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NASA: 50 Years of Exploration

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NASA Around the World

    By Brad Wetzler

    While NASA is most known for employees – astronauts – who have orbited over the world, every day intrepid NASA employees travel on the ground to the far reaches of our planet to conduct scientific research and explore some of Earth’s most desolate areas. Here is the story of some of the people who are planting NASA footprints all over the globe.


    Robot skunk works - Terry Fong’s robot development team.

    Robot skunk works - Terry Fong’s robot development team.

    Dr. Terry Fong,
    Intelligent Robots Group, NASA Ames Research Center
    Dr. Pascal Lee
    Haughton-Mars Project Leader (Mars Institute)

    A manned Mars expedition may seem like a long way off, but there are plenty of NASA projects going on around the world to get us ready for that day. Take, for instance, last summer’s fieldwork for the Haughton-Mars Project, led by principal investigator Pascal Lee (co-founder and chairman of the Mars Institute, planetary scientist at the SETI Institute). Lee’s team conducted a six-week field study in the Mars-like conditions in the arctic at Haughton Crater on Canada’s Devon Island. During that study, among other things, Lee’s team deployed two robots created by Terry Fong and his colleagues of the Intelligent Robots Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The robots were called K10 Black and K10 Red. The mission was to survey the rocky, isolated polar desert within a crater in the Arctic Circle so scientists could learn a number of things, including its geology, possible biological attributes, the history of climates and the limits of life in extreme environments. Also, they wanted to learn how robots could work with people to evaluate potential outposts on the moon or Mars.

    Next stop Mars - The K10 Black and K10 Red robots explore Canada’s Devon Island.

    Next stop Mars - The K10 Black and K10 Red robots explore Canada’s Devon Island.

    “It’s far more efficient to have robots do this kind of work than for humans,” Fong said. “We’ll need robots like this on Mars.”

    The 165-pound robots, which are controlled from a remote location, have difficult tasks: the K10 Red is equipped with a 3-D laser scanner that can map topographic features as far away as 3,280 feet. K10 Black is equipped with ground penetrating radar developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that can map below ground as deep as 16.4 feet. This will allow astronauts to survey more efficiently their surroundings without having to leave their lander. “The robots are covering the area in lawnmower-like paths at human walking speeds to map systematically above and below ground. Of course, there is a larger purpose to these experiments. The research will be a test run to see how well humans and robots can interact in extreme conditions, to get the kinks out in robot-human relations. "We are learning about the awesome potential of human and robot teams,” said S. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.


    Another unsinkable Molly Brown - NASA researcher Molly Brown, whose work is focused on West Africa, is using satellite observations of crop productivity and a new economic model to try to predict the availability and price of food in a particular region.

    Another unsinkable Molly Brown - NASA researcher Molly Brown, whose work is focused on West Africa, is using satellite observations of crop productivity and a new economic model to try to predict the availability and price of food in a particular region.

    Dr. Molly E. Brown
    Senior Research Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    Throughout the world, local people worry at harvest time if there will be enough grain to feed their families for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid organizations struggle to predict where the next famine and humanitarian crisis will occur. Wouldn’t it be great if you could see into the future and answer those questions, and give that information to local government officials and other decision-makers? NASA Goddard Space Flight Center researcher Molly E. Brown is working on answers to those questions. The 38-year-old mother of two is using satellite remote sensing of crop growth and a new economic model to predict how much food will be available in a particular region and what its price will be four months in advance. Her study is focused on West Africa, where 3.2 million people are at risk each year of going without enough food.

    Economists already use information on current market prices to develop price models. However, these models have rarely been used in regions with small and informal markets such as those in West Africa. Brown’s project gives economists a new tool that provides information on future changes of prices in the region. With the help of satellite observations and a biophysical model, she and her colleagues observe from far away Maryland the growing season progresses, monitoring rainfall and the amount of vegetation or “greenness” there is on the West African terrain. The economic model combines modeled crop health with commodity price observations to predict future prices. She can do everything from her desk in Maryland by working with officials in West Africa who send information on market movements from West Africa every month via the Internet. “For the first time we can leverage satellite observations of crop productivity to create a more accurate price model that will help humanitarian aid organizations and other decision makers predict how much food will be available and what its cost will be as a result,” said Brown, the lead author of the study. “This is a unique opportunity for an economic model to take climate variables into account in a way that can aid populations large and small.”


    Unearthing a Maya mystery - NASA scientists use images taken by the commercial Earth-observation satellite IKONOS of Guatemala to identify Maya settlements from space. Photo credit-Space Imaging Inc.

    Unearthing a Maya mystery - NASA scientists use images taken by the commercial Earth-observation satellite IKONOS of Guatemala to identify Maya settlements from space. Photo credit: Space Imaging Inc.

    Dr. Tom Sever
    Archaeologist, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
    Dr. Bill Saturno
    Archaeologist, University of New Hampshire

    About 1,200 years ago, one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen, the Maya, mysteriously disappeared. For still unexplained reasons, the people left its densely populated urban centers, which at one time had more people than New York City, in the Yucatan area of southern Mexico. Left behind were hundreds if not thousands of archeological ruins waiting to be explored. But until now, these ruins were nearly impossible to find, as they are encased in centuries of overgrown vegetation.

    Modern Indiana Joneses - Deep in the Guatemalan jungle, NASA archaeologist Tom Sever, right, and Pennsylvania State University Graduate Student Rob Griffin, study a crumbled stele, a stone pyramid used by the Maya to record information or display ornately carved art. The site and other Maya ruins, hidden for more than 1,000 years, were discovered by Sever and Griffin, during an expedition that relied on NASA remote-sensing technologies. Photo credit-NASA T. Sever

    Modern Indiana Joneses - Deep in the Guatemalan jungle, NASA archaeologist Tom Sever (right) and Pennsylvania State University Graduate Student Rob Griffin, study a crumbled stele, a stone pyramid used by the Maya to record information or display ornately carved art. The site and other Maya ruins, hidden for more than 1,000 years, were discovered by Sever and Griffin, during an expedition that relied on NASA remote-sensing technologies.
    Photo credit: NASA/T. Sever

    Enter Tom Sever, NASA’s only archeologist, who works at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and partner Bill Saturno, an archeologist at the University of New Hampshire. Together they have come up with a remarkably accurate system that will help them find hundreds more ruins. Satellites take infrared pictures of the areas they want to explore and transfer them into colorful maps with contrasting colors based on the amount of chlorophyll in the vegetation in the area. They circled areas on the map with unusual coloring. Sever posited that the strange colors were the sign that the limestone used to build the structures had leached into the vegetation.

    The next step was to travel deep into the jungle and see if the different colors on the map corresponded to actual ruins. A team made up of Sever and Saturno and several other scientists went to the "bajo," or lowlands, to see if they could find more ruins using the maps. What they found was astonishing. They discovered that ruins were exactly where the coordinates on the map predicted they’d be. “This is revolutionary,” said Saturno in a PBS documentary about their project. “It totally changes the way we approach archeology in the tropical environment.” Thanks to the collaboration of archeology and space technology, scientists are learning how the Maya conquered the harsh landscape as no modern civilization ever has and how they quite suddenly lost control of it.


    There goes the sun - NASA Eclipse Expedition Scientists Joseph Davila, Madhulika Guhathakurta, Don Hassler, Nelson Reginald and Chris St. Cyr during their 2006 trip to Libya.

    There goes the sun - NASA Eclipse Expedition Scientists Joseph Davila, Madhulika Guhathakurta, Don Hassler, Nelson Reginald and Chris St. Cyr during their 2006 trip to Libya.

    Dr. Joseph Davila
    Astrophysicist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    Scientists who study the sun love a good eclipse. That’s because when the disk hides behind the moon, they have a rare opportunity to study the corona, the faint, outermost layer that is normally overwhelmed by the sun’s bright light. (The corona is a million times fainter than the rest of the sun.) Thus when an eclipse happens, heliophysicists will go anywhere – anywhere! – even to the middle of the desert in Libya.

    At the invitation of Libyan scientists, in late March 2006, a NASA team headed by Dr. Joseph Davila, an astrophysicist in the heliophysics division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and other scientists traveled to a remote spot in the Sahara Desert in Libya to watch the March 29 eclipse. “There were several other places where we could have gone,” Davila said. “But Libya was the most likely to have clear skies.” Fortunately for them, after decades of distrust between the U.S. and Libya, relations between the two countries had thawed a little bit. The U.S. State Department gave them the go-ahead. So they set up tents and got their instruments in place for the big show.

    NASA scientists set up their experiment to monitor the solar eclipse in the Libyan desert.

    NASA scientists set up their experiment to monitor the solar eclipse in the Libyan desert.

    Studying the corona is important because that is where the “solar weather,” the radiation or particles in space that can affect satellites and cause astronauts to get sick or die, originates. It is possible to study this in space, but much easier during an eclipse.

    As it turned out, the Libyan scientists had invited dozens of other scientists from around the world and held a conference in tents on the sand. Unlike in some contentious areas of international relations, everybody got along well and a lot of work was done. “It was a lot of fun,” said Davila. “The accommodations weren’t bad. And the food, it was pretty good too – if you swept the sand off before digging in.”

    Davila also noted that the people were very interested in talking to them about NASA. “Though some of the older people were more wary.

    Everyone knew NASA, and everybody wanted something with the NASA logo on it. We gave away all our pens, buttons and stickers.”


    Near the eye of the storm - While in flight NASA scientist Bjorn Lambrigtsen uses his HAMSR experiment to monitor a hurricane’s temperature and water vapor distribution.

    Near the eye of the storm - While in flight NASA scientist Bjorn Lambrigtsen uses his HAMSR experiment to monitor a hurricane’s temperature and water vapor distribution.

    Dr. Bjorn Lambrigtsen
    Atmospheric Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

    “It’s easy to see the destructive forces that a hurricane can bring to bear,” said Bjorn Lambrigtsen, an atmospheric scientist based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “But we still don’t know much about how they get started – why do they start spinning? That’s what I want to figure out.”

    Lambrigtsen, a native of Norway, is on a quest to do just that. He is the principal investigator in an ongoing project to use a high-tech instrument he helped build measure the atmospheric conditions inside hurricanes. While most of his work involves sitting at a computer, fieldwork is a necessity. The name of the instrument is a mouthful: High Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit Sounding Radiometer. Mounted on the underside of aircraft, it measures how temperature and water vapor are distributed inside the hurricane, so that scientists get a picture of the storm’s internal processes.

    They first studied the atmosphere over Florida in 2001 and then in Costa Rica in 2005, where they monitored some eastern Pacific storms. The latest reconnaissance trip was over the Cape Verde Islands east of Africa, where Atlantic hurricanes get their start. The plane flew into some serious turbulence. “Sometimes it feels like the plane is going to fall apart. At one point we buzzed the ocean at about 200 feet. I almost got sick.”

    The work could have great significance in the scientific community and beyond: why do some storms start spinning, a process called cyclogenesis, while others fade out? Lambrigtsen explains that all Atlantic hurricanes begin as thunderstorms over West Africa. As they head west out to sea, some of those turn into tropical depressions.

    Occasionally one of those will turn into a tropical storm. And occasionally one of those will turn into a full-blown hurricane. “For a tropical wave to turn into a hurricane,” he said, "it needs something to give it a twist and it needs convection.” Lambrigtsen compared it to a giant heat engine, like a boiler. “It takes moisture from the surface and shoots it skyward. As water vapor condenses into rain, evaporates, and condenses again, it releases energy that helps drive the engine. Our microwave atmospheric profiler measures how temperature and water vapor are distributed inside the hurricane so we get a picture of the storm’s internal processes and how energetic it is.”

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    Extreme Life - NASA Astrobiology Institute scientist Linda Amaral Zettler studies Spain’s acidic Rio Tinto river to find exotic forms of life.

    Extreme Life - NASA Astrobiology Institute scientist Linda Amaral Zettler studies Spain’s acidic Rio Tinto river to find exotic forms of life.

    Dr. Linda Amaral Zettler
    Research Scientist, NASA Astrobiology Institute

    The New York Times described Spain’s Rio Tinto, a 58-mile-long river that runs red like wine, as being so acidic that its pH is halfway between vinegar and stomach acid. It is also extremely metallic, containing a great deal of iron and sulfur. In other words, it is not the kind of environment where you would likely find a lot of life.

    But a group of scientists, headed up by Dr. Linda Amaral Zettler of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, have been studying the river. And they have found all kinds of life: hundreds of species of one-celled algae, fungi, yeast, amoebas and other microbes, some of them apparently unique to that river. Some of that life actually feeds on the minerals in the river.

    “The Rio Tinto is a great terrestrial analog for what conditions on Mars might be,” said Zettler, whose day job is with the Marine Biological Institute in Woods Hole, Mass. “There are animals there that actually feed on rocks. One goal is to try to establish linkages between the animals and minerals.”

    The project has been going on since 2003, but Zettler has been studying the river since 1999, when she accepted a National Institutes of Health grant to look into the microbes at the acidic river. There are very few places like it in the world, and none that provide such a perfect environment for science.

    For a long time, local people thought its red color was a result of copper mining that has taken place in the region for the past 5,000 years. But 10 years ago, Dr. Ricardo Amils, a Spanish colleague of Zettler’s who studies the potential for extraterrestrial life, found that the river’s condition was largely natural, a result of bacteria that turn sulfur and iron into sulfuric acid and iron oxide.

    Once a year, Zettler and her colleagues travel to the Rio Tinto and take samples and bring them back to analyze. “It’s a region known for its ham and cheese, too,” she added, jokingly. “We take a lot of samples of that, too.”