Sunday, January 31, 2016

Curiosity rover records stunning selfie among Martian dunes

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA's Curiosity rover recorded a self portrait recently as it paused from scooping sand samples near an active dune on the Red Planet for an astronomical selfie, the space agency announced on Friday.

The Mars Hand Lens Imager was extended from the end of Curiosity's robotic arm and collected 57 photographs on January 19 as the rover sat poised on Namib Dune. Project engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena then arranged the images to form an impressive true image of the rover.

The selfie mosaic was taken on Sol 1228, Curiosity's 1228 day on Mars, highlights the first complete photograph of the car size rover since it arrived in 2012. Mission scientists paused during the scoop series for an impromptu series of images.

"The mission's current work is the first close-up study of active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth," NASA JPL spokesperson Guy Webster explained. "Investigation of the dunes is providing information about how wind moves and sorts sand particles in conditions with much less atmosphere and less gravity than on Earth."

January's scoop samples are the first taken by the Martian science laboratory since November 2012 as NASA aims to study the different size sand grains. The scooped samples were feed into a sieve which allowed only particles the size of .0006 of an inch to move into an inlet for further examination.

"It was pretty challenging to drive into the sloping sand and then turn on the sand into the position that was the best to study the dunes," said JPL's Curiosity mission planner Michael McHenry on Friday. McHenry added the rover's wheel was first checked the area before making its first scoop on Jan. 14, "The scuff helped give us confidence we have enough sand where we're scooping that the path of the scoop won't hit the ground under the sand."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Challenger's final flight begins enduring mission of inspiration

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- As the space shuttle Challenger rose into the cold blue sky over America's Space Coast, excitement for the first teacher to travel into space turned to stunned disbelief as the vehicle suddenly broke apart - a crew lost - in an event which changed both NASA and the nation thirty years ago on Thursday.

The frigid cold weather created a launch pad coated in thick ice which wrapped itself around the fully fueled space shuttle on the morning of January 28, 1986. Challenger's tenth crew, led by commander Francis Dick Scobee, included NASA's Teacher in Space representative, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, on a very publicized mission flying the first average citizen into space.

America's first "teachernaut" planned to conduct two live classroom sessions, including "The Ultimate Field Trip", a tour through the orbiter; and a lesson on why people explore and work in space from 176 miles above. The broadcasts were to be shown in classrooms around the planet on NASA-Select TV. Christa's excitement and enthusiasm made her a popular role model both in the public school systems and with the media.

This shuttle stack was the heaviest to launch weighing 4.53 million pounds, and carrying the second massive Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). The SPARTAN satellite, designed to be placed over the side of the shuttle for a free flight close study of the popular visit by Haley's Comet, was to be deployed on day three of the mission and retrieved twenty orbits later.

The freezing temperatures associated with a cold front which moved over the Kennedy Space Center the evening before provided for much discussion inside the space agency. Many engineers were convinced that the below freezing temperatures could harm the spacecraft in unproven ways.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review: 'Minerals of Georgia' provides indepth geological showcase

ATLANTA -- A new book designed to showcase Georgia's geological beauty while educating amateur geologists on the scientific makeup and locations of the minerals found in the state was released on Thursday during a public event at the Tellus Science Museum.

Minerals of Georgia (University of Georgia Press) by Dr. Robert B. Cook and Julian C. Gray, and edited by Jose Santamaria, accounts for every type of rock, mineral and gem discovered in the Peach State and places them on display using high definition photography. The beautiful imagery spotlights the minerals detailed information and their known locations.

Dr. Cook is a professor emeritus of the Department of Geology and Geography at Auburn University. Gray is executive director of the Rice Northwestern Museum of Rocks and Minerals in Hillsboro, Oregon and a former curator at Tellus. Santamaria is Tellus' executive director and penned an informative Forward for this book.

"The three of us got the mineral collecting bug early when we were kids," Santamaria said as he, Cook and Gray sat down for a candid discussion on Thursday. "We have pursued that interest in various manners, but I think it circles back to this book - a passion of love and interest. Getting it done and getting it into peoples hands was our goal."

This updated project to Dr. Cook's original book of the same name published in 1978 digs deeper into new mineral discoveries; includes a strong scientific narrative of each classification; and adds photographs not included in the first edition. Cook offers this book as his legacy, while Santamaria refers to both editions as "the bible of Georgia mineralogy to mineral collectors."

Friday, January 15, 2016

SpaceX Falcon to launch international ocean monitoring spacecraft Sunday

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An advanced ocean monitoring spacecraft designed to gather information on the rise and fall of the planet's oceans including the development of powerful cyclones is scheduled to lift-off on Sunday from central California.

A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket is poised to place the Jason 3 into a polar orbit on January 17 at the opening of a 30-second window at 10:42:18 a.m. PST, from Vandenberg, AFB. The special orbit will allow the spacecraft to scan nearly 90 percent of the world's water surfaces for nearly five years.

Rain showers associated with the weather phenomena El Nino delayed work by engineers to prepare the Falcon for flight last week. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted the commercial company conducted a successful static test firing of the Falcon's main engines on Monday evening passing that final hurdle before launch.

Jason 3 will also investigate and understand the effects of El Nino and La Nina on the Earth's oceans in order to better forecast environmental conditions early. NOAA officials note the January rise of Hurricane Alex in the northern Atlantic is prime example of why Jason is being placed in space.

"Data from Jason satellites have been invaluable to the study of El Nino and its impacts for the past two decades," said NASA's Jason project scientist Josh Willis on Wednesday. "With the launch of Jason 3, our efforts to better monitor and understand the widespread effects of El Nino around the world will continue for years to come."

The spacecraft was flown from France to its launch site last June in preparation for the start of the international satellite mission on August 8. Partnership of the delayed mission includes NASA, the French Space Agency and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

U.S., British astronauts to perform urgent spacewalk Friday

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake will venture outside the International Space Station on Friday to replace a failed voltage regulator and perform several tasks to prepare the outpost for the arrival of two new docking ports.

Peake will become the first Briton to walk in space as the two Tims perform NASA's 35th spacewalk based from the station's airlock. The nearly seven hour spacewalk is expected to begin at 7:55 a.m. EST.

Friday's planned spacewalk will be the 192nd in support of maintenance and repairs to the outpost since construction began in 1998. Kopra, who will be making his second walk in space in four weeks, will be identified as EV1 and sporting red stripes on his space suit, while Peake will be Extra Vehicular 2.

"I am thrilled at this opportunity for a spacewalk," Peake said from 255 miles above the planet. "Right now we are focusing on preparing the tools, equipment and procedures. If the spacewalk is successful, this will restore the International Space Station to 100% of its operational capability."

Space station commander Scott Kelly will assist the spacewalkers in donning and later removing their bulky suits. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are currently nine months into a historic one year mission in space, their Soyuz craft set to carry them home in March.

 
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