Collage of images and graphics from the InSight Mars lander mission. Links to full images and descriptions in caption.

As NASA retires its InSight Mars lander, here's a look at some of the biggest discoveries from the first mission designed to study the Red Planet's interior – plus, how to make connections to what students are learning now.


After more than four years listening to the “heartbeat” of Mars, NASA is saying goodbye to the InSight lander as the mission on the Red Planet comes to an end. On Dec. 21, 2022 scientists wrapped up the first-of-its-kind mission to study the interior of Mars as dust in the Martian atmosphere and on the spacecraft’s solar panels prevented the lander from generating enough power to continue.

Read on to learn how the mission worked, what it discovered, and how to bring the science and engineering of the mission into the classroom.

How It Worked

The lander is showin on the surface of Mars with a cutaway view of the Martian interior and core below the spacecraft. SEIS and HP3 are resting on the surface in front of the spacecraft and attached to InSight with long leash-like teathers. RISE juts out like a speaker from the flat top of the spacecraft between its two wing-like solar panels.

The locations of InSight's three main science tools, SEIS, HP3, and RISE are labeled in this illustration of the lander on Mars. | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

The InSight lander was designed to reveal the processes that led to the formation of Mars – as well as Earth, the Moon, and all rocky worlds. This meant meeting two main science goals.

First, scientists wanted to understand how Mars formed and evolved. To do that, they needed to investigate the size and make-up of Mars’ core, the thickness and structure of its crust, the structure of the mantle layer, the warmth of the planet's interior, and the amount of heat flowing through the planet.

Second, to study tectonic activity on Mars, scientists needed to determine the power, frequency, and location of “marsquakes” as well as measure how often meteoroids impacted the Red Planet, creating seismic waves.

Engineers equipped InSight with three main science tools that would allow researchers to answer these questions about Mars.

SEIS, a seismometer like the ones used on Earth to record earthquakes, measured the seismic waves on Mars. These waves, which travel through the Red Planet, can tell scientists a lot about the areas they pass through. They even carry clues about whether it was a marsquake or meteorite impact that created the waves.

InSight captured these images of clouds drifting in the distance, visible just beyond the dome-like top of the SEIS instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

InSight's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, was an instrument designed to burrow 16 feet (five meters) into Mars to measure the temperature at different depths and monitor how heat flowed out toward the surface. However, the self-hammering probe, informally called the "mole," struggled to dig itself in due to the unexpected consistency of the top few inches of Mars regolith at the landing site. Using full-size models of the lander and probe, engineers recreated InSight’s environment here on Earth to see if they could find a solution to the issue. They tested solutions that would allow the probe to penetrate the surface, including pressing the scoop attached to InSight’s robotic arm against the probe. While the effort serves as a great real-world example of how engineers work through problems with distant spacecraft, ultimately, none of the solutions allowed the probe to dig past the surface when attempted on Mars.

In 2019, InSight mission scientist/engineer Troy Hudson shared the game plan for getting the mission's heat probe digging again on Mars. Ultimately, the team wasn't able to to get the "mole" working, but the effort is a great real-world example of how engineers work through problems with distant spacecraft. | Watch on YouTube

InSight’s third experiment, called RISE, used the spacecraft’s radio antennas to precisely measure the lander's position on the surface of Mars. The interior structure of Mars affects the planet’s motion, causing it to wobble. Measuring InSight’s position as the planet wobbled helped scientists gain a better understanding of the core and other layered structures that exist within the interior of Mars.

What We Discovered

A cutaway view of the interior of Mars shows a crust that is 0-25 mi (0-40 km) deep, an upper mantle that is 25-630 mi (40-1,015 km) deep; a transition zone that is 630-970 mi (1,015-1,560 km) deep, and a Core that is 970-2,105 mi (1,560-3,390 km) deep. Meteor impacts are shown as the sources of seismic activity. A separate inset shows InSight on the surface of a cutaway view of Mars' interior with lines representing Direct P, S waves extending from the upper mantle, through the curst, to SEIS on the surface.

Using its seismometer, InSight gained a deeper understanding of the interior layers of Mars, as detailed in this graphic. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

InSight’s instruments enabled the mission science team to gain an understanding of not only the depth of Mars’ crust, mantle, and core, but also the composition of those features. They also learned just how active Mars really is.

The Structure of Mars

Working our way from the surface to the center of the planet, scientists found Mars’ crust was thinner than expected. Seismic waves detected by SEIS indicate that the crust is made up of three sub-layers, similar to Earth’s crust. The top-most layer of the crust is about six miles (10 kilometers) deep, while the denser layers of the crust, which contain more felsic, or iron-rich, material extend downward to about 25 miles (40 kilometers) below the surface. As seismic waves from a marsquake or a meteorite impact spread across the surface and through the interior of the planet, they can reflect off of underground layers, giving scientists views into the unseen materials below. Measuring how the waves change as a result of these reflections is how scientists unveiled the underground structure of Mars.

Like Earth, Mars has a lithosphere, a rigid layer made up of the crust and upper mantle. The Martian lithosphere extends about 310 miles (500 kilometers) below the surface before it transitions into the remaining mantle layer, which is relatively cool compared with Earth’s mantle. Mars’ mantle extends to 969 miles (1,560 kilometers) below the surface where it meets the planet’s core.

The InSight lander is shown on the surface of Mars, where circular lines radiate out from a central point. The interior of Mars is shown with lines flowing left and right from the same central point and extending from the crust into Mars’ mantle down to its large central core. In the background, a cutaway shows the interior of Earth with more interior layers and a smaller core. Full problem text is available on the lesson page.

In this lesson from the "Pi in the Sky" math challenge, students use measurements from InSight along with pi to calculate the density of Mars' core. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Go to the lesson

Scientists measured the core of Mars and found it to be larger than expected, with a radius of 1,137 miles (1,830 kilometers). With this information, scientists were able to estimate the density of Mars' core, which turned out to be less dense than anticipated, meaning it contains lighter elements mixed in with iron. Scientists also confirmed that the planet contains a liquid core. While we know that Earth has a liquid outer core and solid inner core, scientists will need to further study the data returned from InSight to know if there is also a solid inner core on Mars.

As scientists continue to study the data returned from InSight, we could learn even more about how Mars formed, how its magnetic field developed, and what materials make up the core, which could ultimately help us better understand how Earth and other planets formed.

Marsquakes

InSight discovered that Mars is a very active planet. A total of 1,319 marsquakes were detected after the SEIS instrument was placed on the surface. The largest, which was estimated to be a magnitude 5, was detected in May of 2022.

Unlike Earth, where the crust is broken into large pieces called plates that continually shift around causing earthquakes, Mars’ crust is made up of one solid plate, somewhat like a shell. However, as the planet cools, the crust shrinks, creating breaks called faults. This breaking action is what causes marsquakes, and the seismic waves generated by the quakes are what help scientists figure out when and where the quakes occurred and how powerful they were.

A target symbol representing a marsquake appears on the other side of Mars from InSight. Pink and blue lines representing different waves extend around Mars from the left and right, respectively, of the epicenter. A green line extends from SEIS all the way around Mars and back to the instrument. An inset appears on top of SEIS that shows a recording of the wave measurements.

In this math problem from the "Pi in the Sky" series, students use pi to identify the timing and location of a hypothetical marsquake recorded by InSight. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Go to the lesson

Nearly all of the strongest marsquakes detected by InSight came from a region known as Cerberus Fossae, a volcanic region that may have had lava flows within the past few million years. Volcanic activity, even without lava flowing on the surface, can be another way marsquakes occur. Images from orbiting spacecraft show boulders that have fallen from cliffs in this region, perhaps shaken loose by large marsquakes.

This seismogram shows the largest quake ever detected on another planet. Estimated at magnitude 5, this quake was discovered by InSight on May 4, 2022. Listen to a sonification of this seismogram. | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

Conversely, InSight didn't detect any quakes in the volcanic region known as Tharsis, the home of three of Mars’ largest volcanos that sit approximately one-third of the way around the planet from InSight. This doesn’t necessarily mean the area is not seismically active. Scientists think there may be quakes occurring, but the size of Mars’ liquid core creates what’s known as a shadow zone – an area into which seismic waves don’t pass – at InSight's location.

Meteorite Impacts

On Sept. 5, 2021, InSight detected the impacts of a meteoroid that entered the Martian atmosphere. The meteoroid exploded into at least three pieces that reached the surface and left behind craters. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the impact sites to capture images of the three new craters and confirm their locations.

A direct overhead view of a light-gray-colored cratered surface is interrupted by three black splotches of increasing size from left to right. At the center of each dark scar is a royal blue splotch. The surface around the blue center looks as if it's been sprayed with a dark material that extends farther on the right side of each crater than on the left.

This image, captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the craters (in blue) formed by a meteroid impact on Mars on Sept. 5, 2021. The impact was the first to be detected by InSight. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

“After three years of waiting for an impact, those craters looked beautiful,” said Ingrid Daubar of Brown University, a Mars impacts specialist.

Mars’ thin atmosphere, which is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s, means meteoroids have a better chance of not disintegrating in the heat and pressure that builds up as they pass through the atmosphere to the planet’s surface. Despite this fact and Mars' proximity to the asteroid belt, the planet proved to be a challenging location to detect meteorite impacts because of "noise" in the data created by winds blowing on SEIS and seasonal changes in the atmosphere.

With the confirmation of the September 2021 impacts, scientists were able to identify a telltale seismic signature to these meteorite impacts. With this information in hand, they looked back through InSight's data and found three more impacts – one in 2020 and two in 2021. Scientists anticipate finding even more impacts in the existing data that might have been hidden by the noise in the data.

Three overhead images of a brown cratered surfaces with a bright blue-colored crater at the center. Surrounding the crater in each image is a splotch of different colored material sprayed out in all directions.

This collage shows three other meteoroid impacts on Mars that were detected by the seismometer on InSight and captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

Meteorite impacts are an invaluable piece of understanding the planet’s surface. On a planet like Earth, wind, rain, snow and ice wear down surface features in a process known as weathering. Plate tectonics and active volcanism refresh Earth’s surface regularly. Mars’ surface is older and doesn't go through those same processes, so a record of past geologic events like meteorite impacts is more apparent on the planet's surface. By counting impact craters visible on Mars today, scientists can update their models and better estimate the number of impacts that occurred in the early solar system. This gives them an improved approximation of the age of the planet’s surface.

Learn how InSight detected the first seismic waves from a meteoroid on Mars and how the lander captured the sound of the space rock striking the surface. | Watch on YouTube

Why It's Important

Before InSight touched down, all Mars missions – landers, rovers, orbiters and flyby spacecraft – studied the surface and atmosphere of the planet. InSight was the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars.

Even with the InSight mission drawing to a close, the science and engineering of the mission will continue to inform our understanding of the Red Planet and our solar system for years as researchers further examine the data returned to Earth. Keep up to date with the latest findings from InSight scientists and engineers on the mission website.

Teach It

Explore these lessons in geology, physics, math, coding and engineering to connect student learning to the InSight mission and the real-world STEM that happens at NASA.

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Classrooms, Teaching, Teachers, Resources, Teachable Moments, Mars, InSight, Missions, Spacecraft, Marsquakes

  • Lyle Tavernier
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A rectangular box-shaped spacecraft with long arms extending from either side. Above the arms are wing-like solar panels extending in the opposite direction. The curvature of Earth and wispy clouds are depicted just below the spacecraft.

Explore how and why the SWOT mission will take stock of Earth's water budget, what it could mean for assessing climate change, and how to bring it all to students.

Update: Dec. 15, 2022 – NASA, the French space agency, and SpaceX are now targeting 3:46 a.m. PST (6:46 a.m. EST) on Friday, Dec.16, for the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite. Visit NASA's SWOT launch blog for the latest updates.


NASA is launching an Earth-orbiting mission that will map the planet’s surface water resources better than ever before. Scheduled to launch on Dec. 16 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT mission is the latest international collaboration designed to monitor and report on our home planet. By providing us with a highly detailed 3D view of rivers, lakes, and oceans, SWOT promises to improve our understanding of Earth’s water cycle and the role oceans play in climate change, as well as help us better respond to drought and flooding.

Read on to find out why we're hoping to learn more about Earth's surface water, get to know the science behind SWOT's unique design, and follow along with STEM teaching and learning resources.

Why It's Important

Observing Earth from space provides scientists with a global view that is important for understanding the whole climate system. In the case of SWOT, we will be able to monitor Earth’s surface water with unprecedented detail and accuracy. SWOT will provide scientists with measurements of water volume change and movement that will inform our understanding of fresh water availability, flood hazards, and the mechanisms of climate change.

Scientists and engineers provide an overview of the SWOT mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Water Flow

Scientists use a variety of methods to track Earth’s water. These include stream and lake gauges and even measurements from space such as sea surface altimetry and gravitational measurements of aquifer volumes. Monitoring of river flow and lake volume is important because it can tell us how much freshwater is readily available and at what locations. River flow monitoring can also help us make inferences about the downstream environmental impact. But monitoring Earth’s surface water in great detail with enough frequency to track water movement has proven challenging. Until now, most monitoring of river flow and lake levels has relied on water-flow and water-level gauges placed across Earth, which requires that they be accessible and maintained. Not all streams and lakes have gauges and previous space-based altimetry and gravitational measurements, though useful for large bodies of water, have not been able to adequately track the constant movement of water through smaller rivers or lakes.

Here's why understanding Earth’s "water budget" is an important part of understanding our planet and planning for future water needs.

SWOT will be able to capture these measurements across the globe in 3D every 21 days. The mission will monitor how much water is flowing through hundreds of thousands of rivers wider than 330 feet (100 meters) and keep a close watch on the levels of more than a million lakes larger than 15 acres (6 hectares). Data from the mission will be used to create detailed maps of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that will enable accurate monitoring to provide a view of freshwater resources that is not reliant on physical access. Meanwhile, SWOT’s volumetric measurements of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs will help hydrologists better track drought and flooding impacts in near-real-time.

Coastal Sea Level Rise

SWOT will measure our oceans with unprecedented accuracy, revealing details of ocean features as small as 9 miles (15 kilometers) across. SWOT will also monitor sea levels and tides. Though we have excellent global sea level data, we do not have detailed sea level measurements near coastlines. Coastal sea levels vary across the globe as a result of ocean currents, weather patterns, land changes, and other factors. Sea levels are rising faster than ever, and higher sea levels also mean that hurricane storm surges will reach farther inland than ever before, causing substantially more damage than the same category of hurricanes in the past. SWOT will be able to monitor coastal sea level variations and fill gaps in the observations we currently have from other sources.

What is sea level rise and what does it mean for our planet? | › View Transcript

Ocean Heat Sinks

Further contributing to our understanding of the role Earth’s oceans play in climate change, SWOT will explore how the ocean absorbs atmospheric heat and carbon, moderating global temperatures and climate change. Scientists understand ocean circulation on a large scale and know that ocean currents are driven by temperature and salinity differences. However, scientists do not currently have a good understanding of fine-scale ocean currents, where most of the ocean's motion-related energy is stored and lost. Circulation at these fine scales is thought to be responsible for transporting half of the heat and carbon from the upper ocean to deeper layers. Such downward ocean currents have helped to mitigate the decades-long rise in global air temperatures by absorbing and storing heat and carbon away from the atmosphere. Knowing more about this process is critical for understanding the mechanisms of global climate change.

JPL scientist Josh Willis uses a water balloon to show how Earth's oceans are absorbing most of the heat being trapped on our warming world. | › Related lesson

These fine-scale ocean currents also transport nutrients to marine life and circulate pollutants such as crude oil and debris. Understanding nutrient transport helps oceanographers assess ocean health and the productivity of fisheries. And tracking pollutants aids in natural hazard assessment, prediction, and response.

How It Works

A joint effort between NASA and the French space agency – with contributions from the Canadian and UK space agencies – SWOT will continue NASA’s decades-long record of monitoring sea surface height across the globe. But this mission will add a level of detail never before achieved.

SWOT will measure more than 90% of Earth’s surface water, scanning the planet between 78°N latitude and 78°S latitude within 1 centimeter of accuracy and retracing the same path every 21 days. Achieving this level of accuracy from a spacecraft height of 554 miles (891 kilometers) requires that the boom using radar to measure water elevation remain stable within 2 microns – or about 3% of the thickness of a human hair.

This visualization shows ocean surface currents around the world during the period from June 2005 through December 2007. With its new, high resolution wide-swath measurements, SWOT will be able to observe eddies and current features at greater resolution than previously possible. Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio | Watch on YouTube

Prior to SWOT, spacecraft have used conventional nadir, or straight-down, altimetry to measure sea surface height. Conventional nadir altimetry sends a series of radar or laser pulses down to the surface and measures the time it takes for each signal to return to the spacecraft, thus revealing distances to surface features. To acquire more detailed information on surface water, SWOT will use an innovative instrument called the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn, to measure water height with exceptional accuracy. Ka-band is a portion of the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum. SWOT uses microwaves because they can penetrate clouds to return data about water surfaces.

A radar signal is sent straight down from the SWOT spacecraft as it flies over Earth. Beams are shown bouncing back to receivers on either side of the spacecraft. The section of Earth measured by the spacecraft is shown as two side-by-side tracks colored in as a heatmap. The camera zooms out to show these tracks criscrossing the planet and eventually covering a majority of the surface.

SWOT will track Earth's surface water in incredible detail using an innovative instrument called the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The KaRIn instrument uses the principles of synthetic aperture radar combined with interferometry to measure sea surface height. A radar signal is emitted from the end of the 10-meter-wide boom on the spacecraft. The reflected signal is then received by antennas on both ends of the boom, capturing data from two 30-mile (50-kilometer) wide swaths on either side of the spacecraft. The received signals will be slightly out of sync, or phase, from one another because they will travel different distances to return to the receivers on either end of the boom. Knowing the phase difference, the distance between the antennas, and the radar wavelength allows us to calculate the distance to the surface.

The first of three images shows two paths of different lengths extending diagonally from a point on Earth’s surface to receivers on either side of the SWOT spacecraft. A second image shows the paths as light waves that are slightly out of phase. The third image shows a line drawn directly from the rightmost receiver to the path leading to the leftmost receiver, such that the intersected paths from Earth are equal in length. The upper triangle formed by this intersection has a short leg, highlighted in yellow, that represents the remaining length of the leftmost path. The yellow short leg represents the range difference between the two paths from Earth.

Radar signals bounced off the water’s surface will be received by antennas on both ends of SWOT's 10-meter-wide boom. The received signals will be slightly out of phase because they will travel different distances as they return to the receivers. Scientists use this phase difference and the radar wavelength to calculate the distance to the surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The observations acquired by the two antennas can be combined into what is known as an interferogram. An interferogram is a pattern of wave interference that can reveal more detail beyond the 1-centimeter resolution captured by the radar. To explain how it works, we'll recall a couple of concepts from high school physics. When out-of-phase waves from the two antennas are combined, constructive and destructive interference patterns result in some wave crests being higher and some wave troughs being lower than those of the original waves. The patterns that result from the combination of the waves reveal more detail with resolution better than the 1-centimeter wavelength of the original Ka-band radar waves because the interference occurs over a portion of a wavelength. An interferogram can be coupled with elevation data to reveal a 3D representation of the water’s surface.

A diagram illustrating the swaths of data that SWOT will collect, including labels for the following: 10 m baseline between SWOT's receivers; a distance of 891 km between the surface and Interferometer Antenna 1; Interferometer Left Swath resulting in ocean topography with an H-Pol swath of 10-60 km; Interferometer Right Swath resulting in surface water topography with a V-Pol of 10-60 km; a straight-down Nadir Altimeter path directly below the spacecraft in the gap between the swaths; a cross-track resolution from 70m to 10m.

The KaRIn instrument illuminates two parallel tracks of approximately 50 kilometres on either side of a nadir track from a traditional altimeter. The signals are received by two antennas 10 metres apart and are then processed to yield interferometry measurements. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

This highly accurate 3D view of Earth’s surface water is what makes SWOT so unique and will enable scientists to more closely monitor the dynamics of the water cycle. In addition to observing ocean currents and eddies that will inform our understanding of the ocean’s role in climate change, SWOT's use of interferometry will allow scientists to track volumetric changes in lakes and quantify river flooding, tasks that cannot yet be done on a wide scale in any other way.

A colorful swath of yellows, oranges, magentas, purples is overlaid horizontally on a satellite image of desert landscape with thin yellow and red lines cutting diagonally across the image. On the center-left of the image, the colors fan out like a rainbow sprinkler. On the left side of the swath are a cluster of yellow dots.

This interferogram was captured by the air-based UAVSAR instrument of the magnitude 7.2 Baja California earthquake of April 4, 2010. The interferogram is overlaid atop a Google Earth image of the region. Image credit: NASA/JPL/USGS/Google | › Learn more

Follow Along

SWOT is scheduled to launch no earlier than Dec. 16, 2022, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Tune in to watch the launch on NASA TV.

After launch, the spacecraft will spend 6-months in a calibration and validation phase, during which it will make a full orbit of Earth every day at an altitude of 553 miles (857 kilometers). Upon completion of this phase, SWOT will increase its altitude to 554 miles (891 kilometers) and assume a 21-day repeat orbit for the remainder of its mission.

Visit the mission website to follow along as data are returned and explore the latest news, images, and updates as SWOT provides a new view on one of our planet's most important resources.

Teach It

The SWOT mission is the perfect opportunity to engage students in studying Earth’s water budget and water cycle. Explore these lessons and resources to get students excited about the STEM involved in studying Earth’s water and climate change from space.

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Earth Science, Earth, Climate Change, Climate, Satellites, Teachable Moments

  • Ota Lutz
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Pi to the 15th decimal is shown in a speckled starry band as a silhouetted face looks out over colorful concentric circles and black and white images of an atom, molecules, Earth, and the Voyager spacecraft. The left side of the image fades to black with

While world record holders may have memorized more than 70,000 digits of pi, a JPL engineer explains why you really only need a tiny fraction of that for most calculations – even at NASA.


Update: October 24, 2022 – This article, originally written in 2016, has been updated to reflect the latest values for NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which continues to venture farther into interstellar space. The author, Marc Rayman, has ventured on too, from the chief engineer for NASA’s Dawn mission, which concluded successfully in 2018, to the chief engineer for mission operations and science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


The decimals of pi are listed out on an orange background with a large pi symbol in the background.

This graphic shows more than 500 decimals of the infinite number pi. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

We received this question from a fan on Facebook who wondered how many decimals of the never-ending 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 [360 or even more]?”

Here’s JPL’s Chief Engineer for Mission Operations and Science, Marc Rayman, with the answer:

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 asked about. Consider these examples:

  1. The most distant spacecraft from Earth is Voyager 1. As of this writing, it’s about 14.7 billion miles (23.6 billion kilometers) away. Let’s be generous and call that 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers). Now say we have a circle with a radius of exactly that size, 30 billion miles (48 billion kilometers) 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 94 billion miles (more than 150 billion kilometers). 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 30-billion-mile (48-billion-kilometer) diameter circle would be wrong by less than half an inch (about one centimeter). Think about that. We have a circle more than 94 billion miles (more than 150 billion kilometers) around, and our calculation of that distance would be off by no more than the width of your little finger.
  2. The illustration shows a cartoonish Voyager 1 flying in space with a conical signal eminating from its antenna. An inset shows a more distant view of Voyager with a line extending to Earth and a distance label between the Voyager and Earth marked ~131 AU.

    Put your pi math skills to the test with this problem from NASA's Pi Day Challenge. Can you use pi to determine what fraction of a signal from Voyager 1 reaches Earth? Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › View lesson page

  3. We can bring this closer to home by looking at our planet, Earth. It is more than 7,900 miles (12,700 kilometers) in diameter at the equator. The circumference is roughly 24,900 miles (40,100 kilometers). That's how far you would travel if you circumnavigated the globe – and didn't worry about hills, valleys, and obstacles like buildings, ocean waves, etc. How far off would your odometer be if you used the limited version of pi above? The discrepancy would be 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 more than 30,000 times thinner than a hair!
  4. A view of Earth from space showing East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with swirls and splotches of clouds across the planet.

    Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

  5. Let's go to the largest size there is: the known universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask (and answer!) 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? It turns out that 37 decimal places (38 digits, including the number 3 to the left of the decimal point) would be quite sufficient. Think about how fantastically vast the universe is. It’s certainly far beyond what you can see with your eyes even on the darkest, most beautiful night of sparkling stars. It’s yet farther beyond the extraordinary vision of the James Webb Space Telescope. And the vastness of the universe is truly far, far, far beyond what we can even conceive. Now think about how incredibly tiny a single atom is. Isn’t it amazing that we wouldn’t need to use many digits of pi at all to cover that entire unbelievable range?
Link to text description available below

If you were to hold a single grain of sand at arm's length, you could cover the entire area of space taken up by this image, which was captured by the James Webb Space Telescope and contains thousands of galaxies. The oldest-known galaxy identified in the image is 13.1 billion years old. Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | + Expand image | › More about the image | Text description (PDF)

Pi is an intriguing number with interesting mathematical properties. It’s fun to think about its truly endless sequence of digits, and it may be surprising how often it appears in the equations scientists and engineers use. But there are no questions – prosaic or esoteric – in humankind’s noble efforts to explore or comprehend the marvels of the cosmos, from the unimaginably smallest scales to the inconceivably largest, that could require very many of those digits.

Hear more from Marc in his inspiring TEDx talk, “If It Isn’t Impossible, It Isn’t Worth Trying” and in his Dawn Journal, where he wrote frequent updates about the Dawn mission’s extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition to the protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres.

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

  • NASA/JPL Edu
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A long boom extends from a cylindrical telescope floating above Earth. At the end of the spacecraft's boom are three converging circular mirrors, like petals on a flower.

A NASA space telescope mission is giving astronomers a whole new way to peer into the universe, allowing us to uncover long-standing mysteries surrounding objects such as black holes. Find out how it works and how to engage students in the science behind the mission.


Some of the wildest, most exciting features of our universe – from black holes to neutron stars – remain mysteries to us. What we do know is that because of their extreme environments, some of these emit highly energetic X-ray light, which we can detect despite the vast distances between us and the source.

Now, a NASA space telescope mission is using new techniques to not only scout out these distant phenomena, but also provide new information about their origins. Read on to learn how scientists are getting exciting new perspectives on our universe and what the future of X-ray astronomy holds.

How They Did It

In 2021, NASA launched the Imaging X-Ray Polarimeter Explorer, or IXPE, through a collaboration with Ball Aerospace and the Italian Space Agency. The space telescope is designed to operate for two years, detecting X-rays emitted from highly energetic objects in space, such as black holes, different types of neutron stars (e.g., pulsars and magnetars) and active galactic nuclei. In its first year, the telescope is focusing on roughly a dozen previously studied X-ray sources, spending hours or even days observing each target to reveal new data made possible by spacecraft's scientific instruments.

IXPE isn't the first telescope to observe the universe in X-ray light. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched in 1999, has famously spent more than 20 years photographing our universe at a wavelength of light exclusively found in high-energy environments, such as where cosmic materials are heated to millions of degrees as a result of intense magnetic fields or extreme gravity.

Using Chandra, scientists can assign colors to the different energy levels, or wavelengths, produced by these environments. This allows us to get a picture of the highly energetic light ejected by black holes and tiny neutron stars – small, but extremely dense stars with masses 10-25 times that of our Sun. These beautiful images, such as from Chandra’s first target, Cassiopeia A (Cas A for short), show the violent beauty of stars exploding.

A blue halo of squiggly lines surrounds an explosion of colors extending out from the center of the supernova. Closest to the center is a circular splatter of orange surrounded by green and yellow and finally a hazy purple.

This image of the supernova Cassiopeia A from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the location of different elements in the remains of the explosion: silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple). Each of these elements produces X-rays within narrow energy ranges, allowing maps of their location to be created. Image credit: NASA/CXC/SAO | › Full image and caption

While Chandra has earned its name as one of “The Great Observatories,” astronomers have long desired to peer further into highly energetic environments in space by capturing them in even more detail.

IXPE expands upon Chandra’s work with the introduction of a tool called a polarimeter, an instrument used to understand the shape and direction of the light that reaches the space telescope's detectors. The polarimeter on IXPE allows scientists to gain insight into the finer details of black holes, supernovas, and magnetars, like which direction they are spinning and their three-dimensional shape.

A blue halo of squiggly lines surrounds a fuzzy donut-shaped haze of magenta with splatters of blue and white throughout.

This image of Cassiopeia A was created using some of the first X-ray data collected by IXPE, shown in magenta, combined with high-energy X-ray data from Chandra, in blue. Image credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/IXPE | › Full image and caption

While scientists have just begun putting IXPE's capabilities to use, they're already starting to reveal new details about the inner workings of these objects – such as the magnetic field environment around Cas A, shown in a newly released image.

The supernova remnant is shown as a blob of blue with swirls of brighter blues and large splatters of white. Dashed lines on top of the image flow from the center outward. Dividing the supernova and lines into quarter sections of a circle, the top right section has lines that flow directly northeast. The section at the bottom right has lines that flow nearly southeast but curve northwards slightly The section at the bottom left has lines that flow straight up from the bottom edge of the supernova, curve around the center and then flow back down. And the section at the top left has lines that flow from the center directly west, others that curve around the center and flow diagonally northwest and others that flow from the center to the north. Small sections of the lines are highlighted in green at the 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 7 o'clock and 11 o'clock portions of the supernova.

The lines in this newly released image come from IXPE measurements that show the direction of the magnetic field across regions of Cassiopeia A. Green lines indicate regions where the measurements are most highly significant. These results indicate that the magnetic field lines near the outskirts of the supernova remnant are largely oriented radially, i.e., in a direction from the center of the remnant outwards. The IXPE observations also reveal that the magnetic field over small regions is highly tangled, without a dominant preferred direction. Observations such as this one can help scientists learn how particles shooting out from supernovae interact with the magnetic field created by the explosion. Image credits: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO; IXPE: NASA/MSFC/J. Vink et al. | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

“For the first time, we will use every collected photon of light to tell us about the nature and shapes of objects in the sky that would be dots of light otherwise,” says Roger Romani, a Stanford professor and the co-investigator on IXPE.

How It Works

Generally, when light is produced, it is what we call unpolarized, meaning that it oscillates in every direction. For example, our Sun produces unpolarized light. But sometimes, light is produced in a highly organized fashion, oscillating only in one direction. In astronomy, this arises when magnetic fields force particles to incredibly high speeds, creating highly organized, or polarized, light.

This is what makes objects like the supernova Cas A such enticing targets for IXPE. Exploded stars like Cas A generate massive energetic waves when they go supernova, giving scientists a view of how particles shooting out at immense speeds interact with the magnetic fields from such an event. In the case of Cas A, IXPE was able to determine that the x-rays are not very polarized, meaning the explosion created very turbulent regions with multiple field directions.

While the idea of polarized or organized light may sound abstract, you may have noticed it the last time you were outside on a sunny day. If you’ve tried on a pair of polarized sunglasses, you may have noticed that the glare was greatly reduced. That’s because as light scatters, it bounces off of reflective surfaces in all directions. However, polarized lenses have tiny filters that only allow light coming from a narrow band of directions to pass through.

The polarimeter on IXPE works in a similar way. Astronomers can determine the strength of an object's magnetic field by using the polarimeter to measure how much of the light detected by the telescope is polarized. Typically, the more polarized the light the stronger the magnetic field at the source.

Astronomers can even go a step further to measure the direction this light is oscillating by measuring the angle of the light that reaches the telescope. Because the polarized light leaves the source in a predictable fashion – namely perpendicular from its magnetic field – knowing the angle of the oscillating light provides information about the axis of rotation and potentially even the surface structure of objects such as neutron stars and nebulae.

Side by side animations showing a rope moving from side to side through an open window and a rope moving up and down through an open window. As the window closes, fewer of the waves in the rope moving up and down make it through the window whereas the rope moving from side to side is undisturbed.

In this demonstration, the rope represents light waves and the open window represents a polarimeter. Depending on the angle of the light waves (rope), more or less information makes it through the polarimeter (window) the narrower it is. By measuring the amount of light received through the polarimeter, IXPE can determine the angle and the polarization of the light. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Imagine, for example, that you were holding one end of a piece of rope secured to an object at the other end. If you swung the rope side to side to make horizontal waves, those waves would be able to make it through a narrow target like a window. If you started to shut the window from the top, narrowing the opening, the waves could conceivably still make it through the opening. However, if you made veritcal waves by waving the rope up and down, as the window closed, fewer and fewer waves would make it through the opening. Likewise, by measuring the light that makes it through the polarimeter to the detector on the other side, IXPE can determine the angle of the light received.

To collect this light, IXPE uses three identical mirrors at the end of a four meter (13 foot) boom. The light received by IXPE is carefully focused on the spacecraft’s polarimeter at the other end of the boom, allowing scientists to collect those crucial measurements.

During the IXPE launch broadcast, commentators discuss the components of the spacecraft and how it measures polarization. | Watch on YouTube

Why It's Important

Building on Chandra's observations from the past two decades, IXPE's novel approach to X-ray science is pulling the curtain back even farther on some of the most fascinating objects in the universe, providing first looks at how and where radiation is being produced in some of the most extreme environments in the universe. IXPE's measurements of Cas A are just the beginning, with even more mysterious targets ready to be explored.

Take it from Martin Weisskopf, the principal scientist on IXPE and project scientist for Chandra, who has spent his 50-year career working in X-ray astronomy, who says, “IXPE will open up the field in ways we’ve been stuck only theorizing about."

Teach It

Explore more on how NASA uses light to map our universe, and dig deeper into some of the celestial features it allows to study, such as blackholes and neutron stars.

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NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

TAGS: Universe, Stars and Galaxies, Space Telescope, IXPE, Astronomy, Science, Electromagnetic Spectrum

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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Find out more about the historic first test, which could be used to defend our planet if a hazardous asteroid were discovered. Plus, explore lessons to bring the science and engineering of the mission into the classroom.


Update: Oct. 20, 2022 – The DART spacecraft successfully impacted the asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, reducing the period of the asteroid's orbit by 32 minutes. Scientists considered a change of 73 seconds to be the minimum amount for success. This article has been updated to reflect the latest data and images from the impact.


In a successful attempt to alter the orbit of an asteroid for the first time in history, NASA crashed a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos on Sept. 26, 2022. The mission, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, took place at an asteroid that posed no threat to our planet. Rather, it was an ideal target for NASA to test an important element of its planetary defense plan.

Read further to learn about DART, how it worked, and how the science and engineering behind the mission can be used to teach a variety of STEM topics.

Why It's Important

The vast majority of asteroids and comets are not dangerous, and never will be. Asteroids and comets are considered potentially hazardous objects, or PHOs, if they are 100-165 feet (30-50 meters) in diameter or larger and their orbit around the Sun comes within five million miles (eight million kilometers) of Earth’s orbit. NASA's planetary defense strategy involves detecting and tracking these objects using telescopes on the ground and in space. In fact, NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, monitors all known near-Earth objects to assess any impact risk they may pose. Any relatively close approach is reported on the Asteroid Watch dashboard.

Six triangular sections fan out from a shadowed view of Earth describing the PDCO's various activities, including 'Search, Detect & Track', 'Characterize', 'Plan and Coordinate', 'Mitigate', and 'Assess'.

NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office runs a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at detecting and responding to threats from potentially hazardous objects, should one be discovered. The DART mission is one component and the first mission being flown by the team. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

While there are no known objects currently posing a threat to Earth, scientists continue scanning the skies for unknown asteroids. NASA is actively researching and planning for ways to prevent or reduce the effects of a potential impact, should one be discovered. The DART mission was the first test of such a plan – in this case, whether it was possible to divert an asteroid from its predicted course by slamming into it with a spacecraft.

Eyes on Asteroids is a real-time visualization of every known asteroid or comet that is classified as a near-Earth object, or NEO. Asteroids are represented as blue dots and comets as shown as white dots. Use your mouse to explore the interactive further and learn more about the objects and how we track them. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Explore the full interactive

With the knowledge gained from the demonstration, similar techniques could be used in the future to deflect an asteroid or comet away from Earth if it were deemed hazardous to the planet.

How It Worked

With a diameter of about 525 feet (160 meters) – the length of 1.5 football fields – Dimorphos is the smaller of two asteroids in a double-asteroid system. Before DART's impact, Dimorphos orbited the larger asteroid called Didymos (Greek for "twin"), every 11 hours and 55 minutes.

Various Earth objects are shown to scale ranging from a bus at 14 meters to the Burj Khalifa skyscraper at 830 meters. Dimorphos at 163 meters is shown between the Statue of Liberty (93 meters) on its left and the Great Pyramid of Giza (139 meters) on its right. Didymos is shown between the One World Trade Center (546 meters) on its left and the Burj Khalifa on its right.

The sizes of the two asteroids in the Didymos system relative to objects on Earth. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL | + Expand image

Neither asteroid poses a threat to our planet, which is one reason why this asteroid system was the ideal place to test asteroid redirection techniques. At the time of DART's impact, the asteroid pair was 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) away from Earth as they traveled on their orbit around the Sun.

The DART spacecraft was designed to collide head-on with Dimorphos to alter its orbit, shortening the time it takes the small asteroid to travel around Didymos. Compared with Dimorphos, which has a mass of about 11 billion pounds (five billion kilograms), the DART spacecraft was light. It weighed just 1,210 pounds (550 kilograms) at the time of impact. So how did such a light spacecraft affect the orbit of a relatively massive asteroid?

You can use your mouse to explore this interactive view of DART's impact with Dimorphos from NASA's Eyes on the Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Explore the full interactive

DART was designed as a kinetic impactor, meaning it transferred its momentum and kinetic energy to Dimorphos upon impact, altering the asteroid's orbit in return. Scientists were able to make predictions about some of these effects thanks to principles described in Newton's laws of motion.

Newton’s first law told us that the asteroid’s orbit would remain unchanged until something acted upon it. Using the formula for linear momentum (p = m * v), we could calculate that the spacecraft, which at the time of impact would be traveling at 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) per second, would have about 0.5% of the asteroid’s momentum. The momentum of the spacecraft may seem small in comparison, but calculations suggested it would be enough to make a detectable change in the speed of Dimorphos' orbit. However, mission planners felt that changing Dimorphos’ orbit by at least 73 seconds would be enough to consider the test a success.

But there was more to consider in testing whether the technique could be used in the future for planetary defense. For example, the formula for kinetic energy (KE = 0.5 * m * v2) tells us that a fast moving spacecraft possesses a lot of energy.

When DART hit the surface of the asteroid, its kinetic energy was 10 billion joules! A crater was formed and material known as ejecta was blasted out as a result of the impact. Scientists are still studying the data returned from the mission to determine the amount of material ejected out of the crater, but estimates prior to impact put the number at 10-100 times the mass of the spacecraft itself. The force needed to push this material out was then matched by an equal reaction force pushing on the asteroid in the opposite direction, as described by Newton’s third law.

This animation shows conceptually how DART's impact is predicted to change Dimorphos' orbit from a larger orbit to a slightly smaller one that's several minutes shorter than the original. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Jon Emmerich | Watch on YouTube

How much material was ejected and its recoil momentum is still unknown. A lot depends on the surface composition of the asteroid, which scientists are still investigating. Laboratory tests on Earth suggested that if the surface material was poorly conglomerated, or loosely formed, more material would be blasted out. A surface that was well conglomerated, or densely compacted, would eject less material.

After the DART impact, scientists used a technique called the transit method to see how much the impact changed Dimorphos' orbit. As observed from Earth, the Didymos pair is what’s known as an eclipsing binary, meaning Dimorphos passes in front of and behind Didymos from our view, creating what appears from Earth to be a subtle dip in the combined brightness of the pair. Scientists used ground-based telescopes to measure this change in brightness and calculate how quickly Dimorphos orbits Didymos. By comparing measurements from before and after impact, scientists determined that the orbit of Dimorphos had slowed by 32 minutes to 11 hours and 23 minutes.

A pixelated black and white image is labeled 2022 Oct 04 11:55:39 UTC and shows a thin circular line representing Dimorphos' orbit. On the line are two semi-transparent circles colored green and blue. The blue circle is at about the 9 o'clock position on the orbit. The green circle is at about the 12 o'clock position. A second similar image to the right has smaller pixels and appears to be a slightly more distant view. The image on the right is labled 2022 Oct 09 10:56:47 UTC. In the image on the right, the blue circle is also at the 9 o'clock position on the orbit, but the green circle is at the 6 o'clock position. A key on the far right of the image identifies the green circle as Dimorphos, the blue circle as Expected Dimorphos from previous 11 hr.55 min. orbit, and the line as Dimorphos orbit.

The green circle shows the location of the Dimorphos asteroid, which orbits the larger asteroid, Didymos, seen here as the bright line across the middle of the images. The blue circle shows where Dimorphos would have been had its orbit not changed due to NASA’s DART mission purposefully impacting the smaller asteroid on Sept. 26, 2022. The images were obtained from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Goldstone planetary radar in California and the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/JPL/NASA JPL Goldstone Planetary Radar/National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

One of the biggest challenges of the DART mission was navigating a small spacecraft to a head-on collision with a small asteroid millions of miles away. To solve that problem, the spacecraft was equipped with a single instrument, the DRACO camera, which worked together with an autonomous navigation system called SMART Nav to guide the spacecraft without direct control from engineers on Earth. About four hours before impact, images captured by the camera were sent to the spacecraft's navigation system, allowing it to identify which of the two asteroids was Dimorphos and independently navigate to the target.

Two white points of light are circled in a fuzzy field of stars. The slightly larger point of light near the far right of the image is labeled Didymos.

A composite of 243 images of Didymos and Dimorphos taken by the DART spacecraft's DRACO camera on July 27, 2022, as the spacecraft was navigating to its target. Image credit: JPL DART Navigation Team | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

DART was not just an experimental asteroid impactor. The mission also used cutting-edge technology never before flown on a planetary spacecraft and tested new technologies designed to improve how we power and communicate with spacecraft.

Learn more about the engineering behind the DART mission, including the innovative Roll Out Solar Array and NEXT-C ion propulsion system, in this video featuring experts from the mission. Credit: APL | Watch on YouTube

One such technology that was first tested on the International Space Station and was later used on the solar-powered DART spacecraft, is the Roll Out Solar Array, or ROSA, power system. As its name suggests, the power system consisted of flexible solar panel material that was rolled up for launch and unrolled in space.

The Roll Out Solar Array, shown in this animated image captured during a test on the International Space Station, is making its first planetary journey on DART. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Some of the power generated by the solar array was used for another innovative technology, the spacecraft's NEXT-C ion propulsion system. Rather than using traditional chemical propulsion, DART was propelled by charged particles of xenon pushed from its engine. Ion propulsion has been used on other missions to asteroids and comets including Dawn and Deep Space 1, but DART's ion thrusters had higher performance and efficiency.

Follow Along

In the days following the event, NASA received images of the impact from a cubesat, LICIACube, that was deployed by DART before impact. The cubesat, which was provided by the Italian Space Agency, captured images of the impact and the ejecta cloud.

A flash of bright white with tendrils extending in all directions eminates from a more defined bright white blob. Overlapping rectangles show the object and ejecta in increasing contrast the closer they get to the center of the scene.

This image from LICIACube shows plumes of ejecta streaming from Dimorphos after DART's impact. Each rectangle represents a different level of contrast to better see fine structure in the plumes. By studying these streams of material, scientists will be able to learn more about the asteroid and the impact process. | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Lucy spacecraft observed Didymos to monitor how soon reflected sunlight from the ejecta plume could be seen. Going forward, DART team members will continue observing the asteroid system to measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit and determine what happened on its surface. And in 2024, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Hera spacecraft to conduct an in-depth post-impact study of the Didymos system.

A starburst shape colored red grows in size and then contracts.

This animation, a timelapse of images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, covers the time spanning just before DART's impact at 4:14 p.m. PDT (7:14 p.m. EDT) on Septtember 26 through 5 hours post-impact. Plumes of material from a compact core appear as wisps streaming away from where the impact took place. An area of rapid, extreme brightening is also visible in the animation. Image credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Cristina Thomas (Northern Arizona University), Ian Wong (NASA-GSFC); Joseph DePasquale (STScI) | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

Continue following along with all the science from DART, including the latest images and updates on the mission website. Plus, explore even more resources on this handy page.

Teach It

The mission is a great opportunity to engage students in the real world applications of STEM topics. Start exploring these lessons and resources to get students engaging in STEM along with the mission.

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TAGS: Asteroids and Comets, DART, near-Earth objects, planetary defense, Science, K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Teachable Moments

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Animation showing a total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA Goddard Media Studios

There’s no better time to learn about the Moon than during a lunar eclipse. Here’s how eclipses work, what to expect, and how to get students engaged.

This article has been updated to include information about the visibility and timing of the total lunar eclipse on Nov. 8, 2022. See What to Expect for details.


A full moon is always a good reason to go outside and look up, but a total or partial lunar eclipse is an awe-inspiring site that gives students a great opportunity to engage in practical sky watching. Whether it’s the Moon's reddish hue during a total lunar eclipse or the "bite" taken out of the Moon during a partial lunar eclipse, there's always something exciting to observe during these celestial events.

Read on to see what to expect during the next lunar eclipse. Plus, explore resources you can use at home or in the classroom to teach students about moon phases, craters, and more!

How It Works

Side-by-side images showing how the Moon, Sun and Earth align during an lunar eclipse versus a standard full moon

These side-by-side graphics show how the Moon, Sun, and Earth align during a lunar eclipse (left) versus a non-eclipse full moon (right). Credit: NASA Goddard Visualization Studio | + Enlarge image

Eclipses can occur when the Sun, the Moon and Earth align. Lunar eclipses can only happen during the full moon phase, when the Moon and the Sun are on opposite sides of Earth. At that point, the Moon could move into the shadow cast by Earth, resulting in a lunar eclipse. However, most of the time, the Moon’s slightly tilted orbit brings it above or below the shadow of Earth.

The time period when the Moon, Earth and the Sun are lined up and on the same plane – allowing for the Moon to pass through Earth’s shadow – is called an eclipse season. Eclipse seasons last about 34 days and occur just shy of every six months. When a full moon occurs during an eclipse season, the Moon travels through Earth’s shadow, creating a lunar eclipse.

Graphic showing the alignment of the Sun, Earth and Moon when a full moon occurs during an eclipse season versus a non-eclipse season

When a full moon occurs during an eclipse season, the Moon travels through Earth's shadow, creating a lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Enlarge image

Unlike solar eclipses, which require special glasses to view and can only be seen for a few short minutes in a very limited area, a total lunar eclipse can last over an hour and be seen by anyone on the nighttime side of Earth – as long as skies are clear!

Why It’s Important

Lunar eclipses have long played an important role in understanding Earth and its motions in space.

In ancient Greece, Aristotle noted that the shadows on the Moon during lunar eclipses were round, regardless of where an observer saw them. He realized that only if Earth were a spheroid would its shadows be round – a revelation that he and others had many centuries before the first ships sailed around the world.

Earth wobbles on its axis like a spinning top that’s about to fall over, a phenomenon called precession. Earth completes one wobble, or precession cycle, over the course of 26,000 years. Greek astronomer Hipparchus made this discovery by comparing the position of stars relative to the Sun during a lunar eclipse to those recorded hundreds of years earlier. A lunar eclipse allowed him to see the stars and know exactly where the Sun was for comparison – directly opposite the Moon. If Earth didn’t wobble, the stars would appear to be in the same place they were hundreds of years earlier. When Hipparchus saw that the stars’ positions had indeed moved, he knew that Earth must wobble on its axis!

Additionally, modern-day astronomers have used ancient eclipse records and compared them with computer simulations. These comparisons helped scientists determine the rate at which Earth’s rotation is slowing.

What to Expect

The Moon passes through two distinct parts of Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. The outer part of the cone-shaped shadow is called the penumbra. The penumbra is less dark than the inner part of the shadow because it’s penetrated by some sunlight. (You have probably noticed that some shadows on the ground are darker than others, depending on how much outside light enters the shadow; the same is true for the outer part of Earth’s shadow). The inner part of the shadow, known as the umbra, is much darker because Earth blocks additional sunlight from entering the umbra.

Here's what to expect during the total lunar eclipse on Nov. 8, 2022, which will be visible in North and South America, as well as Asia and Australia. Viewers in the most eastern parts of the continental U.S. will see the Moon set below the horizon as it exits Earth’s shadow in the second half of the eclipse.

At 12:02 a.m. PST (3:02 a.m. EST), the edge of the Moon will begin entering the penumbra. The Moon will dim very slightly for the next 67 minutes as it moves deeper into the penumbra. Because this part of Earth’s shadow is not fully dark, you may only notice some dim shading (if anything at all) on the Moon near the end of this part of the eclipse. Should you decide to skip this part of the eclipse, you won’t miss much.

Graphic showing the positions of the Moon, Earth and Sun during a partial lunar eclipse

During a total lunar eclipse, the Moon first enters into the penumbra, or the outer part of Earth's shadow, where the shadow is still penetrated by some sunlight. Credit: NASA | + Enlarge image

At 1:09 a.m. PST (4:09 a.m. EST), the edge of the Moon will begin entering the umbra. As the Moon moves into the darker shadow, significant darkening will be noticeable. Some say that during this part of the eclipse, the Moon looks as if it has had a bite taken out of it. That “bite” gets bigger and bigger as the Moon moves deeper into the shadow.

The Moon as seen during a partial lunar eclipse

As the Moon starts to enter into the umbra, the inner and darker part of Earth's shadow, it appears as if a bite has been taken out of the Moon. This "bite" will grow until the Moon has entered fully into the umbra. Credit: NASA | + Enlarge image

At 2:16 a.m. PST (5:16 a.m. EST), the Moon will be completely inside the umbra, marking the beginning of the total lunar eclipse, also known as totality.

Graphic showing the Moon inside the umbra

The total lunar eclipse starts once the moon is completely inside the umbra. And the moment of greatest eclipse happens with the Moon is halfway through the umbra as shown in this graphic. Credit: NASA | + Enlarge image

The moment of greatest eclipse, when the Moon is halfway through its path across the umbra, occurs at 2:59 a.m. PST (5:59 a.m. EST). As the Moon moves completely into the umbra – the part of the eclipse known as totality – something interesting happens: The Moon begins to turn reddish-orange. The reason for this phenomenon? Earth’s atmosphere. As sunlight passes through it, the small molecules that make up our atmosphere scatter blue light, which is why the sky appears blue. This leaves behind mostly red light that bends, or refracts, into Earth’s shadow. We can see the red light during an eclipse as it falls onto the Moon in Earth’s shadow. This same effect is what gives sunrises and sunsets a reddish-orange color.

The Moon as seen during a total lunar eclipse at the point of greatest eclipse

As the Moon moves completely into the umbra, it turns a reddish-orange color. Credit: NASA | + Enlarge image

A variety of factors affect the appearance of the Moon during a total lunar eclipse. Clouds, dust, ash, photochemical droplets and organic material in the atmosphere can change how much light is refracted into the umbra. The potential for variation provides a great opportunity for students to observe and classify the lunar eclipse based on its brightness. Details can be found below in the Teach It section.

At 3:41 a.m. PST (6:41 a.m. EST), the edge of the Moon will begin exiting the umbra and moving into the opposite side of the penumbra, reversing the “bite” pattern seen earlier. At this point, the Moon will have just set in the most northeastern portions of the continental United States. More and more eastern states will see the Moon set over the next hour as the eclipse progresses.

At 4:49 a.m. PST, the Moon will be completely outside of the umbra and no longer visible in the eastern United States. Those in the central United States will see the Moon begin setting around this time (6:49 a.m. CST). The Moon will continue exiting the penumbra until the eclipse officially ends at 5:56 a.m. PST, remaining visible only to viewers in the western United States, including many in the Mountain Time Zone one hour ahead.

Teach It

Ask students to observe the lunar eclipse and evaluate the Moon’s brightness using the Danjon Scale of Lunar Eclipse Brightness. The Danjon scale illustrates the range of colors and brightness the Moon can take on during a total lunar eclipse and is a tool observers can use to characterize the appearance of an eclipse. View the lesson guide here. After the eclipse, have students compare and justify their evaluations of the eclipse.

Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get your students excited about the eclipse, moon phases, and Moon observations.

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TAGS: Lunar Eclipse, Moon, Super Blue Blood Moon, Observe the Moon, Eclipse, K-12, Classroom Activities, Teaching

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Collage of images from the events and lessons featured in this article.

With 180 lessons in our online catalog, you can explore Earth and space with us all year long. We show you how with this handy NASA-JPL school year calendar.


We just added the 180th lesson to our online catalog of standards-aligned STEM lessons, which means JPL Education now has a lesson for every day of the school year. To celebrate and help you make the year ahead stellar, we've put together this monthly calendar of upcoming NASA events along with links to our related lessons, Teachable Moments articles, and student projects you can use to engage students in STEM while they explore Earth and space with us all year long.


August

The Voyagers Turn 45

The twin Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 on a journey to explore the outer planets and beyond – and they're still going. Now more than 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from Earth in a region known as interstellar space, they're the most distant human-made objects in space.

Get a primer on these fascinating spacecraft from Teachable Moments, then use it as a jumping off point for lessons on the scale, size, and structure of our solar system and how we communicate with distant spacecraft.

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September

Rendezvous with an Asteroid

A distant asteroid system 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth was the site of NASA's first attempt at redirecting an asteroid. On September 26, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, mission impacted the asteroid Dimorphos in an attempt to alter its speed and path around a larger asteroid known as Didymos. Dimorphos and Didymos do not pose a threat to Earth, which makes them a good proving ground for testing whether a similar technique could be used to defend Earth against potential impacts by hazardous asteroids in the future.

Get a primer on the DART mission and find related resources for the classroom in this article from our Teachable Moments series. Plus, explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons and activities all about asteroids to get students learning about different kinds of space rocks, geology, and meteoroid math.

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A Closer Look at Europa

Just a few days later, on September 29, the Juno spacecraft that had been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 captured the closest views of Jupiter’s moon Europa in more than 20 years. The ice-covered moon is thought to contain a subsurface liquid-water ocean, making it an exciting new frontier in our search for life beyond Earth. NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024 is designed to study the moon in more detail. But until Europa Clipper arrives at the Jovian system in 2030, these observations from Juno are our best chance to get a closer look at this fascinating moon.

Learn more about Europa and why it is interesting to scientists in this talk from our Teaching Space With NASA series featuring a Europa Clipper mission scientist. Then, explore our Ocean Worlds Lesson Collection for ideas on making classroom connections.

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October

Celebrate Halloween Like a Space Explorer

The month of October is the perfect time to get students exploring our STEM activities with a Halloween twist. Students can learn how to carve a pumpkin like a JPL engineer, take a tour of mysterious locations throughout the solar system, and dig into the geology inside their Halloween candy.

October 31 is also JPL's 86th birthday, which makes October a great time to learn more about JPL history, including the team of female mathematicians known as "human computers" who performed some of the earliest spacecraft-tracking calculations and the Laboratory's role in launching the first U.S. space satellite.

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November

Watch a Total Lunar Eclipse

Look up in the early morning hours of November 8 to watch one of the most stunning spectacles visible from Earth: a total lunar eclipse. This one will be viewable in North and South America, as well as Asia and Australia.

Learn more about lunar eclipses and how to watch them from our Teachable Moments series. Then, get students of all ages outside and observing the Moon with lessons on moon phases and the hows and whys of eclipses. Students can even build a Moon calendar so they always know when and where to look for the next eclipse.

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Artemis Takes a Giant Leap

NASA is making plans to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since 1972 – this time to establish a sustainable presence and prepare for future human missions to Mars. The first major step is Artemis I, which is testing three key components required to send astronauts beyond the Moon: the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The uncrewed Artemis I mission marks the first test of all three components at once.

Get your K-12 students following along with lessons in rocketry and what it takes to live in space. Plus, register to follow along with the mission with resources and updates from NASA's Office of STEM Engagement.

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December

Satellite Launches on a Mission to Follow the Water

As crucial as water is to human life, did you know that no one has ever completed a global survey of Earth’s surface water? That is about to change with the launch of the SWOT mission, scheduled for December 15. SWOT, which stands for Surface Water Ocean Topography, will use a state-of-the-art radar to measure the elevation of water in major lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. It will also provide an unprecedented level of detail on the ocean surface. This data will help scientists track how these bodies of water are changing over time and improve weather and climate models.

Engage your students in learning about Earth’s water budget and how we monitor Earth from space with these lessons. And be sure to check out our Teachable Moments article for more about the SWOT mission and the science of our changing climate.

Update: Dec. 15, 2022 – NASA, the French space agency, and SpaceX are now targeting 3:46 a.m. PST (6:46 a.m. EST) on Friday, Dec.16, for the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite. Visit NASA's SWOT launch blog for the latest updates.

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Prepare for the Science Fair

Before you know it, it'll be science fair time. Avoid the stress of science fair prep by getting students organized and thinking about their projects before the winter recess. Start by watching our video series How to Do a Science Fair Project. A scientist and an engineer from JPL walk your students through all the steps they will need to create an original science fair project by observing the world around them and asking questions. You can also explore our science fair starter pack of lessons and projects to get students generating ideas and thinking like scientists and engineers.

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January

Explore STEM Careers

January is the time when many of us set goals for the year ahead, so it's the perfect month to get students exploring their career goals and opportunities in STEM. Students can learn more about careers in STEM and hear directly from scientists and engineers working on NASA missions in our Teaching Space video series. Meanwhile, our news page has more on what it takes to be a NASA astronaut and what it's like to be a JPL intern.

For students already in college and pursuing STEM degrees, now is the time to start exploring internship opportunities for the summer. The deadline for JPL summer internships is in March, so it's a good idea to refresh your resume and get your application started now. Learn how to stand out with this article on how to get an internship at JPL – which also includes advice for pre-college students.

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February

Mars Rover Celebrates 2-Year 'Landiversary'

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover celebrates its "landiversary" on February 18, which marks two years since the rover made its nail-biting descent on the Red Planet. The rover continues to explore Jezero Crater using science tools to analyze rocks and soil in search of signs of ancient microbial life. As of this writing, the rover has collected twelve rock core samples that will be sent to Earth by a future mission. Perseverance even witnessed a solar eclipse! Meanwhile, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, which the rover deployed shortly after landing, has gone on to achieve feats of its own.

The Mission to Mars Student Challenge is a great way to get students of all ages exploring STEM and the Red Planet right along with the Perseverance rover. The challenge includes seven weeks of education content that can be customized for your classroom as well as education plans, expert talks, and resources from NASA.

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March

Take On the Pi Day Challenge

Math teachers, pie-lovers, and pun-aficionados rejoice! March 14 is Pi Day, the annual celebration of the mathematical constant used throughout the STEM world – and especially for space exploration. This year's celebration brings the 10th installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge, featuring four new illustrated math problems involving pi along with NASA missions and science.

The new problems will make their debut on March 10, but you don't have to wait to get students using pi like NASA scientists and engineers. Explore our evergreen collection of Pi Day Challenge problems, get students learning about how we use pi at NASA, and hear from a JPL engineer on how many decimals of pi we use for space exploration.

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April

Celebrate Earth Day With NASA

You may not immediately think of Earth science when you think of NASA, but it's a big part of what we do. Earth Day on April 22 is a great time to explore Earth science with NASA, especially as new missions are taking to the skies to study the movements of dust, measure surface water across the planet, and track tiny land movements to better predict natural disasters.

Whether you want to focus on Earth’s surface and geology, climate change, extreme weather, or the water budget, we have an abundance of lessons, student projects and Teachable Moments to guide your way.

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May

Summer Learning Adventures

As the school year comes to a close, send your students off on an adventure of summer learning with our do-it-yourself STEM projects. Additionally, our Learning Space With NASA at Home page and video series is a great resource for parents and guardians to help direct their students' learning during out-of-school time.

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Students, Lessons, Resources, Projects, Events, Artemis, Voyager, DART, Asteroids, Europa, Ocean Worlds, Halloween, History, Earth, Climate, SWOT, Lunar Eclipse, Science Fair, Career Advice, Mars, Perseverance, Pi Day, Earth Day, Summer STEM

  • Kim Orr
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Collage of James Webb Space Telescope's first images featured in this article.

Here's what we learned from the first set of images captured by NASA's newest space observatory and how to translate it into learning opportunities for students.


NASA’s newest space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, has returned its first set of images and spectra of five different targets – from nebulae to exoplanets to galaxy clusters – revealing the universe in ways never before seen. These targets, selected by a team of experts, represent just the start of the telescope's science operations and the beginning of our ability to see the universe in a whole new way.

Read on to learn more about what the space-based observatory’s images can tell us about the cosmos, how they were captured, and how to engage learners in the science and engineering behind the mission.

What JWST Saw

New Details Revealed About the Birth of Stars

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What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

Stellar nurseries, young stars, and protostellar jets, which are narrow, ultra-fast streams of gas emanating from baby stars, are all on display in this image of the Carina Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust approximately 7,600 light years away.

Nebulae are massive clouds of gas and dust, some spanning up to hundreds of light-years across. Thanks to its infrared cameras, JWST can peer into these dusty regions of space, revealing incredible details previously unseen by other telescopes.

Within the Carina Nebula, a star-forming region known as NGC 3324 was captured by the Webb telescope in this image. As the edge of this region moves inward toward the gas and dust, it may encounter unstable areas. The pressure changes can cause the gas and dust to collapse, forming a new star in a process called accretion. However, if too much material is pushed away, it may prevent a star from forming.

The Webb telescope’s observations in nebulae like this will help scientists answer some of the unknown questions of astrophysics, like what determines the number of stars in a certain region and why do stars form with certain masses.

Scientists can also learn how star formation affects these clouds. Little is known about the numerous small, or low-mass, stars within nebulae. But by studying the jets revealed in the new image, scientists can understand how these stars are expelling gas and dust out of the cloud, thereby reducing the amount of material available to form new stars. Furthermore, scientists will be able to get a full count of these low-mass stars and account for their impact throughout the nebula.

Signs of Water on a Distant Planet

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A transmission spectrum made from a single observation using Webb’s Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) reveals atmospheric characteristics of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-96 b. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

JWST's observations of exoplanet WASP-96 b, a planet outside our solar system, is not an image but a spectrum of light. Within the spectrum are highlights that indicate the presence of water molecules. The spectrum also shows evidence of clouds and haze, which were thought not to exist in WASP-96 b's atmosphere.

WASP-96 b is an exoplanet made up mostly of gas. About half the mass of Jupiter, but slightly larger, it orbits much closer to its star, completing a revolution every 3.4 days compared with 12 years for Jupiter.

This measurement, known as a transmission spectrum, was collected as WASP-96 b transited, or passed in front of, its host star from the perspective of the telescope. It compares the light that passed through the atmosphere of the exoplanet with the light from the planet's parent star alone. As a result, it is possible to see the amount of light at each wavelength blocked by the planet and absorbed by its atmosphere, telling scientists the size of the planet and the chemicals contained in its atmosphere.

While WASP-96 b’s spectrum had been captured before, the Webb telescope provided the most detailed view of its spectrum in near-infrared, and the improved resolution completely changed our understanding of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. Using this spectrum, scientists will be able to measure the amount of water in the exoplanet's atmosphere, determine how much oxygen and carbon it contains, infer the make-up of the planet, and even how, when, and where it formed.

Star Pair Coming Into Focus

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NASA’s Webb Telescope has revealed the cloak of dust around the second star, shown at left in red, at the center of the Southern Ring Nebula for the first time. It is a hot, dense white dwarf star. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

Two distinct stars can be seen in this image of the center of the Southern Ring Nebula – a pairing that was believed to exist but was not visible in previous images.

The star pair came into view thanks to the space telescope's MIRI instrument, which is designed to capture wavelengths of light in the mid-infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. MIRI’s ability to see in the mid-infrared revealed that the older of the two stars is surrounded by dust. Seeing this dust clearly is what makes the second star visible in the image. While the brighter star is in an earlier stage of its life, it will likely form its own planetary nebula in the future.

About 2,500 light-years away from Earth, the Southern Ring is a planetary nebula – a shell of gas and dust shed from a dying white dwarf star at its center. Its gases stretch out for nearly half a light-year and are speeding away from the star at approximately nine miles per second!

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The bright star at the center of NGC 3132, while prominent when viewed by NASA’s Webb Telescope in near-infrared light, plays a supporting role in sculpting the surrounding nebula. A second star, barely visible at lower left along one of the bright star’s diffraction spikes, is the nebula’s source. It has ejected at least eight layers of gas and dust over thousands of years. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

The images from JWST reveal that starlight streams out of the nebula in fine lines, the result of holes in the surrounding gas and dust cloud. The types and locations of different molecules within the cloud, gleaned from the captured spectra, will help to fine tune our understanding of the structure, composition, and history of this nebula, and with future observations, other nebulae.

How Galaxies Interact

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An enormous mosaic of Stephan’s Quintet is the largest image to date from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The visual grouping of five galaxies was captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

The Webb telescope's capabilities bring new eyes to a cluster of galaxies first discovered in 1877 and known as Stephan’s Quintet. On display in this sharp new image are regions of new star birth containing millions of young stars as well as tails of gas, dust, and stars being ripped from galaxies as a result of gravitational forces between the galaxies.

Stephan’s Quintet is a dense cluster of galaxies located 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in orbits that repeatedly bring them close to one another. The fifth (leftmost) galaxy is seven times closer to Earth than the others. But its location within the line of sight of the distant four makes it appear to be grouped with them. What looks like speckles surrounding the nearby galaxy and could be mistaken for digital noise is actually individual stars from that galaxy.

It may seem distant in pure numbers, but Stephan's Quintet is relatively close compared to galaxies that are billions of light-years away. Its proximity gives astronomers a great view of the interactions that occur between galaxies that are near to each other.

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The MIRI instrument measured the composition of gas around the black hole at the center of one of the galaxies in Stephan's Quintent to find a region filled with hot, ionized gases, including iron, argon, neon, sulfur and oxygen (top spectrum). The instrument also revealed that the supermassive black hole has a reservoir of colder, denser gas with large quantities of molecular hydrogen and silicate dust (bottom spectrum). Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

The detail exposed will allow scientists to understand the interactions occurring in much more distant – and harder to observe – galaxies. Close inspections of galactic nuclei captured in mid-infrared by the telescope's MIRI instrument revealed hot gas being stripped of its electrons by winds and radiation from a supermassive black hole at the center of one galaxy. The new detail helped scientists determine that iron, argon, neon, sulfur and oxygen, as well as silicate dust are contained in these gases.

Meanwhile, the telescope's NIRSpec instrument – which can capture up to 100 spectra at a time – was able to identify atomic and molecular hydrogen as well as iron ions in the gases around the black hole. These observations will provide a greater understanding about the rate at which supermassive black holes feed and grow.

Thousands of Galaxies in a Grain of Sand

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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

This image contains thousands of galaxies as well as the faintest objects yet observed in the infrared. Known as a deep field image, it was made by pointing the telescope at the target for an extended period of time, allowing the detectors to collect as much of the faint, distant light as possible. JWST captured this deep field image in just 12.5 hours, while the Hubble Space Telescope spent two weeks capturing its deepest images. (Note that Hubble also observed this galaxy cluster, but not as a deep field image.)

Hold a single grain of sand at arm's length and you could cover the entire area of space captured by this image. Keen observers will notice what appear as warped or stretched galaxies. Those are the result of gravitational lensing, a phenomenon in which the gravity of the galaxy cluster centered in the foreground bends the light from background galaxies magnifying and distorting their light. Taking advantage of this phenomenon allows for viewing of extremely distant and very faint galaxies.

The galaxy cluster shown in the image is known as SMACS 0723 and it appears as it did 4.6 billion years ago – the length of time it took for its light to reach the telescope. Light from the oldest-known galaxy in the image had been traveling for 13.1 billion years before it reached JWST.

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Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is a technicolor landscape when viewed in mid-infrared light by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Compared to Webb’s near-infrared image at right, the galaxies and stars are awash in new colors. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | › Full image and caption | › Text description (PDF)

The MIRI instrument’s ability to detect longer infrared wavelengths provides additional information in the image about the make-up of those galaxies. Mid-infrared light highlights dust, an important star-forming ingredient. In this image, red objects contain thick dust layers, while blue galaxies contain stars but not much dust. Green objects contain dust filled with hydrocarbons and other compounds. With these data, astronomers will be able to better understand the formation and growth of galaxies.

As impressive as this image is, the JWST team has plans to capture more deep field images using even longer exposure times. Keep up to date with the latest images and spectra from JWST throughout the school year at the Webb Space Telescope Resource Gallery.

How They Did It

The Webb telescope's ability to detect these objects in such great detail is enabled by its size, the way it observes the universe, and the unique technologies aboard. We went into more detail about how JWST works in a previous Teachable Moment, but below you’ll find a review of some of the important ways JWST was uniquely designed to capture these groundbreaking images.

Observing the Infrared

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Light waves get stretched as the universe expands similar to how this ink mark stretches out as the elastic is pulled. Get students modeling and exploring this effect with this standards-aligned math lesson. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The Webb telescope was built with instruments like NIRSpec and MIRI that are sensitive to light in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths to detect some of the most distant objects in space.

As light from distant objects travels to Earth, the universe expands, something it’s been doing since the Big Bang. The waves that make up the light get stretched as the universe expands. Visible lightwaves from distant objects that you would be able to see with your eyes get stretched out so far that the longer wavelengths shift from visible light into infrared. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as redshift – and the farther away an object is, the more redshift it undergoes.

Gathering Light

The light from some of these distant objects has traveled so far that it is incredibly dim. To see such dim light, the Webb telescope was built to be extremely sensitive. On the Webb telescope, 18 hexagonal mirrors combine to form a massive primary mirror that is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across – six times the surface area of Hubble.

A dozen or so engineers stand in a towering open room clad in white smocks covering their entire bodies. Above them, and taking up a third of the room's space, is the reflective gold honeycomb-shaped set of mirrors for JWST. The NASA Goddard Space Center logo is reflected in the mirror.

The complete optical telescope element on display inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2017. Credits: NASA/Desiree Stover | › Full image and caption

To detect faint infrared light, the instruments inside the telescope have to be kept very cold, otherwise those infrared signals could get lost in the heat of the telescope. The spacecraft’s orbit and tennis-court-size sunshield keep light and heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon from warming up its sensitive instruments. And the MIRI instrument, which needs to be even colder to capture mid-infrared wavelengths, is equipped with a special cryocooler.

The unique design and innovative techniques used by the James Webb Space Telescope are what made the first images possible. As the mission continues, more targets will be observed, more discoveries will be made, and more of our universe will unfold before our eyes.

“It’s not every day you can say you contributed to something that inspires the world in a positive way, but I believe that’s what JWST is doing for everyone of all ages,” said JPL engineer Analyn Schneider, who is the project manager for the telescope's MIRI instrument. “The telescope will help us learn more about our galaxy and the rest of the universe, and as a bonus we get these magnificent images. Learning is a big part of being in science and engineering and that’s what makes it interesting and challenging.”

Teach It

Bring the excitement of these far-off observations closer to home by using the following resources in your learning environment, whether in-person, hybrid, or remote. Scientists and educators directly connected with the James Webb Space Telescope have teamed up to provide a collection of Webb resources to meet your needs. Find additional resources below and through NASA’s Universe of Learning project.

Lessons

Student Activities

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NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

TAGS: Stars & Galaxies, JWST, K-12 Education, Teaching

  • Lyle Tavernier
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We talked to a few JPL interns about what they've been working on, how they're taking NASA into the future, and what it all means to them.


Despite the challenges of the past two years, it’s been a busy time for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Among the Lab’s activities have been the launch and landing of a new Mars rover, preparations for sending a spacecraft to explore an ocean world beyond Earth, first light for missions studying our changing climate and the universe beyond, and the development of technology to help address the COVID pandemic.

All the while, JPL interns have continued supporting scientists, engineers, and technologists behind the scenes to make those missions and projects happen.

More than 600 summer interns are taking part in that crucial work – both in-person at the laboratory in Southern California as well as from their homes and dorms across the country. In May, JPL welcomed summer interns back on site for the first time since 2019 while continuing to offer remote internships as projects allow.

We wanted to hear what interns have been up to, how they're contributing to NASA missions and science, and what the experience has meant to them. So we caught up with three students who have helped see the lab through the last year or two – and in one case, seven years. Watch their stories in the video above.

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The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College Students, Science, Engineering, InSight, Mars, Europa, Ocean Worlds, Enceladus, Saturn, Cassini, Ceres

  • NASA/JPL Edu
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