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This Week @ NASA, February 3, 2012
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This Week @NASA...

“Today you will hear and learn about the anatomy of our galactic neighborhood.”

New findings by NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX spacecraft, are helping scientists fill holes in our knowledge about the matter found between the stars in our Milky Way galaxy. IBEX, whose primary focus has been the interaction between our solar system and what lies beyond, has directly sampled multiple heavy elements within this interstellar medium, the same materials of which stars, planets – even people, are made.

Seth Redfield, Asst. Professor, Astronomy Dept. Wesleyan Univ.: “The heliosphere changes with time as it passes into a dense interstellar cloud it will be compressed and very small. And as it moves into another cloud, it will expand out again.”

Launched in October 2008, IBEX primarily collects data on the interactions between the heliosheath and interstellar space. The heliosheath provides our solar system with a bubble of protection from deadly cosmic radiation emanating from interstellar space.

NASA’s new multi-purpose crew vehicle, Orion, will travel to new destinations beyond low Earth orbit. We’ve now taken a step closer to determining who might be inside, and it could be one or more of the 6,372 people who’ve submitted applications to become new NASA astronauts. That’s the second highest number of responses ever received. Only the call back in 1978 generated more applications. But, suffice it to say that the competition over the next few years will be rigorous; by the time NASA completes its screening process, no more than fifteen candidates will have been selected for our next class of space explorers.

As for the Space Launch System’s heavy-lift launch vehicle that’ll send Orion on its deep-space missions, 2012 promises to be an active year of testing for its new rocket engine. The J-2X, NASA’s first human-rated rocket engine to be developed in 40 years, had a recent close-up with media at the Stennis Space Center. That’s where engineers will soon start putting through its paces the component of this highly-efficient, versatile and advanced rocket engine called the "powerpack".

Tom Byrd, J-2X Engine Lead, Marshall Space Flight Center: “We are so excited to have accomplished what we did in 2011 for the J-2X development project. We got ten tests accomplished – 1,000 seconds here at Stennis Space Center, and we had a very good test series in terms of understanding engine performance and understanding how to start and shutdown the engine.”

The J-2X will power the upper stage of the SLS, whose initial test flight is slated for 2017.

NASA’s Chief Technologist Mason Peck recently visited the Wallops Flight Facility, where he received an overview on its capabilities at Wallops in developing and testing technologies for spaceflight applications, and the role of the agency’s scientific balloon program in maturing new technology. He also had a chance to see Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket, which will be carrying supplies to the International Space Station.

Mason Peck NASA Chief Technologist: “I’m here at Wallops Flight Facility today to check out some of the amazing work that they’re doing in space technology. They’re proving out, they’re testing some of the key technologies that will be a part of NASA’s future.”

Commentator: “Jerry Ross as he continues preparations for what will be his eighth spacewalk today. Ross – more experienced than any other U.S. Spacewalker in history.”

Two of NASA’s most prolific astronauts are calling it a career. Jerry Ross, the first of only two people to launch into space seven times, has retired. Ross spent almost 14-hundred hours in space and conducted nine spacewalks during a career spanning more than three decades. He joined NASA in 1979 as a payload officer and flight controller and was selected as an astronaut in 1980. He and Franklin Chang-Diaz are the only two astronauts to have flown into space seven times.

Lucid speaks: “This was my home for six months. You can see that there’s lots of ventilation tubes, there’s lots of wires, there’s lots of equipment that’s stored there.”

Also retiring is Shannon Lucid. A veteran of five flights totaling more than 5-thousand hours in space. Lucid was the first woman to hold an international record for the most flight hours in orbit by a non-Russian. She also holds the United States single mission space flight endurance record on Space Station Mir. In 1996, Lucid served as a Board Engineer 2, onboard Mir, spending more than 188 days performing numerous life- and physical science experiments. She received a hero’s welcome from President Clinton upon her return to Earth.

At the Kennedy Space Center, space shuttle Endeavour was moved from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Orbiter Processing Facility-2. OPF-2 is where Endeavour will undergo transition and retirement processing in preparation for its public display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles in the fall of 2012.

Meanwhile, space shuttle Atlantis remains inside the VAB, but has been moved from the building’s transfer aisle to inside High Bay 4 for temporary storage. Atlantis is being prepared for public display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in 2013.

NASA's Kepler mission has “wowed” again. The spacecraft that “stares at” and detects changes in the light from a select group of stars has discovered 11 new planetary systems hosting a total of 26 confirmed planets. These discoveries nearly double the number of verified planets and triple the number of stars known to have more than one planet that transits, or passes in front of, the star. Such systems will help astronomers better understand how planets form. The planets orbit close to their host stars and range in size from 1.5 times the radius of Earth, to larger than Jupiter. Further observations will determine which of these newly-discovered exoplanets are rocky, like Earth, and which have thick gaseous atmospheres like Neptune.

A key member of the Kepler team is Caltech astronomer John Johnson. Johnson’s contributions, and those of other African-Americans, are significant to the success of space exploration.

John Johnson, Research Scientist, NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute/Caltech: “I think a lot of young people believe that the only way to be successful in this world is to go thru school and get those grades, to go out and apply for some high paying job and do your 9 to 5.

If you’re a person that’s not satisfied with that then science is where you might want to consider being.

My job with NASA is to conduct research into the discovery and characterization of planets around other stars. I use telescopes to observe the universe.

This is what helps me wake up in the morning and what keeps me going thru my very busy days are discoveries like this where there was no answer in the back of the book.

I lacked a lot of confidence when I first started off studying astronomy. I encountered questions that nobody on earth knew the answer to. And I was actually having to devise the method of reaching the answer. It’s ok to be stuck. As a matter of fact, to be an astronomer, to be a really successful scientist you should spend the majority of your time stuck. Because that means you are doing something interesting. This is actually a really great job to understand the universe and I can’t think of a better way to earn a paycheck.”

NASA’s first multi-player online game to test players' knowledge of the space program has been launched into orbit on Facebook. Space Race Blastoff questions players’ about NASA history, technology, science and pop culture.

Brian Dunbar, Internet Services Manager, NASA HQ: “We really hope this will reach a different audience. An audience that may not be that interested in say coming to the website and reading a long feature story, but wants to sort of test itself out against how much they already know and what they might want to learn. We’ve always tried to put the really cool stuff on the home page and this is a way to take it a step farther for people who might not visit the homepage.”

NASA chose to make the game available through Facebook to take advantage of the social media site's large audience and enable players to compete against others. Individuals also can play solo games. For factual, spaceflight fun, check out Space Race Blast Off, at

And that’s This Week @ NASA!

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