Robots in the Workplace

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Small, mobile robots will learn to take over the tasks in the automotive industry that have not yet been possible to automate. This challenge is part of a 47 million kroner EU funded research project aimed at making robots available to small and medium-sized companies without the need of robotics expertise. Read More →

One with the Cosmos: NASA App Review

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Photo courtesy of NASA via Geek.com

The human collective interest of the final frontier has never reached such high levels today. With news of a successful Mars landing to open applications and marketing campaigns to become astronauts,  we feel like space is inching its way towards the palm of our hands. It may sound a little bit hypothetical, but in this age of smartphones and portable technology, it is very literal. Read More →

New Estimate of Amount of Water on Surface of Mars

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NASA’s rover Curiosity, which landed on the surface of Mars on 6 August 2012, has led to more detailed estimates of the amount of water on the Martian surface. The Finnish Meteorological Institute is part of the NASA research team. Read More →

Astronomers Image Lowest-mass Exoplanet Around a Sun-like Star

Using infrared data from the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, an international team of astronomers has imaged a giant planet around the bright star GJ 504. Several times the mass of Jupiter and similar in size, the new world, dubbed GJ 504b, is the lowest-mass planet ever detected around a star like the sun using direct imaging techniques.

Glowing a dark magenta, the newly discovered exoplanet GJ 504b weighs in with about four times Jupiter's mass, making it the lowest-mass planet ever directly imaged around a star like the sun. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

Glowing a dark magenta, the newly discovered exoplanet GJ 504b weighs in with about four times Jupiter’s mass, making it the lowest-mass planet ever directly imaged around a star like the sun.
Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

“If we could travel to this giant planet, we would see a world still glowing from the heat of its formation with a color reminiscent of a dark cherry blossom, a dull magenta,” said Michael McElwain, a member of the discovery team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Our near-infrared camera reveals that its color is much more blue than other imaged planets, which may indicate that its atmosphere has fewer clouds.”

GJ 504b orbits its star at nearly nine times the distance Jupiter orbits the sun, which poses a challenge to theoretical ideas of how giant planets form.

This composite combines Subaru images of GJ 504 using two near-infrared wavelengths (orange, 1.6 micrometers, taken in May 2011; blue, 1.2 micrometers, April 2012). Once processed to remove scattered starlight, the images reveal the orbiting planet, GJ 504b. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/NOAJ

This composite combines Subaru images of GJ 504 using two near-infrared wavelengths (orange, 1.6 micrometers, taken in May 2011; blue, 1.2 micrometers, April 2012). Once processed to remove scattered starlight, the images reveal the orbiting planet, GJ 504b.
Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/NOAJ

According to the most widely accepted picture, called the core-accretion model, Jupiter-like planets get their start in the gas-rich debris disk that surrounds a young star. A core produced by collisions among asteroids and comets provides a seed, and when this core reaches sufficient mass, its gravitational pull rapidly attracts gas from the disk to form the planet.

While this model works fine for planets out to where Neptune orbits, about 30 times Earth’s average distance from the sun (30 astronomical units, or AU), it’s more problematic for worlds located farther from their stars. GJ 504b lies at a projected distance of 43.5 AU from its star; the actual distance depends on how the system tips to our line of sight, which is not precisely known.

“This is among the hardest planets to explain in a traditional planet-formation framework,” explained team member Markus Janson, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Its discovery implies that we need to seriously consider alternative formation theories, or perhaps to reassess some of the basic assumptions in the core-accretion theory.”

The research is part of the Strategic Explorations of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru (SEEDS), a project to directly image extrasolar planets and protoplanetary disks around several hundred nearby stars using the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The five-year project began in 2009 and is led by Motohide Tamura at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ).

This chart locates the fifth-magnitude star GJ 504, also known as 59 Virginis, which is visible to the unaided eye from suburban skies. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

This chart locates the fifth-magnitude star GJ 504, also known as 59 Virginis, which is visible to the unaided eye from suburban skies.
Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

While direct imaging is arguably the most important technique for observing planets around other stars, it is also the most challenging.

“Imaging provides information about the planet’s luminosity, temperature, atmosphere and orbit, but because planets are so faint and so close to their host stars, it’s like trying to take a picture of a firefly near a searchlight,” explained Masayuki Kuzuhara at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who led the discovery team.

The SEEDS project images at near-infrared wavelengths with the help of the telescope’s novel adaptive optics system, which compensates for the smearing effects of Earth’s atmosphere, and two instruments: the High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru Next Generation Adaptive Optics and the InfraRed Camera and Spectrograph. The combination allows the team to push the boundary of direct imaging toward fainter planets.

A paper describing the results has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and will appear in a future issue.

The researchers find that GJ 504b is about four times more massive than Jupiter and has an effective temperature of about 460 degrees Fahrenheit (237 Celsius).

It orbits the G0-type star GJ 504, which is slightly hotter than the sun and is faintly visible to the unaided eye in the constellation Virgo. The star lies 57 light-years away and the team estimates the systems is about 160 million years, based on methods that link the star’s color and rotation period to it age.

Young star systems are the most attractive targets for direct exoplanet imaging because their planets have not existed long enough to lose much of the heat from their formation, which enhances their infrared brightness.

“Our sun is about halfway through its energy-producing life, but GJ504 is only one-thirtieth its age,” added McElwain. “Studying these systems is a little like seeing our own planetary system in its youth.”

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA Hubble Finds New Neptune Moon

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting Neptune. The black and white image was taken in 2009 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 in visible light. Hubble took the color inset of Neptune on August 2009. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter/SETI Institute

This composite Hubble Space Telescope picture shows the location of a newly discovered moon, designated S/2004 N 1, orbiting Neptune. The black and white image was taken in 2009 with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 in visible light. Hubble took the color inset of Neptune on August 2009.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter/SETI Institute

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a new moon orbiting the distant blue-green planet Neptune, the 14th known to be circling the giant planet.

The moon, designated S/2004 N 1, is estimated to be no more than 12 miles across, making it the smallest known moon in the Neptunian system. It is so small and dim that it is roughly 100 million times fainter than the faintest star that can be seen with the naked eye. It even escaped detection by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, which flew past Neptune in 1989 and surveyed the planet’s system of moons and rings.

Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., found the moon July 1, while studying the faint arcs, or segments of rings, around Neptune. “The moons and arcs orbit very quickly, so we had to devise a way to follow their motion in order to bring out the details of the system,” he said. “It’s the same reason a sports photographer tracks a running athlete — the athlete stays in focus, but the background blurs.”

The method involved tracking the movement of a white dot that appears over and over again in more than 150 archival Neptune photographs taken by Hubble from 2004 to 2009.

On a whim, Showalter looked far beyond the ring segments and noticed the white dot about 65,400 miles from Neptune, located between the orbits of the Neptunian moons Larissa and Proteus. The dot is S/2004 N 1. Showalter plotted a circular orbit for the moon, which completes one revolution around Neptune every 23 hours.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a cooperative project between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc., in Washington.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Small Business Contributions to U.S. Space Exploration

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.

NASA OSBP Associate Administrator Glenn Delgado in conversation at JSC Industry Day. Credit: NASA.

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Click to Open [PDF]

Many of you have likely been following the progression of the Mars Rover Curiosity in recent weeks. I’ve personally developed an interest in the types of tests that are being done on the red planet during the mission. This interest led me to think about the types of test equipment that is being utilized not only for experiments, but to ensure the safety of astronauts in manned missions as well. As I began to research this area further, I discovered an entire segment of expert service providers that are utilized by NASA to develop these specialized systems. Many of them are smaller firms and they’re doing some pretty incredible work for the agency. In fact, I discovered that NASA does a great deal to support small businesses each year via the Office of Small Business Programs (@NASA_OSBP).

Case Study: G Systems, L.P.

Systems and equipment used by NASA and other aerospace organizations aren’t the kind that you can just buy off the shelf. A piece of equipment that is used in space is obviously subjected to vastly different conditions than those found on Earth. Each must be rigorously tested before ever leaving the ground. To meet this need, NASA and other organizations often contract with highly specialized service providers to develop the equipment needed for individual space missions – including appropriate testing equipment required to maintain mission integrity. One such provider in my own backyard is G Systems, a growing, Texas-based engineering firm.

Pressurization and Vent System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Pressurization and Vent System, G Systems, L.P.

Unlike most test equipment available on the market today, the systems that G Systems develops are actually customized, turnkey models. That means that they can be expected to work whenever they’re turned on – without fail. Proper operation and maintenance are huge concerns in the aerospace industry since individual launch windows are often very small and involve a great number of interoperable systems. Having stable equipment to work with is needed because proper operation in space is absolutely vital. This is an industry where a single bolt means the difference between life and death.

While most of you probably have never heard of the company, several of the most recent space projects have involved G Systems’ contributions. For instance, one of their recent projects involved the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Having delivered test systems for the new Orion exploration crew vehicle test facility at the Michoud Assembly plant, G Systems played a major role in ensuring that this project went off without a hitch. They shipped data acquisition devices that collect and record information concerning the crew module’s structural strength.

G Systems also provided Orion researchers with data distribution devices that collect video of the capsule in addition to audio recordings and parametric information. Because the equipment is necessary for pressure tests, it’s actually capable of independently pressurizing the cabin. In other words, it can use supplies of air and helium to alter the pressure inside of the Orion capsule automatically. Data distribution tools also include an operator control terminal so that an engineer can set these options remotely if desired.

Data Acquisition System. Image Credit: G Systems, L.P.

Data Acquisition System. Credit: G Systems, L.P.

While the Constellation program has been shelved (sadly), the Orion project remains active today. Structural tests on the capsule are extremely important, and firms such as G Systems have played a key role in the program’s success thus far. While I don’t always agree with the actions taken by NASA administrators, I love the fact that they tap into the amazing talent available at private firms today. In doing so, the agency is supporting small business – always a good thing. This is yet another reason I remain a vocal proponent of NASA today.

Reference:

Archibald, R., & Finifter, D. (2003). Evaluating the NASA small business innovation research program: preliminary evidence of a trade-off between commercialization and basic research Research Policy, 32 (4), 605-619 DOI: 10.1016/S0048-7333(02)00046-X

Rapid Development of Orion Structural Test Systems. (2011). G Systems, L.P. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from goo.gl/7QW4p

Mansfield, C. L. (2013, January 14). NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from goo.gl/zqjQK

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