NASA/JPL education specialists share tips on how to engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics using the latest NASA science and mission news.


Brightened processed image of Saturn from Cassini to highlight the F ring

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

graphic showing Cassini's orbits

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 diagram shows Saturns ring-grazing and planet-grazing orbits

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.

› Read more about what we might learn from Cassini's ring-grazing orbits.

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.

Teach It

Cassini Scientist for a Day Essay Contest 2016 graphic

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.

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TAGS: Cassini, Saturn's Rings, Saturn, Grand Finale, Spacecraft, Missions, K-12, Lessons, Activities, Language Arts, Science, Essay Contest

  • Lyle Tavernier
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A computer works with an engineer at JPL.

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.

Pickering, Van Allen and Von Braun hold a model of Explorer 1 at a post-flight press conference.
Explorer 1 became the first U.S. space satellite in 1958. It was built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Ranger 7 photo of the moon
Ranger 7 was the first U.S. mission to successfully impact the moon. This was one of more than 4,300 images sent back during the flyby. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

human computers at JPL
A talented team of women, who were around since JPL's beginnings in 1936 and who were known as computers, were responsible for the number-crunching of launch windows, trajectories, fuel consumption and other details that helped make the U.S. space program a success. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

a computer tracks a spacecraft's position as it makes its way toward Venus
A computer in the control room at JPL tracks the position of Mariner 2. The spacecraft became the first to fly by another planet when it reached Venus in 1962. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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

JPL's human computers
JPL's human computers didn't just help launch the U.S. space program; they also represented an important step forward for women and other underrepresented people at a time when much of the professional world and especially technical fields were dominated by white men. Janez Lawson (seen in this photo from 1953, front row, fifth from the left), was the first African American hired into a technical position at JPL. Having graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, she later went on to have a successful career as a chemical engineer. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Teach It

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!

› Go to the lesson

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TAGS: JPL Anniversary, History, Human Computers, Launch Windows, Algebra, High School

  • Ota Lutz
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Side-by-side satellite images of the sand fire that show the heigh of the smoke

In the News

You 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.

Animation of the FireSat network of satellites capturing wildfires on Earth

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.)

Google Earth image showing fire severity
This image, created using data imported into Google Earth, shows the severity of the 2014 King Fire. Green areas are unchanged by the fire; yellow equals low severity; orange equals moderate severity; and red equals high severity. A KMZ file with this data is available in the Fired Up Over Math lesson linked below. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/E. Natasha Stavros.

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.

Animation showing Carbon Dioxide levels rising from the Station Fire in Southern California.
This animation from NASA's Eyes on the Earth visualization program shows carbon monoxide rising (red is the highest concentration) around Southern California as the Station Fire engulfed the area near JPL in 2009. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Teach It

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.

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Lyle Tavernier was a co-author on this feature.

TAGS: teachable moments, wildfires, science

  • Ota Lutz
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ET-94 is towed through Los Angeles on May 21, 2016.

ET-94 is towed through Los Angeles on May 21, 2016.

ET-94 is towed ashore in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles

ET-94 comes into port in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles

In the News

History was made recently as the last-existing, flight-qualified external fuel tank for NASA's Space Shuttle Program made a 16.5-mile crawl through the streets of Los Angeles to its new home at the California Science Center. On May 21, 2016, the tank, a nearly 154-foot long, more than 65,000-pound behemoth dubbed ET-94, was towed from the port in Marina del Rey (where it arrived after another epic voyage) to the science center. Eventually, it will be displayed with the space shuttle Endeavour and two solid rocket boosters in launch configuration – looking like it's ready to blast into space.

How They Did It

The route map through Los Angeles for NASA's space shuttle external fuel tank ET-94
This map shows the 16.5-mile route ET-94 took through Los Angeles to arrive at the California Science Center. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Larger image | › Interactive Google Map

Transporting a large object such as the external tank is no small job. Shuttle external tanks were routinely transferred from their manufacture and assembly point at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida by way of barge. However, the trip to California is a bit more involved.

In April, ET-94 boarded a barge as usual, but this time traveled west, through the Panama Canal to Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. On May 18, the tank arrived, and three days later, was towed through the streets of Los Angeles – streets that were not designed to accommodate a giant rocket fuel tank!

› Watch the full route from New Orleans to Los Angeles taken by the shuttle's external tank

Los Angeles has some experience with this sort of challenge as the space shuttle orbiter Endeavour traveled a similar route from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center in October 2012. Though Endeavour is wider, taller and heavier, ET-94 is longer. Resting on its side, the tank is half the length of a football field. So it presents a different set of navigational challenges – which, coincidentally, make for some great math problems.

As does this bit of external fuel tank history ...

A Slice of History

Most people will recognize the external tank as the giant orange structure that was attached to the shuttle to supply fuel to the shuttle's main engines during liftoff. Space shuttle external tanks carried freezing cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and were the only non-reusable part of what was called the Space Transportation System, or STS. But the tanks weren't always orange.

NASA's Endeavour STS-134 on launch pad at Kennedy Space Flight Center.
NASA's Endeavour STS-134 on launch pad at Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida. The orange structure behind the shuttle is an external fuel tank. Image credit: NASA

During the first shuttle missions, engineers were worried that the sun's ultraviolet radiation might damage the insulating foam, so the tanks were painted white. Because the white latex paint had to cover such a large surface area, it added a whopping 600 pounds to the already hefty tanks, which in their earliest iteration were called standard-weight tanks, or SWTs, and made of aluminum alloy 2219 welded via tungsten arc welding and coated with an inch-thick layer of polyisocyanurate foam. They weighed 77,086 empty and fuel added an extra 1,589,577 pounds!

STS-1 Launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.
STS-1 launches from Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida. For the first two shuttle missions, engineers painted the external fuel tanks white because of worries about ultraviolet radiation damaging the tanks' insulating foam. Image credit: NASA

After the first two STS missions, engineers agreed that the sun's ultraviolet radiation merely caused the insulating foam to change color from its original tan to the familiar dark orange and did not pose a structural risk, so the use of white paint was discontinued. The saved poundage allowed subsequent space shuttle missions to carry an additional 600 pounds of science experiments.

Ever striving to lighten the load of the STS to make room for more science payloads, engineers developed the next iteration of external tanks, called lightweight tanks, or LWTs, using weight-shedding techniques including eliminating portions of stringers (structural stiffeners running the length of the hydrogen tank), using fewer stiffener rings, and modifying major frames in the hydrogen tank. This new tank provided a 6,426-pound reduction in specification weight that further evolved to an actual weight of 65,081 pounds for ET-94.

The final iteration of the external tank, called a super lightweight tank, or SLWT, shed an amazing 18,586 pounds from the very first specifications by using a new aluminum-lithium alloy (Al-Li 2195) and some new welding techniques.

Why It's Important

In 2003, disaster struck space shuttle Columbia during the STS-107 mission. The shuttle was fueled by ET-94's sister tank, ET-93, and as the only remaining lightweight tank in existence, ET-94 was heavily analyzed to examine the role played in the incident by the tank's external insulating foam. Several chunks of foam were removed from the tank during the analysis, necessitating future repair work to return it to its original appearance.

ET-94 on a barge in Marina del Rey, California.
ET-94 arrives in Marina del Rey, California on May 18, 2016. The areas where ET-94's insulating foam were removed for testing can be seen (as light orange patches) in the upper left portion of the photo. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/David Seidel

After analysis was complete, the tank resided at the Michoud Assembly Facility, awaiting an opportunity to fly to space that never came, as it could not compete with the svelteness of the new super-lightweight tanks and would require some weighty upgrades to meet new safety standards. Eventually, NASA donated ET-94 to the California Science Center for public display. When finalized, the display will be the only complete stack of STS flight hardware in existence.

Teach It

Help your students apply their math problem-solving skills to this history-making event. While considering the challenges encountered in moving a giant fuel tank through the streets of Los Angeles, younger students can practice their number sense skills and older students can solve problems using formulas – plus use mapping technology to help ET-94 find its way to the California Science Center!

› Explore the lesson

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TAGS: External Fuel Tank, ET-94, Space Shuttle, Endeavour, Columbia, STS, Space Transportation System

  • Ota Lutz
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UPDATE - May 9, 2016: NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, spacecraft captured stunning images of the May 9, 2016 transit of Mercury. Visit the mission's Transit of Mercury page to see a collection of videos of the transit compiled using SDO images. And have students play "Can You Spot Mercury?" in our educational slideshow. 


In the News

It only happens about 13 times per century and hasn’t happened in nearly a decade, but on Monday, May 9, Mercury will transit the sun. A transit happens when a planet crosses in front of a star. From our perspective on Earth, we only ever see two planets transit the sun: Mercury and Venus. (Transits of Venus are even more rare. The next one won't happen until 2117!) On May 9, as Mercury passes in front of the sun, viewers around Earth (using the proper safety equipment) will be able to see a tiny dark spot moving slowly across the disk of the sun.

CAUTION: Looking directly at the sun can cause permanent vision damage – see below for tips on how to safely view the transit.

Why It's Important

Then and Now

In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler discovered that both Mercury and Venus would transit the sun in 1631. It was fortunate timing: The telescope had been invented just 23 years earlier and the transits wouldn’t happen in the same year again until 13425. Kepler didn’t survive to see the transits, but French astronomer Pierre Gassendi became the first person to see the transit of Mercury (the transit of Venus wasn’t visible from Europe). It was soon understood that transits could be used as an opportunity to measure the apparent diameter – how large a planet appears from Earth – with great accuracy.

In 1677, Edmond Halley observed the transit of Mercury and realized that the parallax shift of the planet – the variation in Mercury’s apparent position against the disk of the sun as seen by observers at distant points on Earth – could be used to accurately measure the distance between the sun and Earth, which wasn’t known at the time.

Today, radar is used to measure the distance between Earth and the sun with greater precision than can be found using transit observations, but the transit of Mercury still provides scientists with opportunities for scientific investigation in two important areas: exospheres and exoplanets.

Exosphere Science

Some objects, like the moon and Mercury, were originally thought to have no atmosphere. But scientists have discovered that these bodies are actually surrounded in an ultra-thin atmosphere of gases called an exosphere. Scientists want to better understand the composition and density of the gases that make up Mercury’s exosphere and transits make that possible.

“When Mercury is in front of the sun, we can study the exosphere close to the planet,” said NASA scientist Rosemary Killen. “Sodium in the exosphere absorbs and re-emits a yellow-orange color from sunlight, and by measuring that absorption, we can learn about the density of gas there.”

Mercury transits the sun in 2006
This image of Mercury passing in front of the sun was captured on Nov. 8, 2006 by the Solar Optical Telescope, one of three primary instruments on the Hinode spacecraft. Image credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA/PPARC

Exoplanet Discoveries

When Mercury transits the sun, it causes a slight dip in the sun’s brightness as it blocks a tiny portion of the sun's light. Scientists discovered they could use that phenomenon to search for planets orbiting distant stars, called exoplanets, that are otherwise obscured from view by the light of the star. When measuring the brightness of far-off stars, a slight recurring dip in the light curve (a graph of light intensity) could indicate an exoplanet orbiting and transiting its star. NASA’s Kepler mission has found more than 1,000 exoplanets by looking for this telltale drop in brightness.

illustration of how transits are used to find exoplanets
This diagram shows how scientists use the light curves of distant stars to search for planets outside our solar system. A drop in the light curve, as illustrated here, is a good indication that there's a planet orbiting the observed star. Credit: NASA Ames

The Kepler mission measures the brightness of stars. The data will look like an EKG showing the heart beat. Whenever a planet passes in front of its parent star as viewed from the spacecraft, a tiny pulse or beat is produced. From the repeated beats, we can detect and verify the existence of Earth-size planets and learn about the orbit and size of the planet. Video credit: NASA Ames and Dana Berry

Additionally, scientists have begun exploring the exospheres of exoplanets. By observing the spectra of the light that passes through an exosphere – similar to how we study Mercury’s exosphere – scientists are beginning to understand the evolution of exoplanet atmospheres as well as the influence of stellar wind and magnetic fields.

Watch It

Mercury will appear as a tiny dot on the sun’s surface and will require a telescope or binoculars with a special solar filter to see. Looking at the sun directly or through a telescope without proper protection can lead to serious and permanent vision damage. Do not look directly at the sun without a solar filter.

The transit of Mercury will begin at 4:12 a.m. PDT, meaning by the time the sun rises on the West Coast, Mercury will have been transiting the sun for nearly two hours. Fortunately, it will take seven and a half hours for Mercury to completely cross the sun’s face, so there will be plenty of time for West Coast viewers to witness this event. See the transit map to learn when and where the transit will be visible.

Don’t have access to a telescope, binoculars or a solar filter? Visit the Night Sky Network website for the location of events near you where amateur astronomers will have viewing opportunities available.

NASA also will stream a live program on NASA TV and the agency’s Facebook page from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. PDT (10:30 to 11:30 a.m. EDT) -- an informal roundtable during which experts representing planetary, heliophysics and astrophysics will discuss the science behind the Mercury transit. Viewers can ask questions via Facebook and Twitter using #AskNASA.

Teach It

Here are two ways to turn the transit of Mercury into a lesson for students.

  • Exploring Exoplanets with Kepler - Students use math concepts related to transits to discover real-world data about Mercury, Venus and planets outside our solar system.
  • Pi in the Sky 3 - Try the "Sun Screen" problem on this illustrated math problem set that has students calculate the percentage drop in sunlight reaching Earth when Mercury transits.

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Transit Resources:

Exoplanet Resources:

TAGS: Transit, Transit of Mercury, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Exoplanets, Teach, Classroom Activities, Lessons,

  • Lyle Tavernier
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The Millennium Falcon takes on TIE fighters in a scene from 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

In the News

What do "Star Wars," NASA's Dawn spacecraft and Newton's Laws of Motion have in common? An educational lesson that turns science fiction into science fact using spreadsheets – a powerful tool for developing the scientific models addressed in the Next Generation Science Standards.

The TIE (Twin Ion Engine) fighter is a staple of the "Star Wars" universe. Darth Vader flew one in "A New Hope." Poe Dameron piloted one in "The Force Awakens." And many, many Imperial pilots met their fates in them. While the fictional TIE fighters in "Star Wars" flew a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, ion engines are a reality in this galaxy today – and have a unique connection to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Launched in 1998, the first spacecraft to use an ion engine was Deep Space 1, which flew by asteroid 9969 Braille and comet Borrelly. Fueled by the success of Deep Space 1, engineers at JPL set forth to develop the next spacecraft that would use ion propulsion. This mission, called Dawn, would take ion-powered spacecraft to the next level by allowing Dawn to go into orbit twice – around the two largest objects in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres.

How Does It Work?

Ion engines rely on two principles that Isaac Newton first described in 1687. First, a positively charged atom (ion) is pushed out of the engine at a high velocity. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so then a small force pushes back on the spacecraft in the opposite direction – forward! According to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, there is a relationship between the force (F) exerted on an object, its mass (m) and its acceleration (a). The equation F=ma describes that relationship, and tells us that the small force applied to the spacecraft by the exiting atom provides a small amount of acceleration to the spacecraft. Push enough atoms out, and you'll get enough acceleration to really speed things up.


Why is It Important?

Compared with traditional chemical rockets, ion propulsion is faster, cheaper and safer:

  • Faster: Spacecraft powered by ion engines can reach speeds of up to 90,000 meters per second (more than 201,000 mph!)
  • Cheaper: When it comes to fuel efficiency, ion engines can reach more than 90 percent fuel efficiency, while chemical rockets are only about 35 percent efficient.
  • Safer: Ion thrusters are fueled by inert gases. Most of them use xenon, which is a non-toxic, chemically inert (no risk of exploding), odorless, tasteless and colorless gas.

These properties make ion propulsion a very attractive solution when engineers are designing spacecraft. While not every spacecraft can use ion propulsion – some need greater rates of acceleration than ion propulsion can provide – the number and types of missions using these efficient engines is growing. In addition to being used on the Dawn spacecraft and communication satellites orbiting Earth, ion propulsion could be used to boost the International Space Station into higher orbits and will likely be a part of many future missions exploring our own solar system.

Teach It

Newton’s Laws of Motion are an important part of middle and high school physical science and are addressed specifically by the Next Generation Science Standards as well as Common Core Math standards. The lesson "Ion Propulsion: Using Spreadsheets to Model Additive Velocity" lets students study the relationship between force, mass and acceleration as described by Newton's Second Law as they develop spreadsheet models that apply those principles to real-world situations.

› See the lesson!

This lesson meets the following Next Generation Science and Common Core Math Standards:

NGSS Standards:

  • MS-PS2-2: Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object.
  • HS-PS2-1: Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.
  • HS-PS2-1: Use mathematical representations to support the claim that the total momentum of a system of objects is conserved when there is no net force on the system.

Common Core Math Standards:

  • Grade 8: Expressions and Equations A.4: Perform operations with numbers expressed in scientific notation, including problems where both decimal and scientific notation are used. Use scientific notation and choose units of appropriate size for measurements of very large or very small quantities (e.g., use millimeters per year for seafloor spreading). Interpret scientific notation that has been generated by technology.
  • High School: Algebra CED.A.4: Rearrange formulas to highlight a quantity of interest, using the same reasoning as in solving equations.
  • High School: Functions LE.A: Construct and compare linear, quadratic, and exponential models and solve problems.
  • High School: Functions BF.A.1: Write a function that describes a relationship between two quantities.
  • High School: Statistics and Probability ID.C: Interpret linear Models
  • High School: Number and Quantity Q.A.1: Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays."

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TAGS: May the Fourth, Star Wars Day, F=ma, ion propulsion, Dawn, Deep Space 1, lesson, classroom activity, NGSS, Common Core Math

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Animation of two black holes merging

In the News

A century ago, Albert Einstein theorized that when objects move through space they create waves in spacetime around them. These gravitational waves move outward, like ripples from a stone moving across the surface of a pond. Little did he know that 1.3 billion years earlier, two massive black holes collided. The collision released massive amounts of energy in a fraction of a second (about 50 times as much as all of the energy in the visible universe) and sent gravitational waves in all directions. On September 14, 2015 those waves reached Earth and were detected by researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

Why It's Important

Einstein published the Theory of General Relativity in 1915. In it, he predicted the existence of gravitational waves, which had never been directly detected until now. In 1974, physicists discovered that two neutron stars orbiting each other were getting closer in a way that matched Einstein’s predictions. But it wasn’t until 2015, when LIGO’s instruments were upgraded and became more sensitive, that they were able to detect the presence of actual gravitational waves, confirming the last important piece of Einstein’s theory.

It's also important because gravitational waves carry information about their inception and about the fundamental properties of gravity that can’t be seen through observations of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thanks to LIGO’s discovery, a new field of science has been born: gravitational wave astronomy.

How They Did It

LIGO consists of facilities in Washington and Louisiana. Each observatory uses a laser beam that is split and sent down 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) long tubes. The laser beams precisely indicate the distance between mirrors placed at the ends of each tube. When a gravitational wave passes by, the mirrors move a tiny amount, which changes the distance between them. LIGO is so sensitive that it can detect a change smaller than 1/10,000 the width of a proton (10-19 meter). Having two observatories placed a great distance apart allows researchers to approximate the direction the waves are coming from and confirm that the signal is coming from space rather than something nearby (such as a heavy truck or an earthquake).

Teach It

Creating a model that demonstrates gravitational waves traveling through spacetime is as simple as making a gelatin universe!

› See the activity!

Middle school students can develop a model that shows gravitational waves traveling through spacetime while working toward the following Next Generation Science Standard:

  • MS-PS4-2 - Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.

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TAGS: Gravitational Waves, Teachable Moment, LIGO, Black Holes, Einstein

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Cartoon animation of NASA-JPL spacecraft

UPDATE: March 16, 2016 – The answers the the NASA Pi Day Challenge are now available as an illustrated answer key. Download a poster version of the answer key on the "Pi in the Sky 3" activity page.

NASA Pi Day Challenge Answer Key

› Check your answers!


This post was originally published on March 9, 2016

In the News

Pi Day, the informal holiday beloved by math enthusiasts – and even by the math averse – is almost here! March 14 marks the yearly celebration of the mathematical constant (pi), which represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. More than just a number for mathematicians, pi has all sorts of applications in the real world, including on missions developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And as a holiday that encourages more than a little creativity – whether it’s making pi-themed pies or reciting from memory as many of the never-ending decimals of pi as possible (the record is 70,030 digits) – it’s a great way to have fun and celebrate the M in STEM.

Why March 14?

Pi is what’s known as an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation never ends and it never repeats. It has been calculated to more than one trillion digits, but 3.14 is often a precise enough approximation, hence the celebration occurring on March 14, or 3/14 (when written in US month/day format). The first known celebration occurred in 1988, and in 2009, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.

Why It’s Important

Pi Day is lots of fun, but its importance lies in the role that pi plays in the everyday work of scientists and engineers at JPL.

Fred Calef, a geospatial information scientist at JPL, uses pi to make measurements – like perimeter, area and volume – of features on Mars. “I use pi to measure the circularity of features, or how round or compact they are," said Calef. "Craters become more elliptical if the projectile hits the surface at a lower angle, so I use pi to measure how round a crater is to see if it impacted at a low angle.”

"We use pi every day commanding rovers on Mars," said Hallie Gengl, a rover planner for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, "Everything from taking images, turning the wheels, driving around, operating the robotic arm, and even talking to Earth.”

Bryana Henderson, who specializes in planetary ices, uses lasers to explode ice samples and study their composition. "I use pi to calculate the width of my laser beam, which in turn can be used to calculate the amount of energy, or fluence, that hits my ice sample," said Henderson. "A larger fluence equals a bigger explosion in the ice, so this is a very important parameter for us."

The Pi Day Challenge

JPL has released the third installment of its popular Pi Day challenge, which gives students and the public a chance to put their pi skills to the test to solve some of the same problems NASA scientists and engineers do. The set of four illustrated math problems are compiled into a graphic (as well as classroom handouts) designed for students in grade 4 through high school – but fun for all!

Pi in the Sky 3 activity

› Check out this year's Pi Day challenge!

This year’s problem set shows how pi can be used to map the surface of Saturn’s hazy moon Titan, track the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it explores the Red Planet, keep Earth’s satellites powered as Mercury transits the sun, and put the Juno spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter.

“For Pi Day, we like to give students and the public a glimpse into how math is used at JPL through questions that feature current events involving our space missions,” said Ota Lutz, an education specialist at JPL who helped create the problem set. “For instance, to put the Juno spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, engineers will have to slow the spacecraft just the right amount. In the Pi Day challenge, students use pi to calculate that change in velocity.”

In the challenge, students will also use pi to calculate how much sunlight is blocked by our solar system’s innermost planet as it passes between Earth and the sun. This year, Pi Day comes just a few months before the May 9 transit of Mercury, making this a timely problem.

On March 16, the answers to all four problems and the steps needed to find those answers will be released in a companion infographic on the Pi Day challenge activity page.

In addition to the Pi Day challenge, JPL is inviting the public to share their Pi Day pictures and stories online. On March 14, JPL will join in on the fun with Pi Day photos and stories from the lab.

› Share Your Pi Day photos and stories

To see a compilation of all 12 Pi Day challenge questions optimized for mobile devices and screen readers, visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/nasapidaychallenge

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Pi Day Challenges

Multimedia

Facts and Figures

Missions

Websites

TAGS: pi, pi day, math, mathematics

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Artist concept of NASA's Juno spacecraft

In the News

NASA’s Juno mission, the first solar-powered mission to Jupiter, has become the farthest solar-powered spacecraft ever! Juno, and its eight science instruments designed to study the interior of Jupiter, has passed the mark previously held by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission and reached a distance of 5.3 astronomical units from the sun (an astronomical unit is equal to the average distance between Earth and the sun – about 149.6 million kilometers). Using only power from the sun, Juno will complete the five-year trip to Jupiter in July 2016 and begin studying the solar system’s most massive world in an attempt to better understand the origins of the planet, and in turn, our solar system.

What Made It Possible

Just as a bright source of light dims as you move away from it, sunlight becomes less intense the farther a spacecraft travels from the sun, limiting the amount of power that can be generated using solar cells. Previous missions that visited Jupiter, like Galileo, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, couldn’t use solar power and instead used radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) to supply power.

Advances in solar panel efficiency along with improvements in the way spacecraft and their instruments use power have recently made solar power a viable option for spacecraft heading as far as Jupiter – though going beyond will require further technological advances.

Engineers designed Juno with three massive solar panels, each nearly 30 feet long. Combined, they provide Juno with 49.7 m2 of active solar cells. Once it reaches Jupiter, Juno will generate more than 400 watts of power, which may not sound like a lot, but it’s an impressive feat at so great a distance. For comparison, Juno’s solar panels can generate about 14 kilowatts near Earth.

NASA's Juno spacecraft being prepped for launch
Technicians stow for launch a solar array on NASA's Juno spacecraft. Each of Juno's three solar arrays is 9 feet (2.7 meters wide), by 29 feet (8.9 meters long). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/KSC

Teach It

Juno's record-setting achievement translates into a powerful lesson in exponents.

> Get the problem set!

Middle school students and other students working with exponents will find challenging, real-world applications related to the work being done here at NASA while addressing four Common Core Math standards:

  • Grade 6: Expressions and Equations A.1 - "Write and evaluate numerical expressions involving whole-number exponents."
  • Grade 6: Expressions and Equations A.2 - "Write, read, and evaluate expressions in which letters stand for numbers."
  • Grade 6: Expressions and Equations A.2.C - "Evaluate expressions at specific values of their variables. Include expressions that arise from formulas used in real-world problems. Perform arithmetic operations, including those involving whole-number exponents, in the conventional order when there are no parentheses to specify a particular order (Order of Operations)."
  • Grade 8: Expressions and Equations A.1 - "Know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions. For example, 32 × 3-5 = 3-3 = 1/33 = 1/27."

Explore More!

  • Juno mission website - News, resources and updates on NASA's mission to Jupiter.

  • Eyes on the Solar System - Take a virtual journey to Jupiter with Juno (scroll to "Solar System Tours" and click on Juno).

  • To Jupiter with JunoCam! - Find out how classrooms can participate in the Juno mission to Jupiter using the spacecraft's on-board educational camera.

  • Infographic: Solar Power Explorers - This graphic shows how NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter became the most distant solar-powered explorer and influenced the future of space exploration powered by the sun.

TAGS: Juno, Jupiter, Exponents, Math, Lesson, Activity, Teachable Moment

  • Lyle Tavernier
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