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ESA Developing Dark Matter Telescope

PARIS - The module carrying the telescope and scientific instruments of ESA’s Euclid ‘dark Universe’ mission is now being developed by Astrium in Toulouse, France. 

Euclid will be launched in 2020 to explore dark energy and dark matter in order to understand the evolution of the Universe since the Big Bang and, in particular, its present accelerating expansion.

Dark matter is invisible to our normal telescopes but acts through gravity to play a vital role in forming galaxies and slowing the expansion of the Universe. 

Dark energy, however, causes a force that is overcoming gravity and accelerating the expansion seen around us today. 

Together, these two components are thought to comprise 95% of the mass and energy of the Universe, with ‘normal’ matter, from which stars, planets and we humans are made, making up the remaining small fraction. Their nature remains a profound mystery. 

Euclid Photo Credit: ESA

“Euclid will address the cosmology-themed questions of ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015–25 program with advanced payload technologies, enabling Europe to become a world leader in this field of research,” says Thomas Passvogel, Head of the Project Department in ESA’s Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration. 

Astrium will deliver a fully integrated payload module incorporating a 1.2 m-diameter telescope feeding the mission’s two science instruments, which are being developed by the Euclid Consortium. 

The two state-of-the art, wide-field instruments – a visible-light camera and a near-infrared camera/spectrometer – will map the 3D distribution of up to two billion galaxies and the associated dark matter and dark energy, spread over more than a third of the whole sky. 

By surveying galaxies stretched across ten billion light-years, the mission will plot the evolution of the very fabric of the Universe and the structures within it over three-quarters of its history. 

In particular, Euclid will address one of the most important questions in modern cosmology: why is the Universe expanding at an accelerating rate today, rather than slowing down due to the gravitational attraction of all the matter in it? 

The discovery of this cosmic acceleration in 1998 was rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2011 and yet there is no accepted explanation for it. 

By using Euclid to study its effects on the galaxies and clusters of galaxies across the Universe, astronomers hope to come much closer to understanding the true nature and influence of this mysterious dark energy. 

“We are excited that Euclid has reached this important milestone, allowing us to progress towards launch in 2020, and bringing us ever closer to uncovering some of the Universe’s darkest secrets,” says Giuseppe Racca, ESA’s Euclid Project Manager.

 
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Mars Water-Ice Clouds Are Key to Odd Thermal Rhythm

PASADENA, Calif. -- Researchers using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found that temperatures in the Martian atmosphere regularly rise and fall not just once each day, but twice.

"We see a temperature maximum in the middle of the day, but we also see a temperature maximum a little after midnight," said Armin Kleinboehl of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who is the lead author of a new report on these findings.

Temperatures swing by as much as 58 degrees Fahrenheit (32 kelvins) in this odd, twice-a-day pattern, as detected by the orbiter's Mars Climate Sounder instrument.

 

The new set of Mars Climate Sounder observations sampled a range of times of day and night all over Mars. The observations found that the pattern is dominant globally and year-round. The report is being published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Global oscillations of wind, temperature and pressure repeating each day or fraction of a day are called atmospheric tides. In contrast to ocean tides, they are driven by variation in heating between day and night. Earth has atmospheric tides, too, but the ones on Earth produce little temperature difference in the lower atmosphere away from the ground. On Mars, which has only about one percent as much atmosphere as Earth, they dominate short-term temperature variations throughout the atmosphere.

Tides that go up and down once per day are called "diurnal." The twice-a-day ones are called "semi-diurnal." The semi-diurnal pattern on Mars was first seen in the 1970s, but until now it had been thought to appear just in dusty seasons, related to sunlight warming dust in the atmosphere.

"We were surprised to find this strong twice-a-day structure in the temperatures of the non-dusty Mars atmosphere," Kleinboehl said. "While the diurnal tide as a dominant temperature response to the day-night cycle of solar heating on Mars has been known for decades, the discovery of a persistent semi-diurnal response even outside of major dust storms was quite unexpected, and caused us to wonder what drove this response."

He and his four co-authors found the answer in the water-ice clouds of Mars. The Martian atmosphere has water-ice clouds for most of the year. Clouds in the equatorial region between about 6 to 19 miles (10 to 30 kilometers) above the surface of Mars absorb infrared light emitted from the surface during daytime. These are relatively transparent clouds, like thin cirrus clouds on Earth. Still, the absorption by these clouds is enough to heat the middle atmosphere each day. The observed semi-diurnal temperature pattern, with its maximum temperature swings occurring away from the tropics, was also unexpected, but has been replicated in Mars climate models when the radiative effects of water-ice clouds are included.

"We think of Mars as a cold and dry world with little water, but there is actually more water vapor in the Martian atmosphere than in the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere," Kleinboehl said. "Water-ice clouds have been known to form in regions of cold temperatures, but the feedback of these clouds on the Mars temperature structure had not been appreciated. We know now that we will have to consider the cloud structure if we want to understand the Martian atmosphere. This is comparable to scientific studies concerning Earth's atmosphere, where we have to better understand clouds to estimate their influence on climate."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, provided the Mars Climate Sounder instrument and manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
 

 
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Marks on Martian Dunes May Be Tracks of Dry-Ice Sleds

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA research indicates hunks of frozen carbon dioxide -- dry ice -- may glide down some Martian sand dunes on cushions of gas similar to miniature hovercraft, plowing furrows as they go.

Researchers deduced this process could explain one enigmatic class of gullies seen on Martian sand dunes by examining images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and performing experiments on sand dunes in Utah and California.

"I have always dreamed of going to Mars," said Serina Diniega, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and lead author of a report published online by the journal Icarus. "Now I dream of snowboarding down a Martian sand dune on a block of dry ice."

The hillside grooves on Mars, called linear gullies, show relatively constant width -- up to a few yards, or meters, across -- with raised banks or levees along the sides. Unlike gullies caused by water flows on Earth and possibly on Mars, they do not have aprons of debris at the downhill end of the gully. Instead, many have pits at the downhill end.

Several types of downhill flow features have been observed on Mars. This image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is an example of a type called "linear gullies." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona 

"In debris flows, you have water carrying sediment downhill, and the material eroded from the top is carried to the bottom and deposited as a fan-shaped apron," said Diniega. "In the linear gullies, you're not transporting material. You're carving out a groove, pushing material to the sides."

Images from MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera show sand dunes with linear gullies covered by carbon-dioxide frost during the Martian winter. The location of the linear gullies is on dunes that spend the Martian winter covered by carbon-dioxide frost. By comparing before-and-after images from different seasons, researchers determined that the grooves are formed during early spring. Some images have even caught bright objects in the gullies.

Scientists theorize the bright objects are pieces of dry ice that have broken away from points higher on the slope. According to the new hypothesis, the pits could result from the blocks of dry ice completely sublimating away into carbon-dioxide gas after they have stopped traveling.

"Linear gullies don't look like gullies on Earth or other gullies on Mars, and this process wouldn't happen on Earth," said Diniega. "You don't get blocks of dry ice on Earth unless you go buy them."

That is exactly what report co-author Candice Hansen, of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., did. Hansen has studied other effects of seasonal carbon-dioxide ice on Mars, such as spider-shaped features that result from explosive release of carbon-dioxide gas trapped beneath a sheet of dry ice as the underside of the sheet thaws in spring. She suspected a role for dry ice in forming linear gullies, so she bought some slabs of dry ice at a supermarket and slid them down sand dunes.

That day and in several later experiments, gaseous carbon dioxide from the thawing ice maintained a lubricating layer under the slab and also pushed sand aside into small levees as the slabs glided down even low-angle slopes.

The outdoor tests did not simulate Martian temperature and pressure, but calculations indicate the dry ice would act similarly in early Martian spring where the linear gullies form. Although water ice, too, can sublimate directly to gas under some Martian conditions, it would stay frozen at the temperatures at which these gullies form, the researchers calculate.

"MRO is showing that Mars is a very active planet," Hansen said. "Some of the processes we see on Mars are like processes on Earth, but this one is in the category of uniquely Martian."

Hansen also noted the process could be unique to the linear gullies described on Martian sand dunes.

"There are a variety of different types of features on Mars that sometimes get lumped together as 'gullies,' but they are formed by different processes," she said. "Just because this dry-ice hypothesis looks like a good explanation for one type doesn't mean it applies to others."

The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages MRO for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter. 

 
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OPPORTUNITY HEADS FOR SOLANDER POINT

PASADENA, Calif. - Approaching its 10th anniversary of leaving Earth, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is on the move again, trekking to a new study area still many weeks away.

The destination, called "Solander Point," offers Opportunity access to a much taller stack of geological layering than the area where the rover has worked for the past 20 months, called "Cape York." Both areas are raised segments of the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.

 
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity used its panoramic camera (Pancam) to acquire this view of "Solander Point" during the mission's 3,325th Martian day, or sol (June 1, 2013). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ. Photo Credit: NASA

"Getting to Solander Point will be like walking up to a road cut where you see a cross section of the rock layers," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University, St. Louis, deputy principal investigator for the mission.

Solander Point also offers plenty of ground that is tilted toward the north, which is favorable for the solar-powered rover to stay active and mobile through the coming Martian southern-hemisphere winter.

"We're heading to a 15-degree north-facing slope with a goal of getting there well before winter," said John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Project. The minimum-sunshine days of this sixth Martian winter for Opportunity will come in February 2014.

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project launched twin rovers in 2003: Spirit on June 10 and Opportunity on July 7. Both rovers landed in January 2004, completed three-month prime missions and began years of bonus, extended missions. Both found evidence of wet environments on ancient Mars. Spirit ceased operations during its fourth Martian winter, in 2010. Opportunity shows symptoms of aging, such as loss of motion in some joints, but continues to accomplish groundbreaking exploration and science.

Shortly before leaving Cape York last month, Opportunity used the rock abrasion tool, the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and the microscopic imager on its robotic arm to examine a rock called "Esperance" and found a combination of elements pointing to clay-mineral composition.

"The Esperance results are some of the most important findings of our entire mission," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the mission. "The composition tells us about the environmental conditions that altered the minerals. A lot of water moved through this rock."

Cape York exposes just a few yards, or meters, of vertical cross-section through geological layering. Solander Point exposes roughly 10 times as much. Researchers hope to find evidence about different stages in the history of ancient Martian environments. The rim of Endeavour Crater displays older rocks than what Opportunity examined at Eagle, Endurance, Victoria and Santa Maria craters during the first eight years of the rover's work on Mars.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

 
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Stars Don't Obliterate Their Planets (Very Often)

PASADENA - Stars have an alluring pull on planets, especially those in a class called hot Jupiters, which are gas giants that form farther from their stars before migrating inward and heating up.

Now, a new study using data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope shows that hot Jupiters, despite their close-in orbits, are not regularly consumed by their stars. Instead, the planets remain in fairly stable orbits for billions of years, until the day comes when they may ultimately get eaten.

"Eventually, all hot Jupiters get closer and closer to their stars, but in this study we are showing that this process stops before the stars get too close," said Peter Plavchan of NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. "The planets mostly stabilize once their orbits become circular, whipping around their stars every few days."

The study, published recently in the Astrophysical Journal, is the first to demonstrate how the hot Jupiter planets halt their inward march on stars. Gravitational, or tidal, forces of a star circularize and stabilize a planet's orbit; when its orbit finally become circular, the migration ceases.

"When only a few hot Jupiters were known, several models could explain the observations," said Jack Lissauer, a Kepler scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, Calif., not affiliated with the study. "But finding trends in populations of these planets shows that tides, in combination with gravitational forces by often unseen planetary and stellar companions, can bring these giant planets close to their host stars."

Hot Jupiters are giant balls of gas that resemble Jupiter in mass and composition. They don't begin life under the glare of a sun, but form in the chilly outer reaches, as Jupiter did in our solar system. Ultimately, the hot Jupiter planets head in toward their stars, a relatively rare process still poorly understood.

The new study answers questions about the end of the hot Jupiters' travels, revealing what put the brakes on their migration. Previously, there were a handful of theories explaining how this might occur. One theory proposed that the star's magnetic field prevented the planets from going any farther. When a star is young, a planet-forming disk of material surrounds it. The material falls into the star -- a process astronomers call accretion -- but when it hits the magnetic bubble around it, called the magnetosphere, the material travels up and around the bubble, landing on the star from the top and bottom. This bubble could be halting migrating planets, so the theory went.

Another theory held that the planets stopped marching forward when they hit the end of the dusty portion of the planet-forming disk.

"This theory basically said that the dust road a planet travels on ends before the planet falls all the way into the star," said co-author Chris Bilinski of the University of Arizona, Tucson. "A gap forms between the star and the inner edge of its dusty disk where the planets are thought to stop their migration."

And yet a third theory, the one the researchers found to be correct, proposed that a migrating planet stops once the star's tidal forces have completed their job of circularizing its orbit.

To test these and other scenarios, the scientists looked at 126 confirmed planets and more than 2,300 candidates. The majority of the candidates and some of the known planets were identified via NASA's Kepler mission. Kepler has found planets of all sizes and types, including rocky ones that orbit where temperatures are warm enough for liquid water.

The scientists looked at how the planets' distance from their stars varied depending on the mass of the star. It turns out that the various theories explaining what stops migrating planets differ in their predictions of how the mass of a star affects the orbit of the planet. The "tidal forces" theory predicted that the hot Jupiters of more massive stars would orbit farther out, on average.

The survey results matched the "tidal forces" theory and even showed more of a correlation between massive stars and farther-out orbits than predicted.

This may be the end of the road for the mystery of what halts migrating planets, but the journey itself still poses many questions. As gas giants voyage inward, it is thought that they sometimes kick smaller, rocky planets out of the way, and with them any chance of life evolving. Lucky for us, our Jupiter did not voyage toward the sun, and our Earth was left in peace. More studies like this one will help explain these and other secrets of planetary migration.

The technical paper is online at http://iopscience.iop.org/0004-637X/769/2/86/.

NASA Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with JPL at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech manages time allocation on the Keck telescope for NASA. JPL manages NASA's Exoplanet Exploration program office. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

 
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 NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Nears Turning Point

PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is approaching its biggest turning point since landing its rover, Curiosity, inside Mars' Gale Crater last summer.

Curiosity is finishing investigations in an area smaller than a football field where it has been working for six months, and it will soon shift to a distance-driving mode headed for an area about 5 miles (8 kilometers) away, at the base Mount Sharp.

 
Curiosity's ultimate destination - the base of Mt Sharp. Engineers plan to drive Curiosity up into these hills where they hope to find clues to past environmental conditions. Photo Credit: NASA JPL

In May, the mission drilled a second rock target for sample material and delivered portions of that rock powder into laboratory instruments in one week, about one-fourth as much time as needed at the first drilled rock.

"We're hitting full stride," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We needed a more deliberate pace for all the first-time activities by Curiosity since landing, but we won't have many more of those."

No additional rock drilling or soil scooping is planned in the "Glenelg" area that Curiosity entered last fall as the mission's first destination after landing. To reach Glenelg, the rover drove east about a third of a mile (500 meters) from the landing site. To reach the next destination, Mount Sharp, Curiosity will drive toward the southwest for many months.

"We don't know when we'll get to Mount Sharp," Erickson said. "This truly is a mission of exploration, so just because our end goal is Mount Sharp doesn't mean we're not going to investigate interesting features along the way."

Images of Mount Sharp taken from orbit and images Curiosity has taken from a distance reveal many layers where scientists anticipate finding evidence about how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved.

While completing major first-time activities since landing, the mission has also already accomplished its main science objective. Analysis of rock powder from the first drilled rock target, "John Klein," provided evidence that an ancient environment in Gale Crater had favorable conditions for microbial life: the essential elemental ingredients, energy and ponded water that was neither too acidic nor too briny.

The rover team chose a similar rock, "Cumberland," as the second drilling target to provide a check for the findings at John Klein. Scientists are analyzing laboratory-instrument results from portions of the Cumberland sample. One new capability being used is to drive away while still holding rock powder in Curiosity's sample-handling device to supply additional material to instruments later if desired by the science team.

For the drill campaign at Cumberland, steps that each took a day or more at John Klein could be combined into a single day's sequence of commands. "We used the experience and lessons from our first drilling campaign, as well as new cached sample capabilities, to do the second drill campaign far more efficiently," said sampling activity lead Joe Melko of JPL. "In addition, we increased use of the rover's autonomous self-protection. This allowed more activities to be strung together before the ground team had to check in on the rover."

The science team has chosen three targets for brief observations before Curiosity leaves the Glenelg area: the boundary between bedrock areas of mudstone and sandstone, a layered outcrop called "Shaler" and a pitted outcrop called "Point Lake."

JPL's Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for Curiosity, said "Shaler might be a river deposit. Point Lake might be volcanic or sedimentary. A closer look at them could give us better understanding of how the rocks we sampled with the drill fit into the history of how the environment changed."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

 
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NASA's IRIS Mission to Launch in June

PALO ALTO, CALIF - Lying just above the sun’s surface is an enigmatic region of the solar atmosphere called the interface region. A relatively thin region, just 3,000 to 6,000 miles thick, it pulses with movement: Zones of different temperature and density are scattered throughout, while energy and heat course through the solar material.

Understanding how the energy travels through this region – energy that helps heat the upper layer of the atmosphere, the corona, to temperatures of 1 million kelvins (about 1.8 million F), some thousand times hotter than the sun’s surface itself – is the goal of NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, scheduled to launch on June 26, 2013, from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

IRIS in the clean room. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

“IRIS will extend our observations of the sun to a region that has historically been difficult to study,” said Joe Davila, IRIS project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Understanding the interface region better improves our understanding of the whole corona and, in turn, how it affects the solar system.”

Scientists wish to understand the interface region in exquisite detail, because energy flowing through this region has an effect on so many aspects of near-Earth space. For one thing, despite the intense amount of energy deposited into the interface region, only a fraction leaks through, but this fraction drives the solar wind, the constant stream of particles that flows out to fill the entire solar system. The interface region is also the source of most of the sun’s ultraviolet emission, which impacts both the near-Earth space environment and Earth’s climate.

IRIS’s capabilities are uniquely tailored to unravel the interface region by providing both high-resolution images and a kind of data known as spectra. For its high-resolution images, IRIS will capture data on about 1 percent of the sun at a time. While these are relatively small snapshots, IRIS will be able to see very fine features, as small as 150 miles across.

“Previous observations suggest there are structures in the solar atmosphere just 100 or 150 miles across, but 100,000 miles long,” said Alan Title, the principal investigator for IRIS at Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, Calif.  - “Imagine giant jets, like the huge fountains you see in Las Vegas. Except these jets have a footprint the size of Los Angeles, and are long enough and fast enough that they would zoom around Earth in 20 seconds. We have seen hints of these structures, but never with the high resolution or the information about velocity, temperature and density that IRIS will provide.”

The velocity, temperature and density information will be provided by IRIS’ spectrograph. While ultraviolet images look at only one wavelength of light at a time, spectrographs show information about many wavelengths of light at once. Spectrographs split the sun’s light into its various wavelengths and measure how much of any given wavelength is present. This is then portrayed on a graph showing spectral “lines.” Taller lines correspond to wavelengths in which the sun emits relatively more light. Analysis of the spectral lines can also provide velocity, temperature and density information, key information when trying to track how energy and heat moves through the region.

Not only does IRIS provide state-of-the-art observations to look at the interface region, it makes uses of advanced computing to help interpret what it sees. Indeed, interpreting the light flowing out of the interface region could not be done well prior to the advent of today’s supercomputers because, in this area of the sun, photons of light bounce around so much that it is difficult to understand the path the photon traveled.

“When you observe the interface region, there is no intuitive approach to understanding the light’s path from the sun’s surface and that’s been a major stumbling block,” said Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin. “We’re trying to understand something that’s hidden in a fog – but now, thanks to the enormous advance of computers and sophisticated numerical models, the fog is lifting.”

This modeling of the IRIS data takes place on cutting-edge supercomputers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Moreover, science teams at Lockheed Martin and the University of Oslo in Norway have worked over the last year to create and refine the models to interpret the dominant processes expected to be at work in the interface region.

For its launch at the end of June, IRIS will take flight using a Pegasus XL rocket, carried aloft by an Orbital Sciences L-1011 aircraft from Vandenberg. IRIS weighs 400 pounds, and upon deployment, will extend its solar panels to reach 12 feet across. IRIS will travel in a polar, sun-synchronous orbit, traveling around Earth at the globe’s sunrise line, ranging from approximately 390 miles to 420 miles above Earth's surface. Each orbit will take IRIS around 97 minutes to complete. This orbit was selected because it provides nearly eight months of eclipse-free sun viewing and also maximizes IRIS’ ability to downlink data, by traveling over several ground receivers.

After launch, the IRIS team will perform post-flight checkouts for about 60 days before the official science campaign begins. Once the campaign starts, IRIS will join a host of other spacecraft currently observing the sun and its effects on Earth. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and the joint NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hinode, for example, both capture high-resolution images of the sun, but focusing on different layers of the sun. Together, the observatories will explore how the corona and solar wind are powered – Hinode and SDO monitoring the solar surface and outer atmosphere, with IRIS watching the region in between.

“Relating observations from IRIS to other solar observatories will open the door for crucial research into basic, unanswered questions about the corona,” said Davila.

Answering such fundamental physics questions about the sun’s atmosphere has applications outside of simply understanding the sun, as well. Explosions in the corona can send radiation and solar particles toward Earth, interfering with satellites, causing power grid failures and disrupting GPS services. By knowing more about what causes such solar eruptions, scientists can improve their ability to forecast such space weather. Moreover, the better we understand this closest star, the better we can understand how other stars are energized as well.

Goddard manages IRIS, a NASA Small Explorer Program mission. IRIS’ launch is managed by NASA's Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Center designed and built the IRIS spacecraft and instrument. Ames provides mission operations and ground data systems. The Norwegian Space Centre is providing regular downlinks of science data. Other contributors include the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., and the University of Oslo in Norway.


 

 

 
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Comet ISON Continues To Grow

MAUNA KEA - A new series of images from Gemini Observatory shows Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) racing toward an uncomfortably close rendezvous with the Sun. In late November the comet could present a stunning sight in the twilight sky and remain easily visible, or even brilliant, into early December of this year.

The time-sequence images, spanning early February through May 2013, show the comet’s remarkable activity despite its current great distance from the Sun and Earth. The information gleaned from the series provides vital clues as to the comet’s overall behavior and potential to present a spectacular show. However, it's anyone’s guess if the comet has the “right stuff” to survive its extremely close brush with the Sun at the end of November and become an early morning spectacle from Earth in early December 2013.

Comet ISON From Gemini Photo Credit: Gemini Telescope

When Gemini obtained this time sequence, the comet ranged between roughly 455-360 million miles (730-580 million kilometers; or 4.9-3.9 astronomical units) from the Sun, or just inside the orbital distance of Jupiter. Each image in the series, taken with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph at the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i, shows the comet in the far red part of the optical spectrum, which emphasizes the comet’s dusty material already escaping from what astronomers describe as a “dirty snowball.” Note: The final image in the sequence, obtained in early May, consists of three images, including data from other parts of the optical spectrum, to produce a color composite image.”

The images show the comet sporting a well-defined parabolic hood in the sunward direction that tapers into a short and stubby tail pointing away from the Sun. These features form when dust and gas escape from the comet’s icy nucleus and surround that main body to form a relatively extensive atmosphere called a coma. Solar wind and radiation pressure push the coma’s material away from the Sun to form the comet’s tail, which we see here at a slight angle (thus its stubby appearance).

Discovered in September 2012 by two Russian amateur astronomers, Comet ISON is likely making its first passage into the inner Solar System from what is called the Oort Cloud, a region deep in the recesses of our Solar System, where comets and icy bodies dwell. Historically, comets making a first go-around the Sun exhibit strong activity as they near the inner Solar System, but they often fizzle as they get closer to the Sun.

Sizing up Comet ISON

Astronomer Karen Meech, at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA) in Honolulu, is currently working on preliminary analysis of the new Gemini data (as well as other observations from around the world) and notes that the comet’s activity has been decreasing somewhat over the past month.

“Early analysis of our models shows that ISON’s brightness through April can be reproduced by outgassing from either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. The current decrease may be because this comet is coming close to the Sun for the first time, and a “volatile frosting” of ice may be coming off revealing a less active layer beneath. It is just now getting close enough to the Sun where water will erupt from the nucleus revealing ISON’s inner secrets,” says Meech.

“Comets may not be completely uniform in their makeup and there may be outbursts of activity as fresh material is uncovered,” adds IfA astronomer Jacqueline Keane. “Our team, as well as astronomers from around the world, will be anxiously observing the development of this comet into next year, especially if it gets torn asunder, and reveals its icy interior during its exceptionally close passage to the Sun in late November.”

NASA’s Swift satellite and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) have also imaged Comet ISON recently in this region of space. Swift’s ultraviolet observations determined that the comet’s main body was spewing some 850 tons of dust per second at the beginning of the year, leading astronomers to estimate the comet’s nucleus diameter is some 3-4 miles (5-6 kilometers). HST scientists concurred with that size estimate, adding that the comet’s coma measures about 3100 miles (5000 km) across.

The comet gets brighter as the outgassing increases and pushes more dust from the surface of the comet. Scientists are using the comet’s brightness, along with information about the size of the nucleus and measurements of the production of gas and dust, to understand the composition of the ices that control the activity. Most comets brighten significantly and develop a noticeable tail at about the distance of the asteroid belt (about 3 times the Earth-Sun distance –– between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) because this is when the warming rays of the Sun can convert the water ice inside the comet into a gas. This comet was bright and active outside the orbit of Jupiter — when it was twice as far from the Sun. This meant that some gas other than water was controlling the activity.

Meech concludes that Comet ISON “…could still become spectacularly bright as it gets very close to the Sun” but she cautions, “I’d be remiss, if I didn’t add that it’s still too early to predict what’s going to happen with ISON since comets are notoriously unpredictable.”

A Close Encounter

On November 28, 2013, Comet ISON will make one of the closest passes ever recorded as a comet grazes the Sun, penetrating our star’s million-degree outer atmosphere, called the corona, and moving to within 800,000 miles (1.3 million km) of the Sun’s surface. Shortly before that critical passage, the comet may appear bright enough for expert observers using proper care to see it close to the Sun in daylight.

What happens after that no one knows for sure. But if Comet ISON survives that close encounter, the comet may appear in our morning sky before dawn in early December and become one of the greatest comets in the last 50 years or more. Even if the comet completely disintegrates, skywatchers shouldn’t lose hope. When Comet C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) plunged into the Sun’s corona in December 2011, its nucleus totally disintegrated into tiny bits of ice and dust, yet it still put on a glorious show after that event.

The question remains, are we in for such a show? Stay tuned…

Regardless of whether Comet ISON becomes the “Comet of the Century,” as some speculate, it will likely be a nice naked-eye and/or binocular wonder from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in the weeks leading up to its close approach with the Sun.

By late October, the comet should be visible through binoculars as a fuzzy glow in the eastern sky before sunrise, in the far southeastern part of the constellation of Leo. By early November, the comet should be a much finer binocular object. It will steadily brighten as it drifts ever faster, night by night, through southern Virgo, passing close to the bright star Spica. It is during the last half of the month that observations will be most important, as the comet edges into Libra and the dawn, where it will brighten to naked-eye visibility and perhaps sport an obvious tail.

The comet reaches perihelion (the closest point in its orbit to the Sun) on November 28th, when it will also attain its maximum brightness, and perhaps be visible in the daytime. If Comet ISON survives perihelion, it will swing around the Sun and appear as both an early morning and early evening object from the Northern Hemisphere. The situation is less favorable from the Southern Hemisphere, as the comet will set before the Sun in the evening and rise with the Sun in the morning.

By December 10th, and given that everything goes well, Comet ISON may be a fine spectacle in the early morning sky as viewed from the Northern Hemisphere. Under dark skies, it may sport a long tail stretching straight up from the eastern horizon, from the constellations of Ophiuchus to Ursa Major. The comet will also be visible in the evening sky during this time but with its tail appearing angled and closer to the horizon.

 
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NASA's GRAIL Mission Solves Mystery of Moon's Surface Gravity

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission has uncovered the origin of massive invisible regions that make the moon's gravity uneven, a phenomenon that affects the operations of lunar-orbiting spacecraft.

Because of GRAIL's findings, spacecraft on missions to other celestial bodies can navigate with greater precision in the future.

GRAIL's twin spacecraft studied the internal structure and composition of the moon in unprecedented detail for nine months. They pinpointed the locations of large, dense regions called mass concentrations, or mascons, which are characterized by strong gravitational pull. Mascons lurk beneath the lunar surface and cannot be seen by normal optical cameras.

GRAIL scientists found the mascons by combining the gravity data from GRAIL with sophisticated computer models of large asteroid impacts and known detail about the geologic evolution of the impact craters. The findings are published in the May 30 edition of the journal Science.

Graviry map of the moon shopwing mascons in red. Photo Credit: NASA JPL

"GRAIL data confirm that lunar mascons were generated when large asteroids or comets impacted the ancient moon, when its interior was much hotter than it is now," said Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and lead author of the paper. "We believe the data from GRAIL show how the moon's light crust and dense mantle combined with the shock of a large impact to create the distinctive pattern of density anomalies that we recognize as mascons."

The origin of lunar mascons has been a mystery in planetary science since their discovery in 1968 by a team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Researchers generally agree mascons resulted from ancient impacts billions of years ago. It was not clear until now how much of the unseen excess mass resulted from lava filling the crater or iron-rich mantle upwelling to the crust.

On a map of the moon's gravity field, a mascon appears in a target pattern. The bulls-eye has a gravity surplus. It is surrounded by a ring with a gravity deficit. A ring with a gravity surplus surrounds the bulls-eye and the inner ring. This pattern arises as a natural consequence of crater excavation, collapse and cooling following an impact. The increase in density and gravitational pull at a mascon's bulls-eye is caused by lunar material melted from the heat of a long-ago asteroid impact.

"Knowing about mascons means we finally are beginning to understand the geologic consequences of large impacts," Melosh said. "Our planet suffered similar impacts in its distant past, and understanding mascons may teach us more about the ancient Earth, perhaps about how plate tectonics got started and what created the first ore deposits."

This new understanding of lunar mascons also is expected to influence knowledge of planetary geology well beyond that of Earth and our nearest celestial neighbor.

"Mascons also have been identified in association with impact basins on Mars and Mercury," said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Understanding them on the moon tells us how the largest impacts modified early planetary crusts."

Launched as GRAIL A and GRAIL B in September 2011, the probes, renamed Ebb and Flow, operated in a nearly circular orbit near the poles of the moon at an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers) until their mission ended in December 2012. The distance between the twin probes changed slightly as they flew over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by visible features, such as mountains and craters, and by masses hidden beneath the lunar surface.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. managed GRAIL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The mission was part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md., manages the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Operations of the spacecraft's laser altimeter, which provided supporting data used in this investigation, is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built GRAIL.

 
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Pebbly Rocks Testify to Old Streambed on Mars

PASADENA, Calif. - Detailed analysis and review have borne out researchers' initial interpretation of pebble-containing slabs that NASA's Mars rover Curiosity investigated last year: They are part of an ancient streambed.

The rocks are the first ever found on Mars that contain streambed gravels. The sizes and shapes of the gravels embedded in these conglomerate rocks -- from the size of sand particles to the size of golf balls -- enabled researchers to calculate the depth and speed of the water that once flowed at this location.

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah" after Hottah Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

"We completed more rigorous quantification of the outcrops to characterize the size distribution and roundness of the pebbles and sand that make up these conglomerates," said Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz., lead author of a report about them in the journal Science this week. "We ended up with a calculation in the same range as our initial estimate last fall. At a minimum, the stream was flowing at a speed equivalent to a walking pace -- a meter, or three feet, per second -- and it was ankle-deep to hip-deep."

Three pavement-like rocks examined with the telephoto capability of Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) during the rover's first 40 days on Mars are the basis for the new report. One, "Goulburn," is immediately adjacent to the rover's "Bradbury Landing" touchdown site. The other two, "Link" and "Hottah," are about 165 and 330 feet (50 and 100 meters) to the southeast. Researchers also used the rover's laser-shooting Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the Link rock.

"These conglomerates look amazingly like streambed deposits on Earth," Williams said. "Most people are familiar with rounded river pebbles. Maybe you've picked up a smoothed, round rock to skip across the water. Seeing something so familiar on another world is exciting and also gratifying."

The larger pebbles are not distributed evenly in the conglomerate rocks. In Hottah, researchers detected alternating pebble-rich layers and sand layers. This is common in streambed deposits on Earth and provides additional evidence for stream flow on Mars. In addition, many of the pebbles are touching each other, a sign that they rolled along the bed of a stream.

"Our analysis of the amount of rounding of the pebbles provided further information," said Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College, London, a co-author of the new report. "The rounding indicates sustained flow. It occurs as pebbles hit each other multiple times. This wasn't a one-off flow. It was sustained, certainly more than weeks or months, though we can't say exactly how long."

The stream carried the gravels at least a few miles, or kilometers, the researchers estimated.

The atmosphere of modern Mars is too thin to make a sustained stream flow of water possible, though the planet holds large quantities of water ice. Several types of evidence have indicated that ancient Mars had diverse environments with liquid water. However, none but these rocks found by Curiosity could provide the type of stream flow information published this week. Curiosity's images of conglomerate rocks indicate that atmospheric conditions at Gale Crater once enabled the flow of liquid water on the Martian surface.

During a two-year prime mission, researchers are using Curiosity's 10 science instruments to assess the environmental history in Gale Crater on Mars, where the rover has found evidence of ancient environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.

 
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Deep Space Updates are compiled by Interspace News from various sources and posted on a continual basis. Previous reports are available in the Robotic Archive which are accessible from anywhere on the site by selecting Robotic from the left side menu bar and then Clicking Robotic Archive. If You have any questions, comments, or additions and corrections we would love to hear from you. Please e-mail the author at: Robert@Interspacenews.com