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

Related Lessons for Educators

Related Activities for Students

NOAA Video Series: Coral Comeback

Multimedia

Facts and Figures

Missions and Instruments

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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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Mariah Woody poses for the camera with her hands clasped behind her back in front of a metal starburst screen.

This past month, intern Mariah Woody joined her team in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to say goodbye to the Spitzer Space Telescope, a mission that provided never-before-seen views of the cosmos for more than 16 years. Woody has only been interning with the Spitzer team since June, but she played a key role in planning the mission's final moments. And now that the mission has ended, she's helping document its legacy. While her internship has largely been about bringing the Spitzer mission to a close, the experience is marking a new beginning for Woody. Even as a master's student in engineering, Woody never thought her skills would qualify her for a career in space exploration. It wasn't until she heard about an internship opportunity with JPL through an initiative designed to foster connections with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, that she decided to apply. Now at JPL, she's getting a whole new perspective on where her career path might lead. We caught up with Woody to find out what it was like to join the team for Spitzer's final voyage, how she's archiving the mountain of mission images and data, and where she's hoping to go from here.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on the Spitzer Space Telescope mission. Spitzer was a telescope that was designed to observe and study the early universe. It used infrared light, which can capture images of a wide range of objects that are found in the universe. It studied and observed new galaxies, stars and exoplanets. It was launched on Aug. 25, 2003, and it was one of NASA's four Great Observatories. It was originally planned for five years, but it was extended multiple times, so it lasted for more than 16 years. We just had the end of the mission on January 30. When I started, I was working on implementing a plan to archive all the data at the end of the mission and learning about spacecraft operations. Now, I'm working on the end-of-mission closeout activities.

What was your average day like when you were working on the final days of the mission?

I didn't have an average day when I was working on the operations team. We did a lot of different tasks, so each day was different. But usually, I would meet with my mentor and co-mentor to discuss the tasks that I was working on or the timeline and deliverables for the project. I learned about mission operations for the spacecraft and the systems on the ground that support the spacecraft. The spacecraft is controlled by programmed commands that we send through various antennas on the ground. The Spitzer team would have status and coordination meetings every week. All the team leads within the project would come together and discuss updates about the spacecraft, science details and other closeout tests that needed to be completed after the mission ended.

Even though the spacecraft is no longer operational, there's still more to do on the mission. What does closing out the mission entail?

The closeout team has to archive all the information into a repository where it can be looked at later, including the information that different team members have. It could be anything from documentation to images to any records, scripts or tools that were used. Once that information has been submitted, then I go in and audit the list and make sure that all of the products that need to be delivered are there and archive them.

You got to be in mission control for Spitzer's final moments. What was that experience like?

That experience was really fun for me. We called it Spitzers' final voyage, and I was able to be a part of the operations team in mission control, monitoring the status of the spacecraft in real-time as we all said goodbye. It was amazing to see all the different team members for the Spitzer mission come together on the last day to collaborate and do all of our work at once. It was a wonderful day in history, and I was proud to be a part of it.

Have there been any other standout moments from your time at JPL?

Meeting and learning from other people at the Lab. It's very nice to be able to just reach out to someone and sit down for lunch to learn about what they do and what experiences they have. I'm able to learn a little bit about all the different things that are going on here.

You're working toward your Ph.D. at North Carolina A&T State University. What's your research focus, and what got you interested in that field?

I'm studying industrial and systems engineering. It came to my attention because it's a broad area. You can do so much with it. I wasn't quite sure what industry I wanted to go into, so that's one of the reasons that I chose it. The fact that I can work in space exploration is very cool. I know that I like to explore different areas, improve things and make things more efficient. So I thought that this would be the perfect field for me to study.

What made you interested in engineering in the first place?

I've always loved math and science, and I performed very well in those subject areas when I was in school. When it comes to new ideas, I'm very creative. So I always wondered, "What can I do with this?" A lot of my teachers mentioned that I should look into becoming an engineer, so that's what I did.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I heard JPL was coming to my campus – they had an info session. I was notified about it at the last minute, so I missed out. I told myself, "I should still apply even though I missed the info session." So I applied, and then I received a call and got the offer.

But I feel like there was more to what brought me here than just applying and receiving the offer. I know that the offer was based on my hard work and saying yes to the challenges and opportunities that have come my way. I've always known about JPL, but I never pictured myself actually working here. I thought that it would be challenging, and I would be coming from so far away. It was a lot all at once, but I accepted the opportunity because I wanted to be exposed to and have the experience to work in space exploration. It's an area that I'd never really thought I'd go into coming from industrial and systems engineering. Now that I have some experience in the aerospace field, I have realized how much it impacts the industry in general and the economy of this country. It's a great field for my background.

Now that you've got some experience at JPL, how has it shaped your career path?

It's provided focus for my career path. I really want to stay within this industry. It's opened my eyes to see where I can branch off and where I can contribute and apply my skills. There's so much I can do with my background just in space exploration. I'm happy that my career path went in this direction.

What did you imagine that you would be doing before you came to JPL?

I wanted to be a part of designing something to improve a process at an organization or company. I didn't really have a specific job in mind. I've always thought that I'd maybe work in the medical industry, designing and improving medical devices. I've always had a lot of different ideas of what I wanted to do. I've kind of just explored and applied to many areas that were of interest.

Now for the fun question: If, you could have any role in NASA's plans to send humans to the Moon or on to Mars, what would you want it to be?

I think that I'd want to be involved in the training process – not necessarily me going through the training, but maybe coming up with ideas or requirements to get astronauts ready to go to space efficiently and safely.


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Black History Month, Spitzer, Universe, HBCU

  • Kim Orr
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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!

Explore More

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

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Vivian Li holds a computer and poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Mars rover Curiosity.

To remotely operate NASA's next Mars rover on a planet millions of miles away, mission team members will need to carefully plan out every drive, head swivel and arm extension before sending their coded commands to the vehicle. A wrong move could jeopardize the mission and, at the least, eat into the rover's precious energy supply. So this past summer, it was intern Vivian Li's task to design a web tool that will let mission operators ensure they're sending all the right moves to Mars. The internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory gave Li, an information and computer science major at Cornell University, a chance to bring her design skills to a team that's typically more focused on building interfaces for robots rather than for humans. We caught up with Li to learn how she's adding a human touch to robotic navigation on the Mars 2020 mission.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on a user interface for the Mars 2020 rover that takes in commands and produces a 3D simulation of the commands. So a rover driver could input what they want the rover to do – for example, drive 100 meters forward – and then, based on the terrain and all the other external factors, the program would take in the commands and simulate the path of the rover.

Is this something completely new for Mars 2020?

They've had the simulation software for a really long time. This is just a different way to package it and for people to be able to easily use it. The current version only runs on certain computers, so we're moving it to a web-based platform that can run on pretty much any modern browser.

What's your average day like at JPL?

I get in around 7:30 a.m., and at that time I just sort of warm up for the day in that I don't do anything that's super-taxing. I check my meetings and get set up. Then right after that, I jump into what I need to do. Right now, my primary project is creating the front end for the interface, writing a little bit of code and fixing bugs in the flight software simulation for Mars 2020.

If I'm not in meetings, I'll be writing code all day and doing a lot of planning. I'm in a different office than my team, so me and my co-intern will sometimes ask for help with our project, but it's a lot of independent work. It's great because my co-intern and I help each other a lot. Our mentors tell us what they want – like yesterday, they wanted us to incorporate a camera view into the simulation – then, we're the ones who figure out how to do it.

Pretty soon, we'll be going into user testing. There are a couple of people who would actually be using the technology who volunteered to test it out. Once they do, we can edit it based on how they feel about what we have right now.

What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had so far?

Two things: First, just getting to stroll in and watch the Mars 2020 rover being built in the clean room. Second is meeting the people who work here. The people here all share a similar love of science and exploration research, which is really different from how a lot of computer science is oriented. All the engineers and even people who are in physics or communications share a common goal. I've learned so much from just talking to people and even other interns. It's been so cool, because I don't really get that exposure at school.

What made you decide to study information and computer science?

I actually went into college studying biology and English. I had done a year of coding in my senior year of high school, so I knew a little bit of [the programming language] Python. When I got to college, I decided to study biology, and I kind of started orienting toward computational biology. I worked in a lab, and the people there told me, "If you have computer science skills, you can kind of go into any field you want." So I had this career crisis moment when I was like, "I don't want to study biology anymore," because I had been in a microbiology lab all summer and it was not very fun. I figured if I did computer information sciences, it would give me more time to decide.

Even though I know a lot of people here have a lot more experience than me and they started a lot younger, I feel like my skills are so much more adaptable now, and that is what made me stay in the major.

So you still wanted to have that science focus?

Yeah. I don't want to fully isolate myself from the thing that I wanted to study originally, because I still do love biology, just not the career path that goes with it.

What about the user-interface side? Is that something that you're interested in, or did you get thrown into it for your internship?

That's what's special about my major in computer information science: Not only are we technically-based, but also we're user-and-society-based. So for our core classes, we take communications, law, ethics and policy, and all that. Through all those classes, I learned just how important the user-interface side is and accessibility design, and just how much easier life gets if the engineer really understands the user. I think having a good understanding of society and technology is what we should all be focusing on.

Are you bringing some of that user focus to your work with the Mars 2020 mission?

With my mentors being more on the software side and my co-intern being more on the development side, I think my having the user-interface design skills is unique in a very technical workspace. For Mars 2020, even though I'm not working on the design of the rover or one of the software systems, being here allows me to reinforce that the users are still really important, and we want to make it as easy as possible for someone to understand the technology even though it's super-complex.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

A year and a half ago, I went on a trip to Texas with my friend from school. She brought her friend from home, who brought his friend. The two of them had interned at JPL. They spent the entire week talking about JPL nonstop, on all of our hikes [laughs]. I had never met people who loved their work so much that they wanted to talk about it 24/7. That made me think that JPL must be a great workplace and somewhere that everyone is really passionate. Since then, I've just wanted to come here.

How do you feel you're contributing to the Mars 2020 mission and making it a success?

I feel like the work I am doing is really important. And because I'm bringing a unique skill set to my team, it makes me feel like I'm valued at JPL. I've also been working with other teams who might also want to use my software. Because of that, I think that this concept could be developed for other missions and be really useful in the future as well.

What is your ultimate career goal?

I don't know yet. I just really wanted to work at JPL this summer because I felt like I would get exposed to a lot more. I think now I'm more stressed, because I have seen so many things I want to do [laughs]. But I definitely want to be somewhere in the realm of tech and society. My overarching goal is that I want to have an ethical career, something that can help humanity. And I think JPL is doing that.

If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans to the Moon or on to Mars, what would it be?

I really enjoy the work I'm doing now and would love to continue doing that in the future. I don't think I personally want to be an astronaut. I want to stay on Earth for everything that this planet has to offer.


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Coding, Computer Science

  • Kim Orr
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Collage of images showing Toluca Lake Elementary's fifth-grade teachers and students working on projects

Over the past four years in the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I have had the good fortune to work with amazing educators and their students across Southern California. While it's not always possible to visit schools in person, there are sometimes projects and curricula so unique that a visit is too hard to pass up. That was the case when the fifth-grade staff at Toluca Lake Elementary School in Los Angeles reached out to me. This team of teachers has long been implementing exciting science activities and programs not just for their students, but also for parents and the community at large. The team – made up of Dennis Hagensmith, Rick Lee and Hamilton Wyatt – shared some of their background with us, as well as tips for getting young students excited about science in and out of the classroom.

Tell us about your background. How long have you been teaching?

Hagensmith: I've been teaching for 32 years total, with 29 of them at Toluca Lake Elementary. I began my teaching career in a split fourth- and fifth-grade classroom and moved to sixth grade for several years. But I have spent most of my career working with fifth graders.

Lee: This is my seventh year teaching and my fourth year teaching fifth grade. I have also taught kindergarten and second grade. Although there are aspects of teaching primary grades that I miss, fifth grade is my favorite of the three because the standards students are working toward are so comprehensive. It keeps me interested and excited about learning along with my students.

Wyatt: I have taught for almost three years. Before that, I was a teacher's assistant and instructional aid for three years.

How do you use resources from NASA in the classroom?

Hagensmith: I have used NASA resources to create hands-on lessons measuring the relative size of our solar system, to prepare a salad demonstrating the Sun's mass, to make bracelets with colored beads matching the chemical composition of the cosmos and assemble handmade telescopes.

Lee: Dennis and I recently attended an oceanography workshop put on by JPL that involved learning from teachers and researchers who had just completed cruises aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. We were inspired to include similar activities leading up to and during an already-planned after-school screening of [the Netflix documentary] "Chasing Coral." The lesson complements other JPL lessons related to sea-level rise and global climate change.

Rodriguez, Lee and Hagensmith stand on a concrete doc with a ship in the water behind them

JPL's Educator Professional Development Coordinator Brandon Rodriguez stands with Lee and Hagensmith during a September 2019 educator workshop that connected participants with researchers aboard the Nautilus research vessel for a talk on oceanography. Image Courtesy: Brandon Rodriguez | + Expand image

Wyatt: Many of the JPL resources aren't just about science – they are generally thought-provoking activities. I use many of the activities pertaining to art because my students this year are artistically talented and curious.

How do you address the specific needs of your students and get the community involved in their education?

Hagensmith: Teaching in a low-income area, it is imperative that we find ways to make our families feel welcome and encourage academic excellence. Our goal is to create a school culture in which all realize their potential and make the most of their education. To that goal, we host a variety of parent and community nights each year, including Night of the Arts, Family Science Night, Family Reading Night, family writing workshops and Family Pi Night. The most popular of all of these is our annual Family Astronomy Night and Star Party. The evening always kicks off with a presentation from a visiting scientist, then families participate in a number of hands-on workshops. The most popular activity is often the telescopes provided by the Burbank Sidewalk Astronomers taking aim at various celestial objects.

This idea for the family events came about back in 2010 when I took a class at JPL with scientist Bonnie Burrati. The class inspired me to take steps to enhance my science instruction. We became a NASA partner school and began utilizing lessons from the NASA-JPL Education website. As a result of these lessons, two of our students – Ali Freas and Caitline Molina – were awarded a trip to NASA's Johnson Space Center in 2012 to participate in the Student Science Symposium. That year, we also presented NASA's "Space School Musical" at our annual Night of the Arts. I began doing the star party sometime around that era. Originally, it was just parents from my class and one guest presenter. As the years went by, we were able to recruit more teachers to host workshops and get speakers from JPL and UCLA. Last year, we had nearly 200 guests at the star party.

Lee: I really try to maximize the impact of field trips. Students bring study guides and circulate through the tour, working as investigators searching for information and formulating their own conclusions about the topic we're exploring. This approach is useful for focusing student attention on key concepts at a wide range of locations. Recently, we visited the ecosystems and Space Shuttle Endeavour exhibits at the California Science Center, we've seen art at the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and we've built cultural understanding at Los Angeles Plaza and the California African American Museum.

Wyatt: Many students that come to me struggle with social-emotional skills and really need a jump-start on how to express themselves without feeling overwhelmed or picked on by other students. It is very important to me to begin by engaging with my students in a way that communicates that they can feel safe, comforted and empowered when they are in my class. All students have the ability to express themselves and still be strong scholars. I strive to help my students find that sweet spot in my classroom.

One thing teachers struggle with, especially in primary grades, is making science cross-curricular. How have you brought science into the everyday lesson?

Hagensmith: Part of my success as a teacher has come from letting students direct their own assessments. I believe students need to see that learning isn't done in isolation. Subjects are connected with one another and with real-world applications. Each activity is preceded by lessons providing a context for students' learning. For example, after reading a book, students may create a diorama, write a review for the school newspaper, dress as one of the characters and get interviewed by peers, make a presentation and so forth. This provides a vehicle for students to build upon their unique skills and interests.

Lee: I've found success especially with topics related to the environment. I completed the National Geographic Educator Certification program last year, and that experience made a huge impact on me personally and professionally. I highly recommend it to all educators. National Geographic resources, combined with those offered by NASA-JPL, are guaranteed to create highly engaging, cooperative learning opportunities for students across all disciplines.


Have a great idea for incorporating NASA research into your curriculum or looking to bring NASA science into the classroom? The Educator Professional Development Specialist at JPL can help. Contact Brandon Rodriguez at brandon.rodriguez@jpl.nasa.gov. Note: Due to the popularity of programs, JPL may not be able to fulfill all requests.

TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Resources, Lessons, Classroom, STEM, Professional Development

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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Collage of images of Glenn Orton, Krys Blackwood, Alexandra Holloway and Parag Vaishampayan in their workspaces at JPL

Each year, 1,000 students come to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for internships at the place where space robots are born and science is made. Their projects span the STEM spectrum, from engineering the next Mars rover to designing virtual-reality interfaces to studying storms on Jupiter and the possibility of life on other planets. But the opportunity for students to "dare mighty things" at JPL wouldn't exist without the people who bring them to the Laboratory in the first place – the people known as mentors.

A community of about 500 scientists, engineers, technologists and others serve as mentors to students annually as part of the internship programs managed by the JPL Education Office. Their title as mentors speaks to the expansiveness of their role, which isn't just about generating opportunities for students, but also guiding and shaping their careers.

"Mentors are at the core of JPL's mission, pushing the frontiers of space exploration while also guiding the next generation of explorers," says Adrian Ponce, who leads the team that manages JPL's internship programs. "They are an essential part of the career pipeline for future innovators who will inspire and enable JPL missions and science."

Planetary scientist Glenn Orton has been bringing students to JPL for internships studying the atmospheres of planets like Jupiter and Saturn since 1985. He keeps a list of their names and the year they interned with him pinned to his office wall in case he's contacted as a reference. The single-spaced names take up 10 sheets of paper, and he hasn't even added the names of the students he's brought in since just last year.

Glenn Orton sits at his desk surrounded by papers and posters of Jupiter and points to his list of interns since 1985

Planetary scientist Glenn Orton points to the list of more than 200 interns he's brought to JPL since 1985. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

It makes one wonder what he could need that many students to do – until he takes out another paper listing the 11 projects in which he's involved.

"I think I probably have the record for the largest number of [projects] at JPL," says Orton, who divides his time between observing Jupiter with various ground- and space-based telescopes, comparing his observations with the ones made by NASA's Juno spacecraft, contributing to a database where all of the above is tracked and producing science papers about the team's discoveries.

"Often, you get to be the first person in the world who will know about something," says Orton. "That's probably the best thing in the world. The most exciting moment you have in this job is when you discover something."

Over the years, Orton's interns have been authors on science papers and have even taken part in investigating unexpected stellar phenomena – like the time when a mysterious object sliced into Jupiter's atmosphere, sparking an urgent whodunnit that had Orton and his team of interns on the case.

Orton says his passion for mentoring students comes from the lack of mentorship he received as a first-generation college student. At the same time, he acknowledges the vast opportunities he was given and says he wants students to have them, too.

"As a graduate student, it was close to my first experience doing guided research, so I had no idea how research was communicated or conducted," says Orton of his time at Caltech, when he often worried that his classmates and professors would discover he wasn't "Nobel material." "I want to be able to work with students, which I sincerely enjoy, to instruct them on setting down a research goal, determining an approach, modifying it when things inevitably hit a bump, as well as communicating results and evaluating next steps."

For Alexandra Holloway and Krys Blackwood, the chance to provide new opportunities isn't just what drives them to be mentors, but also something they look for when choosing interns.

Blackwood and Holloway sit on a blue and black checkered floor with whiteboards behind them detailing process flows.

Krys Blackwood (left) and Alexandra Holloway work as a team to mentor students on projects that bring a human focus to robotic technology. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

"I look for underdogs, students who are not representing themselves well on paper," says Holloway. "Folks from underrepresented backgrounds are less likely to have somebody guide them through, 'Here's how you make your résumé. Here's how you apply.' The most important thing is their enthusiasm for learning something new or trying something new."

It's for this reason that Holloway and Blackwood have become evangelists for JPL's small group of high-school interns, who come to the Laboratory through a competitive program sponsored by select local school districts. While less experienced than college students, high-school interns more than make up for it with perseverance and passion, says Blackwood.

"[High-school interns] compete to get a spot in the program, so they are highly motivated kids," she says. "Your results may vary on their level of skill when they come in, but they work so hard and they put out such great work."

Holloway and Blackwood met while working on the team that designs the systems people use to operate spacecraft and other robotic technology at JPL – that is, the human side of robotics. Holloway has since migrated back to robots as the lead software engineer for NASA's next Mars rover. But the two still often work together as mentors for the students they bring in to design prototypes or develop software used to operate rovers and the antennas that communicate with spacecraft across the solar system.

It's important to them that students get a window into different career possibilities so they can discover the path that speaks to them most. The pair say they've seen several students surprised by the career revelation that came at the end of their internships.

"For all of our interns, we tailor the project to the intern, the intern's abilities, their desires and which way they want to grow," says Holloway. "This is such a nice place where you can stretch for just a little bit of time, try something new and decide whether it's for you or not. We've had interns who did design tasks for us and at the end of the internship, they were like, 'You know what? I've realized that this is not for me.' And we were like, 'Awesome! You just saved yourself five years.'"

The revelations of students who intern with Parag Vaishampayan in JPL's Planetary Protection group come from something much smaller in scale – microscopic, even.

Vaishampayan's team studies some of the most extreme forms of life on Earth. The group is trying to learn whether similar kinds of tough microbes could survive on other worlds – and prevent those on Earth from hitching a ride to other planets on NASA spacecraft. An internship in Planetary Protection means students may have a chance to study these microbes, collect samples of bacteria inside the clean room where engineers are building the latest spacecraft or, for a lucky few, name bacteria.

"Any researcher who finds a new kind of bacteria gets a chance to name it," says Vaishampayan. "So we always give our students a chance to name any bacterium they discover after whoever they want. People have named bacteria after their professors, astronauts, famous scientists and so forth. We just published a paper where we named a bacterium after Carl Sagan."

Vaishampayan sits in his stark white office holding a laminated award.

Students who intern with Parag Vaishampayan in JPL's Planetary Protection group might have a chance to name bacteria. Here, Vaishampayan holds an award he and his team (including several interns) received for their discovery of a bacterium they named Tersicoccus phoenicis. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The Planetary Protection group hosts about 10 students a year, and Vaishampayan says he's probably used every JPL internship program to bring them in. Recently, he's become a superuser of one designed for international students and another that partners with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, to attract students from diverse backgrounds and set them on a pathway to a career at the Laboratory.

"I can talk for hours and hours about JPL internships. I think they are the soul of the active research we are doing here," says Vaishampayan. "Had we not had these programs, we would not have been able to do so much research work." In the years ahead, the programs might become even more essential for Vaishampayan as he takes on a new project analyzing 6,000 bacteria samples collected from spacecraft built in JPL's clean rooms since 1975.

With interns making up more than 15 percent of the Laboratory population each year, Vaishampayan is certainly not alone in his affection for JPL's internship programs. And JPL is equally appreciative of those willing to lend time and support to mentoring the next generation of explorers.

Says Adrian Ponce of those who take on the mentorship role through the programs his team manages, "Especially with this being National Mentoring Month, it's a great time to highlight the work of our thriving mentor community. I'd like to thank JPL mentors for their tremendous efforts and time commitment as they provide quality, hands-on experiences to students that support NASA missions and science, and foster a diverse and talented future workforce."


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, Mentors, Research, Researchers, STEM, Interns, Juno, Jupiter, Science, Astrobiology, Planetary Protection, Computer Science, Design, Mentoring, Careers

  • Kim Orr
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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:


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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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Max Rudolph crosses his arms and smiles at the camera standing in front of a glass window that looks down on the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory

Max Rudolph has had Mars rovers on the brain for as long as he can remember, and this past summer, as an intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he joined the team building the most advanced Mars rover ever. His role was to find bugs in the software that directs the precise movements of cameras that serve as the literal eyes of the rover and ensure that every swivel of the rover's cartoon-like "head" goes off without a hitch. For the Georgia Institute of Technology student, it was a step into a world beyond his electrical engineering major, but one to which he found he was well suited. We caught up with Rudolph between shifts in the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory, where engineers test spacecraft components in simulated otherworldly environments, to find out what an average day for him is like on the Mars 2020 mission and what brought him to JPL.

What are you working on at JPL?

I work on the Mars 2020 systems engineering testbed. I do mechanism integration and verification of flight software. Basically, I work with the remote-sensing mast on the rover, running tests to make sure everything works and try to find bugs in the software [we use to operate it].

What is the remote-sensing mast?

It's basically the head and neck of the rover. It kind of juts up off of the deck of the rover and makes it look a bit like WALL-E, the Pixar character. It has science instruments designed to measure the Martian wind and study the chemical composition of rocks and soil, as well as navigation cameras that serve as the "eyes" of the rover.

What kinds of tests are you running?

This summer, I've mostly been testing the cameras and the movements of the remote-sensing mast. So we move the remote-sensing mast around, use the cameras on the front of the mast to take pictures and see whether it can do what it's designed to do. We get instructions from the subsystem engineers, the people who designed and built different parts of the mast [such as the cameras and science instruments]. We try out the movements and commands they designed to see if they actually work when the whole system is together.

What's your average day like?

There are two types of days I have. Some days I have shifts in the testbed, and other days, I do work at my desk. When I'm in the testbed, I run tests and run through procedures with the remote-sensing mast on a replica [or engineering model] of the rover.

The rest of my time is spent preparing or wrapping up work I did when I was in the testbed. For example, before I run procedures in the testbed, I send the software commands we're going to use to test the mast through a simulation that tells me if they are valid or not. After I run a test, I note what changes I made to the procedure, and what worked and what didn't work, so I can refer to it later.

Where do you go to school, and what are you studying?

I'm going to Georgia Tech, studying electrical engineering.

What got you interested in studying electrical engineering?

I don't know how I got into it [laughs]. A lot of people ask me, "Why electrical engineering?" Not often, "Why engineering?" I think I chose electrical engineering because it's a very broad field. At school, I focus on controls and signal processing. I also do research in robotics for various professors.

But here, I'm not doing that at all. This is a systems engineering lab, and I've never done systems engineering. I am doing robotics, but it's very different from my classes. Kareem Badaruddin, who's my group supervisor, says, "We recruit a lot of electrical engineers. They usually know the skills. They have a base knowledge."

So I think I chose electrical engineering because there's a lot of variation in what you can do with your degree. You can go into software, robotics or hardware design and circuits. There are a lot of opportunities.

As far as what got me into engineering, I don't remember a time when I didn't want to do this.

What brought you to JPL?

This is one of those places that I have known about for years. I'm 20, so I probably learned about JPL in eighth grade. I was interested in working here because everything is going to space – there's nothing cooler than that. Being here is something I always thought about wanting to do, and now I have the opportunity.

Was there a particular mission or event that lead you to JPL?

It probably was Curiosity or maybe the [Mars Exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity]. I always had the rovers in the back of my mind – even before I knew that JPL built them. One day, I found my way to the JPL website, and I was like, "Oh, these spacecraft are all built here."

How do you hope you're contributing to this mission and making it a success?

I hope I find any issues that exist in the system so we can fix them before the rover goes to Mars. It's a good thing if we find an issue with the rover when we test it because now we can fix it, and that's one less thing that can fail when the rover is millions of miles away on Mars. My main goal is to learn and contribute as much as I can.

What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?

People might think it's humdrum, but I think it's really cool: I worked on a side project, helping with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System, which is a mechanism on the 2020 rover that will place the first helicopter on Mars. We were testing it, and I got to see the first time this thing moved. It wasn't historic like Apollo and wasn't actually landing on Mars, but seeing it – even on a replica of the rover – gave me a lot of pleasure. Like a lot of things at JPL, it was one of a kind.

What's your ultimate career goal?

I know I want to be here, because no one in the world does what JPL does. But just as important, I want to make an impact on the world.

OK, now for a fun question: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would it be?

Ideally, I'd be the one going. But I'd also really like to be part of the team that gets the spacecraft to the Moon or Mars.


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, rover, Mars 2020, Electrical Engineering

  • Kim Orr
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Collage of images and illustrations of planets, spacecraft and space objects

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

Flat map of Earth with an animation of co2 data overlayed

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.

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2. Teachable Moments in the Sky

Animated image of the Moon during a lunar eclipse

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!

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3. Missions to Mars

Animation of Curiosity driving on 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.

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4. Ocean Worlds and the Search for Life

Image of Saturn's moon Enceladus covered in ice with giant cracks scarring its surface

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.

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5. Asteroids, Comets and Dwarf Planets, Oh My!

Animated image series of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in which the comet tail can be seen shooting out from the comet as it rotates slightly from the perspective of the Rosetta spacecraft

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.

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6. Uncovering Pluto's Mysteries

Image of Pluto in false color from NASA's New Horizons mission

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.

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7. The Voyagers' Journey Into Interstellar Space

Animation of Voyager entering 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.

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8. The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System

Illustration of the TRAPPIST-1 star and its system of planets

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.

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9. Shining a Light on Black Holes

In this historic first image of a black hole, an orange glowing donut-shaped light can be seen against the black backdrop of space. At the center of the light is a black hole.

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.

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TAGS: Teachable Moments, K-12 Education, Educators, Students, STEM, Lessons, Activities, Climate, Moon, Mars, Ocean Worlds, Small Objects, Pluto, Voyager, Exoplanets, Black Holes

  • Lyle Tavernier
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