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Blue Rings around Red Galaxies

NASA Space Placeby Trudy E. Bell and Dr. Tony Phillips

  
The Galaxy Evolution Explorer UV space telescope helped to identify red elliptical galaxies that also emitted the strongest UV. These are detailed, long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope images of four of these galaxies that capture the UV-emitting rings and arcs indicative of new star formation.
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Beautiful flat rings around the planet Saturn are one thing — but flat rings around entire galaxies?

That is the astonishing discovery that two astronomers, Samir Salim of Indiana University at Bloomington and R. Michael Rich of UCLA described in the May 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“For most of the twentieth century, astronomers observing at visible wavelengths saw that galaxies looked either ‘red and dead’ or ‘blue and new,’” explained Salim. Reddish galaxies were featureless, shaped mostly like balls or lentils; bluish ones were magnificent spirals or irregular galaxies.

Elliptical galaxies looked red, astronomers reasoned, because they had mostly old red giant stars near the end of their life cycles, and little gas from which new stars could form. Spiral and irregular galaxies looked blue, however, because they were rich in gas and dust that were active nurseries birthing hot, massive, bluish stars.

At least, that's how galaxies appear in visible light.

As early as the 1970s, though, the first space-borne telescopes sensitive to ultraviolet radiation (UV) revealed something mysterious: a few red elliptical galaxies emitted “a surprising ultraviolet excess,” said Rich. The observations suggested that some old red galaxies might not be as “dead” as previously supposed.

To investigate, Salim and Rich used NASAís Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite to identify 30 red elliptical galaxies that also emitted the strongest UV. Then they captured a long, detailed picture of each galaxy using the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Hubble revealed the answer,” says Salim. The UV radiation was emitted by enormous, flat bluish rings that completely surrounded each reddish galaxy, reminiscent of the rings of Saturn. In some cases, the bluish rings even showed a faint spiral structure!

Because the bluish UV rings looked like star-forming spiral arms and lay mostly beyond the red stars at the centers of the elliptical galaxies “we concluded that the bluish rings must be made of hot young stars,” Salim continued. “But if new stars are still being formed, that means the red-and-dead galaxies must have acquired some new gas to make them.”

How does a galaxy “acquire some gas?” Salim speculates that it was an act of theft. Sometimes galaxies have close encounters. If a gas-rich irregular galaxy passed close to a gas-poor elliptical galaxy, the gravity of the elliptical galaxy could steal some gas.

Further studies by Galaxy Evolution Explorer, Hubble and other telescopes are expected to reveal more about the process. One thing is certain, says Rich: “The evolution of galaxies is even more surprising and beautiful than we imagined.”

The press release is available at http://www.galex.caltech.edu/newsroom/glx2010-03f.html. The full published article is “Star Formation Signatures in Optically Quiescent Early-Type Galaxies” by Samir Salim and R. Michael Rich, The Astrophysical Journal Letters 714: L290ĖL294, 2010 May 10.

Point the kids to the Photon Pile-up Game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/galex/photon, where they can have fun learning about the particle nature of light.

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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Help Juno cut through Jupiterís veil

NASA Space Place
  
Hey kids! The roman god Jupiter (for whom the planet is named) drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. Jupiter's wife, the goddess Juno, had the power to peer through the clouds and see Jupiter’s true nature. NASA’s Juno spacecraft, to be launched next summer, will also look beneath the clouds to reveal Jupiter’s mysteries. Get a Juno-view of Jupiter by playing the exciting new JunoQuest game at The Space Place, http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/juno.
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Power Without Pollution

NASA Space PlaceHey kids! Harness the wind and the sun! Power up a whole town without creating any pollution or greenhouse gases. “Power Up!” is the new game on NASA’s Climate Kids web site. In this game, your progressive town gets all its energy from wind turbines and solar panels. You have just two minutes to capture enough wind and solar energy to light up all the windows in all the houses of the town. If you succeed, you win the Platinum Award for clean energy. If just a few windows are still dark, you win the Gold. Silver and Bronze Awards are good, but you’ll learn to do even better. Try this fun new game at http://climate.nasa.gov/kids/powerupcleanly.
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Close Encounters with Jupiter

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

The Juno mission, arriving at Jupiter in July 2016, will help to solve the mystery of whatís inside the giant planetís core.
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Jupiter and Earth just had a close encounter — and it was a good one. In late September 2010, the two worlds were 31 million km (about 19 million miles) closer than at any time in the past 11 years. Soaring high in the midnight sky, Jupiter shone six times brighter than Sirius and looked absolutely dynamite through a backyard telescope. Planetary scientist Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute isnít satisfied. “Iíd like to get even closer,” he says.

Bolton will get his wish in July 2016. Thatís when a NASA spacecraft named “Juno” arrives at Jupiter for a truly close-up look at the giant planet. Swooping as low as 5,000 km (about 3,000 miles) above the cloud tops, Juno will spend a full year orbiting nearer to Jupiter than any previous spacecraft.

The goal of the mission is to learn what lies inside the planet.

Astronomers have been studying Jupiter since the invention of the telescope 400 years ago, but in all that time the planetís vast interior has remained hidden from view. Even the Galileo probe, which dived into the clouds in 1995, penetrated no more than about 0.1% of Jupiterís radius.

“Our knowledge of Jupiter is truly skin deep,” says Bolton, Junoís principal investigator. “There are many basic things we just donít know — like how far down does the Great Red Spot go? And does Jupiter have a heavy core?”

Juno will improve the situation without actually diving into the clouds. Bolton explains how. “Juno will spend a full year in close polar orbit around Jupiter, flying over all latitudes and longitudes. We will thus be able to fully map Jupiterís gravitational field and figure out how the interior is structured.”

But thatís not all. Researchers have good reason to believe that much of Jupiterís interior is filled with liquid metallic hydrogen, an exotic metal that could form only in the high-pressure, hydrogen-rich core of a giant planet. Jupiterís powerful magnetic field almost certainly springs from dynamo action inside this vast realm of electrically conducting metal.

“Junoís magnetometers will precisely map Jupiterís magnetic field,” says Bolton. “This map will tell us a great deal about planetís inner magnetic dynamoówhat itís made of and how it works.”

Finally, Juno will probe Jupiterís atmosphere using a set of microwave radiometers. “Our sensors can measure the temperature 50 times deeper than ever before,” says Bolton. Researchers will use that information to figure out how much water is underneath Jupiterís clouds. “Microwave measurements of Jupiterís water content are particularly exciting because they will help discriminate among competing theories of the planetís origin.”

Now thatís a close encounter. Stay tuned for Juno.

Find out more about the Juno mission at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/juno. Play the new Solar System Explorer super game, which includes the Juno Recall mini-game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/solar-system. Itís not just for kids!

This article was provided 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 Hunt is On!

NASA Space PlaceBy Carolyn Brinkworth

  
Artistís rendering of hot gas planet HD209458b. Both the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes have detected carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor — in other words, the basic chemistry for life — in the atmosphere of this planet, although since it is a hot ball of gas, it would be unlikely to harbor life.
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The world of astronomy was given new direction on August 13, 2010, with the publication of the Astro2010 Decadal Survey. Astro2010 is the latest in a series of surveys produced every 10 years by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences. This council is a team of senior astronomers who recommend priorities for the most important topics and missions for the next decade.

Up near the top of their list this decade is the search for Earth-like planets around other stars — called “extrasolar planets” or “exoplanets” — which has become one of the hottest topics in astronomy.

The first planet to be found orbiting a star like our Sun was discovered in 1995. The planet, called “51 Peg b,” is a “Hot Jupiter.” It is about 160 times the mass of Earth and orbits so close to its parent star that its gaseous “surface” is seared by its blazing sun. With no solid surface, and temperatures of about 1000 degrees Celsius (1700 Fahrenheit), there was no chance of finding life on this distant world. Since that discovery, astronomers have been on the hunt for smaller and more Earth-like planets, and today we know of around 470 extrasolar planets, ranging from about 4 times to 8000 times the mass of Earth.

This explosion in extrasolar planet discoveries is only set to get bigger, with a NASA mission called Kepler that was launched last year. After staring at a single small patch of sky for 43 days, Kepler has detected the definite signatures of seven new exoplanets, plus 706 “planetary candidates” that are unconfirmed and in need of further investigation. Kepler is likely to revolutionize our understanding of Earth's place in the Universe.

We don't yet have the technology to search for life on exoplanets. However, the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope has detected molecules that are the basic building blocks of life in two exoplanet atmospheres. Most extrasolar planets appear unsuitable for supporting life, but at least two lie within the “habitable zone” of their stars, where conditions are theoretically right for life to gain a foothold.

We are still a long way from detecting life on other worlds, but in the last 20 years, the number of known planets in our Universe has gone from the 8 in our own Solar System to almost 500. It's clear to everyone, including the Astro2010 decadal survey team, that the hunt for exoplanets is only just beginning, and the search for life is finally underway in earnest.

Explore Spitzerís latest findings at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu. Kids can dream about finding other Earths as they read “Lucyís Planet Hunt” at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/storybooks/#lucy.

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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The Turbulent Tale of a Tiny Galaxy

NASA Space Placeby Trudy Bell and Dr. Tony Phillips

In the ultraviolet image on the left, from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, galaxy IC 3418 leaves a turbulent star forming region in its wake. In the visible light image on the right (from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey), the wake with its new stars is not apparent.
Click image for larger view
Next time you hike in the woods, pause at a babbling stream. Watch carefully how the water flows around rocks. After piling up in curved waves on the upstream side, like the bow wave in front of a motorboat, the water speeds around the rock, spilling into a riotous, turbulent wake downstream. Lightweight leaves or grass blades can get trapped in the wake, swirling round and round in little eddy currents that collect debris.

Astronomers have found something similar happening in the turbulent wake of a tiny galaxy that is plunging into a cluster of 1,500 galaxies in the constellation Virgo. In this case, however, instead of collecting grass and leaves, eddy currents in the little galaxyís tail seem to be gathering gaseous material to make new stars.

“Itís a fascinating case of turbulence [rather than gravity] trapping the gas, allowing it to become dense enough to form stars,” says Janice A. Hester of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The tell-tale galaxy, designated IC 3418, is only a hundredth the size of the Milky Way and hardly stands out in visible light images of the busy Virgo Cluster. Astronomers realized it was interesting, however, when they looked at it using NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite. “Ultraviolet images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer revealed a long tail filled with clusters of massive, young stars,” explains Hester.

Galaxies with spectacular tails have been seen before. Usually they are behemoths — large spiral galaxies colliding with one another in the crowded environment of a busy cluster. Tidal forces during the collision pull gas and stars of all ages out of these massive galaxies to form long tails. But in IC 3418, the tail has just young stars. No old stars.

“The lack of older stars was one tip-off that IC 3418ís tail isnít tidal,” says Hester. “Something else must be responsible for these stars”

Hester and eight coauthors published their findings in the June 10, 2010, issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The team described the following scenario: IC 3418 is speeding toward the center of the Virgo cluster at 1,000 kilometers per second. The space between cluster galaxies is not empty; it is filled with a gaseous atmosphere of diffuse, hot hydrogen. Thus, like a bicyclist coasting downhill feels wind even on a calm day, IC 3418 experiences “a stiff wind” that sweeps interstellar gas right out of the little galaxy, said Hesterógas that trails far behind its galaxy in a choppy, twisting wake akin to the wake downstream of the rock in the babbling brook. Eddy currents swirling in the turbulent wake trap the gas, allowing it to become dense enough to form stars.

“Astronomers have long debated the importance of gravity vs. turbulence in star formation,” Hester noted. “In IC 3418ís tail, itís ALL turbulence.”

To many astronomers, thatís a surprising tale indeed.

See other surprising UV images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer at http://www.galex.caltech.edu. Kids (and grownups) can play the challenging new Photon Pileup game at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/galex/photon/.
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The Sun Can Still Remind Us Whoís Boss

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

In spite of Earthís protective magnetosphere, solar storms can wreak havoc with Earth satellites and other expensive electronics on the ground.
Click image for larger view.
Grab your cell phone and take a good long look.† It's indispensable, right?† It tells time, surfs the web, keeps track of your appointments and, by the way, also makes phone calls. Modern people can hardly live without one.

One good solar flare could knock it all out.

“In the 21st century, weíre increasingly dependent on technology,” points out Tom Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. “This makes solar activity an important part of our daily lives.” Indeed, bad space weather can knock out power systems, telecommunications, financial and emergency servicesóbasically, anything that needs electronics to work. Thatís why NOAA is building a new fleet of “space weather stations,” the GOES-R satellites.

“GOES-R will bring our existing fleet of weather satellites into the 21st century,” says Bogdan.† “They're designed to monitor not only Earth weather, but space weather as well.”

NOAA's existing fleet of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) already includes some space weather capabilities: solar ultraviolet and X-ray telescopes, a magnetometer and energetic particle sensors.† GOES-R will improve upon these instruments and add important new sensors to the mix.

One of Bogdanís favorites is a particle detector named “MPS-Low,” which specializes in sensing low-energy (30 ev Ė 30 keV) particles from the sun.

Who cares about low-energy particles? It turns out they can be as troublesome as their high-energy counterparts. Protons and other atomic nuclei accelerated to the highest energies by solar flares can penetrate a satelliteís exterior surface, causing all kinds of problems when they reach internal electronics. Low-energy particles, particularly electrons, canít penetrate so deeply. Instead, they do their damage on the outside.

As Bogdan explains, “Low-energy particles can build up on the surfaces of spacecraft, creating a mist of charge. As voltages increase, sparks and arcs can zap electronics — or emit radio pulses that can be misinterpreted by onboard computers as a command.”

The Galaxy 15 communications satellite stopped working during a solar wind storm in April 2010, and many researchers believe low-energy particles are to blame. GOES-R will be able to monitor this population of particles and alert operators when itís time to shut down sensitive systems.

“This is something new GOES-R will do for us,” says Bogdan.

The GOES-R magnetometer is also a step ahead. It will sample our planetís magnetic field four times faster than its predecessors, sensing vibrations that previous GOES satellites might have missed. Among other things, this will help forecasters anticipate the buildup of geomagnetic storms.

And then there are the pictures. GOES-R will beam back striking images of the sun at X-ray and extreme UV wavelengths. These are parts of the electromagnetic spectrum where solar flares and other eruptions make themselves known with bright flashes of high-energy radiation. GOES-R will pinpoint the flashes and identify their sources, allowing forecasters to quickly assess whether or not Earth is in the “line of fire.”

They might also be able to answer the question, Is my cell phone about to stop working?

The first GOES-R satellite is scheduled for launch in 2015. Check www.goes-r.gov for updates. Space weather comes down to Earth in the clear and fun explanation for young people on SciJinks, http://scijinks.gov/space-weather-and-us.

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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Black Holes No Joke

NASA Space Placeby Dr. Tony Phillips

Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in Livingston, Louisiana. Each of the two arms is 4 kilometers long. LIGO has another such observatory in Hanford, Washington.
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Kip Thorne: Why was the black hole hungry?

Stephen Hawking: It had a light breakfast!

Black hole humoróyou gotta love it. Unless youíre an astronomer, that is. Black holes are among the most mysterious and influential objects in the cosmos, yet astronomers cannot see into them, frustrating their attempts to make progress in fields ranging from extreme gravity to cosmic evolution.

How do you observe an object that eats light for breakfast?

“Black holes are creatures of gravity,” says physicist Marco Cavaglia of the University of Mississippi. “So we have to use gravitational waves to explore them.”

Enter LIGO—the NSF-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. According to Einsteinís Theory of General Relativity, black holes and other massive objects can emit gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space-time that travel through the cosmos. LIGO was founded in the 1990s with stations in Washington state and Louisiana to detect these waves as they pass by Earth.

“The principle is simple,” says Cavaglia, a member of the LIGO team. “Each LIGO detector is an L-shaped ultra-high vacuum system with arms four kilometers long. We use lasers to precisely measure changes in the length of the arms, which stretch or contract when a gravitational wave passes by.”

Just one problem: Gravitational waves are so weak, they change the length of each detector by just 0.001 times the width of a proton! “It is a difficult measurement,” allows Cavaglia.

Seismic activity, thunderstorms, ocean waves, even a truck driving by the observatory can overwhelm the effect of a genuine gravitational wave. Figuring out how to isolate LIGO from so much terrestrial noise has been a major undertaking, but after years of work the LIGO team has done it. Since 2006, LIGO has been ready to detect gravitational waves coming from spinning black holes, supernovas, and colliding neutron stars anywhere within about 30 million light years of Earth.

So far the results are … nil. Researchers working at dozens of collaborating institutions have yet to report a definite detection.

Does this mean Einstein was wrong? Cavaglia doesnít think so. “Einstein was probably right, as usual,” he says. “We just need more sensitivity. Right now LIGO can only detect events in our little corner of the Universe. To succeed, LIGO needs to expand its range.”

So, later this year LIGO will be shut down so researchers can begin work on Advanced LIGOóa next generation detector 10 times more sensitive than its predecessor. “Weíll be monitoring a volume of space a thousand times greater than before,” says Cavaglia. “This will transform LIGO into a real observational tool.”

When Advanced LIGO is completed in 2014 or so, the inner workings of black holes could finally be revealed. The punchline may yet make astronomers smile.

Find out more about LIGO at http://www.ligo.caltech.edu/. The Space Place has a LIGO explanation for kids (of all ages) at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/ligo, where you can “hear” a star and a black hole colliding!

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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Ancient Supernova Riddle, Solved

NASA Space Place

Left-over cloud from the Tycho supernova, witnessed by Tycho Brahe and other astronomers over 400 years ago. This image combines infrared light captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope with x-rays captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, plus visible light from the Calar Also Observatory in Spain.
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Australopithecus squinted at the blue African sky. He had never seen a star in broad daylight before, but he could see one today. Was it dangerous? He stared for a long time, puzzled, but nothing happened, and after a while he strode across the savanna unconcerned.

Millions of years later, we know better. That star was a supernova, one of many that exploded in our corner of the Milky Way around the Pliocene era of pre-humans. Australopithecus left no records; we know the explosions happened because their debris is still around. The Solar System and everything else within about 300 light-years is surrounded by supernova exhaust — a haze of million-degree gas that permeates all of local space.

Supernovas are dangerous things, and when one appears in the daytime sky, it is cause for alarm. How did Earth survive? Modern astronomers believe the blasts were too far away (albeit not by much) to zap our planet with lethal amounts of radiation. Also, the sunís magnetic field has done a good job holding the hot gas at bay. In other words, we lucked out.

The debris from those old explosions has the compelling power of a train wreck; astronomers have trouble tearing their eyes away. Over the years, theyíve thoroughly surveyed the wreckage and therein found a mystery--clouds of hydrogen and helium apparently too fragile to have survived the blasts. One of them, whimsically called “the Local Fluff,” is on the doorstep of the Solar System.

“The observed temperature and density of the Fluff do not provide enough pressure to resist the crushing action of the hot supernova gas around it,” says astronomer Merav Opher of George Mason University. “It makes us wonder, how can such a cloud exist?”

NASAís Voyager spacecraft may have found the answer.

NASA's two Voyager probes have been racing out of the solar system for more than 30 years. They are now beyond the orbit of Pluto and on the verge of entering interstellar space. “The Voyagers are not actually inside the Local Fluff,” explains Opher. “But they are getting close and can sense what the cloud is like as they approach it.”

And the answer isÖ.

“Magnetism,” says Opher. “Voyager data show that the Fluff is strongly magnetized with a field strength between 4 and 5 microgauss. This magnetic field can provide the pressure required to resist destruction.”

If fluffy clouds of hydrogen can survive a supernova blast, maybe itís not so surprising that we did, too. “Indeed, this is helping us understand how supernovas interact with their environmentóand how destructive the blasts actually are,” says Opher.

Maybe Australopithecus was on to something after all.

Opherís original research describing Voyagerís discovery of the magnetic field in the Local Fluff may be found in Nature, 462, 1036-1038 (24 December 2009). The Space Place has a new Amazing Fact page about the Voyagersí Golden, with sample images and sounds of Earth. After all, just in case one of the Voyagerís ever meets up with ET, we will want to introduce ourselves. Visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/voyager.
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A Rock Hound is Born

NASA Space Place
Opportunity spots a rock with its NavCam that its AEGIS software says meets all the criteria for further investigation.
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Itís tough to be a geologist when you canít tell one rock from another. Is that a meteorite or a chunk of lava? A river rock or an impact fragment? Houston, we have a problem!

Itís a problem Spirit and Opportunity have been dealing with for the past six years. The two rovers are on a mission to explore the geology of the Red Planet, yet for the longest time they couldnít recognize interesting rocks without help from humans back on Earth.

Fortunately, it is possible to teach old rovers new tricks. All you have to do is change their programmingóand thatís just what NASA has done.

“During the winter, we uploaded new software to Opportunity,” says Tara Estlin, a rover driver, senior member of JPLís Artificial Intelligence Group, and the lead developer of AEGIS, short for Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science. “AEGIS allows the rover to make some decisions on its own.”

Estlin and her team have been working for several years to develop and upload increasingly sophisticated software to the rovers. As a result, the twins have learned to avoid obstacles, identify dust devils, and calculate the distance to reach their arms to a rock. With the latest upgrade, a rock hound is born.

Now, Opportunity's computer can examine images that the rover takes using its wide-angle navigation camera (NavCam) and pick out rocks with interesting colors or shapes. It can then center its narrower-angle panoramic camera (PanCam) on targets of interest for close-up shots through various color filters. All this happens without human intervention.

The system was recently put to the test; Opportunity performed splendidly.

At the end of a drive on March 4th, the rover settled in for a bit of rock hunting. Opportunity surveyed the landscape and decided that one particular rock, out of more than 50 in the NavCam photo, best met criteria that researchers had set for a target of interest: large and dark. “It found exactly the target we would want it to find,” Estlin says. “It appears to be one of the rocks tossed outward onto the surface when an impact dug a nearby crater.”

The new software doesnít make humans obsolete. On the contrary, humans are very much “in the loop,” setting criteria for whatís interesting and evaluating Opportunityís discoveries. The main effect of the new software is to strengthen the rover-human partnership and boost their combined exploring prowess.

Mindful that Opportunity was only supposed to last about six months after it landed in 2004, Estlin says “it is amazing to see Opportunity performing a brand new autonomous activity six years later.”

What will the rock hounds of Mars be up to six years from now? Stay tuned for future uploads!

Learn more about how the AEGIS software works at http://scienceandtechnology.jpl.nasa.gov/newsandevents/newsdetails/?NewsID=677. If you work with middle- or high-school kids, youíll find a fun way to explore another kind of robot softwareóthe kind that enables “fuzzy thinking”óat http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/educators/teachers_page2.shtml#fuzzy.

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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