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STS-118: Highlights

The STS-118 crew, including Barbara Morgan, narrates its mission highlights film and answers questions in this post-flight presentation.

 Full presentation
 Mission film

STS-120: Rollout to pad

Space shuttle Discovery rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and travels to launch pad 39A for its STS-120 mission.

 Play

Dawn leaves Earth

NASA's Dawn space probe launches aboard a Delta 2-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral to explore two worlds in the asteroid belt.

 Full coverage

Dawn: Launch preview

These briefings preview the launch and science objectives of NASA's Dawn asteroid orbiter.

 Launch | Science

ISS crew change preview

The Expedition 15 mission draws to a close aboard the space station and the Expedition 16 launch nears. These two briefings from Sept. 25 cover the upcoming transition between the two missions.

 Exp. 15 recap
 Exp. 16 preview

Discovery moves to VAB

Shuttle Discovery is transported from its hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building for attachment to the external tank and boosters.

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STS-120: The programs

In advance of shuttle Discovery's STS-120 mission to the station, managers from both programs discuss the flight.

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STS-120: The mission

Discovery's trip to the station will install the Harmony module and move the P6 solar wing truss. The flight directors present a detailed overview of STS-120.

 Part 1 | Part 2

STS-120: Spacewalks

Five spacewalks are planned during Discovery's STS-120 assembly mission to the station. Lead spacewalk officer Dina Contella previews the EVAs.

 Full briefing
 EVA 1 summary
 EVA 2 summary
 EVA 3 summary
 EVA 4 summary
 EVA 5 summary

The Discovery crew

The Discovery astronauts, led by commander Pam Melroy, meet the press in the traditional pre-flight news conference.

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STS-69: The Dog Crew

Astronauts flying aboard shuttle Endeavour in September 1995 called themselves the Dog Crew, a lighthearted twist to their complicated mission to launch and then retrieve a pair of satellites.

 Play

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Though colder than Earth, Titan is tropical in nature
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO NEWS RELEASE
Posted: October 3, 2007

If space travelers ever visit Saturn's largest moon, they will find a tropical world where temperatures plunge to minus 274 degrees Fahrenheit, methane rains from the sky and dunes of ice or tar cover the planet's most arid regions. These conditions reflect a cold mirror image of Earth's tropical and subtropical climates, according to scientists at the University of Chicago.

"You have all these things that are analogous to Earth. At the same time, it's foreign and unfamiliar," said Ray Pierrehumbert, the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences and the College.

Titan, one of Saturn's 60 moons, is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere. Pierrehumbert and Jonathan Mitchell, a recent Ph.D. graduate in Astronomy & Astrophysics, have been comparing observations of Titan collected by the Cassini space probe and the Hubble Space Telescope with their own computer simulations of the moon's atmosphere.

Their study of the dynamics behind Titan's methane clouds have appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their continuing research on Titan's climate focuses on the moon's deserts.

"One of the things that attracts me about Titan is that it has a lot of the same circulation features as Earth, but done with completely different substances that work at different temperatures," Pierrehumbert said. On Earth, for example, water forms liquid and is relatively active as a vapor in the atmosphere. But on Titan, water is a rock. "It's not more volatile on Titan than sand is on Earth."

Methane - natural gas - assumes an Earth-like role of water on Titan. It exists in enough abundance to condense into rain and form puddles on the surface within the range of temperatures that occur on Titan.

"The ironic thing on Titan is that although it's much colder than Earth, it actually acts like a super-hot Earth rather than a snowball Earth, because at Titan temperatures, methane is more volatile than water vapor is at Earth temperatures," Pierrehumbert said. Pierrehumbert and Mitchell go so far as to call Titan's climate "tropical," even though it sounds odd for a moon that orbits Saturn more than nine times farther from the sun than Earth. Along with the behavior of methane, Titan's slow rotation rate also contributes to its tropical nature. Earth's tropical weather systems extend only to plus or minus 30 degrees of latitude from the equator. But on Titan, which rotates only once every 16 days, "the tropical weather system extends to the entire planet," Pierrehumbert said.

Titan's tropical nature means that scientists can explain the behavior of its clouds using theories they have relied upon to understand Earth's tropics, Mitchell noted. Titan's atmosphere produces an updraft where surface winds converge. This updraft lifts evaporated methane up to cooler temperatures and lower pressures, where much of it condenses and forms clouds.

"This is a well-known feature on Earth called an ITCZ, the inter-tropical convergence zone," Mitchell said. Earth's oceans help confine the ITCZ to the lowest latitudes. But in some scenarios for oceanless Titan, the ITCZ in Mitchell's computer simulations wanders in latitude almost from one pole to the other. Titan's clouds also should follow the ITCZ.

Titan's orange atmospheric haze complicates efforts to observe the moon's clouds. "This haze shrouds the entire surface," Mitchell said. "It pretty much blocks all visible light from reaching us from the surface or from the lower atmosphere."

Nevertheless, infrared observations via two narrow frequency bands have recently revealed that clouds are currently confined to the moon's southern hemisphere, which is just now emerging from its summer season.

"There should be a very large seasonality in these cloud features," Mitchell said. "Cassini and other instruments might be able to tell us about that in the next seven to 10 years or so, as the seasons progress."

Mitchell and Pierrehumbert's next paper will describe how oscillations in Titan's atmospheric circulation dry out the moon's midsection. Over the course of a year, Mitchell explained, "this oscillation in the atmosphere tends to transport moisture, or evaporated methane, out of the low latitudes and then deposit it at mid- and high-latitude in the form of rainfall. This is interesting, because recent Cassini observations of the surface suggest that the low latitudes are very dry."

Cassini images show dunes of ice or tar covering these low-latitude regions that correspond to the tropics on Earth. When ultraviolet light from the sun interacts with methane high in Titan's atmosphere, it creates byproducts such as ethane and hydrogen. These byproducts become linked to chains of hydrocarbon molecules that create Titan's orange haze. When these molecules coalesce into large particles, they settle out as a tar-like rain.

"Titan is like a big petrochemical plant," Pierrehumbert said. "Although this is all happening at a much lower temperature than in a petroleum refinery, the basic processes going on there are very closely allied to what people do when they make fuel."

STS-134 Patch

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The final planned flight of space shuttle Endeavour is symbolized in the official embroidered crew patch for STS-134. Available in our store!
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Final Shuttle Mission Patch

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The crew emblem for the final space shuttle mission is now available in our store. Get this piece of history!
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Apollo Collage
This beautiful one piece set features the Apollo program emblem surrounded by the individual mission logos.
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STS-133 Patch

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The final planned flight of space shuttle Discovery is symbolized in the official embroidered crew patch for STS-133. Available in our store!
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Anniversary Shuttle Patch

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This embroidered patch commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Program. The design features the space shuttle Columbia's historic maiden flight of April 12, 1981.
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Mercury anniversary

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Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alan Shephard's historic Mercury mission with this collectors' item, the official commemorative embroidered patch.
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