Tag Archive: NASA


We all know that as the seasons change on Earth, temperatures rise and fall, plants grow or die, ice forms or melts away. Perhaps nobody is more aware of this than NASA’s Visible Earth team who provide a vast catalog of images of our home planet as seen from space. Last month designer, cartographer, and dataviz expert John Nelson download a sequence of twelve cloud-free satellite imagery mosaics of Earth, one from each month, and then created a number of vivid animated gifs showing the seasonal changes in vegetation and land ice around the world.

Despite having encountered numerous seasonal timelapse videos shot here on Earth, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this visualized on such a large scale from space. It really looks like a heartbeat or the action of breathing.

Drop whatever you’re doing and watch this. NASA has released videos shot from onboard the Space Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters in the past, but you’ve never seen one prepared as masterfully as this.

For one thing, the footage was shot in high definition, so the image is exceptionally clear. But what puts this video head and shoulders above most other rocketcams is the sound. The audio has been remastered by the folks over at Skywalker Sound, and the final product is nothing short of incredible.

Try to let what you’re witnessing sink in. See those numbers flying past in the upper right hand corner? That’s the Shuttle’s airspeed. See that gleam of light against the inky backdrop of space at 2:08 and 3:11? That’s the Shuttle continuing on its flight path into low Earth orbit. Hear the eerie rattling, haunting moans, and weird dinosaur noises? That’s what it sounds like to be a Solid Rocket Booster, falling to Earth from an altitude of 150,000 feet.

BOOM!

The Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab will use the most advanced commercially available quantum computer, the D-Wave Two.

D-Wave computer chip

Quantum computing took a giant leap forward on the world stage today as NASA and Google, in partnership with a consortium of universities, launched an initiative to investigate how the technology might lead to breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

The new Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab will employ what may be the most advanced commercially available quantum computer, the D-Wave Two, which a recent study confirmed was much faster than conventional machines at defeating specific problems . The machine will be installed at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and is expected to be available for government, industrial, and university research later this year.

Google believes quantum computing might help it improve its Web search and speech recognition technology. University researchers might use it to devise better models of disease and climate, among many other possibilities. As for NASA, “computers play a much bigger role within NASA missions than most people realize,” says quantum computing expert Colin Williams, director of business development and strategic partnerships at D-Wave. “Examples today include using supercomputers to model space weather, simulate planetary atmospheres, explore magnetohydrodynamics, mimic galactic collisions, simulate hypersonic vehicles, and analyze large amounts of mission data.”

Quantum computers exploit the bizarre quantum-mechanical properties of atoms and other building blocks of the cosmos. At itse very smallest scale, the universe becomes a fuzzy, surreal place—objects can seemingly exist in more than one place at once or spin in opposite directions at the same time.

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NASA is funding research into 3D-printed food. Mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor received a $125,000 grant from the agency to build a prototype 3D printer with the aim of automating food creation. It’s hoped the system could provide astronauts food during long-distance space travel, but its creator has the loftier aim of solving the increasing food shortages around the world by cutting down on waste. The software for the printer will be open-source, while the hardware is based on the open-source RepRap Mendel 3D printer.

The concept is to use basic “building blocks” of food in replaceable powder cartridges. By combining each block, a wide range of foods should be able to be created by the printer. The cartridges will have a lifespan of 30 years, more than long enough to enable long-distance space travel. After proving his system works on a basic level by printing chocolate, Contractor will start his project within the next few weeks by attempting to print a pizza.

As Quartz reveals, the pizza printer will first print a layer of dough, which will be cooked while being printed, before mixing tomato powder with water and oil to print a tomato sauce. The topping for the pizza will be a nondescript “protein layer.” It’s early days for the project, but if it’s successful it would be a real milestone on the way towards a Star Trek-style Replicator.

Artist concept of the gas halo surrounding the Milky Way galaxy

Astronomers have used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to find evidence our Milky Way Galaxy is embedded in an enormous halo of hot gas that extends for hundreds of thousands of light years. The estimated mass of the halo is comparable to the mass of all the stars in the galaxy.

If the size and mass of this gas halo is confirmed, it also could be an explanation for what is known as the “missing baryon” problem for the galaxy.

Baryons are particles, such as protons and neutrons, that make up more than 99.9 percent of the mass of atoms found in the cosmos. Measurements of extremely distant gas halos and galaxies indicate the baryonic matter present when the universe was only a few billion years old represented about one-sixth the mass and density of the existing unobservable, or dark, matter. In the current epoch, about 10 billion years later, a census of the baryons present in stars and gas in our galaxy and nearby galaxies shows at least half the baryons are unaccounted for.

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Hello Mars,…I’m Curiosity

Dear NASA, any chance you can send another Curiosity rover to the U.S. Congress to check if there’s intelligent life in there? Thanks a lot!

Curiosity's Surroundings - Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Fascinating recording of Jupiter sounds (electromagnetic “voices”) by NASA-Voyager. The complex interactions of charged electromagnetic particles from the solar wind , planetary magnetosphere etc. create vibration “soundscapes”. It sounds very interesting, even scary. Jupiter is mostly composed of hydrogen and helium. The entire planet is made of gas, with no solid surface under the atmosphere. The pressures and temperatures deep in Jupiter are so high that gases form a gradual transition into liquids which are gradually compressed into a metallic “plasma” in which the molecules have been stripped of their outer electrons. The winds of Jupiter are a thousand metres per second relative to the rotating interior. Jupiter’s magnetic field is four thousand times stronger than Earth’s, and is tipped by 11° degrees of axis spin. This causes the magnetic field to wobble, which has a profound effect on trapped electronically charged particles. This plasma of charged particles is accelerated beyond the magnetosphere of Jupiter to speeds of tens of thousands of kilometres per second. It is these magnetic particle vibrations which generate some of the sound you hear on this recording.

The world’s deadliest aviation disaster took place on a foggy airport runway rather than in the air. That’s why NASA is offering “augmented reality” glasses that would allow commercial airline pilots to see a virtual version of runways in even the worst weather conditions.

Such glasses represent a portable head-worn display that shows critical flight information such as airspeed, altitude and orientation floating in front of one eye at all times. The NASA display would also track pilots’ heads so that an updated virtual outline of an airport’s runways and towers always appears wherever they look — allowing them to keep their attention on what’s happening outside rather than staring at a chart or tablet.

“If pilots are not familiar with the airport, they have to stop and pull out maps,” said Trey Arthur, an electronics engineer at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. “This display, in the new world where these routes are going to be digital, can tell them what taxiway they’re on, where they need to go, where they’re headed and how well they’re tracking the runway’s center line.”

Similar heads-up display (HUD) technology exists for military fighter jet and helicopter pilots, who wear helmets with the transparent displays. Newer commercial airliners also use HUDs installed in the cockpit, but lack the head-tracking ” augmented reality ” of NASA’s technology that layers virtual images or maps on top of a pilot’s real-world vision.

Giving pilots better awareness on airport runways swarming with airplanes could prevent catastrophes such as the world’s deadliest aviation incident at Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977. A collision there between a jumbo jet trying to take off and another jet sitting on the foggy runway ended in a blazing inferno that killed 583 passengers and crew.

“If the fog is in and you can’t see the tower or certain parts of the airport, we would draw that on the display as well if it would enhance situational awareness,” Arthur told InnovationNewsDaily.

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Firing on all engines, NASA’s latest rover to Mars has executed a course adjustment that put it on track for a landing on the Red Planet in August. Deep space antennas monitored the one-ton rover nicknamed Curiosity as it fired its thrusters in a choreographed three-hour maneuver on Wednesday. “We’re a big step closer to our entry point at the Martian atmosphere,” said Arthur Amador of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The course correction is the most important task Curiosity will perform during its 352-million-mile (566-million-kilometer) trip to Mars, but it’s not unprecedented. Previous robotic explorers have had to adjust their paths several times en route to landing. As NASA celebrated Curiosity’s latest milestone, Russia’s space agency grappled with its doomed Phobos-Ground probe. Bound for a Martian moon, Phobos-Ground became stranded in Earth orbit soon after launching in November. After several failed attempts to put it back on course, pieces of the probe could plunge through Earth’s atmosphere as early as this weekend.

Meanwhile, Curiosity has racked up 80 million miles (129 million kilometers) and was traveling at 10,200 mph (16,400 kilometers per hour) relative to the Earth. The action began Tuesday when engineers uploaded commands to Curiosity’s on-board computers. On cue, it refined its trajectory without human interference — thrusting 200 times in short bursts Wednesday and increasing its speed by 12 mph (19 kilometers per hour). “It was pretty darn flawless,” Amador said.

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The past few years have seen the discovery of dozens of planets outside the solar system. Most of them have been gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn. But a few have been rocky planets like the Earth or Mars. However, even those planets have been much larger than Earth. For example, Kepler-22b, which was recently found in the “habitable zone” around its star, is about twice the size of the Earth.

However, NASA announced today that its Kepler mission has discovered two (probably) rocky planets that are about the same size as the Earth. Both planets are in the Kepler-20 solar system, which has five total planets and is about 1,000 light-years away. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, while Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius.

Neither planet, alas, would be a good place to build a summer home. The surface temperatures of Kepler-20e average out at about 800 degrees, and on Kepler-20f things are kept at a toasty 1400 degrees.

That doesn’t take away from the significance of the finding, though. As the lead author of the study, Francois Fressin, stated in the NASA press release, “This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them.”

The goal of the Kepler mission is to discover Earth-sized planets that are in orbit in the habitable zone of their stars. At this point, the mission has now found a planet in the habitable zone, and two planets the size of Earth. I’m willing to bet that it’s only a matter of time before we find a planet that meets both criteria.

With eight months to go before the Mars Science Laboratory reaches its destination, the spacecraft is already getting to work. All systems have checked out beautifully — so much so that NASA didn’t have to perform course-correction maneuvers as planned — and the spacecraft isalready making measurements.

MSL is carrying an instrument called the Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, designed to monitor high-energy solar and cosmic rays. It will collect baseline data that could be useful for planning a future manned trip between Earth and Mars, and it will be able to do so from inside its protective shell. It will also detect secondary particles, which could be created from cosmic ray interactions with spacecraft components. In some cases, the secondary particles could be more dangerous to human health than the original particles.

Don Hassler, RAD’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Co., said the instrument is serving as a proxy for an astronaut. “Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars,” he said in a statement.

The hope is to determine how much radiation reaches the spacecraft interior, which would be good to know when designing ships that will carry people. Previous interplanetary radiation monitoring has just installed detectors on a spacecraft’s exterior.

As of noon Eastern time today, Curiosity will already have traveled 31.9 million miles since its launch Nov. 26. The RAD data collection marks the official start of its science mission. Another nine science instruments on board make it the most complex interplanetary explorer ever built.

It’s designed to look for signs of life in Mars’ past, and to judge whether the environment could be hospitable for life right now. Helping determine how life will fare on the way to Mars is one part of that mission.

After nearly a decade of planning, several cost overruns and a two-year delay, NASA is finally set to launch its next Mars rover this week.

The car-size Curiosity rover, the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is slated to blast off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday (Nov. 26) after a one-day delay due to a rocket battery issue. The launch comes two years later than the MSL team had originally planned, a slip that ultimately increased the mission’s lifetime costs by 56 percent.

But with Curiosity now sitting on the pad, nestled atop its Atlas 5 rocket, MSL’s past issues are receding deeper into history. Most eyes are now on the rover’s future — its quest to determine if Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.

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By considering a proposal to put filling stations in the sky, NASA is looking to accelerate plans to send astronauts to distant destinations.

The filling stations — NASA calls them propellant depots — would refuel a spacecraft in orbit before it headed out to the moon, an asteroid or eventually Mars. Currently, all of the fuel needed for a mission is carried up with the rocket, and the weight of the fuel limits the size of the spacecraft.

Next month, engineers will meet at NASA headquarters in Washington to discuss how propellant depots could be used to reach farther into space and make possible more ambitious missions using the heavy-lift rocket that NASA is planning to build. The discussions grow out of a six-month NASA study of propellant depots, completed in July.

However, the space agency has rejected the study’s most radical conclusion: that NASA could forgo the heavy-lift and use existing smaller rockets, combined with fuel depots, to reach its targets more quickly and less expensively. Those targets, for the next two decades at least, include a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. (A trip to Mars is unlikely until at least the 2030s.)

“This study highlights some interesting benefits of depots, but it is too singularly focused,” William H. Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate, said in a statement. “NASA is actively studying depots and how they can be used with other proposed elements to provide the lowest cost, sustainable exploration plan.”

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