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Apr 072014

Nasa logoby Nur Hussein, contributing writer

A recent press release by NASA has us excited; the space exploration agency is dropping a mountain of code to the public. The software that the agency has developed over the years cover things like image processing, robotics, data processing, and design tools amongst other things. The press release state it’s going to be “over 1000 codes,” and we assume that means over a thousand pieces of software. We haven’t got a comprehensive list to look at yet, but we’ll find out on Thursday. We can access the NASA technology transfer portal for things that NASA has already released.

The press release states that the code has been evaluated for access restrictions, and that some code may have some restrictions for use only by federal agencies, or by US citizens. This implies there will be a variety of software licenses at play here, some of them don’t sound truly Open Source as defined by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). A cursory look at NASA’s current open software list sees code licensed under a variety of OSI-approved licenses, so it’ll be interesting how this release will play out with regard to licensing.

Regardless, this is a great move by NASA, and any open government initiatives should be lauded. After all, development of this software was done with taxpayer dollars. We’ll see this Thursday what we fun stuff we get to play with from NASA.


Mar 172014

March 17, 2014 – Astronomers are announcing today that they have acquired the first direct evidence that gravitational waves rippled through our infant universe during an explosive period of growth called inflation. This is the strongest confirmation yet of cosmic inflation theories, which say the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times, in less than the blink of an eye.

The BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole uses novel technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The focal plane shown here is an array of devices that use superconductivity to gather, filter, detect, and amplify polarized light from the cosmic microwave background -- relic radiation left over from the Big Bang that created our universe. The microscope is showing a close-up view of one of the 512 pixels on the focal plane, displayed on the screen in the background. Each pixel is made from a printed antenna that collects polarized millimeter-wavelength radiation, with a filter that selects the wavelengths to be detected. A sensitive detector is fabricated on a thin membrane created through a process called micro-machining. The antennas and filters on the focal plane are made from superconducting materials. An antenna is seen on the close-up shot in the background with the green meandering lines. The detector uses a superconducting film as a sensitive thermometer to detect the heat from millimeter-wave radiation that was collected by the antenna and dissipated at the detector. A detector is seen on the close-up shot in the background to the right of the pink square. Finally, a tiny electrical current from the sensor is measured with amplifiers on the focal plane called SQUIDs (Superconducting QUantum Interference Devices), developed at National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, Colo. The amplifiers are the rectangular chips on the round focal plane. The focal planes are manufactured using optical lithography techniques, similar to those used in the industrial production of integrated circuits for computers.

The BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole uses novel technology developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The focal plane shown here is an array of devices that use superconductivity to gather, filter, detect, and amplify polarized light from the cosmic microwave background — relic radiation left over from the Big Bang that created our universe.

The findings were made with the help of NASA-developed detector technology on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.  The telescope uses 512 supercooled detectors which are sensitive enough to detect fluctuations in the heat signature from the background heat signature left over from the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.  This cosmic microwave background radiation was recently reconfirmed by the Planck satellite, a European Space Agency mission for which NASA provided detector and cooler technology.

But researchers had long sought more direct evidence for inflation in the form of gravitational waves, which squeeze and stretch space.

“Small, quantum fluctuations were amplified to enormous sizes by the inflationary expansion of the universe. We know this produces another type of waves called density waves, but we wanted to test if gravitational waves are also produced,” said project co-leader Jamie Bock of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., which developed the BICEP2 detector technology. Bock has a joint appointment with the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena.

The supposition was that when the Big Bang occurred and the background microwave radiation popped into existence, it should have been resonating from the violence of the inflation.   Essentially, the universe should have been ringing like a bell.

John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and his colleagues were the ones that figured this out.  Spot the jiggles and you prove both the expansionary phenomenon and the existence of the waves left over from it.

That’s what Kovac and his colleagues did, though it wasn’t literally jiggles that they saw. Instead they noticed that the background radiation was polarized, its waves of electromagnetic energy oscillating not in random directions like sunlight, but in just a few specific ones (like what you see through polarizing sunglasses).  That microwave polarization suggests that something was shaking the radiation back and forth.  This shaking or vibration is what they’re calling the “B-mode signal”, and from experiments conducted since 2006, the team has produced compelling evidence for this signal, and with it, the strongest support yet for cosmic inflation.

The B-mode signal is extremely faint. In order to gain the necessary sensitivity to detect the polarization signal, Bock and Anthony Turner of JPL’s Microdevices Laboratory developed a unique array of multiple detectors, akin to the pixels in modern digital cameras but with the added ability to detect polarization. The whole detector system operates at a frosty 0.25 Kelvin, just 0.45 degrees Fahrenheit above the lowest temperature achievable, absolute zero.

The BICEP2 experiment used 512 detectors, which sped up observations of the cosmic microwave background by 10 times over the team’s previous measurements. Their new experiment, already making observations, uses 2,560 detectors.  These and future experiments not only help confirm that the universe inflated dramatically, but are providing theorists with the first clues about the exotic forces that drove space and time apart.

Thanks to the efforts of NASA, JPL  and the academic community, space-time has now been shown to be a little  wibbley-wobbley, due to the effects of gravity waves.

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Mar 122014

by Lisa M.A. Winters, contributing writer

The Skylab astronaut who wrote the children’s book How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space? and the autobiography But for the Grace of God: An Autobiography of an Aviator and Astronaut, died of natural causes on March 3 in his Cocoa Beach, Florida, home.

Colonel Pogue Skylab portrait

William Reid Pogue was born in Okemah, Okla., on Jan. 23, 1930, a member of the Choctaw Nation.

Pogue attended schools in Oklahoma, including a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Oklahoma Baptist University. He then enlisted in the Air Force, and after 43 combat missions in Korea and a stint with the USAF Thunderbirds air acrobatic team, he added a Master of Science degree in mathematics from Oklahoma State University in 1960.

NASA selected him to become an astronaut in 1966 and assigned him to the support crews for the Apollo 7, 11 and 14 missions. “I was going to be on 19 with Fred Haise and Jerry Carr,” Pogue said in a NASA interview. “They did not want to announce us, and for good reason, because [our chances of flying] looked pretty bad in Washington, as far as the budget was concerned.”

Instead of Apollo, Pogue was appointed to be the pilot of Skylab 4, the third and final manned visit to the Skylab orbital workshop. The mission launched November 16 and concluded February 8, 1974. This was the longest manned flight in the history of manned space exploration to date. Pogue’s teammates were Gerald P. Carr (mission commander) and Dr. Edward G. Gibson (science-pilot). They successfully completed 56 experiments, 26 science demonstrations, 15 subsystem detailed objectives, and 13 student investigations during their 1,214 revolutions of the earth. Colonel Pogue logged 13 hours and 31 minutes in two EVAs outside the orbital workshop.

After retiring from NASA in 1975, Pogue became a consultant to the aircraft manufacturers Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) and Boeing, helping to develop space station technology. Unsurprisingly, as the “earthiest of the astronauts” (as writer Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr. called Pogue), he was particularly proud of contributing to spacecraft improvements in such facilities as toilets, showers, sleeping hammocks, exercise equipment, kitchens and a line of special plastic sacks known in the high-altitude trades as vomitus bags.

Colonel Pogue was awarded many honors: NASA and Air Force service medals, induction into the Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame in 1980 and enshrinement in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1997. He has also had William R. Pogue Municipal Airport in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, named after him.

He wrote several books; possibly the most notable is the memorably-entitled “How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space?”, originally published in 1985. He revised the book twice, in 1991 and 1999, to bring it up to date. He also penned “Astronaut Primer” in 1985 and “Space Trivia” in 2003. Together with science fiction author Ben Bova, Pogue wrote “The Trikon Deception”, his only novel, in 1992. His last published book was his 2011 autobiography, “But for the Grace of God: An Autobiography of an Aviator and Astronaut”.

Pogue - But For the Grace of God cover

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, originally established in 1984 as the Mercury Seven Foundation, enlists any of the American astronauts to become participants in the Foundation’s work — William Pogue served on the Board of Directors. Tina Pogue, the Colonel’s widow, said she hopes to orchestrate donations to the Foundation in lieu of flowers.


Mar 112014
NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge: Find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them

NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge:
Find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them

by Cat Ellen, contributing writer

Are you competitive? Do you work in design, development, or data science? Would you consider yourself a Top Coder?

The NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) has announced the Asteroid Grand Challenge Series will launch on March 17, 2014. Through a number of Challenges, competitiors can be involved with discovery and planning for any asteroid threats to human populations. Both traditional and innovative collaboration can help accelerate the efforts of public and private partnerships.

NASA’s Asteroid Data Hunter challenge series offers $35,000 in awards, available over the next six months to participants who develop specific algorithms that improve asteroid detection. Specifically, ground-based telescopes capture images. The competitive and improved algorithms better identify asteroids in these images. Solutions need to increase sensitivity for detection, reduce false positives, recognize and learn to ignore data imperfections, and of course, run effectively on various computers.

“Protecting the planet from the threat of asteroid impact means first knowing where they are,” said Jenn Gustetic, Prizes and Challenges Program executive. “By opening up the search for asteroids, we are harnessing the potential of innovators and makers and citizen scientists everywhere to help solve this global challenge.”

Prior to launch on March 17, participants can create their competition account, study the rules, and prepare for the different phases of the contest series.

“For the past three years, NASA has been learning and advancing the ability to leverage distributed algorithm and coding skills through the NASA Tournament Lab to solve tough problems,” said Jason Crusan, NASA Tournament Lab director. “We are now applying our experience with algorithm contests to helping protect the planet from asteroid threats through image analysis.”

Jenn Gustetic and Jason Kessler, executives of the Grand Challenge program, discussed “Are We Smarter than Dinosaurs?” on Monday, March 10 at SXSW in Austin, Texas, introducing NASA’s Grand Challenge. They focused on how to meaningfully engage the larger tech community to support space exploration research and solve global problems.

NearEarth Objects (NEOs) could either pose a threat (such as impact damage) or an opportunity (mining resources and extended ability to explore). NASA has not only led the search for NEOs since 1998, but has been pioneering efforts to effectively harness crowdsourcing in scientific advances.

“Current asteroid detection initiatives are only tracking one percent of the estimated objects that orbit the Sun. We are excited to partner with NASA in this contest to help increase the quantity and knowledge about asteroids that are potential threats, human destinations, or resource rich,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, Inc. “Applying distributed algorithm and coding skills to the extensive NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey data set will yield important insights into the state of the art in detecting asteroids.”

NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) manages the algorithm contests in the Grand Challenge. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy requested the establishment of CoECI to advance innovation and extend the expertise throughout federal agencies. Advanced algorithmic and software development contests are managed at the NASA Tournament Lab. In association with Harvard’s Institute of Quantitative Social Science and through a contract with Harvard Business School, NTL uses the topcoder platform to engage with a community of more than 600,000 data scientists, developers, and designers. Through these collaborations, NASA seeks to create the most innovative, efficient and optimized solutions for specific, real-world challenges.

Additional Resources


Mar 042014

Lucas-Whiteley_2835601cby Lisa M.A. Winters

Four-year-old Lucas Whiteley of Sunny Hill Primary in Wrenthorpe, West Yorkshire, England, wrote to NASA asking for help on a school project and became the star of his class when the space agency replied.  When his father helped him post three questions to NASA’s website, all they expected was based on James Whiteley’s own experience of of writing to the American space agency and receiving an informative brochure.

Instead, the little boy was sent a an email and 10-minute film from the space agency’s experimental fluid physics engineer Ted Garbeff, which included a virtual tour of his Mountain View base in California. Both Whiteleys, and Lucas’s class, proved very appreciative.  James told The Telegraph newspaper, ‘Ted is a fantastic bloke to go out of his way to do something for someone he doesn’t know on the other side of the world.”

Whiteley’s questions and Garbeff’s answers:

Q: How many stars are there?
A: You might see a lot of stars, but the truth is there are more stars than you can even see. There are so many stars that it’s really hard to imagine how many there are. So we haven’t counted every single star in the universe, that would take a really long time. But instead engineers and scientists are really good at estimating really large numbers.

Q: Who came second and third in the race to the moon?
A: The U.S. did land the first people on the moon and in fact no other country has made it back to the moon. But Russia did manage to land a rover on the moon to drive around. So I guess I would probably give Russia second place. Very recently, a country called China has landed a rover on the moon, so China would have third place.

Q: Did any animals go to the moon?
A: No. But animals have really helped us understand the way space works and how well humans can live in space. In fact one of the first living things to go into space was a Russian dog named Laika. Laika is now very much a space hero. She was the first living thing to go into space. NASA also launched animals into space (including) the first primate, a chimpanzee named Ham. But none of them made it to the moon, they orbited around the Earth.

Garbeff encouraged Lucas’s class to pay close attention to their teachers and added, “I’m always happy to talk about NASA.”


Mar 012014
This NASA  artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on.

This NASA artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on.

by Lisa M.A. Winters, contributing writer

Using a new verification technique to analyze Kepler’s first two years of data, astronomers have confirmed hundreds of new worlds in multiple-planet systems around 305 stars.  The majority of the uncovered planets are smaller than Neptune (four times the size of Terra).  Four of these new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit in their star’s habitable zone, defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for life-giving liquid water.

Instead of using the previously-developed laborious analytical method, the Kepler scientists are using ‘verification by multiplicity’ that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in systems that harbor more than one planet around the same star, producing faster results.  Multiplicity suggests that if there are one or two planets identified around a star, the likelihood is that multiple planets will have formed, allowing targeted systems to be examined more closely.

The Kepler Mission (NASA Discovery mission #10) is specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets.  Launched on March 6, 2009 into a Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, the Kepler instrument is a specially designed 0.95-meter diameter telescope called a photometer, a device that measures the brightness of light. It has the largest camera ever launched into space, a 95-megapixel array of charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, like those in digital cameras. It has a very large field of view, allowing it to focus on the same huge star field for the entire mission and continuously monitor the brightness of more than 100,000 stars. Transit of distant exoplanets across the faces of their stars will be recorded by sensors on the Kepler photometer and will provide raw data which will lead to the determination of the planet’s size and the orbital period.

One of Kepler’s earlier and most intriguing sightings is the star designated as Kepler-62 (2MASS J18525105+4520595).  The star is somewhat cooler and smaller than the Sun, and is found in the constellation Lyra, 1,200 light years from Earth.  On April 18, 2013 it was announced that the star has five planets – two of which, Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, are likely solid planets within the star’s habitable zone.