This illustration shows the position of NASA's Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, outside of the heliosphere, a protective bubble created by the Sun that extends well past the orbit of Pluto.

In the News

The Voyager 2 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has reached interstellar space, a region beyond the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun – where the only other human-made object is its twin, Voyager 1.

The achievement means new opportunities for scientists to study this mysterious region. And for educators, it’s a chance to get students exploring the scale and anatomy of our solar system, plus the engineering and math required for such an epic journey.

How They Did It

Launched just 16 days apart, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were designed to take advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets that only occurs once every 176 years. Their trajectory took them by the outer planets, where they captured never-before-seen images. They were also able to steal a little momentum from Jupiter and Saturn that helped send them on a path toward interstellar space. This “gravity assist” gave the spacecraft a velocity boost without expending any fuel. Though both spacecraft were destined for interstellar space, they followed slightly different trajectories.

Illustration of the trajectories of Voyager 1 and 2

An illustration of the trajectories of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Voyager 1 followed a path that enabled it to fly by Jupiter in 1979, discovering the gas giant’s rings. It continued on for a 1980 close encounter with Saturn’s moon Titan before a gravity assist from Saturn hurled it above the plane of the solar system and out toward interstellar space. After Voyager 2 visited Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1981, it continued on to encounter Uranus in 1986, where it obtained another assist. Its last planetary visit before heading out of the solar system was Neptune in 1989, where the gas giant’s gravity sent the probe in a southward direction toward interstellar space. Since the end of its prime mission at Neptune, Voyager 2 has been using its onboard instruments to continue sensing the environment around it, communicating data back to scientists on Earth. It was this data that scientists used to determine Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space.

How We Know

Interstellar space, the region between the stars, is beyond the influence of the solar wind, charged particles emanating from the Sun, and before the influence of the stellar wind of another star. One hint that Voyager 2 was nearing interstellar space came in late August when the Cosmic Ray Subsystem, an instrument that measures cosmic rays coming from the Sun and galactic cosmic rays coming from outside our solar system, measured an increase in galactic cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft. Then on November 5, the instrument detected a sharp decrease in high energy particles from the Sun. That downward trend continued over the following weeks.

The data from the cosmic ray instrument provided strong evidence that Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space because its twin had returned similar data when it crossed the boundary of the heliosheath. But the most compelling evidence came from its Plasma Science Experiment – an instrument that had stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled mostly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble, the heliosphere, that envelopes all the planets in our solar system. Voyager 2’s Plasma Science Experiment can detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of that solar wind. On the same day that the spacecraft’s cosmic ray instrument detected a steep decline in the number of solar energetic particles, the plasma science instrument observed a decline in the speed of the solar wind. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has entered interstellar space.

graph showing data from the cosmic ray and plasma science instruments on Voyager 2

This animated graph shows data returned from Voyager 2's cosmic ray and plasma science instruments, which provided the evidence that the spacecraft had entered interstellar space. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC | + Expand image

Though the spacecraft have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won't be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun's gravity. The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units from the Sun and extend to about 100,000 AU. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance from the Sun to Earth.) It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it. By that time, both Voyager spacecraft will be completely out of the hydrazine fuel used to point them toward Earth (to send and receive data) and their power sources will have decayed beyond their usable lifetime.

Why It’s Important

Since the Voyager spacecraft launched more than 40 years ago, no other NASA missions have encountered as many planets (some of which had never been visited) and continued making science observations from such great distances. Other spacecraft, such as New Horizons and Pioneer 10 and 11, will eventually make it to interstellar space, but we will have no data from them to confirm their arrival or explore the region because their instruments already have or will have shut off by then.

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Interstellar space is a region that’s still mysterious because until 2012, when Voyager 1 arrived there, no spacecraft had visited it. Now, data from Voyager 2 will help add to scientists’ growing understanding of the region. Scientists are hoping to continue using Voyager 2’s plasma science instrument to study the properties of the ionized gases, or plasma, that exist in the interstellar medium by making direct measurements of the plasma density and temperature. This new data may shed more light on the evolution of our solar neighborhood and will most certainly provide a window into the exciting unexplored region of interstellar space, improving our understanding of space and our place in it.

As power wanes on Voyager 2, scientists will have to make tough choices about which instruments to keep turned on. Further complicating the situation is the freezing cold temperature at which the spacecraft is currently operating – perilously close to the freezing point of its hydrazine fuel. But for as long as both Voyager spacecraft are able to maintain power and communication, we will continue to learn about the uncharted territory of interstellar space.

Teach It

Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing math and science with a real-world (and space!) connection.

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TAGS: Teachers, Educators, Science, Engineering, Technology, Solar System, Voyager, Spacecraft, Educator Resources, Lessons, Activities

  • Ota Lutz

JPL interns Heather Lethcoe and Lauren Berger pose with the InSight engineering model in its testbed at JPL

UPDATE: Nov. 27, 2018 – The InSight spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars just before noon on Nov. 26, 2018, marking the eighth time NASA has succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet. This story has been updated to reflect the current mission status. For more mission updates, follow along on the InSight Mission Blog, JPL News, as well as Facebook and Twitter (@NASAInSight, @NASAJPL and @NASA).

Matt Golombek’s job is one that could only exist at a place that regularly lands spacecraft on Mars. And for more than 20 years, the self-proclaimed “landing-site dude” and his rotating cast of interns at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have helped select seven of the agency’s landing sites on the Red Planet.

Golombek got his start in the Mars landing-site business as the project scientist for the first rover mission to the Red Planet in 1997. Since that time, he has enlisted the help of geology students to make the maps that tell engineers, scientists, stakeholders and now even the rovers and landers themselves where – and where not – to land. Among the list of no-gos can be rock fields, craters, cliffs, “inescapable hazards” and anything else that might impede an otherwise healthy landing or drive on Mars.

For Golombek’s interns, the goal of helping safely land a spacecraft on Mars is as awe-inspiring as it comes, but the awe can sometimes be forgotten in the day-to-day work of counting rocks and merging multitudes of maps, especially when a landing is scheduled for well after their internships are over. But with the landing site for NASA’s next Mars rover just announced and the careful work of deciding where to lay down science instruments for the freshly landed InSight mission soon to begin, interns Lauren Berger, Rachel Hausmann and Heather Lethcoe are well aware of the significance of their work – the most important of which lies just ahead.

Site Unseen

Selecting a landing site on Mars requires a careful balancing act between engineering capabilities and science goals. It’s a partnership that for Golombek, a geologist, has evolved over the years.

Golombek reflects on the time before spacecraft like the now-critical Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provided high-resolution, global views of the Martian terrain. In those early days, without close-up images of the surface, the science was largely guesswork, using similar terrain on Earth to get a sense for what the team might be up against. Spacecraft would successfully touch down, but engineers would look aghast at images sent back of vast rock fields punctuated by sharp boulders that could easily destroy a lander speeding to the surface from space. NASA’s 1997 Pathfinder spacecraft, encased in airbags for landing, bounced as high as a 10-story building before rolling to a stop at its jagged outpost.

Matt Golombek sits in his office in the science building at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory surrounded by images and maps of Mars amassed over a 20-year career as the "landing-site dude." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Now, Golombek and his interns take a decidedly more technological approach, feeding images of candidate landing sites into a machine-learning program designed to measure the size of rocks based on the shadows they cast and carefully combining a series of images, maps and other data using Geographical Information Systems, or GIS, software (a required skill for Golombek’s interns).

Still, there are some things that must be done by hand – or eye, as the case may be.

“Lauren [Berger] is now an expert on inescapable hazards,” says Golombek of one of his current trio of interns. “She can look at those ripples, and she knows immediately whether it’s inescapable, probably inescapable, probably escapable or not a problem.”

“Or, as we like to say, death, part death and no death,” jokes Berger.

“We work with them to train them so their eye can see it. And so far, that’s the best way to [identify such hazards]. We don’t have any automated way to do that,” says Golombek.

“I like to call Lauren the Jedi master of ripples-pattern mapping,” says fellow intern Heather Lethcoe, who is the team’s mapping expert for the Mars 2020 rover mission. “I helped her a little bit with that, and now I’m seeing ripples closing my eyes at night.”

Until recently, Lethcoe and Berger were busily preparing maps for October’s landing site workshop, during which scientists debated the merits of the final four touchdown locations for the Mars 2020 mission. If Golombek’s team had a preferred candidate, they wouldn’t say. Their task was to identify the risks and determine what’s safe, not what’s most scientifically worthy. Thanks to new technology that for the first time will allow the rover to divert to the safest part of its landing ellipse using a map created by Golombek’s team, the debate about where to land was solely focused on science. So unlike landing site workshops for past Mars missions, Golombek’s team stayed on the sidelines and let the scientists “have at it.” (In the end, as with all other missions, the final site recommendation was made by the mission with NASA’s approval.)

Now, with an official landing site announced, it might seem that Golombek’s team is out of work. But really, the work is just beginning. “We’ll be heavily involved in making the final hazard map for the [Mars 2020] landing site, which will then get handed to the engineers to code up so that the rover will make the right decisions,” says Golombek.

Meanwhile, the team will be busy with the outcome of another Mars landing: InSight, a spacecraft designed to study the inner workings of Mars and investigate how rocky planets, including Earth, came to be.

Golombek’s third intern, Rachel Hausmann, became a master at piecing together the hundreds of images, rock maps, slope maps and other data that were used to successfully land InSight. But because InSight is a stationary spacecraft, one of the most important parts of ensuring the mission’s success will happen after it lands. The team will need to survey the landing area and determine how and where to place each of the mission’s science instruments on the surface.

“If you think about it, it’s like landing-site selection, just a little smaller scale,” says Golombek. “You don’t want [the instruments] sitting on a slope. You don’t want them sitting on a rock.”

For that, Golombek is getting the help of not just Hausmann but all three interns. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have students who happen to be in the right place at the right time when a spacecraft lands and needs their expertise.”

Practice Makes Perfect

To prepare for this rare opportunity, the students have been embedded with different working groups, rehearsing the steps that will be required to place each of InSight’s instruments safely on Mars several weeks after landing.

Rachel Hausmann in the museum at JPL

Rachel Hausmann started with Golombek's team in June 2017 and until recently has been charged with finalizing the map that will be used to land InSight on Mars. Image courtesy: Rachel Hausmann | + Expand image

Lauren Berger stands in the InSight testbed at JPL

Lauren Berger, the longest tenured of the intern team, says everything she knew about Mars before interning at JPL came from a picture book she checked out at the library where her mom works. Now, she's an expert in identifying the sand-dune-like features considered hazardous to Mars rovers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

Heather Lethcoe points at a Mars globe

Even when it was clear Heather Lethcoe's JPL internship was a sure thing, she says she didn't want to be too sure of herself and kept telling people she had a "potential internship." But as the praises roll in, she's learning to have more confidence in herself. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

“The groups have rehearsals for different anomalies, or issues, that could go wrong,” says Hausmann. “They do this to problem solve even down to, ‘Are we in the right room? Do we have enough space?’ because when you’re working on a space mission, you can’t have an issue with facilities.”

The students took part in the first of these so-called Operational Readiness Tests in early October and say it was an eye-opening experience.

“It was really helpful just to get to know the team and really understand what’s going to happen,” says Berger. “Now we know how to make it happen, and everyone’s a lot more ready. Also, it was so much fun.”

“That’s what I was going to say!” says Lethcoe. “That was just the rehearsal, and at the end of it, I felt so amped and pumped up. I can’t even imagine when we’re actually doing it how good that’s going to feel.”

Lethcoe says there was also the matter of balancing homework and midterms with full-time preparations for a Mars landing. That was its own sort of readiness test for December when the real work of deploying the instruments will coincide with finals.

Perhaps most surprising, say the students, was their realization that their expertise is valued by a team that’s well-versed in Mars landings.

“Imposter syndrome is real,” says Hausmann. But the team’s internships are serving as the perfect antidote.

“I had this fear that I don’t know if I’m going to be more in the way and more pestering or if I’m actually going to be helpful,” says Lethcoe, a student at Cal State University, Northridge, who was first exposed to the mapping software used by the team during her time in the U.S. Army. “It turns out that the [InSight geology] team lead gave me really nice reviews.”

Berger interjects to add supportive emphasis to Lethcoe’s statement – a common occurrence among the three women who have shared the same small office for more than a year now. “He said he absolutely needed her and she could not go away.”

Lethcoe laughs. “[My co-mentor] texted me to let me know, ‘You earned this,” and I tried not to take screenshots and send them to all my friends and my mom. They definitely make it known how much we’re appreciated.”

Adds Berger, “I think JPL really teaches you to have confidence in what you know.”

More than the mapping skills and research experience they’ve picked up during their time at JPL, it’s that confidence that they’re most eager to take back to school with them and impart to other young women interested in STEM careers.

Berger gave a talk about imposter syndrome at her school, Occidental College in Los Angeles, earlier this month. And Hausmann, a student at Oregon State University, says her efforts to encourage and coach young women are the most important contribution she’s making as a JPL intern.

“My mom didn’t go to college. My dad left us when we were in high school. And so I didn’t really focus on my career,” says Hausmann. “I just want to help young women get in [to research and internships] early because I got in kind of late. I think that’s so important, just as important as the work we’re doing.”

The Next Frontier

When your internship or your job is to help land spacecraft and deploy instruments on Mars, the question, “Where do we go from here?” is literal and figurative. While the next year or so will be perhaps one of the busiest Golombek’s team has ever known, his future as the landing-site dude is uncertain.

“If what you do is select landing sites for a living, it’s kind of an odd thing because you can only work at one place,” says Golombek. “You need to have a spacecraft that needs a landing site selected for it. And for the past 20 years, there have been spacecraft that we’ve been landing on Mars. So I’m kind of out of business now because Mars 2020 is the last for the time being – there are no new [NASA Mars] landing sites that are being conceived of.”

At the mention of possible lander missions to other worlds, Golombek shrugs and his near-constant grin sinks into a thin horizon. “Don’t know,” he says. “I’m kind of a Martian, and I’ll probably stick with Mars.”

Maybe it’s a torch best carried by his intern alums, many of whom have gone from their internships to careers at JPL or other NASA centers. While Lethcoe, Berger and Hausmann are still enmeshed in their education – Lethcoe is in her junior year, Berger is taking a gap year before applying to graduate programs, and Hausmann is applying to Ph.D. programs in January – their experiences are sure to have a profound impact on their future. In many ways, they already have.

Could they be the landing-site dudes of the future? Maybe someday.

But for now, they’re focused on the challenges of the immediate future, helping NASA take the next steps in its exploration of Mars. And for that, “They’re super well trained,” Golombek says, “and just perfect for the job.”

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

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

TAGS: Interns, Internships, Higher Education, College, Geology, Science, Rovers, Landers, Mars, InSight, Mars 2020

  • Kim Orr

Animation showing InSight landing on Mars

Tom Hoffman, InSight Project Manager, NASA JPL, left, and Sue Smrekar, InSight deputy principal investigator, NASA JPL, react after receiving confirmation InSight is safe on the surface of Mars

This is the first image taken by NASA's InSight lander on the surface of Mars.

The Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC), located on the robotic arm of NASA's InSight lander, took this picture of the Martian surface on Nov. 26

UPDATE: Nov. 27, 2018 – The InSight spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars just before noon on Nov. 26, 2018, marking the eighth time NASA has succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet. This story has been updated to reflect the current mission status. For more mission updates, follow along on the InSight Mission Blog, JPL News, as well as Facebook and Twitter (@NASAInSight, @NASAJPL and @NASA).

In the News

NASA’s newest mission to Mars, the InSight lander, touched down just before noon PST on Nov. 26. So while some people were looking for Cyber Monday deals, scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory were monitoring their screens for something else: signals from the spacecraft that it successfully touched down on the Red Planet.

InSight spent nearly seven months in space, kicked off by the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast of the U.S. Once it arrived at the Red Planet, InSight had to perform its entry, descent and landing, or EDL, to safely touch down on the Martian surface. This was perhaps the most dangerous part of the entire mission because it required that the spacecraft withstand temperatures near 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, quickly put on its brakes by using the atmosphere to slow down, then release a supersonic parachute and finally lower itself to the surface using 12 retrorockets.

When NASA’s InSight descends to the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2018, it is guaranteed to be a white-knuckle event. Rob Manning, chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains the critical steps that must happen in perfect sequence to get the robotic lander safely to the surface. | Watch on YouTube

But even after that harrowing trip to the surface, InSight will have to overcome one more challenge before it can get to the most important part of the mission, the science. After a thorough survey of its landing area, InSight will need to carefully deploy each of its science instruments to the surface of Mars. It may sound like an easy task, but it’s one that requires precision and patience.

It’s also a great opportunity for educators to engage students in NASA’s exploration of Mars and the importance of planetary science while making real-world connections to lessons in science, coding and engineering. Read on to find out how.

How It Works: Deploying InSight’s Instruments

InSight is equipped with three science investigations with which to study the deep interior of Mars for the first time. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structures, or SEIS, is a seismometer that will record seismic waves traveling through the interior of Mars.

These waves can be created by marsquakes, or even meteorites striking the surface. The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, will investigate how much heat is still flowing out of Mars. It will do so by hammering a probe down to a depth of up to 16 feet (about 5 meters) underground. The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, or RISE, will use InSight’s telecommunications system to precisely track the movement of Mars through space. This will shed light on the makeup of Mars’ iron-rich core.

But to start capturing much of that science data, InSight will have to first carefully move the SEIS and HP3 instruments from its stowage area on the lander deck and place them in precise locations on the ground. Among its many firsts, InSight will be the first spacecraft to use a robotic arm to place instruments on the surface of Mars. Even though each instrument will need to be lowered only a little more than three feet (1 meter) to the ground, it’s a delicate maneuver that the team will rehearse to make sure they get it right.

InSight’s robotic arm is nearly 6 feet (about 2 meters) long. At the end of the arm is a five-fingered grappler that is designed to grab SEIS and HP3 from the deck of the lander and place them on the ground in front of the lander in a manner similar to how a claw game grabs prizes and deposits them in the collection chute. But on Mars, it has to work every time.

InSight will be the first mission on another planet to use a robotic arm to grasp instruments and place them on the surface. While it may look like an arcade machine, this space claw is designed to come away with a prize every time. | Watch on YouTube

Before the instruments can be set down, the area where they will be deployed – commonly referred to as the work space – must be assessed so SEIS and HP3 can be positioned in the best possible spots to meet their science goals. InSight is designed to land with the solar panels at an east-west orientation and the robotic arm facing south. The work space covers about three-square meters to the south of the rover. Because InSight is a three-legged lander and not a six-wheeled rover, science and engineering teams must find the best areas to deploy the instruments within the limited work space at InSight’s landing spot. That is why choosing the best landing site (which for InSight means one that is very flat and has few rocks) is so important.

Just as having two eyes gives us the ability to perceive depth, InSight will use a camera on its robotic arm to take what are known as stereo-pair images. These image pairs, made by taking a photo and then moving the camera slightly to the side for another image, provide 3D elevation information that’s used by the science and engineering teams. With this information, they can build terrain maps that show roughness and tilt, and generate something called a goodness map to help identify the best location to place each instrument. Evaluating the work space is expected to take a few weeks.

Once the team has selected the locations where they plan to deploy the instruments, the robotic arm will use its grapple to first grab SEIS and lower it to the surface. When the team confirms that the instrument is on the ground, the grapple will be released and images will be taken. If the team decides they like where the instrument is placed, it will be leveled, and the seismic sensor will be re-centered so it can be calibrated to collect scientific data. If the location is deemed unsuitable, InSight will use its robotic arm to reposition SEIS.

But wait, there’s more! SEIS is sensitive to changes in air pressure, wind and even local magnetic fields. In fact, it is so sensitive that it can detect ground movement as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom! So that the instrument isn’t affected by the wind and changes in temperature, the robotic arm will have to cover SEIS with the Wind and Thermal Shield.

After SEIS is on the ground and covered by the shield, and the deployment team is satisfied with their placement, the robotic arm will grab the HP3 instrument and place it on the surface. Just as with SEIS, once the team receives confirmation that HP3 is on the ground, the grapple will be released and the stability of the instrument will be confirmed. The final step in deploying the science instruments is to release the HP3 self-hammering mole from within the instrument so that it will be able to drive itself into the ground. The whole process from landing to final deployment is expected to take two to three months.

Why It’s Important

For the science instruments to work – and for the mission to be a success – it’s critical that the instruments are safely deployed. So while sending a mission to another planet is a huge accomplishment and getting pictures of other worlds is inspiring, it’s important to remember that science is the driver behind these missions. As technologies advance, new techniques are discovered and new ideas are formulated. Opportunities arise to explore new worlds and revisit seemingly familiar worlds with new tools.

Using its science instruments, SEIS and HP3, plus the radio-science experiment (RISE) to study how much Mars wobbles as it orbits the Sun, InSight will help scientists look at Mars in a whole new way: from the inside.

SEIS will help scientists understand how tectonically active Mars is today by measuring the power and frequency of marsquakes, and it will also measure how often meteorites impact the surface of Mars.

HP3 and RISE will give scientists the information they need to determine the size of Mars’ core and whether it’s liquid or solid; the thickness and structure of the crust; the structure of the mantle and what it’s made of; and how warm the interior is and how much heat is still flowing through.

Answering these questions is important for understanding Mars, and on a grander scale, it is key to forming a better picture of the formation of our solar system, including Earth.

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Use these resources to bring the excitement of NASA’s newest Mars mission and the scientific discovery that comes with it into the classroom.

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TAGS: InSight, Landing, Mars, K-12 Educators, Informal Educators, Engineering, Science, Mission Events

  • Lyle Tavernier

Erika Flores poses for a photo in the lab at JPL

Erika Flores might be the longest-serving intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As a high-school student, she helped test the arm for the Phoenix Mars Lander, which launched about a year later, in 2007. When she returned in 2014 as an undergraduate intern, she joined a team of JPL scientists studying how life began on Earth. A chemical engineering student at Cal Poly at the time, Flores helped the team with one of its early breakthroughs, producing amino acids, which are central to life processes, under conditions found on early Earth. Now known as the "senior intern," Flores has been an integral part of the team ever since. Meanwhile, she's earned a bachelor's degree, was accepted to graduate school for environmental science and started writing her master's thesis. She also recently picked up a part-time gig helping the Mars 2020 rover team keep the spacecraft – which is being built at JPL – clear of microbes that could hitch a ride to the Red Planet. We caught up with Flores to ask what she plans to do next, how her internships have shaped her career path and, as she says with a laugh, how they've changed her personality.

You've had five or six JPL internships, dating back to when you were in high school. How did you first come to the Lab, and what's brought you back all these years?

My very first internship was when I was a high school student going from my junior to my senior year. I think one of my teachers recommended I apply to SHIP, the Summer High School Internship Program, at JPL, and I got the internship. When I came in, it was a little overwhelming. I was 16. I still wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to major in, but I got matched with a mentor who was an electrical engineer, doing some robotics testing on the arm for the Phoenix Mars Lander. So that was really exciting when I heard afterward that they were sending Phoenix to Mars. That’s definitely what – I wouldn't say piqued my interest because I was already into space, but it was like, "OK, I want to come back here."

I went off to community college, and after I transferred to Cal Poly to get my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, I applied [for a JPL internship]. I started working with Laurie Barge in JPL's Astrobiology Lab, doing experiments on the origins of life. We started with research on early Earth conditions because our experiments have to reflect Earth before life as we know it existed. From there, we did a couple of experiments using iron mineral, or iron hydroxide, which is pretty basic and you can find it in nature. Then we adjusted the conditions. So we adjusted the pH to what it would be in early Earth – concentrations that you would find in the ocean floor. Using previous experiments and previous literature, we did an experiment to see if we could produce amino acids – so organics – based off of these reactions that could have been happening on early Earth. And our experiment was successful. We made alanine, which is an amino acid, and lactate, which is an alpha hydroxy acid. We use them for different properties in our body. So we expanded on the experiment, tried different conditions. Now we have a science paper in review. And that all lead to some other internships that are also related to the origins of life.

Erika Flores poses with her science poster

Erika Flores poses with her science poster. Photo courtesy of Erika Flores | + Expand image

Once I graduated, I wasn't able to qualify for an internship anymore. So Laurie hired me as a contractor. I was a lab technician, working part-time while I decided to go back to school. Once I got my acceptance letter to grad school, I was able to return again as an intern. Now I'm referred to as the "senior intern." So we get new interns during the summer or some throughout the year, and I train them, show them around, things like that, which is also pretty great because like they say, you learn more by teaching others.

What are you hoping to do once you graduate?

Since I will be graduating next year, Laurie, who is such a great mentor, has been pushing me to go talk to people and go network. She talked to one of our old postdocs, who happened to be looking for an intern. So just this September, I was converted to an academic part-time employee, which has really allowed me to branch out. Now I'm part-time with Laurie and part-time working with the Mars 2020 contamination control team, handling samples, cataloging them and dropping them off for analysis. The Contamination Control Group determines cleaning methods and the allowable amount of microbial and particulate contamination for spacecraft so that they don't bring those contaminants to the places that they visit. For the Mars 2020 rover, this is an especially crucial step because it will be collecting samples that could potentially be returned to Earth one day. I kind of get to see what's going on behind the scenes of the mission, which an intern normally would not get the chance to do, so it's been a really rewarding experience.

Hopefully, when I graduate, I'll land a full-time job at JPL. Working with Laurie is great, and I feel like she would want to keep me here, but from talking to people higher up, they say if you want to be in the Science Division, you need a Ph.D., and I'm still debating whether I want to do a Ph.D. Perhaps I will in the future, but right now, I'm finishing up my master's thesis and my goal is just to get a full-time job. I find JPL to be so exciting regardless of what you're doing, so at this point, I don't care what it is. It'll still be part of a bigger picture. But it would be great if I could continue with the Mars 2020 mission as an engineer. Since I've lived in LA, I've always known of JPL. So I think this has always been my ultimate goal.

How have your various JPL internships influenced the evolution of your career path?

I started with chemical engineering [as an undergrad], but then I realized a lot of people in my field were going into the oil industry. I was like, "I kinda wanna save the planet, do environmental stuff." I only graduated three years ago, but even then, I didn't hear much about environmental science or environmental engineering as a major, so it wasn't really an option.

The reason why Laurie chose me as her intern was because of my chemistry background, which is pretty awesome because even though I studied engineering, I saw myself doing more lab work. Being here in the lab with Laurie has been amazing. It has solidified my thoughts that "Yes, this is what I want to do." I definitely like doing experiments, taking samples, running analyses and then inputting the data.

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[Before going to grad school], I started turning to a lot of the talks here, because I was like, "OK, maybe I could be more involved with astronomy, astrobiology – things like that." But I felt that a lot of the talks were over my head. But then when I would attend some talks that had to do with climate change or, for example, the new ECOSTRESS [Earth science mission], I was captivated and interested. So it confirmed that I want to stick to the environmental side. That's why, for my master's, I went into environmental science with an option in engineering.

What got you interested in science and engineering initially?

I've always really liked math, but I knew I couldn't just do a math major. I knew I wanted to do more. Growing up, my favorite types of movies were sci-fi, and I was definitely into outer space and astronomy. Knowing how things work was always a curiosity. Trying to know the unknown was what really drew me into science. And then for engineering, I just couldn't decide. I wanted to learn a little bit of everything. The whole reason why I chose engineering was that I couldn't choose one specific subject. With engineering, you need your math, your physics, you need your chemistry, you need some biology, depending on what kind of engineering you go into, but it encompasses everything.

Is anyone in your family involved in engineering or science?

No. I'm actually the middle child of five. My mom came here from Mexico. So we're all first-generation. But I was the first one to even graduate high school. My little brother is in college, and I'm pushing him, because I see my other brother, who is working overnight and overtime and always tired, and it's obviously something he didn't think he was going to end up doing. Also, my mom came here and she struggled a lot, and she's still struggling. As sad as it sounds, I don't want that to be me. So I had to push through. Luckily for me, I was always into school, so it wasn't that hard to keep going.

Going back to the research that you're doing, what's the ultimate goal, and what might it mean for the search for life beyond Earth?

So most of my experiments don't have to do with other planetary systems; they're more focused on Earth and the origins of life here. But we could take some of this knowledge and apply it to other planets. Our research is figuring out what happened here, first, and then applying it to other places. Our ultimate goal is to explore processes for the origin of life.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

Erika Flores demonstrates how to make a chemical garden

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Even if you do the smallest task, it still has to be done. Someone has to take these samples to get analyzed, someone has to drop these things off. But, personally, working with Laurie Barge and the origins of life, I feel like I've contributed a lot. We have one paper in review, and we're doing more experiments. Our research has implications for other celestial bodies, so I’m excited for us to learn more about Mars and Saturn's moon Enceladus so we can adjust our experiment to represent their environments. I have also been helping interns with their experiments. I don't think you can disregard anything you do here. I think everything is important, and you're always learning and teaching others. Whenever I meet students, I'm always saying, "Make sure you apply to JPL." It's a wonderful opportunity. I consider myself so lucky to still be here after all these years.

What's the most unique NASA or JPL experience you've had while you've been here?

Recently, my mentor has been hosting science happy hours. At school, it's not like you just go out and drink with your professor. [Laughs.] But the whole point of it was for her to introduce us to other people who are working in the science department. So going to these happy hours gives us a chance to talk and see what everyone is working on. It's all about collaborating. So, to me, that has been a bit of a unique experience.

Also, going to conferences. I've gone to maybe four or five. Meeting these people from all over the world is definitely a unique experience. It's crazy how we're all kind of working toward the same goal. Before I used to be very shy, more introverted, but meeting people from all over the world and knowing their stories and their background and how much we have in common, despite where we live, has gotten me to be more open. So that's helped me out in the whole networking aspect of things, which is very, very important when you're trying to get a job.

I really think this internship changed my personality. [Laughs.] I really do.

Last question, and it's a fun one: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

With the possibility of seeing humans on Mars within my lifetime, I have joked with my friends that I would love to die on Mars. But I wouldn't want to limit myself. So if possible, at an older age, I would keep traveling through space, passing by every celestial body imaginable. That would be an astonishing and beautiful sight. Once I felt like I had witnessed it all, I would travel straight into a black hole to witness what no one else ever has, the unknown.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

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

TAGS: Internships, Higher Education, College, STEM, Science, Engineering, Mars 2020

  • Kim Orr

Vicky Espinoza stands in front of an Earth science display at JPL

In the science world, publishing a paper is a big deal; it’s how scientists share their discoveries with the world. So it’s no small feat that Vicky Espinoza published her first science paper as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the paper, her team takes a look at the effects of climate change on global atmospheric rivers, which bring an onslaught of snow and rain to affected areas and have serious implications for people who live there. The Earth science student from the University of California, Merced, met with us this summer to share how she’s helping her team take the research further and what it’s like to be an intern at JPL.

What are you working on at JPL?

We're studying how atmospheric rivers – which are long jets of water vapor – move through the Earth system and identifying key physical properties that characterize their frequency and magnitude. We’re doing this by taking what we currently know about atmospheric rivers and contrasting it with “aqua planet” model simulations, changing one physical parameter at a time. An aqua planet is a theoretical planet that has the same dynamic and thermodynamic properties as Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, but with the continents removed. We’re also observing how climate change and these parameter changes combine to impact the physical characteristics, frequency and magnitude of atmospheric rivers in these aqua-planet scenarios.

Tell me more about atmospheric rivers and the impacts that they have on our climate.

There is a certain geometry to them that separates them from other storm types. They often tap moisture in the tropics and transport it toward the poles and into and across mid-latitudes. An important feature of them is that they often make landfall on the western coasts of continents – so the mountainous regions like the Sierras and the Andes. When the warm, moist air rises to cross the mountains, it cools down and precipitates out as either snow or rain, depending on the temperature. Just to give you a sense of how much water they can hold, a single atmospheric river can transport 25 Mississippi Rivers of water as water vapor. So the implications are that they can cause severe flooding, or in their absence, they can cause drought periods. So they're very important for water management, especially for regions like California that depend on precipitation for water.

Diagram showing the path and dynamics of atmospheric rivers

This graphic shows what happens when atmospheric rivers make landfall. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

You were the lead author on a science paper published recently on this topic.

Yes. It’s a global analysis of climate-change projection effects on atmospheric rivers. It was the first paper that performed such an analysis on atmospheric rivers on a global scale. My mentors, Bin Guan and Duane Waliser here at JPL, created an atmospheric-river detection algorithm, which we used to identify and compare atmospheric rivers globally. We found that with climate change, these atmospheric rivers will occur 10 percent less, but they will be 25 percent wider and stronger. Because the rivers will be more expansive, a given area will experience atmospheric-river conditions up to 50 percent more often despite there being fewer atmospheric river events. Also, the frequency of the strongest of these atmospheric rivers is going to double. It has so many implications for water managers and those living in atmospheric-river-prone regions who will need to start preparing or start thinking about the implications of these large storms.

Is this the first time that you've been an author on a paper?

Yes, it's the first time I've published a paper. My mentors made me first author, which was such a great experience. It was a lot of work. As a Ph.D. student now, it's fruitful to know what it means to be an author of a paper.

What did it mean for you to be able to publish a paper as an intern?

Just being so passionate about a topic, putting your hard work and soul into a paper and then seeing it become reality is – it's something different. I can't even describe it. It makes me feel like I've accomplished something.

What are you studying for your doctorate?

I'm taking a look at water management and sustainable water uses in agricultural regions in California.

Are you hoping to eventually work at JPL?

Yes. JPL has been a dream. I actually applied to JPL three times before I got an internship. I applied as an undergrad, and then during my master's I was, like, “Let me try one more time. Let's give it a go.”

It's been such a great experience to intern here. One of the things that I love about JPL is that everyone is so passionate and creative. It's like Disneyland for scientists. It's very motivating to meet people in line for coffee and be like, “Oh, you work on the Hubble Space Telescope? No big deal.” And they're just so grounded and so passionate, and everyone's willing to talk to you. So it's been a great experience.

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What's the most unique JPL or NASA experience that you've had?

I think the overall experience has been unique. I haven't been in a work environment where the majority of people are so happy to be here and everyone is just so passionate and driven.

What's a typical day like for you?

A typical day for me is behind the computer, so taking a lot of data and running it through a detection algorithm and running a statistical analysis on the data, creating figures and analyzing these atmospheric-river trends.

How do you think that what you're working on might help the average person one day?

Taking a look at this theoretical aqua planet, [a simulated version of Earth with the continents removed], and changing differing parameters of these atmospheric rivers is bringing fundamental insight into how they function, develop and move across the globe. I think that this work will inform citizens, stakeholders, policy makers and water managers on the future of California water.

What got you interested in science in the first place?

I feel like I've been doing science for a long time. My dad works in hydrology, so I've always been exposed to that. But I've always been someone very curious, especially about climate change. I started with air quality and how climate change is impacting the atmosphere. The atmosphere and ocean are connected in some ways, so I started exploring the ocean through an internship. Just being curious about our planet has led me to where I am now.

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I am a fan of rogue planets, or floating planets. There's an [Exoplanet Travel Bureau] poster that imagines them as planets where people would go dancing. I would want to go to a rogue planet just to figure out what it's like. They don't have a parent star, so they're just out there on their own and there's something so serene and somewhat romantic about that.

Learn more about how and why NASA is studying Earth on the agency's Global Climate Change website.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, College, Earth Science, Climate Change, Students, Science

  • Kim Orr

Lean Teodoro at JPL

When Lean Teodoro was growing up on the remote island of Saipan in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, her dream of one day working for NASA always seemed a bit far-fetched to those around her. Now, a geophysics student on the premed track at the University of Hawaii and a summer 2018 intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Teodoro is making her dream a reality. This summer, she took a short break from her internship searching for asteroids with NASA’s NEOWISE team to tell us about her career journey so far, what inspired her to study STEM and how she hopes to play a role in human space exploration of the future.

What are you working on at JPL?

I work with the NEOWISE team, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. My focus is on near-Earth asteroids. I do a lot of image analysis and processing. Not all of the time do asteroids get detected through our automated system, so my job is to look at archives to find previously undetected asteroids.

What is a near-Earth object and how do you look for them?

Near-Earth objects are objects [such as asteroids and comets] that are very near to Earth's orbit. There are other asteroids that are located roughly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but my focus is on those that are closer to Earth. The way that we detect them is we have this [space telescope called NEOWISE] that surveys the sky in two wavelengths. It senses the heat of asteroids. So I look at images from NEOWISE and, if I see a red dot that is bright, then that's usually an asteroid. But I go through several search techniques to see if the signal-to-noise ratio is good. So there are several processes that work.

NASA's asteroid-hunting NEOWISE mission uses infrared to detect and characterize asteroids and comets. Since the mission was restarted in December 2013, NEOWISE has observed or detected more than 29,000 asteroids in infrared light, of which 788 were near-Earth objects. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

What is the ultimate goal of the project?

My ultimate goal is to try to increase the number of known near-Earth objects so that, in the future, we can get more precise measurements for their positions and movements -- just in case they pose a risk to Earth.

What's an average day like for you?

I go through, I'd say, hundreds of images per day. I also took part in a side project where I had to get the measurements of an asteroid that was observed 39 years before it was officially discovered. We looked at this astronomical plate from the 1950s. You can see a very small arrow pointing to an asteroid. Positions for the asteroid hadn’t been discovered yet, so my job was also to find those. It had a lot to do with coding and I had very little experience with coding, so it was nice.

What other skills have you been able to pick up at JPL?

My major is geophysics, so I had little knowledge about astronomy. My whole research team exposed me to an exciting world of astronomy, so that was really nice. They were very encouraging. I've learned so much more about astronomy this summer than I did throughout my whole undergrad career. I mean, there is some connection between geophysics and astronomy, in a way, but this summer, I really learned so much.

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You grew up on the remote island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. How did you get exposed to STEM and what got interested in pursuing it as a career?

When I was young, my dad would always make us go fly kites at night on the beach. There was this one night where I was just looking at the Moon. I was like, "Oh my god, I really want to learn more about astronomy.” I think since then, I've been interested in STEM. But when you're coming from a really small island, you feel very limited. So I didn't have that strong foundation in STEM. And that's the reason why I wanted to move off the island -- because I knew that I couldn't get the opportunities if I stayed. That's the reason I moved to the University of Hawaii. They have a strong geology and geophysics program, and it's a great research university. Since I started there, I've been doing research related to NASA -- like the NASA Hawaii Space Grant Consortium. I feel like if I didn't move to the University of Hawaii, I wouldn't be where I am today, interning at JPL.

So you moved from one island to another?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I couldn't leave the island vibe, I guess. I think it's just a little closer to home. I feel more at home when I'm in Hawaii. Not only that, but also they have a great program, so that was a plus, too. And they have close affiliations with NASA, so that was really great, because my goal was to work for NASA.

Was it a challenge to move away from the island where you grew up?

It was definitely a challenge leaving family and friends behind. I was there on my own. The reason why I chose the University of Hawaii is because of their program. I had a really hard time choosing my major because I was interested in health, but I was interested in geology as well. I'm doing premed as well [as geology and geophysics]. I'm really interested in how humans or organisms can adapt to extreme environments and in learning about geology – for example on Mars – and health, and seeing how we can combine those two fields to contribute to future human space exploration.

JPL intern Lean Teodoro with her mentors

Teodoro's first mentor at the University of Hawaii, Heather Kaluna (middle), helped connect her with JPL scientist Joseph Masiero (left) for an internship at the laboratory. Photo courtesy Lean Teodoro | + Expand image

What do your family and people back home think of your career path?

It's so funny because I remember, in middle school, I would always tell my friends and family how I wanted to work for NASA, and they would laugh about it because I don't think anyone back home has ever done something big like that. Having them see me working here -- it just kind of opened their eyes, like, “Wow, it's possible,” you know? Most of the time, people back home just stay for financial reasons. It was really expensive moving to Hawaii. But I really wanted to do it. So here I am, and I'm so happy.

Did you know that we have a group of student teachers from the Northern Mariana Islands that has come to NASA’s MUREP Educator Institute at JPL the past couple summers?

Yeah! So three weeks ago, I was walking to my office, and I saw a few friends from back home. I was like, “Oh my god, what are you guys doing here?” We all went to the same high school and everything! They were telling me about that whole program. I was like, “Oh my god, I feel so happy. That's so great.” The chances -- it was mind-blowing. I'm so happy for them. I'm really excited for the future of Saipan and the whole Northern Mariana Islands.

What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you've had so far?

Of all the internships I've had in the past, JPL is really unique because everyone is just so passionate about the work that they do, so it really rubs off on you. Not only that, but also the intern community here is just amazing. And not only the interns, but also my mentors and the other scientists and engineers I've met. I've made so many friends throughout my summer here from all over the nation and all over the world, which is nice because I'm from this small island, and it just makes me realize how big the world is.

I feel like interning at JPL builds a foundation for me. And with my mentors here at JPL and in Hawaii, I do feel more confident in being a minority and a woman in STEM. I feel more driven to be successful and to inspire people from back home to go and pursue what they want to do. Don't let the confinements of your environment stop you from what you want to do.

What’s your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate goal is to try and contribute to future human space exploration. That's what I really want to do. I'm still trying to figure out how I can pave my path by combining health and geosciences. We'll see how it goes.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

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

TAGS: Internships, Higher Education, Science, Astronomy, Asteroids and Comets, NEOWISE

  • Kim Orr

Jasmine Cameron poses in the viewing gallery of the In-Situ Instruments Laboratory at JPL

There is still a lot of mystery around what exactly causes aurora, the swirling spectacles of light that grace Earth’s southern and northern high-latitude skies. So, this summer, Jasmine Cameron, a JPL intern and computer science major at Howard University, helped push aurora science further by developing an algorithm to detect the phenomena in video taken from a weather balloon. Fellow intern Evan Kramer caught up with Cameron to ask how learning about aurora might help the average person and what it’s like to work with NASA scientists and engineers.

What are you working on at JPL?

My project is in computer science. What we’re trying to do is image aurora, so your northern and southern lights, during the day time. A near-infrared camera goes up on a weather balloon and takes a video of the sky at up to 30 frames per second. It stores the collected data and sends back video containing auroras. What we want to do is develop an efficient, real-time algorithm based on machine learning technology that can identify frames with aurora in them so that we can collect science data about these phenomena. Our algorithm needs to give the scientists as many true-positives, or useful images with auroras in them, as possible so they can better understand what they are. It also needs to fit on the computer aboard the balloon so that it will be power efficient and high performance.

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How might understanding aurora help the average person one day?

Auroras are the result of a complicated interaction between the Sun and Earth. This interaction is a fundamental cosmic process that will affect space weather, which in turn will affect our daily life in terms of radiation exposure, satellite and radio communication, power systems, and so on. Studying aurora could help us better understand and forecast space weather.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I come in and check my email to see if my mentor has sent me any new data to process. Then I’ll get to work on algorithms I think would work as a detection system for identifying the presence of aurora in images. There are a lot of different machine-learning algorithms out there that we can test.

How does the algorithm work?

The algorithm is based on machine learning technology. You create a model with unknown parameters. You then take the data and set it up between training data and testing data. Your training data is a bunch of base images with aurora in them and defined parameters used to detect aurora. Then, you develop the algorithm to look for those parameters in your test data, and it will conclude if there is an aurora or not in each of the test images. Then, you use a validation directory with only true-positives to compare the images in your test data that were identified as having aurora in them to actual aurora images to see how well your algorithm is working. My job is to see what algorithm works the best in identifying aurora in the test images.

Jasmine Cameron sits at her computer at JPL

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Evan Kramer | + Expand image

Did you have to do any research or special preparation before you started on the project?

Yes, I had to read a lot, especially about the motivations behind why we’re doing this work and how we’re going to accomplish our goals. I had to read the technical documentation about different algorithms and different systems that are used to process the images and identify aurora. There’s definitely a lot of reading involved every day, and I frequently ask the people I work with questions.

What’s the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you’ve had so far?

I got to see different hardware and test beds and even mission control where they control the Deep Space Network, [a system of antennas around the world that are used to communicate with spacecraft]. That was really cool.

What about the people here? What’s the environment like at JPL?

Everybody is kind of a nerd. Usually when I’m talking about my internship experience to friends back home, I have to edit out things I’d normally say because most of them would find it boring, but here I’m frequently asked what I work on in a genuine way. I know I can always ask anyone anything about their project and for help on my own project. It’s a great environment and I’m learning a lot.

How do you feel you’re contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

Just being able to do this type of work on aurora detection – it has never been done before. Being able to contribute to making data collection and analysis more efficient makes scientists’ lives a lot easier and helps us learn more about these phenomena.

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

A black hole, just to see what happens. I’d want to see how destructive it is and how dark it is.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

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

TAGS: Internships, Interns, College, Students, Opportunities, Science, Careers

  • Evan Kramer

JPL intern Maya Yanez stands in front of the Jupiter display in the lab's museum

There’s no telling what the first spacecraft to land on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa could encounter – but this summer, JPL intern Maya Yanez is trying to find out. As part of a team designing the potential Europa Lander, a mission concept that would explore the Jovian moon to search for biosignatures of past or present life, Yanez is combing through images, models, analogs, anything she can find to characterize a spot that’s “less than a quarter of a pixel on the highest-resolution image we have of Europa.” We caught up with Yanez, an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to find out what inspired her to get involved in space exploration and ask about her career ambition to discover alien life.

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What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on what may be a robot that we would land on Europa's icy surface. Europa is a moon of Jupiter that has this thick ice shell that we estimate is 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] thick, and there’s evidence that underneath that is a huge global ocean. If we're going to find life beyond Earth, it's probably going to be wherever there's water. So this mission concept would be to put a lander on Europa to try to figure out if there are signs of life there. I’m looking at an area on Europa about two square meters [about 7 feet] and about a meter [3 feet] deep. For perspective, we've only explored a few kilometers into our own Earth's surface. What I'm doing is trying to figure out what we might expect is going on in that little tiny area on Europa. What light is interacting with it, what processes might be going on, what little micrometeorites are hitting the surface, what's the ice block distribution? I'm looking at places like Mars, the Moon and Earth to try to put constraints and understanding around what types of variation we might see on Europa and what might be going on underneath the surface.

What's an average day like for you?

A lot of it is looking up papers and trying to get an idea of what information exists about Europa. My first couple of weeks here, I read this thing that we call the "Big Europa Book.” It's a 700-page textbook that covers basically all of our knowledge of Europa.

One of the other things that I've been working on is a geologic map, trying to look at what geologic variation exists in a couple of meters on Europa because we don't know. It's kind of crazy to think that when Viking [the first Mars lander] landed, we had no clue what another surface would look like except for the Moon. We had no idea. And then we got those first amazing images and it looked kind of like Earth, except Europa probably won't look like Earth because it's not rock; it's all ice. So even though we're trying, we still have nothing to compare it to.

If it gets selected as an official mission, a Europa lander would come after NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. How might data from Europa Clipper contribute to what you're working on now?

Image of Europa acquired by Voyager 2 on July 9, 1979.

This image of Jupiter's moon Europa was acquired by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft on July 9, 1979, from a distance of about 240,000 kilometers (150,600 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Highest resolution image of Europa

This image is the most detailed view of Europa, obtained by NASA's Galileo mission on Dec. 16, 1997, at a distance of 560 kilometers (335 miles) from the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Europa Clipper could be really beneficial in that it's going to do more than 40 flybys where it goes around Europa in a bunch of different ways and at different proximities. It’s going to curve into the moon’s atmosphere and get really close to the surface, about 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] close to the surface. Right now, some of the best data we have is from hundreds of kilometers away, so the images Europa Clipper will take will be pretty nicely resolved. If you look at the current highest resolution image of Europa as compared to one from Voyager [which flew by Jupiter and its moons in 1979], the amount of detail that changes, the amount of cracks and complexity you can see on the surface is huge. So having more images like that can be really beneficial to figure out where we can land and where we should land.

Before this project, you spent a summer at JPL studying the chemistry of icy worlds, such as Pluto. What’s it been like working on such different projects and getting experience in fields outside your major, like chemistry and geology?

[Laughs] Yeah, one day I'll get back to astronomy. That's one of the things I love about JPL. Overall, I'd say what I want to do is astrobiology because I want to find life in the solar system. I mean, everyone does. It would be really cool to find out that there are aliens. But one of the great things about astrobiology is it takes chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy and all of these different sciences that you don't always mix together. And that's kind of why I like JPL. So much of the work involves an interdisciplinary approach.

What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you've had so far?

I have one from last summer and one from this summer.

I really want to find life out in space. I'm curious about bacteria and microbes and how they react in space, but it's not something I've ever really done work in. A couple of weeks ago, I got to see astronaut Kathleen Rubins give a talk, meet her afterward and take a picture with her. She was the first person to sequence DNA in space. I would have never met someone like that if it weren’t for my internship at JPL. I wouldn't have been able to go up to her and say, “This is really cool! I'd love to talk to you more and get your email” – and get an astronaut's email! Who would ever expect that?

And then last year, I had something happen that was completely unexpected. I was sitting alone in the lab, running an experiment and, throughout the summer, we had a couple of different tours come through. A scientist asked if he could bring in a tour. It was two high-school-age kids and, presumably, their moms. I showed them around and explained what my experiment was doing. It was great. It was a really good time. They left and a couple hours later, Mike Malaska, the scientist who was leading the tour, came back and said, “Thank you so much for doing that tour. Do you know the story of that one? I said no. He said, “Well the boy, he has cancer. This is his Make-a-Wish.” His Make-a-Wish was to tour JPL. I had never felt so grateful to be given the opportunity that I was given, to realize that someone’s wish before they may or may not die is to visit the place that I'm lucky enough to intern at. It was a very touching moment. It really made me happy to be at JPL.

What was your own personal inspiration for going into astronomy?

I was the nerdy kid. I had a telescope, but I also had a microscope. So it was destined. But in middle school, I started to get this emphasis on life sciences. I'd always really liked biology so I sort of clung to it. We never really talked about space, so I just kind of forgot about it. But my senior year, I took this really cool class in astrobiology taught by an amazing teacher, who I still talk to. After the first week in her class, I was like, I have to do this. At the end of the academic year, that same teacher took me to JPL and gave me a private tour with some of the other scientists. I actually met Morgan Cable, the mentor I worked with last summer and this summer, on that tour. It was definitely a combination of being in this really great class and having that perspective change, realizing that we’ve learned a lot about life on our own planet, but there's so much to learn about finding it elsewhere.

Did you know about JPL before that?

No. I'm the first generation in my family to go to college, so I'm the one who teaches science to everyone else. I didn't even think science was a career because, when you're a kid, you don't often interact with a lot with scientists. So I didn't realize what JPL was or how cool it was until that tour put everything into perspective. I wasn't a space kid, but I found my own path, and it worked.

JPL intern Maya Yanez live tweets from the JPL Watch Party for NASA's Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Yanez hosted a takeover of the @NASAJPL_Edu Twitter account during the NASA Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

For National Intern Day on July 26, NASA held a special town hall for interns with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Your question about how the agency prioritizes the search for extraterrestrial life was selected as a finalist to appear during the broadcast. What made you want to ask that particular question?

So it was a little self-serving [laughs]. Part of it is that it’s central to my career path, but I also want to run for office one day at some level, and I think it's important that there's this collaboration between science and politics. Without it, science doesn't get funded and politicians aren’t as well informed.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

What I'm doing requires a lot of reading and putting things together and knowing rocks and putting scales into perspective, so it's not particularly specialized work. But the end goal of my project will be a table that says here's what processes are happening on Europa, here's what depth they govern and here's what it means if biosignatures are caught in these processes. I'm also going to be remaking an old graphic, including more information and trying to better synthesize everything that we know about Europa. Those two products will continue to be used by anyone who’s thinking about landing on Europa, for anyone who’s thinking about what surface processes govern Europa. Those two products that I'm producing are going to be the best summaries that we have of what's going on there.

OK, so now for the fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Europa. Obviously [laughs]. Or [Saturn’s moon] Titan. Titan is pretty cool, but it scares me a little bit because there's definitely no oxygen. There's not a lot of oxygen on Europa, but what's there is oxygen. I would probably go to Europa and find some way to get through those 25 kilometers of ice, hit that ocean and see what's going on.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at:

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

TAGS: Internships, Interns, College, Students, STEM, Science, Engineering, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander

  • Kim Orr

Satellite images of the 2018 Carr and Ferguson wildfires in California

Update – August 8, 2018: This feature, originally published on August 23, 2016, has been updated to include information on 2018 fires and current fire research.

Once again, it’s fire season in the western United States with many citizens finding themselves shrouded in wildfire smoke. Late summer in the west brings heat, low humidity and wind – optimal conditions for fire. These critical conditions have resulted in the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest fire in California's recorded history. Burning concurrently in California are numerous other wildfires, including the Carr fire, the 12th largest in California history.

Because of their prevalence and effects on a wide population, wildfires will remain a seasonal teachable moment for decades to come. Follow these links to learn about NASA’s fire research and see images of current fires from space. Check out the information and lessons below to help students learn how NASA scientists use technology to monitor and learn about fires and their impacts.

In the News

You didn’t need to check social media, read the newspaper or watch the local news to know that California wildfires were making headlines this summer. Simply looking up at a smoke-filled sky was enough for millions of people in all parts of the state to know there was a fire nearby.

Satellite image of the 2014 King Fire in California

Wildfire Lessons

In these lessons, students play the role of NASA scientist to study the burn area and intensity of wildfires.

Fueled by high temperatures, low humidity, high winds and five years of vegetation-drying drought, more than 4,800 fires have engulfed 275,000-plus acres across California already this year. And the traditional fire season – the time of year when fires are more likely to start, spread and consume resources – has only just begun.

With wildfires starting earlier in the year and continuing to ignite throughout all seasons, fire season is now a year-round affair not just in California, but also around the world. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service found that fire seasons have grown longer in 25 percent of Earth's vegetation-covered areas.

For NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is located in Southern California, the fires cropping up near and far are a constant reminder that its efforts to study wildfires around the world from space, the air and on the ground are as important as ever.

JPL uses a suite of Earth satellites and airborne instruments to help better understand fires and aide in fire management and mitigation. By looking at multiple images and types of data from these instruments, scientists compare what a region looked like before, during and after a fire, as well as how long the area takes to recover.

Animation of the FireSat network of satellites capturing wildfires on Earth

This animation shows how FireSat would use a network of satellites around the Earth to detect fires faster than ever before. | + Expand image

While the fire is burning, scientists watch its behavior from an aerial perspective to get a big-picture view of the fire itself and the air pollution it is generating in the form of smoke filled with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Natasha Stavros, a wildfire expert at JPL, joined Zach Tane with the U.S. Forest Service during a Facebook Live event (viewable below) to discuss some of these technologies and how they're used to understand wildfire behavior and improve wildfire recovery.

Additionally, JPL is working with a startup in San Francisco called Quadra Pi R2E to develop FireSat, a global network of satellites designed to detect wildfires and alert firefighting crews faster. When completed in June 2018, the network's array of more than 200 satellites will use infrared sensors to detect fires around the world much faster than is possible today. Working 24 hours a day, the satellites will be able to automatically detect fires as small as 35 to 50 feet wide within 15 minutes of when they begin. And within three minutes of a fire being detected, the FireSat network will notify emergency responders in the area.

Using these technologies, NASA scientists are gaining a broader understanding of fires and their impacts.

Why It's Important

One of the ways we often hear wildfires classified is by how much area they have burned. Though this is certainly of some importance, of greater significance to fire scientists is the severity of the fire. Wildfires are classified as burning at different levels of severity: low, medium, and high. Severity is a function of intensity, or how hot the fire was, and its spread rate, or the speed at which it travels. A high-severity fire is going to do some real damage. (Severity is measured by the damage left after the fire, but can be estimated during a fire event by calculating spread rate and measuring flame height which indicates intensity.)

Google Earth image showing fire severity
This image, created using data imported into Google Earth, shows the severity of the 2014 King Fire. Green areas are unchanged by the fire; yellow equals low severity; orange equals moderate severity; and red equals high severity. A KMZ file with this data is available in the Fired Up Over Math lesson linked below. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/E. Natasha Stavros.

The impacts of wildfires range from the immediate and tangible to the delayed and less obvious. The potential for loss of life, property and natural areas is one of the first threats that wildfires pose. From a financial standpoint, fires can lead to a downturn in local economies due to loss of tourism and business, high costs related to infrastructure restoration, and impacts to federal and state budgets.

The release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide is also an important consideration when thinking about the impacts of wildfires. Using NASA satellite data, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that between 2001 and 2010, California wildfires emitted about 46 million tons of carbon, around five to seven percent of all carbon emitted by the state during that time period.

Animation showing Carbon Dioxide levels rising from the Station Fire in Southern California.
This animation from NASA's Eyes on the Earth visualization program shows carbon monoxide rising (red is the highest concentration) around Southern California as the Station Fire engulfed the area near JPL in 2009. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In California and the western United States, longer fire seasons are linked to changes in spring rains, vapor pressure and snowmelt – all of which have been connected to climate change. Wildfires serve as a climate feedback loop, meaning certain effects of wildfires – the release of CO2 and CO – contribute to climate change, thereby enhancing the factors that contribute to longer and stronger fire seasons.

While this may seem like a grim outlook, it’s worth noting that California forests still act as carbon sinks – natural environments that are capable of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In certain parts of the state, each hectare of redwood forest is able to store the annual greenhouse gas output of 500 Americans.

Studying and managing wildfires is important for maintaining resources, protecting people, properties and ecosystems, and reducing air pollution, which is why JPL, NASA and other agencies are continuing their study of these threats and developing technologies to better understand them.

Teach It

Have your students try their hands at solving some of the same fire-science problems that NASA scientists do with these two lessons that get students in grades 3 through 12 using NASA data, algebra and geometry to approximate burn areas, fire-spread rate and fire intensity:

Explore More

Lyle Tavernier was a co-author on this feature.

TAGS: teachable moments, wildfires, science

  • Ota Lutz