Space Weather Storm Monitoring Satellite Blasts off for Deep Space on SpaceX Rocket

After a 17 year long wait, a new American mission to monitor intense solar storms and warn of impeding space weather disruptions to vital power grids, telecommunications satellites and public infrastructure was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post.

The third time proved to be the charm when the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spectacular sunset blastoff came after two scrubs this week forced by a technical problem with the Air Force tracking radar and adverse weather on Sunday and Tuesday.

The $340 million DSCOVR has a critical mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth at an observation point nearly a million miles from Earth. It will also take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day that will be publicly available and “wow” viewers.

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

The couch sized probe was targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft's position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)
The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft’s position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

It will take about 150 days to reach the L1 point and complete satellite and instrument checkouts.

DSCOVR will then become the first operational space weather mission to deep space and function as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms.

It will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

“DSCOVR is the latest example of how NASA and NOAA work together to leverage the vantage point of space to both understand the science of space weather and provide direct practical benefits to us here on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

DSCOVR mission logo.  Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force
DSCOVR mission logo. Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

The 750-kilogram (1250 pound) DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

The two Earth science instruments from NASA are the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).

EPIC will provide true color spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth at least six times per day, as viewed from an orbit around L1. They will be publically available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.

It will view the full disk of the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements including on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights and more.

Listen to my post launch interview with the BBC about DSCOVR and ESA’s successful IXV launch on Feb. 11.

A secondary objective by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge had to be skipped due to very poor weather and very high waves in the Atlantic Ocean making a safe landing impossible. The stage did successfully complete a soft landing in the ocean.

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

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  John Studwell
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: John Studwell
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Chuck Higgins
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Chuck Higgins

NASA Launches Revolutionary Earth Science Satellite Measuring Soil Moisture Cycle

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, is seen after the mobile service tower was rolled back Friday, Jan. 30 at Space Launch Complex 2, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Story updated[/caption]

At dawn this morning (Jan. 31) NASA launched an advanced Earth science satellite aimed at making measurements of our planet’s surface soil moisture and freeze/thaw states from space that will revolutionize our understanding of the water, energy, and carbon cycles driving all life on Earth, aid weather forecasting and improve climate change models.

NASA’s new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory thundered off the pad at 6:22 a.m. PST (9:22 a.m. EST) Saturday atop a two stage United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The $916 million satellite successfully separated from the rocket’s second stage some 57 minutes after the flawless liftoff and was injected into an initial 411- by 425-mile (661- by 685-kilometer) orbit. The spacecraft then deployed its solar arrays and telemetry indicated it was in excellent health.

“We’re in contact with SMAP and everything looks good right now,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn said.

“Deployment of the solar arrays is underway. We just couldn’t be happier.”

SMAP separated from the second stage while pointed toward the sun as seen in the video below from a rocket mounted camera:

Video Caption: A camera on the second stage of the Delta II rocket captured this footage as the SMAP spacecraft pushed itself away from the rocket to complete the delivery of the Earth-observing spacecraft to its proper orbit following Jan. 31, 2015 liftoff. Credit: NASA TV/ULA

SMAP is NASA’s 1st Earth observing satellite designed to make high resolution global observations of Earth’s vital surface soil moisture content and freeze/thaw cycle just below your feet. It will aid global forecasting and have broad applications for science and society.

SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments will peer into the top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of soil, through clouds and moderate vegetation cover, day and night, to produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space, says NASA.

The blastoff of SMAP successfully concluded NASA’s ambitious plans to launch a record breaking total of five Earth science satellites in less than a year’s time.

“The launch of SMAP completes an ambitious 11-month period for NASA that has seen the launch of five new Earth-observing space missions to help us better understand our changing planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“Scientists and policymakers will use SMAP data to track water movement around our planet and make more informed decisions in critical areas like agriculture and water resources.”

Artist's rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SMAP is projected to last for at least a three year primary mission.

The prior NASA Earth science instrument launched was the Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS) payload hauled to space by the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon on Jan. 10, 2015 and recently installed on the exterior of the ISS. Read my CATS installation story – here.

The three earlier NASA Earth science missions launched over the past year included ISS-RapidScat in September 2014, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, in February 2014, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

“Congratulations to the NASA Launch Services Program team, JPL and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the SMAP satellite,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“It is our honor to launch this important Earth science mission to help scientists observe and predict natural hazards, and improve our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles.”

SMAP will provide high-resolution, space-based measurements of soil moisture and its state — frozen or thawed — a new capability that will allow scientists to better predict natural hazards of extreme weather, climate change, floods and droughts, and help reduce uncertainties in our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles, according to a NASA description.

The mission will map the entire globe every two to three days for at least three years and provide the most accurate and highest-resolution maps of soil moisture ever obtained. The spacecraft’s final circular polar orbit will be 426 miles (685 kilometers), at an inclination of 98.1 degrees. The spacecraft will orbit Earth once every 98.5 minutes and repeat the same ground track every eight days.

“All subsystems are being powered on and checked out as planned,” Kent Kellogg, the SMAP project manager, during a post-launch press conference.

“Communications, guidance and control, computers and power are all operating nominally.”

The observatory is in excellent health. Its instruments will be turned on in 11 days.

Today’s blastoff of SMAP marks ULA’s second successful launch this month as well as the second of 13 planned for 2015. ULA’s first launch of 2015 was MUOS-3 from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 20.

ULA’s next launch involves NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection. It is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s RapidScat Ocean Wind Watcher Starts Earth Science Operations at Space Station

Barely two months after being launched to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA’s first science payload aimed at conducting Earth science from the station’s exterior has started its ocean wind monitoring operations two months ahead of schedule.

Data from the ISS Rapid Scatterometer, or ISS-RapidScat, payload is now available to the world’s weather and marine forecasting agencies following the successful completion of check out and calibration activities by the mission team.

Indeed it was already producing high quality, usable data following its power-on and activation at the station in late September and has monitored recent tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans prior to the end of the current hurricane season.

RapidScat is designed to monitor ocean winds for climate research, weather predictions, and hurricane monitoring for a minimum mission duration of two years.

“RapidScat is a short mission by NASA standards,” said RapidScat Project Scientist Ernesto Rodriguez of JPL.

“Its data will be ready to help support U.S. weather forecasting needs during the tail end of the 2014 hurricane season. The dissemination of these data to the international operational weather and marine forecasting communities ensures that RapidScat’s benefits will be felt throughout the world.”

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.
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.

The 1280 pound (580kilogram) experimental instrument was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s a cost-effective replacement to NASA’s former QuikScat satellite.

The $26 million remote sensing instrument uses radar pulses reflected from the ocean’s surface at different angles to calculate the speed and direction of winds over the ocean for the improvement of weather and marine forecasting and hurricane monitoring.

The 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.

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.

ISS-RapidScat viewed the winds within post-tropical cyclone Nuri as it moved parallel to Japan on Nov. 6, 2014 05:30 UTC. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
ISS-RapidScat viewed the winds within post-tropical cyclone Nuri as it moved parallel to Japan on Nov. 6, 2014, 05:30 UTC. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

The nadir adapter orients the instrument to point its antennae at Earth.

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

“The initial quality of the RapidScat wind data and the timely availability of products so soon after launch are remarkable,” said Paul Chang, ocean vector winds science team lead at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS)/Center for Satellite Applications and Research (STAR), Silver Spring, Maryland.

“NOAA is looking forward to using RapidScat data to help support marine wind and wave forecasting and warning, and to exploring the unique sampling of the ocean wind fields provided by the space station’s orbit.”

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 of 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.

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

ISRO and NASA Ink Deal to Collaborate on Red Planet and Home Planet Science Missions

ISRO and NASA have inked a deal to collaborate on future missions to jointly explore the Red Planet and our Home Planet hot on the heels of ISRO’s wildly successful Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), India’s first ever interplanetary voyager to explore Mars.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), signed an agreement to collaborate on future science missions to explore Mars as well as to build and launch a joint NASA-ISRO mission to observe Earth.

The leaders of NASA and ISRO met in Toronto, Canada on Tuesday, Sept. 30 and “signed two documents to launch a NASA-ISRO satellite mission to observe Earth and establish a pathway for future joint missions to explore Mars,” according to a NASA statement.

Bolden and Rao met at the International Astronautical Congress underway in Toronto.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO

They signed one agreement defining each agency’s responsibilities for the joint NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission, targeted to launch in 2020. NISAR will make global measurements of the causes and consequences of land surface changes.

The second agreement “establishes a NASA-ISRO Mars Working Group to investigate enhanced cooperation between the two countries in Mars exploration.”

“The signing of these two documents reflects the strong commitment NASA and ISRO have to advancing science and improving life on Earth,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a NASA statement.

“This partnership will yield tangible benefits to both our countries and the world.”

NISAR will be the first Earth observing mission to be equipped two different synthetic aperture radar (SAR) frequencies (L-band and S-band) – one each from NASA and ISRO.

NASA will also provide “the high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid state recorder, and a payload data subsystem.”

ISRO will provide the spacecraft bus and launch vehicle.

The radars will be able to measure subtle changes in Earth’s surface of less than a centimeter across stemming from the flow of glaciers and ice sheets as well as earthquakes and volcanoes.

Regarding Mars, the first subject the joint working group will tackle will be to coordinate observations from each nation’s recently arrived Mars orbiters – ISRO’s MOM and NASA’s MAVEN. They will also examine areas of future collaboration on surface rovers and orbiters.

“NASA and Indian scientists have a long history of collaboration in space science,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA Associate Administrator for Science.

“These new agreements between NASA and ISRO in Earth science and Mars exploration will significantly strengthen our ties and the science that we will be able to produce as a result.”

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

Ken Kremer

MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
MAVEN is NASA’s next Mars orbiter and launched on Nov. 18, 2014, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will study the evolution of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and climate. Universe Today visited MAVEN inside the clean room at the Kennedy Space Center. With solar panels unfurled, this is exactly how MAVEN looks when flying through space and circling Mars and observing Comet Siding Spring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Spectacular Nighttime Blastoff Boosts SpaceX Cargo Ship Loaded with Science and Critical Supplies for Space Station

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blazed aloft on a spectacular middle of the night blastoff that turned night into day along the Florida Space coast today, Sept. 21, 2014, boosting a commercial cargo ship for NASA and loaded with 2.5 tons of ground breaking science experiments, 20 ‘mousetronauts’ and critical supplies for the human crew residing aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel on the CRS-4 mission thundered to space on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:52 a.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, just hours after a deluge of widespread rain showers inundated central Florida.

Notably, the Space CRS-4 mission is carrying NASA’s first research payload – RapidScat – aimed at conducting Earth science from the stations exterior.

“There’s nothing like a good launch, it’s just fantastic,” said Hans Koenigsman, vice president of Mission Assurance for SpaceX at the post launch briefing. “From what I can tell, everything went perfectly.”

“We worked very hard yesterday and weather wasn’t quite playing along and today everything was beautiful.”

CRS-4 marks the company’s fourth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

The Dragon spacecraft is loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of science experiments, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing, and supplies for the six person crews living and working aboard the ISS soaring in low Earth orbit under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“This launch kicks off a very busy time for the space station,” said NASA’s Sam Scimemi, director of the International Space Station, noting upcoming launches of a Soyuz carrying the next three person international crew of the station and launches of other cargo spacecraft including the Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus around mid- October.

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, 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, on Sept. 21, 2014 bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Today’s Falcon 9 launch had already been postponed 24 hours by continuing terrible weather all week long at Cape Canaveral which had also forced a more than two hour delay to the target liftoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from the Cape just four days earlier. Read my Atlas V launch story involving the completely clandestine CLIO satellite – here.

Rather amazingly given the awful recent weather, Falcon 9 streaked to orbit under a beautifully star filled nighttime sky.

Sunday’s launch brilliantly affirmed the ability of SpaceX to fire off their Falcon 9 rockets at a rapid pace since it was the second launch in less than two weeks, and the fourth over the past ten weeks. The prior Falcon 9 successfully launched the AsiaSat 6 commercial telecom satellite from the Cape on Sept. 7 – detailed here.

The CRS-4 missions marks the birth of a new era in Earth science aboard the massive million pound orbiting space station. The trunk of the Dragon is loaded with the $30 Million ISS-Rapid Scatterometer to monitor ocean surface wind speed and direction.

RapidScat is NASA’s first research payload aimed at conducting Earth science from the station’s exterior. The station’s robot arm will pluck RapidScat out of the trunk and attach it to an Earth-facing point on the exterior trusswork of ESA’s Columbus science module.

Dragon also carries the first 3-D printer to space for studies by the astronaut crews over at least the next two years.

SpaceX Falcon 9 erect at Cape Canaveral launch pad 40  awaiting launch on Sept 20, 2014 on the CRS-4 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 erect at Cape Canaveral launch pad 40 awaiting launch on Sept. 21, 2014 on the CRS-4 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The science experiments and technology demonstrations alone amount to over 1644 pounds (746 kg) of the Dragon’s cargo and will support 255 science and research investigations that will occur during the station’s Expeditions 41 and 42 for US investigations as well as for JAXA and ESA.

After a two day orbital chase, Dragon will rendezvous with the station on Tuesday morning, Sept. 23. It will be grappled at 7:04 a.m. by Expedition 41 Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, using the space station’s robotic arm and then berthed at an Earth-facing port on the station’s Harmony module. NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman will support Gerst.

NASA TV is expected to provide live coverage of Dragon’s arrival, grappling, and station berthing.

Dragon was launched aboard the newest, more powerful version of the Falcon 9, dubbed v1.1, powered by a cluster of nine of SpaceX’s new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines. The nine Merlin 1D engines’ 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level rises to 1.5 million pounds as the rocket climbs to orbit.

The Merlin 1 D engines are arrayed in an octaweb layout for improved efficiency.

Therefore the upgraded Falcon 9 can boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS, low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and beyond.

The maiden launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1 took place in December 2013.

The next generation Falcon 9 is a monster. It measures 224 feet tall and is 12 feet in diameter. That compares to a 130 foot tall rocket for the original Falcon 9.

At the 330 am NASA post launch news conference it’s all smiles and congratulations on the successful SpaceX launch to the ISS from the Kennedy Space Center Florida. From L/R NASA Kennedy Space Center News Chief Mike Curie, NASA Director International Space Station Sam Scimemi and SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance Dr. Hans Koenigsmann. Credit: Julian Leek
At the 3:30 am NASA post launch news conference it’s all smiles and congratulations on the successful SpaceX launch to the ISS from the Kennedy Space Center Florida. From L/R NASA Kennedy Space Center News Chief Mike Curie, NASA Director International Space Station Sam Scimemi and SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance Dr. Hans Koenigsmann. Credit: Julian Leek

Overall it’s been a great week for SpaceX. The firm was also awarded one of two NASA contracts to build a manned version of the Dragon, dubbed V2, that will ferry astronaut crews to the ISS starting as soon as 2017. Read my story – here.

The second ‘space taxi’ contract was awarded Boeing to develop the CST-100 crew transporter to end the nation’s sole source reliance on Russia for astronaut launches in 2017.

Dragon V2 will launch on the same version of the Falcon 9 launching today’s CRS-4 cargo Dragon.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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

NASA Set to Launch OCO-2 Observatory on July 1 – Sniffer of Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) at the Launch Pad
This black-and-white infrared view shows the launch gantry, surrounding the United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite onboard. The photo was taken at Space Launch Complex 2, Friday, June 27, 2014, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. OCO-2 is set for a July 1, 2014 launch. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls[/caption]

After a lengthy hiatus, the workhorse Delta II rocket that first launched a quarter of a century ago and placed numerous renowned NASA science missions into Earth orbit and interplanetary space, as well as lofting dozens of commercial and DOD missions, is about to soar again this week on July 1 with NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) sniffer to study atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change.

The 999 pound (454 kilogram) observatory is equipped with one 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.

OCO-2's Delta II Rocket, First Stage  At Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the mobile service tower rolls away from the launch stand supporting the first stage of the Delta II rocket for NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission. Three solid rocket motors (white) have been attached to the first stage. The photo was taken during operations to mate the rocket's first and second stages. Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin
OCO-2’s Delta II Rocket, First Stage At Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the mobile service tower rolls away from the launch stand supporting the first stage of the Delta II rocket for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission. Three solid rocket motors (white) have been attached to the first stage. The photo was taken during operations to mate the rocket’s first and second stages. Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin

The $467.7 million OCO-2 mission is set to blastoff atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket on Tuesday, July 1 from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Liftoff is slated for 5:56 a.m. EDT (2:56 a.m. PDT) at the opening of a short 30-second launch window.

NASA TV will broadcast the launch live with countdown commentary beginning at 3:45 a.m. EDT (12:45 a.m. PDT): http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

The California weather prognosis is currently outstanding at 100 percent ‘GO’ for favorable weather conditions at launch time.

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

The two stage Delta II 7320-10 launch vehicle is 8 ft in diameter and approximately 128 ft tall. It is equipped with a trio of strap on solid rocket motors. This marks the 152nd Delta II launch overall and the 51st for NASA since 1989.

The last time a Delta II rocket flew was nearly three years ago in October 2011 from Vandenberg for the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (NPP) weather satellite.

The final Delta II launch from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 10, 2011 boosted NASA’s twin GRAIL gravity mapping probes to the Moon.

The Delta II will boost OCO-2 into a 438-mile (705-kilometer) altitude, near-polar orbit. Spacecraft separation from the rocket occurs 56 minutes 15 seconds after launch.

It will lead a constellation of five other international Earth monitoring satellites that circle Earth.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, inside the payload fairing in the mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The fairing will protect OCO-2 during launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, scheduled for 5:56 a.m. EDT on July 1. OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate.   Credit: NASA/30th Space Wing USAF
NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, inside the payload fairing in the mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The fairing will protect OCO-2 during launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, scheduled for 5:56 a.m. EDT on July 1. OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate. Credit: NASA/30th Space Wing USAF

The phone-booth sized OCO-2 was built by Orbital Sciences and is 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.

OCO-2 is the second of NASA’s five new Earth science missions launching 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.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (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..

“Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere plays a critical role in our planet’s energy balance and is a key factor in understanding how our climate is changing,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington.

“With the OCO-2 mission, NASA will be contributing an important new source of global observations to the scientific challenge of better understanding our Earth and its future.”

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

It will record around 100,000 CO2 measurements around the world 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.

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.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10, 2011, from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dusty, Windy And Damp: Five NASA Probes To Hunt Down Climate Change in 2014

How badly will climate change affect our planet? Different models tell us different things, and that’s partly because we need more precise information about the factors that warm the world. How much is sea level rising? What are the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? All of these things must be known.

NASA expects to launch five Earth science missions this year, which is the biggest roster in more than a decade. They’ll track rainfall, seek water hiding in soil, and examine carbon dioxide and ocean winds around the world. Here’s a quick rundown of the busy launch schedule:

Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory (Feb. 27): This will be the first of a series of satellites to look at snow and rain from space. “This new information will help answer questions about our planet’s life-sustaining water cycle, and improve water resource management and weather forecasting,” NASA stated. This joint spacecraft with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center on a H-IIA rocket. GPM was built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

ISS-RapidScat (June 6): This sensor will sit on the International Space Station and monitor ocean winds (including storms and hurricanes). What’s interesting about this mission is its use of old parts, NASA points out, as well as the decision to mount it on a station rather than take the more expensive route of making it a separate satellite. The probe will launch on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as part of a regular commercial resupply flight.

Artist's conception of how ISS-RapidScat will work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center
Artist’s conception of how ISS-RapidScat will work. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 (July): NASA plans to take a second crack at this type of satellite after the OCO launch failure in 2009. The satellite will seek out carbon dioxide to better understand where it is emitted (in both natural and artificial processes) and how it moves through the water, air and land. This will launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on a Delta II rocket. OCO-2 will be managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) (Sept. 12): This technology demonstration project will use lasers, in three wavelengths, to examine tiny particles borne into the atmosphere from phenomena such as pollution, smoke, dust and volcanoes. “These aerosol particles pose human health risks at ground level and influence global climate through their impact on cloud cover and solar radiation in Earth’s atmosphere,” NASA stated. This will also leave Earth aboard a SpaceX resupply flight from Cape Canaveral.

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission (November): Will check out the moisture level of soil, with the aim of refining “predictions of agricultural productivity, weather and climate,” NASA stated. Also managed by JPL, this satellite will spend its time in an almost-polar “sun-synchronous” orbit that keeps the sun’s illumination below constant during SMAP’s turns around the Earth. SMAP will launch from Vandenberg on a Delta II rocket.

Source: NASA

K-T Boundary

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What killed the dinosaurs? That’s a question that has puzzled paleontologists since dinosaurs were first discovered. Maybe the global climate changed, maybe they were killed by disease, volcanoes, or the rise of mammals. But in the last few decades, a new theory has arisen; an asteroid strike millions of years ago drastically changed the Earth’s environment. It was this event that pushed the dinosaurs over the edge into extinction. What’s the evidence for this asteroid impact? A thin dark line found in layers of sediment around the world; evidence that something devastating happened to the planet 65 million years ago. This line is known as the K-T boundary.

What is the K-T boundary? K is actually the traditional abbreviation for the Cretaceous period, and T is the abbreviation for the Tertiary period. So the K-T boundary is the point in between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. Geologists have dated this period to about 65.5 million years ago.

When physicist Luis Alvarez and geologist Walter Alvarez studied the K-T boundary around the world, they found that it had a much higher concentration of iridium than normal – between 30-130 times the amount of iridium you would expect. Iridium is rare on Earth because it sank down into the center of the planet as it formed, but iridium can still be found in large concentrations in asteroids. When they compared the concentrations of iridium in the K-T boundary, they found it matched the levels found in meteorites.

The researchers were even able to estimate what kind of asteroid must have impacted the Earth 65.5 million years ago to throw up such a consistent layer of debris around the entire planet. They estimated that the impactor must have been about 10 km in diameter, and release the energy equivalent of 100 trillion tons of TNT.

When that asteroid struck the Earth 65.5 million years ago, it destroyed a region thousands of kilometers across, but also threw up a dust cloud that obscured sunlight for years. That blocked photosynthesis in plants – the base of the food chain – and eventually starved out the dinosaurs.

Researchers now think that the asteroid strike that created the K-T boundary was probably the Chicxulub Crater. This is a massive impact crater buried under Chicxulub on the coast of Yucatan, Mexico. The crater measures 180 kilometers across, and occurred about 65 million years ago.

Geologists aren’t completely in agreement about the connection between the Chicxulub impact and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some believe that other catastrophic events might have helped push the dinosaurs over the edge, such as massive volcanism, or a series of impact events.

We have written many articles about the K-T boundary for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how the dinosaurs probably weren’t wiped out by a single asteroid, and here’s an article about how asteroids and volcanoes might have done the trick.

Here’s more information from the USGS, and an article from NASA.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about asteroid impacts. Listen to it here: Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.

Reference:
USGS

Continental Drift Theory

In elementary school, every teacher had one of those pull-down maps of the world to teach geography. On occasion, I thought the largest land masses, known as continents, reminded me of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. They just seemed like they should fit together, somehow. Not until I took Earth Science, in 8TH grade, did I discover my earlier idea was correct. My teacher explained about a phenomenon, known as, The Continental Drift Theory. He said that some German had the same idea I did.

The man my teacher mentioned, Alfred Wegener (Vay gen ner), developed The Continental Drift Theory in 1915. He was a meteorolgist and a geologist. His theory basically said that, at one time, there existed one large supercontinent, called, Pangea, pan, meaning all-encompassing, and, gea, meaning the Earth. He went on to suggest that, seismic activity, such as erthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis, also called tidal waves, eventually created fissures, or cracks in the Earth. As these fissures became larger, longer, and deeper, 7 pieces of Pangea broke off and, over time, drifted to the places where they are now. These 7 large pieces of land are what we now call, continents. They are: North America; South America; Europe; Asia; Africa; Antarctica; and, Australia. Some people refer to the country as Australia, and the continent as, Oceania. They do this because there are other countries, such as New Zealand, included as a part of that particular continent.

At the time, people thought Wegener was, well, “nuts.” Only in the 1950s did people begin to take his idea seriously. According to the United States Geological Survey (the USGS), thanks to the use of the submarine and the technology developed during World War II, scientists learned a lot about the Ocean Floor. When they found out that it was not as old as the Crust, or Surface, of the Earth, sicentists had to ask themselves, “Why?”

The answers have to do with earthquakes, volcanoes, and magnetism. When the Earth cracks, molten magma, from the middle of the Earth, known as the Mantle, works its way to the surface, where it becomes known as, lava. That lava melts away some of the older layers; then, when the water cools that lava, it forms a new layer of Earth. For that reason, if scientists tried to determine the age of the Earth from samples taken from the Ocean Floor, they would be very wrong.

That same equipment also helped scientists recognize that heavy amounts of basalt, a volcanic rock that contains high amounts of iron, could throw compasses off course. This information provided one more pieces to the puzzle. Now, scientists recognize that the North and South Poles were not always where they currently are.

The Earth changes every day. Although we might not notice it, the continents move all the time. We don’t only revolve, or spin, around the Sun. We also drift across the surface of the planet.

The United States Geological Survey has some excellent information on this topic.

University Today has some other fabulous material about this and related topics, including Earth, Barely Habitable?, by Fraser Cain begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, and Interesting Facts About Planet Earth.

You can also read or listen to Episode 51: Earth, of Astronomy Cast, also produced by Universe Today.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continental_drift
http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/wegener.html
http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/historical.html