NASA to Launch Parachute Test off Virginia Coast March 27

Portal origin URL: NASA to Launch Parachute Test off Virginia Coast March 27Portal origin nid: 420978Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018 - 14:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: NASA will test a parachute for possible future missions to Mars from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Tuesday, March 27. Live coverage of the test is scheduled to begin at 6:15 a.m. EDT on the Wallops Ustream site.Portal image: Advanced Supersonic Parachute Inflation Research Experiment (ASPIRE) 2 payloadScience Categories: Solar System

Advanced Thermoelectric Technology: Powering Spacecraft and Instruments to Explore the Solar System

This blog post originated in the 2016 Science Mission Directorate Technology Highlights Report (20 MB PDF).

Technology Development

Radioisotope power systems (RPS) provide the efficient, long-lasting power sources vital to the success of numerous NASA space missions. RPS convert heat generated from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 oxide into electricity that powers spacecraft and instruments. The current “off-the-shelf” flight-proven RPS is the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), which relies on power-generating thermoelectric (TE) couples using heritage materials (lead-telluride/ tellurium-antimony-germanium-silver alloys). NASA SMD is sponsoring technology development efforts to improve Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) performance, both in terms of the thermal-to-electric conversion efficiency (~ 6.3% at beginning of life - BOL) and the degradation rate during the 17-year design life.

NASA SMD’s steady investment in thermoelectric materials and device research and development has led to significant technology breakthroughs. Recently, researchers have discovered several classes of new high-efficiency materials with an excellent potential for infusion into future RTGs. These materials—skutterudites (SKD, based on CoSb3), Zintl phases (such as Yb14MnSb11) and lanthanum telluride (La3-xTe4)—possess highly complex crystal structures, have excellent thermal and chemical stability across the range of very low temperatures (1273 K to 473 K) characteristic of the space environment where RTG operate, and offer significant opportunities for further increases in performance. In 2016, initial testing of new thermocouple devices combining these materials demonstrated a factor of two improvement in conversion efficiency over heritage technologies.


Industry is currently maturing lower-temperature (up to 900 K) SKD materials technology for potential infusion into an Enhanced Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (eMMRTG). The eMMRTG would offer a 25% boost in power at BOL that would grow to least 50% at end-of-design life (17 years after BOL), thanks to its estimated lower degradation rate. Combining this skutterudite technology with the higher-temperature 14-1-11 Zintl and La3-xTe4 materials into segmented device technology (segmented elements combine several materials into a single, wide-temperature, high-efficiency device that utilizes each material in its most efficient temperature range) could enable more capable RTG concepts. Such concepts could be modular, accommodate a wide range of power system sizing (from tens to hundreds of watts), and achieve much higher specific power than the MMRTG. This SMDfunded technology has also attracted interest for application to various terrestrial fields of use concerning industrial waste heat recovery and energy efficiency.

Left: New industry-produced SKD couples that are resilient enough to operate in the eMMRTG hermetically sealed convertor cavity. (Credit: S. Keyser, Teledyne Energy Systems, Inc.) Center: Monte Carlo simulation of heat flow across composite TE material with metal inclusions. (Credit: P. von Allmen, JPL/Caltech) Right: High-temperature segmented thermoelectric module technology with 2X efficiency gain over heritage RPS technology. (Credit: S. Firdosy, JPL/Caltech) Status and Future Plans

Several significant technology developments were completed in 2016. A new method— composite assisted funneling of electrons (CAFE)—was identified for improving the efficiency of TE materials such as 14-1-11 Zintls and La3-xTe4. The CAFE mechanism does not appear to be material-specific and could provide a new method to improve the efficiency of a wide range of thermoelectric materials. For SKD technology, SMD-sponsored efforts focused on developing device component technologies resilient enough to operate within the hermetically sealed convertor “cavity” of the eMMRTG. Researchers also changed the materials used to metallize the SKD elements and altered the composition of the metallic bonding layers used to fabricate the couples. Extended performance testing in a relevant operating environment confirmed the resilience of the new SKD couple configurations to residual moisture and gases. Completion of the SKD technology maturation for a potential transition to the eMMRTG flight system development is currently scheduled at end of 2018.

Sponsoring Organization

PSD’s Radioisotope Power System Program is providing funding to the Thermoelectric Technology Development Project (TTDP) managed by Jean-Pierre Fleurial at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The TTDP is led by JPL and includes participation by the NASA Glenn Research Center, academia, and industry.

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NASA Powers on New Instrument Staring at the Sun

NASA has powered on its latest space payload to continue long-term measurements of the Sun's incoming energy. Total and Spectral solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1), installed on the International Space Station, became fully operational with all instruments collecting science data as of this March.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Friday, March 16, 2018 - 10:49

Mystery of Purple Lights in Sky Solved With Help From Citizen Scientists

Portal origin URL: Mystery of Purple Lights in Sky Solved With Help From Citizen ScientistsPortal origin nid: 420652Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 14:01Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: Citizen scientists, satellites and researchers solve the mystery of new purple lights in the sky. The lights, called STEVE, provide scientists insight into Earth's magnetic field.Portal image: composite image of STEVE and Milky Way over CanadaScience Categories: Sun

NASA Needs Your Help to Find Steve and Here's How

Portal origin URL: NASA Needs Your Help to Find Steve and Here's HowPortal origin nid: 420651Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 14:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: A citizen science project called Aurorasaurus, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, wants your help gathering photos so they can learn more about a mysterious phenomenon named STEVE.Portal image: image of STEVE auroraScience Categories: Sun

A Crab Walks Through Time

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory launch into space. The Crab Nebula was one of the first objects that Chandra examined with its sharp X-ray vision, and it has been a frequent target of the telescope ever since.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 13:53

Arrested Development: Hubble Finds Relic Galaxy Close to Home

Astronomers have put NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on an Indiana Jones-type quest to uncover an ancient "relic galaxy" in our own cosmic backyard. The very rare and odd assemblage of stars has remained essentially unchanged for the past 10 billion years. This wayward stellar island provides valuable new insights into the origin and evolution of galaxies billions of years ago.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Tuesday, March 13, 2018 - 10:01

Wisconsin Wildlife Says Cheese


NASA satellites are helping Wisconsin develop a clearer picture of its diverse and abundant fauna. Through a partnership project called Snapshot Wisconsin, scientists and managers are focusing on better wildlife management by linking spaceborne views with keen eyes on the ground.

Picture This

Snapshot Wisconsin is a statewide trail camera project run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) that monitors mammalian and avian wildlife in partnership with citizen scientists. Its goals are twofold: “The first is to provide a consistent and cost-effective method of monitoring all types of wildlife throughout the year—and all across Wisconsin—for the purpose of wildlife decision-making,” said Jennifer Stenglein, a wildlife scientist with the WDNR. “The second is to involve citizens in the process of wildlife monitoring.”

And that’s where the trail cameras come into play. A trail camera is a mounted, automated camera that captures an image, or sequence of images, when activated. Cameras can snap pictures at prescribed times or when sensors detect something moving in front of the camera.

For the Snapshot Wisconsin project, more than 800 Wisconsinites have volunteered to set up and monitor nearly 1,000 trail cameras and upload their photos to the Zooniverse database—an online platform where citizen scientists provide data used by wildlife managers and professional researchers. Once the photos are in this database, anyone around the globe can help count and classify the species caught on camera— which means a birder in Bermuda or a hunter in Hungary can assist in Wisconsin’s wildlife management.

Not Just Badgers

Since its inception, the project has snapped more than 17 million photos and Zooniverse users have categorized about 250,000 valuable images of Wisconsin wildlife. In this repository, you can find photos of beavers, bobcats, badgers, and black bears. Snapshots of everything from a prickle of porcupines to grazing grouse and frolicking foxes can be seen here. The site has yet to archive a skunk taking a selfie (a smellfie?)— though it certainly seems that the occasional doe-eyed deer is posing for the camera.

“Without images collected from space, it would be incredibly difficult to reliably predict and map the distribution and abundance of species.” - JOHN CLARE

Ultimately, the project team hopes to have about 5,000 cameras dotting the state; an average of about 70 cameras per county. The team is acutely aware that trail cameras can only capture so much of Wisconsin’s 54,000 square miles of land. And snapshots alone can’t help the WDNR understand the environmental factors that determine the distribution and abundance of the state’s wildlife.

As a partner of Snapshot Wisconsin, NASA brought its satellite fleet into the equation to provide that missing information. “NASA data are critical to making maps. Even though we have a lot of trail cams, those are still only a sample of the landscape,” stressed Phil Townsend of UW-Madison, the principle investigator of this project. “We know that what we measure from NASA imagery—such as snow cover, forest cover and fragmentation— explains where animals are at different times of the year, as well as their behavior…it also helps us better understand what drives animal use of the landscape.”

A Wider Perspective

Specifically, the project team tapped into Earth-observing instruments on the Aqua, Terra, and Landsat satellites for the data it needed. “What’s great about these sensors is that they collect data regularly, and over large continuous spaces, which we can link to the trail camera data to figure out what’s happening at the camera locations and the spaces in between cameras,” said John Clare, project team member and PhD student with UWMadison’s Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. “Two of the more important sensors for our research are Landsat’s Thematic Mapper and the MODIS sensors.” He continued, “These sensors are complementary—MODIS’s greater temporal resolution makes it more useful for detecting environmental changes like plant green-up, while Landsat’s greater spatial resolution makes it more useful for detailed mapping of relatively static environmental attributes, like the location of forests, wetlands, and prairies.”

Carnivore species richness map versus adult deer catch per unit effort (CPUE) map. CPUE is the expected number of detections (camera trap photos) per night, and is an index of deer density.

As for the kind of guidance the team might give wildlife managers, Clare provided Wisconsin’s snowshoe hare as an example. “[The] snowshoe hare seems to be declining due to snow loss,” he noted. “We might find that hare persistence is associated with brushy, young forest and we might suggest implementing forestry practices to promote this habitat to keep the species around.” This guidance would ideally not just help the hare to survive, but allow it—and other species—to thrive.

Forward Focused

Looking for more ways to use that wider perspective for small-scale applications, the Snapshot Wisconsin team is now looking to bring NASA satellite data down to Earth for assisting decision-making at the county level—this time, for forecasting future scenarios. “The white-tailed deer population in Wisconsin is estimated using a formula to get a prehunt and post-hunt population size,” Stenglein said. To do this, wildlife managers monitor the populations in each of the state’s Deer Management Units, which roughly correspond to each county of Wisconsin. The formula uses several inputs, including the annual number of harvested bucks and the fawn-to-doe ratios in August and September.

“Fawn-to-doe ratios are known to be affected by overwinter weather in the forested portions of Wisconsin, and NASA satellites can help us make those links at camera locations and the spaces in-between,” she explained. With this added environmental data, the team could build predictive models for better population estimates. “Having accurate deer population estimates for each Deer Management Unit is foundational for the decision-making cycle of quota setting and determining the annual hunting season structure.”

And with this better overall view of Wisconsin’s deer population, Stenglein hopes that, down the road, the Snapshot Wisconsin project will assist the WDNR in its aerial deer surveys. “The contribution of Snapshot Wisconsin will at least compliment the surveys that are already being done,” she pointed out. “Ideally there will be some cases where Snapshot Wisconsin can even replace these routine surveys, thereby saving staff time and money.”

With this fleet of NASA satellites and sensors now supporting the WDNR’s wildlife management, Clare reiterated, “The remote-sensing data has really improved our understanding of the distribution of certain species that might be difficult to study over large extents, and we’ve been able to identify certain environmental correlates that haven’t been previously well-established.” This added pair of eyes-in-the-sky is truly helping the WDNR make space for Wisconsin’s fauna.

For more on Snapshot Wisconsin, check out: projects/snapshot. For more examples of how NASA is making space for Earth, visit:

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3 NASA Satellites Recreate Solar Eruption in 3-D

Portal origin URL: 3 NASA Satellites Recreate Solar Eruption in 3-DPortal origin nid: 420349Published: Friday, March 9, 2018 - 10:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: Scientists have developed a model that simulates how shocks following coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, propagate from the Sun — an effort made possible only by combining data from three different NASA satellites.Portal image: three satellites' models of a CME in 3-DScience Categories: Sun

NASA Juno Findings - Jupiter’s Jet-Streams Are Unearthly

Data collected by NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter indicate that the atmospheric winds of the gas-giant planet run deep into its atmosphere and last longer than similar atmospheric processes found here on Earth. The findings will improve understanding of Jupiter’s interior structure, core mass and, eventually, its origin.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Thursday, March 8, 2018 - 15:29

Hubble Finds Dusty Material Enveloping the Young Star

Astronomers have used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to uncover a vast, complex dust structure, about 150 billion miles across, enveloping the young star HR 4796A. A bright, narrow, inner ring of dust is already known to encircle the star and may have been corralled by the gravitational pull of an unseen giant planet.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 11:22

Media Invited to Upcoming Launch of NASA’s Newest Planet-Hunting Spacecraft

Portal origin URL: Media Invited to Upcoming Launch of NASA’s Newest Planet-Hunting SpacecraftPortal origin nid: 420200Published: Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 13:55Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: Media accreditation now is open for the launch of a NASA spacecraft that will search for planets outside of our solar system with a field of view almost 400 times larger than that of the agency’s Kepler mission.Portal image: illustration of TESSScience Categories: Universe

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Public Invited to Come Aboard NASA’s First Mission to Touch the Sun

Portal origin URL: Public Invited to Come Aboard NASA’s First Mission to Touch the SunPortal origin nid: 420182Published: Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 12:00Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission will launch in summer 2018 to travel closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions. And you can send your name along for the ride.Portal image: illustration of Parker Solar ProbeScience Categories: Sun

Far Northern Permafrost May Unleash Carbon Within Decades

Permafrost in the coldest northern Arctic -- formerly thought to be at least temporarily shielded from global warming by its extreme environment -- will thaw enough to become a permanent source of carbon to the atmosphere in this century, with the peak transition occurring in 40 to 60 years, according to a new NASA-led study.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 10:06

Beaming with the Light of Millions of Suns

In the 1980s, scientists started discovering a new class of extremely bright sources of X-rays in galaxies. These sources were a surprise, as they were clearly located away from the supermassive black holes found in the center of galaxies. At first, researchers thought that many of these ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, were black holes containing masses between about a hundred and a hundred thousand times that of the sun. Later work has shown some of them may be stellar-mass black holes, containing up to a few tens of times the mass of the sun.

News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Monday, March 5, 2018 - 13:33