Citizen Scientist Opportunities

Two Bizarre Brown Dwarfs Found With Citizen Scientists’ Help

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This artist’s concept shows a brown dwarf, a ball of gas not massive enough to power itself the way stars do. Despite their name, brown dwarfs would appear magenta or orange-red to the human eye if seen close up. Credit: CC byWilliam Pendrill 

With the help of citizen scientists, astronomers have discovered two highly unusual brown dwarfs, balls of gas that are not massive enough to power themselves the way stars do. 

 Participants in the NASA-funded Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project helped lead scientists to these bizarre objects, using data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite along with all-sky observations collected between 2009 and 2011 under its previous moniker, WISE. Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is an example of “citizen science,” a collaboration between professional scientists and members of the public. 

Scientists call the newly discovered objects “the first extreme T-type subdwarfs.” They weigh about 75 times the mass of Jupiter and clock in at roughly 10 billion years old. These two objects are the most planetlike brown dwarfs yet seen among the Milky Way’s oldest population of stars. 


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NASA, Citizen Scientists Discover Potential New Hunting Ground for Exoplanets

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Artist’s concept of the newly discovered disk. Credits: Jonathan Holden


Via a NASA-led citizen science project, eight people with no formal training in astrophysics helped discover what could be a fruitful new place to search for planets outside our solar system – a large disk of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disk.

paper, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and coauthored by eight citizen scientists involved in the discovery, describes a newly identified red dwarf star, AWI0005x3s, and its warm circumstellar disk, the kind associated with young planetary systems. Most of the exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, that have been imaged to date dwell in disks similar to the one around AWI0005x3s.

The disk and its star are located in what is dubbed the Carina association – a large, loose grouping of similar stars in the Carina Nebula approximately 212 light years from our sun. Its relative proximity to Earth will make it easier to conduct follow-on studies.

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Update to NASA’S Apps Page

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Going through some of the pages and links, I try to keep up with changes NASA makes. And they have made several.

One is the page on all Apps developed by NASA to manage projects, get information on departments, and a large list of cosmology and astronomy information.

I also want to let you know that the link in the page has changed as well. It is now a MEGA Social Media page of everything NASA. From current projects to missions planned to even following individual astronauts. There may be other individuals as well.

We are also going to bring a future page as NASA has introduced E-Books to its offerings.

To visit the new Apps page, go to the menu and select the page, or click on this link for NASA’s App Downloads.

To visit the page for E-Books, click on the link for NASA E-Books.


*** Downloaded graphic used here and on the page and including the Apps page were designed by NASA and is from their website ***

Spitzer Beyond

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This diagram shows how the different phases of Spitzer’s mission relate to its location relative to the Earth over time.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Celebrating the spacecraft’s ability to push the boundaries of space science and technology, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope team has dubbed the next phase of its journey “Beyond.”

“Spitzer is operating well beyond the limits that were set for it at the beginning of the mission,” said Michael Werner, the project scientist for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We never envisioned operating 13 years after launch, and scientists are making discoveries in areas of science we never imagined exploring with the spacecraft.”

NASA recently granted the spacecraft a two-and-a-half-year mission extension. This Beyond phase of the Spitzer mission will explore a wide range of topics in astronomy and cosmology, as well as planetary bodies in and out of our solar system.

“Balancing these concerns on a heat-sensitive spacecraft will be a delicate dance, but engineers are hard at work preparing for the new challenges in the Beyond phase,” said Mark Effertz, the Spitzer spacecraft chief engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado, which built the spacecraft.

Spitzer, which launched on Aug. 25, 2003, has consistently adapted to new scientific and engineering challenges during its mission, and the team expects it will continue to do so during the “Beyond” phase, which begins Oct. 1. The selected research proposals for the Beyond phase, also known as Cycle 13, include a variety of objects that Spitzer wasn’t originally planned to address — such as galaxies in the early universe, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and exoplanets.

“We never even considered using Spitzer for studying exoplanets when it launched,” said Sean Carey of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. “It would have seemed ludicrous back then, but now it’s an important part of what Spitzer does.”

Spitzer’s exoplanet exploration
Spitzer has many qualities that make it a valuable asset in exoplanet science, including an extremely accurate star-targeting system and the ability to control unwanted changes in temperature. Its stable environment and ability to observe stars for long periods of time led to the first detection of light from known exoplanets in 2005. More recently, Spitzer’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) has been used for finding exoplanets using the “transit” method — looking for a dip in a star’s brightness that corresponds to a planet passing in front of it. This brightness change needs to be measured with exquisite accuracy to detect exoplanets. IRAC scientists have created a special type of observation to make such measurements, using single pixels within the camera.

Another planet-finding technique that Spitzer uses, but was not designed for, is called microlensing. When a star passes in front of another star, the gravity of the first star can act as a lens, making the light from the more distant star appear brighter. Scientists are using microlensing to look for a blip in that brightening, which could mean that the foreground star has a planet orbiting it. Spitzer and the ground-based Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) were used together to find one of the most distant planets known outside the solar system, as reported in 2015. This type of investigation is made possible by Spitzer’s increasing distance from Earth, and could not have been done early in the mission.

Peering into the early universe
Understanding the early universe is another area where Spitzer has broken ground. IRAC was designed to detect remote galaxies roughly 12 billion light-years away — so distant that their light has been traveling for roughly 88 percent of the history of the universe. But now, thanks to collaborations between Spitzer and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, scientists can peer even further into the past. The farthest galaxy ever seen, GN-z11, was characterized in a 2016 study using data from these telescopes. GN-z11 is about 13.4 billion light-years away, meaning its light has been traveling since 400 million years after the big bang.

“When we designed the IRAC instrument, we didn’t know those more distant galaxies existed,” said Giovanni Fazio, principal investigator of IRAC, based at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The combination of the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer has been fantastic, with the telescopes working together to determine their distance, stellar mass and age.”

Closer to home, Spitzer advanced astronomers’ understanding of Saturn when scientists using the observatory discovered the planet’s largest ring in 2009. Most of the material in this ring — consisting of ice and dust — begins 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Saturn and extends about 7.4 million miles (12 million kilometers) beyond that. Though the ring doesn’t reflect much visible light, making it difficult for Earth-based telescopes to see, Spitzer could detect the infrared glow from the cool dust.

The multiple phases of Spitzer
Spitzer reinvented itself in May 2009 with its warm mission, after the depletion of the liquid helium coolant that was chilling its instruments since August 2003. At the conclusion of the “cold mission,” Spitzer’s Infrared Spectrograph and Multiband Imaging Photometer stopped working, but two of the four cameras in IRAC persisted. Since then, the spacecraft has made numerous discoveries despite operating in warmer conditions (which, at about minus 405 Fahrenheit or 30 Kelvin, is still cold by Earthly standards).

“With the IRAC team and the Spitzer Science Center team working together, we’ve really learned how to operate the IRAC instrument better than we thought we could,” Fazio said. “The telescope is also very stable and in an excellent orbit for observing a large part of the sky.”

Spitzer’s Beyond mission phase will last until the commissioning phase of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, currently planned to launch in October 2018. Spitzer is set to identify targets that Webb can later observe more intensely. 

“We are very excited to continue Spitzer in its Beyond phase. We fully expect new, exciting discoveries to be made over the next two-and-a-half years,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Spitzer, based at JPL.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit: and



Small Asteroid Is Earth’s Constant Companion

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Asteroid 2016 HO3 has an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the sun, this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 

“One other asteroid — 2003 YN107 — followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”


This video shows the obit of the Earth and asteroid 2016 H03 (If video does not appear, click on Asteroid Orbit).

In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroizd s2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

The Center for NEO Studies website has a complete list of recent and upcoming close approaches, as well as all other data on the orbits of known NEOs, so scientists and members of the media and public can track information on known objects.

For asteroid news and updates, follow AsteroidWatch on Twitter:

New NASA Web Portal Shines Beacon on Rising Seas

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Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is at risk from rising sea levels. Credit: Dave/Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY 2.0


Sea level rise is a critical global issue affecting millions across our planet. A new Web portal developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, gives researchers, decision makers and the public alike a resource to stay up to date with the latest developments and scientific findings in this rapidly advancing field of study. 

The portal, “Sea Level Change: Observations from Space,” is online at:

The portal’s key features include:

  • “Understanding Sea Level,” a summary of decades of scientific research that has shaped our knowledge of sea level rise: its causes, including a warming, expanding ocean and melting ice on land; projections of future sea level rise; and ways in which humanity might adapt, largely drawn from NASA data.
  • An interactive data analysis tool, launching in mid-2016, that will allow direct access to NASA datasets on sea level. Users will be able to manipulate these datasets to automatically generate charts, graphs and maps of sea surface height, temperature and other factors. The analysis tool will also allow users to make forecasts of future conditions, as well as “hindcasts” — retroactive calculations of past trends and conditions.
  • News highlights and feature stories with strong visual elements that explore the findings of sea level researchers in detail.
  • An extensive library of published papers on sea level-related topics, hyperlinked to individual citations throughout “Understanding Sea Level.”
  • A multimedia section with dynamic still and video imagery, and a glossary of sea level terms.

  • A “frequently asked questions” section maintained by sea level scientists. Users can submit questions to scientists and data managers.

The website is optimized for most mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.

“Sea Level Change: Observations from Space” is managed by a team led by JPL scientist Carmen Boening. The team is part of the NASA Sea Level Change Team research group. 

“With sea levels rising globally, as observed by satellites over the past decades, sea level change is a hot topic in climate research,” Boening said. “This new tool provides a NASA resource for researchers and a wealth of information for members of the public seeking a deeper understanding of sea level change.”

For more information on NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: and

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.






NASA, Japan Make ASTER Earth Data Available At No Cost

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In March 2016, ASTER captured the eruption of Nicaragua’s Momotombo volcano with its visible and thermal infrared bands. The ash plume is depicted by the visible bands in blue-gray; the thermal infrared bands show hot lava flows in yellow and the active summit crater in white. Vegetation is red. Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Beginning today, all Earth imagery from a prolific Japanese remote sensing instrument operating aboard NASA’s Terra spacecraft since late 1999 is now available to users everywhere at no cost.

The public will have unlimited access to the complete 16-plus-year database for Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument, which images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER’s database currently consists of more than 2.95 million individual scenes. The content ranges from massive scars across the Oklahoma landscape from an EF-5 tornado and the devastating aftermath of flooding in Pakistan, to volcanic eruptions in Iceland and wildfires in California.

Previously, users could access ASTER’s global digital topographic maps of Earth online at no cost, but paid METI a nominal fee to order other ASTER data products. 

In announcing the change in policy, METI and NASA cited ASTER’s longevity and continued strong environmental monitoring capabilities. Launched in 1999, ASTER has far exceeded its five-year design life and will continue to operate for the foreseeable future as part of the suite of five Earth-observing instruments on Terra.

“We anticipate a dramatic increase in the number of users of our data, with new and exciting results to come,” said Michael Abrams, ASTER science team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, home to ASTER’s U.S. science team. ASTER data are processed into products using algorithms developed at JPL and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan. A joint U.S./Japan science team validates and calibrates the instrument and data products.

ASTER is used to create detailed maps of land surface temperature, reflectance and elevation. The instrument acquires images in visible and thermal infrared wavelengths, with spatial resolutions ranging from about 50 to 300 feet (15 to 90 meters). ASTER data cover 99 percent of Earth’s landmass and span from 83 degrees north latitude to 83 degrees south. A single downward-looking ASTER scene covers an area on the ground measuring about 37-by-37 miles (60-by-60-kilometers).

ASTER uses its near-infrared spectral band and downward- and backward-viewing telescopes to create stereo-pair images, merging two slightly offset two-dimensional images to create the three-dimensional effect of depth. Each elevation measurement point in the data is 98 feet (30 meters) apart.

The broad spectral coverage and high spectral resolution of ASTER provide scientists in numerous disciplines with critical information for surface mapping and monitoring of dynamic conditions and changes over time. Example applications include monitoring glacial advances and retreats, monitoring potentially active volcanoes, identifying crop stress, determining cloud morphology and physical properties, evaluating wetlands, monitoring thermal pollution, monitoring coral reef degradation, mapping surface temperatures of soils and geology, and measuring surface heat balance.

ASTER data are now available via electronic download from NASA’s Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC) at the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and from AIST. To access the data, visit: or

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

For more information about ASTER, visit:

For more information on NASA’s Terra mission, visit:

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit:

Halloween Skies to Include Dead Comet Flyby

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The large space rock that will zip past Earth this Halloween is most likely a dead comet that, fittingly, bears an eerie resemblance to a skull.

Scientists observing asteroid 2015 TB145 with NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, have determined that the celestial object is more than likely a dead comet that has shed its volatiles after numerous passes around the sun.

The belated comet has also been observed by optical and radar observatories around the world, providing even more data, including our first close-up views of its surface. Asteroid 2015 TB145 will safely fly by our planet at just under 1.3 lunar distances, or about 302,000 miles (486,000 kilometers), on Halloween (Oct. 31) at 1 p.m. EDT (10 a.m. PDT, 17:00 UTC).

The first radar images of the dead comet were generated by the National Science Foundation’s 305-meter (1,000-foot) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The radar images from Arecibo indicate the object is spherical in shape and approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) in diameter and completes a rotation about once every five hours. 

“The IRTF data may indicate that the object might be a dead comet, but in the Arecibo images it appears to have donned a skull costume for its Halloween flyby,” said Kelly Fast, IRTF program scientist at NASA Headquarters and acting program manager for NASA’s NEO Observations Program.

These first radar images from the National Science Foundation’s 1,000-foot (305-meter) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, indicate the near-Earth object is spherical in shape and approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) in diameter. The radar images were taken on Oct. 30, 2015, and the image resolution is 25 feet (7.5 meters) per pixel.Image credit: NAIC-Arecibo/NSF

Managed by the University of Hawaii for NASA, the IRTF’s 3-meter (10 foot) telescope collected infrared data on the object. The data may finally put to rest the debate over whether 2015 TB145, with its unusual orbit, is an asteroid or is of cometary origin.

“We found that the object reflects about six percent of the light it receives from the sun,” said Vishnu Reddy, a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona. “That is similar to fresh asphalt, and while here on Earth we think that is pretty dark, it is brighter than a typical comet which reflects only 3 to 5 percent of the light. That suggests it could be cometary in origin — but as there is no coma evident, the conclusion is it is a dead comet.”

Radar images generated by the Arecibo team are available at:

Asteroid 2015 TB145 was discovered on Oct. 10, 2015, by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) on Haleakala, Maui, part of the NASA-funded Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program. The next time the asteroid will be in Earth’s neighborhood will be in September 2018, when it will make a distant pass at about 24 million miles (38 million kilometers), or about a quarter the distance between Earth and the sun.

Radar is a powerful technique for studying an asteroid’s size, shape, rotation, surface features and surface roughness, and for improving the calculation of asteroid orbits. Radar measurements of asteroid distances and velocities often enable computation of asteroid orbits much further into the future than would be possible otherwise.

NASA places a high priority on tracking asteroids and protecting our home planet from them. In fact, the U.S. has the most robust and productive survey and detection program for discovering near-Earth objects (NEOs). To date, U.S.-funded assets have discovered over 98 percent of the known NEOs.

In addition to the resources NASA puts into understanding asteroids, it also partners with other U.S. government agencies, university-based astronomers, and space science institutes across the country, often with grants, interagency transfers and other contracts from NASA, and also with international space agencies and institutions that are working to track and better understand these objects. In addition, NASA values the work of numerous highly skilled amateur astronomers, whose accurate observational data helps improve asteroid orbits after they are found.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program within the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

More information about asteroids and near-Earth objects is at these websites:



NASA Spots the ‘Great Pumpkin’: Halloween Asteroid a Treat for Radar Astronomers

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This is a graphic depicting the orbit of asteroid 2015 TB145. The asteroid will safely fly past Earth slightly farther out than the moon’s orbit on Oct. 31 at 10:05 a.m. Pacific (1:05 p.m. EDT and 17:05 UTC). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA scientists are tracking the upcoming Halloween flyby of asteroid 2015 TB145 with several optical observatories and the radar capabilities of the agency’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. The asteroid will fly past Earth at a safe distance slightly farther than the moon’s orbit on Oct. 31 at 10:01 a.m. PDT (1:01 p.m. EDT). Scientists are treating the flyby of the estimated 1,300-foot-wide (400-meter) asteroid as a science target of opportunity, allowing instruments on “spacecraft Earth” to scan it during the close pass.

Published on Oct 29, 2015JPL scientist Marina Brozovic explains how radar will be used to study asteroid 2015 TB145 when it safely passes Earth on Oct. 31, 2015. Scientists are tracking the Halloween flyby with several optical observatories and the radar capabilities of the agency’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. Radar images should be available within a few days of the flyby. The asteroid will fly past Earth at a safe distance slightly farther than the moon’s orbit on Oct. 31 at 10:01 a.m. PDT (1:01 p.m. EDT). Scientists are treating the flyby of the estimated 1,300-foot-wide (400-meter) asteroid as a science target of opportunity. 

Asteroid 2015 TB145 was discovered on Oct. 10, 2015, by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) on Haleakala, Maui, part of the NASA-funded Near-Earth Object Observation (NEOO) Program. According to the catalog of near-Earth objects (NEOs) kept by the Minor Planet Center, this is the closest currently known approach by an object this large until asteroid 1999 AN10, at about 2,600 feet (800 meters) in size, approaches at about 1 lunar distance (238,000 miles from Earth) in August 2027.

“The trajectory of 2015 TB145 is well understood,” said Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “At the point of closest approach, it will be no closer than about 300,000 miles — 480,000 kilometers or 1.3 lunar distances. Even though that is relatively close by celestial standards, it is expected to be fairly faint, so night-sky Earth observers would need at least a small telescope to view it.

The gravitational influence of the asteroid is so small it will have no detectable effect on the moon or anything here on Earth, including our planet’s tides or tectonic plates

The Center for NEO Studies at JPL is a central node for NEO data analysis in NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program and a key group involved with the international collaboration of astronomers and scientists who keep watch on the sky with their telescopes, looking for asteroids that could be a hazard to impact our planet and predicting their paths through space for the foreseeable future

“The close approach of 2015 TB145 at about 1.3 times the distance of the moon’s orbit, coupled with its size, suggests it will be one of the best asteroids for radar imaging we’ll see for several years,” said Lance Benner, of JPL, who leads NASA’s asteroid radar research program. “We plan to test a new capability to obtain radar images with two-meter resolution for the first time and hope to see unprecedented levels of detail.”

During tracking, scientists will use the 34-meter (110-foot) DSS 13 antenna at Goldstone to bounce radio waves off the asteroid. Radar echoes will in turn be collected by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, and the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center’s Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. NASA scientists hope to obtain radar images of the asteroid as fine as about 7 feet (2 meters) per pixel. This should reveal a wealth of detail about the object’s surface features, shape, dimensions and other physical properties

“The asteroid’s orbit is very oblong with a high inclination to below the plane of the solar system,” said Benner. “Such a unique orbit, along with its high encounter velocity — about 35 kilometers or 22 miles per second — raises the question of whether it may be some type of comet. If so, then this would be the first time that the Goldstone radar has imaged a comet from such a close distance.”

NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program detects, tracks and characterizes asteroids and comets passing within 30 million miles of Earth using both ground- and space-based telescopes. The NEOO Program, sometimes called “Spaceguard,” discovers these objects, characterizes the physical nature of a subset of them, and predicts their paths to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet. There are no known credible impact threats to date — only the ongoing and harmless in-fall of meteoroids, tiny asteroids that burn up in the atmosphere

JPL hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program within the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information about asteroids and near-Earth objects is at: and

Water Ice Found on Pluto

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Pluto’s haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn’s moon Titan. This image was generated by software that combines information from blue, red and near-infrared images to replicate the color a human eye would perceive as closely as possible NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders.

“We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now — 10 days after closest approach — we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.” 

Just seven hours after closest approach, New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) back at Pluto, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and revealing hazes as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze — one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles (50 kilometers).

“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries — it brings incredible beauty.”

Studying Pluto’s atmosphere provides clues as to what’s happening below. 

“The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  

Models suggest the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks up methane gas particles — a simple hydrocarbon in Pluto’s atmosphere. The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which also were discovered in Pluto’s atmosphere by New Horizons. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense into ice particles that create the hazes. Ultraviolent sunlight chemically converts hazes into tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto’s surface. 

Scientists previously had calculated temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes higher than 20 miles (30 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. 

“We’re going to need some new ideas to figure out what’s going on,” said Summers. 

The New Horizons mission also found in LORRI images evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.    

The new images show fascinating details within the Texas-sized plain, informally named Sputnik Planum, which lies within the western half of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio. There, a sheet of ice clearly appears to have flowed — and may still be flowing — in a manner similar to glaciers on Earth. 

“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” said mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. “I’m really smiling.” 

Additionally, new compositional data from New Horizons’ Ralph instrument indicate the center of Sputnik Planum is rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices. 

“At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis. “In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.” 

View a simulated flyover using New Horizons’ close-approach images of Sputnik Planum and Pluto’s newly-discovered mountain range, informally named Hillary Montes, in the video below:

The New Horizons mission will continue to send data stored in its onboard recorders back to Earth through late 2016. The spacecraft currently is 7.6 million miles (12.2 million kilometers) beyond Pluto, healthy and flying deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI, based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.


For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and images, visit: