Flights are Complete! Mission Success!

After two days of experimenting in weightlessness, a team of researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center have their feet firmly planted on the ground.

The team spent April 28 and 29 on parabolic flights with ZERO-G in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The flight — which achieves various levels of microgravity by performing maneuvers known as parabolas — provided the team with an opportunity to study the formation of potentially destructive amyloid fibrils, or protein clusters, like those found in the brain tissue of patients battling neurodegenerative diseases. The experiment, called the ring-sheared drop, was developed by Marshall and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York.

Marshall materials science engineer, Ellen Rabenberg, has supported the project for nearly five years. After two flights on ZERO-G’s modified Boeing 727 — G Force One — in 2016 and 2020, she supported the payload from the ground this year. As ground support, she was responsible for preparing and installing the equipment for flight.

parabolic flight on Flight Aware's live map
Marshall’s ground support team tracked the parabolic flight on Flight Aware’s live map while G Force One performed 30 parabolas. (Flight Aware)

To track the flight in real time, Rabenberg followed the live updates on Flight Aware. Over the course of approximately two hours each day, she monitored the map as G Force One completed 30 parabolas.

Now, Rabenberg and her colleagues will analyze the data gathered in flight and determine next steps for their payload.

Parabolic Pre-flight Checklist

How do you prepare for weightlessness? A team of researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been doing so in preparation of their April 28 and 29 parabolic flights with ZERO-G in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Marshall's parabolic flight crew
The Marshall team exits the G Force One after the first day of parabolic flights. (NASA)
So what is on their parabolic pre-flight checklist?

An easily digestible breakfast
The flight team is served a doctor-recommended breakfast of bagels, fruit, and juice — all of which digest quickly and easily to provide fuel for their bodies as they experience periods of variable gravity.

Proper attire
Fort Lauderdale is a subtropical climate with warm and humid conditions in the spring. Participants wear light, comfortable clothing and closed toed shoes for movement in the hangar, on the ramp, and on the aircraft. Each flyer wears a ZERO-G flight suit, which enables ease of movement in air.

A COVID-19 test
All non-vaccinated participants are tested for COVID-19 daily to ensure safety of all parties.

Identification
Just like a typical commercial flight, each individual must complete a TSA check before boarding the aircraft. They must present a valid driver’s license, passport, or other TSA-approved identification.

Once all the pre-flight boxes are checked, the team will board a modified Boeing 727 — named G Force One — to execute their experiment in a weightless environment.

Marshall's flight team completes a TSA check before boarding G Force One.
Marshall’s flight team completes a TSA check before boarding G Force One. (NASA)

While in the air, the team will test an experiment known as the Ring-Sheared Drop. Developed by Marshall and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York, the experiment will study the formation of potentially destructive amyloid fibrils, or protein clusters, like those found in the brain tissue of patients battling neurodegenerative diseases — such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

To track the flight path as it performs parabolas, check out Flight Aware.

For more updates on the flight, the team, and the experiment, continue to follow Watch the Skies blog in the coming week.

Ring-Sheared Drop Team Prepares for Zero-G Flight 

A team of researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is preparing to take flight and evade gravity in pursuit of science.

Team members are traveling to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to test an experiment known as the Ring-Sheared Drop. Developed by Marshall and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York, the experiment will study the formation of potentially destructive amyloid fibrils, or protein clusters, like those found in the brain tissue of patients battling neurodegenerative diseases — such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The Ring-Sheared Drop team boards G Force One
The Ring-Sheared Drop team boards G Force One in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with their equipment. (NASA)

In Earth-based experiments, researchers determined that amyloid fibrils may be created by shear flow, or the difference in flow velocity between adjacent layers of a liquid. In the case of ground experiments, that formation is affected by the presence of container walls and by convection, or the circular motion that occurs when warmer liquid rises while cooler liquid descends.

The goal now is to conduct experiments in microgravity — in a containerless reactor — where the liquid specimens form spherical drops, containing themselves via surface tension. Researchers will “pin” a droplet of liquid between two rings and cultivate amyloid fibrils for study.

The experiment was initially launched to the International Space Station in 2019. However, when the experiment failed, efforts began on Earth to improve the testing apparatus for future testing. Now, before the equipment is ready for another trip to the space station, the team will “practice” pinning liquid drops on a parabolic flight.

The research team installs their experimental hardware on G Force One
The research team installs their experimental hardware on G Force One in preparation for April 28, 29 parabolic flights. (NASA)

How exactly is weightlessness reached? A modified Boeing 727 — named G-Force One — achieves periods of variable gravity through a series of maneuvers called parabolas. The team will be able to interact with their hardware in zero gravity for 22 seconds at a time.

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, within the Space Technology Mission Directorate, makes these experiment flights possible by facilitating rapid demonstration of promising technologies for space exploration, discovery, and results benefit life on Earth.

The program matures capabilities needed for NASA missions and commercial applications while strategically investing in the growth of the U.S. commercial spaceflight industry.

The Ring-Sheared Drop team is scheduled to fly with their hardware April 28 and 29 on a parabolic flight managed by Zero G of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Continue to follow NASA’s Watch the Skies blog in the coming weeks for the latest updates on the team, the parabolic flight, and the results of the Ring-Sheared Drop experiment.

March Equinox Brings 2 Seasons: Spring, Autumn

The March equinox – also called the vernal equinox – is the beginning of the spring season in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn season in the Southern Hemisphere. It arrives on March 20, 2021, at 09:37 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) or 4:37 a.m. CDT (Central Daylight Time).

illustration of the March (spring) and September (fall or autumn) equinoxes
An illustration of the March (spring) and September (fall or autumn) equinoxes. During the equinoxes, both hemispheres receive equal amounts of daylight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During this equinox, the Sun will shine directly on the equator with nearly equal amounts of day and night, about 12 hours. Throughout the world, the Northern and Southern hemispheres will get equal amounts of daylight.

Click to view larger. Credit: NASA/Space Place

The equinoxes and solstices are caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and ceaseless motion in orbit. Think of an equinox as happening on the imaginary dome of our sky, or as an event that happens in Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the March equinox will bring us earlier sunrises, later sunsets, softer winds, and budding plants. With the opposite season, south of the equator, there will be later sunrises, earlier sunsets, chillier winds, and dry, falling leaves.

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, start watching the Sun as it sets just a bit farther north on the horizon each evening until the summer solstice. Also, enjoy the warmer weather and extended daylight!

Sky Watching Highlights for February 2021

Do you want to see some sky watching highlights in February 2021? Find Mars all month after sunset, especially on the night of Feb. 18 for NASA’s planned rover landing. Then, watch the Moon glide across the Winter Circle before it pays a visit to the bright stars of the constellation Gemini. Check out the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more!

 

The Geminids: Best Meteor Shower of the Year!

by Lance D. Davis

The Geminids are widely recognized as the best annual meteor shower a stargazer can see, occurring between Dec. 4 to Dec. 17. We will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 14-15 (changed dates from 13-14 due to weather) from a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.

The parent of the Geminids is 3200 Phaethon, which is arguably considered to be either an asteroid or an extinct comet. When the Earth passes through trails of dust, or meteoroids, left by 3200 Phaethon, that dust burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, creating the Geminid meteor shower.

The Geminid rate will be even better this year, as the shower’s peak overlaps with a nearly new moon, so there will be darker skies and no moonlight to wash out the fainter meteors. That peak will happen on the night of Dec. 13 into the morning of Dec. 14, with some meteor activity visible in the days before and after. Viewing is good all night for the Northern Hemisphere, with activity peaking around 2:00 a.m. local time, and after midnight for viewers in the Southern Hemisphere.

Why are they called the Geminids?

All meteors associated with a shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, which is called the radiant. The Geminids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini, hence the name “Geminids.”

How fast are Geminids?

Geminids travel 78,000 mph (35 km/s). This is over 1000 times faster than a cheetah, about 250 times faster than the swiftest car in the world, and over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet!

2019’s meteor camera data for the Geminids.
An info graphic based on 2019’s meteor camera data for the Geminids. Credit: NASA

How to observe the Geminids?

If it’s not cloudy, get away from bright lights, lie on your back, and look up. Remember to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark – you’ll see more meteors that way. Keep in mind, this adjustment can take approximately 30 minutes. Don’t look at your cell phone screen, as it will ruin your night vision!

Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky. Avoid watching the radiant because meteors close to it have very short trails and are easily missed. When you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid.

When is the best time to observe Geminids?

The best night to see the shower is Dec. 13/14. The shower will peak around 01:00 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can see Geminids starting around 7:30 – 8:00 p.m. local time on Dec. 13, with rate of meteors increasing as 2 a.m. approaches. In the Southern hemisphere, good rates will be seen between midnight and dawn local time on Dec. 14. Geminid watchers who observe from midnight to 4 a.m. should catch the most meteors.

How many Geminids can observers expect to see Dec. 13/14?

Realistically, the predicated rate for observers in the northern hemisphere is closer to 60 meteors per hour. This means you can expect to see an average of one Geminid per minute in dark skies at the shower peak. Observers in the southern hemisphere will see fewer Geminids than their northern hemisphere counterparts – perhaps 25% of rates in the northern hemisphere, depending on their latitude.

Where will NASA stream the Geminids meteor shower?

We will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 13-14 from a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.

Meteor videos recorded by the All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning to identify Geminids in these videos – just look for events labeled “GEM.”

Happy viewing stargazers!

Sky Watching Highlights for November 2020

Are you ready for November’s sky watching highlights? Cool autumn evenings are a great time to look for the Pleiades star cluster. You’ll also have a couple of great opportunities to observe the Moon with Jupiter and Saturn. Plus, check out the phenomenon known as Earthshine. Learn about all that and more from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s video below!

‘Once in a Blue Moon’ Coming Soon

by Lauren Lambert

There’s an extra special treat coming Earth’s way – a Blue Moon on the night of Oct. 31 for Halloween.

What is a Blue Moon?

According to modern folklore, it is a phenomenon where a Full Moon appears twice in one calendar month. Typically, each month has only one, as Full Moons occur about 29 days apart.

Our first Full Moon of the month – known as a Harvest Moon – occurred on Oct. 1. This is a name given to the Full Moon happening closest to the autumnal equinox – the first day of fall. The Blue Moon coming up is respectively known as the Hunter’s Moon.  Rising in the early evening, the Hunter’s Moon was given its name because it provided plenty of moonlight for hunters to gather meat for the long winter ahead.

One way to make a Blue Moon is by using a blue filter. That's what a photographer did back in 2004 when he photographed this Full Moon rising over Brighton, Massachusetts. Credit: Kostian Iftica
One way to make a Blue Moon is by using a blue filter. That’s what a photographer did back in 2004 when he photographed this Full Moon rising over Brighton, Massachusetts. Credit: Kostian Iftica

While the informal phrase “once in a Blue Moon” refers to something that rarely happens, the same definition rings true for the skies this Halloween. These moons are of significance because they only come every two or three years. In fact, the last Blue Moon occurred on March 31, 2018.

Contrary to its name, a Blue Moon has nothing to do with the Moon having a blue hue. However, very rarely there are actual blue-tinted Moons due to particles thrown into the atmosphere by natural catastrophes. In 1883, an Indonesian volcano called Krakatoa had an eruption so large that it was compared by scientists to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb. Lots of ash from the Krakatoa explosion rose into the atmosphere. Many of these ash particles were about 1 micron in size, which could scatter red light and act as a blue filter. This resulted in the Moon appearing blue.

Blue-colored Moons appeared for years following the 1883 eruption. Many other volcanos and even wildfires throughout history have been known to affect the color of the moon. As a rule of thumb, in order to create a bluish Moon, dust or ash particles must be larger than ~0.6 microns, which is the wavelength of red light. Having said that, what we call a Blue Moon appears pale grey and white – just like the Moon on any other night. Having a second Full Moon in one given month does not change its color.

October’s Blue Moon, however, will be the first Blue Moon to appear on Halloween since 1944. This moon occurred one month following the introduction of the Aggregat 4, or the V-2 rocket. This rocket was the first vehicle capable of reaching the edge of space. In years following, the Apollo Saturn V became its direct descendant.

As we approach October 2020’s Blue Moon, the Artemis Generation prepares to explore the Moon’s surface from a lunar base. NASA’s Artemis program is named after the twin sister to Apollo, the Sun god in Greek mythology, and she is known as the goddess of the Moon. There hasn’t been this much momentum to return to the Moon’s surface since the Apollo missions.

The next Halloween Blue Moon will occur in 2039. By then, the Artemis Generation will hopefully look at Mars from that same lunar base – perhaps passing the torch to an Ares Generation bound for the Red Planet.

The Autumnal Equinox is Near

Happy equinox, Earthlings! Sept. 22 marks the fall equinox, when day and night are nearly equal.

“However, that day/night length depends on where you are on Earth,” said NASA solar scientist Mitzi Adams. “For example, at the North and South Poles, the length of the day and night is six months!”

At the North Pole, the Sun will sink below the horizon for a kind of twilight from now until sometime in October when it will be completely dark, explained Adams. Spring twilight begins a few weeks before the vernal, or spring, equinox in March, when the Sun rises above the horizon again.

Autumnal Equinox
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This only happens twice in Earth’s year-long trip around the Sun. The rest of the year, the Sun shines unevenly over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. That’s because Earth’s axis is tilted with respect to the Sun-Earth plane. But on these special days – the spring and fall equinox – the Sun shines equally on both north and south.

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of astronomical fall. From now until the beginning of spring, nighttime hours will last longer than daylight as the Sun travels a shorter arc across the sky each day. The Sun has its shortest path of the year at the time of the winter solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year — when sunrise and sunset are as far south as they can go (at any one location). It’s just the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where September 22 kicks off astronomical spring.

The equinox—meaning “equal night” in Latin—occurs at 8:31 a.m. CDT.

Sky Watching Highlights for September 2020

This month spot the Moon together with Mars and Venus, along with the flickering star Fomalhaut, which had itself a planet…until it didn’t! Check out the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more.