Lyle Tavernier is an educational technology specialist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When he’s not busy working in the areas of distance learning and instructional technology, you might find him running with his dog, cooking or planning his next trip.
This feature was originally published on May 3, 2016.
In the News
What do "Star Wars," NASA's Dawn spacecraft and Newton's Laws of Motion have in common? An educational lesson that turns science fiction into science fact using spreadsheets – a powerful tool for developing the scientific models addressed in the Next Generation Science Standards.
May the 4th Lessons
Celebrate Star Wars Day with these standards-aligned lessons in motion and forces for grades K-12.
The TIE (Twin Ion Engine) fighter is a staple of the "Star Wars" universe. Darth Vader flew one in "A New Hope." Poe Dameron piloted one in "The Force Awakens." And many, many Imperial pilots met their fates in them. While the fictional TIE fighters in "Star Wars" flew a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, ion engines are a reality in this galaxy today – and have a unique connection to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Launched in 1998, the first spacecraft to use an ion engine was Deep Space 1, which flew by asteroid 9969 Braille and comet Borrelly. Fueled by the success of Deep Space 1, engineers at JPL set forth to develop the next spacecraft that would use ion propulsion. This mission, called Dawn, would take ion-powered spacecraft to the next level by allowing Dawn to go into orbit twice – around the two largest objects in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres.
How Does It Work?
Ion engines rely on two principles that Isaac Newton first described in 1687. First, a positively charged atom (ion) is pushed out of the engine at a high velocity. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so then a small force pushes back on the spacecraft in the opposite direction – forward! According to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, there is a relationship between the force (F) exerted on an object, its mass (m) and its acceleration (a). The equation F=ma describes that relationship, and tells us that the small force applied to the spacecraft by the exiting atom provides a small amount of acceleration to the spacecraft. Push enough atoms out, and you'll get enough acceleration to really speed things up.
Why is It Important?
Compared with traditional chemical rockets, ion propulsion is faster, cheaper and safer:
- Faster: Spacecraft powered by ion engines can reach speeds of up to 90,000 meters per second (more than 201,000 mph!)
- Cheaper: When it comes to fuel efficiency, ion engines can reach more than 90 percent fuel efficiency, while chemical rockets are only about 35 percent efficient.
- Safer: Ion thrusters are fueled by inert gases. Most of them use xenon, which is a non-toxic, chemically inert (no risk of exploding), odorless, tasteless and colorless gas.
These properties make ion propulsion a very attractive solution when engineers are designing spacecraft. While not every spacecraft can use ion propulsion – some need greater rates of acceleration than ion propulsion can provide – the number and types of missions using these efficient engines is growing. In addition to being used on the Dawn spacecraft and communication satellites orbiting Earth, ion propulsion could be used to boost the International Space Station into higher orbits and will likely be a part of many future missions exploring our own solar system.
Newton’s Laws of Motion are an important part of middle and high school physical science and are addressed specifically by the Next Generation Science Standards as well as Common Core Math standards. The lesson "Ion Propulsion: Using Spreadsheets to Model Additive Velocity" lets students study the relationship between force, mass and acceleration as described by Newton's Second Law as they develop spreadsheet models that apply those principles to real-world situations.
Using Spreadsheets to Model Additive Velocity
Students develop spreadsheet models that describe the relationship between the mass of a spacecraft, the force acting on the craft, and its acceleration.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
This lesson meets the following Next Generation Science and Common Core Math Standards:
- MS-PS2-2: Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object.
- HS-PS2-1: Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.
- HS-PS2-1: Use mathematical representations to support the claim that the total momentum of a system of objects is conserved when there is no net force on the system.
Common Core Math Standards:
Grade 8: Expressions and Equations A.4: Perform operations with numbers expressed in scientific notation, including problems where both decimal and scientific notation are used. Use scientific notation and choose units of appropriate size for measurements of very large or very small quantities (e.g., use millimeters per year for seafloor spreading). Interpret scientific notation that has been generated by technology.
High School: Algebra CED.A.4: Rearrange formulas to highlight a quantity of interest, using the same reasoning as in solving equations.
High School: Functions LE.A: Construct and compare linear, quadratic, and exponential models and solve problems.
High School: Functions BF.A.1: Write a function that describes a relationship between two quantities.
High School: Statistics and Probability ID.C: Interpret linear Models
High School: Number and Quantity Q.A.1: Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays."
- Website: Dawn Mission
- Blog: Dawn Journal
- Video: Crazy Engineering - Ion Propulsion
- Ion propulsion interactives
- Eyes on the Solar System: Dawn Mission Tour (scroll to "Solar System Tours" and click the "Dawn" link)
Update: March 15, 2018 – The answers to the 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key
In the News
The 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge
Can you solve these stellar mysteries with pi? Click to get started.
Pi Day, the annual celebration of one of mathematics’ most popular numbers, is back! Representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, pi has many practical applications, including the development and operation of space missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The March 14 holiday is celebrated around the world by math enthusiasts and casual fans alike – from memorizing digits of pi (the current Pi World Ranking record is 70,030 digits) to baking and eating pies.
JPL is inviting people to participate in its 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge – four illustrated math puzzlers involving pi and real problems scientists and engineers solve to explore space, also available as a free poster! Answers will be released on March 15.
Why March 14?
Pi is what’s known as an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation never ends and it never repeats. It has been calculated to more than one trillion digits, but NASA scientists and engineers actually use far fewer digits in their calculations (see “How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?”). The approximation 3.14 is often precise enough, hence the celebration occurring on March 14, or 3/14 (when written in U.S. month/day format). The first known celebration occurred in 1988, and in 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.
NASA’s Pi Day Challenge
Lessons: Pi in the Sky
Explore the entire NASA Pi Day Challenge lesson collection, including free posters and handouts!
To show students how pi is used at NASA and give them a chance to do the very same math, the JPL Education Office has once again put together a Pi Day challenge featuring real-world math problems used for space exploration. This year’s challenge includes exploring the interior of Mars, finding missing helium in the clouds of Jupiter, searching for Earth-size exoplanets and uncovering the mysteries of an asteroid from outside our solar system.
Here’s some of the science behind this year’s challenge:
Scheduled to launch May 5, 2018, the InSight Mars lander will be equipped with several scientific instruments, including a heat flow probe and a seismometer. Together, these instruments will help scientists understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. It’s the first time we’ll get an in-depth look at what’s happening inside Mars. On Earth, seismometers are used to measure the strength and location of earthquakes. Similarly, the seismometer on Insight will allow us to measure marsquakes! The way seismic waves travel through the interior of Mars can tell us a lot about what lies beneath the surface. This year’s Quake Quandary problem challenges students to determine the distance from InSight to a hypothetical marsquake using pi!
Also launching in spring is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, mission. TESS is designed to build upon the discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope by searching for exoplanets – planets that orbit stars other than our Sun. Like Kepler, TESS will monitor hundreds of thousands of stars across the sky, looking for the temporary dips in brightness that occur when an exoplanet passes in front of its star from the perspective of TESS. The amount that the star dims helps scientists determine the radius of the exoplanet. Like those exoplanet-hunting scientists, students will have to use pi along with data from Kepler to find the size of an exoplanet in the Solar Sleuth challenge.
Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet. Shrouded in clouds, the planet’s interior holds clues to the formation of our solar system. In 1995, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft dropped a probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The probe detected unusually low levels of helium in the upper atmosphere. It has been hypothesized that the helium was depleted out of the upper atmosphere and transported deeper inside the planet. The extreme pressure inside Jupiter condenses helium into droplets that form inside a liquid metallic hydrogen layer below. Because the helium is denser than the surrounding hydrogen, the helium droplets fall like rain through the liquid metallic hydrogen. In 2016, the Juno spacecraft, which is designed to study Jupiter’s interior, entered orbit around the planet. Juno’s initial gravity measurements have helped scientists better understand the inner layers of Jupiter and how they interact, giving them a clearer window into what goes on inside the planet. In the Helium Heist problem, students can use pi to find out just how much helium has been depleted from Jupiter’s upper atmosphere over the planet’s lifetime.
In October 2017, astronomers spotted a uniquely-shaped object traveling in our solar system. Its path and high velocity led scientists to believe ‘Oumuamua, as it has been dubbed, is actually an object from outside of our solar system – the first ever interstellar visitor to be detected – that made its way to our neighborhood thanks to the Sun’s gravity. In addition to its high speed, ‘Oumuamua is reflecting the Sun’s light with great variation as the asteroid rotates on its axis, causing scientists to conclude it has an elongated shape. In the Asteroid Ace problem, students can use pi to find the rate of rotation for ‘Oumuamua and compare it with Earth’s rotation rate.
Join the Conversation
- Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASAJPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge
- Pi Day: What’s Going ‘Round – Tell us what you’re up to this Pi Day and share your stories and photos with NASA.
- Pi in the Sky 5
- Pi in the Sky 4
- Pi in the Sky 3
- Pi in the Sky 2
- Pi in the Sky
- Pi in the Sky Challenge (slideshow for students)
- 18 Ways NASA Uses Pi – Whether it's sending spacecraft to other planets, driving rovers on Mars, finding out what planets are made of or how deep alien oceans are, pi takes us far at NASA. Find out how pi helps us explore space.
- Kepler-186f Travel Poster
- Video: First Interstellar Asteroid Wows Scientists
- Planet Pi
Facts and Figures
TAGS: Pi Day, Math, Science, Engineering, NASA Pi Day Challenge, K-12, Lesson, Activity, Slideshow, Mars, Jupiter, Exoplanets, Kepler, Kepler-186f, Juno, InSight, TESS, ‘Oumuamua, asteroid, asteroids, NEO, Nearth Earth Object
In the News
A full moon is always a good reason to go outside and turn your head toward the sky, but those who do so early on January 31 will be treated to the sight of what’s being called the super blue blood moon! Super, because the moon will be closest to Earth in its orbit during the full moon (more on supermoons here); blue, because it’s the second full moon in a calendar month; and blood, because there will be a total lunar eclipse that will turn the moon a reddish hue. It’s the only total lunar eclipse (blood moon) visible from North America in 2018, so it’s a great opportunity for students to observe the Moon – and for teachers to make connections to in-class science content.
How It Works
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.
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 be seen for about an hour by anyone on the nighttime side of Earth – as long as skies are clear!
Why It’s Important
Lessons About the Moon
Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons for grades 1-12.
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.
At 2:51 a.m. PST on January 31, 2018, the edge of the Moon will begin entering the penumbra. The Moon will dim very slightly for the next 57 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 sleep in during this time, you won’t miss much.
At 3:48 a.m. PST, 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. If you will be on the East Coast of the United States, you might still be able to see the Moon just as it moves into the umbra before the Moon sets and the Sun rises.
At 4:51 a.m. PST, the Moon will be completely inside the umbra, marking the beginning of the total lunar eclipse. The moment of greatest eclipse, when the Moon is halfway through the umbra, occurs at 5:31 a.m. PST.
As the Moon moves completely into the umbra, 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.
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. Additionally, the January 2018 lunar eclipse takes place when the full moon is at or near the closest point in its orbit to Earth (popularly known as a supermoon). This means it is deeper inside the umbra shadow and therefore may appear darker. 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 6:07 a.m. PST, the edge of the Moon will begin exiting the umbra and moving into the opposite side of the penumbra. This marks the end of the total lunar eclipse.
At 7:11 a.m. PST, the Moon will be completely outside of the umbra. It will continue moving out of the penumbra until the eclipse ends at 8:08 a.m.
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.
- *NEW* Evaluating a Lunar Eclipse (Grades 3-12) - Students use the Danjon Scale of Lunar Eclipse Brightness to illustrate the range of colors and brightness the Moon can take on during a total lunar eclipse.
- Observing the Moon (Grades K-6) - Students identify the Moon’s location in the sky and record their observations in a journal over the course of the moon-phase cycle.
- Moon Phases (Grades 1-6) - Students learn about the phases of the Moon by acting them out. In 30 minutes, they will act out one complete, 30-day, Moon cycle.
- Measuring the Supermoon (Grades 5-12) - Students take measurements of the Moon during its full phase over multiple Moon cycles to compare and contrast results.
- Modeling the Earth-Moon System (Grades 6-8) – Students learn about scale models and distance by creating a classroom-size Earth-Moon system.
- Make a Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator – Like a decoder wheel for the Moon, this calendar will show you where and when to see the Moon and every moon phase throughout the year!
- Try these related resources for students from NASA's Space Place:
- Lunar Eclipses and Solar Eclipses – This guide for kids provides an overview of lunar and solar eclipses.
- Why Does the Moon Have Craters? – Check out NASA's Space Place for the answer, written just for kids.
- NASA Moon Website – Find out more about the Moon and the NASA robots and humans who have visited it.
Try this lesson from NASA/JPL Edu to get involved and bring the excitement of NASA Mars exploration to students:
The term “supermoon” has been popping up a lot in the news and on social media over the past few years. But what are supermoons, why do they occur and how can they be used as an educational tool. Plus, are they really that super?
There’s a good chance you’ll hear even more about supermoons in the new year. There will be two supermoons in a row in January 2018! Now is a great time to learn about these celestial events and get students exploring more about Earth’s only natural satellite.
Lessons About the Moon
Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons for grades 1-12.
How it Works
As the Moon orbits Earth, it goes through phases, which are determined by its position relative to Earth and the Sun. When the Moon lines up on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, we see a full moon. The new moon phase occurs when the Moon and the Sun are lined up on the same side of Earth.
The Moon doesn’t orbit in a perfect circle. Instead, it travels in an ellipse that brings the Moon closer to and farther from Earth in its orbit. The farthest point in this ellipse is called the apogee and is about 405,500 kilometers from Earth on average. Its closest point is the perigee, which is an average distance of about 363,300 kilometers from Earth. During every 27-day orbit around Earth, the Moon reaches both its apogee and perigee.
Full moons can occur at any point along the Moon’s elliptical path, but when a full moon occurs at or near the perigee, it looks slightly larger and brighter than a typical full moon. That’s what the term “supermoon" refers to.
Because supermoon is not an official astronomical term, there is no definition about just how close to perigee the full moon has to be in order to be called “super." Generally, supermoon is used to refer to a full moon 90 percent or closer to perigee. (When the term supermoon was originally coined, it was also used to describe a new moon in the same position, but since the new moon isn’t easily visible from Earth, it’s rarely used in that context anymore.)
A more accurate and scientific term is “perigee syzygy.” Syzygy is the alignment of three celestial bodies, in this case the Sun, Moon and Earth. But that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as supermoon.
Why It’s Important
Make a Moon Phases Calendar
Use this Moon "decoder wheel" to see where and where to view the Moon all year!
As the largest and brightest object in the night sky, the Moon is a popular focal point for many amateur and professional astronomers pointing their telescopes to the sky, and the source of inspiration for everyone from aspiring space scientists to engineers to artists.
The supermoon is a great opportunity for teachers to connect concepts being taught in the classroom to something students will undoubtedly be hearing about. Students can practice writing skills in a Moon journal, study Moon phases and apply their math skills to observing the supermoon. (Click here for related activities from JPL’s Education Office.)
Incorrect and misleading information about the Moon (and supermoons) can lead to confusion and frustration. It’s important to help students understand what to expect and be able to identify inaccurate info.
What to Expect
As with anything that moves closer to the person viewing it, the supermoon will appear bigger than an average full moon. At its largest, it can appear 14% larger in diameter than the smallest full moon. Keep in mind that a 14% increase in the apparent size of something that can be covered with a fingernail on an outstretched arm won’t seem significantly bigger. Unlike side-by-side comparisons made in science and everyday life, students will not have seen the full moon for at least 30 days, and won’t see another for at least 30 more days. Comparing a supermoon with a typical full moon from memory is very difficult.
Leading up to a supermoon, there are often misleading images on popular media. A technique that involves using a long telephoto lens to take photographs of the Moon next to buildings or other objects makes the Moon look huge compared with its surroundings. This effect can make for great photographs, but it has nothing to do with the supermoon. In fact, these photos can be taken during any Moon phase, but they will likely be used in stories promoting the supermoon.
There are also images that have been edited to inaccurately dramatize the size of the supermoon. Both of these can lead students, and adults, taking pictures with their cell phone to think that they’ve done something wrong or just aren’t cut out for observing the sky, which isn’t true!
Your students may have noticed that when they see a full moon low on the horizon, it appears huge and then seems to shrink as it rises into the night sky. This can happen during any full moon. Known as the Moon Illusion, it has nothing to do with a supermoon. In fact, scientists still aren’t sure what causes the Moon Illusion.
The full moon is bright and the supermoon is even brighter! Sunlight reflecting off the Moon during its full phase is bright enough to cast shadows on the ground. During a supermoon, that brightness can increase up to 30 percent as a result of the Moon being closer to Earth, a phenomenon explained by the inverse square law. (Introduce students to the inverse square law with this space-related math lesson for 6th- through 8th-graders.) As with the size of the Moon, students may not remember just how bright the last full moon was or easily be able to compare it. Powerful city lights can also diminish how bright a supermoon seems. Viewing it away from bright overhead street lights or outside the city can help viewers appreciate the increase in brightness.
What Not to Expect
A supermoon will not cause extreme flooding, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions, severe weather, nor tsunamis, despite what incorrect and non-scientific speculators might suggest. Encourage your students to be good scientists and research this for themselves.
The excitement and buzz surrounding a supermoon is a great opportunity to teach a variety of Moon topics with these lessons from JPL’s Education Office:
- *NEW* Observing the Moon (Grades K-6) – Students identify the Moon’s location in the sky and record their observations over the course of the moon-phase cycle in a journal.
- *NEW* Measuring the Supermoon (Grades 5-12) – Students take measurements of the Moon during its full phase over multiple Moon cycles to compare and contrast results.
- *NEW* Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator – Like a decoder wheel for the Moon, this calendar will show you where and when to see the Moon and every moon phase throughout the year!
- *NEW* Look at the Moon! Journaling Project – Draw what you see in a Moon Journal and see if you can predict the moon phase that comes next.
- Moon Phases (Grades 1-6) – Students learn about the phases of the Moon by acting them out. In 30 minutes, they will act out one complete Moon cycle.
- Whip Up a Moon-Like Crater (Grades 1-6) – Whip up a Moon-like crater with baking ingredients as a demonstration for students.
- Modeling the Earth-Moon System (Grades 6-8) – Using an assortment of playground and toy balls, students will measure diameter, calculate distance and scale, and build a model of the Earth-Moon system.
- Learn more about the Moon on NASA's Moon website.
For the record: This story originally stated a supermoon would be visible in January and February 2018. The two supermoons of 2018 are both in January.
Update – Oct. 3, 2017: Researchers Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of Caltech and Rainer Weiss of MIT have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”
Thorne, Barish and Weiss played key roles in making the LIGO project a reality through their research, leadership and development of technology to detect gravitational waves.
In a statement to Caltech, Thorne said the prize also belongs to the more than 1,000 scientists and engineers around the world who play a part on LIGO, the result of a long-term partnership between Caltech, MIT and the National Science Foundation.
This story was originally published on March 23, 2016.
In the News
A century ago, Albert Einstein theorized that when objects move through space they create waves in spacetime around them. These gravitational waves move outward, like ripples from a stone moving across the surface of a pond. Little did he know that 1.3 billion years earlier, two massive black holes collided. The collision released massive amounts of energy in a fraction of a second (about 50 times as much as all of the energy in the visible universe) and sent gravitational waves in all directions. On September 14, 2015 those waves reached Earth and were detected by researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).
Why It's Important
Einstein published the Theory of General Relativity in 1915. In it, he predicted the existence of gravitational waves, which had never been directly detected until now. In 1974, physicists discovered that two neutron stars orbiting each other were getting closer in a way that matched Einstein’s predictions. But it wasn’t until 2015, when LIGO’s instruments were upgraded and became more sensitive, that they were able to detect the presence of actual gravitational waves, confirming the last important piece of Einstein’s theory.
It's also important because gravitational waves carry information about their inception and about the fundamental properties of gravity that can’t be seen through observations of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thanks to LIGO’s discovery, a new field of science has been born: gravitational wave astronomy.
How They Did It
LIGO consists of facilities in Washington and Louisiana. Each observatory uses a laser beam that is split and sent down 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) long tubes. The laser beams precisely indicate the distance between mirrors placed at the ends of each tube. When a gravitational wave passes by, the mirrors move a tiny amount, which changes the distance between them. LIGO is so sensitive that it can detect a change smaller than 1/10,000 the width of a proton (10-19 meter). Having two observatories placed a great distance apart allows researchers to approximate the direction the waves are coming from and confirm that the signal is coming from space rather than something nearby (such as a heavy truck or an earthquake).
Creating a model that demonstrates gravitational waves traveling through spacetime is as simple as making a gelatin universe!
Middle school students can develop a model that shows gravitational waves traveling through spacetime while working toward the following Next Generation Science Standard:
- MS-PS4-2 - Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.
- Gravitational waves news, videos and resources
- Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Website
In the News
The Moon casts a shadow on Earth during a total solar eclipse over Europe in this image taken by a French astronaut on the Mir Space Station. Credit: CNES
This month marks the first time in 38 years that one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights, a total solar eclipse, will be visible from the continental United States. And unlike the 1979 eclipse, the one on August 21 can be seen from coast to coast – something that hasn’t happened since 1918.
Millions of people are expected to travel to the 14 states that are in the path of totality – where the Moon will completely cover the disk of the Sun – while hundreds of millions more in every other state of the U.S. will be able to see a partial eclipse.
Whether you live in or are traveling to the path of totality, or will be able to step outside and view the partial eclipse from the comfort of your own home or school, the eclipse provides both an inspiring reason to look to the sky and opportunities to engage in scientific observations and discovery.
How it Works
Eclipses occur as the result of an alignment between the Sun, the Moon and Earth. Solar eclipses can only happen during the new moon phase, when the Moon’s orbit brings it between Earth and the Sun. At this time, the shadow cast by the moon could land on Earth, resulting in an eclipse. But most of the time, because the moon’s orbit is slightly titled, the moon’s shadow falls above or below Earth.
The time period when the Moon, Earth and the Sun are lined up and on the same plane is called an eclipse season. Eclipse seasons last about 34 days and occur just shy of every six months. A new moon during an eclipse season will cause the Moon’s shadow to fall on Earth, creating a solar eclipse.
In addition to the proper alignment required for an eclipse, the distance between Earth, the Moon and the Sun also plays an important role. Even though the Moon is much smaller than the Sun (about 400 times smaller in diameter), the Sun and Moon appear about the same size from Earth because the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon. If the Moon were farther from Earth, it would appear smaller and not cover the disk of the Sun. Similarly, if the Sun were closer to Earth, it would appear larger and the Moon would not completely cover it.
Why It’s Important
Total solar eclipses provide a unique opportunity for scientists to study the Sun and Earth from land, air and space, and allow the public to engage in citizen science!
The sun's outer atmosphere (corona) and thin lower atmosphere (chromosphere) can be seen streaming out from the covered disk of the sun during a solar eclipse on March 20, 2015. Credit: S. Habbal, M. Druckmüller and P. Aniol
On a typical day, the bright surface of the Sun, called the photosphere, is the only part of the Sun we can see. During a total solar eclipse, the photosphere is completely blocked by the Moon, leaving the outer atmosphere of the Sun (corona) and the thin lower atmosphere (chromosphere) visible. Studying these regions of the Sun’s atmosphere can help scientists understand solar radiation, why the corona is hotter than the photosphere, and the process by which the Sun sends a steady stream of material and radiation into space.
Scientists measure incoming solar radiation on Earth, also known as insolation, to better understand Earth’s radiation budget – the energy emitted, reflected and absorbed by Earth. Just as clouds block sunlight and reduce insolation, the eclipse will block sunlight, providing a great opportunity to study how increased cloud cover can impact weather and climate. (Learn more about insolation during the 2017 eclipse here.)
Citizen scientists can get involved in collecting data and participating in the scientific process, too, through NASA’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, or GLOBE, program. During the eclipse, citizen scientists in the path of totality and in partial eclipse areas can measure temperature and cloud cover data and report it using the GLOBE Observer app to help further the study of how eclipses affect Earth’s atmosphere.
You can learn more about the many ways scientists are using the eclipse to improve their understanding of Earth, the Moon and the Sun here.
How to View It
Important! Do not look directly at the Sun or view the partial eclipse without certified eclipse glasses or a solar filter. For more information on safe eclipse viewing, visit the NASA Eclipse website.
When following proper safety guidelines, witnessing an eclipse is an unparalleled experience. Many “eclipse chasers” have been known to travel the world to see total eclipses.
The start time of the partial eclipse, when the edge of the Moon first crosses in front of the disk of the Sun, will depend on your location. You can click on your location in this interactive eclipse map to create a pin, which will show you the start and end time for the eclipse in Universal Time. (To convert from Universal Time to your local time, subtract four hours for EDT, five hours for CDT, six hours for MDT, or seven hours for PDT.) Clicking on your location pin will also show you the percent of Sun that will be eclipsed in your area if you’re outside the path of totality.
If you are inside the approximately 70-mile-wide strip known as the path of totality, where the shadow of the Moon, or umbra, will fall on Earth, the total eclipse will be visible starting about an hour to 1.5 hours after the partial eclipse begins.
Only when the eclipse is at totality – and the viewer is in the path of totality – can eclipse glasses be removed. Look at the eclipse for anywhere from a few seconds to more than 2.5 minutes to see the Sun’s corona and chromosphere, as well as the darkened near side of the Moon facing Earth. As before, your viewing location during the eclipse will determine how long you can see the eclipse in totality.
After totality ends, a partial eclipse will continue for an hour to 1.5 hours, ending when the edge of the Moon moves off of the disk of the Sun. Remember, wear eclipse glasses or use a pinhole camera for the entirety of the partial eclipse. Do not directly view the partial eclipse.
To get an idea of what the eclipse will look like from your location and explore the positions of the Moon, Sun and Earth throughout the eclipse, see this interactive simulation.
For more information about the start of the partial eclipse, the start and duration of totality, and the percentage of the Sun eclipsed outside the path of totality, find your location on this interactive eclipse map.
NASA Television will host a live broadcast beginning at 9 a.m. PDT on Aug. 21 showing the path of totality and featuring views from agency research aircraft, high-altitude balloons, satellites and specially-modified telescopes. Find out how and where to watch, here.
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get your students excited about the eclipse and the science that will be conducted during the eclipse.
- Epic Eclipse – Students use the mathematical constant pi to approximate the area of land covered by the Moon’s shadow during the eclipse.
- Pinhole Camera – Learn how to make your very own pinhole camera to safely see a solar eclipse in action from anywhere the eclipse is visible, partial or full!
- Moon Phases - Students learn about the phases of the Moon by acting them out. In 30 minutes, they will act out one complete, 30-day, Moon cycle.
- NEW! Measuring Solar Energy During an Eclipse – Students use mobile devices to measure the impact a solar eclipse has on the energy received at Earth’s surface.
- NEW! Modeling the Earth-Moon System – Students learn about scale models and distance by creating a classroom-size Earth-Moon system.
- NASA GLOBE Observer – Students can become citizen scientists and collect data for NASA’s GLOBE Program using this app available for iOS and Android devices (eclipse update available starting August 18, 2017).
- NASA TV Eclipse 2017 broadcast info
- NASA 2017 Eclipse website
- NASA Eyes Eclipse 2017 Interactive
- Interactive Eclipse Map
- NASA Eclipse website (for info about other eclipses)
- Eclipse Safety
- American Astronomical Society website (for info on reputable vendors of solar viewers and filters)
- Earth’s Radiation Budget
In the News
On April 19, an asteroid named 2014 JO25 will safely fly by Earth, passing at a distance of about 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) of the planet. This asteroid poses no threat to Earth and, in fact, asteroids safely fly by Earth quite regularly. What makes the upcoming close approach of asteroid 2014 JO25 unique is that it is a rather large asteroid, measuring about 2,000 feet (more than 600 meters) across. The last time an asteroid that large, or larger, came that close to Earth was in 2004. Not much is known about asteroid 2014 JO25 other than its approximate size, its trajectory (or path around the sun) and that its surface is about twice as reflective as that of the moon. When it passes by, the asteroid will be bright enough that small optical telescopes can be used to spot it in the night sky. Scientists around the world will also study the asteroid with telescopes to determine its composition and rotation and with radar that could reveal small surface features.
Why It's Important
Asteroids are some of what remains of the material that formed our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Unchanged by the forces that have altered rocks on our home planet, the moon, Mars and other destinations around the solar system, asteroids provide a glimpse into what conditions were like when our solar system took shape. Studying the chemical and physical properties, as well as the location and motion of asteroids, is vital to helping us understand how the sun, planets and other solar system bodies came to be.
The study of asteroids is so important, in fact, that NASA has sent several spacecraft to study some of these objects up close. For example, in 2007, the Dawn mission was sent to explore the two largest objects in the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres. Dawn arrived at the giant protoplanet Vesta in 2011 and orbited it for about one year before flying to the dwarf planet Ceres, which it continues to orbit and study today. Data from the Dawn mission showed Vesta to be a fascinating world more closely related to terrestrial planets than to typical asteroids and revealed clues that indicate there is a large amount of ice and maybe subsurface liquid water on Ceres. In 2016, NASA launched a spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx, which is headed for an asteroid called Bennu. When it arrives in August 2018, OSIRIS-REx will map the asteroid and collect a sample to return to Earth.
But there is another reason studying asteroids and their movements is important: detecting nearby asteroids and predicting any hazard they might pose to Earth.
This graphic shows the orbits of all the known "potentially hazardous asteroids," numbering over 1,400 as of early 2013. Being classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid does not mean that an asteroid will impact Earth. None of these asteroids depicted is a worrisome threat over the next hundred years. By continuing to observe and track these asteroids, their orbits can be refined and more precise predictions made of their future close approaches and impact probabilities. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption
Both 2014 JO25 and Bennu are considered near-Earth objects, meaning their orbits bring them closer than 1.3 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. For comparison, Earth is 1 AU from the sun, or about 93,000,000 miles (150,000,000 kilometers). Also, both asteroids are classified as “potentially hazardous.” A potentially hazardous asteroid is one with an orbit that comes within 0.05 AU (about 4,650,000 miles or 7,480,000 km) of Earth’s orbit and has an absolute magnitude, a measure of brightness, of 22 or less. (On the magnitude scale, the lower the number, the brighter the object.) Absolute magnitude can be an indicator of size, so in other words, potentially hazardous asteroids are large – typically larger than about 500 feet (140 meters) across – and could get close to Earth. Having a designation of “potentially hazardous” does not necessarily indicate the object is a threat to Earth. Scientists use the classification to indicate an object deserves increased attention.
Out of more than 730,000 known asteroids, about 16,000 are near-Earth objects, and there are currently 1,784 potentially hazardous asteroids. But the risks of a large asteroid like 2014 JO25 or Bennu impacting Earth are exceedingly rare. And thanks to the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we have a very good understanding of where many of these asteroids are and where they are headed. Supporting NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, CNEOS continually uses new data acquired by telescopes and submitted to the Minor Planet Center to update orbit calculations, analyzes asteroid impact risks over the next century and provides data for every near-Earth object.
How It Works
This animated gif shows asteroid 2013 MZ5 as seen by the University of Hawaii's PanSTARR-1 telescope. The asteroid moves relative to a fixed background of stars. Asteroid 2013 MZ5 is in the right of the first image, towards the top, moving diagonally left/down. Image credit: PS-1/UH
Detecting near-Earth objects, or NEOs, is done by comparing multiple images, taken several minutes apart, of the same region of the sky. The vast majority of the objects appearing in these images are stars and galaxies, and their positions are fixed in the same relative position on all the images. Because a moving near-Earth object would be in a slightly different position on each image while the background stars and galaxies are in the same positions, it can be easy to identify the moving target if it is bright enough.
Surveys done by NASA-supported ground-based telescopes – including Pans-STARRS1 in Maui, Hawaii, as well as the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona – have identified thousands of near-Earth objects. And a space-based telescope called NEOWISE has identified hundreds of others while scanning the skies at near-infrared wavelengths of light from its polar orbit around Earth. Many ground-based telescopes perform follow-up observations to further aid in orbit calculations and to study the physical properties of the objects.
Once a near-Earth object is detected, its orbital characteristics are analyzed and astronomers determine if it is a potentially hazardous asteroid. This information is entered into CNEOS’ database, where it is continually updated and impact risks are monitored as new data becomes available.
Asteroid 2014 JO25 won’t be this close for another 500 years, so now is a great opportunity to share this close approach with students and remind them that while it’s a close encounter by space standards, Earthlings need not be concerned. Try these standards-aligned lessons and activities with students:
- Grades 1-6: Whip Up a Moon-Like Crater - Use baking ingredients to whip up a moon-like crater as an asteroid-impact demonstration for students. This activity works in classrooms, camps and at home.
- Grades 3-5: Modeling an Asteroid - Students will shape their own asteroid models out of clay as a hands-on lesson in how asteroids form, what they are made of, and where they can be found in our solar system.
- Grades 8-12: Math Rocks: A Lesson in Asteroid Dynamics - Students use math to investigate a real-life asteroid impact.
- All ages: If you have a telescope, consider trying to view the asteroid at night. You’ll have to know where to look. Solar System Ambassador Eddie Irizarry shares how to find 2014 JO25 here. If you’re looking for more technical information about its location, use JPL’s Solar System Dynamics site to find the asteroid’s ephemeris.
- Asteroids Facts & Figures - NASA Solar System Exploration
- Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS)
- NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office
- Asteroid Watch
- Follow @AsteroidWatch on Twitter
- Goldstone Asteroid Radar Research
- Dawn Mission
- OSIRIS-REx Mission
UPDATE: March 16, 2017 – An illustrated answer key for the 2017 NASA Pi Day Challenge is now available here.
NASA is giving space fans a reason to celebrate Pi Day, the March 14 holiday created in honor of the mathematical constant pi. For the fourth year in a row, the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created an illustrated Pi Day Challenge featuring four math problems NASA scientists and engineers must solve to explore space. The challenge is designed to get students excited about pi and its applications beyond the classroom. This year’s problem set, designed for students in grade six through high school – but fun for all – features Mars craters, a total solar eclipse, a close encounter with Saturn, and the search for habitable worlds.
› Educators, get the standards-aligned Pi Day Challenge lesson and download the free poster and handouts. The answers to all four problems will be released in a companion infographic on March 16.
Read on for more about Pi Day, the science behind the 2017 problem set and to learn how NASA scientists and engineers use pi.
Why March 14?
Pi is what’s known as an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation never ends and it never repeats. It has been calculated to more than one trillion digits, but NASA scientists and engineers actually use far fewer digits in their calculations (see “How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?”). The approximation 3.14 is often precise enough, hence the celebration occurring on March 14, or 3/14 (when written in US month/day format). The first known celebration occurred in 1988, and in 2009, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.
Why It’s Important
While many of us celebrate by eating pi-themed pie and trying to memorize as many digits of pi as possible (the record is 70,030 digits), scientists and engineers at NASA take pi even further, using it in their day-to-day work exploring space!
“Finding the volume of a sphere, area of a circle (and thus volume of a cylinder) are well known applications of pi,” said Charles Dandino, a JPL engineer who designs robots for extreme environments. “But those relationships also form the basis for how stiff a structure is, how it will vibrate, and understanding how a design might fail.”
Rachel Weinberg works on the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, or OCO-3, instrument, which will track the distribution of carbon dioxide across Earth. She says pi came in handy during her studies at MIT and still does today for her work at JPL. “Just the other day during a meeting, the team went to the whiteboard and used pi to discuss the angles and dimensions of optical components on OCO-3,” she said.
Pi allows us to calculate the size and area of two- and three-dimensional shapes, says Anita Sengupta, a JPL engineer, who has worked on a variety of planetary missions. “In my career, pi has allowed me to calculate the size of a shield needed to enter the atmosphere of Venus and the size of a parachute that could safely land the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. Most recently we used pi in our calculations of the expanding atom cloud we will create for an experiment called the Cold Atom Laboratory, which will fly aboard the International Space Station.”
The Science Behind the Challenge
The Pi Day Challenge gives students a chance to take part in recent discoveries and upcoming celestial events, all while using math and pi just like NASA scientists and engineers.
“Students always want to know how math is used in the real world,” said Ota Lutz, a senior education specialist at JPL who helped create the Pi Day Challenge. “This problem set demonstrates the interconnectedness of science, math and engineering, providing teachers with excellent examples of cross-cutting concepts in action and students with the opportunity to solve real-world problems.”
Here’s some of the science behind this year’s problem set.
The craters that cover Mars can tell us a lot about the Red Planet. Studying ejecta – the material blasted out during an impact – can tell us even more. Information about ejecta patterns even came up during a recent workshop to discuss and select the final candidates for the Mars 2020 rover landing site. For the first problem in our Pi Day Challenge, students use pi and the area and perimeter of two craters to identify which was made by an impactor that struck Mars at a low angle. Researchers found that low-angle impactors create an unusual ejecta pattern around craters on Mars. As part of the research, scientists are currently working to identify and catalog these craters.
The year 2017 brings a unique astronomical event to the United States for the first time in nearly 40 years! On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cross the continental United States. Starting in Oregon, the shadow of the moon will cross the country at more than 1,000 miles per hour, making its way to the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina. Everyone inside the moon’s shadow will witness one of the most impressive sights nature has to offer. So how big is the shadow? In the second part of NASA’s Pi Day Challenge, students will use pi to calculate the area of the moon’s shadow on Earth during the total solar eclipse.
This year also marks the final chapter in the exciting story of NASA’s Cassini mission at Saturn. Since 2004, Cassini has been orbiting the ringed giant, vastly improving our understanding of the second largest planet in the solar system. After more than 12 years around Saturn, Cassini’s fuel is running low, so mission operators have devised a grand finale that will take the spacecraft closer to Saturn than ever before – inside the gap between the planet and its rings – and finally into Saturn’s cloud tops, where it will burn up. The finale is designed to prevent the spacecraft from crashing into and possibly contaminating any of Saturn’s scientifically intriguing moons. In the Pi Day Challenge, students will use pi to safely navigate the spacecraft on its final orbits and dive into Saturn.
Finally, students will investigate a relatively new and very exciting realm in astronomy, the search for habitable worlds. The discovery of exoplanets – worlds orbiting stars outside of our solar system – has changed our understanding of the universe. Until 1995, exoplanets hadn’t even been detected. Now, using the transit method – where planets are detected by measuring the light they block as they pass in front of a star – more than 2,300 exoplanets have been discovered. Recently, astronomers discovered a record seven Earth-size planets orbiting a single star called Trappist-1. Students will use pi to identify which of Trappist-1’s planets orbit in the star’s habitable zone – the area where liquid water could exist.
Join the Conversation
- Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASA/JPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge
- Pi Day: What’s Going ‘Round – Tell us what you’re up to this Pi Day and share your stories and photos with NASA.
Facts and Figures