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The PI’s Perspective: One-Third Down March 25, 2009

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Our goal — closest approach to the Pluto system — will occur on July 14, 2015. This is an enchanting new artist’s conception of Pluto’s frosty surface, with Charon in the background. (ESO/L. Calçada)
Credit:

ESO,L. Calçada, Alan Stern

Description:

We passed the milestone of being one-third of the distance to Pluto last year, but today — March 19, 2009 — after 38 months and almost 2 billion kilometers of flight, New Horizons has completed precisely one-third of the days in its journey to Pluto. That’s quite a milestone, and we on the mission team celebrate the closing of this chapter of our historic journey across the great expanse of our planetary system, and the opening of mid-cruise, as I described in my January posting

But you won’t have to wait another three years for our next significant distance and flight-time milestones — they come next year, when we cross the halfway point! But whenever quoting such milestones, I have to be careful about the meaning. So when will our spacecraft be halfway to Pluto? Well, that depends on which halfway you mean. (No, I am not kidding.)

Powering Up the Station March 25, 2009

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Richard Arnold
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During the STS-119 mission’s first spacewalk, astronauts Richard Arnold and Steve Swanson (out of frame) connected bolts to permanently attach the S6 truss segment to S5. The spacewalkers plugged in power and data connectors to the truss, prepared a radiator to cool it, opened boxes containing the new solar arrays and deployed the Beta Gimbal Assemblies, containing masts that support the solar arrays.

Image Credit:

NASA

Starburst Spider (ESP_011842_0980) March 25, 2009

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Starburst Spider

Credit:

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Description:

Mars’ seasonal cap of carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) has eroded many beautiful terrains as it sublimates (goes directly from ice to vapor) every spring. In this region we see troughs that form a starburst pattern.

In other areas these radial troughs have been referred to as “spiders,” simply because of their shape. In this region the pattern looks more dendritic as channels branch out numerous times as they get further from the center. The troughs are believed to be formed by gas flowing beneath the seasonal ice to openings where the gas escapes, carrying along dust from the surface below. The dust falls to the surface of the ice in fan-shaped deposits.

Newfound Moon May Be Source of Outer Saturn Ring March 25, 2009

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Three images that show the path of a newly found moonlet in a bright arc of Saturn's faint G ring.
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Full-Res: PIA11148

Description:

This sequence of three images, obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft over the course of about 10 minutes, shows the path of a newly found moonlet in a bright arc of Saturn’s faint G ring.

In each image, a small streak of light within the ring is visible. Unlike the streaks in the background, which are distant stars smeared by the camera’s long exposure time of 46 seconds, this streak is aligned with the G ring and moves along the ring as expected for an object embedded in the ring.

Cassini scientists interpret the moving streak to be reflected light from a tiny moon half a kilometer (a third of mile) wide that is likely a major source of material in the arc and the rest of the G ring. Debris knocked off this moon forms a relatively bright arc of material near the inner edge of the G ring, the most visible part of the ring in these images. That arc, in turn, leaks material to form the entire ring.

These images were captured by Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on Oct. 27, 2008. The first image (left) was taken in visible light, the second image (middle) was taken in red light, and the third image (right) in near-infrared light centered at a wavelength of 750 nanometers. Image scale for the first image is 7 kilometers (4 miles) per pixel. The second and third images were taken at reduced resolution. These spatially compressed images were captured at 14 kilometers (9 miles) per pixel and then displayed at a size equal to the first image. This view looks toward the un-illuminated side of the rings from about 5 degrees above the ringplane. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million kilometers (751,000 miles) from Saturn and at a sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 23 degrees.

Credit:

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A Prominent Solar Prominence from SOHO March 17, 2009

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See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.

Credit:

SOHOEIT Consortium, ESA, NASA

Explanation:

What’s happened to our Sun? It was sporting a spectacular — but not very unusual — solar prominence. A solar prominence is a cloud of solar gas held above the Sun’s surface by the Sun’s magnetic field. In 2004, NASA’s Sun-orbiting SOHO spacecraft imaged an impressively large prominence hovering over the surface, pictured above. The Earth would easily fit under the hovering curtain of hot gas. A quiescent prominence typically lasts about a month, and may erupt in a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) expelling hot gas into the Solar System. Although somehow related to the Sun’s changing magnetic field, the energy mechanism that creates and sustains a Solar prominence is still a topic of research.

Cat’s Eye Planetary Nebula March 14, 2009

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image
Credit:

NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Hora (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

Description:

The “Cat’s Eye” nebula, or NGC 6543, is a well-studied example of a “planetary nebula.” Such objects are the glowing remnants of dust and gas expelled from moderate-sized stars during their last stages of life. Our own sun will generate such a nebula in about five billion years.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has studied many such planetary nebulae in infrared light, including a variety of more distant ones, which have helped scientists identify a population of carbon-bearing stars near our galaxy’s center.

The infrared emission from the Cat’s Eye is generated by a variety of elements and molecules. The bright inner region of this nebula shows a complex structure reminiscent of a feline eye. Outside this compact region lies a series of other structures representing material that was ejected slightly earlier in the central star’s life, when it was a giant star.

The image is a composite of data from Spitzer’s infrared array camera. Light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns is rendered as blue, 5.8 microns is displayed as green and 8.0 microns is represented in red. The brightness of the central area has been greatly reduced to make it possible to maintain its visibility while enhancing the brightness of the much fainter outer features. Overall colors have been enhanced to better show slight variations in hue.


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Partnership March 14, 2009

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International Space Station

Description:

The Expedition 18 crew photographed the Russian segment of the International Space Station during a spacewalk on Tuesday, March 10, 2009.

During the spacewalk, Commander Mike Fincke and Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov installed the Exposing Specimens of Organic and Biological Materials to Open Space (Expose-R) experiment mounted on the Zvezda Service Module’s the universal science platform.


Image Credit:

NASA

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Mars’ Moon Deimos March 12, 2009

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Deimos
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These color-enhanced views of Deimos, the smaller of the two moons of Mars, were taken on Feb. 21, 2009, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Deimos is about 7.5 miles in diameter.

Deimos has a smooth surface due to a blanket of fragmental rock or regolith, except for the most recent impact craters. It is a dark, reddish object, very similar to Mars’ other moon, Phobos.

These Deimos images combine HiRISE exposures in near-infrared, red and blue-green wavelengths. In the enhanced color, subtle color variations are visible — redder in the smoothest areas and less red near the fresh impact craters and over ridges of topographic highs. The color variations are probably caused by exposure of surface material to the space environment, which leads to darkening and reddening. Brighter and less-red surface materials have seen less exposure to space due to recent impacts or downslope movement of regolith.

Image Credit:

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Thor’s Helmet (NGC 2359) and Planetary Nebula March 12, 2009

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See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.

Credit & Copyright:

Rogelio Bernal Andreo, Ray Gralak

Explanation:

At the right, Thor’s Helmet (NGC 2359) seems to gaze across a lovely star field. The broad skyscape itself covers about 1.5 degrees or 3 full moons toward the constellation Canis Major. A close look at the lower left corner of the image might identify the object of the cosmic stare as a faint, round nebula. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor’s Helmet is about 30 light-years across. The helmet is actually more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble’s center sweeps through a surrounding molecular cloud. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre- supernova stage of evolution. In contrast, the faint, round nebula is a planetary nebula, the gaseous shroud of a dying lower mass star. The distance to Thor’s Helmet is estimated to be about 15,000 light-years.

A New View of Tycho’s Supernova Remnant March 11, 2009

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Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Credit:

X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO, Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: MPIA, Calar Alto, O.Krause et al.

Description:

This composite image of the Tycho supernova remnant combines X-ray and infrared observations obtained with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope, respectively, and the Calar Alto observatory, Spain. It shows the scene more than four centuries after the brilliant star explosion witnessed by Tycho Brahe and other astronomers of that era.

The explosion has left a blazing hot cloud of expanding debris (green and yellow) visible in X-rays. The location of ultra-energetic electrons in the blast’s outer shock wave can also be seen in X-rays (the circular blue line). Newly synthesized dust in the ejected material and heated pre-existing dust from the area around the supernova radiate at infrared wavelengths of 24 microns (red). Foreground and background stars in the image are white.

Oliver Krause, from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, recently studied reflected light from the supernova explosion seen by Brahe. Use of these “light echoes” – not shown in this figure – has confirmed previous suspicions that the explosion was a Type Ia supernova. This type of supernova is generally believed to be caused by the explosion of a white dwarf star in a binary star system.

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