NASA’s Van Allen Probes Spot Man-Made Barrier Shrouding Earth

Humans have long been shaping Earth’s landscape, but now scientists know we can shape our near-space environment as well. A certain type of communications — very low frequency, or VLF, radio communications — have been found to interact with particles in space, affecting how and where they move. At times, these interactions can create a barrier around Earth against natural high energy particle radiation in space. These results, part of a comprehensive paper on human-induced space weather, were recently published in Space Science Reviews.

Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Genna Duberstein, Download in HD

“A number of experiments and observations have figured out that, under the right conditions, radio communications signals in the VLF frequency range can in fact affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the Earth,” said Phil Erickson, assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory, Westford, Massachusetts.

VLF signals are transmitted from ground stations at huge powers to communicate with submarines deep in the ocean. While these waves are intended for communications below the surface, they also extend out beyond our atmosphere, shrouding Earth in a VLF bubble. This bubble is even seen by spacecraft high above Earth’s surface, such as NASA’s Van Allen Probes, which study electrons and ions in the near-Earth environment.

The probes have noticed an interesting coincidence — the outward extent of the VLF bubble corresponds almost exactly to the inner edge of the Van Allen radiation belts, a layer of charged particles held in place by Earth’s magnetic fields. Dan Baker, director of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, coined this lower limit the “impenetrable barrier” and speculates that if there were no human VLF transmissions, the boundary would likely stretch closer to Earth. Indeed, comparisons of the modern extent of the radiation belts from Van Allen Probe data show the inner boundary to be much farther away than its recorded position in satellite data from the 1960s, when VLF transmissions were more limited.

With further study, VLF transmissions may serve as a way to remove excess radiation from the near-Earth environment. Plans are already underway to test VLF transmissions in the upper atmosphere to see if they could remove excess charged particles — which can appear during periods of intense space weather, such as when the sun erupts with giant clouds of particles and energy.

Cosmic Origins Spectrograph Launches Aboard STS-125 Atlantis

Photo Courtesy of Chris Scholz

May 11th, 2009 Shuttle STS-125 Atlantis roared into space from the Kennedy Space Center for the final Hubble Servicing Mission. On board were a myriad of instruments to keep the Hubble Space Telescope working well into the future.

Space Shuttle Atlantis carried two new instruments to the Hubble Space Telescope, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and the Wide Field Camera 3. The mission also replaced a Fine Guidance Sensor, six gyroscopes, and two battery unit modules to allow the telescope to continue to function at least through 2014.[3][7] The crew also installed new thermal blanket insulating panels to provide improved thermal protection, and a soft-capture mechanism that would aid in the safe de-orbiting of the telescope by an unmanned spacecraft at the end of its operational lifespan.[NASA 5][8] The mission also carried an IMAX camera with which the crew documented the progress of the mission for the Hubble IMAX movie.[NASA 6]

The mission was intended to extend the life of Hubble at least another five years and today we celebrate the 8 year anniversary. All instruments are working well and continue to return great science as well as the fantastic pictures we have come to love.

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Solar Array Cooling System Coming Together on Solar Probe Plus

The Solar Array Cooling System on Solar Probe Plus has one critical job – to protect the NASA spacecraft’s solar arrays from incineration as it moves through the blazing atmosphere of the sun.

Several key elements of that system are now on board the spacecraft, installed last week during ongoing integration and test operations at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. On April 5, engineers carefully attached the deck that holds the solar array cooling system components, solar array cooling system radiators and the truss structure assembly, or TSA. The TSA will support the spacecraft’s signature 8-foot-wide, 4.5-inch-thick carbon-carbon foam heat shield, as well components from the FIELDS experiment and Solar Wind Electrons, Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) suite that will make direct measurements of the charged particles and electrical fields in the solar environment.

Solar Probe Plus is on track for launch during a 20-day window that opens July 31, 2018. Integration and testing will continue at APL through November; after that, the spacecraft will be moved to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for four months of final space-environmental testing, it is then shipped to Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in March 2018 for final launch preparations. APL designed, is building, and will operate Solar Probe Plus for NASA.

Mission integration and test team members secure the deck holding the structure assembly and several other critical thermal-protection components atop NASA’s Solar Probe Plus spacecraft body on April 5, 2017, in the cleanroom at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

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Humanity Will ‘Touch the Sun’ with the Fastest Spacecraft Ever Made

The most ambitious NASA mission you’ve never heard of.

Sun worship is a popular theme in human history, for good reason. Our local yellow dwarf star is the head of our solar family, the most influential body in our cosmic vicinity, and the midwife of all life on Earth. It’s the biggest cheese for light years around, and it’s earned its share of reverence.

Yet our Sun remains one of the most unexplored bodies in the solar system. After all, it is tough to study a massive fusion reactor that will burn out your retinas if you even look at it the wrong way, let alone send a spacecraft to brave the inferno up close.

Enter: Solar Probe Plus (SPP), a NASA mission in development at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. This robotic explorer will venture closer to the Sun than any other probe before it, flying through its corona—the searing atmosphere surrounding the star—for the first time in history. It will brave both fiery and freezing temperatures, travel faster than anything ever made by humans, and deliver the most intimate glimpse of our star—and the forceful solar wind it emits—in spaceflight history.

The Complete Article care of Motherboard is here:

NASA Spacecraft Investigate Clues in Radiation Belts

High above Earth, two giant rings of energetic particles trapped by the planet’s magnetic field create a dynamic and harsh environment that holds many mysteries — and can affect spacecraft traveling around Earth. NASA’s Van Allen Probes act as space detectives, to help study the complex particle interactions that occur in these rings, known as the Van Allen radiation belts. Recently, the spacecraft were in just the right place, at just the right time, to catch an event caused by the fallout of a geomagnetic storm as it happened. They spotted a sudden rise in particles zooming in from the far side of the planet, improving our understanding of how particles travel in near-Earth space.

The twin Van Allen Probes orbit one behind the other, investigating clues in a way a single spacecraft never could. In this model, the trailing spacecraft saw an increase in injected oxygen particles (blue), which was unobserved by the first. The increase in particles was due to a geomagnetic storm front that moved across the path of the orbit after the first spacecraft passed.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mike Henderson/Joy Ng, Producer

The two twin Van Allen Probe spacecraft orbit one behind the other, investigating clues in a way a single spacecraft never could. On one typical day, as the first instrument traveled around Earth, it spotted nothing unusual, but the second, following just an hour later, observed an increase in oxygen particles speeding around Earth’s dayside — the side nearest the sun. Where did these particles come from? How had they become so energized?

Scientists scoured the clues to figure out what was happening. With the help of computer models, they deduced that the particles had originated on the night side of Earth before being energized and accelerated through interactions with Earth’s magnetic field. As the particles journeyed around Earth, the lighter hydrogen particles were lost in collisions with the atmosphere, leaving an oxygen-rich plasma. The findings were presented in a recent paper in Geophysical Review Letters.

The unique double observations of the Van Allen Probes help untangle the complex workings of Earth’s magnetic environment. Such information has provided the very first view of these harsh belts from the inside — and it helps us better protect satellites and astronauts traveling through the region

NuSTAR Probes Puzzling Galaxy Merger

This optical image shows the Was 49 system, which consists of a large disk galaxy, Was 49a, merging with a much smaller “dwarf” galaxy Was 49b. Image credit: DCT/NRL

A supermassive black hole inside a tiny galaxy is challenging scientists’ ideas about what happens when two galaxies become one.

Was 49 is the name of a system consisting of a large disk galaxy, referred to as Was 49a, merging with a much smaller “dwarf” galaxy called Was 49b. The dwarf galaxy rotates within the larger galaxy’s disk, about 26,000 light-years from its center. Thanks to NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission, scientists have discovered that the dwarf galaxy is so luminous in high-energy X-rays, it must host a supermassive black hole much larger and more powerful than expected.

“This is a completely unique system and runs contrary to what we understand of galaxy mergers,” said Nathan Secrest, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.

Data from NuSTAR and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey suggest that the mass of the dwarf galaxy’s black hole is huge, compared to similarly sized galaxies, at more than 2 percent of the galaxy’s own mass.

The complete article is found here:

StarDustatHome on PBS

StarDustatHome and Stall Catchers are interactive ways for folks to help scientists analyze the vast amounts of data from their home computers. The software used for the Stall Catchers game, that is part of the EyesOnALZ is based on the StarDustatHome software.

EyesOnALZ is featured as part of the Crowd and Cloud airing tonight on many PBS stations.

EyesOnALZ is in part One, and airs about 28 minutes into the program. Check your local listings for air times.


Super Pressure Balloon Flight Enables Pioneering Infrasound Study

It’s all about that bass and lots of it. Deep, deep base—sound at frequencies too low for the human ear to pick-up.

It’s called infrasound, low-frequency soundwaves formed by events as diverse as ocean waves crashing together, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes to rocket launches. These soundwaves, capable of traveling around the world multiple times, have never been recorded from the stratosphere for more than a day and a half and never over the ocean. That is, not until this past year.

NASA’s 2016 Super Pressure Balloon flight from Wanaka, New Zealand, carried the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload, a gamma ray telescope. Tucked behind one of COSI’s solar panels was the Carolina Infrasound instrument, a three-kilogram payload resembling a small styrofoam ice chest on the outside but with a trio of InfraBSU infrasound microphones on the inside. A Boise State University team led by Associate Professor Jeff Johnson originally designed the microphones to record volcanic explosions, but the sensors have found an unexpected new use in the stratosphere.

The Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI) payload just prior to launch from Wanaka, New Zealand, on a NASA super pressure balloon in May 2016. The Carolina Infrasound payload hitched a ride on the mission on a pioneering study to measure infrasound from the stratosphere. Credits: NASA/Bill Rodman

The complete story is found here: