Author: George McGinn

Scientists Finally Know What Time It Is on Saturn

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Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 

JoAnna Wendel 
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC

 

A view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016 as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice. A year on Saturn is 29 Earth years; days only last 10:33:38, according to a new analysis of Cassini data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Using new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, researchers believe they have solved a longstanding mystery of solar system science: the length of a day on Saturn. It’s 10 hours, 33 minutes and 38 seconds. 

The figure has eluded planetary scientists for decades, because the gas giant has no solid surface with landmarks to track as it rotates, and it has an unusual magnetic field that hides the planet’s rotation rate.

The answer, it turned out, was hidden in the rings. 

 

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NASA’s InSight Places First Instrument on Mars

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Jia-Rui Cook / Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

NASA’s InSight lander placed its seismometer on Mars on Dec. 19, 2018. This was the first time a seismometer had ever been placed onto the surface of another planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA’s InSight lander has deployed its first instrument onto the surface of Mars, completing a major mission milestone. New images from the lander show the seismometer on the ground, its copper-colored covering faintly illuminated in the Martian dusk. It looks as if all is calm and all is bright for InSight, heading into the end of the year.

 

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The Coolest Experiment in the Universe

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Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) physicist David Aveline works in the CAL test bed Shown here is theInternational Space Station Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) Cold Atom Laboratory Astronaut Ricky Arnold assists with the installation of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory The International Space Station, shown here in 2018, is home to many scientific experiments, including NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory. Credit: NASA

 

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) consists of two standardized containers that will be installed on the International Space Station. The larger container holds CAL’s physics package, or the compartment where CAL will produce clouds of ultracold atoms. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the coldest place you can think of? Temperatures on a winter day in Antarctica dip as low as -120ºF (-85ºC). On the dark side of the Moon, they hit -280ºF (-173ºC). But inside NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station, scientists are creating something even colder.

The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of “ultracold” atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe.

 NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course.

USeven months after its May 21, 2018, launch to the space station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, CAL is producing ultracold atoms daily. Five teams of scientists will carry out experiments on CAL during its first year, and three experiments are already underway. 

 

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NASA Satellites Spot Young Star in Growth Spurt

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Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

This illustration shows a young star undergoing a type of growth spurt. Left panel: Material from the dusty and gas-rich disk (orange) plus hot gas (blue) mildly flows onto the star, creating a hot spot. Middle panel: The outburst begins – the inner disk is heated, more material flows to the star, and the disk creeps inward. Right panel: The outburst is in full throttle, with the inner disk merging into the star and gas flowing outward (green). Credit: Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC)

 

An adolescent star in the midst of a dramatic growth phase has been observed with the help of two NASA space telescopes. The youngster belongs to a class of stars that gain mass when matter swirling around the star falls onto its surface. The in-falling matter causes the star to appear about 100 times brighter. Astronomers have found only 25 stars in this class, and only about half of those have been observed during an outburst. 


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NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space

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Dwayne Brown / Karen Fox
NASA Headquarters, Washington

Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

This illustration shows the position of NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

For the second time in history, a human-made object has reached the space between the stars. NASA’s Voyager 2 probe now has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Members of NASA’s Voyager team will discuss the findings at a news conference at 11 a.m. EST (8 a.m. PST) today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington. The news conference will stream live on the agency’s website.

Comparing data from different instruments aboard the trailblazing spacecraft, mission scientists determined the probe crossed the outer edge of the heliosphere on Nov. 5. This boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012, but Voyager 2 carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.

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Kepler Telescope Bids ‘Goodnight’ with Final Commands

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NASA’s Kepler space telescope discovered thousands of planets outside our solar system, and revealed that our galaxy contains more planets than stars. Credit: CNASAredit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech

 

On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 15, NASA’s Kepler space telescope received its final set of commands to disconnect communications with Earth. The “goodnight” commands finalize the spacecraft’s transition into retirement, which began on Oct. 30 with NASA’s announcement that Kepler had run out of fuel and could no longer conduct science. 

Coincidentally, Kepler’s “goodnight” falls on the same date as the 388-year anniversary of the death of its namesake, German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion and passed away on Nov. 15, 1630.

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The Mars InSight Landing Site Is Just Plain Perfect

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This artist’s concept depicts the smooth, flat ground that dominates InSight’s landing ellipse in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No doubt about it, NASA explores some of the most awe-inspiring locations in our solar system and beyond. Once seen, who can forget the majesty of astronaut Jim Irwin standing before the stark beauty of the Moon’s Hadley Apennine mountain range, of the Hubble Space Telescope’s gorgeous “Pillars of Creation” or Cassini’s magnificent mosaic of Saturn?

 Mars also plays a part in this visually compelling equation, with the high-definition imagery from the Curiosity rover of the ridges and rounded buttes at the base of Mount Sharp bringing to mind the majesty of the American Southwest. That said, Elysium Planitia – the site chosen for the Nov. 26 landing of NASA’s InSight mission to Mars – will more than likely never be mentioned with those above because it is, well, plain. 

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What Uranus Cloud Tops Have in Common With Rotten Eggs

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Uranus
Arriving at Uranus in 1986, Voyager 2 observed a bluish orb with extremely subtle features. A haze layer hid most of the planet’s cloud features from view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

  

Even after decades of observations and a visit by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, Uranus held on to one critical secret — the composition of its clouds. Now, one of the key components of the planet’s clouds has finally been verified. 

A global research team that includes Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has spectroscopically dissected the infrared light from Uranus captured by the 26.25-foot (8-meter) Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. They found hydrogen sulfide, the odiferous gas that most people avoid, in Uranus’ cloud tops. The long-sought evidence was published in the April 23rd issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

The detection of hydrogen sulfide high in Uranus’ cloud deck (and presumably Neptune’s) is a striking difference from the gas giant planets located closer to the Sun — Jupiter and Saturn — where ammonia is observed above the clouds, but no hydrogen sulfide. These differences in atmospheric composition shed light on questions about the planets’ formation and history. 

 
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NASA Engineers Dream Big With Small Spacecraft

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MarCO CubeSat
An artist’s rendering of the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft as they fly through deep space. The MarCOs will be the first CubeSats — a kind of modular, mini-satellite — attempting to fly to another planet. They’re designed to fly along behind NASA’s InSight lander on its cruise to Mars. If they make the journey, they will test a relay of data about InSight’s entry, descent and landing back to Earth. Though InSight’s mission will not depend on the success of the MarCOs, they will be a test of how CubeSats can be used in deep space. Credit: NASA/JPL

 

Many of NASA’s most iconic spacecraft towered over the engineers who built them: think Voyagers 1 and 2, Cassini or Galileo — all large machines that could measure up to a school bus.

But in the past two decades, mini-satellites called CubeSats have made space accessible to a new generation. These briefcase-sized boxes are more focused in their abilities and have a fraction of the mass — and cost — of some past titans of space.

In May, engineers will be watching closely as NASA launches its first pair of CubeSats designed for deep space. The twin spacecraft are called Mars Cube One, or MarCO, and were built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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NASA’s Webb Observatory Requires More Time for Testing and Evaluation; New Launch Window Under Review

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NASA Release by Jen Rae Wang / Steve Cole
Headquarters, Washington’

James_Webb_Space_Telescope.jpg 

 

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope currently is undergoing final integration and test phases that will require more time to ensure a successful mission. After an independent assessment of remaining tasks for the highly complex space observatory, Webb’s previously revised 2019 launch window now is targeted for approximately May 2020. 

“Webb is the highest priority project for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, and the largest international space science project in U.S. history. All the observatory’s flight hardware is now complete, however, the issues brought to light with the spacecraft element are prompting us to take the necessary steps to refocus our efforts on the completion of this ambitious and complex observatory,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

 

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