THE ASTRONOMY PICTURE OF THE DAY FOR 2010 July 7 

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Concept Plane: Supersonic Green Machine
Illustration Credit: NASA, Lockheed Martin Co.

Explanation: What will passenger airplanes be like in the future? To help brain storm desirable and workable attributes, NASA sponsors design competitions. Shown here is an artist's depiction of a concept plane that has been recently suggested. This futuristic plane would be expected to achieve supersonic speeds, possibly surpassing the speeds of the supersonic transport planes that ran commercially in the late twentieth century. In terms of noise reduction, the future aircraft has been drawn featuring an inverted V wing stretched over its engines. The structure is intended to reduce the sound from annoying sonic booms. Additionally, future airplanes would aim to have relatively little impact on our environment, including green limits on pollution and fuel consumption. Aircraft utilizing similar design concepts might well become operational by the 2030's.


NASA Plans to Visit a Near-Earth Asteroid

August 16, 2011: In a few years a NASA spacecraft will seek the building blocks of life in a shovelful of asteroid dirt.

The OSIRIS-REx1 spacecraft, targeted for launch in September 2016, will intercept asteroid 1999 RQ36, orbit it for a year, and then reach out a robotic arm to touch its surface.

"We call it 'touch and go,'" explains principal investigator Michael Drake of the University of Arizona. "OSIRIS-REx will approach the surface at 0.1 m/sec (only 0.2 mph, less than a tenth of walking pace) and, without landing, stretch out its arm equipped with a sample collector. We'll simply agitate the asteroid's surface with ultra-pure nitrogen to stir up material for capture."

OSIRIS-REX (splash, 558px)
A YouTube video shows how OSIRIS-REx will approach the asteroid, gather samples, and propel the sample capsule back to Earth.

Asteroids appear to be as lifeless as Yorick's skull, yet material captured from 1999 RQ36 could hold clues to life's origin on Earth.

Some scientists believe Earth's surface was sterilized2 soon after the planet was formed some 4.5 billion years ago. Planetoids and other debris left over from the genesis of planets pummeled Earth, turning it into a cratered wasteland. The tremendous kinetic energy from the collisions heated Earth to the boiling point.

OSIRIS-REX (signup, 200px)

"Earth at 'time zero' had a steam atmosphere that was wrung out to make a boiling hot ocean," says Drake. "Imagine standing on a lava lake in Hawaii, but it's a planet-wide, 600 mile deep lake. You and everything else, including any organics and any one-celled organisms, would be converted to carbon dioxide and water. Gone."

In this scenario, an infusion of organics from elsewhere might be required to ignite life here. The building blocks for life on our planet may have come, at least in part, from asteroids.

"Observations by ground-based telescopes suggest that asteroid 1999 RQ36 has a wealth of carbon-based compounds, but we don't know exactly what is there. Are there amino acids? To find out, we need to bring a sample home where we have sophisticated, exquisitely precise instruments, plus the ability to react to new discoveries."

Obtaining that sample is a key part of OSIRIS-REx's mission.

OSIRIS-REX (sample, 200px)
OSIRIS-REx's sampling arm stirs up the topsoil using pure nitrogen. [97 MB movie]

Upon reaching 1999 RQ36 in 2019, the spacecraft's suite of cameras and instruments will spend a year photographing the asteroid and measuring its surface topography, composition, and thermal emissions while its radio provides mass and gravity field maps. This information will increase our understanding of asteroids as well as help the mission team select the most promising sample site.

Like the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, the OSIRIS-REx mission is associated with death as well as life, with both our destiny and our origin. That's because 1999 RQ36 is the Near Earth Object "Most Likely to Succeed" – in affecting our destiny, that is. It has a 1/1800 chance of hitting Earth by the 22nd century.

Evidence suggests that a 6-mile wide asteroid smashed into Earth about 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and altering the history of life. Instead of dinosaurs prevailing, mammals flourished, evolving into humans.

"We're the first species that can mitigate asteroid extinction," notes Drake. "With enough information, we can project the orbit of a threatening asteroid."

If researchers can track an NEO's precise path, they can devise a way to nudge the object out of a collision course with Earth. OSIRIS-REx wil help NASA learn to navigate near an asteroid, laying the groundwork for landing on one. That could be pretty tricky, considering asteroids like 1999 RQ36 have so little gravity.

"If you simply pushed your finger into the surface, you'd fly off into space, disappear, and never come back!"

OSIRIS-REx, however, will hang close, and its cameras will give us window seats to watch its delicate sampling maneuvers. The mission team plans near-live coverage of the operations. But the real action starts, says Drake, when the sample is returned to Earth in 2023.

A future story from Science@NASA will explain how the sample will be handled upon return and lay out some of the experiments researchers will do with it. Stay tuned.

Author: Dauna Coulter | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More Information

1.OSIRIS-Rex is short for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer. Dante Lauretta, Deputy Principal Investigator, came up with the acronym when he was jotting down a list of goals for the mission. "Dante is interested in Egyptian mythology. He was doodling with a pad and pen, and he reached over to show me OSIRIS, and how each letter stood for one of the mission goals. I wasn't' aware of the mythological significance at first. But we'll be taking this prebiotic stuff from the asteroid, chopping it up, and distributing it around the planet for scientists to study where we came from. The mythological figure was also chopped up and distributed."

"OSIRIS of Egyptian mythology is the god of life and fertility, the god who taught Egyptians agriculture," said Lauretta, also with the University of Arizona. "There's an analogy to the proposed 21st century space mission. We're looking at the kind of object that we think brought life to Earth; that is, objects that seeded Earth with early biomolecules, the precursors of life." As for the acronym, "O" stands for the scientific theme, origins. "SI" is for spectral interpretation, or taking images of the NEO at wavelengths that will reveal its composition. "RI," or resource identification, is surveying the asteroid for such useful resources as water and metals. "S" stands for security, learning how to predict the detailed motion of Earth-approaching asteroids.

2. In this context, to say that "Earth was sterilized," doesn't mean life was present at the beginning. "There is no evidence for life in the Solar System before the formation of the planets so there was likely nothing to be sterilized," notes astrobiologist Michael New of NASA HQ. It simply means that the heavy bombardment and heating would have sterilized any hypothetical life that might have been present.

Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. The OSIRIS-REx payload includes instruments from the University of Arizona, Goddard, Arizona State University in Tempe and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., the Langley Research Center in Hampton Va., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., also are involved. The science team is composed of numerous researchers from universities, private and government agencies. This is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. The first, New Horizons, was launched in 2006. It will fly by the Pluto-Charon system in July 2015, then target another Kuiper Belt object for study. The second mission, Juno, will launch in August to become the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter from pole to pole and study the giant planet's atmosphere and interior. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.


JUNO Orbiter Mated to Mightiest Atlas Rocket for Aug. 5 Blastoff to Jupiter


by Ken Kremer on July 31, 2011 for

Hoisting Solar Powered Juno atop most powerful Atlas Rocket
At Space Launch Complex 41, a crane is lowered over the nose of the Atlas payload fairing enclosing the Juno spacecraft in preparation for its lift to the top of the Atlas rocket stacked in the Vertical Integration Facility. Juno is scheduled to launch Aug. 5 aboard the most powerful ever United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

In less than one week’s time, NASA’s $1.1 Billion Juno probe will blast off on the most powerful Atlas V rocket ever built and embark on a five year cruise to Jupiter where it will seek to elucidate the mysteries of the birth and evolution of our solar system’s largest planet and how that knowledge applies to the remaining planets.

The stage was set for Juno’s liftoff on August 5  set for 11:34 a.m. after the solar-powered spacecraft was mated atop the Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral and firmly bolted in place at 10:42 a.m. EDT on July 27.

“We’re about to start our journey to Jupiter to unlock the secrets of the early solar system,” said Scott Bolton, the mission’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “After eight years of development, the spacecraft is ready for its important mission.”

Inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41, the Juno spacecraft, enclosed in an Atlas payload fairing, is in position on top of its Atlas launch vehicle. The spacecraft was prepared for launch in the Astrotech Space Operations' payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

The launch window for Juno extends from Aug. 5 through Aug. 26. The launch time on Aug. 5 opens at 11:34 a.m. EDT and closes at 12:43 p.m. EDT. Juno is the second mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.

JUNO’s three giant solar panels will unfurl about five minutes after payload separation following the launch, said Jan Chodas, Juno’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

The probe will cartwheel through space during its five year trek to Jupiter.

Upon arrival in July 2016, JUNO will fire its braking rockets and go into polar orbit and circle Jupiter 33 times over about one year. The goal is to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core.

Hoisting Juno inside the payload fairing at Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

“Juno will become the first polar orbiting spacecraft at Jupiter. Not only are we over the poles, but we’re getting closer to Jupiter in our orbit than any other spacecraft has gone,” Bolton elaborated at a briefing for reporters at the Kennedy Space Center. “We’re only 5,000 kilometers above the cloud tops and so we’re skimming right over those cloud tops and we’re actually dipping down beneath the radiation belts, which is a very important thing for us. Because those radiation belts at Jupiter are the most hazardous region in the entire solar system other than going right to the sun itself.”

“Jupiter probably formed first. It’s the largest of all the planets and in fact it’s got more material in it than all the rest of the solar system combined. If I took everything in the solar system except the sun, it could all fit inside Jupiter. So we want to know the recipe.”

Watch for my continuing updates and on-site launch coverage of Juno, only the 2nd probe from Earth to ever orbit Jupiter. Galileo was the first.

Tagged as: Atlas V, Juno mission, Jupiter, radiation, solar power, Solar System, Space Exploration


Hoping Forward At The End Of The Shuttle Era

by Jason Rhian on July 22, 2011 from

Space shuttle Atlantis wraps up the shuttle program with an early morning return to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Mike Deep for Universe Today

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. — The last space shuttle mission, STS-135, ended with the landing of the shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility at 5:57 a.m. EDT. The air was thick with both humidity and mosquitoes. It was also a day thick with loss. The United States, for the foreseeable future, has lost the ability to launch massive payloads, such as the International Space Station’s Kibo module, into orbit. Lost the capabilities that a manned spacecraft with a robot manipulator system or RMS affords. Lost the ability to chase down wayward satellites, repair them on-orbit or return them to Earth for more intensive work. Lost, at least for the time being, its leadership position in terms of space flight – that position now belongs to Russia with its human-rated Soyuz Spacecraft and unmanned Progress Cargo vessels.

NASA is working to put a positive spin on this new era. The space agency hopes that small, commercial space firms will provide the nation with the capacity to send men and material to orbit as it works to travel beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) once again. Only time will tell how successful this direction will be, but there are positive signs that NASA might be on the right path. Following the space program for decades – you learn to hedge your bets. Today’s SpaceX is tomorrow’s Constellation Program.

After 30 years, the shuttle program came to a close Thursday July 21, 2011 at 5:58 a.m. EDT. Photo Credit: NASA

Twin sonic booms shake me out of my revelry as the shuttle announces its return home. Then, a couple minutes later, there is the roar of the approaching orbiter. This sound comes not from shuttle, but rather from the sound of air being forcibly moved out of the shuttle’s path. I had set up two mini-camcorders to capture the landing, but had decided not to take any pictures. I took a moment, for myself, to watch as the shuttle roared past and landed.

There were a number of events held later in the day to commemorate the occasion. It struck me as odd that folks, some of whom would be in the unemployment line the following day, were celebrating. I decided to skip these events – I’ll celebrate when this nation regains the ability to launch astronauts into LEO. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden worked to reassure everyone that all was well, given that he mistakenly said that the crew of STS-134 returned today – his words were not that reassuring.

This image was taken from the International Space Station as shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth. Photo Credit: NASA

With luck, when the U.S. does return to space again, it will do so on a multitude of different craft, with a multitude of different abilities – and hopefully launch vehicles. If these spacecraft are as different from one another as Boeing’s CST-100 is from Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser – that will be a very good thing – it will mean that many of the capabilities lost today will be replaced, albeit on completely separate vehicles.

That said, we are now entering an undiscovered country, one that NASA has never delved into before. Near the end of Apollo, the shuttle program was approved. With the end of the shuttle program here – NASA has no established human space flight program, it has initiatives, but no umbrella program, no clear path. That said, there are some potentially amazing things on the horizon – but they exist primarily on paper or on PowerPoint. Until they are fleshed out, until they fulfill their promises – today was a day of loss. Like the shuttle program, today was a mixed bag. One filled with hope for what might come, but uncertainty with what the future holds.


Ex-Astronaut Story Musgrave Blasts NASA, Washington, Over Space Shuttle Program Failures

Former astronaut Story Musgrave, anchored on the space shuttle Endeavor's robotic arm, prepares to be elevated to the top of the Hubble Space Telescope during Hubble's first servicing mission in 1993.

First Posted: 7/9/11 07:34 AM ET Updated: 7/9/11 11:56 AM ET

Houston, we have a problem ... with NASA.

As the space shuttle Atlantis orbits Earth in the final mission of NASA's 30-year reusable spacecraft legacy, at least one former astronaut -- and six-time shuttle voyager -- is lashing out at the space agency for what he deems as failures in the overall vision of the shuttle program.

"The shuttle did not turn out like we planned," Dr. Story Musgrave told The Huffington Post. "It was going to [fly] 66 times a year and it ended up with about five times a year. It was going to cost $10 million a flight, and two months ago, an independent study showed that it cost $1.2 billion a flight. It was massively fragile, difficult to operate and exceedingly dangerous."

Musgrave is a surgeon, mathematician, chemist, biophysicist, physiologist, computer scientist, artist and author of important scientific papers in the areas of aerospace medicine, physiology and clinical surgery.

His achievements include designing the spacesuit that was used by shuttle astronauts for space walks. Musgrave performed the first space shuttle space walk in 1983 on Challenger's maiden flight. Ten years later, he was the lead space walker during the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

But with NASA closing shop on the shuttle program because of the huge ongoing expense, Musgrave is critical of how the powers-that-be made decisions.

pixelstats trackingpixelThe downside is the [international] space station needs us, needs a shuttle to service it in a way that nothing else can," he said.

"I think what the real problem is: Why are we so poor in our vision and so poor in our project management that we come to a point where it's reasonable to phase out the current program and we have no idea what the next one is? Washington has to stop doing that."

"Washington is in total failure that this has happened," he added. "It is Washington's fault and they have to look in the mirror and have to see their failure. It's NASA, Washington, Congress and the administration -- they are in failure."

As an example of what he perceives as NASA's failure "to have any vision leadership or project management," Musgrave talked about NASA's Assured Crew Return Vehicle -- or escape module -- proposal for the International Space Station.

"That's the lifeboat. In 1974, when we saw that a space station was going to happen, we had a requirement to have a lifeboat to be able to get off the station in case of a fire or some other catastrophe. That was 1974. Where is our lifeboat? We don't have one because there's no leadership in Washington, there is no vision and they're unable to manage a project like that.

"It can be a totally manually flown thing without a computer -- it's so simply done, and we toyed with it for years. If you want to have the biggest example of failure in Washington to be able to do anything, where is the assured crew return vehicle?"

And despite his criticism of the space program leadership, Musgrave feels the public wants to keep going into space.

"The public does care. They're always there for you. They love space, but you've got to give them something. If you ask the average person: What's the space station doing for you? They simply don't know."

Musgrave is now a concept engineer for a company called Applied Minds in California, a professor of design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and a landscape architect in Orlando. Space agency and Washington leadership criticisms aside, he always feels honored for his accomplishments at NASA.

"I'm massively privileged to be part of the space program, and I never forget to say that."



SDO Sundog Mystery

February 11, 2011: NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), best known for cutting-edge images of the sun, has made a discovery right here on Earth.

Sundog Mystery (formation, 200px)
How ice crystals make sundogs. [more]

"It's a new form of ice halo," says atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley of England. "We saw it for the first time at the launch of SDO--and it is teaching us new things about how shock waves interact with clouds."

Ice halos are rings and arcs of light that appear in the sky when sunlight shines through ice crystals in the air. A familiar example is the sundog—a rainbow-colored splash often seen to the left or right of the morning sun. Sundogs are formed by plate-shaped ice crystals drifting down from the sky like leaves fluttering from trees.*

Last year, SDO destroyed a sundog—and that's how the new halo was discovered.

SDO lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 11, 2010—one year ago today. It was a beautiful morning with only a handful of wispy cirrus clouds crisscrossing the wintry-blue sky. As the countdown timer ticked to zero, a sundog formed over the launch pad. Play the movie, below, to see what happened next—and don't forget to turn up the volume to hear the reaction of the crowd:

Sundog Mystery (sundog splash, 550px)
SDO has a close encounter with a sundog. "The shock waves were amazing, fantastical!" says high school student Amelia Phillips who watched the event alongside friend and
 photographer Anna Herbst of Bishop, California. "We were shouting and jumping up and down when SDO destroyed the sundog."  Movie credit: Anna Herbst.

"When the rocket penetrated the cirrus, shock waves rippled through the cloud and destroyed the alignment of the ice crystals," explains Cowley. "This extinguished the sundog."

Sundog Mystery (rocket halo, 200px)
A luminous column of white light follows SDO into the sky. [more]

The sundog's destruction was understood. The events that followed, however, were not.

"A luminous column of white light appeared next to the Atlas V and followed the rocket up into the sky," says Cowley. "We'd never seen anything like it."

Cowley and colleague Robert Greenler set to work figuring out what the mystery-column was. Somehow, shock waves from the rocket must have scrambled the ice crystals to produce the 'rocket halo.' But how? Computer models of sunlight shining through ice crystals tilted in every possible direction failed to explain the SDO event.

Then came the epiphany: The crystals weren't randomly scrambled, Cowley and Greenler realized. On the contrary, the plate-shaped hexagons were organized by the shock waves as a dancing army of microscopic spinning tops.

Cowley explains their successful model: "The crystals are tilted between 8 and 12 degrees. Then they gyrate so that the main crystal axis describes a conical motion. Toy tops and gyroscopes do it. The earth does it once every 26000 years. The motion is ordered and precise."

Sundog Mystery (spinning top, 200px)
According to Cowley and Greenler, spinning and gyrating plate-shaped crystals are responsible for the mystery halo. Credit: L. Cowley.

Bottom line: Blasting a rocket through a cirrus cloud can produce a surprising degree of order. "This could be the start of a new research field—halo dynamics," he adds.

The simulations show that the white column beside SDO was only a fraction of a larger oval that would have appeared if the crystals and shock waves had been more wide-ranging. A picture of the hypothetical complete halo may be found here.

"We'd love to see it again and more completely," says Cowley.

"If you ever get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be at a rocket launch," he advises with a laugh, "forget about the rocket! Look out instead for halos."

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More Information

Solar Dynamics Observatory -- home page

Cool Movie: SDO Destroys a Sundog -- Science@NASA

More images of the SDO-sundog encounter: from Romeo Durscher of Stanford, California; from Barbara Tomlinson of Beachton, Georgia; from George C. Privon of the University of Virginia.

Sundog Formation -- from Les Cowley's authoritative web site "Atmospheric Optics"

* Regarding the statement "Sundogs are formed by plate-shaped ice crystals drifting down from the sky....", Cowley notes that this can be an oversimplification. "The crystals do not always drift down from the sky. They drift slowly down relative to air currents in the cloud. Half of the time they will be ascending relative to the ground. The drift velocity is only a few mm/s."


Obama Nasa Plans 'Catastrophic' say Moon Astronauts

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Eugene Cernan: "I am absolutely committed to the fact that we will go back at sometime"

Former Nasa astronauts who went to the Moon have told the BBC of their dismay at President Barack Obama's decision to push back further Moon missions.

Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, said Mr Obama's decision would have "catastrophic consequences" for US space exploration.

The last man on the Moon, Eugene Cernan, said it was "disappointing".

Last month Mr Obama cancelled Nasa's Constellation Moon landings programme, approved by ex-President George W Bush.

Nasa still aims to send astronauts back to the Moon, but it is likely to take decades and some believe that it will never happen again.

'Moral Leadership'

The astronauts spoke to the BBC at a private event at the Royal Society in London on Friday organised by the Foundation for Science and Technology.

It will have catastrophic consequences in our ability to explore space and the spin-offs we get from space technology
Jim Lovell
Apollo 13 commander

They were joined there by the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.

As the last astronaut to return to the Apollo 17 lunar module in 1972, Cernan was the last man to set foot on the Moon.

"I'm quite disappointed that I'm still the last man on the Moon," he said. "I thought we'd have gone back long before now."

So why does he believe Americans should go back to the Moon?

Ares I-X test flight (Nasa)
The proposed Ares-1 rocket has been cancelled by Mr Obama

"I think America has a responsibility to maintain its leadership in technology and its moral leadership... to seek knowledge. Curiosity's the essence of human existence."

It is a view shared by fellow Apollo Astronaut Jim Lovell, the heroic commander of Apollo 13.

"Personally I think it will have catastrophic consequences in our ability to explore space and the spin-offs we get from space technology," he said.

"They haven't thought through the consequences."

Lunar Dream Alive

Although Cernan and Lovell expressed their dismay with President Obama's decision, Mr Armstrong tactfully avoided the subject.

When he set foot on the Moon in July 1969, it seemed as if humanity would soon colonise other worlds.

By 1994, when I interviewed him for the first time, he said: "The reality may have faded. But the dream is still there and it will come back in time."

But with the cancellation of Nasa's Constellation programme to return Americans to the moon by 2020, who is to inspire the next generation?

Nasa still aims to send astronauts back to the Moon, using Nasa to provide incentives and oversight to the private sector for launch services.

It is likely to take some time, however.

Until then we will have the epic tales of Armstrong, Lovell, Cernan and the rest of the Apollo astronaut corps to remind us that all things are possible - and despite the current pause in human spaceflight to other worlds, the dream is still there.