The supermoon lunar eclipse captured as it moved over NASA’s Glenn Research Center on September 27, 2015.

In the News

Looking up at the Moon can create a sense of awe at any time, but those who do so on the evening of January 20 will be treated to the only total lunar eclipse of 2019. Visible for its entirety in North and South America, this eclipse is being referred to by some as a super blood moon – “super” because the Moon will be closest to Earth in its orbit during the full moon (more on supermoons here) and “blood" because the total lunar eclipse will turn the Moon a reddish hue (more on that below). This is a great opportunity for students to observe the Moon – and for teachers to make connections to in-class science content.

How It Works

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

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

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

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

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

What to Expect

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

At 6:36 p.m. PST (9:36 p.m. EST) on January 20, the edge of the Moon will begin entering the penumbra. The Moon will dim very slightly for the next 57 minutes as it moves deeper into the penumbra. Because this part of Earth’s shadow is not fully dark, you may notice only some dim shading (if anything at all) on the Moon near the end of this part of the eclipse.

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

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

At 7:33 p.m. PST (10:33 p.m. EST), the edge of the Moon will begin entering the umbra. As the Moon moves into the darker shadow, significant darkening of the Moon will be noticeable. Some say that during this part of the eclipse, the Moon looks as if it has had a bite taken out of it. That “bite” gets bigger and bigger as the Moon moves deeper into the shadow.

The Moon as seen during a partial lunar eclipse

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

At 8:41 p.m. PST (11:41 p.m. EST), the Moon will be completely inside the umbra, marking the beginning of the total lunar eclipse. The moment of greatest eclipse, when the Moon is halfway through the umbra, occurs at 9:12 p.m. PST (12:12 a.m. EST).

Graphic showing the Moon inside the umbra

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

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

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

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

A variety of factors affect the appearance of the Moon during a total lunar eclipse. Clouds, dust, ash, photochemical droplets and organic material in the atmosphere can change how much light is refracted into the umbra. Additionally, the January 2019 lunar eclipse takes place when the full moon is at or near the closest point in its orbit to Earth – a time popularly known as a supermoon. This means the Moon is deeper inside the umbra shadow and therefore may appear darker. The potential for variation provides a great opportunity for students to observe and classify the lunar eclipse based on its brightness. Details can be found in the “Teach It” section below.

At 9:43 p.m. PST (12:43 a.m. EST), the edge of the Moon will begin exiting the umbra and moving into the opposite side of the penumbra. This marks the end of the total lunar eclipse.

At 10:50 p.m. PST (1:50 a.m. EST), the Moon will be completely outside the umbra. It will continue moving out of the penumbra until the eclipse ends at 11:48 p.m (2:48 a.m. EST).

What if it’s cloudy where you live? Winter eclipses always bring with them the risk of poor viewing conditions. If your view of the Moon is obscured by the weather, explore options for watching the eclipse online, such as the Time and Date live stream.

Why It’s Important

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

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

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

Lunar eclipses are also used for modern-day science investigations. Astronomers have used ancient eclipse records and compared them with computer simulations. These comparisons helped scientists determine the rate at which Earth’s rotation is slowing.

Teach It

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

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

TAGS: Lunar Eclipse, Moon, Teachers, Educators, K-12 Education, Astronomy

  • Lyle Tavernier

This illustration shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto.

In the News

The Voyager 2 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has reached interstellar space, a region beyond the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun – where the only other human-made object is its twin, Voyager 1.

The achievement means new opportunities for scientists to study this mysterious region. And for educators, it’s a chance to get students exploring the scale and anatomy of our solar system, plus the engineering and math required for such an epic journey.

How They Did It

Launched just 16 days apart, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were designed to take advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets that only occurs once every 176 years. Their trajectory took them by the outer planets, where they captured never-before-seen images. They were also able to steal a little momentum from Jupiter and Saturn that helped send them on a path toward interstellar space. This “gravity assist” gave the spacecraft a velocity boost without expending any fuel. Though both spacecraft were destined for interstellar space, they followed slightly different trajectories.

Illustration of the trajectories of Voyager 1 and 2

An illustration of the trajectories of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Voyager 1 followed a path that enabled it to fly by Jupiter in 1979, discovering the gas giant’s rings. It continued on for a 1980 close encounter with Saturn’s moon Titan before a gravity assist from Saturn hurled it above the plane of the solar system and out toward interstellar space. After Voyager 2 visited Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1981, it continued on to encounter Uranus in 1986, where it obtained another assist. Its last planetary visit before heading out of the solar system was Neptune in 1989, where the gas giant’s gravity sent the probe in a southward direction toward interstellar space. Since the end of its prime mission at Neptune, Voyager 2 has been using its onboard instruments to continue sensing the environment around it, communicating data back to scientists on Earth. It was this data that scientists used to determine Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space.

How We Know

Interstellar space, the region between the stars, is beyond the influence of the solar wind, charged particles emanating from the Sun, and before the influence of the stellar wind of another star. One hint that Voyager 2 was nearing interstellar space came in late August when the Cosmic Ray Subsystem, an instrument that measures cosmic rays coming from the Sun and galactic cosmic rays coming from outside our solar system, measured an increase in galactic cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft. Then on November 5, the instrument detected a sharp decrease in high energy particles from the Sun. That downward trend continued over the following weeks.

The data from the cosmic ray instrument provided strong evidence that Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space because its twin had returned similar data when it crossed the boundary of the heliosheath. But the most compelling evidence came from its Plasma Science Experiment – an instrument that had stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled mostly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble, the heliosphere, that envelopes all the planets in our solar system. Voyager 2’s Plasma Science Experiment can detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of that solar wind. On the same day that the spacecraft’s cosmic ray instrument detected a steep decline in the number of solar energetic particles, the plasma science instrument observed a decline in the speed of the solar wind. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has entered interstellar space.

graph showing data from the cosmic ray and plasma science instruments on Voyager 2

This animated graph shows data returned from Voyager 2's cosmic ray and plasma science instruments, which provided the evidence that the spacecraft had entered interstellar space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC | + Expand image

Though the spacecraft have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won't be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun's gravity. The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units from the Sun and extend to about 100,000 AU. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance from the Sun to Earth.) It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it. By that time, both Voyager spacecraft will be completely out of the hydrazine fuel used to point them toward Earth (to send and receive data) and their power sources will have decayed beyond their usable lifetime.

Why It’s Important

Since the Voyager spacecraft launched more than 40 years ago, no other NASA missions have encountered as many planets (some of which had never been visited) and continued making science observations from such great distances. Other spacecraft, such as New Horizons and Pioneer 10 and 11, will eventually make it to interstellar space, but we will have no data from them to confirm their arrival or explore the region because their instruments already have or will have shut off by then.

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Interstellar space is a region that’s still mysterious because until 2012, when Voyager 1 arrived there, no spacecraft had visited it. Now, data from Voyager 2 will help add to scientists’ growing understanding of the region. Scientists are hoping to continue using Voyager 2’s plasma science instrument to study the properties of the ionized gases, or plasma, that exist in the interstellar medium by making direct measurements of the plasma density and temperature. This new data may shed more light on the evolution of our solar neighborhood and will most certainly provide a window into the exciting unexplored region of interstellar space, improving our understanding of space and our place in it.

As power wanes on Voyager 2, scientists will have to make tough choices about which instruments to keep turned on. Further complicating the situation is the freezing cold temperature at which the spacecraft is currently operating – perilously close to the freezing point of its hydrazine fuel. But for as long as both Voyager spacecraft are able to maintain power and communication, we will continue to learn about the uncharted territory of interstellar space.

Teach It

Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing math and science with a real-world (and space!) connection.

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TAGS: Teachers, Educators, Science, Engineering, Technology, Solar System, Voyager, Spacecraft, Educator Resources, Lessons, Activities

  • Ota Lutz

Michelle Vo poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL.

Michelle Vo poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL.

Until she discovered game development, Michelle Vo’s daydreams were a problem. She couldn’t focus in her computer science classes. Her grades were dipping. She wondered whether she was cut out to be a programmer or for school at all. So she took a break to make something just for fun, a self-help game. And help her, it did. Now focusing on virtual and augmented reality, Vo is back at school, studying not just computer science, but also cognitive science, linguistics and digital humanities. It’s a lot, but to create a virtual world, she says one has to first understand how people navigate the real one. This summer, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the UCLA student applied her talents to VR and AR experiences that help scientists explore a totally different world, Mars. While Vo’s tendency to daydream hasn’t gone away, she now knows how to use the distractions for good; she turns them into VR inspiration.

What are you working on at JPL?

I've been working on multiple things. I work on this project called OnSight, which just won NASA Software of the Year, which we're really excited about. It's an AR project. ...

[A hummingbird flies past us and Michelle stops to point it out.]

Sorry, just got distracted. This is me on a daily basis, just distracted by everything, which is kind of how I work. I get distracted so easily, and it always takes my full attention. So if I get distracted by my work, it holds all my attention. I found out this year I have ADHD, which probably explains why I struggled so much in school. Oh gosh, this is distracting from the interview. [Laughs.] No, this is good for visibility. I struggled a lot in school because I was always distracted by my own daydreams. ADHD is often undetected in girls, since it’s not so much exhibited as fidgeting but, for me at least, spacing out and daydreaming. It was always really hard for me to focus if I wasn’t engaged. Thankfully, I’ve finally found a career where I can actually utilize that skill. My daydreaming is how I come up with my VR design ideas, and I’m so glad I can use it to help others. Maybe I didn't perform too well in school, but hey, look where I am now!

That's so great that you were able to channel it in that way. How did you go from struggling in school to doing VR?

When I first tried on a VR headset, I was like, "This is the future. I need to do whatever I can to learn about this." I decided to study computer science, but it was such a huge struggle. Not a lot of people know this, but I was on academic probation for a while. I had a 1.8 GPA at one point, because I was too shy to ask for help. I would get distracted and, overall, I felt discouraged. So I stopped studying computer science for a little bit.

When I took a break from school, I decided I wanted to try making a game. I wanted to do something just for fun, and I was determined to fix my bad habits. So with some friends, I created a self-help game at AthenaHacks, a women’s hackathon. For 24 hours, I was just immersed in my work. I had never felt that way about anything in my life, where I was just zoned in, in my own world, doing the thing I love. And that's when I realized, I think it's game development. I think this is what I want.

So I spent the year teaching myself [game development], and I got a lot more comfortable using the Unity game engine. I knew I eventually wanted to be a VR developer, so I saved up and invested in myself to learn the skills at Make School’s VR Summer Academy. That smaller learning environment opened up the world for me. It boosted my confidence more than anything to have the support I needed. I was like, "Maybe my grades aren’t so great, but I know how to make VR." And the world needs VR right now.

So when I went back to my university, I thought, "I'll try again. I'm going to go back to computer science.” And so far so good. I'm into my fourth year at UCLA studying cognitive science, linguistics, computer science and digital humanities. It sounds like a lot, but they're all related in the sense that they're all connected to VR, because VR is mainly a study of the mind and how we perceive reality. It’s not so much about computer science; you really have to know more about humans to create good VR.

So I went from literally the worst student in the class to killing it at NASA. [Laughs.]

Sorry, ugh, that was a lot. Haha, I look at a bird and go off on a tangent. That's my life.

So going back to your JPL internship, how are you using your VR skills to help scientists and engineers?

Michelle Vo in the InSight testbed at JPL

Michelle Vo poses for a photo with InSight Testbed Lead, Marleen Sundgaard. Image courtesy Michelle Vo | + Expand image

I’m interning in the Ops Lab, and the project I've been working on primarily is called OnSight. OnSight uses Microsoft’s HoloLens [mixed-reality software] to simulate walking on Mars. Mars scientists use it to collaborate with each other. We had “Meet on Mars” this morning, actually. On certain days, Mars scientists will put on their headsets and hang out virtually on Mars. They see each other. They talk. They look at Mars rocks and take notes. It's based on images from the Curiosity Mars rover. We converted those images to 3-D models to create the virtual terrain, so through VR, we can simulate walking on Mars without being there.

For a few weeks, I worked on another project with the InSight Mars lander mission. We took the terrain model that's generated from images of [the landing site] and made it so the team could see that terrain on top of their testbed [at JPL] with a HoloLens. For them, that's important because they're trying to recreate the terrain to … Wait, I recorded this.

[Michelle quickly scans through the photo library on her phone and pulls up a video she recorded from JPL’s In-Situ Instruments Laboratory. Pranay Mishra, a testbed engineer for the InSight mission, stands in a simulated Mars landscape next to a working model of the lander and explains:]

“When InSight reaches Mars, we're going to get images of the terrain that we land on. The instruments will be deployed to that terrain, so we will want to practice those deployments in the testbed. One of the biggest things that affects our deployment ability is the terrain. If the terrain is tilted or there are rocks in certain spots, that all has a strong effect on our deployment accuracy. To practice it here, we want the terrain in the testbed to match the terrain on Mars. The only things we can view from Mars are the images that we get back [from the lander]. We want to put those into the HoloLens so that we can start terraforming, or “marsforming,” the testbed terrain to match the terrain on Mars. That way, we can maybe get a rough idea of what the deployment would look like on Mars by practicing it on Earth.”
Michelle Vo in the InSight testbed at JPL

Michelle Vo stands in the InSight testbed at JPL with testbed engineers Drew Penrod (left) and Pranay Mishra (right). Image courtesy Michelle Vo | + Expand image

› Learn more about how scientists and engineers are creating a version of InSight's Mars landing site on Earth

They already gave us photos of Mars, which they turned into a 3D model. I created an AR project, where you look through the HoloLens – looking at the real world – and the 3D model is superimposed on the testbed. So the [testbed team] will shovel through and shape the terrain to match what it’s like on Mars, at InSight’s landing site.

Did you know that this was an area that you could work in at JPL before interning here?

OnSight was a well known project in the VR/AR space, since it was the first project to use the Microsoft Hololens. I remember being excited to see a talk on the project at the VRLA conference. So when I finally got on board with the team, I was super excited. I also realized that there’s room for improvement, and that’s OK. That’s why I'm here as an intern; I can bring in a fresh look.

One of the things I did on this project was incorporate physical controllers. My critique when I first started was, "This is really hard to use." And if it's hard for me to use as a millenial, how is this going to be usable for people of all ages? I'm always thinking in terms of accessibility for everybody. Through lots of testing, I realized that people need to be touching things, physical things. That's what OnSight lacked, a physical controller. There were a lot of things that I experimented with, and eventually, it came down to a keyboard that allows you to manipulate the simulated Mars rovers. So now with OnSight, you can drive the [simulated] rovers around with a keyboard controller and possibly in the future, type notes within the application. Previously, you had to tap into the air to use an AR keyboard, and that's not intuitive. We still need to touch the physical world.

How has this project compared with other ones that you've done elsewhere?

Well, I was the only girl developer intern on the team. I’m always battling stereotypes wherever I go and usually on other projects, I'm fighting for my place and fighting to fit in. But at JPL, everyone’s here because they love what they do. People are secure in themselves, and they see me as an equal. They're like, "Michelle has good ideas. Let's bring her to the table." Right off the bat, I felt accepted and, for the first time ever, the imposter-syndrome voice went away. I felt like I could just be myself and actually have a voice to contribute. You know, I might be small, I might be the shortest one, but I'm mighty. It’s been such a positive and supportive environment. I've had an incredible internship and learned so much.

What has been the most unique experience that you've had at JPL?

Working in the Ops Lab has been such a unique experience. Every day, we’re tinkering with cutting-edge technology in AR and VR. I am so thankful to have my mentors, Victor Luo and Parker Abercrombie, who give me the support and guidance I need to grow and learn. Outside of the Ops Lab, I also had the unique opportunity to meet astronaut Kate Rubins and talk about VR with her. I had lunch with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when he visited JPL. And working with the InSight mission and Marleen Sundgaard, the mission’s testbed lead, was especially cool. I can't believe I was able to use my skills for something the Mars InSight mission needed. Being able to say that is something I'm really proud of. And seeing how far I came, from knowing nothing to being here, makes me feel happy. If I can transform, anyone can do this too, if they choose to work hard, follow their own path and see it in themselves to take a risk.

What advice do you have for others looking to follow your path?

Listen to your gut. Your gut knows. It’s easy to feel discouraged. But trust me, you’re not alone. You’ve always got to stay optimistic about finding a solution. I've always been someone who has experimented with a lot of things, and I think learning is something you should definitely experiment with. If the classroom setting is not for you, try teaching yourself, try a bootcamp, try asking a friend – just any alternative. You just have to know how you learn best.

My biggest inspiration is the future. I think about it on a daily basis. The future is so cool. I know I have a very cheery, idealistic view on life, but I think, "What's wrong with that?" as long as you can bring it back to reality, which I think I’ve been able to do.

Speaking of that, what is your ultimate dream for your career and your future?

I was raised in the Bay Area, and I grew up in Santa Clara so the tech culture of Silicon Valley was inescapable. I love Silicon Valley, but we have our problems. We have a huge homelessness issue. I’ve always thought, “We have the brightest engineers and scientists doing the most amazing, crazy things, yet we still can't alleviate homelessness.” Everybody deserves a place to sleep and shower. People need to have their basic needs met. I’d love to see some sort of VR wellness center that could help people train for a job, overcome fears and treat mental health.

That's my idealistic dream, but back to present-day dreams: I'm actually doing a 180. I'm leaving tech for a little bit, and I’m taking Fall quarter off. I'll start back at UCLA in January, but I'm taking a leave to explore being an artist. I'm writing a science-fiction play about Vietnamese-American culture. I was inspired by my experience here at JPL. I feel really optimistic about the future of technology, which is funny because science fiction usually likes to depict tech as something crazy, like an apocalypse or the world crashing down. But I'm like, “Vietnamese people survived an actual war, and they’re still here.” For my parents and grandparents, their country as they knew it came crashing down on them when they were just about my age. They escaped Vietnam by boat and faced many hardships as immigrants who came to America penniless and without knowing English. For them to have survived all of that and sacrificed so much to make it possible for me to be here is incredible. I think it’s a testament to how, despite the worst things, there's always good that continues. I’m so grateful and thankful for my family. I wouldn’t be here living my dream without them, and I want to create a play about that.

It's funny. Before I used to be so shy, so shy. I used to be that one kid who would never talk to anybody. So it's kind of nice to see what happens when the introvert comes out of her shell. And this is what happens. All of this. [Laughs.]

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Higher Education, College, Students, STEM, VR, AR, Technology, Mars, InSight, Curiosity

  • Kim Orr

JPL interns Heather Lethcoe and Lauren Berger pose with the InSight engineering model in its testbed at JPL

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

Matt Golombek’s job is one that could only exist at a place that regularly lands spacecraft on Mars. And for more than 20 years, the self-proclaimed “landing-site dude” and his rotating cast of interns at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have helped select seven of the agency’s landing sites on the Red Planet.

Golombek got his start in the Mars landing-site business as the project scientist for the first rover mission to the Red Planet in 1997. Since that time, he has enlisted the help of geology students to make the maps that tell engineers, scientists, stakeholders and now even the rovers and landers themselves where – and where not – to land. Among the list of no-gos can be rock fields, craters, cliffs, “inescapable hazards” and anything else that might impede an otherwise healthy landing or drive on Mars.

For Golombek’s interns, the goal of helping safely land a spacecraft on Mars is as awe-inspiring as it comes, but the awe can sometimes be forgotten in the day-to-day work of counting rocks and merging multitudes of maps, especially when a landing is scheduled for well after their internships are over. But with the landing site for NASA’s next Mars rover just announced and the careful work of deciding where to lay down science instruments for the freshly landed InSight mission soon to begin, interns Lauren Berger, Rachel Hausmann and Heather Lethcoe are well aware of the significance of their work – the most important of which lies just ahead.

Site Unseen

Selecting a landing site on Mars requires a careful balancing act between engineering capabilities and science goals. It’s a partnership that for Golombek, a geologist, has evolved over the years.

Golombek reflects on the time before spacecraft like the now-critical Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provided high-resolution, global views of the Martian terrain. In those early days, without close-up images of the surface, the science was largely guesswork, using similar terrain on Earth to get a sense for what the team might be up against. Spacecraft would successfully touch down, but engineers would look aghast at images sent back of vast rock fields punctuated by sharp boulders that could easily destroy a lander speeding to the surface from space. NASA’s 1997 Pathfinder spacecraft, encased in airbags for landing, bounced as high as a 10-story building before rolling to a stop at its jagged outpost.

Matt Golombek sits in his office in the science building at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory surrounded by images and maps of Mars amassed over a 20-year career as the "landing-site dude." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Now, Golombek and his interns take a decidedly more technological approach, feeding images of candidate landing sites into a machine-learning program designed to measure the size of rocks based on the shadows they cast and carefully combining a series of images, maps and other data using Geographical Information Systems, or GIS, software (a required skill for Golombek’s interns).

Still, there are some things that must be done by hand – or eye, as the case may be.

“Lauren [Berger] is now an expert on inescapable hazards,” says Golombek of one of his current trio of interns. “She can look at those ripples, and she knows immediately whether it’s inescapable, probably inescapable, probably escapable or not a problem.”

“Or, as we like to say, death, part death and no death,” jokes Berger.

“We work with them to train them so their eye can see it. And so far, that’s the best way to [identify such hazards]. We don’t have any automated way to do that,” says Golombek.

“I like to call Lauren the Jedi master of ripples-pattern mapping,” says fellow intern Heather Lethcoe, who is the team’s mapping expert for the Mars 2020 rover mission. “I helped her a little bit with that, and now I’m seeing ripples closing my eyes at night.”

Until recently, Lethcoe and Berger were busily preparing maps for October’s landing site workshop, during which scientists debated the merits of the final four touchdown locations for the Mars 2020 mission. If Golombek’s team had a preferred candidate, they wouldn’t say. Their task was to identify the risks and determine what’s safe, not what’s most scientifically worthy. Thanks to new technology that for the first time will allow the rover to divert to the safest part of its landing ellipse using a map created by Golombek’s team, the debate about where to land was solely focused on science. So unlike landing site workshops for past Mars missions, Golombek’s team stayed on the sidelines and let the scientists “have at it.” (In the end, as with all other missions, the final site recommendation was made by the mission with NASA’s approval.)

Now, with an official landing site announced, it might seem that Golombek’s team is out of work. But really, the work is just beginning. “We’ll be heavily involved in making the final hazard map for the [Mars 2020] landing site, which will then get handed to the engineers to code up so that the rover will make the right decisions,” says Golombek.

Meanwhile, the team will be busy with the outcome of another Mars landing: InSight, a spacecraft designed to study the inner workings of Mars and investigate how rocky planets, including Earth, came to be.

Golombek’s third intern, Rachel Hausmann, became a master at piecing together the hundreds of images, rock maps, slope maps and other data that were used to successfully land InSight. But because InSight is a stationary spacecraft, one of the most important parts of ensuring the mission’s success will happen after it lands. The team will need to survey the landing area and determine how and where to place each of the mission’s science instruments on the surface.

“If you think about it, it’s like landing-site selection, just a little smaller scale,” says Golombek. “You don’t want [the instruments] sitting on a slope. You don’t want them sitting on a rock.”

For that, Golombek is getting the help of not just Hausmann but all three interns. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have students who happen to be in the right place at the right time when a spacecraft lands and needs their expertise.”

Practice Makes Perfect

To prepare for this rare opportunity, the students have been embedded with different working groups, rehearsing the steps that will be required to place each of InSight’s instruments safely on Mars several weeks after landing.

Rachel Hausmann in the museum at JPL

Rachel Hausmann started with Golombek's team in June 2017 and until recently has been charged with finalizing the map that will be used to land InSight on Mars. Image courtesy: Rachel Hausmann | + Expand image

Lauren Berger stands in the InSight testbed at JPL

Lauren Berger, the longest tenured of the intern team, says everything she knew about Mars before interning at JPL came from a picture book she checked out at the library where her mom works. Now, she's an expert in identifying the sand-dune-like features considered hazardous to Mars rovers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

Heather Lethcoe points at a Mars globe

Even when it was clear Heather Lethcoe's JPL internship was a sure thing, she says she didn't want to be too sure of herself and kept telling people she had a "potential internship." But as the praises roll in, she's learning to have more confidence in herself. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

“The groups have rehearsals for different anomalies, or issues, that could go wrong,” says Hausmann. “They do this to problem solve even down to, ‘Are we in the right room? Do we have enough space?’ because when you’re working on a space mission, you can’t have an issue with facilities.”

The students took part in the first of these so-called Operational Readiness Tests in early October and say it was an eye-opening experience.

“It was really helpful just to get to know the team and really understand what’s going to happen,” says Berger. “Now we know how to make it happen, and everyone’s a lot more ready. Also, it was so much fun.”

“That’s what I was going to say!” says Lethcoe. “That was just the rehearsal, and at the end of it, I felt so amped and pumped up. I can’t even imagine when we’re actually doing it how good that’s going to feel.”

Lethcoe says there was also the matter of balancing homework and midterms with full-time preparations for a Mars landing. That was its own sort of readiness test for December when the real work of deploying the instruments will coincide with finals.

Perhaps most surprising, say the students, was their realization that their expertise is valued by a team that’s well-versed in Mars landings.

“Imposter syndrome is real,” says Hausmann. But the team’s internships are serving as the perfect antidote.

“I had this fear that I don’t know if I’m going to be more in the way and more pestering or if I’m actually going to be helpful,” says Lethcoe, a student at Cal State University, Northridge, who was first exposed to the mapping software used by the team during her time in the U.S. Army. “It turns out that the [InSight geology] team lead gave me really nice reviews.”

Berger interjects to add supportive emphasis to Lethcoe’s statement – a common occurrence among the three women who have shared the same small office for more than a year now. “He said he absolutely needed her and she could not go away.”

Lethcoe laughs. “[My co-mentor] texted me to let me know, ‘You earned this,” and I tried not to take screenshots and send them to all my friends and my mom. They definitely make it known how much we’re appreciated.”

Adds Berger, “I think JPL really teaches you to have confidence in what you know.”

More than the mapping skills and research experience they’ve picked up during their time at JPL, it’s that confidence that they’re most eager to take back to school with them and impart to other young women interested in STEM careers.

Berger gave a talk about imposter syndrome at her school, Occidental College in Los Angeles, earlier this month. And Hausmann, a student at Oregon State University, says her efforts to encourage and coach young women are the most important contribution she’s making as a JPL intern.

“My mom didn’t go to college. My dad left us when we were in high school. And so I didn’t really focus on my career,” says Hausmann. “I just want to help young women get in [to research and internships] early because I got in kind of late. I think that’s so important, just as important as the work we’re doing.”

The Next Frontier

When your internship or your job is to help land spacecraft and deploy instruments on Mars, the question, “Where do we go from here?” is literal and figurative. While the next year or so will be perhaps one of the busiest Golombek’s team has ever known, his future as the landing-site dude is uncertain.

“If what you do is select landing sites for a living, it’s kind of an odd thing because you can only work at one place,” says Golombek. “You need to have a spacecraft that needs a landing site selected for it. And for the past 20 years, there have been spacecraft that we’ve been landing on Mars. So I’m kind of out of business now because Mars 2020 is the last for the time being – there are no new [NASA Mars] landing sites that are being conceived of.”

At the mention of possible lander missions to other worlds, Golombek shrugs and his near-constant grin sinks into a thin horizon. “Don’t know,” he says. “I’m kind of a Martian, and I’ll probably stick with Mars.”

Maybe it’s a torch best carried by his intern alums, many of whom have gone from their internships to careers at JPL or other NASA centers. While Lethcoe, Berger and Hausmann are still enmeshed in their education – Lethcoe is in her junior year, Berger is taking a gap year before applying to graduate programs, and Hausmann is applying to Ph.D. programs in January – their experiences are sure to have a profound impact on their future. In many ways, they already have.

Could they be the landing-site dudes of the future? Maybe someday.

But for now, they’re focused on the challenges of the immediate future, helping NASA take the next steps in its exploration of Mars. And for that, “They’re super well trained,” Golombek says, “and just perfect for the job.”

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, Higher Education, College, Geology, Science, Rovers, Landers, Mars, InSight, Mars 2020

  • Kim Orr

Illustration of InSight landing on Mars

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

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

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

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

NASA's newest Mars mission, the InSight lander, touched down on the Red Planet just before noon PST on Nov. 26. But there's more work ahead before the mission can get a look into the inner workings of Mars. Get your classroom ready to partake in all the excitement of NASA’s InSight mission with this educator game plan. We’ve got everything you need to engage students in NASA's ongoing exploration of Mars!

Day Before Landing

Landing Day (Nov. 26)

Next Day

  • Review the Teachable Moment to find out what needs to happen before InSight’s science operations can begin. Then create an instructional plan with these lessons, activities and resources that get students engaged in the science and engineering behind the mission.
  • Check out InSight’s first images from Mars, here. (This is also where you can find raw images from InSight throughout the life of the mission.)

Over the Next Month

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TAGS: InSight, Mars Landing, Educators, K-12, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, Lessons and Activities, Educator Resources, Mars

  • NASA/JPL Edu

Animation showing InSight landing on Mars

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

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

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

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

In the News

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

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

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

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

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

How It Works: Deploying InSight’s Instruments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why It’s Important

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

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

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

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

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

Teach It

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

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

  • Lyle Tavernier

Tonya Beatty stands with a model of the HAR-V rover she's helping design

All spacecraft are made for extreme environments. They travel through dark, frigid regions of space, battle intense radiation and, in some cases, perform daring feats to land on mysterious worlds. But the rover that Tonya Beatty is helping design for Venus – and other so-called extreme environments – is in a class all its own. Venus is so inhospitable that no spacecraft has ever lasted more than about two hours on the surface. So Beatty, an intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an aerospace engineering student at College of the Canyons, is working to develop a new kind of rover that's powered mostly by gears rather than sensitive electronics. We caught up with Beatty just before she embarked on another engineering challenge – JPL's annual Halloween pumpkin-carving contest – to find out what it takes to turn an impossible idea into a reality.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working with a team on the HAR-V project, which stands for Hybrid Automaton Rover-Venus. It’s a study to develop a rover meant to go to Venus. I'm assisting in the development of mechanical systems and mechanisms on the prototype, using clockwork maneuvers. This rover will use minimal electronics, so when I say clockwork, I mean gears and anything that does not rely on electronics.

Why is this rover not relying on electronics and relying more on a gear system?

The environment on Venus includes sulfuric acid clouds, a surface pressure about 90 times what it is on Earth and a temperature that exceeds 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The materials in most electronics would melt in that extreme environment, so that's why we're trying to go mechanical. The previous landers that have gone to Venus have relied on electronics, and the one that lasted the longest only lasted 127 minutes, whereas ours, using the mechanical design, is projected to last about six months. So that's why we're going with this design.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day for me consists of designing mechanisms, designing mechanical systems, ordering parts for those mechanical systems, testing them on the active prototype that we have and redesigning if necessary. It's kind of a mixture of all that, depending on where we're at in each step.

What is the ultimate goal of your project?

My personal goal with this internship is to connect the things I'm learning in school to real-world applications, as well as see what it would be like to be an aerospace engineer. Specific to the HAR-V study, my goals are to design a power-transfer mechanism, redesign the reversing mechanism on the rover itself, and redesign the obstacle avoidance mechanism. Those are all things that I'm now learning as I'm doing the internship, which is great. I love learning new things.

As for HAR-V itself, the goal is to be able to withstand those extreme environments for longer than 127 minutes and retrieve the groundbreaking data that we've been wanting from Venus but haven't been able to get because we haven't had the time we need [with previous landers].

Personally, at 19, I never thought that I would be working on a rover for Venus at NASA. By sharing my story, I hope people take away that some of the things they might think are impossible are really right there. They’ve just got to reach for it.

What's the most JPL or NASA unique experience that you've had so far?

As much as I'd like to say something cool like watching the rovers being tested, I have to say it's the deer. Every day, wherever I go – to laser-cut something or go get a coffee – I see deer. One day I saw six. I just think that's so unique because it’s something I never expected to get from this experience. And I think it’s unique to JPL.

Pumpkin modeled after Miguel from the movie 'Coco' strumming a guitar

Beatty participated in JPL's annual Halloween pumpkin-carving contest and, with her team, won first place with this pumpkin modeled after the character Miguel from the movie "Coco." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Speaking of unique experiences, your group holds an annual pumpkin-carving contest and makes some amazing creations. Are you planning to participate in the contest this year?

I actually just got the emails today. I didn't know this was a JPL thing. It's a big deal! So, yes, I'd like to!

Do you know what your team is planning to make? Don’t worry, we won’t share this until after the contest, so it won't leak to any competitor.

We're making Miguel from [the movie] “Coco” with his guitar, and we're going to try and make it move.

How does designing a mechanical or creative pumpkin compare to designing a rover for Venus?

Well, with a pumpkin, I would care about how it looks, whereas with the rover, I care about how it functions. A pumpkin has real guts, and a rover has metaphorical guts. It's got to keep on going. But I think the biggest similarity is the creativeness between both of them, because you have to be creative to make an innovative pumpkin. Just like when you design a rover, you have to be creative; you can't just be smart. You have to have those creative ideas. You have to think outside of the box to actually design efficient and effective components, and you can't just give up. When you have a failed attempt, you try it again.

Do you have any tips for anyone who want to make a creative pumpkin?

JPL Interns

Create a Halloween Pumpkin Like a NASA Engineer

Get tips from NASA engineers on how to make an out-of-this-world Halloween pumpkin.

Don't be afraid of your ideas. Sometimes we limit ourselves because we're like, “You know that's too crazy. We shouldn't do that,” but it takes crazy ideas to be an engineer and it takes crazy ideas to carve a good pumpkin.

OK, back to your internship: How do you feel you're contributing to NASA missions and science?

I think my active participation in the rover study is helping contribute to NASA-JPL missions, because something I have designed could very well be on an actual rover that could go to Venus, that would retrieve data, that does help NASA. So I think in that sense, I am contributing.

One last fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go, and what would you do there?

I would go to Europa. I would like to see first-hand if there is an ocean and if there's an environment that could sustain life. Chemistry has always interested me, so I would love to see that up close and analyze everything.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, Students, Engineering, Rovers, Venus

  • Lyle Tavernier

Erika Flores poses for a photo in the lab at JPL

Erika Flores might be the longest-serving intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As a high-school student, she helped test the arm for the Phoenix Mars Lander, which launched about a year later, in 2007. When she returned in 2014 as an undergraduate intern, she joined a team of JPL scientists studying how life began on Earth. A chemical engineering student at Cal Poly at the time, Flores helped the team with one of its early breakthroughs, producing amino acids, which are central to life processes, under conditions found on early Earth. Now known as the "senior intern," Flores has been an integral part of the team ever since. Meanwhile, she's earned a bachelor's degree, was accepted to graduate school for environmental science and started writing her master's thesis. She also recently picked up a part-time gig helping the Mars 2020 rover team keep the spacecraft – which is being built at JPL – clear of microbes that could hitch a ride to the Red Planet. We caught up with Flores to ask what she plans to do next, how her internships have shaped her career path and, as she says with a laugh, how they've changed her personality.

You've had five or six JPL internships, dating back to when you were in high school. How did you first come to the Lab, and what's brought you back all these years?

My very first internship was when I was a high school student going from my junior to my senior year. I think one of my teachers recommended I apply to SHIP, the Summer High School Internship Program, at JPL, and I got the internship. When I came in, it was a little overwhelming. I was 16. I still wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to major in, but I got matched with a mentor who was an electrical engineer, doing some robotics testing on the arm for the Phoenix Mars Lander. So that was really exciting when I heard afterward that they were sending Phoenix to Mars. That’s definitely what – I wouldn't say piqued my interest because I was already into space, but it was like, "OK, I want to come back here."

I went off to community college, and after I transferred to Cal Poly to get my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, I applied [for a JPL internship]. I started working with Laurie Barge in JPL's Astrobiology Lab, doing experiments on the origins of life. We started with research on early Earth conditions because our experiments have to reflect Earth before life as we know it existed. From there, we did a couple of experiments using iron mineral, or iron hydroxide, which is pretty basic and you can find it in nature. Then we adjusted the conditions. So we adjusted the pH to what it would be in early Earth – concentrations that you would find in the ocean floor. Using previous experiments and previous literature, we did an experiment to see if we could produce amino acids – so organics – based off of these reactions that could have been happening on early Earth. And our experiment was successful. We made alanine, which is an amino acid, and lactate, which is an alpha hydroxy acid. We use them for different properties in our body. So we expanded on the experiment, tried different conditions. Now we have a science paper in review. And that all lead to some other internships that are also related to the origins of life.

Erika Flores poses with her science poster

Erika Flores poses with her science poster. Photo courtesy of Erika Flores | + Expand image

Once I graduated, I wasn't able to qualify for an internship anymore. So Laurie hired me as a contractor. I was a lab technician, working part-time while I decided to go back to school. Once I got my acceptance letter to grad school, I was able to return again as an intern. Now I'm referred to as the "senior intern." So we get new interns during the summer or some throughout the year, and I train them, show them around, things like that, which is also pretty great because like they say, you learn more by teaching others.

What are you hoping to do once you graduate?

Since I will be graduating next year, Laurie, who is such a great mentor, has been pushing me to go talk to people and go network. She talked to one of our old postdocs, who happened to be looking for an intern. So just this September, I was converted to an academic part-time employee, which has really allowed me to branch out. Now I'm part-time with Laurie and part-time working with the Mars 2020 contamination control team, handling samples, cataloging them and dropping them off for analysis. The Contamination Control Group determines cleaning methods and the allowable amount of microbial and particulate contamination for spacecraft so that they don't bring those contaminants to the places that they visit. For the Mars 2020 rover, this is an especially crucial step because it will be collecting samples that could potentially be returned to Earth one day. I kind of get to see what's going on behind the scenes of the mission, which an intern normally would not get the chance to do, so it's been a really rewarding experience.

Hopefully, when I graduate, I'll land a full-time job at JPL. Working with Laurie is great, and I feel like she would want to keep me here, but from talking to people higher up, they say if you want to be in the Science Division, you need a Ph.D., and I'm still debating whether I want to do a Ph.D. Perhaps I will in the future, but right now, I'm finishing up my master's thesis and my goal is just to get a full-time job. I find JPL to be so exciting regardless of what you're doing, so at this point, I don't care what it is. It'll still be part of a bigger picture. But it would be great if I could continue with the Mars 2020 mission as an engineer. Since I've lived in LA, I've always known of JPL. So I think this has always been my ultimate goal.

How have your various JPL internships influenced the evolution of your career path?

I started with chemical engineering [as an undergrad], but then I realized a lot of people in my field were going into the oil industry. I was like, "I kinda wanna save the planet, do environmental stuff." I only graduated three years ago, but even then, I didn't hear much about environmental science or environmental engineering as a major, so it wasn't really an option.

The reason why Laurie chose me as her intern was because of my chemistry background, which is pretty awesome because even though I studied engineering, I saw myself doing more lab work. Being here in the lab with Laurie has been amazing. It has solidified my thoughts that "Yes, this is what I want to do." I definitely like doing experiments, taking samples, running analyses and then inputting the data.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

[Before going to grad school], I started turning to a lot of the talks here, because I was like, "OK, maybe I could be more involved with astronomy, astrobiology – things like that." But I felt that a lot of the talks were over my head. But then when I would attend some talks that had to do with climate change or, for example, the new ECOSTRESS [Earth science mission], I was captivated and interested. So it confirmed that I want to stick to the environmental side. That's why, for my master's, I went into environmental science with an option in engineering.

What got you interested in science and engineering initially?

I've always really liked math, but I knew I couldn't just do a math major. I knew I wanted to do more. Growing up, my favorite types of movies were sci-fi, and I was definitely into outer space and astronomy. Knowing how things work was always a curiosity. Trying to know the unknown was what really drew me into science. And then for engineering, I just couldn't decide. I wanted to learn a little bit of everything. The whole reason why I chose engineering was that I couldn't choose one specific subject. With engineering, you need your math, your physics, you need your chemistry, you need some biology, depending on what kind of engineering you go into, but it encompasses everything.

Is anyone in your family involved in engineering or science?

No. I'm actually the middle child of five. My mom came here from Mexico. So we're all first-generation. But I was the first one to even graduate high school. My little brother is in college, and I'm pushing him, because I see my other brother, who is working overnight and overtime and always tired, and it's obviously something he didn't think he was going to end up doing. Also, my mom came here and she struggled a lot, and she's still struggling. As sad as it sounds, I don't want that to be me. So I had to push through. Luckily for me, I was always into school, so it wasn't that hard to keep going.

Going back to the research that you're doing, what's the ultimate goal, and what might it mean for the search for life beyond Earth?

So most of my experiments don't have to do with other planetary systems; they're more focused on Earth and the origins of life here. But we could take some of this knowledge and apply it to other planets. Our research is figuring out what happened here, first, and then applying it to other places. Our ultimate goal is to explore processes for the origin of life.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

Erika Flores demonstrates how to make a chemical garden

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Even if you do the smallest task, it still has to be done. Someone has to take these samples to get analyzed, someone has to drop these things off. But, personally, working with Laurie Barge and the origins of life, I feel like I've contributed a lot. We have one paper in review, and we're doing more experiments. Our research has implications for other celestial bodies, so I’m excited for us to learn more about Mars and Saturn's moon Enceladus so we can adjust our experiment to represent their environments. I have also been helping interns with their experiments. I don't think you can disregard anything you do here. I think everything is important, and you're always learning and teaching others. Whenever I meet students, I'm always saying, "Make sure you apply to JPL." It's a wonderful opportunity. I consider myself so lucky to still be here after all these years.

What's the most unique NASA or JPL experience you've had while you've been here?

Recently, my mentor has been hosting science happy hours. At school, it's not like you just go out and drink with your professor. [Laughs.] But the whole point of it was for her to introduce us to other people who are working in the science department. So going to these happy hours gives us a chance to talk and see what everyone is working on. It's all about collaborating. So, to me, that has been a bit of a unique experience.

Also, going to conferences. I've gone to maybe four or five. Meeting these people from all over the world is definitely a unique experience. It's crazy how we're all kind of working toward the same goal. Before I used to be very shy, more introverted, but meeting people from all over the world and knowing their stories and their background and how much we have in common, despite where we live, has gotten me to be more open. So that's helped me out in the whole networking aspect of things, which is very, very important when you're trying to get a job.

I really think this internship changed my personality. [Laughs.] I really do.

Last question, and it's a fun one: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

With the possibility of seeing humans on Mars within my lifetime, I have joked with my friends that I would love to die on Mars. But I wouldn't want to limit myself. So if possible, at an older age, I would keep traveling through space, passing by every celestial body imaginable. That would be an astonishing and beautiful sight. Once I felt like I had witnessed it all, I would travel straight into a black hole to witness what no one else ever has, the unknown.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Internships, Higher Education, College, STEM, Science, Engineering, Mars 2020

  • Kim Orr

Nagin Cox holds a patch that reads, "The Stars Are Calling And We Must Go"

In 1975, 10-year-old Nagin Cox’s home life was unraveling. It was a time when Cox grew up hearing that girls were “worthless” and thought only about making it to age 18 so she could be free.

“I remember looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘I’m going to live and get through this,” Cox, now a spacecraft systems engineer for Mars 2020 recalls. “I need to set a goal. I need something so meaningful it will help me get through the next eight years.'”

That goal revealed itself when she was 14, a curly-haired Indian girl fascinated by “Star Trek” and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” She wanted to explore the universe. And no, she didn't want to be an astronaut.

“If you really want to go where someone has never been, you want to be with the robots. They truly explore first,” she says. “There was one place that did that consistently and that was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

She just needed to figure out how.

› Continue reading on NASA's Solar System Exploration website

TAGS: People, Spacecraft, Missions, Engineering, Mars Rovers, Mars 2020, Curiosity, Spirit

  • Celeste Hoang