Mercury's close-up shows lava flows and "hollows"

Mercury may have a lot in common with Earth, but close-up images and data captured by NASA'S MESSENGER probe this year show it's still a bit of a planetary weirdo.

Just like Earth, Mercury has lava flows. But these are deep flows that smoothly cover the small planet's northern polar region, with no Earth-type volcanoes in sight.

There are dips in Mercury's surface, just as there are hills and valleys on Earth, and both are rocky planets. But those on Mercury have been dubbed "hollows" to differentiate them from impact craters and other depressions on the small, hot orb closest to the Sun.

It has a magnetic field, just as Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune do, but Mercury's magnetosphere is so small -- about 1 percent the size of Earth's -- that it offers little protection from the charged particles that make up the solar wind blasting off the Sun.

"Mercury is not the planet described in the textbooks," James Head III of Brown University said in a telephone briefing on Thursday. "The innermost planet has had a long and much more exciting life than anyone expected or predicted."

MESSENGER -- which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft -- looped around the inner solar system 15 times over six years before beginning its orbits around the planet on March 18.

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NASA Satellite Debris Crashes into the Pacific

NASA satellite
On Saturday, NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) crash landed at approximately 12AM Eastern time. The location, NASA confirmed, is in a general area in the Southern hemisphere away from any major lands. To their knowledge, however, there have been no signs of UARS debris located in the predicted geographic region.

The UARS satellite launched its mission in 1991 from the Space Shuttle Discovery. Since its departure, NASA had been tracking movement of the UARS closely and predicted its fall to be September, but the crash landing site was completely beyond their calculations.

Although there have never been cases of space material injuring people, this raises concerns globally. Most parts of the 6.2 ton satellite are said to have disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, but it's probable that a remaining 1,200 pounds of material made it through. Since those components are no longer functioning, it's not likely to be of any harm to its surroundings.

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NASA: Satellite fell in south Pacific, not Canada

Nasa Satellite
That dead NASA satellite fell into what might be the ideal spot — part of the southern Pacific Ocean about as far from large land masses as you can get, U.S. space officials said Tuesday.

New U.S. Air Force calculations put the 6-ton satellite's death plunge early Saturday thousands of miles from northwestern North America, where there were reports of sightings. Instead, it plunged into areas where remote islands dot a vast ocean.

NASA says those new calculations show the 20-year-old satellite entered Earth's atmosphere generally above American Samoa. But falling debris as it broke apart didn't start hitting the water for another 300 miles to the northeast, southwest of Christmas Island, just after midnight EDT Saturday.

Experts believe about two dozen metal pieces from the bus-sized satellite fell over a 500-mile span.

"It's a relatively uninhabited portion of the world, very remote," NASA orbital debris scientist Mark Matney said. "This is certainly a good spot in terms of risk."

Scientists who track space junk couldn't be happier with the result.

"That's the way it should be. I think that's perfect," said Bill Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp. "It's just as good as it gets."

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NASA fosters innovation

Nasa Innovation
The recent announcement that NASA would begin work on its new heavy booster rockets was met with a polarized reaction, from enthusiastic support to outcry among the budget conscious. With the phasing out of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, the United States was left with a void in their space exploration capabilities. The end to NASA’s shuttle program was largely met with disappointment in the scientific community, but support from the general public, as people considered it a black hole for public funds.

Yet, American ingenuity throughout the Space Age drove technology in this country, a symbol of American prestige. As an engineer, I look at the announcement of NASA’s new goals with optimism. Our ingenuity cannot fall by the wayside as China, Russia and Brazil strive to develop and innovate in ways that once drove our own nation’s technological growth.

In recent times, NASA has been the scapegoat for a public increasingly wary of spending money on programs that seem to provide no direct benefit. A report by Roger Launius, the Senior Curator at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum, found that in the late 1990s, the public believed NASA to account for anywhere between 6 and 45 percent of the national budget, when in fact, NASA accounted for less than 1 percent. Such misinformation drives the public belief that space exploration is an unnecessary facet of our country.

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NASA Satellite Makes Homecoming; But its Whereabouts May Remain Unknown Forever?

It flew for long 20 years and nine days, and when it made its homecoming, nobody knows its whereabouts. Almost six years after ceasing operation, the decommissioned NASA satellite finally landed somewhere on Earth, but even NASA doesn't know the exact landing location and "may never know."

In a latest statement, NASA said that the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) fell back to Earth between 11:23 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 23, and 1:09 a.m. EDT Sept. 24. However, the space agency did state that the accurate re-entry time and location of debris crashes have not been determined yet.

NASA believes that during its fiery dive, UARS broke apart and most probably plunged into the Pacific Ocean far off the U.S. coast. It also stresses the possibility of 26 pieces of the satellite, weighing about 1,200 pounds, which could have survived the fall.

During its entire 20 years on orbit as well as its re-entry this past week, the research satellite was monitored by the Operations Center for JFCC-Space, the Joint Functional Component Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

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Old NASA satellite to tumble to Earth on Friday

UARS satellite
While North America appears to be off the hook, scientists are scrambling to pinpoint exactly where and when a dead NASA climate satellite will plummet back to Earth on Friday.

The 6-ton, bus-sized satellite is expected to break into more than a hundred pieces as it plunges through the atmosphere, most of it burning up.

But if you're hoping for a glimpse, the odds are slim. Most sightings occur by chance because the re-entry path can't be predicted early enough to alert people, said Canadian Ted Molczan, who tracks satellites for a hobby.

In all his years of monitoring, Molczan has witnessed only one tumble back to Earth - the 2004 return of a Russian communications satellite.

It "looked like a brilliant star with a long glowing tail," he said in an email.

The best guess so far is that the 20-year-old Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite will hit sometime Friday afternoon or early evening, Eastern time. The latest calculations indicate it will not be over the United States, Canada and Mexico during that time.

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Can NASA Webb Telescope Survive The Economy

Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb SpaceTelescope, which is scheduled to replace the heralded Hubble Telescope is at a point of reckoning as delays and stunning cost overruns strike a dissonant chord between astronomers and policymakers.

In 1996, The JWST was budgeted at approximately $1 billion and was `scheduled for completion in 2008. Now, the project is estimated to cost just under $9 billion and id due to be completed in 2018. Those delays and cost overruns have put the future of JWST in question.

While NASA officials have publicly acknowledged making mistakes they defend the project, and the cost overruns as worthwhile considering the scientific value of the project. The US House of Representatives has voted to stop funding the project while the Senate has drafted legislation to fully fund the project. A compromise solution is hoped for, but the current economic crisis has forced the government to slash funding for many non-essential projects.

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NASA set to fund space taxi systems

Space Taxi System
NASA next year will fund the development of at least two space taxi systems that could return astronauts to orbit aboard U.S. vehicles by late 2016.

The agency this week released draft terms of a contract that aims to complete designs of those systems by 2014, after which one or more would be chosen for a follow-up phase that builds and tests vehicles.

The draft request for proposals proves the agency's commitment "to outsource our space station transportation so NASA can focus its energy and resources on deep space exploration," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

Potential providers of the outsourced crew flights, which would launch from the Space Coast, have a month to review and comment on the draft before a final version is released late this year.

A SpaceX spokesman said the company was still reviewing the draft language.

SpaceX is one of the four companies that shared nearly $270 million in NASA funding this year to advance designs of spacecraft able to fly people to and from the International Space Station.

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NASA announces plan to ferry astronauts via privately built craft

NASA unveiled on Sept. 19 an outline of its acquisition strategy to procure transportation services from private industry to carry U.S. astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. The agency also announced the addition of optional milestones for the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) initiative.

"This is a significant step forward in America's amazing story of space exploration," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden. "It's further evidence we are committed to fully implementing our plan — as laid out in the Authorization Act — to outsource our space station transportation so NASA can focus its energy and resources on deep space exploration."

NASA's draft request for proposal (RFP) outlines a contract that will be awarded to multiple companies that provide a complete end-to-end design, including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations and recovery. The Integrated Design Contract (IDC) of up to $1.61 billion will run from July 2012 through April 2014.

"This IDC effort will bring us through the critical design phase to fully incorporate our human spaceflight safety requirements and NASA's International Space Station mission needs," said NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango. "We look forward to strong U.S. industry response."

Bolden also announced Monday at a speech to the Air Force Association's 2011 Air and Space Conference that NASA will fund optional milestones pre-negotiated as part of some of the original CCDev2 Space Act Agreements (SAA) to help accelerate development.

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NASA satellite expected to crash to Earth in days

Nasa Satellite
The sky is not falling. A 12,500-pound NASA satellite the size of a school bus is, though.

It's the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, and it's tumbling in orbit and succumbing to Earth's gravity. It will crash to the surface Friday.

Or maybe Thursday. Or Saturday.

Out-of-control crashing satellites don't lend themselves to exact estimates even for the precision-minded folks at NASA. The uncertainty about the "when" makes the "where" all the trickier, because a small change in the timing of the re-entry translates into thousands of miles of difference in the crash site.

As of the moment, NASA says the 35-foot-long satellite will crash somewhere between 57 degrees north latitude and 57 degrees south latitude - a projected crash zone that covers most of the planet, and particularly the inhabited parts. In this hemisphere, that includes everyone living between northern Newfoundland and the frigid ocean beyond the last point of land in South America.

Polar bears and Antarctic scientists are safe.

It's the biggest piece of NASA space junk to fall to Earth in more than 30 years. It should create a light show. The satellite will partially burn up during re-entry, and, by NASA's calculation, break into about 100 pieces, creating fireballs that should be visible even in daytime.

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NASA announces new deep space exploration system

NASA on Wednesday announced that it has already selected a design to develop a new Space Launch System (SLS) to transport astronauts to farther areas in space.

After months of comprehensive review of potential designs that focused on developing a rocket that is not only powerful but also evolvable so it can be adapted to different missions as opportunities arise and new technologies are developed, NASA announced that the launch vehicle had been decided.

According to the agency, the SLS is expected to carry human crews beyond low Earth orbit in a capsule named the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel system, for which RS-25D/E engines will provide the core propulsion while the J2X engine is planned for use in the upper stage. In addition, there will be a competition to develop the boosters based on performance requirements.

"Having settled on a new and powerful heavy-lift launch architecture, NASA can now move ahead with building that rocket and the next-generation vehicles and technologies needed for an ambitious program of crewed missions in deep space," said John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology.

"I'm excited about NASA's new path forward and about its promise for continuing American leadership in human space exploration," Holdren added. The heavy-lift rocket's early flights will be capable of lifting 70-100 metric tons before evolving to a lift capacity of 130 metric tons.

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A Setback Could Force NASA to Bid for a Plan B

The announcement on Tuesday by the Russian space agency that it will delay the launching of the next crew to the International Space Station is a concern for NASA, which is relying solely on the Russians for astronaut transportation.

The end of the space shuttle program after the last flight in July was meant to usher in a new era where NASA could move on to more ambitious destinations and nimbler, cheaper private companies would take over the job of ferrying people and supplies to the orbiting research station. But a series of recent rocket malfunctions — including one on Aug. 24 by a Russian ship that was taking supplies to the space station — has made this approach look tenuous.

“It would be better if the space station were not reliant on any one nation,” said Scott Pace, director of the space policy institute at George Washington University.

American companies have contracts with NASA to carry cargo to the space station and hope eventually to win contracts to serve as space taxis for humans. But their success is hardly assured. The Orbital Sciences Corporation of Vienna, Va., one of two companies that are to start taking cargo to the space station next year, suffered a setback in June when an engine caught fire during a ground test.

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NASA launches Web tool to explore the solar system

Want to explore the solar system and follow NASA space missions in real time?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is giving the public the chance to do just that through a new Internet-based tool called Eyes on the Solar System. The space agency said the tool combines video-game technology and NASA data to create an environment for users to ride along with agency spacecraft as they explore the cosmos.

"You are now free to move about the solar system," Blaine Baggett, a manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., said in a statement. "See what NASA’s spacecraft see - and where they are right now - all without leaving your computer."

By using a keyboard and a mouse, online users can zip through space and explore anything that catches their interest. For example, NASA in August launched a probe called Juno that will explore Jupiter.

Users can follow the Juno spacecraft, literally peering over its shoulder to get a bird’s-eye view of what it sees - and even find out what’s ahead on its five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet.

The technology also allows users to switch their point of view from far away to close up to right on board spacecraft, and also to switch from 2-D or 3-D modes. By putting on 3-D glasses, users can see flat images transform into multidimensional illustrations.

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NASA Sits Tight as Unmanned Space Station Considered

Space Station
The failure of a Russian Soyuz cargo rocket several minutes after launch last month, and Russia's decision to suspend all Soyuz launches while it investigates the cause, has created some problems for International Space Station partners.

NASA officials are discussing the possibility of leaving the station unmanned for the first time in nearly 11 years, as partner countries discuss the readiness to resume Russian Soyuz launches to the station.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week from aboard the space station, NASA astronaut Mike Fossum said the station's six crew members are not yet preparing to leave the orbiting lab unmanned. He said, though, that officials at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas are considering their options.

"The teams in Houston are in the preliminary stages of deciding everything from what ventilation we're going to leave running, what lights we are going to leave on, what condition each particular experiment will be on - every tank, every valve, every hatch," said Fossum.

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NASA rovers carried World Trade Center aluminum to Mars

Nasa Rover
The offices of Honeybee Robotics were located less than a mile from the World Trade Center in 2001. In September of that year, the company was building grinding tools for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, the employees of Honeybee struggled to find a way to offer help or a tribute as they were weighed down by the necessarily-firm NASA deadlines required for equipment testing. But eventually Honeybee found the perfect opportunity.

The design of the grinders called for a plain aluminum shield to cover the tool’s control cables. Working with New York City mayor’s office, a metal-working shop in Texas and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Honeybee decided to fabricate the shields out of aluminum recovered from the World Trade Center towers. With images of American flags attached, both shields now serve as a permanent tribute on Mars. On the photo of Spirit above, the shield is the dull metal piece at top left.

The Spirit rover was launched all the way back in June 2003, with Opportunity launched that July. By January of 2004 they’d both landed safely on Mars. Their primary missions were both completed three months later. The grinders designed by Honeybee were used initially in rock sampling; they allowed both rovers to cut through the crust on Martian rocks to analyze their contents.

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Committee to NASA: Train More Astronauts

NASA has already lost dozens of astronauts and needs to take action to make sure it has enough trained personnel to keep the International Space Station fully staffed, a National Research Council panel of experts recommended on Wednesday.

The astronaut corps has shrunk from nearly 150 members in 1999 to 61 in 2011, according to the report by NRC's Committee on Human Spaceflight Crew Operations. Many have retired and have not been replaced as the space shuttle program wound down and as the needs of the International Space Station changed from building it to operating it.

“In the half century since the flight of Yuri Gagarin, more than 500 humans have orbited Earth or traveled to the Moon,” the report reads. “Approximately 61 percent have been Americans.”

But NASA is not adequately planning for future needs, said the panel. “For human exploration and operations beyond low Earth orbit, the ISS task and skill set will need to be augmented by training for planetary surface operations, mission-specific operations and landing requirements, and science operations,” the report reads.

"Viewed as a supply chain, astronaut selection and training is very sensitive to critical shortfalls; astronauts who are trained for specific roles and missions can't be easily interchanged," said committee chairman Frederick Gregory, who commanded three shuttle missions and formerly was NASA's deputy administrator.

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NASA launches new Web tool to explore solar system

solar system
Want to explore the solar system and follow NASA space missions in real time?

NASA is giving you the chance to through a new interactive Web-based tool called Eyes on the Solar System.

The space agency said that the tool combines video game technology and NASA data to create an environment for users to ride along with agency spacecraft as they explore the cosmos.

"You are now free to move about the solar system," Blaine Baggett, a manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, said in a statement. “See what NASA's spacecraft see -- and where they are right now -- all without leaving your computer.”

By using a keyboard and mouse, online users can zip through space and explore anything that catches their interest. For example, NASA in August launched a probe called June that will explore Jupiter.

Users can follow the Juno spacecraft and look over its “shoulder” to see what it sees -- and even look ahead to find out what’s ahead on Juno's five-year journey. Users' point of view can alternate from faraway to close-up, and switch from 2-D to 3-D with the aid of 3-D glasses.

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NASA to Revolutionize Air Transport of Cargoes

Nasa Air Transport
NASA is set to change the way cargoes are transported by air. Soon, there will be airships.

Airships will revolutionize air transportation worldwide as NASA's first prototype is scheduled to take off in 2012, according to London's Daily Telegraph.

"One of NASA's jobs is to solve the nation's air transportation challenges with research, and airships haven't seen much research in the past few decades," said Dr. Pete Worden, the director of NASA research arm Ames.

NASA's airships could potentially solve transportation issues of heavy cargoes addressed to areas with rough terrain or roads not meant for regular airplane landing. These airships may well become the freight carrier of the 21st century.

"Initially we are expecting to be able to lift tens of tons and we are building a demonstrator that we hope to fly at the end of next year," Dr. Worden told the Telegraph.

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NASA tries to mimic space terrain challenges in desert

Even a short communication lag can turn a long distance phone conversation into a frustrating exercise, causing callers to trip over each other.

Now imagine the gap lasts 50 seconds each way, and the person you're talking to is millions of miles from the planet on the surface of an asteroid.

That's the scenario a team of NASA engineers are playing out during the next two weeks in the Arizona desert during an annual simulation of technologies needed for deep space exploration missions.

"On the space station, there's a short delay, but it's very workable and they understand how to deal with that," said Tracy Gill, a Kennedy Space Center engineer participating in the Desert Research and Technology Studies, known as Desert RATS.

"This is much, much different when you've got basically a minute between saying something and hearing it, and then another minute on the way back," he said.

During the simulation, mission controllers in Houston and the Netherlands will communicate with crews of astronauts and geologists performing operations at the Black
Point Lava Flow near Flagstaff.

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