Tag: NASA Blog

NASA Selects Mission to Study Churning Chaos in our Milky Way and Beyond

NASA has selected a science mission that will measure emissions from the interstellar medium, which is the cosmic material found between stars. This data will help scientists determine the life cycle of interstellar gas in our Milky Way galaxy, witness the formation and destruction of star-forming clouds, and understand the dynamics and gas flow in the vicinity of the center of our galaxy.

The Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO) mission, led by the principal investigator of the University of Arizona, Christopher Walker, will fly an Ultralong-Duration Balloon (ULDB) carrying a telescope with carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen emission line detectors. This unique combination of data will provide the spectral and spatial resolution information needed for Walker and his team to untangle the complexities of the interstellar medium, and map out large sections of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and the nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.

“GUSTO will provide the first complete study of all phases of the stellar life cycle, from the formation of molecular clouds, through star birth and evolution, to the formation of gas clouds and the re-initiation of the cycle,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director in the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. GUSTO continues that tradition.”

The mission is targeted for launch in 2021 from McMurdo, Antarctica, and is expected to stay in the air between 100 to 170 days, depending on weather conditions. It will cost approximately $40 million, including the balloon launch funding and the cost of post-launch operations and data analysis.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is providing the mission operations, and the balloon platform where the instruments are mounted, known as the gondola. The University of Arizona in Tucson will provide the GUSTO telescope and instrument, which will incorporate detector technologies from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Arizona State University in Tempe, and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program requested proposals for mission of opportunity investigations in September 2014. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed two mission of opportunity concept studies selected from the eight proposals submitted at that time, and NASA has determined that GUSTO has the best potential for excellent science return with a feasible development plan.

NASA’s Explorers Program is the agency’s oldest continuous program and is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the astrophysics and heliophysics programs in agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The program has launched more than 90 missions. It began in 1958 with the Explorer 1, which discovered the Earth’s radiation belts, now called the Van Allen belt, named after the principal investigator. Another Explorer mission, the Cosmic Background Explorer, led to a Nobel Prize. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland manages the program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information on the Explorers Program, visit:


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Felicia Chou
Headquarters, Washington

Last Updated: March 24, 2017
Editor: Katherine Brown

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Set for Fifth Jupiter Flyby

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will make its fifth flyby over Jupiter’s mysterious cloud tops on Monday, March 27, at 1:52 a.m. PDT (4:52 a.m. EDT, 8:52 UTC).

At the time of closest approach (called perijove), Juno will be about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, traveling at a speed of about 129,000 miles per hour (57.8 kilometers per second) relative to the gas-giant planet. All of Juno’s eight science instruments will be on and collecting data during the flyby.

“This will be our fourth science pass — the fifth close flyby of Jupiter of the mission — and we are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Every time we get near Jupiter’s cloud tops, we learn new insights that help us understand this amazing giant planet.”

The Juno science team continues to analyze returns from previous flybys. Scientists have discovered that Jupiter’s magnetic fields are more complicated than originally thought and that the belts and zones that give the planet’s cloud tops their distinctive look extend deep into its interior. Observations of the energetic particles that create the incandescent auroras suggest a complicated current system involving charged material lofted from volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io.

Peer-reviewed papers with more in-depth science results from Juno’s first flybys are expected to be published within the next few months.

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and arrived in orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. During its mission of exploration, Juno soars low over the planet’s cloud tops — as close as about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers). During these flybys, Juno is probing beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and studying its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere, and magnetosphere.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. JPL is a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California.

More information on the Juno mission is available at:



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DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov


Editor: Martin Perez

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA’s Swift Mission Maps a Star’s ‘Death Spiral’ into a Black Hole

Some 290 million years ago, a star much like the sun wandered too close to the central black hole of its galaxy. Intense tides tore the star apart, which produced an eruption of optical, ultraviolet and X-ray light that first reached Earth in 2014. Now, a team of scientists using observations from NASA’s Swift satellite have mapped out how and where these different wavelengths were produced in the event, named ASASSN-14li, as the shattered star’s debris circled the black hole.

“We discovered brightness changes in X-rays that occurred about a month after similar changes were observed in visible and UV light,” said Dheeraj Pasham, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the lead researcher of the study. “We think this means the optical and UV emission arose far from the black hole, where elliptical streams of orbiting matter crashed into each other.”

This animation illustrates how debris from a tidally disrupted star collides with itself, creating shock waves that emit ultraviolet and optical light far from the black hole. According to Swift observations of ASASSN-14li, these clumps took about a month to fall back to the black hole, where they produced changes in the X-ray emission that correlated with the earlier UV and optical changes.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Astronomers think ASASSN-14li was produced when a sun-like star wandered too close to a 3-million-solar-mass black hole similar to the one at the center of our own galaxy. For comparison, the event horizon of a black hole like this is about 13 times bigger than the sun, and the accretion disk formed by the disrupted star could extend to more than twice Earth’s distance from the sun.

When a star passes too close to a black hole with 10,000 or more times the sun’s mass, tidal forces outstrip the star’s own gravity, converting the star into a stream of debris. Astronomers call this a tidal disruption event. Matter falling toward a black hole collects into a spinning accretion disk, where it becomes compressed and heated before eventually spilling over the black hole’s event horizon, the point beyond which nothing can escape and astronomers cannot observe. Tidal disruption flares carry important information about how this debris initially settles into an accretion disk.

Astronomers know the X-ray emission in these flares arises very close to the black hole. But the location of optical and UV light was unclear, even puzzling. In some of the best-studied events, this emission seems to be located much farther than where the black hole’s tides could shatter the star. Additionally, the gas emitting the light seemed to remain at steady temperatures for much longer than expected.

ASASSN-14li was discovered Nov. 22, 2014, in images obtained by the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASASSN), which includes robotic telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. Follow-up observations with Swift’s X-ray and Ultraviolet/Optical telescopes began eight days later and continued every few days for the next nine months. The researchers supplemented later Swift observations with optical data from the Las Cumbres Observatory headquartered in Goleta, California.

In a paper describing the results published March 15 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, Pasham, Cenko and their colleagues show how interactions among the infalling debris could create the observed optical and UV emission.

Tidal debris initially falls toward the black hole but overshoots, arcing back out along elliptical orbits and eventually colliding with the incoming stream.

“Returning clumps of debris strike the incoming stream, which results in shock waves that emit visible and ultraviolet light,” said Goddard’s Bradley Cenko, the acting Swift principal investigator and a member of the science team. “As these clumps fall down to the black hole, they also modulate the X-ray emission there.”

Future observations of other tidal disruption events will be needed to further clarify the origin of optical and ultraviolet light.

Goddard manages the Swift mission in collaboration with Pennsylvania State University in University Park, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Virginia. Other partners include the University of Leicester and Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the United Kingdom, Brera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy, with additional collaborators in Germany and Japan.


Scientists Identify a Black Hole Choking on Stardust (MIT)

ASASSN-14li: Destroyed Star Rains onto Black Hole, Winds Blow it Back

‘Cry’ of a Shredded Star Heralds a New Era for Testing Relativity

Researchers Detail How a Distant Black Hole Devoured a Star

Banner image:

This artist’s rendering shows the tidal disruption event named ASASSN-14li, where a star wandering too close to a 3-million-solar-mass black hole was torn apart. The debris gathered into an accretion disk around the black hole. New data from NASA’s Swift satellite show that the initial formation of the disk was shaped by interactions among incoming and outgoing streams of tidal debris.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Editor: Karl Hille

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Relativistic Electrons Uncovered with NASA’s Van Allen Probes

Earth’s radiation belts, two doughnut-shaped regions of charged particles encircling our planet, were discovered more than 50 years ago, but their behavior is still not completely understood. Now, new observations from NASA’s Van Allen Probes mission show that the fastest, most energetic electrons in the inner radiation belt are not present as much of the time as previously thought. The results are presented in a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research and show that there typically isn’t as much radiation in the inner belt as previously assumed — good news for spacecraft flying in the region.

Since their discovery at the dawn of the Space Age, Earth’s radiation belts continue to reveal new complex structures and behaviors. This visualization shows how the radiation belts change in response to the injection of electrons from a storm in late June 2015. Red colors indicate higher numbers of electrons.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Tom Bridgman

Past space missions have not been able to distinguish electrons from high-energy protons in the inner radiation belt. But by using a special instrument, the Magnetic Electron and Ion Spectrometer — MagEIS — on the Van Allen Probes, the scientists could look at the particles separately for the first time. What they found was surprising —there are usually none of these super-fast electrons, known as relativistic electrons, in the inner belt, contrary to what scientists expected.

“We’ve known for a long time that there are these really energetic protons in there, which can contaminate the measurements, but we’ve never had a good way to remove them from the measurements until now,” said Seth Claudepierre, lead author and Van Allen Probes scientist at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California.

Of the two radiation belts, scientists have long understood the outer belt to be the rowdy one. During intense geomagnetic storms, when charged particles from the sun hurtle across the solar system, the outer radiation belt pulsates dramatically, growing and shrinking in response to the pressure of the solar particles and magnetic field.  Meanwhile, the inner belt maintains a steady position above Earth’s surface. The new results, however, show the composition of the inner belt isn’t as constant as scientists had assumed.

Ordinarily, the inner belt is composed of high-energy protons and low-energy electrons. However, after a very strong geomagnetic storm in June 2015, relativistic electrons were pushed deep into the inner belt.

The findings were visible because of the way MagEIS was designed. The instrument creates its own internal magnetic field, which allows it to sort particles based on their charge and energy. By separating the electrons from the protons, the scientists could understand which particles were contributing to the population of particles in the inner belt.

“When we carefully process the data and remove the contamination, we can see things that we’ve never been able to see before,” said Claudepierre. “These results are totally changing the way we think about the radiation belt at these energies.”

triptych of Van Allen Belt depictions, pre-, during and post-solar storm
During a strong geomagnetic storm, electrons at relativistic energies, which are usually only found in the outer radiation belt, are pushed in close to Earth and populate the inner belt. While the electrons in the slot region quickly decay, the inner belt electrons can remain for many months.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

Given the rarity of the storms, which can inject relativistic electrons into the inner belt, the scientists now understand there to typically be lower levels of radiation there — a result that has implications for spacecraft flying in the region. Knowing exactly how much radiation is present may enable scientists and engineers to design lighter and cheaper satellites tailored to withstand the less intense radiation levels they’ll encounter.

In addition to providing a new outlook on spacecraft design, the findings open a new realm for scientists to study next.

“This opens up the possibility of doing science that previously was not possible,” said Shri Kanekal, Van Allen Probes deputy mission scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, not involved with the study. “For example, we can now investigate under what circumstances these electrons penetrate the inner region and see if more intense geomagnetic storms give electrons that are more intense or more energetic.”

The Van Allen Probes is the second mission in NASA’s Living with a Star Program and one of many NASA heliophysics missions studying our near-Earth environment. The spacecraft plunge through the radiation belts five to six times a day on a highly elliptical orbit, in order to understand the physical processes that add and remove electrons from the region.


Editor: Rob Garner


Photo Credit: NASA

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NuSTAR Helps Find Universe’s Brightest Pulsars

There’s a new record holder for brightest pulsar ever found — and astronomers are still trying to figure out how it can shine so brightly. It’s now part of a small group of mysterious bright pulsars that are challenging astronomers to rethink how pulsars accumulate, or accrete, material.

A pulsar is a spinning, magnetized neutron star that sweeps regular pulses of radiation in two symmetrical beams across the cosmos. If aligned well enough with Earth, these beams act like a lighthouse beacon — appearing to flash on and off as the pulsar rotates. Pulsars were previously massive stars that exploded in powerful supernovae, leaving behind these small, dense stellar corpses.

The brightest pulsar, as reported in the journal Science, is called NGC 5907 ULX. In one second, it emits the same amount of energy as our sun does in three-and-a-half years. The European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite found the pulsar and, independently, NASA’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission also detected the signal. This pulsar is 50 million light years away, which means its light dates back to a time before humans roamed Earth. It is also the farthest known neutron star.

“This object is really challenging our current understanding of the accretion process for high-luminosity pulsars,” said Gian Luca Israel, from INAF-Osservatorio Astronomica di Roma, Italy, lead author of the Science paper. “It is 1,000 times more luminous than the maximum thought possible for an accreting neutron star, so something else is needed in our models in order to account for the enormous amount of energy released by the object.”

The previous record holder for brightest pulsar was reported in October 2014. NuSTAR had identified M82 X-2, located about 12 million light-years away in the “Cigar Galaxy” galaxy Messier 82 (M82), as a pulsar rather than a black hole. The pulsar reported in Science, NGC 5907 ULX, is 10 times brighter.

Another extremely bright pulsar, the third brightest known, is called NGC 7793 P13. Using a combination of XMM-Newton and NuSTAR, one group of scientists reported the discovery in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, while another used XMM-Newton to report it in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Both studies were published in October 2016. Scientists call three extremely bright pulsars “ultraluminous X-ray sources” (ULXs). Before the 2014 discovery, many scientists thought that the brightest ULXs were black holes.

“They are brighter than what you would expect from an accreting black hole of 10 solar masses,” said Felix Fuerst, lead author of the Astrophysical Journal Letters study based at the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid. Fuerst did this work while at Caltech in Pasadena, California.

How these objects are able to shine so brightly is a mystery. The leading theory is that these pulsars have strong, complex magnetic fields closer to their surfaces. A magnetic field would distort the flow of incoming material close to the neutron star. This would allow the neutron star to continue accreting material while still generating high levels of brightness.

It could be that many more ULXs are neutron stars, scientists say.

“These discoveries of ‘light,’ compact objects that shine so brightly, is revolutionizing the field,” Israel said.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, and the official data archive is at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. ASI provides the mission’s ground station and a mirror archive. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

For more information on NuSTAR, visit:



Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Markus Bauer
ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Communication Officer
+31 71 565 6799 / +31 61 594 3 954

Editor: Tony Greicius

Photo Credit: NASA

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NASA Explores Opportunity for Smaller Experiments to ‘Hitch a Ride’ to Mars

NASA’s goals for human deep space exploration are complex and ambitious. To maximize resources as it pushes the boundaries of exploration, the agency is exploring opportunities to take advantage of emerging private sector space capabilities.

NASA released a request for information Monday regarding possible commercial sources to fly limited payloads on planned, non-NASA missions to Mars. The agency will use the responses to gather market data on the complete spectrum of commercial plans, and identify any excess capacity that may exist for NASA payloads.

Furthering NASA’s human deep space exploration goals will require a significant amount of scientific research, and opportunities to collect data on Mars have been rare. Only seven successful missions to the surface of Mars have taken place in the history of spaceflight.

Evolving capabilities in the private sector have opened the possibility for NASA to take advantage of commercial opportunities to land scientific payloads on the surface of the Red Planet. Such capability would provide an additional method of acquiring science and engineering data concerning Mars, and would complement NASA’s current deep space exploration efforts.

Editor: Brian Dunbar

Photo Credit: NASA

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After 15 Years, SABER on TIMED Still Breaks Ground from Space

James Russell III
James Russell III, SABER principal investigator and co-director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton University, said, “We broke new ground on the coupling of high and low atmosphere, and on the long-term change in carbon dioxide, water, and other gases.” Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman

About 21 years ago, team members started building and testing the Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry, or SABER instrument. Back then, they dreamed of how great two years of data from an unexplored region of the upper atmosphere would be.

Now, 15 years later, SABER aboard the Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere, Energetics and Dynamics, or TIMED, spacecraft has more than delivered on that dream as it continues to provide a wealth of fundamental knowledge about the radiation budget, chemistry, and dynamics of the upper atmosphere.

Marty Mlynczak
Marty Mlynczak, SABER associate principal investigator and senior research scientist at NASA Langley, spoke during the 15th-anniversary celebration. Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman

On Jan. 31, 2017, SABER team members gathered at NASA’s Langley Research Center to acknowledge and celebrate 15 years of atmospheric discovery.

“SABER, which marked 15 years of on-orbit operation on Jan. 22, 2017, has provided a never-before-seen view of the atmosphere and paved the way for new avenues of scientific study,” said NASA Langley’s Deputy Director Clayton Turner. “Fifteen years of SABER data has deepened our knowledge of the planet’s radiation budget — the balance between Earth’s incoming and outgoing energy. That’s an important achievement.”

Earth’s heat engine does more than simply move heat from one part of the surface to another; it also moves heat from Earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere back to space. This flow of incoming and outgoing energy is Earth’s energy budget.

Built by Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory and managed by NASA Langley and Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, SABER is one of four instruments on the TIMED spacecraft.

“SABER has scanned the horizon more than 8 million times since launch,” said Joann Haysbert, Chancellor and Provost of Hampton University. “And without that good home (TIMED) to carry SABER, we would not be where we are today.”

As Dave Grant, TIMED Project Manager from Johns Hopkins University – Applied Physics Laboratory, explained, TIMED was given a two-year baseline plan. “No one was thinking 15 years,” he said. “But here we are with more than 15,000 contacts with the spacecraft and 98 percent of all SABER data recovered.”

A Series of Scientific “Firsts”

The Earth’s atmospheric limb known as the MLTI region — Mesosphere and Lower Thermosphere/Ionosphere — is home to the International Space Station and hundreds of satellites in Low Earth Orbit. It is also where the sun’s energy first impacts Earth’s atmosphere. Although it is the first shield from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and contains important gases such as ozone, water vapor, and carbon dioxide, very little was known about this thin, outer layer between 10 and 110 miles in altitude.

Fifteen years ago, the MLTI was considered one of the least explored regions of Earth. But thanks to SABER on TIMED there is a new wealth of comprehensive global measurements of the MLTI.

The SABER dataset is the first global, long-term, and continuous record of the thermosphere, or upper atmospheric, emissions of nitric oxide and carbon dioxide (— molecules that, in this region of the atmosphere, serve as atmospheric thermostats that send upper atmospheric heat back into space.

Clayton Turner
“In the ‘90s when we were building SABER, it had a specific focus,” said NASA Langley Deputy Director Clayton Turner. “But today, it has an even greater focus to understand Earth and other planets by leveraging the knowledge and expertise of the SABER instrument and team.” Credits: NASA/David C. Bowman

One well-documented occurrence of this transfer of heat was in 2012 when over just three days, solar storms dumped enough energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere to power every residence in New York City for two years. SABER data revealed that the nitric oxide and carbon dioxide in the thermosphere re-radiated 95 percent of that energy back into space.

Data from that event, as well as other more recent solar events, continue to be analyzed to determine the effect on Earth’s upper atmosphere.

As Marty Mlynczak, SABER associate principal investigator and senior research scientist at NASA Langley explained, in order to understand Earth’s atmosphere, we must understand all of its layers.

“This climate record of the upper atmosphere is our first chance to have the other side of the equation,” Mlynczak said.

James Russell III, SABER principal investigator and co-director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Hampton University adds, “We broke new ground on the coupling of high and low atmosphere, and on the long-term change in carbon dioxide, water, and other gasses.”

The usefulness of SABER’s unprecedented data is evident by the more than 1,350 journal articles in peer-reviewed literature that use SABER data.

SABER continues to exceed expectations and find a new purpose. The SABER data are now also being considered as a guide in the search for life on exoplanets. As Mlynczak explained, SABER detects elements through radiative signals from Earth’s atmosphere. Similar signals can be sought from Earth-like planets residing in habitable zones around sun-like stars. This knowledge can be utilized by NASA’s James Webb Telescope in the search for new planets that may harbor life.

“In the ‘90s when we were building SABER, it had a specific focus,” Turner said. “But today, it has an even greater focus to understand Earth and other planets by leveraging the knowledge and expertise of the SABER instrument and team.”

SABER’s atmospheric scanning has marked a series of “firsts” for the scientific community, and with no end in sight, that series continues.

According to the Deputy Director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division Peg Luce, SABER’s advancement in our understanding of the waves and dynamics that shape our upper atmosphere and ionosphere come into increased focus as NASA prepares for the launch of the Ionospheric Connection, or ICON, explorer and The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, missions later this year, and anticipates significant collaboration potential between the three missions.

“The SABER story is not over yet,“ Grant said. “We have a long way to go.”

Denise Lineberry
NASA Langley Research Center

Editor: Joe Atkinson

Photo Credit: NASA

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