JPL intern Maya Yanez stands in front of the Jupiter display in the lab's museum

There’s no telling what the first spacecraft to land on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa could encounter – but this summer, JPL intern Maya Yanez is trying to find out. As part of a team designing the potential Europa Lander, a mission concept that would explore the Jovian moon to search for biosignatures of past or present life, Yanez is combing through images, models, analogs, anything she can find to characterize a spot that’s “less than a quarter of a pixel on the highest-resolution image we have of Europa.” We caught up with Yanez, an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to find out what inspired her to get involved in space exploration and ask about her career ambition to discover alien life.

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

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on what may be a robot that we would land on Europa's icy surface. Europa is a moon of Jupiter that has this thick ice shell that we estimate is 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] thick, and there’s evidence that underneath that is a huge global ocean. If we're going to find life beyond Earth, it's probably going to be wherever there's water. So this mission concept would be to put a lander on Europa to try to figure out if there are signs of life there. I’m looking at an area on Europa about two square meters [about 7 feet] and about a meter [3 feet] deep. For perspective, we've only explored a few kilometers into our own Earth's surface. What I'm doing is trying to figure out what we might expect is going on in that little tiny area on Europa. What light is interacting with it, what processes might be going on, what little micrometeorites are hitting the surface, what's the ice block distribution? I'm looking at places like Mars, the Moon and Earth to try to put constraints and understanding around what types of variation we might see on Europa and what might be going on underneath the surface.

What's an average day like for you?

A lot of it is looking up papers and trying to get an idea of what information exists about Europa. My first couple of weeks here, I read this thing that we call the "Big Europa Book.” It's a 700-page textbook that covers basically all of our knowledge of Europa.

One of the other things that I've been working on is a geologic map, trying to look at what geologic variation exists in a couple of meters on Europa because we don't know. It's kind of crazy to think that when Viking [the first Mars lander] landed, we had no clue what another surface would look like except for the Moon. We had no idea. And then we got those first amazing images and it looked kind of like Earth, except Europa probably won't look like Earth because it's not rock; it's all ice. So even though we're trying, we still have nothing to compare it to.

If it gets selected as an official mission, a Europa lander would come after NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. How might data from Europa Clipper contribute to what you're working on now?

Image of Europa acquired by Voyager 2 on July 9, 1979.

This image of Jupiter's moon Europa was acquired by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft on July 9, 1979, from a distance of about 240,000 kilometers (150,600 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Highest resolution image of Europa

This image is the most detailed view of Europa, obtained by NASA's Galileo mission on Dec. 16, 1997, at a distance of 560 kilometers (335 miles) from the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Europa Clipper could be really beneficial in that it's going to do more than 40 flybys where it goes around Europa in a bunch of different ways and at different proximities. It’s going to curve into the moon’s atmosphere and get really close to the surface, about 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] close to the surface. Right now, some of the best data we have is from hundreds of kilometers away, so the images Europa Clipper will take will be pretty nicely resolved. If you look at the current highest resolution image of Europa as compared to one from Voyager [which flew by Jupiter and its moons in 1979], the amount of detail that changes, the amount of cracks and complexity you can see on the surface is huge. So having more images like that can be really beneficial to figure out where we can land and where we should land.

Before this project, you spent a summer at JPL studying the chemistry of icy worlds, such as Pluto. What’s it been like working on such different projects and getting experience in fields outside your major, like chemistry and geology?

[Laughs] Yeah, one day I'll get back to astronomy. That's one of the things I love about JPL. Overall, I'd say what I want to do is astrobiology because I want to find life in the solar system. I mean, everyone does. It would be really cool to find out that there are aliens. But one of the great things about astrobiology is it takes chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy and all of these different sciences that you don't always mix together. And that's kind of why I like JPL. So much of the work involves an interdisciplinary approach.

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

I have one from last summer and one from this summer.

I really want to find life out in space. I'm curious about bacteria and microbes and how they react in space, but it's not something I've ever really done work in. A couple of weeks ago, I got to see astronaut Kathleen Rubins give a talk, meet her afterward and take a picture with her. She was the first person to sequence DNA in space. I would have never met someone like that if it weren’t for my internship at JPL. I wouldn't have been able to go up to her and say, “This is really cool! I'd love to talk to you more and get your email” – and get an astronaut's email! Who would ever expect that?

And then last year, I had something happen that was completely unexpected. I was sitting alone in the lab, running an experiment and, throughout the summer, we had a couple of different tours come through. A scientist asked if he could bring in a tour. It was two high-school-age kids and, presumably, their moms. I showed them around and explained what my experiment was doing. It was great. It was a really good time. They left and a couple hours later, Mike Malaska, the scientist who was leading the tour, came back and said, “Thank you so much for doing that tour. Do you know the story of that one? I said no. He said, “Well the boy, he has cancer. This is his Make-a-Wish.” His Make-a-Wish was to tour JPL. I had never felt so grateful to be given the opportunity that I was given, to realize that someone’s wish before they may or may not die is to visit the place that I'm lucky enough to intern at. It was a very touching moment. It really made me happy to be at JPL.

What was your own personal inspiration for going into astronomy?

I was the nerdy kid. I had a telescope, but I also had a microscope. So it was destined. But in middle school, I started to get this emphasis on life sciences. I'd always really liked biology so I sort of clung to it. We never really talked about space, so I just kind of forgot about it. But my senior year, I took this really cool class in astrobiology taught by an amazing teacher, who I still talk to. After the first week in her class, I was like, I have to do this. At the end of the academic year, that same teacher took me to JPL and gave me a private tour with some of the other scientists. I actually met Morgan Cable, the mentor I worked with last summer and this summer, on that tour. It was definitely a combination of being in this really great class and having that perspective change, realizing that we’ve learned a lot about life on our own planet, but there's so much to learn about finding it elsewhere.

Did you know about JPL before that?

No. I'm the first generation in my family to go to college, so I'm the one who teaches science to everyone else. I didn't even think science was a career because, when you're a kid, you don't often interact with a lot with scientists. So I didn't realize what JPL was or how cool it was until that tour put everything into perspective. I wasn't a space kid, but I found my own path, and it worked.

JPL intern Maya Yanez live tweets from the JPL Watch Party for NASA's Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Yanez hosted a takeover of the @NASAJPL_Edu Twitter account during the NASA Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

For National Intern Day on July 26, NASA held a special town hall for interns with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Your question about how the agency prioritizes the search for extraterrestrial life was selected as a finalist to appear during the broadcast. What made you want to ask that particular question?

So it was a little self-serving [laughs]. Part of it is that it’s central to my career path, but I also want to run for office one day at some level, and I think it's important that there's this collaboration between science and politics. Without it, science doesn't get funded and politicians aren’t as well informed.

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

What I'm doing requires a lot of reading and putting things together and knowing rocks and putting scales into perspective, so it's not particularly specialized work. But the end goal of my project will be a table that says here's what processes are happening on Europa, here's what depth they govern and here's what it means if biosignatures are caught in these processes. I'm also going to be remaking an old graphic, including more information and trying to better synthesize everything that we know about Europa. Those two products will continue to be used by anyone who’s thinking about landing on Europa, for anyone who’s thinking about what surface processes govern Europa. Those two products that I'm producing are going to be the best summaries that we have of what's going on there.

OK, so now for the fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Europa. Obviously [laughs]. Or [Saturn’s moon] Titan. Titan is pretty cool, but it scares me a little bit because there's definitely no oxygen. There's not a lot of oxygen on Europa, but what's there is oxygen. I would probably go to Europa and find some way to get through those 25 kilometers of ice, hit that ocean and see what's going on.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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

TAGS: Internships, Interns, College, Students, STEM, Science, Engineering, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Zachary Luppen stands in an anechoic chamber

A radar on NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft will be key to finding out if Jupiter's moon Europa is indeed an ocean world, so JPL intern Zachary Luppen is creating ways to test it to perfection. We caught up with Luppen, an astronomy and physics major from the University of Iowa, to find out how he’s helping the team peer below the icy moon’s surface and to hear about his recent brushes with space stardom.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on the integration, testing and automation of the REASON instrument for the Europa Clipper mission. REASON is a radar instrument that will look within the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa to look for water pockets, characterize the moon’s surface and see if we can confirm that there’s an ocean below its surface.

How does the radar work and why is it important for the mission?

The radar performs what’s called interferometry by sending out and receiving signals that create measurable interference patterns. Based on what signal bounces back, we can figure out the composition of the crust.

The radar probably first and foremost is trying to answer whether the moon has an ocean, and will probably help with determining a landing site for a potential future lander. So the Europa Clipper orbiter is sort of this preliminary study for eventually putting something on the surface. The REASON instrument is going to study a large portion of the moon’s surface and look for a landing spot, possibly where the ice is thinnest so we will not have to drill too deep to find water.

Why is NASA especially interested in Europa as a destination to explore?

Europa is a very interesting moon because it's way out at Jupiter, so it's far away from the Sun, and yet, scientists have data to support the notion that it might have liquid water. What allows it to have this water below its icy crust and how deep is that water? How thick is the icy crust? And if we were to drill into the crust, is there the potential to find life below it? Europa very quickly becomes a moon that can transform society on Earth, if we happened to find extraterrestrial life there.

| Watch on YouTube

What’s an average day like for you?

A lot of the work that I do involves programming in a language called Python. The transmitter boards, which are used to generate the signals that would propagate downwards toward Europa, are currently being built at the University of Iowa, and once we get them here at JPL, we're going to have to test them nonstop, see how we can break them, see how we can improve them. Whatever we need to do to make sure we operate perfectly during the mission. A lot of my work involves writing the software that's going to be doing this testing. Other than that, I've been writing programs called GUIs, graphical user interfaces, to interact with the instruments without having to actually touch them. So if you’re not able to go into the cleanroom during testing, then you can just use your computer to type commands.

How did you get involved in the project?

I’m a student at the University of Iowa and our team has been working on the transmitter boards for the past couple of years. I was dying to get involved in spacecraft and by the end of my sophomore year, I finally had the opportunity to do so because I got a grant from the university to pay for research. I started off simply cleaning rooms and putting away parts, which was pretty menial, however, I did learn what the parts were and how to quickly blow them up if you don't use them properly. Then I worked my way up to kitting parts, which is organizing them for our soldering technician. This doesn't sound like a rigorous job, but it's the first task that needs to be done to make a circuit board, and if it's not done properly, nothing else matters because the circuit boards won’t work. So I just kept working on that throughout my junior year and now I'm out here interning.

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Your question was chosen to be broadcast as part of a downlink for NASA interns with astronauts on the International Space Station. What does it mean to know that your question is going to space?

Words that I spoke are going to be shown to astronauts. Pixels showing me and audio from my mouth will be appearing on the International Space Station, so I'm almost riding on the station. In a sense, my dream of going to space is another step toward coming true

Have you had any other JPL or NASA unique experience of note?

I got to meet astronaut Kate Rubins when she visited JPL recently. That was the first time that I'd ever met an astronaut. And I was just like, oh my gosh, I was shaking. Someone told me I could go up and shake her hand and I was like, really, I'm allowed to do that?! And I did. And then I got her autograph afterward.

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

The programming work I’m doing is contributing directly to the testing phase of the Europa mission, which is cool in itself. But also just trying to make as many people aware as possible that the science is going on, that it's worth doing and worth finding out, especially if we were to find life on Europa. That changes humanity forever!

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Oh my god. The planetary system around the star TRAPPIST-1 is fascinating. The ISS is fascinating. Mars is Mars. Europa is Europa. This is a hard question. I guess, in order to further science, I’d go to Europa. If I could just go to Europa and see if there's life, well then, we’d answer one of the biggest questions ever asked.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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

TAGS: Interns, Internships, Higher Education, College, Opportunities, STEM, engineering, Europa Clipper, Europa, Ocean Worlds

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Joshua Gaston holds a 3-D printed model of a CubeSat

Seeing what it takes to build a mission from the ground up, JPL intern Joshua Gaston is turning a far-out idea into reality as part of the lab’s project formulation team. The aerospace engineering student from Tuskegee University explains how he hopes to play a role in sending tiny satellites, called CubeSats, beyond Earth’s gravity and what it’s like to spitball ideas with rocket scientists.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on a proposal to send a bunch of CubeSats, [small satellites], to places beyond Earth’s gravity in our solar system. I'm the configurations and power guy. The team will tell me how they want the CubeSat configured. I research it, figure out if it's going to work and, if it does, I’ll set it up in CAD, [computer-aided design], software. So I'm pretty much the CAD guy, if you want to be basic.

You’re part of the project formulation team that’s coming up with these new mission ideas. What is that like?

This is sort of like step one. We have this idea and we need to figure out how to make it happen, so I'm just seeing how everything works from the very bottom.

I guess I never really thought about how they come up with these mission ideas and figure out if they’re going to work or not. They have teams of people who come together in one room and say, hey this won't work, this is why. Let's do it this way. And another person’s like, that won't work, but if it was adjusted a little bit ... It's just so cool to sit in through that and see all these smart people come together.

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

At my last internship, I kind of felt like I was the low leaf, like the roots on a tree. I wasn't running and getting coffee or anything, but everybody had doctorates and I felt like I couldn't ask them anything. But here, you can just run up to someone, ask them something and they're just so open about it, just open to talk.

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

What's your ultimate career goal?

The ultimate, cross fingers, knock on wood is I want to become an astronaut. I feel like that's every kid's dream. But if I could make it, that would be great. After that is working at NASA. So either-or [laughs].

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

Well, at first I felt like I wasn’t contributing to anything until someone was like, Oh Josh, you’re doing such a great job.” It was then that I realized the configuration is an essential part to the proposal stage. It seems like a small role, but at the same time, it’s a tremendous task. Without it, it would be hard to have a compelling case for the people who review the mission.

And in the bigger picture, since it's the beginning of the CubeSat wave, if this proposal goes all the way through, then I will feel amazing that I participated in the start of this journey, that my work contributed toward a new wave of satellites.

If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

If I could go anywhere that I would likely survive, I would probably go to the Andromeda Galaxy. But if I could go anywhere and only possibly survive, I would go inside a black hole, just to see it. I know that going in the gravitational forces would be too intense and possibly kill me on the spot. So, I’ll just say that if there was a possibility that I could survive and make it out, then I’d want to go inside a black hole.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Student Programs, STEM, Engineering, Opportunities

  • Kim Orr
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Sawyer Elliott holds a model of a rover like the one he's developing at JPL

Roll aside, wheeled rovers! Sawyer Elliott is developing a cube-shaped rolling robot to go where no rover has gone before. Find out how the NASA Space Technology Research Fellow from Cornell University is fashioning a rover for extreme environments, what inspired him to go into aerospace engineering, and where he most wants to travel in space.

What are you working on at JPL?

I work on extreme terrain mobility, so being able to maneuver through terrains that traditional rovers have a tough time traversing.

What does that entail?

I work on a rover that, instead of driving around with wheels like traditional rovers, hops or rolls by itself and is actually a cube or tetrahedron. So we look at how well it can do this rolling motion, how power-efficient it is, and its capabilities in different environments.

What kinds of environments are we talking about?

Microgravity environments [where gravity is very weak, such as on asteroids and comets] are a big one because it's difficult for wheeled rovers to maneuver through those types of environments. Also places that are extremely rocky, where it's difficult for wheeled rovers to get into.

What’s an average day like for you?

I do a lot of analyses on the rover, looking at the dynamics and the controls. I look at how it interacts with the environment and make sure my controllers work as expected and that the math I've done is reasonable. It’s a lot of sitting in front of simulations. But in the end, it's nice because I get to see the robustness of the controllers and if they actually work in a realistic environment.

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

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

The hope is that my work is advancing the capabilities of not only this type of rover architecture – so how we do our cube-type rolling – but also controls and planning for rovers in general, making them more autonomous, making the planning better and our modeling of the systems better.

What got you interested in engineering in the first place?

I think it was mostly my father. We traveled a lot to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and I got to see the Saturn V there. Anyone who has seen the Saturn V loves rockets because it's amazing. After that, I was basically sold. I got my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and now I am getting my graduate degree in aerospace engineering. I'm only getting more and more interested as I go, so I guess that's a good sign.

What's your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate goal would be to be a senior researcher or a senior fellow at some place like JPL or another NASA center or research center.

OK, now for the fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I think going to a microgravity environment would be most fun. It's cool to explore places that have crazy environments, but just going to any microgravity environment, where you could go ballistic just by jumping or leaping, that sounds so fun to me, to complete half an orbit around an asteroid.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Student Programs, Opportunities, Engineering, Robotics, Rovers

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Camille Yoke stands in front of a test chamber

JPL intern Camille V. Yoke is building a thruster like the one that might send astronauts to Mars in the future. The University of South Carolina physics major shares how she’s shaping the future of electric propulsion and why she’s a fan of the “Mark Watney lifestyle.”

What are you working on at JPL?

I am working on a thruster – which is what makes a spacecraft accelerate while it's in the vacuum of space – similar to one that we could ultimately use on either a manned mission to Mars, a cargo mission to Mars, or other future manned missions. I am building what's called a cathode. It goes into an electric propulsion thruster and creates a plume of plasma. My job this summer is to test that plasma and see whether or not we can improve upon previous generations of the same technology.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

What's a typical day like for you?

I have an office in a lab. Usually, in the morning, I talk with my mentor about the data that I've collected the day before. Then I either continue collecting data of the same variety or we decide that we need something new. The lab that I work in has three very small vacuum chambers, in which we create a plasma plume. I measure things like the density and temperature of the plasma at different positions. Then, I study the data to see what I’ve found.

What have you found out so far?

The technology I work on is the third-generation cathode for this thruster. The major difference between the third and the second generation is that we're giving the cathode extra fuel in different places. We actually learned today that it might be causing the temperature of the thruster to be much lower than it was previously, which is probably good news – but we don't know yet. We're going to launch into doing more rigorous tests and figure out whether or not that's a mistake in how we were testing it or if that's a pattern of this new technology.

What is electric propulsion and what makes it different than fuel propulsion? Why is it being considered for Mars and manned missions, specifically?

Electric propulsion is really good for deep space missions, meaning those going any farther than the Moon, because it can run for many thousands of hours. It requires power to run an electric thruster, which used to be an issue for NASA, but now large solar arrays are used on spacecraft to generate a lot of power. So for many proposed thrusters, the only limiting factor is the fuel. A main advantage of electric thrusters over chemical propulsion is that less fuel is required, so it’s less expensive to get these thrusters into space. This could be important for manned missions in the solar system, such as a manned mission to Mars, which may require lots of cargo shipments.

How do you think you're contributing to NASA missions and science?

Today there was a brief period in which I knew something that nobody else on the planet knew – for 20 minutes before I went and told my boss. You feel like you're contributing when you know that you have discovered something new. I'm a student, so I'm learning and I think that's an important contribution, too. Learning about all these technologies in order to advance them forward when the current experts retire or leave is really important.

JPL intern Camille Yoke stands in front of the Danger, High Voltage sign in her lab at JPL

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

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I've read a lot about potential floating cities to study Venus, and those always seem really neat. I'm also a fan of the Mark Watney style of life [in “The Martian”], where you're stranded on a planet somewhere and the only thing between you and death is your own ability to work through problems and engineer things on a shoestring. There's this sign in my lab that reads, "Danger, high voltage" and there’s another that reads, “There's nitrogen in this room. Two breaths of pure nitrogen will knock you out.” That’s why I really like applied physics; if you do it wrong, it will kill you. So If I ended up in a situation like Mark Watney’s on a floating city on Venus, I wouldn't complain. It would be pretty cool.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Opportunities, STEM, Science, Engineering, Physics

  • Kim Orr
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Pi in the Sky 5 promo graphic

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


In the News

Pi in the Sky 5

The 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge

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

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

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

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

Why March 14?

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

NASA’s Pi Day Challenge

Pi in the Sky 5

Lessons: Pi in the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Space-Themed Halloween Supplies

When Halloween rolls around at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we really let our nerd flags fly. Pumpkin carving contests turn into serious engineering design challenges and costume inspiration runs the gamut from real science to science fiction.

This year, join us in all our geekdom with these spooky (and educational!) space activities from the Education Office at NASA/JPL:


Create a Halloween Pumpkin Like a NASA Engineer

Project: Create a Halloween Pumpkin Like a NASA Engineer

Get tips and inspiration for creating a stellar pumpkin from the same people who send spacecraft to other planets!


Mysteries of the Solar System and Beyond Slideshow

Slideshow: Mysteries of the Solar System and Beyond

Strange things are happening all around the solar system. See if you can solve these space mysteries before finding out how scientists did it.


 

TAGS: Halloween, Pumpkin, Mysteries, Stranger Things, Science, Engineering, STEM

  • NASA/JPL Edu
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In the News

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the world’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2. Four decades ago, they embarked on an ambitious mission to explore the giant outer planets, the two outermost of which had never been visited. And since completing their flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in 1989, they have been journeying toward the farthest reaches of our solar system – where no spacecraft has been before. These two intrepid spacecraft continue to return data to NASA daily, offering a window into the mysterious outer realms of our solar system and beyond.

Illustration of Voyager in space
Teach It!

Try these standards-aligned lessons and activities with students to bring the wonder of the Voyager mission to your classroom or education group.

How They Did It

The Voyager spacecraft were launched during a very short window that took advantage of a unique alignment of the four giant outer planets – one that would not occur again for another 176 years. (Try this lesson in calculating launch windows to get an idea of how it was done.) Launching at this point in time enabled the spacecraft to fly by all four planets in a single journey, returning never-before-seen, close-up images and scientific data from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune that greatly contributed to our current understanding of these planets and the solar system.

Voyager Golden Record
Mission planners knew Voyager would be a historic mission to parts of the solar system never visited by a human-made object. To commemorate the journey, NASA endowed each spacecraft with a time capsule of sorts called the Golden Record intended to communicate the story of our world to extraterrestrials. Both Voyagers carry the 12-inch, gold-plated copper phonograph record containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Find out more about the Golden Record on the Voyager website. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Why It’s Important

diagram of solar system components

These images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (clockwise from top) were taken by Voyager 1 and 2 as the spacecraft journeyed through the solar system. See a gallery of images that Voyager took on the Voyager website. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition to shaping our understanding of the outer planets, the Voyager spacecraft are helping us learn more about the space beyond the planets – the outer region of our solar system. After completing their “grand tour” of the outer planets, the Voyagers continued on an extended mission to the outer solar system. They are now more than 10 billion miles from Earth, exploring the boundary region between our planetary system and what’s called interstellar space.

The beginning of interstellar space is where the constant flow of material from the Sun and its magnetic field stop influencing the surroundings. Most of the Sun’s influence is contained within the heliosphere, a bubble created by the Sun and limited by forces in interstellar space. (Note that the heliosphere doesn’t actually look like a sphere when it travels through space; it’s more of a blunt sphere with a tail.) The outer edge of the heliosphere, before interstellar space, is a boundary region called the heliopause. The heliopause is the outermost boundary of the solar wind, a stream of electrically charged atoms, composed primarily of ionized hydrogen, that stream outward from the Sun. Our planetary system lies inside the bubble of the heliosphere, bordered by the heliopause and surrounded by interstellar space.

solar system components visualized in a kitchen sink
Any flat-bottom sink can provide a visual analogy of these solar system components. In this video, the water traveling radially away from where the faucet stream impacts the sink represents the solar wind. The termination shock is the point at which the speed of the solar wind (water) drops abruptly as it begins to be influenced by interstellar wind. The outer edge of the thick ring of water at the bottom of the sink represents the heliopause. Just like the water in the sink, the solar wind at the heliopause changes direction and flows back into the heliosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Though we’ve learned a lot about the heliopause thanks to the Voyager spacecraft, its thickness and variation are still key unanswered questions in space physics. As the Voyagers continue their journey, scientists hope to learn more about the location and properties of the heliopause.

From their unique vantage points – Voyager 1 in the northern hemisphere and Voyager 2 in the southern hemisphere – the spacecraft have already detected differences and asymmetries in the solar wind termination shock, where the wind abruptly slows as it approaches the heliopause. For example, Voyager 2 crossed the termination shock at a distance of about 83.7 AU in the southern hemisphere. (One AU, or astronomical unit, is equal to 150 kilometers (93 million miles), the distance between Earth and the Sun.) That’s about 10 AU closer to the Sun than where Voyager 1 crossed the shock in the north. As shown in this diagram, Voyager 1 traveled through the compressed “nose” of the termination shock and Voyager 2 is expected to travel through the flank of the termination shock.

With four remaining powered instruments on Voyager 1 and five remaining powered instruments on Voyager 2, the two spacecraft continue to collect science data comparing their two distinct locations at the far reaches of the solar system.

diagram of solar system components

In August 2012, Voyager 1 detected a dramatic increase in galactic cosmic rays (as shown in this animated chart). The increase, which has continued to the current peak, was associated with the spacecraft's crossing into interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since it launched from Earth in 1977, Voyager 1 has been using an instrument to measure high-energy, dangerous particles traveling through space called galactic cosmic rays. While studying the interaction between the bubble of the heliosphere and interstellar space, Voyager 1 revealed that the heliosphere is functioning as a radiation shield, protecting our planetary system from most of these galactic cosmic rays. So in August 2012, when Voyager 1 detected a dramatic increase in the rays, which has continued to the current peak, it was associated with the spacecraft’s crossing into interstellar space.

Meanwhile, Voyager 2 ­­– which is still in the heliosheath, the outermost layer of the heliosphere between the shock and the heliopause ­– is using its solar wind instrument to measure the directional change of solar wind particles there. Within the next few years, Voyager 2 is also expected to cross into interstellar space, providing us with even more detailed data about this mysterious region.

In another 10 years, we expect one or both Voyagers to cruise outward into a more pristine region of interstellar space, returning data to inform our hypotheses about the concentration of galactic particles and the characteristics of interstellar wind.

Even with 40 years of space flight behind them, the Voyagers are expected to continue returning valuable data until about 2025. Communications will be maintained until the spacecraft’s nuclear power sources can no longer supply enough electrical energy to power critical functions. Until then, there’s still much to learn about the boundary of our heliosphere and what lies beyond in the space between the stars.

Teach It

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

  • Hear Here - Students use the mathematical constant pi and information about the current location of Voyager 1 to learn about the faint data-filled signal being returned to Earth.
  • Solar System Bead Activity – Students calculate and construct a scale model of solar system distances using beads and string.
  • Catching a Whisper from Space – Students kinesthetically model the mathematics of how NASA communicates with spacecraft.

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TAGS: Voyager, Farthest, Golden Record, STEM, Teachable Moments, Science, Engineering, Solar System, Interstellar Space, Heliopause, Heliosphere, Heliosheath, Termination Shock, Stars, Heliophysics

  • Ota Lutz
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Mars Exploration Educator Workshop at JPL in Pasadena, California

You may already know about the online lessons and activities available from the Education Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (If not, check them out here.) But did you know that JPL and all NASA centers nationwide have an education specialist focused specifically on professional development for teachers – including how to use those online lessons in the classroom? It’s part of a program called the Educator Professional Development Collaborative, or EPDC, a free service for any K-12 classroom educator in the country.

During the 2016-2017 school year, the EPDC at JPL participated in more than 120 school events focusing on teacher professional development, including implementing Next Generation Science Standards, helping schools initiate science fairs and community events, and assisting with student presentations. That number includes more than 5,000 teachers and students who worked with the EPDC on initiatives designed to get NASA science and engineering into the hands of future space explorers.

As the EPDC coordinator for JPL, I schedule and help shape these events for schools and teacher preparation programs in Southern California, coordinating and consulting with educators to help them bring standards-aligned NASA STEM content into the classroom. My work and the ways in which I support educators can take many shapes. Teachers often ask me to visit during regularly scheduled professional development or early dismissal days. These represent the most common events, wherein schools choose topics or themes to focus on and the time is spent practicing hands-on activities for students. This year, teachers and schools have come up with new and especially creative formats, scheduling onsite tours and workshops at JPL for their teaching staff, or even having NASA scientists dial in to their classrooms to talk with students.

JPL's EPDC Coordinator, Brandon Rodriguez, leads an educator workshop

The EPDC helps educators bring NASA STEM content into the classroom through workshops, webinars and more. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One school in particular took its program to another level with the help of the EPDC at JPL by building a grade-wide, multi-week mission to Mars. For their annual cross-curricular project, teachers at the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media in Los Angeles were hoping to create a more expansive offering that incorporated the Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS. I met with teachers over several days to suggest activities and strategies that would meet their goal of getting students engaged in space science across numerous subject areas.

Students were tasked to explore the history of space exploration and the pioneers who led the charge. Using NASA lessons like those found on the JPL Education website, the students built conceptual models of Mars missions, including calculating the budget associated with such a trek. They then constructed robotic rovers capable of traversing a simulated Martian surface and the tools needed to interact with the local environment.

But what really set the program apart was its focus on collaboration. The school thought beyond the content of the lesson itself, making NASA badges for each student and having them refer to each other as “doctor.” Students designed their own team name and logo. They also used Web-based apps to capture pictures and videos of their work during each class and posted them online, allowing groups to digitally follow the revisions and lessons learned by their classmates. As a year-end culminating event, students presented their work in front of their classmates, and I was fortunate to be in attendance to celebrate the hard work of the teachers and students.

Mars mission project at the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media in Los Angeles
Working with the EPDC at JPL, educators at the San Fernando Institute for Applied Media in Los Angeles designed a multi-week project that had students create a mission to Mars. The project included testing samples of "Martian soil" for signs of microbial life (top left) and creating a hydraulic arm to interact with a simulated Mars surface (top center). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In Chicago, Burley Elementary staff reached out to me via our distance learning program to revise an existing lesson for an elementary-level special education audience. Working together, the staff and I created a project using JPL’s NGSS-aligned Touchdown lesson to demonstrate the value of the engineering design process, revision and collaboration.

Students at Burley Elementary School in Chicago work on JPL's Touchdown lesson

Students at Burley Elementry in Chicago design lunar landers as part of JPL's NGSS-aligned Touchdown lesson. Burley Elementary teachers worked with the EPDC at JPL to modify the lesson for their students. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At the onset of the project, students were tasked to develop a spacecraft capable of landing astronauts safely on a distant planet. Each day concluded with students testing their designs and documenting the changes they made. Again, student groups captured their revisions digitally, praising others and crediting them for ideas that influenced their work. As a result, student groups learned the value of collaboration over competition.

From the educator’s point of view, the evolution of students’ designs also provided a narrative for assessment: Each student group had three designs constructed along with written and recorded diaries discussing the changes they made. The rubric included analysis of their own trials as well as the peer designs that shaped their future trials, creating in-depth student storyboards.

In both of these cases, the educators’ creativity, expertise and interest in creating novel opportunities for professional development and student engagement helped elevate the quality of the EPDC’s offerings and expand the scope of JPL’s STEM lessons. I’ve since been able to incorporate the ideas and strategies created during these projects into other workshops and lessons, sharing them with an even wider group of educators and classrooms. While not every collaboration between the EPDC and educators need be multi-day endeavors, even when done on a small scale, they can have a big impact.

Looking to bring NASA science into your classroom or need help customizing lessons for your students and staff? The EPDC at JPL serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact JPL education specialist Brandon Rodriguez at brandon.rodriguez@jpl.nasa.gov. Note: Due to the popularity of EPDC programs, JPL may not be able to fulfill all requests.

Outside the Southern California area? The EPDC operates in all 50 states. To find an EPDC specialist near you, see https://www.txstate-epdc.net/nasa-centers/.

The Educator Professional Development Collaborative (EPDC) is managed by Texas State University as part of the NASA Office of Education. A free service for K-12 educators nationwide, the EPDC connects educators with the classroom tools and resources they need to foster students’ passion for careers in STEM and produce the next generation of scientists and engineers.

TAGS: Professional Development, Workshops, Teachers, Educators, STEM, Science, Engineering, EPDC

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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