After a trip of 3 billion miles, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons has finally reached it’s closest orbit of the much-beloved planetesimal Pluto today at 8:45am. Powered by Pluto’s namesake element, Plutonium, New Horizons is Humanity’s first meet-and-greet with the famed body. What it saw in those fateful moments, only a few at NASA know about for now. It may be until 9pm before we get new images, but those images may also be the first-ever full-color images of the mini planet.

“This is real exploration,” intoned NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. And indeed, we will still be waiting some time to find out if the spacecraft survives the full experience of flying by Pluto.

This is largely due to the fact that space missions have to run on shoestring-and-less resources in order to be able to make the journeys they do make. New Horizons has to split it’s time between taking measurements, then turning, and sending it’s data payload back to Earth.

In fact,  one interesting observation that helps us understand just how far the New Horizons spacecraft has traveled, it takes 8 minutes for light from our sun to reach the Earth, but speed-of-light communications from the New Horizon craft will take about 4.5 hours to reach Earth.

Still, Principle Investigator Alan Stern doesn’t think New Horizons is in much danger of failing. NASA calculates that there’s about 2 chances in 10,000 that the mission will fail. After that, New Horizons has enough power to continue it’s mission until as late as 2030. By that time, New Horizons may even have passed out of the heliosphere – the region of space affected by solar radiation – just as Voyager 1 and 2 have done. But this time, it will be with much more sophisticated technology.

Pluto: a world of surprises

We’ve yet to find a planet in our solar system that’s a snoozefest. And if it was going to happen, most predicted it might be Pluto. After all, it’s just a hunk of rock in the distant Solar System that has even been stripped of it’s planet status. Many of us still bristle at the prospect of Pluto the “Planetesimal,” yet that’s exactly what it is.

Still, early indications predict a much more active planet than we’d thought. Alan Stern points out that the dichotomy of Pluto and it’s moon Charon could not be more striking. Since Pluto’s surface looks much less crater-ridden than it’s neighbor, indications are good that there might have been or may still be geological activity on the planet. There are also striations on the surface that suggest more seismic or tectonic activity.

A planet that gets regular quakes, volcanic activity or other geological processes tend to cover up their asteroid strikes. That Charon has these marks but Pluto does not seems to suggest that it’s been at least that active.

We’ve known for a while that Pluto has a very thin nitrogenous atmosphere. The idea that this atmosphere might obscure surface features has been a real worry for scientists embarking on this mission. But on close inspection, this atmosphere seems to be extremely thin with almost no differentiation. Thinning and thickening clouds would indicate weather patterns, but none are present. Still, when asked if it snows on Pluto, scientists seemed confident.

“It sure looks that way,” exclaimed Stern.

So, there may not be an active atmosphere on Pluto, but like Madison Square Garden, you can still occasionally get some precipitation.

We will be spending months and years analyzing the data brought back to us by New Horizons, but for now, we will need to wait on a lot of it. It’s not just distance alone that makes the wait: it’s also the technology. To say the least, transmitting data through 3 billion miles of space is “lossy.” Thus the transfer rate from New Horizons is in the range of about 1000 to 4000 bits per second. Literally fractions of the speed that your old dialup modem enjoyed.

On top of that, NASA’s means of transferring data is based on the already successful model put forth by the Apollo missions. Namely, that data is sent twice, first as a “contingent data” stream, in case the mission goes south later. Then again as fully-fleshed out data. We’ll get full-color pictures tonight, but they won’t be full-resolution for some time.

What’s next for the New Horizons probe? Well, it’s currently traveling on the night side (opposite the sun) of Pluto. Boffins were able to plan the trip to coincide with Charon’s travel across the same night side, so that reflections from Charon will illuminate the surface of Pluto in much the same way that our Earth’s Luna does. After that, it’s off to interstellar space, perhaps with another flyby of one of our outer Solar System’s many mysterious planetesimals.

I realize that many of you in Rochester are brushing up your Chewbacca impressions, but there are at least a few space fans here working on a completely different angle of space exploration. RIT is hosting one of 18 US Space Apps Challenges by @NASA to develop the next big thing:

During the two-day event, participants with a broad variety of skills will work in teams to create open-source solutions for 50 software, hardware and visualization challenges, including robotics, citizen science platforms and applications of remote sensing data. Challenges vary from developing a mobile application that allows observers of a meteor shower to trace the location, color and size of a shooting star to creating a narrative and visualization of NASA data that tells the “why” of space exploration.

The Space Apps website explains that the idea behind the project is to bring together a global community to solve challenges that will enrich our lives globally. The goal is transparency and open data, with projects including a means to synchronize all NASA open source projects to their Github repository, improvements to the open source satellite system ArduSat, a meteor tracker software app so you can watch meteor showers in real-time and even a monitoring application to keep an eye on a once-in-80k-years meteor that may or may not strike Earth in 2026.

The Challenge is a two-day event on April 20th and 21st for those interested in throwing their hats in the ring.

What is simultaneously amazing and obvious about social media – and in this case, especially Twitter – is how easily our shared meat-based existence becomes an intimate of our virtual social worlds. Some things, like the ill-begotten Weather Channel flurry naming system, register as powerful but brief blips on our trending topics ( #nemo ugh ). The light that burns twice as bright, and all that.

Other topics, such as the saga of the retiring Pope and his subsequent replacement, generate multiple trending topics and hash tags. They bounce in and out of our social existence periodically, making their presence known only when there is some new thing to report and discuss.

But still other things, like the Mars Curiosity Rover, have launched entire new communities around both the technology and the people who make up the program. At the South by Southwest shindig this week, @MarsCuriosity and its attached social phenomenon were awarded the Interactive Award for Best Social Media Campaign. Along with the Curiosity Twitter account, the social media team at NASA also engaged the Twitter audience directly with heavy campaigning around the landing of the Rover:

NASA Tweetup and NASA Social events added a “you are there” element to the campaign. Social media followers were randomly selected to go behind the scenes for launch and landing. They met with scientists and engineers, took pictures, asked questions and shared the experience via their own social media accounts, making them citizen journalists and ambassadors for the mission.

Is it amazing that a car-sized hunk of metal gets 1.3m followers and its own parody account ( @SarcasticRover ) with 100k followers of its own? Or does this phenomenon speak to the power of space exploration in our collective consciousness?


NASA uses its GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) satellites to measure the differential in gravity from place to place across the Earth to infer differences in water content. Launched in 2002 in partnership with the German Aerospace Center and the German Research Center for Geosciences, it is the first accurate observation of water availability from space. If that sounds a lot like GRAIL, which recently spiked into the moon, that’s because it is precisely the same technology.

GRACE is helpful, as they say, “when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.” In other words, where people don’t particularly like us.

And their observation? Second only to the Indian subcontinent, the Fertile Crescent is losing a shocking amount of fresh water:

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., found during a seven-year period beginning in 2003 that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea. The researchers attribute about 60 percent of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.

The presser goes on to state that this amount of water would service as many as 100 million people. Where would that much water go?

As much as one fifth of the loss is due to drought in the region. But the rest is purely a function of irrigation and siphoning of water away from the ground and into cities.

When we talk about destabilizing forces in a region, the too-often missed component is fresh water. Without fresh water, humans cannot survive. And when groundwater becomes municipal well water, it becomes political and a commodity. Particularly in this region, that is worrisome.

Republicans looking for “wasteful government spending” should look elsewhere than the team at NASA/JPL. When pressed to solve a problem, the engineers are perfectly ready, willing and able to put together old parts to make something new.

Case in point, NASA’s ISS-RapidScat system. Planned to be installed into the International Space Station in 2014, RapidScat is a scattetometer that microwaves to study the scattering patterns of wind. This new tool, aimed at studying oceanic wind currents and their effect on high energy storms like hurricanes, is being cobbled together from parts of another scatterometer, the QuickScat satellite that stopped working in 2009:

ISS-RapidScat will have measurement accuracy similar to QuikScat’s and will survey all regions of Earth accessible from the space station’s orbit. The instrument will be launched to the space station aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft. It will be installed on the end of the station’s Columbus laboratory as an autonomous payload requiring no interaction by station crew members. It is expected to operate aboard the station for two years.

ISS-RapidScat will take advantage of the space station’s unique characteristics to advance understanding of Earth’s winds. Current scatterometer orbits pass the same point on Earth at approximately the same time every day. Since the space station’s orbit intersects the orbits of each of these satellites about once every hour, ISS-RapidScat can serve as a calibration standard and help scientists stitch together the data from multiple sources into a long-term record.

The original QuickScat satellite stopped working in 2009, the new ISS launch is expected to last for two years, and next-generation equipment is being looked into for the next step.

News out of the University of Rochester this week that a research paper, printed in PLOS ONE, will show evidence that certain types of cosmic radiation may speed the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in astronauts. Research was done at NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratories and analyzed by researchers at the U of R.

The findings hinge on research done by exposing mice to radiation at levels scientists predict are similar to that encountered in space, where our fragile eggshell minds must survive without Earth’s natural radiation shield. The research focused on high-mass radiation particles like iron, as shielding astronauts from such particles poses significant engineering problems. Basically, we can’t right now. And if we’re going to put humans into space for the anticipated three-year journey to Mars, we’re probably going to want to work on that:

The brains of the mice also showed signs of vascular alterations and a greater than normal accumulation of beta amyloid, the protein “plaque” that accumulates in the brain and is one of the hallmarks of [Alzheimer’s] disease.

“These findings clearly suggest that exposure to radiation in space has the potential to accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” said O’Banion. “This is yet another factor that NASA, which is clearly concerned about the health risks to its astronauts, will need to take into account as it plans future missions.”

Mind you: even without any ill effects to your noggin, low-level, constant bombardment by radiation for the next three years would certainly take its toll. The threat of Alzheimer’s is just one more bit of the puzzle, and one that may need to be addressed.

The article leaves me wondering, though. How do they know that the plaque buildup is irreversible? Other studies at the U of R have shown that the loss of “white matter” in the brain, which is essentially the repair and maintenance crew, also may lead to Alzheimer’s. If the white matter stays intact and the plaque build up occurs, might the brain’s natural defenses right the wrongs done by space travel?

I’ve got a call in to see if I can get some clarification on all this. I’ll report back when I find out.

It sounds suspiciously like an Austin Powers movie, but no: the probes are not being slammed into our moon in ransom of 1. million. dollars. They’re being spiked into the moon at the end of a very successful mission to avoid leaving space junk floating around.

NASA announced on Friday that the last firing sequences were successfully completed that would propel the GRAIL gravity measurement satellites hurtling towards a sudden end. The Gravity Recovery and Internal Laboratory program was sent to the moon in order to study our largest satellite’s gravitational field in high detail, so that we might better understand the moon’s makeup and origins. The program is considered to have been a huge success, but fuel limits mean GRAIL will need to come to an end.

Even in the end, GRAIL’s contribution to NASA engineering is not quite finished, however. Because they know how much fuel the satellites were launched with and they’re certain that they’ve neared the end of that reserve, NASA plans to burn one long last firing to find out just how much is left in the tanks, exactly. This information will help engineers to understand just how accurate their measurements of fuel had been to this point to better prepare future missions.

For those that are interested, NASA will be providing minute-by-minute commentary on GRAIL’s final trajectory starting at 2pm Monday morning. Both probes are expected to crash at around 2:28pm. There will not be any video of the event, however, as the probes will be on the moon’s dark side on impact.

No one is saying that, exactly. Even if there were a liquid, it wouldn’t be water, as the asteroid is far to distant from the sun and much too cold for liquid water.

But scientists are puzzling over the observations of Jennifer Scully, a University of California scientist who is working on the Vesta project. She has seen gullies and what seem to be flows down craters on the surface of the asteroid that so far have defied explanation.

On Earth, the answer would be simple: the gullies are created by liquid water flows eroding the surrounding landscape. On Mars, similar featured have been observed and attributed to liquid water in the Red Planet’s distant past.

But similar shapes on Vesta can have no such explanations, which means that if other erosive forces are at play, then even agreed-upon answers for Mars may be in question:

Indeed, scientists have suggested various explanations for gullies on Mars since fresh-looking gullies were discovered in images from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor in 2000. Some of the proposed Martian mechanisms involve water, some carbon dioxide, and some neither. One study in 2010 suggested that carbon-dioxide frost was causing fresh flows of sand on the Red Planet.

This is one more reason that scientific data is always important and often surprising: study of two completely different systems may reveal new facts that change our understanding of both systems. It isn’t rare, in fact, it is what science is all about.

Interested? Check out our archives on Vesta and NASA for even more great stuff!

There have been plenty of other solar events in the last few years that the SDO has observed. Some of which have even had their effects felt here on Earth. But I’m not certain we’ve ever seen what appears to be quite so much energy leaving the sun all at one time. Here, courtesy of the SDO YouTube channel, is video including several filters of that massive eruption:

NASA’s latest SDO (Solar Dynamics Observation) video is fun! While most of us have seen lots of Shuttle launches and even the occasional iPhone-equipped weather balloon launch, its somewhat rare to see the first-person launch of a more conventional rocket. This one appears to be just about man-sized, based on the end of the video where one of the operators retrieves the rocket from its landing position among what looks like saw grass.

Unlike the relatively straight-forward flight pattern of the shuttle or other manned space craft, for a small rocket, the ability to spin on launch helps it maintain a straight flight path, in the same way that rifled bullets fly straighter, farther than non-rifled bullets. The graph at the side of the video does a good job of explaining where in the launch the rocket is as it goes, and as always, the view of the Earth below is just intoxicating:

Like I’m sure a lot of my readers were, I spent a remarkably unproductive morning staring in rapt attention at the live feed of NASA’s Mission Control and SpaceX’s Mission Control rooms as they docked the SpaceX Dragon to the ISS for the first time. This is a historic event which points the way to a rapidly-increasing presence in space for humanity, as there is now financial incentive for private companies to go out there and stake their claims. And yes, I realize that sounds very Republican. But our country’s history has always been an equal mix of public and private effort, as this event typifies.

Such a momentous occasion required at least a few screen shots, which I decided to lay out for you here:

Miss the sunrise this morning? No worries. @NASAJPL (the Jet Propulsion Labs at NASA) gives you a virtual fly-over of the asteroid Vesta, composited from the many topographical photos taken by the Dawn mission. The video below shows the craters, mountains and other features of this 330 mile wide satellite that orbits our sun in the asteroid belt.

And Vesta is big: it comprises an estimated 9% of the total mass of the asteroid belt – which is the ring of asteroids and debris that orbits between Mars and Jupiter. It is considered the most geologically-diverse of the asteroids studied so far, containing huge features including a crater 285 miles across – nearly the whole diameter! – that is evidence of an impact with another object.

In fact, Vesta just behind to the dwarf planet Ceres in size, making it nearly big enough to sit in the same pantheon of semi-planets as the former planet Pluto.