Thursday, February 15, 2007

Ancient Underground Fluids on Mars

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Tabatha Thompson 202-358-3895
NASA Headquarters, Washington

Lori Stiles 520-626-4402
University of Arizona, Tucson

News Release: 2007-017 Feb. 15, 2007

NASA Mars Orbiter Sees Effects of Ancient Underground Fluids

SAN FRANCISCO - Liquid or gas flowed through cracks penetrating underground rock on ancient Mars, according to a report based on some of the first observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These fluids may have produced conditions to support possible habitats for microbial life.

These ancient patterns were revealed when the most powerful telescopic camera ever sent to Mars began examining the planet last year. The camera showed features as small as approximately 3 feet (one meter) across. Mineralization took place deep underground, along faults and fractures. These mineral deposits became visible after overlying layers were eroded away throughout millions of years.

Dr. Chris Okubo, a geologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, discovered the patterns in an image of exposed layers in a Martian canyon named Candor Chasma. The image was taken in September 2006 by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera aboard the orbiter.

"What caught my eye was the bleaching or lack of dark material along the fracture. That is a sign of mineral alteration by fluids that moved through those joints," said Okubo. "It reminded me of something I had seen during field studies in Utah, that is light-tone zones, or 'haloes,' on either side of cracks through darker sandstone."

Dr. Alfred McEwen, the camera's principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said, "This result shows how orbital observations can identify features of particular interest for future exploration on the surface or in the subsurface or by sample return. The alteration along fractures, concentrated by the underground fluids, marks locations where we can expect to find key information about chemical and perhaps biologic processes in a subsurface environment that may have been habitable."

The haloes visible along fractures seen in the Candor Chasma image appear to be slightly raised relative to surrounding, darker rock. This is evidence that the circulating fluids hardened the lining of the fractures, as well as bleaching it. The harder material would not erode away as quickly as softer material farther from the fractures.

The most likely origin for these features is that minerals that were dissolved in water came out of solution and became part of the rock material lining the fractures. Another possibility is that the circulating fluid was a gas, which may or may not have included water vapor in its composition, Okubo said.

Similar haloes adjacent to fractures show up in images that the high-resolution camera took of other places on Mars after the initial Candor Chasma image. "We are excited to be seeing geological features too small to have been noticed previously," Okubo said.

"This publication is just the first of many, many to come. The analysis is based on test observations taken even before the start of our main science phase. Since then, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned several terabits of science data, sustaining a pace greater than any other deep space mission. This flood of data will require years of study to exploit their full value, forever increasing our understanding of Mars and its history of climate change," said Dr. Richard Zurek, project scientist for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Okubo and McEwen report the findings in the Feb. 16 edition of the journal Science. Images showing the haloes along fractures are available at .

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft. The University of Arizona operates the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera. Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp., Boulder, Colo., built the camera.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Opportunity hits 10K

The Colorful Demise of a Sun-Like Star

Jane Platt 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Ray Villard 410-338-4514
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Image Advisory: 2007-016 Feb. 13, 2007

The Colorful Demise of a Sun-Like Star

A new image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows the colorful "last hurrah" of a star like our sun. The picture was taken on Feb. 6, 2007, by Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, which was designed and built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The star is ending its life by casting off its outer layers of gas, which formed a cocoon around the star's remaining core. Ultraviolet light from the dying star makes the material glow. The burned-out star, called a white dwarf, is the white dot in the center. Our sun will eventually burn out and shroud itself with stellar debris, but not for another 5 billion years.

Our Milky Way galaxy is littered with these stellar relics, called planetary nebulae.
The objects have nothing to do with planets. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century astronomers named them that because through small telescopes they resembled the disks of the distant planets Uranus and Neptune.

The planetary nebula in this image is called NGC 2440. The white dwarf at the center of NGC 2440 is one of the hottest known, with a surface temperature of nearly 200,000 degrees Celsius (400,000 degrees Fahrenheit). The nebula's chaotic structure suggests that the star shed its mass episodically. During each outburst, the star expelled material in a different direction. This can be seen in the two bow tie-shaped lobes. The nebula also is rich in clouds of dust, some of which form long, dark streaks pointing away from the star. NGC 2440 lies about 4,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Puppis.

The colors in the image correspond to material expelled by the star. Blue corresponds to helium; blue-green to oxygen, and red to nitrogen and hydrogen.

For images and additional information on NGC 2440, visit .
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA
and the European Space Agency. The Space Telescope Science Institute in
Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. The Institute is operated for NASA
by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., Washington. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

Total Lunar Eclipse on its way March 3

Almost everyone gets to see part of it.

Europe is getting into the act

A race is more fun if there are more participants.

Inflatable Space Module Update

Pump it up!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kepler Mission Update

Where are those little green men?

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter update

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2007-013 Feb. 7, 2007

Spacecraft Set to Reach Milestone, Reports Technical Glitches

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft this month is set to surpass the record for the most science data returned by any Mars spacecraft. While the mission continues to produce data at record levels, engineers are examining why two instruments are intermittently not performing entirely as planned. All other spacecraft instruments are operating normally and continue to return science data.

Since beginning its primary science phase in November 2006, the orbiter has returned enough data to fill nearly 1,000 CD-ROMs. This ties the record for Mars data sent back between 1997 and 2006 by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor mission.

In late November 2006, the spacecraft team operating the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter noticed a significant increase in noise, such as bad pixels, in one of its 14 camera detector pairs. Another detector that developed the same problem soon after launch has worsened. Images from the spacecraft camera last month revealed the first signs of this problem in five other detectors.

While the current impact on image quality is small, there is concern as to whether the problem will continue to worsen.

In-flight data show that more warming of the camera’s electronics before taking an image reduces or eliminates the problem. The imaging team aims to understand the root cause of the worsening over time and to determine the best operational procedures to maximize the long-term science benefits. The camera continues to make observations and is returning excellent images of the Martian surface.

The second instrument concern aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is related to an instrument designed to routinely scan from the surface across the atmosphere above Mars' horizon. The Mars Climate Sounder maps the temperature, ice clouds and dust distributions in the atmosphere on each of nearly 13 orbits every day. In late December, the sounder appeared to skip steps occasionally, so that its field of view was slightly out of position. Following uplink of new scan tables to the instrument, the position errors stopped and the instrument operated nominally.

In mid-January, the position errors reappeared. Although still intermittent, the errors became more frequent, so the instrument has been temporarily stowed while the science team investigates the problem.

The rate of data return is expected to increase over the coming months as the relative motions of Earth and Mars in their orbits around the sun shrink the distance between the planets. By the conclusion of its first science phase in 2008, the mission is expected to have returned more than 30 terabits of science data, enough to fill more than 5,000 CD-ROMs. Observations will be used to evaluate potential landing sites for future missions and to increase our understanding of Mars and how planets change over time.

The mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, Colo., is the prime contractor and built the spacecraft.

Additional information about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is online at: .

Exploring the South Pole

of the Sun!

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington

News Release: 2007-012 Feb. 7, 2007

NASA-European Spacecraft Swoops Under Sun's Pole

The 16-year-old Ulysses spacecraft reaches what could be considered a low point in its mission observing the sun today – and solar scientists could not be happier. The European-manufactured, joint NASA- and ESA-managed spacecraft, has reached maximum latitude in its exploration of the heliosphere, the bubble in space blown out by the solar wind.

"At max latitude we are actually passing below the sun looking almost directly up at its south pole from 329 million kilometers (204 million miles) away," said Nigel Angold, Ulysses mission operations manager from the European Space Agency. "The trajectory provides a perspective of the sun no other spacecraft can equal."

This unusual perspective is courtesy of the spacecraft's one-of-its-kind 6.3-year-long orbit around the sun. An orbit that swings Ulysses both over and under the sun's polar regions and as far out as the orbit of Jupiter.

"Max latitude is the start of an important mission phase," said Dr. Ed Smith, Ulysses project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The spacecraft will soon begin accelerating as it transits from below the sun's south pole to its equator and then up and over its north pole. This trajectory provides us a ringside seat to all the solar processes we want to observe."

This phase of the mission is expected to return high priority scientific observations revealing the changing sun and its effect on space during the ongoing minimum in the 11-year sunspot cycle. During this portion of the mission, Ulysses will rapidly scan the sun’s magnetic field, solar plasmas, solar radio noise, energetic particles, galactic cosmic rays and cosmic dust between the poles and the equator – imparting a more complete perspective of the sun's atmosphere.

Understanding the Earth's nearest star and its processes is paramount, as the space weather created by the sun has a huge effect on the third rock from it and its inhabitants. The sun's gaseous outer atmosphere can create huge space storms. This violent space weather, in turn, can affect Earth's electrical grid, cell phone communications, the functioning of satellites and the operation of astronauts in orbit.
This passage between the sun's poles is the third in the 17 years of Ulysses operations. The first transit occurred during the previous sunspot minimum in 1994 to 1995, and the second during sunspot maximum in 2000 to 2001. The opportunity to repeat the scientific investigations during the ongoing solar minimum is important because the sun’s magnetic field has changed significantly since the previous minimum.
The Ulysses spacecraft was carried into Earth orbit in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery on Oct. 6, 1990. From Earth orbit it was propelled toward Jupiter by solid-fuel motors. Ulysses passed Jupiter on Feb. 8, 1992; the giant planet's gravity bent the spacecraft's flight path downward and away from the ecliptic plane. This put it into a final orbit around the sun that would take it past the sun's north and south poles.
The spacecraft was built by Dornier Systems of Germany for the European Space Agency. NASA provided the launch via space shuttle and the upper stage boosters. The U.S. Department of Energy supplied a radioisotope thermoelectric generator which powers the spacecraft; science instruments were provided by both U.S. and European investigators. The spacecraft is operated from JPL by a joint team from the European Space Agency and NASA.

More information about NASA's Ulysses mission is available on the Web at .

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Titan's Huge North Pole Cloud

Carolina Martinez 818-354-9382
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Image Advisory: 2007-010 Feb. 1, 2007

Cassini Images Mammoth Cloud Engulfing Titan’s North Pole

A giant cloud half the size of the United States has been imaged on Saturn’s moon Titan by the Cassini spacecraft. The cloud may be responsible for the material that fills the lakes discovered last year by Cassini's radar instrument.

Cloaked by winter’s shadow, this cloud has now come into view as winter turns to spring.
The cloud extends down to 60 degrees north latitude, is roughly 2,400 kilometers (1,490 miles) in diameter and engulfs almost the entire north pole of Titan.

The new image was acquired on Dec. 29, 2006, by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer. Scientific models predicted this cloud system, but it had never been imaged in such detail before.

The cloud image is available at: , , and .

“We knew this cloud had to be there but were amazed at its size and structure,” said Dr. Christophe Sotin of the University of Nantes, France, a member of the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team and distinguished visiting scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “This cloud system may be a key element in the global formation of organics and their interaction with the surface.”

The same cloud system seen on Dec. 29, was still there two weeks later during a Jan. 13, 2007, flyby, even though observing conditions were slightly less favorable than in December.

The Cassini radar team reported last year that the lakes at the north pole are partly filled, and some appear to have evaporated, likely contributing to this cloud formation, which is made up of ethane, methane and other organics. These findings reinforce the idea that methane rains down onto the surface to form lakes and then evaporates to form clouds. Scientists compare this methane cycle to the hydrological cycle on Earth, dubbing it “methane-ologic cycle."

Ground-based observations show this Titan cloud system comes and goes with the seasons. A season on Titan lasts approximately seven Earth years. Based on the global circulation models, it seems that such cloud activity can last about 25 Earth years before almost vanishing for four to five years, and then appearing again for 25 years.

Scientists expect this cloud to be around for several years. As the seasons change, scientists expect a shift of these clouds and lakes from the north pole to the south pole. On Titan’s south pole, scientists have seen only one kidney-shaped lake with Cassini’s imaging cameras.

“With 16 more flybys to come this year, we should have the opportunity to monitor the evolution of this cloud system over time,” said Dr. Stephane Le Mouelic, working with the Cassini visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team, and also at the University of Nantes.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team is based at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Homesteading on the Moon

Just what we need

a new Moon race!

That will shake loose some more funding from Congress.

Martian Clouds

drifting by

Make sure you watch the movie: