Saturday, December 31, 2011

Moon countdown: NASA probe enters lunar orbit

PASADENA, California (AP) — A NASA spacecraft fired its engine and slipped into orbit around the moon Saturday in the first of two back-to-back arrivals over the New Year's weekend.
Ground controllers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in cheers and applause after receiving a signal that the Grail-A probe was healthy and circling the moon. An engineer was seen on closed-circuit television blowing a noisemaker to herald the New Year's Eve arrival.
"This is great, a big relief," deputy project scientist Sami Asmar told a roomful of family and friends who gathered at the NASA center to watch the drama unfold.
The celebration was brief. Despite the successful maneuver, the work was not over. Its twin Grail-B still had to enter lunar orbit on New Year's Day.
The Grail probes — short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory — have been cruising independently toward their destination since launching in September aboard the same rocket on a mission to measure lunar gravity.
Hours before Earth revelers counted down the new year, Grail-A flew over the south pole and slowed itself to get captured into orbit. Deep space antennas in the California desert and Madrid tracked every move and fed real-time updates to ground controllers.
Grail is the 110th mission to target the moon since the dawn of the Space Age including the six Apollo moon landings that put 12 astronauts on the surface. Despite the attention the moon has received, scientists don't know everything about Earth's nearest neighbor.
Why the moon is ever so slightly lopsided with the far side more mountainous than the side that always faces Earth remains a mystery. A theory put forth earlier this year suggested that Earth once had two moons that collided early in the solar system's history, producing the hummocky region.
Grail is expected to help researchers better understand why the moon is asymmetrical and how it formed by mapping the uneven lunar gravity field that will indicate what's below the surface.
"It seems that the answer is not on the surface," said chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We think that the answer is locked in the interior."
Previous lunar missions have attempted to study the moon's gravity — which is about one-sixth Earth's pull — with mixed results. Grail is the first mission devoted to this goal.
Once in orbit, the near-identical Grail-A and Grail-B spacecraft will spend the next two months refining their positions until they are just 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the surface and flying in formation. Data collection will begin in March.
The $496 million mission will be closely watched by schoolchildren. An effort by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will allow middle school students to use cameras aboard the probes to zoom in and pick out their favorite lunar spots to photograph.
Despite the latest focus on the moon, NASA won't be sending astronauts back anytime soon. The Obama administration last year nixed a lunar return in favor of landing humans on an asteroid and eventually Mars.
A jaunt to the moon is usually speedy. It took the Apollo astronauts three days to zip there aboard the powerful Saturn V rocket. Since NASA wanted to economize by launching on a small rocket, it took Grail a leisurely 3 1/2 months to make a roundabout trip.
NASA's last moonshot occurred in 2009 with the launch of a pair of spacecraft — one that circled the moon and another that deliberately crashed into the surface and uncovered frozen water in one of the permanently shadowed lunar craters.
                                                                              

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Moon countdown: Hours until 1st NASA probe arrives

LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA is counting down the seconds until its twin spacecraft bound for the moon make back-to-back arrivals over the New Year's weekend.
The washing machine-size probes have been cruising independently toward their destination since launching in September aboard the same rocket on a mission to measure lunar gravity.
Approaching the moon from the south pole, the Grail spacecraft — short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory — won't land on the surface, but will survey from orbit.
On New Year's Eve, Grail-A was poised to fire its engine for more than a half hour to slow itself and get captured into orbit. Grail-B will follow suit on New Year's Day.
Deep space antennas in the California desert and Madrid will track the tricky maneuvers and feed real-time updates to ground controllers.
"The anxiety level is heightened," project manager David Lehman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said earlier this week.
Grail is the 110th mission to target the moon since the dawn of the Space Age including the six Apollo moon landings that put 12 astronauts on the surface. Despite the attention the moon has received, scientists don't know everything about Earth's nearest neighbor.
Why the moon is ever so slightly lopsided with the far side more mountainous than the side that always faces Earth remains a mystery. A theory put forth earlier this year suggested that Earth once had two moons that collided early in the solar system's history, producing the hummocky region.
Grail is expected to help researchers better understand why the moon is asymmetrical and how it formed by mapping the uneven lunar gravity field that will indicate what's below the surface.
"It seems that the answer is not on the surface," said chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We think that the answer is locked in the interior."
Previous lunar missions have attempted to study the moon's gravity — which is about one-sixth Earth's pull — with mixed results. Grail is the first mission devoted to this goal.
Once in orbit, the near-identical spacecraft will spend the next two months refining their positions until they are just 34 miles above the surface and flying in formation. Data collection will begin in March.
The $496 million mission will be closely watched by schoolchildren. An effort by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will allow middle school students to use cameras aboard the probes to zoom in and pick out their favorite lunar spots to photograph.
Despite the latest focus on the moon, NASA won't be sending astronauts back anytime soon. The Obama administration last year nixed a lunar return in favor of landing humans on an asteroid and eventually Mars.
A jaunt to the moon — about 250,000 miles away from Earth — is usually speedy. It took the Apollo astronauts three days to zip there aboard the powerful Saturn V rocket. Since NASA wanted to economize by launching on a small rocket, it took Grail a leisurely 3 1/2 months to make the trip covering 2 1/2 million miles.
NASA's last moonshot occurred in 2009 with the launch of a pair of spacecraft — one that circled the moon and another that deliberately crashed into the surface and uncovered frozen water in one of the permanently shadowed lunar craters.
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Online:
Mission: http://grail.nasa.gov
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Follow Alicia Chang's coverage at http://www.twitter.com/SciWriAlicia

In a first, gas and other fuels are top US export

NEW YORK (AP) — For the first time, the top export of the United States, the world's biggest gas guzzler, is — wait for it — fuel.
Measured in dollars, the nation is on pace this year to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel than any other single export, according to U.S. Census data going back to 1990. It will also be the first year in more than 60 that America has been a net exporter of these fuels.
Just how big of a shift is this? A decade ago, fuel wasn't even among the top 25 exports. And for the last five years, America's top export was aircraft.
The trend is significant because for decades the U.S. has relied on huge imports of fuel from Europe in order to meet demand. It only reinforced the image of America as an energy hog. And up until a few years ago, whenever gasoline prices climbed, there were complaints in Congress that U.S. refiners were not growing quickly enough to satisfy domestic demand; that controversy would appear to be over.
Still, the U.S. is nowhere close to energy independence. America is still the world's largest importer of crude oil. From January to October, the country imported 2.7 billion barrels of oil worth roughly $280 billion.
Fuel exports, worth an estimated $88 billion in 2011, have surged for two reasons:
— Crude oil, the raw material from which gasoline and other refined products are made, is a lot more expensive. Oil prices averaged $95 a barrel in 2011, while gasoline averaged $3.52 a gallon — a record. A decade ago oil averaged $26 a barrel, while gasoline averaged $1.44 a gallon.
— The volume of fuel exports is rising. The U.S. is using less fuel because of a weak economy and more efficient cars and trucks. That allows refiners to sell more fuel to rapidly growing economies in Latin America, for example. In 2011, U.S. refiners exported 117 million gallons per day of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products, up from 40 million gallons per day a decade earlier.
There's at least one domestic downside to America's growing role as a fuel exporter. Experts say the trend helps explain why U.S. motorists are paying more for gasoline. The more fuel that's sent overseas, the less of a supply cushion there is at home.
Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. "It's a world market," he says.
Refining companies won't say how much they make by selling fuel overseas. But analysts say those sales are likely generating higher profits per gallon than they would have generated in the U.S. Otherwise, they wouldn't occur.
The value of U.S. fuel exports has grown steadily over the past decade, coinciding with rising oil prices and increased demand around the globe.
Developing countries in Latin America and Asia have been burning more gasoline and diesel as their people buy more cars and build more roads and factories. Europe also has been buying more U.S. fuel to make up for its lack of refineries.
And there's a simple reason why America's refiners have been eager to export to these markets: gasoline demand in the U.S. has been falling every year since 2007. It dropped by another 2.5 percent in 2011. With the economy struggling, motorists cut back. Also, cars and trucks have become more fuel-efficient and the government mandates the use of more corn-based ethanol fuel.
The last time the U.S. was a net exporter of fuels was 1949, when Harry Truman was president. That year, the U.S. exported 86 million barrels and imported 82 million barrels. In the first ten months of 2011, the nation exported 848 million barrels (worth $73.4 billion) and imported 750 million barrels.