skirt bunch up."

When a magnetic field gets severely folded like this, interesting things can happen. Lines of magnetic force criss-cross, and "reconnect". (Magnetic reconnection is the same energetic process underlying solar flares.) The crowded folds of the skirt reorganize themselves, sometimes explosively, into foamy magnetic bubbles.

"We never expected to find such a foam at the edge of the solar system, but there it is!" says Opher's colleague, University of Maryland physicist Jim Drake.

Theories dating back to the 1950s had predicted a very different scenario: The distant magnetic field of the sun was supposed to curve around in relatively graceful arcs, eventually folding back to rejoin the sun. The actual bubbles appear to be self-contained and substantially disconnected from the broader solar magnetic field.

Energetic particle sensor readings suggest that the Voyagers are occasionally dipping in and out of the foam—so there might be regions where the old ideas still hold. But there is no question that old models alone cannot explain what the Voyagers have found.

Says Drake: "We are still trying to wrap our minds around the implications of these findings."

The structure of the sun's distant magnetic field—foam vs. no-foam—is of acute scientific importance because it defines how we interact with the rest of the galaxy. Researchers call the region where the Voyagers are now "the heliosheath." It is essentially the border crossing between the Solar System and the rest of the Milky Way. Lots of things try to get across—interstellar clouds, knots of galactic magnetism, cosmic rays and so on. Will these intruders encounter a riot of bubbly magnetism (the new view) or graceful lines of magnetic force leading back to the sun (the old view)?

The case of cosmic rays is illustrative. Galactic cosmic rays are subatomic particles accelerated to near-light speed by distant black holes and supernova explosions. When these microscopic cannonballs try to enter the solar system, they have to fight through the sun's magnetic field to reach the inner planets.

"The magnetic bubbles appear to be our first line of defense against cosmic rays," points out Opher. "We haven't figured out yet if this is a good thing or not."

On one hand, the bubbles would seem to be a very porous shield, allowing many cosmic rays through the gaps. On the other hand, cosmic rays could get trapped inside the bubbles, which would make the froth a very good shield indeed.

So far, much of the evidence for the bubbles comes from the Voyager energetic particle and flow measurements. Proof can also be obtained from the Voyager magnetic field observations and some of this data is also very suggestive. However, because the magnetic field is so weak, the data takes much longer to analyze with the appropriate care. Thus, unraveling the magnetic signatures of bubbles in the Voyager data is ongoing.

"We'll probably discover which is correct as the Voyagers proceed deeper into the froth and learn more about its organization," says Opher. "This is just the beginning, and I predict more surprises ahead."

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NASA Goes Below the Surface to Understand Salinity

When NASA's Aquarius mission launches this week, its radiometer instruments will take a "skin" reading of the oceans' salt content at the surface. From these data of salinity in the top 0.4 inch (1 centimeter) of the ocean surface, Aquarius will create weekly and monthly maps of ocean surface salinity all over the globe for at least three years. To better understand what's driving changes and fluctuations in salinity -- and how those changes relate to an acceleration of the global water cycle and climate change -- scientists will go deeper.

That's why scientists working on, Aquarius, the newest NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder mission aboard the Argentine-built Satelite de Aplicaciones Cientificas (SAC)-D observatory, have devised a plan. They will deploy instruments on floats, research ships, commercial cargo ships, free-drifting platforms, buoys, underwater gliders, and an autonomous underwater vehicle to build a 3-D view of what's happening beneath the ocean surface that affects salinity distribution.

Along with temperature, ocean salinity is a key driver of ocean currents, a critical factor in climate processes, and an indicator of Earth's changing water cycle. Measuring salinity from space has been one of the great technological challenges of satellite ocean studies. But once Aquarius starts delivering its salinity data, with accuracy equal to a pinch of salt in a gallon of water, a new challenge begins.

"The next question is: How do you understand what the satellite sees?" said Yi Chao of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Cho is the Aquarius project scientist. "Without deploying instruments under the ocean's surface, we do not know how to fully interpret the satellite observations of surface salinity."

To help address that question, NASA has a new field experiment: SPURS – Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study. The experiment, which will sample salinity and other key factors, such as ocean temperature and velocity, will take place from spring 2012 to summer 2013 and will include five month-long research ship cruises to the center of the saltiest region in the Atlantic Ocean. In oceanography lingo, it's known as the "Atlantic surface salinity maximum," and it's located about halfway between the southeast U.S. coast and the western coast of North Africa, at about 25 degrees north and 38 degrees west. Many of the methods used for years to take in-ocean measurements of salinity will be put to use, but in a far more concentrated and intensive manner, and, for the first time, they'll be used in combination with Aquarius' satellite salinity readings.

SPURS scientists hope to replicate the study in a contrasting, relatively low-salinity region elsewhere in the ocean in the future.

The scope of the measurements taken during SPURS will give scientists deeper insights into the salinity observations from Aquarius and the physical processes -- temperature changes, currents, turbulence, evaporation, precipitation -- that affect salinity. These are all aspects of the global water cycle, the continuous movement of water through the Earth system by evaporation, condensation, precipitation and runoff. Water cycles from the ocean to the atmosphere and then back to the ocean, either directly or via melting ice caps, rivers or underground aquifers. Scientists see evidence of an accelerating water cycle, driven by climate change. Salinity measurements can indicate how the patterns of freshwater mixing with saltwater are changing due to changes in precipitation, evaporation, and freshwater runoff from rivers and melting ice.

"One of the big questions is how much will the water cycle accelerate because of warming?" said Raymond Schmitt, project scientist for SPURS and an oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. In short, as Earth's lowermost atmospheric layer, the troposphere, warms, its ability to hold water in the form of water vapor increases. This, in turn, increases evaporation over land and the ocean, and quickens the cycle as a whole. As precipitation and evaporation patterns change -- thus changing how freshwater mixes with salty water -- so do salinities.

"We're seeing big changes in ocean salinities that can only be explained by an increase in the water cycle," Schmitt said. "We see this changing salinity, and we want to relate it to the changing water cycle -- but we have to understand what the ocean is doing."

Designing a Multi-platform Experiment at Sea

The ocean makes up 71 percent of Earth's surface area and represents 97 percent of the world's volume of water. Measuring what's happening with salinity everywhere in the ocean at every depth is an impossible task. So the SPURS scientists decided to focus on one representative region and measure that as a proxy. A network of different instruments creates a "bounded" volume of water to study in the SPURS experiment.

SPURS precisely identifies a specific 3-D portion of the Atlantic Ocean, and sets out to measure key ocean processes there as thoroughly as possible. Starting at the surface, commercial cargo ships carrying basic salinity gauges and deploying disposable thermometers will criss-cross the target region on their regular trade routes. Ocean scientists have partnered with commercial ships to do this for years. SPURS will also take advantage of the existing Argo network of profiling floats that measure temperature and salinity at the surface and below. The floats dive as deep as 1.2 miles (2 kilometers), while returning to the surface every 10 days to transmit their measurements via satellite. The international scientific collaboration began in the late 1990s and now maintains more than 3,000 floats worldwide.

It is the multiple additions beyond these existing measurements that will make SPURS more complex than a typical study of ocean processes. Multiple buoys will take basic meteorological measurements at the surface. But cables running to anchors on the ocean bottom will stretch down as deep as 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) below the surface, while instruments deployed on the cables at different depths will take salinity, temperature and velocity readings. SPURS will also draw on data from NOAA's existing PIRATA (Prediction and Research Array Moored in the Atlantic) network, which uses similar buoys moored to the ocean floor.

In addition, about 75 free-floating surface drifters, outfitted with GPS, temperature and salinity instruments, will be deployed in a radius of several hundred kilometers. Beneath the surface, NASA will deploy teams of two kinds of "gliders" -- torpedo-like autonomous devices that use slight changes in buoyancy and wings to dive up and down and propel themselves forward, collecting data with instruments onboard.

One class of smaller gliders, called "Slocum gliders," which operate in shallower water, will be deployed for 20 to 30 days during each research cruise. Multiple "Seagliders" will also be deployed for six to nine months at a time. These gliders travel in a wider circumference and dive to greater depths.

Finally, from on board during each of the five one-month ship cruises to the site, scientists will operate a CTD profiler (CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) and a battery-powered, propeller-driven autonomous underwater vehicle that they'll be able to control remotely.

"Salinity has never been measured to the level of detail that SPURS is planning," Chao said.

The questions Chao, Schmitt and others hope to begin to answer with SPURS range from the smallest to the largest scale. For one, what are the physical processes that determine the location and magnitude of the high-salinity region in the Atlantic being studied? What is the salinity balance on monthly and seasonal time scales, plus regional and larger spatial scales?

Larger questions include how the ocean will respond to temperature and freshwater changes likely to come with a warming climate. How will the meridional overturning circulation -- the "global ocean conveyor belt," which has such a dominant effect on the planet's climate -- change?

"We can see in the patterns of salinity change that something big is going on with the water cycle," Schmitt said. "Eighty percent of the water cycle happens over the ocean. We need to document and understand how the ocean is responding."

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NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Catches “Surfer” Waves on the Sun

Cue the surfing music. Scientists have spotted the iconic surfer's wave rolling through the atmosphere of the sun. This makes for more than just a nice photo-op: the waves hold clues as to how energy moves through that atmosphere, known as the corona.

Since scientists know how these kinds of waves -- initiated by a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability if you're being technical -- disperse energy in the water, they can use this information to better understand the corona. This in turn, may help solve an enduring mystery of why the corona is thousands of times hotter than originally expected.

"One of the biggest questions about the solar corona is the heating mechanism," says solar physicist Leon Ofman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. and Catholic University, Washington. "The corona is a thousand times hotter than the sun's visible surface, but what heats it up is not well-understood. People have suggested that waves like this might cause turbulence which cause heating, but now we have direct evidence of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves."

Ofman and his Goddard colleague, Barbara Thompson, spotted these waves in images taken on April 8, 2010. These were some of the first images caught on camera by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a solar telescope with outstanding resolution that launched on February 11, 2010 and began capturing data on March 24 of that year. The team's results appeared online in Astrophysical Journal Letters on May 19, 2011 and will be published in the journal on June 10.

That these "surfer" waves exist in the sun at all is not necessarily a surprise, since they do appear in so many places in nature including, for example, clouds on Earth and between the bands of Saturn. But observing the sun from almost 93 million miles away means it's not easy to physically see details like this. That's why the resolution available with SDO gets researchers excited.

"The waves we're seeing in these images are so small," says Thompson who in addition to being a co-author on this paper is the deputy project scientist for SDO. "They're only the size of the United States," she laughs.

Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities occur when two fluids of different densities or different speeds flow by each other. In the case of ocean waves, that's the dense water and the lighter air. As they flow past each other, slight ripples can be quickly amplified into the giant waves loved by surfers. In the case of the solar atmosphere, which is made of a very hot and electrically charged gas called plasma, the two flows come from an expanse of plasma erupting off the sun's surface as it passes by plasma that is not erupting. The difference in flow speeds and densities across this boundary sparks the instability that builds into the waves.

In order to confirm this description, the team developed a computer model to see what takes place in the region. Their model showed that these conditions could indeed lead to giant surfing waves rolling through the corona.

Ofman says that despite the fact that Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities have been spotted in other places, there was no guarantee they'd be spotted in the sun's corona, which is permeated with magnetic fields. "I wasn't sure that this instability could evolve on the sun, since magnetic fields can have a stabilizing effect," he says. "Now we know that this instability can appear even though the solar plasma is magnetized."

Seeing the big waves suggests they can cascade down to smaller forms of turbulence too. Scientists believe that the friction created by turbulence – the simple rolling of material over and around itself – could help add heating energy to the corona. The analogy is the way froth at the top of a surfing wave provides friction that will heat up the wave. (Surfers of course don't ever notice this, as any extra heat quickly dissipates into the rest of the water.)

Hammering out the exact mechanism for heating the corona will continue to intrigue researchers for some time but, says Thompson, SDO's ability to capture images of the entire sun every 12 seconds with such precise detail will be a great boon. "SDO is not the first solar observatory with high enough visual resolution to be able to see something like this," she says. "But for some reason Kelvin-Helmholtz features are rare. The fact that we spotted something so interesting in some of the first images really shows the strength of SDO."

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Jupiter's Youthful Travels Redefined Solar System

Jupiter, long settled in its position as the fifth planet from our sun, was a rolling stone in its youth. Over the eons, the giant planet roamed toward the center of the solar system and back out again, at one point moving in about as close as Mars is now. The planet's travels profoundly influenced the solar system, changing the nature of the asteroid belt and making Mars smaller than it should have been. These details are based on a new model of the early solar system developed by an international team that includes NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The work is being reported in a Nature paper posted on June 5, 2011.

"We refer to Jupiter's path as the Grand Tack, because the big theme in this work is Jupiter migrating toward the sun and then stopping, turning around, and migrating back outward," says the paper's first author, Kevin Walsh of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "This change in direction is like the course that a sailboat takes when it tacks around a buoy."

According to the new model, Jupiter formed in a region of space about three-and-a-half times as far from the sun as Earth is (3.5 astronomical units). Because a huge amount of gas still swirled around the sun back then, the giant planet got caught in the currents of flowing gas and started to get pulled toward the sun. Jupiter spiraled slowly inward until it settled at a distance of about 1.5 astronomical units—about where Mars is now. (Mars was not there yet.)

"We theorize that Jupiter stopped migrating toward the sun because of Saturn," says Avi Mandell, a planetary scientist at NASA Goddard and a co-author on the paper. The other co-authors are Alessandro Morbidelli at the Observatoire de la Cote d'Azur in Nice, France; Sean Raymond at the Observatoire de Bordeaux in France; and David O'Brien at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.

Like Jupiter, Saturn got drawn toward the sun shortly after it formed, and the model holds that once the two massive planets came close enough to each other, their fates became permanently linked. Gradually, all the gas in between the two planets got expelled, bringing their sun-bound death spiral to a halt and eventually reversing the direction of their motion. The two planets journeyed outward together until Jupiter reached its current position at 5.2 astronomical units and Saturn came to rest at about 7 astronomical units. (Later, other forces pushed Saturn out to 9.5 astronomical units, where it is today.)

The effects of these movements, which took hundreds of thousands to millions of years, were extraordinary.

Jupiter's Do-Si-Do

"Jupiter migrating in and then all the way back out again can solve the long-standing mystery of why the asteroid belt is made up of both dry, rocky objects and icy objects," Mandell says.

Astronomers think that the asteroid belt exists because Jupiter's gravity prevented the rocky material there from coming together to form a planet; instead, the zone remained a loose collection of objects. Some scientists previously considered the possibility that Jupiter could have moved close to the sun at some point, but this presented a major problem: Jupiter was expected to scatter the material in the asteroid belt so much that the belt would no longer exist.

"For a long time, that idea limited what we imagined Jupiter could have done," Walsh notes.

Rather than having Jupiter destroy the asteroid belt as it moved toward the sun, the Grand Tack model has Jupiter perturbing the objects and pushing the whole zone farther out. "Jupiter's migration process was slow," explains Mandell, "so when it neared the asteroid belt, it was not a violent collision but more of a do-si-do, with Jupiter deflecting the objects and essentially switching places with the asteroid belt."

In the same way, as Jupiter moved away from the sun, the planet nudged the asteroid belt back inward and into its familiar location between the modern orbits of Mars and Jupiter. And because Jupiter traveled much farther out than it had been before, it reached the region of space where icy objects are found. The massive planet deflected some of these icy objects toward the sun and into the asteroid belt.

"The end result is that the asteroid belt has rocky objects from the inner solar system and icy objects from the outer solar system," says Walsh. "Our model puts the right material in the right places, for what we see in the asteroid belt today."

Poor Little Mars

The time that Jupiter spent in the inner solar system had another major effect: its presence made Mars smaller than it otherwise would have been. "Why Mars is so small has been the unsolvable problem in the formation of our solar system," says Mandell. "It was the team's initial motivation for developing a new model of the formation of the solar system."

Because Mars formed farther out than Venus and Earth, it had more raw materials to draw on and should be larger than Venus and Earth. Instead, it's smaller. "For planetary scientists, this never made sense," Mandell adds.

But if, as the Grand Tack model suggests, Jupiter spent some time parked in the inner solar system, it would have scattered some material available for making planets. Much of the material past about 1 astronomical unit would have been dispersed, leaving poor Mars out at 1.5 astronomical units with slim pickings. Earth and Venus, however, would have formed in the region richest in planet-making material.

"With the Grand Tack model, we actually set out to explain the formation of a small Mars, and in doing so, we had to account for the asteroid belt," says Walsh. "To our surprise, the model's explanation of the asteroid belt became one of the nicest results and helps us understand that region better than we did before."

Another bonus is that the new model puts Jupiter, Saturn, and the other giant planets in positions that fit very well with the "Nice model," a relatively new theory that explains the movements of these large planets later in the solar system's history.

The Grand Tack also makes our solar system very much like the other planetary systems that have been found so far. In many of those cases, enormous gas-giant planets called "hot Jupiters" sit extremely close to their host stars, much closer than Mercury is to the sun. For planetary scientists, this newfound likeness is comforting.

"Knowing that our own planets moved around a lot in the past makes our solar system much more like our neighbors than we previously thought," says Walsh. "We're not an outlier anymore."

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Ames Imaging Experts Create Unique Views of STS-134 Launch

Imaging experts funded by the Space Shuttle Program and located at NASA's Ames Research Center prepared this video by merging nearly 20,000 photographs taken by a set of six cameras capturing 250 images per second at the STS-134 launch on May 16, 2011. From seven seconds before takeoff to six seconds after, the cameras took simultaneous images at six different exposure settings. The images were processed and combined in this video to balance the brightness of the rocket engine output with the regular daylight levels at which the orbiter can be seen. The processing software digitally removes pure black or pure white pixels from one image and replaces them with the most detailed pixel option from the five other images. This technique can help visualize debris falling during a launch or support research involving intense light sources like rocket engines, plasma experiments and hypersonic vehicle engines.

Imaging experts funded by the Space Shuttle Program and located at NASA's Ames Research Center prepared this image using fusion software to combine six simultaneously captured images they took of the STS-134 launch on May 16, 2011. Each image was taken at a different exposure setting, then composited to balance the brightness of the rocket engine output with the regular daylight levels at which the orbiter can be seen. The processing software digitally removes pure black or pure white pixels from one image and replaces them with the most detailed pixel option from the five other images. This technique can help visualize debris falling during a launch or support research involving intense light sources like rocket engines, plasma experiments and hypersonic vehicle engines.

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New NASA Salt Mapper to Spice Up Climate Forecasts

Salt is essential to human life. Most people don't know, however, that salt -- in a form nearly the same as the simple table variety -- is just as essential to Earth's ocean, serving as a critical driver of key ocean processes. While ancient Greek soothsayers believed they could foretell the future by reading the patterns in sprinkled salt, today's scientists have learned that they can indeed harness this invaluable mineral to foresee the future -- of Earth's climate.

The oracles of modern climate science are the computer models used to forecast climate change. These models, which rely on a myriad of data from many sources, are effective in predicting many climate variables, such as global temperatures. Yet data for some pieces of the climate puzzle have been scarce, including the concentration of dissolved sea salt at the surface of the world's ocean, commonly called ocean surface salinity, subjecting the models to varying margins of error. This salinity is a key indicator of how Earth's freshwater moves between the ocean, land and atmosphere.

Enter Aquarius, a new NASA salinity-measurement instrument slated for launch in June 2011 aboard the Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D spacecraft built by Argentina's Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE). Aquarius' high-tech, salt-seeking sensors will make comprehensive measurements of ocean surface salinity with the precision needed to help researchers better determine how Earth's ocean interacts with the atmosphere to influence climate. It's a mission that promises to be, to quote the old saying, "worth its salt."

Improving Climate Forecasts

"We ultimately want to predict climate change and have greater confidence in our predictions. Climate models are the only effective means we have to do so," said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef, a scientist at the Seattle-based independent laboratory Earth & Space Research. "But, a climate model's forecast skill is only as good as its ability to accurately represent modern-day observations."

Density-driven ocean circulation, according to Lagerloef, is controlled as much by salinity as by ocean temperature. Sea salt makes up only 3.5 percent of the world's ocean, but its relatively small presence reaps huge consequences.

Salinity influences the very motion of the ocean and the temperature of seawater, because the concentration of sea salt in the ocean's surface mixed layer -- the portion of the ocean that is actively exchanging water and heat with Earth's atmosphere -- is a critical driver of these ocean processes. It's the missing variable in understanding the link between the water cycle and ocean circulation. Specifically, it's an essential metric to modeling precipitation and evaporation.

Accurate ocean surface salinity data are a necessary component to understanding what will happen in the future, but can also open a window to Earth's climate past. When researchers want to create a climate record that spans previous decades -- which helps them identify trends -- it's necessary to collect and integrate data from the last two to three decades to develop a consistent analysis.

"Aquarius, and successor missions based on it, will give us, over time, critical data that will be used by models that study how Earth's ocean and atmosphere interact, to see trends in climate," said Lagerloef. "The advances this mission will enable make this an exciting time in climate research."

Taking Past Measurements with a Grain of Salt

Anyone who's splashed at the beach knows that ocean water is salty. Yet measuring this simple compound in seawater has been a scientific challenge for well over a century.

Until now, researchers had taken ocean salinity measurements from aboard ships, buoys and aircraft – but they'd done so using a wide range of methods across assorted sampling areas and over inconsistent times from one season to another. Because of the sparse and intermittent nature of these salinity observations, researchers have not been able to fine-tune models to obtain a true global picture of how ocean surface salinity is influencing the ocean. Aquarius promises to resolve these deficiencies, seeing changes in ocean surface salinity consistently across space and time and mapping the entire ice-free ocean every seven days for at least three years.

The Age of Aquarius
Research modelers like William Large, an oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., will use Aquarius' ocean surface salinity data, along with precipitation and temperature observations, to round out the data needed to refine the numerical climate models he and his colleagues have developed.

"This mission is sure to mark a new era for end users like us," explained Large. "Aquarius puts us on the road to implementing a long-term, three-step plan that could improve our climate models. The first step will be to use Aquarius data to identify if there is a problem with our models -- what deficiencies exist, for example, in parts of the world where observations are sparse.

"Second, the data will help us determine the source of these problems," Large added. "Salinity helps us understand density -- and density, after all, makes ocean waters sink and float, and circulate around Earth.

"Third, Aquarius will help us solve the puzzle of what's going on in the ocean itself -- the ocean processes," he added. "We'll pair an ocean observation experiment with the satellite mission to explore the mixing and convection -- how things like salinity are stirred in the ocean -- to better determine what processes might be actually changing climate. Measuring salinity at the ocean surface will deliver a pioneering baseline of observations for changes seen by the next generation of missions in the coming decades."

"We've done all of the advance work leading up to the launch of Aquarius, so the proof will be in the actual data," said Lagerloef. "Our intent is to put the data out immediately as soon as the satellite begins transmitting. Before the end of the first year, we'll be interpreting exactly what the data are telling us and how they will benefit climate modeling."

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Memorial Weekend Light Show

After a quiet couple of weeks our Sun is once again awakening with activity. Over the Memorial holiday weekend Earth experienced category G1 (Minor) and G2 (Moderate) geomagnetic storms on May 28-29 due to a coronal hole high-speed solar wind stream. Bright auroras at high latitudes were visible at both poles of the Earth, including Tasmania, New Zealand, Antarctica, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In addition, R1 (Minor) radio blackouts also occurred due to solar flares on the Sun. NOAA is predicting a continuing possibility of category R1 radio blackouts through June 9, 2011.

What is a coronal hole?

The solar corona is the outer atmosphere of the sun, extending from the solar surface out into space. Coronal holes are large regions in the solar corona that appear darker and are less dense and cooler than surrounding areas. The open structure of their magnetic field allows a constant flow of high-density plasma to stream out of the holes. The high-speed solar wind is known to originate in coronal holes.

There is an increase in the intensity of the solar wind effects on Earth when a coronal hole faces us. During solar minimum, coronal holes are mainly found at the Sun's polar regions. They can be located anywhere on the sun during solar maximum, which is our sun's current cycle. Coronal holes are the sources of many of the disturbances to the ionosphere (and HF communications) and to the geomagnetic field of planet Earth.

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