October 28th, 2011
10:48 AM ET

Another look at today's Delta II launch

A Delta II rocket carrying the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft launched this morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

NPP is the first earth-observing satellite to measure long-term climate change and daily weather, in effect aiming to measure the overall health of the planet. The satellite continues the observation work done by satellites Terra, Aqua and Aura with better observations, better models and predictions.

Data from NPP will also help lay the groundwork for future National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites.

In addition to the NPP spacecraft, the Delta II rocket also carried six nanosatellites, known as CubeSats. CubeSats are cube-shaped satellites that are 10 cm on a side and weigh 1 kilogram. These CubeSats, which are part of the ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellite) program, are run by four universities: University of Montana, Auburn University, University of Michigan, and Utah State University.

CNN iReporter Tony Galvan viewed the launch from Goleta, California. Check out his iReport for details on monitoring the CubeSats launched along with NPP via ham radio.

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Filed under: In Space • iReport • News
October 28th, 2011
10:03 AM ET


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

Today, @CNNLightYears is giving a #FollowFriday to a few Twitter accounts that tweet about UFOs for this Halloween edition.

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Filed under: FollowFriday • Voices
October 28th, 2011
09:36 AM ET

NPP Launch Arc

"On Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, an arc of light illuminates the pre-dawn sky at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as a Delta II rocket launches with the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft payload. NPP carries five science instruments, including four new state-of-the-art sensors, which will provide critical data to help scientists understand the dynamics of long-term climate patterns and help meteorologists improve short-term weather forecasts."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
October 27th, 2011
02:16 PM ET

Special space access

One of the largest buildings in the world is opening its doors to the public, and those lucky enough to enter may see a space shuttle orbiter being prepared for retirement.

Starting next month, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida will be offering a new tour called KSC Up-Close that will include a visit inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.

"This is a very special and unique opportunity," says John Stine, KSC Visitor Complex director of sales and marketing. "(The VAB) has been closed for over 30 years."

Open only to NASA employees and a select few, this 525-foot-tall building was originally built as the assembly location for Apollo/Saturn vehicles. During the space shuttle program it was the location where the shuttle orbiter was mated to the external tank and solid rocket boosters.

"With the end of the shuttle program and as a prelude to the next phase of manned space flight, we have the opportunity to gain access to the building for a very limited period of time," says Stine.

Stine makes no promises that guests will see an orbiter, but he says that space shuttle Endeavour will be in the VAB indefinitely. "It's a great bonus to come in, not only to be in awe of the inside of this facility," he says, "but then seeing Endeavour being prepared for its trip out West."

October 27th, 2011
02:02 PM ET

21 Lutetia: Not an everyday asteroid

Most asteroids are known to be fragments of parent asteroids or rubble piles, but the asteroid known as 21 Lutetia appears to be neither of those things.

Three articles in this week's Science come to similar conclusions: Data from the European Space Agency's Rosetta craft show that 21 Lutetia is more like a planetesimal, or a planet-precursor, than an asteroid. Planetesimals are important because they can provide information about the formation of the Solar System.

What makes 21 Lutetia unique? Researchers using OSIRIS, the Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System, studied the asteroid's surface and determined that it's covered in a thick layer of regolith, or loose surface material. The regolith flows across the surface of the asteroid in landslides.

Another team of scientists used radio-tracking to calculate the mass of 21 Lutetia, and determined that the density of the asteroid is about 212 pounds per cubic foot - one of the highest densities for an asteroid.

A third team of researchers used VIRTIS, the Visible, Infrared and Thermal Imaging Spectrometer, carried by Rosetta to measure the temperature and composition of the asteroid. 21 Lutetia appears to have a max surface temperature of 254 degrees Kelvin, without any evidence of space weathering or aqueous processes.

These three articles are likely just the beginning, as the uniqueness of the asteroid means it'll probably be studied further.

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space
October 27th, 2011
12:56 PM ET

NEEMO 15 surfaces early

Hurricanes have been known to damage not only environments but also best-laid plans, including NASA's NEEMO 15 mission. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the Aquarius habitat that serves as home base for the mission, concluded this week that Hurricane Rina's projected path posed too great a danger to the safety of the crew and mission in progress off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.

NEEMO, the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project, uses Aquarius to simulate some of the challenges of working in space, according to the NEEMO website.  Crews spend up to three weeks at a time living and working in the undersea station.

The six aquanauts - Shannon Walker, Takuya Onishi, David Saint-Jacques, Steven Squyres, James Talacek, and Nate Bender - surfaced Wednesday morning after completing five days of the NEEMO 15 mission. While their stay on Aquarius was cut short, the crew still completed a substantial amount of work. Among the tasks completed were six underwater "spacewalks," a full day of research inside the habitat, and four full days of simulated exploration of an asteroid.

The rest of this NEEMO mission won't be rescheduled, but we can look forward to NEEMO 16, currently set for the summer of 2012.

To learn more about NEEMO 15, you can check out its NASA page, its Flickr stream, or its Twitter feed.

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Filed under: In Space • On Earth
October 27th, 2011
12:10 PM ET

NASA's Terra Spacecraft Sees Thailand Flooding

"Since July 2011, heavy monsoon rains in southeast Asia have resulted in catastrophic flooding. In Thailand, about one third of all provinces are affected. On Oct. 23, 2011, when this image from ASTER, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft was acquired, flood waters were approaching the capital city of Bangkok as the Ayutthaya River overflowed its banks. In this image, vegetation is displayed in red, and flooded areas are black and dark blue. Brighter blue shows sediment-laden water, and gray areas are houses, buildings and roads. The image covers an area of 35.2 by 66.3 miles (56.7 by 106.9 kilometers) and is located at 14.5 degrees north latitude, 100.5 degrees east longitude.

With its 14 spectral bands from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region and its high spatial resolution of 15 to 90 meters (about 50 to 300 feet), ASTER images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER is one of five Earth-observing instruments launched Dec. 18, 1999, on Terra. The instrument was built by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. A joint U.S./Japan science team is responsible for validation and calibration of the instrument and data products. The broad spectral coverage and high spectral resolution of ASTER provides scientists in numerous disciplines with critical information for surface mapping and monitoring of dynamic conditions and temporal change."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
October 26th, 2011
01:38 PM ET

All That Remains

"Infrared images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, were combined in this image of RCW 86, the dusty remains of the oldest documented example of an exploding star, or supernova. It shows light from both the remnant itself and unrelated background light from our Milky Way galaxy. The colors in the image allow astronomers to distinguish between the remnant and galactic background, and determine exactly which structures belong to the remnant.

Dust associated with the blast wave of the supernova appears red in this image, while dust in the background appears yellow and green. Stars in the field of view appear blue. By determining the temperature of the dust in the red circular shell of the supernova remnant, which marks the extent to which the blast wave from the supernova has traveled since the explosion, astronomers were able to determine the density of the material there, and conclude that RCW 86 must have exploded into a large, wind-blown cavity."

Source: NASA

Filed under: Light up the screen
Dinosaurs migrated long distances, says new study
These dinosaur tooth fossils have horizontal marks where enamel was removed for analysis by Colorado College researchers.
October 26th, 2011
01:00 PM ET

Dinosaurs migrated long distances, says new study

Like many birds and mammals today, ancient plant-eating dinosaurs migrated hundreds of miles each year as seasons changed, according to a study published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Scientists have long suspected that camarasaurus - a 50-foot-long, 20-ton dinosaur that lived 145 million years ago during the late Jurassic Period - migrated.

But what really surprised scientists was how far these big lizards walked: a six-month, 186-mile trek from lowlands to the mountains and then back again.

"That's a lot of  walking to do over the course of a year," said the study's lead scientist, Henry Fricke of Colorado College.

The research touches on key questions among dinosaur experts: How did these giant beasts behave, and why were they so big?

Fossilized teeth and chemicals called oxygen isotopes may have unlocked a few clues.

Fricke and his team spent four years analyzing oxygen isotopes in fossilized camarasaurus teeth found in Wyoming and Utah.

Here's a basic idea of how it worked. Water across the ancient landscape contained specific ratios of two isotopes: oxygen 18, which has eight protons and 10 neutrons in its nucleus, and oxygen 16, which has eight protons and eight neutron in its nucleus.  Researchers were able to track locations where the dinosaurs drank their water by examining the isotopes built up in the fossilized tooth enamel, like a "tiny tape recorder of what animals were drinking," Fricke said. From this data, scientists tracked the dinosaurs from lowlands in what is now Wyoming and Utah to mountainous regions to the west.

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Filed under: Dinosaurs • Discoveries • News • On Earth
October 26th, 2011
11:29 AM ET

Spectacular aurora borealis

If you’ve ever seen the aurora borealis, you know what a spectacular sight it can be. You also know it’s all about location, location, location. The northern lights are generally only visible in the more northern latitudes, but this week, many people were seeing these amazing displays as far south as Georgia and Alabama. Why was this aurora event visible to so many?

The chain of events that caused the lights started as early as 9:36 p.m. on Friday, with the occurrence of a Coronal Mass Ejection. These CMEs are large eruptions of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons from the sun that travel through space, sometimes heading toward the Earth. They can occur at any time, but typically, these events are more common during periods of high solar activity. From now until 2013, there will be a solar maximum, or a peak in solar activity, meaning we will likely see more events like these CMEs, as well as sunspots and solar flares.

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