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Stardust Up Close

NASA Space Placeby Patrick L. Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

The Stardust spacecraft used a grid holding aerogel to capture dust particles from comet Wild 2. In this test, high velocity dust particles are stopped unharmed at the end of cone shaped tracks in a sample of aerogel.
Like discarded lumber and broken bricks around a construction site, comets scattered at the edge of our solar system are left-over bits from the "construction" of our solar system.

Studying comets, then, can help scientists understand how our solar system formed, and how it gave rise to a life-bearing planet like Earth.

But comets have long been frustratingly out of reach -- until recently. In January 2004 NASA's Stardust probe made a fly-by of the comet Wild 2 (pronounced "vilt"). This fly-by captured some of the best images and data on comets yet ... and the most surprising.

Scientists had thought that comets were basically "rubble piles" of ice and dust -- leftover "construction materials" held together by the comet's feeble gravity. But that's not what Stardust found. Photos of Wild 2 reveal a bizarre landscape of odd-shaped craters, tall cliffs, and overhangs. The comet looks like an alien world in miniature, not construction debris. To support these shapes against the pull of gravity, the comet must have a different consistency than scientists thought:

"Now we think the comet's surface might have a texture like freeze-dried ice cream, so-called 'astronaut ice cream': It's solid and can assume odd, gravity-defying shapes, but it's basically soft and crumbles easily," says Donald Brownlee of the University of Washington, principal investigator for Stardust.

Scientists are currently assembling a 3-D computer model of this surface from the photos that Stardust took. Those photos show the sunlit side of the comet from many angles, so its 3-dimensional shape can be inferred by analyzing the images. The result will be a "virtual comet" that scientists can examine from any angle. They can even perform a virtual fly-by. Using this 3-D model to study the comet's shape in detail, the scientists will learn a lot about the material from which the comet is made: how strong or dense or brittle it is, for example.
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Antennas, Designed by Darwin

NASA Space Placeby Patrick L. Barry

Enlarge Photo
Who in their right mind would design this bizarre-looking antenna? Actually, nobody did. It evolved.

Taking a cue from nature, NASA engineers used a kind of "artificial evolution" to find this design. The result may look odd, but it works very well.

"The evolutionary process improves the design of antennas, just as evolution in nature leads to fitter plants and animals," says Jason Lohn, leader of the Evolvable Systems Group at NASA's Ames Research Center.

The improvement comes from Darwin's idea of natural selection: only the fittest members of a generation survive to produce offspring. Over many generations, traits that hinder survival are weeded out, while beneficial traits become more common. "In the end," he says, "you have the design equivalent of a shark, honed over countless generations to be well adapted to its environment and tasks."

Evolutionary computation, as it's called, applies this principle to hardware design. It's particularly useful for tackling problems that are difficult to solve by hand--like the design of new antennas.

Designing a new antenna for NASA's Space Technology 5 (ST-5) mission was the challenge facing Lohn's group. ST-5 will explore how TV-sized "nano-satellites" can perform the tasks of much larger, conventional satellites at a cheaper cost. Antennas on these satellites must be smaller than usual, yet capable of doing everything that a bigger antenna can do.

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Galactic Surprise

NASA Space Placeby Patrick L. Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

M81 is 10 million light years away. The image on the left was made from GALEX data and shows UV light from hot, new stars. These star forming regions are not detectable in the visible light image on the right (McGraw-Hill Observatory, Kitt Peak, Arizona, Greg Bothum, Univ. of Oregon.)
Open an old astronomy textbook. The basic sketch you'll find there of galaxy formation is fairly simple: a vast cloud of diffuse hydrogen and helium gas condenses under gravity, and dense spots in the cloud collapse to form stars. Voila! A galaxy.

But real galaxies are much more complex than that. A galaxy is a swirling "soup" of billions of stars and roaming black holes, scattered clouds of gas and dust, random flashes of star birth and exploding supernovas, and an unseen and mysterious substance called "dark matter." Over time, all these ingredients mix and interact—pulling and compressing and colliding—and somehow that interplay leads to the galaxies we see today. No wonder it's such a hard problem to solve!

Just over one year into its three-year mission, GALEX is already shedding some new light on the problem.

"Some of the discoveries GALEX has made will change our understanding of how galaxies develop and when, where, and why stars form in galaxies," says Peter Friedman, a researcher at Caltech and Project Scientist for GALEX.

This small space telescope, called the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX for short), makes its discoveries by taking pictures of millions of galaxies scattered over the whole sky. Some of these galaxies are close by (at least by astronomical standards of "close"), while others are as much as 10 billion light-years away. Because light takes time to travel through space, we see these distant galaxies as they appeared billions of years ago. Comparing young galaxies from the distant past with older, modern galaxies will teach scientists about how galaxies change over time.
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A Summer Vacation Tracking Down UFOs

NASA Space PlaceBy Diane K. Fisher

Two cameras on MISR made these images of the same part of the Mojave Desert. The camera pointed at an angle of 26 forward saw the flashes from two solar electric power generating stations. These objects are nearly invisible at the other angle.
Erin Schumacher's summer job for NASA was to look for UFOs. Erin is a 16-year-old high school student from Redondo Beach, California, attending the California Academy of Mathematics and Science in Carson. She was one of ten students selected to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena as part of the Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program, or SHARP.

But is studying UFOs a useful kind of NASA research? Well, it is when they are "unidentified flashing objects" that appear in certain images of Earth from space. Erin worked with scientists on the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) project to track down these mysterious features. MISR is one of five instruments onboard the Earth-orbiting Terra satellite. MISR's nine separate cameras all point downward at different angles, each camera in turn taking a picture of the same piece of Earth as the satellite passes overhead. Viewing the same scene through the atmosphere at different angles gives far more information about the aerosols, pollution, and water vapor in the air than a single view would give. Ground features may also look slightly or dramatically different from one viewing angle to another.

Erin's job was to carefully examine the pictures looking for any flashes of light that might be visible from just one of the nine angles. Such flashes are caused by sunlight bouncing off very reflective surfaces and can be seen if a camera is pointed at just the right angle to catch them. Because the satellite data contain precise locations for each pixel in the images, Erin could figure out exactly where a flashing object on the ground should be. Her job was then to figure out exactly what it was that made the flash-in particular, to see if she could distinguish man-made objects from natural ones.
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Resisting Retirement: Earth Observing 1

NASA Space Placeby Patrick L. Barry

These images, made from EO-1 data, are of La Plata, Maryland, before and after a tornado swept through May 1, 2002
The Hubble Space Telescope isn't the only satellite that scientists have fought to keep alive beyond its scheduled retirement. Scientists also went to bat for a satellite called EO-1, short for Earth Observing 1, back in 2001 when the end of its one-year mission was looming.

The motivation in both cases was similar: like Hubble, EO-1 represents a "quantum leap" over its predecessors. Losing EO-1 would have been a great loss for the scientific community. EO-1, which gazes back at Earth's surface instead of out at the stars, provides about 20 times more detail about the spectrum of light reflecting from the landscape below than other Earth-watching satellites, such as Landsat 7.

That spectral information is important, because as sunlight reflects off forests and crops and waterways, the caldron of chemicals within these objects leave their "fingerprints" in the light's spectrum of colors. Analyzing that spectrum is a powerful way for scientists to study the environment and assess its health, whether it's measuring nitrate fertilizers polluting a lake or a calcium deficiency stressing acres of wheat fields.
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Waiting for Cassini's "Safe Arrival" Call

NASA Space PlaceBy Diane K. Fisher

Right after entering Saturn orbit, Cassini sent this image of the part of the Encke Gap in Saturn's rings
The evening of June 30, 2004, was nail-biting time at Cassini Mission Control. After a seven-year journey that included gravity assist flybys of Venus, Earth, and Jupiter, Cassini had finally arrived at Saturn. A 96-minute burn of its main engine would slow it down enough to be captured into orbit by Saturn's powerful gravitational field. Too short a burn and Cassini would keep going toward the outer reaches of the solar system. Too long a burn and the orbit would be too close and fuel reserves exhausted.

According to Dave Doody, a Cassini Mission Controller at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, there was a good chance the Earth-bound Cassini crew would have to wait hours to learn whether or not the burn was successful. Of the three spacecraft-tracking Deep Space Network (DSN) complexes around the globe, the complex in Canberra, Australia, was in line to receive Cassini's signal shortly after the beginning of the burn. However, winds of up to 90 kilometers per hour had been forecast. In such winds, the DSN's huge dish antennas must be locked into position pointed straight up and cannot be used to track a tiny spacecraft a billion miles away as Earth turns on its axis. "The winds never came," notes Doody.

The DSN complex at Goldstone, California, was tracking the carrier signal from Cassini's low-gain antenna (LGA) when the telltale Doppler shift in the LGA signal was seen, indicating the sudden deceleration of the spacecraft from the successful ignition of the main engine. Soon thereafter, however, Goldstone rotated out of range and Canberra took the watch.
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Space Weather

NASA Space PlaceBy Patrick Barry and Tony Phillips

Radiation storms, 250 mile-per-second winds, charged particles raining down from magnetic tempests overhead ... it sounds like the extreme weather of some alien world. But this bizarre weather happens right here at Earth.

Scientists call it "space weather." It occurs mostly within the gradual boundary between our atmosphere and interplanetary space, where the blast of particles and radiation streaming from the Sun plows into the protective bubble of Earth's magnetic field. But space weather can also descend to Earth's surface. Because the Earth's magnetic field envelops all of us, vibrations in this springy field caused by space weather reverberate in the room around you and within your body as much as at the edge of space far overhead.

In fact, one way to see these "geomagnetic storms" is to suspend a magnetized needle from a thin thread inside of a bottle. When solar storms buffet Earth's magnetic field, you'll see the needle move and swing. If you live at higher latitudes, you can see a more spectacular effect: the aurora borealis and the aurora australis. These colorful light shows happen when charged particles trapped in the outer bands of Earth's magnetic field get "shaken loose" and rain down on Earth's atmosphere.

And because a vibrating magnetic field will induce an electric current in a conductor, geomagnetic storms can have a less enjoyable effect: widespread power blackouts. Such a blackout happened in 1989 in Quebec, Canada, during a particularly strong geomagnetic storm. These storms can also induce currents in the metallic bodies of orbiting satellites, knocking the satellite out temporarily, and sometimes permanently.
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Black Holes: Feeling the Ripples

NASA Space Place
Astronomers have finally confirmed something they had long suspected: there is a super-massive black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy.  The evidence? A star near the galactic center orbits something unseen at a top speed of 5000 km/s.  Only a black hole 2 million times more massive than our Sun could cause the star to move so fast.  (See the Oct. 17, 2002, issue of Nature for more information.)

Still, a key mystery remains. Where did the black hole come from? For that matter, where do any super-massive black holes come from? There is mounting evidence that such "monsters" lurk in the middles of most galaxies, yet their origin is unknown. Do they start out as tiny black holes that grow slowly, attracting material piecemeal from passing stars and clouds?  Or are they born big, their mass increasing in large gulps when their host galaxy collides with another galaxy?

A new space telescope called LISA (short for "Laser Interferometer Space Antenna") aims to find out. Designed by scientists at NASA and the European Space Agency, LISA doesn't detect ordinary forms of electromagnetic radiation such as light or radio waves. It senses ripples in the fabric of space-time itself--gravitational waves.

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