• 2010 nasa special
    a total eclipse of the Sun is visible from within a narrow corridor that traverses Earth's southern Hemisphere. The path of the Moon's umbral shadow crosses the South Pacific Ocean where it makes no landfall except for Mangaia (Cook Islands) and Easter Island (Isla de Pascua).

Multiple Methods Help Track Elusive Quarry

The first planets to be found around nearby stars have never been seen. Instead, astronomers have discovered them indirectly, inferring the existence of an unseen companion through its effects on the star itself.

So far, astronomers have only turned up huge planets that probably don't harbor life. However, future missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder and its precursors will search for direct evidence of new planets as small as Earth.

The challenges of observing extrasolar planets stem from three basic facts:

  • Planets don't produce any light of their own, except when young.
  • They are an enormous distance from us.
  • They are lost in the blinding glare of their parent stars.
For example, if there were a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, it would be 7,000 times more distant than Pluto. Trying to observe this planet would be like standing in Boston and looking for a moth near a spotlight in San Diego.

The following is an overview of some of the planet detection methods that have thus far proved successful, as well as other methods currently in development.

Doppler Shift

Doppler shift due to stellar wobble.

Precise measurement of the velocity or change of position of stars tells us the extent of the star's movement induced by a planet's gravitational tug. From that information, scientists can deduce the planet's mass and orbit.

Why does a planet cause a star to sway? If a star has a single companion, both move in nearly circular orbits around their common center of mass. Even if one body is much smaller, the laws of physics dictate that both will orbit the center of the combined star and planet system. The center of mass is the point at which the two bodies balance each other.

The radial velocity method measures slight changes in a star's velocity as the star and the planet move about their common center of mass. In this case, however, the motion detected is toward the observer and away from the observer. Astronomers can detect these variances by analyzing the spectrum of starlight. In an effect known as Doppler shift, light waves from a star moving toward us are shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum. If the star is moving away, the light waves shift toward the red end of the spectrum.

This happens because the waves become compressed when the star is approaching the observer and spread out when the star is receding. The effect is similar to the change in pitch we hear in a train's whistle as it approaches and passes.

The larger the planet and the closer it is to the host star, the faster the star moves about the center of mass, causing a larger color shift in the spectrum of starlight. That's why many of the first planets discovered are Jupiter-class (300 times as massive as Earth), with orbits very close to their parent stars.

Astrometric Measurement

Astrometric displacement of the Sun due to Jupiter as at it would be observed from 10 parsecs, or about 33 light-years.

Astrometric displacement of the Sun due to Jupiter as at it would be observed from 10 parsecs, or about 33 light-years.
As with the radial velocity technique, this methods depends on the slight motion of the star caused by the orbiting planet. In this case, however, astronomers are searching for the tiny displacements of the stars on the sky.

The planets of our solar system have this effect on the Sun, producing a to-and-fro motion that could be detected by an observer positioned several light years away.

An important goal of the Space Interferometry Mission is to detect the presence of Earth-size planets orbiting nearby solar type stars via narrow angle astrometry. Similarly, the Keck Interferometry will conduct an astrometric survey of hundreds of stars to search for planets with masses as small as Uranus.

Transit Method

Transit Method.

If a planet passes directly between a star and an observer's line of sight, it blocks out a tiny portion of the star's light, thus reducing its apparent brightness.

Sensitive instruments can detect this periodic dip in brightness. From the period and depth of the transits, the orbit and size of the planetary companions can be calculated. Smaller planets will produce a smaller effect, and vice-versa. A terrestrial planet in an Earth-like orbit, for example, would produce a minute dip in stellar brightness that would last just a few hours.

Gravitational Microlensing

Gravitational Microlensing - Light from a distant star is bent and focused by gravity as a planet passes between the star and Earth.

This method derives from one of the insights of Einstein's theory of general relativity: gravity bends space. We normally think of light as traveling in a straight line, but light rays become bent when passing through space that is warped by the presence of a massive object such as a star. This effect has been proven by observations of the Sun's gravitational effect on starlight.

When a planet happens to pass in front of a star along our line of sight, the planet's gravity will behave like a lens. This focuses the light rays and causes a temporary sharp increase in brightness and change of the apparent position of the star.

Astronomers can use the gravitational microlensing effect to find objects that emit no light or are otherwise undetectable.

Direct Detection
Since planets do not give off their own light, observing them directly presents formidable challenges. Missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder will rely on advanced technologies that can harness special properties of light to extend our vision. For a more detailed discussion of planet imaging, see Technology >Planet Imaging.

IBEX Explores Galactic Frontier, Releases First-Ever All-Sky Map

IBEX All Sky Map Still from animation portrays how the entire sky is flattened to the two-dimensional maps that IBEX presents. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Larger Image
NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spacecraft has made it possible for scientists to construct the first comprehensive sky map of our solar system and its location in the Milky Way galaxy. The new view will change the way researchers view and study the interaction between our galaxy and sun.

The sky map was produced with data that two detectors on the spacecraft collected during six months of observations. The detectors measured and counted particles scientists refer to as energetic neutral atoms.
› Press Release
› IBEX Briefing Visuals

NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spacecraft has made it possible for scientists to construct the first comprehensive sky map of our solar system and its location in the Milky Way galaxy. The new view will change the way researchers view and study the interaction between our galaxy and sun.

The sky map was produced with data that two detectors on the spacecraft collected during six months of observations. The detectors measured and counted particles scientists refer to as energetic neutral atoms.

The energetic neutral atoms are created in an area of our solar system known as the interstellar boundary region. This region is where charged particles from the sun, called the solar wind, flow outward far beyond the orbits of the planets and collide with material between stars. The energetic neutral atoms travel inward toward the sun from interstellar space at velocities ranging from 100,000 mph to more than 2.4 million mph. This interstellar boundary emits no light that can be collected by conventional telescopes.

The new map reveals the region that separates the nearest reaches of our galaxy, called the local interstellar medium, from our heliosphere -- a protective bubble that shields and protects our solar system from most of the dangerous cosmic radiation traveling through space.

"For the first time, we're sticking our heads out of the sun's atmosphere and beginning to really understand our place in the galaxy," said David J. McComas, IBEX principal investigator and assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "The IBEX results are truly remarkable, with a narrow ribbon of bright details or emissions not resembling any of the current theoretical models of this region."

NASA released the sky map image Oct. 15 in conjunction with publication of the findings in the journal Science. The IBEX data were complemented and extended by information collected using an imaging instrument sensor on NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Cassini has been observing Saturn, its moons and rings since the spacecraft entered the planet's orbit in 2004.

The IBEX sky maps also put observations from NASA's Voyager spacecraft into context. The twin Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, traveled to the outer solar system to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In 2007, Voyager 2 followed Voyager 1 into the interstellar boundary. Both spacecraft are now in the midst of this region where the energetic neutral atoms originate. However, the IBEX results show a ribbon of bright emissions undetected by the two Voyagers.

"The Voyagers are providing ground truth, but they're missing the most exciting region," said Eric Christian, the IBEX deputy mission scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It's like having two weather stations that miss the big storm that runs between them."

The IBEX spacecraft was launched in October 2008. Its science objective was to discover the nature of the interactions between the solar wind and the interstellar medium at the edge of our solar system. The Southwest Research Institute developed and leads the mission with a team of national and international partners. The spacecraft is the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers Program. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA and the European and Italian Space Agencies. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., provides overall management for Cassini and the Voyagers for the Science Mission Directorate.

NASA Says: 'Build It and Infrared Surprises Will Come'

Says: 'Build It and Infrared Surprises Will Come'

Artist's concept of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer Artist's concept of Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Full image
Engineers are rolling up their sleeves in preparation for building a telescope that will find the nearest star-like objects and the brightest galaxies. NASA has approved the start of construction on a new mission called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which will scan the entire sky in infrared light.

"There's a whole infrared sky out there full of surprises," said Dr. Edward Wright, principal investigator for the mission at the University of California, Los Angeles. "By surveying the entire sky, we are bound to find new and unexpected objects."

An estimated $300-million mission, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or "Wise," has been in the planning stages for the past eight years. It is scheduled to launch into an Earth orbit in late 2009. It will spend seven months collecting data.

Such extensive sky coverage means the mission will find and catalogue all sorts of celestial eccentrics. These may include brown dwarfs, or failed stars, that are closer to Earth than Proxima Centauri, the nearest star other than our sun. Brown dwarfs are balls of gas that begin life like stars but lack the mass to ignite their internal fires and light up like normal stars. They do, however, produce warm infrared glows that Wise will be able to see.

"Brown dwarfs are lurking all around us," said Dr. Peter Eisenhardt, project scientist for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We believe there are more brown dwarfs than stars in the nearby universe, but we haven't found many of them because they are too faint in visible light."

Wright, Eisenhardt and other scientists recently identified brown dwarfs using NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. Wise will vastly expand the search, uncovering those brown dwarfs closest to Earth that might make ideal targets for future planet-hunting missions. Recent Spitzer findings support the notion that planets might orbit brown dwarfs.

Wise might also find the most luminous galaxies in the universe, some so far away that their light has taken 11.5 billion years to reach Earth. Galaxies in the distant, or early, universe were much brighter than our own Milky Way galaxy, but dust thought to exist in these objects blocks much of their ultraviolet and visible light. These dusty coats light up at infrared wavelengths; however, the galaxies are few and far between, so they can be difficult to find. Wise will comb the whole sky in search of them.

"It's hard to find the most energetic galaxies if you don't know where to look," said Eisenhardt. "We're going to look everywhere."

The spacecraft's detectors will be approximately 500 times more sensitive than those of a previous infrared survey mission, called the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, a joint European-NASA venture that operated in 1983.

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate and Explorer Program. The Explorer Program is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The infrared cryogenic instrument for Wise will be designed and built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft will be built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colo. Mission operations will be conducted at JPL, and images will be processed and distributed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Center for Science Education at the University of California, Berkeley, Space Sciences Laboratory, will manage the Wise education program. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information on NASA's Wise mission, visit http://wise.ssl.berkeley.edu/ . For more information on NASA and agency programs, visit http://www.nasa.gov/home .

Media contact: Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

NASA's WISE Mission Arrives at Launch Site

NASA's WISE Mission Arrives at Launch Site
WISE arrives at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Credit: NASA.WISE arrives at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Credit: NASA.
› Larger image
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has arrived at its last stop on Earth -- Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

WISE is scheduled to blast into space in December, aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from NASA's Space Launch Complex 2. Orbiting around Earth, it will scan the entire sky at infrared wavelengths, unveiling hundreds of thousands of asteroids, and hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies.

The spacecraft arrived at Vandenberg along the central California coast today, after a winding journey via truck from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, Colo. Ball built the mission's spacecraft; its telescope and science instrument were built by Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

"WISE has arrived and is almost ready to go," said William Irace, the mission's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "After we check the spacecraft out and fill the telescope cooling tanks with solid hydrogen, we'll mate it to the rocket and launch."

WISE is an infrared space telescope like two currently orbiting missions, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation. But, unlike these missions, WISE will survey the entire sky. It is designed to cast a wide net to catch all sorts of unseen cosmic treasures. Millions of images from the survey will serve as rough maps for other observatories, such as Spitzer and NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, guiding them to intriguing targets.

"WISE will survey the cosmic landscape in the infrared so that future telescopes can home in on the most interesting 'properties,'" said Edward Wright, the principal investigator for the mission at UCLA.

The infrared surveyor will pick up the heat from a cornucopia of objects, both near and far. It will find hundreds of thousands of new asteroids in our main asteroid belt, and hundreds of near-Earth objects, which are comets and asteroids with orbits that pass relatively close to Earth. The mission will uncover the coldest stars, called brown dwarfs, perhaps even one closer to us than our closest known neighbor, Proxima Centauri, which is 4 light-years away. More distant finds will include nurseries of stars, swirling planet-building disks and the universe's most luminous galaxies billions of light-years away.

The data will help answer fundamental questions about how solar systems and galaxies form, and will provide the astronomical community with mountains of data to mine.

"WISE will create a legacy that endures for decades," said Peter Eisenhardt, the mission's project scientist at JPL. "Today, we still refer to the catalogue of our predecessor, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, which operated in 1983."

The Infrared Astronomical Satellite was a joint infrared survey mission between NASA, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. WISE's survey, thanks to next-generation technology, will be hundreds of times more sensitive.

The mission will scan the sky from a sun-synchronous orbit, 500 kilometers (about 311 miles) above Earth. After a one-month checkout period, it will map the whole sky over a period of six months. Onboard frozen hydrogen, which will cool the infrared detectors, is expected to last several months longer, allowing WISE to map much of the sky a second time and see what has changed.

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The mission's principal investigator, Edward Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing will take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

NASA’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for government oversight of the Delta II and launch countdown management.

More information is online at http://wise.astro.ucla.edu .

NASA Sets Ares I-X Prelaunch Events and Countdown Details

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- News conferences, events and operating hours for the news center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are set for the upcoming Ares I-X flight test. The rocket is targeted to lift off at 8 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, Oct. 27. The launch will be carried live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency's Web site.

A launch day blog will update the countdown beginning at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Originating from Kennedy, the blog is the definitive Internet source for information leading up to launch. To follow the blog, visit:


(All times EDT. All briefings will be held inside the Kennedy press site auditorium and carried live on NASA Television and the agency's Web site, unless otherwise noted.)

L-4 Days - Friday, Oct. 23
5 p.m. (time approximate): Flight Test Readiness Review news conference

L-2 Days - Sunday, Oct. 25
10 a.m. - Launch Status Briefing
- Jeff Spaulding, NASA test director, Kennedy
- Kathy Winters, weather officer
12 p.m. - Media Briefing (not televised)
- Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager
- Ed Mango, Ares I-X launch director
1 p.m. - Ares I-X 101 Briefing (not televised)
- Steve Davis, Ares I-X deputy mission manager

L-1 Day - Monday, Oct. 26
10 a.m. (approximately) - Ares I-X Launch Readiness news conference
- Jeff Hanley, Constellation Program manager
- Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager
- Ed Mango, Ares I-X launch director
- Kathy Winters, weather officer
9 p.m. - Ares I-X rocket photo opportunity (not televised)

Launch Day - Tuesday, Oct. 27
1 a.m. - Launch countdown officially begins (not televised)
5 a.m. - Live launch commentary begins on NASA TV
8 a.m. - Launch

Launch + 2 hours - Post-launch news conference
- Doug Cooke, associate administrator, Exploration Systems Mission Directorate
- Jeff Hanley, Constellation Program manager
- Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager
- Ed Mango, Ares I-X launch director

Countdown Highlights
T-7 hours
- First weather balloon is launched to collect atmospheric thermal properties
T-4 hours, 30 minutes
- Technicians remove the external environmental control systems that provide cool airflow to the vehicle
- Onboard navigation unit begins system alignment
- Additional subsystems complete testing and remain powered on
First stage avionics module access platform is retracted
T-3 hours, 30 minutes
- Six additional weather balloons begin to launch to evaluate if the conditions are suitable for flight
T-3 hours
- Fault tolerant inertial navigation unit completes alignment and begins navigation testing
T-2 hours, 30 minutes
- C-band beacon transponder is powered up and tested with the range
- Range safety system verification walk down is completed
- Auxiliary power unit is verified for system health
T-2 hours
- Vehicle stabilization system is retracted and secured
- Ground control station system begins monitoring for commands from the Launch Control Center
- Sound suppression water control is transferred to the ground control station
- Video, operational flight instrumentation and developmental flight instrumentation are checked
T-1 hour, 45 minutes
- Safety personnel begin the process of securing launch pad
T-1 hour, 15 minutes
- Ground command, control and communication initiates launch commit criteria monitoring
- Developmental flight instrumentation covers are removed
- Fault tolerant inertial navigation unit executes final alignment after the vehicle stabilization system is retracted
T-1 hour
- All personnel depart Launch Pad 39B for the safe haven
- Range verifies all "go/no-go" interfaces
T-43 minutes
- Flight termination system is activated and set to safe
T-30 minutes
- Developmental flight instrumentation, with the exception of cameras, are powered on and recording
T-4 minutes, built-in hold
- Enter 10-minute built-in hold (vehicle can remain in this hold status for up to four hours)
- Six video cameras and low power transmitters are powered up
- Telemetry is verified, and readiness for launch is established
- Range safety issues cleared for launch
- Countdown clock initiates automated count
T-3 minutes, 55 seconds and counting
- Sound suppression system is verified for pressure, water tank level and power
- Flight termination system and solid rocket motor ignition are set to arm
- Power to avionics cooling fans is terminated
- Onboard data recorder begins taking data
T-1 minute, 40 seconds
- Flight control system is enabled and prepared for flight
- Inertial measurement subsystem executes final alignment
T-1 minute, 20 seconds
- Flight control system receives the start count
- Signal is sent to the operational flight instrumentation and developmental flight instrumentation data streams to synchronize
T-35 seconds
- Flight control system transfers from alignment to navigation mode
- Inertial and navigation data are verified for accuracy
- Auxiliary power unit start sequence is initiated
T-21 seconds
- Reusable solid rocket motor thrust vector control gimbal test performed by rocking and tilting each axis approximately 1.5 degrees
T-16 seconds
- Ground control station issues commands for sound suppression, opening the valves to flood the mobile launch platform with water (At its peak, water will flow at a rate of 900,000 gallons per minute.)
T-0, liftoff
- Reusable solid rocket motors ignite, and hold-down bolts fire

Kennedy News Center office hours for Ares I-X
Times may be adjusted depending on events
Friday, Oct. 23 --- (Launch minus 4 days) --- 8 a.m. until one hour after Flight Test Readiness Review news conference
Saturday, Oct. 24 --- (Launch minus 3 days) --- closed
Sunday, Oct. 25 --- (Launch minus 2 days) --- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Monday, Oct. 26 --- (Launch minus 1 day) --- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 27 --- (Launch) --- 4 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Media Badging Schedule
News media representatives may obtain Ares I-X flight test credentials from the Kennedy Space Center Pass and Identification Office on State Road 3. Office hours of operation are:
Friday, Oct. 23 --- 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 24 --- closed
Sunday, Oct. 25 --- 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Monday, Oct. 26 --- 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 27 --- 3:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.

Journalists are required to be under NASA Public Affairs escort at all times while at Kennedy Space Center, except when at the news center or the Complex 39 cafeteria. No photography is allowed anywhere other than the press site unless prior permission is granted by NASA Public Affairs.

Journalists are allowed at the press site only when Public Affairs personnel are on duty and the NASA news center is open.

The NASA Ares I-X Twitter feed will be updated throughout the launch countdown. To follow, visit:


For NASA TV streaming video, scheduling and downlink information, visit:


NASA will provide continuous Ares I-X online updates at:


text-only version of this release

NASA press releases and other information are available automatically by sending a blank e-mail message to hqnews-subscribe@mediaservices.nasa.gov. To unsubscribe from this mailing list, send a blank e-mail message to hqnews-unsubscribe@mediaservices.nasa.gov.

Space Shuttle Mission: STS-129

STS-129 crew Image above: In the Payload Changeout Room on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, members of the STS-129 crew, dressed in clean room attire known as "bunny suits," take time out from their payload familiarization training for a group portrait. From left are Pilot Barry E. Wilmore and Mission Specialist Randy Bresnik on the top row; and Mission Specialists Robert L. Satcher Jr., Leland Melvin and Mike Foreman; and Commander Charles O. Hobaugh on the bottom row. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
› High-res image

Atlantis and Crew Prepare for Flight
The STS-129 mission will be commanded by Charles O. Hobaugh and piloted by Barry E. Wilmore. Mission Specialists are Robert L. Satcher Jr., Mike Foreman, Randy Bresnik and Leland Melvin. Wilmore, Satcher and Bresnik will be making their first trips to space.

Atlantis and its crew will deliver two control moment gyroscopes, equipment and EXPRESS Logistics Carrier 1 and 2 to the International Space Station. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

Atlantis also will return station crew member Nicole Stott to Earth and is slated to be the final space shuttle crew rotation flight.

Atlantis will launch on the STS-129 mission at 2:28 p.m. EST Nov. 16.

STS-129 Additional Resources
› STS-129 Mission Overview
› Mission Summary (518Kb Pdf)
› More about STS-129 Crew
› Remaining Shuttle Missions (730Kb)
› STS-129 Press Kit (3.7 Mb PDF)

Prelaunch Preps Continue at Kennedy and Johnson

Final system checks on space shuttle Atlantis' aft, or back, section continue on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center today. Technicians also will install several cameras in the shuttle's payload bay.

Workers finished attaching the orbiter midbody umbilical unit from the pad's rotating service structure to the shuttle, and then leak checks were conducted and completed.

Atlantis' cargo, consisting of Express Logistics Carrier 1 and 2, holding about 28,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts for the International Space Station, were moved from the pad's changeout room into the shuttle's payload bay yesterday.

Meanwhile, at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the six STS-129 astronauts are participating in a final prelaunch meeting with the Mission Control Center's flight director team today, and they’ll also be reviewing final flight data.

Pad Preps Continue; Crew Returns to JSC

Launch Pad 39A technicians at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will install the cargo for the STS-129 mission into space shuttle Atlantis' payload bay today.

The payload consists of Express Logistics Carrier 1 and 2, holding about 28,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts for the International Space Station.

Workers also will attach the orbiter midbody umbilical unit from the pad's rotating service structure to the shuttle today. The unit provides access to and permits servicing of Atlantis' mid-fuselage area. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for the fuel cells and gases, such as nitrogen and helium, are provided through the unit.

The six Atlantis astronauts returned to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston yesterday after completing the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, or TCDT, training. They'll conduct final launch preparations at Johnson before flying back to Kennedy for the anticipated launch to the space station at 2:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 16.

Part of the California & Carnegie Planet Search
Artwork by Lynette Cook

N2K Project Overview

Ongoing precise radial velocity surveys of ~2000 stars have discovered over 200 extrasolar planets, including many "Hot Jupiters": massive planets orbiting surprisingly close to their host stars. Fortuitous alignment of the orbital planes has caused three such planets to transit in front of bright host stars, revealing a wealth of information about these planets: density, composition, and even interior structure.

The N2K Consortium is a multinational, distributed observing program searching the "Next 2000" stars not already being surveyed. Its goal is to discover dozens of new hot jupiters, and learn more about their internal and atmospheric properties.


Using the now well-established correlation between host stars' heavy element abundance and the frequency of planets, we select high metallicity stars from a pool of 14,000, and distribute them to three observatories: Keck, Subaru and Magellan. Precise radial velocities obtained over three nights at these observatories identify candidate hot jupiters for intense monitoring. Planets then found in small orbits (P < href="http://www.fairobs.org/">Fairborn Observatory. A full description of our technique can be found in the first paper below.

Publications from the N2K consortium. The number in parentheses after each publication shows the cummulative total number of planets discovered to date through N2K:

  1. The N2K Consortium. I. A Hot Saturn Planet Orbiting HD 88133 Fischer, D., et al ApJ 620, 481, 2004. (1)
  2. The N2K Consortium. II. A Transiting Hot Saturn Around HD 149026 with a Large Dense Core Sato, et al 2005. Accepted by ApJ. See the HD 149026 web page. (2)
  3. "The N2K Consortium. III. Short-Period Planets Orbiting HD 149143 and HD 109749" Fischer, D. et al., 2006, ApJ 637, 1094 (4)
  4. "The N2K Consortium. IV. New Temperatures and Metallicities for More than 100,000 FGK Dwarfs" 2006, Ammons, S.M., Robinson, S. E., Strader, J., Laughlin, G., Fischer, D., Wolf, A., ApJ, 638, 1004
  5. The N2K Consortium. V. Identifying Very Metal-rich Stars with Low- Resolution Spectra: Finding Planet-Search Targets 2006, Robinson, S. E., Strader, J., Ammons, S. M., Laughlin, G., Fischer, D. A. ApJ 637, 1102
  6. "The N2K Consortium VI: Doppler Shifts Without Templates and Three New Short-Period Planets." 2006. Johnson, J., A., Marcy, G. W., Fischer, D. A., Laughlin, G., Butler, R. P., Henry, G. W., Valenti, J. A., Ford, E. B., Vogt, S. S., Wright, J. T. ApJ, 647 (7)
  7. The N2K Consortium. VII. Atmospheric Parameters of 1907 Metal-rich Stars: Finding Planet-Search Targets 2007 Robinson, Sarah E.; Ammons, S. Mark; Kretke, Katherine A.; Strader, Jay; Wertheimer, Jeremy G.; Fischer, Debra A.; Laughlin, Gregory. ApJS 169, 430
  8. Five Intermediate-Period Planets from the N2K Sample 2007 Fischer, D. A., Vogt, S. S., Marcy, G. W., Butler, R. P., Sato, B., Henry, G. W., Robinson, S., Laughlin, G., Ida, S., Toyota, E., Omiya, M., Driscoll, P., Takeda, G., Wright, J. T., Johnson, J. A. ApJ, 669 (12)
  9. Four New Exoplanets and Hints of Additional Substellar Companions to Exoplanet Host Stars 2007 Wright, J. T.; Marcy, G. W.; Fischer, D. A.; Butler, R. P.; Vogt, S. S.; Tinney, C. G.; Jones, H. R. A.; Carter, B. D.; Johnson, J. A.; McCarthy, C.; Apps, K. ApJ 657 (14)
  10. Two Jovian-Mass Planets in Earthlike Orbits 2007 Robinson, Sarah E.; Laughlin, Gregory; Vogt, Steven S.; Fischer, Debra A.; Butler, R. Paul; Marcy, Geoffrey W.; Henry, Gregory W.; Driscoll, Peter; Takeda, Genya; Johnson, John A. ApJ 670 (16)
  11. Two Jupiter-Mass Planets Orbiting HD 154672 and HD 205739 2008 López-Morales, Mercedes; Butler, R. Paul; Fischer, Debra A.; Minniti, Dante; Shectman, Stephen A.; Takeda, Genya; Adams, Fred C.; Wright, Jason T.; Arriagada, Pamela AJ 136 (18)

Team Members
Debra Fischer1 & Greg Laughlin2 Principal Investigators
G. Henry8, G. Marcy3, P. Butler4, S. Vogt2, C. McCarthy1, J. Valenti9 Co-Investigators (USA)
T. Johnson, R. Sareen, K.L. Tah, D. Abouav Students (SFSU)
M. Ammons, S. Robinson, J. Strader, A. Wolf Students (UCSC)
J. Johnson, J. Wright Students (UCB)
Bun'ei Sato5, Shigeru Ida6 Co-Investigators (Japan)
Dante Minniti7 Co-Investigator (Chile)
  1. San Francisco State University (SFSU)
  2. U.C. Santa Cruz (UCSC)
  3. U.C. Berkeley
  4. Carnegie Institute of Washington, Dept. of Terrestrial Magnetism
  5. Kobe University
  6. Tokyo Institute of Technology
  7. Pontificia Universidad Catolica
  8. Tennessee State University
  9. Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

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My Tribute to IYA 2009 : A Poem on Pluto


Here is my tribute to IYA 2009: A PoemI composed this in early 2007, when I was the president of Anandian Astronomical Association for the years 2006/2007. However now it's the almost the end of 2009. Therefore, while IYA 2009 is still due, I hit on...

Halloween's Moon

Illuminating the landscape all through the night of November 2nd, this week's bright Full Moon was known in the northern hemisphere as a Hunter's Moon. But this dramatic view of the shining lunar orb, from Sobreda, Portugal, was captured just a few nights earlier, on Halloween. In the spirit of the season, the image plays a little trick. The picture is actually two digital photos - one short and one long exposure. They were combined to bring out the details of the bright lunar surface and the fainter features in the dark, surrounding clouds, in a single image. Of course, you may recognize some of the spookier shapes in the clouds as having visited your neighborhood last week, along with Halloween's Moon.

Unsettled Youth: Spitzer Observes a Chaotic Planetary System

Before our planets found their way to the stable orbits they circle in today, they wiggled and jostled about like unsettled children. Now, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has found a young star with evidence for the same kind of orbital hyperactivity. Young planets circling the star are thought to be disturbing smaller comet-like bodies, causing them to collide and kick up a huge halo of dust.

The star, called HR 8799, was in the news last November 2008, for being one of the first of two stars with imaged planets. Ground-based telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini Observatory, both in Hawaii, took images of three planets orbiting in the far reaches of the system, all three being roughly 10 times the mass of Jupiter. Another imaged planet was also announced at the same time around the star Fomalhaut, as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Both HR 8799 and Fomalhaut are younger and more massive than our sun.

Astronomers had previously used both Spitzer and Hubble to image a rotating disk of planetary debris around Fomalhaut, which is 25 light-years from Earth. HR 8799 is about five times farther away, so scientists weren't sure if Spitzer would be able to capture a picture of its disk. To their amazement and delight, Spitzer succeeded. The picture can be seen online at http://spitzer.caltech.edu/images/2781 .

The Spitzer team, led by Kate Su of the University of Arizona, Tucson, says the giant cloud of fine dust around the disk is very unusual. They say this dust must be coming from collisions among small bodies similar to the comets or icy bodies that make up today's Kuiper Belt objects in our solar system. The gravity of the three large planets is throwing the smaller bodies off course, causing them to migrate around and collide with each other. Astronomers think the three planets might have yet to reach their final stable orbits, so more violence could be in store.

"The system is very chaotic and collisions are spraying up a huge cloud of fine dust," said Su. "What's exciting is that we have a direct link between a planetary disk and imaged planets. We've been studying disks for a long time, but this star and Fomalhaut are the only two examples of systems where we can study the relationships between the locations of planets and the disks."

When our solar system was young, it went through similar planet migrations. Jupiter and Saturn moved around quite a bit, throwing comets around, sometimes into Earth. Some say the most extreme part of this phase, called the late heavy bombardment, explains how our planet got water. Wet, snowball-like comets are thought to have crashed into Earth, delivering life's favorite liquid.

The Spitzer results were published in the Nov. 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal. The observations were made before Spitzer began its "warm" mission and used up its liquid coolant.

X-38 Crew Return Vehicle Finds New Home

One of NASA's three X-38 Crew Return Vehicle technology demonstrators that flew at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., a decade ago has found a new home in America's heartland.

In this image from test flights in 1999, the X-38 research vehicle drops away from NASA's B-52 mothership immediately after being released from the B-52's wing pylon. More than 30 years earlier, this same B-52 launched the original lifting-body vehicles flight tested by NASA and the Air Force at what is now called the Dryden Flight Research Center and the Air Force Flight Test Center.

The wingless lifting body craft was transferred this past weekend from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to the Strategic Air and Space Museum, located just off Interstate 80 at Ashland, Neb., about 20 miles southeast of Omaha. The X-38 adds to the museum's growing collection of aerospace vehicles and other historical artifacts.

The move of the second X-38 built to the museum has a fitting connection, as the X-38 vehicles were air-launched from NASA's famous B-52B 008 mothership. The B-52 bomber served as the backbone of the Air Force's Strategic Air Command during the command's history.

Prior to cancellation, the X-38 program was developing the technology for proposed vehicles that could return up to seven International Space Station crewmembers to Earth in case of an emergency. These vehicles would have been carried to the space station in the cargo bay of a space shuttle and attached to station docking ports. If an emergency arose that forced the ISS crew to leave the space station, a Crew Return Vehicle would have undocked and returned them to Earth much like the space shuttle, although the vehicle would have deployed a parafoil for the final descent and landing.

Not to shoot down aircraft in the name of science

Astronomers and air travel maintained a peaceful coexistence for over a century. That is, until astronomers started firing powerful lasers into the atmosphere -sky dwellers, human or otherwise, are no big fan of those. Bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration and US Space Command have imposed restrictions on the use of the high-powered lasers astronomers now routinely fire into the atmosphere to assist with their observations, to prevent anything or anyone flying across the sky from potential harm from the lasers. While astronomical lasers aren’t powerful enough to physically damage an airplane, they could easily injure pilots or passengers, and damage sensitive imaging equipment on Earth-observing satellites.

Last week scientists from the University of California at San Diego reported on their work to develop an integrated aircraft warning system for astronomical telescopes, that gives accurate warnings about approaching aircraft and helps minimise the observatory downtime due to passing planes.

The advent of adaptive optics systems on astronomical telescopes was the golden ticket for astronomers: no more blur and speckling from the turbulent gas in the atmosphere. These systems take light from a reference source and analyse in real-time the distortions in the image introduced by the atmosphere, and apply the necessary correction to the telescope optics to whip the image back into shape in an instant, without the need for lengthy post-processing. To perform this cycle several hundred times each second the target is observed requires a bright guide star that emits enough photons on timescales of milliseconds to perform the image analysis. Furthermore, as the size of turbulent cells in the atmosphere is finite, the reference star must be located close to the science target – typically within a few arcseconds’ range. This meant that adaptive optics could in practice only be used in very few cases. The golden ticket: not so shiny up close.

In the 1980s, inspired by atmospheric scientists using laser beacons to probe the upper atmosphere, French astronomers Foy & Labeyrie published a paper arguing for the use laser beacons to create artificial stars in the sky, near the science target, and use these for sensing the distortions from atmospheric turbulence. Their paper shows remarkable insight, and essentially tells us most of what we know today about laser guide stars: they correctly identified several mechanisms that could produce a bright spot in the sky – Rayleigh scattering around 10 km, or sodium fluorescence around 90 km, predicted the error in the turbulence measurement from the finite height of the backscattered spot, known as the cone effect, and even propose the use of multiple beacons to improve the accuracy of the measurement.

Single laser guide stars are in fairly routine operation on several of the world’s largest telescopes today, and they have enabled some fantastic new science, such as the study in amazing detail of the crowded region round our Galaxy’s central black hole.

The presence of humans, and of sensitive satellite equipment, poses a limit on the use of laser guide stars. At Lick Observatory, for example, lasers can only be fired between 11 pm and 5 am, when air traffic is light. Plane spotters outside the dome warn for approaching aircraft. That’s right, to use this piece of cutting edge technology requires an actual human being on the lookout. Dickensian or what?

The system developed in San Diego is simple but neat. Aircraft are in continuous communication with air traffic control radars and Traffic Collision Avoidance System. They are fitted with transponders that send out pulsed responses with information on the aircraft encoded. At Apache Point Observatory, the UCSD team simply fitted the sky-facing side of the telescope structure, i.e. the back of the secondary mirror, as pictured, with antennae tuned to the frequency of these signals and pointing along the same direction as the laser. Using a combination of narrow and broad beam antennae, the received signals can be decoded to work out the angular distance to the approaching aircraft. If one comes too close, the laser is shuttered.

The system was in operation for 7 months earlier this year at the Apache Point 3.5-m telescope and the authors report that all closure events were due to actual aircraft – so no false detections. Only when pointed at an actual airport did the antennae have some trouble because of the many overlapping signals.

Passing airplanes are not the main source of laser guide star downtime – at busy observing sites they are often shuttered because they get in the way of other telescopes’ observations – but they can certainly be a nuisance, not least for the grad students or engineers braving the cold to spot planes all night. With our future optical/infrared ground-based facilities all increasingly relying on adaptive optics and laser guide stars, a nice cheap and automated system like this one can make a big difference in the efficiency of modern day observatory operations.

NASA eClips Educators Traveling in November and December

NASA eClips™ educators may be coming to your town in November and December. Check the schedule below and come join us if you can!




November 6 --12:30 p.m.

NCTM Regional Conference NASA eClips™ for Elementary Students: Effective Ways to Engage Students in Science and Mathematics

Minneapolis, MN

November 9 -- 2:15 p.m.

Great Lakes 1:1 Computing Conference -- Modeling and Simulation in the Math and Science Classroom

Chicago, IL

November 9 -- 3:15 p.m.

Great Lakes 1:1 Computing Conference -- NASA eClips™

Chicago, IL

November 13 -- 9:30 a.m.

NSTA Regional Conference NASA eClips™ for Secondary Students: Using Video Segments to Engage Millennial Learners

Fort Lauderdale, FL

November 14 -- 9:30 a.m.

NSTA Regional Conference NASA eClips™ for Elementary Students: Effective Ways to Engage Students in Science

Fort Lauderdale, FL

November 15 - 16

Governors STEM Initiative

Roanoke, VA

November 18 -- 4:30 p.m. ET

NASA Education Resources Showcase

Virtual. Sign up here: http://dln.nasa.gov/dln/

November 20 -- 8:00 a.m

NCTM Regional Conference NASA eClips™ for Secondary Students: Using Video Segments to Engage Millennial Learners

Nashville, TN

November 21

Virginia Air and Space Center

Hampton, VA

December 4 -- 9:30 a.m.

NSTA Regional Conference NASA eClips™ for Secondary Students: Using Video Segments to Engage Millennial Learners

Phoenix, AZ

Nasa to irradiate monkeys to study effects of long space trips on humans

Nasa is to expose squirrel monkeys to daily radiation doses to help them understand the effects of long space trips on humans.

Squirrel monkey. Nasa to irradiate squirrel monkeys to research effects of long space trips on humans
Going boldly where no monkey has gone before Photo: PAUL GROVER

It will be Nasa’s first experiment on primates in decades.

If a manned mission to Mars ever takes place, the human pilots will be outside Earth’s protective magnetic field for several months, unprotected from solar radiation. Little research has been done on this sort of long-term exposure to low doses of radiation.

Eleanor Blakely, a biophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said: "Obviously, the closer we get to man, the better."

The researchers are to pay particular attention to the effects on the monkeys’ central nervous systems and behaviour. The monkeys, previously trained to perform a variety of tasks, will be tested to see how the exposure affects their performance.

Jack Bergman, a behavioral pharmacologist at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital in Boston, said: "We realized there was a need for this kind of work.

"There's a long-standing commitment on the part of NASA to deep space travel and with that commitment comes a need for knowing what kinds of adverse effects deep space travel might have, what are the risks to astronauts. That's not been well assessed.

"The beauty of this is that we can assess at different time points after exposure, so not only do we get a sense of rather immediate effects, but then we can look again at longer time points.

"That kind of information just hasn't been available."

After the radiation exposure, the monkeys can look forward to a lifetime of being looked after by staff and veterinarians at McLean Hospital.

Nasa said in a statement: "McLean Hospital is responsible for the lifetime care of the primates. No further research is planned for them at this time."

The space agency has previously used 17 primates, mainly chimpanzees, to test the effects of launch G-forces and microgravity on humans, among other things.