NASA News: NASA Spacecraft Revealing More Details About Planet Mercury

WASHINGTON -- NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft, the first to achieve orbit
around Mercury, is providing scientists new information about the
planet. The data show widespread flood volcanism similar to Earth,
clearer views of Mercury's surface, the first measurements of its
elemental composition, and details about charged particles near the planet.

MESSENGER, or the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry,
and Ranging spacecraft, conducted 15 laps through the inner solar
system for more than six years before achieving the historic orbit
insertion March 18. The new results are reported in seven papers
published in Science magazine.

"MESSENGER's instruments are capturing data that can be obtained only
from orbit," says principal investigator Sean Solomon, of the
Carnegie Institution of Washington. "Mercury has many more surprises
in store for us as our mission progresses."

Scientists for decades had puzzled over whether Mercury had volcanic
deposits on its surface. New data show a huge expanse of volcanic
plains surrounding the planet's north polar region. These continuous
smooth plains cover more than six percent of the planet's total
surface. The deposits appear typical of flood lavas, or huge volumes
of solidified molten rock similar to those found in the northwest United States.

"If you imagine standing at the base of the Washington Monument, the
top of the lavas would be something like 12 Washington Monuments
above you," said James Head of Brown University, the lead author of
one of the papers.

Scientists also have discovered vents or openings measuring up to 16
miles (25 kilometers) across that appear to be the source of some of
the large volume of very hot lava that has rushed across Mercury's
surface carving valleys and creating teardrop-shaped ridges in the
underlying terrain.

New images reveal landforms on Mercury suggesting a previously
unrecognized geological process. Images of bright areas appear to be
small, shallow, irregularly shaped depressions. The science team
adopted the term "hollows" for these features to distinguish them
from other types of pits seen on Mercury. Hollows have been found
over a wide range of latitudes and longitudes, suggesting that they
are fairly common across Mercury.

"Analysis of the images and estimates of the rate at which the hollows
may be growing led to the conclusion that they could be actively
forming today," says David Blewett of the Johns Hopkins University
Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., lead author of one
of the reports.

Scientists also now have observations of the chemical composition of
Mercury's surface. The information is being used to test models of
Mercury's formation and further study the relationship between the
planet's tenuous atmosphere and surface makeup. Chemical measurements
reveal a higher abundance of potassium than previously predicted.

"These measurements indicate Mercury has a chemical composition more
similar to those of Venus, Earth, and Mars than expected," says APL's
Patrick Peplowski, lead author of one of the papers.

MESSENGER also has collected the first global observations of plasma
ions-- mostly sodium -- in Mercury's magnetosphere, the volume of
space near the planet dominated by Mercury's magnetic field. These
results reveal that Mercury's weak magnetosphere provides the planet
very little protection from the gusty solar wind, resulting is a very
hostile surface environment with extremes in space weather.

"We were able to observe the formation process of these ions, and it's
comparable to the manner by which auroras are generated in the
Earth's atmosphere near polar regions," said Thomas Zurbuchen of the
University of Michigan and lead author of one of the reports.

MESSENGER was designed and built by APL. The lab manages and operates
the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in
Washington. The mission is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed
for SMD by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

For more information about the mission visit:



NASA Selects Science Investigations For Concept Studies

WASHINGTON -- NASA has selected 11 science proposals for evaluation as
potential future science missions. The proposals outline prospective
missions to study the Earth's atmosphere, the sun, the Milky Way
galaxy, and Earth-like planets around nearby stars.

The selections were made from responses to Announcements of
Opportunity for Explorer Missions and Explorer Missions of
Opportunity released by the agency last November. The proposals were
judged to have the best science value and feasible development plans.

"NASA continues to seek opportunities to push the cutting edge of
science," said Paul Hertz, chief scientist for NASA's Science Mission
Directorate, Washington. "Innovative proposals like these will help
us better understand our solar system and the universe."

Five Explorer Mission proposals were selected from 22 submitted in
February. Each team will receive $1 million to conduct an 11-month
mission concept study. Mission costs are capped at $200 million each,
excluding the launch vehicle. In addition, one Explorer Mission
proposal was selected for technology development and will receive
$600,000. Five Mission of Opportunity proposals were selected from 20
submissions. Each will receive $250,000 to conduct an 11-month
implementation concept study. Mission costs are capped at $55 million each.

Following the detailed mission concept studies, NASA plans to select
up to two of the Explorer Mission proposals and one or more of the
five Mission of Opportunity proposals in February 2013. The missions
would then proceed toward flight and some could launch by 2016.

The selected Explorer Mission proposals are:

-Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) Thomas Immel, Principal
Investigator (PI), University of California, Berkeley -- The mission
would fly instruments to understand the extreme variability in our
Earth's ionosphere, which can interfere with communications and
geopositioning signals.

-Fast INfrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer (FINESSE) Mark
Swain, PI, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California -- This
proposal would use a space telescope to survey more than 200 planets
around other stars. This would be the first mission dedicated to
finding out what comprises exoplanet atmospheres, what conditions or
processes are responsible for their composition, and how our solar
system fits into the larger family of planets.

-Observatory for Heteroscale Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (OHMIC)
James Burch, PI, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, Texas --
The mission would use a pair of spacecraft flying in formation to
study the processes that provide energy to power space weather
storms. These storms create auroras and other electromagnetic
activity that can impact orbiting spacecraft operations.

-Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) George Ricker, PI,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. -- Using an
array of telescopes, TESS would perform an all-sky survey to discover
transiting exoplanets, ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, in
orbit around the nearest and brightest stars in the sky. The
mission's primary goal would be to identify terrestrial planets in
the habitable zones of nearby stars.

-Atmosphere-Space Transition Region Explorer (ASTRE) Robert Pfaff Jr.,
PI, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. -- The mission
would study the interaction between the Earth's atmosphere and the
ionized gases of space. By flying excursions deep into the Earth's
upper atmosphere, its measurements would improve satellite drag
models and show how space-induced currents in electric power grids
originate and evolve with time.

The selected Explorer Mission of Opportunity proposals are:

-Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) Richard Eastes,
PI, University of Central Florida, Orlando -- This would involve an
imaging instrument that would fly on a commercial communications
satellite in geostationary orbit to image the Earth's thermosphere
and ionosphere.

-Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER) Keith Gendreau,
PI, Goddard -- This mission would place an X ray timing instrument on
the International Space Station (ISS) to explore the exotic states of
matter within neutron stars and reveal their interior and surface compositions.

-Coronal Physics Investigator (CPI) John Kohl, PI, Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, Mass. -- A solar telescope
would be mounted on the ISS to investigate the processes that produce
the sun's fast and slow solar wind.

-Gal/Xgal U/LDB Spectroscopic/Stratospheric THz Observatory (GUSSTO)
Christopher Walker, PI, University of Arizona, Tucson -- This mission
would launch a high altitude balloon with a one-meter telescope to
provide a comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of our
Milky Way galaxy and one of our galaxy's companion galaxies, the
Large Magellanic Cloud.

-Ion Mass Spectrum Analyzer for SCOPE (IMSA), Lynn Kistler PI,
University of New Hampshire, Durham -- This partner mission of
opportunity would provide a composition instrument to the Japanese
cross-Scale Coupling in the Plasma universE (SCOPE) mission. SCOPE
will study fundamental space plasma processes including particle
acceleration, magnetic reconnection, and plasma turbulence.
The proposal selected for technology development funding is:

-The Exoplanetary Circumstellar Environments and Disk Explorer
(EXCEDE), Glenn Schneider, PI, University of Arizona, Tucson -- The
technology development effort will enable studies of the formation,
evolution, and architectures of exoplanetary systems through direct imaging.

The Explorer program is the oldest continuous program at NASA. It is
designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using PI-led
space science investigations relevant to the agency's astrophysics
and heliophysics programs. Initiated with the Explorer 1 launch in
1958 that discovered the Earth's radiation belts and including the
Cosmic Background Explorer mission that led to Nobel prizes for their
investigators, the Explorer program has launched more than 90
missions. It is managed by Goddard for NASA's Science Mission
Directorate in Washington.

For more information about the Explorer program, visit:



NASA, Aerospace Business Leaders Discuss Space Launch System -- Next U.S. Heavy Lift Spacecraft -- At Industry Day Event

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- NASA leaders met Thursday to discuss acquisition
plans for the agency's new heavy-lift rocket with hundreds of
representatives of aerospace industry companies, small businesses and
independent entrepreneurs. The rocket, known as the Space Launch
System (SLS), will take astronauts farther into space than ever
before, create high-quality jobs here at home, and provide the
cornerstone for America's future human space exploration efforts.

The Industry Day event, hosted by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
in Huntsville, Ala., provided industry representatives with an
overview of the SLS Program and defined its near-term business
requirements, including details of NASA's acquisition strategy for
procurement of critical hardware, systems and vehicle elements.
Marshall is leading design and development of the Space Launch System
for NASA.

"This is a milestone moment for NASA, for our industry partners and
for our economy," NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told the
group. "We at NASA have worked hard the past year to analyze and
select our Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and space launch systems designs."

Garver said, "The SLS heavy-lift rocket will take American astronauts
farther into space than any human has ever gone before. It will
expand our knowledge of the universe, reap benefits to improve life
on Earth, inspire millions around the world and create good jobs
right here at home."

"We're proud to be where we are today," said Marshall Center Director
Robert Lightfoot. "We've done the due diligence necessary to get to
this point -- thousands of configuration trades and studies -- and
now it's time for us to start working on the hardware."

The event was held during Marshall's quarterly Small Business Alliance
Meeting at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, part of
Huntsville's U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

NASA announced plans for the development of the SLS in September. It
will carry NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, cargo, equipment
and science experiments to space -- providing a safe, affordable and
sustainable means of reaching the moon, asteroids and other
destinations in the solar system.

The planned vehicle will be the most powerful ever developed, evolving
to a 130-metric-ton rocket built around a core stage, which will
share common design, supplier base, avionics and advanced
manufacturing techniques with the upper stage. It will use a liquid
hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system, relying on the space
shuttle's RS-25 engine for the core stage and the J-2X engine for the
upper stage. Dual, five-segment solid rocket boosters mounted to the
sides of the tank will provide additional power. The design of the
dual boosters on later flights will be determined through competition
based on cost, performance and interface requirements.

The Space Launch System builds on the legacies of the Saturn rocket,
space shuttle and Ares development efforts. It will take advantage of
proven hardware and cutting-edge tooling and manufacturing
technologies to significantly reduce development and operations
costs. This strategy will help NASA maintain the development pace
necessary to launch the first, full-scale test flight by late 2017.

For more information about SLS, visit:


For more information about NASA and agency programs, visit:



NASA Space Telescope Finds Fewer Asteroids Near Earth

WASHINGTON -- New observations by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey
Explorer, or WISE, show there are significantly fewer near-Earth
asteroids in the mid-size range than previously thought. The findings
also indicate NASA has found more than 90 percent of the largest
near-Earth asteroids, meeting a goal agreed to with Congress in 1998.

Astronomers now estimate there are roughly 19,500 -- not 35,000 --
mid-size near-Earth asteroids. Scientists say this improved
understanding of the population may indicate the hazard to Earth
could be somewhat less than previously thought. However, the majority
of these mid-size asteroids remain to be discovered. More research
also is needed to determine if fewer mid-size objects (between 330
and 3,300-feet wide) also mean fewer potentially hazardous asteroids,
those that come closest to Earth.

The results come from the most accurate census to date of near-Earth
asteroids, the space rocks that orbit within 120 million miles (195
million kilometers) of the sun into Earth's orbital vicinity. WISE
observed infrared light from those in the middle to large-size
category. The survey project, called NEOWISE, is the asteroid-hunting
portion of the WISE mission. Study results appear in the
Astrophysical Journal.

"NEOWISE allowed us to take a look at a more representative slice of
the near-Earth asteroid numbers and make better estimates about the
whole population," said Amy Mainzer, lead author of the new study and
principal investigator for the NEOWISE project at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "It's like a
population census, where you poll a small group of people to draw
conclusions about the entire country."

WISE scanned the entire celestial sky twice in infrared light between
January 2010 and February 2011, continuously snapping pictures of
everything from distant galaxies to near-Earth asteroids and comets.
NEOWISE observed more than 100 thousand asteroids in the main belt
between Mars and Jupiter, in addition to at least 585 near Earth.

WISE captured a more accurate sample of the asteroid population than
previous visible-light surveys because its infrared detectors could
see both dark and light objects. It is difficult for visible-light
telescopes to see the dim amounts of visible-light reflected by dark
asteroids. Infrared-sensing telescopes detect an object's heat, which
is dependent on size and not reflective properties.

Though the WISE data reveal only a small decline in the estimated
numbers for the largest near-Earth asteroids, which are 3,300 feet (1
kilometer) and larger, they show 93 percent of the estimated
population have been found. This fulfills the initial "Spaceguard"
goal agreed to with Congress. These large asteroids are about the
size of a small mountain and would have global consequences if they
were to strike Earth. The new data revise their total numbers from
about 1,000 down to 981, of which 911 already have been found. None
of them represents a threat to Earth in the next few centuries. It is
believed that all near-Earth asteroids approximately 6 miles (10
kilometers) across, as big as the one thought to have wiped out the
dinosaurs, have been found.

"The risk of a really large asteroid impacting the Earth before we
could find and warn of it has been substantially reduced," said Tim
Spahr, the director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard
Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

The situation is different for the mid-size asteroids, which could
destroy a metropolitan area if they were to impact in the wrong
place. The NEOWISE results find a larger decline in the estimated
population for these bodies than what was observed for the largest
asteroids. So far, the Spaceguard effort has found and is tracking
more than 5,200 near-Earth asteroids 330 feet or larger, leaving more
than an estimated 15,000 still to discover. In addition, scientists
estimate there are more than a million unknown smaller near-Earth
asteroids that could cause damage if they were to impact Earth.

"NEOWISE was just the latest asset NASA has used to find Earth's
nearest neighbors," said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the
Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in
Washington. "The results complement ground-based observer efforts
over the past 12 years. These observers continue to track these
objects and find even more."

WISE is managed and operated by JPL for NASA's Science Mission
Directorate in Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright,
is at the University of California, Los Angeles. The WISE science
instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah,
and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.
in Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing occur at the
Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology.

For more information about the mission, visit:



150 Of NASA's Twitter Followers Will Be Invited To Mars Rover Launch

WASHINGTON -- NASA will host a two-day launch Tweetup for 150 of its
Twitter followers on Nov. 23 and 25 at the agency's Kennedy Space
Center in Florida. The Tweetup is expected to culminate in the launch
of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover aboard an Atlas V 541
from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch window opens at
10:21 a.m. EST on Nov. 25.

The Tweetup will provide NASA's social media followers with the
opportunity to tour Kennedy Space Center; speak with scientists and
engineers; and, if all goes as scheduled, view the spacecraft launch.
The event also will provide participants the opportunity to meet
fellow tweeps and members of NASA's social media team.

Curiosity's arrival at the Red Planet is anticipated in August 2012 at
Gale crater. During the two-year prime mission, the rover will
investigate whether a selected area of Mars offered environmental
conditions favorable for microbial life and for preserving evidence
about life if it existed.

Mars Science Laboratory is the fourth space mission launching this
year managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.,
making 2011 one of the busiest ever in planetary exploration.
Aquarius launched June 10 to study ocean salinity; Juno launched Aug.
5 to study the origins and interior of Jupiter; and the twin GRAIL
orbiters departed for the moon on Sept. 10.

Tweetup registration opens at noon on Wed, Oct. 5, and closes at noon
on Fri., Oct. 7. NASA will randomly select 150 participants from
online registrations.

For more information and rules about the Tweetup and registration, visit:


For information about connecting and collaborating with NASA, visit:


For information about the mission, visit:





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