Stellar Year For NASA
2009 was another trailblazing year for NASA as America’s space agency reached a number of important milestones on Earth and in space. During the year, NASA upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope, discovered water on the moon, increased the number of people living on the International Space Station, and mapped our planet’s location in the Milky Way galaxy with new precision. Here on Earth, NASA welcomed a new leadership team, made crucial findings about greenhouse gases, conducted an unprecedented survey of polar ice and launched a test rocket that will help with the design of future space vehicles.
Highlights from NASA’s top events in 2009 and related Web sites are listed below:
NEW LEADERSHIP TEAM TAKES THE REINS AT NASA
Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on July 15 as the 12th NASA administrator after being nominated by President Obama. Lori Beth Garver was confirmed the same day as NASA’s deputy administrator. The two lead the NASA team and manage NASA’s resources to advance the agency’s missions and goals.
Bolden’s confirmation marks the beginning of his second stint with NASA. His 34-year career with the Marine Corps included 14 years as a member of NASA’s Astronaut Office. After joining the office in 1980, he traveled to orbit four times aboard the space shuttle between 1986 and 1994, commanding two of the missions. He is the first African-American confirmed by the Senate for NASA’s top job.
Like Bolden, Garver’s confirmation as deputy administrator is the second time she has worked for NASA. Her first tour of duty at the agency was from 1996 to 2001, when she served as a special assistant to the NASA administrator and senior policy analyst for the Office of Policy and Plans before becoming the associate administrator for the Office of Policy and Plans.
VENERABLE HUBBLE KEEPS OPENING NEW DOORS ON THE GALAXY
Proof that NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is better than ever came in September when astronomers released stunning new images from four of Hubble’s six operating science instruments. Spacewalking astronauts brought the orbiting observatory to a new apex of scientific performance during a visit by shuttle Atlantis in May. Astronauts installed two new instruments, the Wide Field Camera 3 and Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, and repaired the Advanced Camera for Surveys and Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph circuit boards. Another instrument, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, was returned to operation during Hubble’s three months of calibration and testing.
STALWART SHUTTLE FLEET UPGRADES HUBBLE, BUILDS SPACE STATION
In addition to a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA flew four shuttle flights to the International Space Station in 2009. Those missions completed the station’s power-generating capacity, activated the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo laboratory, expanded the full-time crew to six members and began a new era of scientific research activity. The station’s mass expanded to almost 372 tons and its interior volume to nearly 26,000 cubic feet. An acre of solar panels supplies power to the orbiting laboratory, while a recycling system turns urine and cabin condensate into water for drinking and hygiene. For the first time, 13 crew members were in space aboard the same spacecraft when shuttle Endeavour docked with the station in July. The Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT, was delivered to the station and provides resident astronauts with a way to fight muscle decay and bone loss that comes with space travel. At the November lift off of space shuttle Atlantis, NASA hosted 100 users of the social medium Twitter at a “Tweetup.”
EXPERIMENTAL ROCKET OFFERS OPTIONS FOR FUTURE SPACE VEHICLES
NASA’s Ares I-X test rocket lifted off Oct. 28 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on a successful six-minute flight that will help develop future launch vehicles. Data returned from more than 700 sensors on the rocket provided engineering information to correlate with computer models and analysis. The Ares I-X mission was an uncrewed, suborbital development test flight. The 327-foot tall rocket produced 2.6 million pounds of thrust to accelerate to near hypersonic speed before reaching a suborbital altitude of 150,000 feet following separation of its first stage, a four-segment solid rocket booster. Project officials’ initial assessment indicates the vehicle performed as expected and validated simulation models.
WATER ON THE MOON? NASA FINDS THE ANSWER
NASA scientists discovered water molecules in the polar regions of the moon using instruments aboard three separate spacecraft. The amounts are greater than predicted but still relatively small. Data from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite also confirmed water in the debris clouds from its lunar impact in October. Hydroxyl, a molecule consisting of one oxygen atom and one hydrogen atom, also was found in the lunar soil. NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper on India’s Chandrayaan spacecraft reported the observations. Data from instruments aboard NASA’s Cassini and EPOXI spacecraft helped confirm the water finding. The discovery of water molecules and hydroxyl above the predicted concentrations in the moon’s polar regions raises new questions about where the water came from and what the processes are that allow the moon to retain the water over time.
NASA RECONNAISSANCE TEAM TO MAP MOON’S TERRAIN, SEARCH FOR ICE
In June, NASA successfully launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS. The two missions separated shortly after liftoff and reached the moon several days later.
LCROSS entered an elliptical orbit around Earth and the moon in preparation for a first-of-its-kind impact in a permanently shadowed crater to search for water ice. LRO began a year-long mission to return more data about the moon than any previous satellite. From a low polar orbit about 31 miles above the lunar surface, LRO and its seven science instruments are surveying the moon and helping researchers compile high resolution 3-D maps of Earth’s satellite. The orbiter will explore the moon’s deepest craters, surveying permanently sunlit and shadowed regions, and provide new understanding of the effects of lunar radiation on humans.
LCROSS and a companion rocket stage made dual impacts in the permanently shadowed Cabeus crater at the moon’s south pole on Oct. 9. By November, the science team was able to confirm LCROSS had seen nearly 100 kg of water in the resulting clouds of debris from the impacts. The ongoing analysis of these data could yield information about the evolution of the moon, the Earth, and the early days of our solar system.
METHANE, CARBON MONOXIDE HEAT UP THE HOME PLANET
A team of NASA researchers at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that two greenhouse gases — methane and carbon monoxide — have a significantly more powerful impact on global warming than previously thought. In a paper published in October, the team conducted one of the first modeling experiments designed to rigorously quantify the impact of greenhouse gas-aerosol interactions on climate and air quality. The study found methane’s global warming impact has been underestimated, and the combined impact of emissions that cause both warming and air pollution have as much effect on warming as carbon dioxide does. This improved knowledge of the warming effect of these greenhouse gases will help policymakers devise more efficient strategies to mitigate climate change.
NASA’S AIRBORNE ARMADA STUDIES SHRINKING POLAR ICE
NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge, a six-year airborne field campaign, is the largest flying survey of Earth’s polar ice ever conducted. The survey will yield an unprecedented 3-D view of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, ice shelves and sea ice. NASA completed the campaign’s first Arctic survey this spring from a base in Greenland and its first Antarctic survey this fall from Chile. Data collected during the campaign will help bridge the gap in critical space-based observations between the imminent end of NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) mission and the ICESat II satellite, which is scheduled to launch in 2014.
METHANE ON MARS SUGGESTS “IT’S ALIVE!”
A team of NASA and university scientists achieved the first definitive detection of methane and its global variation in the atmosphere of Mars. The discovery indicated the planet is either biologically or geologically active, or both. The team found methane in the Martian atmosphere by carefully observing the planet during several Mars years with NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck telescope, both located at Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The team detected three spectral features called absorption lines that together are a definitive signature of methane. If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface, where it is warm enough for liquid water to exist. It is possible a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either now or eons ago. On Earth, the conversion of certain iron oxide minerals into a group of more oxidized minerals creates methane. On Mars, this process could occur using water, carbon dioxide and the planet’s internal heat.
NASA DISCOVERS EARTH’S PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE
NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spacecraft allowed scientists to construct the first comprehensive sky map of our solar system and its location in the Milky Way galaxy. 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 new map revealed the region that separates the nearest reaches of our galaxy from our heliosphere — the protective bubble that shields and protects our solar system from most of the dangerous cosmic radiation traveling through space. This new map will change the way researchers view and study the interaction between our galaxy and sun.
NASA – WE’RE IN YOUR HOUSE
NASA’s 2009 Spinoff publication highlights 49 notable examples of how agency innovations have been transferred to the commercial marketplace, resulting in healthcare advances, transportation breakthroughs, public safety initiatives, new consumer goods, environmental protection, computer technology and industrial productivity. In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, this year’s edition of Spinoff recaps how the Apollo program continues to provide tangible benefits to the lives of people in the U.S. and around the world. An example is the ultrasound procedures provided for medical diagnoses to remote areas such as Mount Everest and to the occupants of the International Space Station, places otherwise inaccessible to professional medical personnel.
LITHE LUNAR LANDERS LAUNCH, PRIZE WINNERS TAKE HOME CASH
NASA’s Centennial Challenges program awarded $1.5 million in prize money to a pair of innovative aerospace companies that successfully simulated landing a spacecraft on the moon and lifting off again. NASA gave a $1 million first prize to Masten Space Systems of Mojave, Calif., and a $500,000 second prize to Armadillo Aerospace of Rockwall, Texas, for their Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge flights. The X PRIZE Foundation managed the competition for NASA while the agency provided the prize funds. The goal of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program is to drive progress in aerospace technology that is of value to NASA’s missions and find innovative solutions to technical challenges through competition and cooperation. The Lunar Lander Challenge is one of six Centennial Challenges NASA’s Innovative Partnership Program manages.
NASA PROGRAMS HELP STUDENTS SOAR TO NEW HEIGHTS OF LEARNING
NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Richard Arnold, who also are science teachers, made their first journey to orbit aboard space shuttle Discovery in February. Besides performing spacewalks and teaching students about spacesuits, the astronauts answered questions during a phone call from President Obama, members of Congress and a group of students from Washington area schools. During the shuttle’s Hubble repair mission in May, NASA flew a 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar as part of the agency’s ongoing collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind to engage blind students with the agency’s work. As part of International Education Week activities, station and shuttle crew members spoke with Washington area middle and high school students, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a live downlink on Nov. 5. Also in 2009, toy space ranger Buzz Lightyear completed more than 15 months aboard the space station through a NASA and Disney partnership to encourage students to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
GLOBAL COMMUNITY AGREES SPACE COOPERATION IS THE FUTURE
NASA negotiated a number of international agreements in 2009 about the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes. NASA Administrator Bolden signed agreements with the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the French Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. NASA will partner with the French on four future space science missions and with the Japanese on a mission to measure global precipitation. NASA will continue to work with the Europeans, exchanging technical information and personnel to aid the development of new transportation systems.
NASA AERONAUTICS WINS PRESTIGIOUS AWARD FOR SECOND STRAIGHT YEAR
For the second year in a row, NASA was part of a team chosen to receive one of the most prestigious awards in aviation. The National Aeronautics Association presented the Robert J. Collier Trophy to the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or CAST, in May. This unique industry and government partnership was established in 1997 with the goal of reducing U.S. commercial aviation’s fatal accident rate by 80 percent in 10 years. The partnership’s original goal was difficult to achieve, but 2008 was the safest year in commercial aviation history, and the risk in fatal commercial accidents has been reduced by 83 percent. NASA’s Aviation Safety Program has been a part of CAST since the team was established. The Executive Committee membership includes the director of the Aviation Safety Program in NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington.
NASA Television’s Video File newsfeed will include items featuring these top stories beginning at noon EST, Dec. 17. For NASA TV streaming video, schedules and downlink information, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv
Visitors to NASA’s Web site can vote on the top NASA story of the year at: http://www.nasa.gov/news/09_YIR_poll.html