A rectangular box-shaped spacecraft with long arms extending from either side. Above the arms are wing-like solar panels extending in the opposite direction. The curvature of Earth and wispy clouds are depicted just below the spacecraft.

Explore how and why the SWOT mission will take stock of Earth's water budget, what it could mean for assessing climate change, and how to bring it all to students.

Update: Dec. 15, 2022 – NASA, the French space agency, and SpaceX are now targeting 3:46 a.m. PST (6:46 a.m. EST) on Friday, Dec.16, for the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite. Visit NASA's SWOT launch blog for the latest updates.


NASA is launching an Earth-orbiting mission that will map the planet’s surface water resources better than ever before. Scheduled to launch on Dec. 16 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT mission is the latest international collaboration designed to monitor and report on our home planet. By providing us with a highly detailed 3D view of rivers, lakes, and oceans, SWOT promises to improve our understanding of Earth’s water cycle and the role oceans play in climate change, as well as help us better respond to drought and flooding.

Read on to find out why we're hoping to learn more about Earth's surface water, get to know the science behind SWOT's unique design, and follow along with STEM teaching and learning resources.

Why It's Important

Observing Earth from space provides scientists with a global view that is important for understanding the whole climate system. In the case of SWOT, we will be able to monitor Earth’s surface water with unprecedented detail and accuracy. SWOT will provide scientists with measurements of water volume change and movement that will inform our understanding of fresh water availability, flood hazards, and the mechanisms of climate change.

Scientists and engineers provide an overview of the SWOT mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Water Flow

Scientists use a variety of methods to track Earth’s water. These include stream and lake gauges and even measurements from space such as sea surface altimetry and gravitational measurements of aquifer volumes. Monitoring of river flow and lake volume is important because it can tell us how much freshwater is readily available and at what locations. River flow monitoring can also help us make inferences about the downstream environmental impact. But monitoring Earth’s surface water in great detail with enough frequency to track water movement has proven challenging. Until now, most monitoring of river flow and lake levels has relied on water-flow and water-level gauges placed across Earth, which requires that they be accessible and maintained. Not all streams and lakes have gauges and previous space-based altimetry and gravitational measurements, though useful for large bodies of water, have not been able to adequately track the constant movement of water through smaller rivers or lakes.

Here's why understanding Earth’s "water budget" is an important part of understanding our planet and planning for future water needs.

SWOT will be able to capture these measurements across the globe in 3D every 21 days. The mission will monitor how much water is flowing through hundreds of thousands of rivers wider than 330 feet (100 meters) and keep a close watch on the levels of more than a million lakes larger than 15 acres (6 hectares). Data from the mission will be used to create detailed maps of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that will enable accurate monitoring to provide a view of freshwater resources that is not reliant on physical access. Meanwhile, SWOT’s volumetric measurements of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs will help hydrologists better track drought and flooding impacts in near-real-time.

Coastal Sea Level Rise

SWOT will measure our oceans with unprecedented accuracy, revealing details of ocean features as small as 9 miles (15 kilometers) across. SWOT will also monitor sea levels and tides. Though we have excellent global sea level data, we do not have detailed sea level measurements near coastlines. Coastal sea levels vary across the globe as a result of ocean currents, weather patterns, land changes, and other factors. Sea levels are rising faster than ever, and higher sea levels also mean that hurricane storm surges will reach farther inland than ever before, causing substantially more damage than the same category of hurricanes in the past. SWOT will be able to monitor coastal sea level variations and fill gaps in the observations we currently have from other sources.

What is sea level rise and what does it mean for our planet? | › View Transcript

Ocean Heat Sinks

Further contributing to our understanding of the role Earth’s oceans play in climate change, SWOT will explore how the ocean absorbs atmospheric heat and carbon, moderating global temperatures and climate change. Scientists understand ocean circulation on a large scale and know that ocean currents are driven by temperature and salinity differences. However, scientists do not currently have a good understanding of fine-scale ocean currents, where most of the ocean's motion-related energy is stored and lost. Circulation at these fine scales is thought to be responsible for transporting half of the heat and carbon from the upper ocean to deeper layers. Such downward ocean currents have helped to mitigate the decades-long rise in global air temperatures by absorbing and storing heat and carbon away from the atmosphere. Knowing more about this process is critical for understanding the mechanisms of global climate change.

JPL scientist Josh Willis uses a water balloon to show how Earth's oceans are absorbing most of the heat being trapped on our warming world. | › Related lesson

These fine-scale ocean currents also transport nutrients to marine life and circulate pollutants such as crude oil and debris. Understanding nutrient transport helps oceanographers assess ocean health and the productivity of fisheries. And tracking pollutants aids in natural hazard assessment, prediction, and response.

How It Works

A joint effort between NASA and the French space agency – with contributions from the Canadian and UK space agencies – SWOT will continue NASA’s decades-long record of monitoring sea surface height across the globe. But this mission will add a level of detail never before achieved.

SWOT will measure more than 90% of Earth’s surface water, scanning the planet between 78°N latitude and 78°S latitude within 1 centimeter of accuracy and retracing the same path every 21 days. Achieving this level of accuracy from a spacecraft height of 554 miles (891 kilometers) requires that the boom using radar to measure water elevation remain stable within 2 microns – or about 3% of the thickness of a human hair.

This visualization shows ocean surface currents around the world during the period from June 2005 through December 2007. With its new, high resolution wide-swath measurements, SWOT will be able to observe eddies and current features at greater resolution than previously possible. Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio | Watch on YouTube

Prior to SWOT, spacecraft have used conventional nadir, or straight-down, altimetry to measure sea surface height. Conventional nadir altimetry sends a series of radar or laser pulses down to the surface and measures the time it takes for each signal to return to the spacecraft, thus revealing distances to surface features. To acquire more detailed information on surface water, SWOT will use an innovative instrument called the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn, to measure water height with exceptional accuracy. Ka-band is a portion of the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum. SWOT uses microwaves because they can penetrate clouds to return data about water surfaces.

A radar signal is sent straight down from the SWOT spacecraft as it flies over Earth. Beams are shown bouncing back to receivers on either side of the spacecraft. The section of Earth measured by the spacecraft is shown as two side-by-side tracks colored in as a heatmap. The camera zooms out to show these tracks criscrossing the planet and eventually covering a majority of the surface.

SWOT will track Earth's surface water in incredible detail using an innovative instrument called the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The KaRIn instrument uses the principles of synthetic aperture radar combined with interferometry to measure sea surface height. A radar signal is emitted from the end of the 10-meter-wide boom on the spacecraft. The reflected signal is then received by antennas on both ends of the boom, capturing data from two 30-mile (50-kilometer) wide swaths on either side of the spacecraft. The received signals will be slightly out of sync, or phase, from one another because they will travel different distances to return to the receivers on either end of the boom. Knowing the phase difference, the distance between the antennas, and the radar wavelength allows us to calculate the distance to the surface.

The first of three images shows two paths of different lengths extending diagonally from a point on Earth’s surface to receivers on either side of the SWOT spacecraft. A second image shows the paths as light waves that are slightly out of phase. The third image shows a line drawn directly from the rightmost receiver to the path leading to the leftmost receiver, such that the intersected paths from Earth are equal in length. The upper triangle formed by this intersection has a short leg, highlighted in yellow, that represents the remaining length of the leftmost path. The yellow short leg represents the range difference between the two paths from Earth.

Radar signals bounced off the water’s surface will be received by antennas on both ends of SWOT's 10-meter-wide boom. The received signals will be slightly out of phase because they will travel different distances as they return to the receivers. Scientists use this phase difference and the radar wavelength to calculate the distance to the surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The observations acquired by the two antennas can be combined into what is known as an interferogram. An interferogram is a pattern of wave interference that can reveal more detail beyond the 1-centimeter resolution captured by the radar. To explain how it works, we'll recall a couple of concepts from high school physics. When out-of-phase waves from the two antennas are combined, constructive and destructive interference patterns result in some wave crests being higher and some wave troughs being lower than those of the original waves. The patterns that result from the combination of the waves reveal more detail with resolution better than the 1-centimeter wavelength of the original Ka-band radar waves because the interference occurs over a portion of a wavelength. An interferogram can be coupled with elevation data to reveal a 3D representation of the water’s surface.

A diagram illustrating the swaths of data that SWOT will collect, including labels for the following: 10 m baseline between SWOT's receivers; a distance of 891 km between the surface and Interferometer Antenna 1; Interferometer Left Swath resulting in ocean topography with an H-Pol swath of 10-60 km; Interferometer Right Swath resulting in surface water topography with a V-Pol of 10-60 km; a straight-down Nadir Altimeter path directly below the spacecraft in the gap between the swaths; a cross-track resolution from 70m to 10m.

The KaRIn instrument illuminates two parallel tracks of approximately 50 kilometres on either side of a nadir track from a traditional altimeter. The signals are received by two antennas 10 metres apart and are then processed to yield interferometry measurements. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

This highly accurate 3D view of Earth’s surface water is what makes SWOT so unique and will enable scientists to more closely monitor the dynamics of the water cycle. In addition to observing ocean currents and eddies that will inform our understanding of the ocean’s role in climate change, SWOT's use of interferometry will allow scientists to track volumetric changes in lakes and quantify river flooding, tasks that cannot yet be done on a wide scale in any other way.

A colorful swath of yellows, oranges, magentas, purples is overlaid horizontally on a satellite image of desert landscape with thin yellow and red lines cutting diagonally across the image. On the center-left of the image, the colors fan out like a rainbow sprinkler. On the left side of the swath are a cluster of yellow dots.

This interferogram was captured by the air-based UAVSAR instrument of the magnitude 7.2 Baja California earthquake of April 4, 2010. The interferogram is overlaid atop a Google Earth image of the region. Image credit: NASA/JPL/USGS/Google | › Learn more

Follow Along

SWOT is scheduled to launch no earlier than Dec. 16, 2022, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Tune in to watch the launch on NASA TV.

After launch, the spacecraft will spend 6-months in a calibration and validation phase, during which it will make a full orbit of Earth every day at an altitude of 553 miles (857 kilometers). Upon completion of this phase, SWOT will increase its altitude to 554 miles (891 kilometers) and assume a 21-day repeat orbit for the remainder of its mission.

Visit the mission website to follow along as data are returned and explore the latest news, images, and updates as SWOT provides a new view on one of our planet's most important resources.

Teach It

The SWOT mission is the perfect opportunity to engage students in studying Earth’s water budget and water cycle. Explore these lessons and resources to get students excited about the STEM involved in studying Earth’s water and climate change from space.

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Earth Science, Earth, Climate Change, Climate, Satellites, Teachable Moments

  • Ota Lutz
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Collage of images from the events and lessons featured in this article.

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


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


August

The Voyagers Turn 45

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

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

Lessons & Resources:


September

Rendezvous with an Asteroid

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

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

Lessons & Resources:

A Closer Look at Europa

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

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

Lessons & Resources:


October

Celebrate Halloween Like a Space Explorer

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

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

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November

Watch a Total Lunar Eclipse

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

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

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Artemis Takes a Giant Leap

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

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

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December

Satellite Launches on a Mission to Follow the Water

As crucial as water is to human life, did you know that no one has ever completed a global survey of Earth’s surface water? That is about to change with the launch of the SWOT mission, scheduled for December 15. SWOT, which stands for Surface Water Ocean Topography, will use a state-of-the-art radar to measure the elevation of water in major lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. It will also provide an unprecedented level of detail on the ocean surface. This data will help scientists track how these bodies of water are changing over time and improve weather and climate models.

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

Update: Dec. 15, 2022 – NASA, the French space agency, and SpaceX are now targeting 3:46 a.m. PST (6:46 a.m. EST) on Friday, Dec.16, for the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite. Visit NASA's SWOT launch blog for the latest updates.

Lessons & Resources:

Prepare for the Science Fair

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

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January

Explore STEM Careers

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

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

Resources:


February

Mars Rover Celebrates 2-Year 'Landiversary'

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

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

Lessons & Resources:


March

Take On the Pi Day Challenge

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

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

Lessons & Resources:


April

Celebrate Earth Day With NASA

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

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

Lessons & Resources:


May

Summer Learning Adventures

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Why It’s Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

› Learn more about what EMIT will do from JPL News

How It Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach it

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

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

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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Collage of photos featured in this story.

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


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

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

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

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

Joalda Morancy

Joalda Morancy smiles in a close-up photo.

Image courtesy: Joalda Morancy | + Expand image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Gustine

Rebecca Gustine smiles for a photo atop an elephant.

Image courtesy: Rebecca Gustine | + Expand image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Vellanoweth

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

Image courtesy: Jonathan Vellanoweth | + Expand image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

In the News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How It Works

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

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

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

The Science Behind the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge

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

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

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge

› Educators, get the lesson here!

Lunar Logic

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

Core Conundrum

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

Dam Deduction

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

Telescope Tango

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

Teach It

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

Pi Day Resources

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

Recursos en español

Related Lessons for Educators

Related Activities for Students

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Infographic

Facts and Figures

Missions and Instruments

Websites

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

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

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


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

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

Why It's Important

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

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

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

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

How We Did It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Discovered

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

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

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

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

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

Teach It

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

Educator Guides

Student Projects

Articles

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Websites

Facts & Figures

Videos

Interactives

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Articles

Podcast

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

  • Ota Lutz
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Illustration of spacecraft on a light blue background that reads "NASA Pi Day Challenge"

Cartoonish illustration of spacecraft on a dark purple background with various pi formulas

Update: March 15, 2021 – The answers are here! Visit the NASA Pi Day Challenge slideshow to view the illustrated answer keys (also available as a text-only doc) with each problem.


Learn about pi and the history of Pi Day before exploring some of the ways the number is used at NASA. Then, try the math for yourself in our Pi Day Challenge.

Infographic of all of the Pi in the Sky 7 graphics and problems

Visit the Pi in the Sky 8 lesson page to explore classroom resources and downloads for the 2021 NASA Pi Day Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

In this black and white animated image, a circular device stretched out from a robotic arm descends quickly toward a rocky surface, touches it, and then ascends as debris flies all around.

Captured on Oct. 20, 2020, during the OSIRIS-REx mission’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event, this series of images shows the SamCam imager’s field of view as the NASA spacecraft approached and touched asteroid Bennu’s surface. Image credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona | › Full image and caption

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter has a small box-like body topped by two sets of oblong blades. Four stick-like legs extend from the body of the helicopter.

In this illustration, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet's surface as NASA's Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

A giant dish with a honeycomb-patterned device at its center is shown in a desert landscape.

This artist's concept shows what Deep Space Station-23, a new antenna dish capable of supporting both radio wave and laser communications, will look like when completed at the Deep Space Network's Goldstone, California, complex. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

A swirling fabric of glowing neon green, orange, and pink extends above Earth's limb. A partial silhouette of the ISS frames the right corner of the image.

Expedition 52 Flight Engineer Jack Fischer of NASA shared photos and time-lapse video of a glowing green aurora seen from his vantage point 250 miles up, aboard the International Space Station. This aurora photo was taken on June 26, 2017. Image credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

In the News

As March 14 approaches, it’s time to get ready to celebrate Pi Day! It’s the annual holiday that pays tribute to the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.

Pi Day comes around only once a year, giving us a reason to chow down on our favorite sweet and savory pies while we appreciate the mathematical marvel that helps NASA explore Earth, the solar system, and beyond. There’s no better way to observe this day than by getting students exploring space right along with NASA by doing the math in our Pi Day Challenge. Keep reading to find out how students – and you – can put their math mettle to the test and solve real problems faced by NASA scientists and engineers as they explore the cosmos!

How It Works

Dividing any circle’s circumference by its diameter gives us pi, which is often rounded to 3.14. However, pi is an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation goes on forever and never repeats. Pi has been calculated to 50 trillion digits, but NASA uses far fewer for space exploration.

Some people may think that a circle has no points. In fact, a circle does have points, and knowing what pi is and how to use it is far from pointless. Pi is used for calculating the area and circumference of circular objects and the volume of shapes like spheres and cylinders. So it's useful for everyone from farmers storing crops in silos to manufacturers of water storage tanks to people who want to find the best value when ordering a pizza. At NASA, we use pi to find the best place to touch down on Mars, study the health of Earth's coral reefs, measure the size of a ring of planetary debris light years away, and lots more.

In the United States, one format to write March 14 is 3.14, which is why we celebrate on that date. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi. And you're in luck, because that's precisely what the NASA Pi Day Challenge is all about.

The Science Behind the 2021 NASA Pi Day Challenge

This year, the NASA Pi Day Challenge offers up four brain-ticklers that will require students to use pi to collect samples from an asteroid, fly a helicopter on Mars for the first time, find efficient ways to talk with distant spacecraft, and study the forces behind Earth's beautiful auroras. Learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems below or click the link below to jump right into the challenge. Be sure to check back on March 15 for the answers to this year’s challenge.

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge

› Educators, get the lesson here!

Sample Science

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has flown to an asteroid and collected a sample of surface material to bring back to Earth. (It will arrive back at Earth in 2023.) The mission is designed to help scientists understand how planets form and add to what we know about near-Earth asteroids, like the one visited by OSIRIS-REx, asteroid Bennu. Launched in 2016, OSIRIS-REx began orbiting Bennu in 2018 and successfully performed its maneuver to retrieve a sample on October 20, 2020. In the Sample Science problem, students use pi to determine how much of the spacecraft's sample-collection device needs to make contact with the surface of Bennu to meet mission requirements for success.

Whirling Wonder

Joining the Perseverance rover on Mars is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. Named Ingenuity, the helicopter is a technology demonstration, meaning it's a test to see if a similar device could be used for a future Mars mission. To achieve the first powered flight on another planet, Ingenuity must spin its blades at a rapid rate to generate lift in Mars’ thin atmosphere. In Twirly Whirly, students use pi to compare the spin rate of Ingenuity’s blades to those of a typical helicopter on Earth.

Signal Solution

NASA uses radio signals to communicate with spacecraft across the solar system and in interstellar space. As more and more data flows between Earth and these distant spacecraft, NASA needs new technologies to improve how quickly data can be received. One such technology in development is Deep Space Optical Communications, which will use near-infrared light instead of radio waves to transmit data. Near-infrared light, with its higher frequency than radio waves, allows for more data to be transmitted per second. In Signal Solution, students can compare the efficiency of optical communication with radio communication, using pi to crunch the numbers.

Force Field

Earth’s magnetic field extends from within the planet to space, and it serves as a protective shield, blocking charged particles from the Sun. Known as the solar wind, these charged particles of helium and hydrogen race from the Sun at hundreds of miles per second. When they reach Earth, they would bombard our planet and orbiting satellites were it not for the magnetic field. Instead, they are deflected, though some particles become trapped by the field and are directed toward the poles, where they interact with the atmosphere, creating auroras. Knowing how Earth’s magnetic field shifts and how particles interact with the field can help keep satellites in safe orbits. In Force Field, students use pi to calculate how much force a hydrogen atom would experience at different points along Earth’s magnetic field.

Teach It

Pi Day is a fun and engaging way to get students thinking like NASA scientists and engineers. By solving the NASA Pi Day Challenge problems below, reading about other ways NASA uses pi, and doing the related activities, students can see first hand how math is an important part of STEM.

Pi Day Resources

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

Related Lessons for Educators

Related Activities for Students

TAGS: Pi, Pi Day, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Math, Mars, Perseverance, Ingenuity, Mars Helicopter, OSIRIS-REx, Bennu, Asteroid, Auroras, Earth, Magnetic Field, DSOC, Light Waves, DSN, Deep Space Network, Space Communications

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Collage of images and graphics representing the science goals of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich mission

Learn about the mission and find out how to make classroom connections to NASA Earth science – plus explore related teaching and learning resources.


In the News

A new spacecraft that will collect vital sea-surface measurements for better understanding climate change and improving weather predictions is joining the fleet of Earth science satellites monitoring our changing planet from space. A U.S.-European partnership, the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite continues a long tradition of collecting scientific data from Earth orbit. It’s named in honor of NASA’s former Earth Science Division director and a leading advocate for ocean measurements from space.

Read on to find out how the mission will measure sea-surface height for the next 10 years and provide atmospheric data to help better predict weather. Plus, find out how to watch the launch online and explore related teaching resources to bring NASA Earth science into the classroom and incorporate sea level data into your instruction.

How It Works

The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite is designed to measure sea-surface height and improve weather predictions. Once in orbit, it will be able to measure sea-surface height – with accuracy down to the centimeter – over 90% of the world’s oceans every 10 days. It will do this using a suite of onboard science tools, or instruments.

To measure sea-surface height, a radar altimeter will send a pulse of microwave energy to the ocean’s surface and record how long it takes for the energy to return. The time it takes for the signal to return varies depending on the height of the ocean – a higher ocean surface results in a shorter return time, while a lower ocean surface results in a longer return time. A microwave radiometer will measure delays that take place as the signal travels through the atmosphere to correct for this effect and provide an even more precise measurement of sea-surface height.

A blue beam extends from the spacecraft down toward Earth as a red dot pulses back and forth between the spacecraft and the surface of the planet.

This animation shows the radar pulse from the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite's altimeter bouncing off the sea surface in order to measure the height of the ocean. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

To measure atmospheric data, Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich is equipped with the Global Navigation Satellite System - Radio Occultation, or GNSS-RO, instrument, which will measure signals from GPS satellites – the same ones you use to navigate on Earth. As these satellites move below or rise above the horizon from Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich's perspective, their signals slow down, change frequency and bend as a result of the phenomenon known as refraction. Scientists can use these changes in the GPS signal to measure small shifts in temperature, moisture content, and density in the atmosphere. These measurements can help meteorologists improve weather forecasts.

Why It's Important

Scientists from around the world have been collecting sea level measurements for more than a century. The data – gathered from tide gauges, sediment cores, and space satellites – paint a clear picture: sea level is rising. Looking at the average height of the sea across the planet, we see that in the last 25 years global sea level has been rising an average of 0.13 inches (3.3 mm) per year. This average is increasing each year (in the 2000s, it was 0.12 inches, or 3.0 mm, per year) as is the rate at which it’s increasing. That means that sea level is rising, and it’s rising faster and faster. Since 1880, global sea level has risen more than eight inches (20 cm). By 2100, it is projected to rise another one to four feet (30 to 122 cm).

This satellite data show the change in Earth's global sea level since 1993. Roll over the chart to see the various data points. For more Earth vital signs, visit NASA's Global Climate Change website

Measuring sea level from space provides scientists with global measurements of Earth’s oceans in a matter of days, including areas far from shore where measurements aren’t practical or possible. Starting in 1992 with the launch of the TOPEX/Poseidon mission, the record of sea level measurements from space has continued uninterrupted, providing an increasingly detailed picture of Earth’s rising seas. The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite – and its twin, which will launch in 2025 – will extend those measurements to 2030, allowing scientists to continue collecting vital information about Earth’s changing oceans and climate.

Unlike previous satellites that measured sea level, Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich has the capability to measure sea level variations more accurately near coastlines, giving scientists insight into changes that can have direct impacts on communities and livelihoods, such as commercial fishing and ship navigation.

This playlist for students and teachers features explainers about the causes and effects of sea level rise and how NASA is studying our changing planet – plus related STEM activities and experiments for students. | Watch on YouTube

With rising seas already impacting people and communities, it's important to understand not just how much seas are rising, but also where and how quickly they are rising. Data from instruments on Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich can be combined with data from other satellites to get a clearer picture of what's contributing to sea level rise and where. For example, by looking at the satellite's radar altimeter measurements along with gravity measurements from the GRACE-FO mission, scientists can better determine how melting ice and thermal expansion are contributing to sea level rise. And by tracking the movement of warm water (which stands taller than cold water), scientists can better predict the rapid expansion of hurricanes.

Watch the Launch

Scheduled to launch at 9:17 a.m. PST (12:17 p.m. EST) on November 21, Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Watch a live broadcast of the launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on NASA TV and the agency’s website. Visit the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich website to explore more news about the mission. Follow launch updates on NASA's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Teach It

Make classroom connections to NASA Earth science with lessons about rising seas, thermal expansion and ice melt, data collection and graphing, and engineering. Plus explore independent activities and experiments students can do at home, video playlists, and more:

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Recursos en Español

TAGS: Teachable Moments, Educators, Teachers, Parents, K-12 Education, Launch, Mission, Earth, Satellite, Earth Science, Climate Change, Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, Sea Level, Sea Level Rise, Climate TM

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Satellite Image of smoke above the Western U.S.

Data overlayed on a satellite image of the United States shows a thick cloud of aerosols over the western US

Animated satellite image of Earth

Update: Sept. 14, 2020 – This feature, originally published on Aug. 23, 2016, has been updated to include information on the 2020 fires and current fire research.


In the News

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

Fueled by high temperatures, low humidity, high winds, and years of vegetation-drying drought, more than 7,700 fires have engulfed over 3 million acres across California already this year. And the traditional fire season – the time of year when fires are more likely to start, spread, and consume resources – has only just begun.

Because of their prevalence and effects on a wide population, wildfires will remain a seasonal teachable moment for decades to come. Keep reading to find out how NASA studies wildfires and their effects on climate and communities. Plus, explore lessons to help students learn more about fires and their impacts.

How It Works

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

Animation of the FireSat network of satellites capturing wildfires on Earth

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

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

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

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

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

Additionally, JPL worked with a startup in San Francisco called Quadra Pi R2E to develop FireSat, a global network of satellites designed to detect wildfires and alert firefighting crews faster. 

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

Why It's Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach It

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

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Lyle Tavernier contributed to this feature.

TAGS: teachable moments, wildfires, science, Earth Science, Earth, Climate Change, Climate TM

  • Ota Lutz
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