Collage of photos featured in this story.

To gain an edge in one of the world's premier robotics competitions, JPL brought in a team of experts at the forefront of their field – college students. The experience gave the interns and the Laboratory a new perspective on what's possible.


You know that movie trope where a talented mastermind recruits a ragtag team of experts to pull off a seemingly impossible task. That's what I imagine when Ali Agha talks about the more than 30 interns brought to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to take part in one of the world's premier robotics competitions.

In 2018, a group led by Agha was one of only 12 teams chosen worldwide to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Subterranean Challenge, a three-year-long competition that concluded this past September and brought together some of the brightest minds in robotics. Their goal was to develop robotic systems for underground rescue missions, or as Agha puts it, "solutions that are so state-of-the-art, there's not even a clear definition of what you're creating."

Calling themselves Team CoSTAR, which stands for Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient Robots, the group also included engineers from Caltech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology, and several industry partners.

Meet some of the researchers, engineers, and interns who make up Team CoSTAR. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Interns from across the country and around the world came to JPL to help conceive of, build, and test CoSTAR – a coordinated rescue team of flying, crawling, and rolling robots designed to operate autonomously, or with little to no help from humans. But the interns didn't just come to the laboratory to learn from engineers already well versed in building robots to explore extreme environments. In many cases, the interns were the experts.

"The problem we needed to solve, nobody knew how to solve it, so we needed people who are at the cutting edge of these technologies," says Agha. "We needed to get that one person in the world or a few people in the world who work on that specific camera or sensor or data or specific algorithm to come and educate us."

And Agha knew exactly where to find them: colleges and universities.

The interns' contributions would end up reaching far beyond the challenge. And the entire experience – from the mentorship they received to the technology they developed to the friendships they built – would change the course of their careers.

The Visionary

Even the Perseverance Mars rover, the latest and greatest Red Planet explorer designed and built at JPL, requires a fair amount of direction from mission controllers back on Earth to navigate around hazards and know which rocks to zap with its laser or when to phone home.

Since coming to JPL in 2016, Agha had been researching ways to make planet-exploring robots more autonomous so they could make similar decisions on their own. He was especially interested in autonomous technology for underground environments like caves and volcanoes, where the terrain and visibility make remote guidance challenging.

So when DARPA announced that it was launching a competition aimed at the development of autonomous robots for subterranean rescue missions, Agha jumped at the opportunity.

Agha stands in front of a large projector screen with robots of various shapes and sizes lined up against the wall behind him.

Agha gives a presentation at JPL about the technology developed for the DARPA challenge with CoSTAR's robot squad lined up behind him. | › Watch Agha's talk on YouTube | + Expand image

"It was a very good alignment and a great opportunity for JPL and for NASA," says Agha. "We knew if we can get into this program, it's going to expedite the technology development at a really high pace, and that's going to help NASA and JPL to develop these capabilities [for our own projects]."

But like developing robots for space exploration, the requirements would be tough.

Teams would need to build a robotic system that could autonomously navigate four circuits – a tunnel, an urban underground, a cave, and a combination of the three – in search of scientific "artifacts," or signs of human activity, hidden throughout the course. Then, in just 60 minutes, the robots would need to make their way through winding, cavernous, and dangerous terrain to correctly report the locations of as many artifacts as possible.

There were just 12 months between when proposals were selected and the first event in August 2019. Agha needed a plan – and a team.

The Strategist

Sung Kim first came to JPL as an intern in 2017, a year before the DARPA Subterranean Challenge was announced. A Carnegie Mellon doctoral student researching ways to help robots plan under uncertainty, Kim's childhood dream to work for NASA was rekindled when he saw an internship posting with Agha's team.

"From the first meeting, there was a spark," says Kim of his interview with Agha. "At the time, there were not many people actively pursuing that area [of planning under uncertainty]."

Kim spent that summer at JPL helping the team begin to develop what would later become the backbone of CoSTAR – a system in which robots can analyze their surroundings to find a route that covers as much ground as possible, increasing the odds that they will make discoveries along the way.

See caption.

Kim poses for a picture with the JPL sign at the entrance to the Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Image courtesy: Sung Kim | + Expand image

For JPL's part, such technology could be key to designing robots to explore worlds like Jupiter's moon Europa, where the terrain is still relatively unknown. For CoSTAR, it would improve the team's chances of finding artifacts hidden throughout the challenge course, earning the team points toward a victory.

When JPL's DARPA proposal was selected a year later, Agha eagerly enticed the newly graduated Kim back to the laboratory, this time as an employee and the head of CoSTAR's Global Planning Team tasked with "maximizing the chances of finding artifacts hidden in the environment," says Kim.

Kim would be the first of a wave of students who would come to the laboratory over the next several years to lend their expertise in making CoSTAR a reality. In fact, one of them had already arrived.

The Detective

Xianmei "Sammi" Lei was looking to start over. She had come to the U.S. from China and become a legal permanent resident in hopes of finding better career opportunities. But she worried that her options would be limited while she was still making professional connections and learning English. That's when she discovered community college.

"One of the turning points for me here was realizing that we have something called community college," says Lei. "That gave me a lot of opportunities."

It was at Pasadena Community College that Lei started to build a network of peers and professionals and began her foray into the world of robotics. It was also where her passion for computer science was reignited, setting her on a trajectory to JPL and Agha's team.

"I took the beginning level of C++, and I liked it so, so much," says Lei. "I was like, 'Oh my god, you can realize your dreams through programming. That is so powerful!'"

Lei wears a Team CoSTAR shirt and crouches in front of sign that reads DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit - To Beta Course.

Lei poses outside the course area holding up nine fingers to represent the number of points won by the team during the Urban Circuit in February 2020. Image courtesy: Sammi Lei | + Expand image

Lei applied for an internship at JPL through the Student Independent Research Intern, or SIRI, program, which is designed to pair students from local community colleges with researchers at the laboratory. She caught Agha's eye thanks to her involvement in a swarm robotics competition. Still relatively new to the field, Lei spent her first internship in 2017 soaking it all in, learning as much as she could, reading papers assigned by Agha, and following him to meetings, she says.

At the encouragement of her growing network, Lei applied and was accepted to a master's program at Cal Poly Pomona. She went on to spend four more years at JPL throughout her graduate degree and the entire DARPA challenge. All the while, she played an integral role on CoSTAR as the person in charge of programming the system to detect the most coveted artifact of all.

"Inside the environment was a dummy that was simulating a human survivor with the same weight, same heat, wearing a safety vest, things like that," says Lei. "My job was to detect those signals with the robot and have it report back to the team so the human supervisor could verify."

But before that could happen, the system would need to overcome any number of hazards, which according to DARPA might include small passages, sharp turns, stairs, rails, large drops, mud, sand, water, mist, smoke, dead ends, slippery terrain, communications constraints, moving walls, and falling debris. The team needed a mobility expert.

The Navigator

"I was doing lots of mathy stuff," says David Fan of his doctoral research at Georgia Tech prior to coming to JPL in the fall of 2018.

Fan had been researching algorithms that could help robots learn to independently navigate complex terrain when his advisor told him about an internship opening on Agha's team with the JPL Visiting Student Researchers Program, or JVSRP. Fan saw it as a chance to take his work out of the theoretical and into the real world.

"Once I joined the team and started working on these robots in real life, it opened up a whole set of new problems that I had never thought about before," he says.

Fan stands with his arms crossed in front of a fake rock wall and spotlights framing a rocky tunnel.

Fan poses in front of the entrance to the DARPA Subterranean Challenge Finals course in September 2021. Fan was one of a handful of team members chosen for the pit crew, which oversaw robot operations during the challenge. Image courtesy: David Fan | + Expand image

Problem one: How to get a robot through a hazard-filled course that requires a system with an almost contradictory set of features – small enough to get through narrow passages but big enough to support computing power, nimble enough to climb stairs and cross slippery terrain but strong enough to withstand falling debris.

Fan spent his early days with the team dreaming up robots with different kinds of locomotion – wheels, tracks, rotors, legs, and so on. Eventually, the team homed in on a solution involving all of the above, multiple robots with unique talents and ways of moving. Fan's doctoral research was key to unlocking how each robot could continually improve their skills, learning to navigate around obstacles as they encountered them.

Like their human counterparts, CoSTAR's robots each bring unique skills to the team, allowing them to autonomously explore caves, pits, tunnels, and other subsurface terrain. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

"Each environment would have its own set of challenges," says Fan, who interned with Agha throughout the DARPA challenge. "Trying to figure out where the robots could safely go in a subway was very different than where they could safely go in a cave or a mine. We broke a lot of robots. It was really fun."

But as often happens in engineering, one solution begets another problem. In this case it was how to coordinate multiple robots and get them working as a team.

The Field Commander

As a child in Indonesia, Muhammad Fadhil Ginting's favorite movie was a documentary about NASA rocket technology built to send astronauts to the Moon. He would watch it and rewatch it, dreaming of one day working at the space agency. But even after he had grown up to earn his bachelor's in engineering and begin to pursue his master's in robotics at one of the world's top universities, ETH Zurich, working for NASA seemed like a distant childhood dream.

That is until he saw an internship opening with Agha's team.

"Back in my undergrad in Indonesia, I was working with underwater robots to explore the ocean. When I found out JPL offered internships with the DARPA challenge team and it was about subsurface explorations, I was so excited," says Ginting who, like Fan, applied through JVSRP, which also brings in a small number of interns from foreign universities to work with JPL researchers. "I met Dr. Agha at an international conference and expressed my interest in joining his team. It was a thrill when he accepted me and welcomed me to the team."

When Ginting came on board, CoSTAR had just placed second in the Tunnel Circuit, the first of the four events.

After helping develop a strategy to coordinate the robots, Ginting was chosen for the team's exclusive "pit crew" along with just four others: Fan, also an intern at the time, and JPL employees Kyon Otsu, Ben Morrell, and Jeffrey Edlund.

On the pit crew, Ginting would have just 30 minutes to set up and release the robots into the subterranean course before he and the others were sequestered in a separate support area from Otsu, the sole robot supervisor. "It meant that I needed to be ready not just for the technical but also operational, anticipating all possible things that can happen in the field."

To prepare both the robots and the pit crew for handling the challenges ahead, the team took multiple field trips around California and to a limestone mine in Kentucky. When that wasn't possible, they sent the robots through cubicle mazes at JPL.

Ginting (shown at 0:18) and other members of team CoSTAR send the robots on a test run through Elma High School in Elma, Washington, in the days leading up to the Urban Circuit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Ginting fondly remembers the field trips not just for the opportunity to work out any bugs in the software, but also for the chance to pursue his other passion for outreach, giving talks to college students and kids and chatting up locals at the hotel breakfast bar.

"I liked meeting the community and sharing the excitement of building robots, the excitement of space exploration," says Ginting, who also saw the field trips as a chance to bond with his teammates.

When the Urban Circuit came around in February 2020, the team with Ginting's help earned a first-place spot. And then, COVID hit.

About 20 people, many wearing safety vests, smile, clap, hold their hands up in the air, and cheer.

Team CoSTAR reacts to the news that they placed first in the Urban Circuit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

An Unexpected Challenge

Like it did with so much else, the pandemic threw the team and the competition for a loop.

Interns were sent home along with most of the rest of JPL's more than 6,000 employees, and the CoSTAR team had to learn how to do their work remotely. Lei recalls testing sensors from her home in Los Angeles or asking other team members to try them out in different environments.

In some ways, the remote work was good for the team. Rather than the intensive testing schedule, "people had more time for thinking," says Lei. Meanwhile, the team was able to bring on remote interns previously unable to travel to the Southern California laboratory.

The Cave Circuit, originally scheduled for November 2020, was canceled, but once vaccines began rolling out and restrictions on indoor gatherings were loosened, DARPA announced that the Final Event would take place in September 2021.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

A robot shaped like a dog and carrying various tools on its back shines a light into a darkened cave.

One of the team's robots named NeBula-Spot walks on four legs to explore hard-to-access locations, like this narrow cave. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

"We were in pretty good shape – even in the preliminary rounds, we won with a good margin," says Agha. "But in the final event, our calibration system had an issue, so our robots entered the course 30 minutes late. It wasn't the kind of demonstration we were hoping to be able to have, but for that half of the time, it went really perfect."

While CoSTAR did not win the final competition, the overall experience was an unequivocal win not just for the team, but also for the interns and for JPL.

"We got all this great talent and technology – again, huge thanks to our interns and their mentors," says Agha. "They brought all this expertise to JPL, and the amount of capabilities that got developed really changed a lot about [autonomous technology] at JPL. We pushed state-of-the-art boundaries forward. We published strong papers and showed the world JPL's capabilities."

Already, the team's technology is making its way into a number of JPL and NASA projects including a snake-like robot designed to explore deep crevasses on icy worlds beyond Earth, self-driving offroad cars that could inspire future lunar exploration vehicles, and a project researching the possibility of finding microbial life within volcanic caves on Mars.

Many of the interns say the experience changed the course of their careers.

"It really set me on a different trajectory that I hadn't imagined before," says Fan, who is now working for the U.S. Navy in collaboration with JPL on the project to develop offroad self-driving vehicles. "It introduced me to so many of the real-world robotics problems that are out there waiting to be solved. It opened up a lot of doors and introduced me to a lot of people. It completely changed the trajectory of my Ph.D. and my career."

Lei was recently hired at JPL as a full-time employee, and she says she's looking forward to exploring new ways robots can assist humans in the future.

Kim continues to expand his research in new ways, taking part in JPL projects like Europa Lander, which hopes to send the first robot to explore the icy moon considered to be the next frontier in the search for life beyond Earth.

Ginting was accepted into a doctoral program at Stanford and is continuing his research collaboration with Agha and Kim. He says, "Now, I'm so eager to work on robotics research topics that can also work for space exploration."

In July, the entire team of about 150 people plans to meet up for a reunion cake party. Over the course of the challenge, cake parties had become an annual tradition for the tight knit group. They even managed to hold a virtual party in 2020. As with all things CoSTAR, the bakers go above and beyond to make cakes with life-like caves, moving parts, and LEDs.

When we talked, Agha flipped through photos of cake parties past and said that more than anything, it's this – the team camaraderie, the friendships – that is the greatest win of all.


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

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

TAGS: Internships, Interns, College, Students, Community College, SIRI, JVSRP, YIP, Higher Education, Robotics, Engineering, Computer Science, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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A slightly oblong donut-shaped ring of glowing warm dust especially bright at spots on the top, left, and right surrounds a black hole.

Find out how scientists captured the first image of Sagittarius A*, why it's important, and how to turn it into a learning opportunity for students.


Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, has a supermassive black hole at its center, but we’ve never actually seen it – until now. The Event Horizon Telescope, funded by the National Science Foundation, has released the first image of our galactic black hole, Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A-star” and abbreviated Sgr A*).

Read on to find out how the image was acquired and learn more about black holes and Sagittarius A*. Then, explore resources to engage learners in the exciting topic of black holes.

How Black Holes Work

A black hole is a location in space with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it. A black hole’s outer edge, called its event horizon, defines the spherical boundary where the velocity needed to escape exceeds the speed of light. Matter and radiation fall in, but they can’t get out. Because not even light can escape, a black hole is literally black. Contrary to their name’s implication, black holes are not empty. In fact, a black hole contains a great amount of matter packed into a relatively small space. Black holes come in various sizes and can exist throughout space.

We can surmise a lot about the origin of black holes from their size. Scientists know how some types of black holes form, yet the formation of others is a mystery. There are three different types of black holes, categorized by their size: stellar-mass, intermediate-mass, and supermassive black holes.

Stellar-mass black holes are found throughout our Milky Way galaxy and have masses less than about 100 times that of our Sun. They comprise one of the possible endpoints of the lives of high-mass stars. Stars are fueled by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen, which forms helium and other elements deep in their interiors. The outflow of energy from the central regions of the star provides the pressure necessary to keep the star from collapsing under its own weight.

A bubble if gas is sucked into a swirl of glowing dust and gas around a black hole as hair-like whisps extend from the top and bottom of the swirl.

This illustration shows a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole called IGR J17091-3624. The strong gravity of the black hole, on the left, is pulling gas away from a companion star on the right. This gas forms a disk of hot gas around the black hole, and the wind is driven off this disk. Image credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss | › Full image and caption

Once the fuel in the core of a high-mass star has completely burned out, the star collapses, sometimes producing a supernova explosion that releases an enormous amount of energy, detectable across the electromagnetic spectrum. If the star’s mass is more than about 25 times that of our Sun, a stellar-mass black hole can form.

Intermediate-mass black holes have masses between about 100 and 100,000 times that of our Sun. Until recently, the existence of intermediate-mass black holes had only been theorized. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has identified several intermediate-mass black hole candidates by observing X-rays emitted by the gas surrounding the black hole. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, funded by the National Science Foundation, detected the merger of two stellar-mass black holes with masses 65 and 85 times that of our Sun forming an intermediate-mass black hole of 142 solar masses. (Some of the mass was converted to energy and about nine solar masses were radiated away as gravitational waves.)

Supermassive black holes contain between a million and a billion times as much mass as a stellar-mass black hole. Scientists are uncertain how supermassive black holes form, but one theory is that they result from the combining of stellar-mass black holes.

A scale on the bottom shows mass (relative to the Sun) from 1 to 1 million and beyond. Stellar-mass black holes are shown on the left side of the scale between about 10 and 100 solar masses, followed on the right by intermediate-mass black holes from 100 to over 100,000 stellar masses followed by supermassive black holes from about 1 million on.

This chart illustrates the relative masses of super-dense cosmic objects, ranging from white dwarfs to the supermassive black holes encased in the cores of most galaxies. | › Full image and caption

Our local galactic center’s black hole, Sagittarius A*, is a supermassive black hole with a mass of about four million suns, which is fairly small for a supermassive black hole. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other telescopes have determined that many galaxies have supermassive black holes at their center.

A bright-white collection of stars is surrounded by a berry colored swirl of stellar dust and stars.

This image shows the center of the Milky Way galaxy along with a closer view of Sagittarius A*. It was made by combining X-ray images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue) and infrared images from the agency's Hubble Space Telescope (red and yellow). The inset shows Sgr A* in X-rays only, covering a region half a light year wide. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI | › Full image and caption

Why They're Important

Black holes hold allure for everyone from young children to professional astronomers. For astronomers, in particular, learning about Sagittarius A* is important because it provides insights into the formation of our galaxy and black holes themselves.

Understanding the physics of black hole formation and growth, as well as their surrounding environments, gives us a window into the evolution of galaxies. Though Sagittarius A* is more than 26,000 light years (152 quadrillion miles) away from Earth, it is our closest supermassive black hole. Its formation and physical processes influence our galaxy as galactic matter continually crosses the event horizon, growing the black hole’s mass.

Studying black holes also helps us further understand how space and time interact. As one gets closer to a black hole, the flow of time slows down compared with the flow of time far from the black hole. In fact, according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the flow of time slows near any massive object. But it takes an incredibly massive object, such as a black hole, to make an appreciable difference in the flow of time. There's still much to learn about what happens to time and space inside a black hole, so the more we study them, the more we can learn.

How Scientists Imaged Sagittarius A*

Black holes, though invisible to the human eye, can be detected by observing their effects on nearby space and matter. As a result of their enormous mass, black holes have extremely high gravity, which pulls in surrounding material at rapid speeds, causing this material to become very hot and emit X-rays.

This video explains how Sagittarius A* appears to still have the remnants of a blowtorch-like jet dating back several thousand years. Credit: NASA | Watch on YouTube

X-ray-detecting telescopes such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory can image the material spiraling into a black hole, revealing the black hole’s location. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope can measure the speed of the gas and stars orbiting a point in space that may be a black hole. Scientists use these measurements of speed to determine the mass of the black hole. Hubble and Chandra are also able to image the effects of gravitational lensing, or the bending of light that results from the gravitational pull of black holes or other high-mass objects such as galaxies.

A bright central blob is surrounded by blue halos and whisps forming a sort of target pattern.

The thin blue bull's-eye patterns in this Hubble Space Telescope image are called "Einstein rings." The blobs are giant elliptical galaxies roughly 2 to 4 billion light-years away. And the bull's-eye patterns are created as the light from galaxies twice as far away is distorted into circular shapes by the gravity of the giant elliptical galaxies. | › Full image and caption

To directly image the matter surrounding a black hole, thus revealing the silhouette of the black hole itself, scientists from around the world collaborated to create the Event Horizon Telescope. The Event Horizon Telescope harnesses the combined power of numerous telescopes around the world that can detect radio-wave emissions from the sky to create a virtual telescope the size of Earth.

Narrated by Caltech’s Katie Bouman, this video explains how she and her fellow teammates at the Event Horizon Telescope project managed to take a picture of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), a beastly black hole lying 27,000 light-years away at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Caltech | Watch on YouTube

In 2019, the team released the first image of a black hole's silhouette when they captured the glowing gasses surrounding the M87* galactic black hole nearly 53 million light-years (318 quintillion miles) away from Earth. The team then announced that one of their next endeavors was to image Sagittarius A*.

A warm glowing ring surrounds an empty blackness.

Captured by the Event Horizon Telescope in 2019, this image of the the glowing gasses surrounding the M87* black hole, was the first image ever captured of a black hole. Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration | + Expand image

To make the newest observation, the Event Horizon Telescope focused its array of observing platforms on the center of the Milky Way. A telescope array is a group of telescopes arranged so that, as a set, they function similarly to one giant telescope. In addition to the telescopes used to acquire the M87* image, three additional radio telescopes joined the array to acquire the image of Sagittarius A*: the Greenland Telescope, the Kitt Peak 12-meter Telescope in Arizona, and the NOrthern Extended Millimeter Array, or NOEMA, in France.

This image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy representing an area roughly 400 light years across, has been translated into sound. Listen for the different instruments representing the data captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope. The Hubble data outline energetic regions where stars are being born, while Spitzer's data captures glowing clouds of dust containing complex structures. X-rays from Chandra reveal gas heated to millions of degrees from stellar explosions and outflows from Sagittarius A*. Credit: Chandra X-ray Observatory | Watch on YouTube

The distance from the center of Sagittarius A* to its event horizon, a measurement known as the Schwarzschild radius, is enormous at seven million miles (12,000,000 kilometers or 0.08 astronomical units). But its apparent size when viewed from Earth is tiny because it is so far away. The apparent Schwarzschild radius for Sagittarius A* is 10 microarcseconds, about the angular size of a large blueberry on the Moon.

Acquiring a good image of a large object that appears tiny when viewed from Earth requires a telescope with extraordinarily fine resolution, or the ability to detect the smallest possible details in an image. The better the resolution, the better the image and the more detail the image will show. Even the best individual telescopes or array of telescopes at one location do not have a good enough resolution to image Sagittarius A*.

A dense field of stars like grains of sand is surrounded by wispy clouds of glowing gas and dust.

This image captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows the star-studded center of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. Even though you can't see our galaxy's central black hole directly, you might be able to pinpoint its location based on what you've learned about black holes thusfar. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Brammer | › Full image and caption

The addition of the 12-meter Greenland Telescope, though a relatively small instrument, widened the diameter, or aperture, of the Event Horizon Telescope to nearly the diameter of Earth. And NOEMA – itself an array of twelve 15-meter antennas with maximum separation of 2,500 feet (760 meters) – helped further increase the Event Horizon Telescope’s light-gathering capacity.

Altogether, when combined into the mighty Event Horizon Telescope, the virtual array obtained an image of Sagittarius A* spanning about 50 microarcseconds, or about 1/13th of a billionth the span of the night sky.

A slightly oblong donut-shaped ring of glowing warm dust especially bright at spots on the top, left, and right surrounds a black hole.

Sagittarius A* is more than 26,000 light years (152 quadrillion miles) away from Earth and has the mass of 4 million suns. Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope | › Full image and caption

While the Event Horizon Telescope was busy capturing the stunning radio image of Sagittarius A*, an additional worldwide contingent of astronomical observatories was also focused on the black hole and the region surrounding it. The aim of the team, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Multiwavelength Science Working Group, was to observe the black hole in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum beyond radio. As part of the effort, X-ray data were collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope (NuSTAR), and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, additional radio data were collected by the East Asian Very Long-Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) network and the Global 3 millimeter VLBI array, and infrared data were collected by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

The data from these multiple platforms will allow scientists to continue building their understanding of the behavior of Sagittarius A* and to refine their models of black holes in general. The data collected from these multiwavelength observations are crucial to the study of black holes, such as the Chandra data revealing how quickly material falls in toward the disk of hot gas orbiting the black hole’s event horizon. Data such as these will hopefully help scientists better understand black hole accretion, or the process by which black holes grow.

Teach It

Check out these resources to bring the real-life STEM of black holes into your teaching, plus learn about opportunities to involve students in real astronomy research.

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

TAGS: Black hole, Milky Way, galaxy, universe, stars, teachers, educators, lessons, Teachable Moments, K-12, science

  • Ota Lutz
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Animation showing a total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA Goddard Media Studios

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

This article has been updated to include information about the visibility and timing of the total lunar eclipse on May 15-16, 2022. See the What to Expect section below for details.


A full moon is always a good reason to go outside and look up, but a total or partial lunar eclipse is an awe-inspiring site that gives students a great opportunity to engage in practical sky watching. Whether it’s the Moon's reddish hue during a total lunar eclipse or the "bite" taken out of the Moon during a partial lunar eclipse, there's always something exciting to observe during these celestial events. Read on to see what to expect during the next lunar eclipse. Plus, explore resources you can use at home or in the classroom to teach students about moon phases, craters, and more!

How It Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why It’s Important

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

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

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

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

What to Expect

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

Here's what to expect during the total lunar eclipse on May 15-16, 2022, which will be visible in North and South America, as well as in Africa, and Europe. Note: Viewers in the most western parts of the continental U.S. will have to wait until the Moon rises above the horizon to see the eclipse, which will already be underway.

At 9:32 p.m. EDT (8:32 p.m. CDT), the edge of the Moon will begin entering the penumbra. The Moon will dim very slightly for the next 56 minutes as it moves deeper into the penumbra. Because this part of Earth’s shadow is not fully dark, you may only notice some dim shading (if anything at all) on the Moon near the end of this part of the eclipse. Should you decide to skip this part of the eclipse, you won’t miss much.

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

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

At 10:28 p.m. EDT (9:28 p.m. CDT), 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. During this part of the eclipse, viewers in the eastern, central, and southwestern U.S. will see the Moon as it moves into the umbra. West Coast viewers, keep your eyes on the eastern horizon for the Moon to rise sometime between 7:20 and 8:40 PDT, depending on your location.

The Moon as seen during a partial lunar eclipse

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

At 11:29 p.m. EDT (10:29 p.m. CDT), the Moon will be completely inside the umbra, marking the beginning of the total lunar eclipse, also known as totality. Viewers in the most northwestern parts of the continental U.S. will see the Moon rise as totality is beginning.

Graphic showing the Moon inside the umbra

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

The moment of greatest eclipse, when the Moon is halfway through its path across the umbra, occurs at 12:12 a.m. EDT (11:12 p.m. CDT). As the Moon moves completely into the umbra – the part of the eclipse known as totality – something interesting happens: The Moon begins to turn reddish-orange. The reason for this phenomenon? Earth’s atmosphere. As sunlight passes through it, the small molecules that make up our atmosphere scatter blue light, which is why the sky appears blue. This leaves behind mostly red light that bends, or refracts, into Earth’s shadow. We can see the red light during an eclipse as it falls onto the Moon in Earth’s shadow. This same effect is what gives sunrises and sunsets a reddish-orange color.

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

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

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

At 12:54 a.m. EDT (11:54 p.m. CDT), the edge of the Moon will begin exiting the umbra and moving into the opposite side of the penumbra, reversing the “bite” pattern seen earlier.

At 1:55 a.m. EDT (12:55 a.m. CDT), the Moon will be completely outside of the umbra and will begin exiting the penumbra until the eclipse officially ends at 2:50 a.m. EDT (1:50 a.m. CDT).

Teach It

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

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

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

  • Lyle Tavernier
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A small piece of the ISS is visible in the top corner of this view looking down from space station over Earth. A large cloud of dust takes half the view over Earth's surface.

A data map overlaid on the globe shows thick swirls of dust traveling from West Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to the Caribbean and Southern U.S.

Learn about the role that dust plays in Earth's climate, why scientists are interested in studying dust from space, and how to engage students in the science with STEM resources from JPL.


A NASA instrument launching to the International Space Station in early summer will explore how dust impacts global temperatures, cloud formation, and the health of our oceans. The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT, will be the first instrument of its kind, collecting measurements from space of some of the most arid regions on Earth to understand the composition of soils that generate dust and the larger role dust plays in climate change.

Read on to find out how the instrument works and why scientists are hoping to learn more about the composition of dust. Then, explore how to bring the science into your classroom with related climate lessons that bridge physical sciences with engineering practices.

Why It’s Important

Scientists have long studied the movements of dust. The fact that dust storms can carry tiny particles great distances was reported in the scientific literature nearly two centuries ago by none other than Charles Darwin as he sailed across the Atlantic on the HMS Beagle. What still remains a mystery all these years later is what that dust is made of, how it moves, and how that affects the health of our planet.

For example, we now know that dust deposited on snow speeds up snow melt even more than increased air temperature. That is to say, that dust traveling to cold places can cause increased snow melt.

Sharp mountain peaks are covered in splotches of snow with a fine coating of dust visible on top of the snow.

A coating of dust on snow speeds the pace of snowmelt in the spring. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Dust can affect air temperatures as well. For example, dust with more iron absorbs light and can cause the air to warm, while dust with less iron reflects light and is responsible for local cooling. Iron in dust can also act as a fertilizer for plankton in oceans, supplying them with nutrients needed for growth and reproduction.

A plume of dust eminates from over the Copper River in Alaska, spreading out as this series of overhead satellite images progresses.

A plume of dust is shown emanating from over Alaska's Copper River in October 2016 in these images captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. Dust storms play a key role in fueling phytoplankton blooms by delivering iron to the Gulf of Alaska. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

Floating dust potentially alters the composition of clouds and how quickly or slowly they form, which can ultimately impact weather patterns, including the formation of hurricanes. That’s because clouds need particles to act as seeds around which droplets of moisture in the atmosphere can form. This process of coalescing water particles, called nucleation, is one factor in how clouds form.

An overhead view of a swirl of clouds mixed with a streak of dust like a swirl of milk froth in a cappuccino

A swirl of dust mixes with the clouds in a low-pressure storm over the Gobi desert between Mongolia and China. This image was captured by the MODIS instrument on the Terra satellite in May 2019. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

Thanks to EMIT, we’ll take the first steps in understanding how the movements of dust particles contribute to local and global changes in climate by producing “mineral maps”. These mineral maps will reveal differences in the chemical makeup of dust, providing essential information to help us model the way dust can transform Earth’s climate.

› Learn more about what EMIT will do from JPL News

How It Works

NASA has been exploring how dust moves across the globe by combining on-the-ground field studies with cutting-edge technology.

Dr. Olga Kalashnikova, an aerosol scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-investigator for EMIT, has been using satellite data to study atmospheric mineral dust for many years, including tracking the movements of dust and investigating trends in the frequency of dust storms.

As Dr. Kalashnikova describes, “From the ground, we can see what types of dusts are lifted into the atmosphere by dust storms on a local scale, but with EMIT, we can understand how they differ and where they originally came from.”

EMIT is the first instrument designed to observe a key part of the mineral dust cycle from space, allowing scientists to track different dust compositions on a global scale, instead of in just one region at a time. To understand dust’s impact on Earth’s climate, scientists will use EMIT to answer key questions, including:

  • How does dust uplifted in the atmosphere alter global temperatures?
  • What role do dusts play in fertilizing our oceans when they are deposited?
  • How do dust particles in the atmosphere affect cloud nucleation; the process by which clouds are ‘seeded’ and begin to coalesce into larger clouds?
A picture of the EMIT instrument, shaped like a small megaphone, is overlaid on an picture of the International Space Station flying above Earth.

The EMIT instrument will fly aboard the International Space Station, which orbits Earth about once every 90 minutes, completing about 16 orbits per day. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

To achieve its objectives, EMIT will spend 12 months collecting what are called “hyperspectral images” of some of the most arid regions of our planet selected by scientists and engineers as areas of high dust mobility, such as Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the American Southwest.

These images are measurements of light reflected from the Earth below, calibrated to the distinct patterns, or spectra, of light we see when certain minerals are present. The EMIT team has identified 10 minerals that are most common, including gypsum, hematite, and kaolinite.

Bands of satellite images looking at a seciton of Earth are highlighted in different colors to reveal different concentrations of minerals.

This example spectra shows how scientists will be able to identify different concentrations of minerals and elements in data collected by EMIT. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Why are these minerals important? One key reason is the presence or absence of the element iron, found in some minerals but not others.

Dr. Bethany Ehlmann is a planetary scientist and co-investigator for the EMIT project at Caltech and explains that when it comes to heating, “a little bit of iron goes a long way.” Iron in minerals absorbs visible and infrared light, meaning that even if only a small amount is present, it will result in a much warmer dust particle. Large amounts of warm dust in our atmosphere may have an impact on temperatures globally since those dust particles radiate heat as they travel, sometimes as far as across oceans!

Collecting images from space is, of course, no easy task, especially when trying to look only at the ground below. Yet it does allow scientists to get a global picture that's not possible to capture from the ground. Field studies allow us to take individual samples from tiny places of interest, but from space, we can scan the entire planet in remote places where no scientist can visit.

Of course, there are some complications in trying to study the light reflected off the surface of Earth, such as interference from clouds. To prevent this problem, the EMIT team plans to collect data at each location several times to ensure that the images aren’t being obscured by clouds between the instrument and the minerals we’re looking for.

The data collected by EMIT will provide a map of the compositions of dust from dry, desert environments all over the world, but the team involved won’t stop there. Knowing more about what the dust is made of sets the stage for a broader understanding of a few more of the complex processes that make up our global climate cycle. Upon completion of this study, EMIT's mineral maps will support further campaigns to complete our global dust picture. For example, NASA hopes to couple the data from EMIT with targeted field campaigns, in which scientists can collect wind-blown dust from the ground to learn more about where dust particles move over time and answer questions about what types of dust are on the go.

Furthermore, missions such as the Multiangle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA, will allow us to better understand the effects of these dust particles on air-quality and public health.

Teach it

Studying Earth’s climate is a complex puzzle, consisting of many trackable features. These can range from sea level to particles in our atmosphere, but each makes a contribution to measuring the health of our planet. Bring EMIT and NASA Earth Science into your classroom with these lessons, articles, and activities to better understand how we’re exploring climate change.

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TAGS: Earth, climate, geology, weather, EMIT, Teachers, Classroom, Lessons, Earth Science, Climate Change, Dust, Global Warming, Educators, K-12, Teachable Moments

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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The Millennium Falcon takes on TIE fighters in a scene from 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

Science fiction meets science fact in this Star Wars inspired Teachable Moment all about ion propulsion and Newton’s Laws.

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. Keep reading to learn more and find out how to get students wielding the force.

Why It's Important

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 It Works

Ion engines rely on two principles that Isaac Newton first described in 1687. First, a positively charged atom (ion) is pushed out of the engine at a high velocity. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so then a small force pushes back on the spacecraft in the opposite direction – forward! According to Newton’s Second Law of Motion, there is a relationship between the force (F) exerted on an object, its mass (m) and its acceleration (a). The equation F=ma describes that relationship and tells us that the small force applied to the spacecraft by the exiting atom provides a small amount of acceleration to the spacecraft. Push enough atoms out, and you'll get enough acceleration to really speed things up.


Why is It Important?

Compared with traditional chemical rockets, ion propulsion is faster, cheaper and safer:

  • Faster: Spacecraft powered by ion engines can reach speeds of up to 90,000 meters per second (more than 201,000 mph!)
  • Cheaper: When it comes to fuel efficiency, ion engines can reach more than 90 percent fuel efficiency, while chemical rockets are only about 35 percent efficient.
  • Safer: Ion thrusters are fueled by inert gases. Most of them use xenon, which is a non-toxic, chemically inert (no risk of exploding), odorless, tasteless and colorless gas.

These properties make ion propulsion a very attractive solution when engineers are designing spacecraft. While not every spacecraft can use ion propulsion – some need greater rates of acceleration than ion propulsion can provide – the number and types of missions using these efficient engines is growing. In addition to being used on the Dawn spacecraft and communication satellites orbiting Earth, ion propulsion could be used to boost the International Space Station into higher orbits and will likely be a part of many future missions exploring our own solar system.

Teach It

Newton’s Laws of Motion are an important part of middle and high school physical science and are addressed specifically by the Next Generation Science Standards as well as Common Core Math standards. The lesson "Ion Propulsion: Using Spreadsheets to Model Additive Velocity" lets students study the relationship between force, mass and acceleration as described by Newton's Second Law as they develop spreadsheet models that apply those principles to real-world situations.

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This feature was originally published on May 3, 2016.

TAGS: May the Fourth, Star Wars Day, F=ma, ion propulsion, Dawn, Deep Space 1, lesson, classroom activity, NGSS, Common Core Math

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Scenes from Jackie Prosser's fourth-grade classroom including a door poster commemorating Dorothy Vaughan, a poster with the words Dare Mighty Things glued to it, a yellow lab surrounded by NASA posters, and Miss Prosser with two other teachers all wearin

This fourth-grade teacher is finding creative ways to get her students back into the flow of classroom learning with the help of STEAM education resources from JPL.


Jackie Prosser is a fourth-grade teacher in Fairfield, California, finishing her second year as a classroom teacher. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Riverside, where she simultaneously received her teaching credential and her master's in education. This was where I was fortunate enough to meet Miss Prosser, through a collaboration between the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCR designed to help new teachers incorporate STEM into their future classrooms. She and her cohort immediately struck me as passionate future teachers already exploring unique ways to bring space science into their teaching.

But it's been a challenging transition for Miss Prosser and teachers like her who started their careers amid a pandemic. She began her student-teaching in person only to find that she would have to switch to teaching remotely just four months into the job. Now, she's back in the classroom but facing new challenges getting students up to speed academically while reacquainting them with the social aspects of in-person learning.

I caught up with her to find out how she's managing the transition and developing creative ways to support the individual needs of her students and, at the same time, incorporating science and art into her curriculum with the help of STEAM resources from the JPL Education Office.


What made you want to become an elementary school teacher?

Originally, I became a teacher because I love to see that moment of light when a concept finally clicks in a kid’s mind. I am still a teacher (even after the craziest two years ever) because every kid deserves someone to fight for them, and I know I can be that person for at least 32 kids a year.

I love to teach young kids especially for two reasons. The first is their honesty; no one will tell you exactly like it is like a nine-year-old will. The second is that I love the excitement kids have for learning at this age.

It has been a bumpy couple years, especially this past school year when it was unclear if we would be remote again or back in the classroom. How has it been coming back from remote learning?

Coming back from remote learning has been an incredible challenge, but we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the year. Students really struggled being back in a highly structured environment. It was very hard to balance meeting the individual needs of each student and getting them used to the structure and expectations of the classroom.

My fourth graders were online for the last part of second grade and a vast majority of third grade. This is when students really start to solve conflicts and regulate their emotions with less support from adults. I have seen a lot more problems with emotion regulation and conflict among my students this year than in years past.

There is a lot of pressure on teachers right now to make up for all the learning loss and for students being behind on grade-level standards. But I don’t think enough people talk about how much joy and social interaction they also lost during remote learning. Teachers are also feeling the pressure of that. I want to help my students be the very best versions of themselves and being happy and comfortable with themselves is a huge part of that.

Description in caption.

A student looks at a page from the NASA Solar System Exploration website. Image courtesy: Jackie Prosser | + Expand image

How do you structure your class to get students back in the flow of a school setting?

I use a lot of manipulatives in my math lessons and try to make their learning as hands-on as possible. I also teach math in small groups to be able to better meet the individual needs of my students. I have one group with me learning the lesson, one group doing their independent practice of the skill, and one group on their computers. Then, the students switch until each group has done each activity.

You’re a big fan of science and came to several JPL Education workshops while you were still in school yourself. Are there JPL Education resources that you have found particularly impactful for your students?

I have always loved teaching science. It is so often left behind or pushed aside. I think a lot of time that happens because teachers feel like they do not have enough background knowledge to teach high-quality science lessons or they think that the lessons will add to the already enormous workload teachers have. My district does not have an adopted or prescribed curriculum for teachers to follow, so we have a lot of freedom for when and how to make the time for STEAM.

The education resources [from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory] have made it so easy for me to teach and get kids excited about science, and my kids absolutely love them. Our favorites always seem to be Make a Paper Mars Helicopter and Art and the Cosmic Connection.

Description in caption.

A student holds a paper Mars helicopter. Image courtesy: Jackie Prosser | + Expand image

I also am part of my district’s science pilot program. It has been so cool to be able to decide what curriculum to pilot and watch my students test it out and give feedback on their learning. Last year, I had the amazing opportunity to teach science for two elementary schools’ summer programs. My partner teacher and I got to create the curriculum for them, and we pulled a ton of lessons from the JPL Education website. It was by far the most fun I have ever had at a job.

Despite being a new teacher, you’ve already seen so much. How have you navigated the changing landscape?

I have an amazing network of teachers supporting me at every turn. My grade-level team and my friends from my credential program are some of the most amazing people and educators I have ever met. There is no way I would be able to get through the more difficult aspects of teaching without them.

I am also coaching the boys soccer team, directing the school’s "Lion King Jr." play, contributing to the science pilot program, and serving on the social committee for teachers and staff. I love using these different roles to make connections with not just my students, but also students from all grades.


Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at education@jpl.nasa.gov.

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TAGS: Teachers, School, Remote School, Classroom, Instruction, K-12, Fourth Grade, STEAM, Science, Math, Art, UC Riverside, resources, lessons

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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Collage of photos featured in this story.

We went behind the scenes with three interns on NASA’s Earth System Observatory team to learn how they're devoting their future careers to putting our planet first.


Leave it to the interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to school the full-timers. Case in point: JPL intern Joalda Morancy knows exactly how to explain—in bite-sized, plain English—NASA’s latest multi-missioned initiative to study our home planet.

“The Earth System Observatory aims to tackle one of the biggest issues we’re facing today—climate change,” they say of NASA's ESO. “We need to have multiple missions that look at the Earth system as a whole in order to tackle the issue of climate change in the next couple of decades.”

The observatory will be made up of an array of satellites, instruments, and missions to form a well-rounded collection of observations meant to offer crucial and precise measurements of our environment. As NASA puts it: “Taken together, as a single observatory, we will have a holistic, 3-dimensional understanding of our Earth’s systems—how they work together, how one change can influence another.”

While the ESO is in its early stages, it’s a crucial time for interns to be involved, as their generation will most likely face the most pressing challenges resulting from climate change. We spoke to three JPL interns getting first-hand experience with the observatory's missions and projects to learn why, to them, Earth is the most important planet to study right now.

Joalda Morancy

Joalda Morancy smiles in a close-up photo.

Image courtesy: Joalda Morancy | + Expand image

Morancy first became fascinated by space exploration in high school thanks to a YouTube video on how to make a peanut butter and honey sandwich in space.

“I love telling that story,” Morancy says with a laugh. “It was so random, and I was so intrigued. I watched the entire video and thought, ‘This is amazing.’ I did a lot more research about what NASA does and that was my gateway to space.”

Flash forward a few years to college at the University of Chicago, where Morancy discovered there was one planet in particular that really captured their attention: Earth.

“I was initially interested in space exploration, and while [majoring in] astrophysics, I took a class on what makes a planet habitable,” they recall. “It taught me everything about basic Earth sciences and how that ties into Earth and the big picture of how a habitable environment operates.”

Morancy found it so interesting and—combined with their growing alarm about climate change—wanted a hand in studying how to preserve our planet. So Morancy took more classes in geophysics and geophysical sciences, including courses on atmosphere, glaciology, and physical geology.

“I wanted to give myself the foundational knowledge,” Morancy says. “And right after that, I started at JPL.”

They had originally searched JPL’s careers site for internships with the Perseverance Mars rover mission but noticed an opening with the Earth Science team.

“I didn’t know JPL did Earth science; I thought it was mostly Mars and robotic exploration,” they say. “When I saw that opening, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about Earth.”

For the past year-and-a-half, Morancy has worked on ECOSTRESS, an ESO-related experiment aboard the International Space Station designed to measure water stress among plants. Now, they are interning with the ESO successor to ECOSTRESS, the Surface Biology and Geology, or SBG, mission.

A heatmap showing land surface temperatures in California as measured by the ECOSTRESS mission.

A graphic developed by Morancy during their internship with the ECOSTRESS mission shows the land surface temperatures at different locations throughout California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

“I help with a lot of project management since SBG is in its early stages,” they say. “A lot of things are starting to cook up, and a lot of engineers and scientists are being onboarded to the team. I’m working with the team to help onboard, and I’m also helping with the science instruments for SBG.”

The magnitude of being part of SBG and the observatory team in their early stages is not lost on Morancy.

“I really believe it will have a long-lasting impact on how we look at climate change and how we target those specific issues to fix,” they say. “It'll be a major driver for future researchers and scientists.”

While Morancy hopes to combine Earth sciences and space exploration for their future career, they’re invested in studying our blue planet for the long run.

“I think Earth science is incredibly important because this is our only home,” they say. “Even though people are looking to settle on Mars and other celestial bodies ... I think it’s important to take care of this rock we’ve been given to live on. It’s crucial to make sure we take care of it for future generations.”

Rebecca Gustine

Rebecca Gustine smiles for a photo atop an elephant.

Image courtesy: Rebecca Gustine | + Expand image

When Rebecca Gustine studied abroad in Thailand during her junior year of college, she didn’t realize it would alter the course of her studies and her future career path.

“I had a lightbulb moment realizing how human development and access to water go hand in hand,” she says.

Gustine went on to Washington State University, where she is now a Ph.D. student studying civil engineering with a focus on water resources engineering.

“A lot of my undergraduate research had to do with water,” she explains. “It was from a global health perspective and had to do with access to clean water, hygiene, and gender dynamics in developing countries. I also really like math and physics, so combining global health with water resources engineering was very interesting.”

Gustine was so fascinated by water research, she knew she wanted to find an internship that would let her focus on just that. When she saw an open call for internships at JPL, she submitted her resume and was contacted by Gregory Halverson and Christine Lee, JPL scientists focused on using remote sensing measurements to study water quality, water resources, and ecosystems management.

Gustine started at JPL as an intern in August 2020, supporting the Earth science team by looking at how ECOSTRESS data could be used to preserve habitats in the California Bay Delta system, where the Sacramento and the San Joaquin Rivers meet. For the past year, she has focused on processing remote-sensing data and engaging with stakeholders. She was even first-author on a peer-reviewed paper.

“My work is basically using pictures [taken] from the sky that tell us information about the Earth and then making decisions about how to manage water resources and protect critical habitats,” she says.

Gustine is also well aware that her research comes at a pivotal time in the global conversation around Earth’s future.

“Given that climate change is having a profound impact on human and natural systems, we have to understand those changes and protect critical habitats and resources for the well-being of humans everywhere,” she says. “Changes in one component of a system can have cascading consequences for other parts of the system.”

While she works alongside others exploring the mysteries of worlds beyond Earth, Gustine is particularly proud to be part of pioneering research that could alter the future of our planet.

“Observing Earth is still space exploration, just from a different vantage point,” she says. “Given that NASA is the major proprietor of space, to look back at Earth using the same technology we use to go farther into space is important.”

Jonathan Vellanoweth

Jonathan Vellanoweth stands in a grassy field holding a phone in one hand and with a grasshopper balancing on his other hand.

Image courtesy: Jonathan Vellanoweth | + Expand image

What will be the future, long-term impacts of power plants on our environment? Jonathan Vellanoweth is spending his time as a JPL intern working with a team to try to help answer that very question.

Vellanoweth is a student at Cal State University, Los Angeles, where he’s earning his master’s degree in environmental science with an emphasis in geospatial science. In his internship with the Surface Biology and Geology team at JPL, he's using data and satellite imagery from ECOSTRESS and the Landsat mission to detect thermal plumes emitted by power plants.

Vellanoweth’s work currently focuses on the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo, California.

“We’re looking at power plants that intake coastal waters to cool their reactors, then discharge it at a higher temperature back into the same water body,” he explains. “I’m using satellite imagery to detect that thermal change and outline the area of what is classified as a plume, or anywhere thermal discharge is heating up the ocean or the coast. We can see where this plume is moving over the year or several seasons, and other studies can use this data to see what the actual effects are on coastal communities.”

Vellanoweth has been fascinated by Earth science since as early as 7th grade, when he took his first environmental science class where he learned all about the scientific method and later went out into nature to collect soil samples and study them.

As a JPL intern, Vellanoweth has been particularly grateful for the variety of knowledge his colleagues provide him.

“The amount of support that you have from all these great scientists that work here is really what attracted me,” he says. “You can intern for a lot of places, but at JPL, you have all these colleagues you can meet with who have a lot of feedback they can give you. There are people on your team studying similar and dissimilar things as you, so they can provide you with something you might not have thought about and help expand your research.”

Most importantly, Vellanoweth is looking forward to the information everyone will have access to in the future thanks to the efforts of all the missions and projects within the Earth Science Observatory.

“I’m excited about getting things out there and making them accessible to the public. I’m really big on that because there are a lot of people who want to do this kind of research, but a lot of times, it can be hard to find the data or algorithm you need, and it’s a lot of trial and error,” he says. “SBG and ESO bring all of these things together and make it available for everyone.”


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

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

TAGS: Interns, Colleges, Universities, Students, Higher Education, Internships, Student Programs, Year-Round Internship Program, Summer Internship Program, Earth Science, Earth, Climate Change, Earth System Observatory

  • Celeste Hoang
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Collage of spacecraft featured in the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge

Graphic showing the various spacecraft featured in the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge overlaid with text that reads NASA Pi Day Challenge Answers

Learn about pi and some of the ways the number is used at NASA. Then, dig into the science behind the Pi Day Challenge.


Update: March 15, 2022 – The answers are here! Visit the NASA Pi Day Challenge slideshow to view the illustrated answer keys for each of the problems in the 2022 challenge.

In the News

No matter what Punxsutawney Phil saw on Groundhog Day, a sure sign that spring approaches is Pi Day. Celebrated on March 14, it’s the annual holiday that pays tribute to the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.

Every year, Pi Day gives us a reason to not only celebrate the mathematical wonder that helps NASA explore the universe, but also to enjoy our favorite sweet and savory pies. Students can join in the fun by using pi to explore Earth and space themselves in our ninth annual NASA Pi Day Challenge.

Read on to learn more about the science behind this year's challenge and find out how students can put their math mettle to the test to solve real problems faced by NASA scientists and engineers as we explore Earth, the Moon, Mars, and beyond!
Infographic of all of the Pi in the Sky 9 graphics and problems

Visit the Pi in the Sky 9 lesson page to explore classroom resources and downloads for the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

An spacecraft orbiting the Moon shines a laser into a dark crater.

This artist's concept shows the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft, a six-unit CubeSat designed to search for ice on the Moon's surface using special lasers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image details

Dome-covered seismometer sits on the surface of Mars while clouds pass overhead.

Clouds drift over the dome-covered seismometer, known as SEIS, belonging to NASA's InSight lander, on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. | › Full image and caption

The SWOT spacecraft passes over Florida, sending signals and collecting data.

This animation shows the collection of data over the state of Florida, which is rich with rivers, lakes and wetlands. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

A spacecraft points to a star that has three planets orbiting it.

Illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Credits: NASA | + Expand image

How It Works

Dividing any circle’s circumference by its diameter gives you an answer of pi, which is usually rounded to 3.14. Because pi is an irrational number, its decimal representation goes on forever and never repeats. In 2021, a supercomputer calculated pi to more than 62 trillion digits. But you might be surprised to learn that for space exploration, NASA uses far fewer digits of pi.

Here at NASA, we use pi to understand how much signal we can receive from a distant spacecraft, to calculate the rotation speed of a Mars helicopter blade, and to collect asteroid samples. But pi isn’t just used for exploring the cosmos. Since pi can be used to find the area or circumference of round objects and the volume or surface area of shapes like cylinders, cones, and spheres, it is useful in all sorts of ways. Architects use pi when designing bridges or buildings with arches; electricians use pi when calculating the conductance of wire; and you might even want to use pi to figure out how much frozen goodness you are getting in your ice cream cone.

In the United States, March 14 can be written as 3.14, which is why that date was chosen for celebrating all things pi. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi. And that's precisely what the NASA Pi Day Challenge is all about!

The Science Behind the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge

This ninth installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge includes four brain-busters that get students using pi to measure frost deep within craters on the Moon, estimate the density of Mars’ core, calculate the water output from a dam to assess its potential environmental impact, and find how far a planet-hunting satellite needs to travel to send data back to Earth.

Read on to learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems or click the link below to jump right into the challenge.

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge

› Educators, get the lesson here!

Lunar Logic

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight mission is a small satellite that will seek out signs of frost in deep, permanently shadowed craters around the Moon’s south pole. By sending infrared laser pulses to the surface and measuring how much light is reflected back, scientists can determine which areas of the lunar surface contain frost and which are dry. Knowing the locations of water-ice on the Moon could be key for future crewed missions to the Moon, when water will be a precious resource. In Lunar Logic, students use pi to find out how much surface area Lunar Flashlight will measure with a single pulse from its laser.

Core Conundrum

Since 2018, the InSight lander has studied the interior of Mars by measuring vibrations from marsquakes and the “wobble” of the planet as it rotates on its axis. Through careful analysis of the data returned from InSight, scientists were able to measure the size of Mars’ liquid core for the first time and estimate its density. In Core Conundrum, students use pi to do some of the same calculations, determining the volume and density of the Red Planet’s core and comparing it to that of Earth’s core.

Dam Deduction

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT mission will conduct NASA's first global survey of Earth's surface water. SWOT’s state-of-the-art radar will measure the elevation of water in major lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs while revealing unprecedented detail on the ocean surface. This data will help scientists track how these bodies of water are changing over time and improve weather and climate models. In Dam Deduction, students learn how data from SWOT can be used to assess the environmental impact of dams. Students then use pi to do their own analysis, finding the powered output of a dam based on the water height of its reservoir and inferring potential impacts of this quick-flowing water.

Telescope Tango

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is designed to survey the sky in search of planets orbiting bright, nearby stars. TESS does this while circling Earth in a unique, never-before-used orbit that brings the spacecraft close to Earth about once every two weeks to transmit its data. This special orbit keeps TESS stable while giving it an unobstructed view of space. In its first two years, TESS identified more than 2,600 possible exoplanets in our galaxy with thousands more discovered during its extended mission. In Telescope Tango, students will use pi to calculate the distance traveled by TESS each time it sends data back to Earth.

Teach It

Celebrate Pi Day by getting students thinking like NASA scientists and engineers to solve real-world problems in NASA Pi Day Challenge. Completing the problem set and reading about other ways NASA uses pi is a great way for students to see the importance of the M in STEM.

Pi Day Resources

Plus, join the conversation using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Recursos en español

Related Lessons for Educators

Related Activities for Students

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Infographic

Facts and Figures

Missions and Instruments

Websites

TAGS: Pi Day, Pi, Math, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Moon, Lunar Flashlight, Mars, InSight, Earth, Climate, SWOT, Exoplanets, Universe, TESS, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Students, Lessons, Activities, Resources, K-12

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Collage of images representing lessons in the Quick and Easy collection.

Calling all teachers pressed for time, substitutes looking for classroom activities that don't require a lot of prep, and others hoping to keep students learning in especially chaotic times: We've got a new collection of lessons and activities that you can quickly deploy.

Read on to explore our collection of Quick and Easy STEM lessons and student activities, organized by grade band. Get everything you need to guide students through standards-aligned lessons featuring connections to real NASA missions and science as well as links to student projects, which can be led by teachers or assigned as independent activities.


Grades K-2

Grades 3-5

Grades 6-8

Grades 9-12

Explore More

Find our full collection of more than 250 STEM educator guides and student activities in Teach and Learn.

For games, articles, and more activities from NASA for kids in upper-elementary grades, visit NASA Space Place and NASA Climate Kids.

Explore more educational resources and opportunities for students and educators from NASA STEM Engagement.

TAGS: Lessons, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Substitutes, Activities, Students, Science, Engineering, Quick and Easy

  • Kim Orr
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