samedi 4 décembre 2010

ESA - Satellite tracking campaign tests European abilities

ESA logo & flags.

4 December 2010

An experimental tracking campaign using European facilities is helping determine how well existing telescopes and radars can work together to observe objects in Earth orbit. The results will be used to help design ESA's future Space Situational Awareness system.

On 29 November, experts from the Agency's Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Preparatory Programme began an experimental tracking campaign using scientific research telescopes and radars in five European countries. The campaign is testing how well existing facilities can track potential debris hazards in orbit using known satellites as targets.

EISCAT facilities Sweden

A series of three overnight tests during November to February will see the radars and telescopes being used to track a dozen candidate 'objects' – existing satellites including ESA's GOCE, Artemis and Envisat. Other European satellite operators, including Eumetsat and SES-Astra, have agreed to the use of their satellites in the tracking campaign as well.

Facilities in Sweden, UK, Switzerland, Spain and Cyprus

To track objects in low orbit – just several hundred kilometres altitude – the campaign is making use of research radars operated by the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) in Sweden and Norway, and by the Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire, UK.

For objects in geostationary orbit – up to 36 000 km altitude – the tests will use optical telescopes, including ESA's own Optical Ground Station in Tenerife, Spain.

Control room at ESA's Optical Ground Station, Tenerife

In addition, astronomical observatories in Spain (Observatorio Astronómico de Mallorca), Switzerland (Zimmerwald Observatory) and Troodos, Cyprus (British National Space Centre – Starbrook) will be used.

Testing diverse sensors for interoperability

Some of the radars and telescopes were originally designed for meteorological, ionospheric or astronomical studies, so their use for tracking objects in Earth orbit is complementary but has not been fully tested.

"A significant goal of the campaign is determining how well these facilities can provide tracking data and identifying any operational problems related to, for example, weather or interoperability issues," says Emmet Fletcher, Head of the Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) Segment at ESA's SSA programme.

Fletcher says that knowing how a diverse network of independent sensors can work together is critical for designing the architecture of the future European hazard-tracking system.

Zimmerwald SMall Aperture Robotic Telescope (ZimSMART)

Results from the campaign will be used to assess the potential performance of the current European infrastructure, and how the future SST tracking capability should be designed to best make use of such assets.

About Europe's space hazard tracking capability

Under the SSA Preparatory Programme, a main aim of the SST element is to provide an independent ability to promptly acquire and catalogue precise information on objects orbiting Earth. Using these data, a wide range of services will be provided by the future European SSA System, such as warning of potential collisions and alerting when and where debris reenters Earth's atmosphere. These data will be stored in a catalogue and made available to SSA customers across Europe.

Artist's impression of future SSA radar

The infrastructure required to provide these capabilities is referred to as the '‘SST Segment'. It comprises surveillance and tracking sensors, which could use radar or optical technology, to acquire raw data, which are then processed to correlate (or link) each observed object with ones already known, or to indicate a new object.

 Animation: Space Debris larger than 1cm - est. 600 000 parts

Initially, the SST Segment will obtain data using existing sensors. When the full SSA programme begins, additional systems may be developed and deployed as required to achieve the objective of European autonomy in this area. The decision for the continuation of the SSA Programme is planned to be taken at the next ESA Ministerial Council, foreseen in 2012.

More informations:


RAL Chilbolton Observatory:

Observatorio de Sierra Nevada:

Institute of Applied Physics (IAP) University of Bern - Observatory Zimmerwald:

UK Space Agency:

Images, Animation, Text, Credits: ESA / Emmet Fletcher, Head SST Segment /  ESAC / EISCAT / University of Bern / Zimmerwald Astronomical Institute.


vendredi 3 décembre 2010

NASA Targets Shuttle Discovery's Launch For No Earlier Than Feb. 3

NASA - STS-133 Mission patch.

Dec. 03, 2010

NASA managers have targeted space shuttle Discovery's launch for no earlier than Feb. 3 at 1:34 a.m. EST. Shuttle managers determined more tests and analysis are needed before proceeding with the launch of the STS-133 mission to the International Space Station.

The Program Requirements Control Board met Thursday and reviewed engineering evaluations associated with cracks on two 21-foot-long, U-shaped aluminum brackets, called stringers, on the shuttle's external tank. NASA repaired the cracks and reapplied foam to the exterior of the stringers.

Managers decided the analysis and tests required to launch Discovery safely are not complete. They are planning to conduct an instrumented test on the external fuel tank and structural evaluations on stringer test articles to determine if the analysis is correct. Details and timelines for the tanking test are in work, but plans call for temperature and strain gauge measurements in the intertank region near the top of the tank during the test.

Discovery at the launch-pad

The test also will verify the integrity of repairs made earlier when two cracked stringer sections and foam were replaced. A team of engineers and technicians will inspect the tank for evidence of any foam cracking as it would on an actual launch day. The test also will verify the integrity of repairs to the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate, which leaked an unsafe amount of gaseous hydrogen during Discovery's Nov. 5 launch attempt. The date of the test is under evaluation, but likely will occur this month.

Engineers will continue to search for the root cause of the stringer cracks through data analysis and tests, including placement of manufacturing defects in separate stringers to demonstrate structural integrity in an effort to duplicate the same type of failure that occurred in November.

NASA will review and analyze the data from the tests before setting a launch date. Because of Discovery's delayed launch, the earliest opportunity for the liftoff of the final scheduled shuttle mission, STS-134 on Endeavour, is April 1.

For continued STS-133 updates as well as crew and mission information, visit:

Images, Text, Credit: NASA.


ESA - Paolo and crew pass their final exams

ESA logo.

3 December 2010

It was a good result: 4.8 out of 5. ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli and his crewmates passed two major exams last week in Moscow. They are now cleared for launch on 15 December on their six-month mission to the Space Station.

Training for a long space mission takes about two and a half years. And just like any school, cosmonaut school ends with final exams. The trainers test if each astronaut and the whole crew are ready for flight and completely familiar with the International Space Station (ISS) and the Soyuz ferry.

The crew, from left: Catherine Coleman, Dmitri Kondratyev and Paolo Nespoli, after their successful examination

It is a critical moment for the crew: if they do not pass the exams, they do not fly. If they pass, it is time to say goodbye to their instructors in Star City.

The risk of failure is real, so the astronauts spent the last days before the tests reading and going through the procedures. They must know exactly what to do in every situation and which buttons to press when needed.

Prepare for the worst

On the first exam day, Thursday 25 November, the Expedition 26 crew of Paolo Nespoli, Dmitri Kondratyev and Catherine Coleman boarded the Soyuz simulator under the watchful eyes of the Interdepartmental Qualification Commission.

Inside the Soyuz during the simulation

The exam focused on their ability to work as a single crew. They were put through their paces on all phases of the flight to and from the Station, including launch, separation, ISS rendezvous, approach and docking, undocking, descent and landing.

Following tradition, crew commander Kondratyev began by picking one of several sealed envelopes spread on a table. All the crew signed it, and the envelope was handed over to the Chairman of the Commission.

About 80% of the training is about emergency procedures and safety measures, so the crew was not surprised when their simulated mission developed five emergencies – as listed in the sealed envelope.

Paolo signing the selected envelope

After experiencing a nightmare flight with failure of the automatic separation sequence after Soyuz orbital injection, cabin depressurisation and an emergency deorbit manoeuvre, the real mission will likely be routine.

Excellent ratings

The crew was awarded an overall rating of 4.8 out of 5.0. The three individual exams earlier saw Paolo achieve a perfect score for rendezvous manoeuvring, station flyby and docking, and manual descent. The last one was a spectacular simulation carried out in the giant centrifuge of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.

The Commission

The next day, the crew faced a similar simulation in the ISS mockup. At the same time, the backup crew did the exams in reverse order.

As Friday ended, the crew emerged from the simulator tired, stiff and sweating. After a quick change of clothes, they had to appear once again before the Commission: they were cleared for flight.

Signing the visitor’s book in Gagarin’s room

Paolo and his crewmates will fly down to Baikonur Cosmodrome on Friday, to be ready for the launch on 15 December at 20:09 CET (19:09 GMT) and the beginning of their six-month stay on the ISS and ESA’s MagISStra mission.

Related links:

Paolo Nespoli:


Images, Text, Credits: ESA - R. Suenson / G. Rigon.


jeudi 2 décembre 2010

NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

Astrobiology logo.

Dec. 02, 2010

NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

Image of Mono Lake Research area

"The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency's Headquarters in Washington. "As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it."

This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth. The research is published in this week's edition of Science Express.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

"We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we've found is a microbe doing something new -- building parts of itself out of arsenic," said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology research fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team's lead scientist. "If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?"

The newly discovered microbe, strain GFAJ-1, is a member of a common group of bacteria, the Gammaproteobacteria. In the laboratory, the researchers successfully grew microbes from the lake on a diet that was very lean on phosphorus, but included generous helpings of arsenic. When researchers removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells.

Escherichia coli,  group of bacteria Gammaproteobacteria

 The key issue the researchers investigated was when the microbe was grown on arsenic did the arsenic actually became incorporated into the organisms' vital biochemical machinery, such as DNA, proteins and the cell membranes. A variety of sophisticated laboratory techniques were used to determine where the arsenic was incorporated.

The team chose to explore Mono Lake because of its unusual chemistry, especially its high salinity, high alkalinity, and high levels of arsenic. This chemistry is in part a result of Mono Lake's isolation from its sources of fresh water for 50 years.

Image of GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic

The results of this study will inform ongoing research in many areas, including the study of Earth's evolution, organic chemistry, biogeochemical cycles, disease mitigation and Earth system research. These findings also will open up new frontiers in microbiology and other areas of research.

"The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake."

The research team included scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in Menlo Park.

NASA's Astrobiology Program in Washington contributed funding for the research through its Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute. NASA's Astrobiology Program supports research into the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth.

For more information about the finding and a complete list of researchers, visit:

Images, Text, Credit: NASA /  Eric Erbe, USDA ARS.

Best regards,

JAXA - Astronaut Furukawa Begins Twitter!

JAXA logo labeled.

December 2, 2010 (JST)

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) would like to announce that Astronaut Satoshi Furukawa begins Twitter on December 2 (Thu.,) 2010. In December 2008, astronaut Furukawa was appointed as a flight engineer for the Expedition 28/29 crew (long-term stay mission) to the International Space Station (ISS), thus he is currently under training both in Japan and overseas. He is slated to live in the ISS for six months from around the end of May 2011.

JAXA Astronaut Satoshi Furukawa

Astronaut Furukawa will tweet about his training on the ground, then, during his expedition at the ISS, he will report on his daily scientific experiments from a scientist’s point of view as well as daily life and changes in his body in space based on his experiences as a medical doctor. This month, as he starts tweeting, he is under training in Russia as a backup crew for the ISS Expedition 26/27; therefore, we can expect to hear his real voice as he prepares for the expedition crew. Through Twitter, JAXA would like to dispatch more information about the activities of Astronaut Furukawa and events and life on the Japanese Experiment Module "Kibo" of the ISS.

   Astronaut Satoshi Furukawa on Twitter
   User name: Astro_Satoshi

Brief personal history of Astronaut Satoshi Furukawa

For more informations about Astronaut Furukawa Satoshi, visit:

For more informations about JAXA, visit:

Images, Text, Credit: JAXA.


mercredi 1 décembre 2010

NASA-German SOFIA Observatory Completes First Science Flight

NASA - SOFIA Mission patch.

Dec. 01, 2010

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, completed the first of three science flights on Wednesday morning to demonstrate the aircraft's potential to make discoveries about the infrared universe.

SOFIA Prepares for the Stars

The airborne observatory is an international collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR). SOFIA is a heavily modified Boeing 747SP that cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet. It will allow researchers to better understand a wide range of astronomical phenomena including how stars and planets are born, how organic substances form in interstellar space, and how supermassive black holes feed and grow. This premiere science flight took off from an Air Force runway in Palmdale, Calif., on Nov. 30, flying for approximately 10 hours.

"These initial science flights mark a significant milestone in SOFIA’s development and ability to conduct peer-reviewed science observations," said NASA Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse. "We anticipate a number of important discoveries from this unique observatory, as well as extended investigations of discoveries by other space telescopes."

Telescope Door Open in Flight

SOFIA is fitted with a 100-inch diameter airborne infrared telescope. It is based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale. The aircraft's instruments can analyze light from a wide range of celestial objects, including warm interstellar gas and dust of bright star forming regions, by observing wavelengths between 0.3 and 1,600 microns. A micron equals one millionth of a meter. For comparison, the human eye sees light with wavelengths between 0.4 and 0.7 microns.

The first three science flights, phase one of SOFIA's early science program, will employ the Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument developed by Cornell University and led by principal investigator Terry Herter. FORCAST observes the mid-infrared spectrum from five to 40 microns.

NASA's Boeing 747 Modified with SOFIA in flight

Researchers used the FORCAST camera on SOFIA during a test flight two weeks ago to produce infrared images of areas within the Orion star-formation complex, a region of the sky for which more extensive data were collected during the Nov. 30 flight. A gallery of those images is available at:

Upcoming SOFIA images, including images from the Nov. 30 flight, will be added to this gallery.

"The early science flight program serves to validate SOFIA's capabilities and demonstrate the observatory's ability to make observations not possible from Earth-based telescopes," said Bob Meyer, NASA's SOFIA program manager. "It also marks SOFIA's transition from flying testbed to flying observatory, and it gives the international astronomical research community a new, highly versatile platform for studying the universe."

In February 2011, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), developed under the lead of the Max-Planck-Institut fur Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany, will be installed in the observatory for three flights during the second phase of the program.

"The first science flight showed that the SOFIA observatory works very well," said Alois Himmes, SOFIA project manager at DLR. "It also demonstrated the excellent collaboration between the U.S. and German partners and the intense work of the teams during the past weeks."
NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut at the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

For more information about SOFIA, visit:

For recorded video interviews and B-roll footage, visit:

For information about SOFIA's science mission, visit: and

Images, Text, Credit: NASA / DLR.


ESO - First Super-Earth Atmosphere Analysed

ESO - European Southern Observatory logo.

1 December 2010

Artist’s impression of GJ 1214b

The atmosphere around a super-Earth exoplanet has been analysed for the first time by an international team of astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The planet, which is known as GJ 1214b, was studied as it passed in front of its parent star and some of the starlight passed through the planet’s atmosphere. We now know that the atmosphere is either mostly water in the form of steam or is dominated by thick clouds or hazes. The results will appear in the 2 December 2010 issue of the journal Nature.

The planet GJ 1214b was confirmed in 2009 using the HARPS instrument on ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope in Chile (eso0950) [1]. Initial findings suggested that this planet had an atmosphere, which has now been confirmed and studied in detail by an international team of astronomers, led by Jacob Bean (Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), using the FORS instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

“This is the first super-Earth to have its atmosphere analysed. We’ve reached a real milestone on the road toward characterising these worlds,” said Bean.

Artist’s impression of GJ 1214b in transit

GJ 1214b has a radius of about 2.6 times that of the Earth and is about 6.5 times as massive, putting it squarely into the class of exoplanets known as super-Earths. Its host star lies about 40 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus (the Serpent Bearer). It is a faint star [2], but it is also small, which means that the size of the planet is large compared to the stellar disc, making it relatively easy to study [3]. The planet travels across the disc of its parent star once every 38 hours as it orbits at a distance of only two million kilometres: about seventy times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun.

To study the atmosphere, the team observed the light coming from the star as the planet passed in front of it [4]. During these transits, some of the starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere and, depending on the chemical composition and weather on the planet, specific wavelengths of light are absorbed. The team then compared these precise new measurements with what they would expect to see for several possible atmospheric compositions.

Before the new observations, astronomers had suggested three possible atmospheres for GJ 1214b. The first was the intriguing possibility that the planet was shrouded by water, which, given the close proximity to the star, would be in the form of steam. The second possibility was that this is a rocky world with an atmosphere consisting mostly of hydrogen, but with high clouds or hazes obscuring the view. The third option was that this exoplanet was like a mini-Neptune, with a small rocky core and a deep hydrogen-rich atmosphere.

The new measurements do not show the telltale signs of hydrogen and hence rule out the third option. Therefore, the atmosphere is either rich in steam, or it is blanketed by clouds or hazes, similar to those seen in the atmospheres of Venus and Titan in our Solar System, which hide the signature of hydrogen..

“Although we can’t yet say exactly what that atmosphere is made of, it is an exciting step forward to be able to narrow down the options for such a distant world to either steamy or hazy,” says Bean. “Follow-up observations in longer wavelength infrared light are now needed to determine which of these atmospheres exists on GJ 1214b.”


[1] The number of confirmed exoplanets reached 500 on 19 November 2010. Since then, more exoplanets have been confirmed. For the latest count, please visit:

[2] If GJ 1214 were seen at the same distance from us as our Sun, it would appear 300 times fainter.

[3] Because the star GJ1214 itself is quite faint — more than 100 times fainter in visible light than the host stars of the two most widely studied hot Jupiter exoplanets — the large collecting area of the Very Large Telescope was critical for acquiring enough signal for these measurements.

[4] GJ 1214b’s atmospheric composition was studied using the FORS instrument on the Very Large Telescope, which can perform very sensitive spectroscopy of multiple objects in the near-infrared part of the spectrum.  FORS was one of the first instruments installed on the Very Large Telescope.
More information

This research is presented in a paper to appear in Nature on 2 December 2010.

The team is composed of Jacob Bean (Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA), Eliza Miller-Ricci Kempton (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA) and Derek Homeier (Institute for Astrophysics, Göttingen, Germany).

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and VISTA, the world’s largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


    * Research paper in Nature:

    * More info: Exoplanet Press Kit:

    * Photos of the VLT:

Images, Videos, Text, Credits. ESO / L. Calçada / Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Best regards,

NASA Sets Coverage For Cots 1 Launch Targeted For Dec. 7

SpaceX - Falcon F9 Rocket First Flight patch.

Dec. 1, 2010

The first SpaceX Falcon 9 demonstration launch for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program is targeted for liftoff on Tuesday, Dec. 7. Liftoff will occur from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window extends from 9:03 a.m. to 12:22 p.m. EST. If necessary, launch opportunities also are available on Dec. 8 and Dec. 9 with the same window.

 Falcon 9 at the launch-pad

Known as COTS 1, the launch is the first flight of the Dragon spacecraft and the first commercial attempt to re-enter a spacecraft from orbit. This is the first of three test launches currently planned in the Falcon 9 test flight series. It is intended as a demonstration mission to prove key capabilities such as launch, structural integrity of the Dragon spacecraft, on-orbit operation, re-entry, descent and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA established the COTS program to procure a commercial launch service to stimulate the commercial space industry, to facilitate a private industry cargo capability to the International Space Station as soon as achievable, and to achieve cost effective access to low Earth orbit that will attract private customers.


The prelaunch news conference for the COTS 1 Falcon 9 launch is planned for L-1, currently Monday, Dec. 6 at 1:30 p.m., at the press site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA Television will provide live coverage, and the briefing will be streamed at:

The prelaunch news conference participants will be:

-     Phil McAlister, acting director, Commercial Space Flight Development NASA Headquarters, Washington.

-     Alan Lindenmoyer, manager, Commercial Crew and Cargo Program NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston.

-     Gwynne Shotwell, president SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.

-     Mike McAleenan, Falcon 9 Launch Weather Officer 45th Weather Squadron, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

A post-mission news conference will be held at Kennedy approximately one hour after splashdown occurs.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket


On launch day, Dec. 7, NASA TV live coverage will begin at the conclusion of the built in hold at T-5 minutes and counting. For NASA TV downlink information, schedules and links to streaming video, visit:

Prelaunch and launch day coverage of the COTS 1 Falcon 9 mission will be available on the NASA website at:

Coverage will include live streaming and text updates of the final five minutes of the countdown. On-demand streaming video, podcast and photos of the launch will be available shortly after liftoff. To access these features, go to NASA’s COTS website at:

Johnson Space Center is responsible for the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office for the COTS program as part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

Images, Text, Credits: SpaceX  / NASA.


Web Viewership Of New Mars Rover Construction Tops Million Mark

NASA - Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Rover patch.

Nov. 30, 2010

More than one million people watched assembly and testing of NASA's next Mars rover via a live webcam since it went on-line in October.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover, is being tested and assembled in a clean room at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. The webcam, affectionately dubbed "Curiosity Cam" shows engineers and technicians clad in head-to-toe white smocks working on the rover.

Metrics from the webcam's hosting platform, Ustream, showed more than one million unique viewers spent more than 400,000 hours watching Curiosity Cam between Oct. 21 and Nov. 23. There have been more than 2.3 million viewer sessions.

The camera is mounted in the viewing gallery of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL. While the gallery is a regular stop on JPL's public tour, Curiosity Cam allows visitors from around the world to see NASA engineers at work without traveling to Pasadena.

Mars Science Laboratory (exposure model)

Viewers from Chile, Japan, Turkey, Spain, Mexico and the United Kingdom have sent good wishes and asked questions in the chat box that accompanies the Curiosity Cam webstream. At scheduled times, viewers can interact with each other and JPL staff.

The chat schedule is updated weekdays at:

Months of assembly and testing remain before the car-sized rover is ready for launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The rover and spacecraft components will ship to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida next spring. The launch will occur between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011. Curiosity will arrive on Mars in August 2012.

The rover is one of the most technologically challenging interplanetary missions ever designed. Curiosity is engineered to drive longer distances over rougher terrain than previous Mars rovers. It will carry a science payload 10 times the mass of instruments on NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

MSL instruments in action (Artist's view)

Curiosity will investigate whether the landing region had environments favorable for supporting microbial life. It will also look for environments that have been favorable for preserving evidence about whether life existed.

Continuous live video of rover construction is available at:

For information and news about Curiosity, visit:

Social media audiences can learn more about the mission on Twitter at and Facebook at:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech.


mardi 30 novembre 2010

Could Space Farmers Grow Crops on Other Planets?

Planetary Colonization Projects logo.


Science fiction lovers aren't the only ones captivated by the possibility of colonizing another planet. Scientists are engaging in numerous research projects that focus on determining how habitable other planets are for life.

Mars, for example, is revealing more and more evidence that it probably once had liquid water on its surface, and could one day become a home away from home for humans.

Future astronauts may grow some of the holiday meals inside greenhouses, such as this Martian growth chamber, where fruits and vegetables could be grown hydroponically, without soil. Credit: Pat Rawlings / NASA

"The spur of colonizing new lands is intrinsic in man," said Giacomo Certini, a researcher at the Department of Plant, Soil and Environmental Science at the University of Florence, Italy. "Hence expanding our horizon to other worlds must not be judged strange at all. Moving people and producing food there could be necessary in the future."

Humans traveling to Mars, to visit or to colonize, will likely have to make use of resources on the planet rather than take everything they need with them on a spaceship. This means farming their own food on another planet that has a very different ecosystem than Earth's.
Certini and his colleague Riccardo Scalenghe from the University of Palermo, Italy, recently published a study in Planetary and Space Science that makes some encouraging claims. They say the surfaces of Venus, Mars and the moon appear suitable for agriculture.

The surface of Venus, generated here using data from NASA's Magellan mission, undergoes resurfacing through weathering processes such as volcanic activity, meteorite impacts and wind erosion. Credit: NASA

Know your (space) soil

Before deciding how planetary soils could be used, the two scientists had to first explore whether the surfaces of the planetary bodies can be defined as true soil.
"Apart from any philosophical consideration about this matter, definitely assessing that the surface of other planets is soil implies that it 'behaves' as a soil," said Certini. "The knowledge we accumulated during more than a century of soil science on Earth is available to better investigate the history and the potential of the skin of our planetary neighbors."

One of the first obstacles in examining planetary surfaces and their usefulness in space exploration is to develop a definition of soil, which has been a topic of much debate.

"The lack of a unique definition of 'soil,' universally accepted, exhaustive, and (one) that clearly states what is the boundary between soil and non-soil makes it difficult to decide what variables must be taken into account for determining if extraterrestrial surfaces are actually soils," Certini said.

The Viking Lander captured this image showing a rocky field with possible bedrock on the martian surface. Credit: NASA

At the proceedings of the 19th World Congress of Soil Sciences held in Brisbane, Australia, in August, Donald Johnson and Diana Johnson suggested a "universal definition of soil." They defined soil as "substrate at or near the surface of Earth and similar bodies altered by biological, chemical, and/or physical agents and processes."

On Earth, five factors work together in the formation of soil: the parent rock, climate, topography, time and biota (or the organisms in a region such as its flora and fauna). It is this last factor that is still a subject of debate among scientists.

A common, summarized definition for soil is a medium that enables plant growth. However, that definition implies that soil can only exist in the presence of biota. Certini argues that soil is material that holds information about its environmental history, and that the presence of life is not a necessity.

"Most scientists think that biota is necessary to produce soil," Certini said. "Other scientists, me included, stress the fact that important parts of our own planet, such as the Dry Valleys of Antarctica or the Atacama Desert of Chile, have virtually life-free soils. They demonstrate that soil formation does not require biota."

The researchers of this study contend that classifying a material as soil depends primarily on weathering. According to them, a soil is any weathered veneer of a planetary surface that retains information about its climatic and geochemical history.

On Venus, Mars and the Moon, weathering occurs in different ways. Venus has a dense atmosphere at a pressure that is 91 times the pressure found at sea level on Earth and composed mainly of carbon dioxide and sulphuric acid droplets with some small amounts of water and oxygen.

The surface of the Moon is covered by regolith over a layer of solid rock. Credit: NASA

The researchers predict that weathering on Venus could be caused by thermal process or corrosion carried out by the atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, impacts of large meteorites and wind erosion.

Mars is currently dominated by physical weathering caused by meteorite impacts and thermal variations rather than chemical processes.

According to Certini, there is no active volcanism that affects the martian surface but the temperature difference between the two hemispheres causes strong winds. Certini also said that the reddish hue of the planet's landscape, which is a result of rusting iron minerals, is indicative of chemical weathering in the past.

On the moon, a layer of solid rock is covered by a layer of loose debris. The weathering processes seen on the Moon include changes created by meteorite impacts, deposition and chemical interactions caused by solar wind, which interacts with the surface directly. Some scientists, however, feel that weathering alone isn't enough and that the presence of life is an intrinsic part of any soil.

"The living component of soil is part of its unalienable nature, as is its ability to sustain plant life due to a combination of two major components: soil organic matter and plant nutrients," said Ellen Graber, researcher at the Institute of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences at The Volcani Center of Israel's Agricultural Research Organization.

One of the primary uses of soil on another planet would be to use it for agriculture to grow food and sustain any populations that may one day live on that planet. Some scientists, however, are questioning whether soil is really a necessary condition for space farming.

Soilless farming: It's not science fiction

Growing plants without any soil may conjure up images from a "Star Trek" movie, but it's hardly science fiction. Aeroponics, as one soilless cultivation process is called, grows plants in an air or mist environment with no soil and very little water. Scientists have been experimenting with the method since the early 1940s, and aeroponics systems have been in use on a commercial basis since 1983.

"Who says that soil is a precondition for agriculture?" asked Graber. "There are two major preconditions for agriculture, the first being water and the second being plant nutrients. Modern agriculture makes extensive use of 'soilless growing media,' which can include many varied solid substrates."

Another way of growing plants is by hydroponics or soil-less

In 1997, NASA teamed up with AgriHouse and BioServe Space Technologies to design an experiment to test a soilless plant-growth system on board the Mir Space Station. NASA was particularly interested in this technology because of its low water requirement. Using this method to grow plants in space would reduce the amount of water that needs to be carried during a flight, which in turn decreases the payload.

Aeroponically-grown crops also can be a source of oxygen and drinking water for space crews.
"I would suspect that if and when humankind reaches the stage of settling another planet or the Moon, the techniques for establishing soilless culture there will be well advanced," Graber predicted.

Alien soil: Key to the past and future

The surface and soil of a planetary body holds important clues about its habitability, both in its past and in its future. For example, examining soil features have helped scientists show that early Mars was probably wetter and warmer than it is currently.

"Studying soils on our celestial neighbors means to individuate the sequence of environmental conditions that imposed the present characteristics to soils, thus helping reconstruct the general history of those bodies," Certini said.

In 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander performed the first wet chemistry experiment using martian soil. Scientists who analyzed the data said the Red Planet appears to have environments more appropriate for sustaining life than was expected, environments that could one day allow human visitors to grow crops.

Phoenix Mars Lander

"This is more evidence for water because salts are there," said Phoenix co-investigator Sam Kounaves of Tufts University in a press release issued after the experiment. "We also found a reasonable number of nutrients, or chemicals needed by life as we know it."

Researchers found traces of magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride, and the data also revealed that the soil was alkaline, a finding that challenged a popular belief that the martian surface was acidic.

This type of information, obtained through soil analyses, becomes important in looking toward the future to determine which planet would be the best candidate for sustaining human colonies.

Images, Text, Credits: ROSCOSMOS / / Pat Rawlings / NASA / Mother Earth Hydroponics.


ESA - Venus holds warning for Earth

ESA - Venus Express Mission patch.

30 November 2010

A mysterious high-altitude layer of sulphur dioxide discovered by ESA’s Venus Express has been explained. As well as telling us more about Venus, it could be a warning against injecting our atmosphere with sulphur droplets to mitigate climate change.

Venus is blanketed in sulphuric acid clouds that block our view of the surface. The clouds form at altitudes of 50–70 km when sulphur dioxide from volcanoes combines with water vapour to make sulphuric acid droplets. Any remaining sulphur dioxide should be destroyed rapidly by the intense solar radiation above 70 km.

Animation of planet Venus

So the detection of a sulphur dioxide layer at 90–110 km by ESA’s Venus Express orbiter in 2008 posed a complete mystery. Where did that sulphur dioxide come from?

Now, computer simulations by Xi Zhang, California Institute of Technology, USA, and colleagues from America, France and Taiwan show that some sulphuric acid droplets may evaporate at high altitude, freeing gaseous sulphuric acid that is then broken apart by sunlight, releasing sulphur dioxide gas.

“We had not expected the high-altitude sulphur layer, but now we can explain our measurements,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Venus Express Project Scientist.

Close-up on venusian cloud structures at the south pole

“However, the new findings also mean that the atmospheric sulphur cycle is more complicated than we thought.”

As well as adding to our knowledge of Venus, this new understanding may be warning us that proposed ways of mitigating climate change on Earth may not be as effective as originally thought.

Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen has recently advocated injecting artificially large quantities of sulphur dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere at around 20 km to counteract the global warming resulting from increased greenhouse gases.

The proposal stems from observations of powerful volcanic eruptions, in particular the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines that shot sulphur dioxide up into Earth’s atmosphere. Reaching 20 km in altitude, the gas formed small droplets of concentrated sulphuric acid, like those found in Venus’ clouds, which then spread around Earth. The droplets created a haze layer that reflected some of the Sun’s rays back into space, cooling the whole planet by about 0.5°C.

Venus Express

However, the new work on the evaporation of sulphuric acid on Venus suggests that such attempts at cooling our planet may not be as successful as first thought, because we do not know how quickly the initially protective haze will be converted back into gaseous sulphuric acid: this is transparent and so allows all the Sun’s rays through.

“We must study in great detail the potential consequences of such an artificial sulphur layer in the atmosphere of Earth,” says Jean-Loup Bertaux, Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin, France, Principal Investigator of the SPICAV sensor on Venus Express. “Venus has an enormous layer of such droplets, so anything that we learn about those clouds is likely to be relevant to any geo-engineering of our own planet.”

In effect, nature is doing the experiment for us and Venus Express allows us to learn the lessons before experimenting with our own world.

For more informations about Venus Express, visit:

Images, Animation, Text, Credits: ESA / C. Carreau / MPS / DLR / IDA.

Best regards,

lundi 29 novembre 2010

Russia to Сlean Space around the Earth

ENERGIA logo labeled.


Russia will build a special orbital pod that would sweep up satellite debris from space around the Earth.

 Space debris around the Earth (Credit: ESA)

Every year, the space near Earth becomes more and more densely populated with used satellites and their debris, and the new system - estimated to cost about 60 billion rubles ($1.9 billion) - would help clean it up, Xinhua reported citing Russia's Rocket and Space Corporation, also known as Energia.

"The corporation promises to clean up the space in 10 years by collecting about 600 defunct satellites on the same geosynchronous orbit and sinking them into the oceans subsequently," Victor Sinyavsky from the company was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Artist's concept of cleaning pod satellite grabs an rocket stage debris

The cleaning satellite would work on nuclear power and would be capable to work up to 15 years, he said.

Energia said in a statement that the company would complete the cleaning satellite assembly by 2020 and test the device no later than in 2023.

Sinyavsky said Energia was also in the process of designing a space interceptor that would to destroy dangerous space objects heading towards the Earth.

Space debris through satellites (by David Clark)

One Friday last November, the six astronauts onboard the International Space Station received an urgent warning from mission control: Watch out for space junk. A piece of orbital debris, possibly a chunk of satellite, was hurtling toward the station. A direct hit could break through the hull. The crew prepped for escape.

The fragment ended up missing them by about 3.7 miles. Near-collisions between debris and spacecraft are on the rise, as we continue to put trash in orbit faster than it can fall back out—a phenomenon known as the Kessler Syndrome, in which each collision between pieces of space debris creates even more debris. It’s a chain reaction that will make the problem much worse.

Related link:

Five Ideas To Fight Space Junk, by David Kushner:

Images, Text, Credits: ROSCOSMOS /  ESA / David Kushner (two ultimate paragraphs) / David Clark (comic draw).


dimanche 28 novembre 2010

Hardy bugs could survive a million years on Mars

Exobiology logo.

November 28, 2010

It was already nicknamed "Conan the Bacterium" for its ability to withstand radiation. Now it seems Deinococcus radiodurans could, in theory, survive dormant on Mars for over a million years.

Lewis Dartnell at University College London and colleagues froze the bugs to -79 °C, the average temperature at Mars's mid-latitudes. Then they zapped them with gamma rays to simulate the dose they would receive under 30 centimetres of Martian soil over long periods of time.

Would you want to live here for a million years? (Image: NASA Mars Pathfinder view)

The team worked out that it could take 1.2 million years under these conditions to shrink a population of the bacteria to a millionth of its original size.

The "Conan Bacteria" (aka Deinococcus radiodurans)

Earlier studies suggested that the bacterium can endure four times as much radiation in the Martian cold as at room temperature. If a cell is frozen, radiation does less damage to it because the free radicals it creates are much less mobile. "Cold is good in that respect," Dartnell says. "It improves the chances of cells surviving radiation."

Antarctic bugs

Dartnell's team also isolated three new strains of bacteria from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where winter temperatures drop to -40 ºC.

Astrobiologist Dr Lewis Dartnell

The hardiest of the bugs, a new strain of Brevundimonas, could persist for 117,000 years on Mars before its population would be reduced by a factor of a million, the team's work suggests.

"The more we learn about Earth life, the more likely it appears that it could survive in other parts of the solar system," says Cassie Conley of NASA in Washington DC.

High vacuum

But even if terrestrial microbes could survive on Mars itself, they might not fare so well on the journey there, she cautions. To simulate spaceflight, she suggests that the experiments be repeated in a high vacuum, which can desiccate microbes. "In space, you suck off nearly all the water molecules," Conley says. This removal of water could make it more difficult for cells to repair radiation damage.

Mars seen by Hubble Space Telescope (NASA / ESA)

Conley, who makes sure NASA missions minimise the risk of contaminating other worlds with microbes, says the agency's policy on planetary protection already takes into account that some microbes are amazingly radiation resistant.

"The policy is that we won't contaminate other planets or moons, because just one colonising event could screw up our ability to study indigenous life forever," she told New Scientist.

Consider the possibility that this bacterium is present on several planets and moons in the solar system

Galileo Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer captured a false-color image of Jupiter’s moon, Europa

Galileo’s Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer captured a false-color image of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, revealing an unusual spectrum. Some have speculated that the discoloration is caused by something like Conan the Bacterium. A home for D. radiodurans on Europa?“.

Natural and False Color Views of Europa (NASA Galileo Mission)

Though speculative, it is conceivable that explosions of icy slush or melt-throughs ferried extremophile organisms to Europa’s surface, where they stained the ice,” wrote Kristin Leutwyler in her book, The Moons of Jupiter (Leutwyler 126.).

For more informations about the "Conan Bacteria" (aka Deinococcus radiodurans):

Images, Text, Credits: Journal Astrobiology (DOI: 10.1089/ast.2009.0439) / NASA / ESA / Hazel Muir /