vendredi 22 juillet 2011

NASA Tests Future Deep Space Vehicle For Water Landings

NASA - Orion MPCV patch.

July 22, 2011

As NASA closes the chapter on the Space Shuttle Program, a new era of exploration vehicles is beginning to take off.

Testing began this month at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., in the new Hydro Impact Basin to certify the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) for water landings. The Orion MPCV will carry astronauts into space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel and ensure safe re-entry and landing.

Image above: Hydro Impact Basin (HIB) Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) Boilerplate Test Article (BTA) drop test from July 21, 2011.

Engineers have dropped a 22,000-pound MPCV mockup into the basin. The test item is similar in size and shape to MPCV, but is more rigid so it can withstand multiple drops. Each test has a different drop velocity to represent the MPCV's possible entry conditions during water landings.

The last of three drop tests to verify the new facility is scheduled for the end of this month.

Testing will resume in September with a slightly modified test article that is more representative of the actual MPCV.

Hydro Impact Basin, test HIB splash

The new Hydro Impact Basin is 115 long, 90 feet wide and 20 feet deep. It is located at the west end of Langley's historic Landing and Impact Research Facility, or Gantry, where Apollo astronauts trained for moon walks.

For images and video of the tests, visit:

To follow the progress of the Orion MPCV on social networking sites, visit:

NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston manages the Orion MPCV program for the agency. For more information about the program, visit:

Images, Text, Credits: NASA / JSC.


NASA'S Next Mars Rover To Land At Gale Crater

NASA - Mars Science Laboratory Mission patch.

July 22, 2011

NASA's next Mars rover will land at the foot of a layered mountain inside the planet's Gale crater.

The car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is scheduled to launch late this year and land in August 2012. The target crater spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.

Image above: This computer-generated view based on multiple orbital observations shows Mars' Gale crater as if seen from an aircraft northwest of the crater. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU/UA.

"Mars is firmly in our sights," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Curiosity not only will return a wealth of important science data, but it will serve as a precursor mission for human exploration to the Red Planet."

Mars Science Laboratory Landing Site - Gale Crater

During a prime mission lasting one Martian year -- nearly two Earth years -- researchers will use the rover's tools to study whether the landing region had favorable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

"Scientists identified Gale as their top choice to pursue the ambitious goals of this new rover mission," said Jim Green, director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The site offers a visually dramatic landscape and also great potential for significant science findings."

Image above: NASA has selected Gale crater as the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU.

In 2006, more than 100 scientists began to consider about 30 potential landing sites during worldwide workshops. Four candidates were selected in 2008.

An abundance of targeted images enabled thorough analysis of the safety concerns and scientific attractions of each site. A team of senior NASA science officials then conducted a detailed review and unanimously agreed to move forward with the MSL Science Team's recommendation. The team is comprised of a host of principal and co-investigators on the project.

Curiosity is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as any previous Mars rover. Its 10 science instruments include two for ingesting and analyzing samples of powdered rock that the rover's robotic arm collects. A radioisotope power source will provide heat and electric power to the rover. A rocket-powered sky crane suspending Curiosity on tethers will lower the rover directly to the Martian surface.

Image above: This oblique view of the lower mound in Gale crater shows layers of rock that preserve a record of environments on Mars. Credit: NASA.

The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. The layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water.

"One fascination with Gale is that it's a huge crater sitting in a very low-elevation position on Mars, and we all know that water runs downhill," said John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "In terms of the total vertical profile exposed and the low elevation, Gale offers attractions similar to Mars' famous Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system."

Video above: Gale Crater - Mars Science Laboratory Landing Site, an animated flyover of Gale Crater, the landing site for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Curiosity will go beyond the "follow-the-water" strategy of recent Mars exploration. The rover's science payload can identify other ingredients of life, such as the carbon-based building blocks of biology called organic compounds. Long-term preservation of organic compounds requires special conditions. Certain minerals, including some Curiosity may find in the clay and sulfate-rich layers near the bottom of Gale's mountain, are good at latching onto organic compounds and protecting them from oxidation.

MSL Artist Concept. Image Credit: NASA / JPL.

"Gale gives us attractive possibilities for finding organics, but that is still a long shot," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at agency headquarters. "What adds to Gale's appeal is that, organics or not, the site holds a diversity of features and layers for investigating changing environmental conditions, some of which could inform a broader understanding of habitability on ancient Mars."

Animation of Mars Science Laboratory Mission

The rover and other spacecraft components are being assembled and undergoing final testing. The mission is targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

To view the landing site and for more information about the mission, visit: and

Related links:

See all images:

Drop test video:

Clean room video:

Explore on Google Earth:

Blog post:

Images (mentioned), Videos, Text, Credits: NASA / JPL / Guy Webster / Dwayne C. Brown.

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Pavilion Lake Team Explores the Deep to Learn More about Life and Science

NASA logo / Pavilion Lake Research Project logo.

July 22, 2011

With the end of the Shuttle program, NASA is gearing up for the future of human exploration and turning to its analog missions and field testing to help lead the way. The Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) is one of NASA's premier analog research programs. The team is about to embark on its most ambitious and exciting year, which will see the addition of new scientific, operational and technological objectives to its busy ten-day field deployment.

What makes the Pavilion Lake Research Project unique is its focus on science and science operations research in the fascinating underwater environment of Kelly Lake, British Columbia, Canada. PLRP team members use DeepWorker submersible vehicles to explore, study and document rare freshwater carbonate rock formations that thrive in this lake. This endeavor requires the integration of scientific methods and operational and technological advancements. From these real field science activities, NASA scientists are learning about what it takes to conduct safe, productive and discovery-based science in extreme environments. It is this knowledge that will form the basis of future exploration concepts for human research voyages to such destinations as near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and Mars.

This year at Kelly Lake, the team will launch new tools such as the Exploration Ground Data Systems developed at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., to enable them to rapidly synthesize, manage and analyze large data sets, as well as plan and manage flight scheduling. These tools also will be used to manage the "delayed communications" research that will build 50-second communication delays between the submarine pilot and the mission operations crew to simulate what it is like conducting science on asteroids with human explorers.

Researcher and DeepWorker vehicule at Kelly Lake, British Columbia

The team also will use a new planning tool to better manage a dynamic and complex operations schedule, as well as gain a new degree of situational awareness about all field camp activities. To achieve this, human spaceflight operations planners from NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, will share their expertise and experience gained from supporting mission operations for the space shuttle and International Space Station. The operations planning team will support real-time operations by managing and distributing plans via a website developed by engineers at Ames called Score Mobile, to allow for re-planning when activities don't go as scheduled, and provide situational awareness to the team.

This year's field team also includes a member from Google Inc, Mountain View, Calif., who will help the team evolve its use of mapping activities and develop cutting-edge data integration platforms based on Google Earth.

In addition to achieving its science and technology goals, this year's field test also will provide local teachers a unique opportunity to learn how a lake in their community will be used to train astronauts and scientists and prepare them for space exploration. The teachers will participate in hands-on field activity workshops so they can share what they learned with their students and inspire the next generation of space enthusiasts.

For more information about this year's Pavilion Lake Research Project, visit:

For mission status and up-to-the-minute information:

Blog: Analogs Blog:



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This Time It's Both Rocket Science AND Surgery

ISS - International Space Station patch.

July 22, 2011

Not all great collaborations are planned. In fact, many of the best partnerships are the work of timing and serendipity. This is the case with two friends who met to talk over their lives and work and wound up brainstorming a new development with the potential to benefit people all over the globe.

Scott Dulchavsky, Ph.D. was the primary investigator for NASA's Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity or ADUM investigation when he met up with his friend Dr. Stephen Smith, Chair of the American College of Surgeons National Ultrasound Faculty. During the course of catching up, they discovered an unlikely pairing between their respective careers. Dulchavsky had a cutting-edge software -- known as Onboard Proficiency Enhancement or OPE -- for training astronauts on ultrasound use. Smith, coincidentally enough, needed a better way to provide ultrasound education to residents and practicing surgeons around the country.

Image above: Illustration from ultrasound training materials showing an examination of the heart from the ICU Ultrasound Pocketbook.(Courtesy of Medical Imagineering).

"I've known Scott for years," said Smith, "and about that time he told me about what he was doing with NASA to facilitate ultrasound training on the space station and he showed me the training modules they had created. We then thought this would be a great next step in putting together training programs for surgeons."

Dulchavsky recalls the positive reaction he received when he presented the ultrasound training software possibilities to the American College of Surgeons National Ultrasound Faculty Board. "I showed the software to board and they loved it, thought it was best in class, and wanted to incorporate the teaching methods into their new CD-ROM based courses for surgeons. This software is now a required component for ultrasound instruction for all surgeons," said Dulchavsky.

Commissioned by the American College of Surgeons Division of Education, the software was revamped to incorporate the technology developed for use on the space station with specialized surgical ultrasound knowledge and techniques. The resulting multimedia surgical training module is now in use by residents and practicing general surgeons on a national level. Known as the Ultrasound for Surgeons: Basic Course 2nd Edition, this software provides a core training education in ultrasound imaging for clinical applications.

"It's cutting edge stuff, it's really good," said Smith. "Residents love it, faculty love it. We've been able to disseminate ultrasound education to areas that we could never have reached before. There have been guys in the military that were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan that have been able to use these modules on CD-ROM to bring their knowledge up to speed."

The software incorporates rich, multimedia components, such as the detailed Maya modeling, which demonstrates key relationships in the body via an animated anatomic model. This allows for an accelerated learning curve, compared to hands-on ultrasound techniques, simplifying many of the examination elements.

The origins of this training application on the space station contributed to the success of the final product, as well. "The space station was an excellent test bed to evaluate new educational paradigms to promote medical care in remote environments. The constraints of that environment required us to develop novel, just-in-time training methods, and focus on efficient processes. The astronaut and cosmonaut participants provided essential feedback to improve the software and procedures," explained Dulchavsky.

Image above: Using the ADUM protocols, ISS Expedition Commander Leroy Chiao performs an ultrasound examination of the eye (NASA image ISS010E18770).

The basic course has been in use for approximately three years and a newer resident-focused module hit the market last year. Smith is confident that more courses will follow, given the advances enabled by the software. "It took us literally from sticks and stone knives into the computer age, as far as our computer training programs online. I think that all of our subspecialty training courses can at some point in time be placed online or on the CD-ROM based technology; our thoughts are to continue with the process and develop other modules as demand and time mandate," said Smith.

This space station technology is not done evolving, either, according to Dulchavsky. A follow-up ultrasound investigation called Ultrasound-2 launched to the space station with STS-135 on July 14, 2011. The OPE software may also find new life both in mechanics and humanitarian efforts, as talks are already underway with General Electric and Sonosite, with the intention of incorporating another version of this software on machines for point of care instruction. "We are also working with the United Nations to use some of this software for global ultrasound instruction," said Dulchavsky.

Ultrasound for Surgeons: Basic Course 2nd Edition:


Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA / International Space Station Program Science Office / Jessica Nimon.


jeudi 21 juillet 2011

GIOVE missions serving as Galileo’s radiation watchdogs

ESA - Galileo GIOVE Mission logo.

21 July 2011

Many experts forecast the space weather to be stormy. After years of inactivity, the Sun is waking up, perhaps profoundly affecting Earth’s space environment and the satellites orbiting through it – including the imminent Galileo constellation.

GIOVE-B in orbit

Problems of a stormy Sun

Our parent star makes its presence felt in a variety of ways, from the solar radiation all life relies on to the steady stream of the solar wind, made up of ionised nuclei and electrons.

Then there is the sudden eruption of billions of tonnes of highly energetic charged particles during solar storms – two of which occurred last month.

It typically takes a couple of days for these solar streams to reach our vicinity, where their interactions with Earth’s magnetic field can cause spectacular low-latitude auroras, sometimes damaging electrical infrastructure. One 1989 event caused major power outages across Canada.

11-year solar cycle on an upward trend

The uppermost layers of the atmosphere making up the electrically charged ‘ionosphere’ are also perturbed.

“The frequency of solar storms varies with the 11-year solar cycle, reflected by the amount of sunspots visible,” says Stefano Binda, an ESA engineer in the Galileo project.

“Right now we are in the upwards phase, with maximum solar activity predicted between 2012 and 2014.

“This is an issue of concern for all satellites and therefore also for Galileo, as we begin launching this October and are scheduled to begin operations by mid-2014, right in the heart of the ‘solar max’.”

Effects on satellite navigation

Solar storms affect satellite navigation in various ways, starting with the satellites themselves.

Galileo flies in medium-Earth orbit

Components can be unexpectedly upset and gradually degraded by the particle bombardments. Galileo’s medium orbit at an altitude of around 23 200 km is less protected by the geomagnetic field than other orbit regimes, like low orbits.

This orbit also takes the satellites through the outer Van Allen radiation belt, one of the two toroidal regions where incoming charged particles are funnelled by the magnetosphere – meaning they will actually have more lifetime radiation exposure than their higher-altitude geostationary equivalents.

Satnav users on the ground, along with the terrestrial infrastructure overseeing the constellation and producing navigation signals, will also experience unwanted effects.

The Sun-Earth connection. Credits: Magnetosphere: NASA, the Sun: ESA / NASA - SOHO

“Propagating through an energised ionosphere leads to signal delay,” explains Stefano.

“Ordinary telecommunication systems can just boost through broadcast energy but satellite navigation uses the signal delay to calculate the user’s position.

“Just a billionth of a second’s delay can cause a 30 cm error, and the ionosphere can cause errors in the order of several metres.”

Charting Galileo’s radiation environment

The Galileo satellites are not being launched blind, however. Two ‘Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element’ satellites – GIOVE-A and GIOVE-B – were launched on 28 December 2005 and 27 April 2008, respectively.

Lift off of Soyuz carrying GIOVE-A

Both carry radiation monitors continuously watching over the radiation flux.

“This element of the GIOVE mission is becoming more important as solar activity increases,” explains Stefano.

“We didn’t have direct experience of medium-Earth orbit but the design of Galileo has been guided by radiation models that say, crudely, if you are going to operate at a given altitude then you need a certain radiation shielding.

“GIOVE-A carries two different radiation monitors – the UK-designed Merlin and French CEDEX, while GIOVE-B carries a single ESA-designed Standard Radiation Environment Monitor. They maintain a count of the particles hitting them.

Artist's impression of GIOVE-A

“Other ESA missions including Integral, Proba-1, Rosetta, Herschel and Planck, are carrying similar radiation monitors, helping our specialists to build up a broader picture.

“Integral’s is most applicable, because it’s highly elliptical orbit briefly crosses through the Galileo altitude.”

The good news is that GIOVE’s observed radiation matches ESA models, meaning the planned 12-year working lifetime for each satellite remains reasonable.

Standard Radiation Environment Monitor

“It’s been a little harsher than expected,” Stefano adds. “The big question is what happens now, as the upturn in activity is forecast to increase.

“We want to go on validating our model in the worst-case conditions, so the GIOVE satellites will remain important even after the first Galileo satellites are launched later this year.”

‘Iono-free’ operations

The ionospheric effect has been a particular problem for civil GPS users. A basic ionospheric model is used to remove more than half of the uncertainty, but ‘iono-delay’ remains the single largest contributor to errors in GPS positions.

Ionosphere map

Across Europe, the EGNOS overlay service broadcasts more accurate ionospheric corrections for GPS signals based on data from Ranging and Integrity Monitoring Stations across the continent.

Galileo will overcome ionospheric effects for civil users in a similar way, with worldwide sensor stations tracking satellite signals at three different frequencies.

Comparing the different frequencies allows the delay to be calculated and corrections to be uploaded to the satellites within the navigation message.

Satnav signals passing through ionosphere

Galileo users with small receivers – such as those in car dashboards and mobile phones – will benefit from this accurate ionospheric correction by using the same model and the broadcast values.

Larger user receivers can also exploit Galileo’s multiple frequencies to correct for most of the delay directly – a feature that the latest generation of GPS has introduced recently for civil users, previously reserved only for military users.

Related Link:


Images, Text, Credits: ESA / P. Carril / NASA (D. Hathaway) / SOHO / PAUL SCHERRER INSTITUT (PSI).


Four Unusual Views of the Andromeda Galaxy

ESA - Hubble Space Telescope logo.

21 July 2011

 Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s disc

The Andromeda Galaxy is revealed in unprecedented detail in four archive observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. They show stars and structure in the galaxy’s disc, the halo of stars that surrounds it, and a stream of stars left by a companion galaxy as it was torn apart and pulled in by the galaxy’s gravitational forces.

These four observations made by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys give a close up view of the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as Messier 31 (M 31). Observations of most galaxies do not show the individual stars — even the most powerful telescopes cannot normally resolve the cloudy white shapes into their hundreds of millions of constituent stars.

Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s giant stellar stream

In the case of the Andromeda Galaxy, however, astronomers have a few tricks up their sleeves. Firstly, images from Hubble Space Telescope have unparalleled image quality as a result of the telescope’s position above the atmosphere. Secondly, M 31 is closer to our own galaxy than any other spiral galaxy (so close that it can even be seen with the naked eye on a very dark night [1]). And thirdly, these observations avoid the crowded centre of the galaxy, where the stars are closest together and hardest to separate from each other.

The resulting images offer a different perspective on a spiral galaxy. Far from being an opaque, dense object, Hubble reminds us that the dominant feature of a galaxy is the huge voids between its stars. Thus, these images do not only show stars in the Andromeda Galaxy (and a handful of bright Milky Way stars that are in the foreground): they also let us see right through the galaxy, revealing far more distant galaxies in the background.

Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s halo with background galaxies (1)

The four images in this release look superficially similar, but on closer inspection they reveal some important differences.

The two images taken in M 31’s halo show the lowest density of stars. The halo is the huge and sparse sphere of stars that surrounds a galaxy. While there are relatively few stars in a galaxy’s halo, studies of the rotation rate of galaxies suggest that there is a great deal of invisible dark matter.

Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s halo with background galaxies (2)

Meanwhile, the images of stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s disc and a region known as the giant stellar stream show stars far more densely packed, largely outshining the background galaxies. The galaxy’s disc includes the distinctive spiral arms (as well as dimmer and less numerous stars in the gaps between them), while the stream is a large structure which extends out from the disc, and is probably a remnant of a smaller galaxy that was absorbed by the Andromeda Galaxy in the past.

Labelled wide-field view of the Andromeda Galaxy

These observations were made between 2004 and 2007 to observe a wide variety of stars in Andromeda, ranging from faint main sequence stars like our own Sun, to the much brighter RR Lyrae stars, which are a type of variable star. With these measurements, astronomers can determine the chemistry and ages of the stars in each part of the Andromeda Galaxy.

Wide-field view of the Andromeda Galaxy

The purpose of these observations also explains their exceptional depth: to gain useful data on dim, distant stars, a long series of individual exposures had to be made in each field. Together they combine to make images with a long exposure time. This has the side-effect of also revealing the faint background galaxies, which would otherwise have been invisible.

Zooming in on the Andromeda Galaxy

 Panning across Hubble observations of the Andromeda Galaxy


The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

[1] The Andromeda Galaxy’s full diameter in the sky is actually around three degrees, six times the width of the full Moon. But the outer regions of the galaxy are much too faint to see without a telescope.


Images of Hubble:

Videos links:

Hubblecast 48 - Deep Observations of the Andromeda Galaxy:

Zooming in on stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s disc:

Zooming in on stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s giant stellar stream:

Zooming in on stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s halo (1):

Zooming in on stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s halo (2):

Images, Text, Credits: ESA and T. M. Brown (STScI) / NASA / Videos Credits: ESA, S. Brunier, Digitized Sky Survey 2 (Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin) / NASA, ESA and T.M. Brown (STScI). Music: John Dyson (from the album Moonwind).


Space Shuttle final landing marks end of an era

NASA - STS-135 Mission patch.

21 July 2011

Space Shuttle Atlantis landed

Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the last time and ended the 30-year-long Space Shuttle era on 21 July 2011.

Thus was history made: Space Shuttle Atlantis left the International Space Station on Tuesday and made its last return to Earth today. The Shuttle era is now over and the door is open to the next generation of space vehicles.

Atlantis Makes Shuttle Program's Final Landing

After an additional day to accommodate the cargo movements to and from the Raffaello transport module, the STS-135 mission lasted 12 days 18 hours 27 minutes.

The main wheels of Atlantis touched the runway at 11:56:58 CEST (09:56:58 GMT) today in Florida.

Along with four astronauts, the spaceplane brought back a precious load of biomedical samples.

Atlantis with Raffaello MPLM

The Shuttle’s retirement leaves Russia’s smaller Soyuz craft as the only way to make return trips to the Station. The capacity for bringing down items is now very limited.

Atlantis also returned with 2.5 tonnes of waste, hardware no longer needed and a faulty ammonia pump for investigation.

Atlantis will now join the decommissioned vehicles of the Shuttle fleet, to be handed over to US museums.

In this case, the trip will be a short one: Atlantis will be a major attraction at the Kennedy Space Center’s nearby visitor complex.

'The All-American Meal' aboard the ISS

"This was the last flight of this fantastic vehicle, which was able to carry more than 20 tonnes to space and back," said Thomas Reiter, ESA’s Director for Human Spaceflight and Operations and one of the 24 European astronauts to have flown on a Shuttle.

"This is sad, but also we’re looking into the future about the new things that will happen.

"We will continue to operate the Station for the upcoming years, when we have to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsules for human transportation, but also the new transportation systems will soon come to the market."

Read more about the Space Shuttle and Europe’s participation on ESA’s Tribute to the Space Shuttle' web pages:

Related NASA's links:

Space Shuttle Era:

The Space Shuttle Interactive:

The Space Shuttle in Pictures:

NASA Shuttle missions:

Space Shuttle Reference Manual (NASA):

Spacelab (NASA):

Images, Video, Text, Credits: NASA / NASA TV / ESA.


mercredi 20 juillet 2011

NASA - ESA Hubble Discovers Another Moon Around Pluto

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

July 20, 2011

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a fourth moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The tiny, new satellite, temporarily designated P4, was uncovered in a Hubble survey searching for rings around the dwarf planet.

The new moon is the smallest discovered around Pluto. It has an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km). By comparison, Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is 648 miles (1,043 km) across, and the other moons, Nix and Hydra, are in the range of 20 to 70 miles in diameter (32 to 113 km).

Image above: Two labeled images of the Pluto system taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 ultraviolet visible instrument with newly discovered fourth moon P4 circled. The image on the left was taken on June 28, 2011. The image of the right was taken on July 3, 2011. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI institute).

"I find it remarkable that Hubble's cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km)," said Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who led this observing program with Hubble.

The finding is a result of ongoing work to support NASA's New Horizons mission, scheduled to fly through the Pluto system in 2015. The mission is designed to provide new insights about worlds at the edge of our solar system. Hubble's mapping of Pluto's surface and discovery of its satellites have been invaluable to planning for New Horizons' close encounter.

"This is a fantastic discovery," said New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "Now that we know there's another moon in the Pluto system, we can plan close-up observations of it during our flyby."

The new moon is located between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, which Hubble discovered in 2005. Charon was discovered in 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory and first resolved using Hubble in 1990 as a separate body from Pluto.

The dwarf planet’s entire moon system is believed to have formed by a collision between Pluto and another planet-sized body early in the history of the solar system. The smashup flung material that coalesced into the family of satellites observed around Pluto.

Image above: Illustration of the Pluto Satellite System orbits with newly discovered moon P4 highlighted. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI).

Lunar rocks returned to Earth from the Apollo missions led to the theory that our moon was the result of a similar collision between Earth and a Mars-sized body 4.4 billion years ago. Scientists believe material blasted off Pluto's moons by micrometeoroid impacts may form rings around the dwarf planet, but the Hubble photographs have not detected any so far.

"This surprising observation is a powerful reminder of Hubble's ability as a general purpose astronomical observatory to make astounding, unintended discoveries," said Jon Morse, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

P4 was first seen in a photo taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on June 28. It was confirmed in subsequent Hubble pictures taken on July 3 and July 18. The moon was not seen in earlier Hubble images because the exposure times were shorter. There is a chance it appeared as a very faint smudge in 2006 images, but was overlooked because it was obscured.

Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. in Washington.

For images and more information about Hubble, visit: and

Images (mentioned), Text, Credit: NASA.


A Cosmic Superbubble

ESO - European Southern Observatory logo.

20 July 2011

 Superbubble LHA 120-N 44 in the Large Magellanic Cloud

ESO’s Very Large Telescope captured this striking view of the nebula around the star cluster NGC 1929 within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way. A colossal example of what astronomers call a superbubble dominates this stellar nursery. It is being carved by the winds from bright young stars and the shockwaves from supernova explosions.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is a small neighbouring galaxy to the Milky Way. It contains many regions where clouds of gas and dust are forming new stars. One such region, surrounding the star cluster NGC 1929, is shown in close-up in this new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope. This nebula is officially known as LHA 120–N 44, or just N 44 for short. Hot young stars in NGC 1929 are emitting intense ultraviolet light and causing the gas to glow. This effect highlights the aptly-named superbubble, a vast shell of material around 325 by 250 light-years across. For comparison, the nearest star to our Sun is just over four light-years distant.

Superbubble in the constellation of Dorado

The N 44 superbubble has been produced by the combination of two processes. Firstly, stellar winds — streams of charged particles from the very hot and massive stars in the central cluster — cleared out the central region. Then massive cluster stars exploded as supernovae creating shockwaves and pushing the gas out further to form the glowing bubble.

Wide-field view of the sky around NGC 1929

Although the superbubble is shaped by destructive forces, new stars are forming around the edges where the gas is being compressed. Like recycling on a cosmic scale, this next generation of stars will breathe fresh life into NGC 1929.

Zooming in on a superbubble in the Large Magellanic Cloud

The image was created by ESO from observational data identified by Manu Mejias, from Argentina [1], who participated in ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 astrophotography competition [2]. The competition was organised by ESO in October–November 2010, for everyone who enjoys making beautiful images of the night sky using astronomical data obtained using professional telescopes.


[1] Manu searched through ESO’s archive and identified datasets that he used to compose his image of NGC 1929, which was ranked joint seventh in the competition, out of almost 100 entries. His original work can be seen here.

[2] ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 competition gave amateur astronomers the opportunity to search through ESO’s vast archives of astronomical data, hoping to find a well-hidden gem that needed polishing by the entrants. To find out more about Hidden Treasures, visit

More information:

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 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, 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 two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


    Photos of the VLT:

Images, Text, Credits: ESO / Manu Mejias / IAU and Sky & Telescope / ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2 / Video: ESO / Digitized Sky Survey 2/R. Gendler / S. Brunier. Music: John Dyson (from the album Moonwind).

Best regards,

mardi 19 juillet 2011

Second ARTEMIS Spacecraft Successfully Enters Lunar Orbit

NASA patch.

July 19, 2011

Image above: An artist's concept of the THEMIS spacecraft in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA / Conceptual Image Lab.

The ARTEMIS P2 spacecraft was successfully inserted into lunar orbit at 8:24 PM ET on July 17, 2011. The insertion process took three hours and 20 minutes and was overseen by flight engineers from NASA Goddard, UC Berkeley, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Over the next three months a series of period reduction maneuvers will move the spacecraft into an orbit of 27.5 hours, similar to the P1 orbit but moving in the opposite direction.

Animation above: The path for ARTEMIS P2 as it enters lunar orbit. Credit: NASA / Goddard / D. Folta.

The two ARTEMIS spacecraft are healthy and are expected to continue to return science data for several years. The satellites will fly close to the lunar surface once per orbit – approaching anywhere from within 12 to 240 miles of the surface depending on the iteration – in a belt ranging 20 degrees above and below the equator.

Animation above: A simulation of the ARTEMIS P2 entering lunar orbit viewed from the perspective of the spacecraft. Credit: NASA / Goddard / D. Folta.

Related Links:

ARTEMIS Spacecraft Prepare for Lunar Orbit:

Additional ARTEMIS orbit images/video:

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center:

Image (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Susan Hendrix.


Atlantis Undocks from International Space Station

NASA - STS-135 Mission patch.

Jul 19,2011

At 2:28 a.m. EDT, space shuttle Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station while the spacecraft were 243 miles above the Pacific, east of Christchurch, New Zealand. Atlantis spent eight days, 15 hours and 21 minutes attached to the orbiting laboratory.

Over the 37 missions devoted to assembling and maintaining the space station, shuttles were docked for 276 days, 11 hours and 23 minutes – almost 40 weeks.

Image above: Space shuttle Atlantis is seen from the International Space Station shortly after undocking. Photo credit: NASA TV.

Pilot Doug Hurley now is moving Atlantis to a distance of 600 feet in front of the complex, where he will halt the shuttle for 27 minutes while the space station yaws 90 degrees to present its longitudinal axis to Atlantis. This will provide Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus the opportunity to snap digital pictures of the station from angles the shuttle never has seen before during a fly-around. Hurley will move Atlantis to a point 600 feet above the station, and then behind it. He then will fire Atlantis’ thrusters to move below the station, and at 4:18 a.m. he will perform a final separation burn to depart the vicinity of the station.

STS-135 Undocking

With the two spacecraft separated, Atlantis’ crew will focus on preparing for landing at Kennedy Space Center early Thursday morning. The time of landing has changed slightly, to 5:56 a.m. EDT. Ground tracks have been posted here:

Crew Completes Late Inspection

Space shuttle Atlantis’ crew completed today's inspection of the shuttle's thermal protection system at 10:30 a.m. EDT. They used the 50-foot long Orbiter Boom Sensor System to conduct a high fidelity, three-dimensional scan of areas of the shuttle that experience the highest heating during entry—the wing leading edges and nose cap. Managers and engineers in Mission Control will review the data today and tomorrow to validate the heat shield’s integrity.

Space Shuttle Atlantis' final flyaround of the International Space Station

This marks the final use of the shuttle’s robotic arm, dating back to its inaugural flight on the shuttle Challenger in April 1983 on the STS-7 mission, operated by the first American woman to fly in space, Sally Ride.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifted off July 8 on the final flight of the shuttle program, STS-135, a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. Atlantis carries a crew of four and the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station. The STS-135 astronauts are: Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

Learn more about the crew:

Images, Videos, Text, Credits: NASA / KSC / NASA TV / Youtube.

Best regards,

lundi 18 juillet 2011

NASA Dawn Spacecraft Returns Close-Up Image Of Asteroid Vesta

NASA - DAWN Mission patch.

July 18, 2011

NASA's Dawn spacecraft has returned the first close-up image after beginning its orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta. On Friday, July 15, Dawn became the first probe to enter orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The image taken for navigation purposes shows Vesta in greater detail than ever before. When Vesta captured Dawn into its orbit, there were approximately 9,900 miles (16,000 kilometers) between the spacecraft and asteroid. Engineers estimate the orbit capture took place at 10 p.m. PDT.

Image above: This is the first image obtained by NASA's Dawn spacecraft after successfully entering orbit around Vesta. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA.

Vesta is 330 miles (530 kilometers) in diameter and the second most massive object in the asteroid belt. Ground- and space-based telescopes have obtained images of Vesta for about two centuries, but they have not been able to see much detail on its surface.
"We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system," said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell from the University of California, Los Angeles. "This region of space has been ignored for far too long. So far, the images received to date reveal a complex surface that seems to have preserved some of the earliest events in Vesta's history, as well as logging the onslaught that Vesta has suffered in the intervening eons."

Image above: This image, taken by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft, shows the south polar region of this object, which has a diameter of 330 miles (530 kilometers). The image was taken through the clear filter on July 9, 2011, as part of a rotation characterization sequence, and it has a scale of about 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) per pixel. To enhance details, the resolution was enlarged to .6 miles (1 kilometer) per pixel. This region is characterized by rough topography, a large mountain, impact craters, grooves and steep scarps. The original image was map-projected, centered at 55 degrees southern latitude and 210 degrees eastern longitude. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA.

Vesta is thought to be the source of a large number of meteorites that fall to Earth. Vesta and its new NASA neighbor are currently approximately 117 million miles (188 million kilometers) away from Earth. The Dawn team will begin gathering science data in August. Observations will provide unprecedented data to help scientists understand the earliest chapter of our solar system. The data also will help pave the way for future human space missions.

After traveling nearly four years and 1.7 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers), Dawn also accomplished the largest propulsive acceleration of any spacecraft, with a change in velocity of more than 4.2 miles per second (6.7 kilometers per second), due to its ion engines. The engines expel ions to create thrust and provide higher spacecraft speeds than any other technology currently available.

Image above: This anaglyph image of the asteroid Vesta was taken on July 9, 2011 by the framing camera instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA.

"Dawn slipped gently into orbit with the same grace it has displayed during its years of ion thrusting through interplanetary space," said Marc Rayman, Dawn chief engineer and mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "It is fantastically exciting that we will begin providing humankind its first detailed views of one of the last unexplored worlds in the inner solar system."

Although orbit capture is complete, the approach phase will continue for about three weeks. During approach the Dawn team will continue a search for possible moons around the asteroid; obtain more images for navigation; observe Vesta's physical properties; and obtain calibration data.

In addition, navigators will measure the strength of Vesta's gravitational tug on the spacecraft to compute the asteroid's mass with much greater accuracy than has been previously available. That will allow them to refine the time of orbit insertion.

Image above: This composite image shows the comparative sizes of eight asteroids. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / JAXA / ESA.

Dawn will spend one year orbiting Vesta, then travel to a second destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, arriving in February 2015. The mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by JPL for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

UCLA is responsible for Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission's team.

To view the image and obtain more information about the Dawn mission, visit:

To follow the mission on Twitter, visit:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech.