Category: NASA Goals and Directions (page 1 of 10)

The Cosmos, As Viewed By The James Webb Space Telescope

The iconic “Pillars of Creation” image, on left, was taken in visible light by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. A new, near-infrared-light view from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, at right, helps us peer through more of the dust in this star-forming region. The thick, dusty brown pillars are no longer as opaque and many more red stars that are still forming come into view.  The pillars of gas and dust seem darker and less penetrable in Hubble’s view, and they appear more permeable in Webb’s. (NASA)

The James Webb Space Telescope was developed to allow us to see the cosmos in a new way — with much greater precision, using infrared wavelengths to piece through dust around galaxies, stars and planets, and to look further back into time and space.

In the less than four months since the first Webb images were released,  the pioneering telescope has certainly shown us a remarkable range of abilities.  And as a result, we’ve been treated to some dazzling new views of the solar system, the galaxy and beyond.  This is just the beginning and we thankfully have years to come of new images and the scientific insights that come with them.

Just as the Hubble Space Telescope, with its 32 years of service and counting, ushered in a new era of space imagining and understanding, so too is the Webb telescope revolutionizing how we see and understand our world writ large.  Very large.

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 during a flyby more than three decades ago, the Hubble Space Telescope last year, and the JWST this summer. ( NASA/ESA/CSA))

The differences between the Webb’s image and previous images of Neptune are certainly dramatic, in terms of color, precision and what they tell us about the planet.

Surely most striking in Webb’s new image is the crisp view of the planet’s rings, some of which have not been seen since NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe Neptune during its flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright, narrow rings, the Webb image clearly shows Neptune’s fainter, never-seen dust bands as well.

Neptune is an ice giant planet. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, which consist primarily of hydrogen and helium, Neptune has an interior that is much richer in heavier elements (“heavier is the sense of not hydrogen or helium.) One of the most abundant heavy molecules is methane, which appears blue in Hubble’s visible wavelengths but largely white in the Webb’s near-infrared camera.… Read more

The Juno Spacecraft Images Jupiter’s Moon Europa as it Speeds Past

The first image from NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it passed close by Europa as part of its extended mission.  (NASA)

For NASA to extend its space science missions well past their original lifetime in space has become such a commonplace that it is barely noticed.

The Curiosity rover was scheduled to last on Mars for two years but now it has been going for a decade — following the pace set by earlier, smaller Mars rovers.  The Cassini mission to Saturn was extended seven years beyond it’s original end date and nobody expected that Voyager 1, launched in 1977,  would still flying out into deep space and sending back data 45 years later.

The newest addition to this virtuous collection of over-achievers is the Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in 2016.  Its prime mission in and around Jupiter ended last year and then was extended until 2025, or beyond.

And now we have some new and intriguing images of Jupiter’s moon Europa thanks to Juno and its extension.

Traveling at a brisk 14.7 miles per second, Juno passed within 219 miles of the surface of the icy moon on Thursday and images from the flyby were released today (Friday.)  That gave the spacecraft only a two-hour window to collect data and images, but scientists are excited.

“It’s very early in the process, but by all indications Juno’s flyby of Europa was a great success,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a NASA release.

“This first picture is just a glimpse of the remarkable new science to come from Juno’s entire suite of instruments and sensors that acquired data as we skimmed over the moon’s icy crust.”

Candy Hansen, a Juno co-investigator who leads planning for the Juno camera at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, called the released images “stunning.”

“The science team will be comparing the full set of images obtained by Juno with images from previous missions, looking to see if Europa’s surface features have changed over the past two decades,” she said.

An image of Europa taken by the Galileo spacecraft as it passed the moon in 1998. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

During the flyby, the mission collected what will be some of the highest-resolution images of the moon (0.6 miles per pixel) taken so far and obtained valuable data on Europa’s ice shell structure, interior, surface composition, and ionosphere, in addition to the moon’s interaction with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.… Read more

Spacecraft Smashes Into A Near-Earth Asteroid in the First Major Test of NASA’s Planetary Defense Program

The asteroid moon Didymous just before the Dart spacecraft crashed into it. (NASA)

As a test of our ability to damage a potentially hazardous asteroid heading our way, or perhaps to give it enough of a push that the asteroid’s path is changed enough to render it harmless, a NASA spacecraft tonight successfully collided with an asteroid some 6.8 mllion miles away.

The Dart spacecraft – short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test – crashed at high speed into the asteroid Dimorphos and self-destructed yesterday evening.

It was unclear yesterday exactly how much damage was sustained by the asteroid, which is the size of a football stadium. But images taken aboard the 1,200-pound spacecraft showed that it got closer and closer to the asteroid and then the camera froze — presumably on impact.

The spacecraft was going at 14,000 miles-an-hour and hit the moon of a gravitationally-bound pair of near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroid 65803 Didymos is a binary near-Earth asteroid. The primary body has a diameter of around a half mile and a rotation period of 2.26 hours, whereas the Didymoon secondary body has a diameter of around 525 feet and rotates around the primary at a distance of around 9 miles from the primary surface in around 12 hours. (ESA)

With that impact, the orbit of Dimorphos around the larger asteroid is expected to be slightly altered, resulting in a change in the direction of the two asteroids.

While cameras and telescopes watched the crash, it will take days or even weeks to find out if it actually altered the asteroid’s orbit.

To calculate how much the moon’s orbit is altered over time it’s ‘light curve’ will be measured by observing the sunlight reflected from it with telescopes on the ground, and using this to calculate the change in the orbital period of the double-asteroid system. Satellites in orbit, including the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes will also join the effort.

This was the first  full-scale planetary defense test by the NASA, with others on the way.  Dart was launched in November, 2021.

Planetary defense experts have not found any decent-sized asteroids likely to head our way for at least a  century and likely much longer. But they also report that as many as 15,000 smaller, undetected asteroids are in the near-Earth region and their potential paths are not known.

This is part of the logic behind the planetary defense program:  The risks of an asteroid of any size hitting the Earth are extremely small, but they are not well defined and, of course, a large asteroid crash on Earth could be cataclysmic. 

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The Virtual Planetary Lab and Its Search for What Makes an Exoplanet Habitable, or Even Inhabited

As presented by the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, exoplanet habitability is a function of the interplay of processes between the planet, the planetary system, and host star.  These interactions govern the planet’s evolutionary trajectory, and have a larger and more diverse impact on a planet’s habitability than its position in a habitable zone. (Meadows and Barnes)

For more than two decades now, the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) at the University of Washington in Seattle has been at the forefront of the crucial and ever-challenging effort to model how scientists can determine whether a particular exoplanet is capable of supporting life or perhaps even had life on it already.

To do this, VPL scientists have developed or combined models from many disciplines that characterize and predict a wide range of planetary, solar system and stellar attributes that could identify habitability, or could pretty conclusively say that a planet is not habitable.

These include the well known questions of whether water might be present and if so whether temperatures would allow it to be sometimes in a liquid state, but on to questions involving whether an atmosphere is present, what elements and compounds might be in the atmospheres, the possible orbital evolution of the planet, the composition of the host star and how it interacts with a particular orbiting planet and much, much more, as shown in the graphic above.

This is work that has played a significant role in advancing astrobiology — the search for life beyond Earth.

More specifically, the VPL approach played a considerable part in building a body of science that ultimately led the Astro2020 Decadal Study of the National Academy of Sciences to recommend last year that the NASA develop its  first Flagship astrobiology project — a mission that will feature a huge space telescope able to study exoplanets for signs of biology in entirely new detail.  That mission, approved but not really defined yet, is not expected to launch until the 2040s.

With that plan actually beginning to move forward, the 132 VPL affiliated researchers at 28 institutions find themselves at another more current-day inflection point:  The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope has begun to collect and send back what will be a massive and unprecedented set of spectra  of chemicals from the atmospheres of distant planets.

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory has modeled the workings of exoplanets since 2001, looking for ways to predict planetary conditions based on a broad range of measurable factors.

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NASA Suceeds in Making Precious Oxygen from Carbon Dioxide on Mars

 

Technicians in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory clean room lowered the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover in 2019. MOXIE was designed to  “breathe in” the CO2-rich atmosphere and “breathe out” a small amount of oxygen, to demonstrate a technology that could be critical for future human missions to Mars.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Of the many barriers to a human trip to Mars where astronauts would land, explore and return to Earth,  the absence of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is a big one.  Without oxygen that can be collected to support life and to provide fuel for a flight home,  there can be no successful human mission to the planet.

So the results of a proof-of-concept trial on Mars that turned carbon dioxide into oxygen is positive news for sure.  The instrument — called MOXIE on the rover Perseverance — successfully produced oxygen from carbon dioxide seven times last year, and convinced its inventors (and NASA) that it is a technology that can be of substantial importance.

While the amount of oxygen was not great — about 50 grams of the gas combined from the seven trials — the process worked well enough to strongly suggest that it could some day produce oxygen on a large scale.

“MOXIE has shown that (the deployed) technology for producing oxygen on Mars from the atmosphere is viable, is scalable, and meets expectations for efficiency and quality,” an MIT team led by Jeffrey Hoffman wrote in a Science Advances article released today.

They wrote that although long-term durability and resilience remain to be demonstrated and future efforts need to improve the instrument’s monitoring and controlling capabilities,  “all indications are that a scaled-up version of MOXIE could produce oxygen in sufficient quantity and with acceptable reliability to support future human exploration.”

The perseverance rover, in a selfie taken in late 2020, is the first to carry an instrument that can produce oxygen on Mars. (NASA)

The size of both the problem and the opportunity can be seen in the fact that carbon dioxide makes up more than 95 percent of the Martian atmosphere while oxygen is only a miniscule 0.13 percent of the atmosphere.  (Oxygen makes up 21 percent of the atmosphere on Earth.)

Transporting oxygen to Mars to fuel for a trip home is considered impractical because to burn its fuel a rocket must have substantial and weighty supplies of oxygen.… Read more

The James Webb Space Telescope Begins Looking at Exoplanets

 

Artist rendering of Gliese (GJ) 436 b  is a Neptune-sized planet that orbits a red dwarf  star.  Red dwarfs are cooler, smaller, and less luminous than the Sun. The planet completes one full orbit around its parent star in just a little over 2 days. It is made, scientists say, of extremely hot ice.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCF)

The James Webb Space Telescope has begun the part of its mission to study the atmospheres of 70 exoplanets in ways, and at a depth, well beyond anything done so far.

The telescope is not likely to answer questions like whether there is life on distant planet — its infrared wavelengths will tell us about the presence of many chemicals in exoplanet atmospheres but little about the presence of the element most important to life on Earth, oxygen.

But it is nonetheless undertaking a broad study of many well-known exoplanets and is likely to produce many tantalizing results and suggest answers to central questions about exoplanets and their solar systems.

Many Worlds has earlier looked at the JWST “early release” program, under which groups are allocated user time on the telescope under the condition that they make their data public quickly.  That way other teams can understand better how JWST works and what might be possible.

Another program gives time to scientists who worked on the JWST mission and on its many instruments.  They are given guaranteed time as part of their work making JWST as innovative and capable as it is.

One of the scientist in this “guaranteed time observations program” is Thomas Greene, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center.  The groups he leads have been given 215 hours of observing time for this first year (or more) of Cycle 1 of JWST due to his many contributions to the JWST mission as well as his history of accomplishments.

In a conversation with Greene, I got a good sense of what he hopes to find and his delight at the opportunity.  After all, he said, he has worked on the JWST idea and then mission since 1997.

“We will be observing a diverse sample of exoplanets to understand more about them and their characteristics,” Greene said.  “Our goal is to get a better understanding of how exoplanets are similar to and different from those in our solar system.”

And the JWST spectra will tell them about the chemistry, the composition and the thermal conditions on those exoplanets, leading to insights into how they formed, diversified and evolved into planets often so unlike our own.Read more

Icy Moons, And Exploring The Secrets They Hold

Voyager 2’s flew by the Uranian moon Miranda in 1986 and the spacecraft spent 17 minutes taking  photos to make this high-resolution portrait.  Miranda has three oval and trapezoid coronae, tectonic features whose origins remain debated. (NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk)

When it come to habitable environments in our solar system, there’s Earth, perhaps Mars billions of years ago and then a slew of ice-covered moons that are likely to have global oceans under their crusts.  Many of you are familiar with Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) — which have either been explored by NASA or will be in the years ahead.

But there quite a few others icy moons that scientists find intriguing and just possibly habitable.  There is Ganymede,  the largest moon of Jupiter and larger than Mercury but only 40 percent as dense, strongly suggesting a vast supply of water inside rather than rock.

There’s Saturn’s moon Titan, which is known for its methane lakes and seas on the surface but which has a subterranean ocean as well.  There is Callisto, the second largest moon of Jupiter and an subsurface-ocean candidates and even Pluto and Ceres, now called dwarf planets that show signs of having interior oceans.

And of increasing interest are several of the icy moons of Uranus, particularly Ariel and Miranda.  Each has features consistent with a subsurface ocean and even geological activity.  Although Uranus is a distant planet, well past Jupiter and Saturn and would take more than a decade to just get there, the possibility of a future Uranus mission is becoming increasingly real.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Decadal Survey for planetary science rated a Uranus mission as the highest priority in the field, and just today (Aug. 18) NASA embraced the concept.

At a NASA Planetary Science Division town hall meeting, Director Lori Glaze said the agency was “very excited” about the Uranus mission recommendation from the National Academy and that she hoped and expected some studies could be funded and begun in fiscal 2024.

If a Uranus mission is fully embraced,  it would be the first ever specifically to an ice giant system — exploring the planet and its moons.  This heightened interest reflects the fact that many in the exoplanet field now hold that ice giant systems are the most common in the galaxy and that icy moons may well be common as well.… Read more

Despite Everything, American-Russian Relations on the International Space Station Appear To Be Solid

The International Space Station, which orbits 248 miles above Earth,  in what is called low-Earth orbit. Its long success as an international collaboration has been tested by the Ukraine war. (NASA)

Late last month, it appeared that Russian participation in the International Space Station would end in 2024 — or so seemed to say the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos  Thirty years of unusual and successful cooperation would be coming to a close as the Ukraine war appeared to make longer-term commitments impossible, or undesirable for the Russian side.

But on a day when the Ukraine war raged for its 163rd day, when new Western sanctions were being put into place, when a Russian judge gave WNBA star Brittney Griner a provocative 9-year prison term for carrying small amounts of cannabis oil as she left Moscow, and just a short time after what seemed to be the Russian announcement of that 2024 departure,  NASA officials held a commodious press conference with Roscosmos Executive Director for Human Space Programs Sergei Krikalev and others involved with the ISS.

Together they spoke yesterday (August 4) of expanding American-Russian cooperation on the mission and discounted talk of a 2024 Russian exit.

“We always talk of spaceflight as being team support,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations, which oversees the ISS. “And this news conference will exemplify how it is a team sport.”

She then discussed  how and why a Russian cosmonaut would soon take a SpaceX flight to the ISS as part of a new program under which Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts can fly on each other’s ISS-and-homeward-bound spacecraft.  The flight by veteran cosmonaut Anna Kikina will mark the first time a Russian has flown on an American spacecraft.

In the press conference, Krikalev then insisted that Russia had no intention of leaving the station in 2024 but rather would begin looking at the logistics of departing at that time — with an eye to leaving for their own planned space station in the years ahead.

“As far as the statement for 2024, perhaps something was lost in translation,” he said. “The statement actually said Russia will not pull out until after 2024.  That may be in 2025, 2028 or 2030.”   He said the timetable “will depend on the technical condition of the station.”

In the good-natured spirit of the press conference, Krikalev said that he was “happy to see so many faces I’ve known for many years.” 

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Reports From Inside the Sun’s Corona

This movie is built from images taken over 10 days during the full perihelion encounter when the spacecraft was nearing the Sun’s corona. The perihelion is a brief moment during the encounter time, when the spacecraft is at its closest point to the Sun. The movie is from orbit 10 and dates and distances are on the frames, and changing locations of planets are in red.  (AHL/JHU; NASA)

To borrow from singer Paul Simon, these are definitely days of miracles and wonders — at least when it comes to exploring and understanding our Sun.

The Parker Solar Probe has been swinging further and further into the Sun’s corona, having just finished its 12th of 24 descents into a world of super-heated matter (plasma) where no human creation has ever gone.

The probe has dipped as close as 5.3 million miles from the surface of the sun — Mercury is 32 million miles from that solar surface — and is flying through the solar wind, through streamers (rays of magnetized solar material)  and even at times through coronal mass ejections, those huge eruptions of magnetized plasma flying at speeds up to nearly 2,000 miles per second.

This is all a goldmine for solar scientists, an opportunity to study our star — and by extension all stars — up close and to learn much more about how it works.

At a four-day conference at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab late last month, scores of scientists described the results of their early observations and analyses of the measurements and images coming from the Parker Probe via its The Wide-Field Imager (WISPR) and instruments that measure energy and magnetic flows.  The results have often surprising and, as some scientists said, “thrilling.”

“Parker Solar Probe was developed to answer some of the biggest puzzles, biggest questions about our Sun,” said Nour Raouafi, project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe.

“We have learned so much that we believe we are getting close to finding some important answers.  And we think the answers will be quite big for our field, and for science.”

The Parker Solar Probe had observed many switchbacks in the corona— traveling disturbances in the solar wind that cause the magnetic field to bend back on itself.  They are an as-yet unexplained phenomenon that might help scientists uncover more information about how the solar wind is accelerated from the Sun. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez)

Among the many unexpected solar features and forces detected by the Parker Probe is the widespread presence of switchbacks, rapid flips of the Sun’s magnetic field moving away from the Sun. … Read more

Evolving Views of Our Heliosphere Home

Does this model show of the actual shape of the heliosphere, with lines of magnetic fields around it? New research suggests so. The size and shape of the magnetic “force field” that protects our solar system from deadly cosmic rays has long been debated by astrophysicists. (Merav Opher, et. al)

We can’t see the heliosphere.  We know where it starts but not really where it ends.  And we are pretty certain that most stars, and therefore most planetary systems, are bounded by heliospheres, or “astropheres,” as well.

It has a measurable physical presence, but it is always changing.  And although it is hardly well known, it plays a substantial role in the dynamics of our solar system and our lives.

As it is studied further and deeper, it has become apparent that the heliosphere might be important — maybe even essential – for the existence of life on Earth and anywhere else it may exist.  Often likened to an enormous bubble or cocoon, it is the protected space in which our solar system and more exists.

Despite the fact that it is the largest physical system in the entire solar system, the heliosphere was only discovered at the dawn of the space age in the late 1950’s, when it was theorized by University of Chicago physicist Eugene Parker as being the result of what he termed the solar wind.

It took another decade for satellite measurements to confirm its existence and to determine some of its properties — that it is made up of an endless supply of charged particles that are shot off the sun — too hot to form into atoms. Together these particles,  which are superimposed with the interplanetary magnetic field, constitute the ingredients of he heliosphere.

Just as the Earth’s magnetic fields protect us from some of the effects of the Sun’s hazardous emanations, the heliosphere protects everything inside its bubble from many, though not all, of the incoming and more hazardous high-energy cosmic rays headed our way.

As measurable proof that the heliosphere does offer significant protection, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft left the heliosphere in 2012 and entered the intersellar medium, instruments onboard detected a tripling of amount of cosmic radiation suddenly hitting the spacecraft.

A comet-shaped traditional view of the structure of the heliosphere, with the sun in the middle of the circle, planets orbiting around and the solar wind trailing as the Sun orbits the Milky Way.  

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