5-year cruise to Jupiter to begin
July 29th, 2011
02:09 PM ET

5-year cruise to Jupiter to begin

The launch window for NASA’s next mission, one the agency is calling a “five-year cruise to Jupiter”, opens next week, and scientists are hoping it will answer some giant questions about the giant planet.

Juno, named after the god Jupiter’s wife in Greek and Roman mythology, has been in the making since the early 2000s. In the ancient Roman stories, Jupiter, the god of the sky, pulled a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, and only his wife was able to peek through and see him as he truly was.


Navy drops former astronaut Nowak
The Navy released a statement saying Lisa Nowak's conduct "demonstrated a complete disregard for the well-being of a fellow service member."
July 29th, 2011
01:44 PM ET

Navy drops former astronaut Nowak

(CNN) - A former astronaut accused of assaulting a romantic rival has been forced to retire from the Navy with an "other than honorable" discharge.

Capt. Lisa Nowak's retirement is effective September 1.

Her "conduct fell well short of that expected of senior officers in our Navy and demonstrated a complete disregard for the well-being of a fellow service member," Juan Garcia, the assistant secretary of the Navy, said in a statement.

Prosecutors accused Nowak of driving nearly 900 miles from Houston to Orlando - wearing NASA diapers to cut down on the number of stops she needed to make - and donning a disguise before following former Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman from the airport's baggage claim to the parking lot in February 2007.

Her attorney denied that she wore the diapers.

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Filed under: In Space • News
5 questions with Dr. Brian Cox
Dr. Brian Cox currently hosts "Wonders of the Universe" on BBC.
July 29th, 2011
11:28 AM ET

5 questions with Dr. Brian Cox

Every Friday, Light Years will bring you "5 Questions" with a newsmaker, author or influencer in the space and science worlds.

Rock star-turned-physicist Brian Cox, at 43 years old,  has quite the impressive resume. This British particle physicist left rock ’n’ roll in the early '90s to pursue his first and true love: science. Dr. Cox is the host of the BBC program “Wonders of the Universe,” which debuted in the U.S. this week, and is the author of the recently released book by the same name. Cox is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. In addition, he is working on the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

You went from playing the keyboard in a British rock band to teaching science. How did that transition take place?

 I’d always been interested in astronomy and space exploration. My dad tells me that I watched Apollo 8 go around the moon back in 1968, when I was only a baby, so I’ve always been interested in science. Being a musician came a bit later. When I was 14 or 15, I got into music and took a little detour and then went back to the university.  Being a musician was fun. I traveled out of the UK just once, going to LA when I was 19 to make an album. But to be honest, I think I got out of it at the right time. I wouldn’t want to be doing it now. I love being a physicist. Before doing a TV program and writing books, I was just doing research in labs in Germany and Switzerland, and that’s what I love doing. I accidentally stumbled on this new career of making TV programs, but that’s been quite fun as well.  

Are there planets in our universe, besides Earth, that can sustain life?  

Technically, we don’t know. We know that on Earth, where you find liquid water, you find life. Mars is getting more and more interesting every month. The evidence is that there’s probably liquid water there, but it hasn’t been proven yet. Another one is Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. It has a saltwater ocean beneath the surface. That’s real tempting — what you better do is go and find out.

Do you believe the human population will be living on those planets anytime soon?  

At some point, yes I do. I would be very disappointed if I didn’t see us land on Mars within my lifetime. We should be there already — we know how to do it. We already live in space. The space station’s been there for over a decade. There should be a base on the moon, too. I guess it’s up to the ambition of the human race.  


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Filed under: News • Voices
July 29th, 2011
10:17 AM ET

Rock Layers in Gale Crater

"This oblique view of the lower mound in Gale Crater shows layers of rock that preserve a record of environments on Mars. Here, orbiting instruments have detected signatures of both clay minerals and sulfate salts, with more clay minerals apparent in the foreground of this image and fewer in higher layers. This change in mineralogy may reflect a change in the ancient environment in Gale Crater.

Mars scientists have several important hypotheses about how these minerals may reflect changes in the amount of water on the surface of Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, will use its full suite of instruments to study these minerals to provide insights into these ancient Martian environments. These rocks are also a prime target in the search for organic molecules since these past environments may have been habitable - able to support microbial life. Scientists will study how organic molecules, if present, vary with mineralogical variations in the layers to understand how they formed and what influences their preservation.

The smaller hills in this view may provide clues to the modern water cycle on Mars. They contain sulfate salts that have water in them, and as temperatures warm into summer, some of that water may be released to the atmosphere. As temperatures cool, they may absorb water from the atmosphere. The Mars Science Laboratory team will investigate how water is exchanged between these minerals and the atmosphere, helping us understand Mars' modern climate. The hills are particularly useful for this investigation because different parts of the hills are exposed to different amounts of sunlight and thus to different temperatures. Curiosity will be able to compare the water in these contrasting areas as part of its investigations.

This three-dimensional perspective view was created using visible-light imaging by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. Three-dimensional information was derived by stereo analysis of image pairs. The vertical dimension is not exaggerated. Color information is derived from color imaging of portions of the scene by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera.

The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is being prepared for launch on Nov. 25, 2011. In a prime mission lasting one Martian year - nearly two Earth years - after landing, researchers will use the rover's tools to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
July 29th, 2011
10:04 AM ET


Every Friday, @CNNLightYears will suggest interesting and exciting space and science Twitter accounts to follow.

Today, @CNNLightYears is giving a #FollowFriday to @NASA’s official Earth science mission accounts. "NASA’s goal is to understand the changing climate, its interaction with life, and how human activities affect the environment,” according to NASA’s Earth science website.

NASA’s Earth Observatory tweets images and discoveries about climate and the environment.

NASA’s Hurricane and Tropical Cyclone account tweets the latest storm images and data.

@NASA_ICE tweets about the Earth's sea ice, land ice, snow, and permafrost. Follow this account for tweets from #ICESCAPE, a multi-year NASA shipborne project taking place in the Arctic Ocean.

NASA's "Eyes on the Earth" Twitter account offers news on all-things climate.

The official Twitter account from NASA's newest climate and weather satellite, NPP, which is scheduled to launch on October 25th.  The NPOESS Preparatory Project "will orbit the Earth about 16 times each day and observe nearly the entire surface."

You can also follow Twitter updates from @CNNLightYears.

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Filed under: FollowFriday • Voices
July 28th, 2011
10:40 AM ET


"Preparations are underway to begin integration of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Launch Abort System (foreground) with the Crew Module (background) for acoustical testing. The tests will be conducted in the Reverberant Acoustics Laboratory at the Lockheed Martin Waterton facility near Denver, Colorado. The Orion stack will be exposed to a series of acoustic tests of increasing decibels that simulate the sound pressure levels that the vehicle will encounter during launch."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
July 27th, 2011
02:19 PM ET

Testing NASA's Next Deep Space Vehicle

"'5...4...3...2...1...release.' With that countdown, the Apollo-like test article that is a base model for the agency's future Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, took flight swinging across the sky - nearing 50 mph (80.5 kph) - at NASA Langley's Landing and Impact Research Facility."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
July 27th, 2011
11:42 AM ET

NASA releases new iPad app 'NASA Viz'

NASA released a new Earth science iPad app, NASA Visualization Explorer, or NASA Viz, Tuesday.

The app, which was developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., offers users access to NASA’s space-based Earth science research through visualizations.

The app centers around features which contain high-resolution movies and images accompanied by short stories,  as well as interviews with scientists. NASA Viz also has a social networking tap-to-share feature which allows content to be easily shared on Twitter and Facebook.

One of the first six features published on NASA Viz, "Marine Deserts on the Move," offers satellite observations showing where plants thrive and struggle to survive on land and sea. The story includes data visualizations, videos, and an interview with an oceanographer. Other stories include one about polar scientists in Antarctica and NASA's satellites that observe the Earth.

NASA Viz will add two new features per week, which will be published on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Though the app just focuses on Earth-based science, it could include stories about the Sun and other parts of our Solar System in the future, according to the Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA Visualization Explorer is free and available from the App Store via iTunes here.

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Filed under: News • On Earth
Apollo's most controversial mission
"NASA was very quick to throw us under the bus," says Apollo 15 astronaut Col. Al Worden.
July 27th, 2011
09:26 AM ET

Apollo's most controversial mission

Although Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden still feels that NASA treated him unfairly 40 years ago, he says he's now "back on par" with the space agency on this anniversary of his journey to the moon in July 1971.

Many have forgotten the so-called "covers" incident, which prompted many Americans to question the Apollo astronauts’ almost god-like status as national heroes.

"What has happened to the astronauts?" asked a New York Times headline at the time.

Worden, now 79, and his Apollo 15 crewmates David Scott and James Irwin suffered stinging NASA reprimands for bringing with them into space about 400 unauthorized postage-stamped envelopes (called first-day covers) with the intention of selling them later as souvenirs.

"It wasn't as bad as people thought. We didn't violate any regulations, we broke no rules," Worden said Tuesday from his home in Vero Beach, Florida.

An investigation into the incident revealed that previous Apollo astronauts had carried unauthorized memorabilia on board. But Worden and his fellow crew members bore the brunt of the backlash.

NASA "was very quick to throw us under the bus," said Worden. "They made an example of us."

Worden, an Air Force colonel, was dropped from the astronaut corps and reassigned to a NASA desk job - never to fly in space again. NASA's astronaut manager, Deke Slayton, called Worden on the phone to deliver the bad news.

"'The Air Force wants you back, that’s the good news,” Worden remembers Slayton telling him. “'The bad news is, you've got to be out of your office by next Monday.'"

NASA initially refused to return the envelopes to the astronauts, prompting Worden to sue the space agency. The case was settled out of court and the crew members got their envelopes back. "Once we had exposed the fact that they had violated our constitutional rights, then the game was all over at that point," he said. "They took our property and kept it without due process."

Worden and his colleagues changed their minds and chose not to accept thousands of dollars they had agreed to be paid for the souvenirs from a West German stamp dealer. But Worden did sell some of the envelopes years later, he said, to pay for campaign debts he incurred when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the '80s.

"There probably are some things I would have done differently," Worden said Tuesday. "I probably wouldn't have been so naive when this whole thing was offered to us."

He said he and the other crew members were told that every Apollo crew had done the same thing.

"As a matter of fact, if you go on auction sites you'll see covers that were carried on Apollo 11 and all the other flights, and nobody ever made a fuss about them."

"I think everybody's forgotten about it ... and I'm sort of back on par with everybody." Lately Worden has been active at NASA functions and with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which funds college educations for science and technology students.

The "covers" controversy overshadowed Apollo 15’s successful and historic moon mission, which accomplished several firsts, including the first lunar rover vehicle and the first walk in deep space. Worden, who took that walk, remembers what it was like being suspended in space a record-setting 196,000 miles from Earth.

"The real difference is the view,” he said. “You can see both the Earth and the moon, which is a pretty unique position."

The crew overcame its share of mission glitches, including a loose umbilical plug between the lunar module and the command module, a water leak inside the astronaut cabin, and a failed parachute during re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.

Worden describes more about going to the moon and his fascinating career in his newly published autobiography, "Falling to Earth."

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Filed under: Hardware in Orbit • In Space • News • People in Orbit
NASA hopes to shuttle former employees into new jobs
NASA workers look on as space shuttle Atlantis is towed back to its hangar on July 21 at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
July 26th, 2011
03:40 PM ET

NASA hopes to shuttle former employees into new jobs

NASA is holding a career fair in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Tuesday to help its former contract employees to find new jobs now that the shuttle program is ending.

Among those who will be rubbing elbows with government and private recruiters are some of the engineers NASA hired to maintain the shuttle's 20 different systems – "every part of the shuttle that required a team of engineers and technicians to get it ready for the next flight," said Lisa Malone, a NASA spokeswoman."

Over the years, NASA has been downsizing those teams, with Cape Canaveral seeing the most layoffs, including 1,500 on Friday, Malone said.

"I would say the lion's share of (the layoffs) has been in Florida," she said.

According to a fact sheet from NASA, the agency plans to lay off 2.223 Florida "shuttle prime contractors" in fiscal 2011, for a total of 4,371 layoffs in Florida since 2008. At the end of the year, NASA expects to have laid off 9,425 shuttle contractors nationwide since 2008.

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