Kepler Mission Discovers Two Planets Transiting the Same Star

Kepler spacecraft has discovered the first confirmed planetary system with more than one planet crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star.

The transit signatures of two distinct planets were seen in the data for the sun-like star designated Kepler-9. The planets were named Kepler-9b and 9c. The discovery incorporates seven months of observations of more than 156,000 stars as part of an ongoing search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. The findings will be published in Thursday's issue of the journal Science.

Kepler's ultra-precise camera measures tiny decreases in the stars' brightness that occur when a planet transits them. The size of the planet can be derived from these temporary dips.

The distance of the planet from the star can be calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star. Small variations in the regularity of these dips can be used to determine

Artemis Spacecraft First to Enter New Type of Orbit

The full Moon yesterday evening helped light the way for NASA's ARTEMIS-P1 to become the first spacecraft successfully placed into an Earth-Moon libration orbit.

At 12:33 a.m. on August 25 NASA engineers, in association with the University of Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory operations facility, performed a propulsion maneuver to capture ARTEMIS-P1 into the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrangian point, located on the far side of the Moon from Earth about 38,100 miles (61,300 km) above the lunar surface. The orbit is unique because it relies on a precise balancing of the Sun, Earth, and Moon’s gravity.

In October, its sister spacecraft – ARTEMIS-P2 – will be captured into the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrangian point located between the Earth and Moon.

Station Crew Busy With Science and Maintenance

The Expedition 24 crew members were busy with a variety of science experiments and maintenance activities Wednesday as they orbited the Earth aboard the International Space Station.

In the Japanese Kibo module, Flight Engineer Doug Wheelock set up equipment in the Fluid Physics Experiment Facility for a study of the Marangoni effect, which is the flow of liquids caused by surface tension.

Flight Engineer Tracy Caldwell Dyson changed out hardware and removed samples from the Multi-user Droplet Combustion Apparatus, which is part of the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) in the U.S. Destiny laboratory. The CIR is an experiment facility that helps researchers study how different materials combust in the microgravity environment aboard the station and can be operated by crew members or remotely by researchers on Earth.

Flight Engineer Shannon Walker analyzed water samples from the station’s Water Recovery System.

Normal sea surface temperatures

Deviations from normal sea surface temperatures (left) and sea surface heights (right) at the peak of the 2009-2010 central Pacific El Niño, as measured by NOAA polar orbiting satellites and NASA’s Jason-1 spacecraft,

PASADENA, Calif. – A relatively new type of El Niño, which has its warmest waters in the central-equatorial Pacific Ocean, rather than in the eastern-equatorial Pacific, is becoming more common and progressively stronger, according to a new study by NASA and NOAA. The research may improve our understanding of the relationship between El Niños and climate change, and has potentially significant implications for long-term weather forecasting.

Lead author Tong Lee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Michael McPhaden of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, measured changes in El Niño intensity since 1982. They analyzed NOAA satellite observations of sea surface temperature, checked against and blended with directly-measured ocean temperature data. The strength of each El Niño was gauged by how much its sea surface temperatures deviated from the average. They found the intensity of El Niños in the central Pacific has nearly doubled, with the most intense event occurring in 2009-10.

The scientists say the stronger El Niños help explain a steady rise in central Pacific sea surface temperatures observed over the past few decades in previous studies--a trend attributed by some to the effects of global warming. While Lee and McPhaden observed a rise in sea surface temperatures during El Niño years, no significant temperature increases were seen in years when ocean conditions were neutral, or when El Niño's cool water counterpart, La Niña, was present.

Pulverized Planet Dust May Lie Around Double Stars

Tight double-star systems might not be the best places for life to spring up, according to a new study using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The infrared observatory spotted a surprisingly large amount of dust around three mature, close-orbiting star pairs. Where did the dust come from? Astronomers say it might be the aftermath of tremendous planetary collisions.

"This is real-life science fiction," said Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. "Our data tell us that planets in these systems might not be so lucky -- collisions could be common. It's theoretically possible that habitable planets could exist around these types of stars, so if there happened to be any life there, it could be doomed."

Drake is the principal investigator of the research, published in the Aug.19 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The particular class of binary, or double, stars in the study are about as snug as stars get. Named RS Canum Venaticorums, or RS CVns for short, they are separated by only about two million miles (3.2 million kilometers), or two percent of the distance between Earth and our sun. The stellar pairs orbit around each other every few days, with one face on each star perpetually locked and pointed toward the other.

Launch Preps Move Ahead for Mission to International Space Station

STS-133 mission at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston
During space shuttle Discovery's final spaceflight, the STS-133 crew members will take important spare parts to the International Space Station along with the Express Logistics Carrier-4. Discovery is being readied for flight inside Kennedy's Orbiter Processing Facility-3 while its solid rocket boosters are stacked inside the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building. STS-133 is slated to launch Nov. 1.

four-quadrant solar sail propulsion system

Engineers at NASA have designed and built NanoSail-D, a "solar sail" that will test NASA's ability to deploy a massive but fragile spacecraft from an extremely compact structure. Much like the wind pushing a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. The sail captures constantly streaming solar particles, called photons, with giant sails built from a lightweight material. Over time, the buildup of these particles provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space.

One of NanoSail-D's several mission objectives is to demonstrate the capability to deploy a large sail structure from a highly compacted volume without recontacting the spacecraft. The mission also will demonstrate and test the de-orbiting capabilities of solar sails.

On Thursday, Aug. 19, principal investigator NanoSail-D, Dean Alhorn, at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. answered your questions about the NanoSail-D mission and solar sails in general.

Spacecraft to Safe, Distant Landings

NASA is developing technologies that will allow landing vehicles to automatically identify and navigate to the location of a safe landing site while detecting landing hazards during the final descent to the surface. This is important because future missions -- whether to the Moon, an asteroid, Mars or other location -- will need this capability to land safely near specific resources that are located in potentially hazardous terrain.

Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., has designed three light detection and ranging (lidar) sensors that together can provide all the necessary data for achieving safe autonomous precision landing.

One is a three-dimensional active imaging device, referred to as flash lidar, for detecting hazardous terrain features and identifying safe landing sites. The second is a Doppler lidar instrument for measuring the vehicle velocity and altitude to help land precisely at the chosen site. The third is a high-altitude laser altimeter providing data prior to final approach for correcting the flight trajectory towards the designated landing area.

Galaxies' Glory Days Revealed

Astronomers have experienced the galactic equivalent of discovering pictures of a mild-mannered grandmother partying as a wild youth. New observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveal the early "wild" days of galaxy clusters -- a time when the galaxies were bursting with new stars.

What is particularly striking is the fact that the stellar birth rate is higher in the cluster's center than at its edges -- the exact opposite of what happens in our local portion of the universe, where the cores of galaxy clusters are known to be galactic graveyards.

The discovery, made by an international team of researchers led by Kim-Vy Tran of Texas A&M University, College Station, could ultimately reveal more about how such massive galaxies form.

Tran and her team spent the past four months analyzing images taken by Spitzer, essentially looking back in time nearly 10 billion years at a distant galaxy cluster known as CLG J02182-05102. Mere months after first discovering the cluster and the fact that it is shockingly "modern" in its appearance and size for its age, the team was able to determine that the galaxy cluster produces hundreds to thousands of new stars every year. That is a far higher birth rate than that of galaxies relatively near to us.

Sailing Among the Stars

Astrophysicists and engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have designed and built NanoSail-D, a “solar sail" that will test NASA’s ability to deploy a massive but fragile spacecraft from an extremely compact structure. Much like the wind pushing a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. The sail captures constantly streaming solar particles, called photons, with giant sails built from a lightweight material. Over time, the buildup of these particles provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space.

Many scientists believe that solar sails have enormous potential. Because they take advantage of sunlight, they don’t require the chemical fuel that spacecraft currently rely on for propulsion. Less fuel translates into lower launch weight, lower costs and fewer logistical challenges. Solar sails accelerate slowly but surely, capable of eventually reaching tremendous speeds. In fact, most scientists consider solar sailing the only reasonable way to make interstellar travel a reality.

Astrophysics Decadal Survey

NASA is pleased to receive the National Research Council's Astro2010 report, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. We appreciate the science community's efforts in defining a set of compelling science objectives for space-based astrophysical research for the coming decade, and for carefully considering the cost of the initiatives the report recommends.

We look forward to assessing the report's findings and recommendations for strengthening the nation's world-class space astrophysics program. From new worlds to new physics, the coming decade of discovery leverages not only our current space observatories – such as the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra and Fermi space telescopes – but also our planned facilities – especially those from previous decadal surveys, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The survey calls for new facilities that expand our reach into the cosmos that will include opportunities for coordination and cooperation with other Federal agencies and international partners.

Third Repair Spacewalk Complete

Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson completed the third contingency spacewalk to install a spare ammonia pump module on the S1 Truss at 1:40 p.m. EDT Monday. Flight Engineer Shannon Walker assisted the spacewalkers from inside the International Space Station and operated the Canadarm2.

The 780-pound spare pump module was removed from an external stowage platform by Wheelock while working from the Canadarm2. The module was successfully installed on the S1 Truss after Wheelock attached four bolts and Caldwell Dyson mated five electrical connectors.

Ground controllers confirmed the module was in healthy condition when it began receiving power. After a pressure check and more fluid cable connections, the module was filled with ammonia.

Due to time constraints, ground teams and the crew decided not to attach a power cable extension from Quest to a cable on the Unity module.

Cassini Bags Enceladus 'Tigers'

Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its flyby over the "tiger stripes" in the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus and has sent back images of its passage. The spacecraft also targeted the moon Tethys.

The tiger stripes are actually giant fissures that spew jets of water vapor and organic particles hundreds of kilometers, or miles, out into space. While the winter is darkening the moon's southern hemisphere, Cassini has its own version of "night vision goggles" -- the composite infrared spectrometer instrument - to track heat even when visible light is low. It will take time for scientists to assemble the data into temperature maps of the fissures.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

Crew Conducts Second Spacewalk

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson switched their spacesuits to battery power at 8:27 a.m. EDT, signaling the start of the second of three spacewalks focused on removing the ammonia pump module that failed July 31 and putting its replacement in place. Today’s spacewalk is expected to last about six hours.

This is the fifth spacewalk for Wheelock, who is wearing the suit bearing the red stripes, and the second for Caldwell Dyson, who is wearing the unmarked suit.

The spacewalkers will isolate the Loop A ammonia cooling line upstream from the fourth and final fluid line connector by closing quick disconnect valves, then will use a tool to vent residual ammonia from the failed pump module before the final cooling line is disconnected. That will lead to the disconnection of five electrical and data cables and four bolts from the old pump so it can be extracted from the truss through the use of a grapple bar and parked on a payload bracket on the station’s Mobile Base System.

Launch Preps Move Ahead for Mission to International Space Station

Space shuttle Discovery's airlock, which stands in the forward section of the cargo bay and connects to the crew compartment, will undergo two days of closeout work as the orbiter is prepped for next month's move to the Vehicle Assembly Building for stacking ahead of the targeted Nov. 1 launch on the STS-133 mission. Workers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the processing and launch site for all shuttle missions, are also flushing the piping in the spacecraft's vernier thrusters. In space, the vernier thrusters fire to make small changes to the shuttle's attitude and course.

The STS-133 astronauts are working at their training base at Johnson Space Center in Houston, with a focus today on spacewalk practice in the virtual reality lab.

During space shuttle Discovery's final spaceflight, the STS-133 crew members will take important spare parts to the International Space Station along with the Express Logistics Carrier-4. Discovery is being readied for flight inside Kennedy's Orbiter Processing Facility-3 while its solid rocket boosters are stacked inside the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building. STS-133 is slated to launch Nov. 1.

Next Spacewalk No Earlier Than Wednesday

The next spacewalk to complete the removal of a failed ammonia pump module and installation and activation of a new pump module on the International Space Station’s S1 Truss will take place no earlier than Wednesday.

Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson completed the first spacewalk to remove and replace the pump module at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday. As the result of an ammonia leak in the final line that needed to be disconnected from the failed pump module, the day’s tasks were only partially completed. The decision was made to reconnect the line on the pump module and install a spool positioning device to maintain proper pressure internal to the ammonia line.

Teams on the ground are evaluating the impact of the leak on plans to replace the failed pump, as well as possible fixes for the leak. The completion of the process will most likely require at least two additional spacewalks.

Saturday’s excursion lasted 8 hours, 3 minutes, making it the longest expedition crew spacewalk in history and the sixth longest in human spaceflight history.

Great Observatories Witness a Galactic Spectacle

The collision, which began more than 100 million years ago and is still occurring, has triggered the formation of millions of stars in clouds of dusts and gas in the galaxies. The most massive of these young stars have already sped through their evolution in a few million years and exploded as supernovas.

The X-ray image from Chandra shows huge clouds of hot, interstellar gas, which have been injected with rich deposits of elements from supernova explosions. This enriched gas, which includes elements such as oxygen, iron, magnesium and silicon, will be incorporated into new generations of stars and planets. The bright, point-like sources in the image are produced by material falling onto black holes and neutron stars that are remnants of the massive stars. Some of these black holes may have masses that are almost one hundred times that of the sun.

The Spitzer data show infrared light from warm dust clouds that have been heated by newborn stars, with the brightest clouds lying in the overlap region between the two galaxies. The Hubble data reveal old stars and star-forming regions in gold and white, while filaments of dust appear in brown. Many of the fainter objects in the optical image are clusters containing thousands of stars.

NASA Lightning Research Happens in a Flash

Lightning's connection to hurricane intensification has eluded researchers for decades, and for a riveting 40 days this summer, NASA lightning researchers will peer inside storms in a way they never have before.

Earth scientists and engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will soon fly the Lightning Instrument Package, or LIP, a flight instrument designed to track and document lightning as hurricanes develop and intensify.

We're now putting LIP on an aircraft that can stay in the air for 30 hours," said Richard Blakeslee LIP principal investigator and Earth scientist at the the Marshall Center. "That’s unprecedented. We typically fly on airplanes that fly over a storm for a period of 10-15 minutes. But this plane can stay with a storm for hours."

"We'll be able to see a storm in a way we’ve never seen it before," he added. "We'll see how the storm develops over the long term, and how lightning varies with all the other things going on inside a hurricane. It's the difference between a single photograph and a full length movie. That’s quite a paradigm shift."

"We can use lightning as a natural sensing tool to see into the heart of a storm," said Blakeslee. "Lightning allows us to get at rain and other processes going on within a storm."

NASA and ESA's First Joint Mission to Mars Selects Instruments

NASA and the European Space Agency have embarked on a joint program to explore Mars in the coming decades and selected the five science instruments for the first mission.

The principal investigator for one of the instruments, and the management for NASA's roles in the mission, are based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2016, is the first of three joint robotic missions to the Red Planet. It will study the chemical makeup of the Martian atmosphere with a 1000 fold increase in sensitivity over previous Mars orbiters. The mission also will serve as an additional communications relay for Mars surface missions beginning in 2018.

The plan consists of two Mars cooperative missions in 2016 and 2018, and a later joint sample return mission. The 2016 mission features the European built ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a European built small lander demonstrator, a primarily U.S. international science payload, and NASA provided launch vehicle and communications components.

Taking a Shot at the Sun

Marshall solar physicists and engineers have designed the Solar Ultraviolet Magnetograph Investigation, or SUMI, to determine the strength and direction of magnetic fields in a region of the sun where the magnetic field has never been measured.

The transition region is a thin layer of the solar atmosphere tucked between the surface and its outermost level. Solar flares erupting here can blast their way toward Earth, shorting out ground circuits and generating radiation capable of killing a space explorer.

SUMI's instruments then analyze the light using a technique called the Zeeman Effect to determine the strength and direction of the magnetic field. The cameras must operate in cold temperatures while surrounded by liquid nitrogen.

SUMI will provide the measurements needed to generate a snapshot of the three dimensional structure of the solar magnetic field. There's a lot more work to be done, Cirtain said, but SUMI will demonstrate that the technology is ready to be put on a spacecraft and flown for a long term study of the solar magnetic field in the transition region.