Tag: #NASABlog

Living with a Star: NASA and Partners Survey Space Weather Science

infographic describing Geomagnetically Induced Currents, or GICs
Geomagnetically Induced Currents, or GICs, can result from geomagnetic storms — a type of space weather event in which Earth’s magnetic field is rattled by incoming magnetic solar material. The quick-changing magnetic fields create GICs through a process called electromagnetic induction. GICs can flow through railroad tracks, underground pipelines and power grids.
Credits: NASA
NASA has long been a leader in understanding the science of space weather, including research into the potential for induced electrical currents to disrupt our power systems. Last year, NASA scientists worked with scientists and engineers from research institutions and industry during a pair of intensive week-long workshops in order to assess the state of science surrounding this type of space weather. This summary was published Jan. 30, 2017, in the journal Space Weather.

Storms from the sun can affect our power grids, railway systems, and underground pipelines through a phenomenon called geomagnetically induced currents, or GICs. The sun regularly releases a constant stream of magnetic solar material called the solar wind, along with occasional huge clouds of solar material called coronal mass ejections. This material interacts with Earth’s magnetic field, causing temporary changes. That temporary change to the magnetic field can create electric currents just under Earth’s surface. These are GICs.

Long, thin, metal structures near Earth’s surface — such as underground pipelines, railroads and power lines — can act as giant wires for these currents, causing electricity to flow long distances underground. This electric current can cause problems for all three structures, and it’s especially difficult to manage in power systems, where controlling the amount of electric current is key for keeping the lights on. Under extreme conditions, GICs can cause temporary blackouts, which means that studying space weather is a crucial component for emergency management.

“We already had a pretty good grasp of the key moving pieces that can affect power systems,” said Antti Pulkkinen, a space weather researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “But this was the first we had solar experts, heliospheric scientists, magnetospheric physicists, power engineers and emergency management officials all in a room together.”

Though GICs can primarily cause problems for power systems, railroads and pipelines aren’t immune.

“Researchers have found a positive correlation between geomagnetic storms and mis-operation of railway signaling systems,” said Pulkkinen, who is also a member of the space weather research-focused Community Coordinated Modeling Center based at Goddard.

This is because railway signals, which typically control traffic at junctures between tracks or at intersections with roads, operate on an automated closed/open circuit system. If a train’s metal wheels are on the track near the signal, they close the electrical circuit, allowing electrical current to flow to the signal and turn it on.

“Geomagnetically induced currents could close that loop and make the system signal that there’s a train when there isn’t,” said Pulkkinen.

Similarly, current flowing in oil pipelines could create false alarms, prompting operators to inspect pipelines that aren’t damaged or malfunctioning.

In power systems, the GICs from a strong space weather event can cause something called voltage collapse. Voltage collapse is a temporary state in which the voltage of a segment of a power system goes to zero. Because voltage is required for current to flow, voltage collapse can cause blackouts in affected areas.

Though blackouts caused by voltage collapse can have huge effects on transportation, healthcare, and commerce, GICs are unlikely to cause permanent damage to large sections of power systems.

“For permanent transformer damage to occur, there needs to be sustained levels of GICs going through the transformer,” said Pulkkinen. “We know that’s not how GICs work. GICs tend to be much more noisy and short-lived, so widespread physical damage of transformers is unlikely even during major storms.”

The scientists who worked on the survey, part of the NASA Living With a Star Institute, also created a list of the key unanswered questions in GIC science, mostly related to computer modeling and prediction. The group members’ previous work on GIC science and preparedness has already been used to shape new standards for power companies to guard against blackouts. In September 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, released new standards that require power companies to assess and prepare for potential GIC disruptions.

“We’re really proud that our team members made major contributions to the updated FERC standards,” said Pulkkinen. “It also shows that the U.S. is actively working to address GIC risk.”

Related:

Banner image: Composite image of a coronal mass ejection as seen by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. 

Editor: Rob Garner

Photo Credit:  ESA and NASA/SOHO

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NASA to Reveal New Discoveries in News Conference on Oceans Beyond Earth

NASA will discuss new results about ocean worlds in our solar system from the agency’s Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope during a news briefing 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 13. The event, to be held at the James Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington, will include remote participation from experts across the country.

The briefing will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

These new discoveries will help inform future ocean world exploration — including NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission planned for launch in the 2020s — and the broader search for life beyond Earth.

The news briefing participants will be:

  • Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters
  • Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters
  • Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California
  • Hunter Waite, Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team lead at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio
  • Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI
  • William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

A question-and-answer session will take place during the event with reporters on site and by phone. Members of the public also can ask questions during the briefing using #AskNASA.

To participate by phone, reporters must contact Dwayne Brown at 202-358-1726 or dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov and provide their media affiliation no later than noon April 13.

For NASA TV downlink information, schedules and to view the news briefing, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

For more information on ocean worlds, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/specials/ocean-worlds

For more information on Cassini, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

For more information on Hubble, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/hubble

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Felicia Chou/ Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
202 358 0257 / 202-358-1077
felicia.chou@nasa.gov / dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Rob Gutro
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
301-286-4044
robert.j.gutro@nasa.gov

Editor: Katherine Brown

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA’s Cassini Mission Prepares for ‘Grand Finale’ at Saturn

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn since 2004, is about to begin the final chapter of its remarkable story. On Wednesday, April 26, the spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.

“No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end.”

During its time at Saturn, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean that showed indications of hydrothermal activity within the icy moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on its moon Titan.

Now 20 years since launching from Earth, and after 13 years orbiting the ringed planet, Cassini is running low on fuel. In 2010, NASA decided to end the mission with a purposeful plunge into Saturn this year in order to protect and preserve the planet’s moons for future exploration – especially the potentially habitable Enceladus.

But the beginning of the end for Cassini is, in many ways, like a whole new mission. Using expertise gained over the mission’s many years, Cassini engineers designed a flight plan that will maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft toward its fateful plunge into the planet on Sept. 15. As it ticks off its terminal orbits during the next five months, the mission will rack up an impressive list of scientific achievements.

“This planned conclusion for Cassini’s journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission’s scientists,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”

The mission team hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet’s internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn’s clouds and inner rings. The team currently is making final checks on the list of commands the robotic probe will follow to carry out its science observations, called a sequence, as it begins the finale. That sequence is scheduled to be uploaded to the spacecraft on Tuesday, April 11.

Cassini will transition to its grand finale orbits, with a last close flyby of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, on Saturday, April 22. As it has many times over the course of the mission, Titan’s gravity will bend Cassini’s flight path. Cassini’s orbit then will shrink so that instead of making its closest approach to Saturn just outside the rings, it will begin passing between the planet and the inner edge of its rings.

“Based on our best models, we expect the gap to be clear of particles large enough to damage the spacecraft. But we’re also being cautious by using our large antenna as a shield on the first pass, as we determine whether it’s safe to expose the science instruments to that environment on future passes,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “Certainly there are some unknowns, but that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this kind of daring exploration at the end of the mission.”

In mid-September, following a distant encounter with Titan, the spacecraft’s path will be bent so that it dives into the planet. When Cassini makes its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, it will send data from several instruments – most notably, data on the atmosphere’s composition – until its signal is lost.

“Cassini’s grand finale is so much more than a final plunge,” said Spilker. “It’s a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission.”

Resources on Cassini’s grand finale, including images and video, are available at:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/grand-finale/grand-finale-resources

An animated video about Cassini’s Grand Finale is available at:

https://youtu.be/xrGAQCq9BMU

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

More information about Cassini is at:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

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Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Editor: Karen Northon

 

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA to Preview ‘Grand Finale’ of Cassini Saturn Mission

NASA will hold a news conference at 3 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 4, at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to preview the beginning of Cassini’s final mission segment, known as the Grand Finale, which begins in late April. The briefing will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since June 2004, studying the planet, its rings and its moons. A final close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan on April 22 will reshape the Cassini spacecraft’s orbit so that it begins its final series of 22 weekly dives through the unexplored gap between the planet and its rings. The first of these dives is planned for April 26. Following these closer-than-ever encounters with the giant planet, Cassini will make a mission-ending plunge into Saturn’s upper atmosphere on Sept. 15.

The panelists for the briefing are:

  • Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington
  • Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL
  • Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL
  • Joan Stupik, Cassini guidance and control engineer at JPL

Media who would like to attend the event at JPL must arrange access in advance by contacting Gina Fontes in the JPL Media Relations Office at 818-354-9380 or georgina.d.fontes@jpl.nasa.gov. Media who arrange access must bring to the event valid media credentials, and for non-U.S. citizens, valid passports.

To participate by phone, media must email their name and affiliation to georgina.d.fontes@jpl.nasa.gov by 8 a.m. April 4.

Media and the public also may ask questions during the briefing on Twitter using the hashtag #askNASA.

Supporting graphics, video and background information about Cassini’s Grand Finale will be posted before the briefing at:

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/grandfinale

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

For more information about Cassini, go to:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

and

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-394-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Editor: Karen Northon

 

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA Selects Mission to Study Churning Chaos in our Milky Way and Beyond

NASA has selected a science mission that will measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars. This data will help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas in our Milky Way galaxy, witness the formation and destruction of star-forming clouds, and understand the dynamics and gas flow in the vicinity of the center of our galaxy.

The Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission, led by the principal investigator of the University of Arizona, Christopher Walker, will fly an Ultralong-Duration Balloon (ULDB) carrying a telescope with carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen emission line detectors. This unique combination of data will provide the spectral and spatial resolution information needed for Walker and his team to untangle the complexities of the interstellar medium, and map out large sections of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and the nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.

“GUSTO will provide the first complete study of all phases of the stellar life cycle, from the formation of molecular clouds, through star birth and evolution, to the formation of gas clouds and the re-initiation of the cycle,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director in the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. GUSTO continues that tradition.”

The mission is targeted for launch in 2021 from McMurdo, Antarctica, and is expected to stay in the air between 100 to 170 days, depending on weather conditions. It will cost approximately $40 million, including the balloon launch funding and the cost of post-launch operations and data analysis.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is providing the mission operations, and the balloon platform where the instruments are mounted, known as the gondola. The University of Arizona in Tucson will provide the GUSTO telescope and instrument, which will incorporate detector technologies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Arizona State University in Tempe, and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program requested proposals for mission of opportunity investigations in September 2014. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed two mission of opportunity concept studies selected from the eight proposals submitted at that time, and NASA has determined that GUSTO has the best potential for excellent science return with a feasible development plan.

NASA’s Explorers Program is the agency’s oldest continuous program and is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the astrophysics and heliophysics programs in agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The program has launched more than 90 missions. It began in 1958 with the Explorer 1, which discovered the Earth’s radiation belts, now called the Van Allen belt, named after the principal investigator. Another Explorer mission, the Cosmic Background Explorer, led to a Nobel Prize. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information on the Explorers Program, visit:

https://explorers.gsfc.nasa.gov

For more information on scientific balloons, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons

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Felicia Chou
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0257
felicia.chou@nasa.gov

Last Updated: March 24, 2017
Editor: Katherine Brown

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Set for Fifth Jupiter Flyby

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will make its fifth flyby over Jupiter’s mysterious cloud tops on Monday, March 27, at 1:52 a.m. PDT (4:52 a.m. EDT, 8:52 UTC).

At the time of closest approach (called perijove), Juno will be about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, traveling at a speed of about 129,000 miles per hour (57.8 kilometers per second) relative to the gas-giant planet. All of Juno’s eight science instruments will be on and collecting data during the flyby.

“This will be our fourth science pass — the fifth close flyby of Jupiter of the mission — and we are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Every time we get near Jupiter’s cloud tops, we learn new insights that help us understand this amazing giant planet.”

The Juno science team continues to analyze returns from previous flybys. Scientists have discovered that Jupiter’s magnetic fields are more complicated than originally thought and that the belts and zones that give the planet’s cloud tops their distinctive look extend deep into its interior. Observations of the energetic particles that create the incandescent auroras suggest a complicated current system involving charged material lofted from volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io.

Peer-reviewed papers with more in-depth science results from Juno’s first flybys are expected to be published within the next few months.

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and arrived in orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. During its mission of exploration, Juno soars low over the planet’s cloud tops — as close as about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers). During these flybys, Juno is probing beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and studying its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere, and magnetosphere.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California.

More information on the Juno mission is available at:

http://www.nasa.gov/juno

http://missionjuno.org

The public can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/NASAJuno

http://www.twitter.com/NASAJuno

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-9011
agle@jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

 

Editor: Martin Perez

Photo Credit: NASA

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Andromeda’s Bright X-Ray Mystery Solved by NuSTAR

The Milky Way’s close neighbor, Andromeda, features a dominant source of high-energy X-ray emission, but its identity was mysterious until now. As reported in a new study, NASA’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission has pinpointed an object responsible for this high-energy radiation.

The object, called Swift J0042.6+4112, is a possible pulsar, the dense remnant of a dead star that is highly magnetized and spinning, researchers say. This interpretation is based on its emission in high-energy X-rays, which NuSTAR is uniquely capable of measuring. The object’s spectrum is very similar to known pulsars in the Milky Way.

It is likely in a binary system, in which material from a stellar companion gets pulled onto the pulsar, spewing high-energy radiation as the material heats up.

“We didn’t know what it was until we looked at it with NuSTAR,” said Mihoko Yukita, lead author of a study about the object, based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The study is published in The Astrophysical Journal.

This candidate pulsar is shown as a blue dot in a NuSTAR X-ray image of Andromeda (also called M31), where the color blue is chosen to represent the highest-energy X-rays. It appears brighter in high-energy X-rays than anything else in the galaxy.

The study brings together many different observations of the object from various spacecraft. In 2013, NASA’s Swift satellite reported it as a high-energy source, but its classification was unknown, as there are many objects emitting low energy X-rays in the region. The lower-energy X-ray emission from the object turns out to be a source first identified in the 1970s by NASA’s Einstein Observatory. Other spacecraft, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton had also detected it. However, it wasn’t until the new study by NuSTAR, aided by supporting Swift satellite data, that researchers realized it was the same object as this likely pulsar that dominates the high energy X-ray light of Andromeda.

Traditionally, astronomers have thought that actively feeding black holes, which are more massive than pulsars, usually dominate the high-energy X-ray light in galaxies. As gas spirals closer and closer to the black hole in a structure called an accretion disk, this material gets heated to extremely high temperatures and gives off high-energy radiation. This pulsar, which has a lower mass than any of Andromeda’s black holes, is brighter at high energies than the galaxy’s entire black hole population.

Even the supermassive black hole in the center of Andromeda does not have significant high-energy X-ray emission associated with it. It is unexpected that a single pulsar would instead be dominating the galaxy in high-energy X-ray light.

“NuSTAR has made us realize the general importance of pulsar systems as X-ray-emitting components of galaxies, and the possibility that the high energy X-ray light of Andromeda is dominated by a single pulsar system only adds to this emerging picture,” said Ann Hornschemeier, co-author of the study and based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Andromeda is a spiral galaxy slightly larger than the Milky Way. It resides 2.5 million light-years from our own galaxy, which is considered very close, given the broader scale of the universe. Stargazers can see Andromeda without a telescope on dark, clear nights.

“Since we can’t get outside our galaxy and study it in an unbiased way, Andromeda is the closest thing we have to looking in a mirror,” Hornschemeier said.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, and the official data archive is at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. ASI provides the mission’s ground station and a mirror archive. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

For more information on NuSTAR, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/nustar

http://www.nustar.caltech.edu

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

Photo Credit: NASA

 

Editor: Tony Greicius

 

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