NASA Suspends Ties With Russia’s Space Agency, Except For ISS

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Expedition 38 crew on the ISS on February 22, 2014. Image Credit: NASA

NASA is suspending all contact with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, citing Russia’s ongoing violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, officials said Wednesday. However, work related to the safe and continued operation of the International Space Station are exempt from the suspension. According to an internal memo obtained by SpaceRef, NASA has been added to the list of U.S. government agencies prohibited from making contact with Russian government officials. “This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences” NASA Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O’Brien wrote in the memo to employees. In response to media reports, NASA released this statement Wednesday evening via their social media accounts:
Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.
NASA has relied on Russia to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. The U.S. is currently paying Russia just over $70 million per seat to transport our astronauts to the ISS via a Soyuz rocket. Plans for launching astronauts from U.S. soil have been delayed due to the failure of Congress to fully fund the Commercial Crew Program in recent years. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program aims to stimulate the development of privately operated crew vehicles capable of transporting astronauts into low-Earth orbit. Initially planned to begin launching crews from U.S. soil in 2015, it is now expected to begin no sooner than 2017. Tell Congress that you support fully funding the Commercial Crew Program and that you want to end NASA’s dependence on expensive Soyuz trips: http://www.penny4nasa.org/take-action/

One Year After Chelyabinsk Meteor Strike, NASA Ramps Up Asteroid Detection Efforts

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(Photo Credit: Aleksandr Ivanov)

One year since an asteroid exploded over Russia, NASA has ramped up its efforts aimed at identifying and coping with the threat of near-Earth objects.

The Chelyabinsk meteor that entered the Earth’s atmosphere above Russia on February 15, 2013, exploded with 20-30 times the energy of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. It is the largest known object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since the Tunguska event in 1908.

Despite exploding over 18 miles up in the atmosphere, the asteroid had enough explosive power to shatter windows down on the ground, injuring 1,500 people seriously enough to seek medical attention.

Because the asteroid was undetected prior to atmospheric entry it generated international media attention and a renewed interest in the threats posed by near-Earth objects.

What has changed in the past year?

In the year since, NASA’s NEO Program Office, which is responsible for the detection and tracking of potentially dangerous asteroids and comets, saw its budget effectively doubled, going from $20.4 million in FY2013 to $40.5 million in FY2014. The NEO Program Office has already detected over 90 percent of near-Earth objects (NEOs) larger than one kilometer and is now focusing its efforts on finding 90 percent of NEOs larger than 140 meters in size.

In 2013, NASA announced the Asteroid Grand Challenge, an effort to enhance collaboration between private industry, academia, government agencies and citizen scientists in the detection of asteroids. Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining startup, has already partnered with NASA as a part of the Asteroid Grand Challenge to help develop crowdsourced software solutions to improve the detection of near-Earth objects.

NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission is also moving forward with the aim of capturing an asteroid and moving it into a stable Earth orbit in order to study it. The mission would involve the development of technologies that could one day be used to protect us from objects that threaten Earth.

Write Congress and tell them you support increased funding for the search for potentially dangerous asteroids. Take action here: http://wwww.penny4nasa.org/take-action/

What Are Black Holes And How Do They Die?

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(Photo Credit: Ute Kraus/Space Time Travel)

Sophia Nasr is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in astrophysics at York University. Actively engaged in astronomical events and scientific outreach, Sophia holds a research position at the York University Observatory, occasionally co-hosts on York Universe Radio, and is the Vice President of the York University Astronomy Club. In an effort to help peak public interest in science, Sophia writes articles about astronomy and physics for Facebook’s “All Science, All the Time” and “Science That.”

Black holes are formed when stars of at least 20 solar masses die. Solar mass is an astronomical unit of mass, equal to the mass of the Sun, used for expressing the mass other celestial objects. Stars continuously fuse lighter elements into heavier ones during their lifetime. During the process of fusion, there is a constant inward pull due to gravity and outward push due to pressure, such that the two balance each other out. If a star is massive enough, it will fuse elements into iron. As more energy goes into fusing iron than is produced, this is the end of the line, and the star runs out of fuel. At this point, the star’s outer layers explode in an extremely violent supernova. Gravity wins the battle against pressure, causing the core to collapse under its own weight. When such a core is more than 2.5 times as massive as the Sun, the inward pull of gravity is so immense that the core continues collapsing upon itself, resulting in the formation of a black hole.

The mathematics describing black holes shows that the volume of the singularity—the center of a black hole—is zero, and thus the density of a black hole is infinite. With so much matter packed into an infinitesimally small space, black holes possess gravity so strong that not even light can escape its pull—if it crosses the event horizon, that is. The event horizon is the boundary beyond which nothing—not even light—can escape. This is because the escape velocity of a black hole is greater than the speed of light. As a result, we know nothing beyond a black hole’s event horizon—it marks the boundary beyond which no information can be obtained. Because black holes do not emit any light, they are not visible.

What follows is a discussion on how black holes “die.” Perhaps “evaporate” is a more suitable word in this case. The process by which black holes evaporate is called Hawking radiation, or sometimes, Bekenstein-Hawking radiation. In 1972, physicist Jacob Bekenstein introduced an idea stating that black holes should have a finite temperature and entropy. Two years later, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking formulated a complete theory describing black body radiation in black holes.

In Hawking radiation, a continuous production of “virtual” particle-antiparticle pairs occurs near the event horizon of a black hole due to fluctuations in energy. Normally, such a pair will collide and annihilate, which is why these particles are referred to as “virtual” (they exist only for a limited time). However, the force of gravity exerted by the black hole can pull the negative antiparticle in, while the positive particle escapes. Because the positive particle essentially dodges annihilation and is left in space when the negative antiparticle is sucked into the black hole, it is no longer “virtual”—it is now real. By this process, the black hole appears to have emitted a positive particle. This is what is known as Hawking radiation.

Over time, the continuous addition of negative antiparticles to the black hole adds negative energy, resulting in a gradual decrease in the black hole’s mass. This will in turn cause a black hole’s size to gradually decrease. With the decrease in size, the black hole’s temperature increases to such an extent that the black hole vanishes in an extreme burst of gamma radiation, sometimes including all kinds of energetic particles. This marks the end of the black hole.

That being said, the time it takes for a black hole to evaporate can be extremely long, depending on its size. Smaller black holes evaporate faster than do larger black holes. For example, microscopic black holes would evaporate very quickly, but a black hole with the mass of our Sun would take 10^67 years to evaporate—that’s a 1 followed by SIXTY-SEVEN ZEROS. This clearly makes detection of Hawking radiation in space problematic. While a group of physicists in Italy conducted a laboratory experiment that may have produced Hawking radiation in 2010, it has not yet been detected in space.

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NASA Shuts Down “Almost Entirely” On Its 55th Anniversary

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On the 55th anniversary of the day it began operations, NASA has been forced to furlough 97 percent of its workforce in accordance with the government shutdown.

According to the plan for shutdown, NASA is required to furlough nearly all of its 18,250 employees. The plan would allow for 367 full time employees to stay on the job to support activities which are exempt from the shutdown, such as operations related to the International Space Station and other NASA satellites.

NASA has been forced to furlough a greater percentage of its employees than any other agency affected by the shutdown. Being forced to send 97 percent of its workforce home, President Obama stated that “NASA will shutdown almost entirely,” going on to say that, “Mission Control will remain open to support the astronauts serving on the space station.”

The shutdown could potentially delay the launch of the Mars MAVEN mission, which is slated for November 18. The mission has a narrow launch window, which if missed could push back the launch to 2016. However, NASA’s newest Mars rover, Curiosity, will continue operating despite the government shutdown. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates the rover, is a private contractor and thus its staff are not among the NASA employees that have been furloughed.

NASA’s online presence is also impacted by the shutdown, with the newly redesigned NASA.gov now displaying this message, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.” Additionally, NASA’s social media accounts have either halted all activity or disappeared entirely, as was the case with NASA’s Facebook page. NASA’s Twitter account posted this message on Monday in response to the shutdown, “Sorry, but we won’t be tweeting/responding to replies during the government shutdown. Be back as soon as possible.”

All of this occurring on the same day that NASA was supposed to be celebrating the 55th anniversary of the day NASA began operations on October 1, 1958.

How Adaptive Optics Are Improving Cosmic Observations

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Adaptive optics is a widespread technology that is utilized for increasing the power of telescopes and microscopes. As many know, the turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere is the source of much distortion in stargazing, such as twinkling stars. In order to fight these distortions, space agencies have sent costly telescopes up into space in order to make observations, free of Earth-based distortions. While many great discoveries have been made thanks to projects like the Hubble Space Telescope, the costs for these types of projects are, of course, staggering. By developing adaptive optics, scientists have been able to analyze crisp data from ground-based observation. In fact, ground-based AO telescopes can be more powerful than even the Hubble.

The nuclear region of the nearby galaxy NGC 7469 (via the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope)

The nuclear region of the nearby galaxy NGC 7469 (Image Source: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope)

By adjusting for various degrees of turbulence as the observations occur, faint and distant cosmic objects can be developed through long exposures, so long as the observed object is close to a bright source of light. Earth-based light pollution is another source of distortion that adaptive optics works to correct. For more information on light pollution, check out the Penny4NASA blog post on the topic.

As with most astronomy-based technology, adaptive optics has been used for making strides in other scientific fields. In 2011, scientists for the first time were able to use these methods to reveal the cellular structure of the human eye in astonishing detail. This development has been significant for detecting signs of degenerative eye disorders, leading to earlier and more effective treatment.

“While therapies are only emerging, the ability to see the cells you are trying to rescue represents a critical first step in the process of restoring sight,” says researcher Alfredo Dubra.

AO has helped map the smaller rods of the eye, which outnumber cones 20 to 1 in the retina (Credit: University of Rochester/Biomedical Optics Express)

AO has helped map the smaller rods of the eye, which outnumber cones 20 to 1 in the retina (Image Source: University of Rochester/Biomedical Optics Express)

This historic breakthrough has brought vision science to a new era. “One of the major hurdles in detecting retinal disease is that by the time it can be perceived by the patient or detected with clinical tools, significant cellular damage has often already occurred,” adds team member Joseph Carroll.

If you’re interested in learning more about how adaptive optics works in a telescope, be sure to explore this video from the Gemini Observatory.

Funding projects that lead to cosmic discoveries allow us to make human health related discoveries here on Earth. Utilize the Penny4NASA POPVOX tool to voice your support for scientific investment: http://www.penny4nasa.org/take-action/

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