vendredi 28 avril 2017

Monitoring the airways

ISS - International Space Station logo.

28 April 2017

Astronauts in space are valuable sources of scientific data. Researchers collect blood and urine samples to understand what effects living in weightlessness has on their bodies. For one experiment, investigators are interested in their breath.

Tim training for airway monitoring

The Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, is analysing astronauts’ exhaled air to probe lung health. The results so far have been breathtaking.

A breath of pressurised air

The Airway Monitoring experiment measures the level of nitric oxide in astronauts’ lungs, a naturally occurring molecule produced in the lungs to help regulate blood flow. Small amounts are normal, but excess levels indicate airway inflammation caused by environmental factors such as dust and pollutants or diseases like asthma.

Aboard the Station, astronauts breathe into an analyser at normal pressure and in the reduced pressure of the Quest airlock – similar to the pressure in future habitats on Mars and lunar colonies. The measurements are then compared to those taken before flight.

The experiment began with ESA astronaut Samantha Cristofretti in 2015 and has tested six astronauts so far. It will run until 2018, during which time measurements from four more astronauts will be collected.

Samantha working on Airway Monitoring

Preliminary results are surprising. While nitric oxide levels were lower throughout astronauts’ stays in space, as expected, they found that the levels initially decreased just before flight. Researchers are not yet sure why this is the case.

But the lower nitric oxide levels in astronauts’ lungs means researchers have to reset the level considered to be ‘healthy’ for spaceflight.

If what is considered a normal level of nitric oxide in humans on Earth could in fact be a sign of airway inflammation for astronauts in space, researchers have a more accurate standard from which to conduct further research on lung health in space.

Preflight lung check for Thomas Pesquet

This information is key to ensuring the health and safety of astronauts on longer missions further from Earth. Understanding the effects of weightlessness and reduced pressure on airway health allows us to solve future problems. This in turn will help space explorers monitor, diagnose and treat lung inflammation during spaceflight.

For now, data from the remaining astronaut participants are needed before definitive conclusions can be made. But, overall, researchers have a better understanding of the lungs that will go a long way towards developing better diagnostic tools for airway diseases in patients on Earth.

Related links:

International Space Station science reports:

International Space Station Benefits for Humanity:

Erasmus Space Exhibition Centre:

About research in space:
Human health:

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/NASA.

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jeudi 27 avril 2017

NASA Taking a Fresh Look at Next Generation Space Telescope Plans

NASA - Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) patch.

April 27, 2017

NASA is initiating an independent, external review over the next several months on the scope of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) project to help ensure it would provide compelling scientific capability with an appropriate, affordable cost and a reliable schedule.

“Developing large space missions is difficult,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is the right time for us to pause for an independent look at our plans to make sure we understand how long it will take, and how much it will cost, to build WFIRST.”

WFIRST is NASA’s next large space telescope under development, after the James Webb Space Telescope that is launching in 2018.

NASA has launched a series of large space telescopes over the past 27 years, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. In addition to being among the most productive science facilities ever built, all of these space telescopes share something else: They were all top recommendations of a National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

 Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST. Image Credit: NASA

WFIRST, the top priority of the most recent Decadal Survey in 2010, would be as sensitive as the Hubble Space Telescope, but have 100 times its field of view; every WFIRST image would be like 100 Hubble images. It also would feature a demonstration instrument capable of directly detecting the reflected light from planets orbiting stars beyond the sun. Using these capabilities, WFIRST would study the dark energy that is driving the accelerating expansion of the universe, complete the demographic survey of planets orbiting other stars, answer questions about how galaxies and groups of galaxies form, study the atmospheres and compositions of planets orbiting other stars, and address other general astrophysics questions.

Recently, the National Academies conducted a midterm assessment of NASA’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the 2010 Decadal Survey. The Midterm Assessment Report recognized the continued compelling science value of WFIRST, finding that, “WFIRST [is] an ambitious and powerful facility that will significantly advance the scientific program envisioned by [the Decadal Survey], from the atmospheres of planets around nearby stars to the physics of the accelerating universe.”

The agency initiated the WFIRST project in 2016, beginning the formulation phase of the mission. Recognizing that cost growth in the planned WFIRST project could impact the balance of projects and research investigations across NASA’s astrophysics portfolio, the Midterm Assessment Report recommended that prior to proceeding to the next phase of the WFIRST project, “NASA should commission an independent technical, management, and cost assessment of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, including a quantitative assessment of the incremental cost of the coronagraph.”

NASA conducted an analogous independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope, but conducted it later in its development lifetime. That review resulted in a replan of the Webb development project in 2011, and the Webb project has remained within the replan cost and schedule ever since.

“NASA is a learning organization,” said Zurbuchen. “We are applying lessons we learned from Webb on WFIRST. “By conducting this review now, we can define the best way forward for this mission and the astrophysics community at large, in accordance with the academy guidance.”

The review panel members will be senior engineers, scientists, and project managers mostly from outside NASA who are independent of the WFIRST project. NASA will begin the review process after filling the review panel membership during the next few weeks. The panel is expected to complete its review and submit a report outlining its findings and recommendations within approximately two months. NASA intends to incorporate these recommendations into its design and plans for WFIRST before proceeding with development of the mission.

WFIRST (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope):

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Sarah Loff.


Cassini Spacecraft Dives Between Saturn and Its Rings

NASA & ESA - Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn & Titan patch.

April 27, 2017

Cassini spacecraft is back in contact with Earth after its successful first-ever dive through the narrow gap between the planet Saturn and its rings on April 26, 2017. The spacecraft is in the process of beaming back science and engineering data collected during its passage, via NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert. The DSN acquired Cassini's signal at 11:56 p.m. PDT on April 26, 2017 (2:56 a.m. EDT on April 27) and data began flowing at 12:01 a.m. PDT (3:01 a.m. EDT) on April 27.

Cassini's First Dive Between Saturn and Its Rings

Video above: After the first-ever dive through the narrow gap between the planet Saturn and its rings, NASA's Cassini spacecraft called home to mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. See highlights from the scene at JPL on April 26-27, 2017, and some of the first raw images the spacecraft sent back from its closest-ever look at Saturn’s atmosphere. Vdeo Credit: JPL.

"In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare," said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn's cloud tops (where the air pressure is 1 bar -- comparable to the atmospheric pressure of Earth at sea level) and within about 200 miles (300 kilometers) of the innermost visible edge of the rings.

Image above: This unprocessed image shows features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before. The view was captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet on April 26, 2017. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

While mission managers were confident Cassini would pass through the gap successfully, they took extra precautions with this first dive, as the region had never been explored.

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn's other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape."

Image above: This unprocessed image shows features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before. The view was captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet on April 26, 2017. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

The gap between the rings and the top of Saturn's atmosphere is about 1,500 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide. The best models for the region suggested that if there were ring particles in the area where Cassini crossed the ring plane, they would be tiny, on the scale of smoke particles. The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 77,000 mph (124,000 kph) relative to the planet, so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft.

As a protective measure, the spacecraft used its large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna (13 feet or 4 meters across) as a shield, orienting it in the direction of oncoming ring particles. This meant that the spacecraft was out of contact with Earth during the ring-plane crossing, which took place at 2 a.m. PDT (5 a.m. EDT) on April 26. Cassini was programmed to collect science data while close to the planet and turn toward Earth to make contact about 20 hours after the crossing.

Cassini's next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.

Image above: This unprocessed image shows features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before. The view was captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet on April 26, 2017. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Launched in 1997, Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004. Following its last close flyby of the large moon Titan on April 21 PDT (April 22 EDT), Cassini began what mission planners are calling its "Grand Finale." During this final chapter, Cassini loops Saturn approximately once per week, making a total of 22 dives between the rings and the planet. Data from this first dive will help engineers understand if and how they will need to protect the spacecraft on its future ring-plane crossings. The spacecraft is on a trajectory that will eventually plunge into Saturn's atmosphere -- and end Cassini's mission -- on Sept. 15, 2017.

More information about Cassini's Grand Finale, including images and video, is available at:

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

More information about Cassini is at:

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Dwayne Brown/Laurie Cantillo/Tony Greicius/JPL/Preston Dyches.

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Cassini Captures Closest Images of Saturn's Atmosphere

NASA - Cassini Mission to Saturn patch.

April 27, 2017

This unprocessed image shows features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before. The view was captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet on April 26, 2017. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Cassini Grand Finale. Animation Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

Related articles:

Countdown to Cassini's Grand Finale

Cassini Completes Final -- and Fateful -- Titan Flyby

More information about the Cassini mission:

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Brian Dunbar.


Windblown Sand in Ganges Chasma

NASA - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) logo.

April 27, 2017

Dark, windblown sand covers intricate sedimentary rock layers in this image captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) from Ganges Chasma, a canyon in the Valles Marineris system.

These features are at once familiar and unusual to those familiar with Earth's beaches and deserts. Most sand dunes on Earth are made of silica-rich sand, giving them a light color; these Martian dunes owe their dark color to the iron and magnesium-rich sand found in the region.

The map is projected here at a scale of 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) per pixel. [The original image scale is 26.7 centimeters (10.5 inches) per pixel (with 1 x 1 binning); objects on the order of 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) across are resolved.] North is up.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO):

Image, Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.

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mercredi 26 avril 2017

First 4K Live Stream from Space and Eye Studies for Crew

ISS - Expedition 51 Mission patch.

April 26, 2017

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer live-streamed a broadcast from space today using 4K ultra-high-definition technology for the first time. The duo called down to the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas to demonstrate the advanced technology and promote space science and filmmaking.

Expedition 51 worked throughout Wednesday on a variety of microgravity research and spaceship unpacking. The five crew members also conducted vision checks while their newest pair continued getting up to speed on International Space Station systems.

French astronaut Pesquet joined Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy for ultrasound scans and eye exams in the morning. The two crewmates are participating in a study to understand and offset the headward fluid shifts in space that are known to affect vision.

Image above: NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer talk live to panelists at the National Association of Broadcasters using 4K ultra-high-defintion streaming technology for the first time. Image Credit: NASA.

Pesquet got together at the end of the day with Whitson and Jack Fischer for more eye checks with guidance from doctors on the ground. Whitson also studied how astronauts adapt to touchscreen interfaces. Fischer spent a few hours swapping sample cartridges in a high-temperature furnace lab facility.

4K UHD Television Downlinked from the Space Station in Ground-Breaking Demonstration

Veteran cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin continued offloading cargo from the new Soyuz MS-04 crew ship. Pesquet also transferred new science and crew supplies from the Cygnus resupply ship. Yurchikhin and Fischer are continuing to adapt to living and working aboard the station having been in space less than week.

Related links:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Animation (mentioned), Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

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NASA-funded Research Reveals Lull in the Formation Time of Mega Basins on Mars

NASA logo.

April 26, 2017

Since the earliest days of our solar system’s history, asteroid impacts have shaped the planets and contributed to their evolution.  New research funded by NASA shows that Mars experienced ten times fewer giant impacts than some previous estimates.

The ancient surfaces of Mars, like those on the moon and Mercury, are covered with the scars of asteroid impacts.  The largest and most ancient giant impact basin on Mars, called Borealis, is nearly 6,000 miles wide and encompasses most of the northern hemisphere of the Red Planet.  A smaller giant basin called Hellas is 1,200 miles wide and five miles deep.

Scientists Bill Bottke from the Southwest Research Institute, or SwRI, and Jeff Andrews-Hanna from the University of Arizona have been investigating the early bombardment history of Mars and the timing of giant impacts.  While past theories have suggested other reasons, the new findings indicate that the Borealis basin carved out the northern lowlands 4.5 billion years ago, followed by a lull of 400 million years during which no giant impacts occurred, culminating in a shower of impacts between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago during which four giant basins and countless smaller craters formed.

For a recently published paper in Nature Geoscience about the topic, Bottke and Andrews-Hanna collected data and ran models to support their findings that the rim of Borealis was excavated by only one later giant basin, called Isidis.

“This sets strong statistical limits on the number of giant basins that could have formed on Mars after Borealis”, said Bottke, principal investigator of the Institute for the Science of Exploring Targets, or ISET, team with NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute or SSERVI. “The number and timing of such giant impacts on early Mars has been debated, with estimates ranging from four to 30 giant basins formed in the time since Borealis.  Our work shows that the lower values are more likely.”

To fully understand the implications of this bombardment, the study also needed to constrain the timing of the impacts responsible for other giant basins, and compare their preservation state. The preservation state of the four youngest giant basins on Mars - Hellas, Isidis, Argyre, and the now-buried Utopia basins - are strikingly similar to the larger and older Borealis basin.  The similar preservation of both Borealis and these younger basins indicates that any basins formed during this time interval should be similarly preserved.

Image above: Mars bears the scars of five giant impacts, including the ancient giant Borealis basin (top of globe), Hellas (bottom right), and Argyre (bottom left). A NASA-funded team at SwRI discovered that Mars experienced a 400-million-year lull in impacts between the formation of Borealis and the younger basins. Image Credits: University of Arizona/LPL/Southwest Research Institute.

Previous studies used superposed smaller craters, resulting from the occurrence of impacts close enough together over time for newer craters to form atop older ones, to estimate that the ages of Hellas, Isidis, and Argyre were 3.8-4.1 billion years old. The ages of minerals found within Mars rocks that were blasted off the surface by impacts and came to Earth in the form of meteorites reveal the age of Borealis to be about 4.5 billion years old – nearly as old as Mars itself.

“The timing of these impacts requires two separate populations of objects striking Mars – one population that was part of the formation of the inner planets that died off early, and a second population striking the surface at a later time,” said Bottke. “We refer to the lull as the doldrums, which was then followed by a period of more intense bombardment commonly known as the Late Heavy Bombardment,” said Andrews-Hanna.

Bottke and Andrews-Hanna speculate that without giant impacts, release of gas from volcanoes may have built up a thicker atmosphere at this time, and the more stable surface conditions may have even been more hospitable to life.  Although much remains unknown about the earliest history of Mars, the results of the new study open a window into Mars’ tumultuous past.

The ISET is a research team managed by SSERVI. Located at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, SSERVI is funded by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, and manages national and international collaborative partnerships, designed to push the boundaries of science and exploration.

For more information about SSERVI and selected member teams, visit:

Nature Geoscience:

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Kimberly Williams.

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