Ota Lutz is a STEM elementary and secondary education specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When she’s not writing new lessons or teaching, she’s probably cooking something delicious, volunteering in the community, or dreaming about where she will travel next.
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.
- Earth Observatory fire images
- Image: "Carr Fire and Mendocino Complex"
- Image: "Smoke Plumes Tower Over California"
- JPL News: "NASA’s MISR Views Raging Fires in California"
- NASA Climate Change News: "Local Winds Play a Key Role in Some Megafires
- NASA Climate Change News: "Studying Weather to Help See the Likelihood of Fires"
In the NewsYou 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Have your students try their hands at solving some of the same fire-science problems that NASA scientists do with these two lessons that get students in grades 3 through 12 using NASA data, algebra and geometry to approximate burn areas, fire-spread rate and fire intensity:
Fired Up Over Math: Studying Wildfires from Space
Students learn how scientists assess wildfires using remote sensing and solve related math problems, appropriate for various grade levels.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Pixels on Fire
Students use mobile devices and computers to learn about remote sensing and satellite data to determine when and where wildfires have started.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
- NASA/JPL FireSat Press Release
- SciJinks: Can Meteorologists Help Fight Wildfires?
- Soberanes Fire: Image Captured by NASA's Terra Spacecraft
- Let's Clear the Air: The Danger of Forest Fire Smoke to Firefighters
Lyle Tavernier was a co-author on this feature.
In the News
A pair of Earth orbiters designed to keep track of the planet's water resources and evolving water cycle is scheduled to launch this month – no earlier than May 22, 2018. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On mission, or GRACE-FO, will pick up where its predecessor, GRACE, left off when it completed its 15-year mission in 2017. By measuring changes in Earth’s gravity, the mission will track water movement around the globe, identifying risks such as droughts and floods and revealing how land ice and sea level are evolving. The GRACE-FO mission is a great way to get students asking, and answering, questions about how we know what we know about some of the major components of Earth’s water cycle: ice sheets, glaciers, sea level, and ground-water resources.
How It Works
Earth Science Lessons
Explore a collection of standards-aligned lessons for grades K-12 all about our home planet.
The GRACE-FO mission, a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), will measure small variations in Earth’s mass to track how and where water is moving across the planet. This is no easy task, as water can be solid, liquid or gas; it can be in plain sight (as in a lake or glacier); it can be in the atmosphere or hidden underground; and it’s always on the move. But one thing all this water has in common, regardless of what state of matter it is in or where it is located, is mass.
Everything that has mass exerts a gravitational force. It is this gravitational force that GRACE-FO measures to track the whereabouts of water on Earth. Most of Earth's gravitational force, more than 99 percent, does not change from one month to the next because it is exerted by Earth’s solid surface and interior. GRACE-FO is sensitive enough to measure the tiny amount that does change – mostly as a result of the movement of water within the Earth system.
GRACE-FO works by flying two spacecraft in tandem around Earth – one spacecraft trailing the other at a distance of about 137 miles (220 kilometers). By pointing their microwave ranging instruments at each other, the satellites can measure tiny changes in the distance between them – within one micron (the diameter of a blood cell) – caused by changes in Earth’s gravitational field. Scientists can then use those measurements to create a map of Earth’s global gravitational field and calculate local mass variations.
As the forward spacecraft travels over a region that has more or less mass than the surrounding areas, such as a mountain or low valley, the gravitational attraction of that mass will cause the spacecraft to speed up or slow down, slightly increasing or decreasing the relative distance between it and its trailing companion. As a result of this effect, GRACE-FO will be able to track water as it moves into or out of a region, changing the region’s mass and, therefore, its gravity. In fact, the previous GRACE spacecraft measured a weakening gravity field over several years in Central California, enabling an estimate of aquifer depletion, and in Greenland, providing accurate measurements of ice melt over more than 15 years.
Find out more about how the mission works in the video below, from JPL's "Crazy Engineering" video series:
Why It’s Important
Tracking changes in our water resources and the water cycle is important for everyone. The water cycle is one of the fundamental processes on Earth that sustains life and shapes our planet, moving water between Earth's oceans, atmosphere and land. Over thousands of years, we have developed our civilizations around that cycle, placing cities and agriculture near rivers and the sea, building reservoirs and canals to bring water to where it is needed, and drilling wells to pump water from the ground. We depend on this cycle for the water resources that we need, and as those resources change, communities and livelihoods are affected. For example, too much water in an area causes dangerous floods that can destroy property, crops and infrastructure. Too little water causes shortages, which require us to reduce how much water we use. GRACE-FO will provide monthly data that will help us study those precious water resources.
Changes to Earth’s water over multiple years are an important indicator of how Earth is responding in a changing climate. Monitoring changes in ice sheets and glaciers, surface and underground water storage, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers, as well as changes in sea level and ocean currents, provides a global view of how Earth’s water cycle and energy balance are evolving. As our climate changes and our local water resources shift, we need accurate observations and continuous measurements like those from GRACE and GRACE Follow-On to be able to respond and plan.
As a result of the GRACE mission, we have a much more accurate picture of how our global water resources are evolving in both the short and long term. GRACE-FO will continue the legacy of GRACE, yielding up-to-date water and surface mass information and allowing us to identify trends over the coming years.
Teach ItHave students interpret GRACE data for themselves:
Tracking Water With NASA Satellite Data
Using real data from NASA’s GRACE satellites, students will track water mass changes in the U.S.
Time 1-2 hrs
Get students learning about global water resources:
Explore a collection of standards-aligned lessons all about water and the water cycle.
Teach students to read, interpret and compare “heat map” representations of Earth science data:
How to Read a Heat Map
Students learn to read, interpret and compare “heat map” representations of Earth science data.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Explore MoreNASA's Space Place:
In the News
A spacecraft designed to study seismic activity on Mars, or “marsquakes,” is scheduled to lift off on a nearly seven-month journey to the Red Planet on May 5, 2018.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander is designed to get the first in-depth look at the “heart” of Mars: its crust, mantle and core. In other words, it will be the Red Planet’s first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. The launch, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California, also marks a first: It will be the first time a spacecraft bound for another planet lifts off from the West Coast. It’s a great opportunity to get students excited about the science and math used to launch rockets and explore other planets.
How It Works
Explore our collection of standards-aligned, STEM lessons all about Mars and missions to the Red Planet.
NASA usually launches interplanetary spacecraft from the East Coast, at Cape Canaveral in Florida, to provide them with a momentum boost from Earth’s easterly rotation. It’s similar to how running in the direction you are throwing a ball can provide a momentum boost to the ball. If a spacecraft is launched without that extra earthly boost, the difference must be made up by the rocket engine. Since InSight is a small, lightweight spacecraft, its rocket can easily accommodate getting it into orbit without the help of Earth’s momentum.
Scheduled to launch no earlier than 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5, InSight will travel aboard an Atlas V 401 launch vehicle on a southerly trajectory over the Pacific Ocean. (Here's how to watch the launch in person or online.) If the weather is bad or there are any mechanical delays, InSight can launch the next day. In fact, InSight can launch any day between May 5 and June 8, a time span known as a launch period, which has multiple launch opportunities during a two-hour launch window each day.
Regardless of the date when InSight launches, its landing on Mars is planned for November 26, 2018, around noon PST. Mission controllers can account for the difference in planetary location between the beginning of the launch window and the end by varying the amount of time InSight spends in what’s called a parking orbit. A parking orbit is a temporary orbit that a spacecraft can enter before moving to its final orbit or trajectory. For InSight, the Atlas V 401 will boost the spacecraft into a parking orbit where it will coast for a while to get into proper position for an engine burn that will send it toward Mars. The parking orbit will last 59 to 66 minutes, depending on the date and time of the launch.
Why It’s Important
Previous missions to Mars have investigated the history of the Red Planet’s surface by examining features like canyons, volcanoes, rocks and soil. However, many important details about the planet's formation can only be found by studying the planet’s interior, far below the surface. And to do that, you need specialized instruments and sensors like those found on InSight.
The InSight mission, designed to operate for one Mars year (approximately two Earth years), will use its suite of instruments to investigate the interior of Mars and uncover how a rocky body forms and becomes a planet. Scientists hope to learn the size of Mars’ core, what it’s made of and whether it’s liquid or solid. InSight will also study the thickness and structure of Mars’ crust, the structure and composition of the mantle and the temperature of the planet’s interior. And a seismometer will determine how often Mars experiences tectonic activity, known as “marsquakes,” and meteorite impacts.
Together, the instruments will measure Mars’ vital signs: its "pulse" (seismology), "temperature" (heat flow), and "reflexes" (wobble). Here’s how they work:
InSight’s seismometer is called SEIS, or the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure. By measuring seismic vibrations across Mars, it will provide a glimpse into the planet’s internal activity. The volleyball-size instrument will sit on the Martian surface and wait patiently to sense the seismic waves from marsquakes and meteorite impacts. These measurements can tell scientists about the arrangement of different materials inside Mars and how the rocky planets of the solar system first formed. The seismometer may even be able to tell us if there's liquid water or rising columns of hot magma from active volcanoes underneath the Martian surface.
The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, HP3 for short, burrows down almost 16 feet (five meters) into Mars' surface. That's deeper than any previous spacecraft arms, scoops, drills or probes have gone before. Like studying the heat leaving a car engine, HP3 will measure the heat coming from Mars' interior to reveal how much heat is flowing out and what the source of the heat is. This will help scientists determine whether Mars formed from the same material as Earth and the Moon, and will give them a sneak peek into how the planet evolved.
InSight’s Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, or RISE, instrument tracks tiny variations in the location of the lander. Even though InSight is stationary on the planet, its position in space will wobble slightly with Mars itself, as the planet spins on its axis. Scientists can use what they learn about the Red Planet’s wobble to determine the size of Mars’ iron-rich core, whether the core is liquid, and which other elements, besides iron, may be present.
When InSight lifts off, along for the ride in the rocket will be two briefcase-size satellites, or CubeSats, known as MarCO, or Mars Cube One. They will take their own path to Mars behind InSight, arriving in time for landing. If all goes as planned, as InSight enters the Martian atmosphere, MarCO will relay data to Earth about entry, descent and landing operations, potentially faster than ever before. InSight will also transmit data to Earth the way previous Mars spacecraft have, by using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a relay. MarCO will be the first test of CubeSat technology at another planet, and if successful, it could provide a new way to communicate with spacecraft in the future, providing news of a safe landing – or any potential problems – sooner.
Thanks to the Mars rovers, landers and orbiters that have come before, scientists know that Mars has low levels of geological activity – but a lander like InSight can reveal what might be lurking below the surface. And InSight will give us a chance to discover more not just about the history of Mars, but also of our own planet’s formation.
When launching to another planet, we want to take the most efficient route, using the least amount of rocket fuel possible. To take this path, we must launch during a specific window of time, called a launch window. Use this lesson in advanced algebra to estimate the launch window for the InSight lander and future Mars missions.
Let's Go to Mars: Calculating Launch Windows
Students use advanced algebra concepts to determine the next opportunity to launch a spacecraft to Mars.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
SEIS will record the times that marsquake surface waves arrive at the lander. Try your hand, just like NASA scientists, using these times, a little bit of algebra and the mathematical constant π to determine the timing and location of a marsquake!
Quake Quandary: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use the mathematical constant pi to identify the timing and location of a seismic event on Mars, called a "marsquake."
Time < 30 mins
Take students on a journey to Mars with this set of 19 standards-aligned STEM lessons that can be modified to fit various learning environments, including out-of-school time.
Mission to Mars Unit
In this 19-lesson, standards-aligned unit, students learn about Mars, design a mission to explore the planet, build and test model spacecraft and components, and engage in scientific exploration.
Build, test and launch your very own air-powered rocket to celebrate the first West Coast interplanetary spacecraft launch!
In this video lesson, students learn to design, build and launch paper rockets, calculate how high they fly and improve their designs.
Time 1-2 hrs
- InSight Launch Toolkit - Find out more about the launch, including how to watch in person or online
- InSight Mission website
- InSight Mission Roadshow
- NASA Mars Exploration website
- Marsquake lessons and resources for teachers from the British Geological Survey
- Modeling Seismic Waves with Slinkies from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS)
- Make a Human Wave from IRIS
- Make an Earthquake Machine from IRIS
Try these related resources for students from NASA's Space Place:
In the News
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1. The small, pencil-shaped satellite did more than launch the U.S. into the Space Age. With its collection of instruments, or scientific tools, it turned space into not just a new frontier, but also a place of boundless scientific exploration that could eventually unveil secrets of new worlds – as well as the mysteries of our own planet.
How They Did It
At the height of competition for access to space, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were both building satellites that would ride atop rockets in a quest to orbit Earth. The Soviets launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. Shortly thereafter, on January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched Explorer 1, the satellite that would begin a new age of scientific space exploration.
Using rockets to do science from orbit was a brand-new option in the late 1950s. Before this time, rockets had only been used for military operations and atmospheric research. Still, rockets of that era weren’t very reliable and none had been powerful enough to place an object into Earth orbit.
Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons for grades K-9.
In order to lift Explorer 1 to its destination in Earth orbit, an existing U.S. Army rocket, the Jupiter C, was fitted with a fourth stage, provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. For this stage, a rocket motor was integrated into the satellite itself. The new, four-stage rocket was called “Juno 1.”
Prior to these first orbiting observatories, everything we knew about space and Earth came from Earth-based observation platforms – sensors and telescopes – and a few atmospheric sounding rockets. With the success of Explorer 1 and the subsequent development of more powerful rockets, we have been able to send satellites beyond Earth orbit to explore planets, moons, asteroids and even our Sun. With a space-based view of Earth, we are able to gain a global perspective and acquire a wide variety and amount of data at a rapid pace.
Why It’s Important
The primary science instrument on Explorer 1 was a cosmic ray detector designed to measure the radiation environment in Earth orbit – in part, to understand what hazards future spacecraft (or space-faring humans) might face. Once in space, this experiment, provided by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, revealed a much lower cosmic ray count than expected. Van Allen theorized that the instrument might have been saturated by very strong radiation from a belt of charged particles trapped in space by Earth's magnetic field. The existence of the radiation belts was confirmed over the next few months by Explorer 3, Pioneer 3 and Explorer 4. The belts became known as the Van Allen radiation belts in honor of their discoverer.
Although we discovered and learned a bit about the Van Allen belts with the Explorer missions, they remain a source of scientific interest. The radiation belts are two (or more) donut-shaped regions encircling Earth, where high-energy particles, mostly electrons and ions, are trapped by Earth's magnetic field. The belts shrink and swell in size in response to incoming radiation from the Sun. They protect Earth from incoming high-energy particles, but this trapped radiation can affect the performance and reliability of our technologies, such as cellphone communication, and pose a threat to astronauts and spacecraft. It’s not safe to spend a lot of time inside the Van Allen radiation belts.
Most spacecraft are not designed to withstand high levels of particle radiation and wouldn’t last a day in the Van Allen belts. As a result, most spacecraft travel quickly through the belts toward their destinations, and non-essential instruments are turned off for protection during this brief time.
To conquer the challenge of extreme radiation in the belts while continuing the science begun by Explorer 1, NASA launched a pair of radiation-shielded satellites, the Van Allen Probes, in 2012. (The rocket that carried the Van Allen Probes into space was more than twice as tall as the rocket that carried Explorer 1 to orbit!)
The Van Allen Probes carry identical instruments and orbit Earth, following one another in highly elliptical, nearly identical orbits. These orbits bring the probes as close as about 300 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, and take them as far out as about 19,420 miles (31,250 kilometers), traveling through diverse areas of the belts. By comparing observations from both spacecraft, scientists can distinguish between events that occur simultaneously throughout the belts, those that happen at only a single point in space, and those that move from one point to another over time.
The Van Allen Probes carry on the work begun by Explorer 1 and, like all successful space missions, are providing answers as well as provoking more questions. NASA continues to explore Earth and space using spacecraft launched aboard a variety of rockets designed to place these observatories in just the right spots to return data that will answer and inspire questions for years to come.
- *NEW* Build a Satellite (Grades 5-8) – Students will use the engineering design process to design, build, test and improve a model satellite intended to investigate the surface of a planet.
- Rocket Lessons and Activities (Grades K-9) – Use these exciting lessons to help your students experience the thrill of building their own rockets using the engineering design process!
- Earth Science Lessons and Activities (Grades K-12) – Use these lessons to engage your students in studying Earth from space!
- Build Your Own Space Mission – Have younger students play this game to place instruments aboard a spacecraft and launch it into space!
- Download the GLOBE Observer app and have students be citizen scientists in support of NASA Earth science missions! Learn more about how to participate.
Update – Sept. 11, 2017: This feature (originally published on April 25, 2017) has been updated to reflect Cassini's current mission status, as well as new lessons and activities.
- Visit the Cassini website's Grand Finale Toolkit for a timeline, resources and more information about the final phase of the mission.
- Follow along with NASA via live stream during the Grand Finale on September 15 and in the days leading up to the event. Programming begins on September 13 at 10 a.m. PDT.
- Get the latest news and updates for the Cassini mission on the JPL News website.
- Explore these standards-aligned lessons and out-of-school activities to bring the wonder of NASA's Cassini mission and science at Saturn to students.
In the News
After almost 20 years in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun the final chapter of its remarkable story of exploration. This last phase of the mission has delivered unprecedented views of Saturn and taken Cassini where no spacecraft has been before – all the way between the planet and its rings. On Friday, Sept. 15 Cassini will perform its Grand Finale: a farewell dive into Saturn’s atmosphere to protect the environments of Saturn’s moons, including the potentially habitable Enceladus.
Lessons All About Saturn
Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons about NASA's Cassini mission.
How It Works
On April 22, Cassini flew within 608 miles (979 km) of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, using the moon’s gravity to place the spacecraft on its path for the ring-gap orbits. Without this gravity assist from Titan, the daring, science-rich mission ending would not be possible.
Cassini is almost out of the propellant that fuels its main engine, which is used to make large course adjustments. A course adjustment requires energy. Because the spacecraft does not have enough rocket fuel on board, Cassini engineers have used an external energy source to set the spacecraft on its new trajectory: the gravity of Saturn’s moon Titan. (The engineers have often used Titan to make major shifts in Cassini’s flight plan.)
Titan is a massive moon and thus has a significant amount of gravity. As Cassini comes near Titan, the spacecraft is affected by this gravity – and can use it to its advantage. Often referred to as a “slingshot maneuver,” a gravity assist is a powerful tool, which uses the gravity of another body to speed up, slow down or otherwise alter the orbital path of a spacecraft.
When Cassini passed close by Titan on April 22, the moon’s gravity pulled strongly on the spacecraft. The flyby gave Cassini a change in velocity of about 1,800 mph (800 meters per second) that sent the spacecraft into its first of the ring-gap orbits on April 23. On April 26, Cassini made its first of 22 daring plunges between the planet and its mighty rings.
As Kepler’s third law indicates, Cassini traveled faster than ever before during these final smaller orbits. Cassini's orbit continued to cross the orbit of Titan during these ring-gap orbits. And every couple of orbits, Titan passed near enough to give the spacecraft a nudge. One last nudge occured on September 11, placing the spacecraft on its final, half-orbit, impact trajectory toward Saturn.
Because a few hardy microbes from Earth might have survived onboard Cassini all these years, NASA has chosen to safely dispose of the spacecraft in the atmosphere of Saturn to avoid the possibility of Cassini someday colliding with and contaminating moons such as Enceladus and Titan that may hold the potential for life. Cassini will continue to send back science measurements as long as it is able to transmit during its final dive into Saturn.
Why It’s Important
Flying closer than ever before to Saturn and its rings has provided an unprecedented opportunity for science. During these orbits, Cassini’s cameras have captured ultra-close images of the planet’s clouds and the mysterious north polar hexagon, helping us to learn more about Saturn’s atmosphere and turbulent storms.
The cameras have been taking high-resolution images of the rings, and to improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, Cassini has also been conducting gravitational measurements. Cassini's particle detectors have sampled icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field. Data and images from these observations are helping bring us closer to understanding the origins of Saturn’s massive ring system.
Cassini has also been making detailed maps of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields to reveal how the planet is structured internally, which could help solve the great mystery of just how fast Saturn is rotating.
On its first pass through the unexplored 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) space between the rings and the planet, Cassini was oriented so that its high-gain antenna faced forward, shielding the delicate scientific instruments from potential impacts by ring particles. After this first ring crossing informed scientists about the low number of particles at that particular point in the gap, the spacecraft was oriented differently for the next four orbits, providing the science instruments unique observing angles. For ring crossings 6, 7 and 12, the spacecraft was again oriented so that its high-gain antenna faced forward.
Fittingly, Cassini's final moments will be spent doing what it does best, returning data on never-before-observed regions of the Saturnian system. On September 15, just hours before Cassini enters Saturn's atmosphere for its Grand Finale dive, it will collect and transmit its final images back to Earth. During its fateful dive, Cassini will be sending home new data in real time informing us about Saturn’s atmospheric composition. It's our last chance to gather intimate data about Saturn and its rings – until another spacecraft journeys to this distant planet.
Explore the many discoveries made by Cassini and the story of the mission on the Cassini website.
Use these standards-aligned lessons to get your students excited about the science we have learned and have yet to learn about the Saturnian system.
- NEW! Activity Collection: Jewel of the Solar System – Explore Saturn and the Cassini mission with this eight-part series of activities targeting after-school settings.
- Jewel of the Solar System Activity Guide
- What Do I See When I Picture Saturn?
- Where Are We in the Solar System?
- Discovering Saturn: The Real "Lord of the Rings"
- Saturn's Fascinating Features
- My Spacecraft to Saturn
- All About Titan and Huygens Probe
- Drop Zone! Design and Test a Probe
- Celebrating Saturn and Cassini
- Cassini Lessons for Educators
- Cassini Activities for Students
- Cassini Mission Website
- Cassini Grand Finale Toolkit
- Cassini Mission Overview
- Interactive Cassini Mission Timeline
- Video: NASA VR: Cassini's Grand Finale (360 Video)
- Slideshow for Students (includes a free poster!): 8 Real World Space Facts About Saturn's Moon Enceladus
- Slideshow for Students (includes a free poster!): Ocean Worlds
- Explore the Cassini Spacecraft in 3-D
- The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-book)
In the News
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the world’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2. Four decades ago, they embarked on an ambitious mission to explore the giant outer planets, the two outermost of which had never been visited. And since completing their flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in 1989, they have been journeying toward the farthest reaches of our solar system – where no spacecraft has been before. These two intrepid spacecraft continue to return data to NASA daily, offering a window into the mysterious outer realms of our solar system and beyond.
How They Did It
The Voyager spacecraft were launched during a very short window that took advantage of a unique alignment of the four giant outer planets – one that would not occur again for another 176 years. (Try this lesson in calculating launch windows to get an idea of how it was done.) Launching at this point in time enabled the spacecraft to fly by all four planets in a single journey, returning never-before-seen, close-up images and scientific data from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune that greatly contributed to our current understanding of these planets and the solar system.
Why It’s Important
These images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (clockwise from top) were taken by Voyager 1 and 2 as the spacecraft journeyed through the solar system. See a gallery of images that Voyager took on the Voyager website. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In addition to shaping our understanding of the outer planets, the Voyager spacecraft are helping us learn more about the space beyond the planets – the outer region of our solar system. After completing their “grand tour” of the outer planets, the Voyagers continued on an extended mission to the outer solar system. They are now more than 10 billion miles from Earth, exploring the boundary region between our planetary system and what’s called interstellar space.
The beginning of interstellar space is where the constant flow of material from the Sun and its magnetic field stop influencing the surroundings. Most of the Sun’s influence is contained within the heliosphere, a bubble created by the Sun and limited by forces in interstellar space. (Note that the heliosphere doesn’t actually look like a sphere when it travels through space; it’s more of a blunt sphere with a tail.) The outer edge of the heliosphere, before interstellar space, is a boundary region called the heliopause. The heliopause is the outermost boundary of the solar wind, a stream of electrically charged atoms, composed primarily of ionized hydrogen, that stream outward from the Sun. Our planetary system lies inside the bubble of the heliosphere, bordered by the heliopause and surrounded by interstellar space.
Though we’ve learned a lot about the heliopause thanks to the Voyager spacecraft, its thickness and variation are still key unanswered questions in space physics. As the Voyagers continue their journey, scientists hope to learn more about the location and properties of the heliopause.
From their unique vantage points – Voyager 1 in the northern hemisphere and Voyager 2 in the southern hemisphere – the spacecraft have already detected differences and asymmetries in the solar wind termination shock, where the wind abruptly slows as it approaches the heliopause. For example, Voyager 2 crossed the termination shock at a distance of about 83.7 AU in the southern hemisphere. (One AU, or astronomical unit, is equal to 150 kilometers (93 million miles), the distance between Earth and the Sun.) That’s about 10 AU closer to the Sun than where Voyager 1 crossed the shock in the north. As shown in this diagram, Voyager 1 traveled through the compressed “nose” of the termination shock and Voyager 2 is expected to travel through the flank of the termination shock.
With four remaining powered instruments on Voyager 1 and five remaining powered instruments on Voyager 2, the two spacecraft continue to collect science data comparing their two distinct locations at the far reaches of the solar system.
In August 2012, Voyager 1 detected a dramatic increase in galactic cosmic rays (as shown in this animated chart). The increase, which has continued to the current peak, was associated with the spacecraft's crossing into interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Since it launched from Earth in 1977, Voyager 1 has been using an instrument to measure high-energy, dangerous particles traveling through space called galactic cosmic rays. While studying the interaction between the bubble of the heliosphere and interstellar space, Voyager 1 revealed that the heliosphere is functioning as a radiation shield, protecting our planetary system from most of these galactic cosmic rays. So in August 2012, when Voyager 1 detected a dramatic increase in the rays, which has continued to the current peak, it was associated with the spacecraft’s crossing into interstellar space.
Meanwhile, Voyager 2 – which is still in the heliosheath, the outermost layer of the heliosphere between the shock and the heliopause – is using its solar wind instrument to measure the directional change of solar wind particles there. Within the next few years, Voyager 2 is also expected to cross into interstellar space, providing us with even more detailed data about this mysterious region.
In another 10 years, we expect one or both Voyagers to cruise outward into a more pristine region of interstellar space, returning data to inform our hypotheses about the concentration of galactic particles and the characteristics of interstellar wind.
Even with 40 years of space flight behind them, the Voyagers are expected to continue returning valuable data until about 2025. Communications will be maintained until the spacecraft’s nuclear power sources can no longer supply enough electrical energy to power critical functions. Until then, there’s still much to learn about the boundary of our heliosphere and what lies beyond in the space between the stars.
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing math and science with a real-world (and space!) connection.
- Hear Here - Students use the mathematical constant pi and information about the current location of Voyager 1 to learn about the faint data-filled signal being returned to Earth.
- Solar System Bead Activity – Students calculate and construct a scale model of solar system distances using beads and string.
- Catching a Whisper from Space – Students kinesthetically model the mathematics of how NASA communicates with spacecraft.
- Voyager Mission
- Voyager Images
- Voyager Golden Record
- The Sounds of Interstellar Space
- Voyager Senses Sun's Tsunami Wave in Interstellar Medium
- Commemorative Voyager Posters
In the News
Earth Day, the day set aside each year to celebrate our planet and bring attention to the natural world, is on April 22, 2017. More than one billion people are expected to participate in Earth Day events around the globe that will draw attention to what we know about Earth, how it is changing and how we can be kind to our home planet.
One of the ways that NASA participates – not just on Earth Day, but also year-round – is by collecting and analyzing science data from sensors on Earth and satellites. These data allow us to monitor the health of our planet and better understand how and why it is changing.
This year, to highlight the importance of these data, NASA is inviting people to “adopt” a portion of Earth’s surface and obtain a snapshot of some of the satellite data available for their adopted location. Even though you’ll have no legal or ownership rights to this region, it will be fun to learn about the various types of data available for different locations on Earth. Find out how you can participate.
How It Works
NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites and airborne sensors provides us with data about such vital information as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, global land and sea temperature, ice, sea surface salinity, and chlorophyll – just to name a few. The satellites and sensors collect these data over time and from as many perspectives as possible, allowing us to discern trends in the data.
A snapshot of data is just one piece of a much larger puzzle because it only gives us an indication of what was happening at the exact moment that data was captured. Even data collected over a year has its limitations because local conditions may ebb and flow over longer time periods. Collecting data about multiple elements of the Earth system over decades or centuries enables us to develop correlation and causation models, powerful indicators of why trends are developing as they are. And using multiple platforms (satellite, aerial, Earth-based) to measure data enables us to validate our data sets.
Why It’s Important
Humans are dependent on a healthy and functioning Earth to survive, which means we need to keep a close eye on all Earth systems and our impacts on those systems. This process of collecting data over time from multiple perspectives, discerning trends and validating the data is crucial to understanding our planet and helping policymakers formulate actions we can take to preserve Earth for future generations.
First, introduce students to the kinds of data scientists use to study Earth. Participate in NASA’s Adopt the Planet campaign to receive a snapshot of Earth science data for one patch of Earth. Then encourage students to dig deeper with these standards-aligned lessons:
- *NEW* Lesson: Earth Science Data Visualizations – How to Read a Heat Map – Students learn to read, interpret and compare “heat map” representations of Earth science data.
- Lesson: Graphing Sea Level Trends – In this activity, students will use sea-level rise data to create models and compare short-term trends to long-term trends. They will then determine whether sea-level rise is occurring based on the data.
- Lesson: Graphing Global Temperature Trends – Students use global temperature data to create models and compare short-term trends to long-term trends.
- Lessons in Sea Level Rise – What is sea-level rise and how does it affect us? This "Teachable Moment" looks at the science behind sea-level rise and offers lessons and tools for teaching students about this important climate topic.
- Earth Science Lessons
- NASA Eyes on the Earth
- NASA’s Earth Observatory
- NASA’s Worldview
- Earth Vital Signs
- Earth Minute Videos
In The News
This week, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL was founded long before it became NASA’s premier center for robotic exploration of the solar system – and even before the agency existed. In fact, JPL started as the test-bed for some of the earliest rocketry experiments (thus the name “Jet Propulsion Laboratory”). There were a number of factors that conspired to change JPL’s focus from rocketry to space exploration. The Space Race and the resulting formation of NASA were two major factors. But also, with its growing expertise in launching rockets to new heights, JPL was anxious to take its experiments even farther. So in 1957, when the Soviet Union won the first leg of the Space Race by placing Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into Earth orbit, JPL was called into action. A few months later, NASA launched the JPL-built Explorer 1, which became the first U.S. satellite.
Soon, the challenge was to land on the moon – and JPL was once again called to the task. Landing on another planetary body had never been accomplished so, understandably, it took a few tries to get things right. JPL’s first attempts at a moon landing with Rangers 1 through 6 all failed for various reasons. Some of the spacecraft flew very near the moon only to miss it by a few hundred kilometers; others met their mark only to have onboard cameras fail. Ranger 7 was the first mission to successfully land on the moon and transmit data, capturing images 1,000-times better than those obtained by ground-based telescopes. It wasn’t a particularly soft landing; rather it was a purposeful crash landing, capturing images along the way. But everyone at JPL was thrilled to have hit their target and returned usable data. These data, and those collected by subsequent missions, made possible NASA’s later human missions to the moon.
At the same time it was launching the Ranger lunar missions, JPL had also set its sights on venturing even farther into space and began launching a series of missions called Mariner to Venus, Mercury and Mars. It wasn’t long before JPL’s specialty became creating robotic spacecraft to go not just to the moon, but also where no one had gone before.
Learn more about the history of JPL and the U.S. space program in the video series below. And explore the interactive timeline.
How They Did It
What’s often not known is that all the early rocket experiments and later missions to the moon and beyond wouldn’t have been possible without a team at JPL known as the human “computers.” Most of these human computers were women who either had degrees in mathematics or were simply very good at mathematics. Over the course of time, these women not only performed hundreds of thousands of mathematical calculations crucial to the U.S. space program, but also eventually became some of the first computer programmers at NASA.
In the early days of space exploration, the best mechanical computers were large (the size of a room) and not particularly powerful. Human capabilities were much more powerful for many tasks, including the rapid calculations needed for trajectory analysis and verification, as well as the graphing of data points on trajectories, which made a spacecraft’s path easy to see.
One of the human computers’ main tasks was computing the planned trajectories, or paths, for a spacecraft based on the vehicle weight, lift capacity of the rocket, and the orbital dynamics of the planets.
When a spacecraft is launched, it begins sending telemetry signals back to Earth. These signals tell engineers information about the spacecraft’s location and health. But this information isn’t perfectly straightforward. It arrives as a bunch of numbers that need to be combined in formulas along with other constantly changing parameters (such as velocity, vehicle mass and the effect of gravity from nearby bodies) in order to reveal the spacecraft’s actual location. Before there were computers (as we know them today) to do these calculations, human computers would feverishly calculate the exact location of the spacecraft as the telemetry came in and compare that to the planned trajectories. Their calculations would reveal whether the spacecraft was on target.
Doing the calculations required to get Explorer 1 into orbit was no small task. Calculating the trajectory for a Ranger crash landing or a Surveyor soft landing on the moon was even more challenging. Once humans were destined to be on board for the Apollo missions, the stakes were even higher. Fortunately, JPL had set the stage developing the techniques – and calculations – necessary to land a robotic spacecraft safely on the moon.
Why It’s Important
Today, JPL continues setting the pace for exploration of the solar system using robots to go where humans hope to venture one day, such as Mars. Though trajectory computations are now done using modern day computers, humans are still required to do trajectory analysis and mission planning. Every mission is different, and with new techniques comes new simulation equations that must be developed and computations that must be performed during actual mission events to ensure success. But even now, nothing is fail-proof. Lots of variables can and do influence spaceflight. Arriving safely on another planet millions of miles away isn’t easy or taken for granted, but when things go right and we achieve a safe landing, it is definitely cause for celebration.
When launching to another planet, we want to take the most efficient route, using the least amount of rocket fuel possible. The early human computers quickly discovered that launching when two planets are closest and using a lot of rocket fuel for the job isn’t the best plan.
Use this fascinating bit of history as a real world, advanced algebra and physics lesson with students in this standards-aligned activity that has grades 9-12 calculate the next launch window to Mars!
Let's Go to Mars! Calculating Launch Windows
Students use advanced algebra concepts to determine the next opportunity to launch a spacecraft to Mars.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
- Meet JPL engineer Sue Finley – Finley started at JPL in 1958 as a human computer and still works at the laboratory.
- Women at JPL website
- JPL History
- JPL 80th Anniversary Article
- JPL Timeline
- JPL 80th Anniversary Video Playlist
- JPL 80th Anniversary Printable Calendar
- Mars in a Minute Video Series
- Stomp Rockets Activity
- Basics of Space Flight Tutorial
In the News
History was made recently as the last-existing, flight-qualified external fuel tank for NASA's Space Shuttle Program made a 16.5-mile crawl through the streets of Los Angeles to its new home at the California Science Center. On May 21, 2016, the tank, a nearly 154-foot long, more than 65,000-pound behemoth dubbed ET-94, was towed from the port in Marina del Rey (where it arrived after another epic voyage) to the science center. Eventually, it will be displayed with the space shuttle Endeavour and two solid rocket boosters in launch configuration – looking like it's ready to blast into space.
How They Did It
› Larger image | › Interactive Google Map
Transporting a large object such as the external tank is no small job. Shuttle external tanks were routinely transferred from their manufacture and assembly point at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida by way of barge. However, the trip to California is a bit more involved.
In April, ET-94 boarded a barge as usual, but this time traveled west, through the Panama Canal to Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. On May 18, the tank arrived, and three days later, was towed through the streets of Los Angeles – streets that were not designed to accommodate a giant rocket fuel tank!
Los Angeles has some experience with this sort of challenge as the space shuttle orbiter Endeavour traveled a similar route from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center in October 2012. Though Endeavour is wider, taller and heavier, ET-94 is longer. Resting on its side, the tank is half the length of a football field. So it presents a different set of navigational challenges – which, coincidentally, make for some great math problems.
As does this bit of external fuel tank history ...
A Slice of History
Most people will recognize the external tank as the giant orange structure that was attached to the shuttle to supply fuel to the shuttle's main engines during liftoff. Space shuttle external tanks carried freezing cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and were the only non-reusable part of what was called the Space Transportation System, or STS. But the tanks weren't always orange.
During the first shuttle missions, engineers were worried that the sun's ultraviolet radiation might damage the insulating foam, so the tanks were painted white. Because the white latex paint had to cover such a large surface area, it added a whopping 600 pounds to the already hefty tanks, which in their earliest iteration were called standard-weight tanks, or SWTs, and made of aluminum alloy 2219 welded via tungsten arc welding and coated with an inch-thick layer of polyisocyanurate foam. They weighed 77,086 empty and fuel added an extra 1,589,577 pounds!
After the first two STS missions, engineers agreed that the sun's ultraviolet radiation merely caused the insulating foam to change color from its original tan to the familiar dark orange and did not pose a structural risk, so the use of white paint was discontinued. The saved poundage allowed subsequent space shuttle missions to carry an additional 600 pounds of science experiments.
Ever striving to lighten the load of the STS to make room for more science payloads, engineers developed the next iteration of external tanks, called lightweight tanks, or LWTs, using weight-shedding techniques including eliminating portions of stringers (structural stiffeners running the length of the hydrogen tank), using fewer stiffener rings, and modifying major frames in the hydrogen tank. This new tank provided a 6,426-pound reduction in specification weight that further evolved to an actual weight of 65,081 pounds for ET-94.
The final iteration of the external tank, called a super lightweight tank, or SLWT, shed an amazing 18,586 pounds from the very first specifications by using a new aluminum-lithium alloy (Al-Li 2195) and some new welding techniques.
Why It's Important
In 2003, disaster struck space shuttle Columbia during the STS-107 mission. The shuttle was fueled by ET-94's sister tank, ET-93, and as the only remaining lightweight tank in existence, ET-94 was heavily analyzed to examine the role played in the incident by the tank's external insulating foam. Several chunks of foam were removed from the tank during the analysis, necessitating future repair work to return it to its original appearance.
After analysis was complete, the tank resided at the Michoud Assembly Facility, awaiting an opportunity to fly to space that never came, as it could not compete with the svelteness of the new super-lightweight tanks and would require some weighty upgrades to meet new safety standards. Eventually, NASA donated ET-94 to the California Science Center for public display. When finalized, the display will be the only complete stack of STS flight hardware in existence.
Help your students apply their math problem-solving skills to this history-making event. While considering the challenges encountered in moving a giant fuel tank through the streets of Los Angeles, younger students can practice their number sense skills and older students can solve problems using formulas – plus use mapping technology to help ET-94 find its way to the California Science Center!
- Website: NASA Space Shuttle Program
- Feature: History of NASA's External Tank
- Website: NASA Michoud Assembly Facility
- Interactive: The Shuttle
- California Science Center: Endeavour Exhibit
- Feature: JPL-built instruments and experiments that flew on Endeavour