Category Archives: Earth Observatories

SMAP Radar Fails

The Radar portion of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory has failed and can no longer return data. The radar instrument stopped sending data on 07 July and the problem was determined to be in the HPA or high power amplifier. The HPA sends a pulse of about 500 watts (a lot for a spacecraft) to be sure they get a good reflection and therefore good data.

A troubleshooting team was put together and on 24 August after exhausting all the possibilities, tried to power up the amplifier without success. The conclusion is the unit probably is not recoverable.

The good news is the the mission, which was launched in January continues to produce high-quality science measurements supporting SMAP’s objectives with its radiometer instrument.


From NASA:
A Three-day composite global map of surface soil moisture as retrieved from SMAP’s radiometer instrument between Aug. 25-27, 2015. Dry areas appear yellow/orange, such as the Sahara Desert, western Australia and the western U.S. Wet areas appear blue, representing the impacts of localized storms. White areas indicate snow, ice or frozen ground.

The SMAP mission is designed to help scientists understand the links between Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles and enhance our ability to monitor and predict natural hazards like floods and droughts. SMAP remains an important data source to aid Earth system modeling and studies. SMAP data have additional practical applications, including improved weather forecasting and crop yield predictions.

The SMAP spacecraft continues normal operations and the first data release of soil moisture products is expected in late September.

“Although some of the planned applications of SMAP data will be impacted by the loss of the radar, the SMAP mission will continue to produce valuable science for important Earth system studies,” said Dara Entekhabi, SMAP Science Team lead at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

MSG-4 First Image


Europe’s latest weather satellite has returned its first image.  Very nice although the image here does not do the original justice – click here and make the image full screen.

The short version of the ESA press release:
Today, the Spinning Enhanced Visible and Infrared Imager (SEVIRI) instrument on MSG-4 captured its first image of Earth. This demonstrates that Europe’s latest geostationary weather satellite, launched on 15 July, is performing well and is on its way to becoming fully operational when needed after six months of commissioning.

The European Space Agency (ESA) was responsible for the initial operations after launch (the so-called launch and early orbit phase) of MSG-4 and handed over the satellite to EUMETSAT on 26 July.

The first image is a joint achievement by ESA, EUMETSAT, and the European space industry. For its mandatory programmes, EUMETSAT relies on ESA for the development of new satellites and procuring the recurrent satellites like MSG-4. This cooperation model has made Europe a world leader in satellite meteorology by making best use of the two agencies’ expertise.

Here’s the long version.

Watching Pluto

Seeing Pluto from Earth can be tough enough. Seeing Pluto occulting a distant star and doing it from a plane is exponentially more difficult that takes an amazing amount of planning and skill.

SOFIA or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy was up to the challenge and successfully observed Pluto with an infrared telescope, here’s how they did it:

Home Sweet Home!


Just look at that! This is the first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth from the Deep Space Climate Observatory.

NASA describes this as EPIC Earth. Indeed it is.

A NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth from one million miles (1.6 million km) away.

About the image from NASA/Karen Northon:

This color image of Earth was taken by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope. The image was generated by combining three separate images to create a photographic-quality image. The camera takes a series of 10 images using different narrowband filters — from ultraviolet to near infrared — to produce a variety of science products. The red, green and blue channel images are used in these color images.
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First Generation Stars?


We generally think of stars in populations.

Population III stars are the hypothetical first stars. These stars are extremely metal poor but massive stars.

By metals we are talking about elements heavier than hydrogen (and helium depending on which definition you read and is what I consider to be a non-metal too). All elements heavier than hydrogen are a by-product or ash from fusion in the cores of stars.

Population II stars have little metals, stars in globular clusters are made up of a good percentage of population 2 stars. Population II stars are considered to have created all other elements in the periodic table beyond hydrogen and helium. Prior to 1978 or 1979 these were the stars thought to be the oldest stars and still are the oldest observed stars.

Population I stars are considered metal rich young stars and include our own Sun and are common in the arms of the Milky Way.

Now astronomers using the W. M. Keck Observatory, ESO’s Very Large Telescope, Subaru Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered the brightest galaxy so far and have evidence of first generation stars within.

Details at the W.M. Keck Observatory site.

Image: David Sobral

Rare Quasar Quartet


Rare is a good description of finding four quasars at once! That’s just what astronomers using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii did. The group found the first quadruple quasar group.

Image description from Keck:
Image of the region of the space occupied by the rare quasar quartet. The four quasars are indicated by arrows. The quasars are embedded in a giant nebula of cool dense gas visible in the image as a blue haze. The nebula has an extent of one million light-years across, and these objects are so distant that their light has taken nearly 10 billion years to reach telescopes on Earth. This false color image is based on observations with the Keck 10m telescope on the summit of Maunakea in Hawaii.

Credit: Hennawi & Arrigoni-Battaia, MPIA

Check out the Keck press release.

Einstein Ring

An Einstein ring and galactic collision. CREDIT: W. M. KECK OBSERVATORY/NASA/ESA/ESO
An Einstein ring and galactic collision. CREDIT: W. M. KECK OBSERVATORY/NASA/ESA/ESO

This collaborative image from the Keck II telescope with its wonderful adaptive optics and Hubble show an almost complete Einstein Ring around a galaxy much like our own Milky Way. The ring is “the smeared out image of a star forming galaxy merger far beyond”.

From the Keck website:

MAUNA KEA, HAWAII — An international team of astronomers has obtained the best view yet of a collision that took place between two galaxies when the universe was only half its current age using the W. M. Keck Observatory and many other telescopes on the ground and in space.

To make this observation, the team also enlisted the help of a gravitational lens, a galaxy-size magnifying glass, to reveal otherwise invisible detail. These new studies of galaxy HATLAS J142935.3-002836 have shown that this complex and distant object looks surprisingly like the comparatively nearby pair of colliding galaxies collectively known as the Antennae.

Read the rest at the Keck site.