Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons. It’s about the size of our moon. Europa is a very special moon in our solar system because it might be able to support living things. Beneath its icy crust, there could be an ocean with twice as much water as there is in Earth’s oceans. We know a lot about Europa from NASA’s Galileo mission, which visited Jupiter more than 10 years ago. We have also taken pictures of it with the Hubble Space Telescope. But now NASA plans to send a spacecraft, a machine that flies in space, right to Europa to learn more. It will loop around Jupiter and fly by Europa 45 times over three years. It will get as close as 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the icy surface. What will the spacecraft do when it gets there? The spacecraft will have nine machines that will take different measurements of Europa. Using cameras, radar and other devices, we will learn all kinds of new things about this interesting moon. We’ll learn more about the surface and get detailed pictures of it. We’ll find out how thick the crust is and how much water is under it. We will even be able to measure how deep and salty the ocean is. How warm and cold are different parts of the moon? We’ll find that out, too. The spacecraft will also measure the magnetic field around Europa. Even though the spacecraft isn’t landing on Europa, we can still learn about very small things, too. The spacecraft can measure the very thin atmosphere there. It will find out how much water and other particles are floating around in it. We can even find out what kinds of salt and other small molecules are in Europa’s ocean. There is a lot to be excited about, but we’ll have to wait a while to learn all these things. The mission will launch in the 2020s, and it will take years for the spacecraft to reach Europa. Until then we can look at all the beautiful pictures we have of this icy moon and think about what we’ll find there.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration Just before noon on April 25, 2015, the ground in Nepal started to move. For about 30 seconds, people felt the ground shaking beneath them. It doesn’t sound like a very long time, but it doesn’t take long for an earthquake to cause damage. The ground shook so much and so hard that houses cracked, buildings flattened, and thousands of people were hurt or killed. After the earthquake, cities and villages were ruined. Where there used to be buildings, there was now only broken pieces. People were trapped under collapsed houses. To save people, you have to dig them out. But first, you have to know where they are. How can you find someone buried under rubble? You can’t yell their name because they won’t be able to hear you. If they yell for help, you can’t hear them either. What you can do is listen for their heartbeats. You might be thinking, “Heartbeats are very quiet. You can’t just hear them!” That’s normally true. You can’t hear them with your ears, but you can find them with a special machine. This new machine is called FINDER. That stands for “Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response.” It uses radar to look for people under bricks, mud and pieces of buildings. It was built by scientists and engineers from NASA and the United States Department of Homeland Security. FINDER is the size of a suitcase. It weighs about as much as a two gallons of water. When rescue workers need to find someone, they turn it on, and the machine searches for heartbeats. It can sense a heartbeat even if the person is buried under 30 feet of broken concrete. When the earthquake hit Nepal, the people who built FINDER knew it would be very helpful. They brought two of the machines to Nepal right away. On April 29, they found four men trapped under collapsed buildings. FINDER saved their lives.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration Since NASA explores our solar system and other galaxies, you might think we don’t need to explore our own planet anymore. It’s not true, though. It’s easy to forget that there are lots of things about Earth we still don’t know. We’ve got a lot to learn. One area that deserves exploring is Earth’s supply of water, especially in the soil. A new NASA spacecraft called Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, is orbiting Earth right now. It will measure moisture in the top five centimeters (about two inches) of soil all over the world. This soil is very important, since it’s where most plants live. SMAP detects how much water is in the soil. It can also tell if the water is frozen or thawed. SMAP isn’t going to take soil moisture measurements just once. It’s going to gather information every two or three days for three whole years. That means we’ll be able to see changes over time. It also means that the effects of storms, droughts and seasons can be watched closely. Then we can see how they all affect soil moisture. Getting measurements of soil moisture every few days for years is going to produce a lot of information. What will scientists do with it? They’ll be able to observe and predict droughts, which can have big impacts on food supplies. SMAP will also help predict dangerous weather. Storm clouds form from evaporated water. Knowing how much water is in the soil means you can guess how much can evaporate and lead to storm clouds. Also, if the ground is so full of water that it can’t hold any more, with a big rainstorm on the way, there could be a flood. In the end, SMAP will help us better understand how the water cycle works. How water moves from the ground to the air can be traced through soil moisture. Gathering information about this can help us understand many things. It will lead to a deeper understanding of our planet, how things are connected, and how we can preserve our planet for the future.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration The sun is a giant ball of burning gas 93 million miles away. It burns so brightly it warms us here on Earth and gives us energy. Because it’s so hot and bright, you might be surprised to learn that sometimes the sun has dark regions in its atmosphere. We can’t see these dark patches with our own eyes, of course. And don’t try – it will hurt your eyes! We see these dimmer areas with spacecraft like the Solar Dynamics Observatory. This satellite orbits the Earth and watches the sun from afar, taking pictures as it goes. On March 16, it found two big holes in the outer atmosphere, or corona, of the sun. One coronal hole is located near the southern pole of the sun. It is one of the largest coronal holes scientists have seen in decades. It covers about eight percent of the surface of the sun. That might not sound like much, but for comparison, eight percent of your body surface is the front of one whole leg. The other coronal hole is long and skinny. It covers less than one percent of the sun, but that’s still almost four billion square miles. That’s the same area as 20 earths! These coronal holes are colder and less dense than the rest of the sun’s atmosphere. Because the magnetic fields in those regions are open to space, coronal holes let energy and particles escape from the sun and go out into the solar system. This blast of charged particles is called solar wind. The solar wind takes two or three days to reach us on earth, and when it does, it can cause auroras. Those are the bright bands of light that you can see in the sky, usually near the North Pole. For more up-to-date images, be sure to check out news from the SDO mission: http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov.
Alex H. Kasprak National Aeronautics and Space Administration A NASA spacecraft named “Dawn” is making space exploration history. It is the first spacecraft to orbit two different solar system targets. Plenty of spacecraft have flown by two or more planets or moons during their missions. But orbiting something is a lot harder. The spacecraft has to put itself into “reverse” using its thrusters and lots of fuel in order to be captured by the gravity of a planet and go into orbit. Otherwise, it would just fly right on by. And to leave orbit, it would have to pull itself out of the gravitational field using even more fuel, like hauling itself up out of a deep hole. You can’t really put that much rocket fuel on a spacecraft. It would be too heavy and expensive to launch. But Dawn works very differently. Dawn uses electricity to propel itself. Its ion propulsion technology shoots charged atoms, called ions, out of a small engine at super-high speed. The electrical energy comes from solar panels, and the atoms are from a gas called xenon. This technology has allowed Dawn to make its historic journey to the asteroid belt, first orbiting and studying the asteroid Vesta, then leaving that orbit, traveling another 900 million miles and going into orbit around dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn is also the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet. The ion engine has enabled Dawn to spiral into the “gravity well” of one body, spiral back out and have enough fuel left to go and do it all over again (although Dawn will not be leaving Ceres’s orbit). Ion propulsion uses much less fuel than other means of space travel humans have tried. Therefore, the spacecraft is light enough to launch, but still has the power to make big changes to its course. The only real drawback is that it can’t accelerate very fast. In fact, it would take four whole days for Dawn to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour! But once it gets going, it really gets going! By keeping these ion-powered engines thrusting for a long time, Dawn can do things no other craft has done! Visit NASA’s Space Place to learn more about ion thrusters at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/ion-balloons. Learn more about the Dawn mission at http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/
From a distance, Ceres might look a bit like any other planet you might see. It’s spherical, after all, and that’s one of the biggest requirements of planethood. But put it next to any other planet, and you would quickly see that it is seriously tiny. It’s not even 1/5th the size of Mercury, which is the tiniest planet in the solar system. This small size is one of the reasons why Ceres is classified as a dwarf planet. Its location, floating amongst thousands of bits of other space rock in the Asteroid Belt, is another clue that it hasn’t reached full planethood. For a space object to be honored with the title “planet,” it has to have enough gravity to clear away all the junk around it. But, alas, poor Ceres can’t muster that kind of gravitational strength. Still, amongst the other asteroids, Ceres is a giant. Because of this, it is considered both a dwarf planet and the largest asteroid — the only dwarf planet/asteroid in our solar system. It is also the closest dwarf planet to Earth. The others, including famed Pluto, are all near or beyond the orbit of Neptune. But it’s really hard to see. It’s tiny, after all, and it’s also not especially bright. We haven’t really had a chance to take a close look. That is about to change! After more than seven years of travel, a trusty spacecraft named Dawn is fast approaching Ceres. It has already begun to take pictures. As it gets closer and closer, those pictures will become clearer and clearer. It has already revealed a cratered surface. By March, it will enter into orbit around Ceres, giving us all kinds of new information about this mysterious little world. When it does that, it will become the first spacecraft ever to visit a dwarf planet!
Alex H. Kasprak National Aeronautics and Space Administration Sure, the sun is great. It’s nice to not live in a frozen wasteland, after all. But the sun is pretty terrifying, too. It sends a dangerous stream of fast-moving electrons, protons and other even smaller particles, called photons, toward Earth. You may have heard of one of the ways Earth shields itself — the ozone layer. The ozone layer, which is high in the atmosphere, blocks much of the sun’s damaging UV radiation, which comes from the photons. But there’s another shield further away. This takes care of the larger, fast-moving particles — the electrons and protons. And scientists have just discovered how strong this other shield is. Two donut-shaped belts called the Van Allen belts surround our planet. Scientists have known about them for a long time. For the most part, the closer belt contains protons and the further belt contains electrons. Earth’s magnetic field shapes them and holds them in place. Now scientists have new information from a pair of NASA probes sent into orbit back in 2012. The big discovery is about the edge of the outer donut that is closest to Earth. It’s pretty much an unbreakable shield against the fastest moving particles thrown at us by the sun. Scientists have even called it “impenetrable.” It’s pretty remarkable. These electrons and protons from the sun are traveling at nearly the speed of light. But when they reach the end of the first Van Allen belt, they stop moving toward Earth. Scientists are still not sure how or why this powerful shield exists or even how it works. But we should sure be thankful it’s there. Without protection from the sun’s damaging particles, Earth would be a different place!
Alex H. Kasprak National Aeronautics and Space Administration You might think Uranus looks boring compared to the swirling surface of Jupiter and the mighty rings of Saturn. You wouldn’t be alone! It has a hazy and dull bluish color. It’s dim. It’s hard to see, small even in a telescope. It’s kind of…boring. But lately something exciting is happening there — huge storms! These large storms with dramatic bright patches have been popping up so clearly that even amateur astronomers are taking note. The storms excite professional astronomers, too. But this wild weather also confuses them. That’s because they don’t know why so many storms would be popping up now. They expected Uranus’s stormiest days to be back in 2007. The sun would have been shining right on its equator then. All the heat from the sun would have made the gases in its atmosphere circulate faster and cause storms. But not much happened in 2007. And now all those storms are occurring on a part of the planet where the sun’s warming is weakest. Scientists don’t know about any other source of heat. If not the sun, what could be causing all the excitement? Nobody has a clue! According to one Uranus weather expert named Heidi Hammel, “Why we see these incredible storms now is beyond anybody’s guess.” Perhaps Uranus hasn’t received the attention it deserves. That’s too bad. It’s likely that the more people look at this “boring” planet, the more it may surprise, confuse and excite us. Why did it take so long to discover Uranus in the first place? Check out NASA’s Space Place to learn the answer! http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/uranus.
Alex H. Kasprak National Aeronautics and Space Administration When astronomers set out to use an observatory or telescope on the surface of our planet, they are always hoping for a clear sky. How else are they going to see through those clouds and into space? That’s a big benefit of orbiting telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope. Since they are already in space — well above the clouds — they aren’t affected by Earth’s weather. Why then, you might ask, would a group astronomers using three orbiting space telescopes worry about cloud cover? Simple: It’s not Earth’s clouds they worry about. Instead, it’s the clouds of planets in faraway solar systems. These planets are called exoplanets. One planet, named HAT-P-11b, is 120 light-years away in the swan-shaped constellation Cygnus. Scientists had a goal to detect water vapor in HAT-P-11b’s atmosphere. The planet, which is roughly the size of Neptune, has a rocky core and gassy atmosphere. It was the possibility of clouds in that atmosphere that had these scientists concerned. And unfortunately, you can’t turn on the Weather Channel and get a forecast for a place like HAT-P-11b. Clouds would have been a problem because they get in the way of light passing through the planet’s atmosphere. The way that scientists detect water vapor is by looking at how light from the planet’s star changes when it passes through the atmosphere of the planet. Put a cloud in the way and all bets are off! Luckily it was nothing but clear skies for the scientists, so they were able to find the water vapor they were looking for! HAT-P-11b is the smallest exoplanet for which a molecule of any kind has been identified. This discovery is an important stepping-stone. The ultimate goal is even more challenging – finding water vapor on an Earth-like planet. Finding planets like Earth with water vapor will be key in our hunt for life on planets outside of our own solar system. Don’t let HAT-P-11b’s clear skies fool you, though. This super-hot exoplanet is no place for life, let alone a picnic. Want to learn more about the wild world of planets elsewhere in the universe? Check out “What is a planet?” at NASA’s Space Place. http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/planet-what-is.
Alex H. Kasprak National Aeronautics and Space Administration Over 10 years ago, a spacecraft named Rosetta blasted off on its way to meet up with an icy dust ball. The European Space Agency launched the mission with contributions from selected European countries and also from NASA. Those who built Rosetta have high hopes for it. If all goes according to plan, a lander attached to Rosetta will gently descend to the surface of the comet for the first time ever. In fact, the Rosetta mission has already made history. In late August, after its decade-long journey, the spacecraft entered an orbit around a comet for the first time. The comet —Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko — is barreling quickly toward the sun as Rosetta circles around it. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because we will now have a front-row seat to a pretty awesome show. As this comet gets closer to the sun it will heat up. As it heats up, it will develop the bright coma and stunning tail for which comets are known. It’s a curse because eventually all that heat will make it impossible for the lander’s instruments to work. It could even break Comet 67P apart. That means there’s a deadline for putting a lander on its surface. The scientists must act quickly. And act quickly is what they have done! Immediately after arriving at its target, Rosetta made a detailed map of its surface. Not only is it a beautifully detailed look at a mysterious space object, but it is also useful. When Rosetta first launched, scientists had no idea what the surface of Comet 67/P looked like. Now, using this map, scientists were able to pick out a number of potential landing sites to study. After teams of scientists and engineers discussed and debated all of those options, they picked one first-choice landing site and one back-up site. Everything is on schedule for the landing attempt to be made in mid-November. Both on the surface and in orbit, Rosetta will not only help us understand what comets look like up close when they approach the sun, but it will also shed light on the formation of our own solar system. These icy comets are the leftovers from the time when our solar system was just forming Download the game CometQuest by NASA’s Space Place and take control of the Rosetta Mission. Land a lander and collect data while you avoid space hazards! Click here
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