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FY 2010 Year in Review

The Science Mission Directorate's Input to the President's Space and Aeronautics Report 2010

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) successfully launched three new space and Earth science missions designed to improve our understanding of solar processes, Earth system change, the nature of the universe, and the history of the solar system.  The Science Mission Directorate in FY 2010 had five program divisions: Astrophysics, Planetary Science, Heliophysics, Earth Science and the Joint Agency Satellite Division.

On December 14, 2009, NASA launched the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft.  From a vantage points 500 km above Earth’s surface, WISE surveyed the entire sky at infrared wavelengths, creating a cosmic clearinghouse of hundreds of millions of objects that will be catalogued and provide a vast storehouse of knowledge about the solar system, the Milky Way, and the universe.  By the end of its six-month mission, WISE acquired nearly 1,500,000 images covering the entire sky.  The mission has uncovered objects never seen before, including the coolest stars, near-Earth asteroids, and comets.  Its vast catalogs will be studied for years to come to help answer fundamental questions about the origins of planets, stars and galaxies, and provide a feast of data for astronomers to analyze for decades to come.  WISE data will also reveal new information about the composition of near-Earth objects and asteroids – are they fluffy like snow or hard like rocks, or both?  WISE is an Astrophysics Division mission.

On January 5, 2010, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope's new infrared camera, the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), broke the distance limit for galaxies and uncovered a primordial population of compact and ultra-blue galaxies that have never been seen before.   The deeper Hubble looks into space, the farther back in time it looks, because light takes billions of years to cross the observable universe. This makes Hubble a powerful “time machine” that allows astronomers to see the most distant galaxies as they were 13 billion years ago, just 600 million to 800 million years from the Big Bang.  The existence of these newly found galaxies push back the time when galaxies began to form. The deep observations also demonstrates the progressive build up of galaxies and provides further support for the hierarchical model of galaxy assembly where small objects accrete mass, or merge, to form bigger objects over a smooth and steady but dramatic process of collision and agglomeration.  This is analogous to streams merging into tributaries and then into a bay.  Hubble Space Telescope is an Astrophysics Division mission.

On January 28, 2010, the Cassini spacecraft made its 67th flyby of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.  Titan’s peculiar surface includes lakes of liquid hydrocarbons and other features that puzzle planetary scientists.  In this flyby, Cassini spacecraft passed over the surface at an altitude of about 7,490 kilometers (4,654 miles); by contrast, other flights brought it as close as a few hundred miles.  The relatively large distance flyby between the Cassini spacecraft and Titan gave Cassini’s instruments the ability to observe the context of specific features seen on closer passes. The Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997, and entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004.  Since then, the spacecraft has been providing scientists with groundbreaking discoveries on the gas giant, and also on its many moons.  The spacecraft has helped shape our understanding of the various influences that the entire Saturnian system exerts within itself.  Hence, the correlations between the planet, its moons, and the rings, also became clearer.  The Planetary Science Division manages the Cassini spacecraft.

On February 11, 2010, NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft. SDO is revealing the processes inside the Sun, on the Sun's surface, and in its corona that result in solar variability. This variability, when experienced on Earth, is called space weather.Space weather affects not only our lives on Earth, but also the Earth itself, and everything outside its atmosphere (astronauts and satellites out in space and even the other planets). By better understanding the Sun and how it works, scientists are better able to predict and better forecast the “weather out in space” providing earlier warnings to protect our astronauts and satellites in their journeys through space. SDO is designed to operate for five years, and collects huge amounts of data every day. SDO produces enough data to fill a single CD every 36 seconds.  Because SDO has no recording system and collects so much data, the SDO mission uses a dedicated ground station. SDO is in a geosynchronous orbit so that the SDO spacecraft revolves around the Earth at the same rate as the Earth rotates and is thus always be directly above and in constant communication with its ground station in New Mexico.  SDO is a Heliophysics Division mission.

On March 3, 2010, the Cassini spacecraft did a targeted flyby and made its closest approach of the mission to Helene (a moon) at about 1,800 kilometers (1,131 miles).  (A “targeted flyby” refers to the times when the navigation team is anchoring the trajectory design to the flyby – tweaking the spacecraft’s path to take full advantage of the opportunity.  Usually targeted flybys are closer, and are therefore reveal greater surface detail.)  Helene, a small moon, is referred to as a Trojan moon because it is gravitationally tied to the much larger moon Dione.On approach to the small moon, the Cassini’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) took measurements that may help scientists analyze Helene's surface composition and understand if it is coated with particles from the E ring. Then, using a "skeet shoot"-style observation due to quickly changing geometries, the Cassini’s Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) captured close-ups of the moon. Scientists anticipate these new views may reveal clues about Helene's past, including how it got gravitationally captured by the larger moon Dione and whether a collision was part of its past.  The Planetary Science Division manages the Cassini spacecraft.

On March 4, 2010, NASA launched the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite GOES-P.  Once the GOES-P reached geostationary orbit, it joined the fleet of satellites necessary to predict weather in North America.  GOES-P will provide more accurate prediction and tracking of severe storms and other weather phenomena, resulting in earlier and more precise warnings to the public. The GOES program, began in 1974, is a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce.  NOAA funds and manages the program and determines the need for satellite replacement.  NASA acts as NOAA’s acquisition agent to design, develop, and launch GOES satellites.  After a satellite is launched and checked out by NASA, the spacecraft is turned over to NOAA for its operation. Supporting NOAA and NASA scientists collecting and analyzing real-time environmental data, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard searching the open seas, GOES-P stands ready as the most advanced multi-mission weather and Earth-observation satellite ever built for NOAA geosynchronous operations.  In addition, GOES-P will provide enhanced weather monitoring and prediction capability, communications subsystems to rebroadcast data, and space environmental monitoring instruments and sensors from an operational orbital slot of 75 degree or 135 degree West.  Further, the satellite will provide more accurate location of severe storms and other weather phenomena, resulting in earlier and more precise warnings to the public.  Within NASA, the Joint Agency Satellite Division manages the GOES program.

In April 2010, the Global Hawk Pacific 2010 mission (GloPac) was the first environmental science mission of NASA's Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system. The flights in April 2010 ranged over the Pacific Ocean south to the equator, west past Hawaii, and north into the Arctic.  Ten instruments on the aircraft will collect a wide range of atmospheric data.

On April 28, 2010, the Cassini spacecraft’s Radio Science Subsystem (RSS) tracked Enceladus through a close pass to determine the nature of the interior beneath the south polar hot spot.  Traveling at 6.5 km/sec (14,540 mph), Cassini flew past Enceladus for a targeted flyby, and the spacecraft closest approach occurred at an altitude of 100 kilometers (60 miles).  This spacecraft flyby featured a high-priority RSS gravity experiment to look for mass anomalies associated with the Enceladus plume.  The flyby segment began with an RSS observation of a Saturn-solar occultation, both ingress and egress, which was followed by gravity observations that continued as Cassini traveled under the south pole through the plume.  These back-to-back observations required almost 30 hours of continuous Deep Space Network support provided sequentially by all three complexes.  These observations will be used to look for anomalies indicating the presence or absence of mass concentrations at the South Polar Region of Enceladus, which may in turn provide insight into the source material for the plume.  After passing Enceladus, RSS continued to monitor the spacecraft trajectory as a baseline for comparison with the flyby results.  The Planetary Science Division manages the Cassini spacecraft.

In late April 2010, NASA aided the United States' response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Advanced remote-sensing instruments on NASA Earth-observing satellites and aircraft collected observations of the spill and its impact on ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico. Several NASA satellites took regular observations primarily to detect the location, extent, and varying concentration of the oil spill. NASA data were distributed to the many federal and state agencies and organizations responding to contain the spill and develop recovery efforts. NASA also sent several research aircraft to make targeted observations that will assist federal and state agencies in documenting changes in the marshes, swamps, bayous, and beaches along the Gulf coast.  

On May 25, 2010, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luftund Raumfahrt (DLR), completed an important milestone by achieving “first flight” when it performed its first observations during the night.  SOFIA is the only airborne observatory in the world.  The observatory carried out observations of astronomical objects at infrared wavelengths in flight.  During an eight-hour “first flight” that reached 11,000 meters in altitude, the 18-person crew of scientists, engineers and technicians tested the telescope’s performance to its limits and took the first infrared images of test objects in the night sky.  The crowning achievement of the night:  scientists recorded images of the Messier 82 (M82) galaxy and of Jupiter, at wavelengths unobservable by ground- or space-based telescopes.  The composite image of Jupiter shows heat pouring out of the planet’s interior through holes in its clouds.  In the infrared image of M82, it is possible to look through the galaxy’s interstellar dust clouds to show several “starburst” knots in which stars are forming by the tends of thousands.  SOFIA is an Astrophysics Division mission.

On May 26, 2010, data from NASA's Swift satellite have helped astronomers solve a decade-long mystery about why a small percentage of black holes emit vast amounts of energy.  Only about one percent of super-massive black holes exhibit this behavior.  The new findings confirm that black holes “light up” when galaxies collide, and the data may offer insight into the future behavior of the black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy.  The intense emission from galaxy centers, or nuclei, arises near a super-massive black hole containing between a million and a billion times the sun’s mass.  Giving off as much as 10 billion times the sun’s energy, some of these active galactic nuclei (AGN) are the most luminous objects in the universe.  They include quasars and blazars.  Until Swift’s hard X-ray survey, astronomers never could be sure they had counted the majority of the AGN.  Thick clouds of dust and gas surround the black hole in an active galaxy, which can block ultraviolet, optical and low-energy, or soft X-ray, light.  Infrared radiation from warm dust near the black hole can pass through the material, but it can be confused with emissions from the galaxy’s star-forming regions.  Hard X-rays can help scientists directly detect the energetic black hole.  Since 2004, the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) aboard the Swift spacecraft has been mapping the sky using hard X-rays. The survey, sensitive to AGN as far as 650 million light-years away, uncovered dozens of previously unrecognized systems.  Swift is an Astrophysics Division mission.

On June 3, 2010, rocks examined by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” were found to hold evidence of a wet, non-acidic ancient environment that may have been favorable for life.  Confirming this mineral clue took four years of analysis by several scientists.  An outcrop that Spirit examined in late 2005 revealed high concentrations of carbonate, which originates in wet, near-neutral conditions, but dissolves in acid.  The ancient water indicated by this finding was not acidic.  Laboratory tests helped confirm the carbonate justification.  Massive carbonate deposits on Mars have been sought for years without much success.  Numerous channels apparently carved by flows of liquid water on ancient Mars suggest the planet was formerly warmer, thanks to greenhouse warming from a thicker atmosphere than exists now.  The ancient, dense Martian atmosphere was probably rich in carbon dioxide, because that gas makes up nearly all the modern, very thin atmosphere.  Spirit is a Planetary Science Division mission.

On August 15, 2010, the Global Hawk took part in NASA’s Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) airborne campaign to study how hurricanes and tropical cyclones form and strengthen. The campaign used several NASA research aircraft to, for the first time, studied these storms and the conditions that produce them for up to 20 hours straight.  One of the major challenges in tropical cyclone forecasting is knowing when a tropical cyclone is going to form.  Scientists have analyzed the data from the field mission to better understand how tropical storms form and develop into major hurricanes.  Three NASA satellites played an important role in supplying data about tropical cyclones during the field mission.  The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) provided rainfall estimates and has helped pinpoint the locations of “hot towers” or powerhouse thunderstorms in tropical cyclones.  The CloudSat spacecraft provided cloud profiles of storms, which included altitude, temperatures and rainfall intensity.  Several instruments onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite provided infrared, visible and microwave data that revealed such factors as temperature, air pressure, precipitation, cloud ice content, convection and sea surface temperatures.  The Earth Sciences Division manages all the three NASA satellites, and the Global Hawk is an Earth Sciences Division mission.

On August 26, 2010, NASA’s Kepler team announced the discovery of the first confirmed planetary system with more than one planet crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star.  The transit signatures of two distinct planets were seen in the data for the sun-like star designated Kepler-9.  The planets were named Kepler-9b and 9c.  The discovery incorporates seven months of observations. By observing several transits by each planet over the seven months of data, successive transits could be analyzed to confirm the presence, number, size, and orbit period of the planets in this distant solar system . The observations show Kepler-9b is the larger of the two planets, and both have masses similar to but less than Saturn.  Kepler-9b lies closest to the star with an orbit of about 19 days, while Kepler-9c has an orbit of about 38 days.  Kepler is making multi-year observations of more than 156,000 stars as part of an ongoing search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system. Kepler is an Astrophysics Division mission.

On September 9, 2010, data from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Polar Lander suggest liquid water has interacted with the Martian surface throughout the planet’s history and into modern times.  The research also provides new evidence that volcanic activity has persisted on the Red Planet into geologically recent times, several million years ago.  Although the Lander, which arrived on Mars on May 25, 2008, is no longer operating, NASA scientists continue to analyze data gathered from that mission.  These recent findings are based on data about the planet’s carbon dioxide, which makes up about 95 percent of the Martian atmosphere.  Phoenix precisely measured isotopes of carbon and oxygen in the carbon dioxide of the Martian atmosphere.  Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights.  This chemical signature suggests that liquid water primarily existed at temperatures near freezing and that hydrothermal systems similar to Yellowstone’s hot springs have been rare throughout the planet’s past.  Measurements concerning carbon dioxide showed Mars is a much more active planet than previously thought.  The results imply Mars has replenished its atmospheric carbon dioxide relatively recently, and the carbon dioxide has reacted with liquid water present on the surface.  The Phoenix Mars Lander is a Planetary Science Division mission.

On September 29, 2010, NASA and the National Science Foundation sponsored a team of planet hunters from the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington to find a most Earth-like exoplanet.  The team has announced the discovery of a planet with three times the mass of Earth orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star’s “habitable zone.”  The discovery was the result of more than a decade of observations using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.  The research placed the planet in an area where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface.  If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one.  To astronomers, a “potentially habitable” planet is one that could sustain life, not necessarily one where humans would thrive.  Habitability depends on many factors, but having liquid water and an atmosphere are among the most important.