Images From Cassini Spacecraft Capture Saturn’s Blue Northern Hemisphere

The northern hemisphere of Saturn appears blue in the latest images captured by the Cassini spacecraft, possibly due to a lack of clouds in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

NASA announced Feb. 8 that one of the images — the true color view above — shows the moon Mimas against the backdrop of Saturn’s northern hemisphere. The dark bands across the surface are shadows cast by Saturn’s rings.

The image of Saturn and Mimas was taken by Cassini’s narrow angle camera Jan. 18 when the spacecraft was about 1.4 million kilometers from the planet.

Resolution in the image is 8.5 kilometers per pixel on Saturn and 7.5 kilometers per pixel on Mimas. The image has been contrast-enhanced to aid visibility.

Lockheed Delivers Atlas 5 For West Coast Launch

Lockheed Martin has delivered the hardware for the first Atlas 5 launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the company announced Feb. 11. Lockheed Martin has completed upgrading a launch pad at Vandenberg to handle the Atlas 5 rocket after being awarded two launches at the site that were taken from Boeing Co. as punishment for contracting improprieties. The U.S. Air Force has since awarded Lockheed Martin three more Atlas 5 missions from Vandenberg.

The Atlas 5 booster and Centaur upper stage are scheduled to be stacked on the pad in March in preparation for a classified mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office that will take place before the end of 2005.

NASA Satellite Data Used To Study Ocean Ecosystems

NASA and university scientists have developed a process to determine the growth rate of small aquatic plants known as phytoplankton using satellite data, the agency announced Feb. 10.

Ocean color data from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor aboard the OrbView-2 satellite was used to detect variations in the color of light within the ocean. The color is an indicator of the amount of phytoplankton in a region.

This information is used to calculate the growth rates of the individual phytoplankton cells based on their greenness. When colder waters, bright light or low levels of nutrients are found, the plants appear less green. The phytoplankton becomes greener when conditions improve and growth rates increase.

The satellite data showed how the growth rates of phytoplankton, which forms the base of the ocean food chain and produces half of the oxygen in the atmosphere, changed over the seasons and across ocean basins. The results matched predictions generated from years of laboratory studies, NASA said.

Researchers then used the data to recalculate ocean production, generating a different view of ocean photosynthesis previously predicted by older models using the same satellite data. New, accurate information on phytoplankton will contribute to the development of improved computer models and help advance understanding of the function of marine ecosystems, NASA said.

NASA Names Astronauts For Two Space Shuttle Crews

NASA has selected the astronauts for the crews of a pair of space shuttle missions scheduled to deliver hardware for the international space station in 2006, the agency announced Feb. 9.

Astronaut Mark Polansky will command STS-116, which will attach the third port truss segment to the space station. Navy Cmdr. William Oefelein has been named as the pilot. The mission specialists will be Navy Cmdr. Robert Curbeam, Joan Higginbotham, Nicholas Patrick and Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish astronaut from the European Space Agency.

STS-117, which will deliver the starboard truss segment and energy systems for the space station, will be commanded by Marine Lt. Col. Frederick Sturckow and piloted by Air Force Lt. Col. Lee Archambault. Mission specialists are James Reilly, Richard Mastracchio, Army Col. Patrick Forrester and Steven Swanson.

Joint Venture Rede/Critique Wins NASA Support Contract

NASA awarded a New Orleans-based joint venture a contract to provide administrative and clerical support services at three facilities.

Rede/Critique, a joint venture of Rede Inc. and Critique Resource Consulting Inc., will perform work at Johnson Space Center in Houston; the Sonny Carter Training Facility at Ellington Field, Houston; and the White Sands Test Facility at Las Cruces, N.M.

The contract contains a base period of performance of 22 months valued at $9.8 million. Three one-year extensions are valued at about $9 million apiece.

Group To Study Faith’s Role in Space Exploration

The Florida Space Research Institute (FSRI) is leading an effort to determine if astronauts on long-duration space flights would benefit from religious and spiritual support, the FSRI announced Feb. 10. Researcher Michael O’Neal, a theology student at the Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn., will study chaplaincy programs operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, focusing on isolation and confinement situations similar to what will be experienced by astronauts on Moon or Mars missions.

NASA agreed to fund the two-year project, which will take place at FSRI at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

“Space travelers have often remarked on the spiritual aspects of their experience,” Sam Durance, executive director of FSRI, said in a statement. “Given the psychological issues associated with long-duration exploration missions, I was surprised that very little planning has been done to accommodate the spiritual needs and interests of future space explorers. I hope that Mike’s efforts at FSRI will lay the groundwork for a formal program to support these needs.”

Com Dev International Wins Asian Commercial Contracts

Com Dev International Ltd. of Cambridge, Ontario, has received orders from an unnamed Asian customer for satellite components, Com Dev announced Feb. 8.

Separate contracts were awarded to Com Dev’s Canadian and U.K. divisions for equipment such as microwave switches and ancillaries. The hardware is scheduled to be delivered within a year.

The work is valued at more than 9 million Canadian dollars ($7.3 million).

Virtual Conexions Modem Aids Hubless VSAT Networks

Virtual Conexions Inc. of Montreal has developed a new modem that will connect small networks of very small aperture terminals (VSAT) without a hub, the company announced.

The VC-1000 modem is similar to a terrestrial modem but connects the VSATs via a satellite-based network. The core components of the modem are a software algorithm that manages communication traffic and a software-defined radio.

The technology allows the VSATs to remain in contact via a system that operates in a manner similar to terrestrial-based Internet protocol devices, Virtual Conexions said. The VSATs are connected to a local area network aboard the satellite and can exchange information at rates up to 2 megabytes per second.

The modem is targeted at small- and medium-sized networks and Virtual Conexions is developing another modem for enabling larger networks.

Comments: Warren Ferster,