Thursday, April 27, 2017

NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Survives Dive Between Saturn and Its Rings

NASA's Cassini spacecraft survived its first-ever dive through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, and is back in contact with Earth.

Cassini is now in the process of beaming back science and engineering data collected during its passage. NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert acquired Cassini's signal at 12:56 a.m. EDT on April 27 and data began flowing at 3:01 a.m. EDT.

While NASA scientists were confident Cassini would pass through the gap successfully, they took extra precautions with this first dive because the region had never been explored.

The gap between the rings and the top of Saturn's atmosphere is about 1,500 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide. The best models for the region suggested that if there were ring particles in the area where Cassini crossed the ring plane, they would be tiny, on the scale of smoke particles. The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 77,000 mph (124,000 kph) relative to the planet, so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft.

As a protective measure, the spacecraft used its large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna (13 feet or 4 meters across) as a shield, orienting it in the direction of oncoming ring particles. This meant that the spacecraft was out of contact with Earth during the ring-plane crossing, which took place at 5 a.m. EDT on April 26. Cassini was programmed to collect science data while close to the planet and turn toward Earth to make contact about 20 hours after the crossing.

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn's other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape."

As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn's cloud tops (where the air pressure is 1 bar -- comparable to the atmospheric pressure of Earth at sea level) and within about 200 miles (300 kilometers) of the innermost visible edge of the rings.

This is the first of 22 orbits that pass between the planet and its rings, ending with a fiery plunge into Saturn on September 15, 2017.  Cassini's next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

SpaceX Set To Launch Spy Satellite From Kennedy Space Center

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite (NROL-76) is scheduled to liftoff between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday, April 30, 2017, from from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

As seen in the above photo, a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket was completed on Tuesday without incident. Following the static fire explosion last year which resulted in the destruction of the AMOS-6 satellite, all SpaceX static fire tests are now performed without the payload attached to  the Falcon 9.


As is customary with spy satellite launches, few details have been released about the mission other than that it is in support of national defense.  NROL-76 is a historic first for SpaceX because it is the first Department of Defense mission for the relatively new aerospace company.

Attempted Ground Landing, Sonic Boom

After first stage separation, SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1.  Landing Zone 1 is built on the former site of Space Launch Complex 13, a Cold War-Era U.S. Air Force rocket and missile testing range last used in 1978.

Residents of the communities of Cape Canaveral, Cocoa, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, Mims, Port Canaveral, Port St. John, Rockledge, Scottsmoor, Sharpes, and Titusville, Florida, are most likely to hear a sonic boom, although what Brevard County residents experience will depend on weather conditions and other factors.

Photo credit: SpaceX

Sunday, April 23, 2017

3D Video Shows Thousands of Pieces Of Space Junk Orbiting Earth

The European Space Agency released a stunning 3D video animation of man-made space debris orbiting the Earth and other planets that could catastrophically collide with future spacecraft.

Since 1957, more than 5,250 launches have led to more than 23,000 tracked debris objects in orbit. Only about 1,200 are working satellites – the rest are debris and no longer serve any useful purpose often referred to as 'space junk.'

Two major contributors of the space debris were the Chinese Feng Yun-1C anti-satellite test in 2007 that created more than 3400 tracked fragments; and the first-ever accidental collision between two satellites, Iridium-33 and Cosmos-2251, which created 2300 tracked fragments in 2009.

Scientists are now calling for coordinated international action to mitigate space pollution to ensure the long-term sustainability of spaceflight.

The call for international action came on the final day of the European Conference on Space Debris, a gathering of over 350 participants from science, academia, industry and space agencies worldwide held at ESA’s mission control center, where the ESA Space Debris Office and the SSA effort are based.

During the conference, ESA Director General Jan Woerner made an appeal to keep Earth’s orbital environment as clean as possible. “In order to enable innovative services for citizens and future developments in space, we must cooperate now to guarantee economically vital spaceflight. We must sustain the dream of future exploration,” he said.

Researchers also confirmed there is now a critical need to remove defunct satellites from orbit before they disintegrate and generate even more debris.

“Only about 60% of the satellites that should be disposed of at the end of their missions under current guidelines are, in fact, properly managed,” noted Holger Krag, head of ESA’s debris office.

Many derelict craft have exploded or broken up, generating an estimated 750,000 pieces larger than 1 centimeter and a staggering 166 million larger than 1 millimeter.

“In orbit, these objects have tremendous relative velocities, faster than a bullet, and can damage or destroy functioning space infrastructure, like economically vital telecom, weather, navigation, broadcast and climate-monitoring satellites,” said Dr. Krag.

“This means urgently developing the means for actively removing debris, targeting about 10 large defunct satellites from orbit each year, beginning as soon as possible – starting later will not be nearly as effective.”

Image and video credit: ESA

Cassini Takes Photo Of Earth Through Saturn's Rings Before Suicide Plunge

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped a farewell photo of Earth through Saturn's rings as the probe begins to alter its orbit for a 'Grand Finale' suicide plunge into Saturn later this year.

Cassini captured the image on April 12, 2017 when it was 870 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) away from Earth. Although far too small to be visible in the image, the part of Earth facing toward Cassini at the time was the southern Atlantic Ocean.

This weekend, Cassini made its final close flyby of Saturn's haze-enshrouded moon Titan. The flyby marks the mission's final opportunity for up-close observations of the lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons that spread across the moon's northern polar region, and the last chance to use its powerful radar to pierce the haze and make detailed images of the surface.

Cassini's closest approach to Titan occurred at 2:08 a.m. EDT on April 22, 2017. During the encounter, Cassini passed as close as 608 miles (979 kilometers) above Titan's surface at a speed of about 13,000 mph (21,000 kph).

The flyby is also the gateway to Cassini's Grand Finale, which is a final set of 22 orbits that pass between the planet and its rings, ending with a fiery plunge into Saturn on September 15, 2017.  

During the close pass, Titan's gravity bent Cassini's orbit around Saturn, shrinking it slightly, so that instead of passing just outside the rings, the spacecraft will begin its finale dives which pass just inside the rings.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Friday, April 21, 2017

Lyrid Meteor Shower 2017 Peaks Tonight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight during the early morning hours of Sunday, April 23, 2017.

When to watch the Lyrid Meteor Shower

Lyrids are best seen around 4 a.m. your local time in the northern hemisphere, but can bee seen anytime after 11 p.m. The moon will be entering its New Moon phase during the peak Lyrid dates. So, this dark night sky will create excellent viewing conditions for the 2017 Lyrid meteor shower.

Where to watch the Lyrid Meteor Shower

The Lyrid meteor shower can be viewed from all over the world.  Cloudless skies and far away from city lights are ideal for watching meteor showers.

Where to look for watch the Lyrid Meteor Shower

You can tell if a meteor belongs to a particular shower by tracing back its path to see if it originates near a specific point in the sky, called the radiant. The constellation in which the radiant is located gives the shower its name, and in this case, Lyrids appear to come from a point in the constellation Lyra which is located in the Summer Triangle.

The Summer Triangle is made of the three bright stars Deneb in Cygnus (the Swan), Altair in Aquila (the Eagle), and Vega in Lyra (the Lyre, or harp). Night skywatchers will be able to find Vega and Lyra high in the eastern sky a few hours after midnight in April.

How to Watch The April 2017 Meteor Shower

For optimal viewing, find an open sky, lie on the ground, and look straight up into the dark sky. Your eyes can take up to 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness, so allow plenty of time for your eyes to dark-adapt.

Lyrids are pieces of debris from the periodic Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher that have been observed for more than 2,600 years.  In mid-April of each year, Earth runs into the stream of cosmic debris from the comet which causes the Lyrid meteor shower and the resulting shooting stars seen from Earth.

The number of Lyrids are very unpredictable, with peak meteor rates between 10-100 per hour. NASA forecasts that the peak rate of the Lyrids will be 18 meteors per hour in 2017.

Image and video credit: NASA

Monday, April 17, 2017

First Live 360 Degree Video of a Rocket Launch From Cape Canaveral

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - The launch of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida has been scheduled for a 30-minute launch window that opens at 11:11 a.m. on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

World's First 360-degree Live Stream

This will be the world’s first live 360-degree stream of a rocket launch. The live 360 stream of the cargo resupply mission liftoff to the International Space Station may be viewed on the NASA Television YouTube channel starting 10 minutes prior to lift off.

YouTube supports playback of 360-degree videos on computers using Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer and Opera browsers. Viewers may use the YouTube app to view the launch on a smart phone. Those who own virtual reality headsets will be able to look around and experience the view as if they were actually standing on the launch pad.

Launch Weather 90% 'GO'

According to the latest weather forecast from the United States Air Force 45th Weather Squadron, there is an 90% percent chance overall of acceptable weather conditions for Tuesday's launch.  The primary weather concern for launch is cumulus clouds.

Orbital ATK Mission

This mission marks the third launch of a Cygnus spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket and will be Orbital ATK’s seventh operational mission (OA-7) to the International Space Station for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services contract. The mission also marks the debut of the enhanced Cygnus, which will carry approximately 7,225 kilogram (15,928 pounds) of cargo to the International Space Station.

The Atlas V rocket will place the spacecraft on a precise path to reach the space station about four days after launch. Cygnus will then approach close enough for the station's 55-foot-long robotic arm to grapple the supply craft and connect it to one of the ports on the orbiting laboratory.

The spacecraft, powered by its own set of solar arrays, will remain connected to the station until June. During that time, astronauts will unload the Cygnus, including research dedicated to range of fields such as astronomy, biology, crystal growth and technology development. The spacecraft also will carry an advanced plant habitat for growing vegetables in orbit.

ABOVE IMAGE: An Atlas V rocket carrying an Orbital ATK Cynus spacecraft stands ready on Launch Complex-41 launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA

Thursday, April 13, 2017

NASA Releases New 'Black Marble' Earth At Night Map

NASA has just released the first new Earth at night map since 2012. This nighttime global composite map of our home planet, dubbed the Black Marble, provides researchers with a unique perspective of human activities worldwide. By studying Earth at night, researchers can investigate how cities expand, monitor light intensity to estimate energy use and economic activity, and aid in disaster response.

NASA scientists examined the different ways that light is radiated, scattered and reflected by land, atmospheric and ocean surfaces. Scientists say that the principal challenge in the nighttime satellite imaging was accounting for the phases of the moon, which constantly varies the amount of light shining on Earth, though in predictable ways. Likewise, seasonal vegetation, clouds, aerosols, snow and ice cover, and even faint atmospheric emissions (such as airglow and auroras) change the way light is observed in different parts of the world. The new maps were produced with data from all months of each year. The research team led by Earth scientist Miguel Román of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland wrote code that picked the clearest night views each month, ultimately combining moonlight-free and moonlight-corrected data.

You can zoom into any place on Earth using NASA's "Earth at Night Map" online.

Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Video credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA To Make Big Announcement About Alien Life On Saturn Moon

WASHINGTON, D.C. - NASA is expected to make a big announcement about the possibility of alien life on Saturn's moons during a news briefing 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 13, 2017.

One of Saturn's moons that could harbor life is Enceladus where NASA scientists discovered a regional sea that likely has hydrothermal activity is taking place on the ocean floor.

As part of its final mission, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to make a close flyby of Enceladus on October 28, 2017. During that flyby, Cassini will make its deepest-ever dive through the Enceladus' plume of icy spray, sampling the chemistry of the extraterrestrial ocean beneath the ice. The spacecraft will pass a mere 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the Enceladus' surface.

NASA scientists are hopeful data from this encounter will provide evidence of how much hydrothermal activity is occurring in the moon's ocean, along with more detailed insights about the ocean's chemistry - both of which relate to the potential habitability of the moon.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Space Shuttle Tile Stolen From Kennedy Space Center Exhibit

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida - A space shuttle tile on exhibit was stolen from the Atlantis Exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday, April 9, 2017.

"I had a somewhat traumatizing experience at the Atlantis exhibit today," NASA educational staff member wrote on her Facebook page. "I wasn't even up there for 10 mins. when someone STOLE one of my shuttle tiles! I had it on our upper shelf behind the cart where it's a bit difficult to reach it. I was about 10ft. away and every now and then looking at it while I was talking to guests. I noticed a large crowd surrounding the cart, and scurried back. I 'footprint' everything I have there; and immediately noticed it was gone!"

Far from the priceless moon rocks that NASA has lost over the years, this particular thermal tile was never used on a space shuttle but instead was only used for educational purposes. After the end of the Shuttle Program, NASA began to give away tiles and astronaut food to educational institutions. Space shuttle tiles have made their way to collectors and now sell on Ebay anywhere from $35 to $200. 

But the relatively low monetary value of the tile hasn't stopped NASA fans on social media and Reddit to attempt to recover the stolen tile.

Photo credit: NASA

Full Pink Moon Tonight, April 11, 2017

Full Pink Moon: Credit NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- There will be a Full Moon tonight on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, that is called a Pink Moon. Because Passover and Easter occur in April in 2017, this particular moon is also known as an "Easter Moon" and "The Paschal Moon."

When will the Pink Moon happen?

The 2017 Pink Moon will begin with a moonrise over the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. east coast at 8:18 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time with a slight time variation depending on the viewer's exact location. The Moon will be 99.9% full that night before setting the following morning at 8:01 a.m.

What does the Pink Moon mean?

A Full Moon in April is also called a Pink Moon because Colonial Americans learned that name from Native Americans who associated the April Full Moon with the blooming of pink flowers in early Spring named wild ground phlox, according to the Farmer's Almanac. Other names for April's Full Moon are also associated with Springtime: Full Sprouting Grass Moon (sprouting vegetation in Spring), Egg Moon (animal mating in Spring), and Full Fish Moon (when fish spawn in spring).

What causes a Pink Moon?

The time of year that a Full Moon happens does not affect its color.  The Full Moon on April 11, 2017 will likely be pearly-gray to most locations on Earth just like any other Full Moon. But particles in the local atmosphere caused by weather, forest fires, volcanoes, and pollution can filter out certain light colors of the moon. This is especially true when the moon rises or sets near the horizon and the sunlight reflecting from the moon has more atmosphere to travel through before reaching the viewer on Earth. Full Moons have appeared pink, yellow, red, blue, green, and (most often) orange. 

Below is a video of an April Full Moon that was pink when it first appeared over the Atlantic Ocean horizon. The Moon then changed from pink to orange (and later yellow) as it rose higher in the sky.