mercredi 11 décembre 2019

Blue Origin - New Shepard Mission NS-12

Blue Origin logo.

Dec. 11, 2019

New Shepard Mission NS-12 lift off

The New Shepard reusable launch system was launched and landed at Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site, on 11 December 2019, at 17:53 UTC (11:53 CST). This was the 6th mission, launch and landing, for this New Shepard launch vehicle. Audio commentary by Ariane Cornell, Director of Astronaut & Orbital Sales, Blue Origin.

Blue Origin NS-12: New Shepard launch & landing, December 2019

New Shepard Mission NS-12 Updates: December 11

This mission was another step towards verifying New Shepard for human spaceflight as we continue to mature the safety and reliability of the vehicle.

This was the 6th flight for this particular New Shepard vehicle. Blue Origin has so far reused two boosters five times each consecutively, so today marks a record with this booster completing its 6th flight to space and back.

This particular rocket has been an operational payload vehicle for several flights, meaning there are no more updates to the system.

New Shepard Mission NS-12 landing (rocket)

This was also the 9th commercial payload mission for New Shepard, and we are proud to be have flown our 100th customer on board.

NS-12 Update: December 8

As we move towards verifying New Shepard for human spaceflight we are continuing to mature the safety and reliability of the vehicle.

It’s the 6th flight for this particular New Shepard vehicle, marking the first time a Blue Origin booster has made this many consecutive flights (the previous booster flew five times consecutively) - all with minimal refurbishment between flights. This particular rocket has been an operational payload vehicle for several flights, meaning there are no more updates to the system.

This will also be the 9th commercial payload mission for New Shepard, and we are proud to be flying our 100th customer on board.

Also on the vehicle are thousands of postcards from students around the world for our nonprofit Club for the Future. The Club's mission is to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help visualize the future of life in space.

New Shepard Mission NS-12 Notable Payloads Manifested:


Earlier this year we partnered with rock band OK Go on a contest called Art in Space, giving high school and middle school students a chance to send art experiments into space on our New Shepard vehicle. We are sending the two winning art projects on NS-12. 

Columbia University

One of our educational payloads from Columbia University, designed and built by undergraduate students and advised by Dr. Michael Massimino (an astronaut), will study the acute impacts of microgravity environments on cell biology. This is crucial for humans living and working in space.


OSCAR, which was led by principal investigator Dr. Annie Meier, is a recycling technology payload from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. It is designed to create a mixture of gasses that could be used for propulsion or life support from common waste on a deep space human exploration mission. This is Blue’s first full-stack payload, meaning there will be more room to do complex studies in flight.

Related links:

Club for the Future:

Partnered with rock band OK Go:

Art in Space:

Blue Origin:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: Credits: Blue Origin/SciNews/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.


Roscosmos - Soyuz-2.1b launches new GLONASS-M navigation satellite

Glonass Navigation Satellites patch.

Dec. 11, 2019

Soyuz-2.1b launches new GLONASS-M navigation satellite. Image Credit: ROSCOSMOS

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket launched a new GLONASS-M satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia, on 11 December 2019, at 08:54 UTC (11:54 local time).

Soyuz-2.1b launches new GLONASS-M navigation satellite

According to official sources, the navigation satellite was placed into the desired orbit and is functioning normally. GLONASS-M (ГЛОНАСС-М), also known as Uragan-M (Ураган-М) is part of the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system.

More information:

Flight tests of the Soyuz-2 space launch complex began at the Plesetsk cosmodrome on November 8, 2004. Over the past fourteen years, 37 launches of Soyuz-2 rocket launchers of modernization stages 1A, 1B and 1B have been conducted from the northern cosmodrome.

GLONASS-M satellite. Image Credit: ROSCOSMOS

The Glonass-M spacecraft launched into orbit has replenished the orbital grouping of the Russian Glonass Global Navigation Satellite System and is at the stage of entry into the system. At present, the Glonass orbital group comprises 27 spacecraft, of which one spacecraft of the new generation, Glonass-K, is undergoing flight tests and one Glonass-M spacecraft is in orbital reserve.

Roscosmos Press Release:

For more information about GLONASS network, visit:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: Roscosmos/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/SciNews/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.


Wide Range of Space Research Keeping Crew Busy Today

ISS - Expedition 61 Mission patch.

December 11, 2019

The International Space Station is a hive of science activity today as the Expedition 61 crew and mission controllers initiate a variety of space research.

Inside the orbiting lab, mice are being scanned to study how their bones change in microgravity. Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch placed the rodents in a new bone densitometer and imaged their bones. The new Rodent Research-19 study is investigating two proteins that may prevent muscle and bone loss in space.

Image above: NASA astronauts Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir conduct research operations inside the Japanese Kibo lab module’s Life Sciences Glovebox. Image Credit: NASA.

NASA Flight Engineer Andrew Morgan and ESA Commander Luca Parmitano were in the Columbus lab module exploring how they grip and manipulate objects in space. Insights may help future astronauts adjust to long-term missions farther into space and possibly planetary exploration.

Mission controllers on the ground today commanded the Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach into the back of the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship and extract the new HISUI experiment device. HISUI, or Hyperspectral Imagery Suite, is a unique Earth imaging system that can benefit agriculture, forestry and other environmental areas. HISUI will be installed on the outside of the Kibo lab module to scan the Earth’s surface using high spectral resolution.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

In the Russian segment of the station, the cosmonauts focused on docking port inspections and life science. Oleg Skripochka photographed internal and external docking gear and continued unpacking cargo from the Progress 74 resupply ship. Alexander Skvortsov finalized a 24-hour monitoring of his heart activity then contributed to a study observing how space crews interact with mission controllers.

Related links:

Expedition 61:

Bone densitometer:

Rodent Research-19:

Columbus lab module:

Grip and manipulate objects:


SpaceX Dragon resupply ship:


Kibo lab module:

Progress 74 resupply ship:

Heart activity:

How space crews interact with mission controllers:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

Best regards,

Inner to Outer Space: Studying Biological Changes with Plants on Rockets

NASA logo.

Dec. 11, 2019

What happens to the genes of organisms as they travel from the ground, through Earth’s atmosphere and into space? Does their expression change? Are the changes subtle or dramatic? Do they happen quickly or gradually?

Answering such fundamental research questions is essential to our understanding of the impact of space travel on humans and other organisms. Two researchers from the University of Florida in Gainesville have been chipping away at the answers since the 1990s—using plants.

Soon, co-principal investigators Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul will launch their “space plants”—Arabidopsis thaliana to be exact—along with advanced cameras and sensors for imaging them on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. The flight test, facilitated by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, is the latest suborbital experiment to help the investigators further examine the cornerstone questions of two decades of biological research.

Image above: Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket at the company’s West Texas Launch Site in January 2019. Image Credit: Blue Origin.

“About half of the genes in our bodies encode the exact same proteins in plants,” explained Paul. “And that’s very exciting because it means that as we look at how plants behave in the absence of gravity, we can translate many of those basic biological processes to humans.”

And it turns out that plants behave quite differently in space compared to on the ground. In particular, plant growth is distinctly unique, with roots branching in skewed or random patterns rather than extending down from the shoots like they typically do on Earth.

Ferl and Paul began studying how plants respond to microgravity on the molecular level with space shuttle experiments in the late ‘90s, the findings from which they later applied to longer term observations with nine experiments on the International Space Station.

Image above: The University of Florida’s “space plants” experiment studies include Arabidopsis thaliana plants, as seen here, engineered with fluorescence signaling molecules for precise imaging using advanced cameras and sensors. Image Credit: University of Florida.

“What we learned from those early experiments was certain notions of how plants adapt to space. And then we compared that with how they behave on the ground,” said Ferl. “That’s monumental, but it doesn’t tell us what happens in the transition. Essentially nowhere in the history of space biology have scientists had the opportunity to fully examine the transition from 1 g to 0 g and back.”

Enter parabolic flights, many of which were facilitated by NASA, where Ferl and Paul were able to start examining that transition during 30-second periods of microgravity.

“Those flights gave us the first hints that plant adaptation happens very rapidly,” said Paul. “We could get small glimpses into the transition using fluorescent imaging to study different types of molecule signaling and look at what genes are turned off, what genes are turned on and when that happens.”

Image above: With NASA’s help, researchers Robert Ferl (left) and Anna-Lisa Paul (right) have leveraged several parabolic flights to test the thermal imaging hardware that enables precise views of plants, looking for clues on the molecular level to explain gene behavior during different phases of microgravity. Image Credits: University of Florida.

Ferl and Paul have now adapted their fluorescent imaging hardware to suborbital vehicles, where they continue studying the transition phase—the new frontier of their work. Of particular interest is calcium signaling, which is known to flip the switch on or off for specific genes in response to external stimuli, such as wind blowing across the leaves, the hungry bite of a caterpillar, or something more dramatic—like a change in gravity.

“Our very first spaceflight experiment indicated that being in space changes some aspects of calcium signaling,” explained Ferl. “And calcium signaling in particular is very similar between plants and animals, so we want to better understand that role in response to transitions in gravity.”

Suborbital flights are now enabling imaging of molecular changes during gravity transitions in real time—and with longer durations of microgravity than possible on parabolic flights. A suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in December 2018 and a launch on New Shepard in January 2019 have hinted at some surprising findings.

“Our early suborbital data about how genes are responding is telling us that the calcium signaling during the transitions in gravity is working in ways we did not anticipate,” noted Paul. “And that, of course, is very exciting because it means there is much to learn.”

While Paul and Ferl can’t say just yet what this means for their findings, data from the upcoming flight, which is scheduled to launch from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site no earlier than Dec. 10, 2019, will help confirm earlier suborbital findings, potentially leading to a new breakthrough in their research with significant implications for human space exploration.

“Understanding the biological processes of plants in space can give us insight into those processes in humans, but the plants are important in and of themselves,” said Paul.

Ferl added that while they and other scientists have grown successful plant harvests in sustained microgravity in space station experiments, their ongoing work is helping to understand the underlying metabolic changes that allow those plants to adapt to spaceflight.

“Understanding what it takes to help plants thrive in space—as a food and oxygen source and for other needs—is crucial to any exploration initiative where the goal is a long-term habitat,” said Paul.

More Tech Aboard New Shepard: A Method for Managing Trash in Space

Seven other Flight Opportunities-supported payloads will also be tested on New Shepard, including the Orbital Syngas Commodity Augmentation Reactor—OSCAR for short. OSCAR, just like the Grouch, loves trash. The system uses two chemical processes, oxidation and steam reforming, to turn things like food packaging, old clothing and even human waste into water and a mixture of gases that include hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane. OSCAR is one of several logistics reduction technologies NASA is investigating that could be useful for long-duration space exploration.

Image above: NASA researcher Gino Carro prepares a prototype of NASA’s Orbital Syngas Commodity Augmentation Reactor (OSCAR) for a drop tower 2.2 second microgravity test at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in November 2018. Image Credit: NASA.

A multi-disciplinary team made up of early career researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is working on the project to help manage trash and waste in space and transform it into useful resources. The project is an Early Career Initiative funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

NASA estimates that a crew of four astronauts will generate approximately 5,500 pounds of waste during a one-year mission. Future long-duration missions, such as sending humans to Mars, will require new methods for trash handling and disposal. If OSCAR can turn trash into gases that a crew can use, it would greatly reduce the space needed for waste storage, while also making it biologically safe.

“Trash management should be a primary consideration for long-duration deep space human spaceflight,” said Anne Meier, OSCAR’s principal investigator at Kennedy. “OSCAR will be the first time we look at some of the engineering operations and science involved in the design for such a system to work in microgravity.”

OSCAR’s launch on New Shepard will enable researchers to add to data from previous lab and drop tests, evaluate the performance of the reactor, and inform future designs. The instrument will use trash simulants for this suborbital test flight.

About Flight Opportunities

The Flight Opportunities program is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley manages the solicitation and evaluation of technologies to be tested and demonstrated on commercial flight vehicles.

Related links:

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program:

International Space Station (ISS):

Orbital Syngas Commodity Augmentation Reactor—OSCAR:

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate:

NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center:

NASA's Ames Research Center:

NASA's Kennedy Space Center:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Loura Hall/Armstrong Flight Research Center, by Nicole Quenelle.

Best regards,

Postcards from the Edge of Space: Scientists Present New Ionosphere Images and Science

NASA - Space Weather logo.

Dec. 11, 2019

Space weather illustration. Image Credit: NASA

In a Dec. 10 press event at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, three scientists presented new images of the ionosphere, the dynamic region where Earth’s atmosphere meets space. Home to astronauts and everyday technology like radio and GPS, the ionosphere constantly responds to changes from space above and Earth below.

The collection of images presented include the first images from NASA’s ICON, new science results from NASA’s GOLD, and observations of a fleeting, never-before-studied aurora. Together, they bring color to invisible processes that have widespread implications for the part of space that is closest to home.

Earth’s ionosphere stretches from 50 to 400 miles above the ground and overlaps the top of the atmosphere and the very beginning of space. Radiation from the Sun cooks a small portion of gases in the upper atmosphere until they lose an electron or two. The result: a sea of electrically charged particles intermingled with the neutral upper atmosphere.

Besides energy streaming in from the Sun and near-Earth space, the ionosphere also responds to weather patterns that ripple up from the lower atmosphere below. These changes — which can impact astronauts and key communications systems — are complex and unpredictable. A range of specialized instruments is key to studying and understanding them.

Auroral seashell in the sky 

Animation above: All-sky cameras in Longyearbyen, Norway, near the Arctic Circle captured these images of an unusual, spiraling aurora. Animation Credits: Fred Sigernes/Kjell Henriksen Observatory, Longyearbyen, Norway/Joy Ng.

The most dramatic changes in the ionosphere are visible with our own eyes, when auroras dance over the poles. Often, the vivid light displays result from intense solar eruptions that send energy surging into the ionosphere. But Jennifer Briggs, a physics student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, found an unusual, twisting aurora that appeared during quiet solar conditions.

By studying auroras, scientists can probe what’s happening in the ionosphere, and even farther out into the magnetosphere, the magnetic bubble surrounding Earth that is created by our planet’s magnetic field.

During an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Briggs stumbled upon the aurora in images from ground-based, all-sky cameras located in Svalbard, Norway, near the Arctic Circle. The short-lived aurora had an unusual spiral that caught her attention; it made Briggs think of a seashell. Its twisting motions indicated the magnetosphere had experienced a significant disturbance. Indeed, data from NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, or MMS, showed a dramatic compression of the magnetosphere.

That meant something had pummeled the magnetosphere, pushing its outer boundary — the magnetopause — toward Earth. In just 1 minute and 45 seconds, the magnetopause retreated a distance that would take a commercial jet 27 hours to fly across. While such a disturbance hasn’t been documented before, scientists expect they would be associated with the most intense solar eruptions. But Briggs checked the Sun for activity, and no such eruptions preceded the aurora.

Using multiple sets of observations — from the all-sky cameras, MMS and radars on the ground — Briggs and her collaborators determined the disruption was very different from those that impact our power or communications systems. “You can imagine someone punching Earth’s magnetic field,” Briggs said. “There was a massive, but localized compression.”

Rather than a solar eruption, the researchers think the aurora originated from the foreshock. That’s the turbulent region just outside the magnetosphere where Earth’s magnetic field deflects incoming high-energy particles from the Sun. This is the first time scientists have documented such an intense storm from the foreshock.

“There’s no way we can have satellites everywhere between the Sun and Earth,” Briggs said. In this case, the spiraling aurora caught her attention, indicating stormy conditions in the magnetosphere. “The all-sky camera acted like a peephole, allowing us to peer into the state of the magnetic field.” Luckily, the MMS spacecraft were in the right place at the right time to view the compression. But the lack of satellites around MMS made it impossible to understand the event without data from the ground.

New GOLD results

While all-sky cameras provide views of the ionosphere from the ground, GOLD surveys the region from geostationary orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth. GOLD Principal Investigator Richard Eastes, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, presented new results from the mission: observations that show the region is far more variable than scientists ever expected.

Short for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, GOLD is an instrument that images the ionosphere in far ultraviolet light. This particular wavelength of light is invisible to our eyes, but useful for tracking changes in the ionosphere’s temperature, density and composition.

Since GOLD can see the entire Western Hemisphere at once, it can observe ionospheric changes and patterns across the globe. In the past year, GOLD has helped scientists pin down how the ionosphere responds to geomagnetic storms: Atomic oxygen increases at low latitudes and decreases at high latitudes, while molecular nitrogen does the opposite.

GOLD Views July 2 Total Solar Eclipse

Video above: In this visualization, GOLD data is used to show how the ionosphere responded to the July 2 total solar eclipse. On the left (in visible light), the Moon’s shadow races across South American. On the right, far ultraviolet light shows nitrogen emissions. Video Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/GOLD/Thomas Bridgman/Saurav Aryal.

GOLD’s unique vantage point also enabled observations of the July 2 total solar eclipse in South America. In typical day-night cycles, the pool of electrically charged atmospheric gases waxes and wanes with the Sun. During the day, the ionosphere is dense. At night, when the Sun is no longer energizing the atmosphere, the atmosphere cools. Charged particles gradually recombine. The ionosphere thins. In a total eclipse, the same thing happens over a much shorter amount of time. As the July 2 eclipse crossed over the bottom of South America, scientists were, for the first time, able to watch this thinning evolve across the Southern Hemisphere, from space.​

Image above: The nighttime ionosphere varies a great deal from night to night. These panels show the density and shifting location of the nighttime ionosphere between Oct. 7-25, 2019. Most of the ions are oxygen ions. At night, when they recombine with electrons, they emit light at a specific wavelength — 135.6 nanometers — which GOLD observes. Regions of higher ion density produce brighter emissions. Radio disturbances often occur when longitudinal gaps develop, such as the one off the east coast of South America in the top left image. Why the nighttime ionosphere varies so much — even during quiet geomagnetic conditions — is not understood. Image Credits: NASA/GOLD/Robert Daniell.

The GOLD scientists were also surprised by how much the nighttime ionosphere varies night to night. The paths that radio frequency waves take, such as those used by GPS, depend on the density of the ionosphere. Sometimes, changes in the density can interfere with these signals.

At night, charged particles tend to settle in crests beside Earth’s magnetic equator. Eastes likened the images to a T-rex’s toothy grin. On one night, the crests are evenly spaced over the equator, as if the T-rex is baring its teeth. The next night, the crests are far apart like the T-rex’s mouth is open wide, and the night after that, in a different position entirely. Why the nighttime ionosphere varies so much is still unclear.

“These were very surprising findings to me, and to the rest of the team who’s been looking at this stuff for many years,” Eastes said. “It’s not something we anticipated at all.”

First light ICON images

ICON — short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer — is well-positioned to investigate the variability GOLD has uncovered.

“We have a mission to explore day-to-day variability just like GOLD is showing,” said Thomas Immel, ICON principal investigator at University of California, Berkeley. “ICON is built to explore this region of space and try to capture all that could be influencing the ionosphere this way.”

The relationship between NASA’s two ionospheric missions could be likened to photography: If GOLD captures landscapes from 22,000 miles above Earth, ICON — at just 360 miles — specializes in detailed close-ups. During certain parts of its orbit, ICON passes through GOLD's field of view and each mission can get a snapshot of the same region, from their own unique perspectives. This overlap makes it easier to identify what caused a certain change to the upper atmosphere at a given time.

Animation above: The Extreme Ultraviolet Instrument depends upon accurately measuring the light from glowing oxygen in order to track the height and density of the daytime ionosphere. The ICON team calibrated the Extreme Ultraviolet instrument on a known source: the Moon. The bright line on the left is EUV emissions from ionized helium in the solar wind, which fills the solar system. The horizontal stripes are the result of EUV scanning over the Moon, which reflects solar radiation. Animation Credits: NASA/ICON/Martin Sirk/Joy Ng.

ICON launched on Oct.10, 2019, and began science mode on Dec. 1. Immel presented the first images the spacecraft took during its commissioning and calibration period, demonstrating the capabilities of ICON’s instruments and presenting a taste of what the scientists hope to observe.

ICON carries three imagers that survey airglow, the natural glow of Earth’s atmosphere caused by solar radiation. Each atmospheric gas has its own favored airglow color depending on the gas, altitude region and excitation process, so scientists can use airglow to study where these gases are and how they behave.

Two instruments view airglow in ultraviolet. The Extreme Ultraviolet Instrument depends upon accurately measuring the light from glowing oxygen in order to track the height and density of the daytime ionosphere. Because the team had never made these measurements in orbit before, they calibrated their instrument on a known source: the Moon.

The Far Ultraviolet Instrument takes images in the same wavelength as GOLD. At night, it measures the density of the ionosphere, and during the day, composition. Immel said the images remind him of the window view from an airplane — 360 miles above the surface and in ultraviolet light.

“The first thing we see is a bit boring, but I’m excited nevertheless,” Immel said. “It’s exactly what you would expect if the instrument were working perfectly.” Now that ICON has undergone its extensive instrument checks, the scientists can begin looking for the ionosphere’s more interesting quirks. 

Animation above: At night, the Far Ultraviolet Instrument measures the density of the ionosphere. The pink light (left) is nitrogen emissions. The green light (blue) is oxygen emissions. Animation Credits: NASA/ICON/Harald Frey/Thomas Bridgman/Joy Ng.

ICON’s last imager is MIGHTI, short for the Michelson Interferometer for Global High-resolution Thermospheric Imaging. MIGHTI tracks red and green oxygen airglow to measure how the neutral atmosphere moves, which scientists think plays a role in the ionosphere’s daily changes. There is a black fringe pattern laid over the MIGHTI images; the magic, Immel said, happens between the lines. By measuring how airglow moves against the black lines, scientists can read the motions, or the winds, of the upper atmosphere.​

“With all these different data products, we’re going to make great strides in answering the questions GOLD has raised for us,” Immel said.

First Light from ICON’s MIGHTI Instrument

Video above: MIGHTI tracks red and green oxygen airglow to measure how the neutral atmosphere moves, which scientists think plays a role in the ionosphere’s daily changes.
Video Credits: NASA/ICON/Christoph Englert/Joy Ng.

Related links:

GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk):

ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer):

MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale):

American Geophysical Union:

Space Weather:

Animations (mentioned), Image (mentioned), Videos (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Lina Tran/Goddard Space Flight Center, by Lina Tran.


Revealing the Physics of the Sun with Parker Solar Probe

NASA - Parker Solar Probe patch.

Dec. 11, 2019

Nearly a year and a half into its mission, Parker Solar Probe has returned gigabytes of data on the Sun and its atmosphere. Following the release of the very first science from the mission, five researchers presented additional new findings from Parker Solar Probe at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 11, 2019. Research from these teams hints at the processes behind both the Sun's continual outflow of material — the solar wind — and more infrequent solar storms that can disrupt technology and endanger astronauts, along with new insight into space dust that creates the Geminids meteor shower.

The young solar wind

The solar wind carries the Sun's magnetic field with it, shaping space weather throughout the solar system as it flows out from the Sun at around a million miles per hour. Some of Parker Solar Probe's primary science goals are to pinpoint the mechanisms that send the solar wind streaming out into space at such high speeds.

Animation above: Animation of data from the WISPR instrument on Parker Solar Probe. The Sun is at the left of the animation, and Jupiter is highlighted in red. Image Credits: Naval Research Laboratory/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

One clue lies in disturbances in the solar wind that could point to the processes that heat and accelerate the wind. These structures — pockets of relatively dense material — have been glimpsed in data from earlier missions spanning decades. They are several times the size of Earth's entire magnetic field, which stretches tens of thousands of miles into space — meaning these structures can compress Earth's magnetic field on a global scale when they crash into it.

"When structures in the solar wind reach Earth, they can drive dynamics in Earth's magnetosphere, including particle precipitation from Earth's radiation belts," said Nicholeen Viall, a space scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who presented new findings on solar wind structures from Parker Solar Probe at the AGU meeting. Particle precipitation can cause a range of effects, like setting off the aurora and interfering with satellites.

Near the Sun, Parker Solar Probe made better-than-ever measurements of these solar wind structures, using both imagers to take pictures from afar and in situ instruments to measure the structures as they pass over the spacecraft. To get a more complete picture of these solar wind structures, Viall went one step further, combining observations from Parker, satellites near Earth, and NASA's STEREO-A spacecraft to examine these structures from multiple angles.​

Animation above: NASA's STEREO-A spacecraft, with its unique vantage point away from Earth, observed the Sun's outer atmosphere as Parker Solar Probe flew through it in November 2018, giving scientists another perspective on structures in this region. Image Credits: NASA/STEREO/Angelos Vourlidas.

STEREO-A carries an instrument called a coronagraph, which uses a solid disk to block out the bright light of the Sun, letting the camera capture images of the relatively faint outer atmosphere, the corona. From its vantage point about 90 degrees away from Earth, STEREO-A could see the regions of the corona that Parker was flying through — allowing Viall to combine the measurements in a novel way and get a better view of solar wind structures as they flowed out from the Sun. Alongside Parker Solar Probe's images, scientists now have a better view of magnetic disturbances in the solar wind.​

Parker's instruments are also shedding new light on the invisible processes in the solar wind, revealing a surprisingly active system near the Sun.

"We think of the solar wind — as we see it near Earth — as very smooth, but Parker saw surprisingly slow wind, full of little bursts and jets of plasma," said Tim Horbury, a lead researcher on Parker Solar Probe's FIELDS instruments based at Imperial College London.

Animation above: Parker Solar Probe measured sudden reversals in the Sun's magnetic field. These events, called "switchbacks," may provide clues to the processes that heat the Sun's outer atmosphere to millions of degrees. Image Credits: NASA/GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez.

Horbury used data from Parker Solar Probe's FIELDS instruments — which measure the scale and shape of electric and magnetic fields near the spacecraft — to examine in detail one particularly odd event: magnetic "switchbacks," sudden clusters of events when the solar magnetic field bends back on itself, first described with Parker Solar Probe's initial results on Dec. 4, 2019.​

The exact origin of the switchbacks isn't certain, but they may be signatures of the process that heats the Sun's outer atmosphere, the corona, to millions of degrees, hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. The cause of this counterintuitive jump in temperature is a longstanding question in solar science — referred to as the coronal heating mystery — and is closely related to questions about how the solar wind is energized and accelerated.

"We think the switchbacks are probably related to individual energetic energy releases on the Sun — what we call jets," said Horbury. "If these are jets, there must a very large population of small events happening on the Sun, so they would contribute a large fraction of the total energy of the solar wind."

A look inside solar storms

Along with the solar wind, the Sun also releases discrete clouds of material called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. Denser and sometimes faster than the solar wind, CMEs can also trigger space weather effects on Earth, or cause problems for satellites in their path.

CMEs are notoriously hard to predict. Some of them are simply not visible from Earth or from STEREO-A — the two positions where we have instruments capable of seeing CMEs from afar —  because they erupt from parts of the Sun out of view of both spacecraft. Even when they are spotted by instruments, it's not always possible to predict which CMEs will disturb Earth's magnetic field and trigger space weather effects, as the magnetic structure within the cloud of material plays a crucial role.

Our best shot at understanding the magnetic properties of any given CME relies on pinpointing the region on the Sun from which the CME exploded — meaning that one type eruption called a stealth CME poses a unique challenge for space weather forecasters.

Stealth CMEs are visible in coronagraphs — instruments that look only at the Sun's outer atmosphere — but don't leave clear signatures of their eruption in images of the Sun's disk, making it difficult to ascertain from where, exactly, they lifted off.

But during Parker Solar Probe's first solar flyby in November 2018, the spacecraft was hit by one of these stealth CMEs.

"Flying close to the Sun, Parker Solar Probe has a unique chance to see young CMEs that haven't been processed from traveling tens of millions of miles," said Kelly Korreck, head of science operations for Parker's SWEAP instruments, based at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "This was the first time we were able to stick our instruments inside one of these coronal mass ejections that close to the Sun."

In particular, Korreck used data from Parker's FIELDS and SWEAP instruments to get a snapshot of the internal structure of the CME. SWEAP, the mission's solar wind instruments, measures characteristics like velocity, temperature, and electron and proton densities of the solar wind. These measurements not only provide one of the first looks inside a CME so close to the Sun, but they may help scientists learn to trace stealth CMEs back to their sources.

Another type of solar storm consists of extremely energetic particles moving near the speed of light. Though often related to CME outbursts, these particles are subject to their own acceleration processes — and they move much faster than CMEs, reaching Earth and spacecraft in a matter of minutes. These particles can damage satellite electronics and endanger astronauts, but their speed makes them more difficult to avoid than many other types of space weather. 

Animation above: Parker Solar Probe observed how coronal mass ejections — which are outlined in black in this computer simulation — can act as "snowplows" for previously-released solar particles, contributing to energetic particle events. Animation Credits: Nathan Schwadron, et al.

These bursts of particles often, but not always, accompany other solar events like flares and CMEs, but predicting just when they'll make an appearance is difficult. Before particles reach the near-light speeds that makes them hazardous to spacecraft, electronics and astronauts, they go through a multi-stage energization process — but the first step in this process, near the Sun, hadn't been directly observed.

As Parker Solar Probe traveled away from the Sun in April 2019, after its second solar encounter, the spacecraft observed the largest-yet energetic particle event seen by the mission. Measurements by the energetic particle instrument suite, ISʘIS, have filled in one missing link in the processes of particle energization.

"The regions in front of coronal mass ejections build up material, like snowplows in space, and it turns out these 'snowplows' also build up material from previously released solar flares," said Nathan Schwadron, a space scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. 

Understanding how solar flares create populations of seed particles that feed energetic particle events will help scientists better predict when such events might happen, along with improving models of how they move through space. 

Asteroid fingerprints

Parker Solar Probe's WISPR instruments are designed to capture detailed images of the faint corona and solar wind, but they also picked up another difficult-to-see structure: a 60,000-mile-wide dust trail following the orbit of the asteroid Phaethon, which created the Geminids meteor shower. In 2019, the Geminids meteor shower peaks on the night of Dec. 13-14.

This trail of dust grains peppers Earth's atmosphere when our planet intersects with Phaethon's orbit each December, burning up and producing the spectacular show we call the Geminids. Though scientists have long known that Phaethon is the parent of the Geminids, seeing the actual dust trail hasn't been possible until now. Extremely faint and very close to the Sun in the sky, it has never been picked up by any previous telescope, despite several attempts — but WISPR is designed to see faint structures near the Sun. WISPR's first-ever direct view of the dust trail has given new information about its characteristics.​

Image above: Parker Solar Probe's WISPR instruments captured the first-ever view of a dust trail in the orbit of asteroid Phaethon. This dust trail creates the Geminids meteor shower, visible each December. Image Credits: Brendan Gallagher/Karl Battams/NRL.

"We calculate a mass on the order of a billion tons for the entire trail, which is not as much as we’d expect for the Geminids, but much more than Phaethon produces near the Sun," said Karl Battams, a space scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. "This implies that WISPR is only seeing a portion of the Geminid stream – not the entire thing – but it’s a portion that no one had ever seen or even knew was there, so that’s very exciting!”

With three orbits under its belt, Parker Solar Probe will continue its exploration of the Sun over the course of 21 progressively-closer solar flybys. The next orbit change will occur during the Venus flyby on Dec. 26, bringing Parker to about 11.6 million miles from the Sun's surface for its next close approach to the Sun on Jan. 29, 2020. With direct measurements of this never-before-measured environment — closer to the Sun than ever before — we can expect to learn even more about these phenomena and uncover entirely new questions.

Parker Solar Probe is part of NASA’s Living with a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Living with a Star program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Johns Hopkins APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

Related article (First results):

NASA's Parker Solar Probe Sheds New Light on the Sun

Related links:

Parker Solar Probe:

Geminids meteor shower:

NASA's STEREO-A spacecraft:

American Geophysical Union:

Images (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Lina Tran/Goddard Space Flight Center, by Sarah Frazier.


NASA's Treasure Map for Water Ice on Mars

NASA - 2001 Mars Odyssey patch / NASA - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) patch.

Dec. 11, 2019

NASA has big plans for returning astronauts to the Moon in 2024, a stepping stone on the path to sending humans to Mars. But where should the first people on the Red Planet land?

Animation above: The annotated area of Mars in this illustration holds near-surface water ice that would be easily accessible for astronauts to dig up. The water ice was identified as part of a map using data from NASA orbiters. Animation Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters will help by providing a map of water ice believed to be as little as an inch (2.5 centimeters) below the surface.

Water ice will be a key consideration for any potential landing site. With little room to spare aboard a spacecraft, any human missions to Mars will have to harvest what's already available for drinking water and making rocket fuel.

Mars Odyssey. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA calls this concept "in situ resource utilization," and it's an important factor in selecting human landing sites on Mars. Satellites orbiting Mars are essential in helping scientists determine the best places for building the first Martian research station. The authors of the new paper make use of data from two of those spacecraft, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter, to locate water ice that could potentially be within reach of astronauts on the Red Planet.

"You wouldn't need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel," said the paper's lead author, Sylvain Piqueux of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We're continuing to collect data on buried ice on Mars, zeroing in on the best places for astronauts to land."

Buried Treasure on Mars

Liquid water can't last in the thin air of Mars; with so little air pressure, it evaporates from a solid to a gas when exposed to the atmosphere.

Martian water ice is locked away underground throughout the planet's mid-latitudes. These regions near the poles have been studied by NASA's Phoenix lander, which scraped up ice, and MRO, which has taken many images from space of meteor impacts that have excavated this ice. To find ice that astronauts could easily dig up, the study's authors relied on two heat-sensitive instruments: MRO's Mars Climate Sounder and the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on Mars Odyssey.

Image above: This rainbow-colored map shows underground water ice on Mars. Cool colors are closer to the surface than warm colors; black zones indicate areas where a spacecraft would sink into fine dust; the outlined box represents the ideal region to send astronauts for them to dig up water ice. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.

Why use heat-sensitive instruments when looking for ice? Buried water ice changes the temperature of the Martian surface. The study's authors cross-referenced temperatures suggestive of ice with other data, such as reservoirs of ice detected by radar or seen after meteor impacts. Data from Odyssey's Gamma Ray Spectrometer, which is tailor-made for mapping water ice deposits, were also useful.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As expected, all these data suggest a trove of water ice throughout the Martian poles and mid-latitudes. But the map reveals particularly shallow deposits that future mission planners may want to study further.

Picking a Landing Site

While there are lots of places on Mars scientists would like to visit, few would make practical landing sites for astronauts. Most scientists have homed in on the northern and southern mid-latitudes, which have more plentiful sunlight and warmer temperatures than the poles. But there's a heavy preference for landing in the northern hemisphere, which is generally lower in elevation and provides more atmosphere to slow a landing spacecraft.

Seven Minutes of Terror - Phoenix Mars Lander 2007

A large portion of a region called Arcadia Planitia is the most tempting target in the northern hemisphere. The map shows lots of blue and purple in this region, representing water ice less than one foot (30 centimeters) below the surface; warm colors are over two feet (60 centimeters) deep. Sprawling black zones on the map represent areas where a landing spacecraft would sink into fine dust.

What's Next?

Piqueux is planning a comprehensive campaign to continue studying buried ice across different seasons, watching how the abundance of this resource changes over time.

The more we look for near-surface ice, the more we find," said MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL. "Observing Mars with multiple spacecraft over the course of years continues to provide us with new ways of discovering this ice."

JPL manages the MRO and Mars Odyssey missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built both orbiters. JPL built and operates the Mars Climate Sounder instrument. THEMIS was built and is operated by Arizona State University in Tempe. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer was built and is operated by the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Related links:

Mars Odyssey:

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO):

Phoenix Mars lander:

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/Alana Johnson/JPL/Andrew Good/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.

Best regards,

mardi 10 décembre 2019

Advanced Biology Research Taking Place on Station Today

ISS - Expedition 61 Mission patch.

December 10, 2019

Advanced space research is in full gear aboard the International Space Station today. The Expedition 61 crew is activating new science gear and continuing long-running experiments to benefit humans on and off the Earth.

Rodents delivered aboard the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship are now being housed inside the U.S. Destiny laboratory module. They are being studied for ways to prevent muscle and bone loss in microgravity. NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan have been setting up the habitats and stocking them with food and water to support the mice.

Image above: The SpaceX Dragon resupply ship approaches the International Space Station as both spacecraft were orbiting 257 miles above Egypt. Image Credit: NASA.

A specialized 3-D printer aboard the orbiting lab is testing printing cellular structures in space due to the detrimental effects of Earth’s gravity. NASA Flight Engineer Christina Koch has been operating the Bio-Fabrication Facility this week using “bio-inks” with more success than on the ground. The device is dedicated to manufacturing human organs, producing food and personalizing pharmaceuticals.

Koch and Meir also partnered together today to set up and calibrate a new bone densitometer in Japan’s Kibo lab module. The biology research gear will measure and image bone density in the mice living aboard the station.

Morgan and Commander Luca Parmitano are participating this week in a pair of motion coordination experiments sponsored by the European Space Agency. In the first study, the astronauts are exploring how weightlessness affects gripping and manipulating objects with implications for exploring planetary bodies. The second investigation explores how the brain adapts to the lack of traditional up-and-down cues in space.

International Space Station (ISS). Image Credit: NASA

Cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka continues to unload the nearly three tons of cargo just delivered on the Progress 74 cargo craft. Russian Flight Engineer Alexander Skvortsov attached a sensor to himself to measure his cardiac activity before spending the rest of the day on lab maintenance.

Related links:

Expedition 61:

SpaceX Dragon resupply ship:

Muscle and bone loss:


Bio-Fabrication Facility:

Bone densitometer:

Kibo lab module:

Gripping and manipulating objects:

How the brain adapts:

Progress 74 cargo craft:

Cardiac activity:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

Best regards,

Two Rovers to Roll on Mars Again: Curiosity and Mars 2020

NASA - Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) logo / NASA - Mars 2020 Rover logo.

Dec. 10, 2019

Image above: Illustrations of NASA's Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. While the newest rover borrows from Curiosity's design, each has its own role in the ongoing exploration of Mars and the search for ancient life. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Curiosity won't be NASA's only active Mars rover for much longer. Next summer, Mars 2020 will be headed for the Red Planet. While the newest rover borrows from Curiosity's design, they aren't twins: Built and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, each has its own role in the ongoing exploration of Mars and the search for ancient life. Here's a closer look at what sets the siblings apart.

The Missions

Landing in 2004 to "follow the water," the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity discovered evidence that the planet once hosted running water before becoming a frozen desert. But when did this happen and why?

NASA launched the supersized Curiosity rover to learn more. Since landing in 2012, Curiosity has been roaming Gale Crater, which, it discovered, contained a lake billions of years ago and an environment that could have supported microbial life. The rover is still hunting for clues related to this environment as it ascends the 3-mile-tall (5-kilometer-tall) Mount Sharp, which sits within Gale Crater and was partially formed by water.

Some 3,760 miles (6,050 kilometers) away, Mars 2020 will also explore a landscape shaped by water: Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient delta. But 2020 will take the next scientific step: It will look for actual signs of past life, or biosignatures, capturing samples of rocks and soil that could be retrieved by future missions and returned to Earth for in-depth study.

Image above: NASA's Mars 2020 rover looks virtually the same as Curiosity, but there are a number of differences. One giveaway to which rover you're looking at is 2020's aft cross-beam, which looks a bit like a shopping cart handle. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The Tools

Mars 2020's chassis, or body, is about five inches longer than Curiosity's. It's also heavier, checking in at 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms), compared with Curiosity's 1,982 pounds (899 kilograms). The weight difference has to do with the tools each carries.

Start with the robotic arms: Curiosity's extends 7 feet (2.2 meters) and wields a rotating 65-pound (30-kilogram) turret equipped with a scientific camera, chemical analyzer and drill. The roving science lab pulverizes rock samples and pours the powder into its chassis, where two laboratories can determine the rocks' chemical and mineral makeup.

Mars 2020's arm has the same reach as Curiosity's, but its turret weighs more — 99 pounds (45 kilograms) — because it carries larger instruments and a larger drill for coring. The drill will cut intact rock cores, rather than pulverizing them, and they'll be placed in sample tubes via a complex storage system.

The Eyes and Ears

All of NASA's Mars missions have allowed the public to ride along as scientists and engineers explore the planet. Curiosity has been doing that with 17 cameras on its Mast, or head, and body; four of them are color cameras.

Mars 2020 has 23 cameras, most of them color. The new rover also includes "ears" — two microphones to capture not only the first sounds of a Mars landing, but also Martian wind and the rover's chemical-analyzing laser zaps. Mastcam-Z, an improved version of Curiosity's Mast Camera, has a zoom capability and will take high-definition video and panoramas.

The Wheels

Curiosity has prepared Mars 2020's team for "off-roading" on the Red Planet. When holes began appearing in the veteran rover's aluminum wheels, engineers realized that sharp rocks cemented on the Martian surface exert more pressure on the wheels than expected. Careful drive planning, along with a software upgrade, will keep them in shape for the rest of Curiosity's journey up Mount Sharp.

While Mars 2020's wheels are made from the same materials, they're slightly bigger and narrower, with skins that are almost a millimeter thicker. Instead of Curiosity's chevron-pattern treads, or grousers, Mars 2020 has straighter ones and twice as many per wheel (48 versus 24). Extensive testing in JPL's Mars Yard has shown these treads better withstand the pressure from sharp rocks but work just as well on sand.

The Brains

Mars rovers don't drive themselves. Teams of scientists and engineers beam meticulously programmed task lists to them at the beginning of each Mars day, or sol. Rover drivers on Earth then wait for the vehicle to report back before planning the next drive. The more a rover can do on its own, the more time drivers have to program new commands.

After Curiosity landed, it took an average of 19 hours for the rover's team to analyze a day's data, build and test commands, then send those commands back to the rover. Years of honing operations shrunk the time it takes to develop each day's plan to seven hours, and a limited degree of auto-navigation has enabled Curiosity to take some cautious steps on its own.

But Mars 2020 has even more self-driving smarts, allowing it to calculate a path five times faster than Curiosity can. That self-driving will be key to condensing the amount of time it takes for the 2020 team to plan each day's operations. The new mission intends to eventually condense daily operations to just five hours. The faster pace will allow it to cover more ground and gather more samples over the course of its prime mission. Mars 2020 won't move faster than its older sibling, but more automation means that it can potentially drive farther and collect more science without having to wait for engineers back on Earth.

The Landing

Curiosity transformed Mars landings with the seemingly radical "sky crane maneuver." Mars 2020 will rely on the same process but also features an important new technology: Terrain Relative Navigation. An onboard computer matches surface images from a camera to a map to keep the spacecraft on target. Meanwhile, the Range Trigger lets the rover get miles closer to an ideal site before firing a parachute.

The Humans to Come

NASA's Artemis program aims to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, preparing for future exploration of Mars. Helping pave the way for humans, Curiosity carries instruments that study the Martian environment, like surface radiation and weather.

Besides studying the weather, Mars 2020 will carry spacesuit samples, allowing scientists to study how they degrade. An oxygen generator will test technology for astronauts to make their own rocket fuel from the Martian atmosphere. A subsurface radar like the one on the rover could someday be used to find buried water ice.

Related links:


Terrain Relative Navigation:

Artemis program:

For more information about Curiosity and Mars 2020, visit:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/Alana Johnson/JPL/Andrew Good.


How to Shape a Spiral Galaxy

NASA & DLR - SOFIA Mission patch.

Dec. 10, 2019

Our Milky Way galaxy has an elegant spiral shape with long arms filled with stars, but exactly how it took this form has long puzzled scientists. New observations of another galaxy are shedding light on how spiral-shaped galaxies like our own get their iconic shape.

Magnetic fields play a strong role in shaping these galaxies, according to research from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. Scientists measured magnetic fields along the spiral arms of the galaxy called NGC 1068, or M77. The fields are shown as streamlines that closely follow the circling arms.

Image above: Magnetic fields in NGC 1086, or M77, are shown as streamlines over a visible light and X-ray composite image of the galaxy from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The magnetic fields align along the entire length of the massive spiral arms — 24,000 light years across (0.8 kiloparsecs) — implying that the gravitational forces that created the galaxy’s shape are also compressing the its magnetic field. This supports the leading theory of how the spiral arms are forced into their iconic shape known as “density wave theory.” SOFIA studied the galaxy using far-infrared light (89 microns) to reveal facets of its magnetic fields that previous observations using visible and radio telescopes could not detect. Image Credits: NASA/SOFIA; NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roma Tre Univ.

“Magnetic fields are invisible, but they may influence the evolution of a galaxy,” said Enrique Lopez-Rodriguez, a Universities Space Research Association scientist at the SOFIA Science Center at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “We have a pretty good understanding of how gravity affects galactic structures, but we’re just starting to learn the role magnetic fields play.”

The M77 galaxy is located 47 million light years away in the constellation Cetus. It has a supermassive active black hole at its center that is twice as massive as the black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. The swirling arms are filled with dust, gas and areas of intense star formation called starbursts.

SOFIA’s infrared observations reveal what human eyes cannot: magnetic fields that closely follow the newborn-star-filled spiral arms. This supports the leading theory of how these arms are forced into their iconic shape known as “density wave theory.” It states that dust, gas and stars in the arms are not fixed in place like blades on a fan. Instead, the material moves along the arms as gravity compresses it, like items on a conveyor belt.

The magnetic field alignment stretches across the entire length of the massive, arms — approximately 24,000 light years across. This implies that the gravitational forces that created the galaxy’s spiral shape are also compressing its magnetic field, supporting the density wave theory. The results are published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope (SOFIA)

“This is the first time we’ve seen magnetic fields aligned at such large scales with current star birth in the spiral arms,” said Lopez-Rodriquez. “It’s always exciting to have observational evidence that supports theories.”

Celestial magnetic fields are notoriously difficult to observe. SOFIA’s newest instrument, the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera-Plus, or HAWC+, uses far-infrared light to observe celestial dust grains, which align perpendicular to magnetic field lines. From these results, astronomers can infer the shape and direction of the otherwise invisible magnetic field. Far-infrared light provides key information about magnetic fields because the signal is not contaminated by emission from other mechanisms, such as scattered visible light and radiation from high-energy particles. SOFIA’s ability to study the galaxy with far infrared light, specifically at the wavelength of 89 microns, revealed previously unknown facets of its magnetic fields.

Further observations are necessary to understand how magnetic fields influence the formation and evolution of other types of galaxies, such as those with irregular shapes.

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, DLR. NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is maintained and operated from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703, in Palmdale, California. The HAWC+ instrument was developed and delivered to NASA by a multi-institution team led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Related links:

SOFIA’s newest instrument:



Image (mentioned), Animation, Text, Credits: NASA/Kassandra Bell/Felicia Chou.


Ice in Motion: Satellites Capture Decades of Change

NASA - Operation IceBridge Mission patch.

Dec. 10, 2019

New time-lapse videos of Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets as seen from space – some spanning nearly 50 years – are providing scientists with new insights into how the planet’s frozen regions are changing.

48 Years of Alaska's Glaciers

Video above: New time-lapse videos of Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets as seen from space – spanning nearly 50 years – are providing scientists with new insights into how the planet’s frozen regions are changing. Video Credits: NASA/ Matt Radcliff.

At a media briefing Dec. 9 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, scientists released new time series of images of Alaska, Greenland, and Antarctica using data from satellites including the NASA-U.S. Geological Survey Landsat missions. One series of images tells illustrates the dramatic changes of Alaska’s glaciers and could warn of future retreat of the Hubbard Glacier. Over Greenland, different satellite records show a speed-up of glacial retreat starting in 2000, as well as meltwater ponds spreading to higher elevations in the last decade, which could potentially speed up ice flow. And in Antarctic ice shelves, the view from space could reveal lakes hidden beneath the winter snow.

Using images from the Landsat mission dating back to 1972 and continuing through 2019, glaciologist Mark Fahnestock of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has stitched together six-second time-lapses of every glacier in Alaska and the Yukon.

“We now have this long, detailed record that allows us to look at what’s happened in Alaska,” Fahnestock said. “When you play these movies, you get a sense of how dynamic these systems are and how unsteady the ice flow is.”

Image above: Meltwater lakes form on the surface of Greenland’s Petermann Glacier, seen here in a June 2019 Landsat image. A new study finds that the number – and elevation – of meltwater lakes in Greenalnd is increasing. Image Credits: Credit: NASA/USGS.

The videos clearly illustrate what’s happening to Alaska’s glaciers in a warming climate, he said, and highlight how different glaciers respond in varied ways. Some show surges that pause for a few years, or lakes forming where ice used to be, or even the debris from landslides making its way to the sea. Other glaciers show patterns that give scientists hints of what drives glacier changes.

The Columbia Glacier, for example, was relatively stable when the first Landsat satellite launched 1972. But starting in the mid-1980s, the glacier’s front began retreating rapidly, and by 2019 was 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) upstream. In comparison, the Hubbard Glacier has advanced 3 miles (5 km) in the last 48 years. But Fahnestock’s time-lapse ends with a 2019 image that shows a large indentation in the glacier, where ice has broken off.

“That calving embayment is the first sign of weakness from Hubbard Glacier in almost 50 years – it’s been advancing through the historical record,” he said. If such embayments persist in the coming years, it could be a sign that change could be coming to Hubbard, he said: “The satellite images also show that these types of calving embayments were present in the decade before Columbia retreated.”

The Landsat satellites have provided the longest continuous record of Earth from space. The USGS has reprocessed old Landsat images, which allowed Fahnestock to handpick the clearest Landsat scenes for each summer, over each glacier. With software and computing power from Google Earth Engine, he created the series of time-lapse videos.

Scientists are using long-term satellite records to look at Greenland glaciers as well. Michalea King of Ohio State University analyzed data from Landsat missions dating back to 1985 to study more than 200 of Greenland’s large outlet glaciers. She examined how far the glacier fronts have retreated, how fast the ice flows, and how much ice glaciers are losing over this time span.

Image above: Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier is seen from the air during an Operation IceBridge flight. From space, scientists can track its movements over 48 years with the Landsat mission. Image Credits: NASA/Operation IceBridge.

She found that Greenland’s glaciers retreated an average of about 3 miles (5 km) between 1985 and 2018 – and that the most rapid retreat occurred between 2000 and 2005. And when she looked at the amount of glacial ice entering the ocean, she found that it was relatively steady for the first 15 years of the record, but then started increasing around 2000.

“These glaciers are calving more ice into the ocean than they were in the past,” King said. “There is a very clear relationship between the retreat and increasing ice mass losses from these glaciers during the 1985-through-present record. "While King is analyzing ice lost from the front of glacier, James Lea of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom is using satellites data to examine ice melting on top of Greenland’s glaciers and ice sheets, which creates meltwater lakes.

These meltwater lakes can be up to 3 miles (5 km) across and can drain through the ice in a matter of hours, Lea said, which can impact how fast the ice flows. With the computing power of Google Earth Engine, Lea analyzed images of the Greenland ice sheet from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellites for every day of every melt seasons over last 20 years – more than 18,000 images in all.

Landsat 9 satellite. Image Credit: NASA

“We looked at how many lakes there are per year across the ice sheet and found an increasing trend over the last 20 years: a 27 percent increase in lakes,” Lea said. “We’re also getting more and more lakes at higher elevations – areas that we weren’t expecting to see lakes in until 2050 or 2060.”

When these high-elevation meltwater ponds punch through the ice sheet and drain, it could cause the ice sheet to speed up, he said, thinning the ice and accelerating its demise.

It doesn’t always take decades worth of data to study polar features – sometimes just a year or two will provide insights. The Antarctic ice sheet experiences surface melt, but there are also lakes several meters below the surface, insulated by layers of snow. To see where these subsurface lakes are, Devon Dunmire of the University of Colorado, Boulder, used microwave radar images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite. Snow and ice are basically invisible to microwave radiation, but liquid water strongly absorbs it.

Dunmire’s new study, presented at the AGU meeting, found lakes dotting the George VI and Wilkins ice shelves near the Antarctic Peninsula – even a few that remained liquid throughout the winter months. These hidden lakes might be more common than scientists had thought, she said, noting that she is continuing to look for similar features across the continent’s ice shelves.

“Not much is known about distribution and quantity of these subsurface lakes, but this water appears to be prevalent on the ice shelf near the Antarctic peninsula,” Dunmire said, “and it’s an important component to understand because meltwater has been shown to destabilize ice shelves.”

For more information on Landsat and the upcoming Landsat 9 mission, visit: or 

Related links:

Terra Satellite:

Aqua Satellite:

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Sara Blumberg/Godddard Space Flight Center, by Kate Ramsayer.