When Lean Teodoro was growing up on the remote island of Saipan in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, her dream of one day working for NASA always seemed a bit far-fetched to those around her. Now, a geophysics student on the premed track at the University of Hawaii and a summer 2018 intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Teodoro is making her dream a reality. This summer, she took a short break from her internship searching for asteroids with NASA’s NEOWISE team to tell us about her career journey so far, what inspired her to study STEM and how she hopes to play a role in human space exploration of the future.
What are you working on at JPL?
I work with the NEOWISE team, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. My focus is on near-Earth asteroids. I do a lot of image analysis and processing. Not all of the time do asteroids get detected through our automated system, so my job is to look at archives to find previously undetected asteroids.
What is a near-Earth object and how do you look for them?
Near-Earth objects are objects [such as asteroids and comets] that are very near to Earth's orbit. There are other asteroids that are located roughly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but my focus is on those that are closer to Earth. The way that we detect them is we have this [space telescope called NEOWISE] that surveys the sky in two wavelengths. It senses the heat of asteroids. So I look at images from NEOWISE and, if I see a red dot that is bright, then that's usually an asteroid. But I go through several search techniques to see if the signal-to-noise ratio is good. So there are several processes that work.
What is the ultimate goal of the project?
My ultimate goal is to try to increase the number of known near-Earth objects so that, in the future, we can get more precise measurements for their positions and movements -- just in case they pose a risk to Earth.
What's an average day like for you?
I go through, I'd say, hundreds of images per day. I also took part in a side project where I had to get the measurements of an asteroid that was observed 39 years before it was officially discovered. We looked at this astronomical plate from the 1950s. You can see a very small arrow pointing to an asteroid. Positions for the asteroid hadn’t been discovered yet, so my job was also to find those. It had a lot to do with coding and I had very little experience with coding, so it was nice.
What other skills have you been able to pick up at JPL?
My major is geophysics, so I had little knowledge about astronomy. My whole research team exposed me to an exciting world of astronomy, so that was really nice. They were very encouraging. I've learned so much more about astronomy this summer than I did throughout my whole undergrad career. I mean, there is some connection between geophysics and astronomy, in a way, but this summer, I really learned so much.
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You grew up on the remote island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. How did you get exposed to STEM and what got interested in pursuing it as a career?
When I was young, my dad would always make us go fly kites at night on the beach. There was this one night where I was just looking at the Moon. I was like, "Oh my god, I really want to learn more about astronomy.” I think since then, I've been interested in STEM. But when you're coming from a really small island, you feel very limited. So I didn't have that strong foundation in STEM. And that's the reason why I wanted to move off the island -- because I knew that I couldn't get the opportunities if I stayed. That's the reason I moved to the University of Hawaii. They have a strong geology and geophysics program, and it's a great research university. Since I started there, I've been doing research related to NASA -- like the NASA Hawaii Space Grant Consortium. I feel like if I didn't move to the University of Hawaii, I wouldn't be where I am today, interning at JPL.
So you moved from one island to another?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I couldn't leave the island vibe, I guess. I think it's just a little closer to home. I feel more at home when I'm in Hawaii. Not only that, but also they have a great program, so that was a plus, too. And they have close affiliations with NASA, so that was really great, because my goal was to work for NASA.
Was it a challenge to move away from the island where you grew up?
It was definitely a challenge leaving family and friends behind. I was there on my own. The reason why I chose the University of Hawaii is because of their program. I had a really hard time choosing my major because I was interested in health, but I was interested in geology as well. I'm doing premed as well [as geology and geophysics]. I'm really interested in how humans or organisms can adapt to extreme environments and in learning about geology – for example on Mars – and health, and seeing how we can combine those two fields to contribute to future human space exploration.
What do your family and people back home think of your career path?
It's so funny because I remember, in middle school, I would always tell my friends and family how I wanted to work for NASA, and they would laugh about it because I don't think anyone back home has ever done something big like that. Having them see me working here -- it just kind of opened their eyes, like, “Wow, it's possible,” you know? Most of the time, people back home just stay for financial reasons. It was really expensive moving to Hawaii. But I really wanted to do it. So here I am, and I'm so happy.
Did you know that we have a group of student teachers from the Northern Mariana Islands that has come to NASA’s MUREP Educator Institute at JPL the past couple summers?
Yeah! So three weeks ago, I was walking to my office, and I saw a few friends from back home. I was like, “Oh my god, what are you guys doing here?” We all went to the same high school and everything! They were telling me about that whole program. I was like, “Oh my god, I feel so happy. That's so great.” The chances -- it was mind-blowing. I'm so happy for them. I'm really excited for the future of Saipan and the whole Northern Mariana Islands.
What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you've had so far?
Of all the internships I've had in the past, JPL is really unique because everyone is just so passionate about the work that they do, so it really rubs off on you. Not only that, but also the intern community here is just amazing. And not only the interns, but also my mentors and the other scientists and engineers I've met. I've made so many friends throughout my summer here from all over the nation and all over the world, which is nice because I'm from this small island, and it just makes me realize how big the world is.
I feel like interning at JPL builds a foundation for me. And with my mentors here at JPL and in Hawaii, I do feel more confident in being a minority and a woman in STEM. I feel more driven to be successful and to inspire people from back home to go and pursue what they want to do. Don't let the confinements of your environment stop you from what you want to do.
What’s your ultimate career goal?
My ultimate goal is to try and contribute to future human space exploration. That's what I really want to do. I'm still trying to figure out how I can pave my path by combining health and geosciences. We'll see how it goes.
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.
In the News
On April 19, an asteroid named 2014 JO25 will safely fly by Earth, passing at a distance of about 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) of the planet. This asteroid poses no threat to Earth and, in fact, asteroids safely fly by Earth quite regularly. What makes the upcoming close approach of asteroid 2014 JO25 unique is that it is a rather large asteroid, measuring about 2,000 feet (more than 600 meters) across. The last time an asteroid that large, or larger, came that close to Earth was in 2004. Not much is known about asteroid 2014 JO25 other than its approximate size, its trajectory (or path around the sun) and that its surface is about twice as reflective as that of the moon. When it passes by, the asteroid will be bright enough that small optical telescopes can be used to spot it in the night sky. Scientists around the world will also study the asteroid with telescopes to determine its composition and rotation and with radar that could reveal small surface features.
Why It's Important
Asteroids are some of what remains of the material that formed our solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Unchanged by the forces that have altered rocks on our home planet, the moon, Mars and other destinations around the solar system, asteroids provide a glimpse into what conditions were like when our solar system took shape. Studying the chemical and physical properties, as well as the location and motion of asteroids, is vital to helping us understand how the sun, planets and other solar system bodies came to be.
The study of asteroids is so important, in fact, that NASA has sent several spacecraft to study some of these objects up close. For example, in 2007, the Dawn mission was sent to explore the two largest objects in the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres. Dawn arrived at the giant protoplanet Vesta in 2011 and orbited it for about one year before flying to the dwarf planet Ceres, which it continues to orbit and study today. Data from the Dawn mission showed Vesta to be a fascinating world more closely related to terrestrial planets than to typical asteroids and revealed clues that indicate there is a large amount of ice and maybe subsurface liquid water on Ceres. In 2016, NASA launched a spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx, which is headed for an asteroid called Bennu. When it arrives in August 2018, OSIRIS-REx will map the asteroid and collect a sample to return to Earth.
But there is another reason studying asteroids and their movements is important: detecting nearby asteroids and predicting any hazard they might pose to Earth.
This graphic shows the orbits of all the known "potentially hazardous asteroids," numbering over 1,400 as of early 2013. Being classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid does not mean that an asteroid will impact Earth. None of these asteroids depicted is a worrisome threat over the next hundred years. By continuing to observe and track these asteroids, their orbits can be refined and more precise predictions made of their future close approaches and impact probabilities. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption
Both 2014 JO25 and Bennu are considered near-Earth objects, meaning their orbits bring them closer than 1.3 astronomical units (AU) from the sun. For comparison, Earth is 1 AU from the sun, or about 93,000,000 miles (150,000,000 kilometers). Also, both asteroids are classified as “potentially hazardous.” A potentially hazardous asteroid is one with an orbit that comes within 0.05 AU (about 4,650,000 miles or 7,480,000 km) of Earth’s orbit and has an absolute magnitude, a measure of brightness, of 22 or less. (On the magnitude scale, the lower the number, the brighter the object.) Absolute magnitude can be an indicator of size, so in other words, potentially hazardous asteroids are large – typically larger than about 500 feet (140 meters) across – and could get close to Earth. Having a designation of “potentially hazardous” does not necessarily indicate the object is a threat to Earth. Scientists use the classification to indicate an object deserves increased attention.
Out of more than 730,000 known asteroids, about 16,000 are near-Earth objects, and there are currently 1,784 potentially hazardous asteroids. But the risks of a large asteroid like 2014 JO25 or Bennu impacting Earth are exceedingly rare. And thanks to the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we have a very good understanding of where many of these asteroids are and where they are headed. Supporting NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, CNEOS continually uses new data acquired by telescopes and submitted to the Minor Planet Center to update orbit calculations, analyzes asteroid impact risks over the next century and provides data for every near-Earth object.
How It Works
This animated gif shows asteroid 2013 MZ5 as seen by the University of Hawaii's PanSTARR-1 telescope. The asteroid moves relative to a fixed background of stars. Asteroid 2013 MZ5 is in the right of the first image, towards the top, moving diagonally left/down. Image credit: PS-1/UH
Detecting near-Earth objects, or NEOs, is done by comparing multiple images, taken several minutes apart, of the same region of the sky. The vast majority of the objects appearing in these images are stars and galaxies, and their positions are fixed in the same relative position on all the images. Because a moving near-Earth object would be in a slightly different position on each image while the background stars and galaxies are in the same positions, it can be easy to identify the moving target if it is bright enough.
Surveys done by NASA-supported ground-based telescopes – including Pans-STARRS1 in Maui, Hawaii, as well as the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona – have identified thousands of near-Earth objects. And a space-based telescope called NEOWISE has identified hundreds of others while scanning the skies at near-infrared wavelengths of light from its polar orbit around Earth. Many ground-based telescopes perform follow-up observations to further aid in orbit calculations and to study the physical properties of the objects.
Once a near-Earth object is detected, its orbital characteristics are analyzed and astronomers determine if it is a potentially hazardous asteroid. This information is entered into CNEOS’ database, where it is continually updated and impact risks are monitored as new data becomes available.
Asteroid 2014 JO25 won’t be this close for another 500 years, so now is a great opportunity to share this close approach with students and remind them that while it’s a close encounter by space standards, Earthlings need not be concerned. Try these standards-aligned lessons and activities with students:
- Grades 1-6: Whip Up a Moon-Like Crater - Use baking ingredients to whip up a moon-like crater as an asteroid-impact demonstration for students. This activity works in classrooms, camps and at home.
- Grades 3-5: Modeling an Asteroid - Students will shape their own asteroid models out of clay as a hands-on lesson in how asteroids form, what they are made of, and where they can be found in our solar system.
- Grades 8-12: Math Rocks: A Lesson in Asteroid Dynamics - Students use math to investigate a real-life asteroid impact.
- All ages: If you have a telescope, consider trying to view the asteroid at night. You’ll have to know where to look. Solar System Ambassador Eddie Irizarry shares how to find 2014 JO25 here. If you’re looking for more technical information about its location, use JPL’s Solar System Dynamics site to find the asteroid’s ephemeris.
- Asteroids Facts & Figures - NASA Solar System Exploration
- Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS)
- NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office
- Asteroid Watch
- Follow @AsteroidWatch on Twitter
- Goldstone Asteroid Radar Research
- Dawn Mission
- OSIRIS-REx Mission