Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Astronomers Observe Planet With Wild Temperature Swings

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has observed a planet that heats up to red-hot temperatures in a matter of hours before quickly cooling back down.

The "hot-headed" planet is HD 80606b, a gas giant that orbits a star 190 light-years from Earth. It was already known to be quite unusual, with an orbit shuttling it nearly as far out as Earth is from our sun, and much closer in than our planet Mercury. Astronomers used Spitzer, an infrared observatory, to measure heat emanating from the planet as it whipped behind and close to its star. In just six hours, the planet's temperature rose from 800 to 1,500 Kelvin (980 to 2,240 degrees Fahrenheit).

"We watched the development of one of the fiercest storms in the galaxy," said astronomer Greg Laughlin of the Lick Observatory, University of California at Santa Cruz. "This is the first time that we've detected weather changes in real time on a planet outside our solar system." Laughlin is lead author of a new report about the discovery appearing in the Jan. 29 issue of Nature.

HD 80606b was originally discovered in 2001 by a Swiss planet-hunting team led by Dominique Naef of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland. Using a method known as the Doppler-velocity technique, the astronomers learned that the planet is wildly eccentric, with an orbit more like a comet's than a planet's. HD 80606b's orbit takes it as far out as 0.85 astronomical units from its star, and as close in as 0.03 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the sun).

The planet takes about 111 days to circle its star, but it spends most of its time at farther distances while zipping through the closest part of its orbit in less than a day. (This is a consequence of Kepler's Second Law of Planetary Motion, which states that orbiting bodies -- planets and comets -- sweep out an equal area in equal time.)

"If you could float above the clouds of this planet, you'd see its sun growing larger and larger at faster and faster rates, increasing in brightness by almost a factor of 1,000," said Laughlin.

Spitzer observed HD 80606b before, during and just after its closest passage to the star in November of 2007, as the planet sizzled under the star's heat. When Laughlin and his colleagues planned the observation, they did not know whether the planet would disappear completely behind the star, an event called a secondary eclipse, or whether it would remain in view. Luckily for the team, the planet did indeed temporarily disappear from view, providing the planet's initial and final temperatures (had the planet had not been eclipsed, the team would have known only the temperature change without knowing the starting point).

The extreme temperature swing observed by Spitzer indicates that the air near the planet's gaseous surface must quickly absorb and lose heat. This type of atmospheric information revealing how a planet responds to sudden changes in heating -- an extreme version of seasonal change -- had never been obtained before for any exoplanet (a planet orbiting another star).

"By studying this planet under such extreme circumstances, we figure out how it handles heat -- does it retain it or dissipate it? In this case, the answer is that the planet releases the heat right away," said Laughlin. "We were essentially able to perform the 'thought experiment' -- what would happen to a planet like Jupiter if we could drag it very close to the sun?"

Laughlin and his colleagues say that a key factor in being able to make the observations is the planet's eccentric orbit. Unlike so-called hot Jupiter planets that remain in tight orbits around their stars, HD 80606b rotates around its axis roughly every 34 hours. Hot Jupiters, on the other hand, are thought to be tidally locked like our moon, so one side always faces their stars. Because HD 80606b spins on its axis many times per orbit, the astronomers were able to measure how its atmosphere responds to being baked by the star.

"The planet is spinning at a fast enough rate for the planet's hot spot to come into view," said co-author Drake Deming of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "The hot spot can't hide."

Amateur and professional astronomers alike are gearing up to observe HD 80606b this coming Valentine's Day, when it will swing around the front of its star. There's a 15 percent chance that the planet will eclipse its star, an event known as the primary transit. If so, the event would not only be remarkable to see, but would also provide more details about the nature of this temperamental world.

Other authors include Jonathan Langton, Daniel Kasen, Steve Vogt, Eugenio Rivera and Stefano Meschiari from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Washington. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

More information about Spitzer is at More information about extrasolar planets is at

Friday, January 23, 2009

62 Years at NASA and Still Going Strong

Sixty-two years ago today, Jack Boyd, senior advisor to the Ames director, first reported to work at Moffett Field, the home of NASA's Ames Research Center.

To get there, Boyd traveled on a transcontinental train from Virginia to the San Francisco Bay Area. While most of his classmates at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University chose to work close to home at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., Boyd struck out on his own, and trailblazed his way to Ames.

"You'd have to be crazy not to be excited about space exploration," Boyd said about what motivates him to come into work every morning. "It's always fun. I'm continually amazed to think I've been with NASA for 62 years."

He first reported to work at the Personnel Office on Jan. 15, 1947, where after looking over his mechanical engineering degree with an aeronautics option, they decided to assign him to the Fluid Dynamics Division. "They walked me over to the1-foot-by-3-foot wind tunnel, introduced me to my colleagues and said, 'get to work!'" Boyd remembered. At 21 years old, Boyd was earning a respectable $2,644 a year, at a time when Walter Vincenti, his branch chief, and Harvey Allen, his division chief, were conducting cutting-edge, high-speed research in the Ames 1-foot-by-3-foot and 6-foot-by-6-foot wind tunnels on swept wings, conical camber, canards on supersonic aircraft, flights through non-Earth atmospheres and the shape of future space capsules.

In 1963, Harvey Allen nominated Boyd to corral all the new research at Ames into comprehensive programs. In the late 1960s, as America was redefining its space exploration mission and sending humans to the moon, Boyd served as the Ames’ lead to assist NASA Headquarters in Washington in creating new NASA research programs.

"Since the moon landing nearly 40 years ago, I think NASA's most remarkable achievement has been the robotic exploration of Mars, starting with the Viking spacecraft in 1976 to the Mars Exploration Rovers and Phoenix," Boyd said, when reflecting on NASA's many accomplishments.

Boyd worked as deputy director for Aeronautical and Flight Systems at Ames; deputy director of NASA's Dryden Research Center in Edwards, Calif.; acting deputy director and associate director of Ames, and then associate administrator for management at NASA Headquarters. He helped consolidate NASA’s helicopter research program, prepared Dryden for its role as a space shuttle landing site; implemented affirmative action programs for NASA; completed NASA’s advanced secure computing facility; worked with defense agencies on classified research, and led NASA to implement the reorganization and reforms of the Packard report about federal laboratories. Additionally, Boyd served as chancellor for research and was an adjunct professor of aerodynamics, engineering and the history of spaceflight for the University of Texas System.

In his 'second career' at Ames, Boyd supported educational outreach. Even when he became the executive assistant to the director, his primary role was that of advisor, teacher and mentor. Today, in addition to being the senior advisor to the Ames director, he also serves as the senior advisor for history and as the center ombudsman. In April last year, Boyd received the 2008 NASA Headquar¬ters History Division Award for his energetic outreach and promo¬tion of NASA history and for making history relevant to NASA’s present and future.

"I'm most proud of my work helping and mentoring the new engineers as they came to work at NASA," Jack said.

Looking ahead, Boyd says he is excited for the upcoming launch of the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, mission to look for water ice on the moon, and the Kepler mission to search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system; the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, airborne laboratory which will help scientists study the universe using infrared astronomy; and all of NASA's continued efforts in aeronautics and exploration of our solar system.

Boyd's advice to anyone just starting out?

"Try to make as many acquaintances as possible to learn what's going on around NASA, and learn to deal with people," he advised with a smile.

For more information

Pieces Coming Together for First Test Launch of NASA's New Spacecraft

NASA is using powerful computers and software programs to design the rocket that will carry crew and cargo to space after the space shuttle retires. But those computers will have their work checked the old-fashioned way with the first of several uncrewed demonstration launches beginning in 2009.

Ares I-X, the first Ares I test rocket, will lift off from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. in the summer of 2009. It will climb about 25 miles (40.2 km) in a two-minute powered test of Ares I first stage performance and its first stage separation and parachute recovery system.

A less obvious -- but no less critical -- test will be of overall vehicle aerodynamics. Is the design safe and stable in flight? This is a question that must be answered before astronauts begin traveling into orbit and beyond.

With that question answered, the flight of Ares I-X will be an important step toward verifying analysis tools and techniques needed to further develop Ares I, NASA's next launch vehicle.

In order to ensure that the rocket's flight characteristics are fully understood, extreme care is being taken to precisely fabricate the rocket's simulated upper stage and the simulated Orion crew module and associated launch abort tower. These full-scale hardware components must accurately reflect the shape and physical properties of the models used in computer analyses and wind tunnel tests in order to confidently compare flight results with preflight predictions.

At NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., where the Orion crew module and tower-like launch abort system simulators are taking shape, researchers and managers are working to overcome multiple challenges.

"We are a highly matrixed team -- a lot of people from various organizations -- that must work together successfully on a tight schedule," explained Kevin Brown, project manager for the Ares I-X Crew Module/Launch Abort System (CM/LAS) project.

"We have a team doing fabrication and assembly work in conjunction with an off-site contractor, and we have another team readying to install about 150 sensors once the crew module and launch abort tower are completed," he added.
The simulated crew module, faithful to the vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2015, to the moon in the 2020 timeframe and ultimately to points beyond, will measure approximately five meters (16.4 ft) in diameter. While the conical module will have the same basic shape as the Apollo Command Module, it will be significantly larger. The simulated launch abort system, positioned above the crew module at launch, will add another 46 feet (14 m) in length to the combined simulator.

The sensors will measure aerodynamic pressure and temperature at the nose of the rocket, and contribute to measurements of vehicle acceleration and angle of attack. How the tip of the rocket slices through the atmosphere is important because that determines the flow of air over the entire vehicle.

"This launch will tell us what we got right and what we got wrong in the design and analysis phase," said Jonathan Cruz, deputy project manager for Ares I-X CM/LAS. "We have a lot of confidence, but we need those two minutes of flight data before NASA can continue to the next phase of rocket development," he said.

The completed two-part flight test article is to be delivered to Kennedy in early 2009. Before launch, the combined crew module and launch abort system tower will be used to help demonstrate lifting, handling and stacking of Ares I-X flight test vehicle elements.

Ares I-X will provide important data for developing Ares I in time to support the vehicle's critical design review in 2010.

For more information

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

NASA Radar Provides First Look Inside Moon's Shadowed Craters

WASHINGTON - Using a NASA radar flying aboard India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, scientists are getting their first look inside the moon's coldest, darkest craters.

The Mini-SAR instrument, a lightweight, synthetic aperture radar, has passed its initial in-flight tests and sent back its first data. The images show the floors of permanently-shadowed polar craters on the moon that aren't visible from Earth. Scientists are using the instrument to map and search the insides of the craters for water ice.

"The only way to explore such areas is to use an orbital imaging radar such as Mini-SAR," said Benjamin Bussey, deputy principal investigator for Mini-SAR, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "This is an exciting first step for the team which has worked diligently for more than three years to get to this point."

The images, taken on Nov. 17, 2008, cover part of the Haworth crater at the moon's south pole and the western rim of Seares crater, an impact feature near the north pole. Bright areas in each image represent either surface roughness or slopes pointing toward the spacecraft. Further data collection by Mini-SAR and analysis will help scientists to determine if buried ice deposits exist in the permanently shadowed craters near the moon's poles.

"During the next few months we expect to have a fully calibrated and operational instrument collecting valuable science data at the moon," said Jason Crusan, program executive for the Mini-RF Program for NASA's Space Operations Mission Directorate in Washington.

Mini-SAR is one of 11 instruments on the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 and one of two NASA-sponsored contributions to its international payload. The other is the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, a state-of-the-art imaging spectrometer that will provide the first map of the entire lunar surface at high spatial and spectral resolution. Data from the two NASA instruments will contribute to the agency's increased understanding of the lunar environment as it implements America's space exploration plan, which calls for robotic and human missions to the moon.

Chandrayaan-1 launched from India's Satish Dhawan Space Center on Oct. 21 and began orbiting the moon Nov. 8. The Applied Physics Laboratory performed the final integration and testing on Mini-SAR. It was developed and built by the Naval Air Warfare Center and several other commercial and government contributors. The Applied Physics Laboratory's Satellite Communications Facility is Chandrayaan-1's primary ground station in the Western Hemisphere.

For more information about the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, visit:

For more information about Chandrayaan-1, visit:

56th Inauguration Features NASA Astronauts, Lunar Rover, Panoramic Photos and Live Twitter

WASHINGTON - NASA astronauts who recently returned from a trip to the International Space Station will join representatives from across the country and the nation's armed forces in the 56th Inaugural Parade.

The NASA contingent will include a next-generation lunar rover that astronauts will use for future exploration of the moon. The parade will travel down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Jan. 20 following swearing-in ceremonies for President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden. Many of the participating astronauts -- Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Eric Boe, mission specialists Donald Pettit, Steve Bowen, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Shane Kimbrough and Greg Chamitoff -- flew on space shuttle Endeavour in November 2008 on the STS-126 mission.

Astronaut Mike Gernhardt will drive the rover. Astronaut Rex Walheim, wearing a spacesuit, will ride with him. The Lunar Electric Rover is a concept vehicle about the size of a pickup truck that NASA is evaluating for use when humans return to the moon. The rover can house two astronauts for as long as 14 days. The vehicle has many unique features, including the ability to move its six pairs of wheels in any combination of forward and sideways motions, enabling it to scramble over rough terrain.

NASA will record video during the parade from a camera mounted on the lunar rover. A member of the lunar rover team will provide live updates to the NASA News Twitter feed throughout the event.

NASA photographers and videographers will document the agency's participation in the inaugural activities. Images will be posted online at the agency's Web site when they become available.

For photos and more information about NASA and inaugural activities, visit:

NASA Television will air a video file of the parade footage and the video recorded on the rover as soon as possible following the parade's conclusion. For NASA TV downlink information, schedules and links to streaming video, visit:

To access the NASA News Twitter feed and other agency Twitter feeds, visit:

For more information about NASA's Lunar Electric Rover, visit:

For information about STS-126 and the next space shuttle mission in February, visit:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

NASA Solicits Ideas for Displaying Retired Space Shuttles and Main Engines

WASHINGTON -- NASA has issued a Request for Information, or RFI, seeking ideas from educational institutions, science museums and other appropriate organizations about the community's ability to acquire and publicly display the space shuttle orbiters and space shuttle main engines after the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program.

Sponsored by NASA's Office of Infrastructure, the RFI seeks input from appropriate officials and decision-makers from museums, science centers, institutions and other organizations dedicated to education or educational outreach with experience in public display of space hardware and nationally-recognized historical artifacts. NASA will use information gained from this RFI to develop strategies for eventual placement of two space shuttle orbiters and a minimum of six unassembled space shuttle main engine display "kits."

NASA's primary goal of this effort is to collect a wide variety of perspectives about whether eligible recipient organizations are capable of appropriately displaying the shuttle orbiters and main engines, and bearing the full cost of preparing the hardware for display and transportation to its final destination. The RFI also seeks ideas about how the shuttle orbiters and shuttle main engines can best be used in the broad national interest to inspire the American public and students in particular. Organizations interested in responding to the RFI must provide their input to NASA by March 17, 2009.

For additional information and to view the RFI, visit:

For additional information about the shuttle program, visit:


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