1st Student Selected MoonKAM Pictures Look Inspiringly Home to Earth


The first student selected photos of the Moon’s surface snapped by NASA’s new pair of student named Lunar Mapping orbiters – Ebb & Flow – have just been beamed back and show an eerie view looking back to the Home Planet – and all of Humanity – barely rising above the pockmarked terrain of the mysterious far side of our nearest neighbor in space.

Congratulations to Americas’ Youth on an outstanding and inspiring choice !!

The student photo is reminiscent of one of the iconic images of Space Exploration – the first full view of the Earth from the Moon taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 back in August 1966 (see below).

The images were taken in the past few days by the MoonKAM camera system aboard NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft currently circling overhead in polar lunar orbit, and previously known as GRAIL A and B. The formation-flying probes are soaring over the Moon’s north and south poles.

The nearly identical ships were rechristened as Ebb and Flow after Fourth grade students from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., won the honor to rename both spacecraft by submitting the winning entries in a nationwide essay competition sponsored by NASA.

“The Bozeman 4th graders had the opportunity to target the first images soon after our science operations began,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., to Universe Today.

“It is impossible to overstate how thrilled and excited we are !”

The initial packet of some 66 student-requested digital images from the Bozeman kids were taken by the Ebb spacecraft from March 15-17 and downlinked to Earth March 20. They sure have lots of exciting classwork ahead analyzing all those lunar features !

“GRAIL’s science mapping phase officially began on March 6 and we are collecting science data,” Zuber stated.

Far Side of Moon Imaged by MoonKAM
This image of the lunar surface was taken by the MoonKAM system onboard NASA’s Ebb spacecraft on March 15, 2012. The 42.3-mile-wide (68-kilometer-wide) crater in the middle of the image (with the smaller crater inside) is Poinsot. Crater Poinsot, named for the French mathematician Louis Poinsot, is located on the northern part of the moon's far side. The target was selected by 4th grade students at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana who had the honor of choosing the first MoonKAM images after winning a nationwide contest. NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS

GRAIL’s science goal is to map our Moon’s gravity field to the highest precision ever. This will help deduce the deep interior composition, formation and evolution of the Moon and other rocky bodies such as Earth and also determine the nature of the Moon’s hidden core.

Engaging students and the public in science and space exploration plays a premier role in the GRAIL project. GRAIL is NASA’s first planetary mission to carry instruments – in the form of cameras – fully dedicated to education and public outreach.

Over 2,700 schools in 52 countries have signed up to participate in MoonKAM.

Ebb and Flow - New Names for the GRAIL Twins in Lunar Orbit
4th Grade Students from Bozeman, Montana (inset) won NASA’s contest to rename the GRAIL A and GRAIL B spacecraft and also chose the first lunar targets to be photographed by the onboard MoonKAM camera system. Artist concept of twin GRAIL spacecraft flying in tandem orbits around the Moon to measure its gravity field Credit: NASA/JPL -M ontage: Ken Kremer

5th to 8th grade students can send suggestions for lunar surface targets to the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center at UC San Diego, Calif. Students will use the images to study lunar features such as craters, highlands, and maria while also learning about future landing sites.

NASA calls MoonKAM – “The Universe’s First Student-Run Planetary Camera”. MoonKAM means Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students.

The MoonKAM project is managed by Dr Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut.

“What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures,” Ride said in a NASA statement. “The students really are excited about MoonKAM, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering.”

“MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees,” says Zuber. “Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is great to see things off to such a positive start.”

MoonKAM image from NASA’s Ebb Lunar Mapping orbiter. This lunar target was selected by the 4th graders at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana who won the contest to rename the GRAIL probes in a nationwide essay contest. NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS

Altogether there are eight MoonKAM cameras aboard Ebb and Flow – one 50 mm lens and three 6 mm lenses. Each probe is the size of a washing machine and measures just over 3 feet in diameter and height.

Snapping the first images was delayed a few days by the recent series of powerful solar storms.

“Due to the extraordinary intensity of the storms we took the precaution of turning off the MoonKAMs until the solar flux dissipates a bit,” Zuber told me.

“GRAIL weathered the storm well. The spacecraft and instrument are healthy and we are continuing to collect science data.”

The washing-machine sized probes have been flying in tandem around the Moon since entering lunar orbit in back to back maneuvers over the New Year’s weekend. Engineers spent the past two months navigating the spaceship duo into lower, near-polar and near-circular orbits with an average altitude of 34 miles (55 kilometers) that are optimized for science data collection and simultaneously checking out the spacecraft systems.

Ebb and Flow were launched to the Moon on September 10, 2011 aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida and took a circuitous 3.5 month low energy path to the moon to minimize the overall costs.

The Apollo astronauts reached the Moon in just 3 days. NASA’s next generation Orion space capsule currently under development will send American astronauts back to lunar orbit by 2021 or sooner.

NASA has just granted an extension to the GRAIL mission. Watch for my follow-up report detailing the expanded science goals of GRAIL’s extended lunar journey.

One of the first two remote images of Earth taken from the distance of the Moon on August 23, 1966 by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft. Credit: NASA


March 24 (Sat): Free Lecture by Ken Kremer at the New Jersey Astronomical Association, Voorhees State Park, NJ at 830 PM. Topic: Atlantis, the End of Americas Shuttle Program, Orion, SpaceX, CST-100, Moon and the Future of NASA Human & Robotic Spaceflight

Students Discover Millisecond Pulsar, Help in the Search for Gravitational Waves


A special project to search for pulsars has bagged the first student discovery of a millisecond pulsar – a super-fast spinning star, and this one rotates about 324 times per second. The Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC) has students analyzing real data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to find pulsars. Astronomers involved with the project said the discovery could help detect elusive ripples in spacetime known as gravitational waves.

“Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime predicted by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity,” said Dr. Maura McLaughlin, from West Virginia University. “We have very good proof for their existence but, despite Einstein’s prediction back in the early 1900s, they have never been detected.”

Four other pulsars have been discovered by high school students participating in this project.

Pulsar hunters Sydney Dydiw of Trinity High School, Emily Phan of George C. Marshall High School, Anne Agee of Roanoke Valley Governor's School, and Jessica Pal of Rowan County High School. Not pictured: Max Sterling of Langley High School. Credit: NRAO

“When you discover a pulsar, you feel like you’re walking on air! It is the best experience you can ever have,” said student co-discoverer Jessica Pal of Rowan County High School in Kentucky. “You get to meet astronomers and talk to them about your experience. I still can’t believe I found a pulsar. It is wonderful to know that there is something out there in space that you discovered.”

The other student involved in the discovery was Emily Phan of George C. Marshall High School in Virginia, who along with Pal found the millisecond pulsar on January 17, 2012. It was later confirmed by Max Sterling of Langley High School, Sydney Dydiw of Trinity High School, and Anne Agee of Roanoke Valley Governor’s School, all in Virginia.

“I am considering pursuing astronomy as a career choice,” said Agee. “The Pulsar Search Collaboratory has opened my eyes to how fun astronomy can be!”

Once the pulsar candidate was reported to NRAO, a followup observing session was scheduled on the giant, 17-million-pound telescope. On January 24, 2012, observations confirmed that the pulsar was real.

Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that sling “lighthouse beams” of radio waves around as they rotate. A neutron star is what is left after a massive star explodes at the end of its “normal” life. With no nuclear fuel left to produce energy to offset the stellar remnant’s weight, its material is compressed to extreme densities. The pressure squeezes together most of its protons and electrons to form neutrons; hence, the name “neutron star.” One tablespoon of material from a pulsar would weigh 10 million tons.

On January 24, 2012, observations with the Green Bank Telescope at 800 MHz confirmed that the signal was astronomical and zeroed in on its position. Pulsars are brighter at lower frequencies (like 350 MHz, above) than at higher frequencies, and so the confirmation plot is noisier than the original data. Since this pulsar spins so fast, it may be used as part of the pulsar timing array used to detect gravitational waves. Courtesy NRAO.

The object that the students discovered is a special class of pulsars called millisecond pulsars, which are the fastest-spinning neutron stars. They are highly stable and keep time more accurately than atomic clocks.

Astronomers don’t know much about them, however. But because of their stability, these pulsars may someday allow astronomers to detect gravitational waves.

Millisecond pulsars, however, could hold the key to that discovery. Like buoys bobbing on the ocean, pulsars can be perturbed by gravitational waves.

“Gravitational waves are invisible,” said McLaughlin. “But by timing pulsars distributed across the sky, we may be able to detect very small changes in pulse arrival times due to the influence of these waves.”

Millisecond pulsars are generally older pulsars that have been “spun up” by stealing mass from companion stars, but much is left to discover about their formation.

“This latest discovery will help us understand the genesis of millisecond pulsars,” said Dr. Duncan Lorimer, who is also part of the project. “It’s a very exciting time to be finding pulsars!”

Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope CREDIT: NRAO/AUI/NSF

The PSC is a joint project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and West Virginia University, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The PSC includes training for teachers and student leaders, and provides parcels of data from the GBT to student teams. The project involves teachers and students in helping astronomers analyze data from the GBT.

Approximately 300 hours of the observing data were reserved for analysis by student teams. These students have been working with about 500 other students across the country. The responsibility for the work, and for the discoveries, is theirs. They are trained by astronomers and by their teachers to distinguish between pulsars and noise.

The PSC will continue through the 2012-2013 school year. Teachers interested in participating in the program can learn more at this link. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

New Opportunity for Students to Reach for the Stars and Send an Experiment to the Space Station


A new opportunity is available for students and teachers to be part of history and fly the very first Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) mission to the International Space Station. This program is open to students from any country that is part of the ISS partnership, in grades 5-12 as well as colleges and universities.

This opportunity offers real research done on orbit, with students designing and proposing the experiments to fly to the space station.

“Science is not something that can only be carried out by an elite community of researchers,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, the Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education told Universe Today. “It’s really just organized curiosity, and can be undertaken by anyone. So to inspire our next generation of scientists and engineers, we thought we’d give students an opportunity to do real scientific research on America’s newest National Laboratory – the International Space Station.”

SSEP is a program that launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC, a company that is working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

Two previous SSEP missions flew on the final shuttle flights, but this is the first to be part of the ISS science program.

NanoRacks hopes to stimulate space station research by providing a very low-cost 1 kilogram platform and other hardware that puts micro-gravity projects within the reach of universities and small companies, as well as elementary and secondary schools through SSEP. So, this is actually a commercial space program and not a NASA program.

On the previous SSEP missions with the space shuttles, 1,027 student team proposals were submitted with 27 experiments selected to fly, representing the 27 communities.

“We know even 5th graders can rise to this challenge and amaze us all,” Goldstein said, “and they already proved it on the final two flights of the Space Shuttle.”

The countries that can participate are the US, Canada, Japan and the European nations that are partners in the ISS program.

SSEP Mission 1 to ISS is now open for registration, with participating communities selected no later than September 30, 2012, so this is time critical.

Goldstein noted there are a significant number of resources that make this process straight-forward, including an instructionally designed recipe allowing teachers to easily facilitate the introduction of the program in the classroom, conduct experiment design, and do the proposal writing.

There are five categories of participation:

Pre-College (the core focus for SSEP) in the U.S., (grades 5-12), with a participating school district—even an individual school—providing stunning, real, on-orbit RESEARCH opportunities to their upper elementary, middle, and high school students

2-Year Community Colleges in the U.S., (grades 13-14), where the student body is typically from the local community, providing wonderful pathways for community-wide engagement

4-Year Colleges and Universities in the U.S., (grades 13-16), with an emphasis on Minority-Serving Institutions, where the program fosters interdisciplinary collaboration across schools and departments, and an opportunity for formal workforce development for science majors

Communities in the U.S. led by Informal Education or Out-of-School Organizations, (e.g., a museum or science center, a homeschool network, a boy scout troop), because high caliber STEM education programs must be accessible to organizations that promote effective learning beyond the traditional classroom

Communities in ISS Partner Nations: EU nations, Canada, and Japan with participation through NCESSE’s Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education.

Goldstein said the program is a U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives up to 3,200 students across a community—middle and high school students (grades 5-12), and/or undergraduates the ability to fly their own experiments in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station.

For more information see the SSEP website

Read about the experience of previous SSEP program schools on the space shuttle

Watch a video of Dr. Jeff Goldstein talking about SSEP.

The View from 100,000 Feet

I love these student projects that send a camera via a balloon high in the atmosphere to film the view of Earth below. Here’s another from a group of German students who were able to film in HD from an altitude of more than 100,000 ft. (30,480 meters). Enjoy the music, too.

“Our challenge was to survive ambient air pressures as low as 1/100th of an atmosphere, temperatures as low as -60°C and finally to locate and recover the Camera,” Tobias Lohf wrote UT. “We had a HD-Cam, GPS tracker and a heating pad on board, and all the construction had a total weight of about 1kg.”

The rest of the team included Marcel Dierig, Tobias Stodieck, Tristan Eggers and Marvin Rissiek and they hope to inspire other students to try the same project. “All you need need is a camera, weather balloon and Duct Tape,” they said.