In the News
Next week, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will go where no spacecraft has gone before when it flies just past the edge of Saturn’s main rings. The maneuver is a first for the spacecraft, which has spent more than 12 years orbiting the ringed giant planet. And it’s part of a lead-up to a series of increasingly awesome feats that make up the mission’s “Grand Finale” ending with Cassini’s plunge into Saturn on Sept. 15, 2017.
How They’ll Do It
Cassini's ring-grazing orbits, which will take place from late Novemeber 2016 through April 2017, are shown here in tan. The blue lines represent the path that Cassini took in the time leading up to the new orbits during its extended solstice mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute | › Larger image
To prepare for the so-called “ring-grazing orbits,” which will bring the spacecraft within 56,000 miles (90,000 km) of Saturn, Cassini engineers have been slowly adjusting the spacecraft’s orbit since January. They do this by flying Cassini near Saturn’s large moon Titan. The moon’s gravity pulls on the spacecraft, changing its direction and speed.
On November 29, Cassini will use a big gravitational pull from Titan to get into an orbit that is closer to perpendicular with respect to the rings of Saturn and its equator. This orbit will send the spacecraft slightly higher above and below Saturn’s north and south poles, and allow it to get as close as the outer edge of the main rings – a region as of yet unexplored by Cassini.
This graphic illustrates the Cassini spacecraft's trajectory, or flight path, during the final two phases of its mission. The view is toward Saturn as seen from Earth. The 20 ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray; the 22 grand finale orbits are shown in blue. The final partial orbit is colored orange. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute | › Larger image
Why It’s Important
Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits will allow scientists to see features in Saturn's rings, up close, that they’ve only been able to observe from afar. The spacecraft will get so close to the rings, in fact, that it will pass through the dusty edges of the F ring, Saturn’s narrow, outermost ring. At that distance, Cassini will be able to study the rings like never before.
Among the firsts will be a “taste test” of Saturn’s rings from the inside out, during which Cassini will sample the faint gases surrounding the rings as well as the particles that make up the F ring. Cassini will also capture some of the best high-resolution images of the rings, and our best views of the small moons Atlas, Pan, Daphnis and Pandora, which orbit near the rings' outer edges. Finally, the spacecraft will do reconnaissance work needed to safely carry out its next planned maneuver in April 2017, when Cassini is scheduled to fly through the 1,500-mile (2,350-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings.
These orbits are a great example of scientific research in action. Much of what scientists will be seeing in detail during these ring-grazing orbits are features that, despite Cassini’s 12 years at Saturn, have remained a mystery. These new perspectives could help answer questions scientists have long puzzled over, but they will also certainly lead to new questions to add to our ongoing exploration of the ringed giant.
As part of the Cassini Scientist for a Day Essay Contest, students in grades 5-12 will write an essay describing which of these three targets would provide the most interesting scientific results. › Learn more and enter
What better way to share in the excitement of Cassini’s exploration than to get students thinking like NASA scientists and writing about their own questions and curiosities?
NASA’s Cassini Scientist for a Day Essay Contest, open to students in grades 5-12, encourages students to do just that. Participants research three science and imaging targets and then write an essay on which target would provide the most interesting scientific results, explaining what they hope to learn from the selected target. Winners of the contest will be featured on NASA’s Solar System Exploration website and get an opportunity to speak with Cassini scientists and engineers via video conference in the spring.
More information, contest rules and videos can be found here.
The deadline to enter is Feb. 24, 2017.
- Find educational lessons and activities about Saturn
- Discover free educational materials and resources about Saturn
- Students can discover more about Saturn with these slideshows, games and videos
- Download this timeline featuring milestones from Cassini's mission at Saturn or explore the interactive version!
- Explore the Cassini mission to Saturn website
- Browse our Cassini news archive
In The News
This week, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL was founded long before it became NASA’s premier center for robotic exploration of the solar system – and even before the agency existed. In fact, JPL started as the test-bed for some of the earliest rocketry experiments (thus the name “Jet Propulsion Laboratory”). There were a number of factors that conspired to change JPL’s focus from rocketry to space exploration. The Space Race and the resulting formation of NASA were two major factors. But also, with its growing expertise in launching rockets to new heights, JPL was anxious to take its experiments even farther. So in 1957, when the Soviet Union won the first leg of the Space Race by placing Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into Earth orbit, JPL was called into action. A few months later, NASA launched the JPL-built Explorer 1, which became the first U.S. satellite.
Soon, the challenge was to land on the moon – and JPL was once again called to the task. Landing on another planetary body had never been accomplished so, understandably, it took a few tries to get things right. JPL’s first attempts at a moon landing with Rangers 1 through 6 all failed for various reasons. Some of the spacecraft flew very near the moon only to miss it by a few hundred kilometers; others met their mark only to have onboard cameras fail. Ranger 7 was the first mission to successfully land on the moon and transmit data, capturing images 1,000-times better than those obtained by ground-based telescopes. It wasn’t a particularly soft landing; rather it was a purposeful crash landing, capturing images along the way. But everyone at JPL was thrilled to have hit their target and returned usable data. These data, and those collected by subsequent missions, made possible NASA’s later human missions to the moon.
At the same time it was launching the Ranger lunar missions, JPL had also set its sights on venturing even farther into space and began launching a series of missions called Mariner to Venus, Mercury and Mars. It wasn’t long before JPL’s specialty became creating robotic spacecraft to go not just to the moon, but also where no one had gone before.
Learn more about the history of JPL and the U.S. space program in the video series below. And explore the interactive timeline.
How They Did It
What’s often not known is that all the early rocket experiments and later missions to the moon and beyond wouldn’t have been possible without a team at JPL known as the human “computers.” Most of these human computers were women who either had degrees in mathematics or were simply very good at mathematics. Over the course of time, these women not only performed hundreds of thousands of mathematical calculations crucial to the U.S. space program, but also eventually became some of the first computer programmers at NASA.
In the early days of space exploration, the best mechanical computers were large (the size of a room) and not particularly powerful. Human capabilities were much more powerful for many tasks, including the rapid calculations needed for trajectory analysis and verification, as well as the graphing of data points on trajectories, which made a spacecraft’s path easy to see.
One of the human computers’ main tasks was computing the planned trajectories, or paths, for a spacecraft based on the vehicle weight, lift capacity of the rocket, and the orbital dynamics of the planets.
When a spacecraft is launched, it begins sending telemetry signals back to Earth. These signals tell engineers information about the spacecraft’s location and health. But this information isn’t perfectly straightforward. It arrives as a bunch of numbers that need to be combined in formulas along with other constantly changing parameters (such as velocity, vehicle mass and the effect of gravity from nearby bodies) in order to reveal the spacecraft’s actual location. Before there were computers (as we know them today) to do these calculations, human computers would feverishly calculate the exact location of the spacecraft as the telemetry came in and compare that to the planned trajectories. Their calculations would reveal whether the spacecraft was on target.
Doing the calculations required to get Explorer 1 into orbit was no small task. Calculating the trajectory for a Ranger crash landing or a Surveyor soft landing on the moon was even more challenging. Once humans were destined to be on board for the Apollo missions, the stakes were even higher. Fortunately, JPL had set the stage developing the techniques – and calculations – necessary to land a robotic spacecraft safely on the moon.
Why It’s Important
Today, JPL continues setting the pace for exploration of the solar system using robots to go where humans hope to venture one day, such as Mars. Though trajectory computations are now done using modern day computers, humans are still required to do trajectory analysis and mission planning. Every mission is different, and with new techniques comes new simulation equations that must be developed and computations that must be performed during actual mission events to ensure success. But even now, nothing is fail-proof. Lots of variables can and do influence spaceflight. Arriving safely on another planet millions of miles away isn’t easy or taken for granted, but when things go right and we achieve a safe landing, it is definitely cause for celebration.
When launching to another planet, we want to take the most efficient route, using the least amount of rocket fuel possible. The early human computers quickly discovered that launching when two planets are closest and using a lot of rocket fuel for the job isn’t the best plan.
Use this fascinating bit of history as a real world, advanced algebra and physics lesson with students in this standards-aligned activity that has grades 9-12 calculate the next launch window to Mars!
- Meet JPL engineer Sue Finley – Finley started at JPL in 1958 as a human computer and still works at the laboratory.
- Women at JPL website
- JPL History
- JPL 80th Anniversary Article
- JPL Timeline
- JPL 80th Anniversary Video Playlist
- JPL 80th Anniversary Printable Calendar
- Mars in a Minute Video Series
- Stomp Rockets Activity
- Basics of Space Flight Tutorial
Where do museums shop for animatronic dinosaurs? Test out different planetarium formats? Get the latest news on exhibits to rent? The Association of Science-Technology Centers Annual Conference is one place! NASA’s Museum Alliance was there to spread the word about the Alliance and all the NASA resources available to science centers, as well as to check in with institutions already featuring NASA content. Here are a few highlights:
NASA’s Journey to Mars and Universe of Learning booths were hot spots. Institutes interested in presenting the future of human space exploration, answering big questions about how our universe works, or taking a virtual tour via Eyes on Exoplanets kept the staff busy.
Attendees learned how they could get involved with various NASA programs designed for museums and science centers.
Museums were excited to sign up for the new GLOBE Observer citizen science app and get their guests involved in collecting real Earth data. (But you don’t have to be with a museum to use the app or these resources!)
At the Live Demonstration Hour, actor Douglas Coler performed a play about the Gemini 4 spacewalk, which recently earned playwright Chris Bresky from the Adler Planetarium an award from the International Museum Theater Alliance.
Also at the demo hour, the Orlando Science Center’s Stephanie Kazmierzak and her four brave volunteers wowed the crowd with this engineering demonstration/party trick.
The agency’s Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums, and NASA Visitor Centers provides funding in support of NASA-related content. (Check out the Map of Awardees to see what NASA content might be in a museum near you.) Many of the grantees attended the conference and shared project updates.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, for instance, just opened its International Space Station exhibit, Beyond Spaceship Earth, and lets visitors see what its like to be an astronaut. Can’t make it to the museum? There’s an app for that!
The Discover NASA exhibit for libraries has been reaching about 20,000 people at each site it visits, with hosts putting on all kinds of related special programming. Check out the schedule to see if it’s coming to a library near you.
Another awardee, GirlStart, provides students with STEM learning via after school classes, festivals and summer camps. Its DeSTEMber celebration is available for anyone, anytime. The daily hands-on activities are designed for families to do at home, together.
With more than 600 members in nearly 50 countries, the Association of Science-Technology Centers has quite a lot going on. Luckily, there’s an online search tool so you can find out what’s happening at a member center near you! Maybe you can even see what dinosaur they ended up picking out.
At a museum, science center, library, camp or other informal education institution? Learn how you can join the more than 700 organizations participating in NASA’s Museum Alliance, here.
At museums, people can get involved with NASA science and participate in hands-on learning, and now, thanks to a new app from the agency, they can take the experience with them through citizen science.
The GLOBE Observer app invites people of all ages around the world to contribute to the agency’s Earth-science missions by making their own observations about the planet to complement those made by satellites. Students and others have already been collecting, sharing, and analyzing Earth data on the GLOBE program website for more than 20 years through schools, museums and after-school programs. The app provides a new way for individuals to join in and add to the data sets of more than 100 million measurements.
The GLOBE Observer app will eventually feature a number of citizen-science projects, but the inaugural project, called GLOBE Clouds, will ask users to collect local data that can help scientists interpret satellite observations of clouds – a critical indicator for understanding climate and climate change. No special knowledge is needed to use the app, but participants will probably learn something new! The app walks users through recording sky conditions and cloud types, plus taking photos of what they see. Future projects on the app will let citizen scientists assist with monitoring land-cover and mosquito populations.
Museums and science organizations are getting involved too by setting up accounts that let teams of citizen scientists collect data on their behalf. In fact, in honor of International Science Center and Science Museum Day (November 10, 2016) people are encouraged to register for the app through their local science institutions to join a worldwide experiment.
Get started using GLOBE Observer by downloading the app, available for iOS and Android devices. Find out more during a Facebook Live event on the NASA Earth page on September 12 at 3:30 p.m. PDT that will introduce the project, the missions it supports and answer audience questions.
At a museum, science center, library, camp or other informal education institution? Learn how to put together your own GLOBE Observer team account here, or how you can join the more than 700 organizations participating in NASA’s Museum Alliance here.
This summer, while many of us were sleeping in and avoiding heavy school work, lots of exciting things were happening in and around our solar system! Here's a guide to launching the 2016 school year right and turning those stellar events into educational connections from NASA.
Science on Fire
Here at home, on Earth, it is fire season in many places in the Northern Hemisphere. Fire season comes about with warmer temperatures, dry air, and dry brush. Once a fire gets started in these conditions, it can rapidly spread and become out of control, especially when high winds are involved. This summer has already witnessed some dangerous fires including the Sand Fire in Southern California and the Soberanes Fire near Big Sur on the Central California coast. Beyond the immediate threat from flames, smoke degrades air quality and burn scars leave hillsides vulnerable to rain-induced mudslides.
NASA satellites and airborne instruments are helping scientists better understand wildfires and their impacts on our changing climate. And in the immediate term, they are helping firefighters track wildfires and respond to people and structures in risk areas.
Check out JPL's latest Teachable Moment to find out more about how scientists are studying wildfires, what they're learning and why it's important. And get links to two new lessons for students in grades 3-12 that have students use NASA data, algebra and geometry to approximate burn areas, fire-spread rate and fire intensity. (You can also go straight to the new lessons at: Fired Up Over Math: Studying Wildfires from Space and Pixels on Fire)
And speaking of Earth science, find out how you can get a free bulletin board featuring posters and lithographs about NASA Earth science and missions for your classroom!
Greetings from Jupiter
On July 4, just in time for a fireworks spectacle, the Juno spacecraft went into orbit around Jupiter. Juno launched from Earth aboard a huge rocket and had been hurtling toward Jupiter for nearly five years. Getting into orbit around Jupiter was a real nail-biter here at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which helps manage the mission) and we are all very happy everything went as planned. Juno’s mission is to study the origin, core and magnetic fields of our solar system’s largest planet. Juno will orbit Jupiter for only about 20 months before Jupiter’s intense radiation environment takes a toll on the spacecraft.
Communicating with a spacecraft as far away as Juno is a challenge that involves a lot of planning and teamwork. Try out this new lesson for young learners that demonstrates this process and provides practice with number concepts, counting and geometry, and data collection in a concrete, active manner.
Wish you had your very own Juno spacecraft you could use to uncover secrets beneath Jupiter? Check out this easy-to-build Juno model that uses household objects and can be used in a game with friends and family!
Explore more about Juno with these related lessons and videos:
In the NewsYou didn’t need to check social media, read the newspaper or watch the local news to know that California wildfires were making headlines this summer. Simply looking up at a smoke-filled sky was enough for millions of people in all parts of the state to know there was a fire nearby.
Fueled by high temperatures, low humidity, high winds and five years of vegetation-drying drought, more than 4,800 fires have engulfed 275,000-plus acres across California already this year. And the traditional fire season – the time of year when fires are more likely to start, spread and consume resources – has only just begun.
With wildfires starting earlier in the year and continuing to ignite throughout all seasons, fire season is now a year-round affair not just in California, but also around the world. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service found that fire seasons have grown longer in 25 percent of Earth's vegetation-covered areas.
For NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is located in Southern California, the fires cropping up near and far are a constant reminder that its efforts to study wildfires around the world from space, the air and on the ground are as important as ever.
JPL uses a suite of Earth satellites and airborne instruments to help better understand fires and aide in fire management and mitigation. By looking at multiple images and types of data from these instruments, scientists compare what a region looked like before, during and after a fire, as well as how long the area takes to recover.
While the fire is burning, scientists watch its behavior from an aerial perspective to get a big-picture view of the fire itself and the air pollution it is generating in the form of smoke filled with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
Natasha Stavros, a wildfire expert at JPL, joined Zach Tane with the U.S. Forest Service during a Facebook Live event (viewable below) to discuss some of these technologies and how they're used to understand wildfire behavior and improve wildfire recovery.
This animation shows how FireSat would use a network of satellites around the Earth to detect fires faster than ever before.
Additionally, JPL is working with a startup in San Francisco called Quadra Pi R2E to develop FireSat, a global network of satellites designed to detect wildfires and alert firefighting crews faster. When completed in June 2018, the network's array of more than 200 satellites will use infrared sensors to detect fires around the world much faster than is possible today. Working 24 hours a day, the satellites will be able to automatically detect fires as small as 35 to 50 feet wide within 15 minutes of when they begin. And within three minutes of a fire being detected, the FireSat network will notify emergency responders in the area.
Using these technologies, NASA scientists are gaining a broader understanding of fires and their impacts.
Why It's Important
One of the ways we often hear wildfires classified is by how much area they have burned. Though this is certainly of some importance, of greater significance to fire scientists is the severity of the fire. Wildfires are classified as burning at different levels of severity: low, medium, and high. Severity is a function of intensity, or how hot the fire was, and its spread rate, or the speed at which it travels. A high-severity fire is going to do some real damage. (Severity is measured by the damage left after the fire, but can be estimated during a fire event by calculating spread rate and measuring flame height which indicates intensity.)
The impacts of wildfires range from the immediate and tangible to the delayed and less obvious. The potential for loss of life, property and natural areas is one of the first threats that wildfires pose. From a financial standpoint, fires can lead to a downturn in local economies due to loss of tourism and business, high costs related to infrastructure restoration, and impacts to federal and state budgets.
The release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide is also an important consideration when thinking about the impacts of wildfires. Using NASA satellite data, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that between 2001 and 2010, California wildfires emitted about 46 million tons of carbon, around five to seven percent of all carbon emitted by the state during that time period.
In California and the western United States, longer fire seasons are linked to changes in spring rains, vapor pressure and snowmelt – all of which have been connected to climate change. Wildfires serve as a climate feedback loop, meaning certain effects of wildfires – the release of CO2 and CO – contribute to climate change, thereby enhancing the factors that contribute to longer and stronger fire seasons.
While this may seem like a grim outlook, it’s worth noting that California forests still act as carbon sinks – natural environments that are capable of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In certain parts of the state, each hectare of redwood forest is able to store the annual greenhouse gas output of 500 Americans.
Studying and managing wildfires is important for maintaining resources, protecting people, properties and ecosystems, and reducing air pollution, which is why JPL, NASA and other agencies are continuing their study of these threats and developing technologies to better understand them.
Have your students try their hands at solving some of the same fire-science problems that NASA scientists do with these two lessons that get students in grades 3 through 12 using NASA data, algebra and geometry to approximate burn areas, fire-spread rate and fire intensity:
- Fired Up Over Math: Studying Wildfires from Space - In this activity, younger students use arithmetic, scale, and math tiles; middle school students employ rate and partial polygon area formulas; and high school students use Google Earth software embedded with recent NASA wildfire data to make inferences about fire severity.
- Pixels on Fire – In this technology-based lesson, students detect mock fires using mobile devices and study NASA data visualizations to determine when actual California wildfires started.
- NASA/JPL FireSat Press Release
- SciJinks: Can Meteorologists Help Fight Wildfires?
- Soberanes Fire: Image Captured by NASA's Terra Spacecraft
- Let's Clear the Air: The Danger of Forest Fire Smoke to Firefighters
Lyle Tavernier was a co-author on this feature.
UPDATE - Sept. 13, 2016: Our Earth Science Bulletin Board materials are out of stock. To download and print out the resources, click on the links next to each product.
Climate change is a hot topic and one that's become a key part of science education. Introduce students to NASA's climate-science research and Earth satellites with this free bulletin board from the Educator Resource Center at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The set of posters, lithographs and stickers helps visually engage students while teaching them about topics such as sea-level rise, clouds and greenhouse gases. Note:Materials are available on a first-come-first-served basis.
The Earth Science Bulletin Board includes:
This poster describes the science behind sea-level rise, who's affected and what NASA is doing to help.
See what NASA scientists are doing to understand if our land and ocean can continue to absorb carbon dioxide at the current rate – and for how long.
Get fun facts about Earth science on this two-sided lithograph featuring a stunning image of our home planet.
This poster illustrates how NASA satellites study clouds from space.
Additional materials may include rulers, stickers and lithographs featuring NASA Earth science missions.
Brandon Murphy’s family was well accustomed to his months-long jaunts to Virginia, Florida and Texas, the home of whichever NASA facility had offered him an internship that semester. Freshly inspired and equipped with new skills, yet a little homesick, Murphy always returned to North Carolina, where he’d lived and gone to school since the age of 12.
But when his fifth NASA internship rolled around in the spring of 2016, a dream opportunity at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Murphy sat his family down and told them he wouldn’t be coming home this time.
“I packed up my entire house, put it on the back of a truck, and had them ship it here. Then I drove 36 hours from North Carolina to California in El Niño,” said Murphy, who at the time was still finishing up his master’s in computer science at North Carolina A&T State University.
A few years earlier, in the hope of improving his career prospects and “making a difference in the world,” Murphy had set his sights firmly on finding an internship – and eventually, a career – at NASA. When shortly after applying for an internship he got a call from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, he couldn’t believe it. “At first I thought they were joking. I was like, you’re kidding me. You said NASA, right?”
He accepted almost immediately and spent the next four months developing visualizations and software for an airborne mapping instrument. It didn’t take long before he was hooked. “Ever since [that first internship], I applied at NASA every semester and some opportunities showed up that I didn’t even apply for,” said Murphy.
So when he got an internship offer from his top choice, JPL, with just months to go before earning his degree, Murphy decided to risk it all. “I just took a risk and said, I’m going to come to JPL, put my best foot forward and fingers crossed a full-time position opens up for me.”
His parents, military veterans who had tried to instill the values of minimizing risk were understandably worried. But six months after arriving at JPL, and on the eve of his sixth and final internship, Murphy got the position he was waiting for: a full-time gig in JPL’s cyber security group hunting for threats to the laboratory's systems and developing defenses against them.
Diversity in the Pipeline
Murphy’s story is exactly the kind Jenny Tieu is hoping to see more of at JPL. As one of several program coordinators in the laboratory’s Education Office, which brings hundreds of interns and fellows to JPL each year, Tieu focuses specifically on reaching underrepresented students, like Murphy, and bringing them into NASA’s pipeline – a cadre of workshops, internships and professional development designed to produce the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Internships are an important piece of that pipeline, providing hands-on experience and a foot in the door. Once in the pipeline, students are more likely to end up with a career at a NASA center. This year, for example, close to half of JPL’s new employees who recently graduated from college started at the laboratory as interns or fellows, a new record.
But more than just shape the workforce that will design the spacecraft of the future and explore new worlds, the pipeline is, “a great opportunity to cultivate a community of diverse thinkers and innovators who bring unique perspectives from a multitude of backgrounds,” said Tieu.
Promoting diversity in the pipeline involves a number of strategies by JPL and other NASA centers to reach out to schools that enroll high numbers of students who aren't typically well represented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and partner with organizations working to get students involved in those fields.
One agency-wide program, the Minority University Research and Education Project, or MUREP, is what gave Murphy a chance to explore several careers at NASA – and helped him stand out.
"The combination of all the experiences and opportunities that Brandon had at different NASA centers really helped solidify his experience and make him a prime candidate for a full-time position,” said Tieu. “This is really the work of the MUREP community coming together as a team to provide opportunities and prepare students for the workforce.”
Creating diversity is not without its challenges, though. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is simply making sure students know that opportunities exist for them at NASA. The Education Office and its counterparts across the agency are constantly in search of new ways to reach out to students and encourage them to apply.
In his own way, Murphy is too. He says of his six internships, it was important for him to not only do well for himself, but also for his school, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), so places like NASA would continue to seek out interns there. Already that attitude has paid off for at least one classmate who recently stopped Murphy in the school’s computer lab to thank him for setting a good example.
“He said, ‘I just wanted to thank you, because when [NASA Johnson Space Center] called to offer me an internship, they said that because of the work you did, they sought other students from A&T,’” said Murphy. “I was like, wow. He’s really going to get an opportunity to experience the great things that I experienced because I got there and put my best foot forward.”
When the Pipeline Ends?
The ultimate goal of the pipeline is to turn students who are interested in STEM into scientists and engineers. But what happens once the former interns are hired comes down to efforts at each NASA center to wrap them into the unique culture.
In recent years, JPL has built a strong supportive community for employees who are new to the professional world, offering mentorship and networking opportunities that help with retention. Meanwhile, Tieu and others in the Education Office stay connected with former interns and provide them with resources and help from support groups.
So far, for Murphy, who just started his full-time job last week, it feels like everything fits just right. “This is the place that I really feel comfortable in the work that I’m doing and I see the overall goal, the bigger picture,” said Murphy. “If this is how work is going to be for the rest of my career, I could get used to this.”
His parents have gotten used to it, too. “My mom’s really spilling it all out on Facebook, so I know she’s proud of me,” said Murphy.
Explore our Intern page to learn more about opportunities at JPL and NASA, and apply.
See stories and photos from JPL interns and fellows:
It’s not often that the lead characters in a blockbuster film have careers as particle physicists and nuclear engineers – and even less often that those roles are played by women. But the new “Ghostbusters” film, which features an all-female team of scientists and engineers, busts not just ghosts, but also some of the tropes about what it means to work in science, technology, engineering and math. It’s an idea that has scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory excited about how it might inspire the next generation.
So if they don’t spend their days bustin’ ghosts, what do JPL's "Ghostbusters" do? Here are the stories of three women in science and engineering at JPL whose jobs, much like their “Ghosbusters” counterparts’, are to explore new realms, battle invisible forces and explain the mysteries around us.
The Leader: Anita Sengupta
Project Manager, Cold Atom Laboratory
What she does:
In a team of professional ghost busters, Anita Sengupta would most certainly be the enthusiastic and multi-talented leader. She’s already taken on roles developing launch vehicles, the parachute that famously helped land the Mars rover Curiosity, and deep-space propulsion systems for missions to comets and asteroids.
Sengupta and other members of the entry, descent and landing team for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity discuss the nail-biting details of the August 2012 landing.
Most recently, she’s carved out a niche as the project manager for an atomic physics mission, called the Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL.
Since the mission was proposed in 2012, Sengupta has been leading a team of engineers and atomic physicists in developing an instrument that can see the unseen. Their mission is to create an ultra-cold quantum gas called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a state of matter that forms only at just above absolute zero. At such low temperatures, matter takes on unique properties that seemingly defy the laws of thermodynamics.
To achieve the feat, the team’s device will be installed on the International Space Station in July 2017, where the microgravity of space will keep the Bose-Einstein condensate suspended long enough for scientists to get a look at how it behaves. Observing this behavior could lead to groundbreaking discoveries, not least of which is a better understanding of how complexity arises in the universe. The facility could also provide new insights into gravity, super fluidity and dark-matter detection.
“We are opening the doorway into a new quantum realm, so we actually don’t know what we’re going to see,” said Sengupta. “That’s what’s so exciting. It’s about discovery.”
Sengupta’s career has been defined by her unique ability to take on challenges in new realms of science and engineering. It’s a trait that closely mimics the fictional character who inspired her as a child: Doctor Who.
“I saw the character of the doctor, who was this very eccentric, but loving, kind and brilliant person,” said Sengupta. “I decided I would like to be a person who travels in space, who understands and can apply all fields of science and engineering. That motivated me to be involved in space exploration and, of course, get my doctorate.”
After considering majors in astrophysics, astronomy, biology and aerospace engineering, she settled on aerospace engineering because, she says, “I loved fixing things, and the idea of knowing how to build spacecraft just blew my mind.”
She doesn’t regret the decision. It seems she would have stretched the boundaries of whichever path she chose. Currently, she’s serving multiple leadership roles on the Cold Atom Laboratory team while also teaching astronautical engineering classes as an associate professor at the University of Southern California. And she still manages to carve out time for her other passions, which include driving sport motorcycles, snowboarding and flying planes.
On STEM in pop culture:
“It’s important for young people to understand that to be an intellectual or a scientist does not necessarily correspond to being socially awkward or geeky,” said Sengupta. “You have all varieties of people. A lot of people at JPL are musicians or athletes or I’m a motorcyclist. There are people who have these hobbies and interests outside of doing something traditionally nerdy, so it’s a disservice to STEM to paint people in any particular light.”
The Engineer: Luz Maria Martinez Sierra
Technologist, Natural Space Environments
What she does:
As a nuclear engineer, Luz Maria Martinez Sierra has never built a ghost-bustin’ proton gun, but she does design defenses against invisible forces. In her case, it’s protecting spacecraft from the intense radiation around planets like Jupiter.
“Space is a very hostile environment, and there are a lot of particles and radiation that can be very dangerous to the spacecraft,” said Martinez Sierra. “It’s very important to make sure everything is shielded accordingly, so we run all these simulations to determine, ‘Ok, you will need to protect this and you need to make sure this survives by putting it behind the solar panels.'”
Part of Martinez Sierra's work is designing radiation defense systems for spacecraft like the one created for the Juno mission shown in the animation above. Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016 and will fly closer to the planet – and its intense radiation – than ever before. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In addition to shielding spacecraft against radiation, she designs devices that can analyze it to reveal hidden details about planets, moons and other bodies. By looking at the radiation signatures of these bodies, scientists can better understand what they’re made of and whether they might be home to, for example, the ingredients for life.
To the unacquainted, a career in nuclear engineering might seem oddly specific, but Martinez Sierra is quick to point out just how many applications it has, even just at NASA. Nuclear engineers might design systems to protect astronauts venturing to places like Mars, build instruments to study the sun and other stars, or work with spacecraft powered by radioactive materials.
For her part, the career path evolved through a love of physics that traces back to high school in her native Colombia.
“I always loved science, even at a young age,” said Martinez Sierra. “And when I took physics in high school, it just clicked. I loved how everything could be described by physics.”
She started attending local astronomy events and later earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering physics. In 2014, she was accepted into an internship with the laboratory’s Maximizing Student Potential in STEM program, which “taught me how to be part of a working environment, solving problems with a team and making sure that I belonged in this field,” she says.
Soon after Martinez Sierra was hired on at JPL, she parlayed her internship experience into a mentorship role with the National Community College Aerospace Scholars program.
“I see myself in them,” said Martinez Sierra of the students she mentored during the program. “I was lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do in my career or how you go from being in college to being a professional. You don’t see that connection easily. It’s important to help students realize it’s not just magic. You have to pursue it. You have to be proactive.”
That she is. On top of her full-time job and serving as an occasional mentor for students, Martinez Sierra is also earning her doctorate in nuclear engineering.
On STEM in pop culture:
“There are so many different types of engineers and scientists, even at JPL,” said Martinez Sierra. “But they’re always portrayed as the same person in movies and TV shows. I like how in the new ‘Ghostbusters’ movie, the characters are portrayed as these cool people. They’re not boring. They get to play with cool toys and make cool things.”
The Scientist: Jean Dickey
Scientist, Sea Level and IceWhat she does:
While the applications have evolved over her 36-year career at JPL, Jean Dickey’s specialty has always been explaining the mysteries that surround us. Her research focuses on the forces and processes that affect our home planet – everything from Earth’s gravity to changes in length-of-day to its evolving climate. She has published more than 70 papers, which include findings of a possible molten core on the moon and a method for predicting the variations in Earth’s rotation.
“Right now, I’m looking at changes in sea-level rise using data from the Jason and GRACE Earth satellites. There are pockets of warm ocean that explain why Earth’s sea-surface temperature was increasing at a lower rate,” said Dickey, referring to a previously unexplained hiatus in the otherwise strong uptick in surface air temperature. “It’s because the heat was going down deep in the ocean and was not accounted for.”
Data streams in from Earth satellites, airborne missions, and on-the-ground observations, and Dickey’s job is to make sense of it all. It’s a crucial part of understanding what’s happening on our home planet – and beyond.
Inspired early on by the success of the Sputnik satellite and the ensuing Space Race, and equipped with an affinity for math and science, Dickey was the only one of six siblings to study science. When she graduated from Rutgers University in 1976 with a doctorate in physics, she was well accustomed to being the only woman in her classes and on research teams, but she never let that fact stop her.
She chose to specialize in high-energy particle physics, because as she describes it, “it was finding the essence, the basic building blocks of the universe. The quirks, colors and flavors.”
As a postdoc at Caltech, Dickey analyzed data from particle experiments that were performed at Fermilab, a particle accelerator just outside of Chicago. She studied the dynamics of particle collisions and interpreted the findings, which meant using specialized software to analyze enormous data sets.
After three years at Caltech, she took on a new role at JPL analyzing a much different set of data, but one that was no less intriguing. By studying the round-trip travel time of lasers shot between observatories on Earth and reflectors left on the moon by the Apollo astronauts, Dickey made new discoveries about how the moon oscillates and the Earth rotates, and how small variations can have big impacts on weather, sea level and even space exploration.
It was a big change from particle physics, but Dickey was hooked. “I was fascinated by Earth rotation and the processes ongoing here on Earth.” Ever since, her research has revolved around the undulations, variations and wobbles that influence Earth’s climate, processes and its place in the solar system.
On STEM in pop culture:
“I like to see women in STEM portrayed as smart, caring people,” said Dickey. “I really dislike roles that show women as ‘space cadets,’ so to speak. I think we should be well represented in movies and in the culture.”