Discover opportunities to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with lessons and resources inspired by the latest happenings at NASA.

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Animation showing InSight landing on Mars

Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager, NASA JPL, left, and Sue Smrekar, InSight deputy principal investigator, NASA JPL, react after receiving confirmation InSight is safe on the surface of Mars

This is the first image taken by NASA's InSight lander on the surface of Mars.

The Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC), located on the robotic arm of NASA's InSight lander, took this picture of the Martian surface on Nov. 26

UPDATE: Nov. 27, 2018 – The InSight spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars just before noon on Nov. 26, 2018, marking the eighth time NASA has succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet. This story has been updated to reflect the current mission status. For more mission updates, follow along on the InSight Mission Blog, JPL News, as well as Facebook and Twitter (@NASAInSight, @NASAJPL and @NASA).


In the News

NASA’s newest mission to Mars, the InSight lander, touched down just before noon PST on Nov. 26. So while some people were looking for Cyber Monday deals, scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were monitoring their screens for something else: signals from the spacecraft that it successfully touched down on the Red Planet.

InSight spent nearly seven months in space, kicked off by the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast of the U.S. Once it arrived at the Red Planet, InSight had to perform its entry, descent and landing, or EDL, to safely touch down on the Martian surface. This was perhaps the most dangerous part of the entire mission because it required that the spacecraft withstand temperatures near 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, quickly put on its brakes by using the atmosphere to slow down, then release a supersonic parachute and finally lower itself to the surface using 12 retrorockets.

When NASA’s InSight descends to the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018, it is guaranteed to be a white-knuckle event. Rob Manning, chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains the critical steps that must happen in perfect sequence to get the robotic lander safely to the surface. | Watch on YouTube

But even after that harrowing trip to the surface, InSight will have to overcome one more challenge before it can get to the most important part of the mission, the science. After a thorough survey of its landing area, InSight will need to carefully deploy each of its science instruments to the surface of Mars. It may sound like an easy task, but it’s one that requires precision and patience.

It’s also a great opportunity for educators to engage students in NASA’s exploration of Mars and the importance of planetary science while making real-world connections to lessons in science, coding and engineering. Read on to find out how.

How It Works: Deploying InSight’s Instruments

InSight is equipped with three science investigations with which to study the deep interior of Mars for the first time. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structures, or SEIS, is a seismometer that will record seismic waves traveling through the interior of Mars.

These waves can be created by marsquakes, or even meteorites striking the surface. The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, will investigate how much heat is still flowing out of Mars. It will do so by hammering a probe down to a depth of up to 16 feet (about 5 meters) underground. The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, or RISE, will use InSight’s telecommunications system to precisely track the movement of Mars through space. This will shed light on the makeup of Mars’ iron-rich core.

But to start capturing much of that science data, InSight will have to first carefully move the SEIS and HP3 instruments from its stowage area on the lander deck and place them in precise locations on the ground. Among its many firsts, InSight will be the first spacecraft to use a robotic arm to place instruments on the surface of Mars. Even though each instrument will need to be lowered only a little more than three feet (1 meter) to the ground, it’s a delicate maneuver that the team will rehearse to make sure they get it right.

InSight’s robotic arm is nearly 6 feet (about 2 meters) long. At the end of the arm is a five-fingered grappler that is designed to grab SEIS and HP3 from the deck of the lander and place them on the ground in front of the lander in a manner similar to how a claw game grabs prizes and deposits them in the collection chute. But on Mars, it has to work every time.

InSight will be the first mission on another planet to use a robotic arm to grasp instruments and place them on the surface. While it may look like an arcade machine, this space claw is designed to come away with a prize every time. | Watch on YouTube

Before the instruments can be set down, the area where they will be deployed – commonly referred to as the work space – must be assessed so SEIS and HP3 can be positioned in the best possible spots to meet their science goals. InSight is designed to land with the solar panels at an east-west orientation and the robotic arm facing south. The work space covers about three-square meters to the south of the rover. Because InSight is a three-legged lander and not a six-wheeled rover, science and engineering teams must find the best areas to deploy the instruments within the limited work space at InSight’s landing spot. That is why choosing the best landing site (which for InSight means one that is very flat and has few rocks) is so important.

Just as having two eyes gives us the ability to perceive depth, InSight will use a camera on its robotic arm to take what are known as stereo-pair images. These image pairs, made by taking a photo and then moving the camera slightly to the side for another image, provide 3D elevation information that’s used by the science and engineering teams. With this information, they can build terrain maps that show roughness and tilt, and generate something called a goodness map to help identify the best location to place each instrument. Evaluating the work space is expected to take a few weeks.

Once the team has selected the locations where they plan to deploy the instruments, the robotic arm will use its grapple to first grab SEIS and lower it to the surface. When the team confirms that the instrument is on the ground, the grapple will be released and images will be taken. If the team decides they like where the instrument is placed, it will be leveled, and the seismic sensor will be re-centered so it can be calibrated to collect scientific data. If the location is deemed unsuitable, InSight will use its robotic arm to reposition SEIS.

But wait, there’s more! SEIS is sensitive to changes in air pressure, wind and even local magnetic fields. In fact, it is so sensitive that it can detect ground movement as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom! So that the instrument isn’t affected by the wind and changes in temperature, the robotic arm will have to cover SEIS with the Wind and Thermal Shield.

After SEIS is on the ground and covered by the shield, and the deployment team is satisfied with their placement, the robotic arm will grab the HP3 instrument and place it on the surface. Just as with SEIS, once the team receives confirmation that HP3 is on the ground, the grapple will be released and the stability of the instrument will be confirmed. The final step in deploying the science instruments is to release the HP3 self-hammering mole from within the instrument so that it will be able to drive itself into the ground. The whole process from landing to final deployment is expected to take two to three months.

Why It’s Important

For the science instruments to work – and for the mission to be a success – it’s critical that the instruments are safely deployed. So while sending a mission to another planet is a huge accomplishment and getting pictures of other worlds is inspiring, it’s important to remember that science is the driver behind these missions. As technologies advance, new techniques are discovered and new ideas are formulated. Opportunities arise to explore new worlds and revisit seemingly familiar worlds with new tools.

Using its science instruments, SEIS and HP3, plus the radio-science experiment (RISE) to study how much Mars wobbles as it orbits the Sun, InSight will help scientists look at Mars in a whole new way: from the inside.

SEIS will help scientists understand how tectonically active Mars is today by measuring the power and frequency of marsquakes, and it will also measure how often meteorites impact the surface of Mars.

HP3 and RISE will give scientists the information they need to determine the size of Mars’ core and whether it’s liquid or solid; the thickness and structure of the crust; the structure of the mantle and what it’s made of; and how warm the interior is and how much heat is still flowing through.

Answering these questions is important for understanding Mars, and on a grander scale, it is key to forming a better picture of the formation of our solar system, including Earth.

Teach It

Use these resources to bring the excitement of NASA’s newest Mars mission and the scientific discovery that comes with it into the classroom.

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Follow Along

Resources and Activities

Feature Stories and Podcasts

Websites and Interactives

TAGS: InSight, Landing, Mars, K-12 Educators, Informal Educators, Engineering, Science, Mission Events

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Satellite images of the 2018 Carr and Ferguson wildfires in California

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

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

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


In the News

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

Satellite image of the 2014 King Fire in California

Wildfire Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

Animation of the FireSat network of satellites capturing wildfires on Earth

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

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

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

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

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

Why It's Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach It

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

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Lyle Tavernier was a co-author on this feature.

TAGS: teachable moments, wildfires, science

  • Ota Lutz
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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

animated heat map of co2 concentrations on Earth

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.

Graphic showing the amount of water in aquifers across Earth as measured by GRACE

A map of groundwater storage trends for Earth's 37 largest aquifers using GRACE data shows depletion and replenishment in millimeters of water per year. Twenty-one aquifers have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted, and 13 of these are considered significantly distressed, threatening regional water security and resilience. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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 It

Have students interpret GRACE data for themselves:
Get students learning about global water resources:
Teach students to read, interpret and compare “heat map” representations of Earth science data:

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Try these related resources for students from NASA's Space Place:

TAGS: Earth Science, Teach, In the News, GRACE, Climate Change, Water, Water Cycle

  • Ota Lutz
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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

Mars

Mars Lessons

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:

Illustration of the InSight Mars lander on the Red Planet - Labeled

This labeled artist's concept depicts the NASA InSight Mars lander at work studying the interior of Mars.

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.

Teach It

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.

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!

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.

Build, test and launch your very own air-powered rocket to celebrate the first West Coast interplanetary spacecraft launch!

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Try these related resources for students from NASA's Space Place:

TAGS: InSight, Lessons, K-12, Activities, Teaching, STEM, Mars

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

This feature was originally published on May 3, 2016.


In the News

What do "Star Wars," NASA's Dawn spacecraft and Newton's Laws of Motion have in common? An educational lesson that turns science fiction into science fact using spreadsheets – a powerful tool for developing the scientific models addressed in the Next Generation Science Standards.

Animation of NASA's Dawn spacecraft in flight

May the 4th Lessons

Celebrate Star Wars Day with these standards-aligned lessons in motion and forces for grades K-12.

The TIE (Twin Ion Engine) fighter is a staple of the "Star Wars" universe. Darth Vader flew one in "A New Hope." Poe Dameron piloted one in "The Force Awakens." And many, many Imperial pilots met their fates in them. While the fictional TIE fighters in "Star Wars" flew a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, ion engines are a reality in this galaxy today – and have a unique connection to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Launched in 1998, the first spacecraft to use an ion engine was Deep Space 1, which flew by asteroid 9969 Braille and comet Borrelly. Fueled by the success of Deep Space 1, engineers at JPL set forth to develop the next spacecraft that would use ion propulsion. This mission, called Dawn, would take ion-powered spacecraft to the next level by allowing Dawn to go into orbit twice – around the two largest objects in the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres.

How Does It Work?

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


Why is It Important?

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

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

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

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.

This lesson meets the following Next Generation Science and Common Core Math Standards:

NGSS Standards:

  • MS-PS2-2: Plan an investigation to provide evidence that the change in an object’s motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object.
  • HS-PS2-1: Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.
  • HS-PS2-1: Use mathematical representations to support the claim that the total momentum of a system of objects is conserved when there is no net force on the system.

Common Core Math Standards:

  • Grade 8: Expressions and Equations A.4: Perform operations with numbers expressed in scientific notation, including problems where both decimal and scientific notation are used. Use scientific notation and choose units of appropriate size for measurements of very large or very small quantities (e.g., use millimeters per year for seafloor spreading). Interpret scientific notation that has been generated by technology.
  • High School: Algebra CED.A.4: Rearrange formulas to highlight a quantity of interest, using the same reasoning as in solving equations.
  • High School: Functions LE.A: Construct and compare linear, quadratic, and exponential models and solve problems.
  • High School: Functions BF.A.1: Write a function that describes a relationship between two quantities.
  • High School: Statistics and Probability ID.C: Interpret linear Models
  • High School: Number and Quantity Q.A.1: Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays."

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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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Pi in the Sky 5 promo graphic

Update: March 15, 2018 – The answers to the 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key


In the News

Pi in the Sky 5

The 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge

Can you solve these stellar mysteries with pi? Click to get started.

Pi Day, the annual celebration of one of mathematics’ most popular numbers, is back! Representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, pi has many practical applications, including the development and operation of space missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The March 14 holiday is celebrated around the world by math enthusiasts and casual fans alike – from memorizing digits of pi (the current Pi World Ranking record is 70,030 digits) to baking and eating pies.

JPL is inviting people to participate in its 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge – four illustrated math puzzlers involving pi and real problems scientists and engineers solve to explore space, also available as a free poster! Answers will be released on March 15. 

Why March 14?

Pi is what’s known as an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation never ends and it never repeats. It has been calculated to more than one trillion digits, but NASA scientists and engineers actually use far fewer digits in their calculations (see “How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?”). The approximation 3.14 is often precise enough, hence the celebration occurring on March 14, or 3/14 (when written in U.S. month/day format). The first known celebration occurred in 1988, and in 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.

NASA’s Pi Day Challenge

Pi in the Sky 5

Lessons: Pi in the Sky

Explore the entire NASA Pi Day Challenge lesson collection, including free posters and handouts!

To show students how pi is used at NASA and give them a chance to do the very same math, the JPL Education Office has once again put together a Pi Day challenge featuring real-world math problems used for space exploration. This year’s challenge includes exploring the interior of Mars, finding missing helium in the clouds of Jupiter, searching for Earth-size exoplanets and uncovering the mysteries of an asteroid from outside our solar system.

Here’s some of the science behind this year’s challenge:

Scheduled to launch May 5, 2018, the InSight Mars lander will be equipped with several scientific instruments, including a heat flow probe and a seismometer. Together, these instruments will help scientists understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. It’s the first time we’ll get an in-depth look at what’s happening inside Mars. On Earth, seismometers are used to measure the strength and location of earthquakes. Similarly, the seismometer on Insight will allow us to measure marsquakes! The way seismic waves travel through the interior of Mars can tell us a lot about what lies beneath the surface. This year’s Quake Quandary problem challenges students to determine the distance from InSight to a hypothetical marsquake using pi!

Also launching in spring is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, mission. TESS is designed to build upon the discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope by searching for exoplanets – planets that orbit stars other than our Sun. Like Kepler, TESS will monitor hundreds of thousands of stars across the sky, looking for the temporary dips in brightness that occur when an exoplanet passes in front of its star from the perspective of TESS. The amount that the star dims helps scientists determine the radius of the exoplanet. Like those exoplanet-hunting scientists, students will have to use pi along with data from Kepler to find the size of an exoplanet in the Solar Sleuth challenge.

Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet. Shrouded in clouds, the planet’s interior holds clues to the formation of our solar system. In 1995, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft dropped a probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The probe detected unusually low levels of helium in the upper atmosphere. It has been hypothesized that the helium was depleted out of the upper atmosphere and transported deeper inside the planet. The extreme pressure inside Jupiter condenses helium into droplets that form inside a liquid metallic hydrogen layer below. Because the helium is denser than the surrounding hydrogen, the helium droplets fall like rain through the liquid metallic hydrogen. In 2016, the Juno spacecraft, which is designed to study Jupiter’s interior, entered orbit around the planet. Juno’s initial gravity measurements have helped scientists better understand the inner layers of Jupiter and how they interact, giving them a clearer window into what goes on inside the planet. In the Helium Heist problem, students can use pi to find out just how much helium has been depleted from Jupiter’s upper atmosphere over the planet’s lifetime.

In October 2017, astronomers spotted a uniquely-shaped object traveling in our solar system. Its path and high velocity led scientists to believe ‘Oumuamua, as it has been dubbed, is actually an object from outside of our solar system – the first ever interstellar visitor to be detected – that made its way to our neighborhood thanks to the Sun’s gravity. In addition to its high speed, ‘Oumuamua is reflecting the Sun’s light with great variation as the asteroid rotates on its axis, causing scientists to conclude it has an elongated shape. In the Asteroid Ace problem, students can use pi to find the rate of rotation for ‘Oumuamua and compare it with Earth’s rotation rate.

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TAGS: Pi Day, Math, Science, Engineering, NASA Pi Day Challenge, K-12, Lesson, Activity, Slideshow, Mars, Jupiter, Exoplanets, Kepler, Kepler-186f, Juno, InSight, TESS, ‘Oumuamua, asteroid, asteroids, NEO, Nearth Earth Object

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

In the News

A full moon is always a good reason to go outside and turn your head toward the sky, but those who do so early on January 31 will be treated to the sight of what’s being called the super blue blood moon! Super, because the moon will be closest to Earth in its orbit during the full moon (more on supermoons here); blue, because it’s the second full moon in a calendar month; and blood, because there will be a total lunar eclipse that will turn the moon a reddish hue. It’s the only total lunar eclipse (blood moon) visible from North America in 2018, so it’s a great opportunity for students to observe the Moon – and for teachers to make connections to in-class science content.

How It Works

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 be seen for about an hour by anyone on the nighttime side of Earth – as long as skies are clear!

Why It’s Important

Moon and Supermoon Lessons from NASA/JPL Edu

Lessons About the Moon

Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons for grades 1-12.

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

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

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

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

What to Expect

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

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

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 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

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

At 2:51 a.m. PST on January 31, 2018, the edge of the Moon will begin entering the penumbra. The Moon will dim very slightly for the next 57 minutes as it moves deeper into the penumbra. Because this part of Earth’s shadow is not fully dark, you may only notice some dim shading (if anything at all) on the Moon near the end of this part of the eclipse. Should you decide to sleep in during this time, you won’t miss much.

At 3:48 a.m. PST, the edge of the Moon will begin entering the umbra. As the Moon moves into the darker shadow, significant darkening will be noticeable. Some say that during this part of the eclipse, the Moon looks as if it has had a bite taken out of it. That “bite” gets bigger and bigger as the Moon moves deeper into the shadow. If you will be on the East Coast of the United States, you might still be able to see the Moon just as it moves into the umbra before the Moon sets and the Sun rises.

At 4:51 a.m. PST, the Moon will be completely inside the umbra, marking the beginning of the total lunar eclipse. The moment of greatest eclipse, when the Moon is halfway through the umbra, occurs at 5:31 a.m. PST.

As the Moon moves completely into the umbra, something interesting happens: The Moon begins to turn reddish-orange. The reason for this phenomenon? Earth’s atmosphere. As sunlight passes through it, the small molecules that make up our atmosphere scatter blue light, which is why the sky appears blue. This leaves behind mostly red light that bends, or refracts, into Earth’s shadow. We can see the red light during an eclipse as it falls onto the Moon in Earth’s shadow. This same effect is what gives sunrises and sunsets a reddish-orange color.

A variety of factors affect the appearance of the Moon during a total lunar eclipse. Clouds, dust, ash, photochemical droplets and organic material in the atmosphere can change how much light is refracted into the umbra. Additionally, the January 2018 lunar eclipse takes place when the full moon is at or near the closest point in its orbit to Earth (popularly known as a supermoon). This means it is deeper inside the umbra shadow and therefore may appear darker. The potential for variation provides a great opportunity for students to observe and classify the lunar eclipse based on its brightness. Details can be found below in the “Teach It” section.

At 6:07 a.m. PST, the edge of the Moon will begin exiting the umbra and moving into the opposite side of the penumbra. This marks the end of the total lunar eclipse.

At 7:11 a.m. PST, the Moon will be completely outside of the umbra. It will continue moving out of the penumbra until the eclipse ends at 8:08 a.m.

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.

  • *NEW* Evaluating a Lunar Eclipse (Grades 3-12) - Students use the Danjon Scale of Lunar Eclipse Brightness to illustrate the range of colors and brightness the Moon can take on during a total lunar eclipse.
  • Observing the Moon (Grades K-6) - Students identify the Moon’s location in the sky and record their observations in a journal over the course of the moon-phase cycle.
  • Moon Phases (Grades 1-6) - Students learn about the phases of the Moon by acting them out. In 30 minutes, they will act out one complete, 30-day, Moon cycle.
  • Measuring the Supermoon (Grades 5-12) - Students take measurements of the Moon during its full phase over multiple Moon cycles to compare and contrast results.
  • Modeling the Earth-Moon System (Grades 6-8) – Students learn about scale models and distance by creating a classroom-size Earth-Moon system.
  • Make a Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator – Like a decoder wheel for the Moon, this calendar will show you where and when to see the Moon and every moon phase throughout the year!

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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 model of Explorer 1 is held by (left to right) JPL Director William Pickering, University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.

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.

Poster highlighting the main characteristics of Explorer 1 and the Jupiter C rocket.

A poster highlights the main characteristics of Explorer 1 and the Jupiter C rocket that launched it into space. Image credit: NASA

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.

Rocket Lessons from NASA/JPL Edu

Rocket Activities

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

scientific instruments mounted inside Explorer 1

This photograph shows the scientific instruments mounted inside Explorer 1 alongside its outer case. Image Credit: James A. Van Allen Papers (RG 99.0142), University Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries

Graphic showing the components and science instruments aboard Explorer 1.

This graphic shows the various components and science instruments aboard Explorer 1, including its primary science instrument, a cosmic ray detector. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Graphic showing the Van Allen Belts and the locations of Earth-orbiting spacecraft

This graphic shows a cutaway diagram of the Van Allen belts along with the locations of a few Earth-orbiting spacecraft, including the Van Allen Probes. Image credit: NASA

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.

Watch the video above to learn more about the Van Allen Probes and a discovery they made shortly after starting their mission. Credit: NASA Goddard

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.

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TAGS: Explorer 1, STEM, NASA in the Classroom, Lessons, Activities, Teachable Moments

  • Ota Lutz
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Image showing the difference in size and brightness between a full moon at apogee and a full moon at perigee, also called a "supermoon"

The term “supermoon” has been popping up a lot in the news and on social media over the past few years. But what are supermoons, why do they occur and how can they be used as an educational tool. Plus, are they really that super?

There’s a good chance you’ll hear even more about supermoons in the new year. There will be two supermoons in a row in January 2018! Now is a great time to learn about these celestial events and get students exploring more about Earth’s only natural satellite.

Moon and Supermoon Lessons from NASA/JPL Edu

Lessons About the Moon

Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons for grades 1-12.

How it Works

As the Moon orbits Earth, it goes through phases, which are determined by its position relative to Earth and the Sun. When the Moon lines up on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, we see a full moon. The new moon phase occurs when the Moon and the Sun are lined up on the same side of Earth.

The Moon doesn’t orbit in a perfect circle. Instead, it travels in an ellipse that brings the Moon closer to and farther from Earth in its orbit. The farthest point in this ellipse is called the apogee and is about 405,500 kilometers from Earth on average. Its closest point is the perigee, which is an average distance of about 363,300 kilometers from Earth. During every 27-day orbit around Earth, the Moon reaches both its apogee and perigee.

Full moons can occur at any point along the Moon’s elliptical path, but when a full moon occurs at or near the perigee, it looks slightly larger and brighter than a typical full moon. That’s what the term “supermoon" refers to.

What makes a supermoon super? Watch this short animation to find out. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because supermoon is not an official astronomical term, there is no definition about just how close to perigee the full moon has to be in order to be called “super." Generally, supermoon is used to refer to a full moon 90 percent or closer to perigee. (When the term supermoon was originally coined, it was also used to describe a new moon in the same position, but since the new moon isn’t easily visible from Earth, it’s rarely used in that context anymore.)

A more accurate and scientific term is “perigee syzygy.” Syzygy is the alignment of three celestial bodies, in this case the Sun, Moon and Earth. But that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as supermoon.

Why It’s Important

Moon and Supermoon Lessons from NASA/JPL Edu

Make a Moon Phases Calendar

Use this Moon "decoder wheel" to see where and where to view the Moon all year!

As the largest and brightest object in the night sky, the Moon is a popular focal point for many amateur and professional astronomers pointing their telescopes to the sky, and the source of inspiration for everyone from aspiring space scientists to engineers to artists.

The supermoon is a great opportunity for teachers to connect concepts being taught in the classroom to something students will undoubtedly be hearing about. Students can practice writing skills in a Moon journal, study Moon phases and apply their math skills to observing the supermoon. (Click here for related activities from JPL’s Education Office.)

Incorrect and misleading information about the Moon (and supermoons) can lead to confusion and frustration. It’s important to help students understand what to expect and be able to identify inaccurate info.

What to Expect

Size

As with anything that moves closer to the person viewing it, the supermoon will appear bigger than an average full moon. At its largest, it can appear 14% larger in diameter than the smallest full moon. Keep in mind that a 14% increase in the apparent size of something that can be covered with a fingernail on an outstretched arm won’t seem significantly bigger. Unlike side-by-side comparisons made in science and everyday life, students will not have seen the full moon for at least 30 days, and won’t see another for at least 30 more days. Comparing a supermoon with a typical full moon from memory is very difficult.

A nearly full Moon sets as the space shuttle Discovery sits atop Launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Wednesday, March 11, 2009. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls

While they make for great photographs, images like this one that rely on a special photographic technique aren't an accurate representation of what the supermoon will look like to the naked eye. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls | Full image and caption on Flickr

Graphic showing the position of the moon at apogee and perigee

A supermoon looks bigger than a "micromoon" (when the full moon is at apogee) because it's about 40,000 kilometers closer to Earth on average. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Graphic showing the position of the moon at apogee and perigee

It's nearly impossible to compare the apparent size of the supermoon with a micromoon from memory, but when seen side-by-side as in this graphic, it becomes clear. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Leading up to a supermoon, there are often misleading images on popular media. A technique that involves using a long telephoto lens to take photographs of the Moon next to buildings or other objects makes the Moon look huge compared with its surroundings. This effect can make for great photographs, but it has nothing to do with the supermoon. In fact, these photos can be taken during any Moon phase, but they will likely be used in stories promoting the supermoon.

There are also images that have been edited to inaccurately dramatize the size of the supermoon. Both of these can lead students, and adults, taking pictures with their cell phone to think that they’ve done something wrong or just aren’t cut out for observing the sky, which isn’t true!

Your students may have noticed that when they see a full moon low on the horizon, it appears huge and then seems to shrink as it rises into the night sky. This can happen during any full moon. Known as the Moon Illusion, it has nothing to do with a supermoon. In fact, scientists still aren’t sure what causes the Moon Illusion.

Brightness

The full moon is bright and the supermoon is even brighter! Sunlight reflecting off the Moon during its full phase is bright enough to cast shadows on the ground. During a supermoon, that brightness can increase up to 30 percent as a result of the Moon being closer to Earth, a phenomenon explained by the inverse square law. (Introduce students to the inverse square law with this space-related math lesson for 6th- through 8th-graders.) As with the size of the Moon, students may not remember just how bright the last full moon was or easily be able to compare it. Powerful city lights can also diminish how bright a supermoon seems. Viewing it away from bright overhead street lights or outside the city can help viewers appreciate the increase in brightness.

What Not to Expect

A supermoon will not cause extreme flooding, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions, severe weather, nor tsunamis, despite what incorrect and non-scientific speculators might suggest. Encourage your students to be good scientists and research this for themselves.

Teach It

The excitement and buzz surrounding a supermoon is a great opportunity to teach a variety of Moon topics with these lessons from JPL’s Education Office:

  • *NEW* Observing the Moon (Grades K-6) – Students identify the Moon’s location in the sky and record their observations over the course of the moon-phase cycle in a journal.
  • *NEW* Measuring the Supermoon (Grades 5-12) – Students take measurements of the Moon during its full phase over multiple Moon cycles to compare and contrast results.
  • *NEW* Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator – Like a decoder wheel for the Moon, this calendar will show you where and when to see the Moon and every moon phase throughout the year!
  • *NEW* Look at the Moon! Journaling Project – Draw what you see in a Moon Journal and see if you can predict the moon phase that comes next.
  • Moon Phases (Grades 1-6) – Students learn about the phases of the Moon by acting them out. In 30 minutes, they will act out one complete Moon cycle.
  • Whip Up a Moon-Like Crater (Grades 1-6) – Whip up a Moon-like crater with baking ingredients as a demonstration for students.
  • Modeling the Earth-Moon System (Grades 6-8) – Using an assortment of playground and toy balls, students will measure diameter, calculate distance and scale, and build a model of the Earth-Moon system.

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For the record: This story originally stated a supermoon would be visible in January and February 2018. The two supermoons of 2018 are both in January.

TAGS: Supermoon, Moon Phases, Moon, Earth's Moon, What's Up, Astronomy, K-12, Educators

  • Lyle Tavernier
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