Juno spacecraft bound for Jupiter

On Friday at 12:25 a.m. EDT, NASA’s newest spacecraft, Juno, launched into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its way to Jupiter. Juno will engage in an analysis of the planet from an orbit around it.

Juno Spacecraft in front of jupiter.

Researchers hope that the spacecraft and its myriad of instruments will shed light on the origins of Jupiter. Furthermore, being the largest and oldest planet in the solar system, scientists believe that Jupiter may also hold clues to the formation and evolution of the early solar system. Additionally, the data gathered from Juno may help scientists to understand early planetary processes occurring in other star systems beyond our own.

Juno will travel roughly 1,740 million miles (2,800 million kilometers) over the course of its five-year journey.

Cassini spacecraft captures large storm on Saturn

On Wednesday NASA released details of a giant convective storm on Saturn gathered from the international Cassini spacecraft orbiting the planet. The storm, known as a “Great White Spot”, is around 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers) wide and visible from Earth.

The White Spot storms have been observed since 1876 and occur approximately every 30 years; only five previous storms have been seen in the last 137 years. The first signs were detected on December 5, 2010 by instruments aboard the Cassini spacecraft when it recorded lightening outbursts in a small bright area on Saturn’s northern half. The area was tracked by the spacecraft and by astronomers on the ground through telescopes. It was later identified as a brewing storm during the start of Saturn spring. Its size and intensity grew until its tail wrapped around the planet. It now covers 1.5 billion square miles.

Saturn showing the Great White Spot. Image: spacetelescope.org.

Cassini has been monitoring storms on Saturn since the craft arrived there in 2004. This is the most intense yet seen and was observed in unprecedented detail, according to the journal Nature in two papers published Thursday. The storm is 500 times larger than the biggest storm on Saturn monitored by Cassini. The spacecraft’s instruments showed the rate of the nearly continuous lightning flashes was up to ten times more frequent than during past storms it has monitored. This electrical activity is 10,000 times stronger than lightning bursts measured on Earth.

Saturn’s huge storm is bright due to its gaseous content, scientists say.

A key question is the source of the energy powering Great White Spots. Originally researchers thought the storms’ power might come from the sun. However, researcher Agustin Sánchez-Lavega told Space.com the new data showed that to make sense of the cloud patterns, the winds must “extend deep into the ‘weather layer’ … where the main clouds reside.” Since sunlight does not reach this depth, this “points to the action of an internal heat source as the power for the winds.”

Space Shuttle Discovery arrives at International Space Station – Final time in its career

The Space Shuttle Discovery, flying the STS-133 mission, has successfully rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station (ISS) today at 18:14 UTC for what is scheduled to be the final time in its career.

Discovery is delivering six astronauts to the orbiting outpost, as well as station parts and supplies including the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 and Robonaut2, the first dexterous humanoid robot in space.

The docking, Discovery’s 13th and final scheduled docking, occurred two minutes ahead of schedule, having been originally scheduled for 19:16 GMT today.

The Space Shuttle Discovery (pictured docked to ISS) has docked with the International Space Station for what is scheduled to be the final time on the STS-133 mission today. Image: NASA.

The hatch between the space shuttle and the ISS was opened at 20:16 UTC, after which the crew members of Expedition 26 welcomed the crew of STS-133 aboard the station. The crew then participated in a safety briefing with Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly, while Shuttle Flight Director Bryan Lunney took part in a mission status briefing on the ground which began at 20:50 UTC.

Later on today, crew members Nicole Stott and Michael Barratt are scheduled to move the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 from the payload bay using the shuttle’s robotic arm to the station’s own robot arm for placement on the exterior of the orbital laboratory.

Official STS-133 crew portrait. From left to right: Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Eric Boe, Steven Lindsey, Michael Barratt and Steve Bowen Image: NASA.

There was a delay in the docking mechanism’s ability to make a seal between the two spacecraft during docking operations, so activities occurring later on in the day, including the transfer of ELC-4, may be delayed. This was primarily because of a mis-alignment between the docking systems of the shuttle and station due to gravitational effects. The entire delay took up approximately 40 minutes.

During Discovery’s approach to the station earlier on today, the crew of Expedition 26 took pictures of the shuttle’s underside from the station’s windows in order to assist in analysis of the heat shield of the spacecraft.

NASA officials are debating whether or not to extend the mission an additional day for a photo shoot of the International Space Station, as it is currently host to six docked spacecraft from the United States, Russia, Europe, and Japan. A decision regarding this possibility is expected on Tuesday.

STS-133 is Space Shuttle Discovery’s 39th and final scheduled mission into space and the program’s 35th mission to the ISS, as well as the 133rd in the entire Shuttle Program. There are two flights remaining before the retirement of the fleet that are still in planning: STS-134 and STS-135.

Space Shuttle Discovery launches on final mission

At 4:53 p.m. (EDT), Space Shuttle Discovery took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on its final mission, STS-133. Its mission is to deliver and install onto the International Space Station (ISS), the Permanent Multipurpose Module Leonardo, the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-4 and provide critical spare components for the station. Six astronauts, Steve Lindsey, Eric Boe, Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and Steve Bowen, are participating in the mission. The shuttle is also carrying Robonaut2, the first dexterous humanoid robot to be in space. Although its first priority will be to test its operation in microgravity, upgrades could eventually allow it to fulfill its ultimate purpose of becoming an astronaut helper on boring or dangerous tasks.

The Space Shuttle Discovery launched on its final mission, STS-133 (crew pictured), today. Image: NASA.

The launch of Discovery, which was supposed to occur at 4:50 p.m., was delayed for three minutes due to a technical problem in the shuttle’s command system and a chipped heat shield tile near the crew hatch which needed to be patched. The launch was also repeatedly postponed since November 1 due to various technical problems with the shuttle’s systems and a hydrogen leak in the fuel tank along with cracks and bad weather. A small piece of foam broke off during the launch but NASA has reported that it is unlikely to cause problems.

Discovery and the crew of STS-133 are scheduled to spend just under two weeks in space and aboard the ISS, logging 4.5 million additional miles of flight.

Space Shuttle Discovery launches on the STS-133 mission. Image: JoshuaZ.

The launch comes just hours after an unmanned automated European cargo spacecraft, ATV-2, docked with the orbiting outpost to deliver supplies and equipment to the crew.

STS-133 is scheduled to be the final mission of Discovery, with its first being STS-41-D in 1984. Discovery flew 39 flights in its operational history, including the current mission, delivering several payloads to space including the Hubble Space Telescope and visiting two different space stations: Mir and the ISS. STS-133 is the 133rd shuttle mission and the 35th mission to the ISS. Discovery is the oldest surviving shuttle, and has flown more missions than any other shuttle. It was also the first shuttle to fly after the Challenger disaster and was the first shuttle to fly after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Later, Discovery became the first shuttle to fly a Russian cosmonaut.

After the current mission, there will be at most two remaining shuttle flights. Endeavor has one more mission remaining, and if an emergency rescue is needed or more funding is secured, Atlantis will also fly once more before the entire fleet is retired.

“The shuttle has provided an amazing capacity for this country to gather data. I think we’re still sorting through a lot of it, trying to figure out what all we’ve learned from it. This chapter in our space history known as the space shuttle has been incredible,” said Bryan Lunney, lead space shuttle flight director for the mission.

Moon water possibly originated from comets, data shows

Data from recent detailed analyses of samples collected on NASA Apollo moon missions, released Sunday, show that Lunar water may originate from comets that collided with the moon early in its geologic history.

A team of astrophysicists led by James Greenwood of Wesleyan University in Connecticut analyzed samples collected on the Apollo 11, 12, 14, and 17 missions and found that the chemical properties of traces of lunar water in these samples differ from water typical of Earth.

Water on the moon may have originated from comets, a new study shows. Image: Luc Viatour.

“The values of deuterium/hydrogen (D/H) that we measure in apatite in the Apollo rock samples”, Greenwood told Space.com, “is clearly distinguishable from water from the Earth, mitigating against this being some sort of contamination on Earth.” Greenwood and his team of researchers studied in particular the variations of hydrogen in the mineral apatite.

The newfound data show that the chemical properties of water in the apatite samples resemble data from the comets Hale-Bopp, Halley, and Hyakutake, suggesting that the water present on the moon could have originated from these comets or others.

According to Greenwood, the results of this study could also provide evidence as to the origin of water on Earth.

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