Monday, January 26, 2015

Asteroid That Flew Past Earth Has a Moon, Radar Observations Show

Radar image of asteroid 2004 BL86. Credit: NASA/JPL

Scientists working with NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, have released the first radar images of asteroid 2004 BL86. The images show the asteroid, which made its closest approach today (Jan. 26, 2015) at 8:19 a.m. PST (11:19 a.m. EST) at a distance of about 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers, or 3.1 lunar distances [LD] - distance from Earth to the moon), has its own small moon. "The asteroid has become, for a short time, the brightest natural near-Earth object [NEO] that we know of - other than the Moon - over the next 12 years," said Richard Miles, Director of Asteroids and Remote Planets Section at the British Astronomical Association. The 20 individual images used in the movie were generated from data collected at Goldstone on Jan. 26, 2015. They show the primary body is approximately 1,100 feet (325 meters) across and has a small moon approximately 230 feet (70 meters) across. In the near-Earth population, about 16 percent of asteroids that are about 655 feet (200 meters) or larger are a binary (the primary asteroid with a smaller asteroid moon orbiting it) or even triple systems (two moons). The resolution on the radar images is 13 feet (4 meters) per pixel.

NASA, Boeing and SpaceX Discuss Commercial Crew Program

NASA's Stephanie Schierholz introduces the panel of Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, seated, left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing's Jon Elbon, SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke. Image Credit: NASA TV

American spacecraft systems testing followed by increasingly complex flight tests and ultimately astronauts flying orbital flights will pave the way to operational missions during the next few years to the International Space Station. Those were the plans laid out Monday by NASA's Commercial Crew Program officials and partners as they focus on developing safe, reliable and cost-effective spacecraft and systems that will take astronauts to the station from American launch complexes. According to Boeing, the company’s schedule calls for a pad abort test in February 2017, followed by an uncrewed flight test in April 2017, then a flight with a Boeing test pilot and a NASA astronaut in July 2017. SpaceX said they anticipate a pad abort test in about a month, then an in-flight abort test later this year as part of its previous development phase. An uncrewed flight test is planned for late 2016 and a crewed flight test in early 2017. "It’s an incredible testament to American ingenuity and know-how, and an extraordinary validation of the vision we laid out just a few years ago as we prepared for the long-planned retirement of the space shuttle," said Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator, during the briefing at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. "This work is part of a vital strategy to equip our nation with the technologies for the future and inspire a new generation of explorers to take the next giant leap for America."

Astronomers Find Gigantic Ring System Much Larger than Saturn’s

Artist’s conception of the extrasolar ring system circling the young giant planet or brown dwarf J1407b. The rings are shown eclipsing the young sun-like star J1407, as they would have appeared in early 2007. Credit: Ron Miller

Astronomers at the Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands, and the University of Rochester, USA, have discovered that the ring system that they see eclipse the very young Sun-like star J1407 is of enormous proportions, much larger and heavier than the ring system of Saturn. The ring system – the first of its kind to be found outside our solar system – was discovered in 2012 by a team led by Rochester’s Eric Mamajek. A new analysis of the data, led by Leiden’s Matthew Kenworthy, shows that the ring system consists of over 30 rings, each of them tens of millions of kilometers in diameter. Furthermore, they found gaps in the rings, which indicate that satellites (“exomoons”) may have formed. The result has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. “The details that we see in the light curve are incredible. The eclipse lasted for several weeks, but you see rapid changes on time scales of tens of minutes as a result of fine structures in the rings,” says Kenworthy. “The star is much too far away to observe the rings directly, but we could make a detailed model based on the rapid brightness variations in the star light passing through the ring system. If we could replace Saturn’s rings with the rings around J1407b, they would be easily visible at night and be many times larger than the full moon.”

DSCOVR Spacecraft Going to a 'Far Out' Orbit

Placing DSCOVR in orbit around the L1 point provides definite advantages, including the quality of the solar wind observations. Image Credit: NOAA

Many satellites that monitor the Earth orbit relatively close to the planet, while some satellites that monitor the sun orbit our star. DSCOVR will keep an eye on both, with a focus on the sun. To cover both the Earth and sun, it will have an unusual orbit in a place called L1. The Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, spacecraft will orbit between Earth and the sun, observing and providing advanced warning of extreme emissions of particles and magnetic fields from the sun known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, which can affect power grids, communications systems, and satellites close to Earth. DSCOVR will also observe our planet and provide measurements of the radiation reflected and emitted by Earth and multi-spectral images of the sunlit side of Earth for science applications.

NASA Langley Debuts an 'Impressive Machine'

NASA Langley Center Director Steve Jurczyk speaks during the commissioning ceremony for ISAAC, a robot that will develop strong, light composite structures and materials for aerospace vehicles. Image Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman

It wasn't the first ribbon cutting ceremony at NASA's Langley Research Center, nor is it likely to be the last. But it may very well be the only ribbon cutting ceremony at NASA Langley where the piece of technology on display — a robotic arm named ISAAC — cut its own ribbon. Agency, state and local officials gathered at NASA Langley Jan. 26 to see ISAAC do just that, and to celebrate the official debut of what Hampton, Virginia, Mayor George Wallace called "truly an impressive machine." Researchers at NASA Langley will use ISAAC, which stands for Integrated Structural Assembly of Advanced Composites, to develop lighter, stronger composite structures and materials for aerospace vehicles. As NASA Langley Center Director Steve Jurczyk opened the ceremony, a loud hissing noise issued from ISAAC. Jurczyk glanced over his shoulder. "If it comes after me, give me a heads up," he joked.

Rosetta Watches Comet Shed its Dusty Coat

Two examples of dust grains collected by Rosetta’s COmetary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser (COSIMA) instrument in the period 25–31 October 2014. Both grains were collected at a distance of 10–20 km from the comet nucleus. Image (a) shows a dust particle (named by the COSIMA team as Eloi) that crumbled into a rubble pile when collected; (b) shows a dust particle that shattered (named Arvid). Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for COSIMA Team MPS/CSNSM/UNIBW/TUORLA/IWF/IAS/ESA/ BUW/MPE/LPC2E/LCM/FMI/UTU/LISA/UOFC/vH&S

ESA’s Rosetta mission is providing unique insight into the life cycle of a comet’s dusty surface, watching 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as it sheds the dusty coat it has accumulated over the past four years. The COmetary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser, or COSIMA, is one of Rosetta’s three dust analysis experiments. It started collecting, imaging and measuring the composition of dust particles shortly after the spacecraft arrived at the comet in August 2014. Results from the first analysis of its data are reported today in the journal Nature. The study covers August to October, when the comet moved along its orbit between about 535 million kilometres to 450 million kilometres from the Sun. Rosetta spent the most of this time orbiting the comet at distances of 30 km or less.

Swarm of Microprobes to Head for Jupiter

This true-color simulated view of Jupiter is composed of 4 images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on December 7, 2000. To illustrate what Jupiter would have looked like if the cameras had a field-of-view large enough to capture the entire planet, the cylindrical map was projected onto a globe. The resolution is about 144 kilometers (89 miles) per pixel. Jupiter's moon Europa is casting the shadow on the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A swarm of tiny probes each with a different sensor could be fired into the clouds of Jupiter and grab data as they fall before burning up in the gas giant planet's atmosphere. The probes would last an estimated 15 minutes according to planetary scientists writing in the International Journal Space Science and Engineering. Transmitting 20 megabits of data over fifteen minutes would be sufficient to allows scientists to get a picture of a large part of the atmosphere of the planet. Orbiting and flyby probes have provided astronomers with a lot of information about the "surface" of the outer planets and the moons that orbit those planets. However, probing deep within their atmospheres requires penetrating the dense clouds to obtain meaningful data. Spacecraft weighing more than 300 kilograms fall too slowly, which has the net effect of reducing how much data they transmit because the relay needs to be further away.