astronomy fiordland, night sky star gazing trips, te anau, fiordland, new zealand

Moon Phases


Last quarter 4th February – last quarter
New moon 10th February – new moon
First quarter 18th February – first quarter
full moon 26th February – full moon


Last quarter 5th March – last quarter
New moon 12th March – new moon
First quarter 20th March – first quarter
full moon 27th March – full moon




Mercury – low in the western horizon – easiest to see on 17th February as it is at maximum elongation – meaning it will be at its greatest distance from the setting sun

Mars – stting soon after the sun so will be difficult to see in the west

Venus – low in the eastern sky at dawn and quite hard to see

Saturn – Rising around midnight in the east

Jupiter – bright and in the nw sky moving slowly toward the western horizon



Mercury – low in the east before dawn

Venus – to close to the sun to see

Saturn – yellowish in colour, rising in the east around 10pm – a must see as it climbs higher in the sky with every passing night

Jupiter – low in the western sky nxt to the red star Aldebaran in in Taurus

Astronomy Fiordland News


In contrast to Decembers rain January has been nothing short of stunning. With lots of visitors keen to to check out what is happening above their heads it was a pleasure to welcome back one of our old favourites from this time last year – the globular cluster Omega Centauri. It contains around 5 million stars and no one is quite sure how it originated. The most likely theory is that it is the canabilised remains of a galaxy that long ago collided and merged with our own Milky Way galaxy with just the central cluster left over intact. It has to be seen to be believed and seeing as it is the largest cluster in the sky visible from Earth you may like to come and check it out and see what all the fuss is about!!



A rather wet and soggy December with some record amounts of rainfall made star watching a little bit patchy to say the least. The flip side of this is that as frontal system move past the clean clear air the leave behind makes for first class viewing!! This proved a bonus for those watching Jupiter and the various globular clusters of stars where good seeing (good quality atmosphere) makes it possible to see every piece of detail. From the great storm and other atmospherics on Jupiter to the kaleidoscope like effect of over 2 million stars in the eyepiece from 47 Tucanae it was memorable viewing for all involved


The biggest news for the month would have to be the partial solar eclipse and to a lesser extent the lunar eclipse. The day was filled with patchy cloud but the eclipse was clearly visible from Fiordland with around 70 % coverage of the sun by the moon. Astronomy Fiordlands H – alpha and white light filter telescopes offered superb viewing for interested bystanders who just had to wait a few minutes every few minutes for the clouds to move on. These things don't happen every decade in the same location so it was nice to see it. On the night sky front it is great to be back into our LiveSkys. With Te Ra o Tainui low on the horizon, Matariki (Pleiades) and Jupiter back to name a few things a trip out to view the southern skies will not be wasted.


A wet month for us in October was perfect timing as we were shut in order to prepare for the summer season starting in November. I guess the highlight is not what, was but what is coming. November 14th will see a partial solar eclipse in New Zealand followed by a lunar eclipse on the 29th. For the solar eclipse (approx 9.30am to 11.30am) is where the moon passes in front of the sun. It is dangerous to look at the sun with unprotected vision even when partially covered so make sure you wear appropriate eye protection or blindness may result. Contact your nearest observatory for details and no, sunglasses are definately not good enough! The lunar (approx 1am to 6am) eclipse is safe to look at with the naked eye and is where the moon passes through the Earths shadow and can turn a reddish colour. Happy viewing to the early birds!


At this time of year the object rich regions of the Milky Way are heading down to western horizon taking such constellations Scorpius, Sagittarius and Ophiuchus with it. Rising to take their places are the comparatively barren constellations of Eridanus, Aquarius, Phoenix and Grus to name a few. Canopus the second brightest star in the sky is hanging nice and low in the southern sky and is balanced nicely by the reddish Vega (5th brightest) in the north. It was the first star other than the sun to be photographed and at 25 light years was one of the first to have its distance measured by the parallax method. Vega is known as Wh?nui in Te Reo Maori.


A busy month for Astronomy Fiordland. We headed to various schools around Southland and also spent a fortninght in the southern fiords as mentioned in our previous months news. There is always a thrill in observing the stars from historic places such as Dusky Sound where Captain Cook and William Wales had an Observatory in Pickersgill harbour. The highlight of this month was the grouping of the star 'Spica' with Saturn and Mars. It was great to have to planets right beside each other with a star of similar magnitude completing a very tight triangular shape. It was also very special to be able to demonstrate to guests the movement of the planets relative to the stars and each other. Planet means 'wandering star'.


A reasonably clear July has been excellent for viewing as the scorpion rises higher into the sky marking mid winter here in New Zealand. The scorpion is known locally as Te Matua a Maui meaning the fish hook of Maui. This is a zenith constellation for New Zealand meaning it is directly overhead at our latitude. This makes it an important navigational group of stars for Maori navigation as it marks how far north or south you need to travel before bumping into Aoteroa NZ. The hook is also close to the centre of the Milky way galaxy (our home galaxy) with the galactic central bulge being easily visible. At over 30000 light years distant lurks a black hole at the centre of our galaxy in this direction. Makes you think doesn't it?...the mid winters sky is great for contemplation!


What a busy month June was – very historical too. Starting off with a partial lunar eclipse on the 4th which was successfully observed and very hard to beat however the highlight was always going to be the transit of Venus on the 6th. This intensely historical event was a once in a life time event with the next transit not occurring until 2117 so lucky us! On board the Milford Wanderer with 32 passengers in Fiordland national park bad weather threatened the viewing full stop. It also delayed our departure from Chalky Inlet to Dusky Sound by a day. The day of the transit dawned fine however we were at sea in 9m of swell which was irritating to say the least for all on board. We eventually got ashore and set up 2 sun telescopes and spent 2 hours watching the transit complete with sunspots and flares to frame it all nicely. In an area heavy with Captain Cooks history and own observatory this was a truly magical experience that was enjoyed by all on board – especially finishing the transit with a champagne toast. Very fitting for the most westerly viewers in New Zealand.


We managed to sneak in a couple more LiveSkys with the crisp autumn weather. Te matua a maui -otherwise known as the Scorpion was visible on the horizon in the east as Orion disappears in the west. The Scorpion is a zenith constellation which means it passes directly over head at New Zealand's latitude making it a handy navigational constellation. Mid May we headed south into NZ's southern fiords for 2 weeks guiding including a star show for guests near Captain Cooks astronomers point in Dusky Sound. How fitting!


A huge spell of fine weather neatly coincided with an outburst of solar activity which allowed us to see 2 beautiful auroras and a couple of lesser, but still visible auroras which was quite a lot over a two week period. With not just beautiful weather but very still air conditions made it perfect for the stars, both open and globular clusters such as Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae. Combine this with the planets Saturn and Mars, the rising of Te Matua A Maui (the scorpion) and galactic bulge of the milky way meant the season was finished on a massive high. Make sure you come out with next summer season and see what its all about!

We are pleased to have had our first school for the Stardome for the season – in a new town for us. 220 lucky students made it through the Stardome finding out about seasons, night and day, constellations and and our own solar system.


March was an interesting month with the planet Saturn climbing higher in the sky. This is the one object that people really identify with and always provokes a chorus of 'ohh ahhs' and is is instantly recognisable to all. Something else that provided plenty of ooh ahhs were the Aurora Australis – the southern lights. We were privileged to see one per week for the month of May and all guests enjoyed the shimmering curtains of light in the southern sky. Caused essentially by solar activity reacting with the oxygen and nitrogen in the Earths atmosphere these stunning visual displays are mesmerising and create a lasting impression.


With warm nights and clear skies this summer has been better than
average. In February we had our first glimpses of Centaurus A – a 'faint fuzzy' of a galaxy around 12 million light years away. It is also the site of a strong radio signal thought to be a large black hole. The highlights of the month are the stars themselves - the Pincushion, Omega Centauri, 47 Tucanae and Eta Carinae - clusters from a few thousand to a few million - to name our favourites. Mars has also made its reapperance in the evenings sky with Saturn just visible in the closing days of the month.



We have had a nice hot summer up until January when a week or two of cooler weather brought some snow to the mountain tops. This made excellent 'seeing conditions' however and coincided with increased solar activity allowing us to see our first showing of the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) for 2012. As Jupiter sinks lower in the west Mars is making its first sunset appearance for the year also and 'Te ra o Tainui', the great Waka is now halfway across the midsummers sky. Highlights include the globular cluster Omega Centauri – the largest in the sky and home to over 5 million stars – all of which are visibile in our telescope



We have a had a brilliant summer so far, one of the hottest on record in the last few decades!! This has made it perfect for star viewing. The highlight for December would have to be the planet Jupiter. Every night we can see the four Galilean moons plus one or two others. Jupiter has over 60 moons, some quite small but others large enough to see throught the binoculars we supply – never mind the telescope even! The other neat thing about Jupiter is you can see the weather systems in its atmosphere. Equitorial winds blow brown cloud belts along at speeds up to 300 km/hr and on a good night when Jupiters rotation is kind to us we can even see the big storm, the largest known weather system in the solarsystem, large enough to swallow a couple of Earths! Jupiter is getting low in the west and should be visible into February – get in quick though to catch a piece of the action before it disappears for another season.



A busy month for Astronomy Fiordland with the start of the summer season. Brilliant weather for most of the month meant the LiveSky trip has been popular. One small moment of frustration was when the sky clouded in for the partial solar eclipse for the 25/11 and was only glimpsed fleetingly through the cloud layer!! The highlight at this time of year is the Globular Cluster 47 Tucanae containing over 2 million stars visible through the eye piece on the telescope. Being high in the sky it is well placed for spring viewing and renders guests speechless. On a non astronomy note we have launched a new trip, 'Heritage Tales' focusing on all that one needs to know about Fiordland - from rare birds to lost tribes, shipwrecks to arson, rainforests to ghost towns - we cover it all right up to the present day!




With beautifully clear skies for most of October the night sky has been a real treat. Scorpius (Te matau a maui) sinking lower in the west with Sagittarius and the galactic centre heading that way too it is farewell to our winter companions and hopefully soon a welcome to Te ra o tainui (Orion Taurus and the Pleiades) and warm summer days. We had our first good viewing of Jupiter as mentioned in our September news. The galilean moons were all visible (4 total) and the highlight as always is seeing the cloud formations on Jupiter itself. It is amazing to witness the weather on another planet. Come along.....check it out for yourself!



With the night sky in extreme brilliance above our heads the news is much the same as last August with the exception of Jupiter making an appereance now at a respectable hour. The bright Jovian giant is low in the eastern sky and makes brilliant observing – especially as it gets higher into the night sky every evening and into 'cleaner' air making observing much more rewarding. Astronomy Fiordand has been busy putting together the final stages of a new trip to be revealed next month. While not a true astronomy trip there are certainly similiarities as the trip focuses on the complete history of Fiordland in a two hour excursion based from Te Anau. More to follow – watch this space (geddit? ... I know, I'm sorry).


We had brilliant weather for most of August, nice and mild too. We said goodbye to our last glimpses of Saturn - arguably the highlight of night sky viewing through a telescope. This is also an unforgettable time of year for pure star magic. With the Milky way high overhead it can be a bit overpowering for some people who come from larger cities with light and air pollution obscuring all but the brightest stars. Even for those more fortunate it is always an exciting time of year with the Milky way at its brightest and broadest above us. Most people are unaware they are looking edgewise into our home galaxy - with over 200 billion stars - and as you look up you will notice it 'bulges' right above your head. This is very obvious during August. This is the centre of our home galaxy around 30 000 light years away. The dark gaps are actually nebula, dark patches of gas and dust, perhaps future stars in the making blocking the light from the stars behind them. Take the time to scan along here with a set of binoculars, ordinary household kinds are fine and take it in!



A beautiful time of the year to be out and looking up. The centre of the Milky way galaxy moves towards zenith (a point above your head) with the galactic central bulge clearly visible. Most people are blown away when it is pointed out to them as it so obvious and unmistakeable and so full of meaning....staring into the centre of our greater home! We also had another busy month on the school front as we had our first visit to Riverton with the primary school, Aparima High school and also the local kindy all studying varying degrees of planets, seasons, the milky way and Matariki. The kindy kids were very relieved to make it back to Earth in time for lunch as they were convinced the dome had taken off and was hurtling around the cosmos. Woodland full primary school also had a visit studying the history of the moon landings, deep space objects and galaxies. Being a small school 20 mins out from Invercargill, it shows how small isolated schools benefit from the mobility of the dome bringing the latest in interactive, immersive technology to students and teachers. Our last show for the month was the Fiordland kindergarten with the young kids pulling on their anti gravity socks for some deep space flights. Great fun!



A quieter June on the Astronomy front with the team having a well earned holiday. Celestial activity carried on regardless with a couple of auroras being sighted. When we got back to the telescope it was brilliant. Highlights inluded the Southern Cross being high in the sky dragging along all those deep sky goodies such as Omega Centauri - the brightest globular cluster in the sky with approximately 5 million stars and the Jewel box - one of our favourite, understated open clusters with quite a bit of colour in it too. Saturn was high in the sky also for optimal viewing making it rewarding for those who braved the winter chills to cross it of their bucket list.



What a month! Astronomy Fiordland has been busy introducing new schools, kindys, childcares and scout groups to the wonders of the universe. We spent a couple of days at Otatara School in Invercargill studying seasons on planet Earth, then the life, death and birth of stars in the Milky Way. The school put on a parents night to introduce parents to what the students were getting up to in the big blue dome. The Kindy and Childcare followed and we sampled what it was like to float in space and on the shapes, sizes and colours of the planets. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience for all. Otago University teachers college Southland campus also visited with a brush up on the basics and then into some reasonably heavy stuff such as redshifting galaxies, binary stars and some instellar philosophy mixed in during a very relaxed anything goes session. Welcomes to the Stardome fold inlcude Salford and Waianiwa schools. We spent the days at these schools studying seasons, constellations and the milky way. St Patricks school was next on the list with the focus being on Matariki - maori new year - the legends - fact and the fiction. We also focused on other major contstellations and how to find them plus how they fitted into story telling from other cultures. Finally we hosted the Te Anau Scout group for - obviously - naked eye celestial navigation. We also introduced them to concepts that demystify the universe and demonstrate how it affects your day to day life and survival. Phew!

Hopefully this demonstrates the flexibility of what we can offer and tailor to different ages, groups and schools. Drop us a line and see how we can revolutionise your understanding and teaching of various sciences.



The arrival of the constellation Te Matua a Maui (the fish hook of Maui) otherwise known as Scorpius on the eastern horizon heralds the onset of autumn and the end of our summer viewing season. It has been a real pearler as far as viewing conditions have been concerned. Astronomy Fiordland decided to celebrate by upgrading the Stardome hardware and software to demonstarte to our customers that we are serious about remaining up to date in techonology and offering only the best. Thanks to all those who made the summer of 2010/11 what it was...FUN!



Welcome back to Saturn!! Arguably the most beautiful object to look at in the night sky. The memory of seeing this stunning object through a good size telescope is one that will stay with you forever. Come and have a look! It has been a busy month as usual - even more so with the trial launch of our slightly non astronomy related 'Town and Mountains' tour. Our observing sites offer impressive views over the rugged landscape that is Fiordland. Due to curiosity from our LiveSky tours about the mountainous silhouettes we decided to offer daytime tours to let people enjoy the view. We coupled this with Fiordlands unbelievable history to put together a 2 hour tour. We hope to have this fully up and running with website, brochures by September. If you are interested just drop us an email through this address.


February 2011

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched its resupply ship the ATV-2 Johannes Kepler. Named after the famed German astronomer and mathematician who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is packed with about 7.1 tons (6,400 kilograms) of supplies for the space station's six-person crew and is due to arrive at the orbiting laboratory Feb. 24. There is also a mountain range and famous tramping track named 'Kepler' on the shores of Lake Te Anau where Astronomy Fiordland is based, also named after the astronomer. The ESA uses a satillite tracking station at Awarua, near Invercargill, to help keep track of vehicles such as Kepler. In recognition of the part Southland plays in their tracking abilities the ESA came to Te Anau for public talks and to participate in a space camp involving around 20 schools. It is not everyday small town Southland has access to a space agency and Astronomy Fiordland joined the fray using the Stardome to help to help immerse the students and teachers in the universe. The focus was of how connected we are to the cosmos and how much a part it plays in our daily lives. Fortunately the night was crystal clear so we backed up the Stardome with our large telscope provinding a grand finale to the space camp with glorious views of starclusters and the moon. Thanks to the organisers and ESA it was a wonderful experience - I am sure the students enjoyed it as much as we did!


January 2011

We are mid way through our busy summer programme and are pleased to welcome in some of old 'new' highlights again for this time of year. Omega Centauri, the largest globular cluster in the sky has reappeared above the horizon at sunset. To see its 5 million stars through the eyepiece is an experience that you will get you buzzing. We team it up with a slightly brighter globular cluster 47 Tucanae which is home to over 2 million stars making the night unforgettable! Close to Omega Centauri is the hard to see and very distant (10 - 16 million light years away) galaxy Centauris A thought to be home to a large black hole. Lucky observers had their first glimpse of this on Thurday 27th. All this and so much more - come and see what the fuss is about!


A great summer is seeing plenty of nights for our LiveSky tours with the visitor season picking up substantially. Unfortunately our Eclipse on the 21st was clouded in. Be in quick as Jupiter (a must see) is dropping quickly in the western sky now and will be hard to make out the detail soon. The Southern Cross climbs higher in the sky dragging with it all the goodies such as the Pin cushion star cluster, the Jewel box cluster and the Tarantula nebula among others. Beautiful summer twilights leading in to crystal clear Fiordland skies.....a magic way to finish your day!


Beautiful weather has meant a great response to our LiveSky tours so it is with pleasure we welcome back the constelation of Orion. Our dominant summer constellation, it is known in NZ as 'The Pot'. In the handle of the pot is the great Orion nebula, a cradle of new star growth that has to be seen to be fully comprehanded. Orion, Taurus the bull and the Pleiades make the great Maori constellation 'Te Ra O Tainui' which is a highlight of our trips at the moment. The Stardome is again operation for the summer and provides a complimentary experience to our LiveSky.


October 2010

It has been a busy October with our live night sky viewing trips kicking off. Stunning weather and skies has seen a record number of people turning out to come on our LiveSky trips. Highlights at this time of year are Jupiter, the globular cluster 47 Tucanae (2 million stars in an area the size of a pin head) and seeing both Orion and Scorpius on opposites sides of the sky. Come on down and see what all the fuss is about!


September 2010

Astronomy Fiordland is enjoy the warmer weather!! As our dominant winter constellation Scorpius the scorpion gets close to the horizon at sunset it will not be long before Orion (bringer of the hot fine weather) should start to show. It is also a treat with an extremely bright Venus in the west and Jupiter in the east making it a very interesting time of year. With Fiordland being New Zealands outdoor capital we have been running guide training workshops over September to help the regions many outdoor guides cope with those tricky questions form excitable clients. Feel free to enquire how our tailored workshops can help your staff and ulitmately your clients experiences.


August 2010

Similar again to our May news, cruising the remote southern fiords of New Zealand on board the Real Journeys vessel the Milford Wanderer. Passengers amazed by the scenery, wildlife, history and the STARS!! With visits to Astronomers Point in Captain Cooks 'Dusky Bay" (now Dusky Sound) where the new 'watch machines' were being tested for accuracy against the stars by Cooks astronomer, William Wales. Searching for accurate ways of keeping time to establish longitude in navigation, the battle between the astronomers and the watch makers, John Harrison in particular, was drawing to a close. Passengers were delighted to then follow things up with night and mornings (for the keen ones!) star viewing in some of the cleanest purest, most amazing skies in the world.

Steeping straight off the boat and into the Stardome with Mararoa School it was all go as they were studying 'Water - our most precious resource.' Finding out about waters cosmic origins was fun for all. Iona Brimbecombe (year 4) declared in the local newspaper "It felt as if we were in a real space shuttle at times. I thought the asteroids were really going to hit us." Fortunately there were no collisions but as part of conservation week we visited spacejunk. The whole school was surprised about how much junk orbits our planet and the efforts space agencies go to to avoid collisions between junk and space craft.

July 2010

Astronomy Fiordland visited our smallest school so far. Hedgehope has a roll of just 33 students of all ages. With the juniors studying the bread and butter day and night basics the seniors hit their straps and launched into season, stars what they are made of and constellations. To those small schools that can find it difficult to offer all the major schools can, don't hesitate to see how easy and affordable it is for Astronomy Fiordland to offer a world class experience whatever the weather, no stressfull and expensive field trip hassles necessary!!

June 2010

Thick fog unfortunately prevented us from viewing the partial lunar eclipse on the 26/6 which was a shame. We get another chance in December with a full lunar eclipse. Fingers crossed! It has been a busy month for Astronomy Fiordland with two highlights leaping to mind; one being visiting our first school visit in Gore (St Marys School) for the day with the stardome. Junior students were studying night and day and the seasons, seniors looked at the Milky way and the solar system. It was a complete success with teachers already excited about our next visit! The other highlight was assisting the Otago University with the Science Waananga held in Invercargill. It was a science festival attended by maori pupils from 8 schools and included a guest speaker demonstrating exo planet finding techniques.


9/5/10 - 21/5/10

Passengers on board Real Journeys vessel 'Milford Wanderer' were treated to some beautiful night skies during their seven day Discovery Cruise of New Zealands southern fiords. This very remote, untouched world heritage area (accessible only by boat, helicopter or float plane) has some of the darkest skies on the planet and offered a special touch to such a unique of trip, an ancient landscape under a timeless sky. Guests aboard the ship were so keen they were up not only in the evening but before the Autumn sun to view Jupiter and its moons. This neatly ties in with some of the history the area offers such as Captain Cook and the search for longitude - the race between the clockmakers and astronomers to establish 'time' and ultimately accurate navigation.


Astronomy Fiordland finishes its summer viewing programme with a flourish. An aurora, a record nember of visitors, glorious weather meant it was a very enjoyable month. We ran the stardome for various end of season functions for several companies proving a big hit! Don't forget to drop us a line to see what we can do for you!


Clients on our regular night sky viewing trip were thrilled to see an Aurora! Particles thrown out from the sun during solar flares hit the Earths atmosphere and spiral in towards the poles giving up their energy to form aurora at heights of 100 - 200km As the sun gets more active hopefully these stunning occurences will become more common.


Welcome back to the constellation Te Matua a Maui (Scorpius), making its sunset debut low on the south eastern horizon.  Very much a kiwi constellation I guess you'll have to come out with us to find out why!!  It means that winter is on its way as the scorpion chases our summer constellation Orion from the sky.


Astronomy Fiordland is pleased to announce that all guests on either of our two excursions receive a full colour star and sky map detailing all the objects (and more) that we explore on our trips as well as reminders such as finding south with the cross.  It is purpose designed for our trips - a special souveneir of a memorable experience....and practical too!!


Astronomy Fiordland's stardome gets a seating upgrade!! We now feature fully padded reclining sunloungers with arm rests so guests can relax and stretch out in complete comfort as the heavens unfold before them. This furthers our commitment to a quality experience in comfort instead of squeezing more people in at the expense of the experience on our nightly 'Stardome' excursion.


Saturn makes its appearance in the sky later in the evening on our night sky safaris. A delight to see, ethereal almost, most guests then look down the telescope to make sure I have not put a sticker on lens to fool them!! It's THAT good!!


Approximately 40 Girl Guides plus their leaders spread out in the stardome with room enough for everyone to lie down and relax while staring up into the sky for another stunning Astronomy Fiordland sunset. This was a private hire with an emphasis on navigation and general earth sciences such as why we get seasons. Being part of an exciting summer camp with girls from all around Southland joining in, the stardome proved the perfect solution for learning celestial navigation. The tailored show demonstrated one of our strengths perfectly - tailoured live content of a set duration in a fun, highly exciting and unconventional environment. It was complete success with the girls taking away heaps that would not have been possible without the stardome.


Astronomy Fiordland is one of the best, one stop astronomy shops in the country. Not a bad acheivement for a very small town. It was no surprise to make an apperance with the stardome during the Department of Conservations summer programme. Designed with the community in mind approximately 60 people showed up to see how the DOCs 'behind the scenes' theme applied to the night sky. Not anticipating such a large amount of people the show was changed to highlights of the southern skies to maximise everyones enjoyment through increased audience participation such as calling out where to visit next in the night sky and general questions that some people have had for years. A great time was had by all! Thanks Te Anau - we enjoy being part of such a healthy community.


Astronomy Fiordland farewells 2009 and welcomes in 2010 with exclusive hire by Fiordland Lodge, luxury 5 star accomdation. With our entire observatory / planetarium being portable we were able to travel to our guests and have a wet or fine evening option available to match the weather. As it was a chilly westerly wind and a reasonable amount of cloud meant the stardome was used and was the perfect option to suit all nationalities and all ages. Travelling through the solar system we learned you wouldn't get to see many new years on Pluto as it takes 249 earth years to go around the sun (which equals 1 Pluto year). Then it cleared up for the fireworks! Brilliant!! Happy new year!!!


This months highlight is the rising of our summer constellation 'Orion'. Containing the great nebula it is a delight to be seen in our large telescope and will amaze even with binoculars. Look in the east for Orions belt, otherwise known romantically as 'the pot' or 'saucepan' here in New Zealand and that is exactly what it looks like. Look in the middle of the handle of the pot and bingo – you can't miss it! The keen eyed will spot it as a slight haze with the naked eye on a dark night.


The stardome bursts into life for visitors to Te Anau with this summers 'sky tonight' theme including a quick orientation of the universe so everybody knows where they fit into the big, very big picture!


This summers night sky safari starts with the undisputed highlight going to Jupiter. The moons and surface detail amaze all.



Astronomy Fiordlands stardome ventured to Limehills School in rural southland. In a classic demonstration of how small rural schools can benefit from our portable class leading technology we tailored a series of shows for 3 different classes. With night and day, the earth / moon relationship and the solar system explained we also created an Apollo theme that the students had been studying. Managing to get everyone back from the moon in time for lunch was the hard part - most students could have stayed all day! Our ability to travel means small town schools get access to Educational technologies previously only available to big city schools which is what most teachers commented on.


Both the stardome and large telescope of Astronomy Fiordland were needed for the Department of Conservations 'Conservation week' theme. Starting off in the stardome over 50 eager members of the public showed up to learn about light pollution and space junk in our immersive fulldome environment. The show was kept light hearted but informative and received the big thumbs up. We then ventured out into the carpark to look through the large telescope. It was a beautiful clear night and the highlight was seeing the cloud bands on Jupiter and 4 of its 64 moons and millions of stars in globular cluster 47 Tucanae. It was the first time most people had looked through a telescope so it was exciting and memorable for all!!


Crew from the Real Journeys Doubtful Sound overnight vessel the Fiordland Navigator ventured into the stardome for a trip into the highlights of the southern skies. The vessel operates in a remote world heritage area so is the ideal platform for clients and staff alike to witness the beauty of the untouched night sky. The crew were thrilled with the stardome experience and hopefully gave them the confidence to venture outside with their clients at the end of the day.


13th August

Pre schoolers from the Te Anau Child Care Centre and The Key Playcentre blast off to explore the solar system with a focus on the sun and moon in our immersive stardome!! The kids were the quietest they had ever been and enjoyed flying through the asteroid field....especially some of the 'bigger kids' (parents)!

30th - 31st July

Astronomy Fiordland takes New Zealands first potable full dome digital planetarium to the schools of Invercargill. 29 schools were invited for a series of demonstrations at Verdon College, Southland Girls High school and Southland Boys High School aimed at showing teachers the massive flexibility of our planetarium. A complete success with an A+ pass, 100%!! We look forward to our return and catching up with teachers and students again.

27th June - 2nd & 4 July

Astronomy Fiordland celebrated Matariki (Maori new year) with a tailored presentation of its meaning and how to find it in the sky. We also launched the New Zealand Premiere of the movie 'In Search of our Cosmic Origins' which follows the history of first telescope by Galileo, to the largest Astronomy project ever undertaken being constructed in the Chilean dessert.

4th June

Astronomy Fiordland spent the whole day with Fiordland College Seniors. They are currently studying the Solar system, Earth / Moon relationships and constellations. A good time was had by all with our tailored, interactive presentations


General astronomy newsfeed

You may think the news below is out of date... it is! We ARE still here, simply not updating astronomy news at this time. This is due to change this winter.

Jan. 30, 2013
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 13-036
WASHINGTON -- A star thought to have passed the age at which it can form planets may in fact be creating new worlds. The disk of material surrounding the surprising star called TW Hydrae may be massive enough to make even more planets than we have in our own solar system.
The findings were made using the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Telescope, a mission in which NASA is a participant.
At roughly 10 million years old and 176 light years away, TW Hydrae is relatively close to Earth by astronomical standards. Its planet-forming disk has been well studied. TW Hydrae is relatively young but, in theory, it is past the age at which giant plants already may have formed.
"We didn't expect to see so much gas around this star," said Edwin Bergin of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Bergin led the new study appearing in the journal Nature. "Typically stars of this age have cleared out their surrounding material, but this star still has enough mass to make the equivalent of 50 Jupiters," Bergin said.
In addition to revealing the peculiar state of the star, the findings also demonstrate a new, more precise method for weighing planet-forming disks. Previous techniques for assessing the mass were indirect and uncertain. The new method can directly probe the gas that typically goes into making planets.
Planets are born out of material swirling around young stars, and the mass of this material is a key factor controlling their formation. Astronomers did not know before the new study whether the disk around TW Hydrae contained enough material to form new planets similar to our own.
"Before, we had to use a proxy to guess the gas quantity in the planet-forming disks," said Paul Goldsmith, the NASA project scientist for Herschel at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "This is another example of Herschel's versatility and sensitivity yielding important new results about star and planet formation."
Using Herschel, they were able to take a fresh look at the disk with the space telescope to analyze light coming from TW Hydrae and pick out the spectral signature of a gas called hydrogen deuteride. Simple hydrogen molecules are the main gas component of planets, but they emit light at wavelengths too short to be detected by Herschel. Gas molecules containing deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen, emit light at longer, far-infrared wavelengths that Herschel is equipped to see. This enabled astronomers to measure the levels of hydrogen deuteride and obtain the weight of the disk with the highest precision yet.
"Knowing the mass of a planet-forming disk is crucial to understanding how and when planets take shape around other stars," said Glenn Wahlgren, Herschel program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Whether TW Hydrae's large disk will lead to an exotic planetary system with larger and more numerous planets than ours remains to be seen, but the new information helps define the range of possible planet scenarios.
"The new results are another important step in understanding the diversity of planetary systems in our universe," said Bergin. "We are now observing systems with massive Jupiters, super-Earths, and many Neptune-like worlds. By weighing systems at their birth, we gain insight into how our own solar system formed with just one of many possible planetary configurations."
Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by a consortium of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at JPL, which contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. NASA's Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
For NASA'S Herschel website, visit:
For ESA'S Herschel website, visit:

Jan. 20, 2013
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Alan Fischer
Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz.
RELEASE: 13-026
PASADENA, Calif. -- A NASA spacecraft is providing new evidence of a wet underground environment on Mars that adds to an increasingly complex picture of the Red Planet's early evolution.
The new information comes from researchers analyzing spectrometer data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which looked down on the floor of McLaughlin Crater. The Martian crater is 57 miles (92 kilometers) in diameter and 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) deep. McLaughlin's depth apparently once allowed underground water, which otherwise would have stayed hidden, to flow into the crater's interior.
Layered, flat rocks at the bottom of the crater contain carbonate and clay minerals that form in the presence of water. McLaughlin lacks large inflow channels, and small channels originating within the crater wall end near a level that could have marked the surface of a lake.
Together, these new observations suggest the formation of the carbonates and clay in a groundwater-fed lake within the closed basin of the crater. Some researchers propose the crater interior catching the water and the underground zone contributing the water could have been wet environments and potential habitats. The findings are published in Sunday's online edition of Nature Geoscience.
"Taken together, the observations in McLaughlin Crater provide the best evidence for carbonate forming within a lake environment instead of being washed into a crater from outside," said Joseph Michalski, lead author of the paper, which has five co-authors. Michalski also is affiliated with the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and London's Natural History Museum.
Michalski and his co-authors used the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on MRO to check for minerals such as carbonates, which are best preserved under non-acidic conditions.
"The MRO team has made a concerted effort to get highly processed data products out to members of the science community like Dr. Michalski for analysis," said CRISM Principal Investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. "New results like this show why that effort is so important."
Launched in 2005, MRO and its six instruments have provided more high-resolution data about the Red Planet than all other Mars orbiters combined. Data is made available for scientists worldwide to research, analyze and report their findings.
"A number of studies using CRISM data have shown rocks exhumed from the subsurface by meteor impact were altered early in Martian history, most likely by hydrothermal fluids," Michalski said. "These fluids trapped in the subsurface could have periodically breached the surface in deep basins such as McLaughlin Crater, possibly carrying clues to subsurface habitability."
McLaughlin Crater sits at the low end of a regional slope several hundreds of miles long on the western side of the Arabia Terra region of Mars. As on Earth, groundwater-fed lakes are expected to occur at low regional elevations. Therefore, this site would be a good candidate for such a process.
"This new report and others are continuing to reveal a more complex Mars than previously appreciated, with at least some areas more likely to reveal signs of ancient life than others," said MRO project scientist Rich Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., provided and operates CRISM. JPL manages MRO for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the orbiter.
To see an image of the carbonate-bearing layers in McLaughlin Crater, visit:
For more about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, visit:

Jan. 15, 2013
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 13-022
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is driving toward a flat rock with pale veins that may hold clues to a wet history on the Red Planet. If the rock meets rover engineers' approval when Curiosity rolls up to it in coming days, it will become the first to be drilled for a sample during the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
The size of a car, Curiosity is inside Mars' Gale Crater investigating whether the planet ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life. Curiosity landed in the crater five months ago to begin its two-year prime mission.
"Drilling into a rock to collect a sample will be this mission's most challenging activity since the landing. It has never been done on Mars," said Mars Science Laboratory project manager Richard Cook of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "The drill hardware interacts energetically with Martian material we don't control. We won't be surprised if some steps in the process don't go exactly as planned the first time through."
Curiosity first will gather powdered samples from inside the rock and use those to scrub the drill. Then the rover will drill and ingest more samples from this rock, which it will analyze for information about its mineral and chemical composition.
The chosen rock is in an area where Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) and other cameras have revealed diverse unexpected features, including veins, nodules, cross-bedded layering, a lustrous pebble embedded in sandstone, and possibly some holes in the ground. The rock chosen for drilling is called "John Klein" in tribute to former Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager John W. Klein, who died in 2011.
"John's leadership skill played a crucial role in making Curiosity a reality," said Cook.
The target is on flat-lying bedrock within a shallow depression called "Yellowknife Bay." The terrain in this area differs from that of the landing site, a dry streambed about a third of a mile (about 500 meters) to the west. Curiosity's science team decided to look there for a first drilling target because orbital observations showed fractured ground that cools more slowly each night than nearby terrain types do.
"The orbital signal drew us here, but what we found when we arrived has been a great surprise," said Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "This area had a different type of wet environment than the streambed where we landed, maybe a few different types of wet environments."
One line of evidence comes from inspection of light-toned veins with Curiosity's laser-pulsing Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, which found elevated levels of calcium, sulfur and hydrogen.
"These veins are likely composed of hydrated calcium sulfate, such as bassinite or gypsum," said ChemCam team member Nicolas Mangold of the Laboratoire de Planetologie et Geodynamique de Nantes in France. "On Earth, forming veins like these requires water circulating in fractures."
Researchers have used the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to examine sedimentary rocks in the area. Some are sandstone, with grains up to about peppercorn size. One grain has an interesting gleam and bud-like shape that have brought it Internet buzz as a "Martian flower." Other rocks nearby are siltstone, with grains finer than powdered sugar. These differ significantly from pebbly conglomerate rocks in the landing area.
"All of these are sedimentary rocks, telling us Mars had environments actively depositing material here," said MAHLI deputy principal investigator Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. "The different grain sizes tell us about different transport conditions."
JPL manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. To see an image of the rock, visit:
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Jan. 8, 2013
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 13-006
WASHINGTON -- Astronomers have discovered what appears to be a large asteroid belt around the star Vega, the second brightest star in northern night skies. The scientists used data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory, in which NASA plays an important role.
The discovery of an asteroid belt-like band of debris around Vega makes the star similar to another observed star called Fomalhaut. The data are consistent with both stars having inner, warm belts and outer, cool belts separated by a gap. This architecture is similar to the asteroid and Kuiper belts in our own solar system.
What is maintaining the gap between the warm and cool belts around Vega and Fomalhaut? The results strongly suggest the answer is multiple planets. Our solar system's asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter, is maintained by the gravity of the terrestrial planets and the giant planets, and the outer Kuiper belt is sculpted by the giant planets.
"Our findings echo recent results showing multiple-planet systems are common beyond our sun," said Kate Su, an astronomer at the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. Su presented the results Tuesday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, Calif., and is lead author of a paper on the findings accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.
Vega and Fomalhaut are similar in other ways. Both are about twice the mass of our sun and burn a hotter, bluer color in visible light. Both stars are relatively nearby at about 25 light-years away. The stars are thought to be around 400 million years old, but Vega could be closer to its 600 millionth birthday. Fomalhaut has a single candidate planet orbiting it, Fomalhaut b, which orbits at the inner edge of its cometary belt.
The Herschel and Spitzer telescopes detected infrared light emitted by warm and cold dust in discrete bands around Vega and Fomalhaut, discovering the new asteroid belt around Vega and confirming the existence of the other belts around both stars. Comets and the collisions of rocky chunks replenish the dust in these bands. The inner belts in these systems cannot be seen in visible light because the glare of their stars outshines them.
Both the inner and outer belts contain far more material than our own asteroid and Kuiper belts. The reason is twofold: the star systems are far younger than our own, which has had hundreds of millions more years to clean house, and the systems likely formed from an initially more massive cloud of gas and dust than our solar system.
The gap between the inner and outer debris belts for Vega and Fomalhaut also proportionally corresponds to the distance between our sun's asteroid and Kuiper belts. This distance works out to a ratio of about 1:10, with the outer belt 10 times farther away from its host star than the inner belt. As for the large gap between the two belts, it is likely there are several undetected planets, Jupiter-sized or smaller, creating a dust-free zone between the two belts. A good comparison star system is HR 8799, which has four known planets that sweep up the space between two similar disks of debris.
"Overall, the large gap between the warm and the cold belts is a signpost that points to multiple planets likely orbiting around Vega and Fomalhaut," said Su.
If unseen planets do in fact orbit Vega and Fomalhaut, these bodies will not likely stay hidden.
"Upcoming new facilities such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope should be able to find the planets," said paper co-author Karl Stapelfeldt, chief of the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
For NASA's Herschel website, visit:
For ESA's Herschel website, visit:
For more information about Spitzer, visit:

Jan. 7, 2013
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 13-007
WASHINGTON -- NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, set its X-ray eyes on a spiral galaxy and caught the brilliant glow of two black holes lurking inside.
The new image is being released Monday along with NuSTAR's view of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, Calif.
"These new images showcase why NuSTAR is giving us an unprecedented look at the cosmos," said Lou Kaluzienski, NuSTAR Program Scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington. "With NuSTAR's greater sensitivity and imaging capability, we're getting a wealth of new information on a wide array of cosmic phenomena in the high-energy X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum."
Launched last June, NuSTAR is the first orbiting telescope with the ability to focus high-energy X-ray light. It can view objects in considerably greater detail than previous missions operating at similar wavelengths. Since launch, the NuSTAR team has been fine-tuning the telescope, which includes a mast the length of a school bus connecting the mirrors and detectors.
The mission has looked at a range of extreme, high-energy objects already, including black holes near and far, and the incredibly dense cores of dead stars. In addition, NuSTAR has begun black-hole searches in the inner region of the Milky Way galaxy and in distant galaxies in the universe.
Among the telescope's targets is the spiral galaxy IC342, also known as Caldwell 5, featured in one of the two new images. This galaxy lies 7 million light-years away in the constellation Camelopardalis (the Giraffe). Previous X-ray observations of the galaxy from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory revealed the presence of two blinding black holes, called ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs).
How ULXs can shine so brilliantly is an ongoing mystery in astronomy. While these black holes are not as powerful as the supermassive black hole at the hearts of galaxies, they are more than 10 times brighter than the stellar-mass black holes peppered among the stars in our own galaxy. Astronomers think ULXs could be less common intermediate-mass black holes, with a few thousand times the mass of our sun, or smaller stellar-mass black holes in an unusually bright state. A third possibility is that these black holes don't fit neatly into either category.
"High-energy X-rays hold a key to unlocking the mystery surrounding these objects," said Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "Whether they are massive black holes, or there is new physics in how they feed, the answer is going to be fascinating."
In the image, the two bright spots that appear entangled in the arms of the IC342 galaxy are the black holes. High-energy X-ray light has been translated into the color magenta, while the galaxy itself is shown in visible light.
"Before NuSTAR, high-energy X-ray pictures of this galaxy and the two black holes would be so fuzzy that everything would appear as one pixel," said Harrison.
The second image features the well-known, historical supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, located 11,000 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. The color blue indicates the highest energy X-ray light seen by NuSTAR, while red and green signify the lower end of NuSTAR's energy range. The blue region is where the shock wave from the supernova blast is slamming into material surrounding it, accelerating particles to nearly the speed of light. As the particles speed up, they give off a type of light known as synchrotron radiation. NuSTAR will be able to determine for the first time how energetic the particles are, and address the mystery of what causes them to reach such great speeds.
"Cas A is the poster child for studying how massive stars explode and also provides us a clue to the origin of the high-energy particles, or cosmic rays, that we see here on Earth," said Brian Grefenstette of Caltech, a lead researcher on the observations. "With NuSTAR, we can study where, as well as how, particles are accelerated to such ultra-relativistic energies in the remnant left behind by the supernova explosion."
For more information about NuSTAR and to view the new images, visit:

Jan. 07, 2013
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Michele Johnson
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
RELEASE: 13-008
WASHINGTON -- NASA's Kepler mission Monday announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. Four of the potential new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun's "habitable zone," the region in the planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet.
Based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2011, the findings show a steady increase in the number of smaller-size planet candidates and the number of stars with more than one candidate.
"There is no better way to kickoff the start of the Kepler extended mission than to discover more possible outposts on the frontier of potentially life bearing worlds," said Christopher Burke, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who is leading the analysis.
Since the last Kepler catalog was released in February 2012, the number of candidates discovered in the Kepler data has increased by 20 percent and now totals 2,740 potential planets orbiting 2,036 stars. The most dramatic increases are seen in the number of Earth-size and super Earth-size candidates discovered, which grew by 43 and 21 percent respectively.
The new data increases the number of stars discovered to have more than one planet candidate from 365 to 467. Today, 43 percent of Kepler's planet candidates are observed to have neighbor planets.
"The large number of multi-candidate systems being found by Kepler implies that a substantial fraction of exoplanets reside in flat multi-planet systems," said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "This is consistent with what we know about our own planetary neighborhood."
The Kepler space telescope identifies planet candidates by repeatedly measuring the change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars in search of planets that pass in front, or "transit," their host star. At least three transits are required to verify a signal as a potential planet.
Scientists analyzed more than 13,000 transit-like signals to eliminate known spacecraft instrumentation and astrophysical false positives, phenomena that masquerade as planetary candidates, to identify the potential new planets.
Candidates require additional follow-up observations and analyses to be confirmed as planets. At the beginning of 2012, 33 candidates in the Kepler data had been confirmed as planets. Today, there are 105.
"The analysis of increasingly longer time periods of Kepler data uncovers smaller planets in longer period orbits-- orbital periods similar to Earth's," said Steve Howell, Kepler mission project scientist at Ames. "It is no longer a question of will we find a true Earth analogue, but a question of when."
The complete list of Kepler planet candidates is available in an interactive table at the NASA Exoplanet Archive. The archive is funded by NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program to collect and make public data to support the search for and characterization of exoplanets and their host stars.
Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with JPL at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.
JPL manages NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program. The NASA Exoplanet Archive is hosted at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology.
For information about the NASA Exoplanet Archive, visit:
For information about the Kepler Mission, visit:

Dec. 13, 2012
Rachel Kraft
Headquarters, Washington
RELEASE: 12-435
WASHINGTON -- Recent engineering advances by NASA and its industry partners across the country show important progress toward Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), the next step to launching humans to deep space. The uncrewed EFT-1 mission, launching from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2014, will test the re-entry performance of the agency's Orion capsule, the most advanced spacecraft ever designed, which will carry astronauts farther into space than ever before.
"These recent milestones are laying the foundation for our first flight test of Orion in 2014," said Dan Dumbacher, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The work being done to prepare for the flight test is really a nationwide effort and we have a dedicated team committed to our goal of expanding the frontier of space."
A tool that will allow the titanium skeleton of the Orion heat shield to be bolted to its carbon fiber skin is at the Denver facility of the spacecraft's prime contractor Lockheed Martin. This will enable workers to begin assembling the two pieces of the heat shield. Almost 3,000 bolts are needed to hold the skeleton to the skin. A special stand was built to align the skin on the skeleton as holes for the bolts are drilled. Work to bolt the skeleton to the skin will be completed in January. The heat shield then will be shipped to Textron Defense Systems near Boston where the final layer, an ablative material very similar to that used on the Apollo spacecraft, will be added. The completed heat shield is scheduled to be ready for installation onto the Orion crew module at Kennedy next summer.
To test the heat shield during EFT-1's re-entry, Orion will travel more than 3,600 miles above Earth's surface, 15 times farther than the International Space Station's orbital position. This is farther than any spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone in more than 40 years. Orion will return home at a speed almost 5,000 mph faster than any current human spacecraft.
This week, engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., received materials to begin manufacturing the adapter that will connect the Orion capsule to a United Launch Alliance Delta IV heavy-lift rocket for EFT-1. Two forward and two aft rings will be welded to barrel panels to form two adapters. This adapter design will be tested during EFT-1 for use during the first launch of NASA's next heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), in 2017. SLS will launch NASA's Orion spacecraft and other payloads beyond low Earth orbit, providing an entirely new capability for human exploration.
Data from the adapter on the flight test will provide Marshall engineers with invaluable experience developing hardware early in the design process. Designing the adapter once for multiple flights also provides a cost savings.
Of the two adapters welded at Marshall, one will attach Orion to the Delta IV heavy-lift rocket used for EFT-1. The other adapter will be a structural test article to gain knowledge on the design.
NASA's Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) Program also has passed a major agency review that lays the groundwork at Kennedy to support future Orion and SLS launches. The GSDO Program completed a combined system requirements review and system definition review, in which an independent board of technical experts from across NASA evaluated the program's infrastructure specifications, budget and schedule. The board confirmed GSDO is ready to move from concept development to preliminary design. The combination of the two assessments represents a fundamentally different way of conducting NASA program reviews. The team is streamlining processes to provide the nation with a safe, affordable and sustainable launch facility.
The GSDO program last week also led the third Stationary Recovery Test Working Group session in Norfolk, Va. The team presented to the U.S. Navy detachment that will recover the capsule during EFT-1 a complete list of tasks required to accomplish stationary recovery test objectives. The working group outlined the plan for roles and responsibilities to accomplish required test procedures. Included in these presentations were the commanding officer of the USS Mesa Verde and the fleet forces command director of operations, who both expressed complete support for the test.
For more information about NASA's exploration programs:

Dec. 5, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
D.C. Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Sarah McDonnell
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
RELEASE: 12-417
WASHINGTON -- Twin NASA probes orbiting the moon have generated the highest resolution gravity field map of any celestial body.
The new map, created by the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, is allowing scientists to learn about the moon's internal structure and composition in unprecedented detail. Data from the two washing machine-sized spacecraft also will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved.
The gravity field map reveals an abundance of features never before seen in detail, such as tectonic structures, volcanic landforms, basin rings, crater central peaks, and numerous simple, bowl-shaped craters. Data also show the moon's gravity field is unlike that of any terrestrial planet in our solar system.
These are the first scientific results from the prime phase of the mission, and they are published in three papers in the journal Science.
"What this map tells us is that more than any other celestial body we know of, the moon wears its gravity field on its sleeve," said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "When we see a notable change in the gravity field, we can sync up this change with surface topography features such as craters, rilles or mountains."
According to Zuber, the moon's gravity field preserves the record of impact bombardment that characterized all terrestrial planetary bodies and reveals evidence for fracturing of the interior extending to the deep crust and possibly the mantle. This impact record is preserved, and now precisely measured, on the moon.
The probes revealed the bulk density of the moon's highland crust is substantially lower than generally assumed. This low bulk crustal density agrees well with data obtained during the final Apollo lunar missions in early 1970s, indicating that local samples returned by astronauts are indicative of global processes.
"With our new crustal bulk density determination, we find that the average thickness of the moon's crust is between 21 and 27 miles (34 and 43 kilometers), which is about 6 to 12 miles (10 to 20 kilometers) thinner than previously thought." said GRAIL co-investigator Mark Wieczorek of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris. "With this crustal thickness, the bulk composition of the moon is similar to that of Earth. This supports models where the moon is derived from Earth materials that were ejected during a giant impact event early in solar system history."
The map was created by the spacecraft transmitting radio signals to define precisely the distance between them as they orbit the moon in formation. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by both visible features, such as mountains and craters, and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, the distance between the two spacecraft will change slightly.
"We used gradients of the gravity field in order to highlight smaller and narrower structures than could be seen in previous datasets," said Jeff Andrews-Hanna, a GRAIL guest scientist with the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. "This data revealed a population of long, linear, gravity anomalies, with lengths of hundreds of kilometers, crisscrossing the surface. These linear gravity anomalies indicate the presence of dikes, or long, thin, vertical bodies of solidified magma in the subsurface. The dikes are among the oldest features on the moon, and understanding them will tell us about its early history."
While results from the primary science mission are just beginning to be released, the collection of gravity science by the lunar twins continues. GRAIL's extended mission science phase began Aug. 30 and will conclude Dec. 17. As the end of mission nears, the spacecraft will operate at lower orbital altitudes above the moon.
When launched in September 2011, the probes were named GRAIL A and B. They were renamed Ebb and Flow in January by elementary students in Bozeman, Mont., in a nationwide contest. Ebb and Flow were placed in a near-polar, near-circular orbit at an altitude of approximately 34 miles (55 kilometers) on Dec. 31, 2011, and Jan. 1, 2012.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. GRAIL is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver built the spacecraft.
To view the lunar gravity map, visit:
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Dec. 3, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Nancy Neal Jones
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
RELEASE: 12-415
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples Curiosity's arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover.
Detection of the substances during this early phase of the mission demonstrates the laboratory's capability to analyze diverse soil and rock samples over the next two years. Scientists also have been verifying the capabilities of the rover's instruments.
The specific soil sample came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called "Rocknest." The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater still miles away from the rover's main destination on the slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover's laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyze gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds -- carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life.
"We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Curiosity's APXS instrument and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover's arm confirmed Rocknest has chemical-element composition and textural appearance similar to sites visited by earlier NASA Mars rovers Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity's team selected Rocknest as the first scooping site because it has fine sand particles suited for scrubbing interior surfaces of the arm's sample-handling chambers. Sand was vibrated inside the chambers to remove residue from Earth. MAHLI close-up images of Rocknest show a dust-coated crust one or two sand grains thick, covering dark, finer sand.
"Active drifts on Mars look darker on the surface," said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego."This is an older drift that has had time to be inactive, letting the crust form and dust accumulate on it."
CheMin's examination of Rocknest samples found the composition is about half common volcanic minerals and half non-crystalline materials such as glass. SAM added information about ingredients present in much lower concentrations and about ratios of isotopes. Isotopes are different forms of the same element and can provide clues about environmental changes. The water seen by SAM does not mean the drift was wet. Water molecules bound to grains of sand or dust are not unusual, but the quantity seen was higher than anticipated.
SAM tentatively identified the oxygen and chlorine compound perchlorate. This is a reactive chemical previously found in arctic Martian soil by NASA's Phoenix Lander. Reactions with other chemicals heated in SAM formed chlorinated methane compounds -- one-carbon organics that were detected by the instrument. The chlorine is of Martian origin, but it is possible the carbon may be of Earth origin, carried by Curiosity and detected by SAM's high sensitivity design.
"We used almost every part of our science payload examining this drift," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "The synergies of the instruments and richness of the data sets give us great promise for using them at the mission's main science destination on Mount Sharp."
NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess whether areas inside Gale Crater ever offered a habitable environment for microbes. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
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Nov. 29, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Paulette Campbell
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
RELEASE: 12-411
WASHINGTON -- A NASA spacecraft studying Mercury has provided compelling support for the long-held hypothesis the planet harbors abundant water ice and other frozen volatile materials within its permanently shadowed polar craters.
The new information comes from NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft. Its onboard instruments have been studying Mercury in unprecedented detail since its historic arrival there in March 2011. Scientists are seeing clearly for the first time a chapter in the story of how the inner planets, including Earth, acquired their water and some of the chemical building blocks for life.
"The new data indicate the water ice in Mercury's polar regions, if spread over an area the size of Washington, D.C., would be more than 2 miles thick," said David Lawrence, a MESSENGER participating scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., and lead author of one of three papers describing the findings. The papers were published online in Thursday's edition of Science Express.
Spacecraft instruments completed the first measurements of excess hydrogen at Mercury's north pole, made the first measurements of the reflectivity of Mercury's polar deposits at near-infrared wavelengths, and enabled the first detailed models of the surface and near-surface temperatures of Mercury's north polar regions.
Given its proximity to the sun, Mercury would seem to be an unlikely place to find ice. However, the tilt of Mercury's rotational axis is less than 1 degree, and as a result, there are pockets at the planet's poles that never see sunlight.
Scientists suggested decades ago there might be water ice and other frozen volatiles trapped at Mercury's poles. The idea received a boost in 1991 when the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico detected radar-bright patches at Mercury's poles. Many of these patches corresponded to the locations of large impact craters mapped by NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft in the 1970s. However, because Mariner saw less than 50 percent of the planet, planetary scientists lacked a complete diagram of the poles to compare with the radar images.
Images from the spacecraft taken in 2011 and earlier this year confirmed all radar-bright features at Mercury's north and south poles lie within shadowed regions on the planet's surface. These findings are consistent with the water ice hypothesis.
The new observations from MESSENGER support the idea that ice is the major constituent of Mercury's north polar deposits. These measurements also reveal ice is exposed at the surface in the coldest of those deposits, but buried beneath unusually dark material across most of the deposits. In the areas where ice is buried, temperatures at the surface are slightly too warm for ice to be stable.
MESSENGER's neutron spectrometer provides a measure of average hydrogen concentrations within Mercury's radar-bright regions. Water ice concentrations are derived from the hydrogen measurements.
"We estimate from our neutron measurements the water ice lies beneath a layer that has much less hydrogen. The surface layer is between 10 and 20 centimeters [4-8 inches] thick," Lawrence said.
Additional data from detailed topography maps compiled by the spacecraft corroborate the radar results and neutron measurements of Mercury's polar region. In a second paper by Gregory Neumann of NASA's Goddard Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., measurements of the shadowed north polar regions reveal irregular dark and bright deposits at near-infrared wavelength near Mercury's north pole.
"Nobody had seen these dark regions on Mercury before, so they were mysterious at first," Neumann said.
The spacecraft recorded dark patches with diminished reflectance, consistent with the theory that ice in those areas is covered by a thermally insulating layer. Neumann suggests impacts of comets or volatile-rich asteroids could have provided both the dark and bright deposits, a finding corroborated in a third paper led by David Paige of the University of California at Los Angeles.
"The dark material is likely a mix of complex organic compounds delivered to Mercury by the impacts of comets and volatile-rich asteroids, the same objects that likely delivered water to the innermost planet," Paige said.
This dark insulating material is a new wrinkle to the story, according to MESSENGER principal investigator Sean Solomon of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.
"For more than 20 years, the jury has been deliberating whether the planet closest to the sun hosts abundant water ice in its permanently shadowed polar regions," Solomon said. "MESSENGER now has supplied a unanimous affirmative verdict."
MESSENGER was designed and built by APL. The lab manages and operates the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The mission is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed for the directorate by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
For more information about the Mercury mission, visit:

Nov. 15, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Rob Gutro
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514
RELEASE: 12-397
WASHINGTON -- By combining the power of NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and one of nature's own natural "zoom lenses" in space, astronomers have set a new record for finding the most distant galaxy seen in the universe.
The farthest galaxy appears as a diminutive blob that is only a tiny fraction of the size of our Milky Way galaxy. But it offers a peek back into a time when the universe was 3 percent of its present age of 13.7 billion years. The newly discovered galaxy, named MACS0647-JD, was observed 420 million years after the big bang, the theorized beginning of the universe. Its light has traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth.
This find is the latest discovery from a program that uses natural zoom lenses to reveal distant galaxies in the early universe. The Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH), an international group led by Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., is using massive galaxy clusters as cosmic telescopes to magnify distant galaxies behind them. This effect is called gravitational lensing.
Along the way, 8 billion years into its journey, light from MACS0647-JD took a detour along multiple paths around the massive galaxy cluster MACS J0647+7015. Without the cluster's magnification powers, astronomers would not have seen this remote galaxy. Because of gravitational lensing, the CLASH research team was able to observe three magnified images of MACS0647-JD with the Hubble telescope. The cluster's gravity boosted the light from the faraway galaxy, making the images appear about eight, seven, and two times brighter than they otherwise would that enabled astronomers to detect the galaxy more efficiently and with greater confidence.
"This cluster does what no manmade telescope can do," said Postman. "Without the magnification, it would require a Herculean effort to observe this galaxy."
MACS0647-JD is so small it may be in the first steps of forming a larger galaxy. An analysis shows the galaxy is less than 600 light-years wide. Based on observations of somewhat closer galaxies, astronomers estimate that a typical galaxy of a similar age should be about 2,000 light-years wide. For comparison, the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy companion to the Milky Way, is 14,000 light-years wide. Our Milky Way is 150,000 light-years across.
"This object may be one of many building blocks of a galaxy," said the study's lead author, Dan Coe of the Space Telescope Science Institute. "Over the next 13 billion years, it may have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of merging events with other galaxies and galaxy fragments."
The galaxy was observed with 17 filters, spanning near-ultraviolet to near-infrared wavelengths, using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). Coe, a CLASH team member, discovered the galaxy in February while poring over a catalogue of thousands of gravitationally lensed objects found in Hubble observations of 17 clusters in the CLASH survey. But the galaxy appeared only in the two reddest filters.
"So either MACS0647-JD is a very red object, only shining at red wavelengths, or it is extremely distant and its light has been 'redshifted' to these wavelengths, or some combination of the two," Coe said. "We considered this full range of possibilities."
The CLASH team identified multiple images of eight galaxies lensed by the galaxy cluster. Their positions allowed the team to produce a map of the cluster's mass, which is primarily composed of dark matter. Dark matter is an invisible form of matter that makes up the bulk of the universe's mass. "It's like a big puzzle," said Coe. "We have to arrange the mass in the cluster so that it deflects the light of each galaxy to the positions observed." The team's analysis revealed that the cluster's mass distribution produced three lensed images of MACS0647-JD at the positions and relative brightness observed in the Hubble image.
Coe and his collaborators spent months systematically ruling out these other alternative explanations for the object's identity, including red stars, brown dwarfs, and red (old or dusty) galaxies at intermediate distances from Earth. They concluded that a very distant galaxy was the correct explanation.
The paper will appear in the Dec. 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
Redshift is a consequence of the expansion of space over cosmic time. Astronomers study the distant universe in near-infrared light because the expansion of space stretches ultraviolet and visible light from galaxies into infrared wavelengths. Coe estimates MACS0647-JD has a redshift of 11, the highest yet observed.
Images of the galaxy at longer wavelengths obtained with the Spitzer Space Telescope played a key role in the analysis. If the object were intrinsically red, it would appear bright in the Spitzer images. Instead, the galaxy barely was detected, if at all, indicating its great distance. The research team plans to use Spitzer to obtain deeper observations of the galaxy, which should yield confident detections as well as estimates of the object's age and dust content.
MACS0647-JD galaxy, however, may be too far away for any current telescope to confirm the distance based on spectroscopy, which spreads out an object's light into thousands of colors. Nevertheless, Coe is confident the fledgling galaxy is the new distance champion based on its unique colors and the research team's extensive analysis.
"All three of the lensed galaxy images match fairly well and are in positions you would expect for a galaxy at that remote distance when you look at the predictions from our best lens models for this cluster," Coe said.
The new distance champion is the second remote galaxy uncovered in the CLASH survey, a multi-wavelength census of 25 hefty galaxy clusters with Hubble's ACS and WFC3. Earlier this year, the CLASH team announced the discovery of a galaxy that existed when the universe was 490 million years old, 70 million years later than the new record-breaking galaxy. So far, the survey has completed observations for 20 of the 25 clusters.
The team hopes to use Hubble to search for more dwarf galaxies at these early epochs. If these infant galaxies are numerous, then they could have provided the energy to burn off the fog of hydrogen that blanketed the universe, a process called re-ionization. Re-ionization ultimately made the universe transparent to light.
For images and more information about the study, visit:

Nov. 02, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Nancy Neal Jones
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
RELEASE: 12-387
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's car-sized rover, Curiosity, has taken significant steps toward understanding how Mars may have lost much of its original atmosphere.
Learning what happened to the Martian atmosphere will help scientists assess whether the planet ever was habitable. The present atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth's.
A set of instruments aboard the rover has ingested and analyzed samples of the atmosphere collected near the "Rocknest" site in Gale Crater where the rover is stopped for research. Findings from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments suggest that loss of a fraction of the atmosphere, resulting from a physical process favoring retention of heavier isotopes of certain elements, has been a significant factor in the evolution of the planet. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights.
Initial SAM results show an increase of 5 percent in heavier isotopes of carbon in the atmospheric carbon dioxide compared to estimates of the isotopic ratios present when Mars formed. These enriched ratios of heavier isotopes to lighter ones suggest the top of the atmosphere may have been lost to interplanetary space. Losses at the top of the atmosphere would deplete lighter isotopes. Isotopes of argon also show enrichment of the heavy isotope, matching previous estimates of atmosphere composition derived from studies of Martian meteorites on Earth.
Scientists theorize that in Mars' distant past its environment may have been quite different, with persistent water and a thicker atmosphere. NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission will investigate possible losses from the upper atmosphere when it arrives at Mars in 2014.
With these initial sniffs of Martian atmosphere, SAM also made the most sensitive measurements ever to search for methane gas on Mars. Preliminary results reveal little to no methane. Methane is of interest as a simple precursor chemical for life. On Earth, it can be produced by either biological or non-biological processes.
Methane has been difficult to detect from Earth or the current generation of Mars orbiters because the gas exists on Mars only in traces, if at all. The Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) in SAM provides the first search conducted within the Martian atmosphere for this molecule. The initial SAM measurements place an upper limit of just a few parts methane per billion parts of Martian atmosphere, by volume, with enough uncertainty that the amount could be zero.
"Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we're just excited to be searching for it," said SAM TLS lead Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us."
In Curiosity's first three months on Mars, SAM has analyzed atmosphere samples with two laboratory methods. One is a mass spectrometer investigating the full range of atmospheric gases. The other, TLS, has focused on carbon dioxide and methane. During its two-year prime mission, the rover also will use an instrument called a gas chromatograph that separates and identifies gases. The instrument also will analyze samples of soil and rock, as well as more atmosphere samples.
"With these first atmospheric measurements we already can see the power of having a complex chemical laboratory like SAM on the surface of Mars," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Both atmospheric and solid sample analyses are crucial for understanding Mars' habitability."
SAM is set to analyze its first solid sample in the coming weeks, beginning the search for organic compounds in the rocks and soils of Gale Crater. Analyzing water-bearing minerals and searching for and analyzing carbonates are high priorities for upcoming SAM solid sample analyses.
Researchers are using Curiosity's 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. JPL manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The SAM Instrument was developed at Goddard with instrument contributions from Goddard, JPL and the University of Paris in France.
For more information about Curiosity and its mission, visit:
You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

Nov. 1, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Lynn Chandler
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
RELEASE: 12-385
WASHINGTON -- Astronomers using data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have made the most accurate measurement of starlight in the universe and used it to establish the total amount of light from all the stars that have ever shone, accomplishing a primary mission goal.
"The optical and ultraviolet light from stars continues to travel throughout the universe even after the stars cease to shine, and this creates a fossil radiation field we can explore using gamma rays from distant sources," said lead scientist Marco Ajello, a postdoctoral researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University in California and the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.
Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light. Since Fermi's launch in 2008, its Large Area Telescope (LAT) observes the entire sky in high-energy gamma rays every three hours, creating the most detailed map of the universe ever known at these energies.
The total sum of starlight in the cosmos is known to astronomers as the extragalactic background light (EBL). To gamma rays, the EBL functions as a kind of cosmic fog. Ajello and his team investigated the EBL by studying gamma rays from 150 blazars, or galaxies powered by black holes, that were strongly detected at energies greater than 3 billion electron volts (GeV), or more than a billion times the energy of visible light.
"With more than a thousand detected so far, blazars are the most common sources detected by Fermi, but gamma rays at these energies are few and far between, which is why it took four years of data to make this analysis," said team member Justin Finke, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.
As matter falls toward a galaxy's supermassive black hole, some of it is accelerated outward at almost the speed of light in jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar.
Gamma rays produced in blazar jets travel across billions of light-years to Earth. During their journey, the gamma rays pass through an increasing fog of visible and ultraviolet light emitted by stars that formed throughout the history of the universe.
Occasionally, a gamma ray collides with starlight and transforms into a pair of particles -- an electron and its antimatter counterpart, a positron. Once this occurs, the gamma ray light is lost. In effect, the process dampens the gamma ray signal in much the same way as fog dims a distant lighthouse.
>From studies of nearby blazars, scientists have determined how many gamma rays should be emitted at different energies. More distant blazars show fewer gamma rays at higher energies -- especially above 25 GeV -- thanks to absorption by the cosmic fog.
The farthest blazars are missing most of their higher-energy gamma rays.
The researchers then determined the average gamma-ray attenuation across three distance ranges between 9.6 billion years ago and today.
>From this measurement, the scientists were able to estimate the fog's thickness. To account for the observations, the average stellar density in the cosmos is about 1.4 stars per 100 billion cubic light-years, which means the average distance between stars in the universe is about 4,150 light-years.
A paper describing the findings was published Thursday on Science Express.
"The Fermi result opens up the exciting possibility of constraining the earliest period of cosmic star formation, thus setting the stage for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope," said Volker Bromm, an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin, who commented on the findings. "In simple terms, Fermi is providing us with a shadow image of the first stars, whereas Webb will directly detect them."
Measuring the extragalactic background light was one of the primary mission goals for Fermi.
"We're very excited about the prospect of extending this measurement even farther," said Julie McEnery, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Goddard manages the Fermi astrophysics and particle physics research partnership. Fermi was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy with contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.
For images and video related to this story, please visit:
For more information about NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope,

Oct. 30, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Rachel Hoover
Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-383
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has completed initial experiments showing the mineralogy of Martian soil is similar to weathered basaltic soils of volcanic origin in Hawaii.
The minerals were identified in the first sample of Martian soil ingested recently by the rover. Curiosity used its Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) to obtain the results, which are filling gaps and adding confidence to earlier estimates of the mineralogical makeup of the dust and fine soil widespread on the Red Planet.
“We had many previous inferences and discussions about the mineralogy of Martian soil,” said David Blake of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who is the principal investigator for CheMin. “Our quantitative results provide refined and in some cases new identifications of the minerals in this first X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars.”
The identification of minerals in rocks and soil is crucial for the mission’s goal to assess past environmental conditions. Each mineral records the conditions under which it formed. The chemical composition of a rock provides only ambiguous mineralogical information, as in the textbook example of the minerals diamond and graphite, which have the same chemical composition, but strikingly different structures and properties.
CheMin uses X-ray diffraction, the standard practice for geologists on Earth using much larger laboratory instruments. This method provides more accurate identifications of minerals than any method previously used on Mars. X-ray diffraction reads minerals’ internal structure by recording how their crystals distinctively interact with X-rays. Innovations from Ames led to an X-ray diffraction instrument compact enough to fit inside the rover.
These NASA technological advances have resulted in other applications on Earth, including compact and portable X-ray diffraction equipment for oil and gas exploration, analysis of archaeological objects and screening of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, among other uses.
“Our team is elated with these first results from our instrument,” said Blake. “They heighten our anticipation for future CheMin analyses in the months and miles ahead for Curiosity.”
The specific sample for CheMin’s first analysis was soil Curiosity scooped up at a patch of dust and sand that the team named Rocknest. The sample was processed through a sieve to exclude particles larger than 0.006 inch (150 micrometers), roughly the width of a human hair. The sample has at least two components: dust distributed globally in dust storms and fine sand originating more locally. Unlike conglomerate rocks Curiosity investigated a few weeks ago, which are several billion years old and indicative of flowing water, the soil material CheMin has analyzed is more representative of modern processes on Mars.
“Much of Mars is covered with dust, and we had an incomplete understanding of its mineralogy,” said David Bish, CheMin co-investigator with Indiana University in Bloomington. “We now know it is mineralogically similar to basaltic material, with significant amounts of feldspar, pyroxene and olivine, which was not unexpected. Roughly half the soil is non-crystalline material, such as volcanic glass or products from weathering of the glass.”
Bish said, “So far, the materials Curiosity has analyzed are consistent with our initial ideas of the deposits in Gale Crater recording a transition through time from a wet to dry environment. The ancient rocks, such as the conglomerates, suggest flowing water, while the minerals in the younger soil are consistent with limited interaction with water.”
During the two-year prime mission of the Mars Science Laboratory Project, researchers are using Curiosity’s 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, and built Curiosity and CheMin.
For more information about Curiosity and its mission, visit:
For more information about a commercial application of the CheMin technology, visit:
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Oct. 24, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-374
WASHINGTON -- A new study using data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope suggests a cause for the mysterious glow of infrared light seen across the entire sky. It comes from isolated stars beyond the edges of galaxies. These stars are thought to have once belonged to the galaxies before violent galaxy mergers stripped them away into the relatively empty space outside of their former homes.
“The infrared background glow in our sky has been a huge mystery,” said Asantha Cooray of the University of California at Irvine (UC Irvine), lead author of the new research published in the journal Nature. “We have new evidence this light is from the stars that linger between galaxies. Individually, the stars are too faint to be seen, but we think we are seeing their collective glow.”
The findings disagree with another theory explaining the same background infrared light observed by Spitzer. A group led by Alexander “Sasha” Kashlinsky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., proposed in June this light, which appears in Spitzer images as a blotchy pattern, is coming from the very first stars and galaxies.
In the new study, Cooray and colleagues looked at data from a larger portion of the sky, called the Bootes field, covering an arc equivalent to 50 full Earth moons. These observations were not as sensitive as those from the Kashlinsky group’s studies, but the larger scale allowed researchers to better analyze the pattern of the background infrared light.
“We looked at the Bootes field with Spitzer for 250 hours,” said co-author Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Studying the faint infrared background was one of the core goals of our survey, and we carefully designed the observations in order to directly address the important, challenging question of what causes the background glow.”
The team concluded the light pattern of the infrared glow is not consistent with theories and computer simulations of the first stars and galaxies. Researchers say the glow is too bright to be from the first galaxies, which are thought not to have been as large or as numerous as the galaxies we see around us today. Instead, the scientists propose a new theory to explain the blotchy light, based on theories of “intracluster” or “intrahalo” starlight.
Theories predict a diffuse smattering of stars beyond the halos, or outer reaches, of galaxies, and in the spaces between clusters of galaxies. The presence of these stars can be attributed to two phenomena. Early in the history of our universe as galaxies grew in size, they collided with other galaxies and gained mass. As the colliding galaxies became tangled gravitationally, strips of stars were shredded and tossed into space. Galaxies also grow by swallowing smaller dwarf galaxies, a messy process that also results in stray stars.
“A light bulb went off when reading some research papers predicting the existence of diffuse stars,” Cooray said. “They could explain what we are seeing with Spitzer.”
More research is needed to confirm this sprinkling of stars makes up a significant fraction of the background infrared light. For instance, it would be necessary to find a similar pattern in follow-up observations in visible light. NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) might finally settle the matter for good.
“The keen infrared vision of the James Webb Telescope will be able to see some of the earliest stars and galaxies directly, as well as the stray stars lurking between the outskirts of nearby galaxies,” said Eric Smith, JWST’s deputy program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The mystery objects making up the background infrared light may finally be exposed.”
Other authors include Joseph Smidt, Francesco De Bernardis, Yan Gong and Christopher C. Frazer of UC Irvine; Matthew L. N. Ashby of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass; Peter R. Eisenhardt of JPL; Anthony H. Gonzalez of the University of Florida in Gainesville; Christopher S. Kochanek of Ohio State University in Columbus; Szymon Kozłowski of Ohio State and the Warsaw University Observatory in Poland; and Edward L. Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles.
JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center
at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
For more information about Spitzer, visit:

Oct. 23, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-370
WASHINGTON -- NASA’s newest set of X-ray eyes in the sky, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), has caught its first look at the giant black hole parked at the center of our galaxy. The observations show the typically mild-mannered black hole during the middle of a flare-up.
“We got lucky to have captured an outburst from the black hole during our observing campaign,” said Fiona Harrison, the mission’s principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. “These data will help us better understand the gentle giant at the heart of our galaxy and why it sometimes flares up for a few hours and then returns to slumber.”
The new images can be seen by visiting:
NuSTAR, launched June 13, is the only telescope capable of producing focused images of the highest-energy X-rays. For two days in July, the telescope teamed up with other observatories to observe Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Participating telescopes included NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which sees lower-energy X-ray light; and the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which took infrared images.
Compared to giant black holes at the centers of other galaxies, Sgr A* is relatively quiet. Active black holes tend to gobble up stars and other fuel around them. Sgr A* is thought only to nibble or not eat at all, a process that is not fully understood. When black holes consume fuel -- whether a star, a gas cloud or, as recent Chandra observations have suggested, even an asteroid -- they erupt with extra energy.
In the case of NuSTAR, its state-of-the-art telescope is picking up X-rays emitted by consumed matter being heated up to about 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million degrees Celsius) and originating from regions where particles are boosted very close to the speed of light. Astronomers say these NuSTAR data, when combined with the simultaneous observations taken at other wavelengths, will help them better understand the physics of how black holes snack and grow in size.
“Astronomers have long speculated that the black hole’s snacking should produce copious hard X-rays, but NuSTAR is the first telescope with sufficient sensitivity to actually detect them,” said NuSTAR team member Chuck Hailey of Columbia University in New York City.
NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., built the spacecraft. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California (UC) Berkeley; Columbia University; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.; and ATK Aerospace Systems of Goleta, Calif. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing an equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission’s outreach program is based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. Goddard manages NASA’s Explorer Program. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
For information about NASA and agency programs, visit:

Oct. 11, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster / D.C. Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-359
PASADENA, Calif. -- The first Martian rock NASA’s Curiosity rover has reached out to touch presents a more varied composition than expected from previous missions. The rock also resembles some unusual rocks from Earth’s interior.
The rover team used two instruments on Curiosity to study the chemical makeup of the football-size rock called “Jake Matijevic.” The results support some surprising recent measurements and provide an example of why identifying rocks’ composition is such a major emphasis of the mission. Rock compositions tell stories about unseen environments and planetary processes.
“This rock is a close match in chemical composition to an unusual but well-known type of igneous rock found in many volcanic provinces on Earth,” said Edward Stolper of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., who is a Curiosity co-investigator. “With only one Martian rock of this type, it is difficult to know whether the same processes were involved, but it is a reasonable place to start thinking about its origin.” On Earth, rocks with composition like the Jake rock typically come from processes in the planet’s mantle beneath the crust, from crystallization of relatively water-rich magma at elevated pressure.
Jake was the first rock analyzed by the rover’s arm-mounted Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument and about the thirtieth rock examined by the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument. Two penny-size spots on Jake were analyzed Sept. 22 by the rover’s improved and faster version of earlier APXS devices on all previous Mars rovers, which have examined hundreds of rocks. That information has provided scientists a library of comparisons for what Curiosity sees.
“Jake is kind of an odd Martian rock,” said APXS Principal Investigator Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “It’s high in elements consistent with the mineral feldspar, and low in magnesium and iron.”
ChemCam found unique compositions at each of 14 target points on the rock, hitting different mineral grains within it. “ChemCam had been seeing compositions suggestive of feldspar since August, and we’re getting closer to confirming that now with APXS data, although there are additional tests to be done,” said ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Examination of Jake included the first comparison on Mars between APXS results and results from checking the same rock with ChemCam, which shoots laser pulses from the top of the rover’s mast.
The wealth of information from the two instruments checking chemical elements in the same rock is just a preview. Curiosity also carries analytical laboratories inside the rover to provide other composition information about powder samples from rocks and soil. The mission is progressing toward getting the first soil sample into those analytical instruments during a “sol” or Martian day.
“Yestersol, we used Curiosity’s first perfectly scooped sample for cleaning the interior surfaces of our 150-micron sample-processing chambers. It’s our version of a Martian carwash,” said Chris Roumeliotis, lead turret rover planner at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
Before proceeding, the team carefully studied the material for scooping at a sandy patch called “Rocknest,” where Curiosity is spending about three weeks.
“That first sample was perfect, just the right particle-size distribution,” said JPL’s Luther Beegle, Curiosity sampling-system scientist. “We had a lot of steps to be sure it was safe to go through with the scooping and cleaning.”
Following the work at Rocknest, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity about 100 yards eastward and select a rock in that area as the first target for using the drill.
During a two-year prime mission, researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 instruments to assess whether the study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the project and built Curiosity. For more about the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission,
You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

Oct. 5, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Rob Gutro
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
RELEASE: 12-353
WASHINGTON -- NASA’s Swift satellite recently detected a rising tide of high-energy X-rays from a source toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The outburst, produced by a rare X-ray nova, announced the presence of a previously unknown stellar-mass black hole.
“Bright X-ray novae are so rare that they’re essentially once-a-mission events and this is the first one Swift has seen,” said Neil Gehrels, the mission’s principal investigator, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “This is really something we’ve been waiting for.”
An X-ray nova is a short-lived X-ray source that appears suddenly, reaches its emission peak in a few days and then fades out over a period of months. The outburst arises when a torrent of stored gas suddenly rushes toward one of the most compact objects known, either a neutron star or a black hole.
The rapidly brightening source triggered Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope twice on the morning of Sept. 16, and once again the next day.
Named Swift J1745-26 after the coordinates of its sky position, the nova is located a few degrees from the center of our galaxy toward the constellation Sagittarius. While astronomers do not know its precise distance, they think the object resides about 20,000 to 30,000 light-years away in the galaxy’s inner region.
Ground-based observatories detected infrared and radio emissions, but thick clouds of obscuring dust have prevented astronomers from catching Swift J1745-26 in visible light.
The nova peaked in hard X-rays -- energies above 10,000 electron volts, or several thousand times that of visible light -- on Sept. 18, when it reached an intensity equivalent to that of the famous Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant that serves as a calibration target for high-energy observatories and is considered one of the brightest sources beyond the solar system at these energies.
Even as it dimmed at higher energies, the nova brightened in the lower-energy, or softer, emissions detected by Swift’s X-ray Telescope, a behavior typical of X-ray novae. By Wednesday, Swift J1745-26 was 30 times brighter in soft X-rays than when it was discovered and it continued to brighten.
“The pattern we’re seeing is observed in X-ray novae where the central object is a black hole. Once the X-rays fade away, we hope to measure its mass and confirm its black hole status,” said Boris Sbarufatti, an astrophysicist at Brera Observatory in Milan, Italy, who currently is working with other Swift team members at Penn State in University Park, Pa.
The black hole must be a member of a low-mass X-ray binary (LMXB) system, which includes a normal, sun-like star. A stream of gas flows from the normal star and enters into a storage disk around the black hole. In most LMXBs, the gas in the disk spirals inward, heats up as it heads toward the black hole, and produces a steady stream of X-rays.
But under certain conditions, stable flow within the disk depends on the rate of matter flowing into it from the companion star. At certain rates, the disk fails to maintain a steady internal flow and instead flips between two dramatically different conditions -- a cooler, less ionized state where gas simply collects in the outer portion of the disk like water behind a dam, and a hotter, more ionized state that sends a tidal wave of gas surging toward the center.
“Each outburst clears out the inner disk, and with little or no matter falling toward the black hole, the system ceases to be a bright source of X-rays,” said John Cannizzo, a Goddard astrophysicist. “Decades later, after enough gas has accumulated in the outer disk, it switches again to its hot state and sends a deluge of gas toward the black hole, resulting in a new X-ray outburst.”
This phenomenon, called the thermal-viscous limit cycle, helps astronomers explain transient outbursts across a wide range of systems, from protoplanetary disks around young stars, to dwarf novae -- where the central object is a white dwarf star -- and even bright emission from supermassive black holes in the hearts of distant galaxies.
Swift, launched in November 2004, is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center. It is operated in collaboration with Penn State, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., with international collaborators in the United Kingdom and Italy and including contributions from Germany and Japan.
For images related to this discovery and more information about Swift,

Oct. 4, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster / D.C. Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-5011 /
RELEASE: 12-348
WASHINGTON -- NASA’s Curiosity rover is in a position on Mars where scientists and engineers can begin preparing the rover to take its first scoop of soil for analysis.
Curiosity is the centerpiece of the two-year Mars Science Laboratory mission. The rover’s ability to put soil samples into analytical instruments is central to assessing whether its present location on Mars, called Gale Crater, ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Mineral analysis can reveal past environmental conditions. Chemical analysis can check for ingredients necessary for life.
“We now have reached an important phase that will get the first solid samples into the analytical instruments in about two weeks,” said Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Curiosity has been so well-behaved that we have made great progress during the first two months of the mission.”
The rover’s preparatory operations will involve testing its robotic scooping capabilities to collect and process soil samples. Later, it also will use a hammering drill to collect powdered samples from rocks. To begin preparations for a first scoop, the rover used one of its wheels Wednesday to scuff the soil to expose fresh material.
Next, the rover twice will scoop up some soil, shake it thoroughly inside the sample-processing chambers to scrub the internal surfaces, then discard the sample. Curiosity will scoop and shake a third measure of soil and place it in an observation tray for inspection by cameras mounted on the rover’s mast. A portion of the third sample will be delivered to the mineral-identifying chemistry and mineralogy (CheMin) instrument inside the rover. From a fourth scoopful, samples will be delivered to both CheMin and to the sample analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which identifies chemical ingredients.
“We’re going to take a close look at the particle size distribution in the soil here to be sure it’s what we want,” said Daniel Limonadi of JPL, lead systems engineer for Curiosity’s surface sampling and science system. “We are being very careful with this first time using the scoop on Mars.”
The rinse-and-discard cycles serve a quality-assurance purpose similar to a common practice in geochemical laboratory analysis on Earth.
“It is standard to run a split of your sample through first and dump it out, to clean out any residue from a previous sample,” said JPL’s Joel Hurowitz, a sampling system scientist on the Curiosity team. “We want to be sure the first sample we analyze is unambiguously Martian, so we take these steps to remove any residual material from Earth that might be on the walls of our sample handling system.”
Rocknest is the name of the area of soil Curiosity will test and analyze. The rover pulled up to the windblown, sandy and dusty location Oct. 2. The Rocknest patch is about 8 feet by 16 feet (2.5 meters by 5 meters). The area provides plenty of area for scooping several times. Diverse rocks nearby provide targets for investigation with the instruments on Curiosity’s mast during the weeks the rover is stationed at Rocknest for this first scooping campaign.
Curiosity’s motorized, clamshell-shaped scoop is 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) wide, 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) long, and can sample to a depth of about 1.4 inches (3.5 centimeters). It is part of the collection and handling Martian rock analysis (CHIMRA) device on a turret of tools at the end of the rover’s arm. CHIMRA also includes a series of chambers and labyrinths for sorting, sieving and portioning samples collected by the scoop or by the arm’s percussive drill.
Following the work at Rocknest, the rover team plans to drive Curiosity about 100 yards (about 100 meters) eastward into the Glenelg area and select a rock as the first target for use of its drill.
JPL manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project and built Curiosity.
For more about Curiosity, visit:
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Sept. 27, 2012
Dwayne Brown /Steve Cole
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-0918 /
Guy Webster / D.C. Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-5011 /
RELEASE: 12-338
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Curiosity rover mission has found evidence a stream once ran vigorously across the area on Mars where the rover is driving. There is earlier evidence for the presence of water on Mars, but this evidence - images of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels - is the first of its kind.
Scientists are studying the images of stones cemented into a layer of conglomerate rock. The sizes and shapes of stones offer clues to the speed and distance of a long-ago stream's flow.
"From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep," said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley. "Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we're actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it."
The finding site lies between the north rim of Gale Crater and the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside the crater. Earlier imaging of the region from Mars orbit allows for additional interpretation of the gravel-bearing conglomerate. The imagery shows an alluvial fan of material washed down from the rim, streaked by many apparent channels, sitting uphill of the new finds.
The rounded shape of some stones in the conglomerate indicates long-distance transport from above the rim, where a channel named Peace Vallis feeds into the alluvial fan. The abundance of channels in the fan between the rim and conglomerate suggests flows continued or repeated over a long time, not just once or for a few years.
The discovery comes from examining two outcrops, called "Hottah" and "Link" with the telephoto capability of Curiosity's mast camera during the first 40 days after landing. Those observations followed up on earlier hints from another outcrop, which was exposed by thruster exhaust as Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory Project's rover, touched down.
"Hottah looks like someone jack-hammered up a slab of city sidewalk, but it's really a tilted block of an ancient streambed," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
The gravels in conglomerates at both outcrops range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. Some are angular, but many are rounded.
"The shapes tell you they were transported and the sizes tell you they couldn't be transported by wind. They were transported by water flow," said Curiosity science co-investigator Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.
The science team may use Curiosity to learn the elemental composition of the material, which holds the conglomerate together, revealing more characteristics of the wet environment that formed these deposits. The stones in the conglomerate provide a sampling from above the crater rim, so the team may also examine several of them to learn about broader regional geology.
The slope of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater remains the rover's main destination. Clay and sulfate minerals detected there from orbit can be good preservers of carbon-based organic chemicals that are potential ingredients for life.
"A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment," said Grotzinger. "It is not our top choice as an environment for preservation of organics, though. We're still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment."
During the two-year prime mission of the Mars Science Laboratory, researchers will use Curiosity's 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater have ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.
For more about Curiosity, visit:
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Sept. 24, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Peter Edmonds
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.
RELEASE: 12-331
WASHINGTON -- Astronomers have used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to find evidence our Milky Way Galaxy is embedded in an enormous halo of hot gas that extends for hundreds of thousands of light years. The estimated mass of the halo is comparable to the mass of all the stars in the galaxy.
If the size and mass of this gas halo is confirmed, it also could be an explanation for what is known as the "missing baryon" problem for the galaxy.
Baryons are particles, such as protons and neutrons, that make up more than 99.9 percent of the mass of atoms found in the cosmos. Measurements of extremely distant gas halos and galaxies indicate the baryonic matter present when the universe was only a few billion years old represented about one-sixth the mass and density of the existing unobservable, or dark, matter. In the current epoch, about 10 billion years later, a census of the baryons present in stars and gas in our galaxy and nearby galaxies shows at least half the baryons are unaccounted for.
In a recent study, a team of five astronomers used data from Chandra, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton space observatory and Japan's Suzaku satellite to set limits on the temperature, extent and mass of the hot gas halo. Chandra observed eight bright X-ray sources located far beyond the galaxy at distances of hundreds of millions of light-years. The data revealed X-rays from these distant sources are absorbed selectively by oxygen ions in the vicinity of the galaxy. The scientists determined the temperature of the absorbing halo is between 1 million and 2.5 million kelvins, or a few hundred times hotter than the surface of the sun.
Other studies have shown that the Milky Way and other galaxies are embedded in warm gas with temperatures between 100,000 and 1 million kelvins. Studies have indicated the presence of a hotter gas with a temperature greater than 1 million kelvins. This new research provides evidence the hot gas halo enveloping the Milky Way is much more massive than the warm gas halo.
"We know the gas is around the galaxy, and we know how hot it is," said Anjali Gupta, lead author of The Astrophysical Journal paper describing the research. "The big question is, how large is the halo, and how massive is it?"
To begin to answer this question, the authors supplemented Chandra data on the amount of absorption produced by the oxygen ions with XMM-Newton and Suzaku data on the X-rays emitted by the gas halo. They concluded that the mass of the gas is equivalent to the mass in more than 10 billion suns, perhaps as large as 60 billion suns.
"Our work shows that, for reasonable values of parameters and with reasonable assumptions, the Chandra observations imply a huge reservoir of hot gas around the Milky Way," said co-author Smita Mathur of Ohio State University in Columbus. "It may extend for a few hundred thousand light-years around the Milky Way or it may extend farther into the surrounding local group of galaxies. Either way, its mass appears to be very large."
The estimated mass depends on factors such as the amount of oxygen relative to hydrogen, which is the dominant element in the gas. Nevertheless, the estimation represents an important step in solving the case of the missing baryons, a mystery that has puzzled astronomers for more than a decade.
Although there are uncertainties, the work by Gupta and colleagues provides the best evidence yet that the galaxy's missing baryons have been hiding in a halo of million-kelvin gas that envelopes the galaxy. The estimated density of this halo is so low that similar halos around other galaxies would have escaped detection.
The paper describing these results was published in the Sept. 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Other co-authors were Yair Krongold of Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City; Fabrizio Nicastro of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.; and Massimiliano Galeazzi of University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge.
For Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit:
For an additional interactive image, podcast and video on the finding,

Sept. 19, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-326
WASHINGTON -- With the combined power of NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, as well as a cosmic magnification effect, astronomers have spotted what could be the most distant galaxy ever seen. Light from the young galaxy captured by the orbiting observatories first shone when our 13.7-billion-year-old universe was just 500 million years old.
The far-off galaxy existed within an important era when the universe began to transit from the so-called cosmic dark ages. During this period, the universe went from a dark, starless expanse to a recognizable cosmos full of galaxies. The discovery of the faint, small galaxy opens a window onto the deepest, remotest epochs of cosmic history.
"This galaxy is the most distant object we have ever observed with high confidence," said Wei Zheng, a principal research scientist in the department of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and lead author of a new paper appearing in Nature. "Future work involving this galaxy, as well as others like it that we hope to find, will allow us to study the universe's earliest objects and how the dark ages ended."
Light from the primordial galaxy traveled approximately 13.2 billion light-years before reaching NASA's telescopes. In other words, the starlight snagged by Hubble and Spitzer left the galaxy when the universe was just 3.6 percent of its present age. Technically speaking, the galaxy has a redshift, or "z," of 9.6. The term redshift refers to how much an object's light has shifted into longer wavelengths as a result of the expansion of the universe. Astronomers use redshift to describe cosmic distances.
Unlike previous detections of galaxy candidates in this age range, which were only glimpsed in a single color, or waveband, this newfound galaxy has been seen in five different wavebands. As part of the Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble Program, the Hubble Space Telescope registered the newly described, far-flung galaxy in four visible and infrared wavelength bands. Spitzer measured it in a fifth, longer-wavelength infrared band, placing the discovery on firmer ground.
Objects at these extreme distances are mostly beyond the detection sensitivity of today's largest telescopes. To catch sight of these early, distant galaxies, astronomers rely on gravitational lensing. In this phenomenon, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago, the gravity of foreground objects warps and magnifies the light from background objects. A massive galaxy cluster situated between our galaxy and the newfound galaxy magnified the newfound galaxy's light, brightening the remote object some 15 times and bringing it into view.
Based on the Hubble and Spitzer observations, astronomers think the distant galaxy was less than 200 million years old when it was viewed. It also is small and compact, containing only about 1 percent of the Milky Way's mass. According to leading cosmological theories, the first galaxies indeed should have started out tiny. They then progressively merged, eventually accumulating into the sizable galaxies of the more modern universe.
These first galaxies likely played the dominant role in the epoch of reionization, the event that signaled the demise of the universe's dark ages. This epoch began about 400,000 years after the Big Bang when neutral hydrogen gas formed from cooling particles. The first luminous stars and their host galaxies emerged a few hundred million years later. The energy released by these earliest galaxies is thought to have caused the neutral hydrogen strewn throughout the universe to ionize, or lose an electron, a state that the gas has remained in since that time.
"In essence, during the epoch of reionization, the lights came on in the universe," said paper co-author Leonidas Moustakas, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
Astronomers plan to study the rise of the first stars and galaxies and the epoch of reionization with the successor to both Hubble and Spitzer, NASA's James Webb Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2018. The newly described distant galaxy likely will be a prime target.
For more information about Spitzer, visit:
For more information about Hubble, visit:

Sept. 14, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-324
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's long-lived rover Opportunity has returned an image of the Martian surface that is puzzling researchers.
Spherical objects concentrated at an outcrop Opportunity reached last week differ in several ways from iron-rich spherules nicknamed "blueberries" the rover found at its landing site in early 2004 and at many other locations to date.
Opportunity is investigating an outcrop called Kirkwood in the Cape York segment of the western rim of Endeavour Crater. The spheres measure as much as one-eighth of an inch (3 millimeters) in diameter. The analysis is still preliminary, but it indicates that these spheres do not have the high iron content of Martian blueberries.
"This is one of the most extraordinary pictures from the whole mission," said Opportunity's principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Kirkwood is chock full of a dense accumulation of these small spherical objects. Of course, we immediately thought of the blueberries, but this is something different. We never have seen such a dense accumulation of spherules in a rock outcrop on Mars."
The Martian blueberries found elsewhere by Opportunity are concretions formed by action of mineral-laden water inside rocks, evidence of a wet environment on early Mars. Concretions result when minerals precipitate out of water to become hard masses inside sedimentary rocks. Many of the Kirkwood spheres are broken and eroded by the wind. Where wind has partially etched them away, a concentric structure is evident.
Opportunity used the microscopic imager on its arm to look closely at Kirkwood. Researchers checked the spheres' composition by using an instrument called the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer on Opportunity's arm.
"They seem to be crunchy on the outside, and softer in the middle," Squyres said. "They are different in concentration. They are different in structure. They are different in composition. They are different in distribution. So, we have a wonderful geological puzzle in front of us. We have multiple working hypotheses, and we have no favorite hypothesis at this time. It's going to take a while to work this out, so the thing to do now is keep an open mind and let the rocks do the talking."
Just past Kirkwood lies another science target area for Opportunity. The location is an extensive pale-toned outcrop in an area of Cape York where observations from orbit have detected signs of clay minerals. That may be the rover's next study site after Kirkwood. Four years ago, Opportunity departed Victoria Crater, which it had investigated for two years, to reach different types of geological evidence at the rim of the much larger Endeavour Crater.
The rover's energy levels are favorable for the investigations. Spring equinox comes this month to Mars' southern hemisphere, so the amount of sunshine for solar power will continue increasing for months.
"The rover is in very good health considering its 8-1/2 years of hard work on the surface of Mars," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Energy production levels are comparable to what they were a full Martian year ago, and we are looking forward to productive spring and summer seasons of exploration."
NASA launched the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity in the summer of 2003, and both completed their three-month prime missions in April 2004. They continued bonus, extended missions for years. Spirit finished communicating with Earth in March 2010. The rovers have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life.
JPL manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
To view the image of the area, visit:
For more information about Opportunity, visit
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Sept. 14, 2012
J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-322
WASHINGTON -- NASA-funded astronomers have, for the first time, spotted planets orbiting sun-like stars in a crowded cluster of stars. The findings offer the best evidence yet planets can sprout up in dense stellar environments. Although the newfound planets are not habitable, their skies would be starrier than what we see from Earth.
The starry-skied planets are two so-called hot Jupiters, which are massive, gaseous orbs that are boiling hot because they orbit tightly around their parent stars. Each hot Jupiter circles a different sun-like star in the Beehive Cluster, also called the Praesepe, a collection of roughly 1,000 stars that appear to be swarming around a common center.
The Beehive is an open cluster, or a grouping of stars born at about the same time and out of the same giant cloud of material. As such, the stars share a similar chemical composition. Unlike the majority of stars, which spread out shortly after birth, these young stars remain loosely bound together by mutual gravitational attraction.
"We are detecting more and more planets that can thrive in diverse and extreme environments like these nearby clusters," said Mario R. Perez, the NASA astrophysics program scientist in the Origins of Solar Systems Program. "Our galaxy contains more than 1,000 of these open clusters, which potentially can present the physical conditions for harboring many more of these giant planets."
The two new Beehive planets are called Pr0201b and Pr0211b. The star's name followed by a "b" is the standard naming convention for planets.
"These are the first 'b's' in the Beehive," said Sam Quinn, a graduate student in astronomy at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the lead author of the paper describing the results, which was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Quinn and his team, in collaboration with David Latham at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, discovered the planets by using the 1.5-meter Tillinghast telescope at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona to measure the slight gravitational wobble the orbiting planets induce upon their host stars. Previous searches of clusters had turned up two planets around massive stars but none had been found around stars like our sun until now.
"This has been a big puzzle for planet hunters," Quinn said. "We know that most stars form in clustered environments like the Orion nebula, so unless this dense environment inhibits planet formation, at least some sun-like stars in open clusters should have planets. Now, we finally know they are indeed there."
The results also are of interest to theorists who are trying to understand how hot Jupiters wind up so close to their stars. Most theories contend these blistering worlds start out much cooler and farther from their stars before migrating inward.
"The relatively young age of the Beehive cluster makes these planets among the youngest known," said Russel White, the principal investigator on the NASA Origins of Solar Systems grant that funded this study. "And that's important because it sets a constraint on how quickly giant planets migrate inward. And knowing how quickly they migrate is the first step to figuring out how they migrate."
The research team suspects planets were turned up in the Beehive cluster because it is rich in metals. Stars in the Beehive have more heavy elements such as iron than the sun has.
According to White, "Searches for planets around nearby stars suggest that these metals act like a 'planet fertilizer,' leading to an abundant crop of gas-giant planets. Our results suggest this may be true in clusters as well."
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program office. More information about exoplanets and NASA's planet-finding program is available at:

Sept. 11, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
RELEASE: 12-315
PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) data have given scientists the clearest evidence yet of carbon dioxide snowfalls on Mars. This reveals the only known example of carbon dioxide snow falling anywhere in our solar system.
Frozen carbon dioxide, better known as "dry ice," requires temperatures of about minus 193 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 125 Celsius), which is much colder than needed for freezing water. Carbon dioxide snow reminds scientists that although some parts of Mars may look quite Earth-like, the Red Planet is very different. The report is being published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
"These are the first definitive detections of carbon dioxide snow clouds," said the report's lead author Paul Hayne of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "We firmly establish the clouds are composed of carbon dioxide -- flakes of Martian air -- and they are thick enough to result in snowfall accumulation at the surface."
The snow falls occurred from clouds around the Red Planet's south pole in winter. The presence of carbon dioxide ice in Mars' seasonal and residual southern polar caps has been known for decades. Also, NASA's Phoenix Lander mission in 2008 observed falling water-ice snow on northern Mars.
Hayne and six co-authors analyzed data gained by looking at clouds straight overhead and sideways with the Mars Climate Sounder, one of six instruments on MRO. This instrument records brightness in nine wavebands of visible and infrared light as a way to examine particles and gases in the Martian atmosphere.
The data provide information about temperatures, particle sizes and their concentrations. The new analysis is based on data from observations in the south polar region during southern Mars winter in 2006-2007, identifying a tall carbon dioxide cloud about 300 miles (500 kilometers) in diameter persisting over the pole and smaller, shorter-lived, lower-altitude carbon dioxide ice clouds at latitudes from 70 to 80 degrees south.
"One line of evidence for snow is that the carbon dioxide ice particles in the clouds are large enough to fall to the ground during the lifespan of the clouds," co-author David Kass of JPL said. "Another comes from observations when the instrument is pointed toward the horizon, instead of down at the surface. The infrared spectra signature of the clouds viewed from this angle is clearly carbon dioxide ice particles and they extend to the surface. By observing this way, the Mars Climate Sounder is able to distinguish the particles in the atmosphere from the dry ice on the surface."
Mars' south polar residual ice cap is the only place on Mars where frozen carbon dioxide persists on the surface year-round. Just how the carbon dioxide from Mars' atmosphere gets deposited has been in question. It is unclear whether it occurs as snow or by freezing out at ground level as frost. These results show snowfall is especially vigorous on top of the residual cap.
"The finding of snowfall could mean that the type of deposition -- snow or frost -- is somehow linked to the year-to-year preservation of the residual cap," Hayne said.
JPL provided the Mars Climate Sounder instrument and manages the MRO Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
For more information about MRO, visit:

Sept. 6, 2012
Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
Guy Webster / D.C. Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-5011 /
RELEASE: 12-312
PASADENA, Calif. -- After driving more than a football field's length since landing, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is spending several days preparing for full use of the tools on its arm.
Curiosity extended its robotic arm Wednesday in the first of 6-10 consecutive days of planned activities to test the 7-foot (2.1-meter) arm and the tools it manipulates.
"We will be putting the arm through a range of motions and placing it at important 'teach points' that were established during Earth testing, such as the positions for putting sample material into the inlet ports for analytical instruments," said Daniel Limonadi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., lead systems engineer for Curiosity's surface sampling and science system. "These activities are important to get a better understanding for how the arm functions after the long cruise to Mars and in the different temperature and gravity of Mars, compared to earlier testing on Earth."
Since the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft placed Curiosity inside Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 5 (Aug. 6 EDT), the rover has driven a total of 358 feet (109 meters). The drives have brought it about one-fourth of the way from the landing site, named Bradbury Landing, to a location selected as the mission's first major science destination, Glenelg.
"We knew at some point we were going to need to stop and take a week or so for these characterization activities," said Michael Watkins, JPL's Curiosity mission manager. "For these checkouts, we need to turn to a particular angle in relation to the sun and on flat ground. We could see before the latest drive that this looked like a perfect spot to start these activities."
The work at the current location will prepare Curiosity and the team for using the arm to place two of the science instruments onto rock and soil targets. In addition, the activities represent the first steps in preparing to scoop soil, drill into rocks, process collected samples and deliver samples into analytical instruments.
Checkouts in the next several days will include using the turret's Mars Hand Lens Imager to observe its calibration target and the Canadian-built Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer to read what chemical elements are present in the instrument's calibration target.
"We're still learning how to use the rover. It's such a complex machine -- the learning curve is steep," said JPL's Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for the MSL Project, which built and operates Curiosity.
After the arm characterization activities at the current site, Curiosity will proceed for a few weeks eastward toward Glenelg. The science team selected that area as likely to offer a good target for Curiosity's first analysis of powder collected by drilling into a rock.
"We're getting through a big set of characterization activities that will allow us to give more decision-making authority to the science team," said Richard Cook, MSL project manager at JPL.
Curiosity is one month into a two-year prime mission on Mars. It will use 10 science instruments to assess whether the selected study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
More information about Curiosity is online at:
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