Press Release

Kepler Mission, Mars Exploration, Highlight NASA Ames News in 2012

By SpaceRef Editor
December 18, 2012
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Kepler Mission, Mars Exploration, Highlight NASA Ames News in 2012

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – Continuing discoveries by the Kepler mission, Ames Research Center’s significant role in the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, the historic flyover by space shuttle Endeavour and observations by NASA’s airborne infrared observatory, SOFIA, were among the top news stories in 2012 for Ames.

“This has been a great year for NASA Ames,” said Center Director S. Pete Worden. “From the continuing discoveries by the Kepler mission, our key contributions to the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, and observations by SOFIA, our airborne infrared observatory, Ames remains at the forefront of exploration. In 2013, we will continue these exciting missions and contribute cutting-edge research and innovation to support NASA.”

NASA’s Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets, Discovers New Double-Star Planet Systems, Confirms 11 Planetary Systems Host 26 Planets, Detects Multiple Planets Orbiting a Pair of Stars and Receives Four-Year Mission Extension

In January, astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler mission announced they discovered the three smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our sun. The smallest is about the size of Mars. All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth. The planets orbit close to their star, called KOI-961. That makes them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist on the surface of a planet.

Also in January, Kepler mission astronomers shared the discovery of two new double-star planet systems. The two planets, named Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b, are both gaseous Saturn-size planets. Kepler-34b orbits its two sun-like stars every 289 days, and the stars orbit one another every 28 days. Kepler-35b orbits its smaller and cooler host stars every 131 days, and the stellar pair orbit each other every 21 days. At 4,900 and 5,400 light-years from Earth, located in the constellation Cygnus, Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b are among the most distant planets discovered.

Late in January, Kepler mission scientists unveiled 11 new planetary systems hosting 26 confirmed planets. These discoveries nearly doubled the total verified planets and tripled the number of stars known to have more than one planet pass in front of the star. Such systems help astronomers understand how planets form. The planets orbit close to their host stars and range in size from 1.5 times the radius of Earth to larger than Jupiter. Further observations are required to determine which are rocky like Earth and which have thick gaseous atmospheres like Neptune.

In April, NASA announced the approval of the Kepler mission extension through fiscal year 2016 based on a recommendation from the Agency’s Senior Review of its operating missions. The extension provides four additional years to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone around sun-like stars in our galaxy.

NASA’s Kepler mission announced in August it discovered the first multiple transiting planets orbiting two suns. The Kepler-47 system is 4,900 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The discovery further proves more than one planet can form and persist in the stressful environment of a binary stars and demonstrates the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy. The two planets in the system orbit a pair of stars that eclipse each other every 7.5 days from our vantage point on Earth. One star is similar to the sun in size, but only 84 percent as bright. The second star is diminutive, measuring only one-third the size of the sun and less than one percent as bright.

NASA’s Airborne Infrared Observatory Captures Images of Stars in Various Stages of Their Birth Process, Selects Educators to Fly Aboard Observatory, Captures Images of the Planetary Nebula M2-9, Embarks on a New Cycle of Science Observations

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) began the year by capturing new images of a recently born cluster of massive stars named W3A. The cluster is seen lurking in the depths of the large gas and dust cloud from which it formed. Astronomers using SOFIA aim to better understand the effects the largest stars in the cloud have on their smaller siblings and on the cycle of star birth. The SOFIA observations reveal the presence of approximately 15 massive stars in various stages of their birth process.

In January, the program selected 26 U.S. educators to fly onboard SOFIA research flights. As participants in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, the educators will partner with professional astronomers using SOFIA for scientific observations in 2012 and 2013. SOFIA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program is a yearly professional development opportunity extended to educators through a competitive, peer-reviewed process.

In March, SOFIA announced they captured infrared images of the last exhalations of a dying sun-like star. The object observed by SOFIA using the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument, planetary nebula Minkowski 2-9, or M2-9 for short, was made at the mid-infrared wavelengths of 20, 24, and 37 microns. The 37-micron wavelength band detects the strongest emissions from the nebula and is impossible to observe from ground-based telescopes. SOFIA was scheduled to begin its first full cycle of science flights in late 2012 that extend through December 2013. SOFIA’s first airborne science observations were made in December 2010. The observing period announced in August of this year, known as Cycle 1, includes 46 science flights grouped in four multi-week observing campaigns spread over 13-months.

A joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center DLR, SOFIA is a highly-modified Boeing 747SP jetliner that carries a 100-inch diameter reflecting telescope above Earth’s atmospheric water vapor layer allowing researchers a better view of a wide range of astronomical phenomena.…

NASA’s LADEE Spacecraft Gets Final Science Instrument Installed

In October, engineers at Ames installed the third and final science instrument that will fly onboard NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). LADEE is a robotic mission that will orbit the moon to gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust. In addition to LADEE’s science instruments, a technology demonstration also will fly onboard. The science instruments include the Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer (UVS), which will examine the composition of the lunar atmosphere by analyzing light signatures of materials it finds; the Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS), set to measure variations in the lunar atmosphere over multiple lunar orbits with the moon in different space environments and the Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX), which will collect and analyze samples of any lunar dust particles in the tenuous atmosphere. The technology demonstration payload is called the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, and will enable the LADEE spacecraft to use lasers instead of radio waves to achieve broadband speeds to communicate with Earth.

NASA’s Ultragreen Building Awarded LEED Platinum Certification

The U.S. Green Building Council in April awarded the new ultragreen federal facility, dubbed Sustainability Base, located at Ames, the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, LEED Platinum. Unlike any other government building ever constructed, this new facility’s performance includes repurposed NASA aerospace technologies. Highly intelligent, even intuitive, this building is designed to optimize its performance automatically, in real time, and in response to internal and external changes. This 50,000 square-foot, lunar-shaped building will know exactly how much energy each occupant uses and can adapt to weather, season and occupancy. It incorporates surrounding elements into its design, has outdoor workspaces, pleasing views of nature, natural shading and natural daylight, fresh air and its interior is made from non-toxic materials. It is simultaneously a workplace, a showcase for NASA technologies and a living prototype for buildings of the future. Sustainability Base was awarded LEED platinum certification because it received more than 80 out of 100 points across five major categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, plus additional points for innovation in design and regional priority. The building was named to honor the first humans to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 Mission; the landing site was named Tranquility Base.

NASA Lunar Scientists Shed Light on Moon’s Impact History and Develop New Theory on Earth and Moon Formation

A team of researchers from the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) at Ames discovered debris that caused a “lunar cataclysm” on the moon four billion years ago struck it at much higher speeds than those that made the most ancient craters. Scientists found evidence supporting this scenario by examining the history of crater formation on the moon.

Researchers funded by the NLSI, hypothesize that our early Earth and moon were both created together in a giant collision of two planetary bodies that were each five times the size of Mars. This new hypothesis about how Earth’s moon formed challenges the commonly believed “giant impact hypothesis,” which suggests Earth’s moon formed from a colossal impact of a hypothetical planetary embryo, named Theia, with Earth, early in our Solar System’s history.

NASA Ames Contributes Science Instruments to Mars Science Laboratory

Ames scientists and engineers contributed to several instruments onboard NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that safely arrived at Mars in August 2012. Curiosity has 10 science instruments, including the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin), an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument developed at Ames to identify and quantify the minerals in rocks and soils, and measure bulk composition. All of the science instruments on Curiosity utilize Mars Science Laboratory InterfaCE (MSLICE), a software tool whose planning and scheduling software was designed and developed at Ames to plan the actions of the Mars rover. Ames also played a key role in preparing MSL for its entry into the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The MSL spacecraft was protected by a unique thermal protection system consisting of tiles made of phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) material invented at Ames. Embedded in the MSL spacecraft’s heat shield was a set of sensors named MSL Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) Suite designed to measure atmospheric conditions and performance of the heat shield. Ames engineers designed and built the thermal sensing plugs for MEDLI, designed and performed the qualification and certification testing of the spacecraft’s thermal protection system.

NASA Announces Aeronautics Research Institute

Ames is host to a virtual institute that solicits and fosters innovative ideas to address technological challenges facing aviation and the U.S. Air transportation system today and in the future. Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research in Washington, and Ames Director S. Pete Worden signed an agreement in March to establish the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute (NARI). NARI is comprised of multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary research teams creating new tools and technologies for reducing air traffic congestion and environmental impacts, improving safety and designing aircraft with unconventional capabilities. One goal of the institute is to stimulate collaboration between technical disciplines and among NASA, academic institutions, and other government and industry organizations dedicated to aeronautics research. With $10 million per year to distribute for early stage concepts, the institute will complement NASA’s existing research programs. As a virtual institute, NARI will facilitate technical exchanges, solicit research proposals, award research grants and use advanced communication technologies such as Web-based seminars to disseminate research findings.

NASA, JAXA Sends Small Satellite into Space from Space Station

Engineers and student interns at Ames supported and witnessed what may be the most thrilling ride a nanosatellite has ever taken. In October, for the first time, a small cubesat – a satellite weighing less than two pounds, housed in a 10 cm cube – was one of five to jettison into orbit around Earth from the International Space Station. The pioneering satellite, dubbed TechEdSat, is a collaboration among Ames; San Jose State University; the Swedish National Space Board via AAC Microtec, Uppsala, Sweden; and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Californians Share the Excitement of Venus Transit, Shuttle Flyover, Mars Landing at Ames

Approximately 6,000 astronomy enthusiasts of all ages gathered at Ames to view Venus cross in front of, or transit, the sun. People from all around the Bay Area were drawn to Ames for its unique educational and viewing opportunities pertaining to the rare celestial event that took place on June 5, 2012, and will not occur again until December 2117. Videos on the history of Venus and its major contributors, including 17th century German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler, were featured in the programming. Kepler’s role as the first person to predict the Venus transit made the event especially significant at Ames because the center’s Kepler Mission is named after him.

Thousands of space enthusiasts from the San Francisco Bay Area observed the space shuttle Endeavour’s historic fly over Moffett Field on Friday, Sept. 21. Participants were treated to a low altitude flyover and a program to celebrate Ames’ numerous contributions to NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. Mounted, atop its 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), the orbiter flew over northern California and a large area of the Los Angeles basin enroute to the California Science Center. The event program began with a welcome from Ames Center Director S. Pete Worden. Other presentations highlighted Ames’ work on the space shuttle, including heat shield and wind tunnel testing, shuttle astronaut training, computational modeling and more. Ames’ subject matter experts, including a former shuttle astronaut, mingled with the crowd and were available to answer questions about the shuttle and the significant role Ames played in the program.

In August, nearly 7,000 people witnessed the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the Curiosity rover land on Mars. The center celebrated the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars with a variety of activities including pre- and post-landing live televised broadcasts of NASA news briefings featuring local Mars experts and the first ever multi-center NASA Social to highlight Ames’ role in the mission using social media. NASA Socials are in-person meetings with people who engage with the agency through Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other social networks.

NASA Collaborates with the Public to Learn More about Rare Meteors

NASA and the SETI Institute worked with the public to obtain information, photos and video footage of the daylight meteor that illuminated the sky over the Sierra Nevada mountains and created sonic booms were heard over a wide area at 7:51 a.m. PDT Sunday, April 22, 2012. This information helped scientists locate the places along the meteor path where fragments had fallen to the ground.

NASA and the SETI Institute also worked with the public to check video security camera footage around 7:44 p.m. PDT Oct. 17, 2012, in the hope it recorded the meteor that illuminated the sky over the Bay Area and created sonic booms. That video may help researchers study how the meteor broke during descent. The fireball was filmed by two stations of NASA’s Cameras for All-sky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS) project, located in Sunnyvale and at the San Mateo College Observatory. The calculated trajectory shows that meteorites may have fallen just north of San Pablo Bay, along a band stretching east of San Rafael towards Sonoma and Napa, a mostly agricultural area.

Other 2012 Ames highlights include:

NASA Ames Receives NASA Government Invention of the Year Award

Ames received the award for developing Toughened Uni-piece Fibrous Reinforced Oxidation-Resistant Composite (TUFROC), a low-cost, lightweight, two-piece, thermal protection system (TPS) for use on space vehicles during atmospheric re-entry at hypersonic speed. TUFROC, a patented technology invented by David A. Stewart and Daniel B. Leiser of Ames, has been successfully demonstrated on the X-37B Reusable Launch Vehicle. The technology consists of a high temperature, impregnated carbonaceous cap mechanically attached to a lightweight fibrous silica-base material. The key innovations enable the integration of the surface treated carbon cap with the silica base insulation, which otherwise would fail from mechanical, chemical or thermal factors. TUFROC is the first lightweight, low cost, flight proven, reusable TPS with sustained operational capabilities at temperatures above 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA’s Phonesat Wins 2012 Popular Science Best of What’s New Award

NASA’s PhoneSat project won Popular Science’s 2012 Best of What’s New Award for innovation in aerospace. PhoneSat will demonstrate the ability to launch one of the lowest-cost, easiest-to-build satellites ever flown in space — capabilities enabled by using off-the-shelf consumer smartphones. Each year, Popular Science reviews thousands of new products and innovations, and chooses the top 100 winners across 12 categories for its annual Best of What’s New issue. To win, a product or technology must represent a significant step forward in its category. All of the winners are featured in the magazine’s special December issue.

NASA App Shares Agency’s 2012 Software Award, PC Magazine Honors App as Editors’ Choice

NASA’s first mobile application was co-winner of NASA’s 2012 Software of the Year Award. The award recognizes innovative software technologies that significantly improve the agency’s exploration of space and maximize scientific discovery on Earth. Software engineers at Ames developed the NASA App for mobile platforms including the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Android phones and tablets. The NASA App currently has more than 9.6 million user installations and receives more than three million hits per day on average. The NASA App gathers the agency’s online content, breaking news, image and video collections, news and image feeds, social media accounts, and more in one easy-to-use location that aids public access to science, technology and engineering discoveries. The app’s creators are program manager Jerry Colen, software engineer John Freitas and new media specialist Charles Du. and

NASA Launches New App For Android, Releases New Sounds

In addition to the NASA App for iPhone and iPad, NASA launched the free NASA App for Android (TM), a new application designed for mobile devices that runs the open source Android platform. NASA Ames also announced that historic and interesting sounds and sound bites from NASA space missions are available for download as ringtones or on your computer for events, errors, alarms and notifications. The public now can hear the roar of a space shuttle launch or Neil Armstrong’s, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” with each incoming call. A new NASA web page now has a collection of more than 35 different sounds, each approximately 20 seconds. and

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SpaceRef staff editor.