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

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


In the News

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

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

How It Works

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

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

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

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

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

Why It's Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the Launch

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

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

Teach It

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

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Recursos en Español

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

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Collage of NASA-JPL education resources

Whether your school will be welcoming students back to campus in the upcoming school year or you're preparing for remote instruction, the Education Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has several resources you and your students can use to launch back into STEM.

Resources for Teachers

On July 30, NASA launched the Perseverance Mars rover and its companion Ingenuity – the first helicopter designed to fly on the Red Planet. With the two officially on their journey to Mars for a scheduled landing in February 2021, now is a great time to catch up with our new education webinar series, Teaching Space With NASA. In our first three webinars, NASA experts and education specialists introduced Perseverance, offered a look at the engineering behind the rover, and shared some of the exciting science goals for the mission. Visit the Teaching Space With NASA page to watch recordings of the webinars, download a certificate of participation, and explore a cache of resources you can use in your instruction.

During the 2020-21 school year, we’ll be continuing the series, offering monthly live-stream presentations from NASA scientists and engineers, hosted by JPL education specialists. Teaching Space With NASA live streams are open to all audiences, including informal educators and students. Join us for our next live stream on August 19 all about what's next for NASA Mars exploration. Register to join the Q&A at the link below. (Note: You do not need to register to watch – only to ask questions.)

Educators will also have a chance to take a deeper dive into the topic and associated educational resources with our interactive, virtual workshops. Attendance at virtual workshops is limited, so be sure to keep an eye out for new events announced to our email subscribers. Subscribe for "JPL Education Updates" here and check the Events page for the latest workshops.

Also, be sure to keep an eye out for new additions to our searchable catalog of nearly 200 standards-aligned STEM activities in the Teach section of this website. In addition to new lessons, some of your favorite existing lessons will now include tips for virtual instruction, as well as links to projects that students can do independently or with the help of family members.

Resources for Students

Learning Space with NASA at Home features standards-based activities students can do at home with inexpensive materials they may already have on hand. The page also features video tutorials (available with subtitles en Español) and an FAQ for families working with students at home. Check back as new activities featuring the latest NASA missions and science are added throughout the school year.

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TAGS: Educators, Teachers, K-12 Education, STEM, Educator Resources, Lessons, Student Activities, Parents, Webinars, Workshops

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Artist's concept of the Perseverance rover on Mars

Update: July 6, 2020 – Due to processing delays in preparations to unite the spacecraft with the rocket, the first launch attempt will be no earlier than July 30 at 4:50 a.m. PDT (7:50 a.m. EDT). The launch period has been expanded to Aug. 15. Dates updated below. › Read more


Perseverance, NASA's most advanced Mars rover yet, is scheduled to leave Earth for its seven-month journey to the Red Planet this summer.

Only the fifth NASA rover destined for Mars, Perseverance is designed to build on the work and scientific discoveries of its predecessors. Find out more about the rover's science goals and new technologies below. Plus, learn how you can bring the exciting engineering and science of this mission to students with lessons and DIY projects covering topics like biology, geology, physics, mathematics, engineering, coding and language arts.

Why It's Important

Perseverance may look similar to Curiosity – the NASA rover that's been exploring Mars since 2012 – but the latest rover's new science instruments, upgraded cameras, improved onboard computers and new landing technologies make it uniquely capable of accomplishing the science goals planned for the mission.

Diagram of the Perseverance Mars rover's science instruments. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Looking for signs of habitability

The first of the rover's four science goals deals with studying the habitability of Mars. The mission is designed to look for environments that could have supported life in the past.

Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) crater that scientists believe was once filled with water. Data from orbiters at the Red Planet suggest that water once flowed into the crater, carrying clay minerals from the surrounding area, depositing them in the crater and forming a delta. We find similar conditions on Earth, where the right combination of water and minerals can support life. By comparing these to the conditions we find on Mars, we can better understand the Red Planet's ability to support life. The Perseverance rover is specially designed to study the habitability of Mars' Jezero Crater using a suite of scientific instruments, or tools, that can evaluate the environment and the processes that influence it.

This animated flyover shows the area where Perseverance will land in February 2021 and is narrated by the mission's project scientist, Ken Farley. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Learn more about the mission's landing site | Watch on YouTube

Seeking signs of ancient life

The rover's second science goal is closely linked with its first: Perseverance will seek out evidence that microbial life once existed on Mars in the past. In doing so, the mission could make progress in understanding the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe – the scientific field known as astrobiology.

It's important to note that the rover won't be looking for present-day life. Instead, its instruments are designed to look for clues left behind by ancient life. We call those clues biosignatures. A biosignature might be a pattern, object or substance that was created by life in the past and can be identified by certain properties, such as chemical composition, mineralogy or structure.

To better understand if a possible biosignature is really a clue left behind by ancient life, we need to look for biosignatures and study the habitability of the environment. Discovering that an environment is habitable does not automatically mean life existed there and some geologic processes can leave behind biosignature-like signs in non-habitable environments.

Collecting samples

Perseverance's third science goal is to gather samples of Martian rocks and soil. The rover will leave the samples on Mars, where future missions could collect them and bring them back to Earth for further study.

Scientists can learn a lot about Mars with a rover like Perseverance that can take in situ (Latin for "on-site") measurements. But examining samples from Mars in full-size laboratories on Earth can provide far more information about whether life ever existed on Mars than studying them on the Martian surface.

Perseverance will take the first step toward making a future sample return possible. The rover is equipped with special coring drill bits that will collect scientifically interesting samples similar in size to a piece of chalk. Each sample will be capped and sealed in individual collection tubes. The tubes will be stored aboard the rover until the mission team determines the best strategic locations on the planet's surface to leave them. The collection tubes will stay on the Martian surface until a potential future campaign collects them for return to Earth. NASA and the European Space Agency are solidifying concepts for the missions that will complete this campaign.

Preparing for future astronauts

Astronauts, an exploration vehicle and a habitat are shown among a rich orange landscape

This artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. The Perseverance Mars rover will carry a number of technologies that could pave the way for astronauts to explore Mars. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Like the robotic spacecraft that landed on the Moon to prepare for the Apollo astronauts, the Perseverance rover's fourth science goal will help pave the way for humans to eventually visit Mars.

Before humans can set foot on the Red Planet, we need to know more about conditions there and demonstrate that technologies needed for returning to Earth, and survival, will work. That’s where MOXIE comes in. Short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, MOXIE is designed to separate oxygen from carbon dioxide (CO2) in Mars' atmosphere. The atmosphere that surrounds the Red Planet is 96% CO2. But there's very little oxygen – only 0.13%, compared with the 21% in Earth’s atmosphere.

Oxygen is a crucial ingredient in rocket fuel and is essential for human survival. MOXIE could show how similar systems sent to Mars ahead of astronauts could generate rocket fuel to bring astronauts back to Earth and even create oxygen for breathing.

Join JPL mechanical engineer Mike Meacham to find out how the MOXIE instrument on NASA's Perseverance Mars rover is designed to convert carbon dioxide from Mars' atmosphere into oxygen. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Flying the first Mars helicopter

Joining the Perseverance rover on Mars is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. Dubbed Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will be the first test of powered flight on another planet.

The lightweight helicopter rides to Mars attached to the belly of the rover. After Perseverance is on Mars, the helicopter will be released from the rover and will attempt up to five test flights in the thin atmosphere of Mars. After a successful first attempt at lifting off, hovering a few feet above the ground for 20 to 30 seconds and landing, the operations team can attempt incrementally higher and longer-distance flights. Ingenuity is designed to fly for up to 90 seconds, reach an altitude of 15 feet and travel a distance of nearly 980 feet. Sending commands to the helicopter and receiving information about the flights relayed through the rover, the helicopter team hopes to collect valuable test data about how the vehicle performs in Mars’ thin atmosphere. The results of the Mars Helicopter's test flights will help inform the development of future vehicles that could one day explore Mars from the air. Once Ingenuity has completed its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its mission on the surface of the Red Planet.

Join JPL mechanical engineer Mike Meacham to learn about the first helicopter designed for Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

How It Works

Before any of that can happen, the Perseverance Mars rover needs to successfully lift off from Earth and begin its journey to the Red Planet. Here's how the launch is designed to ensure that the spacecraft and Mars are at the same place on landing day.

About every 26 months, Mars and Earth are at points in their orbits around the Sun that allow us to launch spacecraft to Mars most efficiently. This span of time, called a launch period, lasts several weeks. For Perseverance, the launch period is targeted to begin at 4:50 a.m. PDT (7:50 a.m. EDT) on July 30 and end on Aug. 15. Each day, there is a launch window lasting about two hours. If all conditions are good, we have liftoff! If there's a little too much wind or other inclement weather, or perhaps engineers want to take a look at something on the rocket during the window, the countdown can be paused, and teams will try again the next day.

Regardless of when Perseverance launches during this period, the rover will land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, at around 12:30 PST. Engineers can maintain this fixed landing date because when the rover launches, it will go into what's called a parking orbit around Earth. Depending on when the launch happens, the rover will coast in the temporary parking orbit for 24 to 36 minutes. Then, the upper stage of the rocket will ignite for about seven minutes, giving the spacecraft the velocity it needs to reach Mars.

Like the Curiosity rover, Perseverance will launch from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on an Atlas V 541 rocket – one of the most powerful rockets available for interplanetary spacecraft.

Watch a live broadcast of the launch from the Kennedy Space Center on NASA TV and the agency’s website. Visit the Perseverance rover mission website to explore a full listing of related virtual events and programming, including education workshops, news briefings and conversations with mission experts. Follow launch updates on NASA's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Teach It

The launch of NASA's next Mars rover and the first Mars Helicopter is a fantastic opportunity to engage students in real-world problem solving across the STEM fields. Check out some of the resources below to see how you can bring NASA missions and science to students in the classroom and at home.

Virtual Education Workshops

Lessons for Educators

Activities for Students

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TAGS: Mars, Mars 2020, Perseverance, Mars Rover, launch, Teach, teachers, educators, parents, lessons, activities, resources, K-12, STEM, events, students, science, engineering

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Illustration of spacecraft on a light purple background that reads "NASA Pi Day Challenge"

Update: March 16, 2020 – The answers to the 2020 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key (also available as a text-only doc).


In the News

Our annual opportunity to indulge in a shared love of space exploration, mathematics and sweet treats has come around again! Pi Day is the March 14 holiday that celebrates the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.

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

Visit the Pi in the Sky 7 lesson page to explore classroom resources and downloads for the 2019 NASA Pi Day Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Overhead view of Mars with a comparison of the smaller landing ellipse made possible by Range Trigger technology

A new Mars landing technique called Range Trigger is reducing the size of the ellipse where spacecraft touch down. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Composite image of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko | › Full image and caption

Diagram of an airplane flying over a section of ocean with an example of the spectral data that CORAL collects

The CORAL mission records the spectra of light reflected from the ocean to study the composition and health of Earth's coral reefs. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Rays of bright orange and red shoot out diagonally from a blue circle surrounding the star Beta Pictoris

The star Beta Pictoris and its surrounding debris disk in near-infrared light. Image credit: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al. | › Full image and caption

Besides providing an excuse to eat all varieties of pie, Pi Day gives us a chance to appreciate some of the ways NASA uses pi to explore the solar system and beyond. You can do the math for yourself – or get students doing it – by taking part in the NASA Pi Day Challenge. Find out below how to test your pi skills with real-world problems faced by NASA space explorers, plus get lessons and resources for educators.

How It Works

The ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter is equal to pi, which is often rounded to 3.14. But pi is what is known as an irrational number, so its decimal representation never ends, and it never repeats. Though it has been calculated to trillions of digits, we use far fewer at NASA.

Pi is useful for all sorts of things, like calculating the circumference and area of circular objects and the volume of cylinders. That's helpful information for everyone from farmers irrigating crops to tire manufacturers to soup-makers filling their cans. At NASA, we use pi to calculate the densities of planets, point space telescopes at distant stars and galaxies, steer rovers on the Red Planet, put spacecraft into orbit and so much more! With so many practical applications, it's no wonder so many people love pi!

In the U.S., 3.14 is also how we refer to March 14, which is why we celebrate the mathematical marvel that is pi on that date each year. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.

The NASA Pi Day Challenge

This year's NASA Pi Day Challenge poses four puzzlers that require pi to compare the sizes of Mars landing areas, calculate the length of a year for one of the most distant objects in the solar system, measure the depth of the ocean from an airplane, and determine the diameter of a distant debris disk. Learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems below or click the link to jump right into the challenge.

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge
› Educators, get the lesson here!

Mars Maneuver

Long before a Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet, scientists and engineers must determine where to land. Rather than choosing a specific landing spot, NASA selects an area known as a landing ellipse. A Mars rover could land anywhere within this ellipse. Choosing where the landing ellipse is located requires compromising between getting as close as possible to interesting science targets and avoiding hazards like steep slopes and large boulders, which could quickly bring a mission to its end. In the Mars Maneuver problem, students use pi to see how new technologies have reduced the size of landing ellipses from one Mars rover mission to the next.

Cold Case

In January 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sped past Arrokoth, a frigid, primitive object that orbits within the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped ring of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Arrokoth is the most distant Kuiper Belt object to be visited by a spacecraft and only the second object in the region to have been explored up close. To get New Horizons to Arrokoth, mission navigators needed to know the orbital properties of the object, such as its speed, distance from the Sun, and the tilt and shape of its orbit. This information is also important for scientists studying the object. In the Cold Case problem, students can use pi to determine how long it takes the distant object to make one trip around the Sun.

Coral Calculus

Coral reefs provide food and shelter to many ocean species and protect coastal communities against extreme weather events. Ocean warming, invasive species, pollutants, and acidification caused by climate change can harm the tiny living coral organisms responsible for building coral reefs. To better understand the health of Earth's coral reefs, NASA's COral Reef Airborne Laboratory, or CORAL, mission maps them from the air using spectroscopy, studying how light interacts with the reefs. To make accurate maps, CORAL must be able to differentiate among coral, algae and sand on the ocean floor from an airplane. And to do that, it needs to calculate the depth of the ocean at every point it maps by measuring how much sunlight passes through the ocean and is reflected upward from the ocean floor. In Coral Calculus, students use pi to measure the water depth of an area mapped by the CORAL mission and help scientists better understand the status of Earth's coral reefs.

Planet Pinpointer

Our galaxy contains billions of stars, many of which are likely home to exoplanets – planets outside our solar system. So how do scientists decide where to look for these worlds? Using data gathered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers found that they're more likely to find giant exoplanets around young stars surrounded by debris disks, which are made up of material similar to what's found in the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt in our solar system. Sure enough, after discovering a debris disk around the star Beta Pictoris, researchers later confirmed that it is home to at least two giant exoplanets. Learning more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk could give scientists insight into the formation of these giant worlds. In Planet Pinpointer, put yourself in the role of a NASA scientist to learn more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk, using pi to calculate the distance across it.

Participate

Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASAJPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge

Blogs and Features

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NOAA Video Series: Coral Comeback

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Facts and Figures

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Math, Pi Day, Pi, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Events, Space, Educators, Teachers, Parents, Students, STEM, Lessons, Problem Set, Mars 2020, Perseverance, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Mars landing, MU69, Arrokoth, New Horizons, Earth science, Climate change, CORAL, NASA Expeditions, coral reefs, oceans, Spitzer, exoplanets, Beta Pictoris, stars, universe, space telescope

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Animated illustration of Earth orbiting the Sun

You may have noticed that there's an extra day on your calendar this year. That's not a typo; it's leap day! Leap day is another name for Feb. 29, a date that typically comes around every four years, during a leap year. Why doesn't Feb. 29 appear on the calendar every year? Read on to find out how the imperfect match between the length of a calendar year and Earth's orbit results in the need to make small adjustments to our calendar on a regular basis. Explore leap day resources for students, too.

The length of a year is based on how long it takes a planet to revolve around the Sun. Earth takes about 365.2422 days to make one revolution around the Sun. That's about six hours longer than the 365 days that we typically include in a calendar year. As a result, every four years we have about 24 extra hours that we add to the calendar at the end of February in the form of leap day. Without leap day, the dates of annual events, such as equinoxes and solstices, would slowly shift to later in the year, changing the dates of each season. After only a century without leap day, summer wouldn’t start until mid-July!

But the peculiar adjustments don't end there. If Earth revolved around the Sun in exactly 365 days and six hours, this system of adding a leap day every four years would need no exceptions. However, Earth takes a little less time than that to orbit the Sun. Rounding up and inserting a 24-hour leap day every four years adds about 45 extra minutes to every four-year leap cycle. That adds up to about three days every 400 years. To correct for that, years that are divisible by 100 don't have leap days unless they’re also divisible by 400. If you do the math, you'll see that the year 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200 and 2300 will not be.

After learning more about leap years with this article from NASA's Space Place, students can do the math for themselves with this leap day problem set. Follow that up with writing a letter or poem to be opened on the next leap day. And since we've got an extra 24 hours this year, don't forget to take a little time to relax!

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Check out these related resources for kids from NASA Space Place:

TAGS: K-12 Education, Math, Leap Day, Leap Year, Events, Space, Educators, Teachers, Parents, Students, STEM, Lessons, Earth Science, Earth

  • Lyle Tavernier
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In the News

On Jan. 30, 2020, the venerable Spitzer Space Telescope mission will officially come to an end as NASA makes way for a next-generation observatory. For more than 16 years, Spitzer has served as one of NASA’s four Great Observatories, surveying the sky in infrared. During its lifetime, Spitzer detected planets and signs of habitability beyond our solar system, returned stunning images of regions where stars are born, spied light from distant galaxies formed when the universe was young, and discovered a huge, previously-unseen ring around Saturn. Read on to learn more about this amazing mission and gather tools to teach your students that there truly is more than meets the eye in the infrared universe!

How It Worked

Human eyes can see only the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum known as visible light. This is because the human retina can detect only certain wavelengths of light through special photoreceptors called rods and cones. Everything we see with our eyes either emits or reflects visible light. But visible light is just a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. To "see" things that emit or reflect other wavelengths of light, we must rely on technology designed to sense those portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Using this specialized technology allows us to peer into space and observe objects and processes we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

Infographic showing the electromagnetic spectrum and applications for various wavelengths.

This diagram shows wavelengths of light on the electromagnetic spectrum and how they're used for various applications. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Infrared is one of the wavelengths of light that cannot be seen by human eyes. (It can sometimes be felt by our skin as heat if we are close enough to a strong source.) All objects that have temperature emit many wavelengths of light. The warmer they are, the more light they emit. Most things in the universe are warm enough to emit infrared radiation, and that light can be seen by an infrared-detecting telescope. Because Earth’s atmosphere absorbs most infrared radiation, infrared observations of space are best conducted from outside the planet's atmosphere.

Learn more about the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and how NASA uses it to explore space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

So, to get a look at space objects that were otherwise hidden from view, NASA launched the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003. Cooled by liquid helium and capable of viewing the sky in infrared, Spitzer launched into an Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun, where it became part of the agency's Great Observatory program along with the visible-light and near-infrared-detecting Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory. (Keeping the telescope cold reduces the chances of heat, or infrared light, from the spacecraft interfering with its astronomical observations.)

Over its lifetime, Spitzer has been used to detect light from objects and regions in space where the human eye and optical, or visible-light-sensing, telescopes may see nothing.

Why It's Important

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has returned volumes of data, yielding numerous scientific discoveries.

Vast, dense clouds of dust and gas block our view of many regions of the universe. Infrared light can penetrate these clouds, enabling Spitzer to peer into otherwise hidden regions of star formation, newly forming planetary systems and the centers of galaxies.

A whisp of orange and green dust bows out beside a large blue star among a field of smaller blue stars.

The bow shock, or shock wave, in front of the giant star Zeta Ophiuchi shown in this image from Spitzer is visible only in infrared light. The bow shock is created by winds that flow from the star, making ripples in the surrounding dust. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Infrared astronomy also reveals information about cooler objects in space, such as smaller stars too dim to be detected by their visible light, planets beyond our solar system (called exoplanets) and giant molecular clouds where new stars are born. Additionally, many molecules in space, including organic molecules thought to be key to life's formation, have unique spectral signatures in the infrared. Spitzer has been able to detect those molecules when other instruments have not.

Bursts of reds, oranges, greens, blues and violets spread out in all directions from a bright center source. Reds and oranges dominate the left side of the image.

Both NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes contributed to this vibrant image of the Orion nebula. Spitzer's infrared view exposed carbon-rich molecules, shown in this image as wisps of red and orange. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Megeath (University of Toledo) & M. Robberto (STScI) | › Full image and caption

Stars are born from condensing clouds of dust and gas. These newly formed stars are optically visible only once they have blown away the cocoon of dust and gas in which they were born. But Spitzer has been able to see infant stars as they form within their gas and dust clouds, helping us learn more about the life cycles of stars and the formation of solar systems.

A blanket of green- and orange-colored stellar dust surrounds a grouping of purple, blue and red stars.

Newborn stars peek out from beneath their natal blanket of dust in this dynamic image of the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud from Spitzer. The colors in this image reflect the relative temperatures and evolutionary states of the various stars. The youngest stars are shown as red while more evolved stars are shown as blue. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA | › Full image and caption

Infrared emissions from most galaxies come primarily from stars as well as interstellar gas and dust. With Spitzer, astronomers have been able to see which galaxies are furiously forming stars, locate the regions within them where stars are born and pinpoint the cause of the stellar baby boom. Spitzer has given astronomers valuable insights into the structure of our own Milky Way galaxy by revealing where all the new stars are forming.

A bright band of crimson-colored dust stretches across the center of this image covered in tiny specs of light from hundreds of thousands of stars.

This Spitzer image, which covers a horizontal span of 890 light-years, shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Spitzer marked a new age in the study of planets outside our solar system by being the first telescope to directly detect light emitted by these so-called exoplanets. This has made it possible for us to directly study and compare these exoplanets. Using Spitzer, astronomers have been able to measure temperatures, winds and the atmospheric composition of exoplanets – and to better understand their potential habitability. The discoveries have even inspired artists at NASA to envision what it might be like to visit these planets.

Collage of exoplanet posters from NASA

Thanks to Spitzer, scientists are learning more and more about planets beyond our solar system. These discoveries have even inspired a series of posters created by artists at NASA, who imagined what future explorers might encounter on these faraway worlds. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Download posters

Data collected by Spitzer will continue to be analyzed for decades to come and is sure to yield even more scientific findings. It's certainly not the end of NASA's quest to get an infrared window into our stellar surroundings. In the coming years, the agency plans to launch its James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror more than seven times the diameter of Spitzer's, to see the universe in even more detail. And NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, will continue infrared observations in space with improved technology. Stay tuned for even more exciting infrared imagery, discoveries and learning!

Teach It

Use these lessons, videos and online interactive features to teach students how we use various wavelengths of light, including infrared, to learn about our universe:


Explore More

Also, check out these related resources for kids from NASA’s Space Place:

TAGS: Teachable Moments, science, astronomy, K-12 education, teachers, educators, parents, STEM, lessons, activities, Spitzer, Space Telescope, Missions, Spacecraft, Stars, Galaxies, Universe, Infrared, Wavelengths, Spectrum, Light

  • Ota Lutz
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