Astronauts Aboard the Space Station Talk With Troops in Iraq

International Space Station

This is one of a series of images featuring the International Space Station photographed soon after the space shuttle Atlantis and the station began their post-undocking relative separation. Some scenes in the series show parts of the Mediterranean Sea and Africa and Spain in the background.
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Some U.S. forces in Iraq will get the chance during the holidays to talk with two NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station who also are far away from their families and friends. A 20-minute live video downlink will start at 9 a.m. EST on Dec. 29. The event will be carried live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency's Web site.

Station Commander Jeff Williams, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer, an Army colonel, will talk with U.S. forces while orbiting 220 miles above Earth. Service members will have the chance to talk with the astronauts about life on the station, their military careers and what it is like to live in space for up to six months.

Technology developed for the space and Earth science programs at NASA is currently being repurposed for use to protect our soldiers in Iraq and across the globe. Examples include satellite-based communications and weather resources, GPS, and other NASA Spinoffs.

NASA Television will provide live coverage of the conversations, with video from aboard the station during the event. A video file will be available later in the day, with edited footage from both the station and the service members in Iraq.

For more information on NASA TV, including a schedule of events, visit:

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Mayon Volcano, The Phillipines

Mayon Volcano, The Phillipines
Tens of thousands of people living within the danger zone of Mayon Volcano in the Philippines were forced to evacuate to emergency shelters in mid-December 2009 as small earthquakes, incandescent lava at the summit and minor ash falls suggested a major eruption was on the way. On the evening of Dec. 14, the local volcano observatory raised the alert level to Level 3, which means "magma is close to the crater and hazardous explosive eruption is imminent."

This natural-color image of Mayon was captured on Dec. 15, 2009, by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA's Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. A small plume of ash and steam is blowing west from the summit. Dark-colored lava or debris flows from previous eruptions streak the flanks of the mountain. A ravine on the southeast slope is occupied by a particularly prominent lava or debris flow.

The Phillipine Star said on Dec. 22 that "ashfall blanketed at least three towns in Albay, raising new health fears for thousands already bracing for an eruption that could come at any time ... Health officials warned the tiny particles could cause respiratory problems or skin diseases, and could affect the thousands of people crammed into evacuation centers.

Also on Dec. 22, CNN reported that "tens of thousands of people have already fled their homes. More than 9,000 families -- a total of 44,394 people -- are being housed in evacuation camps after authorities raised the alert status of the country's most active volcano" as "fountains of red-hot lava shot up from the intensifying Mayon volcano."
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Expedition 22 Lifts Off

Expedition 22 Lifts Off
The Soyuz TMA-17 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:52 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 20, carrying Expedition 22 NASA Flight Engineer Timothy J. Creamer of the U.S., Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov of Russia and Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of Japan to the International Space Station.
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NASA Flight Tests Unique Jumbo Jet With Opening In Side; Plane's Airborne Telescope Will Be Used to Study Cosmos

A NASA jumbo jet that will help scientists unlock the origins of the universe with infrared observations reached a milestone Friday when doors covering the plane's telescope were fully opened in flight.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a modified 747 jet known as SOFIA, flew for one hour and 19 minutes, which included two minutes with the telescope's doors fully opened. The goal was to allow engineers to understand how air flows in and around the telescope. It was the first time outside air has interacted with the part of the plane that carries the 98-inch infrared telescope.

"Today we opened the telescope cavity door, the first time we have fully exposed the telescope and the largest cavity ever flown while in flight," said Bob Meyer, SOFIA program manager at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. "This is a significant step toward certifying NASA's next great observatory for future study of the universe."

Besides these test flights of the airplane, two flights to operate and verify the scientific capabilities of the telescope assembly are planned for spring 2010. Telescope systems such as the vibration isolation system, the inertial stabilization system and the pointing control system will be tested during daytime flights.

These flights will prepare the telescope assembly for the first flight with the telescope operating. That first flight will be the initial opportunity scientists have to use the telescope and begin the process of quantifying its performance to prepare for SOFIA's planned 20-year science program.

SOFIA is a joint venture of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. NASA supplied the aircraft. The telescope was built in Germany.

Dryden manages the SOFIA program. The aircraft is based at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., manages SOFIA's scientific program. The Universities Space Research Association, in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, operate SOFIA's scientific program.

To see a picture of SOFIA with the doors to the telescope cavity open, visit:

Video from SOFIA's flight will air on NASA Television. For NASA TV streaming video, schedules, and downlink information, visit:

For more details about SOFIA and its mission, visit:

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Milt Thompson’s Wild Ride

Investigators pore over the site of the nose-first, high-impact JF-104A crash that left this large crater in the desert near Edwards Air Force Base in December 1962. NASA test pilot Milton OOminous black smoke rose over California's high desert on a crisp, cold December morning in 1962, and there was no sign of a parachute. Della Mae Bowling, the pilot's office secretary at NASA's Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, was crying as fire trucks raced across the vast expanse of Rogers Dry Lake toward the crash scene. But Bowling and others were to learn that what might have been a terrible tragedy turned out instead to be a triumph of piloting skill.

Several years earlier, NASA had acquired a production Lockheed F-104A for use as a research aircraft. On April 13, 1959, Neil Armstrong ferried the supersonic jet from Lockheed's Palmdale, Calif., facility to NASA's Flight Research Center, where it was equipped with special instrumentation and re-designated as a JF-104A. It initially served as a launch platform for parachute test vehicles and experimental sounding rockets. Later, it was used for mission support, pilot proficiency and as a chase plane for other research aircraft. In all, seven NASA pilots flew the airplane 249 times.

On Dec. 20, 1962, NASA research pilot Milton O. Thompson was scheduled to evaluate weather conditions over Mud Lake, Nev., in preparation for the launch of an X-15 rocket plane over that area a few hours later. Weather flights were critical because go/no-go decisions were based on real-time observations made along the planned flight path.

NASA research pilot Milt Thompson poses in front of an F-104 similar to the one from which he ejected on Dec. 20Thompson strapped himself into the JF-104A cockpit, taxied to the runway, took off to the northeast and climbed to cruising altitude. Visibility was clear all along his route. Upon returning to Edwards, Thompson configured the airplane so he could practice simulated X-15 landings on the clay surface of Rogers Dry Lake.

During his first approach he cut throttle, extended speed brakes and began a steep, descending turn toward a runway marked on the lakebed's surface. Decelerating, he lowered the flaps and held 300 knots indicated airspeed as he dove toward the airstrip. The jet lost altitude at a rate of 18,000 feet per minute until he leveled off at 800 feet, lit the afterburner and climbed away.

During his second approach, Thompson noticed the airplane was rolling to the left. He applied full right aileron and rudder but failed to stop the motion. Seeing his airspeed dropping rapidly, he advanced the throttle to full and relit the afterburner. As his speed increased to 300 knots the roll ceased, leaving the airplane in a 90-degree left bank. Thompson increased his speed to 350 knots to gain more control effectiveness and began to troubleshoot the problem.

Guessing that the airplane was experiencing an asymmetric control condition – either flaps or speed brakes – he repeatedly cycled the roll and yaw dampers, flap-selector switch and speed brakes. He verified that both flaps indicated "up" and visually examined the exterior of the aircraft using his rear-view mirrors. The leading-edge flaps appeared to be up and locked but he couldn't see the trailing-edge flaps. Thompson knew he was in serious trouble and wasn't sure he could land safely. It slowly dawned on him that he might have to eject.

In a last-ditch effort, Thompson radioed NASA-1 – the Flight Operations office – and urgently asked for fellow research pilot Joe Walker, who was suiting up for his X-15 mission.

"Trouble?" Walker asked.

"Right, Joe," said Thompson, "I'm running out of right aileron."

After a brief discussion, Walker decided one of the flaps might be locked in the down position and suggested that Thompson cycle the flap lever again. Thompson tried this and immediately knew it was a mistake, as the airplane started to roll rapidly. He soon realized the situation was hopeless.

"She's going, Joe!" he called.

After four complete rolls, Thompson ejected while inverted. He felt a terrible pain in his neck as the seat's rocket motor blasted him free of the airplane. His body was whipped by air blast, and he began to tumble wildly. After rocket burnout, he separated from the seat but soon realized he was still holding onto the ejection handle. His parachute opened promptly as soon as he released his grip.

JF-104A #56-0749 on the ramp at NASA's Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base in 1959 with the Air Launched Sounding Rocket (ALSOR) attached to its underbelly. NASA test pilot Milton OFloating gently down from 18,000 feet, Thompson saw the airplane plummet nose-first into the desert and explode on the Edwards bombing range. He was breathing rapidly and felt lightheaded and slightly breathless. After several failed attempts to activate his bailout oxygen bottle, he unfastened his mask and breathed the thin, but fresh, air. He landed softly, gathered up his parachute, and walked to a nearby road.

At NASA-1, the mood was grim. Thompson hadn't had time to inform anyone that he was ejecting and nobody saw his parachute. Their faces bearing shock and tears, NASA employees stared at the column of thick, black smoke rising in the distance.

NASA Flight Operations chief Joe Vensel hopped in a car and sped across the lakebed toward the crash site, expecting the worst. To his surprise, he found Thompson waiting calmly by the roadside, apparently unharmed.

An investigation revealed that the accident had most likely been the result of an electrical malfunction in the left trailing-edge flap. The investigating board, headed by Donald R. Bellman, gave Thompson high marks for his actions.

"Throughout the emergency," the board's report read, "the pilot showed superior skill and judgment, which contributed materially to his own safety and to the understanding of the causes of the aircraft loss."
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Soyuz Rolls to the Pad

Soyuz Rolls to the Pad
The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft is rolled out by train to the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Friday, Dec. 18, 2009. The launch of the Soyuz spacecraft with Expedition 22 NASA Flight Engineer Timothy J. Creamer of the U.S., Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov of Russia and Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of Japan, is scheduled for Monday, Dec., 21, 2009 at 3:52a.m. Kazakhstan time.
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Hubble Finds Smallest Kuiper Belt Object Ever Seen

Artist's concept of the smallest object discovered in the Kuiper Belt.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
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NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered the smallest object ever seen in visible light in the Kuiper Belt, a vast ring of icy debris that is encircling the outer rim of the solar system just beyond Neptune.

The needle-in-a-haystack object found by Hubble is only 3,200 feet across and a whopping 4.2 billion miles away. The smallest Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) seen previously in reflected light is roughly 30 miles across, or 50 times larger.

This is the first observational evidence for a population of comet-sized bodies in the Kuiper Belt that are being ground down through collisions. The Kuiper Belt is therefore collisionally evolving, meaning that the region's icy content has been modified over the past 4.5 billion years.

The object detected by Hubble is so faint - at 35th magnitude -- it is 100 times dimmer than what the Hubble can see directly.

So then how did the space telescope uncover such a small body?

In a paper published in the December 17th issue of the journal Nature, Hilke Schlichting of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and her collaborators are reporting that the telltale signature of the small vagabond was extracted from Hubble's pointing data, not by direct imaging.

Hubble has three optical instruments called Fine Guidance Sensors (FGS). The FGSs provide high-precision navigational information to the space observatory's attitude control systems by looking at select guide stars for pointing. The sensors exploit the wavelike nature of light to make precise measurement of the location of stars.

Schlichting and her co-investigators determined that the FGS instruments are so good that they can see the effects of a small object passing in front of a star. This would cause a brief occultation and diffraction signature in the FGS data as the light from the background guide star was bent around the intervening foreground KBO.

They selected 4.5 years of FGS observations for analysis. Hubble spent a total of 12,000 hours during this period looking along a strip of sky within 20 degrees of the solar system's ecliptic plane, where the majority of KBOs should dwell. The team analyzed the FGS observations of 50,000 guide stars in total.

Scouring the huge database, Schlichting and her team found a single 0.3-second-long occultation event. This was only possible because the FGS instruments sample changes in starlight 40 times a second. The duration of the occultation was short largely because of the Earth's orbital motion around the sun.

They assumed the KBO was in a circular orbit and inclined 14 degrees to the ecliptic. The KBO's distance was estimated from the duration of the occultation, and the amount of dimming was used to calculate the size of the object. "I was very thrilled to find this in the data," says Schlichting.

Hubble observations of nearby stars show that a number of them have Kuiper Belt-like disks of icy debris encircling them. These disks are the remnants of planetary formation. The prediction is that over billions of years the debris should collide, grinding the KBO-type objects down to ever smaller pieces that were not part of the original Kuiper Belt population.

The finding is a powerful illustration of the capability of archived Hubble data to produce important new discoveries. In an effort to uncover additional small KBOs, the team plans to analyze the remaining FGS data for nearly the full duration of Hubble operations since its launch in 1990.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute conducts Hubble science operations. The institute is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. in Washington, and is an International Year of Astronomy 2009 program partner.

For illustrations, and more information, visit:

› HubbleSite
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Unexpected Wheel-Test Results

Rover Spirit during the rover's 2,113th Martian day, or sol (Dec. 12, 2009)Diagnostic tests were run on Spirit's right-rear wheel and right-front wheel on Sol 2013 (Dec. 12, 2009). The right-rear wheel, which stalled during a drive two weeks earlier, continued to show no motion in the latest tests and exhibited very high resistance in the motor winding. The right-front wheel, which stopped operating on Sol 779 (March 13, 2006), surprised engineers by indicating normal resistance and turning slightly during a resistance test for that wheel.

Small motion is expected during an electrical resistance test for an operating actuator, but the right-front actuator was expected to be non-operational. The right-front wheel was last checked just after its apparent failure in 2006 and at that time indicated an open circuit. Although no clear theory for failure had been established, the failure was generally regarded as permanent. It is important to remember that the Sol 2013 test of the right-front wheel was only a rotor resistance test, and no conclusions can be drawn at this point without further testing.

The plan for Spirit on Sol 2116 (Dec. 15) is to command a drive. This drive will further investigate functionality of the right-front and right-rear wheels. The results are expected Wednesday.
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Global Digital Elevation Model

Global Digital Elevation Model
This Global Digital Elevation Model, or GDEM, is a product of the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER), a joint program of NASA and Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The image was released on June 29, 2009, and was created by processing and stereo-correlating the 1.3 million-scene ASTER archive of optical images, covering Earth's land surface between 83 degrees North and 83 degrees South latitudes. The GDEM is produced with 98-feet postings, and is formatted as 23,000 one-by-one-degree tiles. In this colorized version, low elevations are purple, medium elevations are greens and yellows, and high elevations are orange, red and white.

With its 14 spectral bands from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region and its high spatial resolution of 50 to 300 feet, ASTER images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER is one of five Earth-observing instruments launched Dec. 18, 1999, on NASA's Terra satellite.

The broad spectral coverage and high spectral resolution of ASTER provides scientists in numerous disciplines with critical information for surface mapping and monitoring of dynamic conditions and temporal change.
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WISE Lifts Off to Map the Sky

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket at 9:09 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. WISE will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images.
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