Aurora on Venus Versus Solar Activity

Credit:

It’s a major mystery posed by our sister world.

Does the atmosphere of Venus possess upper atmospheric phenomena similar to the Earth, such as aurora or nightglow?

Now, a recent announcement out of the American Astronomical Society’s 46th annual meeting of the Division of Planetary Science being held this week in Tucson, Arizona has shed new light on the dilemma.

The discovery was announced on Wednesday, November 12th at the 46th AAS meeting and was made as a collaborative effort by researchers from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) International, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Koln and University of Munich, Germany, the European Space and Technology Center in the Netherlands and the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, in France.

For the study, researchers observed Venus from December 2010 to July 2012 using the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC)Echelle Spectrograph and the ARC  3.5 metre telescope located at Apache Point near Sunspot, New Mexico.

Timing was crucial, as the Sun was coming off of a profound deep minimum through 2009 and just beginning to become active with the start of solar cycle #24. Observers were looking for activity along the 5577.3 angstrom wavelength known as the “oxygen green line.” Activity had not been seen at this wavelength on the nighttime side of Venus since 2004.

The altitude drop in the Venusian atmosphere measured in the study. Credit : Credit: DPS press release/C. Gray/New Mexico State University.

“These are intriguing results, suggesting that it is possible to have aurora on non-magnetic planets,” said Candace Gray, Astronomer and NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow at Las Cruces and lead researcher in the study.  “On Venus, this green line has been seen only intermittently.”

Earth is the oddball among the terrestrial planets in the inner solar system with its robust magnetic field. On Earth, aurorae occur when said field captures charged particles ejected from the Sun and funnels them in towards the poles. Events seen in the study tended to drop 140 to 120 kilometres in altitude in the Venusian atmosphere, highly suggestive of auroral activity seen in the ionosphere of Earth.

Researchers were fortunate during one of the recent runs at Apache Point that the Sun kicked off a coronal mass ejection that headed Venus’s way. During the July 2012 solar storm, the team detected one of the brightest green line emissions that had ever been detected by observers on Earth.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons image.
The 3.5 metre telescope at Apache Point, in this case, being used for lunar ranging experiments. Credit: M3long/Wikimedia Commons image.

This demonstrates that perhaps, a magnetic field is optional when it comes to auroral activity, at least in the case of the planet Venus. Located only 0.7 astronomical units (108.5 million kilometres) from the Sun, our tempestuous star actually wraps the planet with its very own magnetotail.

Researchers are also looking to compare their results with observations from the European Space Agency’s Venus Express orbiter which arrived at the planet on April 2006.

“Currently, we are using observations from VIRTIS on Venus Express to try and detect the green line,” Gray told Universe Today. “We had coordinated ground based observations with them this past February, and we detected the green line from the ground when they were observing the night side limb. Additionally, we are using the Electron Spectrometer and ASPERA-4 to observe how the electron energy and density changes in the atmosphere after coronal mass ejection impacts.”

This also raises the interesting possibility that NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft — which recently arrived in orbit around Mars — might just detect similar activity in the tenuous Martian atmosphere as well. Like Venus, the Red Planet also lacks a global magnetic field.

Could this glow be connected with spurious sightings of the “Ashen Light of Venus” that have cropped up over the centuries?

Of course, ashen light, also known as Earthshine on the dark limb of the Moon, is easily explained as sunlight reflected back from the Earth. Moonless Venus, however, should be ashen light free.

“The green line emission that we see is brightest on the limb (edge) of the planet,” Gray told Universe Today. “We’re sure that there is emission all along the nightside, but because of the optical depth, it appears much brighter on the limb of the planet. I think it would be too faint to detect with the naked eye.”

Nightglow has been a leading suspect for ashen light on the Venusian nightside, and a similar green line emission detection rivaling the 2012 event was made by Tom Slanger using the Keck I telescope 1999.

Other proposed suspects over the centuries for ashen light on Venus include lightning, volcanism, light pollution (!) from Venusian cities, or just plain old observer error.

Certainly, future observations are needed to cinch the solar activity connection.

“We will likely observe Venus again from Apache Point the next time Venus is visible to us in June 2015,” Gray told Universe Today. “We will continue looking at Venus Express observations until the craft dies in the atmosphere.”

Venus turns its night time back towards us during the 2012 transit of the Sun, as seen from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (Credit: NASA/SDO).
Venus turns its night time back towards us during the 2012 transit of the Sun, as seen from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (Credit: NASA/SDO).

Venus can currently be seen crossing through the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera. After spending most of 2014 in the dawn sky, Venus will emerge from behind the Sun low in the dusk to head towards greatest elongation in the evening sky on June 6th, 2015. And from there, Venus will once again slender towards a crescent, presenting its nightside towards Earth, and just perhaps, continuing to present a lingering mystery of modern astronomy.

Google Exec Hands Silicon Valley the Stratospheric Jump Record

Google’s Vice President of Search, Alan Eustace, has just smashed the altitude record for stratospheric skydiving. His liftoff was from Roswell, New Mexico is where the record was first set in 1960 by USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)

Just a little over two years since Felix Baumgartner broke USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger’s stratospheric jump record, Alan Eustace from Google has independently smashed the high altitude skydiving record again. This brings home to Silicon Valley a record that might stand for a while. Eustace took a minimalist approach to the jump. His setup involved a helium filled balloon and just him hanging from the balloon in a spacesuit. Pure and simple, this permitted his system to reach 135,890 feet above the Earth, over 41 kilometers altitude, exceeding Baumgartner’s record by 7000 feet.

The simple design of his balloon launch might remind one of a bungy jump. This one maxed out at 822 mph and created a sonic boom. How can anyone break his record now? Can someone rise to a higher altitude? What is next for the Google high flyers? Will Baumgartner take this as a challenge to retake the record?

Balloon preparations for Alan Eustace's record flight at the Roswell airport in the early morning hours of Ocotber 24, 2014. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)
Balloon preparations for Alan Eustace’s record flight at the Roswell airport in the early morning hours of October 24, 2014. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)

The 57 year old Alan Eustace is a Senior Vice President at Google in its Knowledge department. He is a licensed pilot but not known for undertaking extraordinary feats of daredevil. Eustace grew up in Florida and recalls that his childhood was filled with trips to Cape Canaveral for NASA launches. Not a spur of the moment undertaking, Eustace had dreamt of accomplishing this feat and record for some time.

This is the third successful balloon skydiving jump from over 100,000 feet. All three have been accomplished from Roswell, New Mexico. Kittinger’s was in 1961, Baumgartner in 2012, and now Eustace in 2014. A fourth jump was undertaken in 1966 from a height of 123,000 feet but ended in failure and the death of the skydiver, Nicholas Piantanida.

The trip to the upper heights of the atmosphere took two hours. All this time he was forced to hang very still to avoid over-heating. His spacesuit had minimal ability to cool his body during the ascent. While the stratosphere reaches temperatures of 100 below zero, the atmosphere is exceedingly thin and body heat has no way to radiate away.

Eustace as he appeared in the first moments of his ascent. He maintained this posture throughout the 2 hour flight. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)
Eustace as he appeared in the first moments of his ascent. He maintained this posture throughout the 2 hour flight. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)

Without a capsule like Baumgartner and Kittinger before him, he relied solely on a spacesuit custom built by Paragon Space Development Corporation, a designer of life support devices. The simple design exceeded Baumgartner by over 7000 feet, nearly a mile and a half more. Eustace’s new record is approaching the maximum that has ever been achieved by any lighter than air craft, manned or unmanned.

The unmanned high altitude record for balloon flight was set in 2002 from Sanriku Balloon Center at Ofunato City, Iwate in Japan. This record stands at 173,900 feet. So there is plenty of room for record breaking but it will require pushing the limits of technology. In this day and age, there are many keen to push technological limits.

Alan Eustace now joins Google execs in high profile flight. H211 L.L.C. operates a Dornier Alpha Jet, owned and used by Mr. Page, Mr. Brin and the chief executive, Eric Schmidt, since 2007. The Alpha Jet is seen being taxiied on the Moffett field runway in Mountain View, CA. Insets show an Alpha in flight and Hangar One (a former Dirigble hangar from the 1930s) which H211 is planning to refurbish for NASA and to house their fleet of jets including the Alpha. (Credit: U.T./TRR)
Alan Eustace now joins Google execs in high profile flight. H211 L.L.C. operates a Dornier Alpha Jet, owned and used by Mr. Page, Mr. Brin, and the chief executive, Eric Schmidt, since 2007. The Alpha Jet is seen taxiing on the Moffett field tarmac in Mountain View, CA. Insets show an Alpha in flight and Hangar One (a former Dirigible hangar from the 1930s) which H211 is planning to refurbish for NASA and to house their fleet of jets including the Alpha. (Credit: U.T./TRR)

Google execs are no strangers to high flying. At Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, just a couple of miles from executive headquarters of Google, a small group of executives utilize a German made Dornier Alpha jet. Collaboratively with NASA Ames, the jet is flown by the execs and other experienced pilots to study the upper atmosphere and quite possibly to take in the views around the San Francisco bay area. They are often seen making touch n’ go’s at Moffett to maintain skills and certification. Google, the corporation, clearly showed its interest in space applications with the purchase of Skybox, a microsatellite builder, in June of this year for a reported $500 million.

Reference:

Paragon StratEx Team

This Is the Very First Photo of Earth From Space

The first photo of Earth from space was taken on Oct. 24, 1947 (Credit: White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory)

These days we see photos of our planet taken from space literally every day. Astronauts living aboard the International Space Station, weather and Earth-observing satellites in various orbits, even distant spacecraft exploring other planets in our Solar System… all have captured images of Earth from both near and far. But there was a time not that long ago when there were no pictures of Earth from space, when a view of our planet against the blackness of the cosmos was limited to the imagination of dreamers and artists and there was nothing but the Moon orbiting our world.

On this day in 1946, before Apollo, before Mercury, even before Sputnik, that was no longer the case.

The image above shows the first photo captured of Earth from space, taken by a camera mounted to a V-2 rocket that was launched from the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Taken to the United States by the dozen from Germany after the end of World War II, the V-2 (for “Vergeltungswaffe 2”) missiles were used by the Army to improve on their own rocket designs and also by scientists who were permitted to fill their payloads with experiments.

On October 24, 1946, a V-2 was launched from the Missile Range while a mounted 35mm movie camera captured images every 1.5 seconds. It reached an altitude of 65 miles before crashing back to Earth and, while the camera was destroyed on impact, the film cassette survived. The grainy photo seen above was on that roll, one of our first views of Earth from above the atmosphere.

(Okay, technically there’s still atmosphere above 65 miles — even the ISS orbiting at 260-plus statute miles has to give itself a boost to compensate for drag now and again — but the official aeronautical delineation of “space” begins at about 62 miles, or 100 km: the Kármán Line. V-2 #13 passed that mark in 1946 by 3 miles.)

In the following years more V-2 rockets would be launched, some reaching heights of 100 miles, giving us many more detailed views of our planet as it looks from space and prompting Clyde Holliday, the APL engineer who developed the mounted film cameras, to envision that “the entire land area of the globe might be mapped in this way.”

Assembled panorama of V-2 images taken from an altitude of 60 miles in 1948 (JHUAPL/US Navy)
Assembled panorama of V-2 images taken from an altitude of 60 miles in 1948 (JHUAPL/US Navy)

Now, 68 years later, seeing pictures of Earth from space are a much more common, if no less amazing, occurrence. But it all started with that one launch of a missile designed for war but repurposed for science.

Read more here in an article for Smithsonian’s Air & Space by Tony Reichhardt, and watch a contemporary news reel below about the 1946 V-2 launch:

Source: Air & Space

Unusual Distributions of Organics Found in Titan’s Atmosphere

The ALMA array, as it looks now completed and standing on a Chilean high plateau at 5000 meters (16,400 ft) altitude. The first observations with ALMA of Titan have added to the Saturn moon's list of mysteries. {Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / L. Calçada (ESO)}

A new mystery of Titan has been uncovered by astronomers using their latest asset in the high altitude desert of Chile. Using the now fully deployed Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, astronomers moved from observing comets to Titan. A single 3 minute observation revealed organic molecules that are askew in the atmosphere of Titan. The molecules in question should be smoothly distributed across the atmosphere, but they are not.

The Cassini/Huygens spacecraft at the Saturn system has been revealing the oddities of Titan to us, with its lakes and rain clouds of methane, and an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s. But the new observations by ALMA of Titan underscore how much more can be learned about Titan and also how incredible the ALMA array is.

ALMA first obserations of the atmospher of Saturn's moon Titan. The image shows the distribution of the organic molecule HNC. Red to White representing low to high concenrations. The offset locations of the molecules relative to the poles suprised the researchers lead by NASA/GSFC astrochemist M. Cordiner.(Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; M. Cordiner (NASA) et at.)
ALMA’s first observations of the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. The image shows the distribution of the organic molecule HNC. Red to White representing low to high concentrations. The offset locations of the molecules relative to the poles surprised the researchers led by NASA/GSFC astrochemist M. Cordiner. (Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; M. Cordiner (NASA) et at.)

The ALMA astronomers called it a “brief 3 minute snapshot of Titan.” They found zones of organic molecules offset from the Titan polar regions. The molecules observed were hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N). It is a complete surprise to the astrochemist Martin Cordiner from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Cordiner is the lead author of the work published in the latest release of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The NASA Goddard press release states, “At the highest altitudes, the gas pockets appeared to be shifted away from the poles. These off-pole locations are unexpected because the fast-moving winds in Titan’s middle atmosphere move in an east–west direction, forming zones similar to Jupiter’s bands, though much less pronounced. Within each zone, the atmospheric gases should, for the most part, be thoroughly mixed.”

When one hears there is a strange, skewed combination of organic compounds somewhere, the first thing to come to mind is life. However, the astrochemists in this study are not concluding that they found a signature of life. There are, in fact, other explanations that involve simpler forces of nature. The Sun and Saturn’s magnetic field deliver light and energized particles to Titan’s atmosphere. This energy causes the formation of complex organics in the Titan atmosphere. But how these two molecules – HNC and HC3N – came to have a skewed distribution is, as the astrochemists said, “very intriguing.” Cordiner stated, “This is an unexpected and potentially groundbreaking discovery… a fascinating new problem.”

The press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory states, “studying this complex chemistry may provide insights into the properties of Earth’s very early atmosphere.” Additionally, the new observations add to understanding Titan – a second data point (after Earth) for understanding organics of exo-planets, which may number in the hundreds of billions beyond our solar system within our Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers need more data points in order to sift through the many exo-planets that will be observed and harbor organic compounds. With Titan and Earth, astronomers will have points of comparison to determine what is happening on distant exo-planets, whether it’s life or not.

High in the atmosphere of Titan, large patches of two trace gases glow near the north pole, on the dusk side of the moon, and near the south pole, on the dawn side. Brighter colors indicate stronger signals from the two gases, HNC (left) and HC3N (right); red hues indicate less pronounced signals. Image (Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF)
High in the atmosphere of Titan, large patches of two trace gases glow near the north pole, on the dusk side of the moon, and near the south pole, on the dawn side. Brighter colors indicate stronger signals from the two gases, HNC (left) and HC3N (right); red hues indicate less pronounced signals.
(Image Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The report of this new and brief observation also underscores the new astronomical asset in the altitudes of Chile. ALMA represents the state of the art of millimeter and sub-millimeter astronomy. This field of astronomy holds a lot of promise. Back around 1980, at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, alongside the great visible light telescopes, there was an oddity, a millimeter wavelength dish. That dish was the beginning of radio astronomy in the 1 – 10 millimeter wavelength range. Millimeter astronomy is only about 35 years old. These wavelengths stand at the edge of the far infrared and include many light emissions and absorptions from cold objects which often include molecules and particularly organics. The ALMA array has 10 times more resolving power than the Hubble space telescope.

The Earth’s atmosphere stands in the way of observing the Universe in these wavelengths. By no coincidence our eyes evolved to see in the visible light spectrum. It is a very narrow band, and it means that there is a great, wide world of light waves to explore with different detectors than just our eyes.

The diagram shows the electromagnetic spectrum, the absorption of light by the Earth's atmosphere and illustrates the astronomical assets that focus on specific wavelengths of light. ALMA at the Chilean site and with modern solid state electronics is able to overcome the limitations placed by the Earth's atmosphere. (Credit: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)
The diagram shows the electromagnetic spectrum, the absorption of light by the Earth’s atmosphere, and illustrates the astronomical assets that focus on specific wavelengths of light. ALMA at the Chilean site, with modern solid state electronics, is able to overcome the limitations placed by the Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: Wikimedia, T.Reyes)

In the millimeter range of wavelengths, water, oxygen, and nitrogen are big absorbers. Some wavelengths in the millimeter range are completely absorbed. So there are windows in this range. ALMA is designed to look at those wavelengths that are accessible from the ground. The Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama desert at 5000 meters (16,400 ft) provides the driest, clearest location in the world for millimeter astronomy outside of the high altitude regions of the Antarctic.

At high altitude and over this particular desert, there is very little atmospheric water. ALMA consists of 66 12 meter (39 ft) and 7 meter (23 ft) dishes. However, it wasn’t just finding a good location that made ALMA. The 35 year history of millimeter-wavelength astronomy has been a catch up game. Detecting these wavelengths required very sensitive detectors – low noise in the electronics. The steady improvement in solid-state electronics from the late 70s to today and the development of cryostats to maintain low temperatures have made the new observations of Titan possible. These are observations that Cassini at 1000 kilometers from Titan could not do but ALMA at 1.25 billion kilometers (775 million miles) away could.

The 130 ton German Antenna Dish Transporter, nicknamed Otto. The ALMA transporter vehicle carefully carries the state-of-the-art antenna, with a diameter of 12 metres and a weight of about 100 tons, on the 28 km journey to the Array Operations Site, which is at an altitude of 5000 m. The antenna is designed to withstand the harsh conditions at the high site, where the extremely dry and rarefied air is ideal for ALMA’s observations of the universe at millimetre- and sub-millimetre-wavelengths. (Credit: ESO)
The 130 ton German Antenna Dish Transporter, nicknamed Otto. The ALMA transporter vehicle carefully carries the state-of-the-art antenna, with a diameter of 12 metres and a weight of about 100 tons, on the 28 km journey to the Array Operations Site, which is at an altitude of 5000 m. The antenna is designed to withstand the harsh conditions at the high site, where the extremely dry and rarefied air is ideal for ALMA’s observations of the universe at millimetre- and sub-millimetre-wavelengths. (Credit: ESO)

The ALMA telescope array was developed by a consortium of countries led by the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF) and countries of the European Union though ESO (European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere). The first concepts were proposed in 1999. Japan joined the consortium in 2001.

The prototype ALMA telescope was tested at the site of the VLA in New Mexico in 2003. That prototype now stands on Kitt Peak having replaced the original millimeter wavelength dish that started this branch of astronomy in the 1980s. The first dishes arrived in 2007 followed the next year by the huge transporters for moving each dish into place at such high altitude. The German-made transporter required a cabin with an oxygen supply so that the drivers could work in the rarefied air at 5000 meters. The transporter was featured on an episode of the program Monster Moves. By 2011, test observations were taking place, and by 2013 the first science program was undertaken. This year, the full array was in place and the second science program spawned the Titan observations. Many will follow. ALMA, which can operate 24 hours per day, will remain the most powerful instrument in its class for about 10 years when another array in Africa will come on line.

References:

NASA Goddard Press Release

NRAO Press Release

ALMA Observatory Website

Alma Measurements Of The Hnc And Hc3N Distributions In Titan’s Atmosphere“, M. A. Cordiner, et al., Astrophysical Journal Letters

NASA Inaugurates New Space Station Era as Earth Science Observation Platform with RapidScat Instrument

ISS-RapidScat instrument, shown in this artist's rendering, was launched to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX CRS-4 mission on Sept. 21, 2014 and attached at ESA’s Columbus module. It will measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center.

NASA inaugurated a new era of research for the International Space Station (ISS) as an Earth observation platform following the successful installation and activation of the ISS-RapidScat science instrument on the outposts exterior at Europe’s Columbus module.

The ISS Rapid Scatterometer, or ISS-RapidScat, is NASA’s first research payload aimed at conducting near global Earth science from the station’s exterior and will be augmented with others in coming years.

RapidScat is designed to monitor ocean winds for climate research, weather predictions, and hurricane monitoring.

The 1280 pound (580 kilogram) experimental instrument is already collecting its first science data following its recent power-on and activation at the station.

“Its antenna began spinning and it started transmitting and receiving its first winds data on Oct.1,” according to a NASA statement.

The first image from RapidScat was released by NASA on Oct. 6, shown below, and depicts preliminary measurements of global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions.

Launched Sept. 21, 2014, to the International Space Station, NASA's newest Earth-observing mission, the International Space Station-RapidScat scatterometer to measure global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions, has returned its first preliminary images.  Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech
Launched Sept. 21, 2014, to the International Space Station, NASA’s newest Earth-observing mission, the International Space Station-RapidScat scatterometer to measure global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions, has returned its first preliminary images. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

The $26 million remote sensing instrument uses radar pulses to observe the speed and direction of winds over the ocean for the improvement of weather forecasting.

“Most satellite missions require weeks or even months to produce data of the quality that we seem to be getting from the first few days of RapidScat,” said RapidScat Project Scientist Ernesto Rodriguez of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which built and manages the mission.

“We have been very lucky that within the first days of operations we have already been able to observe a developing tropical cyclone.

“The quality of these data reflect the level of testing and preparation that the team has put in prior to launch,” Rodriguez said in a NASA statement. “It also reflects the quality of the spare QuikScat hardware from which RapidScat was partially assembled.”

RapidScat, payload was hauled up to the station as part of the science cargo launched aboard the commercial SpaceX Dragon CRS-4 cargo resupply mission that thundered to space on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept. 21.

Dragon was successfully berthed at the Earth-facing port on the station’s Harmony module on Sept 23, as detailed here.

It was robotically assembled and attached to the exterior of the station’s Columbus module using the station’s robotic arm and DEXTRE manipulator over a two day period on Sept 29 and 30.

Ground controllers at Johnson Space Center intricately maneuvered DEXTRE to pluck RapidScat and its nadir adapter from the unpressurized trunk section of the Dragon cargo ship and attached it to a vacant external mounting platform on the Columbus module holding mechanical and electrical connections.

Fascinating: #Canadarm & Dextre installed the #RapidScat Experiment on Columbus! @ISS_Research @NASAJPL @csa_asc. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst
Fascinating: #Canadarm & Dextre installed the #RapidScat Experiment on Columbus! @ISS_Research @NASAJPL @csa_asc. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst

The nadir adapter orients the instrument to point at Earth.

The couch sized instrument and adapter together measure about 49 x 46 x 83 inches (124 x 117 x 211 centimeters).

Engineers are in the midst of a two week check out process that is proceeding normally so far. Another two weeks of calibration work will follow.

Thereafter RapidScat will begin a mission expected to last at least two years, said Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, at a prelaunch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center.

RapidScat is the forerunner of at least five more Earth science observing instruments that will be added to the station by the end of the decade, Volz explained.

The second Earth science instrument, dubbed CATS, could be added by year’s end.

The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) is a laser instrument that will measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates in the atmosphere.

CATS is slated to launch on the next SpaceX resupply mission, CRS-5, currently targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, on Dec. 9.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014 bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This has been a banner year for NASA’s Earth science missions. At least five missions will be launched to space within a 12 month period, the most new Earth-observing mission launches in one year in more than a decade.

ISS-RapidScat is the third of five NASA Earth science missions scheduled to launch over a year.

NASA has already launched the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in February, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

NASA managers show installed location of ISS-RapidScat instrument on the Columbus module on an ISS scale model at the Kennedy Space Center press site during launch period for the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon cargo mission.  Posing are Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington and Howard Eisen, RapidScat Project Manager.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA managers show installed location of ISS-RapidScat instrument on the ESA Columbus module on an ISS scale model at the Kennedy Space Center press site during launch period for the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon cargo mission. Posing are Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, and Howard Eisen, RapidScat Project Manager. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Commercial Space Taxis, Orion and NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations:

Oct 14: “What’s the Future of America’s Human Spaceflight Program with Orion and Commercial Astronaut Taxis” & “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 7:30 PM

Oct 23/24: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

Multicolor Mars! Speedy NASA Spacecraft Takes Pictures Just Hours After Arrival

The first Mars observations from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft in three ultraviolet wavelength bands. From left to right, you can see wavelengths that focus on hydrogen, oxygen and reflected sunlight. A composite image is at far right. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics /University of Colorado and NASA

Sure is fun to see the Red Planet in different colors! This is what the gases around the Red Planet’s atmosphere look like from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which did its first observations on Monday (Sept. 22) — just eight hours after arriving in orbit.

The goal of the spacecraft is to better understand how quickly gases are fleeing the Martian atmosphere, and here you can definitely see a difference between hydrogen (at left) and oxygen (second-to-left). Figuring out how fast the atmosphere escapes could help scientists learn why water appeared to flow freely on the Red Planet’s surface in the distant past.

The hydrogen gas is much lighter and surrounds the planet in a bigger cloud that is so huge it extends beyond the boundaries of the picture at left. The oxygen, which is heavier, is less prone to drifting away and stays closer to the planet. (All images were obtained from an altitude of 22,680 miles or 36,500 kilometers.)

An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center).
An artist concept of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center).

It is believed that the Sun’s radiation pushed hydrogen out of the Martian atmosphere in the planet’s past, thinning it over time. A thicker atmosphere would have allowed water to exist in gullies and perhaps even seas or oceans, but today the atmosphere is too thin for liquid water to survive in large quantities on the surface.

MAVEN is in a commissioning phase that will last until early November, although the spacecraft will take a time-out to do observations of Comet Siding Spring upon the object’s closest approach to the planet Oct. 19. So far, NASA does not believe the comet will pose a huge dust threat to the spacecraft, but MAVEN will be maneuvered to minimize exposure just in case.

Source: University of Colorado Boulder

MAVEN Arrives at Mars! Parks Safely in Orbit

The control room at Lockheed Martin shortly before MAVEN successfully entered Mars orbit tonight September 21, 2014. Credit: NASA-TV

138 million miles and 10 months journey from planet Earth, MAVEN moved into its new home around the planet Mars this evening. Flight controllers at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado anxiously monitored the spacecraft’s progress as onboard computers successfully eased the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft into Mars orbit at 10:24 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. 

Shortly before orbital insertion, six small thrusters were fired to steady the spacecraft so it would enter orbit in the correct orientation. This was followed by a 33-minute burn to slow it down enough for Mars’ gravity to capture the craft into an elliptical orbit with a period of 35 hours. Because it takes radio signals traveling at the speed of light 12 minutes to cross the gap between Mars and Earth, the entire orbital sequence was executed by onboard computers. There’s no chance to change course or make corrections, so the software has to work flawlessly. It did. The burn, as they said was “nominal”, science-speak for came off without a hitch.

Simulation of MAVEN in Martian orbit. Credit: NASA
Simulation of MAVEN in orbit around Mars. The craft’s unique aerodynamically curved solar panels allow it to dive more deeply into the Martian atmosphere. Credit: NASA

“This was a very big day for MAVEN,” said David Mitchell, MAVEN project manager from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’re very excited to join the constellation of spacecraft in orbit at Mars and on the surface of the Red Planet. Congratulations to the team for a job well done today.”

Over the next six weeks, controllers will test MAVEN’s instruments and shape its orbit into a long ellipse with a period of 4.5 hours and a low point of just 93 miles (150 km), close enough to get a taste of the planet’s upper atmosphere. MAVEN’s one-Earth-year long primary mission will study the composition and structure of Mars’ atmosphere and how it’s affected by the sun and solar wind. At least 2,000 Astronomers want to determine how the planet evolved from a more temperate climate to the current dry, frigid desert.

Evidence for ancient water flows on Mars - a delta in Eberswalde Crater. Credit: NASA
Evidence for ancient water flows on Mars – a delta in Eberswalde Crater. Credit: NASA

Vast quantities of water once flowed over the dusty red rocks of Mars as evidenced by ancient riverbeds, outflow channels carved by powerful floods, and rocks rounded by the action of water. For liquid water to flow on its surface without vaporizing straight into space, the planet must have had a much denser atmosphere at one time.

Mars may have been much more like Earth is today 3-4 billion years ago with a thicker atmosphere and water flowing across its surface. Today, it's evolved into dry, cold planet with an atmosphere as thin as Scrooge's gruel. Credit: NASA
Three to four billion years ago, Mars may have been much more like Earth with a thicker atmosphere and water flowing across its surface (left). Over time,  it evolved into a dry, cold planet with an atmosphere too thin to support liquid water. Credit: NASA

Mars’ atmospheric pressure is now less than 1% that of Earth’s. As for the water, what’s left today appears locked up as ice in the polar caps and subsurface ice. So where did it go all the air go? Not into making rocks apparently. On Earth, much of the carbon dioxide from volcanic outgassing in the planet’s youth dissolved in water and combined with rocks to form carbon-bearing rocks called carbonates. So far, carbonates appear to be rare on Mars. Little has been seen from orbit and in situ with the rovers.

Illustration of electrons and protons in the solar wind slamming into and ionizing atoms in Mars upper atmosphere. Once ionized, the atoms may be carried away by the wind. Credit: NASA
Illustration of electrons and protons in the solar wind slamming into and ionizing atoms in Mars upper atmosphere. Once ionized, the atoms may be carried away by the wind. Credit: NASA

During the year-long mission, MAVEN will dip in and out of the atmosphere some 2,000 times or more to measure what and how much Mars is losing to space. Without the protection of a global magnetic field like the Earth’s,  it’s thought that the solar wind eats away at the Martian atmosphere by ionizing (knocking off electrons) its atoms and molecules. Once ionized, the atoms swirl up the magnetic field embedded in the wind and are carried away from the planet.

MAVEN’s suite of instruments will provide the measurements essential to understanding the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. (Courtesy LASP/MAVEN)
MAVEN’s suite of instruments will provide the measurements essential to understanding the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. Courtesy LASP/MAVEN

Scientists will coordinate with the Curiosity rover, which can determine the atmospheric makeup at ground level. Although MAVEN won’t be taking pictures, its three packages of instruments will be working daily to fill gaps in the story of how Mars became the Red Planet and we the Blue.

For more on the ongoing progress of MAVEN later tonight and tomorrow, stop by NASA TV online. You can also stay in touch by following the hashtags #MAVEN and #JourneytoMars on social media channels including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Twitter updates will be posted throughout on the agency’s official accounts @NASA, @MAVEN2Mars and @NASASocial.

Timelapse: Sprites, Gravity Waves and Airglow

Sprite with Airglow and Gravity Waves over South Dakota. Credit and copyright: Randy Halverson.

Look! Fast! Sprite lightning occurs only at high altitudes above thunderstorms, only last for a thousandth of a second and emit light in the red portion of the visible spectrum, so they are really difficult to see. But one of our favorite astrophotographers and timelapse artists, Randy Halverson captured sprites during a recent thunderstorm in South Dakota. But wait, there’s more!

In his timelapse video, above, you’ll also see some faint aurora as well as green airglow being rippled by gravity waves.

See some imagery from the storm, below:

More sprites with airglow and gravity waves over South Dakota on August 20, 2014. Credit and copyright: Randy Halverson.
More sprites with airglow and gravity waves over South Dakota on August 20, 2014. Credit and copyright: Randy Halverson.

See more images and information about Randy’s fun night of observing these phenomena on his website, dakotalapse.

Timelapse: Watch Noctilucent Clouds Cover the Entire Sky

Noctilucent clouds over Sweden on July 27, 2014. Credit and copyright: Göran Strand

This year, the noctilucent cloud season has been especially eventful, and this new timelapse from Swedish astrophotographer Göran Strand shows these “night-shining” clouds covering the entire sky over the course of 2 hours.

“On the 27th of July 2014 I saw some of the most beautiful Noctilucent Clouds I’ve ever seen,” Göran said via email. “They emerged shortly after sunset and after a while they covered the entire sky.”

In the movie you can see an all-sky timelapse view that shows how these clouds changed during the evening.

See some gorgeous still photos from that night, below:

Noctilucent clouds are wispy, glowing tendrils of high-altitude ice crystals that shine long after the Sun has set. They appear in upper latitudes only and form about 83 km (51 miles) up in the atmosphere. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it is just below the horizon, giving the clouds their “night-shining” properties.

Also called polar mesospheric clouds, these are the highest cloud formations in the atmosphere. They’ve been associated with rocket launches and space shuttle re-entries, and another theory is that they might also be associated with meteor activity.

Noctilucent clouds over Sweden on July 27, 2014. Credit and copyright: Göran Strand.
Noctilucent clouds over Sweden on July 27, 2014. Credit and copyright: Göran Strand.

See more of Goran’s work at his website, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Twitter: http://twitter.com/Astrofotografen

NASA’s Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas Observatory Captures ‘First Light’ at Head of International ‘A-Train’ of Earth Science Satellites

OCO-2 leads the international Afternoon Constellation, or A-Train, of Earth-observing satellites as shown in this artist's concept. Japan’s Global Change Observation Mission - Water (GCOM-W1) satellite and NASA’s Aqua, CALIPSO, CloudSat and Aura satellites follow. Credit: NASA

NASA’s first spacecraft dedicated to studying Earth’s atmospheric climate changing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and its carbon cycle has reached its final observing orbit and taken its first science measurements as the leader of the world’s first constellation of Earth science satellites known as the International “A-Train.”

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is a research satellite tasked with collecting the first global measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) – the leading human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change.

The ‘first light’ measurements were conducted on Aug. 6 as the observatory flew over central Papua New Guinea and confirmed the health of the science instrument. See graphic below.

NASA's OCO-2 spacecraft collected "first light” data Aug. 6 over New Guinea. OCO-2’s spectrometers recorded the bar code-like spectra, or chemical signatures, of molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The backdrop is a simulation of carbon dioxide created from GEOS-5 model data.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA GSFC
NASA’s OCO-2 spacecraft collected “first light” data Aug. 6 over New Guinea. OCO-2’s spectrometers recorded the bar code-like spectra, or chemical signatures, of molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The backdrop is a simulation of carbon dioxide created from GEOS-5 model data. Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA GSFC

Before the measurements could begin, mission controllers had to cool the observatory’s three-spectrometer instrument to its operating temperatures.

“The spectrometer’s optical components must be cooled to near 21 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 degrees Celsius) to bring them into focus and limit the amount of heat they radiate. The instrument’s detectors must be even cooler, near minus 243 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 153 degrees Celsius), to maximize their sensitivity,” according to a NASA statement.

The team still has to complete a significant amount of calibration work before the observatory is declared fully operational.

OCO-2 was launched
just over a month ago during a spectacular nighttime blastoff on July 2, 2014, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, atop a the venerable United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

OCO-2 arrived at its final 438-mile (705-kilometer) altitude, near-polar orbit on Aug. 3 at the head of the international A-Train following a series of propulsive burns during July. Engineers also performed a thorough checkout of all of OCO-2’s systems to ensure they were functioning properly.

“The initial data from OCO-2 appear exactly as expected — the spectral lines are well resolved, sharp and deep,” said OCO-2 chief architect and calibration lead Randy Pollock of JPL, in a statement.

“We still have a lot of work to do to go from having a working instrument to having a well-calibrated and scientifically useful instrument, but this was an important milestone on this journey.”

Artist's rendering of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, one of five new NASA Earth science missions set to launch in 2014, and one of three managed by JPL. Credit:  NASA-JPL/Caltech
Artist’s rendering of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, one of five new NASA Earth science missions set to launch in 2014, and one of three managed by JPL. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

OCO-2 now leads the A-Train constellation, comprising five other international Earth orbiting monitoring satellites that constitute the world’s first formation-flying “super observatory” that collects an unprecedented quantity of nearly simultaneous climate and weather measurements.

Scientists will use the huge quantities of data to record the health of Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment as never before possible.

OCO-2 is followed in orbit by the Japanese GCOM-W1 satellite, and then by NASA’s Aqua, CALIPSO, CloudSat and Aura spacecraft, respectively. All six satellites fly over the same point on Earth within 16 minutes of each other. OCO-2 currently crosses the equator at 1:36 p.m. local time.

OCO-2 poster. Credit: ULA/NASA
OCO-2 poster. Credit: ULA/NASA

The 999 pound (454 kilogram) observatory is the size of a phone booth.

OCO-2 is equipped with a single science instrument consisting of three high-resolution, near-infrared spectrometers fed by a common telescope. It will collect global measurements of atmospheric CO2 to provide scientists with a better idea of how CO2 impacts climate change and is responsible for Earth’s warming.

During a minimum two-year mission the $467.7 million OCO-2 will take near global measurements to locate the sources and storage places, or ‘sinks’, for atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is a critical component of the planet’s carbon cycle.

OCO-2 was built by Orbital Sciences as a replacement for the original OCO which was destroyed during the failed launch of a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg back in February 2009 when the payload fairing failed to open properly and the spacecraft plunged into the ocean.

The OCO-2 mission will provide a global picture of the human and natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their “sinks,” the natural ocean and land processes by which carbon dioxide is pulled out of Earth’s atmosphere and stored, according to NASA.

Here’s a NASA description of how OCO-2 collects measurements.

As OCO-2 flies over Earth’s sunlit hemisphere, each spectrometer collects a “frame” three times each second, for a total of about 9,000 frames from each orbit. Each frame is divided into eight spectra, or chemical signatures, that record the amount of molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide over adjacent ground footprints. Each footprint is about 1.3 miles (2.25 kilometers) long and a few hundred yards (meters) wide. When displayed as an image, the eight spectra appear like bar codes — bright bands of light broken by sharp dark lines. The dark lines indicate absorption by molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide.

It will record around 100,000 precise individual CO2 measurements around the worlds entire sunlit hemisphere every day and help determine its source and fate in an effort to understand how human activities impact climate change and how we can mitigate its effects.

OCO-2 mission  description. Credit: NASA
OCO-2 mission description. Credit: NASA

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there were about 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. As of today the CO2 level has risen to about 400 parts per million, which is the most in at least 800,000 years, says NASA.

OCO-2 is the second of NASA’s five new Earth science missions planned to launch in 2014 and is designed to operate for at least two years during its primary mission. It follows the successful blastoff of the joint NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite on Feb 27.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, NASA's first mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Time, July 2, 2014 on a Delta II rocket.  The two-year mission will help scientists unravel key mysteries about carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Time, July 2, 2014 on a Delta II rocket. The two-year mission will help scientists unravel key mysteries about carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls