The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey – 2012 to 2021

by Dave Fischer

The National Research Council has released Its sixth decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics. The plan focuses on three science objectives:

  • The exploration of the origins of the universe
  • The search for habitable planets outside our solar system
  • The use of astronomical observations to investigate fundamental physics.

The report addresses large, medium, and small activities in these fields. It surveys the existing facilities and the new facilities that would be needed, both ground based and space based. It looks at the known science objectives and where new discoveries might be made. And it looks at the promise of the proposals and the risks associated with each.

The large scale space-based projects are:

  • 1. Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST)
  • 2. Explorer Program Augmentation
  • 3. Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA)
  • 4. International X-ray Observatory (IXO)

WFIRST, the near infrared wide-field telescope, is intended to explore Dark Energy and Exoplanet statistics as well as support guest survey investigations.

The Explorer Program is ongoing and funds rapid, targeted projects that deliver a high science return. Past projects include WMAP, Swift, GALEX and WISE.

LISA will exploit the new field of astronomy using long wavelength gravitational radiation measured by three spacecraft 5 million kilometers apart.

IXO is a large area, high spectral resolution x-ray observatory to explore hottest regions in the universe, including clusters of galaxies, the intergalactic medium, and black hole accretion disks.

The medium scale space-based projects are:

  • 1. New Worlds Technology Development Program
  • 2. Inflation Technology Development Program

The New Worlds technology development program is a research program to obtain preliminary observations in order to study nearby habitable planets. Included is technology development in order to make an informed decision in the second half of this decade on a flagship mission.

The Inflation Technology development program will use ground based microwave background telescopes to examine “B-mode polarization.” This is a sensitive signature of processes thought to have occurred during the earliest moments of the universe. If a signal is seen, then a space-based mission with at least ten times greater sensitivity is warranted and associated technology development would be needed.

There are four large scale ground-based projects recommended, and prioritized as follows:

  • 1. Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
  • 2. Mid-Scale Innovations Program
  • 3. Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT)
  • 4. Atmospheric Cerenkov Telescope Array (ACTA)

The LSST project would address research such as dark energy using gravitational lensing, dark matter, Near-Earth Kuiper-belt objects, the Solar neighborhood, and transient phenomena such as gamma-ray bursts, variable stars, and supernova.

The mid-scale program would fund annual proposals to compete for funding, of which around 7 proposals would be chosen during the decade.

The Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope project suggests that NSF chose one of the two current 30 meter telescope projects (The Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile or the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii) and invest in a quarter share in order to provide access for the entire US community.

The report proposes that the team responsible for the proposed US Advanced Gamma-ray Imaging System (AGIS) collaborate as a minor partner with the European Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA).

There is one medium scale ground-based program that was recommended by the NRC Decadal Survey:

  • 1. Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT)

This 25 meter wide-field sub-millimeter telescope would work in conjunction with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

The small scale investment recommendations are:

  • Target work-force development (TSIP, Sub-orbital, AAG, ATP)
  • Address changing role of computation and theory (TCN)
  • Support current/upcoming facilities (Gemini, Lab Astro, TCN)
  • Develop technology for the future (NSF ATI, NASA Tech. Dev.)

Other documentation:

NASA press release

Preliminary Report

NRC committee reports.

Town Hall Slides (pdf).

JWST – The James Webb Space Telescope

by Dave Fischer

James Webb Space Telescope
James Webb Space Telescope – Deployed
Credit: NASA Video

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is an infrared observatory, and a partial successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. JWST does not view visible light because light from the earliest universe has shifted toward the infrared (red shift).

Infrared sensitivity is required in order to see further back in time toward the beginning of the universe than either Hubble or ground based observatories.The James Webb Space Telescope is a joint venture between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). In all, fifteen countries are making contributions to JWST.

The are four main components to the scientific mission:

  • Search for the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang
  • Study galaxies and their formation and evolution
  • Understand the formation of stars and planetary systems
  • Study the origins of life on planetary systems

JWST is scheduled for launch in 2014 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. It will take up residence at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 2 (SEL-2). SEL-2 is 1,500,000 km beyond the Earth from the Sun (the Earth-Moon L2 is only 61,500 km beyond the Moon). The location was chosen in order to be able to shield the telescope from the infrared radiation of the Sun and the Earth.

Currently, SEL-2 is occupied by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which was launched 30 June 2001, and the Herschel and Planck observatories, which were launched together on an Ariane 5 on 14 May 2009.

The image at left is a cutaway diagram the the Ariane 5 rocket, illustrating how the JWST will fold up inside the payload fairing. With the large screen behind it, the JWST will be about 21 m in width. It will stand about three stories high. The main telescope mirror, which measures 6.5 m in diameter, is too large to launch in one piece. Instead, it consists of 17 individual mirror segments mounted on a frame which will be folded inside the fairing of the Ariane 5 at launch.

Once it arrives at SEL-2, it will unfold, as this animation shows.

There are four instruments in the Integrated Science Instrument Module designed to conduct the investigations on board the James Webb Space Telescope:

Cutaway: JWST inside Ariane 5
Image Credit: European Space Agency

Four Instruments
Image Credit: NASA

  • Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI – provided by the European Consortium with the European Space Agency (ESA), and by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
  • Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam – provided by the University of Arizona
  • Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec – provided by ESA, with components provided by NASA/GSFC.
  • Fine Guidance Sensor, or FGS – provided by the Canadian Space Agency. The FGS contains a dedicated Guider and a Tunable Filter Camera.

The image below shows the locations of the four instruments in the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM). Below, the image shows the location of the instrument package within the JWST.

Image Credit: NASA

The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is an imager/spectrograph that covers the wavelength range of 5 to 27 micrometers. The camera provides wide-field broadband imagery, and the spectrograph module provides medium-resolution spectroscopy over a smaller field of view compared to the imager. The nominal operating temperature for the MIRI is 7K. Additional information can be found at the MIRI website, Space Telescope Science Institute.

The Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) is an imager with a large field of view and high angular resolution. The NIRCam covers a wavelength range of 0.6 to 5 micrometers. More on NIRCam.

The Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) measures the simultaneous spectra of more than 100 objects in a 9-square-arcminute field of view. This instrument provides medium-resolution spectroscopy over a wavelength range of 1 to 5 micrometers and lower-resolution spectroscopy from 0.6 to 5 micrometers. See the Space Telescope Science Institute information on NIRSpec.

The Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) sensor is used for both “guide star” acquisition and fine pointing. See information from the Space Telescope Science Institute about NIRSpec.

See also:

The Wikipedia article on JWST.
NASA home page for JWST.
ESA home page for JWST.
CSA home page for JWST.
Make your own Paper Model of the JWST.
YouTube and JWST.

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.

Desert RATS

by Dave Fischer

If you want humanity to explore the Solar System, you have to test the systems you plan to use for moving around and living. And where is there a readily available harsh environment for such testing? Arizona. In the Summer it is hot and dry. In the Winter it is cold and dry (or wet, depending on the state of the Arctic storm systems).

Currently underway (31 August through 15 September) is the 13th iteration of the Desert RATS program. You can follow their exploits on the RATS’ Blog.

RATS site in Northern Arizona
Image Credit: NASA

NASA Athlete Vehicle
(All-Terrain Hex-Legged
Extra-Terrestrial Explorer)
Image Credit: NASA

Space Exploration Vehicle
Image Credit: NASA / Regan Geeseman

NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) program is designed to gather engineers, astronauts and scientists and test technology. This year, the major objectives include:

  • Space Exploration Vehicles (pdf) – a pair of rovers that astronauts will live in for 7 days at a time
  • Habitat Demonstration Unit (interactive pdf)/Pressurized Excursion Module – a simulated habitat where the rovers can dock to allow the crew room to perform experiments or deal with medical issues
  • Tri-ATHLETEs, or –Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer – two heavy-lift rover platforms that allow the habitat, or other large items, to go where the action is
  • Portable communications terminals
  • Centaur 2 – a possible four-wheeled transportation method for NASA Robonaut 2
  • Portable Utility Pallets, or PUPs for short – mobile charging stations for equipment
  • A suite of new geology sample collection tools, including a self-contained GeoLab glove box (pdf) for conducting in-field analysis of various collected rock samples.

During this mission, there will be four crew members living in the two rovers. Their traverse routes will include driving up and down steep slopes and over rough terrain at various speeds. The crew will also demonstrate docking and undocking with the PUPs and the habitat. Other objectives for the rovers include demonstrating the differences in productivity for crew members and their ground support that come with different communication methods, and evaluating different operational concepts for the trips the rovers make.

Let us know what you think. What do you want to know about? Post a comment.

Pintle Injector Rocket Engines

by Dave Fischer

We have had several queries concerning “pintle injectors” (make sure you read the last paragraph of this post), as these are mentioned in the Space-X page on the Falcon 9, where it refers to the Merlin rocket engine and the “pintle style injector“:

The main engine, called Merlin 1C, was developed internally at Space-X, drawing upon a long heritage of space proven engines. The pintle style injector at the heart of Merlin 1C was first used in the Apollo Moon program for the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) landing engine, one of the most critical phases of the mission.

Based on the queries and the Space-X information, we went sleuthing. First, we came across the fact that TRW built the LEM descent engine, which used the pintle injector. We ran across David Meerman Scott’s blog apolloartifacts for a discussion and look at a model of the famous Lunar Module Descent Engine (LMDE). The engine was made famous by the Apollo 13 mission, where:

the Service Propulsion System (SPS) was never used subsequent to the cryotank stir/explosion. Because the extent of damage to the SPS was unknown, there was great concern at the time that collateral damage could have caused a catastrophic malfunction (if the engine was fired). Instead the LMDE was used for the return burn and subsequent course correction. Quite a famous engine.

In 2000, TRW demonstrated the TR-106 engine (pintle injector) using LOX / LH2 at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center . The engine generated 650,000 pounds of thrust, more than the 400,000 pounds of thrust generated by the Space Shuttle Main Engine SSME. Al Frew, vice president and general manager, TRW Space & Technology Division stated:

Most engines are designed for maximum performance and minimum weight, but we deliberately set out to develop an engine that minimizes cost while retaining excellent performance. We believe this engine will cost 50 to 75 percent less than comparable liquid hydrogen boosters. By reducing engine costs, which make up almost half of the cost of a launch vehicle, we will reduce the cost of launch vehicles and access to space for government and commercial customers.

Despite the promise the motor demonstrated, NASA canceled further work.

The pintle injector engines have a long history in the former Soviet Union. The NK-33 was the successor to the NK-15 engines used in the failed Soviet N1 Moon launcher. NK-33 have been used with the Russian Proton launch system. An interesting discussion of the Soviet Moon rocket, its engines and the NK-33 successor can be found here, along with spectacular video of the launch and explosion. Orbital Sciences has now contracted with Aerojet (owner of the NK-33 engines) to finish developing and testing the NK-33 engines, now designated as AJ26-58 for the Taurus II.

Jonathon Goff, at Masten Space Systems, had a commentary at Selenianboondocks on the 2006 Space-X change from an ablative Merlin engine to a regenerative engine. Jon states that the “engine related problems are interrelated, and that they have to do with the combination of using a high chamber pressure engine design with a pintle-injector and an ablatively cooled chamber wall.” That is, the flame produced by the cone of fuel and oxidizer hits the wall of the chamber and overheats the wall.

Included in the commentary is a simplified image of a pintle injector rocket engine, which illustrates the flow of liquid oxygen and fuel (RP-1 or liquid hydrogen) through the pintle injector into a cone shaped spray in the combustion chamber.

The replacement of the ablative chamber with a regenerative chamber eliminates the overheating.

Pintle Injector
Pintle Injector
Image Credit: Forschungsgruppe Alternative Raumfahrtkonzepte

Below left is the business end of the LEM Descent engine, showing the Pintle Injector:

Below right is an image by Warren W. Thompson at the unveiling of Space-X’s Falcon 1 at the Air & Space Museum on 4 December 2003.

Lunar Module Descent Engine
Image Credit: jurvetson on Flickr
Merlin Engine with Pintle Injector
Merlin Engine with Pintle Injector
Image Credit: Warren W. Thompson

Finally, while explaining the Pintle Injector to a friend, I realized that almost everybody who has a garden or tends a lawn has personal experience with pintles. You all use a nozzle on the end of your watering hose. Crank it down and you get a steady, narrow stream of water shooting out in a long arc. Crank it back the other way when you want to shut it off, and you get a wide, cone shaped fan spray. Now, turn off the water and look at the business end of the garden hose nozzle (please shut the water off first). There in the middle is a round pintle that moves back and forth as you crank the outer casing one way or the other. And the fan shaped spray of water with which you are familiar is what the fuel and oxidizer spray looks like inside the rocket engine. So take another look at the two images above and imagine the fan shaped spray. The only difference is that your spray of water doesn’t explosively combust and throw a rocket into space.

Hubble Sees Suspected Asteroid Collision

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has observed a mysterious X-shaped debris pattern and trailing streamers of dust that suggest a head-on collision between two asteroids. Astronomers have long thought that the asteroid belt is being ground down through collisions, but such a smashup has never been seen before.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt
Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt

See full story.

Water on the Moon- the article

A Whiff of Water Found on the Moon

By Richard A. Kerr

Yes, the moon is a “wetter” place than the Apollo astronauts ever could have imagined, but don’t break out the beach gear just yet. Although three independent groups today announced the detection of water on the lunar surface, their find is at most a part per 1000 water in the outermost millimeter or two of still very dry lunar rock.


Sept. 24, 2009

Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

RELEASE: 09-222


WASHINGTON — NASA scientists have discovered water molecules in the polar regions of the moon. Instruments aboard three separate spacecraft revealed water molecules in amounts that are greater than predicted, but still relatively small. Hydroxyl, a molecule consisting of one oxygen atom and one hydrogen atom, also was found in the lunar soil. The findings were published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science.

NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3, instrument reported the observations. M3 was carried into space on Oct. 22, 2008, aboard the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Data from the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, or VIMS, on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and the High-Resolution Infrared Imaging Spectrometer on NASA’s EPOXI spacecraft contributed to confirmation of the finding. The spacecraft imaging spectrometers made it possible to map lunar water more effectively than ever before.

The confirmation of elevated water molecules and hydroxyl at these concentrations in the moon’s polar regions raises new questions about its origin and effect on the mineralogy of the moon. Answers to these questions will be studied and debated for years to come.

“Water ice on the moon has been something of a holy grail for lunar scientists for a very long time,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This surprising finding has come about through the ingenuity, perseverance and international cooperation between NASA and the India Space Research Organization.”

From its perch in lunar orbit, M3’s state-of-the-art spectrometer measured light reflecting off the moon’s surface at infrared wavelengths, splitting the spectral colors of the lunar surface into small enough bits to reveal a new level of detail in surface composition. When the M3 science team analyzed data from the instrument, they found the wavelengths of light being absorbed were consistent with the absorption patterns for water molecules and hydroxyl.

“For silicate bodies, such features are typically attributed to water and hydroxyl-bearing materials,” said Carle Pieters, M3’s principal investigator from Brown University. “When we say ‘water on the moon,’ we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles. Water on the moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl that interact with molecules of rock and dust specifically in the top millimeters of the moon’s surface. ”

The M3 team found water molecules and hydroxyl at diverse areas of the sunlit region of the moon’s surface, but the water signature appeared stronger at the moon’s higher latitudes. Water molecules and hydroxyl previously were suspected in data from a Cassini flyby of the moon in 1999, but the findings were not published until now.

“The data from Cassini’s VIMS instrument and M3 closely agree,” said Roger Clark, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist in Denver and member of both the VIMS and M3 teams. “We see both water and hydroxyl. While the abundances are not precisely known, as much as 1,000 water molecule parts-per-million could be in the lunar soil. To put that into perspective, if you harvested one ton of the top layer of the moon’s surface, you could get as much as 32 ounces of water.”

For additional confirmation, scientists turned to the EPOXI mission while it was flying past the moon in June 2009 on its way to a November 2010 encounter with comet Hartley 2. The spacecraft not only confirmed the VIMS and M3 findings, but also expanded on them.

“With our extended spectral range and views over the north pole, we were able to explore the distribution of both water and hydroxyl as a function of temperature, latitude, composition, and time of day,” said Jessica Sunshine of the University of Maryland. Sunshine is EPOXI’s deputy principal investigator and a scientist on the M3 team. “Our analysis unequivocally confirms the presence of these molecules on the moon’s surface and reveals that the entire surface appears to be hydrated during at least some portion of the lunar day.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the M3 instrument, Cassini mission and EPOXI spacecraft for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Indian Space Research Organization built, launched and operated the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft.

For additional information and images from the instruments, visit:

For more information about the Chandrayaan-1 mission, visit:

For more information about the EPOXI mission, visit:

For more information about the Cassini mission, visit:

The Atlantica Expeditions – The First Undersea Colony

The first Atlantica Expedition will begin on August 2nd, 2010. Three Aquanauts – Dennis Chamberland, Claudia Chamberland and Terrence Tysall, will submerge in the Leviathan Habitat and set a new world’s record for uninterrupted stay beneath the surface shattering the previous record of 69 days set by Aquanaut Rick Presley. Rotating in five day visits, 24 other aquanauts will rotate through the Leviathan including scientists, teachers, journalists and even Aquanaut Rick Presley! Then in 2013, the Challenger Station habitat – the largest manned undersea habitat ever built, will be launched off the Florida coast and establish the first permanent undersea human colony.Our efforts do not represent an underwater hotel, not an outpost or a way-station, not a laboratory. We are a human community. We are the first humans who will move there and stay with no intention of ever calling dry land our home again. We represent the first generation of a people who will live out their lives beneath the sea.

Undersea Colony Interview Part 1 of 6 ( to continue watching the interview click on the video box which will take you to you tube, the rest of the interview videos are on the right)

The Glories of Our Journey

By Veronica Ann Zabala-Aliberto

It is only fitting that just before humanity celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the surface of the Moon, that a current NASA lunar mission acquires imagery dissolving many misconceptions and proving once and for all that the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, arrived on the Moon July 20, 1969.

A  mission dubbed as the “precursor mission” to sending humans to the Moon by 2020, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Cameras (LROC) not only show the Apollo Descent Vehicle left behind by the astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but also depict their tracks while traversing to the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Science Experiment Package).  ALSEP is a suite of scientific instruments placed by the astronauts at the landing site of each of the five Apollo missions to land on the Moon following Apollo 11 (Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17).  Apollo 11, however, left a smaller, temporary package called the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package, or EASEP.

Four times enlargement of an uncalibrated LROC NAC image showing the Apollo 14 lunar module (LM Antares) and the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP). Note the astronaut tracks between the two artifacts [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].Apollo 11 (UL; 282 meters wide), Apollo 15 (UR; 384 meters wide), Apollo 16 (ML; 256 meters wide), Apollo 17 (MR; 359 meters wide), Apollo 14 (Bottom; 538 meters wide) [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].What is so unique about LRO’s cameras is that they take pictures at a much higher resolution than previous lunar missions.  This is crucial in order to determine if new craters within the time the Apollo astronauts walked the surface of the Moon were formed as well as how the lunar equipment left behind has held up all these years within the harsh environment on the lunar surface.

Mapping the Apollo landing sites has come at a most appropriate time when the world has experienced such economic uncertainty and NASA’s human exploration program is in jeopardy.  Such imagery is crucial to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers. So much time has passed that two generations of the world’s population would begin to consider humans walking the surface of the Moon just a folktale.  It is imperative to keep human exploration to the Moon, Mars and beyond in the legislative language and to ensure that educators, students and members of the general public are kept on the same page as NASA in order to ensure that there are no interruptions in human missions again.  Forty years is too long of a time span to not go back to the Moon.  Especially when it is Earth’s nearest celestial body – only 3.5 days to be exact!

I learned a very important lesson in my planetary geology class at Arizona State University which I have translated back to visitors at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Science Operation Center.  As my mentor informed us, there are three phases of exploration.

The first phase is Observation and we can thank Galileo for that with the invention of the telescope.  Many have observed the Earth’s moon via the telescope for centuries.  The next phase of human exploration is Reconnaissance.  This is where we get our lunar orbiters and landers.  When we want to explore further and closer to the object we are interested in sending humans to we send an armada of spacecraft and surface landers to that planet or moon in order to determine if it is safe for humans to live and work on, what resources are available, and if we can harvest those resources for the betterment of those living on Earth.  The final phase of exploration is Human Exploration to that planet or moon of interest.

Therefore, when it comes to Earth’s moon, we have already completed these three phases of exploration!  Theoretically, you would think that it would only be natural for us to go back and continue our goals of exploring the Moon with increased frequency.  Right?  Hopefully, with the spectacular imagery being obtained by LROC, we will again start to explore and educate the way we did when Neil and Buzz walked the surface of the Moon.  And remember…LROC is still in its Commissioning Phase.  Which means that in just a couple of months we will be in our Nominal Phase of the mission where we will take even more exciting images of the lunar surface at even higher resolution!  So stay tuned!

Veronica Ann Zabala-Aliberto is a senior undergraduate student at Arizona State University within the School of Earth and Space Exploration who currently works on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission within the LROC Science Operations Center.  She is also the Chapter President for the National Space Society of Phoenix.

STS-125 Mission Status Briefing 05-19-09

Tony Ceccacci, STS-125 Lead Flight Director, Eric Smith Hubble Space Telescope Program Scientist, NASA Headquarters and David Leckrone, Hubble Space Telescope Senior Project Scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center, discuss the success of the mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope after it’s release from the cargo bay of the space shuttle Atlantis.
Category: Science & Technology