JPL director: Visiting Mars a ‘question of national will’
August 31st, 2012
04:15 PM ET

JPL director: Visiting Mars a ‘question of national will’

August has been a busy month for Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The rover Curiosity successfully landed on Mars on August 6, flawlessly executing the improbable acrobatics of touching down on the Red Planet intact. President Obama congratulated Elachi and colleagues on the achievement and complimented them on the coolness of “Mohawk Guy” on August 13. Curiosity also completed its test drive and passed many initial inspections.

This week, Elachi visited Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology, where he signed an agreement with the school that will involve exchanging faculty, inviting students to JPL, and other collaborations.

Elachi sat down with CNN's Elizabeth Landau and Sophia Dengo for a chat about the future of space exploration. Here’s an edited transcript:

CNN: Curiosity’s on Mars now. What’s next?

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Charles Elachi: Clearly Curiosity showed the excitement of the public about doing these kind of things.

That’s one step in a long-term Mars exploration and planetary exploration program, which first would lead to bringing samples back. In a sense we are building the capability step by step.

If you go back 15 years, the first time we landed a rover on Mars it was called Sojourner. And it was about (the size of) a shoe box. So, just in this period, we moved from a shoebox to building a car-sized, one-ton rover landing on Mars, and being effectively a chemistry lab on wheels.

And the objective is to do detailed analyses of rocks on Mars to see if there are any organic materials, the ultimate thing we want to see is: Was Mars ever habitable? Did life evolve on Mars? Why it did or why it did not, and how does that compare to Earth?

In a sense you are doing an experiment of comparing those two planets which formed roughly at the same time… but they ended up going in different ways, and the question is: Why did that happen?

CNN: If Curiosity found life, what would happen?

Elachi: Clearly, that’s not the fundamental objective. We’re doing step by step, looking at the chemistry first. If you recall, (the previous rovers) Spirit and Opportunity’s focus was on geology, which led us to believe – the science community – to conclude that Mars actually had oceans many billions of years ago.

If there were oceans, could life have evolved? Curiosity is looking at the chemistry to see: Did we have the right ingredients?

Now, if we find life, even if we’re not expecting it, even if it’s dead life, that would be a huge kind of event. As of today, we know about life only on this planet. Conceptually we think it exists because of the size of the universe, but we don’t have any proof. That would be the discovery of the century, if we see anything like that.

CNN: Would the public know immediately?

Elachi: Oh sure. Our data is made available almost immediately to everybody. And that’s part of the excitement, is the engagement of the public in what we are doing. So, as you know, on the landing, night of the landing, just on the NASA landing, there were 14 million households watching that landing, even though it was 1:30 in the morning on the East Coast. That’s only on the NASA website. I’m going to guess at least 50 to 60 million people in the U.S. were watching that landing, and the excitement which went with it.

Just the e-mails I got within a few minutes from people even that I don’t know. Almost every e-mail had the word “inspirational” or “uplifting the spirit of what we are doing.” One person said he completely forgot about his debts about the day-to-day problems by watching something really inspirational.

Clearly, there is a lot of public engagement and public interest. The way we do that is to have the public feel like they are part of the exploration, they are with us day in and day out. And we’re doing this on behalf of the general public. That’s why our data, whatever we find out, is made available very quickly.

CNN: What are other targets for finding life?

Elachi: Key targets are the where we know water exists. If you have liquid water, that means the temperature is right – it’s between 0 degrees and 100 degrees centigrade. So the question is: If there are organic materials, could life evolve?

Of the places which have that characteristic, Europa is one of them. We believe there is an ocean below the surface, that there is a layer of ice similar to what you have in the Arctic, but maybe a little bit thicker than it. A key question is: How thick is that ice on the surface and is there life in the ocean below?

We are looking at a mission that probably could go early next decade to actually completely map Europa (a moon of Jupiter). Do a sounding of the ice (analyzing echoes), see how thick it is, and then possibly in the future put a lander which could drill down or melt its way down in the ocean.

Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) is another exciting target because also we believe there are oceans below the surface because we see geysers like at Yellowstone except much bigger. Some people believe Titan (a moon of Saturn) might have an ocean also below the surface.

We think by exploring (these targets), we might be able to put a story about how life evolved in our solar system, and what are the environments that are amenable to life.

Also there is interest in a place like Venus, because Venus is similar to Earth size-wise and in distance to the sun, but it went in a completely different direction. The question is: Why did that happen? Is that because of a runaway greenhouse gas effect which happened which warmed the planet?

I think (exploring these places) would shed light about the past and potentially the future of our own planet. There is a direct connection to our day-to-day life here.

CNN: Do you think a person will visit Mars in your lifetime?

Elachi: I don’t know in my lifetime, maybe in your lifetime, you look younger than me. Yeah, I would say there is possibility in the next 20 or 30 years. There is a possibility of doing it. I think engineering-wise, we know how to do it to some level. We still need a lot of development and a few inventions to do that.

So at the end it would become a question of national will if we want to keep our exploration, expand our vision and expand our exploration in the next 20 to 30 years.

CNN: Tell us about InSight, which is launching in 2016

Elachi: The purpose of the InSight mission is to put a fixed lander, not a rover, which have a very sensitive seismometer. So the idea is to detect quakes on Mars. The reason that’s interesting is not only the quakes themselves, but the quakes because they propagate through the side of the planet, it will allow us to get a picture of the internal structure: the core, crust, and be able to compare it to Earth. Most of our information about the Earth’s internal structure comes from earthquakes, by seeing how earthquakes propagate and so on.

It will be sitting there for two years actually listening (for seismic waves). An internal probe (a drill) will go down five feet and will measure the heat flow, heat coming from the inside of Mars (to the surface).

CNN: Do you think there is life elsewhere?

Elachi: There is no reason why not. You have literally billions of stars, probably billions of planets, there’s going to be a fair number of them which have similar environments and the laws of chemistry and physics and biology are the same.

It would be amazing if we don’t find it, but as scientists we have to prove it, but we have to actually observe it to prove it. And then it would be interesting to see: did it evolve like our life?

CNN: Are you afraid that the United States is going to lose its place in the space race?

Elachi: It’s always a challenge. I say, it’s extremely hard to be No. 1 and to stay No. 1, because then you have to keep running faster than anybody else. It’s easy to be No. 3 and No. 2. But if you are No. 1, you have to really make a strong investment in education, in technology, in being bold in your vision, to stay at No. 1. So, I sure hope that the leadership of our country and the general population see the values that science and technology have brought to our lives.

That’s what made us economically so powerful, because we are by far the best technologically, and space exploration was a trigger in making that happen.

I remember when we did the Apollo landing, that’s what triggered a lot of people to be inspired. So hopefully the mission like this Mars mission or future planetary exploration and astrophysics will inspire young people about wanting to do these kinds of daring things.


Filed under: In Space • Mars • Voices
Family remembers Neil Armstrong
August 31st, 2012
02:46 PM ET

Family remembers Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong was memorialized today in a private service held by his family in Ohio. Memorials are also being held around the country, including events at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The first man on the moon died on August 25, at 82, from complications of a cardiovascular procedure.

The loss of this American hero has been felt keenly around the country and the world, prompting responses not only from everyday citizens but also from President Obama, who proclaimed that flags fly at half-staff on the day of his burial, Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator, and his fellow astronauts and colleagues.

In a YouTube statement, Charles Bolden said, "Neil will always be remembered for taking human's first small step on a world beyond our own, but it was his courage, grace and humility before during and after his historic Apollo 11 mission that has continued to lift him and all of us far beyond that breakthrough achievement."

Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin said in a separate statement, "Whenever I look at the moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we were farther away from Earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone....I know I am joined by millions of others in mourning the passing of a true American hero and the best pilot I ever knew....I had truly hoped that in 2019, we would be standing together along with our colleague Mike Collins to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing."

The Armstrong family also released a pair of statements. Upon his death, they expressed the following: "Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati."

"For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

To that end, the Internet has responded with Wink at the Moon Night, to be marked on August 25th of every year.

For those wishing to honor Neil Armstrong's memory, his family released a list of organizations that they believe are worthy of such an honor, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, saying "The outpouring of condolences and kind wishes from around the world overwhelms us and we appreciate it more than words can express."

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Filed under: News • the Moon
A Surprisingly Bright Superbubble
August 31st, 2012
01:38 PM ET

A Surprisingly Bright Superbubble

"This composite image shows a superbubble in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 160,000 light years from Earth. Many new stars, some of them very massive, are forming in the star cluster NGC 1929, which is embedded in the nebula N44, so named because it is the 44th nebula in a catalog of such objects in the Magellanic Clouds. The massive stars produce intense radiation, expel matter at high speeds, and race through their evolution to explode as supernovas. The winds and supernova shock waves carve out huge cavities called superbubbles in the surrounding gas. X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue) show hot regions created by these winds and shocks, while infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (red) outline where the dust and cooler gas are found. The optical light from the 2.2-m Max-Planck-ESO telescope (yellow) in Chile shows where ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars is causing gas in the nebula to glow.

A long-running problem in high-energy astrophysics has been that some superbubbles in the LMC, including N44, give off a lot more X-rays than expected from models of their structure. These models assume that hot, X-ray emitting gas has been produced by winds from massive stars and the remains of several supernovas. A Chandra study published in 2011 showed that there are two extra sources of N44’s X-ray emission not included in these models: supernova shock waves striking the walls of the cavities, and hot material evaporating from the cavity walls. The Chandra observations also show no evidence for an enhancement of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium in the cavities, thus ruling out this possibility as a third explanation for the bright X-ray emission. Only with long observations making full use of the capabilities of Chandra has it now become possible to distinguish between different sources of the X-rays produced by superbubbles."

-Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
Colorful Colossuses and Changing Hues
August 30th, 2012
02:58 PM ET

Colorful Colossuses and Changing Hues

"A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Titan, Saturn's largest moon, measures 3,200 miles, or 5,150 kilometers, across and is larger than the planet Mercury. Cassini scientists have been watching the moon's south pole since a vortex appeared in its atmosphere in 2012. See PIA14919 and PIA14920 to learn more about this mass of swirling gas around the pole in the atmosphere of the moon.

As the seasons have changed in the Saturnian system, and spring has come to the north and autumn to the south, the azure blue in the northern Saturnian hemisphere that greeted Cassini upon its arrival in 2004 is now fading. The southern hemisphere, in its approach to winter, is taking on a bluish hue. This change is likely due to the reduced intensity of ultraviolet light and the haze it produces in the hemisphere approaching winter, and the increasing intensity of ultraviolet light and haze production in the hemisphere approaching summer. (The presence of the ring shadow in the winter hemisphere enhances this effect.) The reduction of haze and the consequent clearing of the atmosphere makes for a bluish hue: the increased opportunity for direct scattering of sunlight by the molecules in the air makes the sky blue, as on Earth. The presence of methane, which generally absorbs in the red part of the spectrum, in a now clearer atmosphere also enhances the blue.

This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ring plane.

This mosaic combines six images - two each of red, green and blue spectral filters - to create this natural color view. The images were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on May 6, 2012, at a distance of approximately 483,000 miles (778,000 kilometers) from Titan. Image scale is 29 miles (46 kilometers) per pixel on Titan.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
Humans, Neanderthals related to yet another group
A finger bone let researchers sequence the genome of an extinct human relative. A Denisovan bone replica appears on a hand.
August 30th, 2012
02:35 PM ET

Humans, Neanderthals related to yet another group

From a finger bone, scientists have reconstructed the genetic world of an entire population of extinct human relatives called Denisovans. But questions still abound about who exactly they were.

They weren’t quite like modern humans or Neanderthals, but some other group entirely. Everything we know about the Denisovans is based on a finger bone and two teeth.

Those small remnants, found in a cave in southern Siberia, are enough to figure out a few important things about these ancient people - including that some people today share genes with them.

For the first time, scientists have sequenced the Denisovan genome, with a quality that is about as high as the genome of a person alive today. That means scientists can learn about as much genetically about a person who lived tens of thousands of years ago as they could about a living person. The findings, published this week in the journal Science, deliver a wealth of insight about ancient people who roamed the Earth tens of thousands of years ago.

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Filed under: Human ancestors • News • On Earth
Black holes, bright galaxies emerge from dust
Gas and dust form a torus shape around a black hole in this illustration.
August 30th, 2012
11:12 AM ET

Black holes, bright galaxies emerge from dust

Hidden behind dust in deep space are brilliant galaxies with black holes that scientists are just beginning to learn about.

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, known as WISE, has found millions of black holes and about 1,000 dust-obscured galaxies with very high temperatures, which NASA is cutely calling "hot DOGs" for short. They are believed to be the brightest known galaxies.

Hot DOGs, which have supermassive black holes at their centers, can emit more than 100 trillion times as much light as the sun, according to researchers. But they do not appear as bright in images because they are covered in dust.

“It changes our concept of how brilliant and powerful galaxies can be,” said Peter Eisenhardt, project scientist for WISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We are finding quite a few objects here that are brighter than what we knew before, and we’ve only combed through about 10% of these hot DOGs.”

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Filed under: In Space • News
August 29th, 2012
04:43 PM ET

Armstrong's last mission: Bring people back to space

After his great feat of becoming the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s career seemed destined for stardom: He played the leading role, along with his peers, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins, in many triumphant parades and awards ceremonies.

But he shied away from the spotlight. After being selected as deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA, he resigned in 1971 to become an aerospace engineer professor at Cincinnati University, where he served until 1981.

After that, Armstrong served as president of aerospace technology companies, Computing Technologies for Aviation and AIL Systems, as well as honorary positions at institutions such as the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the International Astronautical Federation. FULL POST

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Filed under: People in Orbit
August 29th, 2012
10:32 AM ET

Will.i.am premieres song - from Mars

Rapper will.i.am can boast of an accomplishment that is out of this world: His latest single premiered from Mars, making it the first song to debut on another planet.

The Black Eyed Peas singer wrote the song, "Reaching for the Stars," to mark the successful landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on the Red Planet this month.

A far cry from his regular hip-hop tunes, it features a 40-piece orchestra set to a futuristic beat.

The song is set to transcend time and cultures, he said.

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Filed under: Mars • News
A bright idea in solar physics
An image from November 3 shows an X1.9-class solar flare.
August 28th, 2012
02:27 PM ET

A bright idea in solar physics

Since their inception in 1964, global positioning systems have changed the landscape of travel and navigation around the world. However, the out-of-orbit satellites that allow these innovative systems to work are in jeopardy, largely because of weather – from the sun.

Large solar flares appear to be the problem. They act as explosives that erupt from the sun’s surface and can cause irreversible damage if their flareups aren't known about ahead of time.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology may have a solution. They are examining the predecessors of solar flares, called plasma loops, by re-creating them in a lab.

Solar flares cannot be prevented, but if they can be predicted, it would help scientists figure out how to protect satellites from plasma loops, said Paul Bellan of California Institute of Technology.

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Filed under: News • the Sun
August 28th, 2012
11:02 AM ET

Human voice makes giant leap in space thanks to Curiosity

The voice of NASA's chief has boldly gone where no voice has gone before - to another planet and back.

Words uttered by Charles Bolden, the administrator of NASA, were radioed to the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars, which in turn sent them back to NASA's Deep Space Network on Earth, NASA said in a statement Monday.

The successful transmission means Bolden's space-faring comments are the first instance of a recorded human voice traveling from Earth to another planet and back again, according to NASA.

In the recording, Bolden congratulated NASA employees and other agencies involved in the Curiosity mission, noting that "landing a rover on Mars is not easy."

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • News
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