Sunday, June 29, 2014

IRIS Solar Observatory Celebrates First Year

Friday marked the first year on orbit for NASA's newest solar observatory. On June 27, 2013, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) was launched into Earth orbit. IRIS, observes the low level of the sun's atmosphere -- a constantly moving area called the interface region -- in better detail than has ever been done before.

This combined image shows the March 29, 2014, X-class flare as seen through the eyes of different observatories. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is on the bottom/left, which helps show the position of the flare on the sun. The darker orange square is IRIS data. The red rectangular inset is from Sacramento Peak. The violet spots show the flare's footpoints from RHESSI. Image Credit: NASA/IRIS/LMSAL/Duberstein

During its first year in space, IRIS provided detailed images of the interface region, finding even more turbulence and complexity than expected. The interface region lies at the core of many outstanding questions about the sun's atmosphere, such as how solar material in the corona reaches millions of degrees, several thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun itself, or how the sun creates giant explosions like solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The interface region is also where most of the ultraviolet emission is generated that impacts the near-Earth space environment and Earth’s climate.

In its first year, IRIS witnessed dozens of solar flares, including one X-class flare, and the foot points of a coronal mass ejection, or CME. IRIS must commit to pointing at certain sections of the sun at least a day in advance, so catching these eruptions in the act involves educated guesses and a little bit of luck.

The IRIS instrument captures two kinds of data on all its observations: IRIS collects both images of the sun and a kind of data called spectra. A spectrograph splits the light from a given point on the sun into its discrete wavelengths – a technique that ultimately allows scientists to measure temperature, velocity and density of the solar material behind the slit. When looking at the onset of a flare or at the foot points of a CME, therefore, scientists can parse out how the material moves, and shed light on what causes these eruptions.

The spectra are a crucial tool in the IRIS arsenal to understand the interface region. The solar material there is relatively dense and giant swaths of material roil up and down. Figuring out how the material moves and heats up provides information about how energy courses through the region, changing along the way between heat, movement and magnetic energy. One of the first science papers published with IRIS data used these spectra to provide unique, faster-than-ever characterization of how solar material in sunspots follows a repeated pattern of quick heating while accelerating upward, followed by an even faster rebound downward. This oscillation has been seen before, but never with the quick time cadence that is IRIS' hallmark.

Scientists are in the process of analyzing the data from IRIS's first year, and will have more results to share shortly. The prime mission lasts until summer 2015. Lockheed Martin’s Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory, Palo Alto, California, designed and manages the mission. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built the telescope. Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. helped design the spectrograph. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, provides mission operations and ground data systems. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the Small Explorer Program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. The Norwegian Space Centre provides regular downlinks of science data. Other contributors include the University of Oslo and Stanford University in Stanford, California.

To learn more about NASA's IRIS mission, visit: http://iris.gsfc.nasa.gov/
 

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LDSD Test #1 Initial Results Announced

NASA held a media teleconference this morning to discuss yesterday’s near-space test flight of the agency's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), which took place off the coast of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. The events of the test were recounted.

LDSD Test Vehicle #1, retrieved from the Pacific Ocean following its test on June 28 2014. The deflated, tan-colored SIAD can be seen extending beyond the frame of the test vehicle. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A high-altitude balloon launch occurred at 8:45 a.m. HST (11:45 a.m. PDT/2:45 p.m. EDT) from the Hawaiian island facility. At 11:05 a.m. HST (2:05 p.m. PDT/5:05 p.m. EDT), the LDSD test vehicle dropped away from the balloon as planned and began powered flight. The balloon and test vehicle were about 120,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean at the time of the drop. The vehicle splashed down in the ocean at approximately 11:35 a.m. HST (2:35 p.m. PDT/5:35 p.m. EDT), after the engineering test flight concluded. The test vehicle hardware, black box data recorder and parachute were all recovered later in the day.

"We are thrilled about yesterday's test," said Mark Adler, project manager for LDSD at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "The test vehicle worked beautifully, and we met all of our flight objectives. We have recovered all the vehicle hardware and data recorders and will be able to apply all of the lessons learned from this information to our future flights."

This test was the first of three planned for the LDSD project, developed to evaluate new landing technologies for future Mars missions. While this initial test was designed to determine the flying ability of the vehicle, it also deployed two new landing technologies as a bonus. Those landing technologies will be officially tested in the next two flights, involving clones of the saucer-shaped vehicle.

"Because our vehicle flew so well, we had the chance to earn 'extra credit' points with the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator [SIAD]," said Ian Clark, principal investigator for LDSD at JPL. "All indications are that the SIAD deployed flawlessly, and because of that, we got the opportunity to test the second technology, the enormous supersonic parachute, which is almost a year ahead of schedule."

The Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD) is a large, doughnut-shaped first deceleration technology that deployed during the flight. The second is an enormous parachute (the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute). Imagery downlinked in real-time from the test vehicle indicates that the parachute did not deploy as expected, and the team is still analyzing data on the parachute so that lessons learned can be applied for the next test flights, scheduled for early in 2015.

In order to get larger payloads to Mars, and to pave the way for future human explorers, cutting-edge technologies like LDSD are critical. Among other applications, this new space technology will enable delivery of the supplies and materials needed for long-duration missions to the Red Planet.

"This entire effort was just fantastic work by the whole team and is a proud moment for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate," said Dorothy Rasco, deputy associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This flight reminds us why NASA takes on hard technical problems, and why we test - to learn and build the tools we will need for the future of space exploration. Technology drives exploration, and yesterday's flight is a perfect example of the type of technologies we are developing to explore our solar system."

NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate funds the LDSD mission, a cooperative effort led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA's Technology Demonstration Mission program manages LDSD at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, coordinated support with the Pacific Missile Range Facility and provided the balloon systems for the LDSD test.

For more information about the LDSD space technology demonstration mission, visit:
http://go.usa.gov/kzZQ

For more information about the Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/spacetech

The follow-along page from the media teleconference can be found at: http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/ldsd/telecon2014/
 

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

LDSD Test #1 Complete. Results Pending.

NASA has reported that at approximately 5:05pm EDT today, the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) test vehicle successfully dropped from its balloon. The initial indications are that its rockets fired as expected. A news teleconference is scheduled for tomorrow, June 29, at 7 a.m. HST (10 a.m. PDT, 1 p.m. EDT) to discuss the test flight.

The balloon launch occurred at 8:45 a.m. HST (11:45 a.m. PDT/2:45 p.m. EDT) from the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. At 11:05 a.m. HST (2:05 p.m. PDT/5:05 p.m. EDT), the test vehicle dropped away from the balloon (as planned), and powered flight began. The balloon and test vehicle were about 120,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean at the time of the drop. The vehicle splashed down in the ocean at approximately 11:35 a.m. HST (2:35 p.m. PDT/5:35 p.m. EDT), after the engineering test flight concluded.

This test was the first of three planned for the LDSD project, developed to evaluate new landing technologies for future Mars missions. While this initial test was designed to determine the flying ability of the vehicle, it also deployed two new landing technologies as a bonus. Those landing technologies will be officially tested in the next two flights, involving clones of the saucer-shaped vehicle.

Initial indications are that the vehicle successfully flew its flight test profile as planned, and deployed the two landing technologies. The first is a doughnut-shaped tube called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD), with early indications that it deployed as expected. The second is an enormous parachute (the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute). Imagery downlinked in real-time from the test vehicle indicates that the parachute did not deploy as expected.

In order to get larger payloads to Mars, and to pave the way for future human explorers, cutting-edge technologies like LDSD are critical. Among other applications, this new space technology will enable delivery of the supplies and materials needed for long-duration missions to the Red Planet.

The upper layers of Earth's stratosphere are the most similar environment available to match the properties of the thin atmosphere of Mars. The LDSD mission developed this test method to ensure the best prospects for effective testing of the new and improved technologies.

Media and the public may listen online at: http://www.nasa.gov/news/media/newsaudio

NASA's LDSD program is part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing and flying hardware for use in NASA's future missions.


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Watch NASA's LDSD Test Live!

After a series of weather delays, NASA will attempt to launch the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) into Earth's atmosphere today to test technology that could be used to land on Mars.

A balloon carrying the LDSD test vehicle is scheduled to lift off today from its pad at the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. The vehicle, which resembles a flying saucer, is designed to test landing technologies for future Mars missions.

Click here to watch live: http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2

This first of three LDSD flights will determine the flying qualities of the test vehicle. As a bonus, the flight plan also includes deployment of two new technologies -- an inflatable device and mammoth parachute. However, those landing technologies are not officially scheduled to be tested until next summer, in two additional LDSD flights.

The above chart gives an overview of the first planned test of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After liftoff, the balloon carrying the LDSD test vehicle will slowly float upward, taking several hours to reach an altitude of 120,000 feet (36,600 meters). At that point, the balloon will release the vehicle and its rocket will kick in, boosting the craft to an altitude of 180,000 feet (54,900 meters).

When the test vehicle reaches 180,000 feet and is traveling at about Mach 3.8, it will deploy the first of the new technologies, a doughnut-shaped tube called the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD). The SIAD decelerates the test vehicle to approximately Mach 2.5. The test vehicle will then deploy a mammoth parachute (the Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute), which will carry it safely to a controlled water impact about 40 minutes after being dropped from the balloon.

The website will be updated as event milestones occur, at the top of the page. More information on LDSD is online at: http://go.usa.gov/kzZQ

NASA's LDSD program is part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing and flying hardware for use in NASA's future missions.


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Cassini: Ten Years at Saturn and Counting

This coming Monday will mark a decade since a bus-sized robotic traveler from Earth first soared over the icy rings of Saturn and fired its engines to fall into orbit. On June 30, the Cassini mission will celebrate 10 years of exploring the planet, its rings and moons.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Cassini spacecraft, carrying the European Space Agency's Huygens probe, arrived in the Saturn system on June 30, 2004, for a four-year primary mission. Since 2008, NASA has granted the mission three extensions, allowing scientists an unprecedented opportunity to observe seasonal changes as the planet and its retinue completed one-third of their nearly 30-year-long trek around the sun.

"Having a healthy, long-lived spacecraft at Saturn has afforded us a precious opportunity," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life."

After 10 years at Saturn, Cassini has beamed back to Earth hundreds of gigabytes of scientific data, enabling the publication of more than 3,000 scientific reports. Representing just a sampling, 10 of Cassini's top accomplishments and discoveries are:

  • The Huygens probe makes first landing on a moon in the outer solar system (Titan)
  • Discovery of active, icy plumes on the Saturnian moon Enceladus
  • Saturn's rings revealed as active and dynamic -- a laboratory for how planets form
  • Titan revealed as an Earth-like world with rain, rivers, lakes and seas
  • Studies of Saturn's great northern storm of 2010-2011
  • Studies reveal radio-wave patterns are not tied to Saturn's interior rotation, as previously thought
  • Vertical structures in the rings imaged for the first time
  • Study of prebiotic chemistry on Titan
  • Mystery of the dual, bright-dark surface of the moon Iapetus solved
  • First complete view of the north polar hexagon and discovery of giant hurricanes at both of Saturn's poles


"It's incredibly difficult to sum up 10 extraordinary years of discovery in a short list, but it's an interesting exercise to think about what the mission will be best remembered for many years in the future," Spilker said.
Further details about each of these discoveries are available at: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/cassinifeatures/10thannivdiscoveries/

In celebration of the 10th anniversary, members of the Cassini team selected some of their favorite images for a gallery, describing in their own words what makes the images special to them. The gallery is available at: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/cassinifeatures/10thannivimages/

While Cassini was originally approved for a four-year study of the Saturn system, the project's engineers and scientists had high hopes that the mission might carry on longer, and designed the system for endurance. The spacecraft has been remarkably trouble-free, and from an engineering standpoint, the main limiting factor for Cassini's lifetime now is how much propellant is left in its tanks. The mission owes a great deal of its longevity to skillful and efficient piloting by the mission's navigation and operations teams.

"Our team has done a fantastic job optimizing trajectories to save propellant, and we've learned to operate the spacecraft to get the most out of it that we possibly can," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. "We're proud to celebrate a decade of exploring Saturn, and we look forward to many discoveries still to come."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Get more information about Cassini at the following sites:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov



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