JPL intern Maya Yanez stands in front of the Jupiter display in the lab's museum

There’s no telling what the first spacecraft to land on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa could encounter – but this summer, JPL intern Maya Yanez is trying to find out. As part of a team designing the potential Europa Lander, a mission concept that would explore the Jovian moon to search for biosignatures of past or present life, Yanez is combing through images, models, analogs, anything she can find to characterize a spot that’s “less than a quarter of a pixel on the highest-resolution image we have of Europa.” We caught up with Yanez, an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to find out what inspired her to get involved in space exploration and ask about her career ambition to discover alien life.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on what may be a robot that we would land on Europa's icy surface. Europa is a moon of Jupiter that has this thick ice shell that we estimate is 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] thick, and there’s evidence that underneath that is a huge global ocean. If we're going to find life beyond Earth, it's probably going to be wherever there's water. So this mission concept would be to put a lander on Europa to try to figure out if there are signs of life there. I’m looking at an area on Europa about two square meters [about 7 feet] and about a meter [3 feet] deep. For perspective, we've only explored a few kilometers into our own Earth's surface. What I'm doing is trying to figure out what we might expect is going on in that little tiny area on Europa. What light is interacting with it, what processes might be going on, what little micrometeorites are hitting the surface, what's the ice block distribution? I'm looking at places like Mars, the Moon and Earth to try to put constraints and understanding around what types of variation we might see on Europa and what might be going on underneath the surface.

What's an average day like for you?

A lot of it is looking up papers and trying to get an idea of what information exists about Europa. My first couple of weeks here, I read this thing that we call the "Big Europa Book.” It's a 700-page textbook that covers basically all of our knowledge of Europa.

One of the other things that I've been working on is a geologic map, trying to look at what geologic variation exists in a couple of meters on Europa because we don't know. It's kind of crazy to think that when Viking [the first Mars lander] landed, we had no clue what another surface would look like except for the Moon. We had no idea. And then we got those first amazing images and it looked kind of like Earth, except Europa probably won't look like Earth because it's not rock; it's all ice. So even though we're trying, we still have nothing to compare it to.

If it gets selected as an official mission, a Europa lander would come after NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. How might data from Europa Clipper contribute to what you're working on now?

Image of Europa acquired by Voyager 2 on July 9, 1979.

This image of Jupiter's moon Europa was acquired by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft on July 9, 1979, from a distance of about 240,000 kilometers (150,600 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Highest resolution image of Europa

This image is the most detailed view of Europa, obtained by NASA's Galileo mission on Dec. 16, 1997, at a distance of 560 kilometers (335 miles) from the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Europa Clipper could be really beneficial in that it's going to do more than 40 flybys where it goes around Europa in a bunch of different ways and at different proximities. It’s going to curve into the moon’s atmosphere and get really close to the surface, about 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] close to the surface. Right now, some of the best data we have is from hundreds of kilometers away, so the images Europa Clipper will take will be pretty nicely resolved. If you look at the current highest resolution image of Europa as compared to one from Voyager [which flew by Jupiter and its moons in 1979], the amount of detail that changes, the amount of cracks and complexity you can see on the surface is huge. So having more images like that can be really beneficial to figure out where we can land and where we should land.

Before this project, you spent a summer at JPL studying the chemistry of icy worlds, such as Pluto. What’s it been like working on such different projects and getting experience in fields outside your major, like chemistry and geology?

[Laughs] Yeah, one day I'll get back to astronomy. That's one of the things I love about JPL. Overall, I'd say what I want to do is astrobiology because I want to find life in the solar system. I mean, everyone does. It would be really cool to find out that there are aliens. But one of the great things about astrobiology is it takes chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy and all of these different sciences that you don't always mix together. And that's kind of why I like JPL. So much of the work involves an interdisciplinary approach.

What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you've had so far?

I have one from last summer and one from this summer.

I really want to find life out in space. I'm curious about bacteria and microbes and how they react in space, but it's not something I've ever really done work in. A couple of weeks ago, I got to see astronaut Kathleen Rubins give a talk, meet her afterward and take a picture with her. She was the first person to sequence DNA in space. I would have never met someone like that if it weren’t for my internship at JPL. I wouldn't have been able to go up to her and say, “This is really cool! I'd love to talk to you more and get your email” – and get an astronaut's email! Who would ever expect that?

And then last year, I had something happen that was completely unexpected. I was sitting alone in the lab, running an experiment and, throughout the summer, we had a couple of different tours come through. A scientist asked if he could bring in a tour. It was two high-school-age kids and, presumably, their moms. I showed them around and explained what my experiment was doing. It was great. It was a really good time. They left and a couple hours later, Mike Malaska, the scientist who was leading the tour, came back and said, “Thank you so much for doing that tour. Do you know the story of that one? I said no. He said, “Well the boy, he has cancer. This is his Make-a-Wish.” His Make-a-Wish was to tour JPL. I had never felt so grateful to be given the opportunity that I was given, to realize that someone’s wish before they may or may not die is to visit the place that I'm lucky enough to intern at. It was a very touching moment. It really made me happy to be at JPL.

What was your own personal inspiration for going into astronomy?

I was the nerdy kid. I had a telescope, but I also had a microscope. So it was destined. But in middle school, I started to get this emphasis on life sciences. I'd always really liked biology so I sort of clung to it. We never really talked about space, so I just kind of forgot about it. But my senior year, I took this really cool class in astrobiology taught by an amazing teacher, who I still talk to. After the first week in her class, I was like, I have to do this. At the end of the academic year, that same teacher took me to JPL and gave me a private tour with some of the other scientists. I actually met Morgan Cable, the mentor I worked with last summer and this summer, on that tour. It was definitely a combination of being in this really great class and having that perspective change, realizing that we’ve learned a lot about life on our own planet, but there's so much to learn about finding it elsewhere.

Did you know about JPL before that?

No. I'm the first generation in my family to go to college, so I'm the one who teaches science to everyone else. I didn't even think science was a career because, when you're a kid, you don't often interact with a lot with scientists. So I didn't realize what JPL was or how cool it was until that tour put everything into perspective. I wasn't a space kid, but I found my own path, and it worked.

JPL intern Maya Yanez live tweets from the JPL Watch Party for NASA's Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Yanez hosted a takeover of the @NASAJPL_Edu Twitter account during the NASA Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

For National Intern Day on July 26, NASA held a special town hall for interns with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Your question about how the agency prioritizes the search for extraterrestrial life was selected as a finalist to appear during the broadcast. What made you want to ask that particular question?

So it was a little self-serving [laughs]. Part of it is that it’s central to my career path, but I also want to run for office one day at some level, and I think it's important that there's this collaboration between science and politics. Without it, science doesn't get funded and politicians aren’t as well informed.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

What I'm doing requires a lot of reading and putting things together and knowing rocks and putting scales into perspective, so it's not particularly specialized work. But the end goal of my project will be a table that says here's what processes are happening on Europa, here's what depth they govern and here's what it means if biosignatures are caught in these processes. I'm also going to be remaking an old graphic, including more information and trying to better synthesize everything that we know about Europa. Those two products will continue to be used by anyone who’s thinking about landing on Europa, for anyone who’s thinking about what surface processes govern Europa. Those two products that I'm producing are going to be the best summaries that we have of what's going on there.

OK, so now for the fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Europa. Obviously [laughs]. Or [Saturn’s moon] Titan. Titan is pretty cool, but it scares me a little bit because there's definitely no oxygen. There's not a lot of oxygen on Europa, but what's there is oxygen. I would probably go to Europa and find some way to get through those 25 kilometers of ice, hit that ocean and see what's going on.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Internships, Interns, College, Students, STEM, Science, Engineering, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander

  • Kim Orr
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Satellite images of the 2018 Carr and Ferguson wildfires in California

Update – August 8, 2018: This feature, originally published on August 23, 2016, has been updated to include information on 2018 fires and current fire research.

Once again, it’s fire season in the western United States with many citizens finding themselves shrouded in wildfire smoke. Late summer in the west brings heat, low humidity and wind – optimal conditions for fire. These critical conditions have resulted in the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest fire in California's recorded history. Burning concurrently in California are numerous other wildfires, including the Carr fire, the 12th largest in California history.

Because of their prevalence and effects on a wide population, wildfires will remain a seasonal teachable moment for decades to come. Follow these links to learn about NASA’s fire research and see images of current fires from space. Check out the information and lessons below to help students learn how NASA scientists use technology to monitor and learn about fires and their impacts.


In the News

You didn’t need to check social media, read the newspaper or watch the local news to know that California wildfires were making headlines this summer. Simply looking up at a smoke-filled sky was enough for millions of people in all parts of the state to know there was a fire nearby.

Satellite image of the 2014 King Fire in California

Wildfire Lessons

In these lessons, students play the role of NASA scientist to study the burn area and intensity of wildfires.

Fueled by high temperatures, low humidity, high winds and five years of vegetation-drying drought, more than 4,800 fires have engulfed 275,000-plus acres across California already this year. And the traditional fire season – the time of year when fires are more likely to start, spread and consume resources – has only just begun.

With wildfires starting earlier in the year and continuing to ignite throughout all seasons, fire season is now a year-round affair not just in California, but also around the world. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service found that fire seasons have grown longer in 25 percent of Earth's vegetation-covered areas.

For NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is located in Southern California, the fires cropping up near and far are a constant reminder that its efforts to study wildfires around the world from space, the air and on the ground are as important as ever.

JPL uses a suite of Earth satellites and airborne instruments to help better understand fires and aide in fire management and mitigation. By looking at multiple images and types of data from these instruments, scientists compare what a region looked like before, during and after a fire, as well as how long the area takes to recover.

Animation of the FireSat network of satellites capturing wildfires on Earth

This animation shows how FireSat would use a network of satellites around the Earth to detect fires faster than ever before. | + Expand image

While the fire is burning, scientists watch its behavior from an aerial perspective to get a big-picture view of the fire itself and the air pollution it is generating in the form of smoke filled with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Natasha Stavros, a wildfire expert at JPL, joined Zach Tane with the U.S. Forest Service during a Facebook Live event (viewable below) to discuss some of these technologies and how they're used to understand wildfire behavior and improve wildfire recovery.

Additionally, JPL is working with a startup in San Francisco called Quadra Pi R2E to develop FireSat, a global network of satellites designed to detect wildfires and alert firefighting crews faster. When completed in June 2018, the network's array of more than 200 satellites will use infrared sensors to detect fires around the world much faster than is possible today. Working 24 hours a day, the satellites will be able to automatically detect fires as small as 35 to 50 feet wide within 15 minutes of when they begin. And within three minutes of a fire being detected, the FireSat network will notify emergency responders in the area.

Using these technologies, NASA scientists are gaining a broader understanding of fires and their impacts.

Why It's Important

One of the ways we often hear wildfires classified is by how much area they have burned. Though this is certainly of some importance, of greater significance to fire scientists is the severity of the fire. Wildfires are classified as burning at different levels of severity: low, medium, and high. Severity is a function of intensity, or how hot the fire was, and its spread rate, or the speed at which it travels. A high-severity fire is going to do some real damage. (Severity is measured by the damage left after the fire, but can be estimated during a fire event by calculating spread rate and measuring flame height which indicates intensity.)

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

The impacts of wildfires range from the immediate and tangible to the delayed and less obvious. The potential for loss of life, property and natural areas is one of the first threats that wildfires pose. From a financial standpoint, fires can lead to a downturn in local economies due to loss of tourism and business, high costs related to infrastructure restoration, and impacts to federal and state budgets.

The release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide is also an important consideration when thinking about the impacts of wildfires. Using NASA satellite data, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that between 2001 and 2010, California wildfires emitted about 46 million tons of carbon, around five to seven percent of all carbon emitted by the state during that time period.

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

In California and the western United States, longer fire seasons are linked to changes in spring rains, vapor pressure and snowmelt – all of which have been connected to climate change. Wildfires serve as a climate feedback loop, meaning certain effects of wildfires – the release of CO2 and CO – contribute to climate change, thereby enhancing the factors that contribute to longer and stronger fire seasons.

While this may seem like a grim outlook, it’s worth noting that California forests still act as carbon sinks – natural environments that are capable of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In certain parts of the state, each hectare of redwood forest is able to store the annual greenhouse gas output of 500 Americans.

Studying and managing wildfires is important for maintaining resources, protecting people, properties and ecosystems, and reducing air pollution, which is why JPL, NASA and other agencies are continuing their study of these threats and developing technologies to better understand them.

Teach It

Have your students try their hands at solving some of the same fire-science problems that NASA scientists do with these two lessons that get students in grades 3 through 12 using NASA data, algebra and geometry to approximate burn areas, fire-spread rate and fire intensity:

Explore More


Lyle Tavernier was a co-author on this feature.

TAGS: teachable moments, wildfires, science

  • Ota Lutz
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JPL intern Tre'Shunda James stands in front of NASA's "Visions of the Future" posters

Since we can’t yet travel to planets outside our solar system, JPL intern Tre’Shunda James creates models of them right here on Earth. We caught up with the Occidental College physics and chemistry major to learn how she’s pointing the way toward potentially habitable worlds while helping lead the way toward diversity in her field.

What are you working on at JPL?

My project this summer is studying exoplanet atmospheres and the chemical components that are present in those atmospheres. I'm running a bunch of simulations, or models, using a computer code that my JPL mentor, Renyu Hu, published back when he was in grad school. I change a few things, run the models, look at the results, compile them and analyze what they can tell me about oxygen, which is a possible sign of life on these exoplanets [planets outside our solar system]. So in that way, it's really pushing the field forward in terms of finding out if life could exist on similar planets.

What’s the ultimate goal of the project?

The parameters we put into the model are to simulate a terrestrial, habitable exoplanet. Scientists have discovered exoplanets that are terrestrial, but we don't yet know if there's life on them. So this model is a theoretical basis that we can apply to many exoplanets that are discovered to see if they could support life. We just submitted the paper on our findings a couple weeks ago.

What's an average day like for you?

Right before we submitted the paper, we were working nonstop on that. It was the hardest I’ve worked in such a short time. But it was very rewarding. It was the first time I’ve been an author on a science paper, so it was pretty cool. I learned a lot.

Typically, I'd come in and look at my code. Sometimes it would run a couple hours and it would be done or it would run a couple days, so I was always anxious to see where it was when I get to my desk. If it was done running, I’d take the results, make graphs, make figures and analyze what I could. And if wasn’t done, I'd usually just start a new simulation.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

I feel that with the publication, I will contribute a lot, especially because we're scratching surfaces that have never been explored before.

I also feel that I’m contributing as an African American, female engineer doing work in planetary science. I was looking up women in planetary science, specifically African American women, and the only one I could find passed away in 2015. So I feel as though just being here, exploring this field, is pushing the boundaries, and I'm excited about that.

How did you find out about the JPL internship?

I'm a member of a group called COSMOS, Creating Opportunities in Science and Math for Occidental Students. They put me in contact with the SIRI program in the JPL Education Office last year. Before that, I didn’t even know that JPL existed.

What's been your impression of JPL?

It's kind of like school. It's like going to school with your professors. It’s pretty cool, the collaborative environment.

OK, now for the fun question: If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I would like to go to Saturn, mostly because I think it's beautiful, and it's one of the first planets that I ever learned about. What would I do there? I don't know exactly. It’s funny because I never really had a real interest in space until I started interning here. So everything is still kind of new to me, and I'm just learning about new missions and worlds every day.

What about any of the exoplanets that you're studying? Would you want to go check out any of them?

One thing we're looking to do is study the atmospheres of [the seven planets found orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1]. That would be really cool, especially because it's so close and it's one of the most recent planet-system discoveries. The Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters make it hard not to want to visit these places.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Internships, Interns, Exoplanets, Science, College

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Zachary Luppen stands in an anechoic chamber

A radar on NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft will be key to finding out if Jupiter's moon Europa is indeed an ocean world, so JPL intern Zachary Luppen is creating ways to test it to perfection. We caught up with Luppen, an astronomy and physics major from the University of Iowa, to find out how he’s helping the team peer below the icy moon’s surface and to hear about his recent brushes with space stardom.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on the integration, testing and automation of the REASON instrument for the Europa Clipper mission. REASON is a radar instrument that will look within the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa to look for water pockets, characterize the moon’s surface and see if we can confirm that there’s an ocean below its surface.

How does the radar work and why is it important for the mission?

The radar performs what’s called interferometry by sending out and receiving signals that create measurable interference patterns. Based on what signal bounces back, we can figure out the composition of the crust.

The radar probably first and foremost is trying to answer whether the moon has an ocean, and will probably help with determining a landing site for a potential future lander. So the Europa Clipper orbiter is sort of this preliminary study for eventually putting something on the surface. The REASON instrument is going to study a large portion of the moon’s surface and look for a landing spot, possibly where the ice is thinnest so we will not have to drill too deep to find water.

Why is NASA especially interested in Europa as a destination to explore?

Europa is a very interesting moon because it's way out at Jupiter, so it's far away from the Sun, and yet, scientists have data to support the notion that it might have liquid water. What allows it to have this water below its icy crust and how deep is that water? How thick is the icy crust? And if we were to drill into the crust, is there the potential to find life below it? Europa very quickly becomes a moon that can transform society on Earth, if we happened to find extraterrestrial life there.

| Watch on YouTube

What’s an average day like for you?

A lot of the work that I do involves programming in a language called Python. The transmitter boards, which are used to generate the signals that would propagate downwards toward Europa, are currently being built at the University of Iowa, and once we get them here at JPL, we're going to have to test them nonstop, see how we can break them, see how we can improve them. Whatever we need to do to make sure we operate perfectly during the mission. A lot of my work involves writing the software that's going to be doing this testing. Other than that, I've been writing programs called GUIs, graphical user interfaces, to interact with the instruments without having to actually touch them. So if you’re not able to go into the cleanroom during testing, then you can just use your computer to type commands.

How did you get involved in the project?

I’m a student at the University of Iowa and our team has been working on the transmitter boards for the past couple of years. I was dying to get involved in spacecraft and by the end of my sophomore year, I finally had the opportunity to do so because I got a grant from the university to pay for research. I started off simply cleaning rooms and putting away parts, which was pretty menial, however, I did learn what the parts were and how to quickly blow them up if you don't use them properly. Then I worked my way up to kitting parts, which is organizing them for our soldering technician. This doesn't sound like a rigorous job, but it's the first task that needs to be done to make a circuit board, and if it's not done properly, nothing else matters because the circuit boards won’t work. So I just kept working on that throughout my junior year and now I'm out here interning.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

Your question was chosen to be broadcast as part of a downlink for NASA interns with astronauts on the International Space Station. What does it mean to know that your question is going to space?

Words that I spoke are going to be shown to astronauts. Pixels showing me and audio from my mouth will be appearing on the International Space Station, so I'm almost riding on the station. In a sense, my dream of going to space is another step toward coming true

Have you had any other JPL or NASA unique experience of note?

I got to meet astronaut Kate Rubins when she visited JPL recently. That was the first time that I'd ever met an astronaut. And I was just like, oh my gosh, I was shaking. Someone told me I could go up and shake her hand and I was like, really, I'm allowed to do that?! And I did. And then I got her autograph afterward.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

The programming work I’m doing is contributing directly to the testing phase of the Europa mission, which is cool in itself. But also just trying to make as many people aware as possible that the science is going on, that it's worth doing and worth finding out, especially if we were to find life on Europa. That changes humanity forever!

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Oh my god. The planetary system around the star TRAPPIST-1 is fascinating. The ISS is fascinating. Mars is Mars. Europa is Europa. This is a hard question. I guess, in order to further science, I’d go to Europa. If I could just go to Europa and see if there's life, well then, we’d answer one of the biggest questions ever asked.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, Higher Education, College, Opportunities, STEM, engineering, Europa Clipper, Europa, Ocean Worlds

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Kathy Vega poses with a model of Jupiter's moon Europa

Kathy Vega went from teaching STEM to doing it first-hand. Now, as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she's building an experiment to simulate ocean worlds. We recently caught up with Vega, a University of Colorado at Boulder engineering physics major, to find out what inspired her to switch careers and how her project is furthering the search for life beyond Earth.

What are you working on at JPL?

In our solar system, there are these icy worlds. Most of them are moons around large gas planets. For example, Europa is an icy moon that orbits Jupiter. There's also Titan and Enceladus orbiting Saturn. From prior missions, such as Galileo and Cassini, we've been able to see that these moons are covered with ice and most likely harbor oceans below that ice, which makes us wonder if these places are habitable for life. My project is supporting the setup of an experiment to simulate possible ocean compositions that would exist on these worlds under different temperatures and different pressures. Working in collaboration with J. Michael Brown’s group at the University of Washington in Seattle, this experiment is helping create a library of measurements that have not been collected before. Eventually, it may help us prepare for the development of landers to go to Europa, Enceladus and Titan and collect seismic measurements that we can compare to our simulated ones.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

What's a typical day like for you?

Right now, I'm in experiment-design mode. I've been ordering parts for the experiment and speaking with engineering companies. This experiment is already being run at UW in Seattle, but we're attempting to run it at colder temperatures to do a wider range of simulations, which haven’t been done before and will be particularly relevant to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and Saturn’s moon Titan. I've been working with another intern, and we've been meeting with cryogenic specialists and experiment-design specialists at JPL to design a way to make our current experiment reach colder temperatures.

I also run a lot of simulations with Matlab software. There's a model that my principal investigator developed called Planet Profile that allows the user to input different temperature ranges and composition profiles for a planetary body. It then outputs the density and sound-velocity measurements that we would expect in that environment.

What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you've had so far?

The Europa Clipper mission, [which will orbit Jupiter’s moon Europa to learn more about it and prepare for a future lander], is in development right now. A major planning meeting for the mission was held at JPL, and I got to sit in and watch these world-renowned scientists, who I think are like rock stars, talk science. There were all of these people having an open-forum discussion and, gosh, it was so cool. I felt like I was there with the people who are planning the future.

You already have a degree in political science. What made you want to go back to school for STEM?

When I was in high school, I was in Mathletes, but I was also in Mock Trial. I took AP physics, AP chemistry, AP calculus, but also AP civics and AP history. I remember in my junior year, I thought, I love math. Maybe I could be an astronaut one day. Space is so cool. Then AP physics happened. I didn't fail or anything, but after that, I just felt like maybe it's not for me.

JPL intern Kathy Vega inspects the experiment she's helping create

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

There were also a lot of critical things happening with politics around that time. Immigration was a really hot topic and walkouts were happening at L.A high schools. My family is from El Salvador, and I'm a first-generation college student, so I felt very motivated to study political science and be involved in issues that were happening first-hand in the world and affected my family and people I knew. So I went to Berkeley and got a degree in political science.

After that, I really wanted to get involved with service and just make a difference in the world, so I joined Teach for America. I taught math and I started a robotics club. It was through the robotics club and teaching my students about space and engineering that I really got excited again. I started pressing my siblings and my cousins to go into science. And one day, one of my cousins said, "If space is so cool, Kathy, why aren't you studying it?" I realized, yeah, what happened to that? I really loved that. So I decided to take classes at a local community college and did well. And now I’m at the University of Colorado at Boulder getting a second degree in engineering physics.

Do you ever feel pulled back in the direction of politics?

No [laughs]. Politics is a messy ordeal. I do my part as a citizen, but I like to think that thinking toward the future in science is where my efforts are best used right now.

How do you feel your background in political science has served you in engineering?

Going into engineering and science, I was very conscious of the fact that women and especially women of color are underrepresented in these fields. I think that having the background in political science, having the experiences working with communities gives me the ability to have thoughtful conversations with people about diversity.

How do you think you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

With this experiment, I've been able to leverage my creative side. I feel like I'm laying the foundation for these missions to explore other moons and worlds.

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

There’s a star called Vega, and it might have its own planetary system. It's so far that we have no idea what's in that potential system or if there could be terrestrial planets. I'd want to explore that.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, STEM, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander, Science

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Joshua Gaston holds a 3-D printed model of a CubeSat

Seeing what it takes to build a mission from the ground up, JPL intern Joshua Gaston is turning a far-out idea into reality as part of the lab’s project formulation team. The aerospace engineering student from Tuskegee University explains how he hopes to play a role in sending tiny satellites, called CubeSats, beyond Earth’s gravity and what it’s like to spitball ideas with rocket scientists.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on a proposal to send a bunch of CubeSats, [small satellites], to places beyond Earth’s gravity in our solar system. I'm the configurations and power guy. The team will tell me how they want the CubeSat configured. I research it, figure out if it's going to work and, if it does, I’ll set it up in CAD, [computer-aided design], software. So I'm pretty much the CAD guy, if you want to be basic.

You’re part of the project formulation team that’s coming up with these new mission ideas. What is that like?

This is sort of like step one. We have this idea and we need to figure out how to make it happen, so I'm just seeing how everything works from the very bottom.

I guess I never really thought about how they come up with these mission ideas and figure out if they’re going to work or not. They have teams of people who come together in one room and say, hey this won't work, this is why. Let's do it this way. And another person’s like, that won't work, but if it was adjusted a little bit ... It's just so cool to sit in through that and see all these smart people come together.

What is the most JPL or NASA unique experience you've had so far?

At my last internship, I kind of felt like I was the low leaf, like the roots on a tree. I wasn't running and getting coffee or anything, but everybody had doctorates and I felt like I couldn't ask them anything. But here, you can just run up to someone, ask them something and they're just so open about it, just open to talk.

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What's your ultimate career goal?

The ultimate, cross fingers, knock on wood is I want to become an astronaut. I feel like that's every kid's dream. But if I could make it, that would be great. After that is working at NASA. So either-or [laughs].

How do you think you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

Well, at first I felt like I wasn’t contributing to anything until someone was like, Oh Josh, you’re doing such a great job.” It was then that I realized the configuration is an essential part to the proposal stage. It seems like a small role, but at the same time, it’s a tremendous task. Without it, it would be hard to have a compelling case for the people who review the mission.

And in the bigger picture, since it's the beginning of the CubeSat wave, if this proposal goes all the way through, then I will feel amazing that I participated in the start of this journey, that my work contributed toward a new wave of satellites.

If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

If I could go anywhere that I would likely survive, I would probably go to the Andromeda Galaxy. But if I could go anywhere and only possibly survive, I would go inside a black hole, just to see it. I know that going in the gravitational forces would be too intense and possibly kill me on the spot. So, I’ll just say that if there was a possibility that I could survive and make it out, then I’d want to go inside a black hole.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Student Programs, STEM, Engineering, Opportunities

  • Kim Orr
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Sawyer Elliott holds a model of a rover like the one he's developing at JPL

Roll aside, wheeled rovers! Sawyer Elliott is developing a cube-shaped rolling robot to go where no rover has gone before. Find out how the NASA Space Technology Research Fellow from Cornell University is fashioning a rover for extreme environments, what inspired him to go into aerospace engineering, and where he most wants to travel in space.

What are you working on at JPL?

I work on extreme terrain mobility, so being able to maneuver through terrains that traditional rovers have a tough time traversing.

What does that entail?

I work on a rover that, instead of driving around with wheels like traditional rovers, hops or rolls by itself and is actually a cube or tetrahedron. So we look at how well it can do this rolling motion, how power-efficient it is, and its capabilities in different environments.

What kinds of environments are we talking about?

Microgravity environments [where gravity is very weak, such as on asteroids and comets] are a big one because it's difficult for wheeled rovers to maneuver through those types of environments. Also places that are extremely rocky, where it's difficult for wheeled rovers to get into.

What’s an average day like for you?

I do a lot of analyses on the rover, looking at the dynamics and the controls. I look at how it interacts with the environment and make sure my controllers work as expected and that the math I've done is reasonable. It’s a lot of sitting in front of simulations. But in the end, it's nice because I get to see the robustness of the controllers and if they actually work in a realistic environment.

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How do you feel you're contributing overall to NASA/JPL missions and science?

The hope is that my work is advancing the capabilities of not only this type of rover architecture – so how we do our cube-type rolling – but also controls and planning for rovers in general, making them more autonomous, making the planning better and our modeling of the systems better.

What got you interested in engineering in the first place?

I think it was mostly my father. We traveled a lot to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and I got to see the Saturn V there. Anyone who has seen the Saturn V loves rockets because it's amazing. After that, I was basically sold. I got my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and now I am getting my graduate degree in aerospace engineering. I'm only getting more and more interested as I go, so I guess that's a good sign.

What's your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate goal would be to be a senior researcher or a senior fellow at some place like JPL or another NASA center or research center.

OK, now for the fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I think going to a microgravity environment would be most fun. It's cool to explore places that have crazy environments, but just going to any microgravity environment, where you could go ballistic just by jumping or leaping, that sounds so fun to me, to complete half an orbit around an asteroid.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Student Programs, Opportunities, Engineering, Robotics, Rovers

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Camille Yoke stands in front of a test chamber

JPL intern Camille V. Yoke is building a thruster like the one that might send astronauts to Mars in the future. The University of South Carolina physics major shares how she’s shaping the future of electric propulsion and why she’s a fan of the “Mark Watney lifestyle.”

What are you working on at JPL?

I am working on a thruster – which is what makes a spacecraft accelerate while it's in the vacuum of space – similar to one that we could ultimately use on either a manned mission to Mars, a cargo mission to Mars, or other future manned missions. I am building what's called a cathode. It goes into an electric propulsion thruster and creates a plume of plasma. My job this summer is to test that plasma and see whether or not we can improve upon previous generations of the same technology.

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Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

What's a typical day like for you?

I have an office in a lab. Usually, in the morning, I talk with my mentor about the data that I've collected the day before. Then I either continue collecting data of the same variety or we decide that we need something new. The lab that I work in has three very small vacuum chambers, in which we create a plasma plume. I measure things like the density and temperature of the plasma at different positions. Then, I study the data to see what I’ve found.

What have you found out so far?

The technology I work on is the third-generation cathode for this thruster. The major difference between the third and the second generation is that we're giving the cathode extra fuel in different places. We actually learned today that it might be causing the temperature of the thruster to be much lower than it was previously, which is probably good news – but we don't know yet. We're going to launch into doing more rigorous tests and figure out whether or not that's a mistake in how we were testing it or if that's a pattern of this new technology.

What is electric propulsion and what makes it different than fuel propulsion? Why is it being considered for Mars and manned missions, specifically?

Electric propulsion is really good for deep space missions, meaning those going any farther than the Moon, because it can run for many thousands of hours. It requires power to run an electric thruster, which used to be an issue for NASA, but now large solar arrays are used on spacecraft to generate a lot of power. So for many proposed thrusters, the only limiting factor is the fuel. A main advantage of electric thrusters over chemical propulsion is that less fuel is required, so it’s less expensive to get these thrusters into space. This could be important for manned missions in the solar system, such as a manned mission to Mars, which may require lots of cargo shipments.

How do you think you're contributing to NASA missions and science?

Today there was a brief period in which I knew something that nobody else on the planet knew – for 20 minutes before I went and told my boss. You feel like you're contributing when you know that you have discovered something new. I'm a student, so I'm learning and I think that's an important contribution, too. Learning about all these technologies in order to advance them forward when the current experts retire or leave is really important.

JPL intern Camille Yoke stands in front of the Danger, High Voltage sign in her lab at JPL

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I've read a lot about potential floating cities to study Venus, and those always seem really neat. I'm also a fan of the Mark Watney style of life [in “The Martian”], where you're stranded on a planet somewhere and the only thing between you and death is your own ability to work through problems and engineer things on a shoestring. There's this sign in my lab that reads, "Danger, high voltage" and there’s another that reads, “There's nitrogen in this room. Two breaths of pure nitrogen will knock you out.” That’s why I really like applied physics; if you do it wrong, it will kill you. So If I ended up in a situation like Mark Watney’s on a floating city on Venus, I wouldn't complain. It would be pretty cool.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Opportunities, STEM, Science, Engineering, Physics

  • Kim Orr
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JPL Christopher Esquer-Rosas holds an origami version of the Starshade engineering model behind him.

Origami is going to space and Chris Esquer-Rosas is helping it get there. A computer engineering student at San Bernardino Valley College in Southern California, Esquer-Rosas used to do origami only as a hobby, but now he’s using it to build a giant sunflower-shaped structure that his team hopes will provide a new window into worlds beyond our solar system. Esquer-Rosas explains how he’s putting his origami skills to use and what got him folding in the first place.

What are you working on at JPL?

I’m working on Starshade, specifically the Petal Launch and Unfurler System.

What is starshade and what is it supposed to do?

Starshade is a proposal to fly a giant, sunflower-shaped shade in front of a space telescope, so we can directly image exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system. One of the big issues that we have is that we know exoplanets are there, but we can’t get the data we want about them because the stars that the planets are surrounding are too bright and they're basically blocking our view. So what Starshade is going to do is suppress or diffract sunlight while a telescope with all the science instruments directly images those exoplanets. It will probably be a little image, like one-by-one pixel, but with that one image, we can actually get a ton of data about these exoplanets – so carbon dioxide emissions, possibly water vapor, methane, gases and things like that.

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There's a lot of origami involved in building Starshade. How does it come into play?

When it unfurls in space, Starshade is supposed to be 36 meters (about 118 feet) in diameter, which is about the size of a baseball diamond, and it's supposed to be only 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) in diameter when it’s stowed for launch. We’re using origami concepts to make that possible. Origami involves a lot of math. A lot of people don't realize that. But what actually goes into it is lots of geometric shapes and angles that you have to account for. One of the first things that I started doing on Starshade was helping with the stow pattern. So starting out with one sheet, how do you fold it so you can stow it at a much smaller size? Do you want it to be taller or shorter? How many folds do you want? And then, how small do you want it to be? We developed a bunch of algorithms, so now all you have to do is input the specs, push enter, and a new pattern is created instead of having to refold things over and over and over again.

What are some of the challenges in getting that whole operation to work?

There are lots of challenges. The first challenge is making sure none of the petals gets nicked. [Starshade is shaped like a sunflower.] The petal edges are razor sharp and they are what allow the light to be diffracted so we can image the exoplanet. The curvature of the petals has to be within half-a-human-hair-width accuracy, so we have to make sure nothing happens to them. If any of them gets nicked, then now we have this giant bright spot in our images. We also have to make sure all the petals end up in the correct position once Starshade unfurls. And we have to make sure no light comes through any part of the Starshade itself.

Which of those challenges are you working on solving?

What I’m working on is making sure none of the petals touches each other. That's one of the big challenges. We have to find a way to slowly unwrap the petals so nothing interferes or touches any of the petal edges or the petal itself.

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Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

Tell me about your background in origami and how it brought you to JPL.

I've been doing origami since the fourth grade, when my teacher read us “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” At the end of the book, it teaches you how to fold your own paper crane. After I folded it, I just had this instinct to want to unfold it to see what it looked like. It has this unique pattern. So I started measuring it, and I figured out that different angles give you different lengths for the wings and the legs. So I was like, ok, what if you rotate the entire crease pattern 45 degrees? Now you get these more beautiful wings and you get a different shape. Then, I started folding other people's designs and learning how to design my own origami. I loved origami so much that I started learning the math behind it. A friend of mine, Robert Salazar, had started at JPL, and he was also an origami guy. We've been friends since seventh grade. He started on Starshade and then, eventually, he was leaving and he told them about me. They interviewed me a few times and then they were like, OK, come in and help us out.

Before that, did you have any idea there was an application for origami in space exploration?

I knew there were applications for other things like airbags and deployable mirrors, but I didn't know that there were space applications. That's what blew my mind. I was like, origami is going to space now? This is amazing.

Are you studying something origami-related in school?

I'm actually studying computer engineering, so it's completely different.

Has interning with Starshade made you want to change your career path?

It's like this close, because I've wanted to be a computer engineer since fourth grade as well. But since working here, a lot of the mechanical stuff has been a big learning experience. I didn't know mechanical engineering existed, but now that I do, it's amazing.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

I feel like I'm contributing because, right now, interns are on the front lines of testing out the hardware and making sure everything works. We're dealing with issues, trying to fix them, and coming up with ideas. I feel like we're actually contributing a lot to how this thing could eventually deploy in space.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Student Programs, Starshade, Origami, Exoplanets, Technology

  • Kim Orr
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