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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 Missions

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

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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.

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The Ancient Mars Water Story, Updated
October 17, 2016

The Ancient Mars Water Story, Updated
Rendering of Gale Lake some 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars was warmer and much wetter. The Curiosity mission is finding that rocke in Gale Crater changed by water everywhere. (Evan Williams, with data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HIRISE project)

Before the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, NASA's "follow the water"maxim had already delivered results that suggested a watery past and just maybe some water not far below the surface today that would periodically break through on sun-facing slopes.

While tantalizing - after all, the potential presence of liquid water on a exoplanet's surface is central to concluding that it is, or once was, habitable - it was far from complete and never confirmed via essential ground-truthing.

Curiosity famously provided that confirmation early on with the discovery of pebbles that had clearly been shaped in the presence of flowing surface water, followed by the months in Yellowknife Bay which proved geologically, geochemically and morphologically the long-ago presence of substantial amounts of early Martian water.

Some of the earliest drilling was into mudstone that looked very much like a dried up basin or marsh, and that was exactly what Curiosity scientists determined it was, at a minimum. It took many months for Curiosity leaders to ever use the word "lake" to describe what had once existed on the site, but now it is a consensus description.

Since the presence of a fossil lake was confirmed and announced, the water story has taken something of a backseat as the rover made its challenging and revelatory way across the lowlands of Gale Crater, through some dune fields and onto the Murray formation - a large geological unit that is connected to the base of Mount Sharp itself. And all along the path of the rover's traverse mudstone and sandstone were present, a clear indication of ever larger amounts of water.

Read more at the Many Worlds blog.

SOFIA Detects Collapsing Clouds Becoming Young Suns
October 5, 2016

SOFIA Detects Collapsing Clouds Becoming Young Suns
An infrared image of the W43 star-forming region located 20,000 light years away in the direction of the constellation Aquila, one of the places where Wyrowski et al. detected cloud clumps collapsing to become massive stars.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS

Researchers on board NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, observed the collapse of portions of six interstellar clouds on their way to becoming new stars that will be much larger than our sun.

When a gas cloud collapses on itself, the cloud's own gravity causes it to contract and the contraction produces heat friction. Heat from the contraction eventually causes the core to ignite hydrogen fusion reactions creating a star.

Astronomers are excited about this SOFIA research because there have been very few previous direct observations of collapse motion. These SOFIA observations have enabled scientists to confirm theoretical models about how interstellar clouds collapse to become stars and the pace at which they collapse. Actually observing this collapse, called "infall," is extremely challenging because it happens relatively quickly in astronomical terms.

"Detecting infall in protostars is very difficult to observe, but is critical to confirm our overall understanding of star formation," said Universities Space Research Association's Erick Young, SOFIA Science Mission Operations director.

Using the observatory's GREAT instrument, the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, scientists searched for this developmental stage in nine embryonic stars, called protostars, by measuring the motions of the material within them. They found that six of the nine protostars were actively collapsing, adding substantially to the previous list of less than a dozen protostars directly determined to be in this infall stage.

For several weeks each year, the SOFIA team operates from Christchurch, New Zealand, to study objects best observed from southern latitudes, including the complete center of the Milky Way where many star-forming regions are located. Heading south during the Southern Hemisphere's winter months, when the nights are long and infrared-blocking water vapor is especially low, also creates prime observing conditions.

"With the Southern Hemisphere deployments of SOFIA, the full inner Milky Way comes into reach for star formation studies. This is crucial for observations of the earliest phases of high-mass star formation, since this is a relatively rapid and rare event," said Friedrich Wyrowski, astronomer at the Max-Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.

The results were from observations made in the Southern Hemisphere in 2015, and were published in Astronomy and Astrophysics earlier this year. SOFIA spent seven weeks during 2016 observing from Christchurch. The scientific teams involved in the Southern Hemisphere observations are analyzing the acquired data now.

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, DLR. 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 (DSI) at the University of Stuttgart. The aircraft is based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center's Hangar 703, in Palmdale, California

For more information about SOFIA, visit:

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

Last Updated: Oct. 5, 2016
Editor: Kassandra Bell

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet
October 5, 2016

When it comes to exoplanets, astronomers have realized that they only know the properties of the planets they discover as well as they know the properties of the stars being orbited. For a planet's size, precisely characterizing the host star can mean the difference in our understanding of whether a distant world is small like Earth or huge like Jupiter.

For astronomers to determine the size of an exoplanet-planets outside the solar system-depends critically on knowing not only the radius of its host star but also whether that star is single or has a close companion. Consider that about half of the stars in the sky are not one but two stars orbiting around each other, this makes knowing the binary property of a star paramount.

One particularly interesting and relatively nearby star, named TRAPPIST-1, recently caught the attention of a team of researchers. They wanted to determine if TRAPPIST-1, which is home to three small, potentially rocky planets-one of which orbits in the temperate habitable zone where liquid water might pool on the surface-was a single star like the sun, or if it had a companion star. If TRAPPIST-1 did have a companion star, the discovered planets will have larger sizes, possibly large enough to be ice giants similar to Neptune.

If an exoplanet orbits a star in a binary system but astronomers believe the starlight captured by the telescope is from a single star, the real radius of the planet will be larger than measured. The difference in the measured size of the exoplanet can be small ranging from 10 percent to more than a factor of two in size, depending on the brightness of the companion star in the system.

To confirm or deny the single star nature of TRAPPIST-1, Steve Howell, senior research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, led an investigation of the star. Using a specially designed camera, called the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument or DSSI, Howell and his team measured the rapid disturbances in the light emitted by the star caused by the Earth's atmosphere and corrected for them. The resultant high-resolution image revealed that the light coming from the TRAPPIST-1 system is from a single star.

With the confirmation that no other companion star resides in the vicinity of TRAPPIST-1, the research team's result validates not only that transiting planets are responsible for the periodic dips seen in the star's brightness but that they are indeed Earth-size and may likely to be rocky worlds.

"Knowing that a terrestrial-size potentially rocky planet orbits in the habitable zone of a star only 40 light-years from the Earth is an awesome finding," said Howell. "The TRAPPIST-1 system will continue to be studied in great detail as these transiting exoplanets offer one of the best chances to characterize the atmosphere of an alien world."

Mounted on the 8-meter Gemini Observatory South telescope in Chile, the DSSI provided astronomers with the highest resolution images available today from a single ground-based telescope. The nearness of TRAPPIST-1 allowed astronomers to peer deep into the system, looking closer than Mercury's orbit to our sun.

The paper the result is based on is published in the September 13th issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Interest in the recently-discovered TRAPPIST-1 with its three Earth-size planets is high. Astronomically speaking, at 40 light-years from Earth, the system is a hop, skip and a jump away. The star itself is a dim M-type star, which, relative to most stars, is very small and cool, but making transit detection of small planets easier.

Further detailed measurement of the planetary transits seen in TRAPPIST-1 will begin later this year when NASA's Kepler space telescope in its K2 mission will precisely monitor minute changes in the light emitted from the star for a period of about 75 days.

The space-based observations from the Kepler spacecraft will provide extremely precise measurements of the planet transit shapes allowing for more refined radius and orbital period determination. Noting variations in the mid-time of the transit events can also help astronomers determine the planet masses. Additionally, the new observations will be searched for more transiting planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Speckle interferometry, the imaging technique used by the DSSI, is a powerful asset in the astronomer's toolkit as it provides a unique capability to characterize the environment around distant stars. The technique provides ultra high-resolution images by taking multiple extremely short (40-60 millisecond) exposures of a star to capture fine detail in the received light and "freeze" the turbulence caused by Earth's atmosphere.

By combining the many thousands of exposures and using mathematical techniques to remove the momentary distortions caused by Earth's atmosphere, the final result provides a resolution equal to the theoretical limit of what the 8-meter Gemini telescope would produce if no atmosphere were present.

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet
The four-panel graphic illustrates the difference of measured starlight when seen through a ground-based telescope with (top left corner) and without the blurring effects caused by Earth's atmosphere. The technique to neutralize Earth's atmospheric blur is called speckle interferometry. All four images are shown at the same scale.
Credits: Gemini Observatory/AURA and NASA/Ames/W. Stenzel

Howell and his team at NASA Ames are currently undertaking the construction of two new speckle interferometric instruments. One of the new instruments will be delivered this fall to the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope located at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside of Tucson, Arizona, where it will be used by the NN_EXPLORE guest observer research program. The other is being developed for the Gemini Observatory North telescope located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

NASA 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.

To learn more about the result from the Gemini Observatory, visit:

For more information on the Kepler and the K2 mission, visit:

Media contact:
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Last Updated: Sept. 14, 2016
Editor: Michele Johnson

NASA Selects Next Generation Spectrometer for SOFIA Flying Observatory
September 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:

For information about SOFIA's science mission and scientific instruments, visit:

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.

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Planet hunters seek new ways to detect alien life
July 27, 2016

Planet hunters seek new ways to detect alien life
Astronomers have found dozens of exoplanets that might contain liquid water, and perhaps support life.
T. Pyle/JPL-Caltech/NASA Ames

In the search for life beyond Earth, false alarms abound. Researchers have generally considered, and rejected, claims ranging from a 1970s report of life on Mars to the 1990s 'discovery' of fossilized space microbes in a meteorite.

Now, inspired by the detection of thousands of planets beyond the Solar System, NASA has started a fresh effort to learn how to recognize extraterrestrial life. The goal is to understand what gases alien life might produce — and how Earth-bound astronomers might detect such ‘biosignatures' in light passing through the atmospheres of planets trillions of kilometres away (see ‘Searching for alien life').

Planet hunters seek new ways to detect alien life
Source: Chart: S. Seager & W. Bains Sci. Adv. 1, e1500047 (2015); Cone: Ref. 5

The agency will convene a workshop this week in Seattle, Washington, with the ultimate goal of advising a NASA exoplanet group on how to avoid embarrassing errors in the future. "We have to come together and determine what good evidence of life on another planet could be," says Shawn Domagal-Goldman, one of the workshop's organizers and an astronomer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The exercise comes at a crucial time, as astronomers grapple with how to interpret exoplanet data from the next generation of telescopes. Some scientists are working to understand how nature could produce archetypal biosignature gases, such as oxygen, in the absence of living organisms. Others are trying to think as expansively as possible about the types of biochemistry that could sustain life.

"We could fool ourselves into thinking a lifeless planet has life — or we could be missing life because we don't really understand the context of what could be produced on another planet," says Sarah Rugheimer, an astronomer at the University of St Andrews, UK.

Detecting a biosignature gas is just the first step to understanding what could be happening on an exoplanet. Each world has its own combination of physical and chemical factors that may or may not lead to life, says Victoria Meadows, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Planets are hard, and we shouldn't think they are all going to be the same or reveal their secrets very easily," she says.

A planet's environment is key. Some Earth-sized planets orbit M dwarf stars — the most common type of star in the Galaxy — at the right distance to harbour liquid water. But Meadows' collaborators have shown1 that photo-chemical reactions can send water into the planet's atmosphere and then break off its hydrogen, which escapes into space. What's left is a thick blanket of oxygen that might seem as if it came from living organisms, but results from a run-away greenhouse effect.

There are ways to tell. The runaway greenhouse would create an atmosphere thousands of times denser than Earth's, in which O2 molecules collide to produce O4. So spotting O4 in a planet's atmosphere could be a clue that the oxygen does not, in fact, come from life, Meadows' team reported this year2.

Another method is to draw up a list of alternative biosignature gases — things not as obvious as oxygen that might be made by organisms under certain conditions. These include dimethyl sulfide3, which is produced by Earthly phytoplankton, or even ammonia4. On a cold alien planet, organisms might make the gas using the same chemical process as industrial manufacturers.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, astronomer Sara Seager has begun to examine 14,000 compounds that are stable enough to exist in a planetary atmosphere. She and her colleagues are winnowing down their initial list of molecules using criteria such as whether there are geophysical ways to send the compound into the atmosphere5.

"We're doing a triage process," says Seager. "We don't want to miss anything."

The Seattle meeting aims to compile a working list of biosignature gases and their chemical properties. The information will feed into how astronomers analyse data from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018. The telescope will be able to look at only a handful of habitable planets, but it will provide the first detailed glimpse of what gases surround which world, says Nikole Lewis, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

No single gas is likely to be a slam-dunk indicator of alien life. But Domagal-Goldman hopes that the workshop will produce a framework for understanding where scientists could trip themselves up. "We don't want to have a great press release," he says, "and then a week later have egg on everybody's faces."

The article appears in the 28 July issue of Nature and is now online:

POC: Alexandra Witze ( Branch/Organization: Exobiology Branch (Code SSX)

Spillage of Lunar Polar Crater Volatiles
June 19 2016

Spillage of Lunar Polar Crater Volatiles
This shaded relief image shows the moon's Shackleton Crater, a 21-km-wide crater permanently shadowed crater near the lunar south pole. The crater's interior structure is shown in false color based on data from NASA's LRO probe.

A team of researchers lead by Bill Farrell of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, investigated how volatile chemicals like water ice, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane and other unstable compounds (collectively referred to as "volatiles") can migrate out of craters on the Moon.

Many volatiles escape into space, but some of them are bounded to the Moon, often falling into "cold traps" in the bottom of permanently shadowed craters. The scientists looked at how volatiles are released when bombarded by energetic particles that are common in the harsh space environment. Plasma from the solar wind and micrometeorite impacts may vaporize volatiles lofting them up from the crater floors and scattering them in the crater's immediate vicinity.

Spillage of Lunar Polar Crater Volatiles
Illustration of energy processes operating on a lunar polar crater floor: Sputtering and Impact Vaporization. Credit: Farrell et al, 2015

Lets say you were exploring the lunar poles, prospecting for resources, and you wanted to know what was at the bottom of a dark crater. Sniff around the crater rim and you might find out! The team concludes that the nature of the volatile content on crater floors can be obtained by sampling the surface volatiles that have migrated or "spilled out" onto the adjacent terrain.

"This "spillage" effect could make human or robotic prospecting for crater resources significantly easier, since an assessment may not require direct entry into the very harsh polar crater environment," said Farrell, who is also the Principal Investigator for SSERVI's "Dynamic Response of Environments at Asteroids, the Moon, and moons of Mars" (DREAM2) team.

These topside volatiles could be very useful for prospecting: a landed robotic mission does not have to necessarily enter directly into the harsh, shadowed polar crater to determine the nature of the volatiles. A system could examine the surrounding polar crater lip to determine the nature and amount of volatiles that reside onto the crater floor. One could envision a hopper lander moving from crater lip to crater lip to assess which south polar crater possesses the greatest volatile content. The hopper lander could make its final hop into the richest polar crater floor to make an assessment at the source.

Spillage of Lunar Polar Crater Volatiles
The test water particle initial velocity distribution for impact vaporization (M-B) and sputtering (S-T). Inset shows the topside water landing sites in a 200 km × 200 km region about the crater via impact vaporization. Credit: Farrell et al, 2015The test water particle initial velocity distribution for impact vaporization (M-B) and sputtering (S-T). Inset shows the topside water landing sites in a 200 km × 200 km region about the crater via impact vaporization. Credit: Farrell et al, 2015

This SSERVI-funded research arose in part from "SSERVI's Friends of Lunar Volatiles focus group." Researchers who would like to participate in SSERVI focus groups are invited to attend this year's Exploration Science Forum (ESF), held at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA from July 21-23rd. Registration is FREE. For more information visit:

Read the full paper. Reference: W. M. Farrell, D. M. Hurley, M. I. Zimmerman (2015). Spillage of lunar polar crater volatiles onto adjacent terrains: The case for dynamic processes; Geophysical Research Letters Vol 42, 3160-3165.

Posted by: Soderman/SSERVI Staff
Editor: Kassandra Bell

Source: W. M. Farrell, D. M. Hurley, M. I. Zimmerman (2015). Spillage of lunar polar crater volatiles onto adjacent terrains: The case for dynamic processes; Geophysical Research Letters Vol 42, 3160-3165.

SPHERES: How a Class Project Turned into an Experiment Facility in Space
May 18, 2016

The three on-orbit SPHERES satellites fly in formation through the International Space Station, appearing like a squadron star fighters from the Star Wars universe. Credits: NASA/ISS

Imagine you’re sitting in class watching a scene from “Star Wars” and your professor assigns a project meant to fly in space.

In 1999, that is exactly what happened for engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“On the first day of class, I showed the students the clip where Luke Skywalker learns to channel the Force using the free-floating practice droid on the Millennium Falcon spacecraft,” explained David Miller, the professor and creator of the course. “I said that I want three of these droids to fly on the shuttle or International Space Station, except without the lasers blasts," said Miller, now NASA's chief technologist. "And the rest is history.”

Seventeen years later, that class project, called SPHERES -- Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites -- is celebrating a rare milestone: 10 years of investigation on the International Space Station (ISS).

SPHERES: The Prequel

SPHERES was initially envisioned to be a fleet of space-based satellites to test computer programs for close-formation flying of spacecraft for advanced telescopes, on-orbit satellite servicing and automated docking.

Prior to the first on-orbit test on May 18, 2006, though, Miller realized SPHERES could also host experiments.

Steve Sell, project manager for SPHERES during the early stages of development and operations at Payload Sciences Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, recalls when Miller approached the small team late in development. “The computer board had a port on it that was available,” Sell said. “Dr. Miller challenged us to figure out a way to get that port out to the outside so we could plug stuff on, and we did.” The project became a research facility for interchangeable experiments onboard the world’s preeminent research laboratory orbiting Earth.

A founding partner on the SPHERES program on ISS has been the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has provided funding, scientific and technological support to the program from its start in 2000 to the present.

That’s No Satellite! It’s an Experiment Platform!

Halo -- seen here attached to a blue SPHERES satellite -- is the newest addition to the SPHERES facility. Each Halo attachment is comprised of printed circuit boards, enclosed in 3-D printed plastic, and six expansion ports -- each with power, data connections and computing capabilities. Credits: MIT

These interchangeable add-ons, some developed through the DARPA partnership, take many forms. A ring-shaped hexagonal structure called SPHERES Halo, resembling a TIE fighter spacecraft in the Star Wars universe, is attached to the satellites enabling them to fly more complicated configurations and host more experiments than before.

Another notable SPHERES-hosted investigation is SPHERES Slosh, a study aimed at understanding the movement of liquid rocket fuels in space.

“Fuels slosh around in the tanks,” said Jose Benavides, program manager for SPHERES at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “That slosh adds forces to the direction the rocket is travelling, and if those forces are too big, they’re going to knock the rocket off course, and then bad things happen.”

To simulate the slosh, two SPHERES satellites maneuver a clear container, partially filled with water dyed Yoda-green; a camera and sensors record the liquid’s movement. Researchers incorporate experiment data into computer models, enabling engineers to design safer and more efficient rockets for spaceflight and NASA’s journey to Mars.

“For the first time in history, we have validated computer models that allow us to predict the motion of the fluid in the propellant tanks of spacecraft,” Brandon Marsell, principal investigator for SPHERES Slosh. “That’s huge for rocket technology!”

These Are the Droids You’re Looking For…Kind of

In September 2011, the teams added smartphones to the satellites for the project Smart SPHERES, transforming SPHERES into robots capable of performing tasks for astronauts or flight controllers. The tasks are often either too risky or too repetitive and mundane for the crew, freeing the astronauts for activities requiring a human touch.

The project tested ground remote control of the satellites to fly inside the station and provide camera views to the flight controllers as well as testing the robots’ abilities to follow astronauts using facial detection.

VERTIGO Maps Where the Satellites Go

When robotic missions rendezvous with tumbling asteroids or satellites, they will need an automated way of navigating around the object. SPHERES VERTIGO develops software for vision-based navigation and characterization of tumbling objects using stereo cameras and a computer attached to each satellite. SPHERES then builds 3-D digital models of the object and can navigate around it solely using the model.

An Astronaut’s Question Leads to a Student Competition in Space

When astronaut Greg Chamitoff returned from the space station, he inquired about SPHERES’ software and learned that anyone could program it without violating safety assurance.

With his question “Even high school kids?” Zero Robotics was born.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly works with SPHERES on the International Space Station.
Credits: NASA/ISS

Student teams worldwide develop computer code for a video game based on a specific NASA challenge, solvable with small, SPHERES-like satellites. Simulations narrow the field and ultimately determine the finalists whose code is tested on the actual SPHERES satellites on ISS, facilitated by on-orbit astronauts.

In its eighth year, the competition proves to be a valuable tool for engaging the next generation of scientists, explorers and engineers while teaching about real-world, off-world challenges.

The SPHERES Legacy

Seventeen years ago in a classroom not that far away, the SPHERES facility was born. As it prepares to hand off its lightsaber of experimentation to the next generation robotic free-flyer, Astrobee, in 2018, team members are looking ahead to the future, while celebrating the successes of nearly 600 test hours over 114 test sessions by 38 on-orbit crew members.

Like SPHERES, Astrobee will be used as a research facility and a remotely-operated robot that can be supervised by mission control for mobile camera work, environment sensing and automated logistics.

NASA Ames will operate and maintain Astrobee, just as it currently does with SPHERES. Astrobee is funded by the Game Changing Development Program -- part of the NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate -- and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, both at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Similarly, SPHERES is also funded by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the multi-colored, bowling ball-sized SPHERES satellites is not in the data returned or the similarities to Astrobee but in the classroom where it all began. “Just because something is a student project doesn’t mean it’s only academic,” said Sell. “You can take a student project and turn it into something really great. That’s just a wonderful thing.”

Last Updated: June 2, 2016
Editor: William Bryan

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:

Kimberly Williams
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

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:

For briefing materials from Tuesday's media teleconference where the new group of planets was announced, visit:

Felicia Chou
Headquarters, Washington

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

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 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:

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:

Felicia Chou
Headquarters, Washington

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Staying Strong: Spaceflight Muscle Loss Study Aims to Benefit Patients on Earth
April 21, 2016

NASAs Rodent Habitat
NASA's Rodent Habitat, shown here with one of the two access doors open, provides long-term housing for rodents aboard the International Space Station. Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart

"Exercise and eat right" is a common prescription for maintaining muscle and building bone, but more advanced solutions are needed to address serious diseases that lead to loss of muscle function in the general population. The International Space Station is providing researchers a unique opportunity to study muscle loss and to investigate means for muscle preservation.

Rodent Research-3, a study sponsored by Eli Lilly and Company and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), focuses on assessing the ability of a novel compound to prevent skeletal muscle wasting and weakness in mice exposed to long-duration spaceflight. The investigation launched aboard the eighth SpaceX resupply mission to the space station on April 8.

How can spaceflight help researchers better understand terrestrial musculoskeletal diseases and interventions? When we unload, or remove the force of our body weight from the muscles that normally work against gravity to support us, those muscles rapidly atrophy, or waste away and weaken. That's exactly what happens in microgravity unless countermeasures are applied. The astronauts on the space station, for example, follow rigorous exercise programs that apply forces to their musculoskeletal systems and help them stay strong throughout their missions.

NASAs Rodent Habitat
Under the direction of the International Space Station Utilization Office and the Space Biology Project, NASA’s Rodent Research Hardware System was developed and built at NASA’s Ames Research Center to provide a research platform for long-duration rodent studies in space. Credits: NASA

Mice exposed to spaceflight have proved to be valuable research models to understand, target and treat causes of human muscle atrophy.

"This includes modeling serious diseases that involve muscle wasting such as muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cancer cachexia and even aging-related musculoskeletal frailty," said Rosamund Smith, research fellow at Eli Lilly and Company, and the principal investigator for the Rodent Research-3 mission.

"The ability to expose all muscles of an organism to conditions that induce muscle atrophy is not easily achieved on Earth," said Smith. "Lilly is excited to have the opportunity to conduct this investigation in space."

Loss of muscle function, rather than just a decrease in muscle size, is the critical aspect that leads to problems with physical performance in patients suffering from muscle-wasting conditions. Therefore, Eli Lilly and Company has contributed expertise, techniques and equipment for studying muscle function in the mission.

NASAs Rodent Habitat
Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts and Flight Engineer Scott Kelly perform operations for Rodent Research-2, a commercial investigation of the effects of spaceflight on the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that was launched to the station on April 14, 2015. Credits: NASA

"The Rodent Research-3 study is unique not only in the experimental compound that will be tested, but also because, for the first time, muscle function of the mice will be assessed during spaceflight," said Janet Beegle, Rodent Research-3 project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.

Rodent Research-3 uses NASA's Rodent Research Hardware System. Developed and built at Ames, this system takes advantage of experience gained from 27 prior flight investigations with rodents using a space shuttle-based system. The space station now supports much longer-duration rodent studies than were previously possible during space shuttle missions, which were typically two weeks in duration. Rodent Research-3 is a six-week long study.

Although the primary research focus of Rodent Research-3 is skeletal muscle, the investigators are studying other organ systems, such as bone, both at the tissue and molecular levels. Their goal is to characterize tissue responses to spaceflight and observe how these changes vary with the length of time spent in microgravity. The findings will advance our understanding of the risks that long-term space exploration poses to astronauts, and can be applied towards the development of countermeasures to protect astronaut health. Additionally, Eli Lilly and Company plans to share Rodent Research-3 experimental samples with the scientific community, further broadening the potential benefits of this research mission.

Results from Rodent Research-3 will be applied to ongoing discovery efforts at Eli Lilly and Company, seeking treatments for serious muscle-wasting diseases and conditions that may potentially help patients afflicted with degenerative diseases to stay strong.

The space station is a blueprint for global cooperation and scientific advancements, a destination for growing a commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit, and a test bed for demonstrating new technologies. The orbiting laboratory is also the major springboard to NASA's next great leap in exploration, including future missions to an asteroid and Mars.

Gianine Figliozzi
Space Biosciences Division
NASA's Ames Research Center

Media contact: Darryl Waller, 650-604-4789

The Rodent Research-3 mission is sponsored by the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. Ames is responsible for mission integration and operations. BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado, Boulder, is the science integrator for the mission and TechShot Inc. of Greenville, Idaho, developed the Bone Densitometer instrument for the International Space Station National Laboratory that will be used in the Rodent Research-3 study.

Last Updated: April 21, 2016 Editor: Kristine Rainey

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:

News Media Contact

Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif

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:

For more information about NASA's Ames Research Center, visit:

Kimberly Williams
Ames Research Center

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

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:

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:

Darryl E. Waller
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Photo Credits: NASA

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Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) 2017

Space Science & Astrobiology Division Seminar
Rogue waves, disintegrating asteroids, and precision asteroseismology: White dwarf discoveries enabled by K2. For more information, visit:

The next Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) will be held April 24–28, 2017 at the Mesa Convention Center in Mesa, Arizona.

For more information, visit:

2011 Ames Environmental Sustainability Report released


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2011 Ames Environmental Sustainability Report released


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2011 Ames Environmental Sustainability Report released


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