Whether discovering something about our own planet or phenomena billions of miles away, NASA missions and scientists unveiled a vast universe of mysteries this past decade. And with each daring landing, visit to a new world and journey into the unknown came new opportunities to inspire the next generation of explorers. Read on for a look at some of NASA's most teachable moments of the decade from missions studying Earth, the solar system and beyond. Plus, find out what's next in space exploration and how to continue engaging students into the 2020s with related lessons, activities and resources.
1. Earth's Changing Climate
Rising sea levels, shrinking ice caps, higher temperatures and extreme weather continued to impact our lives this past decade, making studying Earth’s changing climate more important than ever. During the 2010s, NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, led the way by adding new Earth-monitoring satellites to their fleets to measure soil moisture and study carbon dioxide levels. Meanwhile, satellites such as Terra and Aqua continued their work monitoring various aspects of the Earth system such as land cover, the atmosphere, wildfires, water, clouds and ice. NASA's airborne missions, such as Operation IceBridge, Airborne Snow Observatory and Oceans Melting Greenland, returned data on water movement, providing decision makers with more accurate data than ever before. But there's still more to be done in the future to understand the complex systems that make up Earth's climate and improve the scientific models that will help the world prepare for a warmer future. Using these missions and the science they're gathering as a jumping-off point, students can learn about the water cycle, build data-based scientific models and develop an understanding of Earth's energy systems.
- Climate lessons for educators
- Climate activities for students
- Climate articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA climate missions and science
2. Teachable Moments in the Sky
Astronomical events are a sure-fire way to engage students, and this past decade delivered with exciting solar and lunar eclipses that provided real-world lessons about the Sun, the Moon and lunar exploration. The total solar eclipse that crossed the U.S. in 2017 gave students a chance to learn about the dynamic interactions between the Sun and Moon, while brilliant lunar eclipses year after year provided students with lessons in lunar science. There's more to look forward to in the decade ahead as another solar eclipse comes to the U.S. in 2024 – one of nine total solar eclipses around the world in the 2020s. There will be 10 total lunar eclipses in the 2020s, but observing the Moon at any time provides a great opportunity to study celestial patterns and inspire future explorers. Using the lessons below, students can develop and study models to understand the size and scale of the Earth-Moon system, predict future Moon phases and engage in engineering challenges to solve problems that will be faced by future explorers on the Moon!
- Moon lessons for educators
- Moon activities for students
- Moon articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Moon missions and science
3. Missions to Mars
The past decade showed us the Red Planet in a whole new light. We discovered evidence that suggests Mars could have once supported ancient life, and we developed a better understanding of how the planet lost much of its atmosphere and surface water. The Opportunity rover continued exploring long past its expected lifespan of 90 days as NASA sent a larger, more technologically advanced rover, Curiosity, to take the next steps in understanding the planet's ability to support life. (Opportunity's nearly 15-year mission succumbed to the elements in 2019 after a global dust storm engulfed Mars, blocking the critical sunlight the rover needed to stay powered.) The InSight lander touched down in 2018 to begin exploring interior features of the Red Planet, including marsquakes, while high above, long-lived spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey were joined by NASA's MAVEN Orbiter, and missions from the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization. The next decade on Mars will get a kick-start with the July launch of the souped-up Mars 2020 rover, which will look for signs of ancient life and begin collecting samples designed to one day be returned to Earth. Mars provides students with countless opportunities to do some of the same engineering as the folks at NASA and design ideas for future Mars exploration. They can also use Mars as a basis for coding activities, real-world math, and lessons in biology and geology.
- Mars lessons for educators
- Mars activities for students
- Mars articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Mars missions and science
4. Ocean Worlds and the Search for Life
This decade marked the final half of the Cassini spacecraft's 13-year mission at Saturn, during which it made countless discoveries about the planet, its rings and its fascinating moons. Some of the most exciting findings highlighted new frontiers in our search for life beyond Earth. Cassini spotted geysers erupting from cracks in the icy shell of Saturn's moon Enceladus, suggesting the presence of an ocean below. At the moon Titan, the spacecraft peered through the hazy atmosphere to discover an Earth-like hydrologic cycle in which liquid methane and ethane take the place of water. Meanwhile, evidence for another ocean world came to light when the Hubble Space Telescope spotted what appear to be geysers erupting from the icy shell surrounding Jupiter's moon Europa. NASA is currently developing Europa Clipper, a mission that will explore the icy moon of Jupiter to reveal even more about the fascinating world. For students, these discoveries and the moons themselves provide opportunities to build scientific models and improve them as they learn more information. Students can also use math to calculate physical properties of moons throughout the solar system and identify the characteristics that define life as we know it.
- Ocean worlds lessons for educators
- Ocean worlds activities for students
- Ocean worlds articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Solar System missions and science
5. Asteroids, Comets and Dwarf Planets, Oh My!
The past decade was a big deal for small objects in space. NASA's Dawn mission started 2010 as a new arrival in the main asteroid belt. The next eight years saw Dawn explore the two largest objects in the asteroid belt, the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. On its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, ESA's Rosetta mission (with contributions from NASA) flew by the asteroid Luticia in 2010. After more than two years at its destination – during which time it measured comet properties, captured breathtaking photos and deposited a lander on the comet – Rosetta's mission ended in dramatic fashion in 2016 when it touched down on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In 2013, as scientists around the world eagerly anticipated the near-Earth flyby of asteroid Duende, residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia, got a surprising mid-morning wake-up call when a small, previously undetected asteroid entered the atmosphere, burned as a bright fireball and disintegrated. The team from NASA's OSIRIS-Rex mission wrapped up the decade and set the stage for discoveries in 2020 by selecting the site that the spacecraft will visit in the new year to collect a sample of asteroid Bennu for eventual return to Earth. And in 2022, NASA's Psyche mission will launch for a rendezvous with a type of object never before explored up close: a metal asteroid. The small objects in our solar system present students with chances to explore the composition of comets, use math to calculate properties such as volume, density and kinetic energy of asteroids, and use Newton's Laws in real-world applications, such as spacecraft acceleration.
- Small objects lessons for educators
- Small objects activities for students
- Learn more about NASA Solar System missions and science
6. Uncovering Pluto's Mysteries
In 2015, after nearly a decade of travel, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto for its planned flyby and became the first spacecraft to visit the dwarf planet and its moons. The images and scientific data the spacecraft returned brought into focus a complex and dynamic world, including seas of ice and mountain ranges. And there's still more left to explore. But New Horizons' journey is far from over. After its flyby of Pluto, the spacecraft continued deep into the Kuiper Belt, the band of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. In 2019, the spacecraft flew by a snowman-shaped object later named Arrokoth. In the 2020s, New Horizons will continue studying distant Kuiper Belt objects to better understand their physical properties and the region they call home. The new information gathered from the Pluto and Arrokoth flybys provides students with real-life examples of the ways in which scientific understanding changes as additional data is collected and gives them a chance to engage with the data themselves. At the same time, New Horizons' long-distance voyage through the Solar System serves as a good launchpad for discussions of solar system size and scale.
- Pluto lessons for educators
- Pluto activities for students
- Pluto articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Solar System missions and science
7. The Voyagers' Journey Into Interstellar Space
In 1977, two spacecraft left Earth on a journey to explore the outer planets. In the 2010s, decades after their prime mission ended, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 made history by becoming the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space – the region beyond the influence of solar wind from our Sun. The Voyager spacecraft are expected to continue operating into the 2020s, until their fuel and power run out. In the meantime, they will continue sending data back to Earth, shaping our understanding of the structure of the solar system and interstellar space. The Voyagers can help engage students as they learn about and model the structure of the solar system and use math to understand the challenges of communicating with spacecraft so far away.
- Voyager lessons for educators
- Voyager activities for students
- Voyager articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA's Voyager mission
8. The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System
It was only a few decades ago that the first planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, were discovered. The 2010s saw the number of known exoplanets skyrocket in large part thanks to the Kepler mission. A space telescope designed to seek out Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone – the region around a star where liquid water could exist – Kepler was used to discover more than 2,600 exoplanets. Discoveries from other observatories and amateur astronomers added to the count, now at more than 4,100. In one of the most momentous exoplanet findings of the decade, the Spitzer telescope discovered that the TRAPPIST-1 system, first thought to have three exoplanets, actually had seven – three of which were in the star’s habitable zone. With thousands of candidates discovered by Kepler waiting to be confirmed as exoplanets and NASA's latest space telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, surveying the entire sky, the 2020s promise to be a decade filled with exoplanet science. And we may not have to wait long for exciting new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021. Exoplanets are a great way to get students exploring concepts in science and mathematics. In the lessons linked to below, students use math to find the size and orbital period of planets, learn how scientists are using spectrometry to determine what makes up exoplanet atmospheres and more.
- Exoplanets lessons for educators
- Exoplanets activities for students
- Exoplanets articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA exoplanet missions and science
9. Shining a Light on Black Holes
Even from millions and billions of light-years away, black holes made big news in the 2010s. First, a collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away sent gravitational waves across the universe that finally reached Earth in 2015, where the waves were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. This was the first detection of gravitational waves in history and confirmed a prediction Einstein made 100 years earlier in his Theory of General Relativity. Then, in 2019, a team of researchers working on the Event Horizon Telescope project announced they had taken the first image capturing the silhouette of a black hole. To take the historic image of the supermassive black hole (named M87* after its location at the center of the M87 galaxy), the team had to create a virtual telescope as large as Earth itself. In addition to capturing the world's attention, the image gave scientists new information about scientific concepts and measurements they had only been able to theorize about in the past. The innovations that led to these discoveries are changing the way scientists can study black holes and how they interact with the space around them. More revelations are likely in the years ahead as scientists continue to analyze the data from these projects. For students, black holes and gravitational waves provide a basis for developing and modifying scientific models. Since they are a topic of immense interest to students, they can also be used to encourage independent research.
- Black hole lessons for educators
- Black hole activities for students
- Black hole articles from NASA/JPL Edu
TAGS: Teachable Moments, K-12 Education, Educators, Students, STEM, Lessons, Activities, Moon, Mars, Ocean Worlds, Small Objects, Pluto, Voyager, Exoplanets, Black Holes, Earth Science, Earth, Climate Change
In the News
We visited Pluto!
On July 14, 2015 at 4:49 a.m. PDT, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sped past Pluto -- a destination that took nearly nine and a half years to reach -- and collected scientific data along with images of the dwarf planet.
Pluto, famous for once being the ninth planet, was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006 after new information emerged about the outer reaches of our solar system. Worlds similar to Pluto were discovered in the region of our solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt --named for astronomer Gerard Kuiper --is a doughnut-shaped area beyond the orbit of Neptune that is home to Pluto, other dwarf planets such as Eris, Makemake, and Haumaea, as well as hundreds of thousands of other large icy bodies, and perhaps trillions of comets orbiting our sun. Over the next several years, the New Horizons spacecraft is expected to visit one to two more Kuiper Belt objects.
Even though it will take 16 months for New Horizons to return all the Pluto science data to Earth, we have already made some interesting and important discoveries about Pluto.
Why It's Important
Through careful measurements of new images, scientists have determined that Pluto is actually larger than previously thought: 2,370 kilometers in diameter. This is important information for scientists because it helps them understand the composition of Pluto. Because of the orbital interactions between Pluto and its moon Charon, Pluto’s mass is well known and understood. Having a more precise diameter gives scientists the ability to more accurately calculate the average density. A greater diameter means Pluto’s density is less than we thought. If you do the math, you’ll see that Pluto’s calculated density dropped from 2,051 kg/m3 to 1,879 kg/m3 with this new finding. Most rock has a density between 2000-3000 kg/m3 and ice at very cold temperatures has a density of 927 kg/m3, so we can conclude that Pluto is a bit more icy than previously believed. In addition to helping scientists calculate the density of Pluto, this measurement confirms Pluto as the largest known object in the Kuiper Belt!
We’ve provided some math problems (and answers) for you to use in the classroom. They’re a great way to provide students with real-world examples of how the math they’re learning in class is used by scientists. There are also some additional resources below that you can use to integrate the Pluto flyby into your lessons, or use the flyby as a lesson opener!
Pluto Math Problems
- Find the radius(r) of Pluto.
2,370 kilometers ÷ 2 = 1,185 km
- Find the circumference of Pluto.
C = 2 π r = 7,446 km
- Find the surface area of Pluto.
SA = 4 π r2 = 17,646,012 km2
- Find the volume of Pluto.
4/3 π r3 = 6,970,174,651 km3
- Find the density of Pluto in kg/m3.
Pluto mass = 1.31 × 1022kg
Convert volume in km3 to m3: 6,970,174,651 × 1,000,000,000 = 6.970174651 × 1018m3
1.31 × 1022kg / 6.970174651 × 1018m3 = 1,879 kg/m3
- How does this new density calculation compare to the previous calculation (2051 kg/m3) when Pluto’s diameter was thought to be 2,302 km?
Take a look at some of the lessons, videos, activities and interactives related to Pluto. They’re a great way to engage students in STEM and learning more about their solar system!
- Video: What is a Dwarf Planet? (K-12)
Dwarf planets are a lot like regular planets. What’s the big difference? Find out in 60 seconds.
- Activity: Solar System Bead Activity (4-8)
The solar system is big, and Pluto is way out there! Students calculate scale distances to create a model of objects in our solar system.
Next Generation Science Standards: MS-ESS1-3
Common Core Math: 4.MD.A.2, 5.NBT.B.7
- Activity: How Far? How Faint? (9-12)
Calculate how much light Pluto receives from the sun, compared to Earth.
Common Core Math: HSF.IF.C.7.E
- Resource: Pluto Facts and Figures
Get lots of facts and figures about this dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt!
- Interactive: Eyes on Pluto
Ride along with New Horizons in this simulation of its closest approach to Pluto!
- Participate: Pluto Time
Though Pluto is a distant world with very different characteristics from Earth, for just a moment near dawn and dusk each day, you can experience “Pluto Time.” This is when the amount of light reaching Earth matches that of noon on Pluto. Find out exactly when Pluto Time happens in your area and share your photos online!
- News and Images: NASA New Horizons Website
Get the latest news and images from NASA's New Horizons mission.
The first set of close-up images returned from NASA's New Horizons mission reveal surprises and new insights about Pluto and its moons.
New Horizons became the first mission to explore Pluto on July 14, 2015 when it flew within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of the dwarf planet.
Stay tuned for related educational resources and activities.
After a 3-billion-mile journey and a decade of space flight, NASA's New Horizons mission became the first to explore the dwarf planet Pluto on Tuesday, passing within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of the distant and mysterious world.
Scientists are awaiting a series of status updates from the spacecraft that indicate it survived the flyby and is in good health -- scheduled for about 6 p.m. PDT -- as well as data and images collected during the closest approach.