Collage of photos featured in this story.

To gain an edge in one of the world's premier robotics competitions, JPL brought in a team of experts at the forefront of their field – college students. The experience gave the interns and the Laboratory a new perspective on what's possible.


You know that movie trope where a talented mastermind recruits a ragtag team of experts to pull off a seemingly impossible task. That's what I imagine when Ali Agha talks about the more than 30 interns brought to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to take part in one of the world's premier robotics competitions.

In 2018, a group led by Agha was one of only 12 teams chosen worldwide to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Subterranean Challenge, a three-year-long competition that concluded this past September and brought together some of the brightest minds in robotics. Their goal was to develop robotic systems for underground rescue missions, or as Agha puts it, "solutions that are so state-of-the-art, there's not even a clear definition of what you're creating."

Calling themselves Team CoSTAR, which stands for Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient Robots, the group also included engineers from Caltech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology, and several industry partners.

Meet some of the researchers, engineers, and interns who make up Team CoSTAR. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Interns from across the country and around the world came to JPL to help conceive of, build, and test CoSTAR – a coordinated rescue team of flying, crawling, and rolling robots designed to operate autonomously, or with little to no help from humans. But the interns didn't just come to the laboratory to learn from engineers already well versed in building robots to explore extreme environments. In many cases, the interns were the experts.

"The problem we needed to solve, nobody knew how to solve it, so we needed people who are at the cutting edge of these technologies," says Agha. "We needed to get that one person in the world or a few people in the world who work on that specific camera or sensor or data or specific algorithm to come and educate us."

And Agha knew exactly where to find them: colleges and universities.

The interns' contributions would end up reaching far beyond the challenge. And the entire experience – from the mentorship they received to the technology they developed to the friendships they built – would change the course of their careers.

The Visionary

Even the Perseverance Mars rover, the latest and greatest Red Planet explorer designed and built at JPL, requires a fair amount of direction from mission controllers back on Earth to navigate around hazards and know which rocks to zap with its laser or when to phone home.

Since coming to JPL in 2016, Agha had been researching ways to make planet-exploring robots more autonomous so they could make similar decisions on their own. He was especially interested in autonomous technology for underground environments like caves and volcanoes, where the terrain and visibility make remote guidance challenging.

So when DARPA announced that it was launching a competition aimed at the development of autonomous robots for subterranean rescue missions, Agha jumped at the opportunity.

Agha stands in front of a large projector screen with robots of various shapes and sizes lined up against the wall behind him.

Agha gives a presentation at JPL about the technology developed for the DARPA challenge with CoSTAR's robot squad lined up behind him. | › Watch Agha's talk on YouTube | + Expand image

"It was a very good alignment and a great opportunity for JPL and for NASA," says Agha. "We knew if we can get into this program, it's going to expedite the technology development at a really high pace, and that's going to help NASA and JPL to develop these capabilities [for our own projects]."

But like developing robots for space exploration, the requirements would be tough.

Teams would need to build a robotic system that could autonomously navigate four circuits – a tunnel, an urban underground, a cave, and a combination of the three – in search of scientific "artifacts," or signs of human activity, hidden throughout the course. Then, in just 60 minutes, the robots would need to make their way through winding, cavernous, and dangerous terrain to correctly report the locations of as many artifacts as possible.

There were just 12 months between when proposals were selected and the first event in August 2019. Agha needed a plan – and a team.

The Strategist

Sung Kim first came to JPL as an intern in 2017, a year before the DARPA Subterranean Challenge was announced. A Carnegie Mellon doctoral student researching ways to help robots plan under uncertainty, Kim's childhood dream to work for NASA was rekindled when he saw an internship posting with Agha's team.

"From the first meeting, there was a spark," says Kim of his interview with Agha. "At the time, there were not many people actively pursuing that area [of planning under uncertainty]."

Kim spent that summer at JPL helping the team begin to develop what would later become the backbone of CoSTAR – a system in which robots can analyze their surroundings to find a route that covers as much ground as possible, increasing the odds that they will make discoveries along the way.

See caption.

Kim poses for a picture with the JPL sign at the entrance to the Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Image courtesy: Sung Kim | + Expand image

For JPL's part, such technology could be key to designing robots to explore worlds like Jupiter's moon Europa, where the terrain is still relatively unknown. For CoSTAR, it would improve the team's chances of finding artifacts hidden throughout the challenge course, earning the team points toward a victory.

When JPL's DARPA proposal was selected a year later, Agha eagerly enticed the newly graduated Kim back to the laboratory, this time as an employee and the head of CoSTAR's Global Planning Team tasked with "maximizing the chances of finding artifacts hidden in the environment," says Kim.

Kim would be the first of a wave of students who would come to the laboratory over the next several years to lend their expertise in making CoSTAR a reality. In fact, one of them had already arrived.

The Detective

Xianmei "Sammi" Lei was looking to start over. She had come to the U.S. from China and become a legal permanent resident in hopes of finding better career opportunities. But she worried that her options would be limited while she was still making professional connections and learning English. That's when she discovered community college.

"One of the turning points for me here was realizing that we have something called community college," says Lei. "That gave me a lot of opportunities."

It was at Pasadena Community College that Lei started to build a network of peers and professionals and began her foray into the world of robotics. It was also where her passion for computer science was reignited, setting her on a trajectory to JPL and Agha's team.

"I took the beginning level of C++, and I liked it so, so much," says Lei. "I was like, 'Oh my god, you can realize your dreams through programming. That is so powerful!'"

Lei wears a Team CoSTAR shirt and crouches in front of sign that reads DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit - To Beta Course.

Lei poses outside the course area holding up nine fingers to represent the number of points won by the team during the Urban Circuit in February 2020. Image courtesy: Sammi Lei | + Expand image

Lei applied for an internship at JPL through the Student Independent Research Intern, or SIRI, program, which is designed to pair students from local community colleges with researchers at the laboratory. She caught Agha's eye thanks to her involvement in a swarm robotics competition. Still relatively new to the field, Lei spent her first internship in 2017 soaking it all in, learning as much as she could, reading papers assigned by Agha, and following him to meetings, she says.

At the encouragement of her growing network, Lei applied and was accepted to a master's program at Cal Poly Pomona. She went on to spend four more years at JPL throughout her graduate degree and the entire DARPA challenge. All the while, she played an integral role on CoSTAR as the person in charge of programming the system to detect the most coveted artifact of all.

"Inside the environment was a dummy that was simulating a human survivor with the same weight, same heat, wearing a safety vest, things like that," says Lei. "My job was to detect those signals with the robot and have it report back to the team so the human supervisor could verify."

But before that could happen, the system would need to overcome any number of hazards, which according to DARPA might include small passages, sharp turns, stairs, rails, large drops, mud, sand, water, mist, smoke, dead ends, slippery terrain, communications constraints, moving walls, and falling debris. The team needed a mobility expert.

The Navigator

"I was doing lots of mathy stuff," says David Fan of his doctoral research at Georgia Tech prior to coming to JPL in the fall of 2018.

Fan had been researching algorithms that could help robots learn to independently navigate complex terrain when his advisor told him about an internship opening on Agha's team with the JPL Visiting Student Researchers Program, or JVSRP. Fan saw it as a chance to take his work out of the theoretical and into the real world.

"Once I joined the team and started working on these robots in real life, it opened up a whole set of new problems that I had never thought about before," he says.

Fan stands with his arms crossed in front of a fake rock wall and spotlights framing a rocky tunnel.

Fan poses in front of the entrance to the DARPA Subterranean Challenge Finals course in September 2021. Fan was one of a handful of team members chosen for the pit crew, which oversaw robot operations during the challenge. Image courtesy: David Fan | + Expand image

Problem one: How to get a robot through a hazard-filled course that requires a system with an almost contradictory set of features – small enough to get through narrow passages but big enough to support computing power, nimble enough to climb stairs and cross slippery terrain but strong enough to withstand falling debris.

Fan spent his early days with the team dreaming up robots with different kinds of locomotion – wheels, tracks, rotors, legs, and so on. Eventually, the team homed in on a solution involving all of the above, multiple robots with unique talents and ways of moving. Fan's doctoral research was key to unlocking how each robot could continually improve their skills, learning to navigate around obstacles as they encountered them.

Like their human counterparts, CoSTAR's robots each bring unique skills to the team, allowing them to autonomously explore caves, pits, tunnels, and other subsurface terrain. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

"Each environment would have its own set of challenges," says Fan, who interned with Agha throughout the DARPA challenge. "Trying to figure out where the robots could safely go in a subway was very different than where they could safely go in a cave or a mine. We broke a lot of robots. It was really fun."

But as often happens in engineering, one solution begets another problem. In this case it was how to coordinate multiple robots and get them working as a team.

The Field Commander

As a child in Indonesia, Muhammad Fadhil Ginting's favorite movie was a documentary about NASA rocket technology built to send astronauts to the Moon. He would watch it and rewatch it, dreaming of one day working at the space agency. But even after he had grown up to earn his bachelor's in engineering and begin to pursue his master's in robotics at one of the world's top universities, ETH Zurich, working for NASA seemed like a distant childhood dream.

That is until he saw an internship opening with Agha's team.

"Back in my undergrad in Indonesia, I was working with underwater robots to explore the ocean. When I found out JPL offered internships with the DARPA challenge team and it was about subsurface explorations, I was so excited," says Ginting who, like Fan, applied through JVSRP, which also brings in a small number of interns from foreign universities to work with JPL researchers. "I met Dr. Agha at an international conference and expressed my interest in joining his team. It was a thrill when he accepted me and welcomed me to the team."

When Ginting came on board, CoSTAR had just placed second in the Tunnel Circuit, the first of the four events.

After helping develop a strategy to coordinate the robots, Ginting was chosen for the team's exclusive "pit crew" along with just four others: Fan, also an intern at the time, and JPL employees Kyon Otsu, Ben Morrell, and Jeffrey Edlund.

On the pit crew, Ginting would have just 30 minutes to set up and release the robots into the subterranean course before he and the others were sequestered in a separate support area from Otsu, the sole robot supervisor. "It meant that I needed to be ready not just for the technical but also operational, anticipating all possible things that can happen in the field."

To prepare both the robots and the pit crew for handling the challenges ahead, the team took multiple field trips around California and to a limestone mine in Kentucky. When that wasn't possible, they sent the robots through cubicle mazes at JPL.

Ginting (shown at 0:18) and other members of team CoSTAR send the robots on a test run through Elma High School in Elma, Washington, in the days leading up to the Urban Circuit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Ginting fondly remembers the field trips not just for the opportunity to work out any bugs in the software, but also for the chance to pursue his other passion for outreach, giving talks to college students and kids and chatting up locals at the hotel breakfast bar.

"I liked meeting the community and sharing the excitement of building robots, the excitement of space exploration," says Ginting, who also saw the field trips as a chance to bond with his teammates.

When the Urban Circuit came around in February 2020, the team with Ginting's help earned a first-place spot. And then, COVID hit.

About 20 people, many wearing safety vests, smile, clap, hold their hands up in the air, and cheer.

Team CoSTAR reacts to the news that they placed first in the Urban Circuit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

An Unexpected Challenge

Like it did with so much else, the pandemic threw the team and the competition for a loop.

Interns were sent home along with most of the rest of JPL's more than 6,000 employees, and the CoSTAR team had to learn how to do their work remotely. Lei recalls testing sensors from her home in Los Angeles or asking other team members to try them out in different environments.

In some ways, the remote work was good for the team. Rather than the intensive testing schedule, "people had more time for thinking," says Lei. Meanwhile, the team was able to bring on remote interns previously unable to travel to the Southern California laboratory.

The Cave Circuit, originally scheduled for November 2020, was canceled, but once vaccines began rolling out and restrictions on indoor gatherings were loosened, DARPA announced that the Final Event would take place in September 2021.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

A robot shaped like a dog and carrying various tools on its back shines a light into a darkened cave.

One of the team's robots named NeBula-Spot walks on four legs to explore hard-to-access locations, like this narrow cave. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

"We were in pretty good shape – even in the preliminary rounds, we won with a good margin," says Agha. "But in the final event, our calibration system had an issue, so our robots entered the course 30 minutes late. It wasn't the kind of demonstration we were hoping to be able to have, but for that half of the time, it went really perfect."

While CoSTAR did not win the final competition, the overall experience was an unequivocal win not just for the team, but also for the interns and for JPL.

"We got all this great talent and technology – again, huge thanks to our interns and their mentors," says Agha. "They brought all this expertise to JPL, and the amount of capabilities that got developed really changed a lot about [autonomous technology] at JPL. We pushed state-of-the-art boundaries forward. We published strong papers and showed the world JPL's capabilities."

Already, the team's technology is making its way into a number of JPL and NASA projects including a snake-like robot designed to explore deep crevasses on icy worlds beyond Earth, self-driving offroad cars that could inspire future lunar exploration vehicles, and a project researching the possibility of finding microbial life within volcanic caves on Mars.

Many of the interns say the experience changed the course of their careers.

"It really set me on a different trajectory that I hadn't imagined before," says Fan, who is now working for the U.S. Navy in collaboration with JPL on the project to develop offroad self-driving vehicles. "It introduced me to so many of the real-world robotics problems that are out there waiting to be solved. It opened up a lot of doors and introduced me to a lot of people. It completely changed the trajectory of my Ph.D. and my career."

Lei was recently hired at JPL as a full-time employee, and she says she's looking forward to exploring new ways robots can assist humans in the future.

Kim continues to expand his research in new ways, taking part in JPL projects like Europa Lander, which hopes to send the first robot to explore the icy moon considered to be the next frontier in the search for life beyond Earth.

Ginting was accepted into a doctoral program at Stanford and is continuing his research collaboration with Agha and Kim. He says, "Now, I'm so eager to work on robotics research topics that can also work for space exploration."

In July, the entire team of about 150 people plans to meet up for a reunion cake party. Over the course of the challenge, cake parties had become an annual tradition for the tight knit group. They even managed to hold a virtual party in 2020. As with all things CoSTAR, the bakers go above and beyond to make cakes with life-like caves, moving parts, and LEDs.

When we talked, Agha flipped through photos of cake parties past and said that more than anything, it's this – the team camaraderie, the friendships – that is the greatest win of all.


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Internships, Interns, College, Students, Community College, SIRI, JVSRP, YIP, Higher Education, Robotics, Engineering, Computer Science, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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Collage of images representing lessons in the Quick and Easy collection.

Calling all teachers pressed for time, substitutes looking for classroom activities that don't require a lot of prep, and others hoping to keep students learning in especially chaotic times: We've got a new collection of lessons and activities that you can quickly deploy.

Read on to explore our collection of Quick and Easy STEM lessons and student activities, organized by grade band. Get everything you need to guide students through standards-aligned lessons featuring connections to real NASA missions and science as well as links to student projects, which can be led by teachers or assigned as independent activities.


Grades K-2

Grades 3-5

Grades 6-8

Grades 9-12

Explore More

Find our full collection of more than 250 STEM educator guides and student activities in Teach and Learn.

For games, articles, and more activities from NASA for kids in upper-elementary grades, visit NASA Space Place and NASA Climate Kids.

Explore more educational resources and opportunities for students and educators from NASA STEM Engagement.

TAGS: Lessons, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Substitutes, Activities, Students, Science, Engineering, Quick and Easy

  • Kim Orr
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Collage of top 10 educational resources from NASA/JPL for 2021

In 2021, we added nearly 80 STEM education resources to our online catalog of lessons, activities, articles, and videos for educators, students, and families. The resources feature NASA's latest missions exploring Earth, the Moon, Mars, asteroids, the Solar System and the universe beyond. Here are the 10 resources our audiences visited most this year.


Collage of people participating in the Mission to Mars Student Challenge

NASA's Mission to Mars Student Challenge

To kick off the year, we invited students, educators, and families from around the world to create their own mission to Mars as we counted down to the Perseverance rover's epic landing on the Red Planet in February. More than one million students participated in the Mission to Mars Student Challenge, which features seven weeks of guided education plans, student projects, and expert talks and interviews highlighting each phase of a real Mars mission.

It's no surprise that this was our most popular product of the year. And good news: It's still available and timely! With Perseverance actively exploring Mars and making new discoveries all the time, the challenge offers ongoing opportunities to get students engaged in real-world STEM.

Need a primer on the Perseverance Mars rover mission, first? This article from our Teachable Moments series has you covered.


Animated image showing the planets at their relative distances.

Solar System Size and Distance

This video offers a short and simple answer to two of students' most enduring questions: How do the sizes of planets compare and how far is it between them? Plus, it gets at why we don't often (or ever) see images that show all the planets' sizes and distances to scale. Spoiler alert: It's pretty much impossible to do.

Get students exploring solar system size and distance in more detail and even making their own scale models with this student project.


Animated screenshot of an example Mars Helicopter Video Game on Scratch

Code a Mars Helicopter Video Game

As you'll soon see from the rest of this list, coding projects were a big draw this year. This one took off along with Ingenuity, the first helicopter designed to fly on Mars, which made its historic first flight in April. Designed as a test of technology that could be used on future missions, Ingenuity was only slated for a few flights, but it has far exceeded even that lofty goal.

In this project, students use the free visual programming language Scratch to create a game inspired by the helicopter-that-could.


A person holds the Moon phases calendar out in front of them.

Make a Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator

Just updated for 2022, this project is part educational activity and part art for your walls. Students learn about moon phases to complete this interactive calendar, which shows when and where to see moon phases throughout the year, plus lists moon events such as lunar eclipses and supermoons. The art-deco inspired design might just have you wanting to make one for yourself, too.


NASA Pi Day Challenge illustration

The NASA Pi Day Challenge

This year marked the eighth installment of our annual Pi Day Challenge, a set of illustrated math problems featuring pi (of course) and NASA missions and science. Don't let the name fool you – these problems are fun to solve year round.

Students can choose from 32 different problems that will develop their math skills while they take on some of the same challenges faced by NASA scientists and engineers. New this year are puzzlers featuring the OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission, Mars helicopter, Deep Space Network, and aurora science.

Educator guides for each problem and problem set are also available here. And don't miss the downloadable posters and virtual meeting backgrounds.


Animated image showing a Mars image with a cartoon rover moving across the surface collecting sample tube icons

Code a Mars Sample Collection Video Game

Another coding challenge using the visual programming language Scratch, this project is inspired by the Perseverance Mars rover mission, which is collecting samples that could be brought back to Earth by a potential future mission.

While developing a gamified version of the process, students are introduced to some of the considerations scientists and engineers have to make when collecting samples on Mars.


Animation showing the Perseverance Mars rover aeroshell descending on Mars and the parachute deploying

Code a Mars Landing

As if launching a rover to Mars wasn't hard enough, you still have to land when you get there. And that means using a complex series of devices – from parachutes to jet packs to bungee cords – and maneuvers that have to be performed remotely using instructions programmed into the spacecraft's computer.

Students who are ready to take their programming skills to the next level can get an idea of what it takes in this project, which has them use Python and microcontrollers to simulate the process of landing a rover on Mars.


Coins stacked on top of a printed map of the Los Angeles area.

How Far Away is Space?

Without giving the answer away: It's not as far as you might think.

In this activity, students stack coins (or other objects) on a map of their local area as a scale model of the distance to space. The stacking continues to the International Space Station, the Moon, and finally to the future orbit of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to launch on Dec. 22.


A person puts a shape onto the tangram rover outline.

Build a Rover and More With Shapes

You don't have to be a big kid to start learning about space exploration. This activity, which is designed for kids in kindergarten through second grade, has learners use geometric shapes called tangrams to fill in a Mars rover design. It provides an introduction to geometry and thinking spatially.

Once kids become experts at building rovers, have them try building rockets.


A person holds seven cards over the Space Voyagers game mat.

Space Voyagers: The Game

Technically a classroom activity (it is standards-aligned, after all), this game will appeal to students and strategy card game enthusiasts alike. Download and print out a set for your classroom (or your next game night).

Players work collaboratively to explore destinations including the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Jupiter's Moon Europa with actual NASA spacecraft and science instruments while working to overcome realistic challenges at their destination including dust storms and instrument failures.

TAGS: K-12, Lessons, Activities, Education Resources, Teachers, Students, Families, Kids, Learning, STEM, Science, Engineering, Technology, Math, Coding, Programming, Mars, Solar System, Moon

  • Kim Orr
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In the cleanroom at Northrop Grumman, a technician inspects the bellows between the hexagonal sections that make up the large honeycomb-shaped mirror on the Webb telescope.

Get a look into the science and engineering behind the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built while exploring ways to engage learners in the mission.


NASA is launching the largest, most powerful space telescope ever. The James Webb Space Telescope will look back at some of the earliest stages of the universe, gather views of early star and galaxy formation, and provide insights into the formation of planetary systems, including our own solar system.

Read on to learn more about what the space-based observatory will do, how it works, and how to engage learners in the science and engineering behind the mission.

What It Will Do

The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, was developed through a partnership between NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies. It will build upon and extend the discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope to help unravel mysteries of the universe. First, let's delve into what scientists hope to learn with the Webb telescope.

A look at the James Webb Space Telescope, its mission and the incredible technological challenge this mission presents. | Watch on YouTube

How Galaxies Evolve

What the first galaxies looked like and when they formed is not known, and the Webb telescope is designed to help scientists learn more about that early period of the universe. To better understand what the Webb telescope will study, it’s helpful to know what happened in the early universe, before the first stars formed.

The universe, time, and space all began about 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. For the first few hundred-thousand years, the universe was a hot, dense flood of protons, electrons, and neutrons, the tiny particles that make up atoms. As the universe cooled, protons and neutrons combined into ionized hydrogen and helium, which had a positive charge, and eventually attracted all those negatively charged electrons. This process, known as recombination, occurred about 240,000 to 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

An ellipse is filled with speckled dark blue, green, and small yellow and red splotches.

This image shows the temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) in the cosmic microwave background from a time when the universe was less than 400,000 years old. The image was captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP, which spent nine years, from 2001 to 2010, collecting data on the early universe. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Light that previously couldn’t travel without being scattered by the dense ionized plasma of early particles could now travel freely. The very first form of light we can look back and see comes from this time and is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. It is essentially a map of temperature fluctuations across the universe left behind from the Big Bang. The fluxuations give clues about the origin of galaxies and the large-scale structure of galaxies. There were still no stars in the universe at this time, so the next several hundred million years are known as the cosmic dark ages.

Current theory predicts that the earliest stars were big – 30 to 300 times the size of our Sun – and burned quickly, ending in supernova explosions after just a few million years. (For comparison, our Sun has a lifespan of about 10 billion years and will not go supernova.) Observing these luminous supernovae is one of the few ways scientists could study the earliest stars. That is vital to understanding the formation of objects such as the first galaxies.

By using the Webb telescope to compare the earliest galaxies with those of today, scientists hope to understand how they form, what gives them their shape, how chemical elements are distributed across galaxies, how central black holes influence their galaxies, and what happens when galaxies collide.

Learn how the James Webb Space Telescope's ability to look farther into space than ever before will bring newborn galaxies into view. | Watch on YouTube

How Stars and Planetary Systems Form

Stars and their planetary systems form within massive clouds of dust and gas. It's impossible to see into these clouds with visible light, so the Webb telescope is equipped with science instruments that use infrared light to peer into the hearts of stellar nurseries. When viewing these nurseries in the mid-infrared – as the Webb telescope is designed to do – the dust outside the dense star forming regions glows and can be studied directly. This will allow astronomers to observe the details of how stars are born and investigate why most stars form in groups as well as how planetary systems begin and evolve.

Plumes of red stellar dust shoot out from the top and bottom of a bright central disk.

This mosaic image is the sharpest wide-angle view ever obtained of the starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). The galaxy is remarkable for its bright blue disk, webs of shredded clouds and fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions.Throughout the galaxy's center, young stars are being born 10 times faster than they are inside our entire Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: J. Gallagher (University of Wisconsin), M. Mountain (STScI), and P. Puxley (National Science Foundation) | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

How Exoplanets and Our Solar System Evolve

Collage of futuristic posters depicting explorers on various exoplanets.

As we make more discoveries about exoplanets, artists at NASA are imagining what future explorers might encounter on these faraway worlds as part of the Exoplanet Travel Bureau poster series. Credit: NASA | › View and download the posters | + Expand image

The first planet outside our solar system, or exoplanet, was discovered in 1992. Since then, scientists have found thousands more exoplanets and estimate that there are hundreds of billions in the Milky Way galaxy alone. There are many waiting to be discovered and there is more to learn about the exoplanets themselves, such as what makes up their atmospheres and what their weather and seasons may be like. The Webb telescope will help scientists do just that.

In our own solar system, the Webb telescope will study planets and other objects to help us learn more about our solar neighborhood. It will be able to complement studies of Mars being carried out by orbiters, landers, and rovers by searching for molecules that may be signs of past or present life. It is powerful enough to identify and characterize icy comets in the far reaches of our solar system. And it can be used to study places like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune while there are no active missions at those planets.

How It Works

The Webb telescope has unique capabilities enabled by the way it views the universe, its size, and the new technologies aboard. Here's how it works.

Peering Into the Infrared

To see ancient, distant galaxies, the Webb telescope was built with instruments sensitive to light in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths.

Light leaving these galaxies can take billions of years to reach Earth, so when we see these objects, we’re actually seeing what they looked like in the past. The farther something is from Earth, the farther back in time it is when we observe it. So when we look at light that left objects 13.5 billion years ago, we're seeing what happened in the early universe.

A sideways funnel that fans out at one end encapsulates an illustration of the history of the universe starting with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago through the first stars, the development of galaxies, and accelerated expansion.

An illustrated timeline of the universe. Credit: WMAP | + Expand image

As light from distant objects travels to Earth, the universe continues to expand, something it’s been doing since the Big Bang. The waves that make up the light get stretched as the universe expands. You can see this effect in action by making an ink mark on a rubber band and observing how the mark stretches out when you pull on the rubber band.

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/images/redshift_demo.gif

Light waves get stretched as the universe expands similar to how this ink mark stretches out as the elastic is pulled. Get students modeling and exploring this effect with this standards-aligned math lesson. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

What this means for light coming from distant galaxies is that the visible lightwaves you would be able to see with your eyes get stretched out so far that the longer wavelengths shift from visible light into infrared. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as redshift – and the farther away an object is, the more redshift it undergoes.

Webb telescope’s infrared sensing equipment will give scientists the chance to study some of the earliest stars that exploded in supernova events, creating the elements necessary to build planets and form life.

Gathering Light

The first stars were massive, their life cycles ending in supernova explosions. The light from these explosions has traveled so far that it is incredibly dim. This is due to the inverse square law. You experience this effect when a room appears to get darker as you move away from a light source.

To see such dim light, the Webb telescope needs to be extremely sensitive. A telescope’s sensitivity, or its ability to detect faint signals, is related to the size of the mirror it uses to gather light. On the Webb telescope, 18 hexagonal mirrors combine to form a massive primary mirror that is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across.

A technician in a white smock stands up in a gap between several large hexagonal mirrors forming a honeycomb shape.

A technician inspects the Webb telescope's honeycomb-shaped mirror. The telescope's primary mirror is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across and is made up of 18 smaller hexagonal mirrors that must fold for launch and unfurl after the telescope reaches its orbit in space. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Compared with the Hubble Space Telescope’s eight-foot (2.4 meter) diameter mirror, this gives the Webb telescope more than six times the surface area to collect those distant particles of light known as photons. Hubble’s famous Ultra Deep Field observation captured images of incredibly faint, distant galaxies by pointing at a seemingly empty spot in space for 16 days, but the Webb telescope will be able to make a similar observation in just seven hours.

Colorful spirals, disks, and stars of various sizes and shapes appear against the blackness of space like sprinkles on a cake.

This image, called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, shows 28 of the more than 500 young galaxies that existed when the universe was less than 1 billion years old. Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Bouwens and G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz) | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

Keeping Cool

The Webb Telescope gathers its scientific data as infrared light. To detect the faint signals of objects billions of light years away, the instruments inside the telescope have to be kept very cold, otherwise those infrared signals could get lost in the heat of the telescope. Engineers accounted for this with a couple of systems designed to get the instruments cold and keep them cold.

The Webb telescope's orbit around the Sun – sitting about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth at Lagrange point 2 – keeps the spacecraft pretty far from our planet's heat, but even that’s not enough. To further reduce the temperature on the instruments, the spacecraft will unfurl a tennis-court-size sunshield that will block light and heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon using five layers of specially coated material. Each layer blocks incoming heat, and the heat that does make it through is redirected out of the sides of the sunshield. Additionally, the vacuum between each layer provides insulation.

Technicians in white smocks stand on lifts looking at JWST's fully deployed sunshield in the cleanroom at Northrup Gruman. The five layers of the kite-shaped sunshield extend out around JWST's folded honeycomb-shaped mirror.

The sunshield is made up of five layers of specially coated material designed to block the Webb telescope's sensitive instruments from incoming heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon. This photo, taken in the cleanroom at Northrop Grumman in Southern California in December 2020, shows the sunshield fully deployed and tensioned as it will be in space. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

The sunshield is so effective that the temperatures on the Sun-facing side of the telescope could be hot enough to boil water, while on the side closest to the instruments, the temperature could be as low as -394 F (-237 C, 36 K).

That’s cold enough for the near-infrared instruments to operate, but the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, needs to be even colder. To bring down the temperature of MIRI, the Webb telescope is equipped with a special cryocooler that pumps chilled helium to the instrument to reduce its operating temperature to about -448 F (-267 C, 6 K).

Spotting Exoplanets

The Webb telescope will search for exoplanets using two different methods.

Using the transit method, the Webb telescope will look for the regular pattern of dimming that occurs when an exoplanet transits its star, or passes between the star and the telescope. The amount of dimming can tell scientists a lot about the passing exoplanet, such as the size of the planet and its distance from the star.

This animation shows how the transit method is used to hunt for planets outside our solar system. When exoplanets transit their parent star, the Webb telescope (like the Kepler space telescope, depicted here) will be able to detect the dip in the star’s brightness, providing scientists with key information about the transiting exoplanet. Students can see this technique in action with this transit math problem. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The second method the Webb telescope will use to search for exoplanets is direct imaging – capturing actual images of planets beyond our solar system. To enable direct imaging of exoplanets, the Webb telescope is equipped with a coronagraph. Just like you might use your hand to block a bright light, a coronagraph blocks starlight from reaching a telescope’s instruments, allowing a dim exoplanet orbiting a star to be seen.

Wispy solar flares from the Sun can be seen jutting out from a solid central circle.

This “coronagraph” image taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, shows dim features around our Sun. Similarly, direct images of exoplanets captured by the Webb telescope will reveal details normally washed out by the brightness of stars. Credit: ESA&NASA/SOHO | › Full image and caption | + Expand image

The Webb telescope can uncover even more using spectroscopy. Light from a star produces a spectrum, which displays the intensity of light at different wavelengths. When a planet transits its star, some of the light from the star will pass through the planet's atmosphere before reaching the Webb telescope. Since all elements and molecules, such as methane and water, absorb energy at specific wavelengths, spectra from light that has passed through a planet’s atmosphere may contain dark lines known as absorption lines that tell scientists if there are certain elements present.

This infographic shows the electromagnetic spectrum and how various wavelengths are used for different applications, such as infrared for remote controls.

By looking at the unique spectrum produced when the light from a star shines through the atmosphere of a transiting exoplanet, scientists can learn whether certain elements are present on that planet. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Using direct imaging and spectroscopy, scientists can learn even more about an exoplanet, including its color, seasons, rotation, weather, and vegetation if it exists.

All this could lead scientists to the ultimate exoplanet discovery: an Earth-size planet with an atmosphere like ours in its star’s habitable zone – a place where liquid water could exist.

Setting Up in Space

The Webb telescope will launch from French Guiana on top of an Ariane 5 rocket, a massive rocket capable of lifting the telescope, which weighs nearly 14,000 pounds (6,200 kilograms), to its destination.

The telescope's large mirror and giant sunshield are too big to fit inside the 18-foot (5.4-meter) wide rocket fairing, which protects the spacecraft during launch. To overcome this challenge, engineers designed the telescope's mirror and sunshield to fold for launch.

Two sides of the mirror assembly fold back for launch, allowing them to fit inside the fairing. The sunshield, which is 69.5 feet (21 meters) long and 46.5 feet (14 meters) wide, is carefully folded 12 times like origami so that it's narrow enough for launch. These are just two examples of several folding mechanisms needed to fit the massive telescope in its rocket for launch.

It will take about a month for the Webb telescope to reach its destination and unfurl its mirrors and sunshield. Scientists need another five months to cool down the instruments to their operating temperatures and align the mirrors correctly.

Approximately six months after launch, checkouts should be complete, and the telescope will begin its first science campaign and science operations.

Learn more and follow along with the mission from launch and unfolding to science observations and discovery announcements on the James Webb Space Telescope website.

Teach It

Check out these resources to bring the real-life STEM behind the mission into your teaching with lesson guides for educators, projects and slideshows for students, and more.

Educator Guides

Student Activities

Articles for Students

Videos for Students

Resources for Educators and Parents

Events

Explore More


NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

TAGS: JWST, James Webb Space Telescope, electromagnetic spectrum, exoplanets, universe, solar system, big bang, cosmology, astronomy, star formation, galaxy, galaxies, telescope, life, technology, MIRI, Mars, Engineering, Teaching, Education, Classroom, Science

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Natalie Deo poses for a photo wearing a shirt with a NASA meatball.

A master's student and JPL intern at 19, Natalie Deo has her sights set on a career at the Laboratory, and she's out to prove it's never too early to pursue your dreams.


To hear Natalie Deo explain why she wanted to leave high school at the age of 14 and go straight into higher education is to hear it from the perspective of a precocious teenager wise beyond her years – and her peers.

“I was walking to first period in high school and I saw a couple making out and I was like, ‘I’m getting out of here. I don’t want to see that,’” Deo, now 19 and a summer intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, deadpans.

Not that she hadn’t thought about fast-tracking it out of high school before that moment, of course. Deo, who grew up in Downey, California, was already familiar with the highly selective Early Entrance Program, or EEP, at Cal State University, Los Angeles that puts gifted students on an accelerated path toward college admission, and she had taken the ACT while in eighth grade. After finishing ninth grade, she was one of a handful of high-school students selected to start her undergraduate studies in electrical engineering at Cal State L.A.

“I was tired of being around people who weren’t as motivated. People were begging me to do their homework or trying to pay me to write their essays,” she says. “While that wasn’t the case with all my peers and some were even really supportive, it was cool to go to college and be around more people who are like-minded.”

Now, Deo is pursuing her master's degree in astronautical engineering at USC while interning at JPL with the team developing the Europa Clipper spacecraft. These days, one could say Deo is constantly surrounded by like-minded folks.

“USC is near home and near JPL, and JPL has been my dream since I knew I wanted to work in space,” Deo says.

Deo wears a black cap and gown with several yellow and black cords and sashes hung around her neck along with a lei with large pink flowers.

Deo at her graduation from California State University, Los Angeles. Image courtesy Natalie Deo | + Expand image

The Early Years

Deo first realized she “really, really loved space” at 13 after winning a telescope from a raffle at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, and found herself looking up at the Moon every night. Shortly after, she started volunteering at the space center every weekend, helping host field trips and robotics labs for young visiting students (something she still does to this day).

During this time, Deo was introduced to a middle-school STEM engineering class when she was in seventh grade.

“My teacher reached out to me and said, ‘You might enjoy it,’ and I thought, ‘Well, it’s either this or band,’” she says.

Deo tried the class, which introduced basic engineering concepts the first year revolving around design, modeling, and the engineering process. The second year focused on automation and robotics, and put students’ skills to the test in regional competitions.

“Before I realized it, I was spending every day after school working in robotics,” she says.

By the time she entered high school, nothing fascinated her more.

“High school was pretty easy for me and what we were learning didn't intrigue me as much as engineering,” Deo says.

Once Deo decided to formally enter EEP, she had to participate in a rigorous summer academy where students are evaluated by college admissions staff on whether they’re performing at a college level. In Cal State L.A.’s program, approximately 500 to 1,000 students apply each year and only about 20 to 30 students are admitted.

Deo was on a road trip with her mother and grandmother when she got the acceptance call.

“I was screaming, and my mom had to pull over because she was screaming,” Deo says. “My brother and dad were at home, and I called them and they were screaming on the phone. There was a lot of screaming.”

Looking back on her time in the summer academy, Deo marvels at the odds she overcame to gain admission.

“I didn’t realize it during that summer, but I was not like most students there whose parents had PhDs and were established in their fields,” she says. “I had parents who immigrated from Fiji. My mom came [to the U.S.] at 8 and my dad came at 22 without a college education. I grew up in a poor area compared to a lot of these students, and I didn’t have the resources to prepare for college that a lot of other students did. I also have Type 1 diabetes. It was special to me [to be accepted into the program] because here was this girl facing adversities of every kind – and she made it.”

While the decision to leave high school was an easy one, arriving at college left Deo grappling with imposter syndrome.

“The first year, I just took general education classes with my cohort [of EEPs] who help you transition, and I was just having fun with them,” Deo says. “Then it kicked in. I had no idea how college worked – my brother was still a senior in high school at the time. I was seeing all these people who were so smart and who came from very affluent backgrounds and who were into literature and stuff like that. I was never really into that. People just knew things I didn’t know and I thought, ‘Should I know that? Do I belong here?’”

Deo credits therapy, talking to friends, and turning to family as ways she coped with getting through those challenging early months. She also still stayed in touch with her childhood friends and took in the high-school experience while in college.

“I still went to prom, football games, and hung out with my friends all the time,” she says. “I was able to have the best of both worlds.”

JPL Internship, Mentorship, and Beyond

Deo leans against the base of a statue of USC's Trojan mascot.

Deo poses for a picture on the USC campus, where she's pursuing her master's degree in astronautical engineering. Image courtesy Natalie Deo | + Expand image

At JPL, whispers of a 19-year-old summer intern getting her master’s haven’t fazed Deo in the slightest.

“I hosted an intern party the other week, and everyone coming in was like, ‘Are you the one who’s 19 and in grad school?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s me, but I’m also Natalie and I have a Lego collection,’ she says with a laugh.

Deo’s intern responsibilities go beyond her years, of course. So far this summer, she’s spent it working on validating and verifying commands being sent to Europa Clipper’s computer system, ensuring the spacecraft’s instruments respond correctly to commands.

While she admits she still struggles with imposter syndrome in the workplace, she’s becoming more and more comfortable as the months go by and she grows closer to her fellow interns.

“The ratio of women to men is much greater here than in my previous internships,” she says. “I see more of myself in the people around me, and that helps me be able to interact with other interns and have them as a support group. I’m hanging out with them every weekend, and I’ve made lifelong friends already.”

Deo is also part of JPL’s Employee Resource Group, or ERG, mentorship program, which paired her up with a secondary mentor – one who supports a mentee outside of the mentorship their manager provides – through JPL's Advisory Council for Women, or ACW.

“This type of mentorship is based on career and academic advice, and to help interns develop their soft skills,” explains Alona Dontsova, who spearheads the program for Human Resources at JPL. “If the manager is concentrating on developing technical skills and how to manage projects, the ERG mentors are helping with networking, looking at their resume, listening to their pitches, or giving them more professional development advice. The ERG mentor is also more focused on teaching interns about the JPL culture.”

Deo’s secondary mentor, Lynn Boyden, is “very glad that the planets aligned that way” for the two of them to be paired up, and is a firm believer that mentoring is a two-way street.

“Learning goes in both directions … and one of the ways we do that is by sharing knowledge across these divides,” she says. “Sometimes there are situations that are beyond an intern’s ability to navigate the institutional practices, and this is where having a mentor with deeper experience in the world of business can be helpful. Also, one of the primary functions of an internship is to help an intern build a professional network, and having another designated person at JPL can only help them extend that network.”

For Deo’s part, she’s thrilled to have someone she can be candid with.

“I can have conversations about JPL that might be intimidating to ask my group supervisor,” she says. “Like, ‘How do I say please hire me without saying please hire me?’”

Deo isn’t shy about her next set of goals, which include being hired through JPL's academic part-time program while she completes her master’s. And while the virtual internship experience has been a challenge for her, “I really enjoy hands-on work,” she says. Deo has felt the rewards of her internship and mentorship every day.

“Honestly, everything has been rewarding: the people, the experiences, and everything I’ve learned,” she says. “I’m motivated by passion and doing what I love, and I’m doing what I love.”


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Internships, College Students, Europa Clipper, Europa, Engineering, Intern, Higher Education

  • Celeste Hoang
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Photo collage of interns who participated in JPL's HBCU/URM initiative in 2021

Five years in, a JPL initiative forging relationships with students and faculty at historically Black colleges and universities continues expanding its reach, hosting 48 interns this year.


Brandon Ethridge, a flight systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, has had a year to remember. The 24-year-old got engaged, became a father, and is celebrating the one-year anniversary of starting full time at JPL – his self-described dream job.

“Definitely the most eventful year of my life,” Ethridge said.

Brandon Ethridge stands in front of a mural made to look like a blueprint on the Mechanical Design Building at JPL.

Brandon Ethridge poses in front of the Mechanical Design Center at JPL during his internship in 2019. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

While he’s been gaining experience testing systems used to build spacecraft, Ethridge has spent minimal time at the Laboratory due to the pandemic. But the North Carolina native already had plenty of first-hand knowledge of JPL thanks to his summer 2019 internship – an opportunity that presented itself at a JPL informational session that spring at his alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University.

“That allowed me the chance to speak one-on-one with Jenny Tieu and Roslyn Soto [JPL Education project managers],” Ethridge said. “They were incredibly generous with their time and provided resume critiques, feedback, and general advice about how to get an opportunity at JPL.”

Since 2017, Tieu has been leading JPL’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Underrepresented Minorities, or HBCU/URM, initiative – an effort to increase and foster a more diverse workforce in technical roles at the Laboratory. It’s one of many programs facilitating the more than 550 internship opportunities offered through the Education Office this year.

Now in its fifth year, the program has seen rapid growth; from seven interns in its first year, to 24 interns in 2020. This year, JPL is welcoming 48 students interning remotely from institutions including Howard, North Carolina A&T, Tuskegee, and Prairie View A&M universities, along with underrepresented-minority students from universities including UCLA, USC, UC Riverside, Duke, Cal Poly Pomona, and more.

The initiative includes funding and support to bring in faculty from the schools to take part in research with the students, building in a cohort model that facilitates sustainable interactions with JPL.

“We’re intentional about addressing the culture shock that some of these students may experience,” Tieu said. “With the cohort model, the faculty members can provide guidance to the students while they are navigating new relationships, connections, and a new city.”

Additionally, interns are invited to participate in roundtable conversations in groups where they can share concerns and openly discuss their experiences at JPL. Tieu has also set up virtual meet-ups where students can get to know employees from outside their groups and hear talks from members of JPL’s Black Excellence Strategic Team and past HBCU alumni.

For Ethridge, being in a position to give back to the program was something he prioritized.

“I wanted to repay some of the many kindnesses that were afforded to me,” Ethridge said. “I also feel that I am in a unique position because I just recently went through the process.”

For Howard University junior Kyndall Jones, the draw to JPL came following a fellow student’s acceptance into the program.

Kyndall Jones sits in the cockpit of a plane and looks back at the camera while making the peace sign with her left hand.

Kyndall Jones at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center. Image courtesy: Kyndall Jones | + Expand image

“I was so amazed that he had an internship with NASA, and it really sparked my interest,” Jones said. “After doing my research on the program, I submitted my resume and heard back after a few months, landed an interview, and now here I am [virtually]!”

Despite the telework nature of this summer’s internship, Jones said that even from her home in Dayton, Ohio, she has been able to foster connections with JPL employees and gain valuable experience in her role working on software for an Earth-science instrument that will help NASA understand how different types of air pollution, which can cause serious health problems, affect human health.

And thanks to her mentor, Operations Systems Engineer Janelle Wellons, Jones was able to get the type of hands-on NASA experience that’s been hard to come by since the pandemic.

“My mentor Janelle suggested that I come visit Los Angeles for a few days this summer, and I was finally able to visit and explore the city for the first time,” Jones said. “I am also super grateful for her setting up a tour at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center where we were able to view, tour, and learn lots of interesting facts about NASA’s historical aircraft.”

Wellons – who splits her time operating instruments aboard several Earth-observing missions – had been involved in previous years’ roundtable discussions with HBCU interns, but this year, she had the opportunity to hire her own interns through the program. Being from the East Coast herself, Wellons remembers having little awareness of JPL as a potential career landing spot while studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Getting visibility and actually partnering with these schools to make these internships happen is so important,” Wellons said. “Actively interacting with HBCUs is only going to do good for people we would otherwise potentially never get an application from, and it benefits JPL by broadening the talent pool and diversity of our workforce.”

As for the future, Jones sees the initiative as one step of many for her and fellow interns toward careers in engineering and science.

“I know a lot of Howard students that are interning or have interned with JPL, and the love from our College of Engineering and Architecture is especially high,” Jones said. “The info sessions, resume workshops, and networking workshops that JPL has been able to put on have been great, and the more they can do, the better for students.”

Tieu agrees, adding, "We are happy to see the growth of the initiative but look forward to making further progress. There's so much more we would like to accomplish in the years ahead."

To learn more about the HBCU/URM initiative and apply, see the Maximizing Student Potential in STEM program page. The HBCU/URM initiative resides within this program.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series highlighting the stories and experiences of students and faculty who came to JPL as part of the laboratory's collaboration with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. › Read more from the series

Explore More

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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: HBCU, Internships, College Students, Faculty, Research, Careers, Earth Science, Black History Month, Engineering, Intern, Higher Education

  • Taylor Hill
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Illustration of a notebook with a to-do list for future space explorers. See caption for text-version of to-do list.

Whether you're looking for a career in STEM or space exploration, this three-part series will cover everything you need to know about the world of internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the skills and experience hiring managers are looking for, and how you can set yourself on the right trajectory even before you get to college.


In a typical year, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory brings in about 1,000 interns from schools across the country to take part in projects that range from building spacecraft to studying climate change to developing software for space exploration. One of 10 NASA centers in the United States, the Southern California laboratory receives thousands of applications. So what can students do to stand out and set themselves on the right trajectory?

We asked interns and the people who bring them to JPL about their tips for students and anyone interested in a STEM career or working at the Laboratory. We're sharing their advice in this three-part series.

First up: Learn about the kinds of opportunities available as well as where and how to apply.

The World of JPL Internships

If you found this article, you're probably already somewhat familiar with the work that goes on at JPL. But at a place that employs more than 6,000 people across hundreds of teams, it can be hard to keep track of it all.

In a broad sense, JPL explores Earth, other planets, and the universe beyond with robotic spacecraft – meaning no humans on board. But along with the engineers and scientists who design and build spacecraft and study the data they return, there are thousands of others working on all the in-between pieces that make Earth and space exploration possible and accessible to all. This includes software developers, machinists, microbiologists, writers, video producers, designers, finance and information technology professionals, and more.

Some of the best ways to learn about the Laboratory's work – and get a sense for the kinds of internships on offer – are to follow JPL news and social media channels, take part in virtual and in-person events such as monthly talks, and keep up on the latest research. There are also a host of articles and videos online about interns and employees and the kinds of work they do.

While STEM internships make up the majority of the Laboratory's offerings, there are a handful of opportunities for students studying other subjects as well. Depending on which camp you fit into, there are different places to apply.

Education Office Internships

The largest number of internships can be found on the JPL Education website. These opportunities, for students studying STEM, are offered through about a dozen programs catered to college students of various academic and demographic backgrounds. This includes programs for students attending community college, those at minority-serving institutions, and others at Los Angeles-area schools.

Students apply to a program, or programs, rather than a specific opening. (See the program details for more information about where to apply and what you will need.) It's then up to the folks with open opportunities, the mentors, to select applicants who are the best match for their project.

It may seem odd to send an application into the void with no idea of what offer might return. But there is a good reason behind the process, says Jenny Tieu, a project manager in JPL's Education Office, which manages the Laboratory's STEM internship programs.

"Applying to a specific program allows for the applicant to be seen by a much broader group of hiring managers and mentors and be considered for more opportunities as a result," says Tieu. "We look at the resumes that come in to see what skills are compatible with open projects and then match students to opportunities they may not have even realized were available to them."

Shirin Nataneli says she wouldn't have known there was an internship for her at the Laboratory were it not for a suggestion to apply from her professor. In 2020, Nataneli graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor's degree in biology. She was on the pre-med track, studying for the MCAT, when she decided to take a couple of courses in computer science.

"I got sucked in," says the Santa Monica College student and JPL intern, who is using computer science to help her team classify extreme bacteria that can survive on spacecraft. "I didn't even know there was an intersection between computer science and biology, but somehow I found a group at JPL that does just that."

Shirin Nataneli holds out her hand, showcasing the JPL campus in the background.

Shirin Nataneli poses for a photo with the JPL campus in the background. Image courtesy: Shirin Nataneli | + Expand image

University Recruiting Opportunities

For college students who are interested in space exploration but studying other fields, such as business, communications, and finance, as well as those studying STEM, there are additional opportunities on the JPL Jobs website. Listed by opportunity, more like a traditional job opening, these internships are managed by the Laboratory's University Recruiting team, which is active on LinkedIn and Instagram and can often be found at conferences and career fairs.

The When, What, and Where

Both Education Office and University Recruiting opportunities are paid and require a minimum 3.00 GPA, U.S. citizenship or legal permanent resident status, as well as an initial commitment of 10 weeks. Applicants must be enrolled in a college undergraduate or graduate program to be eligible. (See "The Pre-College Trajectory" section of this article below to learn about what high-school and younger students can do to prepare for a future JPL internship or STEM career.)

After pivoting to fully remote internships during the COVID-19 pandemic, JPL has continued to offer some remote or hybrid internships now that the Los Angeles-area campus has opened back up.

"We know that remote internships are effective," says Tieu. "Interns have said that they're able to foster connections with JPL employees and gain valuable experience even from home." She notes that while in-person internships give students maximum exposure to JPL – including visits to Laboratory attractions like mission control, the "clean room" where spacecraft are built, and a rover testing ground called the Mars Yard – remote internships have had a positive impact on students who previously weren't able to participate in person due to life constraints.

Most programs offer housing and travel allowances to students attending universities outside the 50-mile radius of JPL, so be sure to check the program details if traveling to or living in the Los Angeles area could be tricky financially.

Full-time and part-time opportunities can be found throughout the year with most openings in the summertime for full-time interns, meaning 40 hours per week. For summer opportunities, Tieu recommends applying no later than November or December. Applicants can usually expect to hear back by April if they are going to receive an offer for summer, but it's always a good idea to keep yourself in the running, as applicants may be considered for school-year opportunities.

Tieu adds, "If you haven't heard back, and you're closing in on the six-month mark of when you submitted your application, I recommend students go back in and renew their application [for the programs listed on the JPL Education website] so that it remains active in the candidate pool for consideration."

And unlike job applications, where it's sometimes frowned upon to apply to multiple positions at once, it's perfectly alright – and even encouraged – to apply to multiple internships.

You may also want to consider these opportunities, especially if you're looking for internships at other NASA centers, you're a foreign citizen, or you're interested in a postdoc position:

The most important thing is to not count yourself out, says Tieu. "If you're interested, work on that resume, get people to review your resume and provide input and feedback and apply. We don't expect students to come in knowing how to do everything. We're looking for students with demonstrated problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills. Software and other technical skills are an added bonus and icing on the cake."

More on that next, plus advice from JPL mentors on the skills and experience they look for from potential interns.

Skills for Space Explorers

JPL is known for doing the impossible, whether it's sending spacecraft to the farthest reaches of our solar system or landing a 2,000-pound rover on Mars. But potential applicants may be surprised to learn that reputation wasn't earned by always having the right answer on the first try – or even the second, third, or fourth.

A black and white photo shows a desert scrub area. Five men lay on the ground and behind them is a rudimentary rocket motor with hoses leading to a device proped up on a stack of sandbags.

JPL's founders, several Caltech graduate students led by Frank Malina along with rocket enthusiasts from the Pasadena area, take a break from setting up their experimental rocket motor in the Arroyo Seco, north of Pasadena, California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

In fact, the Laboratory has always had a penchant for experimentation, starting with its founders, Caltech students who in the 1930s would test rockets in the stairwells at their university. They had so many colossal (and dangerous) failures that they were banished to a dry riverbed north of Pasadena, which is now the site of JPL. Eventually, their rockets were successful and the laboratory they founded went on to build and launch the first American space satellite and send dozens of spacecraft to worlds throughout the solar system. But that trial-and-error attitude still permeates the Laboratory today.

As a result, potential interns who show enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, overcome obstacles, and work as part of a team often stand out more than those with academic achievements alone.

Standing Out

In an informal survey of JPL mentors, respondents most often cited problem-solving, communication, and teamwork skills as well as passion for learning and grit as the soft skills they look for when considering potential interns. Respondents added that students who can provide specific examples of these skills on their resume – and speak to them in an interview – stand out the most.

That doesn't necessarily have to mean leading your school’s robotics club or serving as your geology professor's teaching assistant, although those things don't hurt. But also consider less traditional examples, such as how critical thinking helps you overcome challenges while rock climbing or how you used leadership and teamwork to organize your friends to create a group costume for Comic Con.

"Students who share a link to their GitHub repository or online portfolio stand out to me because it shows they took the initiative and took time to build, develop, and create something on their own," says K'mar Grant-Smith, a JPL mentor who leads a team of developers in supporting and maintaining applications for the Laboratory's missions. "That vouches for you better than saying, 'I know these [coding] languages, and I took these courses.'"

Laurie Barge is a JPL scientist who co-leads an astrobiology lab exploring the possibility of life beyond Earth. The lab annually hosts about a dozen students and postdocs. Barge says that the top qualities she looks for in an intern are an expressed interest in her research and JPL as a whole as well as teamwork skills. "I look for students who are excited about the fact that they'll be working with 10 other students and postdocs and collaborating with other people on papers and abstracts."

Barge and Flores pose for a photo in a lab with test tubes and scientific devices surrounding them.

Astrobiologist Laurie Barge, left, and former intern Erika Flores, right, pose for a photo in the Origins and Habitability Lab that Barge co-leads at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Teamwork is also key for students working in engineering, software, or any other capacity across the Laboratory. When it comes to designing missions to go where nothing has gone before, collaboration between multi-disciplinary teams is a must.

In terms of technical skills, knowledge of coding languages is the most sought after, with Python, MATLAB, and C languages leading the pack. And in certain groups, like the one that helps identify where it's safe to land spacecraft on Mars, experience with specialized tools like Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, can help applicants stand out.

Still, for many mentors, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and be proactive are far more important than any technical skill.

"You don't have to be the most technically savvy person. If you have the initiative, the drive, and some experience, I find that to be more important than knowing 16 different [coding] languages," says Grant-Smith. "JPL is a unique place full of very smart people, but we're not good at what we do just because we have the know-how. We also have the drive and a passion for it."

Getting Involved

So you're a rock-climbing Red Planet enthusiast who likes to create "Dune"-inspired stillsuits when you're not busy at your part-time job making frappuccinos with your fellow baristas. How do you improve the chances this information will land on a JPL mentor's desk?

In a sentence: Build a strong network. So says Rebecca Gio of what made all the difference when she was struggling to find her academic groove right after high school. After a year spent repeating classes, changing schools, and feeling discouraged about what was next, Gio discovered what she needed to change her trajectory. She joined clubs and organizations that aligned with her career goals, formed study groups with her peers, found a mentor who could help her navigate everything from college classes to internship opportunities, and wasn't afraid to ask when she had a question.

Now, Gio is thriving – academically and on her career path. She's a junior studying computer science at Cal Poly Pomona and a first-time intern at JPL, where she's testing the software that will serve as the brains of a spacecraft designed to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.

"Being part of a community and being with people who have gone through similar experiences and can push you to do better, I think that that is just super motivating," says Gio.

JPL Education Program Manager Jenny Tieu agrees. “Along with academic achievements, we’re looking for students with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences who can work collaboratively to learn, adapt to new situations, and solve problems.”

A new employee sits across from a program coordinator in an office setting.

Jenny Tieu catches up with Brandon Murphy, who came to the Laboratory as an intern in 2016 through a program Tieu manages, and soon after, was hired full-time. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

To that end, she suggests students get involved in campus STEM clubs and communities, NASA challenges and activities, and volunteer opportunities, which offer career experiences, introduce students to a network of peers and professionals, and look great on a resume.

Tieu leads a JPL internship program that partners with historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. She says that one way students get connected with the program is by word-of-mouth from current and former participants, who include students and faculty researchers.

"We see a lot of great allyship with interns and research fellows telling their classmates about their experience at JPL, how to apply, and what to expect," says Tieu. "We foster deep relationships with our partner campuses and their faculty as well." In other words, students may not have to look farther than their own professors, campus info sessions, or career fairs to learn about opportunities at the Laboratory.

A career fair is where Gio first connected with JPL's University Recruiting team after what she jokingly calls "stalking" them from LinkedIn to Handshake to the Grace Hopper conference – where she eventually handed over her resume. "Just get familiar with where JPL is going to be and try to make sure that you're there," says Gio.

Rebecca and her mom and sister pose for a photo in the lobby of JPL's mission control with NASA/JPL logo behind them.

Rebecca Gio (right) poses for a photo with her mom and sister (left) in the lobby of the Laboratory's mission control building during the Explore JPL event in 2019. Gio says her mom and sister are her two biggest supporters and the reason behind all of her success. Image courtesy Rebecca Gio | + Expand image

In the sciences especially, those connections can also be made through a shared interest in a particular area of research. Barge says that most of the students she brings to JPL find out about her research from a peer or professor, exploring the lab's website, or from reading papers her team has published. Then, they reach out to her directly. This way she can create a position suited to a student's skills while also finding out if their interests mesh with the team.

"I want to know why they're interested in JPL and not a different institution," says Barge. "Why do they want to work with me and not another person at JPL? Why do they want to do this research and what specifically would they like to gain from this internship experience? I'm trying to figure out who really, really wants this particular opportunity."

As Gio points out, it's often the same advice that applies whether you're looking for an internship at JPL or in STEM or a future career.

"If you really want it, if you really want to be a STEM professional, make the most of your education, and find ways to apply those skills," says Gio. "I made sure that I was a part of campus groups where I was doing extra projects outside of schoolwork. I made sure that I was talking to other students to learn what they were doing. There's a lot of opportunities now to learn online for free. If there's something that you think would interest you, just go and do it."

Next, we'll share more ways students can prepare for a future internship or career in STEM before they get to college, plus resources parents and teachers can use to get younger students practicing STEM skills.

The Pre-College Trajectory

First, let's address one of the most common questions we get when it comes to internships at JPL. As of this writing, the Laboratory does not offer an open call for high-school interns. For most of the past several years, JPL has been able to bring in just a handful of high-school students from underserved communities thanks to partnerships with local school districts.

That's not to say that there won't be an open call for high-school internships at JPL in the future. If and when opportunities become available, they'll be posted here on the JPL Education website.

That said, there's still plenty students can and should do before college or when they're just entering college to explore STEM fields, get hands-on experience, and practice the skills they'll need for a future internship or career.

Exploring STEM Fields

Ota Lutz, a former classroom teacher, leads JPL's K-12 education team, which takes the Laboratory's science, engineering, and technical work and translates it into STEM education resources for teachers, students, and families.

Other than exploring high-school internships at other organizations, Lutz says that students in grades K-12 can get hands-on experience through clubs, competitions, and camps offered in person and online.

Schools often have engineering, robotics, math, and science clubs, but if not, look for one in your community or encourage students to start their own, perhaps with the help of a teacher.

Five girls assemble their invention, decorated with a starry decale, as a crowd looks on.

JPL's Invention Challenge is an annual engineering competition for middle and high school students. In 2017, a team (pictured) traveled all the way from Ethiopia to participate. | › Read the news story

JPL hosts annual science and engineering competitions while NASA hosts a slew of other competitions, including essay contests with opportunities to interact with scientists and even name spacecraft.

If cost is an issue for camps or competitions, Lutz recommends that parents or guardians reach out to the host organization to see if scholarships are available and that they explore free events offered by groups such as NASA's Solar System Ambassadors and Night Sky Network as well as programs at museums, science centers, and libraries in their community.

NASA also offers a number of citizen science projects that give students (and adults) opportunities to contribute to real research, from identifying near-Earth asteroids to observing and cataloging clouds to searching for planets beyond our solar system.

Building Foundational Skills

All of the above can help students explore whether they might be interested in STEM, but it's also important that kids start practicing the skills they will need to succeed academically and in a future internship or career.

"Developing those foundational STEM and language arts skills is incredibly important to future success," says Lutz, adding that, generally, students should practice what are called scientific habits of mind, "learning how to think critically, problem solve and do so in a methodical way as well as learning to examine data to determine trends without personal bias."

One way students can gain skills and knowledge directly related to a future STEM internship or career is by trying these educational projects and activities offered free online from the JPL Education Office. (Teachers can explore this page to find out how to turn these activities into standards-aligned classroom lessons.) Activities include engineering projects and science experiments as well as math and coding challenges, all of which feature the latest NASA missions and science.

A group of kids stands along a railing and drops their lunar lander designs to see how they perform.

Students test their designs as part of the "Make an Astronaut Lander" activity on the JPL Education website. | + Expand image

Coding skills, in particular, will serve students well no matter what career path they take, says Lutz. "Coding is something that is applicable across a broad range of subject areas and majors, so we strongly encourage students to learn some coding."

She points to the plethora of online courses and tutorials in coding and other STEM subjects that give students a chance to explore on their own and work on projects that interest them.

Parents and guardians can also help their kids develop foundational skills by allowing them to explore and tinker at home. "In every house, there's something that needs fixing," says Lutz. "Have the kid figure out how to fix a wobbly chair, but be patient with mistakes and encourage them to keep trying." That persistence and determination in overcoming obstacles will come in handy throughout their education and career path, whether it's learning how to code, getting into a robotics club in high school, applying and reapplying for internships, or figuring out how to land a spacecraft on Mars.

Similarly, it's never too early to start learning those ever-important soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and leadership. There's no single or right place to gain these skills, rather they come from a range of experiences that can include a school project, a part-time job, or a volunteer opportunity.

Ota Lutz stands behind a tabletop Mars globe and speaks with a group of people

Ota Lutz, who leads the Laboratory's K-12 education team, speaks with a group of JPL employees during a Pi Day event. | + Expand image

Lutz grew up in a small town in Central California and says, "I was a smart kid, but these things called soft skills were beyond me, and I was the shyest kid in my class." That is until she joined her high school's service club. "Through volunteering, I ended up interacting with people from all walks of life and learned how to work with teams. My club advisor coached me, and I started taking on more leadership roles in the club and in class projects."

Later, it was that same club advisor and her youth pastor who encouraged Lutz to attend a college that would challenge her academically despite pressures to stay closer to home.

"You never know what experiences or conversations might open up opportunities for you," says Lutz, which is why she recommends that students get comfortable talking with peers and teachers – and especially asking questions. "It's really important to learn to ask questions so you build your confidence in learning and also develop relationships with people."

Launching into College

As Lutz experienced, those foundational skills can make all the difference when it comes to transitioning into college, too.

"When I got to college, I discovered I was woefully unprepared even though I had been at the top of my class in high school," says Lutz. "I never learned how to study, and I mistakenly believed that asking questions would make me look dumb. After struggling on my own for a couple of years, I learned that study groups existed and they helped me get to know my peers, build my confidence, and improve my GPA."

While building a support network is key, don't overload yourself the first year, Lutz says. But do start taking classes in the field you're interested in to see if it's the right fit. "The important thing is getting some experience in the field that you think you want to go into."

After that, internships, whether they're at JPL, NASA or elsewhere, will give you an even deeper look at what a future career might be like. When the time comes, you'll know exactly where to look to set yourself on the right trajectory – that is just above under "The World of JPL Internships" and "Skills for Space Explorers."


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Internships, Students, Careers, Science, Computer Science, Engineering, Math, Programs, University Recruiting, Undergraduate, Graduate, College, High School, Mentors

  • Kim Orr
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Learn how, why, and what Perseverance will explore on Mars, plus find out about an exciting opportunity for you and your students to join in the adventure!


In the News

On Feb. 18, NASA's Perseverance Mars rover touched down on the Red Planet after a seven-month flight from Earth. Only the fifth rover to land on the planet, Perseverance represents a giant leap forward in our scientific and technological capabilities for exploring Mars and the possibility that life may have once existed on the Red Planet.

Here, you will:

Why It's Important

You might be wondering, "Isn't there already a rover on Mars?” The answer is yes! The Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012 and has spent its time on the Red Planet making fascinating discoveries about the planet's geology and environment – setting the stage for Perseverance. So, why send another rover to Mars? The lessons we’ve learned from Curiosity coupled with advancements in technology over the last decade are allowing us to take the next big steps in our exploration of Mars, including looking for signs of ancient microbial life, collecting rock samples to bring to Earth one day, and setting the stage for a potential future human mission to the Red Planet.

More specifically, the Perseverance Mars rover has four science objectives:

  • Identify past environments on Mars that could have supported microbial life
  • Seek signs of ancient microbial life within the rocks and soil using a new suite of scientific instruments
  • Collect rock samples of interest to be stored on the surface for possible return by future missions
  • Pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon

With these science objectives in mind, let's take a look at how the mission is designed to achieve these goals – from its science-rich landing site, Jezero Crater, to its suite of onboard tools and technology.

How It Works

Follow the Water

A false-color satellite image of Jezero Crater is green and yellow around the edges with a large blue circular crater in the middle.

Lighter colors represent higher elevation in this image of Jezero Crater on Mars, the landing site for the Perseverance rover. The black oval indicates the area in which the rover will touch down, also called a landing ellipse. Image Credit: NASA JPL/Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL/ESA | › Full image and caption

While present-day Mars is a cold, barren planet, science suggests that it was once very similar to Earth. The presence of clay, dried rivers and lakes, and minerals that formed in the presence of water provide extensive evidence that Mars once had flowing water at its surface. As a result, a mission looking for signs of ancient life, also known as biosignatures, should naturally follow that water. That’s because water represents the essential ingredient for life as we know it on Earth, and it can host a wide variety of organisms.

This is what makes Perseverance's landing site in Jezero Crater such a compelling location for scientific exploration. The crater was originally formed by an ancient meteorite impact about 3.8 billion years ago, and it sits within an even larger, older impact basin. The crater also appears to have once been home to an ancient lake fed by a river that formed the delta where Perseverance will begin its exploration, by exploring the foot of the river delta.

Take a tour of Perseverance's landing site in this animated flyover of the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Tools of the Trade

Perseverance will begin its scientific exploration with the assistance of an array of tools, also known as science instruments.

An illustration of the rover is shown with each of its science instruments deployed and identified.

This artist's concept shows the various science tools, or instruments, onboard the rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Learn more about the rover's science instruments

Like its predecessor, Perseverance will have a number of cameras – 23, in fact! – serving as the eyes of the rover for scientists and engineers back on Earth. Nine of these cameras are dedicated to mobility, or tracking the rover's movements; six will capture images and videos as the rover travels through the Martian atmosphere down to the surface, a process known as entry, descent, and landing; and seven are part of the science instrumentation.

The SuperCam instrument is shown on a laboratory table before being installed on the rover.

SuperCam's mast unit before being installed atop the Perseverance rover's remote sensing mast. The electronics are inside the gold-plated box on the left. The end of the laser peeks out from behind the left side of the electronics. Image credit: CNES | › Learn more about SuperCam

Six pump-like structures control a rectangular metal instrument in this animated image.

PIXL can make slow, precise movements to point at specific parts of a rock's surface so the instrument's X-ray can discover where – and in what quantity – chemicals are distributed in a given sample. This GIF has been considerably sped up to show how the hexapod moves. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Learn more about PIXL

A small camera sits in gold-color housing on a white rover body.

A close-up view of an engineering model of SHERLOC, one the instruments aboard NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Learn more about SHERLOC

Navcam, located on the mast (or "head") of the rover, will capture images to help engineers control the rover. Meanwhile, Mastcam-Z, also on the rover’s mast, can zoom in, focus, and take 3D color pictures and video at high speed to allow detailed examination of distant objects. A third camera, Supercam, fires a small laser burst to excite compounds on the surface and determine their composition using spectroscopy. Supercam is also equipped with a microphone. This microphone (one of two on the rover) will allow scientists to hear the pop the laser makes upon hitting its target, which may give scientists additional information about the hardness of the rock.

Leaning more toward chemistry, the Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) will allow us to look at the composition of rocks and soil down to the size of a grain of salt. Elements respond to different types of light, such as X-rays, in predictable ways. So by shining an X-ray on Martian rocks and soil, we can identify elements that may be part of a biosignature.

Meanwhile, a device called SHERLOC will look for evidence of ancient life using a technique called Deep UV Raman spectroscopy. Raman spectroscopy can help scientists see the crystallinity and molecular structure of rocks and soil. For example, some molecules and crystals luminesce, or emit light, when exposed to ultraviolet – similar to how a blacklight might be used to illuminate evidence in a crime scene. Scientists have a good understanding of how chemicals considered key to life on Earth react to things like ultraviolet light. So, SHERLOC could help us identify those same chemicals on Mars. In other words, it can contribute to identifying those biosignatures we keep talking about.

Rounding out its role as a roving geologist on wheels, Perseverance also has instruments for studying beneath the surface of Mars. An instrument called the Radar Imager of Mars Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) will use ground-penetrating radar to analyze depths down to about 100 feet (30 meters) below the surface. Mounted on the rear of the rover, RIMFAX will help us understand geological features that can't be seen by the other cameras and instruments.

The rover's suite of instruments demonstrates how multiple scientific disciplines – chemistry, physics, biology, geology, and engineering – work in concert to further our understanding of Mars and help scientists uncover whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.

Next Generation Tech

At NASA, scientists and engineers are always looking to push the envelope and, while missions such as Perseverance are ambitious in themselves, they also provide an opportunity for NASA to test new technology that could be used for future missions. Two excellent examples of such technology joining Perseverance on Mars are MOXIE and the first ever Mars helicopter, Ingenuity.

Engineers in white smocks lower a gold-colored cube into the rover

Members of Perseverance mission team install MOXIE into the belly of the rover in the cleanroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

MOXIE stands for the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. Operating at 800 degrees Celsius, MOXIE takes in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the thin Martian atmosphere and splits those molecules into pure oxygen using what is called a catalyst. A catalyst is a chemical that allows for reactions to take place under conditions they normally wouldn’t. MOXIE provides an incredible opportunity for NASA to create something usable out of the limited resources available on Mars. Over the duration of the rover's mission, MOXIE will run for a total of one hour every time it operates, distributed over the course of the prime mission timeframe, to determine whether it can reliably produce breathable oxygen. The goal of operating this way is to allow scientists to determine the performance across a variety of environmental conditions that a dedicated, human-mission-sized oxygen plant would see during operations - day versus night, winter versus summer, etc. Oxygen is of great interest for future missions not just because of its necessity for future human life support on Mars, but also because it can be used as a rocket propellant, perhaps allowing for future small-scale sample return missions to Earth.

The helicopter with four long blades, a cube-shape body and long skinny legs sites in the forground with the wheels of the rover visible to its right.

This artist's concept shows Ingenuity, the first Mars helicopter, on the Red Planet's surface with Perseverance (partially visible on the left) in the distance. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

The Mars Ingenuity helicopter is likewise an engineering first. It is a technology demonstration to test powered flight on Mars. Because the Martian atmosphere is so thin, flight is incredibly difficult. So, the four-pound (1.8-kilogram), solar powered helicopter is specially designed with two, four-foot (1.2-meter) long counter-rotating blades that spin at 2,400 rotations per minute. In the months after Perseverance lands, Ingenuity will drop from the belly of the rover. If all goes well, it will attempt test flights of increasing difficulty, covering incrementally greater heights and distances for about 30 days. In the future, engineers hope flying robots can allow for a greater view of the surrounding terrain for robotic and human missions alike.

Teach It

Take part in a worldwide “teachable moment” and bring students along for the ride as NASA lands the Perseverance rover on Mars February 18. Science communicator and host of “Emily’s Wonder Lab” on Netflix, Emily Calandrelli, shares how you can join the adventure with your students! | Register on Eventbrite

The process of landing on Mars with such an advanced mission is no doubt an exciting opportunity to engage students across all aspects of STEM – and NASA wants to help teachers, educators and families bring students along for the adventure with the Mission to Mars Student Challenge. This challenge will lead students through designing and building a mission to Mars with a guided education plan and resources from NASA, listening to expert talks, and sharing student work with a worldwide audience. 

Learn more about the challenge and explore additional education resources related to the Perseverance Mars rover mission at https://go.nasa.gov/mars-challenge

Watch the Landing

The next chapter of Perseverance’s journey takes place on Feb. 18 at 12 p.m. PST (3 p.m. EST), when the mission reaches Mars after seven months of travelling through space. Join NASA as we countdown to landing with online events for teachers, students, and space enthusiasts! The landing day broadcast can be seen on NASA TV and the agency's website starting at 11:15 a.m. PST (2:15 p.m. EST). For a full listing of online events leading up to and on landing day, visit the mission's Watch Online page.

Follow landing updates on NASA's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Explore More

More Resources From NASA

  • Website: Perseverance Mars Rover
  • Website: NASA Mars Exploration
  • Website: Space Place - All About Mars
  • Video: Perseverance Mission Landing Trailer
  • Profiles: Meet the Martians
  • Simulation: Fly Along with Perseverance in Real-Time
  • Virtual Events: Watch Online – NASA Mars Exploration
  • Videos: Mars exploration videos from NASA
  • Images: Mars exploration images and graphics from NASA
  • Articles: Articles about Mars exploration from NASA
  • Share: Social Media
  • TAGS: Mars, Perseverance, Mars 2020, Science, Engineering, Robotics, Educators, Teachers, Students, Teachable Moments, Teach, Learn, Mars Landing

    • Brandon Rodriguez
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    Yohn Ellis wears a JPL shirt and poses in front of a brick wall.

    When Yohn Ellis got his chance to intern at NASA, he wasn't about to let it slip away, pandemic or not. Growing up and going to school in Houston, Texas, the home of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Ellis has long been a superfan of the agency. So when he was offered an internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, he jumped at the chance. That was before all but a handful of JPL's essential employees were required to switch to remote work. So instead of a hands-on role, Ellis got first-hand experience in how the laboratory overcomes challenges. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Ellis, a grad student studying electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University, to learn more about his remote internship this past summer, researching how miniature devices could make their way into spacecraft of the future. Ellis talks about how he made the most of the experience while sharing a full house with his family, what it meant to be part of the JPL community, and how he hopes to pay it all forward.

    What are you working on at JPL?

    I am working with the radar technology team, doing research into nanotechnology [a field of study looking at miniaturized (nanoscale) materials and devices]. When my internship first started, I researched how nanotech is being used in medicine, health, business, and all these other fields. Then, I started to focus on doing simulations of nanoelectronics. I'm working on gaining new insight into nanotechnology to see how we can utilize it for future projects at JPL.

    Tell me a bit more about the simulations you're doing. How might your work be applied to JPL missions and science in the future?

    On nanoHUB.org, there are hundreds of tools you can use to simulate different aspects of nanotechnology and nanoelectronics. So I've looked into a lot of these tools. I've had to stick to one of the more user-friendly tools, because I honestly haven't had a lot of exposure to nanotech before. So this internship has been a great learning experience for me. Right now, I'm utilizing a simulation of a nano-transistor. So I'm applying different characteristics and settings to generate different effects to see if there are benefits to making our transistors smaller so we could fit more of them into an integrated circuit.

    At the core of nanotech, you want to make things smaller and smaller. If we can make spacecraft and spacecraft instruments smaller, then we can do more science while staying within our size, mass, and power constraints. It's not always clear what the benefits of nanotechnology will be until you start experimenting. With this field, there's a lot of information that we can learn through simulations and modeling because we don't yet know about the behaviors of these new materials. That is why it's beneficial to do these simulations and this research.

    What is your average day like?

    Before the COVID pandemic hit, my project was going to be at JPL, doing hands-on research. But after [most JPL employees went on mandatory telework] I was fortunate enough to keep my internship and transition to a virtual experience, where I could do some research at home using the simulation software.

    My average day is very interesting, working from home around the rest of my family. There are a lot of personalities going on. So it might be that the TV is on downstairs or the dog is barking or my brothers are playing a game or my dad is cooking.

    But as far as what I have going on, I start my day around 8 or 9 a.m. and work until about 7 p.m. I check in to some of the virtual webinars. There are a lot of great webinars going on for interns about the cool projects people are working on at JPL. I'm also conducting research, running simulations, reading articles, and sharing what I find out with my mentors, Mohammad Ashtijou and Eric Perez. I produce presentations pretty much weekly, if not biweekly, to convey what I've learned, and then my mentors guide me and steer me in the proper direction.

    So my days are pretty unique. Working from home has definitely been an adjustment, but there are some benefits to working from home, such as not having to pay as much for gas or commute anywhere. You just wake up and get yourself started for the day. I will say there are some disadvantages, like not being able to actually put your hands on the stuff you're researching, but there's some benefit to running the simulations instead.

    What has the experience of a virtual internship been like?

    It's a bit of an adjustment, because I'm a very hands-on person. I like going out there and being involved, especially in the workplace and networking. But there is a way to network virtually. I've met some very interesting people and have had a chance to share some of who I am with them, to kind of put myself out there. I even created a virtual newsletter. Every time I network with someone new, I send them my newsletter to bridge that networking gap and paint a picture of who I am outside of the work that I do. I enjoy getting to share that with everyone, and I get a lot of good feedback from it.

    Being a virtual intern is something that I'd see myself doing again. I've loved the virtual experience. It's been great. With everything being virtual, I feel like everyone has a little bit more time to interact with you. They're more likely to take that meeting and just talk to you about how your day is going and share how things are going at home for them, too.

    So the virtual experience was definitely something that I'll never forget, and I'm super appreciative of it. There was one point when JPL thought they would have to postpone the internship. With me being a full-time grad student, I desperately wanted to have this experience, because I plan to continue toward a Ph.D. Not everyone gets to say they interned with NASA.

    I can honestly say that this internship, even though it's virtual, has by far been the most beneficial from an exposure standpoint. The stuff that's being done at NASA-JPL is out of this world. I'm pretty sure a lot of people use that type of verbiage when they talk about NASA, but it really is amazing some of the stuff that I've been exposed to – from the missions that are going on to some of the resources that I have had access to as an intern to develop my skills and network.

    What is the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience you've had so far?

    Learning about Perseverance, the Mars rover that launched this summer, and hearing first-hand about how it was built, how it's going to collect soil samples, and look into biosignatures – you would think it's science fiction. To me, it's so exciting, because as a youth, I dreamed about working at NASA, and now I'm doing it.

    I've also felt a real connection to the culture at JPL. I've felt supported and comforted by JPL as an African-American man during these hardships we've been going through. It's true that JPL is making a lot of advancements in science and space, but I think it's uniquely JPL that there are people there who truly care about you as an individual. They see you, and they hear you, and they want to help you develop as a person as well as an engineer or professional. I really felt as if I was cared for as an individual this summer, and that spoke a lot to me.

    I fully agree. I haven't had the life experiences that you've had, but that is certainly something that I feel as well. This is my third internship at JPL, and all the mentors that I've had have really expressed that you're not just here to contribute your labor for 10 weeks. You're here to develop as a person. And they want to help you develop.

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

    I'm wrapping up my Master's in electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college and university [HBCU] in Houston, Texas. My thesis is about machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am utilizing algorithms that do regression analysis to predict ground-water levels throughout the state of Texas. I was recruited to do that research through a program at my university called CREDIT [Center of excellence in Research and Education for big military Data inTelligence.] When I graduated from undergrad and expressed that I wanted to continue to graduate school for my Master's degree, CREDIT extended the opportunity for me to join the study as a graduate research assistant. So I've been doing that for about two years now, and I'm getting ready to transition to a Ph.D. level.

    What brought you to JPL for this internship?

    I vividly remember being infatuated with NASA as a youth, so much so that my parents ordered me a pamphlet from Space Center Houston with posters and stickers explaining all of the cool things happening across NASA. I will never forget when I was able to visit the center during spring break in 2009. It was by far the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed as a youth.

    As life goes on, you don't think as much about your childhood dreams, but every time I saw an opportunity at NASA I applied. When I saw that JPL was looking to take on interns, I was just wrapping up my Master's, and I figured, "Let me give it another shot." I spent a lot of time working on my application, making sure it looked as good as possible. Who would've thought that months later, I would've been afforded the opportunity?

    What's your ultimate career goal?

    My goal is to develop my career enough so that I can share my experience and passion with others in my community and communities similar to the one I grew up in. I also want to share how STEM benefits society and how a career in STEM is attainable. A lot of times, people say, "I don't like math," or, "I don't like science." Quite frankly, I see myself as someone who didn't like those subjects much either. But I knew that I wanted to work for NASA one day or work in the field of engineering, so I had to get comfortable with those subjects. So my ultimate goal is to know that my career is set so that I can give back to communities where there are people who might be unsure of what they are capable of. I would also like to give kudos to JPL, because I see that they have a lot of involvement with local communities, doing educational outreach.

    I fully agree. I've been giving talks to high-school students about the Perseverance Mars rover, and it is the most rewarding thing to see younger students who don't really know what they want to do in the future get excited [about STEM]. Now they're interested, and you can give them the tools to go out and maybe pursue it.

    Most definitely. And that's how you pour into the next person so that they can pour into the next person.

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

    I remember early on in my JPL internship, in one of the webinars, they expressed how this experience is meant to ultimately give you exposure but also inspire you to develop yourself. I believe that I'm contributing in that way by being someone who is driven, motivated, and also willing to take those chances to look deeper than the basic assignment.

    When you're not in school or interning, how do you like to spend your time?

    I'm having a good time with my family. My brothers and I play board games together. I work out sometimes. For the most part, I've been spending time with the family, playing a video game in my free time, shopping online a little bit, and connecting with my frat brothers. I've done a lot of virtual events for people in the community, talking about COVID safety and stressing the importance of voting, with the elections coming up.

    I also find myself doing a lot of internal development. So that would be reading a little bit more for pleasure, and also doing some assessments of my goals and budgeting. I like to look at this pandemic as a sort of "halftime" when I can work on some things for me to better develop myself.

    My last question is a fun one: If you could have a spacecraft built to study anything you want, what would it be?

    I'd like to study how to sustain or better germinate resources on Earth. If we can find a way to learn what's going on globally on a more intimate scale, I believe that would help us utilize our planet's resources more effectively – resources that could pertain to producing more crops for food, for example.

    This Q&A is part of an ongoing series highlighting the stories and experiences of students and faculty who came to JPL as part of the laboratory's collaboration with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. › Read more from the series

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    Kim Orr contributed to this story.


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

    Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

    TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, College Students, Careers, Jobs, Engineering, Electrical Engineering, HBCU, Black History Month

    • Evan Kramer
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