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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Using Light to Study Planets
Students build a spectrometer using basic materials as a model for how NASA uses spectroscopy to determine the nature of elements found on Earth and other planets.
Time > 2 hrs
- Lessons: Cool Cosmos Infrared Lessons
- Website: Cool Cosmos Infrared Primer
- Materials: Infrared Posters and Printouts
- Article: NASA Celebrates the Legacy of the Spitzer Space Telescope
- Website: Spitzer Space Telescope Mission
- Video: Spitzer Final Voyage VR 360
- Video: Science in a Minute: The Art of Spitzer Space Telescope
- Images: Spitzer Zoomable Images
- Participate: NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program
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
Whether discovering something about our own planet or phenomena billions of miles away, NASA missions and scientists unveiled a vast universe of mysteries this past decade. And with each daring landing, visit to a new world and journey into the unknown came new opportunities to inspire the next generation of explorers. Read on for a look at some of NASA's most teachable moments of the decade from missions studying Earth, the solar system and beyond. Plus, find out what's next in space exploration and how to continue engaging students into the 2020s with related lessons, activities and resources.
1. Earth's Changing Climate
Rising sea levels, shrinking ice caps, higher temperatures and extreme weather continued to impact our lives this past decade, making studying Earth’s changing climate more important than ever. During the 2010s, NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, led the way by adding new Earth-monitoring satellites to their fleets to measure soil moisture and study carbon dioxide levels. Meanwhile, satellites such as Terra and Aqua continued their work monitoring various aspects of the Earth system such as land cover, the atmosphere, wildfires, water, clouds and ice. NASA's airborne missions, such as Operation IceBridge, Airborne Snow Observatory and Oceans Melting Greenland, returned data on water movement, providing decision makers with more accurate data than ever before. But there's still more to be done in the future to understand the complex systems that make up Earth's climate and improve the scientific models that will help the world prepare for a warmer future. Using these missions and the science they're gathering as a jumping-off point, students can learn about the water cycle, build data-based scientific models and develop an understanding of Earth's energy systems.
- Climate lessons for educators
- Climate activities for students
- Climate articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA climate missions and science
2. Teachable Moments in the Sky
Astronomical events are a sure-fire way to engage students, and this past decade delivered with exciting solar and lunar eclipses that provided real-world lessons about the Sun, the Moon and lunar exploration. The total solar eclipse that crossed the U.S. in 2017 gave students a chance to learn about the dynamic interactions between the Sun and Moon, while brilliant lunar eclipses year after year provided students with lessons in lunar science. There's more to look forward to in the decade ahead as another solar eclipse comes to the U.S. in 2024 – one of nine total solar eclipses around the world in the 2020s. There will be 10 total lunar eclipses in the 2020s, but observing the Moon at any time provides a great opportunity to study celestial patterns and inspire future explorers. Using the lessons below, students can develop and study models to understand the size and scale of the Earth-Moon system, predict future Moon phases and engage in engineering challenges to solve problems that will be faced by future explorers on the Moon!
- Moon lessons for educators
- Moon activities for students
- Moon articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Moon missions and science
3. Missions to Mars
The past decade showed us the Red Planet in a whole new light. We discovered evidence that suggests Mars could have once supported ancient life, and we developed a better understanding of how the planet lost much of its atmosphere and surface water. The Opportunity rover continued exploring long past its expected lifespan of 90 days as NASA sent a larger, more technologically advanced rover, Curiosity, to take the next steps in understanding the planet's ability to support life. (Opportunity's nearly 15-year mission succumbed to the elements in 2019 after a global dust storm engulfed Mars, blocking the critical sunlight the rover needed to stay powered.) The InSight lander touched down in 2018 to begin exploring interior features of the Red Planet, including marsquakes, while high above, long-lived spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey were joined by NASA's MAVEN Orbiter, and missions from the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization. The next decade on Mars will get a kick-start with the July launch of the souped-up Mars 2020 rover, which will look for signs of ancient life and begin collecting samples designed to one day be returned to Earth. Mars provides students with countless opportunities to do some of the same engineering as the folks at NASA and design ideas for future Mars exploration. They can also use Mars as a basis for coding activities, real-world math, and lessons in biology and geology.
- Mars lessons for educators
- Mars activities for students
- Mars articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Mars missions and science
4. Ocean Worlds and the Search for Life
This decade marked the final half of the Cassini spacecraft's 13-year mission at Saturn, during which it made countless discoveries about the planet, its rings and its fascinating moons. Some of the most exciting findings highlighted new frontiers in our search for life beyond Earth. Cassini spotted geysers erupting from cracks in the icy shell of Saturn's moon Enceladus, suggesting the presence of an ocean below. At the moon Titan, the spacecraft peered through the hazy atmosphere to discover an Earth-like hydrologic cycle in which liquid methane and ethane take the place of water. Meanwhile, evidence for another ocean world came to light when the Hubble Space Telescope spotted what appear to be geysers erupting from the icy shell surrounding Jupiter's moon Europa. NASA is currently developing Europa Clipper, a mission that will explore the icy moon of Jupiter to reveal even more about the fascinating world. For students, these discoveries and the moons themselves provide opportunities to build scientific models and improve them as they learn more information. Students can also use math to calculate physical properties of moons throughout the solar system and identify the characteristics that define life as we know it.
- Ocean worlds lessons for educators
- Ocean worlds activities for students
- Ocean worlds articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Solar System missions and science
5. Asteroids, Comets and Dwarf Planets, Oh My!
The past decade was a big deal for small objects in space. NASA's Dawn mission started 2010 as a new arrival in the main asteroid belt. The next eight years saw Dawn explore the two largest objects in the asteroid belt, the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. On its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, ESA's Rosetta mission (with contributions from NASA) flew by the asteroid Luticia in 2010. After more than two years at its destination – during which time it measured comet properties, captured breathtaking photos and deposited a lander on the comet – Rosetta's mission ended in dramatic fashion in 2016 when it touched down on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In 2013, as scientists around the world eagerly anticipated the near-Earth flyby of asteroid Duende, residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia, got a surprising mid-morning wake-up call when a small, previously undetected asteroid entered the atmosphere, burned as a bright fireball and disintegrated. The team from NASA's OSIRIS-Rex mission wrapped up the decade and set the stage for discoveries in 2020 by selecting the site that the spacecraft will visit in the new year to collect a sample of asteroid Bennu for eventual return to Earth. And in 2022, NASA's Psyche mission will launch for a rendezvous with a type of object never before explored up close: a metal asteroid. The small objects in our solar system present students with chances to explore the composition of comets, use math to calculate properties such as volume, density and kinetic energy of asteroids, and use Newton's Laws in real-world applications, such as spacecraft acceleration.
- Small objects lessons for educators
- Small objects activities for students
- Learn more about NASA Solar System missions and science
6. Uncovering Pluto's Mysteries
In 2015, after nearly a decade of travel, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto for its planned flyby and became the first spacecraft to visit the dwarf planet and its moons. The images and scientific data the spacecraft returned brought into focus a complex and dynamic world, including seas of ice and mountain ranges. And there's still more left to explore. But New Horizons' journey is far from over. After its flyby of Pluto, the spacecraft continued deep into the Kuiper Belt, the band of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. In 2019, the spacecraft flew by a snowman-shaped object later named Arrokoth. In the 2020s, New Horizons will continue studying distant Kuiper Belt objects to better understand their physical properties and the region they call home. The new information gathered from the Pluto and Arrokoth flybys provides students with real-life examples of the ways in which scientific understanding changes as additional data is collected and gives them a chance to engage with the data themselves. At the same time, New Horizons' long-distance voyage through the Solar System serves as a good launchpad for discussions of solar system size and scale.
- Pluto lessons for educators
- Pluto activities for students
- Pluto articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA Solar System missions and science
7. The Voyagers' Journey Into Interstellar Space
In 1977, two spacecraft left Earth on a journey to explore the outer planets. In the 2010s, decades after their prime mission ended, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 made history by becoming the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space – the region beyond the influence of solar wind from our Sun. The Voyager spacecraft are expected to continue operating into the 2020s, until their fuel and power run out. In the meantime, they will continue sending data back to Earth, shaping our understanding of the structure of the solar system and interstellar space. The Voyagers can help engage students as they learn about and model the structure of the solar system and use math to understand the challenges of communicating with spacecraft so far away.
- Voyager lessons for educators
- Voyager activities for students
- Voyager articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA's Voyager mission
8. The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System
It was only a few decades ago that the first planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, were discovered. The 2010s saw the number of known exoplanets skyrocket in large part thanks to the Kepler mission. A space telescope designed to seek out Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone – the region around a star where liquid water could exist – Kepler was used to discover more than 2,600 exoplanets. Discoveries from other observatories and amateur astronomers added to the count, now at more than 4,100. In one of the most momentous exoplanet findings of the decade, the Spitzer telescope discovered that the TRAPPIST-1 system, first thought to have three exoplanets, actually had seven – three of which were in the star’s habitable zone. With thousands of candidates discovered by Kepler waiting to be confirmed as exoplanets and NASA's latest space telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, surveying the entire sky, the 2020s promise to be a decade filled with exoplanet science. And we may not have to wait long for exciting new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021. Exoplanets are a great way to get students exploring concepts in science and mathematics. In the lessons linked to below, students use math to find the size and orbital period of planets, learn how scientists are using spectrometry to determine what makes up exoplanet atmospheres and more.
- Exoplanets lessons for educators
- Exoplanets activities for students
- Exoplanets articles from NASA/JPL Edu
- Learn more about NASA exoplanet missions and science
9. Shining a Light on Black Holes
Even from millions and billions of light-years away, black holes made big news in the 2010s. First, a collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away sent gravitational waves across the universe that finally reached Earth in 2015, where the waves were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. This was the first detection of gravitational waves in history and confirmed a prediction Einstein made 100 years earlier in his Theory of General Relativity. Then, in 2019, a team of researchers working on the Event Horizon Telescope project announced they had taken the first image capturing the silhouette of a black hole. To take the historic image of the supermassive black hole (named M87* after its location at the center of the M87 galaxy), the team had to create a virtual telescope as large as Earth itself. In addition to capturing the world's attention, the image gave scientists new information about scientific concepts and measurements they had only been able to theorize about in the past. The innovations that led to these discoveries are changing the way scientists can study black holes and how they interact with the space around them. More revelations are likely in the years ahead as scientists continue to analyze the data from these projects. For students, black holes and gravitational waves provide a basis for developing and modifying scientific models. Since they are a topic of immense interest to students, they can also be used to encourage independent research.
- Black hole lessons for educators
- Black hole activities for students
- Black hole articles from NASA/JPL Edu
In the News
Accomplishing what was previously thought to be impossible, a team of international astronomers has captured an image of a black hole’s silhouette. Evidence of the existence of black holes – mysterious places in space where nothing, not even light, can escape – has existed for quite some time, and astronomers have long observed the effects on the surroundings of these phenomena. In the popular imagination, it was thought that capturing an image of a black hole was impossible because an image of something from which no light can escape would appear completely black. For scientists, the challenge was how, from thousands or even millions of light-years away, to capture an image of the hot, glowing gas falling into a black hole. An ambitious team of international astronomers and computer scientists has managed to accomplish both. Working for well over a decade to achieve the feat, the team improved upon an existing radio astronomy technique for high-resolution imaging and used it to detect the silhouette of a black hole – outlined by the glowing gas that surrounds its event horizon, the precipice beyond which light cannot escape. Learning about these mysterious structures can help students understand gravity and the dynamic nature of our universe, all while sharpening their math skills.
How They Did It
Though scientists had theorized they could image black holes by capturing their silhouettes against their glowing surroundings, the ability to image an object so distant still eluded them. A team formed to take on the challenge, creating a network of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope, or the EHT. They set out to capture an image of a black hole by improving upon a technique that allows for the imaging of far-away objects, known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry, or VLBI.
Telescopes of all types are used to see distant objects. The larger the diameter, or aperture, of the telescope, the greater its ability to gather more light and the higher its resolution (or ability to image fine details). To see details in objects that are far away and appear small and dim from Earth, we need to gather as much light as possible with very high resolution, so we need to use a telescope with a large aperture.
That’s why the VLBI technique was essential to capturing the black hole image. VLBI works by creating an array of smaller telescopes that can be synchronized to focus on the same object at the same time and act as a giant virtual telescope. In some cases, the smaller telescopes are also an array of multiple telescopes. This technique has been used to track spacecraft and to image distant cosmic radio sources, such as quasars.
The aperture of a giant virtual telescope such as the Event Horizon Telescope is as large as the distance between the two farthest-apart telescope stations – for the EHT, those two stations are at the South Pole and in Spain, creating an aperture that’s nearly the same as the diameter of Earth. Each telescope in the array focuses on the target, in this case the black hole, and collects data from its location on Earth, providing a portion of the EHT’s full view. The more telescopes in the array that are widely spaced, the better the image resolution.
To test VLBI for imaging a black hole and a number of computer algorithms for sorting and synchronizing data, the Event Horizon Telescope team decided on two targets, each offering unique challenges.
The closest supermassive black hole to Earth, Sagittarius A*, interested the team because it is in our galactic backyard – at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, 26,000 light-years (156 quadrillion miles) away. (An asterisk is the astronomical standard for denoting a black hole.) Though not the only black hole in our galaxy, it is the black hole that appears largest from Earth. But its location in the same galaxy as Earth meant the team would have to look through “pollution” caused by stars and dust to image it, meaning there would be more data to filter out when processing the image. Nevertheless, because of the black hole’s local interest and relatively large size, the EHT team chose Sagittarius A* as one of its two targets.
The second target was the supermassive black hole M87*. One of the largest known supermassive black holes, M87* is located at the center of the gargantuan elliptical galaxy Messier 87, or M87, 53 million light-years (318 quintillion miles) away. Substantially more massive than Sagittarius A*, which contains 4 million solar masses, M87* contains 6.5 billion solar masses. One solar mass is equivalent to the mass of our Sun, approximately 2x10^30 kilograms. In addition to its size, M87* interested scientists because, unlike Sagittarius A*, it is an active black hole, with matter falling into it and spewing out in the form of jets of particles that are accelerated to velocities near the speed of light. But its distance made it even more of a challenge to capture than the relatively local Sagittarius A*. As described by Katie Bouman, a computer scientist with the EHT who led development of one of the algorithms used to sort telescope data during the processing of the historic image, it’s akin to capturing an image of an orange on the surface of the Moon.
By 2017, the EHT was a collaboration of eight sites around the world – and more have been added since then. Before the team could begin collecting data, they had to find a time when the weather was likely to be conducive to telescope viewing at every location. For M87*, the team tried for good weather in April 2017 and, of the 10 days chosen for observation, a whopping four days were clear at all eight sites!
Each telescope used for the EHT had to be highly synchronized with the others to within a fraction of a millimeter using an atomic clock locked onto a GPS time standard. This degree of precision makes the EHT capable of resolving objects about 4,000 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope. As each telescope acquired data from the target black hole, the digitized data and time stamp were recorded on computer disk media. Gathering data for four days around the world gave the team a substantial amount of data to process. The recorded media were then physically transported to a central location because the amount of data, around 5 petabytes, exceeds what the current internet speeds can handle. At this central location, data from all eight sites were synchronized using the time stamps and combined to create a composite set of images, revealing the never-before-seen silhouette of M87*’s event horizon. The team is also working on generating an image of Sagittarius A* from additional observations made by the EHT.
As more telescopes are added and the rotation of Earth is factored in, more of the image can be resolved, and we can expect future images to be higher resolution. But we might never have a complete picture, as Katie Bouman explains here (under “Imaging a Black Hole”).
To complement the EHT findings, several NASA spacecraft were part of a large effort to observe the black hole using different wavelengths of light. As part of this effort, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory space telescope missions – all designed to detect different varieties of X-ray light – turned their gaze to the M87 black hole around the same time as the EHT in April 2017. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was also watching for changes in gamma-ray light from M87* during the EHT observations. If the EHT observed changes in the structure of the black hole’s environment, data from these missions and other telescopes could be used to help figure out what was going on.
Though NASA observations did not directly trace out the historic image, astronomers used data from Chandra and NuSTAR satellites to measure the X-ray brightness of M87*’s jet. Scientists used this information to compare their models of the jet and disk around the black hole with the EHT observations. Other insights may come as researchers continue to pore over these data.
Why It's Important
Learning about mysterious structures in the universe provides insight into physics and allows us to test observation methods and theories, such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Massive objects deform spacetime in their vicinity, and although the theory of general relativity has directly been proven accurate for smaller-mass objects, such as Earth and the Sun, the theory has not yet been directly proven for black holes and other regions containing dense matter.
One of the main results of the EHT black hole imaging project is a more direct calculation of a black hole’s mass than ever before. Using the EHT, scientists were able to directly observe and measure the radius of M87*’s event horizon, or its Schwarzschild radius, and compute the black hole’s mass. That estimate was close to the one derived from a method that uses the motion of orbiting stars – thus validating it as a method of mass estimation.
The size and shape of a black hole, which depend on its mass and spin, can be predicted from general relativity equations. General relativity predicts that this silhouette would be roughly circular, but other theories of gravity predict slightly different shapes. The image of M87* shows a circular silhouette, thus lending credibility to Einstein’s theory of general relativity near black holes.
The data also offer some insight into the formation and behavior of black hole structures, such as the accretion disk that feeds matter into the black hole and plasma jets that emanate from its center. Scientists have hypothesized about how an accretion disk forms, but they’ve never been able to test their theories with direct observation until now. Scientists are also curious about the mechanism by which some supermassive black holes emit enormous jets of particles traveling at near light-speed.
These questions and others will be answered as more data is acquired by the EHT and synthesized in computer algorithms. Be sure to stay tuned for that and the next expected image of a black hole – our Milky Way’s own Sagittarius A*.
Capture your students’ enthusiasm about black holes by challenging them to solve these standards-aligned math problems.
Model black-hole interaction with this NGSS-aligned lesson:
Dropping In With Gravitational Waves
Students develop a model to represent gravitational waves and their propagation through spacetime.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Video: What Is a Black Hole?
Find out how what a black hole is, how they can form and why they are so cool!
Black Holes: By the Numbers
What are black holes and how do they form?
How Do We See Dark Matter?
Students will make observations of two containers and identify differences in content, justify their claims and make comparisons to dark matter observations.
Time < 30 mins
Teachable Moment: Modeling Gravitational Waves
Find out how researchers proved part of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, then create a model of the Nobel Prize-winning experiment in the classroom.
Check out these related resources for students from NASA’s Space Place
- What is a Black Hole?
- Game: Black Hole Rescue!
- If the Sun Became a Black Hole, Would Earth Get Pulled Inside?
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.
- Earth Observatory fire images
- Image: "Carr Fire and Mendocino Complex"
- Image: "Smoke Plumes Tower Over California"
- JPL News: "NASA’s MISR Views Raging Fires in California"
- NASA Climate Change News: "Local Winds Play a Key Role in Some Megafires
- NASA Climate Change News: "Studying Weather to Help See the Likelihood of Fires"
In the NewsYou 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
Fired Up Over Math: Studying Wildfires from Space
Students learn how scientists assess wildfires using remote sensing and solve related math problems, appropriate for various grade levels.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Pixels on Fire
Students use mobile devices and computers to learn about remote sensing and satellite data to determine when and where wildfires have started.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
- NASA/JPL FireSat Press Release
- SciJinks: Can Meteorologists Help Fight Wildfires?
- Soberanes Fire: Image Captured by NASA's Terra Spacecraft
- Let's Clear the Air: The Danger of Forest Fire Smoke to Firefighters
Lyle Tavernier was a co-author on this feature.
In the News
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1. The small, pencil-shaped satellite did more than launch the U.S. into the Space Age. With its collection of instruments, or scientific tools, it turned space into not just a new frontier, but also a place of boundless scientific exploration that could eventually unveil secrets of new worlds – as well as the mysteries of our own planet.
How They Did It
At the height of competition for access to space, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were both building satellites that would ride atop rockets in a quest to orbit Earth. The Soviets launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. Shortly thereafter, on January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched Explorer 1, the satellite that would begin a new age of scientific space exploration.
Using rockets to do science from orbit was a brand-new option in the late 1950s. Before this time, rockets had only been used for military operations and atmospheric research. Still, rockets of that era weren’t very reliable and none had been powerful enough to place an object into Earth orbit.
Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons for grades K-9.
In order to lift Explorer 1 to its destination in Earth orbit, an existing U.S. Army rocket, the Jupiter C, was fitted with a fourth stage, provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. For this stage, a rocket motor was integrated into the satellite itself. The new, four-stage rocket was called “Juno 1.”
Prior to these first orbiting observatories, everything we knew about space and Earth came from Earth-based observation platforms – sensors and telescopes – and a few atmospheric sounding rockets. With the success of Explorer 1 and the subsequent development of more powerful rockets, we have been able to send satellites beyond Earth orbit to explore planets, moons, asteroids and even our Sun. With a space-based view of Earth, we are able to gain a global perspective and acquire a wide variety and amount of data at a rapid pace.
Why It’s Important
The primary science instrument on Explorer 1 was a cosmic ray detector designed to measure the radiation environment in Earth orbit – in part, to understand what hazards future spacecraft (or space-faring humans) might face. Once in space, this experiment, provided by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, revealed a much lower cosmic ray count than expected. Van Allen theorized that the instrument might have been saturated by very strong radiation from a belt of charged particles trapped in space by Earth's magnetic field. The existence of the radiation belts was confirmed over the next few months by Explorer 3, Pioneer 3 and Explorer 4. The belts became known as the Van Allen radiation belts in honor of their discoverer.
Although we discovered and learned a bit about the Van Allen belts with the Explorer missions, they remain a source of scientific interest. The radiation belts are two (or more) donut-shaped regions encircling Earth, where high-energy particles, mostly electrons and ions, are trapped by Earth's magnetic field. The belts shrink and swell in size in response to incoming radiation from the Sun. They protect Earth from incoming high-energy particles, but this trapped radiation can affect the performance and reliability of our technologies, such as cellphone communication, and pose a threat to astronauts and spacecraft. It’s not safe to spend a lot of time inside the Van Allen radiation belts.
Most spacecraft are not designed to withstand high levels of particle radiation and wouldn’t last a day in the Van Allen belts. As a result, most spacecraft travel quickly through the belts toward their destinations, and non-essential instruments are turned off for protection during this brief time.
To conquer the challenge of extreme radiation in the belts while continuing the science begun by Explorer 1, NASA launched a pair of radiation-shielded satellites, the Van Allen Probes, in 2012. (The rocket that carried the Van Allen Probes into space was more than twice as tall as the rocket that carried Explorer 1 to orbit!)
The Van Allen Probes carry identical instruments and orbit Earth, following one another in highly elliptical, nearly identical orbits. These orbits bring the probes as close as about 300 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, and take them as far out as about 19,420 miles (31,250 kilometers), traveling through diverse areas of the belts. By comparing observations from both spacecraft, scientists can distinguish between events that occur simultaneously throughout the belts, those that happen at only a single point in space, and those that move from one point to another over time.
The Van Allen Probes carry on the work begun by Explorer 1 and, like all successful space missions, are providing answers as well as provoking more questions. NASA continues to explore Earth and space using spacecraft launched aboard a variety of rockets designed to place these observatories in just the right spots to return data that will answer and inspire questions for years to come.
- *NEW* Build a Satellite (Grades 5-8) – Students will use the engineering design process to design, build, test and improve a model satellite intended to investigate the surface of a planet.
- Rocket Lessons and Activities (Grades K-9) – Use these exciting lessons to help your students experience the thrill of building their own rockets using the engineering design process!
- Earth Science Lessons and Activities (Grades K-12) – Use these lessons to engage your students in studying Earth from space!
- Build Your Own Space Mission – Have younger students play this game to place instruments aboard a spacecraft and launch it into space!
- Download the GLOBE Observer app and have students be citizen scientists in support of NASA Earth science missions! Learn more about how to participate.
Update – Sept. 11, 2017: This feature (originally published on April 25, 2017) has been updated to reflect Cassini's current mission status, as well as new lessons and activities.
- Visit the Cassini website's Grand Finale Toolkit for a timeline, resources and more information about the final phase of the mission.
- Follow along with NASA via live stream during the Grand Finale on September 15 and in the days leading up to the event. Programming begins on September 13 at 10 a.m. PDT.
- Get the latest news and updates for the Cassini mission on the JPL News website.
- Explore these standards-aligned lessons and out-of-school activities to bring the wonder of NASA's Cassini mission and science at Saturn to students.
In the News
After almost 20 years in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun the final chapter of its remarkable story of exploration. This last phase of the mission has delivered unprecedented views of Saturn and taken Cassini where no spacecraft has been before – all the way between the planet and its rings. On Friday, Sept. 15 Cassini will perform its Grand Finale: a farewell dive into Saturn’s atmosphere to protect the environments of Saturn’s moons, including the potentially habitable Enceladus.
Lessons All About Saturn
Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons about NASA's Cassini mission.
How It Works
On April 22, Cassini flew within 608 miles (979 km) of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, using the moon’s gravity to place the spacecraft on its path for the ring-gap orbits. Without this gravity assist from Titan, the daring, science-rich mission ending would not be possible.
Cassini is almost out of the propellant that fuels its main engine, which is used to make large course adjustments. A course adjustment requires energy. Because the spacecraft does not have enough rocket fuel on board, Cassini engineers have used an external energy source to set the spacecraft on its new trajectory: the gravity of Saturn’s moon Titan. (The engineers have often used Titan to make major shifts in Cassini’s flight plan.)
Titan is a massive moon and thus has a significant amount of gravity. As Cassini comes near Titan, the spacecraft is affected by this gravity – and can use it to its advantage. Often referred to as a “slingshot maneuver,” a gravity assist is a powerful tool, which uses the gravity of another body to speed up, slow down or otherwise alter the orbital path of a spacecraft.
When Cassini passed close by Titan on April 22, the moon’s gravity pulled strongly on the spacecraft. The flyby gave Cassini a change in velocity of about 1,800 mph (800 meters per second) that sent the spacecraft into its first of the ring-gap orbits on April 23. On April 26, Cassini made its first of 22 daring plunges between the planet and its mighty rings.
As Kepler’s third law indicates, Cassini traveled faster than ever before during these final smaller orbits. Cassini's orbit continued to cross the orbit of Titan during these ring-gap orbits. And every couple of orbits, Titan passed near enough to give the spacecraft a nudge. One last nudge occured on September 11, placing the spacecraft on its final, half-orbit, impact trajectory toward Saturn.
Because a few hardy microbes from Earth might have survived onboard Cassini all these years, NASA has chosen to safely dispose of the spacecraft in the atmosphere of Saturn to avoid the possibility of Cassini someday colliding with and contaminating moons such as Enceladus and Titan that may hold the potential for life. Cassini will continue to send back science measurements as long as it is able to transmit during its final dive into Saturn.
Why It’s Important
Flying closer than ever before to Saturn and its rings has provided an unprecedented opportunity for science. During these orbits, Cassini’s cameras have captured ultra-close images of the planet’s clouds and the mysterious north polar hexagon, helping us to learn more about Saturn’s atmosphere and turbulent storms.
The cameras have been taking high-resolution images of the rings, and to improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, Cassini has also been conducting gravitational measurements. Cassini's particle detectors have sampled icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field. Data and images from these observations are helping bring us closer to understanding the origins of Saturn’s massive ring system.
Cassini has also been making detailed maps of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields to reveal how the planet is structured internally, which could help solve the great mystery of just how fast Saturn is rotating.
On its first pass through the unexplored 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) space between the rings and the planet, Cassini was oriented so that its high-gain antenna faced forward, shielding the delicate scientific instruments from potential impacts by ring particles. After this first ring crossing informed scientists about the low number of particles at that particular point in the gap, the spacecraft was oriented differently for the next four orbits, providing the science instruments unique observing angles. For ring crossings 6, 7 and 12, the spacecraft was again oriented so that its high-gain antenna faced forward.
Fittingly, Cassini's final moments will be spent doing what it does best, returning data on never-before-observed regions of the Saturnian system. On September 15, just hours before Cassini enters Saturn's atmosphere for its Grand Finale dive, it will collect and transmit its final images back to Earth. During its fateful dive, Cassini will be sending home new data in real time informing us about Saturn’s atmospheric composition. It's our last chance to gather intimate data about Saturn and its rings – until another spacecraft journeys to this distant planet.
Explore the many discoveries made by Cassini and the story of the mission on the Cassini website.
Use these standards-aligned lessons to get your students excited about the science we have learned and have yet to learn about the Saturnian system.
- NEW! Activity Collection: Jewel of the Solar System – Explore Saturn and the Cassini mission with this eight-part series of activities targeting after-school settings.
- Jewel of the Solar System Activity Guide
- What Do I See When I Picture Saturn?
- Where Are We in the Solar System?
- Discovering Saturn: The Real "Lord of the Rings"
- Saturn's Fascinating Features
- My Spacecraft to Saturn
- All About Titan and Huygens Probe
- Drop Zone! Design and Test a Probe
- Celebrating Saturn and Cassini
- Cassini Lessons for Educators
- Cassini Activities for Students
- Cassini Mission Website
- Cassini Grand Finale Toolkit
- Cassini Mission Overview
- Interactive Cassini Mission Timeline
- Video: NASA VR: Cassini's Grand Finale (360 Video)
- Slideshow for Students (includes a free poster!): 8 Real World Space Facts About Saturn's Moon Enceladus
- Slideshow for Students (includes a free poster!): Ocean Worlds
- Explore the Cassini Spacecraft in 3-D
- The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-book)
In the News
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of the world’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2. Four decades ago, they embarked on an ambitious mission to explore the giant outer planets, the two outermost of which had never been visited. And since completing their flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in 1989, they have been journeying toward the farthest reaches of our solar system – where no spacecraft has been before. These two intrepid spacecraft continue to return data to NASA daily, offering a window into the mysterious outer realms of our solar system and beyond.
How They Did It
The Voyager spacecraft were launched during a very short window that took advantage of a unique alignment of the four giant outer planets – one that would not occur again for another 176 years. (Try this lesson in calculating launch windows to get an idea of how it was done.) Launching at this point in time enabled the spacecraft to fly by all four planets in a single journey, returning never-before-seen, close-up images and scientific data from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune that greatly contributed to our current understanding of these planets and the solar system.
Why It’s Important
These images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (clockwise from top) were taken by Voyager 1 and 2 as the spacecraft journeyed through the solar system. See a gallery of images that Voyager took on the Voyager website. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In addition to shaping our understanding of the outer planets, the Voyager spacecraft are helping us learn more about the space beyond the planets – the outer region of our solar system. After completing their “grand tour” of the outer planets, the Voyagers continued on an extended mission to the outer solar system. They are now more than 10 billion miles from Earth, exploring the boundary region between our planetary system and what’s called interstellar space.
The beginning of interstellar space is where the constant flow of material from the Sun and its magnetic field stop influencing the surroundings. Most of the Sun’s influence is contained within the heliosphere, a bubble created by the Sun and limited by forces in interstellar space. (Note that the heliosphere doesn’t actually look like a sphere when it travels through space; it’s more of a blunt sphere with a tail.) The outer edge of the heliosphere, before interstellar space, is a boundary region called the heliopause. The heliopause is the outermost boundary of the solar wind, a stream of electrically charged atoms, composed primarily of ionized hydrogen, that stream outward from the Sun. Our planetary system lies inside the bubble of the heliosphere, bordered by the heliopause and surrounded by interstellar space.
Though we’ve learned a lot about the heliopause thanks to the Voyager spacecraft, its thickness and variation are still key unanswered questions in space physics. As the Voyagers continue their journey, scientists hope to learn more about the location and properties of the heliopause.
From their unique vantage points – Voyager 1 in the northern hemisphere and Voyager 2 in the southern hemisphere – the spacecraft have already detected differences and asymmetries in the solar wind termination shock, where the wind abruptly slows as it approaches the heliopause. For example, Voyager 2 crossed the termination shock at a distance of about 83.7 AU in the southern hemisphere. (One AU, or astronomical unit, is equal to 150 kilometers (93 million miles), the distance between Earth and the Sun.) That’s about 10 AU closer to the Sun than where Voyager 1 crossed the shock in the north. As shown in this diagram, Voyager 1 traveled through the compressed “nose” of the termination shock and Voyager 2 is expected to travel through the flank of the termination shock.
With four remaining powered instruments on Voyager 1 and five remaining powered instruments on Voyager 2, the two spacecraft continue to collect science data comparing their two distinct locations at the far reaches of the solar system.
In August 2012, Voyager 1 detected a dramatic increase in galactic cosmic rays (as shown in this animated chart). The increase, which has continued to the current peak, was associated with the spacecraft's crossing into interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Since it launched from Earth in 1977, Voyager 1 has been using an instrument to measure high-energy, dangerous particles traveling through space called galactic cosmic rays. While studying the interaction between the bubble of the heliosphere and interstellar space, Voyager 1 revealed that the heliosphere is functioning as a radiation shield, protecting our planetary system from most of these galactic cosmic rays. So in August 2012, when Voyager 1 detected a dramatic increase in the rays, which has continued to the current peak, it was associated with the spacecraft’s crossing into interstellar space.
Meanwhile, Voyager 2 – which is still in the heliosheath, the outermost layer of the heliosphere between the shock and the heliopause – is using its solar wind instrument to measure the directional change of solar wind particles there. Within the next few years, Voyager 2 is also expected to cross into interstellar space, providing us with even more detailed data about this mysterious region.
In another 10 years, we expect one or both Voyagers to cruise outward into a more pristine region of interstellar space, returning data to inform our hypotheses about the concentration of galactic particles and the characteristics of interstellar wind.
Even with 40 years of space flight behind them, the Voyagers are expected to continue returning valuable data until about 2025. Communications will be maintained until the spacecraft’s nuclear power sources can no longer supply enough electrical energy to power critical functions. Until then, there’s still much to learn about the boundary of our heliosphere and what lies beyond in the space between the stars.
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing math and science with a real-world (and space!) connection.
- Hear Here - Students use the mathematical constant pi and information about the current location of Voyager 1 to learn about the faint data-filled signal being returned to Earth.
- Solar System Bead Activity – Students calculate and construct a scale model of solar system distances using beads and string.
- Catching a Whisper from Space – Students kinesthetically model the mathematics of how NASA communicates with spacecraft.
- Voyager Mission
- Voyager Images
- Voyager Golden Record
- The Sounds of Interstellar Space
- Voyager Senses Sun's Tsunami Wave in Interstellar Medium
- Commemorative Voyager Posters