Wednesday, September 19, 2012

NASA chief Bolden says criticism of agency's direction 'undermines our nation ... - Houston Chronicle (blog)

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden dismissed rumors that the future of U.S. space exploration is in jeopardy and rejected speculation that his agency has no plans for future human spaceflight.

“Those who perpetuate that myth only hurt the space program,” Bolden told businessmen, academics and journalists Tuesday afternoon at the National Press Club.

“Such talk undermines our nation’s goals at a very critical time,” he said. “The truth is we have an ambitious series of deep space destinations we plan to explore and we are hard at work exploring the hardware and the technologies to get us there.”

Bolden’s remarks came after he was awarded the International Public Service Award by the Word Affairs Council of Washington.

Though he is still waiting for Congress to adopt a budget for 2013, Bolden said NASA is in “relatively good shape” financially, crediting the discontinuation of the space shuttle program, which he said cost the administration $2 billion just to maintain.

NASA’s requested budget for the 2013 fiscal year comes to a little more than $17.71 billion, a decrease of about $60 million from this 2012 estimated budget. The biggest decrease in the requested budget is in the space operations section, accounting for a $173.8 million cut, thanks to nearly $500 million being shaved off from this year’s space shuttle budget.

“If you look at what we do for the money that we get I think we’re doing very well,” he said. “The prospect for the future is good unless your a pessimist and you believe that the people we hire, that we elect to run the government won’t rise to the occasion and  run the government. But I’m an eternal optimist.”

The future of NASA’s budget remains a question heading into potentially a new presidential administration. Bolden said he has not given much thought to the idea of a Mitt Romney White House, saying that he “loves” and “admires” President Barack Obama, who in 2009 chose Bolden to be NASA’s 12th administrator.

Texas Republicans have been critical of the Obama’s space flight priorities and complain that he has tilted toward Florida, a swing state in presidential election, at the expense of heavily Republican Texas.

Last month, in an online discussion forum hosted by the website, Obama voiced his support for the space program, calling it a priority for his administration.

“The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level â€" so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight,” Obama said in response to a question.

Romney has yet to take a firm stance on the future of NASA and space exploration.

With officials of private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX and Lockheed Martin in attendance, Bolden said he welcomed advancements in commercial space flight and “anything that brings jobs and income into the economy.”

He also expressed support for private flights and privately owned space stations for tourist purposes.

“Commercial space is not a national priority, it is an imperative,” he said. “NASA can’t go to the exploration that we want to do if we don’t have a viable, sustainable commercial space program with US capability to get humans into orbit.”

Space Shuttle Endeavour takes off on final journey - Fox News

 The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour began a journey to its new life as a museum piece Wednesday, heading west on the last ferry flight of its kind as NASA shuts down its shuttle program.

Bolted to the top of a jumbo jet, the space agency's youngest shuttle departed Kennedy Space Center in Florida at sunrise on the first leg of its flight to California.

Crowds lined the beaches of Cape Canaveral as the shuttle swooped low overhead in one final show.

"I am feeling a tremendous amount of pride," said astronaut Kay Hire, who flew aboard Endeavour two years ago. Endeavour flew 25 times in space before retiring last year. It circled Earth more nearly 4,700 times.

Endeavour will make it as far as Houston, home to Mission Control, on Wednesday before arriving in Los Angeles on Friday. In mid-October, it will be transported very slowly down city streets to the California Science Center.

This is the last flight for a space shuttle. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy for display. Discovery is at the Smithsonian Institution.

NASA Actually Working on Faster-than-Light Warp Drive - TIME

Harold White / NASA

Harold White / NASA

You know that scene in the film Contact where the “Machine” is spooling up, its three spinning rings kicking out crazy light and an electromagnetic field powerful enough to pitch nearby Navy battleships sideways, as Ellie (Jodie Foster) waits, terrified, in her tiny spherical craft above the space-time bedlam, to plummet into the vortex?

Yeah, that’s not exactly how NASA’s envisioning faster-than-light space travel, but…wait, NASA’s working on faster-than-light travel? Isn’t that impossible?

(MORE: Ultrafast Chips that Run on Light: Nanoswitch Breakthrough Brings Us Closer)

Of course it is. Nothing can travel faster than light, right? To do so would violate the special theory of relativity, which stipulates that you’d need an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a particle with mass to light speed. We’ve all heard this pretty much since we were kids. Has someone finally proven special relativity wrong?

Not at all, but with respect to travel between the stars, someone did come up with a radical-sounding hypothetical workaround 18 years ago.

In a paper titled “The Warp Drive: Hyper-fast travel within general relativity” published in science journal Classical and Quantum Gravity in May 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggested a mechanism for getting an object from one point to another at faster-than-light speeds without running afoul of Einsteinian relativity.

Alcubierre’s idea: bending space-time in front of and behind a vessel rather than attempting to propel the vessel itself at light-speeds.

According to Alcubierre, in the paper abstract …

… [it] is shown how, within the framework of general relativity and without the introduction of wormholes, it is possible to modify a spacetime in a way that allows a spaceship to travel with an arbitrarily large speed. By a purely local expansion of spacetime behind the spaceship and an opposite contraction in front of it, motion faster than the speed of light as seen by observers outside the disturbed region is possible. The resulting distortion is reminiscent of the ‘warp drive’ of science fiction.

Harold White

By placing a spheroid object between two regions of space-time â€" one expanding, the other contracting â€" Alcubierre theorized you could create a “warp bubble” that moves space-time around the object, effectively re-positioning it. In essence, you’d have the end result of faster-than-light travel without the object itself having to move (with respect to its local frame of reference) at light-speed or faster.

The only catch: Alcubierre says that, “just as happens with wormholes,” you’d need “exotic matter” (matter with “strange properties”) to distort space-time. And the amount of energy necessary to power that would be on par with â€" wait for it â€" the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

So we’re back to “fuhgeddaboudit,” right?

Maybe not. According to NASA physicist Harold White, the energy problem may actually be surmountable by simply tweaking the warp drive’s geometry.

White, who just shared his latest ideas at the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium, says that if you adjust the shape of the ring surrounding the object, from something that looks like a flat halo into something thicker and curvier, you could power Alcubierre’s warp drive with a mass roughly the size of NASA’s Voyager 1 probe.

In other words: reduction in energy requirements from a planet with a mass equivalent to over 300 Earths, down to an object that weighs just under 1,600 pounds.

What’s more, if you oscillate the space warp, White claims you could reduce the energy load even further.

“The findings I presented today change [Alcubierre's warp drive] from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation,” White told “The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.”

That’s right, an actual lab experiment, whereby White says he plans to simulate the tweaked Alcubierre drive in miniature, using lasers “to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million.”

And if it works? Don’t expect to go Alpha Centauri-hopping any time soon, but the idea well down the road, according to a presentation delivered by White on the subject last year, would involve a spacecraft leaving Earth, traveling a given distance using conventional propulsion, stopping (relative to the Earth), enabling its “warp field,” then traveling to a point near its interstellar destination, where it would then disable the field and continue on its way using conventional propulsion methods once more.

Star Trek meets Contact, in other words.

Instead of taking “decades or centuries,” White says this would allow us to visit a spot like Alpha Centauri â€" a little over four light years from us â€" in as little as “weeks or months.”

MORE: Penny for Your Rockets: Microthrusters Powered by Ion Beams Could Propel Satellites Through Space

Space shuttle Endeavour departs Florida for Los Angeles - Los Angeles Times

Space Shuttle Endeavour
At long last, space shuttle Endeavour is headed home.

Perched atop a modified Boeing 747, the retired orbiter departed Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:22 a.m. EDT Wednesday en route to Houston, the first leg of a two-day trek to California.

The threat of thunderstorms twice pushed back the shuttle's original departure date of Monday. But despite the delay, NASA officials said Endeavour's cross-country farewell tour would proceed as planned.

FULL COVERAGE: Endeavour's final journey to L.A.

It includes a series of 1,500-foot flyovers above several NASA sites across the southern United States, including Florida's Space Coast, Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., and the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The shuttle will glide over Houston, Clear Lake and Galveston in Texas before landing at Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where it will spend Wednesday night.

On Thursday, the 747 will refuel at El Paso's Biggs Army Airfield before heading to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where it will be housed overnight.

The shuttle will depart the Mojave Desert base about 7:15 a.m. Friday and will fly low over Palmdale, Lancaster, Rosamond and Mojave before heading north to Sacramento, NASA officials said.

INTERACTIVE: Endeavour comes to California.

There, Endeavour will fly over the Capitol and turn to San Francisco, where those hoping to catch a glimpse of the shuttle are advised to watch from one of several Bay Area museums, including the Chabot Space and Science Center, the Exploratorium, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, the Lawrence Hall of Science and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Once the shuttle reaches the Los Angeles area about 10:30 a.m., the orbiter will be carried over landmarks including the Getty Center, the Griffith Observatory, Malibu and Disneyland before landing at Los Angeles International Airport. It will also fly over the California Science Center in Exposition Park, its new permanent home.

But Endeavour's journey won't end Friday. The shuttle will be housed at a United Airlines hangar until Oct. 12, when it will begin a two-day celebratory trek through the city's streets to the museum's new Samuel Oschin display pavilion. The exhibit will open to the public Oct. 30.

Tweet your photos to @latimes or @lanow with the hashtag #SpotTheShuttle. Don't forget to tell us your vantage point! Photos can also be uploaded here. Check back -- we'll be compiling the best reader photos.


Endeavour: Nearly 400 trees to be axed for space shuttle

Shuttle Endeavour: Disneyland, Getty on tap for L.A. flyover

Shuttle Endeavour gets green light to leave Florida on Wednesday

-- Kate Mather

Follow Kate Mather on Twitter or Google+.

Photo: The space shuttle Endeavour sits atop a modified Boeing 747 on the apron at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

NASA brews up organics on ice to understand evolution - Zee News

NASA brews up organics on ice to understand evolution Washington: Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are creating concoctions of organics, or carbon-bearing molecules, on ice in the lab, then zapping them with lasers.

Their goal is to better understand how life arose on Earth.

In a new study, the research team provides the first direct look at the organic chemistry that takes place on icy particles in the frigid reaches of our solar system, and in the even chillier places between stars.

NASA brews up organics on ice to understand evolution

Scientists think that the basic ingredients of life, including water and organics, began their journey to Earth on these lonesome ice particles. The ice and organics would have found their way into comets and asteroids, which then fell to Earth, delivering “prebiotic” ingredients that could have jump-started life.

The various steps needed to go from icy organics to slime molds are not clear, but the new findings help explain how the process works. The lab experiments show that organic material can begin the processing it needs to become prebiotic -- while still frozen in ice.

“The very basic steps needed for the evolution of life may have started in the coldest regions of our universe. We were surprised to see organic chemistry brewing up on ice, at these very cold temperatures in our lab,” said Murthy Gudipati, lead author of the new study at JPL.

NASA brews up organics on ice to understand evolution

The organics looked at in the study are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs for short. These carbon-rich molecules can be found on Earth as combustion products: for example, in barbecue pits, candle soot and even streaming out of the tail pipe of your car. They have also been spotted throughout space in comets, asteroids and more distant objects. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected PAHs in the swirling planet-forming disks around stars, in the spaces between stars and in remote galaxies.

Murthy and his colleague Rui Yang of JPL used their lab set-up to mimic the environment of icy PAH molecules in the quiet cold of space, at temperatures as low as 5 Kelvin (minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 268 degrees Celsius). First, they bombarded the particles with ultraviolet radiation similar to that from stars. Then, to determine the products of the chemical reaction, they used a type of laser system known as MALDI (for Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption and Ionization), which involves zapping the ice with both infrared and ultraviolet lasers.

The results revealed that the PAHs had transformed: they had incorporated hydrogen atoms into their structure and lost their circular, aromatic bonds, becoming more complex organics. According to Gudipati, this is the type of change that would need to occur if the material were to eventually become amino acids and nucleotides -- bits and pieces of protein and DNA, respectively.

“PAHs are strong, stubborn molecules, so we were surprised to see them undergoing these chemical changes at such freezing-cold temperatures,” said Gudipati.

Another bonus for the research is that it might explain the mystery of why PAHs have not yet been identified on ice grains in space. While the hardy organics are pervasive in the cosmos as gases and hot dust, researchers have remained puzzled that their signatures do not show up on ice. The new findings show that PAHs, once they stick to the ice surface, are chemically transformed into other complex organics, explaining why they might not be seen.

While the new results teach us that life’s journey could have already begun in the very cold regions of the universe, another question remains: Did it arise elsewhere beyond our Sun, too Researchers don’t know, but studies like this one help the ongoing search for life beyond Earth.

Their work was reported in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.


NASA-JPL director Charles Elachi talks about latest Mars mission - Phys.Org

This color panorama shows a view of the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover, including the highest part of Mount Sharp visible to the rover. Credit: NASA

The car-sized Mars rover Curiosity, which landed on the Red Planet last month, is the biggest, most expensive and most ambitious planetary mission in many years. But it is just one of a sweeping portfolio of past and future missions of pioneering planetary exploration managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., as JPL director Charles Elachi described in a talk at MIT on Monday.

" is only about 15 percent of what we do," Elachi said, although it's the project that has been garnering the lion's share of attention this yearâ€"including a congratulatory phone call from President after the successful conclusion of Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror" landing sequence. That landing used several , including a "" that gently lowered the rover to the â€"all of which had to work perfectly for the landing to succeed.

Curiosity's 350-million-mile trek from Earth to Mars, and its need to land within a designated two-mile-wide area, was comparable to hitting a golf ball in Cambridge and having it land on a specific seat in Pasadena's Rose Bowl Stadium, Elachi saidâ€"and doing so while the stadium was moving rapidly.

The team that accomplished this feat and monitored its progress from JPL's mission control center included at least six MIT alumni, Elachi saidâ€"including the instant celebrity known as "Mohawk Guy," Bobak Ferdowsi SM '03. (Ferdowsi now shaves different patterns on the sides of his head each week in response to public requests, Elachi said, showing a photo of one pattern he had adopted, which spelled out "JPL" in Morse code).

Elachi hopes that many more MIT graduates will end up working at JPL. "We need talent, from to biologists to ," he said.

The latest images beamed back by Curiosity, like the many images of Mars from earlier landers and rovers, reveal a surprisingly Earth-like landscape, Elachi said. In fact, in classes he teaches at Caltechâ€"a sidebar to his duties as director of JPLâ€"he often shows students side-by-side images from Mars and Death Valley. The pictures appear so similar, he says, that he sometimes forgets the correct identification himself.

"Could life have developed on Mars?" Elachi asked. It seems entirely possible, he said: "We believe that there were oceans" on the in the distant pastâ€"the kind of environment where life is believed to have originated on Earth. Even today, images from orbit have given indications of a subsurface layer of flowing water that sometimes spills out on crater and valley walls. Perhaps signs of life will be found there, Elachi said, if and when our robotic emissaries are able to drill down into the Martian subsurface.

Elachi says that beyond Curiosity's mission, which is expected to continue for at least six years, further missions will be sent to Mars in 2016, and possibly in 2018 as well. Eventually, researchers hope to send a mission capable of returning samples from Mars for more detailed analysis on Earth, he saidâ€"after careful precautions, including a layover at the International Space Station to guard against dangerous contaminants.

Mars missions, as exciting as they are, represent only a small part of JPL's work, Elachi said. The ongoing Cassini mission exploring Saturn and its moons; the upcoming Juno mission to Jupiter; the Dawn mission exploring the solar system's largest asteroids; and continuing communication with far-off Voyager 2, in the outer fringes of the solar system, are among the many other missions managed by the lab.

Running such a far-flung armada of craft is far from anything Elachi ever imagined growing up in a small village in Lebanon, he said. But he has now spent more than 40 years at JPL, he said, and "it's really the most exciting thing. I get paid for doing exploration."

The white-knuckle landing of Curiosity on Aug. 5â€"where, Elachi said, "if any one thing doesn't go right, it's game over"â€"was watched live by an estimated 50 million people, despite taking place at 1:30 a.m. Eastern time.

"We put our footprint on that planet with our rovers," he said. Knowing that our robotic emissaries are exploring Mars' nooks and crannies, he said, the Red Planet "looks different now." It's no longer just a pinpoint of distant light, it's a very real outpost of human exploration.

Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This story is republished courtesy of MIT News (, a popular site that covers news about MIT research, innovation and teaching.

NASA's last space shuttle to take wing to its retirement home - CNN

  • Endeavour was built in the wake of the Challenger disaster
  • The shuttle's piggyback flight atop a 747 airliner to LAX will take until Friday
  • The flight is expected to draw crowds of onlookers on its flight

(CNN) -- NASA managers will conduct a final review of space shuttle Endeavour early Wednesday before sending it on a cross-country flight from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Los Angeles, where the now-retired spacecraft will be put on display.

Endeavour, along with Discovery and Atlantis, became museum pieces after NASA ended its 30-year shuttle program on July 21, 2011.

Two other shuttles -- Challenger and Columbia -- were destroyed in tragic accidents, costing the lives of all on board. Challenger exploded shortly after launch, while Columbia broke apart upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

NASA delayed Endeavour's piggyback trek to its retirement home by two days, after inclement weather on Monday and a poor forecast on Tuesday.

Trees removed to make way for Endeavour

But by Wednesday morning's 7:15 a.m. EDT launch time, the cold front that had kicked up storms over the Gulf Coast "is predicted to move far enough away from the flight path to permit takeoff," according to NASA's website.

NASA expects space shuttle Endeavour to draw crowds of onlookers as it passes over space centers in three states and make stops along its way to Los Angeles, where it is scheduled to arrive on Friday.

Named for the first ship commanded by British explorer James Cook, Endeavor rolled out of the assembly plant in Palmdale, California, in 1991 at a cost of $1.7 billion. It was the baby of the shuttle fleet, built as a replacement for the ill-fated Challenger, which tore apart less than two minutes after liftoff in January 1986.

Over the next 20 years, Endeavour flew some of the most high-profile shuttle missions in history, covering 25 flights and nearly 123 million miles. It flew a spacelab mission and numerous International Space Station assembly missions and also rendezvoused with Russia's Mir Space Station.