NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman captured this image from the International Space Station and posted it to social media on Sept. 28, 2014, writing, “The Milky Way steals the show from Sahara sands that make the Earth glow orange.”

Aboard the space station, the six-person Expedition 41 crew is currently preparing for two spacewalks set for Oct. 7 and 15. During the first six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk, slated to begin on Oct. 7 around 8:10 a.m. EDT, Wiseman and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst will transfer a previously uninstalled pump module from its temporary stowage location to the External Stowage Platform-2. The two spacewalkers also will install the Mobile Transporter Relay Assembly that adds the capability to provide “keep-alive” power to the system that moves the station’s robotic arm between worksites. NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore will join Wiseman for the second Expedition 41 spacewalk on Oct. 15.

Image Credit: NASA/Reid Wiseman
By nasa.gov

For a team of MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics students, research isn’t a weighty matter — in fact, there’s virtually no weight at all.

That’s because their experiments took place late this summer in an almost weightless environment aboard NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft, a modified Boeing 727-200 that, by following an approximately parabolic flight path, offers brief periods of weightlessness.

Under the auspices of the Department of Aeronautics and AstronauticsSpace Systems Lab, the student team tested advanced space instruments that could be installed on SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), MIT-designed basketball-size satellites that are used aboard the International Space Station to test autonomy, control, and formation flight algorithms.

One of the devices tested was Halo, a structure shaped like a Star Wars TIE fighter, that lets SPHERES operate a variety of new payloads. One such payload is a docking port which, when installed, allows multiple SPHERES to physically connect and disconnect from each other, enabling them to assemble in a variety of reconfigurable formations. Research applications of the formation flight ability include on-orbit satellite servicing, orbital debris removal, and creation of fractionated space systems where the functional capabilities traditionally assigned to a single large satellite are divided among multiple satellites operating in unison.

Aboard the reduced gravity aircraft, the MIT team used these devices to demonstrate satellite docking and undocking in six degrees of freedom. The docking port and Halo were designed and built by students in the Space Systems Lab in conjunction with engineers from Aurora Flight Sciences.

SPHERES INSPECT, the subject of last year’s AeroAstro capstone class, was another set of instruments tested by the students. INSPECT provides SPHERES with a suite of high-precision pointing sensors. The data from a thermo-imager, a lidar, and stereo vision cameras can be combined by SPHERES, allowing the satellites to inspect unknown or damaged space objects. A quad of control moment gyros uses this data to give the necessary pointing control accuracy.

The reduced-gravity aircraft follows an approximately parabolic elliptic flight path relative to the Earth’s center. NASA provided the team with 330 parabolas for a total of 2.5 hours weightless data collection.

SPHERES were initially designed by capstone class students. The three SPHERES aboard the space station support a variety of cutting-edge space technologies experiments. They are also the focus of the annual Zero Robotics competition in which middle school and high school students around the world compete in the design and execution of programs for the satellites to execute.

By Duncan Miller | Aeronautics and Astronautics

Fall Colors Arriving

October 2, 2014

A few days after autumn showed up on the calendar in the Northern Hemisphere, it showed up on the landscape of North America. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this view of fall colors around the Great Lakes on Sept. 26, 2014.

The changing of leaf color in temperate forests involves several causes and reactions, but the dominant factors are sunlight and heat. Since temperatures tend to drop sooner and sunlight fades faster at higher latitudes, the progression of fall color changes tends to move from north to south across North America from mid-September through mid-November.

In late summer and autumn, tree and plant leaves produce less chlorophyll, the green pigment that harvests sunlight for plants to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars. The subsidence of chlorophyll allows other chemical compounds in the leaves—particularly carotenoids and flavonoids—to emerge from the green shadow of summer. These compounds do not decay as fast as chlorophyll, so they shine through in yellows, oranges, and reds as the green fades. Another set of chemicals, anthocyanins, are associated with the storage of sugars and give the leaves of some species deep purple and red hues.

> More information

Image Credit: Jeff Schmaltz at NASA GSFC. Caption by Mike Carlowicz
By nasa.gov

New data obtained by NASA’s GRAIL mission reveals that the Procellarum region on the near side of the moon — a giant basin often referred to as the “man in the moon” — likely arose not from a massive asteroid strike, but from a large plume of magma deep within the moon’s interior. 

The Procellarum region is a roughly circular, volcanic terrain some 1,800 miles in diameter — nearly as wide as the United States. One hypothesis suggested that it was formed by a massive impact, in which case it would have been the largest impact basin on the moon. Subsequent asteroid collisions overprinted the region with smaller — although still large — basins. 

Now researchers from MIT, the Colorado School of Mines, and other institutions have created a high-resolution map of the Procellarum, and found that its border is not circular, but polygonal, composed of sharp angles that could not have been created by a massive asteroid. Instead, researchers believe that the angular outline was produced by giant tension cracks in the moon’s crust as it cooled around an upwelling plume of hot material from the deep interior. 

Maria Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and also MIT’s vice president for research, says that as cracks occurred, they formed a “plumbing system” in the moon’s crust through which magma could meander to the surface. Magma eventually filled the region’s smaller basins, creating what we see today as dark spots on the near side of the moon — features that have inspired the popular notion of a “man in the moon.” 

“A lot of things in science are really complicated, but I’ve always loved to answer simple questions,” says Zuber, who is principal investigator for the GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) mission. “How many people have looked up at the moon and wondered what produced the pattern we see — let me tell you, I’ve wanted to solve that one!”

Zuber and her colleagues publish their results this week in the journal Nature

Making less of an impact

The team mapped the Procellarum region using data obtained by GRAIL — twin probes that orbited the moon from January to December 2012. Researchers measured the distance between the probes as they chased each other around the moon. As the leading probe passed over a region of lower density, it briefly slowed, caught by that region’s gravitational pull. As the probes circled the moon, they moved in accordion fashion, the distance between them stretching and contracting in response to varying gravitational attraction due to the mass variations in the lunar interior. 

From the variable distance between the probes, Zuber and her team determined the strength of gravity across the moon’s surface, creating a highly detailed map, which they then used to determine where the lunar crust thickens and thins. 

From this mapping, the researchers observed that the rim of the Procellarum region is composed of edges that abut at 120-degree angles. As asteroid impacts tend to produce circular or elliptical craters, Zuber says the Procellarum’s angular shape could not have been caused by an impact. 

Instead, the team explored an alternative scenario: Some time after the moon formed and cooled, a large plume of molten material rose from the lunar interior, around where the Procellarum region is today. The steep difference in temperature between the magma plume and the surrounding crust caused the surface to contract over time, creating a pattern of fractures that provided a conduit for molten material to rise to the surface. 

To test the hypothesis, the researchers modeled the region’s gravitational signal if it were to contain volcanic intrusions — magma that seeped up to just beneath the moon’s surface and, over time, cooled and crystallized. The resulting simulation matched the gravity signal recorded by GRAIL, supporting the idea that the Procellarum was caused by a magma plume, and not an asteroid.

“How such a plume arose remains a mystery,” Zuber says. “It could be due to radioactive decay of heat-producing elements in the deep interior. Or, conceivably, a very early large impact triggered the plume. But in the latter case, all evidence for such an impact has been completely erased. People who thought that all this volcanism was related to a gigantic impact need to go back and think some more about that.”

Ultimately, proving that the moon may have harbored an ancient plume may require a new lunar mission, involving a long-lived geophysical network to monitor seismic and heat signals from the deep interior, according to Clive Neal, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

“It comes to trying to understand the nature of the interior, and how extensive was this concentration of heat-producing elements that would’ve caused a plume to surface,” says Neal, who was not involved in the research. “GRAIL has been a fantastic mission, and this data will be continually used and reinterpreted as we get more data back from the moon. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this data by a long shot.”

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

Engineers took another step forward in preparations for the first test flight of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft in December. At the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the three primary core elements of the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket recently were integrated, forming the first stage of the launch vehicle that will send Orion far from Earth to allow NASA to evaluate the spacecraft’s performance in space.

The three common booster cores are 134 feet in length and 17 feet in diameter. Each has an RS-68 engine that uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant producing 656,000 pounds of thrust. All totaled, the three Delta IV boosters collectively generate 1.96 million pounds of thrust.

The upcoming flight test will use the Delta IV Heavy to launch the Orion and send it 3,600 miles in altitude beyond the Earth’s surface. During the two-orbit, four-hour mission, engineers will evaluate the systems critical to crew safety, the launch abort system, the heat shield and the parachute system. The data gathered during the mission will influence design decisions and validate existing computer models. The flight also will reduce overall mission risks and costs for later Orion flights.

> Delta IV Booster Integration Another Step Toward First Orion Flight

Image Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky
By nasa.gov

The Soyuz TMA-14M rocket is launched with Expedition 41 Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) Flight Engineer Elena Serova of Roscosmos, and Flight Engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Samokutyaev, Serova, and Wilmore will spend the next five and a half months aboard the International Space Station. Serova will become the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first Russian woman to live and work on the station.

Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
By nasa.gov

On a July night this summer, a 5,200-pound balloon gondola hangs from a crane and moves toward the open doors of a building at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md. The telescopes and instruments carried by the gondola, which are part of NASA’s Balloon Observation Platform for Planetary Science (BOPPS), are calibrated by taking a long look at the stars and other objects in the sky.

This photo was created from 100 separate 30-second-exposure photos, composited together to make the star trail that “spins” around Polaris, the North Star.

BOPPS is a high-altitude, stratospheric balloon mission, which will spend up to 24 hours aloft to study a number of objects in our solar system, including an Oort cloud comet. Two comets that may be visible during the flight include Pan STARRS and Siding Spring, which will pass very close to Mars on Oct. 19. The mission may also survey a potential array of other targets including asteroids Ceres and Vesta, Earth’s moon, and Neptune and Uranus. BOPPS is scheduled to launch on Sept. 25 from the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Research Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Learn more about the BOPPS mission:

> News Release

Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL
By nasa.gov

On Sept. 19, 2014, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite captured these images of the King fire in Eldorado National Forest. In the false-color image, burned forest appears red; unaffected forests are green; cleared forest is beige; and smoke is blue. As of Sept. 23, the blaze had charred 36,320 hectares (89,571 acres).

> More information and annotated images
> Additional NASA resources: Fire and Smoke

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey
Caption: Adam Voiland
By nasa.gov

The sun rises as the Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft is rolled out by train to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Sept. 23, 2014. Launch of the Soyuz rocket is scheduled for Sept. 25 at 4:25 p.m. EDT (Sept. 26 at 2:25 a.m. Kazakh time) and will carry Expedition 41 Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), Flight Engineer Barry Wilmore of NASA, and Flight Engineer Elena Serova of Roscosmos into orbit to begin their five and a half month mission on the International Space Station.

Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
By nasa.gov

The Odd Trio

October 2, 2014

The Cassini spacecraft captures a rare family photo of three of Saturn’s moons that couldn’t be more different from each other! As the largest of the three, Tethys (image center) is round and has a variety of terrains across its surface. Meanwhile, Hyperion (to the upper-left of Tethys) is the “wild one” with a chaotic spin and Prometheus (lower-left) is a tiny moon that busies itself sculpting the F ring.

To learn more about the surface of Tethys (660 miles, or 1,062 kilometers across), see PIA17164. More on the chaotic spin of Hyperion (168 miles, or 270 kilometers across) can be found at PIA07683. And discover more about the role of Prometheus (53 miles, or 86 kilometers across) in shaping the F ring in PIA12786.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 1 degree above the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 14, 2014.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) from Tethys and at a Sun-Tethys-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 22 degrees. Image scale is 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org .

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
By nasa.gov