Artist's concept of the Perseverance rover on Mars

Update: July 6, 2020 – Due to processing delays in preparations to unite the spacecraft with the rocket, the first launch attempt will be no earlier than July 30 at 4:50 a.m. PDT (7:50 a.m. EDT). The launch period has been expanded to Aug. 15. Dates updated below. › Read more


Perseverance, NASA's most advanced Mars rover yet, is scheduled to leave Earth for its seven-month journey to the Red Planet this summer.

Only the fifth NASA rover destined for Mars, Perseverance is designed to build on the work and scientific discoveries of its predecessors. Find out more about the rover's science goals and new technologies below. Plus, learn how you can bring the exciting engineering and science of this mission to students with lessons and DIY projects covering topics like biology, geology, physics, mathematics, engineering, coding and language arts.

Why It's Important

Perseverance may look similar to Curiosity – the NASA rover that's been exploring Mars since 2012 – but the latest rover's new science instruments, upgraded cameras, improved onboard computers and new landing technologies make it uniquely capable of accomplishing the science goals planned for the mission.

Diagram of the Perseverance Mars rover's science instruments. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Looking for signs of habitability

The first of the rover's four science goals deals with studying the habitability of Mars. The mission is designed to look for environments that could have supported life in the past.

Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) crater that scientists believe was once filled with water. Data from orbiters at the Red Planet suggest that water once flowed into the crater, carrying clay minerals from the surrounding area, depositing them in the crater and forming a delta. We find similar conditions on Earth, where the right combination of water and minerals can support life. By comparing these to the conditions we find on Mars, we can better understand the Red Planet's ability to support life. The Perseverance rover is specially designed to study the habitability of Mars' Jezero Crater using a suite of scientific instruments, or tools, that can evaluate the environment and the processes that influence it.

This animated flyover shows the area where Perseverance will land in February 2021 and is narrated by the mission's project scientist, Ken Farley. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Learn more about the mission's landing site | Watch on YouTube

Seeking signs of ancient life

The rover's second science goal is closely linked with its first: Perseverance will seek out evidence that microbial life once existed on Mars in the past. In doing so, the mission could make progress in understanding the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe – the scientific field known as astrobiology.

It's important to note that the rover won't be looking for present-day life. Instead, its instruments are designed to look for clues left behind by ancient life. We call those clues biosignatures. A biosignature might be a pattern, object or substance that was created by life in the past and can be identified by certain properties, such as chemical composition, mineralogy or structure.

To better understand if a possible biosignature is really a clue left behind by ancient life, we need to look for biosignatures and study the habitability of the environment. Discovering that an environment is habitable does not automatically mean life existed there and some geologic processes can leave behind biosignature-like signs in non-habitable environments.

Collecting samples

Perseverance's third science goal is to gather samples of Martian rocks and soil. The rover will leave the samples on Mars, where future missions could collect them and bring them back to Earth for further study.

Scientists can learn a lot about Mars with a rover like Perseverance that can take in situ (Latin for "on-site") measurements. But examining samples from Mars in full-size laboratories on Earth can provide far more information about whether life ever existed on Mars than studying them on the Martian surface.

Perseverance will take the first step toward making a future sample return possible. The rover is equipped with special coring drill bits that will collect scientifically interesting samples similar in size to a piece of chalk. Each sample will be capped and sealed in individual collection tubes. The tubes will be stored aboard the rover until the mission team determines the best strategic locations on the planet's surface to leave them. The collection tubes will stay on the Martian surface until a potential future campaign collects them for return to Earth. NASA and the European Space Agency are solidifying concepts for the missions that will complete this campaign.

Preparing for future astronauts

Astronauts, an exploration vehicle and a habitat are shown among a rich orange landscape

This artist's concept depicts astronauts and human habitats on Mars. The Perseverance Mars rover will carry a number of technologies that could pave the way for astronauts to explore Mars. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Like the robotic spacecraft that landed on the Moon to prepare for the Apollo astronauts, the Perseverance rover's fourth science goal will help pave the way for humans to eventually visit Mars.

Before humans can set foot on the Red Planet, we need to know more about conditions there and demonstrate that technologies needed for returning to Earth, and survival, will work. That’s where MOXIE comes in. Short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, MOXIE is designed to separate oxygen from carbon dioxide (CO2) in Mars' atmosphere. The atmosphere that surrounds the Red Planet is 96% CO2. But there's very little oxygen – only 0.13%, compared with the 21% in Earth’s atmosphere.

Oxygen is a crucial ingredient in rocket fuel and is essential for human survival. MOXIE could show how similar systems sent to Mars ahead of astronauts could generate rocket fuel to bring astronauts back to Earth and even create oxygen for breathing.

Join JPL mechanical engineer Mike Meacham to find out how the MOXIE instrument on NASA's Perseverance Mars rover is designed to convert carbon dioxide from Mars' atmosphere into oxygen. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Flying the first Mars helicopter

Joining the Perseverance rover on Mars is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. Dubbed Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will be the first test of powered flight on another planet.

The lightweight helicopter rides to Mars attached to the belly of the rover. After Perseverance is on Mars, the helicopter will be released from the rover and will attempt up to five test flights in the thin atmosphere of Mars. After a successful first attempt at lifting off, hovering a few feet above the ground for 20 to 30 seconds and landing, the operations team can attempt incrementally higher and longer-distance flights. Ingenuity is designed to fly for up to 90 seconds, reach an altitude of 15 feet and travel a distance of nearly 980 feet. Sending commands to the helicopter and receiving information about the flights relayed through the rover, the helicopter team hopes to collect valuable test data about how the vehicle performs in Mars’ thin atmosphere. The results of the Mars Helicopter's test flights will help inform the development of future vehicles that could one day explore Mars from the air. Once Ingenuity has completed its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its mission on the surface of the Red Planet.

Join JPL mechanical engineer Mike Meacham to learn about the first helicopter designed for Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

How It Works

Before any of that can happen, the Perseverance Mars rover needs to successfully lift off from Earth and begin its journey to the Red Planet. Here's how the launch is designed to ensure that the spacecraft and Mars are at the same place on landing day.

About every 26 months, Mars and Earth are at points in their orbits around the Sun that allow us to launch spacecraft to Mars most efficiently. This span of time, called a launch period, lasts several weeks. For Perseverance, the launch period is targeted to begin at 4:50 a.m. PDT (7:50 a.m. EDT) on July 30 and end on Aug. 15. Each day, there is a launch window lasting about two hours. If all conditions are good, we have liftoff! If there's a little too much wind or other inclement weather, or perhaps engineers want to take a look at something on the rocket during the window, the countdown can be paused, and teams will try again the next day.

Regardless of when Perseverance launches during this period, the rover will land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, at around 12:30 PST. Engineers can maintain this fixed landing date because when the rover launches, it will go into what's called a parking orbit around Earth. Depending on when the launch happens, the rover will coast in the temporary parking orbit for 24 to 36 minutes. Then, the upper stage of the rocket will ignite for about seven minutes, giving the spacecraft the velocity it needs to reach Mars.

Like the Curiosity rover, Perseverance will launch from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on an Atlas V 541 rocket – one of the most powerful rockets available for interplanetary spacecraft.

Watch a live broadcast of the launch from the Kennedy Space Center on NASA TV and the agency’s website. Visit the Perseverance rover mission website to explore a full listing of related virtual events and programming, including education workshops, news briefings and conversations with mission experts. Follow launch updates on NASA's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Teach It

The launch of NASA's next Mars rover and the first Mars Helicopter is a fantastic opportunity to engage students in real-world problem solving across the STEM fields. Check out some of the resources below to see how you can bring NASA missions and science to students in the classroom and at home.

Virtual Education Workshops

Lessons for Educators

Activities for Students

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TAGS: Mars, Mars 2020, Perseverance, Mars Rover, launch, Teach, teachers, educators, parents, lessons, activities, resources, K-12, STEM, events, students, science, engineering

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Illustration of spacecraft on a light purple background that reads "NASA Pi Day Challenge"

Update: March 16, 2020 – The answers to the 2020 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key (also available as a text-only doc).


In the News

Our annual opportunity to indulge in a shared love of space exploration, mathematics and sweet treats has come around again! Pi Day is the March 14 holiday that celebrates the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.

Infographic of all of the Pi in the Sky 7 graphics and problems

Visit the Pi in the Sky 7 lesson page to explore classroom resources and downloads for the 2019 NASA Pi Day Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Overhead view of Mars with a comparison of the smaller landing ellipse made possible by Range Trigger technology

A new Mars landing technique called Range Trigger is reducing the size of the ellipse where spacecraft touch down. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Composite image of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko | › Full image and caption

Diagram of an airplane flying over a section of ocean with an example of the spectral data that CORAL collects

The CORAL mission records the spectra of light reflected from the ocean to study the composition and health of Earth's coral reefs. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Rays of bright orange and red shoot out diagonally from a blue circle surrounding the star Beta Pictoris

The star Beta Pictoris and its surrounding debris disk in near-infrared light. Image credit: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al. | › Full image and caption

Besides providing an excuse to eat all varieties of pie, Pi Day gives us a chance to appreciate some of the ways NASA uses pi to explore the solar system and beyond. You can do the math for yourself – or get students doing it – by taking part in the NASA Pi Day Challenge. Find out below how to test your pi skills with real-world problems faced by NASA space explorers, plus get lessons and resources for educators.

How It Works

The ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter is equal to pi, which is often rounded to 3.14. But pi is what is known as an irrational number, so its decimal representation never ends, and it never repeats. Though it has been calculated to trillions of digits, we use far fewer at NASA.

Pi is useful for all sorts of things, like calculating the circumference and area of circular objects and the volume of cylinders. That's helpful information for everyone from farmers irrigating crops to tire manufacturers to soup-makers filling their cans. At NASA, we use pi to calculate the densities of planets, point space telescopes at distant stars and galaxies, steer rovers on the Red Planet, put spacecraft into orbit and so much more! With so many practical applications, it's no wonder so many people love pi!

In the U.S., 3.14 is also how we refer to March 14, which is why we celebrate the mathematical marvel that is pi on that date each year. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.

The NASA Pi Day Challenge

This year's NASA Pi Day Challenge poses four puzzlers that require pi to compare the sizes of Mars landing areas, calculate the length of a year for one of the most distant objects in the solar system, measure the depth of the ocean from an airplane, and determine the diameter of a distant debris disk. Learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems below or click the link to jump right into the challenge.

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge
› Educators, get the lesson here!

Mars Maneuver

Long before a Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet, scientists and engineers must determine where to land. Rather than choosing a specific landing spot, NASA selects an area known as a landing ellipse. A Mars rover could land anywhere within this ellipse. Choosing where the landing ellipse is located requires compromising between getting as close as possible to interesting science targets and avoiding hazards like steep slopes and large boulders, which could quickly bring a mission to its end. In the Mars Maneuver problem, students use pi to see how new technologies have reduced the size of landing ellipses from one Mars rover mission to the next.

Cold Case

In January 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sped past Arrokoth, a frigid, primitive object that orbits within the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped ring of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Arrokoth is the most distant Kuiper Belt object to be visited by a spacecraft and only the second object in the region to have been explored up close. To get New Horizons to Arrokoth, mission navigators needed to know the orbital properties of the object, such as its speed, distance from the Sun, and the tilt and shape of its orbit. This information is also important for scientists studying the object. In the Cold Case problem, students can use pi to determine how long it takes the distant object to make one trip around the Sun.

Coral Calculus

Coral reefs provide food and shelter to many ocean species and protect coastal communities against extreme weather events. Ocean warming, invasive species, pollutants, and acidification caused by climate change can harm the tiny living coral organisms responsible for building coral reefs. To better understand the health of Earth's coral reefs, NASA's COral Reef Airborne Laboratory, or CORAL, mission maps them from the air using spectroscopy, studying how light interacts with the reefs. To make accurate maps, CORAL must be able to differentiate among coral, algae and sand on the ocean floor from an airplane. And to do that, it needs to calculate the depth of the ocean at every point it maps by measuring how much sunlight passes through the ocean and is reflected upward from the ocean floor. In Coral Calculus, students use pi to measure the water depth of an area mapped by the CORAL mission and help scientists better understand the status of Earth's coral reefs.

Planet Pinpointer

Our galaxy contains billions of stars, many of which are likely home to exoplanets – planets outside our solar system. So how do scientists decide where to look for these worlds? Using data gathered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers found that they're more likely to find giant exoplanets around young stars surrounded by debris disks, which are made up of material similar to what's found in the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt in our solar system. Sure enough, after discovering a debris disk around the star Beta Pictoris, researchers later confirmed that it is home to at least two giant exoplanets. Learning more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk could give scientists insight into the formation of these giant worlds. In Planet Pinpointer, put yourself in the role of a NASA scientist to learn more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk, using pi to calculate the distance across it.

Participate

Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASAJPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge

Blogs and Features

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NOAA Video Series: Coral Comeback

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Math, Pi Day, Pi, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Events, Space, Educators, Teachers, Parents, Students, STEM, Lessons, Problem Set, Mars 2020, Perseverance, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Mars landing, MU69, Arrokoth, New Horizons, Earth science, Climate change, CORAL, NASA Expeditions, coral reefs, oceans, Spitzer, exoplanets, Beta Pictoris, stars, universe, space telescope

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Animated illustration of Earth orbiting the Sun

You may have noticed that there's an extra day on your calendar this year. That's not a typo; it's leap day! Leap day is another name for Feb. 29, a date that typically comes around every four years, during a leap year. Why doesn't Feb. 29 appear on the calendar every year? Read on to find out how the imperfect match between the length of a calendar year and Earth's orbit results in the need to make small adjustments to our calendar on a regular basis. Explore leap day resources for students, too.

The length of a year is based on how long it takes a planet to revolve around the Sun. Earth takes about 365.2422 days to make one revolution around the Sun. That's about six hours longer than the 365 days that we typically include in a calendar year. As a result, every four years we have about 24 extra hours that we add to the calendar at the end of February in the form of leap day. Without leap day, the dates of annual events, such as equinoxes and solstices, would slowly shift to later in the year, changing the dates of each season. After only a century without leap day, summer wouldn’t start until mid-July!

But the peculiar adjustments don't end there. If Earth revolved around the Sun in exactly 365 days and six hours, this system of adding a leap day every four years would need no exceptions. However, Earth takes a little less time than that to orbit the Sun. Rounding up and inserting a 24-hour leap day every four years adds about 45 extra minutes to every four-year leap cycle. That adds up to about three days every 400 years. To correct for that, years that are divisible by 100 don't have leap days unless they’re also divisible by 400. If you do the math, you'll see that the year 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200 and 2300 will not be.

After learning more about leap years with this article from NASA's Space Place, students can do the math for themselves with this leap day problem set. Follow that up with writing a letter or poem to be opened on the next leap day. And since we've got an extra 24 hours this year, don't forget to take a little time to relax!

Explore More

Check out these related resources for kids from NASA Space Place:

TAGS: K-12 Education, Math, Leap Day, Leap Year, Events, Space, Educators, Teachers, Parents, Students, STEM, Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you use resources from NASA in the classroom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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In the News

On Jan. 30, 2020, the venerable Spitzer Space Telescope mission will officially come to an end as NASA makes way for a next-generation observatory. For more than 16 years, Spitzer has served as one of NASA’s four Great Observatories, surveying the sky in infrared. During its lifetime, Spitzer detected planets and signs of habitability beyond our solar system, returned stunning images of regions where stars are born, spied light from distant galaxies formed when the universe was young, and discovered a huge, previously-unseen ring around Saturn. Read on to learn more about this amazing mission and gather tools to teach your students that there truly is more than meets the eye in the infrared universe!

How It Worked

Human eyes can see only the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum known as visible light. This is because the human retina can detect only certain wavelengths of light through special photoreceptors called rods and cones. Everything we see with our eyes either emits or reflects visible light. But visible light is just a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. To "see" things that emit or reflect other wavelengths of light, we must rely on technology designed to sense those portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Using this specialized technology allows us to peer into space and observe objects and processes we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

Infographic showing the electromagnetic spectrum and applications for various wavelengths.

This diagram shows wavelengths of light on the electromagnetic spectrum and how they're used for various applications. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Infrared is one of the wavelengths of light that cannot be seen by human eyes. (It can sometimes be felt by our skin as heat if we are close enough to a strong source.) All objects that have temperature emit many wavelengths of light. The warmer they are, the more light they emit. Most things in the universe are warm enough to emit infrared radiation, and that light can be seen by an infrared-detecting telescope. Because Earth’s atmosphere absorbs most infrared radiation, infrared observations of space are best conducted from outside the planet's atmosphere.

Learn more about the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and how NASA uses it to explore space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

So, to get a look at space objects that were otherwise hidden from view, NASA launched the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003. Cooled by liquid helium and capable of viewing the sky in infrared, Spitzer launched into an Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun, where it became part of the agency's Great Observatory program along with the visible-light and near-infrared-detecting Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory. (Keeping the telescope cold reduces the chances of heat, or infrared light, from the spacecraft interfering with its astronomical observations.)

Over its lifetime, Spitzer has been used to detect light from objects and regions in space where the human eye and optical, or visible-light-sensing, telescopes may see nothing.

Why It's Important

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has returned volumes of data, yielding numerous scientific discoveries.

Vast, dense clouds of dust and gas block our view of many regions of the universe. Infrared light can penetrate these clouds, enabling Spitzer to peer into otherwise hidden regions of star formation, newly forming planetary systems and the centers of galaxies.

A whisp of orange and green dust bows out beside a large blue star among a field of smaller blue stars.

The bow shock, or shock wave, in front of the giant star Zeta Ophiuchi shown in this image from Spitzer is visible only in infrared light. The bow shock is created by winds that flow from the star, making ripples in the surrounding dust. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Infrared astronomy also reveals information about cooler objects in space, such as smaller stars too dim to be detected by their visible light, planets beyond our solar system (called exoplanets) and giant molecular clouds where new stars are born. Additionally, many molecules in space, including organic molecules thought to be key to life's formation, have unique spectral signatures in the infrared. Spitzer has been able to detect those molecules when other instruments have not.

Bursts of reds, oranges, greens, blues and violets spread out in all directions from a bright center source. Reds and oranges dominate the left side of the image.

Both NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes contributed to this vibrant image of the Orion nebula. Spitzer's infrared view exposed carbon-rich molecules, shown in this image as wisps of red and orange. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Megeath (University of Toledo) & M. Robberto (STScI) | › Full image and caption

Stars are born from condensing clouds of dust and gas. These newly formed stars are optically visible only once they have blown away the cocoon of dust and gas in which they were born. But Spitzer has been able to see infant stars as they form within their gas and dust clouds, helping us learn more about the life cycles of stars and the formation of solar systems.

A blanket of green- and orange-colored stellar dust surrounds a grouping of purple, blue and red stars.

Newborn stars peek out from beneath their natal blanket of dust in this dynamic image of the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud from Spitzer. The colors in this image reflect the relative temperatures and evolutionary states of the various stars. The youngest stars are shown as red while more evolved stars are shown as blue. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA | › Full image and caption

Infrared emissions from most galaxies come primarily from stars as well as interstellar gas and dust. With Spitzer, astronomers have been able to see which galaxies are furiously forming stars, locate the regions within them where stars are born and pinpoint the cause of the stellar baby boom. Spitzer has given astronomers valuable insights into the structure of our own Milky Way galaxy by revealing where all the new stars are forming.

A bright band of crimson-colored dust stretches across the center of this image covered in tiny specs of light from hundreds of thousands of stars.

This Spitzer image, which covers a horizontal span of 890 light-years, shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Spitzer marked a new age in the study of planets outside our solar system by being the first telescope to directly detect light emitted by these so-called exoplanets. This has made it possible for us to directly study and compare these exoplanets. Using Spitzer, astronomers have been able to measure temperatures, winds and the atmospheric composition of exoplanets – and to better understand their potential habitability. The discoveries have even inspired artists at NASA to envision what it might be like to visit these planets.

Collage of exoplanet posters from NASA

Thanks to Spitzer, scientists are learning more and more about planets beyond our solar system. These discoveries have even inspired a series of posters created by artists at NASA, who imagined what future explorers might encounter on these faraway worlds. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Download posters

Data collected by Spitzer will continue to be analyzed for decades to come and is sure to yield even more scientific findings. It's certainly not the end of NASA's quest to get an infrared window into our stellar surroundings. In the coming years, the agency plans to launch its James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror more than seven times the diameter of Spitzer's, to see the universe in even more detail. And NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, will continue infrared observations in space with improved technology. Stay tuned for even more exciting infrared imagery, discoveries and learning!

Teach It

Use these lessons, videos and online interactive features to teach students how we use various wavelengths of light, including infrared, to learn about our universe:


Explore More

Also, check out these related resources for kids from NASA’s Space Place:

TAGS: Teachable Moments, science, astronomy, K-12 education, teachers, educators, parents, STEM, lessons, activities, Spitzer, Space Telescope, Missions, Spacecraft, Stars, Galaxies, Universe, Infrared, Wavelengths, Spectrum, Light

  • Ota Lutz
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Collage of images and illustrations of planets, spacecraft and space objects

Whether discovering something about our own planet or phenomena billions of miles away, NASA missions and scientists unveiled a vast universe of mysteries this past decade. And with each daring landing, visit to a new world and journey into the unknown came new opportunities to inspire the next generation of explorers. Read on for a look at some of NASA's most teachable moments of the decade from missions studying Earth, the solar system and beyond. Plus, find out what's next in space exploration and how to continue engaging students into the 2020s with related lessons, activities and resources.

1. Earth's Changing Climate

Flat map of Earth with an animation of co2 data overlayed

Rising sea levels, shrinking ice caps, higher temperatures and extreme weather continued to impact our lives this past decade, making studying Earth’s changing climate more important than ever. During the 2010s, NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, led the way by adding new Earth-monitoring satellites to their fleets to measure soil moisture and study carbon dioxide levels. Meanwhile, satellites such as Terra and Aqua continued their work monitoring various aspects of the Earth system such as land cover, the atmosphere, wildfires, water, clouds and ice. NASA's airborne missions, such as Operation IceBridge, Airborne Snow Observatory and Oceans Melting Greenland, returned data on water movement, providing decision makers with more accurate data than ever before. But there's still more to be done in the future to understand the complex systems that make up Earth's climate and improve the scientific models that will help the world prepare for a warmer future. Using these missions and the science they're gathering as a jumping-off point, students can learn about the water cycle, build data-based scientific models and develop an understanding of Earth's energy systems.

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2. Teachable Moments in the Sky

Animated image of the Moon during a lunar eclipse

Astronomical events are a sure-fire way to engage students, and this past decade delivered with exciting solar and lunar eclipses that provided real-world lessons about the Sun, the Moon and lunar exploration. The total solar eclipse that crossed the U.S. in 2017 gave students a chance to learn about the dynamic interactions between the Sun and Moon, while brilliant lunar eclipses year after year provided students with lessons in lunar science. There's more to look forward to in the decade ahead as another solar eclipse comes to the U.S. in 2024 – one of nine total solar eclipses around the world in the 2020s. There will be 10 total lunar eclipses in the 2020s, but observing the Moon at any time provides a great opportunity to study celestial patterns and inspire future explorers. Using the lessons below, students can develop and study models to understand the size and scale of the Earth-Moon system, predict future Moon phases and engage in engineering challenges to solve problems that will be faced by future explorers on the Moon!

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3. Missions to Mars

Animation of Curiosity driving on Mars

The past decade showed us the Red Planet in a whole new light. We discovered evidence that suggests Mars could have once supported ancient life, and we developed a better understanding of how the planet lost much of its atmosphere and surface water. The Opportunity rover continued exploring long past its expected lifespan of 90 days as NASA sent a larger, more technologically advanced rover, Curiosity, to take the next steps in understanding the planet's ability to support life. (Opportunity's nearly 15-year mission succumbed to the elements in 2019 after a global dust storm engulfed Mars, blocking the critical sunlight the rover needed to stay powered.) The InSight lander touched down in 2018 to begin exploring interior features of the Red Planet, including marsquakes, while high above, long-lived spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey were joined by NASA's MAVEN Orbiter, and missions from the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization. The next decade on Mars will get a kick-start with the July launch of the souped-up Mars 2020 rover, which will look for signs of ancient life and begin collecting samples designed to one day be returned to Earth. Mars provides students with countless opportunities to do some of the same engineering as the folks at NASA and design ideas for future Mars exploration. They can also use Mars as a basis for coding activities, real-world math, and lessons in biology and geology.

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4. Ocean Worlds and the Search for Life

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

This decade marked the final half of the Cassini spacecraft's 13-year mission at Saturn, during which it made countless discoveries about the planet, its rings and its fascinating moons. Some of the most exciting findings highlighted new frontiers in our search for life beyond Earth. Cassini spotted geysers erupting from cracks in the icy shell of Saturn's moon Enceladus, suggesting the presence of an ocean below. At the moon Titan, the spacecraft peered through the hazy atmosphere to discover an Earth-like hydrologic cycle in which liquid methane and ethane take the place of water. Meanwhile, evidence for another ocean world came to light when the Hubble Space Telescope spotted what appear to be geysers erupting from the icy shell surrounding Jupiter's moon Europa. NASA is currently developing Europa Clipper, a mission that will explore the icy moon of Jupiter to reveal even more about the fascinating world. For students, these discoveries and the moons themselves provide opportunities to build scientific models and improve them as they learn more information. Students can also use math to calculate physical properties of moons throughout the solar system and identify the characteristics that define life as we know it.

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

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

The past decade was a big deal for small objects in space. NASA's Dawn mission started 2010 as a new arrival in the main asteroid belt. The next eight years saw Dawn explore the two largest objects in the asteroid belt, the giant asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. On its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, ESA's Rosetta mission (with contributions from NASA) flew by the asteroid Luticia in 2010. After more than two years at its destination – during which time it measured comet properties, captured breathtaking photos and deposited a lander on the comet – Rosetta's mission ended in dramatic fashion in 2016 when it touched down on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In 2013, as scientists around the world eagerly anticipated the near-Earth flyby of asteroid Duende, residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia, got a surprising mid-morning wake-up call when a small, previously undetected asteroid entered the atmosphere, burned as a bright fireball and disintegrated. The team from NASA's OSIRIS-Rex mission wrapped up the decade and set the stage for discoveries in 2020 by selecting the site that the spacecraft will visit in the new year to collect a sample of asteroid Bennu for eventual return to Earth. And in 2022, NASA's Psyche mission will launch for a rendezvous with a type of object never before explored up close: a metal asteroid. The small objects in our solar system present students with chances to explore the composition of comets, use math to calculate properties such as volume, density and kinetic energy of asteroids, and use Newton's Laws in real-world applications, such as spacecraft acceleration.

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6. Uncovering Pluto's Mysteries

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

In 2015, after nearly a decade of travel, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto for its planned flyby and became the first spacecraft to visit the dwarf planet and its moons. The images and scientific data the spacecraft returned brought into focus a complex and dynamic world, including seas of ice and mountain ranges. And there's still more left to explore. But New Horizons' journey is far from over. After its flyby of Pluto, the spacecraft continued deep into the Kuiper Belt, the band of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. In 2019, the spacecraft flew by a snowman-shaped object later named Arrokoth. In the 2020s, New Horizons will continue studying distant Kuiper Belt objects to better understand their physical properties and the region they call home. The new information gathered from the Pluto and Arrokoth flybys provides students with real-life examples of the ways in which scientific understanding changes as additional data is collected and gives them a chance to engage with the data themselves. At the same time, New Horizons' long-distance voyage through the Solar System serves as a good launchpad for discussions of solar system size and scale.

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7. The Voyagers' Journey Into Interstellar Space

Animation of Voyager entering interstellar space

In 1977, two spacecraft left Earth on a journey to explore the outer planets. In the 2010s, decades after their prime mission ended, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 made history by becoming the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space – the region beyond the influence of solar wind from our Sun. The Voyager spacecraft are expected to continue operating into the 2020s, until their fuel and power run out. In the meantime, they will continue sending data back to Earth, shaping our understanding of the structure of the solar system and interstellar space. The Voyagers can help engage students as they learn about and model the structure of the solar system and use math to understand the challenges of communicating with spacecraft so far away.

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8. The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System

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

It was only a few decades ago that the first planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, were discovered. The 2010s saw the number of known exoplanets skyrocket in large part thanks to the Kepler mission. A space telescope designed to seek out Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone – the region around a star where liquid water could exist – Kepler was used to discover more than 2,600 exoplanets. Discoveries from other observatories and amateur astronomers added to the count, now at more than 4,100. In one of the most momentous exoplanet findings of the decade, the Spitzer telescope discovered that the TRAPPIST-1 system, first thought to have three exoplanets, actually had seven – three of which were in the star’s habitable zone. With thousands of candidates discovered by Kepler waiting to be confirmed as exoplanets and NASA's latest space telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, surveying the entire sky, the 2020s promise to be a decade filled with exoplanet science. And we may not have to wait long for exciting new discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021. Exoplanets are a great way to get students exploring concepts in science and mathematics. In the lessons linked to below, students use math to find the size and orbital period of planets, learn how scientists are using spectrometry to determine what makes up exoplanet atmospheres and more.

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9. Shining a Light on Black Holes

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

Even from millions and billions of light-years away, black holes made big news in the 2010s. First, a collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away sent gravitational waves across the universe that finally reached Earth in 2015, where the waves were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. This was the first detection of gravitational waves in history and confirmed a prediction Einstein made 100 years earlier in his Theory of General Relativity. Then, in 2019, a team of researchers working on the Event Horizon Telescope project announced they had taken the first image capturing the silhouette of a black hole. To take the historic image of the supermassive black hole (named M87* after its location at the center of the M87 galaxy), the team had to create a virtual telescope as large as Earth itself. In addition to capturing the world's attention, the image gave scientists new information about scientific concepts and measurements they had only been able to theorize about in the past. The innovations that led to these discoveries are changing the way scientists can study black holes and how they interact with the space around them. More revelations are likely in the years ahead as scientists continue to analyze the data from these projects. For students, black holes and gravitational waves provide a basis for developing and modifying scientific models. Since they are a topic of immense interest to students, they can also be used to encourage independent research.

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

  • Lyle Tavernier
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A large group of students and teachers stand in front of a full-size model of the Curiosity rover.

This past school year, the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory supported a comprehensive, multischool physics project that served as a capstone project for high-school students. Seven schools in three school districts across the Los Angeles area participated, tasked by their teachers with building a habitat including working circuitry and renewable power sources that was capable of withstanding seismic events.

Hundreds of physics students from underserved communities participated in the project, constructing their habitats as part of a Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, curriculum. One of the key components of NGSS, which was adopted by California in 2013, is its inclusion of science content areas, such as Earth science and physics. The project, drawing upon the lessons found on the JPL Education website, was a chance for students to apply their knowledge of numerous high-school science courses into one summative project. It was also a rare opportunity for the students, who were coming from underserved communities, to see connections between classroom content and real-world science.

"It is difficult for [students] to connect what they do in school with their future," wrote Joshua Gagnier, a physics teacher at Santa Ana High School, who participated in the project. "The only advice they receive is to study, work hard and get help, which without clear goals, are abstract concepts. It is opportunities such as the JPL challenge, which had a tangible academic award, that my students need."

To help students apply their knowledge in a real-world context, teachers presented a challenge to build functional habitats, complete with power, wiring and the ability to withstand the elements. Each school focused on and contributed different components to the habitats, such as solar power or thermodynamics. Students were given broad freedom to construct rooms and devices that were of interest to them while still demonstrating their knowledge throughout the school year. Gagnier had his classes focus on the electromagnetic spectrum and use their understanding of waves – for example, the threat of seismic waves to physical stability and the availability of light waves for solar power – to select a habitat location. He also had students examine the use of solar energy to power their habitats.

"The students used JPL and NASA resources to understand the elevation of [electromagnetic] penetration in combination with Google Earth to find the altitude of the geography they were evaluating," he wrote. "When students were trying to find a way to heat water for their habitat using the limited available supplies, JPL's Think Green lesson was one of the main sources for their solution." This lesson, in particular, allowed students to measure flux and available solar energy at different regions in the country using NASA data available online.

Students crowd around a large desk and use tape and cardboard to begin constructing their habitats. Two of the students look at a laptop.

Students at Santa Ana High School begin constructing their habitats. Image courtesy Joshua Gagnier | + Expand image

Students sit around a red table, one holding a solar panel in the air with wires attached to a small device. Other students examine the data on the device and write the results.

Students measure the current generated by their habitat's solar panels. Image courtesy Joshua Gagnier | + Expand image

Ultimately, it was up to the students to design and craft their habitats based on the lessons they learned. So the final prototype structures varied dramatically from class to class and even more from school to school. One school focused on habitats powered solely by renewable energy, while another school focused more on the structure's ability to withstand earthquakes via a shake table. Vaughn International Studies Academy worked across class periods to build "modular" homes – with each group building a single room instead of a whole habitat. These rooms, which included a living room, bedroom and even a sauna, were connected to a central power supply. In all cases, students had to quantify the amount of energy produced, determine how to disperse it throughout their home and present a sales pitch for their habitat, describing how it satisfied their criteria.

Small cardboard boxes with dioramas of living rooms, an outdoor scene and a bedroom sit side-by-side on a large black desk.

Participating schools elected to focus on certain features for their habitats, such as solar efficiency, circuity and wiring, or modular rooms that could be combined into larger homes. Image courtesy Brandon Rodriguez | + Expand image

At the end of the challenge, a winning group from each school was invited to JPL with their teachers to meet students from participating schools and tour the laboratory. It was also a chance for students and teachers to compare their projects. Due to the success of the pilot program, the participating teachers are already making plans for next school year, discussing ways to improve the challenge and expand the program to several more schools in the Los Angeles area.


Have a great idea for implementing NASA research in your class or looking to bring NASA science into your classroom? Contact JPL education specialist Brandon Rodriguez at brandon.rodriguez@jpl.nasa.gov

Special thanks to Kris Schmidt, Joshua Gagnier, Sandra Hightower and Jill Mayorga for their participation and dedication to bringing NASA science to their students.

TAGS: K-12 education, STEM, educators, teachers, science, engineering, physics, resources, lessons, students

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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In the News

This summer, a global dust storm encircled Mars, blocking much of the vital solar energy that NASA’s Opportunity rover needs to survive. After months of listening for a signal, the agency has declared that the longest-lived rover to explore Mars has come to the end of its mission. Originally slated for a three-month mission, the Opportunity rover lived a whopping 14.5 years on Mars. Opportunity beat the odds many times while exploring the Red Planet, returning an abundance of scientific data that paved the way for future exploration.

Scientists and engineers are celebrating this unprecedented mission success, still analyzing data collected during the past decade and a half and applying lessons learned to the design of future spacecraft. For teachers, this historic mission provides lessons in engineering design, troubleshooting and scientific discovery.

How They Did It

Launched in 2003 and landed in early 2004, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were the second spacecraft of their kind to land on our neighboring planet.

Preceded by the small Sojourner rover in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity were substantially larger, weighing about 400 pounds, or 185 kilograms, on Earth (150 pounds, or 70 kilograms, on Mars) and standing about 5 feet tall. The solar-powered rovers were designed for a mission lasting 90 sols, or Mars days, during which they would look for evidence of water on the seemingly barren planet.

Dust in the Wind

Scientists and engineers always hope a spacecraft will outlive its designed lifetime, and the Mars Exploration Rovers did not disappoint. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, expected the lifetime of these sun-powered robots to be limited by dust accumulating on the rovers’ solar panels. As expected, power input to the rovers slowly decreased as dust settled on the panels and blocked some of the incoming sunlight. However, the panels were “cleaned” accidentally when seasonal winds blew off the dust. Several times during the mission, power levels were restored to pre-dusty conditions. Because of these events, the rovers were able to continue their exploration much longer than expected with enough power to continue running all of their instruments.

Side-by-side images of Opportunity on Mars, showing dust on its solar panels and then relatively clean solar panels

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity taken in late March 2014 (right) shows that much of the dust on the rover's solar arrays was removed since a similar portrait from January 2014 (left). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ. | › Full image and caption

Terrestrial Twin

To troubleshoot and overcome challenges during the rovers’ long mission, engineers would perform tests on a duplicate model of the spacecraft, which remained on Earth for just this purpose. One such instance was in 2005, when Opportunity got stuck in the sand. Its right front wheel dug into loose sand, reaching to just below its axle. Engineers and scientists worked for five weeks to free Opportunity, first using images and spectroscopy obtained by the rover’s instruments to recreate the sand trap on Earth and then placing the test rover in the exact same position as Opportunity. The team eventually found a way to get the test rover out of the sand trap. Engineers tested their commands repeatedly with consistent results, giving them confidence in their solution. The same commands were relayed to Opportunity through NASA’s Deep Space Network, and the patient rover turned its stuck wheel just the right amount and backed out of the trap that had ensnared it for over a month, enabling the mission to continue.

Engineers test moves on a model of the Opportunity rover in the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory at JPL

Inside the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory at JPL, rover engineers check how a test rover moves in material chosen to simulate some difficult Mars driving conditions. | › Full image and caption

A few years later, in 2009, Spirit wasn’t as lucky. Having already sustained some wheel problems, Spirit got stuck on a slope in a position that would not be favorable for the Martian winter. Engineers were not able to free Spirit before winter took hold, denying the rover adequate sunlight for power. Its mission officially ended in 2011. Meanwhile, despite a troubled shoulder joint on its robotic arm that first started showing wear in 2006, Opportunity continued exploring the Red Planet. It wasn’t until a dust storm completely enveloped Mars in the summer of 2018 that Opportunity finally succumbed to the elements.

The Final Act

animation showing a dust storm moving across Mars

This set of images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows a giant dust storm building up on Mars in 2018, with rovers on the surface indicated as icons. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS | › Full image and caption

simulated views of the sun as the 2018 dust storm darkened from Opportunity's perspective on Mars

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view in the 2018 global dust storm. Each frame corresponds to a tau value, or measure of opacity: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU | › Full image and caption

Dust storm season on Mars can be treacherous for solar-powered rovers because if they are in the path of the dust storm, their access to sunlight can be obstructed for months on end, longer than their batteries can sustain them. Though several dust storms occurred on Mars during the reign of the Mars Exploration Rovers, 2018 brought a large, thick dust storm that covered the entire globe and shrouded Opportunity’s access to sunlight for four months. Only the caldera of Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system, peeked out above the dust.

The transparency or “thickness” of the dust in Mars’ atmosphere is denoted by the Greek letter tau. The higher the tau, the less sunlight is available to charge a surface spacecraft’s batteries. An average tau for Opportunity’s location is 0.5. The tau at the peak of the 2018 dust storm was 10.8. This thick dust was imaged and measured by the Curiosity Mars rover on the opposite side of the planet. (Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator.)

Since the last communication with Opportunity on June 10, 2018, NASA has sent more than 1,000 commands to the rover that have gone unanswered. Each of these commands was an attempt to get Opportunity to send back a signal saying it was alive. A last-ditch effort to reset the rover’s mission clock was met with silence.

Why It’s Important

The Mars Exploration Rovers were designed to give a human-height perspective of Mars, using panoramic cameras approximately 5 feet off the surface, while their science instruments investigated Mars’ surface geology for signs of water. Spirit and Opportunity returned more than 340,000 raw images conveying the beauty of Mars and leading to scientific discoveries. The rovers brought Mars into classrooms and living rooms around the world. From curious geologic formations to dune fields, dust devils and even their own tracks on the surface of the Red Planet, the rovers showed us Mars in a way we had never seen it before.

tracks on Mars with a patch of white soil showing

This mosaic shows an area of disturbed soil made by the Spirit rover's stuck right front wheel. The trench exposed a patch of nearly pure silica, with the composition of opal. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell | › Full image and caption

Mineral vein on the surface of Mars

This color view of a mineral vein was taken by the Mars rover Opportunity on Nov. 7, 2011. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU | › Full image and caption

The rovers discovered that Mars was once a warmer, wetter world than it is today and was potentially able to support microbial life. Opportunity landed in a crater and almost immediately discovered deposits of hematite, which is a mineral known to typically form in the presence of water. During its travels across the Mars surface, Spirit found rocks rich in magnesium and iron carbonates that likely formed when Mars was warm and wet, and sustained a near-neutral pH environment hospitable to life. At one point, while dragging its malfunctioning wheel, Spirit excavated 90 percent pure silica lurking just below the sandy surface. On Earth, this sort of silica usually exists in hot springs or hot steam vents, where life as we know it often finds a happy home. Later in its mission, near the rim of Endeavor crater, Opportunity found bright-colored veins of gypsum in the rocks. These veins likely formed when water flowed through underground fractures in the rocks, leaving calcium behind. All of these discoveries lead scientists to believe that Mars was once more hospitable to life than it is today, and they laid the groundwork for future exploration.

Imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, both orbiting the Red Planet, has been combined with surface views and data from the Mars Exploration Rovers for an unprecedented understanding of the planet’s geology and environment.

Not only did Spirit and Opportunity add to our understanding of Mars, but also the rovers set the stage for future exploration. Following in their tracks, the Curiosity rover landed in 2012 and is still active, investigating the planet’s surface chemistry and geology, and confirming the presence of past water. Launching in 2020 is the next Mars rover, currently named Mars 2020. Mars 2020 will be able to analyze soil samples for signs of past microbial life. It will carry a drill that can collect samples of interesting rocks and soils, and set them aside in a cache on the surface of Mars. In the future, those samples could be retrieved and returned to Earth by another mission. Mars 2020 will also do preliminary research for future human missions to the Red Planet, including testing a method of producing oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere.

It’s thanks to three generations of surface-exploring rovers coupled with the knowledge obtained by orbiters and stationary landers that we have a deeper understanding of the Red Planet’s geologic history and can continue to explore Mars in new and exciting ways.

Teach It

Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing engineering, troubleshooting and scientific discovery just like NASA scientists and engineers!

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Try these related resources for students from NASA’s Space Place

TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Students, Opportunity, Mars rover, Rovers, Mars, Lessons, Activities, Missions

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

In the News

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

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

How They Did It

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

Illustration of the trajectories of Voyager 1 and 2

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

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

How We Know

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

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

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

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

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

Why It’s Important

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

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

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

Teach It

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

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

  • Ota Lutz
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