A small cube-shaped spacecraft with long wing-like solar panels is shown flying towards a relatively large asteroid with an even bigger asteroid nearby.

Find out more about the historic first test, which could be used to defend our planet if a hazardous asteroid were discovered. Plus, explore lessons to bring the science and engineering of the mission into the classroom.

Update: Oct. 4, 2022 – The DART spacecraft successfully impacted the asteroid Dimorphos on September 26. See the latest news and images on the mission website.


In an attempt to alter the orbit of an asteroid for the first time in history, NASA will crash a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos on September 26. The mission, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, will take place at an asteroid that poses no threat to our planet. Rather, it's an ideal target for NASA to test an important element of its planetary defense plan.

Read further to learn about DART, how it will work, and how the science and engineering behind the mission can be used to teach a variety of STEM topics.

Why It's Important

The vast majority of asteroids and comets are not dangerous, and never will be. Asteroids and comets are considered potentially hazardous objects, or PHOs, if they are 100-165 feet (30-50 meters) in diameter or larger and their orbit around the Sun comes within five million miles (eight million kilometers) of Earth’s orbit. NASA's planetary defense strategy involves detecting and tracking these objects using telescopes on the ground and in space. In fact, NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, monitors all known near-Earth objects to assess any impact risk they may pose. Any relatively close approach is reported on the Asteroid Watch dashboard.

Six triangular sections fan out from a shadowed view of Earth describing the PDCO's various activities, including 'Search, Detect & Track', 'Characterize', 'Plan and Coordinate', 'Mitigate', and 'Assess'.

NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office runs a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at detecting and responding to threats from potentially hazardous objects, should one be discovered. The DART mission is one component and the first mission being flown by the team. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

While there are no known objects currently posing a threat to Earth, scientists continue scanning the skies for unknown asteroids. NASA is actively researching and planning for ways to prevent or reduce the effects of a potential impact, should one be discovered. The DART mission is the first test of such a plan – in this case, whether it's possible to divert an asteroid from its predicted course by slamming into it with a spacecraft.

Eyes on Asteroids is a real-time visualization of every known asteroid or comet that is classified as a near-Earth object, or NEO. Asteroids are represented as blue dots and comets as shown as white dots. Use your mouse to explore the interactive further and learn more about the objects and how we track them. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Explore the full interactive

With the knowledge gained from this demonstration, similar techniques could be used to deflect an asteroid or comet away from Earth if it were deemed hazardous to the planet.

How It Works

With a diameter of about 525 feet (160 meters) – the length of 1.5 football fields – Dimorphos is the smaller of two asteroids in a double-asteroid system. Dimorphos orbits the larger asteroid called Didymos (Greek for "twin"), every 11 hours and 55 minutes.

Various Earth objects are shown to scale ranging from a bus at 14 meters to the Burj Khalifa skyscraper at 830 meters. Dimorphos at 163 meters is shown between the Statue of Liberty (93 meters) on its left and the Great Pyramid of Giza (139 meters) on its right. Didymos is shown between the One World Trade Center (546 meters) on its left and the Burj Khalifa on its right.

The sizes of the two asteroids in the Didymos system relative to objects on Earth. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL | + Expand image

Neither asteroid poses a threat to our planet, which is one reason why this asteroid system is the ideal place to test asteroid redirection techniques. At the time of DART's impact, the asteroid pair will be 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) away from Earth as they travel on their orbit around the Sun. Regardless of how much or how little the orbit of Dimorphos is changed by DART, the asteroid will not become a threat to Earth.

The DART spacecraft is designed to collide head-on with Dimorphos to alter its orbit, shortening the time it takes the small asteroid to travel around Didymos. Compared with Dimorphos, which has a mass of about 11 billion pounds (five billion kilograms), the DART spacecraft is light. It will weigh just 1,210 pounds (550 kilograms) at the time of impact. So how can such a light spacecraft affect the orbit of a relatively massive asteroid?

You can use your mouse to explore this interactive view of DART's impact with Dimorphos from NASA's Eyes on the Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Explore the full interactive

DART is what’s known as a kinetic impactor because it will transfer its momentum and kinetic energy to Dimorphos upon impact, altering the asteroid's orbit in return. Scientists can make predictions about some of these effects thanks to principles described in Newton's laws of motion.

Newton’s first law tells us that the asteroid’s orbit will remain unchanged until something acts upon it. Using the formula for linear momentum (p = m * v), we can calculate that the spacecraft, which at the time of impact will be traveling at 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) per second, will have about 0.5% of the asteroid’s momentum. The momentum of the spacecraft may seem small in comparison, but it's enough to make a detectable change in the speed of Dimorphos' orbit.

But there is more to consider in testing whether the technique could be used in the future for planetary defense. For example, the formula for kinetic energy (KE = 0.5 * m * v2) tells us that a fast moving spacecraft possesses a lot of energy.

When DART hits the surface of the asteroid, its kinetic energy will be 10 billion joules! A crater will be formed and material known as ejecta will be blasted out as a result of the impact. In this case, asteroid material equalling 10-100 times the mass of the spacecraft itself will be ejected out of the crater. The force needed to push this material out will be matched by an equal reaction force pushing on the asteroid in the opposite direction, as described by Newton’s third law.

This animation shows conceptually how DART's impact is predicted to change Dimorphos' orbit from a larger orbit to a slightly smaller one that's several minutes shorter than the original. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Jon Emmerich | Watch on YouTube

How much material will be ejected, and its recoil momentum, is still unknown. A lot depends on the surface composition of the asteroid. Laboratory tests on Earth suggest that if the surface material is poorly conglomerated, or loosely formed, more material will be blasted out. A surface that is well conglomerated, or densely compacted, will eject less material. As a result, the impact will also tell us more about the composition of Dimorphos.

After the DART impact, scientists will use a technique called the transit method to see how much the impact changed Dimorphous' orbit. As observed from Earth, the Didymos pair is what’s known as an eclipsing binary, meaning Dimorphos passes in front of and behind Didymos from our view, creating what appears from Earth to be a subtle dip in the combined brightness of the pair. Scientists can use ground-based telescopes to measure this change in brightness and calculate how quickly Dimorphos orbits Didymos.

A large cylindrical building with faceted sides has an opening at the top where two parts of a dome appear to be pulled apart allowing the telescope to view the darkened night sky.

The Lowell Discovery Telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona is one of the telescopes across the globe that will be used to evaluate the result of the DART impact. Image credit: Lowell Observatory | + Expand image

One of the biggest challenges of the DART mission is navigating a small spacecraft to a head-on collision with a small asteroid millions of miles away. To solve that problem, the spacecraft is equipped with a single instrument, the DRACO camera, which works together with an autonomous navigation system called SMART Nav to guide the spacecraft without direct control from engineers on Earth. About four hours before impact, images captured by the camera will be sent to the spacecraft's navigation system, allowing it to identify which of the two asteroids is Dimorphos and independently navigate to the target.

Two white points of light are circled in a fuzzy field of stars. The slightly larger point of light near the far right of the image is labeled Didymos.

A composite of 243 images of Didymos and Dimorphos taken by the DART spacecraft's DRACO camera on July 27, 2022, as the spacecraft was navigating to its target. Image credit: JPL DART Navigation Team | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

DART is not just an experimental asteroid impactor. The mission is also using cutting-edge technology never before flown on a planetary spacecraft and testing new technologies designed to improve how we power and communicate with spacecraft.

Learn more about the engineering behind the DART mission, including the innovative Roll Out Solar Array and NEXT-C ion propulsion system, in this video featuring experts from the mission. Credit: APL | Watch on YouTube

One such technology that was first tested on the International Space Station and is being used on the solar-powered DART spacecraft, is the Roll Out Solar Array, or ROSA, power system. As its name suggests, the power system consists of flexible solar panel material that is rolled up for launch and unrolled in space.

The Roll Out Solar Array, shown in this animated image captured during a test on the International Space Station, is making its first planetary journey on DART. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Some of the power generated by the solar array is used for another innovative technology, the spacecraft's NEXT-C ion propulsion system. Rather than using traditional chemical propulsion, DART is propelled by charged particles of xenon pushed from its engine. Ion propulsion has been used on other missions to asteroids and comets including Dawn and Deep Space 1, but NEXT-C's ion thrusters have higher performance and efficiency.

Follow Along

There are a number of ways to follow along with this exciting event and all the science from the mission.

On September 26, watch NASA Live from 3 to 4:30 p.m. PDT (6 to 7:30 p.m. EDT) to hear commentary from experts before and during the impact at Dimorphos. Images from DART, which will impact the asteroid at 4:14 p.m. PDT (7:14 p.m. EDT), will be streamed to Earth in real-time and shown during the broadcast.

Watch here from 3 to 4:30 p.m. PDT (6 to 7:30 p.m. EDT) on Monday, Sept. 26 to hear live commentary from experts before and after the impact at Dimorphos. | Watch on YouTube

In the days following the event, NASA expects to receive images of the impact from a cubesat that will be deployed by DART before impact. The cubesat, LICIACube, which was provided by the Italian Space Agency, is designed to capture images of the impact, the ejecta cloud, and perhaps even the impact crater left behind by DART. The James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Lucy spacecraft will observe Didymos to monitor how soon reflected sunlight from the ejecta plume can be seen. In the following weeks, DART team members will continue observing the asteroid system to measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit and determine what happened on its surface. In 2024, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Hera spacecraft to conduct an in-depth post-impact study of the Didymos system.

Learn more about DART and see the latest images and updates on the mission website. Plus, explore even more resources on this handy page.

Teach It

The mission is a great opportunity to engage students in the real world applications of STEM topics. Students can even observe the results of their engineering design challenges at the same time as the results of the mission are streamed back to Earth! Start exploring these lessons and resources to get students engaging in STEM along with the mission.

Educator Guides

Expert Talks

Student Activities

Articles

Resources for Kids

Check out these related resources for kids from NASA Space Place:

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TAGS: Asteroids and Comets, DART, near-Earth objects, planetary defense, Science, K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Teachable Moments

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Collage of images from the events and lessons featured in this article.

With 180 lessons in our online catalog, you can explore Earth and space with us all year long. We show you how with this handy NASA-JPL school year calendar.


We just added the 180th lesson to our online catalog of standards-aligned STEM lessons, which means JPL Education now has a lesson for every day of the school year. To celebrate and help you make the year ahead stellar, we've put together this monthly calendar of upcoming NASA events along with links to our related lessons, Teachable Moments articles, and student projects you can use to engage students in STEM while they explore Earth and space with us all year long.


August

The Voyagers Turn 45

The twin Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 on a journey to explore the outer planets and beyond – and they're still going. Now more than 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from Earth in a region known as interstellar space, they're the most distant human-made objects in space.

Get a primer on these fascinating spacecraft from Teachable Moments, then use it as a jumping off point for lessons on the scale, size, and structure of our solar system and how we communicate with distant spacecraft.

Lessons & Resources:


September

Artemis Takes a Giant Leap

NASA is making plans to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since 1972 – this time to establish a sustainable presence and prepare for future human missions to Mars. The first major step is Artemis I, which will test three key components required to send astronauts beyond the Moon: the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The uncrewed Artemis I mission will mark the first test of all three components at once.

Get your K-12 students following along with lessons in rocketry and what it takes to live in space. Plus, register to follow along with the mission with resources and updates from NASA's Office of STEM Engagement.

Update: Sept. 6, 2022 – The Sept. 3 launch of Artemis I has been scrubbed and will be rescheduled for a later date. For more information and updates on the timing of the next launch attempt, visit the NASA Artemis blog.

Lessons & Resources:

Rendezvous with an Asteroid

A distant asteroid system 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth was the site of NASA's first attempt at redirecting an asteroid. On September 26, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, mission impacted the asteroid Dimorphos in an attempt to alter its speed and path around a larger asteroid known as Didymos. Dimorphos and Didymos do not pose a threat to Earth, which makes them a good proving ground for testing whether a similar technique could be used to defend Earth against potential impacts by hazardous asteroids in the future.

Get a primer on the DART mission and find related resources for the classroom in this article from our Teachable Moments series. Plus, explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons and activities all about asteroids to get students learning about different kinds of space rocks, geology, and meteoroid math.

Lessons & Resources:

A Closer Look at Europa

Just a few days later, on September 29, the Juno spacecraft that had been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 captured the closest views of Jupiter’s moon Europa in more than 20 years. The ice-covered moon is thought to contain a subsurface liquid-water ocean, making it an exciting new frontier in our search for life beyond Earth. NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024 is designed to study the moon in more detail. But until Europa Clipper arrives at the Jovian system in 2030, these observations from Juno are our best chance to get a closer look at this fascinating moon.

Learn more about Europa and why it is interesting to scientists in this talk from our Teaching Space With NASA series featuring a Europa Clipper mission scientist. Then, explore our Ocean Worlds Lesson Collection for ideas on making classroom connections.

Lessons & Resources:


October

Celebrate Halloween Like a Space Explorer

The month of October is the perfect time to get students exploring our STEM activities with a Halloween twist. Students can learn how to carve a pumpkin like a JPL engineer, take a tour of mysterious locations throughout the solar system, and dig into the geology inside their Halloween candy.

October 31 is also JPL's 86th birthday, which makes October a great time to learn more about JPL history, including the team of female mathematicians known as "human computers" who performed some of the earliest spacecraft-tracking calculations and the Laboratory's role in launching the first U.S. space satellite.

Lessons & Resources:


November

Watch a Total Lunar Eclipse

Look up in the early morning hours of November 8 to watch one of the most stunning spectacles visible from Earth: a total lunar eclipse. This one will be viewable in North and South America, as well as Asia and Australia.

Learn more about lunar eclipses and how to watch them from our Teachable Moments series. Then, get students of all ages outside and observing the Moon with lessons on moon phases and the hows and whys of eclipses. Students can even build a Moon calendar so they always know when and where to look for the next eclipse.

Lessons & Resources:


December

Satellite Launches on a Mission to Follow the Water

As crucial as water is to human life, did you know that no one has ever completed a global survey of Earth’s surface water? That is about to change with the launch of the SWOT mission, scheduled for December 5. SWOT, which stands for Surface Water Ocean Topography, will use a state-of-the-art radar to measure the elevation of water in major lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. It will also provide an unprecedented level of 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.

Engage your students in learning about Earth’s water budget and how we monitor Earth from space with these lessons. And be sure to check out our upcoming Teachable Moments article for more about the SWOT mission and the science of our changing climate.

Lessons & Resources:

Prepare for the Science Fair

Before you know it, it'll be science fair time. Avoid the stress of science fair prep by getting students organized and thinking about their projects before the winter recess. Start by watching our video series How to Do a Science Fair Project. A scientist and an engineer from JPL walk your students through all the steps they will need to create an original science fair project by observing the world around them and asking questions. You can also explore our science fair starter pack of lessons and projects to get students generating ideas and thinking like scientists and engineers.

Lessons & Resources:


January

Explore STEM Careers

January is the time when many of us set goals for the year ahead, so it's the perfect month to get students exploring their career goals and opportunities in STEM. Students can learn more about careers in STEM and hear directly from scientists and engineers working on NASA missions in our Teaching Space video series. Meanwhile, our news page has more on what it takes to be a NASA astronaut and what it's like to be a JPL intern.

For students already in college and pursuing STEM degrees, now is the time to start exploring internship opportunities for the summer. The deadline for JPL summer internships is in March, so it's a good idea to refresh your resume and get your application started now. Learn how to stand out with this article on how to get an internship at JPL – which also includes advice for pre-college students.

Resources:


February

Mars Rover Celebrates 2-Year 'Landiversary'

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover celebrates its "landiversary" on February 18, which marks two years since the rover made its nail-biting descent on the Red Planet. The rover continues to explore Jezero Crater using science tools to analyze rocks and soil in search of signs of ancient microbial life. As of this writing, the rover has collected twelve rock core samples that will be sent to Earth by a future mission. Perseverance even witnessed a solar eclipse! Meanwhile, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, which the rover deployed shortly after landing, has gone on to achieve feats of its own.

The Mission to Mars Student Challenge is a great way to get students of all ages exploring STEM and the Red Planet right along with the Perseverance rover. The challenge includes seven weeks of education content that can be customized for your classroom as well as education plans, expert talks, and resources from NASA.

Lessons & Resources:


March

Take On the Pi Day Challenge

Math teachers, pie-lovers, and pun-aficionados rejoice! March 14 is Pi Day, the annual celebration of the mathematical constant used throughout the STEM world – and especially for space exploration. This year's celebration brings the 10th installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge, featuring four new illustrated math problems involving pi along with NASA missions and science.

The new problems will make their debut on March 10, but you don't have to wait to get students using pi like NASA scientists and engineers. Explore our evergreen collection of Pi Day Challenge problems, get students learning about how we use pi at NASA, and hear from a JPL engineer on how many decimals of pi we use for space exploration.

Lessons & Resources:


April

Celebrate Earth Day With NASA

You may not immediately think of Earth science when you think of NASA, but it's a big part of what we do. Earth Day on April 22 is a great time to explore Earth science with NASA, especially as new missions are taking to the skies to study the movements of dust, measure surface water across the planet, and track tiny land movements to better predict natural disasters.

Whether you want to focus on Earth’s surface and geology, climate change, extreme weather, or the water budget, we have an abundance of lessons, student projects and Teachable Moments to guide your way.

Lessons & Resources:


May

Summer Learning Adventures

As the school year comes to a close, send your students off on an adventure of summer learning with our do-it-yourself STEM projects. Additionally, our Learning Space With NASA at Home page and video series is a great resource for parents and guardians to help direct their students' learning during out-of-school time.

Lessons & Resources:

TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Students, Lessons, Resources, Projects, Events, Artemis, Voyager, DART, Asteroids, Europa, Ocean Worlds, Halloween, History, Earth, Climate, SWOT, Lunar Eclipse, Science Fair, Career Advice, Mars, Perseverance, Pi Day, Earth Day, Summer STEM

  • Kim Orr
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We talked to a few JPL interns about what they've been working on, how they're taking NASA into the future, and what it all means to them.


Despite the challenges of the past two years, it’s been a busy time for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Among the Lab’s activities have been the launch and landing of a new Mars rover, preparations for sending a spacecraft to explore an ocean world beyond Earth, first light for missions studying our changing climate and the universe beyond, and the development of technology to help address the COVID pandemic.

All the while, JPL interns have continued supporting scientists, engineers, and technologists behind the scenes to make those missions and projects happen.

More than 600 summer interns are taking part in that crucial work – both in-person at the laboratory in Southern California as well as from their homes and dorms across the country. In May, JPL welcomed summer interns back on site for the first time since 2019 while continuing to offer remote internships as projects allow.

We wanted to hear what interns have been up to, how they're contributing to NASA missions and science, and what the experience has meant to them. So we caught up with three students who have helped see the lab through the last year or two – and in one case, seven years. Watch their stories in the video above.

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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, Internships, College Students, Science, Engineering, InSight, Mars, Europa, Ocean Worlds, Enceladus, Saturn, Cassini, Ceres

  • NASA/JPL Edu
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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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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 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.

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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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Just beyond the wing of a plane, the edge of a tall glacier is visible through the plane's window. At the bottom of the glacier, bits of ice surround an elliptical pool of brown water at the glacier's edge.

Explore how the OMG mission discovered more about what's behind one of the largest contributors to global sea level rise. Plus, learn what it means for communities around the world and how to get students engaged.


After six years investigating the effects of warming oceans on Greenland's ice sheet, the Oceans Melting Greenland, or OMG, mission has concluded. This airborne and seaborne mission studied how our oceans are warming and determined that ocean water is melting Greenland’s glaciers as much as warm air is melting them from above.

Read on to learn more about how OMG accomplished its goals and the implications of what we learned. Then, explore educational resources to engage students in the science of this eye-opening mission.

Why It's Important

Global sea level rise is one of the major environmental challenges of the 21st century. As oceans rise, water encroaches on land, affecting populations that live along shorelines. Around the world – including U.S. regions along the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard and in Alaska – residents are feeling the impact of rising seas. Additionally, freshwater supplies are being threatened by encroaching saltwater from rising seas.

Sea level rise is mostly caused by melting land ice (primarily glaciers), which adds water to the ocean, as well as thermal expansion, the increase in volume that occurs when water heats up. Both ice melt and thermal expansion result from rising global average temperatures on land and in the sea – one facet of climate change.

This short video explains why Greenland's ice sheets are melting and what it means for our planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch more from the Earth Minute series

Greenland’s melting glaciers contribute more freshwater to sea level rise than any other source, which is why the OMG mission set out to better understand the mechanisms behind this melting.

How We Did It

The OMG mission used a variety of instruments onboard airplanes and ships to map the ocean floor, measure the behemoth Greenland glaciers, and track nearby water temperature patterns.

Join JPL scientist Josh Willis as he and the NASA Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team work to understand the role that ocean water plays in melting Greenland’s glaciers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

An animation shows a ship passing over the ocean directly in front of a glacier and scanning the sea floor followed by a plane flying overhead and scanning the air.

This animation shows how the OMG mission created a map of the ocean floor, known as a bathymetric map, to determine the geometry around Greenland's glaciers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

An animation shows a plan flying over a glacier and scanning the ground below followed by a plane flying over the ocean shelf next to the glacier and dropping probes into the water.

This animation shows how the OMG mission used radar to measure changes in the thickness and retreat of Greenland's glaciers as well as probes to measure ocean temperature and salinity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Early on, the mission team created a map of the ocean floor, known as a bathymetric map, by combining multibeam sonar surveys taken from ships and gravity measurements taken from airplanes. Interactions among glaciers and warming seas are highly dependent on the geometry of the ocean floor. For example, continental shelf troughs carved by glaciers allow pathways for water to interact with glacial ice. So understanding Greenland's local bathymetry was crucial to OMG's mission.

To locate the edges of Greenland's glaciers and measure their heights, the mission used a radar instrument known as the Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer. Every spring during the six-year OMG mission, the radar was deployed on NASA’s Gulfstream III airplane that flew numerous paths over Greenland’s more than 220 glaciers. Data from the instrument allowed scientists to determine how the thickness and area of the glaciers are changing over time.

Finally, to measure ocean temperature and salinity patterns, scientists deployed numerous cylindrical probes. These probes dropped from an airplane and fell through the water, taking measurements from the surface all the way to the ocean floor. Each probe relayed its information back to computers onboard the plane where ocean temperatures and salinity were mapped. Then, scientists took this data back to their laboratories and analyzed it for trends, determining temperature variations and circulation patterns.

What We Discovered

Prior to the OMG mission, scientists knew that warming air melted glaciers from above, like an ice cube on a hot day. However, glaciers also flow toward the ocean and break off into icebergs in a process called calving. Scientists had the suspicion that warmer ocean waters were melting the glaciers from below, causing them to break off more icebergs and add to rising seas. It wasn’t until they acquired the data from OMG, that they discovered the grim truth: Glaciers are melting from above and below, and warming oceans are having a significant effect on glacial melt.

This narrated animation shows warm ocean water is melting glaciers from below, causing their edges to break off in a process called calving. Credit: NASA | Watch on YouTube

What this means for our Earth's climate is that as we continue burning fossil fuels and contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation, the oceans, which store more than 90% of the heat that is trapped by greenhouse gases, will continue to warm, causing glaciers to melt faster than ever. As warming ocean water moves against glaciers, it eats away at their base, causing the ice above to break off. In other words, calving rates increase and sea level rises even faster.

Our oceans control our climate and affect our everyday lives, whether or not we live near them. With the pace of the melt increasing, our shorelines and nearby communities will be in trouble sooner than previously expected. And it’s not just the beaches that will be affected. If Greenland’s glaciers all melt, global sea levels will rise by over 24 feet (7.4 meters), bringing dramatic change to the landscapes of major cities around the world.

› Read more about OMG’s findings and how scientists are continuing their research through ongoing initiatives and projects.

Teach It

Check out these resources to bring the real-life STEM behind the mission into your teaching. With lessons for educators and student projects, engage students in learning about the OMG mission and NASA climate science.

Educator Guides

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Articles

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TAGS: Teachable Moment, Climate, Earth Science, Glaciers, Greenland, Ice, Sea Level Rise, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Lessons, Missions, Earth, Climate TM

  • Ota Lutz
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In the cleanroom at Northrop Grumman, a technician inspects the bellows between the hexagonal sections that make up the large honeycomb-shaped mirror on the Webb telescope.

Get a look into the science and engineering behind the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built while exploring ways to engage learners in the mission.


NASA is launching the largest, most powerful space telescope ever. The James Webb Space Telescope will look back at some of the earliest stages of the universe, gather views of early star and galaxy formation, and provide insights into the formation of planetary systems, including our own solar system.

Read on to learn more about what the space-based observatory will do, how it works, and how to engage learners in the science and engineering behind the mission.

What It Will Do

The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, was developed through a partnership between NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies. It will build upon and extend the discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope to help unravel mysteries of the universe. First, let's delve into what scientists hope to learn with the Webb telescope.

A look at the James Webb Space Telescope, its mission and the incredible technological challenge this mission presents. | Watch on YouTube

How Galaxies Evolve

What the first galaxies looked like and when they formed is not known, and the Webb telescope is designed to help scientists learn more about that early period of the universe. To better understand what the Webb telescope will study, it’s helpful to know what happened in the early universe, before the first stars formed.

The universe, time, and space all began about 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. For the first few hundred-thousand years, the universe was a hot, dense flood of protons, electrons, and neutrons, the tiny particles that make up atoms. As the universe cooled, protons and neutrons combined into ionized hydrogen and helium, which had a positive charge, and eventually attracted all those negatively charged electrons. This process, known as recombination, occurred about 240,000 to 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

An ellipse is filled with speckled dark blue, green, and small yellow and red splotches.

This image shows the temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) in the cosmic microwave background from a time when the universe was less than 400,000 years old. The image was captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, which spent nine years, from 2001 to 2010, collecting data on the early universe. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Light that previously couldn’t travel without being scattered by the dense ionized plasma of early particles could now travel freely. The very first form of light we can look back and see comes from this time and is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. It is essentially a map of temperature fluctuations across the universe left behind from the Big Bang. The fluxuations give clues about the origin of galaxies and the large-scale structure of galaxies. There were still no stars in the universe at this time, so the next several hundred million years are known as the cosmic dark ages.

Current theory predicts that the earliest stars were big – 30 to 300 times the size of our Sun – and burned quickly, ending in supernova explosions after just a few million years. (For comparison, our Sun has a lifespan of about 10 billion years and will not go supernova.) Observing these luminous supernovae is one of the few ways scientists could study the earliest stars. That is vital to understanding the formation of objects such as the first galaxies.

By using the Webb telescope to compare the earliest galaxies with those of today, scientists hope to understand how they form, what gives them their shape, how chemical elements are distributed across galaxies, how central black holes influence their galaxies, and what happens when galaxies collide.

Learn how the James Webb Space Telescope's ability to look farther into space than ever before will bring newborn galaxies into view. | Watch on YouTube

How Stars and Planetary Systems Form

Stars and their planetary systems form within massive clouds of dust and gas. It's impossible to see into these clouds with visible light, so the Webb telescope is equipped with science instruments that use infrared light to peer into the hearts of stellar nurseries. When viewing these nurseries in the mid-infrared – as the Webb telescope is designed to do – the dust outside the dense star forming regions glows and can be studied directly. This will allow astronomers to observe the details of how stars are born and investigate why most stars form in groups as well as how planetary systems begin and evolve.

Plumes of red stellar dust shoot out from the top and bottom of a bright central disk.

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). The galaxy is remarkable for its bright blue disk, webs of shredded clouds and fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions.Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: J. Gallagher (University of Wisconsin), M. Mountain (STScI), and P. Puxley (National Science Foundation) | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

How Exoplanets and Our Solar System Evolve

Collage of futuristic posters depicting explorers on various exoplanets.

As we make more discoveries about exoplanets, artists at NASA are imagining what future explorers might encounter on these faraway worlds as part of the Exoplanet Travel Bureau poster series. Credit: NASA | › View and download the posters | + Expand image

The first planet outside our solar system, or exoplanet, was discovered in 1992. Since then, scientists have found thousands more exoplanets and estimate that there are hundreds of billions in the Milky Way galaxy alone. There are many waiting to be discovered and there is more to learn about the exoplanets themselves, such as what makes up their atmospheres and what their weather and seasons may be like. The Webb telescope will help scientists do just that.

In our own solar system, the Webb telescope will study planets and other objects to help us learn more about our solar neighborhood. It will be able to complement studies of Mars being carried out by orbiters, landers, and rovers by searching for molecules that may be signs of past or present life. It is powerful enough to identify and characterize icy comets in the far reaches of our solar system. And it can be used to study places like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune while there are no active missions at those planets.

How It Works

The Webb telescope has unique capabilities enabled by the way it views the universe, its size, and the new technologies aboard. Here's how it works.

Peering Into the Infrared

To see ancient, distant galaxies, the Webb telescope was built with instruments sensitive to light in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths.

Light leaving these galaxies can take billions of years to reach Earth, so when we see these objects, we’re actually seeing what they looked like in the past. The farther something is from Earth, the farther back in time it is when we observe it. So when we look at light that left objects 13.5 billion years ago, we're seeing what happened in the early universe.

A sideways funnel that fans out at one end encapsulates an illustration of the history of the universe starting with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago through the first stars, the development of galaxies, and accelerated expansion.

An illustrated timeline of the universe. Credit: WMAP | + Expand image

As light from distant objects travels to Earth, the universe continues to expand, something it’s been doing since the Big Bang. The waves that make up the light get stretched as the universe expands. You can see this effect in action by making an ink mark on a rubber band and observing how the mark stretches out when you pull on the rubber band.

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/images/redshift_demo.gif

Light waves get stretched as the universe expands similar to how this ink mark stretches out as the elastic is pulled. Get students modeling and exploring this effect with this standards-aligned math lesson. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

What this means for light coming from distant galaxies is that the visible lightwaves you would be able to see with your eyes get stretched out so far that the longer wavelengths shift from visible light into infrared. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as redshift – and the farther away an object is, the more redshift it undergoes.

Webb telescope’s infrared sensing equipment will give scientists the chance to study some of the earliest stars that exploded in supernova events, creating the elements necessary to build planets and form life.

Gathering Light

The first stars were massive, their life cycles ending in supernova explosions. The light from these explosions has traveled so far that it is incredibly dim. This is due to the inverse square law. You experience this effect when a room appears to get darker as you move away from a light source.

To see such dim light, the Webb telescope needs to be extremely sensitive. A telescope’s sensitivity, or its ability to detect faint signals, is related to the size of the mirror it uses to gather light. On the Webb telescope, 18 hexagonal mirrors combine to form a massive primary mirror that is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across.

A technician in a white smock stands up in a gap between several large hexagonal mirrors forming a honeycomb shape.

A technician inspects the Webb telescope's honeycomb-shaped mirror. The telescope's primary mirror is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across and is made up of 18 smaller hexagonal mirrors that must fold for launch and unfurl after the telescope reaches its orbit in space. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Compared with the Hubble Space Telescope’s eight-foot (2.4 meter) diameter mirror, this gives the Webb telescope more than six times the surface area to collect those distant particles of light known as photons. Hubble’s famous Ultra Deep Field observation captured images of incredibly faint, distant galaxies by pointing at a seemingly empty spot in space for 16 days, but the Webb telescope will be able to make a similar observation in just seven hours.

Colorful spirals, disks, and stars of various sizes and shapes appear against the blackness of space like sprinkles on a cake.

This image, called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, shows 28 of the more than 500 young galaxies that existed when the universe was less than 1 billion years old. Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Bouwens and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz) | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Keeping Cool

The Webb Telescope gathers its scientific data as infrared light. To detect the faint signals of objects billions of light years away, the instruments inside the telescope have to be kept very cold, otherwise those infrared signals could get lost in the heat of the telescope. Engineers accounted for this with a couple of systems designed to get the instruments cold and keep them cold.

The Webb telescope's orbit around the Sun – sitting about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth at Lagrange point 2 – keeps the spacecraft pretty far from our planet's heat, but even that’s not enough. To further reduce the temperature on the instruments, the spacecraft will unfurl a tennis-court-size sunshield that will block light and heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon using five layers of specially coated material. Each layer blocks incoming heat, and the heat that does make it through is redirected out of the sides of the sunshield. Additionally, the vacuum between each layer provides insulation.

Technicians in white smocks stand on lifts looking at JWST's fully deployed sunshield in the cleanroom at Northrup Gruman. The five layers of the kite-shaped sunshield extend out around JWST's folded honeycomb-shaped mirror.

The sunshield is made up of five layers of specially coated material designed to block the Webb telescope's sensitive instruments from incoming heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon. This photo, taken in the cleanroom at Northrop Grumman in Southern California in December 2020, shows the sunshield fully deployed and tensioned as it will be in space. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

The sunshield is so effective that the temperatures on the Sun-facing side of the telescope could be hot enough to boil water, while on the side closest to the instruments, the temperature could be as low as -394 F (-237 C, 36 K).

That’s cold enough for the near-infrared instruments to operate, but the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, needs to be even colder. To bring down the temperature of MIRI, the Webb telescope is equipped with a special cryocooler that pumps chilled helium to the instrument to reduce its operating temperature to about -448 F (-267 C, 6 K).

Spotting Exoplanets

The Webb telescope will search for exoplanets using two different methods.

Using the transit method, the Webb telescope will look for the regular pattern of dimming that occurs when an exoplanet transits its star, or passes between the star and the telescope. The amount of dimming can tell scientists a lot about the passing exoplanet, such as the size of the planet and its distance from the star.

This animation shows how the transit method is used to hunt for planets outside our solar system. When exoplanets transit their parent star, the Webb telescope (like the Kepler space telescope, depicted here) will be able to detect the dip in the star’s brightness, providing scientists with key information about the transiting exoplanet. Students can see this technique in action with this transit math problem. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The second method the Webb telescope will use to search for exoplanets is direct imaging – capturing actual images of planets beyond our solar system. To enable direct imaging of exoplanets, the Webb telescope is equipped with a coronagraph. Just like you might use your hand to block a bright light, a coronagraph blocks starlight from reaching a telescope’s instruments, allowing a dim exoplanet orbiting a star to be seen.

Wispy solar flares from the Sun can be seen jutting out from a solid central circle.

This “coronagraph” image taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, shows dim features around our Sun. Similarly, direct images of exoplanets captured by the Webb telescope will reveal details normally washed out by the brightness of stars. Credit: ESA&NASA/SOHO | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

The Webb telescope can uncover even more using spectroscopy. Light from a star produces a spectrum, which displays the intensity of light at different wavelengths. When a planet transits its star, some of the light from the star will pass through the planet's atmosphere before reaching the Webb telescope. Since all elements and molecules, such as methane and water, absorb energy at specific wavelengths, spectra from light that has passed through a planet’s atmosphere may contain dark lines known as absorption lines that tell scientists if there are certain elements present.

This infographic shows the electromagnetic spectrum and how various wavelengths are used for different applications, such as infrared for remote controls.

By looking at the unique spectrum produced when the light from a star shines through the atmosphere of a transiting exoplanet, scientists can learn whether certain elements are present on that planet. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Using direct imaging and spectroscopy, scientists can learn even more about an exoplanet, including its color, seasons, rotation, weather, and vegetation if it exists.

All this could lead scientists to the ultimate exoplanet discovery: an Earth-size planet with an atmosphere like ours in its star’s habitable zone – a place where liquid water could exist.

Setting Up in Space

The Webb telescope will launch from French Guiana on top of an Ariane 5 rocket, a massive rocket capable of lifting the telescope, which weighs nearly 14,000 pounds (6,200 kilograms), to its destination.

The telescope's large mirror and giant sunshield are too big to fit inside the 18-foot (5.4-meter) wide rocket fairing, which protects the spacecraft during launch. To overcome this challenge, engineers designed the telescope's mirror and sunshield to fold for launch.

Two sides of the mirror assembly fold back for launch, allowing them to fit inside the fairing. The sunshield, which is 69.5 feet (21 meters) long and 46.5 feet (14 meters) wide, is carefully folded 12 times like origami so that it's narrow enough for launch. These are just two examples of several folding mechanisms needed to fit the massive telescope in its rocket for launch.

It will take about a month for the Webb telescope to reach its destination and unfurl its mirrors and sunshield. Scientists need another five months to cool down the instruments to their operating temperatures and align the mirrors correctly.

Approximately six months after launch, checkouts should be complete, and the telescope will begin its first science campaign and science operations.

Learn more and follow along with the mission from launch and unfolding to science observations and discovery announcements on the James Webb Space Telescope website.

Teach It

Check out these resources to bring the real-life STEM behind the mission into your teaching with lesson guides for educators, projects and slideshows for students, and more.

Educator Guides

Student Activities

Articles for Students

Videos for Students

Resources for Educators and Parents

Events

Explore More


NASA's 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: JWST, James Webb Space Telescope, electromagnetic spectrum, exoplanets, universe, solar system, big bang, cosmology, astronomy, star formation, galaxy, galaxies, telescope, life, technology, MIRI, Mars, Engineering, Teaching, Education, Classroom, Science

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Illustration of a notebook with a to-do list for future space explorers. See caption for text-version of to-do list.

Whether you're looking for a career in STEM or space exploration, this three-part series will cover everything you need to know about the world of internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the skills and experience hiring managers are looking for, and how you can set yourself on the right trajectory even before you get to college.


In a typical year, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory brings in about 1,000 interns from schools across the country to take part in projects that range from building spacecraft to studying climate change to developing software for space exploration. One of 10 NASA centers in the United States, the Southern California laboratory receives thousands of applications. So what can students do to stand out and set themselves on the right trajectory?

We asked interns and the people who bring them to JPL about their tips for students and anyone interested in a STEM career or working at the Laboratory. We're sharing their advice in this three-part series.

First up: Learn about the kinds of opportunities available as well as where and how to apply.

The World of JPL Internships

If you found this article, you're probably already somewhat familiar with the work that goes on at JPL. But at a place that employs more than 6,000 people across hundreds of teams, it can be hard to keep track of it all.

In a broad sense, JPL explores Earth, other planets, and the universe beyond with robotic spacecraft – meaning no humans on board. But along with the engineers and scientists who design and build spacecraft and study the data they return, there are thousands of others working on all the in-between pieces that make Earth and space exploration possible and accessible to all. This includes software developers, machinists, microbiologists, writers, video producers, designers, finance and information technology professionals, and more.

Some of the best ways to learn about the Laboratory's work – and get a sense for the kinds of internships on offer – are to follow JPL news and social media channels, take part in virtual and in-person events such as monthly talks, and keep up on the latest research. There are also a host of articles and videos online about interns and employees and the kinds of work they do.

While STEM internships make up the majority of the Laboratory's offerings, there are a handful of opportunities for students studying other subjects as well. Depending on which camp you fit into, there are different places to apply.

Education Office Internships

The largest number of internships can be found on the JPL Education website. These opportunities, for students studying STEM, are offered through about a dozen programs catered to college students of various academic and demographic backgrounds. This includes programs for students attending community college, those at minority-serving institutions, and others at Los Angeles-area schools.

Students apply to a program, or programs, rather than a specific opening. (See the program details for more information about where to apply and what you will need.) It's then up to the folks with open opportunities, the mentors, to select applicants who are the best match for their project.

It may seem odd to send an application into the void with no idea of what offer might return. But there is a good reason behind the process, says Jenny Tieu, a project manager in JPL's Education Office, which manages the Laboratory's STEM internship programs.

"Applying to a specific program allows for the applicant to be seen by a much broader group of hiring managers and mentors and be considered for more opportunities as a result," says Tieu. "We look at the resumes that come in to see what skills are compatible with open projects and then match students to opportunities they may not have even realized were available to them."

Shirin Nataneli says she wouldn't have known there was an internship for her at the Laboratory were it not for a suggestion to apply from her professor. In 2020, Nataneli graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor's degree in biology. She was on the pre-med track, studying for the MCAT, when she decided to take a couple of courses in computer science.

"I got sucked in," says the Santa Monica College student and JPL intern, who is using computer science to help her team classify extreme bacteria that can survive on spacecraft. "I didn't even know there was an intersection between computer science and biology, but somehow I found a group at JPL that does just that."

Shirin Nataneli holds out her hand, showcasing the JPL campus in the background.

Shirin Nataneli poses for a photo with the JPL campus in the background. Image courtesy: Shirin Nataneli | + Expand image

University Recruiting Opportunities

For college students who are interested in space exploration but studying other fields, such as business, communications, and finance, as well as those studying STEM, there are additional opportunities on the JPL Jobs website. Listed by opportunity, more like a traditional job opening, these internships are managed by the Laboratory's University Recruiting team, which is active on LinkedIn and Instagram and can often be found at conferences and career fairs.

The When, What, and Where

Both Education Office and University Recruiting opportunities are paid and require a minimum 3.00 GPA, U.S. citizenship or legal permanent resident status, as well as an initial commitment of 10 weeks. Applicants must be enrolled in a college undergraduate or graduate program to be eligible. (See "The Pre-College Trajectory" section of this article below to learn about what high-school and younger students can do to prepare for a future JPL internship or STEM career.)

After pivoting to fully remote internships during the COVID-19 pandemic, JPL has continued to offer some remote or hybrid internships now that the Los Angeles-area campus has opened back up.

"We know that remote internships are effective," says Tieu. "Interns have said that they're able to foster connections with JPL employees and gain valuable experience even from home." She notes that while in-person internships give students maximum exposure to JPL – including visits to Laboratory attractions like mission control, the "clean room" where spacecraft are built, and a rover testing ground called the Mars Yard – remote internships have had a positive impact on students who previously weren't able to participate in person due to life constraints.

Most programs offer housing and travel allowances to students attending universities outside the 50-mile radius of JPL, so be sure to check the program details if traveling to or living in the Los Angeles area could be tricky financially.

Full-time and part-time opportunities can be found throughout the year with most openings in the summertime for full-time interns, meaning 40 hours per week. For summer opportunities, Tieu recommends applying no later than November or December. Applicants can usually expect to hear back by April if they are going to receive an offer for summer, but it's always a good idea to keep yourself in the running, as applicants may be considered for school-year opportunities.

Tieu adds, "If you haven't heard back, and you're closing in on the six-month mark of when you submitted your application, I recommend students go back in and renew their application [for the programs listed on the JPL Education website] so that it remains active in the candidate pool for consideration."

And unlike job applications, where it's sometimes frowned upon to apply to multiple positions at once, it's perfectly alright – and even encouraged – to apply to multiple internships.

You may also want to consider these opportunities, especially if you're looking for internships at other NASA centers, you're a foreign citizen, or you're interested in a postdoc position:

The most important thing is to not count yourself out, says Tieu. "If you're interested, work on that resume, get people to review your resume and provide input and feedback and apply. We don't expect students to come in knowing how to do everything. We're looking for students with demonstrated problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills. Software and other technical skills are an added bonus and icing on the cake."

More on that next, plus advice from JPL mentors on the skills and experience they look for from potential interns.

Skills for Space Explorers

JPL is known for doing the impossible, whether it's sending spacecraft to the farthest reaches of our solar system or landing a 2,000-pound rover on Mars. But potential applicants may be surprised to learn that reputation wasn't earned by always having the right answer on the first try – or even the second, third, or fourth.

A black and white photo shows a desert scrub area. Five men lay on the ground and behind them is a rudimentary rocket motor with hoses leading to a device proped up on a stack of sandbags.

JPL's founders, several Caltech graduate students led by Frank Malina along with rocket enthusiasts from the Pasadena area, take a break from setting up their experimental rocket motor in the Arroyo Seco, north of Pasadena, California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

In fact, the Laboratory has always had a penchant for experimentation, starting with its founders, Caltech students who in the 1930s would test rockets in the stairwells at their university. They had so many colossal (and dangerous) failures that they were banished to a dry riverbed north of Pasadena, which is now the site of JPL. Eventually, their rockets were successful and the laboratory they founded went on to build and launch the first American space satellite and send dozens of spacecraft to worlds throughout the solar system. But that trial-and-error attitude still permeates the Laboratory today.

As a result, potential interns who show enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, overcome obstacles, and work as part of a team often stand out more than those with academic achievements alone.

Standing Out

In an informal survey of JPL mentors, respondents most often cited problem-solving, communication, and teamwork skills as well as passion for learning and grit as the soft skills they look for when considering potential interns. Respondents added that students who can provide specific examples of these skills on their resume – and speak to them in an interview – stand out the most.

That doesn't necessarily have to mean leading your school’s robotics club or serving as your geology professor's teaching assistant, although those things don't hurt. But also consider less traditional examples, such as how critical thinking helps you overcome challenges while rock climbing or how you used leadership and teamwork to organize your friends to create a group costume for Comic Con.

"Students who share a link to their GitHub repository or online portfolio stand out to me because it shows they took the initiative and took time to build, develop, and create something on their own," says K'mar Grant-Smith, a JPL mentor who leads a team of developers in supporting and maintaining applications for the Laboratory's missions. "That vouches for you better than saying, 'I know these [coding] languages, and I took these courses.'"

Laurie Barge is a JPL scientist who co-leads an astrobiology lab exploring the possibility of life beyond Earth. The lab annually hosts about a dozen students and postdocs. Barge says that the top qualities she looks for in an intern are an expressed interest in her research and JPL as a whole as well as teamwork skills. "I look for students who are excited about the fact that they'll be working with 10 other students and postdocs and collaborating with other people on papers and abstracts."

Barge and Flores pose for a photo in a lab with test tubes and scientific devices surrounding them.

Astrobiologist Laurie Barge, left, and former intern Erika Flores, right, pose for a photo in the Origins and Habitability Lab that Barge co-leads at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Teamwork is also key for students working in engineering, software, or any other capacity across the Laboratory. When it comes to designing missions to go where nothing has gone before, collaboration between multi-disciplinary teams is a must.

In terms of technical skills, knowledge of coding languages is the most sought after, with Python, MATLAB, and C languages leading the pack. And in certain groups, like the one that helps identify where it's safe to land spacecraft on Mars, experience with specialized tools like Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, can help applicants stand out.

Still, for many mentors, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and be proactive are far more important than any technical skill.

"You don't have to be the most technically savvy person. If you have the initiative, the drive, and some experience, I find that to be more important than knowing 16 different [coding] languages," says Grant-Smith. "JPL is a unique place full of very smart people, but we're not good at what we do just because we have the know-how. We also have the drive and a passion for it."

Getting Involved

So you're a rock-climbing Red Planet enthusiast who likes to create "Dune"-inspired stillsuits when you're not busy at your part-time job making frappuccinos with your fellow baristas. How do you improve the chances this information will land on a JPL mentor's desk?

In a sentence: Build a strong network. So says Rebecca Gio of what made all the difference when she was struggling to find her academic groove right after high school. After a year spent repeating classes, changing schools, and feeling discouraged about what was next, Gio discovered what she needed to change her trajectory. She joined clubs and organizations that aligned with her career goals, formed study groups with her peers, found a mentor who could help her navigate everything from college classes to internship opportunities, and wasn't afraid to ask when she had a question.

Now, Gio is thriving – academically and on her career path. She's a junior studying computer science at Cal Poly Pomona and a first-time intern at JPL, where she's testing the software that will serve as the brains of a spacecraft designed to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.

"Being part of a community and being with people who have gone through similar experiences and can push you to do better, I think that that is just super motivating," says Gio.

JPL Education Program Manager Jenny Tieu agrees. “Along with academic achievements, we’re looking for students with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences who can work collaboratively to learn, adapt to new situations, and solve problems.”

A new employee sits across from a program coordinator in an office setting.

Jenny Tieu catches up with Brandon Murphy, who came to the Laboratory as an intern in 2016 through a program Tieu manages, and soon after, was hired full-time. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

To that end, she suggests students get involved in campus STEM clubs and communities, NASA challenges and activities, and volunteer opportunities, which offer career experiences, introduce students to a network of peers and professionals, and look great on a resume.

Tieu leads a JPL internship program that partners with historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. She says that one way students get connected with the program is by word-of-mouth from current and former participants, who include students and faculty researchers.

"We see a lot of great allyship with interns and research fellows telling their classmates about their experience at JPL, how to apply, and what to expect," says Tieu. "We foster deep relationships with our partner campuses and their faculty as well." In other words, students may not have to look farther than their own professors, campus info sessions, or career fairs to learn about opportunities at the Laboratory.

A career fair is where Gio first connected with JPL's University Recruiting team after what she jokingly calls "stalking" them from LinkedIn to Handshake to the Grace Hopper conference – where she eventually handed over her resume. "Just get familiar with where JPL is going to be and try to make sure that you're there," says Gio.

Rebecca and her mom and sister pose for a photo in the lobby of JPL's mission control with NASA/JPL logo behind them.

Rebecca Gio (right) poses for a photo with her mom and sister (left) in the lobby of the Laboratory's mission control building during the Explore JPL event in 2019. Gio says her mom and sister are her two biggest supporters and the reason behind all of her success. Image courtesy Rebecca Gio | + Expand image

In the sciences especially, those connections can also be made through a shared interest in a particular area of research. Barge says that most of the students she brings to JPL find out about her research from a peer or professor, exploring the lab's website, or from reading papers her team has published. Then, they reach out to her directly. This way she can create a position suited to a student's skills while also finding out if their interests mesh with the team.

"I want to know why they're interested in JPL and not a different institution," says Barge. "Why do they want to work with me and not another person at JPL? Why do they want to do this research and what specifically would they like to gain from this internship experience? I'm trying to figure out who really, really wants this particular opportunity."

As Gio points out, it's often the same advice that applies whether you're looking for an internship at JPL or in STEM or a future career.

"If you really want it, if you really want to be a STEM professional, make the most of your education, and find ways to apply those skills," says Gio. "I made sure that I was a part of campus groups where I was doing extra projects outside of schoolwork. I made sure that I was talking to other students to learn what they were doing. There's a lot of opportunities now to learn online for free. If there's something that you think would interest you, just go and do it."

Next, we'll share more ways students can prepare for a future internship or career in STEM before they get to college, plus resources parents and teachers can use to get younger students practicing STEM skills.

The Pre-College Trajectory

First, let's address one of the most common questions we get when it comes to internships at JPL. As of this writing, the Laboratory does not offer an open call for high-school interns. For most of the past several years, JPL has been able to bring in just a handful of high-school students from underserved communities thanks to partnerships with local school districts.

That's not to say that there won't be an open call for high-school internships at JPL in the future. If and when opportunities become available, they'll be posted here on the JPL Education website.

That said, there's still plenty students can and should do before college or when they're just entering college to explore STEM fields, get hands-on experience, and practice the skills they'll need for a future internship or career.

Exploring STEM Fields

Ota Lutz, a former classroom teacher, leads JPL's K-12 education team, which takes the Laboratory's science, engineering, and technical work and translates it into STEM education resources for teachers, students, and families.

Other than exploring high-school internships at other organizations, Lutz says that students in grades K-12 can get hands-on experience through clubs, competitions, and camps offered in person and online.

Schools often have engineering, robotics, math, and science clubs, but if not, look for one in your community or encourage students to start their own, perhaps with the help of a teacher.

Five girls assemble their invention, decorated with a starry decale, as a crowd looks on.

JPL's Invention Challenge is an annual engineering competition for middle and high school students. In 2017, a team (pictured) traveled all the way from Ethiopia to participate. | › Read the news story

JPL hosts annual science and engineering competitions while NASA hosts a slew of other competitions, including essay contests with opportunities to interact with scientists and even name spacecraft.

If cost is an issue for camps or competitions, Lutz recommends that parents or guardians reach out to the host organization to see if scholarships are available and that they explore free events offered by groups such as NASA's Solar System Ambassadors and Night Sky Network as well as programs at museums, science centers, and libraries in their community.

NASA also offers a number of citizen science projects that give students (and adults) opportunities to contribute to real research, from identifying near-Earth asteroids to observing and cataloging clouds to searching for planets beyond our solar system.

Building Foundational Skills

All of the above can help students explore whether they might be interested in STEM, but it's also important that kids start practicing the skills they will need to succeed academically and in a future internship or career.

"Developing those foundational STEM and language arts skills is incredibly important to future success," says Lutz, adding that, generally, students should practice what are called scientific habits of mind, "learning how to think critically, problem solve and do so in a methodical way as well as learning to examine data to determine trends without personal bias."

One way students can gain skills and knowledge directly related to a future STEM internship or career is by trying these educational projects and activities offered free online from the JPL Education Office. (Teachers can explore this page to find out how to turn these activities into standards-aligned classroom lessons.) Activities include engineering projects and science experiments as well as math and coding challenges, all of which feature the latest NASA missions and science.

A group of kids stands along a railing and drops their lunar lander designs to see how they perform.

Students test their designs as part of the "Make an Astronaut Lander" activity on the JPL Education website. | + Expand image

Coding skills, in particular, will serve students well no matter what career path they take, says Lutz. "Coding is something that is applicable across a broad range of subject areas and majors, so we strongly encourage students to learn some coding."

She points to the plethora of online courses and tutorials in coding and other STEM subjects that give students a chance to explore on their own and work on projects that interest them.

Parents and guardians can also help their kids develop foundational skills by allowing them to explore and tinker at home. "In every house, there's something that needs fixing," says Lutz. "Have the kid figure out how to fix a wobbly chair, but be patient with mistakes and encourage them to keep trying." That persistence and determination in overcoming obstacles will come in handy throughout their education and career path, whether it's learning how to code, getting into a robotics club in high school, applying and reapplying for internships, or figuring out how to land a spacecraft on Mars.

Similarly, it's never too early to start learning those ever-important soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and leadership. There's no single or right place to gain these skills, rather they come from a range of experiences that can include a school project, a part-time job, or a volunteer opportunity.

Ota Lutz stands behind a tabletop Mars globe and speaks with a group of people

Ota Lutz, who leads the Laboratory's K-12 education team, speaks with a group of JPL employees during a Pi Day event. | + Expand image

Lutz grew up in a small town in Central California and says, "I was a smart kid, but these things called soft skills were beyond me, and I was the shyest kid in my class." That is until she joined her high school's service club. "Through volunteering, I ended up interacting with people from all walks of life and learned how to work with teams. My club advisor coached me, and I started taking on more leadership roles in the club and in class projects."

Later, it was that same club advisor and her youth pastor who encouraged Lutz to attend a college that would challenge her academically despite pressures to stay closer to home.

"You never know what experiences or conversations might open up opportunities for you," says Lutz, which is why she recommends that students get comfortable talking with peers and teachers – and especially asking questions. "It's really important to learn to ask questions so you build your confidence in learning and also develop relationships with people."

Launching into College

As Lutz experienced, those foundational skills can make all the difference when it comes to transitioning into college, too.

"When I got to college, I discovered I was woefully unprepared even though I had been at the top of my class in high school," says Lutz. "I never learned how to study, and I mistakenly believed that asking questions would make me look dumb. After struggling on my own for a couple of years, I learned that study groups existed and they helped me get to know my peers, build my confidence, and improve my GPA."

While building a support network is key, don't overload yourself the first year, Lutz says. But do start taking classes in the field you're interested in to see if it's the right fit. "The important thing is getting some experience in the field that you think you want to go into."

After that, internships, whether they're at JPL, NASA or elsewhere, will give you an even deeper look at what a future career might be like. When the time comes, you'll know exactly where to look to set yourself on the right trajectory – that is just above under "The World of JPL Internships" and "Skills for Space Explorers."


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, Students, Careers, Science, Computer Science, Engineering, Math, Programs, University Recruiting, Undergraduate, Graduate, College, High School, Mentors

  • Kim Orr
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