Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Less Than a Week Remains Before NASA’s Biggest Rover Yet Lands on Mars

NASA’s newest Mars rover is less than a week away from its high-stakes landing on the surface of the Red Planet.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is scheduled to touch down on Mars at 10:30 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:30 a.m. Aug. 6 EDT, 0530 GMT). The car-size robotic explorer is designed to investigate whether Mars is, or ever was, capable of hosting microbial life.

With six days to go until Curiosity arrives at the Red Planet, project managers are bracing themselves for what NASA calls the riskiest part of the mission: the rover’s harrowing descent through the Martian atmosphere to the ground.

ohn Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, took part in a news briefing on July 16 to discuss the MSL mission. He called Curiosity’s landing “risky business.”

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars, or any of our robot exploration,” Grunsfeld said.

When Curiosity reaches Mars, the 1-ton rover will be lowered to the surface by a rocket-powered sky crane. This complex contraption will help slow the spacecraft’s speed from roughly 13,200 mph (about 21,250 kilometers per hour) to zero in only seven minutes. This sequence of events is officially known as entry, descent and landing, but its nail-biting nature has earned it the nickname “seven minutes of terror.”

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Moon Flags Left By Apollo Missions Still Standing, NASA PHOTOS Show

An enduring question ever since the manned moon landings of the 1960s has been: Are the flags planted by the astronauts still standing?

Now, lunar scientists say the verdict is in from the latest photos of the moon taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC): Most do, in fact, still stand.

“From the LROC images it is now certain that the American flags are still standingand casting shadows at all of the sites, except Apollo 11,” LROC principal investigator Mark Robinson wrote in a blog post today(July 27). “Astronaut Buzz Aldrin reported that the flag was blown over by the exhaust from the ascent engine during liftoff of Apollo 11, and it looks like he was correct!”

Each of the six manned Apollo missions that landed on the moon planted an American flag in the lunar dirt.

Scientists have examined images of the Apollo landing sites before for signs of the flags, and seen hints of what might be shadows cast by the flags. However, this wasn’t considered strong evidence that the flags were still standing. Now, researchers have examined photos taken of the same spots at various points in the day, and observed shadows circling the point where the flag is thought to be.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sally Ride, first US woman in space, dies at 61

Space used to be a man’s world. Then came Sally Ride, who blazed a cosmic trail for U.S. women into orbit. With a pitch perfect name out of a pop song refrain, she joined the select club of American space heroes the public knew by heart: Shepard, Glenn, Armstrong and Aldrin.

Ride, the first American woman in orbit, died Monday at her home in the San Diego community of La Jolla at age 61. The cause was pancreatic cancer, an illness she had for 17 months, according to her company, Sally Ride Science.

Ride rode into space on the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, when she was 32. Since then, 42 other American women flew in space.

“Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

When shuttles started flying frequently with crews of six or seven, astronauts became plentiful and anonymous. Not Ride.

“People around the world still recognize her name as the first American woman in space, and she took that title seriously even after departing NASA,” Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander, said in a statement. “She never sought media attention for herself, but rather focused on doing her normally outstanding job.”

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Friday, July 20, 2012

NASA’s Newest Mars Rover Is Biggest and Best Yet

When NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, reaches Mars in about three weeks, it will not be the first to set its wheels on the Red Planet, but it will be the largest and most advanced robotic explorer that has ever been sent to our planetary neighbor.

The Curiosity rover, also called the Mars Science Laboratory, was launched in late November 2011, and is expected to land on Mars on the night of Aug. 5 PDT (early Aug. 6 EDT). The $2.5 billion rover will touch down at Gale Crater, and is designed to search for clues that Mars could be now, or in the ancient past, a habitable planet for microbial life.

NASA first set its sights on landing on the Red Planet in the 1970s. The agency achieved its first Mars landing in 1976 with the Viking 1 lander. Since then, the agency has had six spacecraft successfully touch down on the Martian surface. But with the impending arrival of Curiosity, NASA will showcase the most sophisticated Martian rover yet.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars, or any of our robot exploration,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a news briefing Monday (July 16) at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

For starters, the way Curiosity will lower itself to the surface of Mars in less than 20 days is unprecedented. The rover will use a new and complex sky crane system to slow its descent.

According to Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, Curiosity’s landing “could arguably be the most important event — most significant event — in the history of planetary exploration.”

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Decades-Old ‘Pioneer Anomaly’ Mystery Finally Solved

Scientists have finally cracked a decades-old spaceflight riddle, figuring out why NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 probes began to slow mysteriously as they sped far from the sun.

The cause of the so-called “Pioneer Anomaly,” it turns out, is heat coming from the electrical current flowing through the probes’ instrument and power systems. This heat pushed back on the spacecraft, causing them to decelerate slightly, according to a new study.

“The effect is something like when you’re driving a car and the photons from your headlights are pushing you backward,” lead author Slava Turyshev, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. “It is very subtle.”

Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively. They were the first spacecraft to fly through the main asteroid belt, and the first to study Jupiter up-close. The probes kept on cruising after their Jupiter encounters, speeding toward Saturn and beyond.

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