In The News
This week, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL was founded long before it became NASA’s premier center for robotic exploration of the solar system – and even before the agency existed. In fact, JPL started as the test-bed for some of the earliest rocketry experiments (thus the name “Jet Propulsion Laboratory”). There were a number of factors that conspired to change JPL’s focus from rocketry to space exploration. The Space Race and the resulting formation of NASA were two major factors. But also, with its growing expertise in launching rockets to new heights, JPL was anxious to take its experiments even farther. So in 1957, when the Soviet Union won the first leg of the Space Race by placing Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into Earth orbit, JPL was called into action. A few months later, NASA launched the JPL-built Explorer 1, which became the first U.S. satellite.
Soon, the challenge was to land on the moon – and JPL was once again called to the task. Landing on another planetary body had never been accomplished so, understandably, it took a few tries to get things right. JPL’s first attempts at a moon landing with Rangers 1 through 6 all failed for various reasons. Some of the spacecraft flew very near the moon only to miss it by a few hundred kilometers; others met their mark only to have onboard cameras fail. Ranger 7 was the first mission to successfully land on the moon and transmit data, capturing images 1,000-times better than those obtained by ground-based telescopes. It wasn’t a particularly soft landing; rather it was a purposeful crash landing, capturing images along the way. But everyone at JPL was thrilled to have hit their target and returned usable data. These data, and those collected by subsequent missions, made possible NASA’s later human missions to the moon.
At the same time it was launching the Ranger lunar missions, JPL had also set its sights on venturing even farther into space and began launching a series of missions called Mariner to Venus, Mercury and Mars. It wasn’t long before JPL’s specialty became creating robotic spacecraft to go not just to the moon, but also where no one had gone before.
Learn more about the history of JPL and the U.S. space program in the video series below. And explore the interactive timeline.
How They Did It
What’s often not known is that all the early rocket experiments and later missions to the moon and beyond wouldn’t have been possible without a team at JPL known as the human “computers.” Most of these human computers were women who either had degrees in mathematics or were simply very good at mathematics. Over the course of time, these women not only performed hundreds of thousands of mathematical calculations crucial to the U.S. space program, but also eventually became some of the first computer programmers at NASA.
In the early days of space exploration, the best mechanical computers were large (the size of a room) and not particularly powerful. Human capabilities were much more powerful for many tasks, including the rapid calculations needed for trajectory analysis and verification, as well as the graphing of data points on trajectories, which made a spacecraft’s path easy to see.
One of the human computers’ main tasks was computing the planned trajectories, or paths, for a spacecraft based on the vehicle weight, lift capacity of the rocket, and the orbital dynamics of the planets.
When a spacecraft is launched, it begins sending telemetry signals back to Earth. These signals tell engineers information about the spacecraft’s location and health. But this information isn’t perfectly straightforward. It arrives as a bunch of numbers that need to be combined in formulas along with other constantly changing parameters (such as velocity, vehicle mass and the effect of gravity from nearby bodies) in order to reveal the spacecraft’s actual location. Before there were computers (as we know them today) to do these calculations, human computers would feverishly calculate the exact location of the spacecraft as the telemetry came in and compare that to the planned trajectories. Their calculations would reveal whether the spacecraft was on target.
Doing the calculations required to get Explorer 1 into orbit was no small task. Calculating the trajectory for a Ranger crash landing or a Surveyor soft landing on the moon was even more challenging. Once humans were destined to be on board for the Apollo missions, the stakes were even higher. Fortunately, JPL had set the stage developing the techniques – and calculations – necessary to land a robotic spacecraft safely on the moon.
Why It’s Important
Today, JPL continues setting the pace for exploration of the solar system using robots to go where humans hope to venture one day, such as Mars. Though trajectory computations are now done using modern day computers, humans are still required to do trajectory analysis and mission planning. Every mission is different, and with new techniques comes new simulation equations that must be developed and computations that must be performed during actual mission events to ensure success. But even now, nothing is fail-proof. Lots of variables can and do influence spaceflight. Arriving safely on another planet millions of miles away isn’t easy or taken for granted, but when things go right and we achieve a safe landing, it is definitely cause for celebration.
When launching to another planet, we want to take the most efficient route, using the least amount of rocket fuel possible. The early human computers quickly discovered that launching when two planets are closest and using a lot of rocket fuel for the job isn’t the best plan.
Use this fascinating bit of history as a real world, advanced algebra and physics lesson with students in this standards-aligned activity that has grades 9-12 calculate the next launch window to Mars!
Let's Go to Mars! Calculating Launch Windows
Students use advanced algebra concepts to determine the next opportunity to launch a spacecraft to Mars.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
- Meet JPL engineer Sue Finley – Finley started at JPL in 1958 as a human computer and still works at the laboratory.
- Women at JPL website
- JPL History
- JPL 80th Anniversary Article
- JPL Timeline
- JPL 80th Anniversary Video Playlist
- JPL 80th Anniversary Printable Calendar
- Mars in a Minute Video Series
- Stomp Rockets Activity
- Basics of Space Flight Tutorial
On a recent school night, seven enthusiastic female engineers and scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, rolled into Santa Clarita, armed with three eight-wheeled Mars rover models. Their mission: to encourage hundreds of junior high and high school girls to reach for the stars in their education and future careers. Their strategy: to pique the girls' interest with an event called "Women in STEM: Going to Mars and Beyond!"
The evening featured rover races, demos and encouragement from the JPLers, who told the girls, "You, too, can do what we do someday."
There was definitely an audience for a message like that. Within five days of being advertised online, the March 18 event at Golden Valley High School "sold out," with 550 free tickets distributed and a waiting list cut off after 90 people.
"This just shows that people are hungry for events where girls can learn about STEM careers and consider them as an option," said Dennis Young, who works on the Mars Curiosity rover mission at JPL. Young, a longtime Santa Clarita resident, initiated and organized the event. His motivation was to expose his young daughter and other girls like her to career opportunities in STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - in the same way as his son and other boys. He had the blessing of Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson, who said, "I'm happy to support our team in fostering interest in STEM by young people."
The event was a collaboration between JPL and the William S. Hart Union School District. Janis Fiock, the district's college and career advisor, said she was thrilled when Young first proposed the event to her. "I recognize that women are under-represented in STEM careers. Girls need exceptional role models such as the women scientists and engineers from JPL to encourage them to move forward with their goals. They need to know that it's 'cool' to be smart."
Among the role models participating that night was Mars Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Jennifer Trosper, who also lives in Santa Clarita. Trosper had already teamed up with Young for previous community outreach and education events. She eagerly agreed to speak at the Women in STEM event, as did the six other speakers. Trosper's presentation included hands-on demonstrations, such as asking a young girl to jump as high as she could, then showing her with a tape measure how much higher she could jump under the lesser gravity of Mars.
One common theme ran through all the personal stories shared by the JPL speakers: STEM is not just for boys. Mechanical engineer Jackie Lyra explained that as a child in Brazil, she was literally told the opposite - that engineering school was only for boys. But she ended up studying in the U.S. and ultimately working at JPL, where she has been involved in landing four rovers on Mars, including Curiosity.
Lyra believes that because girls are generally not exposed to STEM topics as often as boys, the subject matter might seem intimidating to some, and they might be afraid to fail. She tried to drive home the point that it's okay to fail, as long as you learn from your mistakes and try again.
Looking back on the evening, Trosper recalls one particular conversation with a girl that reminded her why it's important to promote STEM opportunities. The girl had previously been told at a career fair that she should pursue a job in sales because she was pretty and could make a lot more money.
"This turned her off to engineering, even though she had dreamed of building a spacecraft to capture space junk and designing rocket engines to travel to distant stars," Trosper said. "Her mother dragged her to our STEM event to see if her interest in space could be sparked again." Trosper hopes she encouraged the girl to pursue her dreams, whatever they are, and not to let anyone else tell her what her talents or interests should be. "Besides, I told her I probably make more money than many people in sales."
Lyra brought up that same point in her presentation, throwing out a few numbers to demonstrate that the girls can potentially make more money in STEM. She asked the audience "Who wants to make $280 today?" After hands shot up throughout the auditorium, Lyra explained that STEM careers are not only fun and exciting, but lucrative as well -- a female fresh out of college could make about $75,000 a year with a bachelor's degree.
Other JPL speakers included Molly Bitner, just a few years out of college and working as a systems engineer, who told the girls she loves STEM, skydiving and chocolate; Victoria Davis, a chemist in the JPL battery group who lives in Santa Clarita and, in fact, introduced two local teachers who had pushed her toward excellence at Saugus High School; and Kim Lichtenberg, who, despite being the daughter of an astronaut and thinking she herself would not pursue a STEM career, eventually carved her own path in the sciences, with specialties such as analyzing Martian terrain.
Another JPLer, Shannon Statham, an aerospace engineer, described how she works with CubeSats -- "big satellites in small packages" and, in her free time, perfects salsa dancing. Diana Trujillo told the audience she spoke minimal English when she came to the United States from Colombia. She worked hard to become an engineer and now, at JPL, she "telecommutes" to Mars, as part of the team that sends computer commands to Curiosity.
During the course of the evening, the non-human guests also got their share of attention. The three Mars rover models arranged on the stage sprang into action at times, first when the girls joined in races with them. Then, the audience was invited to come up and get "rolled over" by a mini rover. The first volunteer was Hart School District Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht, who gamely went up on stage to have a rover "run over" her back. Once the ice was broken, the girls and their parents lined up to sprawl on a blanket so the rover could roll over them, too.
Young points out that, because numerous studies show that girls often hesitate to raise their hands and ask a question in a group setting, there was no formal Q and A. Instead, at the end of the event, there was a casual meet-and-greet, featuring the women of JPL standing near tables festooned with spacecraft parts, brochures and stickers.
As the audience filed out afterwards, smiles were clearly visible on the faces of the students, parents and JPL participants.
Young has heard from grateful parents who were thrilled that their daughters were able to meet real-life female role models from JPL. But he thinks perhaps the ultimate measure of success came during the program, while the JPL women were speaking. He watched the audience closely and did not see even one girl looking down at a cell phone or texting.
For more information about hiring JPL speakers for your classroom or group, visit the JPL Speakers Bureau page.
To hear more inspirational stories from female engineers and scientists at JPL, visit the Women at JPL website.
More than 50 students from schools across Los Angeles County took their science experiments and engineering designs on the road on Tuesday for the opportunity to display their work during a science fair showcase at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Students as young as 11 filed into JPL's von Karman auditorium, eager to speak with professional scientists and engineers about their projects, which examined questions like: Could a solar oven be an effective cooking tool? How well does the human eye adjust to light? Is hagfish slime an efficient material for cleaning up oil spills? And how do different building bracing systems stand up in an earthquake?
JPL's chief scientist, Dan McCleese, who oversees the laboratory's research programs, met with students about their projects to offer feedback and encouragement.
"What you're working on today may end up being what you do for the rest of your life, and it's the greatest thing in the world," McCleese said during an opening address to the students. "When I was a freshman in high school, I started studying Mars, and I will admit I do that today."
David Seidel, manager of K-12 programs for JPL's Education Office, which organized the showcase, said it's statements like McCleese's that illustrate the value of science fairs for students.
"When students do a science project and they're properly mentored and they're doing real science, they're experiencing it. They're actually doing the science and engineering themselves and not just talking about it or following some sort of recipe," Seidel said. "So if you're looking for the next generation of scientists, let's get them in the habit of actually trying to do some science while they're still young."
While eighth-grader Sarah Garelick, 13, hasn't yet decided on her future career, her science fair project did give her the chance to investigate a personal interest.
"I was inspired by my dad," said Garelick, whose project looked at how the rate of glucose released into a pancreas would affect insulin levels. "He had his pancreas removed when I was little."
It was a similar motivation that drove sixth-grader Jeanie Benedict, 11, to create an elaborate evaporative cooling system for chinchillas -- a system she named "Chinchiller."
"Last summer during a Los Angeles heatwave, my pet chinchilla died of a heatstroke, so I wanted to create something that could have prevented it," said Benedict, whose project proved such a curiosity for passers-by that she barely had time to grab a slice of the free cake on offer to attendees.
"What stood out to me was the diversity of student projects that represented the diversity of student interests," said education specialist Ota Lutz, who created and starred in an online video series that walks students through the ins and outs of creating their own science fair projects. "Students do a lot of work to develop these science fair projects, so this event was a great opportunity for them to showcase their hard work and interact with professional scientists and engineers."
Enthusiasm for the event was so high that when participants, who had already presented their projects at the Los Angeles County Science Fair, were invited to register for the showcase, the available slots filled up within 24 hours.
"It was a big success," said Seidel. "I think it was eye-opening for a lot of the students and the chaperones to learn about the range of activities we have here at JPL and interact with people who are doing these things professionally."
For more events, activities and resources for students, provided by the JPL Education Office, visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/education/students/
The JPL Education Office provides formal and informal educators, parents and students with NASA science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) content, including resources, classroom activities and internship opportunities.
Sixty-six teams from Southern California, Hawaii, Colombia and Chile competed in the Los Angeles regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition on March 13 and 14. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, sponsored seven teams in this annual engineering and technology contest, which was held at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Winning teams for the overall regional competition were from Hope Chapel Academy, Hermosa Beach, California; Atascadero High School and Beverly Hills High School. Hawthorne High School received the competition's highest honor, the Regional Chairman's Award.
This year's challenge, "Recycle Rush" was a recycling-themed game played by two alliances of three robots each. Robots score points by stacking totes on scoring platforms, capping those stacks with recycling containers, and properly disposing of pool noodles, representing litter. In keeping with the recycling theme of the game, all game pieces used are reusable or recyclable by teams in their home locations or by FIRST at the end of the season.
Working with adult mentors, students have six weeks to design, build, program and test their robots to meet the season's engineering challenge. The teams then participate in one or more of 105 regional and district events that measure the effectiveness of each robot, the power of collaboration and the determination of students.
The participants are vying to compete in the FIRST Championship to be held April 22-25 in St. Louis, Missouri. FIRST is part of NASA's Robotics Alliance Project, which aims to expand the number of robotics systems experts available to NASA.
More information and a short video about FIRST are at: http://www.usfirst.org
More information on NASA's Robotics Alliance Project is at: http://robotics.nasa.gov
Discover more competitions sponsored by JPL: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/education/index.cfm?page=384
Arcadia High School took first place at the Ocean Sciences Bowl regional competition at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 28.
The team consisted of four main players, an alternate and a coach. They beat out 11 other teams from California high schools, and won a trip to the National Ocean Sciences Bowl finals in Ocean Springs, Mississippi from April 23 to 26 at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.
A team from Santa Monica High School won second place, and Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet School, Los Angeles, came in third.
Questions touched upon biology, chemistry, geology and physics of the oceans, as well as navigation, geography and related history and literature. A variety of aquatic facts -- such as, which of the Great Lakes is the deepest and coldest (Lake Superior) and how many seaports are in the United States (361) -- arose in the final rounds.
This is Arcadia's third year in a row winning the regional "Surf Bowl." It's clear that students take it seriously: Arcadia captain Kathy Lee, a senior said her team meets for two hours twice a week to practice throughout the year. "We have our own buzzer set," she said.
For more information about the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, visit: http://nosb.org
To learn more about JPL-sponsored team competitions, visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/education/index.cfm?page=384
Arcadia High School triumphed at the National Science Bowl regional competition at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The event was held Jan. 31.
The team, consisting of four main players, an alternate and a coach, reigned supreme against 23 other teams from Southern California. Team members earned a trip to the National Science Bowl finals in Washington, which will be held April 30 through May 4.
The format of the competition resembled a fast-paced game show, with students buzzing in to answer questions at the college freshman level. They were not permitted to use calculators or notes. The questions spanned various topics in Earth and space sciences, including astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics and math.
Contestants at JPL proved themselves quick-witted in a wide range of questions - for instance, knowing that 1,600 + 81 makes a perfect square. Many people in the audience were awed whenever students buzzed in with correct answers before the announcer had finished asking the question.
The second-place team, from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, gave the Arcadia team a suspenseful challenge as the competition neared its end. The two teams tied at 82 points at one point, resulting in a tiebreaker that Dos Pueblos won. But Arcadia made a comeback in the very last match. Santa Monica High School placed third.
All members of the Arcadia team are high school seniors, and all said that they want to pursue mathematics, science or computer science in college. One team member, Chris Chi, already works in a biology lab.
"We all do a lot of science in our spare time," said Kevin Wang, captain of the Arcadia team.
The National Science Bowl is designed to inspire students to pursue careers in science or math. Over the 24-year history of the competition, about 240,000 students have participated. JPL, managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, has hosted the regional Science Bowl for 23 years.
For information about the National Science Bowl, visit: http://science.energy.gov/wdts/nsb/
If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you or someone you know has been in a science fair. Chances are that your project did not lead directly to a collaboration with a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and a paper in the professional journal Environmental Research Letters. Alice Zhai's project did.
The 16-year-old Zhai, who will be a senior this fall at La Cañada High School near JPL in southern California, and JPL research scientist Jonathan Jiang built on Zhai's science fair project, a statistical model of economic losses from hurricanes. They found that the common practice of using only wind speed to represent hurricanes in economic hurricane damage models is inadequate for large storms, such as 2012's Hurricane Sandy. Zhai and Jiang are the first to quantify the economic impacts of increasing hurricane size.
Hurricanes by the numbers
Analyzing 73 hurricanes from 1988 to the present, Zhai and Jiang found that a doubling in size, without a change in wind speed, more than quadruples the economic loss a hurricane causes. Tripling its size multiplies the loss by almost 20 times.
These numbers may be startling, but the idea that storm size matters is not. Experience has proven that not only size but the height of the storm surge, total rainfall and other characteristics affect a storm's impacts. So why do models include only wind speed? In the United States, we still classify hurricanes solely by their speed, using the Saffir-Simpson scale. The scale was devised before satellite observations made it possible to view a storm's size.
By comparison, there is no standardized scale of hurricane size.
Different databases use different benchmarks -- for example, the
distance from the storm's center to the location where the wind speed is
either 34 or 64 nautical miles per hour, or knots. As part of their
study, Zhai and Jiang recalibrated all storms to the 34-knot reference
From the science fair to the real world
Hurricane Sandy was the trigger for Zhai's 2013 project in the Los Angeles County Science Fair. "After seeing the devastation on TV and in the news, I was really curious," Zhai said. "I heard that it was an extremely destructive hurricane, and I noticed that it had a relatively low wind speed but an abnormally large size." Her project won third place in the Earth science division and an "outstanding achievement" award from the American Meteorological Society Los Angeles chapter.
Jiang met Zhai because he was judging other projects at the fair and stopped to see her poster. Her exceptional engagement and inquiring mind impressed him. As a long-time science fair judge, "I've met many high school students," he said. "Some people only have a high GPA because their parents put pressure on them, but Alice is genuinely interested. I put a lot of weight on people having curiosity."
Under Jiang's direction, Zhai kept working on her model to create publishable results, more than doubling the number of storms in the study and doing a more rigorous statistical analysis. The first time the authors submitted the paper, it was turned down. Some teenagers would have been crushed, but not Zhai. "Being rejected wasn't too terrible, because the reviewers' comments were encouraging," she said. "It motivated me to keep going with the project." They modified the paper and resubmitted it to the journal successfully.
Jiang encouraged Zhai to apply for an internship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and then convinced her adviser there, Yuk Yung, to allow Zhai to expand her hurricane work at JPL this summer. She is improving their hurricane loss model by adding factors such as storm duration and regional economic wealth and using more accurate data on hurricane size based on measurements from NASA's QuikScat satellite.
Zhai is the youngest person by far in Jiang's group, but she's treated no differently than the postdoctoral fellows. "Sometimes I'm very picky, but Alice has never complained," Jiang said. In fact, she appears to be thriving. "I didn't know that my work could actually be applied to a big, real-world problem," she said. "That's kind of unbelievable. Working in a professional setting opened my mind about science. Before this experience, I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but now I want to pursue a math and science career."
The paper is available online at: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/6/064019/
Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
They came from all over the Golden State, from San Francisco to San Dimas -- 24 teams of five students -- to compete in the 15th annual JPL-sponsored regional Ocean Sciences Bowl, a "Jeopardy"-style competition. The event was held over 13 hours on Saturday, March 15, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The round robin-style "Surf Bowl" featured multiple choice questions and longer, critical thinking-based team challenge questions on ocean-related topics.
At the end of the long day, it was northern California vs. southern California - Arcadia High School vs. San Francisco's Lowell High School. San Francisco hadn't lost a single round in the double-elimination tournament. So in essence, if Arcadia were going to win, they'd have to beat their northern competitors twice, which is exactly what they did to not only win, but also defend their regional title.
"Since we won here last year, we were really looking forward to this weekend and retaining our title," said Arcadia captain Kathy Lee. "Most of our team from last year graduated, so this was mostly a new team and we were really eager to show that we could defend the regional title. And now we're looking forward to defending the national in Seattle, which we won last year."
Taking third place in the competition was Santa Monica High School, while Woodbridge High School won the Good Sportsmanship Award.
The competition was developed to foster the next generation of marine scientists, researchers and environmental advocates. The National Ocean Sciences Bowl is a program of the nonprofit Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, based in Washington, D.C.
Prizes consist of trips to Catalina Island to visit the Wrigley Marine Science Center, part of USC's Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.
More information about the National Ocean Sciences Bowl is at: http://nosb.org/
University High School of Irvine, Calif., beat out 23 other local high schools in an all-day, "buzzer-beater"-style Science Bowl held at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
They came from many areas of Southern California -- from Palm Desert to Santa Barbara, from Irvine to Pasadena -- 24 teams of five students -- to compete in the 22nd annual JPL-sponsored Regional Science Bowl, a "Jeopardy"-style competition. The event was held over eight hours on Feb. 1 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
But at the end of the long day, only one team survived the double-elimination-style tournament: University High School from Irvine, Calif.
"We started this process in July," said University captain Jiho Park. "So it's the culmination of all our efforts since last summer, practicing as much as four or five hours a week as the competition got closer."
Jiho was in the same position last year, as they won the regional but then only placed fourth in the national. This time, he said, they hoped to go all the way.
Coordinated by the Department of Energy, the National Science Bowl quizzes students on biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and Earth and space sciences. The competition, which attracts about 20,000 middle and high school students nationwide, is designed to inspire students to pursue a career in science or math.
The program clearly works. When Jiho Park graduates University High School, he hopes to attend Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and study biochemistry. From there, he says he'll get a Ph.D and work on research and development of drugs to fight cancer.
The University High School team will receive an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, to compete in the National Science Bowl on April 24 to 28. Other prizes included a trophy, medals, winner's banner and NASA gear.
The runner up, Arcadia High School, also received medals and NASA gear. The sportsmanship award went to San Dimas High School for their exceptional graciousness with other teams and competition officials, spirit of fair play and enthusiasm for science. They were awarded a trip to Catalina Island to visit the Wrigley Marine Science Center, part of USC's Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.