Satellite Confirms Ozone Recovery

Image credit: NASA

Observations from three NASA satellites have confirmed that the rate of ozone depletion in the Earth’s upper atmosphere is decreasing. The observations were made by SAGE I, SAGE II, and HALOE satellites which scanned the upper stratosphere since 1997. Their observations are consistent with the decline of man-made chemicals in the atmosphere which contribute to ozone depletion. The ozone layer protects the Earth’s surface from sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation.

NASA satellite observations have provided the first evidence the rate of ozone depletion in the Earth’s upper atmosphere is decreasing. This may indicate the first stage of ozone layer recovery.

From an analysis of ozone observations from NASA’s first and second Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE) and the Halogen Occultation Experiment (HALOE) satellite instruments, scientists have found less ozone depletion in the upper stratosphere (22-28 miles altitude) after 1997. The American Geophysical Union Journal of Geophysical Research has accepted a paper for publication on these results.

This decrease in the rate of ozone depletion is consistent with the decline in the atmospheric abundance of man-made chorine and bromine-containing chemicals that have been documented by satellite, balloon, aircraft and ground based measurements.

Concerns about ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere or stratosphere led to ratification of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer by the international community in 1987. The protocol restricts the manufacture and use of human-made, ozone-depleting compounds, such as chlorofluorocarbons and halons.

“Ozone is still decreasing but just not as fast,” said Mike Newchurch, associate professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, Ala., and lead scientist on the study. “We are still decades away from total ozone recovery. There are a number of remaining uncertainties such as the effect of climate change on ozone recovery. Hence, there is a need to continue this precise long-term ozone data record,” he said.

“This finding would have been impossible had either SAGE II or HALOE not lasted so long past their normal mission lifetime,” said Joe Zawodny, scientist on the SAGE II satellite instrument science team at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.

SAGE II is approaching the 19th anniversary of its launch, and HALOE has been returning data for 11 years. Scientists also used international ground networks to confirm these data from satellite results.

SAGE I was launched on the Applications Explorer Mission-B spacecraft in 1979; the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite carried SAGE II into orbit in 1984. The Space Shuttle Discovery carried HALOE into space on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite in 1991.

NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise funded this research in an effort to better understand and protect our home planet. The ozone layer protects the Earth’s surface from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Ultraviolet radiation can contribute to skin cancer and cataracts in humans and harm other animals and plants. Ozone depletion in the stratosphere also causes the ozone hole that occurs each spring over Antarctica.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Mars is Close and Getting Closer

Image credit: Hubble

On August 27, 2003 the Planet Mars will be a mere 55.76 million kilometres away from the Earth – the closest it’s been in 50,000 years. Visible in the early morning, Mars is the brightest object in the sky, after the Moon and Venus, and almost any small telescope will be able to show details on the planet’s surface. Make sure you enjoy Mars’ close approach this summer, as it won’t make another visit this close for nearly 300 years.

Living too close to a neighbor may not be very appealing, but when Earth?s neighboring red planet moves closer than it?s been in 60,000 years, observers expect nothing but acclaim.

This August, scientists and amateur astronomers will benefit from the spectacular view of Mars as it appears bigger and brighter than ever before, revealing its reflective south polar cap and whirling dust clouds.

On August 27, 2003, the fourth rock from the sun will be less than 55.76 million kilometers (34.65 million miles) away from the Earth. In comparison to the space between your house and your neighbor?s yard, that may seem like a large distance, but Mars was about five times that distance from Earth only six months ago.

“Think of Earth and Mars as two race cars going around a track,” said Dr. Myles Standish, an astronomer from NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Earth is on a race track that is inside the track that Mars goes around, and neither track is perfectly circular. There is one place where the two race tracks are closest together. When Earth and Mars are at that place simultaneously, it is an unusually close approach, referred to as a ‘perihelic opposition’.”

Opposition is a term used when Earth and another planet are lined up in the same direction from the Sun. The term perihelic comes from perihelion, the point of orbit in which a celestial body is closest to the Sun. This August, Mars will reach its perihelion and be in line with Earth and the Sun at the same time.

The average opposition occurs about every two years, when Earth laps Mars on its orbit around the Sun. In 1995, the opposition brought Mars 101.1 million kilometers (62.8 million miles) from the Earth, twice as far as this most recent approach.

“It gets more complicated as the race tracks are changing shape and size and are rotating, changing their orientation,” Standish explains. “So this place where the two tracks are closest together constantly changes, changing the opposition closeness as well. This is why a ‘great’ approach, like the one this month, hasn?t happened in 60,000 years. But with the tracks closer together now, there will be even closer approaches in the relatively near future.”

Aside from visiting a local observatory, peering through a telescope is the best way to take advantage of this unique opportunity. Since June, Mars has been noticeably bright in the night?s sky, only outshined by Venus and the Moon. Observers in the Northern Hemisphere will see it glowing remarkably in the southern sky in the constellation Aquarius, best seen just before dawn.

“You’re not going to go outside and see some big red ball in the sky. It will look like a bright red star,” said Standish.

The word ‘planet’ is derived from the Greek expression for ?wanderer.? At such a close distance, Mars remains true to this expectation as it consistently wanders across the night?s sky. Tracking the “red star?s” movement from week to week is yet another way to appreciate the opposition as Mars appears to dart across the sky in comparison to more distant planets, such as Jupiter.

Although Mars will be closest on August 27, astronomers suggest viewing the planet earlier, as dust storm season is just beginning on the red planet and can obstruct a more detailed view.

Whether you are viewing through a telescope, glancing through a pair of binoculars, or star-gazing outside the city, be sure to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for Mars will not make another neighborly visit this close until 2287.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

New Satellite Image of the Aral Sea

Image credit: ESA

A new image taken by the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite shows how much the Aral Sea has evaporated. Located in Central Asia, the Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world, but rivers that feed the lake were diverted for cotton agriculture. It’s now half its former surface area and one-quarter its original volume and continuing to shrink. The picture was taken using the Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) instrument which has a resolution of 300 metres.

Earth?s youngest desert is shown in this July MERIS satellite image of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last 40 years the Aral Sea has evaporated back to half its original surface area and a quarter its initial volume, leaving a 40,000 square kilometre zone of dry white-coloured salt terrain now called the Aralkum Desert.

As its water level has dropped 13 metres since the 1960s the Sea has actually split into two ? the larger horseshoe-shaped body of water and a smaller almost unconnected lake a little to its north. This Small Aral Sea is the focus of international preservation efforts, but the Large Aral Sea has been judged beyond saving (the shallowness of its eastern section is clear in the image). It is expected to dry out completely by 2020.

Towards the bottom right can be seen the sands of the Qyzylqum Desert. Already stretching across an area greater than Italy, this desert is set to extend further west in future, eventually merging with its younger Aralkum sibling. The distinctive darker area to the south of the Large Aral Sea is the delta of the Amu Darya river. Its waters support environmentally-unique tugai forests found only in Central Asia, along with land used for rice and cotton cultivation.

The grey area seen in the otherwise whitish zone between the two arms of the Large Aral Sea was once Vozrozhdeniye (‘Rebirth’) Island, the isolated site of biological warfare experimentation during the Cold War, now joined to the mainland and freely accessible by foot. In reaction to this development, a US-led international team last year moved in to destroy remaining anthrax stocks.

Located on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea shows what happens when the concept of sustainable development is disregarded. Starting in the 1960s, the waters of the two rivers feeding the Sea ? the Amu Darya, seen south, and the Syr Darya to the northwest ? were diverted by Soviet planners to irrigate thirsty cotton fields across the region. By the 1980s there was little water reaching the lake and it began to shrink.

For local people the results have been disastrous. The Aral Sea’s retreating shoreline has left ports landlocked and boats stranded on dry sand. Commercial fishing was forced to halt twenty years ago. The few remaining fishermen commute by car to the water’s edge. The waters that remain grow increasingly saline so only salt-resistant fish imported from elsewhere can endure them. Wildlife habitats have been destroyed and communities find themselves without clean water supplies.

The retreat of the waters has also altered the regional microclimate. Winters are colder and the summers hotter. Each year violent sandstorms pick up at least 150,000 tonnes of salt and sand from the dried-up lakebed and transport it across hundreds of kilometres.

The sandstorms are tainted with pesticide residue and have been linked to high regional rates of respiratory illnesses and certain types of cancer. The salty dust does harm to livestock pastures and has even been linked with melting glaciers up in the distant Pamir Mountains, on the Afghanistan border.

Back in the days of the USSR, planners spoke casually of diverting Siberian rivers to save the Aral Sea. Today that certainly will not happen. Instead Central Asian governments have come together to establish the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. But their economies are too dependent on cotton exports to end all irrigation.

The Small Aral Sea is still thought to be saveable, and several dikes have been constructed to cut it off from the Large Aral Sea ? preventing water loss and salt contamination – but shifting water levels have so far defeated these efforts. The channel connecting the two should soon dry up anyway, preserving the Small Aral Sea at least. Meanwhile researchers are studying the salty Aralkum Desert ? effectively the newest land surface on Earth ? to see how best to promote plant growth and stabilise the dusty dry lakebed.

Original Source: ESA News Release

South African Observatory Nearing Completion

Image credit: SALT

The observatory that will house the largest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere is nearing completion. The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is being built by a consortium of six countries at the southern edge of the Kalahari Desert in Africa. The 11-by-10 metre telescope is 18 months away from being done, but the structure of the observatory is nearly complete. The entire project will cost $18 million and be fully operational in late 2004.

A new observatory that promises to give Wisconsin astronomers unique access to the southern sky is now a prominent feature on a remote South African plateau.

The observatory that will house the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, known as the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), is now nearly complete, according to astronomers at UW-Madison. Although the telescope itself is still 18 months from completion, the mirror segments that will make up the 11-by-10-meter hexagonal primary mirror are starting to come together, says Matthew Bershady a UW-Madison professor of astronomy who is helping to oversee planning and construction of the new observatory.

“We are at a point where we have a structure that is nearly completed,” says Bershady of the observatory situated 220 miles from Cape Town on a mountain plateau at the southern end of the Kalahari Desert. “Now, we are starting to populate the (telescope) truss with glass.”

The $18 million SALT Observatory is being built by a consortium of government and academic institutions from six countries. In addition to UW-Madison, Rutgers and Carnegie Mellon universities, Germany’s University of Gottingen, the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the United Kingdom Consortium, and the governments of Poland and South Africa are partners in the SALT consortium.

UW-Madison’s contribution is a $3 million imaging spectrograph that is being built under the direction of astronomy Professor Kenneth H. Nordsieck. A spectrograph is a device that breaks light down into its constituent wavelengths, each of which has a different story to tell about the star or galaxy from which the light is gathered.

“We’re past the design stage now,” says Nordsieck of the 500-kilogram instrument that will be at the heart of the new observatory. “We’re cutting metal and polishing glass.”

The Wisconsin spectrograph will be the telescope’s primary scientific instrument. Positioned high above the huge segmented mirror at the prime focus of the telescope, the device will be capable of capturing spectra at a rate of 10 times a second.

To explain the importance of spectroscopy to astronomy, one spectrum – in the words of one astronomer – is worth a thousand pictures.

The device, says Nordsieck, will sample light in the near ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum: “This is light that our eyes can’t see, but it still gets through the atmosphere. It’s the same kind of light that causes sunburn.”

In addition, the spectrograph will be capable of doing polarimetry, measuring how light waves are scattered as they bounce off objects in space and are pushed and pulled by the immense magnetic fields of interstellar space. Polarimetry, Nordsieck says, helps reveal geometric information, giving astronomers insight into how starlight interacts with the objects it encounters.

“We will also have one of the first large Fabry-Perot devices,” he adds. “It is basically a tunable filter” capable of imaging a large part of the sky.

Fittingly, among the system of lenses to be included in the spectrograph will be a set made of sodium chloride – or salt.

Together, the large, segmented primary mirror and the novel scientific instrumentation will position SALT to break plenty of new ground in the southern skies.

“One of the big things this telescope will be tuned for are the Magellanic Clouds,” says Bershady. “They are important because they are the galaxies nearest to our own, and they offer the best opportunity to study stars and galaxies outside of the Milky Way. It’s always a good thing to look outside of your own immediate environment to find out how unique you are, if at all.”

The SALT construction schedule is right on time, Bershady adds. “That we haven’t slipped at all is amazing,” he says. “Our hope is to stay on track for first light in late 2004.”

Original Source: SALT News Release

Neutron Star Has Twin Tails

Image credit: ESA

Astronomers using the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory have discovered a neutron star with two mysterious x-ray tails, stretching out almost a third of a light year. The neutron star is named Geminga, and it’s one of the closest known neutron stars, at a distance of only 500 light-years away. Unlike most neutron stars, Geminga is strangely quiet in the radio spectrum, but pulsates huge quantities of gamma radiation.

Astronomers using ESA?s X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton, have discovered a pair of X-ray tails, stretching 3 million million kilometres across the sky. They emanate from the mysterious neutron star known as Geminga. The discovery gives astronomers new insight into the extraordinary conditions around the neutron star.

A neutron star measures only 20-30 kilometres across and is the dense remnant of an exploded star. Geminga is one of the closest to Earth, at a distance of about 500 light-years. Most neutron stars emit radio emissions, appearing to pulsate like a lighthouse, but Geminga is ‘radio-quiet’. It does, however, emit huge quantities of pulsating gamma rays making it one of the brightest gamma-ray sources in the sky. Geminga is the only example of a successfully identified gamma-ray source from which astronomers have gained significant knowledge.

It is 350 000 years old and ploughs through space at 120 kilometres per second. Its route creates a shockwave that compresses the gas of the interstellar medium and its naturally embedded magnetic field by a factor of four.

Patrizia Caraveo, Instituto di Astrofisica Spaziale e Fisica Cosmica, Milano, Italy, and her colleagues (at CESR, France, ESO and MPE, Germany) have calculated that the tails are produced because highly energetic electrons become trapped in this enhanced magnetic field. As the electrons spiral inside the magnetic field, they emit the X-rays seen by XMM-Newton.

The electrons themselves are created close to the neutron star. Geminga?s breathless rotation rate ? once every quarter of a second ? creates an extraordinary environment in which electrons and positrons, their antimatter counterparts, can be accelerated to extraordinarily high energies. At such energies, they become powerful high-energy gamma-ray producers. Astronomers had assumed that all the electrons would be converted into gamma rays. However, the discovery of the tails proves that some do find escape routes from the maelstrom.

?It is astonishing that such energetic electrons succeed in escaping to create these tails,? says Caraveo, ?The tail electrons have an energy very near to the maximum energy achievable in the environment of Geminga.?

The tails themselves are the bright edges of the three-dimensional shockwave sculpted by Geminga. Such shockwaves are a bit like the wake of a ship travelling across the ocean. Using a computer model, the team has estimated that Geminga is travelling almost directly across our line of sight.

Studies of Geminga could not be more important. The majority of known gamma-ray sources in the Universe have yet to be identified with known classes of celestial objects. Some astronomers believe that a sizeable fraction of them may be Geminga-like radio-quiet neutron stars. Certainly, the family of radio-quiet neutron stars, discovered through their X-ray emission, is continuously growing. Currently, about a dozen objects are known but only Geminga has a pair of tails!

Original Source: ESA News Release

Galaxy Evolution Explorer Delivers First Images

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Launched in April, 2003, NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer has sent back its first images of star formation in hundreds of galaxies. The goal of the mission is to map the sky in the ultraviolet spectrum and help determine the evolution of star formation over the last 10 billion years – this singles out galaxies that contain young, hot stars which produce a lot of energy in the ultraviolet spectrum. The mission is expected to last 28 months.

NASA?s Galaxy Evolution Explorer has beamed back revealing images of hundreds of galaxies to expectant astronomers, providing the first batch of data on star formation that they had hoped for.

The recent ultraviolet color images from the orbiting space telescope were taken between June 7 and June 23, 2003 and are available online at and

“The images clearly show active star formation in nearby galaxies, and large numbers of distant ultraviolet galaxies undergoing starbursts,” said Dr. Christopher Martin, the mission’s principal investigator and an astrophysics professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which leads the mission. “This demonstrates that the Galaxy Evolution Explorer will be a powerful tool for studying star formation in galaxies near and far.”

“These stunning images provide us with valuable information needed to advance our knowledge of how galaxies, like our own Milky Way, evolve and transform,” said Dr. James Fanson, Galaxy Evolution Explorer project manager at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Pictures of the ultraviolet sky reveal objects we could never have seen with visible light alone.”

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer launched on April 28, 2003. Its goal is to map the celestial sky in the ultraviolet and determine the history of star formation in the universe over the last 10 billion years.

From its orbit high above Earth, the spacecraft will sweep the skies for up to 28 months using state-of-the-art ultraviolet detectors. Looking in the ultraviolet singles out galaxies dominated by young, hot, short-lived stars that give off a great deal energy at that wavelength. These galaxies are actively creating stars, therefore providing a window into the history and causes of galactic star formation.

In addition to leading the mission, Caltech is also responsible for science operations and data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of Caltech, manages the mission and led the science instrument development. The mission is part of NASA’s Explorers Program, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The mission’s international partners are France and South Korea.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Astronomers Map Dark Matter Halo

Image credit: Hubble

Two Canadian and a US astronomer have created a detailed map of the halo of dark matter that seems to surround all galaxies. The mass of dark matter accounts for 50 times the mass and five times the size of the light-producing material in a galaxy. This flattened sphere-shaped halo was seen by measuring how the gravity from a closer galaxy bends the light from a distant object that passes behind it; a technique called gravity lensing.

Two U of T astronomers and a U.S. colleague have made the first-ever measurements of the size and shape of massive dark matter halos that surround galaxies.

“Our findings give us the clearest picture yet of a very mysterious part of our universe,” says principal investigator Henk Hoekstra, a
post-doctoral fellow at U of T’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. “Using relatively simple physics, we can get our first direct glimpse of the size and shape of these halos which are more than fifty times more massive than the light-producing part of galaxies that we can see.” He and his team presented their findings July 25 at the 25th general assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Sydney, Australia.

Their research indicates that dark matter halos extend more than five times further than the visible stars in a galaxy, says Hoekstra. In the case of our Milky Way galaxy, he says, the halo extends to more than 500,000 light-years away and weighs approximately 880 billion times more than the sun. The findings also provide strong support for the popular “cold dark matter” model of the universe.

Dark matter emits no light and, therefore, cannot be seen directly,
Hoekstra explains. The only evidence for its existence comes from its gravitational pull on stars, gas and light rays. Dark matter is believed to account for approximately 25 per cent of the total mass in the universe, with the rest of the universe composed of normal matter (five per cent) and dark energy (70 per cent).

To date, most information about dark matter has come from measurements of the motion of gas and stars in the inner regions of galaxies. Other important data have come from computer simulations of the formation of the universe’s structure. However, scientists can explain their findings about dark matter only if it is true that galaxies are surrounded by massive, three-dimensional halos.

The majority of astronomers believe in the so-called cold dark matter theory of the universe, which suggests these halos are slightly flattened. Hoekstra’s findings corroborate this. Using the relatively new technique of weak gravitational lensing which allows astronomers to study the size and shape of dark matter, the team measured the shapes of more than 1.5 million distant galaxies using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii. “The small changes in the shapes of the galaxies offered a strong indication to us that the halos are flattened, like a rubber ball compressed to half its size,” Hoekstra says.

Their findings can also be applied to a larger scientific debate about the nature of the universe. Some scientists have developed theories about the universe using the assumption that dark matter does not exist and, as a result, they have proposed changes to the law of gravity. However, Hoekstra is confident that his team’s findings will refute these theories.

The research was conducted with Professor Howard Yee of U of T’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and Michael Gladders, a former U of T graduate student now at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena, Calif. It was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and U of T.

Original Source: University of Toronto News Release

Pluto Mission Will Fly on an Atlas V

Image credit: NASA/JHU

The first robotic mission to launch to the planet Pluto will be on board an Atlas V rocket, according to NASA. The New Horizons mission, built by NASA, the Southwest Research Institute and Johns Hopkins University is scheduled to take off in January 2006 and wouldn’t reach the planet until 2015. New Horizons will take the first high-resolution photographs of Pluto, and help to answer key questions about its surface, atmosphere, and environment.

NASA has chosen the Atlas V expendable launch vehicle provided by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, Inc. as the launch system for the proposed Pluto New Horizons mission. The mission is scheduled for launch to Pluto in January 2006. As proposed, the Pluto New Horizons mission is a scientific investigation to obtain the first reconnaissance of Pluto-Charon, a binary planet system.

This will be a firm fixed-price launch service task order awarded under the terms of the current NASA Launch Services contract. The prime contractor will be Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services, Inc.; a constituent company of International Launch Services and legal contracting entity for Atlas launch services, located in McLean, Va.

New Horizons would seek to answer key scientific questions regarding the surfaces, atmospheres, interiors, and space environments of Pluto and Charon using imaging, visible and infrared spectral mapping, ultraviolet spectroscopy, radio science, and in-situ plasma sensors. The Principal Investigator is Dr. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. The implementing institution is the Applied Physics Laboratory of The Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Md. The proposed mission would use a spacecraft supplied Star 48B based 3rd Stage, manufactured by The Boeing Company of Huntington Beach, Calif., to achieve the required mission performance.

Original Source: NASA News Release

NASA Names the Next Crew for the Space Station

Image credit: NASA

NASA has named the next crew who will live on board the International Space Station. This time it’s going to be astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri; both have significant spaceflight experience. Expedition 8 will launch on board a Russian Soyuz rocket on October 18 and dock two days later. Spanish astronaut Pedro Duque will also make the journey to the ISS, but then return 10 days later with the current ISS crew: Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu. ISS will continue to be staffed by two people until the space shuttle returns to regular flights.

Veteran NASA astronaut Michael Foale and seasoned Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri are set to be the eighth crew to live aboard the International Space Station. They’re scheduled to begin their mission in October, when they launch into space aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Foale will serve as the Expedition 8 Commander and NASA/International Space Station Science Officer. Kaleri will be the Soyuz Commander and Space Station Flight Engineer.

Their mission is scheduled to begin October 18, when the Russian Soyuz TMA-3 launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Pedro Duque, from Spain, will make the outbound trip with Foale and Kaleri as Flight Engineer and return home 10 days later.

On October 20, the three will dock their Soyuz to the Station and begin an eight-day transfer process with the Expedition 7 crew, Commander and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu, NASA/International Space Station Science Officer.

On October 28, Malenchenko, Lu and Duque will return to Earth aboard the Soyuz currently docked to the Station. Malenchenko and Lu have been aboard the Station since late April.

The backup crew for Expedition 8 is veteran NASA astronaut Bill McArthur, a retired U.S. Army colonel; Russian veteran cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, a Russian Air Force colonel; and Duque’s backup is ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers from the Netherlands.

Until the NASA Space Shuttle, with its significant cargo capability, returns to flight, the International Space Station will be staffed with a crew of two instead of three. The smaller crew is big enough to maintain operations on board the Station and small enough to live on a reduced supply of water and other consumables. Foale and Kaleri are scheduled to spend approximately six months on board the Station.

Foale is a veteran of five space flights totaling more than 178 days in space, including more than four months on the Russian Mir Space Station. Kaleri has flown on three previous missions to the Mir and has logged 416 days in space. October’s mission will be Duque’s second space flight, following his mission on the Shuttle Discovery (STS-95) in 1998.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Planet Hunting Instrument Proven to Work

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab have built an instrument so sensitive it can measure distances within 1/10th the thickness of a hydrogen atom. This instrument will serve as the heart of NASA’s Space Interferometry Mission, which will be able to detect the interactions between Earth-sized planets and the stars they orbit. Due to launch in 2009, the spacecraft will also measure the distance to stars at an accuracy several hundred times better than currently possible.

Even though astronomers have discovered more than 100 planets around stars other than the Sun in recent years, the “holy grail” of the search — an Earth-sized planet capable of supporting life — remains elusive. The main problem is that an Earthlike planet would be much smaller than any of the gas giants detected so far (see illustration at right).

Planets orbiting other stars are too dim to be observed directly, but scientists infer their presence by the tiny gravitational “wobble” they induce in their parent stars. Observed from tens of light years away (one light-year is 5.88 trillion miles), this movement becomes very tiny indeed. The smaller the planet, the less the star parent wobbles.

To detect the stellar wobble caused by a planet as small as Earth, scientists need an instrument of almost unbelievable sensitivity. Let’s say there’s an astronaut standing on the moon, wiggling her pinky. You’d need an instrument sensitive enough to measure that movement from Earth, a quarter million miles away.

In order to do that, the instrument needs to be a “ruler” accurate to within just one-tenth the width of a hydrogen atom. That’s about 1 millionth of the width of the thickest human hair.

Is such precision possible? After a six-year struggle, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently proved that the answer is yes.

Such sub-atomic measurements were conducted for the first time ever within a vacuum-sealed chamber called the Microarcsecond Metrology Testbed.

By doing this, the engineers proved they can measure the movements of stars with an astonishing degree of accuracy never before achieved in human history.

The testbed, which resembles a shiny silver submarine, is jammed with mirrors, lasers, lenses and other optical components. Because even small air movements can interfere with the measurements, all air is pumped out of the chamber before each experiment is run. Laser beams, moving mirrors and a camera are used to help detect movements of an artificial star, which simulates the light that would be emitted by a real star.

The instrument that engineers have demonstrated in the laboratory will become the heart of a revolutionary new space telescope known as the Space Interferometry Mission.

“Six-and-a-half years ago, this technology was unproven and unsubstantiated,” said Brett Watterson, the mission’s deputy project manager. “It was just a remote possibility that we could do it. It was through ingenuity, insight, leadership and sheer perseverance that the team was able to overcome these difficult technological challenges.”

NASA recently gave the go-ahead for the second stage of development for the mission, which will not only be able to search for Earth-like planets around other stars, but will also measure cosmic distances several hundred times more accurately than currently possible. Scheduled to launch in 2009, it will scan the heavens for five years and provide astronomers with the first truly accurate road map of our Milky Way galaxy.

“This is a historical time that we’re intimately involved with,” Watterson said. “Unlike any other culture in history, we have the technological means, the budget, and the will to determine the occurrence of Earthlike planets orbiting other stars. Everyone on the team is aware of their role in this pivotal stage in the search for life elsewhere in the universe.”

The Space Interferometry Mission is managed by JPL as part of NASA’s Origins program.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release