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Science@Ames

Science@Ames performs basic and applied research aligned with the NASA Strategic Plan in the broad disciplines of space science, bio science, and earth science. We seek to discover new insights and to better understand the mechanisms, phenomena and interactions that exist within and among living and non-living things in the universe.


Science@Ames


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Space Science

Space Science and Astrobiology

Space Science @ Ames features research in infrared astrophysics, laboratory astrophysics, extrasolar planets, planetary sciences, exobiology, and astrobiology. For more information, view details.


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Earth Science

Earth Science @ Ames features basic and applied research in atmospheric and biospheric sciences, and conducts airborne science campaigns.

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Biological Science

BioSciences @ Ames features research in fundamental space biology, and provides engineering and payload development for the International Space Station.

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Astrobiology

Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

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SSERVI

Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) addresses basic and applied scientific questions fundamental to understanding the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids, the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, and the near space environments of these target bodies.

For more information, view details.

 
NASA Selects Next Generation Spectrometer for SOFIA Flying Observatory
Sept. 7, 2016
 

NASA Selects Next Generation Spectrometer for SOFIA Flying Observatory

A team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has been selected to develop a new, third-generation facility science instrument for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA.

The principal investigator, Samuel Harvey Moseley will lead the team to develop the High Resolution Mid-InfrarEd Spectrometer (HIRMES). The team consists of co-investigators from Space Dynamics Lab, Precision Cryogenic Systems, Inc., University of Michigan, University of Maryland, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Johns Hopkins University, Space Telescope Science Institute, Cornell University and University of Rochester.

Moseley and his team will construct HIRMES over the next two and one-half years with flights on board SOFIA slated for spring 2019. At that time, this unique research asset will also be made available for use by the larger astronomical community.

"HIRMES will help researchers determine the location of the raw materials that are the building blocks of life and how their position within the interstellar medium helps planetary systems, like our own solar system, evolve," said Hashima Hasan, SOFIA program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "HIRMES builds upon Moseley's long history of superior instrument design. Included among his many achievements is the development of the microshutter arrays for the James Webb Space Telescope's near-infrared spectrometer."

The HIRMES spectrometer is optimized to detect neutral atomic oxygen, water, as well as normal and deuterated (or "heavy") hydrogen molecules at infrared wavelengths between 28 and 112 microns (a micron is one-millionth of a meter). These wavelengths are key to determining how water vapor, ice, and oxygen combine at different times during planet formation, and will enable new observations of how these elements combine with dust to form the mass that may one day become a planet.

HIRMES will provide scientists with a unique opportunity to study this aspect of planetary formation, as SOFIA is currently the only NASA observatory capable of accessing these mid-infrared wavelengths. Infrared wavelengths between 28 and 112 microns will not reach ground-based telescopes because water vapor and carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere block this energy. SOFIA is able to access this part of the electromagnetic spectrum by flying between 39,000 feet and 45,000 feet, above more than 99 percent of this water vapor.

NASA anticipates soliciting proposals for the next (fourth generation) instrument on SOFIA in 2017.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 2.5-meter, 100-inch, diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center's Building 703, in Palmdale, California.

For more information about SOFIA, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/sofia
http://www.dlr.de/en/sofia

For information about SOFIA's science mission and scientific instruments, visit:
https://www.sofia.usra.edu
http://www.dsi.uni-stuttgart.de/index.en.html

Nicholas A. Veronico
SOFIA Science Center, Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California


 
Kepler Watches Stellar Dancers in the Pleiades Cluster
Aug. 12, 2016
 

Kepler Watches Stellar Dancers in the Pleiades Cluster
This image shows the Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Like cosmic ballet dancers, the stars of the Pleiades cluster are spinning. But these celestial dancers are all twirling at different speeds. Astronomers have long wondered what determines the rotation rates of these stars.

By watching these stellar dancers, NASA's Kepler space telescope during its K2 mission has helped amass the most complete catalog of rotation periods for stars in a cluster. This information can help astronomers gain insight into where and how planets form around these stars, and how such stars evolve.

"We hope that by comparing our results to other star clusters, we will learn more about the relationship between a star's mass, its age, and even the history of its solar system," said Luisa Rebull, a research scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech in Pasadena, California. She is the lead author of two new papers and a co-author on a third paper about these findings, all being published in the Astronomical Journal.

The Pleiades star cluster is one of the closest and most easily seen star clusters, residing just 445 light-years away from Earth, on average. At about 125 million years old, these stars -- known individually as Pleiads -- have reached stellar "young adulthood." In this stage of their lives, the stars are likely spinning the fastest they ever will.

As a typical star moves further along into adulthood, it loses some zip due to the copious emission of charged particles known as a stellar wind (in our solar system, we call this the solar wind). The charged particles are carried along the star's magnetic fields, which overall exerts a braking effect on the rotation rate of the star.

Rebull and colleagues sought to delve deeper into these dynamics of stellar spin with Kepler. Given its field of view on the sky, Kepler observed approximately 1,000 stellar members of the Pleiades over the course of 72 days. The telescope measured the rotation rates of more than 750 stars in the Pleiades, including about 500 of the lowest-mass, tiniest, and dimmest cluster members, whose rotations could not previously be detected from ground-based instruments.

Kepler measurements of starlight infer the spin rate of a star by picking up small changes in its brightness. These changes result from "starspots" which, like the more-familiar sunspots on our sun, form when magnetic field concentrations prevent the normal release of energy at a star's surface. The affected regions become cooler than their surroundings and appear dark in comparison.

As stars rotate, their starspots come in and out of Kepler's view, offering a way to determine spin rate. Unlike the tiny, sunspot blemishes on our middle-aged sun, starspots can be gargantuan in stars as young as those in the Pleiades because stellar youth is associated with greater turbulence and magnetic activity. These starspots trigger larger brightness decreases, and make spin rate measurements easier to obtain.

During its observations of the Pleiades, a clear pattern emerged in the data: More massive stars tended to rotate slowly, while less massive stars tended to rotate rapidly. The big-and-slow stars' periods ranged from one to as many as 11 Earth-days. Many low-mass stars, however, took less than a day to complete a pirouette. (For comparison, our sedate sun revolves fully just once every 26 days.) The population of slow-rotating stars includes some ranging from a bit larger, hotter and more massive than our sun, down to other stars that are somewhat smaller, cooler and less massive. On the far end, the fast-rotating, fleet-footed, lowest-mass stars possess as little as a tenth of our sun's mass.

"In the 'ballet' of the Pleiades, we see that slow rotators tend to be more massive, whereas the fastest rotators tend to be very light stars," said Rebull.

The main source of these differing spin rates is the internal structure of the stars, Rebull and colleagues suggest. Larger stars have a huge core enveloped in a thin layer of stellar material undergoing a process called convection, familiar to us from the circular motion of boiling water. Small stars, on the other hand, consist almost entirely of convective, roiling regions. As stars mature, the braking mechanism from magnetic fields more easily slows the spin rate of the thin, outermost layer of big stars than the comparatively thick, turbulent bulk of small stars.

Thanks to the Pleiades' proximity, researchers think it should be possible to untangle the complex relationships between stars' spin rates and other stellar properties. Those stellar properties, in turn, can influence the climates and habitability of a star's hosted exoplanets. For instance, as spinning slows, so too does starspot generation, and the solar storms associated with starspots. Fewer solar storms means less intense, harmful radiation blasting into space and irradiating nearby planets and their potentially emerging biospheres.

"The Pleiades star cluster provides an anchor for theoretical models of stellar rotation going both directions, younger and older," said Rebull. "We still have a lot we want to learn about how, when and why stars slow their spin rates and hang up their 'dance shoes,' so to speak."

Rebull and colleagues are now analyzing K2 mission data from an older star cluster, Praesepe, popularly known as the Beehive Cluster, to further explore this phenomenon in stellar structure and evolution.

"We're really excited that K2 data of star clusters, such as the Pleiades, have provided astronomers with a bounty of new information and helped advance our knowledge of how stars rotate throughout their lives," said Steve Howell, project scientist for the K2 mission at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

The K2 mission's approach to studying stars employs the Kepler spacecraft's ability to precisely observe miniscule changes in starlight. Kepler's primary mission ended in 2013, but more exoplanet and astrophysics observations continue with the K2 mission, which began in 2014.

Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov


 
NASA, France to Collaborate on Planetary Science and Space Exploration
May 25, 2016
 

NASA, France to Collaborate on Planetary Science and Space Exploration
Greg Schmidt, SSERVI Deputy Director and Director of International Partnerships, shakes hands with Phillippe Luoarn, the Director of IRAP in Toulouse, France. Credit: Observatoire Midi-Pyrenees/IRAP

NASA and the Astrophysics and Planetology Research Institute (IRAP), located in Toulouse, France, have signed an Affiliate Member statement with NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), which supports lunar and planetary science research to advance human exploration of the solar system through scientific discovery. With the establishment of a NASA SSERVI French team, the planetary science community in France can now participate in SSERVI programs on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

"France's impressive proposal to SSERVI offers scientific and technological expertise in the study of the Moon and Mercury, Vesta and Ceres asteroids in the Dawn mission, and comets like Churuymov-Gerasimenko (67P) of the ongoing Rosetta mission," said Dr. Yvonne Pendleton, director of SSERVI. "We are eager to see what scientific discoveries result from this partnership."

Dr. Patrick Pinet, who submitted the proposal, is a senior scientist at the French National Research Center (CNRS) and deputy-director of the IRAP laboratory. Belonging to the Midi-Pyrénées Observatory, the laboratory benefits from the support of the CNRS' National Institute for Study of the Universe, the Paul Sabatier Toulouse III University, and the French Space Agency. "The lab works closely with the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, and now SSERVI. This is a special moment for France," said Pinet.

"Our French partners have put together a compelling proposal that outlines multiple topics for potential collaborative research. This partnership will be important to NASA and its international partners who are successfully conducting the ambitious activities of exploring the solar system with robots and humans," said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of SSERVI, who directs international partnerships.

SSERVI, a virtual institute of domestic and international partnerships, enables cross-team and interdisciplinary research to push the boundaries of science and exploration. Located at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, SSERVI is funded jointly by the agency's Science Mission and Human Exploration and Operations Mission directorates at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

For more information about SSERVI and select member teams, visit:
http://sservi.nasa.gov

Kimberly Williams
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
650-604-6982
kimberly.k.williams@nasa.gov


 
NASA's Kepler Mission Announces Largest Collection of Planets Ever Discovered
May 10, 2016
 

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
This artist's concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA's Kepler space telescope. Credits: NASA/W. Stenzel

NASA's Kepler mission has verified 1,284 new planets - the single largest finding of planets to date.

This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler," said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth."

Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope's July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets. For 1,284 of the candidates, the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent - the minimum required to earn the status of "planet." An additional 1,327 candidates are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques..

"Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars," said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters. "This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe."

Kepler captures the discrete signals of distant planets - decreases in brightness that occur when planets pass in front of, or transit, their stars - much like the May 9 Mercury transit of our sun. Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system more than two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets.

This latest announcement, however, is based on a statistical analysis method that can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously. Timothy Morton, associate research scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey and lead author of the scientific paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, employed a technique to assign each Kepler candidate a planet-hood probability percentage - the first such automated computation on this scale, as previous statistical techniques focused only on sub-groups within the greater list of planet candidates identified by Kepler.

"Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs," said Morton. "If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you're going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom."

In the newly-validated batch of planets, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these orbit in their sun's habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets now are known to be members of this exclusive group.

"They say not to count our chickens before they're hatched, but that's exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet)," said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets -- a number that's needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds."

Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets. For four years, Kepler monitored 150,000 stars in a single patch of sky, measuring the tiny, telltale dip in the brightness of a star that can be produced by a transiting planet. In 2018, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will use the same method to monitor 200,000 bright nearby stars and search for planets, focusing on Earth and Super-Earth-sized.

Ames manages the Kepler missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system, with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

For more information about the Kepler mission, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

For briefing materials from Tuesday's media teleconference where the new group of planets was announced, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/kepler/briefingmaterials160510

Felicia Chou
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0257
felicia.chou@nasa.gov

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
650-604-6982
michele.johnson@nasa.gov

Last Updated: May 10, 2016
Editor: Karen Northon


 
Flying Observatory Detects Atomic Oxygen in Martian Atmosphere
May 6, 2016
 

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)

An instrument onboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) detected atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars for the first time since the last observation 40 years ago. These atoms were found in the upper layers of the Martian atmosphere known as the mesosphere.

SOFIA/GREAT spectrum: NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI/MPIfR/GREAT Consortium/ MPIfS/Rezac et al. 2015. Mars image
SOFIA/GREAT spectrum of oxygen [O I] superimposed on a Viking 1 composite image of Mars by USGS University of Arizona. The amount of atomic oxygen computed from this SOFIA data is about half the amount expected.
Credits: SOFIA/GREAT spectrum: NASA/DLR/USRA/DSI/MPIfR/GREAT Consortium/ MPIfS/Rezac et al. 2015. Mars image: NASA

"Atomic oxygen affects how other gases escape Mars and therefore has a significant impact on the planet's atmosphere. Scientists detected only about half the amount of oxygen expected, which may be due to variations in the Martian atmosphere. Scientists will continue to use SOFIA to study these variations to help better understand the atmosphere of the Red Planet.

"Atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere is notoriously difficult to measure," said Pamela Marcum, SOFIA project scientist. "To observe the far-infrared wavelengths needed to detect atomic oxygen, researchers must be above the majority of Earth's atmosphere and use highly sensitive instruments, in this case a spectrometer. SOFIA provides both capabilities."

The Viking and Mariner missions of the 1970s made the last measurements of atomic oxygen in the Martian atmosphere. These more recent observations were possible thanks to SOFIA's airborne location, flying between 37,000-45,000 feet, above most of the infrared-blocking moisture in Earth's atmosphere. The advanced detectors on one of the observatory's instruments, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies (GREAT), enabled astronomers to distinguish the oxygen in the Martian atmosphere from oxygen in Earth's atmosphere. Researchers presented their findings in a paper published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2015.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 100-inch diameter telescope. It is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the SOFIA program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center's hangar 703 in Palmdale, California.

Kassandra Bell
SOFIA Science Center, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Last Updated: May 6, 2016
Editor: Kassandra Bell


 
NASA to Announce Latest Kepler Discoveries During Media Teleconference 
 May 4, 2016
 


NASA will host a news teleconference at 1 p.m. EDT Tuesday, May 10 to announce the latest discoveries made by its planet-hunting mission, the Kepler Space Telescope.

The briefing participants are:

The mission has cancelled the spacecraft emergency, returning the Deep Space Network ground communications to normal scheduling. Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington
Timothy Morton, associate research scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey
Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California
Charlie Sobeck, Kepler/K2 mission manager at Ames

For dial-in information, media must e-mail their name, affiliation and telephone number to Felicia Chou at felicia.chou@nasa.gov no later than 11 a.m. Tuesday. Questions can be submitted on Twitter during the teleconference using the hashtag #askNASA.

The teleconference audio and visuals will be streamed live at:

http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio

Kepler completed its prime mission in 2012, and collected data for an additional year in an extended mission. In 2014, the spacecraft began a new extended mission called K2. K2 continues the search for exoplanets while introducing new research opportunities to study young stars, supernovae and other cosmic phenomena.

For more information about NASA's Kepler mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

Felicia Chou
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0257
felicia.chou@nasa.gov

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
650-604-6982
michele.johnson@nasa.gov


 
Searching for Far Out and Wandering Worlds
April 7, 2016
 

Astronomers have made great strides in discovering planets outside of our solar system, termed "exoplanets." In fact, over the past 20 years more than 5,000 exoplanets have been detected beyond the eight planets that call our solar system home.

The majority of these exoplanets have been found snuggled up to their host star completing an orbit (or year) in hours, days or weeks, while some have been found orbiting as far as Earth is to the sun, taking one-Earth-year to circle. But, what about those worlds that orbit much farther out, such as Jupiter and Saturn, or, in some cases, free-floating exoplanets that are on their own and have no star to call home? In fact, some studies suggest that there may be more free-floating exoplanets than stars in our galaxy.

This week, NASA's K2 mission, the repurposed mission of the Kepler space telescope, and other ground-based observatories have teamed up to kick-off a global experiment in exoplanet observation. Their mission: survey millions of stars toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy in search of distant stars' planetary outposts and exoplanets wandering between the stars.

While today's planet-hunting techniques have favored finding exoplanets near their sun, the outer regions of a planetary system have gone largely unexplored. In the exoplanet detection toolkit, scientists have a technique well suited to search these farthest outreaches and the space in between the stars. This technique is called gravitational microlensing.

Gravitational Microlensing

For this experiment, astronomers rely on the effect of a familiar fundamental force of nature to help detect the presence of these far out worlds- gravity. The gravity of massive objects such as stars and planets produces a noticeable effect on other nearby objects.

But gravity also influences light, deflecting or warping, the direction of light that passes close to massive objects. This bending effect can make gravity act as a lens, concentrating light from a distant object, just as a magnifying glass can focus the light from the sun. Scientists can take advantage of the warping effect by measuring the light of distant stars, looking for a brightening that might be caused by a massive object, such as a planet, that passes between a telescope and a distant background star. Such a detection could reveal an otherwise hidden exoplanet.

"The chance for the K2 mission to use gravity to help us explore exoplanets is one of the most fantastic astronomical experiments of the decade," said Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA's Kepler and K2 missions at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "I am happy to be a part of this K2 campaign and look forward to the many discoveries that will be made."

This phenomenon of gravitational microlensing - "micro" because the angle by which the light is deflected is small - is the effect for which scientists will be looking during the next three months. As an exoplanet passes in front of a more distant star, its gravity causes the trajectory of the starlight to bend, and in some cases results in a brief brightening of the background star as seen by the observatory.

The lensing events caused by a free-floating exoplanet last on the order of a day or two, making the continuous gaze of the Kepler spacecraft an invaluable asset for this technique.

"We are seizing the opportunity to use Kepler's uniquely sensitive camera to sniff for planets in a different way," said Geert Barentsen, research scientist at Ames.

The ground-based observatories will record simultaneous measurements of these brief events. From their different vantage points, space and Earth, the measurements can determine the location of the lensing foreground object through a technique called parallax.

"This is a unique opportunity for the K2 mission and ground-based observatories to conduct a dedicated wide-field microlensing survey near the center of our galaxy," said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "This first-of-its-kind survey serves as a proof of concept for NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will launch in the 2020s to conduct a larger and deeper microlensing survey. In addition, because the Kepler spacecraft is about 100 million miles from Earth, simultaneous space- and ground-based measurements will use the parallax technique to better characterize the systems producing these light amplifications."

To understand parallax, extend your arm and hold up your thumb. Close one eye and focus on your thumb and then do the same with the other eye. Your thumb appears to move depending on the vantage point. For humans to determine distance and gain depth perception, the vantage points, our eyes, use parallax.

Flipping the Spacecraft

The Kepler spacecraft trails Earth as it orbits the sun and is normally pointed away from Earth during the K2 mission. But this orientation means that the part of the sky being observed by the spacecraft cannot generally be observed from Earth at the same time, since it is mostly in the daytime sky.

To allow simultaneous ground-based observations, flight operations engineers at Ball Aerospace and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder will perform a maneuver turning the spacecraft around to point the telescope in the forward velocity vector. So, instead of looking towards where it's been, the spacecraft will look in the direction of where it's going.

This alignment will yield a viewing opportunity of Earth and the moon as they cross the spacecraft's field of view. On April 14 at 11:50 a.m. PDT (18:50 UT), Kepler will record a full frame image. The result of that image will be released to the public archive in June once the data has been downloaded and processed. Kepler measures the change in brightness of objects and does not resolve color or physical characteristics of an observed object.

Observing from Earth

To achieve the objectives of this important path-finding research and community exercise in anticipation of WFIRST, approximately two-dozen ground-based observatories on six continents will observe in concert with K2. Each will contribute to various aspects of the experiment and will help explore the distribution of exoplanets across a range of stellar systems and distances.

These results will aid in our understanding of both planetary system architectures as well as the frequency of exoplanets throughout our galaxy.

For a complete list of participating observatories, reference the paper that defines the experiment: Campaign 9 of the K2 mission.

During the roughly 80-day observing period or campaign, astronomers hope to discover over 100 lensing events, ten or more of which may have signatures of exoplanets occupying relatively unexplored regimes of parameter space.

Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

For more information about the Kepler and K2 missions, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

News Media Contact

Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
818-354-4673
whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif
650-604-6982
michele.johnson@nasa.gov


 
Ancient Polar Ice Reveals Tilting of Earth's Moon
March 23, 2016
 


This polar hydrogen map of the moon's northern and southern hemispheres identifies the location of the moon's ancient and present day poles. In the image, the lighter areas show higher concentrations of hydrogen and the darker areas show lower concentrations.
Credits: James Keane, University of Arizona; Richard Miller, University of Alabama at Huntsville

 

Did the "man in the moon" look different from ancient Earth?

New NASA-funded research provides evidence that the spin axis of Earth's moon shifted by about five degrees roughly three billion years ago. The evidence of this motion is recorded in the distribution of ancient lunar ice, evidence of delivery of water to the early solar system.

"The same face of the moon has not always pointed towards Earth," said Matthew Siegler of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, lead author of a paper in today's journal Nature. "As the axis moved, so did the face of the 'man in the moon.' He sort of turned his nose up at the Earth."

This interdisciplinary research was conducted across multiple institutions as part of NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.

Water ice can exist on Earth's moon in areas of permanent shadow. If ice on the moon is exposed to direct sunlight it evaporates into space. Authors of the Nature article show evidence that a shift of the lunar spin axis billions of years ago enabled sunlight to creep into areas that were once shadowed and likely previously contained ice.

The researchers found that the ice that survived this shift effectively "paints" a path along which the axis moved. They matched the path with models predicting where the ice could remain stable and inferred the moon's axis had moved by approximately five degrees. This is the first physical evidence that the moon underwent such a dramatic change in orientation and implies that much of the polar ice on the moon is billions of years old.

"The new findings are a compelling view of the moon's dynamic past," said Dr. Yvonne Pendleton, director of SSERVI, which supports lunar and planetary science research to advance human exploration of the solar system through scientific discovery. "It is wonderful to see the results of several missions pointing to these insights."The authors analyzed data from several NASA missions, including Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Lunar Crater and Observation Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), and the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), to build the case for a change in the moon's orientation. Topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) and thermal measurements from the Diviner lunar radiometer - both on LRO - are used to aid the interpretation of Lunar Prospector neutron data that support the polar wander hypothesis.

Siegler noticed that the distribution of ice observed at each of the lunar poles appeared to be more related to each other than previously thought. Upon further investigation, Siegler - and co-author Richard Miller of the University of Alabama at Huntsville - discovered that ice concentrations were displaced from each pole by the same distance, but in exactly opposite directions, suggesting the spin axis in the past was tilted from what we see today. A change in the tilt means that some of the ice deposited long ago has since evaporated as it was exposed to sunlight, but those areas that remain in permanent shadow between the old orientation and the new one retain their ice, and thus indicate what happened.

A planetary body can shift on its axis when there is a very large change in mass distribution. Co-author James Keane, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, modeled the way changes in the lunar interior would have affected the moon's spin and tilt. In doing so, he found the Procellarum region on the lunar near-side was the only feature that could match the direction and amount of change in the axis indicated by the ice distributions near the poles. Furthermore, concentrations of radioactive material in the Procellarum region are sufficient to have heated a portion of the lunar mantle, causing a density change significant enough to reorient the moon.

Some of this heated mantle material melted and came to the surface to form the visible dark patches that fill large lunar basins known as mare. It's these mare patches that give the man in the moon his "face."

Siegler, Miller, and co-author David Lawrence of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland are part of the Volatiles, Regolith and Thermal Investigations Consortium for Exploration and Science team, one of nine teams funded by SSERVI.

Said Siegler, "These findings may open the door to further discoveries on the interior evolution of the moon, as well as the origin of water on the moon and early Earth."

For more information about SSERVI and the study, visit: www.sservi.nasa.gov

For more information about NASA's Ames Research Center, visit:
www.nasa.gov/ames

Kimberly Williams
Ames Research Center
650-604-2457
kimberly.k.williams@nasa.gov


 
The Third International Conference On The Exploration Of PHOBOS & DEIMOS - 18-19 July, 2016
March 22, 2016
 

Phobos.
Deimos.
Photo Credits: NASA

 

First Announcement: The Third International Conference on the Exploration of Phobos and Deimos, subtitled The Science, Robotic Reconnaissance, and Human Exploration of the Two Moons of Mars, will be the third international meeting focused on Phobos and Deimos, and on how their exploration relates to that of other small bodies, Mars, and the rest of the Solar System.

For more information on Third International Conference on the Exploration of Phobos and Deimos, visit: http://phobos-deimos.arc.nasa.gov

SSERVI
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.


 
NASA Selects New Director for Astrobiology Institute
March 22, 2016
 

 

Penelope Boston has been selected as the director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute (NAI), in Moffett Field, California, to lead the scientific activities of the institute's member teams and all operational aspects of the organization. Her appointment is effective May 31.

"Dr. Boston is a leading astrobiologist and science explorer with a proven track record of leadership. I'm energized by her passion for NASA's mission to seek signs of life in the solar system and beyond," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "It's an incredible time for all science, and especially astrobiology, as our current and future missions edge closer to answering the question: are we alone?"

Boston will lead the NAI in fulfilling its mission to perform, support and catalyze collaborative interdisciplinary astrobiology research; train the next generation of astrobiologists; provide scientific and technical leadership for astrobiology space mission investigations; and develop new information technology approaches for collaborations among widely distributed investigators.

"The search for life elsewhere in our solar system and beyond is one of the great intellectual enterprises of our species," said Boston. "The deeper understanding of the profound biodiversity and adaptability of life here on our own planet is part of the same continuum. I've devoted my career to these areas of science and I'm delighted to now contribute to the field in this new leadership capacity."

Prior to joining NASA, Boston, in 2002, founded and directed the Cave and Karst Studies Program at New Mexico Tech, Socorro, New Mexico, where she also served as a professor and led their Earth and environmental sciences department as chair. She also served from 2002 to 2016 as associate director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, a congressionally mandated institute in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Boston holds Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Boston replaces Carl Pilcher, former NAI director who retired in early 2013 after leading the institute for seven years before returning in August 2014 on a part-time basis to serve as interim director. In addition to leading and coordinating a scientific community of more than 1,000 members, Pilcher managed the administrative team at NAI's central office at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.

"Carl's leadership and vision has enabled numerous multi-disciplinary collaborations, steering the institute to making great advances in astrobiology and our overall understanding of life in the universe," said Ames Research Center Director Eugene Tu. "Penny's leadership and creativity will be critical in connecting researchers throughout the world to further advance astrobiology, and in supporting future robotic and human space missions."

Established in 1998 as part of NASA's Astrobiology Program, the NAI is a virtual, distributed organization of competitively-selected teams that conduct and integrate astrobiology research and training programs in concert with the national and international science communities. The institute has 12 teams including over 600 researchers distributed across more than 100 organizations and 13 international partner organizations.

"The dazzling scope of astrobiology and exciting prospects for future life detection missions are inherently compelling," said Boston, "and I hope to make it ever more accessible to public audiences around the world. I'm eager to both honor the 18-year history of NAI begun under the leadership of Nobel Laureate Dr. Baruch Blumberg, and to help bring it into the next era of its development."

The NAI serves a vital role in advancing the goals of the larger NASA Astrobiology Program, with a focus on seeking the answers to these fundamental questions: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life beyond Earth and, if so, how can we detect it? What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?

For more information on NASA's Astrobiology Institute, visit:
http://nai.nasa.gov/

Darryl E. Waller
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
650-604-4789
darryl.e.waller@nasa.gov

Photo Credits: NASA


 
Caught For The First Time: The Early Flash Of An Exploding Star
March 21, 2016
 

animation of The Early Flash Of An Exploding Star

 

The brilliant flash of an exploding star's shockwave-what astronomers call the "shock breakout"-has been captured for the first time in the optical wavelength or visible light by NASA's planet-hunter, the Kepler space telescope.

An international science team led by Peter Garnavich, an astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, analyzed light captured by Kepler every 30 minutes over a three-year period from 500 distant galaxies, searching some 50 trillion stars. They were hunting for signs of massive stellar death explosions known as supernovae.

In 2011, two of these massive stars, called red supergiants, exploded while in Kepler's view. The first behemoth, KSN 2011a, is nearly 300 times the size of our sun and a mere 700 million light years from Earth. The second, KSN 2011d, is roughly 500 times the size of our sun and around 1.2 billion light years away.

"To put their size into perspective, Earth's orbit about our sun would fit comfortably within these colossal stars," said Garnavich.

Whether it's a plane crash, car wreck or supernova, capturing images of sudden, catastrophic events is extremely difficult but tremendously helpful in understanding root cause. Just as widespread deployment of mobile cameras has made forensic videos more common, the steady gaze of Kepler allowed astronomers to see, at last, a supernova shockwave as it reached the surface of a star. The shock breakout itself lasts only about 20 minutes, so catching the flash of energy is an investigative milestone for astronomers.

"In order to see something that happens on timescales of minutes, like a shock breakout, you want to have a camera continuously monitoring the sky," said Garnavich. "You don't know when a supernova is going to go off, and Kepler's vigilance allowed us to be a witness as the explosion began."

Supernovae like these - known as Type II - begin when the internal furnace of a star runs out of nuclear fuel causing its core to collapse as gravity takes over.

The two supernovae matched up well with mathematical models of Type II explosions reinforcing existing theories. But they also revealed what could turn out to be an unexpected variety in the individual details of these cataclysmic stellar events.

While both explosions delivered a similar energetic punch, no shock breakout was seen in the smaller of the supergiants. Scientists think that is likely due to the smaller star being surrounded by gas, perhaps enough to mask the shockwave when it reached the star's surface.

"That is the puzzle of these results," said Garnavich. "You look at two supernovae and see two different things. That's maximum diversity."

Understanding the physics of these violent events allows scientists to better understand how the seeds of chemical complexity and life itself have been scattered in space and time in our Milky Way galaxy

"All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel, and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars," said Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA's Kepler and K2 missions at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "Life exists because of supernovae."

Garnavich is part of a research team known as the Kepler Extragalactic Survey or KEGS. The team is nearly finished mining data from Kepler's primary mission, which ended in 2013 with the failure of reaction wheels that helped keep the spacecraft steady. However, with the reboot of the Kepler spacecraft as NASA's K2 mission, the team is now combing through more data hunting for supernova events in even more galaxies far, far away.

"While Kepler cracked the door open on observing the development of these spectacular events, K2 will push it wide open observing dozens more supernovae," said Tom Barclay, senior research scientist and director of the Kepler and K2 guest observer office at Ames. "These results are a tantalizing preamble to what's to come from K2!"

In addition to Notre Dame, the KEGS team also includes researchers from the University of Maryland in College Park; the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia; the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland; and the University of California, Berkeley.

The research paper reporting this discovery has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Ames manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.


The brilliant flash of an exploding star's shockwave-what astronomers call the "shock breakout" -- is illustrated in this video animation. The cartoon video begins with a view of a red supergiant star that is 500 hundred times bigger and 20,000 brighter than our sun. When the star's internal furnace can no longer sustain nuclear fusion its core collapses under the force of gravity. A shockwave from the implosion rushes outward through the star's layers. The shockwave initially breaks through the star's visible surface as a series of finger-like plasma jets. Only 20 minute later the full fury of the shockwave reaches the surface and the doomed star blasts apart as a supernova explosion. This animation is based on photometric observations made by NASA's Kepler space telescope. By closely monitoring the star KSN 2011d, located 1.2 billion light-years away, Kepler caught the onset of the early flash and subsequent explosion.

For more information on NASA's Astrobiology Institute, visit:
http://nai.nasa.gov/

H. Pat Brennan
JPL, Calif.

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
Tel: 650-604-6982
michele.johnson@nasa.gov

Credits: Credit: NASA Ames, STScI/G. Bacon


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In the News

Exploration Science Forum 2016
The NASA Exploration Science Forum will be held at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA July 20 - 22nd 2016

For more information on NASA Exploration Science Forum, visit:
http://nesf2016.arc.nasa.gov/


Second International Workshop on Asteroid Threat Assessment: Meteor-Tsunami and Associated Risk Assessment Sponsored by: NASA and NOAA
The First International Workshop on Asteroid Threat Assessment was held at NASA Ames Research Center, July 7-9, 2015. Its focus was on asteroid impacts through physical characterization, modeling of atmospheric entry/ breakup, surface damage, and risk assessment, with emphasis on small impactors. The workshop highlighted the need to better understand scenarios that can lead to tsunami and their potential for wide-spread damage of coastal regions.

For more information on Second International Workshop on Asteroid Threat Assessment: Meteor-Tsunami and Associated Risk Assessment Sponsored by: NASA and NOAA, visit:
https://tsunami-workshop.arc.nasa.gov/workshop2016/

2011 Ames Environmental Sustainability Report released

Kepler

Kepler is a Discovery-class mission featuring a visible-light telescope designed to detect transiting planets around stars. It is expected to detect hundreds of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and will determine the fraction of stars with such terrestrial planets.

For more information, view details.


2011 Ames Environmental Sustainability Report released

SOFIA

SOFIA is an airborne observatory featuring a 2.5 m infrared telescope fitted aboard a 747 airplane. Flying state-of-the-art instrumentation at altitudes above 40,000 feet, the observatory will study astronomical phenomena in our Solar system, Galaxy and the nearby Universe.

For more information, view details.


2011 Ames Environmental Sustainability Report released

ISS

The International Space Station is now being utilized for science and engineering research. Ames conducts space biology experiments on ISS, while designing and developing the next generation of analytical laboratory hardware for ISS.

For more information, view details.