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FY 2006 Year in Review

In January 2006, NASA launched its spacecraft, New Horizons, to the Agency’s first mission to Pluto, Pluto’s moon Charon, and the Kuiper Belt. The National Academy of Sciences ranked the exploration of Pluto-Charon and the Kuiper Belt among the highest priorities for solar system exploration.  Different from the inner, rocky planets (like Earth) or the outer gas giants, Pluto is a dwarf type of planet known as an "ice dwarf," commonly found in the Kuiper Belt region billions of miles from the sun.  Exploring Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is like conducting an archeological dig into the history of the outer solar system, a place where we can peek into the ancient era of planetary formation.

After a 2.88 billion mile round-trip journey, the Stardust mission returned cometary and interstellar dust particles back to Earth.  Since the returned material has been unaltered since the formation of our solar system, scientists believe these dust particles will help provide answers to fundamental questions about comets and the origins of the solar system.

The Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus.  This discovery, along with the presence of escaping internal heat and very few (if any) impact craters in the South Polar Region, shows that Enceladus is geologically active today.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) began its inspection of the red planet in fine detail. The orbiter carries six scientific instruments for examining the surface, atmosphere, and subsurface of Mars in unprecedented detail from low orbit.  NASA expects to get several times more data about Mars from MRO than from all previous Martian missions combined.  MRO’s high-data-rate communications system relays information between Mars surface missions and Earth.  The data regarding the history and distribution of Mars' water will improve understanding of planetary climate change and whether Mars ever supported life.  The MRO also continued to evaluate potential landing sites for future missions.

On Mars, the rover Opportunity reached the rim of a hole in the Martian surface wider and deeper than any it had previously visited. The crater, known as "Victoria," is approximately one-half mile wide and 230 feet deep.  Initial images from the rover's first overlook after a 21-month journey to "Victoria Crater" show rugged walls with layers of exposed rock and a floor blanketed with dunes.  The layers of rock offer information about the environmental conditions long ago.  The MRO recorded images of the rover at the site.

During hurricane season, NASA airborne and orbiting science instruments contributed a great deal of information.  NASA satellites provide critical detail in determining if and when hurricane formation is occurring.  NASA provides researchers and forecasters with space-based observations, data assimilation, and computer climate modeling. NASA-sponsored measurements and modeling of global sea surface temperature, precipitation, winds, and sea surface height have also improved understanding of El Niño and La Niña events, which respectively tend to suppress and enhance Atlantic and Gulf hurricane development. 

NASA’s current hurricane-related products from orbiting science instruments include data from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on the Aqua satellite; the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) and the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on the Aura satellite; the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua and Terra satellites; the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite; the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS); and the Ocean Color Time-Series Project.   In addition, researchers investigated tropical storms and hurricanes in the eastern and mid-Atlantic Ocean regions, including those threatening Senegal and the Cape Verde Islands.

On April 28, 2006, the CloudSat and Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) satellites were launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  The CALIPSO and CloudSat are a pair of Earth-observing satellites designed to study clouds from orbit.  CloudSat is an experimental satellite using radar to detect clouds and aerosols from space. CALIPSO is equipped to examine the role that clouds and airborne particles play in regulating Earth's weather, climate, and air quality. The satellites are the latest spacecraft to join NASA's "A-Train" constellation of environmental satellites.

Just 30 seconds after radar activation, CloudSat obtained its first image—a slice of the atmosphere of a warm storm front over the North Sea approaching Greenland.  Unlike other satellite observations, the CloudSat radar image simultaneously showed the storm's clouds and precipitation—front's warm air rising over colder air with precipitation below. 

The first-ever millimeter wavelength radar, CloudSat's Cloud-Profiling radar is more than 1,000 times more sensitive than typical weather radar with the ability to distinguish between cloud particles and precipitation.  Its measurements have offered new insights into the manner in which fresh water is created from water vapor and how much of this water falls to the surface as rain and snow.

CALIPSO returned never-before-seen images of clouds and aerosols—tiny particles suspended in the air—revealing how clouds and aerosols form, evolve, and interact with the atmosphere. In early June, CALIPSO took its first images: a major lava dome collapse at the Soufriere Hills Volcano on the island of Montserrat.  The dome had collapsed on May 20, sending ash clouds 55,000 feet into the sky.

In FY06, analysis of NASA data showed that Arctic perennial sea ice, which normally survives the summer melt season and remains year-round, shrank abruptly by 14 percent between 2004 and 2005. According to researchers, the loss of perennial ice in the East Arctic Ocean neared 50 percent during that time as some of the ice moved from the East Arctic to the West.  Researchers have long suggested that the icy surface of the Arctic's waters is retreating due to a warming climate. Sea ice functions as an indicator of changing water, air, and sea surface temperatures, and is important to the continued well-being of Arctic mammals such as polar bears.  A research team that used NASA's QuikScat satellite to measure the extent and distribution of perennial and seasonal sea ice in the Arctic discovered that, while the total area of all the Arctic sea ice was stable in winter, the distribution of seasonal and perennial sea ice experienced significant changes. 

In the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of the massive ice sheets covering both Greenland and Antarctica, NASA scientists confirmed that climate warming is changing how much water remains locked in Earth's largest storehouses of ice and snow.  The survey showed a net loss of ice from the combined polar ice sheets between 1992 and 2002 and a corresponding rise in sea level. The survey provided the first documentation of the extensive thinning of the West Antarctic ice shelves, an increase in snowfall in the interior of Greenland, and thinning at the edges.  All these phenomena are indicators of a warming climate previously predicted by computer models.

NASA continued to monitor the polar ice sheets with the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), which uses a laser beam three times a year to measure the elevation of ice sheets with unprecedented accuracy.  Scientists used ICESat data to develop Digital Elevation Models—three-dimensional high-resolution images of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.  ICESat’s view of changes in the ice sheets provide information critical to understanding how the Earth's changing ice cover affects sea level.

NASA's Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) mission lifted off at night in October 2006 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. With spacecraft on opposite sides of the Earth, STEREO provided three-dimensional mapping of the structure of solar storms as material leaves the sun and flows around the planet.  STEREO also compiled data on coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—solar storms that travel at nearly 1 million mph and can knock out power on Earth.  The nearly identical twin observatories provided perspectives critical to improving understanding of space weather and its impact on astronauts and Earth systems.

Dr. John C. Mather of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center received the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work that helped cement the Big Bang theory of the universe and deepened our understanding of the origin of stars and galaxies.  This work was based on data form NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite.  Dr. Mather is the first NASA civil servant to receive a Nobel Prize.

Using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists developed direct proof for the existence of dark matter.   Hubble also found evidence of the existence of dark energy for most of the universe’s history.  These results provided new insights into gravity and the structure and growth of the universe.

NASA used the unique capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope for a new class of scientific observations of the Earth's moon.  Hubble's resolution and sensitivity to ultraviolet light have allowed the telescope to search for important oxygen-bearing minerals on the moon.  Since the moon does not have a breathable atmosphere, minerals such as ilmenite (titanium and iron oxide) may be critical for a sustained human lunar presence as a potential source of oxygen for breathing or to power rockets.  The new Hubble observations are the first high-resolution ultraviolet images ever acquired of the moon, providing scientists with a new tool to study mineral variations within the lunar crust.  As NASA plans future expeditions to the moon, such data, in combination with other measurements, will help target the best sites for robotic and human missions.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope made the first measurements of the day and night temperatures of a planet outside our solar system.  The infrared observatory revealed that a Jupiter-like giant gas planet circling very close to its sun is always as hot as fire on one side while potentially as cold as ice on the other.  The temperature difference between the day and night sides of the planet provides information about how energy flows in the planet's atmosphere.  The finding represents the first time any kind of variation has been seen across the surface of an extrasolar planet. 
NASA researchers using the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft developed a method of seeing through the Sun to the star's far side.  Because the Sun's far side faces away from the Earth, it is not directly observable by traditional techniques.  This new method allows more reliable advance warning of magnetic storms brewing on the far side that could rotate with the Sun and threaten the Earth by disrupting satellites, radio communications, power grids, and other technological systems.  Many of these storms originate in groups of sunspots—active regions with high concentration of magnetic fields. Active regions situated on the near side of the sun can be observed directly; however, previous methods provided no information about active regions developing on the far side of the sun.  SOHO’s insight into any large active regions on the far side of the sun greatly improved forecasting of potential magnetic storms.