NASA satellite; NSF telescope go on great space hunt

NASA WISE satellite to explore solar system; NSF greenlights largest solar telescope gets go ahead

They are taking two radically different approaches but NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are prepping to significantly alter the way scientists explore space. 

NASA is busy prepping for the Dec. 11 launch of its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE spacecraft.  With its highly advanced infrared technology, WISE is expected to bathe the sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images. 

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NASA says WISE should uncover objects never seen before, including the coolest stars, the universe's most luminous galaxies and some of the darkest near-Earth asteroids and comets. 

WISE will also scan for near-Earth objects, such as asteroids and comets, with orbits that come close to crossing Earth's path. The mission is expected to find hundreds of these bodies, and hundreds of thousands of additional asteroids in our solar system's main asteroid belt, NASA stated.  By measuring the objects' infrared light, astronomers will get the first good estimate of the size distribution of the asteroid population. This information will tell us approximately how often Earth can expect an encounter with a potentially hazardous asteroid, NASA stated.  

The idea of getting a better handle on near-Earth asteroids could ease some concerns that NASA  had been missing some of these occurrences. 

WISE will join two other infrared missions in space -- NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation. WISE is different from these missions in that it will survey the entire sky, NASA stated. 

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation (NSF) this month approved the funding for what it calls the largest solar telescope in the world which will offer unprecedented views and details of the Sun. 

The NSF had budgeted $10 million for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope this year. The super Sun observatory will be located on what's known as the Mees site located within the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory on the Island of Maui, Hawaii. 

According to the NSF, a primary goal of the ATST is to help scientists understand the solar magnetic activities and variability that drive space weather and the hazards it creates for astronauts and air travelers, and for communications to and from satellites.

The ATST offers an unobstructed 13-foot diameter primary mirror combined with the latest in computer and optical technologies would give ATST sharper views of solar activities than any telescope on the ground, in space, or in the planning stages, the NSF stated.

Technically speaking the ATST Web site says current solar telescopes cannot resolve such scales because of their limited aperture. "The near-infrared spectrum around 1.5 µm has many advantages, particularly for magnetic field studies; an aperture of 4 m is needed to clearly resolve features at 0.1 arcsec in the near infrared. Access to even longer wavelengths in the thermal infrared requires an open-air telescope design," the site states.

Looking to help better understand how space weather affects a variety of everyday consumer technologies including global positioning systems, satellites for television reception, and cellular phones, the NSF earlier this year gave a $2 million grant to researchers at Virginia Tech's Space@VT research group to build a chain of space weather instrument stations in Antarctica. 

The radar units will work with the current Super Dual Auroral Radar Network -- an international collaboration with support provided by the funding agencies of more than a dozen countries, researchers stated. The radars combine to give extensive views of the upper atmosphere in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The new radars will become part of a continuous chain of coverage that extends from Europe to eastern Asia, researchers stated. 

The need for such a system is manifold. Satellites experience the disruptive effects of energetic charged particles and electrical charging across the satellite structure during various weather conditions. Astronauts are vulnerable to energetic radiation that may occur at space station altitudes. Navigation signals from global positioning satellites are affected by irregularities in the ionosphere that develop under some conditions, and massive disruption in electric power distribution systems can be triggered by geomagnetic storms, stated Robert Clauer, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech. 

The northern hemisphere is already well-instrumented as a number of stations currently exist in the Arctic, including an array in Greenland. But due primarily to the "extreme Antarctic climate and lack of manned facilities with the necessary infrastructure to support facilities, the southern polar region is not," Clauer said.

A NASA-funded study earlier this year showed clear economic data that quantifies the risk extreme weather conditions in space have on the Earth. 

The study, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences noted that besides emitting a continuous stream of plasma called the solar wind, the sun periodically releases billions of tons of matter called coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, NASA said. Such space weather can impact the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, NASA said. 

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