‘The Arete STEM Project’ – student experiments on the XCOR Lynx rocketplane

The  Arete STEM Project is a new Kickstarter campaign to fund K-12 STEM projects on suborbital high altitude flights using XCOR‘s Lynx rocketplane. Here is a video introduction to the project:

The project aims

to help all students, whether from a public, private, parochial, or home school environment, to develop the competitive skills necessary to compete in the 21st century workplace.


We believe this can be accomplished by allowing students to use their creatively to design, build, and test microgravity experiments. We go one-step further by flying their experiments into space and then return the experiments to the students.

These student experiments or payloads will fly on Commercial Suborbital Flights.

A key factor to the success of our educational program is our unique relationship the one of the leaders in Commercial Spaceflight, XCOR Aerospace www.xcor.com and their Lynx suborbital spacecraft.

The procedure for students goes as follows:

So how does it all come together? Here are the basics:

First, students reserve their experiment’s payload slot on the Lynx. This is the start of their space adventure.

Once the reservation is secured, students go through an Engineer Design Process to help them ready their payload (experiment) for suborbital flight. Through each stage of the design process students are monitored to help them reach their milestones/goals.

At 90 days prior to the suborbital flight, students are contacted to begin the final phases before their payload is sent into space. This is a simple student progress check that allows student to communicate any successes or problems they are accruing.

At 60 days, we can arrange for simulated flight-testing of the experiment and have all data sent to the student for any redesigns they may need.

30 days before the flight is scheduled all safety checks are accomplished.

Next, the actual flight and return occurs, including the return of experiments and all collected data to the students.

Finally, The Arete STEM Project hopes to help develop future scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, as well as students willing to take on a life changing challenge.

After having the opportunity to design, develop and fly their work into space and back, students will be ready and eager for any challenges they may face in the 21st century.

Satellite measures the Saharan dust that keeps the Amazon fertile

The Amazon rain forest stays green because of Saharan dust:

NASA Satellite Reveals How Much Saharan Dust Feeds Amazon’s Plants

What connects Earth’s largest, hottest desert to its largest tropical rain forest?

The Sahara Desert is a near-uninterrupted brown band of sand and scrub across the northern third of Africa. The Amazon rain forest is a dense green mass of humid jungle that covers northeast South America. But after strong winds sweep across the Sahara, a tan cloud rises in the air, stretches between the continents, and ties together the desert and the jungle. It’s dust. And lots of it.

For the first time, a NASA satellite has quantified in three dimensions how much dust makes this trans-Atlantic journey. Scientists have not only measured the volume of dust, they have also calculated how much phosphorus – remnant in Saharan sands from part of the desert’s past as a lake bed – gets carried across the ocean from one of the planet’s most desolate places to one of its most fertile.

For the first time, a NASA satellite has quantified in three dimensions how much dust makes the trans-Atlantic journey from the Sahara Desert the Amazon rain forest. Among this dust is phosphorus, an essential nutrient that acts like a fertilizer, which the Amazon depends on in order to flourish. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

A new paper published Feb. 24 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, provides the first satellite-based estimate of this phosphorus transport over multiple years, said lead author Hongbin Yu, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. A paper published online by Yu and colleagues Jan. 8 in Remote Sensing of the Environment provided the first multi-year satellite estimate of overall dust transport from the Sahara to the Amazon.

This trans-continental journey of dust is important because of what is in the dust, Yu said. Specifically the dust picked up from the Bodélé Depression in Chad, an ancient lake bed where rock minerals composed of dead microorganisms are loaded with phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant proteins and growth, which the Amazon rain forest depends on in order to flourish.

Nutrients – the same ones found in commercial fertilizers – are in short supply in Amazonian soils. Instead they are locked up in the plants themselves. Fallen, decomposing leaves and organic matter provide the majority of nutrients, which are rapidly absorbed by plants and trees after entering the soil. But some nutrients, including phosphorus, are washed away by rainfall into streams and rivers, draining from the Amazon basin like a slowly leaking bathtub.

The phosphorus that reaches Amazon soils from Saharan dust, an estimated 22,000 tons per year, is about the same amount as that lost from rain and flooding, Yu said. The finding is part of a bigger research effort to understand the role of dust and aerosols in the environment and on local and global climate.

Dust in the Wind

“We know that dust is very important in many ways. It is an essential component of the Earth system. Dust will affect climate and, at the same time, climate change will affect dust,” said Yu. To understand what those effects may be, “First we have to try to answer two basic questions. How much dust is transported? And what is the relationship between the amount of dust transport and climate indicators?”

The new dust transport estimates were derived from data collected by a lidar instrument on NASA’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, or CALIPSO, satellite from 2007 though 2013.


The lidar instrument aboard the CALIPSO satellite sends out pulses of light that bounce off particles in the atmosphere and back to the satellite. It distinguishes dust from other particles based on optical properties. Image Credit: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

The data show that wind and weather pick up on average 182 million tons of dust each year and carry it past the western edge of the Sahara at longitude 15W. This volume is the equivalent of 689,290 semi trucks filled with dust. The dust then travels 1,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, though some drops to the surface or is flushed from the sky by rain. Near the eastern coast of South America, at longitude 35W, 132 million tons remain in the air, and 27.7 million tons – enough to fill 104,908 semi trucks – fall to the surface over the Amazon basin. About 43 million tons of dust travel farther to settle out over the Caribbean Sea, past longitude 75W.

Yu and colleagues focused on the Saharan dust transport across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and then beyond to the Caribbean Sea because it is the largest transport of dust on the planet.

Dust collected from the Bodélé Depression and from ground stations on Barbados and in Miami give scientists an estimate of the proportion of phosphorus in Saharan dust. This estimate is used to calculate how much phosphorus gets deposited in the Amazon basin from this dust transport.

The seven-year data record, while too short for looking at long-term trends, is nevertheless very important for understanding how dust and other aerosols behave as they move across the ocean, said Chip Trepte, project scientist for CALIPSO at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, who was not involved in either study.

“We need a record of measurements to understand whether or not there is a fairly robust, fairly consistent pattern to this aerosol transport,” he said.

Looking at the data year by year shows that that pattern is actually highly variable. There was an 86 percent change between the highest amount of dust transported in 2007 and the lowest in 2011, Yu said.

Why so much variation? Scientists believe it has to do with the conditions in the Sahel, the long strip of semi-arid land on the southern border of the Sahara. After comparing the changes in dust transport to a variety of climate factors, the one Yu and his colleagues found a correlation to was the previous year’s Sahel rainfall. When Sahel rainfall increased, the next year’s dust transport was lower.

The mechanism behind the correlation is unknown, Yu said. One possibility is that increased rainfall means more vegetation and less soil exposed to wind erosion in the Sahel. A second, more likely explanation is that the amount of rainfall is related to the circulation of winds, which are what ultimately sweep dust from both the Sahel and Sahara into the upper atmosphere where it can survive the long journey across the ocean.

CALIPSO collects “curtains” of data that show valuable information about the altitude of dust layers in the atmosphere. Knowing the height at which dust travels is important for understanding, and eventually using computers to model, where that dust will go and how the dust will interact with Earth’s heat balance and clouds, now and in future climate scenarios.

“Wind currents are different at different altitudes,” said Trepte. “This is a step forward in providing the understanding of what dust transport looks like in three dimensions, and then comparing with these models that are being used for climate studies.”

Climate studies range in scope from global to regional changes, such as those that may occur in the Amazon in coming years. In addition to dust, the Amazon is home to many other types of aerosols like smoke from fires and biological particles, such as bacteria, fungi, pollen, and spores released by the plants themselves. In the future, Yu and his colleagues plan to explore the effects of those aerosols on local clouds – and how they are influenced by dust from Africa.

“This is a small world,” Yu said, “and we’re all connected together.”

Dawn sees double bright spots on Ceres

As the Dawn spacecraft closes in on the dwarf planet Ceres, it appears someone left the lights on:

‘Bright Spot’ on Ceres Has Dimmer Companion

Dwarf planet Ceres continues to puzzle scientists as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft gets closer to being captured into orbit around the object. The latest images from Dawn, taken nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers) from Ceres, reveal that a bright spot that stands out in previous images lies close to yet another bright area.


This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin.

“Ceres’ bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin. This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Using its ion propulsion system, Dawn will enter orbit around Ceres on March 6. As scientists receive better and better views of the dwarf planet over the next 16 months, they hope to gain a deeper understanding of its origin and evolution by studying its surface. The intriguing bright spots and other interesting features of this captivating world will come into sharper focus.


These images of dwarf planet Ceres, processed to enhance clarity, were taken on Feb. 19, 2015, from a distance of about 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers), by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Dawn observed Ceres completing one full rotation, which lasted about nine hours.

The images show the full range of different crater shapes that can be found at Ceres’ surface: from shallow, flattish craters to those with peaks at their centers. These views show sections of Ceres’ surface that are similar to those in PIA19056.

“The brightest spot continues to be too small to resolve with our camera, but despite its size it is brighter than anything else on Ceres. This is truly unexpected and still a mystery to us,” said Andreas Nathues, lead investigator for the framing camera team at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Gottingen, Germany.

Dawn visited the giant asteroid Vesta from 2011 to 2012, delivering more than 30,000 images of the body along with many other measurements, and providing insights about its composition and geological history. Vesta has an average diameter of 326 miles (525 kilometers), while Ceres has an average diameter of 590 miles (950 kilometers). Vesta and Ceres are the two most massive bodies in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter.


NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained these uncropped images of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19, 2015, from a distance of about 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). They are part of a series taken as Dawn observed Ceres completing one full rotation, which lasted about nine hours.

The images show the full range of different crater shapes that can be found at Ceres’ surface: from shallow, flattish craters to those with peaks at their centers. These views show sections of Ceres’ surface that are similar to those in PIA19056.

Dawn’s mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK, Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of acknowledgements, visit: dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission

For information about NASA’s Dawn mission, visit: dawn.jpl.nasa.gov

“Alliance for Space Development” formed by several space advocacy groups

A message from the National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) about the  new  Alliance for Space Development (ASD) collaboration of several organizations:

National Space Society and Space Frontier Foundation
Announce the Formation of the Alliance for Space Development

The National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) will announce the formation of the jointly managed Alliance for Space Development (ASD) at a media event on 25 February in Washington DC. ASD (allianceforspacedevelopment.org) is dedicated to influencing space policy toward the goals of space development and settlement. At press time the LifeBoat Foundation, the Mars Society, the Mars Foundation, the Space Development Steering Committee, the Space Tourism Society, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, Students on Capitol Hill, Tea Party in Space, and the Texas Space Alliance have also joined ASD. Charles Miller, Executive Coordinator of ASD, said “We’re delighted at the support ASD, and the focused, coordinated, year-long strategy it represents, has received in the space community.”

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R) and Representative Chaka Fattah (D) will co-host the press conference in the House Space Subcommittee hearing room in the Rayburn office building. Chair of the NSS Executive Committee Mark Hopkins said: “NSS is proud to be a founding member of ASD. We see space as a place not just to visit but to stay. The time is right to galvanize the space community toward a greater focus on space development and settlement.” SFF President James Pura said: “The Space Frontier Foundation sees the new Alliance as an important way to advance the central issue for the next era of space—the development and settlement of space as a growing contributor to human prosperity and well being.”

ASD is organized around three key goals: (1) making the development and settlement of space clearly defined parts of why we are sending humans into space, (2) reducing the cost of access to space, and (3) stimulating and accelerating the growth of space industries.

In 2015, ASD objectives include (1) incorporation of space development and settlement into the NASA Space Act, (2) a four-point plan to reduce the cost of access to space, (3) full support of the Commercial Crew program as requested by the Administration, and (4) increasing the utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) while ensuring a gapless transition to private space stations with NASA helping with development and acting as an anchor tenant.

The ASD 2015 legislative strategy is a unified action plan that incorporates previously uncoordinated projects and activities, such as the March Storm (www.marchstorm.com), the August Home District Blitz (www.nss.org/legislative) and other activities of ASD member organizations.