NASA in 2010 set a new course for human spaceflight, helped rewrite science textbooks, redefined our understanding of Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor, put the finishing touches on one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels, made major contributions to life on Earth, and turned its sights toward the next era of exploration.
“This year, NASA’s work made headlines around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “More importantly, it enlarged our understanding of the universe and our home planet, inspired people, and opened new frontiers for our dreams and aspirations.”
“NASA achievements this year across the spectrum — from science, to aeronautics, education and human spaceflight – provided incredible value to our nation,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. “We continue to build upon our rich history, taking on new challenges and doing the things that no one else can do — all for the benefit of humanity.”
The following are some of NASA’s top stories for the past calendar year:
From a NASA Cassini/Huygens Mission page:
Ten years ago, on Dec. 30, 2000, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made its closest approach to Jupiter on its way to orbiting Saturn. The main purpose was to use the gravity of the largest planet in our solar system to slingshot Cassini towards Saturn, its ultimate destination. But the encounter with Jupiter, Saturn’s gas-giant big brother, also gave the Cassini project a perfect lab for testing its instruments and evaluating its operations plans for its tour of the ringed planet, which began in 2004.“The Jupiter flyby allowed the Cassini spacecraft to stretch its wings, rehearsing for its prime time show, orbiting Saturn,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Ten years later, findings from the Jupiter flyby still continue to shape our understanding of similar processes in the Saturn system.”
Cassini spent about six months – from October 2000 to March 2001 – exploring the Jupiter system. The closest approach brought Cassini to within about 9.7 million kilometers (6 million miles) of Jupiter’s cloud tops at 2:05 a.m. Pacific Time, or 10:05 a.m. UTC, on Dec. 30, 2000.
Cassini captured some 26,000 images of Jupiter and its moons over six months of continual viewing, creating the most detailed global portrait of Jupiter yet. While Cassini’s images of Jupiter did not have higher resolution than the best from NASA’s Voyager mission during its two 1979 flybys, Cassini’s cameras had a wider color spectrum than those aboard Voyager, capturing wavelengths of radiation that could probe different heights in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The images enabled scientists to watch convective lightning storms evolve over time and helped them understand the heights and composition of these storms and the many clouds, hazes and other types of storms that blanket Jupiter.
Today’s NASA Image of the Day shows a stunning display of light from the cities of Beijing and Tianjin, China. Both cities are located in the northern part of the country near the Bohai Gulf. The United Nations estimated 2010 population for the Beijing metropolitan area is approximately 12 million, with the population of the Tianjin metropolitan area estimated to be over 7 million.
Taken at night time by the Expedition 26 crew, the image dramatically illustrates the extent of both metropolitan areas. The smaller city of Langfang, located midway between Beijing and Tianjin, also is clearly visible, as are several other smaller developed areas to the northeast. The dark regions surrounding the well-lit urban areas are mainly agricultural fields, with wheat and corn being the major crops. Beijing is one of the recognized ancient capital cities–and the current capital–of the Peopleâ€™s Republic of China. The regular grid pattern of the city is clearly visible at lower upper right; concentric rings of major roadways around the city center have been added as the metropolitan area has expanded. Tianjin is a major trade center with connection to seaports on the Bohai Gulf. The city was established following the integration of the Grand Canal of China, a major artificial waterway extending from Beijing southwards to Hangzhou.
Earth is 93 million miles from the sun. When Venus is on the opposite side of the
sun from Earth, it’s about 69 million from the sun. What’s the distance from Earth to Venus?
Great question Yolanda!
At first glance, it would seem the answer is 24 million miles at the closest, and 162 million at the most distant, however, all planets have elliptical orbits, and as such, the numbers often quoted for orbits are “average”, which would make the orbits an idealized circular orbit. In reality, these numbers vary from between 25.4 million miles and 23.7 million miles at closest approach to Earth.
One of the reasons Venus is such a bright “star” is it is our closest planetary neighbor in the solar system, closer to us than even Mars. You can even see Venus in broad daylight if you have good eyesight and clear skies. In the example image below, you can see the lines denoting the orbits of planets in the inner solar system.
If you look closely, you’ll see that Earth and Venus are just past being at their closest to each other. Earlier this year, Venus was at it’s brightest, however, even through a telescope, you would have only seen a very large “crescent”, as Venus displays “phases”, in a similar manner to our Moon. You can read more about this phenomenon at this UCLA page: http://www.physics.ucla.edu/~huffman/venus.htm
From the NASA MER page:
America’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, carefully guided by researchers with an artistic sense, has recorded images used in the simulated movies. These holiday treats from the rover’s panoramic camera, or Pancam, offer travel fans a view akin to standing on Mars and watching the sky.
“These visualizations of an alien sunset show what it must have looked like for Opportunity, in a way we rarely get to see, with motion,” said rover science team member Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station. Dust particles make the Martian sky appear reddish and create a bluish glow around the sun.
Lemmon worked with Pancam Lead Scientist Jim Bell, of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., to plot the shots and make the moving-picture simulation from images taken several seconds apart in both sequences.
The sunset movie, combining exposures taken Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, 2010, through different camera filters, accelerates about 17 minutes of sunset into a 30-second simulation. One of the filters is specifically used to look at the sun. Two other filters used for these shots provide color information. The rover team has taken Pancam images of sunsets on several previous occasions, gaining scientifically valuable information about the variability of dust in the lower atmosphere. The new clip is the longest sunset movie from Mars ever produced, taking advantage of adequate solar energy currently available to Opportunity. Lemmon worked with Pancam Lead Scientist Jim Bell, of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., to plot the shots and make the moving-picture simulation from images taken several seconds apart in both sequences.
The sunset movie, combining exposures taken Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, 2010, through different camera filters, accelerates about 17 minutes of sunset into a 30-second simulation. One of the filters is specifically used to look at the sun. Two other filters used for these shots provide color information. The rover team has taken Pancam images of sunsets on several previous occasions, gaining scientifically valuable information about the variability of dust in the lower atmosphere. The new clip is the longest sunset movie from Mars ever produced, taking advantage of adequate solar energy currently available to Opportunity.
With the Shuttle program winding down, all eyes are on the program’s last few flights, especially the latest developments with Discovery’s external tank testing. From the NASA shuttle status page:
Technicians in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are taking Friday and Saturday off for the holiday after removing foam insulation and test sensors from space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank.
Beginning Sunday, Dec. 26, crews start a weekâ€™s worth of additional x-ray type image scans of all 108 support beams, called stringers, on the outside of external tankâ€™s intertank section. While additional scans are under way, engineers at various other NASA locations continue data analysis to help determine what caused small cracks on the tops of two stringers during Discoveryâ€™s launch countdown on Nov. 5.
On Dec. 21, Space Shuttle Program managers decided to protect the option of performing known and practiced modifications on some of the stringers, if testing and analysis indicates that it is necessary. Managers are expected to decide whether modifications are needed on Dec. 30.