New Ideas Sharpen Focus for Greener Aircraft

Leaner, greener flying machines for the year 2025 are on the drawing boards of three industry teams under contract to the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate's Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project.

Teams from The Boeing Company in Huntington Beach, Calif., Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, Calif., and Northrop Grumman in El Segundo, Calif., have spent the last year studying how to meet NASA goals to develop technology that would allow future aircraft to burn 50 percent less fuel than aircraft that entered service in 1998 (the baseline for the study), with 75 percent fewer harmful emissions; and to shrink the size of geographic areas affected by objectionable airport noise by 83 percent.

"The real challenge is we want to accomplish all these things simultaneously," said ERA project manager Fay Collier. "It's never been done before. We looked at some very difficult metrics and tried to push all those metrics down at the same time."

So NASA put that challenge to industry awarding a little less than $11 million to the three teams to assess what kinds of aircraft designs and technologies could help meet the goals. The companies have just given NASA their results.

"We'll be digesting the three studies and we'll be looking into what to do next," said Collier.

Boeing's advanced vehicle concept centers around the company's now familiar blended wing body design as seen in the sub-scale remotely piloted X-48, which has been wind tunnel tested at NASA's Langley Research Center and flown at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. One thing that makes this concept different from current airplanes is the placement of its Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engines.

The engines are on top of the plane's back end, flanked by two vertical tails to shield people on the ground from engine noise. The aircraft also would feature an advanced lightweight, damage tolerant, composite structure; technologies for reducing airframe noise; advanced flight controls; hybrid laminar flow control, which means surfaces designed to reduce drag; and long-span wings which improve fuel efficiency.

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NASA's THEMIS Satellite Sees a Great Electron Escape

When scientists discovered two great swaths of radiation encircling Earth in the 1950s, it spawned over-the-top fears about "killer electrons" and space radiation effects on Earthlings. The fears were soon quieted: the radiation doesn't reach Earth, though it can affect satellites and humans moving through the belts. Nevertheless, many mysteries about the belts – now known as the Van Allen Radiation belts remain to this day.

Filled with electrons and energetic charged particles, the radiation belts swell and shrink in response to incoming solar energy, but no one is quite sure how. Indeed, what appears to be the same type of incoming energy has been known to cause entirely different responses on different occasions, causing increased particles in one case and particle loss in another. Theories on just what causes the belts to swell or shrink abound, with little hard evidence to distinguish between them. One big question has simply been to determine if, when the belts shrink, particles escape up and out into interplanetary space or down toward Earth. Now, a new study using multiple spacecraft simultaneously has tracked the particles and determined the escape direction for at least one event: up.

"For a long time, it was thought particles would precipitate downward out of the belts," says Drew Turner, a scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and first author on a paper on these results appearing onine in Nature Physics on January 29, 2012 date. "But more recently, researchers theorized that maybe particles could sweep outward. Our results for this event are clear: we saw no increase in downward precipitation."

While it may sound like a simple detail, such knowledge is not just esoteric. Indeed, the study of particle losses in the belts has so far provided more mystery and potential theories than concrete information. But understanding the radiation belts – and how they change as particles and energy come in or go out is a crucial part of protecting satellites that fly through the region.

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NuSTAR Spacecraft Arrives in California

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, mission arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this morning after a cross-country trip by truck from the Orbital Sciences Corporation's manufacturing plant in Dulles, Va. The mission is scheduled to launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean on March 14.

Once the observatory is offloaded at Vandenberg, it will be moved into a processing hangar, joining the Pegasus XL rocket that is set to carry it to space. Over the weekend, technicians will remove its shipping container so that checkout and other processing activities can begin next week. Once the observatory is integrated with the rocket in mid-February, technicians will encapsulate it in the vehicle fairing, which is also scheduled to arrive at Vandenberg today.

After processing is completed, the rocket and spacecraft will be flown on Orbital's L-1011 carrier aircraft to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll for launch in March.

NuSTAR is a small-explorer mission managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation. Its instrument was built by a consortium including the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; JPL; Columbia University, New York, N.Y.; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; the University of California, Berkeley; and ATK, Goleta, Calif. NuSTAR will be operated by UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission's outreach program is based at Sonoma State University, Calif. NASA's Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

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NASA's Kepler Announces 11 Planetary Systems Hosting 26 Planets

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered 11 new planetary systems hosting 26 confirmed planets. These discoveries nearly double the number of verified Kepler planets and triple the number of stars known to have more than one planet that transits, or passes in front of, its host star. Such systems will help astronomers better understand how planets form.

The planets orbit close to their host stars and range in size from 1.5 times the radius of Earth to larger than Jupiter. Fifteen of them are between Earth and Neptune in size, and further observations will be required to determine which are rocky like Earth and which have thick gaseous atmospheres like Neptune. The planets orbit their host star once every six to 143 days. All are closer to their host star than Venus is to our sun.

"Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky," said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Now, in just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates. This tells us that our galaxy is positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits."

Kepler identifies planet candidates by repeatedly measuring the change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars to detect when a planet passes in front of the star. That passage casts a small shadow toward Earth and the Kepler spacecraft.

“Confirming that the small decrease in the star's brightness is due to a planet requires additional observations and time-consuming analysis," said Eric Ford.

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Classifying Solar Eruptions

Solar flares are giant explosions on the sun that send energy, light and high speed particles into space. These flares are often associated with solar magnetic storms known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). While these are the most common solar events, the sun can also emit streams of very fast protons – known as solar energetic particle (SEP) events – and disturbances in the solar wind known as corotating interaction regions (CIRs). All of these can produce a variety of "storms" on Earth that can – if strong enough -- interfere with short wave radio communications, GPS signals, and Earth's power grid, among other things.

The amount of solar activity increases approximately every 11 years, and the sun is currently moving toward another solar maximum, likely in 2013. That means more flares will be coming, some small and some big enough to send their radiation all the way to Earth.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has devised categories for the flares and various storms. The biggest flares are known as "X-class flares" based on a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength. The smallest ones are A-class (near background levels), followed by B, C, M, and X. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. So an X is ten times an M and 100 times a C. Within each letter class there is a finer scale from 1 to 9.

C-class and smaller flares are too weak to noticeably affect Earth. M-class flares can cause brief radio blackouts at the poles and minor radiation storms that might endanger astronauts.

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NASA Discovers New Double-Star Planet Systems

While long anticipated in both science and science fiction, the existence of a circumbinary planet a planet orbiting two stars like "Tatooine" portrayed in the film Star Wars more than 30 years ago, was not definitively established until the discovery of Kepler-16b, announced in September 2011.

Today, using data from NASA’s Kepler mission, astronomers announced the discovery of two new double-star planet systems – Kepler-34 and Kepler-35 at the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas, Jan. 8-12, 2012.

"This work further establishes that such 'two sun' planets are not rare exceptions, but may in fact be common, with many millions existing in our galaxy," said William Welsh of San Diego State University and Kepler participating scientist who led the study. "This discovery broadens the hunting ground for systems that could support life."

The Kepler space telescope detects planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars to search for planets crossing in front, or transiting, their stars. The Kepler science team requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet.

The two new planets, named Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b, are both gaseous Saturn-size planets. Kepler-34b orbits its two sun-like stars every 289 days, and the stars orbit one another every 28 days. Kepler-35b orbits its smaller and cooler host stars every 131 days, and the stellar pair orbit each other every 21 days. The planets reside too close to their parent stars to be in the "habitable zone"- the region where liquid water could exist on a planet's surface.

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Cassini Sees the Two Faces of Titan's Dunes

A new analysis of radar data from NASA's Cassini mission, in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, has revealed regional variations among sand dunes on Saturn's moon Titan. The result gives new clues about the moon's climatic and geological history.

Dune fields are the second most dominant landform on Titan, after the seemingly uniform plains, so they offer a large-scale insight into the moon's peculiar environment. The dunes cover about 13 percent of the surface, stretching over an area of 4 million square miles (10 million square kilometers). For Earthly comparison, that's about the surface area of the United States.

Though similar in shape to the linear dunes found on Earth in Namibia or the Arabian Peninsula, Titan's dunes are gigantic by our standards. They are on average 0.6 to 1.2 miles (1 to 2 kilometers) wide, hundreds of miles (kilometers) long and around 300 feet (100 meters) high. However, their size and spacing vary across the surface, betraying the environment in which they have formed and evolved.

Using radar data from the Cassini spacecraft, Alice Le Gall, a former postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is currently at the French research laboratory LATMOS, Paris, and collaborators have discovered that the size of Titan's dunes is controlled by at least two factors: altitude and latitude.

In terms of altitude, the more elevated dunes tend to be thinner and more widely separated. The gaps between the dunes seem to appear to Cassini's radar, indicating a thinner covering of sand. This suggests that the sand needed to build the dunes is mostly found in the lowlands of Titan.

Scientists think the sand on Titan is not made of silicates as on Earth, but of solid hydrocarbons, precipitated out of the atmosphere. These have then aggregated into grains 0.04 inch in size by a still unknown process.

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Planck Telescope Warms up as Planned

The High Frequency Instrument aboard the Planck space telescope has completed its survey of the remnant light from the Big Bang explosion that created our universe. The sensor ran out of coolant on Jan. 14, as expected, ending its ability to detect this faint energy.

"The High Frequency Instrument has reached the end of its observing life, but the Low Frequency Instrument will continue observing for another year, and analysis of data from both instruments is still in the early phase," said Charles Lawrence, the U.S. Planck project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The scientific payoff from the High Frequency Instrument's brilliantly successful operation is still to come."

NASA plays an important role in the Planck mission, which is led by the European Space Agency. In addition to helping with the analysis of the data, NASA contributed several key components to the mission itself. JPL built the state-of-the-art detectors that allowed the High Frequency Instrument to detect icy temperatures down to nearly absolute zero, the coldest temperature theoretically attainable.

Less than half a million years after the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago, the initial fireball cooled to temperatures of about 4,000 degrees Celsius (about 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit), releasing bright, visible light. As the universe has expanded, it has cooled dramatically, and its early light has faded and shifted to microwave wavelengths.

By studying patterns imprinted in that light today, scientists hope to understand the Big Bang and the very early universe, as it appeared long before galaxies and stars first formed.

Planck has been measuring these patterns by surveying the whole sky with its High Frequency Instrument and its Low Frequency Instrument. Combined, they give Planck unparalleled wavelength coverage and the ability to resolve faint details.

Launched in May 2009, the minimum requirement for success was for the spacecraft to complete two whole surveys of the sky. In the end, Planck worked perfectly in completing not two, but five whole-sky surveys with both instruments.

The Low Frequency Instrument will continue surveying the sky for a large part of 2012, providing data to improve the quality of the final results. The first results on the Big Bang and very early universe will not come for another year.

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Revisiting the 'Pillars of Creation'

In 1995, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took an iconic image of the Eagle nebula, dubbed the "Pillars of Creation," highlighting its finger-like pillars where new stars are thought to be forming. Now, the Herschel Space Observatory has a new, expansive view of the region captured in longer-wavelength infrared light.

The Herschel mission is led by the European Space Agency, with important NASA contributions.

The Eagle nebula is 6,500 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens. It contains a young, hot star cluster, NGC6611, visible with modest backyard telescopes, which is sculpting and illuminating the surrounding gas and dust. The result is a huge, hollowed-out cavity and pillars, each several light-years long.

The new Herschel image shows the pillars and the wide field of gas and dust around them. Captured in far-infrared wavelengths, the image allows astronomers to see inside the pillars and structures in the region. Herschel's image also makes it possible to search for young stars over a much wider region, and come to a much fuller understanding of the creative and destructive forces inside the Eagle nebula.

Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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Voyager Instrument Cooling After Heater Turned off

PASADENA, Calif. In order to reduce power consumption, mission managers have turned off a heater on part of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, dropping the temperature of its ultraviolet spectrometer instrument more than 23 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). It is now operating at a temperature below minus 79 degrees Celsius (minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit), the coldest temperature that the instrument has ever endured. This heater shut-off is a step in the careful management of the diminishing electrical power so that the Voyager spacecraft can continue to collect and transmit data through 2025.

At the moment, the spectrometer continues to collect and return data. It was originally designed to operate at temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius (minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit), but it has continued to operate in ever chillier temperatures as heaters around it have been turned off over the last 17 years. It was not known if the spectrometer would continue working, but since 2005, it has been operating at minus 56 degrees Celsius (69 degrees Fahrenheit.) So engineers are encouraged that the instrument has continued to operate, even after the nearby heater was turned off in December. (The spectrometer is likely operating at a temperature somewhat lower than minus 79 degrees Celsius, or minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but the temperature detector does not go any lower.)

Scientists and mission managers will continue to monitor the spectrometer’s performance. It was very active during Voyager 1’s encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, and since then an international team led by scientists in France has been analyzing the spectrometer’s data.

This latest heater shut-off was actually part of the nearby infrared spectrometer, which itself has not been operational on Voyager 1 since 1998.

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NASA Moves Shuttle Engines From Kennedy To Stennis

The relocation of the RS-25D space shuttle main engine inventory from Kennedy Space Center's Engine Shop in Cape Canaveral, Fla., is underway. The RS-25D flight engines, repurposed for NASA's Space Launch System, are being moved to NASA's Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi.

The Space Launch System (SLS) is a new heavy-lift launch vehicle that will expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is leading the design and development of the SLS for NASA, including the engine testing program. SLS will carry the Orion spacecraft, its crew, cargo, equipment and science experiments to destinations in deep space.

"The relocation of RS-25D engine assets represents a significant cost savings to the SLS Program by consolidating SLS engine assembly and test operations at a single facility," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

The RS-25Ds to be used for the SLS core stage will be stored at Stennis until testing begins at a future date. Testing is already under way on the J-2X engine, which is planned for use in the SLS upper stage. Using the same fuel system liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for both core and upper stages reduces costs by leveraging the existing knowledge base, skills, infrastructure and personnel.

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Hubble Solves Mystery on Source of Supernova in Nearby Galaxy

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have solved a longstanding mystery on the type of star, or so-called progenitor, which caused a supernova seen in a nearby galaxy. The finding yields new observational data for pinpointing one of several scenarios that trigger such outbursts.

Based on previous observations from ground-based telescopes, astronomers knew the supernova class, called a Type Ia, created a remnant named SNR 0509-67.5, which lies 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy.

Theoretically, this kind of supernova explosion is caused by a star spilling material onto a white dwarf companion, the compact remnant of a normal star, until it sets off one of the most powerful explosions in the universe.

Astronomers failed to find any remnant of the companion star, however, and concluded that the common scenario did not apply in this case, although it is still a viable theory for other Type Ia supernovae.

"We know Hubble has the sensitivity necessary to detect the faintest white dwarf remnants that could have caused such explosions," said lead investigator Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. "The logic here is the same as the famous quote from Sherlock Holmes: 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'"

The cause of SNR 0509-67.5 can be explained best by two tightly orbiting white dwarf stars spiraling closer and closer until they collided and exploded.

For four decades, the search for Type Ia supernovae progenitors has been a key question in astrophysics. The problem has taken on special importance during the last decade with Type Ia supernovae being the premier tools for measuring the accelerating universe.

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Rare Ultra-blue Stars Found in Neighboring Galaxy's Hub

Peering deep inside the hub of the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered a large, rare population of hot, bright stars.

Blue is typically an indicator of hot, young stars. In this case, however, the stellar oddities are aging, sun-like stars that have prematurely cast off their outer layers of material, exposing their extremely blue-hot cores.

Astronomers were surprised when they spotted these stars because physical models show that only an unusual type of old star can be as hot and as bright in ultraviolet light.

While Hubble has spied these ultra-blue stars before in Andromeda, the new observation covers a much broader area, revealing that these stellar misfits are scattered throughout the galaxy's bustling center. Astronomers used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 to find roughly 8,000 of the ultra-blue stars in a stellar census made in ultraviolet light, which traces the glow of the hottest stars. The study is part of the multi-year Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury survey to map stellar populations across the galaxy.

"We were not looking for these stars. They stood out because they were bright in ultraviolet light and very different from the stars we expected to see," said Julianne Dalcanton of the University of Washington in Seattle, leader of the Hubble survey.

The team's results are being presented today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. A paper describing the finding will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The telescope spied the stars within 2,600 light-years of the core. After analyzing the stars for nearly a year, Dalcanton's team determined that they were well past their prime. "The stars are dimmer and have a range of surface temperatures different from the extremely bright stars we see in the star-forming regions of Andromeda," said Phil Rosenfield of the University of Washington, the paper's lead author.

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope: A Year of Achievement and Success

The James Webb Space Telescope marked a year of significant progress in 2011 as it continues to come together as NASA's next generation space telescope. The year brought forth a pathfinder backplane to support the large primary mirror structure, mirror cryotesting, creation of mirror support structures, several successful sunshield layer tests and the creation of an assembly station within NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's cleanroom. Achievements were also made in the areas of flight and communications software and the propulsion system.

In December, manufacturing and testing of all flight mirrors was completed in a final test at the X-ray and Calibration Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. During these tests mirror segments were chilled to temperatures similar to those Webb will see in space, around minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was the culmination of work started in 2003. Heeding lessons learned from the Hubble Space Telescope, the program adopted the strategy of tackling the most difficult technical challenges first. That decision proved to be the right one. In June, all 18 flight primary mirror segments, plus the secondary, tertiary and fine steering mirrors, were polished and coated yielding exquisite surfaces that will enable Webb to image the most distant galaxies.

Two of Webb’s supporting and pathfinder structures were also completed. To assemble the flight telescope on the ground, a 139,000 pound structure will install the flight mirrors using an overhead track system supporting a robotic arm. The huge platform has been completed and assembled in the ultra-clean room used for telescope assembly at Goddard.

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Trajectory Maneuver Slated for Jan. 11

Mission Status Report

PASADENA, Calif. An engine firing on Jan. 11 will be the biggest maneuver that NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft will perform on its flight between Earth and Mars.

The action will use a choreographed sequence of firings of eight thruster engines during a period of about 175 minutes beginning at 3 p.m. PST (6 p.m. EST or 2300 Universal Time). It will redirect the spacecraft more precisely toward Mars to land at Gale Crater. The trajectory resulting from the mission's Nov. 26, 2011, launch intentionally misses Mars to prevent the upper stage of the launch vehicle from hitting the planet. That upper stage was not cleaned the way the spacecraft itself was to protect Mars from Earth's microbes.

The maneuver is designed to impart a velocity change of about 12.3 miles per hour (5.5 meters per second).

"We are well into cruise operations, with a well-behaved spacecraft safely on its way to Mars," said Mars Science Laboratory Cruise Mission Manager Arthur Amador, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "After this trajectory correction maneuver, we expect to be very close to where we ultimately need to be for our entry point at the top of the Martian atmosphere."

The mission's schedule before arrival at Mars on Aug. 5 in PDT (Aug. 6 in Universal Time and EDT) includes opportunities for five more flight path correction maneuvers, as needed, for fine tuning.

The Jan. 11 maneuver has been planned to use the spacecraft's inertial measurement unit to measure the spacecraft's orientation and acceleration during the maneuver. A calibration maneuver using the gyroscope-containing inertial measurement unit was completed successfully on Dec. 21. The inertial measurement unit is used as an alternative to the spacecraft's onboard celestial navigation system due to an earlier computer reset.

Diagnostic work continues in response to the reset triggered by use of star-identifying software on the spacecraft on Nov. 29. In tests at JPL, that behavior has been reproduced a few times out of thousands of test runs on a duplicate of the spacecraft's computer, but no resets were triggered during similar testing on another duplicate. The spacecraft itself has redundant main computers. While the spacecraft is operating on the "A side" computer, engineers are beginning test runs of the star-identifying software on the redundant "B side" computer to check whether it is susceptible to the same reset behavior.

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'Greeley Haven' is Winter Workplace for Mars Rover

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity will spend the next several months at a site informally named "Greeley Haven." The name is a tribute to planetary geologist Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), who was a member of the science team for the Mars rovers and many other interplanetary missions.

The site is an outcrop that provides a sun-facing slope to aid in maintaining adequate solar power during the rover's fifth Martian winter. It also provides targets of scientific interest for the rover's robotic arm to examine.

Closer to the equator than its twin rover, Spirit, Opportunity did not need to stay on a sun-facing slope during previous winters. Now, however, Opportunity's solar panels carry a thicker coating of dust than in the previous winters. Unless an unlikely wind cleans the panels in coming weeks, the team will use a strategy employed for three winters with Spirit: staying on a sun-facing slope. For several months of shortened daylight before and after the southern Mars winter solstice on March 30, 2012, the sun will pass relatively low in the northern sky from the rover's perspective, and Opportunity will work on the north-facing slope.

Plans for research at Greeley Haven include a radio-science investigation of the interior of Mars, which began this week; inspections of mineral compositions and textures on the outcrop; and recording a full-circle, color panorama: the Greeley Panorama. Greeley taught generations of planetary scientists at Arizona State University, Tempe, until his death two months ago.

The radio-science investigation studies tiny wobbles in the rotation of Mars to gain insight about the planet's core. It requires many weeks of radio-tracking the motion of a point on the surface of Mars to measure changes in the spin axis of the planet.

The winter worksite sits on the "Cape York" segment of the rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity reached the edge of this 14-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) crater five months ago after three years of driving from smaller Victoria Crater, which it studied for two years.

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SOHO Mission "Pick of the Week" Hits Impressive Milestone

In late November, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory's (SOHO) online "Pick of the Week" reached an impressive milestone: its 500th edition. This is an incredibly popular feature, which highlights one video or image of the sun each week.

The SOHO project is a cooperative effort between the European Space Agency and NASA. SOHO was designed to study the internal structure of the Sun, its extensive outer atmosphere and the origin of the solar wind, the stream of highly ionized gas that blows continuously outward through the Solar System.

The SOHO "Pick of the Week" (POTW) began in September 2001, about five years after the start of SOHO operations. The team has produced roughly 50 images per year since that time. The series started with a request for a weekly image or video clip to be sent to the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. The museum displays the SOHO weekly picks along with a description on a video wall. Each POTW is also sent via the museum's Astro Bulletins to about 20-30 other museums and science centers, and since early 2007 to more than 300 additional venues which are part of the Hubble Space Telescope's ViewSpace kiosk program.

When the twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft were launched in 2006, their data was also included in POTW features, depending on which event or topic seemed to have wider appeal. Steele Hill of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is the originator and producer of this highly successful program. Goddard's Joe Gurman, SOHO and STEREO project scientist, has supported this effort from its initial concept and provides comments on the content as each selection is developed. SOHO's webmaster George Dimitoglou of Goddard has been instrumental in ensuring the images, videos and captions get uploaded to the SOHO website.

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2012: Fear No Supernova

Given the incredible amounts of energy in a supernova explosion as much as the sun creates during its entire lifetime another erroneous doomsday theory is that such an explosion could happen in 2012 and harm life on Earth. However, given the vastness of space and the long times between supernovae, astronomers can say with certainty that there is no threatening star close enough to hurt Earth.

Astronomers estimate that, on average, about one or two supernovae explode each century in our galaxy. But for Earth's ozone layer to experience damage from a supernova, the blast must occur less than 50 light-years away. All of the nearby stars capable of going supernova are much farther than this.

Any planet with life on it near a star that goes supernova would indeed experience problems. X- and gamma-ray radiation from the supernova could damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet light in the sun's rays. The less ozone there is, the more UV light reaches the surface. At some wavelengths, just a 10 percent increase in ground-level UV can be lethal to some organisms, including phytoplankton near the ocean surface. Because these organisms form the basis of oxygen production on Earth and the marine food chain, any significant disruption to them could cascade into a planet-wide problem.

Another explosive event, called a gamma-ray burst (GRB), is often associated with supernovae. When a massive star collapses on itself or, less frequently, when two compact neutron stars collide the result is the birth of a black hole. As matter falls toward a nascent black hole, some of it becomes accelerated into a particle jet so powerful that it can drill its way completely through the star before the star's outermost layers even have begun to collapse. If one of the jets happens to be directed toward Earth, orbiting satellites detect a burst of highly energetic gamma rays somewhere in the sky. These bursts occur almost daily and are so powerful that they can be seen across billions of light-years.

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Powerful Pixels: Mapping the "Apollo Zone"

Grayscale pixels up close, they look like black, white or grey squares. But when you zoom out to see the bigger picture, they can create a digital photograph, like this one of our moon:

For NASA researchers, pixels are much more they are precious data that help us understand where we came from, where we've been, and where we're going.

At NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., computer scientists have made a giant leap forward to pull as much information from imperfect static images as possible. With their advancement in image processing algorithms, the legacy data from the Apollo Metric Camera onboard Apollo 15, 16 and 17 can be transformed into an informative and immersive 3D mosaic map of a large and scientifically interesting part of the moon.

The "Apollo Zone" Digital Image Mosaic (DIM) and Digital Terrain Model (DTM) maps cover about 18 percent of the lunar surface at a resolution of 98 feet (30 meters) per pixel. The maps are the result of three years of work by the Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) at NASA Ames, and are available to view through the NASA Lunar Mapping and Modeling Portal (LMMP) and Google Moon feature in Google Earth.

"The main challenge of the Apollo Zone project was that we had very old data – scans, not captured in digital format," said Ara Nefian, a senior scientist with the IRG and Carnegie Mellon University-Silicon Valley. "They were taken with the technology we had over 40 years ago with imprecise camera positions, orientations and exposure time by today’s standards."

The researchers overcame the challenge by developing new computer vision algorithms to automatically generate the 2D and 3D maps. Algorithms are sets of computer code that create a procedure for how to handle certain set processes. For example, part of the 2D imaging algorithms align many images taken from various positions with various exposure times into one seamless image mosaic. In the mosaic, areas in shadows, which show up as patches of dark or black pixels are automatically replaced by lighter gray pixels. These show more well-lit detail from other images of the same area to create a more detailed map.

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NASA's Twin Grail Spacecraft Reunite in Lunar Orbit

PASADENA, Calif. The second of NASA's two Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft has successfully completed its planned main engine burn and is now in lunar orbit. Working together, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B will study the moon as never before.

"NASA greets the new year with a new mission of exploration," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The twin GRAIL spacecraft will vastly expand our knowledge of our moon and the evolution of our own planet. We begin this year reminding people around the world that NASA does big, bold things in order to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown."

GRAIL-B achieved lunar orbit at 2:43 p.m. PST (5:43 p.m. EST) today. GRAIL-A successfully completed its burn yesterday at 2 p.m. PST (5 p.m. EST). The insertion maneuvers placed the spacecraft into a near-polar, elliptical orbit with an orbital period of approximately 11.5 hours. Over the coming weeks, the GRAIL team will execute a series of burns with each spacecraft to reduce their orbital period to just under two hours. At the start of the science phase in March 2012, the two GRAILs will be in a near-polar, near-circular orbit with an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).

During GRAIL's science mission, the two spacecraft will transmit radio signals precisely defining the distance between them. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by visible features such as mountains and craters, and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, the distance between the two spacecraft will change slightly.

Scientists will translate this information into a high-resolution map of the moon's gravitational field. The data will allow scientists to understand what goes on below the lunar surface. This information will increase knowledge of how Earth and its rocky neighbors in the inner solar system developed into the diverse worlds we see today.

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