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Status Report: NASA MESSENGER Passes the Billion-Mile Mark!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

On March 23 MESSENGER reached the one-billion mile mark, placing the spacecraft about one-fifth of the way toward its destination to orbit Mercury. On that same day, in the early morning hours (UTC), the spacecraft's distance from the Sun was about the same as the Earth's distance to the Sun. "One billion miles and the team and spacecraft are doing well," says Mission Operations Manager Mark Holdridge of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), where the spacecraft is operated and where it was designed and built.

The MESSENGER spacecraft performed its final "flop" maneuver for the mission on March 8, pointing the back side of the spacecraft to the Sun until June 2006. This rotation about the X-axis is performed whenever the solar distance increases beyond approximately 0.95 astronomical units (AU), nearly the distance between the Earth and the Sun. At this distance, the solar arrays do not generate enough power to operate all spacecraft components simultaneously, including instruments and heaters. The "flop" is performed to heat the back side of the spacecraft with the Sun. A "flip" maneuver reverses the effect of the "flop" maneuver by pointing the sunshade toward the Sun. This solar heating reduces the need for multiple onboard heaters, providing the necessary power until the spacecraft is closer to the Sun again. Previous flip, flop, and flip maneuvers were performed on March 8, 2005, June 14, 2005, and September 7, 2005. The spacecraft is scheduled to flip back toward the Sun on June 21.

Even though the MESSENGER spacecraft is years away from entering its final destination of orbiting Mercury, the mission Science Team is already very busy collecting scientific data and sharing it with the larger scientific community. Those plans and results are now available on the team's new Web site:

For a complete look at MESSENGER's journey through the inner solar system, visit the Mission Design section of the Web site at

To see where MESSENGER is now, visit

More: NASA -Status Report on MESSENGER

NASA Honors Buzz Aldrin With Exploration Award

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Buzz Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin Explores the Moon
Credit: NASA

West Point graduate. Fighter pilot. Spacewalker. Apollo 11 astronaut. Man on the moon. Such is the storied career of Buzz Aldrin. Part of the first crew to set foot on another world, Aldrin spent more than 2 hours on the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. He also became the subject of one of the most iconic images on the 20th century (left), a solitary explorer in white contrasted against the gray landscape, with mission commander Neil Armstrong reflected in his visor. Even before his Apollo 11 fame, Aldrin had broken new ground with a record-settting spacewalk during the Gemini 12 mission in 1966.

For all his contributions to America's space program, Aldrin received NASA's Ambassador of Exploration Award on Saturday, March 25, at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
In a post-Apollo 11 news conference, Aldrin said, "I think that this demonstrated that we were certainly on the right track when we undertook this commitment to go to the moon. I think that what this means is that many other problems, perhaps, can be solved in the same way, by making a commitment to solve them in a long-time fashion.

Aldrin is one of 38 recipients of the Ambassador of Exploration Award, all of whom were astronauts or other key individuals who participated in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. The award is a small sample of lunar material encased in Lucite and mounted for public display. The material is part of the 842 pounds of samples brought back to Earth during the six Apollo lunar expeditions from 1969 to 1972. Aldrin's award will be displayed in the Sketch Foundation Gallery: Air & Space Exhibits, California Science Center, 700 State Street, Los Angeles.

More:Space -- Honors Buzz Aldrin With Exploration Award

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Fruit Flies go into Space

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

FlyHey, kids! Find out why NASA is sending real fruit flies into space. You’ll know whether fruit flies are going into space for a Martian vacation, or to make an alien fruit fly drink that will produce report cards that your parents like, or if NASA’s scientists and future explorers will use the fruit flies to study humans.

Once you find out the answer, you can participate in Flies in Space web chats, which will be live chats where you can ask questions in English on Tuesday, April 4, 2006 between 9-10:00 a.m. (PDT) or in Spanish between 10-11:00 a.m (PDT). If you happen to be in school during this time, questions may be placed into the chat rooms early, and if answered will appear in the archive later that day.

I know you're dying to know when the flies are leaving to space. So, I'll tell you: they are going onboard the space shuttle mission STS-121 in July 2006. Mark your calendar. Have Fun!

For more information and answers to questions visit NASA's Flies in Space website.

NASA Reinstates the Dawn Mission

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

NASA senior management announced a decision Monday to reinstate the Dawn mission, a robotic exploration of two major asteroids. Dawn had been canceled because of technical problems and cost overruns.

The mission, named because it was designed to study objects dating from the dawn of the solar system, would travel to Vesta and Ceres, two of the largest asteroids orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn will use an electric ion propulsion system and orbit multiple objects.

The mission originally was approved in December 2001 and was set for launch in June 2006. Technical problems and other difficulties delayed the projected launch date to July 2007 and pushed the cost from its original estimate of $373 million to $446 million. The decision to cancel Dawn was made March 2, 2006, after about $257 million already had been spent. An additional expenditure of about $14 million would have been required to terminate the project.

The reinstatement resulted from a review process that is part of new management procedures established by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. The process is intended to help ensure open debate and thorough evaluation of major decisions regarding space exploration and agency operations.

"We revisited a number of technical and financial challenges and the work being done to address them," said NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden, who chaired the review panel. "Our review determined the project team has made substantive progress on many of this mission's technical issues, and, in the end, we have confidence the mission will succeed."

The Dawn decision document will be available on the Web at:

Story Credit: NASA-Erica Hupp/Dean Acosta

Names for the Columbia astronauts provisionally approved

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Lunar map of craters
Lunar map of craters provisionally named for Columbia astronauts
Opens in a new window
Names for seven craters in the Apollo basin on the Moon have been provisionally approved by the International Astronomical Union to honor the seven Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts. The names can be seen in the list of lunar crater names in the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.

The names are:




L. Clark

M. Anderson

D. Brown


Note that first initials have been used for Anderson, Brown, and Clark to distingiush them from other crater names on the Moon which honor persons with the same surnames.

Change to IAU rule

Monday, March 20, 2006

Rule number 3 on page has been amended to better describe the circumstances under which planetary features are named.

Astro Chuckles

Thursday, March 16, 2006

  • Two atoms bump into each other. One says 'I think I lost an electron!' The other asks, 'Are you sure?', to which the first replies, 'I'm positive.'
  • Heisenberg is out for a drive when he's stopped by a traffic cop. The cop says 'Do you know how fast you were going?' Heisenberg says 'No, but I know where I am.'
  • Why did the chicken cross the road? Albert Einstein: Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road crossed the chicken depends on your frame of reference.
  • The answer to the problem was 'log(1+x)'. A student copied the answer from the good student next to him, but didn't want to make it obvious that he was cheating, so he changed the answer slightly, to 'timber(1+x)'

Credit: Jokes and Anecdotes

Become a NASA Teacher-Mentor!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Airspace Systems Education Cohort (ASEC). Educators selected for this opportunity will attend a 3-day institute at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA July 19-23, 2006. This institute will engage participants in scientific inquiry at the leading edge of education and technology and prepare them to share their experiences with students and colleagues. Go to the NASA Quest website and follow the link for Airspace Systems Education Cohort. Application Deadline: Postmarked by March 31, 2006. Notification will be mailed the week of April 24, 2006.

Astrogeology Steps Up Lunar Orbiter Data with Apollo Images

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Program takes another step forward in reviving the lunar data from the 1960’s. The cartographic group is evaluating the use of modern softcopy digital mapping techniques to extract a digital elevation model (DEM) from Lunar Orbiter (LO) and Apollo digitized imagery. Products enabled by this endeavor will supersede earlier maps and will be functional for upcoming lunar missions and coincide with the vision to gain a new foothold on the moon.

Cartoon poking fun at stair-step artifacts in Lunar Orbiter imagery
The original Lunar Orbiter photographs reconstructed in the 1960’s had limited utility for topographic mapping due to stair-step artifacts in the reconstructed photographs. To correct this problem, Lunar Orbiter images were digitized and reconstructed to fit tto calibrated reseaux and fiducials locations, and the stair-step artifacts in the resulting images were greatly reduced. Although the Apollo imagery was previously used to produce topographic maps, they were limited in size and accuracy, and most notably, had kilometer-sized offsets between them because different control networks were employed during their production. To correct this, a revised global network for the Moon that included Clementine imagery acquired in the 1990’s was generated, so that future mapping would be based on a common control network. The Unified Lunar Control Network 2005 improved the accuracy and the density of control points and included computed elevations values for each point.

To take reviving Lunar Orbiter to another level, the cartographic group considers the pros and cons for using digital elevation models from Apollo (metric vs. panoramic) and/or Lunar Orbiter imagery to produce controlled DEMs, orthoimage mosaics and other products that will be useful in future mission planning and scientific analysis. Upcoming missions such as SELENE – Japan, Chang’e 1 –China, Chandrayaan-1 – India, and -Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter - USA, will have access to highly detailed topographic data.

President Bush announced in a press release, on January 14, 2004, that our goal is to return to the moon by 2020. "Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration." The Astrogeology team continues their lunar groundwork.

Learn more about Lunar Orbiter, ULCN 2005 network, and Mapping with Apollo Images

Space Fans Surf Mars

Thursday, March 16, 2006

No need to pack your bags, acquire driver’s license or get insurance. Interplanetary explorers and space fans now have Google Mars and are in for a good tour. They can view geographical features on Mars with a click of their mouse on maps provided to Google by NASA.

The images were captured by NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor, probes that are currently orbiting Mars. In collaboration with NASA researchers at Arizona State University, Google created scientific maps of Mars. Interplanetary explorers can see the planet using three different types of maps: The shaded relief map shows elevation and was generated with data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft; it is color-coded by altitude. The Visible map consists of a mosaic of images taken by the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, and finally there is a mosaic of infrared images taken by the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft where warmer areas appear brighter, and colder areas are darker. Clouds and dust in the atmosphere are transparent in the infrared.

Users can zoom in on any of the three maps to view geographical features such as mountains, canyons, dunes and craters. The maps also pinpoint the locations of unmanned space probes that have landed on Mars and mark the sites of previous unmanned missions to Mars, including the final landing site of the British probe Beagle 2, which launched in 2003 but failed on landing.

To whom do space enthusiasts owe this honor? The site was launched to celebrate the 151st anniversary of the birth of Percival Lowell, an astronomer who mapped and studied Mars in the 19th century, and is a joint collaboration between Google and NASA.

More:Google Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Successfully Enters Orbit Around Mars!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Celebration photo of the team
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Successfully Enters Orbit Around Mars!

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission manager Jim Graf raises his arms in celebration of the orbiter's successful entry into orbit around Mars. Behind him is Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Dr. Charles Elachi, giving the "thumbs up."

Credit: NASA
With a crucially timed firing of its main engines, NASA's new mission to Mars successfully put itself into orbit around the red planet.

The spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, will provide more science data than all previous Mars missions combined.

Signals received from the spacecraft at 2:16 p.m. Pacific Time on 10 March 2006, after it emerged from its first pass behind Mars set off cheers and applause in control rooms at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.

"This is a great milestone to have accomplished, but it's just one of many milestones before we can open the champagne," said Colleen Hartman, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Once we are in the prime science orbit, the spacecraft will perform observations of the atmosphere, surface, and subsurface of Mars in unprecedented detail."

The spacecraft traveled about 500 million kilometers (310 million miles) to reach Mars after its launch from Florida on Aug. 12, 2005. It needed to use its main thrusters as it neared the planet in order to slow itself enough for Mars' gravity to capture it. The thruster firing began while the spacecraft was still in radio contact with Earth, but needed to end during a tense half hour of radio silence while the spacecraft flew behind Mars.

More: NASA -Robotic NASA Craft Begins Orbiting Mars for Most-Detailed Exam

NASA's Cassini Discovers Potential Liquid Water on Enceladus

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Plumes of icy material extend above the southern polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus as imaged by the Cassini spacecraft in February 2005. The monochrome view is presented along with a color-coded version on the right. The latter reveals a fainter and much more extended plume component.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The rare occurrence of liquid water so near the surface raises many new questions about the mysterious moon.

"We realize that this is a radical conclusion --that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold," said Dr. Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. "However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms."

High-resolution Cassini images show icy jets and towering plumes ejecting large quantities of particles at high speed. Scientists examined several models to explain the process. They ruled out the idea that the particles are produced by or blown off the moon's surface by vapor created when warm water ice converts to a gas. Instead, scientists have found evidence for a much more exciting possibility -- the jets might be erupting from near-surface pockets of liquid water above 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), like cold versions of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone.

In the spring of 2008, scientists will get another chance to look at Enceladus when Cassini flies within 350 kilometers approximately 220 miles), but much work remains after Cassini's four-year prime mission is over.

Mission scientists report these and other Enceladus findings in this week's issue of Science.

More: NASA - Potential Liquid Water on Enceladus

Dawn Mission Killed

Friday, March 3, 2006

Dawn mission
The mission would have studied the asteroids Ceres and Vesta, both relics from the early solar system


Artist's impression: W Hartmann/JPL/NASA
In early February, Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell, at the University of California Los Angeles, said "We were going full bore toward launch, running as fast as we could. We saw the finish line in sight and then someone shot the gun and said we're cancelling the race for a bit."

Apparently the mission was stopped after a US congressional hearing on NASA's science budget, reports, a website run by former NASA employee Keith Cowing.

Both asteroids were thought to be remnants of the first objects formed in the solar system. But they show mysterious differences in their structures – Vesta has melted and separated into layers, while Ceres has not. Dawn was to probe these differences, using close-range scrutiny.

The decision to cancel the mission came after ,more than a month, the agency was expected to complete an extensive review of the mission's progress. In October 2005, NASA ordered Dawn managers to stop work on the mission, citing excessive technical problems and a budget overrun.

More: Dawn asteroid mission killed.
Story Credit: news service; Kimm Groshong

Deep Impact Team Reports First Evidence of Cometary Ice

Friday, March 3, 2006

Comet Tempel 1, which created a flamboyant Fourth of July fireworks display in space last year, is covered with a small amount of water ice. These results, reported by members of NASA’s Deep Impact team in an advanced online edition of Science, offer the first definitive evidence of surface ice on any comet.

“We have known for a long time that water ice exists in comets, but this is the first evidence of water ice on comets,” said Jessica Sunshine, Deep Impact co-investigator and lead author of the Science article. Tempel I A chief scientist with Science Applications International Corporation who holds three Brown University degrees, Sunshine said the discovery offers important insight into the composition of comets – small, Sun-orbiting space travelers that are believed to be leftovers from the formation of the solar system.

“Understanding a comet’s water cycle and supply is critical to understanding these bodies as a system and as a possible source that delivered water to Earth,” she said. “Add the large organic component in comets and you have two of the key ingredients for life.”

More: NASA - Deep Impact Team Reports First Evidence of Cometary Ice