Desert RATS 2010 Webcast

NASA’s Desert RATS, or Research and Technology Studies, will make its 13th trip to the desert this fall for another round of analog testing.

The Desert RATS tests offer a chance for a NASA-led team of engineers, astronauts and scientists from across the country to come together to conduct technology-development research in the Arizona desert. The location offers a good stand in for destinations for future planetary exploration missions. 

This year’s mission includes a variety of activities geared to inspire students to become space explorers and NASA’s future workforce. On Sept. 1, 2010, at 9:45 a.m. PDT, a 30-minute webcast will highlight the upcoming Desert RATS activities as they kick off the two-week testing period. Students can submit questions to be answered live by actual engineers and scientists that created, built and are testing all of the amazing tools, vehicles and technology. Questions for the NASA field test team can be submitted at

For more information about Desert RATS visit

Check out videos of this year’s mission on YouTube.

Planets Align for the Perseid Meteor Shower

A Perseid meteor photographed in Aug. 2009 by Pete Lawrence of Selsey, UKThe show begins at sundown, August 12, when Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent Moon pop out of the western twilight in tight conjunction. All four heavenly objects will fit within a circle about 10 degrees in diameter, beaming together through the dusky colors of sunset. No telescope is required to enjoy this naked-eye event.

The planets will hang together in the western sky until 10 pm or so. When they leave, following the sun below the horizon, you should stay, because that is when the Perseid meteor shower begins. From 10 pm until dawn, meteors will flit across the starry sky in a display that’s even more exciting than a planetary get-together.

The Perseid meteor shower is caused by debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every 133 years the huge comet swings through the inner solar system and leaves behind a trail of dust and gravel. When Earth passes through the debris, specks of comet-stuff hit the atmosphere at 140,000 mph and disintegrate in flashes of light. These meteors are called Perseids because they fly out of the constellation Perseus.

For best results, get away from city lights. The darkness of the countryside multiplies the visible meteor rate 3- to 10-fold. A good dark sky will even improve the planetary alignment, allowing faint Mars and Saturn to make their full contribution to the display. Many families plan camping trips to coincide with the Perseids. The Milky Way arching over a mountain campground provides the perfect backdrop for a meteor shower.

Link to the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus home page.

NASA Rover Finds Clue to Mars' Past and Environment for Life

Mars outcrop called “Comanche”Rocks examined by NASA’s Mars rover Spirit hold evidence of an ancient wet, non-acidic environment that may have been favorable for life. Confirming this mineral clue took four years of analysis by several scientists.

Spirit inspected many rock outcrops, including one called Comanche by scientists. They discovered magnesium iron carbonate makes up about one-fourth of the measured volume in Comanche samples. That is a tenfold higher concentration than any previously identified for carbonate in a Martian rock. 

Massive carbonate deposits on Mars have been sought for years without much success. Numerous channels apparently carved by flows of liquid water on ancient Mars suggest the planet was formerly warmer, thanks to greenhouse warming from a thicker atmosphere than exists now. The dense, ancient Martian atmosphere was probably rich in carbon dioxide, because that gas makes up nearly all the very thin, modern atmosphere.

Lunokhod Once Was Lost but Now It's Found — After 40 Years

A Soviet robot lost on the dusty plains of the moon for the past 40 years has been found again, and it is returning surprisingly strong laser pulses to Earth. “We shined a laser on Lunokhod 1’s position, and we were stunned by the power of the reflection,” says Tom Murphy of UC San Diego, who leads the research team that’s putting the old robot back to work. “Lunokhod 1 is talking to us loudly and clearly.”

The remote-controlled rover traveled almost seven miles during its 11-month lunar tour, relaying thousands of TV images and hundreds of high-resolution panoramas of the moon back to Earth. It also sampled and analyzed lunar soil at 500 locations. Then Lunokhod-1 was lost — until last month when NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter found it again.

Murphy’s initial reaction was disbelief: “The signal was so strong; my first thought was that our detector was acting up! I expected the rover’s reflector to be degraded and dull after all this time, so I thought, ‘This couldn’t possibly be it.’ But it was. We got about 2,000 photons from Lunokhod 1 on our first try. After almost 40 years of silence, this rover has a lot to say.” 

To read more about the rediscovery of Lunokhod 1, visit

NASA Satellite Images Used to Locate Ticks

Blacklegged tick resting on a blade of grass
Finding a tick usually involves a squeamish self-examination — carefully rubbing fingertips through your scalp, meticulously scanning your body, and groaning “eyeww” if a little bloodsucker is discovered. But now there is a new way to discover these pesky, disease-laden critters — via satellite!

Two University of Alabama at Birmingham graduate students are pioneering the new technique as part of a NASA program called DEVELOP. They’ve been using satellite images of Alabama’s Talladega National Forest to reveal likely areas of the forest where ticks may flourish. The students used what they learned from their NASA advisor, Dr. Jeff Luvall of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, to classify levels of vegetation and moisture in 12 locations in the forest. They then created detailed digital maps and images showing likely tick habitats — areas where dense vegetation overlapped those with high soil moisture. 

If you want to know more about the program, visit:

To read about other uses for NASA satellite imagery in education visit

Link to the NES Virtual Campus home page.