Collage of images and illustrations of planets, spacecraft and space objects

Whether discovering something about our own planet or phenomena billions of miles away, NASA missions and scientists unveiled a vast universe of mysteries this past decade. And with each daring landing, visit to a new world and journey into the unknown came new opportunities to inspire the next generation of explorers. Read on for a look at some of NASA's most teachable moments of the decade from missions studying Earth, the solar system and beyond. Plus, find out what's next in space exploration and how to continue engaging students into the 2020s with related lessons, activities and resources.

1. Earth's Changing Climate

Flat map of Earth with an animation of co2 data overlayed

Rising sea levels, shrinking ice caps, higher temperatures and extreme weather continued to impact our lives this past decade, making studying Earth’s changing climate more important than ever. During the 2010s, NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, led the way by adding new Earth-monitoring satellites to their fleets to measure soil moisture and study carbon dioxide levels. Meanwhile, satellites such as Terra and Aqua continued their work monitoring various aspects of the Earth system such as land cover, the atmosphere, wildfires, water, clouds and ice. NASA's airborne missions, such as Operation IceBridge, Airborne Snow Observatory and Oceans Melting Greenland, returned data on water movement, providing decision makers with more accurate data than ever before. But there's still more to be done in the future to understand the complex systems that make up Earth's climate and improve the scientific models that will help the world prepare for a warmer future. Using these missions and the science they're gathering as a jumping-off point, students can learn about the water cycle, build data-based scientific models and develop an understanding of Earth's energy systems.

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2. Teachable Moments in the Sky

Animated image of the Moon during a lunar eclipse

Astronomical events are a sure-fire way to engage students, and this past decade delivered with exciting solar and lunar eclipses that provided real-world lessons about the Sun, the Moon and lunar exploration. The total solar eclipse that crossed the U.S. in 2017 gave students a chance to learn about the dynamic interactions between the Sun and Moon, while brilliant lunar eclipses year after year provided students with lessons in lunar science. There's more to look forward to in the decade ahead as another solar eclipse comes to the U.S. in 2024 – one of nine total solar eclipses around the world in the 2020s. There will be 10 total lunar eclipses in the 2020s, but observing the Moon at any time provides a great opportunity to study celestial patterns and inspire future explorers. Using the lessons below, students can develop and study models to understand the size and scale of the Earth-Moon system, predict future Moon phases and engage in engineering challenges to solve problems that will be faced by future explorers on the Moon!

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3. Missions to Mars

Animation of Curiosity driving on Mars

The past decade showed us the Red Planet in a whole new light. We discovered evidence that suggests Mars could have once supported ancient life, and we developed a better understanding of how the planet lost much of its atmosphere and surface water. The Opportunity rover continued exploring long past its expected lifespan of 90 days as NASA sent a larger, more technologically advanced rover, Curiosity, to take the next steps in understanding the planet's ability to support life. (Opportunity's nearly 15-year mission succumbed to the elements in 2019 after a global dust storm engulfed Mars, blocking the critical sunlight the rover needed to stay powered.) The InSight lander touched down in 2018 to begin exploring interior features of the Red Planet, including marsquakes, while high above, long-lived spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey were joined by NASA's MAVEN Orbiter, and missions from the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization. The next decade on Mars will get a kick-start with the July launch of the souped-up Mars 2020 rover, which will look for signs of ancient life and begin collecting samples designed to one day be returned to Earth. Mars provides students with countless opportunities to do some of the same engineering as the folks at NASA and design ideas for future Mars exploration. They can also use Mars as a basis for coding activities, real-world math, and lessons in biology and geology.

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4. Ocean Worlds and the Search for Life

Image of Saturn's moon Enceladus covered in ice with giant cracks scarring its surface

This decade marked the final half of the Cassini spacecraft's 13-year mission at Saturn, during which it made countless discoveries about the planet, its rings and its fascinating moons. Some of the most exciting findings highlighted new frontiers in our search for life beyond Earth. Cassini spotted geysers erupting from cracks in the icy shell of Saturn's moon Enceladus, suggesting the presence of an ocean below. At the moon Titan, the spacecraft peered through the hazy atmosphere to discover an Earth-like hydrologic cycle in which liquid methane and ethane take the place of water. Meanwhile, evidence for another ocean world came to light when the Hubble Space Telescope spotted what appear to be geysers erupting from the icy shell surrounding Jupiter's moon Europa. NASA is currently developing Europa Clipper, a mission that will explore the icy moon of Jupiter to reveal even more about the fascinating world. For students, these discoveries and the moons themselves provide opportunities to build scientific models and improve them as they learn more information. Students can also use math to calculate physical properties of moons throughout the solar system and identify the characteristics that define life as we know it.

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5. Asteroids, Comets and Dwarf Planets, Oh My!

Animated image series of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in which the comet tail can be seen shooting out from the comet as it rotates slightly from the perspective of the Rosetta spacecraft

The past decade was a big deal for small objects in space. NASA's Dawn mission started 2010 as a new arrival in the main asteroid belt. The next eight years saw Dawn explore the two largest objects in the asteroid belt, the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. On its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, ESA's Rosetta mission (with contributions from NASA) flew by the asteroid Luticia in 2010. After more than two years at its destination – during which time it measured comet properties, captured breathtaking photos and deposited a lander on the comet – Rosetta's mission ended in dramatic fashion in 2016 when it touched down on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In 2013, as scientists around the world eagerly anticipated the near-Earth flyby of asteroid Duende, residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia, got a surprising mid-morning wake-up call when a small, previously undetected asteroid entered the atmosphere, burned as a bright fireball and disintegrated. The team from NASA's OSIRIS-Rex mission wrapped up the decade and set the stage for discoveries in 2020 by selecting the site that the spacecraft will visit in the new year to collect a sample of asteroid Bennu for eventual return to Earth. And in 2022, NASA's Psyche mission will launch for a rendezvous with a type of object never before explored up close: a metal asteroid. The small objects in our solar system present students with chances to explore the composition of comets, use math to calculate properties such as volume, density and kinetic energy of asteroids, and use Newton's Laws in real-world applications, such as spacecraft acceleration.

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6. Uncovering Pluto's Mysteries

Image of Pluto in false color from NASA's New Horizons mission

In 2015, after nearly a decade of travel, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto for its planned flyby and became the first spacecraft to visit the dwarf planet and its moons. The images and scientific data the spacecraft returned brought into focus a complex and dynamic world, including seas of ice and mountain ranges. And there's still more left to explore. But New Horizons' journey is far from over. After its flyby of Pluto, the spacecraft continued deep into the Kuiper Belt, the band of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. In 2019, the spacecraft flew by a snowman-shaped object later named Arrokoth. In the 2020s, New Horizons will continue studying distant Kuiper Belt objects to better understand their physical properties and the region they call home. The new information gathered from the Pluto and Arrokoth flybys provides students with real-life examples of the ways in which scientific understanding changes as additional data is collected and gives them a chance to engage with the data themselves. At the same time, New Horizons' long-distance voyage through the Solar System serves as a good launchpad for discussions of solar system size and scale.

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7. The Voyagers' Journey Into Interstellar Space

Animation of Voyager entering interstellar space

In 1977, two spacecraft left Earth on a journey to explore the outer planets. In the 2010s, decades after their prime mission ended, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 made history by becoming the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space – the region beyond the influence of solar wind from our Sun. The Voyager spacecraft are expected to continue operating into the 2020s, until their fuel and power run out. In the meantime, they will continue sending data back to Earth, shaping our understanding of the structure of the solar system and interstellar space. The Voyagers can help engage students as they learn about and model the structure of the solar system and use math to understand the challenges of communicating with spacecraft so far away.

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8. The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System

Illustration of the TRAPPIST-1 star and its system of planets

It was only a few decades ago that the first planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, were discovered. The 2010s saw the number of known exoplanets skyrocket in large part thanks to the Kepler mission. A space telescope designed to seek out Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone – the region around a star where liquid water could exist – Kepler was used to discover more than 2,600 exoplanets. Discoveries from other observatories and amateur astronomers added to the count, now at more than 4,100. In one of the most momentous exoplanet findings of the decade, the Spitzer telescope discovered that the TRAPPIST-1 system, first thought to have three exoplanets, actually had seven – three of which were in the star’s habitable zone. With thousands of candidates discovered by Kepler waiting to be confirmed as exoplanets and NASA's latest space telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, surveying the entire sky, the 2020s promise to be a decade filled with exoplanet science. And we may not have to wait long for exciting new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021. Exoplanets are a great way to get students exploring concepts in science and mathematics. In the lessons linked to below, students use math to find the size and orbital period of planets, learn how scientists are using spectrometry to determine what makes up exoplanet atmospheres and more.

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9. Shining a Light on Black Holes

In this historic first image of a black hole, an orange glowing donut-shaped light can be seen against the black backdrop of space. At the center of the light is a black hole.

Even from millions and billions of light-years away, black holes made big news in the 2010s. First, a collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away sent gravitational waves across the universe that finally reached Earth in 2015, where the waves were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. This was the first detection of gravitational waves in history and confirmed a prediction Einstein made 100 years earlier in his Theory of General Relativity. Then, in 2019, a team of researchers working on the Event Horizon Telescope project announced they had taken the first image capturing the silhouette of a black hole. To take the historic image of the supermassive black hole (named M87* after its location at the center of the M87 galaxy), the team had to create a virtual telescope as large as Earth itself. In addition to capturing the world's attention, the image gave scientists new information about scientific concepts and measurements they had only been able to theorize about in the past. The innovations that led to these discoveries are changing the way scientists can study black holes and how they interact with the space around them. More revelations are likely in the years ahead as scientists continue to analyze the data from these projects. For students, black holes and gravitational waves provide a basis for developing and modifying scientific models. Since they are a topic of immense interest to students, they can also be used to encourage independent research.

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TAGS: Teachable Moments, K-12 Education, Educators, Students, STEM, Lessons, Activities, Climate, Moon, Mars, Ocean Worlds, Small Objects, Pluto, Voyager, Exoplanets, Black Holes

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Animation of two black holes merging

Update – Oct. 3, 2017: Researchers Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of Caltech and Rainer Weiss of MIT have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”

Thorne, Barish and Weiss played key roles in making the LIGO project a reality through their research, leadership and development of technology to detect gravitational waves.

In a statement to Caltech, Thorne said the prize also belongs to the more than 1,000 scientists and engineers around the world who play a part on LIGO, the result of a long-term partnership between Caltech, MIT and the National Science Foundation.

› Read the Caltech press release

This story was originally published on March 23, 2016.


In the News

A century ago, Albert Einstein theorized that when objects move through space they create waves in spacetime around them. These gravitational waves move outward, like ripples from a stone moving across the surface of a pond. Little did he know that 1.3 billion years earlier, two massive black holes collided. The collision released massive amounts of energy in a fraction of a second (about 50 times as luminous as all the stars in the visible universe combined) and sent gravitational waves in all directions. On September 14, 2015 those waves reached Earth and were detected by researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).

Why It's Important

Einstein published the Theory of General Relativity in 1915. In it, he predicted the existence of gravitational waves, which had never been directly detected until now. In 1974, physicists discovered that two neutron stars orbiting each other were getting closer in a way that matched Einstein’s predictions. But it wasn’t until 2015, when LIGO’s instruments were upgraded and became more sensitive, that they were able to detect the presence of actual gravitational waves, confirming the last important piece of Einstein’s theory.

It's also important because gravitational waves carry information about their inception and about the fundamental properties of gravity that can’t be seen through observations of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thanks to LIGO’s discovery, a new field of science has been born: gravitational wave astronomy.

How They Did It

LIGO consists of facilities in Washington and Louisiana. Each observatory uses a laser beam that is split and sent down 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) long tubes. The laser beams precisely indicate the distance between mirrors placed at the ends of each tube. When a gravitational wave passes by, the mirrors move a tiny amount, which changes the distance between them. LIGO is so sensitive that it can detect a change smaller than 1/10,000 the width of a proton (10-19 meter). Having two observatories placed a great distance apart allows researchers to approximate the direction the waves are coming from and confirm that the signal is coming from space rather than something nearby (such as a heavy truck or an earthquake).

Teach It

Creating a model that demonstrates gravitational waves traveling through spacetime is as simple as making a gelatin universe!

› See the activity!

Middle school students can develop a model that shows gravitational waves traveling through spacetime while working toward the following Next Generation Science Standard:

  • MS-PS4-2 - Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.

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TAGS: Gravitational Waves, Teachable Moment, LIGO, Black Holes, Einstein

  • Lyle Tavernier
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