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

Decimals of the mathematical constant pi

Earlier this week, we received this question from a fan on Facebook who wondered how many decimals of the mathematical constant pi (π) NASA-JPL scientists and engineers use when making calculations:

Does JPL only use 3.14 for its pi calculations? Or do you use more decimals like say: 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592307816406286208998628034825342117067982148086513282306647093844609550582231725359408128481117450284102701938521105559644622948954930381964428810975665933446128475648233786783165271201909145648566923460348610454326648213393607260249141273724587006606315588174881520920962829254091715364367892590360

We posed this question to the director and chief engineer for NASA's Dawn mission, Marc Rayman. Here's what he said:

Thank you for your question! This isn't the first time I've heard a question like this. In fact, it was posed many years ago by a sixth-grade science and space enthusiast who was later fortunate enough to earn a doctorate in physics and become involved in space exploration. His name was Marc Rayman.

To start, let me answer your question directly. For JPL's highest accuracy calculations, which are for interplanetary navigation, we use 3.141592653589793. Let's look at this a little more closely to understand why we don't use more decimal places. I think we can even see that there are no physically realistic calculations scientists ever perform for which it is necessary to include nearly as many decimal points as you present. Consider these examples:

  1. The most distant spacecraft from Earth is Voyager 1. It is about 12.5 billion miles away. Let's say we have a circle with a radius of exactly that size (or 25 billion miles in diameter) and we want to calculate the circumference, which is pi times the radius times 2. Using pi rounded to the 15th decimal, as I gave above, that comes out to a little more than 78 billion miles. We don't need to be concerned here with exactly what the value is (you can multiply it out if you like) but rather what the error in the value is by not using more digits of pi. In other words, by cutting pi off at the 15th decimal point, we would calculate a circumference for that circle that is very slightly off. It turns out that our calculated circumference of the 25 billion mile diameter circle would be wrong by 1.5 inches. Think about that. We have a circle more than 78 billion miles around, and our calculation of that distance would be off by perhaps less than the length of your little finger.

  2. We can bring this down to home with our planet Earth. It is 7,926 miles in diameter at the equator. The circumference then is 24,900 miles. That's how far you would travel if you circumnavigated the globe (and didn't worry about hills, valleys, obstacles like buildings, rest stops, waves on the ocean, etc.). How far off would your odometer be if you used the limited version of pi above? It would be off by the size of a molecule. There are many different kinds of molecules, of course, so they span a wide range of sizes, but I hope this gives you an idea. Another way to view this is that your error by not using more digits of pi would be 10,000 times thinner than a hair!

  3. Let's go to the largest size there is: the visible universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask a different question: How many digits of pi would we need to calculate the circumference of a circle with a radius of 46 billion light years to an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom (the simplest atom)? The answer is that you would need 39 or 40 decimal places. If you think about how fantastically vast the universe is — truly far beyond what we can conceive, and certainly far, far, far beyond what you can see with your eyes even on the darkest, most beautiful, star-filled night — and think about how incredibly tiny a single atom is, you can see that we would not need to use many digits of pi to cover the entire range.

Read more from Marc Rayman on the Dawn Journal, where he writes monthly updates about the Dawn spacecraft currently exploring the dwarf planet Ceres to provide scientists with a window into the dawn of the solar system. 

Can you use pi like a NASA scientist?
› Take the Pi in the Sky Challenge!

TAGS: Pi, Pi Day, Dawn, Voyager, Engineering, Science, Mathematics

  • NASA/JPL Edu

Pi in the Sky 2 Infographic

UPDATE - March 16, 2015: The pi challenge answer key is now available for download.

In honor of the "Pi Day of the Century" (3/14/15), the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has crafted another stellar math challenge to show students of all ages how NASA scientists and engineers use the mathematical constant pi.

The 2015 problem set -- available as a web infographic and printable handouts -- features four real-world, NASA math problems for students in grades 4 through 11, including: calculating the dizzying number of times a Mars rover's wheels have rotated in 11 years; finding the number of images it will take the Dawn spacecraft to map the entire surface of the dwarf planet Ceres (the first dwarf planet to be explored); learning the potential volume of water on Jupiter's moon Europa; and discovering what fraction of a radio beam from our most distant spacecraft reaches Earth.

The word problems, which were crafted by NASA/JPL education specialists with the help of scientists and engineers, give students insight into the real calculations space explorers use every day and a chance to see some of the real-world applications of the math they're learning in school.

"Pi in the Sky 2" Downloads:

TAGS: Pi Day, Infographics, Mars Rover, Dawn, Ceres, Europa, Voyager, K-12

  • Kim Orr