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Wednesday, April 23 2014 @ 01:12 PM CDT

Brought to you by the Arkansas/Oklahoma Astronomical Society.

NASA created the Space Place program to give the public the opportunity to explore the space program's technological advancements and delve into its discoveries. A component of that outreach, the Space Place column is offered to select venues like astronomy associations. The column includes varied topics from all of the areas within NASA -- planetary exploration, of course, but also observing earth from space, and even spinoffs from space.

In addition, The NASA Space Place program has two Web sites aimed at children but equally as fun and educational for adults. We invite you to explore these web sites at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov, or the Spanish version at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/espanol.

In addition, there are fun new projects for kids uploaded every month to our Downloads section. Check them out by clicking here!
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Old Tool, New Use: GPS and the Terrestrial Reference Frame

NASA Space PlaceBy Alex H. Kasprak

  
  
Artistís interpretation of the Jason 2 satellite. To do its job properly, satellites like Jason 2 require as accurate a terrestrial reference frame as possible. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
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Flying over 1300 kilometers above Earth, the Jason 2 satellite knows its distance from the ocean down to a matter of centimeters, allowing for the creation of detailed maps of the oceanís surface. This information is invaluable to oceanographers and climate scientists. By understanding the oceanís complex topography — its barely perceptible hills and troughs — these scientists can monitor the pace of sea level rise, unravel the intricacies of ocean currents, and project the effects of future climate change.

But these measurements would be useless if there were not some frame of reference to put them in context. A terrestrial reference frame, ratified by an international group of scientists, serves that purpose. “Itís a lot like air,” says JPL scientist Jan Weiss. “Itís all around us and is vitally important, but people donít really think about it.” Creating such a frame of reference is more of a challenge than you might think, though. No point on the surface of Earth is truly fixed.

To create a terrestrial reference frame, you need to know the distance between as many points as possible. Two methods help achieve that goal. Very-long baseline interferometry uses multiple radio antennas to monitor the signal from something very far away in space, like a quasar. The distance between the antennas can be calculated based on tiny changes in the time it takes the signal to reach them. Satellite laser ranging, the second method, bounces lasers off of satellites and measures the two-way travel time to calculate distance between ground stations.

Weiss and his colleagues would like to add a third method into the mix — GPS. At the moment, GPS measurements are used only to tie together the points created by very long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging together, not to directly calculate a terrestrial reference frame.

“There hasnít been a whole lot of serious effort to include GPS directly,” says Weiss. His goal is to show that GPS can be used to create a terrestrial reference frame on its own. “The thing about GPS thatís different from very-long baseline interferometry and satellite laser ranging is that you donít need complex and expensive infrastructure and can deploy many stations all around the world.”

Feeding GPS data directly into the calculation of a terrestrial reference frame could lead to an even more accurate and cost effective way to reference points geospatially. This could be good news for missions like Jason 2. Slight errors in the terrestrial reference frame can create significant errors where precise measurements are required. GPS stations could prove to be a vital and untapped resource in the quest to create the most accurate terrestrial reference frame possible. “The thing about GPS,” says Weiss, “is that you are just so data rich when compared to these other techniques.”

You can learn more about NASAís efforts to create an accurate terrestrial reference frame here: http://space-geodesy.nasa.gov/.

Kids can learn all about GPS by visiting http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps and watching a fun animation about finding pizza here: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/gps-pizza.
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Surprising Young Stars in the Oldest Places in the Universe

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Globular Cluster NGC 6397. Credit: ESA & Francesco Ferraro (Bologna Astronomical Observatory) / NASA, Hubble Space Telescope, WFPC2.
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Littered among the stars in our night sky are the famed deep-sky objects. These range from extended spiral and elliptical galaxies millions or even billions of light years away to the star clusters, nebulae, and stellar remnants strewn throughout our own galaxy. But there's an intermediate class of objects, too: the globular star clusters, self-contained clusters of stars found in spherically-distributed halos around each galaxy.

Back before there were any stars or galaxies in the universe, it was an expanding, cooling sea of matter and radiation containing regions where the matter was slightly more dense in some places than others. While gravity worked to pull more and more matter into these places, the pressure from radiation pushed back, preventing the gravitational collapse of gas clouds below a certain mass. In the young universe, this meant no clouds smaller than around a few hundred thousand times the mass of our Sun could collapse. This coincides with a globular cluster's typical mass, and their stars are some of the oldest in the universe!

These compact, spherical collections of stars are all less than 100 light-years in radius, but typically have around 100,000 stars inside them, making them nearly 100 times denser than our neighborhood of the Milky Way! The vast majority of globular clusters have extremely few heavy elements (heavier than helium), as little as 1% of what we find in our Sun. There's a good reason for this: our Sun is only 4.5 billion years old and has seen many generations of stars live-and-die, while globular clusters (and the stars inside of them) are often over 13 billion years old, or more than 90% the age of the universe! When you look inside one of these cosmic collections, you're looking at some of the oldest stellar swarms in the known universe.

Yet when you look at a high-resolution image of these relics from the early universe, you'll find a sprinkling of hot, massive, apparently young blue stars! Is there a stellar fountain of youth inside? Kind of! These massive stellar swarms are so dense — especially towards the center — that mergers, mass siphoning and collisions between stars are quite common. When two long-lived, low-mass stars interact in these ways, they produce a hotter, bluer star that will be much shorter lived, known as a blue straggler star. First discovered by Allan Sandage in 1953, these young-looking stars arise thanks to stellar cannibalism. So enjoy the brightest and bluest stars in these globular clusters, found right alongside the oldest known stars in the universe!

Learn about a recent globular cluster discovery here: http://www.nasa.gov/press/2013/september/hubble-uncovers-largest-known-group-of-star-clusters-clues-to-dark-matter.

Kids can learn more about how stars work by listening to The Space Placeís own Dr. Marc: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/podcasts/en/#stars.
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The most volcanically active place is out-of-this-world!

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Io. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech, via the Galileo spacecraft.
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Volcanoes are some of the most powerful and destructive natural phenomena, yet they're a vital part of shaping the planetary landscape of worlds small and large. Here on Earth, the largest of the rocky bodies in our Solar System, there's a tremendous source of heat coming from our planet's interior, from a mix of gravitational contraction and heavy, radioactive elements decaying. Our planet consistently outputs a tremendous amount of energy from this process, nearly three times the global power production from all sources of fuel. Because the surface-area-to-mass ratio of our planet (like all large rocky worlds) is small, that energy has a hard time escaping, building-up and releasing sporadically in catastrophic events: volcanoes and earthquakes!

Yet volcanoes occur on worlds that you might never expect, like the tiny moon Io, orbiting Jupiter. With just 1.5% the mass of Earth despite being more than one quarter of the Earth's diameter, Io seems like an unlikely candidate for volcanoes, as 4.5 billion years is more than enough time for it to have cooled and become stable. Yet Io is anything but stable, as an abundance of volcanic eruptions were predicted before we ever got a chance to view it up close. When the Voyager 1 spacecraft visited, it found no impact craters on Io, but instead hundreds of volcanic calderas, including actual eruptions with plumes 300 kilometers high! Subsequently, Voyager 2, Galileo, and a myriad of telescope observations found that these eruptions change rapidly on Io's surface.

Where does the energy for all this come from? From the combined tidal forces exerted by Jupiter and the outer Jovian moons. On Earth, the gravity from the Sun and Moon causes the ocean tides to raise-and-lower by one-to-two meters, on average, far too small to cause any heating. Io has no oceans, yet the tidal forces acting on it cause the world itself to stretch and bend by an astonishing 100 meters at a time! This causes not only cracking and fissures, but also heats up the interior of the planet, the same way that rapidly bending a piece of metal back-and-forth causes it to heat up internally. When a path to the surface opens up, that internal heat escapes through quiescent lava flows and catastrophic volcanic eruptions! The hottest spots on Io's surface reach 1,200°C (2,000°F); compared to the average surface temperature of 110 Kelvin (-163°C / -261°F), Io is home to the most extreme temperature differences from location-to-location outside of the Sun.

Just by orbiting where it does, Io gets distorted, heats up, and erupts, making it the most volcanically active world in the entire Solar System! Other moons around gas giants have spectacular eruptions, too (like Enceladus around Saturn), but no world has its surface shaped by volcanic activity quite like Jupiter's innermost moon, Io!

Learn more about Galileoís mission to Jupiter: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/.

Kids can explore the many volcanoes of our solar system using the Space Placeís Space Volcano Explorer: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/volcanoes.
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How to hunt for your very own supernova!

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
SN 2013ai, via its discoverer, Emmanuel Conseil, taken with the Slooh.com robotic telescope just a few days after its emergence in NGC 2207 (top); NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI) of the same interacting galaxies prior to the supernova (bottom).
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In our day-to-day lives, stars seem like the most fixed and unchanging of all the night sky objects. Shining relentlessly and constantly for billions of years, it's only the long-term motion of these individual nuclear furnaces and our own motion through the cosmos that results in the most minute, barely-perceptible changes.

Unless, that is, you're talking about a star reaching the end of its life. A star like our Sun will burn through all the hydrogen in its core after approximately 10 billion years, after which the core contracts and heats up, and the heavier element helium begins to fuse. About a quarter of all stars are massive enough that they'll reach this giant stage, but the most massive ones — only about 0.1% of all stars — will continue to fuse leaner elements past carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulphur and all the way up to iron, cobalt, and, nickel in their core. For the rare ultra-massive stars that make it this far, their cores become so massive that they're unstable against gravitational collapse. When they run out of fuel, the core implodes.

The inrushing matter approaches the center of the star, then rebounds and bounces outwards, creating a shockwave that eventually causes what we see as a core-collapse supernova, the most common type of supernova in the Universe! These occur only a few times a century in most galaxies, but because it's the most massive, hottest, shortest-lived stars that create these core-collapse supernovae, we can increase our odds of finding one by watching the most actively star-forming galaxies very closely. Want to maximize your chances of finding one for yourself? Here's how.

Pick a galaxy in the process of a major merger, and get to know it. Learn where the foreground stars are, where the apparent bright spots are, what its distinctive features are. If a supernova occurs, it will appear first as a barely perceptible bright spot that wasn't there before, and it will quickly brighten over a few nights. If you find what appears to be a “new star” in one of these galaxies and it checks out, report it immediately; you just might have discovered a new supernova!

This is one of the few cutting-edge astronomical discoveries well-suited to amateurs; Australian Robert Evans holds the all-time record with 42 (and counting) original supernova discoveries. If you ever find one for yourself, you'll have seen an exploding star whose light traveled millions of light-years across the Universe right to you, and you'll be the very first person who's ever seen it!

Read more about the evolution and ultimate fate of the stars in our universe: http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/how-do-stars-form-and-evolve/.

While you are out looking for supernovas, kids can have a blast finding constellations using the Space Place star finder: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/starfinder/.
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Size Does Matter, But So Does Dark Energy

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Digital mosaic of infrared light (courtesy of Spitzer) and visible light (SDSS) of the Coma Cluster, the largest member of the Coma Supercluster. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Goddard Space Flight Center / Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
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Here in our own galactic backyard, the Milky Way contains some 200-400 billion stars, and that's not even the biggest galaxy in our own local group. Andromeda (M31) is even bigger and more massive than we are, made up of around a trillion stars! When you throw in the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the dozens of dwarf galaxies and hundreds of globular clusters gravitationally bound to us and our nearest neighbors, our local group sure does seem impressive.

Yet that's just chicken feed compared to the largest structures in the universe. Giant clusters and superclusters of galaxies, containing thousands of times the mass of our entire local group, can be found omnidirectionally with telescope surveys. Perhaps the two most famous examples are the nearby Virgo Cluster and the somewhat more distant Coma Supercluster, the latter containing more than 3,000 galaxies. There are millions of giant clusters like this in our observable universe, and the gravitational forces at play are absolutely tremendous: there are literally quadrillions of times the mass of our Sun in these systems.

The largest superclusters line up along filaments, forming a great cosmic web of structure with huge intergalactic voids in between the galaxy-rich regions. These galaxy filaments span anywhere from hundreds of millions of light-years all the way up to more than a billion light years in length. The CfA2 Great Wall, the Sloan Great Wall, and most recently, the Huge-LQG (Large Quasar Group) are the largest known ones, with the Huge-LQG -- a group of at least 73 quasars Ė apparently stretching nearly 4 billion light years in its longest direction: more than 5% of the observable universe! With more mass than a million Milky Way galaxies in there, this structure is a puzzle for cosmology.

You see, with the normal matter, dark matter, and dark energy in our universe, there's an upper limit to the size of gravitationally bound filaments that should form. The Huge-LQG, if real, is more than double the size of that largest predicted structure, and this could cast doubts on the core principle of cosmology: that on the largest scales, the universe is roughly uniform everywhere. But this might not pose a problem at all, thanks to an unlikely culprit: dark energy. Just as the local group is part of the Virgo Supercluster but recedes from it, and the Leo Cluster -- a large member of the Coma Supercluster -- is accelerating away from Coma, it's conceivable that the Huge-LQG isn't a single, bound structure at all, but will eventually be driven apart by dark energy. Either way, we're just a tiny drop in the vast cosmic ocean, on the outskirts of its rich, yet barely fathomable depths.

Learn about the many ways in which NASA strives to uncover the mysteries of the universe: http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/. Kids can make their own clusters of galaxies by checking out The Space Placeís fun galactic mobile activity: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/galactic-mobile/
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Inventing Astrophotography: Capturing Light Over Time

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
Great Nebula in Andromeda, the first-ever photograph of another galaxy. Image credit: Isaac Roberts, taken December 29, 1888, published in A Selection of Photographs of Stars, Star-clusters and Nebulae, Volume II, The Universal Press, London, 1899.
We know that itís a vast Universe out there, with our Milky Way representing just one drop in a cosmic ocean filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. Yet if youíve ever looked through a telescope with your own eyes, unless that telescope was many feet in diameter, youíve probably never seen a galaxyís spiral structure for yourself. In fact, the very closest large galaxy to us — Andromeda, M31 — wasnít discovered to be a spiral until 1888, despite being clearly visible to the naked eye! This crucial discovery wasnít made at one of the worldís great observatories, with a world-class telescope, or even by a professional astronomer; it was made by a humble amateur to whom we all owe a great scientific debt.

Beginning in 1845, with the unveiling of Lord Rosseís 6-foot (1.8 m) aperture telescope, several of the nebulae catalogued by Messier, Herschel and others were discovered to contain an internal spiral structure. The extreme light-gathering power afforded by this new telescope allowed us, for the first time, to see these hitherto undiscovered cosmic constructions. But there was another possible path to such a discovery: rather than collecting vast amounts of light through a giant aperture, you could collect it over time, through the newly developed technology of photography. During the latter half of the 19th Century, the application of photography to astronomy allowed us to better understand the Sunís corona, the spectra of stars, and to discover stellar and nebulous features too faint to be seen with the human eye.

Working initially with a 7-inch refractor that was later upgraded to a 20-inch reflector, amateur astronomer Isaac Roberts pioneered a number of astrophotography techniques in the early 1880s, including “piggybacking,” where his camera/lens system was attached to a larger, equatorially-mounted guide scope, allowing for longer exposure times than ever before. By mounting photographic plates directly at the reflectorís prime focus, he was able to completely avoid the light-loss inherent with secondary mirrors. His first photographs were displayed in 1886, showing vast extensions to the known reaches of nebulosity in the Pleiades star cluster and the Orion Nebula.

But his greatest achievement was this 1888 photograph of the Great Nebula in Andromeda, which we now know to be the first-ever photograph of another galaxy, and the first spiral ever discovered that was oriented closer to edge-on (as opposed to face-on) with respect to us. Over a century later, Andromeda looks practically identical, a testament to the tremendous scales involved when considering galaxies. If you can photograph it, youíll see for yourself!

Astrophotography has come a long way, as apparent in the Space Place collection of NASA stars and galaxies posters at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/posters/#stars.
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High-energy Spy

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Martin C. Weisskopf

  
  
Composite image of DEM L50, a so-called superbubble found in the Large Magellanic Cloud. X-ray data from Chandra is pink, while optical data is red, green, and blue. Superbubbles are created by winds from massive stars and the shock waves produced when the stars explode as supernovas.
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The idea for the Chandra X-Ray Observatory was born only one year after Riccardo Giacconi discovered the first celestial X-ray source other than the Sun. In 1962, he used a sounding rocket to place the experiment above the atmosphere for a few minutes. The sounding rocket was necessary because the atmosphere blocks X-rays. If you want to look at X-ray emissions from objects like stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, your instrument must get above the atmosphere.

Giacconiís idea was to launch a large diameter (about 1 meter) telescope to bring X-rays to a focus. He wanted to investigate the hazy glow of X-rays that could be seen from all directions throughout the sounding rocket flight. He wanted to find out whether this glow was, in fact, made up of many point-like objects. That is, was the glow actually from millions of X-ray sources in the Universe. Except for the brightest sources from nearby neighbors, the rocket instrument could not distinguish objects within the glow.

Giacconiís vision and the promise and importance of X-ray astronomy was borne out by many sounding rocket flights and, later satellite experiments, all of which provided years-, as opposed to minutes-, worth of data.

By 1980, we knew that X-ray sources exist within all classes of astronomical objects. In many cases, this discovery was completely unexpected. For example, that first source turned out to be a very small star in a binary system with a more normal star. The vast amount of energy needed to produce the X-rays was provided by gravity, which, because of the small starís mass (about equal to the Sunís) and compactness (about 10 km in diameter) would accelerate particles transferred from the normal star to X-ray emitting energies. In 1962, who knew such compact stars (in this case a neutron star) even existed, much less this energy transfer mechanism?

X-ray astronomy grew in importance to the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. The National Academy of Sciences, as part of its “Decadal Survey” released in 1981, recommended as its number one priority for large missions an X-ray observatory along the lines that Giacconi outlined in 1963. This observatory was eventually realized as the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which launched in 1999.

The Chandra Project is built around a high-resolution X-ray telescope capable of sharply focusing X-rays onto two different X-ray-sensitive cameras. The focusing ability is of the caliber such that one could resolve an X-ray emitting dime at a distance of about 5 kilometers! The building of this major scientific observatory has many stories.

Learn more about Chandra at www.science.nasa.gov/missions/chandra . Take kids on a “Trip to the Land of the Magic Windows” and see the universe in X-rays and other invisible wavelengths of light at spaceplace.nasa.gov/magic-windows.

Dr. Weisskopf is project scientist for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Triple Treat

NASA Space PlaceBy Dr. Ethan Siegel

  
  
The image shows the configuration of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter in the western sky just after sunset on May 26, 2013. Insets show the relative size appearance of the planets on that date.
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The solar system is a busy place, with five wandering planets visible to the naked eye alone. When any two pass close by each other from our point of view, we see an astronomical conjunction, but on very rare occasions, three planets will find themselves grouped together: a triple conjunction. Towards the end of May, Mercury, Venus and Jupiter will treat us to the best triple conjunction in years.

On May 25th, Mercury will pass within 1.4° of Venus, then two days later Mercury comes within 2.4° of Jupiter, and finally on the 28th, Jupiter and Venus approach within 1° of one another. If it werenít for the slight orbital tilt of our solar systemís planetary orbits, these conjunctions would all be occultations instead. During the nights of May 26th-27th, all three planets are visible immediately after sunset within the same 3° field of view, with the triple conjunction peaking in a triangular shape on the 26th. (For scale, the full Moon subtends about 1/2°.) The three planets appear close together for a few days more, making a line in the sky on the 30th/31st.

How does this happen? Mercury and Venus race around the Sun far faster than Earth, with Mercury completing more than four revolutions around the Sun for each one that Earth makes. At the same time, Jupiter is far slower, taking 12 years to orbit just once around the Sun. Jupiterís been high in the sky during the early parts of the night, but steadily lowers throughout May as Earth continues to move away from it, approaching its maximum distance from Earth. Mercury and Venus, meanwhile, begin to move out from behind the Sun during May: Venus at the beginning of the month and Mercury in the middle.

Thus, during this triple conjunction, all three planets will be on the far side of the Sun, something that happens just 25% of the time in triple conjunctions involving Mercury and Venus! If you telescopically resolve these planets into disks, youíll see our inner worlds in a nearly-full gibbous phase. Jupiter will appear largest in terms of angular diameter, followed by Venus and lastly by Mercury. Just a year ago, during its now-famous transit, Venus took up more than a full arc-minute in the sky; during this conjunction, it will just one-sixth that angular size and less than a third the apparent diameter of Jupiter. Nevertheless, Venus will still be more than six times as bright as Jupiter during this time, outshining all night-sky objects other than the Moon. Closer conjunctions of two naked-eye planets are frequent, but getting three or more like this happens just once or twice per decade, so donít miss your chance to see it.

And speaking of occultations, The Space Place has a great kid-friendly explanation of the Venus transit and solar eclipses of 2012 at spaceplace.nasa.gov/venus-transit.

Dr. Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist, is a professor at the University of Portland (OR) and Lewis & Clark College.
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Exploring the Water World

NASA Space PlaceBy Diane K. Fisher

  
  
This image from September 2012, shows that the Arctic sea is the smallest recorded since record keeping began in 1979. This image is from NASAís Scientific Visualization Studio at Goddard Space Flight Center.
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In some ways, we know more about Mars, Venus and the Moon than we know about Earth. Thatís because 70% of our solar systemís watery blue planet is hidden under its ocean. The ocean contains about 98% of all the water on Earth. In total volume, it makes up more than 99% of the space inhabited by living creatures on the planet.

As dominant a feature as it is, the ocean — at least below a few tens of meters deep — is an alien world most of us seldom contemplate. But perhaps we should.

The ocean stores heat like a “fly wheel” for climate. Its huge capacity as a heat and water reservoir moderates the climate of Earth. Within this Earth system, both the physical and biological processes of the ocean play a key role in the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and climate variability.

This great reservoir continuously exchanges heat, moisture, and carbon with the atmosphere, driving our weather patterns and influencing the slow, subtle changes in our climate.

The study of Earth and its ocean is a big part of NASAís mission. Before satellites, the information we had about the ocean was pretty much “hit or miss,” with the only data collectors being ships, buoys, and instruments set adrift on the waves.

Now ocean-observing satellites measure surface topography, currents, waves, and winds. They monitor the health of phytoplankton, which live in the surface layer of the ocean and supply half the oxygen in the atmosphere. Satellites monitor the extent of Arctic sea ice so we can compare this important parameter with that of past years. Satellites also measure rainfall, the amount of sunlight reaching the sea, the temperature of the oceanís surface, and even its salinity!

Using remote sensing data and computer models, scientists can now investigate how the oceans affect the evolution of weather, hurricanes, and climate. In just a few months, one satellite can collect more information about the ocean than all the ships and buoys in the world have collected over the past 100 years!

NASAís Earth Science Division has launched many missions to planet Earth. These satellites and other studies all help us understand how the atmosphere, the ocean, the land and life — including humans — all interact together.

Find out more about NASAís ocean studies at http://science.nasa.gov/earth-science/oceanography. Kids will have fun exploring our planet at The Space Place, http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/earth.

This article was written by Diane K. Fisher and provided through the courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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The Art of Space Imagery

NASA Space PlaceBy Diane K. Fisher

  
  
This image of M101 combines images from four different telescopes, each detecting a different part of the spectrum. Red indicates infrared information from Spitzerís 24-micron detector, and shows the cool dust in the galaxy. Yellow shows the visible starlight from the Hubble telescope. Cyan is ultraviolet light from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer space telescope, which shows the hottest and youngest stars. And magenta is X-ray energy detected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, indicating incredibly hot activity, like accretion around black holes.
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When you see spectacular space images taken in infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope and other non-visible-light telescopes, you may wonder where those beautiful colors came from? After all, if the telescopes were recording infrared or ultraviolet light, we wouldnít see anything at all. So are the images “colorized” or “false colored”?

No, not really. The colors are translated. Just as a foreign language can be translated into our native language, an image made with light that falls outside the range of our seeing can be “translated” into colors we can see. Scientists process these images so they can not only see them, but they can also tease out all sorts of information the light can reveal. For example, wisely done color translation can reveal relative temperatures of stars, dust, and gas in the images, and show fine structural details of galaxies and nebulae.

Spitzerís Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), for example, is a four-channel camera, meaning that it has four different detector arrays, each measuring light at one particular wavelength. Each image from each detector array resembles a grayscale image, because the entire detector array is responding to only one wavelength of light. However, the relative brightness will vary across the array.

So, starting with one detector array, the first step is to determine what is the brightest thing and the darkest thing in the image. Software is used to pick out this dynamic range and to re-compute the value of each pixel. This process produces a grey-scale image. At the end of this process, for Spitzer, we will have four grayscale images, one for each for the four IRAC detectors.

Matter of different temperatures emit different wavelengths of light. A cool object emits longer wavelengths (lower energies) of light than a warmer object. So, for each scene, we will see four grayscale images, each of them different.

Normally, the three primary colors are assigned to these gray-scale images based on the order they appear in the spectrum, with blue assigned to the shortest wavelength, and red to the longest. In the case of Spitzer, with four wavelengths to represent, a secondary color is chosen, such as yellow. So images that combine all four of the IRACís infrared detectors are remapped into red, yellow, green, and blue wavelengths in the visible part of the spectrum.

Download a new Spitzer poster of the center of the Milky Way. On the back is a more complete and colorfully-illustrated explanation of the “art of space imagery.” Go to spaceplace.nasa.gov/posters/#milky-way.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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