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Update by Thanaphon Paewsoongnern
 
 
Science & Technology
 

Hubble provides holistic view of stars gone haywire

Hubble was recently retrained on NGC 6302, known as the “Butterfly Nebula,” to observe it across a more complete spectrum of light, from near-ultraviolet to near-infrared, helping researchers better understand the mechanics at work in its technicolor “wings” of gas. (Credits: NASA, ESA and J. Kastner (RIT))

NASA

As nuclear fusion engines, most stars live placid lives for hundreds of millions to billions of years. But near the end of their lives they can turn into crazy whirligigs, puffing off shells and jets of hot gas. Astronomers have employed Hubble’s full range of imaging capabilities to dissect such crazy fireworks happening in two nearby young planetary nebulas. NGC 6302 is dubbed the Butterfly Nebula because of its wing-like appearance. In addition, NGC 7027 resembles a jewel bug, an insect with a brilliantly colorful metallic shell.

The researchers have found unprecedented levels of complexity and rapid changes in jets and gas bubbles blasting off of the stars at the centers of both nebulas. Hubble is allowing the researchers to converge on an understanding of the mechanisms underlying the chaos.

“When I looked in the Hubble archive and realized no one had observed these nebulas with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 across its full wavelength range, I was floored,” said Joel Kastner of Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York, leader of the new study. “These new multi-wavelength Hubble observations provide the most comprehensive view to date of both of these spectacular nebulas. As I was downloading the resulting images, I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

By examining this pair of nebulas with Hubble’s full, panchromatic capabilities — making observations in near-ultraviolet to near-infrared light — the team has had several “aha” moments. In particular, the new Hubble images reveal in vivid detail how both nebulas are splitting themselves apart on extremely short timescales — allowing astronomers to see changes over the past couple decades. Some of this rapid change may be indirect evidence of one star merging with its companion star.

“The nebula NGC 7027 shows emission at an incredibly large number of different wavelengths, each of which highlights not only a specific chemical element in the nebula, but also the significant, ongoing changes in its structure,” said Kastner. The research team also observed the Butterfly Nebula, which is a counterpart to the “jewel bug” nebula: Both are among the dustiest planetary nebulas known and both also contain unusually large masses of gas because they are so newly formed. This makes them a very interesting pair to study in parallel, say researchers.

Hubble’s broad multi-wavelength views of each nebula are helping the researchers to trace the nebulas’ histories of shock waves. Such shocks typically are generated when fresh, fast stellar winds slam into and sweep up more slowly expanding gas and dust ejected by the star in its recent past, generating bubble-like cavities with well-defined walls.

Researchers suspect that at the hearts of both nebulas are — or were — two stars circling around each other, like a pair of figure skaters. Evidence for such a central “dynamic duo” comes from the bizarre shapes of these nebulas. Each has a pinched, dusty waist and polar lobes or outflows, as well as other, more complex symmetrical patterns.

A leading theory for the generation of such structures in planetary nebulas is that the mass-losing star is one of two stars in a binary system. The two stars orbit one another closely enough that they eventually interact, producing a gas disk around one or both stars. The disk is the source of outflowing material directed in opposite directions from the central star.

Similarly, the smaller star of the pair may merge with its bloated, more rapidly evolving stellar companion. This also can create outflowing jets of material that may wobble over time. This creates a symmetric pattern, perhaps like the one that gives NGC 6302 its “butterfly” nickname. Such outflows are commonly seen in planetary nebulas.

“The suspected companion stars in NGC 6302 and NGC 7027 haven’t been directly detected because they are next to, or perhaps have already been swallowed by, larger red giant stars, a type of star that is hundreds to thousands of times brighter than the Sun,” said team member Bruce Balick of the University of Washington in Seattle. “The hypothesis of merging stars seems the best and simplest explanation for the features seen in the most active and symmetric planetary nebulas. It’s a powerful unifying concept, so far without rival.”

The Butterfly Nebula

Imagine a lawn sprinkler spinning wildly, tossing out two S-shaped streams. At first it appears chaotic, but if you stare for a while, you can trace its patterns. The same S-shape is present in the Butterfly Nebula, except in this case it is not water in the air, but gas blown out at high speed by a star. And the “S” only appears when captured by the Hubble camera filter that records near-infrared emission from singly ionized iron atoms.

“The S-shape in the iron emission from the Butterfly Nebula is a real eye-opener,” Kastner said. The S-shape directly traces the most recent ejections from the central region, since the collisions within the nebula are particularly violent in these specific regions of NGC 6302. “This iron emission is a sensitive tracer of energetic collisions between slower winds and fast winds from the stars,” Balick explained. “It’s commonly observed in supernova remnants and active galactic nuclei, and outflowing jets from newborn stars, but is very rarely seen in planetary nebulas.”

“The fact that the iron emission is only showing up along these opposing, off-center directions implies that the source of the fast flows is wobbling over time, like a spinning top that’s about to fall,” added Kastner. “That’s another tell-tale sign of the presence of a disk, which directs the flow, and also a binary companion.”

The ‘Jewel Bug’ Nebula

The planetary nebula NGC 7027 had been slowly puffing away its mass in quiet, spherically symmetric or perhaps spiral patterns for centuries — until relatively recently. “In some respects, the changes within this nebula are even more dramatic than those within the Butterfly,” Kastner said. “Something recently went haywire at the very center, producing a new cloverleaf pattern, with bullets of material shooting out in specific directions.”

The research team’s new images of NGC 7027 show emission from singly ionized iron that closely resembles observations made by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in 2000 and 2014 as part of earlier research by Kastner, team member Rodolfo Montez Jr. of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and collaborators. The iron emission traces the southeast-to-northwest-oriented outflows that also produce the X-ray-emitting shocks imaged by Chandra. “We have a sneaking suspicion that this nebula is a great example of what happens when a red giant star abruptly swallows a companion,” Montez Jr. said.

Recently, NGC 7027’s central star was identified in a new wavelength of light — near-ultraviolet — for the first time by using Hubble’s unique capabilities. This object, which resembles a colorful jewel bug, is a visibly diffuse region of gas and dust that may be the result of ejections by closely orbiting binary stars that were first slowly sloughing off material over thousands of years, and then entered a phase of more violent and highly directed mass ejections. (Credits: NASA, ESA and J. Kastner (RIT))


NASA astronauts launch from America in historic test flight of SpaceX Crew Dragon

 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launches from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA

For the first time in history, NASA astronauts have launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday, May 30, on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Today a new era in human spaceflight begins as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their way to the International Space Station, our national lab orbiting Earth,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, foreground, and Douglas Hurley, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, are seen as they depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

“I thank and congratulate Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, and the SpaceX and NASA teams for this significant achievement for the United States. The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars.”

Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. This is SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon and its first test with astronauts aboard, which will pave the way for its certification for regular crew flights to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” said Elon Musk, chief engineer at SpaceX. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen. You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”

The program demonstrates NASA’s commitment to investing in commercial companies through public-private partnerships and builds on the success of American companies, including SpaceX, already delivering cargo to the space station.

“It’s difficult to put into words how proud I am of the people who got us here today,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. “When I think about all of the challenges overcome – from design and testing, to paper reviews, to working from home during a pandemic and balancing family demands with this critical mission – I am simply amazed at what the NASA and SpaceX teams have accomplished together. This is just the beginning; I will be watching with great anticipation ... through every phase of this historic mission.”

NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley waves as he and fellow crew member Robert Behnken depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building for Launch Complex 39A to board the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-2 mission launch, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX controlled the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy’s Launch Control Center Firing Room 4, the former space shuttle control room, which SpaceX has leased as its primary launch control center. As Crew Dragon ascended into space, SpaceX commanded the spacecraft from its mission control center in Hawthorne, California. NASA teams are monitoring space station operations throughout the flight from Mission Control Center at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docked to the space station at 10:29 a.m. Sunday, May 31. Behnken and Hurley will work with SpaceX mission control to verify the spacecraft is performing as intended by testing the environmental control system, the displays and control system, and by maneuvering the thrusters, among other things.

The first docking maneuver began Saturday, May 30, at 4:09 p.m., and the spacecraft began its close approach to the station at about 8:27 a.m. Sunday, May 31. Crew Dragon is designed to dock autonomously, but the crews onboard the spacecraft and the space station diligently monitor the performance of the spacecraft as it approaches and docks to the forward port of the station’s Harmony module.

After successfully docking, the crew were welcomed aboard the International Space Station, where they became members of the Expedition 63 crew, which currently includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The crew will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew.

Demo-2 Astronauts

Behnken is the joint operations commander for the mission, responsible for activities such as rendezvous, docking and undocking, as well as Demo-2 activities while the spacecraft is docked to the space station. He was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000 and has completed two space shuttle flights. Behnken flew STS-123 in March 2008 and STS-130 in February 2010, performing three spacewalks during each mission.

Hurley is the spacecraft commander for Demo-2, responsible for activities such as launch, landing and recovery. He was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and has completed two spaceflights. Hurley served as pilot and lead robotics operator for both STS127 in July 2009 and STS135, the final space shuttle mission, in July 2011.

Mission Objectives

The Demo-2 mission is the final major test before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station. As SpaceX’s final flight test, it will validate all aspects of its crew transportation system, including the Crew Dragon spacecraft, spacesuits, Falcon 9 launch vehicle, launch pad 39A and operations capabilities.

While en route to the station, Behnken and Hurley took control of Crew Dragon for two manual flight tests, demonstrating their ability to control the spacecraft should an issue with the spacecraft’s automated flight arise. On Saturday, May 30, while the spacecraft coasted, the crew tested its roll, pitch and yaw. When Crew Dragon was about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) below the station and moving around to the docking axis, the crew conducted manual in-orbit demonstrations of the control system in the event it were needed. After pausing, rendezvous resumed and mission managers made a final decision about whether to proceed to docking as Crew Dragon approached 20 meters (66 feet).

For operational missions, Crew Dragon will be able to launch as many as four crew members at a time and carry more than 220 pounds of cargo, allowing for an increased number crew members aboard the space station and increasing the time dedicated to research in the unique microgravity environment, as well as returning more science back to Earth.

The Crew Dragon being used for this flight test can stay in orbit about 110 days, and the specific mission duration will be determined once on station based on the readiness of the next commercial crew launch. The operational Crew Dragon spacecraft will be capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days as a NASA requirement.

At the conclusion of the mission, Behnken and Hurley will board Crew Dragon, which will then autonomously undock, depart the space station, and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Upon splashdown off Florida’s Atlantic coast, the crew will be picked up by the SpaceX recovery ship and returned to the dock at Cape Canaveral.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with SpaceX and Boeing to design, build, test and operate safe, reliable and cost-effective human transportation systems to low-Earth orbit. Both companies are focused on test missions, including abort system demonstrations and crew flight tests, ahead of regularly flying crew missions to the space station. Both companies’ crewed flights will be the first times in history NASA has sent astronauts to space on systems owned, built, tested and operated by private companies.

Learn more about NASA’s Commercial Crew program at:

https://www.nasa.gov/commercialcrew

(Photo Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls)


NASA Science keeps the lights on

Across NASA’s many missions, thousands of scientists, engineers, and other experts and professionals all over the country are doing what they do best, but now from home offices and via video conferencing. With most personnel supporting missions remotely to keep onsite staff at a minimal level in response to COVID-19, the Agency is moving ahead strongly with everything from space exploration to using our technology and innovation to help inform policy makers.

NASA is studying whether there are long-term responses from our planet caused by changes in human activity patterns due to COVID-19 quarantines. In the short-term, our satellites provide objective, accurate, and timely information on national and global food supplies that will help support USDA, USAID, and the global agencies that oversee food security. Scientists can track air quality changes, such as the drop in nitrogen dioxide, a major air pollutant, over major metropolitan areas around the world. Seeing Earth’s lights at night also helps researchers track patterns in energy use and human activity around the planet.

Responding to the White House’s call to action to develop new technology and data mining approaches that could help the research community address COVID-19 science questions, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California used artificial intelligence and natural language technologies to extract medical diagnoses, medical conditions, and drug and disease information from a database of 25,000+ publications. The information helps shed light on transmission, incubation, and environmental stability of the virus; what has been published about medical care for those affected; what we know about COVID-19 risk factors; and what we know about non-pharmaceutical interventions. The data was made available to the research community on March 23.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, will use its supercomputer to crunch extremely complex and high volumes of data to help with COVID-19. The center’s supercomputers are part of the White House’s COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium to provide COVID-19 researchers with access to the world’s most powerful high-performance computing resources that can significantly advance the pace of scientific discovery in the fight to stop the virus. The sophisticated computing can process massive numbers of calculations related to bioinformatics, epidemiology and molecular modeling, helping scientists develop answers to complex scientific questions about COVID-19 in hours or days versus weeks or months. To aid in the COVID-19 response, NASA is opening access to the full portion of its supercomputing resources reserved for national priorities outside of the agency’s aeronautics and space research and exploration scope. This includes storage and providing support to help researchers to port their applications to NASA computing systems, run their applications, troubleshoot any issues and address any other requested support, including visualization.

NASA is exploring additional ways to leverage its expertise and capabilities to help with the national COVID-19 response. Employees can submit ideas for solutions relevant to COVID-19 via an internal crowdsourcing website. The call for ideas focuses on urgent needs related to personal protective equipment, ventilation devices, and monitoring and forecasting the spread and impacts of the virus, but any idea is welcome. Multiple ideas may be selected for follow-up and potential action.

While we leverage our technical expertise and technology to help provide important COVID-19 information, we continue our exploration of the solar system and beyond.

The interagency Community Coordinated Modeling Center continues to support and protect NASA robotic missions by monitoring space weather. We’re also monitoring the sun 24 hours a day, seven days a week with our missions like the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory. We’re also keeping an eye on asteroids, detecting and characterizing near-earth objects zooming by.

For asteroids much farther out, OSIRIS-REx is gearing up for its close approach of Bennu on April 14, using Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) optical navigation flying to a range of about 125 meters from the surface, followed by the final low-altitude (about 250 meter) reconnaissance flyover of the backup Osprey sample site on May 26.

Recently, the Mars Curiosity science team conducted its first “drilling while teleworking” activity. The team, while working remotely, controlled the rover in digging a hole in “Edinburgh,” a target on the top of the Greenheugh Pediment to learn more about the capping material that was a layer covering a large portion of Gail crater but now only remains in a few places.

Juno’s next close flyby of Jupiter is slated for April 10 with the spacecraft at a specially designed attitude to increase particle measurements over the planet’s aurora. During this close flyby, known as PJ-26, or Perijove-26, scientists hope they will get measurements to help answer key questions about how Jupiter’s aurora work and compare with Earth’s aurora.

With Hubble reaching its 30th year in space on April 24, the team is about to kick off the annual peer review of science proposals competing for Hubble observing time in the coming year. While the review usually involves astronomers all over the world gathering at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, this review will be held via videoconference. NASA’s other operating Great Observatory, Chandra, continues to study objects across the universe. In the last few weeks, the observatory has collected X-ray data on Supernova 1987A and a developing galaxy cluster 10 billion light years away, among many other targets. Chandra also will soon observe a possible magnetar, a neutron star with an extraordinarily strong magnetic field, discovered on March 10th. Chandra’s annual peer review will be held in June with participants joining remotely.  The James Webb Space Telescope will continue its integration and testing at Northrop Grumman in California with a reduced staff until Deployable Tower Assembly set up in April.

Science data continues to roll in from the International Space Station, including from NICER, with the instrument maintaining its twice a week target plans. The NICER operation team is taking target of opportunity requests from the community.  A few of the highlights over the past two weeks include the detection of a glitch in a magnetar that NICER discovered three weeks ago and the discovery that a recent X-ray transient is actually a neutron star binary system with eclipses.  In addition, NICER has just begun its second Guest Observer Cycle where it is providing data to outside teams that won competitively selected time.

Although health advisories have grounded NASA’s airborne Earth Science research campaigns temporarily, its 15 Earth-observing satellite missions and six instruments on the International Space Station are operating without disruption, tracking the natural and human-driven changes of our home planet, as well as beginning to gather data on variations resulting from human activity responding to COVID-19.

We continue to publish important research, such as a report released March 23 on the rate of retreat and shape of the ground underneath the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. Scientists at JPL and the University of California, Irvine, analyzed radar data from four satellites from the Italian COSMO-SkyMed mission and found that the shape of ground beneath the ice sheet allows warm ocean water to flow underneath, leading to quicker and irreversible retreat and resulting in subsequent sea level rise.

NASA’s space biology research continues to study the basic workings of the human body and model organism analogs. Scientists are studying immune systems, bones, muscles, hearts – and even how our bodies interact with microorganisms in the unique environment of space. By studying how organisms respond to microgravity and other aspects of space, we increase our understanding of life on Earth and develop the knowledge needed to support long-term human habitation in space. This fundamental research is turning into better treatments for patients here on Earth. Platforms like NASA’s Rodent Research fly regularly to the International Space Station with commercial and academic experiments involving novel medicines and bone and muscle research.

In addition to continuing spacecraft operations, science data analysis continues across our missions, with significant publishing activity from NASA-funded researchers.  Our researchers collect and analyze data and collaborate with the interagency and international research community to address all aspects of NASA science. All data products are open and freely available via our network of online data centers and websites. Submitted research grant proposals and mission selections are being evaluated, chosen, and announced, with the agency stepping up to address online proposal submissions in the time of COVID-19 challenges.

From remote controlling spacecraft and gathering data, to managing mission operations and conducting research, NASA will keep working for the nation while protecting the health and safety of our workforce.


NASA outlines lunar surface sustainability concept

Infographic showing the evolution of lunar activities on the surface and in orbit.

When NASA sends astronauts to the surface of the Moon in 2024, it will be the first time outside of watching historical footage most people witness humans walking on another planetary body. Building on these footsteps, future robotic and human explorers will put in place infrastructure for a long-term sustainable presence on the Moon.

NASA recently proposed a plan to go from limited, short-term Apollo-era exploration of the 1960s, to a 21st Century plan in a report to the National Space Council. With the Artemis program, we will explore more of the Moon than ever before to make the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.

“After 20 years of continuously living in low-Earth orbit, we’re now ready for the next great challenge of space exploration – the development of a sustained presence on and around the Moon,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “For years to come, Artemis will serve as our North Star as we continue to work toward even greater exploration of the Moon, where we will demonstrate key elements needed for the first human mission to Mars.”

On the surface, the core elements for a sustained presence would include an emphasis on mobility to allow astronauts to explore more of the Moon and conduct more science:

* A lunar terrain vehicle or LTV, would transport crew around the landing zone.

* The habitable mobility platform would enable crews to take trips across the Moon lasting up to 45 days.

* A lunar foundation surface habitat would house as many as four crew members on shorter surface stays.

Astronauts working on the lunar surface also could test advanced robotics, as well as a wide set of new technologies identified in the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, focusing on tech development in the areas such as of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and power systems. Rovers will carry a variety of instruments including ISRU experiments that will generate information on the availability and extraction of usable resources (e.g., oxygen and water). Advancing these technologies could enable the production of fuel, water, and/or oxygen from local materials, enabling sustainable surface operations with decreasing supply needs from Earth.

Another key difference from Apollo and Artemis will be use of the Gateway in lunar orbit, built with commercial and international partners. The lunar outpost will serve as a command and control module for surface expeditions and an office and home for astronauts away from Earth. Operating autonomously when crew is not present, it also will be a platform for new science and technology demonstrations around the Moon.

Over time, NASA and its partners will enhance the lunar Gateway’s habitation capabilities and related life support systems. Adding a large-volume deep space habitation element would allow astronauts to test capabilities around the Moon for long-duration deep space missions.

While the goal of Apollo was to land the first humans on the Moon, the Artemis program will use the Moon as a testbed for crewed exploration farther into the solar system, beginning with Mars. This is America’s Moon to Mars space exploration approach. A proposed multi-month split-crew operation at the Gateway and on the lunar surface would test the agency’s concept for a human mission to the Red Planet.

For such a mission, NASA envisions a four-person crew traveling to the Gateway and living aboard the outpost for a multi-month stay to simulate the outbound trip to Mars. Later, two crew members would travel to the lunar surface and explore with the habitable mobility platform, while the remaining two astronauts stay aboard Gateway. The four crew members are later reunited aboard the lunar outpost for another multi-month stay, simulating the return trip to Earth. This mission would be the longest duration human deep space mission in history and would be the first operational test of the readiness of our deep-space systems.

The report also highlights a robotic return to the surface beginning next year for scientific discovery. The Moon is a natural laboratory to study planetary processes and evolution, and a platform from which to observe the universe. NASA will send dozens of new science instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon with its Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. Some of these robotic precursors, including the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER, will study the terrain, and metal and ice resources at the lunar South Pole.

The Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, human landing systems and modern spacesuits will round out the agency’s deep space systems. As part of the Artemis III mission, the first human expedition back on the Moon will last approximately seven days. NASA plans to send Artemis Generation astronauts on increasingly longer missions about once per year thereafter.

With strong support in NASA, America and its partners will test new technologies and reduce exploration costs over time. Supporting infrastructure including power, radiation shielding, a landing pad, as well as waste disposal and storage could be built up in the coming decades, too.

“The U.S. is still the only nation to have successfully landed humans on the Moon and spacecraft on the surface of Mars,” the report states. “As other nations increasingly move out into space, American leadership is now called for to lead the next phase of humanity’s quest to open up the future to endless discovery and growth.” (NASA)

Read the full report:  NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/a_sustained_lunar_presence_nspc_report4220final.pdf


ASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover gets its wheels and air brakes

Wheels are installed on NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover inside Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on March 30, 2020. Perseverance will liftoff aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in July 2020. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Illustrated here, the aluminum wheels of NASA’s Curiosity (left) and Perseverance rovers. Slightly larger in diameter and narrower, 20.7 inches (52.6 centimeters) versus 20 inches (50.8 centimeters), Perseverance’s wheels have twice as many treads, and are gently curved instead of chevron-patterned. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

DC Agle, JPL, Grey Hautaluoma, Alana Johnson, NASA

Final assembly and testing of NASA’s Perseverance rover continues at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as the July launch window approaches. In some of the last steps required prior to stacking the spacecraft components in the configuration they’ll be in atop the Atlas V rocket, the rover’s wheels and parachute have been installed.

Perseverance received its six flight wheels on March 30, 2020. While the rover took a test drive last December, it was on “flight spares” that wouldn’t be making the trip to Mars. Designed for the kind of off-roading Perseverance will perform on the Red Planet, the wheels are re-engineered versions of the ones NASA’s Curiosity has been using on its traverses of Mount Sharp.

Machined out of a block of flight-grade aluminum and equipped with titanium spokes, each wheel is slightly larger in diameter and narrower than Curiosity’s, with skins that are almost a millimeter thicker. They also feature new treads, or grousers: In place of Curiosity’s 24 chevron-pattern treads are 48 gently curved ones. Extensive testing in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built the rover and manages operations, has shown these treads better withstand the pressure from sharp rocks and grip just as well or better than Curiosity’s when driving on sand.

The Parachute

The job of adding Perseverance’s parachute to the back shell, where the rover will be stowed on the journey to the Red Planet, took several days and was finished on March 26. Tasked with slowing the heaviest payload in the history of Mars exploration from Mach 1.7 to about 200 mph (320 kph) during the rover’s landing on Feb., 18, 2021, the 194 pounds (88 kilograms) of nylon, Technora and Kevlar fibers are packed so tightly into a 20-inch-wide (50-centimeter-wide) aluminum cylinder that it is as dense as oak wood. When deployed at about 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the Martian surface, the chute will take about a half-second to fully inflate its 70.5-foot-wide (21.5-meter-wide) canopy.

The Perseverance rover is a robotic scientist weighing 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms). It will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. No matter what day Perseverance launches during its July 17-Aug. 5 launch period, it will land on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

Perseverance is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.

Online:

For more information about the mission, go to: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

For more about NASA’s Moon to Mars plans, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/moon-to-mars


On Earth Day 50, NASA researchers look to the future

Ellen Gray NASA’s Earth Science News Team

In 1970, the United States Clean Air Act underwent major revisions to reduce pollution and protect air quality, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA scientists were cracking open the door on a new era of studying our home planet from space.

The first black-and-white satellite images of Earth were just ten years old: a swirling mass of white clouds over back oceans. The first measurements of Earth’s temperature from space were made just a year prior in 1969 by Nimbus 3, a joint mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which became a major step in improving weather forecasts.

NASA scientists and engineers, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, were two years away from launching the first Landsat satellite in 1972, beginning a now-48-year continuous record of Earth’s land surfaces that have shown dramatic changes in forests, farming, water use, and cities over time. International scientists were 15 years away from observing proof of significant damage to the upper atmosphere ozone layer that protects life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. The 1985 Antarctic ozone hole was confirmed by data from NASA satellites and led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the most successful international environmental intervention to date.

In the 50 years since the first Earth Day, the view from space has revolutionized our understanding of Earth’s interconnected atmosphere, oceans, freshwater, ice, land, ecosystems, and climate. NASA has been at the forefront of innovation, both of the technology capable of observing properties of the Earth and in the research and researchers that take those observations and combine them with ground data and computing power to create a more holistic picture of our changing planet. Then, NASA takes one more step to get our satellite data and research into the hands of people working on the ground to solve problems and meet environmental challenges facing their communities, today and for the future.

Looking ahead at the next 50 years, we’ve asked researchers across the agency about the big questions in their fields and the role they see NASA playing to meet those challenges, from crop and water management to disaster preparedness and pollution reduction. We’ve shared them here in their own words.

Gioia Massa is the NASA Veggie project lead at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, working with astronauts on the International Space Station to grow plants in space. She’s a 2019 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Credits: NASA

I work in the area of space crop production and currently our focus is looking at supplementing the astronauts’ packaged diet with fresh produce that can be grown on the International Space Station and on longer duration missions later on. The lettuce crops that we grew in the Veggie Chamber were very similar between space and ground in terms of their nutrition and their microbiology. Plants are going to be critical for human exploration and especially as we go on to Mars. We’re going to have to become more self-sustainable and be able to produce a larger percentage of our food the more that we colonize space.

A lot of things have spun off from research for space crop production, which are now very important for Earth-based agriculture. We’re learning a lot from the people that are developing controlled environment farming systems indoors, usually in big cities to help provide fresh produce, and we are translating a lot of our space research back to them. In the future I think we’ll see more research on making plant growth systems more sustainable, for example, being able to recycle all of the inedible plant material. Things that we might think of as wastes, we have to think of as resources. Another area where I see changes coming is understanding the microbiome of the crop, where we really understand how plants, humans, and the microbiology interact, and then learn how to use this microbiome to protect plants and food.

Rich Moore is an airborne atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center. He is a 2019 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for innovative contributions to aerosol-cloud-climate interactions. Credits: NASA

Space is a great vantage point to view the Earth and how it changes over days, months and years — but the satellites are so far away. Imagine peering through a powerful camera that’s hundreds of miles away and trying to decipher the image. Some of the small details are bound to get lost, so we use airplanes, balloons and UAVs to get a closer look at what’s going on in the atmosphere.

In the future, we want to really understand what the air quality looks like at “nose-level,” where people are living and breathing. New geostationary satellites — one that was launched by South Korea this year and two that will launch in coming years, one from the U.S. and one from Europe — will measure air pollution every hour over specific regions of the world using passive remote sensors called spectrometers, which make measurements from reflected light. This will be transformative in how we track the movement of pollution in the coming decades.

Critical for giving us improved vertical views of Earth’s atmosphere will be active remote sensors such as radars, which use radio waves to make measurements, and lidars, which use lasers. Future versions of these instruments could be particularly useful in cloudy areas of the world where passive satellite imagers struggle to distinguish between particles in clear air and cloud droplets. It’s hard to draw a sharp line on where a cloud begins and ends, and some people have termed the transition region from clear to cloudy sky as the “twilight zone.” High resolution vertical data from these active sensors holds especially great promise in these regions.

JT Reager is a scientist in the terrestrial hydrology group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is a 2019 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his groundbreaking analysis of the way water moves around the globe. Credits: NASA

As Earth Scientists, we’re kind of like doctors for the planet. Just like a doctor listens to your heart with a stethoscope or takes your temperature with a thermometer, we have different instruments in space that are taking the vital signs of the planet. My specialty is water. I use a couple of satellites, particularly the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, which are a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences, to study the movement of water and how wet and dry the climate is at different times. The satellites measure changes to Earth’s gravity field. Since water is typically the only thing heavy enough and that moves fast enough to cause changes in gravity on a regular basis, the gravity data tells us a lot. We’re able use it to better understand how water moves – hydrological extremes like floods and drought, changing water resources, and how much water we might have in the future with things like climate change and a growing population.

Right now, we have more information on the state of the planet coming in than we’ve had at any point in our history. So it’s not more data that I worry about. But in the next 20 to 50 years, I hope to see a shift in terms of collectively having more respect for nature and the resources it provides, and living in better harmony with our planet.

Jeanne Holm is the Deputy Chief Information Officer and the Senior Tech Advisor for the City of Los Angeles. She recently won funding from NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Technology program to create a new platform to monitor and improve air quality across the planet. Credits: NASA

NASA doesn’t just produce amazing pictures. These satellite images can tell us if our efforts to reduce air pollution on Earth are making a perceptible difference from space. The air we breathe affects our quality of life and longevity. By planting more trees and regulating automobiles and gasoline production, we can improve air quality around the world. To that end, I am working on a project that will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to examine and mine NASA satellite and on-the-ground sensor data to show the impact of our pollution mitigation efforts.

By 2030, the City of Los Angeles hopes to see some neighborhoods vastly improve their air quality and achieve a zero fossil fuel footprint. To do this, we’ll need to improve how we construct new buildings, retrofit existing buildings and build transportation infrastructure to allow for more public transit and autonomous electric vehicles. We’ll also need to think about ways we can realistically and sustainably change human behavior. Younger generations want to do things differently; we can empower them to do just that.

To learn more about how NASA studies our home planet today, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/content/earth-day-2020


UPDATE

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NASA Science keeps the lights on


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On Earth Day 50, NASA researchers look to the future