Tuesday November 21, 2017
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To Save Earth, NASA plans to Crash a Refrigerator-Sized Spacecraft

The composition of its small companion, Didymos B, is unknown, but the size is typical of asteroids that could potentially create regional effects should they impact Earth

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NASA, spacecraft
NASA plans to Crash a Refrigerator-Sized Spacecraft. VOA
  • The asteroid is called Didymos — Greek for “twin” — because it is an asteroid binary system that consists of two bodies
  • The target for the first-ever mission to demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique for planetary defense — the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART)
  • DART would fly to Didymos, and use an on-board autonomous targeting system to aim itself at Didymos B

July 10, 2017: Aiming to show how to protect Earth from a future killer asteroid strike, NASA plans to crash a refrigerator-sized spacecraft at a speed about nine times faster than a bullet into a space rock, forcing it to change its orbit.

The target for the first-ever mission to demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique for planetary defense — the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) — is an asteroid that will have a distant approach to Earth in October 2022, and then again in 2024, NASA said.

“DART would be NASA’s first mission to demonstrate what’s known as the kinetic impactor technique — striking the asteroid to shift its orbit — to defend against a potential future asteroid impact,” said Lindley Johnson, planetary defence officer at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The asteroid is called Didymos — Greek for “twin” — because it is an asteroid binary system that consists of two bodies — Didymos A, about 780 metres in size, and a smaller asteroid orbiting it called Didymos B, about 160 metres in size.

DART, scheduled for launch in 2020, would impact only the smaller of the two bodies, Didymos B.

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The Didymos system has been closely studied since 2003. The primary body is a rocky S-type object, with the composition similar to that of many asteroids.

The composition of its small companion, Didymos B, is unknown, but the size is typical of asteroids that could potentially create regional effects should they impact Earth.

“A binary asteroid is the perfect natural laboratory for this test,” said Tom Statler, program scientist for DART at NASA Headquarters.

“The fact that Didymos B is in orbit around Didymos A makes it easier to see the results of the impact, and ensures that the experiment doesn’t change the orbit of the pair around the sun,” Statler added.

After launch, DART would fly to Didymos, and use an on-board autonomous targeting system to aim itself at Didymos B.

Then the spacecraft would strike the smaller body at a speed about nine times faster than a bullet, approximately six kilometres per second.

Earth-based observatories would be able to see the impact and the resulting change in the orbit of Didymos B around Didymos A, allowing scientists to better determine the capabilities of kinetic impact as an asteroid mitigation strategy.

The kinetic impact technique works by changing the speed of a threatening asteroid by a small fraction of its total velocity, but by doing it well before the predicted impact so that this small nudge will add up over time to a big shift of the asteroid’s path away from Earth.

“DART is a critical step in demonstrating we can protect our planet from a future asteroid impact,” saiid Andy Cheng of The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the DART investigation co-lead. (IANS)

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NASA’s human ‘computer’ is still working at age 80

Sue Finely calculated rocket trajectories by hand

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Sue Finley still works at NASA
Sue Finley, 80, is still working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. She started there in 1958 as a human "computer," calculating trajectories for rockets. VOA

Sue Finley, now 80 years old and NASA’s longest-serving female employee, recalls her early days with the space agency when she worked as a human “computer,” calculating rocket trajectories by hand at a time when computers were huge and expensive to operate.

Finley arrived at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in January 1958, one week before the U.S. Army launched Explorer 1, America’s first earth satellite.

“It was a very big deal,” she recalls of the launch, a response to the launches a few months earlier of the first satellites, Sputnik 1 and 2, from the former Soviet Union.

She was at JPL for Pioneer 1, the first satellite sent aloft by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in late 1958, which marked the beginning of the international space race.

Unmanned space probes

Since then, Finley has had a role in nearly every U.S. unmanned space probe, and some missions of other nations.

There were failures to overcome and spectacular successes, but always new goals as scientists expanded our knowledge of the earth and solar system.

“We were certainly proud,” she says of NASA accomplishments, “but you just go to the next thing.”

Finley has been through several career changes with the space agency, one of the most important when NASA phased out human computers, moving, initially, to simple electronic versions.

“We got little tiny computers,” she recalls. “One I had 16 wires, jumper cables to code with. One had 10 pegboards that you programmed with.”

As modern computers took over navigational tasks, Finley developed and tested software as a subsystem engineer.

Among her career highlights: the Vega mission, a Soviet-French collaboration with Venus, and Halley’s Comet, which received navigational help from NASA and dropped balloons into the atmosphere of Venus.

She had to change the software for the antenna that tracked the mission, “and it worked,” Finley recalls. “Everything worked. That’s what was so exciting!”

Finley has worked since 1980 on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which coordinates satellite facilities in California, Spain and Australia that allow communication with space probes.

Highlights of NASA career

Career highlights include developing software that generates audio tones sent back from spacecraft, informing engineers on the ground what is happening in space. It was first developed for the Mars missions.

Each tone has a meaning that communicates data, noted one of Finley’s colleagues, Stephen Lichten.

“If a parachute opened, it would send a tone,” Lichten, manager for special projects for the Deep Space Network, said.

“The spacecraft lets go of its heat shield, and it would send a different tone, and so engineers like Sue were here listening for those special frequencies which told them the spacecraft was telling them what it has just done,” he said.

He notes that Finley also helped develop communication arrays that combine multiple antennas to act in unison and other advances that now crucial to space missions.

Lichten once shared an office with Finley and says she inspired her younger colleagues.

“There was a parade of people coming in constantly, to ask her advice, to ask her questions,” he recalls. “This was during the Venus balloon mission days and I realized that Sue was regarded as sort of a guru at JPL.”

Finley has been involved with nearly every advance in space communications in recent decades, and she continues her work today, Lichten said.

There are many more women at NASA today than there were when she started, and Finley said she tells young women to be inquisitive.

“I tell them to never be afraid to ask questions, never be afraid to say you don’t know,” she said.

After nearly six decades at the space agency, a mother of two grown sons and a mentor to her colleagues, Finley has no plans of retiring.

“There’s nothing else I want to do,” she said. “And so far, they need me.”

As they have since the earliest days of the space agency. (VOA)

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20 Years of Changing Seasons on Earth Captured into 2½ Minutes by NASA

NASA captured 20 years of changing seasons in a striking new global map of the home planet that shows Earth's fluctuations as seen from space

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The Changing seasons of the Earth
The Changing seasons of the Earth has been captured by NASA. Wikimedia.

NASA captured 20 years of changing seasons on Earth in a striking new global map of the home planet.

The data visualization, released this week, shows Earth’s fluctuations as seen from space.

The polar ice caps and snow cover are shown ebbing and flowing with the seasons. The varying ocean shades of blue, green, red and purple depict the abundance — or lack — of undersea life.

“It’s like watching the Earth breathe. It’s really remarkable,” said NASA oceanographer Jeremy Werdell, who took part in the project.

Two decades — from September 1997 to this past September — are crunched into 2½ minutes of viewing.

Werdell finds the imagery mesmerizing. “It’s like all of my senses are being transported into space, and then you can compress time and rewind it, and just continually watch this kind of visualization,” he said Friday.

Werdell said the visualization shows spring coming earlier and autumn lasting longer in the Northern Hemisphere. Also noticeable to him is the receding of the Arctic ice caps over time — and, though less obvious, the Antarctic, too.

On the sea side, Werdell was struck by “this hugely productive bloom of biology” that exploded in the Pacific along the equator from 1997 to 1998 — when a water-warming El Nino merged into cooling La Nina. This algae bloom is evident by a line of bright green.

In considerably smaller Lake Erie, more and more contaminating algae blooms are apparent — appearing red and yellow.

All this data can provide resources for policymakers as well as commercial fishermen and many others, according to Werdell.

Programmer Alex Kekesi of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland said it took three months to complete the visualization, using satellite imagery.

Just like our Earth, the visualization will continually change, officials said, as computer systems improve, new remote-sensing satellites are launched and more observations are made. (VOA)

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NASA: Earth’s Ozone Hole Shrinks to Smallest Since 1988

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NASA: Earth's Ozone Hole Shrinks to Smallest Since 1988 (VOA)

Washington: The ozone hole over Antarctica shrank to its smallest peak since 1988, NASA said Thursday. The huge hole in Earth’s protective ozone layer reached its maximum this year in September, and this year NASA said it was 7.6 million square miles (19.6 million square kilometers). The hole size shrinks after mid-September.

This year’s maximum hole is more than twice as big as the United States, but it’s 1.3 million square miles smaller than last year and 3.3 million square miles smaller than 2015.

FILE - A false-color view of total ozone over the Antarctic pole is seen in this NASA handout image released Oct. 24, 2012. The purple and blue colors are where there is the least ozone. The average area covered by the Antarctic ozone hole in that year was the second smallest in two decades, at 8.2 million square miles; in September 2017, it was 7.6 million square miles.

[ FILE – A false-color view of total ozone over the Antarctic pole is seen in this NASA handout image released Oct. 24, 2012. The purple and blue colors are where there is the least ozone. The average area covered by the Antarctic ozone hole in that year was the second smallest in two decades, at 8.2 million square miles; in September 2017, it was 7.6 million square miles ].

Paul Newman, chief Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said stormy conditions in the upper atmosphere warmed the air and kept the chemicals chlorine and bromine from eating ozone. He said scientists haven’t quite figured out why some years are stormier — and have smaller ozone holes — than others.

“It’s really small this year. That’s a good thing,” Newman said.

Newman said this year’s drop is mostly natural but is on top of a trend of smaller steady improvements likely from the banning of ozone-eating chemicals in a 1987 international treaty. The ozone hole hit its highest in 2000 at 11.5 million square miles (29.86 million square kilometers).

Ozone is a colorless combination of three oxygen atoms. High in the atmosphere, about 7 to 25 miles (11 to 40 kilometers) above the Earth, ozone shields Earth from ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer, crop damage and other problems.

Scientists at the United Nations a few years ago determined that without the 1987 treaty, by 2030 there would have been an extra 2 million skin cancer cases. They said that overall, the ozone layer is beginning to recover because of the phase-out of chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans. (VOA)