NASA’s Chandra Detects Record-Breaking Outburst from Milky Way’s Black Hole

Astronomers have observed the largest X-ray flare ever detected from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. This event, detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, raises questions about the behavior of this giant black hole and its surrounding environment.

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Measuring Clouds and Aerosols From the Space Station

Clouds can be observed from the International Space Station moving across Earth’s surface, as in this image of New Zealand taken by Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti. Other tiny solid and liquid particles called aerosols are also being transported around the atmosphere, but these are largely invisible to our eyes. To investigate the layers and composition of clouds and tiny airborne particles like dust, smoke and other atmospheric aerosols, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland have developed an Earth-observing instrument called the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS. The CATS instrument, set to launch to the space station aboard the fifth SpaceX commercial resupply flight, will be the second NASA Earth-observing instrument to be mounted on the exterior of the station. CATS will provide data about aerosols at different levels of the atmosphere. The data are expected to improve scientists' ability to track different cloud and aerosol types throughout the atmosphere. These datasets will be used to improve strategic and hazard-warning capabilities of events in near real-time, such as tracking plumes from dust storms, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires. The information could also feed into climate models to help understand the effects of clouds and aerosols on Earth’s energy balance. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti

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NASA Statement on GAO Decision to Deny Commercial Crew Contract Protest

NASA issued the following statement in response to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision to deny a protest Sierra Nevada Corp., of Louisville, Colorado, filed Sept. 26, 2014, challenging the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) Contract awards made Sept. 16, 2014, to The Boeing Company, Space Exploration, Houston, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), of Hawthorne, California.

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Student Scientists Persevere, Ready to Launch Experiments to Space Station

Students will look to the skies this week when SpaceX's fifth commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station lifts off at 6:18 a.m. EST Tuesday, Jan. 6, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft will carry scientific research conceived and designed by students who are learning first-hand what it takes to conduct research in space.

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Measuring Clouds and Aerosols From the Space Station

Clouds can be observed from the International Space Station moving across Earth’s surface, as in this image of New Zealand taken by Expedition 42 Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti. Other tiny solid and liquid particles called aerosols are also being transported around the atmosphere, but these are largely invisible to our eyes. To investigate the layers and composition of clouds and tiny airborne particles like dust, smoke and other atmospheric aerosols, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland have developed an Earth-observing instrument called the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS. The CATS instrument, set to launch to the space station aboard the fifth SpaceX commercial resupply flight, will be the second NASA Earth-observing instrument to be mounted on the exterior of the station. CATS will provide data about aerosols at different levels of the atmosphere. The data are expected to improve scientists' ability to track different cloud and aerosol types throughout the atmosphere. These datasets will be used to improve strategic and hazard-warning capabilities of events in near real-time, such as tracking plumes from dust storms, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires. The information could also feed into climate models to help understand the effects of clouds and aerosols on Earth’s energy balance. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforetti

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Chasms and cliffs on Mars

Although Mars is a very alien planet, some aspects of its geology are surprisingly familiar. This Mars Express image shows a snippet of a region of Mars filled with cliffs, trenches, faults, giant plateaus and volcanoes.

The flowing cracks and fault-like lines in this image form part of the Claritas Rupes escarpment, a 950 km-long network of steep cliffs and sloping outcrops. This escarpment lies within a larger geological system named Claritas Fossae, a weaving network of ‘grabens’ (a German term meaning ditch or trench) that stretches for some 2000 km.

The many chasms, fractures and cracks in this area are thought to have been caused by stress in the planet’s crust as it stretched and pulled apart, triggered by the formation of a nearby raised mound known as the Tharsis Bulge.

This bulge, located within the volcanic Tharsis region, extends to a height of about 10 km at its peak. Its violent formation caused parts of the crust to crack and shift, sliding into depressions and gaps, forming a distinctive pattern of geological features such as sunken grabens and raised blocks known as ‘horsts’. These two features can be very roughly imagined as an ‘M’ shape – grabens form the bottom of the central dip, while horsts form the two uppermost tips.

Similar patterns can be found on Earth around the Upper Rhine Valley between Basel in Switzerland, and Karlsruhe in Germany, or the Eger Graben in the Czech Republic, near the Ore Mountains.

Prominent examples of terrestrial grabens include California’s Death Valley, and the Dead Sea depression in the Jordan Rift Valley. Examples of horsts include France’s Vosges Mountains, and the Palestine Plateau.

Claritas Rupes forms the eastern boundary of the Tharsis region. This region contains some of the largest volcanoes in the Solar System, including the famous Olympus Mons, which stands some three times the height of Earth’s Mount Everest.

This image was acquired by the High Resolution Stereo Camera of Mars Express on 30 November 2013 at a resolution of about 14 m per pixel. It was first published on 13 February 2014 on the DLR German Aerospace Center and Freie Universität Berlin websites.

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Testing ESA’s Mercury Mission

Europe’s Mercury mission is moved through ESA’s ESTEC Test Centre in this new video, positioning it for testing inside the largest vacuum chamber in Europe, for a trial by vacuum.

BepiColombo, Europe’s first mission to study Mercury, is a joint mission with Japan. Two spacecraft – the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter – will fly in two different paths around the planet to study it from complementary perspectives.

Flight hardware for the mission is undergoing testing at ESA’s Technical Centre, ESTEC, in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, the largest spacecraft test facility in Europe, to prepare for its 2016 launch.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter was placed inside the chamber in late October for ‘thermal–vacuum’ testing. It will sit in vacuum until early December, subjected to the equivalent temperature extremes that will be experienced in Mercury orbit.

Liquid nitrogen runs through the walls of the chamber to recreate the chill of empty space, while an array of lamps focuses simulated sunlight 10 times more intense than on Earth.

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Solar Dynamics Observatory Welcomes the New Year

There were no fireworks on the sun to welcome in the New Year and only a few C-class flares during the last day of 2014. Instead, the sun starts 2015 with an enormous coronal hole near the south pole. This image, captured on Jan. 1, 2015 by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows the coronal hole as a dark region in the south. Coronal holes are regions of the corona where the magnetic field reaches out into space rather than looping back down onto the surface. Particles moving along those magnetic fields can leave the sun rather than being trapped near the surface. Those trapped particles can heat up and glow, giving us the lovely AIA images. In the parts of the corona where the particles leave the sun, the glow is much dimmer and the coronal hole looks dark. Coronal holes were first seen in images taken by astronauts on board NASA’s Skylab space station in 1973 and 1974. They can be seen for a long time, although the exact shape changes all the time. The polar coronal hole can remain visible for five years or longer. Each time a coronal hole rotates by the Earth we can measure the particles flowing out of the hole as a high-speed stream, another source of space weather. Charged particles in the Earth’s radiation belts are accelerated when the high-speed stream runs into the Earth’s magnetosphere. The acceleration of particles in the magnetosphere is studied by NASA’s Van Allen Probes mission. As Solar Cycle 24 fades, the number of flares each day will get smaller, but the coronal holes provide another source of space weather that needs to be understood and predicted. Image Credit: NASA/SDO Caption: Dean Pesnell

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Ceres, Target of NASA’s Dawn Mission

Discovered on Jan. 1, 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi of Italy, Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt - the strip of solar system real estate between Mars and Jupiter. On March 6, 2015, NASA's Dawn spacecraft will arrive at Ceres, marking the first time that a spacecraft has ever orbited two solar system targets. Dawn previously explored the protoplanet Vesta for 14 months, from 2011 to 2012, capturing detailed images and data about that body. Dawn has entered its approach phase toward Ceres, and the next couple of months promise continually improving views prior to arrival. By the end of January, the spacecraft's images and other data will be the best ever taken of the dwarf planet. This image of Ceres was taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope between December 2003 and January 2004. Hubble images of Vesta and Ceres helped astronomers plan for the Dawn spacecraft’s tour. Astronomers enhanced the sharpness in the image to bring out features on Ceres' surface, including brighter and darker regions that could be asteroid impact features. The observations were made in visible and ultraviolet light. The colors represent the differences between relatively red and blue regions. These differences may simply be due to variation on the surface among different types of material. Ceres' round shape suggests that its interior is layered like those of terrestrial planets such as Earth. Ceres may have a rocky inner core, an icy mantle, and a thin, dusty outer crust inferred from its density and rotation rate of 9 hours. Ceres is approximately 590 miles (950 kilometers) across. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/J. Parker (SWRI), P. Thomas (Cornell U.), L. McFadden (U-Md., College Park), and M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI)

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