Archive for March 2, 2012

Cassini Detects Hint of Fresh Air at Dione

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has “sniffed” molecular oxygen ions around Saturn’s icy moon Dione for the first time, confirming the presence of a very tenuous atmosphere. The oxygen ions are quite sparse – one for every 0.67 cubic inches of space (one for every 11 cubic centimeters of space) or about 2,550 per cubic foot (90,000 per cubic meter) – show that Dione has an extremely thin neutral atmosphere.

At the Dione surface, this atmosphere would only be as dense as Earth’s atmosphere 300 miles (480 kilometers) above the surface. The detection of this faint atmosphere, known as an exosphere, is described in a recent issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“We now know that Dione, in addition to Saturn’s rings and the moon Rhea, is a source of oxygen molecules,” said Robert Tokar, a Cassini team member based at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N.M., and the lead author of the paper. “This shows that molecular oxygen is actually common in the Saturn system and reinforces that it can come from a process that doesn’t involve life.”

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NASA’s Kepler Releases New Catalog- 2,321 Planet Candidates

Since science operations began in May 2009, the Kepler team has released two catalogs of transiting planet candidates. The first catalog (Borucki et al, 2010),released in June 2010, contains 312 candidates identified in the first 43 days of Kepler data. The second catalog (Borucki et al, 2011), released in February 2011, is a cumulative catalog containing 1,235 candidates identified in the first 13 months of data.

Today the team presents the third catalog containing 1,091 new planet candidates identified in the first 16 months of observation conducted May 2009 to September 2010. These are the same candidates that the team discussed at the Kepler Science Conference held at NASA Ames Research Center in December 2011.

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NASA Invites Public To Event Honoring Women’s History Month

NASA invites the public to an event featuring senior government leaders, scientists and innovators in celebration of Women’s History Month. The “Women, Aerospace and Innovation” program will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. EST on March 8 at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium and Marvin Center at 805 21st St. NW in Washington.

The program will feature panel discussions with women in senior government positions and breakout sessions where students and early career professionals can meet NASA scientists and researchers. New videos from the Women@NASA website will be featured during the day, highlighting the role women play at NASA.

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Dark Matter Core Defies Explanation

It was the result no one wanted to believe. Astronomers have observed what appeared to be a clump of dark matter left behind during a bizarre wreck following a collision between massive clusters of galaxies.

The dark matter appears to have collected into a “dark core” while most of the galaxies seemed to have moved on, sailing past the collision site. This result could present a challenge to basic theories of dark matter, which predict that galaxies should be anchored to the invisible substance, even during the shock of a collision.

The initial detection, made in 2007, was so unusual that astronomers shrugged them off as unreal because of the signal’s moderate significance. The observational program that led to the 2007 discovery, the Canadian Cluster Comparison Project (CCCP), was conceived at University of Victoria and the first set of observations were carried out at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. For Arif Babul of the University of Victoria, who co-led the CCCP, “the results were both intriguing and exciting but also engendered justified skepticism, the main criticism being that the clump of dark matter was an artifact of ground based observations, though we confirmed the CFHT results using observations from the Japanese Subaru telescope”.

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International Space Station Heads of Agencies Joint Statement

The heads of the International Space Station (ISS) agencies from Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States met in Quebec City, Canada, on March 1, 2012, to review the scientific, technological, and social benefits being produced through their collaboration, and to discuss plans for further broadening these benefits by continuing to advance the human exploration of space.

In reviewing the history of ISS development and the recent transition to a productive research and applications phase, three major areas of success were discussed: the historic engineering achievements, the unprecedented international partnership, and the ongoing progress being made through science. The heads noted that human exploration of space continues to yield valuable benefits to society and is strengthening partnerships among space-faring nations.

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Cassini Significant Events 02/22/2012 – 02/28/2012

The most recent spacecraft tracking and telemetry data in this reporting period were acquired on Feb. 29 from the Goldstone, California, Deep Space Network 34 meter Station 26. The Cassini spacecraft is in an excellent state of health. All subsystems are operating normally except for the issues being worked with the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer and the Ultrastable Oscillator. Information on the present position of the Cassini spacecraft may be found on the “Present Position” page at:

During Cassini’s current orbit of Saturn, many observations have centered on Magnetospheric and Plasma Science (MAPS). Measurements made this week by these direct-sensing instruments included equatorial inner magnetosphere sampling, low latitude prime pointing for MAPS as the spacecraft nears apoapsis, and Cassini Apoapses for Kronian Exploration (CAKE) observations. The objective is to acquire nearly complete and continuous measurements of Saturn’s outer magnetosphere and magnetosheath. By doing this once every four to six months, MAPS can sample and measure Saturn’s magnetosphere over a solar cycle, from one solar minimum to the next, and investigate magnetospheric periodicities and how the Saturn kilometric radiation (SKR) period is imposed on the magnetosphere.

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NASA Continues Orion Parachute Testing for Orbital Test Flight

On Feb. 29, NASA successfully conducted another drop test of the Orion crew vehicle’s entry, descent and landing parachutes high above the Arizona desert in preparation for the vehicle’s orbital flight test in 2014. Orion will carry astronauts deeper into space than ever before, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and ensure a safe re-entry and landing.

An Air Force C-17 plane dropped a test version of Orion from an altitude of 25,000 feet above the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. Orion’s drogue chutes were deployed between 15,000 and 20,000 feet, followed by the pilot parachutes, which deployed the main landing parachutes. Orion landed on the desert floor at a speed of almost 17 mph, well below the maximum designed touchdown speed of the spacecraft.

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Ames Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Pioneer 10

Launched on March 2,1972, Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to travel through the Asteroid belt, and the first spacecraft to make direct observations and obtain close-up images of Jupiter. Famed as the most remote object ever made through most of its mission, Pioneer 10 traveled more than 8 billion miles through space in 25 years. (On Feb. 17, 1998, Voyager 1’s heliocentric radial distance equaled Pioneer 10 at 69.4 AU and thereafter exceeded Pioneer 10 at the rate of 1.02 AU per year.)

Pioneer 10 made its closest encounter to Jupiter on Dec. 3, 1973, passing within 81,000 miles of the cloudtops. This historic event marked humans’ first approach to Jupiter and opened the way for exploration of the outer solar system – for Voyager to tour the outer planets, for Ulysses to break out of the ecliptic, for Galileo to investigate Jupiter and its satellites, and for Cassini to go to Saturn and probe Titan. During its Jupiter encounter, Pioneer 10 imaged the planet and its moons, and took measurements of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, radiation belts, magnetic field, atmosphere, and interior. These measurements of the intense radiation environment near Jupiter were crucial in designing the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft.

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Mars Camera Celebrates a Decade’s Discoveries

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State University

Ten years ago, on Feb. 19, 2002, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), a multi-band camera on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, began scientific operations at the Red Planet. Since then the camera has circled Mars nearly 45,000 times and taken more than half a million images at infrared and visible wavelengths.

“THEMIS has proven itself a workhorse,” says Philip Christensen, the camera’s designer and principal investigator. Christensen is a Regents’ Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, part of Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It’s especially gratifying to me to see the range of discoveries that have been made using this instrument.”

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