Meteors help Martian clouds form

Jun 18, 2019

How did the Red Planet get all of its clouds? LASP scientists may have discovered the secret: just add meteors.

Astronomers have long observed clouds in Mars’ middle atmosphere, which begins about 18 miles (30 kilometers) above the surface, but have struggled to explain how they formed.

Now, a new study, published on June 17 in the journal Nature Geoscience, examines those wispy accumulations and suggests that they owe their existence to a phenomenon called “meteoric smoke”—essentially, the icy dust created by space debris slamming into the planet’s atmosphere.

Rare “superflares” could one day threaten Earth

Jun 17, 2019

Astronomers probing the edges of the Milky Way have in recent years observed some of the most brilliant pyrotechnic displays in the galaxy: superflares.

These events occur when stars, for reasons that scientists still don’t understand, eject huge bursts of energy that can be seen from hundreds of light years away. Until recently, researchers assumed that such explosions occurred mostly on stars that, unlike Earth’s, were young and active.

Now, new research shows with more confidence than ever before that superflares can occur on older, quieter stars like our own—albeit more rarely, or about once every few thousand years.

New Horizons goes beyond the known world

Jan 07, 2019

LASP scientists spent the first hours of 2019 in a Maryland operations center watching NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shoot past a minor planet more than 4 billion miles from Earth—the farthest object that any spacecraft has ever explored.

That icy object, an elongated body about 19 miles tall, is called 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule, a Latin phrase that means “beyond the known world.”

CU Boulder researchers and students are playing an important role in this brush with the unknown, which took place on Jan. 1. As New Horizons zips through the outermost regions of our solar system, it will collect and analyze specks of dust using an instrument designed by students at LASP.

Small satellites tackle big scientific questions

Nov 15, 2018

NASA will soon have new eyes on the Sun. Two miniature satellites designed and built at LASP are scheduled to launch later this month on Spaceflight’s SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The new missions—called the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2 (MinXSS-2) and the Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor (CSIM)—will collect data on the physics of the Sun and its impact on life on Earth.

These “CubeSats,” which are smaller than a microwave oven, are set to blast into a near-Earth orbit alongside more than 60 other spacecraft. According to Spaceflight, SSO-A is the largest dedicated rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date.

Engineers, students played key role in hunt for alien worlds

Nov 12, 2018

Has NASA’s famed planet-hunting spacecraft met its end? Not so fast, say LASP researchers.

NASA recently announced that the Kepler Space Telescope, which searched for planets orbiting stars far away from Earth, had run out of fuel and would finish its nine-year mission. In response, many news outlets reported that Kepler was dead

But Lee Reedy, flight director for Kepler at LASP, said that the mission’s legacy is far from over. To date, Kepler has found a confirmed 2,662 planets beyond our solar system.

NASA retires LASP-operated Kepler space telescope

Oct 30, 2018

After nine years in deep space collecting data that indicate our sky to be filled with billions of hidden planets—more planets even than stars—NASA’s Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel needed for further science operations. NASA has decided to retire the spacecraft within its current, safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, many of which could be promising places for life.

Kepler, which was operated from LASP since its launch in March 2009, has opened our eyes to the diversity of planets that exist in our galaxy. The most recent analysis of Kepler’s discoveries concludes that 20 to 50 percent of the stars visible in the night sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky, planets similar in size to Earth, and located within the habitable zone of their parent stars. That means they’re located at distances from their parent stars where liquid water—a vital ingredient to life as we know it—might pool on the planet surface.

The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn’t exist in our solar system—a world between the size of Earth and Neptune—and we have much to learn about these planets. Kepler also found nature often produces jam-packed planetary systems, in some cases with so many planets orbiting close to their parent stars that our own inner solar system looks sparse by comparison.

LASP director awarded EGU’s Alfvén Medal

Oct 17, 2018

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) has named LASP Director Daniel Baker as the recipient of the 2019 Hannes Alfvén Medal. The medal was established in 1997 in recognition of the scientific achievements of Hannes Alfvén and is awarded for outstanding scientific contributions towards the understanding of plasma processes in the solar system and other cosmical plasma environments.

Baker is one of 45 individuals to be recognized this year for their important contributions to and leadership in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences. Baker will receive his award during the EGU 2019 General Assembly, which will take place from April 7-12, 2019, in Vienna, Austria.

In its final days, Cassini bathed in “ring rain”

Oct 04, 2018

On its last orbits in 2017, the long-running Cassini spacecraft dove between Saturn’s rings and its upper atmosphere and bathed in a downpour of dust that astronomers call “ring rain.”

In research published today in Science, LASP research associate Hsiang-Wen (Sean) Hsu and his colleagues report that they successfully collected microscopic material streaming from the planet’s rings.

The findings, which were made with Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer and Radio and Plasma Wave Science instruments, come a little more than a year after the spacecraft burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere. They stem from the mission’s “grand finale,” in which Cassini completed a series of risky maneuvers to zip under the planet’s rings at speeds of 75,000 miles per hour.

MAVEN selfie marks four years in orbit at Mars

Sep 20, 2018

Today, NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft celebrates four years in orbit studying the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet and how it interacts with the Sun and the solar wind. To mark the occasion, the team has released a selfie image of the spacecraft at Mars.

MAVEN’s selfie was made by looking at ultraviolet wavelengths of sunlight reflected off of components of the spacecraft. The image was obtained with the Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS) instrument, built at LASP, that normally looks at ultraviolet emissions from the Martian upper atmosphere. The IUVS instrument is mounted on a platform at the end of a 1.2-m boom (its own “selfie stick”), and by rotating around the boom can look back at the spacecraft. The selfie was made from 21 different images, obtained with the IUVS in different orientations, that have been stitched together.

NASA’s GOLD instrument captures its first image of the Earth

Sep 17, 2018

NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, instrument powered on and opened its cover to scan the Earth for the first time, resulting in a “first light” image of the Western Hemisphere in the ultraviolet. GOLD will provide unprecedented global-scale imaging of the temperature and composition at the dynamic boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

The instrument was launched from Kourou, French Guiana, on Jan. 25, 2018, onboard the SES-14 satellite and reached geostationary orbit in June 2018. After checkout of the satellite and communications payload, GOLD commissioning—the period during which the instrument performance is assessed—began on Sept. 4.

Team scientists conducted one day of observations on Sept. 11, during instrument checkout, enabling them to produce GOLD’s “first light” image. Commissioning will run through early October, as the team continues to prepare the instrument for its planned two-year science mission.

LASP director receives AGU’s highest honor

Sep 04, 2018

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has selected LASP Director Daniel Baker as its 2018 William Bowie Medal recipient. AGU’s highest honor, the William Bowie Medal, is given annually to one honoree in recognition of “outstanding contributions for fundamental geophysics and for unselfish cooperation in research.”

Baker is one of 33 individuals to be recognized this year for their dedication to science for the benefit of humanity and their achievements in Earth and space science. Baker will receive his award during the Honors Tribute at the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting, which will take place on Wednesday, December 12, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Students race robots, write code at hands-on summer camp

Aug 20, 2018

After three weeks of hard work, nine aspiring young scientists sat eagerly around a table and watched robots they created complete a racecourse. The students, aged 11 to 15 years old, had spent many hours assembling, computer coding and programming their robots to steer around a tabletop course drawn onto paper.

This hands-on learning experience is part of the Institute for Modeling Plasma, Atmospheres, and Cosmic Dust (IMPACT) Junior Aerospace Engineering Camp, a summer program offered by LASP’s Office of Communications and Outreach (OCO).

Now in its fifth year, the NASA-supported program is held at Casa de la Esperanza, a housing community and learning center in Longmont, Colorado, designed to support agricultural migrant workers and their families. The IMPACT camp is one of several educational services that the facility offers to residents.

Here comes the Sun: New spacecraft to fly closer than ever before

Aug 08, 2018

On August 11, LASP research scientist, David Malaspina, will have a front-row seat for the launch of NASA’s newest mission, the Parker Solar Probe.

The event, which is scheduled to take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, will be a must-see for scientists who have spent their careers watching the Sun. Over its seven-year mission, the Parker Solar Probe will fly closer to our home star than any spacecraft in history, dipping to within four million miles of the surface and grazing the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona.

Mars terraforming not possible using present-day technology

Jul 30, 2018

Science fiction writers have long featured terraforming, the process of creating an Earth-like or habitable environment on another planet, in their stories. Scientists themselves have proposed terraforming to enable the long-term colonization of Mars. A solution common to both groups is to release carbon dioxide gas trapped in the Martian surface to thicken the atmosphere and act as a blanket to warm the planet.

However, Mars does not retain enough carbon dioxide that could practically be put back into the atmosphere to warm Mars, according to a NASA-sponsored study led by LASP Associate Director for Science Bruce Jakosky. Transforming the inhospitable Martian environment into a place astronauts could explore without life support is not possible without technology well beyond today’s capabilities.

The outer limits: New satellite to probe solar system’s edges

Jul 26, 2018

Researchers at CU Boulder will soon set their sights on the heliosphere, a massive bubble in space that surrounds our solar system and shields it from incoming radiation.

NASA’s recently announced Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission, which is slated to launch in 2024, will hover close to one million miles from Earth where it will observe the outermost edges of the solar system—the limits of our Sun’s influence on space.

LASP will play a major role in the nearly $500 million mission by leading IMAP’s scientific operations and designing an instrument that will fly on the spacecraft, detecting tiny particles of dust that flow through space.

Stolen electrons key to unusual Mars aurora

Jul 24, 2018

Auroras appear on Earth as ghostly displays of colorful light in the night sky, usually near the poles. Our rocky neighbor Mars has auroras too, and NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft just found a new type of Martian aurora, according to a study led by LASP scientists. This phenomenon occurs over much of the day side of the Red Planet, where auroras are very hard to see.

Auroras flare up when energetic particles plunge into a planet’s atmosphere, bombarding gases and making them glow. While electrons generally cause this natural phenomenon, sometime protons can elicit the same response, although it’s more rare. Now, the MAVEN team has learned that protons were doing at Mars the same thing as electrons usually do at Earth—create aurora.

Complex organics bubble from the depths of Enceladus

Jul 09, 2018

New data collected from the Cassini spacecraft have revealed complex organic molecules originating from Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, strengthening the idea that this ocean world hosts conditions suitable for life.

LASP research scientists Sascha Kempf and Sean Hsu co-authored a new study, published in Nature, based on the data.

Very little was known about Enceladus prior to 2005—the year when Cassini first flew by. Since then, it has become a continuous source of surprises, with secrets still being revealed even now, after the end of the mission.

LASP sounding rocket takes a second look at the Sun

Jun 15, 2018

LASP Associate Director Tom Woods knows about space gunk.

As the principal investigator for the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE) aboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, he’s all too familiar with the ways that exposure to the harsh space environment can lead to a spacecraft instrument’s degradation.

GOES-17 shares first data from EXIS instrument

May 31, 2018

NOAA’s GOES-17 satellite has transmitted its first data from the LASP-built Extreme ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) space weather monitoring instrument.

EXIS continually monitors the brightness of the Sun. Every 30 seconds, EXIS will create a picture of the Sun’s output in the part of the spectrum which includes X-ray and ultraviolet light—wavelengths that are absorbed by the outermost layers of our Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere.

Microbes living in a toxic volcanic lake could hold clues to life on Mars

May 02, 2018

LASP-led research has discovered microbes living in a toxic volcanic lake that may rank as one of the harshest environments on Earth. Their findings, published recently online, could guide scientists looking for signs of ancient life on Mars.

The team, led by LASP planetary scientist Brian Hynek, braved second-degree burns, sulfuric acid fumes, and the threat of eruptions to collect samples of water from the aptly-named Laguna Caliente. Nestled in Costa Rica’s Poás Volcano, this body of water is 10 million times more acidic than tap water and can reach near boiling temperatures. It also resembles the ancient hot springs that dotted the surface of early Mars, Hynek said.

The Costa Rican lake supports living organisms—but only one. Hynek and his colleagues found microbes belonging to just a single species of bacteria in the lake water, a rock-bottom level of diversity.

CHESS-4 will examine building blocks of stars and planets

Mar 23, 2018

NASA will launch a LASP-built astronomy experiment to study the chemistry involved in the formation of stars and planets in the Milky Way galaxy. The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS 4, is scheduled for launch on April 13 from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket.

The CHESS-4 mission will study the interstellar me­dium, the matter between stars. The mission focuses on translucent clouds of gas that provide the fundamental building blocks for stars and planets. These clouds have very low densities and the only way to study them is to measure how a cloud is affected by a star—and its associated outpouring of stellar material, the stellar wind—moving through it. CHESS will point at the star Gamma Ara, in the constellation Ara.

NASA powers on LASP instrument suite staring at the Sun

Mar 15, 2018

NASA has powered on its latest space payload to continue long-term measurements of the Sun’s incoming energy. The LASP-built Total and Spectral solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1), installed on the International Space Station, is now fully operational with all instruments collecting science data.

TSIS-1 was launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 15, 2017. After a two-week pause, the instrument suite was extracted from the trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule and integrated onto its permanent home on the space station.

LASP-led CubeSat will study Earth’s inner radiation belt

Mar 15, 2018

A NASA-funded CubeSat, built and operated at LASP, will study the inner radiation belt of Earth’s magnetosphere, providing new insight into the energetic particles that can disrupt satellites and threaten spacewalking astronauts.

The $4 million Cubesat: Inner Radiation Belt Experiment (CIRBE) mission, tentatively slated for a 2021 launch, will provide some of the first advanced resolution of one of Earth’s two Van Allen belts, a zone that traps energetic particles in the planet’s magnetic field. This powerful radiation, known to physicists since the late 1950s, poses a hazard to solar panels, electronic circuitry, and other hardware onboard spacecraft traveling at and beyond low-Earth orbit.

NOAA satellite launches with LASP space weather instrument onboard

Mar 02, 2018

A LASP instrument package designed to help scientists better understand potentially damaging space weather launched successfully aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite on Thursday, March 1, 2018.

Built at LASP, the instrument suite known as the Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) is the second of four identical packages that will fly on NOAA’s next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-R Series (GOES-R). As part of the NOAA weather forecasting satellite series, EXIS measures energy output from the Sun that can affect satellite operations, telecommunications, GPS navigation, and power grids on Earth.

GOLD launches successfully onboard SES-14 satellite

Jan 25, 2018

UPDATE: SES-14 in good health and on track despite launch anomaly

NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) instrument, designed and built by LASP, launched today from Kourou, French Guiana aboard SES-14, a commercial communications satellite built by Airbus Defence and Space. GOLD will investigate the dynamic intermingling of space and Earth’s uppermost atmosphere—and is the first NASA science mission to fly an instrument as a commercially hosted payload.

Space is not completely empty: It’s teeming with fast-moving charged particles and electric and magnetic fields that guide their motion. At the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, the charged particles— called the ionosphere—co-exist with the upper reaches of the neutral atmosphere, called the thermosphere. The two commingle and influence one another constantly. This interplay—and the role terrestrial weather, space weather and Earth’s own magnetic field each have in it—is the focus of GOLD’s mission.